The Sultan's Harem Bride(7)By: Annie West
‘My by-line is always Jacqui Fletcher.’
‘But you were identified as Jacqueline in the official reports.’ Accusation rang in his tone and she flinched.
Jacqui knew the reports that he meant. Police reports, diplomatic reports, hospital and media updates. It was amazing the paperwork caused when two foreign news reporters got caught up in a supposed terrorist blast, even if it was in a distant African nation. She swallowed. It felt like broken glass lined her throat, scraping her raw.
‘That’s my given name but I never use it.’
‘No.’ His face turned to granite. ‘I understand you prefer to be called Jack.’
Imran. Her fragile composure cracked. Imran must have mentioned that to his cousin.
‘It’s a nickname my colleagues use. Used.’ She drew a shaky breath that didn’t fill her lungs.
‘You were my cousin’s partner.’ It was a statement, not a question, yet Jacqui had the impression he probed. Did he think them lovers? His gaze scoured so intently she felt it abrade her skin.
Remorse filled her. Here she was in Imran’s childhood home, meeting his family, while he...
‘We were colleagues, and friends.’ He’d been the nearest she’d had to a best friend. Her throat closed on a searing ball of emotion.
No wonder she’d thought this man familiar. He and Imran shared that superior nose and striking good looks. But, where Imran’s eyes had danced with mischief, Jacqui couldn’t imagine the Sultan laughing. His brand of handsome was harder than his cousin’s. Those features looked like they’d been sculpted into proud, spare elegance by the desert winds.
‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ Her voice was hoarse. She’d written to Imran’s family after he’d died but today was the first time she’d met any of them.
‘Thank you.’ He inclined his head in a gesture that was at once courtly yet distancing.
As if he didn’t want her sympathy. He disapproved of her.
The knot of guilt in her stomach twisted tighter. She couldn’t blame him. It was her fault Imran had died. If she hadn’t dragged him to what had clearly been a set-up, he’d still be alive.
And she’d still be a journalist.
Brittle ice crackled in her veins and she hugged the bedding tighter. She desperately needed to be alone. But the man before her looked as immoveable as this massive ancient citadel.
Obviously her state of undress didn’t faze him. She wished she could say the same. She was used to men, spent most of her time with them, but always fully clothed as one of the guys. Now she felt hyper-aware of her femininity and her nakedness.
‘My grandmother invited you here to research a book?’ Disbelief dripped from every syllable and his sable eyebrows shot up.
‘She did.’ Jacqui scrabbled for poise. How she wished she wore her charcoal trouser suit, or even the wrinkled cargo pants and long sleeved T-shirt she’d travelled in. Something familiar that would boost her confidence in the face of his imperious disbelief.
Once she’d have taken it in her stride, a challenge to be overcome to reach the next professional goal. But that certainty had been blown apart the day the bomb had exploded. She felt battered and unsure of herself. It wasn’t just the trauma of the dream and waking to his disturbing presence. These past months had taken a terrible toll, not only on her career, but her confidence.
She wasn’t the woman she’d been.
The realisation stiffened her spine. Hadn’t she determined to drag herself out of the dark void of despair and fear? Hadn’t she promised she’d make a success of this?
After all, it was all she had left.
She had to succeed.
‘The Lady Rania was very supportive, and hospitable,’ she added with deliberate emphasis, ignoring the whisper of her conscience that he had a right to resent her presence. ‘She personally invited me to stay here—’ her gesture took in the muted beauty of the ancient room ‘—in the heart of the old palace.’ Jacqui forced a smile, as if she couldn’t read the Sultan’s disbelief. ‘I’m most grateful to her.’
His expression grew more brooding.
‘Clearly you can’t remain.’