Hidden in the Sheikh's Harem: Christmas at the Castello(7)

By: Michelle Conder

‘And I know you’re not a man even though you’re dressed like one. I didn’t know Hajjar allowed women in his army of rebels.’

She stiffened slightly. ‘Who I am is not important.’

Zach leant his head back against the pole and watched her. She was quite petite overall and was probably less than one twenty, now that he got a good look at her. Maybe one ten, he assessed with the clinical precision left over from his army days.

The taut silence lengthened between them but he knew it wouldn’t take her long to break it. Her energy was twitchy despite her outwardly cool composure.

‘I want to make a deal with you,’ she finally said.

A deal?

The rage he’d been feeling earlier that had been eclipsed momentarily by curiosity returned with full force. He controlled it but barely. ‘Not interested.’ He knew Nadir would be looking for him—and if he didn’t get here soon he had his own escape plans—and then he’d bring hell down on Mohamed Hajjar for holding him like this.

The girl’s eyes flashed darkly before she subdued them. ‘You haven’t heard what I’m offering yet.’

‘If you wanted to gain my attention you should have worn less.’ He raked her body with his impassive gaze. ‘A lot less. Possibly nothing at all, although even then I’m not sure you have what it takes to hold my interest.’

A lie, because for some reason she already had it. But his taunt had hit its mark if her little gasp was anything to go by.

‘My father is right. You’re a lowly dog who doesn’t deserve to rule our country.’

‘Your father?’

Farah Hajjar? Mohamed’s daughter? Well, well, wasn’t that interesting? His gaze raked her again and he nearly smiled when he caught the self-disgusted look that crossed her face at her mistake. He hadn’t expected the old guy to send his daughter to do his bidding. Was he hoping Zach would somehow be seduced into making a deal? If he was, he was going to be disappointed because, despite his reaction to her voice, Zach had never been attracted to Bakaani women. A shrink would no doubt tell him that it was because of the amount of arranged marriages his father had tried to foist on him. But Zach just preferred blondes. ‘I didn’t think your father considered himself a part of Bakaan but it’s nice to know that he still does.’

‘He...’ She stopped and Zach could see she was trying to rein her temper in. She took a deep breath and slammed her hands on her hips, drawing his attention to their feminine curve. Not going to help, sweetheart.

‘If you agree to let our region formally separate from Bakaan,’ she said, ‘I’ll let you go.’

‘You’ll let me go?’

He laughed and she paced away from him, her stride long, and he realised she wasn’t as small as he’d first assumed: maybe five-seven, five-eight. She stopped abruptly, facing him. ‘Your family has suppressed our people for long enough.’

Now that was something he couldn’t argue with. He didn’t condone how his father had ruled Bakaan, and he’d even considered launching a coup against him himself, but his mother would have been devastated. ‘I haven’t done anything to the people of Bakaan.’ But he couldn’t allow her tribe to secede from the kingdom because others might follow and the country would get picked over by their neighbours, seeking to secure Bakaan’s oil reserves for themselves.

‘You haven’t done anything for them either,’ she countered, ‘even though you’ve been back and have controlled the army for the last five years.’

‘And when was the last time that army attacked any of your people, or any other country, for that matter?’ Zach bit out, surprised that her attitude had got to him.

‘You’re saying you’re responsible for peace?’ She scoffed.

‘I’m saying that, for all your big talk, your father has potentially instigated a war by his current actions. Not me.’ Her face paled at that and his eyes narrowed. ‘Something to think about, sweetheart, before you run off at the mouth with your uneducated accusations!’

‘You only think they’re uneducated because I’m a woman. I know more than you think, Your Highness.’

She loaded his title with as much derision as she could muster, which was a pretty impressive amount. But her spunk only irritated him more. ‘A woman?’ he taunted. ‘I’ve known skunks that smell better than you. I would advise against marketing the scent. It’s not all that appealing.’

Her eyes flashed darkly in the dying light. ‘As if I would want to appeal to you,’ she returned scathingly.