Innocent in the Sheikh’s Palace
In this Ugly Duckling inspired romance, Hannah has given up on love and decided to have a baby alone. She’s heavily pregnant, but is called to the clinic for an emergency meeting. It seems her sperm donor is not as anonymous as she thought!
Akin, younger brother to the recently deceased Crown Prince of Baaqi, has asked the clinic to destroy all the samples of his brother’s sperm, but one has gone astray. The future king of his country is being carried by a bookish librarian with a ‘happiness list.’
He whisks Hannah off to his palace where she turns his life upside down–but maybe she’s actually putting it to rights?
The print edition of this book begins shipping on October 19, 2020
The digital edition begins downloading on November 1, 2020
But you can pre-order now!
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The future is extremely unpredictable, Mr. Meeks, as our present circumstance demonstrates.
— Akin, Innocent in the Sheikh's Palace
I don’t love the premise of any woman being called an ugly duckling, but I adore a heroine who feels like an odd duck. I think we all feel like that at one time or another, so I loved the idea that Hannah has felt out of place all her life. She doesn’t fit fashion-magazine ideas of beauty, she’s very smart and was bullied for it as a child. She became a librarian because libraries were always a safe space for her. When her grandmother dies, she decides to quit waiting for Prince Charming and make her own happily ever after with a Happiness List. Her first item of business is getting pregnant at a clinic.
Through the magic of modern storytelling (Mills and Boon Modern–wink!) she does get pregnant by Prince Charming. Sadly he dies and his brother, the very grumpy Prince Akin, shows up to inform her that she’s carrying the next king of Baaqi. This is not on Hannah’s list, but she had little choice. Fortunately, she is an irrepressibly cheerful person who is determined to make the best of a difficult spouse. Akin doesn’t stand a chance!
I had so much fun writing this story. I hope you fall for Hannah and Akin as hard and fast as I did.
Fun Fact: I’ve wanted to get my Princess/Sheikha wives together for a long time and this one gathers them for a couple of scenes. Look for a visit with Fern and Zafir from The Sheikh’s Sinful Seduction, Galila and Karim from Sheikh’s Princess of Convenience, and Angelique and Kasim from Pursued by the Desert Prince.
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Innocent in the Sheikh’s Palace
Driving in New York was worse than taking the subway, hands down, even on a Sunday. Hannah Meeks hadn’t had much choice, though. She had come straight from a weekend research trip up-state and the clinic had been adamant she arrive by ten, offering to send a car for her if she couldn’t get there on her own steam. They’d even given her a special code to open the gate to their private lot, promising her a spot.
None of that was a win when she had to be out at all. Today was the sort of weather her grandmother would have said was, “great if you’re a duck.” Ducks weren’t dumb enough to be gadding about in this, though. Only her.
Hannah couldn’t imagine what the emergency was. She’d paid all of her instalments on time and her pregnancy was progressing without hiccups. Well, a few actual hiccups on the baby’s part, which she’d been assured were normal.
She punched in her code and nearly froze her hand off. The rain was turning to sleet, bogging down her wipers as she entered the mostly deserted parking lot. The drive to her small walk-up would be even worse and she would need every type of good luck charm to find a parking spot within a six-block radius.
Maybe they would let her leave her car here for the night, not that walking to the subway station would be a picnic, either.
She sighed as she carefully turned her car’s nose into a spot to the right of the entrance steps. Her sedan fishtailed as she touched the brakes, leaving her car at an angle that probably took up two stalls. She didn’t bother trying to fix it. Frankly, she needed the extra space to open her door all the way. She could barely touch the pedals, her belly had her sitting so far back from the wheel.
Checking her reflection, she heaved another sigh. She rarely wore make-up and had a few more months before her adult braces were switched for a retainer. Why had she thought this pixie cut was a good idea, though? Her hair had just enough curl that the little wisps turned up on the ends, especially where they landed against the frames of her glasses. No matter how she smoothed the front, her bangs sat crooked. She looked like a six-year-old who had cut her own hair with garden shears, then put on her grandfather’s hornrims.
She jammed her hat on, pulled on her gloves, buttoned her coat and gathered her phone and keys into her bag. Her windows were starting to fog and when she tried to open her door— Seriously? It had frozen shut! Well, now what?
She dug into her bag for her phone, thinking to call into the clinic for assistance, but an SUV pulled in a few stalls over. A man leapt out of the passenger seat and popped open an umbrella before he opened the back door for another man.
That right there was the reason women fell for gay men, Hannah thought. Straight men were never so eager to be thoughtful toward their partners. Not that she knew much about such things first-hand. Her experience with relationships had been short-lived and so unspecial, she had decided to skip marriage and go straight to the baby carriage.
The door was slammed and the men would have hurried into the clinic, but she snapped to her senses and gave her horn an urgent series of toots, then squeakily rubbed a hole into the foggy window beside her.
“Help! Excuse me! Can you help, please?”
She heard one ask a question in a language that might have been Arabic. They wore woolen overcoats and their heads weren’t covered, but they both had dark-skin, black hair and closely trimmed beards.
“I need help!” she shouted louder as they stood there. “My door is frozen.” And I’m going to need a powder room ten minutes ago. Panic stations, gents.
The one with the umbrella grumbled something, but the other impatiently took it. It was useless anyway. A gust of wind drove the sleet sideways, turning the umbrella inside out. He shoved it back at the other man and came to glower at her through the little circle she’d made in the fogged glass.
Her heart leapt in surprise, alarm, fear. Maybe a hint of lust?
He was a blurred impression of height and intimidation, thirtyish and good looking despite his frown. His overcoat gaped and showed a dark blue suit that looked tailored and probably was. The clinic catered to the supremely wealthy. She was very much a charity case who’d got in on a who-you-know after doing a huge favor for the head administrator’s wife.
“What are you shouting about?” he demanded.
