Lost to the Desert Warrior(7)

By: Sarah Morgan

 There was a sudden stillness about him that suggested she had his full attention. ‘That still doesn’t tell me why you’re here.’

 Only now did Layla realise just how much she’d been hoping he’d be the one to say it. He was praised for his intelligence, wasn’t he? Couldn’t he see for himself why she was here? Couldn’t he see the one solution that would solve this once and for all?

 But perhaps he could see and chose not to look.

 ‘I don’t blame you for hating us.’ The words tumbling out of her mouth weren’t the ones she’d rehearsed but when she looked at him all she could think of was the loss he’d suffered. ‘If I could change who I am then I would, but I’m asking you to put that aside and do what needs to be done.’

 ‘And what,’ he prompted softly, ‘do you believe needs to be done, Princess?’

 No man had ever asked her opinion. Not once since the day she took her first step to the day she and her sister had slid out of the window of their father’s bedroom. Not once had anyone treated her as anything but a weapon in the considerable armory of the house of Al Habib.

 But this man had asked her.

 This man was listening to her.

 He was regal, she thought, proud and sure of himself. In that moment she caught a glimpse of why so many trusted him and protected him. He was as different from Hassan as the ocean from the desert.

 ‘You know what needs to be done. You have to take your rightful place. You have to end this before Hassan finishes what my father started. Before he ruins our country in the selfish pursuit of power...’ She paused, wondering whether to mention Yasmin again but deciding this man would be motivated more by his duty to his people than sympathy for her sister. ‘And to do that you have to marry me. Now. Quickly. Before Hassan finds me and takes me back.’

                       CHAPTER TWO

 HE’D BEEN PLANNING to do whatever was necessary to prevent her wedding to Hassan taking place. Yet he had not considered the option of marrying her himself, nor had any of those surrounding him dared to suggest it despite the fact it was the obvious solution.

 The tactician in him could see the benefit. The man in him recoiled.

 He’d thought there was no price he wouldn’t pay to fulfil his duty.

 He’d been wrong.

 Tension rippled down his spine. He felt as if he were being strangled.

 ‘No.’ He’d trained himself to shut down emotion but that skill suddenly failed him and his refusal came from somewhere deep inside him. Some dark part of himself he no longer accessed. ‘I had a wife. I don’t need or want another.’ His voice sounded strange. Thickened by a hundred layers of personal agony. One of the dogs growled, a threatening sound that came from low in the animal’s throat. He saw her gaze flicker to the dog and sensed her fear although he didn’t understand it.

 ‘I know about your wife.’ Her brief hesitation suggested she was about to say something else on that topic, but then she gave a little shake of her head. ‘Obviously I’m not suggesting myself as a replacement. This would be purely a political arrangement, advantageous to both sides.’

 Raz tried to detach his mind from the pain he carried around inside himself. ‘Political?’

 ‘Hassan’s position is precarious. Marriage to me is his way of securing his place as my father’s successor. He has no support in Tazkhan and has never taken the trouble to earn it. For him, ruling is about what he can gain rather than what he can give and that approach makes him neither popular nor secure.’

 Raz hid his surprise. He’d listened to men talk for hours on the problems facing Tazkhan and yet this girl had summarised the situation in four blunt sentences, devoid of emotion, exaggeration or drama.

 ‘Perhaps he didn’t expect your father to die so soon.’

 Again there was hesitation, and it was obvious she was being selective about what she told him. ‘Hassan knows that the only way he will be accepted is to marry me, and he is willing to do anything to make that happen. Do not underestimate him.’

 Her words were like the scrape of a knife over an open wound because he’d done exactly that. In his righteous arrogance he’d thought himself untouchable and as a result he’d lost someone he’d loved deeply.

 ‘You seem very familiar with the workings of his mind.’

 ‘I’ve studied him. I think there is a strong chance he is clinically disturbed. He demonstrates some of the elements of a sociopath, shows no remorse or guilt for any of his actions.’