The Desert King's Housekeeper Bride(12)

By: Carol Marinelli

Without a word she demanded from him something he rarely bestowed.

Real conversation.

‘You would make an excellent chess player…’ The edge of his mouth lifted into a smile at another monotone, polite answer as she forced him to ponder his next move. Zakari wondered whether opening up would box him in, or somehow release him.

‘I doubt it.’ Effie smiled softly. ‘I don’t play games.’

After the longest hesitation, weighing up her kind, sympathetic face through narrow, mistrusting eyes, Zakari chose the latter.

‘Every day I think of him.’ It was Zakari who broke the endless strained silence. He had never admitted such things—even to himself—could hear the unchecked words coming from his usually guarded lips, only he did nothing to halt them. ‘Still now, in my heart of hearts, I cannot accept that he is dead.’

‘So you cannot grieve…’ Hearing his pain on instinct, she touched him, her hand reaching for his forearm, but the moment contact was made she realised the inappropriateness, pulled her hand back and bunched it into a fist, yet she could feel the tingle in her fingers.

Zakari, in turn, was struggling. He had let her glimpse his pain, had shared enough that surely now she should continue, now she should talk, so that he might relax. Yet that brush on his arm, that mere hint of contact, had brought rare comfort. His black eyes pondered hers, acknowledging that lonely raw piece of his soul had, for just a fleeting second perhaps, been understood.

He had never grieved.

Had never been allowed to grieve.

A prince who would one day be king could not cry.

Anya had grieved. For a second his mind flashed back to Anya, sobbing on the bed. How he had wanted to weep with her, yet he had been sixteen—a king in training. As he stared at Effie, her sapphire eyes pooling with tears, his left shoulder tightened and he could feel again his father’s hand placed there.

‘Stay strong!’ His father, Sheikh Ashraf, had squeezed his son’s shoulder, when Zakari had wanted to be held. ‘It is not for us to demand answers.’

He had never questioned it, yet under her gentle presence he questioned it now.

‘Can I ask what happened?’

Her voice was as soft as his growling response. ‘You know what happened.’

‘I know what I read,’ Effie countered, ‘I know what I heard, but I don’t know.’

‘You know what you need to.’

‘It might help to talk.’

‘How?’ he asked, and Effie realised he truly didn’t know. Here before her was a man whose feelings had never come into things—who had been raised to act, rather than to feel.

‘It just might.’ She could have wept; not for his brother, but for the flicker of confusion in those guarded eyes. She could almost feel him relent and then recoil with every second that passed. What came so easily to her was unfathomable to him.

And then he gave her the sweetest gift of all. Sheikh King Zakari Al’Farisi, with painful words, invited her into his world and, Effie realised, she would love him for ever for it.

‘Emir, my brother, was sick, he had the flu…’ His strong voice was reduced to a hoarse whisper as he continued. ‘I never played with the younger children. I was raised to be king—it was not my place to do childish things…

‘Aarif and Kaliq, the twins, were creeping off to build a raft… They were teenage boys, they should have known better, but they were silly, planning this adventure that they would build a raft and sail out on it to sea. Zafir found out about their plans…’ His voice caught for a moment, but she calmly sat, just waited till he was ready to continue. ‘He begged to go with them. They lost control; they were swept to sea…’

She had heard bits about the tragedy that had happened when Effie was just four years old. She had seen for herself the scar on Prince Aarif’s face where he had been shot, and had read bits about it in the library, but hearing it from the King himself, from the brother who had lost so much, had the tears spilling from Effie’s eyes.

‘They were captured by diamond smugglers. Zafir was a proud little thing—he shouted to them who his father was. Of course, as soon as the smugglers realised just who it was they had captured they became greedy. They bound their wrists with ropes; Aarif and Kaliq still have the scars of the ropes that cut in as the smugglers debated the ransom they would demand…