Home>>read Desert Fantasies free online

Desert Fantasies(4)

By:Trish Morey

The sun was lower now, turning the golden stone of the palace to a burnished red, though it was still almost too hot for the white linen trouser suit she had selected from her wardrobe.

She didn’t care. She had chosen smart travelling clothes over one of her cooler silk abayas for a reason: she wanted it to be clear that she intended travelling home to Jemeya the first chance she got, today if it was at all possible. They could pack up and send her clothes after her.

The merest hint of a breeze, cooled by the fountains and the garden, tickled the patch of bare skin behind her neck, making her thankful she’d knotted her hair behind her head. Cool serenity she had been aiming for in her look, which was what she most needed. Along with confidence. Which she had for the most part, she felt, until she thought about the mystery of the clothes so neatly filling the dressing room and the absence of any kind of answers to her questions.

The strangeness of it all once again sent skitters down her spine. No matter how much she had tried to find a logical reason, to try to explain what possible reason they had sent her entire wardrobe here, it made no sense at all.

She shivered despite the warmth of the day, the relief she’d felt at escaping Mustafa’s desert camp rapidly dissipating in the wake of all of her unanswered questions.

And in the shadow of a growing suspicion.

Something was wrong.

The vizier led her deeper into the palace, through a maze of corridors; between walls lined with beautiful mosaics set with gemstones, the colours leaping out at her; past rich wall-hangings and tapestries of animals frolicking on the banks of rivers. And water, water was always a theme—in the murals, mosaics and in the tiny fountains, trickling from stone jars in every corner over rocks, making music with water.

It was beautiful.

No doubt designed to be quite restful.

If you weren’t already seething with impatience, turning every watery tinkle, every babbling and burbling rivulet, into the sound of someone scraping their nails down a blackboard.

By the time they came to a set of carved doors that rose imposing and ominous before them, she was ready to scrape her nails down anything.

Strange; she wasn’t normally a violent person or prone to biting or scratching.

‘Can you run as hard as you bite?’

She remembered the laughter in his words and she wished she’d bitten down harder. Then Hamzah beckoned her to follow, and she promised to put that man out of her mind once and for all. He was gone, probably busy blowing his reward at the nearest casino or flesh-pot.

Mercenaries would be like that, she figured. In it for the money. The thrill of the hunt. The quick buck.

They entered a library, the floor and columns of the massive room decked in marble, smooth and cool, the occasional chairs and tables gilt and inlaid with precious stones, the walls lined with books and manuscripts. And there, in one far corner of the room, sat a man behind a computer, his hair shining blue-black under the lights.

He looked up as they approached, his eyes narrowing as he sat back in his chair. A secretary, she assumed with a sigh, wondering how long it would be and how many more layers of bureaucracy she would encounter until finally she found this mysterious sheikh and maybe even someone who could answer her questions.

‘Princess Aisha.’

She stepped forward, her patience having reached its limit. ‘Can you answer my questions? Or can you at least point me in the direction of someone who can? Because, as much as I am grateful for your hospitality, I need to know why I am not already on my way home to Jemeya but instead find the wardrobe in my room stuffed full of my clothes.’

The older man reared back as if he’d been physically struck. ‘Excellency, I am sorry.’

Her eyes snapped around to the vizier. Excellency?

‘Thank you, Hamzah. I’ll handle this now.’ And something in his voice made her turn back to the man in the chair, even while the older man withdrew. Almost in slow motion, it seemed, he pushed back his chair and rose to his full height.

Tall, she registered. Broad-shouldered.

And there was something about that voice …

Her mouth went dry.

It could not be him! She must be going mad if she imagined this man to be her rescuer. That man was a mercenary, sent by her father to rescue her. And this man was some kind of … royalty?

‘Why did he call you Excellency? Surely that term is reserved for King Hamra, the ruler of Al-Jirad?’

She swallowed as he rounded the desk, long-limbed and lean, before propping himself against it, crossing his arms over his broad chest as he coolly surveyed her with dark, unreadable eyes. His hard face was constructed of too many harsh angles and too many dark places to be considered conventionally handsome. And, with the dark blue-black shadow of his beard, he looked—dangerous.

