It’s episodes 6 + 7 of DESERT CAPTIVE…

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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

Episode 2 of Desert Captive…

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Hello, my darlings,

There’s a rumour going around that next Monday we’ll see the hottest early May day holiday since records began.  We can only hope!

Grab a coffee or a glass of wine…

EPISODE TWO

In his office suite situated on the third floor, Prince Sarif El Haribe frowned at the sound of the clamour of sirens and blue lights flashing outside the Embassy window.

Since it was summer, he couldn’t see the scene through the heavy canopy of oak trees.

Plus, his thoughts were focused on other things.

More important things.

Things like Arabella Faulkner, a woman he hadn’t been able to forget for many long months.

Of course, he’d tried to forget how she’d felt as her body had held his like a too tight fist in a velvet glove. He’d tried to forget how she’d writhed beneath him, her eyes glazed with lust. He’d tried to forget the way she’d chanted his name over and over as he’d taken her so hard and so fast his vision had clouded. More, he’d tried to forget her smell, jasmine and sunshine and womanly arousal.

He closed his eyes because he could actually taste her on his tongue.

He’d been like this for months.

He’d lost weight.

A disciplined and controlled man in all things, he’d lost that discipline, that control, when she’d run from him, from them, from their future, he’d planned.

How many times had he replayed in his head the last time she’d spoken to him?

Why hadn’t he shared his feelings with her?

Instead of telling her what their future held, why hadn’t he discussed her needs, her anxieties?

His brother Khalid and sister-in-law Charisse had told him to give Bella time and space.

He’d followed their advice. After all they understood how a marriage of convenience worked. They’d fallen madly in love and were now cosily ensconced in marital bliss, true partners who supported each other through thick and thin.

Khalid was a lucky man.

The trouble was, Sarif was a King, a ruler of people who needed him, a King with heavy responsibilities and duties and commitments.

By walking away, by leaving him, Arabella had shown by her actions rather than words that she wanted no part of him or the people of Quarram. The last thing his country needed in these dangerous times was a reluctant Queen, a Queen from a diametrically opposing culture.

And yet, like a smacked puppy, he’d followed her to London to make sure she was safe.

More importantly, to make sure the child she carried—his secret child—was safe.

Even now he could hardly believe it.

When he’d received her message that she was finally prepared to meet with him, he’d been almost relieved.

Almost.

But then he’d again read the detailed report of her comings and goings over the past few months. He’d first seen it six long weeks ago, a report compiled by his new private secretary, Hafar, areport that even now sat on his desk, almost mocking him, and a report that had broken something deep within him.

Betrayal was a bitter taste on his tongue.

Although to be fair, she’d walked right up to the shaky edge of betrayal and hadn’t actually taken that final step.

No matter, the picture, the report painted of a woman he’d been prepared to trust, was not a pretty one.

However, he’d plotted and planned and now everything was coming together.

Sarif checked the time on the wall clock.

She was late.

Annoyance stirred in his belly.

He’d dressed carefully for the meeting.

His dark grey suit tailored in Savile Row, a shirt of crisp white cotton and a silk tie.

The English liked their silk ties.

Never a patient man at the best of times, he checked the time on his slim watch of white-gold and frowned.

She was late.

But the thing that seriously annoyed him was the way his nerves jangled.

He refused to acknowledge such a thing as nerves.

Nerves were a sign of weakness.

No man from the house of El Haribe was weak.

He was a King, for God’s sake.

Then he wondered, why now?

Why had Arabella called him this morning  out of the blue and accepted his invitation to meet him here at the Embassy. He’d immediately cancelled his appointments for the day, much to Hafar’s clear disapproval.

So what had made Arabella change her mind after months of radio silence and agree to see him? Recently one of his security personnel had been on her tail at all times.

Perhaps it had been her recent neonatal appointment for an ultrasound scan. Perhaps seeing the living, beating heart of their child had, belatedly, made her grow a conscience? This was an appointment she’d kept alone, with no one to support her. He wondered why the fact she’d been alone bothered him?

He glanced again at the thick file of the report on his desk, months of detailed information on her movements, where she’d gone and who she’d met.

One part he’d read again and again as the dog-eared paper proved.

He couldn’t seem to help himself but shift to open the file and read the page one more time. The part where, six weeks after she’d arrived in the capital, she’d gone to a private clinic for an appointment.

His hand fisted.

An abortion clinic.

Of course, she hadn’t gone through with killing his child, which was just as well for her.

But as he read again, in black and white, that she’d even considered destroying an innocent, he finally faced the fact that her betrayal had killed something deep inside him.

She deserved every single thing that was about to befall her.

And so, Sarif accepted, he was about to cast aside all ethics and values of a life dedicated to duty and service.

He had plotted and planned and was almost ready to make his move to protect his son.

His son.

She carried a boy, as the ultrasound scan proved beyond any shadow of a doubt.

Gritting his teeth, Sarif El Haribe swore to Allah, he would break every single law of faith and country to protect his unborn child and take him home where he belonged.

Quarram.

And as for the woman who carried his son?

Well, Arabella Faulkner would do exactly as she was told, or, in the spirit of an eye for an eye, Sarif would put her brother to death in an instant.

The man-boy was nineteen and a student.

His name, Rupert Faulkner, youngest son of Brigadier Hamish Faulkner and his wife, Primrose.

A keen student of cultural anthropology, it had been all too easy to dupe Rupert into joining a fake archaeological dig to Quarram.

It had been even easier to plant a priceless artefact in his hand luggage as he tried to leave the country with the rest of his party. Now Rupert sat rotting in a Quarram jail. Sarif, since the King’s word overruled all democratic laws of man, had decreed the prisoner had no rights. No right to a lawyer. No right to consular assistance.

Now as he thought about him, Sarif had to admit the boy’s courage had impressed him.

No whining.

No begging.

He’d shown plenty of the famous British stiff upper lip.

As soon as Arabella Faulkner married Sarif, her brother would be set free.

Marry him, save her brother.

That was the deal.

Sarif was well aware his father and brother would look askance upon his appalling conduct, and see it as—extreme, which was why he’d told them nothing of his plans.

He lusted for revenge.

He lusted for justice.

Arabella had runaway like a coward.

She’d kept his unborn child from him and had thought, even briefly, to destroy it.

And for that he would never forgive her.

Revenge—Sarif decided with a righteous fury burning in his very soul—was a dish best served cold.

 

Again he moved to the window to calm his thoughts, to clear his mind.

He’d need to play it smart.

Arabella was no fool.

The woman was highly intelligent, and a trained fighter.

All he had to do was keep his head, and his temper, and persuade her to marry him.

Once she’d safely delivered his son, he’d divorce her and kick her out of his country.

And she would never see their child, or Sarif, again.

Result.

