Copyright © C C MacKenzie 2014
Please note that Chapter Nine was a love scene that I can’t publish on the blog…..
Three days later, a shocked Charisse received a report by Arabella on Omar’s behaviour, which had horror and revulsion roiling in her gut.
Her bodyguard’s mouth was white.
Fury rolled off her in palpable waves.
Charisse knew what she had to do.
The safety of her people came first.
Feeling sick to her stomach, she stood.
“Send boys under the age of eighteen back to their tribes immediately. And the rest that remain must never walk unaccompanied.”
Arabella nodded. “Sheik Abbas has sent a message. He wants to meet with you in the usual place.”
Charisse’s eyes flew to hers.
“He has heard of this?” Then she wondered why she’d asked such a stupid question. Abbas was one of the most powerful men in Onuur, and as such he had plenty of informants in the palace. “Of course he has. We’ll ride out at midnight.”
“We’ll take the dogs?”
Charisse knew why Arabella had asked the question. For the last three days Boris had spent most of his time with Khalid, while Rufus stuck to her like glue.
Her bodyguard’s dark brown eyes stayed on hers. “Prince Khalid must be told of this. At the end of the day Omar is accountable to him.”
Arabella was right.
Charisse didn’t want to even consider the possibility that her future husband was aware that his protection officer had a taste for young boys.
As for Khalid, she hadn’t seen him since their night together.
She’d battled very hard to overcome the combined feelings of hurt, arousal and a lingering anxiety that perhaps her innocence had been a bitter disappointment to a man whose sexual exploits had graced the headlines of tabloids across three continents. His whispered promises to teach her the joy of sex had led her to an expectation that he might repeat his lesson.
No such luck.
Apparently, he was once more in full creative flow. And he’d made it abundantly clear he was never to be disturbed when the muse struck, which was perfectly ridiculous.
How on earth was he supposed to run a country part-time?
His parents and brother were due to arrive for their wedding in two days. That’s if Khalid could be bothered, Charisse thought savagely, to tear himself away from his painting for his own wedding.
She decided not to disturb him, for now. “We’ll gather facts before I speak with him.”
Not at all happy with that idea, Arabella glowered.
“How is it possible he is unaware of Omar’s behaviour?”
Charisse had asked herself the very same question, but she’d already made one mistake in prejudging Khalid and she wasn’t about to make another.
“We must give him the benefit of the doubt. If it turns out Khalid is aware that Omar is a paedophile then the wedding is off and I’ll tell King Abdullah why. Not only that, it will become my personal mission in life to ensure Khalid does not rule this land.”
“Very well. But if I find that son-of-a-bitch Omar laying a fat finger on any boy, I’ll shoot his balls myself.” Her bodyguard let out a very long breath. “By the way, keep your pistol on you at all times.” Charisse stared at her and Arabella continued, “I don’t like the way Omar looked at you either. The whole vibe of this place has changed since they arrived. I always trust my gut.”
Arabella was right.
These days the atmosphere around the palace had a dark and brooding edge to it. As if the whole structure was holding its breath. Initially, Charisse had put down her servants’ skittishness around Khalid as nerves due to the changes he’d implemented, especially in relation in how they dealt with her. He demanded to be given his due as the ruler of Onuur, which was fair enough, but what did he expect the staff to do when he was out of contact for days at a time?
Over the years during Asim’s illness, the servants had become used to deferring to Charisse. Plus, her late husband had encouraged her to run the palace and implement change.
But it hadn’t take Charisse long to discover it was Omar who made the staff in the palace fearful—and now she knew why. This morning, he’d trapped a twelve year old boy in his room. The child’s cries for mercy had saved him from certain rape.
The bodyguard hadn’t been seen since the incident early this morning and had managed to evade capture.
Logic and her heart told her she should interrupt Khalid and alert him to the issue.
But she wanted to give the security team, headed up by Arabella, time to apprehend Omar. Plus Sheik Abbas was not a man to be kept waiting. He’d specifically asked to see her. If she told Khalid of the request he would most certainly forbid her to go. But that would be seen as a snub to the Sheik and Charisse knew the trouble Abbas might make in the country for a new and untried King. No, she would meet the Sheik and speak to Khalid in the morning, and in the meantime pray his bodyguard was captured.
The most important thing was to get the facts assembled and see what Sheik Abbas knew.
However, Charisse was worried.
The wedding might not yet have taken place, but to all intents and purposes Khalid now ruled Onuur. By asking to meet her alone, Abbas had not given Khalid his proper place, and that made her angry. The Sheik should be willing to give him chance. The last thing she wanted to do was to have a rift develop between Khalid and a very powerful man. A man she knew and respected.
As she prepared for her meeting, Charisse’s heart felt very heavy in her chest.
Once the palace was quiet and settled for the night, Charisse rode out on Diablo with Arabella and four close protection officers who were a part of her own personal guard.
