'You like our peacock?' asked a low, sultry voice from the shadows.
Belle didn't need to look across the courtyard to know who spoke. She'd recognise that voice anywhere. Already her pulse quickened in anticipation. Feminine awareness was a tight coil circling in her belly. So much for her reaction last night being due to exhaustion. She was in trouble when just the sound of his deep voice did this to her!
She kept her eyes on the mosaic. 'It's spectacular. I've never seen anything like it.'
'The art of mosaic-making is highly prized in Q'aroum.Â You'll find small mosaics in many homes.' Rafiq's voice came nearer as he walked along the colonnade towards her. She clenched her hands tight, willing herself not to retreat.
'But you're right,' he said. 'You won't see another like this.' He stopped at her side. She could tell by the way her skin prickled, by the heat that blossomed in her breast and rose up to flush her neck and face.
And still she couldn't look at him. Didn't dare.
'See the way the sun catches and reflects the colours as if they held an inner fire?'
She nodded. 'The background, is that gilt work?'
'Close,' he murmured, and she knew by the puff of his warm breath on her hair that he'd turned to watch her. 'It's not gilt. It's solid gold.'
'What?' She swung her face up to look at him, straight into his hard, handsome face. 'But there are square metres of the stuff!'
He shrugged. 'Ostentatious, I agree. But effective.' He looked down into her eyes and smiled and her heart tumbled over.
'What else could do justice to the rest of it?' he added. 'The peacock itself is made of semi precious stones. The purple is amethyst. The green is malachite and jade. There's amber and garnet, topaz and lapis lazuli.'
Belle stared, unable to wrench her gaze from that smile, from those fathoms-deep green eyes.
'It must have cost a fortune.'
His rich chuckle echoed across the marble walls and she bit her lip, feeling gauche. What did it matter if it cost a fortune? The Sheikhs of Q'aroum were fabled for their wealth.
'My ancestors had a taste for riches and loved to flaunt their possessions. This mosaic is several hundred years old, probably the result of a particularly successful season.'
'Season?' Belle asked, her brow knitting in bewilderment.
His smile widened into a grin that drew the stiffening out of her spine, leaving her weak, her knees like jelly.
'Buccaneering,' he explained, stepping closer so that she had to tilt her face up to watch him. 'For generations the Q'aroumis were pirates, extorting payment for safe passage through the Arabian Sea. And when it wasn't paid, plundering whatever they wanted.'
Belle sucked in a breath at the intensity of his raking gaze. The slanting rays of sunshine illuminated the hard angles of his face, highlighted the arrogant cast of his high cheekbones and aristocratic nose, caught the glitter of gold at his ear. A sizzle of primitive excitement trembled through her.Â Â Excitement and trepidation.
Once before she'd pictured him as a pirate, a man who'd reach out and grasp whatever he wanted, whatever the cost or the danger. Now she saw that determination, that drive to possess, right here before her eyes. She had no trouble picturing him at the helm of a swift-sailing tall ship, plundering the sea lanes of whatever took his fancy.
Perhaps his barbaric inheritance was latent, close to the surface even in this modern-day monarch, who ruled a progressive nation, funded by off-shore oil revenues.
Belle swallowed hard, mesmerised by the glitter in Rafiq's eyes, suddenly aware of the musky, enticing scent of his bronzed skin so close to hers.
'So, they grew rich on their plunder,' she said at last, her voice a mere whisper. She should have guessed, but she'd been so wrapped up in the ancient past she hadn't taken the time to learn the islands' more recent history. She'd known there'd been pirates in Q'aroum, but not that they'd been led by the royal family!
He nodded. 'And, as you can see, they enjoyed their wealth.Â The peacock is something of a family symbol.'Â He reached out and took her elbow in his hand, turning her to walk with him around the colonnade.
Belle concentrated on matching his steps, on keeping her breathing under control, not snatching desperate breaths in an effort to fill her suddenly empty lungs. Heat radiated out from his touch, searing her through the fabric of her shirt. Just like in last night's dreams, where their shared heat had been combustible.
'The bird is beautiful,' she said, desperate for conversation to cover her weakness. 'But it seems an unusual emblem.' Or more precisely, an unusual emblem for a family that produced men like Rafiq. There was nothing gaudy or soft about him. He was all desert heat and masculine strength. And sheer sensual power.
He paused and gestured for her to precede him and take a seat at a table set in the shade of the colonnade. She subsided gratefully onto a chair and looked away, out over the courtyard.
