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The Sheikh's Prize

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«The Sheikh's Prize» - Линн Грэхем

The flaw in his jewel When Sheikh Zahir Ra’if Quarishi took a Western woman as his wife it caused outrage amongst his people. And marrying Sapphire Marshall turned out to be the biggest mistake of Zahir’s life.Cold and untouchable as her jewelled namesake, Sapphire fled the kingdom before sharing the marriage bed, leaving Zahir to face the shame alone – and his bank account five million dollars lighter. Now his ex-wife has been spotted in his desert, and before she can run again Zahir plans to banish her from his mind once and for all – beginning with reclaiming his wedding night! ‘Such passion and drama, another Lynne Graham classic!’ – Maggie, 45, Hove
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About the Author

‘My apologies for the interruption, Your Majesty—’

‘Akram…?’ Zahir prompted impatiently. ‘I have a meeting in thirty minutes.’

‘It’s…her! That woman you married!’ Akram recovered his tongue abruptly. ‘She’s out there in the streets of our capital city, shaming you even as we speak!’

Sapphire—the one mistake he had ever made, and the payback had been unforgettably brutal. He had endured indescribable punishment to keep her as his wife for even a year. She owed him. She definitely owed him. She had used and abused him before walking away unharmed and incalculably richer. Maybe it was finally payback time, Zahir reflected grimly. And the very thought of Sapphire being in his power was the most seductive image that Zahir had indulged in for years.


The men who have everything finally meet their match!

The Marshall sisters have carved their own way in the world for as long as they can remember. So if some arrogant billionaire thinks he can sweep in and whisk them off their stilettos he’s got another think coming!

It will take more than a private jet and a wallet full of cash to win over these feisty, determined women. Luckily these men enjoy a challenge, and they have more than their bank accounts going for them!

Read Kat Marshall’s story in


Read Saffy Marshall’s story in


Read Emmie Marshall’s story in


Look out for more scandalous Marshall exploits, coming soon!

About the Author

LYNNE GRAHAM was born in Northern Ireland and has been a keen Mills & Boon® reader since her teens. She is very happily married, with 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, which knocks everything over, a very small terrier, which barks a lot, and two cats. When time allows, Lynne is a keen gardener.

Recent titles by the same author:



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The Sheikh’s Prize

Lynne Graham


ZAHIR RA’IF QUARISHI, hereditary king of the gulf state of Maraban, leapt up from behind his desk when his younger brother, Akram, literally burst into his office.

‘What has happened?’ Zahir demanded urgently, straightening to his full six feet three inches of height, his lean powerful body tensing like the army officer he had been into immediate battle readiness.

His face unusually flushed, Akram came to an abrupt halt to execute a jerky bow as he belatedly recalled the niceties of court etiquette.’ My apologies for the interruption, Your Majesty—’

‘I assume there’s a good reason,’ Zahir conceded, his rigidity easing as he read Akram’s troubled expression and recognised that something of a more private and personal nature had precipitated his impulsive entry to one of the very few places in which Zahir could usually depend on receiving the peace he required to work.

Akram stiffened, embarrassment claiming his open good-natured face. ‘I don’t know how to tell you this—’

‘Sit down and take a deep breath,’ Zahir advised calmly, his innate natural assurance taking over as he settled his big frame down into an armchair in the corner of the room and rested his piercing dark-as-night eyes on the younger man while moving a graceful hand to urge him to sit down as well. ‘There’s nothing we can’t discuss. I will never be as intimidating as our late father.’

At that reminder, Akram turned deadly pale, for their late and unlamented parent had been as much of a tyrant and a bully in the royal palace with his family as he was in his role as a ruler over what had once been one of the most backward countries in the Middle East. While Fareed the Magnificent, as he had insisted on being called, had been in power, Maraban’s oil wealth had flowed only one way into the royal coffers while their people continued to live in the Dark Ages, denied education, modern technology and adequate medical support. It had been three years since Zahir took the throne and the changes he had immediately instigated still remained a massive undertaking. Angrily conscious that his brother worked just about every hour of the day in his determination to improve the lives of his subjects, Akram suddenly dreaded giving Zahir the news he had learned. Zahir never mentioned his first marriage. It was too controversial a topic, Akram acknowledged awkwardly. How could it not be? His brother had paid a high price for defying their late father and marrying a foreigner from a different culture. That he had done so for a woman clearly unworthy of his faith could only be an additional source of aggravation.

