Sheikh’s Princess of Convenience
He’ll do anything to protect his kingdom
Even blackmail her into marriage!
Sheikh Karim is as ruthless as the harsh desert that forged him. Entertaining bubbly Princess Galila at a royal wedding seems frivolous…until she reveals his family’s darkest secret. To protect their honour, Karim must seduce Galila into silence! The raw heat of their encounter stuns him…and inspires a more permanent solution. To prevent a scandal, Karim will make impetuous Galila his convenient bride!
Sheikh’s Princess Of Convenience is the third book in the exciting Bound To The Desert King quartet, a collaboration with Tara Pammi, Maya Blake and Caitlin Crews starting in August.
The print edition of this book begins shipping on September 18, 2018
The digital edition begins downloading on October 1, 2018
But you can pre-order now!
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"Allow me to make reparation for any harm to your family’s reputation...and marry her."
— Karim, Sheikh's Princess Of Convenience
Coincidentally, I had just begun a proposal with a sheikh hero and a queen in hiding when my editor emailed to ask if I would like to collaborate with Tara Pammi, Maya Blake and Caitlin Crews on a sheikh quartet. Having enjoyed working with all of these authors on other projects, I was like, “Um, yes please.”
At the time the series was called “Kings of Khalia” and my title was tentatively “Sheikh’s Runaway Princess.” The quartet hinges on my heroine’s mother, the Queen of Khalia, having an affair with my hero’s father, King Jamil of Zyria. They’re both dead when, in Book One, Sheikh’s Baby of Revenge, Tara’s hero Adir is revealed to be the secret baby of this affair.
The news topples the current King of Khalia, thrusting Maya’s hero, Zufar, onto the throne in Book Two, Sheikh’s Pregnant Cinderella. His bride gets kidnapped by Adir, so he marries the maid–who later turns out to have a secret past of her own.
Book Three, Sheikh’s Princess of Convenience, opens at the wedding where my heroine, Galila, starts revealing all of these shocking details to a stranger. He turns out to be Jamil’s son, Karim, and he will do anything to keep his father’s long-ago affair a secret–including compromising Galila so she is forced to marry him!
I don’t want to reveal too many spoilers, but in the final book, Caitlin’s Sheikh’s Secret Love Child, Galila’s other brother, Malak, the black sheep of the family, is forced to wear a crown.
I didn’t mind shelving my queen to work on such a fun project. Besides, it’s wonderful knowing I have something to fall back on if I’m searching for inspiration down the road.
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Sheikh’s Princess of Convenience
Do I look pretty, mama?
The reflexive question, one she had learned to suppress, still jammed in Galila’s throat along with her heart when she turned and caught sight of an apparition.
She held motionless on the tiled platform in the center of the reflecting pool, staring at the woman who appeared against the window into her mother’s lounge. With the subtle, golden glow cast by the lights around the courtyard, it seemed as though her mother looked out at her, watchful and unsmiling.
She wore a stunning tangerine gown, strapless and with a skirt of abundant shimmering silk. A long-sleeved tule overlay was embroidered and bedecked with silver and glittering jewels—as suited a member of the royal family on the new king’s wedding day. Her hair cascaded from beneath a tiara that only ever came out on special occasions, and only on her mother’s head.
The dress was too young for her, but those were definitely her mother’s eyes, scrupulously emphasized with greens and gold, liquid eyeliner ending in a cat’s tail. At one time, those doe-like eyes would have swept over Galila with indulgence. Affection.
So pretty, my pet. Her painted lips would have smiled with tender love as she stroked Galila’s hair.
Tonight, that mouth—as sensuously curved as her mother’s had been and wearing her mother’s signature glossy red—tightened. Her elegantly arched brows drew themselves together as she critically sought flaws, exactly as her mother would have done if she had still been alive.
Your skin looks sallow, Galila.
It was the yellow light and her imagination, but the reproach still had the power to sting. To make her yearn to correct the flaw and recapture the love that had dried up and blown away like sand across the desert.
She ought to be glad her mother wasn’t here. Or grieving properly for a life lost. Instead, it was her secret shame that she was mostly grieving her chance to win back her mother’s love. Or perhaps understand how she’d lost it.
What had she done that was so terrible? Except to grow up looking exactly as beautiful as her mother had been? Was that her great crime?
Could she finally bloom freely now that she wouldn’t overshadow her mother?
She lifted the glass she held, leaving another kiss print on the rim.
Not champagne, either, Mother. She directed that baleful thought to her image and received a dispassionate glance in return.
The brandy she had learned to drink at boarding school seared with blessed heat through her arteries, promising the numbing effect Galila sought.
In a perfect world, she drank herself unconscious and possibly drowned here in an inch of water, escaping the chaos raging around her.
Don’t make a spectacle of yourself, Galila. That’s Malak’s purview.
“Your dress is getting wet.”
The male voice, so deep and velvety it matched the caress of the warm night air, had her turning to peer into the shadows, expecting— Well, she didn’t know who she expected. A man, yes, but not such a man.
He leaned against the edge of an archway, features sharpened by the low light and framed by the drape of his ghutra. He was dangerous and handsome at once. Dangerously handsome with those dark, deeply set eyes and strong jaw beneath a short, black beard. Breath-stealing, in fact, in his gold-trimmed bisht that might have been a deep merlot color. It hung open across wide shoulders to reveal his embroidered thobe, tailored to his muscled chest, collar closed at his throat and decorated by a yellow-sapphire the size of her fist.
She told herself it was the alcohol that made her sway, but she suspected it was the impact of his virility.
He straightened and held out a hand. “Come. Before you ruin perfection.”
He sounded indifferent, perhaps a little impatient, but her confused, bruised-up heart reached like a flower toward the sunshine of his compliment. She used her free hand to lift her skirt and carefully placed her feet on each round tile. She was a little too drunk for stepping stones and appreciated when he took the drink from her hand and clasped her forearm, balancing her until she was completely away from the water.
His touch undermined her equilibrium as much as the brandy, though. More, perhaps. Brandy didn’t make her chest feel tight and her eyes dampen with longing. Her ears picked up the distant sound of the wedding music, but all her senses were trained on him. Something in her flowed toward him. Sought…something.
He was tall, radiating magnetism while a force field seemed to surround him, one that made him seem untouchable, which cracked fissures through her that she couldn’t begin to understand.
Maybe it was the brandy causing this overwhelming reaction.
He smelled the glass and his mouth curled with disdain. He set the glass aside.
“You don’t approve of alcohol?”
“I don’t approve of drunkenness.”
It should have sounded too uptight for words, but she was ever-so-sensitive to censure. His condemnation cut surprisingly deep. Why? He was nothing to her.
