GET IT HERE:
Prince Khalid El Haribe leaped out of the helicopter, closely followed by his bodyguard, Omar, and four close protection officers belonging to his father’s guard.
He glanced at the tribes gathered around their tents.
Men, lean and mean, with guns and ammunition strapped across their chests and dressed in loose black robes, watched him through dark eyes filled to the brim with suspicion. While dusty haired toddlers clung to their older brothers and sisters.
No sign of the women.
No sign of a welcome either.
And again Khalid asked himself what the hell he was doing.
The dry heat was brutal.
Add in the stirring scent of camel dung, unwashed flesh, and his delicate stomach lurched.
The crisp collar of his white cotton shirt felt too tight, like a noose, around his neck. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d worn a monkey suit. This one was black silk with a black tie, all by Armani.
Eyes narrowed behind dark glasses, he surveyed his new home, The White Palace.
He’d read up about it. Built fifty years ago from granite blasted from a quarry near Aberdeen in Scotland, the palace was an unforgiving structure designed by an architect who’d rigorously followed minimalist principles. Behind walls three feet thick, the imposing structure glistened and gleamed under a merciless sun. It should have looked incongruous, perched on the edge of a mountain in the middle of the desert, but it blended seamlessly into the harsh and unforgiving landscape.
As they approached, monumental entrance gates, which appeared to be constructed of a heavy metal painted silver, swung open with a smooth movement that told him they were electronically operated. Then he spotted what appeared to be a huge field of solar panels following the path of the sun.
But he had no time to dwell on modern technology as a welcoming committee descended upon him consisting of a dozen men wearing a thwab and a ceremonial besht denoting their high status.
Omar moved to Khalid’s left side while his brother stood to his right.
Sarif was here for moral support and to help him settle into his kingly duties, which was just as well because he didn’t have a clue how to run a meeting never mind an entire country.
Once the bowing and scraping of the ceremonial duties were over, the senior ministers of his small government led the way into a wide and open courtyard constructed of sandstone.
The hair on the back of Khalid’s neck prickled.
Looking up he spotted a woman standing on a top floor balcony watching him. She wore a white prayer burka.
Probably his soon-to-be-wife.
Khalid’s stomach lurched.
Two days without alcohol and although he wasn’t exactly suffering, the heat made him thirsty for a beer.
They entered a stunning entrance hall the size of a cathedral. Wide double staircases flowed away to the right and to the left, up to the higher levels for at least four floors.
Good God, it climbed right up the middle of the mountain and was open to the elements, which made it amazingly cool and airy. The wind made an unusual whispering sound. It wasn’t quite a moan and it gave the place an otherworldly, almost ethereal feel.
A wave of dizziness washed over Khalid, probably the altitude.
His pulse kicked as perspiration beaded on his top lip.
Invited to sit, he thankfully accepted refreshments as Sarif addressed the Sheiks in the local dialect. He spoke on behalf of his father, King Abdullah, who was recovering from minor heart surgery, an event with which his youngest son had not been acquainted. Khalid was not fluent in khaliji Arabic and had difficulty following what was being said.
Yet another obstacle to overcome.
Again he wondered what the hell he was doing?
Why had he agreed to this fiasco?
Because, the little voice in his head told him, he needed to atone, to make amends to his family, and this was the first chance he’d had in over six years to do so.
He needed to do his duty, and get on with it, so he forced himself to pay attention.
Two hours later Khalid’s head was pounding.
He was taken to what, he assumed, was his late uncle’s extensive library. It smelled of old books, incense and had a strangely spiritual feel.
It was a room that had belonged to a scholar.
He didn’t belong here. He was way out of his element and he knew it. And looking at the men who were watching him like black crows sitting on a tree branch, they knew it, too.
Witnessed by his brother and the Sheiks of eight tribes, Prince Khalid El Haribe signed away his freedom and life as he knew it.
In return he was King of a tiny state peopled by nomads whose way of life hadn’t changed for hundreds of years. Listening to the sonorous tones of his Prime Minister, Khalid realised these men were looking to him to bring Onuur into the twenty-first century and prosperity.
Well, God help them.
And God help him.
Six hours later, the inside of Khalid’s skull threatened to split wide open.
His hand shook as he poured himself yet another glass of water.
What a time to go on the wagon.
