Daar-el-Abbah, Arabia, 1820
Sheikh Jamil al-Nazarri, Prince of Daar-el-Abbah, scrutinised the terms of the complex and detailed proposal laid out before him. A frown of concentration drew his dark brows together, but could not disguise the fact that his face, framed by the formal head dress of finest silk, was an extraordinarily handsome one. The soft golden folds of the silk perfectly complemented the honeyed tones of his skin. His mouth was set in a firm, determined line, but there was just a hint of a curve at the corners, enough to indicate a sense of humour even if it was one which was seldom utilised. The sheikh’s nose and jaw were well-defined, his flawlessly autocratic profile seemingly perfectly designed for use on the insignia of his kingdom – though Jamil had in fact refused to consent to his Council’s request to do so. But it was his eyes which were his most striking feature, for they were the strangest colour, burnished like autumn, with fiery glints and darker depths which seemed to reflect his changing mood. Those eyes transformed Jamil from a striking-looking man into an unforgettable one.
Not that the Prince of Daar-el-Abbah was easily overlooked at the best of times. His position as the most powerful sheik in the eastern reaches of Arabia saw to that. Jamil had been born to reign and raised to rule. For the last eight years, since he inherited the throne at the age of twenty one following the death of his father, he had kept Daar-el-Abbah free from incursion, both maintaining its independence and enhancing its supremacy without the need for any significant bloodshed.
Jamil was a skilled diplomat. He was also a formidable enemy, a fact which significantly enhanced his negotiating position. Though he had not used it in anger for some time, the wicked scimitar with its diamond and emerald encrusted golden hilt which hung at his waist was no mere ceremonial toy.
Still perusing the document in his hand, Jamil got to his feet. Pacing up and down the dais upon which the royal throne sat, his golden silk cloak, lined with satin and trimmed with passementerie, twisted with gold thread and embedded with semi-precious stones, swung out behind him. The contrasting simple white silk of the long tunic he wore underneath revealed a slim figure, athletic and lithe, at the same time both graceful and subtly powerful, reminiscent of the panther which was his emblem.
“Is there something wrong, Highness?”
Halim, Jamil’s trusted aide spoke tentatively, rousing the prince from his reverie. Alone of the members of the Council of Elders, Halim dared to address Jamil without first asking permission, but he was still wary of doing so, conscious of that fact that although he had the prince’s confidence there was no real closeness between them, nor any genuine bond of friendship.
“No,” Jamil replied curtly. “The betrothal contract seems reasonable enough.”
“As you can see, all your terms and conditions have been met in full,” Halim continued carefully, “the Princess Adira’s family have been most generous.”
“With good reason,” Jamil said pointedly. “The advantages this alliance will give them over their neighbours are worth far more than the rights to the few diamond mines I will receive in return.”
“Indeed, Majesty.” Halim bowed. “So if you are satisfied then perhaps I may suggest we proceed with the signing?”
Jamil threw himself back down onto the throne, in essence a low stool with a scrolled velvet padded seat. It was made of solid gold, the base perched upon the backs of two rampant lions, while the back was in the shape of a sunburst. It was a venerable and venerated relic, proof of the kingdom’s long and illustrious history. More than three hundred years old, it was said that any man who sat upon it who was not a true and destined ruler would fall victim to a curse and die within a year and a day. Jamil’s father had cherished the throne and all it stood for, but Jamil loathed it as ostentatious and impractical – though as with most things ceremonial, he continued to tolerate it.
He lolled on the unforgiving seat, resting his chin upon his hand, the long index finger of his other hand tapping the document which lay on his lap. The various members of his Council of Elders, seated in order of precedence on low stools facing the dais, gazed up at him anxiously.
Jamil sighed inwardly. Sometimes the burden of royalty was wearisome. Though the betrothal contract was important, it was not really uppermost in his mind right now. He recognised that the marriage his Council had for so long entreated him to enter into was a strategic and dynastic necessity, but it was of little personal interest to him. He would marry, and the union would seal the numerous political and commercial agreements which were the foundation of the contract. Daar-el-Abbah would gain a powerful ally and – once Jamil had done his duty – an heir. He personally would gain…
He had no wish to be married. Not again. Especially not again for the sake of Daar-el-Abbah, this kingdom of his which owned him body and soul. He didn’t want another wife, and he certainly didn’t want another wife selected by his Council – though truth be told, one royal princess was bound to be very much like another. He hadn’t disliked his first wife, but poor Karida, who had died in childbed not long after Jamil came to power, had seemed to prefer the comfits of the liquorice and crystallised ginger she ate with such relish over almost anyone or anything else.
