“Even if that’s true,” Poppy managed to say, “I don’t know if I want to manage him.”

“Ma’am . . .” Valentine said feelingly, “Someone has to.”

Amusement broke through Poppy’s distress, and she ducked her head to hide a smile. “I’ll consider it,” she said. “But at the moment I need some time away. What do they call it in the rope ring . . . ?”

“A breather,” he said, bending to pick up her valise.

“Yes, a breather. Will you help me, Mr. Valentine?”

“Of course.” Valentine bid her to wait but a few minutes, and went to summon the carriage. Comprehending the need for discretion, he had the vehicle brought to the back of the hotel, where Poppy could depart unobserved.

She felt a pang of regret, leaving the Rutledge and its employees. In no time at all it had become home . . . but things could not stay the way they were. Something would have to yield. And that something—or someone, rather—was Harry Rutledge.

Valentine returned to escort her to the back entrance. Opening an umbrella to shelter her from the rain, Valentine guided her outside to the waiting vehicle.

Poppy climbed onto the block step that had been placed beside the carriage, and turned to face the valet. With the added height of the step, they stood nearly eye to eye. Raindrops glittered in the light from the hotel as they fell in jewel-like strands from the points of the umbrella.

“Mr. Valentine . . .”

“Yes, ma’am?”

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“You do think he’ll follow me, don’t you?”

“Only to the ends of the earth,” he said gravely.

That drew a smile from her, and she turned to climb into the carriage.

Chapter Nineteen

It had taken Mrs. Meredith Clifton three months of dedicated pursuit before she had finally seduced Leo, Lord Ramsay. Or more accurately, was about to seduce him. As the young and nubile wife of a distinguished British naval officer, she was frequently left to her own devices while her husband was off at sea. Meredith had bedded every man in London worth bedding—excluding the handful of tiresomely faithful married ones, of course—but then she had heard about Ramsay, a man reputedly as sexually audacious as herself.

Leo was a man of tantalizing contradictions. He was a handsome man, dark haired and blue eyed, with a clean and wholesome appeal . . . and yet he was rumored to be capable of shocking debauchery. He was cruel but gentle, callous but perceptive, selfish but charming. And from what she had heard, he was a vastly accomplished lover.

Now, in Leo’s bedroom, Meredith stood quietly while he undressed her. He took his time about unfastening the row of buttons at her back. Sidling back, she let the backs of her fingers brush his trousers. The feel of him caused her to purr.

She heard Leo laugh, and he pushed her exploring hand away. “Patience, Meredith.”

“You can’t know how much I’ve anticipated this night.”

“That’s a shame. I’m terrible in bed.” Gently he spread her dress open.

She shivered as she felt the exploratory stroke of his fingertips on her upper back. “You’re teasing, my lord.”

“You’ll find out soon, won’t you?” He brushed aside the wisps of hair at her nape and kissed her there, letting his tongue brush her skin.

That light, erotic touch caused Meredith to gasp. “Are you ever serious about anything?” she managed to ask.

“No. I’ve found that life is far kinder to shallow people.” Turning her, Leo drew her up against his tall, well-muscled frame.

And in one long, slow blaze of a kiss, Meredith realized that she had finally met a predator more seductive, less inhibited, than anyone she had ever met. His sensual power was no less potent for being completely devoid of emotion or tenderness. This was pure, unashamed physicality.

Consumed in the kiss, Meredith gave an agitated little cry when he stopped.

“The door,” Leo said.

Another tentative knock.

“Ignore it,” Meredith said, trying to slide her arms around his lean waist.

“I can’t. My servants won’t let me ignore them. Believe me, I’ve tried.” Releasing her, Leo went to the door, opened it a crack, and said curtly, “There had better be a fire or a felony in progress, or I swear you’ll be sacked.”

Another murmur from the servant, and Leo’s tone changed, the arrogant drawl vanishing. “Good God. Tell her I’ll be down at once. Get her some tea or something.” Raking his hand through the short dark brown layers of his hair, he went to a wardrobe and began to hunt through a row of jackets. “I’m afraid you’ll have to ring for a maid to help you dress, Meredith. When you’re ready, my servants will make certain you’re escorted out to your carriage at the back.”

Her mouth fell open. “What? Why?”

“My sister has arrived unexpectedly.” Pausing in his search, Leo threw an apologetic glance over his shoulder. “Another time, perhaps?”

“Most certainly not,” Meredith said indignantly. “Now.”

“Impossible.” He pulled out a coat and shrugged into it. “My sister needs me.”

“I need you! Tell her to return tomorrow. And if you don’t send her away, you’ll never have another chance with me.”

Leo smiled. “My loss, I’m sure.”

His indifference aroused Meredith even further. “Oh Ramsay, please,” she said heatedly. “It’s ungentlemanly to leave a lady wanting!”