A queen of convenience?
There's no doubt that their marriage is one of convenience and political maneuvering. But shy beauty Aziza El Afarim secretly hopes that her husband—the boy she once idolized—remembers something of the closeness they shared as children.
Except Sheikh Nabil Al Sharifa is far from the boy he used to be. The weight of loss and power has changed him beyond recognition. Where once there was warmth and generosity, now only a ruthless passion burns. He'll give Aziza everything...except his love.
But as pressure to produce an heir mounts, could there be more than duty in the marriage bed?
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Kate Walker was always making up stories. She can't remember a time when she wasn't scribbling away at something and wrote her first “book” when she was eleven. She went to Aberystwyth University, met her future husband and after three years of being a full-time housewife and mother she turned to her old love of writing. Mills & Boon accepted a novel after two attempts, and Kate has been writing ever since. Visit Kate at her website at: www.kate-walker.comExcerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Nabil bin Rashid Al Sharifa, Sheikh of Rhastaan, raised the glass in his hand high in a gesture of congratulation and angled it in the direction of the two honoured guests at the party. The couple who were celebrating today and who, in spite of everything in the past, were now his two greatest friends.
'Congratulations on ten years together. Ten happy years.'
It was the last three words that caught in his throat and almost closed it off, choking them back from his tongue. Ten happy years they had been for his friends, but if he was given the chance there was no way he would want to live through the past decade over again.
'To Clemmie and Karim,' he tried again.
The elegant dark-haired woman, regal as the Queen she truly was in the scarlet robe, heavily embroidered in gold, turned a warm, generous smile in his direction while at her side, Sheikh Karim al Khalifa, like Nabil more sombrely but equally magnificently attired in the flowing robes and headdress of his country, lifted his own glass in acknowledgement of Nabil's toast. It was a moment that no one could ever have anticipated happening ten years before, when Clemmie had been destined to be Nabil's arranged wife, but his headstrong passion for the younger Sharmila had led him to reject her and marry his new, pregnant lover. No one then would have predicted that this huge party would be organised in the Rhastaanian palace to celebrate their ten years of love and marriage... Of children.
Abruptly Nabil put his glass down on the nearest table, the fine crystal clattering harshly against the polished surface. Even if he hadn't already been told the happy news, it was impossible not to notice the slight swell of Clemmie's belly under the burnished red silk of the floor-length gown. Clementina had always been beautiful. Even when he had been in the throes of the foolishly righteous—or so he had believed—anger and mutiny that had driven him to reject her, he'd had to acknowledge that. But now, with her curvaceous form enriched by her early pregnancy, she had a glow about her that was positively incandescent.
'Congratulations,' Nabil repeated once more, forcing himself to smile at his friends.
He wanted to smile to show that he was happy for them. He was happy for them, deep down in his heart. But at the same time he couldn't help contrasting the richness of their life when compared with his own.
What they had in abundance, and what he needed so badly now, but he didn't see a way of discovering the same happiness for himself.
Ten years ago, when they had been starting out on their journey into married happiness, he had thought he had it all. A beautiful wife at his side, a child growing inside her, the future of his country secured against the swirling darkness of uprising that had threatened. Young fool that he'd been—young, blind, heedless, headstrong fool!—he'd thought only of his longing to rebel against the hand that fate had dealt him.
So he'd rebelled all right, and by doing so he'd tied himself into that fate even tighter. He'd locked himself in and thrown away the key.
'Ten wonderful years!'
Karim's voice might have been lifted, projected to reach the whole room and the audience of his guests and peers who thronged the huge space, but his eyes were only on his wife. They were in their own private world and unconsciously Clemmie's hand reached up to rest gently on the barely visible swell, the promise of their unborn child in her belly.
The moment seemed to hang on the air, thick with emotion and a touch of secret sensuality, until it was broken by a flurry of sound and a whirl of movement as two small bodies careered across the room and flung themselves at their parents with shrieks of delight.
'Adnan, Sahra...' Clemmie's voice was soft and warm even as she tried to make her words into the gentlest of reproofs. 'Is that any way for a prince and princess to behave at such a public event?'
