Copyright © C C MacKenzie 2014
Charisse awoke in a sunny bedroom.
She smelled antiseptic and flowers.
All was quiet.
She had a cannula in her left arm.
Her other hand was held by Khalid’s. His dark head rested on her bed. He was sound asleep. Deep lines of exhaustion ran down each side of his beautiful mouth.
A young woman wearing a nurses’ uniform popped her head in the door and padded to her bedside.
She smiled at Charisse. “Would you like to suck on ice?”
Charisse nodded as Khalid’s head jerked up.
His dark eyes flew to hers. “Hey, honey. How’re you feeling?”
The nurse slipped a sliver of ice in her mouth and the liquid melted in her parched throat. She gave her another as Charisse became aware of a dull ache near her left hip.
“What–?” she croaked.
“What happened?” Khalid finished the question for her, and she gave a nod. “You were shot.” His eyes stayed on hers as a black brow rose. “And when you’re feeling better, we are going to have a little chat about your late night jaunts into the desert.”
“Diablo?” she whispered.
She read the grief and sad truth in his eyes.
His fingers squeezed hers. Her mouth trembled. Asim had given her Diablo as a colt. She’d even helped to train him. Her eyes closed tight as the pain of yet another loss battered her heart.
Then her eyes flew open.
Hot tears ran from her eyes, into her hairline, to seep into her pillow.
“They are fine,” Khalid said, his voice brusque.
Her eyes met his and she read the fury.
Who could blame him?
She’d left the palace without his permission.
By now he knew about her meeting with Sheik Abbas, about Omar, and he’d want to know exactly why she hadn’t told him. It now hit Charisse hard that she’d behaved very badly. In fact, by leaving the palace without proper protection she’d been incredibly stupid. On the day of their marriage Khalid would become the ruler of Onuur. She hadn’t given him his place, or the proper respect.
The ache in her side reminded her of why she was here. Pushing down the blanket, she lifted her hospital gown to investigate the wound. And winced when she saw a livid bruise the size of a man’s fist glowing red and angry under a white dressing taped to her side.
“A little nick,” Khalid told her in a drawl that did nothing to hide his annoyance.
Her face burned as his hand reached over to slide her gown over the wound and pull up the sheet.
She opened her mouth, but before she said a word, a doctor entered.
As the medic gently examined her wound, Charisse expected Khalid to leave the room, but he didn’t budge. The doctor made it clear she’d had a lucky escape. She was expected to make a full and quick recovery.
But when the nurse turned her over to lie partially on her tummy, Charisse’s face burned. The soft moan that escaped from her throat was not just of pain, but of mortification, too.
Khalid’s shocked inhale of breath made her bite down hard on her bottom lip.
He’d be horrified and appalled. Any normal man would be by the livid scars that marred the flesh of her lower back, her buttocks.
The nurse returned her to rest on her back, and Charisse closed her eyes. She couldn’t look at the nurse, or the doctor. And certainly not at Khalid who now held her hand as if he’d never let it go.
The sound of the door closing had her open her eyes to find they were alone.
“Look at me.” His tone informed her it was an order, not a request.
Heart pounding in her chest, she did as she was told.
Dark eyes burned into hers with an intensity that made her lick her dry lips.
Her eyes stung.
“Did my uncle do that to… ?”
Horrified he should even consider such a thing, she shook her head.
“No,” she whispered.
Those eyes never left hers. “Your father? Don’t look so surprised. I’ve been hearing plenty about that son-of-a-bitch.” Now he took her hand to his mouth and pressed a gentle kiss on her fingers. “Why on earth didn’t you tell me what had happened to you?”
Not prepared to go there with him, not yet, she shook her head.
Another fat tear escaped and ran into her hairline.
He pressed another kiss to her fingertips.
“Okay. You need to sleep. But, Charisse, we have a lot to talk about.”
And she looked forward to that conversation with nothing but dread.
Ten days later, Charisse lay on a fat cushioned daybed made of white wicker.
The bed was set in the shade of a tree in the stunning rose garden of the royal palace in Dhuma.
She was dressed in a light kimono of silk the colour of fresh butter and buttoned to the neck, fitted matching pants, and gold ballet slippers. With drowsy eyes she watched honey bees buzz lazily from flower to flower. The air, warm and scented, was having a soporific affect on her senses, leaving her more relaxed than she had been for months.
