Alexis Seaton blinked against the buffeting wind that entered the helicopter. A palace employee offered a hand to help her step down the grated metal steps leading to the landing pad. Her ponytail flew up in a funnel behind her, the blades whipping everything into a frenzy.
“And you are?” The palace helper squinted at her, then looked into the helicopter as if expecting someone to be coming after her.
“Alex Seaton.” She shielded her eyes against the bright midday sun. She’d received an urgent phone call last night from a man named Timak, imploring her to make the half-day’s journey to come rescue his employer’s ailing lioness. Calls like these weren’t rare. Specializing in emergency exotic animal care, Alex was used to answering desperate late-night calls. It was why she was so revered in her field and one of the highest paid exotic-animal veterinarians in Europe and the Middle East.
So of course she jumped at the invitation to fly to sunny, arid Kattahar. It was a welcome break from her last job, resuscitating an injured lounge of bearded dragons, which a celebrity client had acquired during a tense game of cards in Egypt. Getting back to her love—big cats—would always be her favorite assignment.
The palace helper looked confused for a moment, but he led her away from the landing pad. “I am Timak, the palace zookeeper. I work for Prince Zatar Balizar. He is terribly distraught over the condition of his favored lioness.”
As they walked, the chopping of the helicopter blades grew fainter. Her view of the terrain of the property expanded, giving way to a seemingly unending green lawn dappled with flower beds and topiary. Some of the bushes she couldn’t identify; one was clearly a dragon, but another one looked like a cross between a giraffe and a mythical god. Maybe some Kattahar lore she wasn’t brushed up on.
A neatly laid stone path wound through the rolling greenery. In the distance, the sandstone turrets of the palace poked up. This was one of the major perks of her job: the unending opulence. And maybe she’d picked exotic animals in veterinary school for a reason. Though she loved all animals and would treat anything from a rat to a rhino, there were certain benefits to the rarer species. Namely, their owners loved to spend money and often didn’t hesitate to throw enormous tips her way.
“What seems to be the issue with her? You didn’t go into much detail on the phone, other than the fact that she’s pregnant.” Alex tried not to gawk as the path sloped toward what was essentially a miniature zoo. Enormous, wrought iron cages were built into the hillside, each one featuring a different animal. They rushed past a rhinoceros, who blinked at her with dull eyes, and… She squinted. Yep, just three legs there. The next cage held a cheetah, who prowled the far side lazily.
Alex swiped at her brow. Sweat had collected after only five minutes under the intense sun. No wonder the animals were lethargic. This felt just a few degrees shy of hell.
“Sala is this way,” Timak said, motioning further down the path. “The prince is with her.”
The Prince Zatar. The name made lazy circles inside her. She’d heard about this prince before, but where? Royalty news tended to blur together in her world, hopping between countries as often as she did. So many different sheikhs and princes and heirs to this and emperors of that. It was like living in a movie sometimes. And this prince seemed to be one of the richest ones yet. Hell, just the leather seat in that helicopter was one of the most luscious lounging experiences she’d had in her life.
They rounded a bend, passed a dried-up fountain with an enormous lion head in the center, and came to an arched gate. At the end of a wider path sat another enclosure. Above the entry, gothic style lettering spelled something in a foreign script.
“What’s that say?” Alex pointed to the title as they approached the enclosure.
Timak opened his mouth to respond just as they crested the gated entrance. Sala lay panting in the shade at the back of the enclosure. Beside her was Zatar, the prince of this palace, lying on his side, spooning the lioness from behind. Whatever Timak said to her disappeared in the wind. Her throat bobbed with emotion as she beheld the tender sight.
Timak unlocked the gate and ushered her inside. Alex stepped carefully, feeling a somber air inside this enclosure. Zatar stirred as they approached, his eyes shrinking to slits.
Alex’s mouth fell open as she took him in. Gorgeous was an understatement. The man was made from magazine models, it seemed; piercing hazel eyes under dark brows and luscious black hair. He scrambled to grab his keffiyah and place it on top of his head, then rolled smoothly to his feet.
