FREEBY FRIDAY – DESERT ORCHID EPISODE TWO – CHARISSE

Queen Charisse El Haribe is deeply committed to the health and education of the women and children in her country.

And to bring the tiny Arab Kingdom of Onnur into the 21st century.

Now her beloved husband is dead, covetous eyes are turned towards the vast untapped oil and diamond reserves of Onnur. The country’s only hope is for her to marry her husband’s nephew, the wild, wicked and womanising Prince Khalid El Haribe.

Ostracised from his wealthy family since he was held responsible for the death of his young sister and her friend in a speedboat accident, Khalid El Haribe has thrown himself into a life of wine, women and song. His only passion is for his painting where he can lose himself for days and weeks creating vast avant-garde canvases in vivid oils.

But his path to self destruction comes to an abrupt halt when he’s named heir to the tiny Kingdom of Onnur. Could this be the chance to make amends to his family? To make them proud of him again? He agrees to a marriage of convenience.

Expecting the bride to be in her late thirties or early forties, Khalid is stunned to find his intended is young, beautiful, articulate and funny. Their attraction is instant and burns hard and hot.

But Charisse has appalling secrets in her past. A past that not only threatens Onnur and their love but their lives too.

DESERT ORCHID – EPISODE TWO

© 2012 By C C MacKenzie

Unfolding the stiff pages of the letter, Charisse El Haribe’s icy fingers were numb.

She shivered, although the temperature outside under a relentless sun scorched the land at forty two degrees.  He’d been sick for so long that Assim’s passing was a blessed release for the ravaged shell of his body but she still couldn’t believe he was gone.

The faint scent of her husband’s cologne clung to the thick papers and his presence returned to her in an instant. She pressed the missive to her lips with a deep inhale of breath that eased the unremitting agony in her heart. A extraordinary sensation of Assim standing at her shoulder overwhelmed her even as it brought her comfort and she knew he would expect her to face an uncertain future with courage and dignity. His fortitude and bravery after all he’d suffered gave her strength.

As was the custom in her adopted land, the King was buried within twenty four hours of his death. How could she possibly carry on without him? The phrase was a cliche, but he’d been her rock. And it wasn’t over dramatic to say he’d saved her life, her heart and her soul from certain destruction. Was it really nine years since he’d brought her, a traumatised sixteen year old, to this fabulous white castle? The structure was built, two thousand feet above sea level, on the top of a mountain where the air was cool and clear and clouds sprinted across a magnificent expanse of blue sky.

Poor Assim, his had been a life filled with suffering since his heart condition was congenital. His brother, His Majesty King Abdullah of Dhuma, was the only other person who knew the secret of why there was no heir to Onnur.

Assim used to say that she’d given him many extra years and Charisse hoped he’d been right. He’d been a father, a teacher and a friend and she’d loved him with all of her lonely heart.

Ever since she’d been handed the letter from the stern faced Minister of the Interior, she’d had the distinct sensation of an axe about to fall.

Two women and two Irish wolfhounds stared at her, eyes filled with concern.

Anlan’s immense shaggy head rested on her knee with a snuffle and a heavy sigh. Charisse raised her index finger and he moved, with a reluctance that made her bite her lip, to lie beside his brother, Conry. Since she was still staring at him, Anlan hid his face in his paws and heaved out a great breath. Her boys were suffering too. She’d take them out for a run later with Diablo. Her stallion regularly needed to vent his excess energy and it would do her good to escape for a while.

Clearing her throat Charisse blinked to clear her vision and read aloud to her captive audience.

‘My darling,

Please find it in your heart to forgive me for leaving you.

God has need of me in heaven.

You brought joy, laughter, companionship and love to a lonely old man. You opened my eyes and heart to what is possible for our people and the future of Onuur. Namely, the children.

You must continue your work, Charisse, it is crucial. And you must continue your studies.  I know – nag, nag, nag.’

Charisse smiled into the swimming eyes, wise with age, of her sister-in-law, Yasmin. And met brown eyes, sharp with a ruthless intelligence, of Arabella Faulkener, her bodyguard and trusted friend.

She took a deep steadying breath and continued, ‘You cannot return home. Your father has become too powerful and now wears a cloak of respectability. A man who sells his daughter to the highest bidder is not a man, my child. He is a snake. He has too much to lose and you know too much. I fear he will attempt to strike you down. But I have already set in motion events that even he dare not defy.

I have named Prince Khalid El Haribe as my heir. You must marry him within six weeks.’

The blood iced in her veins as her heart skidded to an emergency stop before making ready to leap into her throat.