'It's one of two motifs you'll find throughout the palace,' he said, settling in a second chair.Â 'There's the falcon, prized for its speed and power, its prowess as a hunter. In less civilised times it was seen to represent all that was best in the men of my family. And then the peacock, symbol of the rich beauty of their wives.Â This part of the palace was designed as the harem, hence the mosaic as a compliment to the sheikh's women.'
Belle's eyes widened. A strange thrill skittered down her back at the knowledge she'd actually spent the night in a sheikh's harem. In his harem.
Damn, she had it bad.
Two maids arrived carrying pastries, a fruit platter and coffee. Rafiq nodded for them to put the food on the table, but his attention remained focussed on Belle.
She was a problem, and not only because of the political complications her presence created. She was at the centre of a conundrum that threatened the very future of his country. A conundrum to which he must find a solution. And yet it wasn't her significance in this constitutional minefield that had kept him awake and pondering long into the night. It was the woman herself: capable, feisty. Desirable.
'Please, help yourself,' he said, gesturing to the laden table between them.
She'd trembled when he took her arm just now, swayed as if unsteady on her feet, and her apparent weakness disturbed him. Especially since he'd experienced her personal brand of stoic endurance on that godforsaken island.
Perhaps he should send for a doctor.
He scrutinised her flushed face, noting the way her gaze slid away to the table, as if unwilling to meet his eyes. Her breasts rose with her rapid, shallow breathing, snagging his attention, distracting him.
Perhaps it wasn't a doctor she needed.
He remembered the way she'd looked at him last night, as if she'd seen only him and nothing at all of her luxurious surroundings. The way she'd jumped at his touch, her pulse quickening.
Something: satisfaction, stirred inside him.
Perhaps she wasn't ill at all.
He poured coffee, strong and aromatic, for them both then offered her milk, consciously tamping down on his urgent curiosity.
'Of course it wasn't just gold and gems that my ancestors took as their right,' he said as he leaned back in his chair, surveying her.
'It wasn't?' She darted a look at him then concentrated on the array of food before her.
'No,' he said slowly. 'They appropriated money of course, weapons and ships. But the Al Akhtars have always had a taste for the best in all things.'
Rafiq watched her choose a pastry. The sun lit her shoulder length honey-blonde hair with pure gold. Her eyes were as bright as any sapphire in the royal jewels. And those lips.
Suddenly, overwhelmingly, he wanted to feel those lips on him, cool and soft against his burning flesh.
'They had an eye for beauty, in all its forms,' he said, his voice deepening of its own accord as he watched her. 'And their taste in women was renowned.'
She swallowed hard, half choking on a mouthful of sweet pastry.
'They weren't averse to snatching a beautiful woman off a ship bound for another port. They saw it as their right.' He leaned towards her over the table, ostensibly to select some fruit for his plate. This close he read fascination mixed with outrage in her eyes. Fiery blue accusation blazed at him.
'Kidnapping, as well as piracy then! No wonder your family had a reputation for ruthlessness.'
He nodded. 'Of course, by today's standards it would be barbaric. But only a couple of generations ago it was another matter. And it wasn't always as dire as you think. My great grandmother had no wish to leave here after she'd been...liberated from a ship.'
Her eyes grew huge. 'Your own great grandmother?' She shook her head in amazement.
Rafiq sat back, watching the play of emotions across her face. 'She was more than happy to stay after she met my great grandfather. She'd been on her way from England to India to marry some military man she hardly knew. Family lore has it that she and my great grandfather made a love match of it.'
'But she couldn't have...'
'What?' He frowned. 'She couldn't have loved a man of my culture?' Pride sharpened his voice. Pride bred through hundreds of years of Al Akhtar blood. Of absolute rule and unquestioned authority.
'No, no, not that.' She shook her head and hair like spun gold flared round her. 'But how could she have accepted it? To become just one of many women in a harem?' There was genuine distress in her tight lips and her worried brow.
'Ah,' he sipped his coffee and sat back, strangely satisfied at her reaction. 'Your concern isn't for the cultural and racial divide between them. It is for her place in his affections. You are a romantic, Belle.'
She met his gaze steadily, her chin jutting in a gesture he recognised as characteristic. 'It seems hard that she should have no choice in the matter. That she should give up everything for him and he should give up nothing,' she said. 'Just take what he wanted.'
'What you say would be true, if she hadn't wanted him just as much.'
He watched her eyes widen, her lips part in surprise. She clearly hadn't considered the possibility that his ancestress had got exactly what she desired, however unorthodox her meeting with her future husband.
