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Грэхем Линн

The Arabian Mistress

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FAYE saw a stone bench sited near the side entrance. From there, she could see the now familiar limousine waiting outside. To take her to the Muraaba palace? Or to the airport? Her choice, wasn’t it? Essentially, she was free as a bird. Sitting down, she tried to calm her seething thoughts.

How well do you think you ever knew me? A body-blow of a put-down from the male who had almost destroyed her. In spite of her attempts to suppress it, angry bitterness welled up inside Faye and she laced her trembling hands together. Was it her fault that her stepfather was a con artist? Her own mother had died penniless but for the roof over her head. Within weeks of Tariq’s defection, Adrian had decided their childhood home should also be sold.

‘OK, sis?’ It had been a rhetorical question.

Adrian had had no desire to hear that his sister’s heart had been breaking at the prospect of losing her home. Nor had he wanted to be reminded that she had hoped to set up a riding school there or that, deprived of both stables and paddock, she would have to sell her beloved horse as well.

But then Faye was not used to putting herself first. Growing up, she had not been encouraged to think her needs or wishes should carry the same weight as other people’s. But that didn’t necessarily mean she was a doormat, did it? How could she have argued about the sale of their family home? Her clerical job had not paid enough to cover her share of the maintenance costs. So Adrian had sold house, contents and land to raise capital for his construction firm. He had promised that she would share in the fruits of his success, would undeniably have shared those profits generously had there been any…

And what had Percy done with that half million pounds from Tariq? Pocketed it by forging her signature? Or had Tariq made it even more simple for Percy by making out that cheque in her stepfather’s name? Tariq, who thought all women leant on the nearest man for financial support. A ‘goodbye and get lost and keep quiet’ payment.

Was that what that cheque had been, on his terms? Faye shuddered. Compensation for the wedding that had filled her with pathetic joy and then concluded in the cruellest farce? She folded her arms tightly round herself. She could not bear to think of that day at the embassy. She had truly believed it was her wedding day. But after the ceremony Tariq had turned on her as though she were the lowest form of human life, stamping on her pride, her hopes, her love, devastating her.

‘Divorce is easy in my culture,’ Tariq had delivered. ‘I say in Arabic, “I divorce thee” three times and circle as I say it. Do you want to watch me reclaim my freedom again? Do you want me to demonstrate what a sham this ceremony was?’

The savage hurt and humiliation of that day would never leave Faye. The unwilling bridegroom, the arrogant and autocratic prince, outraged even by a wedding that was a charade. He had just stomped all over her feelings as if she were nothing, nobody worthy of any consideration. Was it any wonder she hated him?

Yes, she hated Prince Tariq Shazad ibn Zachir. Yet the same frightening physical longing which had deprived her of her wits before still lingered like a bad hangover. Why? She refused to think about that. However, she had not the slightest intention of taking up residence in any harem! Thought that was a good joke, did he? Well, she wasn’t quite as wet as she had once been.

Adrian had to be freed from prison before he fell seriously ill. No choice on that count, she told herself. No matter what the cost? And then her strained eyes widened on a sudden realisation: the instant Adrian was on his flight back to London, he would be safe! Tariq had called her a liar and a cheat. So why should she act any differently? Tariq deserved to be double-crossed. Tariq deserved to be cheated. For the sin of having the stepfather from hell, she had already paid a high enough price.

‘May I be of assistance?’

Faye glanced up to see Latif and she stood up. ‘I’d like to make a phone call.’

The little man looked uneasy.

‘Even a criminal usually gets one phone call…but maybe not in the civilised and humane country of Jumar,’ Faye conceded in a bitter undertone.

Latif flushed and bowed his head. ‘Come this way, please.’

He left her alone in an office a few doors down the corridor. She called her stepfather on his portable phone.

‘Faye?’ Percy demanded loudly. ‘Whatever stunt you’ve pulled, it’s working! I haven’t had the final word yet but it looks like our Adrian may be walking free this afternoon—’

‘Just answer one question for me,’ Faye interrupted in a flat little voice. ‘The day of the wedding, I gave you an envelope. What did you do with the cheque inside?’

Total silence buzzed on the line.

Percy cleared his throat.

‘You took the money, didn’t you?’ Faye pressed in disgust.

‘You let Tariq think he could buy me off as if I was a blackmailer too!’

‘Adrian’s had most of the money without knowing where it came from and stop talking about blackmail, Faye. All I did was try to protect your interests and, if Tariq wanted to pay us off to keep us quiet, why shouldn’t I have accepted the money?’ her stepfather protested. ‘It’s all in the family—’

‘You’re a con man and a thief. You robbed my mother and you ripped off me. Don’t insult my intelligence by talking about family!’ Faye sent the receiver crashing down again.

