His Royal Prize Debbi Rawlins Ëèòàãåíò HarperCollins EUR Texas Sheikhs: Though their veins course with royal blood, their pride lies in the Texas land they call home!THE SECRET HEIRDashing bachelor prince Sharif Asad Al Farid swept onto the Desert Rose ranch, his eyes as fierce as the Texas heat. Although he'd come to meet his newfound relatives, it was their lovely ranch hand who attracted his attention. Olivia Smith's beguiling innocence and sassy attitude enraptured him. Matrimony wasn't on Sharif s mind–until the press caught them in a compromising clinch…and his royal family demanded a wedding. The powerful sheikh could not deny his duty, but convincing independent Olivia to become his princess bride would put his reputation as a master of charm and seduction to the ultimate test. “Why are you so anxious to run from me? You do not take my proposition seriously?” “You want me to marry you?” Just saying the words sent a shiver down Olivia’s spine, her thoughts flying in a hopeless direction. “Why? Do you love me?” “I have a great fondness for you.” “Why?” “Your violet eyes. They intrigue me. And you will bear many brave, strong-willed children.” She blinked. “I thought you didn’t want any. In fact, last night you said—” “I am not a patient man, Olivia.” It wasn’t her imagination that he moved closer, or that his eyes had darkened. “Is that supposed to win me over?” “Perhaps this will.” He cupped her nape, drawing her closer, and covered her mouth with his. Dear Reader, Heartwarming, emotional, compelling…these are all words that describe Harlequin American Romance. Check out this month’s stellar selection of love stories, which are sure to delight you. First, Debbi Rawlins delivers the exciting conclusion of Harlequin American Romance’s continuity series, TEXAS SHEIKHS. In His Royal Prize, sparks fly immediately between dashing sheikh Sharif and Desert Rose ranch hand Olivia Smith. However, Sharif never expected their romantic tryst to be plastered all over the tabloids—or that the only way to salvage their reputations would be to make Olivia his royal bride. Bestselling author Muriel Jensen pens another spectacular story in her WHO’S THE DADDY? miniseries with Daddy To Be Determined, in which a single gal’s ticking biological clock leads her to convince a single dad that he’s the perfect man to father her baby. In Have Husband, Need Honeymoon, the third book in Rita Herron’s THE HARTWELL HOPE CHESTS miniseries, Alison Hartwell thought her youthful marriage to an air force pilot had been annulled, but surprise! Now a forced reunion with her “husband” has her wondering if a second honeymoon couldn’t give them a second chance at forever. And Harlequin American Romance’s promotion THE WAY WE MET…AND MARRIED continues with The Best Blind Date in Texas. Don’t miss this wonderful romance from Victoria Chancellor. It’s a great lineup, and we hope you enjoy them all! Wishing you happy reading, Melissa Jeglinski Associate Senior Editor Harlequin American Romance Texas Sheikhs: His Royal Prize Debbi Rawlins www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) In memory of Sister John Olivia. I miss you. ABOUT THE AUTHOR Debbi Rawlins currently lives with her husband and dog in Las Vegas, Nevada. A native of Hawaii, she married on Maui and has since lived in Cincinnati, Chicago, Tulsa, Houston, Detroit and Durham, North Carolina, during the past twenty years. Now that she’s had enough of the gypsy life, it’ll take a crane, a bulldozer and a forklift to get her out of her new home. Good thing she doesn’t like to gamble. Except maybe on romance. Books by Debbi Rawlins HARLEQUIN AMERICAN ROMANCE 580—MARRIAGE INCORPORATED 618—THE COWBOY AND THE CENTERFOLD 622—THE OUTLAW AND THE CITY SLICKER 675—LOVE, MARRIAGE AND OTHER CALAMITIES 691—MARRY ME, BABY 730—THE BRIDE TO BE…OR NOT TO BE 741—IF WISHES WERE…HUSBANDS 780—STUD FOR HIRE? 790—OVERNIGHT FATHER 808—HIS, HERS AND THEIRS 860—LOVING A LONESOME COWBOY 881—HIS ROYAL PRIZE HARLEQUIN INTRIGUE 587—HER MYSTERIOUS STRANGER Contents Chapter One (#u9caaec29-270a-56ea-9f92-63be557d307b) Chapter Two (#u7154bb08-05ae-5134-90b3-71269b382667) Chapter Three (#uce80b85d-db9c-5be5-8c89-7df2f8cc75cf) Chapter Four (#ub423e83a-e664-5f35-a2dd-4330b7acca94) Chapter Five (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Six (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fourteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fifteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Sixteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seventeen (#litres_trial_promo) Epilogue (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter One America was a strange and bewildering place. Sharif Asad Al Farid squinted out the parlor window at the vast expanse of the Desert Rose ranch. In the distance, he could see two of his three brothers working with the horses. Brothers he had just met, had not known existed until a week ago. No, America was not so strange. Sharif had traveled to New York often while he studied at the university in London, and he had always enjoyed his visits. It was Texas that seemed odd to him, and the way his brothers embraced manual labor, even though they shared the same royal blood that flowed through his veins. Did they not understand what it meant to be heir to the throne of Sorajhee? To be sons of a king? Sharif massaged the tension knotting the back of his neck. More confusing than a desert mirage were the thoughts spinning incessantly like a whirlpool inside his head. He was not sure who he was anymore, or from where he truly came. For twenty-nine years he had been the firstborn, the only son of King Zakariyya and Queen Nadirah of Balahar. There had been no question he would ascend the throne. But now… His glance slid to Rose, the American woman who had borne him. She looked his way, her anxious blue eyes meeting his, and she stopped pouring tea. Her lips curved slightly. Only politeness made him return the tentative smile before he turned to stare out the window again. He was a fool not to have guessed he had been adopted. Or that he was of half-Western ancestry. All the signs were in evidence—the lighter eyes, the fairer skin. Although his eyes were a dark midnight-blue and not as pale as those of this woman who claimed to be his mother, he in no way resembled King Zak’s or Queen Nadirah’s dark, regal looks. There was a trace of English blood in Nadirah’s lineage they had said—an explanation he had easily accepted. They were his parents. Why would he not have trusted them to speak the truth? Bitterness taunted him, but he would not succumb. He understood the reason they had withheld the truth. The politics and public temperament of the time had prevented them from publicizing the verity of his birth—that he had secretly taken the place of their stillborn child. They had protected him, protected his rightful place on the throne. Rightful place. His insides clenched painfully, yet still the numbness threatened to engulf him. He almost welcomed the oblivion. What was his destiny? All his life he had been so sure of himself, his future as king. No more. His belly cramped again. Uncertainty was such a difficult pill to swallow. “Your mother is speaking to you,” he heard King Zak say, and Sharif turned slowly toward his father. His adoptive father. The only one he had ever known. Sharif wanted to tell him not to refer to this woman as his mother. Queen Nadirah was dead and buried for several years now. But she had been the one to sit at the edge of his bed when fever raged through his young body, or when his knees had been skinned raw from scaling the palace walls. He missed her every day. “I beg your forgiveness,” Sharif said with stilted politeness. “My mind was wandering.” Rose smiled. “That’s okay. I only asked what you’d like in your tea.” He eyed the tray of cups she had filled with the amber liquid. In her hand was a small porcelain bowl of sugar. It trembled slightly. “Do you not have servants to do this?” She blinked, a startled look crossing her face. “There’s a cook and housekeeper, and ranch hands to help with the horses, of course,” she said slowly, “but not the kind of servants you’re talking about.” A smile tugged at her mouth. It gave beauty to her weary features. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had anyone wait on me.” Stung by the reminder of her appalling imprisonment for the past twenty-nine years, Sharif’s gaze quickly slid away. Right into his father’s disapproving face. King Zak’s dark eyes narrowed, and he gestured toward the space beside him on the burgundy couch across from Rose. “Why do you not sit here with us? What is outside that so captures your attention?” Sharif remained stubbornly silent for a few moments and then said, “I would like Scotch instead of the tea, if you have it.” “Of course.” Rose immediately stood, ignoring Sharif’s father’s sound of disgust. “King Zakariyya? How about you?” “Thank you.” King Zak had risen, and he bowed slightly. “But I do not make it a practice to drink before six o’clock.” Sharif got the message of his father’s disapproval. He noted something else, as well. That King Zak could not seem to take his eyes off the American woman as she left the room. Distaste surged through Sharif. “I think I will go for a ride. I assume there is someone around who can saddle a horse for me.” “Sharif, we have been here only one day. Your mother is trying very hard to make you welcome. Be kind to her.” He turned to stare out the window again. “My mother is in the ground.” King Zak sighed. “We should have told you the truth sooner. Until not long ago I did not know your mother was still alive. Do not punish her for my error in judgment.” Sharif stared off in the direction where Rose had disappeared in search of his Scotch. “She is very beautiful.” He meaningfully met his father’s eyes. “Is she not?” After a long pause, King Zak said, “She has suffered greatly, locked away in the sanitarium for so many years because of a madwoman’s thirst for power. She did not abandon you and your brothers. It is because of her sacrifices that you are all still alive. Royal blood may not flow through her veins, but she has the wisdom and strength of a true queen. You should be very proud to be her son.” There was truth in his father’s words, Sharif knew. Rose had been a queen once, when she had married Ibrahim, Sharif’s birth father, and ruler of Sorajhee. She had possessed power and fortune herself, along with her brother, Randy, the heirs of a wealthy and important American businessman. When