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“Have you always been so pragmatic?”

“Charity girls can’t afford to wear rose-colored glasses.”

And yet Poppy did. Poppy was the least practical, most idealistic woman he’d ever met. He functioned best when his world was cool, precise and analytical...the complete opposite of the world Poppy inhabited.

“Perhaps you didn’t get the memo,” he answered, aware that she’d had a difficult past. Poppy had lost her mother to cancer and then her father died ten years later, leaving Poppy all alone. Or, she would have been alone if it wasn’t for Sophie. “You love your fairy tales and rainbows.”

“You forgot lemon drops and fireworks. I love those, too.” Then she shrugged. “I know it’s hard for you to stomach, but my parents met in school, fell in love and never dated anyone else. They were totally devoted to each other, as well as really happy together...despite Mum’s cancer, and the creditors constantly calling.”

Her shoulders shifted. “And then when they were both gone, Sophie gave me a second home. She looked after me and showed me what real friendship is. I learned that love isn’t just a romantic thing. Love is kindness and commitment and doing what’s best for the other person. And that’s what I want for you. I want you to have a kind wife. A woman who will commit to you and do what’s best for you, and in return, you would be kind to her, and loyal to her and put her needs first, too.”

“If you care so much about my happiness, why not just marry me? Wouldn’t that be the simplest thing to do?”

For a long moment she said nothing, and then her throat worked and her voice sounded low and rough. “I’ve never had much in life in terms of material things, but I was loved, dearly, by my parents, and if I ever marry, it will be for love. A marriage without love is doomed from the start.”

* * *

By the time Poppy made it back to her room, she was absolutely worn out.

These intense conversations with Dal drained her, and part of her wanted to just give up on him and stop trying to help, but the only way she could handle the idea of leaving him was by thinking she was leaving him better off than he was now.

The man didn’t need more money. The man didn’t need more people to bow and scrape. What Dal needed was honesty. He needed someone to care enough about him to tell him the truth. He needed to be pushed to try harder and give more and be more...and she knew he could, because during the past four years she’d seen a softer side of him. She’d experienced his kindness and patience firsthand. He knew how to talk and be good company, too. But she also knew that it had to be his choice, on his terms, or he’d just shut you out and become that remote, unfeeling ice man that Sophie dreaded.

Poppy showered and then wrapped a cotton robe around her and headed to the wardrobe to see what she’d wear for dinner.

Poppy knew from this morning that the wardrobe was full of long tunics in every color of the rainbow. She’d stroked the vivid fabrics, pausing at a brilliant green gown with gold embellishments from the plunging neckline all the way down the gauzy fabric, and then an ivory one, and another ivory one this time with hot pink fringe all around the sleeves and edges of the long, narrow skirt. The dresses were like art, each unique but stylish and impossibly pretty. Poppy didn’t know how she was supposed to choose just one to wear when they were all so beautiful.

She now flipped through all the dresses again, this time stopping at a rich gold dress with full three-quarter sleeves. The sleeves were dotted with a graphic black-and-white sunburst pattern, with black-and-white trim down the front, and along the hem of the straight gold skirt.

But Poppy’s favorite part of the dress were the two playful black-and-white fringe pom-poms that hung from the V-neckline.

“Would be beautiful on you, my lady,” a soft voice said from behind her in slow, broken English.

Poppy turned around and smiled as she spotted Izba in the doorway.

“These gowns are exquisite,” Poppy said.

Izba stepped into the room and closed the door behind her. “His Highness Talal’s mother designed them,” she said, crossing to the wardrobe and reaching into the closet to draw out a white lace kaftan with coral-red embroidery on the shoulders and vibrant coral-red fringe at the sleeves and hem. “She thought clothes should make a woman happy.”

Izba spoke with a quiet sincerity that put a lump in Poppy’s throat. “Talal’s mother was very talented,” Poppy answered huskily.

The elderly woman’s dark brown eyes shone and she carefully hung the white lace gown up. “She was most beautiful woman in Mehkar, but with the most beautiful heart in the world.” She turned around to look at Poppy. “Which dress you wish to wear for tonight?”

“I don’t know which one to pick. What do you think I should wear?”

Izba’s lips pursed and her dark gaze swept Poppy before she faced the closet again. She studied the rack for a long moment, cheeks puffing, until she reached in and lifted out a dark cherry gown with big cheerful silver flowers embroidered across the bodice before becoming delicate trailing flowers down the skirt. The sleeves were plain except for a thick silver bank of embroidery at the cuff.