Arabella was now seconded to Prince Sarif’s personal staff. And she was co-ordinating the search for Omar. The man had disappeared. The theory was that someone was hiding him. And Khalid feared a conspiracy.
Sheik Abbas had arrived to see for himself that Charisse was in fact alive and gaining strength by the day. He’d offered his support to help root out the source of growing dissent against Khalid in Onuur. Sheik Abbas had also managed to receive an undertaking from the King Abdullah and his sons that once Omar was found, he would be handed over to him to receive a just punishment for his crimes. For once Khalid and Charisse were in agreement, perfectly happy to let the tribes deal with the man.
There had been a tricky moment when Khalid had made it crystal clear to the Sheik that his future wife would no longer be meeting him in the middle of the night in the desert. Things had been tense between two proud men before they’d come to an understanding, as Arabella called it.
The stitches in Charisse’s wound had been removed.
And although still in a little discomfort, she was healing very nicely and had cut back on painkillers. The doctors were more than happy with her progress.
Arrangements for her delayed wedding to Khalid were also well underway.
They were to be married in a low-key ceremony in two days at the royal palace in Dhuma, followed by two weeks alone at Sarif’s ocean-front hideaway.
Khalid still hadn’t had his little talk with Charisse. And her nerves were in shreds every time she thought about digging up a past she preferred to keep buried nice and deep in her psyche. She believed in living in the moment and thinking about the next day, not time travelling into the past or the future.
Now she turned to the woman who was making herself comfortable in the chair next to her.
Queen Janaan was slim and tall. Dressed in a sheath of navy blue silk, she was a stunning brunette with delicate features and an amazing bone structure that she’d handed down to her sons. Although in her late fifties, she looked a decade younger. Her smooth skin was unlined. Now Janaan poured mint tea into a fragile cup and handed it to her.
Charisse smiled. “Thank you.”
Over the past days she’d found Khalid’s mother to be a lovely, warm woman. A woman who cared deeply for her family and her country. Her name before she’d taken the honorary name of Janaan, which meant the soul of the people, had been Catherine.
Pale grey eyes, just like her son’s, twinkled now as she smiled.
“You’re welcome,” she responded, her voice friendly with a lovely soft Texan drawl that always made Charisse smile. “Charisse is a special name. Did you know it means beauty, grace and kindness? It suits you.”
The beautiful woman wrinkled her nose and shook her head, which made Janaan’s eyes dance. “You don’t like compliments?”
A quizzical look entered those grey eyes when Charisse puffed out her cheeks, deciding that was a no-win question.
“I’ve never found my appearance to be a blessing, Highness. More of a curse.” And that was putting it mildly.
Janaan’s eyes went cool. “What happened to you after your mother died was the work of a monster, not a man.”
Refusing to let the sly slide of fear take root in her stomach, Charisse gave a jerky shrug of a narrow shoulder.
“It is what it is, Highness.”
Charisse didn’t want to be rude, but neither did she want to talk about her past. God knew she’d done enough of that with the psychologists Amir had insisted she’d talked to. As far as Charisse was concerned she was all talked out. She accepted that nothing that had happened to her had been her fault. That she’d done nothing to provoke her father’s behaviour towards her. That she could have done nothing to stop her mother taking her own life. She’d accepted all of it, and more.
“When it is just the two of us talking like this, please call me Janaan. Highness becomes a little wearing after a while, don’t you agree?”
Charisse grinned in response to the twinkle dancing in the Queen’s eyes.
Now Janaan’s eyes went wide. “I can see why Khalid is madly in love with you,” she said.
Sincerely shocked, Charisse simply stared. “He doesn’t know me. It’s only been weeks since we met.” Alarm and something like excitement skittered up her spine. “Surely you are mistaken?”
Janaan’s dark brows winged into her hairline. “I know my son. He understands women very well.” Now her lips thinned in annoyed disapproval. “Of course, he’s had plenty of practice… of a certain type… You, I imagine, are a unique experience for him.”
Charisse still felt the after effects of a general anaesthetic, a sluggish thought process. But her pulse kicked as the words sank into her brain.
“I am not altogether sure I want to be a unique experience for him. There’s nothing special about me.”
