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The Desert King's Blackmailed Bride

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«The Desert King's Blackmailed Bride» - Линн Грэхем

With this ring…When naive Polly Dixon lands in the desert kingdom of Dharia clutching an ornate ring – the only link to her hidden past – she never expected to be arrested and deposited at the feet of the country’s formidable ruler!I thee blackmail!King Rashad is suspicious of desirable Polly but her possession of the ring has caught the imagination of his country. They believe that Polly is the bride he’s been waiting for, so Rashad begins a fiery sensual onslaught to melt away Polly’s resolve and have her begging to walk down the aisle!Book 1 in the Brides for the Taking trilogy
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With this ring...

When naive Polly Dixon lands in the desert kingdom of Dharia clutching an ornate ring—the only link to her hidden past—she never expected to be arrested and deposited at the feet of the country’s formidable ruler!

I thee blackmail!

King Rashad is suspicious of desirable Polly, but her possession of the ring has caught the imagination of his country. They believe that Polly is the bride he’s been waiting for, so Rashad begins a fiery sensual onslaught to melt away Polly’s resolve and have her begging to walk down the aisle!

“Do you have an answer for me?” Rashad prompted with an air of expectancy on his lean, strong face.

“Not yet,” Polly admitted, matching his honesty.

Polly’s brain had flatly rejected marrying him at first. They barely knew each other, and it would be insane. And yet... She did want him—in fact she wanted him more than she had ever wanted any man—and she was not an impressionable teenager any longer. In fact, what if she never met another man who made her feel the same way Rashad did? That terrible fear held her still and turned her hollow inside, because he made her feel alive and wanton and all sorts of things she had never felt before. And, what was more, she was discovering that she liked the way he made her feel.

“Perhaps I can help you make up your mind,” Rashad murmured with silken softness. “You will see it as a form of blackmail, but in reality it is the only possible alternative if you do not wish to marry me.”

Polly’s head reared up, blue eyes wide and bright. “Blackmail?” she exclaimed in dismay. “What are you talking about?”

With this ring...

At their mother’s deathbed, Polly and Ellie Dixon are given a name, a ring—and news of a half-sister they’ve never met!

The search for their heritage leads these three sisters into the paths of three incredible alpha males...and it’s not long before they’re walking down the aisle!

Don’t miss this fabulous trilogy, starting with...

The Desert King’s Blackmailed Bride February 2017

Continuing with Ellie’s story...

The Italian’s One-Night Baby April 2017

And look out for Lucy’s story, coming soon!

The Desert King’s Blackmailed Bride

Lynne Graham

LYNNE GRAHAM was born in Northern Ireland and has been a keen romance reader since her teens. She is very happily married to an understanding husband, who has learned to cook since she started to write! Her five children keep her on her toes. She has a very large dog who knocks everything over, a very small terrier who barks a lot, and two cats. When time allows, Lynne is a keen gardener.

Books by Lynne Graham

Mills & Boon Modern Romance

Bought for the Greek’s RevengeThe Sicilian’s Stolen SonLeonetti’s Housekeeper BrideThe Secret His Mistress CarriedThe Dimitrakos PropositionA Ring to Secure His HeirUnlocking Her Innocence

Christmas with a Tycoon

The Greek’s Christmas Bride

The Italian’s Christmas Child

The Notorious Greeks

The Greek Demands His Heir

The Greek Commands His Mistress

Bound by Gold

The Billionaire’s Bridal Bargain

The Sheikh’s Secret Babies

The Legacies of Powerful Men

Ravelli’s Defiant Bride

Christakis’s Rebellious Wife

Zarif’s Convenient Queen

Visit the Author Profile page at for more titles.



Back Cover Text


html#ulink_77021a57-062d-5bc7-afb7-f18f58d7aee1" id="back_ulink_77021a57-062d-5bc7-afb7-f18f58d7aee1">Brides for the Taking

Title Page

About the Author











KING RASHAD EL-AMIN QUARAISHI studied the photos spread across his office desk. Six feet three inches tall, he dominated most gatherings, having inherited his grandfather’s unusual height. Black-haired and possessed of long-lashed dark eyes, he had also inherited the perfect bone structure that had made his mother a renowned beauty in the Middle East. Indeed, his smouldering dark good looks continually inspired admiring comments on social media and he was greatly embarrassed by the fact.

