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Грэхем Линн

Zarif's Convenient Queen

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‘NO,’ ELLA TOLD her brother with quiet determination. ‘If you want to ask Zarif anything, you go and see him.’

‘And what use is that going to be? For goodness’ sake, you’re marrying the guy!’ Jason reminded her angrily. ‘Obviously you’ve got more sway with him than anyone else. Mum and Dad are over the moon and everything in everybody’s garden but mine is coming up roses. What about me?’

Ella studiously averted her gaze from her sibling’s furious face. Over the past three weeks everything had changed within the family circle. Once her father had heard his daughter’s news, he had made a steady recovery and had gratefully accepted Zarif’s contention that he could hardly let his future wife’s family either go bankrupt or lose their home. Zarif’s business manager, Yaman, had booked into a local hotel and the two men had worked out a viable rescue plan for the ailing firm. But right from that first day, all financial assistance on offer had been subject to the assurance that Jason would resign from the partnership and that her father would promise not to hire him again in any capacity. Gerald Gilchrist had duly given those guarantees and Jason had now officially left the firm. Her father had also insisted that Zarif’s aid be given in the form of a loan, which he intended to start repaying as soon as he could.

‘I’m sorry, Jason,’ Ella breathed uncomfortably. ‘Zarif isn’t a forgiving person.’

‘I’m out of a job and Dad thinks it would be easier all round if I move out of this house before your bloody ridiculous wedding!’ Jason snapped out resentfully. ‘What am I supposed to do?’

‘Look for a career that suits you. Something that isn’t financially orientated,’ Ella suggested ruefully.

Her brother stomped off. Ella’s mother, Jennifer, emerged from the kitchen and winced at the slam of a door overhead. ‘Thank you for taking the heat off me and your father. I don’t have the patience to listen to Jason’s bitter rants right now and I don’t want him making your father feel guilty again,’ she confided.

The older woman had lost weight since her heart attack, which was hardly surprising if one considered her mother’s new walking regime and healthier diet, Ella acknowledged fondly, relieved and proud of the way her mother had adapted to the challenge of changing her lifestyle.

‘I’m so looking forward to the wedding,’ Jennifer admitted happily. ‘It’s wonderful to have something to smile about again.’

And that was her parents’ attitude to her nuptials in a nutshell, Ella conceded wryly. They thought it was wonderful news that she was marrying Zarif. She had lied to them and they hadn’t suspected a thing was amiss. She had told them that she had turned down Zarif’s first proposal because she didn’t feel up to the challenge of the public role he was offering her and they had completely understood and accepted that explanation. In the same way it had been quite easy to persuade the older couple that once Zarif and their daughter had met again, they had recognised that their feelings were unchanged and had reconciled while deciding to waste no further time in getting married.

Ella’s personal feelings were exactly that: strictly personal. Jason, of course, who thought everybody thought the way he did, assumed she was marrying Zarif for his money. And, of course, in a twisted way, she was marrying him for his money, Ella acknowledged shamefacedly. Marriage was the price of protecting her parents from a nasty wake-up call at an age when they no longer had the time and strength to deal with such a colossal challenge. Ella was, however, willing and able to pay that price for the mother and father who had surrounded her with love from the day of her birth. As a boy, Jason might have been the favourite but Ella had never been short-changed when it came to parental care and attention.

The phone rang and her mother, still mistily smiling at the prospect of her daughter’s wedding, which was only three days away, answered it. ‘The wedding planner,’ she said, passing the receiver straight over to Ella.

Ella breathed in deep. Zarif had instructed his aide, Hamid, to put all the wedding arrangements in the hands of a top-flight professional, able to work to a very tight schedule and stage the wedding within weeks. A fixed smile tightening her tense lips, Ella listened to the planner’s dilemma on whether the napkins should be purple or plum in colour before admitting that she didn’t care which colour was chosen.

‘You’re the most easy-going bride I’ve ever worked for,’ the planner told her and not for the first time.

No, Ella was simply an unwilling bride, who, while prepared to play along with appearances for the sake of her parents, refused to pretend otherwise when it came to all the bridal decisions. A woman in love would want everything perfect and would have her own ideas. But Ella was not in love and no longer the dreaming romantic girl she had been at the age of twenty-one when she had fantasised about walking down the aisle clad in blinding white to greet Zarif.

She had taken the phone into the drawing room, which her parents only used when they entertained. As she hovered there she remembered her twenty-first birthday and the night when Zarif had first deigned to notice that she was alive and female. To her surprise, he had come to her party and he had given her a very pretty contemporary silver necklace and matching bracelet. Her heart had been hammering fit to burst while he stood there chatting to her and when he had invited her out for a meal the following evening, virtually announcing his new interest in her, it had been like her every dream coming true at once.

It was ironic, she had often thought, that Azel had been Zarif’s first love and that Zarif had then become Ella’s. Nobody knew better than Ella how desperately hard it was to shake free of the trappings of adolescent fantasy. Zarif had first come into her life when she was only seventeen and she had taken one dazed look at him and fallen like a ton of bricks.

At that time, he had given her not the smallest encouragement. His eyes hadn’t lingered on her, he hadn’t flirted with her and he had never been alone with her but Ella had still lived for the weekends that Jason brought Zarif home with him. The boys her own age who paid attention to her had seemed like immature kids in comparison to Zarif, who had spent five years in his country’s army as a soldier before he came to the UK to study for a physics degree. His spectacular good looks, wonderful manners and exotic background had enthralled her.

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