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"FEAR is my friend."
As the plane touched down on Bha'Khar's runway, Jessica Leigh Sterling prayed she spoke the truth. Except the statement was fundamentally flawed. Fearful flyers usually freaked out on takeoff, not so much on touchdown. But nothing about this flight was usual and she'd learned there were lots of ways to be afraid.
This wasn't like when she was a girl and her mother had gotten so sick that Jess had been sent to the state home. This was scary like the hopeless romantic who finds out it might be possible to get what she's wanted her whole life only to find out her dream really is hopeless.
She was afraid it was going to be like that old joke: everyone who has a family, step forward. Not so fast, Jessica. there are people who share your DNA, but they don't want to know you so forget about them helping out if you need a kidney or bone marrow transplant.
Oh God, to be this close to meeting someone who'd known her mother, someone who might care about Jessica because of that connection. Might. But, maybe not. And she was still a little weirded out because the family she'd come to meet lived in a country halfway around the world from California. But the potential benefits trumped fear and, although important, matching kidneys and compatible bone marrow were not an issue, thank goodness. it was the simple things she wanted to knowlike where her brown hair and hazel eyes had come from.
And, just this once, couldn't life come down on the side of the hopeless romantic? That's what she was here to find out.
As the plane slowly turned toward a group of buildings, it hit her that this was really Bha'Khar, her mother's countrythe country Jess hadnever known about while Mary Sterling was alive. the mounds of paperwork necessary to make this visit happen had made her eyes cross andgood lordthe king of Bha'Khar had sent an aide to cut through the red tape. Why had her mother kept secret her connection to royalty? Jessica never would have known if an attorney from the Department of Children and Families hadn't contacted her about the letter from her mother that he'd found in her old file.
The King had sent a plane, too. When it stopped, the captain turned off the Fasten Seat Belt sign and she released hers, then stood, stretching cramped muscles. She'd been told that someone would be here to meet her, but her nerves didn't seem to care. then the curtains parted in the forward cabin and a tall man in a close-fitting and elegantly tailored navy-blue suit walked toward her. He looked familiar, but no way could she have ever met him.
He looked about thirty and moved with confidence, predatory grace and an air of controlled power. His thick black hair was long enough to scrape the crisp white collar of his dress shirt. the barest suggestion of arrogance mixed with the sensual curve of his mouth and his straight nose flared a little at the nostrils, hinting at a depth of passion that could rock a girl's world. Only a vertical scar on his lip and a crescent-shaped one on his sharp cheekbone marred his male perfection. And mar was the wrong word. If anything, the imperfections enhanced his masculinity.
He stopped in front of her and smiled. "Jessica?, That smile could start the average woman's world rocking, but she wasn't the average woman. His deep voice and attractive accent made her name sound like a caress.
"Welcome to Bha'Khar." He took her hand and bent over it.
Along with the plane ride, this was a first. Kids from the state home didn't grow up and rub shoulders with the sort of men who kissed women's hands. it made her feel awkward and ill at ease. Like that first night after being taken from her mother's hospital room to share a room with other girls who had no one. All the hopeless, empty, scary feelings came back in a rush.
then his soft lips grazed her knuckles and the touch unleashed other feelings that had nothing to do with anxiety and everything to do with awareness.
"Th-thank you," she said.
Dark brown eyes assessed her. "Please forgive my boldness, but I am compelled to say that I did not expect that you would be so lovely."
English might be his second language, but certainly he was fluent in flattery. Could flirtation be far behind?
"Thank you," she said again.
It was the polite response to the man who'd probably been sent to take her to her relatives. But every single instinct she possessed elevated from alert-level-orange to run-don't-walk-away red. Suspicion was the by-product of a childhood spent watching alcohol destroy her mother's body as surely as the string of two-timing men through her life had destroyed her spirit. Jessica had learned to spot a player by the time she was ten years old and this guy was definitely a player.
But that wasn't her problem. He was probably another of the king's aides and she was nothing more than his job. After he connected her with family, his work would be done.
"I trust your journey was pleasant?, He continued to hold her hand and for some reason she continued to let him.