“My doors are frozen. I’m stuck!” She demonstrated by trying the latch and giving the door a shove with her shoulder.
He frowned and tried it himself. Then he circled her car, trying all the doors with enough force to make the car rock. None opened.
He said something to the man trying to fix the umbrella. A third man emerged from the SUV while the first came back to her window and asked, “You’re sure it’s unlocked?”
Oh, dear God. She wanted to die then. She pressed the button and heard it release.
Her would-be knight yanked opened the door to let in an icy blast—and that was just off his thunderstruck expression.
“I am sosorry.” Had he ever heard of pregnancy brain? “I forgot that I hit the locks when I came into the city. You never know when a car-jacker will try to jump into your car at a stop light, you know?”
He did not know. He daredcar-jackers to even think about looking his direction. He continued to glare at her with exasperated disgust while the wind tried to tousle his short, thick hair. Silly wind. Nothing tousled him. He thrust out a hand, glance hitting her belly as she twisted to get her feet onto the ground.
“I can manage,” she lied, feeling even more ridiculous as she tried to shoulder her bag and search out a safe place for a firm grip while the parking lot looked to be an ice rink.
“Can you?” he asked with scathing sarcasm. “Give me your hand. I’m not going to be responsible for a woman in your condition slipping and falling.”
“Thank you.” She begrudgingly took his hand and her heart leapt again, this time with a sharper, higher skip and a resounding thump as it landed back in her chest.
She had expected his palm to be smooth, but his grip was callused and incredibly strong, making her feel ultra-feminine even as she heaved herself out of the low car with the grace of a baby hippo. She tried a nervous smile, but he was the furthest thing from interested in anything beyond getting her into the clinic and out of his untousled hair.
One of the other men—honestly, was this a cloning clinic? They were all swarthy and handsome, wearing expensive overcoats and deadpan expressions. But the one who had helped her seemed to be the ringleader. The rest were rushing to close her door and steady her other elbow and one rushed ahead to trigger the automatic doors as Hannah kept the others to her careful, waddling pace across the slippery sidewalk and up the snow-caked steps.
“This is very heroic of you, thank you,” she said, gripping her rescuer’s firm arm.
The umbrella-holder followed behind them, trying really hard to keep the umbrella over his partner, but it was moot. They were all soaked and her dark knight in woolen armor spoke impatiently again in Arabic, brushing him off.
They stepped through the first set of doors and she sighed with relief as they all wiped their feet on the mat. She hurried through the second set of doors, past the reception desk, blurting, “Hannah Meeks” as she headed straight into the powder room she had used on previous visits.
A few minutes later, considerably more comfortable, she tried again to do something with her reflection. It was a lost cause. Her hair now had a dose of static thanks to her hat. Fine brown strands stood straight up, making a halo around her red-nosed face.
Hopefully, she wouldn’t have to face those men in the waiting room. If she did, perhaps she could smooth things over by offering to take on any urgent research projects they might have. It was basically her only marketable skill beyond her paid position as a university librarian, but it had come in handy with the making of junior here. Her author friend was writing a whole series of early-American romances and wanted to be accurate.
Werethose men gay? Hannah adjusted her first impression of them. Maybe the one man had bodyguards. With those signs of wealth, it definitely fit that he might, but why was a single man coming into a fertility clinic?
Making a donation? She snickered into her hand at her own pun and decided to quit speculating about them since they’d likely already forgotten about her, especially the dominant one. She was extremely forgettable, as she had been reminded as recently as a year ago, when she’d bumped into the young man who’d taken her virginity her freshman year of college. He’d stared at her blankly, flummoxed that she’d greeted him by name. Humiliated, she had wound up lying and saying they’d met at a faculty event.
Ignoring the scorch that arrived against the back of her heart, she tugged her thick brown pullover down her belly, as if that would change anything. The knit bounced right back up, revealing the plain black camisole she wore tucked into the stretchy panel of her maternity jeans. So classy.
Hannah was not one of those women who glowed through pregnancy while transporting a cantaloupe behind her bellybutton. Nope. Her front was as big as one of those giant yoga balls some of her colleagues sat on at their desks. Her butt was wide as a delivery truck while her breasts had barely grown a cup size. She was the opposite of a figure eight—an egg. She still wore her hiking boots from tramping through the cemetery, reading gravestones, which didn’t exactly lend grace or comportment.
It’s a girl, her grandmother would have said. Girls steal their mother’s beauty.
Hannah gave a wistful sigh at Grammy not being here to meet her great-grandchild, but she doubted Grammy would have approved of Hannah’s method of conception.
At twenty-five, Hannah had quit waiting for Prince Charming. She wasn’t even waiting for Sir Swipe and See. She had never had any beauty to be stolen. Boys had been cruel and men forgot her. Even women failed to notice her enough to ask, Can I help you find a size?
Hannah was that dreary cliché, a spinster librarian. But she had recently taken her future into her own hands. She had always known she wanted a family. She was confident her child wouldn’t care if she had crooked teeth and freckled skin, a few extra pounds and a tendency to sniffle her way through allergy season. Being a single mother wouldn’t be easy, but it would be easier than being alone.
For the first time in her life, she was optimistic for her future. Excited and confident. She refused to let anyone make her feel insecure about how she looked, even herself.
She quit fussing with her reflection and left the powder room. A nurse stood at the counter, waiting expectantly for her.
Crown Prince of Baaqi, Sheikh Akin bin Raju bin Dagar Al-Sarraf, was trying not to allow the unthinkable into his head, but he didn’t lead his country’s military so successfully by failing to add up the evidence before him. In fact, his keen intelligence and ability to recognize and defuse small conflicts before they grew into wars was one of his greatest assets.
The facts he’d been gathering the last few days were foretelling only one disastrous, explosive outcome. It was a circumstance so infuriating, he cast about for any other explanation, but instinctively knew he was wasting precious brain power and time.
