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An Arabian Courtship

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CHAPTER THREE

STUNNED by the unemotionally couched admission, Polly sank down on the other side of the desk. ‘But why me, if he didn’t believe…force?’ she queried.

‘The promise supplied the pressure. The means by which my father attained this conclusion might not be passed by the over-scrupulous.’ Raschid smiled grimly. ‘But be assured that before he even met your father, he would have made exhaustive enquiries as to your character and reputation.’

‘I was investigated?’

‘Without a doubt. You are very na;auive, Polly. You cannot suppose that my father would have risked presenting me with a bride likely to shame or scandalise the family.’ Sardonic amusement brightened his clear gaze.

In retrospect it did seem very foolish of all of them to have believed that King Reija would gaily give consent to his son’s marriage to a woman of whom he knew nothing. Raschid’s revelations put an entirely different complexion on her father’s meeting with him in London. Assured of her unblemished reputation and goodness knew what else, Raschid’s father had calmly manipulated hers at the interview. From the outset he must have known of her father’s debts. They could not have escaped detection.

Too much was bombarding Polly too quickly. The amount of Machiavellian intrigue afoot even between father and son dismayed her. But why had coercion in the form of that promise been required to push Raschid into marriage? While he might still grieve for Berah and appear virtually indifferent to her successor’s identity, he did not strike her as impractical. His position demanded that he marry and father children; that responsibility was inextricably woven into his future as a duty. Could he be so insensible to the necessity?

‘I don’t understand—you don’t really seem angry with your father,’ she said.

‘I must respect the sincerity of his intentions. He truly believes that a man without a wife cannot be content. In his view a married man is also a respectable and stable man,’ he volunteered, an inescapable harshness roughening his intonation.

‘But why didn’t you want to remarry?’ Polly pierced to the heart of the matter, weary of skating round the edges.

‘I preferred my freedom,’ he breathed dismissively. ‘Since I had spent most of my adult life married, what else?’

‘Well, if you’re so darned keen to have your freedom back, I’m not holding you!’ Polly sprang furiously upright.

‘Why this sudden alteration in attitude?’ Raschid studied her quizzically. ‘What has changed between us except a basic understanding? We stand at no different level now from that we stood at within that church.’

Anger shuddered tempestuously through her. ‘Yet somehow you’re behaving as if I trapped you into marriage!’

‘Nobody traps me, least of all a woman. I made a decision. If I had to remarry to satisfy my father’s expectations, why not you?’ he traded softly.

‘I notice too that, while your father mysteriously emerges from all this as morally above reproach when he’s been wheeling and dealing like the Godfather, I’m still being insulted!’

‘How have I insulted you?’ He vented a harsh imprecation. ‘I thought you would be quiet and inoffensive, but the second you left that church you suddenly located a tongue!’

Admittedly Polly had had difficulty in recognising herself over the past twenty-four hours, but the most even temperament would have been inflamed by Raschid. ‘Blame your father. Obviously he didn’t dig deep enough,’ she sniped, nettled by his candid admission that he had deemed her the type to melt mutely into the woodwork. ‘I find you unbelievably insensitive!’

‘And I find you like every other woman I have met in recent years—demanding.’ Exasperation laced his striking features. ‘Were you so sensitive in marrying a stranger purely for his wealth?’

Already very pale, she cringed from the cruel reminder. Pride made her voice the comeback, tilting her chin. ‘Was that how you viewed your first wife as well?’

He was very still. In the dragging quiet, her heart thudded loudly in her eardrums. The fierce chill of his appraisal forced colour up beneath her skin. ‘There can be no comparison. Berah grew up knowing that she would become my wife. Nor was she unaware of the nature of the man she was marrying. You know nothing whatsoever about me.’

Her stricken eyes fell from his. While her reference to Berah had been foolish, she had not been prepared for the charged and telling force of Raschid’s defence of her. His fingers were rigidly braced on the edge of the desk. The comparison she had dared to suggest had deeply angered him.

‘I don’t think you’re being very fair,’ she argued. ‘And I’m not demanding.’

