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Sheikh's Princess of Convenience

By:Dani Collins

CHAPTER ONE

DO I LOOK PRETTY, Mama?

The reflexive question, one she had learned to suppress, still jammed in Galila’s throat along with her heart when she turned and caught sight of an apparition.

She held herself motionless on the tiled platform in the center of the reflecting pool, staring at the woman who appeared against the window to her mother’s lounge. With the subtle golden glow cast by the lights around the courtyard, it seemed as though her mother looked out at her, watchful and unsmiling.

As usual.

Galila wore a stunning tangerine gown, strapless and with a skirt of abundant shimmering silk. A long-sleeved tulle overlay was embroidered and bedecked with silver and glittering jewels—as suited a member of the royal family on the new king’s wedding day. Her hair cascaded from beneath a tiara that only ever came out on special occasions, and until now, only on her mother’s head.

The dress was too young for her mother, but those were definitely her mother’s eyes, scrupulously emphasized with greens and gold, liquid eyeliner ending in a cat’s tail. At one time, those doe-like eyes would have swept over Galila with indulgence. Affection.

So pretty, my pet. Her painted lips would have smiled with tender love as she stroked Galila’s hair.

Tonight, Galila’s mouth—as sensuously curved as her mother’s had been and wearing her mother’s signature glossy red—tightened. Her elegantly arched brows drew themselves together as she critically sought flaws, exactly as her mother would have done if she had still been alive.

Your skin looks sallow, Galila.

It was the yellow light and her imagination, but the reproach still had the power to sting. To make her yearn to correct the flaw and recapture the love that had dried up and blown away like sand across the desert.

She ought to be glad her mother wasn’t here; ought to be grieving properly for a life lost. Instead, it was her secret shame that she was mostly grieving her chance to win back her mother’s love. Or perhaps just to understand how she’d lost it.

What had she done that was so terrible—except to grow up looking exactly as beautiful as her mother had been? Was that her great crime?

Could she finally bloom freely now that she wouldn’t overshadow her mother?

She lifted the glass she held, leaving another kiss print on the rim.

Not champagne, either, Mother. She directed that baleful thought to her image and received a dispassionate glance in return.

The brandy she had learned to drink at boarding school seared with blessed heat through her arteries, promising the numbing effect Galila sought.

In a perfect world, she would drink herself unconscious and possibly drown here in an inch of water, escaping the chaos raging around her.

Don’t make a spectacle of yourself, Galila. That’s Malak’s purview.

“Your dress is getting wet.”

The male voice, so deep and velvety it matched the caress of the warm night air, had her turning to peer into the shadows, expecting—well, she didn’t know who she expected. A man, yes, but not such a man.

He leaned against the edge of an archway, features sharpened by the low light and framed by the drape of his ghutra. He was dangerous and handsome at once. Dangerously handsome with those dark, deeply set eyes and strong jaw beneath a short, black beard. Breath-stealing, in fact, in his gold-trimmed bisht that might have been the color of a good merlot. It hung open across wide shoulders to reveal his embroidered thobe, tailored to his muscled chest, collar closed at his throat and decorated by a yellow sapphire the size of her fist.

She told herself it was the alcohol that made her sway, but she suspected it was the impact of his virility.

He straightened and held out a hand. “Come. Before you ruin perfection.”

He sounded indifferent, perhaps a little impatient, but her confused, bruised-up heart reached like a flower toward the sunshine of his compliment. She used her free hand to lift her skirt and carefully placed her feet on each round tile. She was a little too drunk for stepping stones and appreciated when he took the drink from her hand and clasped her forearm, balancing her until she was completely away from the water.

His touch undermined her equilibrium as much as the brandy, though. More, perhaps. Brandy didn’t make her chest feel tight and her eyes dampen with longing. Her ears picked up the distant sound of the wedding music, but all her senses were trained on him. Something in her flowed toward him. Sought...something.

He was tall, radiating magnetism while a force field seemed to surround him, one that made him seem untouchable. It cracked fissures through her that she couldn’t begin to understand.

