Chosen as the Sheikh's Wife
(Becoming the Tycoon’s Bride)
Mills & Boon have been thrilling their readers with escapist fiction for a hundred years and contributing a story to this celebration centenary volume was sheer delight.
The "sheikh" fantasy utterly encapsulates the rush of falling in love, the thrill of being swept off your feet by a tall, dark and handsome stranger and when Violet Hamilton, the heroine of Chosen as the Sheikh's Wife, stumbles across a jewelled "khanjar" hidden beneath her floorboards she gets all the excitement she can handle when she reveals the family legend of a runaway princess and a handsome soldier!
With her life in danger, Violet is whisked away by Sheikh Fayad to Ras al Hajar – not on a black stallion, but his private jet – and her life is changed out of all recognition as, for three months, she lives the life of a desert queen. But their marriage is a sham and time is running out…
Many, many congratulations on reaching your centenary, Mills & Boon!
With warmest wishes,
Violet had been waiting for what seemed like hours, but eventually it was her turn and she limped forward with the object she'd brought along to the Trash or Treasure roadshow.
She'd already been through the junk/interesting/wow! "triage" at the entrance, and since the object she'd brought along for assessment had received a unanimous "wow!", and been red-stickered to indicate its status, a television camera zoomed in to film the expert's reaction.
She was not carried away on a tide of excitement by all this enthusiasm. It only meant that her piece of "trash" was unusual enough to arouse interest-and not necessarily of the kindly variety. This show was, after all, primarily entertainment, and if you set yourself up as an Aunt Sally, you had to expect the knocks.
She hadn't wanted to come. It was Sarah, her next-door neighbour, who'd insisted on dragging her reluctant bones along to the town hall so that she could be publicly humiliated for the amusement of several million viewers. Sarah who, just at the moment when she'd needed her for moral support, had disappeared in search of a loo.
Pregnancy was no excuse…
'What have we got here?' The "expert"-permanently tanned, silver-haired, a darling of the blue-rinse brigade-was familiar from the many evenings she'd sat watching this programme with her grandmother.
'I don't know,' she said truthfully, putting the brown padded envelope she had been clutching to her chest on the baize-covered table in front of him. 'To be honest I feel a bit of a fool bringing it here-' She felt better for getting that out, disassociating herself from any pretence to have found "treasure" '-but my neighbour lived in the Middle East for a while and she thought it was…interesting.'
Oh, lame, Violet Hamilton. Pathetic to blame someone not here to defend herself.
'Well, let's have a look at it, shall we?' He tipped a rag-wrapped bundle out onto the table in front of him.
'That's just how I found it,' Violet said quickly, not wanting him to think she routinely kept her valuables wrapped in rotted black silk. Not that she had any valuables. 'This morning,' she added. 'When I put my foot through the floorboards.' The cameraman pointed his lens at her strapped up ankle. Terrific… This was her "fifteen minutes of fame", and already her ankle was more interesting. 'It must have been there for years,' she said.
Without a word he carefully unfolded the rotted silk to reveal an ornately decorated dagger. Around them people crowded in to get a closer look.
That it was old was not in doubt. The handle had the patina of hard use, and inset in the top was a large, smoothly polished red stone the size of a pigeon's egg. The sheath wasn't straight but sharply curved and adorned with fancy silver and gold-coloured filigree work into which were set three similar tear-shaped red stones, decreasing in size as they reached the curved point and looking for all the world as if the stone on the handle was bleeding along its length.
The man said nothing for so long that Violet said, 'If I'd seen it on a market stall I'd have sworn it was a pantomime prop. Something the genie might wear in Aladdin.' The crowd, obligingly, laughed. 'All glass beads and plastic handle,' she added.
Then, as he eased the knife out of the sheath and the lights glinted off the blade, the laughter died.
'It's not a theatrical prop,' he said, unnecessarily.
'No.' And belatedly Violet wondered exactly how many laws she'd broken simply by carrying the thing in public.
'You found it under the floorboards, you said?' he prompted, with a keen, assessing glance. 'And which floorboards would they be?'
'My floorboards,' she replied a touch defensively, although now that the equity release people had done their sums the floorboards-along with most of the structure-were apparently theirs.
'I'm the fourth generation of my family to live there,' she added. And the last.
'Then it's likely that someone in your family hid it?'
'Unless burglars have started breaking in and leaving loot instead of taking it,' she agreed, and raised another laugh from the people crowded round to listen to what he had to say. Maybe she should consider a career in stand-up…
'Indeed,' he agreed, his smile as fake as his tan. It was his job to make the humorous remarks. 'Maybe we can come back to that.' Then, turning back to the knife, 'The Arab world has always been famous for its weapons and this is a khanjar, mostly worn now as a ceremonial piece in the same way as swords are worn with dress uniforms.'
He talked about the blade, about how the sharply curved scabbard was made, the skills being passed on from one generation of craftsmen to the next. He knew his stuff and the crowd around them was quiet now, intent. They knew that when he took this amount of time it was because he'd found something a bit special.
'This knife is exceptional,' he continued. 'Not only is the blade of the very highest quality, but the handle is made from rare, much-prized rhino horn.'
'Eeeuw…' Violet sat back, instinctively distancing herself from it.
'It's more than a hundred years old,' he said reassuringly.
'Does that make a difference?' she asked. 'The rhino still died just to furnish some man with a handle for his knife.'
'The transference of power had a potent appeal. It was a different world…'
'Not that different.'
'No.' Then, turning to a safer subject, he went on, 'The filigree work is fine gold and silver, and the use of rubies-'
'Rubies!' Violet exclaimed, forgetting all about the poor rhino who'd given up his horn just so that some dumb man would feel invincible when he wielded this blade. Forgetting everything in her shock. 'They can't possibly be rubies!'
This time his smile was genuine. It was finds like this, reactions like hers, that made the programme compulsive viewing.
'I mean, they're huge,' she said. Then, 'I thought they were glass. And raised another laugh. This time for her foolishness. Everyone was an expert…
'They might well have been,' he agreed. 'All kinds of decoration can and have been used on this kind of knife, but these stones are the real thing. Cabochon rubies-that is they have been polished rather than cut.'
Violet, aware that something more was expected, could only manage a slightly croaky, 'Oh…'
'What we have here is the kind of weapon that would have been owned and worn by a chief. A sheikh,'
he elaborated. 'Maybe even a sultan. It needs cleaning, of course, but even in this state I can't remember when I've seen anything quite so fine.'
It was rare for anything to reduce Violet to silence, but he had managed it.
'The really interesting question is how it came to be hidden beneath your floorboards.'
Violet was well aware what it must look like. What everyone must be thinking. That it had been stolen and, too hot to fence, had been hidden away and eventually forgotten about. But her family had enough of a history without adding larceny to the list, so she said, 'I suppose it could have something to do with the family legend.'
'The one about my great-great-grandmother being an Arabian princess who sewed her jewels into her clothes,' she said, 'and ran away from her husband with my great-great-grandfather.'
It was, gratifyingly, Mr Smooth's turn to be reduced to silence-if only momentarily.
'An Arabian princess?' he repeated, with a touch of uncertainty. She could see from his expression that he wasn't sure whether she was pulling his leg.
'With blue eyes,' she added, beginning to see the possibilities for entertainment herself. 'I'd always assumed it was just one of those tales that had grown in the telling.' She shrugged, leaving him to make up his own mind.
'Most stories have some element of truth in them,' he suggested. 'Was he a soldier? Your great-great-grandfather?'
'He was in the army. He was a medic. Stretcher-bearer,' she explained.
'Quite.' Then, 'It's more likely that he brought this back from the Middle East as a trophy,' he said, apparently discounting the Arabian princess theory as pure fantasy. 'Possibly from Turkey. This kind of elaborate decoration was favoured in the Ottoman dynasty.'
'Actually,' she said, refusing to allow him to dismiss her story in quite so casual a manner, 'it was the
princess and the jewels I always assumed were the tall stories.' Her great-great-grandfather had braved artillery fire to carry wounded soldiers to safety, had a Military Medal to attest to his heroism, and she wasn't having him publicly branded a thief. 'Great-Great-Grandma Fatima was real enough. I have a photograph of her.'
There was a stiffly posed sepia-tinted photograph of a tall, exotically handsome woman, standing behind her seated husband, in the "family gallery" on the kitchen dresser.
'And a letter. In Arabic…'
'Well…' For a moment he appeared lost for words-twice in one day had to be a record. 'Well, you have a real story. And a rich treasure. Knives like these are very much in demand, and if you were to put it up for auction in a specialist sale…'
He mentioned some ridiculous sum of money, and all around her she heard gasps. And she was the one left struggling for words.
It was, Violet thought, numbly, a bit like a fairy tale.
She'd been in her late grandmother's bedroom, emptying her wardrobe, sorting out what was good enough to send to the chaiity shop, when she'd stepped back and gone through a floorboard that had creaked for as long as she could remember. And then, having pulled out her foot, she'd seen the carefully wrapped black silk bundle.
She was still in shock when the photographer from the local newspaper said, 'Smile!' and took her photograph.
'I'm sorry to disturb you, Fayad,' the ambassador said, but the press attache has just received a call from the news desk of the London Chronicle about a story they're running tomorrow. It's something I thought you might want to know about.'
Sheikh Fayad al Kuwani, grandson to the ruler of Ras al Kawi, looked up from his laptop. His cousin would not have disturbed him unless it was something important.
'What scandal has my father visited upon us now?' he asked, sitting back, prepared for the worst.
'No… No, it's nothing like that, in sh'Allah,' Hamad was quick to reassure him. 'It seems that a young woman took a spectacular khanjar for expert valuation to some television programme that was being recorded this afternoon.'
'That makes the national news in this country?'
'There were rubies,' he replied. 'Very large rubies. And a story about a runaway Arabian princess and stolen jewels, which apparently makes it…' He hesitated, then with distaste, said, 'Sexy.'
Fayad stilled. 'Go on.'
'The local paper picked up the story and passed it along, and, having done some research, the Chronicle has inevitably come up with the mystery of the long-lost Blood of Tariq. They're running the story using the photograph of your great-great-grandfather with Lawrence, along with the original 1917 despatch from the front line in tomorrow's first edition. They were hoping for a comment from the embassy.'
'Did they get one?'
'Only that many fakes of the Blood of Tariq had been produced over the years, and this is undoubtedly one of them. That the value of the rubies is nothing compared to the value of owning the khanjar touched by Lawrence.'
'Yes…' Fayad sat back, squeezing the bridge of his nose between his fingers.
The Blood of Tariq had a mystical power that put it beyond price. To hold it, possess it, was to hold the fate of Ras al Kawi in your hand.
It had to be a fake. But in the present climate that might be irrelevant.
It was what people believed that mattered.
Lost, the khanjar was a legend, a tale for old men as they sat around the campfire recalling past glories.
Found, it was trouble.
His grandfather was failing in health, his father was a disaster, and in the wrong hands even a fake, especially one with such an incendiary story attached to it, could prove disastrous to his country.
'You know who she is, this woman? Where to find her?'
'Her name is Violet Hamilton. She's twenty-two years old, unmarried. For the last three years she's been caring for her sick grandmother. The old lady died two weeks ago. At present she's living alone in her grandmother's house in Camden, where the khanjar was found. The equity of the house is owned by a property company, however, so she is about to become homeless.'
Fayad raised an eyebrow and the ambassador smiled. 'I don't ask how he does it, but in any exchange of
information you can be sure that our man came out with the better deal.'
'Thank him for me.'
'I will' Then, 'You'll make her an offer for it? You know it can't be real, Fayad. The original was surely broken up for the gold, the stones, decades ago.'
'Princess Fatima would never have done that. She knew that its worth lay in more than rabies and gold. Knew its power in the right hands. But, real or fake, it's a bad time for it to come to light. There are tribal factions who will move heaven and earth to get hold of it.'
Because of the reclusive nature of his grandfather, and the lack of interest his father had shown in anything but money, Ras al Kawi had remained relatively untouched by the tide of offshore banking and tourism that had swept through neighbouring countries.
Fayad had such plans for it, and now, just when things were finally beginning to take shape and he was preparing to move the country into the twenty-first century, onto the international stage, he was being faced with some mystical symbol straight out of a medieval melodrama.
It couldn't just be coincidence.
This had to be some elaborate hoax set up by someone planning to seize power. Except for the story of the runaway princess. And yet, for power, some disaffected member of the family might have betrayed them. Even his disinherited father…
'It scarcely matters if it is real or not, Hamad,' he said abruptly. 'We have to secure this knife before the story gains ground. And the woman, too.'
'The woman? You're not suggesting you carry her back to Ras al Kawi as symbolic proof of the restoration of Kuwani pride? As your grandfather's ambassador, I really could not allow that.'
'As my grandfather's ambassador I suggest you concentrate on the word "symbolic". Forget the khanjar for a moment. How safe do you think Miss Hamilton will be once it becomes rumoured that she is a descendant of Princess Fatima? There will be people ready to use her as a cipher at best. At worst…' He left that to his cousin's imagination.
'And you? What do you want with her, Fayad? Bearing in mind that I will be the one carpeted by the British Foreign Secretary if anything should happen to her.'
'What could I possibly want other than to extend to this descendant of Princess Fatima the hospitality of our country?' he replied wryly. 'Invite her to discover her true heritage.'
Hamad gave him a look that suggested he could think of any number of things, but confined himself to, 'And suppose she doesn't want to go to Ras al Kawi?'
'I will have to use all my diplomatic skills to persuade her that it's in her best interests. Have no fear, Hamad. She will be treated with the utmost respect.' Then, almost as an afterthought, 'After all, if she genuinely is a descendant of Fatima al Sayyid, then she, too, is a princess.'
'In other words she'll be feted and entertained and never notice that she's in a gilded cage. What happens when she wants to fly?'
'My grandfather is desperate for me to remarry,' he said, without expression. 'An alliance between the Kuwani family and a descendant of Princess Fatima al Sayyid would be right in so many ways…'
'The Sayyid family might not take that view. Nor might Miss Hamilton.'
'True. But possession, as they say, is nine-tenths of the law.'
'You haven't got her yet, Fayad. For all you know she's already sold the khanjar to one of the dealers who undoubtedly take a keen interest in these events.'
'Honestly, Violet,' Sarah said, shaking her head, 'that's the first place a burglar is going to look for valuables.'
'Then good luck to them.'
She'd wrapped the jewelled knife, still in its silk bundle, first in bubble wrap, then several layers of kitchen foil, and now, having carefully labelled it "chicken thighs", was busy chipping out enough space in the thickly frosted freezer compartment of her ancient fridge so that she could jam it in behind the defrosted bag of peas that she'd used as a compress on her ankle to bring down the swelling.
'As I know to my cost, an hour from now any burglar is going to need a blowtorch to get past the peas.'
'What if someone decides to steal the fridge?'
'Oh, please! You've only to listen to it to know that it's on its last legs,' she said, looking around at a kitchen that hadn't seen more than a change of wallpaper since the Formica revolution in the fifties. 'Like just about everything else in here.' She was going to miss it all so much… Then, because nothing, after all, had changed-she'd always known she'd have to leave, she grinned and said, 'I mean, who would be that desperate? But don't worry. I'll hack it out and take it to the bank tomorrow.'
