The Sheikh and the Runaway Princess(Desert Rogues, Book 4)(22) by Susan Mallery
He dismissed her protestation with a flick of his wrist. “You are enjoying your time in my city and most especially in my company. Would you prefer to be meeting your betrothed?”
She stared in surprise. “How do you know about the troll prince?”
Kardal nearly choked as he swallowed, then glared at her. “The what?”
“Troll prince. My father has betrothed me to some horrible man.”
“How do you know he is horrible?”
“Because my father has never been concerned about me. This is—as he put it—an alliance, not a marriage.” She shrugged. “I suppose the good news is that you’re slightly better than the troll prince, but not by much. So how did you know about my betrothal?”
“I hear rumors.” He passed her a strawberry. “Returning to our former subject, you did not attend your mother’s infamous parties?”
Sabrina wrinkled her nose. “Not if I could avoid it. She and I are so different, I have trouble believing we’re related. However, I do look like her, so there’s no question that she found me under a rock and took me home.”
“I have seen pictures of your mother,” he told her. “I find you more attractive.”
The man was holding her captive, she reminded herself. He’d taken her from the desert, forced her—until tonight—to dress like a harem call girl. She still had on her slave bracelets and who knew what other tortures he had in mind for her. So she should absolutely not care that he thought she was prettier than her mother. Yet she did.
“Yes, well, isn’t that interesting?” she mumbled, not looking at him as she pleated the napkin on her lap.
They were sitting by the fireplace in her bedroom. Their meal had been set on a low table, with cushions serving as seats. When Adiva had reverently announced that the great Kardal was being gracious enough to dine with her, Sabrina had thought she might show him her appreciation by throwing the dishes at his head. But somehow she’d never found the right moment. Maybe it was because she sort of liked having someone to talk to. It wasn’t as if she had any friends at the palace in Bahania.
“In addition to your boarding school in Los Angeles, did you also study when you were with your father?” Kardal asked.
“No. I only stayed with him in the summer. He mostly shuffled me off with nannies or companions.” Sabrina held in a sigh. Thinking about her father always made her sad. “A few of them were from different countries, so that was interesting. I learned about their customs and a bit of their native language.”
She set her napkin on the table and drew her knees to her chest. “Moving between the two worlds was more complicated than people might think. When I first arrived for my summer stays, I was always startled by the palace and how everything was so different here. My father was busy running the government and training my brothers. I felt out of place and not very welcome.”
“A household of men,” Kardal said. “I’m sure they did not know what to do with you.”
“I guess I can see that, although at the time I simply felt unwanted. I would spend a lot of time reading about Bahanian history and talking with the servants. Just as soon as I started to feel like I finally belonged, I had to go back to California. Then I had the same sort of adjustment all over again. My friends would talk about their summer vacations and all the things they did. What was I supposed to say? ‘Gee, I went to stay in my palace by the sea and practiced being a princess’?” She grimaced. “It sounds wonderful to someone on the outside, but it wasn’t. Besides, I really didn’t want anyone to know who or what I was. All they knew was that I visited my father in the Middle East. I never said who he was.”
Kardal stared at her. His intense gaze made her uncomfortable.
“Is this boring you?” she asked, wondering why she would have thought he would be the least bit interested in her life.
“Not at all,” he said slowly. He leaned toward her slightly. “Your story isn’t unfamiliar. I, too, grew up caught between two worlds.”
He paused as if he wasn’t going to say any more. Sabrina didn’t interrupt. She couldn’t possibly imagine what she and the Prince of Thieves would have in common.
Kardal stared past her toward the door. She wondered what he was really seeing.
“I was a child of the desert,” he said at last. “I could ride as soon as I could walk and my days were spent with the other children of the city. We had great adventures, first within the protective walls surrounding us, then out in the desert.”
A slight smile tugged at his mouth. “I could ride like the wind and hunt with the skill and cunning of a desert fox. Part of each year, I traveled with the tribes and learned their ways.”
“Sounds wonderful,” she breathed.
“It was. Until I turned ten and my mother decided it was time for me to become educated. She sent me to a prep school in New England.” The smile faded and his mouth formed a straight line. “I did not fit in with the other boys.”
She winced. “I can’t even imagine what that was like. You don’t strike me as a coat and tie kind of guy.”
“I had never worn such garments,” he admitted. “I knew nothing of their ways, I barely spoke their language. My reading skills were minimal. I’d always had a head for mathematics, but no formal training.” He raised one shoulder. “I spent much of that year being punished for fighting.”
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