Research scientist Aly Percy has never been known for her looks, but she is passionate about saving wildlife. In fact, she'll do anything for her current project even if it means spending time alone with the sexy Cup Companion Arif al Najimi on his private yacht. A man who sets her nerves on edge, and makes her feel things she never has before. She doesn't know why he's interested in her, and doesn't trust his motives.
Arif doesn't understand why the researcher is haunting his dreams. Maybe it's because she's beautiful and intelligent, and he loves her passion for her project. He also feels a need to protect her from the dangers of traveling alone to do her work. More than anything, he wants to show her how beautiful she is.
They come from different worlds, and they have a difficult time trusting. The passion is explosive between them, but it may not be enough to bridge their worlds. Can the ugly duckling find true love with the Cup Companion?
About the Author
Born in Canada and raised in Toronto and on the prairies, where she survived a now-legendary winter storm, Alexandra Sellers became a weather refugee at the first opportunity. She is particularly devoted to travel in the Near and Middle East, and counts her visits to Morocco, Yemen, Israel, Egypt, Turkey and Iran as some of the happiest, most productive periods of her life. She has studied Arabic, Hebrew and Persian (Farsi) as well as several other languages, and was awarded a First Class degree in Persian and Religious Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London) in 1992. The Islamic world and its rich cultural history are the inspiration for her award-winning Sons of the Desert series. The author of over 40 romantic novels, she is the recipient of the Romantic Times' Career Achievement Award for Series (2009) and for Series Romantic Fantasy (2000).
Before turning to writing, Alexandra studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, and acted on the stage for several years. She divides her time between London, Crete and Vancouver.
Read an Excerpt
The pink meringue was a big mistake. Big. Huge. She could see that now. On the giant video screen that dominated the corner where she had taken refuge, Aly gazed with fascinated horror at the heaving sea of jewels and silks and human perfection that ebbed and flowed around the marble pillars under the majestic dome of the Great Hall. Diamonds caught the light in a random sequence throughout the room, like a thousand winking fireflies. Designer gowns brushed against impeccable dinner jackets and the more ornate silks of the men of the Sultan's court. Laughter and the buzz of animated conversation, teeth and red lips and clinking glasses.
And her. In the worst humiliation of all, her own image was now being broadcast to the glittering crowd. Could there be a more appalling contrast to the elegance and beauty on show in the room? Her bead-crusted bodice, designed for a fuller figure than her own, stood up around her thin chest more like a cage than a dress. The once outrageously frothy salmon-pink skirt was lifelessly limp, as if the salmon had gone off barely within living memory.
It was a dress for a woman with Cinderella fantasies. Aly had tried to count the flounces a couple of times, out of pure scientific curiosity, but she lost track in the low twenties both times. Well, her mother had warned her, but it was the only thing in her sister's outdated wardrobe that came close to fitting, and Aly had decided that it would do.
"You know I'll be invisible anyway," she had told her mother. Wrong. To escape into invisibility here would require something a whole ladder up from where she was. In this crowd she stood out like a dog at a cat convention. She looked like something hanging in a charity shop window, not a scientist with a vitally important mission attending a banquet in the Great Palace of Bagestan.
It was going to be a bumpy night.
The camera also caught something else. A dark male gaze focused on her with fixed intent from thirty feet away across the ballroom.
Who is that man? Why is he staring at me?
The who was pretty clear. One of the Sultan's court. She'd heard that the dress uniform at the Bagestani palace was a mouth-watering sight.
And the why was just as obvious. Aly dropped her eyes and unconsciously wrapped her arms across her chest, shielding from his gaze the inadequate breasts nestled inside a bodice that had room for two more. He was probably figuring her for a gate-crasher. How mortifying if he called the Palace Guard to throw her out.
The cameraman quickly realized his mistake, thank God, and moved to focus on a dark-haired beauty wearing a tiara and a dress that fit. Really fit. Every single curve. And she had a body worth fitting. She also, Aly was pretty sure, was the latest Hollywood discovery.