'If I were you I'd cut out the middle man and take it straight to a dealer. Give that expert a call-he'll know someone reputable. He gave you his card, didn't he?'
'Well, there you are. Sorted. It'll make a decent deposit on a two-bedroom flat, and if you let a room you'll have the mortgage covered. You could finish that design course you were taking…'
'Get real, Sarah. Who in their right mind would give me a mortgage on the chance of me letting a room? Besides…' She shrugged, shook her head.
'She stole it, didn't she? Okay, the jewels may have been technically hers, but the knife…'
'Violet, sweetheart. It was nearly a hundred years ago. Who are you going to give it back to?' She shook her head and Sarah frowned. 'Are you going to be all right?'
'Yes. Yes, of course I am,' she said, making an effort to pull herself together. 'I guess I'm still in a state of shock.'
'I'm not surprised. I thought the knife would be worth a bit, but that was an amazing result.'
'Yes.' That kind of amazing just made her feel uneasy. 'Thanks for insisting on dragging me along to the T or T roadshow today.'
'Oh, I just wanted to get on the telly. Trust me to miss the big moment. Never mind. I'll get a thrill out of watching you when the programme is broadcast next week.'
Violet pulled a face, hating the thought. 'I must have been mad to sign the release form.'
'It would have made no difference. You'll be front page news in the local paper tomorrow.'
This time she just groaned. 'What on earth made me say all that stuff about Great-Great Grandma Fatima? I must have been mad.'
'Was it true? Really?'
'You think I could make up something like that?' She nodded at the pictorial family gallery that her grandma had always kept on the dresser. 'That's her, at the top in the middle.'
'Goodness.' Sarah took the picture down to take a closer look. 'You've got a look of her, Violet. Something about the eyes. Hers are light, too. That's strange, isn't it?'
Sarah put the picture back. 'I'd better get home and feed the brute before he chews through the table-leg.' She stopped in the doorway, pausing to look back. 'You will be careful, won't you, Violet? Once this gets out… Well, a woman with a nice little windfall is likely to find herself the target of all kinds of smooth-talking men looking for a soft touch.'
More likely find herself the target for every local villain, she thought.
Then, realising that Sarah was waiting for an answer, she laughed. 'You mean I might get a life?'
'And not before time. You've spent the last three years as a full-time carer. No holidays, scarcely a break. Nothing in your pocket but your carer's allowance and the little bit of money you make on your stall. Believe me, I know how hard it's been.'
'You're wrong, Sarah. It hasn't been hard. My grandmother was the one person in the entire world who was always there for me, who never let me down, and I loved her. I'm trying to tell myself that she isn't suffering anymore, but what's really hard is not having her here.'
Sarah gave her a hug, then, leaning back, said, 'You're so vulnerable just now. I'm afraid you're going to lose that tender heart to the first man you meet with a killer smile.'
'Chance would be a fine thing,' she said. 'Getting a life is going to have to wait a while. There's a ton of stuff to do here first. I've got to sort out Grandma's things. Find somewhere to live…'-the finance people had given her until the end of the month-'… and get a job.'
'Well, at least now you'll have some money behind you.'
'Yes…' Then, 'Thanks again for rushing to the rescue this morning.'
'Any time. Just scream.' Sarah grinned, hugged her again, and finally left.
Violet closed the door and leaned back on it for a moment. Much as she loved Sarah, it was a relief to be on her own for a moment, to be able to think.
Could it possibly be true? About the exotic Fatima being a princess? She'd dismissed the idea as nonsense when Sarah had asked her, but was it? Really?
The TV expert had said the knife could have belonged to a sheikh or sultan, and it was worth a great deal of money. So why had she kept it? Hidden it beneath the floorboards when, presumably, her jewellery-according to family legend-had been sold to fund the purchase of this house?
As if it were too important, too precious, to part with? Hidden it and never told a living soul. Because if she had someone would have sold it long ago. If her grandma had known about it she wouldn't have sacrificed the house to raise money when she'd needed it. Would have passed on the secret when she knew she was dying…
She sighed. She didn't need more questions. It was answers she wanted. And upstairs, in the bottom of her gran's wardrobe, was an old Gladstone bag, stuffed with the kind of stuff that women couldn't part with. Dried flowers. Letters. Embroidered handkerchiefs. Bits of lace and ribbon. Wedding invitations, school reports-whoever would want to keep those!-theatre programmes. Greetings cards for every possible occasion. Great-Great-Grandad's Military Medal.
Generations of the stuff.
There had been a time, when she was a little girl, when it had been a magic bag, and being allowed to "tidy" it had been a special treat.
Then it had become an emotional ambush to be avoided at all costs. Full of things that just to look at, hold, brought tears welling to the surface: a postcard from her mother on honeymoon in Venice; a Mother's Day card she'd made when she was so little she'd needed her gran to help with the letters; a button from her father's jacket that she'd hidden there.
At the bottom, hidden by a false base, was the big envelope that she had not been allowed to open. The one containing family documents. The certificates- birth, marriage, death-that said who they were, where they came from. An envelope that her grandma had said she could open "when she was older".
Except, of course, the temptation had been too much for a curious ten-year-old. Which was how she knew about the Arabic letter, although at the time she hadn't realised what it was. How she knew why her grandmother had had to raise money in such a hurry…
She had a new document to add to the family archive, but she'd been putting it off. She'd been ignoring the bag ever since her grandmother had died, delaying the moment when she became the family matriarch. The keeper of its history. Its awful secrets.
Now she needed the letter from Fatima-there was an Iraqi woman who worked in the market who might be able to translate it for her-but she couldn't bring herself to simply dump the contents of the bag on her grandmother's bed.
It was not just the trivia of their lives, but the small tokens of love and remembrance that women clung to. Family history was written in the names of men, but this bag contained the women's story. In cards, tiny treasures, a crumbling corsage worn by some unknown girl with her heart full of hope.
It was only when the hall clock struck one that she realised how long she'd spent reading old letters, scanning cards that had nothing to do with her hunt for the truth about Fatima but everything to do with her life.
Her mother's life.
A school exercise book full of gold stars. An old blue passport. School photographs full of hope and promise that was never realised.
She put them to one side and pulled out the envelope. The certificates were all in there. And the letter written in flowing Arabic script that made her heart beat faster just to hold it. Only Fatima herself could have written it and she held it close to her heart as if she could feel the words, make some direct connection with this extraordinary woman.
She did not open the last envelope. The one containing the equity release documents that her grandmother had signed and the letter from her father.
Being old enough made no difference, and, as she had done when she'd defied her grandmother's ruling and opened it, she crawled into bed, pulling the ancient quilt over her. Except that this time there was no one to come and find her and comfort her.
It was the phone that woke her. Dragging her from somewhere so deep that she was certain that it must have been ringing for some time.
She ignored it and finally it stopped, allowing her to concentrate on her headache, and the fact that her eyes felt as if someone had been shovelling grit in them all night.
The bright sunshine didn't help.
With her hand shading her eyes, she made it to the bathroom. She was in the shower when the phone began to ring again. Sarah, she thought. It would be Sarah, worrying about her. She'd call her back…
She washed her hair, brushed her teeth. Decided to forget about getting dressed until she'd had coffee.
The local newspaper was lying on the mat. Her gran had liked her to read the local news to her…
She bent to pick it up, groaning as the headache she thought she'd defeated slid forward and collided with the back of her aching eyes.
Then she groaned again as she saw the front page. It must be a slow news day, because she seemed to fill the front page, staring like a rabbit caught in the media headlights, with the Trash or Treasure expert beside her displaying the khanjar. In full colour.
The headline read: ARABIAN 'PRINCESS' AT ROADSHOW.
The doorbell rang and without thinking she wrenched the door open, certain that it would be Sarah. She'd taken to dropping in every morning over the last few weeks, to see if she needed anything. She usually came round the back, letting herself in with her "good neighbour" key, as she had yesterday when she'd heard her cry for help when the floor had given way.
Clearly the fact that the phone had gone unanswered was causing her concern, but since she'd bolted the back door last night the key would be useless.
But it wasn't Sarah, who was tiny-apart from around the middle, where she was spreading spectacularly-and fair; the figure that filled the tiny porch was her opposite in every conceivable way.
Tall, spare, broad-shouldered, male, there was nothing soft about him. His features were austere, chiselled to the bone, and his olive-toned skin was positively Mediterranean against a snowy band-collared shirt, fastened to the neck. His hair was thick and crisply cut. But it was his eyes that held her.
Dark as midnight and just as dangerous.
He looked very…foreign.
He was also stunningly, knee-wobblingly handsome.
Violet was suitably stunned. And her knees dutifully wobbled.
Just her luck that she'd emerged from the shower pink of face, with her hair in its usual wet tangle, and with nothing between her and decency but a film of moisturiser and a faded pink bathrobe that could only be described as…functional.
Oh, and guess what…? He had a voice like melted chocolate, delicately flavoured with an exotic, barely there accent.
Whatever he was selling, she was buying it by the crate…
Except, of course, that he was far too expensively dressed to be a door-to-door salesman. She knew clothes. And what he was wearing did not come off a peg in the high street.
Oh, well. She was expecting a visit from a representative of the finance company to call any day, with the release papers for her to sign so that they could sell the house, recover their money.
This had to be him.
'Miss Violet Hamilton?' he repeated, when she didn't answer.
'Who?' she asked, just to hear him say Violet again. Long and slow.
Pronouncing every syllable, turning a name she loathed only slightly less than the hideously shortened "Vi" into the most desirable name in the entire world.
'I'm looking for Miss Violet Hamilton.' And, taking the newspaper from her hand, he held the front page up for her to see. 'I believe I've found her.'
No point pretending to be the lodger, then. Asking him to come back when she'd gussied herself up, straightened her hair, applied some make-up, was decked out in one of her more creative outfits. Oh, well…
'And here I was kidding myself that the photograph is so awful that you couldn't possibly tell,' she said.
'Clearly I was fooling myself.'
He looked at the photograph and then at her, for rather longer than seemed necessary just to confirm the likeness. Then, clearly thinking better of commenting one way or the other, he returned the paper and said, 'I am Fayad al Kuwani, Miss Hamilton.' And he held out a visiting card-as if they couldn't be printed off by the dozen in any name you cared to dream up by anyone with a computer.
Except that this wasn't a do-it-yourself job, but embossed on heavy ivory-coloured card.
If he was from the finance company, he certainly wasn't one of the foot-soldiers.
The front of the card gave no hint, but contained only his name: Fayad al Kuwani. Unusual enough.
She turned it over. The back was blank. No address, no phone number.
Obviously this was a man whose name was enough for those with the wit to recognise it. Which did not include her.
'Nice card,' she said. 'But a trifle shy of information.'
'The Ras al Kawi Embassy will vouch for me.'
'Oh, well, that's all right, then,' she said. Her friends would have recognised sarcasm. He apparently did not, but merely nodded. Good grief, he was serious…
Ras al Kawi? Where was that?
'I need to talk to you about a khanjar that I believe is in your possession,' he said. 'It is possible that it once belonged to my family.'
'Oh?' Then, realising that he'd come to demand it back, 'It's amazing how fast good news spreads.'
'You have no idea. Perhaps I should wait in my car while you…?'
He made the vaguest of gestures, resolutely looking at her face, avoiding her bare legs, the shabby bathrobe that had a tendency to gape at the neck. It made no difference. Every inch of her skin tingled.
'Dress?' she offered, lippy to the last. Except that the word didn't come out quite as she'd intended, but thick and throaty. More to avoid those eyes than because she was interested in his choice of transport, Violet looked past him.
A black Rolls-Royce was parked at the kerb. The little green and gold flag on the bonnet stirred in the breeze.
She barely stopped herself from letting slip an expression that would have brought her a rebuke from her grandma.
Her breathless, 'Who are you?' wasn't a whole heap better.
'If your story is true, Miss Hamilton, then your great-great-grandmother, Princess Fatima al Sayyid, was once married to my great-great-grandfather.'
At which point she did let slip a word that she used only under the most extreme pressure.
She would have been embarrassed about that, but a scream from rear of the house-Sarah's scream- obliterated the sound.
Violet didn't stop to consider what might have prompted the scream. All she could think was that Sarah was in trouble. But as she turned to rush to her aid, Fayad al Kuwani caught her arm, held her.
'Who is that?' he demanded. 'I understood you lived alone.'
'My neighbour. She's pregnant…' she said, shaking him off, leaving him with nothing but a handful of bathrobe. For a minute she didn't think he was going to let go, but even when it slid from her shoulder, exposing more of her than any man had ever seen, she didn't stop. She'd have run naked into hell for Sarah, and he must have realised that because before that happened he released her, uttering a muffled oath.
It wasn't in English, and she didn't wait for him to translate, but pulled her robe tightly back in place and raced down the hall.
She burst through the kitchen door to find Sarah, still clutching the newspaper she'd brought for Violet, standing on her doorstep. A man, stocking-masked, had his arm around her throat.
'The knife,' he said. 'I want the knife.'
Violet tried to speak, but her tongue was thick, her mouth dry. And, having come to an abrupt halt, she appeared to be fixed to the spot.
'Give it to me!' he demanded, tightening his grip on Sarah. 'Now!' His voice was shaking as much as his hands. Somehow knowing that he was scared, too, didn't help. Scared men were dangerous…
'It's in the fridge,' she managed, not wanting to make any sudden moves.
'It's frozen. I'll need something to hack it out with.'
Why had that seemed such a good thing yesterday? Right now she'd have given anything to be able to just hand the wretched thing over if only Sarah was safe.
'Use your hands!'
She flew to the fridge, wondering if there was any chance of Mr Tall, Dark and Dangerous doing anything beyond sitting in the safety of his very expensive car and using an equally expensive cellphone to call the police. Well, you wouldn't want to get a suit like that messed up, would you?
Obviously people who flew flags on their cars got an instant response, but it wouldn't be quick enough to help, and if he took after his great-great-grandfather, she was beginning to understand why Fatima had run…
She opened the fridge door. The light, which had been flickering uncertainly for weeks, didn't come on, and it suddenly occurred to her that everything was deathly quiet.
For a moment it seemed as if the world had stopped spinning, then, as she opened the freezer compartment, icy water hit the floor and splashed up over her bare legs, and she was unable to hold back a shriek of her own. After that everything happened very fast. There was a dull thud, and then she was spun off her feet as someone rushed passed her and out through the front door.
Then, as she lay there, icy water seeping through her bathrobe, she had a grandstand view of Tall, Dark and Dangerous lowering Sarah, very gently, into the nearest chair.
Hero material after all.
'Violet!' Sarah exclaimed. 'Are you all right?'
'Me?' she replied, feeling a touch light-headed. 'I'm just peachy.' Then, as it all came rushing back to her, she scrambled to her feet. 'Forget me. What about you? Are you hurt? Is the baby okay?'
'I'm fine,' Sarah said, rubbing at her throat. 'Really. It all happened so fast…'
Her voice was as shaky as her brave smile, and Violet hugged her.
