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"Sheikh Zayed Fehr is here? In Vancouver?" Dr. Rou Tornell repeated, her hand shaking ever so slightly as she removed her glasses to rub the bridge of her nose.
She told herself it was fatigue making her hand tremble; exhaustion was only to be expected after a seven-week book tour.
She told herself it had nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with Sheikh Zayed Fehr, the younger brother of King Sharif Fehr, and the only man who'd ever hurt or humiliated her the way he had.
Jamie, Rou's assistant, moved forward toward the desk where Rou was working on her laptop, concern creasing her brow. "Yes. He's…here."
"What do you mean, here?" Rou demanded, her normally cool voice now wobbling with shock.
"I mean, here. In this hotel."
"What?" Rou shoved the glasses back on her nose and stared at Jamie in consternation. She normally wore contact lenses for appearances but in the privacy of her hotel suite she preferred the comfort of glasses. "Why?"
"You told him you didn't have time to see him in Portland. Or Seattle. So he's flown to Vancouver and he's here now." Jamie smiled nervously, hands fidgeting. "And I don't think he's going to go away until you see him. Apparently it's urgent. Life or death, or something of that nature."
Life or death. Just the sort of thing her father would say. Zayed was cut from the same cloth. Gorgeous, wealthy, famous, shallow and self-absorbed. It was always about them, what they wanted, what they needed. She despised playboys and movie stars, loathed self-indulgence, and loathed Zayed Fehr most of all.
Zayed might be Sharif'sbrother, but he was truly the black sheep of the family. A desert prince without a care, or sense of responsibility, or propriety, for that matter. Rou gestured unhappily. "I don't have time to see him—"
"You do now, actually—"
"But I don't want to see him."
"Have you ever seen him?" twenty-three-year-old Jamie asked breathlessly.
"We're acquainted," Rou answered flatly, unwilling to admit to more than that. Jamie certainly didn't need to know the details of their painful, embarrassing encounter three years earlier. Suffice it to say that Zayed Fehr would never be a man she respected, or trusted.
"He is really good-looking," Jamie added, eyes bright and cheeks pink.
"He is," Rou answered with an exasperated sigh. "He might even be physical perfection. He also has an ungodly amount of money, a shocking amount of power, but that doesn't make him a good person."
Jamie's shoulders lifted and fell. "He seems nice enough. Actually, he seems very nice—"
"You've seen him?"
"Well, yes. He's here. In the outer room."
"In my hotel suite?"
Jamie's blush deepened. "I told him he could wait there. I thought perhaps you had five minutes now. The media escort won't be here for another half hour and they're doing your makeup at the TV station." She saw Rou's expression and hurriedly added, "He really is desperate to see you."
Rou shuffled the papers before her, trying to cover her panic. Zayed here, now? Zayed outside her door, waiting in her suite?
"Did I do something wrong?" Jamie asked nervously.
Yes, she wanted to shout. "No," she answered instead, swallowing hard even as she became aware that her hands were damp and her heart racing.
She was also aware that Jamie was suddenly close to tears, and the last thing she wanted—needed—was Jamie crying. Jamie tried so hard, and was a lovely girl and usually an efficient assistant. Rou couldn't blame her for falling under Zayed's spell. Zayed wasn't just gorgeous and rich, he was also charming and charismatic and women fell at his feet. Even she—cool, logical scientist—had fallen at his feet.
"I thought you'd have five minutes," Jamie stammered.
Rou pressed her hands to the desk edge to stop their trembling. Of course she did. That wasn't the problem. The problem was, she didn't want to spare Zayed Fehr five minutes. She didn't want to see him. Not even for five seconds. "How long has he been waiting?" she asked as silence stretched.
Jamie's pink cheeks grew rosier. "A half hour."
Rou blanched inwardly, although years of experience as a therapist allowed her to remain expressionless. "Why didn't you tell me earlier?"
"I…" Jamie's shoulders lifted and fell. "I…"
"Never mind. It's all right." Rou squared her slim shoulders and tucked long, fine blond hair behind one ear. "Send him in. I'll see him. But five minutes. That's all he gets." Her voice firmed and her chin lifted. "Make sure he understands."
Zayed stood in the suite's outer room waiting to be admitted to see Rou Tornell, bestselling author, international speaker and professional matchmaker.
It was the professional matchmaker part that made his upper lip curl ever so slightly.