Then her grey eyes went sharp and cool in a way that made Charisse wonder what on earth she’d said to offend her.
“You do not strike me as a stupid woman, Charisse,” she said briskly.
The verbal slap on the wrist was a shock.
Stung, Charisse lifted her chin.
“I’m not. However, neither am I delusional. Khalid craves excitement. He craves the next thrill. I’ve never known a man who jumps from one thing to another. He finishes nothing, except his paintings.” With relief she saw Janaan relax and the warmth return to her grey eyes. Khalid’s mother, she realised, was no pushover. “He will soon tire of me,” Charisse added, believing every word.
Janaan shook her head.
“You have much to learn about men. However, I won’t interfere.” She smiled, took a sip of her tea. “It will be interesting to see how he copes with his feelings.”
Charisse frowned as she took a sip of her own tea.
Didn’t Janaan understand how damaged her youngest son was?
Placing her cup and saucer on the table between them, Charisse gazed at the older woman.
“Do you have any idea how greatly he suffers? That he never sleeps? He paints all day and all night.”
Colour drained from Janaan’s smooth skin, leaving her too pale. Her slim hands fisted on her lap, and Charisse’s stomach clutched. Wondering if she was doing the right thing by talking to Khalid’s mother about him, she swung her legs down and moved carefully to sit next to her. She took the queen’s hand before continuing,
“He never speaks of the accident that killed my sister and his. If I try to broach the subject of his past, he closes himself off. I believe he carries the burden of guilt. And it is a heavy burden too hard to bear. It may destroy him.”
Janaan stared at Charisse in fear. A fear which turned to confusion and upset.
The queen rose, and began to pace back and forth.
She stopped and turned to look down at her future daughter-in-law.
The grey eyes were stormy now as they clashed with hers.
“None of us blame him. The powerboat came out of nowhere and shot cross their path. There was nothing, nothing, Khalid could have done to avoid the collision…” The horror of that day poured into her mind. She placed a hand over her mouth, eyes huge and filled to the brim with swimming emotions. “Dear God, I know he’s always held himself responsible, but I had no idea he…” She blinked back tears and sank to the edge of the couch. Her eyes were fixed on Charisse. “After the accident, we were so devastated to lose Jamila. And we feared we were going to lose Khalid, too. He was in a coma for many days. He recovered physically. But psychologically he has remained closed off to us. I have tried to reach him…
“And I know Sarif has fought a battle to bring him back to us, but his attempts have led to nothing but arguments and made Khalid distance himself even further from his family, and his country.”
The whole family, Charisse realised now, had never come to terms with the loss of a beloved daughter and sister.
Something that had struck her quite forcibly when she’d arrived at the beautiful palace in Dhuma now entered her mind. “I notice there are no photographs of Jamila.”
Janaan flinched, as if from a hard slap. Charisse was famous for her tact and diplomacy. Now she wondered where the hell it had gone.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to…” Horrified to have hurt a woman who’d been nothing but kind to her, she closed her eyes. “I have a big mouth…”
“No. No, child.” Janaan lifted her purse of soft leather, plucked a tissue and dabbed her eyes. “You are quite right. There are no photographs of Jamila in the main reception areas. We’ve been selfish enough to keep her to ourselves in our private apartments. Please, Charisse, do not look so stricken. You have not offended me.”
After an endless moment, during which Charisse silently berated herself for her crass stupidity and insensitivity, Janaan blew her nose heroically.
Their eyes locked as the queen shook her head.
“You were far too young to be married to Amir. If only I’d known about it. I’d have kept you with me. Amir was old enough to be your grandfather. And grandfather’s, Charisse, do not make love to their granddaughters,” Janaan said in a tightly disapproving voice.
Baffled, Charisse blinked.
Then her mouth made an O shape in shock.
Heat burned up her neck, into her face, and she shook her head.
Her voice was no more than a whisper, “Oh no. No. Our relationship was not a physical one.”
With dismay growing by the moment, she read the patent disbelief in Janaan’s sharp gaze.
When, Charisse wondered, would she learn to shut her mouth?
However, there was no way she would permit the queen to make wrong assumptions, or blame Amir, a man who had treated her like a daughter, for something he had not done.
