Book 12 in the Desert Rogues series, 2008
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, male ways to react. It was just so typical. “I’m more than capable of doing the job.”
“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.