Pursued by the Desert Prince
BOOK 1 in the Sauveterre Siblings
Draped in the desert prince’s diamonds…
To ensure his sister’s successful marriage, Kasim, Crown Prince of Zhamair, must stop Angelique Sauveterre’s alleged affair with his future brother-in-law. But when Angelique denies any involvement, Kasim can’t resist the chance to make the feisty beauty his!
Angelique is tempted by Kasim’s offer of a fling—always compared to her twin sister, she’s never allowed to just be herself. They couldn’t be from two more different worlds, yet Angelique blossoms under Kasim’s touch and surrenders to the desert prince. But can he give her more than passion and precious jewels?
Pursued by the Desert Prince
BOOK 1 in the
"I’ve had mistresses. There is a time to let them go and yours has arrived.”
— Prince Kasim, Pursued By The Desert Prince
Back when I was conceiving of the baby swap duet, The Wrong Heirs, I had a vague idea to do something with twins. A few months later, that coalesced into a broader story, about two sets of identical twins.
I needed something exciting to wind through their four stories, though. I knew they were famous for their wealth and beauty, complete media darlings because they’re beautiful times two. Who doesn’t find twins fascinating and two pair in one family? The paparazzi can’t get enough of them from the time the girls are born.
There was a dark side to that, however. Because of their wealth and fame, they were targeted. The youngest sister, Trella, was kidnapped when the girls were nine.
This trauma colors each of her siblings in different ways. For Angelique (Gili), she was born the shy, sensitive one who struggles with separating herself from her twin. This holds her back from falling for Kasim while he has his own very difficult past. They’re really quite doomed! Yet drawn.
I’ll leave it to you to discover how they find their way from the dark into the light.
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Pursued by the Desert Prince
Angelique Sauveterre picked up a call from her exterior guards informing her that Kasim ibn Nour, Crown Prince of Zhamair, had arrived to see her.
She slumped back in her chair with a sigh, really not up to meeting someone new. Not after today.
“Of course. Please show him up to my office,” she said. Because she had to.
Hasna had said her brother would drop by while he was in Paris.
Angelique didn’t know why the brother of the bride wanted to meet the designer of the bride’s wedding gown, but she assumed he wanted to arrange a surprise gift. So she didn’t expect this meeting to be long or awful. Her day with Princess Hasna and the bridal party hadn’t been awful. It had actually been quite pleasant.
It was just a lot of people and noise and Angelique was an introvert. When she told people that, they always said, But you’re not shy! She had been horribly shy as a child, though, and brutally forced to get over it. Now she could work a room with the best of them, but it fried her down to a crisp.
She yearned for the day when her sister, Trella, would be ready to be the face of Maison des Jumeaux. An ironic thought, since her twin wore the same face. As she freshened “their” lipstick, Angelique acknowledged that she really longed for Trella to be the one to talk to new clients and meet with brothers of the bride and put on fetes like the one she’d hosted today.
She wanted Trella to be all better.
But she wouldn’t press. Trella had made such progress getting over her phobias, especially in the past year. She was determined to attend Hasna and Sadiq’s wedding and was showing promise in getting there.
It will happen, Angelique reassured herself.
In the meantime… She rolled her neck, trying to massage away the tension that had gathered over hours of soothing every last wedding nerve.
At least she didn’t look too much worse for wear. This silk blend she and Trella had been working on hadn’t creased much at all.
Angelique stood to give a quick turn this way and that in the freestanding mirror in the corner of her office. Her black pants fell flawlessly and the light jacket with its embroidered edges fluttered with her movement while her silver cami reflected light into her face. Her makeup was holding up and only her chignon was coming apart.
She quickly pulled the pins out of her hair and gave it a quick finger-comb so her brunette tresses fell in loose waves around her shoulders. Too casual?
Her door guard knocked and she didn’t have time to redo her hair. She moved to open the door herself.
And felt the impact like she’d stepped under a midnight sky, but one lit by stars and northern lights and the glow of a moon bigger and hotter than the sun could ever hope to be.
