Authors: Carol Marinelli
‘No, thank you.’ She licked suddenly dry lips and dropped her gaze, but not before she saw a flash of disappointment in his eyes.
The king was not about to bend to his son.
‘Tomorrow.’ He rose from the table and immediately Karim stood and so too did Felicity. At her sister’s nudge, Georgie followed. Only Ibrahim sat, not for long but there was reluctance, insolence even as rather too slowly he also stood. It did not go unnoticed. ‘You will be in my study at eight a.m. Tomorrow, Ibrahim, you will listen to what I have to say.’
The door closed behind him but the tension did not leave the room.
‘Why tonight, Ibrahim?’ Karim challenged. ‘Why did you have to spoil it?’
‘Spoil it?’ Ibrahim did not understand his brother,
his brother who would have been the king’s choice as heir, a brother who had not even cried when his mother had left them. ‘You mean voice it.’
‘I mean, you make trouble whenever you return. There was no reason for this display.’
‘No reason?’ Ibrahim looked at his brother and then at Felicity. ‘Imagine, years from now, Felicity, if it was Azizah who had delivered a child while you were on the other side of the world and Karim did not think even to call you.’ He picked up the bottle and left them alone and Georgie fought the urge to follow him.
‘He has a point.’ Felicity turned to her husband. ‘A very good one, in fact. You should have called her.’ When Karim didn’t answer, Felicity pushed on. ‘We need to arrange a trip home.’
‘We’ve been,’ Karim said. ‘We took Azizah home to meet your family and my mother when she was born.’
‘Well, arrange another one,’ Felicity said. ‘I want Azizah to know all her family.’
‘I’ll sort it.’ Karim stood. ‘I’ll go and speak to my father now. See how he is.’
But any magnanimous feelings Felicity had towards her brother-in-law were fleeting. ‘Bloody Ibrahim,’ Felicity shrilled when they were safe in her suite. ‘He does this every time he’s home.’
‘As you said, he had a good point.’
‘Well, of course you’d jump in on his side.’ Felicity was pacing. ‘Will you just stay away from him?’
‘Why should I?’ Georgie challenged. ‘When he’s the
only person whose been there for me all day. Am I not supposed to speak to him?’
‘Of course you can speak to people—it’s the little private conversations, the laughing at each other’s jokes …’ Felicity was having difficulty keeping her voice even and then she said it, just came right out and said what had been obvious to everyone. ‘You two were flirting all night.’
‘No!’ Adamantly Georgie shook her head. ‘We were talking. We were just talking …’ Except that wasn’t true. It had been his black eyes she had sought, his smile, his voice that had summoned her senses, and she couldn’t blame her sister for noticing. ‘I wasn’t deliberately flirting.’
‘You were the same at the wedding,’ Felicity said. ‘I know he’s attractive and I know women don’t stand a chance when he turns on the charm, but not here, Georgie, not in Zaraq, not with my husband’s family. You can do what you like in London.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ Felicity always did this—made out she was some wild child, some perpetual problem to be dealt with.
‘Just …’ Felicity ran a hand thorough her hair. ‘Let’s just leave it, please, Georgie.’
‘Leave what?’ Georgie said.
‘Nothing.’ Felicity shook her head. ‘I don’t want to argue.’ She gave a weak smile. ‘I’m overreacting. It’s been a long day and not just with Jamal. Karim’s worried about the Bedouins, he’s speaking with his father to try and sort out what to do. I’ve felt guilty all day
for leaving you and it
good of Ibrahim to take you under his wing. I’m just tired, overreacting.’
‘Go to bed,’ Georgie said. ‘You’ll be up for Azizah in a couple of hours.’ She saw Felicity’s face pale just at the thought of it. ‘Why don’t you let Rina get up to her tonight?’
‘Not you too!’ Felicity was close to tears. ‘I don’t want Rina.’
‘I can get up if you want,’ Georgie said. ‘You look exhausted.’
‘You don’t have to.’
‘I want to,’ Georgie said, and before Felicity could jump in, she did. ‘I know she’s to have your milk, but there’s a whole freezer full. I’ll take the intercom and you get some sleep and we’ll have a nice day tomorrow.’ She watched as Felicity nibbled on her lip. Clearly there were more duties she had to perform. ‘Or the next day. It’s not your fault the future king was born the day after I arrived.’
‘You do understand?’