'I'll call the doctor. Get him to check you over.'
'There's no need. Honestly.
'There's every need,' she said, picking up the telephone, hitting fast dial and asking the receptionist to get the doctor to drop everything and get over here right now.
'You shouldn't have done that, Violet,' Sarah protested. 'She's really busy.'
'I think it would be wise to take precautions,' their hero advised. Neither shaken nor stirred, his designer suit still immaculate, he was as steady as a rock, while Violet's legs went suddenly rubbery as reality hit her. She subsided in the chair beside Sarah.
'I wish I'd never seen that knife.'
Fayad, wishing something very similar, flexed his hand, using the pain to distract himself from the sight of Violet Hamilton's creamy shoulder. 'Maybe you should have the doctor check you over, too. You've had a nasty shock.'
'I'm fine,' she snapped. 'I thought you'd run out on me.' Then, tugging her robe back into place, 'Sorry.'
'Don't apologise. You distracted him while I came around the back. A much better plan.'
'I didn't have a-' She stopped as she realised that, somewhat unexpectedly, he was teasing her. 'You'd better run your hand under cold water before it swells.'
Maybe he looked as if he didn't know how to do that for himself, because she leapt to her feet, turned on the tap, filled a glass with cold water for her friend, then, taking his hand, held it under the running water.
'How does it feel?' she asked.
How did it feel to have this stunning girl leaning against him, holding his hand? Her hair, her temple, inches from his mouth, an unconscious display of the soft curve of her breast as she bent closer to check the damage for herself.
She really didn't want to hear about that kind of emptiness.
When he didn't answer, she looked up at him with those extraordinary sea-coloured eyes. 'Maybe you should go to the hospital?' she suggested. 'In case you've broken something?'
'It's just a graze,' he assured her. 'I've had worse. My only regret is that I didn't hit him harder.'
'It doesn't matter. He's gone.' Then, as if suddenly conscious of their closeness, she stepped back, pulled her robe tighter, refastening the belt. 'Just leave it there for a moment,' she advised. 'To be on the safe side.'
'He's gone for now,' Fayad corrected, testing his hand, turning off the water. 'He'll be back. Or someone very like him.'
'Not if you take it away with you. The khanjar,' She returned to the fridge, fetched a foil-wrapped parcel and laid it on the table, as if she couldn't bear to hold it for longer than necessary. 'I hope it's okay.'
He unwrapped the foil, the bubble wrap, the black silk that was rotting at the folds, to reveal the knife. Deadly, beautiful beyond imagining. And trouble.
For both of them.
'I will, of course, relieve you of this burden,' he said. 'However, I'm afraid simply removing it to a place of safety is not likely to end the matter. You're a descendant of Fatima al Sayyid, a woman who ran from her husband, taking the Blood of Tariq with her.'
'The Blood of Tariq?'
'That's what they called it in the newspaper,' her friend said. She had now recovered her composure, along with her colour. 'You and your fancy piece of cutlery made the nationals, sweetie. It's got quite a history, apparently.'
'What kind of history?'
She looked not at her friend, but at him, and he said, 'My great-great-grandfather, Tariq al Kuwani, was wounded fighting for Arab freedom against the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. Yours was there, too, I understand?'
'He was a medical orderly.'
'The bravest of men went into battle armed only with a stretcher.'
'Yes,' she said, finally finding a smile, and he knew he'd said the right thing. 'He was given a medal.' Then, 'Your great-great-grandfather was armed with this khanjar, I suppose?'
'I doubt the Blood of Tariq ever saw action. It's a showpiece, a symbol of wealth and power. A prize captured in battle that Lawrence placed in his hand, declaring that victory had been won with the blood of Tariq. Nonsense, of course, but great PR. And it became a potent symbol in my country.'
'So potent that someone would threaten a pregnant woman to get hold of it?' The smile had gone; her laugh was derisory. 'All that must have happened nearly a hundred years ago!' she protested.
She put on a good show, but there was no doubt that she was quaking to her bare toes.
'Excuse me,' her friend-Sarah-intervened. 'This is all very interesting, but isn't someone going to call the police?'
'I'm sorry you were caught up in this…Sarah?' She nodded. 'My car is outside. I would be happy to take you to the hospital.'
She waved away the suggestion. 'Honestly, I'm fine.' She had quickly regained her colour, and, apparently, her sense of humour. 'And it was my own stupid fault. When I came through the hedge and saw him forcing the door I just screamed.'
They both looked at the splintered doorframe.
'The bolt is only as good as the wood that was holding it,' Sarah said. 'Pathetic. If I'd kept my head I could have slipped home and called the police myself, but you just don't think, do you?'
'Oh, Sarah! I'm so sorry…'
'It wasn't your fault.'
'Of course it was. If I hadn't blabbed about the family history it wouldn't have been all over the newspapers.' Then, 'I'd have given him anything he asked for-you know that, don't you?'
'You were wonderful.' Then, regarding him with a frown, 'As for you-heroic is the only word for it. But where did you spring from? And why do I think I know you?'
'I was at the front door when you screamed, and since I was unable to prevent Miss Hamilton's heroic, if foolhardy, frontal assault, I came around the back.'
'The classic pincer movement.'
'Indeed.' Then, 'As to your second question, I think you'll find that my photograph is also on the front page of the newspaper you're holding.'
It had been brought to him the instant the first edition had hit the streets. The later editions of some of the other papers had picked it up, too.
'Oh, right,' Sarah said. 'That's why I was coming round. To show Violet,' she said, opening it up. 'As I said, you made the nationals. The Blood of Tariq appears to be some long-lost treasure.' Then, 'Oh, good grief…'
'What?' Violet demanded.
Sarah gestured in his direction. 'Listen to this. "A spokesman for Sheikh Fayad al Kuwani,'" she read, angling the front page so that Violet could see the headshot of him they'd found in their files.
They both looked at him, and he acknowledged the likeness with the slightest of bows. Sarah smiled. Violet did not.
Despite the damp, tousled hair, the appalling bathrobe, there was something intensely regal about her. The height helped, of course-she was tall for a woman-but she had a look that could, he suspected, quell the slightest familiarity.
'"…Sheikh Fayad al Kuwani,' her friend Sarah continued, emphasising his title, '"heir apparent to the throne of Ras al Kawi and a direct descendant of Tariq al Kuwani, who is in London this week for an energy conference, suggested that the khanjar might be one of a number of fakes that are known to be in existence…'"
Sarah held out the paper to Violet and, smiling, looked up at him. 'So? Is it a fake, Sheikh Fayad al Kuwani?'
He looked at Violet, then said, 'I think not.'
'She does have a look of her great-great-grandmother, doesn't she?'
Sarah nodded at the dresser, and his heart almost stopped beating as he saw the photograph on the top shelf.
From the moment he'd set eyes on Violet Hamilton he'd been certain that she was a direct descendant of Princess Fatima. Ebony-black hair, skin so fair that it was almost luminous, and eyes the curious colour
that was the legacy of Portuguese invaders, who had built their forts along the coast of Africa and the Gulf centuries earlier, told their own story.
But here was proof indeed-a face he recognised from his own generation of the Sayyid family. Boys he'd grown up with. Their mothers, aunts, sisters.
They were one of the great tribes of Ras al Kawi, equal in status, wealth, influence to the Kuwani, until Lawrence had singled out his great-great-grandfather and in one romantic gesture made him the rallying point for all the tribes of the region, placing him at the head of the newly formed nation of Ras al Kawi.
He reached up and took the photograph from the shelf, then turned to Violet Hamilton and, with the slightest of bows, said, 'Will you come to Ras al Kawi with me, Princess? Bring the khanjar home?'
'Princess! Oh, please…'
'The daughter of a sheikha is a sheikha. As a direct descendant of Fatima, the title is yours by right.'
She shook her head emphatically. 'No.'
'It's the truth, and I am inviting you to see for yourself where you come from, to learn your history. To return the Blood of Tariq and place it where it belongs, in the hand of my grandfather.' He glanced at her neighbour, then back at Violet. 'In Ras al Kawi I can offer protection from those who would stop at nothing to use you.'
Use her? How? She was nobody…
'I…I can't,' she said. 'I can't just up sticks and go to Ras al…'
'Kawi. Ras al Kawi.'
'Ras al Kawi.' She repeated the name as if it echoed, like some precious tribal memory, deep in her heart.
'If you are not here, they cannot use you. Or threaten your friends to get what they want.'
'They wouldn't!' she exclaimed. Then realised that they already had. 'What do they want?'
'Power,' he said.
'What about you, Sheikh Fayad?' she asked, apparently unimpressed. 'I don't know you. Are you using me?'
She looked at him as if she could see right through him. Remembering the way he'd spoken to his cousin about her, his utter disregard for her own wishes, his only concern with what was expedient for his country, that was not a comfortable thought.
It was, nonetheless, essential to convince her of his sincerity. But while some people were easily won round with smiles and charm, he sensed that this was not the way with Violet Hamilton. Some inner sense warned him that she would mistrust them.
'I understand your hesitation, Princess. No sensible woman would fly into the unknown with a stranger. What can I do to satisfy you that I mean you no harm? Whose word would you trust? The Mayor of London?' he suggested. 'I'm having lunch with him. Or maybe you'd prefer to have my character from the Foreign Secretary?'
'Go for the Prime Minister,' Sarah urged. 'If you can get him down here I'd really like a word with him about local schools.'
Violet simply regarded him with reproachful eyes, and he understood instantly that it had been a mistake to offer such people to vouch for his honour. As heir to a country with whom they wanted to do business, she knew they wouldn't hesitate to put his needs before that of some ordinary girl.
'Maybe you'd have more trust in the Englishwoman who was my son's nanny?' he offered.
'Why his nanny? Why not his mother?' she asked.
Inwardly, he flinched at the directness of her question. Outwardly, he allowed nothing to show.
'My son and his mother both died when he was no higher than my knee,' he replied.
Behind him, her friend caught her breath, and for a moment he thought he had Violet, too. It gave him no satisfaction. On the contrary, it felt like a tacky play for sympathy, something he neither deserved nor wanted, when all he wanted was her trust.
He was a diplomat, well used to dealing with awkward situations, using words to make things happen, and yet, confronted by this young woman wearing nothing but a shabby bathrobe, he appeared to have lost control of the situation. Of his thoughts. Of something more. Something that he didn't want to think about…
'I'm sorry,' she said. Her eyes were soft with genuine sympathy but her gaze was direct and, standing straight and tall, steel in her backbone, she said it again. 'I'm sorry, Sheikh Fayad al Kuwani. Take the Blood of Tariq to your grandfather, but I must stay here. I have to pack up the house. Clear everything…'
Without warning the steel buckled, and for the second time she grabbed for a chair as if, suddenly, the shock of what had just happened, the realisation of what was ahead, had drained the fight from her.
He caught her, lowered her into it, filled a glass with water and held it while she took a sip. Held it until her long, slender fingers stopped shaking sufficiently for her to take it safely.
'Stupid… Stupid…' she said.
'Don't be so hard on yourself. Your friend is not the only one who has had a shock, Princess.'
'Don't…' She shook her head. 'Don't call me that. It isn't right.'
'It is not only right, it is your heritage,' he said. And it was true. She did not need silk, jewels. It was in her manner, her bearing, some edge to her character…' Come to Ras al Kawi and you will see for yourself,' he urged.
'I can't. Truly. There's just too much to do here'
'Her grandmother used a dodgy equity release-scheme to raise some money on the house years ago,' Sarah explained. 'Before they were properly regulated. Now she's dead it's all theirs. Lock, stock and rotting floorboard. They want her out by the end of the month.'
So, it was as he'd been told. Violet Hamilton was without fortune, homeless, and yet she did not ask for money for the khanjar, nor grab at an invitation to be feted as a princess.
'Where will you go?' he asked.
'It depends how much she gets for the khanjar' Sarah replied, meaningfully.
'Stop it, Sarah. It's not mine to sell.' Then, gathering herself, 'If you'll excuse me, Sheikh Fayad, I have things to do.'
She meant it, he realised. Was immovable.
He wasn't used to being refused anything, wasn't prepared to accept defeat now, but continuing to press the matter would only intensify her resistance.
'Very well. If you insist on staying, I have no choice but to accept your decision.' He took a pen from his pocket. 'Give me the card.'
For a moment she looked as if she might resist, but then fished it out of her pocket.
He wrote a number on the back and returned it to her. 'I have to go now, but I will arrange for your door to be repaired. Someone will come before the end of the day. And if you should change your mind about coming to Ras al Kawi, you can reach me on that number day or night.' He handed it to her. Looked directly into her eyes. 'While I have a breath in my body my family will be at your command, Violet Hamilton. All you have to do is call.' Then he picked up the khanjar, bowed, slightly, and said, 'Princess… Sarah…'before turning and walking out through the still wide open front door.
Curious neighbours had gathered, but, looking neither to left nor right, he stepped into his car and, as it sped away from the kerb, began to make a series of phone calls.
'He might at least have said thank you,' Violet said, as the front door closed behind him. 'He just walked away, didn't look back.'
'They don't. It's their way. But they never forget a debt. And that "breath in my body" pledge is not meaningless. You will be paid one way or another.'
'I don't want to be paid,' she said, shaking her head. 'I'm just glad to be rid of the thing. Then, unable to help herself, she asked, 'What's it like, Sarah? Have you been there? Ras al Kawi?'
'We were next door in Ras al Hajar. The ruler there has an English wife. Did you know that? She used to
be a foreign correspondent.' She sighed. 'Terrific place to live.' Then, 'Ras al Kawi is less developed, and the old Emir is a bit of a recluse. I always wanted to go there. It's mountainous, and has the most fabulous coastline.'
'It sounds lovely.'
'You're wishing you hadn't been so quick to turn him down now?'
'No. No, of course not.'
Sarah laughed, clearly not believing her. 'Violet, sweetheart, you remember me saying that you should be careful not to get swept off your feet by the first good-looking man that came your way?'
'I remember.' Not that she'd needed telling. With a father like hers, trust in the male did not come easily. Then, managing a grin, 'Did I do good?'
'Oh, you were faultless. You had the heir to a sheikhdom wanting to treat you like a princess and you were ice.' She shook her head as she got to her feet. 'No need to worry about you losing your head. If you can resist such a killer combination of cheekbones and tragedy you'll probably die an old maid.'
Sarah was joking. If only she knew… 'Are you saying I should have gone with him? Just like that?'
'You said you wanted a life.'
'I did. I do. But I was thinking of starting on the nursery slopes and working up to dangerous. Going with Sheikh Fayad would be like taking a ski-run down Mount Everest.' Then, because she might be regretting it just a little bit, and would rather not think about quite how much, 'That guy at the library keeps asking me out.'
'Really? Not so much nursery slopes as totally flat, then. You do know that he never goes anywhere without his mother?'
'I had heard she was a touch…possessive,' Violet replied, laughing despite everything. 'But just think how safe I'd be.'
'Oh, please. I didn't expect you to take me that literally. Life doesn't start small and build up in carefully managed steps to exciting. Exciting is so rare that you have to grab it when you get the chance. You've got a lot of catching up to do, and even if you did live to regret it at least you would have lived.'
