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Silence greeted Prince Shafir ibn Selim al Dhahara as, traditional robes billowing, he swept through the tall, carved wooden doors that a palace aide had flung open at his approach.
The mood inside the king's personal chamber was somber. Three men huddled over a laptop in the center of a round antique table and glanced up at Shafir's entrance. While his two brothers looked relieved to see him, his fatherKing Selimwas frowning.
Once seated with them at the table, Shafir leaned back, crossed his ankles and met his father's piercing gaze. The king's frown deepened at the informal pose. "You are late, Shafir."
"I was in the desert. I came as quickly as I could." Shafir gestured down to his dusty boots. "I didn't even take the time to change."
As the head of Dhahara's tourism ministry, Shafir had spent the past week showing an international delegation the adventure tourism and trail-hiking potential of their small desert kingdom. Much time had been spent ensuring that each country's representative understood that opening Dhahara to international tourism meant putting in place measures to guarantee the desert would remain rugged and unspoiled.
"There is a problem, Father?"
"Not a problem exactly." The king's frown lines eased a little. "A challenge."
"A challenge?" Shafir exchanged a questioning glance with his older brother, KhalidHis Royal Highness Crown Prince Khalid ibn Selim al Dhahara, to give him his full title. Their father's idea of a challenge meant a situation fraught with difficultyone of his father's own diplomats' worst nightmares.
"It is a challenge that should suit you well, Shafir."
"Me?" Shafir raised a dark eyebrow. "What aboutmy honorable brothers? Or have you already allocated other challenges to them?"
Khalid grinned. "You arrived lastyou drew the short straw."
"The most honorable straw, and a chance to be a hero." His younger brother, Rafiq, appeared wickedly amused.
"Be a hero?" Shafir eyed his brothers. Both looked like they were trying hard not to laugh.
His father, by contrast, looked grave. "Shafir, you are a man who has been forged and hardened to steel by the Dhaharan desert."
Shafir bowed his head, then lifted it to assess his father respectfully.
Black eyes set in a wise, weather-beaten face stared back at him. "My son, I don't want any scandal, so it has to be one of you three who take care of it. Rafiq is already committed, and his beloved may not understand." The king glanced to his right. "And Khalid is the crown prince. I cannot afford"
Shafir interrupted. "So what is this challenge?"
"It's not that tough." Rafiq clicked open an image on the laptop on the table in front of them. "And this time I wouldn't exactly call it a challenge. All you need to do is get rid ofher."
An image of a woman flashed up on the monitor. Shafir got an impression of dark hair, plus eyes tilted up at the corners and brimming with laughter. The barrage of questions he'd been about to ask evaporated, leaving only one: "Who is she?"
"She is the woman who is about to derail Zara's fairytale wedding," said Rafiq.
"Do not mock your cousin." The king scowled. "Zara's wedding is the first in our family in almost two decades. My three sons have failed to oblige me."
"Our hopes are pinned on Rafiq," Shafir said quickly, and flags of color flared in his younger brother's cheeks. "He's in love."
"But not yet betrothed to be wed." A reproachful glance at all of them accompanied the king's words. "For now there is only Zara's wedding. With the immense media buildup, I cannot let that woman wreck the dreams of our nation."
The glare the king bestowed on that woman's image gave Shafir pause. This was the first he'd heard of any threat to his cousin's wedding. But it certainly explained his father's displeasure. The king had always doted on Zara, his dead brother's only child.
Shafir had met the intended bridegroom. Jacques Garnier was a French businessman whose family was enormously wealthy. Apart from other interests, like importing rugs and olives from the Middle East, the Garniers owned a château in the Loire Valley, and Jacques exported wines worldwide from the family winery. King Selim had been highly satisfied with the match, particularly since Zara was very much in love.
But now there appeared to be a glitch. Shafir suppressed a curse and stared at the screen. "What is her name?"
It wasn't her regular, unmistakably beautiful features that captured Shafir's attention. It was the zest for life that she radiated, her eyes sparking with the same irrepressible humor that curved her lips upward. Joie de vivre, the French called it.
Shafir glanced away. "How do you know she intends to sabotage Zara's wedding?"
His father sighed. "Garnier has been abstracted, so Zara knew something was wrong. Then she found missed calls from this woman on Garnier's private cell phone and recognized the name as one of his business colleagues. At first she thought the worst and cried for a whole day. Finally she confronted Garnier."