'But it's Mummy and Daddy's party,' Adnan declared with all the confidence of his just five years of age. 'Not a pub-publicked 'vent!'
Another smile passed between Clemmie and Karim at their son's declaration, and the boy's father let his hand drop to ruffle the mop of shining black hair with easy affection. It was the sort of warmth that Nabil had never known with his own father, a coldly distant man who barely knew his son's name.
'It's both,' Karim said quietly and something in that tone made Nabil move sharply and abruptly, half-turning towards the door and then forcing himself back again. As host for this event, it was his place to stay where he was, to ensure that the celebrations went perfectly, but right now. Go on...
The words weren't actually spoken but he could almost hear them on the air. It was just a flicker of a response that drew his attention to Clemmie's fine-boned face, but as soon as she had caught his eye, she made the tiniest of gestures with her dark head, indicating the doors out on to the terrace. The complete understanding of what was in his thoughts was there in the warmth of her smile, the flicker of her eyes towards the open doors that spelled escape and freedom from the public ceremony. She had recognised his response, knew the thoughts that were in his head—and was happy to let him take the time to breathe that he needed.
'Now—weren't you going to sing that special song?'
Her question drew everyone's attention to the two children and Clemmie, focusing on her and away from Nabil.
With a silent whisper of thanks to the woman who his father had once decreed should be his bride but instead, with her true husband, had become one of his dearest friends, Nabil took the opportunity that presented itself and moved, silent and soft-footed, across the marble floor and out on to the balcony.
The coolness of a faint breeze stirred the robes he wore, making them swirl softly as he moved, and the blackness of the night was eased by the cold glow of the moon just coming up over the horizon. Roughly Nabil dragged in long, much-needed breaths of air as he paced down the long stone-flagged gallery before coming to a halt and, resting his hands on the high parapet, stared out at the lights that burned in the darkness beyond the walls of the palace. To where the people his country had completed their daily business, and now went about the procedure of settling for the night, getting their children ready for bed, kissing them goodnight. 'Damnation!'
His hand formed into a fist, pounding down against the roughness of the stone as he faced the images in his mind. It seemed that today everything around him conspired to drive home to him how much he should have. How much he had once thought he had only to have it all snatched away. In a gesture that was so much of a habit he barely noticed these days, he lifted a hand to rub at the side of his face where a scar marked his cheekbone, not really concealed by the thick black beard he had grown in an attempt to disguise it. Not that it had worked. The white line that scored through his skin was still there like the mark of Cain every time he looked in the mirror; reminding him.
A sudden sound, soft and slow in the darkness, reminded him of just where he was, the open expanse of the palace grounds between him and the walls that surrounded them. Unwanted and unwelcome, the memories came creeping back, pushing him to take a single step backwards, away from the edge, into the shadows. Tonight it seemed that the darkness hid potential for danger, for destruction.
Or was that just his own state of mind?
At his left hand side, the sound came again, soft and light, bringing his head round so fast it made his thoughts spin. Who?
The voice was low, quiet, but with an edge of apprehension marking it as he glared into the darkness. It was also obviously female, something that should have made his tension ease, relaxing his shoulders. But there was something about the sound of her voice that tugged at memories he had thought long buried, dragging them to the surface of his mind when he had no wish to revisit them. Memories that had taught him that no one, man or woman, was truly to be trusted.
'Who's there? Show yourself.'
A rustle of fabric sweeping the stone flags, the whisper of soft shoes on the hard ground and she stepped forward, into the moonlight. Small and slender, pale face, dark hair, an embroidered wrap swathing her body and up and over her head, covering her almost completely.
For a second it seemed that his heart juddered in his chest, his breath catching, so that the attempt at words escaped him almost without thought.
He didn't believe in ghosts—and yet something spoke to him.
'Your pardon, Sheikh.'
Her hands, steepled together, came out to touch her forehead as she lowered her head in a salute of respect and submission. The gesture made him catch two things. First there was the wave of perfume, sandalwood and flowers, rich and sensual. It swirled around him like scented mist, putting his senses on alert, but this time in a new and very different way. He inhaled deeply, felt the aroma work its way through him like some rich wine so that he had to blink hard to clear his vision. That was when he noticed the second thing—that the left hand she had lifted to her forehead had a—not a deformity—a tiny twist to the little finger that made it sit not quite straight against her hand.
