Looking in the mirror, she didn’t even know who she was anymore.
Poppy turned away from her reflection, uneasy with her image. She didn’t feel beautiful or regal, and yet the woman in white and gold looked every inch a princess.
How had this happened? How had any of this happened?
If she didn’t love Dal so much, she’d pack her bags and run. She didn’t know where she’d go, only that she was terrified of losing herself.
Poppy tried not to pace her private courtyard, but it was hard to just sit still when she felt wound so tight.
It had been three days since she’d agreed to marry him, and since then she’d been filled with anxiety and excitement, hope and dread.
She loved him, yes, but at the same time she feared a future where she’d give, give, give and he’d...what?
Would he ever love her? Would attraction and physical desire be enough?
Hopefully, making love would give her the closeness she craved, but not knowing made everything harder.
She couldn’t help thinking that it would have been better if they’d made love before today. It would have been better to know more before the ceremony, just so she’d know how to manage her heart.
* * *
The wedding was a very simple service. There was no music or fanfare. There was little but the ring ceremony and exchanging of vows.
The paperwork that followed took far more time than the ceremony.
Poppy felt painfully overdressed for such a businesslike ceremony. She told herself that she wouldn’t cry, and so she didn’t cry. It was her own fault for having any sort of expectations in the first place.
Dal had never said he cared for her. Today’s ceremony was about convenience, and the brevity of the ceremony reflected the business nature of their union.
This was strictly business.
He’d married her because he’d run out of time. He’d married her to keep his title and lands.
And she? She’d agreed because she hadn’t wanted to lose him. And yet, she’d never had him; at least, she didn’t have what she wanted from him. His heart. His love.
* * *
His gaze narrowed on her face. “From your expression you’d think we had just attended a funeral instead of a wedding.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll try to look more celebratory. And maybe I will feel more celebratory once all the paperwork is finished.”
“There is always paperwork after a wedding.”
“But my impression is that there is considerable more after ours.”
“You agreed to this, Poppy. You understood what we were doing today.”
“Yes, I did agree. But I could have done this in T-shirt and jeans. I would have probably been happier in a T-shirt and jeans. I know Izba wanted me to look attractive for you, but the dress, shoes and jewelry was overkill.”
“She dressed you as if we were marrying at the palace in Gila.”
“I wish you had spoken to her.”
“I did. I asked her to help you get ready. If you don’t like the dress, blame me. I suggested it. It was my mother’s wedding dress. The earrings were my mother’s, too.”
Poppy felt awful. Her eyes suddenly stung and she pressed her nails to her palms. “I didn’t know.”
“We could have married in Gila. The palace is impressive. There would have been a great deal of pomp and fuss. My family would have preferred we hold the ceremony there, but I didn’t want to make this about the family. I wanted this to be about us. I wanted to spend the day with you. After the circus of Langston House, I thought you’d agree. I realize now I was wrong.”
“You married me because you had no other choice.”
“I married you because you were my first choice.”
She bit into her lower lip to keep it from trembling. “You don’t have to try to make me feel better—”
“Open and honest communication, remember? I’m telling you the truth. Whether or not you want to believe me is up to you.”
It seemed impossible that he would actually want her. She had worked closely with him all these years and he had never been anything but professional and polite. She’d been the one to have feelings for him, not the other way around. But in the end, it didn’t really matter about first choice or third choice; hierarchies and rankings were insignificant now that they exchanged their vows and signed the paperwork. They were married. He was her husband and she his wife and he’d fulfilled the terms of the trust with a week to spare.
“Now what?” she asked him. “A game of pool or ping-pong? Or are you going to get back to work?”
He regarded her steadily for a moment before smiling. “You are really upset.”
“Yes, I am, and you can turn it into a joke but—”
He silenced her by taking her in his arms, his mouth covering hers. Heat surged through her, heat and longing, the longing so intense that it made her heart ache.
She’d wanted him forever and she’d married him to protect him, but in marrying him, she’d left herself so vulnerable.
He would have access to all of her now—not just her mind and emotions, but her body. And while she craved his touch, she feared it, too. She feared that once he took her to his bed, he’d see the side of her that she worked so hard to hide.
That she was afraid she wasn’t enough.
That she was afraid she’d disappoint him.
That she was afraid he’d regret marrying her when he could have married almost any other woman in the world.
“Stop thinking,” he murmured against his mouth, pulling her even closer to him, his hand sliding down her back, a caress to soothe, but the caress inflamed as his palm slid over her rump.
The heat in her veins made her sensitive everywhere, and as he stroked her hip, his tongue parted her lips, claiming her mouth with an urgency that she felt all the way through. Her belly clenched and her thighs trembled and she leaned into him, aroused, so aroused, and yet also so worried that she wouldn’t keep his interest.
Little kept the Earl of Langston’s interest.
Tears filled her eyes, slipping beneath her closed lashes.
Dal lifted his head, brow furrowing as he stroked her damp cheek. “Why the tears, my watering pot?”
She sniffed and tried to smile, but failed. “I have so many emotions and they’re not listening to me today.”
He gently wiped away the second tear. A glint of humor warmed his golden eyes. “I don’t think your emotions ever listen to you. They’re not very obedient, I’m afraid.”
He elicited a smile, and her lips wobbled but it was a real smile. “You’re making me laugh.”
“As if laughter is tragic.”
She felt another bubble of reluctant laughter. “Why aren’t you falling apart?”
“Because it’d be unmanly to cry on my wedding day.”
He smiled down at her. “That’s better. No more tears. Izba won’t forgive me if we ruin your makeup before the zaffa.”
“Zaffa? What is that?”
“It’s the wedding ma—” He broke off at the distant sound of drums.
Poppy stilled, listening to the drums. They were loud and growing louder, and then it wasn’t just drums but bagpipes and horns.
She looked up at Dal, confused. “Wedding what?”
“Wedding march.” He smiled into her eyes. “I hope you weren’t expecting an exciting game of ping-pong, because the festivities are just beginning. After the zaffa there will be a party and dinner. It could be a late night.”
* * *
Somehow Dal had managed to get fifty of his closest Mehkar family members to the Kasbah without her knowing.