Why had he thought that going to Kasbah Jolie was a good idea?
How had he thought this could be positive?
He shouldn’t have come. He should have stayed put at Langston House and weathered the media storm and focused on wooing Poppy there. Instead, he was here, jumping from the proverbial fire into the frying pan.
Dal could see the helicopter ahead. He also saw the cars and the crowd and the royal security details. The black helicopter wasn’t just any helicopter but the royal Mehkar helicopter, the elegant gold crest as familiar to him as his mother’s face and name. His heart thudded, his chest tight and hard as he battled memories and a past that gave him nothing but pain.
Maybe one day he’d be able to remember his mother without feeling the grief. Maybe after he’d spent a week at Jolie he’d be more peaceful when he thought of Mehkar. In his teens he used to dream of the summer palace and gardens, and when he woke up, his lashes would be damp and his stomach cramping as though he’d swallowed glass.
All through his twenties he’d continued to miss his mother profoundly. He’d missed his brother, too, but it was his mother that he had been closest to. His mother had been the anchor when his father struggled. Andrew had somehow been able to block out their father’s volatility, but Dal, the sensitive second son, hadn’t been able to unplug from the drama and chaos.
Dal wasn’t proud of the boy he’d been. Sensitive boys were no good to anyone and it took his father ten years to stomp the sensitivity out of him, but Dal survived, and became a man, and a relatively successful, stable man.
The jet came to a stop. His flight attendant, Sadie, rose from her seat to open the door. But Dal didn’t move, not yet ready.
He turned to Poppy, who was reaching for her seat belt. “So we’re in agreement, then? You give me the full two weeks I’m due, and then if you still want to leave, I’ll personally put you on a plane home. But I need the two weeks, and I need you available, round the clock if need be.”
Poppy’s gaze met his. She held his gaze, too, not afraid to let him see the full measure of her disapproval. “Round the clock sounds excessive. I’m not your nursemaid, I’m your secretary. And at the end of the two weeks, I will most definitely still go, so don’t just focus on finding your wife. Work on the replacement for me, too.”
“I trust you to find me a suitable secretary.”
“You’re leaving the entire task to me?”
“You know what I like, and what I need.”
Her brows arched over her clear brown eyes. “You might regret this.”
“Possibly. But I’m in a bind, Poppy, and you’re the only one that can save me.”
“Now you’re laying it on a tad thick.”
The corner of his mouth lifted. “You like to be needed.”
Two spots of color burned in her cheeks. “But I draw the line at becoming a business transaction.”
He said nothing and silence stretched and yet she never once looked away.
“I don’t think I’ve ever refused you anything,” she said after a moment, “but I am now. I won’t be manipulated. You have two weeks and then I’m gone.”
* * *
It had taken every bit of Poppy’s courage and strength to stand up to Randall—Dal—and define her terms, because if she didn’t make it absolutely clear, then she’d find it very hard to resist him.
It had nearly melted her when he’d said he needed her. She liked being needed, and once upon a time, she would have given everything to hear him say that he needed her.
But things had changed, circumstances had changed, and she couldn’t continue in his employment, not when he knew she had feelings for him. He’d use the knowledge to his advantage. He’d be able to manipulate her far too easily.
As it was, he was intimidating. Not frightening intimidating, but thrilling. He was so very handsome, and so very polished and so very accomplished.
Every time he entered a room, he seemed to light it up. She loved the way he moved, and the way he frowned and the way he’d focus on whatever he was reading.
She loved the way he held his teacup—
Oh, heavens, she loved him. She did. And it had been excruciating trying to manage her feelings and her attraction when he’d been engaged to Sophie. How could she possibly manage her envy and jealousy as he began to court someone new? She’d hate the new woman. She’d resent her far too much. It wouldn’t be comfortable for any of them.
Poppy rose from her seat and smoothed her men’s shirt, and then her hair, tucking it behind her ears to control the thick wave.
Dal was leaving the jet, descending the stairs, and she kept her eyes on his broad shoulders as she followed him down the five steps and onto the wide red carpet banded by gold. The brilliant crimson carpet was something of a shock, but even more surprising was the sheer number of people gathered on the tarmac.