Angelique was dazzled and had to work not to show it, but honestly, the prince was utterly spectacular. Dark, liquid eyes that seemed almost black they were such a deep brown. Flawless bone structure with his straight nose and perfectly balanced jawline. His mouth— That bottom lip was positively erotic.
The rest of him was cool and diamond sharp. His country was renowned for being ultra-conservative, but his head was uncovered, his black hair shorn into a neat business cut. He wore a perfectly tailored Western suit over what her practiced eye gauged to be an athletically balanced physique.
She swallowed. Find a brain, Angelique.
“Your Highness. Angelique Sauveterre. Welcome. Please come in.”
She didn’t offer to shake, which would have been a faux pas for a woman in Zhamair.
He did hold out his hand, which was a slight overstep for a man to demand of a woman here in Paris.
She acquiesced and felt a tiny jolt run through her as he closed his strong hand over her narrow one. Heat bloomed under her cheekbones, something his quick gaze seemed to note—which only increased her warmth. She hated being obvious.
“Hello.” Not Thank you for seeing me, or Call me Kasim.
“Thank you, Maurice,” she murmured to dismiss her guard, and had to clear her throat. “We’ll be fine.”
She was exceedingly cautious about being alone with men, or women for that matter, whom she didn’t know, but the connection through Hasna and Sadiq made the prince a fairly safe bet. If a man in the prince’s position was planning something nefarious, then the whole world was on its ear and she didn’t stand a chance anyway.
Plus, she always had the panic button on her pendant.
She almost felt like she was panicking now. Her heart rate had elevated and her stomach was in knots. Her entire body was on all-stations alert. She’d been feeling drained a few seconds ago, but one profound handshake later she was feeling energized yet oddly defenseless.
She was nervous as a schoolgirl, really, which wasn’t like her at all. With two very headstrong brothers, she had learned how to hold her own against strong masculine energy.
She’d never encountered anything like this, though. Closing herself into her office with him felt dangerous. Not the type of danger she’d been trained to avoid, but inner peril. Like when she poured her soul into a piece then held her breath as it was paraded down the catwalk for judgment.
“Please have a seat,” she invited, indicating the conversation area below the mural. There were no pretty views of actual Paris in this windowless room, but the office was still one of her favorite places for its ability to lock out the world. She spent a lot of time on her side of its twin desks and drafting tables.
Trella’s side was empty. She was home in Spain, but they often worked here in companionable silence.
“I just made fresh coffee. Would you like a cup?”
“I won’t stay long.”
That ought to be good news. She was reacting way too strongly to him, but she found herself disappointed. So strange! She took such care to put mental distance between herself and others. The entire world would have this effect on her if she didn’t, but he only had to glance around her private space and she felt naked and exposed. Seen. And she found herself longing for his approval.
He didn’t seem to want to sit, so she pressed flat hands that tremored on the back of the chair she usually used when visiting with clients. “Was there something particular about the wedding arrangements you wanted to discuss?”
“Just that you should send your bill to me.” He moved to set a card on the edge of Trella’s desk.
She turned to follow his movement behind her. So economical and fascinating. And who was his tailor? That suit was pure artistry, the man so obviously yang to her yin.
He caught her staring.
She tucked her hair behind her ear to disguise her blush.
“Her Majesty made the same offer and you needn’t have troubled yourself. It’s a wedding gift for Sadiq and the princess.”
He noted the familiarity of her using Sadiq’s first name with a small shift of his head. “So Hasna said. I would prefer to pay.”
His gaze was direct enough to feel confrontational, instantly amplifying this conversation into one of conflict. Her pulse gave a reflexive zing.
Why would he be so adamant—?
Oh, dear God! He didn’t think she and Sadiq were involved, did he?
Why wouldn’t he? According to the headlines, she’d slept with half of Europe. When she wasn’t doing drugs or having catfights with her models, of course.
“Sadiq is a longtime friend of the family.” She retreated behind the cool mask she showed the world, ridiculously crushed that he would believe those awful summations of her character. “This is something we want to do for him.”
“We.” His gaze narrowed.
