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Darkness descended on the desert as the black SUV came to a halt in front of the village's inn, a large but plain building. The arches and columns that guarded the courtyard were decorated with flower garlands. Strands of lights were wrapped around thick palm trees. Sheikh Nadir ibn Shihab heard the native music beyond the columns. In the distance, fireworks shot off and sprayed into the night sky, announcing his arrival.
It was time to meet his bride.
Nadir felt no excitement. There was no curiosity and no dread. Having a wife was a means to an end. It was not an emotional choice but a civilized arrangement. An arrangement he was making because of one rash, emotional reaction two years ago.
He pushed his thoughts aside. He wasn't going to think about the injustice now. With this marriage he would repair his reputation and no one would question his commitment to the traditional way of life in the kingdom of Jazaar.
Nadir stepped out of the car and his dishdasha was plastered against his muscular body as his black cloak whipped in the strong wind. The white headdress billowed behind him. Nadir found the traditional clothes confining, but today he wore them out of respect to custom.
He saw his younger brother approach. Nadir smiled at the unusual sight of Rashid wearing traditional garb. They greeted each other with an embrace.
"You are very late for your wedding," Rashid said in a low and confidential tone.
"It doesn't start until I arrive," Nadir replied as he pulled back.
Rashid shook his head at his brother's arrogance. "I mean it, Nadir. This is not the way to make amends with the tribe."
"I'm aware of it. I got here as quickly as I could." He had spent most of his wedding day negotiating with two warring tribes over a sacred spot of land. It was more important than a wedding feast. Even if it was his own wedding.
"That's not good enough for the elders," Rashid said as they walked toward the hotel. "In their eyes you showed them the ultimate disrespect two years ago. They won't forgive your tardiness."
Nadir was not in the mood to be lectured by his younger brother. "I'm marrying the woman of their choice, aren't I?"
The marriage was a political alliance with an influential tribe who both respected and feared him. Nadir had heard that his nickname in this part of the desert was The Beast. And, like mere mortals who knew they had angered a demon god, the elders were willing to sacrifice a young virgin as his bride.
Nadir approached the row of elders, who were dressed in their finest. Glimpsing the solemn faces of the older men, Nadir knew Rashid was right. They were not happy with him. If this tribe wasn't so important for his plans to modernize the country, Nadir would ignore their existence.
"My humblest apologies." Nadir greeted the elders, bowing low and offering his deepest regrets for his tardiness. He didn't care if these men felt slighted by his delay, but he went through the motions.
He had no use for the prolonged greeting ritual, but he had to be diplomatic. He was already battling political retribution from the elders, and had countered it by showing a willingness to marry a woman from their tribe. That maneuver should have improved relations with the tribal leaders, but Nadir sensed they were anything but honored.
The elders politely ushered him into the courtyard as the ancient chant accompanied by drums pulsed in the air. It tugged at something deep in Nadir, but he wasn't going to join in. While the guests were happy that the Sheikh was marrying one of their own, he wasn't pleased about the turn of events.
"Do you know anything about the bride?" Rashid whispered into Nadir's ear. "What if she's unsuitable?"
"It's not important," Nadir quietly informed his brother. "I have no plans to live as husband and wife. I will marry her and take her to bed, but once the wedding ceremonies are over she will live in the harem at the Sultan's palace. She will have everything she needs and I'll have my freedom. If all goes well we will never set eyes on each other again."
Nadir surveyed the crowd. Men were on one side of the aisle, dressed in white, chanting and clapping as they provoked the women on the other side to dance faster. The women's side was a riot of color liberally streaked with gold. The women silently taunted the men, their hips undulating to the edge of propriety. Their loose-fitting garments stretched and strained over voluptuous curves.
His presence was suddenly felt. He felt the ripple of awareness through the crowd. The music ended abruptly as everyone froze, staring at him. He felt like an unwelcome guest at his own wedding.
Nadir was used to seeing wariness in the eyes of everyone from statesmen to servants. International businesses accused him of being as devious as a jackal when he thwarted their attempts to steal Jazaar's resources. Journalists declared that he enforced the Sultan's law with the ruthless sting of a scorpion's tail. He had even been compared to a viper when he'd protected Jazaar with unwavering aggression from bloodthirsty rebels. His countrymen might be afraid to look him in the eye, but they knew he would take care of them by any means necessary.
Nadir strode down the aisle with Rashid one step behind him. The guests slowly regained their festive spirits, singing loudly as they showered him with rose petals. They seemed indecently relieved that his three-day marriage ceremony had commenced. He frowned at the men's wide smiles and the women's high-pitched trills. It was as if they believed they had appeased The Beast's hunger.
He kept his gaze straight ahead on the end of the courtyard. A dais sat in the center. A couple of divans flanked two golden throne-like chairs. His bride sat in one, waiting for him with her head tucked low and her hands in her lap.
Nadir slowed down when he saw that his bride wore an ethnic wedding dress in deep crimson. A heavy veil concealed her hair and framed her face before cascading down her shoulders and arms. Her fitted bodice was encrusted with gold beads, hinting at the small breasts and slender waist underneath. Her delicate hands, decorated with an ornate henna design, lay against the voluminous brocade skirt.
He frowned as he studied the woman. There was something different, something wrong about the bride. He halted in the middle of the aisle as the realization hit him like a clap of thunder.
"Nadir!" Rashid whispered harshly.
"I see." His tone was low and fierce as the shock reverberated inside him.
The woman before him was no Jazaari bride, fit for a sheikh.
She was an outcast. A woman no man would marry.
The tribal leaders had tricked him. Nadir stood very still as his anger flared. He had agreed to marry a woman of the tribe's choosing in a gesture of good faith. In return they had given him the American orphaned niece of one of their families.
