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And did it matter that he knew her secret?

On one hand it was incredibly uncomfortable that Randall—Dal—knew, but on the other, so what?

She had feelings for him. Why should that make her feel ashamed? Why were feelings even considered shameful? She’d been emotional in her entire life. From the time she was a little girl, she’d felt things intensely. Her sensitive nature had made her a target for the girls at Haskell’s. They’d enjoyed teasing her about being a charity case. They’d enjoyed mocking her lack of coordination and athletic ability. They’d enjoyed her discomfort at being forced to remain at school for holidays because her parents couldn’t afford to bring her home.

And then wonderful, lovely, courageous Sophie stepped in and made the teasing and bullying stop. But she didn’t just make the teasing stop; Sophie changed Poppy’s life when she confessed that she respected Poppy’s kindness and good heart. Suddenly, Poppy wasn’t embarrassing but someone that Sophie Carmichael-Jones admired.

So of course Poppy had never acted on her feelings for Randall. She would never, ever be disloyal to Sophie. At the same time, what harm had there been secretly caring for Randall? Her devotion made her a better assistant. Her dedication making her more sensitive and attuned to his needs.

But now her secret was in the open. Did it have to change everything? Did she want it to change anything?

Did she want to say goodbye to Randall?

Poppy didn’t know the answer to the first two questions but she knew the answer to the third. She didn’t want to leave Randall. And the way she felt about him, she’d never want to leave him, but how could she continue working for him like this?

It wouldn’t be the same. She’d feel self-conscious and he’d be awkward. Better to end things while she still cared about him. Better to say goodbye while she wanted the best for him.

But just admitting that she had to go broke her heart.

* * *

Dal closed his computer, rose from his desk and put away the computer in his briefcase. The jet had just begun the final descent for Gila and he’d not only canceled the essential pieces of the honeymoon but had also created a short list of possible countess candidates to share with Poppy when he returned to the main cabin.

The list was for show. There was only one woman he was considering to be his wife, and that was his secretary, but if he told Poppy she was the one and only name, she’d be terrified. Far better to ease her into her new reality, and it would be her reality because Dal had to be married by the time he turned thirty-five, and his birthday was just sixteen days away.

Which meant he had sixteen days to find a new bride and marry her as he wasn’t going to lose Langston House, or the earldom, or any of the other Grant estates, because he’d failed his father.

He’d grown up with enough abuse. He wasn’t going to let his father win, even if he was in the grave.

So he’d marry Poppy and prove his father wrong and then Dal would finally be free of this burden he’d carried that he wasn’t his brother Andrew, and that he wasn’t fit to be the Earl of Langston, and he didn’t deserve the Langston House and estates.

Now he just needed to convince her that she was the perfect future countess.

Dal left the back office and returned to his seat in the main cabin. As he took his seat, Poppy stirred sleepily in her chair. Her lashes fluttered open for a moment before closing again. “You,” she murmured crossly.

“Yes, me,” he answered, his gaze sweeping her, studying her for the first time in an entirely different light.

She wasn’t his secretary anymore, but his future wife, which meant not just overseeing Langston House and the thousand different domestic tasks that encompassed, but also bearing him the necessary Grant heirs.

It wouldn’t be difficult taking her to his bed. She was pretty and tidy and wholesome, although at the moment she looked flushed and rumpled from sleep, her brown hair down tumbling to her shoulders while a rebellious tendril clung to her pink cheek.

His dress shirt overwhelmed her small frame, but it was refreshing seeing her in something other than her conservative navy and brown skirts, which she paired with equally conservative cardigans. In warm weather she swapped the jumpers for trim white blouses with oval collars and half sleeves. Her work wardrobe was neither well cut nor flattering, and while the pinstripe shirt wasn’t flattering, it revealed her curves. Poppy Marr was voluptuous with hourglass curves. Full breasts, tiny waist, rounded hips. He suddenly wished she wasn’t wearing jeans so he could see her legs. He’d very much like to see her in nothing but his shirt, and then without the shirt altogether.

