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Seduced By The Sheikh: Jewel in His Crown / The Call of the Desert

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WHEN PRINCE RAJA walked into the solicitor’s office, Ruby was the first person he saw and indeed, in spite of the number of other people milling about the busy reception area, pretty much the only person he saw. The pretty schoolgirl in the holiday snap had grown into a strikingly beautiful woman with a tumbling mane of blonde hair, sparkling eyes and a soft, full mouth that put him in mind of a succulent peach.

‘You are Ruby Shakarian?’ the prince asked as a tall, even more powerfully built man came through the door behind him to station himself several feet away.

‘I don’t use that surname.’ Ruby frowned, wondering how many more royal dignitaries she would have to deflect before they got the hint and dropped this ridiculous idea that she was a princess. ‘Where did you get it from?’

‘Wajid Sulieman gave it to me and asked me to speak to you on his behalf. Shakarian is your family name,’ Raja pointed out with an irrefutable logic that set her small white teeth on edge.

‘I’m at work right now and not in a position to speak to you.’ But Ruby continued to study him covertly, absorbing the lush black lashes semi-screening those mesmerising eyes, the twin slashes of his well-marked ebony brows, the smooth olive-toned skin moulding his strong cheekbones and the faint dark shadow of stubble accentuating his strong jaw and wide, sensual lips. Her prolonged scrutiny only served to confirm her original assessment that he was a stunningly beautiful man. Her heart was hammering so hard inside her chest that she felt seriously short of breath. It was a reaction that thoroughly infuriated her, for Ruby had always prided herself on her armour-plated indifference around men and the role of admirer was new to her.

‘Aren’t you going for lunch yet?’ one of her co-workers enquired, walking past her desk.

‘We could have lunch,’ Raja pronounced, pouncing on the idea with relief.

Since his private jet had wafted him to Yorkshire and the cool spring temperature that morning, Prince Raja had felt rather like an alien set down on a strange planet. He was not used to small towns and checking into a third-rate local hotel had not improved his mood. He was cold, he was on edge and he did not relish the task foisted on him.

‘If you’re connected to that Wajid guy, no thanks to lunch,’ Ruby pronounced as she got to her feet and reached for her bag regardless because she always went home at lunchtime.

The impression created by her seemingly long legs in that photo had been deceptive, for she was much smaller than Raja had expected and the top of her head barely reached halfway up his chest. Startled by that difference and bemused by that hitch in his concentration, Raja frowned. ‘Connected?’ he queried, confused by her use of the word.

‘If you want to talk about the same thing that Wajid did, I’ve already heard all I need to hear on that subject,’ Ruby extended ruefully. ‘I mean…’ she leant purposefully closer, not wishing to be overheard, and her intonation was gently mocking ‘…do I look like a princess to you?’

‘You look like a goddess,’ the prince heard himself say, speaking his thoughts out loud in a manner that was most unusual for him. His jaw tensed, for he would have preferred not to admit that her dazzling oval face had reminded him of a poster of a film star he recalled from his time serving with the Najari armed forces.

‘A goddess?’ Equally taken aback, Ruby suddenly grinned, dimples adorning her rounded cheeks. ‘Well, that’s a new one. Not something any of the men I know would come up with anyway.’

In the face of that glorious smile, Raja’s fluent English vocabulary seized up entirely. ‘Lunch,’ he pronounced again stiltedly.

On the brink of saying no, Ruby recognised Steve waiting outside the door and almost groaned out loud. She knew the one infallible way of shaking a man off was generally to let him see her in the company of another. ‘Lunch,’ Ruby agreed abruptly, and she planted a determined hand on Raja’s sleeve as if to take control of the situation. ‘But first I have to go home and take my dog out.’

Raja was taken aback by that sudden physical contact, for people were never so familiar in the presence of royalty, and his breath rasped between his lips. ‘That is acceptable.’

‘Who is that guy over there watching us?’ Ruby asked in a suspicious whisper, long blonde hair brushing his shoulder and releasing a tide of perfume as fragrant as summer flowers into the air.

‘One of my bodyguards.’ Raja advanced with the relaxed attitude of a male who took a constant security presence entirely for granted. ‘My car is waiting outside.’