Charisse shook her head in denial of what she held in her hands written with a fragile hand in black ink. She read it twice, three times. Why? Why on earth would Assim do such a thing?

Looking up she read her shocked disbelief mirrored in the eyes of her companions. The dogs whined and she silenced them with the flick of her hand.

A deep frown wrinkled her forehead as she continued more slowly,

‘I know you are feeling confused by my choice, child. But permit me to explain.

Yes, he is flawed. Yes, he is a womaniser. Yes he is wild, willful and out of control.

But Charisse, there is nothing and no one you cannot tame if you can find it in your heart to forgive and open your clever mind to his potential. And he has potential, believe me. More importantly he brings the security and stability of the El Haribe’s. They are honorable, powerful and will protect you and our Kingdom which will remain vulnerable without a leader who can give it a future. The King is in agreement with my plan. Look upon him as your father. The Queen will come to love you, if you give her a chance.

Charisse gasped and rose, the correspondence fluttering to a floor of polished white marble.

“I will not!”

Two giant heads snapped to attention. The wolfhounds’ eyes the colour of black jet were fully alert now. And tracked her as she paced to the open balcony and back.

In a fluid movement of her long and lean body clothed in black military fatigues, Arabella picked up the pages.

She stood and held the letter out to her. “Read all of it, Your Highness. We can have a nervous breakdown, if we need to, after we have all the facts.”

Charisse took a steadying breath, her pulse hammering in her ears. Arabella was right. Where was her self discipline? Having a temper tantrum like a child changed nothing. Tears changed nothing. She refused to permit herself to cry.

With a single nod, she took the letter and sank to edge of the chair. The dogs didn’t relax, their black eyes never left her for a moment.

‘Should you find yourself unable to marry Khalid, the White Palace shall remain yours in perpetuity. On your death it will return to the State. A sum of  (she gasped) has been placed in banks in Switzerland for your personal use.

There are conditions to the marriage:  He must not take concubines or another wife whilst you live. He must provide you with a child within a year of the marriage. Good God! If the marriage is annulled, the child will remain with you. So you see Charisse, you have a choice to make. Get to know him. Open your mind. At all times remember you are a Queen.

I die a happy and contented man, my darling, and for that I thank you.

Have courage.

All my love, Assim.’

Eyes stinging with a hot hard lump lodged in her throat, Charisse folded the letter with care and placed it on the table. She felt the eyes of her companions on her as she rose, shoulders back and head held high.

Like an automaton she moved towards open double doors and stepped onto a wide stone terrace which soared high above the valley below. Her sumptuous apartments covered the entire top floor of the Palace. Assim had spared no expense ensuring her comfort, providing rooms that were light and spacious with the added luxury of private balconies. There was a state-of-the-art kitchen, gymnasium and covered deck for lazy days. Not that she had many of those.

Anlan and Conry shadowed her. One wolfhound stood on her right, the other on her left. They didn’t move and they didn’t make a sound, they simply watched.

Charisse gazed out, unseeing, over the mountains and into the sea beyond.

The climate was never still up here, never quiet.

The wind toyed with her platinum hair, whipping it around her face. The salty tang of the sea mixed with the scent of jasmine and tea roses. A noise from above had her look up and narrow her eyes to the cry of a single raptor circling in the updraft of a cloudless sky.

She missed him so much.

The ache in her heart swelled into unbearable pain. Her face crumpled. Her fists pounded the balcony wall.

“Why am I not given time to grieve?” Charisse turned into Yasmin’s wiry arms. “I buried him less than two days ago,” she sobbed into her neck.

Her sister-in-law rubbed her back in lazy circles as she would an infant.

Her voice was the merest whisper, “Hush, child. It has always been thus for the rulers of this land.” Yasmin’s hand tipped up her chin. Dark eyes identical to Assim’s stared into hers and Charisse read grief and loss. Shame for her selfish outburst smacked her hard. Gentle fingers wiped the tears from her cheeks. “He prepared you for this day. The men have buried him and the women will weep. He was beloved in this land. Your Prince has large shoes to fill.”

“My Prince?” Charisse whirled, eyes blazing and paced back and forth. Alert, the dogs took positions in the shade and sat on their haunches like sentinels, one either side of the ornate arched doorway. Not once did their dark eyes leave her face. “He’s a tom-cat.  A drunk. A waster.”

“That’s right, your Highness, tell it like it is,” Arabella drawled and added, “Apparently, his art sells for a small fortune.”

