Traded to the Desert Sheikh(5)

By: Caitlin Crews

And then she swallowed so hard he could hear it and, beast that he was, he liked that, too.

“Run,” he invited her, the way he’d once invited a challenger to attempt to take his throne. With untrained hands and an unwieldy ego. It had not ended well for that foolish upstart. To say nothing of the traitorous creature who had struck down Kavian’s father before him. Kavian was not a good man. The woman who would become his queen should have no doubts on that score. “See what happens.”

He didn’t know what he expected her to do, but it wasn’t that defiant glare she aimed at him, her hands fisted on her hips, as if she was considering taking a swing at him right there in public. He wished she’d do that, too. Any touch at all, he’d take.

She was so pretty that she should have been spoiled and delicate, a fragile glass thing better kept high on a soft, safe shelf—and he’d thought she was. He would have worshipped her as such. That she was this, as well—with the ingenuity to hide from him for this long and the sheer strength to stand before him without shrinking or collapsing when many grown men did not dare do the same—came far too close to making him...furious.

Well. Perhaps furious was not quite the correct term. But it was dark, that ribbon of reaction in him. Supple and lush. And it gripped him like a slick vise all the same. He imagined it was a kind of admiration. For the fierce and worthy queen she would become, if he could but tame her to the role. Kavian had no doubt that he could do it, in time. That he would.

Had he not done everything he’d ever set out to do, no matter how treacherous the path? What was one woman next to a throne reclaimed, a family avenged, the stain on his soul? Even if it was this one. This woman, who fought him where others only cowered.

God help him but he liked it. The angrier she made him with her defiance, the more he liked her.

Her beauty had been a hammer to the side of his head from the start, taking him by surprise. His first inkling that he, too, was a mortal man who could be toppled by the same sins as any other. It had not been a revelation he had particularly enjoyed. He could remember all too well that meeting with Rihad al Bakri, the other man at that time merely the heir apparent to the Bakrian throne.

“You want an alliance,” he’d said when Rihad was brought before him in the grand, bejeweled throne room in the old city of Daar Talaas that had been hewn into the rocks themselves and for centuries had stood as a great stronghold. Kavian wanted to make certain it would stand for centuries more.

“I do.”

“What benefit is there in such an alliance for me?”

Rihad had talked at length about politics and the drums of war that beat so long and so hard in their part of the world that Kavian had started to consider it their own form of regional music. And it was far better to dance than to die. Moreover, he’d known Rihad was correct—the mighty powers around them imposed their rule by greed and cunning and, when that did not work, the long-range missiles of their foreign-funded militaries. In this way, the world was still won, day after bloody day.

“And I have a sister,” Rihad had said, at the end of this trip through unsavory political realities.

“Many men have sisters. Not all of those men also have kingdoms in peril that could use the support of my army.”

Because Daar Talaas might not have been as well funded as some of their neighbors, nor was its military as vast, but they had not been beaten by a single foreign force since they had ousted the last Ottoman sultanate in the fifteenth century.

“You strike me as a man who prefers the old ways.” Rihad had shrugged, though his gaze had been shrewd. “Surely there remains no better way to unite two families, or two countries, than to become one in fact.”

“Says the man who has not offered to marry my sister,” Kavian had murmured, lounging there on his throne as if he hadn’t cared one way or the other. “Though it is his kingdom that hangs in the balance.”

Rihad had not replied with the obvious retort, that Kavian had no sisters and that his brothers had been taken out much too young in the bloody coup Kavian’s predecessor had led. Instead, he’d handed over a tablet computer and had pressed Play on the cued-up video.

“My sister,” he’d said. Simply enough.

She’d been pretty, of course. But Kavian had been surrounded by pretty women his whole life. Supplicants presented them to him like desserts for him to choose between, or simply collect. His harem had been stocked with the finest selection of feminine beauty from all over his lands, and even beyond.

But this one was something else.