The sheikh's chosen wife

By: Michelle Reid
CHAPTER ONE

Dressed to go riding, in knee-length black leather boots, buff pants, a white shirt and a white gutrah held to his dark head by a plain black agal, Sheikh Hassan ben Khalifa Al-Qadim stepped into his private office and closed the door behind him. In his hand he held a newly delivered letter from England. On his desk lay three more. Walking across the room, he tossed the new letter onto the top of the other three then went to stand by the griued window, fixing his eyes on a spot beyond the Al-Qadim Oasis, where reclaimed dry scrubland had been turned into miles of lush green fig groves.

Beyond the figs rose the sand-dunes. Majestic and proud, they claimed the horizon with a warning statement. Come any closer with your irrigation and expect retaliation, they said. One serious sandstorm, and years of hard labour could be turned back into arid wasteland.

A sigh eased itself from his body. Hassan knew all about the laws of the desert. He respected its power and its driving passion, its right to be master of its own destiny. And what he would really have liked to do at this very moment was to saddle up his horse, Zandor, then take off for those sand-dunes and allow them to dictate his future for him.

But he knew the idea was pure fantasy. For behind him lay four letters, all of which demanded he make those decisions for himself. And beyond the relative sanctuary of the four walls surrounding him lay a palace in waiting; his father, his half-brother, plus a thousand and one other people, all of whom believed they owned a piece of his so-called destiny.

So Zandor would have to stay in his stable. His beloved sand-dunes would have to wait a while to swallow him up. Making a half-turn, he stared grimly at the letters. Only one had been opened: the first one, which he had tossed aside with the contempt it had deserved. Since then he had left the others sealed on his desk and had tried very hard to ignore.

But the time for burying his head in the sand was over.

A knock on the door diverted his attention. It would be his most trusted aide, Faysal. Hassan recognised the lightness of the knock. Sure enough the door opened and a short, fine-boned man wearing the traditional white and pale blue robes of their Arabian birthright appeared in its arched aperture, where he paused and bowed his head, waiting to be invited in or told to go.

'Come in, Faysal,' Hassan instructed a trifle impatiently. Sometimes Faysal's rigid adherence to so-called protocol set his teeth on edge.

With another deferential bow, Faysal moved to his master's bidding. Stepping into the room, he closed the door behind him then used some rarely utilised initiative by walking across the room to come to a halt several feet from the desk on the priceless carpet that covered, in part, the expanse of polished blue marble between the desk and the door.

Hassan found himself staring at the carpet. His wife had ordered it to be placed there, claiming the room's spartan appearance invited no one to cross its austere threshold. The fact that this was supposed to be the whole point had made absolutely no difference to Leona. She had simply carried on regardless, bringing many items into the room besides the carpet. Such as the pictures now adorning the walls and the beautiful ceramics and sculptures scattered around, all of which had been produced by gifted artists native to the small Gulf state of Rahman. Hassan had soon found he could no longer lift his eyes without having them settle on an example of local enterprise.

Yet it was towards the only western pieces Leona had brought into the room that his eyes now drifted. The low table and two overstuffed easy chairs had been placed by the other window, where she would insist on making him sit with her several times a day to enjoy the view while they drank tea and talked and touched occasionally as lovers do.

Dragging the gutrah from his head with almost angry fingers Hassan tossed it aside then went to sit down in the chair behind his desk. 'Okay,' he said. 'What have you to tell me?"

'It is not good news, sir.' Faysal began with a warning. 'Sheikh Abdul is entertaining certain...factions at his summer palace. Our man on the inside confirms that the tone of their conversation warrants your most urgent attention.'

Hassan made no comment, but his expression hardened fractionally. 'And my wife?' he asked next.

'The Sheikha still resides in Spain, sir,' Faysal informed him, 'working with her father at the new resort of San Esteban, overseeing the furnishing of several villas about to be released for sale.'

Doing what she did best, Hassan thought grimly—and did not need to glance back at the two stuffed chairs to conjure up a vision of long silken hair the colour of a desert sunset, framing a porcelain smooth face with laughing green eyes and a smile that dared him to complain about her invasion of his private space. 'Trust me,' he could hear her say. 'It is my job to give great empty spaces a little soul and their own heartbeat.'

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