‘A cornucopia of feminine perfection,’ his chief adviser, Hakim, remarked with fervour. ‘A new reign, a new queen and, we trust, a new dynasty! Truthfully, fortune will smile now on the fortunes of Dharia.’

Although his royal employer appeared somewhat less enthusiastic, he did not disagree. But then Rashad had always known that it was his duty to marry and father a child. Unfortunately it was not a project that inspired him. After all, he had married before and at a very young age and he knew the pitfalls. Living with a woman with whom he might not have the smallest thing in common would be stressful. Misunderstandings and personality clashes would abound in such a relationship and if the desired conception did not occur in record time the stress would multiply and the unhappiness and dissatisfaction would settle in.

No, marriage held very little appeal for Rashad. The best he could hope for in a future bride was that she would have sufficient sense and practicality to enable them to live their separate lives in relative peace. He did not expect much in the way of support from a wife because his first wife had clung to him like superglue. Nor was he likely to forget his parents’ famously stormy marriage. Regardless, he also understood and accepted that the very stability of his country rested on his capacity to act as a respected role model for his people.

Over the past twenty-odd years the population of Dharia had suffered a great deal and change and innovation were no longer welcome because in the desire for peace everybody had rushed to re-embrace the traditional relaxed Dharian outlook and customs. The heady years of his father’s extravagance and his blind determination to force Western ways on an extremely traditional country had resulted in a government that became increasingly tyrannical and inevitably clashed with the army, who acted to defend the constitution with the support of the people. The history of that popular revolution was etched in the ruins of the former dictator’s palace in the city of Kashan and in the prompt restoration of the monarchy.

Tragically, a car bomb had killed off almost all of Rashad’s family. In the aftermath his uncle had hidden him in the desert to keep him safe. He had only been six years old, a frightened little boy more attached to his English nanny than to the distant parents he rarely saw and in the turmoil following the bomb and the instigation of martial law even his nanny had vanished. The palace had been looted, their loyal staff dispersed and life as Rashad had come to know it had changed out of all recognition.

‘Your Majesty, may I make a suggestion?’ Hakim asked.

Rashad thought for an instant that his adviser was going to suggest that he flung all the photos of potentially suitable brides into a lucky dip and chose blind. It would be a random form of selection and very disrespectful of the candidates, he acknowledged wryly, but he was cynically convinced that his chances of a happy union would be just as good with that method as with any other. Marriage, after all, was a very risky game of chance.

His wide sensual mouth compressed. ‘Please...’ he urged.

Hakim smiled and withdrew the file he carried below his arm to open it and extend it to show off a highly detailed picture of an item of jewellery.

‘I have taken the liberty of asking the royal jeweller if he could reproduce the Hope of Dharia...’

Rashad stared at him in astonishment. ‘But it is lost. How can it be reproduced?’

‘What harm would there be in having a replacement ring created? It is a powerful symbol of the monarchy. It was the family’s most important heirloom but after this long there is very little likelihood that the original ring will ever be found,’ Hakim pointed out seriously. ‘I feel that this is the optimum time to do this. Our people feel safer when old traditions are upheld—’

‘Our people would prefer a fairy tale to the reality that my late father was a rotten ruler, who put together a corrupt and power-hungry government,’ Rashad interposed with the bluntness that was his trademark and which never failed to horrify the more diplomatic Hakim.

While consternation at such frankness froze the older man’s bearded face, Rashad walked over to the window, which overlooked the gardens being industriously watered by the palace’s army of staff.

