Bought by the Sheikh (ebook)
Bought by the Sheikh (ebook)
She was bought once, he’ll buy her again…A dysfunctional upbringing has made Sheikh Zavian bin Ameen Al Rasheed distrustful of people—but he trusted Gabrielle. That is, until she betrayed him by accepting his father’s bribe to leave Zavian and his country. He’s left shattered by the betrayal but with an obsession for her which only increases with time.
Raised by her eccentric grandfather in the deserts of Havilah, Gabrielle loves the country and Zavian so much that she leaves them. He’s to become king and he needs to marry a suitable Bedouin. So she accepts Zavian’s father’s bribe to leave—it was the only way to make sure Zavian didn’t follow her—and, in so doing, exiles herself from the only home and man she’s ever loved.
But a year later, as wedding plans are underway, Zavian suspects Gabrielle is the anonymous donor of one his country’s most precious artifacts, purchased for the exact sum as the bribe. So he buys her services from her university in order to find out the truth and rid himself of his obsession. Besides, if Gabrielle can’t be his wife, then why not his mistress?
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King Zavian bin Ameen Al Rasheed checked the clock, picked up another report from the pile, and continued to dictate to his secretary. But his mind refused to focus completely on his paperwork. A part of it drifted to the image of a woman—long blonde hair, and eyes that could wound at a thousand feet. But now, instead of imagining her amid the spires and steeples of Oxford, wondering what she was doing, he knew what she was doing. She would be putting away her laptop—he knew there was no way Gabrielle would miss working on an uninterrupted twelve-hour flight—and doing up her seat belt as the plane prepared for its final descent into Gharb Havilah.
He fell silent and turned his head to look out the window, up into the white-hot sky of a June morning, and imagined he could see her plane. And her on it, her eyes moving to the window, seeking out her first glimpse of Gharb Havilah after twelve long months.
He turned back to his secretary. “Yes?”
“Did you wish to complete your response to this report?”
He looked down at the papers and tried to refocus. He had no idea where he was, which was exactly why he needed Gabrielle in Gharb Havilah.
His secretary prompted him with the last words he’d dictated, enabling him to continue. When he’d finished, he gestured with his hand. “You may go.” As soon as his secretary had left, his gaze returned to the clock, and his vizier quietly entered the room.
“Ah, Naseer, it’s time, then.”
The vizier’s hooded eyes narrowed with disapproval. Zavian knew his vizier’s thoughts on his plans, but, for once, wasn’t prepared to discuss them. They were nonnegotiable. There was no way he could continue with half his mind on Gabrielle and half on running his kingdom. No, he wanted her here, and he wanted her out of his system. The reality of being with her must surely reduce his need for her, bring it back into proportion. Because if there was one thing he’d learned from his vizier, it was that familiarity bred contempt. But he didn’t require contempt. He needed only to slacken his obsession, and slake his thirst, so he didn’t need her anymore.
Zavian walked toward the door, but before he could leave, Naseer coughed. Zavian swallowed back his impatience. He respected Naseer. He’d been his father’s advisor and got the job done, and done well. But one thing he wished his vizier wasn’t, was so subtle. It made him impatient. “What is it, Naseer?” He tapped his fingers against the door handle, wanting to get going, to see the person who’d consumed his every waking and sleeping moment for the past twelve months.
“She isn’t on the flight.”
Zavian ground his teeth. He’d been precise about the contract. Nothing had been left to chance, let alone the travel arrangements. “Get that professor on the phone and demand to know why.”
Again the deceptively obsequious bow of the head—his vizier was anything but submissive. “There is no need for that.”
“Because I have tracked her movements. She’s traveled overland. She’s still arriving today, but by a different entry point.”
Zavian drew in a jagged breath. He’d done everything to bring her to him, and she was close now, and yet she still managed to change his plans without his knowledge. Nothing had changed. Catching Gabrielle was like trying to hold water in the palm of your hand, like trying to contain starlight on an oasis. You think you have it for a few satisfactory moments only to find that it’s left you, following a course of its own devising, leaving you all the more obsessed with retrieving it again.
“She cashed in her first-class ticket and is journeying through neighboring countries and entering through the desert border control. No doubt reminiscing about growing up with her ridiculous grandfather.”
Zavian decided to overlook his vizier’s slur on Gabrielle’s grandfather—the result of an old feud that went back far beyond Zavian’s time. Zavian had always liked Gabrielle’s grandfather. More than liked—he’d been there for Zavian when his own family hadn’t. “Take me there.”
