The Sheikh and the Virgin Princess(Desert Rogues, Book 5)(43) by Susan Mallery
“I can see you’re packing, but where are you going?”
Zara had half expected to hear that her sister was moving in with one of the princes. All of them had paid attention to Cleo, although Prince Sadik had seemed most interested of all.
“Cleo, what are you doing? I thought you were having a good time.”
Cleo pulled several shirts out of a bottom drawer and straightened. “I’ve had a terrific vacation, but I’m ready to head back to the real world. I have a job waiting.”
Zara did, too, but she was on summer break, whereas Cleo had simply taken two weeks off from her job in Spokane.
“But don’t you want to stay longer?”
Cleo’s full mouth twisted slightly at the corner. “Not really. I don’t belong here.” She motioned to the luxurious room. “You’re the princess. I’m just some street kid tagging along.”
Zara moved toward her sister. “Don’t say that. We’re sisters.”
Cleo shook her head. “No. Your sister is Princess Sabra of Bahania. I appreciate you letting me share the adventure, but now it’s over.”
Zara’s eyes began to burn. “I don’t understand. Sabrina isn’t my sister. Not in my heart. I barely know her. Cleo, I need you here.”
“I can’t stay.” She walked to the bed and put the shirts in one of the open suitcases. “You’ll be fine. The king really likes having you around. You’ll be so busy learning how to be royal, you won’t notice I’m gone.”
Zara didn’t understand what had happened. She recognized Cleo’s determined and prickly exterior as a way to protect herself, but she didn’t know why.
“Did someone say something to upset you?” Zara asked.
“No. Everyone’s been great.”
“Okay. I’ll come with you.”
Cleo glared at her. “Don’t be crazy. All your life you’ve wanted a father and now you’ve found one. And, gee, he’s a king. Are you seriously going to tell me that you want to walk away from that? If you do, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. We both know that.”
“But I don’t want to be here without you.”
“You’ll do fine. You’ve got those guys interested in you. Hey, you’ll probably be engaged by the end of the month.”
“Not to the duke,” Zara muttered.
“Then to the other one.”
“It seems unlikely. You know my luck with men.” Cleo moved close and hugged her. “I would say that your luck is about to change.” She stepped back. “I mean it, Zara. I wish you the best. Really. But I can’t stay here. I am the last person who belongs here.”
Zara knew that Cleo was thinking about her past, about her early years when she’d grown up on the street or in shelters.
“None of that matters.”
“It does to me,” Cleo told her. “I can take care of myself. I have a good job. I’ve worked my way up to manager, and that matters to me. So let me go back to my life and be where I’m supposed to be. You stay here and learn the etiquette of wearing a tiara.”
Zara nodded. She couldn’t speak because of the tears filling her eyes. She felt as if she was about to lose something precious, and there was nothing she could do to change Cleo’s mind.
Cleo gave her a soft smile, then hugged her. “Hey, the phones still work. You can call me every couple of days and keep me up-to-date on the royal set.”
“I promise,” Zara said, holding on tight and wanting to never let go.
Zara found herself barely able to stay awake. The combination of sleeplessness and boring conversation threatened to cause her to doze off in her salad. She blinked several times and took a sip of ice water. Fortunately, Jean-Paul didn’t seem to notice her inattention.
“The small flowers are so beautiful,” he was saying.
She was pretty sure he was still going on about his vineyard. Except for the family chateau, that had been his favorite topic ever since he’d arrived to pick her up at the palace.
“Sounds lovely,” she murmured when he paused expectantly.
Just then the waiter arrived with their desserts. Zara took a bite of the chocolate mousse and hoped the sugar would give her a little short-term energy.
She was sure that Jean-Paul couldn’t possibly be as boring as she imagined. It must be her exhaustion. For the past two nights she’d paced through the large suite, listening to the silence and wishing Cleo hadn’t left. Zara had never felt so alone or out-of-place.
She tried to clear her head. This wasn’t the time to think about Cleo’s sudden departure. She was out with a good-looking French guy who was obviously rich and into wine and vineyards. She should try to enjoy the evening. At least it was more private than her date with Byron. This time there weren’t any Hummers or Jeeps. Instead Rafe sat at a nearby table, no doubt trying not to listen.
“You must come to France,” Jean-Paul told her. “In the fall, I think. When the tourists have left, yes?”
“You’ve made it all sound very magical,” Zara said, annoyed on behalf of tourists everywhere. Jean-Paul might not like them around, but she would bet they bought a lot of his wine and generally contributed to the economy.
“I remember fall when I was a small boy,” he said, sipping the brandy the waiter had brought along with the crème brûlée Jean-Paul had ordered. “I would run barefoot through the leaves. The scent of those days is with me even today. I would take my little dog down to the stream behind the house.”
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