Caitlin's 25th book for Harlequin!
Protecting the Desert Heir
Part of the Scandalous Sheikh Brides Series
Pregnant, alone and on the run!
Sterling McRae knows that powerful sheikh Rihad al Bakri wants to claim the unborn heir to his desert kingdom. Her baby belongs to his brother, her best friend, and was conceived to protect him. But now that he’s gone, there is no one to protect Sterling and her child from the duty-bound fate that awaits them.
When Rihad finds Sterling he wastes no time in stealing her away to the desert. But his iron control is soon shattered by this bold, beautiful woman and replaced by infuriating, inescapable desire. To secure his country’s future, Rihad must claim Sterling, too…
Protecting the Desert Heir
The last time she’d run for her life, Sterling McRae had been a half-wild teenager with more guts than sense. Today it was more a waddle for her life than anything approaching a run—thanks to the baby she carried and had to protect no matter what, now that Omar was dead—but the principle remained the same.
Get out. Get away. Go somewhere you can never be found.
At least this time, twelve years older and lifetimes wiser than that fifteen-year-old who’d run away from her foster home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, she didn’t have to depend on the local Greyhound bus station to make her getaway. This time, she had limitless credit cards and a very nice SUV at her disposal, complete with a driver who would take her wherever she asked to go.
All of which she’d have to ditch once she got out of Manhattan, of course, but at least she’d start her second reinvention of herself with a little more style.
Thank you, Omar, Sterling thought then. The heels she refused to stop wearing even this late into her pregnancy clicked against the lobby floor of the apartment building where she and Omar had shared his penthouse ever since they’d met while he’d been a graduate student. A wave of grief threatened to take her feet right out from under her, but Sterling fought it back with grim determination and clenched her teeth tightly as she kept on walking.
There was no time left for grief or anything else. She’d seen the morning news. Rihad al Bakri, Omar’s fearsome older brother and now the ruler of the tiny little port country on the Persian Gulf that Omar had escaped at eighteen, had arrived in New York City.
Sterling had no doubt whatsoever that he would be coming for her.
There was every chance she was already being watched, she cautioned herself as she hurried from the elevator bank—that the sheikh had sent some kind of advance team to come for her even though the news had broadcast his arrival barely a half hour ago. That unpleasant if realistic thought forced her to slow down, despite the hammering of her heart, so she appeared nothing but calm. It forced her to smile as she moved through the lobby, the way she might have on any other day. There would be no honoring Omar if she let herself—and more importantly, her baby—fall into the clutches of the very people he’d worked so hard to escape. And she knew a little bit about the way predators reacted when they saw prey act like prey.
The more fearful you acted, the harder they attacked. Sterling knew that firsthand.
So instead, she walked. She sauntered.
Sterling walked like the model she’d been before she’d taken her position at Omar’s side all those years ago. Like the notorious, effortlessly sensual mistress of the international playboy Omar had been in the eyes of the world. She strolled out into the New York City morning and didn’t look around to savor the great sprawl of the city she’d always loved so much and so fiercely. There was no time for goodbyes. Not if she wanted to keep her baby—Omar’s baby—safe.
And she might have lost Omar, but God help her, she would not lose this baby, too.
Sterling was glad the summer morning was bright and warm, giving her an excuse to hide her thick grief and her buzzing anxiety and the too-hot tears she refused to let fall behind a pair of oversized sunglasses. Even so, she blinked when the doorman waved her out onto the bustling sidewalk a few blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his usual polite greeting. And it took her longer than it should have to realize that while that was indeed Omar’s gleaming black SUV pulled up to the curb on the busy Upper East Side street, that was not Omar’s regular driver standing beside it.
This man lounged against the side of the vehicle looking for all the world as if it was some kind of throne and he its rightful king. His attention was on the cell phone in his hand, and something about the way he scrolled down his screen struck Sterling as insolent. Or maybe it was the way he shifted and then looked up, his powerfully disapproving dark gaze slamming into hers with the force of a blow.
Sterling had to stop walking or fall over—and this time, grief had nothing to do with it.
