Read Heart of the Desert Online

Authors: Carol Marinelli

Heart of the Desert (5 page)

‘It’s like a royal parade,’ Georgie attempted as the door opened, and then she swallowed at Ibrahim’s response.

‘That’s exactly what it is.’

One minute she was enjoying a spa day with her sister, the next she was to be a visible member of Zaraq’s most prominent family. One minute she was an occasional, albeit enthusiastic aunt. Now, though, when Rina handed her Azizah, she carried in her arms Zaraq’s newest princess.

‘Why aren’t the windows blacked out?’

‘We are on official duty!’ Ibrahim informed her. ‘The people of Zaraq want to see their royal family on a day like today.’

Perhaps he mistook her panicked eyes. ‘We can go separately if you prefer,’ Ibrahim offered, but it wasn’t being with him that had Georgie nervous, it was the thought of doing this without her sister.

‘No,’ Georgie croaked. ‘Stay.’

She was a complicated mix, Ibrahim thought as he climbed in beside her. So outwardly confident, so bold and assured, and yet … He looked over, but she stared ahead, her blue eyes unblinking, and he could hear her drawing in deep breaths. There was a fragility to her that his brother missed, that others missed, and he could not just abandon her on a day like today. As the car moved from the palace and into the streets, Ibrahim told her a little of what she could expect.

‘Now that the king has arrived at the hospital, there will be great excitement, people gathering.’

It was all more than Georgie could immediately take in, though later she would surely go over it in her mind again and again, for as they approached the hospital, crowds of people were waving and cheering as the latest royal car arrived. It was the most bizarre moment of her life, and as she climbed out, holding Azizah, never had Georgie felt more responsible. She was filled with a need to take care of her niece as Felicity would want her to. She held Azizah close and pulled the shawl to shield the baby’s eyes from the fierce afternoon sun. Ibrahim waited patiently and then walked beside her, greeting waiting staff members who briefed him as they went to join the rest of the royals.

‘It won’t be long apparently,’ Ibrahim informed her. ‘The birth is imminent, and Hassan has just arrived.’

They arrived at a waiting room like no other. There were staff on hand offering refreshments, and Rina, who had followed in another car, offered to take Azizah, but
Georgie declined. ‘I’ll hold her. Where’s my sister?’ she asked, and it was Ibrahim who found out.

‘Felicity is staying with Jamal for the birth.’ He saw her blue eyes shutter. ‘I know it’s a bit overwhelming.’

‘A bit?’

‘Very,’ Ibrahim conceded. ‘I will stay with you.’ Even if it had been forbidden by his brother—in fact, just that morning, as Ibrahim had been heading out for a ride, Karim had issued an updated warning for him to stay away from Georgie—he did not care. The ways of his family overwhelmed even Ibrahim at times, so how much harder must it be for Georgie? And without the help of her sister too. ‘You don’t have to worry about anything.’

Georgie blew out a breath. ‘I don’t know how Felicity copes …’

‘It’s the life she has chosen, though it’s not like this all the time’ He watched as she held little Azizah closer, more, he guessed, for her own sake than the baby’s.

‘Well, I couldn’t do it.’

‘She does very well.’

She frowned as she turned to him, surprised by the genuine admiration in his voice when he referred to Felicity. ‘I thought you didn’t like her.’

‘I like her a lot,’ Ibrahim said. ‘My concern is for you.’ And then he gave a wry smile. ‘Not that you want it.’

‘She’s not using me.’

‘Of course she is,’ Ibrahim said. ‘And I don’t blame her a bit for it. She is here alone in a foreign country, she
wants her family close—and she wants you to use her too.’ He’d voiced every one of her thoughts. ‘She wants you, the sister she loves, to share in the riches, but you feel beholden.’

And she closed her eyes, so raw was that nerve.

‘Look after yourself, Georgie.’

‘Like you do?’

He was about to say, yes, give his usual arrogant reply, yet she made him think, made him pause, and rather than answer her question, he looked at his niece, sleeping the sleep of the innocent. He ran a finger down the baby’s cheek and his reply was honest.

‘Like I try to.’ Ibrahim said, ‘but we are all beholden.’

For now, circumstance dictated he be here for the royal birth. It was his duty to see it through, yet he was surprised at his building anticipation. He had been touched by the people’s joy as they had driven through the streets. He was relieved perhaps because, when his father had been ill, when Hassan and Jamal had failed to produce a baby, there had been talk of Hassan renouncing his birthright, which would have bought Ibrahim one step closer to the unthinkable—that he might one day be king.

He was relieved, that was all, Ibrahim told himself as the lusty cries of a newborn assured Zaraq’s future.

‘A son!’ The king beamed. ‘Our future king has been born. A little small, a little weak, but the doctor assures us he is healthy, that he will grow and be strong.’ He looked over at his errant youngest son and in a rare
tactile moment embraced him. ‘It is good you are here to share in this day.’

