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The Sheikh's Bargain Bride (Desert Kings)

By:Diana Fraser

CHAPTER ONE


Sheikh Zahir al-Zaman narrowed his eyes against the glare of the  sun-bleached stony plains and focussed on the slowly materializing dark  speck. Within minutes the helicopter's low rhythmic thrum filled the  overcast spring sky like an angry locust intent on devastation.

She hadn't wasted any time. But then he'd made sure she couldn't refuse  his invitation. He banished a flicker of discomfort with practiced ease.  Sometimes you had to lure the prey to you. Sometimes, in a way that  wasn't palatable.

But the ends always justified the means. She would be his and he was prepared to do whatever it took to make it happen.

He watched the helicopter alight in a cloud of dust before the palace.  The pilot lifted out a small case and began to open the door before it  was pushed open abruptly from within and two long, jean-clad legs  emerged. A tall blonde jumped down and looked around the palace, her  head twisting and turning impatiently.

She'd changed. She was thinner, her hair longer, her face no longer  sun-kissed but as pale as the desert under moonlight. Still, his body  responded the same to her now, as it did when she visited him in his  dreams.

He'd lived with his obsession with her for four long years: cursing and  nurturing the anger at her deceit and betrayal while still longing to  relive the passion of their one night together. But his brother's death  meant he no longer had to live with the madness.

Then, with an imperceptible movement of her head, she looked up and  caught his gaze. Zahir frowned and his breath caught unexpectedly in his  chest. Ice blue eyes stared at him, challenging him, demanding an  explanation from him. How could eyes so cool and northern spark such  fire? She turned away suddenly and slid the door of the helicopter shut  with a force that belied her fragility. The metallic crash echoed around  the palace, destroying its peace and order.

He'd get what he wanted but he knew, without a doubt, that it wasn't going to be easy.





"You are to wait here. The sheikh is busy at present but he will see you when he is free."

"No way!" Anna threw down her bag onto the nearest chair. "I don't care  if he's with the President of the United States. Tell him I'm here and  tell him I will see him immediately."

The Bedu servant simply nodded and withdrew from the room.

Anna strode across the vast, stone-flagged reception hall, threw open  the wooden shutters of the nearest window and looked out, searching for  any signs of her son in the tiled courtyard below. There were none.

She turned her gaze up to the lofty ceiling, its ornately carved pillars  and beams shrouded in shadows, and tried to hold back the despair and  grief that filled her.

Zahir, you bastard, where's my son?

He knew she'd arrived. She'd seen him watching her from above. She had a  sixth sense where he was concerned, where anyone was concerned if they  threatened her liberty.

She raked her hair back into a fresh ponytail and smoothed down her  shirt. As much to give her trembling hands something to do as to prepare  herself for the meeting.

But her hands continued to shake as her body readied itself for a  confrontation. She sat down in the nearest chair and gathered her anger  to her. It had been anger that had stopped the grief from taking over.  And she needed it now.

A month without her son and now so near but still she couldn't get to  him. She could scream with frustration and something else that she tried  to ignore. It made her skin prickle, it made her feel sick to her  stomach. She dropped her head in her hands and took a deep breath in  order to control it. But despite her best efforts it would not be  beaten. Fear was like that.

The smooth slide of soft leather sandals alerted her to the return of  the servant. She looked up into the weathered face of the old Bedu  expectantly.

"This way madam."

Her booted footsteps rang loudly on the ancient stone corridors, worn  smooth by the footsteps of generations of the al-Zaman dynasty. They  walked for what seemed like an age through beautifully proportioned  rooms that unfolded one on to another, down echoing colonnaded walkways  that skirted magnificent gardens, past perfumed courtyards and  mysterious corridors that seemed to disappear directly into the rocky  hillside upon which the palace was built.

At last the Bedu servant opened a heavy set of dark teak doors.

"You may wait here."

She stepped into the room and looked around, awed despite herself.

