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The low heels on Jesslyn Heaton's practical navy pumps clicked briskly against the sidewalk as she left the administrative office.
It was the last day of school and mercifully the students had finally been sent home stuffed full of cupcakes and gallons of shocking red punch. All she had to do now was close her room for the summer.
"Going anywhere fun for holiday, Miss Heaton?" a student asked, his thin, reedy voice breaking on her name.
Jesslyn glanced up from the paperwork she'd pulled from her faculty mailbox. "Aaron, you haven't left yet? School ended hours ago."
The freckle-faced teen blushed. "Forgot something," he mumbled, his flush deepening as he reached into his backpack to retrieve a small package wrapped in white paper and tied with a purple silk ribbon. "For you. My mom picked it out. But it was my idea."
"A present." Jesslyn smiled and adjusted the pile of paperwork in her arms to take the gift. "That's so thoughtful. But Aaron, it's not necessary. I'll see you next school term"
"I won't be back." His shoulders rose and he hunched miserably into the backpack he'd slung again onto his thin back. "We're moving this summer. Dad's been transferred back to the States. Anchorage, I think."
Having taught middle school at the small private school in the United Arab Emirates for the past six years, Jesslyn had witnessed how abruptly the studentschildren of ex-patscame and went. "I'm sorry, Aaron. I really am."
He shoved his hands deeper into his pockets. "Maybe you could tell the other kids? Have them e-mail me?"
His voice cracked again, and it was the crack in his voice along with the way he hung his head that nearly undid her. These children went through so much. Foreign homes, foreign lives, change the only constant. "I will, of course."
Nodding, he turned around and was gone, rushing down the empty corridors of the school. Jesslyn watched his hasty departure for a moment before unlocking the door to her deserted classroom with a sigh. Hard to believe that another school year had ended. It seemed like only yesterday she was handing out the mountain of textbooks and carefully printing children's names in her class register. Now they were gone, and for the next two months she was free.
Well, she'd be free as soon as she closed up her classroom, and she couldn't do that until she tackled her last, and least-favorite task, washing the chalkboards.
Twenty minutes later her once-crisp navy dress stuck to the small of her back, and perspiration matted the heavy dark hair at her nape. What a job, she thought, wrinkling her nose as she rinsed out the filthy sponge in the sink.
A knock sounded on her door and Dr. Maddox, her principal, appeared in the doorway. "Miss Heaton, you've a guest."
Jesslyn thought one of her students' parents had shown up, concerned about a grade on a report, but it wasn't Robert.
Heart suddenly racing, she stared stunned at Sharif Fehr. Prince Sharif Fehr.
She convulsively squeezed the wet sponge, water streaming through her now-trembling fingers.
Impossible. But he was here, it was without a doubt Prince Fehr standing in her doorway, tall, imposing, real. She stared at him, drinking him in, adrenaline racing through her veins, too hot, too cold, too intense.
Dr. Maddox cleared her throat. "Miss Heaton, it is my pleasure to introduce you to our most generous school benefactor, His Royal Highness"
"Sharif," Jesslyn whispered, unable to stop herself.
"Jesslyn," Sharif answered with a slight nod.
And just like that, her name spoken in his rich, deep voice made the years disappear.
The last time she'd seen him they'd been younger, so much younger. She'd been a young woman in her first year of teaching at the American School in London. And he'd been a gorgeous, rebel Arab prince who wore jeans and flip-flops and baggy cashmere sweatshirts.
Now he looked like someone altogether different. His baggy sweatshirts were gone, and the faded, torn jeans were replaced by a dishdashah or a thoub, as more commonly known in the Arabian Gulf, a cool, long, one-piece white dress and the traditional head gear comprised of a gutrah, a white scarflike cloth, and the ogal, the black circular band that held everything together.
He looked so different from when she'd last seen him, and yet he still looked very much the same, from the piercing pewter eyes to his chiseled jaw to his dark, glossy hair.
Confused, Dr. Maddox glanced from one to the other. "You know each other?"
Know? Know? She'd been his, and he'd been hers and their lives had been so intertwined that ending their relationship had ripped her heart to shreds.
"We we went to school together," she stammered, cheeks heating as she unsuccessfully tried to avoid his eyes.
But his gaze found hers anyway and held, the corner of his mouth sardonically lifting, challenging her.
They didn't go to school together.
They weren't even enrolled in school at the same time. He had been six years older than her, and although he hadn't dressed the part, he had been a very successful financial analyst in London when they met.
They'd dated for several years, and when she broke it off, she walked away telling herself she would never see him again. And she hadn't.
