He sat back, studying her face as she skimmed the list. For a moment her expression was blank and then her head shot up, her rounded eyes matching her dropped jaw.
“I don’t appreciate the joke,” she said shortly, folding the sheet of paper in half and thrusting it back at him. “Take it.”
“I couldn’t be more serious.”
“Obviously you don’t really mean to marry in the next two weeks.”
“Why not? You don’t think any of the three could be suitable?”
“Perhaps the first two,” she said bitingly, “but not the third. She’s not rich or a Sloane Ranger.”
He unfolded the sheet of paper and glanced down at the three names.
“But number three is smart and generous and easy to like,” he answered, rereading the names.
“That would be very nice if you were a vicar, or a primary school teacher, but you’re not. You’re from one of the oldest, most prominent families in England and you need an appropriate wife, someone sophisticated, respected and connected.”
“Obviously. It’s what your father dictated, and it explains why you and Sophie had all those contracts and agreements.”
“Yes, but that was with Sophie, and exclusive to my engagement to her. There is nothing that stipulates who my replacement bride should be.”
“You started with a very small list, and it’s just grown shorter as we’re crossing number three off.”
“Yes. Poppy Marr is not an option, which means we’ll need to focus on Seraphina and Florrie.”
“But Poppy Marr is an option. All three names on that list are options. I thought quite seriously about each possible candidate—”
“Please don’t use the word candidate. It’s dreadful. It’s as if you’re trying to hire a woman to fill a position.”
“Being the Countess of Langston is a job.”
“Then definitely take Poppy Marr off your list. She’s not interested in that position.”
“Why not? We work well together.”
“Because this new job requires skills that are outside my area of expertise.” Her cheeks flamed and her eyes glowed bright. “Nor have I any interest in acquiring the skills necessary to be the Countess of Langston.”
Heat surged through him, and he hardened as he pictured her fulfilling her marital duties. His trousers grew uncomfortably tight as he imagined introducing her to those duties. “I would teach you.”
“I’d be patient.”
“We’re ending this discussion now. It’s not going to happen. It’s not even a remote possibility. I’m not interested in jumping from your office to your bedroom. I like the you in your office.”
“Randall,” he said dismissively.
“Yes, Randall. Polite, controlled, chivalrous. I don’t trust Dal at all.”
“That’s probably wise.”
“Excuse me. Who are you? I don’t even know you anymore!”
“I suspect it’s because you never did.”
“If that’s the case, does anyone know you?”
His wry smile faded. That was an excellent question, and he had to think about it for a minute before answering. “Probably not.”
More silence followed, and then Poppy broke it with a heavy sigh. “You have no idea how sad that makes me.”
“And you, my dear Poppy Marr, have just moved into melodrama.”
“Just because I feel things doesn’t mean I’m being melodramatic.”
“I have found that emotions unnecessarily complicate things.”
“Probably because you were taught that emotions were bad things.”
“No one has ever told me anything about emotions. My views are based on firsthand experience. Excessive emotion is toxic and damaging.”
“What about good emotions? What about love and joy and—”
“That’s Gila in the distance,” he said mildly, cutting off her impassioned stream of words. “You can see the skyline on the horizon.”
She shot him an indignant look, letting him know that she didn’t appreciate him interrupting her, before craning her head to see out the window.
He watched as the city loomed nearer, surprisingly eager to see how much he recognized of the Mehkar capital. He’d heard that elegant, historic Gila had become a new, modern, urban city, but the change hadn’t registered until now when he saw the dozens of new skyscrapers dotting the skyline.
As they approached the airport, they flew over lakes and glittering pools, and oases of green amidst the marble and glass. The captain turned just before they neared the historic neighborhoods, the ones Dal knew best as it was home to the royal palace, the place where his mother had grown up.
His mother loved to show off her hometown when they used to visit every year. They never went to Kasbah Jolie without first visiting their grandfather and family in Gila. One of their grandfather’s drivers would take them out in one of the classic cars he loved, and they’d travel the wide, pristine boulevards lined with stately palm trees, boulevards that led to museums and palaces as well as her favorite shopping district.
To a boy, Gila represented family and history and culture. It never crossed his mind that it was a playground to others—sensual, sexy, hedonistic. It wasn’t until he was at Cambridge that his friends talked about going to Mehkar on holiday, that Gila with its white marble and endless man-made lakes, was nonstop entertainment. His friends never understood why Dal wouldn’t want to go on holiday to an exotic desert country famous for its hotels, restaurants, shopping and nightlife.
“I had no idea Gila was so big,” Poppy said after a moment.
“There has been a lot of new development in the past twenty years. The people of Mehkar love their sports, and their toys.”
“Sophie’s friends used to come here for the polo tournaments.”
“But not Sophie?”
“No. She always said she wanted to visit. Mehkar was on her bucket list.” Poppy gave him one of her reproving looks. “But you should have known that, though. You were her fiancé, and engaged forever.”
?Not forever, just five and a half years.”
“Which is pretty much forever to a twenty-six-year-old.” She continued to frown at him. “If you didn’t discuss travel, and bucket lists, what did you discuss?”
He didn’t immediately reply. The jet was dropping lower, and faster, a rapid descent, which meant they’d be on the ground soon before making the quick transfer to his helicopter, and Poppy would be making the transfer with him, too.
“Sophie and I didn’t talk a lot. But I think you know that,” he said as the wheels touched down in an impossibly smooth landing. They were still streaking down the runway, but soon they’d begin to slow.
“You can’t blame her,” Poppy answered. “Sophie wanted to be closer to you. You just wouldn’t let her in.”
And that was also probably true, he thought, but he didn’t want to continue discussing Sophie. Sophie was part of the past. She’d chosen a different path, a different future, and it was time for him to focus on his future.
The jet turned at the end of the runway and began the slow taxi toward the small, sleek, glass and steel terminal.
“Women feel close through word and language. We bond through talking—”
“I’m not ready for another lecture on emotions,” he interrupted firmly in the authoritative voice he used when he needed to redirect Poppy, and he needed to redirect her now.
“I’m trying to help you.”
“That may be the case, but I’m not in the right frame of mind to be presented with my overwhelming failures as a man.”
“You’re not a failure. But you could work on your emotional intelligence—”
She pressed her lips together, her expression defiant, and he drew a deep breath, trying to hang on to his patience.
“I thought you said you had only sixteen days to find a wife,” she said in a small but still defiant voice.
Where had this new Poppy come from? She was beyond stubborn, and while he appreciated persistence, now was not the time. She had no idea how unsettled he felt. It was difficult returning to Mehkar. He was already dreading getting off the plane and transferring to the helicopter. Mehkar represented his mother and his carefree summer holidays with his brother at Jolie. He’d never truly dealt with their deaths. He’d just stopped thinking about them and now he was thinking about them and it wasn’t a good day to be feeling overwhelmed.