A Christmas Bride for the King

Page 17

or and immediately she felt ridiculous, mooning at herself in the mirror. She did up her shirt and tried to smooth her hair, hoping the mark on her neck wasn’t too visible.
Assuming it would probably be the nice girl who was her obligatory maid—Assa—she opened the door to find her eye level not on the face of a pretty dark-eyed girl but on a very broad chest. A very familiar chest. A chest that not long ago she’d been rubbing her breasts against like a hungry little kitten.
She looked up to see Salim, his expression stern. Immediately she asked, ‘What is it?’
‘May I come in?’
Charlotte would have bet money on the fact that Salim was regretting what had just happened even more than her, so she stood back and tried not to notice how her body immediately hummed in close proximity to his again.
As he walked into the room she noticed that he’d lost his jacket and bow-tie. The top button of his shirt was open. He turned around to face her while she stayed close to the door, feeling like a coward.
Charlotte desperately wanted to say something before he had a chance to let her know how much he regretted what had to be a momentary lapse in judgement.
‘What happened just now...it shouldn’t have. It wasn’t appropriate.’
Something flickered in Salim’s piercing eyes, but it was gone before she could figure out what it meant. Probably relief that she wasn’t making the most of an opportunity to embed herself in his life.
But then he said, ‘Is that your professional opinion?’
Charlotte swallowed. ‘Personal. And professional.’
Salim raked a hand through his hair, making it even messier. ‘We’ll discuss that another time, but there are more important matters to deal with first.’
Charlotte’s heart flipped over at the fact that he wasn’t immediately agreeing with her about the kiss, and then she registered what else he’d said. ‘What matters?’
Salim’s mouth firmed. ‘The reason Rafa was looking for me is because he’s been informed that some of the bigger tribes are planning on marching into Tabat City in a bid to assert their dominance over each other before I am crowned king. They seek to curry favour, hoping for preferential treatment once I’m in power.’
Charlotte watched Salim pace back and forth, her gaze drawn helplessly to the fluid athletic grace of his body. She struggled to keep her eyes up.
She said quietly, ‘They’ve been waiting for a long time for a leader. Without someone to unite and guide them any rifts and grievances between the tribes will have grown bigger and more entrenched.’
‘Yes.’ He stopped pacing and looked at her. ‘So what I have to do is go and meet them before they can come to me—do my best to unite them and inform them that there will be no preferential treatment.’
At first Charlotte thought this was the most selfless thing she’d heard him say to date, but then she thought it through. ‘But when you abdicate they’ll doubt any assurances you’ve given them.’
Salim’s mouth tightened. ‘I’m meeting them all separately, and then I’ll invite each tribal leader to the city to negotiate an agreement before the coronation. They’ll be bound by that no matter what happens. A tribe’s word is very important in this country.’
Charlotte cursed herself for being naive. He wasn’t doing this because he cared about his people. Clearly this was all merely a means to an end—to make sure his own agenda succeeded. His agenda to pursue a life of independence and freedom, amassing more wealth than any one person could possibly know what to do with.
She said coolly, ‘Well, as you’ve made it very clear that I’m of no use to you, I fail to see why you’re telling me about your plans.’
Salim’s face was carefully expressionless. ‘The last thing I want to do is stir up any trouble while I’m visiting the tribes by unwittingly insulting anyone, so it looks as if I’ll have need of your expertise after all—if you’ll accompany me.’
Charlotte felt no sense of triumph at this volte face, only a rising panic at the thought of going anywhere with him. And yet how could she refuse when this was her reason for being there?
‘Very well. I’ll come with you.’
His expression was inscrutable. No more teasing or mocking. She wasn’t sure how to deal with this far more serious Salim.
He nodded briefly in acknowledgement of her acquiescence. ‘We’ll leave tomorrow morning—early—and travel to the three main tribes over the next week.’
His gaze swept her up and down then, and she had to stop herself from folding her arms defensively, hoping she’d buttoned her shirt all the way up.
‘Where we’re going is a lot more traditional than the city, so I’ll have Assa ensure you have the right clothes.’ His blue gaze seemed to pierce right through her. ‘It’ll be very rustic, if you think you can handle that.’
Charlotte bristled at the tone in his voice, which cast doubt on her ability to endure a trip into the wild desert regions.