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Authors: Sharon Kendrick

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BOOK: Monarch of the Sands
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Swallowing down the sudden stir of lust, he looked at Simon. ‘Our fathers were indeed friends—they met at university and maintained that connection throughout their lives. You know that Francesca’s father was a geologist?’

‘Well, I never met him, of course,’ said Simon. ‘He sounds as if he was brilliant.’ He smirked. ‘Though more than a bit batty—a sort of nutty-professor type.’

Francesca looked up, her face flushing. ‘Eccentric,’ she corrected. ‘He was eccentric.’

‘He was very brilliant,’ said Zahid icily. ‘It was through his ground-breaking work into unusual rock formations in the desert that we discovered Khayarzah’s
first oil well. That discovery brought unimaginable riches to my country at a time when they were badly needed.’ His eyes met Francesca’s and he held her gaze, giving her a soft smile. ‘Leaving us for ever indebted to him.’

Simon swirled some ruby-coloured claret in his glass and took a large mouthful. ‘Ah, so that explains why your father gifted him the house and land,’ he said smoothly.

Zahid arched questioning eyebrows at Francesca and she rushed in with an explanation—terrified he would think she’d been abusing their friendship by blabbing or boasting about it.

‘Simon couldn’t work out why we had such a big property in such a wealthy area and no …’

‘No money!’ finished Simon cheerfully. ‘I’m afraid that Frankie is asset rich and cash poor, as we say in the business. It’s a common enough scenario—and completely unnecessary, especially when she’s sitting on an absolute gold mine. Land round here is worth an absolute fortune—which is why we’re putting the house on the market as soon as possible.’

There was an odd kind of pause and when Frankie looked into Zahid’s eyes she didn’t like what she could see there. Was that disappointment she could read?

‘You’re selling the house?’ he asked quietly.

‘It’s so big,’ she said helplessly, wishing he wouldn’t look at her so
disapprovingly
.

‘But you love that house, Francesca.’

She bit her lip. Of course she loved it—who wouldn’t love it? Much of her past was tied up in the place. It was a very old and beautiful building with a disused laboratory in the grounds, where her father used to work. It
also had large and exquisitely laid-out grounds, which looked glorious during every season of the year. But she couldn’t afford the upkeep and the garden was much too big for one person to handle—and Simon was unwilling to take it on.

‘And it’s so expensive to maintain,’ she added, though Zahid’s grim expression did not soften one bit.

Simon nodded. ‘Life will be much easier without it. I’ve told her that if we give the place a lick of paint and stick a few hanging baskets outside, then we should be able to shift it fairly quickly.’ He fiddled with the signet ring on his little finger and winked at Frankie. ‘And then we’ll be able to move into one of the brand-new houses which are being built in the middle of town. Perfect for us, aren’t they, darling?’

‘You seem to have it all planned out, Simon,’ said Zahid slowly.

Simon nodded. ‘You could say that I needed to. Frankie has her head in the clouds a lot of the time—she just needs a little guidance, that’s all.’

‘And you feel you are just the person to do it, do you?’

‘As her fiancé, yes, I do.’

Frankie cringed. She felt like an outsider as she sat there, picking at her food and listening to the two men engaged in an unmistakable sparring match. Zahid was interrogating Simon as if he were a suspect in some major crime and Simon was showing off—it was as simple as that.

It was a strange sensation watching them both—as if she were a spectator at some sort of gladiatorial event. But worse than that, it seemed as if Zahid were holding
up a mirror and she was suddenly seeing Simon through
his
eyes.

Her blond fiancé’s breezy confidence—which had once so captivated her—now appeared to be more like a conceited swagger. Was that coincidence, she wondered—or was Zahid deliberately winding him up? Needling him with all the wrong questions in order to make him look bad.

But why on earth would he do something like that?

Not that she cared what Zahid’s motives were—they, and he, were irrelevant to her life. She
loved
Simon. He was the first real boyfriend she’d ever had—when she’d given up hope of ever finding anyone who cared about her. Hadn’t he stepped into her life when she’d most needed someone? Given her a job even though she wasn’t really qualified for anything, because she’d spent much of the last few years looking after her sick father. And he’d given her so much more than that, hadn’t he? He’d offered her a glimpse of what a normal life could be like—with pubs and restaurants and trips to the cinema. He’d changed her from the geeky young woman who had walked so hesitantly into his life and made her into someone he wasn’t ashamed to be seen with. She’d been so grateful for that … grateful to
him
.