Slowly she retraced her steps and walked head held high out into the hot sunshine to climb into the limousine. ‘How well do you think you ever knew me?’ Tariq had asked. Well, some day soon he might be asking himself just how well he had ever known her!

The drive out to the Muraaba place took much longer than Faye had expected. Once the city limits were behind them, the desert took over for miles. It was the emptiness that fascinated Faye, then the rise of the rolling shadowed dunes baking below the remorseless heat of mid-morning. Sand and more sand…what a thrill! Had she really been so crazy about Tariq once that she had fondly imagined she could live with all that sand?

In the distance she saw a massive sprawling building surrounded by fortified walls that got higher the closer they got. As the limo approached, a cluster of tribesmen squatting in the shade jumped up to open the gates. Two sets of solid iron gates, Faye noted, one shorter inner pair, the outer so tall they could have kept the sun trapped, she thought fancifully.

Within the walls, terraced gardens of breathtaking beauty stretched up the hillside in every direction. She was blind to them. She was noting the number of guards on duty and reckoning that Tariq’s desert palace appeared braced to withstand both imminent seige and invasion. Her heart sank. Her nebulous plan to stage an escape within the next twenty-four hours would be more of a challenge than she had naively hoped.

Shoulders straight, chin tilted, ignoring the curious eyes and the whispers that accompanied her passage, Faye entered the palace. On her way past, soldiers snapped to attention, presented arms and saluted. She drifted on. It would be so easy to develop delusions of grandeur in Jumar, she decided. The Muraaba was a really ancient building, she registered with a grudging stirring of interest. Fantastic mosaic panels in glorious turquoise, green and gold covered every inch of the walls in the great hall that echoed from her footsteps.

A startling cry of pain followed by the shout of a child smashed the tranquillity and made Faye first freeze and then hurry on in search of the source. If a child had been hurt…

Faye came to a halt on the threshold of a room. So appalled was she by the scene which met her gaze, she could not initially accept what she was seeing. Three servants were huddled by the wall wailing and a fourth, a woman, was down on her knees while a small boy struck at her back with a switch. For an instant, Faye waited for one of the staff to intervene and then she realised that nobody was going to intervene and that the victim seemed too scared to protest such treatment.

Faye stalked forward. ‘Stop that!’

The little boy in his miniature robes stopped for an instant in surprise and then started again.

‘Stop it right this minute!’ Faye ordered icily.

The next thing the little horror rushed at her with the switch! She bent down and gathered him to her. The switch fell from his hand. Then she held him at a distance from her to let him kick out his tantrum without hurting her or anyone else. He was very young but his little face was screwed up in a mask of uncontrollable rage. ‘Let go of me!’ he bawled at her. ‘Let go, or I will whip you too!’

‘I’ll put you down when you stop shouting.’

‘I am a prince…I am a prince of the blood royal of Jumar!’

‘You’re a little boy.’ But Faye stiffened, now picking up on the stricken silence surrounding her. She studied the exquisite silk embroidery on the clothing the child wore. He spat at her and she grimaced. ‘No prince of the blood royal would behave like that,’ she told him without hesitation.

His bottom lip came out. His big brown eyes suddenly filled with tears. ‘I am an ibn Zachir. I am a prince. You do what I tell you…why you not do what I tell you?’

And in that instant he went from being a little monster to being a child, and a distressed and frightened child at that. As he went limp, Faye slowly released her breath in relief that she had won the battle and drew him close. He could not have been more than five years old, maybe not even that.

‘Does the prince have a name?’


Belatedly conscious that an outraged parent might descend on her at any minute, that she was in a foreign country with a very different culture and that for all she knew even the tiniest royal children were encouraged to beat servants all the time, Faye attempted to set the boy down again. Disconcertingly, he clung like a limpet.

Faye felt something touch her toes. She peered down over Prince Rafi’s back. His female victim was sobbing at Faye’s feet. The other servants were now lying face down on the floor as if they were waiting on a bomb dropping or someone shouting, ‘Off with their heads!’ She felt like an alien set down without warning in very dangerous territory.

‘Sleepy…’ Rafi told her round his thumb.

‘Will someone put Rafi…I mean, His Royal Highness down for a nap?’ Faye asked with the weak hope that someone spoke some English.

‘Nurse…I am nurse.’ It was the lady cowering at her ankles.

‘It is wrong and unkind to hurt people, Rafi.’ Faye sighed.

‘He no mean hurt,’ his nursemaid muttered fearfully.

‘Rafi sleepy…’ He snuggled his silky dark head under her chin. ‘Lady take Rafi to bed?’