Jamil could happily do without another such, as this Princess Whatever-her-name-was to whom Halim and his Council were so keen to shackle him, would no doubt turn out to be. He was perfectly content with his single state, but his country needed an heir, therefore he must take a wife, and tradition decreed that the wife should be the choice of the Council. Though he railed against it, it didn’t occur to Jamil to question the process. It was the way of things. Anyway, in principle he was as keen to beget a son as his people were for him to provide them with a crown prince. The problem he was having was in reconciling principle with practice. The fact was, Jamil was not at all sure he was ready for another child. At least not until he had the one he already had under some semblance of control. Which brought him back to the matter uppermost in his mind. His eight year old daughter, Linah.
Jamil sighed again, this time out loud. A rustle of unease spread through the assembled Elders in response. Twenty-four of them, excluding Halim, each man wearing the distinctive Council insignia, an al-Nazarri green checked head dress with a golden tie, or igal, to hold it in place, the sign of the panther embroidered on his tunic. Behind the Elders, the throne room stretched for almost a hundred feet, the floor made of polished white marble edged with green and gold tiles. Light flooded the chamber from the line of round windows set high into the walls, reflecting through the gold-plated iron grilles, bouncing off the teardrop crystals of the five enormous chandeliers.
Most of the men arrayed before Jamil had served on his father’s Council too. The majority were traditionalists, resistant to every attempt at change, with whom Jamil found himself becoming increasingly irked. If he could, he would retire the lot of them, but though he was coming to the end of his patience, the prince was not a foolish man. There were many ways to skin a goat. He would take Daar-el-Abbah into the modern world, and he would take his people with him whether they wanted to join him on the journey or not – though he preferred that they came of their own accord, just as he favoured diplomacy over warfare. This marriage now being proposed was his gesture towards appeasement, for the hand that gives is the hand that gets.
He should sign the contract. He had every reason to sign. It made no sense to postpone the inevitable.
So he would sign. Of course he would. Just not yet.
Jamil threw the papers at Halim. “It won’t do any harm to make them wait a little longer,” he said, getting so swiftly to his feet that the Elders were forced to throw themselves hurriedly onto their knees. “We don’t want them thinking they are getting too much of a bargain.” He growled impatiently at his Council. “Get up! Get up!” No matter how many times he said he no longer wished them to show their obeisance in private meetings, they continued to do so. Only Halim stood his ground, following in his wake as Jamil took the two steps down from the dais in one and strode quickly up the long length of the throne room towards the huge double doors at the end.
“Majesty, if I may suggest…”
“Not now.” Jamil threw open the double doors at the end of the throne room, taking the guards on the other side by surprise.
“But I don’t understand. I thought we had agreed that….”
“I said not now!” Jamil exclaimed. “I have another matter I wish to discuss. I’ve had a most interesting letter from the Lady Celia.”
Halim hurried to keep pace with him as he headed along the wide corridor towards his private apartments. “Prince Ramiz of A’Qadiz’s English wife? What possible reason can she have for writing to you?”
“Her letter concerns Linah,” Jamil replied as they entered the courtyard around which his private quarters were built.
“Indeed? And what precisely does she have to say on the matter?”
“She writes that she has heard I’m having some difficulty finding a female mentor up to the challenge of responding to my daughter’s quite particular needs. Lady Celia is the daughter of a senior British diplomat. She has clearly inherited her father, Lord Armstrong’s, subtle way with words. What she really means is that she’s heard Linah is out of control and has run rings around every single woman in whose charge I’ve placed her.”
Halim bristled. “I hardly think that your daughter’s behaviour is any business of Lady Celia’s. Nor is it, if I may be so bold, the business of A’Qadiz, or its sheik.”
“Prince Ramiz is a fine man and an excellent ruler who has forward-thinking views similar to my own. I would suggest, Halim, that any opportunity to bring our two kingdoms closer together is something to be encouraged rather than resented.”
Halim bowed. “As ever, you make an excellent point, Majesty. That is why you are a royal prince and I a mere servant.”
“Spare me the false modesty Halim, we both know you are no mere servant.” Jamil entered the first of the series of rooms which ran in a square round the courtyard, unfastened his formal cloak and threw it carelessly down on a divan. His head dress and scimitar followed. “That’s better,” he said, running his fingers through his short crop of hair. It was auburn, inherited from his Egyptian mother. Reaching into a drawer of the large ornate desk which dominated the room, he found Lady Celia’s letter, and scanned it again.
