A Christmas Bride for the King

Page 6

So she was to be consigned to her rooms.
But then he added, ‘Do feel free to explore... I must warn you, though, that it is perilously easy to get lost in this place, so don’t stray too far. The palace library is on this corridor, if you go left when you step outside.’
Just before he disappeared Charlotte blurted out, ‘Sheikh Al-Noury?’
He turned around, his hand on the door. ‘Yes?’
For a moment her mind went dismayingly blank at the way he so effortlessly dominated even this vast room, but she forced herself to focus and said, ‘I’m not here to be a nuisance... I am actually here to try and help ease your transition into becoming king.’
She could see his jaw clench from where she stood, and he said, ‘Miss McQuillan, you wouldn’t be here if it had been up to me. The last thing I need is an expert in diplomacy. But you are here, and I suspect you’re going to prove to be a nuisance whether you intend to or not, so you can start by calling me Salim. The way you say Sheikh Al-Noury makes me feel old.’
Before Charlotte could respond to that, or object to the way he insisted on calling her Miss McQuillan, as if she were a headmistress, he said, ‘I’ll have someone bring you some food, and I suggest that in the meantime we stay out of each other’s way.’
CHARLOTTE WATCHED THE door close on the most infuriating man she’d ever met, not to mention the most disturbing, and she had to quell a childish urge to hurl something at the door behind him. Instead she kicked off her shoes and paced back and forth on the sumptuous silken rugs.
She fumed. She was used to dealing with clients who thought they knew everything about international relations and diplomacy until something blew up in their faces, and then suddenly Charlotte became their most valuable asset. But she’d never encountered such downright...antipathy before.
She was patently unwelcome—and she could call him Salim but he wouldn’t deign to call her Charlotte. She thought about that for a moment and felt a frisson run down her spine at the thought of his tongue wrapping itself around her name. That little frisson was humiliating, because it was glaringly obvious that he didn’t view her as female—more as an asexual irritation.
Sheikh Al-Noury was affecting her in a way that she hadn’t experienced before, because she was good at keeping people at a distance and yet from the first moment they’d met he’d slid under her skin with disconcerting ease.
Charlotte shucked off her jacket and undid the bow at her neck and her top button. Then, spying her bags in the bedroom near the dressing room, she set about unpacking. She found herself dwelling on the animosity the sheikh had demonstrated towards his mother. She didn’t like the way it resonated within her, reminding her of her own fractured relationship with her mother, brought on by years of careless parenting after a bitter divorce.
But she diverted her mind away from wondering too much about anything personal to do with the sheikh. It wasn’t her business. And the last thing she wanted to think about was her own pitiful family history.
After taking a refreshing shower in the lavish bathroom, Charlotte changed into stretchy pants and a soft long-sleeved top. Just as her stomach rumbled she heard a knock on the door. Her gut clenched as she imagined it might be him, but when she opened the door there was a young girl, with a trolley full of food and wine in an ice bucket on the other side.
She admonished herself; he’d hardly be delivering her dinner.
Charlotte stood back to let the girl in and watched as she silently laid the dining table for one and set out the food. Tantalising scents filled the air and her stomach rumbled louder. The girl scurried out again, too shy to return Charlotte’s smile.
Charlotte sat down to explore what she’d been given. Balls of rice mixed with herbs. Lamb infused with spices and scented rice. Flat bread with hummus. It looked delicious and she found that she was ravenous.
She ate as dusk fell outside, not noticing it had got dark until she stood up and went to the window with her wine glass in her hand, feeling a little more settled after an unsettling day.
She opened the French doors and was surprised to find that it was much cooler than she’d expected—and then she chastised herself: basic geography, of course it got cold in the desert at night. She fetched a cashmere wrap and then went back outside, sitting on a seat, relishing the peace.
The thought of the vast expanse of empty desert surrounding her made a thrum of excitement pulse in her blood. She’d always found this part of the world fascinating, hence her choice of master’s degree. The stars were so low and bright in the dark sky she imagined she could reach out and pluck one into her hand.
Tabat intrigued her.
And so does its enigmatic ruler, whispered a voice.
Charlotte scowled and took a sip of wine, telling herself that Sheikh Al-Noury—Salim—didn’t intrigue her at all. He was thoroughly charmless and clearly reluctant to change his hedonistic existence before becoming king.
He didn’t intrigue her because she knew his type all too well. As the only child of two high-profile parents, who had used her as an unwitting pawn in their bitter divorce and custody battle, she recognised the traits of a selfish person who was here under sufferance. After all, when her father had lost in the custody battle with her mother he’d always let it be known that her visits with him had been something he’d done purely out of legal obligation, not because he really cared for her, so she was in far too familiar territory.
However, she wouldn’t let her own personal feelings intrude on her professional life. She’d worked too hard to separate herself from her parents and that time. She’d even changed her name, vowing to live a life much different from theirs, which was smack at the centre of the public eye.
She’d built an independent life and a reputation based on her intellect—not her name or the infamy associated with it. She had a strong desire never to be at the mercy of anyone else again, to the point that she’d instinctively avoided intimate relationships, too afraid of letting someone close enough to devastate her world as her parents had.
Diverting her mind
away from her past, she assured herself that all she had to do was make sure the sheikh didn’t cause an international scandal in the run-up to his coronation, which was due to take place in three weeks. And then, once the man had been crowned king, Charlotte could walk away and hopefully never see him again.
So why did she find her mind wandering back to him now? Wondering where he was in this vast and largely empty palace?