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    Chapter One

    LONDON

    The Rutledge Hotel

    May 1852

    Her chances of a decent marriage were about to be dashed—and all because of a ferret.

    Unfortunately Poppy Hathaway had pursued Dodger halfway through the Rutledge Hotel before she recalled an important fact: to a ferret, a straight line included six zigs and seven zags.

    “Dodger,” Poppy said desperately. “Come back. I’ll give you a biscuit, any of my hair ribbons, anything! Oh, I’m going to make a scarf out of you . . .”

    As soon as she caught her sister’s pet, Poppy swore she was going to alert the management of the Rutledge that Beatrix was harboring wild creatures in their family suite, which was definitely against hotel policy. Of course, that might cause the entire Hathaway clan to be forcibly removed from the premises.

    At the moment, Poppy didn’t care.

    Dodger had stolen a love letter that had been sent to her from Michael Bayning, and nothing in the world mattered except retrieving it. All the situation needed was for Dodger to hide the blasted thing in some public place where it would be discovered. And then Poppy’s chances of marrying a respectable and perfectly wonderful young man would be forever lost.

    Dodger hurried through the luxurious hallways of the Rutledge Hotel in a sinuous lope, staying just out of reach. The letter was clamped in his long front teeth.

    As she dashed after him, Poppy prayed that she would not be seen. No matter how reputable the hotel, a respectable young woman should never have left her suite unescorted. However, Miss Marks, her companion, was still abed. And Beatrix had gone for an early morning ride with their sister, Amelia.

    “You’re going to pay for this, Dodger!”

    The mischievous creature thought everything in the world was for his own amusement. No basket or container could go without being overturned or investigated, no stocking or comb or handkerchief could be left alone. Dodger stole personal items and left them in heaps beneath chairs and sofas, and he took naps in drawers of clean clothes, and worst of all, he was so entertaining in his naughtiness that the entire Hathaway family was inclined to overlook his behavior.

    Whenever Poppy objected to the ferret’s outrageous antics, Beatrix was always apologetic and promised that Dodger would never do it again, and she seemed genuinely surprised when Dodger didn’t heed her earnest lectures. And because Poppy loved her younger sister, she had tried to endure living with the obnoxious pet.

    This time, however, Dodger had gone too far.

    The ferret paused at a corner, checked to make certain he was still being chased, and in his happy excitement, he did a little war dance, a series of sideways hops that expressed pure delight. Even now, when Poppy wanted to murder him, she couldn’t help but acknowledge that he was adorable. “You’re still going to die,” she told him, approaching him in as unthreatening a manner as possible. “Give me the letter, Dodger.”

    The ferret streaked past a colonnaded lightwell that admitted sunshine from overhead and sent it down three floors to the mezzanine level. Grimly, Poppy wondered how far she was going to have to chase him. He could cover quite a lot of territory, and the Rutledge was massive, occupying five full blocks in the theater district.

    “This,” she muttered beneath her breath, “is what happens when you’re a Hathaway. Misadventures . . . wild animals . . . house fires . . . curses . . . scandals . . .”

    Poppy loved her family dearly, but she longed for the kind of quiet, normal life that didn’t seem possible for a Hathaway. She wanted peace. Predictability.

    Dodger ran through the doorway of the third-floor steward’s offices, which belonged to Mr. Brimbley. The steward was an elderly man with a full white mustache, the ends neatly waxed into points. As the Hathaways had stayed at the Rutledge many times in the past, Poppy knew that Brimbley reported every detail of what occurred on his floor to his superiors. If the steward found out what she was after, the letter would be confiscated, and Poppy’s relationship with Michael would be exposed. And Michael’s father, Lord Andover, would never approve of the match if there were even one whiff of impropriety attached to it.

    Poppy caught her breath and backed up against the wall as Brimbley exited his offices with two of the Rutledge staff. “. . . go to the front office at once, Harkins,” the steward was saying. “I want you to investigate the matter of Mr. W’s room charges. He has a history of claiming that charges are incorrect when they are, in fact, accurate. From now on, I think it best to have him sign a receipt whenever a charge is made.”

    “Yes, Mr. Brimbley.” The three men proceeded along the hallway, away from Poppy.

    Cautiously, she crept to the doorway of the offices and peeked around the jamb. The two connected rooms appeared to be unoccupied. “Dodger,” she whispered urgently, and saw him scurry beneath a chair. “Dodger, do come here!”

    Which, of course, produced more excited hopping and dancing.

    Biting her lower lip, Poppy went across the threshold. The main office room was generously sized, furnished with a massive desk piled high with ledgers and papers. An armchair upholstered in burgundy leather had been pushed up against the desk, while another was positioned near an empty fireplace with a marble mantel.

    Dodger waited beside the desk, regarding Poppy with bright eyes. His whiskers twitched above the coveted letter. He held very still, holding Poppy’s gaze as she inched toward him.

    “That’s right,” she soothed, extending her hand slowly. “What a good boy, a lovely boy . . . wait right there, and I’ll take the letter and carry you back to our suite, and give you—Drat!”

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