Taken for the Sheikh's Harem (ebook)
Taken for the Sheikh's Harem (ebook)
If you enjoy Harlequin's sheikh romances, you'll love this page-turning contemporary sheikh romance, full of emotion with characters who feel real!
A powerful sheikh, a feminist academic, and a harem...
Dr. Ashley Maitland is an academic who is determined to leave her painful past behind her and forge a university career for herself—even if that means she has to write a sensational book about harems.
So she travels to the medieval country of Irem which is as mysterious as its king, Sheikh Zyir. But there she discovers that the only way she can complete her research is to join the sheikh's harem!
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“Dr. Maitland has entered the country, Your Highness. Passport control confirms.”
The ministers who sat around the table looked at their king, surprised at the interruption. Normally, he forbad interruption, and ruled their meetings with a rod of iron.
Sheikh Zyir of Irem understood their surprise, but knew they’d be even more surprised at the direction he planned to take his country. And allowing this woman the privilege of access to Irem was a strategic step in that direction.
“Bring her to me as soon as she arrives.”
He dismissed the meeting with an autocratic wave of his hand, and walked over to the latticed window which overlooked the entrance to the palace and the dusty courtyard, devoid of trees and plants. His father had decreed the use of water for ornament to be wasteful. It showed his power and long reign. Also indicative of his father’s character was the private gardens the public didn’t see, where water was not scarce. His father had enjoyed luxury and indulgence in secret and austerity in public. Zyir was determined to change all of that, but he knew his people wouldn’t accept radical changes. They liked continuity, they liked tradition. So his changes would come slowly, so slowly he hoped they’d hardly notice.
And the slow changes were where Dr. Ashley Maitland came in. His agreement that she could visit was no mistake on his part. No, he intended to use her research on the buildings and ancient architecture of this city to show the world that, under his rule, a new era for his country was beginning.
A new era for his country, but not for him. He had no need for anything other than a life of tradition. He had his children, he no longer had a faithless wife, and he had his country. It was simple, uncomplicated, and exactly as he liked it. Everything in his life was carefully controlled. All he had to do was ensure that this newcomer, this stranger to his lands, understood her role and behaved accordingly. It shouldn’t prove difficult.
Ashley thanked the two guards who manned the small border crossing high in the mountain pass. She slipped her passport back into her rucksack and buckled it in place on her back, with one last nod to the guards, who didn’t seem to be able to take their eyes off her. Hadn’t they seen a tall European woman dressed in a full burka on a motorbike before?
She grinned to herself. She knew the answer. But she also knew it would take some time to get used to being stared at. In England, no one stared at a tall woman who hid her generous curves under baggy clothing. And that was how she liked it. She knew if she let her guard down, she’d be in trouble. Just like before.
Ashley roared the motorbike up the narrow pass and pulled off the gravel road, which hugged the side of the cliff as it made its way down to the plains below. At first she thought she was seeing things. Then she took off her sunglasses and gasped.
She’d seen images of Irem—a jewel of a city set amid an immense expanse of stony desert plains. But there was nothing arid about the scene before her. Fresh, bright green grass and wildflowers of every hue covered the usually dry wadi which led to the city. She rubbed her eyes. But the colors were still there—a wash of green scattered with crimson, yellow, magenta, blue—every color under the unrelenting sun. Then she remembered the unusual weather patterns they’d had—unseasonal and continuous rains which had blown in from the sea and over this normally arid land. It must have swept this way, bringing life to the desert once more, turning the dry plains into a land of color and plenty, just as it had been centuries before.
Her eyes followed the flow of the flowers along the river bed, on to the distant shimmering light and uneven outline which indicated her destination—the mysterious citadel of Irem. She pushed her footstand up from the stony ground, squeezed the throttle and began the descent to the flower-strewn desert below. It seemed her trip might hold a few surprises for her. So long as they were surprises like this, she’d be fine.
Half an hour later, she arrived at the adobe walls which surrounded the city. The walls soared high into the blue sky, their angle sloping rather than vertical. Little had changed in centuries, she knew, but that was about all she knew. The place was shrouded in mystery. Rumors and legends had grown up in the absence of actual knowledge. Few people had been granted access to the country, and it was only because of Elaheh’s ancient ties with Irem that she’d been able to procure Ashley an entry visa. The mystery around Irem extended to the ruling sheikh and his family. Even Elaheh couldn’t shed much light on them.
