THE BRIDE WAS GONE, hauled from the chapel the way a victorious warrior carried the spoils from war.
Poppy’s wide, horrified gaze met Randall Grant’s for a split second before swiftly averting, her stomach plummeting. She’d been trembling ever since the doors flew open and the Sicilian stood framed in the arched doorway like an avenging angel.
She gripped her bridesmaid bouquet tighter, even as relief whispered through her. She’d done it. She’d saved Sophie.
But it wasn’t just Sophie she’d helped; she’d helped Randall, too. Not that Randall Grant, the Sixth Earl of Langston, would be grateful at the moment, because he was the groom after all, and no man wanted to be humiliated in front of two hundred of England and Europe’s most distinguished, their guests having traveled far and wide to Winchester for what the tabloids had been calling the wedding of the year, and would have been the wedding of the year, had the bride not just been unceremoniously hauled away by a Sicilian race car driver. Correction, former race car driver.
Poppy doubted that the Earl of Langston would care about the distinction right now, either, not when he had a church full of guests to deal with. Thank goodness he wasn’t a sensitive or emotional man. There would be no tears or signs of distress from him. No, his notorious stiff upper lip would serve him well as he dealt with the fallout.
But she also knew him better than most, and knew that he wasn’t the Ice Man people thought. She shot Randall another swift glance, strikingly handsome and still in his morning suit, the collar fitted against his strong, tan throat, accenting the lean, elegant lines of his physique, and the chiseled features of his face. He looked like stone at the present.
Detached. Granite-hard. Immovable.
Poppy swallowed quickly once more, trying to smash the worry and guilt. One day Sophie would thank her. And Randall, too, not that she would ever tell him her part in the disaster. He wasn’t just Sophie’s groom—jilted groom—but her boss of four years, and her secret crush. Although he was a very good boss as employers went, and rather protective of her, if he thought she had something to do with this wedding debacle, he’d fire her. Without hesitation. And that would break her heart.
But how could she not write to Renzo?
How could she not send the newspaper clipping? Sophie didn’t love Randall. She was marrying him because her family had thought it would be an excellent business deal back before she was even old enough to drive. It wasn’t a marriage as much as a merger, and Sophie deserved better.
So while Poppy’s conscience needled her, she also remembered how Renzo had shown marauder.
It had been thrilling and impressive—
Well, not for Randall. No, he had to be humiliated. But Sophie... Sophie had just been given a chance at love
SHE KNEW SOMETHING.
Dal Grant could see it in Poppy’s eyes, the set of her lips and the pinch between her brows.
She’d worked far too long for him not to know that guilty as hell expression, the one she only got when she did something massively wrong and then tried to cover it.
He should have fired her years ago.
She wasn’t irreplaceable. She’d never been an outstanding secretary. She was simply good, and rather decent, and she had the tendency to keep him grounded when he wanted to annihilate someone, or something, as he did now.
Most important, he’d trusted her, which had apparently been the absolutely wrong thing to do.
But he couldn’t press her for information, not with two hundred guests still filling the pews, whispering giddily while Sophie’s father looked gobsmacked and Lady Carmichael-Jones had gone white.
Thank God he didn’t have close family here today to witness this disaster, his mother having died when he was a boy, and then his father had passed away five years ago, just before his thirtieth birthday.
Dal drew a slow, deep breath as he turned toward the pews, knowing it was time to dismiss the guests, including Sophie’s heartsick family. And then he’d deal with Poppy.
* * *
“What did you do?” Randall demanded, cornering Poppy in the tiny antechamber off the chapel altar.
Poppy laced her fingers together uneasily, Randall’s words too loud in her head, even as she became aware of his choice of words.
He hadn’t asked what she knew, but rather, what did she do? Do, as in an action. Do, as in having responsibility.
She glanced over her shoulder, looking for someone who could step in, intervene, but the chapel was empty now, the guests disappearing far more rapidly than one would have imagined; but maybe that was because after Randall announced in a cold, hard voice, “Apologies for wasting your time today, but it appears that the wedding is off,” and then he’d smiled an equally cold, hard smile, the guests had practically raced out.
She’d wanted to race out, too, but Randall pointed at her, gesturing for her to stay, and so she had, while he waved off his aunts and uncles and cousins, and then exchanged brief, uncomfortable words with Sophie’s parents before shaking each of his groomsmen’s hands, sending every single person away. Sending everyone but her.
How she wanted to go, too, and she’d even tried to make a belated escape but he’d caught her as she was inching toward the vestibule exit, trapping her in this little antechamber typically reserved for the clergy.
“What did you do, Poppy?” he repeated more quietly, eyes narrowing, jaw hardening, expression glacial.
Her heart thumped hard. He was tall, much taller then she, and she took an unconscious step backward, her shoulders bumping against the rough bricks. “Nothing,” she whispered, aware that she was a dreadful liar. It was one of the things Sophie said she’d always liked best about her, and the very thing that had made Randall Grant, the Earl of Langston, hire her in the first place four years ago when she needed a job. He said he needed someone he could trust. She assured him he could trust her.
“I don’t believe you,” he answered.
Her heart did another painful thump as her mouth dried.
“Let’s try this again. Where is my bride? And what the hell just happened here, and why?”
Poppy’s eyes widened. Randall Grant never, ever swore. Randall Grant was the model of discipline, self-control and civility.
At least he’d always been so until now.
“I don’t know where she is, and that’s the truth.” Her voice wavered on the last words and she squirmed, hating that he was looking at her as if she’d turned into a three-headed monster. “I had no idea Renzo would storm the wedding like that.”