“Yes.” She didn’t bring up her sister or what her family owed Sadiq for Trella’s return to them. The fact that Sadiq had never once sought any glory for his heroism was exactly why he was such a cherished friend. “If that was all…” She deliberately presumed she’d had the last word on the topic. “I should get back to the final arrangements for your sister’s things.”
Kasim had to applaud his future brother-in-law’s taste. Angelique Sauveterre had grown from a very sweet-looking girl into a stunning young woman. In person, she had an even more compelling glow of beauty.
Her long brunette hair glimmered and shifted in a rippling curtain and what had seemed like unremarkable gray eyes online were actually a mesmerizing greenish hazel. She was tall and slender, built like a model despite being the one to dress them, and her skin held a golden tone that must be her mother’s Spanish ancestry.
Cameras rarely caught her with a smile on her face and when they did, it was a faint Mona Lisa slant that allowed her to live up to the reputation of her father’s French blood: aloof and indifferent.
She wore that look now, but when she had first greeted him, she had smiled openly. Her beauty was so appealing, Kasim had forgotten for a moment why he was here and had been overcome with a desire to pursue her.
Perhaps this captivating quality was the reason Sadiq was so smitten?
“About those arrangements… Today went well?” He had understood it to be the final fitting of his sister’s wedding gown and the bridesmaids’ dresses as well as a private showing of other clothes made for Hasna, all taking place on the runway level of this building. Once the last nips and tucks were completed, the entire works would be packaged up and shipped to Zhamair for the wedding next month.
“You would have to check with the women who were here, but they all seemed pleased by the time they left.” So haughty and quick to keep the focus on his sister.
From what he’d heard around his penthouse, the consensus had been a high level of ecstasy with everything from the clothes to the imported cordial to the finger sandwiches and pastries.
“Hasna doesn’t seem to have any complaints,” he downplayed. “Which is why I’m willing to spare her the nuisance of replacing all that you’ve promised her.”
Angelique was tall in her heels. Not as tall as him, but taller than most women he knew, and she grew taller at his words, spine stiffening while her eyelashes batted once, twice, three times. Like she was filtering through various responses.
“All that we’ve made for her,” she corrected, using a light tone, but it was the lightness of a rapier. Pointed and dangerous. “Why on earth would you refuse to let her have it?”
“You can drop the indignation,” he advised. “I’m not judging. I’ve had mistresses. There is a time to let them go and yours has arrived.”
“You think I’m Sadiq’s mistress. And that as his mistress, I offered to make his bride’s gown and trousseau. That’s a rather generous act for a mistress, isn’t it?”
She repeatedly spat the word as if she was deeply offended.
He pushed his hands into his pants pockets, rocking back on his heels.
“It’s a generous act to arrange a private showing for such a large party at a world-famous and highly exclusive Paris design house.” It hadn’t been only his mother and sister, but Sadiq’s mother and sisters, along with cousins and friends from both sides.
The cost of something like today wasn’t so high as to imperil his riches, of course. The groom’s family could equally afford it and given the extent of the Sauveterre wealth, and the rumors that the family corporation had underwritten this folly of an art project in the first place, he imagined Angelique wouldn’t be too far out of pocket, either.
“Had this afternoon been the only line item offered at no charge, I wouldn’t have batted an eye,” he said. “But the gown? I know my sister’s taste.” He imagined it had easily run to six figures. “And to throw in wedding costumes for the rest of the party? Including mothers of the bride and groom?”
“Sadiq’s parents and sisters are also friends of the family.”
“Plus a full wardrobe for Hasna to begin her married life,” he completed with disbelief. “All at no cost? This is more than a ‘gift’ from a ‘family friend.’ If I had learned of it sooner, I would have taken steps long before today.”
Hasna had been chattering nonstop about her big day, but what did he care about the finer details? He was glad she was marrying for love, he wanted everything to go well for her, but the minutia of decor and food and colors to be worn had meant nothing to him. It wasn’t until he had noted she was grossly under budget—not like her at all—that he had quizzed her on when to expect an invoice for the dress.