'You've changed your tune!' Then, with those dangerously attractive blade-edged cheekbones of Sheikh Fayad, his thick dark hair, broad shoulders still a vivid memory, Violet said, 'So, to recap. Your advice is now to forget safe, go for excitement. Got it.' Then, 'So shall I pick up Molly from playgroup for you? Since you have to wait in for the doctor.'
Sarah laughed. 'Okay, I'll stop nagging. But you can't leave the house. In case you hadn't noticed, your back door is hanging off its hinges.'
'There's nothing to steal,' Violet pointed out, and propped it back in place. 'There. From the outside it'll look solid enough.'
Sarah went home to wait for the doctor. Violet dressed, then swiftly gathered up the scattered contents of the Gladstone bag, stuffing everything back inside, before returning it into the wardrobe.
Violet picked up Molly, stayed to have a sandwich with Sarah, then walked round the back, squeezing
through the gap in the hedge. She thought she'd wedged the door firmly in its frame, but a gust of wind must have caught it, because it had fallen in.
Then she stepped inside.
Her kitchen was wrecked. Drawers pulled out, plates smashed. Photographs and china from the dresser trampled underfoot
And, in the middle of the kitchen, the fridge was lying on its side. If it hadn't been beyond repair before, it was now.
In shock, she walked through the house to discover that every room had been given the same treatment. Even the precious treasures that had been stored through generations in the old leather bag had been tipped out, crushed beneath careless feet. Except for the envelopes. They were gone.
No one would call him while he was at a formal lunch, and normally Fayad would have switched off his cellphone. But he'd promised Violet Hamilton that he would be there if she needed him. And as the phone began to vibrate against his heart, he knew she needed him.
It could only be Violet, and with a brief apology to his host, he left the table.
'Princess?' He spoke without thinking. How easy it was to address her by that title. How right it felt.
'They came back…'
Her voice-little more than a tremor, barely audible-sent real fear coursing through his veins.
'Did they hurt you?' he asked, forcing himself to keep his voice low, when all he wanted to do was roar with fury. If they'd hurt her they'd pay for it.
He was already paying. He'd known the danger, had asked his aide to organise private security, but these things took time to put in place and his enemies hadn't waited.
The man who'd escaped had simply waited until he left, then called for reinforcements.
But an angry response wouldn't help Violet. She'd come through the first attack relatively unscathed, but now she was seriously frightened and she needed a calm response.
'Do you need medical help?' he asked, when she didn't reply.
'I wasn't here.' Then, on a sob, 'Please. Take me away…'
He uttered a prayer of thanks that she had been out of the house, that she'd chosen to call him, then said, 'I'll be with you in twenty minutes.'
He made it in fifteen and, ignoring the front door, went straight around the back. He took in the wreckage of the kitchen, the rest of the ground floor. Then sprinted up the stairs and found her, huddled against the head of a big, old-fashioned double bed, clutching an old leather bag to her chest.
The mess was indescribable. The wardrobe had been ransacked, its contents spilled on the floor. A lamp overturned and smashed.
Ignoring it, he climbed up beside her, put his arms around her and pulled her close, kissing the top of her head as if she were a child. For a moment she reacted like a wild thing, fighting him, lashing out in her anger and pain, but he held on, murmuring the soft words of comfort that his mother had poured into his own ears as a child.
She wouldn't understand them, but it wasn't the words that mattered. There was a tone of voice, a universal comfort that transcended language.
For a moment she was deaf to him, but then a great shudder went through her and, as she leaned into him, hot tears soaked through his jacket to his skin, scalding him with her pain.
He held her close, stayed with her while his staff, summoned as he was driven to her aid, arrived to pack her things, take charge here.
And all the time he held her his heart was singing, because she hadn't called her friend who was just next door. She'd called him. Had wanted him. Had trusted him.
'Princess?' he prompted, when a nod from his aide assured him that everything had been done. That his plane would be waiting by the time they arrived at the airport so that they could board without delay.
She lifted her head as if the weight of it was almost too much to bear. Her face was ashen, her eyes grey with misery, her lashes clumped together with tears. And still she was beautiful.
'It's time to go,' he said.
She didn't ask where he was taking her, just nodded, and he stood up, helping her up, keeping his arm about her as she found her feet. After a moment, she took an unsteady step back. He reached out to stop her from falling, but she straightened.
'Sarah,' she said. 'I have to tell Sarah I'm leaving or she'll worry.'
'Violet? I saw the car.' Then, with a gasp as she saw the mess, 'Why didn't you call me?'
'She was protecting you,' Fayad told her. 'Protecting your family.'
'Who will protect her?'
For a moment Sarah challenged him with a look then, apparently satisfied that he meant what he said, she took Violet in her arms and hugged her.
'I'm so sorry. This is all my fault. If I hadn't dragged you along to that wretched Trash or Treasure roadshow…'
'You didn't do this, Sarah,' Fayad said, handing her a card. 'You shouldn't have any more trouble. My people will be here, taking care of the house, and I've organised security, but if you're worried at any time, if you need anything, call this number. My cousin, Hamad al Kuwani, is the ambassador, and he knows who you are and will help in any way…'
'Thank you.' Then she turned to Violet and said, 'Call me. Every day.'
'She will,' he said, and, anxious to get her away, he supported her down the stairs, steering her through the wreckage of the hall until they reached the front door, not permitting her to stop, mourn.
'Don't look back,' he warned as she hesitated, momentarily dug in her heels. 'Always look ahead, keep your eyes on where you're going.'
'If only I knew where that was.'
She looked up at him, and then, because he wanted to reassure her, he bent and kissed her.
It had been an impulse. An attempt to distract her. Distract himself, maybe. But the softness of her lips, clinging to his, seemed to light a fire that had been smouldering within him since the moment he had first set eyes on her.
'Wherever it is,' he said, 'I will be with you. For as long as you need me.'
Violet felt numb. As they sped towards the airport, enfolded in the luxurious leather of his car, the only warmth came from Sheikh Fayad's hand, holding hers as if he would never let it go.
Her hand. And her mouth.
She knew why he'd kissed her. He'd seen how hard it was to walk away from her home when they both knew that she'd never be going back. It had been no more than a distraction. He'd wanted to divert her, get her over the step, down the path, through the gate and into his car. To keep her from looking back.
And it had worked.
While her lips had clung to his, she'd had the feeling that there was nothing in the world that could hurt her. That there was no past, only a future. That with him she was safe.
She hoped it was true, because she'd put herself entirely in his hands. Good hands. Strong, gentle, she thought, looking at her own wrapped in his long fingers as he continued to hold on, never once letting go, despite the constant stream of calls he took on his cellphone.
Even when they arrived at the airport and a member of the VIP ground staff would have whisked her away, as if that were the norm, he just tightened his grip and said, 'Leave her. She stays with me.'
Only when they were in the air and he'd escorted her to an unbelievably luxurious sitting room did he finally release her hand, delivering her into the care of the young woman waiting there.
'Rest now. Leila will be your companion. She will take care of you,' he said. 'No one will disturb you.'
Too late. She was disturbed beyond repair. But she managed a hoarse, 'Thank you.'
He responded with a frown. 'Why do you thank me? You have given me all you have while I have brought nothing but trouble to you and your friends.'
'I returned what is rightfully yours. As for the rest-you told Sarah that it was not her fault. Well, it's not yours, either.' Then, because he seemed lost for an answer, 'They will be safe?'
This morning she'd been so arrogant in her dismissal of danger. How could she have been so stupid? If anything happened to them…
'They will come to no harm, insh 'Allah,' he said. 'By the will of God.' Then, with a smile, 'And the best security that money can buy.'
And then he was gone, leaving her to the pampering of Leila.
'Come. Bathe, sleep,' she said. 'You will feel better.'
She'd certainly look better. Forget her face. She'd thrown on the first things that had come to hand that morning when she'd dashed off to fetch Molly from playgroup. An old T-shirt on which she'd experimented with a design that not even her best friend would wear-let alone buy-and a pair of jeans that she'd bought in the market.
'So much for being a princess,' she said. 'I don't exactly look the part, do I?'
'I'm so sorry, sitti.' Leila was all flustered apology. 'I did not mean…'
Oh, good grief, the poor girl thought she was offended. 'I'm a mess, Leila. Honestly, you don't have to be polite.'
'Oh.' Then, indicating her suitcases, which had not been placed in the hold but in the bedroom-this was travelling, but not as she knew it-'I'll find something for you to wear.'
Violet's first response was to explain that she was perfectly capable of looking through a suitcase, but she choked back the words as she realised that Leila would be hurt, feel rejected.
'Thank you.' Then, 'Maybe you can help me choose something that would make me look a little more…?'
'The part?' she offered, repeating the word with a tentative smile.
Which was what?
Sheikh Fayad called her Princess.
Never in a million years, she thought.
Presentable was about as much as she could hope for. Less of a wimpy embarrassment.
'"The part" will do nicely,' she said, managing a smile of her own, and leaving Leila, considerably happier, to sort through her clothes, while she wallowed in the luxury of the bathroom. Soaking the hideous night, the unbelievably worse day, out of her bones.
What was it Sarah had said about needing a little excitement in her life?
How about flying in a wide-bodied jet that would make anything in the Queen's Flight look like economy. Flying at thirty thousand feet, up to her neck in scented bubbles. Being flown away on a metaphorical magic carpet to some strange and exotic country by a man who would light up any woman's dreams.
She lifted wet fingers to her lips and smiled. A man whose chosen method of distracting a woman in distress was to kiss her. How much better could it get?
No. She definitely wasn't going there…
It had been no more than his way of preventing her from descending into hysteria, she knew. But for a moment, as his lips had claimed hers, held them for what had seemed like endless moments, it had felt like… She grinned. It had felt like skiing down Everest.
When she emerged from the bathroom, this time in a soft snowy white bathrobe, her hair wrapped in one of those fancy towels that soaked up the water, Leila was waiting, and had her hair dry and glossily straight in no time flat. Clearly she wasn't the standard cabin crew member; her duties extended well beyond providing peanuts and mineral water.
'You will rest now,' she said, turning back the bed. 'I will iron your clothes and repack them properly.'
'No, really-I can't expect you to do that.'
'It is my pleasure,' she said, gathering up her bags and, leaving her with nothing but a pair of clean but
crumpled cotton PJs, which she'd laid out as carefully as if they were made of silk, she headed for the door.
Fayad had to force himself to concentrate. Apart from the speculation that cutting short his visit to London was bound to provoke, stirring up more rumours about his grandfather's health, it meant a great deal of work for his staff as they cancelled meetings, lunches, receptions.
He made some calls himself, offering apologies for his abrupt change of plan, discussing alternative dates, leaving his diary secretary to confirm the details. But all the time, at the back of his mind, was Violet.
She had brushed aside the first attempt to steal the knife as if it had been nothing. But the wanton destruction of her home was an act of terrifying violence, rage, even, impossible to dismiss with the same casual courage. He understood why, instead of calling her closest friend, or even the police, she had called the only person she knew who would understand. Who wouldn't torment her with questions but would simply act.
It wasn't her safety that bothered him now. No one would harm her while she was in his care. But there was another problem.
In dropping everything and going to her aid he'd broken just about every protocol, crashed through every barrier that existed within his society between a man and a woman who was not his wife.
He could have done no less.
Seeing her, crumpled up like some broken, wounded creature, a man would have had to have had a heart of flint not to act as he had done, and everyone would understand that.
But there were consequences. It had not been a private matter. Too many of his staff had seen him holding her.
Everything else might have been accepted, even the kiss, but not that intimacy, and he had no doubt that his grandfather would hear of it long before he reached home. This would not be treated as some minor indiscretion to be overlooked; not when the consequences would suit the old man so well.
If she'd been anyone else it would not have mattered. As a foreign woman it would have been understood that she did not live by their rules. If she'd remained in London, even, it might have been possible to brush it aside.
But by taking her home, presenting her to his grandfather, he was giving her the status to which she was entitled, and as far as the court was concerned his marriage to Violet Hamilton would be a foregone conclusion.
To offer her anything less would be an insult to her and would certainly outrage the Sayyid family, happy to use whatever insult that came to hand in pursuit of discord. Even when it was an insult to the offspring of a daughter who had shamed them.
They'd gladly use it to manufacture a schism that they could use to drive the country apart and fuel their grab for control of the oil revenues that were-for the moment-pouring into the country.
The offer, with a dower fit for a princess, would have to be made, and in truth it was a marriage that would serve every imaginable purpose. From an aristocratic family, Violet was returning the symbol of their country's origins, redressing an old wrong with no thought of reward. Restoring her family's honour. Neutralising the Sayyid threat.
It was a marriage that would delight his grandfather and give Fayad a wife of great character, great beauty, while reuniting two great tribes who had for far too long been enemies beneath the diplomatic display of unity.
All attributes that made it a perfect match for him. Except one.
He dragged a hand over his face as if to wipe away the memories that haunted him. The loss of his wife, his son, had ripped the heart out of him and, despite all efforts to tempt him to offer for the treasure of one of the carefully nurtured daughters who would doubtless have made the perfect wife, he had been immune.
His family had been in danger and he had not been there to keep them safe. No man could live through that and be whole ever again…
Violet Hamilton was a chance to redeem himself, and in that first moment when he had set eyes on her, when she'd opened the door thinking it was just another day and looked up at him, any man would have responded to her as the desert to rain.
Even now he could feel the warmth of her body as he'd held her close, the softness of her breasts against his chest, the scent, the silk of her hair against his cheek.
Feel the soft tug of her lips against his…
He looked up to see his aide regarding him anxiously and he shook his head, dismissing his concern with a gesture. Drank from the glass of water at his hand. It made no difference.
Violet woke to the steady thrumming of the aircraft's engines, for a minute completely disoriented. Then, as she rolled over, luxuriating in the feel of the finest linen sheets, it all came back with a rush.
She was flying to Ras al Kawi in the kind of luxury that she could only ever have dreamed of. She concentrated on that rather than the horror she'd left behind.
'You are awake, sitti…' Leila placed a tray on the table beside the bed containing orange juice, fresh figs, small cakes. 'We will be landing in an hour,' she said, with a shy smile. 'Sheikh Fayad asked if he might be permitted to join you before we touch down?'
Be permitted? Then, as she sipped at the orange juice, her brain caught up. Obviously the meaning had become distorted in translation.
'I imagine he wants to drill me in the rules of court etiquette,' she said, putting two and two together and coming up with a little inventive translation of her own. 'Teach me when to curtsey and remind me that princesses only speak when they're spoken to.' And who could blame him?
Leila looked shocked. 'No! That would be most…'
'Everything will be very different for you in Ras al Kawi, I think.'
'No doubt,' she said, swinging her legs to the floor. 'But even a girl from the wrong side of Camden Market knows that rule number one is never keep a sheikh waiting.'
Leila giggled. 'A woman must always keep a man waiting.'
'Until he has…' She sought for a word. 'Overwhelmed her and he is her lord.' And she blushed, leaving what she meant by "overwhelmed" crystal-clear.
'Okaaay,' Violet said, lost for any other response. 'I'll, um, just freshen up, and then you can help me pick out something suitable to wear.'
