To Kiss a Sheikhñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
Fariq frowned down at Crystal as his chest rose and fell, his breathing uneven. “You are full of surprises,” he said. “As passionate and bright and mysterious as the desert.”
Her heart was racing and her pulse pounded in her ears. She didn’t know what to say. “Fariq, I—”
He let out a long breath as he touched the rim of her sunglasses. “My little jewel of the desert…let me see your eyes.”
He was going to take off her glasses? Suddenly adrenaline rushed through her, putting her mental circuits back online. She backed away from him, out of the circle of his arms. Her skin was clear of everything but sunscreen. Not a speck of makeup. But her hair was hanging around her face and she didn’t have on her long, shapeless clothes. Sunglasses were the only part of her disguise in place, her last defense.
And defense was definitely what she needed.
To Kiss a Sheikh
lives in Southern California with her hero husband, who is more than happy to share with her the male point of view. An avid fan of romance novels, she is delighted to be living out her dream of writing for Silhouette Books. Teresa has also written historical romances under the same name.
She felt like Clark Kent on a bad day.
Crystal Rawlins adjusted her large, ugly glasses making sure they covered as much of her face as possible. She wasn’t used to this limitation to her peripheral vision, but it was necessary for her disguise. Now it was showtime.
“I’m Crystal Rawlins,” she said to His Highness, Fariq Hassan, as they stood in his office, his polished, cherrywood desk beside them.
“Yes. The new nanny. Welcome to El Zafir, Miss Rawlins. I am pleased to meet you.”
He was the flesh-and-blood definition of tall, dark and wow. He could be the model for the handsome prince in a fairy tale. Smiling politely, he extended his hand.
Shake hands with the devil.
The unwitting thought raced through her mind as Crystal put her palm in his much larger one. She had no idea if he was a devil. But she discovered that his elegant fingers were warm and strong as he applied firm pressure to her own. For some reason, she hadn’t been prepared for his touch. The contact, although brief, sent her already fidgety nerves into a tap dance.
Normally when she reported for her first day on a job, she was wearing carefully applied makeup and an outfit that made her feel professional and confident.
But this wasn’t like any job she’d ever had in terms of circumstances, money or importance. And the stakes had never been so high before. In a twist of fate that defied logic, looking her best could get her fired. If that happened, who would pay her mother’s medical bills? Creditors were threatening to take everything she owned—including the house Crystal had grown up in—and it wasn’t going to happen on her watch.
“I am very pleased to meet you at last, Your Highness. I’ve done some research and discovered many wonderful things about your country. I’m grateful for the opportunity to work here.”
He was studying her. “Even though the contract is for three years? Vacations aside, it is a long time to be away from your home.”
“Job security is a good thing.”
He nodded approvingly. “It is indeed. As is stability for my children.”
“Your aunt said keeping the position filled has been a problem. Five nannies in a year, I believe?”
“Yes.” He frowned.
“I assure you that I have every intention of fulfilling my contract.”
“Good. I can see why my aunt spoke so highly of you after your meeting with her in New York.”
“Princess Farrah has excellent taste—” She stopped. That sounded terribly egotistical, and not at all what she’d meant. “That is, the princess seemed a fastidious and perceptive woman with excellent taste in fashion.”
“Also nannies, I hope.”
“And nephews,” she mumbled.
She looked around, taking a moment to catch her breath before her nerves started to show. Until that slip, she thought she’d managed to sound calm and in control. It was an act to go along with the new look.
“I said ‘and here.’ What a nice place you’ve got.”
Fariq was the father of the five-year-old twins she’d been hired to look after. It was important to get off on the right foot—and the left foot. She’d expected first-day-on-the-job jitters, but not like this; he was disturbingly good-looking. But she’d always believed beauty was only skin deep. Character came from within. This was her chance to put her money where her mouth was.
She was face to face with her boss, who, if not the best-looking man she’d ever seen, was certainly in the top three, and all she had going for her was her naked face. What she wouldn’t give for the crutch of cosmetics, or the props of high-heeled pumps and a tailored business suit.
Crystal was trying to pull off a plain appearance, as stated in the list of requirements for this position. That was a challenge for a former beauty queen, the pride and joy of her hometown, Pullman, Washington—population nine thousand when the university was in summer session. In that other life, success was all about appearance. This was the flip side of the coin—her moment of truth. Would the prince see past the hideous glasses, shapeless long-skirted navy suit, sturdy sensible shoes and hair pulled back from her face so tightly she looked like an ad for the facelift doctor not to use?
