Dal had not been a good replacement for his brother. He was hapless—the Fifth Earl’s description—and overly intellectual, so his father had been forced to shape Dal into a proper heir, even if it broke both of them.
And it had nearly broken both of them.
“From the time I was eleven, I understood my sole life mission was to marry and have children. Not just an heir and a spare, but numerous spares in the event something awful happened.” He lifted his head, his gaze finding Poppy’s. “Because awful things did happen. Cars crashed and mothers died and older brothers die in hospitals during surgery.”
“Heirs and spares,” he added mockingly, bitingly, “were not children to be loved, but insurance policies. Annoying but essential.”
Wives were not to be cherished, either. They were brood mares, and income. The Grants of Langston had filled their coffers for the past hundred and fifty years by marrying foreign heiresses: Greek, American, German and in the case of Randall’s mother, Arab. The wife didn’t have to be beautiful, or even accomplished. According to the Fifth Earl of Langston, Randall’s wife needed to be healthy—to bear those heirs—and wealthy. Her dowry was the most important thing she brought to the marriage.
Randall had been shocked and disgusted as a boy, but the years of lectures and discipline had numbed him to all but duty. Duty was the only thing that mattered, because once he fulfilled his duty, he would be free, no longer haunted by the fact that it was Andrew who should have been the Sixth Earl, not he.
“Who I am in Mehkar has no bearing on who I am in England, nor does it change my duty. My duty is to marry and continue the Grant family. It’s my sole responsibility. I’ve known since my mother and brother’s funeral that I have no other reason for being alive.”
“That is probably the vilest thing I have ever heard you say.”
He shrugged. “I will fulfill the promise made to my father, not to save the land or pocket the income, but because I am determined to get this monkey off my back.”
“It’s not a monkey, it’s a curse!”
“I won’t let it be a curse in the future. I’m a different man than my father and I’ll make different choices.” He hesitated. “You have no idea how different I want the future to be, and with you, it will be a new future. With you, I can move on.”
“I hear about what you need, but what about what I need? Or do women not matter in your world? Are we just things...property and possessions?”
“You want security in life, and I’m offering it to you.”
“You’re not offering security. You’re taking my freedom and the opportunities before me.”
“I can take you places, show you the world.”
“I don’t want the world. I want a comfortable little house and a garden where I can plant my flowers.”
“And in that house there will be a couch, and a telly and a husband that will kiss and cuddle you.”
“You have not spent the past four years working for me to sit with some fat, balding bloke who only wants to watch football—”
“He’s not going to be fat, or balding, and he’s most definitely not going to be obsessed with football.” Her chin jerked up. “He will be obsessed with me.”
“It will never happen.”
“Because you’re going to marry me, and be my wife, and we’re going to have the life you wanted...the life we wanted...the life where you insisted we have more!”
“Marrying you would not be more. Marrying you would be less.”
“Your idea of marriage makes my skin crawl.”
“Listen to me. Listen, Randall Michael Talal Grant, Earl of Langston, Sheikh of Mehkar, I have no desire to be your countess, or your princess. I fancied you, yes. I had a crush on you, yes. But I never once wanted to trade places with Sophie because I knew then what I still know now. You will never love anyone but yourself. You can’t. You don’t know how.”
SHE HEARD THE helicopter early, just after dawn. Poppy left her bed to stumble to the window arriving just in time to see the black helicopter with the gold emblem rise from the gardens, lifting straight up.
She saw the pilot, and then she spotted Dal in the backseat.
She felt a shaft of pain. Where was he going? And why was he leaving her here?
She struggled to breathe as the helicopter flew away, her chest unnaturally tight.
It had been an awful night. She hadn’t been able to sleep, not after the terrible fight with Dal in the pool.
She’d said hurtful things to him, and she’d regretted them immediately. She’d spent much of the night lying awake, wanting to go to him and apologize, but pride and self-preservation kept her in her bed.
If she went to him, she’d apologize and then possibly kiss him, and if she kissed him, then she’d want him to touch her, and hold her and then it would be all over.
He’d win. And she couldn’t let him win. This wasn’t a business deal. This wasn’t a financial transaction. This was about her life and her future. It was about all the values she held dear: love, and hope and faith.
Love, hope, faith and family.
He’d give her the children but he couldn’t give her the other things she craved.
And so she’d forced herself to stay in her bed, aware that Dal was upset, but it wasn’t her problem. She cared about him—oh, so very much—but she couldn’t allow him to just ride roughshod all over her.
But oh, last night...
She tipped her head to the glass and closed her eyes. His proposal had been so incredibly uncomfortable. And her furious refusal, that was even more uncomfortable.
So where had he gone today? What was he thinking? What was he doing?
Poppy dressed and went to her living room and rang for coffee. It was Izba who came to the door, not Imma or Hayek.
“Where did Talal go?” Poppy asked her.
“Gila,” Poppy repeated numbly. “Did he say how long he’d be gone?”
The old woman’s face creased. “Three days. Maybe four. He said there is a big tournament in the city. Polo, I think he said.” She tipped her head, expression curious. “You don’t like polo, Miss Poppy?”
Poppy felt a lump fill her throat. “No,” she answered huskily. “Not as much as some women I know.”
So he’d gone to Gila. Gone to Gila to see Florrie.
Poppy felt ill, so ill that she stripped off her clothes and climbed back into bed.
* * *
She heard the helicopter late on the third night after he’d gone. Poppy glanced at the small clock next to her bed. Nearly midnight.
Relief filled her. Relief followed by pain.
He’d left her three days ago and he hadn’t said goodbye. He hadn’t emailed her, either, even though she’d checked her inbox obsessively.
But now he was back home.
And then she realized what she’d thought. Home.
She turned on her side, pulling the cover up over her shoulder as if she could tuck herself in. But even beneath the covers she was cold. And scared. Had he proposed to Florrie? Or God help her, had he married Florrie while he was there?
She tried to make herself fall back asleep but she couldn’t. She lay in bed, heart pounding, stomach knotting, so anxious. So heartsick.
A half hour passed, and then another. It was close to one in the morning now but she was wide awake and close to tears.
Unable to endure another moment of misery, she left her bed and pulled on a pale green cotton robe and headed for Dal’s suite one floor above hers.
She knocked on the door. There was no answer. She gently turned the ha
ndle and it opened. She entered the living room, crossing soundlessly the long narrow living room to his bedroom. The door there was open and she stepped inside his bedroom, her gaze going to his bed. It was empty, the bed made. A lamp was burning on a corner table and the sliding glass door was open.
“Dal?” she whispered.
She saw a shadow move on the balcony and then he appeared in the doorway.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“I couldn’t sleep. I was worried about you.”
“As you can see I’m fine.”
She reached for the sash on her robe, giving it an anxious tug. “How was Gila?”
“What did you do there?”
“I saw a lot of family. I think I forgot just how big the family is.”
“Were you able to spend time with your grandfather?”
“Did you attend the polo match?”