‘Akram…?’ Zahir prompted impatiently. ‘I have a meeting in thirty minutes.’

‘It’s…her! That woman you married!’ Akram recovered his tongue abruptly. ‘She’s out there in the streets of our capital city shaming you even as we speak!’

Zahir froze and frowned, his spectacular bone structure tightening beneath taut skin the colour of honey, his wide sensual mouth compressing hard. ‘What the hell are you talking about?’

‘Sapphire’s here filming some television commercial for cosmetics!’ Akram told him in fierce condemnation, resenting what he saw as an inexcusable insult to his elder brother.

Zahir’s lean strong hands clenched into fists. ‘Here?’ he repeated in thunderous disbelief. ‘Sapphire is filming here in Maraban?’

‘Wakil told me,’ his brother told him, referring to one of Zahir’s former bodyguards. ‘He couldn’t believe his eyes when he recognised her! It’s lucky that our father refused to announce your marriage to our people—I never thought we’d live to be grateful for that…’

Zahir was stunned at the idea that his ex-wife could have dared to set a single foot within the borders of his country.

Rage and bitterness flamed through his taut powerful frame and he sprang restively upright again. He had tried not to be bitter, he had tried even harder to forget his failed marriage…only that was a little hard to do when your ex became an internationally famous supermodel, featuring in countless magazines and newspapers and even once in a giant advertising hoarding over Times Square. In truth a mere five years ago he had been a sitting duck of a target for a cunning schemer of Sapphire Marshall’s ilk and that lowering awareness had left an indelible stain on his masculine ego. At twenty-five years of age he had, thanks to his father’s oppression, still been a virgin, ignorant of the West and Western women, but although he hadn’t had a clue he had at least tried to make his marriage work. His bride, on the other hand, had refused to make the smallest effort to sort out their problems. He had fought hard to keep a wife who didn’t want to be his wife, indeed who couldn’t even bear for him to touch her.

More fool him, he reflected with hard cynicism, for he was no longer an innocent when it came to women. The explanation for Sapphire’s extraordinary behaviour had become clear as crystal to him once he shed his idealistic assumptions about his wife’s honour: his bride had only married him because he was wealthy beyond avarice and a prince, not because she cared about him. Unpardonably, her goal in marrying him had simply been the rich pay-off that would follow their divorce. He had married a woman with all the heart of a cash register and she had, not only, ripped him off but also got away scot free while he had paid in spades. At that reflection, his even white teeth ground together, tiny gold flames igniting in his fierce eyes. If only he had been dealing with her in the present as a male who now knew the score, he would have known exactly how to handle her.

‘I’m sorry, Zahir,’ Akram muttered in the seething silence, ill at ease with the rare dark fury that had flared in his brother’s face. ‘I thought you had a right to know that she’d had the cheek to come here.’

‘It’s five years since I divorced her,’ Zahir pointed out harshly, his lean strong face impassive. ‘Why should I care what she does?’

‘Because she’s an embarrassment!’ Akram rushed to declare. ‘Imagine how you would feel if the media found out that she was once your wife! She must be shameless and without conscience to come to Maraban to make her stupid commercial!’

‘This is all very emotive stuff, Akram,’ Zahir countered, reluctantly touched by his brother’s concern on his behalf. ‘I’m grateful you told me but what do you expect me to do?’

‘Throw her and her film crew out of Maraban!’ his brother told him instantly.

‘You are still young and impetuous, my brother,’ Zahir replied drily. ‘The paparazzi follow my ex-wife everywhere she goes. Try to picture the likely consequences of deporting a world-famous celebrity. Why would I want to create headlines to alert the world’s media to a past that is more wisely left buried?’