He was thinking about the ring superstitiously nicknamed the Hope of Dharia by the Dharian people. The ring had been a gorgeous fire opal of fiery hue, always worn by the King at ceremonial events. Set in gold and inscribed with holy words, the ring had acquired an almost mystical aura after being brought into the family by his saintly great-grandmother, whose devotion to charitable enterprises had ensured that she was adored throughout the kingdom. In other countries a king might wear a crown or wield a sceptre but in Dharia the monarchy’s strength and authority had rested historically and emotionally in that ancient ring. It had vanished after the palace had been looted and, in spite of intensive searches, no indication of the opal’s whereabouts had ever been established. No, the ring was gone for good and Rashad could see Hakim’s point: a well-designed replacement would undeniably be better than nothing.

‘Order the ring,’ he instructed ruefully.

A fake ring for a fake king, he reflected with innate cynicism. He could never shake off the knowledge that he had not been born to sit on the throne of Dharia. The youngest of three sons, he had been an afterthought until his brothers died along with his parents. He had been left at home that day because he was an excessively energetic and noisy little boy and that reality had saved his life. Rashad’s massive popularity with the public still shook him even while it persuaded him to bend his own ideals to become the man his country needed him to be.

Once he had wanted to fall in love and then he had got married. Love had been glorious for all of five minutes and then it had died slowly and painfully. No, he wasn’t in the market for that experience again. Yet he had also once believed that lust was wrong until he fell in lust many times over while he was finishing his education at a British university. Whatever, he was still grateful to have enjoyed that fleeting period of sexual freedom before he had to return home to take up his duties. And unfortunately home signified the rigid court protocols that ensured that Rashad was forced to live in a little gilded soap bubble of perceived perfection as a figurehead that inspired the most ridiculous awe. Yes, his people would enjoy the restoration of the ring and all the hoopla of dreams and expectations that went with it...but he would not.

* * *

Polly glanced at her sister, Ellie, and managed a strained smile as a middle-aged blonde woman approached them after their mother’s short funeral, which had taken place in an almost empty church.

Both young women had found the ritual a sad and frustrating event. Ellie, who was two years younger than Polly, had no memory of their mother while Polly had vague memories of an occasional perfumed smiling presence while she was still very young. Their grandmother had raised the two girls and the older woman had passed away only a few months earlier. For more than ten years the Dixon sisters had not even known if their mother was still alive. That was why it had been a considerable shock to be contacted out of the blue by a complete stranger to be told of Annabel Dixon’s passing.

That stranger, a volunteer at the hospice where their mother had died, Vanessa James, was only marginally more comfortable with the situation than they were, having frankly admitted on the phone that she had tried hard to persuade their long-lost parent to contact her daughters and speak to them before her death. At the same time she acknowledged that Annabel had struggled to make herself understood in the later stages of her illness and such a meeting could have been frustrating and upsetting for all of them.

‘I’ve booked us a table at the hotel for lunch,’ Vanessa James announced with a determined smile as she shook hands firmly with both young women. ‘I am so sorry that we are meeting in such unhappy circumstances.’

Polly had never felt less like eating and she made an awkward attempt to admit that.

‘It was your mother’s last wish and she set aside the money to cover the meal,’ the older woman told her gently. ‘It’s her treat, not mine.’

Polly’s pale skin flushed red with embarrassment, her white-blonde hair acting as a foil to accentuate her discomfiture. ‘I didn’t mean to be ungracious—’

‘Well, even if you didn’t you would have every excuse to feel uneasy about this situation,’ Vanessa remarked wryly. ‘Let me tell you a little about your mother’s last years.’

And the sisters listened while the older woman told them about the terminal illness that had begun to deprive their mother of independent life and mobility while she was still only in her forties. She had lived in a nursing home and had died in the hospice where Vanessa had got to know her well.

‘That’s so very sad,’ Ellie lamented, flicking her red hair back off her troubled brow, her green eyes full of compassion. ‘We could have done so much to help her...if only we had known—’

‘But Annabel didn’t want you to know. She was aware that you had already spent years nursing your grandmother through her decline and she was determined not to come into your life and become another burden and responsibility. She was very independent.’

The three women sat down at the table in a quiet corner of the restaurant and rather blankly studied the menus presented to them.

‘I understand you’re studying to be a doctor,’ Vanessa said to Ellie. ‘Annabel was so proud when she heard about that.’