That brought a smile to the girl's face. 'I have already chosen,' she said.
'Oh, right.' Well, she'd had plenty to choose from. It was obvious that whoever had packed had emptied her wardrobes. Brought everything.
Left to her own devices, she'd have chosen her denim ankle-length skirt and a fine knitted top that covered her arms. Maximum skin coverage. She knew better than to offend Fayad's grandfather with some flighty western garment. A bare midriff. Too much leg.
But apparently that didn't come close to what Leila considered appropriate. Given the run of Violet's wardrobe, she'd picked out one of her student design pieces. A richly decorated evening outfit that she'd made for an end-of-term college fashion show.
'This is very beautiful,' Leila said. 'It will be perfect for your arrival in Ras al Kawi.'
"This" was a long skirt in a curious shot silk that in one light was blue-grey, in another a soft turquoise, that the stallholder-and he was a smooth-tongued man if ever there was one-had sworn matched her eyes exactly.
The fabric had been way beyond her budget, but, totally unable to resist something so gorgeous, she'd traded half a dozen of her precious one-off embroidered T-shirts, made for the co-operative stall she'd set up with some of her college mates.
She'd appliqued the skirt with a fan of velvet and silk peacock "eyes", free-hand embroidered the fine feathers using her sewing machine.
She hadn't had enough material to make a jacket, but had instead made a neat little waistcoat which, for the fashion show, she'd worn with one invisible hook at the breast and nothing else. It had been a huge success with the audience, if not with the avant garde college lecturers, who'd pronounced it too "conservative". Too "wearable". But then that was all she'd ever wanted to design and make-clothes that women longed to wear.
But a few days later she'd come home from a meeting of the co-op, full of their plans to expand, set up a proper business, to find her grandmother collapsed with the first of her strokes.
Three years on from college, her outfit, like her plans, her first step on the way to her own fashion label, seemed like a fantasy. Rich, gorgeous, but not the sort of thing you'd actually wear except to a pretty
fancy party. Even with the co-ordinating top that she'd made to wear beneath the waistcoat.
Struggling to bite back the I don't think so which flew to her lips, she said, 'It seems rather exotic, Leila. Do you really think it would do?'
'Oh, yes,' she said, with absolute confidence. 'It is quite perfect.'
In that case she was in trouble, she thought as Leila produced the hair straighteners to tidy up the curls that had made a bid for freedom while she slept. Then tutted as she insisted on applying the minimum of make-up herself.
'You need kohl to emphasise your eyes and your hands should be hennaed,' she insisted, and maybe she was right-about the kohl at least. She looked washed-out, and without a little colour the clothes would be wearing her rather than the other way around.
There was no time to draw elaborate patterns on her hands with henna, but she allowed Leila to add kohl and a touch of blusher, although Violet wiped off most of the kohl as soon as she'd turned away to pick up her skirt, hooking, buttoning and zipping her up, as if she hadn't been doing it herself for her entire life.
The waistcoat followed, and when Violet looked at the finished result in the mirror she swallowed. This was as good as her wardrobe got. Her Cinderella "you can go to the ball" outfit; if this was what constituted everyday wear in Ras al Kawi, what on earth did women wear when they wanted to make an impression?
What would make an impression on Sheikh Fayad?
She stopped the thought and turned to face Leila. 'What do you think?' she asked. 'Will I do?'
Leila's response was a sigh of envy. 'It is designer?' she asked, and Violet's smile was, finally, unforced.
'In a manner of speaking,' she said. Then, when the girl frowned, 'I designed it, Leila. And then I made it.' Since the girl was apparently lost for words, she said, 'Have we kept Sheikh Fayad waiting long enough, do you think?'
Fayad looked up as his aide approached him. 'The Princess is waiting,' he said.
He'd given no instructions that she was to be given that title, but everyone knew who she was, and it seemed that her transformation from Violet Hamilton to Princess Violet al Sayyid had already begun.
He still did not know what he was going to say to her, only that he must somehow prepare her for his grandfather's expectations. Reassure her that she was totally in control of her own destiny. But as the door to the hareem majlis was opened to his knock he saw her standing in the centre of the room, waiting for him, and words became an irrelevance.
He could not have spoken even if he'd wanted to.
Grave, beautiful, untouchable.
As distant from the girl who'd opened the door to him that morning-hair an enticingly damp tangle of curls, legs and feet bare, wearing nothing but a faded pink bathrobe-as the moon was from the stars.
Mistaking his silence for disapproval, she said, 'This was Leila's idea.' A tiny gesture took in her clothes, some rich creation that would have his sisters drooling with envy.
'Leila will be rewarded,' he said.
'Oh. I wasn't sure. I thought it seemed a little…excessive, but…'
'But everything is strange.'
Her silence, her stillness were answer enough.
'You are wondering, now you've had time to think, whether you have made a mistake.' And this time heat rushed to her cheeks. Not that cool, then.
'You have the khanjar,' she said. 'And now you have me. If this was a movie I would probably be screaming at the heroine not to be so dumb.'
'Believe me, I appreciate the trust you have shown. Your generosity. You could so easily have told me to…how do you say it? Get lost? Sold the khanjar to the highest bidder.'
She could have no idea how high the bidding would have gone.
'No. That would have been wrong. And I'm here to protect Sarah. Her family. The innocent people who get hurt when powerful people clash.'
'Not even a little bit for yourself? Are you not curious about your family? About where you come from?'
'I could have gone to the library,' she said, continuing to regard him with those extraordinary eyes. Then, 'Your only concern was to get me away from the house. Anyone else would have called the police, but you didn't want them involved, did you?'
'My country's politics are not the concern of your police, Princess.'
'Don't call me that. I'm not a princess. I'm just Violet Hamilton.'
'And you're angry with me. You find yourself being torn from everything you know and you're just a little frightened.'
'Of course I'm frightened!' she said. 'It's been a hell of a day…'
Without thinking, he reached out and took her hand in what he'd intended as no more than a gesture of simple reassurance, but he continued to hold it long after it became much more.
Beneath his, her hand was small, but not soft. There was nothing soft about her. He had her history and he knew she had given up her education to care for her grandmother, not for expectation of reward, but out of love.
She was a woman whose value was far above rubies. Far beyond him…
'Are you afraid now? Truly?'
'Should I be?'
'What does your heart tell you?'
Violet shook her head. The nonsense that her heart was babbling as he held her hand, warmed her with the heat of his eyes, was for her ears alone.
In a suit, Sheikh Fayad had been drop-dead gorgeous. Attainable, if only in some foolish midnight fantasy. But here, in snowy robes, a silver khanjar at his waist, he was a figure from another world. One that was so far beyond anything she knew that she could see just how foolish any fantasy involving him would be.
'My heart says that it's a bit late for second thoughts,' she replied, retrieving her hand.
The fact was, she'd rushed into this without a clue about where she was going, or what to expect.
'It is only natural to feel anxious, but I promise you will be made most welcome.'
'Even though Princess Fatima stole the khanjar from you?' she asked.
'That worries you? It need not. You will be honoured for returning it.' Then, 'Shall we sit down? I will do my best to answer any questions. Explain what will happen when we arrive at Ras al Kawi.'
He indicated one of the armchairs, waited while she settled herself before taking the one beside her.
Questions. Dozens of questions had been racing through her mind, but mostly about where she would stay.
One thing was sure. She could not expect the undivided attention of the heir to the throne so, while she had it, she'd better make the most of it.
'Tell me about Ras al Kawi?' she asked.
It was the right question, his smile transforming his grave countenance into something very different. Making him seem younger, less…haunted. Sarah, she realised, had been quite wrong when she'd warned her about some man charming her out of her windfall.
If he'd smiled she would have been on her guard, suspected his motives. Wouldn't have been so quick to hand over the khanjar. So quick to pick up the phone and call him.
That quiet, austere gravity was far more deadly.
'What is it like?' she pressed.
'A great traveller once said that Ras al Kawi sits like a dragon's tooth between Ramal Hamrah and Ras al
Hajar,' he told her, 'but within the fortress of the mountains our valleys are fertile and green, and the coast brings us fish and pearls.'
'There is no desert?'
'You British are all the same. What is this yearning you have for empty spaces where the wind continually removes any trace of man? Great shifting dunes?' He shook his head, but his smile intensified as if it pleased him to tease her a little.
Encouraged, she grinned, said, 'Blame Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia.'
'Not the fabled Lawrence himself?'
'He was a little…intense.'
'Indeed,' he said, his brows twitching slightly at her choice of word. 'And we do have desert. Beyond the mountains. Flat, arid scrub with an endless horizon. And beneath it the oil and gas field that gives our country its wealth.'
'You have everything, then.'
'Ras al Kawi is a country that many have coveted. It is strategically placed to command the sea, and through the centuries invaders have left their mark on the landscape, on the people. Your eyes, Princess, are the legacy of some Portuguese pirate, or maybe a Caucasian soldier who came this way with Alexander, leaving his seed before returning home.'
His passion for his home was genuine enough. He would, she thought, do anything to keep it from harm.
'No matter how beautiful a place is, in the end people always choose home,' she said.
'I hope so.'
It was impossible to miss the meaning in his words, that Ras al Kawi was her home, too, but she was generations away from his world.
As she'd dressed she'd had time to think about what she'd done. She knew she'd been rushed into a decision when she was afraid, not so much for herself as for the people around her, friends and neighbours who'd been a tower of strength in the last months, when leaving her grandmother, even for an hour, had felt like a betrayal.
She would never forget the image of the man with his arm about Sarah's throat, and yet the idea that the theft was politically motivated seemed, at a safe distance, to be unlikely. She'd just been targeted by local villains who'd read about her discovery in the local paper and thought she'd be easy prey.
She looked across at her hero. The man who'd raced to her side the moment she'd called. She might not have been swept off her feet by a desert warrior thundering across the sand on his stallion, but on reflection the black limousine was a fair approximation-bearing in mind that London was a tad short on the sand front- as was the private jet flying her thousands of miles from home to a very foreign country.
He hadn't been kidding about her being treated like a princess, though.
'When we arrive, there will be a formal reception party waiting for me,' he said, breaking into her thoughts. 'You will be driven straight to the palace. Leila will be with you,' he assured her.
'Am I about to be whisked off to your harem?' she asked, only half joking. It had been a very odd day.
'Of course,' he replied. 'You'll join a thousand women wearing nothing but filmy veils and jewels in their navels, each desperately hoping that tonight they'll be the one summoned to my bed.'
For a moment she couldn't breathe. Then she said, 'You're kidding, right?'
'I'm kidding,' he agreed. 'But not about the harem, although the word is hareem! He gestured around them.
'And you are already part of it.'
'I am?' She swallowed nervously.
'The word simply means women. Al hareem means no more than the women of the house.' Then he shrugged. 'If it helps, I can assure you that no man in my family has had more than one wife in nearly a century.' Then, with a shrug, 'Apart from my father, who has had seven. But only one at a time. Even so my grandfather disinherited him, and he sulks in self-imposed exile in Europe.'
'Do you miss him?'
'He was never there to be missed, Princess.'
'Something we have in common, then. My father rarely slept in his own bed, either.'
'And your mother? Did she leave him?'
'In a manner of speaking. She took an overdose. I don't suppose she meant to kill herself, just shake him up, but there was a traffic hold-up, and my father was late home, by which time it was too late to save her.' At least that was the story she'd been told. 'Or maybe he just didn't bother to call anyone until it was too late. A man who would blackmail his mother, demand money in return for the surrender of his little girl, might do anything, don't you think?'
'That is what your grandmother used the money for? The equity release?'
'Twenty thousand pounds. She was too old to raise a mortgage, could not have made the repayments even if she had. Instead she borrowed against her only asset. I found his letter years ago.'
'I am sorry.'
She shook her head. 'You have brothers? Sisters?'
'My mother remarried. I have a brother, three sisters. Many nephews and nieces. They will all visit. Everyone will want to meet you.' Then, 'I should tell you that my wife and son were killed by a car bomb in Beirut. Hasna wanted to visit an aunt who lives there. I was too busy to go with them. They were not targets, just in the wrong place at the wrong time.'
And it was her turn to reach out, wordlessly lay her hand over his.
'No one will talk about it, and I did not want you to think there is a mystery,' he said, but there was an underlying hesitation in his demeanour, suggesting that he had something on his mind. Something that he was finding difficult to broach. 'It is only to save my feelings that they keep silent.'
'You should talk about them,' she said. 'Remember the things that brought you joy.'
He shook his head, but there was something bothering him. He certainly hadn't asked to see her to discuss the correct depth of curtsey when she met the Emir.
'What is it, Sheikh Fayad? What is it that you wanted to tell me?'
He lifted a brow. 'You are perceptive as well as astute, Princess.'
'It comes packaged as standard with the X chromosomes,' she replied. 'What's up? Are you trying to find some way to tell me that I'm going to have to wear a veil when I meet your grandfather?'
'Would you do that?' he asked.
She shrugged. 'I do understand that different societies have different expectations, and while I wouldn't be prepared to wear one on a regular basis, I wouldn't want to do anything to offend him.'
He shook his head, but he was smiling. 'There's no need for a veil. They are worn by women only on desert journeys, as protection against sun and sand, and the abaya, the cloak that covers head and clothes, is worn as protection against dust and heat.'
'How do they live? What are their lives like?' she asked.
'Those who are educated and wish to work are employed in medicine, business, teaching. Nothing is haram. Forbidden.'
'What about those who are not educated? Isn't schooling compulsory?'
'Not for girls. And there are few jobs for the uneducated. They are forced to stay at home, work in the home, on the land.'
'That is, perhaps, a little harsh. They do what women have been doing for centuries. It is, however, my intention to change that when I become Emir. We need all our people to be educated so that they can play their part in building our country.'
He regarded her thoughtfully for a moment, his fine dark eyes searching her face as if weighing his words. She'd felt the silk of his skin against her temple as he'd held her. Wanted to reach out now and run her fingers over his cheeks, above his lip, feel his mouth against hers…
'I wish it were something as trivial as whether or not you should wear a veil,' he said, turning abruptly away.
'Now I'm really worried.'
'No…' He shook his head. 'Trust me, Violet. Whatever happens you need have no fears for yourself. I am the one who has been…' He lifted his hand in a gesture that in anyone else she might have described as helpless. There was nothing helpless about Sheikh Fayad. '…thoughtless. Reckless with your reputation.'
She would have laughed. This was the twenty-first century, and girls didn't have "reputations" any more. At least not in her world. But obviously for him this was no laughing matter, and so she kept her mouth in order.
'In my society to be alone with a woman, to hold her as I held you-'
'You were comforting me,' she said, doing her best to reassure him that he had done nothing to offend her, although she suspected that somehow it went beyond that. 'I was falling apart and you held me together.'
'I did a great deal more than that, Princess.' And he turned to face her. 'Much more.'
'Only because you thought I was going to have hysterics at leaving my home. It was nothing,' she said quickly, but could not meet his eyes.
It had not felt like "nothing". It had felt like a bridge between the past and the future. And how easily she had stepped towards the unknown, leaving everything, everyone she knew, behind her. Because with his lips on hers she had not cared if she ever came back.
