The Sheikh and the Virgin Princess(Desert Rogues, Book 5)(31) by Susan Mallery
Zara got lost after the first three names. She tried Rafe’s technique, but none of these perfectly groomed folks had distinguishing features. Every woman was more beautiful than the last, each man more refined and gentlemanly. Hassan was careful to say she was the daughter of a friend, but his tone of voice implied there was some secret between them. Zara hoped that no one thought she was his new mistress.
Zara nodded throughout the introductions. Rafe was always close, but not close enough to talk to. She smiled at men in traditional sheik garments, women in designer gowns, dignitaries in Savile Row suits, all the while hoping no one could tell she was from some podunk town in the Pacific Northwest and that before tonight she’d never worn a dress that cost more than a hundred dollars.
“Zara, I’d like you to meet the duke of Netherton,” the king said as they paused in front of a fair-haired man in his mid-thirties.
“Your Highness, always a pleasure. Ms. Paxton, an honor.”
Like several men before him, the duke brought her hand to his mouth and lightly kissed her fingers.
He was tall and blond with blue eyes. The description also fit Rafe, but he and the duke had little else in common. Where Rafe was broad and obviously muscled, the duke had a more slender build. Rafe’s blue eyes were dark and forbidding, although tempting. The duke’s eyes were light, his expression faintly cynical.
Zara wanted to duck and run. Instead she forced herself to smile. “I’ve never met a duke before. What is the correct way to address you?”
“Call me Byron.” He winced slightly. “No poetry jokes, please. My mother was a fan of Lord Byron’s work.”
Zara’s hackles rose slightly. The duke had been so smooth, she almost hadn’t noticed the fact that he assumed she wouldn’t recognize the name and be able to place it. She told herself not to take the fact personally. No doubt many people didn’t know who Lord Byron was or how his romantic poetry had made an entire generation of women swoon.
Another man joined them. Hassan made introductions. Jean-Paul of a French last name she hadn’t quite caught, murmured to her in a seductive tone of voice. He was darkly handsome. While he didn’t have a title, he wasted no time in mentioning the family chateau that had been around for nearly five hundred years, along with vineyards and many wonderful paintings that she “simply had to come see.”
Right, Zara thought, trying to see the humor in the situation. Next time she was touring through France she would stop by.
“May I bring you some champagne?” Jean-Paul asked.
Byron lightly clasped her hand in his. “Actually, she had already agreed to accompany me to the bar.”
Hassan grinned broadly. “I will leave you two to fight over the lovely Zara.” He patted her cheek, then strolled away.
Zara glanced around for Rafe and was pleased to see him hovering in the background. She sent him a silent plea for rescue, but he either didn’t get it or didn’t feel up to interfering. Instead he followed as both Jean-Paul and the duke led her to one of the bars set up in a corner of the room.
“Sparkling water,” she said when it was their turn. Both men looked disapproving.
“Not champagne?” Jean-Paul asked.
“Not tonight.” She needed to keep a clear head to navigate the potential disasters, not to mention that she already had the beginnings of a headache.
“I understand you recently met the king,” Jean-Paul said when they’d all been served and had stepped away from the bar.
“Yes. My sister and I have only been in Bahania for a short time.”
“You’d never met him before?” Byron asked. “There hadn’t been any contact between you at all?”
Jean-Paul nodded encouragingly. “You are so lovely, Zara. Tell me what you do when you are not here charming us all with your smile?”
She nearly gagged. Did he expect her to buy in to that line? “I’m a professor of women’s studies at a university in the Pacific Northwest.”
Byron took a step closer, attempting to edge out the Frenchman. “Is there anyone special in your life?”
Jean-Paul took a step closer. “There is now.”
Zara moved back a bit.
Byron ignored him and focused on her. “I have enjoyed my many visits to your delightful country. I spent nearly a year there after I graduated from Oxford.”
Jean-Paul stroked her face. “The only thing nearly as appealing as a woman such as yourself is the sight of the vineyards in the summer, after a light rain. The grapes sparkle in the sun. I cannot describe the smells—rich earth, the vines, their fruit. Like Bahania, France is a feast for the senses, eh? Not like a cold, dreary island.”
Byron took her arm and drew her away. “Have you been to England? Our manor home is open to the public every Wednesday and alternate Saturdays. You might have seen it. The London residence is private, of course. If you—”
Jean-Paul took her other arm and tugged. “Have you seen the view from the garden. It’s delightful and reminds me a little of France.”
Byron tugged harder. “She doesn’t want to go with you.”
Jean-Paul frowned. “She doesn’t want to stay with you.”
Zara set down her glass before she spilled anything and jerked free of both of them. “I’m not a chew toy,” she said. “If you’ll excuse me, I would very much like to have a word with my sister.”
She turned on her high heel and stalked away. If Fiona were still alive, she would have winced at Zara’s unladylike movements, but desperate times called for expedient behavior, Zara thought. She ducked into the crowd, trying to put as much room between herself and the two pit bulls as she could.
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