But he was also like nothing she’d ever experienced—and she’d seen a lot these last few years, living in Europe. He wasn’t like any of the urbane aristocrats or earnest artists she’d met. He didn’t even match what she expected here, in her home country of Khalia. He was almost too iconic in his arrogant sheikh demeanor. She had long decided that if she ever did marry, it would be to a progressive, cultured man from abroad. Not one of these throwback barbarians from five centuries ago.
Yet he was utterly fascinating. A tendril of desire to impress him wormed through her. She wanted to stand here and hold his attention and earn his regard.
Quit being so needy, she heard Malak say in her head. He had learned to live without love or anyone’s good opinion. Why did she think it was necessary?
She didn’t, she told herself and reached for the glass. “It’s my brother’s special day. I’m celebrating.”
“People do stupid things when they’re drunk.” Sheikh Karim of Zyria didn’t raise his hand or even his voice. He didn’t even tell her not to drink it.
Nevertheless, his deep tone carried the quiet command instilled by his station. It was enough to make her falter and reassess him, wisely understanding she would ignore him at her own peril.
He returned her scrutiny, taking advantage of the chance to do so up close. That’s what he told himself he was doing, in any case.
He had watched the royal family all day and evening—the ones who were here, at least. Princess Galila, with her stark resemblance to her deceased mother, fascinated him the most. She flitted like a bird from perch to perch, joining this group and that, welcomed by all and animated as she spoke, flirtatious and not above rolling her eyes at anyone, including her brother, the groom and newly crowned King of Khalia.
Had her mother possessed that same sparkling energy? Was that how she had so ensnared his father? He had seen photos of all of them over the years, but in person Princess Galila was not merely beautiful. She was potent and enthralling, pulling at him in a way he resisted out of principle.
Out of self-preservation, a voice whispered deep in the back of his mind.
Not that he was in danger of infatuation, he assured himself. She struck him as far too superficial, thriving on being the center of attention. The way she smiled and bantered told him she was fully aware of the power in her beauty and sex appeal. She used it without shame to steal the spotlight from every other woman in the room.
That’s why it surprised him when she slipped into the garden and walked away from the party into the family’s private courtyard. He followed because he wanted to understand how this woman’s mother had destroyed and reshaped his entire life—not because he was compelled to keep her in his sights.
Had her mother, Queen Namani, been this vain? He watched Galila preen in front of her own reflection like a love bird, so deeply enamored with herself, she hadn’t been aware of his presence.
He wasn’t a stalker, lurking in shadows, spying on pretty maidens. He was a king, one with questions he had never been able to answer. Besides, he wanted to see her up close. Discover the secret of her allure.
He called her out of the pool—which was when he realized she was drunk.
Disappointing. He abstained, never wanting to be so far into his cups, he thought a leap off a balcony would solve his problems.
As he told her drinking was unwise, he thought for a moment that despair clouded her eyes, but she quickly switched up to using her stunning looks to distract and mesmerize.
“What’s stupid about enjoying myself?” she challenged lightly. She lifted her hair off her neck and let it flow carelessly off her forearm, watching to see if he followed the movement.
There was a man inside this royal casing. He felt desire the same as any other, but he knew when he was being invited to lose focus by ogling a breast. Much as he longed to eye up the weight of her curves, he kept his gaze locked with hers.
“Exhibit A. You’re on a tear of self-destruction.” Locking horns with him was a grave mistake, he silently warned.
She was disconcerted by his unaffected response. She might even have been burned by it. Her brow flinched. She quickly lifted her chin in a rally of spirit, though.
“Perhaps I have reason. Did you think of that?” Her long lashes blinked in big, innocent sweeps.
“I’m sure your life is very fraught,” he said dryly.
“I lost my mother three months ago,” she threw back at him with quiet anguish. “I’m entitled to grieve.”
“You are.” He dipped his head, but that was as much condolence as he was willing to offer. He hadn’t been allowed any self-pity after his father’s death. The circumstance had been far more disturbing and he’d been a child of six. “Drinking yourself blind will only make things worse.”
“How is that possible?” she cried softly. “My father is so grief-stricken, he’s like a shell. I can’t reach him. No one can.” She looked to the huge window where her own reflection had stood. “He misses my mother terribly.”
Karim understood that affliction, too. No matter what he did, he had never been able to ease his mother’s heartbreak over her loss. Protecting her from the fact his father’s death had been a suicide was the best he’d ever been able to do.
“She had an affair,” Galila whispered. “He loved her anyway, but now we all know about it, which seems to have tripled his agony.”
Karim’s heart stopped. Even the breath in his lungs stilled.
As if she noted his jolt of alarm, she nodded to confirm her shocking statement, eyes wide and tortured.
“Your father knew, but kept it from you?” Karim’s mind raced. He had never confided in a single soul, no matter how long and heavily the truth had weighed on him—and it had. Endlessly. With the death of Queen Namani, he had thought that at least the secret of the affair would die when he did.
“He’s known for years!” Her tone rang with outraged astonishment. “He helped her cover it up when she became pregnant. They sent away our half-brother the day he was born.”
Karim had to concentrate on keeping his face expressionless, his feet rooted to the marble tiles so he didn’t fall over. His ears rang as though the soft words had been a canon next to his head.
Galila gave a choking half-laugh of near hysteria. “Explain to me how one processes that sort of news except to get roaring drunk?”
“You have a third brother? A half-brother?” He had a half-brother? His carefully balanced world wasn’t just tilting on its axis. It was reaching such a sharp angle, everything was sliding into a jumbled mess at his feet.
“Yes!” She didn’t seem to notice his deep shock, too caught up in layers of emotional turmoil within herself. “My brothers and I should have been supporting each other, comforting our father, but he showed up at the funeral. Told us how our mother had been writing to him for years. How she regretted sending him away because she loved him best.” Her eyes gleamed with a thick sheen of tears. “Because he was her only link to the man she truly loved.”
Her fist went to the spot over her breast where she seemed to stem the cracks in a bleeding heart.
“Our father had a complete breakdown. Who wouldn’t? We nearly all did! Zufar had to step in and take over— That’s where Zufar’s intended bride is.” She spoke with livid bewilderment, arm flinging out to some unknown location. “He wasn’t supposed to marry Niesha. Amira was promised to him since she was born, but Adir came back this morning and stole her.”
“Adir,” he repeated faintly. That was the name of his brother? He barely heard the rest of what poured out of her.
“Zufar is so single-minded, he married our maid rather than admit there was anything wrong. Malak quit the palace entirely, gone gambling or to work his way through a harem, I imagine. Where does that leave me? With no one. So excuse me if I take some comfort in a bottle of brandy.”
