The Sheik's Arranged Marriage(10)

By: Susan Mallery

“I, um…” She gave him a quick smile, then freed herself. “I’ve waited my whole life to live here. This is the only place I’ve felt at home.” She motioned to the garden. “I love the combination of old and new. We’re in the middle of the desert, and it’s June. The daytime temperature is among the hottest in the world. Yet this is lovely.”

Jamal shrugged out of his suit jacket and placed it on a bench next to them. “That’s because there are discreet air-conditioning vents and fans around here. It keeps the temperature down.”

“I don’t care. It’s magic, and that’s all that matters to me.”

He stared at her for a long time, then shoved his hands into his slacks pockets and asked, “Is that why you came back?”

They stood on a stone-paved path. There was a fountain to her left and a lattice covered in vines to her right. She traced one of the leaves.

“I didn’t come for the magic, if that’s what you’re asking. I told you, I want to work. Time and the elements are destroying hundreds of ancient texts each year. I want to preserve history so it isn’t lost.”

“What about your boyfriend? Wasn’t there someone special you left behind?”

He was kidding, right? Boyfriend? Her? She’d been groped a couple of times, but that hardly counted as a meaningful relationship. “Not exactly.”

“Then what…exactly?”

Was it her imagination, or had Jamal moved closer to her? She looked at him. “Let me be completely clear on the subject. I don’t want to get married.”

He was looming, she thought in some distress. Somehow he’d gotten taller, and he now loomed. A dark warrior prince in the night.

“To respond with like clearness,” he said seriously, although she would have sworn she saw a smile lurking at the corners of his mouth, “I don’t recall proposing.”

What was it with the heat on her face? “Yes, well, you might. And I don’t want you to.”

“Because you can’t say no?”

She pressed her fingers to her cheeks. “Exactly. I promise you that King Givon and Fatima are experts at pushing my buttons. They’ve done it before. When I graduated from college, all I wanted was to come here and work.”

“Isn’t that what happened?”

“No. Somehow they talked me into attending finishing school.” She sighed in disgust. “Do you know what year it is? Young women should not be attending finishing school in this day and age. It’s horrible.”

“But you went.”

“Exactly.” She looked at him. “Don’t ask me how it happened. One minute I was telling them I wasn’t interested in the idea and the next I was boarding a plane.” She paused, remembering those conversations two years ago. “I think of myself as a strong person, but maybe I don’t have any backbone. Maybe…”

She pressed her lips together as a sudden and unpleasant thought occurred to her. Fatima and the king had been very insistent about her going to finishing school. Before that, they’d both encouraged her to study Middle Eastern politics and history with an emphasis on El Bahar. Her education didn’t exactly prepare her to make her way in the world…unless they’d had a very specific job in mind.

She sucked in a breath. “Oh, no! They’ve been planning this for years.”

“Who’s been planning what?”

She clasped her hands together in front of her chest. “Jamal, you have to believe me. The king and your grandmother want us to marry. I just realized they’ve been preparing me for the role of your wife.” She thought about the exclusive all-girls boarding school she’d attended before her women’s college. Had they influenced her grandfather to arrange that? “Maybe for longer than I thought.”

She was so damn earnest, Jamal thought with amusement. Heidi looked up at him with her big eyes and her trembling mouth, acting as if her revelation was going to change the course of history.

“You’re saying they sent you to the closest equivalent of Princess School?”

Her nose got scrunchy. “You’re mocking me, but this is serious. I do not want to marry you.”

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