Authors: Lynn Raye Harris
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Women
Emily turned and poured wine into another glass, thankful to have something to do that did not involve looking at Kadir. But when she pivoted again, he was still there. Still in her space, still big and dark and intense.
She thought he might move, might go over and sit on her couch, but he didn’t. He simply stood there, staring at the liquid in his glass. And then he raised his gaze to hers, and she felt the blow of those eyes like a twist in her heart.
She recognized pain when she saw it. His seemed to swallow him whole, turning those clear gray eyes to the darkest slate. She had an urge to lift her palm to his cheek, to tell him it would be okay.
But that was a line she could not cross. He was her boss, though she was having a very hard time remembering it just now.
“What is the matter, Your Highness?” The words were tight in her throat, but she forced them out anyway.
His brow furrowed. And then he lifted the glass and took a deep swallow of the golden liquid. Once more, his eyes were on hers. As if she were an anchor. As if it were her alone keeping him tethered to the earth, keeping the pain from engulfing him.
“My father is dying.” The words were simple, stark, and her heart squeezed into a tight ball in her chest. She knew the pain of those words, knew how they opened chasms in your soul. How they could change you.
But she also knew the bittersweet joy of finding out there was a way to save the person you loved. The worry over if there would be enough money to pay for the procedure—not that this last was a worry a king would have.
She reached for him automatically, gripped his forearm. She had never dared to touch him before, not deliberately. Not like this. The jolt of sensation buzzing through her should not have been so unexpected. But it was. Like touching a live wire and then being unable to let go.
She had to push past it, had to speak. Had to get beyond the awkwardness and confusion when he needed so much more from her than this giddy schoolgirl behavior.
“Is there nothing they can do?” Her voice came out a whisper, but he heard it. He’d been staring at her hand, at her pale fingers clasped over his golden skin, and he raised his gaze again.
Once more, the blow of those eyes threatened to steal her breath away. Her sense. For a moment, she wished she were someone else. Someone beautiful and dynamic. Someone who could interest a man like this.
But no, that was silly. She wasn’t a sensual creature. She was sensible. There was no room in her life for the kind of heat and exhilaration that went along with a man like Kadir. She’d seen how women burned for him, and how they burned out too soon. That kind of heat wasn’t worth the price.
She’d almost been that sort of woman once, but she’d learned that it was far better to be sensible and staid. And if she ever doubted it, she had only to think of her mother’s tragic example of what could happen to a woman who followed her hedonistic tendencies too far.
“No, it’s too late now. They’ve done everything.”
He sounded almost detached and cool, but she knew it must affect him deeply. She squeezed his arm. “I’m so sorry.”
He put his hand over hers and lightning sizzled into her deepest core. In four years’ time, their hands had brushed on occasion. It would have been impossible if they hadn’t.
But this. This was too much, like walking out into full sunlight after having spent a year in a cave. The feelings swirling through her were too hot, too bright.
Kadir was an attractive man, but she was not attracted to him. She liked lean blond men who weren’t quite so tall. Quiet men. Men who didn’t make her feel jumpy and achy just by touching her.
She had to force herself to meet his eyes, because to continue to stare at his hand over hers would certainly be odd. The pain was still there, but there was something else, too. Something that flared bright for a moment and was extinguished.
She’d always known that Kadir was a complicated man. But this felt as if someone had lifted the curtain to show her the gears and pulleys that ran the show.
She’d seen beneath the veneer. Beneath the walls. But only for a moment.
A moment she was not likely to forget any time soon.
“I am angry, Emily.”
“I believe that is normal.” She remembered being angry herself when they’d first learned that her father needed a new heart if he were going to survive. It had seemed impossible at the time—and she’d been so furious with fate—but then a heart had become available and he’d gotten his second chance.
But every moment had been agonizing. The feelings, the fear. Not everyone in her family had handled it well. Her father had survived—but the family had not.
Kadir’s gaze was searching. She had to remind herself, strongly, that he was still her boss, that this breach of their usual formal relationship was a temporary thing. If she handled this wrongly, if she did what she wanted to do—which was put her arms around him and pull his head down to her shoulder while she stroked the thick softness of his hair—she would be crossing a line that could never be redrawn.
“I need something from you, Emily.”
His voice was soft and mesmerizing and her stomach tied itself into a knot as she imagined what he might ask for. But then she told herself he was simply hurting and this change in their usual relationship was a temporary by-product of that. He needed someone to talk to and there was no reason why she couldn’t be that someone.
