A Christmas Bride for the King

Page 10

‘Not for long,’ he said grimly, regretting having said anything.
She shook her head, the shining cap of strawberry-blonde hair distracting him for a moment. She was so pale against this exotic backdrop. He imagined his darkness against her pale perfection...
‘What on earth are you talking about?’
Her cut-glass tones enflamed Salim’s arousal instead of dousing it. Only his friend Sadiq and his legal team knew of his plans. He shouldn’t have said anything to this woman, who was still a relative stranger...and yet he relished the easing of a weight off his shoulders.
‘I’m going to abdicate and ensure that a far more suitable person takes over as king in my place.’ Even if the signs of finding that person weren’t very encouraging.
Salim was mesmerised by the play of emotions over her face and he realised that she was quite beautiful. More beautiful for not being showy or wearing layers of make-up. She was obviously struggling to understand. He almost felt sorry for her.
‘But...if you’re intent on abdicating then why be crowned in the first place?’
‘Because the country isn’t entirely stable at the moment. There are tribal factions who want to see the city restored to a conservatism that hasn’t existed for years. The
y’ve been growing stronger. If I was to walk away now it would create a vacuum, which they would use as an opportunity to storm the city and take over...there is a real danger of warfare.’
She glanced around them before whispering forcefully, ‘But if you abdicate won’t the same thing happen?’
Salim shook his head. ‘By the time I abdicate I will ensure that whoever takes my place will be a force for good in the country. Someone who will command the respect of everyone and see the country into the future.’
She looked unimpressed and sat back, shaking her head. ‘Isn’t that meant to be you? Why would you do this when it’s your destiny?’
Salim put down his napkin on the table, his skin prickling for exposing himself like this. ‘You call being bred with calculated precision destiny? If it was destiny then my twin sister would be queen—she was born ten minutes before me—but because she was a girl and therefore deemed unsuitable, I was named the heir to the throne of Tabat.’
She looked at him, her face pale. ‘You have a sister? I didn’t realise...’
He curled his hand into a fist on the table and forced himself not to look away from that too-direct green gaze. ‘She’s dead. A long time ago.’
Charlotte felt the sheikh’s—Salim’s—tension. It crackled between them.
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t know... There was no mention...’
She was still reeling from what he’d just revealed about his plans as king...or non-plans. And that he’d had a sister.
‘How did she die?’
Salim looked at her for a long moment, but Charlotte had the sense he wasn’t seeing her. Then his focus narrowed to her again and she shivered.
‘It doesn’t matter how she died. She did. It’s in the past now.’
But Charlotte had a very keen sense that it wasn’t in the past at all. To change the subject a little, she pointed out, ‘Your brother seems happy to accept his role.’
Salim’s hand tightened around his napkin. ‘My brother and I are very different people. I made my life far away from here. I have numerous business concerns around the world... I employ thousands of people. Are they worth any less than the people of Tabat?’
‘No, of course not...but surely there is a way to run your businesses while also ruling Tabat?’
He inclined his head and his mouth tipped up slightly, as if mocking her. Charlotte felt heat rise. He was obviously finding her naive or clueless.
‘I’m sure if I wanted to I could find a way, Miss McQuillan, but the truth is that I’m not prepared to make that sacrifice. Tabat deserves a committed and devoted ruler. I am not that man.’
Why? The word almost fell out of Charlotte’s mouth, but she clawed it back at the last moment.
Salim sat back then, and said, ‘I’m hosting a party in the palace this weekend. You are, of course, more than welcome. If you’re still here.’
If you’re still here.
Charlotte schooled her features, not liking the dart of hurt she felt that he was still intent on getting rid of her. ‘Do you think the prospect of one of your infamous parties is enough to scare me off?’