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For a moment nobody moved. Because nobody was expecting this little westerner to actually approach the sheikh of Al-Shakhra, still less poke him in the chest with her finger.
It even took Zakir by surprise. And as the shock reverberated through the room, he found himself standing there staring at her delicate features and the angry red flush on her cheekbones, while one small finger pressed hard against his bare skin.
This is the first time a woman has touched you in two years.
That should not have surprised him since he knew exactly how long it had been. And he’d thought he’d long since mastered his sexual hungers. Yet he wasn’t prepared for his physical reaction, every sense he had suddenly zeroing in to the point of contact. He felt the touch acutely. As if it wasn’t a finger she had pressed against him but the point of a blade. And it was drawing blood.
He became aware of the sound of boots on stone, his guards moving as one, heading straight toward the insolent American who’d dared to lay her hands on their king, drawing their weapons as they went.
It was death to touch him as they well knew. But she didn’t.
Zakir raised a hand in command and they stopped dead in their tracks.
The woman, belatedly realizing something was up, looked around her, paling as she took note of his guards, all with swords drawn.
He wanted to let the moment sit there. Wanted her to see how close her death was, that the only thing standing between her and it was his upraised hand and his absolute command of his men. But her touch was burning a hole right through him and that had to stop.
Zakir closed his fingers around her wrist.
As he did so, her gaze came sharply back to his, her lush little mouth falling open, the blush on her cheekbones deepening. She’d been very angry with him just before, but now that anger had faded, leaving only what looked like confusion.
He didn’t know why she was confused. Because there was nothing confusing about the spark of heat that leapt from her skin to his as soon as his fingers wrapped around the slender bones of her wrist. Nothing puzzling about the sudden flick of desire that shot down his spine.
What was puzzling was that he should feel it now. For a woman who was not what he usually liked physically at all. In fact, that was the whole reason he’d made the decision he had in the first place. Because he did not want her.
Unfortunately his body had other ideas.
It was not a good omen. Desire, like so many other emotions, was not something he could afford.
“It is death to touch the sheikh,” he said flatly, pulling her hand away from him and releasing it as quickly as he could. Warmth lingered on his skin.
She went pale, though an intriguing anger burned in eyes the color of dark woodsmoke.
So not only did she have a certain amount of courage, she also did not let her fear rule her, neither dropping to the floor cowering nor backing away as some of his enemies had done. Courage and control over one’s emotions were excellent qualities in a prospective wife. Though there was still the question of her being small and delicate and breakable, which were not.
“This is the third time you have touched my person without permission,” he added, so she was very clear where she stood. “You now live only at my discretion.”
“The third….” She stopped, obviously remembering.
Her bite on his palm.
Your hand on her throat.
A sliver of something cold slid through him. And now he’d laid hands on her a second time. But no, those had been reflexive responses. No one ever touched him without permission, let alone bit him. His had been a warrior’s reaction, nothing more.
“You are lucky my guards do not speak English,” he advised. “If they heard you they would not be as understanding as I am.”
Her mouth firmed. “If you’re expecting an apology you’re out of luck.”
Not many people were brave enough to talk back to him in such a way. She was either courageous or she didn’t possess much in the way of common sense.
He folded his arms and looked down at her. “You are insolent.” He pointed out. “I would not be so rude to the person who held my life in their hands.”
The color drained from her cheeks, but again, it was anger that sparked in her eyes rather than fear. “Look, I didn’t mean to touch you. No one told me the rules around here. But the thing is, I really need to get back to Al-Harah. I have a presentation I have to give to their telecommunications agency and I—”
“You will not be going back to Al-Harah.” He said it like the order it was, leaving her in no doubt. “You will be staying here.”
Her dark red brows shot up, gray eyes widening. “What? I’m sorry, your worship, but—”
She blinked. “Excuse me?”
Clearly the woman had never been in the company of any kind of royalty. Still that was to be expected. There were few nations these days that had the kind of absolute rule that was particular to Al-Shakhra.
“You may call me ‘sire’. Though I will accept ‘your majesty’.”
Jamal snorted, but Zakir quelled him with a look. This woman would be thrown into many new experiences over the course of the week he had planned for her, and she would no doubt find them difficult. They had to be patient with her.
She’d gone pink, though whether from embarrassment or anger he couldn’t tell. “Uh, okay, sire. The thing is, I have to get back to—”
“So you said,” he interrupted again, since clearly she hadn’t heard him the first time. “But as I have already explained, you will not be going back to Al-Harah.”
Something in her eyes flashed. Definitely anger. “Why not?”
His guards tensed at her tone, their hands at their sword hilts. Zakir shook his head, giving them all a warning glance.
Plainly, given this little chihuhua’s temperament, it would be easier to conduct the rest of the conversation in private.