When Akram had finally departed, still incredulous that his brother had failed to express a desire for retribution, Zahir made several phone calls that would have astonished the younger man. It was a supreme irony but Zahir’s coolly astute brain was perpetually at all-out war with the volatile passion of his temperament. While it made no logical sense whatsoever he wanted the chance to see Sapphire in the flesh again. Did that desire imply that he still had some lingering need for closure where she was concerned? Or was it simple and natural curiosity because he was currently facing the prospect of having to take another wife? Once, in a desperate search for a solution to his seemingly incurable problems with Sapphire, Zahir had read books about all sorts of strange subjects before he finally accepted that the simplest explanation of the apparently inexplicable was usually the closest to the truth. Since then events in his ex-wife’s life had suggested that his sceptical convictions about her true character were spot-on. He had wed a gold-digging social climber with not an atom of true feeling for him. After all, he was well aware that Sapphire was now cosily ensconced in a live-in relationship with the award-winning Scottish wildlife photographer, Cameron McDonald. Presumably she wasn’t having any difficulty bedding him… Zahir’s dark eyes burned afresh like golden flames at that incendiary thought.

Saffy dutifully angled her hot face into the flow of air gushing from the wind machine so that her mane of blonde hair wafted back in a cloud over her shoulders. Not an atom of her growing irritation and discomfort showed on her flawless features. Saffy was never less than professional when she was working. But how many times had her make-up already needed retouched in the stifling heat? It was simply melting off her face. How many times had the set security had to interrupt filming to make the crowd of over-excited spectators back away to give her colleagues the space to work? Coming to Maraban to film the Desert Ice cosmetics commercial had been a foolish mistake. The support systems the film crew took for granted were non-existent.

‘Give me that sexy look, Saffy…’ Dylan, the photographer, urged pleadingly. ‘What is wrong with you this week? You’re not on form—’

And as if someone had zapped her with an electrified cattle prod, Saffy struggled to switch on the expression he wanted because she hated the fact that anyone should have noticed that anything was amiss with her mood. Inside her head, she fought to focus on the fantasy that never failed to ignite that much vaunted look of desire on her face. So ironic, she reflected momentarily, so very cruelly ironic that she should have to focus on what she had often dreamt of and never yet managed to experience in reality. But when she was working a shoot costing her clients thousands of pounds was not the time to allow all that old bad stuff to resurface. With the strong determination that was the backbone of her temperament, Saffy forced the distressing memories back down into her subconscious again and then mentally searched to extract the required familiar image: a man with jet-black hair down to his broad brown shoulders, a man who positively oozed raw animal magnetism from every pore with a lean powerfully naked body encased in warm gilded skin. In every image he would slowly turn his head to look at her, revealing fiercely stunning eyes of gold surrounded by black lashes so lush they acted like eye liner on a guy already so savagely masculine and passionate that at one glance he took her breath away. And all those wretched frustrating responses swam back through her taut body in a wave, her nipples beading below the scrap of silk she wore, her entire body dampening with shocking awareness.

‘That’s it…that’s exactly it!’ Dylan crooned in enthusiasm, leaping around her posed figure to take photos from different angles as she shifted position with languorous ease, that image inside her head like an indelible tattoo below her skin. ‘Lower your lids a little more—we want to see that eye shadow…brilliant, sweetheart, now pout that gorgeous mouth…’

A couple of minutes passed before with a tiny jerk of displacement, Saffy returned to the present and was suddenly plunged back into the heat, the noise and the curious crowds, her huge bluer-than-blue eyes reflecting her discomfiture at the massive attention they were attracting. But Dylan had got the shots he wanted and he leapt around like a maniac punching the air with satisfaction. Her single-minded concentration on her role gone now, she looked out above the crowds and saw a vehicle parked at the height of a giant rolling ochre-coloured sand dune with a robed figure standing nearby holding something in his hand that glinted in the sun.