With her heart hammering in her throat, Charisse realised that nothing but the truth would do. It didn’t matter that just thinking about the circumstances that had brought her to Amir made her body tremble, or that a cold sweat trickled down her back. For years she’d blamed herself, her looks, for what had happened. Until Amir had brought in two therapists who specialised in helping victims of child abuse to help her understand, and to finally accept, that her father’s behaviour was not her responsibility.
But she couldn’t seem to help the sense of shame – a shame that went too deep in her psyche – for the fact that her own flesh and blood had used his fists, and worse, on a vulnerable, defenceless, child. A child who had already lost so much. Mortification incinerated her flesh from her toes to her scalp as Charisse bowed her head to fix her swimming gaze on the white knuckles of hands clenched too tightly in her lap.
Her voice was no more than a hoarse whisper, “My mother didn’t have an easy or happy time of it in her marriage. My father was too controlling and demanding, obsessed with Mia, and not in a healthy way. Looking back, I think that was why my mother fought for my sister and I to attend boarding school in England. After Mia and my mother died, my father, I think, became unhinged. At least that’s what Amir believed. My father tried to have…” Her whole body gave a convulsive shudder as she gave Janaan the edited version of events. “Intimate relations with me… I fought him… but he is big and strong and I couldn’t… in the end he couldn’t maintain an… he wasn’t able to do it. So he used his fists, his feet, and a riding crop to beat me until I bled.
“By the time I came to Amir I was ill, and emotionally traumatised. For six months I couldn’t utter a word. Amir looked after me, cared for me, educated me, and loved me as a father should love a daughter. He never once looked upon me as a sexual object of desire. I owe him my life.”
“Bastard!” The way Janaan snarled the world viciously, brought Charisse’s head up. Their eyes met and she read nothing but fury, along with an unstinting support, which lightened the heavy load Charisse carried deep within her heart. “I am referring to your father, child. Amir kept you in seclusion?”
“Yes. To protect me. But it was my choice, too.”
Janaan narrowed her eyes. Her soft mouth went tight.
“And you always wear the veil?”
Charisse felt tension built across her shoulders at the implied criticism. “Yes, when I leave the palace. My husband requested that I comply with tradition.”
“Forgive me, but I am confused. For a woman who complies with tradition, what on earth were you doing riding out in the middle of the night to meet a Sheik in the desert?”
It was a very good question.
And now Charisse wondered how she was going to explain the complex working relationship she’d had with her late husband.
“Amir was a unique mix of the old world meeting the new. I might be a woman, but he only saw my intellectual capabilities and skills, not my gender. He regarded me as the right person for the job. Because my only agenda was to represent him and do what was best for the people, he trusted me implicitly to be his voice during government meetings. And, yes, he did permit me to meet with the most powerful man after the king in our country. He also expected me to be modest at all times and to wear traditional dress and to behave in a certain way. I did not and do not have a problem with his beliefs.”
“I find the idea of me standing in for Abdullah in meetings simply… fascinating. As far as clothing is concerned, you might find, my dear, that Khalid believes differently. Although, as my son, he respects a woman’s right to choose.” She paused, thought hard for a long moment. “And so your father wants you dead.” The remark was a statement rather than a question.
Charisse shrugged. “If he is the one who has put a price on my head. And we must remember that we do not have proof. If it is, then he fears losing everything he has worked for if the truth comes out.”
Even though she’d expected to have this conversation with Khalid, Charisse had found it a huge release, even cathartic, to talk about her past and the present situation with Janaan. And she found it easy to tell her nothing but the truth.
“The more powerful my father became, the more Amir believed he would harm me. And that, I think, is why Amir thought of Khalid as my husband. He spoke to King Abdullah of his plan.”
Janaan lifted a perfect eyebrow and nodded very slowly.
“And my husband, as I discovered very long ago, is perfectly capable of keeping secrets.” She gave a twisted smile, and patted Charisse’s cold hand. “Don’t look so anxious. You are not telling tales. This is typical behaviour of an El Haribe male. The little women are to be protected at all costs while the big strong men keep them safe.”
With a decided gleam in her grey eyes, she lifted a little silver bell and rang it once.
A servant, clad in the livery of the royal household, materialised and bowed deeply.
“Champagne on ice. And a platter of fresh fruit,” the queen ordered in an unexpected slow Texan drawl that had Charisse biting down hard on her bottom lip.