It felt good.

The unvoiced admission surprised him.

‘Come,’ the king ordered. ‘We move to the balcony to share the joyous news with our people.’

It was a good day, an exciting day, a miraculous day. Ibrahim looked at Georgie, who was completely out of her depth and more than a little lost, and as he went to her side he could see the terror in her eyes. As promised, he stood by her as they moved to the balcony.

‘This,’ he explained, ‘is the announcement. This tells our people all is well. When Hassan and Jamal’s first son, Kaliq, was born and we knew he would not survive, there was a small press release and no further comment. Today the people of Zaraq will know all is well.’

She stepped onto the balcony, holding her tiny niece, and heard the screams and cheers from the streets below.

‘You’re doing great.’ He was being incredibly nice.

‘Thanks.’ Georgie shivered through her teeth. ‘The thing is I have no idea what it is I’m doing.’ Still, the excitement was palpable and Georgie joined in, even waved to the people below and had an ‘if only they knew’ moment when she thought of her friends back home. ‘Luckily it’s just for today.’

But it wasn’t just one day for Ibrahim. This was what he was being asked to return to, he thought as he stared out at the crowd. This might be his future.

CHAPTER SIX

‘D
O
I have to wear this?’ This was so not what Georgie had come to Zaraq for. It was a trip to see her sister, to spend time with her niece, but now she was to dine tonight with the princes and the king, and it seemed there was no getting around it.

‘The heir was born today.’ She could hear the exasperation and guilt in her sister’s voice. ‘Georgie, we will have time together, it’s just with Jamal’s baby coming early … Please, just go with things for a couple of days.’

It was arguably worse than the wedding. To ensure she was fit for the king’s table, maids had braided her long blonde hair and kohled her eyes, and now a garment had been laid out on her bed—a long lemon dress with beading and patterns down two front panels. It wasn’t even close to anything she would have chosen.

‘You look gorgeous,’ Felicity lied, because the lemon would have looked stunning with olive skin and a coil of dark hair, but it clashed with blonde and both sisters knew it.

‘I look like a lemon meringue pie.’ Georgie responded,
but she didn’t want to add to her sister’s guilt. She actually managed a laugh as she peered in the mirror. ‘And why is my rouge orange? Anyway, it doesn’t matter, it’s just dinner … I’ll be fine. You will be sitting next to me?’ Georgie checked, but her heart tripped to a race when Felicity grimaced.

‘I will, but I might have to pop up and feed Azizah. She fell asleep straight after her bath so I don’t think she’s going to last the whole meal.’

‘You can’t leave me with them.’

‘I wouldn’t normally—who could know Jamal was going to have the baby early? And I didn’t know there’d be a formal function the day he was born.’

‘Formal!’ Georgie gulped.

‘Well, not formal exactly,’ Felicity quickly backtracked. ‘I mean, it’s family but Jamal’s family are coming too and they’re very traditional … Georgie, I don’t want Rina to feed Azizah unless I really can’t be there. I have had to stand my ground with this—it’s the height of bad manners here to excuse yourself during a meal, but Karim’s spoken to his father …’

‘You’ve got an exemption.’

‘I can’t back down.’ Felicity was torn. ‘But if it is too much for you … If it’s going to set you back …’

‘Felicity.’ Georgie was firm. ‘Not everything goes back to my eating disorder. Any person would be nervous at having to attend a formal dinner with a king.’

‘I know. I’m just so sorry that it’s on your second night. It won’t happen again. We don’t usually dine with the king—normally it’s Karim and me in our suite.’

‘So who’s going to be there?’

‘The king, and Hassan will be there with Jamal’s parents and family. Ibrahim, I hope.’

‘Hope?’ Georgie closed her eyes for a moment. She really did not want to face him looking like this.

‘That’s all you can do when he’s around.’ Felicity gave a wry smile. ‘How was he today?’

‘He seemed to enjoy the celebration—he was thrilled for his brother.’

‘Karim said you two spent a lot of time together.’

‘He speaks English,’ Georgie said tersely. She did not have to explain herself, they had done nothing wrong, but she quickly changed the subject. ‘What about the queen?’

‘You know she doesn’t live here.’

‘So when will she get to see her grandson?’

‘When Hassan and Jamal take him to see her—like I did when Azizah was born. Mind you, with him being a little bit premature, it might not be for a while.’

‘So she won’t get to see him?’

‘Georgie, please …’ Her sister was nervous and it irritated Georgie.

‘We’re not allowed to talk about it even in the privacy of my bedroom?’ Georgie shook her head in disbelief. ‘I don’t know how you live like this, Felicity.’