“If I’m Sadiq’s mistress, then I should want the fat commission off this! I would have told him to make his bride come to us as a payoff for losing his support—which I don’t need, by the way.” The hiss in her tone sliced the air like a blade. “That is not the way it went at all. Hasna didn’t even know Sadiq knew us. She said we were her dream designer and he arranged it secretly, to surprise her. We’re the ones who decided not to charge him.”
“Yes, funny that he would have kept this tremendously close ‘friendship’—” he let her hear his disdain “—such a secret from the woman he had been courting for a year and professed to love. I might have understood if he was paying you off.” He wouldn’t have condoned it, not when Hasna had fought so hard for a love match and had managed to convince him that Sadiq returned her feelings, but at least he would have seen the why of this ridiculous arrangement.
“Have you discussed this with Sadiq?” she demanded frostily, arms crossed. “Because I am as insulted on his behalf as I am on my own.”
“Sadiq is plainly not capable of doing what is needed. I will advise him after the fact.”
“I am not sleeping with Sadiq! I don’t sleep with married men, or engaged ones, either.”
“I’m fairly confident you stopped sleeping with him once the engagement was announced. I can account for his whereabouts since then.”
“He knows you’re watching him like that? With these awful suspicions about him?”
“I don’t judge him for having lovers prior to settling down. We all do it.”
Although it annoyed him that his brother-in-law had slept with this particular woman. Kasim didn’t examine too closely why that grated. Or wonder too much about how such a soft-spoken man had managed to seduce her. Sadiq had always struck Kasim as being more book-smart than street-smart, earnest and studious and almost as naive as Hasna.
This woman was surprisingly spirited. She would dominate someone like Sadiq.
Which more than explained why Sadiq hadn’t been able to end things as definitively as he should.
“And I’m…what?” she prodded. “Trying to coax him back by outfitting his wife? Your logic is flawed, Your Highness.”
Her impertinence took him aback, it was so uncommon in his life. The most sass he heard from anyone was from his sister and she typically confined it to light teasing, never anything with this much bite.
He found Angelique’s impudence both stimulating and trying. She obviously didn’t understand who she was dealing with.
“Why are you arguing? I’m offering to pay you for the work you’ve done. The more you resist admitting the truth and promising not to see him again, the more likely I am to lose patience and pull the plug on this entire arrangement, Hasna’s tears be damned.”
“You would do that?” Her jaw slacked with disbelief. “To your sister?”
She had no idea to what lengths he would go—had gone—to protect his family.
He wouldn’t allow himself to be drawn into yet another inner debate about his actions on that score. It still wrenched his heart, especially when Hasna still cried so often, but he had done what he had to. Ruthlessly.
And would do it again.
But he would not see his sister’s heart broken again. She loved Sadiq and Sadiq would be the faithful husband she desired him to be. If that meant fast-tracking a new wedding gown, so be it.
He let Angelique read his resolve in his silence.
She stood there with her chin lifted in confrontation, trying very hard to look down her nose at him. “All I have to do is say that I’m Sadiq’s mistress and this goes away?”
“Plus send me the bill and never contact Sadiq again.”
“I can give your money to charity,” she pointed out.
“You can. The important thing is that you will not be able to hold the debt over Sadiq’s head.”
“Ah, finally I learn my real motivation.” Her arms came out in amazement. “I was beginning to think I was the stupidest mistress alive.”
“Oh, I’m quite in admiration of your cleverness, Angelique.”
His use of her name made her heart, which was already racing at this altercation, take a jump and spin before landing hard.
“Have we arrived at first names, Kasim?” It was a deliberate lob back, not unlike when she played tennis with her siblings and she was so well matched she had to throw everything she had into each swing of her racket.
This man! She had spent years developing a shield against the world and he brushed it aside like it was a cobweb, making her react from a subterranean level. It was completely unnerving.
His lashes flinched at her use of his given name.
“Your insolence toward me is unprecedented. Take extreme care, Angelique.”
