Maggie Collins hated to admit it but the reality was, she was a tiny bit disappointed by her first meeting with a real, live prince.
The trip to El Deharia had been great. She’d flown first-class, which was just as fabulous as it looked in the movies. When she’d landed, she’d been whisked by limo to a fancy hotel. Until then, her only other limo experience had been for her prom and then she and her date had been sharing it and the expense with six other couples.
Arriving at the exclusive Hotel El Deharia, she’d been shown to a suite with a view of the Arabian Sea. The living room alone had been about the same size as the two-bedroom house she’d grown up in back in Aspen.
She also couldn’t complain about the palace. It was big and beautiful and historic-looking. But honestly, the offices where she was supposed to be meeting Prince Qadir weren’t anything special. They were just offices. And everyone was dressed so professionally in conservative suits. She’d been hoping for harem pants and a tiara or two. Of course, as she’d mostly seen men, a tiara was probably out of place.
The thought of the older British gentleman who had shown her into the office wearing a tiara made her giggle. She was still laughing when the door opened and a tall man in yet another suit walked in.
“Good morning,” he said as he approached. “I am Prince Qadir.”
Maggie sighed in disappointment. Yes, the prince was very handsome, but there was nothing different about him. No medals, not even a crown or a scepter or some proof of rank.
“Well, darn,” she murmured.
Prince Qadir raised his eyebrows. “Excuse me?”
Had she said that aloud? Oops. “I, ah…” She swallowed and then squared her shoulders. “Prince Qadir,” she said as she walked toward him and held out her hand. “Very nice to meet you. I’m Maggie Collins. We’ve been corresponding via e-mail.”
He took her hand in his and shook it. “I’m aware of that, Ms. Collins. I believe my last note to you said I preferred to work with your father.”
“Yet the ticket was in my name,” she said absently as she dropped her arm to her side, aware that even though she was five-ten, he was still much taller than her.
“I sent you each a ticket. Did he not use his?”
“No, he didn’t.” She glanced out the window at the formal garden below. “My father…” She cleared her throat and returned her attention to the prince. This was not the time to get sad again. She was here to do business. “My father died four months ago.”
Qadir glanced at his watch. “A car will return you to your hotel.”
“What?” Outrage chased away any threatening tears. “You’re not even going to talk to me?”
Of all the annoying, arrogant,
“I don’t doubt that, Ms. Collins. However, my arrangement was with your father.”
“We were in business together.” The last year of her father’s life, she’d run the car-restoration business he’d started years ago. And lost it, although that hadn’t been because of anything she’d done wrong. The medical bills had been massive. In the end she’d had to sell everything to pay them, including the business.
“This project is very important to me. I want someone with experience.”
She wanted to deck him. Given the fact that she was female and he was well-bred, she could probably get one shot in, what with the element of surprise on her side. But to what end? Hitting a member of the royal family was hardly the way to get the job.
“There were exactly seven hundred and seventeen Rolls-Royce Phantom IIIs built between 1936 and 1939, plus ten experimental cars,” she said as she glared at him. “The earlier models had a maximum speed of ninety-two miles an hour. Problems started showing up early because the cars weren’t designed to be run at maximum speed for any length of time. This became an issue as owners took their cars to Europe where they could drive on the newly built German autobahn. The company’s initial fix was to tell the drivers to go slower. Later, they offered a modification that was little more than a higher-ratio fourth gear that also made the car go slower.”
She paused. “There’s more, but I’m sure you already know most of it.”
“You’ve done your homework.”
“I’m a professional.” A professional who desperately needed the job. Prince Qadir had a 1936 Phantom III he wanted restored. Expense was no object. She needed the money he offered to pay off the last of her father’s medical bills and keep her promise of starting up the family business again.
“You’re a woman.”
She glanced down at her chest, then back at him. “Really? I guess that explains the breasts. I’d wondered why they were there.”
One corner of his mouth twitched slightly, as if he were amused.
She decided to push while he was in a good mood. “Look. My mother died right after I was born. I grew up in my dad’s garage. I learned to change oil before I learned to read. Yes, I’m female, but so what? Cars have always been my life. I’m a great mechanic. If what they say is true, that classic cars are female, who better to understand them than me? I can do this. I work hard, I don’t get drunk and knock up the local girls. Even more important, with my father gone, I have something to prove. You’re a man of the world. You know what a difference the right motivation can be.”