Ever ready for adventure, and delighted to be free of the confines of the palace, Boris and Rufus streaked ahead.
The velvety darkness of the night sky was lit by a half moon. In the heavens constellations glittered like crystalline jewels. In spite of her worries Charisse found herself almost relaxing for the first time in days. The night was chilly and she wore a thick hijab woven from the finest cashmere, which covered her head, nose and mouth. The guards wouldn’t be happy, but Charisse kicked a heel against his flank, and couldn’t help but give Diablo his head.
She crouched low over the stallion’s back as he raced over compacted sand leaving the other riders behind in a cloud of dust.
The exhilaration that came with a breakneck speed made her grin.
The scent of the desert, that unique earthy flavour, flowed under her robe tickling her nose and drying her throat. God, she loved this land and its people.
Slowing into a gallop and then a trot, she waited for Arabella and the rest to thunder to her side as Diablo danced a two-step shuffle.
“How many times have I told you not to do that?” Arabella barked.
Unrepentant, Charisse shrugged. “I couldn’t resist.”
“Well try harder. No point in borrowing trouble, Highness. We have plenty of issues to be getting on with.”
Fifteen minutes later they trotted into the ruins of an ancient city beautifully carved out of monolithic mountains of sandstone and found oil fires staked into the earth to light the way.
As Diablo shuddered to a trembling stop a Bedouin tribesman stepped forward to take the reins.
Charisse leapt to the ground, her riding boots kicking up dust as she strode over to the tall man waiting for her beside a welcome fire. He was dressed in loose black robes, his dark head uncovered and she saw for the first time grey streaking through his cropped black hair and beard.
Abbas was in his late forties and a virile man as his six wives could attest. He had twenty children and had just added another fine son to his expanding nursery.
Charisse held out both hands and he bowed low placing his forehead on her fingertips.
“It is good to see you, Highness. My heart is heavy with sorrow for the loss of our King.” His deep voice rumbled in his vast chest. He’d been chewing mint leaves and the scent blended with newly washed skin and clean clothes.
Charisse took a deep breath.
“My heart is heavy, too, Sheik Abbas. How fares your family and your people?”
He turned and indicated they should sit on plump leather cushions arranged near the fire.
“They are well, thank you. Please, sit.”
A servant poured the thick, rich and sweet coffee beloved in the kingdoms of Arabia and with a nod of thanks Charisse accepted a tiny gold cup from the Sheik. Traditions of hospitality were faithfully adhered to in the desert. They set the stage for the discussion to come, traditions that anchored Charisse to the earth, and she took them very seriously.
She sipped even as her heart kicked.
Being summoned to Abbas was not unheard of, but to be asked to meet him so soon after Asim’s death and Khalid’s arrival was such a break of protocol that it could only mean that trouble lay ahead.
She wondered what was coming.
Dark eyes, sharp and filled with a ruthless intelligence held hers.
“I have news that will bring more heartache and pain to you, Highness.”
The way he said the words had Charisse brace herself.
Those eyes, black as obsidian stared at her under thick brows.
His nostrils flared.
Abbas was very angry.
Actually, he was furious, and her palms went damp.
“Word has reached me that a contract for ten million United States dollars has been offered for your death.”
Charisse went utterly still.
The nerves deep in her belly turned to solid ice.
So, the game had begun.
And Charisse found she wasn’t surprised or even shocked.
In some ways it was a relief that her enemy had shown his hand so soon and so clumsily.
Maybe, she hoped, he was losing his touch.
Abbas frowned as those shrewd eyes narrowed into hers.
“You do not appear surprised, Highness.”
Not wanting to meet his eyes, the man saw too much, Charisse took a careful sip of coffee all the while staring into the dancing flames of the fire and pulled her mind away from the horror of a fateful night that would haunt her dreams for as long as she drew breath.
Her eyes now lifted and met his.
His brows rose.
“You know who would wish you dead?”
She gave a single nod.
“Indeed. Thank you for the warning. However, I must speak with you about the young boys…”
Abbas shook his head.
He held up a hand to silence her, and now his black eyes went fierce.
“Please do not change the subject. How is it possible for you to have such an enemy?” he demanded to know in a tone that made her flinch. “Since your marriage you have not left this land. You have worked tirelessly for the people. I must know the name of the person who wishes you harm. Understand this, Highness, after the passing of their king the people would find it too hard to cope with the loss of their beloved queen. Especially if her death was a violent one. Distrust and suspicion would multiply. War among the tribes must surely follow.”
No way would Charisse show him she shared his fear for her future and for the future of her people. However, until her marriage, she trusted Arabella and the tight security that surrounded her to keep her safe. More importantly, Abbas’s words told her the secrecy that surrounded her arrival in Onuur and the reason for her marriage to Asim was water tight. Charisse released a relieved breath. She had no idea how the Sheik would regard her if he knew the truth. Abbas was a highly conservative and deeply religious man. She wasn’t prepared to take the risk of one of the most powerful men in the country rejecting her as the queen of Onuur.
