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The Sheik and the Christmas Bride Susan Mallery 2022/8/5 16:56:47

Part of the problem was she hadn’t slept for a week. She’d barely dozed the previous night and had been wide awake at four in the morning. It had taken nearly a half hour with chilled gel packs on her eyes to reduce the puffiness. Then there had been the issue of what to wear.

She’d gone through her considerable wardrobe more than once over the past few days. A dress seemed too formal, slacks too casual. In the end she’d settled on a black skirt and a silk blouse. She’d fussed over her makeup, her hair, her jewelry. It was like being sixteen again, but with all the baggage that comes with middle age. It was exhausting.

As she paced, smiled at visitors and did her best not to be recognized by the tour group moving into the palace, she told herself it was ridiculous to be so nervous. Officially she’d known King Hassan for years. But this was the first time he was coming to El Deharia to see her.

“It’s not a date,” she murmured to herself, grateful the vast entryway was finally almost empty. “It’s a…a…” She sucked in a breath, not sure what his visit was.

A large SUV drove into the courtyard, followed by a dark Mercedes. Another SUV parked behind it.

Guards stepped out, looking stern in their business suits and sunglasses. One of them moved to the rear of the Mercedes and opened the passenger-side door.

Lina walked toward the car, telling herself to be calm, to smile and speak with at least the pretense of intelligence. King Hassan stepped out into the afternoon.

He was a man of medium height and strong build. His hair was gray, as was his neatly trimmed beard. He had handsome features and an air of confidence and power about him. There were no outward symbols of his rank, yet just looking at him, it was easy to guess he wasn’t like everyone else.

Lina hesitated. Normally she curtseyed when she greeted a monarch, yet that now seemed strange. Still, protocol and her upbringing won out.

But before she could offer the gesture of respect, Hassan stepped toward her, took both her hands in his and smiled at her.

“My dear Lina. You are more beautiful than I remember.”

He gazed into her eyes. She stared back, seeing pleasure and humor, along with something very much like interest. Her stomach continued to flop around, but the reason changed from nerves to anticipation. A warmth stole through her and she smiled.

“Welcome, sir. All of El Deharia is pleased at your visit. Me, most of all.”

He pulled her close and tucked her hand into the crook of his arm. “Hassan,” he said. “You must call me Hassan. Do you forget how you mocked me in your e-mails? You can’t be formal now.”

They walked into the palace. “I never mocked you,” she told him, liking the feel of being next to him, close to him.

“You called me a crazy old man who was too concerned about his cats.”

She laughed. “I did not. You’re making that up.”

He smiled at her, making her heart beat wildly and her throat get dry. It had been so long since any man had affected her, she thought happily. So long since she’d let herself notice a smile, a voice, a touch.

They walked along the main corridor, toward the elevators that would take them up to the guest floors.

“How is your first project coming?” he asked. “Has As’ad noticed the lovely Kayleen?”

“Absolutely.” Lina grinned. “She got lost in the desert and ended up with some local tribesmen. As’ad went after her and claimed her for his own. He says it was to keep her safe, but I think there was more to it than that. When they got back, Kayleen specifically told me nothing had happened. She was so intent on telling me that, I knew something had.”

“So you are a success.”

“Not yet, but I hope to be soon.”

They rode up three floors and exited onto a wide, open hallway.

“Your suite is just down here,” Lina told him. “It is the one you stayed in before.”

When they reached the double doors, she opened one and led the way in. The rooms were large, elegantly furnished and only used for kings and heads of state.

Fresh flowers filled several vases and a large fruit basket sat on the dining room table.

“I thought we could go out to dinner tonight,” she said. “There are a couple of really nice restaurants in the city with private rooms. I can give the names to your head of security so he can check them out in advance. There are a few plays we could take in and a visiting European symphony, depending on what interests you most. My brother would be delighted if you would care to ride any of his horses and I—”

Hassan crossed to her and pressed his finger to her mouth. “You can stop talking now.”