‘How did she find out?’ Ellie pressed. ‘It has been years since she last contacted our grandmother.’

‘One of your mother’s cousins was a nurse and recognised Annabel a couple of years ago when she was hospitalised. She brought her up to date with family developments. Annabel also made her promise not to approach you.’

‘But why? We would have understood how she felt!’ Ellie burst out in frustration.

‘She didn’t want you to see her like that or to remember her that way. Having always been a rather beautiful woman she was a little vain about her looks,’ Vanessa explained gently.

Polly’s mind was wandering. Thinking of her sibling’s studies, she was very conscious that she had never achieved anything of note in the academic stakes and had done nothing to inspire a mother with pride. But then one way or another, life had always got in the way of her hopes and dreams. She had stayed home to take care of their ailing grandmother while Ellie had gone off to university to study medicine and she was proud that she had not been selfish. After all, her kid sister had always been very clever and she had a true vocation to help others. She knew just how guilty Ellie had felt about leaving her to cope alone with their grandmother but, really, what would have been the point of both of them losing out on their education? At school, Polly had been an average student, only plodding along while Ellie streaked ahead.

‘I did so hope that you were in touch with your younger sister and that you would bring her with you today,’ Vanessa James remarked, startling both women into looking across the table at her with wide eyes.

‘What younger sister?’ Polly exclaimed with wide blue eyes the colour of gentian violets.

Vanessa surveyed them in dismay before telling them about how their sibling had gone into foster care when Annabel could no longer look after her. She was four years younger than Polly and apparently their grandmother had refused to take her in.

‘We had no idea we had another sister,’ Ellie admitted heavily. ‘We really know nothing about our mother’s life...well, only what Gran told us and that wasn’t much and none of it was flattering. She certainly never mentioned that there were three of us!’

‘When Annabel was young she led quite an exciting life,’ Vanessa volunteered ruefully. ‘She was a highly qualified nanny and she travelled a great deal and lived abroad for long periods. She worked for some very wealthy families and earned an excellent salary, often with lots of perks thrown in. But obviously when she had children of her own she couldn’t take them to work with her, which is why you ended up in your grandmother’s care. But when you were both still quite young, Annabel did return to London, where she tried to set up a childcare facility. She poured all her savings into it. She was planning to bring the two of you home to live with her. But, sadly, it all went wrong. The business failed, the relationship she was in fell apart and she discovered that she was pregnant again.’

‘And she gave birth to another girl? What’s our sister called? Why are we only hearing about her now?’ Polly gasped, only a little touched by the news that the mother she had never known had actually once planned to raise her own children. Indeed that struck her as a very remote possibility because it had seemed to her as a child that she had a mother who ran away from responsibility. Even worse, her outlook was coloured by the reality that she and Ellie had been brought up by a woman who bitterly resented the responsibility of having to raise her granddaughters at a time in her life when she had expected to take life at an easier pace.

Their sister’s name was Penelope Dixon and Vanessa had no further information to offer. ‘I did approach social services but as I’m not a blood relative I wasn’t in a position to push. One of you would have to make enquiries. Penelope could have been adopted but I understand that if that proves to be the case you could leave a letter on file for her should she ever enquire about her birth family.’

Their meals were brought to the table. Vanessa withdrew three envelopes from her bag. ‘Your mother has left each of you a ring and I must ask you to take charge of your youngest sister’s ring for her—’

‘A...ring?’ Polly repeated in a renewed daze of astonishment.

‘And with each a name. I assume, your fathers’ names...although Annabel was very evasive on that score,’ the older woman revealed uncomfortably. ‘I should warn you now that I’m not sure that Annabel actually knew who your fathers were beyond any shadow of doubt.’

Polly paled. ‘Oh...’ she said, in a voice that spoke volumes.

‘She wasn’t specific but I did receive the impression that when she was living the high life, looking after her rich employers’ children, she have been a little free with her favours,’ the other woman advanced in a very quiet voice of apology.

‘Sorry...? You mean...?’ Polly began uncertainly.