If he did, she would be sent packing, without the very generous salary that was the main reason she’d come here; the other reason being the opportunity to travel and experience life. That reason was important to her mother and had been the only way Crystal could get her to accept financial help.
“Please have a seat, Miss Rawlins.” He held out his hand, indicating the chair in front of his desk.
She sat and resisted the inclination to sigh in ecstasy at the soft, supple leather of the barrel-back chair.
“So,” he said, rounding his desk, then sitting behind it. He met her gaze. “How was your trip from—” he looked down at what was probably her employment paperwork “—Washington? The home of delicious apples, I believe.”
“Not in Pullman. It’s wheat—all wheat all the time. And my trip was very long, Your Highness. I lost track of how many time zones I crossed.”
Fariq Hassan was the middle of King Gamil’s three sons and apparently didn’t waste words. Her research on the fabulously wealthy royal family of this near-idyllic Middle-Eastern country revealed that they didn’t keep an especially low social profile. His younger brother, Rafiq, was something of a playboy. The eldest son, Crown Prince Kamal, heir to the country’s throne, was considered by the press to be the most eligible royal bachelor. And Fariq was a widower, sought after by some of the world’s most beautiful jet-setting women.
No wonder. It had taken her all of ten seconds to research the fact that Fariq was probably the best-looking prince she’d ever laid eyes on. Not as flippant as it sounded since he was the only prince she’d ever laid eyes on. But she’d seen pictures of all three Hassan brothers in tabloids and magazines. They could be trouble in triplicate to female hearts.
In addition to his tall, powerful physique, number two sheik’s black hair and smoldering good looks made it a real challenge to take her eyes off him. And Crystal took great satisfaction in her recently acquired skill of overlooking a handsome face. Just as Clark Kent was invulnerable to anything but Kryptonite, she was impervious to the charms of your average, ordinary, everyday, run-of-the-mill normal hunk. But Fariq Hassan was so not average, ordinary, everyday or normal.
“Are you recovered from your trip?” he asked politely.
“I’m getting there. Yesterday I felt like something the cat dragged in,” she admitted. “I probably looked that way, too,” she added, testing the waters.
“I’m sure that wasn’t the case.”
“You’re very kind. And I’m grateful for the chance to acclimate. I very much appreciated the time to rest up in order to make a favorable impression on you and the children.”
“Tell me about your experience with children.”
He studied her carefully but his eyes gave no hint of anything besides normal curiosity. If anyone had learned to pick up a blip of masculine interest on her feminine radar it was Crystal. She’d had enough unwelcome practice and she’d made up her mind not to be arm candy ever again. His neutral reaction was a sign her masquerade was working. So why was she vaguely disappointed that he didn’t find her the tiniest bit attractive?
“I paid my way through college with money I earned doing child care.” And scholarship money for placing second in a local beauty pageant. “My degree is in elementary education. After graduation, I took a position for a year with a well-to-do family in Seattle. You probably have my letters of recommendation in front of you.”
“Your references are impeccable. A degree in education?” he asked, meeting her gaze.
Those black eyes of his seemed to see right through her. Like X-ray vision. She might be a Clark Kent in training, but which one of them was really a super hero in disguise?
“Eventually I’d like to teach.” She sat up as tall as she possibly could and pulled her shoulders back, meeting his gaze in what was her best I’ve-got-nothing-to-hide attitude.
“You have no desire for a family of your own?” One midnight-dark eyebrow lifted.
“Someday. But there are things I want to do before love, marriage and children.”
“In that order?”
“What other order would there be?”
A corner of his mouth curved upward. “Children then marriage.”
Her cheeks grew hot at the suggestion of bedding before wedding. That arrangement raised no eyebrows in this day and age and she didn’t judge anyone else for it. But there was something about talking so intimately with this man that just made her burn all over.
She shifted in her leather chair, then met his gaze. “Your Highness, I’m not so naive that I don’t know this happens. But not to me.”
“I see. But don’t American women pride themselves on the ability to have a career and family at the same time? What is the point in waiting, Miss Rawlins?”
“Because that’s not the way I want to do it. I adore children, which is why I chose a career in education. And when I have my own, I intend to stay home and raise them. But when the time is right, I’ll go back to work. My teaching schedule will allow me to spend holidays and vacations with my children.”