When she reached this time, he got there first and tipped the alcohol onto the tiles. He had to. This news was utterly explosive.
“Who else have you told?” he demanded.
“No one,” she muttered, giving a “Tsk,” of annoyance at the brandy puddle. “Now I have to walk all the way back for a fresh one.”
“Who is Adir’s father?” He kept his voice level, but held the empty glass in such a tight grip, he expected it to shatter in his hand, leaving him dripping blood onto the evaporating alcohol.
“No one knows.” She gave a hair flip. “Mother took one secret to her grave, it seems. Although, I have half a mind to ask around that crowd.” She jerked her chin toward the balcony across the darkened expanse of the garden, where light poured out the open doors to the palace ballroom. “He must be there.”
The elite from all the neighboring kingdoms mingled in a kaleidoscope of colored gowns and robes. Voices competed with the music into a din that suddenly grated on him more than he could bear.
“Why do you think that?” he asked, forcing a tone of mild curiosity while his blood prickled in his veins.
“My mother wouldn’t take up with a servant. It has to be someone of her stature, very likely one of those men congratulating my brother on his mismatched marriage.”
She was right, of course. His father had been exactly at her mother’s level, not that he would confirm it. Maybe the affair had started at an event like this, he now imagined. His father and her mother would have been about this age when they met, in their prime and primal with biological readiness. Judging by Galila’s star power, her mother had been even more alluring when she’d been this age. Perhaps they had slipped away into the shadows to indulge their passion, as other couples were doing even now.
He was far too practical to wish, but he had an uncharacteristic longing to be one of those carefree couples with Galila. If only he could enjoy a simple dalliance, like other people, rather than listening to her sing his personal scandal to the night sky while racking his brain on how to most quickly prevent it going further than his own ears.
She was inordinately desirable, he noted with determined detachment. He almost understood his father’s desolation at being rejected by such a woman. Of course, his father had been married and never should have started the affair in the first place, but Karim had no such restrictions.
In fact, remaining close to this pretty bird was exactly what he ought to do. He had devoted his life to ensuring his mother never learned the truth about his father’s death. He wasn’t about to watch it all come apart through one woman’s brandy-lubricated tongue. In fact, he had to ensure the entire family’s silence on the matter.
“We should get back to the party,” the mysterious stranger said.
Through her haze of growing infatuation, Galila distantly realized she shouldn’t be loitering alone with a man, let alone spilling family secrets in his ear, but there was something exhilarating about holding his attention. For weeks, in many ways years, she’d been an afterthought. Female, and therefore less than her male brothers. Princess, not Queen.
“Mmm, yes, I’d love to fetch a fresh brandy,” she said with a cheeky slant of her lashes at him.
No smile of answering flirtation, only a circumspect look that made her heart sink under the feeling she had disappointed him.
“I don’t need your permission,” she pointed out, but her confidence was a stuttering thing in her chest.
“We’ll see,” he said cryptically, and took her arm to steer her around the pool.
His touch sent a shock of electricity through her. She jolted and nearly turned her ankle. It was disconcerting, made even worse by his disapproving frown.
I’m not that drunk, she wanted to claim, but all coherent thoughts seemed to leave her brain. Her entire being was realigning its magnetic poles to line up with something in him. She wasn’t just aware of him. His presence beside her seemed to surround her in a glow that tingled her skin and warmed her blood. It compressed her breaths while making her feel each one come into her like scent, except it was his aura she was taking into herself.
In a daze, she let him guide her toward the path that would lead them into the garden and back to the wedding reception.
“You don’t drink at all?” she asked, trying desperately to ground herself in reality.
“Oh, please,” she teased, leaning into his firm grip on her elbow. “Let me be the one to initiate you.”
Some dim instinct for self-preservation warned her that provoking him was a terrible idea. Something deeper, even. A sense that her gentle mockery not only failed to impact him, but was misplaced. He wasn’t weak at any level. Nor innocent. He was worldly to the point of cynical, and inimitably strong because he allowed no one to influence him.
Looking up at him as they entered the garden, she noted that his mouth was a work of art. Despite how very serious it was, his lips were full and sensual. How would it feel, crushed over hers?
The flush that went through her at that thought was pure lust, hitting in all her erogenous zones and making her feet tangle into themselves again.
He stopped and steadied her, frowning. “Do I have to carry you?”
She laughed at the thought of it. She was worldly enough to have fooled around with men, but she knew who she was. She had kept her reputation intact along with her virginity for the sake of her family. Maybe even to avoid one more harsh criticism from her mother. The deep-down truth, however, was that she’d never been overcome with enough desire to give her body to anyone.
The compulsion to throw herself into the arms of this man, tonight, was intense enough to unnerve her. A drunk and stupid idea, indeed, but exciting. She didn’t even know his name!
“What were you doing over here? Following me?”
“Same as you.” A muscle in his cheek ticked. “Reflecting.”
“How boring. I’m surprised I didn’t find you drunk and face-down in that pool.”
The severity in his expression didn’t ease. His hold on her arm sent glittering sensations through her bloodstream. She ought to shake him off. What would people think if they returned together? Nothing good, that was certain.
Such a remarkable man, though. One she really didn’t want to share with a party full of beautiful women. She wanted him to be hers. To look on her with adoration and desire.
His expression in the moonlight was cool and decidedly intent. Ruthless, even. But there was hunger buried deep beneath his layers of control. Avid male need that she had seen often enough to recognize it. His narrowed eyes focused on her mouth, telling her his speculation was along the same lines as her own.
“Don’t you want to cast caution to the wind sometimes? I do.” She flipped her hair behind her shoulder again. Look at me. Want me. “Malak gets away with it all the time. I’m tired of being the good girl.”
“Are you?” Something in his silky tone and the way he flicked his gaze down her front wound around her like ribbons, exciting and wicked. Tightening and binding, compressing her breaths, yet making her feel free.
“Am I tired? Or a good girl? I’m both.” She thought of her charity work, her carefully cultivated image of kindness and purity, her endless striving to earn her mother’s approval and her stalwart presence beside the men in her life as they took their own self-destructive paths.
All her life, she had tried to be like her mother. They had all thought Queen Namani so perfect, but she hadn’t been. Why should Galila live up to something that was an illusion? Live up to the expectations of a woman who not only hadn’t held herself to such high standards after all and was dead.
“I’m ready to do what I want.” She pressed herself to his front and lifted her mouth.
“I don’t take advantage of inebriated women,” he said, but with a glance toward the light of the party. His cheeks hollowed, giving his profile a chillingly ruthless appearance. His hands on her arms tightened with some internal struggle.
