Harry glanced from her expectant face to the long path that extended before them, and he sighed. They linked hands and resumed traversing the ground woven with sun and shadows.
After a minute, Poppy asked, “Do you and Catherine visit each other, or correspond?”
“Hardly ever. We don’t get on well.”
It wasn’t a subject that Harry liked to think about, much less discuss. And this business of having to talk freely with someone, withholding nothing . . . it was like being perpetually naked, except that Harry would have preferred being literally na**d in lieu of revealing his private thoughts and feelings. However, if that was the price of having Poppy, he’d bloody well pay it.
“At the time I first met Cat,” he said, “she was in a difficult situation. I did as much as possible to help her, but I wasn’t kind about it. I’ve never had much kindness to spare. I could have been better to her. I could have—” He gave an impatient shake of his head. “What’s done is done. I did make certain that she would be financially independent for the rest of her life. She doesn’t have to work, you know.”
“Then why did she apply for a position with the Hathaways? I can’t imagine why she would have wanted to subject herself to the hopeless task of making ladies of Beatrix and me.”
“I imagine she wanted to be with a family. To know what it was like. And to keep from being lonely or bored.” He stopped and gave her a questioning glance. “Why do you say it was a hopeless task? You’re very much a lady.”
“Three failed London seasons,” she pointed out.
Harry made a scoffing sound. “That had nothing to do with being ladylike.”
“The biggest obstacle was your intelligence. You don’t bother to hide it. One of the things Cat never taught you was how to flatter a man’s vanity—because she doesn’t have any damned idea of how to do it. And none of those idiots could tolerate the idea of having a wife who was smarter than himself. Second, you’re beautiful, which meant they would always have to worry about you being the target of other men’s attentions. On top of that, your family is . . . your family. Basically you were too much to manage, and they all knew they were better off finding dull, docile girls to marry. All except Bayning, who was so taken with you that the attraction eclipsed any other considerations. God knows I can’t hold that against him.”
Poppy gave him a wry glance. “If I’m so forbiddingly intelligent and beautiful, then why did you want to marry me?”
“I’m not intimidated by your brains, your family, or your beauty. And most men are too afraid of me to look twice at my wife.”
“Do you have many enemies?” she asked quietly.
“Yes, thank God. They’re not nearly as inconvenient as friends.”
Although Harry was perfectly serious, Poppy seemed to find that highly amusing. After her laughter slowed, she stopped and turned to face him with her arms folded. “You need me, Harry.”
He stopped before her, his head inclined over hers. “I’ve become aware of that.”
The sounds of stonechats perched overhead filled the pause, their chirps sounding like pebbles being struck together.
“I’ve something to ask you,” Poppy said.
Harry waited patiently, his gaze resting on her face.
“May we stay in Hampshire for a few days?”
His eyes turned wary. “For what purpose?”
She smiled slightly. “It’s called a holiday. Haven’t you ever gone on holiday before?”
Harry shook his head. “I’m not sure what I would do.”
“You read, walk, ride, spend a morning fishing or shooting, perhaps go calling on the neighbors . . . tour the local ruins, visit the shops in town . . .” Poppy paused as she saw the lack of enthusiasm on his face. “. . . Make love to your wife?”
“Done,” he said promptly.
“May we stay a fortnight?”
“Eleven?” she asked hopefully.
Harry sighed. Eleven days away from the Rutledge. In close company with his in-laws. He was tempted to argue, but he wasn’t fool enough to risk the ground he’d gained with Poppy. He’d come here with the expectation of a royal battle to get her back to London. But if Poppy would take him willingly into her bed, and then accompany him back with no fuss, it was worth a concession on his part.
Still . . . eleven days . . .
“Why not?” he muttered. “I’ll probably go mad after three days.”
“That’s all right,” Poppy said cheerfully. “No one around here would notice.”
To Mr. Jacob Valentine
The Rutledge Hotel
Embankment and Strand
I hope this letter finds you well. I am writing to apprise you that Mrs. Rutledge and I have decided to remain in Hampshire until month’s end.
In my absence, carry on as usual.
Jake looked up from the letter with jaw-slackening disbelief. Carry on as usual?
Nothing was usual about this.
“Well, what does it say?” Mrs. Pennywhistle prompted, while nearly everyone in the front office strained to hear.
“They’re not coming back until month’s end,” Jake said, dazed.
A strange, lopsided smile touched the housekeeper’s lips. “Bless my soul. She’s done it.”