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SINCE she was headed for the seventh level of hell, now would be a good time to sunscreen her soul.
Alina Bethia Farrah knew truth was the best way to avoid the burning issues of the afterlife. And she'd admit to not always valuing honesty as much as she should have. But, as much as she hated pretending, she'd made a promise to switch places with her identical twin and stand up to the man her sister couldn't—His Royal Highness, Malik Hourani, the Crown Prince of Bha'Khar.
Beth had only ever had her sister to count on, and Adina was the only person who had ever loved her. Her request was the emotional equivalent of bleeding or being on fire. Saying no wasn't an option.
But now that Beth was here in the palace, waiting to meet the Prince, the reckless spirit that had convinced her she could pull this off completely wimped out. As she stared at her suitcases lined up on the exquisite marble floor of the entryway, the deception that in her L.A. apartment had felt noble—wrong thing, right reason—now just seemed wrong.
She was pretending to be the woman who was going to marry the sheikh because her sister wanted out of the marriage agreement.
As the firstborn by two minutes, Addie had been betrothed by their father, the Bha'Kharian ambassador to the United States, to the royal heir. Now, Addie was torn between being disowned by the father she adored or marrying a man she'd never met. Neither alternative was appealing, especially after she'd begun dating a man—possibly the man.
It had been several years since she'd come of age, and she'd begun to hope the sheikh had forgotten their arrangement. But only a few weeks ago he'd begun the process of finalizing their betrothal with wedding vows—and he wanted to do it sooner rather than later. That was when Addie had come up with the idea of switching places.
Outspoken Beth had often run interference for introspective Addie when they were children, and had assumed her identity. But this wasn't about which twin had broken the lamp or hadn't eaten her brussels sprouts. This secret could have international repercussions.
Beth didn't like secrets. But she liked her sister's situation even less. Beth had once fallen for a guy like the sheikh, a man from a politically connected family who believed it was perfectly all right to be married and have a mistress. He felt entitled to play by different rules because he was a powerful man. Now her sister was engaged to one of the world's most powerful men, and Beth could only imagine what rules he lived by. This arranged marriage was just wrong, and somehow Beth would get Addie out of it.
Now she waited for the Crown Prince in the apartment where the royal intended, or in this case her facsimile, would stay until the wedding. Nervous, Beth paced and checked out the place. The living room was spacious and bright, and filled with expensive art—paintings, blown glass, and figurines. French doors opened onto a balcony overlooking the Arabian Sea, and when she pulled the doors wide the breeze blowing off the ocean cooled her hot cheeks.
She could do this. She and her twin were interchangeable; no one could tell them apart, not even their father. This should be as easy as falling off a log, especially with a guy who'd never met either of them.
The knock on the apartment door startled her, even though she'd been expecting it—maybe because she'd been expecting it.
Letting out a long breath, she walked through the apartment, then opened the door—and stared like a fool. The man standing there was tall and dark and–Wow. Handsome was an understatement.
Pulling herself together, she said, "Hi." "I am Malik Hourani." With the barest movement of his shoulders and head, he executed a respectful bow.
"The Prince?" "Indeed," he said.
"How do you do?"
"I do very well." His dark eyes glowed with male approval. "Although I regret that I was not there when your plane arrived."
"Technically, it's your plane."
"That is true," he said seriously. "But I did want to greet you and was unable to do so."
"That's all right." She'd been relieved. "I was told that you'd be tied up with business until this evening."
"Things went better than I had expected and I am grateful as I was eager to meet you. Welcome to Bha'Khar, Adina Farrah."
First hurdle crossed. At first sight he believed she was Addie. Her heart started thumping really hard. She had no more time to prepare herself. Here he was in the flesh. And very nice flesh it was—what she could see of it. The expensive black suit hid a lot, although it fit his tall, muscular body perfectly. His lean cheeks and straight nose were exceptionally attractive. But it was his mouth that mesmerized her and, she suspected, commanded the attention of any female who was still breathing. There was an innate sensuality to his lips, a defined curve as if carved from stone, yet they were soft with the promise of passion.
Beth had never met a man who instantly made her want to know what his mouth would feel like against her own. Not until now. That was definitely a distraction, and she so didn't need it. She needed to keep her wits sharp and come up with a plausible reason for him to call her by a name she would actually answer to.
"Hardly anyone calls me Adina," she said.
Good question. And this was where the truth worked.
"Everyone calls me Beth, for Bethia."
She nodded. "It's my middle name. Our parents didn't think it through when my sister and I were named. Adina. Alina." She shrugged.
"You are twins."
"We are." Her heart pounded as she waited for him to recognize her deception, even though there was no reason for him to suspect anything. When he waited patiently, she said, "You can imagine the confusion when our names sound so much alike. So I became Beth." Always best to go with as much of the truth as possible.
"Is that how you would prefer to be addressed?"
He nodded. "Then Beth is what I shall call you."