“I’m not that drunk,” she dismissed in a sultry voice. She was low on inhibition, certainly, but more intoxicated by the excitement he made her feel.
They were in a far away, unlit corner of the garden, where the scent of roses and herbs, orange blossom and frangipani coated the air, making it feel thick as a blanket around her.
“Kiss me,” she demanded when he hesitated.
His hands almost began to push her away, but he only held her like that, staring into her uplifted face. For three heartbeats that shook the entire world, they stood like that, as he debated and came to a decision.
With a muttered imprecation, he circled his arms around her. His fingers dove into her hair, tilting back her head as his mouth came down to cover hers.
For another pulse of time, that’s all it was. One mouth against another while the universe seemed to open itself, leaving her utterly vulnerable, yet transfixed by the vast beauty of it.
With a harsh noise in his throat, he dragged his lips across hers. Instantly they were engulfed in a kiss that was beyond anything she had ever experienced. Intimate and passionate. Hot and damp and demanding. A statement of possession, but with a quality that swept her into abandoning herself willingly. Joyfully.
The texture of his tongue met her own, boldly erotic. She reacted with a moan and mashed herself into him so hard her breasts hurt, but it felt good, too. The contact assuaged the tips that stung like bites. When he started to ease back, she whimpered and pressed her hand to the cloth covering his head, urging him to continue kissing her with this mad passion. She wanted to feel his hair, taste his skin, strip naked and know the weight of him over her.
She wanted to know how that hard flesh that was pressing against her belly would feel stroking inside her intimate flesh.
With an abrupt move and a ragged hiss of indrawn air, he pulled back. “Not here.”
Did he read her mind? Her body?
“My room,” she whispered, already plotting their discreet path through the halls of the palace.
“Mine,” he stated. She couldn’t tell if it was a preference of location or he was staking a claim on her. Either way, she let him take her hand and drag her from the garden toward the stairs that led up to balcony outside the ballroom.
She balked in the shadows at the bottom of the steps. “My lipstick. People will know.”
“I thought you were ready to take control of your own life?”
In the slant of light, she saw a mercilessness curl at the corner of his mouth. He pivoted them a few steps into the shadows beside the wall of the steps.
She was more than ready to give herself to him, but this was her home. Her brother’s wedding. She was the Princess of Khalia. She was sober enough to know that she had to be discreet about having an affair, not parade it through the middle of a state ceremony.
But as her would-be lover pressed her to the stones that had barely cooled in the hours since sundown, she forgot her misgivings. Her hands found the heat of his neck and she parted her lips, moaning as he kissed her again.
He transported her to that place of magic they seemed to create between them.
As she lost herself to his kiss again, he stroked her hip and thigh, urging her to pick up her knee and make space for him between her legs. Cool air grazed her skin as he shifted her skirt up, up and out of the way, touching—
She gasped at the first contact of fingertips against the back of her thigh. Arrows of pleasure shot into her core, making her yearn so badly her eyes grew damp along with her underthings. She arched her neck as he trailed his mouth down her throat.
It was exquisite and joyful and…
He was hard where he pressed between her legs, but something was off.
She touched the side of his face, urging him to lift his head. There was heat in his glittering eyes, but it was banked behind a cooler emotion. Something deliberate. His skin might have been flushed with arousal, but his expression was dispassionate.
He wasn’t as involved as she was.
Hurt and unease began to worm through her, but before she could fully react, she heard a gasp and a giggle above them. Someone said a pithy, “Get a room.”
“That’s the princess!” a female voice hissed.
“With who?” She knew that demanding masculine voice. She looked up to see several faces peering down at them over the wall of the balcony, one of them her brother’s. He did not look pleased.
Did her lover release her leg to find a modicum of decorum? Not right away. Not before she caught a dark look of satisfaction in his hard features.
Gaze solely on her, he very slowly eased his hold on her leg so his touch branded into her skin as she lowered her thigh. Humiliation pulsed in her throat, made all the more painful by the way he had gone from passionately excited to…this. Remote. Unaffected. Perhaps even satisfied by her public set down.
Angry and embarrassed as she was, her abdomen still tightened in sensual loss as he drew away from their full-frontal contact, which only added to her mortification.
“You were right. We should have gone to your room.”
She had no choice but to take refuge there. Alone and fast.
Galila woke to a dull headache, some low-level nausea that was more chagrin than hangover, and a demand that she present herself to her brother immediately.
Despite what she would have hoped was a fulfilling wedding night, Zufar was in a foul mood and fifteen minutes in, didn’t seem to be tiring of tearing strips off her.
“You can’t bring that sort of shame down on the palace and think it doesn’t matter.”
“What shame?” she cried, finally allowed a word in edgewise. “A few people saw us kissing. Malak behaves far worse all the time.”
“And you hate it when he gets the attention! You couldn’t put your own silly need to be in the spotlight on hold for one night? The night of my wedding? Is anyone talking about our ceremony or my bride? No. The buzz is all about the fact you were seen behaving like a tart.”
“You’re welcome,” she said with a glance at her manicure. “Because the things they were saying about your marriage to the maid weren’t all that flattering.”
“Mind how you talk to your king, little sister,” he said in a tone that should have terrified, but she refused to take him seriously. It was just the two of them in here and he was behaving like a Neanderthal.
“I don’t know what you want me to do,” she said, throwing up her arms. “I can’t undo it.”
“You could start by promising you’ll show more decorum in future. This shouldn’t even be happening. Why mother let you go this long without marrying you off to someone who can control you, I will never understand.”
“Can’t you?” she bit out sharply.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“She saw me as competition, Zufar.” It was plain as day.
“Get over yourself, Galila. You are the one who sees everyone as competition. Take heed now. I won’t have you upstaging my queen. You will learn to take a back seat.”
They were interrupted by a servant. He entered after a brief, but urgent knock and hurried to lean into Zufar’s ear. All Galila caught was, “…very insistent.”
Zufar’s expression hardened. “Show him in.” As she turned, Zufar added, “Where do you think you’re going?” He glared at Galila’s attempt to exit.
“I assumed we were done.”
“You wish. No, I have no idea why he insists on speaking to me, but I imagine it concerns you, so you’ll stand here while he does.”
“Who?” She looked to the door the servant had left through.
“Sheikh Karim of Zyria.”
“Is that his name?” She had imagined he was one of their more illustrious guests, but hadn’t realized—
Zufar slammed his hand onto his desktop, making her jump.
“Do not tell me you didn’t even know the name of the man who had his hand up your skirt.”
Okay. She looked to the corner of the ceiling, biting the insides of her cheeks.
