A combination of nerves, heat exhaustion and tightly leashed fury tied Jamilla Omar Roussel’s stomach into knots as she watched the Zafari royal jet, its red and gold insignia glinting in the sunshine, land on the desert airstrip.
She glanced surreptitiously at her watch for about the ten thousandth time that afternoon.
You’re an hour late, you—
She cut off the name she wanted to call Dane Jones—the jet’s illustrious passenger, and the man she was here to greet officially on behalf of her employer, Sheikh Karim Jamal Amari Khan—before it could properly register, let alone spill out of her mouth.
She would not stoop to the same level as the Manhattan playboy being flown in to replace her employer by calling him names.
Jones was Karim Khan’s half-brother, the result of King Abdullah’s rocky marriage to his fourth wife, American socialite Kitty Jones. And even if Jones didn’t use his father’s surname or his royal title and had never even visited his homeland since his parents’ divorce at the age of five, he was the only person Zafar’s rather traditional ruling council would accept to represent the country in Karim’s absence. The important trade mission to Europe had been in the offing for two years and was due to start next week, but Karim and Orla had decided to remain in their home in Ireland with their three-year-old son Hasan to await the birth of their twins when Orla had been diagnosed with gestational hypertension two days ago. Karim had refused point-blank to leave his family to embark on the tour alone and as many of the dates and events could not be rearranged at such short notice, calling on his half-brother to step in had been the only way to avoid cancelling the tour altogether.
Anxious concern for her friend Orla tightened the knots in Jamilla’s stomach…
You can do this, Milla. You have to.
At the age of only twenty-four she had just become the Zafari royal family’s chief diplomatic aide. She spoke six languages fluently—plus the four local dialects. She had a master’s degree in political science from the neighbouring University of Narabia and in the last few years had worked her way up from being the Queen’s personal assistant at the palace to Karim and Orla’s right-hand woman in affairs of the Zafari state… Orla’s pregnancy scare had handed Jamilla a sudden promotion which she would never have expected, or wanted in these circumstances, but which was still an opportunity to consolidate her position in the royal court. And finally offer her a chance to travel to countries outside the kingdom.
An exciting, challenging opportunity she absolutely refused to fail at.
And not just because it would give her career an impressive boost if she could pull this off—and turn a Manhattan playboy into a royal prince—but because Karim and Orla and Zafar were counting on her.
She dabbed her brow with her now sodden tissue while blinking furiously to keep the sweat—which had gone from a trickle to a flood ten minutes ago—out of her eyes. As the luxury jet taxied to a stop, she reviewed the detailed itinerary for the coming week of preparations in Zafar, which she had finalised late last night and had planned to brief the stand-in head of state on during the two-hour drive back to the Palace of the Kings. A cloud rose from the runway, covering her and the delegation of officials standing next to her to greet their new temporary head of state too in a spray of fine grit.
Their exceptionally late new temporary head of state.
Jamilla gritted her teeth against the wave of misery, and pressed sweaty palms to the tailored knee-length grey pencil skirt she’d donned that morning, but which now felt like a damp straitjacket. She’d opted for a modern professional look over traditional garb. Unfortunately, when choosing not to wear the full, flowing dark desert robes intended to maintain a woman’s modesty as much as regulate her body heat, Jamilla hadn’t factored in the practical aspects of wearing a fitted designer suit and four-inch heels for any length of time in the afternoon sun.
She straightened her spine, swallowed down the increasingly persistent nausea and ignored the low-grade headache gripping her skull. Once she had greeted the American billionaire and introduced him to the long line of dignitaries, she would forego the briefing and take the opportunity to relax in the front seat of the air-conditioned limo while they travelled back to the Palace.
She was far too frazzled now to think clearly—and she probably looked an absolute state, not at all the first impression she had intended to make. While she had planned to hit the ground running today—as they had only eight days before flying to Europe to begin their royal tour—it would make more sense to ease Jones in slowly. Tomorrow would be soon enough to arrange their first proper briefing—and give Jamilla the chance to set the right tone for their future working relationship.
She lifted an arm, heavy with fatigue, to shield her eyes from the brutal sunshine as the ground crew wheeled the jet’s metal stairs into place and the door opened.
The elderly ruling council member who had travelled to New York to accompany Dane Jones back to the kingdom on Karim’s orders appeared first, followed by his staff, the cabin crew, the pilot and the co-pilot. As they all exited the aircraft, then either climbed into cars to head back to the Palace or joined the welcoming committee, the jet’s door remained open for two… Three… Curse it, four more minutes.
What is he waiting for? An even bigger entrance? Hasn’t he delayed us all enough already?
Jamilla was ready to weep, the sweat stains on her suit now probably visible from space, when a tall, broad figure appeared in the plane’s doorway.
He made his way down the aircraft stairs.
She blinked, wiped her brow again, her heart jumping into her throat as something warm and solid wedged itself between her damp thighs.
She pushed a breath out, drew in another.
She’d seen photos of Dane Jones in the celebrity magazines and websites she checked each month—purely for professional purposes. She needed to know who was who in the VIP world, as the Khans enjoyed hosting events in the kingdom. Although Karim’s half-brother had never accepted any of the invitations Jamilla had extended to him, she knew he was an exceptionally handsome man. Not really surprising, given that he was Karim’s blood relation.
But as he stepped onto the desert floor, a leather bag slung over his shoulder, her gaze absorbed every breathtaking detail. The fluid, almost predatory gait, the worn jeans hanging loosely on narrow hips, the black T-shirt moulded to defined pecs, the chiselled cheekbones, the heavy stubble covering a hard jaw and the wavy hair—a burnished bronze streaked with sun-bleached gold—long enough to curl around his ears, topped by a baseball cap with a New York Yankees logo.
