The Sultan's Harem Bride(8)

By: Annie West

Jacqui’s smile died. ‘But I—’

He gestured in a slashing motion that signified no argument would be brooked. ‘This is no place for a guest.’

Jacqui put her palm to her chest where her heart crashed into her ribs. For a moment she thought he’d meant to evict her from the royal residence. That would have been disastrous, the end of all her hopes and plans.

Relief eased the rapid beat of her heart.

‘I’m perfectly comfortable, truly.’ After some of the places she’d bunked down, this was luxurious, despite the lack of modern facilities.

Again his brows rose. Yet it was true. Besides, the tranquillity here soothed after the bustle of the capital. Even now, months after the explosion, Jacqui was edgy and uncomfortable with crowds or sudden noise.

‘Nevertheless, it’s not appropriate.’ He looked as if he’d swallowed something sour. It hit her that he might be talking about more than the lack of amenities. Did he think she was going to filch the silver? His stare was disapproving.

Strange how that hurt, though she should have expected it. He clearly blamed her for what had happened to Imran.

But the Sultan’s grandmother had been so supportive and kind, first via correspondence and then today in person, that Jacqui had believed she’d be accepted here. She’d let herself believe that in completing the project she and Imran had discussed she could somehow atone for what had happened. Was that even possible?

‘I’ll have someone move you to another room.’ He inclined his head and turned away.

Jacqui’s old spirit surfaced. Being dismissed had always rankled.

‘That’s very thoughtful of you, Your Highness.’ She grimaced. It was too late for royal protocol—the man had already seen her naked and screaming her lungs out—yet surely it couldn’t hurt. ‘Truly, there’s no need. I’m just so grateful to the Lady Rania for allowing me such access.’

He stopped in his tracks, his neck and shoulders stiffening. Was he so unused to anyone speaking up once he’d dismissed them?

Imran hadn’t talked of his cousin much, apart from occasional references to his focus on duty and royal responsibilities. The man had none of Imran’s laughing charm. She guessed he was too self-important to bother charming anyone.

Slowly he turned. His face was impassive, but those night-dark eyes glittered sharply. Jacqui sucked in a breath and fumbled for a better hold on her covering as her fingers momentarily slackened.

Silently she cursed her misfortune in being caught at anything but her professional best. But regret couldn’t distract her from the way her body sizzled under his scrutiny. As if he was seeing her naked again.

As if she wanted him to!

Abruptly she looked away, stunned. What was happening to her? She didn’t react like this to any man. She closed her eyes momentarily, wishing she could wake and find this was all just an extension of her nightmare.

‘As you say, Lady Rania is very generous.’ He paused as if to let that sink in. ‘And I’m sure you’ll find a guest suite more than adequate.’

‘But...’ Jacqui bit the inside of her cheek in rising frustration. Words were her trade. Why couldn’t she summon the right ones now she needed them? Had she lost that too, along with her nerve and her best friend?

‘Your Highness, it’s the private part of the palace I want to research. Not the public function-rooms.’ She dredged up what she hoped was a winning smile and forced herself to meet his eyes. ‘I’m writing about the women of the palace and their lives here.’

Obviously she’d lost her touch. Far from being persuaded, Sultan Asim’s face turned stony. His lips thinned, his nostrils flared and his hand slid to a jewel-encrusted scabbard she hadn’t noticed at his side.

Instinctively Jacqui stepped back as the man in the flowing robes transformed from autocrat to warrior in the blink of an eye. He looked dangerous and magnificent. As if he was on a raid into enemy territory.

Except he looked at her as if she was the enemy.

Her nape prickled and her breathing shallowed. Instinct told her to run. Her heart hammered.

Surely that curved knife was for show? Sultan Asim was renowned for diplomacy and leadership, not violence. Nevertheless she crept a little further away.

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