“Do you honestly think my life has room for your childish antics?” Zufar demanded.
She started to scowl at him, but he came in. Sheikh Karim of Zyria. He had exchanged his ceremonial garb of last night for a western-style bespoke suit in slate gray sans headdress.
If possible, he was even more knee-weakeningly handsome. The crisp white of his shirt and blood-red tie suggested a man who commanded any world he occupied. He stole the breath from her body in a psychic punch, utterly overwhelming her.
His gaze spiked into hers as though he’d been waiting to see her again, but before her heart fully absorbed that sensation, he offered a terse nod and turned his attention to her brother, leaving her feeling promptly dismissed and inexplicably bereft.
After ensuring Princess Galila had indeed retired for the night, Karim had gone to his own guest apartment, somewhat disgusted with himself. He had been telling the truth when he claimed not to take advantage of women in a weakened state. He considered himself an honorable man.
But he hadn’t been able to take chances that she would leak his secret to someone else after her next sip of brandy.
He had been wrestling with his conscience over whether he should seduce this tipsy woman to his room, where he could at least contain her, when she had thrown herself against him in the darkest corner of the garden.
Their kiss had been the most potent drug imaginable, jamming into his veins and bringing him throbbingly alive at the first taste of her. As if he’d been dead for three decades. Existing, yet not seeing or tasting or smelling. Not feeling.
Then, for heart-stopping minutes, he had been resurrected. Sunlight had dawned upon him, shaking him awake from a long freeze. Everything in him had wanted to plunge into that world and never leave it.
Somehow, he had pulled back, much the way any sane man would catch himself before teetering like a crazed addict into a hallucinogenic abyss.
That shockingly intense reaction had been a lesson. One he would heed. Now he knew exactly how dangerous she was. It meant he had been prepared to withstand the power of her effect on him when he had taken advantage of her.
He kept telling himself his abominable actions were for honorable ends. He was protecting her family as much as his own. His deliberately public display had worked beautifully to put an end to any inquiries she might have made about the man who had impregnated her mother.
The rest of his strategy would play out now.
With one brief glance, he took in her suitably demure dove-gray skirt and jacket with a flash of passion-pink blouse beneath. Her hair was rolled into a knot behind her head, but she was every bit as beautiful as she’d been last night, if looking a little haunted around the eyes and pouty around the mouth.
He didn’t allow his gaze to linger, even though the flush on her skin was a sensual reminder of her reaction to him last night. She had worn a similar color when their kisses had sent the pulse in her neck racing against the stroke of his tongue. That response of hers had been as beguiling as the rest, and not something he could allow himself to recollect or he’d embarrass himself.
For the most part, Karim kept his emotions behind a containment wall of indifference. It wasn’t usually so difficult. He’d been doing it his whole life.
Last night, however, this woman had put more than one fracture in his composure. Those tiny cracks had to be sealed before they spread. His reaction to her would be controlled. His command of this situation would be logical and deliberate. Effectual—as all of his actions and decisions were throughout his life.
He started by refusing to react with any degree of emotion when her brother offered a blistering, opening attack.
“I expect better of a man in your position, Karim.” Zufar didn’t even rise, lifting only one sneering corner of his mouth. “You should have the grace to be gone by now.”
“Allow me to make reparation for any harm to your family’s reputation,” Karim said smoothly. “I’ll marry her.”
Galila gasped. “What? I’m not going to marry you.”
Karim flicked a glance to her outraged expression. “Do not tell me you are promised elsewhere.” He had to fight to control his reaction, never having experienced such a punch of possessiveness in his life. He would shed blood.
“No.” She scowled. “But I’m not ready to marry anyone. Certainly not a stranger. Not just because I kissed you. It’s ridiculous!”
“It’s highly practical and a good match.” He had spent much of the night reasoning that out, determined emotions wouldn’t enter into this arrangement. “You’ll see,” he assured her. Her flair of passion could wait for the bedroom.
“I will not see!”
“Quiet.” Zufar held up a hand, rising to his feet.
Galila rushed forward and brushed it down.
“Don’t tell me to be quiet,” she hissed. “I will decide whom I marry. And while it’s a kind offer—” she said in a scathing tone that suggested she found Karim’s proposal anything but, she stared Karim right in the eye as she said an emphatic, “No.”
Her crackling heat reached toward him, licking at the walls he forced himself to keep firmly in place.
“Clearly your sister has a mind of her own.” She was the kind of handful he would normally avoid, but greater things were at risk than his preference for a drama-free existence. “Was that the problem with your first bride?” Karim asked Zufar with a blithe kick below the belt. “Is that why she ran off with your brother?”
“What?” Zufar’s voice cracked like a whip, but Karim kept his gaze on his intended bride, watching her flush of temper pale to horror.
“Half-brother, I mean,” he corrected himself very casually, despite feeling nothing of the sort. This was high-stakes gambling with a pair of twos he was bluffing into a straight flush.
“Galila.” Zufar’s tone was deadly enough that Karim shifted his attention—and the position of his body—to easily insert himself between the two if necessary.
Incensed as her brother looked, he didn’t look violent. And culpable as Galila grew, she didn’t look scared. She was glaring blame at Karim.
“Why are you doing this?” Her voice was tight and quiet.
“I am in need of a wife. Or so my government takes every opportunity to inform me.” It wasn’t a lie. “You are of suitable… What was the word you used when describing your mother’s lover? Station? Stature. That was it.”
“This goes beyond even your usual nonsense,” Zufar said in a tone graveled with fury. “A moment ago, you didn’t even know his name, yet you talked to him about our family’s most intimate business?”
“I was drunk.” She looked away, cheeks glowing with guilt and shame. “That’s not an excuse, but it’s been a very trying time, Zufar. You know it has. For all of us.”
Zufar’s eyes narrowed on her and his cheeks hollowed, almost as if he might accept that as reason enough for her imprudent behavior.
“Allow me to assure you,” Karim said with scalpel like precision. “That if you agree to our marriage, your family’s secrets will stay between us.”
The siblings stood in thunderous astonishment for a few moments.
“And if I don’t agree to the marriage?” Zufar asked, but Karim could see they both already knew the answer.
“Blackmail?” Galila asked with quiet outrage. “Why would you stoop so low? Why do you have to?” she challenged sharply.
He didn’t. He hadn’t made marriage a priority for a number of reasons, most of them superficial and convenience-related. He was a workaholic who barely had time for his mother—who still very much needed him. Women expected things. Displays of emotion. Intimacy that went beyond the physical.
“I’m not going to hurt you, if that’s what you’re suggesting,” Karim scoffed. “I’ll treat you as gently and carefully as the pretty little bird you are.”