A knock at the door had him give permission to enter.

His private secretary, Hafar, entered, bringing with him the scent of Jeera Goli, a candy laced with cumin.

For a young man with a sweet tooth, Hafar was strikingly skinny.

And since Hafar refused to wear western dress, he wore his thwab and besht to denote his status as a servant of the King. He’d replaced his father, Ekram, in the position after the latter’s sudden retirement due to family issues. To tell the truth, Hafar’s obsequious ways got on Sarif’s nerves.

Looking on the bright side, Hafar might be considered a godsend.

His information technology skills were particularly impressive.

“My Lord,” Hafar’s nasally voice was smooth as silk, and annoying as hell. “There has been a most unfortunate occurrence outside the Embassy gates.”

Sarif frowned. “An accident?”

“A young woman has been hit by a car. The driver did not stop.”

Safir made a face of distaste.

“A hit and run.”

Hafar bowed again.

And waited.

Sarif lifted his brows.

“Something else?”

Looking back at the conversation later—the way Hafar’s tongue had licked his thin lips, like a snake, and pressed his fleshy palms together, as if in prayer, and all the while his dark eyes had stayed on him—it should have been a warning.

But what followed erased the conversation from his mind, until it was too late.

Far too late.

“The woman is Arabella Faulkner.”

***

Ooooooh, tune in next week…

Hugs,

Christine X

The Golddigger box set out today…

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KOBO          AMAZON      iBOOKS     GOOGLE PLAY   NOOK

Hello, my darlings!

I’m thrilled to bring you The Golddiggers box set!

A series of short stories filled with sexy, sassy beautiful women and their swoon worthy men who love them honestly and deeply….

What readers say:

“CC MACKENZIE  puts heart, family, friends in each story. Love each and everyone. She does not disappoint her readers. Thanks once again.”

“Millie is tough as nails, with a soft heart.love the series and these stories add to the main stories in the Ludlow Hall series.”

“Love them all!”

“Imagine this – The Gold diggers series is an absolutely decadent cake. So rich that one slice is all you can have because anymore than that would just be too sickly. The whole series is one slice of that delicious cake. Each book is a single bite of that beautiful cake. Each mouth full pure bliss. Each book is like one tantalising taste but you cannot have more than one bite at a time.
Kudos to the baker – CC MacKenzie”

 

***

Don’t forget the next instalment of Desert Captive is on the blog at the end of the week!

Hugs,

Christine X

New – a chapter a week of Desert Captive – follow the story as I write it…

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Hello my darlings!

I’ve been up the wall with a redevelopment project in the house that has grown into one hot mess. I’m in the middle of electrical cables, plumbing and joiners and tearing my hair out.

From today, and each Friday until the story is FINISHED, I’m sharing the first draft of DESERT CAPTIVE… It hasn’t been edited, which means the final version may be different from what I’m sharing now…. Here’s the first chapter… Enjoy!

Chapter One

Why did doing the right thing feel so,—wrong?

Dressed in flat pumps of black leather and a black soft pants suit, the jacket button straining over her burgeoning baby bump, Arabella Faulkner walked fast through a very posh part of London. A military man would have immediately recognized the way she held herself, tall and slim, her dark brown eyes tough and uncompromising.

Her long stride ate up the sidewalk.

For four long months, she’d lived in what could only be called a hormone apocalypse. Pregnancy, she’d learned the hard way, did that to some women. It turned them from thinking, sensible, sentient beings into crazed fools with a fragmented thought process. It left them unable to make the most basic decisions, like actually talking to her baby’s father.

Of course, once she’d escaped—make that run away—from Onuur, from the time she’d handed him her virginity on a plate, Prince Sarif El Habibe had been furious. He’d been even more furious when she’d refused to answer his calls, as his many letters proved.

The fact of the matter was, one did not run away, pregnant, from a desert prince and expect to get away with it.

See, that’s where the hormone apocalypse came in.

She’d not been thinking straight.

When she’d discovered her pregnancy, she’d panicked, and who could blame her?

After all, Sarif, he of the movie star good looks, rich beyond imagination—and powerful ruler of the state of Quarram—was not a man a woman misled.

Okay, lied to.

Yes, she’d lied.

And lied.

And lied.

Because, right from the get-go, she’d been in denial.

A state of refusal to admit that she, they, had done what they’d done without even the most basic protection.

And she blamed the hormone apocalypse for the whole sorry mess.

 

As she strode down Horse Guards parade, and past the officer’s barracks, the scene brought back happy memories.

Good times.

She recalled her previous life in the military.

On her very first tour in Helman, she’d been decorated for bravery.

Of course, she’d been scared shitless.

But like every other Buttercup, as the females in her unit had been affectionately called, she’d sucked it up and got on with what needed to be done. Thanks to gross political ineptitude and unnecessary delay, what should have been a simple extraction had turned into a messy, bloody, cluster-fuck.

Then after that, just for shits and giggles, she’d had a short stint in the special forces.

And then had come the middle of the night call ordering her to the tiny kingdom of Onuur to guard a Queen who’d looked like a real life Elsa from the kiddy movie, Frozen.

It hadn’t taken her long to discover Elsa had a backbone of titanium and a heart as big as the vast desert that was her home.

Arabella would have, if necessary, laid down her life for Queen Charisse El Haribe. However, after a short but messy adventure, she’d had the deep pleasure to put a bullet between the eyes of the sick bastard who’d kidnapped Charisse and put his filthy hands upon her person.

Good times.

She’d never been a crier, but right now Arabella’s eyes went all misty at the thought of Charisse.

She took a deep breath.

There went the hormone apocalypse again.

The young Queen was now blissfully happy with her new king, hotness himself, Khalid El Haribe.

Arabella grinned at the thought of him.

Khalid was a big handful of trouble of ever there was one.

Anyway, after escaping from the consequences of banging a Prince on the floor without the thought of protected sex, and too many weeks—make that months—of kicking her heels in Charisse’s swanky London apartment Arabella had opened her eyes this morning—and it was as if she had seen the light.

Hallelujah!

Instead of a mind filled with brain-fog and indecision, she clearly saw the road ahead.

The road of truth, honor and integrity.

Backbone.

Ethics.

Values.

Yeah, the time had come to tell Sarif the truth.

The whole truth.

And nothing but the truth.

After all, in a few short months their lives would be changed forever.

The guy might be a Prince, but he had a human right to be involved in the future of his child.

Rights that meant responsibilities.

Parental responsibilities.

The words made her breath hitch and for the first time, her steps faltered.

What if Sarif didn’t want to know the baby?

Her timing was bad too.

The tabloids had been in a flutter for weeks about the whisper of his impending engagement. The woman concerned was one of those doe-eyed, dark haired, olive-skinned beauties that came from Sarif’s neck of the woods.