A sperm sample was unaccounted for. An urgent meeting with the head administrator of the clinic had brought him from his father’s sickroom. The nurse had insisted on waiting for the very pregnant woman toddling toward them to reappear before showing both of theminto a meeting.
What a bizarre woman. She seemed utterly, cheerfully ignorant of the gravity they faced as she flashed a mouthful of metal and said, “Thank you again for your assistance.”
His bodyguards had been alarmed by the honking and demand for assistance. Akin, however, had instinctively known what he faced the instant he glanced at the lone woman arriving for an appointment on a day when the clinic was otherwise deserted. It wasn’t a round of gunfire, but the next few minutes would tear gaping holes through his life. He knew it.
His second impression of her wasn’t any more reassuring than his first. She had her overcoat over her arm, but was still very bulky with heavy pregnancy. She had removed her hat to reveal an asymmetrical punk-rock haircut that was the furthest thing from flattering. Her face was round and bare of make-up behind dark-rimmed glasses that turned her eyes into mousey brown beads. Her lips thinned into a self-conscious line as she succumbed to what he imagined was a habit of hiding her teeth.
“Hi, Hannah.” The nurse’s smile faltered as she swung her attention toward him. “Dr. Peters will see you now.”
Hannah flashed Akin another oblivious smile as she swept past him.
Akin might be in deep denial, but that didn’t stop him from taking every sensible precaution. He issued a few brief orders in Omid’s direction.
Omid nodded and took out his phone.
When he fell into step behind her down the narrow hall, Hannah glanced over her shoulder with confusion and tried to see past Akin to the waiting room.
“Do you work here?”
“No,” he said flatly.
“Here we are.” The nurse knocked once and pushed into an office.
Dr. Peters rose and greeted them with a tense, apprehensive nod. His balding head was shiny with perspiration. His hands nervously smoothed the lapels of his white coat. He started to come around to shake Akin’s hand, but Akin stopped him with a flick of his wrist, silently telling him to skip the niceties.
“Your Royal Highness.” The doctor bowed slightly. “Have you met Ms. Meeks?”
‘Ms.’ not ‘Mrs.’ A small mercy? Akin’s mind raced to the next steps in how to recover from this ambush.
“Not officially. Hannah. And you’re a Royal Highness?” Hannah’s surprise was filled with confusion as she looked between them. As the door clicked closed behind the nurse, Hannah finally began to look concerned.
“Sheikh Akin Sarraf,” he introduced himself, using his simplified English address to save the doctor bumbling through his full name. He and Hannah were about to become closely acquaintanted. No use standing on ceremony.
“The Crown Prince of Baaqi,” the doctor impressed on Hannah.
“Am I, though?” Akin asked in a light tone that made generals shake in their boots.
The doctor went white.
“I don’t understand why we’re both here,” Hannah said in bafflement, glancing warily at the closed door.
“You will. Have a seat,” Akin said.
The doctor sank back into his own, hands trembling as he shifted a couple of file folders on his desk.
Hannah took the arms of a chair and lowered herself into it, but Akin remained on his feet, arms crossed, bracing himself for the bombs that would land in the next few seconds.
“I presume you found the misplaced sample?” he prompted.
“What sample?” Hannah blurted, snapping her head around and proving herself not completely lacking in the ability to make a deduction. Her hands took hold of the arms of her chair so tightly, her knuckles went white. She leaned forward as though ready to leap back onto her feet.
Dr. Peters drew a shaken breath and sent a deeply remorseful look toward Akin that did not move him one iota. The doctor swallowed.
“To bring you up to speed, Ms. Meeks, I should tell you that Sheikh Akin’s brother—”
“The late Crown Prince,” Akin interjected.
“Yes. Um, Crown Prince Eijaz was a client. Sadly, he succumbed to a lengthy battle with cancer in March. Before he began his treatments, he had us store six sperm samples, in hopes he would survive and marry. He wanted to ensure he could produce an heir.”
Why Eijaz had chosen a New York clinic would remain a mystery. He had been diagnosed while visiting here so it might have been an impulse or convenience. The clinic had an excellent reputation, but it was clearly not infallible.
“I’m very sorry for your loss,” Hannah said, sounding sincere. “But I’m sure that news has nothing to do with me.” She spoke firmly, rejecting the obvious conclusion the way Akin had fruitlessly tried to do. She was pushing her whole body deep into that chair now, shoulders rounding defensively, hunkering down for the inevitable that she could sense was about to befall her.
“The royal family recently made the difficult decision to destroy the prince’s samples. Prince Akin is—” The doctor cleared his throat. “Currentlythe acknowledged heir.”
At no time had Akin coveted that role, despite all his father’s failings and his brother’s glaring lack of capacity for ruling a country. Akin had long moved past any opinions whatsoever on being ‘the spare.’ He had no feelings beyond grief at being called upon to take up the duties of king.
He had begun to prepare for the responsibility, though.
And now he was being relegated to the shadows again. It wasn’t that it stung, it was just so damned cold there. Bleak.
Hannah was looking at him with a small frown, as though she could see past his hardened expression into the turmoil he worked so hard to ignore.
“In the course of our task, it was discovered we only had five of the prince’s samples in our bank,” Dr. Peters continued.
Hannah brought her attention back to him. Her color had been leaching from her skin through the last minutes. She licked her lips and spoke in a voice that was very careful, as though she was fighting to hold onto her composure.
“Are you asking me to bring my dogged librarian skills to bear and help you find it?”
“Please, Ms. Meeks. Let’s not have jokes. This is an extremely serious matter.” The doctor shot Akin a look that was downright terrified. “We had the blood sample you donated last month for our research database. We used it to run a DNA test and can confirm that Prince Eijaz’s sample was used to inseminate you. I’m very sorry.”