She took a steadying breath. “King Abdullah and Prince Sarif and Khalid have the situation well in hand,” she said briskly, stretching the truth and at the same time refusing to meet his eyes.
“You do not trust me, Charisse?” he asked in a soft whisper.
Now her eyes flew to his.
Dismay he should think such a thing filled her heart.
“With my life, Sheik. I do have a suspicion of the person involved but at the moment no hard facts. And until I have facts then giving you a name would be nothing more than rumour.”
Breaking protocol, he placed his hand over hers. “Promise you will call upon me at once if you need my help.”
His face swam in front of her eyes but she nodded. “I give you my word.”
Dark eyes searched hers and she saw that although he accepted her word he was not happy. Abbas was a man who liked to have his finger on the pulse of his country. He was dedicated to the advancement of his people and fiercely loyal to the crown.
“I will trust in Allah to keep you safe, Highness.”
She bent her head in agreement.
“I must speak with you about the young boys…”
He raised his hand to cut her off and stood.
Placing his hand under her elbow, he helped her to her feet.
Their meeting, it appeared, was over.
“It is not seemly for us to speak of such things. Later today, I will meet with Prince Khalid.”
In other words it was perfectly fine to discuss the fact someone wanted to take her life, but child abuse was not a fit subject to discuss with a woman.
But she wouldn’t give up.
“I understand your reluctance to discuss Omar with me, Sheik Abbas, but I was planning to talk to Prince Khalid…”
Abbas interrupted her with a wave of his hand.
“No. Leave the issue in my hands, Highness. It will be an honour for me to cut off the head of the snake.”
Charisse knew when to give up.
She was a woman and that was that.
So be it.
Abbas bowed low over her hand.
“There is unrest among the tribes about the choice of husband for you and ruler for this land. Rumours and tall stories are spreading like locusts on the desert wind. You must marry Prince Khalid soon, Highness. The protection of the El Haribe’s will do much to ensure your safety and bring stability to our country.”
“The wedding will take place in forty-eight hours,” Charisse assured him. “A small ceremony. We must honour the memory of Asim.”
Abbas nodded as he led her back to Diablo and an anxious looking Arabella.
“Which is just as it should be. Khalid will settle down after his wild ways. He will give you strong sons.”
Since she didn’t want to dwell on how Khalid was going to give her strong sons, Charisse nodded once.
She turned to the man who’d been loyal for so many years to the house of El Haribe.
“Blessings be upon your family and your people, Sheik Abbas.”
Charisse leapt upon Diablo’s back.
Rufus and Boris whined with pleasure under the stroking hand of the Sheik.
“Blessings be upon you, Highness. May God go with you.”
Arabella trotted at her side. “And what was all that about?”
Well out of earshot, two bodyguards rode ahead and two brought up the rear.
“There’s a price on my head. Ten million dollars,” Charisse said in a low voice.
The hiss of breath exhaled from her bodyguard was followed by an expletive.
“He doesn’t hang about, does he?”
“He is a man who knows no boundaries,” Charisse agreed.
“He’s a sick bastard. Have you told Prince Khalid about your past?”
Charisse pondered on just one more hurdle yet to be overcome on the journey that was her life.
She shook her head, and ignored Arabella’s low hiss of irritation.
“And I won’t until I have to. My instincts tells me Khalid is a good man. A troubled man, but a good man. Before I tell him the truth of my past, we must see how he deals with the news of Omar.”
Arabella said nothing, but her stiff body language said it all.
She was not pleased.
The moon lit the way as they approached the narrow pass that linked two mountain ranges.
The White Palace rose majestically in the distance.
She would never leave this place.
And as Charisse spurred Diablo into a fast trot, she knew she’d never felt so alone, so vulnerable, and so isolated, since she’d been fifteen. Fear for herself and, more importantly, for her people, laid waste to her heart. She had a price on her head. Put there by a man who’d almost destroyed her. A man who’d told the world she’d run away after the deaths of her mother and sister. A man who lied. And a man who had more than a nodding acquaintance with pure evil.
Now she was about to be married to another man, Khalid. A man who didn’t want her or the responsibility for the people of Onuur. He was utterly selfish. Uninterested. He put himself and his so called art before his people or his wife-to-be. His bodyguard was a vile excuse for a human being. And it worried her that Khalid may have known about Omar’s deviant needs. Hadn’t Khalid warned her that he himself had dark needs? Now she questioned just what those words had meant and cursed her lack of sexual awareness and experience.
She wondered if perhaps by marrying Khalid she’d bitten off more than she could chew. But she’d survived the worst that life could throw a helpless young girl, and she’d survive this, too.