'Don't let it worry you, Belle.' He leaned forward and closed his hand over hers. Her hand was smaller than his, seemingly fragile, but strong and capable. Just like the woman herself.
'I told you it was a love match. They were faithful to each other. He was young when he stole her away and the harem was filled with his female relatives, not his wives.'
He slid his thumb over the sensitive skin of her palm and felt her shiver in response. It pleased him, intrigued him, that she reacted so readily to his touch. The pulse at the base of her neck was an agitated tattoo, revealing what she would no doubt rather hide. Her scent, fresh and inviting, rose to entice him.
'In fact,' he murmured, spurred on by some teasing, inner demon as he leaned closer, 'the pair of them started a family tradition. Since that time the Al Akhtar men have only ever taken one wife. And once they find their woman they never let her go.'
Her indrawn breath was loud in the silence. The instant tension between them so strong, so intimate, that he felt it in every taut muscle, saw it reflected in her stunned expression.
Abruptly he released her.
She slid her hands off the table, out of sight. But his fingers still felt the silken delicacy of her skin against his.
They itched to feel more.
She was a woman of contrasts. Determination and physical courage in such an alluring, feminine body. So brave, yet obviously scared by her response to him. He'd made himself as her protector, yet she intrigued him as no other woman had.
She was right to be nervous.
He took a strawberry and bit into its lush fullness, enjoying the fresh tartness overlying its sweetness. But his eyes were on Belle as he ate. Would she be sweet as summer berries? Ripe and rewarding and luscious?
She avoided his gaze as she reached for her coffee.
'But now we need to discuss the present,' he said, watching her take a sip of the hot brew.
She tilted her head in acknowledgement.
'You said last night that you want to return to your team's lodgings.'
'That's right.' She nodded so emphatically that her hair swirled around her shoulders. 'I've got lots to organise. There'll be a replacement for Duncan arriving some time, and then the rest of the group.Â And I want to visit the wreck again as soon as possible.'
'It will not be as simple as that.' He lifted his own cup and swallowed some of the strong coffee.
She put her cup down and squared her shoulders as if bracing for bad news. 'What's wrong? Is it the wreck? Has it been destroyed by the cyclone?'
He shook his head. In all the mopping up operations after the devastation wreaked on the outer islands, checking an ancient wreck had not been a priority. 'No one has been to investigate. Our problem has nothing to do with your marine survey. It has to do with the ransom that was paid to save you.'
Her brows pleated in confusion. 'But you rescued us. Why would a ransom be paid?'
Clearly she hadn't caught up with the news from her hospital bed. Which meant the staff there had been remarkably discreet.
'There was reason to suppose you would come to harm if the ransom wasn't paid. Serious harm.' He frowned, remembering his advisors arguing over what action to take in response to the kidnap. As if there could be any doubt once he'd realised the situation's gravity. 'Regrettably the deadline for payment of the ransom came before we could get news to the mainland that you'd been found.'
'So,' she said slowly, 'the ransom was paid anyway?'
'How much do we owe you?'
Rafiq stared, not believing his ears.
'How much was the ransom?' she asked again, just as if she meant to find the money somehow to pay him back whatever the cost of her rescue.
'You misunderstand,' he said abruptly. His neck stiffened at the implication that he sought recompense for doing his duty and he clamped his jaw tight shut. He took a slow, calming breath. 'The ransom wasn't money, it was the Peacock's Eye.'
Her brows knit together. 'I've heard of that,' she said slowly. 'It's jewellery, isn't it?'
He nodded. The Eye was jewellery just as the Taj Mahal was a tombstone.
Belle Winters obviously wasn't like most visitors, who believed a trip to Q'aroum wasn't complete without a visit to see the royal gems. The Eye was the centrepiece of the collection: a dazzling necklace, ancient and heavy with the weight of solid gold and gems, designed to mimic the pattern on a peacock's tail feather. Its value was in its magnificent wealth: the huge emeralds alone were beyond price. But much more important was its historic and cultural significance to Q'aroum.
'It's jewellery,' Rafiq agreed wryly. 'But more than that, it's an heirloom that holds unique significance in our heritage.Â For generations it's been the traditional gift of the royal sheikh to his bride.'
Her jaw dropped.
'According to the custom of my people,' he continued, 'since I relinquished it in return for you, I've paid it as a bride price. Which means that as far as Q'aroum is concerned, Belle, you are my affianced bride.'Reviews Behind the Book Return