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'Let me get this straight.'
Luke was looking at her as though he expected her to produce a punchline.
'You're some sort of…' he paused for dramatic effect, pushing his floppy blond fringe from his eyes before adding with a half-smile '… princess? Princess Evie…?'
Eva did not join him, but she had some sympathy for his skepticism. She had taken some convincing herself when on her mother's death the previous year a family she had not known existed had materialised—and not just any family!
She hooked her fingers into the belt loops of her jeans, stuck out her chin haughtily and tossed her plait over her shoulder before asking in a hurt voice, 'Are you saying I don't look regal?'
Luke Prentice could think of many terms, including gorgeous and sexy to describe the daughter of a woman who had been, in the small world of academia at least, a legend in her own lifetime.
He had no idea if Eva knew her mother had seduced him when he had been an eighteen-year-old student taking one of her classes to broaden his horizons—she had definitely broadened them—but he did know he stood no chance with the daughter, a situation Luke was philosophical about. Though he was something of a novice when it came to platonic relationships with women, he did find Eva's company kind of relaxing.
'I can't say I've ever associated freckles and red hair with Middle Eastern royalty before.'
Eva expelled a deep sigh and admitted, 'Me, neither.'
Even now it all seemed a little surreal. Her mother—her lovely, academically brilliant mother—had not been the single parent Eva had always believed, but the estranged wife of an Arab prince. Not a prince high in the pecking order, admittedly. The King, her grandfather—King, now that was still seriously weird—had produced nine sons and her father had been the youngest.
But he had been a prince and, as her uncle Hamid had explained when he had arrived at the funeral in his big black limousine with its bullet-proof windows, she was a princess, and he had produced the documentation to prove it.
Despite the fact her mother had always preached independence to her daughter, in a secret corner of her heart Eva had longed for a family, and now she had one. It had felt like fate when at the most terrible moment in her life and feeling utterly, totally alone she had found herself drawn into the heart of a large and exotic family.
Now of course she was learning there were drawbacks and a price for being part of this family. Still, she remained confident she could steer a course through this new obstacle diplomatically and maintain the relationship she valued with her grandfather.
'Princess Eva…? What is this really about, Evie?'
Eva struggled to contain her impatience. 'I've already told you.' Luke, the youngest professor of Economics in the history of the college, was not normally so slow on the uptake.
'But your mum wasn't married. Not that she was lacking male company…' He flashed Eva an apologetic look. 'No offence intended.'
'None taken,' Eva promised. Her mother had never attempted to hide her lovers, many considerably younger than herself. The relationships, or 'throwaway lovers' as her mother had termed them, had never lasted long, but unlike the rest, Luke had remained a friend.
It often struck Eva as ironic that her sexually liberated mother, who had discussed such matters with painful—for Eva at least—frankness, had produced a daughter who was still a virgin at twenty-three… Perhaps this was her own personal rebellion? On the other hand it was possible she just had a low sex drive—a depressing thought.
'It turns out she was, but she had a big bust-up with my dad.' A wistful expression drifted into Eva's eyes; she really wished she had had the opportunity to know him.
She had studied photos of him and the portrait that hung beside those of his brothers in the palace and could see no trace of him in her own features, but then there was little of her mother's classical beauty to be seen in her face, either.
Maybe she was a changeling? Though according to her mother Eva had inherited her fair skin, freckles and red hair from her own grandmother, who had been Irish.
'So they got divorced?'
Eva shook her head. 'No, he died in a boating accident before they could make the separation legal.'
Luke carried on looking astounded and not quite sure this was not part of some elaborate joke. 'And you didn't know any of this until your mum died?'
'And now you want me to shack up with you?'
Eva frowned and snorted. 'In your dreams.'
This drew a grin from Luke, who shrugged and mused with a leer, 'How well you know me, Evie.'
'My grandfather thinks it's his duty to marry me off and before you say anything I know this is the twenty-first century, but that's the way he thinks. It's been instilled in him since birth that a woman needs the protection of her family or a husband.
