“Tell me more about what you’re studying at your university, Your Highness,” Nimrah said, batting her eyelashes.
“I wouldn’t want to bore you, Princess,” Mark said, draping his arm around the back of her chair and leaning closer. “Unless you like to fly drones.”
“I’ve never flown one before,” she said, leaning closer to him as well. “Maybe you could teach me sometime.” She pulled her long chestnut hair off her shoulder so that her face was closer to Mark and he caught a whiff of a natural oil that smelled of incense.
“Maybe in a few years… you know, when you’re all grown up.” Mark made it a point to let his eyes roam down the length of her body and then back up to meet her gaze. The heavy silk gown she wore was probably imported from somewhere in India and handsewn by an expert craftsman.
“Do you think I’m too young to… fly a drone?” she asked, her voice as suggestive as he’d predicted. Her alluring eyes drew him in, and Mark remembered his cousin’s warning not to get caught in her web.
“We’ll have to see how the next few years play out while I finish school,” he said, his voice purposefully low and husky. “Maybe by the time I come home to Madain Saleh, you will have already had all the training you need.”
Mark accomplished several goals with one sentence, claiming this as his home, indicating he’d be back in a few years, and setting up the notion that she may choose someone else between now and then. This conversation had also conveyed the message that he was interested in her but that she was too young right now. His cousin’s coaching had been spot-on. This was working brilliantly.
“A girl could always learn new skills,” the princess said in sultry voice.
“I’ll bet she could,” Mark said with seduction lacing his words. Without turning away first he added in a low voice. “I’d better finish this meal, or I won’t have the energy to dance with you later this evening.”
“We wouldn’t want that.” Nimrah giggled and reached for her own fork.
Mark straightened in his chair and met Eli’s gaze across the table. He could almost hear his cousin’s compliment through his approving nod. Perfect acting skills.
His quiet conversation with the princess had garnered attention from others at the table as well, some with little more than a passing glance, but others with open encouragement of their flirting. Particularly the Princess of Tayma who smirked and raised her glass of wine in a subtle toast meant to be shared just with Mark.
He didn’t take the bait. He still hadn’t drunk much of anything since arriving in the kingdom nearly eight hours earlier. Not sure the food was safe either, Mark risked illness because he was even more hungry than thirsty. The mild headache throbbing within him would hopefully diminish with dinner.
Serving food for several hundred people required space and the palace certainly had that. The cavernous reception hall was decorated similar to an American wedding reception. Large tables draped with colorful cloths had been meticulously set prior to the guests entering from the throne room.
Each course that arrived was elaborate and as fine as any five-star restaurant in the States. The chefs seemed to be drawing inspiration from around the globe. Mediterranean style salad with quinoa and feta cheese, black olives, cucumbers and balsamic dressing. Grilled fish marinated in Asian spices, a rice dish featuring onions, garlic, ginger, cashews and raisins, and a Kunafa served hot with drizzled chocolate sauce and ice cream.
The entertainment for the evening drew the guests back to the throne room which had been transformed into a dance hall with colorful lighting, Zaffa drummers, Egyptian dancers, and a Middle Eastern Dabke dance number. Mark found his foot tapping along to the beating drums from his place of honor in a throne that had been placed to the left of his great-grandmother, Her Grace, Queen Salaina.
Eventually the performance morphed into an opportunity for the royal family and guests to join the entertainers on the dance floor. Mark carefully escorted Her Grace down the marble steps to the dance floor and joined several of his extended cousins in a tribute dance that resembled a Lebanese wedding dance honoring their great-grandmother and queen. He hadn’t smiled so much since learning his grandfather was dying.
Mark temporarily forgot his headache until the lights and pounding drums and sweat from a hundred dancing bodies got the better of him. By the time he found himself in the arms of the enchanting Princes of Nimrah, his head was pounding.
He tried to keep smiling and laughing and dancing but eventually even she noticed he wasn’t feeling well. Her brow creased. “Are you okay?”
“Not really,” Mark called over the music, taking Nimrah’s hand and dragging her away from the center of the dancefloor. “Come with me.”
“Where are we going?” she asked, clinging to his arm as if he was taking her off somewhere to steal a kiss. Instead he made a beeline toward her father, Prince Jared.
“Your Highness,” Mark said, tucking Nimrah’s hand into her father’s. “Could you take my place on the dancefloor for a few moments? I’m not feeling well.”
“Of course, Your Highness,” Jared said, escorting his pouting daughter back toward the crowd.
Mark turned on his heel and headed for the exit from the throne room, knowing that Alex had already left to retrieve the one thing he needed even more than Motrin or food. He just hoped Alex returned quickly or he’d be nursing a migraine.