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Грэхем Линн

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

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THE SALESWOMAN DISPLAYED a ghastly, shapeless plum-coloured suit that could only have pleased a woman who had lost interest in her appearance. Of course it was not the saleswoman’s fault, Ruby reasoned in growing frustration; it was Raja’s insistence on the outfit being ‘very conservative and plain’ that had encouraged the misunderstanding of what Ruby might be prepared to wear at her wedding.

‘That’s not me, that’s really not my style!’ Ruby declared with a grimace.

‘Then choose something and quickly,’ the prince urged in an impatient aside for he was not a patient shopper. ‘Show some initiative!’

Raja did not understand why what she wore should matter so much. After all, even in her current outfit of faded jeans and a blue sweater she looked beautiful enough in his opinion to stop traffic. Luxuriant honey-blonde hair tumbled round her narrow shoulders. Denim moulded her curvy derrière and slim thighs, wool cupped the swell of her pouting breasts and emphasised her small waist. Even unadorned, she had buckets of utterly natural sex appeal. As he recognised the swelling heaviness of arousal at his groin his lean dark features clenched hard and he fixed his attention on the wall instead.

Show some initiative? Dull coins of aggravated red blossomed over Ruby’s cheekbones and her sultry pink mouth compressed. Where did someone who had so far dismissed all her helpful suggestions get the nerve to taunt her with her lack of initiative? It was only an hour and a half since she had met her future husband at his hotel to sign the various forms that would enable them to get married in a civil ceremony and he was already getting on her nerves so much that she wanted to kill him! Or at the very least kick him! A high-ranking London diplomat had also attended that meeting to explain that a special licence was being advanced to facilitate their speedy marriage. Raja, she had learned, enjoyed diplomatic immunity. He was equally immune, she was discovering, to any sense of fashion or any appreciation of female superiority.

Stalking up to the rail of the town’s most expensive boutique, Ruby began to leaf through it, eventually pulling a red suit out. ‘I’ll try this one on.’

The prince’s beautifully shaped mouth curled. ‘It is very bright.’

‘You did say that a formal publicity photo would be taken and I don’t want to vanish into the woodwork,’ Ruby told him sweetly, big brown eyes wide with innocence but swiftly narrowing to stare intently at his glorious face. He was gorgeous. That fabulous bone structure and those dark deep-set eyes set below that slightly curly but ruthlessly cropped black hair took her breath away every time.

The saleswoman took the suit to hang it in a dressing room. With fluid grace Raja lifted his hand and let his thumb graze along the fullness of Ruby’s luscious lower lip. His dark eyes glittered hot as coals as he felt that softness and remembered the sweet heady taste of that succulent mouth beneath his own. Tensing, Ruby dealt him a startled look, her lips tingling at his touch while alarm tugged at her nerves. As his hand dropped she moved closer and muttered in taut warning, ‘This is business, just business between us.’

‘Business,’ the prince repeated, his accent scissoring round the label like a razor-sharp blade. Business was straightforward and Ruby Shakarian was anything but. He watched her sashay into the dressing room, little shoulders squared, hair bouncing, all cheeky attitude and surplus energy. He wanted to laugh but he had far too much tact. He didn’t agree with her description. Business? No, he wanted to have sex with her. He wanted to have sex with her very, very much. He knew that and accepted it as a natural consequence of his male libido. Desire was a predictable response in a young and healthy man when he was with a beautiful woman. It was also a positive advantage in a royal marriage. Sex was sex, after all, little more than an entertaining means to an end when children were required. Finer feelings were neither required nor advisable. Been there, done that, Raja acknowledged in a bleak burst of recollection from the past. He had had his heart broken once and had sworn he would never put it up for a woman’s target practice again.

Even so, once Ruby was his wife Raja had every intention of ensuring that the marriage followed a much more conventional path than she presently intended. Obviously he didn’t want a divorce. A divorce would mean he had failed in his duty, failed his family and failed his very country. He breathed in deep and slow at that aggrieved acknowledgement, mentally tasting the bite of such a far-reaching failure and striving not to flinch from it. After all there was only so much that he could do. It was unfair that so much should rest on his ability to make a success of an arranged marriage but Raja al-Somari had long understood that life was rarely fair. The bottom line was that he and everyone who depended on them needed their prince and princess to build a relationship with a future. And a fake marriage could never achieve that objective.

Over the three days that followed Ruby was much too busy to get cold feet about the upheaval in her life. She resigned from her job without much regret and began packing, systematically working through all her possessions and discarding the clutter while Stella lamented her approaching departure and placed an ad in the local paper for a new housemate. The day before the wedding, Hermione, accompanied by her favourite squeaky toy and copious instructions regarding her care and diet, was collected to be transported out to Ashur in advance.