‘I have a wonderful life,’ Felicity said, ‘and of course we can talk about things. It’s just …’ Felicity screwed her eyes closed for a second. ‘Just not at dinner. Georgie, I’m asking you to be discreet. There are things that aren’t to be discussed.’ She tried for the umpteenth time to
explain to her younger sister the strange ways of Zaraq. ‘It’s a very delicate subject, The king misses her terribly, he mourns for her.’

‘She’s not dead,’ Georgie pointed out. ‘All he has to do is pick up the phone.’ She rolled her eyes. ‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to say anything to embarrass you—I’ll be suitably demure.’

She was, and it had nothing to do with Felicity’s warning. The vast table, the company, the introductions, the surroundings had Georgie overwhelmed.

There was no sign of Ibrahim and she heard the king say his name a couple of times to Karim.

‘When do we eat?’ Georgie asked her sister, when they had been sitting for what seemed ages.

‘When the prodigal son appears.’ Felicity answered, and Georgie felt nervous on his behalf. ‘Are you okay?’

‘I’m fine.’ But even if she appeared calm, inwardly she was dreading that her sister might have to leave. Especially as Felicity had told her that though they usually did their best to converse in English when she was around, it wasn’t possible tonight as Jamal’s family spoke only Arabic. ‘They are discussing when a photo of the new heir will be released.’ Felicity did her best to keep up with the conversation, but even that lifeline was lost when a maid whispered in her ear and Felicity, with a rather terse nod from the king, excused herself.

It was interminable, smiling and laughing and nodding when the others did, though Georgie had no idea what was being said. She actually found herself wishing
they’d bring the food out, just to give her something to do. But then, like a summer shower on a stifling day, Ibrahim strolled in and all Georgie could wonder was how he got away with wearing Western clothes—he was in black dinner trousers and a slim-fitting white shirt and she wondered if he’d been out riding and had just pulled some clothes on, because his hair was tousled and he hadn’t bothered with shaving.

‘You are late.’ The king was less than impressed. The conversation was in English now, no doubt to avoid any embarrassment in front of the esteemed guests.

‘I had to make a phone call,’ Ibrahim said without apology.

‘It is dinner,’ the king said.

‘With family.’ Ibrahim’s smile was black as he made his point. ‘Surely we can relax and share in such a fine occasion.’ He slid into the empty seat beside Georgie.

‘Felicity is sitting there.’ Karim’s response was immediate.

‘Where is she, then?’

‘Feeding Azizah.’

‘She left you to deal with this lot?’ Ibrahim looked less than impressed and just shrugged as Karim frowned at him. ‘I’ll sit with you till she gets back.’ He switched back to Arabic then and spoke for a moment or two with the guests and then turned his attention back to Georgie.

‘You look …’ His eyes drifted down and then back to her face, and there was a hint of a tease in his smile. ‘Like you did the day I met you.’

‘Ah, yes,’ Georgie said, remembering the apricot bridesmaid’s dress. ‘I don’t think the maids are used to dressing blondes.’ She winked. ‘I’ll have to have a little word.’

He was wonderful company. She even forgot to be nervous for a little while, forgot, if it was possible to, just how attracted she was to him. She was just herself with him that night, and that was all she needed to be.

‘I thought they’d be serving now that you are here,’ Georgie commented when, despite Felicity’s prediction, it seemed that the dreaded meal was taking for ever to come out.

‘It shouldn’t be too much longer,’ Ibrahim explained, ‘Most of the socialising is done before dinner. Once it gets to coffee, the evening is over.’

‘Really?’ Georgie gave a tight smile in Karim’s direction. ‘My sister never said.’

Still, when the first course was finally served, somehow he must have sensed the small lick of hers lips wasn’t borne of anticipation as a stream of maids approached with dishes.

‘You’ll be fine.’ He watched as she politely nodded, but he could see the nervousness in her eyes. ‘You really will.’

‘I read that it’s rude not to clear your plate.’ Georgie was almost breathless at the admission, but without Felicity beside her, the prospect of dining in such plush surroundings with food she was unfamiliar with was becoming increasingly daunting.

‘It’s mezze,’ he said, ‘just the starter—dips, pastries
and pickles …’ He explained the lavish spread. ‘Just take a little and if you like it, go back for more. Excuse me a moment,’ he said, and turned his attention to his father. ‘
Bekra
,’ came his brief response, then he turned back to Felicity. ‘My father is asking when I am going to the hospital again. I said tomorrow.’

Somehow she relaxed, so much so she barely noticed when Felicity returned and after a brief awkward moment Ibrahim moved to the other side of the table.

‘I’m so sorry.’ Felicity said in a low voice. ‘Georgie, I really am—’

‘It’s fine,’ Georgie said. ‘Honestly. Ibrahim’s been wonderful.’ She saw her sister’s lips tighten, saw Felicity’s worried blink as she glanced briefly at her brother-in-law and then back to Georgie.

