* * *
Poppy practically fled back to her room, nearly bumping into Imma as she threw open her door.
Poppy wished Imma a good night and then once alone, began to pace her floor before flinging herself on her bed, replaying the entire scene with Dal in her head. What a scene it was! The words he’d said, those obnoxious, arrogant words, and then the kiss...
Oh, the kiss...
But no, she wouldn’t think about the kiss. That was the most impossible thing of all, too much like the fairy tales she’d loved as a girl because those stories about good and evil, lightness and darkness, helped explain the world and the things that had happened in her world—the financial struggles, her mother’s prolonged battle with cancer, a battle they’d thought she’d won, twice, only to relapse and die just after Poppy’s thirteenth birthday. It had just gotten worse after that. Her father couldn’t juggle his job and fatherhood and on the advice of friends, had found a boarding school that offered scholarships to promising young women in need.
She was in need, but poverty was the least of her woes.
She missed her mother and her father and what she’d thought of as family.
But just when she didn’t think she could take any more, there was Sophie, lovely, strong Sophie, who took Poppy under her wing, becoming her champion when Poppy was at her lowest.
Sophie had given Poppy her hope back, and hope was everything. Hope made one look forward. Hope helped one to focus on what lay ahead rather than what was behind. Hope made all things possible, and had more than once lifted her from despair.
Hope also meant that she could dream of happy endings, if not for her, then for Sophie, which is why Poppy had written to Renzo in the first place. Poppy had wanted to save Sophie from a loveless marriage. She wanted Sophie to have the life she deserved, which meant true love. Passionate love. Forever love.
The kind of love Poppy’s parents had. Poppy’s father had dearly loved her mother, taking her to every chemo and radiation treatment and staying with her after.
His love had been fierce and unwavering even to the bitter end.
The love and tenderness he’d shown her mother allowed her mother to say, even after she’d been taken to hospice, that she’d met her prince and had lived happily-ever-after. Their relationship hadn’t been one of lust but trust and respect, and that was the marriage Poppy wanted. That was truly the ultimate fairy tale. Dal’s idea of marriage made her ill, which is why she would never, ever agree to marry him, or to even be a candidate on his “list.” She didn’t even believe in lists. Or candidates. She believed in love, real love, true love.
And yet his kiss, that kiss, pure magic...
No. She wouldn’t think about it, not anymore.
Poppy jumped off her bed, unable to remain inside her bedroom a moment longer but not sure where to go, and then glancing out one of her windows, she spotted the enormous lap pool, gleaming with all the pool lights on.
She rifled through her wardrobe until she found the drawer with the swimsuits and grabbed the black bikini with the gold beads on the straps and hips. She topped the suit with a feather-light green gauze tunic and headed downstairs to the long lap pool illuminated for the evening.
Thankfully, there was no one outside, and she could commandeer any one of the dozen lounge chairs.
She picked a chair in the corner and kicked off her leather sandals and peeled off her tunic, dropping them onto the chair before diving into the pool.
She swam under water as far as she could before she had to surface to get air. Turning onto her back she floated for a moment, feeling some of the tension melt away.
And then from beneath her lashes, she spotted a shadowy figure on one of the terraces above, and she knew from the width of the shoulders who it was.
Poppy turned over onto her stomach and dove back down, swimming below the surface as if she could hide from him.
Maybe he didn’t see her.
Maybe he’d ignore her.
Somehow she doubted it. There was too much unsettled between them. And that kiss had been so explosive. She’d always wanted to kiss him but that kiss...that hadn’t been what she’d ever imagined.
That kiss had been pure sex, pure sin, and if she hadn’t fled when she did, she would have given herself up to him.
* * *
Dal watched Poppy swim in the glowing pool below.
She looked beautiful and sensual floating in the water, her dark hair glistening in the light of the pool. He very much wanted to go down and dive in and draw her toward him, continuing what they started.
She’d feel warm and soft, and slick in the water. He could imagine cupping her full breasts and then her rounded derriere.
She was almost naked. He wanted her naked. He wanted her stripped and exposed so that he could drink her in.
She was lush and ripe and unbearably sweet. Her kisses earlier had driven him half-mad. They were ardent and innocent at the same time, and her passionate response had woken a hunger and even now, a half hour later, he still burned.
Everything in him wanted to go down to the pool and take her, and claim her. But he wasn’t going to just seduce her. That would be too easy. He wanted her to want him, and want to be with him, but not just for one night. For all nights. Forever.
She needed to marry him. She needed to agree to be his wife.
As his wife, he would spoil her and shower her with gifts and things, endless beautiful things. He’d also give her security and stability. As well as pleasure.
But first, the wedding ceremony.
There would be no sex, not until he had his ring on her finger.
POPPY SPENT THE next morning going through the various résumés and applications that had been forwarded, rejecting the ones that would not be a good fit, and then setting aside the possibilities. She even followed up on the references of two different women who’d stood out.
After finishing with the applications, she answered new emails that had come in during the night. There were a few from concerned associates, as well as three very bold inquiries from one member of the press. The reporter was with an American tabloid and asked if Poppy could jump on the phone with her for a quick call, and if that wasn’t possible, perhaps Poppy would send a few words...maybe a quote? The online magazine was also quite happy to cite her as an anonymous source, and they did pay, too...all very hush-hush to ensure that the earl would feel no embarrassment.
Poppy deleted the emails from the reporter immediately, determined not to say a word about them to Dal and was just about to close her laptop when an email popped into her inbox from Florrie.
Had such a lovely message from Dal this morning, but having difficulty reaching him on his phone. He said he has tickets for Royal Box for the Gila Open in Mehkar. Beyond excited. Send me deets, please! And the poor darling! How is our gorgeous earl holding up?
Poppy read the email twice, unable to believe her eyes.
Dal had been in contact with Florrie now, too. And he hadn’t just checked in with her, he’d dangled VIP polo tickets to a woman who was completely mad about ponies.
It was a brilliant move—Dal was nothing if not shrewd—but also utterly infuriating because just last night Dal had been seducing her!
Livid, Poppy marched up the flights of stairs, rapped on his door before entering his room, laptop tucked beneath her arm. “I hope you’re dressed,” she said curtly, “because we have work to do.”
Dal was lying stretched out on the couch in the living room, reading, one arm propped behind his head. He looked up from the book, a black eyebrow lifting. “What work would that be?”
“Your work. I get emails about your business affairs all the time. People still think I’m your secretary.”
“That’s because you are.” He sat up, stretching, which just made the soft knit fabric of his shirt pull tighter across the hard planes of his chest. “So what is so urgent?”
She stared at him baffled by his nonchalance. “I have never seen you lie down in the middle of the day and read.”
“I was focused all morning. Why not take a break before lunch and get caught up on this book I’ve been wanting to read?”
“You seem quite tense. Is everything all right?”
“I’ve just been working for you. That’s all.”
“Good. Since you’re still on the payroll.”
She bit her tongue to say something she might regret. And then she had to wait another ten seconds to get her racing pulse to slow. Finally, when she trusted herself to speak and not shout, she said, “I’ve made good progress on finding my replacement. How is it going finding the replacement for Sophie?”
“Better than I hoped.”
“Really?” She decided she’d play dumb. Let him be the one to tell her about his clever invitation to Florrie. “Any exciting developments?”