The Sheikh and the Virgin Princess(Desert Rogues, Book 5)(21) by Susan Mallery
She groaned. In the past few minutes of conversation she’d managed to forget her predicament. “Cleo already mentioned that I’m a college professor. I teach women’s studies at a university in eastern Washington state.”
“Tell me about your mom.”
Zara’s entire face changed. Rafe watched as the embarrassment fled, replaced by a look of love so private that he nearly looked away.
“She was amazing.” Zara sounded wistful as she spoke. “So beautiful and talented. She was a dancer for years. After she had me, she taught dance and got involved with community theater. Eventually she started directing.”
“Do you look like her?”
“No.” She drew her knees to her chest, careful to keep her nightgown and robe covering every inch of her, then rested her chin on her knees. “I suppose I’m tall like her, and skinny. But she had curves, which I do not. And she was graceful. I can barely walk through a room without knocking things over.”
“Tell me about growing up.”
Her mouth pulled straight, then twisted. “We moved around a lot. I think my mom had a giant case of wanderlust. Part of it might have been to keep King Hassan from finding her, but most of it was that she liked to be in different places. I think in a perfect world, she would have been part of a dance troupe that traveled all the time.”
“But she wasn’t. And she had a child.”
Zara nodded, her long, wavy hair swaying slightly with the movement. Earlier that day, she’d worn her hair back in a braid, but tonight it was loose. Rafe found himself wanting to slip his fingers through the strands to find out if it was as soft as it looked. He wanted to breathe in the scent of her hair, of her body, and taste every part of her with—
He grabbed hold of his wayward desire and firmly quashed it. Zara was his responsibility. No way was he going to give in to an urge, no matter how strong.
“She really tried to stay in one place,” Zara told him. “But it wasn’t her nature. She used to apologize when she needed to move on. I was constantly the new kid, which was really hard for me. I didn’t make friends easily. So I escaped into books. Growing up I learned to lose myself in a good story. I spent a lot of time in the library.”
Her world sounded lonely. He could relate to that. “What about dance classes? Didn’t you say your mother was a teacher?”
She laughed. “She was a fabulous instructor, but I wasn’t kidding about being a klutz. For a while my mom took it as a personal insult that her own flesh and blood couldn’t perform a few basic dance steps. Eventually she decided to give up and stop torturing us both.”
“I doubt it was that bad.”
Zara sat up enough to make an X on her chest. “I’m not lying. It was horrible. Cleo did better than me at dance class, but she was never that interested.”
“How did Cleo come to be with you?” he asked.
Zara shrugged. “Cleo always makes a joke about it, talking like she was a puppy picked up at the pound. Unfortunately, it’s not all that far from the truth. I don’t remember the details—I was only fourteen and not really paying attention. There was some kind of temporary crisis in the foster care system with too many kids and not enough homes. An appeal was made to the public. My mom thought it would be fun for me to have a younger sister. One day Cleo was there.”
She smiled slightly, as if at a memory. “We didn’t really get along at first. She was ten and angry at the world. She never knew her father, and her mother did drugs and couldn’t keep a job. Cleo grew up in shelters and on the street. She used to hoard food and refuse to talk. At night she would cry in her sleep. The next time Fiona moved us, Cleo came along and that was it. There was no formal adoption. Eventually Cleo and I became close. We might not have a lot in common, but we were each other’s best friend.”
“The state never came looking for her?”
“Not really. I’m still not sure what happened—if her paperwork got lost or if they couldn’t find us. By the time Cleo was fourteen we were in Arizona, then California after that. Fiona died when I was twenty. Cleo was sixteen. We stayed together, doing our best not to draw attention to ourselves. We were afraid Social Services would take her away until she turned eighteen. Fortunately no one found out.”
“You raised her by yourself?”
Zara laughed. “Cleo would get really annoyed if she heard you describe it that way. She was pretty grown-up. Way more street smart than I’ve ever been. She lived with me, and we looked out for each other.”
“You must have been in college by then.”
“I was. Fiona had insurance, which surprised us. She wasn’t usually that much into the details. It was enough to pay for the rest of my education and Cleo’s, if she’d wanted to go to school. But she wasn’t that interested. Instead she went out and got a job.”
Hers was a normal world he couldn’t relate to. Rafe supposed at one time he’d lived in a suburb with parents and maybe a dog, but he couldn’t remember anything like that. All he could recall was being alone.
“What made you decide to go into teaching?” he asked.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” she admitted. “When I applied to graduate school, I got into a program where the grad students teach a freshman class. It was my first experience in front of a group. Initially I was nervous, but then I found I really liked it.”
He wondered how many of her students had a crush on her.
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