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Sheikh Zafar Nejem scanned the encampment, the sun burning what little of his skin was revealed. He was as covered as he could possibly be, both to avoid the harsh elements of the desert, and to avoid being recognized.
Though, for most, the odds of that would be low out here, hundreds of miles from any city. But this was his home. Where he'd been raised. The place where he'd made his name as the most fearsome man in Al Sabah.
And considering his competition for the position, there was weight to the title.
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary here. Cooking fires were smoldering, and he could hear voices in the tents. He stopped for a moment. This was no family encampment, but that of a band of highway men. Thieves. Outlaws, not unlike himself. He knew these men, and they knew him. He had a tentative truce with them, but that didn't mean he was ready to show himself.
It didn't mean he trusted them. He trusted no one.
Especially not now.
Not now that there was certain to be unrest. Anger, backlash over his installation in the palace. On the throne. Back to his rightful position.
The Gypsy Sheikh's return had not been met with delight, at least not in the more "civilized" corners of the country. His uncle had done far too efficient a job in destroying his reputation for anyone to be pleased at his coronation.
If only he could dispel the rumors surrounding his exile. But he could not.
Because they were true.
But here, among the people who felt like his ownamong the people who had suffered most at his uncle's handthere was happiness here at least. They knew that whatever his sins, he had been working to atone.
Zafar looked out toward the horizon, all flat and barren from this point to Bihar. There was one more place to stop and seek shelter, but it was another five hours' ride, and he didn't relish the idea of more time spent in the saddle today.
He dismounted his horse and patted the animal, dust rising from his black coat. "I think we'll take our chances here," he said, leading him to a makeshift corral, where other horses were hemmed in, and opened the gate.
He closed it, making sure it was secure before walking back toward the main tent.
One of the men was already coming out to greet him.
"Sheikh," he said, inclining his head. "A surprise."
"Is it? You had to know I was heading back to Bihar." A growing suspicion. The desert was vast and it seemed strange to intersect with Jamal's band of thugs at this particular moment.
"I may have heard something about it. But there is more than one road to the capital city."
"So you had no desire for a meeting with me?"
The other man smiled, dark eyes glinting in the golden light. "I didn't say that. We were hoping to run into you. Or, at least, someone of your means."
"My means are still limited. I haven't yet been back to Bihar."
"And yet, you do find ways to acquire what you need."
Zafar looked the man over. "As do you. Will you invite me in?"
Zafar knew something wasn't right. His truce with Jamal and his men was tentative. It was probably why they wanted to see him. He was in a position to put a stop to what they did out here in the desert, and he knew the places they liked to hit.
They weren't dangerous men; at least, they weren't entirely without conscience. And so they were on the bottom of a long list of concerns, but, as was human nature, they clearly believed themselves more important in his world than they were.
"Then have you gifts to offer me in place of hospitality?" Zafar asked dryly, a reference to common custom out in the desert.
"Hospitality will come," Jamal said. "And while we don't have gifts, we do have some items you might take an interest in."
"The horses in the corral?"
"Most are for sale."
"Them, as well."
"What use have I for camels? I imagine there is an entire menagerie of them waiting for me in Bihar. Cars, as well." It had been a long time since he'd ridden in a car. Utterly impractical for his lifestyle. They were a near-foreign thought now, as were most other modern conveniences.
The other man smiled, his teeth brilliantly white against his dark beard. "I have something better. An offer we hope might appease you."
"Not a gift, though."
"Items this rare and precious cannot be given away, your highness."
"Perhaps you should allow me to be the judge of that."
Jamal turned and shouted toward the tent and Zafar watched as two men emerged, holding a small, blonde woman between them. She looked up at him, pale eyes wide, red rimmed. She wasn't dirty, neither did she look like she'd been handled too roughly. She wasn't attempting an escape, either, but given their location there would be no point. She would have nowhere to go.
"You have brought me a woman?"
"A potential bride, perhaps? Or just a plaything."
"When have I ever given the indication that I'm the sort of man who buys women?"
"You seem like the sort of man who would not leave a woman in the middle of the desert."