“In a gilded cage? You know, you could ask me to marry you, not trap me into it.”
“Will you marry me?”
“No. I would never have anything to do with someone as calculating and ruthless as you are.”
“You already know me so well, princess, you’re practically made for me. It certainly seemed that way last night.”
Zufar made a noise of outrage while Galila stomped her foot, blushing deep into her open collar.
“Stop talking about that! There are other women,” Galila insisted. “Pick one.”
“I want you.”
“I won’t do it.”
Karim only swung his attention back toward her brother. “I’ve made it clear what I’m prepared to do to get her.”
“Why? What else do you want?” Zufar flared his nostrils in fury.
Above all, Karim wanted to forestall any speculation on who might be the mysterious man their mother had fallen for. If it became known that Queen Namini’s lover had been his father, King Jamil, the news would not only destroy his mother, but it would rock both kingdoms right down to their foundations. Not to mention what this newly discovered half-brother might do with the knowledge.
So Karim only asked, “Is it so remarkable I might want her?”
“You didn’t even introduce yourself. Last night was a set up,” Zufar said.
“Oh, thank you very much,” Galila interjected hotly, but hurt and accusation lingered behind her glossy eyes as she glared at Karim. “I don’t care what you threaten. I’m not some camel you’re trading.”
Karim had given his explanation some thought as he had lain awake last night, having anticipated that Zufar was a man of intelligence, capable of seeing his sister was being used for reasons that went beyond her obvious charms.
“I’m not the only man who noticed last night that the princess is very beautiful,” he said to Zufar. “She’s unmarried and much is changing in Khalia with you taking your father’s place. An alliance with the sister of the new king could only be an advantage.”
“And you think I want to form an alliance with a man of your methods?” Zufar scoffed.
“If I’m married to your sister, yes. I think we will both work toward aligning our countries’ goals. And I believe, in the long run, you’ll appreciate my methods. I’m saving you months of fielding offers from lesser men and having to play politics in refusing them.”
“Such magnanimity,” Zufar said with venom-like sarcasm, adding darkly, “But I can’t refute the logic.”
“Try harder, Zufar,” Galila said scathingly. “Because I won’t marry him and you can’t make me.”
“I’m your king, Galila.” He said it flatly, but not unkindly.
As she tried to stare down her brother, her crossed expression slowly faded into something disconcerted. She began to realize what she was up against and grew pale.
“Zufar. You can’t.”
“I am not Mummy and Daddy who you can manipulate with your crocodile tears. You have stepped way over the line this time. I can’t put this back in the box for you.” It was tough-love in action, something Karim would normally subscribe to, but he sensed genuine distress in the way she reached for a tone of reason, but her voice trembled.
“This isn’t like our parents’ time when everything was arranged and Mommy was promised to Daddy from when she was a girl. We are allowed to marry for love—”
“Did I get the bride I wanted?” Zufar interjected. “The time we are in, Galila, is one where we all have to make sacrifices for the crown of Khalia. You made this bed you’re already half in.” He sent a dark look at Karim. “Whether you were seduced into it or tricked or went there of your own volition.”
Karim didn’t bother explaining that as far as that side of it went, she had been a willing partner. He might not be a man who indulged his passions, but he and Galila certainly hadn’t lacked for any. That was the one thing that made him cautious about this arrangement, but that was a worry for a later time, after he got what he wanted.
Which was her.
Even though she looked shattered by his demand for her hand. She visibly shook, but found the courage to turn and confront him. “I refuse. Do you understand me?”
“Come,” Karim responded, holding out his hand, almost moved to pity by her anxiety, but not enough to change his mind. “It is done.”
“It is not,” she insisted. “I’m going to talk to my father.”
“You should inform him,” Karim agreed. “Do that while I negotiate our marriage contract with your king.”
Her father offered no help whatsoever. He gave her a half-hearted pat on her cheek, eyes red and weary.
“It’s past time you married. Listen to your brother. He knows what is best for you.”
No, he didn’t!
Malak didn’t even answer her text. Her friend Amira was gone—kidnapped much the way Galila was about to be. Even her one trusted ally within the palace, Niesha, had gone from being someone who might cover for her long enough for a getaway, to queen. Galila wasn’t allowed to see her without an appointment and didn’t have time to make one. A travel case had already been packed for her and Karim was knocking on the door to her apartment while she flittered back and forth in a panic.
“Ready?” The detached question made her long to dismiss him as a robot, but there was something deeply alive about him. He was a lion. All-powerful and predatory, completely unfeeling in what he pursued or how much pain he caused, so long as he could feast on whatever it was he desired.
“I will never forgive you for this,” she said in reply.
“Let’s save our vows for our wedding day.”
“There won’t be one.” She used a glare that unfailingly set a man in his place, but he was impervious, meeting her icy gaze without flinching.
Much to her chagrin, as she maintained the eye contact, she felt the tug of desire all over again. His eyes were such a dark brown they were almost black, velvety and holding far more depth than she initially gave credit for.
The whole time he had been blackmailing her brother, and admitting that he had manipulated her last night to capture her hand before anyone else could, she had been thinking about how delicious he had made her feel.
She had thought about him all night, mostly feeling disappointed that they’d been caught and interrupted, not nearly as mortified as her brother had wanted her to feel when he had called her on the carpet.
But the enigmatic stranger who had kissed her was gone. He had turned into this disinterested man who had used her. His complete lack of reaction toward her, his utter indifference, reminded her that all the feelings and attraction had been on her side. That thought carved a hole right next to the ones already leaving a hollow feeling inside her.
Even if it was time she married, even if she absolutely had to succumb to marriage, it should be to a man who wanted her. Not Zufar’s sister. Not the Princess of Khalia. Not the politically expedient ally. Her.
He ought to at least offer her the adoration her mother had had from their father. No one should expect her to accept this.
And yet, as they walked outside to the cars, a polite round of applause went up.
For appearance’s sake, her brother had announced that their engagement had been kept secret for weeks, so as not to overshadow the coming wedding. If Zufar thought the departing wedding guests believed that, there were several bridges in America he could purchase at an excellent price.
Repulsed as she was by the lie, she didn’t make a scene. Far too late for that. She accepted congratulations with a warm, delighted smile. Let them all think this was as grand a romance as her brother tried to package it.
The better to humiliate Karim when she left him in the dust.
“Are you really a sheikh?”
Oh, had his fiancée finally chosen to speak to him? He glanced up from his productive hour on his laptop.
She hadn’t cried or begged as they left the palace, which he had half expected. She had thrown waves of cold, silent resentment at him, making it clear that if he hadn’t personally escorted her into the car, and then his helicopter, she wouldn’t be here.
