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Darker Side of Desire & the Sheikh's Pregnant Prisoner(9)

By:Penny Jordan

‘As my wife you will be expected to maintain a certain standard,’ Raoul had repeatedly told her, adding sardonically, ‘besides, you cannot really expect me to believe that any woman would turn down an opportunity to refurbish her entire wardrobe at a man’s expense.’

‘That depends on how she has to repay him,’ Claire had retorted tartly, and as she relived the scene, she remembered how the Sheikh had smiled, half-secretly to himself as he listened to their quarrel. It was just as well that his plan did not call for her to play the adoring new bride, because that was something she was sure she would not be able to do.

Two hours later, installed in a luxurious suite at the George V, Claire was still trying to come to terms with the luxury of her surroundings. Unashamedly lavish, decorated with Flemish tapestries, sculptures, paintings and ormolu clocks, its magnificence took Claire’s breath away. Delicate eighteenth-century French furniture, almost too dainty to use, furnished their suite. Her own bedroom could easily have housed a small apartment and the bathroom off it was a sybarite’s dream. A cot had been provided for Saud and Claire’s first duty was to feed and change the small boy. She was glad of the activity to take her mind off the fact that she and Raoul were now practically alone, Raoul having told his uncle that he thought it best that they dispensed with any retainers or guards for their trip to Paris.

‘If we are to be accepted as a married couple it is necessary that we have a little time to ourselves to get used to the new role,’ he had told the Sheikh, and trying to come to terms with her sudden elevation to the world of the unbelievably rich, Claire was glad that the Sheikh had allowed him to have his way. It was bad enough trying to behave as though such luxury was an everyday habit, without trying to cope with the curiosity of Raoul’s retainers. Only a very few of the Sheikh’s private staff were aware of the deception, mainly those men who had been in the dining-room when the murder attempt took place. It was fortunate that Saud was too young to talk yet, Claire ruminated as she changed him and placed him in the cot, otherwise the small boy might easily have betrayed them.

A member of the hotel staff was summoned to keep watch over the cot; as their child, Saud was in no danger, Raoul had told her, but even so, Claire knew a certain sense of misgiving when she joined Raoul in their sitting-room. For the flight he had worn a dark, formal suit, easily at home in European clothing, the white silk shirt drawing attention to the smooth dark texture of his skin. In the melding of East and West, he seemed to have inherited the best physical characteristics of both races, his features reminding Claire sharply of a Leonardo drawing or the purity of a Greek statue. He was almost too physically perfect, and in some ways it was no wonder he held her sex in contempt. He would have been hopelessly spoiled by it from the hour of his birth, even had fortune not favoured him with position and wealth in addition to good looks.

In silence she accompanied him to the lift and down into the foyer. In the taxi, Raoul spoke in fluid French, a sharp reminder of his parentage.

The rest of the day passed in a whirl of activity. If she had ever doubted the power of money, she did so no longer, Claire thought cynically as the staff of exclusive fashion houses fluttered round her like bees to honey, praising her slender figure, and the silver blondeness of her hair as they vied with one another to provide the sort of trousseau her new husband’s wealth demanded.

Claire wasn’t entirely surprised to learn that wealthy Arab women made up a large proportion of their clientele, but she firmly refused the ornate and lavish gowns that several of the couturiers told her were favourites with Middle Eastern women. Her own choice was for simple, well-cut clothes, and she was surprised to discover that Raoul seemed to share her taste. When she protested that she was hardly likely to wear half of the clothes he had selected, he cut her short, telling her curtly that contrary to her apparent belief they would be invited to many social events and that she would be expected to be dressed accordingly.

‘As Finance Minister for our country I often have to entertain foreign dignitaries. As my wife, you will be representing our country on those occasions.’ But that did not entirely soothe her conscience, especially when Raoul presented her with jewellery which must have cost a minor fortune. Emeralds and diamonds comprised a suite which would cover every occasion, the deep glow of the gems enhancing the colour of her eyes as they widened in awed disbelief over the glittering stones.