“May I ask, does Lady Celia offer a solution to our supposed problem?”
Jamil looked up from the elegantly worded missal and smiled one of his rare smiles, knowing full well that Lady Celia’s proposal would shock his Council and drive a pack of camels through the dictates of convention relating to the upbringing of Arabian princesses. Today’s Council meeting had bored him to tears, and he was sick of tradition. “What Lady Celia offers,” he said, “is her sister.”
“Lady Cassandra Armstrong.”
“To what purpose, precisely?”
“To act as Linah’s governess. It is the perfect solution.”
“Perfect!” Halim looked appalled. “Perfect how? She has no knowledge of our ways, how can you possibly think an English woman capable of training the Princess Linah for her future role?”
“It is precisely because she will be incapable of such a thing that she is perfect,” Jamil replied, his smile fading. “A dose of English discipline and manners is exactly what Linah needs. Do not forget, the British are one of the world’s great powers, renowned for their capacity for hard work and initiative. Exposure to their culture will challenge my daughter’s cosy view of the world and her place in it. I don’t want her to become some simpering miss who passes the time while I’m finding her a husband by lolling about on divans drinking sherbet and throwing tantrums every time she doesn’t get her own way.” Like her mother did. He did not say it, but he did not have to. Princess Karida’s tantrums were legendary. “I want my daughter to be able to think for herself.”
“Majesty!” Shock made Halim’s soft brown eyes open wide, giving him the appearance of a startled hare. “Princess Linah is Daar-el-Abbah’s biggest asset, why only the other day the Prince of…”
“I won’t have my daughter labelled an asset,” Jamil interrupted fiercely. “In the name of the gods, she’s not even nine years old.”
Slightly taken aback at the fierceness of his prince’s response, for though Jamil was a dutiful parent, he was not prone to displays of parental affection, Halim continued with a little more caution. “A good marriage takes time to plan, Majesty, as you know yourself.”
“You can forget marrying Linah off, for the present. Until she learns some manners, no sane man would take her on.” Jamil threw himself onto the tooled leather chair which sat behind the desk. “Come on Halim, you know how appallingly she can behave, I’m at my wits end with her. It is partly my own fault I know, I’ve allowed her to become spoilt since she was deprived of her mother.”
“But now you are to be married, the Princess Adira will fill that role, surely.”
“I doubt it. In any case, you’re missing the point. I don’t want Linah to be raised in the traditional ways of an Arabian princess.” Any more than he would wish his son to be raised in the traditions of an Arabian prince. As he had been. A shadow flitted over Jamil’s countenance, as he recalled his father’s harsh methods when it came to child-rearing. No, of a certainty he would not inflict those traditions on his son.
“You want her to behave like an English lady instead?” Halim’s anxious face brought him back to the present.
“Yes. If Lady Celia is an example of an English lady, that is exactly what I want. If this Lady Cassandra is anything like her sister then she will be perfect.” Jamil consulted the letter in his hand again. “It says here that she’s one-and-twenty. There are four other sisters, much younger, and Lady Cassandra has shared responsibility for their education. Four! If she can manage four girls, then one will be – what is it the English say? – a piece of cake.”
Halim’s face remained resolutely sombre. Jamil laughed. “You don’t agree, I take it? You disappoint me. I knew the Council would not immediately perceive the merits in such a proposition, but I thought better of you. Think about it Halim, the Armstrongs are a family with an excellent pedigree, and more importantly, impeccable connections. The father is a career diplomat with influence in Egypt and India, and the uncle is a member of the English government. It would do us no harm at all to have one of the daughters in our household, and in addition they would be in our debt. According to Lady Celia, we would be doing them a favour.”
“Lady Cassandra is already in A’Qadiz and wishes to extend her stay, to see more of our lands, our culture. She is obviously the scholarly type.”
“One-and-twenty, you say?” Halim frowned. “That is quite old for a female to be unwed, even in England.”
“Quite. Reading between the lines, I suspect her to be the spinsterish type. You know, the kind of women the English seem to specialise in – plain, more at home with their books than the opposite sex.” Jamil grinned. “Once again, exactly what Linah needs. A dull female with a good education and a strict sense of discipline.”