As a man highly in demand and averse to theatrics, Karim told himself that receiving the silent treatment was gift. At the same time, he had to acknowledge her strength of will was more than he had bargained for. He wasn’t someone who thrived on challenge and overcoming conflict. He didn’t shy from it, either. He met obstacles head on and expected them to get out of his way.
This woman, however, with her royal blood seething with passion, wasn’t cowed by the mere timber of his voice. On the surface, she appeared soft and delicate, but he was beginning to see a length of steel in her spine.
He hoped like hell that didn’t portend clashes. He had no time for tantrums.
“I am,” he answered mildly.
Her skeptical gaze left the window to scan the interior of the helicopter cabin, then dropped to the clothes he’d changed into for travel. He’d worn a suit for his high-stakes meeting with her brother, but wore typical Arab attire as often as possible. Not for religious or political reasons, but because he found it the most comfortable.
“I was not expecting company when I left Zyria,” he explained of his helicopter and its lack of attendant. It only seated four in the cabin, but very comfortably. “This aircraft is the fastest and most flexible.” He could fly it if he had to and regularly did, to keep up his skills. He would be doing so now, if she wasn’t here, not that she seemed to want his company.
Her brows lifted in brief disdain as her attention went back out the window. Her frown increased and he almost smiled, realizing why she was skeptical.
The metropolis of his country’s capital, Nabata, was not appearing beneath the descending helicopter. Instead, all she would see out there was a speck of a palace in the rugged desert.
“My mother is looking forward to meeting you. She spends much of her time at the palace my father built for her away from the city.” She liked to escape grim memories.
It almost felt an insult to bring the daughter of his father’s lover to meet his mother, the former Queen Tahirah. She had no idea of her husband’s infidelity, of course. Keeping the knowledge from her was why Karim had orchestrated to marry Galila, but he knew. It grated against his conscience along with the rest of the secrets he kept.
Galila noted his expression and asked, “What?” with a small frown. She looked hurt as she touched the scarf she had tucked beneath her popped collar, then glanced down to ensure her skirt and jacket were unstained and barely wrinkled. “Is my hair mussed?”
He cleared whatever shadows had invaded his expression. “No. You’re beautiful. Perfect.”
Her thick lashes swept down and she showed him her profile, but he knew she was eyeing him, suspicious of his compliment.
“You are and you know it,” he chided. “Don’t expect me to pander to your vanity.”
Her painted mouth tightened. “Because I’m not a person whose feelings you care about, or even an object you desire. I’m a rung on a ladder.”
He pursed his lips, weighing her words and the scorn beneath them.
“Our marriage is expedient, yes. That doesn’t mean it can’t be successful. Many arranged marriages are.”
“When both parties agree to said marriage, I’m sure they are.”
They landed and disembarked, forestalling further debate—which was unproductive at this point. She was going to marry him and that was that.
“This is very beautiful,” Galila said, gazing on the pink marble and intricately carved teak doors.
While Karim agreed, he found the extravagance of the palace disturbing. Clearly his father had been eager to please his wife with it. This wasn’t a guilty conscience. He had built it before Queen Namani came into the picture. Sadly, whatever he had felt for Karim’s mother had been overshadowed by what he had felt for the other woman. Karim and his mother hadn’t been enough to live for, once Queen Namani ended their affair.
What, then, must his father have felt for Queen Namani if his first infatuation had produced this sort of monument? It was a depth of passion—of possession—Karim couldn’t wrap his head around. He instinctively shied from examining it too closely, maintaining a safe distance the way he would a conflagration or other life-threatening force.
As Galila started up the steps, he touched her arm, halting her.
She stilled and seemed to catch her breath. A soft blush rose under her skin.
Her reaction caused an echoing thrill inside him, one that warned him that he was tying himself to a ticking bomb and had to be very careful. On the surface, this physical compatibility might be exciting and promise a successful union, but he knew what indulged passion could do to a man.
He yanked the reins on his own response, hard, especially as he realized he was taking advantage of every opportunity to touch her and still had his palm on her arm. He dropped his hand to his side with self-disgust.
She was looking right at him and whatever she read in his expression made a tiny flinch cross her features. It was gone so fast, he could have been mistaken, but it slid an invisible wall between them, one that niggled at him.
She lifted her chin to a haughty angle. “Yes?”
“You’ll be kind to my mother.”
Her spine grew tall with offense. “I’m always kind.” She flipped her hair. “I was being kind last night when I let you kiss me.”
It took him a full second to understand that the unfamiliar sensation in his throat was an urge to laugh. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d loosened up enough for that, and fought it out of instinct.
At the same time, a deeper reaction—not ego, but definitely something that had roots in his masculinity—was affronted at her dismissal of their kisses last night. He knew exactly how potent they were and didn’t care for her trying to dismiss that inferno as ‘kindness.’
The impulse to show her… But no. He refused to allow her to disarm him in any way. He waved her forward. “I’ll look forward to your next act of kindness, then.”
She narrowed her eyes.
“Come.” He broke the eye contact. He could not, under any circumstances, become enamored with her. He had seen with his own eyes what falling for her mother had done to his father. He would not be another casualty to a Khalia temptress.
Despite its compact size and remote location, expenses had not been spared on the desert palace. Galila was no stranger to wealth, but she had to appreciate the effort of transporting marble and teak doors.
Inside, a fountain provided a musical ripple of noise and cooled the air. Columns rose three stories to a stained-glass dome. Mosaics in green and blue covered the walls to eye-height before switching to delicate patterns in golds and blues and tangerines. Wrought iron marked the second and third-floor walkways that encircled this grand foyer.
“I don’t know what this is. A genie’s lamp?” She was in love. “It’s too beautiful for words.”
Karim drew her up stairs so thickly carpeted their shoes made no sound. They entered his mother’s parlor where he introduced her to Queen Tahirah.
The older woman rose to greet them, her face holding deeply etched marks of grief that reminded Galila of the ones her father wore.
“It’s like Queen Namani has come to visit me. Her beauty survives if not my dear friend,” she murmured, taking Galila’s hands as she studied her features. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you,” Galila murmured, returning Tahirah’s kisses against her cheeks, genuinely touched by her condolence. “I didn’t realize you knew my mother, but of course you must have met her at some point through the years.”
Was it her imagination that Karim stiffened? She glanced at him, but only saw the aloof expression she couldn’t read. The one that stung because it felt like a condemnation for reasons she didn’t understand.
