The flight attendant appeared with a crystal tumbler. “Your whiskey,” she said, handing him the glass. “Captain Winter also wanted you to know that the new flight plan has been approved, and we’ll be departing in just a few minutes.”
“Thank you,” Randall said, giving the attendant a warm smile, the kind of smile he used to give Poppy, the kind of smile that had made her put him on a pedestal in the beginning.
And just like that, tears filled her eyes and she had to duck her head so he wouldn’t see. Because if she did look at him, he’d see more than she wanted him to see. Randall was startlingly perceptive. He paid attention to people and things, picking up on details others missed.
“I knew it wouldn’t be long before you got weepy,” he said, extending his long legs, invading her space. “Before this morning, I would have said you are nothing if not predictable, but you surprised me today. You’re not at all who I thought you were.”
She drew her legs back farther to keep her ankles from touching his, and told herself to bite her tongue, and then bite it again because arguing with him would only make the tension worse.
He gave his glass a shake, letting the amber liquid swirl. “Did you know about Crisanti?”
Poppy continued to bite her tongue, because how could she answer that without incriminating herself? Clearly in this case, the best answer was no answer.
The flight attendant was closing the door and locking it securely, and the deliberate steps made Poppy want to jump out of her chair and race off the plane. She should go now, while she could do. She needed to escape. She needed to go. She couldn’t stay here with Randall—
“My bride was carted off from the church today, and she didn’t even make a peep of protest,” he continued quietly, almost lazily, even as his intense gaze skewered her. She didn’t even have to look at him to know he was staring her down because she could feel it all the way through her.
Poppy swallowed hard. “I think she peeped.”
“No, she didn’t. And neither did you.” He growled the words, temper rising, and she jerked her head up to look at him, and the look he gave her was so savage and dark that Poppy’s pulse jumped and her stomach lurched.
“You weren’t surprised to see Crisanti marching down the aisle today,” he added, lifting a finger to stop her protest. “Enough with the lying. It doesn’t become you. You forget, I know you. I’ve worked with you, worked closely with you, and I saw it in your face, saw it in your eyes.”
“Guilt. But I also saw something else. You were happy to see Crisanti arrive. You were elated.”
“I wasn’t elated.”
“But you weren’t devastated.”
She placed the flute down on the narrow table next to her. “I’d like to take my vacation time, the time you promised me. I don’t think it’s a good idea to work together this next week. I think we both need some time, and time apart—”
“I can take the train back to London.”
“I don’t enjoy you like this—”
“Perhaps it’s not about you anymore, Poppy. Perhaps it’s now about me.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I want to know what happened today. I want to know everything.”
His voice was deep and rough and it scratched her senses. She dragged her attention up, her gaze soaking in his face. She knew that face so well, knew his brow and every faint crease at the corner of his eyes. She knew how he’d tighten his jaw when displeased, and how his lips firmed as he concentrated while reading. If he was very angry, his features would go blank and still. If he was relaxed, his lovely mouth would lift—
No. Not lovely.
She shouldn’t ever think his mouth was lovely.
Even though she’d vanished, he still belonged to Sophie. He’d always belong to Sophie. They’d been engaged since Sophie was eighteen, with the understanding that they’d be married one day happening even earlier in their lives.
The fact was, Randall and Sophie had been practically matched since birth, an arrangement that suited both families, and the respective family fortunes, and Sophie insisted she was good with it. She’d told Poppy more than once that she hadn’t ever expected to marry for love, and wasn’t particularly troubled by the lack of romance since she liked Dal, and Dal liked her, and they complemented each other well.
A lump filled her throat because Poppy didn’t just like Randall, she truly cared for him. Deeply cared. The kind of feelings that put butterflies in her stomach and made her chest tighten with tenderness. “It’s not my place,” she choked. “I wasn’t your bride!”
“But you were part of today’s circus. You took part in the charade.”
“It wasn’t a charade!”
