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Sand, sand and more sand.
Her father couldn't have sent her to a more remote place if he'd put her in a rocket and sent her to the moon. And if that had been possible, no doubt he would have signed the cheque, Bella thought bitterly as she curled her bare toes into the coarse sand of the desert and stared across the stark landscape. Come to think of it, this might as well be the moon. Or maybe Mars. The red planet.
Why a retreat in the middle of the desert?
Why not a nice spa on Fifth Avenue?
Hearing her name, Bella gave a moan of despair. Already? It was barely daylight.
Reluctantly, she turned. None of this was hisfault, she reminded herself. It wasn't fair to take her anger and frustration out on him. 'Early start, Atif?'
He was dressed simply in a white robe, the fabric glaring under the beginnings of the Arabian sun. 'I meditate before dawn.'
Bella suppressed a yawn. 'Personally I prefer to start my day with a strong black coffee.'
'You can find a better start to the day by feasting on what lies around you,' the old man murmured. 'There's nothing as calming as watching the sunrise in the desert. Don't you find the peace soothing?'
'Honestly? It's driving me stark-staring nuts.' Without thinking, Bella reached for her phone and then remembered that it had been confiscated, along with everything else that she needed to communicate with the outside world. She tapped her empty palm impatiently against her thigh and then looked down at her fingernails with distaste. Given the choice between a coffee and a manicure, she would have opted for the manicure. 'Do you actually own this place?'
'I am merely passing through. When I am ready, I will move on.'
'I would have moved on after two minutes given the chance! I've been here for two weeks and it feels like a life sentence.'
How could her father do this to her? Thanks to him, she'd been cut off from everyone. Left alone at a time when she desperately needed human comfort.
The shocking discovery she'd made only two weeks earlier had left her numb and emotionally drained. The person she'd been before that night had gone forever. So had the naive assumptions she'd nurtured throughout her life.
Regret tore through her You shouldn't have looked, Bella.
Like Pandora, she'd lifted the lid of the box and now she was paying the price.
'You allow emotion to grip you the way a falcon grips its prey.' Atif watched her with the same tranquil expression he adopted during their sessions together. 'You are angry, but your father sent you here for your own benefit.'
'He sent me here as a punishment because I embarrassed him.' Bella wrapped her arms around herself and wondered how she could feel cold in such a hot, oppressive place. 'I've embarrassed the whole family. Brought the Balfour name into disrepute. Again.' But no one had considered what the whole sordid incident had done to her. And the fact that no one had considered her feelings simply increased her sense of abandon ment.
Remembering everything that had happened on the night of the Balfour Ball, Bella felt a lump build in her throat. She wanted to know how her sister Olivia was feeling about the whole thingshe wanted to make amends.
Her behaviour had been badshe knew that. But she'd been goaded. Upset. And Olivia had said things too
'Can I have my phone back just to send one text?' Suddenly it seemed desperately important that she contact her twin. 'Or could I use your computer? I haven't checked my emails for two weeks.'
'That isn't possible, Bella.'
'I'm going mad, Atif! Sand and silence are a lousy combination.' She glanced around her desperately and her attention focused on a cluster of low whitewashed buildings she'd noticed earlier in the week. 'How about those stables over therecan I at least go for a ride or something? Just for an hour.'
'They are nothing to do with the Retreat. The stables are privately owned.'
'Strange place to keep horses.' Bella studied the guards standing by the entrance. Why would a stable need guards? 'Well, if I can't borrow a horse could I at least have my iPod? I find it easier to relax to music.'
'Silence is golden.'
'Around here, everything is golden.' Simmering with frustration, Bella looked at the shifting sands and an idea took shape in her mindan outrageous, daring idea. 'That city we passed through on the way here, tell me about it.'
'Al-Rafid is a sheikhdom, famous for its rich, cultural heritage.'
'Is there oil?' She forced herself to make casual conversation but all she really wanted to ask was, How long will it take me to get there and do they have high-speed broadband?