Akin had been expecting exactly this, but it still punched a curse from his lips. The profanity rang loud and clear in the small room. He didn’t apologize. His brain was folding in on itself with the ramifications. He began formulating his best plans of action, seeking a win while protecting his flanks.
Hannah only gave a disbelieving huff.
“You’re sorry? Why? I didn’t know the donor’s name and now I do. That will be nice if any health concerns arise in future, but nothing changes. I have the baby I wanted and I’m the furthest thing from sorry for it.”
Akin had to admire her bravado. It wasn’t true confidence. Her voice quivered. Behind that poise, she understood that reality as she knew it had been altered irrevocably, but she was pretending she still had choices. Autonomy. If he was a man with a heart in the metaphoric sense, he might have found it endearing and called her ‘cute’ for it.
“When are you due?” Akin asked her.
She jolted. He realized he was using the tone that snapped young soldiers into following orders.
Not a single enlisted man would dare refuse to answer him, but she stubbornly set her jaw and sealed her lips, as though refusing to speak would somehow help her keep that baby all to herself.
“Six weeks,” Dr. Peters provided after a glance into one of the files before him. “December twenty-ninth. The sex is…a boy. Congratulations.” He threw a smile toward Hannah. “Everything is progressing normally.”
“What the hellare you doing? I’m your patient,” Hannah interjected with tap against her breastbone. “I don’t know him.” She pointed at Akin. “I did not give you permission to share my confidential information. Ididn’t even want to know the sex. Are you completely abandoning professionalism and embracing full clown-car?”
Apt description and he empathized with her flare of temper. He really did. But he controlled his own as Dr. Peters continued to speak.
“We understand this is distressful and will be taking responsibility. Our lawyers have been notified and will be in touch to work out fair settlements with both of you.”
“How charmingly American,” Akin said tersely. “Throw lawyers and money at a problem to make it go away.” The clinic would suffer a higher premium on their future malpractice insurance, but otherwise remain unscathed. If anything, their reputation would benefit. Women would line up for a chance at accidentally carrying royal blood. Whatever was awarded to Akin’s family would be a drop in the bucket of billions they already possessed and would provide no real compensation for all that was about to happen.
Because he and Hannah faced a lifetime of reckoning with this error.
“It doesn’t matter how this happened, since it has, but how did it?” Akin asked.
“We had a flu sweep through the clinic. Hannah’s doctor was sick along with other key staff. Once a woman has prepared for the procedure, we don’t like to ask her to wait. We’re very tightly booked and had an intern—”
“I get the picture,” Akin cut in, already bored with the perfect storm of incompetence.
“Whether I’m awarded a settlement or not, I intend to continue paying my instalments.” Hannah set trembling fingers atop her bump. “So there’s no question this baby is completely mine.”
So cute. Truly.
“Is she safe to travel?” Akin asked.
“With appropriate precautions which I’m sure you’ll take.” The doctor used a handkerchief to dab the beads of sweat from his brow. “I have a nurse standing by to accompany you.”
“Am I even awake?” Hannah pinched her arm. “Did I slip on the ice and I’m in a coma?”
“Hannah, the Sarraf family is very wealthy and powerful. I recommend you cooperate—” the doctor began, but she cut him off.
“No,” she said resolutely. She flattened her feet to the floor and thrust her belly into the air as she pushed herself to stand. “I don’t care what your inept intern did or how formidable your deceased client’s family is. This is mybaby. Not yours to give away to someone else. Definitely not his. I’m going home. I will drink my cup of chamomile tea and have a nap. When I wake up, I will discover this didn’t even happen.”
“Prince Eijaz didn’t approve this use of his sperm,” Dr. Peters said in an urgent effort to reason with her. “If you weren’t so far along, we would insist on termination—”
“Don’t you even.” Hannah had one hand splayed on her belly. She slapped the other onto the doctor’s desk, looking as though she would vault over it and tear out the man’s throat. Her face turned red. Her expression was the most threatening thing Akin had ever seen on a woman. It was a sight to behold and he had to respect her for it.
“The doctor is wrong,” Akin interjected. “Termination would notbe an option. Your son is the next ruler of Baaqi. That wouldn’t change no matter what stage of pregnancy you were in. I would die protecting his life, today or any other day, as is my honor and duty.”
Hannah straightened and looked at him with confused mistrust. “That won’t be necessary.”
“You don’t know that, Ms. Meeks,” he said with dry irony. “The future is extremely unpredictable, as our present circumstance demonstrates. Neither of us expected this would be our destiny an hour ago, did we?”
“My destiny hasn’t changed.”
“It very much has,” he informed, experiencing an uncharacteristic shred of pity. He might have spared some for himself if he didn’t know what a useless emotion it really was. “Our rulers are born in Baaqi, Ms. Meeks. Therefore, you are coming with me. You may stay as our guest and provide the loving care and guidance you clearly intended to bestow on him as he grows up there, but that is where he will grow up.”
“Counter-offer. You ask Dr. Peters for a referral to a psychiatrist because you’re clearly delusional. Goodbye.”
Hannah was shaking so hard she could barely walk. She had to set a hand on the wall as she made her way down the hall, feet heavy as lead while her heart raced and her vision went in and out.
It didn’t matter who the father was. That was the conclusion she had reached when she had decided to seek artificial insemination. All she’d wanted was a healthy specimen and she had been assured she had one.
She had been happy not knowing who the father was. It meant the baby was all hers. There wouldn’t be any troublesome interference from a deadbeat father or an interfering mother-in-law. She had had a very special relationship with her grandmother and she had looked forward to that same unconditional embrace of familial love. The kind that made a home a home. That made life worth living.
Dear God. The umbrella guy from the SUV had replicated into six more. They were all dressed in flawless dark gray suits with black and silver striped ties. One melted through the exit when she appeared. The pair stationed at the door each set out a hand to indicate she couldn’t pass. Two more stood next to the only other doors that let from the reception area. They all looked past her as she appeared.