That didn't mean she hadn't hoped he'd prove her wrong.
Finally he had. But why? What did he want? Because he did want something. Sharif Fehr wouldn't be in her Sharjah classroom without a very good reason.
"We went to school in England," she added, striving to sound blasé, trying to hide how deeply his surprise appearance had unnerved her. There were boyfriends in life from whom you parted on good terms and then there were the ones who had changed you forever.
Sharif had changed her forever, and now, despite all the years that had passed, just being in the same room with him made her nerves scream, Danger, danger, danger.
"What a small world," Dr. Maddox said, looking from one to the other. "Indeed," Sharif answered with a slight inclination of his royal head.
Jesslyn squeezed the sponge even tighter, her pulse leaping as she wondered yet again what he was doing here. What did he want?
What could he want with her?
She was still a teacher. She still lived a simple, rather frugal life. She still wore her brown hair at her shoulders in virtually the same style she'd worn nine years ago. And unlike him, she hadn't ever married, although the man she'd been dating a couple of years ago had proposed. She hadn't accepted the proposal, though, knowing she didn't love him enough, not the way she'd loved Sharif.
But then, she'd never loved anybody the same way she'd loved Sharif.
Abruptly turning, she dropped the sponge in the sink, rinsed her hands and used one of the rough paper towels to dry them. "What can I do for you, Sharif?"
"I suppose I'm not needed here anymore," Dr. Maddox said with a sigh of disappointment. "I'll head back to my office. Good afternoon, Your Highness." And with a respectful nod of her head, she left them, gently closing the door behind her.
Jesslyn heard rather than saw her classroom door close, and she drew a quick painful breath realizing they were alone.
Alone with Sharif. After all these years.
"Sit, please," Sharif said, gesturing for her to sit down at her desk. "There's no reason for you to stand for me."
She glanced at her chair but didn't think her legs could carry her across a room, at least not quite yet. "Would you like a chair?" she asked instead.
"I'm fine," he answered.
"Then I'll stand, too."
His expression never changed. "I'd be more comfortable if you sat. Please."
It wasn't a request, though, it was a command, and Jesslyn looked at him, curious as well as surprised. He would never have used such an authoritative tone with her before. He'd never raised his voice or issued commands when she knew him. He'd always been gorgeous, confident, comfortable in his own skin. But he'd never been regal, never formal. He was both now.
Studying him more closely, she realized his face had changed more than she'd initially thought. His face was different. The years had subtly reshaped his features. His cheekbones were more pronounced, his jaw wider, stronger, his chin and brow also more defined.
Not a young man anymore but a man.
And not just any man but one of the most powerful leaders in the Middle East.
"Okay," she said, her voice suddenly husky, betraying her nervousness, "let me just clean up and I'll be happy to sit down."
Turning back to the sink, she quickly tucked the bucket and sponge beneath the sink, wiped the sink down with another paper towel and then threw it away.
"You have to wash the chalkboards yourself?" Sharif asked as she made her way to her desk, stepping carefully around a crate of athletic gear and a stack of books that still needed to be put away in the closet.
"We're responsible for our own boards."
"I would have thought the janitor would take care of that."
"We're always trying to save money," Jesslyn answered, kneeling down to pick up a misplaced paperback novel. She'd taught at this school, a small private school in Sharjah for four years now, and her classrooms were always warm, and downright sweltering in May, June and September.
Sharif's eyes narrowed. "Is that why it's a hundred degrees in here?"
She grimaced. So he'd noticed. "The air conditioner is on. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to put out as much cool air as warm air." Taking a seat behind her desk, she prayed she looked more put together than she felt. "Is that why you're here? To make a list of our school's needs and then make a contribution?"
"If you help me, I'd be happy to make a contribution."
There it was, why he was here. He wanted her help. Jesslyn felt a heavy weight in her chest and realized she wasn't breathing.
Jesslyn forced herself to exhale and then inhale, trying to keep from dissolving into a state of panic. There was no reason to panic. She owed him nothing. Their relationship had ended nearly ten years ago.
Her attempt at cool, calm and collected ended when she caught sight of his expression. He was observing her intently, assessing her from head to toe.
Flushing, she shuffled papers nervously. "What kind of help do you need?"
"The kind you're good at." He was walking toward her, very slowly.
She tried to concentrate on what he was saying instead of his proximity, but he was coming too close, moving too quickly. "I'm a teacher, Sharif."
"Exactly." He stood over her, tall and imposing.
Had he always been this tall? "It's been a long time," she said.
