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Грэхем Линн

The Desert King's Blackmailed Bride

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‘PLEASE SIT DOWN,’ Rashad urged in a harshened undertone because he was finding it a challenge to maintain his normal self-discipline.

An instantaneous lust to possess was flaming through his lean, powerful frame and the uniqueness of that experience in a woman’s radius thoroughly unsettled him. But then the woman in front of him was, admittedly, quite exceptional. Polly Dixon was blindingly beautiful with hair of that silvery white-blonde shade that so rarely survived childhood. Her wealth of hair fell in a loose tangle of waves halfway to her waist. Her skin was equally fair, moulded over a heart-shaped face brought alive by delft blue eyes and a sultry full pink mouth. She wasn’t very tall. In fact she was rather tiny in stature, Rashad acknowledged abstractedly, doubting that she would reach any higher than his chest, but the ripe curves of her figure at breast and hip were defiantly female and mature.

Polly gazed back at him, dry-mouthed with nervous tension. He had amazing cheekbones, a perfect narrow-bridged nose and a full wide sensual mouth enhanced by the dark shadow of stubble already visible on his bronzed skin. With difficulty she recollected her thoughts and spoke up. ‘I gather all this fuss is about the ring that I had in my bag,’ she assumed. ‘I’m afraid I know very little about it. It only recently came into my possession after my mother died and I think that she had had it for a long time—’

Rashad’s sister-in-law, Hayat, brought tea to the table, acting as a discreet chaperone and stepping back out of view.

‘What was your mother’s name?’ Rashad enquired, watching Polly lick a drop of mint tea off her lower lip and imagining that tiny pink tongue flicking against his own flesh with such driving and colourful immediacy that he was glad of the table that concealed the all too masculine swelling at his groin.

Polly was starting to feel incredibly tired as well as desperately thirsty and she sipped constantly at the tea, wishing that it were cold enough to gulp down. ‘Annabel Dixon,’ she admitted heavily. ‘But I don’t see what that—’

Rashad had frozen into position. Lush black lashes swooped down to hide his eyes and then skimmed upward again to frame startled gold chips of enquiry, his surprise unconcealed. ‘When I was a child I had a nanny called Annabel Dixon,’ he revealed flatly. ‘Are you saying that that woman was your mother?’

‘Yes...but I know very little about her and nothing at all about her time here in Dharia because I was brought up by my grandmother, not by my mother,’ Polly told him grudgingly while marvelling at the idea that her mother had looked after Rashad as a little boy. ‘Why is the ring so important?’

‘It is the ceremonial ring of the Kings of Dharia, a symbol of their right to rule,’ Rashad explained. ‘It has great emotional significance for my people. The ring went missing over twenty-five years ago when my family died and the dictator Arak staged a coup to take power here. Who is your father?’

Polly stiffened at his question. A headache was forming behind her brow and she was wishing she had access to the medication in her case while also dimly wondering when she could hope to be reunited with her luggage. ‘I don’t know but if all this happened twenty-five years ago it must’ve happened around the time I was conceived, so you see I have no further information to offer. I had no idea the ring was a lost treasure, nor do I know how my mother got hold of it or why she kept it. Surely she would’ve known how important it was?’

‘I would’ve assumed so,’ Rashad conceded. ‘I was in her care with my brothers from birth to the age of six and during that period your mother must have learned a great deal about my family.’

‘What was she like?’ Polly was betrayed into asking.

He looked at her in surprise.

‘I don’t really remember least I have only the vaguest of recollections. Perhaps you don’t remember anything about her,’ Polly added hastily, her very pale face flushing as she gave him that escape clause.

‘She was always smiling, laughing,’ Rashad recounted quietly. ‘I was fond of were my brothers. She was not blonde, like you...she had red hair—’

Polly nodded stiffly, thinking about her sister’s red hair, which Ellie hated. ‘Is there anyone else here who would still remember her?’ she asked daringly. ‘Naturally I’m very curious about her.

‘Few of the staff from that era remain in the household,’ Rashad responded with regret, his lean dark face shadowing because so many of the palace staff had died in the coup.

‘So what happens to the ring now?’ Polly pressed tautly.

‘It must remain here in Dharia,’ Rashad pointed out in some surprise, as if she should have grasped that reality immediately. ‘This is where it belongs.’

Polly lifted her chin, her blue eyes darkening with annoyance even as a mortifying trickle of sweat ran down between her breasts below her loose tee shirt. She might be feeling hot and bothered and impossibly tired but there was nothing wrong with her wits. ‘But it is my ring and it’s the only token I will ever have from my mother.’

