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Sheikh Nicholas al Rashid, Lion of the Desert, Lord of the Realm and Sublime Heir to the Imperial Throne of Quidar, stepped out of his tent and onto the burning sands, holding a woman in his arms.
The sheikh was dressed in a gold-trimmed white burnoose; his silver-gray eyes stared straight ahead, blazing with savage passion. The woman, her arms looped around his neck, gazed up at him, her face alight with an unspoken plea.
What's the matter, Nick? she'd been saying.
There's a camera pointed straight at us, Nick had answered. That's what's the matter.
But nobody seeing this cover on Gossip magazine would believe anything so simple, Nick thought grimly.
His eyes dropped to the banner beneath the picture. If words could damn a man, these surely did.
Sheikh Nicholas al Rashid, the caption said, in letters that looked ten feet tall, carrying off his latest conquest, the beautiful Deanna Burgess. Oh, to be abducted by this gorgeous, magnificent desert savage…
"Son of a bitch," Nick muttered.
The little man standing on the opposite side of the sparely furnished, elegant room nodded. "Yes, my lord."
"No-good, lying, cheating, sneaky bastards!"
"Absolutely," the little man said, nodding again.
Nick looked up, his eyes narrowed.
"Calling me a 'desert savage,' as if I were some kind of beast. Is that what they think I am? An uncultured, vicious animal?"
"No, sire." The little man clasped his hands together. "Surely not."
"No one calls me that and gets away with it."
But someone had, once. Nick frowned. A woman or, more accurately, a girl. The memory surfaced, wavering like a mirage from the hot sand.
Nothing but a savage, she'd said….
The image faded, and Nick frowned. "That photo was taken at the festival. It was Id al Baranda, Quidar's national holiday, for God's sake!" He stepped out from behind his massive beechwood desk and paced to the wall of windows that gave way onto one of New York City's paved canyons. "That's why I was wearing a robe, because it is the custom."
Abdul bobbed his head in agreement.
"And the tent," Nick said through his teeth. "The damned tent belonged to the caterer."
"I know, my lord."
"It was where the food was set up, dammit!"
Nick stalked back to his desk and snatched up the magazine. "Look at this. Just look at it!"
Abdul took a cautious step forward, rose up on the balls of his feet and peered at the photo. "Lord Rashid?"
"They've taken the ocean out of the picture. It looks as if the tent was pitched in the middle of the desert!"
"Yes, my lord. I see."
Nick dragged his hand through his hair. "Miss Burgess cut her foot." His voice tightened. "That was why I was carrying her."
"Lord Rashid." Abdul licked his lips. "There is no need to explain."
"I was carrying her into the tent, not out. So I could treat the—" Nick stopped in midsentence and drew a ragged breath deep into his lungs. "I will not let this anger me."
"I am so glad, my lord."
"I will not!"
"There's no point to it." Nick put the magazine on his desk, tucked his hands into the pockets of his trousers and threw his secretary a chilling smile. "Isn't that right, Abdul?"
The little man nodded. "Absolutely."
"If these idiots wish to poke their noses into my life, so be it."
"Yes, my lord."
"If people wish to read such drivel, let them."
Abdul nodded. "Exactly."
"After all, what does it matter to me if I am called an uncultured savage?" Nick's smile tightened until his face resembled a mask. "Never mind my law degree or my expertise in finance."
"Lord Rashid," Abdul said carefully, "sire—"
"Never mind that I represent an ancient and honorable and highly cultured people."
"Excellency, please. You're getting yourself upset. And, as you just said, there is no point in—"
"The fool who wrote this should be drawn and quartered."
Abdul nodded, his head bobbing up and down like a balloon on a string. "Yes, my lord."
"Better still, staked out, naked, in the heat of the desert sun, smeared with honey so as to draw the full attention of the fire ants."
Abdul bowed low as he backed toward the door. "I shall see to it at once."
"Abdul." Nick took a deep breath.
"You are to do nothing."
"Nothing? But, Excellency—"
"Trust me," the sheikh said with a faint smile. "The part of me that is American warns me that my fellow countrymen are probably squeamish about drawing and quartering."
"In that case, I shall ask for a retraction."
"You are not to call the magazine at all."
"No. It would serve no purpose except to bring further unwanted attention to myself, and to Quidar."
Abdul inclined his head. "As you command, Lord Rashid."
Nick reached out, turned the copy of Gossip toward him, handling it as gingerly as he would a poisonous spider.