Her fingernails were digging into her own upper arms, she was so beside herself. She used the sharp sting to keep a cool head. She had training for this type of negotiation, she reminded herself. He thought he was holding a small fortune in seed pearls and silk hostage, but he was actually holding a knife to the throat of her sister’s happiness along with the debt their family owed to Sadiq.
Given that, there was no way Angelique wanted to jeopardize the wedding arrangements or cause a long-term rift.
Listen. That was the first step, she reminded herself as her ears pounded with her racing pulse. Apparently Kasim felt he wasn’t being heard.
“To be clear,” she said with forced calm, “you believe I’ve orchestrated this to put Sadiq into my debt?”
“Perhaps not financially. His family is wealthy in resources and political standing as well as actual gold. You’ve managed to neutralize yourself in my sister’s eyes, so she couldn’t possibly see you as a threat if you were to move in at a later date for whatever Sadiq was deemed useful for.”
“Can I ask how you concluded that I’m so cold-blooded? Because even the online trolls don’t accuse me of this sort of thing.” She was nice! Her family regularly told her she was too nice.
“If your heart was involved, you would have refused this commission altogether. If you wanted to retaliate for a broken heart, you wouldn’t be trying so hard to please Hasna. No. I’ve told you, I’ve had mistresses. I understand exceedingly practical women. This is an investment in your future. I accept that on a philosophical level, but not when it risks my sister’s happiness. That I cannot allow. So.” He nodded decisively at the card he’d left on the desk. “Send me the bill. Do not contact him again.”
He made as if to leave.
“Wait!” She leaped forward and grabbed his arm.
He froze, gaze locking onto her hand on his sleeve for one powerful heartbeat before he lifted his eyes. His face was filled outrage and something else, something glittering and fiercely masculine.
“Have we arrived at that level of familiarity, Angelique?” He pivoted in a swift move to face her, taking her own arm in his opposite grip.
It was the sudden dive and snatch of a predatory bird catching prey in its talons.
They stood like that in what seemed like a slowdown in time. Her heart pounded so hard her lungs could barely inflate against it.
“We’re not finished t-talking.” Her voice came out painfully thin. She knew she should release him and step back, but she was quite blown away by the masculine interest that flared to life in his gaze.
She wasn’t falsely modest. She knew she was beautiful. It was one of the reasons camera lenses so often turned on her. Men looked at her with desire all the time.
There was no reason she should react to this man’s naked hunger. But she did.
A very animalistic sexual reaction pierced deep in her loins, flooding her with heat and… Yes, it was reciprocal desire. He was looking at her as if he found her appealing and she certainly found him as attractive as they came. There might even be something chemical here because her gaze dropped involuntarily to his mouth. Longing rose within her.
His lips quirked.
She knew he was reading her reaction and was amused. It stung. She felt raw and gauche. It was the bane of her existence that she couldn’t always stop whatever feelings were overtaking her. This was so intense it was unprecedented, touching her at all levels. Physical, mental, emotional… He held her entire being enthralled.
“We are finished talking,” he said, while his arm bent against her grip. His hand arrived at her waist, hot and sure. His other hand tightened slightly on her arm, drawing her forward a half step, commanding, but not forcing. “If you would like to start something new, however…”
Don’t, she ordered herself, but it was too late. His mouth was coming down to hers and she was parting her lips in eager reception.
He knew how to use that sexually explicit mouth of his, firmly capturing her lips in a hot, hard kiss. He slid a hand to the back of her head, rocked his damp mouth across hers, and damn well made love to her mouth like he had the absolute right!
She knew immediately that he was punishing her, but not in a violent way. He wanted her response, wanted to make her melt and succumb to him, to prove his mastery of her and this situation.
And he was doing it, sliding right past her resistance, ready to make her his conquest.
Hard-learned shreds of self-protection rallied. She had trained to meet any attack with an attack of her own.
She kissed him back with all the incensed outrage he had provoked in her, all the frustration that he affected her this powerfully.