The lecture from his father still rang in his ears. Family honour, his duty to the people of Onuur and his duty to its Queen, which apparently including producing an heir ASAP, made him wonder if he’d lost his fucking mind.
He had no idea what the Queen looked like, or even how old she was.
Considering his uncle had died at the relatively young age of sixty-five, he imagined she must be in her late thirties or early forties. The information he’d managed to glean was the couple had been married for six blissfully happy years. Apparently, his future wife was a modest and devout woman who’d been devoted to his uncle. She never travelled outside the country and was, ‘A little eccentric.’ And, ‘Fond of animals and children.’
He could only hope to hell she had all her own teeth.
Now he frowned.
She might sound like a saint, but today he’d learned something very interesting about his future wife. And now he wondered how she was going to explain to him why she had millions of dollars deposited in her name in Swiss banks. It looked like the queen that everyone was so fond of had feet of clay. And that was a complication he could do without.
Hell, he needed a drink.
Two endless days later, Khalid was beginning to get his bearings.
The palace was a vast building that would take weeks to fully explore.
However, it seemed the queen’s domain was strictly off limits to everyone, including him.
She’d asked for time to grieve, to be left alone.
Since Khalid was still drying out and not exactly feeling his best, he’d been more than happy to comply with her wishes.
On the queen’s instructions, he’d been allocated sleeping chambers and a studio for his art at the opposite end of the palace from her quarters. For some reason it stung his pride that it appeared she wanted him as far away from her as physically possible. Okay, he was the first to admit that he might not exactly be cut out to rule a tiny rock in the middle of a desert. But at least he was willing to give the role his best shot. All she had to do was to meet him halfway. Surely that wasn’t too much to ask?
Since his art came first with him before any other consideration, including ruling a stinking dust bowl hotter than hell itself, and marrying its elusive queen, Khalid had absolutely no qualms in overruling her orders. He’d discovered the space with the best light was directly below her apartments and he wasted no time in organising his environment to suit his own needs.
The one family member he had met, and already grown fond of, was his elderly aunt Yasmin who joined Sarif and himself at dinner each evening. She made sure they were comfortable and had everything they required. From her he’d learned that Charisse, apparently the name meant Beloved, yeah right, was hands-on when it came to educating the populace particularly the women and children. As his aunt droned on, Khalid hid a yawn behind his hand and decided benevolently that he didn’t have an issue with his future wife’s interests. He was quite happy to leave her to it. Sarif, however, was vastly intrigued about the educational programmes and was, he said, looking forward to meeting Charisse to discuss how Onuur’s syllabuses compared to the systems he’d implemented for his people in Quaram.
Each evening, Sarif went through the day’s endless events with Khalid, to instruct his brother on the personalities and politics involved. Sarif would spend three days a week in Onuur as a special advisor to Khalid until the wedding was organised and the couple had returned from their honeymoon.
One thing that continued to elude Khalid was sleep, which was why he was awake and aware enough to hear horses riding out in the early hours every night under a moonlit sky teaming with constellations glittering like diamonds.
During his single visit to the impressively organised and immaculate stables it had been made crystal clear, very politely of course, that the queen’s horse Diablo was strictly off limits. The black stallion was colossal, at least nineteen hands high. And Khalid couldn’t imagine any woman managing to control the great beast never mind the slight woman he’d spotted on his arrival.
But maybe his eyes had been deceiving him. Maybe Charisse was a woman strong enough, big enough, to handle the stallion. Khalid was six foot three. But the thought of bedding an Amazon with heavy muscled thighs made his mouth go bone dry.
By day five, Khalid had a distinct picture of his wife-to-be in his head.
She was a big-boned woman. Her biological clock was ticking. She was a conservative believer in tradition and seriously devoted to her people. She enjoyed reading and listening to music. And, he thought bitterly, sounded a right barrel of laughs.
Luckily for him he had Omar in his corner.
One of his bodyguard’s many skills was that he kept his ear very close to the ground. Therefore he made sure Khalid was kept up to date with the comings and goings in the palace. It was Omar who’d informed him, with great reluctance, that the gossip in the palace was that his future wife was somewhat less than impressed with the selection of her husband-to-be. Apparently, she thought Sarif would have been a more acceptable choice.
The blow was brutal to his ego, but Khalid was honest enough with himself to admit that he understood where the woman was coming from.