“What is the point? She’ll be arriving at the palace later today as arranged.”
“The point is, Naseer, that I wish to see her arrive. I wish to see her walk into my country with my own eyes. I need to know she’s here.”
His vizier shook his head. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
“Of course. As you, yourself, have said, obsessions result from a lack. I intend to make sure I have no lack, and then the obsession will ease.”
“It may not ease completely.”
“It doesn’t need to. Anything less than an obsession I can deal with, anything less than an obsession can be buried deep.”
Naseer nodded, his mouth twisting as he resisted vocalizing his doubts, which Zavian could read in his eyes. “I have a car waiting.”
As Zavian strode through the old palace, along the secret corridors constructed by his great grandfather for security, his thoughts were still of Gabrielle. He knew what she was doing. He’d made sure she had to come, and she was trying to arrive incognito, trying to resist his command. She surely couldn’t have forgotten what life was like here. How he controlled everything, just as his father had done before him, and his before him. She’d always thought she was better than him, that she could outwit him. She was an innocent still. An innocent with whom he was obsessed. But not for much longer.
It was a half-hour winding drive to the border crossing, up through the narrow mountain range which divided the high desert from the plain upon which the city lay. A cluster of palm trees indicated the site of what was once a small village centered around a well. The village was long gone, cleared by his unscrupulous great grandfather, replaced by utilitarian buildings for the border guards.
“Stop here.” They parked some distance from the other cars—one, a taxi, the others no doubt belonging to the border control officers—and watched from the shade of the palm grove. He glanced at his driver, who’d pressed his earpiece closer to his ear.
“Five minutes,” said the driver, knowing what his king required—accurate information at all times.
Zavian stepped out of the car and stood under the tree beside the oasis, filled after the recent rains. He looked out to the quiet, sun-bleached desert where nothing moved. Immediately in front of him was his own border control hut. Shimmering in the distance he could see the hut of the border control belonging to the neighboring country, Tawazun, with whom the three countries which comprised the ancient lands of Havilah hoped to unite through marriage. But Zavian had no thoughts of the Tawazun princess, with whom his marriage was being brokered at this very moment.
Between Tawazun’s border and his own was an empty no-man’s-land, broken only by the barest of tracks. This was a place where Bedouin had lived for centuries, their movements ebbing and flowing with the seasons. Trust the arrogant Gabrielle to imagine she could use the route undetected. No, Zavian reflected. Not arrogant. Gabrielle was many things, but she wasn’t arrogant. Her decision was more likely a result of a naive sentimentality.
A radio crackled with the jarring guitar riff of an American pop song, its electronic whine incongruous in the setting. His eyes watered as he concentrated on the white light of the far checkpoint. His eyes narrowed as he found what he was looking for—a swirl of sand that filled the bright blue sky and sent a jolt through his body. He sucked in the hot, dry air to calm his response to the merest suggestion of her presence.
She emerged from the shadows of the lone building to walk the five-hundred-yard stretch through no-man’s-land, the details of her form slowly becoming visible beneath the moving cloud of sand. She was wearing a full-length gray abaya with a long scarf around her head, which the desert breeze lifted until it became one with the cloud of sand which punctuated each step. Finally, she stopped to speak to border control, her hand pressed to her chest, trying to keep her scarf in place while presenting her passport documents.
She could have been anyone. Large sunglasses covered her eyes, and her robes were cheap, the sort a common Bedouin woman in the market might have worn. She wanted to pass unnoticed. She’d failed. There was nothing about her movements, or figure, that would ever allow her to pass unnoticed, not to his eyes anyway. She had a grace, a swaying feminine gait, which was entirely her own, altogether seductive, even if she was completely unaware of it. It was natural, he knew that much. Undesigned. And he felt it all the more keenly because of it.
The land through which she’d just walked was stony and barren—a fitting entry—belonging not to one nation or another, displaced, just like she’d always been. He turned his back on her and returned to the car. He nodded to his driver, and the car purred into motion, leaving behind the lone woman as she re-entered his country. He glanced into the wing mirror and saw a long strand of blonde hair fly out of her abaya, teased by the wind, as she turned at the sound of his car leaving. He remembered the texture of her hair, like silk. He rubbed his fingers together as if reliving the feel of it between his fingertips. He swallowed and looked away.
