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Hidden in the Sheikh's Harem: Christmas at the Castello

By:Michelle Conder

Hidden in the Sheikh's Harem: Christmas at the Castello
Michelle Conder

       CHAPTER ONE

PRINCE ZACHIM BAKR AL-DARKHAN tried not to slam the door as he left the  palace apartment his half-brother was using for his brief visit but it  wasn't easy. Nadir was being a cranky, stubborn hard-ass, refusing to  take his rightful place as the next King of Bakaan, which left Zach in  line for the job.

'Everything, all right, Highness?'

Damn; he was so preoccupied with what had just gone down he hadn't even  sensed the elderly servant he'd known all his life waiting in the  shadowed recess of the arched windows.

But, no, everything was not all right. Every day that passed without a  leader made their people more and more uneasy. His father had only been  dead for two weeks but already there were whispers of some of the more  insurgent tribes gathering for 'talks'.

Yeah, like the Al-Hajjar tribe. Once their families had been rival  dynasties, but two centuries ago the Darkhans had defeated the Hajjars  in a brutal war, creating resentments that still remained. But Zach knew  that the current leader of the tribe-Mohamed Hajjar-hated his father,  not only because of their history, but because he held his father  responsible for the death of his pregnant wife ten years ago. And  probably his father had been partly responsible because, Allah knew, he  had been responsible for the death of Nadir's mother for entirely  different reasons.

The fact was their father had been a miserly tyrant who'd ruled through  fear and had been ruthless when he didn't get his own way. As a result  Bakaan was stuck in the dark ages, both in its laws and infrastructure,  and it was going to be an enormous challenge to pull it into the  twenty-first century.

A challenge that his brother was better suited to take on than Zach.  And not just because Nadir was politically savvy with finely honed  boardroom instincts, but also because it was his rightful place as the  eldest son. With Nadir taking charge it would also free Zach up to do  what he did best-creating and managing change at street level where he  could do the most good.

Something he'd already started doing after his delicate mother had  begged him to come home five years ago when Bakaan had been on the brink  of civil war. The cause of the unrest had stemmed from a rogue  publication started by someone in one of the mountain tribes detailing  his father's failings and calling for change. There wasn't much in the  publication Zach could argue with, but he'd done his duty and settled  the unrest in his father's favour. Then, appalled at the state his  country was in, he'd set aside his Western lifestyle and stayed, working  behind the scenes to do what he could until his increasingly  narcissistic and paranoid father had either seen sense or died. Death  had come first and the only thing Zach felt was hollow inside. Hollow  for the man who had only ever seen him as the spare to the throne, and  not a very worthy one at that.

'Highness?'

'Sorry, Staph.' Zach shook off the memories he didn't want to delve  into and started striding towards his own private wing of the palace,  Staph quickstepping to keep pace with him. 'But, no, everything is not  all right. My brother is proving to be stubborn.'

'Ah, he does not wish to return to Bakaan?'

No, he did not. Zach knew Nadir had good reason for not wanting to, but  he also knew that his brother was born to be king, and that if Nadir  could get past the bitterness he felt for their father, he would want to  rule their small kingdom. Realising that Staph was having trouble  keeping pace with him, Zach slowed. 'He has some other considerations to  think of right now,' he hedged.

Like an infant daughter he hadn't known about and the mother he was set  on marrying. Now, there had been a revelation to shock the hell out of  Zach. Out of the two of them it was he who believed in love and  marriage, while Nadir thought the concept had been created by the masses  to counter boredom and a lack of productivity. Zach didn't believe  that. He knew that one day he'd have a family who he'd treat a lot  better than their old man had treated his.

In fact, he'd nearly proposed to a woman once; right before he'd been  called home. Amy Anderson had ticked all his boxes-sophisticated,  polished and blonde. Their courtship had gone smoothly and he still  didn't know what had made him pull back. Nadir had been no help at the  time, claiming that Zach had a tendency to choose women who were all  wrong for him so that he didn't have to make a commitment at all.