Trying hard not to laugh at how much the queen resembled Khalid when she was in the mood to be naughty, Charisse grinned into grey eyes brimming with sheer wickedness.
“Are we celebrating?”
“You betcha, honey!” Janaan sat back on the couch. Crossing long legs, she folded her arms and stared into the distance, apparently deep in thought.
After a timeless moment, Charisse placed her elbow on the arm of the couch, rested her chin on her hand, and decided to nudge the conversation along.
“Want to give me a clue what we’re celebrating, Janaan?”
The queen simply held up a finger as a silver platter of sliced mango and a variety of berries was placed on the table. Tall glasses of delicate crystal were filled with liquid bubbles that sparkled and fizzed. A heavy ice bucket of solid silver was placed on the table and held an open bottle of the best champagne.
Once the servants had bowed and left, Janaan handed a glass to Charisse and picked up her own. She clinked their glasses together and announced gaily, “To us! Never let the bastards get you down.” She took a sip, then their glasses clinked musically again. “Don’t get angry, get even.” Another sip and another musical clink. “And welcome to the family, honey.”
Charisse rarely drank alcohol.
She didn’t have the head for it.
Then she decided, what the hell, it would be churlish of her to refuse.
So she took a long sip. It was fruity and gorgeously pleasant. So she took another.
Janaan sat back, again deep in thought.
Watching her, her future daughter-in-law realised there was a tough cookie under Janaan’s fragile, polished exterior.
Silence reigned until the first glass was empty and refilled.
Then Janaan made a low, “Hmm,” sound under her breath.
Charisse wondered what on earth was coming next.
She didn’t have long to wait.
“Khalid cares deeply for you. He is madly in love. He is worried about you. Very worried. And that is a very, very, good thing,” Janaan drawled, sounding as if she was back in Texas.
Bewildered, but having the time of her life, Charisse gave her big eyes.
“Why is the fact he is worried about me a good thing?”
“Because if he’s worried about you, it means he is not brooding. It means he’s not in one of his black moods.” Janaan’s eyes slid to hers. “You’d better prepare yourself for those. I’ve often wondered if we should have insisted that Khalid have counselling after the accident. But he refused to entertain the idea. My son is very stubborn. You do realize he’ll blame himself for everything that has happened to you.”
Annoyed, Charisse took another sip of her wine. “That’s ridiculous. How is he responsible for my father’s behaviour?”
“Cause and effect. He’ll see the death of Mia, which he firmly believes is his fault, as the catalyst that killed your mother, tipped your father over the edge, and made him abuse you. Then there’s the fact you were shot on his watch. Since his bodyguard is in the frame, he’ll quite happily take the blame for that, too. And then there’s the orchestrated unrest in Onuur, which he’ll worry over like a dog with a bone. All the while holding himself responsible. Do you see where I’m going with this?”
Tiny wings of anxiety fluttered at her throat as Charisse did indeed see where Janaan was going.
“If you’re correct, then there is no logic to his thinking. He’ll put himself under immense pressure.”
The queen considered the remarks as they sipped their wine.
“Logic has nothing to do with Khalid’s thinking, or his behaviour. When he’s in a funk you’ll need to learn how to distract him.” Grey eyes studied her over the rim of her glass and Charisse felt the need to squirm under a direct gaze that reminded her so much of Khalid.
“You are a virgin?”
Charisse inhaled wine and choked.
Janaan handed her a tissue.
Once she’d caught her breath, her eyes flew to Khalid’s mother who’d cocked her head to watch her carefully. Since the truth was burning her cheekbones, what on earth was the point of lying? Taking a deep breath as if she was about to dive into the deep end of her swimming pool, she met eyes that missed nothing.
“Khalid made love to me shortly after we met.”
The delighted peal of laughter from Khalid’s mother was the last thing she’d been expecting. Janaan shook her head. Torn between mortification and the thrill of being able to talk about such things with another woman, Charisse couldn’t help but grin in return.
Thank goodness the woman didn’t think she was a slut.
“That’s my boy! He never hangs around when he wants something. I’ve heard all about Khalid’s sexual prowess.”
“Really, mother?” a deep voice drawled from behind them.
Copyright © C C MacKenzie 2014
Chapter Thirteen tomorrow… and Khalid takes things into his own hands…..