'And who would know?' she said.
'Staff from my embassy, those who were at your house, who packed your clothes, stayed to organise the clean-up. And because they know it is inevitable that my grandfather will have heard exactly what happened today and drawn his own conclusions.' Then, 'And I know.'
Fayad's words were spoken with a finality that raised Violet's heartbeat.
'What conclusions? What are you saying?'
'My world is not like yours, Princess. Here marriages are arranged. It is a contract that unites families, matches two people who might never have met except perhaps as children. Whose qualities are known only by word of mouth. Through friends, family.'
'What about those career women? You can't work without meeting people.'
'There are not so many. Many families still cling to old traditions. Your own family, for instance, the Sayyid,' he said, with an impatient gesture, 'they fight change with every breath.'
It was something he clearly felt very strongly about.
'Sometimes you have to bite the bullet, break eggs, to get things done,' she said.
'The problem with that, Princess, is that sometimes more than the eggs will break.'
'I'm sorry. I'm a little out of my league here.' Then, because she couldn't keep her mouth shut, 'Can you
really trust the word of people who for politics, money, might have a vested interest in arranging a wedding?'
'Believe me, when a wedding is being arranged everyone has an opinion and everyone expresses it. Everything that you ever did will be dragged out and examined at length by grandmothers, sisters, cousins, brothers, aunts.' He smiled again. 'Especially aunts…' Then, 'It is too important to risk failure. Marriage is the glue of a civilised society and everyone has a stake in its success.' He watched her struggle with that, then, before she could ask the next question, he said, 'Yes, Violet. A girl can reject any potential groom.'
'But they do meet before the wedding? These couples?'
'Maybe. Not always. And not once the wedding preparations begin.' He smiled at her disbelief. 'A bride is a treasure to be closely guarded within the family while the dower is gathered and delivered. In that period she will only see those closest to her. Even when the contracts have been signed and the bride and groom are to all intents and purposes married.'
'What happens then?'
'Between the formal signing and the celebrations? First the engagement jewels are sent. Not just a ring, but a matching set of bracelets, necklace, earrings, in stones chosen by the groom's mother to perfectly complement his bride. At the same time the groom prepares a house for her, furnishing it with the best he can afford. And the dowry is gathered-gold, jewellery, bolts of every kind of cloth, carpets, money, all designed to demonstrate his ability to provide for her-ready to be delivered to the bride's home to be
displayed at the maksar, the formal gathering of women to celebrate the marriage. Although the bride herself will not take part in that.'
Violet, who had been thinking it all sounded rather cold, began to see it from a different point of view. Began to imagine the trembling excitement of a secluded virgin bride as the day grew nearer. As her groom's dowry gifts arrived, proving to the world, to her family, to her, just how much he valued her, wanted her above all other women.
'There is more than one way to rouse the passions,' she said.
'Her weight in gold?'
Her eyes widened at the idea of just how much that would be worth, but then she shook her head. 'No. It's not the gold. It's what it represents,' she said. And Sheikh Fayad responded with a look of admiration for her understanding. A look that sent her own heart spinning up into her mouth, that suggested passion would not be in short supply for the woman who won his heart.
Drawn in, totally fascinated, she said, 'Tell me about the wedding.'
'When everything is ready, there will be a vast celebration. In the old days tribes would come in from the desert and set up camp. The feasting will go on for weeks, until finally the time comes for the groom to demand entrance to the bride's home, to fight his way through her family to claim his bride, who will be waiting, wrapped in layer upon layer of veils, sitting on a white sheet.'
Even as he described the scene her heart rate was spiralling out of control, and she only managed to hold back the exclamation that sprang to her lips by holding her hand over her mouth. Cold? No way…
'Is something wrong?' Sheikh Fayad asked.
'No,' she managed, resisting the urge to fan her cheeks at the thought of him removing layer after layer of veils, unwrapping her… 'I'm fine. Really,' she said, when he reached forward, poured her a glass of iced water that seemed to evaporate on her tongue. 'You did this? When you married?'
He didn't immediately answer and she backpedalled madly. 'Oh, Lord, please forget I asked that. I can't believe I was so rude. I didn't mean-'
'The bride is expected to fight, too. To bite and kick, protect her virtue with all her strength so that her husband will respect her.'
'And does he?'
Had Hasna fought? she wondered. Could she have looked at this beautiful man and not fallen instantly and whole-heartedly in love with him? Could any woman?
And if, because his respect would be something unbelievably precious, she'd fought him with ever fibre of her being, how had he overwhelmed her?
Even as the question welled up in her mind, she knew the answer. She'd lashed out at him this morning-angry, hurting-and he'd sat with her on her grandmother's bed, just holding her, taking the blows, whispering soft words of comfort, his lips against her hair, her temple, gentling her, calming her. In her head she saw how that scene might eventually unfold with his bride. There would be no force, but patience, a soft voice, quiet kisses, caresses that would open her to him as a flower opened to the light and warmth of the sun.
And she understood exactly what he'd meant when he'd said that he'd done "much more". It wasn't the fact that he'd kissed her. His kiss had been the least of it…
She swallowed, took another sip of water. In a desperate attempt to blot out what was happening in her head, she said, 'Having showered her with jewels, and fought her entire family, the groom then has to overcome his bride, too? He doesn't exactly get it easy, does he?'
Making light of it.
He smiled. 'Interesting. I had assumed your sympathies would be with the bride.'
'Oh, please,' she said quickly. 'It doesn't take a psychologist to work out that this is a well-thought-out strategy to overcome those initial awkward moments.' Then, 'I imagine any bride worth her weight in gold knows exactly the right moment to go all weak and swoony.'
To surrender to her groom's strength, his power, and in doing so claim it for her own.
Just as she had done. Fighting him, furious with him. Blaming him for what had happened one moment. Surrendering to the comfort he offered the next.
'Three generations has done nothing to dilute your understanding, Princess,' Sheikh Fayad said, apparently not making the connection-which should have been a relief but, oddly, was not-and merely amused at her perception. 'You are Arab to the bone.'
'It's just common sense,' she said, not in the least bit amused.
'Maybe,' he said, eyes suddenly thoughtful. 'So? Would you consider such an arrangement?'
'Me? Who's going to seek me out for an arranged marriage? What do I have to offer?' Then, as it clicked, as she realised what all that stuff about his grandfather, what all this had been leading up to, she said, ' Oh, no! No way!' And holding up a hand as if to fend him off, 'That's ridiculous. Really.'
So why, inside her head, was her subconscious saying, Oh, yes! How soon? Really!
'I assure you, Princess, that a marriage between us would make my grandfather the happiest man in the world. It has been his dearest wish that I remarry-he refuses to retire until I do. And you have every quality to recommend you.'
'I don't think so.'
'There is no need for concern, Princess. I was simply explaining why I will have to make an offer. Putting you on your guard against the expectations of my family.'
Oh, right. Well, that was plain enough. He would make the offer because he had no choice. And since, obviously, marriage was the furthest thing from his mind, her role was to get him off the hook and say no.
As if she'd say anything else. They'd only met that morning, for heaven's sake!
So why did she suddenly feel rejected, unwanted, just a little bit…hollow?
'I understand, Sheikh Fayad,' she said.
And she did. No matter that her great-great-grandmother had been Princess Fatima al Sayyid. They came from different worlds and this would never be hers. No matter that they'd already spent more time together than the average Ras al Kawi couple before they got down to business on the white sheet.
'Thank you for taking the time to explain it all so clearly. You need have no concerns.'
He frowned, looked as if he might say something more, but there was a ping, and the seatbelt lights came on, and instead he said, 'We are about to land.'
This time he did not sit with her, hold her hand. Instead Leila came to escort her to a small cabin at the rear of the plane, while he joined his staff in the forward cabin.
She told herself that she did not mind. She'd had the extraordinary privilege of spending time alone with the Sheikh and she would always cherish that. But now they were in Ras al Kawi things would be different.
How different she realised as soon as they'd landed, and she and Leila were left to cool their heels while a carpet was rolled up to the steps.
Sheikh Fayad and his party descended and approached the line of dignitaries waiting to greet him. Only then were Violet and Leila escorted down a separate set of steps that had been brought to the rear exit, where a limousine with tinted windows was waiting. Violet paused a few steps from the ground to take one last look across the tarmac at Sheikh Fayad who, every inch the Prince, was being greeted by the dignitaries. And she felt the strangest sensation of loss.
In London, on the aircraft, they could talk freely. Here, she realised, he was a man set apart. Out of reach.
As she hesitated, one of the men waiting to greet him turned and stared across the tarmac at her. His look was assessing, insolent, a little pleased, even, and for a moment she wished she had been wearing something anonymous, been draped head to foot in one of those black cloaks-an abaya-her face covered in a veil. She was glad that the car windows were tinted, so that as they sped away-no passport or immigration control for members of the Sheikh's party, obviously-she was…secluded.
Fayad faced his grandfather. Anger warred with the respect he owed him. Respect, marginally, won it. 'You cannot do this. The Princess is here as my guest…'
'She is their kin, Fayad. Their daughter. Ahmed al Sayyid is here, waiting to take her to their compound as soon as she has formally returned the Blood of Tariq.'
It was outrageous. 'Her home has been attacked twice already in an attempt to steal the khanjar, and I have no doubt that the Sayyid were behind that.'
His grandfather raised a hand. With a pang of remorse, he saw that it was shaking. In the short time that he'd been away the old man had deteriorated.
He reached out, took his grandfather's hand, held it.
'The responsibilities of a ruler are to his country, my son, not to an individual. The Sayyid will invoke tradition, and you know they will have support.'
'They have a medieval attitude to women. Their wives are kept behind high walls, their daughters are not allowed to go to school…'
'That is their way. I cannot defy them in this.'
But Fayad could, and would when the time came.
'Violet is giving up something of great value and asking for nothing in return except my protection. And I will protect her. It is a matter of honour.'
'We both know that there is only one way you can do that. But I warn you, if they believe you are attached to this woman, their dowry demands will put her beyond price.'
'They will dare ask for the Blood of Tariq?' Even as he said it, he knew that was their aim. They had not managed to steal the khanjar, but their spies would have informed them of every move he'd made in London. What had happened between him and Violet. Their outrage at their kinswoman's ruined honour would know no bounds. They did not care about her, but they would demand marriage, knowing that he could not refuse. And they would demand the Blood of Tariq as dowry.
His grandfather sighed. 'I'm sorry, Fayad. My hands are tied. Since they demand it, I have no choice but to surrender her to her family.'
He understood. He might rail against it, but to undermine the claim of family would be to deny the law, and his assurance, so confidently asserted, that a bride was free to choose now rang hollow in his ears.
Neither of them would have a choice.
To refuse the Sayyid terms would leave her a virtual prisoner in their compound. Beyond his reach.
He could not, would not, allow that to happen- even for a day.
There was no time to wonder, to marvel at the beauty of the palace, the exquisite arches, decorative tiling. No time to wonder at its size, spreading across the broad hilltop.
Below them lay the city, where wind towers, domes, delicate minarets sprawled down to a wide sweeping bay. Leila had pointed out landmarks.
The recently completed air-conditioned shopping mall. A new hotel with a glass atrium. The gold souk…
'What is that?' Violet had asked, as they'd climbed higher and she'd seen the remains of a cliff-top fortress.
'That?' Leila had shrugged. 'It's the Portuguese tower. It's just a ruin. There's nothing there,' she'd said, dismissing history with a careless gesture.
'It's all so much greener than I expected.'
'We have many parks. There-that is the souk. The market…' Parks were clearly not Leila's idea of a good time, either.
And then they'd driven through gates set in a high wall, guarded by armed men, and "green" had taken on an entirely new meaning.
Unlike European palaces, it was not one huge building but a series of small arched and domed buildings, grouped around colonnaded courtyards, each with a garden, trees. Formal pools were connected by a narrow continuous rill. Everywhere was shaded, scented by roses, jasmine, flowering shrubs that she had never seen before.
As they stepped from the air-conditioned car, the warmth, the intensity of the evening scents, wrapped themselves about her, and she felt like a flower opening to the sun. She turned slowly, taking in the exquisite tiled arches, the clear sky, now turning a darker blue as the sun sank behind distant mountains.
'It's so beautiful,' she said, but as she took a step towards the pool Leila restrained her.
'There's no time. You have to get ready to meet the Emir.'
They walked up marble steps into a vestibule spread with fine carpets. Leila kicked off her shoes and nodded approvingly when Violet followed her example.
'This is to be your house,' she said, hurrying her through a series of ornate reception rooms until they reached a private suite of sitting room, bedroom, bathroom. 'Make yourself comfortable, then I will prepare you for the Emir's majlis.'
'It is where he sits so that people can come and talk to him. Drink coffee. Appeal for his help. All the tribal leaders and heads of important families will be there today, to see the Blood of Tariq.'
Violet felt a sudden qualm. A surge of something rather more heavy-footed than butterflies stampeding through her stomach. A nervousness that was not eased when, having persisted in her determination to apply more make-up, Leila lifted a loose outer robe over her head and let it drop to the floor over her clothes.
It was cut from dark blue silk, embroidered in gold thread at hem and wrist, slit at the side. Ornate. Simple.
'This is a thaub. A traditional outer garment.'
'You will wear a scarf?' Without waiting for an answer, Leila loosely draped a long matching scarf over her head. It was woven from a silk so fine that it appeared to defy gravity, almost to float as the air was stirred by a slowly turning ceiling fan.
'Beautiful,' Leila said.
'It's lovely,' Violet agreed. She knew cloth, and understood that this was something rare, beyond anything she could ever afford.
'Not the scarf. You, Princess.' She fiddled with the tail of a comb until Violet's face was framed in a dark curve of hair. 'You are beautiful.'
Unusual. Dramatic. That was the kindest thing anyone had ever said about her looks. Even her grandmother.
Her nose was too big, her brows too strong, and her eyes were the wrong colour… And yet made up this way, her hair shining like polished ebony, her face gently framed in the soft folds of the scarf, it seemed as if suddenly everything had fallen into place. Everything…fitted.
'Good. Hurry. The car is waiting…'
Fayad paced the small lobby, waiting for Violet to arrive. There would be so little time to explain. Then, as the door opened, he turned and caught his breath, felt his heart seize at the sight of her.
She kicked off her shoes as naturally as if she'd been doing it all her life, stepped inside and stood, her head on one side, waiting for him to speak.
Speech was not enough. He touched his fingers to his forehead, his heart, bowed to her beauty, her honour, her courage. 'You are, in every sense of the word, a princess, Violet Hamilton.' Then, 'Give me your hands.'
She held them out and he picked up the Blood of Tariq and placed it across her palms, held his own hands beneath them.
'By this act, Princess, you honour your family. They should be proud to call you daughter.'
'Should? That suggests they might not be best pleased that I'm surrendering this to you.'
He did not want to frighten her with the truth, but since she was not a fool he tilted his head, acknowledging that she might have a point.
'Will I meet them? Will they be here?'