"Ay, me." King Selim shook his head. "The woman is stalking him. Garnier hadn't told Zara because he didn't want to scare her, but the woman won't give up. And now she's coming to Dhahara."
"She's coming here?" Shafir leaned forward. That was a lot more serious than merely calling and texting.
"She called him just before her flight took off."
Shafir blew out a breath in frustration. "So when did he intend to tell us?"
The king flapped a hand. "It doesn't matter. We know now and can sort out a plan. You can call security in, though, if the woman proves to be " He paused.
"Too much of a challenge for Shafir?" Khalid said, his eyes dancing.
"The woman hasn't been born who is too much of a challenge," Shafir said dryly. "But we need to contain this. No security forces. No police. We don't want an international incident." He thought of the delegation he'd impressed with Dhahara's marketability as a safe yet exotic tourism destination. At his invitation, two members of the delegation had extended their planned trip and were staying for Zara's wedding. Now it appeared the wedding was at risk.
And Zara's happiness.
Like his brothers, he had a soft spot for Zara, and he'd always gone out of his way to try to be the older brother she'd never had. Just as his father did his best to fill the space left by her father's death.
"Shafir, I need you to stop this woman from wrecking the wedding," said the king.
"Tell her that she's wasting her timeJacques is marrying Zara," Rafiq suggested. "Convince her to go home."
Shaking his head, Shafir said, "If she's come all this way and has her heart set on Jacques, it won't be that easy." But if this woman thought she could hurt Zara, she'd soon learn she'd have to get through him.
"No," agreed Khalid. "She could easily turn nasty and tell Zara a lot of ass's tales."
Shafir shook his head slowly. "She won't get access to Zara. We'll tighten security." He'd see to that personally. No one was going to harm his sweet-natured cousin.
"But she might sell a pack of lies to one of those European scandal sheets." The king shuddered. "They don't peddle truth."
"She could do that." Shafir rubbed his chin, deep in thought.
"Seduce her, Shafir. Then she'll forget all about Jacques." Rafiq's dark eyes were full of humor.
Khalid roared with laughter. Even his father threw back his head and cackled.
Was Shafir the only one who didn't find it funny?
"You're confusing me with Khalid," he countered. "Women cling to him like bees to a honey pot."
"You scare them," said Rafiq. "Your reputation precedes you."
Khalid nodded. "Women want to be courted, flattered. The desert has taken you over. Look at you, covered in dust, your hair wild and sun streaked."
Shafir glowered and ran one hand through his overlong hair. "It protects my neck from the sun."
"Hmm but that dangerous, untamed aura might appeal to the woman." Rafiq cocked his head to one side. "I dare you to seduce her."
Shafir glared at them. He didn't do seduction. It wasn't his style. He played it straight and fair with women, just the way he dealt with everyone else he met. "I'm not sinking that low."
"Scared?" ribbed Khalid.
"Of a woman?" Shafir shrugged a shoulder carelessly. "Never."
"My sons," chided the king, "there is work to be done." To Shafir he added, "Keep her from causing mischief by whatever means you choose, and Rafiq will make sure the path of true love runs smooth between Zara and Jacques." His father reached over and patted Shafir on the back. "But I want no scandal, hear? The only story I want to see on our TVs or in the Western magazines is Zara's"
"Fairy-tale wedding." Khalid rolled his eyes to the ornately carved ceiling.
"Given all the planning, it should be the wedding of the decade," muttered Rafiq.
"Do I hear a touch of longing, little brother? Perhaps it's time you got married, too," Khalid said slyly.
"Married?" The king straightened. "Khalid, as the crown prince it is your duty to marry first."
Khalid resumed gazing at the ceiling.
Shafir ignored the banter. As long as he was off the marriage hook, that was all that mattered. The woman hadn't been born who could compete with his love for the vastness of the Dhaharan desert.
He cast another glance at the laptop. His task was hardly a challenge. All he had to do was stop Megan Saxon from contacting Jacques Garnier long enough for Zara to marry the bridegroom of her dreams.
As Shafir's limousine drew up outside the airport, a plane touched down on the runway. He narrowed his eyes. Megan Saxon was on that plane; he'd already received the confirmation from the airport's chief of security.
It had begun.
Jacques had wanted to meet her at the airport, determined to try to persuade her to leave Dhahara.
