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Jewel in His Crown(10)

By:Lynne Graham

A split second later, she heard someone else board and Raja dropped down into the seat by her side. Astonished by his reappearance, Ruby twisted round to study him. ‘You’ve changed your mind? You’re coming with me?’

Raja basked in the glowing smile of instant relief and appreciation she awarded him.

Ruby recalled him asking her if she was offering him a wedding night. Although she had said no, his change of heart made her worry that they had got their wires crossed. But wasn’t that a stupid suspicion to cherish? A guy with his looks would scarcely be so desperate that he would nurture such a desire for an unwilling woman.

The same young man reappeared with a second glass but when he focused on Raja, he suddenly froze and then he fell to his knees in the aisle and bowed his head very low, almost dropping the tray in the process.

Raja reached for the drink. The steward drew the tray back in apparent dismay and Raja had to lean out of his seat to grasp the glass.

‘What’s wrong with him?’ Ruby whispered as the steward backed nervously out of the plane again. As the door slammed shut the engines began revving.

‘He didn’t realise who I was until he saw me up close. He must have assumed I was one of your guards when I boarded.’

The plane was turning. ‘I have guards now?’

‘I assume they’re seated with the pilot. Of course you have guards,’ Raja advanced, gulping back the drink and frowning at the acidic flavour. ‘Wajid will have organised protection for you.’

As a wave of dizziness ran over Ruby she blinked and took a deep breath to clear her head. ‘I’m feeling dizzy…it’s probably nerves. I don’t like small planes.’

‘You’ll be fine,’ Raja reassured her.

Ruby’s head was starting to feel too heavy for her neck and she propped her chin on the upturned palm of her hand.

‘Are you feeling all right?’ Raja asked as her head lowered.

‘Just very, very tired,’ she framed, her hands gripping the arms of her seat while the plane raced down the runway and rose into the air, the craft juddering while the engines roared.

‘Not up to a wedding night?’ Raja could not resist teasing her in an effort to take her mind off her nerves.

At that crack Ruby’s head lifted and she turned to look at him. The plane was mercifully airborne.

The pupils of her eyes had shrunk to tiny pinpoints and Raja stared. ‘Have you taken medication?’ he asked her abruptly.

‘No.’ Ruby heard her voice slur. All of a sudden her tongue felt too big and clumsy for her mouth. ‘Why?’

Raja could feel his own head reeling. ‘There must have been something in that drink!’ he exclaimed in disbelief, thrusting his hands down to rise out of the seat in one powerful movement.

‘What…you…mean?’ Ruby mumbled, her cheek sliding down onto her shoulder, her lashes drooping.

Raja staggered in the aisle and stretched out a hand to the door that led into the cockpit. But it was locked. Blinking rapidly, he shook his fuzzy head and hammered on the door, his arm dropping heavily down by his side again. Everything felt as if it were happening to him in slow motion. His legs crumpled beneath him and he fell on his knees, a bout of frustrated incredulous rage roaring up inside him and threatening to consume him. Ruby was slumped unconscious in her seat, her face hidden by her hair and he was in no state to protect her.

Ruby opened her eyes to darkness and strange sounds. Something was flapping and creaking and she could smell leather along with the faint aromatic hint of coffee. She was totally disorientated. Add in a pounding headache and the reality that her teeth were chattering with cold and she was absolutely miserable. She began slowly to shift her stiff, aching limbs and sit up. She was fully dressed but for her shoes and the ground was hard as a rock beneath her.

‘What…where am I?’ she mumbled thickly, the inside of her mouth as dry as a bone.

‘Ruby?’ It was Raja’s deep accented drawl and she stiffened nervously at the awareness of movement and rustling in the darkness.

A match was struck and an oil lamp hanging on a tent pole cast illumination on the shadowy interior and the man towering over her. She blinked rapidly, relief engulfing her when she recognised Raja’s powerful physique. Adjusting to the flickering light, her eyes clung to his hard bronzed features. In shocking defiance of the cold biting into her bones he was bare chested, well-defined hair-roughened pectorals flexing above the corrugated musculature of his abdomen. He was wearing only boxer shorts.