Because the prince or sheikh or whatever Akeenwas had practically stepped on her heels the whole way down the hall. She refused to look at him as she shrugged into her coat, but it didn’t change the fact her heart was hammering so loudly it threatened to knock her over. Or that she felt his presence looming like a cloud that would envelop and smother her.
“Ms. Meeks will be traveling to Baaqi with us. She will be shown every consideration.” He didn’t touch her, but halted close enough behind her shoulder that she felt the warmth off his body, even through her coat.
“I’m not getting on a plane with you!” Hannah looked to the reception area, but the waiting area was deserted. What the hell? She thought about shoving her elbow into Akin’s gut and making a run for it—as if his rugby team of bodyguards wouldn’t tackle her.
“Give your keys and address to Omid. He’ll ensure your things are forwarded.”
His voice had the most authoritative ring of Do It she’d ever heard, but she had a lifetime’s experience of standing up to chauvinists, misogynists, and bullies. She straightened her spine—which only stuck her belly out further—and bluffed a complete lack of intimidation.
“No.” What was he going to do? Beat her up and risk this precious baby he was sworn to protect?
“Hannah.” Along with the musical lilt intrinsic to his own language, his English held a crisp British pronunciation, as though he’d learned it at a fancy boarding school. It added an annoying note of condescension to his air of supremacy. “You’re a vulnerable woman who is heavily pregnant. You’ve just received very shocking news so I’m overlooking your insolence, but don’t mistake my patience for weakness. You have arrived at the limit I possess. If you want a power struggle, we can engage in one. I will win. That won’t be good for any of us, most especially the baby.”
“What am I supposed to do? Defer to whatever you decree?” She waved a wild hand.
“Most people do. It makes everything run more smoothly.”
The arrogant ass wasn’t even joking.
“Let’s speak somewhere with more privacy,” he suggested.
She didn’t move, aware in the back of her head that, much as she wanted to, she couldn’t pretend this wasn’t happening. Tears of panic were hot behind her eyes, but she fought them just as she fought to remain rational. Surely they had options that didn’t include overturning her life?
“You can follow me to my apartment.” She turned and swept past his door guards, but was pulled up short by the snow falling like clumps of mashed potatoes beyond the second set of doors.
One of Akin’s clones of a bodyguard stood in that soppy mess next to Akin’s SUV, ready to open the door when his boss appeared.
“You can’t drive in this.” Akin arrived beside her. “Come with me. One of my men will take your car.”
“I can drive myself. I drove here, didn’t I?” She closed her lips over that. If he said one word about how she had locked herself in her own car…
“My vehicle is safer. My driver is trained for inclement conditions. You already know I’m chivalrous. I helped you out of your car and walked you in, didn’t I?”
Worst mistake of her life, relying on him for five seconds.
“I’m not going to let you talk me into anything,” she warned.
“But you do understand we’ve been put in a remarkable position. It needs further discussion.” He offered his arm.
After a final moment of hesitation, she went outside with him, down the steps, and clumsily climbed into the back of his SUV.
He came in beside her and offered, “Seat warmer?” He pressed a button, then held out his hand. “Keys.”
It was a relief not to have to drive. She excavated her keys from her bag, letting him relay them out the door before she realized— “I need those to get into my apartment.”
“They’ll be there before we will.”
The doors shut and the SUV pulled away. She pondered that comment, looking back to see two of the men climbing into her messy car, moving her laptop case into the backseat. But just as she began to fear she was being a complete ninny and had participated in her own kidnapping, one of the men in the front asked for her address and relayed it to the other men.
She relaxed a little and glanced at Akin. He was bringing his telephone to his ear, speaking in Arabic.
She could point to Baaqi on a map, but she didn’t recall much about it beyond it being incredibly rich in oil reserves. It was one of those small, lynchpin countries that had suffered unrest over the last decade from both inside and along its borders. Everyone knew who Crown Prince Eijaz was, of course, and not just because he was a photogenic playboy with millions of online followers, forever vacationing with beautiful women while caught up in one sexy scandal after another. No, he was notorious for his petulant post a few years ago, when he’d been stranded in the Maldives. It had sparked a meme that was regularly reposted in response to tone-deaf first world problem complaints.
My avocado toast is scorched.
Oh, muffin. It’s like the time your private jet broke down in the Maldives.
She was having a hard time comprehending thatman had fathered her baby. It didn’t fit in her head that her baby’s father was an infamous philanderer and his brother was…? She hadn’t even realized there was another Prince of Baaqi.
She pulled out her own phone to learn more, but Akin reached out to cover her screen.
“We’ll keep this between us for now.”
“I was only going to look something up.” Him. She dropped her phone into her bag.
It was nice he thought she had the kind of friends she would text, Guess what just happened to me? though. She did have people in her contact list. She wasn’t the isolated child she had once been. These days she had colleagues who were polite enough to invite her to retirement parties and baby showers. Students brought her a latte when she saved their bacon by sourcing a book or other reference document they needed. She was friendly with some of the authors she worked with, but only with the sort of online chatting that was mostly superficial. Do you have kids? No, but I want one.
Friendships had never been her strong suit any more than suitors had. Growing up, Hannah had had her grandmother to ease the sting of friends turning on her or dropping away, but after Grammy passed and she rented out their bungalow in Syracuse to take her current job at Columbia, loneliness had become her most steadfast companion.
That first year had been a backslide into her worst self-denigration. When she had found herself alone in bed at the end of it, greeting the new year by watching Harry meet Sally for the millionth time, she had resolved to quit waiting for someone to want to spend the rest of his life with her and fall in love with herself instead.
She had made a list of all the things she wanted out of life, including nicer teeth. ‘Family’ had topped it and she’d been ticking things off, one by one, slowly making her best life come true until—
Her best life was coming true, she assured herself, setting a hand on the side of her belly where a little foot was giving a restless nudge.
