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Desert Fantasies(8)

By:Trish Morey

‘Maybe it was not clear you wanted to stop.’ And, maybe because he saw the disbelief etched so clearly on her features, he added for good measure, ‘Your body told me you did not want to stop.’

‘Then you weren’t listening!’

He lifted his hand, exposing the three angry red lines marring his cheek, his eyes widening at the blood smeared on his hand. ‘You will be sorry for this.’

She almost laughed out loud. His threat meant nothing to her. ‘No. I don’t think so. What I’m actually sorry about is for assuming I was being rescued last night rather than being kidnapped into some other nightmare. I’m sorry for having to listen to this ridiculous scheme of yours and argue its insanity, and I’m really sorry you do not seem to have any concept of how mad you are. But I am not sorry for hitting you. You asked for that!’

His lip curled. ‘I should take you back to Mustafa’s camp and leave you there.’

Fear crawled up her spine, even though she knew that there was no chance of it, even though she knew that he would never do such a thing—not when he wanted the throne for himself. Yet still she remembered the old crone’s probing fingers, the humiliating inspection, and she remembered what Mustafa had promised to do to her the moment they were married and he was safe.

‘My half-brother deserves a woman like you,’ Zoltan continued. ‘He deserves someone who can give him grief and make his life hell.’

But the poison of his insults washed off her, only serving to fuel the fire in her veins. She tossed her hair back, refusing to be cowed by his kind. ‘If you think you’re so different from him you are kidding yourself mightily.’

His face turned as red as a pomegranate, the tendons in his neck standing out in thick, tight cords, his pulse dancing in his throat. ‘I am nothing like him!’

‘Then you don’t know him at all. You are both contemptible! Unfit to rule a line, let alone an entire kingdom. Al-Jirad is better off without the both of you.’

‘Then who will be king?’

‘I don’t care. Someone else can sort that out. But I tell you this much, just as I’ll tell my father when he comes: I am not marrying either of you.’

‘You do that, Princess. You tell your father. You tell yourself. You tell whoever you like. Maybe if you say it often enough, you might even believe it.

‘But you would be wasting your breath. For in less than twenty-four hours we will be married, whether you like it or not.’

‘Over my dead body! ‘

His eyes glinted dangerously, the three scratches down his cheek standing out bold and angry. ‘If that’s what it takes.’

If the vizier hadn’t chosen that exact moment to arrive, she would have hit him again—harder this time.

Princesses didn’t hit, she knew. Princesses were serene, kept their cool and never lashed out—so she had been taught by endless tutors. But she had grown up with older brothers. They might have been princes, but they’d certainly not treated her and her sister like princesses. Oh yes, she was more than capable of dealing with bullies.

‘Hamzah,’ he said to the bowing vizier. ‘What is it?’

The vizier took one look at Zoltan’s cheek before glancing over at Aisha with disdain, taking in her unkempt hair, her reddened cheeks, clearly disapproving of what he saw. Then he blinked as if she didn’t matter and turned back to Sheikh Zoltan.

‘Sheikh King Ashar has called from the Blue Palace. He asks if he can speak to the princess.’

At last! Zoltan looked at her and now it was her turn to smile, because finally this was her moment. The sooner she spoke to her father, the sooner a halt could be put to these crazy wedding plans. Finally she had a chance to talk to someone who would listen to her, someone who cared about her, rather than trying to reason with a man who was like a brick wall and gave not a toss for what she wanted. ‘Where can I take the call?’

When the vizier bowed and gestured towards the big desk in the corner, it was all she could do not to run over and snatch up the receiver simply to hear her father’s voice again, just to let him know that, while she might be safe from one despot, it was only to be landed in the lap of another. He could not know the full details of what was planned. He must have been deceived. He must have no idea what this man was really planning.

But she wouldn’t let herself run across the floor to the phone. She could do serene when she wanted to, she could do regal. She was just finding it harder when this man was around, the urge to act rather than think decidedly more tempting.