Qadir stared at the woman before him and wondered if he should let himself be convinced. If Maggie Collins restored cars with the same energy that she was using on him, he had nothing to worry about. But a female in the garage?
He reached for her hand and took it in his. Her fingers were long, her nails short. She was attractive, but not delicate. He turned her hand over and stared at her palm. There were several calluses and a couple of scars. These were the hands of someone who worked for a living.
“Squeeze my hand,” he said, staring into her green eyes. “As hard as you can.”
She wrinkled her nose, as if she couldn’t believe what he was asking, then she did as he requested.
Her fingers crushed his in a powerful grip.
Impressive, he thought. Perhaps she was who and what she claimed.
“Should we arm wrestle next?” she asked. “Or have a spitting contest?”
He laughed. “That will not be required.” He released her hand. “Would you like to see the car?”
Her breath caught. “I would love to.”
They walked through the palace to the garage. Along the way, Qadir pointed out some of the public rooms along with a few of the more notable antiquities. Maggie paused to look at a large tapestry.
“That’s a lot of sewing,” she said.
“Yes, it is. It took fifteen women over ten years to complete it.”
“I don’t have the patience for that sort of thing. Seriously? I would have killed someone within the first six months. One night I would have snapped and run screaming through the palace with an ax.”
The vivid image amused him. Maggie Collins was not a typical woman and he had met more than enough to know the difference. Although she was tall and slim, she moved with a purpose that was far from feminine. She had striking features, but wore no makeup to enhance them. Long dark hair hung down her back in a simple braid.
He was used to women using flattery and sexuality to get what they wanted, yet she did not. The change was…interesting.
“This is my first palace,” she said as they continued walking down the long corridor.
“What do you think?”
“That it’s beautiful, but a little big for my taste.”
“No dreams of being a princess?”
She laughed. “I’m not exactly princess material. I grew up dreaming of racing cars, not horses. I’d rather work on a fussy transmission than go shopping.”
“Why aren’t you racing cars? Women do.”
“I don’t have the killer competitive instinct. I like to go fast. I mean, who doesn’t? But I’m not into winning at any cost. It’s a flaw.” She pointed at an ancient Sumerian bowl and wrinkled her nose. “That’s a whole new level of ugly.”
“It’s over four thousand years old.”
“Really? That doesn’t make it any more attractive. Seriously, would you want that in your living room?”
He’d never paid much attention to the ancient piece of pottery, but now he had to admit it wasn’t to his taste.
“It’s better here, where all can enjoy it.”
“Very diplomatic. Is that your prince training?”
“You are comfortable speaking your mind.”
Maggie sighed. “I know. It gets me into trouble. I’ll try to be quiet now.”
And she was, until they reached the garage. He opened the door and led her inside. Lights came on automatically.
There were only a dozen or so vehicles in this structure. Others were housed elsewhere. Maggie walked past the staff Volvo, his Lamborghini, two Porsches, the Land Rover and Hummer to the battered Rolls-Royce Phantom III at the far end.
“Oh, man, I never thought I’d see one of these up close,” Maggie breathed.
She ran her hands along the side of the car. “Poor girl, you’re not looking your best, are you? But I can fix that.” She turned to Qadir. “The first one of these was seen in October 1935 at the London Olympia Motor Show. They brought nine Phantoms, but only one of them had an engine in it.” She turned back to the car. “She’s a V-12, zero to sixty in sixteen-point-eight seconds. That’s pretty fast for this big a car. Especially considering how quiet the engine runs.”
Maggie circled the vehicle, touching it, breathing in, as if trying to make it a part of her. Her eyes were wide, her expression one of wonder. He’d seen that look on a woman’s face before, but usually only when giving expensive jewels or shopping trips to Paris and Milan.
“You have to let me do this,” she told him. “No one will love her more than I do.”
George Collins had been one of the best restorers and mechanics in the business. Had he passed on his greatness to his daughter or was she simply trading on his name?