Refusing pudding and the brandy which Simon accepted with alacrity, Frankie was relieved when at last the dinner was over and it was time to leave—though she noticed that they weren’t presented with anything as vulgar as a bill. She saw one of the bodyguards speaking to the maître d’ and assumed that he had dealt with the financial transaction.

‘Th-thanks very much, Zahid,’ said Simon as he rose unsteadily to his feet.

But the sheikh’s attention was focused solely on Frankie. ‘You’re sure you’re going to be okay getting home?’ he questioned, with a frown.

‘I’ve only had water all night,’ she said.

‘It’s dark. I can have one of my aides drive the car for you?’

She smiled. How old-fashioned he could be! ‘I’m perfectly capable of driving home, thank you, Zahid—and I’m fine in the dark. My eyesight is perfect and it’s only just down the road!’

But Zahid wasn’t happy. Not happy at all. He watched while Francesca was handed her coat by the cloakroom attendant. It was a cheap-looking thing, in his opinion—and as she slid it over her shoulders it covered up the milky-pale flesh of her arms, which had drawn his eye throughout the meal.

Would Simon be removing the coat and then the dress later? he wondered—and a spear of some unknown emotion shot through him. It made his blood feel thick and his groin heavy. It felt like desire but it was underpinned with something else. Something dark and bitter and unpalatable. Surely … He shook his head. Surely it wasn’t
jealousy
? Why on earth would he be jealous of little Francesca O’Hara’s lover—when he could have any woman he wanted?

Except that she wasn’t so little any more, was she? Not in any sense. Not in height, or … He swallowed. Surely the last time he’d seen her, she’d been completely flat-chested? Or had the slouchy clothes she used to favour done her
no
favours?

‘Thanks so much for the meal, Zahid.’

She was smiling up at him now—the curve of her lips putting deep dimples in her cheeks the way it had
done all those years ago, and he was hit by a renewed wave of protectiveness.

He found himself remembering the time when, as a lively ten-year-old, she had scrambled into a huge tree looking for a lost shuttlecock and managed to get herself stranded there. He had climbed up into the branches and rescued her, quietening her teeth-chattering fear with a few teasing words of admonishment. And she had put her arms around his neck and clung to him like a little monkey.

He should have been there for her when her father had died. Why the hell hadn’t his brother reported back to him that she was vulnerable? And she
was
vulnerable. Even now. Anyone could see that.

He saw Simon giving a young waitress an easy smile, the careless crinkling of his eyes the tell-tale sign of the practised flirt. But Francesca didn’t seem to have noticed.

Zahid watched as she buttoned up her thin coat, the ostentatious engagement ring glittering on her finger, and his mouth tightened. A man would have to spend a lot of money to buy a diamond that size, he thought suddenly. A man who was a lot more committed than her pretty-boy fiancé seemed to be.

‘You’re going back home soon, are you, Zahid?’ Francesca was asking.

She was leaning towards him and he caught an elusive drift of her scent—which smelt of rain-washed rose petals—and a distracting shiver began to whisper its way over his skin.

‘Mmm?’ he questioned distractedly.

She dimpled him another smile. ‘I feel so guilty—
we’ve hardly said a word about you all evening, and I love hearing about Khayarzah.’

‘Please don’t feel guilty,’ said Zahid as he nodded over at one of his bodyguards to indicate that they were ready to leave. ‘We shall be meeting very soon and I will tell you everything you wish to know.’

Frankie smiled uncertainly. Was he just making polite conversation? Unlikely. Yet they both knew how uncommon his visits to England were, especially these days. But suddenly, she could see that it was probably a good thing that their paths didn’t cross very often. Too much of Zahid Al Hakam could make a woman feel very discontented with her lot. ‘What, you mean next year?’ she joked.

‘No, not next year, but next week,’ he corrected silkily. ‘I have business in mainland Europe all this week—but after that, I’ll come back.’

‘Come back?’ questioned Frankie nervously, turning her head to look for Simon and wondering what that waitress could be saying to him, which was making him look so engrossed. ‘Come back where?’

