Forbidden: The Sheikh's Virgin(3)

By: Trish Morey

‘And Akmal?’ he called, severing that line of thought before he could analyse it too deeply. ‘Before you go…’

The older man bowed again, simultaneously subservient and long-suffering in the one movement. ‘Yes, Your Highness?’

‘Can we drop the formalities? My name is Rafiq.’

The old adviser stiffened on an inhale, as if someone had suddenly shoved a rod up his spine. ‘But here in Qusay you are Your Highness, Your Highness.’

Rafiq nodded on a sigh. As nephews to the King, he and his brothers had grown up on the periphery of the crown, in line, and yet an entire family away, and while the possibility had always existed that something might happen to the heir they’d known as Xavian before he took the crown, nobody had really believed it. Their childhood had consequently been a world away from the strained atmosphere Xavian had grown up in, even with their own domineering father. They’d had duty drilled into them, but they’d had freedom too—a freedom that had allowed Rafiq to walk away from Qusay as a nineteen-year-old when there’d been nothing left for him here.

He’d made his own way in the world since then, by clawing his way up from being a nothing and nobody in a city the other side of the world. He hadn’t needed a title then. He didn’t need a title now, even if he was, by virtue of Xavian’s abdication, a prince. But what was the point of arguing?

After all, he’d leave for Sydney and anonymity right after the coronation. He could put up with a little deference that long. ‘Of course, Akmal,’ he conceded, letting the older man withdraw, his sense of propriety intact. ‘I understand. Oh, and Akmal?’

The vizier turned. ‘Yes, Your Highness?’

Rafiq allowed himself a smile at the emphasis. ‘Please let my mother know I’ll visit her this afternoon.’

He bowed again as he withdrew from the room. ‘As you wish.’

Rafiq took the next hour to reacquaint himself with the Olympic-length swimming pool tucked away with the men’s gym in one of the palace’s many wings, the arched windows open to catch the slightest breeze, while the roof protected bathers from the fiery sun. There weren’t any other bathers today; the palace was quiet in the midday heat as many took the opportunity for the traditional siesta.

And of course there were no women. Hidden away in the women’s wing, there was a similar pool, where women could disrobe without fear of being seen by men. So different, he thought, from the beach that fronted his seaside property and the scantily clad women who adorned it and every other piece of sand along the coast. He would be a liar if he said they offended him, those women who seemed oblivious to the glances and turned heads as their swimming attire left little to the imagination, but here in Qusay, where the old ways still had meaning, this way too made sense.

The water slipped past his body as he dived in, cool but not cold, refreshing without being a shock to the system, and he pushed himself stroke after stroke, lap after lap, punishing muscles weary from travel until they burned instead with effort. He had no time for jetlag and the inconveniences of adapting to a new body clock, and physical exercise was the one way of ensuring he avoided it. When finally his head touched the pillow tonight, his body, too, would be ready to rest.

Only when he was sure his mother would have risen from her siesta did he allow his strokes to slow, his rhythm to ease. His mind felt more awake now, and the weariness in his body was borne of effort rather than the forced inactivity of international travel. Back in his suite, he showered and pulled open the wardrobe.

His suits and shirts were all there, freshly pressed and hung in his absence, and there were more clothes too. White-as-snow robes lay folded in one pile, The sirwal, worn as trousers underneath, in another. He fingered a bisht, the headdress favoured by Qusani men, his hand lingering over the double black cord that would secure it.

His mother’s handiwork, no doubt, to ensure he had the ‘proper’ clothes to wear now he was back in Qusay.

Two years it had been since he had last worn the robes of his countrymen, and then it had only been out of respect at his father’s funeral. Before that it would have been a decade or more since he’d worn them—a decade since his youthful dreams had been shattered and he’d turned his back on Qusay and left to make his own way in the world.

And his own style. It was Armani now that he favoured next to his skin, Armani that showcased who he was and just how far he’d come since turning his back on the country that had let him down. With a sigh, he dropped the black igal back on the shelf and pulled a fresh shirt and clean suit from the wardrobe.

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