Desert Captive, episodes 19 & 20…..

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Greetings from a hot and humid and thundery Cheshire.

Here are the next two episodes and things are hotting up…..

DESERT CAPTIVE

by CC MACKENZIE

 

 

Copyright © C C MacKenzie 2018

 

 

EPISODE NINETEEN

The hours Sarif usually spent with his horses was his purest joy. Not today. Today he fought a losing battle between despair and fury. At the moment, fury was winning by a hair. In his position life had its ups and downs even if he was used to absolute control. Well, he wasn’t in control now, anything but. Being the leader of his country was something he was born to do. There was a joy in it, at times frustration, disappointment and pride in his people. He enjoyed seeing his people and their land thrive. The harsh desert climate was equal parts their friend and their enemy. He knew the temper of the wind often better than he knew his own.

The fine spring the country was enjoying meant his people worked hard and long, but so far without the bitter harvest of crops dying in a dust bowl, or so far, a plague of pests or a sandstorm.

Right now, his temper was black because his horses were for him and him alone and two of his favorites were missing, along with his wife and her maid. However, what frustrated him most of all was the way he’d begun to trust Arabella and that had been a mistake. He should have expected her to do something dangerous. He should have expected her to take a risk with his son’s life to save her brother. He should have kept her behind bars. He should have… his sigh was a deep one.

The key to finding his wife was to keep calm and find his centre.

His horses had always soothed him.

They soothed him now.

The sun shone down on his bare head as he clucked to a yearling, watching as the glossy chestnut gave a lazy swish of the tail. Horse and man, they knew each other well, and Sarif had to grin as he waited patiently for the game to begin.

Sarif put his hand in his pocket, and with equine hauteur the yearling tossed his head and approached.

“You’re a good boy.” He gave a soft laugh, running a gentle hand down the yearling’s flank as the horse nudged his pocket. “Yes, it’s your favorite.” He took half of a small apple and let the colt eat out of his hand. “I wish I could take you with me today and we’d ride like the wind. But bullets and death are not meant for the likes of you.”

Other horses ambled over to enjoy a small treat, then Sarif lifted his head and gazed over the land.

He knew his idea of putting Arabella behind bars would never happen. The woman was a free spirit. A little voice might whisper she certainly was not consort material, but he ignored it.

A movement by the entrance to the stables caught his eye.

Dressed in desert khaki and armed to the teeth, Wallace Monroe, his face set and without the usual twinkle in his blue eyes, stalked towards him.

“I ought to have known she’d try something like this as soon as my bloody back was turned,” Wallace said, his deep voice low.

“She drugged the guards,” Sarif muttered.

Wallace shook his head, his eyes narrowing into blue slits.

“That was Leila’s doing. When she arrived I should have checked her extensive baggage, but it was under the Queen Janaan’s diplomatic seal. God knows what else the girl brought in with her.”

Sarif bit down hard on his bottom lip.

It seemed his own mother was involved in this debacle, since she was the one who’d sent the maid here in the first place. The thought of how she’d encouraged him to accept the girl, to keep poor Arabella company, made his hand fist.

“How will they know where to look for Nazari?” Sarif wanted to know.

Wallace winced. “I might have mentioned the location of his base when I told her part of our plan. I was trying to reassure her everything that could be done to free Rupert was being done.”

Again, Sarif turned to scan the land.

“The words needle and haystack spring to mind,” he muttered.

Wallace whipped an electronic device from his black cargo pants.

“Actually, meet the needle.”

Sarif studied the tiny blip on a black screen.

“What is it?”

“Arabella. Gilchrist had a tracking device implanted in her. Works within a twenty mile radius as long as she’s out in the open.”

Well now, it seemed today was a day full of surprises, and why hadn’t the Monroe brothers told him about a tracking device before?

“Then what are we waiting for?”

“Bruce is already on his way with a contingent of men to intercept Arabella and Leila, while you and I stick to the plan to free Rupert.”

Torn between the need to find his wife and to fix the mess he’d made by capturing Rupert Faulkner in the first place, Sarif nodded.

“Very well, but Arabella will not go with you quietly. Stubborn is her middle name.”

Wallace’s grin was a lightning flash of white teeth.

“Bruce’s middle name is obstinate. My brother’s a bolshie bastard. Don’t worry, he’ll bring her home in one piece.”

As they strode towards the stables with members of his security services waiting beyond, Sarif could only pray the man was right.

But he couldn’t help but worry about what his wife was going to do next.

 

EPISODE TWENTY

The desert wind blew hot and dry as three dusty trucks rumbled through the mountain pass. Containing twenty men, armed and exceedingly dangerous, each truck made their way through the last series of twists and they would eventually arrive at a large encampment hidden deep in the mountain range.

At his destination, Yussuf Hassam Nazari knew that he’d find the night’s entertainment, the torture of a British citizen and a Jordanian helicopter pilot shot down over a recent hot zone, was well underway and he could not wait to see the results of his torturer’s labour.

He was a man who lived for two things, money and power.

A man could not have one without the other.

Then again, he’d discovered he needed something else too—violence.

He enjoyed the pleasure that came from that swift explosion of aggression and the sound of sweet pain as fists beat on the flesh of another.

He’d been five the first time he’d heard the mellifluous sound of human suffering.

The boy he’d hurt again and again had been three and cried like a pitiful baby until, under the careful tutelage of his own father, Yussuf had fired a bullet into the boy’s blood-encrusted head.

Since then he’d evolved from torturing the weak and helpless to terrorising nations.

His name alone was powerful enough to bring a liquid fear to the bellies of the fearless, and dread to those who tried to keep their lands and peoples safe.

Nothing and no one could stop the evolution of Yussuf Hassam Nazari’s global business dealing in people and drug trafficking and the buying and selling of arms to the highest bidder. He cared nothing for global politics, a filthy, corrupt business at the best of times. Politicians, he’d found, spoke out of both sides of their mouth and any who had been stupid enough to betray him died a slow and painful death, but not before watching every single member of their family die drowned in their blood first. All it had taken was a couple of examples for his message to be received. These days no one dared double cross him. Fear, Yussuf had discovered, was an incredible motivator.

Long legs crossed, he relaxed back in the passenger seat of the middle truck, shielded by fierce men prepared to die for him. He was dressed in the loose cotton clothing beloved by his warriors, his head, nose and mouth protected from the dust and the sun. Sharp dark eyes narrowed as they scanned the vast walls of solid rock on either side of the narrow road. The road might be inaccessible for helicopter gunships, but there was still the danger of entrapment should the special forces of King Sarif El Haribe break the habit of a lifetime and get lucky. Then again Yussuf had been taught by a master to never leave anything to luck. Failing to plan is planning to fail were the words his late father had lived by. Therefore, Yussuf had a man on the inside, a man close to a King distracted by a woman. Sarif was truly a pathetic leader to allow himself to be pussy-whipped by an infidel of all things. Not that Yussuf, deep inside, was a particularly religious man. However, religion, like any other form of mind control, was useful in the way he and others could manipulate the words of a book and use those words for their own ends. Deep in their hearts human beings were weak when it came to believing in imaginary deities that never existed. As his father had often said, My beloved son, remember these words—we cannot fix fools.

Now the vehicles came to a halt and he emerged from the middle truck, aware of the men on either side, killers, like himself. Men he relied on. Men he called brothers. Still, he was different from them and he knew it, even if they never believed it.

He turned his head to the squat building made of mud and camel dung.

The sound of pain, a high and prolonged scream, broke the sudden silence.

The sound soothed him as he hooked his gun over his shoulder.

The English boy had been brave, but the beatings had worn him down, bit by bit. By now there wouldn’t be a place on his body that didn’t hurt.

If Yussuf had been a kind man, he’d put him out of his misery, but the boy had the potential to bring in big bucks, as long as he delivered him alive.

Shame the British Government hadn’t stipulated unharmed, or, in one piece.

Fools.

Now he nodded at one of his men standing guard outside the shabby wooden door of the building.

“Get some down time,” he said, his voice nothing but a low growl, the result of an attempted assassination, a throat cut, gone wrong.

“Can’t sleep. Too noisy.”

Yussuf placed a heavy hand on the guard’s broad shoulder.

“Take a break. You’ve earned it.”

When the guard moved away, Yussuf unwound the cloth over his mouth, pushed open the door and entered.

The smell of human waste and blood hit him first.

It took his eyes a few seconds to become accustomed to the lack of light.

On a long narrow table, instruments of torture, wet with blood, were lined up according to size.

In one corner the Jordanian, his flight suit sticky with blood and shit, was rocking back and forth, staring blankly into space.

Yussuf heaved a sigh.

The man had been broken too soon.

Pity.

Still, when his flesh burned he’d scream until he was hoarse before his body melted from within.

Then he turned to the young man huddled in the corner.

He wore nothing but filthy jeans that hung on his emaciated body.

He trembled as if in a fever and he reeked to high heaven.

One eye was swollen shut, sticky puss leaking from a corner.

Hmm.

Infection in this heat might be an issue.

The young man’s narrow feet were bare, covered in bruises gone black and the soles beaten bloody.

Yussuf nodded at Hakim, bare chested, holding a bloody cane in his meaty fist and standing to attention.

He approved of Hakim’s quick thinking.

Should the cavalry arrive, which was highly unlikely, Rupert Faulkner would be unable to walk anywhere, which would make freeing him without taking heavy losses difficult.

“You have done well, Hakim. Now you must rest.”

Hakim, his blood splashed cotton pants slung low on his lean hips, sweat glossing his vast chest, bowed his dark shorn head and left.

When the door closed, Yussuf shifted to crouch before the young man and caught the way his one good eye went wary as it held his.

Brave.

Unbroken.

Yussuf nodded, recognizing an opponent worthy of his close attention.

It had been a long while since he’d had one of those.

“I will send a medic with food and water and medication for your eye,” he said in his low, hoarse voice. “Tomorrow is a special day for the helicopter pilot. I promise you will enjoy the show.”

That one eye burned with a hate Yussuf totally understood.

He stood, towering above a human being who was beyond all hope and help, and yet refused to believe it.

Faith.

Hope.

Both were wonderful things.

But by the end of tomorrow he knew both would be snuffed out and all that would be left would be the broken husk of a young man who would never be the same again.

Yussuf left and immediately headed for the spicy scent of goat cooking over an open fire.

Oh to be a fly on the wall when Brigadier Hamish Faulkner received the shell of his son, alive but mentally destroyed and to see how the proud soldier dealt with the man who had caused all the pain and agony in the first place, King Sarif El Haribe.

It was a very satisfied Yussuf Hassam Nazari who took his place on a pile of thick carpets laid next to the fire, washed his hands in the scented water offered and nodded to his men to eat.

But then he stilled.

There was a tickle on the back of his neck.

Slowly, he turned his head, his sharp eyes scanning the high ground in the growing dusk.

“What is it?” Hakim asked.

“A feeling.”

Hakim studied the place where mountain met the sky and shook his head.

“Unless they are a mountain goat, no one can approach from that direction.”

Yussuf nodded, he knew that, and yet…

“Double the guards.”

With a single nod, Hakim rose and moved away to do as he was told.

Still, Yussuf studied the horizon as night fell.

All was still, and yet the tickle remained.

His men called his intuition magic.

Maybe it was.

Whatever, he never ignored it.

Time to plan.

 

*******

 

I’ve been incredibly busy with family and construction at the house, and with the heat and humidity it’s been difficult to find quiet space to write. However, undeterred, I shall write as much of Desert Captive as I can…..

Hugs,

Christine X

 

 

Desert Captive, episodes seventeen and eighteen…..

DESERTCAPTIVEBANNERbella1

Greetings from a steamy UK. The temperature today was thirty three degrees in Cheshire. It’s hot, baby. Let me begin by apologising for the lack of episodes last week, I was dealing with an arthritis flare, which the hot weather has fixed…. every cloud, etc.

Here’s the next two episodes…. It’s a slow burn….

Copyright © C C MacKenzie 2018

EPISODE SEVENTEEN

“Why do I get the feeling I’m not their favorite person?” Arabella asked Sarif an hour later as the room emptied and the huge double doors closed after the meeting.

Taking her hand in his, Sarif stood.

Arabella stood too.

“In time, once my son is born, they will come to love you.” His dark eyes found hers and held.

She tried to tug her hand from the heat of his, but his fingers tightened imperceptibly.

Seemed he wasn’t quite ready to let her go.

With a feeling of inevitability, she let him tow her out of the room.

“Where are we going?”

He glanced at her face.

“You said you wanted a walk. We’re going for a walk.”

“Outside?”

Again he glanced at her.

“Outside. It is time my people met their Queen.”

Arabella, the Queen of Quarram.

Somebody was having a laugh.

And if ever she felt like a big fat fraud it was now.

Sarif, still holding her hand, kept the pace out of the palace down to a leisurely stroll.

The setting sun turned the land from desert into a fiery glow.

As they proceeded towards huge metal gates far ahead, Arabella spotted Sarif’s close protection detail move into position. The men were uniformly tall, tough and lethal, but they didn’t come too close to overhear their conversation, she noticed.

Now Sarif brought her hand to his lips.

The jolt of attraction shot straight to her throat.

How on earth did every single move he made catch her breath?

“You have not asked me about your brother,” Sarif said in a soft voice.

She rubbed a hand over her throat.

“I figured no news was good news?”

“Go ahead, ask.”

The trouble with the way his thumb rubbed her hand was that she couldn’t think a single coherent thought.

Baby brain, she decided.

“Okay. I’ll play. What’s new?” she asked him in a sharp tone that brought a dark brow up.

A single cry from above had Sarif halt their walk to study an eagle.

“In less than forty-eight hours Rupert will be free.”

“You’ve organized an attack force?”

“But of course. Did you seriously expect me to leave your brother to his fate?”

She shrugged, and guessed. “Bruce and Wallace?”

“And others.”

She bit her lip, her mind spinning, thinking that her and Leila would need to refine the timing of their original plan.

“And you’re telling me this, why?”

“You’re anxious, which is perfectly understandable, but anxiety is not good for the baby.”

Of course his first concern would be for the baby, so why the belly plunge of disappointment?

“Plus,” he continued, “you are in no fit state to try something desperately stupid yourself. Don’t forget I am familiar with your, er… professional… capabilities.”

Arabella held in the snort of disgust at the implication that because she was pregnant she was helpless.

“True,” she lied straight to his face. “I can’t see me rappelling down the side of a building for a while.”

“Or at any other time,” he said and his deep voice held a clear warning that her military days were behind her.

That’s what you think, boyo.

Then another thought hit her.

“Is there a reason you’re preparing a rescue attempt now?”

He made a face.

“It seems Nazari has another captive, a Jordanian pilot whose plane was shot down last month. Apparently, he is preparing to murder him, streamed live on social media.”

A wave of nausea made her dizzy.

“Beheading?”

His jaw tight, Sarif shook his head.

“Put in a cage, poured with petrol and burned alive.”

“Omigod.”

“I leave tonight.”

Any idea of cancelling her plan to rescue her brother flew from her mind.

Time was of the essence.

He took her silence as a woman who was worried sick about her brother, which she was, and not as a woman who was busy reorganizing plans in her mind.

“I promise you, I will bring him back safe,” Sarif said in a soft voice.

Her gaze shot to his and held, while her heart fluttered madly against her ribs.

Relief warred ferociously with worry about her brother and worry for what she was about to do might mean for the safety for her and her child.

Worry won.

When she said nothing in response to his statement, he studied her face again.

“You are angry with me,” he said. “You have every right.”

Too true she had every right.

She was more than angry with him.

“I warn you now, if my brother has been harmed…”

Again he brought her hand to his mouth.

“You will… what?” his deep voice had gone soft again, and something in his eyes made something inside her simply melt.

He smelled of bergamot, probably something in his cologne and soap.

“Make you pay,” she whispered as her mind centred on the fact his bodyguards were within striking distance and might not react well to her threatening their King.

He nodded.

“Understandable under the circumstances, but don’t you think you have made me pay enough?”

Was he serious?

Hell, she hadn’t even begun to make him pay.

“Nope.”

He bit his bottom lip, and although his eyes were serious enough, she got the feeling he was amused by something… her.

