“It’s comfortable now,” she said, “but it’ll definitely be quite hot later.”
“I promise we’ll move inside to an air-conditioned room before you melt.”
She sat down in the low wooden chair with the teal pillows. “What am I to call you here? Dal? Prince Talal? Izba referred to you as Sheikh Talal, as well as His Highness. You have so many names.”
“Not that many. My staff at the Kasbah will either call me Prince Talal, or Sheikh Talal. My family in Mehkar calls me Tal, although when we were in Gila, at the airport, my cousin addressed me as His Highness due to protocol.”
“Your cousin? Which one was he?”
“The last man on the carpet.”
“The one you hugged.”
“Yes.” Randall’s mouth curved but his eyes were shuttered. “The last time I saw him he was just six years old. Now he’s a man.”
“How old were you the last time you were here?”
“You’ve both grown up.”
“We have,” he said, but there was no joy in his voice, just loss, and regret. And then his broad shoulders squared and his voice firmed. “Now to your question, you may call me anything you want, provided it’s not Randall.”
“You dislike your proper name that much?”
“My father is the only other person who has ever called me Randall.”
She felt a shiver of distaste. No wonder he didn’t like it. “I wish you’d told me that earlier.”
“I tried. But you insisted Dal was too personal.”
“It’s fine. Clearly, I survived the horror.”
She shot him a swift look and was relieved to see that faint ironic smile of his. A smile she was learning that he used to hide hurts and needs, and all those emotions he viewed as weak. “But this is exactly what I mean. You have to talk. Tell people things. If I knew that the only other person who called you Randall was your father, and your father and you were not close, and it wasn’t a positive or comfortable association—”
“You’re getting a little carried away. You haven’t inflicted any damage. I’m no more scarred than when you first met me.”
She must have looked sufficiently startled because he grimaced. “That was supposed to make you smile.”
Her brows pulled. “Do you think you’re very scarred?”
“I was being amusing. Don’t read too much into it.”
But she couldn’t help reading into it. She’d heard some horror stories about Randall’s father, the Fifth Earl of Langston, and she’d long suspected that Dal’s isolated nature was due to his father’s volatility. Poppy carefully chose her next words. “Were you close to your mother?”
“What did she call you?”
All these years she’d thought she’d known him. She’d prided herself on knowing him better than anyone, but as it turned out, she didn’t know the real Dal Grant at all. “Who are you?” she asked, smiling unsteadily.
His smile faded and he glanced away for a moment and when he looked back at her, his expression struck her as rather bleak. “Interesting question, Miss Marr. I’ll have to get back to you on that one.”
And then just as quickly, the darkness was gone and he was back to business. “Let’s get started, shall we? I know you follow all of Sophie’s friends, so how about we start by pulling up Seraphina’s Instagram page—”
“I’m not going to pore over Seraphina’s social media. Or Florrie’s. I promised I’d help find a new secretary, not a replacement for Sophie.”
“I’d like your input on both.”
“This makes me uncomfortable.”
“It should. If you hadn’t interfered yesterday, I’d be a married man today.”
“You just think I did something, but you have no proof.”
“And when I have proof? What then? How will you make it up to me?”
She shook her head, lips compressed.
“Poppy, I made my father a promise, and I’m not going to break that promise.”
“Then perhaps you need a better list,” she said, picturing Seraphina and Florrie. Both had been at Langston House yesterday for the wedding. Florrie was single at the moment—in between polo player lovers—and Seraphina was dating someone. It was in the early stages of the relationship but she apparently liked him and had told everyone he could be the one. Although that wasn’t the first, or second, or even third time she’d said such a thing. “Only Florrie is currently single. Seraphina is seeing someone. She brought him to the wedding yesterday.”
“I didn’t notice.”
“I’m not surprised. It was a tad hectic.” She studied Dal, who looked handsome and rested this morning, his crisp white linen shirt the perfect foil for his black hair and golden eyes. “So tell me, how do you intend to proceed with your wooing?”
“I’ll make a phone call, explain that I’m in need of a countess, and ask if she’s interested.”
“Should I ask her to fill out an application and give five references?”
“Dal, this isn’t the way to a satisfying relationship.”
“You’re a relationship expert now?”
She ignored the jab. “I’m not the one rushing into marriage, and I know it’s been
difficult these past few days, but you can’t truly want a shallow, materialistic woman who is only marrying you for the title and money?”
“But that’s exactly what I’m offering, and all I’m really offering—”
“That is not so. She gets you. You. And yes, you’re a horrible, ridiculous, stubborn, awful man, but you’re still you. Why give yourself to someone who doesn’t care about you?”
“Because she’ll be happier with the title and houses and bank account than she will with me.”
“I don’t know why you’re saying these things.”
“Why not let her enjoy herself? As long as she gives me heirs, she can do what she wants.”
“I don’t want to hear any more.”
“It shouldn’t upset you. You crossed yourself off the list of candidates. Who I marry, or how I choose my wife, shouldn’t trouble you in the least.”
“But of course it does! I care about you. I care about your happiness, or lack of happiness. I care that you lock yourself away from the world and just work, work, work. I care that you lost Sophie, and now you’re in this position, but at the same time, I’m glad you didn’t trap Sophie in a cold marriage. That wouldn’t have been fair to her. She deserves so much more. And you deserve more, too, but you won’t demand more and that absolutely baffles me.”
She lifted the computer, rose and walked away.
* * *
Dal didn’t stop her, letting her march away with the laptop as if she was the injured party.
She wasn’t injured. She was lucky. She would soon have everything she wanted, and more.
A husband, a family, financial security, as well as respect. Once she was his wife, she’d have power and prestige. People would fall all over themselves wanting her approval, trying to ingratiate themselves.
She would be fine. He, on the other hand, was not. Normally, he was quite good at compartmentalizing emotions and suppressing anger, but he felt barely in control at the moment. He was being tested as his past, present and future collided together in a sickening crash of memories and emotions.