‘She slept around,’ Ellie translated bluntly with a grimace. ‘Well, thank you for being honest enough to tell us that before we get excited about those names. But with that particular disease, I know that Annabel may have had problems accessing her memories and she may have become confused when she tried to focus on the past.’

The instant Vanessa handed Polly her envelope, Polly ripped it open, patience never having been one of her virtues. A heavy and ornate gold ring with a large stone fell out and she threaded it on her finger but it was far too large. It was, she finally registered, a man’s ring, not a woman’s. She peered down at the stone, which flickered with changeable hues of red, orange and yellow.

‘It’s a fire opal, very unusual but not, I understand, particularly valuable,’ Vanessa proffered. ‘It’s also an antique and foreign made.’

‘Right...’ Polly muttered blankly, returning to extract the small sheet of paper enclosed in the envelope and frown down at it.

Zahir Basara... Dharia.

‘ father may be of Arabic descent?’ Polly murmured in sheer wonderment, because, in the most obvious terms, she looked as though she had not a drop of more exotic climes in her veins and indeed had been asked several times if she was from Scandinavia. ‘I have heard of Dharia—’

‘Your mother was a nanny in the royal household there...right up until the royal family died,’ Vanessa volunteered.

And Polly immediately wondered if there was a connection to her birth name, which had been Zariyah and which was on her passport. Her grandmother had always called her Polly, having disliked her foreign name.

‘I’ve got an emerald!’ Ellie announced as if she had just opened a Christmas cracker, her whole demeanour suggesting that she had no intention of taking either ring or name too seriously.

‘And the name?’ Polly pressed with rampant curiosity, hoping that it would be the same as her own putative father’s because at least that would suggest that the relationship had been more than a passing fling.

‘Possibly a name of Italian extraction. I’ll keep it to myself for now though.’ Ellie dug the envelope into her bag with an air of finality but she was unusually pale. At Vanessa’s instigation she also took charge of the envelope intended for their sister, Penelope. ‘Maybe our mother collected engagement rings—’

‘My ring is a man’s,’ Polly argued.

‘Yes, but there could have been an intention to make it smaller,’ Ellie pointed out calmly. ‘I wish she’d left us a letter telling us about herself. Would it be possible for us to visit the hospice, Vanessa? I’d very much like to see where Annabel spent her last days and speak to the staff.’

And while the two other women became involved in an intense discussion about the hospice, the disease that had taken Annabel’s life and the research that Vanessa’s charity raised funds to support, Polly drifted off inside her head, something that she did frequently when her imagination was caught.

Just then she was thinking about the fire opal and wondering if it had been a symbol of love. Ellie was of a more practical bent but Polly liked to think she had, at least, been born to parents who had been in love at the time of her conception. Love between two people of different cultures would have been testing, she reflected, and perhaps those differences had become too great to surmount. Even so, that name in the envelope had sparked a mad craving inside her for facts about the country of Dharia.

Did she have Dharian blood running in her veins? Was it even possible that her father could still be alive? And that he might want to get to know her?

Polly had a deep longing to have a real parent. Her mother had virtually abandoned them and while her grandmother had not mistreated Polly and Ellie she certainly hadn’t loved them. Polly thought it would be absolutely wonderful to have a parent who actually cared for her as an individual, someone who would celebrate her strengths and overlook and forgive her weaknesses.

‘You’re not charging off to some foreign country to make enquiries,’ Ellie said drily, having perused her sister’s ring and the name on the piece of paper and surmised exactly where her sister’s fertile imagination was taking her. ‘It would be insane.’

And Polly had never ever done anything insane, never ever...

No, she had not defied her grandmother when she had won a place at art college and the older woman told her that she couldn’t take it up because it was her duty to go out and get a paying job to help support the household. While suitably employed in a lowly but enjoyable position for a charitable enterprise, Polly had contented herself with the outlet of evening art classes shared with other enthusiastic amateurs.