“You’re walking along a very shaky edge,” she told him, her eyes steady on his.

“I stand warned.”

As they approached the gates, they stopped while the gates opened.

About fifty yards away was a large encampment of tents, horses and camels.

The tinkling of goat bells rang out as night fell.

The smell of camel dung, oil lamps, smoking fire, desert and many unwashed bodies hit her.

Then something else hit her, everything about the scene, the scents and the sounds told her she was home.

“What is it?” he asked, and she realized she’d made a little sound of distress in her throat.

The sense of place felt so right, her eyes stung.

She shook the feeling off.

“Nothing.”

His look told her he didn’t believe her, but he let it go.

The thought that he could read her so well disturbed her.

It disturbed her a lot.

The last thing she needed was to let this man get under her skin again.

“I never thought you were a hypocrite,” she said, going immediately on the attack, to show no weakness. “Arrogant and selfish, yes. A hypocrite, no.”

The little tic in his jaw told her she’d hit the spot.

“I made a mistake. Perhaps you could find it in your heart to see me as a desperate man who did a stupid and desperate thing to get your attention.”

Hadn’t Wallace Monroe said pretty much the same thing to her earlier?

“I needed time,” she said, “to adjust to my rather unexpected reality.”

“I want you in my bed,” Sarif said again in that soft tone. He used that tone a lot with her these days.

The thought of sharing his bed had her whole body switch on to a state of high alert, and then something she’d overheard Hafar mention entered her mind.

She pulled her hand free.

“What about your French mistress?”

He didn’t even miss a beat.

“Our friendship is at an end.”

“I hear it cost you a swanky apartment in Paris and loadsamoney. Some friend you are.”

He shrugged.

“She was a loyal and good friend.”

“Good friends don’t need to be bribed, they either are or they’re not.”

His eyes narrowed. “You see the world through a very narrow lens.”

“Do I? I see the word in black and white with the occasional shade of gray. I like to keep things simple.”

“You are also, a coward,” he shot back clearly stung and going on the attack so fast it made her dizzy.

Not sorry at all she’d annoyed him, nevertheless Arabella bristled at the charge.

“That’s a first. I’m not the one who kidnaps young men…”

“I have apologized…”

She spun, her hands on her hips. Her chin lifted so high she peered down her nose at him.

“So that makes it all okay then?”

He shifted to enter her personal space.

“You ignored every single overture I made. What was I supposed to do?”

“You were supposed to wait, wait until I was ready to come to terms with the consequences of what we did.”

“You were taking too long.”

“Because I…”

She stopped and bit her tongue, reluctant to tell him the truth, because the truth sounded utterly ridiculous even to herself.

“Because what?” he ground out, his eyes glued to her face.

Oh, for the love of…

“It’s a hormone thing. I have… had… maybe still have… baby brain.”

He looked at her as if she’d lost her mind.

Maybe she had.

He scratched his chin.

“And what—” Sarif said, a bemused look on his face that made her hand itch to smack him,”—on earth, is baby brain?”

She sent him a bland look.

“Something you will never experience because you do not have a vagina.”

With a shake of his head, he reached for her hand and found it.

Then he turned towards a group of people, nomads, who stood watching them with wary eyes.

“I am beginning to think you are quite mad.”

Taking a deep breath, Arabella caught the heady scent of horse manure and human sweat.

She spotted a girl of about ten holding the hand of a small boy, pinned a smile to her face, and headed in their direction.

“That makes two of us.”

 

 

EPISODE EIGHTEEN

 

Even as she led Sarif towards the children, he refused to release her hand and it occurred to her that this was the first time in her life she’d ever held a man’s hand.

The strength in his fingers were a clear sign of his physical superiority, and again she felt that lovely little ripple in the blood, something she was coming to accept would probably never change between them.

Actually, when they’d come together that first and last time, it hadn’t been a ripple, it had been a tsunami—of lust—that had washed them both away—and left them stranded on the rocky shore of life.

The dusty-haired boy clutching the hand of the girl was around six years old. By their faces, she reckoned siblings. The boy had bright dark eyes, a scab on one knee, dirt on his cheek and the kind of angelic face that spelled trouble.

The elderly man standing next to them looked fierce.

Warrior fierce.

And not happy.

While Sarif spoke to the man, Arabella focused on the children.

She crouched down and studied the little boy dressed in an oversized T-shirt that had seen better days.

He could have done with a bath.

“You the Sheik?” she asked in Farsi.

“No.” He grinned, his dark eyes twinkling with fun. “You’re the Queen?”

“So they say.”

“You don’t look like a Queen.”

“True.”

He jerked his little chin towards the desert.

“There are strange men digging for bones out there. They say they are looking for dinosaur bones. Do you like dinosaurs?”

Strange men, eh?

Arabella guessed the strangers were MI5 and working with a certain Colonel.

“Doesn’t everyone like dinosaurs?”

He moved closer. “My sister doesn’t like dinosaurs. I like fossils.”

Delighted with him, Arabella grinned and rolled her eyes towards the men above still talking in clipped tones.

“Plenty of old fossils around here.”

The cough from above brought her eyes up to the girl who was trying hard, and failing, not to laugh.

“How do you do, I’m Arabella.” Arabella stood and offered her hand.

The girl studied her hand for a moment and then took it.

“Amira Hussein.”

“Cute kid,” Arabella said and ran her hand over the boy’s dusty head.

“He is Malik.”

“Brother?”

“Yes. Please come and sit with us, eat and listen to the music.”

Deciding that was the best offer she’d had all day, Arabella left Sarif and the older man to it and followed her two small guides towards a large gathering of women and children sat around a campfire. The scent of roasted meat, onions and spices filled the air. Four men with guns strapped to their backs and holding instruments sat cross legged on rugs. One held a violin, another plucked the strings of an Oud, while another held a wind instrument called a Ney, the last man held a percussion instrument.

She was led to a slightly raised area, covered in rugs and fat cushions.

As she sat, she found her elbow gripped by Sarif and nearly overbalanced.

These days her centre of gravity was affected by the weight of the child she carried.

“To be invited to sit and eat with the Bedouin is a great honor,” Sarif said as he sat next to her. “Sheik Al Qasimi believes it is unseemly of me to hold your hand and to sit with women.”

“You should listen to him,” Arabella told him.

“Changes are coming to my land and people need to adapt.”

“It seems such a little thing to cause trouble over.”

“I want to sit with you, therefore I will sit with you.”

“Stubborn,” she muttered.

When Malik appeared holding a heavy metal plate piled with flatbreads, Sarif washed his hands first in a silver bowl filled with fragrant water and dried it on a cloth held by Amira, before he thanked the boy and took two breads and placed them on plates.

Arabella went through the same hand washing routine, and waited until Sarif served her with a plate filled with fragrant rice, bread and meat and yoghurt mixed with spices.

The scent alone made her mouth water.

As she ate her fill and told Amira the food was delicious, Arabella let the music, the smells and the peace of the evening wash over her.

“If you want to understand a culture,” Sarif’s deep voice spoke in her ear, his breath kissed her cheek, “listen to the music. The tune, the words when there are words to hear. When you truly listen, hear it, you will begin to understand me and my people. Music is the heart of all peoples, all cultures, because it comes from here.” Sarif placed the palm of his hand on his heart.

She turned to him to find those dark eyes on her face.

“And that’s why certain terrorist organisations want music banned…”

“That, and they want the people left without hope. People left without all hope are easily manipulated.”

The music changed, the tone shifting to something so terribly heart wrenching, she blinked.

Sarif dipped his head.

“It is about a brave warrior, doomed, dying a terrible death of pain and torture, for his country, for his people.”

Arabella could understand that.

She understood a person being prepared to die for what they believed in.

Honor.

Duty.

Freedom.

“Like your culture,” Sarif continued, “in our culture we do not forget our heroes.”

***

Much later that evening, Arabella stood alone on the balcony of her rooms and studied the half moon lighting a landscape filled with dips and shadows.

The camp far below was almost quiet, except for the flicker from the fires and the occasional sound of an animal disturbed. Even the goats slept, huddled together for warmth. At night the desert was a cold, harsh place.

A sound had her turn to find Leila standing there.

The girl was dressed from head to toe in black, only her eyes were uncovered.

The machine gun strapped to her back, plus straps of ammunition and a lightweight backpack meant her hands were free.

Leila ran her gaze over an Arabella dressed exactly like her, except of course, for the baby bump.

Leila shook her head.

“I don’t like this. What if…”

Arabella held up her hand.

“We don’t have time to debate. We’re doing this tonight.”

“Don’t have much of a choice now anyway,” Leila muttered.

“The deed is done?”

“Yep. The guards are out for the count.”

“Then let’s go.”

Since they’d trained together in the same unit at Sandhurst, the women moved fast, their footsteps soundless as they sped down dimly lit stone corridors and the servant’s staircases until they came to a side entrance.

Leila went first, quick fingers making short work of the digital code to unlock the door.

Arabella knew that once Sarif had figured out how they’d left, he’d change the locks and the codes, but she couldn’t think of him at the moment or his reaction to what she was about to do. If their luck held, then Rupert would be safe, Yussuf Hassam Nazari would be dead, and she would be on her way back home in England.

Result.

Leila took the lead as they jogged at a steady pace away from the palace and the encampment, heading for the hills.

Arabella ignored the niggling stitch in her side, but was happy to catch her breath when she found two horses and supplies waiting in the dip of scrubland.

A closer look at the beasts, had Arabella blow out a low whistle.

“Sarif won’t be happy you’ve purloined a couple of his best Arabians.”

Leila shrugged as she ran a hand over a shiny black flank.

“Over thousands of years, the Bedouin’s breeding programme of natural selection in a harsh environment have perfected the ideal instrument of war. These horses are swift, responsive, agile and tolerant, with courage, loyalty and the ability to remain firm in the face of privation. I’d rather have a fine horse in the desert than a vehicle any day.”

Arabella placed her foot in the stirrup and nimbly settled into the saddle.

The beast was fresh and tested her mettle until she quickly brought it under control.

“How far?” she asked a Leila who was studying the gadget in her hand.

“Eight miles as the crow flies.”

“Shame we’re not crows.”

“No, but I reckon we might be called fools,” Leila muttered beneath her breath.

Arabella turned to her, only seeing her shadow in the darkness.

“They’re going to burn one of their prisoners alive.”

She heard Leila’s quick intake of breath and then, “Fuckers.”

“We can’t let it happen.”

“The Monroe brothers might not be too happy to have us along,” Leila said now.

“By then it will be too late for them to do anything about it.”

“Sarif won’t be happy either. I see the way he looks at you, Bella. He cares.”

“All Sarif cares about it is Sarif,” Arabella said and even as the words spilled from her mouth, she wondered if she was truly being fair to the man. Hadn’t he shown her how much he cared by the way he’d looked after her this evening, seeing to her every need in front of his people?

Then later, as he’d walked her to her rooms, he’d asked to come in and she’d refused him.

He hadn’t got angry, instead he’d held her close and rested his forehead on hers.

“Don’t be afraid, Arabella. I will never hurt you.”

The look for her in his eyes, stormy with needs that had almost brought her to her knees.

Almost.

She’d entered her room and closed the door on his handsome face.

Now she took a deep breath, shook off the memories, and told herself to focus on the task ahead.

As they trotted into a night lit only by the silvery light of a half moon and glittering stars cascading through the heavens, Arabella used all her military skill and expertize to halt the feeling of dread and the nerves dancing in her belly.

For once in her life she wasn’t following her instinct.

Then the words of her Colonel entered her mind, “If you quit, you fail.”

The phrase firmed her resolve to do what was right.

Failure was not an option.

 


 

I just want to say that next week shit hits the fan…….

AND, if all y’all want to read the entire thing from episode one to now then click on this  ‘rolling’ link. Keep the link because it will be updated each week.

https://ccmackenzie.com/about/test/

Love and hugs and smoochies,
Christine X

Desert Captive, episodes 11 + 12….

DCAPTIVEOLDWAYSWILLNOTOPENNEWDOORS

Happy Friday, dear readers,

It’s been a hot, sunny and busy week what with the impending new release of HITCHED TO THE ITALIAN on Friday 15th June – pre-order available everywhere. I’ve had builders in tool belts climbing all over the roof. Tomorrow a very large ceiling is being plastered and the decorating work can commence. This author’s work is never done…

Talking about work, here’s the next two episode’s of Desert Captive… Oh, Sarif, what the hell is the matter with you?

 

DESERT CAPTIVE

by CC MACKENZIE

Copyright © C C MacKenzie 2018

 

 

EPISODE ELEVEN

 

While Arabella was violently ill, Sarif punched the internal alarm button, his heart thundering wildly against his ribs.

The vehicle screeched to an emergency stop.

The blacked out dividing window slid down and he saw the fierce dark eyes of one of his personal security detail take in the scene at a glance.

Arabella lay boneless in his arms, her head lolling on her shoulders, but worse was the thin line of blood oozing from her nose. Her skin was cold as ice and deathly white.

Sarif felt something like a helpless wave of sheer panic wash over him.

The door was flung open and his team of military medical personnel, a permanent part of his convoy, moved in.

When he felt her belly contract and go hard beneath his hand, his gaze snapped to a medic.

“Is she in labour?”

The medic placed his stethoscope on her belly and listened.

“The child lives.” Then he listened to Arabella. “She is in cardiac arrhythmia.”

Another medic stuck his head in the doorway.

“My Lord, we have a helicopter ready to take Her Royal Highness to the Royal hospital in Dhuma.”

The speed of action the emergency evoked, plus the traumatic journey that followed, the landing and rapid reaction of medical staff, was beyond harrowing for a man used to being in control of all things in his carefully constructed existence.

Well, he wasn’t in control now, Sarif accepted as he showered in the male doctors’ facilities. He changed into dark blue medical scrubs, which were a little snug over his wide shoulders.

 

When he emerged, he was directed to Arabella’s room.

He found her surrounded by beeping machines and a flurry of efficient medical staff who all seemed to know what they were doing.

The doctor in charge turned to him.

He was trim, in his mid-fifties, with intelligent dark eyes and the hooked nose of his kind, Tuareg.

“From initial blood and urine samples it appears she has been poisoned from a tincture of a purgative plant or plants. Our lab technicians are working on an antidote. However, our concern is for the health of the child. If he is delivered now, he will not have a fighting chance. His lungs are immature and he is small for his gestation. And we are having great difficulty stabilizing your wife’s heartbeat. It is possible, Lord, that we may have to make a choice between mother or child or we may lose both.”

Sarif’s hands gripped his head as he studied the woman lying, helpless, on the hospital bed. A woman, he knew, did not trust him to do the right thing by her. And why should she? Hadn’t he accused her of considering to abort his son? And now here he was faced with the horrific choice of who lived and who died?

Too many pairs of eyes were upon him now, awaiting his decision.

He had no one to guide him.

No one to turn to for advice.

And why was that?

Because he’d been too stupid and too stubborn to speak to his father, his mother, or his brother to ask for help when it came to his relationship with Arabella. It was as if a veil had been lifted from his eyes. He could see every single blunder he had made. All he had done was to make one bad decision after the other in a fit of pique, anger and a need for vengeance.

He turned to the doctor.

“No one dies this night.”

The doctor nodded.

“I hope Allah will be kind and give Her Highness time to recover. But if the mother or the child deteriorate a decision must be made.”

Sarif could not tear his eyes from Arabella’s face.

He knew the final decision must be his and his alone.

He needed to do his duty to his people and to his country.

He nodded.

“Save my wife.”

As he strode from the room and the noise of those infernal machines, he told himself if the worst came to the worst, there would be more children.

He’d make sure of it.

Even so, his eyes stung and he knew he could not hold it together for much longer. He waved away his security detail and blindly entered the first door he came to, a dark room. The smell of bleach and disinfectant told him it was filled with cleaning equipment. He shut the door, rested his weary head against it and closed his eyes.

All he could think was that he had failed.

Failed to keep safe the woman he had all but forced to marry him.

Failed to protect the child she carried.

But along with the sense of how badly he’d mishandled the entire situation, was another—anger.

An anger that all but obliterated every last sense of personal failure.

He had a traitor in his midst.

Someone close.

And that person would pay the ultimate price for treason and betrayal with his or her life.