Ibrahim was assassinated, it was Randy in America to whom she had sent Sharif’s three brothers for safekeeping while she sought the truth behind her husband’s death. Before she could attain her goal, she was committed to a sanitarium in Europe. Sharif still did not know all the details. Only that he was born five months later, then taken from Rose and given to his parents. Everyone had thought Rose was dead. Even her brother. Until recently. She had not lived an easy life. And for that misfortune, he pitied her. He even admired her strength and courage. But he was not yet ready to embrace her as family. “I found the Scotch,” she said, smiling as she reentered the room, a bottle of fine aged Scotch in one hand, a crystal tumbler in the other. “I hope this suits you.” Everything at the ranch was of the finest quality: the furnishings, the art adorning the walls, even the china and crystal. The Spanish-style house itself was solid and spacious and possessed over a dozen bedrooms that overlooked a glorious lake. And the Arabian horses housed in the stables were of superb breeding. His brothers certainly had not grown up wanting. Still, none of this compared to the opulent palace where Sharif had spent his twenty-nine years. He wasn’t sure how that made him feel, or why it mattered. All three of his brothers seemed content. Genuinely happy. Sharif was the one who was suffocating from confusion. After accepting the glass of Scotch Rose poured, he downed the liquor in one gulp. “I will go for that ride now,” he said, and stoically met her startled eyes. “What time shall I return for dinner?” “Sharif.” His father’s sharp tone shook the air like sudden thunder on a clear night. Rose laid a hand on King Zak’s arm, and his expression immediately softened. “We eat around seven. But it’ll start getting dark before then, so be careful.” For a moment, his father’s gaze lingered on the American woman, and Sharif’s insides twisted at the longing he saw in those dark eyes. Anger and resentment sliced through him like a thief’s sharpened dagger. “I shall not be dining with you tonight.” Sharif walked toward the French doors without another glance at them. “Be certain my bedchamber has been made ready for my return.” Even at his father’s grunt of disapproval, he did not turn around. He continued out the door, and waved for his personal attendant to lag behind when the man rushed to accompany him. Sharif did not want anyone to see the pain his eyes surely could not hide. “HE’S VERY ARROGANT.” Rose watched her youngest son stride proudly away, his head held high, his posture perfectly erect. When she realized what she’d said, heat flared in her cheeks and her gaze flew to King Zak’s face. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to sound critical. I was merely making an observation, really. You’ve done a fine job with him. And you have my everlasting thanks. He is very well mannered and bright and handsome…” King Zak smiled. “It is you who is responsible for his comeliness. He looks very much like you.” Rose blushed again. “Thank you, but I think he looks more like Ibrahim.” Her gaze strayed out the window and she watched the way one shoulder dipped ever so slightly as Sharif walked. Remarkably like Ibrahim. The memory of her husband was a knife in her heart, as though it had been only yesterday that his young life had been violently ripped away from hers. “You are quite right,” King Zak said, drawing her attention again. He had a fierce, swarthy look, but kind eyes. “Sharif is sometimes arrogant. We indulged him too much. Especially Nadirah. She awaited a child for a very long time.” He fell silent, staring out the window toward Sharif’s disappearing form, and Rose knew he was thinking about his wife, missing her, as Rose still missed Ibrahim. “This behavior…” he said finally, waving a ringed hand, a large ruby catching the sunlight and sparking brilliant red flames. “It is not so much arrogance as it is fear.” “Fear? Of me?” “Of change.” “Oh, King Zakariyya, I don’t expect anything to change. I want to be in his life, of course, but—” “Please.” He took one of her nervous hands and sandwiched it between his. “It is not necessary to be so formal. And Zak is so much easier on the tongue, is it not?” She nodded, and willed her cheeks not to color as she extracted her hand as gracefully as she could. “I hope he understands that I don’t expect him to welcome me overnight. I simply wish for the chance to get to know him, just as I’ve been getting to know the other boys.” “He is a good man. A true king. But right now his identity is shaken. He needs some time. He is still growing up, I am afraid, but he would never let our people down. And he will not let you down. I am certain of this.” As they both turned toward the window again, Rose prayed Zak was right. Sharif had already disappeared from sight. She felt his absence clear down to her soul. “DAMN IT, LIVY, YOU CHEATED.” Olivia Smith stopped laughing and glared at her friend and fellow ranch hand. “Mickey Farrel, you worm, I’ve never cheated once in my life, and you know it. Take it back.” “I won’t.” He stooped to pick his hat off the barn floor and shook the hay off the battered gray rim before setting the Stetson back on his head. She had a good mind to knock his hat off again. He was twenty-two, just a year younger than she, but he acted as if he were twelve. “Don’t try and weasel out of mucking out the stalls. You lost fair and square.” “How come I always lose? Tell me that. You have to be cheating.” “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.” She walked over to get the shovel and thrust it at him. “The object is to knock the other person’s hat off without bodily contact. Which is exactly what I do. How could I possibly cheat?” “All I know is I’m five foot ten and you’re only five two. So how in the blazes do you always whack my hat off first?” “It’s called having a brain. Maybe you ought to use yours sometimes.” Mickey muttered a foul word under his breath and grudgingly grabbed the shovel. “Why can’t you act like other girls, and not be such a tomboy and a bully?” “I’m not a bully. You’re just a sore loser,” she said with a smug toss of her head so he wouldn’t know how much the remark stung. The truth was, she’d grown up with mostly boys at the orphanage where she’d been abandoned as a baby and she wasn’t sure she knew how to act like a girl. Sometimes she wished she did know the right things to say, and had the proper clothes to wear, instead of her usual jeans and baggy shirts. Especially since Rose Coleman–El Jeved came to the ranch. She was so beautiful and poised that it was easy to imagine her as a queen just like in the fairy tales Livy read to the kids when she visited the orphanage. Except Rose had been a real life queen with a palace and servants and fine clothes and… Livy straightened and grabbed her gloves. Wouldn’t Mickey and the rest of the guys laugh themselves silly if they knew about her foolish daydreams. “See you later,” she said. “I’ll be working with Khalid.” Mickey stared, slack jawed. “You’re not leaving me to muck out all thirty stalls by myself.” “Be grateful you don’t have all sixty to clean.” She strode off before she gave in and helped him as she usually did. She had something else in mind. Although she really did plan on working with Khalid, the ranch’s newest colt, she needed to stop and talk to her own horse first. She swore that Prince was the only creature on God’s green earth that understood her. Of course they shared a similar past. He’d been a runt, unwanted and shunned by breeders. Her parents had dumped her on the steps of St. Mary’s before she could even talk. Which was sort of a blessing. She obviously hadn’t said anything bad that ticked them off or made them not want her. Reminding herself of that helped when she felt down and alone sometimes. As soon as she saw Prince stick his head out of his stall, she broke into a grin. Now Prince Charming here had shown all the naysayers a thing or two. He’d turned into a fine stallion. Even some of the trainers and breeders who’d snubbed him earlier had changed their tune and offered her a heap of cash for him. It made her burst with pride. Not that she’d ever sell him in a million years. Even though he’d cost her every dime she’d saved. “How ya doing, boy?” She reached into her pocket for his daily cube of sugar while she stroked his neck with her other hand. “You look mighty handsome today, young man.” She laughed when he nuzzled her neck. “Thanks, but you still get only one cube.” She led him out of the stall and into the outdoor riding ring. The sun was low enough that it wasn’t too hot, and she really wished she had the time to take him out for a good run. In another week the annual Hill Country Breakneck Race was going to make her and Prince a small fortune. Assuming they won. Although she had little doubt they would. Prince was that fast. He was smart, too, and eventually she’d probably show him, just as Mac Coleman, the head trainer at the ranch, suggested. “Come on, boy. Let’s see what you remember.” She led him around the ring at a slow pace. Sunlight gleamed off his shiny black coat. He looked like velvet in motion and her heart swelled with pride. After a few more turns, she shaded her eyes and looked at the pink-streaked horizon. The sun was still visible, but she guessed it was about four-thirty or five. She had to go work with Khalid. Prince sensed he was about to be penned again and pulled back a little. “I’m sorry, boy, I wish I could stay longer.” She stroked the side of his neck, whispering to him in the low murmuring tone he liked. “If I don’t work, who’s going to pay for all that feed you scarf up like there’s no tomorrow?” Prince let her rub his velvety nuzzle before throwing his head back out of reach. She laughed, knowing this was his way of telling her he understood but didn’t like it. Working with Khalid was no chore, and Livy was careful not to show her eagerness in front of Prince as she returned him to his stall. Khalid was amazingly beautiful, a quick learner, and she loved the Arabian colt as if he were her own. He greeted her with youthful enthusiasm as soon as she approached him, shifting between his two front hooves, nodding his head, knowing he’d make her laugh. “Come on, you little ham.” She led him outside and he strained against the lead, anxious to get started with his lesson. He seemed a little more spirited than usual and she had to calm him down several times during their session. After leading him around