Protected.

Obedient.

Virgin.

 

Arabella took another deep breath—all the things she was most definitely—not.

Maybe she should have sent him a letter instead of speaking to him in person?

That would have been cowardly.

Same with texting or email.

No.

She had to break the news of their baby face-to-face.

Sarif had been camped out at the Quarram Embassy for a week—she still had her sources—and now was as good a time as any to do the deed.

To do the right thing.

Even if it was better late than never.

Mind busy, she lengthened her stride, crossed the road, and didn’t spot the purring black SUV with blacked-out windows keep pace behind her.

For once, her spidey senses deserted her until it was too late.

Everything, the rev of an engine, the way she twisted and threw herself to the side before being hurled into the air, happened too fast.

 

Bloody and broken, Arabella Faulkner lay face down in the tarmac between road and curb.

A pain in her shoulder made it hard to take a breath. It burned as if speared by a poker forged in flame.

Out of the corner of her eye blood, her blood, flowed slowly towards a drain.

The smell of blood, the sound of feet running echoed in her stunned brain.

Her last thought was for her unborn child.

She’d left it too long to do the right thing and now it was too late.

Too late.

The world went dark.

***

The next chapter from Sarif’s point of view comes next week, and it’s a doozy.

Until next week…..

And yes, the Ludlow Hall short stories will be back when this book is finished.

Hugs,

Christine X

 

Aim for the ping pong ball… It’s the Ludlow Hall short story…

Aim for the Ping Pong Ball

 

Hello, my darlings!

We’ve actually had a heat wave – a mini heat wave they say – which has brought us the hottest April day since 1949! Love it!

We’re also in the process of major detailing work on the top floor of this house, and like everything else once we began the project other things appeared like extra plumbing and electrics and plasterwork. Bleh.

Don’t know about you, but I need a bit of Ludlow love, or hate as the case may be when it comes to the Ferranti twins, Sophia and Luca.

The Dower House…

“How’s Tonio?” Rosie Ludlow asked Bronte as they jogged down a dirt trail behind Ludlow Hall. They both wore knee length yoga pants and fitted T-shirts, their hair pulled back from flushed faces. The sun’s rays filtered through the tree canopy. The air was filled with the scent of years of leaf mould. A brook babbled into a stream as it made it’s lazy and winding way down to the river Ludlow.

Bronte jogged on the spot, checked her watch. “His shoulder’s doing a lot better and the bruising across his clavicle is improving every day. He knows he’s been lucky, and trying not to fret about no football practice for six weeks, but he’s a bit down in the mouth at times. Poor boy.”

“Kids,” Rosie said. “They’re tricky little buggers.”

Bronte sent her a dark look. “Mine are a nightmare at times.”

Rosie grinned. “You’re crazy about them.”

“You know Sophia’s top in math and English and music?”

Rosie bit down hard on her bottom lip as she joined Bronte in leg stretches.

“Luca mentioned it. He is most displeased.”

Bronte had to laugh. “He’ll never be her equal. When it comes to brains she’s in a class of her own.”

“That girl could rule the world.”

“She does her level best to rule our house, except she’s gotta go through me so that’ll never happen.”

“Now Emily’s back from vacation, she’ll keep Sophia entertained.”

Bronte rolled her eyes. “The latest is they want to join a circus.”

Rosie snorted a laugh. “The Greatest Showman?”

“Yup. Grace is taking them to a double sitting tomorrow. They know every single word to every single song.”

“Did you know Emily asked her for a baby tiger?”

Bronte closed her eyes. “I don’t want to even think about it. Bubblegum and Jimmy Chew are more than enough to deal with.”

When they reached Bronte’s Range Rover in the car park of Ludlow Hall, they took a long drink of water before jumping in.

As Bronte drove down the long driveway lined by huge elm trees, she turned to eye Rosie. “You took it nice and slow today, you feeling okay?”

“Nothing that seven months won’t fix. I’m pregnant.”

When Bronte did an emergency stop, screamed her head off, and grabbed her in a hug, Rosie just held on tight.

Bronte shifted to check her colour. She looked fine. More than fine. “I didn’t know you two were trying for another baby!”

Rosie made a face. “As soon as we talked about it, voila, super-sperm struck again.”

A beaming Bronte hugged her once more. “Aw, Mila’s gonna be a big sister.”

“She’s just found her feet. Alexander’s a great daddy with her.”

“Of course he is!”

Rosie’s big brown eyes went all teary. “I can’t believe how I nearly messed it up with him.”

Bronte turned on the ignition and shook her head. “That’s baby hormones speaking.”

“I ran away.”

“You did. But you needed alone time to think about your relationship. Nothing wrong with that.”

Rose sniffed. “That’s not what you said at the time.”

“No. Well, I’d been worried sick that something bad had happened to you. Thank God your mother kept us in the loop. AND you cut your hair.”

Rosie took a deep breath. “Self inflicted punishment. It’s taken years to grow it back. The curse of curly hair.”

The car turned into the driveway of The Dower House.

“Aw, another baby in the family,” Bronte said.

Her wistful tone had Rosie give her big eyes.

“Are you broody again?”

Bronte blinked.

“Me? No!”

Rosie got out, grabbed her fitness bag from the trunk, eyed a thoughtful looking Bronte.

“You sure? I bet Nico would be up for another one.”

Hoisting her bag on her shoulder, Bronte locked the car.

“He’s always up for it.”

 

“Mama!” Sophia raced out the door, closely followed by her best friend in the Whole Wide World, Emily. The girls were dressed as athletic fairies, at least that was the best description of pink leotards, white footless tights and white wings, Bronte could come up with. They’d also been in the kiddy makeup and by the looks of it experimenting with ‘smoky eyes’. Goth fairies, maybe.

Rosie opened her arms and Sophia gave her a hug.

“What’s this? You been watching ‘Tinker Bell and the Legend of the Never Beast’ again?”

“How did you know?” Emily asked, her big blue eyes wide.

Rosie gave her a hug too. “A lucky guess.”

Sophia spun around to face Bronte. “Mama!”

“That’s the second time you’ve said that, what’s up, Buttercup?”

“There’s a disgusting stink in the downstairs toilet.”

Emily wrinkled her cute little freckled nose and nodded her head so hard in agreement that her red curls danced around her head.

“Is it blocked again?”

Sophia shook her head.

“Nope. But it stinks of wee.”

Bronte made a bitch-face, as Rosie called it, and marched into the house.

Her emerald gaze swept through the kitchen-dining-family space, and found it immaculate, which was just as well since she’d bottomed out the place the day before.

However, the yells and howls from the ‘man cave’ told her a soccer game was in full flow.

As she marched past the door to the ‘man cave’ she threw it a dark look and headed on down the hallway to the ground floor toilet. She opened the door and surveyed the scene, the vile splashes on the wall and floor tiles.