‘My goodness, what happened to us?’ Ruby demanded starkly, shivering violently as the chill of the air settled deeper into her clammy flesh. ‘What are we doing in a tent?’

Raja crouched down on a level with her, long, strong thighs splayed. His stunning bone structure, composed of razor-sharp cheekbones, slashing angles and forbidding hollows, momentarily paralysed her and she simply stared, mesmerised by a glorious masculine perfection only enhanced by a dark haze of stubble.

‘We were kidnapped and dumped out in the Ashuri desert. We have no phones, no way of communicating our whereabouts—’

‘K-kidnapped?’ Ruby stammered through rattling teeth. ‘Why on earth would anyone want to kidnap us?’

‘Someone who intended to prevent our marriage.’

‘But we’re already—’

‘Married,’ he slotted in flatly for her, handsome mouth hardening into a look of grim restraint as if being married was the worst thing that had ever happened to him but he was too polite to mention it. ‘Obviously the kidnappers weren’t aware of that when they planned this outrage. Apparently they assumed that our wedding would take place at the cathedral in Simis the day after tomorrow. In fact I believe a reconciliation and blessing service is actually planned for that afternoon.’

‘Oh, my word,’ she framed shakily, struggling to think clearly again. ‘The kidnappers were trying to stop us from getting married? But if we’re in the desert why is it so cold?’

‘It is very cold here at night.’ He swept up the quilt lying in a heap at her feet and wrapped it round her narrow shoulders.

‘You’re not cold,’ she breathed almost resentfully, huddling into the folds of the quilt.

‘No,’ he acknowledged.

‘Kidnapped,’ she repeated shakily. ‘That’s not what I came out here for.’

‘It may not be a comfort but I’m convinced that no harm was intended to come to you. I was not supposed to be with you. I invited that risk by changing my travel plans at the eleventh hour and boarding the same flight,’ the prince explained with sardonic cool. ‘The kidnappers only wanted to prevent you from turning up for our wedding, a development which would have offended my people enough to bring protesters out into the streets.’

‘So not everybody wants us to get married,’ Ruby registered with a frown, shooting him an accusing glance. ‘You didn’t tell me that some people were so hostile to the idea of us marrying.’

‘Common sense should have told you that but the objectors are in a minority in both countries.’

‘How do you know all this?’

‘Our captors were keen to explain their motives. The drugged drink didn’t knock me out for as long as you. I began recovering consciousness as a pair of masked men were dragging us into this tent. Unfortunately I was so dizzy I could barely focus or stand and they pulled a gun on me. I don’t think they had any intention of using it unless I managed to interfere with their escape,’ he explained heavily and she could tell from his discomfited expression just how challenging he had found it to choose caution over courage. ‘It would have been foolish to risk injury out here while you were incapacitated and without protection. I believe the men were mercenaries hired by a group of our subjects to ensure that you didn’t turn up for the wedding—’

‘Our…subjects?’ she queried.

‘We are in Ashur and the masked men were of Western origin…I think. Members of both royal households were aware of our travel plans so it will be hard to establish where the security leak occurred and who chose to take advantage of it and risk our lives. But it must be done—’

‘At least we’re not hurt.’

‘That doesn’t diminish the gravity of the crime.’ Raja dealt her a stern appraisal. ‘One of us could have had an allergic reaction to the drug we were given. Violence could have been used against us. Although our captors tried to talk as though this was intended to be a harmless prank, you might easily have suffered illness or injury alone out here. In addition, our disappearance will have cast both our countries into a very dangerous state of turmoil and panic.’

‘Oh, hell,’ Ruby groaned as he finished that sobering speech and she pushed her tousled hair off her brow and muttered in a small voice, ‘My head hurts.’

He touched her hand, realised her fingers were cold as ice and concern indented his brow. ‘I’ll light a fire—there is enough wood.’

‘What on earth are we going to do?’

With relaxed but economical movements, Raja began to light a small fire. ‘A search for us will already have begun. The Najari air force will mount an efficient rescue mission but they have a very large area to cover. We have food and shelter. This is an oasis and bedu tribesmen must come here sometimes to water their flocks. Many of them have phones and could quickly summon help. I could trek out to find the nearest settlement but I am reluctant to leave you alone—’