A lean brown hand shifted abruptly. ‘Let us have no further arguments. On this subject they lead nowhere.’

‘What subject? What are we arguing about? I don’t know.’

He lounged indolently back. ‘Really?’ A dubious brow quirked. ‘In the space of an hour you refer to annulment and divorce. This is not, after all, some form of attention-seeking?’ he derided. ‘You want pretences—compliments, gallantry, romance. I disdain all of those, and I won’t play charades. I employed candour with you before today. We each had our price in this marriage. Mine was peace and yours was status and money. Now that that is established, what more can there be worthy of debate?’

‘I can tell you right now,’ Polly slammed back shakily for want of any other brickbat to hurl. ‘Being a princess is not all it’s made out to be!’

‘You may tell me whatever you wish if you reward me with a still tongue and the sound of sweet silence.’

She retreated to the opposite end of the cabin. He had gone over her like an armoured tank and the track marks of the vanquished were on her back. She had reacted emotionally to a male who did not allow emotion to cloud his reasoning. Or his judgement. He thought that she should have left her family to sink in the horrors of bankruptcy rather than sell herself into marriage. He was delicate in his sensibilities—he could afford to be. Bitterly Polly appraised the outright luxury of her surroundings. Without money her family would have fallen apart. Neither of her parents would have had the resilience to pick themselves up and soldier on.

Yet for all his contempt now, Raschid had been remarkably tolerant about a wedding which could have made a hit disaster movie. In bed—she reddened hotly at the recollection—he had been teasing and warm. But both responses had been logically perfect for the occasion. You didn’t calm a hysteric with threats. You didn’t coax a frightened virgin with force. Not unless you were stupid, and Raschid, she was learning by painful and clumsy steps, was far from stupid. He was dauntingly clever and dismayingly complex.

Abstractedly she watched him. Even in violent resentment she remained disturbingly conscious of the dark vibrancy of his potent attraction. In combination with looks and wealth that blazing physical magnetism of his must have stopped many women in their tracks. Polly had always distrusted handsome men; they were normally chockful of vanity. Raschid’s distinct lack of self-awareness puzzled her. He was stunning, but she had the strangest suspicion that the only time he looked in the mirror was to shave.

Abruptly she denied her view of him by removing to a poorer vantage point. She couldn’t understand what was wrong with her. Even when the stewardess served her with a meal, her thoughts marched on. Raschid was beginning to obsess her even as his emotional detachment chilled her. Linked with that raw, overt masculinity of his, that coolness made him an intriguing paradox.

Why had he been so reluctant to remarry? There could only be one reason: a reluctance to set another woman in Berah’s place. But Polly found it hard to attribute the longevity of passionate love beyond death and sentimental scruples to that diamond-cutting intellect. What other reason could there be? Accepting that he had to remarry, he had settled for Polly. He liked looking at her; he didn’t like listening to her. Then he wouldn’t have to listen much, would he? Not with the workload and the travel itinerary he had bent over backwards to outline.

The jet landed with a nasty judder, careening along the runway, the nearest porthole displaying a blur of what looked like desert.

Assuming that the airport was oddly sited somewhere out of view, Polly got up. Raschid presented her with a bundle of black cloth. Her blank appraisal roused his impatience. Retrieving it, he shook it out and dropped it over her startled head.

‘I can’t breathe!’ she protested.

‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ Light appeared as he adjusted the set of the suffocating garment. Disorientatingly, he burst out laughing. ‘You look very strange, Polly. This aba was not cut for someone of your height.’

Yanking up the surplus fabric, she stalked after him. Just outside the doorway, as she was interestedly taking in the sight of a line-up of soldiers and the presence of a small military band, striking up the most unmelodic tune she had ever heard, her foot caught in the hem of the aba. Hearing her gasp, Raschid whirled with incredible speed. As she teetered she was abruptly snatched off her feet and pierced by blazing blue eyes. ‘You are the most extraordinarily clumsy female I have ever come across!’

‘I wasn’t planning on wearing a shroud until I went to my coffin!’ she snapped back.