"And you would?" he asked.
"In no uncertain terms, Your Highness."
"Why should I care about one Western woman? I have a country to consider."
"You will buy her, I think. And for our asking price."
Zafar shrugged and turned away. "Ransom her. I'm sure her loved ones will pay much more than I am willing or able to."
"I would ransom her, but it is not my intention to start a war."
Zafar stopped and turned, his muscles locked tight, his heart pounding hard. "What?"
"A war, Sheikh. It is not in my best interest to start one. I don't want those Shakari bastards all over my desert."
Shakar was the closest neighboring country to Al Sabah and relations between the two nations were at a breaking point, thanks to Zafar's uncle. "What does Shakar have to do with this woman? She's Western, clearly."
"Yes. Clearly. She is also, if we believe her ranting from when we first took her, American heiress Analise Christensen. I imagine you have heard the name. She is betrothed to the Sheikh of Shakar."
Yes, he had heard the name. He was largely cut off from matters of State but he still heard things. He made sure he did. And clearly, Jamal made certain he heard things, as well. "And how is it I play into this? What is it you want with her?" he spat.
"We can start a war here, or end one, the choice is yours. Also, with the wrong words in the right ear, even if you take her, but threaten us? We can put you in a very bad position. How is it you ended up with her? The future bride of a man rumored to be the enemy of Al Sabah? Your hands are bound, Zafar."
In truth, he would never have considered leaving the woman here with them, but what they were suggesting was blackmail, and one problem he didn't need. One problem too many.
So, buy her and drop her off at the nearest airport.
Yes. He could do. He didn't have very much money on him, but he didn't think their aim was to get the highest price off the beauty's head so much as to seek protection. Zafar was, after all, ready to assume the throne, and he knew all of their secrets.
He looked down at the woman who claimed to be an heiress, betrothed to a sheikh. Anger blazed from those eyes, he could see it clearly now. She was not defeated, but she was also smart enough to save her energy. To not waste time fighting here and now.
"You have not harmed her?" he asked, his throat getting tight with disgust at the thought.
"We have not laid a finger on her, beyond binding her to keep her from escaping. Where would her value be, where would our protection be, if she were damaged?"
They were offering him a chance to see her returned as if nothing had happened, he understood. If she were assaulted, it would be clear, and Al Sabah, and by extension the new and much-maligned sheikh, would be blamed.
And war would be imminent.
Either from Shakar or from his own people, were they to learn of what had happened under his "watch."
He made an offer. Every bit of money he had. "I'm not dealing," he said. "That is my only offer."
Jamal looked at him, his expression hard. "Done." He extended his hand, and Zafar didn't for one moment mistake it as an offer for a handshake. He reached into his robes and produced a drawstring coin purse, old-fashioned, not used widely in the culture of the day.
But he'd been disconnected from the culture of the day for fifteen years so that was no surprise.
He poured the coins into his hand. "The woman," he said, extending his arm, fist closed. "The woman first."
One of the men walked her forward, and Zafar took hold of her arm, drawing her tight into his body. She was still, stiff, her eyes straight ahead, not once resting on him.
He then passed the coins to Jamal. "I think I will not be stopping for the night."
"Eager to try her out, Sheikh?"
"Hardly," he said, his lip curling. "As you said, there is no surer way to start a war."
He tightened his hold on her and walked her to the corral. She was quiet, unnaturally so and he wondered if she was in shock. He looked down at her face, expecting to see her eyes looking glassy or confused. Instead, she was looking around, calculating.
"No point, princess," he said in English. "There is nowhere to go out here, but unlike those men, I mean you no harm."
"And I'm supposed to believe you?" she asked.
"For now." He opened the gate and his horse approached. He led him from the enclosure. "Can you get on the horse? Are you hurt?"
"I don't want to get on the horse," she said, her voice monotone.
He let out a long breath and hauled her up into his arms, pulling her, and himself, up onto the horse in one fluid motion, bringing her to rest in front of his body. "Too bad. I paid too much for you to leave you behind."
He tapped his horse and the animal moved to a trot, taking them away from the camp.