The bodyguard went out first, looked to either side, almost bumping into Steve, and then spread the door wide again for their exit.

‘Ruby?’ Steve questioned, frowning at the tall dark male by her side as she emerged. ‘Who is this guy? Where are you going with him?’

‘I don’t have anything more to say to you, Steve,’ Ruby stated firmly.

‘I have a right to ask who this guy is!’ Steve snapped argumentatively, his face turning an angry red below his fair, floppy fringe.

‘You have no rights over me at all,’ Ruby told him in exasperation.

As Steve moved forward the prince made an almost infinitesimal signal with one hand and suddenly a big bodyguard was blocking the younger man’s attempt to get closer to Ruby. At the same time the other bodyguard had whipped open the passenger door to a long sleek limousine.

‘I can’t possibly get into a car with a stranger,’ Ruby objected, trying not to stare at the sheer size and opulence of the car and its interior.

Raja was unaccustomed to meeting with such suspicious treatment and it off balanced him for it was not what he had expected from her. In truth he had expected her to scramble eagerly into the limo and gush about the built-in bar while helping herself to his champagne like the usual women he dated. But if the angry lovelorn young man shouting Ruby’s name was typical of the men she met perhaps she was sensible to be mistrustful of his sex.

‘I live close by.

I’ll walk back home first and meet you there.’ Ruby gave him her address and sped across the street at a smart pace, deliberately not turning her head or looking back when Steve called her name.

The prince watched her walk away briskly. The breeze blew back her hair in a glorious fan of golden strands and whipped pink into her pale cheeks. She had big eyes the colour of milk chocolate and the sort of lashes that graced cartoon characters in the films that Raja’s youngest relatives loved to watch. A conspicuously feminine woman, she had a small waist and fine curves above and below it. Great legs, delicate at ankle and knee. He wondered if Steve had lain between those legs and the shock of that startlingly intimate thought sliced through Raja as the limo wafted him past and he got a last look at her. A woman with a face and body like that would make an arranged marriage tempting to any hot-blooded male, he told himself impatiently. And just at that moment Raja’s blood was running very hot indeed and there was a heavy tightness at his groin that signified a rare loss of control for him.

Ruby took Hermione out on her lead and by the time she unlocked the front door again, with the little black-and-white dog trotting at her heels, the limousine was parked outside waiting for her. This time she noticed that as well as the bodyguard in the front passenger seat there was also a separate car evidently packed with bodyguards parked behind it. Why was so much security necessary? Who was this guy? For the first time it occurred to Ruby that this particular visitor had to be someone more important than Wajid Sulieman and his wife. Certainly he travelled in much greater style. Checking her watch then, she frowned. There really wasn’t time for her to have lunch with anyone and she dug out her phone to ring work and ask if she could take an extended lunch hour. The office manager advanced grudging agreement only after she promised to catch up with her work by staying later that evening.

As she stood in the doorway, Hermione having retreated to her furry basket in the living room, the passenger door of the limo was opened by one of the bodyguards. Biting her full lower lip in confusion, Ruby finally pulled the door of her home closed behind her and crossed the pavement.

‘I really do need to know who you are,’ she spelt out tautly.

For the first time in more years than he cared to recall, Raja had the challenge of introducing himself.

‘Raja and you’re a prince?’ she repeated blankly, his complex surname leaving her head as soon as she heard the unfamiliar syllables. ‘But who are you?’

His wide, sensual mouth quirked and he surrendered to the inevitable. ‘I’m the man Wajid Sulieman wants you to marry.’

And so great was the surprise of that admission that Ruby got into the car and sat back without further comment. This gorgeous guy was the man they wanted her to marry? He bore no resemblance whatsoever to her vague imaginings.

‘Obviously you’re from the other country, Najar,’ she specified, recovering her ready tongue. ‘A member of their royal family?’

‘I am acting Regent of Najar. My father, King Ahmed, suffered a serious stroke some years ago and is now an invalid. I carry out his role in public because he is no longer able to do so.’

