The Sheikh and the Virgin Princess(Desert Rogues, Book 5)(4) by Susan Mallery
“What are you doing?” Cleo asked the second they were alone. “Why do you want to go back to the hotel? Zara, this is your chance to meet the king.”
Zara set her drink on the desk, rose and paced to the window. “Don’t you get it? Couldn’t you tell by the way he was looking at us? Rafe thinks we’re here for money.”
Cleo grinned. “Isn’t that one of the perks of being a princess?”
“I’m serious. He doesn’t believe us. He thinks we’re going to blackmail the king or something. It’s horrible.” She folded her arms over her chest.
All the times she’d imagined coming to Bahania, she tried to think of everything that could go wrong. She’d pictured the king telling her she wasn’t his daughter. She’d thought about having him admit to being her father and not wanting anything to do with her. She’d even figured he might think she was crazy. But she’d never thought anyone would think she was in it for the money.
“Why couldn’t Mom have fallen in love with a banker or an executive? Why did it have to be the King of Bahania?”
Cleo didn’t bother to respond. Zara knew her sister thought she was crazy for not simply marching up to the king and announcing she was his long-lost daughter. As if Zara had any chance of getting close to a member of the royal family. Besides, Cleo didn’t understand her ambivalence about the whole situation. Things had looked a lot clearer from five thousand miles away.
The door opened and Rafe entered. “Are you two ready?” he asked.
Cleo glared at Zara, as if daring her to say they could go. Which was unnecessary, because Zara wasn’t in a position to speak. In his traditional head-dress and robes Rafe had been tall and intimidating. Dressed in a well-cut business suit, he was simply gorgeous.
His gold-blond hair had been cut military short, a style that looked both severe and sexy. He had a strong jaw, a perfect mouth, and while his eyes were still cold enough to freeze air, they were also doing odd things to Zara’s insides.
She’d never felt herself melting in the mere presence of a man. But even as she stood there, she could feel her bones dissolving. It was impossible to move, let alone have a coherent thought.
She’d come halfway around the world to find the man who might be her father. In the space of an hour, she’d had second, third and fourth thoughts, been thrown to the ground, held at gunpoint, accused of being a gold digger and struck by lightning. All this and it wasn’t even noon.
“Cool! A limo!”
Cleo beamed with excitement as they exited the palace through a side door and saw the waiting transportation. Zara tried to work up an equal amount of energy at the thought of riding in such an expensive car for the first time in her life. Unfortunately, all her extra attention was focused on continuing to breathe. Being too close to dangerous, not to mention mysterious, Rafe Stryker left her gasping.
What was wrong with her, Zara wondered. Why was she reacting this way to the man? Yes, he’d attacked her, throwing her to the ground, and that would have rattled anyone. But she should be over it by now. Unless her brain had somehow been scrambled during the altercation. Maybe that was it—she had a brain bruise.
Cleo slipped into the limo first. Unfortunately, she took the seat behind the driver, which left Zara to slide across the seat facing front. Rafe settled next to her. She scooted all the way to the corner so there would be plenty of room between them. She needed the distance to keep her thoughts from scattering.
“I should have stayed home,” she said aloud, before she could stop herself.
Rafe glanced at her. “It’s too late now.”
She didn’t want to think about that. The car pulled away from the palace. Cleo leaned forward and stared out the darkened window.
“It really is pink,” she said, her voice laced with awe. “I read that people call it the pink palace when we were doing our research, but I thought they were kidding.”
“It’s an effect of the marble,” Rafe told Cleo. “Something about the way the light hits it.”
“I like it,” Cleo announced. She leaned back in her seat, one hand stroking the supple leather. “I just wish we’d seen some of the royal cats while we’d been on the tour. We read about those, too. Does the king really keep dozens of cats in the palace?”
Rafe nodded. “They are considered a national treasure.”
“Lucky cats,” Cleo said, and grinned at Zara.
Zara tried to respond in kind, but her lips weren’t cooperating. She’d barely managed to slow her heart rate to something other than the speed of light. Now she concentrated on taking deep, cleansing breaths.
“How did you do your research?” Rafe asked.
Cleo shrugged, her pretty face completely open. “Mostly on the Internet. Zara’s at the University, so she looked in some books there, but I checked online. I have Internet access at my work. It was pretty easy. There’s a ton of information on the history of the country and the royal family. We downloaded pictures and everything.”
Zara winced. Cleo was only making things worse, but Zara couldn’t tell her that. Not in front of Rafe. He’d already decided they were gold diggers. Now he would think they were using technology to gather information to aid their scheme. Not that she could blame him. If she looked at the situation from his point of view there really wasn’t another explanation.
It was time to go home, Zara thought. She’d been crazy to think this would ever work. Even if King Hassan was her father, she wasn’t likely to have any contact with him—there would be too many watch-dogs in place. She’d survived twenty-eight years without a father; she certainly didn’t need one now.
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