‘So, who are you?’ she asked, raising her chin in defiance, willing her voice not to crack. ‘Why is it so impossible to get answers to my questions?’

‘You are impatient, Princess. I was not warned of that particular trait. But then, I suppose you have been through an ordeal and we can excuse it this once. Did you sleep well?’

She was impatient but he could excuse it just this once. Who the hell did he think he was? What was it about Al-Jirad and the men here that brought out the worst in them? ‘And I am expected to answer your questions while you choose not to answer mine?’

He smiled then, and for a moment he almost looked human. Almost. Before his face reverted to dark, shadowed planes and grim eyes. ‘Touché.’ He gave just the merest inclination of his head. ‘I am Sheikh Zoltan Al Farouk bin Shamal, but of course you may call me Zoltan.’

‘And I am Princess Aisha of the royal Peshwah family of Jemeya, and you may address me as Princess Aisha.’

This time he laughed, a rich, deep sound that sounded far too good to come from someone like him, a man she wanted to dislike everything about.

‘Where is my father?’ she demanded, cutting his laughter short. ‘Why is he not here to greet me? I was promised he would know I was safe, but instead I find myself still here in Al-Jirad, instead of already being on my way home to Jemeya.’

He spread his arms out wide. ‘You have an issue with your suite? Have we not made you comfortable here? Is there anything you lack?’

‘I was assured my father would know I was safe.’

‘And he knows, Princess Aisha. As he has known since you were plucked from that desert encampment last night. I spoke to him again once you were safe within this palace’s walls. He is overjoyed beyond measure. He wanted me to tell you that.’

She blew out a breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding. At least something made sense. They were the exact words she would expect her father to use. ‘So he’s still in Jemeya, then, waiting for me to return home.’ It still didn’t explain why he would send her entire wardrobe—surely her lady in waiting could have selected a few likely outfits for her to choose from? But maybe he panicked.

‘No. He is not in Jemeya, but right here in Al-Jirad, at the Blue Palace, attending to some business. He will be here tomorrow.’

She blinked. The Blue Palace was the ceremonial palace of Al-Jirad, and the seat of the kingdom. Her father must have business with the King. But then she remembered the black flags flying atop the palace roof. Of course he would be here in Al-Jirad at such a time. ‘Did something happen to Queen Petra? There are black flags flying.’

His brow furrowed, his eyes narrowing, drawing her eye to the strong black lashes framing his dark eyes. ‘Yes, as it happens. It did.’

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘that’s so sad. So I’m not leaving just yet.’

He smiled again. ‘No, Princess, you are not.’

‘Then I will just have to wait for him here.’

He smiled and crossed his ankles, drawing her eye to the long, lean line of his legs encased in what looked like the finest fabric, superbly tailored. Superbly fitted everywhere. ‘I get the impression you are not used to waiting, Princess.’

She realised she was staring, and where, and snapped her eyes back to his face. She caught a glimmer of laughter in the crease of his eyes and the curve of his lips. Laughter, and something entirely more menacing, and she got the impression he thought he was toying with her, like a cat with a mouse, prodding it one way and then the other, wanting it to run so he could pounce …

Well, she was no mouse and she would not run. And, sheikh or no sheikh, she didn’t like his tone, nor his words that told her he was busy adding to her list of character faults. As if it mattered to her what he thought of her. She stiffened her spine.

‘Maybe it’s because I seem to have done nothing else lately. I spent many hours out in the desert, waiting for escape. But I can wait one more night.’

He nodded, his smile growing wider. ‘Excellent. I am sure you will find your time here most entertaining.’

She sensed she was being dismissed, and she realised that she was doing most of the ‘entertaining’, for he seemed more than amused. But she also realised that, no matter how much the man irritated her, she could not go without at least thanking him for offering her a safe haven. ‘Then thank you, Sheikh Zoltan, for your hospitality. I apologise if I seemed impatient earlier but naturally I became frustrated when nobody seemed willing or able to answer my questions.’