Ruby grasped the fine distinction he was making. Although his father suffered from ill health the older man remained the power behind the throne, doubtless restricting his son’s ability to make his own decisions. Was that why Raja was willing to marry a stranger? Was he eager to assume power in Ashur where he could rule without his father’s interference? Ruby hated being so ignorant. But what did she know about the politics of power and influence within the two countries?

One thing was for sure, however, Raja was very far from being the poor and accommodating royal hangeron she had envisaged. Entrapped by her growing curiosity, she stole a long sidewise glance at him, noting the curling density of his lush black lashes, the high sculpted cheekbones that gave his profile such definition, the stubborn set of his masculine jaw line. Young, no more than thirty years of age at most, she estimated. Young, extremely good-looking and rich if the car and the security presence were anything to go by, she reasoned, all of which made it even harder for her to understand why he would be willing to even consider an arranged marriage.

‘Someone digs up a total stranger, who just happens to be a long-lost relative of the Shakarian family, and you’re immediately willing to marry her?’ she jibed.

‘I have very good reasons for my compliance and that is why I was willing to fly here to speak to you personally,’ Raja fielded with more than a hint of quelling ice in his deep, dark drawl and he waved a hand in a fluid gesture of emphasis that caught her attention. His movements were very graceful and yet amazingly masculine at the same time. He commanded her attention in a way she had never experienced before.

An involuntary flush at that reflection warmed Ruby’s cheeks, for in general aggressively male men irritated her. Her stepfather had been just such a man, full of sports repartee, beer and sexist comments while he perved on her behind closed doors. ‘Nothing you could say is likely to change my mind,’ she warned Raja ruefully.

Unsettled by the effect he had on her and feeling inordinately like an insecure teenager, Ruby lowered her eyes defensively and her gaze fell on the male leg positioned nearest to hers. The fine, expensive material of his tailored trousers outlined the lean, muscular power of his thigh while the snug fit over the bulge at his crotch defined his male attributes. As soon as she realised where her attention had lodged she glanced hurriedly away, her face hot enough to fry eggs on and shock reverberating through her, for it was the very first time she had looked at a man as if he were solely a sex object. When she thought of how she hated men checking her out she could only feel embarrassed.

The prince took her to the town’s only decent hotel for lunch. He attracted a good deal of attention there, particularly from women, Ruby registered with growing irritation.

It didn’t help that he walked across the busy dining room like the royal prince that he was, emanating a positive force field of sleek sophistication and assurance that set him apart from more ordinary mortals. Beside him she felt seriously underdressed in her plain skirt and raincoat. She just knew the other female diners were looking at her and wondering what such a magnificent male specimen was doing with her. The head waiter seated them in a quiet alcove where, mercifully, Ruby felt less on show and more at ease.

While they ate, and the food was excellent, Raja began to tell her about the war between Najar and Ashur and the current state of recovery in her birth country. The whole time he talked her attention was locked on him. It was as if they were the only two people left on the planet. He shifted a shapely hand and she wondered what it would feel like to have that hand touching her body. The surprise of the thought made her face flame. She absorbed the velvet nuances of his accented drawl and recognised that he had a beautiful speaking voice. But worst of all when she met the steady glitter of his dark, reflective, midnight gaze she felt positively light-headed and her mouth ran dry.

‘Ashur’s entire infrastructure was ruined and unemployment and poverty are rising,’ Raja spelt out. ‘Ashur needs massive investment to rebuild the roads, hospitals and schools that have been destroyed. Najar will make that investment but only if you and I marry. Peace was agreed solely on the basis of a marriage that would eventually unite our two countries as one.’

Gulping down some water in an attempt to ground herself to planet earth again, Ruby was surprised by the willpower she had to muster simply to drag her gaze from his darkly handsome features and she said in an almost defiant tone, ‘That’s completely crazy.’

The prince angled his proud dark head in a position that signified unapologetic disagreement. ‘Far from it. It is at present the only effective route to reconciliation which can be undertaken without either country losing face.’ As he made that statement his classic cheekbones were taut with tension, accentuating the smooth planes of the olive-tinted skin stretched over his superb bone structure.