The dark man was still in shot, still watching her. And now that her own image wasn't there to distract her, Aly had leisure to examine him. A long, spare, chiseled face, stern and handsome and lacking nothing but human warmth. His Van Dyck beard neat, but not too neat. Not quite a devil — no, he was too cold and judgmental, and too authoritarian, for that. A devil, after all, approves of human weakness, since he can exploit it. He might even admire it as something he shares. But there was no weakness in this man. He would demand perfection ... and judging by the expression on his face as he stared at her, Aly fell well short of anything he would consider even adequate.
Probably a Prince of the Blood, or whatever they called a member of the royal family here. A long necklace of several strands of fat pearls and jewel-embedded gold medallions looping across his chest was held in place by a giant ruby-and-diamond pin high on one shoulder of his navy silk tunic. A massive antique gold seal ring adorned the hand that rested on the jewel-encrusted sword at his hip. On his right, an emerald the size of a grape lay embedded in rubies and diamonds.
Now that's what you call conspicuous consumption, Aly told herself in wry outrage. And the poor as hungry here in Bagestan as anywhere, no doubt.
No mistaking the aura of power that emanated from him, belying the negligent stance; no mistaking the arrogant tilt of that chin with its devil's beard. No mistaking the muscled chest under the tunic and pearls, either, nor the strength of the hand that lightly clasped the sword at his hip, doubtless lethally dangerous in spite of the jeweled hilt and scabbard.
Another woman might have hoped that the fierce gaze was possessive, that he fancied her, but at least Aly was spared that daydream: no man would ever look at her like that, and certainly not a prince in Bagestan. And she, thank God, would never be deluded enough to imagine it. Not tonight, for sure.
His eyes burned into her. She dropped her gaze to the floor. What would she do if they came to throw her out?
If only she had someone to talk to, she might not stand out so garishly. But she'd been introduced to no one, and she simply lacked the brass to buttonhole a theatrical knight or a Hollywood beauty or an advertising millionaire and start talking to them — as no doubt she should be doing. "I did so enjoy your King Lear, Sir Henry, and I wonder if you are aware of the accelerating threat to the Johari turtle, which nests exclusively here in the islands of the Gulf of Barakat?"
People with money and a conscience about the environment. Or wanting to be seen as such. A roomful of them. Richard would have been off and running. But Richard, the team's best fundraiser as well as research partner, was on his way to hospital with acute stomach symptoms brought on no doubt by the change in diet, and his wife had gone with him, and now everything fell on Aly. And she was manifestly not up to the task.
The weight of the man's gaze lifted, and she looked up again. The camera had moved, and he was gone from sight.
She sighed. But of course, this wasn't the end of her torment. She glanced at her watch. In a short time she was going to have to get up in front of this chic, self-obsessed crowd of fashionistas and deliver a speech.
"Surely you mistake, Fouad," murmured Arif. He gazed in disbelief at the woman as, her arms wrapped protectively over her chest, she fingered the pearls at her neck, staring alternately at the giant video screen and then at the floor. A ragged lock of dark hair had escaped from its pins and fell down over one ear.
"Excellency, on my eyes, that is she," replied Fouad. "The scientist. Dr. Percy. I assure you."
In this roomful of eye-watering jewels the single strand of pearls she wore was almost an affront. Arif's left hand tightened on the hilt of his ancestor's sword. "There are more pearls under my hand than the woman wears around her neck," he noted dryly.
"It is no surprise, surely? Who would give such a woman jewels, Excellency? Jewels are made to adorn a woman's beauty. What beauty has this one?"
"Your judgment is hasty, Fouad," Arif said, frowning as he watched her: a shy, stoop-shouldered waif who seemed to have no idea that she was a woman, let alone that women were born to attract the male half of the world. As small and slender as his cousin, the Princess Shakira, but without the fighting spirit that made the princess stand up to the world that had tried to subdue her. This was a woman who had given in.
