Home>>read Desert Fantasies free online

Desert Fantasies(10)

By:Trish Morey

It all looked so restful and beautiful, so perfect, even when she knew things were far from perfect, that she could not resist the lure of the perfumed garden.

A set of stairs led down from the balcony. She looked back into her suite and realised someone had already taken away the jacket she had torn off and discarded en route to her bed, but it didn’t matter, because she probably wouldn’t need it anyway. It was deliciously warm and without the sting of the sun’s rays. It wasn’t as though she was planning on running into anyone.

She wasn’t in the mood for running into anyone. A lifetime of training had told her that she must be presentable at all times, in all situations, prepared for every contingency; given a lifetime of doing exactly that, only to find that your life could take a bizarre turn and force you into marriage with someone just because some crusty old piece of paper said you must, what then did it matter how she looked? She finger-combed her hair back from her face and smoothed her creased trousers with her hands. That would do. Once, she might have cared, but today, after all that had happened, she felt a strange sense of detachment from her former life.

It didn’t matter any more.

If she could be married to someone she hated because the ancient alliance between their two countries dictated it, then nothing mattered any more—not how you looked, how you acted or certainly not what you dreamed and wanted from your life. Only that you were a princess. Only that you came from the right breeding stock. And Zoltan hated her anyway. It wasn’t as though he cared how she looked.

Zoltan was stuck with her, just as she was stuck with him, and somehow that thought was vaguely comforting as she descended the stairs into the garden. After all, why should she be the only one inconvenienced by this arrangement? Why should she be the only one to suffer?

Her legs brushed past lavender bushes intruding onto the path as she walked, releasing their scent onto the air. She breathed deeply, taking it in, wishing herself the soothing balm it promised.

The garden was deserted, as she had hoped it would be, silent but for the rustle of leaves on the breeze, the play of water and the call of birds. She drifted aimlessly along its paths, breathing in the scented air, delighting in the discovery of the ever-changing view and the skillful placement of a bubbling bird-bath or a flowering frangipani to surprise and delight. She stopped by one such frangipani tree laden with richly scented flowers, picked a cluster of bright white-and-yellow flowers to her face and drank in their sweet perfume.

Her mother’s favourite flower, so her father had told her when she had leafed through her parents’ wedding photos. She could see her parents’ wedding photos now, and her mother’s bouquet, all tight white rosebuds amidst the happy brightness of frangipani flowers as she drank in that sweet scent.

She wondered what her mother would tell her now. Would she be as cold and clinical as her father, who had told her today that there was no point thinking or dreaming or wishing for things to be different, because she was what she was and that was how it was to be? Or would she be more understanding, at least empathetic of her situation?

And not for the first time she wondered about her own parents’ marriage, wishing she knew more of the circumstances of how they had met. But her mother had died way too early for her to be interested in any of that, and now it was all so long ago.

She arrived at an opening in a wall, keyhole-shaped, potted palms on either side. A path to another garden? she wondered. But as she looked through it she could see it was not one but a series of archways through which she caught a glimpse of greenery and whispering palms that beckoned to her.

She looked back, trying to get her bearings so she would not get lost, saw what must be her balcony above the tangle of vegetation and realised she was in the far corner of the square, the other side of the palace to where the library lay.

Further from Zoltan, she figured, so maybe it wouldn’t hurt to venture a little further, especially not if this was to be her new home.

She encountered only one other person, a maid, who blinked up at her, bowed and soundlessly and quickly moved on.

She passed by a bird-bath with a bubbling fountain where birds splashed happily, oblivious to her passing, and the breeze whispered through the palms, the promise of the archways luring her on. She loved them all. Every one of them was decorated slightly differently, one whose walls were covered with blue-and-white mosaic, another inlaid with mother-of-pearl, the last with a pair of peacocks with bright and colourful plumage, every one of them a work of art.

