After delivering the presents, Poppy sat in the kitchen and chattered animatedly about her visit to Hampshire. “. . . and we found a dozen truffles,” she told Chef Broussard, “each one nearly as large as my fist. All at the roots of a beech tree, and barely a half inch beneath the soil. And guess how we discovered them? My sister’s pet ferret! He ran over to them and started nibbling.”
Broussard sighed dreamily. “When I was a boy, I lived in Périgord for a time. The truffles there would make one weep. So delicious and dear, they were usually only eaten by nobles and their kept women.” He looked at Poppy expectantly. “How did you prepare them?”
“We chopped some leeks and sautéed them in butter and cream, and—” She paused as she noticed the staff in a sudden flurry of activity, scrubbing, chopping, stirring. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw that Harry had entered the kitchen.
“Sir,” Mrs. Pennywhistle said, while she and Jake stood to face him.
Harry motioned for them to stay seated. “Good morning,” he said with a slight smile. “Forgive me for interrupting.” He came to stand beside Poppy, who was perched on a stool. “Mrs. Rutledge,” he murmured, “I wonder if I might steal you away for just a few minutes? There’s a . . .” His voice faded as he stared into his wife’s face. She had looked up at him with a flirting little grin that had apparently disrupted his train of thought.
And who could blame him? Jake Valentine thought, both amused and similarly mesmerized. Although Poppy Rutledge had always been a beautiful woman, there was an extra glow about her now, a new brilliance in her blue eyes.
“The carriage maker,” Harry said, recollecting himself. “They’ve just delivered your carriage. I hoped you might come look at it, and make certain everything is to your satisfaction.”
“Yes, I’d love to.” Poppy took another bite of her brioche, a warm puff of glazed bread touched with butter and jam. She held the last bit up to Harry’s lips. “Help me finish?”
They all watched in astonishment as Harry took the tidbit obligingly into his mouth. And, holding her wrist in his hand, he nipped at her fingertip to remove a little spot of jam. “Delicious,” he said, helping her from the stool. He glanced at the three of them. “I’ll return her shortly. And Valentine . . .”
“It’s come to my attention that you haven’t gone on holiday in far too long. I want you to arrange something for yourself immediately.”
“I wouldn’t know what to do on holiday,” Jake protested, and Harry smiled.
“That, Valentine, is why you need one.”
After Harry had escorted his wife from the kitchen, Jake looked at the others with a dumbfounded expression. “He’s an entirely different man,” he said dazedly.
Mrs. Pennywhistle smiled. “No, he’ll always be Harry Rutledge. It’s just that now . . . he’s Harry Rutledge with a heart.”
As the hotel was a virtual clearinghouse of gossip, Poppy was privy to scandals and private disclosures concerning people from every part of London. To her dismay, there were persistent rumors about the continuing decline of Michael Bayning . . . his frequent public drunkenness, gambling, brawling, and all manner of behavior unbecoming to a man of his position. Some of the rumors were linked to Poppy, of course, and her precipitate wedding to Harry. It saddened Poppy profoundly to hear what a mess Michael was making of his life, and she wished there were something she could do about it.
“It’s the one subject I can’t discuss with Harry,” she told Leo, visiting his terrace one afternoon. “It puts him in a dreadful temper—he gets very quiet and stern faced, and last night we actually quarreled about it.”
Taking a cup of tea from her, Leo arched a sardonic brow at the information. “Sis, as much as I would prefer to take your side in all things . . . why should you want to discuss Michael Bayning with your husband? And what the devil is there to argue about? That chapter in your life is closed. Were I married—and thank God I never will be—I wouldn’t welcome the subject of Bayning with any more enthusiasm than Harry apparently does.”
Poppy frowned into her own cup of tea, slowly stirring a sugar lump into the steaming amber liquid. She waited until it had thoroughly dissolved before replying. “I’m afraid Harry took exception to a request I made. I said I wanted to visit Michael, and that perhaps I might be able to talk some sense into him.” As she saw Leo’s expression, she added defensively, “Only for a few minutes! A supervised visit. I even told Harry he was welcome to accompany me. But he forbade me in a very overbearing manner, without even letting me explain why I—”
“He should have put you over his knee,” Leo informed her. As her mouth fell open, he set his tea down, made her do the same, and took both her hands in his. His expression was a comical mixture of reproof and sympathy. “Darling Poppy, you have a kind heart. And I’ve no doubt that for you, visiting Bayning is a mission of mercy comparable to Beatrix rescuing a rabbit from a snare. But this is where it becomes clear that you are still woefully ignorant of men. Since it falls to me to explain to you . . . we’re not nearly as civilized as you seem to think. In fact, we were much happier in the days when we could simply chase off a rival at spearpoint. Therefore, asking Harry to allow you—by all accounts, the only person on earth he actually gives a damn about—to visit Bayning and soothe his wounded feelings . . .” Leo shook his head.