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stop the press: UNEXPECTED BABY SHOCK FOR SHEIKH AND JACKSON PARTY-GIRL! Unconfirmed sources report that celebrity wedding planner Ella Jackson is pregnant! Currently single, Miss Jackson caused quite a stir at her princess-to-be sister's royal-studded engagement party last month when she tossed a glass of vintage champagne over Sheikh Hassan Al Abbas following a very public argument. What happened in private is anybody's guess. But a palace insider confirmed that Miss Jackson was seen leaving the Sheikh's opulent suite the morning after the party.... Could this Cinder-Ella beat her sister to a royal title...and a royal heir?
Would this damned party never end?
In the softly lit anteroom of his friend's palace, Sheikh Hassan Al Abbas let out an irritated breath and turned to the man standing a few deferential paces away from him.
'Do you think there's any chance I could just slip away and leave them to get on with it, Benedict?' he demanded, knowing only too well how his loyal English aide would respond.
There was a pause. 'Your absence would almost certainly be noticed, Your Highness,' answered Benedict carefully. 'Since you are one of the most esteemed guests present. And furthermore it would offend your oldest friend if he knew that you could not be bothered to stay to wish him happiness on the night of his engagement.'
Hassan's fists clenched against the unaccustomed lounge suit which clothed his hard body, hating the strictures of collar and tie. He wished he was wearing soft and silken robes against his naked skin. That he was galloping free on his horse, with the warm desert wind blowing against his face. 'And what if I believed deep in my heart that such a wish would not only be futile but hypocritical?' he iced back. 'That I think Alex is about to make the biggest mistake of his life?'
'It is often difficult for two men to see eye to eye when it comes to the subject of women,' answered Benedict diplomatically. 'Particularly regarding the subject of marriage.'
'It's not just his choice of fiancée I don't agree with!' Hassan said, unable to contain the frustration which had been growing inside him since his oldest friend, Prince Alessandro Santina, had announced that he was to marry Allegra Jackson. 'Though that is bad enough. Even worse is that he has abandoned the woman to whom he has been betrothed since he was born! A woman of noble birth, who would make a far more suitable bride.'
'Perhaps his love is too strong to be—'
'Love?' interrupted Hassan, and now he could feel the bitter lump which had risen in his throat like a ball of nails. A brief yet undeniable pain clenched at his heart. For didn't he know better than anyone that 'love' was nothing but an illusion which could wreck lives with its seductive power?
'Love is nothing more than a fancy name for lust,' he bit out. 'And a ruler cannot allow himself to be guided by the stir of his loins or the beat of his heart. He must put duty before desire.'
'Yes, Highness,' said Benedict obediently.
Hassan shook his head in disbelief, still unwilling to accept that his high-born friend had let his standards dip so low. 'Did you realise that Alex's future father-in-law is some grubby ex-footballer with a long list of wives and mistresses he has been publicly unfaithful to?'
'I had heard something along those lines, Highness.'
'I cannot believe that he is willing to marry into such a disreputable family as these Jacksons! Did you see the way they were behaving at the ball? It turned my stomach to watch them quaffing champagne as if it was water and making fools of themselves on the dance floor.'
'This woman Allegra cannot possibly become the wife of a Crown Prince!' Angrily, Hassan slammed the flat of his hand against an adjacent table and its delicate frame juddered beneath the contemptuous force. 'She is a tramp—just like her mother and her sisters! Did you witness the spectacle which brought me seeking refuge in here, when the sister with the voice of a crow stormed the stage and attempted to sing?'
'Yes, Highness, I saw her,' said Benedict softly. 'But the Crown Prince has made up his mind that he will marry Miss Jackson, and I doubt whether even you will be able to change it. And should you not now return to the ballroom before your absence is commented upon?'
But Hassan was not listening—at least, not to his aide. He raised a hand for silence, his ears straining for the whispering of a sound. His body tensed. Had he heard something? Someone? or had the recent harsh months spent in battle meant that he suspected danger lurking everywhere? Yet he could have sworn that the room had been empty when he'd come searching for an escape.
'Did you hear something?' he questioned as he felt the instinctive pricking of his skin.
'No, Highness. I heard nothing.'
There was a brief silence before Hassan nodded, feeling some of the tension ease from his body as he allowed himself to be reassured by his aide. This might be the worst party in living memory, but at least security was tight. 'Then let us return to this mockery of a reception. Let me see whether I can find anyone tolerably attractive enough to dance with.' He gave a sardonic laugh. 'A woman who is the very antithesis of Allegra Jackson and her vulgar family!'
With this, the two men swept from the softly lit room, while from her hiding place behind a carved chest in a corner of the vast chamber, Ella Jackson wished that she could open her mouth and scream with rage and frustration.
How dare he?
Waiting for a few moments to check that he really had gone, she stretched limbs which were cramped from sitting still for so long. Greedily, she sucked great gulps of air into her lungs because she'd had to keep holding her breath in case she was discovered. For a moment back then, she'd been sure he was going to find her. And something told her that she was lucky not to have been discovered by that arrogant beast of a man who had been so insulting—not just to Allegra and Izzy, but to the entire Jackson family.
