The sheikh would have taken the words of wisdom to heart if it had come from anyone but Raj. The other man may be his childhood friend, but Khal also knew the other royal to be a heartless womanizer. The Sheikh of Najma was definitely not the best adviser when it came to matters of the heart.
It had been a week since the scandal between Ella and Layla’s heir had broken out, and yet instead of fading, the news had only spread further, as if someone was deliberately fanning the flames.
And of course Khal knew who that person was.
‘We’re fortunate that whoever stole those photos did not reveal the contents,’ Luke had told him. “The person only made sure that Lady Ella and Sheikh of Layla’s names are seen in the pictures.’
‘It only means the owner of those photos is biding his or her time. Keep everyone digging for paper trails. No expense should be spared. I want results as soon as possible.’
That had been three days ago, and progress had been disturbingly slow. While the sheikh’s trust in Luke was implicit, Khal was frustrated by the amount of time that was being wasted. The more days that passed, the more his kingdom’s people were unwittingly turning into his half-sister’s puppets.
Seething with frustration at his inability to turn the tides, the sheikh cursed under his breath, saying curtly to Raj, “Let’s make a run for it.”
The two men urged their horses down the dunes and charged past oases and a field of cacti. By the time both sheikhs paused to rest, the sun had started to set, and its moribund rays had turned the sand into a deeper shade of red.
“You’ve found your thoughts yet?” Raj asked quietly.
Khal didn’t answer.
“You know old Luke is right,” Raj murmured. “She is American, and she has only been in your kingdom for a few months. Is it reasonable to expect her to memorize the millions of rules we have governing our lives?”
“We memorized them easily enough, didn’t we?” Khal said harshly. “In any case, that is beside the point. I have expressly forbidden her to have anything to do with that man, and she disobeyed me.” The sheikh’s mouth set in a cruel line as he remembered how furious and betrayed he had felt when Luke showed him the tabloids.
She had promised, dammit!
Raj chose his next words with caution, with his friend looking more like the warlords of the old than a modern-day sheikh who ruled from a fairytale castle. “Obedience is sweeter when earned and given freely, Khal. Forgive the girl, and allow her to learn that the obedience you demand is not to take away her freedom but to protect her.”
“Even if I forgive her, it may not be enough to change her fate,” Khal said bitterly. “If I do not find a way to resolve this nightmare she’s created, she may just have to marry Sheikh Mik’hail or be banished from the kingdom forever.”
The door to the sheikh’s private suite was open. Through the sliver of space, I was able to see the sheikh, still seated behind his desk. If I wasn’t mistaken, he had been signing contracts for the past twenty minutes.
I tapped the soldier stationed outside the door. “Jack?” I whispered.
“Yes, Lady Ella?” he whispered even while he remained in his post, eyes straight, back stiff, and legs braced apart like he was ready for a battle any second.
“Has he just come back?”
“He’s been back since this morning, Lady Ella.”
“Oh.” My gaze strayed back to the door. “Jack?” I whispered again.
“Do you think he’s still mad at me because of the tabloid thing?”
“I will pray that he’s not, milady,” the soldier answered tactfully.
My shoulders slumped, knowing it meant Jack thought the sheikh was still mad at me. And who could blame him?
Just get it over with, Ella, I urged myself as I paced in front of the sheikh’s study, still in my uniform since I had rushed here the moment I learned from Luke that the sheikh was back.
I caught sight of my reflection on the oval mirror hanging on the wall opposite the sheikh’s room.
Just two words, Ella, I told my mirror image.
Two words and you could finally get to speak with the sheikh again.
Giving myself a count to three, I took a deep breath then positioned myself in front of the door, in full view of the sheikh.
I opened my mouth—-
Inside the room, the sheikh stirred in his seat, his head about to lift—-
My courage fled.
I quickly moved away from the door, my nerves shot to hell.
Had he seen me?
What if he did?
Would he tell the soldier outside his room to give me the boot?
When seconds passed, and the sheikh remained inside, I allowed myself to breathe a sigh of relief.
My courage back to level zero, I started pacing again. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. But even as I rehearsed my two-word speech in my mind, I couldn’t help wallowing in self-pity.