He was also honest enough to admit that Charisse’s rumoured low opinion of him, before she’d even met him, stung.
Which was a pity for the future success of their marriage, because Khalid was prone to dark moods.
Always had been.
And not a man who was good with a lot of time on his hands. As the old saying goes, The Devil finds work for idle hands. And now he found himself brooding all day over a deepening sense of injustice. As time passed, the sting of that injustice burned too brightly in his belly.
Feeling very hard done by, he was sitting behind an antique desk in the dark cave of the library. His tired brain pondering on how much his life had changed in a matter of days.
He’d lost his freedom.
He’d cleaned up his act.
He even shaved every day.
Although he’d drawn a line at cutting his hair.
Much to Sarif’s disgust, Khalid merely tied his hair back at the neck.
What more did his brother want from him?
Glowering at the endless piles of papers on his desk, the brisk knock at the door was a welcome distraction.
“Miss Arabella Faulkner requests a moment of your time, Highness.”
Khalid’s dark brows rose into his hairline.
Did this mean a sign of life from Charisse?
“Show her in.”
Khalid knew Arabella was the queen’s bodyguard, companion and friend, and that she was British ex-special forces. He’d expected a woman built like a tank. So the tall, slim woman who entered caught him by surprise.
She bowed her head as Omar closed the door behind her.
Dressed in black military cargo pants, soft boots, black short sleeved T-shirt with a web belt and automatic pistol harness, Ms. Faulkner was an impressive sight. He gauged she was five foot nine, about one hundred and twenty pounds.
Expression carefully neutral, she stood with her feet shoulder-width apart, hands behind her back.
Tough, was Khalid’s first thought.
Closely followed by committed, professional, and—not impressed.
Not that she showed it.
Most men might not have picked up on the finer nuances of her attitude but Khalid was an artist and an expert on women, their body language, and he could almost taste her disdain.
Annoyance now joined the injustice burning in his belly.
He narrowed his eyes.
“What can I do for you, Ms. Faulkner?”
Dark brown eyes stayed level on his.
“Her Royal Highness invites you to join her for afternoon tea.”
So, the waiting was over.
Khalid couldn’t say he was looking forward to meeting his future ball and chain. But he had a duty to his family and he’d promised his father faithfully that he wouldn’t let him down.
The sense of relief that the wait was over lifted his spirits, not that he showed it to the woman watching him as if he was a smear on a Petri dish.
“Please, lead the way.”
Omar’s eyes never left Arabella as he opened the door. His bodyguard was hot on their heels. His towering presence followed them as they entered the reception hall and the main staircase and began to climb to the next level.
Arabella stopped on the wide first floor landing.
“We’ll take the elevator. It’s six floors to Her Highness’s apartments. We’ll exit on the fifth floor. No one is permitted entry to the apartments without permission,” she said as she indicated he precede her into the elevator.
“Especially me? Hmm, Ms. Faulkner?” Khalid spoke softly and Omar stiffened by his side as Arabella placed herself between Khalid and his protection officer.
“I’m sorry. Your bodyguard is not permitted beyond this point.”
The woman was prepared to stand there and tell him where he could and could not go in his own palace?
Omar spread his legs and went for his weapon.
His bodyguard was not used to women issuing orders and the act was a deliberate act of aggression, to show her who was boss.
The woman didn’t flinch.
Khalid, in spite of himself, was impressed by how she didn’t flicker as much as an eyelid.
“Put the gun away, Omar. Ms. Faulkner will keep you company.”
He met the cold fury in his bodyguard’s eyes and stared at him until Omar tucked away his weapon and took a reluctant step back.
Khalid gave a tight little smile as he entered the elevator. He pressed the button, and the elevator doors closed on Arabella Faulkner and Omar. He decided his soon-to-be-wife needed a salutary lesson in manners. After all, he’d been more than fair since he’d arrived. Plus, since Charisse was grieving, he’d been prepared to give the woman a certain amount of leeway.
However, he was not prepared to be treated like a guest in what was now his own home.
The elevator rose smooth and swift. And he couldn’t help but wonder what his future wife was like. Was she sturdy? Big hipped? Or was she a bag of bones with no meat on her? Khalid liked his women womanly with breasts and ass. Something for a man to grip, to hold onto.
The elevator doors opened.
An elderly maid bowed deep before him.
For some reason his nerves boogied in his belly, and he didn’t like it, not one little bit.