Because that look felt like a touch, intimate and lush. And despite all the work Sterling had put into her image as a woman who wallowed neck-deep in the pleasures of the flesh, the truth was she did not like to be touched. Ever.
Not even like this, when she knew it wasn’t real.
It felt real.
This driver was too much. Too tall, too solid. Too damned real himself. He was dressed in a dark suit, which only served to make his lean, intensely dangerous body seem lethal. He had thick black hair, cut short as if to hide its natural curl, rich brown skin and the most sensual mouth Sterling had ever seen on a man in her life, for all that it was set in a grim line. He was astonishingly, noticeably, almost shockingly beautiful, something that should have been at odds with that knife-edged form of his. Instead, it was as if he was a steel-tempered blade with a stunningly bejeweled hilt.
He was either the last person she should want driving her to freedom, or the first, and Sterling didn’t have time to decide which. She didn’t have any time at all. She could feel her phone buzzing insistently from the pocket where she’d stashed it, and she knew what that meant.
Rihad al Bakri. The king himself, since his and Omar’s father had died a few years back. He was finally here, in Manhattan, as she’d feared. Both Omar’s friends and hers were texting her warnings, calling to make sure she was aware of the impending threat. Because no matter what else happened, no matter what might become of Sterling now without the man who had been everything to her, Omar’s older brother could not know about this baby.
It was why she’d taken such pains to hide the fact that she was pregnant all these months. Until today, when it didn’t matter any longer, because she was running away from this life. She’d do what she’d done the last time. A far-off city. Hair dye and/or a dramatically different cut. A new name and a new wardrobe to go along with it. It wasn’t hard to pick a new life, she knew—it was only hard to stick to it once you’d chosen it, because ghosts were powerful and seductive, especially when you were lonely.
But she’d done it before, when she’d had much less. She had even more reason to do it now.
All of this meant that Sterling certainly didn’t have time to ogle the damned driver, or wonder what it said about her that the first man she’d noticed in years seemed to have taken an instant dislike to her, if the strange driver’s expression was any guide. It said nothing particularly good about her, she thought. Then again, maybe it was just her grief talking.
“Where is Muhammed?” she asked crisply, forcing herself to start forward again across the sidewalk.
The new driver only stared at her and as she drew closer she found herself feeling something like sideswiped by the bold, regal line of his nose and the fact that those dark eyes of his were far more arresting up close, where they gleamed a dark gold in the bright morning light. She was breathless and fluttery and she couldn’t make any sense of it, nor understand why he should look something like affronted. Her phone kept vibrating, her breath was ragged and she was this close to bursting into tears right there on the street, so she ignored the odd beauty of this strangely quiet and watchful man and wrenched open the door to the SUV herself.
“I don’t actually care where he is,” she threw at him, answering her own question as her panic started to bang inside her like a drum. “Let’s go. I’m sorry, but I’m in a terrible hurry.”
He leaned there against the driver’s window, his expression startled and thoughtful all at once, and he only studied her in a leisurely sort of way as Sterling opened up the passenger door and slung her oversized shoulder bag inside. And she had never been much of a diva, no matter how much money Omar had given her to throw around. But today was a terrible day after a week of far worse, ever since she’d gotten that call in the middle of the night from the French police to tell her that Omar was dead after a terrible car crash outside Paris. And she had none of the social graces she’d worked so hard to learn left inside of her after that. Not even a polite word.
Not for a man like this one, who stared at her as if he would decide when and where they went, not her. Something snapped inside of her and she let it—hell, she welcomed it. A surly driver was a far better target than herself or Omar’s terrifying brother, who, Sterling was well aware, could show up at any moment and destroy everything.
As far as she’d ever been able to tell from reading between the lines of Omar’s staunchly loyal stories, that was pretty much all the sheikh did.
“How did you get this job?” she demanded, focusing her temper and her fear on the stranger before her. “Because I don’t think you’re any good at it. You do realize you’re supposed to open the door for your passengers, don’t you?”
“Yes, of course,” he said then, and Sterling was so startled by that rich, low, deeply sardonic voice that she curled a hand around her big, low belly protectively even as her throat went alarmingly and suddenly dry. “My mistake. It is, of course, my single goal in life to serve American women such as yourself. My goal and my dream in one.”
