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“You know I mean it in the nicest, sincerest way, because you’re aware of how I feel about you. I have that...soft spot. I see all the good things in you that Sophie couldn’t see.”

“Really? What did you fall in love with, since it clearly wasn’t my title and wealth?”

“You give to others, constantly, generously. You provide leadership to developing countries. You donate money to developing businesses, particularly businesses headed by women. But you don’t just give money, you give time, and wisdom, and you listen to these people. You truly care.”

“So why did you take yourself off my list?”

“Because you care about everyone but yourself. You don’t love yourself. You barely like yourself, and it would be difficult, if not impossible, being your wife when I know you’d never love me—”

“But I’d want you.”

“Not the same thing.”

“Physical pleasure can be incredibly satisfying.”

“But it’s not love, and I want true love, and I’m holding out for a man who will move the moon and stars for me.”

He made a rough, mocking sound. “I understand that I expect too little from marriage, but you, my darling Poppy, expect too much.”

“Maybe. But I’d rather believe in happy-ever-after then be bitter, cold and cynical.”

“Like me?”

“I think you’re cynical because it’s easier than trying to muddle through with emotions. Far better to be coldly intellectual than a flesh and blood human being—”

“Just because I don’t believe in romantic love doesn’t mean I don’t bleed when cut.”

“I’ve never seen you bleed, or grieve. You lost your fiancée yesterday and yet you never shed a tear.”

“Maybe because she wasn’t the right one for me. Maybe because I’m relieved that I have an unexpected opportunity to find the right woman and make this work.”

“You’re not acquiring a company, Dal. You’re talking about marrying a woman!”

“And I think you’re angry because you’d like to be that woman, only you’re too afraid to allow your dreams to become reality—”

“A life with you isn’t my dream. You would never, ever be able to give me what I need!”

He crossed the room, walking toward her with such deliberate intention that it made her heart race. “That’s just another excuse. You are full of them today. Why don’t you stop acting like a little girl and fight for what you want?”

She backed up a panicked step. “You’re not what I want!”

“Bullshit.” And then he trapped her against the wall, wrapped an arm low around her waist and pulled her close.

Poppy knew a split second before his head dropped that he was going to kiss her, and she stiffened, shocked, surprised, but also curious.

And then his mouth covered hers and she felt an electric jolt shoot through her. He was right about her fantasies. She’d imagined this for years. She’d had a few dates here and there but she was essentially an inexperienced, twenty-six-year-old virgin. It had been easy remaining a virgin, too, because Dal was the only man she wanted, and how could any other man measure up to him? No one was as handsome. No one as intelligent. No one as powerful.

And now he was holding her, kissing her and tremor after tremor coursed through her. The kiss felt like a claiming. There was nothing tentative in the way his mouth slanted over hers, his mouth warm, his breath cool. Her senses felt flooded and her brain struggled to take it all in...his smell, his warmth and then there was that delicious pressure of his body so hard and lean against her, his chest a wall of muscles.

His head finally lifted and he stared deep into her eyes. “Tell me you didn’t want that to happen.”

“Do you enjoy humiliating women?”

“I wanted it to happen.” His narrowed gaze examined every inch of her face. “Because I’ve spent years trying not to imagine that kiss.”

* * *

It was true, too. Dal would have never kissed her while engaged, or married. He would have never acted on any kind of impulse—there would be no impulse—if he wasn’t single, but he was single now and she was single, and she was more than available. When she looked at him, she practically offered herself up to him. The sacrificial maiden, the innocent virgin—

He stopped himself, brow furrowing as he glanced at her. “Are you a virgin?”

Her cheeks burned with color. Her eyes flashed dangerously. “That is none of your business.”

“So it’s a yes,” he answered, fascinated by the bloom in her cheeks and the bruised pink of her lips. Emotion darkened her eyes now, making her wonder what she’d look like after she’d shattered with pleasure.

“There is no need for you to be horrible,” she protested breathlessly.

She was aroused but fighting it.

