The Sheikh's Secret Bride(Desert Rogues, Book 3)(59) by Susan Mallery
They walked into the main garden outside the rear of the palace. Malik led them to one of the many stone benches along the path and sat down. Bethany settled next to him.
Their daily rides had darkened her skin to the color of honey and added a dozen or so freckles to her cheeks. She still had an expression of wide-eyed innocence that made him want to hold her close and protect her from everything bad. He couldn’t imagine what his life had been like before this amazing child had burst into his world and changed it all around.
“I took your advice,” he admitted, faintly embarrassed by the fact. “After I married your mother, you suggested that I find a way to make her less angry with me. You mentioned those romance novels she’s always reading, so I picked up a few.” He shook his head. “The men in those are always talking about the women’s slender ankles.”
“That’s pretty dumb,” Bethany said.
“I agree. But I thought it was worth a try.”
“Try something else,” the child offered. “The ankle thing isn’t working. Besides, she’s also worried about the fact that you two have nothing in common and that you’re exactly the wrong kind of man for her.” She glanced around as if to make sure they were alone, then lowered her voice to a confidential whisper. “I think she’s kinda scared about being a royal princess. She was telling me that it’s fun to read about and dream about, but living that life is very different. She doesn’t want to mess up and embarrass you or the country.”
“She could never do that. Your mother is very poised in every situation.”
Liana putting a foot wrong was the least of his worries. He was more concerned that she wouldn’t give their marriage a chance. Time was slipping through his fingers, and he didn’t know if he was any closer to making her fall in love with him than he’d been when she’d first arrived. All his compliments didn’t seem to be helping. Not making love with her was slowly killing him, but he was determined to bring her into his bed. His gut told him that if he could get her into his quarters he would be that much closer to keeping her in his life.
But not being with her meant that he couldn’t sleep. He had trouble concentrating while he worked, which had never happened to him before. He needed Liana not to leave. Somehow he had to convince her to stay past the one-month deadline. But how? What words could he use? All his life he’d been taught to be strong and in control, but no one had taken the time to show him how to get a woman to do what he wanted.
“Malik, now that you and Mommy are married, are you my new dad?”
Bethany asked the question without looking at him. She turned her riding hat over and over in her hands as if it were the most interesting thing she’d ever seen.
When she was riding alongside him, her braids blowing behind her and her seat so comfortable and relaxed on her mount, he forgot that she was just a little girl. But now, with her sitting next to him and obviously afraid of his answer, she seemed small and defenseless.
He put a hand on her shoulder. “Your father back in America will always be your real father. Nothing can change that and no one will take his place. If you’re asking if we’re now a part of each other’s lives, the answer is yes.”
She raised her head, and he saw tears filling her blue eyes. Eyes so like her mother’s. “But what happens if we leave? Mommy swears we’re still going at the end of the month and if that happens, you’ll forget all about me.”
A single tear spilled onto her cheek. It was as if she’d cut him with a knife. The pain sliced through him, making his muscles stiffen.
Slowly, he brushed away that tear and the one that followed. He looked at her sweet face and knew that while Bethany might be the biological child of another man, she would always be the daughter of his heart. Because if Liana left him, he would not marry again. He couldn’t enter into an empty union of convenience now…not even for his beloved El Bahar.
“Did you know that your name has a meaning in Arabic?” he asked.
She sniffed, then shook her head. “What is it?”
“In that language, Bethany means daughter of the Lord. In time I will rule El Bahar, which makes me lord of this country. So in some ways, that makes you my daughter, too.” He pulled her close and hugged her. “Don’t worry, child. I will never forget you.”
Bethany clung to him. “I don’t want to go, Malik,” she breathed. “Don’t make us go.”
“You are welcome as long as you would like.”
She raised her head and looked at him. “I love you.”
Her words completed the job her tears had begun. The knife cut clear through to his soul and all his life’s blood began to seep away.
He didn’t say anything, he simply held her close. As much as he wanted her to care about him, he didn’t want her hurt when she left. And she would be hurt. He should have seen that before, but he hadn’t. As for loving her back…he shook off the thought. Love was not a part of his life. Long ago he’d vowed never to love anyone. Nothing had happened to change his mind. He wouldn’t love Bethany and he would never love Liana. Still, he promised himself that he would find a way to make them stay.
“If I kill a prince, will they cut off my head?” Liana demanded as she paced her sister-in-law’s living room.
Dora laughed. “I suspect they might. If they got the chance. However, Malik is much loved by his people, and you’d probably be killed by a vicious mob instead.”
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