Rashad was taken aback by her statement. ‘That is most unfortunate but—’

‘For me, not for you!’ Polly interrupted fierily, her anger sparking at his immense assurance and his assumption that she would simply accept the situation.

Rashad was unaccustomed to being interrupted and even less familiar with the challenge of dealing with an angry woman. An ebony brow lifted at a derisive slant. ‘You are more fortunate than you appreciate,’ he told her levelly. ‘You could have been accused of theft simply for having the ring in your possession—’

Polly rammed back her chair and stood up, bracing her hands down on the table to steady herself because that quick impulsive movement had left her a little dizzy. ‘Well, go ahead and have me charged with theft!’ she urged furiously. ‘How dare you treat me like a criminal? My journey has been interrupted. I was marched off by security staff in front of an audience at the airport, held against my will in a nasty little room for hours and had the life threatened out of me when a crowd mobbed the car on the way here—’

‘You were selected at random at the airport to be searched in a drug-screening scheme we have recently established,’ Rashad interposed smooth as glass. ‘I regret that you have been inconvenienced and embarrassed and will ensure that what remains of your holiday compensates you for the experience.’

Backing further away from the table and its support, Polly valiantly straightened her back and squared her shoulders to lift her head high. ‘I want my mother’s ring back!’ she declared stridently.

Rashad rose fluidly upright, shamefully entertained by the sheer fury that had erupted in her face, flushing the skin to a delicious shade of pink, darkening her bright blue eyes to violet and compressing her lips into a surprisingly tough line. ‘You must know that that is not true. The ring did not belong either to your mother or your family—’

‘It was left to me. Therefore it belongs to me.’

Rashad raised a black brow as he strode towards her and she warily backed away, her legs feeling oddly weak and unusually clumsy.

‘The most basic law is that a stolen item may not be considered the legal possession of the person it is given or sold to because the individual who gave or sold it did not have the right of ownership to do so.’

Polly wasn’t listening to him. After all, now he was talking like a lawyer and, even in his light grey designer suit, he looked like a fantasy against the colourful backdrop of the courtyard. He didn’t look real, indeed none of what had happened to her since she first set foot on the soil of Dharia felt remotely real, so far did those events lie outside her experience. And all of it, him, her surroundings and the whole complex problem of the wretched ring, not to mention the heat, which she was finding unbearable, was becoming too much for her.

‘I’m not going to discuss it with you because it’s my ring, not yours!’ Polly flung back at him dizzily while she wondered why her fantasy image of him was turning a little fuzzy round the edges and putting him into a soft focus that did very little to blur the hard cast of his lean, darkly handsome features.

‘You are being most unreasonable,’ Rashad told her without skipping a beat while he stared at her, fascinated by the firebrand personality hidden beneath that beautiful fragile outer shell. ‘You are even being—forgive me for saying it—a little childish.’

Perspiration trickling down her forehead, Polly’s small hands balled into fists. ‘If you weren’t who you are I’d thump you for saying that!’

A harried knock sounded on the French windows that led back into the palace and Hayat rose to answer it, bowing backwards out of his presence in the same way the staff had behaved over a century ago. The old ways were not always the right ways, Rashad reflected with a sigh. Polly shouting at him and threatening him with a ludicrous assault had had a wonderfully refreshing effect on his mood. Had she any idea how many Dharian laws she had just broken? No, nor would she care were she to be informed because she was angry with him and felt free to express her anger openly and honestly. Rashad had never enjoyed such freedom of expression or action. All he had learned about from the age of six was duty and the always dire consequences of not doing one’s duty.

Hakim was framed breathless in the doorway, frantically indicating a need to speak to him.

Rashad suppressed his irritation at the interruption. After all, whatever good or bad thing had happened, it was his job to deal with it, regardless of mood and timing. For one final self-indulgent moment, he focused on Polly, marvelling at her pale perfection in the sunlight. ‘I don’t think you could hit me even if you tried to do so,’ he responded silkily. ‘I am highly skilled in almost every form of combat.’

‘But you talk like a textbook,’ Polly mumbled shakily, moving jerkily forward as if she was struggling to walk back to the table.

But she didn’t make it. Her small frame crumpled down on the tiles in a heap. Hayat released a small startled scream but Rashad was a lot more practical. He bent down and scooped Polly up off the ground, astonished by how little her slight body weighed.

