The Sheikh's Bargain Bride (paperback)
The Sheikh's Bargain Bride (paperback)
- Publisher : Bay Books (July 26, 2013)
- Paperback : 186 pages
- Item Weight : 7 ounces
- Dimensions : 5 x 0.42 x 8 inches
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Sheikh Zahir al-Zaman narrowed his eyes against the glare of the sun-bleached stony plains and focused on the slowly materializing dark speck. Within minutes the helicopter’s low rhythmic thrum filled the overcast spring sky like an angry locust intent on devastation.
She hadn’t wasted any time. But then he’d made sure she couldn’t refuse his invitation. He banished a flicker of discomfort with practiced ease. Sometimes you had to lure the prey to you. Sometimes, in a way that wasn’t palatable.
But the ends always justified the means. She would be his and he was prepared to do whatever it took to make it happen.
He watched the helicopter alight in a cloud of dust before the palace. The pilot lifted out a small case and began to open the door before it was pushed open abruptly from within and two long, jean-clad legs emerged. A tall blonde jumped down and looked around the palace, her head twisting and turning impatiently.
She’d changed. She was thinner, her hair longer, her face no longer sun-kissed but as pale as the desert under moonlight. Still, his body responded the same to her now, as it did when she visited him in his dreams.
He’d lived with his obsession with her for six long years: cursing and nurturing the anger at her deceit and betrayal while still longing to relive the passion of their one night together. But his brother’s death meant he no longer had to live with the madness.
Then, with an imperceptible movement of her head, she looked up and saw him. Zahir frowned and his breath caught unexpectedly in his chest. Ice blue eyes stared at him, challenging him, demanding an explanation from him. How could eyes so cool and northern spark such fire? She turned away suddenly and slid the door of the helicopter shut with a force that belied her fragility. The metallic crash echoed around the palace, destroying its peace and order.
He’d get what he wanted but he knew, without a doubt, that it wasn’t going to be easy.
“You are to wait here. The sheikh is busy at present but he will see you when he is free.”
“No way!” Anna threw down her bag onto the nearest chair. “I don’t care if he’s with the President of the United States. Tell him I’m here and tell him I will see him immediately.”
The Bedu servant simply nodded and withdrew from the room.
Anna strode across the vast, stone-flagged reception hall, threw open the wooden shutters of the nearest window and looked out, searching for any signs of her son in the tiled courtyard below. There were none.
She turned her gaze up to the lofty ceiling, its ornately carved pillars and beams shrouded in shadows, and tried to hold back the despair and grief that filled her.
Zahir, you bastard, where’s my son?
He knew she’d arrived. She’d seen him watching her from above. She had a sixth sense where he was concerned, where anyone was concerned if they threatened her or her child.
She raked her hair into a fresh ponytail and smoothed down her shirt. As much to give her trembling hands something to do as to prepare herself for the meeting.
But her hands continued to shake as her body readied itself for a confrontation. She sat down in the nearest chair and gathered her anger to her. It had been anger that had stopped the fear from taking over. And she needed it now.
A month with only phone and Skype calls to her son and now so near but still she couldn’t get to him. She could scream with frustration and something else that she tried to ignore. It made her skin prickle, it made her feel sick to her stomach. She dropped her head in her hands and took a deep breath in order to control it. But despite her best efforts it would not be beaten. Fear was like that. And she was scared now. Scared of losing her son.
The smooth slide of soft leather sandals alerted her to the return of the servant. She looked up into the weathered face of the old Bedu expectantly.
“This way, madam.”
Her booted footsteps rang loudly on the ancient stone corridors, worn smooth by the footsteps of generations of the al-Zaman dynasty. They walked for what seemed like an age through beautifully proportioned rooms that unfolded one on to another, down echoing colonnaded walkways that skirted magnificent gardens, past perfumed courtyards and mysterious corridors that seemed to disappear directly into the rocky hillside upon which the palace was built.
At last the Bedu servant opened a heavy set of dark teak doors.