The brisk knock on the door had him take a deep and steady breath.

He swiped his wet face.

Tears were for the weak.

He wondered if the interruption meant the worst had already happened and his son was dead.

However, his personal protection officer stood there.

He kept his eyes firmly on the door behind Sarif’s head as he said, “My Lord, King Abdullah has arrived with Queen Janaan.”

Sarif kept his face expressionless as he nodded, even if inside his mind he groaned loud and long.

Great.

This was all he needed.

How was he going to explain away how he was a married man and, God willing, soon to be a father?

And yet, as he was led to a private room, Sarif had the plunging belly of a man about to face some unintended consequences of his actions.

 

EPISODE TWELVE

 

“The last time we sat in a room together under somewhat similar circumstances, I might add, I was the one doing the explaining,” King Abdullah said now.

Dressed in a dark business suit, handcrafted in Savile Row as were the blindingly white silk shirt and striped tie, his father surveyed Sarif from beneath a slash of ebony brows.

There was nothing luxurious about the functional room with it’s single desk of polished wood and three leather armchairs.

The place smelled of hospital.

It was painted institutional pale grey, the floor a polished ivory tile.

His father continued, “You might imagine our… surprise… to discover that not only are you married, but that we are about to become grandparents. If the child survives…”

Sarif closed his eyes tight and ran a hand across the rasp of his jaw.

He reckoned he’d just gone through one of the worst twelve hours of his life.

The last thing he needed was his father on his case.

He shot a glance at the haughty profile of his beautiful mother, at the raised chin and the way her mouth was a thin line of deep displeasure—with him.

His mother wore flat pumps by the house of Chanel.

He reckoned the skinny silk pants, matching tunic that fell to the knees, sleeves tight to the wrist, were by the same designer. Her black hair was covered by a matching silk scarf. The only jewelry, she wore, was the huge diamond of her wedding ring, and single carat diamond earrings.

“And this is the second attempt on her life you say?” King Abdullah drummed his fingers on the arm of his leather chair the color of clear honey.

“And on the life of the child she carries,” Queen Janaan muttered in her slow Texan drawl. Abruptly she stood and paced across the shiny tiled floor. “Poison is the coward’s weapon of choice. There is a good reason why Khalid has Charisse protected by a ring of steel around the White Palace.”

“Onuur is an easier country to manage than Quarram,” Sarif pointed out what was to him glaringly obvious.

However, by the flash of annoyance in his mother’s dark eyes, he reckoned he should adjust his attitude and keep his big mouth shut.

“And you did not think to invite your family to your wedding?” his mother asked in a soft tone that didn’t hide the hurt in her voice or screen the bewilderment in her eyes.

“Time was not on our side,” Sarif said now and wondered how the hell he was going to dig himself out of this unholy mess. The El Haribe family were close. Always had been. They stuck together. His parents had every right to be angry and upset at not being there to welcome Arabella into their family. Plus, his mother was very fond of his new wife, especially after Bella and Queen Janaan had worked together to keep Charisse safe following an attempt on her life.

“So, the only time she had anything to eat or drink was on the plane?” The King asked.

Sarif nodded and took a shaky breath to try and calm his scattered thought process and failed.

The way Arabella’s body had purged itself of a toxin designed to instigate premature labor was something that would give him night terrors for the rest of his life. Her body had been racked with pain. The blood oozing from her nose and mouth had left him helpless to do anything except hold her. Even now, although dressed in clean soft scrubs, her blood was trapped beneath his fingernails.

“We have been down this road before with Charisse,” his mother said briskly. “We again have enemies within. We received help before, and we need that help now.”

Sarif nodded.

“I agree.”

His mother shot him a toothy smile that did not quite reach her narrowed dark eyes.

“Well it’s a good job we brought the Monroe brothers with us then, isn’t it?”

For the first time Sarif felt a sense of relief.

The Monroe brothers were ex British special forces, fluent in a variety of indigenous Arab dialects and as tough as they came.

However, they were also very close, both professionally and personally, to Arabella and that thought made him wonder exactly how friendly they were going to be towards him.

He didn’t have to wait long to find out.

The brisk knock at the door heralded the arrival of the eldest of the brothers, Captain Bruce Monroe.

Built like a tank Bruce stood six four in his bare feet.

Right now he wore black combats, a Kevlar vest and was armed to the teeth.

His hair was black and shiny as a raven’s wing.

Bright blue eyes found Sarif’s and held without blinking.

Bruce stalked into the room.

“Well now, isn’t this a fine mess you’ve gotten yourself into, your Royal Highness? Wanna explain to me why the fuck you had Rupert Faulkner, your nineteen year old brother-in-law—for those among us who have no idea who the hell he is—tossed in jail?”

Queen Janaan sank slowly to the edge of a chair and all the while her wide eyes stayed glued in a sort of horrified fascination at her eldest son’s face.

“Omigod. Sarif, did you blackmail poor Arabella into marrying you?”

He had not.

“No. She agreed to marry me before…”

“Before you needed to use your ace in the hole?” Bruce growled the question.

Well, no one had ever said the Monroe brothers were stupid.

Sarif lifted his noble chin.

“I have given orders for his immediate release. As we speak he is winging his way home to England.”

Sarif knew he sounded defensive, but he had done what he thought had been right at the time. As far as he was concerned a wrong decision by him had been put right.

Within two strides Bruce Monroe was in Sarif’s personal space, grabbed him by the neck of his scrubs and jerked him to his feet.

“Wrong. The convoy carrying Rupert Faulkner was attacked this morning. Right now, the boy is in the hands of Yusuf Hassam Nazari.”

Stunned by the magnitude of this disaster, for a moment Bruce’s furious face faded in and out of Sarif’s focus.

Nazari was a sociopath, people trafficker and head of an organized crime syndicate that had spread around the globe.

He was also affiliated with the worst terrorist organization known to man.

“We will get him back,” Sarif growled and took a step back as his personal protection team entered and went for their weapons.

Before lethal forced was used, Bruce released him, but then tested the nerve of his personal protection officers by going nose to nose with their King.

“You fucking betcha we’re gonna get him back. And let me put it this way, his head had better be attached to his shoulders when we do or your wife will personally remove yours from your royal shoulders, Your Highness.”

***

 

Oooooooh, Sarif is in deep excrement.

I’m writing up a storm with this story….. Stay tuned….

Christine X

It’s episodes 6 + 7 of DESERT CAPTIVE…

desertcaptivebanner6+7

 

Hello, my darlings!

Did you enjoy THE ROYAL WEDDING last Saturday? We loved the whole romance of the special occasion and how much in the love the couple were. Meghan looked radiant in the splendour of the Chapel. I wish them every happiness and know they are going to be a great team.

Speaking of teams, HITCHED TO THE ITALIAN’S final edit is almost in the bag and my editor love-love-loved it. It includes some re-written sneak peeks woven through the torrid tale, and I have the next two outlines fleshed out in the HITCHED TO THE ITALIAN series. My team and I have had the best time coming up with the next two titles and covers. Love my job!  I’m also working on OUR RULES.

Here’s the next two episodes of DESERT CAPTIVE. Remember these are not the final version of the story, things will change in the finished version of the book after many rounds of editing.

Enjoy!

DESERT CAPTIVE

 

Copyright © C C MacKenzie 2018

 

 

EPISODE SIX

Sarif surveyed Arabella, the woman who within a matter of moments, was about to become his wife.

Her scent, lightly floral and warm woman, seemed to draw him in. The slim hand held in his felt cold and even a little fragile. On her finger she wore a giant diamond solitaire ring that appeared too big for her hand. Even as her fingers gripped his, the knuckles white, the stone glittered with a blazing brilliance. It was a beautiful ring befitting a Queen. His Queen. His. A heat he could do nothing about, no matter how hard he tried, burned in his groin. It was her body, he told himself urgently. There was just something about how slim she appeared in an ivory silk pant suit, an outfit sent to her by Queen Charisse’s couturier in the House of Chanel. Queen Charisse was a good friend to Arabella and soon to be her sister-in-law. His brother, Khalid, and Charisse had been unable to attend this very sudden wedding. Neither had his parents, which was probably just as well because it was not a for-ever kind of marriage and he knew they would not approve of his actions. The entire ceremony was nothing more than the only way for him to legally claim his son.

Now he studied Bella’s set face. Her hair was the color of the true brunette, dark chestnut shot through with brandy. Her face was oval, the cheekbones sharp, the skin clear and fresh and quite lovely. Her mouth was full, the bottom lip might even be called voluptuous. It was a mouth that left him painfully turned on. Aware of his scrutiny, her eyes, dark brown, flicked to his and held.

Hot tendrils of a lust that never faded whenever he looked at her spun through his system.

His attraction to her remained a complete mystery to him.

For the past few days this woman, with her face stony, her responses tense and cool to his attempt to make polite conversation, only made him tense and cool himself. And yet now that held her hand, his whole body was ablaze.

The celebrant officiating the legal ceremony asked her a question and finally she smiled and it lit up her grave face like the sun. In truth, the smile was both wooden and formal. Involuntarily Sarif was amused for no woman had ever treated him the way Bella did, with such utter disdain. Then she turned to him and he studied the clear challenge in her eyes and asked himself if marrying her was worth everything he was sacrificing. Of course it was, his intelligence told him. For the loss of his freedom he had to be practical and work within the British legal system and do anything to gain custody of his son. One way or another marriage to this woman was a step forward in attaining his goal to secure the continued heritage of his family and his name. Both would go a long way to securing a better future for his people.

Silence fell as they both said the words that legally bound them, and he had another flashback to how her tight bare bottom had felt as his hands had gripped her as her long legs had wound around his waist and together they’d attained a dizzy height of bliss he’d never felt before or since.

Now he wondered if her clear unwillingness to even speak to him since they’d made love that one time had stoked a weird sort of craving. Again hunger leapt through his veins because now she was his. The thought of her spread across his vast bed in various different positions shot heat to his groin. He could not remember ever wanting a woman with such violent immediacy. Was it possible that her reluctance sustained his desire? Was he truly the type of man who needed the sort of challenge, Bella truly represented? And why was the truth of her standing next to him and pregnant with his child such a turn on? Wasn’t that a little perverted? A hard line of color streaked his exotic, high cheekbones, and he stood upright and told himself to get a grip.

The celebrant smiled.

“You may kiss the bride.”

Slowly, they turned to face one another.

Now he held both of her hands in his as he stared at the narrow band of gold that signified their joining as man and wife.

In his mind, Sarif promised himself the kiss would be a brief touch of the lips.

No more.

No less.

But when those clear dark brown eyes gazed unflinchingly, so intently into his, he found his hand raised to brush a stray hair behind her small ear.

And then as he touched her, the sudden tremble in her body, shook him to the core.

He bent his head and inhaled the scent of her shampoo.

Slowly… agonizingly slowly… his mouth touched hers and he brushed his lips back and forth across the full softness of her bottom lip.

Her shaky exhales came in short, ragged breaths.

The barely there touch of his mouth against hers felt like heaven.

It felt incredible.

His eyes fluttered shut.

His big body shivered.

The moan from her increased his easy exploration of her mouth. Pleasure charged through his system like a jolt of lightning and he nearly orgasmed right in front of witnesses.

His body needed more.

He needed more.

Their bodies, as if magnetised, moved closer until pressed together, but still felt too far apart.

Only the low cough from someone behind him, brought Sarif back to his senses.

He blinked, and lifted his head until their mouths reluctantly parted.

When she tasted her lips, he found himself mirroring the move.

Her taste was like honey.

He couldn’t help it.

Still holding her hands, he rested his forehead on hers.

“Well, well, well,” he muttered under his breath, his eyes locked on hers. “Seems we still have that carnal lust between us. Interesting how one can abhor a person and yet feel attraction, isn’t it?”

Her face paled as if he’d slapped her, but he wasn’t at all sorry.

The last thing he wanted her to believe was that he was a romantic fool.

No point in letting her get too comfortable in this short relationship.

And he most definitely didn’t want her to know that she had any sort of power over him.

Hands down, he’d just had one of the most erotic moments of his adult life.

Maybe being forced to marry Arabella Faulkner had a silver lining.

He wanted her.

She wanted him.

When it came to her keeping the promises she’d just made to him, the fact was he didn’t trust her an inch.

However, maybe they’d both get something unexpected out of the farce she was prepared to play.

After all, it wasn’t as if she could get pregnant when they had sex.

That boat, as the old saying went, had already sailed.

 

EPISODE SEVEN

Bella settled into a corner of the gilded limousine with police outriders whisking them to the airport and a Quarram Royal jet. Queen Arabella. If the whole thing wasn’t so utterly ridiculous, she’d actually find it funny. She studied Sarif’s lean, darkly handsome face. He looked so different from the man she had first met in Onuur. He was proud of his country and his heritage. Yet, he hadn’t worn his national dress for their marriage, something which had surprised her. Now he wore a sharply tailored suit with the style and flair of one born to such formality. Exquisitely tailored in a fine dark grey wool and silk blend, the cut of the suit outlined his broad shoulders and wide chest and enhanced his lean hips and those long powerful legs to a T.

For some reason, her body seemed to tremble like a tuning fork in his illustrious presence, and that seriously irritated her. The truth might be hard to swallow, but the fact was that no matter how much he angered or annoyed her, it appeared he still fascinated her. A voice told her she was emotionally treading on dangerous ground and to take care. However, the voice was unable to stop her temperature rising along with her heartbeat. Pregnancy had sensitized her breasts to the point where they felt constricted by her bra. She pressed her slim trouser-clad thighs together, fighting a losing battle to control the growing heat at the heart of her.

“If you keep looking at me like that I’ll have to do something about it,” Sarif said in a silky voice that held both a threat and a promise.

Bella’s cheeks burned with a mortification that made her want to slap herself.

Jeez, what the hell was wrong with her?

She was acting as if she had a starring role in a romance novel and that this marriage was for real.

Then she found herself saying, “You started it. You kissed me first.”

“In your culture it is expected of the groom to kiss the bride. And anyway, you kissed me back.”

She shut her eyes tight.

True.

She had kissed him back and loved every single minute of it.

“We sound like two bickering children,” she muttered.

“We are both suffering from nothing more than an overwhelming chemical reaction, which has caused an unwanted attraction and an equally unwanted sexual frustration between us,” he said thickly. “I have never gone without sex for so long. In the last two weeks I have had enough cold showers to last me three lifetimes.”

That frank response set her cheeks on fire, a tide of mortification washing up over her neck and face. Her gaze evaded those blazing grey eyes in a face that looked as if it was carved from stone. Something compelling went tight low in her pelvis, a contracting thread of a very physical yearning that was powerful enough to shatter her already frayed nerves.

What the hell had happened to her legendary professional cool?

She was renowned for keeping calm in a crisis.

Well, she was so far from calm right now it wasn’t funny.

All she wanted to do was get the man naked.

Worse, she knew he felt exactly the same way.

The bloody hormone apocalypse strikes again, she thought savagely.

“You were late. I thought you were going to jilt me at the altar,” he said now without a lick of humor in his voice.

“Don’t think I didn’t think about it.”

“What changed your mind?”

Now might be the perfect time to tell him she knew he held her brother captive.

She was sorely tempted to wipe that smirk off his gorgeous face.

However, for once her professional common sense prevailed.

If she tipped her hand too soon, Sarif would discover that the British Secret Service knew too, and that would put the success of their rescue plan at risk. The last thing she wanted was to put her brother in even more danger, so she kept quiet. For now. Let Sarif be the one to confess his many sins and explain himself to her. She looked forward to hearing his reasoning behind her brother’s imprisonment. Knowing Sarif it was bound to be interesting.

“As you said yourself, London is dangerous. I only want what’s best for my baby and to keep it safe,” she said at last.

He sat there with his attitude one of a Lord of all he surveyed.

Including her, she reminded herself.

The man was in superb condition.

He was long and lean.

Fit.

Swept back ebony hair, brooding brows.

A firm don’t-mess-with-me mouth.

“Do you really?” he asked in that horrible silky voice she was coming to detest.

She blinked.

“Of course I do. I’ve no idea why you would think anything else.”

“This is neither the time nor the place to have that conversation,” Sarif told her as the limousine came to halt at the airport.