Maggie opened the passenger door. “Rats,” she muttered, then looked at him. “They’ve chewed the hell out of the leather. But I know a guy who can work miracles.”
“How long would it take to restore her?” he asked.
She grinned. “How much money do you have?”
“An endless supply.”
“Must be nice.” She considered the question. “With express delivery and my contacts, six to eight weeks, assuming I can find what I need. I’ll want to fly in someone to do the upholstery and the painting. I’ll do everything else myself. I’m assuming I can get metal work done locally.”
She straightened and folded her arms over her chest. “Do we have a deal?”
Qadir had no problem working with women. He liked women. They were soft and appealing and they smelled good. But the Phantom was special.
“You can’t refuse me because I’m female,” Maggie told him. “That’s wrong. You know that’s wrong. El Deharia is forward and progressive.” She looked away, then turned back to face him. “My father is gone and I miss him every moment of every day. I need to do this for him. Because that’s what he would have wanted. No one is going to care more about doing this right than me, Prince Qadir. I give you my word.”
An impassioned plea. “But does your word have value?”
“I’ve killed a man for assuming less.”
He laughed at the unexpected response. “Very well, Ms. Collins. You may restore my car. The deal will be the same as the one I negotiated with your father. You have six weeks to restore her to her former glory.”
“Six weeks and an unlimited budget.”
“Exactly. Someone on my staff will show you to your room. While you are employed here, you will be my guest in the palace.”
“I need to collect my things from the hotel.”
“They will be brought here to you.”
“Of course they will,” she murmured. “If the sun is a little too bright, can you move it?”
“With the right motivation.” He eyed her. “I do not appear to intimidate you. Why is that?”
“You’re just some guy with a car and a checkbook, Prince Qadir.”
“In other words, a job.”
“A really great job, but a job. When this is done, I’ll go home to my real life and you’ll have the sweetest ride in El Deharia. We’ll both get what we want.”
Qadir smiled. “I always do.”
Maggie refused to think about how much per minute she was paying on her calling card as the phone rang.
“Hey, Jon, it’s me.”
“Did you get it?”
Maggie threw herself back on the massive bed in her large suite. A suite that was even bigger than the one at the hotel. “Of course. Was there any doubt?”
“He was expecting your dad.”
“I know, but I dazzled him with my charm.”
Jon laughed. “Maggie, you don’t have any charm. Did you bully him? I know you bullied him.”
“He’s a prince, which makes him immune to the whole bullying thing. Besides, I’m a nice person.”
“Mostly, but you’re also driven and determined. I know you.”
“Better than anyone,” she agreed, keeping her voice light despite the sudden tightness in her chest. Losing her dad had been the worst thing that had ever happened to her, but losing Jon had been nearly as bad. Jon had been her best friend, her first lover…pretty much everything.
“How’s the car?” he asked.
Maggie launched into ten minutes of praise complete with technical details. She paused only when she recognized Jon’s “uh-huhs” for what they were. Lack of interest.
“You’re writing an e-mail, aren’t you?” she demanded.
“No. Of course not. I’m mesmerized by, ah, the V-8 engine.”
“It’s a V-12 and I’ll stop talking about it now. I should let you get back to work.”
“I’m glad you got the job. Let me know how it goes. Or if you need anything.”
“I will. Say hi to Elaine.”
Jon didn’t answer.
Maggie sighed. “I mean it. Say hi to her. I’m happy for you, Jonny.”
“Don’t. We’re friends. That’s what we’re supposed to be. We both know that. I gotta run. I’ll talk to you later. Bye.”
She hung up before he could say anything else.
Despite the late hour, she was too restless to go to bed. Jet lag, she thought, knowing the twelve-or fifteen-hour time difference had messed up her body clock.
She’d traded in her pantsuit for jeans and a T-shirt. After slipping her feet into a pair of flip-flops, she opened the French doors and stepped out into the cool night air.
Her rooms faced the ocean, which was pretty exciting. Back home she had great views of the mountains, but vast expanses of water was its own special treat.
“Don’t get used to living like this,” she reminded herself. She’d rented out her house for the next couple of months. It was the end of ski season in Aspen and rentals still went for a premium. But once the job was done, she would be returning to the small house where she’d grown up, with its creaky stairs and single bathroom.
