The Sheikh and the Virgin Princess(Desert Rogues, Book 5)(37) by Susan Mallery
Zara held in a groan. The fact that Byron knew or had guessed her relationship with the king shouldn’t be a surprise. Still she felt disappointed. Telling herself no one would be interested in her for herself was one thing, but having it highlighted was another.
Rafe rode to her other side. “Is everything all right?”
“Yes. The duke and I are having a conversation.”
He had the audacity to grin and ask, “What about?”
Zara stalked out of the stable without saying anything. Rafe had been in the middle of telling the horse trainer that none of the mounts had been pushed very hard when he was forced to break off in midsentence to go after her. The stiffness of her walk and the set of her head warned him that she was furious.
Rafe acknowledged that he’d probably gone a bit too far with the Hummers and the Jeeps. Not to mention the armed guards. The odds of a kidnapping taking place were slim at best. Hardly anyone knew about her. Word would spread quickly, but right now she was fairly safe. Still, he’d been unable to resist calling in the troops—to give the duke something to think about if nothing else.
However, Zara hadn’t seen things that way. Worse, she’d probably hated having an audience while she struggled to stay on her horse. Obviously, she hadn’t had much practice riding horses bred in a royal stable.
He caught up with her in the courtyard between the stable and the house. The sun had already drifted well into the sky, and the heat sucked the air from his lungs. They stood in the shade of a cluster of date palms, but the temperature still had to be over a hundred degrees.
She spun to face him, temper flaring in her brown eyes. “What do you want?” she demanded as she pushed up her glasses. “I would think you’ve already had your joke for the day.”
He instantly felt like a jerk. “I’m sorry,” he told her. “I guess I went a little too far.”
“Yes, you did.”
She drew in a breath, then sank down on the blanket of grass by the trees. After drawing her legs to her chest she rested her forehead on her knees.
They were in a small grove of palms, protected from view by the foliage at the base of the trees. Except for a cat grooming in the sun a few feet away, they were alone.
“It’s not you,” she mumbled. “I’m angry at Byron.”
Rafe crouched next to her. He wasn’t concerned that Byron had tried anything—he hadn’t left them alone long enough for anything to happen. “What did he do?”
“Nothing. It’s what he said.” She raised her head and glared at him. “Do I look stupid to you?”
“Not at all.”
“I didn’t think so. Men worrying that I’m not smart enough has never been the problem. Usually they think I’m too smart.”
“So the duke thought you were an idiot?”
“Apparently.” She rubbed her temples. “I can’t even say it. It’s just too humiliating.”
Rafe rose to his feet. “If he insulted you—”
“He did, but not the way you’re thinking,” she said, interrupting. She looked away. “He said I was beautiful.”
“What?” Rafe frowned. That was hardly an insult. He ignored the tension in his chest that told him he didn’t like the duke complimenting Zara.
“You heard me.”
He sank next to her on the grass. She wore her hair down in a thick braid. As she spoke, she twisted the braid around her fingers.
“Why is that so horrible?” he asked. “Don’t you want him saying nice things?”
She rolled her eyes. “I don’t want him lying to me and expecting me to believe him. I would have accepted pretty or even attractive. But beautiful? The man obviously thinks I’m a moron. Or he doesn’t think at all. Or he assumes that I’ll be so bowled over by his flattery that I won’t bother to question his sincerity.”
“I think you’re making too much of this.”
“Of course you’d say that. You’re a man. But it’s significant to me.”
Rafe sensed he was treading on dangerous territory. He decided to go slowly and carefully. “You’re an attractive woman, Zara. Beauty isn’t universal. Maybe Byron was telling the truth from his point of view, but you don’t feel comfortable admitting it.” He hated that he was defending the guy.
“Maybe camels fly here in the desert.” She glared at him. “I understand how all this works. When people meet there’s either an attraction or there isn’t. That attraction can color someone’s view but it’s not going to take it out of the realm of reality. I mean you have obviously had sexual feelings for me, at least that one time when we kissed, yet you’d never say I was beautiful.”
She paused just long enough to make Rafe sweat. There was a deep, dark conversation pit right in front of him and he didn’t know how to keep from falling in. Fortunately Zara kept talking.
“If Byron knew me and had spent time with me, I just might believe him. But right now he’s just playing some stupid game with me and it’s really annoying. Is it always going to be like this? I thought getting a date was bad before, but this is impossible.”
Another of the king’s cats strolled by. Rafe patted the creature before turning his attention back to Zara.
“Take a deep breath and slow down,” he told her. “First of all, you’re still getting used to a new situation. It won’t always be so confusing. Second, give yourself some credit. You act like you’re the female version of the elephant man. That’s not true.”
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