‘Obviously I can see that nobody with a brain would want the war to kick off again,’ Ruby cut in ruefully, more shaken than she was prepared to admit by the serious nature of Ashur’s plight. She had not appreciated how grave the problems might be and even though the ruling family of her birth country had refused to acknowledge her existence, she was ashamed of the level of her ignorance.

‘Precisely, and that is where our role comes in,’ Raja imparted smoothly. ‘Ashur can only accept my country’s economic intervention if it comes wrapped in the reassurance of a traditional royal marriage.’

Ruby nodded in comprehension, her expression carefully blank as she asked what was for her the obvious question. ‘So what’s going to happen when this marriage fails to take place?’

In the dragging silence that fell in receipt of that leading query, his brilliant dark eyes narrowed and his lean, strong face took on a forbidding aspect. ‘As the marriage was an established element of the peace accord, many will argue that if no marriage takes place the agreement has broken down and hostilities could easily break out again. Our families are well respected. Given the right approach, we could act as a unifying force and our people would support us in that endeavour for the sake of a lasting peace.’

‘And you’re willing to sacrifice your own freedom for the sake of that peace?’ Ruby asked, wearing a dubious expression.

‘It is not a choice. It is a duty,’ Raja pronounced with a fluid shift of his beautifully shaped fingers. He said more with his hands than with his tongue, Ruby decided, for that eloquent gesture encompassed his complete acceptance of a sacrifice he clearly saw as unavoidable.

Ruby surveyed him steadily before saying without hesitation, ‘I think that’s a load of nonsense. How can you be so accepting of your duty?’

Raja breathed in deep and slow before responding to her challenge. ‘As a member of the royal family I have led a privileged life and I was brought up to appreciate that what is best for my country should be my prime motivation.’

Unimpressed by that zealous statement, Ruby rolled her eyes in cynical dismissal. ‘Well, I haven’t led a privileged life and I’m afraid I don’t have that kind of motivation to fall back on. I’m not sure I can believe that you do, either.’

Under rare attack for his conservative views and for the depth of his sincerity, Raja squared his broad shoulders, his lean, dark features setting hard. He was offended but determined to keep his emotions in check. He suspected that the real problem was that Ruby rarely thought before she spoke and he virtually never met with challenge or criticism. ‘Meaning?’

‘Did you fight in the war?’ Ruby prompted suddenly.


Ruby’s appetite ebbed and she rested back in her chair, milk-chocolate eyes telegraphing her contempt in a look that her quarry was not accustomed to receiving.

His tough jaw line clenched. ‘That is the reality of war.’

‘And now you think you can buy your way out of that reality by marrying me and becoming a saviour where you were once the aggressor?’ Ruby fired back with a curled lip as she pushed away her plate. ‘Sorry, I have no intention of being a pawn in a power struggle or of helping you to come to terms with your conscience. I’d like to leave now.’

On a wave of angry frustration Raja studied her truculent little face, his glittering eyes hostile. ‘You haven’t listened to me—’

Confident of her own opinion, Ruby lifted her chin in direct challenge of that charge. ‘On the contrary, I’ve listened and I’ve heard as much as I need to hear. I can’t be the woman you want me to be. I’m not a princess and I have no desire to sacrifice myself for the people or the country that broke my mother’s heart.’

At that melodramatic response, Raja only just resisted the urge to groan out loud. ‘You’re talking like a child.’

A red-hot flush ran up to the very roots of Ruby’s pale hair. ‘How dare you?’ she ground out, outraged.

‘I dare because I need you to think like an adult to deal with this dilemma. You may be prejudiced against the country where you were born but don’t drag up old history as an excuse—’

‘There’s nothing old about the way I grew up without a father,’ Ruby argued vehemently, starting to rise from her chair in tune with her rapidly rising temper. ‘Or the fact that he married another woman while he was still married to my mum! If that’s what you call prejudice then I’m not ashamed to own up to it!’

‘Lower your voice and sit down!’ the prince ground out in a biting undertone.

Ruby was so stunned by that command that she instinctively fell back into her seat and stared across the table at him with a shaken frown of disbelief that he could think he had the right to order her around. ‘Don’t speak to me like that—’

‘Then calm down and think of those less fortunate than you are.’