She swallowed past the lump of something raw and unfamiliar in her throat.
She sucked in another crucial breath, beginning to feel light-headed—which had to be the heat, surely. As Dane Jones strode towards her, he lifted his head to reveal dark aviator sunglasses. His head dipped, his gaze cruising the length of her body, and no doubt taking in the sodden power suit. She felt the searing perusal everywhere as the temperature shot up another few thousand degrees.
‘Hey,’ he said, his voice a husky rasp, as if he’d just woken up. Maybe he had.
They’d been informed the delegation from Zafar had been forced to wake him up at his penthouse apartment when he hadn’t shown up at the airport for the flight.
Probably far too busy sleeping off a hangover with one of his many girlfriends.
Jamilla cut off the thought, which had conjured up an unhelpful image of the man in front of her stark naked.
‘Dane Jones,’ he added by way of introduction, while she stood there speechless. Why couldn’t she talk right now? ‘If you’re the welcoming committee, let’s go. It’s like a damn oven out here.’
‘Your… Your Highness,’ she began, finally managing to ease a word out of her bone-dry throat. ‘I am Jamilla Omar Roussel…’ She began the spiel she’d rehearsed. ‘I’ve been assigned as your top diplomatic aide and advisor during your tenure as Zafar’s head of state for the European tour and trade mission. Let me introduce you to…’ She lifted her arm to indicate the line of dignitaries who had been waiting in the hot sun for far too long and looked stiff with expectation. Before she could remember any of their names, her mind a fuzzy mess, though, he interrupted her.
‘Your what, now?’ he asked.
‘Excuse me?’ She dropped her leaden arm.
‘What did you just call me?’ he asked, a muscle ticking in the stubble on his jawline.
‘Your Highness…Your Highness,’ she replied.
He sighed, pulling off the cap, and swept his fingers through the mass of wavy hair. ‘Yeah, I thought so. Don’t.’
‘Don’t what, Your Highness?’ she said, having lost the thread of the conversation, her mind turning to mush under the wave of displeasure rolling off him.
‘Don’t call me that,’ he said, then muttered something under his breath that she felt sure was not polite. ‘I’m a US citizen. I answer to my name; that’s it. So call me Dane, or Jones, or don’t call me anything at all…’
‘But, Your Highness, you are a direct blood descendant of the house of Al Amari Khan and second in line to the Zafar throne after Crown Prince Hasan…’ she began, the hot weight jammed between her legs joined by a flare of heat in her cheeks.
‘Yeah, I get that—’ he interrupted her again ‘—or I wouldn’t have had to fly eight thousand miles to this godforsaken…’ He cut off the words, but she heard the sentiment and the snap of temper. And her own temper—which had been ruthlessly controlled—snapped back.
Why was he so annoyed? What he had been asked to do was an honour of the highest order. And Zafar wasn’t godforsaken. Quite the contrary; it was blessed. Especially since Karim had gained the throne five years ago and begun a bold quest to turn the country back into a constitutional monarchy after his father’s disastrous rule, and bring its depleted infrastructure into the twenty-first century.
‘I’m doing this for my brother and his wife, end of.’ He cut into her thoughts, the snap of anger slicing through her composure. ‘He asked me, so I came,’ he added, not sounding at all happy about it. ‘At considerable expense and inconvenience to me and my business. I had to move a ton of stuff around and bump two major openings into the summer. Here’s hoping when we’re through, Karim and his cute wife will have two more healthy kids to add to their brood, so I’ll be so far down the line of succession no one will ever ask me to do something like this again. But I’m not happy about it. I’m not royal, and I could not give a damn about this country or its future. My life is in New York. So calling me Your Highness is just gonna piss me off more. Okay? So don’t do it. Because you won’t like me much when I’m pissed.’
‘I don’t like you much now.’
Did I just say that out loud?
Shock came first, swiftly followed by horror. As her caustic comment echoed across the desert floor, shooting past Dane Jones’s tall, indomitable frame and the stunned dignitaries, then echoed around the gleaming jet, the line of chauffeur-driven limos, the grey airport building and boomed out over the inhospitable terrain towards the Palace of the Kings two hours’ drive away and probably as far as the Kholadi tribal lands two hundred miles to the north and the neighbouring kingdom of Narabia six hundred miles to the east.
A curse word her mother would have soundly slapped her for even knowing let alone thinking crossed Jamilla’s fevered brain—she bit into her lip to stop it bursting out into the fetid, febrile air too.
‘I beg your pardon, Your Highness,’ she managed, wanting to die on the spot. Or at the very least melt into the puddle which had been forming at her feet.
He didn’t say anything. But she could feel that hot, searing gaze on every inch of her skin, making her heart pound hard enough to be heard in Narabia too. The nausea turned the giant knots in her stomach into enormous hanks of rope.
She couldn’t believe it. She’d torpedoed the career opportunity of a lifetime—less than two minutes after meeting him. He would have her replaced. Of course he would. He was a king—or, rather, a king’s brother—and she was supposed to be guiding him through this assignment with tact and diplomacy, not telling him what she actually thought of him.
She waited for the axe to fall, busy reconfiguring her once stunning resumé in her head, aware of the horrified looks being sent her way by the ruling council members and the other dignitaries. But, just as a wave of panic threatened to engulf her whole body, Dane Jones yanked off his sunglasses, revealing the most piercing blue eyes she had ever seen in her life. A spark twinkled in the deep cerulean blue, the tanned skin around his eyes crinkled as his gaze narrowed and she got the impression he was seeing her properly for the first time.
Then he threw back his head and roared with laughter.