Polly had never been particularly adventurous, so she knew then with a sinking heart that it was very unlikely that she would ever get to visit Dharia. She didn’t have the money for air fares or holidays, she wouldn’t have the cash to chase up some father armed only with what could well prove to be as common a name in Dharia as John Smith. No, it was a dream and Polly knew dreams didn’t come true unless you were willing to take risks and seize the moment...

* * *

Polly was aware of being stared at in the passport queue at the airport outside Kashan. It was the blonde hair, she thought ruefully, aware as she looked around her with eager curiosity that her pale colouring seemed rare in Dharia.

She was here in her father’s country, she was finally here and she still couldn’t believe it! Ellie had made it possible, taking on part-time work in spite of her heavy study schedule and insisting that she could get by for one term at least without her sister’s financial help. Even so, it had still taken Polly months of saving to acquire sufficient funds for such a trip. Her budget was tiny and she would be staying in a little bed-and-breakfast establishment near the bazaar in Kashan. As long as it was clean, she would be happy, and if it wasn’t clean she would clean it for herself.

Encountering another prolonged stare from a dark-eyed male, Polly flushed and wished she had braided her hair. When she went out and about tomorrow, she promised herself, she would put on a sunhat to cover her head. After all, Dharia wasn’t a tourist-orientated country and was kind of old-fashioned. She definitely wouldn’t be wearing the shorts and vest top she had packed, for while there were no veiled women around those she had seen wore unrevealing clothes with longer hemlines than were fashionable.

Finally she reached the head of the queue and handed over her passport. That seemed to be the signal for another couple of men to approach the booth and a split second later one addressed her. ‘Will you come this way, please?’

To her bewilderment she was accompanied to the baggage hall to reclaim her luggage and then her case and her bag were taken from her and she was shown into a bare little room containing several chairs and a table. Her case and bag were then searched in her presence while she wondered why her passport had not been returned. What were they looking for in her luggage? Drugs? A cold shiver of fear ran through Polly even though she had nothing stronger than headache tablets in her possession. She had heard horror stories about people being strip-searched and when a female airport security guard entered, her slight frame stiffened into defensive mode. There was an exclamation as one of the men removed the fire-opal ring from her handbag and held it high where it caught the bare light bulb above and sent a cascade of colour flickering across the drab grey walls. The trio burst out into excited speech in their own language and seconds later the two men slammed out, taking the ring with them. The female officer stared fixedly at her and Polly breathed in slow and deep in an effort to calm herself.

‘You are very beautiful,’ the woman said, startling her.

A sickly smile pulled at Polly’s tense mouth because she didn’t know how to respond to that remark in such trying circumstances. ‘Thank you,’ she said finally, reluctant to be rude.

The minutes ticked by like a hammer slowly beating down on her nerves. Her companion answered her phone. Polly linked her hands together on her lap and wondered why they had all seemed so excited about the ring. Was it a stolen ring? Was that possible? But what sort of ring could possibly attract such immediate recognition when according to Vanessa it was not worth much money?

Another woman entered with a tray of aromatic tea. Polly’s companion stood up and offered her a cup. It smelled of mint and her hand shook as she lifted the glass up to her tense mouth to sip the fragrant brew.

‘Why am I being kept here?’ she dared to ask then.

‘We are waiting for instructions,’ she was told.

‘And the ring?’

Both women exchanged looks and neither made an answer. Polly was angry that her ring had been taken from her because she treasured it as her sole remaining link with the mother she had never known. When would her ring be returned to her? At the same time she was trying to take encouragement from the fact that she had not been strip-searched and that tea had been brought. It was a misunderstanding. What else could it be? She had done nothing wrong. But had her mother done something wrong years back in the past?

How was she supposed to answer that question? In many ways, her mother remained a complete mystery to her eldest daughter. Annabel had travelled the world in luxury to look after other people’s children while abandoning her own to the tender mercies of her own mother, who had been a most reluctant guardian. She had, however, dutifully provided financial support for Polly’s grandmother and her daughters for many years. When that support came to a sudden unannounced halt, Polly had learned a lot about how to live on a very tight budget.