“Ah. A planner. Very organized.” He frowned.
“On the contrary. I find the characteristic quite refreshing.”
He didn’t look as if he found it refreshing. He looked as though he didn’t believe her. She clasped her hands together and rested them in the her lap. “May I ask you something?”
“Forgive me if this sounds impertinent, but as an educator I’ve learned it’s important to create an atmosphere where no question is perceived as stupid.”
His mouth turned up. “I see. Now that you’ve qualified yourself, please, ask your stupid question.”
She wasn’t quite sure if he was laughing at her or not. But she decided not to let it put her off. She was who she was, and because of his children, they would be dealing with each other. It was important for him to be clear on the fact that she was a woman who spoke her mind.
“It’s not actually a stupid question. It’s along the lines of a stupid clarification. This…talk we’re having feels more like an interview than a meet-and-greet.”
“You know—we introduce ourselves and you welcome me to your country. Which you’ve done quite nicely. But I was under the impression that I’d already been hired for the position.”
He nodded. “Aunt Farrah was most impressed with you, and I respect her opinion very much. But these are my children, Miss Rawlins. The final decision is mine.”
“So if you disagree with Princess Farrah—”
“You will be on the first plane back to the United States,” he stated bluntly.
“Which brings up another question.”
“A stupid one?” He flashed a grin taking any sting—perceived or otherwise—from the words.
“I…I hope not.” She cleared her throat. “Why did you require an American nanny? Why not a woman from your own country, familiar with El Zafirian customs?”
“I will teach my children about their country. As will the rest of my family. But many of our business dealings are in the West, and, by virtue of their birth, Hana and Nuri will be involved in service to El Zafir. They will be required to interact with representatives of America. You will be able to prepare them for this, which someone from my country could not. It is a requirement I think very important.”
She swallowed. “About the position’s qualifications, Your Highness.”
“They were not plain enough?”
“Interesting you phrased it that way. May I ask why a plain woman is required?”
“Actually I believe the phrasing was ‘a plain, unobtrusive American woman with some intelligence, who is good with children.”’
Crystal figured she could be as unobtrusive as the next woman and it had taken a reasonable degree of smarts for her to get through college. She was the youngest of five children, and all of her older siblings had kids she adored. The “good with children” part she wasn’t worried about. It was the “plain” part that puzzled her.
For fun she’d looked up the definition which ranged from discreet and simple to ugly and unattractive. Did he realize that she could be insulted by the phrasing? Mostly she was curious.
“I understand the significance of the rest. But your aunt didn’t explain why ‘plain’ is important.”
“Because beautiful women are…” He hesitated and his eyes turned hard—icy and hot at the same time. His mouth thinned to a straight line.
“Are what?” she asked, shivering at the expression on his face.
“An unwelcome distraction.”
She’d expected arrogance. She’d prepared herself for arrogance. She hadn’t been disappointed. Still, until she’d brought up the current subject, his royal arrogance had exuded a warmth and politeness that she found disarming and completely charming. His sudden coolness told her he had a story, and it wouldn’t surprise her if a beautiful woman was involved. She was curious to know what had happened to him. And she might just be here long enough to find out—if he didn’t see through her disguise and send her packing.
Then his comment really sank in and pushed her buttons. Beautiful women an unwelcome distraction? It was no fault of his if he became distracted? A knot of annoyance tightened inside her. Apparently there was no way to adequately prepare for his brand of arrogance. She was raised to take responsibility for her actions, but maybe a sheik could get away with blaming others for his flaws.
“Your Highness,” she began. “Let me make sure I understand. If you are unable to stay on task, as we say in the education field, it is the fault of the woman—if she happens to be beautiful?”
Again she lifted her chin and met his gaze straight on, letting him get a good look at her. If her disguise couldn’t hold up under scrutiny, it was best to know now. She’d considered a wig, buck teeth and a fake wart on her nose. In this situation, she felt simplicity was the cornerstone of success. Yet she’d always been unable to suspend her disbelief when no one could tell that Clark Kent was who he really was—merely because he slicked down his hair and wore unappealing glasses. There was still that mouthwatering body. A hunk by any other name… Right?
She didn’t consider herself beautiful—not in the leagues Prince Fariq Hassan played in. But back home she’d had her share of attention, not all positive. She had the scars to prove it. She didn’t think her looks, or lack thereof, should be the basis for whether or not she was qualified to care for his children.