Apart from the fact the sheikh’s wife had died a few years ago, that he’d followed his father onto the throne, and that he had two children—although nothing about them was known either—few other facts were known. There were no images on the internet, no up-to-date books about the country or its ruling dynasty. She held a stereotypical image of him in her mind—middle aged, with a passing resemblance to a hermit—graying long beard, wizened face. So long as the hermit could be persuaded to divulge all she needed to know about harems, she didn’t care what he looked like.
Ashley was rarely nervous, but she felt an unaccustomed tremor as the guards opened the gates to the citadel and she drove slowly inside, looking around, absorbing the ancient architecture about which she’d only read in books. She would have loved to spend her time here studying this alone—after all, it had been her principal research interest up till now—but she knew she had to focus on her future, which meant her other research interest. Harems. She needed the book contract to gain her academic tenure, the dream of both her and her mother. Her mother might be gone, but her dream remained.
As she drove along, slowly weaving through the pedestrians, who stopped what they were doing and turned to her and gaped, she realized that this world she’d entered was very, very different. It was a world of few motorcars and even fewer motorbikes. It was a world enclosed, windless and quiet—of narrow alleyways and buildings which rose in the same soft adobe clay color as the desert which surrounded it.
She knew where to go. There could be no doubting it. Rising above the city stood the ancient palace of Irem—commanding and dominating—home to the absolute ruler of this mysterious and unique country.
It seemed she was expected, and gates opened as she approached. She drove into the courtyard, which was central to the palace. She parked where shown and adjusted her scarf and abaya.
“This way, madam,” a Bedouin manservant said, bowing.
She swung her backpack onto her shoulder and followed him across the courtyard.
Suddenly she felt the tiny hairs on the back of her neck prickle and she looked up to her left. Someone moved behind the unglazed latticed windows. Then they were gone again. She shrugged. She guessed she’d have to get used to being observed—she was very much a stranger in a very foreign land.
Ashley followed the servant along a cloister-like corridor reminiscent of a medieval cathedral, with its stone-flagged floor and archways whose stone was carved into decoration, which had been muted by weather and touch, over the years. The very ground she walked on was dipped in the middle where people’s feet had worn away the pale stone over thousands of years.
Despite its ancient origins, its design provided welcome relief from the scorching desert. In fact, the whole of the city seemed to be semi-underground, and cooler because of it. It was what it must have been like for many of the ancient civilizations, of which this was one of the few remnants. It was what made it unique. But she didn’t have the opportunity to look at it now. She had a meeting with the official with whom she’d completed her bookings—Sheikh Riyz. Once she’d met with him, she’d been promised an audience with the king.
The servant opened the door, bowed, and stood aside for her to enter. She walked into the austere reception room, momentarily dazed by the sudden glitter of light on gold, of sunshine on topaz. Then she turned to see a tall, forbidding-looking man staring at her. He looked to be around thirty years of age and dressed in plain robes with no ornamentation, nothing to show he was of any consequence. Elaheh, who’d never met the present king, only his father, had told her not to expect anything as casual as her and Xander’s own countries. And, as Ashley didn’t consider there was anything casual about them, her imagination had failed her on how much more formal Irem would be. At least his administrative staff didn’t appear to stand on ceremony.
Ashley walked over to him and extended her hand. His eyes hadn’t shifted from her.
“You must be Sheikh Ryiz,” she said, forcing a smile to hide her nerves. His impassive face didn’t move an inch. It could have been carved from stone. “It’s good to meet you.”
The man accepted her hand, and it engulfed hers. “As-salamu Alaykum, Dr. Maitland. Welcome to my country.”
“Wa Alaykum as-salam.” Ashley returned the traditional words of greeting. “Thank you, it’s good to be here. I’m very excited to be here,” she added, thinking some flattery might help her. “I’ve heard such tantalizing stories about your country.”
He gave a small grunt as his eyes narrowed. “I trust you had a pleasant journey.”
“It was amazing. I didn’t expect to see such expansive fields of flowers.”
“Ah, the results of the heavy rains we’ve had.”
“It’s brought the desert to life.”