‘It still won’t make me willing to marry a stranger, who would marry a dancing bear if he was asked!’ Ruby shot back at him angrily.

‘What on earth are you trying to suggest?’ Raja demanded, dark eyes blazing like angry golden flames above them.

More than ready to tell him what she thought of him, Ruby tossed down her napkin with a positive flourish. ‘Did you think that I would be too stupid to work out what you’re really after?’ she asked him sharply. ‘You want the throne in Ashur and I’m the only way you have of getting it! Without me and a ring on my finger, you get nothing!’

Subjecting her to a stunned look of proud incredulity, Raja watched with even greater astonishment as Ruby plunged upright, abandoned their meal and stalked away, hair flying, narrow back rigid, skirt riding up on those slender shapely thighs. Had she no manners? No concept of restraint in public places? She actually believed that he wanted the throne in Ashur? Was that her idea of a joke? She had no grasp of realities whatsoever. He was the future hereditary ruler of one of the most sophisticated and rich countries in the Persian Gulf, he did not need to rule Ashur, as well.

* * *

A BRISK WALK of twenty minutes brought Ruby back to work. A little breathless and flustered after the time she had had to consider that fiery exchange over lunch, she was still trying to decide whether or not she had been unfair in her assessment of Prince Raja. Waiting on her desktop for her attention was a pile of work, however, and her head was already aching from the stress of the information he had dumped on her.

At spare moments during the afternoon that followed she mulled over what she had learned about her birth country’s predicament. It was not her fault all that had happened between Ashur and Najar, was it? But if Raja was correct and the peace broke down over the reality that their marriage and therefore the planned unification of the two countries did not take place, how would she feel about things then? That was a much less straightforward question and Ruby resolved to do some Internet research that evening to settle the questions she needed answered.

While Stella was cooking a late dinner, Ruby lifted the laptop the two young women shared, let Hermione curl up by her feet and sought information on the recent events in Ashur. Unfortunately a good deal of what she discovered was distressing stuff. Her late father’s country, Ashur, she slowly recognised, desperately needed help getting back on its feet and people everywhere were praying that the peace would hold. Reading a charity worker’s blog about the rising number of homeless people and orphans, Ruby felt tears sting her eyes and she blinked them back hurriedly and went to eat her dinner without an appetite. She could tell herself that Ashur was nothing to do with her but she was learning that her gut reaction was not guided by intellect. The war might be over but there was a huge job of rebuilding to be done and not enough resources to pay for it. In the meantime the people of Ashur were suffering. Could the future of an entire country and its people be resting on what she chose to do?

Sobered by that thought and the heavy responsibility that accompanied it, Ruby started to carefully consider her possible options. Stella ate and hurried out on a date. While Ruby was still deep in thought and tidying up the tiny kitchen, the doorbell buzzed. This time she was not surprised to find Najar’s much-decorated fighter-pilot prince on her doorstep again, for even she was now prepared to admit that they still had stuff to talk about. The sheer, dark masculine beauty of his bronzed features still took her by storm though and mesmerised her into stunned stillness. Those lustrous eyes set between sooty lashes in that stunningly masculine face exerted a powerful magnetic pull. She felt a tug at the heart of her and a prickling surge of heat. Once again, dragging her attention from him was like trying to leap single-handed out of a swamp.

‘You’d better come in—we have to talk,’ she acknowledged in a brittle breathless aside, exasperated by the way he made her stare and turning on her heel with hot cheeks to leave him to follow her.

‘It’s rude in my culture to turn your back on a guest or on royalty,’ Raja informed her almost carelessly.

With a sound of annoyance, Ruby whipped her blonde head around to study him with frowning brown eyes. ‘We have bigger problems than my ignorance of etiquette!’

As the tall, powerful man entered the room in Ruby’s wake Hermione peered out of her basket, beady, dark eyes full of suspicion. A low warning growl vibrated in the dog’s throat.

‘No!’ Ruby told her pet firmly.

‘You were expecting my visit,’ Raja acknowledged, taking a seat at her invitation and striving not to notice the way her tight black leggings and shrunken tee hugged her pert, rounded curves at breast and hip. The fluffy pink bunny slippers she wore on her tiny feet, however, made him compress his handsome mouth. He did not want to be reminded of just how young and unprepared she was for the role being offered to her.