The sisters had inherited nothing from their grandmother. She had left the contents of her house, all that she possessed, to her son, Polly’s uncle, complaining bitterly that her daughter had ruined her retirement by forcing her to raise her illegitimate children. It was a label Polly had always hated, a word the younger generation rarely used because it wasn’t fair to tag a child with something that they had played no active part in creating. But it was a word that had meant a great deal to her staunchly conservative and judgemental grandmother, who had been ashamed that her only grandchildren had been born out of wedlock.

* * *

While Polly agonised on the other side of Kashan, Hakim, who rarely moved fast, was positively racing down the main corridor of the palace in his haste to reach his King. His rounded face was beaming and flushed, his little goatee beard quivering. Rashad was in his office, working diligently as usual.

‘The ring!’ Hakim carolled out of breath, holding it high in the air like a trophy before hurrying over to lay it down reverently on the top of the desk. ‘It is found.’

Rashad frowned and sprang upright, carrying the ring in one lean brown hand to scrutinise it in the sunlight pouring through the window. ‘How was it found? Where was it?’

Hakim explained about the British woman being held at the airport.

Rashad’s dark as jet eyes hardened. ‘Why is she not in prison?’

‘This must be carefully handled,’ Hakim urged. ‘We would not want to cause a diplomatic incident—’

‘A thief is a thief and must be held accountable,’ his King assured him without hesitation.

‘The woman is young. She could not have been the thief. She has not been questioned yet. The airport police wished to first ascertain with the palace that the ring was the genuine article. There is great excitement in Kashan. Crowds are already forming at the airport.’

Rashad frowned. ‘Why? How could word of this discovery already have spread?’

‘The airport grapevine was most thoroughly aired on social media,’ his adviser told him wryly. ‘There will be no keeping a lid on this story—’

‘Crowds?’ Rashad prompted in bewilderment.

‘The woman concerned is not being viewed as a thief but as the woman who has brought the Hope of Dharia home to our King. When I add that she is young and apparently beautiful...well, if you think about how your great-grandmother came to your great-grandfather and brought the Hope with her, you can see why our people are thrilled.’

But Rashad was still frowning. A large gathering of thrilled people could translate all too easily into civil unrest. He could barely comprehend his aide’s fervent attitude to what was, after all, only a legend, polished up by the next generation to enhance and romanticise the monarchy and their alliances. ‘But that was a century ago in another age and it was a set-up to achieve exactly what it did achieve...a marriage that suited both countries at the time.’

‘It is dangerous to have crowds congregating at the airport. I would humbly suggest that you have the woman brought here to be questioned. It will keep the whole matter under wraps without causing undue comment.’

Rashad was thinking with regret of the old dungeons in the palace basement. He didn’t think Hakim wanted the British woman put in the basement. He reminded himself that the ring had come home and that the woman was apparently too young to have been responsible for its disappearance. ‘Very well. I suppose it will be interesting to hear her story.’

‘It is a complete miracle that the Hope of Dharia has been returned to us,’ Hakim declared fervently. ‘And a wonderful portent of good events yet to come.’

* * *

Sadly, there was nothing miraculous about Polly’s feelings as she was herded out of the airport by what looked suspiciously like a rear entrance as they emerged into a loading bay surrounded by crates. She was clammy with fright in spite of the presence of the female security guard but her rarely roused temper was also beginning to rise. She was a law-abiding, well-behaved traveller. How dared they force her to endure such treatment?

‘You are going to the palace!’ the woman told her in a voice that suggested that she expected Polly to turn cartwheels of joy at the news. ‘It is a great honour. They have even sent a car and a military escort for you.’

Polly climbed into the rear passenger seat of a shiny white four-wheel drive. She linked her hands tightly together on her lap. Over twenty years ago her mother had been employed at the palace and now she was receiving an unexpected opportunity to see the place, she told herself, striving to take a more positive view of her circumstances. If she got the chance to ask questions she might even meet someone who remembered her mother working at the palace. Of course, that could only lead to a very awkward exchange, she acknowledged reluctantly. Had her mother slept around? Had she been involved with more than one man? And how on earth was she supposed to find that out without seriously embarrassing herself and other people? For the first time, Ellie’s forecast that seeking out her father would be like looking for a needle in a haystack returned to haunt Polly and she resolved to keep her personal business strictly private until she was confident of her reception.