He was a king for God’s sake. And it was time he started acting like one.
The maid led him up a wide stone stairway to arched doors painted a glossy black.
She knocked once, opened the doors and bowed for him to precede her.
Khalid entered an airy and light space with huge doors on all sides open to the elements and stopped dead.
Well, well, this was a pleasant surprise.
While the rest of the palace was luxurious and furnished with heavy teak. It was decorated in a traditional Arabic style that tended to make it dark and claustrophobic. In this space walls had been painted chalk white and hung with huge paintings, slashes of modern art, arranged strategically around the room. A log burner in brushed stainless steel rose majestically through the cavernous ceiling. The space throbbed with energy and life.
It smelled of candle wax, flowers, and warm woman.
The maid indicated a couple of seven foot sofas, covered in ivory linen, set at right angles and groaning under the weight of silk cushions in bright jewelled colours edged with gold tassels. “Please sit, Highness.”
She closed the double doors behind her.
Khalid picked a seat which gave him the best view of the room.
He made himself comfortable.
Intrigued, he leaned back and crossed his legs and made himself right at home.
Glass bowls teaming with fresh flowers scented the air.
Beeswax candles, thick as a man’s fist, marched down a wide coffee table made of tempered glass holding a variety of books on antiquity along with the latest glossy western magazines for women.
A movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention.
Two wolfhounds with rough shaggy coats of dirty grey sat like statues guarding the entrance to another space. Dark hazel eyes studied him with interest.
“Would you like tea or coffee?” A young woman’s voice called out.
His brows rose.
Must be another maid, and one who didn’t know her place.
Domestic staff did not shout at an El Haribe prince.
Imagining his brother’s outrage at the break of strict protocol, Khalid grinned.
The dogs rose, moving as one and padded before a metal and glass tea trolley pushed by one of the most beautiful young women Khalid had ever seen.
And he’d seen more than his fair share.
He thought she looked vaguely familiar.
His mind flicked through a mental file of women, but he couldn’t place her.
A silver waterfall of hair fell to a narrow waist.
She was dressed in pale blue designer jeans that fitted her in all the right places and a pale grey Rolling Stones short sleeved T-shirt. She was tall. Five feet eight inches and about one hundred and ten pounds. A bit on the skinny side. Her small breasts were high and firm. The long limbs and fine bones were all in proportion. Combined with a lightly tanned skin, she was simply stunning.
But it was the large eyes that caught Khalid’s breath and seemed to stop his heart.
They were a sparkling blue, the colour of a Mediterranean sky in summer, and edged with thick dark lashes.
He read a fierce intelligence, curiosity and a deep sadness in their beautiful depths.
Those marvellous eyes blinked into his.
“Would you like milk?”
Her soft voice was well-educated with a hint of France, and that voice slid over his senses like warm honey.
She smiled and Khalid’s mind went blank.
“Ah, black… thank you.”
He accepted a bone china cup and saucer and frowned at her, almost certain that he’d seen her before. “Have we met before?” he asked now.
Those amazing eyes stared deep into his.
And he was sincerely shocked to read something like contempt.
“Oh, I know who you are, Prince El Haribe. My late husband followed your… exploits very carefully.”
Using small tongs of solid silver, she placed a couple of tiny pastries on a plate and offered it to him. Another too polite smile had him narrow his eyes.
He took the plate as she poured herself a coffee, popped a pastry in her sensual mouth and sat next to him.
Then she leaned back to study him.
“Your late husband?” Khalid murmured unable to tear his eyes away from hers.
Cocking her blonde head in a way that made him decide she looked utterly adorable, her smile curled his toes as more mischief entered those fabulous eyes.
She placed her cup and saucer on the table and held out her hand.
Khalid placed his hand in hers.
It wasn’t electricity that jolted up his arm but a buzzing attraction that made his heart beat too fast. He went rock hard. He couldn’t help but savour the moment, it had been a very long time since a woman had affected him like this.
Her hand was delicately boned.
The skin was soft, silky smooth to his touch as the scent of vanilla, honeysuckle and shampoo along with warm woman spun around his heightened senses.
Her blue eyes glittered into his and her voice sounded so husky it tingled the base of his spine and shot liquid fire into his groin.
“Charisse El Haribe. Your future wife. How do you do?”
Chapter Four coming tomorrow.