Maybe it was the brandy causing this overwhelming reaction.

He smelled the glass and his mouth curled with disdain. He set the glass aside.

“You don’t approve of alcohol?”

“I don’t approve of drunkenness.”

It should have sounded too uptight for words, but she was ever so sensitive to censure. His condemnation cut surprisingly deep. Why? He was nothing to her.

But he was also like nothing she’d ever experienced—and she’d seen a lot these last few years, living in Europe. He wasn’t like any of the urbane aristocrats or earnest artists she’d met. He didn’t even match what she expected here, in her home country of Khalia. He was almost too iconic in his arrogant sheikh demeanor. She had long decided that if she ever did marry, it would be to a progressive, cultured man from abroad. Not one of these throwback barbarians from five centuries ago.

Yet he was utterly fascinating. A tendril of desire to impress him wormed through her. She wanted to stand here and hold his attention and earn his regard.

Quit being so needy, she heard Malak say in her head. He had learned to live without love or anyone’s good opinion. Why did she think it was necessary?

She didn’t, she told herself and reached for the glass. “It’s my brother’s special day. I’m celebrating.”

* * *

“People do stupid things when they’re drunk.” Sheikh Karim of Zyria didn’t raise his hand or his voice. He didn’t even tell her not to drink.

Nevertheless, his deep tone carried the quiet command instilled by his station. It was evidently enough to make her falter and reassess him, perhaps understanding she would ignore him at her own peril.

He returned her scrutiny, taking advantage of the chance to do so up close. That’s what he told himself he was doing, in any case.

He had watched the royal family all day and evening—the ones who were here, at least. Princess Galila, with her stark resemblance to her deceased mother, fascinated him the most. She flitted like a bird from perch to perch, joining this group and that, welcomed by all and animated as she spoke, flirtatious and not above rolling her eyes at anyone, including her brother, the groom and newly crowned King of Khalia.

Had her mother possessed that same sparkling energy? Was that how she had so ensnared his father? He had seen photos of all of them over the years, but in person, Princess Galila was not merely beautiful. She was potent and enthralling, pulling at him in a way he resisted out of principle.

Out of self-preservation, a voice whispered deep in the back of his mind.

Not that he was in danger of infatuation, he assured himself. She struck him as far too superficial, thriving on being the center of attention. The way she smiled and bantered told him she was fully aware of the power in her beauty and sex appeal. She used it without shame to steal the spotlight from every other woman in the room.

That’s why it had surprised him when she’d slipped into the garden and walked away from the party into the family’s private courtyard. He had followed because he wanted to understand how this woman’s mother had destroyed and reshaped his entire life, not because he had been compelled to keep her in his sights.

Had her mother, Queen Namani, been this vain? He’d watched Galila preen in front of her own reflection like a lovebird, so deeply enamored with herself that she hadn’t been aware of his presence.

He wasn’t a stalker, lurking in shadows, spying on pretty maidens. He was a king, one with questions he had never been able to answer. Besides, he wanted to see her up close. Discover the secret of her allure.

He’d called her out of the pool—which was when he’d realized she was drunk.

Disappointing. He abstained, never wanting to be so far into his cups that he thought a leap off a balcony would solve his problems.

When he’d told her drinking was unwise, he’d thought for a moment that despair clouded her eyes, but she’d quickly switched to using her stunning looks to distract and mesmerize.

“What’s stupid about enjoying myself?” she challenged lightly. She lifted her hair off her neck and let it flow carelessly off her forearm, watching to see if he followed the movement.

There was a man inside this royal casing. He felt desire the same as any other, but he knew when he was being invited to lose focus by ogling a breast. Much as he longed to eye the weight of her curves, he kept his gaze locked with hers.

“Exhibit A. You’re on a tear of self-destruction.” Locking horns with him was a grave mistake, he silently warned.

She was disconcerted by his unaffected response. She might even have been burned by it. Her brow flinched. She quickly lifted her chin in a rally of spirit, though.

“Perhaps I have reason. Did you think of that?” Her long lashes blinked in big, innocent sweeps.

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