the third time, she understood why Khalid was so animated. He loved audiences and two people stood on the southern slope watching them. Startled, Livy wondered how long they’d been standing there, and when she didn’t resume training, the pair started down the slope toward her and Khalid. The men didn’t walk side by side, the one with the dark full beard lagged several feet behind. He was wearing the type of clothing the Colemans wore when showing Arabians. She tugged the rim of her hat down to cut the sun’s glare and squinted for a better look at the man in front of him. He was taller, broader, his hair black and shiny, and he had on some kind of brown silk shirt. Not the usual ranch garb. She knew the Colemans were expecting company, but when the other hands were speculating at breakfast that royalty was coming to visit, she’d thought it was a bunch of hogwash. Of course everyone knew that Alex, Mac and Cade were descendants of some Arab sheikh…as hard as that was to believe. She knew that Cade’s wife, Serena, was from the mid-East and that her father had visited once. But she didn’t think any more of those people would be coming here. Khalid whinnied and she absently patted his neck, helplessly fascinated by the approaching stranger. He sure walked as if he owned the place. The instant he was close enough that she could see his face, Livy knew he had to be royalty. Her mouth knew it judging by the way it got drier than withered cotton. And trying to keep her heart from pounding through her chest was like nailing pudding to a tree. He was downright beautiful. Just like one of those princes in the fairy tales. And he was coming straight toward her. Should she bow? Curtsy? Heck, her knees were so weak she’d be lucky not to fall on her fanny. About twelve feet away he stopped, and so did Livy’s heart. Every fairy tale she’d ever read flitted through her head. He waved the man behind him forward. “Bring the servant boy to me,” he commanded in lightly accented English. Livy blinked. Boy? Was Mickey trying to sneak up on her? She shot a look over her shoulder. Not a soul was in sight. Her attention immediately returned to the handsome stranger. He was looking directly at her. She blinked again. He thought she was a—of all the damn nerve. “My master summons you.” She jumped at the gruff, heavily accented voice so close to her ear. Tilting her head back, she peered up into the dark face of the bearded man and scowled. “Your what?” The man frowned down at her, confusion taking the edge off his barbarous look. He hesitated, glanced at the other man, then said, “You will come.” She had a good mind to knock the turban off his head just as she’d done to Mickey’s Stetson. Although this contraption would be more of a challenge. And then again, playing along could be a heck of a lot more fun. She paused a moment longer, pulling her hat rim down lower, while trying not to look at the tall, handsome man waiting for her. Of course his high-and-mighty attitude had taken a bite out of his appeal. “Come on, Khalid,” she said, in as deep a voice as she could muster. “Let’s go see what this guy wants.” He was only a few yards away and it was ridiculous to have to walk to him, but she did, leading Khalid in spite of his noisy protests. When Khalid halfheartedly reared, she whispered a few soothing words and he immediately calmed down. Assured he would behave, she looked quizzically at the stranger, but he had eyes only for Khalid. Incredibly beautiful eyes. So dark blue they almost looked black. But it was the admiration she saw in them that warmed her heart. The man looked at Khalid as if he were the most magnificent horse in the world. Which Khalid was. Next to Prince, of course. The man lifted his hand, and Livy stroked Khalid’s side, letting him know it was okay to allow the stranger to touch him. The bearded man had immediately stepped several paces back, and while the other man checked Khalid’s teeth, Livy freely studied the strong jut of his jaw, the deep cleft that dented his cleanshaven chin. He had to be the sheikh. Except he was awfully young. About thirty, she guessed. Maybe he was the sheikh’s son. Whoever he was, he was gorgeous. Even if he was a snob and didn’t have enough smarts to tell a male from a female. She slowly glanced down at her worn jeans, the old plaid shirt Mickey had outgrown and passed on to her. It was really too big, but it was free, and with the enormous amount of oats Prince ate, she couldn’t waste money on clothes. She sighed. Okay, so maybe mistaking her for a boy wasn’t so farfetched. Although she didn’t suppose taking off her ragged hat would help. Not with the last haircut Mickey had given her. “This animal, he was sired here?” Animal? Livy bristled. Technically maybe. “Khalid is a fine Arabian colt.” Her snippy tone briefly drew his attention and she lowered her gaze, letting her hat shield her face as he stared down at her in silence. Finally he asked, “And the other one, the black gelding. How much are these animals?” Her chin jerked up. “Neither one is for sale.” Their eyes met and his gaze immediately narrowed. She looked away and focused on stroking Khalid’s neck, her heart pounding. What she said was true. Prince was safe. She wouldn’t sell him for all the money in the world. And although the Desert Rose owners, Randy and Vi Coleman, had no intention of selling Khalid, if this guy was someone important, they might feel obligated to part with the foal. Livy could barely stand the thought. “I have to take him in now,” she mumbled, and started to turn, tugging on Khalid’s lead. The bearded man gasped and moved toward them, and she knew she’d made one of those faux pas things Rose had explained to her. But the sheikh guy, his gaze fastened stonily on her, raised a hand, and the other man stopped dead in his tracks. Mr. High-and-Mighty probably expected her to stop, too. Tough. She led Khalid back into the stables, her heart rate not yet back to normal. Tempted to glance back, she looked straight ahead until they neared his stall. Then out of the corner of her eye, she noticed they had been followed inside. By the head honcho himself. The bearded man was nowhere to be seen. She was going to ignore him, but when she started to open the gate, he reached out and held it closed. “In my country, do you know how we handle such insolence from servants?” His voice was deep and close and annoyingly unnerving. Itching to tell him she didn’t give a hoot, Livy carefully kept her eyes lowered and her mouth clamped shut. No matter what a pain this guy was, he was a guest of the Colemans, and as much as it irked her, she supposed she ought to hold her tongue. “Do you know who I am, boy? I warn you. Do not ignore me.” That did it. Livy may have to behave, but Khalid was, after all, just an animal. She whispered something in the horse’s ear and he suddenly threw up his head, catching the man off guard. Before he could recover, Khalid nudged him hard enough that he stumbled forward. Struggling for balance, he reached out, groping for a pole. And got a handful of Livy’s right breast. His eyes widened in shock as they met hers, and he curled his fingers, filling his palm more fully, almost in disbelief. Livy yelped, and shoved him away from her. His Royal Highness landed on his royal heinie. Chapter Two A woman! Stunned, Sharif propped himself up on one elbow. He should have known, should have sensed somehow that this wisp of a female was not a boy. Without having her soft feminine flesh fill his palm. He was reminded of her unexpected warmth as he stared up into striking violet eyes. Bewitching eyes that flooded him with wariness. Laughing eyes. He straightened, aware suddenly of the undignified way he lay sprawled on the ground. Hay fell from his hair. Mud splattered the front of his shirt, making the fabric cling to his skin. Sharif sniffed and cursed. There was more than mud ruining the expensive silk. “If you’re waiting for an apology, you’ll be sitting there for one heck of a long time.” She stuck out her hand, and when he scowled, she shrugged and backed up. “Suit yourself.” Slowly he started to raise himself. Arms folded across her chest, head cocked slightly to the side, she watched him, looking more amused than alarmed when he finally got to his feet and towered nearly a foot over her. “Do you know who I am?” he asked in a deceptively calm voice. She paused with a considering expression, then shrugged. “Not exactly.” At her indifference, his anger grew. “Want me to call your flunky?” He frowned at the unfamiliar word. “Your servant?” Her eyes widened in innocence, mocked by her tone. “Or can you handle this by yourself?” The violet color was extraordinary, but her mouth was tarter than a lemon. He wondered what shade her hair was, all tucked under that hat. Wisps of light brown stuck out here and there, and an occasional blond strand. He could order her to remove the ugly tan hat. He doubted she would obey. That anyone would dare oppose him was a staggering thought. And a woman? Almost unthinkable. But of course, this was America, a country of strange customs. “Why do you pose yourself as a boy?” Sharif asked as he begun unbuttoning his shirt. Her gaze settled on his right hand, turning increasingly wary with each button he unfastened. Apprehension darkened her eyes and gave him enormous satisfaction. Without the smug look she was even prettier. “For your information, lots of girls dress like this here. We don’t go prancing around in stuff that looks like night clothes and flimsy veils for your benefit.” She briefly looked from his hand to his face and back again. “What are you doing?” “Ah, so you do know who I am and where I come from.” He shrugged off the shirt. She took a step back. “I don’t know who you are.” Her gaze leveled on his bare chest, and she blinked. “What are you, some kind of sheikh or prince?” He tossed the shirt over the side of the stall, mostly to distance himself from the slight odor, and advanced toward her. She ducked behind the horse. “We have laws here, you know. Just because you’re some sheikh, or whatever, you can’t just do what you want.” He moved around to the front of the horse. She scurried toward its left flank. “You don’t intimidate me, so don’t even try.” He stopped and focused on the horse, virtually ignoring her except to ask, “What is this animal’s name?” “Quit calling him an animal. This is Khalid.” Sharif nearly smiled at the relief she could not keep from softening her voice. And when she stepped around to reverently stroke Khalid’s