After that, the chance for any private dialogue ceased until they were whizzed through passport control onto the vast jet.

Once settled in a comfortable chair of the softest leather, and treated like a Queen by the crew, even then, she had no opportunity to ask him just what the hell he meant by that statement. When it came to wanting what was best for her child, as far as he was concerned, what was there to talk about? Obviously, he had no idea that she had no intention of either staying in Quarram long term or of leaving her child behind either.

If Sarif ever discovered she had another agenda, he’d make sure her life wasn’t worth living, and he’d take their child.

She knew he would.

And he might be all laid back and casual about sex, but she wasn’t.

Contrarily, she now wished she hadn’t been a virgin when they’d had sex, that she’d been more experienced in that regard.

As the jet engine roared for take-off, seemed even the air-traffic controllers pulled out all the stops for His Majesty, Bella knew she had just burned many bridges of a personal nature.

Her parents hadn’t come to the wedding, for the simple reason she hadn’t invited them.

What was the point of dragging them to a ceremony that not only meant nothing, but she’d need to explain herself and her actions to her father when she returned to the UK with a baby boy?

As the plane levelled out, she watched Sarif stalk out of a door, which held some kind of office where he’d had a pow-pow with a skinny little man who’d kept giving her the side-eye as soon as she’d stepped onto the aircraft.

Now Sarif strode down the red carpeted walkway towards her.

He had a face like thunder.

Bella reckoned that stick up his ass must hurt—a lot.

Maybe she’d give it a twist.

He stopped by the chair, offered his hand.

“Now we are out of British air space, on this plane we are on Quarram sovereign territory. Come with me.”

Something about they way he looked at her, as if she was a bad smell beneath his noble nose, should have warned her.

Later, she’d bitterly regret giving him her hand and allowing herself to be led like a lamb to the slaughter.

No one took any notice of them as he towed her through the office and that horrible little man who didn’t even raise his head to acknowledge her existence.

Interested in the way the plane was designed, with a sort of private apartment constructed at the rear, she said nothing as he led her past a sitting arrangement and through to what was obviously a luxuriously appointed double bedroom.

“Sit,” he ordered, pointing to the bed.

Heart pounded at the thought of being ravished by this man, because why would he bring her here in the first place?

She sat.

He closed the door, locked it, and turned to face her.

Back resting against the door, he crossed his arms.

“How much is my son worth to you?”

Stunned, she stared at him.

“I’m sorry, you’ve lost me.”

“How much? Ten million? Twenty million? Fifty million? Name your price.”

Feeling as if someone had smacked her on the head with a hammer, she shook her head.

Who the hell was this man?

“Let me get this straight. You want to buy my child?”

“No. I already have my son safely on this plane and almost in my country where he will stay. You may not leave until after my son is born. I am asking you how much it will cost to get you out of my son’s life.”

She took a deep inhale of breath, and let fury rule.

“There is not a chance in hell that I would ever abandon my child.”

Sarif shifted to sit back on a small love seat with an hauteur that was, she realized, not at all contrived. It was an innate part of him, probably from birth. Breeding. That was it. Something told her it would still be a part of him as he took his last breath, which if he kept up this type of behaviour his last breath wouldn’t be long coming.

The contempt corrupting his fine mouth was a grotesque thing.

“Give it up,” he spoke in that slow drawl that she was seriously coming to loathe.

“If you felt like this about me, why on earth did you bring me here?”

He was on his feet so fast, she reared further back on the bed.

“Why?” he roared like a bull.

Whoa.

His complete loss of control, his temper, made her shrink back.

“You were prepared to KILL MY SON, woman. My heir.”

She frowned.

“Utter nonsense,” she returned, her voice sharp.

Those dark brows rose above icy grey eyes.

“I have photographs of you attending an abortion clinic in early pregnancy.”

For about ten seconds, she stared unblinking at the wall over his shoulder, her brain working fast.

When the penny dropped, she studied him and reckoned he’d lost his tiny mind.

He certainly looked as if he had by the way he stared at her now, as if she was beyond evil.

“Actually, you’re quite wrong about that, it was a clinic…”

“Where they kill babies,” he ground out.

She slowly shook her head, wondering how the hell he’d managed to twist the facts in his mind.

“No,” she said in a soft voice. “There are times when a pregnancy goes wrong. Perhaps the baby dies in the womb. Or there’s a genetic issue with one or both parents or even the fetus itself and life is not viable.”

“The place is not a normal ante-natal unit,” he stated. “Why were you there if not to discuss ending your pregnancy?”

She blinked.

Omigod.

He’d never believe her, she realized with something like panic gripping her throat.

“I was sent there to be tested for a genetic anomaly that runs in my family,” she whispered, and just knew what was coming.

“And if you had found that anomaly, what then?”

“Then there would have been a discussion about whether life was viable… or not.”

One black brow rose.

And she knew, she just knew, that she’d lost this man’s trust forever.

If there was one thing she understood about his culture it was that a baby boy was the most precious thing to a man. Even if the child was not perfect in every way, that child was loved and adored.

Then again, when it came to her family, there was a very good reason her brother was very precious to her parents. Before she was born their first child, a son, had died at ten months with the rare genetic condition mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome. Nothing could be done to save him. Even worse, the joining of her parents DNA had caused the condition in the first place. It had been vital to Bella’s peace of mind that she discover if she’d inherited a gene mutation too. Her relief at being clear had been a heady time of joy for her.

“And you did not think to reach out me at that time, or did you believe I did not have a right to know?”

He had a point, she reluctantly agreed.

“To be honest with you, I didn’t give you a thought. I was sick as a dog. My brain just wasn’t functioning logically and I was terrified of bad news. When the tests results were normal, I focused on me and the baby. I made sure I ate properly and got plenty of rest. That’s it.”

He stood, towering over her.

Big.

Strong.

Masculine.

His scent alone was a potent reminder of the time they’d come together, rutting like wild animals.

Wild.

Free.

Erotic.

Hot.

All those thoughts and more had heat flood her neck, her cheeks.

And her heart sank at the look on his face for her.

“It doesn’t matter. What matters is that as far as I am concerned you were prepared to destroy my child, my son, if you thought it was necessary. I believe everything written in a thorough report of your movements by people I trust, people who are loyal to the throne of Quarram and the El Haribe family. As for your motivations, I do not believe you. You betrayed me and for that betrayal you will pay.”

Now she stood.

“That is not true.”

“To me you are merely a reluctant incubator. Make no mistake. My son will be born safe and well. And then you will be thrown out of my country.”

At that moment Bella knew that in this mood, he’d never believe her side of the story no matter how hard she tried to make him see sense.

Sarif was a man with a plan, and she had no idea what was coming next.

He was stubborn.

He hated her.

She hated him.

In spite of the mutual hate-fest whirling around them, a low throb of lust deep in her belly shocked her.

How in the world could she be attracted to a knuckle dragging Neanderthal?

How did any of this make sense?

When he turned on his heel, unlocked the door and banged it shut, Bella sank to the edge of the bed and just stared into space.

She took time to re-live the drama of their entire conversation.

A woman couldn’t be strong all the time.

Sometimes she needed to be alone

and let her tears fall…

 

 

 

Copyright © C C MacKenzie 2018

 

Time for another two episodes of Desert Captive…

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*Waving atcha, guys!”

Who’s excited about the Royal Wedding…… We’re having a party in this house tomorrow to celebrate the wedding of the year. Cannot wait!

I’m working so hard on great stories for you. HITCHED TO THE ITALIAN is heading for final edits and my editor is in bits over some scenes. *Evil laugh*. I’m working on OUR RULES too. And GREGORIO’S BRIDE, which will be a Christmas story and is rocking along. But it’s time for the next two episodes of DESERT CAPTIVE… Enjoy!

DESERT CAPTIVE

Copyright © C C MacKenzie 2018

EPISODES FIVE AND SIX

 

EPISODE FIVE

 

While Bella waited for him to speak, Gilchrist stood, and moved to study a vibrant bouquet of fresh flowers.

He sniffed a fat pink rose.

His fingertip stroked the velvet petal like a lover.

It sorted of reminded her of the way Sarif had touched her, his fingertips gentle as they’d stroked her bare back, after a tumultuous de-flowering that had shocked both of them to the core. The memory of how he’d towered over her, his dark face fierce, those sharp cheekbones flushed. She remembered how his eyes had gone wide as he’d cum. She remembered how he’d felt inside her, thick, powerful, overwhelming really as he’d taken her body and every thought in her mind. All those memories, and more, made her shiver.

She blinked.

Annoyed with herself, she wondered why the moment that had changed both their lives forever had leaped into her mind right at that moment.

Gilchrist was too busy with the flowers to notice, thank goodness, because that man’s intuition was a blade honed by intelligence and an experience of people that made it razor sharp.

At the moment, it appeared he needed time to gather his thoughts. and that bothered her.

It bothered her a lot, because in her experience of him in the past, the Colonel was not a man who second guessed himself.

Once he made a decision, he was a man of action.

Determined.

Driven.

Merciless.

However, it appeared, he was happy to show her a softer side to his personality, if the way he delicately inhaled the scent of another flower was anything to go by.

That tickle of alarm, of the feeling that something was off, again slid down her spine.

Without turning, he took out of his inside jacket pocket a slim silver metal device in the shape of a pen.

She recognised a device that was state-of-the-art, a new digital scanner.

He pressed a button, a tiny blinking blue light appeared and he moved the scanner around and through the flowers, beneath the clear glass vase, then did a quick and thorough sweep of the room including her bed.

While he was busy looking for God knew what, Bella sat there and waited.

Slipping the scanner into his pocket, he returned to his seat.

From a side pocket he produced a small clear plastic bag.

The bag contained three tiny bugs, listening devices.

“Found these in here this morning.”

This morning?

Something of her shock must have shown on her face because he nodded.

“I thought it wise to take precautionary measures. After all, they failed to kill you or severely injure you once. Who was to say they may not make another desperate attempt to take the life of you or your child. A nurse who is one of ours did a quick sweep of the room while you slept. To be honest, we didn’t expect to find anything, since we believed we had you wrapped up all nice and tight. You may imagine our surprise.”

Through her good eye, Bella peered at the bugs.

“They look Russian.”

He nodded.

“Well spotted.”

“Which means they didn’t overhear my conversation with Sarif, because I assume you found them before he arrived,” she muttered.

Gilchrist’s bushy brows rose above his black framed glasses.

“I suppose it all depends on who they are working for, doesn’t it?”

Her eyes flew to his.

“You suspect Sarif?”

“He actually entered the room early this morning. When he took a break, our nurse did the scan. Who else was in here alone with you?”

He was right.

Sarif had been permitted entry to her room while she slept.

Gilchrist continued, “From what I hear, to gain access, he and the Quarram Ambassador made a bit of a nuisance of themselves with the authorities who run this hospital. We slipped up there, and I can assure you a head will roll because of it.”

Returning the little bag to his pocket, he sat back, looking pleased, he had her full attention.

“From what we’ve learned of Sarif’s character, during his many trips to London to attempt a dialogue with you, and may I just say I’ve been impressed at the way you managed to keep him at arms length for so long, he is a man who is not only ruthless, but by his recent behaviour, he is not shy to place himself above the law. When I say he is not afraid to take any prisoners, I mean it in a literal sense, which is unfortunate news for you, my dear.”

Bella blinked.

“Me?”

“I know he is a difficult man, however, it’s terribly unfortunate that you are not on speaking terms with your father, Arabella.”

She frowned, not liking where the conversation was going.

“What has my father got to do with Sarif or Quarram?”

“It’s not your father I am concerned about at the moment, it is another member of your family.”

Unease slid into her belly.

“Who?”

“It’s Rupert, my dear.”

She shook her head.

“I don’t understand. Rupert’s only a boy. He’s a student. He’s studying anthropology at Cambridge.”

Gilchrist took a breath and when his eyes met hers, the expression in them—one of doom—made her breath hitch.

“Right at this moment, Rupert Faulkner is rotting in a dungeon in an ancient Moorish prison in up country Quarram.”

Bella’s head spun.

“What the hell for?”

“Apparently he tried to smuggle an ancient piece of antiquity out of the country.”

Bella didn’t hesitate.

“Bullshit. Rupert is a straight arrow.”

Gilchrist nodded.

“Quite.”

“Has the British Consul in Quarram made a formal complaint?”

“I imagine they would, if they knew anything about it.”

She blinked.

“I don’t understand.”

“It seems there is no official record of Rupert entering the country in the first place. There is certainly no official record of him having left. There is only one person who wields enough power and authority in Quarram to make custom documentation and a British citizen disappear…”

Oh, Bella could join the dots just fine.

“Sarif,” she whispered.

For a long pause no one spoke, until she blurted, “But what on earth would he have to gain?”

“Leverage.”

“For what?”

Gilchrist studied her face, her eyes.

“I think that bump on the head may have affected your reasoning. You are carrying his child. His heir. If Sarif cannot persuade you to accompany him to Quarram, it appears he’s perfectly ready, willing and able to blackmail you to bend to his Imperial will.”

Bella’s nostrils flared.

“If he did that I would kill him.”

“Understandable. However, killing Sarif would not bring your brother back. It would only sign his death sentence.”

Sincerely shocked, because Gilchrist was not describing a Sarif El Haribe that Bella recognized.

The Sarif she knew had a deep seated sense of right and wrong.

He put duty, to his people and his country, at the centre of everything he did.

“This doesn’t make sense. Sarif is no dictator or despot,” she said now. “Why would he do such a thing?”

Gilchrist lifted his hands in a who-knows gesture.

“And therein lies the rub. He has no history of violence or a psychological kink in his make up, that we know of, to suddenly morph into a tyrant. However, something fundamental has changed him. And I thought you might hold the answer to why he would entice your brother to Quarram, plant an artefact on his person as he attempted to leave the country and then make him, to all intents and purposes, disappear.”

“Wait. He enticed Rupert to Quarram? How?”

“How do you think? By offering a rare opportunity for a British anthropology team to have the first look at a new find. Kept strictly hush-hush of course. They didn’t use any of the main airports to fly in and out, for obvious reasons.”

“Thieves,” Bella breathed. “Due to the way terrorist groups in the region have pillaged world heritage sites there’s a thriving market in rare Arab antiquities.”

“Precisely. What young man of his energy and intellect, thirsty for adventure and fired up with a voracious ambition to make a name for himself in his chosen field, could possibly resist such temptation?”

Now that, temptation, she could readily believe of Sarif.

Hell, hadn’t she succumbed to his lethal temptation herself?

Bella closed her eyes.

“God, my mother must be frantic.”

Gilchrist pursed his lips.

“I suspect she might be, if she knew anything about it.”

Bella’s eyes flew to his.

“He’s not told her?” she asked referring to her father.

“Not yet. He reached out to me first. I was on my way to see you when events,” he waved a hand down her person lying in the hospital bed, “somewhat overtook us.”

Again she closed her eyes.

God, that meant her father not only knew she’d been injured, but that she was pregnant.

An unmarried mother.

He’d never forgive her for that.

This situation was one hot mess.

But it was a vivid anxiety for her baby brother that made her heart twist in her chest.

Rupert was clever.

He was physically fit since he rowed for his university team, but he was not equipped to deal with isolation, maybe even starvation and worse…

Her imagination wanted to run wild.

Then logic took control.

There was no way that any man from the royal house of El Haribe would torture an innocent young man—a boy.

“Sarif would never harm him.”

Gilchrist sat back and folded his arms.

His eyes fixed on Bella’s face.

“Are you sure about that? What about to gain parental control of a son?”

“He’s an Arab. He’d do anything to legitimise his child,” she whispered her thoughts aloud.

“Anything?” Gilchrist asked.

Facing the truth, Bella nodded.

“Anything.”

 

  EPISODE SIX

 

“Good job I have a plan,” the Colonel said.

If he did, Bella wanted to hear it.

She was ready to kick-ass.

First, she needed to know her brother was safe.

Second, she couldn’t wait to listen to Sarif’s explanation.

It had damned well better be a good one.

“I’m all ears.”

“Cambridge University, under implicit instructions from my department, have applied to Quarram for an exploration permit to send a team—actually special agents—to authenticate a find of ancient relics in the north of the country, where we believe Rupert is being held.”