Gabrielle was beginning to regret her impulsive desire to enter Gharb Havilah from the desert. Somehow she’d forgotten the intensity of the heat. Even the short walk between countries, through no-man’s-land, had been challenging, the heat scorching her throat, the wind drying her eyes. She’d forgotten how inhospitable the desert was, how alien, how unforgiving to the people who made their home there. But more than that, she’d forgotten how much she loved it—not in an intellectual way, but at a deep visceral level which clawed at her gut. Its beauty wasn’t picture postcard perfect but as raw and uncompromising as its ruler.
She grabbed her scarf and swept it around her face, as she walked the last few yards across the stony, barren land to the Gharb Havilah checkpoint. Both guards were outside watching her approach, which alone indicated how infrequently the border crossing was used. She wasn’t even entirely sure why she’d decided to come overland through the mountains where there was no internet. A desire to be incognito, perhaps? Maybe. But also an instinctive need to take things slowly, to re-acquaint herself with the country a little at a time, to let it seep into her being. Far better this than to be offloaded into Gharb Havilah’s modern airport where she’d have trouble adjusting from her English world to the country in which she’d been raised.
It had taken a week of travel through the desert she’d used to know so well to get here—a week of attuning herself to its slow pace, and its timeless glamor which she loved so much. Her ability to speak the native tongues, and her old friendships in Tawazun—a country which she knew almost as well as Havilah—ensured her safety.
Yes, she wanted the time to sink herself back into this world again. But she had to admit she also wanted to send a signal—to Zavian. He might call, and she might have to come, but she’d do it her way, on her terms. She was not, and would never be, controlled by him.
But, as she handed over her papers to the guards, her eyes were drawn beyond them, to an expensive-looking car, not a taxi, disappearing into a hazy mirage. It seemed she wasn’t the only person seeking entry through that remote spot.
She exchanged pleasantries with the guards as they completed the paperwork. Their responses became friendlier as she answered in their native tongue. But, as she walked toward her taxi, her eyes were once again drawn to the shimmer of the departing car. She suddenly remembered that the border guard had commented on her being the first person that day to cross the border, which meant someone had arrived and then turned back. Why?
She greeted the taxi driver, and he took her battered backpack and placed it in the boot of the car, and they were off, following the faint trace of the previous car toward the capital city of Gharb Havilah. While the driver talked of the country’s gossip—the royal family, the state of the economy, and other things of which taxi drivers the world over were experts, Gabrielle’s thoughts were entirely on the car she’d seen leaving the border and the registration plate she’d caught a glimpse of. It had to have been him. How on earth had he discovered her changed itinerary? She’d underestimated him, certainly underestimated his compulsion to control everything.
As they emerged from the mountain pass, the city revealed itself, spread across the narrow plain between the mountains and the brilliant blue of the sea. Her heart stopped, held tight by its beauty. The color of terra cotta, the ancient city sat unaltered thanks to centuries of control by the Al Rasheed clan. No high-rise glass buildings for them. It made the world believe they weren’t wealthy. The world was wrong. The Al Rasheeds kept their incredible wealth tight, and that knowledge even tighter. They kept their people comfortable and employed, and a tight control upon everything. But it seemed, if the taxi driver’s chatter was anything to believe, that things were about to change—that the new sheikh had different ideas. She didn’t doubt it.
After the wide-open plains of the high desert, the ancient narrow streets of the old quarter—clogged with cars and people, jostling and shouting as they came closer to the bazaar—was noisy and overwhelming. The taxi turned away from the bazaar and headed toward the palace. Gabrielle leaned forward. “The museum. We need to go to the museum.”
“We are, madam.”
“But it’s back there.” She gestured toward the old building, which was soon out of sight, lost amid a jumble of rooftops.
“The museum’s administrative center has recently been moved. You wanted to see the person in charge?”
“Then, you will find him at the palace.”
Gabrielle felt uneasy as the taxi drove up the wide boulevard—a product of the old King’s fascination with all things French—at the end of which stood a medieval castle, situated on a long, low hill which overlooked the city and the sea.
“Please stop here. I’ll walk the rest of the way.”
The taxi driver shrugged and parked abruptly, blocking off a car trying to emerge from a narrow alleyway. The other vehicle beeped his horn continuously. Her taxi driver yelled expletives while extracting her bag from the boot. She paid him, and he wished her well and drove off, leaving her to walk into the square, busy with tourists and street hawkers. She stepped forward, wanting to be a part of them, needing the anonymity they gave her.
Above the clamor of street traders, tourists and people trying to go about their everyday business, sat the palace—a dominant, aloof presence. Exactly like the new King had become, according to gossip. It was strange to think that the man she knew could have changed so much. She hoped he continued to remain untouchable and aloof because she wanted nothing to do with him.