The room was obviously part of the less formal wing of the palace. While  it bore the same marks of antiquity as the grand reception hall, it  possessed none of its austerity. Here, light from high clerestory  windows warmed the sandstone rock and imbued the amber and creams of the  tiled wall with a magical glow. She could hear the splash of a fountain  coming from the courtyard beyond the open windows and she could smell  sweet jasmine.         

     



 

It was furnished for comfort too, with simple, over-sized suede sofas in  neutral tones grouped around a huge wooden table, glowing with a patina  created from years of care.

She sat down wearily and looked around. It was a room designed to appeal to the senses: a seductive room. God help her.

She dropped her bag and her hand instinctively caressed the geometric  inlay that edged the wooden table. It was smooth, worn by generations of  hands, seeking to engage with its beauty. But even as her fingers  sought the same engagement, her eyes searched the shadows.

A cool breeze alerted her to a door opening on the far side of the room, behind a wooden screen.

She didn't see him at first but she knew he was there. Just the feel of  his powerful presence close to her kick-started something deep inside  that had lain dormant since she'd seen him last. Her heart hammered  against her chest and she could feel heat rise through her body that had  nothing to do with the warmth of the spring afternoon.

Then he emerged, all dark and light. There had never been any half  measures with Zahir-physically, intellectually or emotionally. It had  been a part of the initial attraction to be with someone so definite, so  sure. Now, the white of his robes accentuated the rich nutmeg of his  skin and the shadows that gathered below the strong lines of his face.  His eyes, too, seemed to absorb the light. They held no subtlety of  expression or color, only intensity.

She felt that intensity connect with her at an elemental level, just as  it had when they met nearly four years ago. It was the same as before  except for the quiet rage that she could sense within him and except for  the fact that she was a mother now with more to lose than herself.

Then he moved forward into the light and the impression evaporated. He  was the powerful, charismatic sheikh still, but civilized. While a smile  curled at his lips, his eyes showed reserve, distance.

"Salamm w aleykum Anna." He nodded to her in greeting. "How was your journey? I hope my staff were attentive?"

She jumped up. "Where is he?"

"Surely that is no way to greet your brother-in-law? Not in my country, nor yours, I believe."

"It's the way we treat people-family or not-who are trying to take their child away from them."

"I agree, such circumstances don't warrant the usual courtesies. However, I am old-fashioned in such things."

"Spare me the lecture in manners and tell me where I can find my son. We'll be leaving on the next plane out."

"Please sit. I have ordered you mint tea. Is that satisfactory?"

"Where is he?"

He smiled and sat down.

"Anna. I am being polite. I am asking questions that you should, in  turn, answer politely. Didn't your mother-? No. Of course not. With your  upbringing I doubt you were taught anything other than how to find  yourself a man. Preferably a wealthy one." His eyes glittered. "And you  managed that well didn't you? Managed to dupe my romantic brother so  easily."

"Stop right there. I haven't travelled nearly seven thousand miles to  pretend we're on polite terms. I want my son. God knows how much money  it took for you to get the court to rule that he come here for a  holiday. And how much more to keep him here." She pushed her fingers  through her tightly-bound hair. "Where is he?"

He sat back and looked her slowly up and down, from the scuffed toes of  her boots to the hair that hadn't seen a hair-cut in more than a year.  Well, what of it? She stood straight and eyed him directly. She had no  money. He'd made sure of that by tying up her husband's money in trust  funds for her son. She didn't care except that she'd been unable to come  to him until now, until Zahir had sent his jet for her.

At the thought of her son she could feel tears prick her eyelids and the  maelstrom of emotions that churned in her heart threaten to destroy the  cool of her composure. But still she determinedly held his gaze. He  would tell her where to find her son and she would not weaken.

"Anna." It was his gentle tone that did it. She felt the pain crack  through the anger that was her shield. She turned away but not before  she saw the reaction to her anguish revealed in his face.

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