'Ahmed al Sayyid, patriarch of his tribe-your tribe-is sitting at my grandfather's right hand.' And given the slightest opportunity, he thought, would seize the chance to move over and drag his country back into the Dark Ages. His sons would be there, too. And if he failed to surrender the Blood of Tariq, she would be doubtless given to one of those cousins as a wife. Without the option to say no… 'He will expect you to bow to him, acknowledge him.'
'But I shouldn't expect a hug and a Hi, kid, welcome home…?'
'I'm afraid not.' Then, because time was short, 'My grandfather is sitting at the far end of the majlis. You should walk straight down the room, looking neither to left nor right, holding out the khanjar so that everyone can see it. Bow to Ahmed first. Then bow to my grandfather and place the knife in his hands. I will be with you every step of the way,' he said, and the tension seemed to slip away from her a little. Then, 'Do you remember what I promised you, Princess?'
She looked up at him. 'I remember,' she said. Then, fear darkening her eyes, 'Something has happened. What is it?'
'There's no time to explain. Do you trust me to do exactly as I promised, Princess?'
Violet looked up at him, her extraordinary eyes searching his as if looking for something. Whatever it was, she must have found it, because she said, 'I am here. I have flown thousands of miles, placed myself
entirely in your hands, because you assured me that you would protect my friends.'
'And you, Princess. Protect you.' With every breath in his body. And he would, no matter what the cost. Honour-more-demanded it. 'After my grandfather thanks you in both Arabic and English, I will speak. When I turn to you I will ask you a question, you will answer nam. No matter what happens, you must do that. Do you understand?'
'Nam,' she repeated. 'What does it mean?'
'I see. Am I allowed to ask what the question is?'
To his intense relief, the huge carved doors to the majlis swung open, making further explanations impossible.
'Three times,' he said urgently. 'I will ask and you will answer.' Letting go of her hands, he stepped back, then, as she moved forward, he took his place at her side.
Fayad walked beside Violet towards his grandfather, his heart pounding. On either side of them he was aware of a stirring as the tribal leaders, elders, people's representatives rose to honour the khanjar. Or was it Violet, the very image of a Sayyid, who sent audible Shockwaves through the reception room?
She faltered only once, catching her toe on the edge of one of the carpets that were laid over each other, and he reached out to steady her.
Beneath her sleeve, despite her stately progress, she was trembling, and he did not let go, keeping his hand possessively on her elbow. Staring down Ahmed al Sayyid who, as leader of the second most powerful tribe of his nation, was indeed at his grandfather's right hand.
Violet stopped in front of the two men, bowed her head to acknowledge Ahmed, then, taking Fayad by surprise, instead of bowing to his grandfather, she knelt before him, extending the khanjar, and, eyes cast down, placed it into his hands, saying simply, 'In the name of Fatima al Sayyid I return the Blood of Tariq to its rightful place.'
Ahmed al Sayyid was scowling furiously at her, but his grandfather smiled.
'Thank you, child. Welcome home.'
Ahmed rose to his feet, but before he could speak Fayad, following Violet's dramatic example, joined her on his knees and, reaching for her hand, took it and declared, 'I call upon you all to witness that I take Violet Hamilton al Sayyid as my wife.' Then he turned to her and said, 'Do you accept me as your husband?'
Ahmed took a step towards him, but his grandfather raised a hand to stop him.
She looked at him for what seemed a lifetime, and then she said, 'Nam.'
He repeated his statement and again said, 'Do you accept me as your husband?'
And a third time.
Around them the room erupted in uproar, but he scarcely noticed as Violet lifted one of her exquisite brows a millimetre, as if to ask, What have I done?
He responded by lifting her hand to his lips, and murmured, 'You have just accepted me as your husband.' Then, raising her to her feet, he could not fail to miss the barely concealed smile of satisfaction on his grandfather's face as he embraced him, embraced Violet, with the words, 'Welcome, daughter…' Then, 'Give me your hand, Fayad.'
He extended it, expecting the old man to take it, hold it, but instead he raised it, placed the khanjar into it, holding it there for a long moment before turning to the majlis with the words, 'Salute your new Emir.'
Then he let go, stepped back, leaving Fayad centre stage.
It was pure theatre, and it occurred to him that when it came to playing games his grandfather had a fifty year head start on him.
He had been desperate to see him with a new wife-had used the threat of Ahmed al Sayyid to manipulate him. And now it was done, and he'd got his own way, he would retire to the mountains to spend his remaining days tending his soul, leaving his rivals with no choice but to smile and embrace not only Fayad's marriage, but his new position as ruler of Ras al Kawi.
His only thought was for Violet, who, when she realised what he'd done, would believe he had used her.
For an hour they stood, side by side, while every member of the majlis came to embrace him, make their bow to Violet, touch the khanjar.
She kept up a smile throughout, never faltered. Only someone who'd seen the real thing would know that it was a mask. And heaven alone knew what she was thinking behind it.
Finally it was over and, his hand beneath her elbow, he was able to escort her through the line of clapping elders.
The moment the doors closed behind them the smile vanished and she turned on him. 'Wife?' she breathed.
'It was necessary-'
'So that you could have your crown? Why didn't you tell me?
'There was no time…'
'No time? What happened to weeks of showering me with dowry to prove how much you value me?' she demanded, sweeping his attempt at explanation aside. 'The gold, the jewellery, the cloth? Actually, just the cloth would have done. I'm a dress designer, and cloth is always welcome, but then you didn't know that, did you? You didn't ask about my ambitions, about my life. You only care about your own.'
He hadn't asked because he knew. He knew all her history. But somehow he didn't think this was the moment to tell her that.
'In a crisis,' he said quietly, calmly, 'when the situation demands it, a declaration before witnesses serves the purpose.'
'Does it count if the bride hasn't a clue what's going on?'
'If you'll just listen, I will explain,' he said, taking her hand, moving her towards the door. This was not the place to be overhead having an argument with his bride.
She dug in her heels.
'How? You get a country and I get a cut-price registrar and two witnesses job. Is that all I'm worth?'
'I will tell you what you're worth,' he said, looping an arm around her waist and picking her up, carrying her over the threshold, leaving her shoes, leaving his.
He was determined to make her listen, to explain that a divorce would be as simple as the wedding, that all he'd done was protect her. But not here, where anyone might hear.
'Whatever happened to my much-vaunted chance to say no?' she demanded, kicking out in an attempt to free herself, furious, hammering on his shoulders, his back. 'I trusted you, but your words are worth nothing, Fayad al Kuwani. I gave you your khanjar and you used it to buy your country. Used me to buy the alliance of the Sayyid.'
'Will you just listen to me?' he thundered. Forget calm. Forget quiet reason…
'Oh, that's right. Shout. The male answer to everything.'
'Violet, this isn't helping-'
'It's helping me.' She lifted her head, looked down at him. 'So, Your Emiri Highness? What happens now? I'm supposed to go away and get swaddled in veils, is that it? Sit on the white sheet and wait for you to come and unwrap me?'
So intent was she on making her point that she'd forgotten to struggle and, with a nod to the driver, he bundled her into the back of a waiting limousine.
They were cut off from the world, even from the driver, who was hidden behind a darkened wall of glass, but Violet was not frightened.
She was furious.
She'd given Sheikh Fayad everything he wanted. Fallen for all that fake sincerity. Believed him.
And here she was with a man-a virtual stranger- who'd tricked her into marrying him. Sitting in his lap, his arm around her, his breath warm against her hair.
Fight. She'd fight…
'You'd better be wearing body armour!' she warned.
And without warning Fayad laughed. How dared he laugh at her? 'I've married a cat,' he said. 'I'd always heard that Sayyid women fight like tigers.'
'I'm not Sayyid. I'm a Hamilton…'
'No, you're not, Violet. You're mine. You'll always be mine…' And he kissed her. Not gently. Not to distract her from some painful moment. But like some desert lord who, having captured his prize, aroused by the chase, was determined on making her his.
And that he was aroused she was in no doubt.
But that was his problem, not hers.
Her problem was that as his kiss became deeper, the satin pleasure of his tongue giving rather than taking, it was not him she was fighting but her own body's shockingly urgent response.
She felt hampered by far too many clothes. The long skirt, the thaub, were encumbrances, not just holding her down but keeping them apart. She wanted freedom to move, wanted to feel his hand, his hot mouth upon her skin, upon breasts tight with need. Wanted him to soothe the heavy, yearning ache between her thighs.
She wanted, she discovered with a jolt of under-, standing, to be blissfully and repeatedly… overwhelmed.
And then, as swiftly as it had begun, it was over. But although the car had come to a standstill he did not move. Did not speak.
Fayad closed his eyes, for a moment just drinking in the pleasure of Violet, warm against him. Feeling once more the power of desire surge through him for the first time since the death of his family.
To the outside world he had seemed to recover. Carry on. Work for his country, his people. But inside everything that he was as a man had died on that day.
And now Violet had responded to him.
Angry, of course. She had every right to be. But above her anger was desire, hot and potent…
But to take advantage of that was beneath him.
For a moment he had forgotten himself. Had said that she was his. But that was not so. On the contrary. While she would always own a part of him, he had not taken her as his wife to bind her to him, but so that she could be free.
'Your house in London is now in your name, Violet,' he said, returning to reality. 'It is being remade. When it is done you will have a home in which you can be comfortable.'
'No…' Then, 'I don't understand.'
'You gave me everything you had. It is little enough in return. When you go home, I hope you will not think too badly of me.'
'You are sending me away?'
Dear God, she made it sound as if he were doing her an unkindness. If she knew how hard it would be to let her go. To walk away now…
'Not yet. Your house will not be ready for several months. It needs rewiring. New plumbing. You have dry rot…'
'It's a wonder it's still standing…'
'It will be as new. Until then, for form's sake, you will stay here.'
'And do what?'
'I promise nothing is expected of a new bride except to keep her husband happy.'
He turned to her. 'Her husband will be happy if she is happy. That is your only duty. To be happy.'
'I don't understand.'
She never would.
'And then you'll have a house with good friends near you. A divorce settlement.'
He managed a smile. 'Divorce, you will be pleased to learn, is as easily done as marriage. It will be as if it had never happened.'
'Apart from the fact that you're now Emir.'
'Apart from that,' he agreed. 'You will return home, go back to college, found your fashion house if that is your wish.'
Violet slid from his arms, from his lap, to the seat beside him. 'I see.'
He'd done it again. Stilled her protest with a kiss. And where moments before all she'd felt was liquid heat, now there was ice.
She glared at him. 'And what am I supposed to do for three months? Since pleasing my husband will not exactly fill my days?'
He glanced at her as if he might just change his mind about that.
'Don't worry about it,' she said hurriedly. 'I'll think of something.'
'Good.' Then, 'Of course you could help me break a few eggs.'
'Over your head?'
'What I had in mind was more in the nature of metaphorical eggs. My first action as Emir will be to announce that schooling is to be compulsory for girls, and it would be fitting if, as wife of the Emir, you were to lift the first spade of soil to mark the foundation of the Violet al Sayyid School for Girls.'
'Not al Kuwani?'
'Our women do not change their names on marriage.'
'Handy. It means you can really rub Ahmed al Sayyid's nose in it.'
'In what?' he asked. Then shook his head. 'You might be less sympathetic if I tell you that he would have taken you to his compound tonight if I had not intervened.'
'He couldn't do that!' Then, when he didn't agree, 'Could he?'
'He is your kin. The head of your family. My grandfather could not have stopped him without causing
dissension. I should have foreseen the possibility…' He closed his eyes, as if to shut out how close a call it had been. 'Marriage was your only means of escape.'
And his promise to protect her would have left him no option but to act as he did.
'He would have demanded the Blood of Tariq as dowry, wouldn't he?'
He didn't say whether he would have surrendered it, and she didn't ask. To lose it would have weakened him politically. Maybe lost him the throne. What was his word to one woman-the kin of his enemy- against that?
'He was staring at me at the airport when we arrived.' She shivered, and for a moment she thought he was going to reach out to her again.
Instead he turned abruptly away, and in doing so answered any question she cared to ask.
'I wish I'd never found the wretched thing. It would have saved a lot of trouble all round.'
'Maybe. But it worked out well enough in the end. My grandfather has what he wanted. He is happy.'
She waited for him to say that it suited him, too, but he didn't. Well, he'd already gone to great trouble to explain that it was the last thing he'd wanted.
The marriage part, anyway.
His kiss, his arousal, his "you are mine" was no more than a reaction to her resistance. She'd challenged his masculinity. He'd overcome her…
Her only mistake had been to succumb too quickly.
She'd had the power to get what she wanted and had let it slip through her fingers. Not nearly Arab enough…
'Your grandfather won't be happy when you divorce me,' she said, pushing him. Testing him.
'I don't believe he'll be with us long enough to be disappointed.'
Her pride melted. 'He's really that sick?'
'It was only what he perceived as my stubbornness in defying him that was keeping him alive.'
'Why would you defy him? It's not as if you had to go out and find your own bride…'
'I was not ready.'
Damn it, he was still grieving for his wife. His son. And now he was about to lose a beloved grandparent. She was close enough to her own loss to understand what his feelings must be, no matter how little he showed.
Then she frowned.
But if his grandfather was only weeks from death, why would Fayad use her when the Emiri throne was so close?
She let slip a very unprincesslike word.
She'd got it all wrong.
'This wasn't about becoming Emir, was it? You really did do it entirely for me?'
'I gave you my promise that I would protect you.' He climbed from the car, offered her his hand. 'Go in now. Leila will be waiting.'
Go… 'But won't she expect…?' She stopped, blushing with confusion.
'She will expect me to build you a house, make you a dowry. Three months between the wedding and the marriage is not long.' Then, seeing her confusion, 'Just because the wedding was unconventional, it does not mean that the marriage formalities will not be observed.'
He leaned forward, kissed her forehead.
'I will see you tomorrow.'
Three months had seemed an impossibly long time, and yet they flew by. Leila, now officially installed as her lady-in-waiting, was with her always, teaching her Arabic, the ways of Ras al Kawi.
She'd met Fayad's family, and was now taken to their heart, included on parties at the beach, shopping trips with his sisters. From being a girl with a family of one, a woman on her own, she was suddenly part of a huge extended family.
She found herself presiding over her own majlis. Like the Emir, she was there for all women to visit, to talk with, to bring their problems to as they drank tiny cups of coffee in the traditional way. She listened to their concerns and in turn, through Leila, talked about the value of education for their daughters.
And when she was taken by his sisters to visit the important hareems, especially the Sayyid hareem, she took that message with her, and found not just the younger women receptive, but their mothers and grandmothers, too.
It was the one thing she could do for Fayad, because he'd been right when he'd said, 'You're mine. You'll always be mine…' and the time she spent- running out faster than sand in an hourglass-was increasingly precious.
She might not be his wife in anything but name, but he treated her in every way like his queen. He discussed his ideas with her, took her with him when he visited schools, encouraged her input in the areas of women's health, employment.
He took her into the highlands and the valleys, to visit farms, smallholdings, to see for herself the life that his people lived there. The life the women lived. She'd expected hardship, and there was, but there was always warmth, hospitality, a simple joy in a life well lived.