From somewhere deep a memory stirred in his mind, surfaced and was then gone again. Had he seen her before—and if so when?
But the woman—a young woman—was speaking again, her words bringing his attention back to the present.
'Forgive me, Your Highness. I didn't know that anyone else was out here. I thought no one would notice me.'
Aziza's voice trembled in her own ears. She should have known that she could be caught out here, like this, away from the celebrations in the main hall. She also knew that Sheikh Nabil was a hard, demanding man, totally focused on security within his palace. Who could blame him after what had happened? But the noise and the heat of the anniversary party had all been rather too much for her. That and watching her older sister Jamalia flirt outrageously—or as outrageously as she dared in front of their parents—with every eligible young man who was present.
She had had to get away from the party, away from playing second fiddle to Jamalia. Away from her father's constant scrutiny of his second daughter, the one who might as well be a servant because of the way he expected her to keep in the background. She was supposed to stay there and act as chaperone. Of course Jamalia didn't want her there; and to tell the truth Aziza had wanted to be anywhere but with her sister. She hadn't even wanted to come to this party in the first place. But her father had insisted. Everyone who was anyone would be at the celebration, and their absence would most definitely be noticed if they weren't.
'Not mine,' Aziza had muttered under her breath but her mother's glare in her direction had made her think more than twice about saying the words aloud. So she had swallowed down her protest, had dressed herself in the deep pink silk gown that had been provided and had followed in her parents' footsteps into the golden palace for the evening.
Jamalia of course had thought that her reluctance was only because her sister didn't want to act as chaperone. That and the fact that Aziza was always ill at ease with the young men who flocked to her side. But there was more to it than that.
And now the real reason why she had been so unwilling to come tonight was standing right before her, tall and powerful, the scent of his skin swirling round her, his dark head blotting out the light of the moon so that she was totally in his shadow.
It was a place she was used to, she acknowledged privately. She had always been in Nabil's shadow, always trailing after him from the moment when, as a lordly twelve-year-old on a visit to her parents' home, he had flung himself from the saddle of a horse that had seemed skyscraper high to her diminutive five-year-old status and tossed the reins in the direction of a groom.
'Who are you?'
The question, hard and sharp, was exactly the same one that Nabil had demanded of her all those years before so that for the moment she didn't recognise the fact that it had come from Nabil and not from her memories. It was only when she saw his mouth clamp tight together in the darkness of the rich beard he now sported that she realised he had asked her now and not then.
'Just a maid.'
She looked the part well enough, she reflected. The pink gown wasn't new, of course, but one handed down from Jamalia. 'It will do for Zia,' her father had said. Because Aziza wasn't the one being paraded in front of the Sheikh in the hope of an advantageous marriage, as her sister was.
'I—I am with Jamalia, sire.'
Instinct made her spread her skirts, sweeping into a low and careful curtsey. She hoped that the obeisance she showed him might ease the tension she could feel coming in waves from the tall, powerful man before her. Her mother had worried that she would stumble into some awkward situation if she went off on her own, and right now it seemed that Naddiya had been right. But the truth was that this situation was not of the politicking and plotting that her parents were obsessed with and much more on a personal level.
Some instinct made her give the nickname everyone in her family used. At least that way he might not associate her directly with her parents and their political manoeuvrings. It was impossible to avoid the sting of wry reflection at the thought of just why her given name had been shortened to this form.
'Aziza, hmm?' her father had said. 'A name that means "the beautiful one" for someone so small and plain? I think not. Let's face it, our second daughter could never be the beautiful one when compared with her sister.' He had shortened her name to Zia and it had stuck.
'I needed some air. I ask your pardon.'
An impatient, dismissive wave of his hand flicked away her explanation, making her break off in confusion. Had he forgiven her for being here—hiding, as he would see it, in the darkness? She'd taken a real risk, knowing how tight the security still was in the place. So she would only have herself to blame if this all turned nasty.
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