Hayat went from screaming to wailing an urgent cry for help indoors so that a squad of guards came running in an unnecessary panic that their King was in danger.

Rashad refused to put Polly down when others offered to release him from his burden. Hakim was already calling the palace doctor. ‘I will speak to you when we are alone,’ he murmured guardedly.

‘What is the matter with her? Bad temper!’ Hayat remarked to no one in particular in the lift, which was uncomfortably full of people. ‘She shouted at the King. I could not believe my eyes or ears.’

Rashad wondered idly whether Hayat had been a playground sneak, who told tales on her peers. She was very snide about other women and always in his vicinity as if she feared he might not notice female flaws without her drawing them to his attention. He knew that as the sister of his late wife she regarded herself as a superior being. She belonged to a leading Dharian family. And every prominent Dharian family had put forward their daughters as potential brides for the King, a dangerous state of affairs that had convinced Rashad that he had to choose a bride from another country to maintain the peace between the various clans all jockeying for social position.

Rashad laid Polly down on a silk-clad bed. She was starting to recover consciousness, her eyelids flickering, little formless sounds emerging from her full pink lips. But even in that condition she contrived to look remarkably like an idealised image of an angel he had once seen in a book.

‘Dr Wasem is here,’ Hakim said at his elbow, and Rashad stepped back from the bed, suffering one of those weird ‘moment out of time’ sensations and momentarily spooked by it.

Being men, they retreated to the corridor while the female contingent of the household took charge.

‘I wonder what is wrong with her,’ Rashad said tautly.

‘I wonder what our excitable crowds will make of this latest development. One of your guards used his phone in the lift. I frowned at him. He should have desisted immediately. What kind of discipline have we here when even the men dedicated to protecting you are taking a part in this media gossip nonsense?’ Hakim was steadily working himself up into a rant.

‘She was so pale. I should have realised it wasn’t natural for her to be that pale,’ Rashad breathed as if his adviser hadn’t spoken.

Minutes later, Dr Wasem joined them. ‘Heatstroke,’ he pronounced with a hint of satisfaction at the speed of his diagnosis. ‘Normally I would suggest our guest be taken to hospital but I am aware of the current mood in our city. The women will ensure that she is rapidly cooled down and rehydrated. I wonder whose idea it was to take a woman who had already endured a long flight outside during the hottest part of the day? Even our constitutions are taxed in such temperatures as we have in summer.’

A slight flare of colour outlined Rashad’s stunning cheekbones. Sunstroke.

‘That is serious—’

‘Not as serious as what I have to tell you,’ Hakim whispered once the doctor turned away to reel off further instructions to the cluster of women at the bedroom door.

With difficulty, Rashad rose above the guilt he was experiencing because sunstroke could be very serious and his guest could have had a fit, convulsions or even a heart attack if her temperature were not speedily reduced. He was appalled by his own thoughtlessness. ‘And what is that?’

‘Our guest may say she is called Polly but the name on her passport is Zariyah,’ Hakim divulged in an even lower-pitched whisper.

‘But that is...that is my great-grandmother’s name. It is rarely used,’ Rashad framed in shock, for the name was not used in Dharia out of respect for his ancestor’s memory. ‘How can her birth name be Zariyah?’

‘My suspicions have taken me in a direction I really do not wish to go,’ Hakim admitted heavily. ‘But her mother’s possession of that ring and her use of that name for her child, added to her unexplained disappearance all those years ago, deeply concerns me...’

‘It is not possible that she could be a relative!’ Rashad protested with rare vehemence.

‘With the timing, added to your father’s predilection for dallying with pretty women on the staff, it is sadly...possible,’ Hakim spelt out grimly. ‘A DNA test must be taken. Our guest could be your half-sister.’

‘My...’ Half-sister? Reeling with shock, Rashad had frozen into position by the wall as he struggled mightily to handle that shattering possibility while instinctively swallowing back any repetition of that familial designation.

That was not a result he wanted. No, he didn’t want that, he definitely didn’t want to discover that he had been sexually attracted to a long-lost family member. The very idea made him feel sick. But hadn’t he once read somewhere about such unnatural attachments forming between adults who had not been raised together as children?

‘It must be confirmed one way or another. We must know,’ Hakim repeated doggedly. ‘Annabel Dixon was a flirtatious woman and your father was—’

The strong bones of Rashad’s bronzed face set hard as granite as he spoke. ‘I know what he was.’


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