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Desert Fantasies(9)

By:Trish Morey

‘So you managed to sort it all out?’ he asked when she had stood there, her hands on the replaced receiver, for way too long.

She drew in a long breath then, blinked, straightened and made the tiniest concession she could to her tears by flicking them from the corners of her eye while making out as though she was pushing the weight of her long, dark hair back behind her ears.

‘My father will be here tomorrow, as you said.’ Her voice was low and flat, as if all the stuffing had been knocked out of it, all the life.

He waited longer still, struck by how much this admission of defeat cost her in her too-stiff spine and forced control, almost—if he had to admit it—admiring her. Maybe she wasn’t as fragile as he had supposed or she would have been wailing on the end of the phone, dissolved into shrieks and fits of tears by now. Facing him after the instruction to stay, only for it to mean he had witnessed her humiliation, would be no easy task. Not for anyone, let alone some brittle, spoilt princess.

She blinked then as she looked up at him. ‘My father—Sheikh Ashar—says I have no choice. Apparently neither of us do. It seems it is more complicated than a mere alliance. He says our countries are inexorably linked and that if this marriage doesn’t happen both of our families forfeit their right to their respective thrones. So, if I say no, it will not only be Al-Jirad without a king.’

He waited. He had known this to be the truth, but she would never have believed him if he had told her. It was better coming from her father.

‘So then, it is settled. There is no escaping this marriage, for either of us.’

She blinked up at him, her eyes as empty as her voice. ‘Not unless I wish my father to lose the crown and my brothers to lose their birthright.’

She drew in breath and seemed to grow taller then, her chin raised, her eyes resigned but still, he noted, with a glimmer of defiance, even if still glassy. ‘I would not do that to my family, of course.’

‘Of course.’

‘In which case, it seems there is no choice. Apparently I am stuck with this marriage.’ Her chin grew higher then, her eyes grew colder, with an icy surface you could skate over. ‘And so, it would seem, stuck with you.’

He watched her leave, her head held high, her posture impossibly straight and regal.

Haughtiness becomes you, he thought as she swept from the room, back to her princessly best, if you didn’t count the riotous freefall of her hair tumbling down her back, hair that had felt like a silk curtain in his hands. He remembered the feel of her in his arms, the heat from her mouth, the softness and suppleness of her body against his, and he growled low and deep in his throat.

For all her protests, for all her pretence, there was a live woman under that haughty exterior, hot and wanting, and he would take great pleasure in peeling that harsh shell away piece by inevitable piece.

‘What happened to you?’ There was laughter in Rashid’s words as he led the other two friends into the library and caught sight of Zoltan’s cheek.

‘Let me guess,’ Bahir said with a knowing grin. ‘The princess happened to him.’

Kadar perched himself on the edge of the desk where Zoltan sat and studied the three lines down his friend’s cheek. ‘No wonder she wasn’t impressed by my fire-works. Looks like she’s packing her own.’

Zoltan leaned back in his chair, pinching the bridge of his nose with his fingers, his head full of ancient verse after hours of study. No surprise that his friends would find this intensely amusing. They would no doubt find it doubly so if they knew exactly what he had been doing right before she had raked her claws down his cheek.

‘I’m glad you all find this so entertaining. What are you doing here anyway? I thought you were falconing today.’

‘We thought you might be lonely,’ Rashid said, picking up a paperweight from the table and tossing it from one hand to the other. ‘Didn’t realise you were otherwise occupied.’

‘Don’t drop that,’ Zoltan warned, thankful for the opportunity to change the subject. ‘It’s Murano glass, three-hundred years old. A present from the then-king to his sheikha. Worth a fortune, apparently.’

Bahir stopped tossing the paperweight for a moment, peering into the colours of its mysterious depths. ‘Oh well,’ he said, tossing it in Rashid’s direction. ‘Easy come, easy go.’

Kadar spun around the heavy tome sitting in front of Zoltan and peered down. ‘What’s this?’

‘The Sacred Book of Al-Jirad. I have to know it by the coronation.’

‘What? All of it?’