Exhausted long before the afternoon was over, it was only pride that kept Claire from pleading that they finished their shopping another day. Her feet ached and her head buzzed as she tried to assimilate all the differing experiences. It was like trying to digest too much rich food all in one go, and when Raoul took her elbow and escorted her into yet another discreetly expensive boutique, Claire was almost too numb to glance at her surroundings. It was only the sudden realisation that it was underwear that was being displayed for her consideration this time that jolted her out of her exhausted lethargy.

Delicate bras and briefs in finest silk and lace were displayed for his inspection, cool pretty cottons and openly seductive silk-satins in soft misty pastels and rich darker fabrics. The vendeuse barely concerned herself with Claire’s opinion. A tall, elegant Frenchwoman in her thirties, all her concentration was centred on Raoul. And why not? Claire thought bitterly, he was the one paying the bills, buying for her the most intimate of clothes with a casual experience that spoke volumes on his knowledge of her sex.

‘These, I think,’ he ordered, indicating a camisole and matching french knickers in pale aqua silk-satin, lavishly trimmed with blonde lace. ‘The colour will suit my wife’s pale skin…’

‘The fabric may not be suitable for a hot climate,’ the vendeuse pointed out, glancing briefly at Claire. ‘Cotton…’

In response Raoul picked up the silk-satin he had pointed out, letting the material slide smoothly from his fingers. ‘Cotton does not feel like this,’ he said coolly, his eyes registering the hot colour stealing over Claire’s skin. An inner voice reminded her that for all his Eastern outlook he was a man who was part French; a sensualist, she guessed, no matter how much he might keep that side of his nature sternly controlled. Just for a moment she was tormented by an image of those lean, dark fingers against her skin, stroking it with the same appreciation with which he touched the silk, and then the vision was banished, her body trembling in acute reaction. How would she feel right now if Raoul was in fact her lover, was in fact buying her these clothes because he wanted to enjoy the warmth of her skin beneath its satin covering?

‘Raoul, I don’t need those…’ she began jerkily, trying to dismiss her unruly thoughts, but her protest was ignored, and by the time they left the shop she felt she had enough new clothes to last her the rest of her life. She ought to have hated Raoul buying her such intimate items of clothing, but instead she felt almost excited, a strange, tense sensation invading the pit of her stomach.

What on earth was the matter with her? Raoul despised her. She must never allow herself to forget that fact. Raoul despised her and was simply playing a part.

By the time they returned to their hotel, Claire was so tired that she could only nod her head when Raoul suggested that they dine in their suite. Her meal tasted like sawdust as she envisioned all the lonely months ahead when the silence between them would stretch into what was becoming a familiar tension, or when she would be left completely alone while Raoul pursued his business interests. But what else did she expect? She was doing a job for which she was being paid extremely well and that was all there was to it. It was foolish to feel regret because Raoul evinced no desire for her company, or chagrin because he excused himself as soon as he had finished eating, retiring to his own room where she heard him lift the telephone and then talk into it in harsh Arabic.

Tired though she was, it seemed hours before sleep finally claimed her, her dreams a jumbled mixture of events from which she was glad to wake when the maid brought her a tray of tea and some small, plain biscuits, English and French newspapers on her tray.

Their marriage was mentioned in both; a discreet paragraph in The Times and something similar in its French equivalent. The gossip columns of the English tabloids gave a little more detail, including a mention of Saud. Unwittingly, Claire sighed. It was too late to back out now. For the next months at least she was, to all intents and purposes, Raoul’s wife and Saud’s mother.

Movements from the cot at her bedside reminded her of Saud’s presence and she reached him just as he started to make his protest. His face was faintly flushed, the gums he exposed to Claire in a wide grin betraying the fact that another tooth was on the way. Sitting on the side of her bed with him, Claire rubbed his swollen gum consolingly. She would have to try and buy him a teething ring. It constantly amazed her that such a wealthy and important child should be so lacking in the most basic comforts. If his mother had lived things would have been different, and she told herself that if nothing else, at least her presence would benefit Saud.

She was so engrossed in watching him that she didn’t hear her bedroom door open, only becoming aware of Raoul’s presence when he was halfway across the floor. Already up and dressed, he made her feel acutely vulnerable in her thin cotton nightdress, her hair still tousled and her face completely free of make-up.