Well, hopefully that would get everybody up and moving again, Faye decided.

‘My horse flies faster than the wind,’ Rafi told her sleepily as she carried him from the room.

She resisted the urge to ask if he beat the horse too. ‘I love horses.’

‘I show you my horse.’

It was a long trek through passageways, a positive procession for they seemed to gather servants and grow into a crowd on the way. And with every covert marvelling look that came her way, every awestruck appraisal that suggested she was doing something extraordinary, Faye’s frown grew. It was one weird household. She might possess the stepfather from hell but Tariq had got nothing to boast about on his own home front. Did he beat his servants too? Her tummy turned over at that image.

Finally they arrived in Rafi’s bedroom which was just stuffed with every imaginable toy and indulgence. Spoilt little brat, Faye thought, refusing to be softened by the child’s sweet innocence asleep. But some adult must surely first have taught such brutality by example, she conceded heavily. A parent? Evidently, Tariq shared his huge palace with his extended family. No wonder he was talking about stashing her like a guilty secret in a harem! No way was she staying in the Muraaba palace!

With that conviction in mind and ignoring the servants following never more than a dozen feet from her, Faye explored until she found a room literally walled with packed bookshelves. Her search took some time but eventually she found a map of Jumar which had the airport clearly marked. Noticing that the airport appeared to be a much greater distance from the city than it actually was, she assumed that it was an older map for the city had grown much larger in more recent times.

Concealing the map in her bag, she settled down in a magnificent reception room on a low traditional divan. Refreshments were brought to her there. More grovelling, all the staff seeming so scared and desperate to please. At the same time, her dazed eyes roamed over the spectacular exoticism of her surroundings. Rich geometrical patterns of faience tiles adorned the walls, some of which were even studded with what appeared to be precious stones, and the elaborate domed ceiling far above appeared to be composed of tiny coloured glittering mirror-glass mosaics. Superb Persian rugs lay on the pale marble floor. The divan on which she sat was covered with hand-painted precious silk. This was where Tariq had grown up, she found herself thinking, against a fantastic and opulent backdrop so dissimilar to hers, it took her breath away.

A wave of what appeared to be collective anxiety sent the maids into retreat a mere minute before Faye heard a man’s footsteps echoing in the main hall. Seconds later, Tariq strode in and stilled to view her.

His lean, strong face was taut. ‘Latif has informed me that there had been some incident between you and Rafi—’

Eyes flaring with anger as she recalled the shocking episode she had witnessed earlier, Faye shot to her feet in full defensive mode. ‘So someone has complained about my behaviour, have they? Well, let me tell you, you had better get me on a plane home because I have no plans to stand by and watch any child or indeed any adult beating servants!’

His superb bone structure clenched hard. ‘Say that again—’

‘You mean once wasn’t enough? What sort of primitive country is this? What kind of a society allows a small child to behave like that?’

Pale with anger beneath his bronze skin, Tariq breathed. ‘Are you telling me that Rafi struck one of the household staff?’

Breathing in deep, Faye described the scene she had interrupted in a few pithy words.

‘Rafi is mine to deal with,’ Tariq growled, the darkening of outrage accentuating his bold cheekbones. ‘We are not a primitive country. I will have you know that assault is assault in Jumar, no matter who the victim or who the perpetrator. I am very grateful that you intervened but do not judge a whole people by the behaviour of my obnoxious little brother!’

‘L-little brother?’ Her cheeks were now glowing red as fire. ‘Rafi is your little brother? But if what you are saying is true, why didn’t someone step in to assert control over him?’

‘Who? My father died when he was three. His mother died six months ago. She was an evil-tempered woman from another Gulf state.’ His stunning dark eyes had a grim light. ‘She taught Rafi to behave as he does. The servants who look after him were hers and the spirit was knocked out of them long before they accompanied their mistress to Jumar. They would never dare to try and restrain Rafi. It is an offence to lay hands on anyone of royal blood—’

‘Is it?’

‘That law was not made to allow a child to rampage out of control! I was reluctant to deprive Rafi of the nursemaids who have looked after him since he was a baby but I see now, it must be done. He has to be taught how to behave.’

‘What age is he?’

‘Four…old enough and bright enough to know better. I shall deal with him.’ Tariq headed for the door like a male with a target and a definite purpose in mind.

Faye rushed after him. ‘What are you going to do?’

‘I can see what you think I’m going to do but you’re wrong,’ Tariq spelt out in impatient reproof as he read her anxious expression. ‘I may know little about children but I hope I know enough not to repay violence with violence. I will talk to him and remove certain privileges as a punishment.’


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