He respected her more for fighting it. “Not trying to be horrible,” he said, thinking she needed another kiss, as did he. “Just trying to figure out why you still want to fight the attraction. There’s no reason. Sophie is gone. I’m single. You’re single.”

“You are so incredibly unromantic.”

“Lust isn’t always romantic, but it’s real.”

“Well, I don’t lust for you. I have feelings for you. A huge difference.”

“But that’s where you’re wrong. You might have feelings for me, but you also desire me. I can prove it.”

Her eyes had clung to his as he spoke, her wide, dark eyes showing every single thing she was feeling. She was aroused and curious but also remarkably shy and innocent. Holding her against him, he could feel how her slim body hummed with tension, as well as the wild beating of her heart. She was as soft as he was hard, as warm as he was cold, and as he gazed down into her lovely expressive eyes, he thought Sophie had indeed done him a favor.

Dal could imagine Poppy as his wife. A sweet, kind, warm wife. The kind of woman who’d be a sweet, kind, warm mother, too.

“Let’s revisit the subject of lust,” he said, just before his head dipped and his mouth covered hers to part her full, soft lips and plunder the inside of her hot, sweet mouth. His tongue teased hers, stirring her senses, making her clutch at his arms and whimper against his mouth.

He pressed her closer, shaping her to him, his hand settling on her pert, round derriere. He cupped her bottom, caressing the generous curve, and she shuddered and arched against him, her entire body trembling as if he’d set her on fire.

He shifted around so that he could lean back against the wall while he positioned her between his thighs. He felt hard and savage as he drew her hips against his hips, letting her feel the heavy length of his erection.

She sighed against his mouth, and her breasts peaked against his chest. He relished the feel of her tight nipples and he stroked up, from her hips over the small of her waist to caress the side of her full breast.

She shivered again and made soft, incoherent sounds that heated his blood and made him want to rip her dress off and devour her here.

It had been so long since he’d been with anyone, and forever since he’d felt this way. He’d forgotten what desire felt like. He’d forgotten the insistent throb of need, and the need to claim. And he didn’t want just anyone, he wanted her, all of her, and the more she gave, the more he wanted to take. His thumb found her breast, her nipple pebbled tight, pressing through the thin silk of her kaftan. He rubbed the tip, pinching it, just to hear her gasp and feel her hips twist against his.

He ached, and his erection throbbed and he felt more alive than he had in years. Not just years. But decades.

He stroked Poppy’s full, round breast again, and beneath her breast, before palming the fullness, savoring the shape and weight. He loved her curves, and her sensual nature, amazed that she’d hidden both all these years with her ugly practical wardrobe and shy, retiring smile.

Poppy was not shy or retiring at all.

Poppy was a goddess and he could not wait to take her to bed.

She was exactly what he needed. And he would have her. It wasn’t a matter of if, but when.

Reluctantly, he lifted his head. Her dark eyes were cloudy and her gaze unfocused. She swayed in his arms, off balance.

“We’ll marry end of this week,” he said tightly, reining in his hunger so that he could attempt to be logical and rational. “I don’t know if you want to stay here for a honeymoon, or if you’d want to travel somewhere else.”

She blinked up at him, still dazed. “What?”

“It will just be a very simple ceremony. A civil ceremony. And then with formalities done, we can do what we want. Honeymoon here, or travel to someplace you’ve never been.”

She gave him a shove, freeing herself. “I’m not marrying you!”

“You are, and you want to. Stop fighting the inevitable.”

Her face flushed pink. “Excuse me, but what planet are you living on? I never agreed to marry you, and just because I kissed you doesn’t mean we’re suddenly a couple.”

“We should be.”

“Because I kissed you back? Ha!” She took another quick step back, arms folding over her chest. “I have kissed dozens of men and I’ve never married any of them!”

“I don’t care if you kissed three hundred. You’re a virgin. You want me. You belong to me.”

“Ahem. I don’t belong to you, or with you. In fact, I gave notice that I’m leaving you. So, maybe you need to go out there and find someone you can actually date, and court and hopefully marry before you lose your precious earldom and your historic Langston House!”