With a face like thunder, she threw open the window.

Rosie, always interested in how a domestic goddess ran her home, poked her head in the door and the smell of a urinal hit her between the eyes. “Jeez, what the hell is wrong with guys? Can’t they pee into the toilet bowl?”

“Nope,” Sophia said. “They’re disgusting. Mama, you should make them sit on the toilet like girls do.”

Emily piped up. “But how would that work? Wouldn’t their penis just stick up and wee would go everywhere?”

“Not if they hold it down into the bowl,” Sophia told her in a tone that meant business. “How hard can it be?”

Meanwhile Bronte, busy gathering cleaning products from the built in cupboard beneath the sink, picked up two pairs of pink rubber gloves, and stalked down the hall and into the ‘man cave.’ The men in her life, unshaven, all laid back in belly scratching mode, plus the empty soda bottles, coffee cups, and water bottles told her all she needed to know.

“You!” She shot a finger at Nico and tossed him a pair of rubber gloves and cleaning spray. And then she aimed her finger at her brother and tossed him gloves too. “And you! With me! Now!”

By this time Rosie, Emily and Sophia were in the hallway, their arms folded and wearing their own unique versions of the bitch-face.

 

Now, Nico Ferranti was not stupido.

He followed the stiff shoulders of his wife, couldn’t help but admire her tight little ass in those yoga pants, the swing of her white-blonde ponytail, and in his mind he made plans for an early night.

“Don’t even think about it, boyo!” Bronte shot over her shoulder.

However, when the love of his life behaved like she was in the military and ready for war, he knew something was up.

Alexander, meanwhile, was not a happy man. “Aw, what’s the matter with you? The game’s just come alive. We’ll miss the good bits.”

“That whiney voice is not a good look on you,” his sister told him sharply as she came to a halt outside the toilet. She threw open the door. “I want this cleaned right now and then we’re all gonna have a little talk on how to pee in my house.”

Alexander took a big step back, held up his hands.

“Whoa! I’m not touching it. This isn’t my house. Why do I need to clean it?”

Bronte went nose to nose with her big brother. “Did you pee in here today?”

Alexander ignored his wife’s shaking shoulders, but shot her a dark look anyway. “Might have. Once.”

“Were you in a hurry?” Bronte lifted her chin.

Alexander scratched the scruff on his jaw. “Maybe.”

“So you weren’t exactly focused on what you were doing?”

“I’ve been peeing all my life. I don’t splash.”

“Wanna bet?” his sister said.

“How much?”

“Twenty.”

“I cannot believe I’m even hearing this conversation,” Nico said on his knees. Wearing pink rubber gloves, he sprayed disinfectant spray on the walls, the floor and thoroughly inside and outside the toilet bowl. “It must have been the boys. And Tonio’s handicapped at the moment.”

Luca and Tonio, wondering what all the fuss was about, peered into the room.

“I didn’t use this toilet,” Tonio said, and missed the sharp look Nico shot him.

“I didn’t use it either,” Luca said. “We use the main bathroom upstairs.”

“Oh well then,” Bronte threw up her hands. “That’s means another bathroom to clean. Guys, the weather is warm and if you don’t drink enough fluids then your wee is concentrated and smells vile. We need to talk about this.”

“Nope. I am not talking about peeing in my own home,” Nico said.

 

When the rhetoric between her mama and papa descended into a row, Sophia grabbed Emily and they made their way to her bedroom and peace and quiet.

“Wow,” Emily said. “That was pretty disgusting.”

Sophia, busy rummaging around in her shelf unit, nodded, and emerged with notepad and pencil.

“We need a plan. My mama can’t do everything in this house.”

Emily followed her to a desk and chair. “What are you gonna do?”

Sophia sat and drew six lines down and six lines across. She wrote the names of her papa and her brothers and her Uncle Alexander in a box.

“We need to track who uses the toilet and when and then check it to see who’s the culprit. We can’t do anything without proof.”

A baffled looking Emily leaned on the desk, her chin on her hand. “Okay, but how to you get proof?”

“We put squares of toilet paper all around the toilet. If they get wet then we know who did it.”

“But that means we might wait for ages to see who needs to pee.”

Sophia thought about it, nodded. “Okay, then we need a better plan.”

Emily snapped her fingers. “I know! My mummy put a ping pong ball in the toilet and told my daddy to aim for it! It worked! No more smelly loos! And when he flushed, the ping pong ball doesn’t flush!”

Sophia sat back and grinned, then gave Emily a high five. “I like it! And I know just the place to get ping pong balls!”

A few minutes later, the girls are in the triple garage and rummaging through boxes.

“Got them!” Sophia held up a plastic box filled with ping pong balls. “How many do we need?”

“One’s enough in each one,” Emily said.

“Let’s do it!”

 

“Can someone tell me why there’s a ping pong ball in the toilet?” Luca asked.

The Ferranti family were eating dinner.

Bronte blinked. “Omigod. Now what?”

Sophia, eyeing her brothers and papa, shrugged. “It worked in Emily’s house.”

Bronte turned to her. “What worked?”

“Emily’s daddy aimed for the ping pong ball and no more splashes.”

Bronte’s brows flew into her hairline. “I like it! Aim for the ping pong ball, guys!”

The males in her life didn’t exactly look enthusiastic.

Luca, carefully removing any sign of broccoli from his meal with the precision of a brain surgeon, said, “How come there are boy toilets and girl toilets?”

Nico, trying to think of a logical way to answer the random question caught Sophia, chewing her food, staring unblinking at her twin.

When she opened her mouth, Nico jumped in.

“Privacy,” he said. “It’s a basic human right.”

“Oh, and by the way,” Bronte said and sent him a big toothy grin. “You owe me twenty pounds.”

Nico placed his knife and fork on the plate, sat back and did his level best to out-stare his wife, and failed.

“I did not splash.”

“Twenty pounds, boyo.”

He stared at his sons.

“How do you know it was me?”

“You dripped.”

His jaw dropped.

“Did not!”

“Did too.” Then she grabbed her phone. “Wanna see proof?”

For the first time in his life, Nico Ferranti felt his cheeks go hot.”

“You did not!”

“Yup. It’s X-rated, btw.”

Fiercely aware of the way his children watched him, Nico grabbed his wallet from his pocket and flicked a twenty towards his wife.

How embarrassing was this.

Later, much later, the kids were in bed and Nico was enjoying a glass of Chianti before bed. He poured his wife a glass of white wine, and waited.

He heard her upstairs doing her nightly round of checking on their kids, and then the sound of her bare feet pad down the stairs.

When she entered the family room wearing an ivory silk dressing gown, he studied her scrubbed face, her slim figure and thought he’d never seen anything more beautiful in his life.