They trekked across the desert-Violet swathed in veils, making him laugh out loud as her camel took her by surprise when it rose back legs first, so that she had to cling on for dear life to prevent herself being thrown over the creature's nose.
Everything was new, exciting, and she knew deep in her heart that the only thing that would make life better would be if, at the end of day, Fayad stayed with her instead of leaving her at her door. If he were truly her husband.
But he was careful always to keep a distance between them.
They were never alone. There were no more kisses. He did not reach for her hand.
Only sometimes she would turn and catch him looking at her, and for a moment she would believe that he felt the same way and her heart would turn over. But then he would look away and she'd know she was fooling herself.
She designed clothes for Leila, for Fayad's sisters, for her Sayyid cousins, and had them made up by a co-operative she'd set up for young girls who had no family. The workmanship was exquisite, and soon local women flocked to buy her designs, too, eager no doubt to please their new Emir. In her new position she discovered that there were no places barred to her, and she had a buyer from one of the big London stores corning to discuss an outlet for her label.
There were rumblings of discontent about compulsory schooling for girls, she knew, stirred up by Ahmed al Sayyid, but they were muted, and when she visited the souk women reached out to touch her, whisper blessings.
And all the time her dowry accumulated at an alarming rate.
Each morning brought some new treasure. Diamonds in every imaginable colour. One set, in a shade not quite blue, not quite green, Leila swore were a perfect match for her eyes. There were emeralds, sapphires, pearls. And gold. Mountains of the stuff. Bracelets, unbelievable necklaces that looked just like those she'd once seen in a photograph that were supposed to have been worn by Helen of Troy.
And then there were the rubies. Polished cabochon heart-red rubies. A stunning stone in a simple gold setting. A tumble of them in a pair of matching earrings that fell almost to her shoulders. Bracelets with each stone encased in fine wire cages of gold. A wide choker necklace of pearls with a great polished teardrop ruby at its centre…
There were bolts of every kind of cloth from which wedding clothes were to be made. Pointless to say that they would not be needed. She designed, and her girls made, seven exquisite wedding dresses in figured silks. Dresses in every conceivable colour with long baggy pants to be worn beneath them, edged in embroidery. Underwear. Thaubs.
And then, one morning, she rose to find Fayad's mother arranging a gold cap hung all around with threads of gold, fine as silk, as long as her hair, on a tall stand in the centre of all this treasure.
So far she had resisted the temptation to try on any of the jewels. They were so exotic, so unreal, that to Leila's consternation she treated them almost as a joke.
But this was different and, unable to stop herself, she reached out a hand to touch the delicate threads.
'What is it?' she asked.
'It is your bridal cap,' Leila said, almost swooning with excitement, 'to be worn when you receive visitors for the seven days after the Emir comes to make your marriage.'
Make their marriage.
There could be no mistaking what she meant by that.
Please not yet. It was too soon. She had so much more to do. She did not want to leave Ras al Kawi. She did not want to leave him…
'It is time, Violet,' Fayad's mother said firmly.
'Does he say that?' she asked. If he did then there would be no question that it was time for her to go.
'He says he is too busy to discuss it, but his grandfather grows impatient, and since everything is ready-the house, the dowry-there need be no more delay.'
That would be the grandfather who was supposed to be on his last legs, but who, far from fading, seemed to have regained much of his strength in the last months.
'Which means?' she asked, hoping against hope that weddings took as long to organise in Ras al Kawi as they did in London. Months and months…
'We'll hold the maksar the day after tomorrow,' Fayad's mother replied. 'All the women will come to see the dowry, to feast.' She smiled. 'Then my son will come in the evening.'
To make her his wife.
Leila shivered with delighted anticipation.
Violet just shivered. 'I really need to talk to him about this, Sheikha.'
'He flew to Ras al Hajar this morning. He won't be back until midday tomorrow. But you don't have to worry about a thing. Everything is arranged. We will pamper you, and paint you with the wedding henna. Dress you, veil you.' She headed for the door, then turned back. 'He will expect you to resist him. Did you know this?'
'Not much.' And she smiled. 'Just a token…' Then, 'I'll be back in an hour.'
Oh, the temptation. How easy it would be to just let it happen. Allow his mother to go ahead with her plans. Say nothing…
How would he be able to refuse?
Such a thought was unworthy of her. Unworthy of a man who had given her everything.
'I'm going to take a walk, Leila.'
'Now?' The girl was an unenthusiastic walker. 'But we need to begin…'
'An hour.' Little enough time. 'I just need some air.' She made herself smile. 'There's no need for you to come with me.'
'Oh, well. If you're sure?'
'I'm sure.' She wanted to take one last walk through the gardens, take the path above the palace to the place that Fayad had taken her, where she could see the whole of the city spread out below her.
A messenger met her at the door with an envelope, hand-delivered from Amira al Sayyid. She pushed it into the pocket of the jeans she wore beneath the abaya she'd thrown on to keep out the heat.
Her bodyguard half rose, but she waved him back into the shade. 'Stay, Yusuf. I'm not going far.'
She walked through the garden, through the gate that led to the home farm, with its fruit trees, vegetable gardens, its small herd of goats that provided milk for yoghurt and cheese. Up the steep path to the flat rock that provided a seat at the highest point.
She had no idea how long she'd been sitting there when a shadow cut off the sun. Yusuf, grown anxious? Or Leila, full of guilt?
Fayad had known and respected the Emir of Ras al Hajar since boyhood. The man was everything he aspired to. Cleaving to the best that was traditional in their way of life, but modern in outlook. And his English wife was not only mother to his sons, but stood beside him on the political stage, an advocate for women and an ambassador for her country.
Already Violet was filling that role in his own life. Full of ideas, proactive supporter of all his projects, in the task of convincing the conservative die-hards on the education question, talking to the women.
Every day he spent with her was a joy. And a day nearer the time she would leave Ras al Kawi and go back to her real life.
And every day he thought about the moment when she'd made him whole, when he'd cried out, "You are mine!" But he'd known even then that she would never belong to anyone. Only someone who was utterly free could have surrendered something as valuable as the Blood of Tariq and asked for nothing in return.
He'd known from the beginning that she had every quality that would make her a worthy queen. From the first moment he'd seen her, recognised her courage as she'd flown to her friend's aid, she'd overturned everything that was dead inside him.
The one thing he had not expected was to fall in love with her. It was something so new, so different. But this must be love, surely? Not just the derided western word for what was little more than lust, but the knowledge that grew stronger every day, that when she left him to return to her own life she would tear out his heart and take that, too.
He would give everything to have her by his side, his wife in every way.
'Fayad?' He realised that Hassan had asked him a question. Was waiting for an answer.
'Your mind is elsewhere. This will keep.' He stood, releasing him with a smile. 'Next time you come to Ras al Hajar, bring your new wife with you. Rose is eager to meet her.'
Before he could answer, he saw his aide coming towards him, his face white. Without a word, he handed him the cellphone he was holding.
The caller did not bother introducing himself. All he said was, 'I have your wife.'
There was nothing else. No ransom demand. No threat.
There was no need.
He flew straight back to Ras al Kawi. Leila was distraught, blaming herself. 'She said she wanted to walk. To be alone.'
Violet's bodyguard was suicidal.
'Neither of you are to blame,' Fayad assured them. 'This is entirely my fault.'
He had brought her to Ras al Kawi. Worse, he had under-estimated the ruthlessness of Ahmed al Sayyid and just how determined he was to get his hands on the dagger.
He drove alone to the place where he was to deliver the khanjar. He took no one with him, would not risk Violet's life by deviating from the instructions he'd been given. By attempting a rescue attempt.
He had been careless of his first wife, his son, and he had lost them. Now, when in his head he had offered all he had in return for the woman he loved, Allah had tested him, was calling on him to make good his word.
He left the four-wheel drive and, carrying the Blood of Tariq in one hand, walked towards the narrow bridge slung across a high gorge.
Ahmed al Sayyid stood at the far end of the bridge, holding Violet by the wrist. With a gesture he made the point that if there was one false move on his part he would pitch her into chasm.
He walked slowly towards them, making sure that his hands were always in sight, set the khanjar down at the centre of the bridge, then turned to walk back.
The tension was unbearable. Would she follow? Would they keep her until they had roused their supporters, deriding him as weak, unfit to lead their country? For the first time in his life he looked back. Straight into Violet's eyes, and said, so that all could hear him, not that foolish, possessive "you are mine", but stood as a man should and said, 'I am yours.'
'Go and pack your bags, Fayad al Kuwani,' Ahmed mocked. 'I'll send your wife to join you in exile in her little house in London.'
He'd looked back. That was all Violet could think as she was delivered to the small private jet. He'd looked back and said, 'I am yours.'
He had not just surrendered everything for her. He had surrendered himself.
The plane was in the air for only twenty minutes, and when it touched down the first person aboard was Fayad. No holding back, no distance. He gathered her in his arms, held her close. 'My heart…you are safe.' Then, looking at her. 'They did not hurt you?'
'I am safe,' she repeated, clinging to him despite every promise she'd made herself. 'I was so afraid for you.' They'd had guns, and it would have been the work of a moment to have killed him once they had what they wanted. Then, 'You just gave it up. Handed over the Blood of Tariq for me. Are you prepared to go into exile…?'
'Would you come with me?'
'To the ends of the earth…' Then, because that really left her completely exposed, with no hiding place, 'Where on earth are we?'
'Ras al Hajar. This aircraft belongs to Ahmed al Sayyid and the pilot is married to Amira al Sayyid. Amira, however, wants her girls to go to school, and so she told him that if he took you to London he need not come home.'
'I know Amira. She comes to the majlis. In fact…' She dug into her pocket, drew out the envelope that had been delivered earlier that day. 'She sent me this, this morning.' Tearing it open, she found a letter, written in Arabic. 'This is Fatima's letter,' she said. 'The one that was stolen from my house…'
Fayad skimmed it. Then grabbed her and kissed her. 'Ahmed may have the Blood of Tariq, but he does not have you, twin of my soul.'
Twin of his soul…? 'What does it say?'
'It's a confession. Written when she was old, near death. I believe she meant to send it to my great-great-grandfather, but maybe she left it too late.'
'Yes, but what does it say?'
'Her marriage to Tariq al Kuwani was arranged by her father for the sole purpose of stealing the khanjar from him. The plan was that she should drug him, take it, make her escape by night.'
Violet caught her breath. 'If she had been caught…'
'I know. Death would have been certain, but it was for her tribe, her family. Her brother was to wait for her at a given place every night until she escaped. It was weeks before she could bring herself to do it- would not have if her father hadn't made her swear on the holy Q'uran. When she finally forced herself to do it, her brother was not there. Perhaps he'd given up, or thought that she'd been caught and killed. She couldn't go back and, knowing that her husband would kill her if he found her, she ran.'
'And was found by my great-great-grandfather.'
'He saved her life, paid her passage to England- because he knew what would happen to her if he left her behind to fend for herself. Then he married her in England when he was discharged from the army.'
'He was a true hero, then.'
He took her hand. 'Not all Hamilton men are bad, Violet.'
She shook her head. 'No…'
'Fatima vowed to make the most of her second chance, vowed to be a good wife to him. Bought him the house with her gold.'
'But she hid the khanjar.'
'It was famous. If it had appeared in London…' He left her to imagine what would have happened.
'I don't think it was chance that Lawrence put that fancy bit of cutlery in your great-great-grandfather's
hand,' she said. 'He chose wisely. And now, because of me, you have lost it.'
'You gave me everything you had and I could do no less for you.' She tried to speak but he stopped her. 'Later. My plane is waiting to take us back to Ras al Kawi.'
'Not exile, then?'
'The Kuwani have ruled Ras al Kawi for ninety years without your "fancy bit of cutlery", Violet. It takes more than a symbol to hold a country together over many generations, to bind it into a nation. It takes heart. Something that you have in abundance.' Then, 'Do you really want to go to London? Or does "the ends of the earth" include the bed of the Emir of Ras al Kawi, Violet Hamilton?' He took both her hands in his. 'You are my wife, the owner of my heart, the twin of my soul. Nothing will ever change that. Now I ask you, in your own language, in words that you will understand, will you stay at my side for always, be the mother of my children?'
Violet lifted her hand to his cheek. 'I will be at your side for always, Fayad al Kuwani, owner of my heart, twin of my soul. Be the mother of your sons, insh 'Allah. Or your daughters, if that is his wish.'
And when their plane touched down in Ras al Kawi an hour later, Violet was not whisked away in a limousine while her husband was greeted by the tribal leaders. On this occasion she had her own reception, as the head of every hareem-with Amira al Sayyid first in line-waited to touch her hands, kiss her forehead, welcome her home.
The Sayyid coup was put down without bloodshed.
Even those who had sided with Ahmed on the question of education were horrified at what he had done, and in their effort to distance themselves from him were swift to ally themselves with the Emir.
The khanjar was returned anonymously and Fayad wore it when he arrived at the maksar, three days later, to claim his bride.
In the silence of the bridal chamber, Violet waited for her husband. Her hands and feet had been painted with the ornate bridal patterns. Her friends, Leila and Amira and Fayad's mother, had, giggling like girls, wrapped her in a series of gauzy gold-edged veils.
Fayad met little resistance at the door as those who guarded Violet bowed him through, but his heart was in his mouth as he opened the last door, saw her waiting for him, gift-wrapped and sitting upon a white sheet.
He expected that she would fight him, just a little, but as he picked up the edge of the first veil, 'My love,' he said, his voice shaking just a little. 'Will you have me?'
Her voice was shaking, too, he realised. She was trembling. It was not what he'd expected from his modern British bride. He'd expected giggles, a pretend fight…
He kissed the edge of the first veil and slowly removed it.
'I have to tell you something, keeper of my heart, twin of my soul. I have to tell you why, when my grandfather, my family, pressed me to marry I refused to consider it.'
She looked up and he kissed the edge of another veil and slowly removed it,
'The truth is that I was so racked with guilt at the death of my wife, my son, I was useless to a woman.
He smiled as he removed yet another veil, could see her eyes widen with surprise. Well, of course she must have been aware of the effect that she had on him. When he had kissed her, had come within a hair's breadth of making their marriage a reality…
'It is because of you that I have my country. Because of you that I am a man…'
Another veil fell, revealing a hand. He lifted it, kissed each finger, turned it over to kiss the pad of her thumb, her palm.
There was no fight. Just a slow, sensuous unwrapping of his beautiful bride. He kissed every trembling inch of her until she was melting, imploring, begging for him to make their marriage complete. At which point he discovered that the white sheet was no mere symbol.
That Violet Hamilton had, indeed, given him everything.
Liz Fielding was born with itchy feet. She made it to Zambia before her twenty-first birthday and, gathering her own special hero and a couple of children on the way, lived in Botswana, Kenya and Bahrain – with pauses for sightseeing pretty much everywhere in between.
She finally came to a full stop in a tiny Welsh village cradled by misty hills and these days, mostly, leaves her pen to do the travelling.
When she's not sorting out the lives and loves of her characters, she potters in the garden, reads her favourite authors and spends a lot of time wondering… "What if…"
For news of forthcoming books – and to sign up for her occasional newsletter – visit Liz's website at www.lizfielding.com