She kept her makeup subtle, concentrating on her eyes and adding a touch of pink gloss to her lips. When she was satisfied she looked presentable, she grabbed her small clutch and went to meet Malik.
He was standing in the entryway, waiting. She hesitated when she caught sight of him, but he looked up just then and she could do nothing except stride boldly forward. He’d always been gorgeous in a tuxedo, but tonight he made her heart ache with longing. He wore a black dishdasha, embroidered at the sleeves and hem in gold thread. His keffiyeh was the traditional dark red. Somehow the framing around his face succeeded in drawing her attention to his mouth.
That bold, sensual mouth that had taken her to heaven and back.
She looked away, determined not to think about it. And yet she could feel the heat rising, flaring beneath her skin. Between her thighs. A tingle of sensation began deep inside, whether she wanted it to or not.
How could she still be attracted to him when he’d hurt her so badly? He didn’t want her, not really. He’d thought she was a mistake. It was too much like growing up in the perfect Reed family, where she was the imperfect one. The mistake. Her family was blond, tanned, gorgeous, ambitious, successful. She was none of those things.
“Do not fear, Sydney,” Malik said, mistaking her inability to look him in the eye for shyness. “You look lovely. The king and queen will not find fault with you.”
“Thank you,” she replied. Because there was nothing else to say. Not without sounding pitifully insecure and needy.
Soon, they were exiting the house and climbing into a sleek silver Bugatti. The engine roared like a tiger as Malik accelerated onto the thoroughfare. She turned her head, gazed at the city lights instead of at him. The sports car was super expensive, but the interior was small. He sat so close to her. Too close.
She could smell his skin, the scent of his shampoo. She could feel his heat as if he were curled around her.
Or maybe that was her heat as her body reacted to him.
His voice sliced into the silence. “My brother does not know why you are here.”
Sydney whipped her head around to stare at him. For a moment she wondered if she’d heard him correctly. But no, that was what he’d said. “You didn’t tell him about the divorce? Why not?”
Malik’s fingers on the wheel were strong, sure. She dragged her gaze from them and concentrated on the stubborn set of his handsome jaw.
“Because it is our business, not anyone else’s.”
She could only gape at him. “But we’ve been apart for over a year. Don’t you imagine he’s suspicious?”
“People do attempt to reconcile, Sydney.” He glanced into the rearview mirror, changed lanes smoothly and quickly. “Unless you wish to spill our personal problems tonight, I suggest you pretend to be happy.”
Pretend to be happy. As if a river of hurt had not passed between them. As if she could simply flip a switch and act as if her heart hadn’t broken because of this man. “I’m not sure I can do that.”
He shot her an exasperated look. “It’s not difficult. Smile. Laugh. Don’t glare at me.”
She folded her arms across her breasts. “Easier said than done,” she muttered.
Malik’s fingers flexed on the wheel, his tension evident. “It’s one night, Sydney. I think you can handle it.”
Ten minutes later, they were driving through the palace gates and pulling up to the massive entry. Malik told her to wait, then came around and helped her from the car. He tucked her arm into his and led her toward the entry. All along the red carpet lining the walkway, men in uniform bowed as they passed.
And then they were inside the palace, and Sydney was trying very hard not to crane her neck. She’d seen opulence before, of course. She’d shown houses to the very rich, and she’d lived with Malik for a month in Paris. She knew what wealth could do.
But this place was more than she’d expected. Crystal chandeliers, mosaic tiles, Syrian wood inlaid with mother-of-pearl, Moorish arches and domes, delicate paintings on silk, marble floors.
Her heels clicked across the tiles, the sound echoing back down to her from the vaulted ceiling. “Did you grow up here?” she asked, and then wished she hadn’t spoken. Her voice sounded very loud in the silent rooms, as if she’d shouted the question rather than whispered it.
“No,” he said curtly. His body was tense, but a moment later she sensed a softening in him. As if he were trying to follow his own advice and pretend they were not on the edge of disaster. “My family was not in the direct line for the throne. Adan came to power when our cousin died, and then our uncle afterward. It has been an adjustment for all of us, but for him most of all.”