Akin said a final few words and ended his call, then spoke to her without inflection. “My parents are looking forward to meeting you.”
That wasn’t how it had sounded. She might not know how to swear in his language, but that had definitely been the gist in the other man’s weak, gruff tone.
This was the moment to say something pithy about them visiting New York in the winter, but he continued speaking.
“I presume you’re unmarried, since no one came with you to the meeting. Do you have a partner who was expecting to help you raise this baby?”
She frowned, not liking his phrasing, as though he was saying that whoever might have expected such a thing could kiss that scenario goodbye. She had a brief impulse to claim she did, but his cool way of looking down his hawkish nose sent reverberations through her, warning her against making silly mistakes.
Besides, they were going to her apartment where it was plain she lived alone.
“No,” she replied.
“My mother died when I was young. My father wasn’t in the picture and my grandmother raised me. She’s also gone.”
“What was your plan? What sort of work have you been doing?”
Again with the past-tense. She deliberately answered as though her plans were unchanged. Her plans wereunchanged, she insisted to herself.
“I’m a librarian at Columbia. I’m taking a year’s leave of absence beginning at the end of this month. I’m going to Syracuse, to live in the house where I grew up. For the last few years, I’ve been building an online business doing research for authors. If that continues to go well, I may quit the university altogether and stay home until the baby starts school, but I haven’t ruled out coming back to work here or taking a position at another library elsewhere. I like to have options.”
“Don’t we all,” he said with an ironic curl of his lip that struck foreboding in her soul.
Which was when she realized they weren’t anywhere near her apartment and were, in fact, crossing the bridge into New Jersey.
“You said we would meet your men at my apartment!”
“I said they would get there before we did. We are not going there.”
“That’s still a lie! Is that how we’re doing this? Because I can lie, too. I haven’t, but I’ll start,” she warned.
His cheeks went hollow. Otherwise he sat very still, hands resting on his thighs. After a moment, he nodded once. “Lying is counterproductive. You’re right. I won’t mislead you again.”
“And I’m supposed to believe that as you kidnap me to… Where do you think you’re taking me?”
“My private jet is waiting to fly us directly to Baaqi. I’ve arranged our own nurse. I can’t trust anyone from that clinic. Our flight plan ensures we’ll have suitable places to land should any emergencies arise.”
“I was being facetious. This is a kidnapping!”
She could only choke, too flabbergasted to find words.
“You asked me not to lie,” he said without a hint of sarcasm or remorse.
“I asked you to take me home.”
“I know.” His hands made one restless stroke to his knees and returned to the middle of his long thighs. “I understand you want your life to carry on as normal, Hannah. It can’t. You are carrying the next ruler of my country. My nephew. If you think that doesn’t matter to me, you are deeply mistaken.”
Everything about him was very stoic, but he had lost his brother recently, she recalled, then stamped down on any compassion that incited in her.
“I liked it better when you lied,” she muttered.
“That ship has sailed.”
She studied him, wondering if he really did feel some connection to this baby.
“You miss him? Your brother?” Maybe it was a test of his willingness to be honest. Would he crack and admit to such a human emotion?
“I do,” he said after a very brief hesitation, sounding pensive. “But I don’t wish to talk about him right now.” He glanced at her. His expression was unreadable, but it was probably the most believable thing he could have said.
Impulsively, because she had been dying to share this with someone who might actually feel it as the stunning miracle it was, she picked up his hand and brought it toward her belly. “Was your brother a boxer? Feel what his son is doing to my kidneys.”
Akin’s hand tensed and he started to pull away.
It was probably an overstep of royal protocol for her to touch him without permission. It was definitely unwise. There was something in the feel of his hand that made her bones melt and her head swim, but his gaze dropped to her bump. His brow flexed in a glimpse of agony and he let her set his hand in place.
“Wait for it.” She kept one hand over his and used her other to press into the other side of her belly, coaxing the baby, “Don’t be shy. Say hello to— Oof.”
His breath rushed out and his hand jerked away before he pressed it back into place. “Did that hurt?”
“Like an elbow on the subway,” she joked, realizing he wouldn’t have any experience with such things.
His brow remained creased and his gaze grew more absorbed as he looked at the roundness of her belly. He circled his thumb, soothing the spot where the baby had kicked.
No man had ever moved her, not in a sexual way. It was another reason she’d asked a clinic to help her make this baby. Akin’s absent caress wasn’t even meant to be erotic, but it awakened a sensual response in her, one that sent swirling tenderness through her while embarrassing her at the same time for having such a reaction.
“Do you, um, have a wife and children?” she asked.
“No.” Maybe he heard some of her confused reaction in her voice because he withdrew his touch. His cloak of distance returned. “Why did you want to have a baby alone?”
“I still do,” she said pointedly.
He didn’t move, but his stillness suggested thinning patience and made the air between them crackle with animosity.
Look at me, she wanted to say. That’s why I’m having a baby alone. No man wants me.
She was horrendously aware of his staff in the front seat who seemed to speak English, though. And it made her so sadthat people cared more about how a person looked than who they were inside. She hated to admit she’d always been one of the peons society rejected for no good reason at all.
When she answered, she kept her voice low, hoping only Akin could hear her.
“I dated when I first went to university, but relationships aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.” Especially when so many young men had only been looking to score—sexually or on an exam—and cheating had been the goal in both exercises. “My grandmother was elderly and needed help so I didn’t have much time outside of school for socializing anyway. After she passed, I moved to the city and haven’t connected with anyone, but I miss having family. The fact is, this pregnancy kind of fell into my lap. Haha.”
“How so?” He turned his head to regard her.
“One of my author clients is married to Dr. Peters. I made a joke one day that I wanted children, but needed to find a husband first. She said maybe not and told me about the clinic. One thing led to another and even though the clinic has a wait list and charge through the roof, I was given a consult and taken on as part of their research program. I’m required to give occasional blood samples and answer health surveys for the rest of my life, but I’m happy to contribute to science so…” She shrugged.
