The Sheik and the Virgin Princess (Desert Rogues #5)(7)


by Susan Mallery

There was only one way to find out.

Rafe called Hassan’s secretary and requested a few minutes for a private meeting. Fortunately, the king was running ahead of schedule. Rafe collected the letters, tucked the ring back into his pocket and headed for the rear of the palace.

His Highness, the king of Bahania, believed in first impressions. His office suite was the size of a football field and overlooked a topiary garden growing around a large white fountain. Four guards in formal dress stood in front of wide double doors overlaid with a gold coat of arms. Once inside the suite, three secretaries protected the king from those who wished to see him. Two-story-high windows overlooked the lush gardens surrounding the palace, while priceless works of art hung on the walls—both paintings and tapestries delighting the eye. And wandering around as if they owned the place were several cats.

Rafe nodded at the guards as he approached. They opened the outer doors for him. As he entered, a white Persian cat slipped out, pausing to rub against him long enough to deposit several white hairs on his trousers. Rafe gritted his teeth. He’d never been much of a cat kind of guy—he was a dog person. But this was not the place to mention that. The king adored his cats.

Two gray cats lay curled up on a sofa by the window. A calico had stretched out on one of the secretaries’ desk, using a stack of files for a pillow. Rafe ignored the felines and approached the center desk.

Akil, an older man who had served the king for many years, smiled in greeting. “Mr. Stryker. His Highness is waiting for you. Please go on in.”

Rafe touched his suit pocket to make sure the ring was still in place, then headed for the half-open door on the left. As he entered the king of Bahania’s private chambers, he bowed.

“Your Highness,” he said, and paused.

King Hassan sat behind an impressive hand carved desk. The king generally wore Western-style suits during his working day and today was no exception. The tailored lightweight wool garment had been made by hand in Italy, the fabric especially woven to resist the ever-present cat hairs shed by the monarch’s beloved felines.

“Rafe, what brings you to see me?” Hassan asked, waving his guest forward.

Rafe had to move a dozing Siamese from a chair before he could sit and was then forced to allow the animal to drape itself across his lap. He couldn’t wait to get back to his regular job. At least his boss didn’t have a thing for cats.

“I have an unusual situation to report,” Rafe began.

Hassan raised his eyebrows. The king was close to sixty, but still a youthful-looking man. A few gray hairs had appeared in his closely trimmed beard but there weren’t many wrinkles on his face. He could be stern and distant. Until the recent decision to form a joint air force between Bahania, neighboring El Bahar and the City of Thieves, Rafe had had little to do with the king. Acting as the security liaison for the City of Thieves had recently put Rafe in close contact with the ruler of Bahania. He had yet to form an opinion of the man, so he couldn’t predict his reaction to Rafe’s news.

Hassan leaned forward. “Situation? With security?”

“No. This is personal. I haven’t discussed this with anyone, sir. If you instruct me to keep this to myself, I will never speak of it again.”

Hassan smiled slightly. “I’m intrigued. Go on.”

Rafe hesitated. He was about to tread over some potentially dangerous waters. “A young woman came to the palace this morning. She was part of the regular public tour. One of the guards noticed her because she bears a striking resemblance to the Princess Sabra.”

Hassan nodded to show he was listening. So far he hadn’t reacted. Rafe continued.

“I spoke with the young woman in question.” He’d already decided not to mention the details of their meeting. “She recently discovered some papers which had belonged to her late mother. Letters, actually. She thinks they may have been written by you.”

Hassan’s face tightened. “Who is this woman? How old is she?”

“Her name is Zara Paxton. She’s twenty-eight.”

Hassan gasped as if he’d been shot. He held out his hands for the letters, and as Rafe passed them over he already had his answer. Hassan looked both elated and stunned. Both the name and the age had been significant to him.

While the king was distracted with the pages, he took the opportunity to set the cat on the ground and brush the hair from his lap.

Hassan opened each letter slowly and read it, then put it back in the envelope. Color drained from his face. When he’d finished, Rafe gave him the diamond ring. The king took it and closed his fingers around the stones.

“Fiona,” he breathed, then looked at Rafe. “The daughter. Where is she?”

“Zara is staying at a hotel in the city. Her mother died some years ago. Apparently, she had kept these letters with a lawyer. Zara only found out about them a few months ago. She thinks you could be her father.”

Hassan rose, with Rafe quickly doing the same. “Of course she is my daughter. Fiona and I were together for over two years. After all this time her daughter is here. My daughter.” He shook his head. “You say she looks like Sabrina?”

“They have the same coloring, the same general build. Zara is taller and thinner. She wears glasses.”

Hassan smiled sadly, obviously caught up in a memory. “My sweet Fiona was as blind as a bat, but vain. She would never wear her glasses. I used to have to lead her everywhere.” He headed for the door. “Come. I must meet Zara at once.”

Rafe grabbed the letters—Hassan still had the ring. “Your Highness, we need to talk about this first.”

The king turned to face him. “Why?”

“For one thing, you can’t know if she’s really your daughter.”

“True enough, although I suspect she is.”

He wanted her to be. Rafe read that truth in the longing in Hassan’s dark eyes. Rafe felt oddly protective of the woman he’d left back in the hotel.

“Zara is a little nervous about the situation. She’s not prepared to have her long-lost father be the king of a sizable country. There’s also the problem of the media. Until we know who she is, it’s best if we keep this information private.”

“I see your point.” Hassan nodded slowly. “What do you suggest?”

“A meeting in a neutral location. One of the big hotels, maybe. We can use one of the suites. Your security people can get you into the building quietly. I’ll bring Zara.”