Sterling blinked. Had he said that in another way, she might have ignored it. But the way he looked at her. As if he was powerful and hungry and ferocious and was only barely concealing those things beneath his civilized veneer. It arrowed into her, dark and stirring.
It reminded her, for the first time in a very long while, or maybe ever, that she was a woman. Not merely mother to her best friend’s child, but entirely female from the top of her head where that look of his made her feel prickly all the way down to her toes, which were curling up in her shoes where she stood on the curb.
And entirely too many places in between.
The baby chose that moment to kick her, hard, and Sterling told herself that was why she couldn’t breathe. That was why her entire body felt taut and achy and very much like someone else’s.
“Then yours must be a life of intense disappointment,” she told him when she could breathe again, or anyway, fake it. “As you fall so far short.”
“My apologies,” the driver replied at once, his voice smooth, but that hard undercurrent in it that made Sterling’s head feel light. “I forget myself, clearly.”
He straightened then and that didn’t make it any better. He was tall and broad at once, a sweep of black that took over the entire world, and she wouldn’t have been at all surprised if he’d snatched her up, belly and all, in one powerful fist—
But he didn’t. Of course he didn’t. He reached over and wrapped his hand over the top of the door instead, then inclined his head toward the SUV’s interior as if it was his car and he was the one doing her a great favor.
Impossible images chased through her head then, each more inappropriate and embarrassing and naked than the last. What was wrong with her? Sterling didn’t have thoughts like that, so yearning and wild. So…unclothed. She didn’t like to be touched at all, much less…that.
“Well,” she said stiffly after a tense, electric moment she could feel everywhere, even if she couldn’t understand it. She felt weak and singed straight through and she couldn’t seem to look away from him when she knew that he was causing this. That it was him. “Try not to do it again.”
His dark gold eyes got more intense, somehow, and that stunning mouth of his shifted into something that could only be described as mocking. She ordered herself not to shiver in response, but she felt it wash over her anyway, as if she had.
“But we really do have to get moving.” She made her voice softer then. Placating, the way she’d learned to do with all kinds of men—all kinds of people, come to think of it—over the years. She’d made it her art, and no matter that her life with Omar had tempted her to believe she wouldn’t have to live like that any longer. That she could turn it on or off for fun, as she wished. There’s no such thing as a happy ending, she reminded herself harshly. Not for you. “I have a long way to go and I’m already behind schedule.”
“By all means, then,” he said invitingly, the way a wolf might have done, with the suggestion of claws and the hint of fangs yet nothing but that sardonic smile on his shockingly sensual, infinitely dangerous mouth. “Get in. I would hate to inconvenience you in any way.”
Then he reached out and took her hand, ostensibly to help her into the SUV.
And it was like fireworks.
It was pure insanity.
Sensation galloped through her, shooting up from that shocking point of contact like wildfire, enveloping her. Changing her. Making the city disappear. Making her whole history fall out of her own head as if it had never happened. Making her body feel tight and restless and dangerously loose at once. Making her wonder, yearn, long—
She wanted to jerk her hand away from his, the way she always did when someone touched her without her permission, but she didn’t. Because for the first time in as long as she could remember, Sterling wanted to keep touching him more than she wanted to stop.
That astounding truth pounded through her like adrenaline, a sleek and dizzying drum.
“I cannot serve you if you do not enter the vehicle,” the driver said after a moment, his gaze narrowing in on hers in a way that made her breath go shallow. And his voice seemed to stoke the fires that raged in her, as if the way his hand wrapped around hers was a sexual act. A whole lot of sexual acts. “And that would be a tragedy, would it not?”
Sterling couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t breathe—and she was terribly afraid that the edgy feeling swamping her just then wasn’t panic at all. She knew panic. This was deeper. Richer.
Life-altering, she thought in a kind of awe.
But the only thing she could let herself think about right now was her baby, so she shoved all the confusing sensations away as best she could—and tried to get into the car and get away from him before her legs simply gave out beneath her.
Or before she did something she’d truly regret, like moving closer to this strange man instead of away.
End of excerpt
Protecting the Desert Heir
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