There had never been a woman he’d wanted and hadn’t gotten, until now. Why did his skills fail him when it came to seducing his own wife? It was becoming clear that as his craving for Poppy increased, his ability to charm her was decreasing at a proportionate rate.
The one brief kiss she’d given him had been more pleasurable than entire nights Harry had spent with other women. He could try to ease his needs with someone else, but that wouldn’t begin to satisfy him. He wanted something that only Poppy seemed able to provide.
Harry spent two hours at the club, dueling at lightning speed, until the fencing master had flatly refused to allow anymore. “That’s enough, Rutledge.”
“I’m not finished,” Harry said, tearing off his mask, his chest heaving with the force of his breaths.
“I say you are.” Approaching him, the fencing master said quietly, “You’re relying on brute force instead of using your head. Fencing requires precision and control, and this evening you’re lacking both.”
Offended, Harry schooled his features and said calmly, “Give me another chance. I’ll prove you wrong.”
The fencing master shook his head. “If I let you go on, there is every chance of an accident occurring. Go home, friend. Rest. You look tired.”
The hour was late by the time Harry returned to the hotel. Still clad in fencing whites, he went into the hotel through the back entrance. Before he could ascend the stairs to his apartments, he was met by Jake Valentine.
“Good evening, Mr. Rutledge. How was your fencing?”
“Not worth discussing,” Harry said shortly. His eyes narrowed as he saw the tension in his assistant’s manner. “Is there anything the matter, Valentine?”
“A maintenance issue, I’m afraid.”
“What is it?”
“The carpenter was repairing a section of flooring that happens to be located directly above Mrs. Rutledge’s room. You see, the last guest who stayed there complained of a creaking board, and so I—”
“Is my wife all right?” Harry interrupted.
“Oh, yes, sir. Beg pardon, I didn’t mean to worry you. Mrs. Rutledge is quite well. But unfortunately the carpenter struck a nail into a plumbing pipe, and there was a significant leak in the ceiling of Mrs. Rutledge’s room. We had to take out a section of the ceiling to reach the pipe and stop the flooding. The bed and carpet are ruined, I’m afraid. And the room is uninhabitable at present.”
“Bloody hell,” Harry muttered, running a hand through his sweat-dampened hair. “How long until the repairs are done?”
“We estimate two to three days. The noise will undoubtedly be a problem for some of the guests.”
“Apologize on behalf of the hotel and cut their room rates.”
With annoyance, Harry realized that Poppy would have to stay in his bedroom. Which meant that he would have to find another place to sleep. “I’ll stay in a guest suite for the time being,” he said. “Which ones are empty?”
Valentine’s face was expressionless. “I’m afraid we’re at full occupancy tonight, sir.”
“There isn’t one room available? In this entire hotel?”
Harry scowled. “Set up a spare bed in my apartments, then.”
Now the valet looked apologetic. “I’ve already thought of that, sir. But we have no spare beds. Three have been requested and set up in guest suites, and the other two were loaned to Brown’s Hotel earlier in the week.”
“Why did we do that?” Harry demanded incredulously.
“You told me that if Mr. Brown ever asked a favor, I should oblige him.”
“I do too many damned favors for people!” Harry snapped.
Rapidly Harry considered his alternatives . . . he could check into another hotel, he could prevail on a friend to allow him to stay overnight . . . but as he glanced at Valentine’s implacable face, he knew how that would appear. And he’d go hang before he gave anyone reason to speculate he wasn’t sleeping with his own wife. With a mumbled curse, he brushed by the valet and headed up the private staircase, his overworked leg muscles aching in vicious protest.
The apartment was ominously silent. Was Poppy asleep? No . . . a lamp had been lit in his room. His heart began to thud heavily as he followed the soft spill of light through the hallway. Reaching the doorway of his room, he looked inside.
Poppy was in his bed, an open book in her lap.
Harry filled his gaze with her, taking in the demure white nightgown, the frills of lace on her sleeves, the rope of shiny braided hair trailing over one shoulder. Her cheeks were stained with a high flush. She looked soft and sweet and clean, her knees drawn up beneath the covers.
Violent desire surged through him. Harry was afraid to move, afraid he might actually leap on her with no thought given to her virginal sensibilities. Appalled by the extent of his own need, Harry fought to restrain it. He tore his gaze away and stared hard at the floor, willing himself back into control.
“My bedroom was damaged.” he heard Poppy say awkwardly. “The ceiling—”
“I heard.” His voice was low and rough.
“I’m so sorry to inconvenience you—”
“It’s not your fault.” Harry brought himself to look at her again. A mistake. She was so pretty, so vulnerable, her slender throat rippling with a visible swallow. He wanted to ravish her. His body felt thick and hot with arousal, a merciless pulse pounding all through him.