Ruby breathed in deep, fighting the arrowing slide of shameless awareness keeping her unnaturally tense as she took a seat opposite him. Even at rest, the intoxicating strength of his tall, long-limbed, muscular body was obvious and she was suddenly conscious that her nipples had tightened into hard bullet points. She sucked in another breath, desperate to regain her usual composure. ‘Yes, I was expecting you.’

Raja did not break the silence when her voice faltered. He waited patiently for her to continue with a quality of confident cool and calm that she found fantastically sexy.

‘It’s best if I lay my cards on the table this time. First of all, I would never, ever be prepared to agree to a normal marriage with a stranger, so that option isn’t even a possibility,’ Ruby declared without apology, knowing that she needed to tell him that upfront. ‘But if you genuinely believe that only our marriage could ensure peace for Ashur, I feel I have to consider some way of bringing that about that we can both live with.’

Approbation gleamed in Raja’s dark gaze because he believed that she was finally beginning to see sense. He was also in the act of reflecting that he could contrive to live with her without any great problem. He pinned his attention to the stunning contours of her face while remaining painfully aware of the full soft, rounded curves of her unbound breasts outlined in thin cotton. Clear indentations in the fabric marked the pointed evidence of her nipples and the flame of nagging heat at his groin would not quit. Angry at his loss of concentration at so important a meeting, however, he compressed his wide, sensual mouth and willed his undisciplined body back under his control.

‘I do believe that only our marriage can give our countries the hope of an enduring peace,’ he admitted. ‘But if you are not prepared to consider a normal marriage, what are you suggesting?’

‘A total fake,’ Ruby replied without hesitation, a hint of amusement lightening her unusually serious eyes. ‘I marry you and we make occasional public appearances together to satisfy expectations but behind closed doors we’re just pretending to be an ordinary married couple.’

The prince concealed his surprise and mastered his expression lest he make the mistake of revealing that inflicting such a massive deception on so many people would be abhorrent to his principles. ‘A platonic arrangement?’

Ruby nodded with enthusiasm. ‘No offence intended but I’m really not into sex—’

‘With me? Or with anyone?’ Raja could not resist demanding that she make that distinction.

‘Anyone. It’s nothing personal,’ she hastened to assure a male who was taking it all very personally indeed. ‘And it will also give you the perfect future excuse to divorce me.’

Hopelessly engaged in wondering what had happened to her to give her such a distaste for intimacy, Raja frowned in bewilderment. ‘How?’

‘Well, obviously there won’t be a child. I’m not stupid, Raja. Obviously if we get married a son and heir is what everyone will be hoping for,’ she pointed out wryly. ‘But when there is no pregnancy and no child, you can use that as a very good reason to divorce me and then marry someone much more suitable.’

‘It would not be that simple. I fully understand where you got this idea from though,’ he imparted wryly. ‘But while your father may have divorced your mother in such circumstances, there has never been a divorce within my family and our people and yours would be very much shocked and disturbed by such a development.’

Ruby shrugged a slight shoulder in disinterested dismissal of that possibility. ‘There isn’t going to be a perfect solution to our dilemma,’ she told him impatiently. ‘And I think that a fake marriage could well be as good as it gets. Take it or leave it, Raja.’

Raja almost laughed out loud at that impudent closing speech. What a child she still was! He could only begin to imagine how deeply offended the Ashuri people would be were he to divorce their princess while seeking to continue to rule their country. What she was suggesting was only a stopgap solution, not a permanent remedy to the dilemma.

‘Well, that’s one angle but not the only one,’ Ruby continued ruefully. ‘I have to be very blunt here…’

An unexpected grin slanted across Raja’s beautifully moulded mouth, for in his opinion she had already been exceedingly frank. ‘By all means, be blunt.’

‘I would have to have equal billing in the ruling stakes,’ she told him squarely. ‘I can’t see how you can be trusted to look out for the interests of both countries when you’re from Najar. You would have an unfair advantage. I will only agree to marry you if I have as much of a say in all major decisions as you do.’

