Bella and the Merciless Sheikh

THE BALFOUR BRIDES

A proud, powerful dynasty…

Scandal has rocked the core of the infamous Balfour family….

Its glittering, gorgeous daughters are in disgrace.

Banished from the Balfour mansion, they're sent to the boldest, most magnificent men in the world to be wedded, bedded…and tamed!

And so begins a scandalous saga of dazzling glamour and passionate surrender.

Each month, Harlequin Presents
®
is delighted to bring you an exciting new installment from THE BALFOUR BRIDES.
You won't want to miss out!

MIA AND THE POWERFUL GREEK—
Michelle Reid

KAT AND THE DARE-DEVIL SPANIARD—
Sharon Kendrick

EMILY AND THE NOTORIOUS PRINCE—
India Grey

SOPHIE AND THE SCORCHING SICILIAN—
Kim Lawrence

ZOE AND THE TORMENTED TYCOON—
Kate Hewitt

ANNIE AND THE RED-HOT ITALIAN—
Carole Mortimer

BELLA AND THE MERCILESS SHEIKH—
Sarah Morgan

OLIVIA AND THE BILLIONAIRE CATTLE KING—
Margaret Way

Eight volumes to collect and treasure!

His gaze held hers. “I'll escort you back to the city—”

Hypnotized by his velvety dark eyes, Bella felt a rush of relief. “Thank you so much, you're a really wonderful person. I knew it the moment you walked into the tent—”

“Do you always interrupt people?”

“Often,” Bella breathed, distracted by the beauty of his eyes. “Sorry, what were we saying? Oh, yes…interrupting—it's one of my many faults. But I'm working on it.”

“Then you might like to work a little harder.” His thumb traced a circle over her cheek. “I said that I'll escort you back to the city—”

“I heard you. And I—” Bella felt his fingers cover her lips and she felt the instant response of her body.

“—at the end of my stay here,” he said softly, a trace of mockery gleaming in his eyes as he finished his sentence. “Once a year I am given the chance to be alone. I will not relinquish that luxury for anyone. I will not change my plans for a woman.”

Bella made a sound in her throat but his fingers still covered her lips.

“Which gives you two choices.” He spoke in a deceptively gentle voice. “Either you can try to make your own way on foot—and if you do that I calculate you'll be dead in an hour or so—or you stay here with me until it suits me to return you to Al-Rafid.”

Sarah Morgan
BELLA AND THE MERCILESS SHEIKH

All about the author…
Sarah Morgan

USA TODAY
bestselling author
SARAH MORGAN
writes lively, sexy stories for both Harlequin Presents and Medical Romance.

As a child Sarah dreamed of being a writer, and although she took a few interesting detours on the way, she is now living that dream. With her writing career she has successfully combined business with pleasure and she firmly believes that reading romance is one of the most satisfying and fat-free escapist pleasures available. Her stories are unashamedly optimistic and she is always pleased when she receives letters from readers saying that her books have helped them through hard times.

RT Book Reviews
has described her writing as “action packed and sexy” and has nominated her books for their Reviewer's Choice Awards and their Top Pick slot.

Sarah lives near London with her husband and two children, who innocently provide an endless supply of authentic dialogue. When she isn't writing or reading, Sarah enjoys music, movies and any activity that takes her outdoors.

Readers can find out more about Sarah and her books from her website, www.sarahmorgan.com. She can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

CHAPTER ONE

S
AND
, sand and more sand.

Her father couldn't have sent her to a more remote place if he'd put her in a rocket and sent her to the moon. And if that had been possible, no doubt he would have signed the cheque, Bella thought bitterly as she curled her bare toes into the coarse sand of the desert and stared across the stark landscape. Come to think of it, this might as well be the moon. Or maybe Mars. The red planet.

Why a retreat in the middle of the desert?

Why not a nice spa on Fifth Avenue?

‘Bella?'

Hearing her name, Bella gave a moan of despair. Already? It was barely daylight.

Reluctantly, she turned.
None of this was his fault
, she reminded herself.
It wasn't fair to take her anger and frustration out on him.
‘Early start, Atif?'

He was dressed simply in a white robe, the fabric glaring under the beginnings of the Arabian sun. ‘I meditate before dawn.'

Bella suppressed a yawn. ‘Personally I prefer to start my day with a strong black coffee.'

‘You can find a better start to the day by feasting on what lies around you,' the old man murmured. ‘There's nothing as calming as watching the sunrise in the desert. Don't you find the peace soothing?'

‘Honestly? It's driving me stark-staring nuts.' Without thinking, Bella reached for her phone and then remembered that it had been confiscated, along with everything else that she needed to communicate with the outside world. She tapped her empty palm impatiently against her thigh and then looked down at her fingernails with distaste. Given the choice between a coffee and a manicure, she would have opted for the manicure. ‘Do you actually own this place?'

‘I am merely passing through. When I am ready, I will move on.'

‘I would have moved on after two minutes given the chance! I've been here for two weeks and it feels like a life sentence.'