No point in worrying and wondering over something that could not be changed. If Khalid had no knowledge that his close protection officer was a paedophile then she would marry him. If he was also arrogant, controlling and had the relentless streak of an El Haribe male then so be it. To be fair to him, he was also struggling to come to terms with his new responsibilities. So Charisse decided that there would be plenty of time to explain to him about her past after they were married. If she told Khalid the truth before the wedding he’d probably run a mile. And who could blame him?
However, her conscience reminded her that, by not telling him the truth and giving him a chance, she wasn’t being entirely fair to Khalid. Too bad. He’d just have to suck it up and get on with it. Life wasn’t perfect. Life wasn’t fair. Life was full of challenges to be overcome.
And what about love that little voice asked.
Charisse lifted her chin and stiffened her spine.
What use had she for love?
She might secretly dream of loving a man who adored and respected her and valued her for what she was as a human being, and as a woman, as well as a Queen. But dreams were for children. Daydreams had no part in the reality of her life. She would make the best of it and if God looked kindly upon her, she may be blessed with a child to love.
With a quick whistle to the dogs, Charisse gave the signal to Diablo and the stallion leapt ahead.
Khalid padded into his studio dressed in low slung jeans and a T-shirt.
Running shaky fingers through wet hair, he hunted for a hair tie.
He’d wolfed down the first food in twenty-four hours before collapsing on his bed.
He’d slept for eight hours straight.
Now he studied his work in progress.
Christ, she look fabulous.
He’d managed to capture the look in her eyes that had wound him up so much when he’d first met Charisse.
Now that look in her fabulous eyes made him smile.
And in a few short hours she would be all his.
He couldn’t wait.
Picking up a slim brush, he dipped it in black paint. The title of this painting had come to him while he’d slept. While he’d dreamed of Charisse.
Now he grinned as he carefully wrote, Desert Orchid, in the bottom left hand corner.
She was like an orchid of the desert; a delicate beauty, fragile, but strong, as the storms of life rolled across the sand. Exquisite and brave. Yes, Charisse was most certainly his very own orchid of a desert ruled by him. And just like that, his body responded too powerfully, hungering for the hot, wet, heat and tight grip of his woman.
It had cost him, but he didn’t trust himself to go anywhere near her without thrusting himself into her hard and fast. She needed time to heal from their first night together.
As he tied back his hair, Khalid pondered on how much his life had changed in such a short space oftime. And his eyes were drawn again and again to the portrait of Charisse. He knew it was probably the best work he’d ever done. His eyes stared into hers and it was as if she reached out and touched him too deeply. For a man who had done his best to ensure he had no emotional ties to anyone, it was uncomfortable feeling. She was hardworking and very brave. He admired her as a person, but more importantly he liked her. And, he admitted now, he cared for her. Charisse haunted his every waking moment and every sleepless night. Even now his hands itched to touch her, everywhere. The memory of how she sounded as his fingers had entered her tight body made his groin harden too fast, made his breath hiss in his throat. For the first time in his life, his need of a woman was a physical pain.
What the hell had she done to him?
How could one night drive a man crazy?
It scared him.
His emotions scared him.
Sarif’s offer of his ocean retreat for their honeymoon was just what he needed to explore his complex feelings for Charisse.
The distant yip of a dog brought him out onto his balcony.
Khalid narrowed his eyes to search the mountain pass leading to the palace.
A half-moon and twinkling nebula lit the sky bathing the path in an eerie silvery light.
Galloping hard over the crest of a hill, coming towards the palace were two wolfhounds streaking before horses and riders.
Her body bent low over Diablo, he recognised Charisse immediately.
Then she pulled back into a trot and the dogs circled back to her side.
Khalid had to admire her style and rhythm.
She was at one with the huge beast.
Then about a hundred yards from the palace gate, Diablo dropped into a walk.
Now he frowned.
What the hell was she doing riding out in the middle of the damned night?
As if his thoughts had called out to her, Charisse raised her head to look in his direction and for a split second he was certain she saw him.
He lifted his hand to wave just as the sound of a single gunshot echoed through the mountains.
Charisse slumped over her horse.
Stunned, it took the sound of another gunshot to jolt Khalid into action.
Oh, God, no.
As Diablo slowed to a walk along the dusty road leading to the palace, Charisse didn’t see the glint of a rifle in the moonlight.
Turning to Rufus’s bark of warning she didn’t see the flash of the bullet. All she felt was the impact of being hit by a truck and then the sting of pain as metal sliced through flesh.
She didn’t even have time to take a breath to cry out as she slumped over the neck of Diablo.
Then another gunshot and this time her horse dropped to the ground.
The last sound she heard was the cry of rage from Arabella and the howls of her dogs.
Copyright © C C MacKenzie 2014
Chapter Eleven coming tomorrow, thank you so much for the kind messages!