Zahir had his high-definition binoculars trained on his stunningly beautiful ex-wife. With her glorious mane of golden hair blowing back from her face like a sheet of gleaming silk and seated atop a pile of giant fake ice cubes, she would have looked spectacularly eye-catching by any standards. But in the beauty stakes, Sapphire occupied a category all of her own and the sight of her took Zahir’s hot-blooded temper to new and dangerous heights.

He was outraged that she was appearing in public in Maraban clad in only a couple of scraps of azure silk that displayed the surprisingly bountiful mounds of her breasts, the smooth skin of her now bejewelled midriff and the incredible svelte stretch of her very long and perfect legs.

He watched the men involved in the shoot dart slavishly around Sapphire, offering her drinks and food and fussing with her hair and her face, and he wondered with vicious coarseness which of them had had the pleasure of her beautiful body. After all, she might live with Cameron McDonald, but the UK tabloids had, nonetheless, exposed the fact that she had had several affairs with other men. Clearly she was anything but a faithful lover. Of course, it was possible that Cameron and Sapphire enjoyed a civilly negotiated ‘open’ relationship, but Zahir was not impressed by that possibility or even by the concept of open relationships. He didn’t sleep around, he had never slept around even when he finally had the freedom to make such choices. His ex-wife had to be a bit of a slut, he decided with dark brooding bitterness, his lean strong face set granite hard at the acknowledgement. He had married an embryo slut and, worst of all, she was a slut he still lusted after. At that final disturbing admission, Zahir ground his even white teeth while perspiration beaded his upper lip, his tall, powerful body furiously tense and aggressively aroused by his perusal of that perfect body and even more perfect face.

Sapphire, the one mistake he had ever made and the payback had been unforgettably brutal. He had endured indescribable punishment to keep her as his wife for even a year. She owed him, she definitely owed him for twelve months of unadulterated hell. Add in the millions she had received from him since the charade of their marriage finally ran aground in a divorce and he had every right to feel ill-done by, every right to still be aggrieved and hostile. She had used and abused him before walking away unharmed and considerably richer. Maybe it was finally payback time, Zahir reflected grimly, his adrenalin spiking at the idea. And bearing in mind that she and her film crew had chosen to come to Maraban and film without the permission of the relevant authority, she had put herself and her precious high-flying career in his power. And the very thought of Sapphire being in his power was the most seductive image that Zahir had indulged in for years. He lowered the binoculars, thinking fast, squashing the disconcerting logical objections already trying to assail him to persuade him to restrain his primal responses. It wouldn’t be the same between them now, he reasoned angrily; he was not the same man. This time around he had the weapons to make her want him back.

That process of self-persuasion was incredibly seductive. Throughout his life Zahir had very rarely done what he wanted to do, for the necessity of always considering the needs of others had taken precedence. But why shouldn’t he put his own desires first for once? He had already checked Sapphire’s schedule and she was due to leave Maraban within hours, an awareness that merely made him all the more single-minded. Zahir made his plans there and then with ruthless cool and the same kind of fierce, almost suicidal resolution that had once persuaded him to take a foreign wife without first asking his despotic father’s permission. As that reality and comparison briefly occurred to him he stubbornly suppressed the piercing shard of unease it awakened.

With a sense of merciful release from the strain of being on show, Saffy stepped into the site trailer to change. She shed the skimpy silk bandeau and slashed skirt and peeled off the fake navel jewel before donning white linen trousers and an aqua tee. In a couple of hours she would be on her way home and saying goodbye to the joys of Maraban couldn’t come quickly enough as far as she was concerned. After all, it was the last place in the world she would have chosen to visit, but civil unrest in a neighbouring country had led to a last-minute change of location and nobody had been willing to listen to her necessarily vague objections. But then the fact that nobody had a clue about her past connection to Maraban or Zahir was a relief. Thankfully that period of her life before fame had claimed her remained a deep dark secret.

