Read an Excerpt
Only here could he find himself.
Staring out at the vast, shimmering emptiness, Sheikh King Zakari Al'Farisi of Calista welcomed the solitude of the Azahar desert. He ruled Calista and its people, but it was the desert that taught him how.
He was a good king—a strong ruler. Powerful, even ruthless at times—he did what had to be done. The easy path was never the option for Zakari and his people knew that and loved him for it. He stood six feet three and of solid build, his shoulders were wide enough to carry the hopes and fears of his land and his arms strong enough to hold any woman. He was considered a playboy at times, yet his people understood and forgave his one weakness, for no woman captured his mind for long—they were a mere temporary distraction that was necessary at times.
There was nothing temporary about the desert.
Zakari's eyes scanned the endless golden sea of sand, the landscape that shifted with the winds—while the rocks and canyons remained the solid markers.
It was the land that was the true master here—fierce, inhospitable, yet beautiful, always it humbled him, would drain and exhaust him and then replenish him. It was the test of the desert he needed now to remind him of his innate strength.
For many, times had changed their ways—four-wheel drives had replaced camels, shotguns were often used for prey instead of falconry, yet the desert and its vital principles were still ingrained and followed by some, and just as he watched out for them, fought to protect their simple existence, so too, while he was here, they would watch out for him. Sometimes in the distance, he would make out in the shimmer a small shadow, knew it was the nomadic tribesmen, keeping their caravan of camels far out of his sight as they travelled. Zakari knew they wouldn't invade his privacy, but was safe in the knowledge they were watching from a distance, making sure their king was safe and well when he returned to the land he loved.
He had asked, to his aides' horror, for solitude during the first part of his retreat here—no staff waiting on his every whim, nothing to distract him as he centred himself, as he focussed on finding the missing half of the Stefani diamond. And if he found it, when he found it, he would rule not just Calista, but Aristo too.
The legacy would be fulfilled.
King Christos Karedes had ruled both islands more than thirty years ago, yet the grumbles from his people had concerned him—the Aristan people worried they were not profiting enough from the diamond mines, the Calistan people eager to preserve their land and its gentle ways.
A wise king, Christos had known that the Aristans had to stop looking to Calista to support them. That they needed to build their own economy rather than rely on the Calistan diamonds. It was for that reason he decided to leave an island to each of his children and made the painful decision to split the precious Stefani diamond. His son and daughter would both become crowned rulers, with half the Stefani diamond in their new crowns.
Calista would be ruled by his daughter, Anya.
Aristo would be ruled by his son, Aegeus.
But time had moved on, shifting things like the sand in the desert.
Zakari's stepmother, Anya, had died five years ago along with his father—and now, with King Aegeus's sudden death, the islands were ripe for change.
Without the stone, the coronation of Aegeus's son Prince Alex could not go ahead and though the Aristan royals had tried to hide the fact the stone was missing, Zakari had, as he always did, found out.
Zakari sat, willing himself to concentrate, yet his mind, as it had these past couple of days, wandered. He was now quietly pleased at Hassan's suggestion that his housekeeper join him in his second week in the desert. When he returned to his tent at sunset, Christobel would be there. Would take care of him at night so that he could focus deeper by day as to how best to take care of the future of his people.
Zakari closed his eyes.
The people that he must protect from the lavish, insatiable ways of the neighbouring island, and protect too the diamond mines that the Aristans would love to get their greedy hands on.
And Zakari could get his revenge.
The wind swirled around him, the sand beat his face as the breeze picked up, but Zakari sat supremely still.
Soon, he would get his revenge on Aegeus for what he had done to Anya.
Haughty, razored features remained immobile as still he sat, then his full mouth softened in a ghost of a smile.
Revenge was so close he could taste it.
Craning her neck, Effie took a final lingering look at the palace as the helicopter lifted her into the late afternoon sky.
It was her first helicopter ride, and Effie knew she should be nervous, except she was too terrified at what lay ahead to worry about flying. The whole afternoon, in fact, had been like a wild roller-coaster ride.