She didn’t accept his kiss. She matched it. She stepped into his space so the heat off his body penetrated the silk she wore, branding her skin through it. Then she scraped her teeth in a threat across his bottom lip and stabbed her own fingers into his hair. It was completely unlike her to be sexually aggressive, but how dare he come in here with his accusations and intimidations?
Did this feel like she was daunted? Did it?
She felt the surprise in him, and the hardening as he grew excited.
His reaction fed hers. The quickening of arousal in her swelled, rising like a tide that picked her off her feet, washing her in heat, sensitizing her skin and making her hyperaware of her erogenous zones. Her back arched to crush her breasts against his hard chest. Her pelvis nudged into the shape behind his fly, inciting both of them.
His arms tightened around her and he kissed her harder. Not taking control so much as pressing his foot to the accelerator so they burned hotter and faster down the track they were on. His hand slid down to her backside, possessively claiming a plump cheek through silk.
The sensation was so acutely good, the moment rushing so fast beyond her control, Angelique pulled back to release a small moan and gasp for air.
He growled and ran his mouth down her throat, now angling her hips into his so he ground himself against her with blatant intention.
She let him, completely overcome by the moment. She was used to being treated somewhere between a trophy and a revered goddess on a pedestal. No man had ever kissed her like a woman who was not just wanted, but craved. This was real.
It felt earthy and elemental.
She let her head hang back, hair falling freely, and maybe, yes, she was succumbing, but not to him. To this. Them. What they were creating together.
He muttered something that sounded like an incantation and his lips moved from her collarbone to the line of her camisole.
She gasped, “Yes,” aching for him to bare her breasts to his mouth, she felt so full and tight. When his hand moved up to her chest to caress along the edge—
“Don’t—” she tried to say, but he had already picked up the silver disk of her pendant to move it over her shoulder.
One second, Kasim was sunk deep in arousal, well on his way to making love with a woman of exceptional passion.
Then the door crashed open and men burst in with guns drawn.
His heart exploded.
He instinctively tried to shove Angelique behind him, but she resisted, shouting, “I’m fine! Orchid, orchid! Stand down. Orchid!”
She held out a splayed hand like it could deflect bullets and tried to scramble in front of him, as if she could protect him with that soft, slender figure, but Kasim was pumped with as much adrenaline as the invaders. He locked his arms protectively around her while his brain belatedly caught up to recognize that these were guards he’d seen on his way in.
“I’m fine,” Angelique insisted in a shaken tone. “Stand down. Seriously,” she said with a look up at Kasim that was naked and mortified. “Let me go so I can defuse this.” Her hand pressed his shoulder.
Kasim’s arms were banded so firmly around her, he had to consciously force himself to relax his muscles.
“I’m fine,” she assured her guards as she slid away from him. She was visibly shaking. “Honestly. This was my fault. He was looking at my necklace. I should have warned him to be careful.”
Looking at her necklace? Her lipstick was smudged and she was bright red from her forehead to the line of her top. Her guards weren’t stupid.
They were professionals, however. One said, “Second level?”
“Water lily, and did you really?” She went across to a panel and reset something, then sighed and crossed to her desk to pick up her smartphone with a hand that still trembled. “Thank you. Please resume your stations.”
The guards holstered their weapons and retreated, closing the door behind them.
While her phone rang with the video call she’d placed, she plucked a tissue and leaned into a small desk mirror to hurriedly wipe her mouth. “This will only take a sec, but if I don’t—”
A male voice barked a gruff “Oui.”
“Bonjour, Henri.” Angelique tilted the phone so she could see the screen. She still looked somewhere between dumbfounded and grossly embarrassed, but was trying to paste a brave smile over it.
Kasim was utterly poleaxed. That kiss had been so intensely pleasurable, all he could think about was continuing from where they’d left off. Get off the phone.
“Je m’excuse. Totally my fault,” Angelique continued. “False alarm. Orchid, orchid. It was only a drill.”
“Qu’est ce qui c’est passé?”
“Long story and I’m in the middle of something. Can I call you later?”
“I’m looking at the security records.”
Angelique closed her eyes in a small wince. “Yes,” she said in a beleaguered tone, as though answering an unasked question. “The prince is still here. May I please call you later?”