“You may wait here.”
She stepped into the room and looked around, awed despite herself.
The room was obviously part of the less formal wing of the palace. While it bore the same marks of antiquity as the grand reception hall, it possessed none of its austerity. Here, light from high clerestory windows warmed the sandstone rock and imbued the amber and creams of the tiled wall with a magical glow. She could hear the splash of a fountain coming from the courtyard beyond the open windows and she could smell sweet jasmine.
It was furnished for comfort too, with simple, over-sized suede sofas in neutral tones grouped around a huge wooden table, glowing with a patina created from years of care.
She sat down wearily and looked around. It was a room designed to appeal to the senses: a seductive room. God help her.
She dropped her bag and her hand instinctively caressed the geometric inlay that edged the wooden table. It was smooth, worn by generations of hands seeking to engage with its beauty. But even as her fingers sought the same engagement, her eyes searched the shadows.
A cool breeze alerted her to a door opening on the far side of the room, behind a wooden screen.
She didn’t see him at first but she knew he was there. Just the feel of his powerful presence close by kick-started something deep inside that had lain dormant since she’d seen him last. Her heart hammered against her chest and she could feel heat rise through her body that had nothing to do with the warmth of the spring afternoon.
Then he emerged, all dark and light. There had never been any half measures with Zahir—physically, intellectually, or emotionally. It had been a part of the initial attraction to be with someone so definite, so sure. Now, the white of his robes accentuated the rich nutmeg of his skin and the shadows that gathered below the strong lines of his face. His eyes, too, seemed to absorb the light. They held no subtlety of expression or color, only intensity.
She felt that intensity connect with her at an elemental level, just as it had when they met nearly six years ago. It was the same as before except for the cold control that she could sense within him and except for the fact that she was a mother now with more to lose than herself.
Then he moved forward into the light and the impression evaporated. He was the powerful, charismatic sheikh still, but civilized. While a smile curled at his lips, his eyes showed reserve, distance.
“Salamm w aleykum, Anna.” He nodded to her in greeting. “How was your journey? I hope my staff were attentive?”
She jumped up. “Where is he?”
“Surely that is no way to greet your brother-in-law? Not in my country, nor yours, I believe.”
“It’s the way we treat people—family or not—who are trying to take their child away from them.”
“I agree, such circumstances don’t warrant the usual courtesies. However, I am old-fashioned in such things.”
“Spare me the lecture in manners and tell me where I can find my son. We’ll be leaving on the next plane out.”
“Please sit. I have ordered you mint tea. Is that satisfactory?”
“Where is he?”
He smiled and sat down.
“Anna. I am being polite. I am asking questions that you should, in turn, answer politely. Didn’t your mother…? No. Of course not. From the little Abdullah told me about you it would seem your upbringing in the so-called ‘civilized’ United States was far from my own idea of civilized. It would appear that all you managed to glean from your mother was a desire for wealth.” His eyes glittered. ”And you managed to achieve that well enough, didn’t you? Managed to dupe my romantic brother easily enough.”
“Stop right there. I haven’t traveled nearly seven thousand miles to pretend we’re on polite terms. I want my son. God knows how much money it took for you to get the court to rule that he come here for a holiday. And how much more to keep him here.” She smoothed her hand over her tightly-bound hair. “Where is he?”
At the thought of her son she could feel tears prick her eyelids and the maelstrom of emotions that churned in her heart threaten to surface. But still she determinedly held his gaze. He would tell her where to find her son and she would not weaken.
When the court had made its decision she’d been forced to concede to Matta having a fortnight’s holiday in Qawaran without her. She’d survive. And she knew Matta would enjoy the time with his father’s family who he knew well from frequent visits to the States. And he’d have his beloved nurse with him. But the weeks had drawn out into a month and she’d been forced to seek a visa to come to find her son, terrified he’d never be returned to her. And she was here, now to make sure he was.