‘We will leave you in privacy, Princess,’ Zoltan said behind her, about to withdraw after Hamzah. On a wicked whim she turned and held up one hand, one-hundred-per-cent confident in what her father would say.

‘No. You wait. I’m sure you will be interested in what my father has to say.’

For as much as she hated him, as much as he threw her off-balance, she wanted him here to witness this, she wanted no more misunderstandings between them. Finally she could talk to her father, someone reasonable, someone who made sense and cared about her as a person, not just as some chattel to be exchanged in a business deal. And afterwards she would hand the phone over so her father could tell Zoltan the same thing because he would surely not believe her. She picked up the receiver, still smiling. God, after what she’d been through, she was really going to enjoy this. ‘Papa, it’s so good to talk to you!’

She listened and laughed as he expressed his delight, thanks and apologies for not being there to meet her. She assured him that she was unharmed, that neither Mustafa nor his men had hurt her, not physically, and that she couldn’t wait to go home.

She threw a smile across to Zoltan, imagining his teeth gnashing together, relishing that thought. Thinking that the last thing he would have wanted was for her father to call, someone who would surely take her side in all of this.

Until there was a pause on the end of the line she could no longer ignore.


The words she heard chilled her blood and made her dizzy with shock and disbelief. ‘But, Papa, I do not understand.’ And this time he said the words slower, so there could be no mistake, so she could not misunderstand.

‘Aisha, you are not going home. Why has no-one told you yet? You must marry Zoltan.’

She made the mistake of looking up, caught the suddenly smug look on Zoltan’s face, as if he had caught the gist of her conversation and knew it was not in her favour. Then again, he had probably read her reaction on her face. She spun around, turning her back on him, hating his air of casual boredom, hating the sudden curve she’d witnessed on his lips.

Hating everything about him.

‘But, Papa …’ she pleaded into the receiver, curving her free hand around the mouthpiece, shielding the panic in her voice and cursing her impulse to let Zoltan stay in the room while she took the call. But she was not done yet. ‘I don’t want to marry him!’

He wanted to choke. Did she for one moment actually imagine that he actually wanted to marry her? Laughable. But it wasn’t laughable. It was painful, really, having to listen to one half of a conversation when that half was clearly going so wrong.

There were plenty more ‘but, Papa’s, a fair sprinkling of ‘but why?’s and a lot of time where she said nothing but listened to what her father was telling her before she tried to get a word in. He had to admit the one that almost plucked at his heart strings was the ‘Please, Papa, please!’

Said in her Poor Little Princess voice, it was quite touching, really. If you cared.

Even if you did, what could anyone do? Hadn’t he explored every option himself?

But then the final cruncher—the ‘Yes, Papa,’ in a voice that sounded like a child’s who had just been rebuked and told to be good—before she turned back to the desk and put the receiver down.

It was awkward witnessing someone else’s humiliation, especially after they’d insisted you stayed and had acted as if it was going to be some kind of victory for them.

Awkward and yet, at the same time, supremely satisfying.

She didn’t look up at him, but she didn’t have to for him to realise she’d been crying. Her long lashes were clumped into thick black spikes, moisture glazed her eyes and he had to wonder why she insisted on making it so difficult for herself.

He’d learned early in life that some things were worth fighting for and some things were a lost cause from day one. ‘Choose your battles,’ his uncle, the King, had told him when he was just a young boy and still steaming after his father had, as usual, accepted Mustafa’s side in a dispute. ‘Don’t waste your time on the things you can’t change. Save your energy for the battles that count.’

He hadn’t really understood the message back then; it had all just seemed so unfair that his father had never taken his word, no matter the truth of the matter. But bit by bit he’d learned that nothing would ever change and that arguing only made things worse.

Gradually he’d learned to accept the inevitable and save his energies for the battles he could win.

Someone should have told this woman the same thing.

Didn’t she see there was no changing this? She was stuck. As stuck as he was in this centuries-old time warp. There was no getting out of it. There was no escape.