‘That is a revolutionary idea and not without its merits,’ Raja commented, striving not to picture Wajid Sulieman’s shattered face when he learned that his princess was not, after all, prepared to be a powerless puppet on the throne. ‘You should have that right but it will not be easy to convince the councils of old men, who act as the real government in our respective countries. In addition, you will surely concede that you know nothing about our culture—’

‘But I can certainly learn,’ Ruby broke in with stubborn determination. ‘Well, those are my terms.’

‘You won’t negotiate?’ the prince prompted.

‘There is no room for negotiation.’

Raja was grimly amused by that uncompromising stance. In many ways it only emphasised her naivety. She assumed that she could break all the rules and remain untouched by the consequences yet she had no idea of what real life was like in her native country. Without that knowledge she could not understand how much was at stake. He knew his own role too well to require advice on how to respond to her demands.

Royal life had taught him early that he did not have the luxury of personal choice. His primary duty was to persuade the princess to take up her official role in Ashur and to marry her, twin objectives that he was expected to achieve by using any and every means within his power. His father had made it clear that the need for peace must overrule every other consideration. Any natural reluctance to agree to a celibate marriage in a society where extramarital sex was regarded as a serious evil did not even weigh in the balance.

I’m really not into sex, she had confided and, like any man, he was intrigued. Since she could not make such an announcement and still be an innocent he could only assume that she had suffered from the attentions of at least one clumsy lover. Far from being an amateur in the same field, Raja surveyed her with a gleam of sensual speculation in his dark eyes. He was convinced that given the right opportunity he could change her mind on that score.

‘Well, what do you think?’ Ruby pressed edgily as she rose to her feet again.

‘I will consider your proposition,’ the prince conceded non-committally, springing upright to look down at her with hooded, dark eyes.

His ability to conceal his thoughts from his lean, dark features infuriated Ruby, who had always found the male sex fairly easy to read. For once she had not a clue what a man might be thinking and her ignorance intimidated and frustrated her. Like the truly stunning dark good looks that probably turned heads wherever he went, the prince’s reticence was one of his most noticeable attributes. He had the skills of a natural-born diplomat, she conceded, grudgingly recognising how well equipped he was to deal with opposing viewpoints and sensitive political issues.

‘I thought time was a real matter of concern,’ Ruby could not help remarking, irritated by his silence.

A highly attractive grin slanted his wide sensual mouth. ‘If you give me your phone number I will contact you later this evening with my answer.’

Ruby gave him that information and walked out to the front door. As she began to open it he rested a hand on her shoulder, staying her, and she glanced up from below her lashes, eyes questioning. Hermione growled. Raja ignored the animal, sliding his hand lightly down Ruby’s arm and up again, his handsome head lowering, his proud gaze glittering as bright as diamonds from below the fringe of his dense black lashes. She stopped breathing, moving, even thinking, trapped in the humming silence while a buzz of excitement unlike anything she had ever experienced trailed along her nerve endings like a taunting touch.

His breath warmed her cheek and she focused on his strong sensual mouth, the surge of heat and warmth between her thighs going crazy. Desire was shooting through her veins like adrenaline and she didn’t understand it, couldn’t control it either, any more than she could defy the temptation to rest up against him, palms spread across his chest to absorb the muscular strength of his powerful frame and remain upright. Eyes wide, she stared up at him, trembling with anticipation and he did not disappoint her. On the passage to her mouth his lips grazed the pulse quivering in her neck and an almost violent shimmy of sensation shot down through her slight length. His hand sliding down to her waist to steady her, he circled her mouth with a kiss as hot as a blowtorch. The heat of his passion sent a shock wave of sexual response spiralling down straight into her pelvis.

Raja only lifted his head again when Hermione’s noisy assault on his ankles became too violent to ignore. ‘Call off your dog,’ he urged her huskily.

Grateful for the excuse to move, Ruby wasted no time in capturing her snarling pet and depositing her back in the living room. Her hands were shaking. Nervous perspiration beaded her upper lip. Ruby was in serious shock from finally feeling what a man had never made her feel before. She was still light-headed from the experience, and her temper surged when she caught Raja studying her intently. Consumed by a sense of foolishness, she was afraid that he might have noticed that she was trembling and her condemnation was shrill. ‘You had no right to touch me!’