Dio, he adored her.

“The ping pong ball is freaking me out,” he said.

When she threw back her head and laughed so hard she clutched her stomach, he had to smile.

“Omigod,” she said. “You should see your face…”

He sat back and placed bare feet on a stool.

His eyes held hers.”Tonio and Luca are drinking lots of water to see who has the best aim.”

Bronte bit down hard on her bottom lip, gave him wide eyes.

“Boys will be boys.”

“There is nothing sacred in this house,” he muttered.

She slid onto his knees and wrapped slim arms around his neck.

Emerald eyes filled with love and fun stared into his.

“You sulking?”

His nose kissed hers.

“I don’t sulk.”

“Okay, I’d call it a pout.”

“I don’t pout.”

When his hands slid inside the silk to find skin her breath hitched.

Then his mouth took hers…….

 

FINE

 

Ah, I well remember the ping pong ball in the toilet.

So does my H and my son….

Until next time!

Hugs,

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

Best friends… it’s the Ludlow Hall short story…

bestfriends

 

Greetings, my darlings!

We have cloud and wind and rain.

Come on, Spring!

Here’s part two of the Ludlow Hall short story…

It’s the morning after the night before at The Dower House, and Emily finally gets her chance to talk to Rosie about the love of her life, Tonio.

Sophia and Emily, wearing soft blue jeans and their hoodies are sitting at the table in the kitchen-dining-living space with Rosie and the toddlers.

“How old were you when you knew Alexander was the one?” Emily asked Rosie in her soft, breathy voice.

Rosie, wearing black thermal leggings and an oversized T-shirt, her inky curls tied in a messy knot on her head, placed plastic bowls filled with cereal and sliced banana on the high chair tables for Mila and Eve. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted Sophia’s here-we-go-again face and tried hard not to laugh.

Emily was a lovely kid, but her head was in the clouds much of the time, and Rosie reckoned her obsession with Tonio was not healthy.

“When I was your age I actually didn’t like Alexander very much, mainly because he treated me like his sister. Even Bronte would tell you that having an overprotective big brother is no fun. And things got even worse when we hit our teens. I cannot tell you the number of arguments I had with him over who I dated in high school for example.”

Emily’s blue eyes went wide. “Was he jealous?”

Rosie shook her head. “Nope. He didn’t ever see me as anyone other than part of the family, which he reckoned gave him rights to have an opinion.”

Clearly disappointed, Emily seemed to mull over that statement as she nibbled on her cheese on toast.

“I can’t stop thinking about Tonio,” she finally admitted.

Rosie buttered fingers of toast and set them on the toddler’s high chair tables.

The little girls were still dressed in their pink pj’s since Rosie reckoned there was no point in bathing until after breakfast. When Mila stroked sticky fingers over Eve’s dark curls, Sophia and Emily howled with laughter.

Rosie studied Emily’s little face before she answered.

“Have you ever considered Tonio’s feelings?”

Sophia, unusually for her, had been silent during this exchange, but now she turned to her friend. “You should ask him what sort of girl he likes.”

Emily blinked. “But what if he doesn’t like me?”

“He does like you,” Sophia said. “But not as a girlfriend because number one – you’re too young. Number two – you’re my best friend. Number three – I think auntie Rosie’s right.”

And on cue Alexander, Luca and Tonio entered the kitchen.

Hair damp from the shower, they wore jeans and T-shirts with soccer colors of their favourite team because they were attending a big match today.

They grabbed plates and headed for the mountain of bacon and eggs set on the worktop.

When they settled at the table and Rosie had poured milk for the boys and black coffee for her husband, Sophia gave Emily a very hard stare to get-on-with-it and ask Tonio the question.

Unfortunately, it was clear poor Emily’s courage had failed her.

“Emily wanted to know,” Rosie began, and sent a cheesy grin to the love of her life. “When you knew I was the one.”

Alexander blinked, sent Emily a smile that made her already pink face go nuclear.

“Yeah? Um—I’d always liked her, even when she drove me crazy. But it was when we became close and then she left me that it really hit me hard and I knew I couldn’t live without her.”

Tonio crunched a piece of crispy bacon, then said, “When I am a man I will live in Italy and marry a beautiful Italian girl.” He dug into his breakfast totally unaware that he’d just dropped a bombshell and broken a little heart.

Rosie studied her nephew.

“So, what’s wrong with British girls?”

Tonio glanced at her, then appeared to realize that every single female had her eyes, hard eyes, on him.

“Oops,” Alexander muttered.

It seemed Tonio had mastered the Ferranti smile, the one that could charm the birds off the trees. He turned it on full watt now. Then it slipped a little when there was no response.

“Absolutely nothing,” he said and added a little extra Italian accent for good measure. “But I like dark hair, long legs and girls with energy and good humor. Many British girls are like little mice and do nothing but stare at boys.”

“Well, you can’t blame them for staring,” Rosie said, very aware that a devastated and very pale Emily was gazing at her plate. “The Ferranti males are pretty to look at.”

At that, Luca raised his head from inhaling his breakfast, and stared at his aunt in disgust.

“I’m not pretty!”

Rosie turned to him.

“You’re the prettiest one of them all.”

Luca turned to his uncle Alexander.

“Can you not control your wife?” he asked.

“Nope.”

“I’m never getting married,” Luca told the room at large.

His twin, her face an expressionless mask, simply said, “Trust me, no one with a single working brain cell would want you.”

Luca, dark eyes flashing, leaned over the table and hissed,

“I hope your next poop is a pineapple.”

Silence.

 

Alexander, fighting a losing battle to keep a straight face, got to his feet.

“If we want to get to the kick-off in time we’d better get moving.”

In the scrimmage of hand washing, the hunt for Luca’s missing boot, tugging on coats and hats and goodbye’s Sophia simply sat at the table wearing a face that might turn milk sour.

“Well then,” Rosie said as she correctly read the expressions on two little faces. “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen Luca have the final word.”

Emily sniffed, and even though her big blue eyes looked suspiciously bright, she lifted her chin.

“I’m not Italian and I don’t have long legs or dark hair. I don’t have a chance with Tonio. Do I?”

Rosie sat at the table and desperately wanted to be kind.

“I don’t know. No one knows. Do you want my advice?” Emily nodded. “There’s a big wide world out there and a huge amount to learn, so if I were you I’d get prepared as best you can to explore the world.”

Sophia put her arm around her best friend’s shoulders and pulled her in for a hug.

“We’re starting dance classes soon, and I want to learn to horse ride.”

“Ponies are too big and scary,” Emily said, her little face the perfect picture of misery.

“It’s not just riding,” Rosie told her in a cheery voice. “You’ll learn how to look after a pony, to groom it and keep it’s stall clean and what to feed it and how much exercise it needs. Plus, ponies need company just like humans.”