side, Sharif felt a swell of admiration edging out his irritation with her. In his experience, women seldom found animals so captivating. “And I bet he comes from more royal stock than you do,” she added with a sidelong glance that did not make it higher than his chest. Her obvious appreciation of him should have inspired satisfaction, but her remark stung. All his life he had known exactly who he was. Or thought he had. In minutes everything had changed. His mother was American. Rich but not of royal blood. He did not want to think about this dilemma now. He had come looking for distraction. His gaze drew back to the woman. “And you? What are you called?” “Olivia Smith.” She lifted her chin. “You may call me Ms. Smith.” A smile breached Sharif’s lips. She was a most unusual woman. “Well, Ms. Smith, tell me about Khalid.” She gave him a sour look and mumbled, “Livy. Everyone calls me Livy.” Adjusting her hat, she turned to remove the horse’s bit. More light brown strands floated around her face. Chopped, uneven strands. He detested short hair on women. Another American and European custom with which he did not agree. “In this country, when someone tells you their name you’re supposed to return the favor,” she said, her attention entirely focused on removing Khalid’s bridle. Sharif hesitated, unfamiliar with her phrasing. Having been educated in London, he had excellent command of the English language, but this woman bewildered him. In many ways. She continued to concentrate on Khalid, unbuckling the throatlatch and noseband with a firm but loving hand even though Sharif could tell she was annoyed with him. Another puzzle. In his country, even in London and Monte Carlo, women sought him out. Beautiful women. Accomplished women. They strove to please him in every way. He thought again about what she had said. Return the favor. “I am Sharif Asad Al Farid,” he said proudly, guessing, not wishing to ask her to explain. She wrinkled her nose at him. “Huh?” He grunted his impatience. Did she really not know who he was? Back in his country, the entire palace staff would have been advised of an important arrival. Of course King Zak and Rose were concerned about reporters. Sharif himself was not anxious to be their prey as he had been in the past. “That’s a whole lot of names. What am I supposed to call you?” She looked utterly perplexed. And charming. “And don’t say, Your Royal Highness. That’s too big a mouthful…besides being weird.” “Then just Your Highness will do fine.” The teasing words left his lips before Sharif realized he had the capacity to jest. The result was pleasing, however, when Livy stared at him in openmouthed surprise. She had a fine mouth. Straight white teeth, lush pink lips that needed no artificial color. Lips that suddenly curved. “I thought you were serious for a minute,” she said, “until I saw that little twinkle in your eye.” His good humor fled and he straightened. “My eyes do not twinkle.” “Sure they do.” She slowly eased the bit out of Khalid’s mouth, then stopped to study Sharif a moment. “But right now you look like a mean old grizzly bear. You really ought to smile and twinkle more. You look so much more handsome. Of course you already know how beautiful you are.” Her frank, unguarded expression startled him almost as much as her heartfelt words. Judging by the pink color seeping into her cheeks, they had surprised her, as well. Quickly she averted her gaze and tended to the tack, her movements slightly awkward. Since he was a child he had been lavished with compliments and flattery, but none he could remember that affected him more. Her earnestness touched a place deep inside him, buried beneath the artifice privilege and wealth often fostered. Unlike many others, she did not use her honeyed words to curry favor. She spoke impulsively with the openness of a child. After she made sure Khalid was secure in his stall, she eyed the barn door. She was about to flee, Sharif was sure of it, but he did not want her to go. When she made a sudden move, he reached for her arm. It was so small and fragile, he immediately loosened his grip, afraid he would hurt her. “What in the Sam Hill do you think you’re doing?” She tried to twist out of his grasp, but she was no match for him. “I do not intend to hurt you. I only want—” Sharif stared into her anxious eyes. What did he want? To erase the past week when his entire life had changed? This girl could not help him. No one could. His demons were his alone to battle. “I want you to take off your hat.” “Excuse me?” He raised his free hand to accomplish the task himself, but she ducked away. “It is you who are beautiful. You should not dress like a boy.” “I’m not dressed like a—” She stopped, her eyes narrowing. “What did you say?” Anger tinged her voice and she stared at him as though he were the devil himself. Her unexpected reaction caught him off guard, so when she jerked away, he lost his grip and she used her freed hand to jam her hat more securely on her head. “Never mind. Don’t you dare repeat it,” she said, her voice breaking. “That was low, really low. Even for someone like you.” “Wait.” He blocked her path, then when she tried to get around him, he held her by the shoulders. “I do not understand.” “I know I don’t act or look like other girls, but I don’t need you pointing it out, buster.” She jabbed a finger in his chest. “And for your information, not every girl wants to be beautiful. I’m fine just the way I am.” He fisted a hand around hers before she jabbed him again. Her nails were short, but they were ragged and chafed his skin. She tensed under his touch. “I will not hurt you,” he repeated. “You already have,” she muttered, and he promptly released her. “I have to get back to work.” She briefly glanced over her shoulder. “I can clean your shirt, if you want. I feel partly responsible.” He waved a dismissive hand. He had many more like them. “I want to understand why I have angered you. In my country, women like to be told they are beautiful.” She sighed. “Here, they like to be told the truth.” One side of her mouth lifted. “Most of them.” She shrugged. “Okay, most of the time we do.” She sighed again and looked at him with an odd longing in her eyes. This was not a woman who tried to hide her feelings. A new experience for him that was both refreshing and unsettling. “Olivia Smith, take off your hat.” She scowled at his command, and he grudgingly added, “Please.” Not a word he used often, it rolled gruffly off his tongue. She touched the rim uncertainly. “Why?” “It hides your face and hair.” “That could be a good thing. Trust me.” “No.” He slowly moved his hand toward the hat. “Trust me.” Livy froze, closing her eyes, barely able to breathe as he gently lifted the hat off her head. His movement was so smooth and unhurried, it seemed sensual somehow, and for one glorious moment, she did feel beautiful and feminine. Which was ridiculous, except Livy never wasted the opportunity for a good fantasy. She wondered if this was the way Cinderella had felt when her prince slipped on the glass slipper. Of course a gorgeous, sparkling glass slipper was a far cry from a stained secondhand Stetson. Reluctantly she opened her eyes, forcing herself to give up the brief daydream. His smile stole her breath again. Her chest tightened until it hurt. And then she saw her hand, as though it were no longer a part of her body, lying against his bare skin, his hardening nipple pressing into the center of her palm. She gasped, snatched her hand back and squeezed her eyes shut tight. Humiliation burned in her cheeks. How had this happened? How had she gotten so carried away? How could she ever look at him again? She couldn’t. That’s all there was to it. Taking a blind step back, she felt around for her hat, ready to yank it out of his hand and run. She found a belt buckle instead. And it wasn’t hers. “Oh, my God.” Her eyes flew open and she pulled back her hand as if she’d just touched a red-hot burner. “I didn’t mean to do that. I—I—” The heck with the hat. She started to turn to sprint for the door. He stopped her with a firm hand. “Stay.” “Not a chance.” He hooked a finger under her chin and, when she tried to jerk away, he forced her head up. She closed her eyes and refused to meet the dark, steely blue of his gaze. If he laughed at her, sheikh or no sheikh, she’d slug him. She swore she would. Warm breath tickled her cheek and her lids involuntarily lifted. “What are you doing?” He lowered his mouth to hers and pressed a gentle kiss against her lips. When he pulled back, her throat closed at the look she saw in his eyes. She’d never seen a man look like that before, his pupils dilated so much that his eyes looked more black than blue. Maybe in the movies she’d seen it, but not in person, and certainly not directed at her. It made her feel all funny and squishy inside. When his hold on her arm tightened she should have been frightened, but she was too fascinated by the way his jaw clenched, like Mickey’s did when he was really angry or excited and was trying to hold back from popping someone or doing something crazy. But this man wasn’t angry. He was… She wasn’t quite sure what, but just watching him look at her made her embarrassingly damp in a place she didn’t expect. “I didn’t say you could kiss me,” she said without the slightest hint of conviction, and wondered what it would take for him to do it again. She’d only kissed three boys before today, and none of those times seemed to count anymore. His mouth lifted in a slight curve. “Had I asked, what would you have said?” “No way.” “May I kiss you again?” “Okay.” His smile broadened a little and Livy swallowed, not sure what she should do. Was she supposed to pucker up, or wait until he lowered his head again? Was it all right to lay her hand on his chest? She liked the feel of his smooth taut skin, and figured if she was going to let him kiss her again, what difference did it make where her hand landed. He relieved her of the decision by placing her arms around his neck. Her breasts flattened against him and her head got a little fuzzy. The sudden shocking wish that they were bare skin to bare skin sobered her a little and she stiffened. Stroking her back, he whispered something in a strange language. When she tilted her head back to look at him, he said, “You have the most magnificent eyes.” And then his gaze fell to her lips and she didn’t think she’d ever wanted anyone to kiss her more than she did at this very moment. A few feet away Khalid whinnied, and she vaguely recalled where she