Pleasant? She glanced at the plush, customized interior of the royal jet. "there was some turbulence." Her heart had raced then, too. "But mostly the flight was smooth. Although I have nothing to compare it to. This was my first time."
A gleam stole into those dark eyes. "So You are no longer a virgin "Two beats later he added, " Flier."
That, too. She'd never slept with a man, either. Many had been willing to be her first, but she'd been unwilling to participate. She didn't believe there was a faithful guy out there, let alone one who could sweep her off her feet. An unfortunate characteristic of the hopeless romantic was the yearning to be swept away, which put her idealistic and rational selves in constant conflict. She wanted a completely romantic meltdown that would prohibit logical thought and just let her feel. So far she'd come up empty on all counts.
Although the way her stomach had dropped when he'd kissed her hand made her feel like she was still in the air and the plane hit a downdraft. Imagine if he kissed her for realon the mouth. Darned if her lips didn't tingle at the thought. This so wasn't the time to abandon logical thinking. What had he just asked? Her journey. Right.
Time to cleanse the virgin remark from the air and turn the conversation to the mundane. Make that nonpersonal because there was nothing ordinary about this guy or the royal jet. "This plane is amazing. it's like a flying living room."
"there is a bedroom as well," he said, suggestion in his tone adding to the gleam in his eyes.
So much for nonpersonal communication. "I noticed."
"You found the bed comfortable?"
More comfortable than the way he made her feel. it was like every nerve ending in her body had received a double dose of adrenaline.
"I found everything perfect."
"Excellent. there is a car waiting. I will escort you to the palace."
"the palace?, She knew her eyes grew wide, and tried to stop, but couldn't, what with her heart pounding so hard.
"Is there somewhere else you wish to go?"
Yes, she wanted to say. And no. "Going to the palace didn't fit into her frame of reference even after reading her mother's letter. She remembered the handwriting, as familiar as if it were the day's grocery list instead of the last thing her mother had written ten years ago. the words still made her heart hurt. I know I did everything else wrong, but it wasn't wrong the way I loved you. Since then, Jess had read the message over and over but still couldn't grasp that she was distantly related to Bha'Khar's royal family.
"I'm sure the palace is fine, but"
Fine? it so wasn't fine. She wasn't a palace kind of person. She was burgers and fries, sweatpants and sneakers.
"I was sort of hoping I'd be meeting my family."
"And you will," he promised. "Arrangements are being made. In the meantime, permit me to make you comfortable."
Comfortable? What did that mean? And how could she be comfortable with strangers, however distantly related, who were royalty?
As he started to turn away, she put her hand on his arm and felt the material of his suit jacket. "Wait."
Concern that seemed to be genuine slid into his eyes. "Is there a problem?"
The problem was the material just felt like material to her. it was probably expensive material, but she had no frame of reference for that any more than she did for a palace. Most little girls grew up playing pretend princess, but the fantasy was usually limited to the great gowns and a tiara or two. Not living under the same roof as the king and queen. This was a fear she'd never felt before.
"Maybe it would be better if I stayed at a hotel." He looked puzzled. "the king and queen would be disappointed."
How did she explain this? "There's a saying in my countryit's better to look stupid than open your mouth and prove it. This is kind of like that."
"I like this saying. But you do not look stupid so I am unclear on your point."
"they're certain to be disappointed in me, but staying at the palaceI'm bound to do something that will let them down for sure," she explained.
He shook his head. "You need only be yourself."
"That's what I'm afraid of."
"there is no cause for fear."
"Yeah, there kind of is. This is a perfect example." She held out a hand indicating the plush plane interior. "I grew up in a run-down, one-bedroom apartment on Stoner Street in Los Angeles. That was until the state of California took over. I wouldn't know a shrimp fork from a forklift."
"You are exaggerating."
"Yes. But you get my point."
"If it becomes necessary for you to know these things, just stay very close to me and follow my lead. I promise to protect you."
She studied the oh-so-sincere expression on his handsome face. "That sounds very much like trust me."
"In my country when someone says that it's usually a good idea not to."