“Do they get lonely too?” Emily asked.

Rosie nodded. “They do or they become stressed.”

Sophia made an ‘Aww’ face.

But before she could speak, the sound of her papa’s car rolling over the gravel on the driveway had her bounce out of her chair and heading for the door.

***

After catching her daughter in a huge hug, Bronte studied Sophia’s serious little face, those anxious and wary emerald eyes that held hers, and felt terribly guilty.

It was the first time in over eight years of marriage that her and Nico had had a major issue in their marriage, and she hoped it would be a long time before they had another one. Trouble was, at times they were both as stubborn as each other. If there was one thing they’d learned after talking into the wee hours, was that compromise was the name of the marriage game. Usually they were pretty good at compromising. However, on this particular issue, Bronte Ferranti had dug in her heels. Nico had got himself into one hot mess and it was up to him to get himself out of it.

Right now, she watched him as he caught Sophia in his arms and blew a huge raspberry on her cheek. The man only got better looking as he got older. Even dressed down in blue jeans, black boots and a casual black cashmere sweater, he looked good enough to eat. He didn’t have an ounce of spare flesh. His hair was still black as jet with the odd grey hair at the temple. Just looking at him right now with the strong manly jaw, the high cheekbones, and those eyes that turned her knees to jelly every single time, she knew she was a very lucky woman. Plus, he adored her. They might have had a blip in their relationship, but they’d worked through it. She hoped.

“Did you miss us?” he asked his daughter.

Sophia laughed and clung to him like a limpet.

“Of course I did.” Then her big emerald eyes studied his face. “Are you and mama getting a divorce?” she whispered.

“No!” Nico and Bronte said together.

“Okay,” she said, clearly accepting the tone and look of utter horror on their combined faces. Then her brows met as she caught her papa’s face between her little hands and squeezed. “Don’t let a mean girl be mean to my mama.”

Nico blinked, caught Bronte’s big eyes.

She shook her head because she had no idea where Sophia had got that idea from.

“I won’t,” he said.

Sophia squeezed his cheeks even harder and made him look her in the eye.

“Even grown ups need help with mean girls. Know what I mean?”

“I do.”

He placed her on her feet and held her hand as they strolled through the kitchen door of The Dower House.

As for Bronte, she was just happy to be home.

 

Once they’d greeted little Eve and Bronte had thanked Rosie for stepping into the breech and looking after her kids, everyone settled down at the table for a chat.

Bronte’s eye caught a sad looking Emily.

“You okay, Emily?”

Emily nodded.

“I’m good. Did you have a nice time?”

Nico shot his wife a wink that made Bronte blush.

“We did,” she said.

Emily sent them a sad little smile.

“Did you play the Pirate and the Maiden game?”

When Nico inhaled his coffee and a grinning Rosie threw him paper napkins, Bronte could only blink.

“It’s based on a poem,” Sophia said, correctly guessing that her mama had no idea what Emily was talking about.

Nico blew his nose, cleared his throat, and wiped his streaming eyes.

Dio mio, where on earth did you hear about that?” Nico asked Emily.

“It was something we heard at school,” she said.

Rosie clapped her hands and then shot an index finger at each little girl.

“I know, why don’t we have a pampering day?”

“What’s that?” Sophia wanted to know.

“We can make facial masks out of cool stuff that’s edible. They’ll hydrate and moisturise and refresh the skin.”

Emily perked right up, her big blue eyes sparkled. “Will they cure my freckles?”

Rosie made a sad face. “Nope. But they’ll make you even more gorgeous.”

“What stuff do we need?” Sophia asked, her little face pink and happy.

“Well, we’ll start with oatmeal, honey, banana and yoghurt.”

“That sounds really cool,” Bronte said and fluttered her eyelashes at a worried looking Nico.

He shook his head.

“Not for me. I’m off to the match.”

When he moved to hightail it out the door, Bronte had to laugh.

“Coward!” she yelled at his departing back.

 

Twenty minutes later, Emily, Sophia, Rosie and Bronte sat at the table all watching a kitchen timer tick down the seconds.

Sophia took a lick of mashed banana, yoghurt and honey from the edge of her mouth.

“This tastes really good.”

Emily giggled. “You’re not supposed to eat it.”

“Smells nice, too,” Bronte said. Then she eyed the girls. “Did Luca do his math homework?”

“Dunno,” Sophia said. “Probably not since he’s heart lazy.”

“Have you been arguing with him again?” Bronte asked.

“He told me he hoped I pooped a pineapple.”

Bronte bit down hard on her bottom lip.

Good Lord.

What next?

“Tonio only likes Italian girls. He broke my heart,” Emily whispered.

Bronte held out her arms. “Come here, sweetheart. A cuddle makes a broken heart all better.”

Meanwhile, Rosie used a muslin cloth soaked in warm water to gently remove the home made facial from Sophia’s face.

“Ooh, your skin looks all fresh and lovely,” she cooed at her niece.

“Why do we have eyebrows?” Sophia wanted to know as she poked her skin.

“To protect our eyes, I guess,” Emily said as she slipped from Bronte’s lap and lifted her face for Rosie to clean her skin too.

“There we go,” Rosie said when she was all finished. “Two gorgeous girls.”

 

 

Later, in Sophia’s bedroom, the girls shared a Fat Boy beanbag, their eyelids drooping.

“I’m gonna wish upon a star,” Emily said in her soft breathy voice.

Sophia, her eyes heavy, turned to look at her bestie.

“Stars,” she said. “Are made of gas.”

“That’s science,” Emily said. “I’m talking about making a secret wish while looking at the biggest star in the sky.”

“Cool!”

“I bet you can’t guess my wish.”

Sophia rolled her eyes. “Bet I can. You’ll wish that Tonio falls in love with you when you’re both all grown-up.”

But Emily shook her head.

“Uh-uh. I’m gonna wish my mummy and daddy have a miracle and have a baby.”

Sophia threw her arm around her bestie and pulled her close.

“I think that’s a lovely wish.”

“Then I won’t be lonely,” Emily said.

Sophia rubbed her soft cheek against Emily’s.

“You’re never gonna be lonely because you’ll always have me for ever and ever.”

Emily turned big blue eyes on her friend.

“For every and ever.”

“For ever.”

“I love you, Sophia.”

“Love you, too, Emily.”

 

The End….

 

Aw, that’s what friends are for…

Until next time, be kind, peeps, be kind.

ChristineX

It’s the Ludlow Hall short story… He’s the one – part one…

It's the Ludlow Hall Short StoryMarch2018

Hellooooo,

I’ve been sick with a fever and the usual end of season bug. Roll on Spring!

