Desert Prince, Blackmailed Bride KIM LAWRENCE Ëèòàãåíò HarperCollins EUR Rafiq Al Kamil, heir to the desert kingdom of Zatara, thinks innocent Gabby will be the perfect convenient wife for his brother.But Gabby isn't as biddable as she first seems…. Now Rafiq will have to persuade her! Except the more time Rafiq spends with Gabby the more he wants her–in his own bed.But when he discovers she's a virgin, the earth collapses under his feet. Suddenly, having her as his mistress is not enough–Rafiq demands she become his bride! “It’s not my wish to marry your brother. Or be kissed by you,” she lied. “That will not happen again,” he said with a slight, formal inclination of his head. “As delightful as the diversion was.” In order to make true his promise Rafiq knew he would have to take care to keep her literally at arm’s length in future. For some reason his brain ceased to function around her. He was still shocked to the core that for the first time in his life he had permitted carnal need to overrule common sense and logic. “You want me to marry your brother, so what was that?” Her hand went to her lips—they still felt swollen and oversensitive. “A test run?” she suggested bitterly. “The Royal bedroom test? Did I pass?’ Gabby took an involuntary step back as fury flashed in his eyes and the pewter flecks were swallowed up as they darkened. “That was a mistake,” he gritted through clenched teeth. Dear Reader, Harlequin Presents is all about passion, power and seduction—along with oodles of wealth and abundant glamour. This is the series of the rich and the superrich. Private jets, luxury cars and international settings that range from the wildly exotic to the bright lights of the big city! We want to whisk you away to the far corners of the globe and allow you to escape to and indulge in a unique world of unforgettable men and passionate romances. There is only one Harlequin Presents. And we promise you the world…. As if this weren’t enough, there’s more! More of what you love every month. Two weeks after the Presents titles hit the shelves, four Presents EXTRA titles go on sale! Presents EXTRA is selected especially for you—your favorite authors and much-loved themes have been handpicked to create exclusive collections for your reading pleasure. Now there are more excuses to indulge! Each month, there’s a new collection to treasure—you won’t want to miss out. Harlequin Presents—still the original and the best! Best wishes, The Editors Desert Prince, Blackmailed Bride Kim Lawrence All about the author… Kim Lawrence Though lacking much authentic Welsh blood, KIM LAWRENCE—from English/Irish stock—she was born and brought up in north Wales. She returned there when she married, and her sons were both born on Anglesey, an island off the coast. Though not isolated, Anglesey is a little off the beaten track, but lively Dublin, which Kim loves, is only a short ferry ride away. Today they live on the farm her husband was brought up on. Welsh is the first language of many people in this area, and Kim’s husband and sons are all bilingual. She is having a lot of fun, not to mention a few headaches, trying to learn the language! With small children, she thought the unsocial hours of nursing weren’t too attractive, so, encouraged by a husband who thinks she can do anything she sets her mind to, Kim tried her hand at writing. Always a keen Harlequin reader, she felt it was natural for her to write a romance novel. Now she can’t imagine doing anything else. She is a keen gardener and cook, and enjoys running—often on the beach because, since she lives on an island, the sea is never very far away. She is usually accompanied by her Jack Russell, Sprout—don’t ask, it’s a long story! I’d like to dedicate this book to the memory of my mum, Ann Shirley—lovely lady, best friend, kindest critic and real-life feisty heroine. CONTENTS CHAPTER ONE CHAPTER TWO CHAPTER THREE CHAPTER FOUR CHAPTER FIVE CHAPTER SIX CHAPTER SEVEN CHAPTER EIGHT CHAPTER NINE CHAPTER TEN CHAPTER ELEVEN CHAPTER TWELVE CHAPTER THIRTEEN CHAPTER FOURTEEN CHAPTER FIFTEEN CHAPTER ONE RAFIQ slid his arms into his linen shirt and sat straddling the chair. The pale fabric gaped to reveal the perfectly delineated muscles of his deep gold upper torso—a lot more delineated since he’d dropped almost fifteen pounds. None of the turbulent seething in his chest was reflected in his expression as, his hands clenched into fists, he fought to control his totally irrational compulsion to drag the grey-haired Frenchman from his seat and throttle a retraction from him. He was lying—he had to be lying! He didn’t, and not just because the doctor was a good twenty years his senior, but because he recognised denial even when he was the one doing the denying. Rafiq knew the man wasn’t lying. It was the truth. Not a truth anyone wanted to hear, but the truth. He wasn’t going to see his fiftieth birthday—or, for that matter, his thirty-third! Once the drumming in his ears had softened to a dull roar a phrase separated itself from the disconnected jumble of thoughts swirling in his head: roll with the punches. It sounded so easy. Years of practice at rigidly disciplining himself helped, and slowly an icy calm settled over him. ‘How long?’ Pierre Henri adjusted his suit jacket—no white coat; he was far too celebrated to need a uniform to establish his authority—and got up slowly. He walked across the room and pulled the X-rays down from the screen, sliding them back into their envelope while he struggled to select his words carefully. Breaking bad news was a part of the job that he did not enjoy, but it was an integral part of that job and he was considered good at it. He did not normally struggle for words in these circumstances. He knew the importance of positive body language—it wasn’t just what you said but the way you said it—and he knew how emphasising the positive even when there was precious little to be positive about could make a world of difference to the way the person listening felt. Everyone was different, but years of experience had given him an insight that enabled him to tailor his response to what an individual patient needed from him. Of course there were exceptions. And this man, he thought, retaking a seat opposite his patient, was one of them! As his patient’s dark eyes locked on to his Pierre felt sweat break out along his upper lip. Insecurity was not something that troubled the eminent physician, yet as he met the pewter-flecked inscrutable gaze of the Crown Prince of Zantara he felt the roles of patient and doctor were oddly reversed. This man—despite the fact he had just dropped the worst news possible on him—was the one in control. It was pointless, he knew, to try and understand Rafiq Al Kamil. He was a one-off, a maverick, and neither quality was a feature of his wealth and status—although even for someone like Pierre, who was accustomed to being consulted by the rich and powerful, the sheer scale of the Zantaran royal family’s assets was almost surreal. Pierre was out of his professional comfort zone. Shock, denial, anger—there were as many reactions as there were people. But never in his professional life had he encountered anyone who showed such a total lack of response, and he was thrown. It was desperately hard to be supportive to someone who appeared not to require any support. A nicely timed warm handclasp to the shoulder often did wonders, but in this instance he felt any such attempt would be treated as a sign of disrespect—it might even be treasonable! ‘I will have to push you, Doctor.’ Pierre started, and coloured at the younger man’s prompt. For the first time the Prince was showing some emotion—and it was impatience. Such control was daunting. This wasn’t a display of dispassion, it was…Pierre shook his head slightly as his professional vocabulary failed him. It was spooky, he concluded! He was conscious of feeling more anger and bitterness than this young man was displaying. He had never been able to deliver this sort of news and not feel failure, and this went doubly so when the person concerned should have had his whole life ahead of him, when he was full of life and vigour. It seemed such a tragic waste. It suddenly occurred to the doctor that the Prince’s attitude could stem from the fact that he did not fully comprehend the gravity of his situation. Pierre pushed his glasses further up his nose and angled a kindly look at the tall heir to the throne of Zantara. ‘Perhaps I did not explain myself fully, Prince Rafiq?’ ‘I admit some of the technical language passed over my head.’ I doubt that, thought the Frenchman, not fooled by the self-deprecating response. The intelligence shining in the younger man’s eyes was one of the first things he had noticed. And even if he hadn’t noticed, it had become clear from the battery of searching questions he had asked that this man had mind like a steel trap. ‘Correct me if I am wrong,’ Rafiq invited, thinking, Please correct me. Let this all be a massive misunderstanding. ‘I have a rare blood disorder, and it has reached an advanced stage where there is no hope of cure?’ His dark brows lifted towards his hairline. ‘There is something else I need to know?’ His gesture invited the older man to expand. Pierre Henri cleared his throat. ‘You are probably thinking Why me?’ Rafiq’s broad shoulders lifted as he stood to tuck the hem of his shirt into the waistband of his trousers. He paused to consider the question before replying. At six-five he towered over the seated man. Broad of shoulder and long of leg, Rafiq’s streamlined, muscle-packed frame was athletically formed, and it would have made him stand out even had he not possessed a face of startling, symmetrical male beauty, of the type normally seen on classical statues. ‘Why not me?’ Why should he be exempt from the capricious cruelty of fate? Innocents were given far worse to bear, and he was no innocent—but he was a man with a job to do. He supposed that everyone in his position felt they needed longer—but he really did need longer. ‘Just so. A very…erm…healthy attitude—marvellous philosophy.’ ‘So, how long do I have?’ Information was power—so they said. Even information you’d have been happier to remain in ignorance of. In Rafiq’s mind he equated power with control, and that was a commodity in short supply. He could feel it slipping through his fingers like grains of sand. He could definitely use a little top-up. The older man’s eyes fell. ‘Well…erm…these things are very hard to gauge with any precision.’ In other words the news was not good. Rafiq mentally squared his shoulders. ‘Make an educated guess.’ ‘You can, if you wish, have a second opinion.’ Many patients confronted by a diagnosis they did not wish to believe did so—especially those who had the finances to fly doctors from Paris by private jet for a consultation. ‘Are you not the best in your field?’ Rafiq was conscious that he ought to be feeling…feeling what? More, he supposed. But after the initial kick in the gut moment when he had realised the truth, he had felt very little except a sense of urgency. ‘How long do I have?’ ‘It is hard to be definitive, but I’d say six…’ Rafiq recognised the man’s discomfort but felt little sympathy for it. Instead he was conscious of a growing sense of impatience. ‘Days? Weeks…? Months…?’ None would be long enough to prepare his little brother to step into his shoes. ‘Months.’ Nothing in the younger man’s demeanour suggested that he had just been given a death sentence. ‘Of course the progression of the disease can vary, and if you accepted the palliative treatment we spoke of…’ ‘This treatment could affect my faculties, my memory?’ The doctor conceded the possibility with a nod. ‘It could extend six months to possibly a year, though.’ Rafiq dismissed the suggestion with a wave of his hand. ‘Out of the question.’ ‘I can review your case weekly.’ ‘As you wish, Doctor.’ ‘I am so very sorry, Your Highness.’ The offer of sympathy drew a look of cold disdain from the younger man, who sketched a smile and murmured ‘You’re kind’ before excusing himself. Out in the corridor Rafiq Al Kamil allowed his mask to slip, and his emotions bubbled to the surface in one vicious, corrosive explosion. With a curse he slammed his clenched fist into an innocent wall. Through his closed eyelids he could still see the pity in the Frenchman’s face. Pity. It was one thing that he could not, would not endure. He recoiled from the idea of seeing that same expression on the faces of people when they met him. His jaw hardened and a look of steely determination and pride settled on his patrician features. That wasn’t going to happen. Eyes closed, Rafiq expelled the pent-up emotion in one long, sibilant breath. He refused to give way to terror or pity. He would die as he would live—on his own terms. But first there was much to do. His face set in lines of ruthless resolve, he made his way out into the sunlight. Half an hour later he found himself in the stables, with no recollection of how he came to be there. Hassan, the groom who had put him on his first horse as a boy, approached. ‘Prince Rafiq.’ The older man’s manner was deferential but not obsequious as he bowed his head. ‘Hassan.’ Rafiq’s smile left his dark eyes bleak. ‘You wish me to saddle a horse?’ Rafiq reached out and touched the flank of the mare in the nearest stall. He nodded and said carelessly, ‘Why not?’ Riding in the desert was to him the most life-affirming experience possible—and for the moment at least he was still alive. The desert was where he always found himself at times of stress. The sight and sounds of the ageless landscape always cleared his head and restored his focus. ‘He is not in the best of moods,’ Hassan warned. ‘Restless and in need of exercise.’ He was looking at the Prince as he said this. The information was unnecessary as the black stallion being led towards him rolled his eyes, reared up on his hind legs and pawed the air. ‘I think perhaps you both are…?’ The older man’s eyes held a concern he knew better than to express as they scanned the Prince’s face. He had watched the Prince grow from a lively, animated child into the man he was today—strong, resolute, decisive and strong-minded. Yet he was capable of compassion—for all but himself. A man, in short, who embodied all the qualities people expected of a leader, though occasionally in an unguarded moment Hassan fancied he glimpsed briefly the mischievous little boy who had once haunted the stables. The little boy whose passing he regretted. A man, Hassan reflected, should have a place he could let down his guard, and it saddened him that for his Prince the stables were the closest thing he had to such a sanctuary. Rafiq stepped forward with a grin. ‘I think you are right.’ He flashed the groom a warm smile. ‘Thank you, Hassan. I will go and change.’ ‘It is always a pleasure to be of service, Prince Rafiq.’ Gabby identified herself politely. Little option, really, when her path was blocked by two big, bearded men wearing black flowing robes. It had always been her policy to be polite to very large men dressed in black—especially when they were both gripping the jewelled handles of scimitars. Common sense told her the barbaric-looking weapons were purely ornamental—she hoped. Actually, this entire venture was a lesson in hope, but she always had been a ‘glass half full’ sort of person—though the last two days had cut deeply into her natural optimism. It was impossible to tell from the larger of the two men’s stony expression if he understood a word she was saying, so Gabby repeated herself—this time speaking more slowly and waving her hands descriptively. ‘I have an appointment,’ she lied. ‘I got lost. The King is expecting me.’ The man looked at her in silence, his glance sliding briefly over her dishevelled figure. Gabby was sure guilt and desperation must be written all over her face—she had never really mastered the art of hiding her feelings. It occurred to her that she should have dressed for the occasion, then her story might not have been met with such obvious scepticism. It was likely people did not take tea with the King of Zantara wearing grubby jeans and a torn shirt. ‘I had a slight accident on the way here,’ she told the silent man as she lifted a hand to smooth hair that at the best of times refused to be tamed, but just now probably gave her the appearance of an extra in a film that involved mad women and lunatic asylums. When the man did break his silence it was not to speak to Gabby, whom he regarded with deep suspicion, but to the similarly clad man with him. They conversed briefly in Arabic, then the second man, after sliding a stern look in Gabby’s direction, gave a deferential nod of his head to the first and vanished through a door she had not noticed to the left. Gabby smiled. It was rare that Gabby’s smile did not evoke a response from its recipient, but the man in the black robe seemed unfortunately immune to the infectious warmth and her dimple. ‘Children and animals like me.’ The limp quip did not draw any response. He had, she decided, very poor people skills. Maybe being miserable came with the job of protecting the Zantaran royal family from contact with ordinary people? Did they ever step down from their ivory towers? On the other hand, she conceded, it was possible he knew who she was, and this was the way he treated relatives of almost convicted felons—not that the almost, according to the man at the embassy, was anything more than a formality. As far as he was concerned Paul was as guilty as hell—and this was the man who was meant to be on her brother’s side! ‘Your brother was caught carrying the drugs, Miss Barton,’ he had reminded Gabby, in response to her angry diatribe on the justice system in this dustbowl of a country. ‘And Zantara is not actually a dustbowl. There are desert areas, obviously, but due to the mountain range to the east and—’ He had caught Gabby’s eye and cut short the geography lesson, concluding apologetically, ‘And in fairness the zero tolerance attitude to drugs here is well known to visitors. Our own government guidelines to travellers actually—’ Gabby, who was not interested in fairness, had cut in, explaining she was not there to read government guidelines but to get her brother out of jail and back home, where she had every intention of throttling him personally. ‘My brother is not a drug runner. Stupid, yes,’ she conceded. ‘Very stupid,’ she added grimly. Only a total imbecile would carry a stuffed toy through Customs for a girl just because she’d smiled at him and looked helpless. Gabby could see how people found his defence story lame, but they didn’t know Paul. He had spent his entire adult life being made a fool of by pretty girls, and still he retained his child-like faith in the basic goodness of human nature—especially the human nature of pretty girls. It was left to his sister to be cynical for him. Predictably, the pretty girl in question this time had vanished without trace, and now her brother was incarcerated behind prison walls, where he was likely to stay for a very long time unless Gabby pulled off some sort of miracle. And that was looking about as likely as this guard smiling back at her. She felt the stirrings of despair, and took a deep and sustaining breath before adding another hundred volts to her smile. Stay positive, Gabby, she chided herself. She had to, for Paul’s sake, and so far being positive had got her further than any of the embassy man’s depressing predictions. When she had explained her embryonic plan the man at the embassy had laughed. He’d actually given her a patronising pat on the head while explaining that she had to be realistic. It was totally impossible, he’d explained patiently, for her to gain access to the royal palace. As for an audience with the King—well, he had been here twelve months, and that honour had not as yet been granted him. Gabby had asked him if he had any better ideas. Once he’d starting talking about tact and diplomacy she had tuned him out, deciding there and then she would get into the royal palace if it killed her. It hadn’t—though she did have a few bruises to show for her efforts. She was inside—just—and the place looked as though it was straight from the pages of a fairy tale, complete with minarets that glistened with gold and lapis lazuli in the relentlessly fierce sun that shone down from the dizzyingly blue sky. Another time Gabby might have been enchanted by her surroundings, but she had no time for enchantment. She was on a mission. First impossible step achieved. The next was to see the man himself—because, as her dad always said, if you wanted something you didn’t mess around with the little people, you went right to the top. And the King seemed about as top as you could get in this oil-rich desert state, and Gabby had every intention of pleading her brother’s case to the man himself. It had been simply bad luck, walking straight into two guards, but hopefully it was only a minor setback. In deference to her aching face muscles she stopped smiling. She was wondering if it might actually be more useful to play dumb—though it went against the grain—when another granite-faced black-clad figure appeared—thankfully minus a scimitar. The man with the face like granite looked Gabby up and down. You could almost hear him mentally filing her as harmless before he announced in perfect English that he was going to escort her from the premises. ‘I have an appointment with the King.’ The more often she said it, Gabby reflected, the less convincing and more crazy it sounded. ‘So I have been told. But there appears to have been a blunder, which I will look into immediately. The King does not have an appointment scheduled today. I am sorry for the inconvenience, Miss…?’ ‘Barton.’ ‘Miss Barton. I will have to ask you to leave and reschedule.’ He was scrupulously polite, but clearly—despite the lovely manners—not a man to be messed with. A winning smile was not going to work here. ‘Good idea. I’ll do that.’ ‘A wise decision.’ Gabby, who was not renowned for her ability to take no for an answer went meekly, keeping up a steady stream of inanity which after the first few minutes he did not bother responding to, and waited for her chance. Hoping she’d know what to do with it if and when it arrived. She did. They had entered a square mosaic-floored hallway—one of several they had passed through—when her escort stopped in response to a call from a short man who was one of the few Gabby had seen not armed to the teeth. As he left her side to speak to the man framed in the arched doorway, it clearly did not cross his mind that his instruction to Gabby to ‘Wait there, please’ would be ignored. Gabby flashed her best meek, dumb smile, and waited until he’d reached the other man—then she hit the ground running, and carried on doing just that, ignoring the cries and sounds that followed her as she took the first turning off the wide corridor. Within seconds she was in a maze of narrow corridors, the echo of her heels loud in the silent hallways. She ran along corridors and up stairs until her knees were jelly, then flopped forward, her long honey-blonde hair brushing the floor as, hands clasped to her thighs, she struggled to drag oxygen into her lungs. Trying very hard not to think about the abundance of armed men she had seen, she slipped off her shoes, shoving them in the back pocket of her jeans, and continued more cautiously. The corridors were a regular maze, and there were miles of them. Only twice in half an hour did she hear the sound of raised voices and footsteps—presumably a search party after her blood, thought Gabby, though she sincerely hoped not literally. The third time she heard voices and footsteps they were much closer. Heart pounding, she flattened herself against the wall—as though that was going to make her invisible, she thought, as the pause gave her time to consider her actions. Her father, who always gave her the benefit of the doubt, would have said she was impetuous. More like reckless and irresponsible, her mother would have retorted, and on this occasion Gabby could see she might have had a point. What had she achieved? Beyond the very real possibility there would be two Bartons behind bars by this evening? Gabby was mad with herself. She knew she ought to have done more research, but when opportunity in the shape of a distracted driver and an open delivery van had presented itself she had reacted without thinking. If she had had more time to plan she might now have an idea of the palace layout. The sound of a footfall close by interrupted her gloomy analysis of the situation and sent her instinctively for the worn flight of spiral stone steps to her right. She flew up them in breathless haste. At the top Gabby found herself in a small foyer, with a large metal-studded, ancient-looking door in front of her. At the sound of steps behind her Gabby took a deep breath and pushed it. Relieved when it swung inwards, she stepped inside and, hastily closing it behind her, turned the big key in the lock, shooting home a couple of heavy-duty bolts before leaning