was, that she was supposed to be working, that Mickey or any of the others could walk in at any time. But she just couldn’t pull herself away. This was her dream come to life—a handsome Prince Charming, words and looks that made her feel wanted and beautiful, and her need was so great, she brazenly stretched up to meet her fantasy. His lips weren’t so gentle this time. Her breath caught at the almost savage way he crushed her to him, as though he were being driven by some unknown force. The intensity both frightened and thrilled her. It was like something out of the movies, or in those romance books she sometimes read. When his tongue slid along the seam of her lips, slowly applying pressure, looking for entry, she tensed again. Long enough for sanity to surface, and she pulled her arms from around his neck and shoved him back. He looked dazed for a moment, and then he frowned. “You did not want my kiss?” She rubbed her arms. “I’m not sure.” She did, and she didn’t. Mostly it was her own reaction that upset her. But the look of shock on his face eased her tension and she chuckled. “Don’t take it personally. It’s just that I’m not very—” She clamped her mouth shut. The truth about her lack of experience was far more than he needed to know. “I think I’d better go get that stain out of your shirt.” She turned to leave, but stopped when he touched her hair. Her hair! Flattening her palms against her scalp, she groaned. She knew darn well how her hair looked after removing her hat. What in the world was she thinking? She wasn’t thinking. That was the problem. This man had her all tied up in knots. She liked living and working at the Desert Rose. Finally she’d found a place where she felt she belonged, where she was truly one of the team. But if anyone walked in and found them, in a second it could all be over. Before she knew what was happening, he pulled her hands away from her head. “Why do you hide?” he asked, rubbing some strands of hair between his fingers. “Your hair is the color of honey. It could be very beautiful.” She didn’t miss the “could be.” In a last-ditch effort not to look like a total hag, she fluffed out her bangs, ran her fingers through the crown as she took a couple of steps back. “I still don’t know what to call you,” she mumbled. He stared at her in that intense way she found so fascinating. As if no one else existed in the entire state of Texas. “Sharif.” “Is that your first name?” He nodded and reached for her hair again. She ducked and patted it down. What in the heck did he find so interesting about a ratty clump of squashed hair? Given the chance, she’d trade her new pocketknife for a mirror about now. “Does everyone call you Sharif? Or do you have a nickname?” He frowned and absently scratched his chest, a movement she found so ridiculously exciting that she had to take a deep breath. “Why do you Americans have this obsession with nicknames? Is it not enough to be called the name given you by your mother?” She made a face. “Sometimes a shorter name sounds more friendly, I suppose.” “Your mother, did she call you Livy?” “I don’t have a mother.” His eyebrows drew together. “Everyone has a mother.” “Not if she gives you away.” Livy blinked at how pathetic she sounded. She really hadn’t meant to, she was more concerned with the way he was inching closer again. But her words stopped him. “And your father?” “I have to get back to work now.” She rubbed her palms down the front of her jeans and moved toward the door. “Olivia? Your hat.” The way he said her name with a slight accent made her shiver, and she seriously thought about forgetting the Stetson. Especially when she turned around and saw the play of muscles across his tanned back as he bent to pick it up. “Uh, thanks.” She tried to grab the hat when he held it up to her, but he kept it a few inches out of reach. “That isn’t very gentlemanly.” His eyebrows rose in phony surprise. “Did I claim to be a gentleman?” Smugness lifted his lips in a half smile. “One kiss, for one hat.” “Talk about obsessions. What’s with you and kissing?” “Ah, you do not like the sport.” Her mouth dropped open. “Sport?” She threw up her hands. “That’s the problem with guys like you. You think…you think…kissing is a…is a sport. No thanks.” Great. Now she was a liar and unoriginal. Because, despite her words to the contrary, she very much wanted him to kiss her again. She wanted to feel breathless, and get that squishy feeling again that made her insides turn into Jell-O. “We have known each other for only twenty minutes.” He slid the rim of her hat between two fingers in an unhurried, annoying fashion. “What would you call it?” The truth stung. She held out her hand. “Give me the hat.” He smiled. “I had forgotten how interesting you Americans can be. In my country, the women do not play these games.” “Do they have a choice?” His expression tightened. “How much do you know about my country? Are you that wise in other cultures?” Livy grimaced. Apart from the fact she had no idea where Sharif was actually from, she sure as heck didn’t know much about geography or other countries, period. She’d only squeaked her way through school because Father Mike would have tarred and feathered her if she hadn’t. Riding horses had been a much preferable pastime. Remembering how his servant dressed like something out of the movies, she said, “I bet you have a harem.” His eyes darkened, and his voice was low and edgy. “I force no one. Women come to me freely.” “You do have a harem?” She’d spoken impulsively, not truly believing such a thing existed, but from the look on his face…“Holy cow! You are something else.” “And you have a very vivid imagination.” “Which is about to leak out without my hat on. Hand it over.” “You know the terms.” He dangled it just out of reach. “I thought you didn’t have to force women.” “Do you truly feel coerced?” He was looking at her like that again, studying her face with an eerie single-mindedness, lingering on her lips as if she was some kind of dessert. And like a darn fool, her entire body was getting all feeble again. “I think I’ll call you Shay. I went to school with a kid named Shay and he was a royal pain, too.” She chuckled at her little joke. He didn’t. “It’s close enough to Sharif.” Just as she’d hoped, he forgot all about the hat and scowled at her. “I forbid you to call me by that name.” “Really?” She jumped up and snatched the Stetson out of his hand. “Thank you very much,” she said with a sarcastic grin, while walking backward away from him. “Shay.” If she’d only kept the taunt to herself she probably could have made it out of the barn. But her hesitation allowed him to lunge forward and grab her around the waist. She dropped the hat, lost her footing and they both tumbled to the ground. She scrambled to keep from being pinned beneath him, but she wasn’t quick enough. “Get off. You’re squashing the life out of my windpipe.” That wasn’t all. Her breasts were crushed against his shoulder, and the really scary part was she kind of liked it. He eased up, and just when she thought he was going to let her go, he repositioned himself, straddling her, keeping her back flat to the ground. His fingers locked around her wrists as he stared down at her with a triumphant smile. “What did you call me?” The slight cocky lift of his left eyebrow made her see red. She glared back at him, weighing the use of a threat against indifference. Except she was far too aware of the strength in his thighs pressing against her hips, and she couldn’t think all that straight. “This is very undignified, Your Highness,” she finally said, and was pleased to see his jaw clench. “True,” he said, with a slight shift of his hips. “But quite pleasant.” Boy, howdy. She swallowed. This was so unreal. Not a blessed guy she knew would ever think of manhandling her this way. “Aren’t you afraid your flunky will come in here and find you bullying me?” “If you really wanted to end this, you would simply call me Sharif.” The truth brought a wave of realization and shame that made Livy’s cheeks burn. “Sharif,” she quickly murmured. But it was too late. He knew she’d enjoyed his attention, the brief taboo run on the wild side. His expression didn’t show it, though, and for that she was grateful. As soon as she started to move, he got off. When he offered a hand, she took it. He pulled her to her feet but didn’t immediately let her go. His gaze holding hers, he touched her shoulder. His warm fingertips met with bare skin. She realized then that she’d lost a button and her too-big shirt had slid off her shoulder. He surprised her by gently pulling the fabric in place. Then he kissed her. Just as her stubborn shirt slipped down again, a flash went off at the barn door. Chapter Three Sharif turned in time to see the back of the man’s blue jacket and blond hair as he fled the barn. It took Sharif a moment to realize what had just happened. Even though he should have smelled the damn reporter from a hundred yards away, vile creatures that they all were. Without even a glance at Livy, he ran after the man, but he was too late. All he caught was a glimpse of a speeding dark sedan, creating so much dust it was hard to see anything at all. He swore loudly when he remembered he had no shirt. What a picture that would make. His father would not be pleased. Rose’s feelings, Sharif did not care about. Looking back toward the barn, he saw no sign of the woman. Olivia. With the big innocent violet eyes. He let out a heavy sigh and shoved a hand through his hair. Hay flew everywhere. He swore again. For a moment he thought about returning to her. She had been a most pleasant distraction from his maddening thoughts. That she was a timid partner did not bother him. In fact, the new experience had been stimulating. Her uncertainty had barely masked her eagerness to explore, a naivetå he found enchanting. She was young, barely twenty he guessed. Perhaps she had not yet been with a man. Although in his experience with American and European women, youth meant little in terms of sexual enlightenment. He would run into Olivia Smith with the bewitching violet eyes again, he was sure of it. But for now, his thoughts were tainted with the intrusion of the reporter, and the possible repercussions of a suggestive photograph. Sharif frowned when he realized what little regard he had given such offenses in the past. And much to the displeasure of his parents, there had been a considerable number of compromising situations that had provided fodder for the tabloids. What was different now? Was