The promise held in those words, that her country was actually going to do something to get her brother out, had a lovely little ripple run through Bella’s blood. A little ripple she hadn’t felt for months since she’d left the service.

“Since you’re telling me this, I assume I’ve returned to active service?”

“You’ve never been off active service, my dear.”

She nodded and took a breath.

“Okay. What’s my role?”

Gilchrist didn’t hesitate.

“Simple. You marry Sarif, become Queen of Quarram, find out what’s going on in the upper echelons of Sarif’s Court, and free your brother.”

She blinked.

The man had lost his tiny mind.

There was no way in hell she was going to marry Sarif now.

No way.

“Why on earth would I do something so stupid?”

“Vengeance?”

Bella angled her head.

“Are you really going to suggest I marry Sarif for payback for kidnapping my brother?”

“Only a thought. But now you mention it…”

“You’re crazy.”

His eyes narrowed.

“And if I made it an order?”

“You’re forgetting one small thing.”

Those bushy brows rose in a silent question.

“The baby,” she said, pointing to her bump.

He lifted a hand as if to say, no big deal.

“Once you have played your part, we will get both of you out as soon as you request it.”

This time she raised her own brows, and then made an ouch face when her head hurt.

“So, you basically want a female James Bond and a baby to do your dirty work.”

“No one will ever suspect you. It’s the perfect cover.”

At that moment, Bella reckoned that sometimes the best thing you could do was to just remain silent because no words could explain the shit going on in her heart and mind.

He must have read her mind or her face, because Gilchrist shifted closer.

“The entire region is a tinderbox. All it needs is one flare to set it alight. We need to know who are behind the attempted destabilisation of the House of El Haribe. We need someone deep inside the El Haribe family. You’re it.”

Bella simply stared at him.

Well, hell, seemed a pregnant Jemima Bond was supposed to save the frigging world.

She could do this.

After years of living with Queen Charisse heading up her personal protection team, she knew the customs, the languages, well four of them.

She was close to the El Haribe family, especially Charisse and her very westernized husband, Khalid El Haribe.

If the worst came to the worse, Charisse would lend her aid.

And the old fox was right about one thing. Married to Sarif and pregnant with his child, no one would suspect her of espionage.

She hoped.

She took a deep breath, blew out her cheeks, gave him the stink eye.

“Anything happens to my baby and you’ll be it.”

His limpid gaze met hers.

“Excellent. Your country thanks you for your service,” he said and shifted to press the red bell next to her bed.

On cue, a nurse she’d never seen before entered.

Bella studied the metal tray in her hand, in particular the huge syringe.

“What is that?”

The Colonel stood.

“A tracking device. Just in case…”

She blinked as he headed for the door.

“Where does it go?”

He turned, flashed her a white smile.

“Right buttock.”

Bella made a face, which was wasted since he’d already gone.

“Just roll on your left side,” the nurse said in a brisk tone. The woman needed to work on her bedside manner. “It will only hurt for a moment.”

Bella did as she was told.

The scent of antiseptic hit her before the shock of a cold and wet swipe on her ass.

Then—

Fuck.

Christ.

Jesus.

The pain just went on and on, had this woman never heard of a local anaesthetic?

Then there was pressure, a thumb on her ass and a plaster and that was it.

“Well done,” the nurse from hell said. She turned the wall light down low. “Try and get some sleep.”

When she was finally left alone, Bella lay back and stared at the ceiling, and thought of her brother. He’d better be safe and sound, not one hair of his head hurt,

or King Sarif El Haribe would rue the day he’d ever been born.

*********************************************

 

Looks like Sarif’s in Big Trouble. Then again, so is Bella as we will find out next week. I’m enjoying the thrills and spills of this story as it grows live right in front of your eyes! Scary stuff for an author let me tell you.

Until next time,

Christine X

 

Desert Captive, Episodes 3 + 4…

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Hello, my darlings,

It’s time for another couple of episodes with Sarif and Bella…

Enjoy!

DESERT CAPTIVE

 

EPISODE THREE

Copyright © CC MacKenzie 2018

 

Four days later, wearing soft blue jeans and a black cashmere sweater, Safir stared unseeing out of another window.

This one in a private room of St. Martin’s hospital in central London.

He and diplomats from his Embassy had been utterly ruthless and pulled many strings to bring the hospital officials into line, not to mention running the gauntlet of police, and certain members of the British security services, who’d carefully and thoroughly grilled him on his involvement with and intentions towards Arabella. This was a woman who was, they reminded him on a daily basis, one of their own.

She’d regained consciousness three days ago and this morning had finally given permission for him to visit her.

Diplomacy was a skill like any other, and one he was good at, which was why—barely tolerated by the nursing staff—he was finally inside Arabella’s room, while she slept.

In a jail up country in Quarram, her brother was behaving himself too, which had surprised him. He’d left explicit instruction, the boy was not to be harmed.

Something else that had also surprised him was the fact, the Faulkner family were none the wiser that one of their members was missing. Looked like her family were not close.

A stirring from the bed, had him turn to watch her.

She was still asleep.

Her injuries made his belly clutch.

For as long as he lived, he would never forget the first time he’d seen her today.

Shock had come first.

Then anger.

Both had combined to spin into a fist in his gut as he’d stared at the livid bruise on her face, the split lip and the grazed knuckles.

Now he took the time to study her hair, black, longer now.

He remembered, he couldn’t help it, the way they’d come together.

How they’d mated.

Fast.

Furious.

Fantastic.

Her mouth might be hurt and swollen now, but he remembered how her lips had trembled, all full and soft, before their first kiss. Now he remembered how she’d sucked him deep in her throat.

He went rock hard.

So hard, he drew in a shaky breath.

God, the woman was asleep and he was standing there staring at her with a raging hard on?

How did she do this to him?

How?

She’d thought about killing a life and he was attracted to her?

Was he crazy?

 

Then his gaze dropped lower.

The sight of her belly swollen with his child, had caught him totally by surprise when he’d first seen her. It caught him again as emotions, too many, too confusing, slammed into him.

Even now all those emotions and more squeezed his chest, twisted tight, and seemed to spear his heart.

Four days had given him plenty of time to brood on Arabella’s many sins.

For a while it had been touch and go they’d lose the baby.

He’d been worried sick.

But the child was—according to the medical team—a fighter.

Through the hell of an appallingly helpless anxiety, Safir had felt the first stirring of pride in his unborn child. A boy. And Safir had made a promise to God that should the child be spared, he would be a good father. It would be impossible for his son to be born a bastard. Only a legitimate child could inherit the throne.

And even though she clearly did not deserve it, he would be a loyal and faithful husband to Arabella, until the baby was born, and then he’d personally put her on a plane out of his country and out of his life.  Not once did it occur to him that a woman in her delicate situation, unmarried, may not want or desire himself as a husband.  As far as Safir was concerned, Arabella’s wants or desires simply didn’t come into the equation. Like him, she would be bound by duty and honor to his people, whether she liked it or not, until her usefulness was over.

It occurred to him he’d need to get rid of his French mistress, fast.

He’d give her the Paris apartment as a parting gift.

Now he had an heir he could, after all, afford to be generous.

“Sarif?”

Arabella’s voice was no more than a whisper, but it put an abrupt end to his thoughts.

He moved towards the bed.

“Yes. It is I.”

Since her right eye was swollen shut and surrounded by a dark bruise that reached from temple to chin, she peered at him through the partially closed other eye.

In spite of the spectacular mess of her face, Sarif reckoned she looked good.

The first time he’d met her, she’d blown him away.

Five months later he might not like it, but he had to admit nothing much had changed.

He could smell the scent of her shampoo.

Lavender.

The hospital gown was ugly as sin, the cotton the color of sickly green.

On her slim wrist was the black watch he remembered, masculine.

The watch had a webbed strap and looked like something a diver might wear.

Her mouth was swollen.

The split bottom lit for some reason made him go hard as stone.

Dammit.

Five months since he’d last seen her and he’d thought of her every day and every night, no matter how hard he’d tried not to.

“What are you doing here?” she asked him.

Sarif blinked and wondered if the head injury was more extensive than the doctor’s had first thought.

“Where else would I be?”

She sighed.

Her hand, the knuckles bruised and battered, smoothed over her baby, their baby.

“I don’t know what to say,” she whispered, sounding so unlike her normal sparky self that he frowned.

Sarif felt a strong urge to hold her.

He wanted to smooth that silky slide of dark hair back from her pale face.

But the thought occurred to him that he had no right.

He had no right to touch her, and then another truth struck him.

Perhaps he had no right to the child they’d made either?

“You are very lucky to be alive,” he said, his voice sounded hoarse, but he kept his face straight.

She shrugged.

“So they say. They haven’t found the driver.”

“The car was found smouldering and abandoned on waste ground.” Then he added casually, “It wasn’t an accident.”

For a long time she simply stared at him, then she blinked.

“I don’t have enemies,” she said at last. “At least none who’d want to kill me.”

Sarif didn’t know about that.

He was pretty tempted to strangle her right now.

She took a deep breath that moved her chest.

Her breasts had grown a little, the nipples hard and firm jutted through the thin cotton fabric.

The ache in his groin an unwelcome distraction that shot his throught process apart.

“It’s not safe for you in London,” he said.

Bella simply watched him, that eye wary.

“What do you suggest?”

Sarif folded his arms.

“I suggest you do the right thing,” he said in a clipped tone. “For once in your life, think of someone other than yourself. Think of our child. Marry me. Live in Quarram.”

Bella said nothing for the longest moment, and Sarif held his breath until her eyes clicked to his and held.

“Just like that?”

He shook his head, and wondered why it was that nothing ever went according to plan with this woman.

“No, not just like that. I need a wife. Our child needs a father. By marrying me, I understand the sacrifice you have to make. But, as we have clearly seen, the fact is I cannot protect you here—”

“And you think I’ll be safe in Quarram?”

He did not hesitate.

“I guarantee it.”

“Brave words, Highness. There is no way your people will accept a Westerner as your consort. The whole idea of marrying me is ludicrous and you know it.”

Sarif stood utterly still, as if carved from stone.

He could not remember the last time anyone had ever spoken to him in that particular tone.

Disrespectful.

Disobedient.

Was it possible she was going to argue?

With him?

By the look on her face, it seemed she was.

***

Bella squinted, her eyesight a little blurry, as she studied how much he’d changed in five short months.

He was still six foot three with the blue blood of hundreds of years of warriors flowing in his veins. Even in jeans, he looked the part. A ruler. A King.

It could be a trick of the light, but he looked older and leaner.

And since he wore his usual, do-not-mess-with-me-expression, he was not exactly a barrel of laughs.

He was a man, who took life far too seriously, she reckoned, and still ridiculously handsome of course.

She’d met plenty of handsome men before and they’d left her cold.

Well, she didn’t feel cold looking at him right now.

Anything but.

His hair, that glossy black, had changed too. The style had grown from the short crop he’d worn before. Now it was it was smoothed back from that wide brow. She reckoned those cheekbones were too sharp. The strong nose was too arrogant. The jaw much too stubborn.

He was just too much.

Then his dark eyes hooded beneath black brows held hers and something in them, something like a warning shivered through her. She put it down to her head injury. How could she have forgotten those dark grey eyes, eyes that didn’t look at all friendly as they held hers.

Then Sarif smiled, just a flash of white teeth. A smile that was too confident, and maybe a little smug. Her head hurt, a lot, just looking at him.

“To succeed to the throne, my child must be legitimate.” The way he paced back and forth in front of her bed, as if he was a man clearly at the end of his tether, touched something deep inside. He stopped and his gaze caught hers. “I refuse to father a bastard.”

He sounded genuine, sincere even.

“I promise to think about it,” she found herself saying.

Her head felt too heavy for her shoulders.

Dark grey eyes seemed to pin her to the pillow.

“That’s just the trouble. You have had too much time to think about it. Months. The time for thinking is over.”

And see, right there, was the bad attitude that just pressed all her hot buttons.

If only she wasn’t lying in a bed, injured, she’d be able to give him a few home truths.

Out of the blue she focused all her attention on his mouth.

Her throat went dry.

The memory of how he’d kissed her, with hunger and a demand that would not be denied, made her close her eyes. Her breasts ached. A pulse between her legs ached. In her mind, she could actually taste him and feel the way his tongue had mated with hers. He’d used his teeth on her bottom lip, and on other—places. God. The room felt too hot. Hell, she felt too hot. Baby hormones, that must be why she felt like this, hadn’t she read they often made women horny?

She opened her eyes to find him watching her with a deep interest that made her cheeks flush, as if he knew exactly what she was thinking. His eyes dropped to her breasts and narrowed.

Her breath hitched when the tip of his tongue ran over his bottom lip.

And was that a bulge growing between his legs?

He was aroused?

Seriously?

The room seemed to snap and crackle with an electricity both of them clearly could not deny.

But it was the arrogant smirk that made her eyes narrow into slits.

How was it possible she wanted to kiss and smack that mouth both at the same time?

“Well, it’s too bad for you I live in a country where personal freedom and choice is a right and not a privilege. My answer is no.”

Sarif raised his eyes to heaven, as if praying for divine intervention.

Well, Bella didn’t believe in God, so good luck with that, pal.

He ran a hand through his hair as he took the seat next o her bed.

“Don’t you remember what we did? We worked well together, Bella.”

 

Actually, Bella reckoned he was right about that.

They had worked well together to neutralize troublemakers who’d done everything they could to threaten the house of El Haribe and destabilize King Khalid and Queen Charisse’s tiny kingdom Onuur.

Sarif had a quick mind, even if he was a stubborn bastard at times.

She’d challenged him—and he challenged her right back.

In spite of his heritage and background, he was open to suggestions and possibilities.

The issue was that they’d challenged each other on a personal level too.

And for a short time they had indeed made a good team.

On the other hand, they’d bickered and fought like a pair of wildcats too.

When they weren’t taking a swipe at each other, they’d fallen into bed, once.

And that one time had changed both of their lives forever.

The truth was the attraction that had driven them both had baffled them both too.

And on some fundamental level, she knew he knew that.

Any marriage between them would turn into a bloody battlefield. If she drew a red line in the desert sand, he’d cross it without a thought. And then he’d have his hands on her—and that would be it—the ultimate surrender—her body.

But now her body hummed with the memory of the feel of those strong hands over her skin, how he’d touched her everywhere, and how she’d simply gone up in flames.

She took a breath to steady the crazy fluttering in her heart and told her body to behave itself.

How could she have forgotten that ever since she’d left, it had been all over the tabloids that Prince Sarif El Haribe had recently had those hands all over a French actress?

Annoyance with him, with herself, burned bright in her belly.

“I refuse to be added to your harem and become a love slave,” she said with a decided snap in her voice.

 

Sarif said nothing in response to the love slave dig, which was no surprise to Bella.

He probably thought he was so far above her he could do whatever the hell he liked, and that included, wife or no wife and a wide variety of women.

Face set, he got to his feet, and moved towards the door.

He turned back to study her.

She couldn’t tell from his closed expression what he was thinking.

“You need to rest,” he said. “Do not let little stupid things influence your decision. Sleep on it and think about what is best for our child.”

He left.

Bella had the distinct feeling she hadn’t come out the winner of this latest skirmish.

Anyway, he was right.

She did need rest.

 

 

EPISODE FOUR

 

Copyright © CC MacKenzie 2018

 

Later that evening Bella, feeling a lot better after a nice long nap and a light supper, was wasting time flicking through a glossy magazine.

Her head throbbed every time she tried to do what Sarif had suggested, to think, and so she stopped thinking.

It was late, around ten in the evening.

When the door opened slowly, she looked up expecting to see a nurse, and went utterly still when she saw the man standing there.

She very much doubted he was here to bring her flowers.

Her old boss from CI5, Colonel Roger Gilchrist, peered at her over the top of his black framed glasses and raised bushy silver brows. He was a slim and broad-shouldered sixty-two. His raw-boned face always made Arabella think of a clever Professor. He wore a beautifully tailored charcoal suit of the finest Italian wool, a white shirt of stiff cotton, and his striped regimental tie.

His hair, a stunning mane of black and silver, was brushed back from a lean and powerful face.