It was an insult, he thought grimly as he ruthlessly reined in his emotions. It was also a message. The tribe thought that Nadir was too Western and modern to appreciate a traditional Jazaari bride.
"How dare they?" Rashid said in growl. "We're leaving now. Once the Sultan hears about this we will formally shun this tribe and"
"No." Nadir's decision was swift and certain. He didn't like it, but all his instincts told him it was for the greater good. "I accepted their choice."
"Nadir, you don't have to."
"Yes, I do."
The tribe expected him to refuse this woman as his bride. They wanted him to defy tradition and prove that he didn't appreciate the Jazaari way of life.
He couldn't do that. Not again.
And the elders knew it.
Nadir's eyes narrowed into slits. He would accept this unworthy woman as his bride. And once the wedding was over he would destroy the elders in this tribe one by one.
"I must protest," Rashid said. "A sheikh does not marry an outcast."
"I agree, but I need a bride, and any woman from this tribe will do. One woman is just as much trouble as the next."
"Don't worry, Rashid. I am changing my plans. I won't let her live in the Sultan's palace. I will send her into seclusion at the palace in the mountains." He would hide this womanand any evidence that he had been shamed by this tribe. No one would ever know how he had paid a huge dowry for such an inferior bride.
Nadir forced his feet to move, his white-hot anger turning to ice as he approached his bride. He noticed that the woman's face was pale against her dark red lips and kohled eyes. A thick rope of rubies and diamonds edged along her hairline. She had a tangle of necklaces around her throat and a long column of gold bangles on both arms.
She was dressed like a Jazaari bride, but it was obvious that she wasn't the real thing. Her downcast eyes and prim posture couldn't hide her bold nature. There was a defiant tilt to her head and a brash energy about her.
The woman also had an earthy sexiness, he decided. A proper bride would be shy and modest. She looked like a mysterious and exotic maiden who should be dancing barefoot by a bonfire on a dark desert night.
His bride cautiously glanced from beneath her lashes and he captured her startled gaze. Nadir felt the impact as their eyes clashed and held.
Zoe Martin's blood raced painfully through her veins as she stared into dark, hypnotic eyes. As much as she wanted to, she couldn't look away. The eyes darkened. She felt as if she was caught in a swirling storm.
Please don't let this be the man I am marrying! She needed to trick and manipulate her husband throughout their honeymoon, but she could tell immediately this man was too dangerous for her plans.
Sheikh Nadir ibn Shihab wasn't handsome. His features were too hard, too primitive. His face was all lines and angles, from his Bedouin nose to the forceful thrust of his jaw. His cheekbones slashed down his face and a cleft scored his chin. There was a hint of softness in his full lips, but the cynical curl at the edge of his mouth warned of his impatience. She had no doubt that everyone kept a distance from him or suffered the brunt of his venomous barbs.
The pearl-white of the Sheikh's dishdasha contrasted with his golden-brown skin and it couldn't conceal his long, tapered body. Every move he made drew her attention to his lean and compact muscles. Zoe decided that his elegant appearance was deceiving. She had no doubt that he had been brought up in a world of wealth and privilege, but this man belonged to the harsh and unforgiving desert. He had the desert's stark beauty and its cruelty.
The Sheikh showed no expression, no emotion, but she felt a biting hot energy slamming against her. Zoe flinched, her skin stinging from his bold gaze. She wanted to rub her arms and wrap them protectively around her. She felt the inexplicable need to slough off his claim.
Claim? A flash of fear gripped Zoe as her chest tightened. Why did it feel like that? The Sheikh hadn't touched her yet.
She had the sudden overwhelming need to turn and run as fast as she could to escape. Her heart pounded in her ears, her breath rasped in her constricted throat, and although every self-preservation instinct told her to flee, she couldn't move.
"As-Salamu Alaykum," Nadir greeted as he sat down next to her.
Zoe shivered at the rough, masculine sound. His voice was soft, but the commanding tone coiled around her body, tugging at something dark and unknown inside her. The muscles low in her abdomen tingled with awareness.
"It's a pleasure to meet you," he said with cool politeness.
Zoe gave a start, her excess of gold jewelry chiming from her sudden move. He'd spoken to her in English. It had been so long since she'd heard her mother tongue. Unshed tears suddenly stung her eyes and she struggled to regain her composure.
She shouldn't have been surprised that the Sheikh spoke English. He'd been educated in the United States, traveled frequently, and knew several languages as well as all the dialects spoken in Jazaar. His need to travel internationally was one of the reasons why she had agreed to marry him.
But curiosity got the better of her. She couldn't imagine this man doing something thoughtful without getting something in return. Her voice wavered as she asked, "Why are you speaking to me in English?"
"You are American. It's your language."
She gave a curt nod and kept her head down, her gaze focused on her clenched hands. It had been her language once. Until her uncle had forbidden it. "It isn't spoken here," she whispered.
"That's why I'm using it," Nadir said in an uninterested tone as he surveyed the courtyard. "English will be just our language and no one will know what we're saying."
Ah, now she understood. He wanted to create an immediate bond between them. Or at least the illusion of one. It was a clever strategy, but she wasn't going to fall for it.
"I'm not supposed to talk during the ceremony," she reminded him.
She sensed his attention back on her. The energy crackling between them grew sharper. "But I want you to talk."
Right. Was this some sort of test to see if she was a good Jazaari bride? "My aunts gave me strict orders to keep my head down and my mouth shut."
"Whose opinions are more important to you?" She heard the arrogance in his voice. "Your aunts' or your husband's?"
Neither, she wanted to say. It was tempting, but she knew she had to play the game. "I will do as you wish." She nearly choked on the words.
His chuckle was rough and masculine. "Keep saying that and we'll get along just fine."