He sat back and looked her slowly up and down, from her well-worn boots to her hair that hadn’t seen a stylist in months. Well, what of it? She stood straight and eyed him directly. She might have married a wealthy man but, since her husband’s death, she was wealthy no longer.
“Anna.” It was his gentle tone that did it. She felt the pain crack through the anger that was her shield. She turned away but not before she saw the reaction to her anguish revealed in his face.
“Anna, my nephew is with Muma Yemena, resting before dinner.”
She nodded, trying to control her leap of excitement at getting through to him. “He’s well?”
“Of course. He’s been well cared for. Muma Yemena has been his nurse since birth.”
“Only because you insisted. At five years old he doesn’t need a nurse.”
“It is our custom. And it also ensured he was kept in touch with his culture.”
She sighed and sat down, studying her hands in her lap, all fight gone. She was trying desperately to control the gnawing fear that her son no longer needed her.
“I want to see him now.” Her voice was edgy, nervous.
She jumped up. “If you don’t take me to him, I’ll find him myself.”
He shook his head. “You’d be lost within minutes.”
She turned and headed for the door. But before she could open it he was beside her, his hands gripping her wrists.
“Anna. You need to calm down before you see him. We have to talk first.”
“You have two minutes and then I’m off.”
She froze as he tightened his grip around her hand.
“I’ll take as long as I like and you will listen.”
“What the hell do we have to say to each other that hasn’t already been said? What else do you need to know?”
“I? I don’t need to know anything further. But you do.”
Her voice was quiet. “I hate you Zahir. You made it clear at Abduallah’s funeral that you wouldn’t rest until you could bring Matta to Qawaran. And you were as good as your word. But his visit is over. He’s coming back to the US with me today.”
“You still don’t understand do you? Matta is here because he will be living with me from now on.”
“No!” She shook her head, tiny little shakes that sent tremors through her body. “I will never let Matta stay here with you. You have no legal rights.”
“I am his uncle. He will be my heir. He will have everything. With you, he will have nothing. Hardly the doting mother to deprive your child of so much.”
“A child needs his mother. For God’s sake. There must be some shadow of humanity in you. Think of your own mother. Think of her.”
“My mother died when Abduallah was a baby and when I was ten. I scarcely remember her. A child needs to learn early to survive and Matta will do just that.”
“No! You can’t take him. Any court in any country would give the mother custody of her own child.”
“Depends on what can be proved against the mother.”
“Nothing. You have nothing against me. I have done nothing.”
The thin veneer of politeness left him instantly. The seductive silky-smooth aura of the wealthy womanizer—whose playground knew no borders, no limits—was replaced by the powerful sheikh who’d spent his younger life at war where no rules applied. The change was in his eyes. They were bare—stripped of the chill aloofness—naked and fierce.
“You’ve done everything. Abduallah is dead because of you and your family.”
She shook her head. But she was unable to completely deny the connection between her family and the death of Abduallah. If she hadn’t introduced him to her brother; if the drugs hadn’t been so readily available to someone with her brother’s connections and Abduallah’s money...
But it wasn’t her. She couldn’t be held responsible. “No.” She shook her head more strongly.
“Face facts, Anna, you’re hardly the virtuous widow. Evidence can easily be obtained.”
“What? Fabricate evidence against you? I don’t need to. It’s surprising how easily people talk—say whatever you want them to—when money is involved. I know that you’re not a drug user—never have been—but your connections proved fatal to Abduallah. And, believe me, I’d do anything to secure the future of my own flesh and blood.”
She blanched at his words. “Matta?”
“Matta is my son,” she repeated. “I’m not giving him to you: not now, not ever. I’d die before that happened.”
He stepped toward her, scanning her face. She had nowhere to go. Her back was already pressed against the door. He touched her cheek with his finger, softly drawing down a velvety trail that ended at her jaw. He narrowed his eyes at the sight of the moisture on his fingertip. She hadn’t even known she was crying.