So, in spite of all he had once had to say on the score of corrupt hereditary rulerships, Zahir had still ended up taking the throne to become a king. But then, according to what she had read in the newspapers, the citizens of Maraban had not had a clue what to do with the offer of democracy and had instead rallied round their popular hero prince, who had rebelled with the army against his old horror of a father to protect the people. There were pictures of Zahir everywhere: she had noticed one in the hotel foyer with a vase of flowers set beneath it rather like a little sacred shrine. Her lush mouth twisted as she questioned the thread of bitterness powering her thoughts. He was honourable, a big fan of justice and was very probably an excellent king, she conceded grudgingly. It really wasn’t fair to resent him for what he couldn’t have helped. Their marriage had been a disaster and even now her thoughts slid away from the memories with alacrity. He had broken her heart and dumped her when she failed to deliver and she wasn’t really sure that it was fair to hate him for that when by that stage she had been urging him to divorce her for months. Everyone made choices, everyone had to live with those choices and a happy ending wasn’t always included.

But she had a good life, she reminded herself doggedly as the security team cleared a path for her through the crush of spectators to the waiting limo that would whisk her back to the airport. She now had three glorious days of freedom to look forward to, and a tired sigh escaped her as she touched an admiring fingertip to the silky petal of an impossibly perfect blossom in the beautiful bouquet displayed in a vase inside the limo, while only vaguely wondering where the flowers had come from. When she got back to London, she would first catch up with her sisters, one who was pregnant, one who was desperate to conceive and one who was still at school. Her eldest sister, Kat, was thirty-six and considering fertility treatment while still being full of the newly married joys of her life with her Russian billionaire. After a sticky interview with her tough brother-in-law, Mikhail Saffy was a little less enamoured of her sibling’s blunt-spoken husband. Mikhail had demanded to know why Saffy hadn’t offered to help Kat when her sister had run into serious debt. Well, hello, Saffy thought back angrily—Kat had never told Saffy that she was in trouble and, even if she had, Saffy knew she would have found it a challenge to come up with that kind of cash at short notice. Having made a major commitment early in her career to help support an African school for AIDS orphans, Saffy lived comfortably but not in luxury.

Saffy’s twin, Emmie, was pregnant and Saffy had not been surprised to learn that Emmie didn’t have a supportive man by her side. Saffy was painfully aware that her twin did not forgive those who hurt or offended her and in all probability the father of Emmie’s child had made that mistake. Saffy knew better than anyone how inflexible her sibling could be because the relationship between the twins had long been tense and troubled. Indeed Saffy could never suppress the surge of the guilt that attacked her whenever she saw her sister. As young children she and Emmie had been very close but events during their troubled teen years had ripped them apart and the two young women had never managed to repair that breach. Saffy would never forget the injuries that her reckless behaviour had inflicted on her twin sister or the many years of suffering that Emmie had endured as a result. Some things were just too bad to be forgiven, Saffy acknowledged sadly.

In any case, Mikhail and Kat would undoubtedly assist Emmie in her struggles as a single mum—certainly, Saffy knew better than to offer assistance that would be richly resented. But she could not understand why Emmie had chosen to make a big secret of her baby’s paternity. Saffy winced at that thought. While it was true that Saffy had never told her sisters the humiliating truth about her own failed marriage, she felt that she had had good reasons for her silence, not the least of which was the embarrassing fact that she had totally ignored Kat’s plea that Saffy get to know Zahir better and for longer before she married him. Just common sense really, Saffy conceded wryly. Getting married at eighteen to a guy you had only known a couple of months and had never lived with had been an act of insanity. As immature and idealistic as most teenagers with little experience of independent life, Saffy had struggled from the outset with the role of being a wife in a different culture. And while she had struggled, Zahir had steadily grown more and more distant, not to mention his penchant for disappearing for weeks at a time on army manoeuvres just when she needed him most. Yes, she had made mistakes…but then so had he.

Satisfied with that appraisal, which approportioned equal blame for what had gone wrong in the past, Saffy emerged from her reverie and noticed in surprise that the limo was travelling down a wide empty road that strongly reminded her of an airport runway. As the route back to the airport entailed travelling through Maraban city, she frowned, gazing out in confusion at the emptiness of the desert surrounding her on all sides. Strewn with stones and occasional large volcanic rock formations, the bleak desert terrain was interrupted by little vegetation. And so pervasive was the march of the sand that it was steadily encroaching on the road, blurring its outlines.