“The samples and questions will discontinue. My brother did not consent to being a research project and nor has my future king.”
“Akin— May I call you that?”
She could have laughed at how accommodating he sounded when he was such a giant brick wall in every other way.
“I’ve decided to pick my battles with you. I’ll let you have that one so you’ll be more inclined to compromise on really important issues. Like the fact I am not going to Baaqi.”
“Do you know that I have spent more than a decade commanding armies, Hannah? Winning battles is my day job. Perhaps don’t pick any with me.”
She could have sobbed. She swallowed back her panic and sat straighter and tried to keep her head while fighting for her life with as much civility as she could muster.
“I have to fight you, Akin. Take a walk in this pregnant body of mine for a moment. Whatever you feel for this baby because he’s a remnant of your brother, I feel a thousand-fold because he’s a part of me.”
“I understand that,” he said politely and waited, but she didn’t know what else to say because she could already tell that whatever she came up with, he would counter and override. On the one hand, it was refreshing that he was willing to let her have her say before he told her she was only a lowly woman and should mind her place, but it still made her want to scream.
She huffed in despair and threw up a hand.
He gave a pained nod. “You begin to understand.”
“No! I don’t. No one has to know this was his sperm.”
“Iknow. My parents know. You know. I would hope you understand that this baby has a birthright you don’t have the right to withhold. What are you going to do? Wait until he’s eighteen then point to a spot on the map and say, ‘That’s yours. Go rule it?’”
“Don’t lecture me on my rights.” The frustrated burn behind the backs of her eyes grew to near unbearable. She turned her attention to the view out the window where a lack of tall buildings suggested they were nearing a private airfield.
She pressed her lips flat so they wouldn’t tremble, but her voice still held a creak of emotion. “Once I decided to have a baby alone, I realized how much better that is. Simpler. I wouldn’t be undermined by the other parent, wouldn’t have to argue over which in-laws to spend Christmas with. I don’t expect big things from my life. All I want is a little family. Me and my child, maybe a goldfish or a cat someday. It’s unfair of you to say I’m asking too much by asking for that. I have a right to give my baby the life I planned. It’s a good one.”
“I don’t disagree. For many it is. I envy you for having experienced such a simple life. But this is bigger than either of us, Hannah. This is where we both step up for the greater good of the baby.”
“Oh?” she scoffed. “And what great sacrifice will you be making?”
“I’ll be marrying a stranger, same as you. I’m becoming a parent when it was the last thing I expected or prepared for.”
“What? No.” Adrenaline sent her hand shooting for the door latch.
He struck like a rattlesnake. His big body loomed over hers, pressing her into the seat while his hand encircled hers. He had caged her so quickly, it took her a moment to realize he was being incredibly gentle about it, even as she sensed his grip couldn’t be broken and she had no hope of shifting the wall of his body so much as a fraction of an inch unless he wanted her to.
She panted in alarm, torso brushing his. He was very warm, his eyes like black coffee, the tip of his nose grazing hers as he held her stare. He smelled like spicy aftershave and snow and damp wool.
“I did say I will protect this baby, Hannah. Even from you, if it comes to that. Will you give me your word you won’t do anything foolish?”
“No.” She blinked hard to see him through a blur of angry tears. “We are notgetting married. I am not marrying a stranger.”
“It doesn’t have to be forever, but our marriage will benefit the baby and—you’ll have to forgive how cold-blooded this sounds—will help smooth things over in the press.”
“That is horrible. All of this is!” She wriggled against him, trying to free her hand and only succeeded in feeling all the more ineffectual for it.
“This is reality, Hannah.”
He held her for an extra second to prove the point that he was in charge, she was sure of it, because he waited until she settled before he gently brought her hand away from the door and set it into her lap. He settled back in his seat, but continued to watch her closely.
“Our modern world can accept a woman having a baby out of wedlock. My people can even accept a monarch conceived with an unknown foreign woman. Both? That is a tough sell. More importantly…” His cheeks hollowed. “I trust I have your complete confidence?”
She snorted. “Who am I going to tell any of this to and be believed?”
The SUV came to a stop near the stairs to a sleek private jet. She dug her back deeper into her seat and clenched her hand around her seatbelt, ready to fight being pried out of here and thrust onto that plane.
“Give us privacy,” he said.
His men promptly left the vehicle to stand in the gathering dusk and falling snow.
“For health reasons, my father was about to abdicate to Eijaz before my brother’s diagnosis made that impossible. My father’s health has declined steadily since Eijaz’s death. My mother is equally devastated by grief. We were waiting until after the anniversary of his passing before I officially took over from my father. Now…”
Akin’s palm swept through the air in a far too subtle gesture toward the earthquake that had occurred a mere hour ago, altering both of their lives.
“Now what?” Her hands instinctively tightened further on the belt.
“Now I will rule as regent,” he continued without emotion. “Until my nephew is old enough to be crowned. Given that enormous responsibility and the influence I will have over your child, it would behoove you to be recognized as my partner. Otherwise you’ll be dismissed as a paid surrogate and treated accordingly.”
She gasped. “Don’t you ever, eversuggest that I am some sort of brood mare that carried this baby for any reason except a very deep desire to have a child ofmy own. You don’t have any rights to him. Do you understand that?” She was near shouting.
He was completely unaffected, merely shook his head at her as though she was a recalcitrant toddler.
“What are you going to do, Hannah? You can’t abdicate on your son’s behalf. That’s for him to decide eighteen years from now. How are you going to raise him ‘normally’ now? How are you going to raise him securely? Are you refusing to prepare him for the challenge of taking the crown? Tell me what you think the options are for any of us.”
