The Sheikh's Secret Bride(Desert Rogues, Book 3)(20) by Susan Mallery
“You’re on,” he said, turning Alexander so that he faced the path, then giving the horse a light squeeze with his thighs.
Although he could have easily won the competition, he instead kept pace with Bethany, as much to keep her safe as to make her feel that it was a battle to the finish. As their horses ate up the grassy ground between the trees and the stable, he remembered what it had been like when he’d been Bethany’s age. They were worlds apart.
At least Bethany had Liana on her side. Whatever the child’s father might have done wrong, her mother more than made up for it by giving the girl a warm home and unconditional love and support. What more could a daughter ask for?
“I really don’t have anything to wear,” Liana said, staring at the brief note. Fatima had invited her and Bethany to dine with the royal family, and her limited wardrobe was not up to royal standards.
“You’ll still be the prettiest one there,” Bethany said loyally. “Besides, Prince Malik is really cool. You’ll like him.”
Liana glanced at her daughter stretched out on the large bed in the master bedroom. The girl couldn’t put two sentences together without prefacing one of them with the phrase, “Prince Malik says.” No doubt Bethany thought the prince was “cool.” Liana, however, didn’t have the same easy camaraderie with the Crown Prince. In fact, in the past three days, she’d barely seen him.
And now this.An invitation to have dinner with him and his family. At least she assumed Malik would be there. Liana briefly closed her eyes and prayed he would be. She didn’t want to have to dine with two princes, their wives, a king and a queen mother, all without the presence of the man responsible for her being there in the first place.
“This is insane,” Liana said, throwing her hands up in the air. “What are we doing here?”
“You’re looking for a dress,” Bethany said pointing into the closet. “Wear the blue one, Mom. It makes your eyes sparkle and you want to be pretty for Prince Malik.”
“It’s what I live for,” Liana agreed, as she drew the blue dress out and studied it.
The garment was silk and shimmery, with a simple boat neck and long sleeves. The soft fabric skimmed over curves and bulges, which was always a good thing. With her hair pulled up in a fancy chignon and her lone pair of good pearl earrings, she just might manage to get through the evening without making a fool of herself.
Bethany rolled onto her back and studied her fingers. “Can I paint my nails?” she asked.
It was a familiar question. “Nope.”
“Can I wear makeup?”
“No again, pip-squeak.”
“Oh, Mommy, why not? Can’t I be beautiful, too?”
Liana replaced the dress and headed for the bathroom to freshen her makeup. On the way she paused by the bed and leaned over to tickle her daughter. “You are already beautiful without all of that. If I let you become even more beautiful, you’d outshine every other woman so much that we’d turn to stone and you’d be left alone.”
Bethany shrieked with laughter. “Uh-uh,” she managed between giggles. “I’m not that beautiful.”
“Of course you are. And smart. And funny. In fact, I’m going to have to lock you in a tall tower when you turn sixteen, just so the boys don’t steal you away.”
Her daughter smiled and held her arms open for a hug. “I won’t leave you, Mommy. Not for a silly boy. Besides, I’m going to college, remember? And I can’t do that in a tower.”
“I guess not.”
She pulled her daughter close, savoring the familiar feel of skinny arms holding her tight. These were the moments that she would remember when Bethany was grown and gone, she told herself. The bits of magic that made it all worthwhile. Whatever else she might do with her life, Bethany would always be the very best of her.
This dinner was her worst nightmare, Liana thought nearly two hours later. The large table in the family’s private dining room had room enough for all, with Bethany sitting next to her and Malik directly across from them. The king sat at one end, and Fatima at the other, with Dora and Khalil next to Malik and Heidi and Jamal next to Bethany. The problem was everyone was being so darned nice, Liana thought frantically as she took another sip of her wine. Not that she wanted them to be rude or mean, but they were acting as if she were already a member of the family, or at the very least, a close personal friend. It was disconcerting.
She wanted to complain about the situation, but what was she supposed to say? “Could you please ignore me?” would be misunderstood by everyone. So she forced herself to keep smiling and was thankful that Bethany’s manners had always been exceptionally good.
“I heard a rumor,” the king said, glancing at Bethany, “that someone at this table beat Malik in a race back to the stables.”
Bethany laughed. “That was me.” She lowered her voice conspiratorially. “But I think he let me win. Prince Malik is a really good rider and his horse is fast. But I’m getting better and I’m gonna beat him on my own one day.”
King Givon nodded approvingly. “If you work hard, then you certainly will. Although I have to warn you, my son is a very good horseman.”
“And not one to be beaten by a girl,” Malik teased.
Bethany raised her chin. “Being a girl has nothing to do with it.”
Malik glanced at Liana. “That attitude would be your fault, I believe.”
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