“Well now, young lady, this is a nice mess you’ve got yourself into.” His voice was like grit stone spilling down a steel chute and running through a metal grate. “Spoke to your doctor. You and the baby were lucky.”

She put down her magazine.

“Didn’t see it coming.”

The Colonel took a seat and folded his arms.

“Might not be so lucky next time,” he said.

She blinked and automatically placed her hand on her belly as if to protect her baby.

“It wasn’t an accident,” she muttered her first thoughts.

And beneath her hand, her belly tightened.

“It wasn’t,” he agreed. “When you’re feeling a bit better, you can watch CCTV footage. I imagine you will want to meet the person who tried to mow down you and your child.”

Arabella had the distinct feeling she was being led to a place she didn’t want to go.

“I don’t have enemies,” she said.

When the Colonel merely angled his head and stared blandly, Arabella had to laugh.

“Okay. Maybe pals of the late and not lamented paedophile, assassin, and rapist, Omar, might have an issue with me.”

The Colonel studied her through narrowed eyes.

“What makes you think you’re the target?” He sat forward in his chair, rested his elbows on bony knees, his hands clasped. “I know you’ve had a head injury, but think about it. The whole region is a tinderbox, and with the right spark it’s ready to blow. There are powerful and greedy eyes on all El Haribe lands. They’ve already tried and failed to destabilise Onuur. If they are prepared to assassinate a Queen, what makes you think they’d baulk at killing the mother of the heir to Quarram?”

“You sound like Sarif.”

The Colonel gave her a look she knew well, a look that clearly stated do-not-mess-with-me.

“Sarif is almost as hard-headed as you are. You’ve managed to keep him at arms length for months.”

“It’s my life we’re talking about here,” she said. “I make the choices.”

“True. But he is a king.” He hesitated for a moment. “The man has rights.”

All anger seem to slide away and now Arabella nodded.

“I know that.”

“He’ll want to legitimise the child.” The Colonel slid his hand through his hair, the movement reminding her forcibly of Sarif and how he’d worn the exact same expression when he had spoken to her earlier. “He’ll want marriage.”

She knew that.

Arabella glared.

“What’s this? Marriage guidance? A bit out of your sphere of influence isn’t it?”

Gilchrist chuckled to himself.

He’d always admired Bella’s sharp mind.

Her stubborn streak.

Her absolute devotion to her country and her duty.

He had a grandson around her age.

He’d thought about introducing them, then changed his mind, because even though his grandson was as hard and tough as they came, Bella could be, well, mean.

Plus, he’d heard the rumors, Bella wasn’t into men—most of the time.

“I must admit,” he began, treading carefully. “There is an element of—surprise—shall we say, that it appears you’re pregnant via a rather conventional route.”

Bella knew the statement was his clumsy way of saying—WTF?

Her face went hot at the thought of what she and Sarif had done—they’d fucked like rabid rabbits. And of course, the old bastard didn’t miss her embarrassment.

“I always thought the Sandhurst scandal had been blown out of all proportion,” the Colonel said now, opening dialogue on a subject that was no one’s business except her own.

Arabella rubbed her belly and felt the baby kick.

“We were drunk. It was a quick fumble caught on a cell phone. And I hear it made her big bucks on the Internet.”

“Regrettable behaviour on everyone’s account,” he said, and fiddled with his shirt cuff. Then those steely eyes found hers. “Have you spoken to your father?”

Now Arabella felt dizzy.

Her father, her family, knew nothing of her recent troubles, and that was how she wanted it to stay.

Her business.

End of.

“Ah, I see you haven’t. He will not be pleased when he finds out. He’s not a particularly forgiving man either. Might make trouble for you and especially for Sarif, don’t you think?”

She made a face.

If anyone knew how unforgiving her father was, she did.

However, neither could she deny a truth.

“He will.”

The Colonel leaned back and folded his arms.

“I have a proposition for you. A proposition that might see everyone get what they want out of this mess,” he said in that gravelly voice. But it was the tone, silk over steel, that had her watching him warily.

The old fox was up to something.

Whatever he was selling, she could always say no, couldn’t she?

“I’m listening…”

**********

 

Until next time…..

Christine X

It’s the Ludlow Hall short story…

bigguns

Waving atcha, my darlings!

There’s a rumour going around that a big golden ball will rise in a blue sky tomorrow. I believe it’s called the sun and it’s been a while since we’ve seen it around here. I’m thinking BBQ, maybe…

It’s time for a Ludlow Hall short story

The Dower House just after dawn on Saturday morning…

Sophia Ferranti, tucked up all warm and cozy in her princess bed, was drifting in that lovely space between awake and asleep. It occurred to her the birds were terribly noisy this morning. The Ferranti’s didn’t keep geese themselves, but her papa had let a young couple, the Matthews, rent a smallholding next to their land at the bottom of their lane. The Matthews kept a variety of geese, chickens, goats and four really cute Lamas. Right now the geese squawked and screeched. When a couple of cockerels began to crow to add their voice to the dawn chorus her brows met. She heaved a sigh, rolled onto her other side and snuggled into her The Greatest Showman comforter. It smelled of lavender. In her mind she heard the song A Million Dreams and began to drift off into an awesome world about the circus. But then her eyes flew open…

The creak came again—the movement of someone walking over a floorboard in the hallway outside her room. It wasn’t a usual sound for this time in the morning. Her mama and papa had a certain routine, especially when the baby was teething. No, this was something quite different. Her heart beat faster. But the sound of a boyish hiss made her roll her eyes. It was her stupid brothers. She was about to go right back to sleep when a stifled giggle had her shoot up to sit. Did they seriously think they were being quiet? Then she wondered why were they sneaking around the house at this time in the morning? A tread on the stair told her they were on their way to the kitchen. The kitchen was the place where the last of the chocolate Easter eggs were safe from greedy boys. In fact, Sophia’s favourite milk chocolate egg, an untouched gift from Auntie Rosie, was in a glass cupboard in the kitchen. And that greedy pig, Luca, had had his beady eyes on that egg for days. Like an arrow fired from a longbow, Sophia was out of bed, out the door and tip-toeing down the stairs—careful to avoid the squeaky tread.

In her Elsa nightie, she slid, like a ninja, to press her ear to the kitchen door, she couldn’t hear the rustling of a carboard box opening, or the crackle of golden paper. Instead, her brows flew into her hairline because it seemed someone was pressing buttons to disengage the alarm system. Her mouth dropped open because touching the alarm system was, in the words of Auntie Rosie, verboten. NAUGHTY BOYS. All thoughts of her chocolate egg fled when the sound of the back door closing had her scurry on bare feet through the kitchen to the window to watch ten year old Tonio and her twin, Luca, creep very slowly along a gravel path screened by a tall conifer hedge. The boys were dressed in black from head to toe, T-shirt, jogging pants and running shoes. Through narrowed eyes, her mouth pursing, Sophia Ferranti reckoned she had three choices.

1 – Go straight to mama and papa and tattle tale.

2 – Leave her brothers to it and go back to bed.

3 – Follow and find out exactly what they were up to, gather the FACTS and THEN tattle-tale. Number three it was.

It didn’t take her long to get dressed in black leggings, hoodie and matching sneakers. On her way out the door, she passed the huge mirror leaning against the bedroom wall. It struck her that unlike her brother’s inky curls her white-blonde hair might attract unwanted attention, so she shoved her plait beneath a black woollen cap, and headed out.

Her heart beat fast with thrilled excitement as she raced to the end of the gravel path and paused. She’d never been out alone at this time in the morning. The world was very different. Quiet. Empty of people. Empty of cars or farm tractors. She peeked around the end of the lane and didn’t see a sign of her brothers. She jogged past the Matthews cute cottage. A couple of lama’s, chewing on a straw bale, watched her with unfettered interest, but undeterred, she raced to the bottom of the road, looked right and left and just caught her brothers strolling along the road as if they hadn’t a care in the whole wide world. When they turned into another narrow lane that led back to The Dower House, Sophia was confused. Why sneak out of the house, go down the road and then up the lane that took them back home?

However, she’d got out of her warm bed this morning and come this far.

What was it Auntie Rosie said, in for a penny in for a pound?

When she turned into the lane and tracked them, using huge oak trees that lined the lane for cover, Sophia decided this was THE best fun, evah. If only her best friend Emily was here. She’d get such a rush. Or maybe not. Emily was a scaredy-cat at times, and she was allergic to certain pollens. Since Sophia herself was not allergic to anything or ever got sick, she didn’t have a lotta sympathy for people like Emily and Luca who always had the sniffles and caught every bug.

Meanwhile, her brothers climbed over a wooden slatted fence constructed for ramblers to have a right of way across the countryside. Her papa always made sure the gates were well constructed and in ‘good nick’ as Auntie Rosie said.

When Luca laughed out loud and shoved his brother, Sophia curled her lip.

They made more noise than a herd of elephants.

By this time, she’d reached the fence herself.

The boys, back to creeping on their tip-toes, headed straight for the huge barn conversion that housed her papa’s personal gym and a swimming pool that was STRICTLY VERBOTEN to the Ferranti children without adult supervision.

The boys peered through a window.

As if by magic Tonio produced a silver metal key from his pocket, and Sophia’s jaw dropped open for the second time.

Surely they were not going into the gym?

Oh yes they were, she thought, as they entered.

Oh man, she thought with something like satisfaction, the boys were they in BIG trouble now.

However, typically, they hadn’t closed the door properly, so it didn’t take her moments to slip in and softly click the door closed.

The floor was a polished wood of pale oak. The walls built of ancient red brick. The ceiling was high. Large skylights let in the sun. Dust motes danced in the early morning rays. The place smelled of lemon wipes, chlorine from the pool sparkling like a blue lake behind a floor to ceiling glass wall, and a very faint odor of sweat.

As she crouched behind a wellness ball, Sophia watched her brothers switch on the high ceiling lights. The whole place was suddenly so bright it made her blink.

“Okay,” Tonio said as he approached a bench press and rubbed his hands with obvious glee. “You need to spot me.”

Luca nodded his head so hard his curls danced.

“No probs,” he said, obviously channelling his papa.

 

Watching all the pathetic male posturising, as her Auntie Rosie would call the chest beating behaviour, Sophia’s brows flew into her hairline and her little mouth pursed into a rosebud shape her brothers hated.

Tonio grabbed a barbell and wound a silver metal weight to one end and then the other, then he lay on the bench, grabbed the barbell, took a breath and lifted it up once, twice.

Sophia couldn’t help it, she rolled her eyes.

All that cloak and dagger this morning for this?

“Cool!” Luca the clueless said.

“I started at a low weight to work my way up,” Tonio told him, sounding like a boss. He returned the pole to its slots and rose. He rubbed his hands again. “I’ll add three extra pounds.”

After watching her brothers, Tonio was a bit red in the face by this time, it became clear to Sophia trouble lay ahead because Luca had the muscle tone of a starving flea. He would be less than useless in an emergency if Tonio found himself in difficulties.

It also occurred to Sophia, too late, that she should have grabbed her mama’s cell phone from the kitchen table.

What was a girl to do?

It was her duty, she heard her papa’s voice in her head, to put a stop to it.

Right.

Now.

Like a jack in the box she leapt to her feet and yelled, “What the HELL do you two think you’re doing?”

The boys got such a fright that Tonio lost focus and let go of the barbell.

The weight caught him across the shoulders, pinning him to the bench press.

His screams of pain had Luca cry out too.

Sophia flew to Tonio’s side.

She felt sick when she saw his face white, his eyes wide with shock.

“Stop yelling, Luca!” she spat at her twin. “Help me lift this off him.”

It took a huge amount of effort, but the twins managed to return the barbell to its slots.

However, it was clear one of poor Tonio’s shoulders looked—odd.

And at any moment Luca, by the look of him, was about to pass out.

He did that a lot when upset, either that or he was as sick as a dog.

Sheer panic might grip her belly, but since she didn’t want either to happen, Sophia grabbed Luca’s shoulders and shook him hard, not easy since he was a good five inches taller than her. “Don’t you dare pass out. Run to the Matthews and tell them to call an ambulance. NOW!”

Luca, his appalled grey eyes glued to hers, nodded. “‘Kay.”

She shoved him towards the door. “Hurry!”

Feeling terribly sick herself, in her mind Sophia chanted, oh God, oh God. But she kept it together as she turned to Tonio and promptly burst into tears.

 

Tonio felt as if pain was all over, passing through him in stunning waves that drowned every cell in his body. Pain strangled him until he couldn’t hear, couldn’t breathe.

His breathe came in short little pants, each inhale agony.

He made a sound like the whimpering of a dog.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw his sister.

Her little hands, trembling, hovered over him.

“I don’t want to touch you in case I hurt you. What can I do?” she sobbed.

His breath came faster now in choking gasps that caught another scream in his throat.

A sound burst from his throat—a whine.

Sophia began sob in earnest now, tears tracked down her pale face.

Big emerald eyes, desperately worried, stared into his.

God.

God.

The slam of car doors had Sophia leap to her feet and run towards the door.

Mr. Matthews, a man in his early thirties sprinted into the gym, his wife not far behind him. Both wore jeans, T-shirts and wellington boots.

He sank to his knees in front of Tonio, dark brown eyes taking in the scene.

“Looks like you’ve injured that shoulder. The ambulance is on its way. I won’t touch you, okay?”

Tonio nodded and that was all it took for his world to go black.

Mr. Matthews glanced at a Sophia who had her fist pressed to her mouth.

“Is he dead?” she whispered.

He wrapped a strong arm around her shoulder.

“No. He’s passed out.” He cocked his head. “Ah, sounds like the ambulance.”

Five minutes later and paramedic Susan Bradshaw entered with her colleague hot on her heels. Serious blue eyes took in the scene as she shrugged off her dark green backpack.

“Never a dull moment with the Ferranti family,” she muttered. She opened her backpack. After using scissors to cut off Tonio’s T-shirt, she studied the damage and nodded. “If the worst he has is a dislocated shoulder he’s got off lucky.” She nodded glanced at Mr. Matthews and nodded at a wide-eyed Sophia. “Take her out of here.”

“I’m not leaving him,” Sophia declared, her chin lifting.

Susan took out medication, including a syringe, and made short work of making Tonio more comfortable.

Sharp blue eyes studied Sophia’s face for a moment.

“Fair enough, as long as you don’t feel squeamish at the sight of blood.”

Sophia shook her head.

“I’m brave.”

Susan’s lips twitched, but she kept a straight face as she took Tonio’s vitals and gave him oxygen.

“Of course you are,” she said and stood aside as her partner slid a board beneath Tonio and then wrapped him in blankets.

They lifted him onto a trolley.

“Is he going to be alright?” Sophia whispered, her heart a slow sluggish beat against her ribs.

“He’s a Ferranti. He’s tough. We’ll know more after he’s had an X-ray,” Susan told her. “Ah, I hear the rest of the gang arriving.”

Sure enough Nico and Bronte Ferranti crashed through the doors, and that was when Sophia let all the anxiety and worry out. She raced to her mama and threw herself into her arms.

“Hush now,” Bronte crooned as she nuzzled her daughter, but her eyes were glued to Tonio’s pale face. “Everything’s going to be alright.”

 

Meanwhile, Nico was listening carefully to everything Susan Bradshaw and Mr. Matthews told him. He shoved his hand through his black hair.

Dio, I do not know what they were thinking.”

“We were pumping iron,” Luca told him. “We want big guns like you and Uncle Alexander.”

Susan’s face creased.

“That makes a crazy sort of sense.”

Nico, not in the mood for laughter, turned to Bronte.

“You go with Tonio in the ambulance and I’ll follow in the car,” he said.

She nodded and handed him their daughter.

***

Nico, Sophia and Luca watched as the ambulance rolled down the narrow road.

Grazie,” Nico said to Mr. Matthews and shook his hand.

“We’re happy to keep the children with us. Perhaps they’d like to help feed the chickens and the goats?”

Nico shifted to look at a very pale Sophia. “Would you like that?”

Sophia sniffed. “Okay.”

“We haven’t had breakfast,” Luca reminded his papa.

Mr. Matthews grinned. “Good job Gretchen’s a good cook then.”

Luca, his hand safely tucked in Gretchen’s, looked up at her.

“Do you have bacon?”