'Huge reserves of oil, but the ruling Sheikh is an astute businessman. He has turned what was once an ancient desert city into an international centre for commerce. The buildings on the waterfront are as modern as anything you would find in Manhattan or Canary Wharf, but only a few streets away is the old city with many wonderful examples of Persian architecture. Al-Rafid Palace is the most breathtaking of all, but it is rarely opened to the public because it is home to Sheikh Zafiq and his family.'
'Lucky him, living in a city. He obviously hates the sand too.'
'On the contrary, Sheikh Zafiq loves the desert, but he is a fiercely bright, educated man who has successfully incorporated progressive business thinking into the running of a very traditional country. But he has never forgotten his roots. For one week every year, he allows himself time alone in the desert. Time for reflection. He is a powerful mansome would say ruthlessbut he is also a man deeply aware of his responsibilities.'
Wasn't that the last word her father had said to her before he'd sent her into exile? Bella squirmed uncomfortably, trying to ease the sharp prick of her conscience. 'So this sheikh. Is he married with eight wives and a hundred children?'
'His Highness has not yet chosen a wife. His family background is complicated.'
'I bet it's a picnic compared to mine.'
'Sheikh Zafiq's mother was a princess, much loved by everyone. Unfortunately she died when he was a baby.'
'She died?' Bella felt as though she'd been thumped in the chest. Like her, he'd lost his mother as a child. She felt compelled to find out more about the powerful, ruthless Sheikh, forgetting that her original obj ective had been simply to discover the distance to civilisation. 'Did his father marry again?'
'Yes, but tragically both his father and stepmother were killed in an accident when His Highness was just a teenager.'
So he'd lost two mothers.
Bella watched as the rising sun set fire to the dunes, changing the colours from dull red to bright gold. She felt a strange affinity with the mysterious Sheikh. He was out there somewhere across the bleak, featureless mountains of sand. Did he think about the mother he'd never known? Had he discovered things about her that would have been better left a secret?
Was his mind as much of a mess as hers?
Bella dug her hands into the pockets of her cotton trousers and reminded herself that regret was pointless. The past couldn't be undone. In all the hours of enforced meditation there was one topic on which she'd refused to allow herself to dwell.
Later. Later, she'd have to think about it but for now it was all too raw.
'So this Sheikh guy' she pushed her hair out of her eyes, grimacing at the texture and indulging in a brief fantasy about deep conditioning and a blow dry 'he must have been pretty young to take over the running of a country.'
'Just eighteen. But he was bred to rule.'
'Poor guy. Must have had a pretty grim childhood. But all that oil must mean he's rich. So why hasn't he married? I suppose he's old and ugly and can't even buy himself a wife.'
'His Highness is in his early thirties and is considered extremely handsome by those better qualified to comment on these things than me.'
'So what's wrong with him, then?' Bella eyed the lizard that scuttled across the sand in front of her.
'At some point he will marry someone suitable, but I understand that he is in no hurry.'
'And who can blame him? Marriage can be a nightmare. My father has done it three times. He's a devotee of the saying, "If at first you don't succeedtry, try and try again." You have to admire his perseverance. As a spectator sport it's quite gripping.'
'Your father has had three marriages?'
'You'd think he'd be good at it by now, wouldn't you?' Bella brushed sand from her bare arms, wondering whether it counted as exfoliation. 'He's had enough practise.'
'You have to let the anger go, Bella. You're too passionate.'
'That's me.' She kept her tone careless. 'Too passionate. Too everything. Try having siblings, half-siblings, three mothers and a father like mine and you might understand why I don't have your sense of calm. Nothing winds you up like family. Except maybe having your laptop, your phone and your iPod removed at the same time.'
'It is when life is at its most demanding that we must seek inner peace. Your own ability for quiet reflection can be an oasis in the storm of life.'
'I wouldn't say no to a few days by an oasis,' Bella said absently, unsettled by the effect his words had on her. The truth was she envied his sense of calm. She wanted that, but had no idea how to achieve it. 'Palm trees, water to bathe in. I have no problem with sand, providing I'm staring down at it from my sun lounger with a Margarita in my hand.'
He bowed his head. 'I'll leave you to reflect, Bella. And see you at nine for yoga.'
'Yoga. Yippee. The excitement might just kill me.' Bella's expression was deadpan and she watched him stroll back towards the tents but inside she was boiling with emotion.