They stared at each other for several moments, and she wished he would say something. She figured this was where her mouth had yet again written a check her cockiness couldn’t cash. Still, it was better to know now—for both of them. And especially for the children.
“Let me see if I understand the question,” he said. There was a gleam in his eyes that could be humor. “If I am unable to concentrate in the presence of a beautiful woman you are asking who’s to blame?”
“That about sums it up.”
“It’s her fault, of course.”
Again she didn’t know whether or not he was joking and decided to behave as if he wasn’t. “Then there’s something you need to know about me before we go any further.”
He folded his hands together, then placed them on his desk as he leaned forward. “What is that?”
“The foundation of my philosophy in dealing with children is that one always needs to take responsibility for one’s actions.”
“And there’s something you should know about me.”
“What is that?”
“I’m not a child. And I’m never wrong.”
He was so inherently masculine in such a very primal way that his first statement bordered on ludicrous. “Duh” was her instinctive mental response and nearly distracted her from the swagger in his second statement. Never wrong?
“It’s always good to know where your employer stands on an issue,” she said. “Assuming you still are my employer. Or that I’m your employee.” She held her breath.
“I think my aunt has chosen well. You’ll do nicely.”
Crystal realized she should have been elated that she’d passed muster. She was in. Hired. She’d cleared the hurdle. Before meeting the prince it was what she’d hoped to do. Unfortunately, now that her job was in the bag, she felt oddly deflated at her rousing success. He believed she was as plain as she pretended. How about them apples?
Most people associated all of Washington state with apples. Even Fariq had. Which just goes to show you should never assume anything. But he took her clothes, hair and glasses at face value and looked no further.
She sighed. Oddly enough, she felt that life could be compared to an apple—at its core. You could always count on the fact that there were seeds to spit or swallow and Fariq was hers. And yet she had to respect the man. In spite of a thumbs-up from a trusted family member and the fact that people in his position paid others to raise their children, he loved his kids so much he’d insisted on meeting her. It was obviously important to him to see for himself and approve of the person who would care for them.
“I’m very anxious to meet the children,” she said. If this were an interview, she would be guilty of leading it. But technically it wasn’t. And she was eager to meet her charges.
“I will take you to them and introduce you.” There was a note of pride in his voice and a tender look in his eyes.
He stood and rounded the desk, then held out his arm indicating she should precede him. She stopped at the heavy wooden door. At the same time they both reached out to open it, and their hands touched.
“Allow me,” he said. His butterscotch-and-brandy voice made her shiver.
In the hall outside his office, she looked around. Her low-heeled shoes sank into the thick, plush carpet. Wood paneling lined walls hung with ornately framed enhanced photos of El Zafir in various stages of development.
In all her life she’d never seen such luxury as she had since arriving at the palace. Marble floors, grand staircases, a fountain in the foyer, lush gardens. There were sinfully expensive furnishings and gold fixtures everywhere—priceless art, paintings, vases and tapestries, oh, my.
And big. The number of rooms in this place would give an army of Molly Maids a lifetime of job security. Not to mention a girl could walk off a whole lot of chocolate indulgence here. “Wow” didn’t do justice to her feelings, but it was the first word that kept coming to mind.
When she’d arrived in the business wing for her meeting with the prince, her nerves had obscured her surroundings. Now that she’d passed the first hurdle, she noticed a lot more. There were four offices. The king’s was first, then the crown prince, followed by Fariq’s, where she now stood. To her right at the end of the hall was the last one, and she guessed it belonged to Rafiq, the youngest of the brothers. She thought she heard children’s voices, then shrieks of laughter.
Glancing up—way up—at her employer and guide, she cocked her thumb in the direction of the noise and said, “They went thataway.”
“A reference to the B-Westerns of your country,” he commented.
“You know the expression.”
“I attended college and graduate school in America.”
“Of course. I knew that.”
They turned into the last office and there on the leather sofa against the wall sat two children and a man who could only be Fariq’s brother. A little girl sat on one knee and was messing up his hair. At the same time Prince Rafiq was tickling the boy who occupied his other knee, the child shrieking with laughter at the same time he begged him to stop. No doubt these were the five-year-old twins who would be in her care.
“And they say men are incapable of multitasking,” Crystal couldn’t resist saying.ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî