Dal’s hand tightened on the steering wheel as he drove the short distance from Langston House to the private airport outside Winchester. There was very little traffic and the sky was blue, the weather warm without b
eing hot. Perfect June day for a wedding. This morning everything had seemed perfect, too, until it became the stuff of nightmares.
He gripped the wheel harder, imagining the headlines in tomorrow’s papers. How the media loved society and scandal. The headlines were bound to be salacious.
Unlike Sophie, he hated being in the public eye, detesting everything to do with society. In his mind there was nothing worse than English society with its endless fascination of classes and aristocrats, and new versus old money.
He’d spent the past ten years trying to avoid scandal, and it infuriated him to be thrust into the limelight. The attention would be significant, and just thinking about having cameras or microphones thrust in his face made him want to punch something, and he hadn’t wanted to fight in years.
Dal had been a fighter growing up, so much so, that he’d nearly lost his place at Cambridge after a particularly nasty brawl. He hadn’t started the fight, but he’d ended it, and it hadn’t mattered to the deans or his father, that he’d fought to defend his mother’s name. To the powers that be, fighting was ungentlemanly, and Dal Grant, the future Earl of Langston, was expected to uphold his legacy, not tarnish it.
The school administrators had accepted his apology and pledge, but his father hadn’t been so easily appeased. His father had been upset for weeks after, and then as usual, his anger finally broke, and after the rage came the despair.
As a boy, Dal had dreaded the mood swings. As a young man, he’d found them intolerable. But he couldn’t walk away from his father. There was no one else to manage the earl, never mind the earldom, the estates and the income. Dal had to step up; he had to become the dutiful son, and he had, sacrificing his wants for his father’s mental stability, going so far to agree to marry the woman his father had picked out for him fifteen years ago.
Thank God his father wasn’t alive today. His father wouldn’t have handled today’s humiliation well. God only knows what he would have done, never mind when. But his father wasn’t present, which meant Dal could sort out this impossible situation without his father’s ranting.
And he would sort it out.
He knew exactly how he’d sort it out. Dal shot a narrowed glance in Poppy’s direction. She was convenient, tenderhearted and malleable, making her the easiest and fastest solution for his problem.
He knew she also had feelings for him, which should simplify the whole matter.
Dal tugged on his tie, loosening it, trying to imagine where they could go.
He needed to take her away, needed someplace private and remote, somewhere that no one would think to look. The Caribbean island he’d booked for the honeymoon was remote and private, but he’d never go there now. But remote was still desirable. Someplace that no one could get near them, or bother them...
Someplace where he could seduce Poppy. It shouldn’t take long. Just a few days and she’d acquiesce. But it had to be private, and cut off from the outside world.
Suddenly, Dal saw pink. Not the icy-pink of Poppy’s bridesmaid dress, but the warm, sun-kissed pink of the Mehkar summer palace tucked in the stark red Atlas Mountains... Kasbah Jolie.
He hadn’t thought about his mother’s desert palace in years and yet suddenly it was all he could see. It was private and remote, the sprawling, rose-tinted villa nestled on a huge, private estate, between sparkling blue-tiled pools and exquisite gardens fragrant with roses and lavender, mint and thyme.
The spectacular estate was a two-hour drive from the nearest airport, and four hours from the capital city of Gila. It took time to reach this hidden gem secreted in the rugged Atlas Mountains, the estate carved from a mountain peak with breathtaking views of mountains, and a dark blue river snaking through the fertile green valley far below.
He hadn’t been back since he was an eleven-year-old boy, and he hadn’t thought he’d ever want to return, certain it would be too painful, but suddenly he was tempted, seriously tempted, to head east. It was his land, his estate, after all. Where better to seduce his secretary, and make her his bride?
The jet sat fueled and waiting for him at this very moment at the private airfield, complete with a flight crew and approved flight plan. If he wanted to go to Mehkar, the staff would need to file a new flight plan, but that wasn’t a huge ordeal.
Once upon a time, Mehkar had been as much his home as England. Once upon a time, he’d preferred Mehkar to anyplace else. The only negative he could think of would be creating false hope in his grandfather. His grandfather had waited patiently all these years for Dal to return, and Dal hated to disappoint his grandfather but Dal wasn’t returning for good.
He’d have to send word to his grandfather so the king wouldn’t be caught off guard, but this wasn’t a homecoming for Dal. It was merely a chance to buy him time while he decided how he’d handle his search for a new bride.