And yet, if Fouad were right, she was an intelligent, highly-educated person. A dedicated environmental scientist with a mission that had brought her a long way from home. She could hardly lack courage. What then was the reason for her lack of confidence?
"She does not lack beauty, she only makes it difficult to see," he mused after a moment. "I wonder why?"
"This is a woman made for the veil, Excellency. This is what the western critics have never understood, is it not?" Fouad murmured, as they watched the unfortunate woman try to make herself invisible. "Women do not veil to hide their beauty, but their lack of it. This woman may never find a husband, whereas in the old days, Excellency, in the days of your great-grandfather the Sultan, it would not have been difficult to marry her off. A man may love a plain woman, he may respect her as the mother of his sons ... but he does not want to exhibit her to his neighbor."
The Sheikh shook his head. Fouad's words were having a contradictory effect on him. He didn't like the scathing tone directed at that shy, defenseless creature. As well insult a young doe.
"You mistake, Fouad. A woman's beauty is so often taken at its own valuation, after all. We all know women who are beautiful simply because of their confidence, their spirit. The veil's great virtue was that it allowed plain women to feel and exercise their feminine power, and not fear to be judged entirely by their physical beauty. Or lack of it."
"Excellency, I believe you are right. And what of this poor woman, then? Without a veil to give her confidence as you say, what is her fate?"
Again some instinct demanded that he get between Fouad and the object of his derision.
"Do you think no man will look beneath the surface, because you do not? You take her at her own valuation, Fouad. Look again." Arif's interest was roused by his own words, and he gazed at the woman more closely. "This is a woman who must be made to believe she is beautiful. I wonder if it could be done?" He moved his chin in arrogant command. "She intrigues me, the little scientist. Bring her to me."
There was a whole wall of arched doorways open onto the magnificent courtyard, with lights illuminating the fountains and the banks of beautifully massed and tumbled flowering shrubs. Bougainvillea, hibiscus, orchids ... a magical garden. The air was deliciously cool and perfumed, but for some reason it made her feel seasick. Probably because her nerves were eating her alive. Aly would have liked to go outside and try to clear her head, but the scent of jasmine would be even more cloying close to.
Besides, the conversation going on just behind her was too good to leave. "Oh, it's an ancient title," a man was explaining to his companions. "At least a thousand years old. In those days the Cup Companions were just what the title says — the men who shared the Sultan's drinking time. They relaxed with him and recited poetry and talked of love. Their job was to take his mind off the business of ruling the country."
"Oh," said a disappointed female voice. "I'd heard they were terribly powerful."
"Yes, of course. That was then, this is now. Nowadays the title refers to the Sultan's working cabinet, his advisors, as well as the palace interface with the government and the people. A hugely important post. And a great —"
"Have I the honor of addressing Dr. Olivia Percy?" a voice murmured at her shoulder. Aly turned so sharply her elbow connected with the edge of the clipboard the man held.
"Ow, ow, oh, damn, that smarts!" she cried, her breath hissing between her teeth.
"I beg your pardon, Dr. Percy."
"No, no, not your fault, they did warn us about personal space differences in the Mid ... I mean, sorry. All my own fault. Ah." She rubbed her elbow again and took in the sight of a dark, middle-aged man, rather stocky, in a red silk tunic with medals on his chest, gazing back at her with a bemused air. "Oh, and it's not Doctor, not yet," she went on nervously. "Just call me Ms. Or Miss, I don't really mind. Or Aly, for that matter. Are you Sheikh al Najimi, by any chance?"
The man blinked with surprise. "No, no, Dr — Miss Percy. I am the sheikh's personal assistant. One of them. My name is Fouad Mukhtar. His Excellency wishes to meet you. If you will follow me, I will present you."
"Right, of course, yes," Aly said. She was feeling less confident with every passing second. How soon before animal instinct took over and she simply bolted? And Richard's speech still to come. "But first —" as she touched his arm the man stopped and cocked his head inquiringly. "Will you just remind me of his name and titles? I'm not ..."
