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Jewel in His Crown(4)

By:Lynne Graham


WHEN Prince Raja walked into the solicitor’s office, Ruby was the first person he saw and indeed, in spite of the number of other people milling about the busy reception area, pretty much the only person he saw. The pretty schoolgirl in the holiday snap had grown into a strikingly beautiful woman with a tumbling mane of blonde hair, sparkling eyes and a soft, full mouth that put him in mind of a succulent peach.

‘You are Ruby Shakarian?’ the prince asked as a tall, even more powerfully built man came through the door behind him to station himself several feet away.

‘I don’t use that surname.’ Ruby frowned, wondering how many more royal dignitaries she would have to deflect before they got the hint and dropped this ridiculous idea that she was a princess. ‘Where did you get it from?’

‘Wajid Sulieman gave it to me and asked me to speak to you on his behalf. Shakarian is your family name,’ Raja pointed out with an irrefutable logic that set her small white teeth on edge.

‘I’m at work right now and not in a position to speak to you.’ But Ruby continued to study him covertly, absorbing the lush black lashes semi-screening those mesmerising eyes, the twin slashes of his well-marked ebony brows, the smooth olive-toned skin moulding his strong cheekbones and the faint dark shadow of stubble accentuating his strong jaw and wide, sensual lips. Her prolonged scrutiny only served to confirm her original assessment that he was a stunningly beautiful man. Her heart was hammering so hard inside her chest that she felt seriously short of breath. It was a reaction that thoroughly infuriated her, for Ruby had always prided herself on her armour-plated indifference around men and the role of admirer was new to her.

‘Aren’t you going for lunch yet?’ one of her coworkers enquired, walking past her desk.

‘We could have lunch,’ Raja pronounced, pouncing on the idea with relief.

Since his private jet had wafted him to Yorkshire and the cool spring temperature that morning, Prince Raja had felt rather like an alien set down on a strange planet. He was not used to small towns and checking into a third-rate local hotel had not improved his mood. He was cold, he was on edge and he did not relish the task foisted on him.

‘If you’re connected to that Wajid guy, no thanks to lunch,’ Ruby pronounced as she got to her feet and reached for her bag regardless because she always went home at lunchtime.

The impression created by her seemingly long legs in that photo had been deceptive, for she was much smaller than Raja had expected and the top of her head barely reached halfway up his chest. Startled by that difference and bemused by that hitch in his concentration, Raja frowned. ‘Connected?’ he queried, confused by her use of the word.

‘If you want to talk about the same thing that Wajid did, I’ve already heard all I need to hear on that subject,’ Ruby extended ruefully. ‘I mean…’ she leant purposefully closer, not wishing to be overheard, and her intonation was gently mocking ‘…do I look like a princess to you?’

‘You look like a goddess,’ the prince heard himself say, speaking his thoughts out loud in a manner that was most unusual for him. His jaw tensed, for he would have preferred not to admit that her dazzling oval face had reminded him of a poster of a film star he recalled from his time serving with the Najari armed forces.

‘A goddess?’ Equally taken aback, Ruby suddenly grinned, dimples adorning her rounded cheeks. ‘Well, that’s a new one. Not something any of the men I know would come up with anyway.’

In the face of that glorious smile, Raja’s fluent English vocabulary seized up entirely. ‘Lunch,’ he pronounced again stiltedly.

On the brink of saying no, Ruby recognised Steve waiting outside the door and almost groaned out loud. She knew the one infallible way of shaking a man off was generally to let him see her in the company of another. ‘Lunch,’ Ruby agreed abruptly, and she planted a determined hand on Raja’s sleeve as if to take control of the situation. ‘But first I have to go home and take my dog out.’

Raja was taken aback by that sudden physical contact, for people were never so familiar in the presence of royalty, and his breath rasped between his lips. ‘That is acceptable.’

‘Who is that guy over there watching us?’ Ruby asked in a suspicious whisper, long blonde hair brushing his shoulder and releasing a tide of perfume as fragrant as summer flowers into the air.

‘One of my bodyguards.’ Raja advanced with the relaxed attitude of a male who took a constant security presence entirely for granted. ‘My car is waiting outside.’

The bodyguard went out first, looked to either side, almost bumping into Steve, and then spread the door wide again for their exit.