"You you bought me?"
"All things considered I got a very good deal."
"A good a good deal!"
"I didn't even look at your teeth. For all I know I was taken advantage of." He wasn't in the mood to deal with a hysterical woman. Or a woman in general, no matter her mental state. But he was stuck with one now.
He supposed he should be sympathetic, or something like that. He no longer knew how.
"You were not," she said, her voice clipped. "Who are you?"
"You do not speak Arabic?"
"Not the particular dialect you were speaking, no. I recognized some but not all."
"The Bedouins out here have their own form of the language. Sometimes larger families have their own variation, though that is less common."
"Thank you for the history lesson. I shall make a note. Who are you?"
"I am Sheikh Zafar Nejem, and I daresay I am your salvation."
"I think I would have been better off if I were left to burn."
Ana clung to the horse as it galloped over the sand, the night air starting to cool, no longer burning her face. This must be what shock felt like. Numb and aware of nothing, except for the heat at her back from the man behind her, and the sound of the horse's hooves on the sand.
He'd stopped talking to her now, the man who claimed to be the Sheikh of Al Sabah, a man whose entire face was obscured by a headdress, save for his obsidian eyes. But before she'd been kidnapped and it surely had only been a couple of days Farooq Nejem had been the ruler of the country. A large and looming problem for Shakar, and one that Tariq had been very concerned with.
"Zafar," she said. "Zafar Nejem. I don't know your name. I can't remember. I thought Farooq "
"Not anymore," he said, his voice hard, deep, rumbling through him as he spoke.
The horse's gait slowed, and Ana looked around the barren landscape, trying to figure out any reason at all for them to be stopping. There was nothing. Nothing but more sand and more nothing. It was why she hadn't made an escape attempt before. Going out alone and unprepared in the desert of Al Sabah was as good as signing your own death certificate.
They'd been warned of that so many times by their guide, and after traveling over the desert in the tour group on camelback for a day, she believed him.
So much for a fun, secret jaunt into the desert with her friends before her engagement to Tariq was announced. This was not really fun anymore. And it confirmed what she'd always suspected: that stepping out of line was a recipe for disaster.
She was so fair, too much exposure to the midday sun and she'd go up in a puff of smoke and leave nothing but a little pile of ash behind.
So bolting was out of the question, but the fact that they were stopping made her very, very uneasy. She'd been lucky, so lucky that the men that had kidnapped her had seen value in leaving her untouched. She wasn't totally sure about her new captor.
She took a deep breath and tried to ignore the burn in her lungs, compliments of the arid, late-afternoon air. It was so thin. So dry. Just existing here was an effort. More confirmation on why running was a bad idea.
But she had to be calm. She had to keep control, and if she couldn't have control over the situation, she would have it over herself.
Her captor got down off the horse, quickly, gracefully, and offered his hand. She accepted. Because with the way she was feeling at the moment, she might just slide off the horse and crumble into a heap in the sand. That would be one humiliation too many. She had been purchased today, after all.
"Where are we?" she asked.
"At a stopping point."
"Why? Where? How is it a stopping point?" She looked around for a sign of civilization. A sign of something. Someone.
"It is a stopping point, because I am ready to stop. I have been riding for eight hours."
"Why don't you have a car if you're a sheikh?" she asked, feeling irritated over everything.
"Completely impractical. I live in the middle of the desert. Fuel would become a major issue."
Oh yes. Fuel. Oil. Oil was always the issue. It was something she knew well, having grown up the daughter of the richest oil baron in the United States. Her father had a knack for finding black gold. But he was a businessman, and that meant that the search was never done. It was all about getting more. Getting better.
And that was how she'd met Sheikh Tariq. It was how she'd ended up in Shakar, and then, in Al Sabah.
Oil was the grandaddy of this entire mess.
But it would be okay. It would be. She thought of Tariq, his warm dark eyes, his smile. The thought of him always made her stomach flip. Not so much at the moment, but given she was hot, tired, dusty, and currently leaning into the embrace of a stranger, thanks to her klutzy dismount, it seemed understandable.