And here’s the first part of this week’s Ludlow Hall short story…

It’s Friday and school’s out—The Dower house…

After she’d found Bronte sitting in a whimpering puddle on the kitchen floor this morning, and banging her head against the wall (more of why later) Rosie took firm control of the Ferranti household, then sent her best friend for a much needed pampering and massage at Ludlow Hall.

Now, Rosie was on children duty…

After auntie Rosie had ordered everyone upstairs to change out of their school uniforms and wash their mucky paws, Emily and Sophia are in Sophia’s bedroom. They’ve washed their hands as instructed, but had only got as far as removing their school tie, sweater and socks.

Emily reeeeeelaxed back on Sophia’s Princess bed and wiggled her little pink toes.

“We,” she began in her soft, breathy voice, “have the coolest mummies.”

Sophia, rummaging deep in her closet, tossed out a couple of pairs of pink thermal leggings, a pink hoodie with a unicorn on the front for Emily, and for herself a white hoodie with Elsa from Frozen. Once she’d hunted down two matching pair of thick socks, she turned to her best friend and smiled.

“We do.”

“My daddy says they always look well-put-together.”

“They do,” Sophia agreed again and tossed leggings and the pink hoodie on top of Emily’s face.

Best friends shared clothes, that was a rule.

Emily sat up and wriggled out of her pleated skirt of navy wool.

“They never let other people down.”

“They don’t,” Sophia concurred.

The girls stripped down to their underwear.

Emily tugged up leggings and checked out her skinny butt in the wall mirror.

She made a face.

“Did you see Carrie-Anne’s mummy today?”

Sophia’s blonde head popped out of the top of her white hoodie.

Carrie-Anne’s mummy was a hot mess these days, according to auntie Rosie.

“Yup. But auntie Rosie says if we can’t say anything nice, say nothing,” Sophia said, channelling her favorite person in the whole wide world.

Emily’s little mouth pouted in clear disappointment.

After a long while she said, “Can I just say two words?”

“Okay.”

Emily pointed to her own butt. “Panty. Line.”

Sophia made a face, and checked out her own skinny backside.

“Aunty Rosie calls it a Wardrobe Malfunction. Carrie-Anne’s mummy should have worn a thong or panties that don’t show a pantie line. My mama’s got lots of pretty silk panties in her pantie drawer.”

“Do they make them for girls?” Emily wanted to know.

“I dunno,” Sophia said, thinking about it. “But auntie Rosie says thongs are the work of the devil.”

Emily nodded. “My daddy loves my mummy in a thong. My mummy told him he should use dental floss on his ass because that’s how it feels.”

Sophia cringed at the thought. “Eww. That’s a disgusting thing to say in front of a child.”

“I was supposed to be asleep. They didn’t know I was listening.” Emily grinned. “I was quiet, like a ninja.”

Sophia stared hard at her friend, because out of the two of them Emily was the good girl.

“If they catch you your mummy will say I’m a bad influence.”

“Nah, how can you get the blame if you’re not even there? Anyway, I’ve been doing a lot of listening. Carrie-Anne’s mummy’s fighting the battle of the bulge to lose the baby weight. She told my mummy that her life has been transformed since her divorce.”

Feeling weary after another long week at school, Sophia settled back on her pink Fat-Boy beanbag. She thought about how desperately sad their friend Carrie-Anne had been for months and months.

Then she thought about the heated discussion between her parents in the kitchen this morning, and her belly ached. It had ached off and on all day.

And last night, for the first time ever, her papa had slept in the spare room.

Deep in her heart, Sophia wanted to talk to Emily about the argument and the weird mood that had descended on The Dower House recently, but she knew better. Anything that happened in The Dower House, stayed in The Dower House.

Her belly ache got worse.

She hoped her mama and papa never got a divorce.

Carrie-Anne and her baby sister had moved out of their house into a smaller one in the centre of town.

What if her papa and mama sold The Dower House?

Where would she and Luca and Tonio and baby Eve live?

The thought made her feel sick.

“How come?” she asked Emily.

“Carrie-Anne’s mummy said it was boring sleeping with the same man for ten long years.”

Sophia worked out how long her parents had been married—nearly nine years. Then she wondered if ten years was a bad omen or something. Meanwhile, Emily continued her story, “And she was fed up playing the Pirate and The Maiden game.”

“Never heard of it,” Sophia said.

Emily shook her head, her big blue eyes wide. “Me neither. Maybe it’s for Xbox? Do you think Tonio’s heard of it?”

Sophia was not fooled by that huge smile or big-eyed-innocent look.

Emily’s crush on her brother was totally lame as far as she was concerned.

On the other hand, Sophia was vastly intrigued by the idea of a pirates and maidens game.

“Let’s ask him,” she said.

The girls dashed out the door, across a wide landing, and knocked Tonio’s bedroom door.

“Enter,” Tonio called, channelling his papa.

 

They went in to find Tonio dressed in his favorite super-hero sweatshirt, navy sweatpants faded at the seams and too short in the legs, lying on his belly on a fluffy rug, reading a soccer magazine.

Inky curls flopped on his forehead, and his feet were bare.

Since she had no time for football, Sophia got right to the point of their visit.

“Have you ever heard of an Xbox or a PC game called the Pirate and the Maiden?”

Tonio’s brow creased as he stared into space, thought for a long while, then shook his head.

“Nope. Only pirate game I know is Pirates of the Caribbean.”

He returned to his magazine.

When Emily just stood there as if rooted to the spot staring dreamily at Tonio, Sophia grabbed her friend’s arm and dragged her out the door.

 

Back in Sophia’s bedroom, Emily collapsed on the Fat-Boy and lay back with a stupid moony expression.

Sophia sighed.

“Tonio’s voice is like warm chocolate poured over cream,” Emily whispered in her soft voice. “I love his face. I love his dark eyes and his thick lashes. He’s just so… Perfect. He makes me… Happy.”

Sophia rolled her eyes so far back in ahead she nearly lost her balance.

“Eww, Emily, that’s my brother you’re talking about. He’s got smelly feet and he farts and burps. He’s disgusting.”

I’m going to marry him,” Emily said, clearly undeterred.

The martial gleam in her blue eyes seriously alarmed Sophia.

“You can’t get married until you are eighteen,” she said, trying to help her friend see sense. Then she added for good measure, “That’s eleven long years from now. And what if he’s not the one? Variety, auntie Rosie says, is the spice of life.”

Emily shot up to sit. “I just know he is the one,” she whispered and pressed her little fist to her chest. “In here.”

Sophia rubbed her nose—hadn’t they gone over this ground before?

“We need to speak to auntie Rosie. She loved uncle Alexander for ever and ever and ever,” she decided.

Emily sprang to her feet, her eyes bright.

“Maybe she’ll know how to make Tonio fall in love with me?”

“We can only hope,” Sophia said under her breath, and led the way downstairs.