‘Ruby?’ Steve questioned, frowning at the tall dark male by her side as she emerged. ‘Who is this guy? Where are you going with him?’

‘I don’t have anything more to say to you, Steve,’ Ruby stated firmly.

‘I have a right to ask who this guy is!’ Steve snapped argumentatively, his face turning an angry red below his fair, floppy fringe.

‘You have no rights over me at all,’ Ruby told him in exasperation.

As Steve moved forward the prince made an almost infinitesimal signal with one hand and suddenly a big bodyguard was blocking the younger man’s attempt to get closer to Ruby. At the same time the other bodyguard had whipped open the passenger door to a long sleek limousine.

‘I can’t possibly get into a car with a stranger,’ Ruby objected, trying not to stare at the sheer size and opulence of the car and its interior.

Raja was unaccustomed to meeting with such suspicious treatment and it off-balanced him for it was not what he had expected from her. In truth he had expected her to scramble eagerly into the limo and gush about the built-in bar while helping herself to his champagne like the usual women he dated. But if the angry lovelorn young man shouting Ruby’s name was typical of the men she met perhaps she was sensible to be mistrustful of his sex.

‘I live close by. I’ll walk back home first and meet you there.’ Ruby gave him her address and sped across the street at a smart pace, deliberately not turning her head or looking back when Steve called her name.

The prince watched her walk away briskly. The breeze blew back her hair in a glorious fan of golden strands and whipped pink into her pale cheeks. She had big eyes the colour of milk chocolate and the sort of lashes that graced cartoon characters in the films that Raja’s youngest relatives loved to watch. A conspicuously feminine woman, she had a small waist and fine curves above and below it. Great legs, delicate at ankle and knee. He wondered if Steve had lain between those legs and the shock of that startlingly intimate thought sliced through Raja as the limo wafted him past and he got a last look at her. A woman with a face and body like that would make an arranged marriage tempting to any hot-blooded male, he told himself impatiently. And just at that moment Raja’s blood was running very hot indeed and there was a heavy tightness at his groin that signified a rare loss of control for him.

Ruby took Hermione out on her lead and by the time she unlocked the front door again, with the little black and white dog trotting at her heels, the limousine was parked outside waiting for her. This time she noticed that as well as the bodyguard in the front passenger seat there was also a separate car evidently packed with bodyguards parked behind it. Why was so much security necessary? Who was this guy? For the first time it occurred to Ruby that this particular visitor had to be someone more important than Wajid Sulieman and his wife. Certainly he travelled in much greater style. Checking her watch then, she frowned. There really wasn’t time for her to have lunch with anyone and she dug out her phone to ring work and ask if she could take an extended lunch hour. The office manager advanced grudging agreement only after she promised to catch up with her work by staying later that evening.

As she stood in the doorway, Hermione having retreated to her furry basket in the living room, the passenger door of the limo was opened by one of the bodyguards. Biting her full lower lip in confusion, Ruby finally pulled the door of her home closed behind her and crossed the pavement.

‘I really do need to know who you are,’ she spelt out tautly.

For the first time in more years than he cared to recall, Raja had the challenge of introducing himself.

‘Raja and you’re a prince?’ she repeated blankly, his complex surname leaving her head as soon as she heard the unfamiliar syllables. ‘But who are you?’

His wide, sensual mouth quirked and he surrendered to the inevitable. ‘I’m the man Wajid Sulieman wants you to marry.’

And so great was the surprise of that admission that Ruby got into the car and sat back without further comment. This gorgeous guy was the man they wanted her to marry? He bore no resemblance whatsoever to her vague imaginings.

‘Obviously you’re from the other country, Najar,’ she specified, recovering her ready tongue. ‘A member of their royal family?’

‘I am acting Regent of Najar. My father, King Ahmed, suffered a serious stroke some years ago and is now an invalid. I carry out his role in public because he is no longer able to do so.’

Ruby grasped the fine distinction he was making. Although his father suffered from ill health the older man remained the power behind the throne, doubtless restricting his son’s ability to make his own decisions. Was that why Raja was willing to marry a stranger? Was he eager to assume power in Ashur where he could rule without his father’s interference? Ruby hated being so ignorant. But what did she know about the politics of power and influence within the two countries?