She had no idea if he was behind her visit or even knew about it. But the strange car at border control nagged at her mind. Who was it? Was it Zavian? But how could it be? He had more to do than track her movements. No, there was absolutely no reason why she and King Zavian bin Ameen Al Rasheed’s paths should cross. The palace was vast, and while she’d be working on the PR around the artifacts being exhibited, he’d be ruling the country. She had no wish to stir up anything from the past. There were good reasons why she left—reasons that were still valid, and would always be valid. Zavian was out of her reach, and she intended to keep him that way.
She hitched her backpack higher on her shoulder and approached the palace guard, her papers in hand, prepared for the usual third degree. But, after only a few words, the gate opened without her having to show her documents. Maybe the palace was more accessible than it used to be. Maybe security was lax in keeping with the approach of the new king. Maybe not, she thought as she saw others have their papers scrutinized before being allowed inside the hallowed gardens of the Abyad Palace. She’d barely set foot inside the shady cool of the palace foyer when an official approached her.
“Dr. Taylor. Welcome to the palace. Please, follow me, and I’ll take you to your rooms.”
Her bag was taken from her, and, unnervingly, they were followed by two more assistants as they walked up the main stairs and turned left. She hesitated. “Excuse me!” she called to the assistant.
“The museum and administrative quarters, surely they’d be in the east wing, with the other public offices and visitor apartments?” He’d made a mistake. He must have been new there.
“Yes, indeed,” the young man smiled. “The east wing.”
“Then…” she continued, “why are we going to the west?”
The young man assumed a patient smile. “Because I am taking you to your rooms. And they are this way.”
Gabrielle’s heart sank with a sickening thud. What was going on? She knew full well the implications of staying in the west wing of the palace. That was where the royal family stayed, and only the highest-ranking advisors and relatives. She gripped the staircase, its gold scrollwork digging into her flesh. “No, I’m sorry, but that’s not possible.”
“Yes, I assure you, it is possible, madam. Your suite awaits you.”
“No. I’m sorry, I can’t stay here. I’ll take a room at a hotel.” She fumbled for her phone.
“And why would you do that?” His smile appeared stuck fast. “You will be working at the palace, and living at the palace.”
“No, really. That’s not possible.”
“And I say it is.” The smile had frozen on his lips. “I apologize, madam, but I have my orders.”
She glanced at the two men behind her. They weren’t smiling. She looked back at the smiling one as the better of two evils. “Do I have a choice?” She suddenly realized she’d stepped right into a trap.
The smile never wavered. “No, madam.”
As she was taken along the grand corridors, past the glimpses of beautiful gardens, she felt as if she were walking in a coiling spiral, taking her ever closer to the heart of the trap.
She was shown to her suite of rooms, and she sat on the large, white silk counterpane and put her head in her hands. What had she done?
Gabrielle had considered refusing the invitation—more like a command—to attend a reception that evening. But, she had decided there was little point in putting off the moment when she came face to face with the man she’d deserted twelve months earlier. Because now there was no doubt in her mind that it was he who was behind her contract, that it was he who’d made sure she couldn’t escape once she’d set foot inside the palace.
A year ago, he’d been the overlooked younger son of the king. Now he was king. Something he’d never have been if she’d stayed—something the country needed because, without him, there would have been a civil war. And she couldn’t live with that. She’d done the right thing, she said for the millionth time as she walked across the marble hall to the reception room. But the pounding of her heart, the fluttering in her stomach, and the trembling in her hands contradicted her.
She paused briefly on the threshold, struck by a wall of sound—amplified by the marble interior—and a brilliance of light. The sparkle from the crystal chandeliers glanced off the expensive sheen of the ladies’ evening dresses and flashed in their diamond jewelry. The overwhelming combination did nothing for her nerves.
She took a glass of sparkling juice from a passing waiter and stood to one side. She hoped she could remain there, unnoticed, until she could safely slip away, her duty having been done. But she had no such luck and was soon immersed in a conversation with the museum director. Suddenly everyone stopped talking, and she knew the king and his entourage must have entered the room. Her heart beat a quick tattoo.
He hadn’t changed at all. He was taller than most of them, and she could see him clearly as he scanned the room. The scanning stopped when he saw her. He then said something to the person he was with, and they began to move towards her. She stepped back, but her heels banged against the wall. To one side, the museum director blocked her way. To the other side, a group of diplomats shifted excitedly at the thought of meeting the king.
His progress was halted from time to time as he was introduced to someone. Then he’d look up and catch her gaze briefly before looking away, his expression registering no recognition, as if he was unaware of her identity. But he was, she knew he was, because each step brought him inexorably closer to her.
And then he reached her. He stood directly in front of her while his assistant introduced them. He held her gaze and, despite her best plans, she couldn’t look away.
“And this is Dr. Gabrielle Taylor.”
She swallowed and then panicked. How should she greet him? She dropped into the formal curtsey she’d seen the other women offer, but before she could hold it for the required time, he took her hand, and she nearly stumbled from shock. He tightened his grip, giving her the support she needed to raise herself, but derailing her senses in the process. Even when she was standing tall once more, he didn’t release his hold.
She could smell his aftershave and a masculinity that sent her legs weak. Close to, she could see her initial impression was wrong. He had changed. His mouth, which had been so potent in its capacity to provide pleasure, was firm, grim even, and his gaze was no more promising. But the biggest change was in his eyes. Before, the arrogance had always been there, but it had been tempered by humor and kindness. But she saw nothing of these things in the man before her. No, her overriding impression of him now was power—power to give, and power to take away. She wondered which of those two things he was going to do now, here, with her.
“Dr. Taylor is from Oxford University, here to—”
“I know who she is and why she’s here. Welcome, Gabrielle.”
She nodded, and smiled nervously, giving a tentative tug on her hand. It didn’t yield. “Thank you. It’s good to be back.” The words tumbled out before she could stop them, because they were true. Gharb Havilah was home to her in a way England would never be. And, as for Zavian… Despite what she insisted to herself she wanted, her body was responding in quite a different way.
His eyes narrowed slightly as he inclined his head toward her in a way that felt intensely intimate. “Is that so?”
“It is…” Her voice faded as she caught the smell of his aftershave. That hadn’t changed, and it shortcut her defenses, sending a ripple of recognition and desire deep inside her.
He knew. He had to know because he inclined his head further to her, until all she would have to do was stretch up on her tiptoes to feel the caress of his lips against hers.
She cleared her throat. “It is truly good to be back.” There was no point denying it.
“Then you should have returned sooner.” His thumb swept over the back of her hand, sending pulses of electricity through her body, bringing it to life. She didn’t want to be brought to life.
“I was… busy.” She summoned up her courage, refusing to allow him to take control of her. He had to know. “And there was no point. Nothing’s changed.”
His grip lessened on her hand. “Interesting.” The chill tone in which the single word was delivered refuted her statement.
“Interesting?” she repeated.
“Yes, I have a feeling I’ll find the stories you’ve been contracted to provide for our prized exhibition pieces, very… illuminating. It’s always interesting to know the background of a piece, where it came from, and how it came to be here. Especially the Khasham Qur’an.”
She pressed her trembling lips together in an attempt to hold back her feelings and thoughts, which threatened to tumble out chaotically as she suddenly realized why she’d been brought here. He wanted to know how the sixth-century illuminated Qur’an from the ancient city of Khasham had come into his possession.
“The Khasham Qur’an,” she repeated huskily, weighing its meaning on her tongue.
“Yes, a subject dear to your heart, I believe. Maybe the only one.”
The barb found its target, but she couldn’t respond because he’d always known if she’d tried to lie, which left silence the only option.
“And once you’ve uncovered the story behind its repatriation, then, Dr. Taylor”—he continued—“you may find you have to re-think your assertion that nothing has changed.” He dropped her hand. “Enjoy the evening.”
He nodded coolly and walked past her before she could respond. Not that she could. It felt like all the air had been sucked out of that warm, crowded reception room, making it difficult to breathe, let alone think. But she could feel. And she wished she couldn’t.
He hated her. And she hadn’t realized how this knowledge could destroy her. She looked around for an escape, unaware of people talking to her, needing to get away.
Zavian left the room immediately. He’d organized the reception with only one purpose in mind, and now he’d seen and spoken with her he had no further interest in it. He dismissed his attendants and watched her from behind the one-way mirror. She hadn’t changed at all. He suddenly realized that he’d hoped she had. But she hadn’t. She shimmered in the traditional abaya—understated and elegant—eclipsing all others as the moon banished the sun, casting a heart-stopping glow over the desert, creating magic where none before existed. Even now, while she twisted and turned, moving around people, seeking out the exit, she outshone everyone.
He’d created a trap for her which she’d had no choice but enter, circling into its center until he had her secure. Then why did he feel it was the other way around?