"His Excellency Hajji Sayed Sheikh Arif Akhtar ibn Jaber ibn Jafar al Najimi, Cup Companion to His Royal Highness the Sultan of Bagestan," said the personal assistant in a voice so full of gutterals he might have been cracking walnuts in there.
"I'll never remember all that," Aly exclaimed in dismay.
"There is no need for you to remember it, Madame," said the PA. "You will address His Excellency as 'Your Excellency.'"
"Oh, right. Well, that's a relief," Aly fanned her face humorously, but the PA wasn't smiling. Damn. "Take me to Your Excellency, then."
"His Excellency, Madame. When you address —"
Oh, God, how inept could one person be? "Yes, yes, of course. I do know." She flattened her spread hands, like someone preparing to play an air piano. "His Excellency," she said firmly. "Your Excellency. When I'm talking to him."
The dark man bowed. "Precisely, Miss Percy."
"Is he — should I — do I curtsey?"
"Not to a Cup Companion, Madame. If you should be presented to the Sultan or the Sultana —" It sounded as though that would never happen if Fouad Mukhtar was around, and he didn't bother to complete the instruction. "His Excellency may offer his hand." He eyed her doubtfully. "If he does so, you may shake his hand. Do not attempt to kiss it."
"Good God. No, I see. Right. Okay, I think I can handle that. 'Handle.' Ha ha."
By the slant of his eyebrows it appeared that the sheikh's personal assistant had his doubts on the matter. He didn't condescend to notice her joke. Aly's self-confidence dropped into negative numbers.
"Excellency, may I present Miss Olivia Percy," said Fouad.
It was the demi-god who'd been staring at her so coldly a few minutes ago. Aly's stomach clenched into a fist of anxiety now. She'd assumed the Sultan's environment czar would be at least fifty. And here he was, handsome enough to melt knees, smoking hot, and wearing jewels to make a duchess swoon. No more than mid-thirties. This man is a Cup Companion, one of the Sultan's most trusted advisors? Aly looked searchingly up at him. A long way up. At least six two. To her five three-and-a-bit.
"Your eyes are blue," she cried in surprise.
The Sheikh blinked. It was like being fired at by blue tracers.
"And yours are grey," he said with a half smile, putting out his hand. Deep, rough-smooth voice, the kind of voice that made cats arch against ankles.
She could see why Fouad had warned her against kissing the man's hand. He was so bloody regal it was all she could do to resist the full kowtow. But when her hand got lost in the grip of his she wasn't prepared for the rush of animal alarm in her veins.
"The least interesting color in the spectrum," Aly babbled. She was vulnerable with nerves, that was why he was getting to her. But the knowledge didn't seem to help her get over it. "No one's ever written a song to grey eyes." Who had said that? Why was her father's voice coming to her now, when what she needed was a bit of confidence?
The sheikh's steady gaze was heating her blood in spite of herself. It had been years since Aly really seriously wished she was beautiful, but somehow he was dragging her back to her teenage self, yearning for the impossible. Learning all over again how inadequate she was as a woman. The problem with the sheikh's eyes was, they melted everything in their path. Plain and pretty alike. She'd heard of eyes like this.
Fouad frowned. "Miss Percy is one of the scientists who will be setting sail shortly on the mission to save the Johari turtle from extinct —"
Aly couldn't stop her tongue. "I'm afraid that's setting the goalposts a bit high." Was that a mixed metaphor? "What we plan, Your Excellency, is to mark and monitor the nests for the rest of the nesting and hatching season, in the hopes of establishing some cause for the recent drastic decline in their numbers."
"His Excellency is familiar with the project," Fouad Mukhtar murmured repressively, cutting her off. The sheikh, meanwhile, was still emitting the hot man-ray that took no prisoners, and Aly had to bite her tongue not to shout at him to turn it off. "And as you are also aware, Excellency, Dr. Falbright has fallen ill unexpectedly — just an hour ago, while on his way here. Miss Percy has kindly agreed to deliver his speech for him tonight."
Excerpted from "Her Royal Protector"
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Sellers.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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