She glanced at him from beneath her lashes and felt a little shiver as he looked right back at her, his golden gaze locking with hers and holding. He didn’t look away, not even when one of the stewards invited them to the dinner table.
“Why didn’t you try before?” she asked softly. “Why didn’t you try for Sophie?”
“I don’t know. Maybe because she didn’t bring out the best in me. Not like you.”
“I bring out the best in you?”
His dense black lashes dropped, his lovely mouth curving. “Perhaps I should say you bring out the better.”
Her chest squeezed, her insides wobbly. He made her feel so much and it wasn’t fair. When he dropped his guard and had a real conversation she felt close to him. Connected. Too connected. How was she to leave him when he felt like hers?
One of the stewards approached them and spoke quietly in Arabic to Dal. Dal answered and then turned to Poppy. “I have a phone call I must take. It won’t take long, just a couple minutes. Please have another drink and I’ll meet you at the table.”
True to his word, he was gone less than ten minutes, and when he returned she was waiting at the beautiful table with the rose-pink tablecloth and the gleaming white candles.
“I tried to make it quick,” he said, sitting down at the table with her.
“Is everything okay?”
“It was Florrie.”
Poppy’s chest squeezed tight. “Oh?”
“She’s heading to Gila for the polo tournament and she had some questions about the tournament and packing and appropriate dress for the royal box.”
“I didn’t realize you were a fashion consultant.”
He leaned back in his chair, his lips quirking. “You’re jealous.”
“No, you shouldn’t be. I’ve asked you to marry me—”
“You’ve never asked. You told me we were to marry. That’s not a proper proposal.”
“So is that all that’s keeping you from saying yes? Are you wanting romance? Flowers? Candlelight?”
She became very aware of the romantic dinner under the stars, and the fragrant roses on the table, along with the candles glimmering everywhere.
“You threw your list together,” she said. “There was very little thought put into it, and I wish you would have considered more possibilities. Women who are not Sophie’s friends. Women who might actually want to stay at home with you and have dinner with you, or maybe grab a book and read in the evening near you—”
“I don’t need a nanny, Poppy.”
“No, you just need a woman with hips and a womb.”
When he didn’t contradict her, she felt her temper spike. “You are so infuriating! You know you haven’t tried hard to find a great wife. You’re simply settling—”
“Not settling at all. You’re on the list.”
“At the number three position, which makes me think that the names on your list are there by default. I’d hazard to guess that all three names made it because that’s all you could remember in a pinch.”
He grinned at her, a sexy, powerful, masculine smile. “Your name was not added because I was in a pinch. You were added because we suit each other—”
“So annoying,” she muttered under her breath.
“Why can’t you accept a compliment?”
“Because I know you. You don’t compliment people, and you most certainly don’t compliment me.”
“Let me put it another way. I can barely tolerate most people but I haven’t just tolerated your company for the past four years. I’ve enjoyed it.”
“And you wonder why I have absolutely no desire to marry you!”
“It wouldn’t hurt for you to be a little more logical and a lot less fanciful.”
“How about we focus on the two women still on your list? You can’t court both Florrie and Seraphina at the same time. It’s not practical when you’re down to fourteen days, and so I recommend at this point in time you focus on one. With Florrie en route to Gila, just settle on her and be done with it. I am sure once she learns that you’re not just the Earl of Langston but Prince Talal she’ll jump through the hoops and marry you right away.”
“I had no idea Florrie was your clear favorite.”
“She’s not my favorite. In fact, of the two, she’s my least favorite.”
“Is she? Why?”
“She’s—” The least monogamous woman I know. But Poppy bit back the words, uncomfortable with the truth. “She just doesn’t seem quite ready to settle down.”
“I don’t know. Maybe she hasn’t yet met the right person.”
“Maybe,” Poppy answered sourly.
“What else do you know about them? Who would I enjoy more? No. Scratch that. Which one would be a more natural mother?”
Poppy shuddered. “Neither. They are both too self-absorbed.”
“You’re sounding very catty right now, Poppy. It’s not attractive. I thought these were your friends.”
“Is there nothing positive you can say about either?”
Poppy ground her teeth together and lifted her chin. “Seraphina loves fashion and clothes. She spends twenty thousand or more each season on new clothes.”
“You’re supposed to be giving me positives.”
“That is a positive. She’s always beautifully dressed. Oh. And she keeps herself very slender. Very, very slender.”
“Is that your way of saying she has an eating disorder?”
“No. It’s my way of saying she just doesn’t eat. She has a liquid diet. Mostly green drinks and cleansers. Things like that.”
“I’m sure she’d indulge in cheese plates and chocolate now and then.”
Poppy frowned, trying to remember when she’d ever seen Seraphina actually eat anything. She nearly always had a bottle in her hand, or purse, filled with one of those drinks that smelled of lemon and parsley, cucumber and ginger. “I’ve never actually seen her eat anything sweet. Or anything with carbs. Or any kind of meat.”
“So she won’t share a steak and kidney pie with me?”
“Oh, no. Never. The crust alone would make her faint.”
“What about Florrie? Would she eat a steak and kidney pie?”
“That’s good news.”
“Yes.” But Poppy couldn’t feign enthusiasm. Florrie would not be a good wife for Dal. She wasn’t even a good girlfriend. She didn’t understand the meaning of faithful, juggling her polo player lovers with disconcerting ease.
“Now, come on, Poppy. What’s wrong with Florrie? If
I didn’t know you better, I’d think you were jealous and wanted to be my countess.”
He was right, of course. She was jealous, but she’d never let him know that. “Fortunately, you do know me better and know I’ve absolutely zero desire to be your countess.”
“I hate that you dangle money and possessions and make it sound as if those material things are the basis for a good marriage, when we both know that nothing is more important than affection, kindness and respect.”
“If I wasn’t the Earl of Langston, but a vicar in a Cotswold parish, would you consider my proposal?”
Her cheeks burned with embarrassment but she held his gaze. “If you were a vicar in the Cotswold, would you love me?”
“I don’t know how to answer because I don’t believe in love. It’s a fantasy concocted in the twentieth century by advertising giants to sell more things to more people.”
“That is such rubbish.”
“But I do believe passion and desire are real.”
“And I believe that passion without love is just sex. And I wouldn’t ever marry a man just to have sex. I could have sex now if that’s what I wanted.”
“Sex with whom?”
She lifted her chin, absolutely brazen. “You.”
* * *
Her words stole his breath. And all rational thought. Her eyes shone with light while her cheeks glowed with color and her expression was nothing short of defiant.
Who was this woman? When had she become so confident and provocative?
It didn’t help that the lush outline of Poppy’s breast was playing havoc with his control.
He’d managed his physical side for five and a half years, clamping down tightly on all needs or wants, shutting himself down so that he could be the elegant, chivalrous man Sophie desired.
But with Sophie gone, and Poppy here, he felt anything but elegant and chivalrous.
What he felt was ravenous, his carnal side awake and hungry. After years of not feeling or wanting or needing, he needed now. He needed her. And his body ached morning, noon and night with desire.