“One hour,” he directed and they ended the call.
Angelique dropped the phone onto her desktop and let out an exasperated breath.
“Ramon will be next. My other brother,” she provided, nodding as her phone dinged. “There he is. Spanish Inquisition.” She clasped her hands and looked to the ceiling with mock delight. “So fun! Thanks.”
“You’re blaming me?” He hadn’t thought he could be more astonished by all that had just happened.
She shrugged as she acknowledged the text, then dropped the phone again.
Moving to the shelf in the corner, she said, “How about that coffee?”
Angelique moved to where the French press had been sitting so long it bordered on tepid. She shakily pushed down the plunger and poured two short cups, needing something to calm her nerves.
Yes, let’s not cause a rift with the wedding, Angelique, by having the Prince of Zhamair shot dead in your office.
What had happened to her that she’d let him kiss her like that? From the moment he’d walked in here, he’d been tapping a chisel into her. Now she was fully cracked open, all of her usual defenses and tricks of misdirection useless. It took everything she had not to let him see how thoroughly he’d thrown her off her game.
“Cream and sugar?” she asked, buying time before she had to turn around.
She finished pouring and made herself face him.
He paused in using his handkerchief to check for traces of her lipstick against his mouth and tucked it away. He looked positively unruffled as he took one cup and saucer from her, his steady grip cutting the clatter of china down by half.
She quickly picked her own cup off its saucer and took a bolstering sip of the one she’d doctored into a syrupy milkshake.
The silence thickened.
She tried to think of something to say, but her mind raced to make sense of their kiss. What had he meant about starting something new? What did he even think of her now? Her level of security on its best days had suitors running for the hills.
He wasn’t a suitor, she reminded herself. He was an arrogant dictator who had his wires crossed. That’s why she’d grabbed his arm. She hadn’t been able to let him leave thinking the worst. Demanding the worst.
“I wondered about the gauntlet of security I had to run in order to get in here,” he said, eyeing her thoughtfully. “I didn’t realize this was still such an issue for your family.”
Yes, let’s talk about my sister’s kidnapping and how it continues to affect all of us. Her favorite topic.
“We’re very vigilant about keeping it a nonissue. As you witnessed.” She was trying to forget how horrifying it had been to have her guards interrupt the best kiss of her life because she’d been too dazed by it to prevent a rookie error with the panic button.
But she supposed the kidnapping was the reason this meeting had come about, ever rippling from the past into the future, so… Very well. There were days they revisited that dark time and this was one of them.
As she made that decision, she was able to move behind her desk and set her coffee aside with a modicum of control. Flicking her gaze, she invited him to take a chair.
“Suit yourself. Either way I know I’ve captured your full attention.” She clasped her hands on her desktop, trying to steady herself. “I mean that literally. You won’t be allowed to leave until I say you may.”
He snorted, but she could see she did, indeed, have his full attention. She felt the heat of his gaze like the sun at the equator.
She swallowed. Good thing she was still wearing her pendant. Too bad he knew about it. She resisted the urge to grasp it for reassurance.
“The advantage that you continue to possess,” she said, trying to mollify him, “is that you’re willing to refuse the clothes we’ve made for your sister. I’ve heard all you said about wanting to protect her. I feel the same toward my own sister.”
Empathy. Step two of a hostage negotiation. This was good practice, she told herself. Another drill.
“You’re obviously aware of the general details of Trella’s kidnapping.” She had to swallow to ease how quickly those words tightened her throat. Her knuckles gleamed like polished bone buttons, but she couldn’t make her hands relax.
“I know what was on the news at the time, yes.”
She glanced at him, not sure what she expected to see. Avarice, maybe. People always wanted gruesome details beyond the basics of a nine-year-old girl being set up by a math tutor as boarding school was letting out, held for five days and found by police before money changed hands. There’d been more than one probing question today from different women in Hasna’s bridal party.
Angelique was adept at dodging those inquiries, but they rubbed like salt in a cut every single time.
