The Sheik and the Virgin Princess (Desert Rogues #5)(16)


by Susan Mallery

“She doesn’t hate you…exactly.”

Zara closed her eyes. “What does that mean?”

“It’s a long story.”

“I don’t seem to have any formal engagements until tomorrow.”

Rafe settled next to her again. “Sabrina’s parents married in haste, as they say. By the time she came along, there was already trouble in the relationship. They divorced fairly quickly, and when her mother asked permission for her to be taken out of Bahania, the king agreed. Sabrina was raised spending the school year with her mother in California and her summers here.”

Zara shook her head. “Wait a minute. What do you mean ‘her mother asked permission to take her out of the country’?”

“Bahanian law requires that royal children be raised within the borders of the country. It’s not that uncommon. El Bahar has similar requirements. While royal couples can divorce, they can’t take their children away. That way the monarchy ensures that the heirs are raised knowing about their country and their people.”

Zara thought that made sense, although it was difficult to relate to. “So Sabrina was a child of both countries. Why is that bad?”

“No prince or princess had been allowed to leave before. In essence, Hassan didn’t care enough about his daughter to keep her around.”

Zara didn’t like the sound of that. “Maybe he did care. Maybe her mother loved her so much that—”

Rafe cut her off with a shake of his head. “Neither of Sabrina’s parents were very interested in her. She was shuttled back and forth all her life, left in the care of nannies and maids. Sabrina’s an intelligent woman. She was an excellent student, but neither of her parents noticed. Because her mother lived something of a wild life, the press assumed the same about Sabrina, even though it wasn’t true. Then her father arranged a marriage for her without consulting her. For her it was the last straw.”

“What happened?”

He hesitated. “She ran away. It turned out well in the end. She married Prince Kardal and they’re very happy together. However she and her father have only recently reconciled.”

Zara got it right away. “So after twenty-plus years, they’re finally starting to connect, but she’s still bitter about all the years before. I show up out of nowhere and he welcomes me with open arms.”

“Exactly.”

Zara leaned back into the bench and groaned. “I’ve been in the palace less than three hours and I already have an enemy. What’s going to be next?”

Rafe found Prince Kardal in the security briefing room going over plans.

“Do you know how expensive the planes are going to be?” the prince asked when he entered.

“Yes.” Rafe slid into the seat across from his boss.

Like most modern rulers, Prince Kardal wore a suit rather than traditional garments. When he was home with his own people, he frequently returned to the old ways, but not while visiting a head of state—and his father-in-law.

Kardal, a tall, dark-haired man, tossed the plans to the table. “Technology isn’t cheap. I miss the old days, when we could patrol our country on camels.”

Rafe laughed. “Kardal, you’re barely in your thirties. You’re too young to remember those days.”

The prince grinned. “Perhaps.” He stretched. “I know why you have come to see me.”

“I bet. You heard about Zara?”

“Is that her name?”

“Yes. Zara Paxton. She’s a college professor from the Pacific Northwest. Some small town near Idaho.”

Kardal raised his eyebrows. “Is it true? Is she Hassan’s daughter?”

“Maybe.” He shook his head. “Probably. The king needs to be sure, which means blood tests. But right now he’s too excited to think logically. You know how he gets.”

Kardal reached under his shirt cuff and touched the thick, gold slave bracelet there. “Yes, I know. Has Sabrina met with her?”

Rafe nodded. “She came by Zara’s room about an hour ago.”

“She cannot be happy about her father’s enthusiasm.”

“No.” Which brought Rafe to another awkward point. “He’s asked me to watch over Zara. Be a temporary bodyguard.”

Kardal didn’t say anything for a long time. Then the corners of his mouth turned up and he laughed.

Rafe shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Yeah, it’s a real knee-slapper. Thanks for the support.”

Kardal didn’t bother to apologize. He laughed a little longer, then finally spoke. “What is she like, this college professor?”

“Scared.” He thought of Zara’s pretty face and the questions in her eyes. “She’s overwhelmed by all that has happened. I don’t think she was expecting to be moved into the palace so quickly.”

Zara was as prepared to handle this as a rabbit was prepared to take on a pack of wolves. If she wasn’t careful she was going to be eaten alive. He couldn’t believe he was actually worried about her, but he was, dammit. What was wrong with him? He wasn’t a good person. He didn’t have altruistic feelings.

“Do you like her?” Kardal asked.

“I don’t know her.”

“You know what I mean.”

Rafe did know. His boss wanted to know what Rafe felt in his gut. Was she someone to be trusted?

“She’s all right,” he said grudgingly.

“Such high praise will turn her head,” Kardal teased. “So the king has requested you guard the treasure that is his daughter. We have at least three weeks until we return to the City of Thieves. I believe I can spare you, if you wish to honor the king’s request.”

“We both know it wasn’t a request,” Rafe grumbled.

“You are not his to command. You may certainly tell him no.”

“I don’t think so.”

“You tell me no constantly.”

“That’s different. You can be reasoned with. Hassan isn’t acting like a king, he’s acting like a father. I don’t want to annoy him just as we’re setting up the joint air force.”

The corners of Kardal’s mouth twitched again. “So the mighty hunter will be forced to guard a mere woman. However will your pride survive?”

Rafe wasn’t all that worried about his pride. He’d had worse duty in his life. What made him nervous was his attraction to Zara. She’d reminded him of what it was like to want a woman. Only this woman was completely off-limits. Not only was she under his protection, she was the king’s daughter and a virgin. He still couldn’t believe she’d blurted out that particular fact, but saw no reason why she would lie. Which meant she was telling the truth. Which also meant if he wanted to keep his head firmly on his shoulders, he was going to have to keep his pants zipped and his mind on business.