‘I do,’ Georgie lied, because she couldn’t really believe everything her sister had married into. There were unspoken rules everywhere and no matter how she tried she seemed to put a foot wrong.
As she walked back to her bedroom she saw him standing on the balcony, looking out to the desert he loathed. He didn’t turn round but she knew he had heard her because she saw his shoulders stiffen. She stood for a moment, wondering if he’d acknowledge her, wondering
what she’d do if he did, but Ibrahim just poured another drink and deliberately ignored her.
‘I can manage, thanks.’ Felicity smiled at the maid in her bedroom, who was there to help her undress, and she blew out a breath when finally she was alone.
She should have said yes to him tonight.
There were a thousand ways she could justify not doing so. As she pulled out her hair, she thought of a few—she was here for her sister after all, it would have been disrespectful to the king … Georgie slipped off her shoes, undid the buttons on her dress and then took off the horrible rouge and kohl, slathered on some face cream and rubbed more melissa on her temples, telling herself she’d done the right thing, but her heart wasn’t in it.
After brushing her teeth, she rinsed her mouth then poured the water down the sink. She looked into the mirror and could justify no more.
Taking the glass, she picked up the intercom and walked out through her suite and into the hallway to where he stood on the balcony. He didn’t turn to greet her and she hadn’t expected him to.
‘I’m sorry.’ But Ibrahim shook his head. ‘I’m trying to apologise.’
‘Well, you don’t have to.’ Finally he turned and filled her glass. ‘I should not have put you in that situation.’ The most difficult, complicated man she had ever met looked into her eyes and she wished that she could read what was in his. ‘You are not beholden to me.’ Always
he surprised her. ‘But, Georgie …’ he glanced down at the intercom ‘… neither are you to your sister.’
‘I’m just looking after my niece for the night.’
‘I’m not just talking about that—there is tension between the two of you.’
‘We love each other.’
‘I know you do,’ Ibrahim said. ‘But there is …’ He could not quite identify it. ‘You hold back and so does she.’
‘Maybe,’ Ibrahim admitted. ‘But sometimes a row can be good. Sometimes the air needs to be cleared. You feel you are beholden?’ he asked. ‘That you owe something to her?’ And his voice for the first time ever was tender, and there was both guilt and relief as she nodded, being more honest with another person than she had been in her life. Georgie rarely cried, and only really for physical pain but she hadn’t fallen over in a long time. But just as he had at the nightclub, Ibrahim brought her near tears with just a few words.
‘That’s not good, Georgie.’ He knew her from the inside; he pulled out her demons and told her to banish them. For a moment she wanted to run.
‘She’s helped me so much, though.’
‘Have you thanked her?’
‘Did you mean it?’
‘Then you’re done,’ Ibrahim said, except it surely
wasn’t that simple. ‘Lose the guilt, Georgie …’ he smiled ‘… and come to bed with me instead.
‘That last bit was a joke,’ he added, then it wasn’t his smile but the swallow beneath that told her something else—that he was remembering. For the first time in months he moved closer into her space and there was an almost imperceptible tightening to his nostrils, but to Georgie it was magnified tenfold, for she knew he was drawing in her scent as he lowered his head.
He inhaled the fragrant air that swirled between them and she wondered if he would kiss her, could hardly hold onto her breath as she tried to keep speaking normally.
‘We call it melissa …’ And then there was no hope of speaking because his breath was on her cheek.
She thought he might kiss her, so badly she wanted to taste him again, she thought he might pull her just a little further in, but all he did was torment her with a slow appraisal that made her feel faint. He breathed in her scent, though he did not touch her physically, but to have him so close made her feel weak and, whatever his assessment, he was right to assume he could kiss her; he could touch her; he could have her right here on the balcony, and that, Georgie thought in a brief moment of clarity, was a very good reason to say goodnight.
‘I’ve got to go,’ she croaked.
‘Then go now,’ Ibrahim warned, which was wise.
She took the baby monitor from the ledge, walked to her room and made herself, forced herself, not to turn round, but there was little sanctuary in her bedroom.
She took off her dress and lay naked between cool sheets, knowing there was just one door between them and wondering if he’d pursue her—already she knew what her response would be.
But he didn’t.
He left her burning, aroused and inflamed as once she had left him, as perhaps was his intention, Georgie realised. Maybe he did want her on her knees, begging, just so he could decline.
Thank God for the baby monitor.
An electronic chastity belt that blinked through the night and made lots of noise, and, far from resent it, Georgie was grateful to have it by her side.