"Thank you, Your Highness."
"Please call me Malik. I wish to put you at ease." So he had noticed her nerves. Hopefully he'd chalk it up to the circumstances. "Being an ambassador's daughter, I learned the proper form of address for distinguished persons at an early age. It's difficult for me to relax old habits and training."
"That is understandable. Think of it this way.
Sometimes I am called His Royal Highness. Sometimes Sir. Occasionally I am called things not fit to repeat in front of a lady." He grinned suddenly, showing very white teeth against his tanned skin. "However, in private, as we are now, my given name is preferable."
Was it her imagination or had his voice dropped and become sexier on the word private? Was it also her imagination that the oxygen in this room had suddenly thinned, making her want to take long, deep breaths?
"Malik it is, then," she said, trying to relax. "It's a pleasure to finally meet you."
"The pleasure is mine, Beth." He held out his hand.
She put hers into his palm and felt the warmth and strength of his long fingers. Then the tingles started. They danced up her arm and settled in her breasts, as if he were touching her there. His dark eyes turned smoky and intense, as if he felt the same flash of heat.
"Yes. Okay. Introductions accomplished," she said, pulling her hand from his. Again she couldn't think straight. It was as if touching him shortcircuited her brain functions.
"Indeed." He nodded toward the other room. "Let us sit and relax, get to know one another."
She backed away from him, then turned and went into the living room, grateful that she made it all the way to the sofa without her legs giving out. Relaxing wasn't going to happen. She had a feeling that even if she wasn't pretending to be her sister she'd be a fool to let down her guard around this man. The aura of confidence and power surrounding him—the very qualities that had landed her in trouble before—were compelling and exciting.
"I wish you to tell me everything about yourself," he said.
Was that an order? The imperious tone touched a nerve before the words sank in. "But we're betrothed. Don't you already know everything?"
He unbuttoned his suit coat, revealing a snowwhite shirt and flat abdomen. Then he sat a foot away and met her gaze. "It is impossible to know everything. I know you were raised in the United States until attending boarding school in Switzerland and college in France, where you received a degree in Art History. I know we are betrothed because your father is my father's trusted ambassador and friend. May I ask how he is?"
"Fine." The last time she'd seen him, and she couldn't remember when that was.
"I am pleased that he is well. He has assured me of your impeccable background and speaks very highly of you. But I have been supplied only with details."
The devil was in the details. She hated this, and it was on the tip of her tongue to tell him what was going on, but she decided to wait. "Well, I don't know what to say." And that was definitely the truth.
He met her gaze and his own darkened. "I prefer to act as if we had met by chance. I wish the facets of your individuality to be revealed as we indulge in the dance of learning about each other. I like surprises."
That was good. If he ever found out she wasn't who he thought, he was in for a big surprise. The thing was, when she and Addie were kids, who dressed alike and wore their hair in identical styles, it had been far easier to fool everyone. They'd both gone to finishing school, but Beth had become a teacher and Addie could throw a formal dinner party for the population of a small country.
"Prepare to be surprised," she said. If her cover was blown and the pretense stopped here, Addie would pay a high price. The best plan was to tell the truth when at all possible. "I'm a teacher—high school English." And this ruse was how she was spending her summer vacation.
"That is a detail I did not know. So you have a career?"
"Do you like teaching?" His expression appeared to be one of genuine interest, not an aha–you'relying–and–now–you're–busted look.
"I like them very much. Why do you ask?"
"Because I am expected to produce an heir to the throne."
"Then you be pregnant and go through childbirth." The words popped out of her mouth before she could stop them. Her sister wouldn't have slipped up like that.
He frowned. "You do not want children?" "Someday I'd like to be a mother." But she didn't expect it to happen. Not without love. And she really didn't expect that.
"Will you miss it when we are married?"
"Teaching. Your career."
So it was expected that being his bride would be a full–time job, one for which her sister had been exquisitely trained. But he'd asked her, Beth, and she'd worked hard. She loved her job and felt she really connected with the teenagers she taught. "I have to be honest."
"I expect nothing less."
"I would miss it very much. Is that a problem?" He sat back as he thought. "It is a bridge we will cross when the time comes."
Spoken like a powerful politician, she thought. Translation: we'll do it my way, and it doesn't matter if your heart gets broken. The woman he married would be subject to this attitude. But Beth wasn't the woman he was supposed to marry, thank goodness.
"Later works for me," she said.
"What do you think of Bha'Khar?"
"I haven't seen much yet," she admitted. "But I remember going to the open–air market when I was a child. My mother used to—"
She had a sudden, vivid vision of smells and sights and sounds, and the safe, secure feeling of her hand in her mother's. The emptiness inside her was like a black hole that swallowed up all the light. A part of her had stayed empty ever since her mother had abandoned her and Addie to be raised by a stern, autocratic father. The scandal and abandonment had devastated Beth, but her twin had taken it even harder.