“I went for a little while.”
He just went for part of the match? What else did he do, then? And did he see Florrie? Did he take her out on a date? Did he kiss—?
Poppy stopped herself there, not wanting to imagine all the possibilities. Not even wanting to know if there had been a date. Too much could happen, and the details would just make her feel half-mad.
“You were gone for three days,” she said, hearing the hurt and accusation in her voice but it was too late to take the words back.
He shrugged. “I had things to take care of. Arrangements to make.”
For his wedding.
He hadn’t said the words, but she was sure of it. Pain exploded inside her chest, and she balled her hands, her nails digging into her fists. “Is there anything I can help with?”
“No, you’re doing what I needed you to do. You’ve given me five strong résumés. Someone from HR in the London office will call the five, interview and then rank them for me, and then hire the one they think is the strongest.”
As her eyes adjusted to the night, she could see he was leaning on the frame of the glass door, his shoulder at an angle, muscular arms crossed over his bare chest. He was wearing dark, loose pajama bottoms. He had such a big, hard, gorgeous body and his mind was brilliant—sharp, swift, incisive. She’d loved working with him, and learning from him and hearing his ideas. He was bold and brave, conscientious and fair. His new secretary was going to be very lucky to have him as a boss. “Sounds as if my job is nearly done.”
“Indeed. We will probably have someone hired by the end of this week.”
She swallowed around the lump in her throat. “It’s all coming to an end so fast now.”
“It seems everything is working out.”
“Does that include your search for a new bride?”
“You must be relieved.”
“I’ll be relieved when the wedding is over.”
“Do you have a date set?”
“I don’t want to leave it to the last moment.”
“You have nine days until your birthday.”
“Yes, so probably three or four days from now.” His big shoulders shifted. “Something like that.”
“That’s wonderful,” she said even as she found herself wishing she hadn’t come here, to his room. She should have waited until morning to ask about his trip. She could have waited to hear this news.
She hated his news. It broke her heart. “Was it good to speak to your grandfather?”
“Yes. Just seeing him again has made the trip here worthwhile.”
“I’m glad.” She swallowed again, fighting the prickle and sting of tears in the backs of her eyes. “Did you tell your grandfather about your plans to marry?”
“What did he say?”
“He said that he respected me for fulfilling the promise I made my father, and hoped that my future wife will bring honor to the family and the people of Mehkar.”
“Have you introduced her to him yet?”
“No, and I won’t. Not before the ceremony. This is my choice, not his, and I’m not looking for his approval.”
She was silent a moment, trying to imagine Dal with his grandfather, the king. “What is he like? Your grandfather?”
“Perceptive. Powerful. Quiet. Dignified.”
“Easy to talk to?”
He laughed softly. “He wasn’t at first, but by the time I left, it was better. He has aged. He has worries.” He straightened and entered the room. “I suppose we all do.”
She watched him cross the floor and take a seat on the side of his bed. “What are you worrying about?”
“My worries are mostly behind me. I’ve done what I needed to do. Now I can breathe easier.” He looked at her. “I’m just sorry you lost sleep over me. That must have been truly aggravating.”
“Don’t be angry with me.”
“I’m not. I’m not angry with you, or anyone. I think for the first time in years, I’m finally at peace.”
She wanted to ask him why. She wanted to know if Florrie was wearing his engagement ring. She wanted to know so many things but knew she didn’t have the right to ask anymore. She’d essentially found her replacement. She wouldn’t be working for him soon. He’d be married to Florrie—
“I hated you leaving the way you did,” she whispered. “And then you didn’t even email me once.”
“I was busy.”
“You were punishing me.”
“If there is to be no future together, we need to create distance. I left to give us distance, and allow us both to take a step back.”
“Is that why you’re at peace?”
“I’m at peace because I know, no matter what happens in the next week, I have the answers I need.” He reached up to drag a hand through his thick hair, ruffling it. “In Gila, my grandfather and I talked quite a lot about my father. My grandfather had offered to bring my mother home from England more than once, wanting to rescue her from her difficult marriage. She refused. She believed my father needed her, and that it wouldn’t be fair to take the children away from him, and so she stayed.”
“Your poor mother.”
“That is what I always thought, but my grandfather said my mother loved him. Apparently, she was the only one who could manage him.” He smiled grimly. “Rather like you with me.”
“You’re not a monster.”
“He didn’t want to be, either.”
“Don’t compare yourself to him! You’re not your father. He had struggles you don’t have. His mood swings, and mania, that was his illness. It’s not yours.”
“Emotions make me uncomfortable.”
“Because of him.”
“His emotions were out of control, so I trained myself never to lose control.”
All of a sudden she understood. “You’re not him, Dal. You’re not ever going to be him. And you didn’t inherit the illness, either.”
“But my children could.”
She felt another sharp stab of pain. My God. She’d never thought of that, or imagined that he’d harbor secret fears that his children could. “Or not,” she said quietly, evenly, finally seeing what she’d never seen before.
“I spent my twenties waiting for the disease to strike. I kept waiting for signs or symptoms...highs, lows, anger, despair. But I felt nothing. All those years, and I felt absolutely nothing. I was numb. Even at my father’s funeral. And I thought that was good.”
“Being numb can’t feel that good.”
“But at least I had dignity.”
“Is that what you call shutting everyone out?”
“It’s how I survived. I can’t apologize for being me. It’s the only way I knew how to get through the grief, and the pressure and the unbearable responsibility.”
You have had tremendous pressure,” she said. “But you’re not alone. You have people who care for you. Deeply.”
For a long, agonizing moment there was only silence. Poppy’s heart pounded. She felt as if she’d been running a very long, hard race.
His lashes slowly lifted and his light gaze skewered her. “No games,” he said quietly.
“No games,” she agreed breathlessly.
“Tell me why you came to me tonight. I want the truth.”
She couldn’t look away from his burning gaze, couldn’t think of anything but him, and wanting him, and needing him and needing to be there for him.
“Don’t marry Florrie,” she whispered.
And still he said nothing, just looked at her with his intense, penetrating gaze, the one that had always made her feel as if he could see straight through her.
“I don’t know if it’s too late,” she added, breathing in short, shallow, painful gulps of air. “But I want you to have options, and I should be an option. I shouldn’t have taken myself off your list. If anyone believes in you, it’s me.”
“You weren’t going to marry without love.”
Her eyes burned and the almost overwhelming emotion in her chest put a lump in her throat. “But I’m not marrying without love. We both know I have always loved you.”
POPPY HAD FINISHED dressing an hour ago and was now waiting for Dal to appear. Her gown was quite simply the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen, high necked with a thick gold collar and then gold starburst embellishments and embroidery down the bodice. The long, wide sleeves reminded her of a royal cape, and the soft silk and chiffon dress was fitted through the hips, the skirt straight and sleek, making her feel like a queen. There was more of the exquisite gold starbursts down the front of each sleeve.
Her hair had been pinned up with gold strands twisted in the loose curls. Her hair glittered, and heavy gold diamond earrings swung from her ears.