The bastard sat there with that patient, patronizing look on his face because he knew he had her. She didn’t have any choice. Not really. She might receive a settlement from the clinic for this mistake, but it wouldn’t match the resources he had at his disposal. She would be lucky if all he did was drag her into court. She’d never had the pleasure of being sued, but knew time was measured glacially in that forum and lawyers were obscenely expensive.
She had nowhere to go so she escaped the only way she could. She buried her face in her hands. She was a smart woman, but no matter how hard she wracked her brain, she came up with nothing. She couldn’t even find anger. It was definitely there, simmering at the injustice of life and his casual assumption of authority over her, but she had the rest of her life to wallow in bitterness over that familiar foe.
Right now, she had to fight for what self-government she could retain.
“I don’t want to marry you.”
“It’s just a formality. We won’t consummate it.”
Oh, there was a surprise! She couldn’t help her choke of hysterical laughter and was startled when something soft touched her hand. She lifted her head to see he was pressing a silk handkerchief on her.
“I’m not crying,” she muttered, blowing her nose into it. “I’m trying to keep my head from exploding. You don’t want to marry me. Do you? Me,” she stressed. “I am not a bride you would choose for yourself, am I?” It was a type of self-harm to spit it out like that, but she wouldn’t delude herself into believing anything less.
His long silence was damning, but there was something in his hardened expression that made her think he was wrestling with his own demons behind that mask, not intentionally reinforcing hers.
“I have never enjoyed the luxury of choice when it comes to such things. The expectation has always been that my brother would made a selection from my mother’s vetted shortlist of potential brides and produce an heir before I would do the same.”
“That’s pretty cold-blooded, isn’t it? What about love or basic attraction?”
“This from the woman who chose the most dispassionate way possible to conceive her child? A successful marriage merges interests, not hearts.” He somehow grew even more shuttered as he said that. “You and I share a common interest in someone who is of the utmost importance to both of us. Marriage is the best action for all of us.”
“This isn’t your baby.”
“He’s still my family.”
“But…” She hesitated, then forced herself to say it because she had to know exactly how he envisioned things would be. “Don’t you want children of your own?”
“We can discuss that at a later time, if you decide you’d like more children.”
“And then what? Our marriage ceases to be platonic?”
“As we’re both aware, the father is no longer required to be present when his children are conceived.” He sent a sardonic glance to her belly.
“So you don’t ever want to have sex with me,” she said, speaking as plainly as she thought the situation warranted. “Are you going to have sex with other people? Are you gay?” she asked, recalling her first impression.
“Why would you think that? No, I am a straight man who has gone without sex for various lengths of time in the past. I’m capable of doing it again. Are you?”
“Yes.” Duh. She was having a baby without having had sex, wasn’t she?
“You planned to stay home and work at your online job. You can do that from Baaqi.”
Not all of it. Sometimes she needed feet on the ground, but she could do a lot of it online and through correspondence to various library collections and other archives.
He was doing it, he was talking her into it! And she was already too exhausted to continue their war of wills to keep resisting his cutthroat logic.
“I can’t just leave, Akin. I still have a few weeks of work—”
“It will be handled. My staff will close your apartment and ship your things within the week. Your employer will be notified.” He was probably making all of that happen as they spoke, cutting all her ties to her old life, leaving her no path to go backward.
“What exactly will happen when I get there?” She hated herself for asking. It sounded too much like she was surrendering.
“We’ll marry in a private ceremony, immediately. Then a single announcement will go out encompassing all of this. You needn’t appear in public until after the baby is born.”
“Every girl’s dream.” To be forced into a marriage that would be a paper-only footnote to bigger news, her existence hidden from view like a shameful secret. A brand sat against her heart, scoring deeper with each slighting word and potential action. “I don’t want…” Her throat was so tight, she could barely force any words out. “That. I don’t want any of that.”
“I know.” Why did he have to sound so pitying? If he’d been outright mean, she might be able to hate him. That tone was far more cruel. It carried the same pained pitch Grammy had used when sharing hard truths. Life isn’t fair. We don’t always get what we want.
Hannah drew a breath, wanting to protest, but after a moment her air left in a rush. She deflated like balloon, drooping forward, still refusing to cry, but desolate. She had never missed Grammy more in her life.
“You will be well-cared for, Hannah. Your child will have an incredible life.”
“But it won’t be mine.” She sat up straight. Not her child. Not her life. “I won’t ever forgive you for this, Akin.”
He was only the messenger. She knew that. And he didn’t look too bothered either way, but she was in agony because she knew what she faced would be hell. She had had to work really hard to find her confidence and turn the other ‘chipmunk cheek’ to the incessant litany of insults that had come her way all her life. Bucky and Four-eyes and Fats were the least offensive.
Now she would be in a new place, already a stranger who didn’t know the language or customs. She might be educated and have basic manners, but she wasn’t a polished diamond the way Akin and his family were. People like him didn’t know what it was like to be someone like her. They didn’t want to, not when they could point and laugh instead. Her suffering would have to be swallowed and endured, the way she’d done through each level of hell called ‘school.’
And how would her son be treated if he didn’t come out looking look like some Botticelli cherub—
She snapped an accusing look at Akin.
“What?” he asked with caution, sensing the change in her.
No one would ever bully her child. No one. Not ever. Not without earning her unmitigated wrath.
Not that she knew how she would protect her son no matter which world they occupied, but being the mother of a future monarch would bestow a lot more power on her to quash attacks against her child. Hersonwould be less of a target, growing up in that role.
“If I go with you, I expect to sign a prenup that outlines clear and fair terms for our marriage and eventual divorce. It must include stringent language that declares my absolute right to oversee every single stage of his upbringing. If you agree to that—”
“I’ll hold you to that. No lies,” she reminded, pointing her finger at him.
“You have my word.”
“Fine.” She reached for the latch again, pausing to take in the red carpet that was collecting snowflakes as it trailed up the steps into the jet.
What on earth was she thinking?
But here he was, coming around and offering his arm to guide her into his world.