“Indeed. But it will also bring with it locusts—the scourge of plenty.”
Sheikh Ryiz might have been approachable by email, but he sure was a pessimist. He looked pretty forbidding, too. Nothing like she’d imagined. She wanted to look around, to absorb more details of this impressive, but austere, room, but she couldn’t take her eyes off him.
He gestured to an archway, through which she could see a courtyard. But, as soon as she followed him outside, she thought it could hardly be called a courtyard, because it was too luxuriously furnished. A low, cushioned seating area, decorated with jewel-like rugs and cushions, surrounded a small pond with a rill of rippling water. It was an exquisitely beautiful oasis.
“Please, take a seat. I’m sure you’d like some refreshments after your trip.”
She was about to accept because she was both thirsty and hungry, but remembered her manners. “No, thank you, I don’t wish to trouble you.”
He smiled as if realizing what she was doing, but nodded in appreciation. “I assure you, it is no trouble. It would be an honor to extend our hospitality to you.”
She couldn’t refuse the polite second offer. “Then, thank you, that would be very welcome. It’s been a long ride.”
As she took the offered seat, the doors swung open as if they’d received some hidden command, and two men entered the room, carrying a distinctive, crescent-beaked dallah, together with two small cups and a plate of dates. They arranged the dates and coffee, infused with fresh ground cardamon, on the table.
Ashley made herself comfortable, which wasn’t hard. The place was designed for comfort, designed to seduce. The word popped into her head unbidden, and she stole a glance at the sheikh, whose gaze hadn’t left hers. She racked her brain to think of something to say.
“The climate is very comfortable here, in the city. I thought it would be much hotter.” She glanced at the elaborate air vent which brought whatever breeze flowed high across the desert skies, down into the courtyard room. Together with the semi-transparent shades slung overhead, filtering the sunlight, they cooled the temperature. “I’ve read about the windcatchers here, but I’ve never experienced one before.”
“Of course. My country has been closed to visitors for too long.”
She raised her eyes, interested. “Your king intends to make changes?”
She waited for him to elaborate. He didn’t. Instead, he nodded to a woman who was waiting by the door. The woman kneeled before them and poured a small amount of coffee into each cup. She withdrew once more, her gaze downward, as if she were in prayer. Such subservience made Ashley feel uncomfortable.
She looked up at Sheikh Riyz and realized he hadn’t taken his eyes off her. It made her feel even more uncomfortable. She’d thought he would take her to the king, but it looked as if he had the task of screening her first. She had to make sure she passed the test, whatever it was. She needed this man to approve of her before she moved onto the next stage.
“You look uncomfortable, Dr. Maitland.”
She looked away, embarrassed and surprised that he’d been able to read her mind so easily. She took a sip of the hot coffee, known locally as gahwa, and set it back down again. She shrugged and looked up at him. “It’s a new land, new ways. It’ll take a little while to become accustomed to them.”
He frowned. “I understood you were an expert in our ways. Is that not the case?”
“Well, I am in one sense. I mean I know them, I’ve studied them, but being here and experiencing them first hand is another thing entirely.”
He nodded. “Yes, one can never know something unless one has lived it. I agree.”
He had a low voice, quietly authoritative, and Ashley could see why the king might have chosen him as his advisor. His eyes echoed that authority—penetrating and unreadable. He held her gaze for a few moments, and she thought that that would be how it would feel to have her brain scanned by a computer. Except this man was no computer. He held the key to her future, and if she felt uncomfortable before, she felt something else now—she felt acutely feminine. His eyes seemed to move from investigating her to an appreciation shown by his warming gaze and a tug at his lips as a glimmer of a smile settled on them. She practically purred under that caressing look. Maybe a brief flirtation with the king’s advisor wouldn’t go amiss.
“Tell me,” he said, leaning forward, his body now echoing both the gaze of his eyes and his velvety caress of a voice, “what is it you want, Dr. Ashley Maitland?”
His words brought her crashing back down to earth. A blush flooded her pale cheeks, and she looked around, searching for an escape. He might be seducing her with his eyes and voice, but he suspected her intent. Why leave it until now to ask that question? Breathe, Ashley told herself. Keep calm. He’s just testing you. She summoned a smile from nowhere.
