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'Who's the woman?' With just three sharp words Sheikh Tajik al Zayed bin Aman cut off the tedious update being delivered by his secretary as he wandered closer to the window. It had been a long flight, and the stranger he'd just spied sitting near the pool was far more interesting than the latest exchange rate fluctuations of his Emirate's currency. 'What is she doing here?'
Kamil temporarily abandoned his recitation of numbers and followed his ruler's gaze through the wall of windows and past the palm-lined lawns to the pool area beyond.
'This is the one we employed as your mother's companion after Fatima was taken ill. I sent word to you while you were in Paris for the oil summit ' His secretary trailed off, suddenly hesitant, as if concerned he'd overstepped the mark in retaining a local woman to be Nobilah's companion during their Gold Coast sojourn.
'Ah, yes,' Tajik said, recalling the case of appendicitis that had seen Fatima packed off to hospital for emergency surgery. 'I just did not expect Nobilah's new companion to be quite so young.'Or quite so attractive. Even from this distance he could see her features were far from plain, her figure, even though demurely dressed from neck to ankle in light trousers and shirt, no chore to behold. 'So why is she alone and not looking after my mother?'
As if on cue, Nobilah emerged from the poolhouse behind, the dark abaya she'd favoured since her husband had died swirling about her like a cloud as she walked. He watched the younger woman rise and then adjust the umbrella shading his mother from the Queensland sun as she settled herself into the chair alongside. Then the young woman sat back down, picking up a newspaper from a wrought-iron table sitting between them, her lips moving as she read aloud.
His mother laughed at something, and he could almost hear her musical chuckle. He couldn't help but smile. It had been a tough yearfor all of themand it was good to see her laugh. Very soon he would hear it for himself. After the tense and at times heated negotiations of the past week he deserved it. And now they would have the last weeks of their summer break together.
'I must go and let Nobilah know I have returned from Paris,' he said over his shoulder. 'Was there anything more, Kamil?'
His secretary cleared his throat. 'As a matter of fact, Excellency, there is one more item I must bring to your attention '
'Can it wait? I am anxious to catch up with my mother.'
'I think you will want to hear this, Excellency.'
Tajik looked around in surprise. His secretary knew him too well to keep him over some trifling matter when he was already taking his leave. He moved away from the window, his attention now fully on his secretary, the stranger all but dismissed from his mind. 'Well, what is it?'
'There have been murmurings from home It appears Qasim has raised with the council of tribal leaders some concerns about the ascendancy '
Tajik's blood chilled at the news, but it was to Kamil that his ire was directed right now. 'And you thought it more important to relate Jamalbad's exchange rates than my cousin's machinations behind the scenes?'
His secretary had the good sense to look nervous. 'Reports have just come in,' he said, bowing deferentially. 'They have yet to been confirmed'
'Then have them confirmed!' he snapped as he began pacing the spacious living area in long purposeful strides. 'And tell me why should my cousin bring such concerns to the council? If anything happens to me, he knows he is next in line to the throne. His place is assured.'
'He has apparently told the council members he believes Jamalbad's future cannot be assured unless there is solid provision for the future. Unless there is an heir.'
Tajik's feet came to a sudden halt. 'My father has been dead but one short year, and Joharah with him! Would Qasim have me casting my seed at the first woman to cross my path? Besides, everyone knows that my cousin is more an agent of instability than of peaceotherwise why would he be stirring up trouble while my back is turned?'
'Qasim cloaks his desire for the throne in concerns for Jamalbad. Some of the council will take his words at face value.'
'And some members of the council would be swayed by the dance of the cobra.' Tajik thumped his closed fist against the nearest piece of furniture with so much force it made his secretary jump. 'He must be stopped! If these reports are true, we must return to Jamalbad immediately. Prepare to make the necessary arrangements.'
Kamil hesitated. 'Before I dothere's one more thing you should know. There is a suggestion that he has told the council he has found you the perfect bride.'
'He has what? Who is the delightful creature this snake of a cousin of mine would see me saddled with?'
'His daughter, Abir.'
Tajik laughed out loud. 'In the name of Allah, the girl is but a child! She must be no more than ten years old. He wants the throne so badly he would sacrifice his own child to his cause?'
'Abir is fourteen at her next birthday. More than old enough to become betrothed if the council so approves.'
'Not to me, she's not! I will not be manipulated by a madman into marrying a child less than half my age, especially not his own spawn, merely to give him greater access to the throne.'
Kamil frowned. 'Beware, Excellency. From what's been said, some of the council are in favour of the match. They believe you have mourned long enough, that it is time you give away your playboy ways and find a bride to provide Jamalbad with an heir. Qasim has intimated that he is acting in your best interests, and that the best way forward for both you and Jamalbad is a betrothal announcement that is just days away.'
