“She had tremendous style,” he said gruffly. “I always knew she was different from other mums, but I don’t think I appreciated the differences until it was too late.”
“I wish I’d had the chance to meet her. She sounds so lovely.”
“She was.” And then because he found the memories unbearable, he smashed the past, making the memories vanish. As the memories faded, so did the ache. The ache didn’t completely disappear, but at least it was manageable.
He signaled to one of the stewards standing in the corner. “Let’s eat.”
Dinner was a feast, with salad after salad, followed by warm, fragrant pilaf and delicious pan-seared salmon, and of course there was dessert, the waiter tempting Poppy with the description of the honey and mint syrup cake served with a small scoop of spiced vanilla ice cream on the side.
Poppy was full from dinner and was going to reluctantly pass on the cake, until Dal suggested she skip the ice cream and try a slice. He said the cake had just been baked; he’d smelled it earlier in the oven and it was his favorite cake because it was topped with a thick, crunchy layer of slivered honey-glazed almonds.
Poppy couldn’t resist the description and the cake was even better than Dal described. She ate her slice, and had just popped a stray slivered almond into her mouth when Dal leaned back in his chair and told her he’d spoken with Seraphina earlier.
Poppy almost choked on the almond. She coughed to clear her throat. “You called her?”
“I did,” he said casually as if this was no big deal.
“This afternoon.” His broad shoulders shifted carelessly. “She was surprised to hear from me, but she quickly warmed up. It seems she and her new boyfriend had a fight on the drive home from the wedding.” He looked at her, lashes lowering, concealing the gold of his eyes. “She’s not sure if it’s going to work out between them.”
Poppy’s heart fell. She didn’t know why she felt such a rush of disappointment. She should want this for him. He needed a wife. Quickly. If tall, slim, Sloane Ranger Seraphina could fit the bill, why shouldn’t he marry her?
“That’s good,” she said faintly, struggling to smile. Many would consider Seraphina an excellent substitution for Sophie. Seraphina’s family was far wealthier than the Carmichael-Joneses, and Seraphina was wildly popular, always in the press, photographed at all the right events, and big parties and fashion shows.
The fact that she was as shallow as a plate was only problematic if one wanted a wife with emotions...
“You don’t sound very convincing,” he said, reaching for his wineglass. “I thought you’d be pleased. I’d much rather narrow down my list to just one and focus on courting her, rather than jumping back and forth between two women.”
“You don’t want to even give Florrie a chance?”
“I was under the impression that you didn’t think Florrie would be a suitable match.”
“I never said anything against her.”
“But you implied she’s one of those horsey girls, always at a polo match.”
“Did I? I don’t remember.”
“I ride, but I’m not by any means an equestrian. If polo is her passion, she wouldn’t be happy with me.”
“And Seraphina is a clothes horse, always seen in the front row of some fashion show or other.”
“Yes, but I wouldn’t be expected to attend the fashion shows with her. That’s something she could do on her own, and no one would think twice about her being in Paris or Milan or New York without me.”
“Don’t you want to be with your wife?”
“Don’t you want your wife to want to be with you?”
“Not really. I enjoy my own company. Besides, if Seraphina is currently disgruntled with the new boyfriend, she’ll welcome my attention and it shouldn’t take much effort to close the deal with her.”
“I’ve never heard a worse proposal.”
“I’m not a romantic man.”
“That might be why you lost Sophie.”
He gave her a look that wasn’t pleasant. Clearly, he didn’t appreciate her honesty, but honesty is what he needed. “Women aren’t things to park on shelves or in closets. They want and need time and attention.”
“The more you’re constantly harping on.”
“Or in your case, some. Some time. Some attention.” She was angry now, and she didn’t even try to hide her irritation. “Never mind a token of affection, because I know you gave Sophie almost none.”
“Sophie didn’t like being touched.”
“Sophie craved affection. You’re the one that rejected her.”
“She recoiled every time I reached for her.”
“But did you talk to her before you reached for her? Did you take her to dinner? Did you send her flowers? Did you plan anything fun? No. It was strictly business, and cold as hell.”
“And you’ve thought this all these years?”
“Why didn’t you say something?”
“Because it wasn’t my place, and she didn’t complain, not until this last year, and then she wasn’t complaining as much as...panicking. I thought maybe the sheer size of the wedding was overwhelming her, but clearly it wasn’t the wedding. It was you.”
“Of course you’ll be Team Sophie until the bitter end.”
“I’m on your team, too. That’s why I’m spoiling my delicious dessert, trying to make you understand that it takes two to make a marriage. You can’t just put a ring on someone’s finger and be done with it.”
“I did care about Sophie. I cared a great deal. But the fact is, I couldn’t seem to make her happy. It was as if she didn’t want to be happy with me—”
“You’re just saying that now.”
“You wanted honesty. I’m being honest. She didn’t want to marry me. But she couldn’t stand up to her parents.”
“And when did you realize this? Five and a half years ago?”
“No. This past year. I tried to plan several special occasions for us—theater, shopping, dinner. She agreed to each and looked beautiful every time we stepped out, but there was no...conversation. There was no...warmth. Even her smiles looked forced as if she was suffering and barely tolerating my company.”
“Martyred for the cause,” Poppy muttered.
Dal glanced at her, eyes narrowed. “What did you say?”
She was so annoyed with him, and all of them. Money and power changed people, inflating their sense of worth, and bringing out the worst in them. “Your fathers shouldn’t have arranged the marriage, not against your wishes.”
“I didn’t protest very much. It was easier just to make him happy. Less conflict, and honestly, I didn’t care who I married.”
“I don’t feel emotions like you. I don’t feel love, and I wouldn’t have ever married for love.”
“Well, Sophie did, and she tried to fight it.” Poppy saw Dal’s startled expression. “I overheard them once, Sophie and her parents. It was a terrible row. They said terrible things to her, squashing her completely.” She swallowed hard. “I think that’s why she stuck up for me, from early on. Because she never had anyone who stuck up for her.”
And this was why Poppy did what she did, sending newspaper clippings to Renzo Crisanti.
She wanted Sophie to have a chance at happiness. She wanted Sophie to have more.
Just as she still wanted Dal to have more.
“You’re making me feel like the devil,” Dal said roughly.
“That’s not my intention.”
He shifted at the table, features tight, jaw jutting. “I had no idea she’d been pressured to marry me. It disgusts me to think that she was being forced into a marriage with me.”
“You both de
He rose from the table and crossed the room, hands in his trouser pockets. “No wonder you looked elated when Crisanti showed up. You were thrilled she’d escaped the marriage. You were thrilled she was escaping marrying me.”
“Yes,” she answered. “I was. No woman should be forced into marriage with a man. Not even if it’s in marriage to you.”