The Sheik and the Virgin Princess (Desert Rogues #5)(12)


by Susan Mallery

How close? she wanted to ask but didn’t. Somehow those words took on a whole new meaning where Rafe was concerned. Instead she glanced at her watch and realized that a mere eight hours ago she and Cleo had been eating breakfast in their hotel. Who knew a world could change so quickly?

“Tell me about the royal family,” she said to distract herself. “What are they going to think about me?”

“I doubt they’ll be too surprised. Hassan is known as a man who likes women.”

“Are there other illegitimate children?”

“Not that I’m aware of.”

He looked comfortable in his leather seat. That morning he’d been dressed like a desert nomad. Now he wore a suit, but he was trusted with her safety.

“Are you armed?” she asked.

“You have plenty of other things to worry about,” he told her.

She took that as a yes.

Cleo rubbed the soft seat. “There are princes, right? Four of them?”

Rafe nodded.

“Any of them married?”

“Cleo!” Zara glared at her sister. “We’re not here to make trouble.”

“I’m not interested in trouble. I’ve given up on men, remember. I just thought this is my one opportunity to meet a real prince instead of just reading about them in magazines.” She returned her attention to Rafe. “Are they young and good-looking?”

“They’re in their late twenties and early thirties,” he said. “I’m not in a position to comment on their appearance.”

“I suppose if one is a wealthy prince, appearance isn’t all that important.”

Zara eyed her sister’s short blond hair and curvy figure. “They’re going to love you,” she said mournfully. “Try not to complicate the situation.”

“I swear.” Cleo made an X over her heart.

Zara wasn’t impressed. Cleo might not go looking for trouble, but it could very well come looking for her. After all, Cleo attracted men the way magnets drew metal. She’d had her first date sometime in her first year of high school and had rarely been without a boyfriend—until recently, Zara reminded herself. Cleo had sworn off men a few months before. She wondered if that resolution would withstand the prince test.

They drove through the streets of the city. Traffic slowed their progress, and Zara had the urge to jump out and get lost in the crowd. With her luck she would trip and break something important.

“King Hassan isn’t married now, is he?” she asked.

“He’s between wives,” Rafe answered.

“I thought so. I did some research on the Internet. I remember reading that there are four princes, plus Princess Sabra.” She frowned. “The king says she goes by Sabrina, right?”

“Yes. What else did you learn?”

“Just about everything,” Cleo said, interrupting. “Zara is the queen of research. She could tell you the top three exports of Bahania, the gross national product and a lot of other boring facts designed to put a room of insomniacs to sleep.”

Zara ignored her. “I’m a college professor. Research is a big part of that.”

“What’s your subject?” he asked.

Cleo leaned forward. “Women’s studies. Our little princess-to-be is something of a feminist.”

Rafe winced.

“I’m not rabid about it,” Zara protested. “To change the subject to something more relevant—you need to persuade the king to agree to a blood test. We have to be sure that I’m his daughter.”

“I think it’s a little late for you to back out now,” he said.

Cleo gave a long-suffering sigh. “You’ve wanted this all your life. I can’t believe you’re questioning your good fortune.”

“Thinking about finding my father and actually finding him are two different things.”

The limo turned onto a private drive and passed between two large gates. Up ahead through the trees she could catch glimpses of the famed pink palace—home of the Bahanian royal family.

“Really different,” she breathed as the panic seeped in.

There were servants in the palace. Servants and guards and priceless treasures. All of this had probably been discussed on the tour, but Zara had been too nervous to pay attention. Of course anyone thinking about a palace would assume such things existed, but she hadn’t been thinking, either. At least not sensibly. So here she was, being led down a long corridor, led by servants and passing guards. It was enough to give a healthy person a heart attack.

Even the normally bubbly Cleo was subdued as they walked and walked, passing huge rooms filled with Western-style furniture and open areas with pillows and cushions instead of chairs and sofas. There were statues and fountains and tapestries and cats. Many, many cats.

Zara had heard about Hassan’s love of felines, but she hadn’t realized they had their run of the palace. At least the cats were clean and well behaved, she thought as one approached and sniffed the luggage.

Finally their party stopped in front of a large door in a corridor of many doors. The head servant of their group—an attractive woman in her late forties—opened the door and motioned for them to step inside. Zara turned to Rafe and impulsively gripped his arm.

“Are you going to be close by?”

She managed to get out the sentence before her body registered the heat of him radiating through his suit jacket sleeve. Her bones started to feel that melting sensation again, which was almost more than she could stand. It wasn’t enough that she was entering a world as unfamiliar to her as another planet. No, she also had to be incredibly sexually attracted to a man for the first time in her life.

Rafe’s blue eyes stared into hers. She prayed that he couldn’t know how she was reacting to him. His pity, not to mention the rejection, would be more than she could handle today.

“You’re my responsibility,” he told her. “I’ll be around and you’ll be fine.”

“What if I’m not?”

He smiled. A warm, friendly sort of smile that made her muscles quiver—because the bone melting wasn’t bad enough. Then he gently pushed her toward the door.

“Go on,” he said. “You might like it.”

“Liar.”

But there was no turning back. She drew in a deep breath and prepared to enter a new world.