It was as she passed beneath that last richly decorated arch and wondered what she would find beyond that she heard it, a voice, a shout, and then splashing and laughter. Men’s laughter, coming from some kind of pool. She swallowed as she swung around, pressing her back hard against the cool, tiled wall, grateful she had heard their voices before stumbling unknowingly into their midst. She should not be here. She had come too far.

And then she heard his voice amongst the others, Zoltan’s, and the bitter taste of bile rose in her throat as she remembered how supremely difficult it had been to walk from that library with her back straight and her head held high when all she had felt like doing was collapsing in a heap in despair—how it had taken every shred of her self-control to force herself to wait until she had walked through the door of her suite before she could let her tears go. She could not bear to see him again with those memories so vivid in her mind.

His voice rang out again, issuing some kind of challenge. There were calls and laughter, and the challenge seemed to be accepted by another. The unfairness of it all grated on her raw nerves, rubbed salt into her still-fresh wounds. Clearly Zoltan was not agonising too much over the stress of a forced marriage, for all his protests about not wanting to take a wife. Clearly he was not suffering unduly, if he could take time out to frolic in a pool with his friends without a care in the world. And clearly he had not felt the need to cry his heart out on his bed at the unfairness of it all. The truth of it struck home again. She was nothing in this world but a pawn in a game where she didn’t even merit a move.

There came a splash then, the sound of thrashing water and cheers, and curiosity got the better of her. Who were these men with Zoltan? Could they be the ones who had accompanied him to the desert encampment last night? Maybe she could take one look. It wasn’t as though the pool was private; there was no gate and she was simply out walking.

Making sure she stayed in the shadows under the archway, she peered out past the garden surrounding the pool. There were two men there, neither of them Zoltan, standing cheering at the far end of a broad sapphire pool, partly shaded by twin lines of palms. Though it was nowhere near shady enough to hide the scars that marred one man’s back, the skin twisted and brutal-looking, and she wondered what could have caused such a mess as the water of the pool was torn apart by churning arms, going stroke for stroke as two more men devoured the length of the pool.

Until they reached the end and the water erupted as someone emerged, using powerful arms to springboard out a mere head before his rival.

‘I win,’ the first said, offering his hand to the second.

Zoltan, she realised, disappointed as her eyes drank in the sight of him dripping wet. How typical that he should win the race. How unfortunate. She would have loved to see him lose. She would love to see something or someone wipe that smug look of superiority off his face and the sheer arrogance that infused every part of his body, every glistening muscle, every hard-packed limb.

Of course he would not have an ounce of fat on him, she thought with added resentment, he would not allow such a thing. She had seen enough. And she almost managed to turn away until he flexed his shoulders as her eyes caught the play of muscles under broad shoulders and tracked down the vee of his torso, to where his hips were encased in black lycra above the start of those long, powerful legs.

She sniffed, refusing to be impressed. So maybe she had been wrong before. Maybe he was not exactly like Mustafa, at least not in this one respect, she thought as she remembered the fat man scratching the bulging of his gut through his robe with long, almost feminine fingernails ending fingers adorned with gaudy rings. She shuddered, knowing how close she had come to that repulsive fate.

Still, it made no difference to her how many muscles Zoltan had, and she did not care that his skin glistened a golden-olive in the light. Not when in essence he was exactly the same as his half-brother. Not when there were still so very many reasons to hate him with every fibre of her being.

And she was sure, with time, she would find more.

‘I gave you a head start,’ his vanquished rival claimed as she watched furtively from the shadows. ‘Let’s make it best out of three.’ Zoltan laughed and slapped his friend on the back, turning his face to the sky to shake the water from his dark hair. She had to blink and look again to make sure it was him.

Zoltan actually laughed? Was this the same man as the monster she had met today in the library? Was this the dark barbarian who had snarled and growled and so smugly informed her that she had no choice? For when he smiled, when he laughed so openly, his face was transformed. Not handsome, exactly. He would never be handsome. His face was too dark, his features too strong, like the strongest, bitterest cup of coffee imaginable. But with laughter lighting his dark features he almost looked human.