The crease between his brows deepened. He swung round as if to turn away, as if to mask some inner struggle, but stopped abruptly and turned back to face her. Silently his eyes searched hers and she saw the chill had gone, replaced by a complex intensity that confused her.
“You love him then,” he said dully.
“The word ‘love’ sounds strange on your lips, Zahir. I’m surprised you know what it means.”
He dropped the hand that hovered close to her cheek, his handsome face suddenly weary. Abduallah had told her of Zahir’s sacrifice: the years of desert warfare, living away from home in order to protect his family and country. How could a man, so isolated, so accustomed to war, know anything about love?
“Tell me, Anna, why did you marry my brother?”
His question caught her off-guard. She hesitated as she remembered the brief courtship with her husband—so different to that of the other men she’d known.
“He was gentle; he respected me.” Even as she uttered the words she realized how impossibly small they must sound to people who didn’t have to fight for everything they had. But, to her, they had been huge—big enough to divert her from her hard-won Cornell scholarship. Abduallah had wanted her to travel with him. He was always restless for new things and she’d been young and too easily persuaded. She’d never make that mistake again.
“That’s it? You’ve put our family through hell because you needed respect?”
“I married him because I loved him.”
His gaze fell briefly. He walked away and looked through one of the huge domed windows with views across the desert, out to the distant red hills.
“Loved his money more. It must have seemed a miracle that someone of his standing should take interest in someone like you.”
His bitter tone and the injustice of it all got to her. “Why? You did,” she snapped back.
She bit her lip. Referring to their one-night stand was hardly clever in the present circumstances.
He slowly turned to face her. Horizontal beams of late afternoon sunlight shone onto his dark face but revealed nothing. He was like a closed book now as he approached her.
Closed and too close.
A muscle flickered in his jaw.
“I,” he flicked loose the band that held her hair back and watched intently as it swung into position like a curtain of silk, “knew nothing about you that night. Least of all that you were married to my brother. Besides, I am not my brother. I am a realist. I harbor no sentimental illusions about anything or anyone. I suggest you remember that.”
She grabbed the band from his hand. “And I suggest you show me some respect.”
“If it’s respect you want I suggest you try practicing loyalty, try speaking the truth.”
“Things”—she hesitated as she rejected the words of defense that sprung to her lips—“are never as simple as they appear.” There was no point in elaborating. Whatever she said, she was damned in his eyes.
“It was exactly that simple.”
She sensed the latent power of his fist as it ground briefly against the doorframe before he turned away.
She had no fear for herself. She knew instinctively that he would never hurt her physically. It was what he could do to her emotionally that scared her.
“There’s only one simple fact here and that’s that Matta is my son and he will not be living here with you.”
He turned to face her, all signs of his anger masked once more. He shook his head. “The child stays.” His lips quirked into a chilling smile.
The chill turned to ice down her spine and destroyed all hope.
“You can’t take him away from me. You can’t.” She stepped toward him and clutched his arm in desperation, gathering the loose folds of his robe like a dying woman gripping tight to a lifeline. He stilled instantly as if electrified. His eyes were lowered, in disdain, she imagined. But she had nothing left. “What do I have to do to make you see?”
“You can do nothing.” He raised his hand slowly to hers, still clutching the soft silk of his robe, and then pressed it against hers. For one long moment she thought she might have got through—touched something inside of him—but then his hand grasped hers and dragged it away. “Begging won’t get you anywhere.”
“Then what will?” He was silent and she pressed her advantage. She had nothing to lose and everything to gain. “Zahir, you can’t take him. He’s my life.” She shook her head and he closed his eyes briefly as her hair swept his cheek. He trapped a strand between his fingers but didn’t let it fall.
“And what is your life to me? Life in the desert, life at war, is worth only what it can be bargained for. What,” he added softly, “would you give in return for your son?”
“You want to bargain?” she asked, incredulous.
“What do you want?”
He let his hand trail down her arm.
“Why would you possibly want me when you have so little respect for me.”
He smiled. “Respect? More like unfinished business.”