‘The entire thing, chapter and verse. Ready to be quoted from at the appropriate moment, to spout the wisdom of the ages.’

Rashid whistled. ‘Then, brother, you really do need rescuing.’

Kadar slammed the book shut before Zoltan could stop him. ‘Come on, then,’ he said, jumping to his feet.

‘I don’t have time,’ he growled. ‘I’ll see you at dinner.’

‘What, you’re too busy to spend a few minutes with your best friends when we’ve all come so far to help you? Nice one.’

‘Lame,’ Rashid agreed, tossing the paperweight casually in one hand. ‘Besides, you have to exercise some time. We’re heading for the pool.’ And he threw the paperweight at Zoltan so fast he almost fumbled the catch and dropped it to the marble floor.

‘Reflexes a bit slow today?’ he teased, looking at his cheek. Zoltan knew he wasn’t talking about the paperweight. ‘I reckon I might actually beat you over twenty laps today. What do you say?’

Zoltan was already on his feet. ‘Not a chance.’

Aisha could not believe it had come to this. She lay on the big, soft bed, her pillows drenched with tears. But now, hours after she had returned from that fateful meeting in the library, her tears were spent, her eyes sore and scratchy, and she was left with just the aching chasm in her gut where hope had once resided.

There was no hope now. There was nothing but a yawning pit of despair from which she could see no way out.

For tomorrow she was required to marry Zoltan, an arrogant, selfish, impossible man who clearly thought her no more than a spoilt princess and who had made it plain he considered she was getting the better end of the deal in having to marry a barbarian like him, and that there was not a thing she could do to avoid it. To renege on the deal would result in bringing down the royal families of two countries and smashing apart the alliance that had kept their countries strong for centuries.

And, for all the power that knowledge should bestow upon her—that she was the king-maker of two countries—she had never felt more powerless in her life.

She had never felt more alone.

She rolled over on the bed, caught a glimpse in the corner of her eye of the magnificent golden wedding-robe sitting ready and waiting on a mannequin in the corner of her room and squeezed her eyes shut again.

Such a beautiful gown. Such a work of art. Such a waste. A gown like that deserved to be worn to a fairytale wedding, whereas she was to be married to a monster. Expected to bear his sons, destined to be some kind of brood mare. Doomed to never find the love for which she had once hoped.

Such foolish dreams and hopes.

After all, she was a princess. She swiped at her cheeks. What right had she had to wish for any kind of normal life, even if her two brothers had the future crown of Jemeya well and truly covered?

Yet still, other princes and princesses around the world seemed to marry for love these days. Why shouldn’t she have dared hope for the same?

She shook her head. It was pointless feeling sorry for herself. She forced herself to move, found herself a wash cloth in the bathroom to run cold water over and held it to her swollen, salt-crusted eyes. She could mope for ever and it would not change things. Nothing she could do, it seemed, could change things.

She returned to her room, passing by the open balcony doors when the curtains shifted on a slight breeze as she still held the cool, soothing flannel to her cheeks. Rani must have opened them, she guessed, before she had left her to her despair, for she was sure the doors had not been open before.

Poor Rani. She had been so excited to show her the gown when she’d returned from her meeting with Zoltan, so delighted to tell her what was planned for her preparations the next day—the fragrant oil-baths, the henna and the hairdresser. Aisha had taken such strides to hold herself together until then, all the way from the library through the convoluted passageways and along the cloistered walk to her suite. It had been so much effort to hold herself together that, in spite of all of the young girl’s enthusiasm—or maybe, in part, because of it—she had taken one look at the dress, collapsed onto the bed in tears and told the girl to go away.

The breeze from the open doors beckoned her, carrying with it the late-afternoon perfume of the garden below, the heady scent of jasmine and the sweet lure of orange blossom. It drew her to the window, to where the soft inner drapes danced and played upon the gentle breeze. She stood there for a moment before venturing out onto the balcony of her suite. The sun was dipping lower now, the evening rays turning the stone and roof of the palace gold, even in the places it was not. The garden was bathed in half-light, the sound of the splashing fountain and birdcalls coming from its green depths like an antidote to stress.