The memory of her pet’s frightened little eyes above her greying muzzle as she looked out through the barred door of her pet carrier kept her mistress awake that night.

The wedding was staged with the maximum possible discretion in a private room at the hotel with two diplomats acting as official witnesses. Accompanied only by Stella, Ruby arrived and took her place by Raja’s side. His black hair displaying a glossy blue-black sheen below the lights, dark eyes brilliant shards of light between the thick fringe of his lashes, Raja looked impossibly handsome in a formal, dark pinstripe suit. When he met her appraisal he didn’t smile and his lean bronzed features remained grave. She wondered what he was thinking. Not knowing annoyed her. Her heart was beating uncomfortably fast by the time that the middle-aged registrar began the short service. Raja slid a gold ring onto her finger and because it was too big she had to crook her finger to keep the ring from falling off. The poorly fitting ring struck her as an appropriate addition to a ceremony that, shorn of all bridal and emotional frills, left her feeling distinctly unmarried.

It was done, goal achieved, Raja reflected with considerable satisfaction. His bride had not succumbed to a last-minute change of heart as he had feared. He studied Ruby’s delicately drawn profile with appreciation. She might look fragile as a wild flower but she had a core of steel, for she had given her word and although he had sensed her mounting tension and uncertainty she had defied his expectations and stuck to it.

One of the diplomats shook Ruby’s hand and addressed her as ‘Your Royal Highness’, which felt seriously weird to her.

‘I’m never ever going to be able to see you as a princess,’ Stella confided with a giggle.

‘Give Ruby time,’ Raja remarked silkily.

Colour tinged Ruby’s cheeks. ‘I’m not going to change, Stella.’

‘Of course you will,’ the prince contradicted with unassailable confidence, escorting his bride over to a floral display on a table where the photographer awaited them. ‘You’re about to enter a different life and I believe you’ll pick up the rules quickly. Smile.’

‘Raja,’ Ruby whispered sweetly, and as he inclined his arrogant, dark head down to hers she snapped, ‘Don’t tell me what to do!’

‘Petty,’ he told her smoothly, his shrewd gaze encompassing the photographer within earshot.

And foolish as it was over so minor an exchange, Ruby’s blood boiled in her veins. She hated that sensation of being ignorant and in the position that she was likely to do something wrong. Even more did she hate being bossed around and told what to do and Raja al-Somari rapped out commands to the manner born. No doubt she would make the occasional mistake but she was determined to learn even quicker than he expected for both their sakes.

Chin at a defiant angle, Ruby gave Stella a quick hug, promised to phone and climbed into the limousine to travel to the airport. She would have liked the chance to change into something more comfortable in which to travel but Raja had stopped her from doing so, advising her that while she was in her official capacity as a princess of Ashur and his wife she was on duty and had to embrace the conservative wardrobe. His wife, Ruby thought in a daze of disbelief, thinking back to the previous week when she had been kissing Steve in his car. How could her life have changed so much in so short a time?

But she comforted herself with the knowledge that she wasn’t really his wife, she was only pretending. Boarding the unbelievably opulent private jet awaiting them and seeing the unconcealed curiosity in the eyes of the cabin staff, Ruby finally appreciated that pretending to be a princess married to Raja was likely to demand a fair degree of acting from her. Instead of kicking off her shoes and curling up in one of the cream leather seats in the cabin, she found herself sitting down sedately and striving for a dignified pose for the first time in her life.

Soon after take-off, Raja rose from his seat and settled a file down in front of her. ‘I asked my staff to prepare this for you.’ He flipped it open. ‘It contains photos and names for the main members of the two royal households and various VIPs in both countries as well as other useful information—’

‘Homework,’ Ruby commented dulcetly. ‘To think I thought I’d left that behind when I left school.’

‘Careful preparation should make the transition a little easier for you.’

Ruby could not credit how many names and faces he expected her to memorise, and the lengthy sections encompassing history, geography and culture in both countries made distinctly heavy reading. After a light lunch was served, Ruby took a break and watched Raja working on his laptop, lean fingers deft and fast. Her husband? It still didn’t feel credible. His black lashes shaded his eyes like silk fans and when he glanced at her with those dark deep-set eyes that gleamed like polished bronze, something tripped in her throat and strangled her breathing. He was drop-dead gorgeous and naturally she was staring. Any woman would, she told herself irritably. She didn’t fancy him; she did not.