maturity finally replacing his childish antics? As much as he wanted to believe age and wisdom were responsible, deep down Sharif knew better. Life was no longer so simple. The entitlement and privilege, the very foundation of his being he had taken for granted a mere two weeks ago were more precarious today. And Sharif wished more than anything he had been kept in ignorance. Because for the first time in his life, he understood fear. HALF THE MORNING HAD GONE by before Livy got up the nerve to return Shay’s shirt. She seldom had reason to go to the main house and everyone would wonder what the heck she was doing there. Maybe she ought to just leave the darn thing in the barn, and Shay could let his servant fetch it. If she were smart that’s exactly what she would do, she told herself as she marched up the slope toward the house. So far, no one had given her any funny looks that said they knew what had happened in the barn yesterday. She still cringed every time one of the other hands so much as looked her way, though, half expecting them to make some remark. But she supposed it was her own guilty conscience acting up. And why shouldn’t it, with the racy dreams she’d had last night. She could’ve sworn she was having one of those hot flashes she’d heard about. Now, just thinking about her and Shay rolling around in their skivvies in her dream brought on a heat wave, and she stopped to mop her forehead. The last thing she wanted to do was get all hot and sweaty by the time she got to the house. Not that it should matter. Working outside under the hot sun, she could get pretty ripe by eleven most mornings. And that was with her hat on. Today she’d left it off. Even under the best circumstances her hair looked like someone had used a mixing bowl to cut it. There was no need to let it get all stuck to her head. After all, she was going to the main house. Who was she kidding? Grunting in disgust, she jammed her hat on her head and hurried up the slope. By the time she arrived at the kitchen door, the silk shirt she had carefully ironed was a crumpled mess. Through the screen she saw Ella Grover sitting at the kitchen table, her head bowed. Livy frowned at the confusing picture. The spry cook was always bustling around the stove. But it was Vi Coleman who was stirring something in a skillet. She jerked and turned at Livy’s knock, her red hair in disarray around her face. “Livy! Am I glad to see you. Come on in.” Mrs. Coleman sighed, then sent a stern look toward Ella when the older woman started to rise. “Sit. Livy will refill your water.” Mrs. Coleman turned beseeching green eyes toward Livy. “Do you mind?” “Of course not.” Livy cast the shirt aside and hurried to the table for the empty glass. “What’s wrong, Ella? You sick?” “No,” the woman said, and scowled at her boss. “Ouch!” Vi Coleman jerked her hand away from the skillet handle. “Gosh darn it.” “I told you to use a pot holder with that one,” Ella said, and started to rise again. “Ella Grover, if you don’t stay in that chair, so help me, I’ll have Randy carry you to your room.” At the mention of Mr. Coleman, the cook snorted. “Ain’t nobody going to lift this body and live.” Livy hid a grin as she returned the filled glass to the table. Ella and her husband Hal had been with the Colemans for so many years they were more like family than employees. That’s what Livy liked most about living and working on the Desert Rose. The Colemans never treated anyone like an outsider. Not even her. “Can I help you with something, Mrs. Coleman?” she asked, her gaze sweeping the cluttered counters and food spills. It was weird to see the kitchen like this. Ella usually kept it so spotless. “I’d sure appreciate it. Ella had a dizzy spell and I don’t want to call Abbie for help what with the baby due so soon.” She pulled a red gingham oven mitt out of the drawer. “But you’ve got to start calling me Vi.” Mrs. Coleman smiled. “For goodness’ sakes, you’ve worked here for over fours years now. You’re practically family.” Family. A lump blocked Livy’s throat and she couldn’t swallow. She blinked just in case her eyes got any strange ideas about tearing up. All she had ever wanted was to find a place to belong. She never dreamed she could be so lucky. “Okay…Vi.” She cleared her throat. “I’m not much of a cook, but if you tell me what to do, I’m sure we can get lunch on the table in no time.” Vi and Ella exchanged bland looks. “Breakfast,” Vi said. Livy looked at the oak-carved wall clock. Everyone at the ranch should have been up and at ’em hours ago. “Don’t ask.” Vi pushed stray hair away from her shiny damp face and opened the oven. The aroma of biscuits filled the kitchen. “She don’t have to ask.” Ella snorted, and inclined her head toward the tray of biscuits Vi removed. “And if you think he’s gonna be content with such peasant food, you’re kidding yourself.” Livy’s eyes widened. Shay. She should have known. “Come on, Ella, he’s from a different culture, and he is the boys’ brother. Besides, he won’t be here long. It won’t hurt to be nice to him.” Vi’s gaze darted to Livy. “So we all smile, okay?” “Don’t worry.” Livy shrugged, and turning to grab an apron, muttered, “I’ve already met his royal pain in the butt.” Vi’s gasp told her she’d spoken too loudly. Ella chuckled. Heat climbed Livy’s neck. “I’m sorry. He’s your guest and I shouldn’t have said that.” Vi shook her head and turned to lift the biscuits off the baking sheets. But not before Livy saw her check a grin. “Get the butter out of the refrigerator, will you?” Livy breathed with relief and did as she was asked. “How about the cream?” “It probably isn’t thick or sweet enough for him.” “Ella.” Vi’s voice was strained. “Please.” The cook gave Livy a quick look then stared down at her hands. No one said anything after that. Vi finished arranging the biscuits on a red cloth napkin lining a basket, and Livy stacked some plates to be taken into the dining room. Vi was usually the most pleasant, even-tempered person Livy had ever met. But not lately. Her mood could sink lower than the hundred-year-old well out back. There was lots of speculation around the ranch about what was happening. Everyone loved her and they were all concerned. Personally, Livy figured Vi’s moodiness had to do with all the attention her husband was paying one of the boarders. Her name was Savannah and she was one of those gals who always had on just the right clothes and makeup. Still, Livy didn’t think it was anything to worry about. She’d be a mighty happy woman if she had a husband like Randy Coleman looking at her the way he looked at Vi. Ella made a tsking noise with her tongue. “You gonna stand there woolgatherin’, or help Vi?” Livy gave the older woman a cheeky grin. “Good thing you’re such a good cook, because you sure are bossy.” Ella tried to snap a dish towel across Livy’s fanny, but Livy was too quick and scooted out of the way. “Tell that to His Highness in there.” Ella inclined her head toward the dining room. “He already turned down my blueberry pancakes.” Livy stopped two feet from the dining room door. Panic fluttered in her belly. He was in there? Already? She thought he was upstairs waiting to be called down. She wasn’t ready to face him yet. “What’s wrong, Livy? You look as pale as Ella.” Vi put down the spatula and stared at her with concern. “I hope there isn’t a bug going around.” Livy took a quick breath. “Nope. I’m fine. I was just…” She took another breath, this one deeper. “I was just wondering if I should take some coffee out there.” “Good idea. I made a fresh pot. Rose was going to come get it, but she must be catching up with her son.” Livy nodded absently, vaguely recalling that Shay was Rose’s son and that they had only recently met. But it was hard to imagine an elegant, kind lady like Rose having an arrogant, fathead son like Shay. After retrieving the coffeepot and patting her hair down, Livy pushed through the dining room door. She was tempted to pass by the antique mirror hanging over the corner buffet, but she decided she didn’t give a fig about how she looked. Sort of. His back was to her, his dark hair damp, probably from his shower. Of course, everyone else had been up for hours doing chores. She doubted he’d ever done a lick of work in his life. Rose sat to his right, her blond hair held back in a youthful ponytail, making Livy wish she hadn’t let Mickey whack hers off. Another place was set across from Rose, but there was no sign of anyone else. When a floorboard creaked under Livy’s boot, Rose looked up and smiled. “What a surprise to see you here,” she said, and Livy tried not to wince. “Have you met my son?” Shay didn’t even bother to turn around to see who Rose was talking to. Livy briefly thought she could set down the coffee and cream and get out before he saw her. Especially after Rose’s comment. He was going to think Livy was here to see him. Which was mostly true, but still… A slight frown creased the older woman’s brows, and Livy realized she hadn’t responded. Hadn’t done anything, in fact, but stare at the back of Shay’s immobile head. “Uh, yeah, we met,” she mumbled, and saw him straighten. “Oh, really?” Rose smiled again, and looked from Livy to Shay. “At the stables?” An innocent question, a logical one, really, since that’s where Livy worked, but she stiffened with guilt and Shay finally turned toward her. It was a slow, almost reluctant movement that set Livy’s teeth clenching. Just before she would have met his eyes, she bowed her head to pour the coffee. He didn’t say anything, which did nothing to ease Livy’s nerves. Better the jackass didn’t acknowledge her, she told herself, but she couldn’t do a darn thing about the heat crawling up her neck and stinging her cheeks. “Livy? Are you all right?” Rose started to rise, but Livy waved for her to stay seated. “I’m fine. Ella’s got some kind of bug, and Mrs. Coleman asked me to help out, but it looks like I might be coming down with something, too.” The words came out so fast and garbled that Livy wanted to sink into the seams of the hardwood floor. Against her will, her gaze met Shay’s. Amusement glittered in his dark blue eyes, but his expression never wavered. “The sugar needs replenishing,” he said calmly, and turned his attention away from her. She blinked, stunned by his dismissal. His callous words dug their claws into her, and hurt replaced surprise. She moistened her suddenly dry lips and glanced at Rose. The older woman was staring at her son with disapproval. She slowly lifted her napkin to her lips and dabbed a