“What do I want? I want to see the king, sir. I seek his permission to carry out research in Irem.”
He sat back, considering her. “And this research of yours…”
He hesitated and nerves made her jump in. “It’s on—”
He held up his hand; it was all he needed to do to make her stop mid sentence.
“I know what your research is on, Dr. Maitland. What I don’t know is what you intend to do with it.”
She narrowed her eyes, trying to figure out what he wanted to know. Whatever it was, she’d give it to him. She was desperate. She hadn’t come all this way for nothing. Her entire career depended on it. “Do with it?”
“I want to know what’s in it for my country, Dr. Maitland. It’s all very well allowing you access to privileged information, providing you with resources, but we need to know how this will benefit Irem.”
“Oh!” She nodded, trying to figure out how she could re-shape her research to meet this new requirement. This man, and therefore presumably the king, had no interest in research for research’s sake. They knew their buildings, and their world. To them, her research was of interest for something very different. But what? “I have no wish to do anything which might harm Irem.” She hesitated. She had no idea if he wanted her to keep the research to themselves, or to spread it far and wide. But she had to come clean, because as soon as she left this country she’d be shouting her work from the rooftops. She drew in a deep breath. He was attentive, patient, waiting for her to speak.
“I intend to publish it,” she said, the words tumbling out. “I have interest from an international publisher who is keen to publish the book as they believe it will have broad appeal. And I will write the book for that market—not as an academic text.” She held her breath, hoping she wouldn’t be turned around and expelled from the country. “It will have popular appeal,” she added, for clarification.
He gave a small grunt and for the first time lifted his gaze from hers, and nodded his head. “That is satisfactory.”
Relief fell off her like a burden. “Good,” she smiled. “Ah, that’s a relief. And, believe me, I know there’s wide international interest in the subject.”
For the first time, Sheikh Ryiz appeared surprised. “Is that correct?”
“Good. Then, Dr. Maitland, maybe we should begin with a quick tour of the city.”
“Yes, that would be lovely, thank you.”
He rose with the ease of someone who was accustomed to sitting cross-legged while Ashley tried her best to rise gracefully. She was glad of her early training in ballet—given up when the teacher had ruined her life forever at thirteen by telling her bluntly there was no way that someone of her height and curves would ever be a ballerina. So, although she was no slender waif, Ashley still knew how to move with grace.
While Sheikh Riyz exchanged a few words with the woman who, Ashley thought, bowed with unnecessary humility, she turned away, unwilling to watch a woman lower herself in such a way. As she did so, she caught sight of a couple of chrysalides, clinging to the underside of a butterfly tree.
She stroked the leave to which one clung. She turned suddenly, a sixth sense alerting her to his gaze.
“The khof al gamal flowers are extraordinary this year.”
“So are the butterflies,” she said. “There are a lot of chrysalides on this plant. I don’t know about locusts, but it looks like the rains are also making the butterflies happy. And that has to be a good thing.”
“Happy butterflies,” he repeated, coming to a halt a few steps from her. He turned to face her. “I have to say that I have never considered whether a butterfly is happy. It simply goes about its business.”
She shrugged and stroked the length of the chrysalis before pushing away the leaves to reveal yet more clusters. “Maybe, but who are we to say whether butterflies have feelings? Besides, the two things aren’t exclusive.” She looked at him. “Business and happiness, I mean.”
He raised an eyebrow and his dark eyes held humor which she hadn’t seen before. But he didn’t speak.
She refused to be cowed by a glowering, silent man—no matter how compelling he was. “Surely your king would like to know that you’re happy in your work?”
He shrugged. “Maybe you should ask him.”
“I would if I could meet him. I mean, I understand that you’re screening me for him, but I hope I can get to see the king soon.” He still didn’t speak. “I mean, it’s good of him to take the time to meet with me, although I guess there’s not a lot of distraction here in the middle of the desert.” She smiled again, hoping to get a positive response.
The humor in the man’s eyes disappeared.
“You’d be surprised, Dr. Maitland, how busy a ruler of a kingdom can be, even in the middle of a desert.”
She realized her mistake. “Yes, I’m sure.” She fell into step beside him. “Are we going to meet the king now?”
He didn’t miss a step.
“You’ve met him already, Dr. Maitland.”