'So now a single life is to be interpreted as "playboy ways"?'He sighed. Given his age and his position he'd had his pick of women if and when he'd wantedbut losing Joharah had taken the edge off his needs, and the nameless and faceless women since then had been few and far between, his wants nowhere near approximating what those words implied.
He stared blindly out of the window, the blood hammering with fury in his veins. So Qasim meant to tie him into a betrothal in his absencea betrothal he would be neatly boxed into on his return? No wonder his belligerent cousin had been so accommodating when Tajik had informed him of his plans to take his mother away from Jamalbad's month of horror heat to the relative cool of tropical Australia.
But there was no way he would allow himself to be manipulated like that. And there was no way he would marry his cousin's teenaged daughter. No way in the world.
He raked his fingers through his hair as he set about pacing the room once more, his mind working out the best strategy to outplay his cousin's hand. On the one hand he could just say no. He was absolute ruler of Jamalbad after all. The council was a powerful body in its own right, but it could only advise, not decree, and while it might not be happy with his refusal to marryAbir, it could not force him to do otherwise.
And yet there was another course of action that formed like crystals in his mind, clear and sharp. Another way he could stop Qasim's machinations in their tracks and keep the council happy into the deal.
'No, Kamil,' he asserted, swinging around. 'I will not marry Abir. Or anyone else my cousin lines up for me.'
'Very well, Excellency. Once I receive confirmation that our information is correct, I will prepare a message to the council to that effect.'
'No, there is no need. If the council are expecting a bride, then the council will be satisfied. They will have their sheikha.'
'And how do you intend to achieve that if you will not marry Abir?'
'Simple, Kamil. I will find my own bride.'
'Your Excellency, are you serious?'
The look he shot his secretary was enough to make his servant stammer in apology, but he cut off his backtracking with the simple act of raising one hand. 'I am serious about not being controlled like a puppet by my cousin. I will do whatever it takes to foil his plans to take over the throne of Jamalbad by marrying me to his daughter.'
'But a bride You cannot marry just anyone. The bride of a ruler of Jamalbad must be pure of mind and body.'The secretary wildly threw out his arms in a gesture of hopelessness. 'How do you expect to find such a gem here?'
It took no more than a raised eyebrow for Kamil's coffee-coloured skin to flush darker. 'Have you not seen the women on the beach?' he blustered in defence. 'I am not sure that the council would approve of such a queen.'
Tajik nodded in understanding as his thoughts drew him in the direction of the windows again. Tradition was important in Jamalbad, and while he had been educated long enough in the west to believe that the idea a woman must remain untouched until marriage while the man was free to sow his wild oats wherever he chose was a classic double standard, the council would expect his bride to be innocent. Still, he was sure he could find someone who would pass for a convenient virgin somewhere. So long as he was happy with the choice, he would have no trouble convincing the council of her virtue.
He turned his gaze out of the windows once more, movement poolside bringing his gaze back into focus and his thoughts into razor-sharp precision behind it.
She was quite attractive, in a western kind of way, her figure indeed watchable, despite the conservative clothes and the honey-blonde hair restrained too tightly behind her head. She would look so much better in more feminine clothes that showed off her curves. But then, given the truth of what Kamil had said, her conservatism was a definite plus right now
He stroked his chin while he considered the possibilities. Fair-skinned, with honey-blonde hair and a generous mouth, she looked nothing at all like Joharah. That could only be a plus.
He clamped down on a twinge of guilt that he should be contemplating marrying anyone. But this would not be a marriage as theirs would have been. This marriage would be one of simple expediency that would put paid to Qasim's plans for the throne and bring stability to Jamalbad as a result.
Reason enough for him to contemplate the enjoyment he'd get presenting this woman as his bride. Her looks were merely a bonus. And bedding her would be no chore. He was a man, after all. He could certainly think of less enjoyable ways to foil his cousin's plans.
'Perhaps, Kamil,' he mused, 'we need not extend our search as far as the beach. Tell me,' he said, pointing to the young woman who had abandoned her reading of the newspaper and was currently engaged in painting his mother's nails, 'have you done all the necessary security checks on this woman?'
It wasn't really a question. He knew the answer would be in the affirmativeshe wouldn't have been employed otherwiseand the older man looked confused at the sudden change of topic.
'Of course. She has a clean record, impeccable references, and no unsavoury connections that we could find.'
'No attachments. As far as family she has just the one sister, a twin, recently married and with her first child.'
'Perfect,' Tajik announced coldly. 'Then she will not be missed.'
'What do you mean?' Kamil asked, with the tone of someone who really didn't want to hear the answer.
Tajik placed a hand on his secretary's shoulder. 'It's quite simple, my good friend. In finding my mother the perfect companion you have also done your country a great service. You may also have found Jamalbad the perfect queen.'