For without it she’d have roamed the palace, looking for his door.
wanted to see me.’ Ibrahim strode into the king’s plush office ten minutes early. Yesterday’s reprieve from his father had come more as an irritation than a relief to Ibrahim. He did not avoid things and though he wasn’t looking forward to this conversation, he would rather it was over.
That he state his case and move on.
‘Have a seat.’ The king’s voice was tired rather than assertive, which was unusual, but what came next was a complete surprise. He had expected to be met with a tirade, a challenge, but it was the father, not the ruler who met his eyes. ‘You were right.’
‘I’m always right.’ Ibrahim smiled, perhaps the only one of the sons who dared and sometimes could get away with cheeking his father. ‘Can I ask about what?’
‘I should have informed your mother.’ The smile faded from Ibrahim’s face as his father continued. ‘She deserved better than to hear it from her son, or the news, or my secretary.’
She deserved better, full stop, Ibrahim wanted to add, but knew better than to push it.
‘She would not come to the phone this morning to accept my apology, so I am heading there to deliver it in person.’
‘You are leaving Zaraq now?’ It was almost unthinkable. The streets were awash with celebration, this was Zaraq’s greatest day, and his father was leaving?
‘I will be home in time for his discharge from hospital and I will visit the baby this morning. The people do not necessarily have to know. And if they do find out …’ The king gave a dismissive shrug. ‘I am visiting my wife to share in person the joyous news.’ He looked at his son, at the youngest but the deepest, the one, out of all of them, he could read the least. ‘You don’t look pleased.’
‘Why would I be?’
‘Since my illness I have been going to London more often. Your brothers are pleased to see your mother and I getting on … but not you.’
‘No.’ Ibrahim was honest, to his detriment at times, but he was always honest. ‘I don’t like my mother being treated as a tart.’
‘Ibrahim.’ There was a roar that would surely have woken Azizah, but Ibrahim didn’t even flinch. ‘Never speak of her like that.’
‘That is what you make her,’ Ibrahim said. ‘For years you ignored her.’
‘I housed her, she had an allowance.’
‘Now you lavish her with gifts, fly over there when you are able …’ He lifted his hands and danced them like a puppeteer and just sat as his father came round
the table and raised his fist to him. ‘Go ahead,’ Ibrahim said, ‘but it won’t silence me—it never has before.’ As his father dropped his fist, Ibrahim continued his tirade. ‘You expect her to be home, to drop everything when you deign to come over, yet at important times, at family times, she cannot be present—what would you call her then?’
‘I don’t need your approval.’
‘That is good,’ Ibrahim said, ‘because you will never get it.’ He stood and his father ordered him to sit.
‘I would prefer to stand.’
‘I did not dismiss you. There is more to discuss.’
‘As I said, I would prefer to stand.’
‘Then so too will I,’ the king said, and he stood and faced his youngest. There was challenge in the air and neither would back away from it. ‘I have been patient,’ the king said. ‘More than patient. But that patience is now running out. You are needed here.’
‘I am needed there,’ Ibrahim retorted. ‘Or will you only be happy when she is completely alone—will her punishment be sufficient when all her children are here in Zaraq?’
‘This isn’t about your mother. This is about you and your duty to Zaraq.’ Ibrahim refused to listen. He turned to go but his father’s words followed him. ‘Your place is here—you can run, but the desert will call you, I know that it
Ibrahim laughed in his face. ‘I cannot stand the desert.’
‘You fear it,’ his father taunted. ‘I see you ride along
the beaches and along the outskirts, but this time home you have not been in. If you choose not to listen to that call, then you will listen to me. I am selecting a bride—’
‘I can make my own choices.’
‘You never make wise ones, though,’ the king said to his son’s departing back.
He wanted to leave and he would, Ibrahim decided, just as soon as his father had gone—he did not care to share a flight with his father. He wanted no more of this land, of its rules, and he would not have his wife chosen for him.
He had been right to come back, Ibrahim realised. It reminded him how he could not bear it.
And then he saw her.
A very unwise choice.
Sitting on the sofa, her laptop on her knee, her blonde hair high in a ponytail and with credit card in hand. He saw her blush as he entered, though she didn’t look at him.
He didn’t have to even be there to make her blush this morning.
Just her thought process last night made her burn with shame.