***

Meanwhile in the kitchen-living-dining space, Rosie, and her trusty assistant Luca, were preparing hot milk for hot chocolate. Luca’s job was to test taste a dark chocolate brownie.

The place smelled of chocolate and fresh flowers crammed into a huge clear glass vase set on a wide sandstone window ledge.

Unlike his twin sister’s white blonde hair, Luca took after the Italian side of the Ferranti family. He was definitely, Rosie reckoned, going to be better looking than Tonio or his papa, Nico. At the moment Luca was perched on a bar stool, his bare feet swinging. He wore soft blue jeans and a Spiderman sweatshirt that had faded to pale blue from too many washes. And his mouth was rimmed with dark chocolate.

When Sophia and Emily skipped into the room, he turned to glower and glare at his sister.

“What do you want?” he said by way of a warm welcome.

As if he hadn’t spoken, Sophia hopped up on a bar stool on the opposite side of the granite worktop.

Meanwhile, Emily had wandered over to the huge playpen to give the toddlers, Eve and Mila, a hug and a kiss.

The girl was a complete sweetheart.

Rosie understood Emily’s attraction to the younger members of the family, she was an only child and often got lonely. As an only child herself, Rosie felt her pain.

Then again, Rosie couldn’t help but stifle a laugh at the way her beloved niece and nephew constantly fought a cold war these days. Such was sibling life, she supposed. She’d already prepared five white china mugs which were lined up like soldiers standing at attention.

Testing the temperature of the milk and melted chocolate mix, she poured it carefully into the mugs and added three white marshmallows. When Tonio strolled through the door, she sent him a quick smile.

“Could you sit Eve and Mila in their highchairs for me?”

Tonio changed direction, plucked Mila from the playpen, sat her in her highchair and strapped her in, then repeated the routine with Eve who buried her hands in his hair and yanked hard.

“Ow,” he said, and carefully freed himself. He smacked a kiss on her hot cheek. “No pulling hair.”

In response, Eve grabbed his sweatshirt and yelled, “Batman!”

“No,” Luca said. “It’s the Incredible Hulk.”

Eve glared at her big brother. “Batman!”

Rosie shook her head and placed a Sippy cup of lukewarm milk on each tray and attached a bib on each child.

As she distributed the hot chocolate and treats, she wondered how she gathered herself to break the news that Nico and Bronte were having a night away from The Dower House. Not that her and Alexander doing baby sitting duty was anything new for the young Ferrantis. But the reason for this one was. It seemed Nico and Bronte were going through a tricky patch. It was amazing how something that hadn’t even been on Bronte’s radar had turned into a Big Deal. Frankly, Rosie laid the blame for the whole sorry mess at Nico’s door. Honestly, there were times when men were utterly clueless when it came to women.

Long story short, tabloid journalist Tabitha Crew had written yet another gossip piece taking a swipe at Nico’s past love life. Okay, the woman had crossed a line. Rosie got why Nico was seriously pissed, but to employ a PR consultant who was an old flame to fight the journalist had not been his smartest move. Not only that, it appeared the old flame wanted to reignite a fire between her and Nico. And just to add more fuel, yesterday, the woman had invited a clueless Bronte to lunch at Ludlow Hall.

Strong words had been exchanged.

Bronte had drawn a red line in the sand.

The woman had to go, she’d told Nico.

Nico, never one to take a demand on the chin, said no.

Now all hell had broken loose, and even though she’d never show it in front of the kids, Rosie was worried.

 

So when Alexander strolled through the door and his baby girl went crazy when he picked her up and gave her a cuddle, Rosie’s heart just melted.

He scrubbed his knuckles on his nephews’ heads and tickled Sophia and Emily before heading over to his wife.

Rosie read the worry in his emerald eyes, and her heart fell.

Looked like Nico and Bronte still hadn’t smoked a peace pipe.

“Where are they?” she asked as he pressed a kiss to the spot beneath her ear.

“In their cabin. I told them not to leave it until they’ve resolved this,” he said softly.

“Bronte’s really hurt and furious,” she whispered.

“Tell me about it. Last thing she was telling Nico as I left was that she was going to stay with her father.”

Rosie’s eyes went wide.

“Seriously?”

“Yup. That bad.”

“God, why on earth did Nico bring that bloody woman into Ludlow Hall?”

“She’s really good at her job,” he answered, trying to be fair.

Rosie just shook her head.

“She’s a Rottweiler.”

“Yup and that’s what makes her the best.”

Rosie caught the way Sophia’s wary eyes were zeroed in on them watching every single move.

God, her niece had a super-sensitive radar.

“We’ll talk after the kids have gone to bed.”

Alexander followed her gaze and nodded.

He shot Sophia a wink as he shrugged out of his coat, took off his suit jacket, his tie, and rolled up his sleeves.

Then he helped himself to a beer from the fridge, twisted open the top and took a sip.

“Gimme the skinny,” he said to the room at large. “Who did what to whom today?”

“Where’s mama and papa?” Sophia wanted to know.

The question seemed to turn everyone into a game of statues.

Tonio and Luca, their eyes filled with clear anxiety, examined Alexander’s face.

Oh, boy, this lot were as sharp as tacks.

He sent them a cheesy grin.

“They’ve having a date night,” he said.

Sophia blinked. “Where?”

“They’re not far,” Rosie said. “Just up the road in their cabin with candles, music, and romance.”

Emily, her blue eyes flicking between a serious looking Sophia and Rosie, said in her soft voice, “They’re probably playing The Pirate and The Maiden game.”

Alexander inhaled his beer.

His hand reaching for the box of tissues as he coughed up a lung.

Tonio narrowed his eyes as he watched his uncle fight to catch his breath and his aunt laugh so hard she cried real tears.

“Okay,” he asked in a growly voice that sounded just like Nico. “What’s the game?”

Once Rosie had got her breath back, and wiped her eyes, she took a deep breath.

“It’s a poem not a game.”

Tonio looked bitterly disappointed.

“Oh,” he said.

Thinking she’d dodged a bullet, Rosie clapped her hands.

“Have you washed your hands?”

Everyone, except Luca, nodded.

Rosie pointed to him. “Go!”

When Sophia smirked as he slunk off to do his auntie’s bidding, he shot his sister a black look.

 

Later, when everyone had finished their spaghetti and meatballs, and were taking a rest before pudding, Luca turned to eye Sophia across the table.

“Why aren’t you speaking to me?” he demanded.

Sophia sent him a bland look.

“I can’t find something nice to say.”

Luca’s brows rose.

“Good,” he said. “I like a quiet life.”

 

END for now

 

Ooooh… is it possible there’s trouble in paradise?

All y’all will get to read the back-story to this scene in ‘Hitched to the Italian’ which is in production at the moment. But part two of this short story is coming next week!

Christine xx