back against the solid wood, her chest heaving. For the first time she looked around the room she stood in. It was curiously shaped—octagonal—but, more importantly from her point of view, it was empty. As her racing heart slowed Gabby’s eyes adjusted to the gloom and she surveyed her sanctuary. Unlike the other rooms she had glimpsed inside the palace it was informally furnished, with an eclectic mix of antique and modern items. One wall appeared to be lined with books, several of which lay open on a large inlaid table, and another wall had heavy curtains pulled across. The light that filtered though the gaps suggested there was a window behind it. The adrenaline rush that had got her this far abruptly receded, and her knees folded. Spine pressed to the door, she slid down to the floor until she sat, her knees drawn up to her chin, shaking. CHAPTER TWO STANDING on the balcony, Rafiq gazed out over the palace’s luminous gilded towers and beyond to the city, with its graceful avenues lined by waving palms, its white geometric buildings spreading out into the neatly cultivated fields that had once been desert, and further on again to the purple haze that was the mountain range that ran across the eastern border of Zantara. It was a view he had looked at countless times, but never before had his appreciation of the beauty held this bitter poignancy. Zantara had grown beyond recognition in the last few years, but there was still so much to be done—and he had assumed he would be there to do it, to guide his country into the twenty-first century, treading the delicate path between tradition and progress…Frustration and a sense of loss so profound he had no words to describe it clenched around his heart like an iron fist. He closed his eyes, his strong-boned features reflecting the emotions he had fought to subdue since receiving the prognosis earlier. He jaw hardened, and he dragged a hand through his dark hair while squaring his broad shoulders. He could not afford to indulge in emotional reaction. He needed to stay focused. There was much to do and very little time to do it in. His task and his title would fall on the shoulders of his younger brother, and his affection for his likeable sibling did not blind him to the fact that Hakim was utterly unsuited to the task. Zantara was a land richly endowed with natural resources. As well as oil, there were vast mineral deposits as yet untouched. Properly managed, they guaranteed the long-term prosperity of Zantara and its people—but there were many in high places who only paid lip service to the long-term aims that he and his father had always worked towards. They smiled and applauded reform, but given the chance they would not let morality or ideals get in the way of exploiting the country for their personal gain. As the heir, over the years Rafiq had been the target of influential families on the make, who would have liked nothing better than to see him marry one of their own, thus automatically gaining—or so they imagined—unprecedented access to the throne. Zantara had a political stability that was the envy of surrounding countries, but Rafiq was only too aware of how easily things could change—how little it would take to unbalance that delicate harmony. Introducing a perceived advantage to one of the country’s powerful families might be all it took. Rafiq, who had no intention of allowing that situation to occur, was amused rather than threatened by political manoeuvring. But Hakim was so eager to please, so malleable—in fact all the things that made his brother so much more likeable a person than he was—and he would be putty in the hands of those circling sharks. When Hakim became heir he would become their new target…It was a disaster waiting to happen. What Hakim needed, he mused, was someone to guide him—someone with backbone, someone behind the throne giving his brother the strength to make tough decisions and see through the sycophants and con-men. It came to Rafiq in a blinding flash. It was simple, but obvious. His brother needed a wife—the right sort of wife, obviously—who could be groomed for the role of power behind the throne. Rafiq straightened up as he mentally skimmed the list of possible candidates… A frown of dissatisfaction furrowed his brow as he methodically discarded them all. It would take a very special woman. He rubbed a hand over the brown skin of his neck, feeling the grit that remained after his solitary ride through the desert earlier. It had required all his considerable skill to stay in the saddle as his Arab stallion, the pride of the stables, possibly picking up on the mood of his master, had spent all the time he wasn’t thundering across the desert as though pursued by devils trying to unseat his rider. The only possible candidate who even began to fill his requirements was— Rafiq did not complete the thought, because at that moment he heard a voice—a very distinct and very feminine voice. ‘So what happens next, Gabby?’ Rafiq knew what was going to happen next, but he could identify with the desperation in that voice. Either auditory hallucinations were a symptom of the disease the doctor had forgotten to mention, or someone had had the audacity to invade what was his private sanctum. The tower room was the place he retreated to when the weight of the formality involved in fulfilling his duties became too stifling and oppressive—it was his retreat, tucked away in this remote corner of the palace, simply furnished and totally out of bounds. Utterly astounded that anyone would have such impudence, and curious to see the owner of the very English voice, Rafiq pulled aside the heavy curtain that screened the small balcony from the room beyond. Chin resting on her knees, Gabby’s eyes lifted as the big heavy curtain was swept back, flooding the room with golden light and revealing a balcony surrounded by an elaborately carved railing. Gabby’s eyes carried on up. The golden-skinned man who stood framed in the light-filled arch was seriously tall. He was also quite spectacularly good to look at. He wore a knee-length robe in a thin white fabric—thin enough, as a gust of wind plastered it close to his lean torso, for her to make out the shadow of a dark drift of body hair across his broad chest. The riding breeches he wore beneath the robe were tucked into dusty boots. His head was bare and the dusky gloss of his hair outlined by a nimbus of sunlight—which seemed appropriate, as there was something of the fallen angel about his achingly perfect features. Gabby was disastrously sidetracked from her personal dilemma by the combined impact of chiselled cheekbones, a clean-shaven square jaw, a broad, intelligent forehead, aquiline nose, a wide and disturbingly sensual mouth, and incredible wide-spaced black eyes shot with flecks of platinum and framed by long curling sooty lashes. Wow! No man had a right to be that good-looking. He arched a dark brow and drawled. ‘Gabby…?’ His voice was deep, and the velvet tones only slightly accented, but for some reason it made the hairs on the nape of Gabby’s neck stand on end. Probably the male arrogance he was oozing had got under her skin. Something had. She rubbed her hands along her forearms, troubled by the prickling sensation under her skin. ‘No…Yes…’ Aware that she was blushing like a schoolgirl, she closed her mouth. Unable to break the mesmeric hold of his bold pewter-flecked stare, she gave up trying to sound like someone with an IQ in single figures. ‘You are perhaps bad with names?’ It was not unusual to see a woman in Zantara wearing Western clothes, even though less commonly they wore jeans. But it was very unusual to find one who was blue-eyed or blonde. The young woman sitting on the floor was both. The startled azure eyes fixed on his face suggested their owner was just as surprised to see him as he was to see her—so this wasn’t an engineered meeting… That had been his initial assumption, and Rafiq still reserved judgement. He had been frequently pursued over the years, and the women who set their sights on him constantly managed to surprise him with their ingenuity—not to mention their acting ability. His vanity, or lack of it, was such that he didn’t imagine for one second that it was his personal magnetism that made these women humiliate themselves by going to such embarrassingly elaborate lengths to gain his attention. It was his title, his position that attracted them. The old adage that power was a strong aphrodisiac was not far from the mark. He had occasionally wondered in the past if he would ever find a woman who wanted him and not what he represented, or even wanted him despite what he represented. Those thoughts had never gone beyond casual speculation, because he had always known that in reality his choice of bride would be a political decision, not a romantic one. His own parents’ marriage had been such a one, and despite a considerable age-gap the marriage had been a success. They both respected one another, and neither had entered into the arrangement with any false expectations. The union had produced two sons, and had done much to negate the political fallout from his father’s first marriage. That marriage had been a love-match—not in itself a problem, but King Zafir’s first wife’s inability to supply him with an heir had been. When the King had steadfastly refused to put aside the love of his life, the monarchy that had lasted so many generations had been in real danger. Then, against all the odds, the Queen had conceived, but the country’s and the King’s delight had been short-lived. Queen Sadira had gone into premature labour and died of complications. The baby—a boy—had died a week later. By all accounts his father had been almost mad with grief, and without his powerful hand at the reins the country had divided into warring factions. It had been a time of deep political unrest. Rafiq had never been able to imagine the man he knew today being so blindly besotted that he’d put romantic love ahead of duty. Even less could he imagine himself repeating that mistake. Now, of course, the subject was irrelevant. For him there would be no marriage, no wife and no future. Cutting short this line of thought before he became lost in a morass of despondency, Rafiq dragged a hand though his hair, smoothing the dark strands into the nape of his neck. A frown of distaste drew his brows into a straight line. He despised self-pity in himself even more than in others. Besides being a pointless emotion, it smacked of self-indulgence—more productive by far to focus on things he could control. Like the blonde… The blonde whose astonishing neon blue eyes had not yet left his face. She really was not the sort of woman you would miss in a crowd—not with those eyes and that head of decadent blonde curls that spilled down her back, framing a vivid little face that reminded him of a Titian portrait. But below the neck, he decided, staying with the art analogy, she was pure Degas. Her slim, supple and gently rounded body might have belonged to one of that artist’s ethereal ballet dancers. She looked like a wilted rose, with her grubby face and the purple smudge of exhaustion beneath her eyes. She was the delicate, petite type of female that aroused the protective instinct in a lot of men. Rafiq’s assessing glance drifted from her stubborn chin and defiant, wary eyes to the pouting lower lip, and he thought they would be the same men who failed to notice that she had stroppy written all over her. She began to struggle to her feet. Rafiq noted the tremor in the hand that reached to clutch for support and extended his own. She looked at it for a moment with the sort of enthusiasm that most people reserved for a striking snake, then deliberately ignored it, carrying on struggling. Rafiq withdrew his hand and with a derisive shrug made no further attempt to help her, even though she looked about as weak and shaky as a newborn kitten. He liked independent women—but not when they felt the need to make pointless displays of self-sufficiency. Gretchen, his lover for twelve months previous to their non-acrimonious split in May, was a highly independent-minded woman, who made no apologies for being ambitious, but she took the little courtesies offered by a man as her due. Gretchen was a divorce lawyer based in Paris; before her there had been Cynthia, a fashion designer in Milan—long-distance relationships, with women who’d wanted what he did: sex. Not casual, anonymous sex, but sex that came with no emotional strings attached. Rafiq had never understood why people felt long-distance love affairs put a strain on relationships. For him, the arrangement was perfect. It made it easier to compartmentalise his personal and public life. He never had unrealistic calls on his time when he had duties to perform, there were no draining emotional melodramas, and there were no outside distractions—just mutually satisfying sex. He was not even sure why he and Gretchen had split up. She was everything he wanted in a woman—totally self-absorbed, of course, but that had its advantages, and she didn’t make small talk. Gretchen hadn’t changed, so why had boredom and dissatisfaction set in? There was never more than one woman in his life at a time, but there generally was one. Sex was important—or it had been! He had put this barren period in his love life down to a jaded appetite. Had his life acquired a certain cyclical predictability? Was the effort worth the reward? But now, for the first time, he was confronted by the possibility that his recent loss of libido might be another insidious symptom of the disease that was robbing him of his future, of the opportunity to decide that he wanted the emotionally draining drama he had been actively avoiding. He looked at the blonde’s mouth and felt his body stir lustfully—and thought maybe not… He had never been attracted to women who treated their femininity like an affliction, and he got the distinct impression this woman would take it as an insult if a man opened a door for her. She looked all prickles, aggression, and pink sulky lips, he decided, his critical gaze lingering longer than was polite on those lips. In short, not his type—physically or otherwise. But by anyone’s standards she’d definitely fulfil the role of distraction. It would be a simple matter to have her removed, and that was clearly the logical course of action, but curiosity won out over practicality. How did a blue-eyed blonde come to be in here? He recognised it was a very poor piece of prioritising, but at that moment this was the mystery that had captured his total attention—maybe he was attracted by its light relief value? He searched his brain for a plausible explanation for her presence and came up empty. There simply wasn’t one. True, tourism was a developing industry in Zantara, but to his knowledge they had not begun offering escorted tours of the palace. His father was in many ways a moderniser, but the mental image of curious camera-clicking crowds being shown around the King of Zantara’s private apartments caused the corner of Rafiq’s stern mouth to twitch. Gabby was conscious of his intense scrutiny—she now understood why people spoke of feeling someone’s eyes. Reluctant to reveal her weakened condition to this stranger, she surreptitiously leaned her elbow against an armoire set against the wall. Being a fugitive was certainly exhausting! It wasn’t just her reluctance to show vulnerability that had made her reject his offer of assistance. She couldn’t explain it, but the idea of those long brown fingers touching her…She frowned and shook her head, confused by the violence of her gut rejection. The sound of his bitter-chocolate voice made her jump. ‘You are well?’ She tilted her head. He didn’t look as if he’d lose much sleep if she said No, I’m damned well not. This was not a man who oozed empathy. Under the cool exterior she sensed an explosive, combustible quality that was reflected in his dark stare. Some women might find that quality attractive, but she had never felt drawn to dangerous or brooding moody men. He probably practised that expression in front of the mirror, she decided uncharitably. Gabby dragged a tangled skein of blonde hair back from her face and threw it over her shoulder, pushing back stray tendrils of hair from her sweat-dampened face. ‘I’m fine,’ she lied, trying to straighten her creased and torn shirt as she continued to regard him warily. It was a struggle not to show that she was slightly intimidated—all right, a lot more than slightly—by his raw physical presence. Of their own volition her eyes travelled to his toes and made the journey up to his face. A little shudder traced a shivery path up her spine—God, the man had an aura that was almost electric. She had never encountered anything like it—or like him! ‘You startled me. I didn’t know anyone was in here.’ Not that he was anyone. This man was definitely someone. She breathed in the outdoorsy scent that drifted from his direction and felt her stomach flip. His arrogant self-assurance was that of a man who had never heard the word no from a woman in his life. This was an alpha male, with raw sex appeal oozing from every pore. He was a man women were programmed to want to say yes to—a man they’d want to father their children. And my goodness, she thought with an inner sigh, as her eyes travelled back to his face, with his gene pool they would be extremely beautiful children. And so far the utterly gorgeous creature had not opened the door and invited her to leave. Maybe he wasn’t meant to be there either…? she speculated hopefully. This was an idea she could warm to—and after the last forty-eight hours she needed a break. She let her fertile imagination go into overdrive. Could this be an upstairs-downstairs situation? Maybe he didn’t want to be found out any more than she did? His were definitely the first dusty boots gracing the marble floors she had seen, so it was a real possibility. Had she intruded on a secret assignation? Admittedly he didn’t look like star-crossed lover material—it was sensuality and not sentiment that you saw when you looked at his mouth. Its wide, firm contours sent out a conflicting message of control and passion. Before Gabby could drag her distracted gaze from his lips and summon up an inventive explanation for her own presence there was a loud bang on the door behind her. Gabby turned and, staring fearfully at the door, began to back away. ‘Miss Barton, if you don’t open this door immediately I will be forced to break it down.’ No need for that explanation, then. She wondered uneasily how the tall stranger would react now her fugitive status had been established. She turned her head and was none the wiser. He had a great poker face—actually, he had a great face…Her eyes dropped…A great body… A great everything! Despite the uncustomary harassed note, Rafiq immediately identified the voice as belonging to Rashid, a senior member of his father’s personal bodyguard—not an easy man to rattle. He turned his head in time to see a flash of despair and fear in the blonde’s wide blue eyes. It only lasted seconds, before she literally and mentally squared her slender shoulders, stuck out her softly rounded chin and adopted an air of studied defiance. Gabby muttered, ‘You and whose army?’ The door looked pretty solid to her. Solid enough to withstand an earthquake. She was trapped, but for the moment safe—if you discounted her companion. Not an easy thing to do. The man was a distraction she could do without. ‘Who are you?’ A frown of concentration on her face, Gabby glared at the door. She did not turn her head, and therefore missed the look of stark incredulity that chased across Rafiq’s lean dark features when she waved a hand in impatient dismissal. ‘Not now, please—I’m trying to think,’ she snapped. Trying, but not really getting far. And she blamed this partly on her rotten luck. There might be times when being trapped in an enclosed space with a man who appeared to have been gifted with a dangerously generous share of pheromones was not a hardship, but this wasn’t one of those times. Actually, that wasn’t true. She had never been attracted to overtly macho men. She went more for the intellectual type, a man who wasn’t afraid to show his emotions and his vulnerability, but such men were thin on the ground. Actually, she was unsure whether they existed outside literature and her imagination—it could be she was doomed to settle or remain single. Rafiq was accustomed to being treated with a level of deference by virtually everybody he met. He had not been so casually dismissed since he was a boy—and then the only woman in a position to do so had been his mother. It was an irrational response to rudeness, but he found himself even more curious about the blonde. Why not invite her for a dinner date as you have so much time to waste? He frowned in unappreciative response to the ironic voice in his head, and allowed his glance to wander to the neatly trimmed pearly fingertips she was rubbing along the slightly tip-tilted end of her small nose. This woman was like none he had encountered in his thirty-two years. And he wasn’t talking about her dress code—though it was nothing short of a miracle that she still managed to look feminine dressed like that! He watched as she lifted her hand and dashed it across her face. Her hair was honey-gold, with paler shades woven in with the silky mesh that fell to her shoulders. As his eyes slid down her body it became obvious that his curiosity was not the only thing this woman had awoken. The ache in his groin was increasingly hard to ignore. He might be dying, but nobody had told his libido, it seemed! Gabby turned her head at the sound of his laugh, her darting blue gaze moving indignantly across his lean features. ‘You think this is funny?’ ‘I think it is extraordinary that I am laughing.’ Not to mention lusting. Gabby glared, bemused by the cryptic response. ‘Who are you, Gabby Barton?’ Feathery brows several shades darker than her hair twitched into a straight line above her neat nose. The intensity of his narrowed stare made her uneasy. ‘Not a thief, if that’s what you’re thinking. I didn’t come to steal the family silver.’ ‘I believe you,’ he soothed. ‘But you have a purpose…what have you come here for?’ Gabby was gripped by a sudden irrational compulsion to pour out her troubles to this total stranger. Tell him the whole tangled tale…Appalled that she was about to go all weak—little woman crying on the shoulder of a big strong man—she closed her mouth with an audible snap and shook her head. Of course if her problem could be solved by brute force it might well be worth getting him on her side. But she wasn’t the type of person who off-loaded her problems onto anyone—least of all someone she had just met! CHAPTER THREE RAFIQ watched as she lowered her eyes, causing the tips of her lashes to brush against her slightly grubby cheek. She remained silent. ‘A woman of mystery…’ ‘No mystery,’ she denied, shaking her head. ‘How did you get into the palace?’ ‘How do you know I wasn’t invited?’ One black brow slanted satirically as he glanced towards the door. Gabby’s slender shoulders lifted. ‘All right,’ she conceded. ‘I wasn’t. I sort of slipped in.’ His brows hit his hairline. ‘Slipped in?’ He shook his head in a firm negative motion. ‘That isn’t possible.’ Incredulity deepened his voice a husky octave, and it feathered across Gabby’s nerve-endings as he repeated, ‘You slipped in past Security?’ ‘In the back of a delivery van.’ It had been one of those moments when you acted on instinct and didn’t have time to think about the consequences. That came later, she thought bitterly, when you were trapped in a room with armed men outside the door. Not that she regretted it for a second. If she hadn’t at least tried she would never have forgiven herself. Rafiq thought about the substantial budget earmarked each year for palace security, and a muscle clenched in his lean cheek once more as he fought the unexpected desire to laugh. The girl was more than unusual, she was unique—though he had not dismissed the possibility she was mentally unbalanced just yet. ‘And when it slowed down I…I got out…’ This casual confidence sent Rafiq’s eyebrows in the direction of his dark hairline. ‘It was moving?’ He tried to imagine any of the women he knew leaping out of a moving vehicle and failed. He felt reluctant admiration stir once more. Whoever this woman was, she did not lack courage—or for that matter recklessness. And today had taught Rafiq that when all other alternatives were exhausted reckless was sometimes the only thing left. ‘Not very fast…’ She lifted a hand to the shoulder seam of her shirt. The skin beneath was grazed and starting to bruise. His brow furrowed in concern as he saw the specks of bright blood on the cotton. ‘You are injured?’ He didn’t wait for her denial. Gabby watched with horror as he strode with purpose towards the door, his white robe billowing around his tall frame. He was going to let them in! She acted without thinking and threw herself between him and the door. Shrill panic threaded her voice as she caught his arm. Their eyes met, and there was a long, still, nerve-shredding silence, Gabby’s world narrowed until the only things she was conscious of were his mesmerising sloe-dark eyes and the thunderous beat of her heart as it pounded in her ears. It was Rafiq who broke the tableau, the breath expelled from his lungs in one slow, audible hiss as his dark glance moved from her wide, beseeching eyes to the small pale hand on his arm. Gabby saw the direction of his gaze, saw the inexplicable astonishment in his expression, but she didn’t let go. If anything she clung harder, her fingers tightening into the taut, rock-hard muscle of his arm. Her breath came in panicky gasps as she appealed with husky urgency, ‘Please—don’t let them in.’ Rafiq’s glance flickered across the soft contours of her face. Her full lips trembled, and under the smudges of dirt the freckles across the bridge of her nose stood out against the dramatic pallor of her skin. Her electric blue eyes held the zealot-like glow of sheer desperation. He shook his head. ‘I must. You need a doctor.’ Gabby unpeeled her fingers from his arm, finding her digits strangely reluctant to respond to her commands. Mission accomplished, she absently rubbed her palm across her thigh. The impression of sinewy strength in his forearm seemed to have imprinted itself on her hand. ‘It’s nothing,’ she promised, ripping the fabric of her shirt a little more than it already was to prove her point, revealing the smooth curve of her shoulder and the beginning of a large area of bruising in the process. ‘I can’t feel it,’ she said, between clenched teeth. But she could feel the brown fingertip he slid down the exposed curve. And her nervous system’s reaction to a touch that was so light it barely stirred the soft invisible down on her pale skin was totally disproportionate. Every nerve-ending in her body came alive, and a heavy, creeping warm lethargy invaded her suddenly uncooperative limbs. There was not a breath of air in the room. She doubted this sort of stillness existed outside the eye of a hurricane, where the fragile illusion of security was coloured with the anticipation of the storm that was just waiting to break. She could feel the pressure in her eardrums as her heart-rate began to race. The air thrummed with tension—unacknowledged and almost tangible. Gabby struggled to maintain her indifferent pose, and to control her shallow, uneven breathing as his fingertip moved upwards, tracing the angle of her collarbone in a light, feathery motion. Unable to bear the prickling heat under her skin and the dragging sensation low in her belly another second, she pulled away. ‘I told you—I’m fine.’ Gabby glared at him, resentment shining in her eyes as they connected with his and stayed connected. She was utterly mesmerised by the febrile glow smouldering deep in his dark eyes. Rafiq did not speak until the heat in his blood had cooled—which meant he was silent for some time. What he had felt when he touched her skin had been raw and primitive. It didn’t take enormous powers of analytical deduction to conclude it was some form of delayed reaction, because he was not a man who allowed his passions to rule him, but it was easy to understand why some men finding themselves in his position might chose to blot out the bleak reality of their situation. They might turn to alcohol, jump in the driver’s seat of a fast car or sit astride a horse and try and outrun the devils within. And then others might bury themselves physically and mentally in the soft body of a desirable woman… His eyes brushed the slender white column of her neck before reaching the full curve of her wide mouth. His chest lifted as he dragged in a fractured breath. A woman like this one. ‘Do you imagine that the men outside are going to go away? Why can’t you admit defeat gracefully?’ ‘There’s nothing graceful about defeat,’ she retorted scornfully. Her apparent inability to see that she had lost irritated him. But the irritation melted into antagonism as the memory of the raw desire, the tidal swell of devouring hunger that had washed over him moments earlier surfaced. ‘Not admitting you have lost does not make it any less a reality.’ Nice sermon, admitted the ironic voice in his head. Is it intended for her or you, Rafiq? Gabby compressed her lips, regarding him with seething resentment. Did he think she didn’t know that her situation was impossible? Did he think she didn’t know she only had herself to blame? Her lips curled into a derisive smile. ‘Lost…? I’m not playing a game.’ ‘You are delaying the inevitable.’ ‘Thank you for that pearl of wisdom,’ she snapped sarcastically. ‘If you want to be helpful you could go out there and tell them I’m not here…’ ‘Why would I lie for you?’ Gabby scowled at him. ‘Maybe they don’t know you’re here either?’ ‘I imagine they will be shocked to find me present.’ The admission drew a hah from Gabby. ‘I thought as much! You’re not meant to be here either, are you?’ His lashes, jet and lustrously curled, swept downwards, concealing the satirical gleam in his dark eyes from Gabby as they brushed the slashing angle of his cheekbones. ‘This room is off-limits to everyone but the Crown Prince.’ The information made her examine her surroundings with fresh interest. ‘Really?’ Her voice echoed her surprise. ‘A sort of bolthole?’ she mused. Compared with the parts of the palace she’d seen, this was as plain as a monk’s cell—a well-read monk who liked comfy chairs. ‘Maybe he gets bored with the glitter? He likes books,’ she added, running her finger along the spine of a thick leather-bound volume open on the table. She read the title and her eyebrows shot up. ‘Not what I’d call light reading, so he’s not just a pretty face.’ ‘You are familiar with the Prince?’ Gabby laughed and folded her arms across her chest. ‘What do you think?’ She rolled her eyes. ‘If you must know, I read an article.’ ‘Was it a critical article?’ The suggestion drew a laugh from Gabby. ‘Hardly! Either your Prince Rafiq has just stepped directly off Mount Olympus, or someone paid the journalist to write nice things, or she had a massive crush on him—because nobody is that marvellous. Personally it made me queasy to read all that gushy stuff.’ The odd look on his face made her recall the embassy man’s warning. ‘The people here are very protective of their royal family, so avoid saying anything that could offend.’ ‘Gushy…? I must have missed that one.’ The admission was delivered in a flat tone, but she had the impression that far from being offended he was amused. It just showed that the embassy man had been wrong—people here did have a sense of humour. His dark eyes scanned her face. ‘I am going to open the door you know. Sooner or later.’ Gabby gave a resigned sigh, compressed her lips and nodded. Short of sprouting wings, there was no other way out, and he was right: she was delaying the inevitable. It had also crossed her mind that the longer she kept the men outside waiting the less likely they were to be sympathetic. Sympathetic? Ever the optimist, Gabby. They’ll probably fling you into a cell next to Paul. ‘I suggest you stay there, be quiet, and restrain any impulses you have to do something dramatic or foolish.’ ‘I suppose you’re going to be in trouble too…?’ She struggled to feel some genuine sympathy, but it was hard when he didn’t look perturbed by his predicament, and she couldn’t rid herself of the suspicion that he was the type of man who liked to break the odd rule once in a while just for the hell of it. Under a tightly controlled surface, she decided, studying the lean hard lines of his face, he had a combustible quality. But then he was a man of contradictions. Like his mouth, she thought, her eyes straying in that direction. The stern upper lip and the full sexy lower lip, sending two opposing messages… ‘I am already in trouble.’ The cryptic response made her frown. ‘I’ll make it clear you didn’t help me or anything.’ He inclined his dark head, and something she could not interpret flickered at the back of his eyes. ‘Thank you.’ ‘Why are you here?’ ‘Why are you here?’ he shot back seamlessly. ‘I was looking for someone.’ ‘The Crown Prince?’ ‘At a pinch he’d do, I suppose, but, no—not really. I need someone with more clout.’ A choking sound made her tilt her head to look at him. ‘I think you’ll find that the Crown Prince has a little…clout.’ ‘Maybe,’ she conceded, dismissing the absent royal with a shrug, and a worried glance towards the door that was the only thing between her and total failure—maybe even imprisonment. ‘But he isn’t here, is he? There’s just you and me.’ Which sounded a lot cosier than it was. ‘No insult intended, but I need someone important to hear what I have to say. Don’t panic—I won’t bore you with the details.’ Without the belligerence she seemed much smaller, more delicate, and the bleak note of resignation in her flat voice stirred something he refused to recognise as concern. ‘I will tell you if I’m bored,’ he promised. ‘Nice offer.’ If he meant it—which she doubted. ‘I came here to see the King.’ It sounded so absurd, even to her, that Gabby wouldn’t have been surprised if he had laughed. He didn’t, though she was willing to bet he would look pretty incredible if he did laugh, or even smile, she thought, trying to imagine the lines bracketing his stern, incredibly sexy mouth relaxing. Actually, now she thought about it, it might be easier to concentrate if he didn’t laugh. ‘There are official channels to receive an audience with the King, if that is your plan.’ He did not add that there was also a long list for those waiting to be granted an audience with his father. ‘I’ve no time for official channels and plans,’ she admitted. ‘I’m kind of winging it.’ The desperation in her manner was tinged with obstinacy as she looked around the room. There had to be another way out. She refused to believe that her attempt to save her brother could end in such ignominious failure. ‘Are you sure there isn’t any other way out of here? What about the balcony?’ Without waiting for a response, her urgency fuelled by another bang on the door, followed by a second volley of threats, Gabby, her eyes sparkling, rushed headlong past him and out of the open double doors. The balcony was not large—little more than six feet in width—and the impetus of her dash sent Gabby right up to the scrolled wrought-iron railing that came up to waist-height. As she found herself staring down at a dizzying drop, her vision blurred and the world far below spun. A mewling sound locked in her throat as she closed her eyes. CHAPTER FOUR RAFIQ emerged on the balcony just as Gabby loosened her grip on the rail and her body swayed forward. A violent curse was drawn from his lips as he surged forward, his fingers closing like steel bands around her upper arms as he jerked her back to safety. Gabby’s knees had gone. Head spinning, she was only vaguely conscious of her heels dragging across the floor in the moment before she found herself hauled upwards. With a sigh she leaned back into him, her heart pounding after her near escape. His arms came up around her waist, anchoring her there, drawing her closer. ‘Don’t worry—I’m not going to jump.’ Now that the moment of sheer terror was over she was becoming a lot more conscious of other details—disturbing details, like the hot, hard imprint of his body where her spine curved into his lean length. She was tempted to stay where she was and prolong the moment. ‘Thank you,’ she said huskily. ‘I’m not good with heights.’ ‘I’m disappointed. I thought nothing frightened this jumping-from-moving-vehicles action woman.’ One arm still wrapped in a supportive band across her midriff, Rafiq felt her ribcage rise as she sought to suck in a deep breath before responding huskily, but with a lot less attitude than she had shown so far. ‘So sorry to be a disappointment, but we all have our weaknesses.’ It seemed a good time for her to remember that her weaknesses did not usually include being attracted by obvious beefcake—even the exotic variety. Very exotic, she thought as the clean, musky and very male scent of his body teased her quivering nostrils. Her eyelashes brushed her cheeks as her gaze fastened onto his fingers, long and tapering where they lay on her arm. A large red stone set in a thick gold band decorated one finger. If the stone had been real it would have been worth a small fortune. Was he married? Did he have a brood of children and an adoring doe-eyed wife who worshipped him? The images of domestic harmony that passed before her eyes made Gabby feel vaguely dissatisfied. Was it envy? Obviously not of the woman who was married to this total stranger, but Gabby was twenty-four, and she had never even met anyone she cared enough about to have a serious relationship with—this was one area of her life where she was risk-averse. As recently as the previous weekend Gabby had produced a jokey response when her friend Rachel had made an exasperated suggestion that she should lower the bar and maybe have a little fun. Gabby was no prude, but she wasn’t sure she wanted the ‘fun’ her friend was talking about—and she wasn’t about to admit that she was a closet romantic. And anyway, everyone would treat her confession as a joke. She was simply not the type of girl anyone expected to admit she believed there was someone special for everyone—someone worth waiting for. But she couldn’t help but occasionally wistfully wonder if there actually was anyone out there for her, and she found it increasingly difficult to even imagine meeting someone she wanted to share her life with. Maybe Rachel was right? she mused. Maybe she was just making life difficult for herself…? It could be she was doomed to stay single. Oh, well—there were worse things—things like being married to a man every woman under a hundred lusted after, she thought. As she sucked in another tremulous breath Rafiq could feel the tremors running through her body. She felt soft, warm, scarily delicate. The man in him recognised that he was strongly attracted to her; the Prince in him knew that even had circumstances been different, even if he hadn’t just been given a death sentence, a woman like this would not be for him. There had never been any room for distraction in his life, and that went double now. His glance flickered across the top of the blonde’s tousled head. There was no doubt this woman had distraction written all over her. Her colour heightened, Gabby pulled away and walked back in to the octagonal room. She couldn’t decide if her legs felt as shaky as those of a newborn colt due to her fear of heights and the accumulated stress of the last two days, or to this badly timed visceral reaction to a stranger. Now, that was weird—because she had never been attracted to men like him, who projected animal magnetism. As she tilted her chin to meet his level dark gaze she was forced to acknowledge she had never actually met men like him before. Her lips twisted into a wry smile. She was guessing there were no other men like him… ‘Why do you want to speak to the King?’ Self-recrimination tautened her soft face as his question made her realise she was in danger of losing focus here. ‘I really don’t see why that would be any of your business.’ There was another bang on the door—loud enough to make Gabby flinch. Without taking his eyes from Gabby’s face, he nodded towards the door. ‘It is possibly his business.’ Gabby glared at him. ‘Well, if you must know I want the King to intercede. It’s my brother—he’s under arrest, awaiting trial.’ Gabby watched comprehension and distaste spread across his lean face. Her chin lifted. She had seen this response before, but most people attempted to conceal it. He did not. ‘Your brother is the English drug-smuggler?’ Indignation sparkled in her eyes as she retorted, ‘My brother is not a smuggler.’ She saw the look of cynical contempt in the tall Arab’s face and struggled to stop her eyes falling guiltily from his. ‘What’s the point?’ she said, throwing up her hands in disgust. ‘You’ve already made up your mind,’ she accused angrily. ‘Everyone in this stupid place has already made up their minds,’ she added, with an emotional quiver in her voice as she realised Paul didn’t stand a chance. The embassy man had been right—his fate was sealed. The idea hit him like the classic bolt from the blue. He had been searching for an answer to his problems and the answer had come looking for him—or as good as. Êîíåö îçíàêîìèòåëüíîãî ôðàãìåíòà. Òåêñò ïðåäîñòàâëåí ÎÎÎ «ËèòÐåñ». Ïðî÷èòàéòå ýòó êíèãó öåëèêîì, êóïèâ ïîëíóþ ëåãàëüíóþ âåðñèþ (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39925482&lfrom=390579938) íà ËèòÐåñ. 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