POPPY CHEWED THE inside of her lip as the sports car approached the airstrip outside Winchester.
She could see the sleek, white jet with the navy and burgundy pinstripes on the tarmac. It was fueled and staffed, waiting for the bride and groom to go to their Caribbean island for an extended honeymoon.
She’d only learned that Randall owned his own plane a few weeks ago, and that he kept the jet in a private hangar at an executive terminal in London. Poppy had been shocked by the discovery, wondering why she hadn’t known before. She’d handled a vast array of his business affairs for years. Shouldn’t she have known that he owned a plane, as well as kept a dedicated flight crew on payroll?
“We’re back to London, then?” she asked Randall as the electric gates opened, giving them admittance to the private airfield.
“Will there be press in London?” he retorted grimly.
“Yes,” she answered faintly.
“Then we absolutely won’t go there.”
His icy disdain made her shiver inwardly. This was a side of him she didn’t know. Randall had always been a paragon of control, rarely revealing emotion, and certainly never displaying temper. But he’d been through hell today, she reminded herself, ridiculously loyal, not because she had to be, but because she wanted to be. He was one of the finest men she knew, and it could be argued that she didn’t know many men, but that didn’t change the fact that he was brilliant and honorable, a man with tremendous integrity. And yes, she had placed him on a pedestal years ago, but that was because he deserved to be there, and just because he was short-tempered today didn’t mean she was ready to let him topple off that pedestal. “But won’t there be press everywhere?” she asked carefully.
“Not everywhere, no.”
“You have a place in mind, then?”
He shot her a look then, rather long and speculative. It made her feel uncomfortably bare, as if he could see through her. “Yes.”
Her skin prickled and she gave her arm a quick rub, smoothing away the sudden goose bumps. “Is it far?”
“It’s not exactly close.”
“You know I don’t have my laptop,” she added briskly, trying to cover her unease. “It’s in London. Perhaps we could stop in London first—”
She knew he saw her expression because his jaw hardened and his eyes blazed, making her feel as if he somehow knew her role in today’s disaster, but he couldn’t know. Sophie didn’t even know, and Sophie was the one hauled away on Renzo’s shoulder.
Randall braked next to the plane and turned the engine off. “You can cry if you want, but I don’t feel sorry for you, not one little bit.”
“I’m not crying,” she flashed.
“But knowing you, you will be soon. You’re the proverbial watering pot, Poppy.”
She turned her head away, determined to ignore his insults. She’d take the higher ground today since he couldn’t. It couldn’t be easy being humiliated in front of hundreds of people—
“I trusted you,” he gritted, his voice low and rough. “I trusted you and you’ve let me down.”
Her head snapped around and she looked into his eyes. His fury was palpable, his golden gaze burning into her.
Her heart hammered. Her mouth went dry. “I’m sorry.”
“Then tell me the truth so we can clear up the confusion of just what the hell happened earlier today.”
“Renzo took Sophie.”
“I got that part. Witnessed it firsthand. But what I want to know is why. Why did he come? Why did Sophie go? Why are they together now when she was supposed to be here with me? You know the story. I think it’s only fair that I know it, too.”
Poppy’s lips parted but she couldn’t make a sound.
His narrowed gaze traveled her face before he gave his head a shake. “I appreciate that you’re loyal to Sophie. I admire friends that look out for each other. But in this instance, you took the wrong side, Poppy. Sophie was engaged to me. Sophie had promised to marry me. If you knew she was having a relationship with another man, you should have come to me. You should have warned me instead of leaving me out there, stupid and exposed.” And then he swung open his door and stepped out, walking from her in long, fast strides as if he couldn’t wait to get away from her.
Poppy exhaled in a slow, shuddering breath. He was beyond livid with her. He was also hurt. She’d never meant to wound him. She’d wanted the best for him, too. And beautiful Sophie would have been the best if she’d loved him, but Sophie didn’t love him. There had been no love between them, just agreements and money and mergers.
Shaken, Poppy opened her door and stepped out. She needed to fix this, but how? What could she possibly do now to make it better?
She wouldn’t argue with him, that was for sure. And she’d let him be angry, because he had a right to be angry, and she’d be even more agreeable and amenable than usual so that he’d know she was sorry, and determined to make amends.
Poppy went around to the back of the car to retrieve her bag, but a young uniformed man approached and said he would be taking care of the luggage and she was to go on board where a flight attendant would help her get settled.