The Sheikh's Prize

By: Lynne Graham

CHAPTER ONE



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.

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