There were rows of robed men, and then rows of armed men, and even a couple of men with what looked like musical instruments.
Dal, for his part, did not look pleased by the welcome. From the set of his shoulders and the rigid line of his back, she knew he was tense and angry. She fully expected him to step onto the carpet and proceed toward the helicopter. Instead, he turned to her and offered his hand, to aid her down the last few steps.
She felt a little silly accepting his help when she was wearing jeans and tennis shoes, not the staggeringly high heels Sophie preferred. But his fingers closed around hers, and he gave her hand a quick, reassuring squeeze as she stepped from the stairs onto the carpet.
And then he let her hand go and he started walking down the carpet, which stretched from the plane to the side of a huge black helicopter with a gold emblem on the helicopter’s door. The same gold emblem filled the middle of the crimson carpet, and two rows of men in long white robes and headwear stood on either side of the carpet.
It was intimidating as hell, she thought, swallowing nervously, picking up her pace to catch up to him. “Dal,” she whispered, taking in the men farther back, the armed ones, with their big guns and vests and helmets. “Who are all these people?”
“The welcoming committee,” he answered.
Well, the welcoming committee was bowing now to Dal, every head nodding as he passed. A shiver coursed through her as she trailed after him. It was the strangest greeting she’d ever seen, and beyond formal, reminding her of the ceremony reserved for England’s royal family.
Poppy didn’t know what Randall had done to earn such a welcoming, or what the emblem of sword, lamb and crown represented, but clearly the government of Mehkar was aware of his arrival today, and clearly the government of Mehkar wanted Dal to know they respected him.
At the helicopter Randall stopped and clasped hands with a robed man that looked close to Randall’s age. The man said something to Randall in a foreign language, and Randall answered in the same language, and then they shook hands, and the handshake became a swift hug, and then the hug became a longer, warmer embrace.
When Randall stepped back, there was a sheen in his golden eyes, and a flicker of emotion that Poppy had never seen before. But then the emotion was gone and Randall’s features were hard, and his expression remote. He assisted Poppy into the helicopter and she glanced back at the men Randall had called a welcoming committee, and it was only then that she noticed the rows of cars farther back, black limousines with tinted windows.
“That was quite impressive,” she said, sliding into the seat by the far window and reaching for the harness.
“It was,” he agreed as the pilot shut the helicopter door.
She felt dazed by the pomp and ceremony. “Who do you have to know to get a welcoming like that?”
Her eyes widened. “He’s one of the men you work with?”
“In my international work? No. My relations
hip with King Hamid is personal. I’ve known him my whole life.” Randall hesitated. “King Hamid is my mother’s father.”
It took her a second to put the pieces together. “He’s your grandfather.”
Randall nodded once. “My mother’s father.”
“That’s why you received such a royal welcome.”
“Here in Mehkar I am not Randall Grant, the Sixth Earl of Langston, but rather Sheikh Talal bin Mehkar.”
It had been a day of shocks and surprises and this one was just as stunning. Poppy stared at him, bewildered. “You’re a...sheikh?”
POPPY’S HEAD THROBBED, the thumping at the base of her skull making her feel as if her head would soon explode. He was a sheikh and an earl? How was it possible?
Furthermore, how could she not know? Did anyone know?
It was one thing not to know that he had a private jet stashed in London, but another not to know his mother was a princess from Mehkar!
But thinking about it, Poppy realized she’d never read anything in the papers about his mother’s family. There was very little in the society magazines about who she was, or where she came from, and Poppy knew because she used to read everything she could on Dal, and there were stories about his father, and his father’s family, and lots of stories about Langston House itself, but very little about his mother. Some articles did briefly mention the tragic car accident that took the life of his mother and brother, but that was all that was ever said.
Now Poppy wondered if it was the Fifth Earl of Langston who’d kept his wife’s name from the papers, or if it had been the royal family of Mehkar?
Poppy glanced at Dal. He was giving that impression of stone again, the same look he’d had this morning in the chapel. Detached. Immovable. It wasn’t really a good look. It made her worry even more. “Dal?”