“I will talk to Miss Cartwright alone,” he said shortly in Arabic. “You are dismissed.”
“Sire,” Jamal began, looking annoyed. “I must insist that—”
“What?” Zakir eyed him. “You are afraid for my life? You think I cannot defend myself from this small creature?”
Jamal scowled. “She looks harmless enough, but you can never tell. The late sheikh—”
“You forget yourself, Jamal,” Zakir interrupted coldly, a very real anger stirring inside him. “My brother’s name will not be mentioned in my hearing, this you know.”
The other man lowered his eyes, flushing red. He knew he was being insubordinate. “I apologize, sire.”
“I do not want your apology. I want you to never speak of him again. And as for Miss Cartwright, I know your opinion of my plans for her. You made it plain all the way back here. You need not mention it again. Understood?”
Zakir liked for his advisors to give him their opinions and indeed, he valued them highly. But he was the one who made the final decision and he didn’t much care for protests after the fact. Jamal was a fiercely loyal and trusted man, but sometimes he forgot his place. Such as now.
“Understood, sire,” Jamal muttered.
“Then leave Miss Cartwright and myself alone. You may guard the door if you feel it necessary.”
Jamal would, no doubt, feel it was necessary, and at least the task would appease him slightly.
Zakir waited until his royal guard had exited the training room, studying Miss Cartwright as he did so. A thread of amusement wound through him to see that she too had folded her arms and was studying him in a similar manner.
She really was very small, the top of her head only coming up to his shoulders. Her copper-colored braid had frayed, the thick rope of it fuzzy with escaping curls. Her clothing too—jeans and a black T-shirt with some kind of logo on the front—looked rumpled. No wonder his men hadn’t thought much of the plan he’d formulated on the way back home. She really wasn’t the kind of queen they’d hoped to bring back from Al-Harah.
But what she did have in her favor was beautiful, milky pale skin, and a very determined jaw. And the way she was looking at him now, with her chin lifted and her shoulders back, was very imperious. There was potential there, certainly.
“So? Are you going to kill me now?” She phrased the question almost like a dare.
Zakir pulled the towel off from around his neck and tossed it negligently back on the bench. “No, I am not going to kill you, Miss Cartwright.”
“How do you know my name?”
“We found your wallet and your I.D.”
“Then you must know that my government won’t very happy when they find that I’m missing.”
“You will not be missing long.” He’d had Jamal thoroughly investigate her as they’d travelled back from Al-Harah, and there were quite a few things he’d found out about Miss Cartwright. Such as her being some kind of tech magnate, the CEO of an up-and-coming software company. She was also the only child of a very wealthy American lawyer.
She might not have been a princess with an ancient name, but she was surely the Western equivalent. Which made her perfect for his purposes.
Jamal had planted a few things around the SUV in Al-Harah to indicate that Miss Cartwright had taken it into her head to do a bit of desert sightseeing without telling anyone. By the time anyone found out that wasn’t the case, the issue would be decided.
She would be his sheikha.
“What do you mean I won’t be missing long?” Her arms were folded tight around her middle, as if she was cold. “Is that some kind of execution euphemism?”
He frowned. “I have already told you I did not bring you here to kill you.”
“Yes, well, it would be nice if you actually did tell me what you’d brought me here for.” Her gray eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Is it some kind of government thing? Your government against mine? Or do you want money? If it’s money, you’ve got the wrong girl. My father and I don’t get on, and all my cash goes straight into my company.”
If he’d been the kind of man his brother had been, then her implication would have angered him since kings did not stoop to banditry or blackmail. But he was not the kind of man his brother had been. And anger was just one of many emotions he’d excised from his heart.
So all he said was, “I do not want money.”
“Then what?” She probably hadn’t meant it to sound like a demand, but it came out as one. “Why me?”
“You are not afraid to give orders to a king, Miss Cartwright?” He said it softly, but injected the words with an edge. Enough to give her pause.
A whisper of fear moved through her smoky eyes. But she didn’t look away. “I just w-want to know why you took me?”
Her voice was softer this time, the stutter he’d heard before creeping back into it. Something about that tugged at him in a way he wasn’t used to, a way he found vaguely unsettling. If she was afraid, that was good, wasn’t it? It would make her more biddable.
Ignoring the feeling, he gazed at her instead.
He was a soldier, words and speeches were not his forte. So how to explain to a woman who did not know the old ways? An American who would no doubt view his country’s customs as barbaric?
There really was only one way to tell her.
“I took you because I need a wife,” he said without inflection.
She’d gone very still. “A what?”
“I think you heard me.” He held her silvery gaze. “You, Miss Cartwright, are my bride prize.”
End of Excerpt