little, letting silence grow before she said, “King Zak is a lovely man. I’m sure he raised you with manners, Sharif.” Livy wanted to disappear. She looked helplessly at the coffee. Rose would probably understand if Livy left the pot on the table and hightailed it out of here. Of course, judging by the way Shay’s jaw clenched, he just might beat her to the door. Right after he exploded. But to her utter amazement, he did nothing. After a brief but awkward silence, he said, “I did not mean to be rude.” He didn’t look at Livy or Rose, but faced straight ahead and that suited Livy just fine. Rose didn’t seem too pleased by the vague apology, but she didn’t push it. “Your breakfast should be ready at any minute,” Livy mumbled as she poured the coffee, her gaze carefully directed to the chore. “Is there anything else you need besides sugar?” “I’ll get it.” Rose started to rise. “I told Vi I’d love to help.” “Oh, no. I’ll get it.” Livy jerked the pot and coffee sloshed over Shay’s cup into the saucer and splattered his shirt cuff. “Oh, boy.” She stared at the spray of brown against the snow-white silk. “Sorry.” She hoped he’d brought a lot of shirts. He barely moved. His accusing gaze went from the dotted cuff to Livy’s face. “It was an accident.” She lifted her chin. “Of course it was,” Rose said, dipping her napkin in her water glass and reaching over to dab at the cuff. Shay pulled away, and looked at Livy again. He said nothing as he extended his hand toward her, the soiled part of the cuff facing her. Obviously he wanted her to clean it. She stared him down for a moment, tempted to pour the rest of the coffee over his head. But for Rose’s sake, Livy forced a smile and set the pot aside. “Sharif.” Annoyance edged into Rose’s voice. “No problem,” Livy said quickly, and plucked Shay’s linen napkin off his lap. Before he knew what she was doing, she dipped the fabric into his water glass and blotted the cuff. He stared in disbelief. First at his wrist, and then at her. “Are you mad?” “Fuming, actually,” she said, her temper overcoming her embarrassment. He had kissed her just yesterday, and now he was treating her as if he barely knew her. Or worse, as if she was his personal maid. What a jerk! “Mad as in insane.” He snatched the napkin out of her hand, and started rubbing at the coffee stains himself. “Gee, I’m glad to see you can do something for yourself.” Livy had almost forgotten Rose was in the room until she heard her stifle a laugh. Shay was too busy rubbing with a vengeance to notice, and Livy slid the older woman an apologetic look. Rose merely grinned. “Where did you say you two met?” “The stables—” Livy started. “I had the misfortune of—” Shay said at the same time, “meeting this impudent—” “Enough.” Everyone turned at the sound of a man’s commanding voice. But not before Shay slid her a cool look. And she sent him a resentful one back. “Good morning, Zak.” Rose smiled broadly. “You’re just in time for breakfast.” “I have already eaten.” His gaze stayed glued on Shay. “Nearly three hours ago.” “I see.” Rose shot a nervous glance at her son, whose sullen expression hadn’t changed. “Then have some coffee with us, won’t you?” Livy vaguely knew that was her cue to pour the man a cup, but she was too fascinated by him. He had to be a king or sheikh. Although he wore regular clothes, he was tall and broad and very dark and mysterious looking. It was easy to picture him on a throne inside a grand palace just like in the fairy tales. If she hadn’t seen the kindness in his eyes she might even have been afraid. Instead of embarrassed. After all, these people were guests. Royalty, in fact. And she was the hired help. “Livy?” Rose placed a gentle hand on her arm, and Livy jumped. “This is King Zakariyya Al Farid of Balahar, Sharif’s father. Zak, this is Olivia Smith.” Maybe she was supposed to curtsy or something. Unsure, she dragged her palm down the front of her jeans, then stuck out her hand. He accepted it, amusement twinkling in his eyes, but instead of a handshake, he brought the back of her hand up to his lips and kissed it. “I am enchanted to meet you.” Livy’s eyes nearly popped out of her head. For a moment she felt so grown-up and important and horribly giddy. What the heck was she supposed to say now? She glanced at Rose for a clue. Nothing. Her gaze automatically went to Shay. He had an odd gleam in his eyes. He almost looked angry. She swallowed and shuffled. “Me, too,” she finally mumbled as she freed her hand. “Uh, do you want coffee?” King Zak nodded and, ignoring the place setting opposite Rose, he pulled out the chair beside her. To Livy’s surprise, a faint pink spread across the older woman’s cheeks. Livy quickly looked at Shay. He’d noticed, too. He didn’t look pleased. Livy scooted around the table and got the cup and saucer, then filled it for King Zak. As she set it before him, she felt the weight of Shay’s stare, and she cautiously looked his way. His gaze moved down her body, lingering on her breasts, before rising to lock with hers. Was he thinking about their kiss, about the way he’d touched her? Had he thought about her at all last night? The same squishy feeling that had made a fool out of her yesterday threatened her balance. She quickly looked away…to find Rose and King Zak watching her with interest. “I’ll go see how the food is coming. Anybody need anything else?” Her unnaturally high voice made her spitting mad, but she forced a smile. “I don’t think so.” Rose looked questioningly at King Zak, who shook his head. Shay picked up his water glass and napkin and held them up to Livy. “You do intend to replace these.” It wasn’t a question. More of a command, and Livy had a good mind to tell him what he could do with the glass. Sideways. “Of course,” she said politely, and fumed all the way back to the kitchen. To think she’d wasted a precious night’s sleep on that jackass, she thought as she pitched the damp napkin and filled a fresh glass with the special bottled water Ella must have bought for the visitors. Although why anyone wouldn’t want the best-tasting well water in all of Texas from out back was beyond Livy’s understanding. Of course nothing seemed good enough for Shay. Especially not her. “Anything wrong?” Vi asked. She was so self-absorbed, Livy had almost forgotten Ella and Vi were in the kitchen. “Not a thing. Be right back.” She hurried away before she started either cussing or sniveling and opened the door with her hip, then marched into the dining room, the water in one hand, the coffeepot in the other. Shay turned at the sound of her footfalls. “Ah, there is the girl now.” He frowned at her loaded hands, then lifted one eyebrow. “The sugar?” “Oh, silly me. How could I have forgotten?” She set the coffeepot on the corner of the table, lifted the clean napkin she had draped over her arm and laid it across Shay’s lap. That he jumped slightly pleased her enormously. When he glanced menacingly at her, she pursed her lips. “You know what, Shay? You may be a hotshot in your country, but you really don’t know beans about women.” His stunned look was worth her humiliation. She started to leave, careful not to make eye contact with King Zak or Rose. “Oh, I almost forgot your water,” she said, as she turned back to Shay and poured it over his head. Chapter Four Sharif cursed as the ice-cold water ran down his neck and spine. He jerked back and nearly toppled over. Rose stared at him with a hand over her mouth, shock widening her light blue eyes. His father remained expressionless. Behind Sharif, the door swished closed. The coward had left. “I don’t know what happened. Livy is usually such a sweet, sweet girl,” Rose began, waving helplessly. “I—I…” His father lifted a silencing hand and Rose promptly obeyed. He looked directly at Sharif. “Do you know what provoked the woman?” Sharif snatched the napkin off his lap before it absorbed any more water, and used it to dry his face. And to avoid his father’s probing eyes. “Why would I know about this crazy person? She is nothing more than a…” After an awkward silence his father asked, “A what?” He could not finish his initial thought aloud. Sharif’s reluctance had nothing to do with his father’s stern tone or the warning issued in his disapproving eyes. It was the recollection of the hurt in Olivia’s face that stopped him. Shamed him. Angered him. Surely the vixen did not regard their playfulness yesterday as anything significant. He was merely passing the time, looking for a distraction. So what had prompted her outrageous behavior? The hurt in her violet eyes echoed in his head. To her mind, it was apparent he had done something wrong. “Sharif?” His father’s voice was quieter now, not so stern, making Sharif fear his expression had given away his self-doubt. He straightened and silently met the king’s eyes in subtle defiance. “Tell me, Sharif. What do you think the woman’s punishment should be?” “Oh, please, I’ll talk to her—” Rose began in a pleading tone, but again King Zak lifted a hand and again she fell silent. Sharif stared at her subdued face, unnerved by the oddest desire to tell her to stand up to King Zak, to not be so docile. Which was absurd. Women in his country, and where Rose once was queen, were taught subservience from an early age. Sharif liked it that way. He turned to his father’s expectant face. “I will deal with her myself.” “In what manner?” Sharif saw the amusement lurking in the king’s eyes, and anger seized him once more. He would not be made the fool. Throwing down his napkin, he stood, heedless of his chair scraping the hardwood floor as it flung back. Before he could say anything, a loud noise coming from outside drew their attention. Angry shouts, the slamming of car doors, the blare of a horn all sounded from somewhere in front of the house. King Zak and Rose both left the table and hurried toward the living room for a look through the expansive glass windows. Sharif followed close behind, knowing deep down his nightmare was coming true. He had lain awake half the night, planning a counterattack if reporters were to show up again. He had no doubt the man yesterday was from the media, looking to publicize the shame of Sharif’s heritage. The problem was, he had no plan, no defense. He was, in fact, not the blood heir to the throne of Balahar. “Oh, no.” Rose was first to the window, the sudden slump in her shoulders foretelling. “Reporters.” Sharif looked away from the comforting hand his father pressed to her lower back, and stared out at the same dark sedan he had seen yesterday. Two men stood