“Who are you?” His husky voice cut through the air, shaking her from the reverie. She blinked a few times, glancing back at Timak.
“I’m Alexis.” She offered a hand, smiling tightly as he approached. “The veterinarian.”
Zatar stopped a few feet away, his manly presence sinking into her. Broad shouldered and with a certain quality that made her feel like she was meeting a longtime favorite celebrity. Butterflies erupted against her will. He frowned down at her hand.
“There’s been a mistake. We called for a male doctor.”
She blinked, lowering her hand. “Um, no. There’s no mistake. I’m Alex. Alex Seaton.”
His eyes narrowed as he took her in, his jaw working back and forth. She’d worked with enough rich guys to know they preferred things to go their way. And if he’d been under the illusion that she was a man this whole time… She didn’t want to test his adaptability. Royals were notoriously rigid.
“This is nonsense.” He huffed, turning his back on her. “Timak, where’s the real vet?”
Alex’s eyes widened as though he’d slapped her. “Excuse me?”
“Sir, this is the real vet,” Timak said timidly from outside the enclosure. Maybe he’d stayed out there for this reason. Knowing his employer would throw a royal-grade hissy fit about the mistaken gender identity.
“Mr. Balizar,” Alex began.
“Prince Zatar,” Zatar snapped. “Your highness, to be accurate.”
She cleared her throat. “Your highness.” Yep. He was a pretty baby, just like all the rest of the golden-spoon rich guys. Wasting all those good looks on immaturity. She drew a deep breath, drawing on her well-stocked reserve of patience. “I am a highly qualified veterinarian, and your people called me.”
He scoffed, flinging his hand in the air.
Her nostrils flared. Her patience was officially worn out. “Okay then. I’ll just excuse myself, since you clearly don’t want my help.”
She headed back toward the enclosure gates, where a stricken Timak stood clutching the bars. She had just reached the gate when a hand grabbed her shoulder, spinning her around.
Zatar stood behind her, chest heaving, his hazel eyes full of torment. “Wait.”
* * *
His whole world had become chaos.
Just twelve hours ago, Zatar had been enjoying all the beautiful perks of his existence. Ample time to visit with his animals. Lush dinners followed by late-night hookah gatherings with friends. Joy rides in his beloved sports cars.
But he’d give it all up for Sala. The closest thing he’d ever had to a child. The orphaned lion cub he’d received for his twenty-fifth birthday from his mother. Two years later, his mother passed from the brain tumor.
Keeping Sala alive and healthy was the only thing that truly mattered to him. It was a promise he’d made to his mother on her death bed, to continue her life’s work by rescuing abused and endangered animals.
If Sala died, so would his promise to his mother.
“You shall not leave.” Zatar wouldn’t get on his knees to beg this woman. She had to see that this was almost the bleakest moment of his life, second only to when his mother had passed. “I need your help.”
“Exactly.” The unnervingly sexy blonde crossed her arms over her chest. He’d never imagined a veterinarian could be so tempting. Her black, short-sleeved polo shifted over her breasts as she cocked a hip, and her blue eyes promised attitude. “You need me more than I need you. So you’d better not get in my way if you want me to examine your lioness.”
His fingers twitched, both incensed and intrigued by her response. The fire in her words was unmistakable. He certainly wasn’t used to be being spoken to like that. In fact, no one in the palace except his father would ever dare speak to him with such disregard. He opened his mouth to respond but then clamped it shut when he realized he had nothing to say.
“I’m not here for you, I’m here for her,” Alex went on. “Now may I please examine her?”
Zatar looked Alex up and down. Clearly a Western woman by her short shorts and behavior, but he guessed her to be an American, specifically. Her accent and something very brazen about her that he couldn’t quite put his finger on gave her away. Maybe the fact that she was here, working as a veterinarian, thousands of miles from wherever her home was. What would bring this impossibly cute blonde to the Middle East in the first place? He had questions for her, but now wasn’t the time.
“Follow me.” Zatar spun on his heels, his keffiyah billowing out behind him. Sala lay on a bamboo mat in the recesses of a natural earth overhang, where it was far cooler than the rest of the enclosure. Zatar approached carefully, whispering to Sala. “Hey, my beauty. I have someone here to meet you.”