"Nine," she repeated, finding it nearly impossible to tear her gaze from his fiercely handsome features, features that had only grown harder and more beautiful over the years. The handsome prince had become a man. But then, he wasn't merely a prince anymore. He was Sarq's king.
With one hand she smoothed her skirt, feeling miserably dowdy, all too aware that her wardrobe and hairstyle were basic, practical, no nonsense. She'd never been a fashionista to start with, and nine years in the classroom had reduced both her wardrobe and her sense of style to nil.
She forced her lips into a professional smile. "After nine years, what could I possibly do to help you?"
"Teach," he answered simply.
She felt a funny flicker of emotion, an emotion that fell somewhere between unreasonable fury and tears. "That's right. I'm a teacher and you're a king."
Sharif's gray eyes held hers, his expression enigmatic. "You could have been my queen."
"You were never serious, Sharif."
A spark flared in his eyes, and explosive tension whipped the room. "Neither were you."
And just like that they were adversaries, on opposite sides of an insurmountable wall.
"Unfair and untrue," she said through gritted teeth, anger making her chest too hot and tight. "There was no room for me" She broke off, unable and unwilling to continue. It was history, so long ago it shouldn't matter. The fact that they were even discussing events of nine years ago struck her as tragic, especially as she had someone else in her life, someone who mattered a great deal to her. "So what really brings you here, King Fehr?"
His jaw hardened and his narrowed gaze ruthlessly swept her, head to toe. "I've told you.You do. I've come to offer you a job."
He was serious, then. This was about a job. Teaching.
Heat rushed through her, heat that left her deeply shaken.
Swallowing, she looked up at him, her smile so hard it felt brittle even to her. "I have a job."
"Apparently not a very good one," he answered, indicating the old chalkboards and battered room fixtures.
She wouldn't stoop to his level, wouldn't let herself be ridiculed, bullied or criticized. "It's one I like very much, thank you."
"Would you feel better if I told you the position is just for the summer?"
Her chin tilted even more defiantly. "No."
It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him that she didn't have to answer to him, she didn't owe him anything. But that was a pointless exercise. It wasn't even the past holding her back, it was the future. She had plans for the summer, a wonderful eight and a half weeks of gorgeous, lovely traveltwo weeks to beaches in Australia's Queensland, ski slopes in New Zealand, and lots of museum and theater excursions highlighted by great food in Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland. "Because no."
"You'd be back here before school started in September," Sharif persisted, his tone so cool and smooth and relentless that goose bumps peppered her flesh.
"You remind me of my students when they're not listening."
He just smiled, grimly. "You haven't even considered the proposal."
"There's nothing to consider," she countered, amazed at his arrogance. "I've plans that can't be changed. Not even for you."
She saw his eyes narrow at her tone. She hadn't meant to be sarcastic, but there was a definite edge in her voice, an edge due to her discomfort. She didn't like the way he was towering over her desk, issuing dictates as though he were in his palace instead of her classroom, didn't like the way he pushed, didn't like his disregard for her, her feelings or her interests. "I appreciate you thinking of me, and I thank you for the invitation, King Fehr, but the answer is no."
"I'll pay you twice your salary"
"Stop!" Her voice rang out as she slapped a heavy textbook down on her desk. The book thudded loudly, echoing in the classroom. "This isn't about money. I don't care about money. I don't care if you were to pay me two thousand dollars a day! I'm not interested. Not interested. Understand?"
Silence descended, a silence that felt positively deafening.
But it wasn't her fault she lost her temper, she reminded herself. He wasn't listening. "I'm going on holiday," she added, squaring her shoulders, refusing to be intimidated, even as her gaze clashed with his. Their relationship ended years ago, and there was no reason to start anything againprofessionally or personally. "I leave tonight."
His features hardened, his expression so flinty his cheekbones and jaw looked as though they'd been chiseled from stone. "You can go on holiday next summer. I need you."
Jesslyn couldn't stifle a hysterical laugh. "You need me? Oh, that's a good one, King Fehr. Very funny indeed."
He wasn't laughing. His brows flattened over glittering gray eyes. "Give me one good reason why you won't even consider the position."
"I can give you three," she answered, impatiently stacking the teacher editions on her desk, one on top of the other. "I've just finished a year of teaching and need a break. I've planned a wonderful holiday traveling in Australia and New Zealand and everything's paid for. And last, and perhaps most important, having once been your girlfriend I've no desire to be"
Jesslyn wasn't able to finish the rest, drowned out by the blare of the school fire alarm.