“Then where is Sophie?”
* * *
His question hung there between them, heavy and suffocating, and Dal knew Poppy was miserable; her brown eyes were full of shadows and sorrow, and usually he hated seeing her unhappy. Usually he wanted to lift her when she struggled but not today. Today she deserved to suffer.
He’d trusted her. He’d trusted her even more than Sophie, and he’d planned on spending the rest of his life with Sophie.
Dal shook his head, still trying to grasp it all.
If Sophie had been so unhappy marrying him, why didn’t she just break the engagement before it got to this point?
It was not as if he didn’t have other options. Women threw themselves at him daily. Women were constantly letting him know that they found him desirable. Beautiful, educated, polished women who made it known that they’d do anything to become his countess, and if marriage was out, then perhaps his mistress?
But he’d been loyal to Sophie, despite their long engagement. Or at least he’d been faithful once the engagement had been made public, which was five and a half years ago. Before the public engagement was the private understanding, an understanding reached between the fathers, the Earl of Langston and Sir Carmichael-Jones. But for five and a half years, he’d held himself in check because Sophie, stunning Sophie Carmichael-Jones, was a virgin, and she’d made it clear that she intended to remain a virgin until her wedding night.
He now seriously doubted that when she’d walked down the aisle today she’d still been a virgin.
Dal swore beneath his breath, counting down the minutes until they reached their cruising altitude so he could escape to the small back cabin, which doubled as a private office and a bedroom.
Once they stopped climbing, he unfastened his seat belt and disappeared into the back cabin, which had a desk, a reclining leather chair and a wall bed. The wall bed could easily be converted when needed, but Dal had never used it as a bedroom. He preferred to work on his flights, not rest.
Closing the door, he removed his jacket, tugged off his tie and unbuttoned his dress shirt. Half-dressed, he opened the large black suitcase that had been stowed in the closet and found a pair of trou
sers and a light tan linen shirt that would be appropriate for the heat of the Atlas Mountains.
Hard to believe he was heading to Mehkar.
It’d been so long.
No one would think to look for him in his mother’s country, either, much less his father’s family. Dal’s late father had orchestrated the schism, savagely cutting off his mother’s family following the fatal car accident twenty-three years ago.
It was on his twenty-first birthday that his past resurrected itself. He’d been out celebrating his birthday with friends and returned worse for the wear to his Cambridge flat to discover a bearded man in kaffiyeh, the traditional long white robes Arab men wore, on his doorstep.
It had been over ten years since he’d last seen his mother’s father, but instead of moving forward to greet his grandfather, he stood back, aware that he reeked of alcohol and cigarette smoke, aware, too, of the disapproval in his grandfather’s dark eyes.
Randall managed a stiff, awkward bow. “Sheikh bin Mehkar.”
“As-Salam-u-Alaikum,” his grandfather had answered. Peace be to you. He extended his hand, then, to Randall. “No handshake? No hug?”
It was a rebuke. A quiet rebuke, but a reproof nonetheless. Randall stiffened, ashamed, annoyed, uncomfortable, and he put his hand in his grandfather’s even as he glanced away, toward the small window at the end of the hall, angry that his mother’s father was here now. Where had he been for the past ten years? Where had his grandmother gone and the aunts and uncles and cousins who had filled his childhood?
He’d needed them as a grieving boy. He’d needed them to remind him that his beautiful mother had existed, as by Christmas his father had stripped Langston House of all her photos and mementos, going so far as to even remove the huge oil family portrait only completed the year before, the portrait of a family in happier days—father, mother and sons—from above the sixteenth-century Dutch sideboard in the formal dining room.
Perhaps if Dal hadn’t spent a night drinking, perhaps if Dal’s phone call with his father the evening before hadn’t been so tense and terse, full of duty and obligation, maybe Dal would have remembered the affection his mother had held for her parents, in particular, her father, who had allowed her to leave to marry her handsome, titled, cash-strapped Englishman.