“Anything I can do, Your Highness.”
One corner of his sensual mouth lifted in a smile. She’d never spent a lot of time gazing at him—she was far too busy taking care of business—but she could certainly see why the women he dated seemed to melt so quickly beneath the power of his raw male beauty. His mouth begged a woman to press her own there. His hair needed a woman’s fingers in it. His shoulders needed someone’s arms around them. His waist needed to be surrounded by a woman’s legs—
Emily clamped down hard on her wayward thoughts and tried to look like her usual professional self.
Which would be far easier to accomplish if she were not standing here in her pajamas with her hair a dark tangle down her back.
He put a hand on her shoulder, his fingers touching bare flesh. She couldn’t quite contain the gasp that escaped her as an arrow of flame shot through her belly, down into her deepest core. Oh, she was so going to the doctor the instant they returned to Chicago. There had to be a pill that would fix her raging hormones. She was entirely too young for this kind of wild fluctuation.
Kadir’s brows drew down, his gaze searching hers. His eyes were dark, glittering slate, and she had to force herself not to shrink from the fire in them.
“First, you are going to need to call me Kadir.”
Her stomach flipped. “I—I don’t think that’s a very good idea. You’re my boss, and I prefer to keep that straight in my head. First names invite familiarity, and—”
His finger over her mouth silenced her. And burned into her. Confusion set up a drumbeat in her brain, her blood. She had no idea what was going on here, or where it would lead if she let it.
He said her name simply, but it had the effect of sending a wave of calm over her. She drew in a breath and waited. Whatever he was going to say, she could handle it.
His next words shattered that illusion. “I need you to marry me.”
at him as though he’d grown two extra heads. He didn’t blame her, really. What he was proposing was perfectly outrageous. But after that phone call with Rashid, he couldn’t stop thinking about how he wasn’t going to be forced to take his brother’s birthright.
He wasn’t the next king of Kyr. Rashid was. And he wasn’t going to allow his father to use him as a bludgeon in his personal war with Rashid. Not any longer. When he was ten, he hadn’t understood. He understood now.
He was returning to Kyr because his father was dying and he believed it was important to be there. But Kadir wasn’t going to make it easy for the old man to do what Rashid believed he was going to do.
And for that, Kadir needed a very unsuitable bride. A woman who would horrify his father enough that he would believe Kadir’s judgment so poor he would not, under any circumstances, give the kingdom of Kyr into his keeping.
An American woman with no connections or pedigree would fit the bill nicely. If he could persuade her to act a little more like Lenore—spoiled, entitled and manipulative—it would work even better, though it was not strictly necessary. Her origins would be enough for his father and the staunchly traditional governing council.
King Zaid would turn to Rashid, regardless of their differences, and choose the son who was the only sensible choice. He would not risk his kingdom with a son who was blinded by the charms of a most unsuitable woman.
Kadir knew it was an insane plan, born of desperation, but he was determined to carry it out. Nothing else would work. His father might be petty, but he was much too proud to allow Kyr to pass into the hands of a son who showed such a decided lack of judgment.
“I...I...” Emily raised a hand to push a stray lock of hair from her face and he was once more confronted with a fact he had somehow managed to ignore for the past four years.
Emily Bryant was not quite the unattractive automaton he’d believed her to be. Her brown hair was long, thick and shiny—and very tumbled. He’d never seen it down before. She either wore it scraped up on her head or pulled back in a severe ponytail.
And now her mouth had somehow become enticing, with all that hair to frame her face.
He’d known she was not shapeless. Indeed, her suits were well-fitted and crisp, if stark in color—it was only her shoes that were ugly. Sensible shoes, he believed they were called.
She was almost boyish, with narrow shoulders and hips. But she had a waist, and her small breasts were shapelier than he’d realized beneath her suit jackets. That surprised him in ways he hadn’t expected. He knew it now because he’d had a devil of a time keeping his gaze from straying to where they jutted against the thin fabric of her top.
Still, she was Emily, his PA. Not some woman he could take to his bed and discard. He needed her in his life, and at this moment he very much needed her to agree to his plan.
“I don’t know what to say.” The words tumbled out of her in a breathless rush. Her green eyes, usually the color of polished jade, had darkened in what he supposed was confusion. Or horror. There was always that possibility, he decided.
She did the one thing he did not expect. She took a step backward, out of his space, and wrapped her arms around her body. The wineglass was still clutched in one hand and tilted precariously to the side.
