The Sheikh's Bargain Bride (Desert Kings)(9)

By: Diana Fraser

“Come.” Zahir stood up. “I will take you back to your rooms.

“It’s not necessary. I’m sure you’ve business to attend.”

“I have cancelled everything over the next few weeks except for an important meeting later this morning. That, I must attend alone.”

“A few weeks. You think that will be enough time?”

“To seduce you? Of course.”

They walked silently through ancient passages supported by arches that soared high into the ceiling, one arch following another until they faded into the pale gold of the sandstone.

Despite the fact it seemed such an alien world to Anna, she couldn’t help be awed by it. She felt a sense of peace settle within her, as if the very walls emanated a strength absorbed from the people who had lived and loved and died there over countless centuries. Somehow its power seeped under her skin and calmed the frustrating blend of anger and arousal that simply being with Zahir sparked.

“I imagine Abduallah spoke to you of the palace?”

“A little. He described its beauty but I never imagined it would be like this.”

“It is more than merely beautiful. It is a symbol of my people, of the strength that lies in their culture and tradition, of the importance of loyalty and duty.” He stopped in front of a heavy latticed door and turned to her. “Such things are still important today, don’t you think?”

Gone were the accusations and chilling control of the day before. Instead, his expression looked curious, as if he was genuinely interested in her reply.

“Depends on one’s culture and tradition. Some people need to escape their ‘family traditions’ and find their own way in the world.” She shrugged, trying to appear nonchalant, trying not to remember her own desperate need to escape her family’s downward spiral. “Not much chance of escape from here though.”

“The palace is about security, not escape. Come.” He opened the door into an exquisite courtyard garden. It was smaller than the others they’d passed, with a perfectly round white marble fountain surrounded by a jasmine-covered pergola, fragrant citrus and subtly colored paths. It was the garden upon which her bedroom opened.

“My suite of rooms is opposite yours.”

She hadn’t realized that.

The intimate privacy of the garden and his proximity unsettled her. She was very aware of the earthy notes of his aftershave mingling with the heady jasmine.

She moved away from him, over to the fountain, desperate to clear her head of him. She sat on its polished, gleaming edge and plunged both hands into the water. She cupped the crystal clear water in her palms and brought it to her face. She could almost swear it had a fragrance, of something sweet and pure. She let the water trickle through her fingers.

“Spring water.” He was suddenly there beside her, watching her intently. She kept her eyes fixed on the water, but aware of every movement, every ripple in his gown. “Drawn from deep in the mountains. It’s been the life force of the palace and its community for centuries. Ma-ush-shafa.”

“Healing water.” She streaked her hands through the water, watching the sun sparkle in its midst, remembering her husband’s love of poetry and the Koran. If Zahir was the fighter in the family, her husband, Abduallah, had been the poet. He used to read aloud to her, revealing his love for the country that he could never return to. Shame bit too deep. He couldn’t face his family. She suddenly realized Zahir had been silent for a few minutes. She looked up.

Zahir held her gaze for one long, unfathomable moment before turning away abruptly.

“I must go. I have business to attend. You will stay here and we will dine later—”

“I am not one of your servants to order—”

“And Matta is here. Be with him until my business is complete.”

She looked around startled—she hadn’t heard Matta approach—and suddenly he was in her arms once more. His old nurse and young cousins hovered on the edge of the garden, awaiting permission to enter.

By the time she’d freed her arms and beckoned them to come, Zahir had gone.

By late afternoon, Matta was asleep and Anna was free to wander the corridors, gardens and rooms of the palace alone. She found herself on one of the upper levels, looking down on the entrance to the palace. It must have been from here that Zahir had watched her arrive only the day before. It felt like weeks. Now it was her turn to watch as Zahir bid his Bedu guests a formal farewell.

They were a fearsome sight: belts filled with gun cartridges; rifles held as naturally in their hands as if they were briefcases; heavily-engraved silver daggers thrust under their belts. Their white robes gleamed in the harsh sunlight, a stark contrast to their dark, weathered skin. Despite the lack of weapons, Zahir looked every inch the sheikh with his commanding presence. She knew that being a ruler of his people wasn’t strictly an hereditary entitlement. He had to be the sheikh at all times. He had to prove constantly that he deserved that honor. There must be no infringement on his dignity.

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