Outside the soaring windows, the sky was a blazing, clear blue. The horizon shimmered with heat and the brown mountains in the distance appeared to wobble at their bases. Emily could see tall palm trees and a camel train plodding along. It was starkly different from anywhere else she’d been with Kadir thus far.

But it had a compelling beauty of its own and she wondered at Kadir’s seeming discomfort about returning to Kyr. Had his life in the palace been lonely? Harsh? Or maybe it was just boring and he much preferred his life now.

She found herself suddenly wanting to know more about him, about who he’d been as a child and why he seemed so intent on presenting his father and the royal court with a bride of whom they would not approve. Because if she knew anything at all about him, it was that he was brilliant and capable. He would handle inheriting a throne with the grace and skill with which he handled every business encounter she’d ever seen him in. Kadir was a born leader.

But Kadir wasn’t going to give her a chance to ask any questions just now. Instead, he steered her into a giant room filled with milling people—who instantly stopped what they were doing and sank to their knees as a man in a uniform bellowed something. She would have gasped at the sight if not for Kadir giving her a warning look.

It was extraordinary to see so many people drop so quickly, to hear the rustling of their clothing and the hush that spread over the room. Emily’s belly clenched tight as Kadir said something in Arabic. A second later, people rose, their gazes landing on her.

“Keep your chin up,” Kadir murmured, tucking her arm into his and anchoring her to his side.

“What is this?” she whispered back as panic began to unwind inside her.

“The daily audience. My father cannot attend, of course, and he’s asked me to do so in his stead.”

“Audience? Does this mean you have to sit somewhere and receive them one by one?”

“No. This is a formality. Their petitions to the throne are filtered through the functionaries and addressed by the king and council in session. Rarely, one of them receives a private audience. This is merely for appearances.”

Appearances. Emily gazed out over the crowd and felt her heart thrumming against her chest. Not because she wasn’t accustomed to attending large gatherings with Kadir, though she was usually standing behind him with a notebook and pen, but because she was so visible. And garnering more than a few stares.

“I don’t think they like me,” she muttered.

Kadir smiled. Somehow, it seemed as if it was for her alone. She told herself it was just a part of the mirage.

“That is the plan, is it not?” He squeezed her hand. “Now come, let us mingle. And don’t forget to hang on my every word.”

“Except I won’t understand a thing you say,” she grumbled.

He dipped his head toward hers, his breath whispering against her ear. “Then you can gaze at me lovingly instead.” His lips skimmed her cheek and sensation streaked down to her sex. It was shocking and alarming at once. If they weren’t in public, she would...

Emily blinked. No, she wouldn’t. She wouldn’t do a damn thing.

She forced herself to smile up at him, aware they were the center of attention. “I’ll do my best, Your Highness.”

He stopped his forward motion and gazed down at her, his brows drawing together. “Your Highness? I thought we had an understanding.”

She stood on tiptoe—odd to have to do that in heels, but there it was—and whispered in his ear. “Just reminding myself what’s really happening here. You are the prince. I’m the hoochie mama.”

He shook his head. “And here I thought I understood English. What is this hoochie thing, Emily?”

She could almost laugh at his confusion. Except the words hurt. She didn’t know why she’d said them in the first place, or why it stung so much—no, that wasn’t true. She did know. They made her think of her mother. Of what others had said about her mother when she’d run away with her lover.

Emily gave him a bright smile to hide her discomfort.

His eyes flashed hot. “You are not a hoochie mama. Or a whore, if I understand the meaning correctly.”

She could feel tears pricking at the backs of her eyes. She should not be surprised he’d understood. “It was just a joke, Kadir.”

His expression was fierce. “I won’t allow you to make jokes like that. Not about yourself. Not when it upsets you.”

She hadn’t expected him to be so perceptive. Her impression of Kadir did not include sensitivity—or a desire to protect her. Once more, she had to revise her opinion of him. Her heart throbbed. “It’s nothing. Forget I said it.”

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