Her chin dropped and he got the distinct impression she was meditating. When she looked at him again, her gaze was clear.
“Why are you asking me this? Do you need to be married for a business deal? Is there some piece of property you cannot do without and a wife would ease the way with the owner?”
He could only stare at her. She was so close to the truth it astounded him. And yet not quite.
“I need to take a wife home to Kyr.”
Her brows drew down. “I don’t understand.”
He blew out a breath. “It is very complicated. But suffice it to say that a wife is necessary. Think of this as a promotion.”
She blinked. And then she laughed. He was almost insulted.
“This is the strangest promotion I have ever heard of.” She drew in air, straightened her spine. “And it’s impossible, Your Highness. I cannot do what you ask.”
He felt the sting of her rejection as if it were a blow. It stunned him, if he was truthful with himself. Women did not typically refuse him.
“And why is that? This is a job, Emily. The same as always.”
“You will forgive me, Your Highness—”
“Kadir.” He spoke sharply, but he could not seem to help it. For once, he wanted her to call him by his name. For once, he needed to know that he was more to her than a paycheck. It was beyond insane, and yet he’d not felt quite right since he’d spoken with his father earlier.
It was as if everything he’d known had flipped upside down. As if his life had started out one way this morning—a lifetime ago now—and ended up in a completely different place. He was at the bottom of a pit, trying to find a handhold to pull himself back up again before the walls caved in and crushed him.
She swallowed. He didn’t think she would say it, but then she did. “Kadir.” Her voice was so small, so quiet, as if she feared that saying his name would call down a bolt of lightning.
“Was that so difficult then?”
Her eyes glinted in the dimly lit room. “No.”
“Good.” He retreated a few steps, gave her space. He sank onto her couch, ignoring the scattered papers. “Do I pay you well, Emily?”
She moved to one of the chairs set around a small table several feet away and sank down on it as if she feared she would break it. “Yes.”
“Then you can hardly object if I give you an extra year’s salary once you complete the task. All you need do is pretend to be my wife.”
Her eyes were wide. “Pretend? We wouldn’t actually be married?”
“We would, but it won’t be a real marriage. I don’t want you to think I expect anything other than the pretense of devotion.” Because they would need to appear ridiculously besotted with each other for this to work.
She looked doubtful. “Won’t someone figure it out?”
“How? We will act our parts.”
She shook her head. “No one will believe it. Just yesterday, you were with Lenore Bradford. You were probably photographed with her. And now you are marrying me—when, tonight? After you were with Lenore at her party last night?”
He felt the noose tightening around his neck. “I did not say it was a perfect plan. But we will sell it, Emily.” He twisted the stem of the wineglass in his fingers. “Besides, Kyr isn’t precisely connected to the outside world. Not in the way you would think. It is modern, certainly. But gossip and tabloids are hardly my father’s daily reading material. If I arrive with a wife, a wife who I am clearly crazy about, that will suffice for him.”
He could see her throat work. “You want to deceive your family?”
“I don’t understand.”
He sighed and leaned his head back, staring up at the ceiling. She would never understand. And yet he had to make her do so if this were to work. It went against his nature to explain himself, but he had to acknowledge that she could just as easily turn him down if he did not. “It’s about the throne, Emily. I don’t want it.”
She blinked. “Why not?”
A riot of emotion twisted through him. He wanted to lash out. To tell her it was none of her business. And yet, if he was asking her to do this thing, it surely was her business. He could tell her the truth without delving into his personal reasons. His guilt. That was private.
“Because a king cannot travel the world and erect buildings. My business will be finished. And you will be out of a job.”
He didn’t like pointing it out so cruelly, but what choice did he have? Because that was, ultimately, what was at stake for her. If he became king, he couldn’t keep her in Kyr. He’d have an entire legion of assistants and she would not be needed. Even if he wanted her there.
There was a hierarchy in serving the royal family in Kyr, and Emily Bryant did not fit into it.
She put her forehead in her palm and slanted her gaze toward him. It was an unconsciously attractive look. A twinge of heat flared to life in his belly. He tamped it down ruthlessly. His life was upside-down, he reminded himself. He was not attracted to his very ordinary assistant. If he had been, he would never have hired her. Besides, if he hadn’t found her sexually appealing in four years thus far, he wasn’t going to start today.
In spite of the awareness that slid through him when she’d put her hand on his arm. In spite of the urge he’d had to bend his head and fit his mouth to hers, just to see if the sparks would continue or if it was simply the incongruity of her touching him so deliberately.
An anomaly. Stress.
“I don’t like the idea of deceiving your family. Besides, I’m a terrible actress. No one would ever believe I was your wife.”
Kadir allowed himself a smile. It was the kind of smile he knew usually had an effect on the women he turned it upon. “I have no doubt they will believe it. You’ve never yet failed at a task I’ve set for you. And you won’t fail at this one.” He leaned forward then, elbows on knees, and delivered what he hoped would be the coup de grâce. “You are the only person I can trust, Emily. The only one who will not fail me. I need you.”
* * *
Emily’s insides were spinning and churning as though she’d taken a ride on a merry-go-round. It didn’t help that Kadir looked at her so seriously. Or that he was specifically asking for her help. How could she refuse him?
And how could she go through with it? No one would ever believe that she—plain, ordinary Emily—was Kadir’s chosen bride. The whole world would see through the deception.
And she’d be mortified when they did. People would laugh and point fingers. She would be noticed, and not in a good way.
It was impossible.
Yet, he looked at her with those gorgeous dark eyes and serious expression and she wanted to do whatever he asked. She closed her eyes, swallowed. It was more than that, though.
One year’s salary.
With that kind of money, she could finish paying her father’s hospital bills and start to put money in the bank for his long-term care. He still lived in the house she’d grown up in, but it was an older house that always needed repairs of one type or another. He tried to do things himself, but it was too much for one frail man.
Anger scoured through her then. Her mother should have been there with him.
have been there with him if she weren’t selfish and self-serving. If her focus on herself hadn’t led her down a self-destructive path and ended in a twist of steel on a dark highway.
When Emily’s father had needed his wife the most, when he’d gotten too sick to work and couldn’t keep buying her clothes and vacations and cars, she’d said she was too young to be someone’s caretaker. And then she’d run off with another man.
Emily experienced the same cold wash of helpless fury and despair she always did when she thought of her mother. Emily had been heading down the same path, in some ways. She’d loved flashy clothes, loved dressing up and being the center of attention. She’d spent hours at the salon, hours shopping with her girlfriends and hours discussing men. She’d had boyfriends, more than one at a time, because they lavished her with attention and gifts. And that had made her feel special.
But everything changed when her mother deserted them. Emily had realized what a self-destructive road she was traveling when there was no one left to take care of her father except for her. And now Kadir was handing her an opportunity to finally pay off her father’s bills, maybe move him to a retirement community in Florida. He’d always wanted to go to where it was warm. Maybe live in a golfing community and play a few rounds.
If she could do that, it would mean the world to him. And to her, because then she wouldn’t worry so much about him living in the windy, bitterly cold Chicago winters.
“How would this work?” Her voice sounded rusty, as if she hadn’t used it in ages and her vocal cords didn’t want to let the words go.
Kadir sighed and bowed his head for a brief moment. She wanted to tell him that she had not yet agreed, so he shouldn’t get all relieved and everything—but they both knew she was going to. It was simply too good an opportunity to pass up.
No matter how it terrified her.
“My attorneys will draw up the paperwork. We will sign it. That is all that is required in Kyr—a legal marriage document, with both signatures affixed. We can have a ceremony in Kyr, if you like, but the documents will suffice.”
She couldn’t imagine standing at an altar—or wherever one did these things in Kyr—and pledging everlasting love to this man. To her boss.
No matter how fake it would be.
“I don’t need a ceremony.”
He tipped his head, as if he’d known she would say that. “Then there will not be one.”
She clasped her hands in her lap, twisted them together. It was incongruous to be discussing marriage with her boss while in her pajamas in Paris, but that’s precisely what she was doing. How surreal.
“Will there be other paperwork? A prenuptial agreement? A contract detailing the terms of our arrangement?”
“Do you require either of those things?”
She could only blink at him. “It seems prudent, don’t you think? What if I decide I like being a princess so much that I refuse to divorce you and then ask for half your assets when you insist? Or what if you become unhappy with my performance and decide not to pay me?”
He laughed and she let the sound drip down her spine, warming her though she did not want it to.
“You are delightful, Emily. If I don’t tell you that enough, I am remiss.” He got to his feet then and she stood, too, more out of habit than anything. “I will have those documents done as well, if it makes you feel better.”
She sucked in a fortifying breath. “I haven’t said yes yet.”
“But you will.”
Heat rolled through her. She would, but she didn’t like how easily he could read her. Or maybe it wasn’t that at all. Maybe he just expected her to obey. Because she always had before.