I think in time he'll see that I'm more than capable of looking after myself, but I'm his only granddaughter. There's plenty of boys but I'm the only girl.' So Eva was making allowances and, to give him his due, so was her grandfather.
'In the meantime he'll force you to marry this guy who might have halitosis or a beer gut…'
'No beer,' Eva said, recalling that, beer or not, several of her male uncles and cousins carried more than a few extra pounds around their middles. 'Or for that matter, coercion.'
'But they do expect you to marry…what's his name?'
'Karim Al-Nasr,' Eva supplied, her brow puckering at the thought of her prospective spouse. He would certainly make a politically expedient husband.
King Hassan had obviously considered it a good sales pitch when he had brought babies into the conversation. Though Eva had no problem with babies—she definitely wanted some of her own one day—when they were mentioned in connection with a man she had never met, her first instinct was to run!
'No, they won't force me, but if I don't, which clearly I am not going to, it will feel like I'm throwing all their kindness and warmth back in their faces.
'I know it seems weird to you and me, Luke, but it is their way. I just thought it would be a lot easier if it was this Prince Karim who did the rejecting.'
'And you not being some innocent virgin is going to be a deal breaker, Eva?'
Her eyes dropped. 'They're very traditional.'
'Nobody's that traditional, Eva.'
Eva smiled and thought, You'd be amazed!
'This is, as you've already mentioned, the twenty-first century and you haven't spent the last twenty-three years in some cloistered desert palace.' His eyes made the journey from the top of her glossy head to her size-five feet and he sighed. 'Also you are exceptionally hot.'
Eva accepted the compliment and the mock leer that went with it with a roll of her eyes and a dry, 'And they say romance is dead.' She didn't like the worryingly speculative light that had appeared in Luke's blue eyes as he removed his glasses and stared hard at her again. She could almost see the cogs turning as she added a shade uncomfortably, 'Shall we leave my sexual credentials out of this, Luke? Will you or won't you?'
'Pretend to be your live-in lover?' He carried on looking at her in a way that made Eva uneasy and loosed a laugh, adding, 'Try and stop me.'
Eva clapped her hands in relief. 'You're an angel.' 'And you're a virgin,' Luke announced, his grin broadening as her blush confirmed his suspicions. 'The girl who is writing her thesis on how the sexual revolution affects twenty-first-century woman is a virgin princess!' He rubbed his hands together gleefully. 'I just love it!'
'Shut up and put your razor in my bathroom.' 'Now that is an offer no man could refuse.'
The doctor, a physician renowned in the field of childhood cancers, did not normally feel apprehensive when he dealt sound advice to parents. Especially exhausted ones like this father, who had stood beside his daughter's bed for four days straight.
But he felt a tremor run through him as he approached the tall, imposing figure who, despite the fatigue that was etched in every line of his stern, hawkish features and the classic glassy look of total exhaustion in his disturbing penetrating platinum eyes, was standing ramrod straight, staring out of the window as the nurses made the slight figure in the bed comfortable.
Every so often he would turn and look at the figure, the pain in his eyes when he thought no one was observing belying the stern composure of his expression.
The tall man turned his head. 'There is news?'
The doctor, struggling to maintain eye contact, shook his head. This was not a man who looked as if he would be receptive to advice, and, though he gave the impression of someone who had iron control over his emotions, under the surface there was an almost combustible quality. This disturbing characteristic had become more conspicuous the longer he had gone without rest. 'As I said, Prince, we will not know the results until tomorrow.'
'But if the levels are within the safety parameters you will continue?'
The doctor nodded. 'We will, but you do realise that even if we are able to continue with the treatment, there are no guarantees… This treatment is still unproven.'
The man's cautious manner was beginning to irritate Karim. What was the point of caution at a time like this? A time when doing nothing would mean Amira died.
His thoughts veered sharply away from the possibility—the doctors warned probability—he utterly rejected. The muscle that ticked like a time bomb in his lean jaw was half hidden by the day's growth of stubble that shadowed his lower face as he clenched his fists at his sides and thought, It will not happen.