It had started with whispers that Christobel—King Zakari's personal housekeeper—had, while the King was in the desert, run off with her latest boyfriend.
Christobel was always getting into trouble. In the two years Effie had been at the palace, it had always amazed her that Christobel was the King's personal housekeeper. When the staff had first heard that she'd run off, it had been more giggles and whispers, until the news had filtered through that Christobel was expected today to join the King on his retreat in the desert. A frantic search had ensued to find a suitable replacement, which had proved harder than usual. Two of the senior palace domestic staff were on leave, another was pregnant, another had children sick, until finally, to her absolute shock, Effie had been hastily considered for the position. With her mother dead and no other family to speak of, there was no reason she had to stay in Calista; the only blight had been her lack of experience with the actual royals. Effie was one of the lowliest palace maids, and her duties were usually reserved for tending to the more general areas of the palace.
'Nothing can be too much trouble for the King!' Stavroula said. 'For your time there you are on call day and night…'
'The King has asked for no contact with the palace or his aides—he has demanded complete isolation. Chris-tobel would have been the only one who would have assisted him with meals and housekeeping after his first week there. With all the troubles, he wants time alone right now.' Stavroula ran a worried hand over her brow. 'There is just so much trouble at the moment, Effie…'
Since King Aegeus's death, scandal abounded on the neighbouring island of Aristo, but Calista wasn't without its share of drama too. King Zakari's betrothed bride, Kalila, had, to everyone's shock, married the King's brother, Aarif, while their younger brother, Sheikh Kaliq, had recently married a lowly stable girl.
Oh, Stavroula was right, Effie knew that much— with so much unrest on both islands, there would be a lot for the King to think about.
'He demands complete solitude,' Stavroula explained. 'He has insisted there be no contact with the palace, so you cannot change your mind once you are there.'
'What if the King were taken ill?'
'He may well be.' Stavroula gave a worried shrug. 'But King Zakari, better than most, knows the test and demands of the desert… He feels it is what he needs right now—and what the King wants, the King gets…' Stavroula gave a pale smile—compromise wasn't exactly a word that equated with King Zakari. A helicopter is booked to bring you back next week. Until then it will be just you and the King.'
'I'll work hard.' Effie nodded eagerly.
'None of your chatter!' Stavroula sternly warned.
'He won't even know that I'm there,' Effie said earnestly.
Looking up at Effie's kind, plain, eager face, her dancing black curls and honest bright blue eyes, Stavroula relented a touch, because she knew that Effie would do everything possible for the King. 'These are turbulent times, Effie—we need our King to make wise choices. Our role seems meagre to many, but if the King is not troubled, if we can soothe his way, then he can come to the right decisions.
'Come now.' Clapping her hands, Stavroula stood up. 'There is no time to waste. Christobel was supposed to leave more than half an hour ago—the helicopter is waiting.'
'I need to pack.'
'There isn't time,' Stavroula said, hurrying Effie through the palace and dragging Christobel's pale blue suitcase behind her. 'You'll just have to make do with Christobel's things.'
Which would be fine, Effie thought, except Christobel was about half her size, but Stavroula brushed off her protests. 'The wind is picking up.' They were dashing across the manicured lawns of the palace to the waiting chopper. 'If the helicopter doesn't leave now, there might not be another chance till tomorrow. The King cannot be kept waiting!'
The green lawns alone were a testament to Zakari's wealth as the palace was built on the edge of the desert.
The rear rooms had sweeping views, and Effie had often found herself gazing out to the desert as she worked, but seeing it from above, watching the palace fade into the distance, it wasn't just nerves that danced in her stomach, but a flicker of excitement too.
Of all the royals that she had glimpsed, of all the princes and cousins and sheikhs that peppered her meagre existence, it had always been Zakari who had enthralled her the most.