"I feel responsible," the Frenchman had said two hours earlier, his normally carefree expression bearing signs of strain. "Through business dealings with this madwoman I've created this unpleasantness for Zara. I need to make it clear to her that I love my fiancée."
But though he admired the other man for taking responsibility for the whole unsavory matter, Shafir had shaken his head. "I can't allow that. It's too risky. The woman is clearly obsessed with you. She might make a public scene." Which was what the king dreaded. "Or try hurting you. And what would Zara say then?"
He'd assured the anxious Jacques that he would deal with this Megan personally, and finally the Frenchman had relented.
"It must be my fault," Jacques had said as he prepared to leave the palace, "yet I keep going over my business encounters with this woman, and I can't figure out what I did to attract this."
"Don't blame yourself. She's a lunatic."
At the relief on Jacques's face Shafir was seized by a surge of fury at the unknown Megan Saxon. Jacques didn't deserve this persecutionno man did. The woman had also caused Zara a great deal of unhappiness and put a huge strain on the bridal couple's relationship.
Now as he alighted from the limousine, he vowed to sort Megan Saxon out. He'd slicked back his hair and taken great care to dress European-style in a dark made-to-measure suit and immaculate white shirt. The last thing he wanted was for her to be spooked.
But his fashionable exterior was deceiving. As the king's second son, Shafir had been allowed an amount of freedom that Khalid hadn't. While Khalid had been schooled to succeed their father, Shafir had spent several years growing up with his grandmother in the desert, attending the local village school and later visiting bedu tribes. It was no secret that the people of Dhahara called him the untamed one.
Shafir was anything but a meek, by-the-book prince.
His jaw firming, Shafir nodded to the chauffeur and gestured to his bodyguards in the accompanying car to await his return. He moved with sleek grace as he entered the international terminal. Ignoring the sideways glances of recognition he attracted, he strode across the marble expanse, confident that his determined demeanor would ensure that people kept their distance.
He would meet Megan Saxon alone. She was going to rue the day she'd decided to threaten Zara's happiness.* * *
The vast space of Dhahara's international arrivals hall struck Megan first. Its high vaulted ceilings were inset with skylights that let bright light filter in and made the air sparkle. Then there were the acres of white marble floors. If she hadn't already known, the airport would have announced the desert country's breathtaking riches.
A little way ahead behind a brass railing, a knot of peoplemost of them men wearing the traditional white thobes and holding up signs in Arabic scriptwaited for flight-weary passengers.
Jacques would be there, too.
His text just before she'd taken off at LAX on the final leg of this long haul"See u tomorrow. Can't wait" followed by hugs and kisseshad promised that.
Megan picked up her pace, hauling her suitcase behind her. Excitement started to thrum in her belly. It had been over three months since she'd last seen him, too briefly, in Paris, where they'd seen the New Year in together before each jetting off in separate directions. He to pursue business interests in the desert kingdom and she back to New Zealand.
Telephone calls and frequent texts were no substitute for face-to-face contact. Then Jacques had suggested they spend some time together. Megan had jumped at the opportunity to get to know such a romantic, caring man better. Fired up by his stories about the exoticism of Dhahara, she'd booked their accommodation in Katar, the capital.
Unexpectedly, Jacques had objected, suggesting they visit nearby Oman instead. But Megan had her heart set on Dhahara. And finally Jacques had agreed to the luxurious villa in the desert she'd discovered. Megan hoped that this brief escape would give her a chance to get to know him properly to discover whether the interest that had shimmered between them at international wine shows where they'd met intermittently during the past year was the real thing.
This time there would be no rush and bustle of work to distract them. This time they had six whole days to devote to getting to know each other.
Megan scanned the sea of faces as she approached.
A hard, hawkish face stood out from the rest. Their eyes clashed, his a dark, implacable bronze. His expression was tight and unwelcoming.
Nothing like Jacques's easy French charm.
A shiver ran down her spine and she looked quickly away, her gaze moving along the row. A crease formed between her brows as, decidedly uneasy now, she searched again for Jacques. Nothing.
Unbidden, her gaze flitted back to the unwelcoming stranger. He wore a beautifully tailored suit. Expensive her fashion-conscious eye pegged it as Dior. He wore no tie. A crisp white shirt with the top button undone provided a startling contrast to his honeyed skin.