“What do you want now?” she demanded, stretching and covering a yawn.

“We should be landing soon.”


He’d never noticed how firm her chin was until now. It matched her new backbone. He liked the spirit. Spirit was sexy and strong and his future countess would need to be strong.

“I’m not sending you back to England,” he said casually. “You owe me two weeks after giving notice. It’s in your employment agreement. You can’t just quit and walk away.”

Her dark lashes slowly lifted and she stared at him, clearly unhappy. “You’re going on holiday. You don’t need me.”

“I’m not on holiday, and I do need you.”

“For what?”

“To help find your replacement. I can’t possibly interview for a new secretary and a new wife at the same time.”

She stared at him blankly. “You’re already trying to replace Sophie?”

“She’s gone, isn’t she?”

“Isn’t that rather...callous?”

“Did you expect me to mourn her?”

“She was loyal to you for five and a half years!”

“But she decamped at the last possible second, and the fact is, I need a wife, quickly.”

“You’ve never needed anyone, and yet now you must have a wife, immediately.”

“It does sound ridiculous put like that, but that pretty much sums it up.”

“I don’t understand.”

“It’s a very convoluted story so I’ll give you the short version. I must be married by my thirty-fifth birthday or I lose the earldom, the house and everything attached.”

She was still for a moment before she sat upright in her chair. “Your birthday is July sixteenth.”


“That’s just...a few weeks away.”

“Correct again.”

She impatiently shoved hair behind an ear, away from her flushed cheek. “This sounds like something from a novel.”

“I’m fully aware of the ridiculousness of my situation, but my father set up the trust that way. When he died just after my thirtieth birthday, I inherited the title, but there were provisions.”

Silence followed his words. Poppy looked absolutely appalled.

Dal shrugged, adding. “My father thought he was being clever. Exerting control from beyond the grave, and so forth.”

“When did you find out? At the reading of the will?”

“No, although wouldn’t that have been a shock? Surprised my father didn’t think of that. But no, I’ve known since my early twenties, and did my best not to think about it until I was nearly thirty.”

“Did Sophie know this?”

“Sophie was part of my father’s plan. He hand-selected her for me.”

“This just keeps getting worse.”

“She didn’t ever tell you?”

“Heavens, no. But probably because she knew I’d disapprove. No wonder she ran at the last second. I would run, too. Poor Sophie.”

“Sophie benefitted from the arrangement...until she didn’t.” He shrugged carelessly. “But now there is a serious time crunch. I have to be married in sixteen days. It’s hard enough closing a big deal

in two weeks, but to find a wife in the same amount of time? It’s not going to be easy.”

“And there is no way out of this?”

“No. But trust me, I tried. I’ve spent a fortune in legal fees and finally accepted that marriage really is the only solution.”

She bit her lip and looked away, a sheen of tears in her eyes. “I am so upset.”

In his shirt, with her thick hair loose and her slim legs curled up in the seat of her chair, she exuded youth and a sweet, innocent sensuality that teased his senses.

“Don’t be,” he answered her, forcing his attention from her lips to the sweep of her cheekbone and the strands of dark hair framing her pale oval face. “There is no point in both of us being upset.”

“I know I shouldn’t say it, but the more I learn about your father, the more I dislike him.”

“He was a very tortured man.”

“It sounds as if he did his best to torture you.”

This was not a comfortable conversation. Dal couldn’t even remember the last time he’d discussed his father with anyone. “I’d like to believe it wasn’t intentional. I’d like to think he just...couldn’t help himself.”

She rubbed her eyes and drew a deep breath and turned to look at him, focused now on the goal. “So you need a wife.”


“Have you given thought to possible women you could see...proposing to?”

“Yes. I’ve thought about it carefully and made a short list.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out the sheet of paper where he’d scrawled the names, handing it to her.