The Sheikh and the Virgin Princess(Desert Rogues, Book 5)(30) by Susan Mallery
She glanced around, taking in several tall, dark and handsome men who most probably were the princes and her half brothers. Sabrina was there, standing next to another tall, good-looking man. Her husband? There were official looking types wearing tuxedos and medals or ribbons, along with elegantly clad women. In the center stood Hassan.
The king smiled broadly when he saw her. After handing his drink to one of his sons, he walked over, both hands extended.
“Zara. You are perfectly lovely this evening. I see you allowed me the pleasure of seeing you in a tiara. It was made for my great-grandmother’s twenty-fifth birthday and has always been a favorite of mine.”
Still holding her hands, he leaned close and kissed her on her cheek. Then he turned his attention to Cleo and greeted her.
Zara noticed that everyone was still watching and that somehow Rafe had moved to the far side of the room where he spoke with Sabrina’s husband. Sabrina didn’t look very happy. Her gaze kept drifting to the tiara, and Zara wondered if her wearing it was significant in some way.
She found herself being introduced to the king’s four sons. They were polite enough, but obviously far more interested in Cleo. In a matter of minutes two of them had pulled her sister away and were arguing over who had the pleasure of dining with her.
Hassan moved closer. “You look nervous, my daughter. Do not be concerned. This is a small event.”
“I can’t help being concerned that your definition of small is different from mine.”
Hassan dismissed her concerns. “There are only a few hundred people here tonight.”
Zara thought she might faint. “A few hundred?” That was way too many. “You’re not going to say anything about me, are you? I mean about who I may be.”
“Of course not. I want you to get used to being here first.”
“I don’t think that’s going to happen.” She looked longingly toward the door. “Maybe this should wait until after we’ve taken blood tests and have received the results. You know, just to be sure.”
Hassan chuckled, then tucked her hand into the crook of his arm. “My delightful child, I am sure.”
He led her around the anteroom and introduced her to everyone. Faces and names blurred. She thought that Sabrina’s husband, Prince Kardal, seemed a little more friendly than his wife. The ambassador of El Bahar had actually kissed her fingers. Talk about strange.
Just when she was able to breathe easily and tell herself that she might be able to survive the evening, a servant in formal dress appeared and announced that it was time for them to move into the main reception room.
Hassan led the way, heading for two ornately carved, arched doors. Unfortunately, her hand was still tucked in the crook of his arm, which meant she had to lead with him. Zara thought she might faint. She glanced around until she saw Rafe. He gave her a quick thumbs-up, before moving into line. She saw Cleo between two of the princes. Her sister looked blissfully happy.
Somewhere beyond the closed doors she heard music and conversation. Then the doors swung open as if by magic and they walked into a glittering ballroom.
There seemed to be a few thousand people rather than just a few hundred, but Zara supposed that was because she wasn’t used to being the center of attention. So many faces, she thought as the entire crowd turned in their direction. Intellectually Zara knew it was because of Hassan and his family, not because of her, yet she couldn’t help feeling as if she were being judged and found wanting. Then the people closest began to curtsy or bow, depending on their gender.
Curtsy? Zara swallowed. Should she have done that when she’d seen the king? What about with the princes and with Sabrina. Her stomach flopped around in uncomfortable spasms as worry made her clench her teeth. How many laws had she and Cleo already broken?
Someone spoke to Hassan, and the king turned away. Zara used the opportunity to slip free of him. Her thought was to duck back behind the royal family, but before she had taken more than a step, Rafe was at her side.
“You might want to pretend you’re enjoying yourself,” he murmured in her ear as he nodded at someone he knew.
She sighed. “Is it that obvious?”
“Let’s just say that personal guests of the king don’t usually walk into a room looking as if they’re about to have a root canal.”
“Actually, I’d rather have the dental work without Novocain than be here.”
Rafe placed his hand on the small of her back. “Sorry but that’s not an option. Prepare yourself to meet everyone who is anyone in Bahanian circles.”
Her heart rate increased, and her palms began to sweat. “I can’t. I never remember people’s names.”
“Try to find something distinctive about them as a memory aid. Things like Count Crook has a crooked nose.”
“Is there a Count Crook?”
“No. I was making up an example.”
She looked at him. “What happens if I break into hysterical laughter?”
“I’ll be forced to throw water in your face.”
She imagined herself wet and dripping. It wasn’t an attractive visual. “Okay. I’ll try to keep the hysterics to a minimum.”
“Think about the king. He’s delighted to have you here. You wouldn’t want to hurt his feelings.”
She was far more concerned about the possibility of throwing up, but before she could share that with Rafe, Hassan had returned to her side. He ushered her into the crowd and began introducing her to people.
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