The other man had called him 'Highness'—and judging from the way he'd been calling all the shots, he had certainly sounded royal. His voice had been deep and faintly accented—not the kind of voice you heard every day. It had also sounded bossy and proud. Could that have been the powerful sheikh everyone had been banging on about? The groom-to-be's oldest friend, who had been expected at tonight's party and anticipated with the same kind of breathless excitement which might have greeted a movie star? uncomfortably, Ella rose to her feet. The beads of her elaborate dress were pressing painfully into her skin and her wild tangle of curls was desperately in need of a session with the hairbrush. She would have to do something drastic to repair her appearance before she thought about returning to the general scrum which was her sister Allegra's engagement party to the Crown Prince of the Santina royal family. Even though she would have happily given a month's salary not to have gone back into that ballroom.
Wasn't it ironic that she had slipped away from the party for precisely the same reason as the sheikh? The moment her sister Izzy had staggered onto the stage to sing, Ella's heart had hit her boots and she'd wanted to curl up and die. She loved Izzy. She did—but why did she have such a penchant for making a complete fool of herself? Why sing in public when you had absolutely zero talent?
Ella had slunk into this darkened anteroom and instinct had made her crouch down behind the concealing bulk of the chest when she'd heard the sound of approaching footsteps. There had been the sound of the door quietly clicking shut and then someone uttering a short, terse expletive. And that's when she had heard the damning words of the accented man as he had torn her family to shreds.
Yet hadn't he only been speaking the truth? Her father did have a long list of women he'd been intimate with. He had two ex-wives at the last count, and one of those he'd married twice. Plus all the mistresses on the side—some of whom were reported in the newspapers and some whom he'd managed to hush up.
Hadn't her own mother's life been blighted by her hopeless longing for a man who seemed to be incapable of any kind of fidelity? Her sweet, foolish mother, who'd never been able to see any fault in her errant husband, which was why she had been his bride twice over. And why she let him treat her like a complete doormat.
If ever Ella had needed to know how not to conduct a relationship, she'd never needed to look any further than the example set by her own parents. And hadn't she vowed that she would never, ever let a man make a fool of her like that?
She reached down and picked up her handbag, extracting the wide-toothed comb which was the only implement which could ever come close to taming her soft but wayward curls. Dare she risk putting a brighter light on in here?
Why not? The outrageously opinionated sheikh didn't sound as if he was in any danger of coming back. He was probably subjecting some 'tolerably attractive' woman to a dance. Poor her, Ella thought with a genuine trace of sympathy. Imagine dancing with someone who had an ego as big as his—why there would be barely any room left on the dance floor!
She clicked on a light which illuminated the regal splendour of the vast antechamber and hunted around until she found a mirror recessed in one of the alcoves. Stepping back, she surveyed herself with critical eyes.
Her silver-beaded dress was a little on the short side but it was extremely fashionable—and such a look was essential in Ella's line of work. Her rather flashy clients expected her to reflect their values, to make a statement and not fade quietly into the background. As a party planner catering to the nouveau-riche end of the market, Ella had decided to cash in on her family's notoriety by working for the kind of people who had plenty of money, but very little in the way of generally accepted 'taste.'
She'd quickly learnt the rules. But then, she was a quick learner—it came with the territory of being a survivor, of having lived with scandal and notoriety for most of her life. If a glamour-model bride wanted to arrive at her wedding in a dazzling diamante coach, she expected the woman organising the event to dazzle in a similar way. So dazzle Ella did. She'd got that down to a fine art. With her trademark slash of scarlet lipstick accentuating her wide mouth, she wore the on-trend clothes which so impressed her clients. She turned heads when she needed to.
But all that was for show. She kept the real Ella locked away where no one could find her. Or hurt her. Underneath the dazzling exterior, when she was dressed down and chilled out at home, it was a different story. There she could be the person her family had always teased her for being. Bare of makeup, wearing old jeans and a T-shirt—sometimes with paint underneath her fingernails. She wished she was there right now, instead of having to endure the longest evening of her life. A night she would never have believed could happen.
A member of her family was marrying into one of the Mediterranean's oldest and most revered royal families—and the knives were out. Hadn't she just heard for herself, via the arrogant sheikh, how the entire Jackson clan were being judged and found wanting? Weren't the sly eyes of various members of the press watching every move they made, to report with glee how ill-equipped the Jacksons were to mix with the aristocracy?
Well, Ella would show them. She would show them all. Their cruel comments wouldn't get to her because she wouldn't let them. She bit her lip, for once feeling vulnerable about the charges which were always levelled at her and her siblings. She worked hard for her living—she always had done—and yet her Jackson surname made people pigeonhole her. They thought she just lay around all day, drinking champagne and generally whooping it up, and yet nothing could be further from the truth.
Raking the comb through her red-brown curls, she checked for any stray smudges of mascara and then applied a final, defiant coat of scarlet lipstick.