"Phone the florist. Have him send six dozen red roses to Miss Burgess."
"I want the flowers delivered immediately."
"Along with a card. Say…" Nick frowned. "Say that she has my apologies that we made the cover of a national magazine."
"Oh, I'm sure Miss Burgess is most unhappy to find her photo on that cover," Abdul said smoothly, so smoothly that Nick looked at him. The little man flushed. "It is most unfortunate that either of you should have been placed in such a position, my lord. I am glad you are taking this so calmly."
"I am calm, aren't I?" Nick said. "Very calm. I have counted twice to ten, once in Quidaran and once in English, and—and…" His gaze fell to the cover again. "Very calm," he murmured, and then he grabbed the magazine from the desk and flung it against the wall. "Lying sons of camel traders," he roared, and kicked the thing across the room the second it slid to the floor. "Oh, what I'd like to do to the bastards who invade my life and print such lies."
"Excellency." Abdul's voice was barely a whisper. "Excellency, it is all my fault."
The sheikh gave a harsh laugh. "Did you point a camera at me, Abdul?"
"No. No, of course—"
"Did you sell the photo to the highest bidder?" Nick swung around, his eyes hot. "Did you write a caption that makes it sound as if I'm a bad reincarnation of Rudolph Valentino?"
Abdul gave a nervous laugh. "Certainly not."
"For all I know, it wasn't even a reporter. It could have been someone I think of as a friend." Nick shoved both hands through his black-as-midnight hair. "If I ever get my hands on one of the scum-sucking dung beetles who grow fat by invading the privacy of others—"
Abdul dropped to his knees on the silk carpet and knotted his hands imploringly beneath his chin. "It is my fault, nevertheless. I should not have permitted your eyes to see such an abomination. I should have hidden it from you."
"Get up," Nick said sharply.
"I should never have let you see it. Never!"
"Abdul," Nick said more gently, "stand up."
"Oh, my lord…"
Nick sighed, bent down and lifted the little man to his feet.
"You did the right thing. I needed to see this piece of filth before the party tonight. Someone is sure to spring it on me just to see my reaction."
"No one would have the courage, sire."
"Trust me, Abdul. Someone will." A smile softened Nick's hard mouth. "My sweet little sister, if no one else. We both know how she loves to tease."
Abdul smiled, too. "Ah. Yes, yes, she does."
"So, it's a good thing you showed me the cover. I'd much rather be prepared."
"That was my belief, sire. But perhaps I erred. Perhaps I should not—"
"What would you have done instead, hmm?" Nick grinned. "Bought up all the copies from all the newsstands in Manhattan?"
Abdul nodded vigorously. "Precisely. I should have purchased all the copies, burned them—"
"Abdul." Nick put his arm around the man's shoulders and walked him toward the door. "You took the proper action. And I am grateful."
"Just imagine the headlines if I'd had this temper tantrum in public." Nick lifted his hand and wrote an imaginary sentence in the air. "Savage Sheikh Shows Savage Side," he said dramatically.
The little man gave him a thin smile.
"Now imagine what would happen if somebody manages to get a picture of me slicing into the cake at the party tonight."
"The caterer will surely do the slicing, sire."
Nick sighed. "Yes, I'm sure he will. The point is, anything is possible. Can you just see what the sleaze sheets would do with a picture of me with a knife in my hand?"
"In the old days," Abdul said sternly, "you could have had their heads!"
The sheikh smiled. "These are not those days," he said gently. "We are in the twenty-first century, remember?"
"You still have that power, Lord Rashid."
"It is not a power I shall ever exercise, Abdul."
"So you have said, Excellency." The man paused at the door to Nick's office. "But your father can tell you that the power to spare a man his life, or take it from him, is the best way of assuring that all who deal with you will do so with honor and respect."
A quick, satisfying picture flashed through Nick's mind.
He imagined all the media people, and especially all the so-called friends who'd ever made money by selling him out, crowded into the long-unused dungeon beneath the palace back home, every last one of them pleading for mercy as the royal executioner sharpened his ax.
"It's a sweet thought," he admitted after a minute. "But that is no longer our way."
"Perhaps it should be," Abdul said, and sighed. "At any rate, my lord, there will be no unwanted guests lying in wait for you this evening."
"No. Only those with invitations will be admitted by your bodyguards. And I sent out the invitations myself."
