Scandal: His Majesty's Love-Child

By: Annie West

‘PLACE your bets, mesdames et messieurs.’

Sheikh Tahir Al’Ramiz glanced around the gaming table, at the crowd watching him with rapt attention, eager to see his next move. His gaze trawled past the stack of chips he’d won in the last hour.

A waiter hovered with a fresh bottle of champagne. Tahir nodded and turned to the woman pressed so eagerly against his side. Blonde, beautiful, accommodating. She’d turned heads from the moment they entered Monte Carlo’s opulent old casino.

She moved and the fortune in diamonds encircling her throat and dripping down her superb cleavage flashed in the chandelier’s mellow light. Her stunning evening dress of beaded silver was testament to the effect wealth and a world-class couturier could achieve.

She smiled, the sort of intimate, eager smile women had been giving him since adolescence.

He passed her a flute of France’s finest champagne and leant back in his seat, finally acknowledging what he’d felt all evening.

He was bored.

Last time it had taken him two days to tire of Monte Carlo. This time he’d just arrived.

‘Last bets, mesdames et messieurs.’

Stifling a sigh, Tahir caught the croupier’s eye. ‘Quatorze,’ he said.

The croupier nodded and moved Tahir’s chips.

A hush fell as the crowd sucked in its collective breath. People on the other side of the table hurried to follow his lead, placing last-minute bets.

‘Fourteen?’ said the blonde, eyes widening. ‘You’re betting it all on one number?’

Tahir shrugged and lifted his glass. Idly he noted how the faint tremor in his hand made the surface of the wine ripple.

How long since he’d slept? Two days? Three? There’d been New York, where he’d finally closed that media deal and stayed to party. Then Tunisia for some all-terrain racing, Oslo and Moscow for more business, then here to his cruiser in the marina.

Was his lifestyle finally catching up with him?

He tried to dredge up some interest, some concern, and failed.

With a flourish the croupier set the roulette wheel spinning.

Slender fingers gripped Tahir’s knee through the fine wool of his trousers. His companion’s breathing quickened as the wheel spun. Her hand slipped up his thigh.

Did she find the thrill of gambling, even by proxy, so arousing?

He almost envied her. Tahir knew that if she were to strip naked and offer herself to him here and now, he’d feel nothing. No desire. No excitement. Nothing.

She flashed him another smile, a sultry invitation, and leaned close, her breast pressing against his arm.

He really should remember her name.

Elsa? Erica? It eluded him. Because he hadn’t been interested enough to fix it in his mind? Or because his memory was becoming impaired?

His lips quirked briefly. Unfortunately his memory still functioned perfectly.

Some things he’d never forget.

No matter how hard he tried.

Elisabeth. That was it. Elisabeth Karolin Roswitha, Countess von Markburg.

Clamorous applause roused him from his thoughts. A cushioned embrace engulfed him as the Countess von Markburg almost climbed onto his lap in her excitement. Soft lips grazed his cheek, his mouth.

‘You’ve won again, Tahir!’ She pulled back, her eyes glittering with excitement. ‘Isn’t it marvellous?’

He moved his lips in what passed for a smile and raised his glass.

Tahir envied her that simple rush of pleasure. How long since he’d experienced that? Gambling didn’t do it for him any more. Business coups? Sometimes. Extreme sports? At least he got an adrenalin rush when he put his neck on the line. Sex?

He watched another woman approach. A dark-haired seductress wearing ruby drop earrings that brushed her bare shoulders and a dress that would have her locked up for indecency in a lot of countries.

And he felt not a flicker of response.

She stopped beside him, leaned down, giving him a view right down her dress, past unfettered breasts to her navel and beyond.

‘Tahir, darling. It’s been an age.’

Her lips opened against his and her tongue slicked along the seam of his lips. But he wasn’t in the mood.

Fatigue suddenly swamped him. Not physical tiredness, but the insidious grey nothingness that had plagued him so long.