“These are poppies,” Izba said in her careful, stilted English. “Just like your name, yes?”

Poppy didn’t know why she wanted to cry. Instead, she nodded and smiled. “That’s perfect.”

“Perfect,” Izba echoed carefully, smiling affectionately. “Once you are dressed, I will fix your hair.”

“Oh, I don’t need help with my hair.”

“His Highness expects us to help you.”

“Yes, but his—” Poppy broke off, unable to call Randall anything remotely like His Highness, and she searched for the right words. “His...your Prince Talal...knows I am accustomed to taking care of myself. I prefer taking care of myself.”

Izba’s already wrinkled brow creased further. “But as his wife—”

“Oh! No. No. I think there’s been a mistake, and I understand the confusion, but I’m not his wife. I work for Talal. I’m his secretary.”

Izba stared at her, dark eyes assessing. “You are not just friend. You are to marry the prince.”

“No! Oh, Izba, no.” Poppy swallowed hard, thinking this was incredibly uncomfortable but she had to make the older woman understand. “Believe me, I am not marrying Prince Talal. I serve as his secretary, nothing more.” She drew a quick breath. “I’ve agreed to help him find a wife, but Izba, it’s not me.”

Before they came to Jolie, Dal would have described Poppy as pretty, in a fresh, wholesome, no-nonsense sort of way with her thick, shoulder-length brown hair and large, brown eyes and a serious little chin.

But as Poppy entered the dining room with its glossy white ceiling and dark purple walls, she looked anything but wholesome and no-nonsense.

She was wearing a silk gown the color of cherries, delicately embroidered with silver threads, and instead of her usual ponytail or chignon, her dark hair was down, and long, elegant chandelier earrings dangled from her ears. As she walked, the semi-sheer kaftan molded to her curves, highlighting her full, firm breasts and swell of hips.

“It seems I’ve been keeping you waiting,” she said, her voice pitched lower than usual and slightly breathless. “Izba insisted on all this,” she added, gesturing up toward her face.

At first Dal thought she was referring to the ornate silver earrings that were catching and reflecting the light, but once she was seated across from him he realized her eyes had been rimmed with kohl and her lips had been outlined and filled in with a soft plum-pink gloss. “You’re wearing makeup.”

“Quite a lot of it, too.” She grimaced. “I tried to explain to Izba that this wasn’t me, but she’s very determined once she makes her mind up about something and apparently

, dinner with you requires me to look like a tart.”

Dal checked his smile. “You don’t look like a tart. Unless it’s the kind of tart one wants to eat.”

Color flooded Poppy’s cheeks and she glanced away, suddenly shy, and he didn’t know if it was her shyness or the shimmering dress that clung to her curves, outlining her high, full breasts, but he didn’t think any woman could be more beautiful, or desirable than Poppy right now. “You look lovely,” he said quietly. “But I don’t want you uncomfortable all through dinner. If you’d rather go remove the makeup I’m happy to wait.”

She looked at him closely as if doubting his sincerity. “It’s fun to dress up, but I’m worried Izba has the wrong idea about me.”

“And what is that?”

“She seems to think you’re going”

When he said nothing, she added, “I know I’m not on your ‘list’ anymore, and so I’m not suggesting you’re encouraging her, but it’s awkward trying to convince her that I’m not going to be your new wife.”

“I’ll have a word with her,” he said, and he would have a word with Izba, but not about this. The fact was, Poppy would be his wife. She was going to marry him. He knew exactly how to get her acquiescence. Women thought they needed words. But even more than language, they needed touch.

He was trying to hold off on seduction, though. He didn’t want to trick her into being his wife, nor did he want to use her body against her. But she would capitulate, if he seduced her. She was already his even without a single touch.

His goal was to get her to think marriage was her idea. It was far better to let her believe the idea was hers. She’d be a far happier, and more malleable bride that way.

“Thank you.” She glanced down, fingertips grazing the silver beadwork near her shoulder. “Did you know this is your mother’s design?”

“What do you mean?”

“Every dress in the wardrobe in my room was designed by your mother. Izba said she was an aspiring fashion designer when she married your father.”

“I didn’t know,” he said after a long moment. “I had no idea.” He frowned at the candle on the table, surprised that such a little detail should knock him off guard, but it did. It might be a small thing, but it said so much about who she was, and the dreams she’d had.

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