Ignoring the painful white light that exploded behind his eyes when he turned his head sharply and suppressing the primal urge to hit out, he responded with careful stilted courtesy to the medic.
'I am aware of the statistics, Doctor.' His glance slid to the heavily sedated figure in the bed, a person who had nothing to do with cold number-crunching, and he felt rage at the sheer helplessness of the situation. A man who normally had no problem facing the reality of a situation, he was breaking all his own rules.
It was his job to care for his child, to make her safe; relinquishing that role to others went against every instinct he had.
'Prince, I really think you should rest.'
Despite his instant impatient dismissal of the suggestion, at one level Karim was aware that his vigil was beginning to have both physical and mental consequences.
His reflexes were slow, his thought processes…well, they were worse than slow. He struggled to concentrate on the simplest of tasks, and when he had signed the papers that Tariq had without explanation held out for his signature—Tariq had been a tower of silent, stolid strength—the tremor in his hand had rendered his signature virtually illegible.
'Your daughter does not know you are here. She is heavily sedated.'
Karim's lips compressed. He knew he would be of little use to his daughter if he could not function. 'I will be here when she wakes.'
'Of course, but in the meantime you could get a few hours' rest. We have rooms here…'
There was a pause before Karim reluctantly nodded his head.
The doctor, who had been standing there with his fingers crossed, let out a sigh of relief. 'Fine, I will arrange for—'
'Just give Tariq the details,' Karim said, already losing interest in the conversation as he walked back to his daughter's bedside.
The doctor, who found the man in question—an individual of indeterminate age who wore full traditional dress and possessed a face that looked as though it had been carved from granite—only slightly more approachable than his royal master, gave a weak smile of assent.
'The room is adequate,' Tariq said, managing despite his colourless tone to suggest that it was anything but. He inclined his head respectfully and held the door. 'I will wake you in four hours.'
'As you wish,' the man who was officially designated his aide, but was in reality a great deal more, agreed, managing despite his respectful tone to convey extreme disapproval. 'I will position the guards at the end of the corridor. I have left a cup of tea by your bedside—it might help you sleep.'
'Fine,' Karim said, following the direction of Tariq's nod with his eyes but very little interest.
He was sure that had the guards decided to tap dance outside his room it wouldn't prevent him sleeping.
It turned out he was wrong. Far from sliding into blissful unconsciousness the moment he lay down, his brain went into overdrive.
For half an hour he lay there staring at the ceiling, tasting the bitter aftertaste left by the herbal tea he had obediently swallowed even though he hated the stuff, a fact Tariq was aware of—it was an uncharacteristic oversight on his part. He was conscious of an intense overwhelming weariness in every cell of his body, but his brain just wouldn't turn off.
Karim's thoughts continued to go around in nightmarish circles until finally he snapped his fingers and inhaled. 'Enough is enough!' he said as he levered himself into an upright position, ignoring as he did so the extra throb of pain in his head.
He glanced at the metal-banded watch on his wrist as he shrugged on the jacket he had dropped on a chair, then, dragging a hand through his hair, walked to the door.
He might, he decided, take a walk outside before he returned to Amira's room.
As he emerged into the corridor the guards stationed down at the far end remained unconscious of his approach; halfway there he stopped and retraced his steps. If he was going to take a walk to clear his head and escape the claustrophobic hospital atmosphere, it would be pleasant for once in his life not to have his steps dogged.
Amazingly Karim encountered no one else as he made his way to the conveniently placed fire exit, down the steps and out of the building. It was raining outside but he barely registered the moisture streaming down his face as he began to walk across the gravel, his thoughts drifting back over the weeks since Amira had been diagnosed.
It barely seemed credible that only a month ago his life had been normal, a mere four weeks since he had first noticed the purple shadows beneath her eyes…how long had they been there?
What sort of father did not know such a thing?
Pushing aside the guilt he inevitably felt when he considered the shortcomings in his parenting skills, he recalled bringing up the subject with Amira's governess.