His lustrous dark eyes glinted like rapier blades over her angry face. ‘I had no right but I was very curious,’ he countered with a studied insolence that pushed a tide of colour into her cheeks. ‘And you were worth the risk.’

A moment later he was gone and she closed the door, only just resisting the urge to slam it noisily. She was still as wound up as a clock spring. Men didn’t speak to Ruby in that condescending tone and they rarely, if ever, offered her provocation. Invariably they tried to please her and utilised every ploy from flattery to gifts to achieve that end. Raja, on the other hand, had subjected her to a cool measuring scrutiny and had remained resolutely unimpressed and in control while she fell apart and she could only hate him for that: she had shown weakness and susceptibility, he had not.

Her phone rang at eleven when she was getting ready for bed.

‘It’s Raja.’ His dark drawl was very businesslike in tone and delivery. ‘I hope you’re prepared to move quickly on this as time is of the essence.’

Taut with strain and with her teeth gritted, for it was an effort to be polite to him with her pride still stinging from that kiss that she had failed to rebuff, Ruby said stiffly, ‘That depends on whether or not you’re prepared to stand by my terms.’

‘You have my agreement. While I make arrangements for our marriage to take place here—’

‘Like soon…now? And we’re to get married here?’ Ruby interrupted, unable to swallow back her astonishment.

‘It would be safer and more straightforward if the deed were already done before you even set foot in Ashur because our respective representatives will very likely quarrel about the when and the where and the how of our wedding for months on end,’ the prince informed her wryly. ‘In those circumstances, staging a quiet ceremony here in the UK makes the most sense.’

Infuriatingly at home giving orders and impervious to her tart comments, Raja advised her to resign from her job immediately and start packing. Ruby stayed out of bed purely to tell Stella that she was getting married. Her friend was stunned and less moved than Ruby by stories of Ashur’s current instability and economic hardship.

‘You’re not thinking about what you’re doing,’ Stella exclaimed, her pretty face troubled. ‘You’ve let this prince talk you round. He made you feel bad but, let’s face it, your life is here. What’s your father’s country got to do with you?’

Only forty-eight hours earlier, Ruby would have agreed with that sentiment. But matters were not so cut and dried now. Ashur’s problems were no longer distant, impersonal issues and she could not ignore their claim on her conscience. In her mind the suffering there now bore the faces of the ordinary people whose lives had been ruined by the long conflict.

Ruby compressed her generous mouth. ‘I just feel that if I can do something to help, I should do it. It won’t be a proper marriage, for goodness’ sake.’

‘You might get over there and find out that the prince already has a wife,’ Stella said with a curled lip.

‘I don’t think so. He wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t needed.’

Unaccustomed to Ruby being so serious, Stella pulled a face. ‘Well, look what happened to your mother when she married a man from a different culture.’

‘But Mum was in love while I would just be acting out a role. I won’t get hurt the way she did. I’m not stuffed full of stupid romantic ideas,’ Ruby declared, her chin coming up. ‘I’m much tougher and I can look after myself.’

‘I suppose you know yourself best,’ Stella conceded, taken aback by Ruby’s vehemence.

Ruby couldn’t sleep that night. The idea of marrying Najar’s Prince still felt unreal. She could have done without her friend’s honest reminder that her mother’s royal marriage had gone badly wrong. Although Ruby knew that she had absolutely no romantic interest in Raja and was therefore safe from being hurt or disappointed by him, she could not forget the heartbreak her mother had suffered when she had attempted to adapt to a very different way of life.

At the same time the haunting images Ruby had seen of the devastation in Ashur kept her awake until the early hours. The plight of her father’s people was the only reason she was willing to agree to such a marriage, she reflected ruefully. Even though she was being driven by good intentions the prospect of marrying a prince and making her home in a strange land filled her to overflowing with doubts and insecurity.

In recent years she had often regretted the lack of excitement in her life, but now all of a sudden she was being confronted with the truth of that old adage: Be careful of what you wish for….


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