“Plenty,” she assured him, her eyes twinkling.

He frowned.

“Do you know you smell of horse poop?”

Sophia gasped. “How rude! They live on a farm, stupid. Anyway, Auntie Rosie says everyone should take a big deep breath of country air and manure, it’s good for the lungs.”

His hand scrubbing the scruff on his jaw, Nico closed his eyes.

“They’ll be fine,” Mr. Matthews told him. “Go.”

“Rosie and Alexander will collect them,” Nico told him. He turned serious eyes on the fruit of his loins. “Behave. We are going to have a long talk when mama and I return home.”

Sophia, nodding like a wise owl, shot a black look at her brother.

“You’re in BIG trouble,” she hissed.

Her twin sent her look of utter loathing.

“I hope you poop a prickly pear,” Luca hissed back.

Dio mio,” Nico said.

 

FINE

 

Poor Tonio. All y’all may be wondering about the inspiration behind this story. I’m on a fitness kick, which includes 15k of steps per day and using (light) weights three times a week. A family member said, ‘You don’t want big guns.’ And so a story was born.

Until next time, big hugs,

Christine X

It’s the Ludlow Hall Sneak Peek…. Peace…

LudlowHallSneakPeekPeace

 

It’s Friday… and time for the Ludlow Hall sneak peek!

Time for a pow-wow at The Dower House…

Bronte, Rosie and Janine had just finished a Sweet Sensations business meeting in Bronte’s kitchen-dining-living space. Eve and Boo are building a tower with huge plastic bricks, and Jimmy Chew was snoozing on his doggie bed, exhausted after a hectic morning with the Ferranti kids.

A fresh pot of coffee sat on the worktop, along with a large plate of mini-muffins, white chocolate and fudge, ready for the hungry hordes who are sure to descend at any moment. The place smells of fresh coffee, spun sugar, chocolate and fresh flowers.

Bronte, dressed in black stretchy pants and an oversized ribbed polo neck cashmere sweater the color of apricot, stretched, rolled her shoulders and wiggled toes all toasty inside thick socks. “In spite of replacing a double oven, we’re well in the black.”

Janine, wearing skinny blue jeans and a white T-shirt beneath a pale grey hoodie, closed her laptop with a satisfied snap. “Yup and our tax reserve account can handle those inland revenue new changes that come into force at the end of April, so we’re cool.”

Rosie, comfy in her usual black yoga pants and huge matching sweater, snuggled a rosy-cheeked Mila who was in the middle of teething hell.

“Thank goodness you have a business brain, Jan. Those excel spreadsheets make my eyes bleed.”

Jan grinned. “And yet I can’t bake or cook the way you two can. Poor Josh fires up his grill more times than not.”

Bronte scooped up Mila and popped a soft kiss on her hot cheek. “Josh loves his grill.”

Rosie, busy with a spoon and Calpol, had to agree. “I’ve never seen a BBQ that big and shiny. I caught Josh patting it once.”

Jan had to laugh. “He calls it darling. How are you this morning, darling.”

Mila opened her mouth like a good girl and took all her medicine, and then snuggled right in for a cuddle with her auntie Bronte.

Eve, dressed in thick tights the color of cream beneath a smocked dress of navy velvet, spotted her mama with her cousin and toddled over to give Mila a hug.

Her little hand patted Mila’s leg. “Aww, poorly, mama?”

“Just a little bit. She has sore teeth.”

“Kiss it better?”

Bronte shifted so Eve could drop a soft kiss on Mila’s cheek.

Then Eve went back to construction with Boo.

“Eve’s speech is coming on,” Rosie said as she topped up their coffees from the pot.

“Yup, better than Batman every five minutes. We all got tired of it after a while.”

“Talking of the super-heroes, where are they?”

Bronte lifted her eyes to heaven.

“Upstairs. Emily and Sophia are quiet, so I’ll check on them in a minute. The boys are watching a movie. Luca’s got a cold.”

“Another one?”

Bronte nodded a response to Jan. “Yup. Third one this winter. Doctor can’t find anything wrong with him, except he’s had a growth spurt. Poor child.”

 

She’d just finished speaking when the poor child in question barrelled through the door, and by the fierce look on his flushed face, he was not happy.

Wearing navy sweatpants and a grey UCLA hoodie, Luca Ferranti, stood with his legs spread on bare feet and folded his arms. “Mama!” he said, his throat scratchy and rough. “Sophia and Emily won’t let me play with their campfire.”

Rosie, dark brown eyes went wide and blinked.

Her fist pressed against her heart.

“Omigod.”

Jan shook her head. “No. It’s a campfire made of fabric cushions designed as stones, flames and logs.”

Rosie turned amazed eyes on her friend. “You made them a campfire?”

“She did,” Bronte said. “The girls had seen it on Amazon and Jan reckoned she could make it for less, and you know what she’s like, she did. AND she made them a wigwam, too. You should see it.”

Luca turned to Jan, his dark eyes pleading. “Sophia said that they’re playing Pocahontas and I can’t play because I have a… I have a… a… willie.”

Bronte ignored Rosie’s snort of laughter.

“Did she use exactly that word?”

Luca’s gaze flicked to his mother.

He shook his head.

“What word did she say?”

He shook his head again, this time so hard his dark curls bounced.

“Uh-uh. If ever I tattle-tale again, Sophia said that she’ll divorce me and I can speak to the hand.”

Jan, wiping her eyes, cleared her throat. “The hand?”

Luca held up his hand in the universal sign for stop.

“She put it right in my face.”

 

And just at that moment, two Pocahontas sauntered into the room.

Rosie had to laugh.

Sophia and Emily looked amazing.

Both wore black long wigs, head bands with brightly colored feathers stuck in the back, and two cute mustard colored fringed dresses over their leggings. The dresses had lots of multi-colored glass beads sewn on them. But it was the war paint on their faces that made her grin like a loon. She turned laughing dark eyes on Jan. “Did you make those outfits, too?”

Jan shrugged. “I have the best time practising this stuff on these two.”

Sophia marched up to her brother, got right up into his space, tipped her head back, and said. “HOW!”

Luca simply glared into her eyes, there was notta lotta love between the siblings at the moment.

Sophia made an are-you-beyond-stupid face. “You’re supposed to say, HOW back. It’s how an American Indian say hello.”

“I don’t need to say hello to you. I know who you are. The sister from hell,” Luca’s sore throat by this time was no more than a vehement whisper.

Emily eased her way between the war party and studied Luca’s flushed face.

“You’re sick. You need to see the medicine man,” she said in her soft breathy voice.

 

Bronte handed Mila to Jan and moved to press the back of her hand to Luca’s forehead.

“Pocahontas is right. Lemme check your temperature.”

“I’m the chief,” Sophia told her brother.

He didn’t look impressed.

“You’re a girl, so how come you’re the chief?”

Bronte, who by this time had found the digital thermometer, slipped it beneath his armpit and told him to sit quietly for five minutes.

Sophia sent him another look, and said, “Equal rights. This is woman’s liberation house. Mama’s the boss, which means I’m an Indian chief.”

By this time, Bronte checked his temperature and nodded.

“It’s up. Calpol for you as well.”

“I don’t like Calpol,” Luca whined.

Undeterred, his mama handed him a glass of water and told him to open his mouth.

After two spoonfuls, and making a horrible face, Luca took his medicine.

Then he sat at the table and simply stared holes through his twin.

Jan moved to stroke his hair.

“Did you really think that I’d made Sophia and Emily a wigwam and forget my Indian brave?”

Luca blinked.

His dark eyes went huge.

“Did you make me a wigwam?”

Jan nodded. “I did. AND I made you a campfire AND a headband and feathers. You can be two tribes.”

“Did you make me a hatchet and I can scalp Pocahontas?”

Jan rolled her eyes. “Unfortunately I didn’t. However, the two tribes might think about peace talks. Come and help me get them out of the car.”

She headed out the door with Luca hot on her heels.

In the boot room he crammed his feet into Wellington boots.

His face beamed as he hefted a huge black plastic bin bag filled with log, stones and flame cushions.

“Can we put the wigwam up in here, Mama?”

Bronte nodded, happy to see his color was better and so was his mood.

“Sure. Knock yourself out. Maybe Tonio could help?”

Luca raced out the room and up the stairs.

 

Sophia, sitting at the table, drinking a glass of milk and nibbling on a mini-muffin, her emerald eyes watchful as she observed her brother’s excitement, turned to her best friend.

“It might be time for a pow-wow, what do you think?”

Emily, enjoying her milk and mini muffin, her legs swinging under the chair, nodded like a wise owl.

“Okay. We’ll need war paint if we’re going to war with the boy tribe.”

“We’re the Pamunkeys.”

Luca arriving with Tonio in time to hear this, turned to his twin and curled his lip.

“We’re Apaches. Warriors,” he rasped.

Tonio eyed the girls, and grinned.

Emily simply sighed and gazed longingly at her idol.

When she gave Tonio googly eyes, Sophia shook her head.

“If we’re gonna wipe them from the face of the earth, you can’t look at him like that,” she said in a tone of utter disgust.

Emily turned to stare hard at her.

“We’re not going to wipe him from the face of the earth. Aren’t we talking peace?”

Sophia, her gaze on her twin, curled her lip.

“We don’t have a peace pipe.”

 

Meanwhile, Bronte, listening to the debate with a riveted Rosie and Jan, staged an intervention.

“As the big boss of this house,” she began. “I actually have a genuine peace pipe that the Pamunkeys and Apaches may use if they really and truly want to live in peace.”

Tonio, who by this time was laughing softly, turned to her.

“Seriously? You have a peace pipe?”

Bronte send him a cheesy smile.

“I do. It belonged to my dad. He used to enjoy the odd pipe, and I have one never used before. However, you must all promise me to take very great care with it.”

Luca, who by this time wore his hair band and three feathers, whirled to face her.

“I promise we’ll take good care of it,” he whispered.

“Okay. But, you must come to a peaceful agreement between the tribes.” She turned to a thoughtful looking Sophia, and raised her brows in a silent question. “Well?”

Sophia pursed her lips and turned to Emily.

Emily nodded.

Sophia turned back to her mama. “Okay. We agree to talk peace.”

Tonio rubbed his hands as the wigwam, with the help of Jan, was assembled, along with the campfire.

The two Indian braves, grabbed a couple of big cushions from the couch dropped them next to the campfire and crossed their legs.

“Can we bring down our wigwam and campfire too?” Emily suggested.

Bronte lifted her hands.

“The more the merrier. Need some help?”

 

Twenty minutes later the family room resembled an Indian settlement with a river (thanks to two blue yoga mats) running through it. On one side were the Pocahontas Pamunkeys and on the other were the Apache braves.

Luca stood, legs spread, on one side of the river and Sophia, arms folded, stood on the other.

“Are you coming to our camp for peace talks, or are we coming across the river to you?”

“We’ll come to you in case you burn our camp to the ground,” Sophia said.

Meanwhile, three year old Boo and Eve appeared to walk on water, carrying a selection of huge bricks back and forth to build their version of a wall.

As Bronte, Rosie watched the peace talks, Jan sewed feathers onto headbands for Boo and Eve to join the tribes.

 

“It’s absolutely fascinating to watch, isn’t it?” Rosie said, her brown eyes twinkling madly.

“Sophia rules that particular roost,” Bronte muttered.

Jan grinned.

“And she does it so well. We could do with her in parliament, she’d sort that lot out in quick order.”

Raised voices from the peace talks had Bronte clear her throat.

 

“Don’t be ridicalus,” Sophia said to her twin. “There weren’t iPads in the olden days.”

His eyes shooting daggers right back at her, Luca retorted, “I know that monkey-butt-face. But, we can have Indian music, can’t we?”

“Here’s some flute, forest and river music,” Tonio interrupted, and played it.

Emily, sitting cross legged on a cushion with Jimmy Chew snoring on her lap, began to sway from side to side. “Oooooh, I love it. I feel like I’m in the Rocky mountains.”

On his side of the river, Tonio did a hop-hop-hop dance in time to the drumbeat.

 

Out of the corner of her mouth, Jan muttered to Rosie who was sneakily videoing  it on her cell phone. “Aren’t they fabulous?”

“Yup. Adorable.”

When the howl of a lone wolf came over flute music, Emily’s eyes grew huge.

“Oh my.”

“And owls,” Sophia whispered.

When more drums and tambourines began, all native Americans got into the spirit of things. At last, an uneasy peace prevailed across the bad lands.

***

When Nico, Josh and Alexander strolled through the kitchen door, as one they stopped and surveyed the scene.

The lights in the family room were dimmed.

LED candles flickered in the middle of a huge campfire set in the middle of two wigwams. And all the Indian braves were fast asleep, with Jimmy Chew curled up in the middle of the fire that did not burn. Soft meditation nature music played.

And from the looks of things, they’d all had pizza for dinner.

Josh found Boo snoring among the bodies and started to laugh softly.

Bronte popped her head into the kitchen-dining-living space and whispered,

“We’re in here.”

The men tip-toed past those resting, through the hall and into the sitting room where a real log fire sparked and hissed behind a glass screen.

Josh scooped up his woman, sat her on his knee and gave her a hard kiss.

“Love the wigwams and the log fire.”

Jan’s blue eyes danced. “So worth it to see them have such a great time.”

Alexander shrugged off his suit jacket, his tie, and scooped up his sleepy daughter for a kiss. Then he gave one to a Rosie who’d lifted her face in clear invitation.

Meanwhile Nico grabbed Bronte and spun her around.

“Had a busy day?”

“Jan deciphered excel for Rosie and I and then we witnessed peace talks between the tribes. And Luca’s got a sore throat and a temperature.”

Nico made a face.

He turned to his guests.

“Need a drink? Wine? Beers?”

Once he’d served everyone, taken off his suit jacket and tie and reeeeeelaxed in his favorite comfy chair, he raised his glass.

“Here’s to peace.”

Bronte lifted her glass of wine.

“Here’s to Janine, according to Pocahontas, the best auntie in the whole wide world and the universe and beyond.”

 

FINE

 

Aww, if anyone’s interested there are actually cushions that resemble logs, fire and stones available for sale on Amazon…. just thought you’d like to know!

And for those who need rest, relaxation and probably a glass of wine, here’s the music the kids were listening to:  https://youtu.be/5TNNEw2PiyQ

PEACE and LOVE.

Christine X

It’s the Ludlow Hall Sneak Peek…

fridayludlowhallsneakpeekyougottafriendinme

Hi guys,

This weeks peek at a day in the lives of the Ferranti family is a day late. And never fear, the next Desert Orchid chapter will go live later today – and it’s a doozy!

***

Bronte, Tonio, Luca and Sophia are in the car on their way home…

Sofia Ferranti had to pee.

Nerves, and fear, plus the very rare Coke she’d had for being a good girl while her mamma had shopped in the supermarket all combined to fill her seven-year-old bladder to bursting.

Today had been one of the worst school days of her life.

Ever.

Ms. Brown was not happy with her.

And man, was she in big trouble when her mama and papa found out?

She wriggled in her car seat and wished she was home.

 

Bronte reckoned her children were very quiet considering it was a Friday afternoon. In the rear view mirror she kept a weather eye on Sofia.

A Sofia who was staring out of the window as if she was watching her favourite movie, Frozen. And a Sophia who’d been unnaturally quiet during supermarket shopping. A miracle, because her daughter loathed supermarket shopping with a passion only matched by that of her papa.

“We are nearly home,” Bronte sang.

No response.

Tonio who sat in the front passenger seat of the car turned to look at her.

The boy was growing like a weed. They’d just purchased his second pair of school shoes within three months.

When Bronte caught his eye, he made a face as if to say, what’s the matter with them?

In response Bronte shrugged.

“Is Luca asleep?” Bronte asked Tonio.

Tonio craned his neck to suss out what was happening behind him.

He nodded. “He’s out for the count.”

Bronte again checked on Sofia in the mirror.

She frowned at how pale her daughter looked.

Maybe she was sickening for something?

Please God, not the flu.

So far, they’d managed to escape the virus.

“We’re nearly home,” Bronte said again.

Silence.

She decided to give up.

No point in causing drama while she was driving the car.