Who would have ever thought that Sharif's timid little protégée would end up an international speaker, never mind an exclusive, professional matchmaker?
Who would have thought that introverted, academic Rou Tornell would understand sexual attraction, much less romantic attachment?
Zayed was usually too chivalrous to make comparisons among women, but with Rou Tornell it was impossible not to. She was the coldest, stiffest, stuffiest woman he'd ever met, and while Sharif said she was merely focused, Zayed's experience made him suspect she was seriously repressed, maybe even clinically depressed.
If it weren't for Sharif, he wouldn't be here today.
But then who would have ever imagined that Sharif, just four years older than him, would disappear? Who would have thought the Fehr royal jet would crash?
Zayed's eyes closed briefly as ungodly pain ripped through his chest. The pain felt even hotter and more vivid now than it had been when he'd first received the news five days ago. Since then he'd flown home to Sarq to see his youngest brother, Khalid, who was trying to keep things together until Zayed could return and take over.
Zayed had also spent time with Sharif's queen, Jesslyn, and the children. Four children all stunned and grieving, missing their adored father.
It was worse at the palace than he'd imagined. The grief, the fear, the heartbreak. No one knew what had happened. It was as if the plane had just fallen from the sky. No warning, no signal of distress, no radio call for help. The plane was just gone. Tomorrow it'd be a week since the disappearance.
On day fourteen, by law, Zayed would inherit the throne.
It was impossible. Zayed was not a ruler, or a leader. He did not belong in Sarq. The desert was no longer in his blood. He craved rain, not sun. Skyscrapers and penthouses were now home.
But Jesslyn's face—her eyes so haunted—remained with him.
As did Khalid's silent, endless grief. And maybe it was this that pierced his heart.
I need you, Khalid had whispered as they hugged goodbye. We all need you. Come home.
Khalid had never asked Zayed for anything. None of them had ever asked Zayed for anything. Sharif was the one they had all turned to. Sharif was the eldest, the rock, the center of the family.
But now… now… Sharif was gone.
Just like that.
No wonder Jesslyn looked like a ghost. No wonder Khalid hadn't slept in days. Their world was turned upside down. Nothing would ever be the same.
The door to the suite's living room opened and Jamie, the young personal assistant, pretty and a little plump, stepped out and closed the door behind her.
"Dr. Tornell can meet with you now," she said, round cheeks darkening with a rush of color. "But I'm afraid she's on a tight schedule as she has several media appearances this afternoon before tonight's book signing so it'll be for just a few minutes."
"Not a problem," he answered easily, thinking it was already so very Rou Tornell. Busy, busy, busy. So very self-important. He checked his smile as he followed the assistant through the door into the living room.
He'd taken just a few steps into the room when he spotted Rou at a corner desk in the lovely sitting room, a laptop open before her. She was wearing glasses today, her long blond hair unceremoniously tucked behind her ears. Blond, thin, bookish and tense, Rou Tornell exuded the warmth of an ice cube. Her personality was about as interesting. But she was successful, and reputedly the best in her field, and that's what he needed.
The assistant disappeared, discreetly closing the door behind her.
"Good afternoon, Sheikh Fehr," Rou greeted him as the door shut. "I'm in a bit of a rush, but I understand from Jamie that you're apparently desperate to see me."
Her frosty tone didn't escape him and his lips compressed.
Forget ice cube, try iceberg, he thought cynically, realizing she hadn't changed, and she never would. "I wouldn't say desperate, Dr. Tornell. Determined is probably more accurate."
She leaned back in her chair, folded her hands together, her gaze stony. "I can't imagine how I might be of service to you," she added coolly, hating how her pulse was already too quick.
She didn't like him. She'd never like him. And the only reason she'd agreed to see him today was out of courtesy to Sharif.
"It's been a while," he said, approaching. "Two years?"
"Three." Rou felt a jolt as Zayed neared. He was even more magnetic than she'd remembered; she'd forgotten how he owned a room, how he seemed to become the room. And then there was his height, and his build, and how his clothes had been tailored to lovingly drape him. Her father had owned a room the same way, but then her father had been one of the greatest film stars of his day.
But Zayed was no film star, nor pop star. He was a sheikh who acted more Western than the most Western man. A sheikh with billions of his own, never mind his family's fortune, a man who did what he pleased, when he pleased, and how he pleased. Even if he hurt others in the process.