Zach bid Staph goodnight and strode into his apartment. As if he'd ever  take relationship advice from a confirmed bachelor. Or confirmed  ex-bachelor, so it seemed.

Shedding his clothes on the way to the shower, he doused himself in  steaming hot water before lying on his bed and willing himself to sleep.  He'd agreed to meet his brother the following lunchtime so that Nadir  could abdicate in front of the council but Zach was hoping he would see  sense way before then.                       
       
           



       

When a message pinged into his phone, he immediately reached for the  distraction and saw it was from a good friend he used to race superboats  with, Damian Masters:

Check email for party invite. Ibiza. Also, just relented and gave  Princess Barbie your private email address. Hope that's okay. D

Well, well, well. Zach wasn't one for all that 'signs and destiny'  rubbish but he'd just been thinking about Amy-or 'Princess Barbie' as  his friends had unhelpfully nicknamed her-and now here she was.

Clicking onto his email list, he found hers and opened it.

Hi Zach, Amy here.

Long time, no chat. I hear you're going to Damian's party in Ibiza. I  really hope to see you there. Catch up on old times perhaps??

Love Amy xxx

A wry smile crossed his face. If those question marks and kisses were  any indication she wanted to do more than "catch up" on old times. But  did he?

He laced his hands behind his head. He might not have thought of her  much over the last five years, but what did that matter? It would be  interesting to see her again and see how he felt. See if he still  thought she should be the mother of his future children.

Almost distractedly he sent a short reply indicating that if he went to  the party they would talk, but instead of feeling better he felt worse.

Sick of the thoughts batting back and forth inside his head and the  restlessness that had invaded his usually upbeat attitude, he gave up on  sleep, flung on jeans and a shirt, and headed out to the palace garage.  Once there he jumped into an SUV and waved his security detail off as  he turned the car towards the vast, silent desert beyond the city.  Before he even knew he was thinking about it, he turned the car off-road  and sped down one enormous sand dune after another, lit up in peaks and  shadows by the light of the full moon.

Feeling his agitated mood ebb away, he let out a primal roar and pressed the accelerator flat to the floor.

Two hours later he disgustedly tossed the empty jerry can into the back  of the car and swore profoundly. He hadn't realised how long he'd been  out or how far he'd come and now he was stranded in the desert without  any juice and no mobile phone reception.

No doubt his father would have put his impulsivity down to arrogance  and his cavalier attitude to life. Zach just put it down to stupidity.  He knew better than to head into the desert without a backup plan.

Hell.

Just then the soft whisper of movement had him turning as a dozen or so  horsemen appeared on the horizon. Dressed all in black, with their  faces covered by traditional keffiyehs to keep the sand out of their  mouths and noses, he couldn't tell if they were friend or foe.

When all twenty of them lined up in front of him and sat motionless without saying a word, he thought probably foe.

Slowly, he walked his gaze over the line up. Probably he could take ten  of them, given that he had a sword and a pistol with him. Probably he  should try diplomacy first.

'I don't suppose one of you gentlemen has a jerry can full of petrol strapped to one of those fine beasts, do you?'

The creak of a leather saddle brought his attention back to the  thickset stranger positioned at the centre of the group and who he had  already picked as the leader. 'You are Prince Zachim Al Darkhan, pride  of the desert and heir to the throne, are you not?'

Well, his father would probably argue with the antiquated 'pride of the  desert' title, and he wasn't the direct heir, but he didn't think now  was the time to quibble over semantics. And he already knew from his  tone that the stranger with eyes of black onyx had figured out who he  was. 'I am.'

'Well, this is fortuitous,' the old man declared and Zach could hear  the smile in his voice even if he couldn't see it behind the dark cloth.

The wind picked up slightly but the night remained beautifully clear,  full of stars and that big old moon that had beckoned him to leave the  palace and burn up some of his frustrated energy on one of his favourite  pastimes.

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