His dark eyebrow lifted. “Renzo,” he repeated quietly, thoughtfully.
She went hot, then cold, understanding her mistake immediately.
She shouldn’t have said his name. She shouldn’t have said anything.
She stared at his square chin and bit her lower lip hard. It was that or risk blurting everything, and she couldn’t do it; it wouldn’t be fair to Sophie.
Instead, she tugged at her snug, low-cut bodice, trying not to panic, which in her case meant dissolving into mindless tears. She actually didn’t feel like crying; she just felt trapped, but whenever trapped, Poppy’s brain malfunctioned and she’d lose track of her thoughts and go silent, and then those traitorous tears would fill her eyes.
It had happened in school. It had happened during her awful summer camps before Sophie rescued her and invited her home with her for the summer holidays. Poppy had thought she’d outgrown the panic attacks, but all of a sudden her chest constricted and her throat closed and she fought for air. Her incredibly tight, overly fitted bridesmaid gown, the icy-pink shade perfect on women like Sophie with porcelain complexions and gleaming hair, but not on short, frumpy secretaries who needed a pop of color near the face to lift a sallow complexion, suffocated her.
“I think I might faint,” she whispered, not quite ready to actually collapse, but close. She needed fresh air, and space...and immediate distance from her furious employer.
Randall’s black brow just lifted. “You don’t faint. You’re just trying to evade giving an honest answer.”
“I can’t get enough air.”
“Then stop babbling and breathe.”
“I don’t babble—”
“Breathe. Through your nose. Out through your mouth. Again. Inhale. Exhale.”
He couldn’t be that angry with her if he was trying to keep her calm. She didn’t want him angry with her. She was just trying to help. She just wanted the people she loved to be happy. Good people deserved happiness, and both Sophie and Randall were good people, only apparently not that good together. And Poppy wouldn’t have sent that note to Renzo about the wedding if Sophie had been happy...
Her eyes prickled and burned as Poppy’s gaze dropped from Randall’s gold eyes to his chin, which was far too close to his lovely, firm mouth, and then lower, to the sharp points of his crisp, white collar.
She struggled to keep her focus on the elegant knot of his tie as she inhaled and exhaled, trying to be mindful of her breathing, but impossible when Randall was standing so close. He was tall, with a fit, honed frame, and at the moment he was exuding so much heat and crackling energy that she couldn’t think straight.
She needed to think of something else or she’d dissolve into another panic attack, and she closed her eyes, trying to pretend she was back in her small, snug flat, wearing something comfortable, her pajamas for example, and curled up in her favorite armchair with a proper cup of tea. The tea would be strong and hot with lots of milk and sugar and she’d dunk a biscuit—
“Better?” he asked after a minute.
She opened her eyes to look right into Randall’s. His eyes were the lightest golden-brown, a tawny shade that Poppy had always thought made him look a little exotic, as well as unbearably regal. But standing this close, his golden eyes were rather too animalistic. Specifically a lion, and a lion wasn’t good company, not when angry. She suppressed a panicked shiver. “Can we go outside, please?”
“I need a straight answer.”
“I’ve told you—”
“You are on a first-name basis with Crisanti. How do you know him, Poppy?” Randall’s voice dropped, hardening.
He hadn’t moved, hadn’t even lifted a finger, and yet he seemed to grow bigger, larger, more powerful. He was exuding so much heat and light that she felt as if she was standing in front of the sun itself. Poppy dragged in a desperate breath, inhaling his fragrance and the scent of his skin, a clean, masculine scent that always made her skin prickle and her insides do a funny little flip. Her skin prickled now, goose bumps covering
her arms, her nape suddenly too sensitive. “I don’t know him.”
His eyes flashed at her. “Then how does Sophie know him?”
Poppy balled her hands, nails biting into her palms. She had to be careful. It wouldn’t take much to say the wrong thing. It wasn’t that Poppy had a history of being indiscreet, either, but she didn’t want to be tricked into revealing details that weren’t hers to share, and to be honest, she wasn’t even clear about what had happened that night in Monte Carlo five weeks ago. Obviously, something had happened. Sophie didn’t return home on the last night of the trip, and when they flew out of Monte Carlo, Sophie left Monaco a different woman.
Maybe most people wouldn’t pick up on the change in Sophie, but Poppy wasn’t most people. Sophie wasn’t just her best friend, but the sister Poppy had never had, and the champion she’d needed as a charity girl at Haskell’s School. Sophie had looked out for Poppy from virtually the beginning and finally, after all these years, Poppy had found an opportunity to return the favor, which is why her letter to Renzo Crisanti wasn’t about sabotaging a wedding as much as giving Sophie a shot at true happiness.
* * *
Dal battled to keep his temper. Poppy was proving to be extremely recalcitrant, which was noteworthy in and of itself, as Poppy Marr could type ninety-five words a minute, find anything buried on his desk or lost in his office, but she didn’t tell a lie, or keep a secret, well at all.
And the fact that Poppy was desperately trying to keep a secret told him everything he needed to know.
She was part of this fiasco today. Of course she hadn’t orchestrated it—she wasn’t that clever—but she knew the whys and hows and that was what he wanted and needed to understand.
“Go collect your things,” he said shortly. “We’re leaving immediately.”
“Go where?” she asked unsteadily.
“Does it matter?”
“I’ve plans to go on holiday. You gave me the next week off.”
“That was when I expected to be on holiday myself, but the honeymoon is off, which means your holiday is canceled, too.”