He could have taken her on the balcony, had he chosen to. He could have come to her room and taken her then—what sort of babysitter was she? She wanted to get away from the palace today, wanted to clear her mind before it went back to thinking of him. She’d expected his talk with his father to take for ever, that by the
time they were finished she’d be long gone, but instead he walked up behind her.
‘What are you doing?’ he asked as she tapped on her computer. Most people wouldn’t look, Georgie thought. Most people wouldn’t come up behind you and stare over your shoulder at the page you were on, and even if they did, most people would pretend not to be taking an interest.
Ibrahim, though, wasn’t like most people. Georgie was scared to turn, her skin prickling at his closeness, the air between them crackling with energy.
‘I’m booking a tour.’
‘Of the desert.’
She really couldn’t believe his audacity.
‘Are you always this …?’ She couldn’t even sum it up in one word—rude, nosy? And then when clearly she hadn’t followed his command quickly enough, when clearly she hadn’t jumped to his bidding in time, he leant over her shoulder, moved her hand to the side and scrolled down for himself. In that second Georgie found her word—invasive.
‘An authentic desert experience …’ Every word was mocking. ‘You are staying at the palace, your sister is a princess and you are considering a guided tour?’
‘Felicity is busy,’ Georgie sighed.
‘No. Karim is heading out to the west today to assess
the situation with the Bedouins—he wanted her to go with him, and she agreed. She won’t be back till late.’
‘So why aren’t you auditioning for the part of nanny? Didn’t she ask you to watch Azizah today?’
‘She did.’ Georgie gave a guilty blush. ‘But I said no. I said that I’d seen she was busy and had already made plans for the next couple of days.’
‘Good Aunty,’ Georgie said, because she had given this a lot of thought when feeding Azizah overnight. ‘I want to be her aunt, not her nanny. So when Felicity asked this morning if I could watch her, I told her I had plans.’ She rolled her eyes. ‘Now I just have to make them.’
‘You can’t go on a tour.’ He shook his head. ‘That is like asking me to dinner and then I have to ring for a take-away.’
He was angry after his talk with his father; restless and confined, and in a moment his mind was made up. ‘I will take you.’
‘I don’t think that’s the best idea.’ Georgie swallowed, imagining Felicity’s reaction.
‘It’s a very good idea.’ Ibrahim said, because two days in, his homesickness had gone. Two days in Zaraq and he remembered why he’d left in the first place. ‘You should see the desert—and I would like to go there too.’ He would face his demons head on. The desert did not call him—the desert was not a person or a thing. Yes, maybe he had taken his horse only to the edge this visit or had ridden it on the beach, but he would go to the
desert today because he refused to fear it. He would give Georgie her day and then he would leave. ‘I’ll tell them to prepare the horses.’
‘I had one riding lesson nearly a decade ago.’ Georgie said. ‘I’ll stick with my air-conditioned bus.’
‘Then I’ll drive you.’
‘Look, I don’t think my sister would approve and it has nothing to do with …’ Her voice trailed off. After all, why shouldn’t she go out with Ibrahim? Especially with what he said next.
‘You have to promise to keep your hands off me, though.’ He said it with a smile. ‘Or our souls will be bound for ever.’ He rolled his eyes as he said it. ‘It’s a load of rubbish, of course—I mean, look at my mother and father. Still we’d better not take that chance.’
‘I’m sure I can restrain myself.’ Georgie smiled back. ‘You’re not that irresistible.’
‘Liar.’ He gave her a very nice smile. ‘I’m saving you for London.’
His presumption did not irritate, instead it warmed. That she might see him again without all the confines brought hope without compromise.
‘Ring Felicity now, tell her you have booked a tour,’ Ibrahim said, ‘with an experienced guide …’
Blushing even though she was on the phone, Georgie did that, but instead of questions and a demand for details from Felicity all she got was guilty relief.
‘What if she finds out?’
‘How would she?’
‘Won’t the staff say something?’
‘I’ll smuggle you out,’ Ibrahim said. ‘I’ll have them pack me lunch. They always pack enough for ten—they are used to me heading out.’
‘Are you sure?’
Not sure of anything, and least of all her.
A woman who changed her mind at less than a moment’s notice, a woman his brother had warned him against yet again just this very morning, was serious trouble.
And there was unfinished business, which did not sit well with Ibrahim.
Still, where they were heading, there could be no conclusion, for the desert had rules of it own.
‘I would like to spend the day with you.’
It was the only thing he knew.