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“Out of the country.”

Did he just say out in the country, or out of the country? It was a tiny preposition, but a significant difference. “Where is the nearest airport?”


She touched the tip of her tongue to her upper lip as her mouth had gone dry and her stomach was doing a wild free fall. “I’m not familiar with Gila.”

“The capital of Mehkar?”

For a moment she still didn’t understand, unable to process what he was saying, and then everything inside her did a horrifying free fall. “We’re going to Mehkar?”

“Have you been before?”


“It neighbors Morocco—”

“I know where it is, but we can’t go to Mehkar!”

“Of course we can. We’re en route now.”

“But how? Why? It’s hours away and I have no passport, just an overnight bag with virtually nothing in it at all.”

He shrugged carelessly. “Sophie had nothing when she left the church, did she?”

Poppy’s throat sealed closed and she stared at Randall, heartsick. He stared right back, his light gold gaze hard, so hard that it made him look like a stranger.

“You’re not worried about her, are you?” he added, his voice dropping, deepening, an edge of menace in his tone.

A shiver raced through her. In the past hour Randall Grant had gone from chivalrous to dangerous.

“Answer me,” Randall demanded, leaning forward, his anger altogether new. The Randall Grant she knew was impossibly calm, impossibly controlled.

“I didn’t agree to leave the country,” she said, voice rising, tightening. “I didn’t agree to go to Mehkar. I’d like to return to London immediately. I have work to do—”

“You work for me.”

“But the work I need to do for you is all there,” she said, making a jabbing motion behind them. “So, please ask your captain to turn around and take me back to Winchester, or to London, so I can take care of the one hundred and one things that need to be done by Monday.”

“You can do them in Mehkar.”

“But I can’t.”

“You can, and you will, because it’s your job to handle this crushing mountain of work I’ve tasked you with.”

“I never said it was crushing.”

“You make it sound crushing.”

“I do have a lot of responsibility, and I take my work seriously. Nor do I want to let you down.”

His firm lips quirked, but it wasn’t a friendly smile. “I don’t think that’s true at all.” His gaze slowly traveled across her face, as if examining every inch. “In fact, I know it’s not true.”

Heat rushed through her and she felt every place his gaze touched grow uncomfortably warm. “No?”

“No.” He was about to add something else, but the flight attendant appeared to remove their salad plates even though neither of them had barely touched the greens.

Randall remained silent the entire time she was gone, and stayed silent while their next course was placed before them. Poppy stared down at her seafood risotto, feeling increasingly queasy. Seafood risotto was Sophie’s favorite, not hers. Poppy didn’t like seafood, or risotto.

She looked up at Randall to discover that he was watching her intently, his dark head tipped back against the pale leather seat, lids lowering, lashes dropping, concealing part of the golden glimmer. “If you valued your position with me, Poppy, you would be loyal to me. Yet, you’re not.”

For a second it seemed as if all the oxygen in the plane disappeared and she stared at him, lips parting, but no air moving in or out of her lungs. No air, and no words, either, because what could she say? How could she defend herself?

“Have you found a new position, Poppy?”

She shook her head, eyes stinging.

“Are you interviewing?”

She shook her head again.

“Résumés out...inquiries...networking?”

Poppy’s stomach twisted. “No. I am not job-hunting. I like my job.”

“Is that so?”


“Then maybe it’s time you showed me some loyalty, Poppy Marr, and tell me what you know about Sophie and this Crisanti fellow.”

She deserved that. Because she had taken sides, hadn’t she? She’d taken Sophie’s. Sophie was her best friend. Her only friend. If Sophie was queen, Poppy would be her lady in waiting. “I would like to help you,” she said, stomach still churning, nerves and nausea. It didn’t help that the smell of the risotto was making her want to gag. She carefully pushed her bowl away. “But I don’t really know much of anything.”

His set expression indicated he didn’t believe her. “But you know something,” he said. “So let’s start with that. How long has Sophie known Crisanti? Where did she meet him?”

“I don’t want to do this, and it’s not fair of you to ask me when you know Sophie is the only one who has ever looked out for me—”

“Are you saying I haven’t?”

He’d spoken lowly and yet his words vibrated all the way through her. She clutched the edge of the table, panicked and overwhelmed, not simply by what he was asking, but by the unreality of their situation.

She’d harbored the crush for years, falling for him almost from the very start as he was handsome and intelligent and wildly successful and best of all, he was kind to her, and always so very thoughtful, mindful of her feelings even when things were stressful at work.

It was on one of those terribly stressful days that Poppy had overshared with him, blurting out her fears and insecurities that she’d always be single, because men wanted women like Sophie, women who were strong and confident, women that made men feel like men.

Randall had sputtered on muffled laughter and then he shook his head, eyes smiling. “You can’t compare yourself to Sophie. That’s not fair of you. Sophie is Sophie Carmichael-Jones for a reason. There’s only one of her, but also, there is only one of you. The key, Poppy Marr, is to be you.”

“I don’t think that’s enough,” she answered tearfully.

“Trust me, it’s more than enough.”

And as he

’d looked at her, his gold eyes still smiling, she’d melted into a puddle of aching gratitude, want and wishful dreams. Imagine having Randall Grant as your champion. Imagine him in your corner, as your partner. Poppy had never been more envious of Sophie in all her life.

Poppy swallowed hard now, a lump in her throat. “You’ve always been very, very kind to me. Probably better than I deserve.”

“So why only protect Sophie? Why not try to protect me?”

“But I did!” she choked. “I wasn’t just trying to help Sophie. I was trying to help you, too!”

“So how did you help us?” he asked softly, silkily. “What did you do?”

He’d done it. He’d trapped her, cornered her, and she’d all but confessed.

Horrified, Poppy tried to run, but Randall caught her by the wrist as she attempted to leave the table. His fingers tightened around her slender bones, and he pulled her toward his side.

“Tell me,” he said quietly, tugging her closer to his chair. “Let’s have the truth.”

She tried to pull free, but he was so much stronger than she was, and then he began to stroke the inside of her wrist with his thumb, lightly running the pad of his thumb over her wildly beating pulse. It was the most electric sensation, her nerves jumping, dancing, sending little rivulets of feeling everywhere.

“Sit,” he said, drawing her toward him, and then pulling her down so that she perched on the arm of his chair. “Talk. The truth now.”

But how could she think, much less say anything coherent, when his thumb was caressing her wrist, making her tingle all over?

She looked up into his eyes and her breath caught as she saw something in his eyes she’d never seen before.

Heat. A fierce, raw, masculine heat that was completely at odds with the man she knew.

But then his thumb caressing her pulse was equally at odds with Randall Grant, the Earl of Langston. The Earl of Langston was elegant, disciplined, restrained. The Earl of Langston did not want her.