A military truck crammed with armed soldiers led the way out of the airport and Polly’s nervous tension increased as a big crowd of people surrounded the convoy when it slowed down to leave the complex. Faces pressed against the blacked-out windows, hands thumped noisily on the outside of the car and there was a great deal of shouting. Something akin to panic briefly gripped Polly’s slender frame and perspiration beaded her brow. She shut her eyes tightly and prayed while the car pulled away slowly and then mercifully speeded up.

The car drove down a modern thoroughfare lined with tall buildings and lots of people standing around, apparently there to stare at the car she was travelling in. There were masses of people everywhere and a surprising suggestion of a general holiday mood, she thought in surprise as people waved in a seemingly friendly and enthusiastic fashion as the convoy passed by.

They left the city of Kashan and the crowds behind to travel into a desert landscape empty of human habitation. Flat plains of sand ornamented with rocky outcrops stretched in every direction and in the distance she could see giant dunes. There was something about that view stretched taut below a bright blue sky and the burning sun that made her want to paint in a medium different from her usual dreamy pastels. Distracted, Polly blinked as the car purred through giant gates into a startlingly green and lush spread of gardens dotted with trees and shrubs and colourful flowers.

Ahead loomed a very old building that was topped by a variety of large and small domes and which spread in all directions in a haphazard design.

The door beside her opened and Polly eased back out into the simmering heat, her lightweight trousers and tee shirt instantly sticking to her dampening skin. It was incredibly hot. A single female figure stood beneath the huge entrance portico and as Polly approached she bowed very low and motioned a hand in silent request that she follow her.

Clearly, she wasn’t under arrest, Polly reflected with intense relief, her curiosity flying as high as her imagination as she entered the palace, but her anger at the fearful uncertainty she had endured remained. They padded down a very long and very broad hallway lined with ornately carved stone columns. Her sandals squeaked as she trekked after the woman into the depths of the great sprawling building. They traversed a shallow staircase and crossed a scantily furnished large room towards French windows that stood wide open.

Oh, dear, Polly thought in dismay, back to the horribly hot outdoors and the unforgiving burn of the midday sun.

She walked hesitantly out into a walled courtyard and her companion departed. Water gushed down into a fountain overhung by palm trees. The tiles on the ground formed an elaborate pattern faded by time. Polly moved straight into the shade by the fountain, desperate for the cooler air.

A young woman in a long fashionable dress appeared and dealt her a small tight smile, sweeping a hand helpfully at the table and two chairs sited in full sun. Suppressing a groan, Polly moved closer just as quick steps sounded from behind her. The young woman immediately dropped down onto her knees and bowed her head. Polly blinked in astonishment and slowly turned round.

A very tall man with blue-black hair and eyes as keen as a hawk’s surveyed her. The hunting analogy was apt, she conceded, because she felt cornered and intimidated. He emanated authority and danger like a force field. He was also, very probably, the best-looking man she had ever seen outside a modelling advert and she knew who he was, thanks to her Internet research on the country of Dharia. He was the recently crowned ruler of Dharia, King Rashad. She swallowed hard, thoroughly disconcerted and shaken that she was being granted a personal meeting with such an important individual.

Her mouth had run dry and she parted her lips, struggling to think of something to say but he got there before her.

‘I am Rashad, Miss Dixon. I would like to hear how the ring came into your possession.’

I am Rashad, she thought, as if there were only one Rashad in the whole world. And looking at him, she thought there might well only be one man quite like him in the Arab world, a remarkable man who had single-handedly united his country’s different factions to bring about peace and who was universally and quite slavishly adored for that commendable achievement.

‘The truth is...there’s not much I can explain,’ Polly admitted shakily, for the instant she connected with those striking dark brown eyes as luminescent as liquid gold in the sunlight she could barely breathe, never mind think and vocalise.


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