Kasim was next to impossible to read, but there was an air of patience in him, like he understood this wasn’t easy for her and was willing to wait.
Great. Now her eyes began to sting. She was a crier, unfortunately. She already knew there would be tears later, when she spoke to her brothers. It wasn’t because she was upset by the false alarm, just that when a roller coaster like today happened, she tended to fall apart at some point as a sort of release.
She pushed the Remind Me Later button on her breakdown and strained her back to a posture she thought might snap her in two, but was enough to keep her composure in place.
“What’s never been made public is Sadiq’s part in helping us retrieve Trella.”
Kasim set his cup into its saucer and placed it on the corner of her desk. Folded his arms. “Go on.”
“You can’t simply accept that this is the reason we feel a debt to him?”
“Your brother could give him shares in Sauveterre International, if that was the case. Your other one, the one who races, could buy him a car. Why this?”
“Sadiq is very modest. He has refused all the different times we’ve tried to offer any sort of compensation. He doesn’t brag about his connection to our family. In every way he can, he protects our privacy. That’s why we love him.”
She took another brief sip of her overly sweetened coffee, trying to find the right words.
“As you’ve pointed out, his family has plenty of money. Gifting him shares would be…a gesture, not something meaningful. He’s not the least bit into cars the way Ramon is, but when your sister mentioned she was going to approach us about making her gown, Sadiq was excited that he had an in.”
Maison des Jumeaux wasn’t exclusive because it was expensive—although it was obscenely so. No, their clothes were coveted because she and Trella were extremely selective about the clients they took on, always protecting their own privacy first. Gossipy socialites didn’t even get an appointment, let alone an original ball gown with a hand-sewn signature label.
“Sadiq only prevailed on our friendship to ask that we accept her as a client, but of course we wanted to do it and of course we wouldn’t charge him. He wanted to pay. I think the only reason he’s letting us get away with not charging is because it’s really Hasna who benefits, not him. For Trella, it’s a way to repay Sadiq herself. It’s very important to all of us, for her sake, that she be allowed to do that.”
It was part of her sister’s healing process. Attending the wedding had become a goal Trella was determined to achieve, come hell or high water.
“Is your sister having an affair with him?”
“That’s what you got from everything I just said? No! And neither is my mother, before you go there. Family money paid for the materials and Trella and I are doing the work. This isn’t a buy off or an attempt to hold something over Sadiq. We’re contributing to his special day in the way that makes him happiest. That’s all.”
He pondered that with a raspy scrape of his bent fingers beneath his jaw.
“You still don’t believe me?” What on earth would it take?
“How did he help solve the kidnapping? How old was he? Fifteen? Sixteen?” His voice was thick with skepticism. “How well did he even know your family? I understood he only went to Switzerland when he began prepping for university.”
“I trust this conversation won’t leave this room? Because the police asked us to keep it confidential and we always have. We never speak publicly about the kidnapping because there are many details we wish to keep private.”
“Of course,” he muttered testily, as though he was insulted she would question his integrity.
“You know Sadiq is a bit of a computer whiz? Well, the internet was quite young and few tools had been developed for online sleuthing. It probably wouldn’t even be legal now, the kind of hacking he’d done, but who cares? We have him to thank for Trella’s return. And you’re right that he only knew of us. We weren’t friends yet. He was in a few classes with my brothers, but when Trella was taken, he was on the steps beside Ramon. He saw it happen and was horrified. He wanted to help and used his own time, hours and hours I might add, to create software code that produced a lead that panned out for the police. If you want more information, you can take it up with Sadiq.”
The truth was, Sadiq was a security specialist. He’d merely been a nerd with a passion at that time, but now it was his private business—literally his confidential side job that she only knew about because her family had introduced him to the man who had the contract for their own security. She didn’t know if even Hasna was aware that Sadiq wrote code for Tec-Sec Industries.
“There aren’t many people we trust unequivocally, but Sadiq is one of them. He didn’t do us a favor. He saved my sister’s life. So if he wants me to make dresses for your sister for the rest of my life, I will. Happily. Without checking with you first.”