She occasionally glimpsed him throughout her working day in the palace, his clothing as chameleon as his complex character. Whether he was striding to a function in military finery, or sweeping through the palace in traditional robes, always he looked spectacular, but never more so, for Effie, than when in Western clothes.
More glamorous and as effortlessly fashionable as any of the Aristans, to Effie he looked like a film star, but the real treat had been when first she'd seen him smile. Oh, not at her, but one morning, when she'd been dashing through the corridors, carrying sheets, frantically trying to get the endless spare bedrooms prepared for a looming royal wedding, she'd flattened herself against a wall as the King had strode past, chatting and talking with his brother, the soon-to-be married Kaliq. Kaliq, a dashing playboy himself, must have said something funny to the King, because suddenly Zakari's haughty face had broken into a wide smile, his full mouth parting, and for Effie it had been like watching the sunrise. Effie had felt trapped by its rare, majestic beauty, so much so that she had even forgotten to duck and curtsy and had actually forgotten to lower her head and avert her eyes.
Not that he'd noticed.
Not that Zakari would ever notice her.
But in that second alone Effie had understood how he had earned every flicker of his heartbreak reputation.
With just one smile, he'd captured her heart.
And now she was going to be alone with him.
Being stranded in the desert with a moody, demanding boss might not be many people's idea of a good time, but Effie took her job seriously—and here was a chance to prove herself. To work hard for the king she adored and, as Stavroula had pointed out, in her own meagre way, help the people of Calista during these turbulent times.
As the chopper landed the pilot threw out her case, anxious to leave before the winds picked up further, he explained, and Effie quickly jumped down.
The heat was stifling.
The dry air was so hot that it actually hurt as she dragged it into her lungs. The flimsy scarf she held over her mouth and nose did nothing to protect her eyes, though, and Effie ducked her head, but running under the whirring rotors was too much in the heat and even that short burst of exertion exhausted her. The sand was whirring around, gravelling in her ears, eyes and her hair as the chopper lifted, but even when it was gone the shifting sands didn't settle. With the sand pummelling her legs and face Effie stood for a moment, witnessing first-hand the endless landscape, broken only by the vast orange canyons that the wind whistled through. Only then did it truly dawn on Effie just how isolated they were. Having grown up in the poorer part of Calista, and having spent much of her time nursing her ailing mother, Effie was no stranger to hardship or roughing it and hard work certainly didn't faze her, yet a flutter of angst for the unknown swirled inside her as Effie saw King Zakari's huge tent, still but a speck in the vast scheme of the desert.
She didn't expect him to come out and greet her— why would a king greet a housekeeper? And she had been told that he would disappear early in the mornings and not return until after sunset, which was still a couple of hours away.
She would start work straight away, Effie decided, quelling her nerves by forming a plan. By the time King Zakari returned, she'd have familiarised herself with things, and would be fully in control of everything that he might request from her. Quickly realising the wheels didn't work in the sand, she lifted Christobel's heavy case, damp circles forming under her arms, her face no doubt red from the heat and exertion as she walked the final distance. Effie made a quick addition to her list—she would have a long cool drink, then she would start work!
The tent was cool and dark as she parted the fabric, stepped inside and removed her shoes. Her eyes took a moment to adjust from the brightness outside, the howl of the wind subdued now as she slowly wandered into the blissful retreat. Rugs were thickly scattered on the floor and were plump and soft beneath her bare feet. They lined the walls of the tent too, making the large area more intimate. The space was broken with low, ornate tables surrounded by thick runs of cushioned fabric, and an entire wall was hung with drapes while the floor was scattered with jewel-coloured cushions of velvet and satin, which were so plump Effie would have loved to sink into them.
It was a mess though!
Sand had been trailed through the abode, and tiny jewelled cups and plates, along with jugs, littered the surfaces.
Effie left her case and set about exploring further, finding the kitchen area, marvelling that even in the middle of the desert the King's wealth meant she could gulp icy water from the dispenser on the fridge and could run her hand in cool water and splash her face.