Sala moved her head imperceptibly, her tawny fur crinkling at the neck. Once Alex was within a few feet of her, Sala issued a low warning growl.
“It’s okay. It’s okay.” Zatar got down on his knees and then scooted up to her, shushing as he did. “She’s fine, Sala.”
He dragged his fingers through her fur as Alex watched the two of them. Slowly, she crept forward, eventually dropping to her knees just as Zatar did.
“Hi there, Sala.” Alex spoke softly, reaching out her small hand to drag her fingers over her golden flank. Sala stirred but ultimately didn’t protest. Zatar relaxed slightly, petting Sala’s head as Alex turned to access her kit.
“I’m going to take her vitals,” Alex said in a hushed tone. “I’ll see what shows up.”
Zatar waited in tense silence as Alexis brought out a stethoscope and listened to Sala’s heartbeat and breathing from various places. Alex paused over Sala’s bloated belly, sending an unreadable look his way.
“Timak told me she’s pregnant,” Alex whispered, pressing the silver pad into a different spot on Sala’s belly. The lion growled a bit but didn’t put up a fight. “How many cubs is she carrying?”
Zatar creased a brow. “Three, I think. Why?”
Alex nodded but didn’t respond, her brows furrowing as she listened further. His question hung in the air as she turned back to her kit and removed a different apparatus.
“Has she ever given birth before?” Alex didn’t look at him as she pressed the other machine to Sala’s belly.
“No. This is her first pregnancy.”
Alex nodded again, staring at the ground as she listened to the output of the machine. It beeped dully.
“Is she going to have the babies soon?” he asked. “She and my male were together about three months ago.”
Alex shook her head. “She shouldn’t. Seems like she has about two weeks left. Which means that she’s in duress due to an infection.” Alex sighed, sitting back on her heels as she rummaged through her toolkit. “I don’t have the medication she needs, since it’s rather specific. But it can be ordered, and I suggest you do so immediately.”
Zatar barely breathed as he processed the information. “She’ll be okay.”
“Yes, but she needs this medicine ASAP.” Alex retrieved a notepad from her kit and scribbled something on the top sheet. She tore the page off and handed it to Zatar with a grimace. “Timak will be able to administer it. This is the name of it. She and her cubs should be fine within a few days once the medicine is in her system.”
Zatar blinked down at the sheet in his hand, vaguely aware of Alex gathering her things to leave. When Alex stood, she said, “I’ll handle payment with Timak. Everything will be okay.”
“No.” Zatar looked up at her, his brows creasing together. “You can’t leave.”
“I understand you’re concerned, Prince Zatar. But I assure you, she will be fine. Infections do occur in lioness pregnancies. I’ve handled this many times before.”
“I don’t care how many times you’ve handled it. You’ve never handled Sala.”
Alex drew back, her blonde ponytail swishing behind her. “My work here is done. I’ll be on my way now.”
“No. You will stay here until the cubs are born.”
Alex laughed a little. “She has at least two weeks left. I’m far too busy to stick around for that long, but I can come back if you—”
“No. You will not leave the palace until after the cubs are born.” Desperation streaked through him. This woman was the surest path he had to making sure Sala survived. Sure, everything seemed fine with the promise of this medication, but what if it didn’t work? What if they needed to call her back for an emergency and wait another day, or possibly longer? He couldn’t risk anything happening to Sala, or her babies.
Alex laughed incredulously. “You are out of your mind. You can’t keep me here against my will!”
Zatar popped to his feet, snapping his fingers to summon a guard who he knew stood just outside the enclosure. “Guard! Please show our guest the way to the palace.”
Alex shook her head, looking back toward the gate where his guard was entering. “Are you fucking nuts? I’m not going with him.”
Zatar waved his hand in the air, turning back to join Sala. It wasn’t ideal, but it was the best course of action. He’d figure out the rest of the plan later. For now, he just needed to make sure the expert was on hand.
To the guard, he said in Arabic, “Take her to the harem.”