Her jaw tightened and she flexed her fingers ever so slightly.
It still vexed her that he had hurt her. She shouldn't have let a man like him have that kind of power. But then, she hadn't thought he did.
Yet there was a positive that came out of the painful and humiliating episode. It was the insight she gleaned into his character, insight which became her second bestselling book, He's No Prince: Detecting the Bad Boys, Players & Con Artists So You Can Find True Love.
"That long?" he answered with an equally cool smile. "It seems like just yesterday when we first met."
"Does it? Probably not to Pippa. She's had two babies since." Rou's gaze met his and held, even as her stomach squeezed into knots. God, she hated him. Hated that he'd hurt her, hated that he'd mocked her, hated that he'd made her realize she would never trust men, and never find true love of her own.
"Two for Lady Pippa? She's been busy, hasn't she?"
And just like that, Rou flashed back to the weekend they'd first met at her client Lady Pippa Collins's wedding in Winchester. Sharif was to have been there, but at the last moment he couldn't attend, and apparently his younger brother the Prince Zayed Fehr of Sarq had taken his place.
Pippa had been the one to introduce them during the reception. "Sheikh Fehr," Pippa had said, stopping Rou in front of the sheikh's table, "I couldn't let you leave without meeting my dear friend Rou Tornell."
Zayed Fehr had risen to his feet, and it was the most regal, elegant rise Rou had ever seen.
Like Sharif, he was tall, very tall, with broad shoulders and a narrow waist and at full height he stood easily a full head and a half taller than Rou, and she wasn't short. And while Sharif was handsome, Zayed was alarmingly, unnervingly good-looking. Dark gold eyes. Jet-black hair. Smooth jaw not quite square but distinctly male, and it balanced his strong nose and high cheekbones. They were, she thought rather dizzily, cheekbones that a model would kill for. He must photograph beautifully. But then, he was model beautiful in person. Part of her knew she could never really trust him, as beautiful men were the most savage and selfish of all, but another part of her wanted to like him because he was, after all, Sharif's brother.
"It's because of Rou that we are all here," Pippa added, beaming and patting Rou's arm. "My darling Rou introduced me to Henry a year ago."
Sheikh Fehr's eyes had narrowed, gleamed, creases fanning at the corners of those magnificent eyes. The first sign that he wasn't a lad of twenty, but a man in his prime, probably somewhere around thirty-two or thirty-three.
"How fortuitous," he said, the corner of his mouth lifting in the driest, most mocking voice Rou had ever heard. And she'd heard plenty. She was a psychologist after all.
Rou stiffened, but Pippa was oblivious, too giddy with happiness, and the bride smiled radiantly at the sheikh. "Rou—Dr. Tornell—has a true gift. I am—can you believe it?—her hundredth wedding. She's introduced one hundred couples now, couples that all ended up in marriage." Pippa turned to Rou. "I got it right, didn't I?" And then ecstatic Pippa was off, as her new husband was gesturing for her to join him, which left Rou alone with the sheikh.
But then, to her surprise, Zayed had invited her to join him at his table, and somehow they'd spent the rest of the evening together. They'd talked for hours, and then danced, and then later they'd left the wedding reception and gone across the street to the little hotel bar and had a nightcap together.
She remembered everything about that night. The warmth of his body as they danced. The seductive red walls of the hotel bar. The balloon glass of orange liqueur that she'd cradled in her hands.
Zayed's attention had been dazzling. He'd listened to her, laughed at her nervous jokes, talked about his work and a few of his recent investments, including a new resort on the coast in his country, Sarq.
Those hours together were delicious. It'd been ages since she'd been on a date, much less with a man like Zayed Fehr who made her feel beautiful and fascinating. She'd fallen for him, and she sensed he'd fallen for her, too. As he put her into a cab late that night, he'd brushed his lips across her cheek and she'd been sure, so sure, he'd call her for a real date, and soon.
But Zayed didn't call. And she would have never known how he really felt about her if Sharif hadn't accidentally sent her an e-mail that wasn't meant for her. He'd meant to reply to Zayed. Instead he'd somehow sent it to her. Sharif caught his mistake before she did, phoning to apologize, phoning to beg her forgiveness, phoning to plead that she just delete the offending e-mail without reading it.
But Rou, ever curious, read the e-mail instead.