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Darker Side of Desire & the Sheikh's Pregnant Prisoner(8)

By:Penny Jordan

In the end it was surprisingly easy to arrange her ‘escape’. Raoul insisted that they stop for lunch five miles outside the village, at a hotel Claire remembered being taken to with her parents. It was a large country house set in its own grounds, and ordinarily she would thoroughly have enjoyed the treat of eating there, but on the pretext of wanting to tidy herself up she slipped away to telephone for a taxi, nervously dreading Raoul’s appearance with every second that passed as she waited for it to arrive.

Only when she was finally inside it and speeding away from the hotel, did she expel a sigh of relief, hoping that the note she had handed in to reception would find its way safely to Raoul. In it she had told him briefly that she would be gone for a couple of hours. If he did not choose to wait for her she had sufficient money to get herself back to London and, feeing more confident than she had done since leaving London that morning, Claire settled back in her seat, watching the familiar countryside flash past.

Teddy’s school had once been the country seat of a wealthy Victorian landowner, and Claire was warmly welcomed into the Headmaster’s panelled study by that august gentleman. She had told him briefly on the telephone of the reason for her visit, and after exchanging pleasantries with her, he suggested that she might like to join Teddy in the small sitting-room off his study where they could have some degree of privacy.

Although it had only been Christmas when she last saw her brother, Claire was amazed at the way he had shot up. He badly needed new trousers, and it took her several seconds to get used to the unusual sensation of noting this without the sinking feeling of despair which normally followed such an occurrence. Teddy greeted her warmly, but with a boyish insouciance which brought home to her how quickly he was growing up.

‘The Head told me you were coming. Said you’d got something to tell me…’

Both of them were remembering how she had been the one to break the news to him of their parents’ death and Claire smiled reassuringly. ‘Nothing to worry about. I just wanted you to know that I’m getting married.’

In order to avoid confusion, she had made up her mind that she would stick as closely to the Sheikh’s story as possible, and so she explained to Teddy that she had recently met Raoul and that they were to be married abroad, all of which he accepted without too many questions, his main concern being whether he could come out to Omarah to spend some of his summer holidays with her.

‘We’ll have to see,’ Claire hedged, deftly turning the conversation to other channels, asking him about his proposed trip with his schoolfriend, and handing over to him the money she had brought with her. ‘You’ll need some new clothes,’ she added practically. ‘I’ll have a word with Matron before I leave.’

Because they had so many overseas boarders the school was perfectly accustomed to replenishing its boarders’ wardrobes and Claire envisaged no problems in this respect. Before she left, two hours later, she had managed to fit in a brief discussion with Matron who had assured her that she could safely leave everything in her capable hands. A final goodbye and thank you to the Headmaster completed her afternoon’s work, and Claire would have been surprised had she known his thoughts as he watched her walk down the drive.

A brave girl, and a selfless one who had shouldered the responsibility of her younger brother with a courage he wished more of his pupils could imitate. Dr Harwarden was a wise and knowledgeable man and he only hoped he was mistaken in his fears that this marriage, arranged so suddenly, was being entered into for the right reasons. Not that he doubted Claire’s motives, but he was concerned that she might sacrifice herself for others. He knew there had been financial problems following her parents’ death, and of the close relationship between brother and sister. Sighing a little, he turned his attention back to the mound of papers on his desk, telling himself that Claire was old enough to make her own decisions.

Wrapped up in her own thoughts, it wasn’t until she drew level with the school gates that Claire saw the Rolls parked on the other side of them, Raoul lounging back in the driver’s seat. Her footsteps slowed instinctively, apprehension feathering along her spine. How had he known where to find her? Did he know about Teddy? It was only stubborn pride that had kept her from telling him the truth herself. Let him think the very worst of her if he wished, she wasn’t going to be the one to show him the error of his ways.