His sudden pallor did not escape her. Too late did she understand the source of his wrath. But before sympathy could touch her normally generous heart, outrage took over. Dear heaven, was Berah never out of his thoughts? Here he was carting Polly home, and all she could think about was his first wife!

‘Put me down, please,’ she demanded icily.

‘It’s only a few steps to the car.’ Indeed it was, and after throwing the unfortunate band an unappreciative glance, he stuffed her inside the limousine like a parcel. In bewilderment she stared out at the huge grey fortress walls rising to sheer heights with no perceivable end only a few hundred yards away.

‘Where’s the airport?’ she queried.

‘That is the palace. A jet-strip was built here for convenience. The airport is on the other side of Jumani.’

‘That’s the city?’

‘I am overwhelmed by the interest you have taken in your future home.’ His scorn for her ignorance was unhidden. ‘Jumani is ten kilometres from here.’

In embarrassment Polly turned to peer out at the gigantic nothingness of the desert terrain stretching in all other directions. It went on into infinity to meet the colourless vault of the sky, a wasteland of emptiness and rolling hills of sand. The isolation was indescribably alien to visual senses trained on green fields and hedgerows.

The limousine whisked them over to the black, shimmering ribbon of road and through the gates of the palace into a vast, cobbled courtyard. Already the heat was making Polly’s clothing stick to her damp skin. Raschid’s door sprang open immediately. He stepped out to be met by a spate of Arabic from the little man bobbing and dipping rather nervously in front of him. He frowned and swept off.

When he halted as if he had forgotten something ten yards on, Polly just wanted to kick him for striding back to haul her out of her death struggle with the aba twisted round her legs. ‘That is not a very graceful fashion in which to descend from a car,’ Raschid commented drily.

He guided her through the crush emerging from the great domed porch ahead. Glimpsing dark faces and avidly inquisitive female stares, she was ironically relieved to be covered from head to toe.

‘I understand that my father wishes to receive us immediately,’ he explained flatly. ‘You will not speak—I don’t trust you to speak lest you offend. On unfamiliar ground I do not believe you are at your most intelligent.’

Burning inside like a bushfire, Polly bit down hard on her tongue. He stopped before a set of carved double doors which were thrown wide by the fearsome armed guards on either side. He strode ahead of her. At a reluctant pace, she followed, to watch him fall down gracefully on his knees and touch his forehead to the carpet. For seventy, the grey-bearded old gentleman seated on a shallow dais at the foot of the room looked admirably hale and hearty. Polly got down on the carpet just as Raschid was signalled up. The King snapped his fingers and barked something in Arabic.

Raschid audibly released his breath. ‘Get up.’

Before she could guess his intention, he had deftly whipped the aba off again. Polly felt like a piece of plundered booty, tumbled out on the carpet for examination and curiously naked under the onslaught of shrewd dark eyes. Reija passed some remark, chuckled and went on to speak at considerable length. Turning pink, Polly slowly sank down again, but not before she noticed the rush of blood to Raschid’s cheekbones. Whatever his father was saying to him was having the most extraordinarily visible effect on him. His knuckles showed white as his hand clenched by his side. A pin-dropping silence stretched long after King Reija had finished speaking.

Suddenly Raschid spat a response. Polly was shocked. A split second later a wall-shaking argument was taking place over her averted head. Father and son set into each other with a ferocity which would have transcended any language barrier. The silences, spiced by what could only be described as Reija’s inflammatory and self-satisfied smiles, grew longer. Abruptly Raschid inclined his head and backed out. Polly nervously looked up again.

A gnarled hand beckoned her closer. ‘A most unfortunate introduction to our household,’ said Reija in heavily accented English. Noting her surprise, he smiled with distinct amusement. ‘I speak your language. However, it has often been of great benefit for me to listen rather than to converse.’

Somehow Polly managed a polite smile. Her gormless father had not had a chance against that level of subtle calculation!

‘You are welcome,’ he pronounced. ‘Such pale beauty as yours can only draw my son more frequently to his home.’

.

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