Saffy had never warmed to Zahir’s natural preference for a lot of sand in his vicinity, had never learned to adjust to the extremes of heat or to admire the austerity of such a landscape. Where on earth were they going? Could the driver be taking another route to avoid the city traffic, such as it was? Her smooth brow creasing, she leant forward to rap the glass partition to attract the driver’s attention, but although she saw his eyes flicker in the rear-view mirror to glance in her direction he made no attempt to respond to her. While Saffy was annoyed at being ignored, his behaviour also awakened the first stirrings of genuine apprehension and Saffy rapped the glass harder and shouted for him to stop. What on earth was the stupid man playing at? She didn’t want to miss her flight home and she didn’t have time to waste.

As she withdrew her fingers from the glass her knuckle brushed against the flowers in the vase and for the first time she noticed the envelope attached to them. She snatched it up and ripped it open to extract a typed card.

It is with great pleasure that I invite you to enjoy my hospitality for the weekend.

What on earth? Saffy stared down at the unsigned card. Who was inviting her where and why? Was this why her uncommunicative driver was travelling in the wrong direction? Her even white teeth gritted in angry frustration. Had her lightly clad appearance at the shoot caught the eye of some local randy sheikh? Possibly even the guy in the sand dunes with the binoculars? What did he think she was? Dial-a-tart? No, no, no! Her blue eyes flashed like twin blue fires. No way was she sacrificing her one free weekend to pandering to the ego of yet another rich man, keen to assume that the very fact she made her living by her face and body meant that she was an easy lay available to the highest bidder! Desert Ice cosmetics was always willing to serve her up to VIPs as the face of its product and the somewhat racy reputation bestowed on her by the tabloids encouraged the wrong expectations and made rejecting amorous men even more of a challenge.

No way on earth was she spending her weekend with some man she hadn’t even met! She dug through her bag in search of her cell phone, intending to ring one of her colleagues for assistance, but she couldn’t find her phone and only finally accepted that it wasn’t there after she had tipped out the contents of her bag on the seat beside her. She had had her phone in her hand before she got changed, she recalled with a frown. She had set it down…and clearly she hadn’t picked it up again! She ground her teeth together and just for the sake of it attempted to open the door beside her. She wasn’t surprised to find it locked and it really didn’t matter, she conceded ruefully, for she had no intention of risking serious injury by throwing herself out of a moving car.

Conscious of the anxious glances the driver was now giving her in the mirror, she lifted her head high, her brain working double time. She might feel as if she were being kidnapped, but that was a most unlikely interpretation of her situation in a country as old-fashioned and law-abiding as Maraban. In addition, no Arab host would want an unwilling guest in his home. Indeed making a guest uncomfortable was a big no-no in Marabani culture, so once she politely explained that she had a prior engagement and apologised for being unavailable, she would be free to leave again…only by that time she might well have missed her flight home. Her lush mouth took on a downward curve.

Only minutes later, the limo came to a halt by the side of the road and with a click the door beside her opened. Saffy’s brow pleated as she climbed out and she thought about making a run for it. But a run for it to where? It was the hottest part of the day and she would burn to a crisp. In addition the road was still empty and they had travelled miles through unbroken desert. As she pondered the unavoidable fact that there was nowhere safe to run to, a large four-wheel-drive vehicle drew up at the other side of the road. The driver jumped out and opened the passenger door wide while regarding her expectantly. Clearly it was an arranged meeting for her to be transferred to another vehicle. Did she accept that? Or fight it…but fight it with what? She glanced back into the limo and studied the glass vase that held the flowers. It was the work of a moment to smash the vase against the built-in bar and retrieve a jagged piece of glass, which she cupped awkwardly in her hand because she didn’t want to tighten her fingers and cut herself on it. Straightening her slim shoulders, she crossed the road and climbed into the four-wheel-drive. The door slammed instantly behind her.