Instinctively, she knew if she told him the truth, his condemnation of her would be much less harsh, but the way in which he had immediately leapt to the wrong conclusion had stung her pride. Was that honestly how he saw her? If so, then let him, and as she approached the gates Claire knew that she did not want him to know the truth. She would rather he thought the worst he possibly could of her. It was as though his contempt of her was a protective barrier between them, although why she should need its protection she wasn’t quite sure.

As he saw her approach, Raoul opened the car door and came towards her to unfasten the gate. His unfailing politeness set her teeth on edge, as though his actions were designed somehow to underline his contempt for her.

‘How did you know where to find me?’

His eyebrows rose fractionally as she spoke. ‘It wasn’t very difficult. I simply checked with the taxi firm. So your lover is a teacher. Is that why he doesn’t mind you leaving him for a year, because it is difficult for the two of you to meet? What will you do with the money my uncle is paying you for acting the part of my wife? Help him to find more congenial employment?’

Expelling her breath on a faint sigh of relief, Claire refused to rise to his taunts. At least he didn’t know the truth. ‘I think that’s my business, don’t you?’ she said loftily as she followed him back to the car, stopping in her tracks as Raoul suddenly came to a halt in front of her, grasping her chin with his fingers and tilting it upwards so that he could study her face.

‘It must have been a very cool leave-taking,’ he said slowly at last. His thumb brushed slowly against the fullness of her lower lip. ‘Your mouth doesn’t even look as though it has been kissed.’

Shock widened her eyes, her cheeks flushed as she wrenched herself free of his grasp. ‘I don’t think that’s any of your business either, do you?’ she asked icily, reaching for the door handle. ‘Or is that the sort of thing that turns you on? Hearing about other people’s…’

The ferocity of the expletive that left Raoul’s lips cut across her words, and her body tensed automatically as she shrank away from him. ‘Your innuendos are an insult,’ he told her harshly, ‘and no doubt the product of a silly, immature mind. Remember that from now on to all intents and purposes you are my wife, and you will be expected to behave accordingly.’

‘By obeying your every word and abasing myself before you like… like a slave?’

The icy contempt in his eyes made her tremble at her folly in goading him. ‘By remembering that I value my self-respect, even if you don’t value yours, and that as my wife, my honour and good name are yours, and that any attempt to sully either will be swiftly punished.’

It was enough to keep her silent until they were well on the way back to London. Once or twice she stole a quick peep at his arrogant profile, each time reading a rejection and contempt there that reinforced her silence. If he didn’t want to talk to her then he needn’t. There was still much she would need to know about their life together; about his family, and how she would be expected to behave, but she wasn’t going to beg to be told.

It was a relief to get back to the Dorchester, and the now familiar routine of caring for Saud. The little boy was openly pleased to see her, but Claire was conscious of Raoul’s eyes boring into her back as she picked Saud up and cuddled him.

‘Someone should tell your lover how good you are with children,’ he murmured against her ear as she straightened up. She hadn’t realised he was so close to her and Claire felt almost suffocated by the warmth of him against her back, a primitive flood of awareness burning through her body as it responded to the proximity of his. ‘Or doesn’t he care enough for you to give you the gift of his child?’

Only by pretending she hadn’t heard him and keeping her back to him was Claire able to cope with the heat she could feel burning against her skin, unaware that she was still holding her breath in apprehension until the door closed behind him and she was safe to breathe out and relax.

* * *

‘Would you care for a drink?’ Claire couldn’t help noticing that the air stewardess’s smile for her was nowhere near as warm as it had been for Raoul. They were flying over the English Channel en route for Paris, Saud in between them, fast asleep. She had fought against this visit to Paris, but the Sheikh had gently pointed out the necessity of it to her. In their absence, the news of their marriage could be broken and would doubtless be picked up by the Press. Their trip to Paris would give Claire an opportunity to get used to her new role, and although she had protested that no man being forced into a marriage he did not want would take his new bride on a shopping spree in Paris, both Raoul and the Sheikh had overruled her.