No more meditation. No more desert.
She was going to find the keys to a Jeep and get out of here even if it meant tying someone up in their tent.
She was about to return to the Retreat and go on the hunt for transport when she noticed that the guards had disappeared from the entrance to the stables. Bella's eyes narrowed and her mind raced ahead as she adjusted her plans. No one knew her in the stables, did they? If she walked with enough confidence they might even think she worked there.
Indulging in a brief fantasy about fleeing across the desert in a horsebox, she slid past a sign that said "Strictly No Admittance" and walked down a sandy path that led to a stable block. A fountain bubbled in the centre of the deserted courtyard and only now could Bella see that the stables were both sophisticated and extensive.
'Whoever owns this place must be seriously loaded.' She sneaked a look over her shoulder to see if anyone had noticed her. But the stables appeared deserted. No guards. No one.
Strange, Bella thought, glancing around her. Where was everyone?
She knew from experience that stables were busy places. A horse stuck its head over the door of the stable and whickered at her.
Bella walked across to him. 'At least someone lives here. Hello, beautiful,' she crooned, rubbing her hand over the mare's silky neck. 'How's your morning so far? Done any meditation? Knotted any of your legs into a lotus? Sipped any herbal tea?'
The horse blew gently against her neck and Bella suddenly felt better than she had for weeks.
'Want to come and sleep in my tent?' She kissed the animal on the nose, fussing and gentling the mare, the familiar scent of hay and horse calming her in a way that no amount of meditation had achieved. Peering over the stable door, she took in the quality of the horse. 'You really are a beauty. Pure-bred Arab. Why would anyone keep a horse as special as you hidden away out here?'
The horse nudged her hard and Bella almost lost her balance.
'You're fed up with being trapped in the stable, aren't you? I know the feeling. Where is everyone? Why are you on your own here?'
The place was eerily deserted and Bella looked around uneasily, trying to shake the feeling that something was very, very wrongthat something bad was about to happen.
'Oh, for crying out loud' Cross with herself, she turned back to the horse. 'I've been living in boredomville for so long I'm imagining things. If there's one thing I've learned in the past two weeks it's that nothing ever happens out here.'
The horse moved restlessly in its box and Bella murmured to the animal sympathetically, sharing that restlessness. She had a desperate longing to spring onto her back and just ride and ride until her thoughts were far behind.
And why not? Why take a Jeep when she could ride to the city?
It couldn't be that far. She could remember the way. Vaguely. Once there she could arrange for the horse to be returned with her compliments.
Hopefully Atif would be so angry he'd refuse to have her back.
I'll be banned, Bella thought happily, sliding the bolt on the stable door and letting herself inside. Bad Bella. 'People always think the worst of me and I'd hate to disappoint them. Poor Atif is going to need to delve deep to discover his inner peace,' she told the mare as she swiftly untied her. 'I'm about to put his karma through significant turbulence. He'd better fasten his seat belt.'
'If you wish to spend a week alone in the desert, then at least allow your guards to accompany you, Zafiq.'
'If I allowed the guards to accompany me, then I would no longer be alone,' Zafiq pointed out drily. 'This is the one week of my life when I am allowed to be a man and not a ruler. I place you in sole charge, Rachid.'
His young brother paled, clearly daunted by the responsibility. 'You don't think you should postpone your trip? The oil negotiations have reached a crucial stage. They are expecting you to come back with a lower offer.'
'Then they will be disappointed.'
'You are seriously going to walk away at the peak of negotiations? It's the worst time.'
Zafiq gave a cool smile. 'On the contrary, it's the best time, Rachid.'
'What if they go elsewhere?' 'They won't.'
'But how can you be so sure? How do you know? How do you always know the right thing to do?' As they walked towards the stables, his brother cast him an envious glance. 'I wish I could be as inscrutable as you. You never reveal your emotions.'
Hearing the angry squeal of a stallion, Zafiq walked purposefully in the direction of the commotion. 'The same cannot be said for my horse, who seems to be revealing his emotions unhindered.'
'Everyone in the stables is terrified of him.'