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One Hot Desert Night(4)

By:Kristi Gold

Rayad Rostam a nice guy? She frankly had her doubts about that.


Macho Man had a squirming toddler in his lap, and he didn't seem to mind.

Seated across from Rayad Rostam at the lengthy dining table, for the  past ten minutes Sunny had witnessed his remarkable patience with  brown-haired, chatty, two-year-old Cala, daughter of the former playboy  prince, Zain Mehdi, and his wife, Madison, the resident palace fixer of  all things scandalous. The patient sheikh didn't seem concerned that the  little girl had dotted his T-shirt with cheese cracker remnants. He  didn't appear to care when she poked at his mouth, as if it held some  sort of magic. Sunny suspected it probably did. The tolerant sheikh  simply kept his lips sealed against the intrusion and gently extracted  her hand from his face, followed by a kiss on her palm.

She certainly couldn't fault a guy who apparently had an affinity for  children. She also hadn't been able to ignore the furtive glances he'd  tossed her way during dinner, even though the to-die-for skewered  chicken, tasty cheese and hummus side dish should have earned all her  attention. Fortunately, no one else seemed to notice, thanks to the  ongoing adult conversation and occasional screech from an overstimulated  infant, namely her nephew, Sam.

When Cala wriggled from Rayad's lap, Sunny noticed discomfort pass over  his face as his hand went to his upper right side. The wound Piper  mentioned apparently involved his rib cage. Another mystery solved,  several more to go, including the hint of sadness in his eyes as Cala  turned and waved to him before claiming a spot in her father's lap.                       


But at the moment, the effects of jet lag had Sunny considering putting  off her sheikh fact-finding mission until a later date. And when the  queen and king rose from their chairs and excused themselves, followed  by Zain and Madison and their twins, she saw that as an excuse to make  her escape.

Sunny tossed her napkin aside, came to her feet and regarded Piper, who  was seated next to the silent Rayad. "Dinner was great," she began, "but  I really need to retire before I nod off in the dessert plate."

Piper stood and removed Sam from his highchair then turned him around to  face Sunny. "Tell your auntie good-night, sweetie." The baby responded  by flailing his arms around and making motoring noises.

"A chip off the old pilot block," Adan said, displaying a dimpled grin  as he stood with Rayad following suit. "I do hope you find your quarters  satisfactory, Sunny."

"They're more than satisfactory," she replied as she rounded the table  to kiss her nephew good-night, very aware that Rayad visually followed  her movements. "I'm sure I'll sleep well as soon as I take my nightly  walk. Any suggestions where I should do that?"

Adan nodded to the open dining room doors. "After you exit, take a right, and you'll find the entry to the courtyard."

"But be careful," Piper cautioned. "The grounds are like a maze. You  might want to grab some bread crumbs and leave a trail, just in case."

"I have a fairly good sense of direction, so no worries."

After giving her twin a hug, and bidding everyone good-night, Sunny left  the room and immediately located the doors leading to the expansive  garden. She followed the labyrinth of stone walkways using the  three-quarter moon as her guide, occasionally glancing behind her to  keep the palace within her sights. When the path ended at a low  retaining wall, she paused to study the twinkling lights dotting the  valley below. A warm November breeze ruffled her hair, bringing with it  the scent of exotic flowers. Back home the weather would be much cooler,  and much of the fragrant foliage gone until spring. But not in this  region. Most days brought pleasant weather, according to her hosts, yet  rain had been forecasted in the next couple of days.

Feeling surprisingly serene, she looked up at the night sky to study the  host of diamond-like stars. She welcomed the sense of peace she  experienced for the first time in quite some time...

"Have you lost your way?"

For the second time that day, Sunny's heart vaulted into her throat. She  spun around to face the familiar man standing in the shadows behind  her. "I'm not lost, and do you have some bizarre need to scare me to  death?"

"No. I was simply concerned for your well-being."

"Look, Mr....Sheikh... What exactly is your official title?"

He took a step toward her, his handsome face only partially revealed in the limited light. "You may call me Rayad."

She'd like to call him a few unflattering names at the moment, and she  would if he wasn't so darn intimidating-in an overtly male sort of way.  "Look, Rayad, I have traveled to some of the most remote places in the  world and navigated some of the most treacherous terrain. I can handle a  palace garden."

"A garden that has been known to house deadly insects and asps."

Just when her heart had returned to its rightful place, he'd mentioned  her biggest fear. Correction. Second biggest fear, if the truth were  known. "Really? Snakes?"


She refused to let him see her uneasiness. "Would that be the reptile or human variety?"

"I have not personally encountered either in this garden," he said  without even a touch of lightness in his tone. "However, I have been  conditioned to protect women. Therefore, I feel it is necessary to  ensure your safe return."

Her perfect opportunity to get to know him, but then he went and ruined  it with the whole he-man posturing. Now she was determined to make a  hasty escape and prove she could make it back to safety on her own. She  had survived much, much worse. "Not all women need protection, Sheikh  Rostam. Have a nice night."

After Sunny brushed past him, she paused to survey four directional  options, crossed her fingers and chose the path to her right.

"You are going the wrong way."

Somewhat annoyed by his interference, and her irritating female reaction  to the sexy timbre of his voice, she reluctantly faced him again. "I'm  sure every way eventually leads back to the palace."

He moved closer. "Not necessarily. If you continue on your current  course, you will reach the road leading to the village. And if not  careful, you could tumble down the cliff if you lose your footing."                       


Wasn't he just the bearer of good news? If she refused his offer, she  could be allowing pride to overrule safety, a mistake she'd already made  that had brought about severe consequences. If she accepted his aid,  she could find out what made him tick, and avoid falling to her death.  Option two sounded the most favorable, although not completely without  risk. "Fine. Lead the way."

After Rayad chose the trail heading in the opposite direction, Sunny  came to his side and kept her focus straight ahead. And as they walked a  few yards in silence, she mentally dashed through a list of subtle  questions, choosing the most logical query to begin her impromptu  interview. "Piper mentioned you'd recently suffered an injury during  military training."

"Broken ribs."

"Did you run into something?"

"A fist."

Definitely a man of few words, or two words, as the case might be.  "Must've been some tough hand-to-hand combat. Is training troops  primarily your duty?"

"No. Intelligence."

Figured. "So you're a spy guy, huh?"

"In a manner of speaking."

"I bet you have a code name like Scorpion, or perhaps Snake."

"That information is classified."

She wondered if he ever let down his guard, or smiled, for that matter. "How long have you been serving?"

"Twelve years. I entered the military at the age of twenty-one."

Progress. She now knew his age and that he was only six years her  senior. Not too bad. Not that their age difference should matter one  iota. "Are you married?" Now why had she asked that when she already  knew the answer?

"No, I am not."

"Have you ever been married?"

His long hesitation was a bit telling, or maybe she was reading too much  into it. Then it suddenly dawned on her that he might think she was  interested in him. Time to set the record straight. "I ask because I've  known quite a few military men who find it difficult to maintain a  marriage. Understandably so when they're away much of the time. And I  can relate with my line of work. Covering global news isn't conducive to  having a serious relationship."

He paused, reached down to his right, snapped a plumeria from one  grouping and offered it to her. "Have you been wed?" he asked as they  continued on.