Something, fear or lust, sliced through her deep inside and sent shivers radiating out to her skin. He lifted her hand and examined her forearm, now raised with goosebumps.
“I think not. I think, I know, you want me still. If you live with me, here in Qarawan, you can still be with your son. Otherwise, you will never see him again.”
“You can’t do this.”
“I have the power, Anna, believe me. Now, you have my conditions, what is your answer?”
“Let’s get this straight. You want me for sex and in return I can live with my son? You’re a twisted man.”
“I am an honorable man. I will not force myself on you. You will come to me soon enough.”
She shook her head. “Never.”
“Six years ago I had to merely enter the room and you wanted me. You could barely wait to get me in the elevator, in the hotel room before your hands found my bare skin, before they explored my body, unzipped my trousers, and before your lips—”
“How many times did we make love that night, Anna?” His voice had dropped to a roughened whisper.
She swallowed hard and felt a surge of heat rise with the pounding of her heart and a dull ache of longing settle between her legs. It was true. She’d wanted him then and she wanted him now.
She shook her head helplessly. “I can’t remember.”
“I think you can. I think you do remember; I think you relive those moments because, like you, I can’t forget them either. You will come to me. Make no mistake.”
He was so close now that she could feel the quickened rise of his chest rub against her breasts, could feel the seductive slide of his silk robe brush her skin. Unable to meet his gaze, she kept her eyes lowered, focused on his mouth, on lips so soft, so utterly at odds with the rest of him that they conjured up images she was desperate to forget.
She could see that he knew where her thoughts led by the smile that gently quirked those soft lips.
“You see? The needs of your body are greater than anything else. You want me and you shall have me.”
“How can you do this?”
He continued as if he hadn’t heard her words. “And then, you will also have your child. Only this time, I will not be your husband’s inconvenient brother. I will be your husband.”
“You want me to marry you?”
“Of course. Marriage is the only respectable way. We have my heir, your son, to consider remember.”
“But you don’t love me. Why marry me?”
“You are from the West. Marriage is not for life—surely you know that—and nowhere more so than in my country. When I tire of you I may take another wife. Or simply remove you to another palace. It is not a problem.”
“You are an immoral bastard.”
“That’s no way to talk about your future husband.”
“And you, such as you, want to be the father of my child.”
“I will care for him. He is of my blood.”
They were close now, their eyes trained on each other, holding both the power of attraction that had originally brought them together and the anger and bitterness that had followed. She could feel his breath quicken against her cheek, as he must have felt hers.
“No.” The single, despairing word floated between them—too soft to be of any real show of force against him.
“Yes.” His voice was also soft—he had no need to prove anything. He moved even closer to her, until there was nothing between the two of them. No separation and no escape.
He dipped his head to hers, as if to inhale her and her breath caught.
In that one instant she absorbed the details of his face as if she could actually feel the dark stubble of his jaw roughly abrading her own jaw, could feel his silky hair fall gently against her own cheek. She closed her eyes in order to break the connection, willing herself to dispel the confusion of hate and need; the clash between mind and body.
When she re-opened them he’d stepped away, a defiant weariness in place.
“Come, you need to rest and then I will have Matta brought to you.”
She shook her head as if to free it of the nightmare that was unfolding. He was right. She had only one choice left open to her. She felt herself literally crumple then. Her legs buckled under her and all fight vanished.
Suddenly she felt his arm around her, steadying her, giving her the strength she needed.
“It will not be so bad, Anna. You will have everything you need, more than you could imagine. You will be gaining far more than you will be leaving behind.”
She pushed him away. “You know nothing. All I would be gaining would be my child. I would be losing everything else that I’ve treasured and worked toward my whole adult life.”
He swung open the double doors and stood back for her to pass.
“What could you possibly be leaving behind that you treasure so much?”
She walked out into the warm light of the evening sun and looked away, far away, out to the distant mountains now a bluish haze against a soft apricot sky.
The hollow echo of the banging doors swallowed her words. She doubted he’d even heard them.