How could her father do this to her? Thanks to him, she'd been cut off from everyone.
Left alone at a time when she desperately needed human comfort.

The shocking discovery she'd made only two weeks earlier had left her numb and emotionally drained. The person she'd been before that night had gone forever. So had the naive assumptions she'd nurtured through out her life.

Regret tore through her

You shouldn't have looked, Bella.

Like Pandora, she'd lifted the lid of the box and now she was paying the price.

‘You allow emotion to grip you the way a falcon grips its prey.' Atif watched her with the same tranquil expression he adopted during their sessions together. ‘You are angry, but your father sent you here for your own benefit.'

‘He sent me here as a punishment because I embarrassed him.' Bella wrapped her arms around herself and wondered how she could feel cold in such a hot, oppressive place. ‘I've embarrassed the whole family. Brought the Balfour name into disrepute. Again.' But no one had considered what the whole sordid incident had done to
her
. And the fact that no
one had considered her feelings simply increased her sense of abandonment.

Remembering everything that had happened on the night of the Balfour Ball, Bella felt a lump build in her throat. She wanted to know how her sister Olivia was feeling about the whole thing—
she wanted to make amends.

Her behaviour had been bad—she knew that. But she'd been goaded. Upset. And Olivia had said things too…

‘Can I have my phone back just to send one text?' Suddenly it seemed desperately important that she contact her twin. ‘Or could I use your computer? I haven't checked my emails for
two weeks
.'

‘That isn't possible, Bella.'

‘I'm going mad, Atif! Sand and silence are a lousy combination.' She glanced around her desperately and her attention focused on a cluster of low white washed buildings she'd noticed earlier in the week. ‘How about those stables over there—can I at least go for a ride or something? Just for an hour.'

‘They are nothing to do with the Retreat. The stables are privately owned.'

‘Strange place to keep horses.' Bella studied the guards standing by the entrance.
Why would a stable need guards?
‘Well, if I can't borrow a horse could I at least have my iPod? I find it easier to relax to music.'

‘Silence is golden.'

‘Around here, everything is golden.' Simmering with frustration, Bella looked at the shifting sands and an idea took shape in her mind—
an outrageous, daring idea
. ‘That city we passed through on the way here, tell me about it.'

‘Al-Rafid is a sheikhdom, famous for its rich, cultural heritage.'

‘Is there oil?' She forced herself to make casual conversation but all she really wanted to ask was,
How long will it take me to get there and do they have high-speed broadband?

‘Huge reserves of oil, but the ruling Sheikh is an astute businessman. He has turned what was once an ancient desert city into an international centre for commerce. The buildings on the waterfront are as modern as anything you would find in Manhattan or Canary Wharf, but only a few streets away is the old city with many wonderful examples of Persian architecture. Al-Rafid Palace is the most breath taking of all, but it is rarely opened to the public because it is home to Sheikh Zafiq and his family.'

‘Lucky him, living in a city. He obviously hates the sand too.'

‘On the contrary, Sheikh Zafiq loves the desert, but he is a fiercely bright, educated man who has successfully incorporated progressive business thinking into the running of a very traditional country. But he has never forgotten his roots. For one week every year, he allows himself time alone in the desert. Time for reflection. He is a powerful man—some would say ruthless—but he is also a man deeply aware of his responsibilities.'

Responsibility…

Wasn't that the last word her father had said to her before he'd sent her into exile? Bella squirmed uncomfortably, trying to ease the sharp prick of her conscience. ‘So…this sheikh. Is he married with eight wives and a hundred children?'

‘His Highness has not yet chosen a wife. His family background is complicated.'

‘I bet it's a picnic compared to mine.'

‘Sheikh Zafiq's mother was a princess, much loved by everyone. Unfortunately she died when he was a baby.'

‘She died?' Bella felt as though she'd been thumped in the chest.
Like her, he'd lost his mother as a child.
She felt compelled to find out more about the powerful, ruthless Sheikh, forgetting that her original objective had been simply to discover the distance to civilisation. ‘Did his father marry again?'

‘Yes, but tragically both his father and stepmother were killed in an accident when His Highness was just a teenager.'

So he'd lost
two
mothers.

Bella watched as the rising sun set fire to the dunes, changing the colours from dull red to bright gold. She felt a strange affinity with the mysterious Sheikh. He was out there somewhere across the bleak, featureless mountains of sand. Did he think about the mother he'd never known? Had
he
discovered things about her that would have been better left a secret?

Was his mind as much of a mess as hers?

Bella dug her hands into the pockets of her cotton trousers and reminded herself that regret was pointless. The past couldn't be undone. In all the hours of enforced meditation there was one topic on which she'd refused to allow herself to dwell.

Her mother.

Later. Later, she'd have to think about it but for now it was all too raw.

‘So this Sheikh guy—' she pushed her hair out of her eyes, grimacing at the texture and indulging in a brief fantasy about deep conditioning and a blow dry ‘—he must have been pretty young to take over the running of a country.'

‘Just eighteen. But he was bred to rule.'

