The Sheikh's Bargain Bride (Desert Kings)(6)

By: Diana Fraser


Anna watched the shadows slowly take form as the soft pre-dawn light revealed her bedroom in all its luxurious detail. Although ancient, it seemed everything in the palace had been designed to seduce the senses: from the fine, white silk curtains that shimmered in the fresh breeze, to the fragrance of the orange blossom that lingered in the air like an invitation.

But there was only one luxury that was a necessity. And he was now curled up in her arms. She sighed with pleasure and shifted her arm gently from underneath Matta’s head and looked down on her sleeping son in awe.

Relaxed, his arms were flung either side of his head and his feet had kicked off the light covers. With the same rich, skin tones as his father, he looked as though he belonged amidst the exotic surroundings that were so strange to Anna’s eyes.

The thought twisted in her gut, creating a void she knew might never be filled. He was moving away from her. From the moment they’d been reunited, the previous evening, she’d seen that he was at home here in the palace. He’d heard the stories and poetry of Qawaran growing up and even knew a few words of the country’s language. Watching him run around, followed by a doting army of extended family and servants, she’d seen him settled in a way he’d never been before.

Once more her eyes absorbed his plump cheeks and the dark-fringed lids, lying in a peaceful crescent on his dark skin. She’d do anything to give him the best life possible. Even if it meant admitting Zahir was right. Perhaps this was where her son needed to be, where he belonged. Here, he would have so many opportunities that she could never give him.

She shivered and rose from the bed, drawn to the huge eastern window framed by once bold carvings that had been muted by the touch of generations. The window held an expansive view of the endless stony hammada plains contained by a horizon that was a mere charcoal line in the colorless, pre-dawn light.

It was a raw view of infinite monotony but yet of infinite power. It was mesmerizing.

She settled onto the window seat, pushed open the ancient lead-paned window and leaned out, gazing up at the austere walls of the palace. Where the palace began and the rock face ended was anybody’s guess. The palace and the rocky escarpment rose high above the plains, seemingly one, belying the luxury to be found within.

A suggestion of a shadow passed over her in the pale light and she looked up to the top-most crags that peaked high above the castle. A huge falcon wheeled silently in the high, eddying winds, lost in a world of casual freedom.

Only something that had never been held captive could take freedom so lightly. She would not take it so lightly.

“Mom!” Matta’s softly rounded body jumped into her lap, his chubby arms lifting to wrap himself trustingly around her body. His cheek pressed to her chest, he sighed, a deep, contented sigh and immediately fell asleep again. Curled within her arms, the void was filled. But for how long?

Zahir sat back, took a third sip of the coffee passed the dallah to Anna who, like him, sat cross-legged, her robes falling loosely around her slim frame.

If she was surprised at the traditional ceremony, at the sharing of a cup, of the strong, cardamom-flavored coffee, then she hid it well. His eyes followed her lips as they pressed to the small, white cup, the soft vertical lines slightly pursed as she sipped the hot coffee.

Had her face, her lips, always been so delicate? His time with her had been intense but brief. He didn’t recall the translucence of her skin with the dark smudges under her eyes and he didn’t remember her lips, from which he’d felt nothing but power, being so finely drawn.

“So, was the bargain a good one?” She looked up suddenly, her blonde hair—white blonde in places—shimmering around her face and he could see that her blue-grey eyes still held that same look of strength and challenge. “You’re checking me over like I’m some kind of possession. Just wondered if you think you’ve got your money’s worth.”

“Of course. I wouldn’t have struck the bargain otherwise.”

“You mean you don’t notice the changes that sleepless nights and the death of a husband has brought? Not to mention your manhunt of me and my child. I mean, come on, Zahir, I’ve changed. I’m not the same woman I was nearly four years ago.”

“True. You are too thin. You no longer have the bloom of youth; the softness in your face has gone.”

He had to hand it to her. Most beautiful women wouldn’t have taken his comment well. But she wasn’t most women.

“Bad bargain, then. On both sides. Because while I’ve disappointed you by changing, you’ve disappointed me by not changing.”

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