“When we were young, yes,” his mother said, drawing her attention back to her. “We often met up after we were both married, but lost touch after my husband passed. My fault. I ceased most of my royal duties and rarely went on social visits. I couldn’t face the responsibilities without my soul, Jamil. Thankfully Karim’s uncle was able to manage things until Karim was old enough to take his rightful position. And now my son has found happiness.” Her faint smile was a weak ray of light in her otherwise anguished expression.
Oh yes, they were both quite giddy and could hardly contain themselves, Galila thought, but she was kind to the less fortunate. Tahirah might be surrounded by extravagance, but she was the epitome of money not buying happiness. Her heart was clearly broken and had been for a long time.
“I expect we will both be very content as we go into the future,” Galila prevaricated, adding a silent, separately. Read the news blogs, gentlemen. Times had changed.
“And the wedding?” Tahirah asked.
“Within the month,” Karim said firmly. “As soon as it can be arranged.”
Galila stiffened, wondering if he had been planning to ask her about the timeline, but kept her pique to herself as Tahirah drew her across to the satin covered loveseat.
“There’s time for you to wear my engagement ring, then. I had it brought out of the safe.”
“I— Don’t know what to say.” Galila looked from the velvet box that Tahirah presented to her, then looked up to Karim, completely taken aback.
He nodded slightly, urging her to accept it.
She opened it and caught her breath.
An enormous pink diamond was surrounded by white baguettes. The wide band was scrolled with tendrils of smaller diamonds, making it as ostentatious as anything could be, but it was also such a work of art, it had to be admired. Coveted and adored, as every woman would want to be by her fiancé as she anticipated joining with him for a lifetime.
Her heart panged at the intrinsic love that shone from such a piece, something she would never have if she married this man. She swallowed, searching for a steady voice.
“This is stunning. Obviously very special. I’m beyond honored.” Filled with anguish that this was such a farce of a marriage when this ring was clearly from a marriage of total devotion. “Are you quite sure?” She looked again to Karim, helplessly in love with it, but not wanting to accept something so precious when she was quite determined to abandon him at the first opportunity. She couldn’t be kind and lie to this poor woman.
“I am,” Tahirah said with a husk in her voice. “I haven’t worn it in years, but it is beautiful, isn’t it? Karim’s father loved me so much. Spoiled me outrageously. Built me this palace…” She blinked nostalgia-laden eyes. “Losing him still feels as raw today.” She squeezed Galila’s hand. “And I’m quite sure Karim is as enamored with you. He has always told me he was waiting for the right woman. I’m delighted he finally found you.”
Galila’s conjured a feeble smile that she hoped his mother interpreted as overwhelm. She felt very little conscience in defying her brother or even Karim, but misrepresenting herself to Tahirah was disrespectful and hurtful. She was genuinely sorry that she was going to disappoint her.
Karim took the ring from the box and held out his hand for Galila to offer hers.
His warm touch on her cool fingers made her draw in her navel and hold her breath, but it didn’t stop the trickle of heat that wound through her, touching like fairy dust to secretive places, leaving glittering heat and a yearning she didn’t completely understand.
Yet again, she had the waffling moment of wishing there could be something more between them, something real, but he was being entirely too heavy-handed. She was a modern woman, not someone who would succumb to a man because she’d been ordered to by another.
At the same time, she reacted to Karim as he bent to kiss her cheek. The corners of her mouth stopped cooperating and went every direction. She thought he drew a deliberate inhale, drinking in the scent of her skin when his face was that close, but he straightened away and she was lost at sea again.
She looked to her hands in her lap, pulse throbbing in her throat and tried to focus on the ring. When she finally saw it clearly, she was utterly taken with it—as she was by all sparkly, pretty things. But it was legitimately loose on her, not even staying on her middle finger without dropping right off.
“I would feel horrible if anything happened to it,” she said truthfully to Karim. “Would you please take custody of it until it can be resized?”
“If you prefer.”
“Do you mind?” she asked Tahirah before she removed it. “I would be devastated if I lost it. It’s so beautiful and means so much to you.”
Tahirah looked saddened, but nodded. “Of course. It’s even loose on me these days. It fit me perfectly through my pregnancy and Karim’s childhood, but I haven’t had a proper appetite since losing his father. Once I took it off, I couldn’t bear to wear it again. It reminded me too starkly of what I’d lost. Everything does.”
This was why Karim was marrying Galila, this anguish that his mother carried three decades after her loss. How could he take the grief she attributed to a tragic accident and reveal her husband had deliberately left her? That he had thrown himself off a balcony, rather than face life without the real object of his love?
Fortunately, Galila asked about the palace and other things, not letting his mother dwell too far in the darkness of the past. Karim had been worried when the topic of her mother had come up as they arrived, but now they were moving on to a recap of her brother’s wedding and other harmless gossip.
At a light knock, his mother said, “I’ve had a luncheon prepared. Shall we go through to my private dining room?”
Galila excused herself to freshen up.
“She seems lovely,” his mother said as Galila disappeared.
“She is,” Karim said, relieved to discover Galila was so skillful at small talk. Their marriage was expedient, and he had spent a restless night thinking that having her as a wife would be sexually gratifying if a dangerous game, but he was seeing potential for the sort of partner who fit into his world as if made for it.
She was royal herself. Of course she understood the niceties and other social finesses that were required, especially with women and the older generation. He wasn’t sure he wanted to like her for it, though. He needed all his guards up at all times.
A servant started to come in, saw they were still in the parlor, and quickly made apologies for interrupting them, turning to exit just as quickly.
He noticed what the girl held and waved her to come in and attend to her task.
“Haboob?” he asked his mother as the maid crouched to set the seals in place around the door onto the balcony. He’d been too distracted this morning to check the weather, but the dust storms came up very suddenly, which was probably why his pilot hadn’t said anything.
“I’ll have rooms prepared for you,” his mother said, taking his arm as he led her into her private dining room. It overlooked the oasis next to which the palace was built. The wind was already tugging at the fronds of the palms and whirling sand into small devils.
“I need to return to Nabata this afternoon. Perhaps we’ll skip the meal—” He glanced up as a different servant appeared, wide-eyed and anxiously wringing her hands. Thankfully, she stood behind his mother so his mother didn’t see her.
Karim knew instantly what the trouble was. Galila should have rejoined them by now. He scratched his cheek, not revealing his instantaneous fury.
“You’ll have to excuse us, Mother. We’ll stay ahead of the storm. I hope you’ll join us in Nabata very soon and have a proper chance to get to know Galila before the wedding.”
“Of course,” she said with disappointment. “Be careful. I should say goodbye.”
“No need.” He kissed her cheek and strode from the room, taking the maid into the hall with him. He asked which car Galila had taken, then hurried outside the palace to snap his fingers at his pilot.
They had to catch his runaway princess before she was caught in the coming storm.