The Sheik's Arranged Marriage(7)

By: Susan Mallery

Her nose wrinkled in what he assumed was the scrunchy expression that had intimidated Malik. “I don’t have to cut off my arm to know I wouldn’t like the experience.”

He mulled over that thought. “You’re saying that you don’t have to be involved with a man to know he’s interested in having his ego catered to?”

“Exactly.” Her tone of voice was pleased, as if a particularly dull student had given a clever response.

Jamal stared at his dinner guest. As Malik had promised, Heidi did dress like a spinster. Tonight she wore a gray dress that buttoned tightly to a high collar. Despite the heat of the June evening, her arms were covered with long sleeves and her skirt fell nearly to her ankles. Not a drop of makeup covered her pale skin. If her hazel eyes appeared wide, it was because of their shape, not because she’d used cosmetics. Light brown hair had been pulled back into an unattractively tight bun. The small glasses perched on her nose only added to the cliché of the spinster schoolteacher.

He narrowed his gaze. While she wasn’t really a Prune Princess, she had the look of a woman who didn’t like men very much. Which was unfortunate. With the right clothes and a better hairstyle, she could be pretty. From what he could tell through the thick material of her dress, her shape appeared to be pleasant enough.

“So it would never work,” she assured him. “The marriage thing. We don’t know each other. I doubt we would like each other. I don’t even ride.”

He blinked. “Ride what? I don’t understand.” What did riding have to do with an arranged marriage?

“I don’t know how to make the sentence more clear.” Her expression clearly indicated her lack of faith in his intelligence. He wasn’t the bright student anymore.

“I understand the sentence, just not your point.”

She drew in a deep breath. “I haven’t ridden a horse in years. Princesses ride. Isn’t that the law or something?”

Jamal felt his mouth twitch slightly. Odd, he thought, but also appealing in a twisted sort of way. As for her other concerns…

“I will do my best not to propose,” he promised.

“Thank you. I’m sure you’d be a wonderful husband, but I couldn’t be less interested.” She paused. “I don’t mean that against you personally. I don’t want to marry anyone. I’m very independent.”

There was a surprise, he thought humorously.

He pulled out a chair for her, waited until she was seated, then eased it back into place. He then drew out the chair next to her for himself. If nothing else, he would spend his evening entertained.

“Why are you sitting there?” she asked in alarm. “Don’t get close. You’ll give them ideas.”

“According to you, they already have ideas.”

“They don’t need encouragement. You should sit across from me. As far away as possible. Then ignore me at dinner. Be rude, even. I won’t mind.”

Her hazel eyes widened with heartfelt sincerity. Jamal couldn’t remember the last woman who had so clearly expressed her lack of interest in him. In a strange way, he found her candor oddly appealing. After all, life had taught him to be cynical where women were concerned. He’d had his share of females interested in his money, his title, his fame, or all of the above. A virgin who wanted him to keep his distance was a refreshing change.

“Sit there,” she said, pointing across the table.

The teak dining-room table could seat as many as twenty people, but tonight it had been set for only six. Heidi indicated the place setting across from hers and over one. Unfortunately for her, it was still close enough that they could talk.

Who was Heidi McKinley, and where had she come from? He remembered a skinny, young girl getting underfoot. But those memories were from his teen years very long ago. Malik implied she’d visited several times and recently. Had he been so busy with his own life that he hadn’t paid attention? What set of circumstances had turned her into a unique combination of innocence and nerve?

“You’re looking at me,” she said. “Don’t do that. Ignore me. Really. It’s fine.”

He obligingly turned his attention away from her, only to have it drawn back to her pale face. Why was she so afraid of marriage? More important, why wasn’t he in a panic of his own? His wife had been dead nearly six years. Jamal knew that the king had been giving him time to recover from his loss.

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