‘Don’t look so scared, Francesca—I just meant that we still have a lot of catching up to do.’ Zahid’s eyes flicked over to Simon, who was now leaning even closer to the young waitress. ‘I’m sure your fiancé won’t object if I visit you again on my return.’

Like a goldfish, Frankie opened her mouth and shut it again. Because how could she possibly object? Even if Zahid hadn’t been a king whose requests could not be turned down from a protocol point of view—she could hardly tell him that she thought it was a bad idea, because she found him dangerous and unsettling as a man. Why, he would probably laugh in her face.

So she nodded obediently and hoped her misgivings didn’t show. ‘Okay. I’ll … I’ll look forward to it.’ ‘So will I,’ promised Zahid softly.

CHAPTER FOUR

I
N THE
days which followed the awkward restaurant meal Frankie tried to convince herself that the sheikh’s promise to return must have been made on the spur of the moment. He probably hadn’t meant it. It was the kind of flippant thing which people always said when they were leaving—“oh, we must meet up soon”—and then you didn’t see them for years.

But she was wrong. One of his aides rang and told her that he would be arriving on Saturday afternoon and that he wished to see her, alone.

Alone?

Uncomfortably, she touched her shiny new engagement ring—as if expecting it to suddenly disappear in a puff of smoke. Her conscience was making her feel slightly awkward and she had been worried what Simon would say. Was it wrong for her to have made an arrangement to see the king?

Nervously, she’d asked her fiancé about Zahid’s proposed visit, but it seemed that Simon didn’t mind at all. In fact, to Frankie’s surprise he seemed inordinately pleased by the idea.

‘Maybe he’s planning to give you a wedding present
—hopefully in the form of some whacking great cheque,’ he said, when she told him.

‘That’s a very mercenary thing to say,’ objected Frankie.

‘I’m a businessman, sweetheart—being mercenary goes with the territory!’ He fiddled with his gold signet ring and shot her a sly glance. ‘Maybe you could get him to invest in some property while you’re at it? That colossal eyesore at the top of the hill could do with a big injection of Middle Eastern cash.’

‘I don’t think so.’ With a wan smile, she walked out of Simon’s office, wishing that she could shrug off the restlessness which had haunted her since the night they’d had dinner with Zahid. Up until that point, she had been relatively contented with her lot. She’d been anticipating being a new wife, with a new life ahead of her—but now everything had changed and, deep down, she knew exactly why. It was all because she had seen the dashing desert king again, after years of absence.

Images of his hawklike features kept flashing into her mind at the most inopportune moments. She had found herself filling up her car at the petrol station and wondering if Khayarzah might have supplied the fuel. Last night she’d even dreamt about him—some stupid, schoolgirlish fantasy which seemed to involve him riding in the desert on one of his favoured black stallions and scooping her into the saddle in front of him …

And this morning she had woken up with her heart racing and an odd, squirmy feeling at the pit of her stomach—plus a terrible feeling of guilt that she could feel that way about him, when she was planning to marry Simon.

She prepared for Zahid’s visit with the same care
she’d employed when she’d been growing up and he and his father used to stop by. Nowadays she was rather more efficient at cleaning the house, and the home-made cake which filled the kitchen with the smell of lemons didn’t have a great big crater in the centre.

The pale roses which Simon had bought were already dead and so Frankie put on her old raincoat and went outside to look for something to replace them. Although she hadn’t dared tell her fiancé, she much preferred home-grown flowers to the forced, hothouse variety—and you could always find something suitable which was already growing in the garden.

Especially
this
garden, she thought as she looked around and breathed in the damp, autumnal air. How she loved this garden—and how she would miss it when she moved into the town house which Simon had his eye on, where they all had nothing but a small, paved ‘easy-care’ patio area.

The misty atmosphere of the November day had created diamonds on the cobwebs and fallen leaves lay like scattered toffee wrappers on the wet grass. Taking out her pair of secateurs, she began to snip at some of the hips and berry laden branches and soon her basket was half-full. She would cram them in that big copper pot and the dark green foliage and scarlet berries would contrast against it quite perfectly and brighten up the kitchen.

BOOK: Monarch of the Sands
8.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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