Raja left the main cabin to change and reappeared in a white, full-length, desert-style robe worn with a headdress bound with a black and gold cord.

‘You look just like you’re starring in an old black-and-white movie set in the desert,’ she confided helplessly, totally taken aback by the transformation.

‘That is not a comment I would repeat in Najar, where such a mode of dress is the norm,’ Raja advised her drily. ‘I do not flaunt a Western lifestyle at home.

Embarrassment stirring red heat in her cheeks, Ruby dealt him a look of annoyance. ‘Or a sense of humour.’

But in truth there was nothing funny about his appearance. He actually looked amazingly dignified and royal and shockingly handsome. Even so his statement that he did not follow a Western lifestyle sent an arrow of apprehension winging through her. What other surprises might lie in wait for her?

A few minutes later he warned her that the jet would be landing in Najar in thirty minutes. When she returned after freshening up he announced with the utmost casualness that they would be parting once the jet landed. She would be flying straight on to Ashur where he would join her later in the week.

Ruby was shattered by that unexpected news and her head swivelled, eyes filled with disbelief. ‘You’re leaving me to travel on alone to Ashur?’

‘Only for thirty-six hours at most. I’m afraid that I can’t be in two places at once.’

‘Even on what’s supposed to be our wedding night?’ Ruby launched at him.

The prince shut his laptop and shot her a veiled look as silky as melted honey and somehow that appraisal made her tummy perform acrobatics. ‘Are you offering me one?’

The silence simmered like a kettle on the boil. Her cheeks washed with heat, Ruby scrambled to her feet. ‘Of course, I’m not!’

‘I thought not. So, what’s the problem? The exact date of our marriage will not be publicly announced. Very few people will be aware that this is our wedding night.’

Ruby almost screamed. He was not that stupid. He was seriously not that stupid and his casual reaction to her criticism enraged her. She breathed in so deep and long she was vaguely surprised that her head didn’t lift off her shoulders and float. ‘You’re asking me what the problem is? Is that a joke?’

Raja uncoiled from his seat with the fluid grace of a martial arts expert. Standing very straight and tall, broad shoulders hard as a blade, Raja rested cool eyes on her, for he was not accustomed to being shouted at and he was in no mood to become accustomed to the experience. ‘Naturally I am not joking.’

‘And you can’t see anything wrong with dumping me with a bunch of strangers in a foreign country? I don’t know anyone, don’t speak the language, don’t even know how to behave,’ Ruby yelled back at him full volume, causing the steward entering the cabin with a trolley to hastily backtrack and close the door again. ‘How can you abandon me like that?’

The prince gazed down at her with frowning dark eyes, exasperated by her ignorance. Clearly she had no concept of the extensive planning and detailed security arrangements that accompanied his every movement and that would soon apply equally to hers. Familiar as Raja was with the military precision of planning a royal schedule set in stone often months in advance, he saw no room for manoeuvre or a change of heart. ‘Abandon you? How am I abandoning you?’

Made to feel as if she was being melodramatic, Ruby reddened and pursed her sultry mouth. ‘You’re supposed to be my husband.’

Taken aback by the reminder, Raja quirked an expressive ebony brow. ‘But according to you we’re only faking it.’

‘Well, you’re not faking it worth a damn!’ Ruby condemned with furious bite, strands of hair shimmying round her flushed cheekbones, eyes accusing. ‘A husband should be loyal and supportive. I don’t know how to be a princess yet and if I make mistakes I’m likely to offend people. Hasn’t that occurred to you? You can’t leave me alone in a strange place. I don’t know how to give these people what they expect and deserve and I was depending on you to tell me!’

Unprepared for his gutsy bride to reveal panic, Raja frowned, setting his features into a stern mask. ‘Unfortunately arrangements are already in place for us to go our separate ways this afternoon. It is virtually impossible to make last-minute changes to that schedule. We’re about to land in Najar, I’m expected home and you’re flying on to Ashur by yourself.’

Suddenly mortified by the nerves that had got the better of her composure, Ruby screened her apprehensive gaze and said stiffly as she took her seat with determination again, ‘Fine. Don’t worry about it—I’m sure I’ll manage. I’m used to being on my own.’

Ruby didn’t speak another word. She was furious with herself for revealing her insecurity. What on earth had she expected from him? Support? When had she ever known a man to be supportive? Raja had his own priorities and they were not the same as hers. As he had reminded her, their marriage, their very relationship, was a fake. As, to be fair, she had requested. Her soft, full mouth curved down. Clearly if she wasn’t sleeping with him she was on her own and that was nothing new… .


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