A Christmas Bride for the King

Page 9

He threw her with his question, and Charlotte busied herself unfolding her napkin in a bid not to let him see how easily an innocent question like that rattled her. Because it wasn’t the name she’d been born with. It was her maternal grandmother’s name.
‘I...yes. It’s Scots-Irish.’ And then, before he could ask her more questions, she said, ‘I had a tour of the city this morning with Kdal. He was very informative.’
She stopped when she saw something flash across the sheikh’s face but it was quickly replaced with a very urbane expression, and he said, ‘Please, tell me your impressions—after all, you did say that you thought it had much potential.’
Charlotte looked at him suspiciously, thinking he was mocking her, but his expression appeared innocent. Well, as innocent as a sinfully gorgeous reprobate could look.
‘Well, obviously it needs a lot of work to restore it, but I found it fascinating. I had no idea how far back some of the buildings date. The mosque is breathtaking, and I hadn’t expected to see a cathedral too.’
Sheikh Al-Noury took a sip of the white wine that had been poured into their glasses. ‘The city has always been a multi-faith society—one of the most liberal in the region. Outside the city limits, however, the country runs on more traditional tribal lines. Tabat used to run all the way to the sea. Jahor, the capital of Jandor, was merely a military fortress until its warriors rose up and rebelled, creating a separate independent state and endless years of war. Tabat is where all the ancient treasures reside. And all the knowledge. We have a library that rivalled the one at Alexandria, in Egypt, before it was destroyed.’
Another waiter arrived with an array of food as Charlotte responded dryly, ‘Yes, I’ve spent some time in the library this week—it’s very impressive.’
The sheikh—she still couldn’t think of him as Salim—gestured to the food. ‘Please, help yourself. We don’t really have a starter course.’
Charlotte felt self-conscious as she picked a little from each plate and added it to her own. She had to admit that she loved the Tabat cuisine as she tried a special bread that was baked with minced lamb, onions and tomatoes. Halloumi cheese and honey was another staple she was becoming addicted to. At this rate she’d have nothing to show for her time here except added inches to her waistline.
She watched Sheikh Al-Noury covertly from under her lashes, but he caught her looking and she could feel heat climb into her cheeks.
‘You’re not drinking your wine?’ he observed.
She shook her head. ‘I prefer not to when I’m working.’
He picked up his glass and tipped it towards her. ‘I commend your professionalism. I, however, feel no similar urge to maintain appearances.’ He took a healthy sip.
Feeling emboldened by his seeming determination to goad her, she said, ‘I heard you have been away for most of the week.’
He put his glass down and his gaze narrowed on her. ‘Yes. I was invited to the Sultan of Al-Omar’s annual party in B’harani. He’s an old friend.’
An image immediately sprang into her mind of the sheikh surrounded by beautiful women, and when she replied her voice sounded unintentionally sharp. ‘I’ve heard of them... His parties are renowned for being impossible to get into, and they dominate the gossip columns for weeks afterwards, but there are never any pictures.’
‘Yes,’ he said, almost wistfully. ‘That was in the good old days. But it’s all changed now that he’s a married man with children.’
‘You don’t approve, Sheikh Al-Noury?’ Charlotte asked with faux innocence, almost enjoying herself now.
Those blue eyes pierced right through her. ‘I thought I told you to call me Salim. And my friend Sadiq can do as he pleases. Every man seems to fall sooner or later.’
Charlotte ignored the little dart of emotion that surprised her, at the thought of this man falling for someone. ‘Won’t you have to...fall too? You’ll be expected to take a queen and produce heirs once you are crowned king.’
Salim surveyed the woman opposite him, in another of those tantalising silk shirts with the damned bow that had haunted his dreams. Maybe she did it on purpose—projected this buttoned-up secretary image specifically to appeal to a man’s desire to see her come undone.
It irritated him intensely that not one of the many beautiful women at Sadiq’s party had managed to snare his interest. His old carousing friend had slapped him on the back and joked that he was becoming jaded. And then Sadiq’s very pretty wife had joined them and whispered something in her husband’s ear that had made him look at her so explicitly that even Salim, who was pretty unshockable, had felt uncomfortable.
When they’d made pathetically flimsy excuses and left, he’d silently wished them well in their obvious happy domesticity, while repeating his own refrain that he would never be snared like that. Because to commit oneself to another person was to risk untold pain.
When he’d lost his sister the grief had been so acute that for a long time he’d wanted to die too. After he’d passed through that dark phase and emerged on the other side he’d never wanted to love anyone again. It was simply too devastating. Loss had eaten away at his soul until there had been nothing left but a need to escape from the world that had brought him such pain and avenge his sister’s death—which he had done.
Not that it had brought him any peace.
Angry to find his thoughts straying down this path, Salim said tersely in response to her question, ‘No, Miss McQuillan, I won’t have to fall.’
He felt an overwhelming urge to unsettle this woman who looked so pristine. So in control. So...unaffected.
‘Because,’ he said carefully, ‘I have no intention of being King of Tabat for any longer than absolutely necessary.’
Shock bloomed across her expressive face, exactly as he’d expected, but it failed to bring any measure of satisfaction and that irritated Salim intensely.
She sat up. ‘What do you mean? You’re being crowned in two weeks—of course you’ll be king.’