She breathed in the smell of salt air. There were lights in the garden below and the sound of voices in the distance. From what she could tell, the balcony circled the entire palace. Curious and eager to explore, Maggie closed her door behind her and started walking.
She passed empty rooms and a lot of closed and curtained windows. One set of doors stood open. She caught a glimpse of three girls cuddling on the sofa with a man who looked a little like Qadir.
A brother, she figured. From what she remembered reading, the king had several sons. No daughters. One wouldn’t want a mere woman getting in the way, she thought with a grin. What would it be like to grow up here? Rich and pampered, being given ponies from the age of three. It must be-
“Qadir, I expect more,” a gruff voice said in the darkness.
Maggie skidded to a halt so quickly, she nearly slid out of her sandals.
“In time,” Qadir said, his voice calm.
“How much time? As’ad is engaged. He will be married in a few weeks. You need to settle down, as well. How is it possible I have so many sons and no grandchildren?”
Maggie knew the smartest thing would be to turn around and head back to her room. It’s what she meant to do…except she couldn’t help wanting to listen. She’d never heard a king speak to a prince before. She couldn’t believe they were arguing, just like a regular family.
She slipped behind a large pole and did her best to stay completely silent as Qadir said, “As’ad brings you three daughters. That should be enough for a start.”
“You are not taking this seriously. With all the women you have been with, you should have found at least one you’re willing to marry.”
“It’s that girl,” the king murmured. “From before. She’s the reason.”
“She has nothing to do with this.”
Woman? What woman? Maggie made a mental note to get on the computer and check out Qadir’s past.
“If you cannot find a bride on your own, I will find one for you,” the king said. “You
There was the sound of footsteps, then a door closed. Maggie stayed in place, not sure if both men had left.
She breathed as quietly as she could and was about to go back the way she’d come when she heard Qadir say, “You can come out now. He’s gone.”
Maggie winced as heat burned her cheeks. She stepped into view. “I didn’t mean to listen in. I was taking a walk and then you were talking. I was really quiet. How did you know I was here?”
Qadir nodded toward the plate-glass window that reflected the balcony. “I saw you approaching. It does not matter. My quarrel with the king is common knowledge. It is an argument my brothers and I share with him.”
“Still, I wasn’t eavesdropping on purpose.”
“You seem intent on repeating that fact.”
“I don’t want you to think I’m rude.”
“But I have already hired you. What does it matter what I think?”
“Because you’re my boss. You could fire me tomorrow.”
“True, but per our contract, you would still get paid.”
She fought against the need to roll her eyes. “While the money is important, so is doing a good job. I don’t want to leave until the car is finished. It’s a matter of pride.”
Maybe being ?ber-rich and a sheik meant he wouldn’t understand that. Maggie doubted Qadir had ever had to work for anything.
“Will your father really find you a wife?” she asked.
“He will try. Ultimately the choice is mine. I can refuse to marry her.”
“Why would he think anyone would agree to an arranged marriage?”
Qadir leaned against the railing. “The woman in question will be marrying into a royal family. We trace our bloodline back more than a thousand years. For some, the dictates of history and rank matter far more than any matters of the heart.”
A thousand years? Maggie couldn’t imagine that. But then she’d grown up under relatively modest circumstances in a fairly typical medium-size town. Over the past few years movie stars showed up every winter to ski, but she didn’t have any contact with them. Nor did she want any. She preferred regular people to the rich and famous. And to princes. Even one as handsome as the man in front of her.
“You must have all kinds of women throwing themselves at you,” she said. “Aren’t there any you want to marry?”
Qadir raised his eyebrows. “You take my father’s side in this?”
“You’re royal. Doesn’t having heirs come with the really plush surroundings?”
“So you’re practical.”
“I understand family loyalty and duty.”
“Would you have agreed to an arranged match if it had been expected?”
Maggie considered the question. “I don’t know. Maybe. If I’d always known it was going to be that way. I’m not sure I would have liked it.”
“Such an obedient daughter.”
“Not on purpose. I loved my father very much.” He’d been all the family she’d ever had. She still expected to see him in the house or hear his footsteps. One of the big advantages of her job in El Deharia-besides the money-was that she could escape the sad memories for a few weeks.