Temper won the war of attrition with grief and surged through Charisse.

She spun to face her friend with wide eyes.

“Have you seen what he calls art? If I want a visual lesson in what the intimate body parts of the female form look like I’ll refer to a gynaecological compendium for facts not fiction.”

Arabella winced at her tone. “To be fair, his work in oils has gathered critical acclaim.”

Bullshit. Charisse wasn’t having that.

“Yep, by men who need to be titillated by his so called interpretation of a clitoris, labia and perineum.” Utter fury spiked through the top of her head as her eyes pinned Arabella’s and it took everything she had to stop her voice shaking and to articulate every syllable,

“There are children on this continent who do not know what it is like to live without the  unparalleled burn of an empty belly, who cannot think of a future further than their next meal. While he, who’s never known anything but  health, wealth and a fawning society, does nothing but piss away his opportunity to make a real difference to his people.

“Oh, they might not have the good fortune to be born within the hallowed borders of Dhuma or Quarram, but our people are nomads, we are all brothers and sisters and we all have a responsibility to the vulnerable of this region.”

Arabella nodded having heard it all before. “I’m not defending him. But he’s not had an easy time of it.”

Charisse wasn’t having any of that either. “Boo bloody hoo, what a pathetic excuse. So he lost his sister and feels guilty. So what? He needs to get over himself and grow a pair. Onnur needs a real man, not a dick swinging fool who can’t go six hours without a drink or a woman or three.”

Anger leaked out of her like a deflated balloon. God she felt physically ill at the mere thought of such a man touching her. She couldn’t do it.

Arabella frowned now and sat at the patio table, drumming her fingernails on the black granite table top. “You know we can’t believe absolutely everything they print in the press? Some of it is bound to be exaggerated.”

As far as Charisse was concerned the old adage held tru, if it swam like a duck, walked like a duck and quacked like a duck it was a duck.

Her temper bubbled and brewed quite nicely now.

“He’s not fit to lick my feet. And in my bed? Why, I’d rather sleep with a…”

The sound of the land line brought her rant to an abrupt end.

Arabella paused, waiting for her Queen’s nod of permission before picking up the receiver.

“Hello?” She listened with a deepening crease on her forehead as her dark brows met over her nose. Now what? wondered Charisse. “Yes. I will inform Her Highness.”

She replaced the receiver, opened her mouth to speak when the distant whop, whop,whop of helicopters brought their attention to the land to the north, towards Dhuma.

Charisse stepped into her apartment, covered herself with a white Hijab and stepped out to observe the approach of three vast military helicopters the colour of the desert.

Vultures, she fumed. She had no rights. The Princes and their father would rule her land,  men who were so called modernists. If she had to marry one, why couldn’t it have been the elder brother? At least he appeared to have standards, morals. Although from what she’d seen on the news and on the internet he did look too hard and had a reputation for being relentless even ruthless in achieving his goals. Emotion gripped her throat as a tsunami of guilt for the anger she felt with her late husband washed over her.

“Oh, my darling, what were you thinking?” she whispered.

Anger felt a hell of a lot better than guilt and she gave it full rein now. Her eyes narrowing into slits as the helicopters thundered around the castle to hover. The racket, the vibration under her feet spooked the horses in the stables and she could hear Diablo’s frantic screams from up here. The magnificent beast was already edgy since he’d picked up her grief and pain. She’d need to take him out later and give him his neck or he’d be impossible for the stable boys to handle. Stupid, ignorant macho fools, did they not realise the damage they were inflicting on the animals and on a people not used to such arrogant behaviour? How dare they arrive at her home in such a manner!

The helicopters descended kicking up mini tornadoes like sand devils in their wake. And the analogy was not lost on Charisse. One of them carried the very devil himself. A man so bent on his own pleasure, his own self destructive needs, he’d even turned his back on his family.

“I am in seclusion. I will receive no one,” she said voice firm the tone harsh.

“They won’t like it,” Arabella told her.

Charisse kept her eyes on the helicopters hidden among huge clouds of dusty sand as they settled outside the castle walls.

“I will come to them when I am ready. Not before.”

Hope you guys enjoy this and it gives you a taste of what’s to come. I realised during the week that only posting 1,000 words each week meant it would be a year before the whole story was told and that’s waaay too long. So I’m posting about 2,500 words each week. All episodes will be archived under Desert Orchid. The photo at the top of the page is the background to the cover which is development as I write. This book will be published on Kindle in 2013.

Reckless Nights In Rome is out next Monday. Formatting’s been a learning curve – straight into the stratosphere!

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