‘Poor guy. Must have had a pretty grim childhood. But all that oil must mean he's rich. So why hasn't he married? I suppose he's old and ugly and can't even buy himself a wife.'

‘His Highness is in his early thirties and is considered extremely handsome by those better qualified to comment on these things than me.'

‘So what's wrong with him, then?' Bella eyed the lizard that scuttled across the sand in front of her.

‘At some point he will marry someone suitable, but I understand that he is in no hurry.'

‘And who can blame him? Marriage can be a nightmare. My
father has done it three times. He's a devotee of the saying, “If at first you don't succeed—try, try and try again.” You have to admire his perseverance. As a spectator sport it's quite gripping.'

‘Your father has had three marriages?'

‘You'd think he'd be good at it by now, wouldn't you?' Bella brushed sand from her bare arms, wondering whether it counted as exfoliation. ‘He's had enough practise.'

‘You have to let the anger go, Bella. You're too passionate.'

‘That's me.' She kept her tone careless. ‘Too passionate. Too…everything. Try having siblings, half-siblings, three mothers and a father like mine and you might understand why I don't have your sense of calm. Nothing winds you up like family. Except maybe having your laptop, your phone and your iPod removed at the same time.'

‘It is when life is at its most demanding that we must seek inner peace. Your own ability for quiet reflection can be an oasis in the storm of life.'

‘I wouldn't say no to a few days by an oasis,' Bella said absently, unsettled by the effect his words had on her. The truth was she envied his sense of calm. She wanted that, but had no idea how to achieve it. ‘Palm trees, water to bathe in. I have no problem with sand, providing I'm staring down at it from my sun lounger with a Margarita in my hand.'

He bowed his head. ‘I'll leave you to reflect, Bella. And see you at nine for yoga.'

‘Yoga. Yippee. The excitement might just kill me.' Bella's expression was deadpan and she watched him stroll back towards the tents but inside she was boiling with emotion.

Enough!

No more meditation.

No more desert.

She was going to find the keys to a Jeep and get out of here even if it meant tying someone up in their tent.

She was about to return to the Retreat and go on the hunt for trans port when she noticed that the guards had disappeared from the entrance to the stables. Bella's eyes narrowed and her mind raced ahead as she adjusted her plans. No one knew her in the stables, did they? If she walked with enough confidence they might even think she worked there.

Indulging in a brief fantasy about fleeing across the desert in a horsebox, she slid past a sign that said “Strictly No Admittance” and walked down a sandy path that led to a stable block. A fountain bubbled in the centre of the deserted courtyard and only now could Bella see that the stables were both sophisticated and extensive.

‘Whoever owns this place must be seriously loaded.' She sneaked a look over her shoulder to see if anyone had noticed her. But the stables appeared deserted. No guards. No one.

Strange
, Bella thought, glancing around her.
Where was everyone?

She knew from experience that stables were busy places.

A horse stuck its head over the door of the stable and whickered at her.

Bella walked across to him. ‘At least someone lives here. Hello, beautiful,' she crooned, rubbing her hand over the mare's silky neck. ‘How's your morning so far? Done any meditation? Knotted any of your legs into a lotus? Sipped any herbal tea?'

The horse blew gently against her neck and Bella suddenly felt better than she had for weeks.

‘Want to come and sleep in my tent?' She kissed the animal on the nose, fussing and gentling the mare, the familiar scent of hay and horse calming her in a way that no amount of meditation had achieved. Peering over the stable door, she took in the quality of the horse. ‘You really are a beauty. Pure-bred Arab. Why would anyone keep a horse as special as you hidden away out here?'

The horse nudged her hard and Bella almost lost her balance.

‘You're fed up with being trapped in the stable, aren't you? I know the feeling. Where is everyone? Why are you on your own here?'

The place was eerily deserted and Bella looked around uneasily, trying to shake the feeling that something was very, very wrong—
that something bad was about to happen.

‘Oh, for crying out loud—' Cross with herself, she turned back to the horse. ‘I've been living in boredomville for so long I'm imagining things. If there's one thing I've learned in the past two weeks it's that nothing ever happens out here.'

The horse moved restlessly in its box and Bella murmured to the animal sympathetically, sharing that restlessness. She had a desperate longing to spring onto her back and just ride and ride until her thoughts were far behind.

And why not? Why take a Jeep when she could
ride
to the city?

It couldn't be that far. She could remember the way. Vaguely. Once there she could arrange for the horse to be returned with her compliments.

Hopefully Atif would be so angry he'd refuse to have her back.

I'll be banned
, Bella thought happily, sliding the bolt on the stable door and letting herself inside. Bad Bella. ‘People always think the worst of me and I'd hate to disappoint them. Poor Atif is going to need to delve deep to discover his inner peace,' she told the mare as she swiftly untied her. ‘I'm about to put his karma through significant turbulence. He'd better fasten his seat belt.'

 

‘If you wish to spend a week alone in the desert, then at least allow your guards to accompany you, Zafiq.'

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