Nick nodded. "Two hundred and fifty of my nearest and dearest friends," he said, and smiled wryly. "That's fine."
His secretary nodded. "Will that be all, Lord Rashid?"
"Yes, Abdul. Thank you."
"You are welcome, sire."
Nick watched as the old man bowed low and backed out of the room. Don't, he wanted to tell him. You're old enough to be my grandfather, but he knew what Abdul's reply would be.
"It is the custom," he would say.
And he was right.
Nick sighed, walked to his desk and sat down in the ornately carved chair behind it.
Everything was "the custom". The way he was addressed. The way Quidarans, and even many Americans, bowed in his presence. He didn't mind it so much from his countrymen; it made him uncomfortable, all that head-bobbing and curtseying, but he understood it. It was a sign of respect.
It was, he supposed, such a sign for some Americans, too.
But for others, he sensed, it was an acknowledgment that they saw him as a different species. Something exotic. An Arab, who dressed in flowing robes. A primitive creature, who lived in a tent.
An uncultured savage, who took his women when, where and how he wanted them.
He rose to his feet and walked across the room to the windows, his mouth set in a grim line, his eyes steely.
He had worn desert robes perhaps half a dozen times in his life, and then only to please his father. He'd slept in a tent more times than that, but only because he loved the sigh of the night wind and the sight of the stars against the blackness of a sky that can only be found in the vastness of the desert.
As for women… Custom permitted him to take any that pleased him to his bed. But he'd never taken a woman who hadn't wanted to be taken. Never forced one into his bed or held one captive in a harem.
A smile tilted across Nick's mouth.
Humility was a virtue, much lauded by his father's people, and he was properly modest about most things, but why lie to himself about women? For that matter, why would he need a harem?
The truth was that women had always been there. They tumbled into his bed without any effort at all on his part, even in his university days at Yale when his real identity hadn't been known to what seemed like half the civilized world.
They'd even been there in the years before that.
Nick's smile grew.
He thought back to that summer he'd spent in L.A. with his late mother. She was an actress; it had seemed as if half the women who lived in Beverly Hills were actresses, starting with the stunning brunette next door, who'd at first taken him for the pool boy—and taken him, too, for rides far wilder than any he'd ever experienced on the backs of his father's purebred Arabians.
There'd always been women.
Nick's smile dimmed.
It was true, though, that some of the ones who were drawn to him now were interested more in what they might gain from being seen with him than anything else.
He knew that there were women who wanted to bask in the spotlight so mercilessly trained on him, that there were others who thought a night in his arms might lead to a lifetime at his side. There were even women who hoped to enter his private world so they could sell their stories to the scandal sheets.
His eyes went flat and cold.
Only a foolish man would involve himself with such women, and he was not a—
The phone rang. Nick snatched it from the desk.
"If you're going to be here in time to shower and shave and change into a tux," his half sister's voice said with teasing petulance, "you'd better get a move on, Your Gorgeousness."
Nick smiled and hitched a hip onto the edge of the desk.
"Watch what you say to me, little sister. Otherwise, I'll have your head on the chopping block. Abdul says it's an ideal punishment for those who don't show me the proper respect."
"The only thing that's going to be cut tonight is my birthday cake. It's not every day a girl turns twenty-five."
"You forget. It's my birthday, too."
"Oh, I know, I know. Isn't it lovely, sharing a father and a birthday? But you're not as excited as I am."
Nick laughed. "That's because I'm over the hill. After all, I'm thirty-four."
"Seriously, Nick, you will be here on time, won't you?"
"Not early, though." Dawn laughed softly. "Otherwise, you'll expect me to change what I'm wearing."
Nick's brows lifted. "Will I?"
"Meaning what you have on is too short, too low, too tight—"
"This is the twenty-first century, Your Handsomeness."
"Not when you're on Quidaran turf, it isn't. And stop calling me stuff like that."
"A," Dawn said, ticking her answers off on her fingers, "this isn't Quidaran turf. It's a penthouse on Fifth Avenue."
"It's Quidaran turf," Nick said. Dawn smiled; she could hear the laughter in his voice. "The moment I step on it anyway. What's B?"
"B, if Gossip can call you 'Your Handsomeness', so can I." She giggled. "Have you seen the article yet?"
"I've seen the cover," Nick said tersely. "That was enough."
"Well, the article says that you and Deanna—"
"Never mind that. You just make sure you're decently dressed."
"I am decently dressed, for New York."