Qadir shook his head. “I am sorry. I had forgotten your recent loss. I did not mean to remind you of your pain.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m kind of bringing it with me everywhere I go.”
He nodded slowly as if he understood what it meant to lose something so precious. Did he? Maggie realized she knew nothing about Qadir beyond what she’d heard on television. She didn’t read gossip magazines. Or fashion magazines for that matter. Her idea of a great evening was when
“You must have other family back in Aspen,” he said. “How will they cope with you gone?”
“I, ah, I’m kind of alone. It was just my dad and me. I have a few friends, but they’re busy with their lives.”
“So you had no one to call and tell about your new job?”
“I called Jon. He worries about me.”
Qadir’s dark gaze settled on her face. “Your boyfriend?”
“Not anymore,” she said lightly. “He’s someone I’ve known forever. We grew up next door to each other. We played together when we were kids, then kind of fell in love in high school. Everyone assumed we’d get married, but it never seemed to happen.”
She’d always wondered why they hadn’t taken that last step. They’d dated for years, been each other’s first time. He was the only man she’d ever been with and until Elaine, Jon had only been with her. She still loved him-a part of her would always love him.
“I think we fell out of ‘in love,’ if that makes sense. We still care for each other, but it’s not the same. I think we would have broken up a long time ago, except my dad was sick and Jon didn’t want to dump that on me, too.”
But she’d sensed the changes in their relationship. “I ignored the obvious because of my dad dying. After he was gone, Jon and I talked and I realized it had been over for a long time.” She forced a smile she didn’t feel. “He’s met someone else. Elaine. She’s great and they’re crazy about each other. So that’s good.”
She mostly meant that. Jon was her friend and she wanted him to be happy. But every now and then she wondered why she couldn’t have met someone, too.
“You are very understanding,” Qadir said. “Even if it is all a mask.”
She stiffened. “I’m not pretending.”
“You’re saying there is no anger at Jon for replacing you so easily?”
“None at all,” she snapped, then sighed. “Okay, there’s a twinge, but it’s not a big deal. I don’t really want him for myself, exactly.”
“But he should have had the common courtesy to wait a while before finding the love of his life.”
“I can’t agree with that. It makes me sound horrible.”
“It makes you sound human.”
“I’m emotionally tough.” At least she was trying to be. There had been a single breakdown about five weeks ago. She’d called Jon, sobbing and trembling with pain. She’d hurt everywhere, not only from the loss of her father, but from the loss of her best friend.
Jon, being Jon, had come over to comfort her. He’d hugged her and held her and she’d wanted more. She’d kissed him and…
Maggie walked to the balcony and stared out into the night. Thinking about that night made her so ashamed. She’d seduced him because she’d wanted a chance to forget all that had happened in her life. And maybe to prove she still could.
At the time, he’d only known Elaine a couple of weeks, but Maggie had sensed they were getting serious. In a way it had been her last chance with Jon.
When it was over, neither of them had known what to say. She’d apologized, which he’d told her wasn’t necessary. Things had been awkward between them. They still were.
“Life is complicated,” she murmured.
She looked at him. “You’re not going to get any sympathy from me, Prince Qadir.”
“You’re saying my life of wealth and privilege means I don’t deserve to complain.”
“Something like that.”
“You have many rules.”
“I like rules.”
“I like to break them.”
Hardly a surprise, she thought as she smiled. “Of course you do.”
He laughed. “I still do not intimidate you. What was it you called me? A guy with a checkbook and a car?”
“Is reverence an important part of the job?”
“Not at all. You may even call me by my first name, without using my title.”
“No, you’re not, but you should be.” He took a step toward her, then touched her cheek. “Do not mourn for the man unwise enough to let such a prize go. He was born a fool and he will die a fool. Good night.”
Qadir disappeared with a speed that left Maggie gasping. She didn’t know what to think about first. The soft brush of his fingers on her cheek or what he’d said.
She wanted to protest that Jon wasn’t a fool. That he was actually a really bright guy, which was one of the things she’d always liked about him. Except she liked Qadir’s attitude about the whole thing. She also enjoyed thinking about herself as a prize to be won…by a man who was not a fool.