The Sheik and the Virgin Princess (Desert Rogues #5)(14)

by Susan Mallery

“I spent a lot of my life in California. I can, like, do the Valley Girl thing if it makes you more comfortable.”

Cleo grinned. “Cool. So you live here, now?”

“I live close by.”

Cleo pointed at her diamond. “Great ring.”

“Thank you.”

“Is there a husband to go along with that?”

“Absolutely. Prince Kardal. We’ve been married about a year.”

“A prince and princess. Just like in the fairy tales.” Cleo sighed. “I can’t believe we’re here. This is so not our regular life.”

Sabrina turned her dark gaze on Zara. “Where are you from?”

“Washington State. It’s in the northwest part of the country.”

“Zara’s a professor,” Cleo confided. “She’s really smart. I live about eighty miles away in Spokane where I manage a copy shop.”

“And now you’re in Bahania,” Sabrina said. The words sounded welcoming enough, but there was an edge to her tone that made Zara uncomfortable.

Did Sabrina resent her being there? Dumb question, she thought. She was a complete stranger who arrived from nowhere with a preposterous story about being King Hassan’s illegitimate daughter.

“I know this is unexpected,” Zara said quietly. “For all of us. I don’t know how much the king told you about why I’m here and all.”

“He mentioned that you had recently found some letters he had sent to your mother. Apparently theirs was a great love affair.”

Sabrina smiled, but there wasn’t any humor in her eyes. Zara folded her arms over her chest. She felt awkward and unwelcome. Sabrina was everything she herself was not—elegant, beautiful, well dressed. Zara was reminded of all the times she’d attended her mother’s dance classes and hadn’t been able to help tripping over her own feet. Eventually Fiona had given up trying to teach her daughter to be graceful.

“What I don’t understand is how the two of you ever became sisters,” Sabrina said.

Cleo shrugged. “It was just one of those things.” She began telling the story.

Zara listened for a few minutes, then quietly rose and headed for the French doors. Maybe a few minutes outside would clear her head…or at least help her feel more as if she belonged here. Not that she did.

She stepped out onto the balcony and caught her breath. The city stretched out on either side of the palace. She could see a few buildings over the treetops of the lush gardens surrounding the royal lands. More impressive than that was her view of the ocean. She walked to the railing and leaned against the warm metal. The soft, heavy air covered her in a hot blanket. She could smell exotic flowers and a faint scent of the ocean beyond. She’d never seen anything so lovely.

And yet she desperately wanted to go home. How stupid was that? She was on the verge of having every fantasy ever come true and her heart’s desire was to bolt for safety. She was a coward—or an idiot. Maybe both.

She closed her eyes and let the heat seep into her. The sun had moved low toward the horizon. It was nearly sunset. She felt as if she’d traveled a thousand miles in just one day.

She heard a sound behind her. Before she could turn, she heard a familiar voice that sent shivers dancing along her spine.

“Want to talk about it?”

Chapter 5

Zara turned and found Rafe lounging in the doorway to the room next to hers. On cue, her bones began their slow dissolve and her heart performed a steady but disconcerting cha-cha. He’d removed his jacket and loosened his tie. What was it about a man in semidisarray that sent the most sensible woman on the planet into emotional regression?

“Are we neighbors?” she asked, doing her darnedest to keep her voice from coming out in a squeak.

“As your temporary bodyguard it’s necessary for me to stay close.”

Was it her imagination or did his voice sound more like a purr? Or maybe she was being affected by all the cats in the palace.

“I’m sorry they made you move quarters.”

He shrugged. “It’s no big deal. Are you getting settled?”

“Some. The suite is huge. I think the bathroom has more square feet than my town house back home. Everything is lovely.”

She turned back to face the water. When Rafe joined her at the balcony, she told herself not to read too much into his actions. A man like him would never be interested in a woman like her. If all the disasters that made up her personal life weren’t enough to remind her of her unfortunate past, there was always Jon.

“You don’t sound very excited,” Rafe said. “Having second thoughts?”

“Try five hundredth thoughts.”

“You came looking for your father for a reason. You must have wanted to find him.”

“I did. I know it’s not logical to be questioning everything now. I should shut up and be grateful.”

“Maybe. At least he was happy to see you.”

She nodded. “Too happy. His reaction is all about Fiona. He doesn’t know me, yet.” She pointed to the water. “Look at where we’re standing. How is this possible?”

“The palace occupies some great real estate. At least your father isn’t a used-camel dealer.”

Despite her confusion and Rafe’s nearness, she smiled. “I don’t believe there is such a thing.”

Rafe looked at her and smiled slightly. “Sure there is. The aftermarket for camels is a booming business.”

The sight of his smile turned her heart’s cha-cha into a tango. A tiny quivering need took up residence in her stomach. For reasons she didn’t understand, something about this man got to her on a very primitive level. She would have to remember to try not to drool in front of him.

“What do you do here?” she asked. “You’re an American. How did you get to Bahania?”

“Same way as you. By plane.” He straightened and leaned one narrow hip against the railing. “Actually I work for Princess Sabrina’s husband—Prince Kardal. I’m a security and tactical expert.”

“That doesn’t tell me much.”

“You’d find my work very boring.”

She doubted that, but decided not to press. There might be a very good reason Rafe was being reticent. At this point she hardly needed more information. She was already too close to overload.