face-to-face with one of the ranch hands, all of them gesturing wildly. “There’s Alex,” Rose said, straightening, a trace of pride in her voice. “He’ll take care of it.” With a mixture of admiration, envy and relief, Sharif watched his eldest brother approach the men. Rose was right. Alex probably would take care of everything. From what Sharif had witnessed, he was the most sensible and responsible of the four brothers. As soon as Alex joined the group, the shouting stopped. Moments later, the two strangers got in their car and left. Alex stood watching until the car disappeared out the front gate. Their other brother, Cade, rode up on a black gelding, then climbed down to confer with Alex and the ranch hand. All three men glanced toward the house, and tension cramped Sharif’s shoulders. Of course the commotion was about him. And, to a lesser degree, King Zak. And possibly Rose. Sharif had to face public scrutiny sooner or later. Alex and Cade started toward the house while the third man led the gelding toward the barn. Rose sighed as she watched her two sons approach. “I’m sure everything is fine,” she said, smiling. She did not have to say her reassurance was due to Alex, and Sharif experienced a sting of jealousy. Absurd. These people meant nothing to him. He did like Alex. He seemed to be a good man, and Sharif was grateful to him for banishing the reporters. At least for now. In fact, he liked all three of his brothers, and he hoped in time, they would become friends. But Rose could never replace his mother. He saw the pride shining in her eyes as she watched Alex, and Sharif felt empty suddenly. He had seen how they interacted, as though they had never been separated. As though she had been the one who had dried his boyish tears and sung him to sleep. Sharif did not understand. Perhaps they had a special bond because Alex remembered her. He had been four when Rose was torn from them. Cade and Mac were barely three and had no memory of her. Sharif had been the only one who had gone with her. Until he had outgrown the inside of her belly. Sharif stepped back from the window, away from Rose, shaken by the sudden realization that they did have a bond, no matter how much he wanted to deny it. But in his heart, Queen Nadirah would always be his mother. Even though she had been ripped too early from his life. Her death still pained him. His gaze automatically drew to Rose. Had she felt the same razor’s edge slicing through her body when he had been torn away from her? Sharif pushed the crippling thought out of his mind. He could not afford sympathy or regret or any other emotional obstacle. Not now. His future was at stake. His brothers neared the house just as Olivia walked outside, and they all stopped to talk. At the sight of her, Sharif’s chest tightened, oddly not from anger, but from something else. Something strange, foreign…something that made the hair at the back of his neck stand. As though she were some kind of primal threat to him. He dismissed the ridiculous notion. Standing next to Alex, she looked small and fragile, like a child’s doll. She could not be much over five feet, and her wrists and hands were so tiny, Sharif had been concerned about hurting her yesterday. But she was no wilting desert flower. She had not cowered before anyone’s wishes as Rose had done. Admiration dented his annoyance as he watched her with his brothers. Alex gestured toward the barn, and Olivia straightened. Shaking her head, she stuffed her hands into her pockets, her shoulders rolling slightly forward before she backed away and headed toward the stables. Sharif wondered if their exchange had anything to do with yesterday. Olivia had done nothing wrong, and if Alex was upset, Sharif would speak to him. “If you want to go change your shirt, I’ll get the boys some coffee,” Rose said as she headed toward the kitchen. “Then we can all sit down and find out what the ruckus was about.” Sharif had totally forgotten about his shirt and wet hair. And he had never before heard the word ruckus, but he figured he knew what it meant. His shirt would have to wait. A moment after Rose disappeared, Cade pushed through the dining room door just ahead of Alex. They both eyed Sharif’s wet soggy condition but said nothing as they took seats at the table. “We have a problem.” Cade pushed a hand through his dark hair, concern etching lines across his forehead as he looked from Sharif to King Zak. “A couple of reporters know you’re here.” “Sharks always smell blood. I only wish we had had more time.” King Zak sighed. “Your mother is—” “Yeah, we saw her in the kitchen, but we haven’t told her anything yet.” Cade grunted in disgust. “I’d better call Rena and warn her before the vultures start knocking on our door.” “Do not worry. My daughter is used to dealing with the press,” King Zak said. “But, yes, it would be wise to warn her.” “Go call your wife.” Alex motioned with his chin. “I’ll fill them in.” Sharif watched Cade head toward the hall, struck again by the staggering changes in all their lives. Cade was not only his newfound brother, but his marriage to Sharif’s adopted sister, Serena, made Cade his brother-in-law, as well. Although Serena was no blood relation to Rose, as a member of the royal family of Balahar and as Cade’s wife, she would also be affected by any press releases. When Sharif turned back to his father and Alex, he immediately met his brother’s eyes. They were dark and intense, full of questions or, perhaps, disapproval. “We have to make a decision,” Alex said. “They know you’re here, and denying it will probably just make matters worse. I say we make a joint statement, telling them the truth.” Sharif snorted in disagreement. “Those jackals will not be content until they have sniffed out every hint of scandal. I say we tell them nothing.” “The sooner we give them a story, the sooner they’ll quit digging. They’ve already exploited every detail about Cade, Mac and me being long-lost royalty. The rest is bound to come out anyway.” Alex’s gaze held steady. “I assume you don’t have anything to hide.” Sharif stiffened. Of course he did not, but he did not care for his brother’s tone. “You think the story of Rose’s wrongful imprisonment at the hands of her own sister-in-law, or the secret of my heritage are not scandals?” “Our mother was the victim. When the news does break, and it will, the only person who’s going to look bad is good ol’ Aunt Layla.” Sharif turned away. Alex did not understand. How could he? They shared the same blood, but they did not share the same culture. He was more American in beliefs and attitude. Alex could not know how it felt to suddenly have both the past and future shattered. “King Zak? What’s your position on this?” Sharif stared out the window as he waited for his father to answer Alex. He did not have to look at the older man to know that he thoughtfully stroked his chin as he considered his answer. King Zak was the wisest man Sharif had ever known, and in the end, he would abide by his father’s wishes. “How much do these men know?” King Zak finally asked, just as Rose carried in a tray of coffee. Alex hesitated a moment. “These are the same guys who broke the story about Mother being kept drugged in the sanitarium in Europe while Mac, Cade and I were sent here.” He slid a look at Rose, and her lips curved in a reassuring smile. “And of course they covered Cade and Serena’s wedding. Now, they know you two are here.” Alex looked pointedly at Sharif. “And they claim that my dear brother is having an affair with one of our ranch hands. Absurd, isn’t it?” Everyone in the room turned toward Sharif. Disapproval and annoyance darkened his father’s face, while confusion furrowed Rose’s eyebrows. Cade had just returned, his grim expression focused on Sharif. “An affair?” Sharif made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “I have been here only twenty-four hours and already they claim I am having an affair. This is why I see no point in supplying them with information.” Alex shrugged, his unwavering gaze a clear indication he did not completely believe Sharif. “By the same token, what we don’t give them, they make up.” “What is it you suggest we tell them?” King Zak asked. Alex looked at Rose. “This may not be easy.” She did not react. Her attention was focused on Sharif’s wet shirt. When her gaze rose to meet his, Sharif saw comprehension dawn in her eyes. She knew about him and Olivia. Guilt nudged him. Which was ridiculous. A couple of kisses did not constitute an affair. And Olivia had been a willing participant. He would not have acted, otherwise. “Mother?” Alex frowned at her before his eyes again found Sharif. “You’re right, Alex.” She abandoned the tray of coffee and sank into a chair. “Let’s tell them what we know.” He nodded. “Okay, let’s discuss the wording and who’ll be the spokesman.” To Sharif’s amazement, Rose leaned forward, and resting her elbows on the table, said, “I’ve been thinking about this, and I think we should go ahead and give them a brief, factual chronological list of events.” Everyone nodded, no one looking the least surprised at the assertiveness in her voice or the sudden strength in her face. Fascinated by this other side of her, Sharif remained silent. “First, we tell them about Ibrahim’s assassination.” She paused at the mention of her husband, a brief sadness touching her face and finding a soft spot in Sharif’s stubborn heart. “How it was Azzam’s wife, Layla, who had arranged for my imprisonment. And Ibrahim’s murder.” She briefly closed her eyes. “I was wrong in accusing my husband’s brother and trying to retaliate. This is my chance to set the record straight.” Silence descended. It had been a shocking and ugly thing to learn that a twisted, sick thirst for power had resulted in the death of a king, and the ruin of his family. So many casualties. So many lies. Sharif stared at Rose with grudging respect. Thirty years in a sanitarium, drugged and separated from her children, while still grieving for her husband. Yet she had survived. Êîíåö îçíàêîìèòåëüíîãî ôðàãìåíòà. Òåêñò ïðåäîñòàâëåí ÎÎÎ «ËèòÐåñ». Ïðî÷èòàéòå ýòó êíèãó öåëèêîì, êóïèâ ïîëíóþ ëåãàëüíóþ âåðñèþ (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39926234&lfrom=390579938) íà ËèòÐåñ. Áåçîïàñíî îïëàòèòü êíèãó ìîæíî áàíêîâñêîé êàðòîé Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, ñî ñ÷åòà ìîáèëüíîãî òåëåôîíà, ñ ïëàòåæíîãî òåðìèíàëà, â ñàëîíå ÌÒÑ èëè Ñâÿçíîé, ÷åðåç PayPal, WebMoney, ßíäåêñ.Äåíüãè, QIWI Êîøåëåê, áîíóñíûìè êàðòàìè èëè äðóãèì óäîáíûì Âàì ñïîñîáîì.