‘What?’ Georgie frowned.

‘Nothing,’ Felicity said, but Georgie could tell she was rattled.

Ibrahim’s behavior was impeccable. As the endless courses were served he spoke with the guests but he still carried on talking to Georgie, guiding her through the courses whenever Felicity was drawn into the main conversation.

As they ate their dessert—
mahlabia
, Ibrahim informed her from across the table, a creamy pudding layered with rose water—again she felt Felicity tense. Her sister’s reaction incensed Georgie. Admittedly, thorough no fault of her own, Felicity had left her to her own devices all day, and Georgie shuddered to think how the day would have been without Ibrahim’s guidance. Now
Felicity seemed annoyed that the two of them seemed to be getting on, even nudging Georgie when she laughed at something Ibrahim said.

‘What?’ Georgie asked. ‘What have I done wrong now?’

‘I’ll talk to you later.’

She would be talking too.

Oh, yes, she’d say something, but later and when they were alone.

Coffee was served and, as Ibrahim had predicted, the evening ended. As farewells were said to Jamal’s family, Hassan declared he would now return to the hospital to spend the first night with his wife and new son. But it would seem the evening was not quite over, for the king accepted another coffee and small biscuits were served. Just when everyone should be able to relax a touch more, the king frowned in annoyance as Ibrahim’s phone rang loudly.

‘Excuse me.’ He stood as he answered it. ‘I have to take this call.’

It was clearly the height of rudeness, and the conversation was strained as Ibrahim took his time. The king’s face was like thunder as the minutes stretched on, and even Georgie was nervous as to what might happen when almost half an hour later an unrepentant Ibrahim returned to the room.

‘What?’ He glanced up at the silence and boldly addressed it.

‘I will speak with you later.’

‘Speak with me now,’ Ibrahim said.

‘You have kept the table waiting for the second time in one meal.’

‘I told you to carry on.’

‘We celebrate
as
a family.’

‘Not quite.’

It wasn’t indiscretions from Georgie they had to worry about. There was a dangerous edge to Ibrahim, a challenge in his stance as he took his place at the table and clicked his fingers. ‘I would like champagne …’ he glanced at his father ‘… to celebrate the birth of Zaraq’s future king.’

There had been champagne at her sister’s wedding, but only for visitors, and clearly it was not expected tonight, for the servant hesitated until a tense nod came from the king. ‘Will anyone join me?’ Ibrahim asked. Gorgeous black eyes swept the table and then met hers.

‘No, thank you.’ She could almost hear the sigh of relief from her sister as she declined his offer and everyone else at the table did the same.

‘Not
quite
a family celebration.’ Ibrahim picked up the conversation once his champagne was poured, and Georgie realised he wasn’t just ignoring his father’s anger, he was provoking it. ‘Did not one of you think to call her?’ Ibrahim’s eyes roamed to his brother and then to his father. ‘That is why I was late for dinner. I called my mother, naturally expecting her to already know the news … that this morning she became a grandmother.’

‘Ibrahim,’ Karim broke in. ‘Not here.’

‘Where, then?’ Ibrahim said. ‘This is family, is it not? Where do we discuss such things if not at dinner?’

‘Tonight is a celebration,’ the king said, though a muscle flickered in his cheek. ‘I was going to have my secretary ring—’

‘Your secretary?’ Ibrahim sneered. ‘Is that the same one who rang her when her son died? The same one who rang her when Hassan and Jamal’s firstborn died? You know how her heart broke.’

‘I had not spoken to your mother in years then.’

‘But you’re talking to her now,’ Ibrahim said. ‘You’re more than talking with her, you’re …’ He stopped and collected himself then carried on. ‘Could you not have rung today to make her heart soar?’ His disgust was evident.

‘You did not ring,’ the king said.

‘I thought you had!’ Ibrahim would not back down. ‘I assumed her husband had, given you are talking now, and that you were in London two weeks ago on
business
.’

‘Silence.’

‘That call I just took was from your wife,’ Ibrahim sneered, ‘my mother, our queen. The news I gave to her before dinner has just sunk in, now she is crying, sobbing, that she cannot see the future heir till Hassan can fit in a visit. She begs me to celebrate for her, to give him a kiss from the grandmother who cannot be here. She has poured champagne back in London and is raising a glass—I told her that I would do the same.’

His eyes scanned the table. ‘Will anyone join my mother and me?’

There were no takers.

Karim shook his head, as did Felicity, and Georgie wanted to shake her.

‘Georgie?’ he offered, and she was beyond tempted to say yes this time, not for the drink but for the point he was making. But she refused to partake in a battle that was not hers, to play a game when she was not privy to the rules. She could hear the pain behind his statements, feel the injustice on his mother’s behalf, but she was here with her sister, here to support her, not make trouble for her. Still, there was regret in her heart when again she declined.

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