 

By the time Sophia had raced to the bathroom to do her business, washed her hands, changed her school uniform for her favorite soft jeans and cozy sweater it was time for dinner.

Every Friday the family all ate together, that was the rule, if Papa got home in time.

Tonight Papa was running thirty minutes late.

And Sofia didn’t know whether to be happy or sad.

Thing was, she was in what her auntie Rosie would call – a hot mess.

Miss Brown, had given Sophia a sealed letter for her mamma and Papa.

A letter which she was sure described in glorious detail exactly what sin Sophia had committed today.

The thing was, Sofia didn’t want to give her mamma and Papa the letter.

She was in enough bother after setting the toaster oven on fire and causing chaos in the house last week.

But how was she to know that taking a baby book to school would have caused so much trouble?

The book was called A Child is Born.

And had the most amazing pictures of how a baby grew inside a mummy’s tummy.

The problems had started when Johnny Lacy had gagged when he saw the picture of a child being born.

And when Sophia had taken time to explain to him exactly how the child had ended up inside the mummy’s tummy in the first place, the Stoooooopid boy had thrown-up all over her best friend Emily’s new shoes. Which meant Miss Brown had not been happy with Sophia. She’d even confiscated book and refused to return it.

Sophia new perfectly well that her mamma and Papa would not have allowed her to take the book to school in the first place.

But she’d wanted to prove to Johnny Lacy that his explanation of how a baby got into a mummy’s tummy was wrong.

And now Johnny’s mummy was upset with Sophia too.

So today had turned into a complete nightmare for Sophia Ferranti.

 

Her best friend Emily had promised faithfully to say nothing to her mummy because she was a good pal of Sophia’s mama. And Tonio and Luca had promised to say nothing too. Now Sophia sat on the couch cuddling Jimmy Chew and felt that her dog was her only friend in the whole wide world.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Her mother asked for like the tenth time.

Actually, Sofia is feeling a bit sick in her stomach.

“I’m fine,” she whispered, and wished bedtime would hurry up and come.

 

Nico Ferranti was in a good mood.

He’d had a great day at Ludlow Hall.

It looked liked the flu virus from hell had finally burned itself through his staff.

And just to put a cherry on top of the cake, his PA Julie had returned to work.

Yay!

And now he got to spend quality time with his family for the whole weekend.

In his plans were an early night and plenty of good loving with his wife.

Whistling a happy tune, he strolled through the back door The Dower House, and got hit right between the eyes with a scent sent from heaven—his wife’s famous Italian red sauce, featuring basil and oven roasted tomatoes and garlic bread warm from the oven.

His mouth watered.

And then he got all soppy when he spotted the fat glass of Chianti sitting on the worktop, just waiting for him.

His wife knew exactly how to look after him.

He was a lucky man.

To show his appreciation and love, he grabbed Bronte around the waist and kissed the breath from her.

He loved the little purr in her throat. He loved the way she ran her fingers through his black hair.

Her nails scratched his scalp.

“Wow,” she said, when they came up for air. “What did I do to deserve that?”

He grinned at the dazed expression on her face.

“You look after me. You look after everyone. And I love you.”

She stroked the back of her hand down his cheek, her emerald eyes filled with love for him.

Yes, Nico reckoned he was one lucky bastard.

 

During dinner, Bronte put the lack of conversation from Sophia down to tiredness. After all, the kids had had a busy week at school. However, the little niggle in her belly just refused to quit. Bronte decided that tomorrow was another day. A day where she’d spend time with Sophia and get to the bottom of what was bothering her.

 

Once the children had teeth brushed, bathed and put to bed—after three rounds of story time of course, Nico and Bronte had time to themselves.

On the couch, he’d just taken her in his arms for a bit of heavy petting, when baby Eve’s tired cry came over the intercom.

Nico looked to Heaven. “Teething is hell,” he said to Bronte.

His wife stood, lifted her arms as if reaching for the sky, and yawned hugely.

“Her little cheeks are so hot. I’ll give her Calpol. That should sort it.”

Nico stretched out his long legs clad in loose black jeans, and wiggled his bare toes.

It looked as if his plan for an early night and romance may not happen.

Then he counted his many blessings, and shrugged.

He was a lucky man.

“Papa?”

The voice of one of his blessings came from behind him.

Nico looked to heaven.

“Sophia, cara mia, what is the matter?”

He turned, and found his daughter looking pale.

She was dressed in brushed cotton pink frilly pyjamas with the picture of Elsa on the front.

A gift from auntie Rosie.

And in her arms she clutched her Raggedy Ann doll.

A sure sign that something was up.

He watched her as Sophia crept closer.

And it wasn’t until she stood right before him that she looked him dead in the eye and said, “Promise you won’t be a grumpy Papa?”

Uh oh.

Trouble.

Nico leaned back and placed his hands behind his head.

He took plenty of time to study his daughter’s guilty face.

Maybe they were too soft with her?

Maybe she needed a firmer hand?

He rubbed the spot above his heart.

He couldn’t do it.

“On a scale of one to ten,” he said, “One being nothing too awful, what have you done this time?”

Her bare toes made little circles on the thick rug of ivory wool.

And she clutched Raggedy Ann even closer.

“It might be an eight? Maybe? I have a letter from Miss Brown to you and mamma in my schoolbag. And I don’t wanna give it to you.”

Nico’s brows rose into his hairline and he puffed out his cheeks.

“A letter from your teacher?”

Sophia nodded. “Yes.”

And now Sophia’s chin began to wobble and her eyes filled.

And in that moment, Nico knew he was toast.

No way could he harden his heart against tears.

He opened his arms and found his baby girl’s arms wound tight around his neck.

He let her cry.

Sometimes it was good to cry.

He didn’t want to think about the contents of the letter.

He couldn’t begin to imagine.

 

“What on earth is the matter?” Bronte said as she walked into the room.

Nico found his daughter holding him even tighter.

He made a face at his wife.

“Sophia has a letter for us from her teacher.”

“So what’s the problem?” Bronte asked.

“I don’t think it’s a friendly letter,” Nico said.

Bronte took a seat and tucked her legs beneath her butt.

“Hit me with it.”

By this time Sofia’s sobs were down to a snuffle.

“It’s in her school bag,” Nico said.

Bronte rose and padded to the boot room in her bare feet, and returned with Sophia’s schoolbag.

She sat down opened it and rummaged through the detritus until she found the letter.

For a long moment her eyes held his before she opened it and read the contents.

After reading it through twice, she bit down hard on her bottom lip and blinked frantically.

Nico heaved a heavy sigh.

He had a horrible feeling.

“That bad?”

By this time Sofia was sitting on her Papa’s lap, her cheek tucked against his chest and with one eye on her mamma.

Her cheeks were hot.

Bronte shook her head

“Well, it seems Miss Brown wants to know if we’ve been teaching sex education to our kids recently. Because it seems Sophia has been very busy informing her classmates about the birds and bees and vivid descriptions of natural childbirth.”

Nico shifted to catch Sophia’s eye.

“Seriously?”

Sophia drew circles on his T-shirt with her fingertip and all the while her big emerald eyes held his.

“It was all in the baby book,” she said in a small voice.

“What baby book?” Her mama asked.

“A Child is Born.” Sophia told her.

Bronte’s eyes went wide.

“Good Lord, you took that book to school?”

Sophia nodded. “Johnny Lacy said that babies came from heaven. That the stork brought the baby and left it at the hospital for mummies and daddies to collect. I said he was a big fat liar. He pushed me and I pushed him back. So I took the book into school. Because he can’t argue with the photographs, can he? I told him not to spread fake news.”

 

Silence.

No matter how hard Nico tried he couldn’t stop laughing.

His big body shook and he knew he daren’t meet his wife’s eyes.

Bronte meanwhile was reading the rest of the letter.

“Well, Miss Brown says that Sophia Ferranti did a better job than she could have done and that she will return the book the next time she sees me.”

Sophia blinked at her like a baby owl.

“You mean, I’m not in big trouble?”

Bronte leaned over and went nose-to-nose with her daughter.

“See what happens when you don’t give me a letter when you’re supposed to? You worried yourself for hours for nothing. All I am going to say is that you do not take any books from our library without asking permission. You okay with that?”

Sophia climbed off her Papa’s lap and went to receive a hug from her mamma.

A big hug.

Bronte lifted her and headed for the stairs.

“Say goodnight to Papa.”

“Night Papa.”

 

Nico topped up his glass of Chianti, sat back and closed his eyes.

There was never, he reckoned, a dull moment at the Dower house.

And he wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

FINE

 

Aw, no fake news for Sophia.

I’m busy writing Desert Captive, Our Rules, and have Gregorio Ancelotti’s story cooking on the back burner.

Big hugs,

Christine X

It’s the Ludlow Hall Christmas Sneak Peek…

CHRISTMAS2017BANNER

 

 

The Dower House…

Nico Ferranti had escaped to his study with his brother-in-law and best friend, Alexander. It might be considered a cowardly thing to do, to leave Bronte and Rosie to the over-excited mayhem of the fruit of their loins.  However, between making sure Ludlow Hall coped with an unexpected dump of the white stuff (apparently a snow bomb had slid further south than anticipated) and helping the twins build two snowmen in the garden, real men needed a break from an overdose of festivities. Festivities which had included, in no particular order, a variety of Christmas tunes all played at the same time, six children wearing a variety of dumb Christmas outfits (including dumb hats with flashing lights) and all off their head on a sugar high after helping Bronte and Rosie ice an endless variety of Christmas cookies—fir trees, snowmen all made of gingerbread. The house smelled of cinnamon, apple sauce and spun sugar. No wonder the kids were mental.

Alexander sank into a fat leather club chair situated near the blazing fire. Since no one was allowed to wear outdoor shoes inside The Dower House—his sister was more a bit anal about dirt tracking through her beautiful home—he wore thick socks, soft jeans and a cosy long sleeved thermal. He accepted the black espresso and a small brandy Nico handed him.

He eyed his friend as he eased his long body into the chair opposite the fire. Wearing black jeans and a dark grey cashmere polo neck, he placed his socked feet on the footstool and lifted his own glass. “Salute!

“Cheers,” Alexander said. Then he winced at the high whine of an over-tired child. Not his, thank God. Mila was too young to grasp the concept of Santa, reindeer, and presents arriving down the chimney, much to Rosie’s bitter disappointment. At the moment his wife, dressed black yoga pants, a crazy Christmas sweater with a glittering winter scene with flashing lights, and an antler hair band on her head which played ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’ on a continual loop. After three hours, and two battery changes, Alexander reckoned he’d earned a break. He winced now as the sound of the love of his life singing ‘I kissed a sexaaaaay Santa Claus’ at the top of her voice drifted into the study from the kitchen/family room. “Jeez. She can’t hold a tune in an empty bucket.”

Nico just grinned. “She is young at heart.”

Alexander placed his glass on the side table and wiggled his toasty toes. “I’ve no idea where she gets the energy from. You should see our house, it looks like a demented Santa’s grotto. Mila just sat there wide-eyed on the sheepskin rug watching her mother wiggle her butt to Elvis crooning about a Blue Christmas. Thank goodness it only comes around once a year.”

Nico cocked his head to listen as Sophia informed her brother Luca that, “If you eat another mince pie you’ll be sick as a bloody pig.”

“SOPHIA! LANGUAGE!” This from his wife at the top of her voice.

Alexander shook his head. “Do you remember the good old days? The days before changing diapers, sticky fingers and drool?”

Nico’s broad shoulders shook in silent laughter. “Si. But I would not change a single thing. And neither would you, my friend.”

“True.”

When the study door opened very slowly, both men turned to watch a damp curled and pink-cheeked Eve toddle into the room. She wore pink pj’s and since she was still to find her balance, she walked like drunk trying to go in a straight line. She headed for her papa and lifted her arms. “Batman!”

Happy to oblige, Nico sat her on his lap and nuzzled the soft black curls. “Hmm. Someone has had a bath.”

She turned to wrap her arms around his neck and smacked a wet kiss on his cheek.

“Batman!”

Alexander had to laugh. “She calls Rosie and me Batman, too.”

Nico gently tickled his daughter. “She does it to make us laugh. Don’t you, cara.”

When Rosie poked her head around the door and took in the cozy scene—the coffee, the brandy snifters, the fire, she narrowed her eyes. “It’s bath time and bedtime and we need all shoulders to the wheel if we want a bit of peace and quite before midnight.

Nico rose to his feet with Eve on his hip.

Alexander stood. “Coming, dear.”

In response, Rosie simply smiled, pressed a button on the Antlers on her head. As ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’ began, Alexander groaned long and loud.

Nico turned to look at him. “When will you ever learn that we cannot win?”

 

***

Three hours later…

The adults had retreated to the main sitting room. On the hearth in front of the log burner was a white china plate containing two mince pies dusted with icing sugar and a glass of whisky (for Santa), plus four carrots (for the reindeer). The thud from above, had four sets of eyes peer at the ceiling. “That sounded like Sophia jumping off her bed,” Bronte said in a low growl.

Rosie clapped her hands and stood. “Right. That’s it. We’ve tried bedtime stories, Christmas carols and milk. It’s time to bring out the Big Guns.”

She marched out the door and up the stairs, closely followed by Bronte and the men.

Hands on her hips, she stood in the hallway and eyed the three bedroom doors, all closed.

“Want to know what happens to naughty children who are not asleep when Santa comes?” she called out.

A muffled giggle from Sophia’s room had her open the door to peer at the lump beneath the duvet which was her niece. “I heard that, Ms Sophia Ferranti.”

Sophia’s blonde head popped up. “I’m trying to sleep, but it’s too hard.”

Luca, wearing Spiderman pj’s slid into the room. “I can’t sleep either. I’m too excited.”

When Tonio popped his head out of his bedroom door and simply grinned, Rosie folded her arms and put on her fierce face. “If you hear sleigh bells then that means Santa will know you’re not asleep and not leave any presents because he’ll go on to the next house where the GOOD children are asleep and give them ALL the presents.” She shrugged as if she could care less. “So, sleep or not sleep, the choice is yours.”

Sophia thought for a moment as she eyed her parents. “Is that true?”

Si.” Nico said without a blink.

“Trust me, you don’t want to hear sleigh bells,” Bronte said.

When Sophia lay down and rolled onto her side, and Luca raced into his room and banged shut the door, Nico turned to Tonio. The boy simply lifted his eyes to heaven and closed his door.

The adults waited five minutes and when all was quiet, they trooped back down the stairs.

“Glass of champagne?” Nico asked Bronte and Rosie.

“Yup.” Rosie said. “We’ll give them half and hour and then we’ll bring out the bells.”

Alexander blinked. “Bells?”

His wife turned her big Bambi eyes on him, as if butter wouldn’t melt, and fluttered her outrageously thick lashes.

“But of course. We have a plan. We have sleigh bells. We’ll just let them get warm and cozy and then we’ll sneak out into the garden beneath their windows and jingle the bells.”

Alexander bit his lip. “Why, that’s just a cruel and dastardly trick to play on little children. I love it.”

 

Thirty minutes later, Bronte and Rosie, dressed for a trek to the North Pole, crept into the garden and once they were in place and hidden by a conifer hedge, they jingled their bells loud and long. There was a muffled cry from upstairs, but then all was quiet. And for good measure Alexander hung out the window and called, “Yo-Ho-Ho!” in a deep voice.

 

The women returned, cheeks pink from the cold and their eyes sparkling with sheer mischief. Nico poured them their second glass of bubbly. Then he turned to pick up a remote control and pressed the button. The low sound of Bing Crosby crooning about dreaming of a White Christmas filled the room. Not a sound was heard from the bedrooms above.

Rosie made herself comfortable on Alexander’s lap and kissed him.

While his best friend made out on the sofa, Nico pulled Bronte into his arms and took his time to kiss her senseless.

By the time he came up for air, her arms were wound around his neck and her hands were in his hair. He rubbed his nose against hers. “Ti amo, Bronte.”

“I love you, too,” she whispered.

The carriage clock on the mantelpiece began to chime the midnight hour.

“Merry Christmas,” he whispered back.

FINE

Dear readers, it’s been a crazy year with much writing stuff not achieved by this author. So things, as the song says, can only get better! From my house to your house— MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!

The Sneak Peeks will return in 2018!

Christine X