Was she in any true danger, she asked herself irritably, or was she at even greater risk of being swept along by an over-confident belief that somehow she was still in control of events? As soon as they arrived at their destination she would make it very clear that she wished to return to the airport immediately and if anyone dared to lay a single finger on her she would slash that person with the glass. Now was not the time to wish she had taken self-defence classes.

The vehicle moved off and performed a U-turn to pass directly in front of the limo and drive down a stony track that ran straight out into the desert. That change in direction took Saffy very much by surprise and she looked out of the windows in dismay at the giant looming sand dunes coming closer to tower all around them as the rough track streaked doggedly ahead. It was very bumpy and very hot because there seemed to be no air-conditioning in the car. Perspiration beading her brow, Saffy gripped the safety rail above her head and gritted her teeth, thinking that possibly she should have made a run for it while they were still on the highway. As the track inevitably vanished beneath the sand the powerful vehicle roared endlessly over the shallow mounds that had taken its place, forging a zigzagging path between the dunes. Finally, when every bone in her body felt as if it were rattling inside her skin, the vehicle began to climb up the steep side of a dune, the engine whining at the strain. At the top she peered out of the window and focused on the sole sign of civilisation within view: a stone fortress with tall walls and turrets that looked remarkably like an ancient crusader castle.

Oh, dear, she thought with a sinking heart, for it didn’t look as though it would offer the comforts of a five-star hotel and where else could they possibly be heading? And who in their right mind would invite her to such a remote place? Aside of a herd of goats there was nothing moving in the castle’s vicinity.

The car thundered down the slope towards the building and big black gates spread slowly open as they approached. Through the gates she glimpsed surprisingly lush greenery, a welcome sight to eyes strained by sand overload. The vehicle lurched to a halt and she breathed in slow and deep when she saw staff clustered round an arched entrance. Maybe it was a hotel; certainly it looked at least the equal of the one she had stayed at in the city. As Saffy stepped out heads bowed low and nobody looked directly at her and nobody spoke. Saffy was in no mood to speak anyway and she followed in the steps of the older man who shifted his hand to gain her attention. Her shoes clicked on a polished marble floor and the blessed coolness of air-conditioning chilled her hot damp skin but nothing could have prepared her for the awe-inspiring sight that met her eyes. The amazingly spectacular hall stretched into seeming infinity in front of her. Fashioned of gleaming white marble and studded with gilded pillars and ornate mirrors, it was as unexpected in its sheer opulence inside those ancient walls as snow in the desert. She blinked in bewilderment, gazing up to scan the heavily decorated ceiling far above, which rejoiced in a gloriously well executed mural of a sunny blue sky dotted with exotic flying birds. A few feet ahead her guide hovered to wait for her to move on again.

Her mouth tightening, Saffy walked on to descend a shallow flight of stone stairs and walk through tall gilded doors into a vast sunlit room, which, although draped in luxury fabrics, was traditionally furnished in Eastern style with low divans and beautiful rugs carefully arranged around a central fire pit where coffee could be made and served in the same way as it might have been in a tent. It was a statement that her prospective host respected the old ways from the far-off years when the Marabani had been nomadic tribesmen. She pushed the piece of glass into her bag.

‘Qu’est-ce que vous desirez, madame?’

Startled, Saffy turned her head to see a youthful maid eager to do her bidding, and well did she recall that sinking sensation at the familiar sound of the French language, which was more commonly spoken in Maraban than English. For a girl who had dismally failed her GCSE French exam, communicating in French had been a major challenge five years earlier.

Apportez des refraîchissements…bring refreshments,’ another voice interposed in fluent accented French as smooth as honey warmed by the sun. ‘And in future use English to speak to Miss Marshall,’ he advised.

Tiny hairs prickling eerily at the base of her skull, her eyes huge and her slim body trembling, Saffy stared in disbelief at the man in the doorway. In the corner of her eye the maid bent her head, muttered something that sounded terribly servile and backed swiftly out of the room through another exit.

‘Zahir…?’ Saffy framed in shaken disbelief.


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