“But Majesty, you cannot be sure that…”
“Enough. I will brook no more argument. I’ve tried doing things the traditional way with Linah, and tradition has singularly failed. Now we’ll do it my way, the modern way, and perhaps in doing so my people will see the merits in reaching out beyond the confines of our own culture.” Jamil got to his feet. “I’ve already written to the Lady Celia accepting her kind offer. I did not bring you here to discuss the merits of the proposal, merely to implement my decision. We meet at the border of A’Qadiz in three days. Lady Celia will bring her sister, and she will be accompanied by her husband, Prince Ramiz. We will cement our relationship with his kingdom and take delivery of Linah’s new governess at the same time. I’m sure you understand the importance of my caravan being suitably impressive, so please see to it. Now you may go.”
Recognising the note of finality in his master’s voice, Halim had no option but to obey. As the guards closed the doors to the courtyard behind him, he made for his own quarters with a sinking heart. He did not like the sound of this. There was going to be trouble ahead or his name wasn’t Halim Mohammed Zarahh Akbar el-Akkrah.
At that moment In the kingdom of A’Qadiz, in another sunny courtyard in another royal palace, the Ladies Celia and Cassandra were taking tea, sitting on mountainous heaps of cushions under the shade of a lemon tree. Beside them, lying contentedly in a basket, Celia’s baby daughter made a snuffling noise which had the sisters laughing with delight, for surely little Bashirah was the cleverest and most charming child in all of Arabia.
Cassie put her tea glass back on the heavy silver tray beside the samovar. “May I hold her?”
“Of course you may.” Celia lifted the precious bundle out of the basket and handed her to Cassie, who balanced her confidently on her lap and smiled down at her besottedly.
“Bashirah,” Cassie said, stroking the baby’s downy cheek with her finger, “Such a lovely name. What does it mean?”
“Bringer of joy.”
Cassie smiled. “How apt.”
“She likes you,” Celia replied with a tender smile, quite taken by the charming image her sister and her daughter presented. In the weeks since Cassie had arrived in A’Qadiz she seemed to have recovered some of her former sunny disposition, but it saddened Celia to see the stricken look which still made a regular appearance in her sister’s big cornflower blue eyes on occasions when she thought herself unobserved. The shadows which were testimony to the many sleepless nights since that thing had happened had faded now, and her skin had lost its unnatural pallor. In fact, to everyone else, Cassandra was the radiant beauty she had always been, with her dark golden crown of hair with its fiery auburn highlights which hinted at a far more tempestuous nature than Cassie was wont to display, and her lush curves, so different from Celia’s own slim figure.
But Celia was not everyone else, she was Cassie’s oldest sister, and she loved her dearly. It was a bond forged in adversity, for they had lost their mother when young, and though the gap between Cassie and their next sister, Cressida, was just a little more than three years, it was sufficient to split the family into two distinct camps, the two older ones who struggled to take Mama’s place, and the three younger ones, who needed to be cared for.
“Poor Cassie,” Celia said now, leaning over to give her sister a quick hug, “you’ve had such a hard time of it these last three months, are you sure you’re ready for this challenge?”
“Don’t pity me, Celia,” Cassie replied with a frown, “most of what I’ve been forced to endure has been of my own doing.”
“How can you say that! He as good as left you at the altar.”
Cassie bit her lip hard. “You exaggerate a little. The wedding was still two weeks away.”
“The betrothal had been formally announced, people were sending gifts – we sent one ourselves – and the guests had been invited to the breakfast. I know you think you loved him Cassie, but how you can defend him after that…”
“I’m not defending him.” Cassie opened her eyes wide to stop the tears from falling, “I’m just saying that I’m as much to blame as Augustus.”
“How so?” Until now, Cassie had refused to discuss her broken betrothal, for she wanted only to forget it had ever happened, and Celia, who could see that the wound to her sister’s pride was as deep as that to her heart, had tactfully refrained from questioning her. Now, it seemed, her patience was about to pay off, and she could not help but be curious. She leaned over to lift Bashirah from Cassie, for she was making that little impatient noise which preceded an aggressive demand for sustenance. Celia thought of Ramiz and smiled as she settled the baby at her breast. The child had clearly inherited her demanding temperament from her father. “Won’t you tell me, Cassie,” she said gently, “sometimes talking about things, however painful, helps, and I’ve been so worried about you.”
“I’m perfectly fine,” Cassie replied with a sniff.
She looked so patently not fine that Celia laughed. “Fibber.”
Cassie managed a weak smile in return. “Well, I may not be fine at the moment but I will be, I promise. I just need to prove myself, make a success of something for a change, give everyone, myself included, something to be proud of.”
“Cassie, we all love you no matter what. You know that.”
“Yes. But there’s no getting away from it Celia, I’ve behaved very foolishly indeed, and Papa is still furious with me. I can’t go back to England, not until I’ve proved I’m not a complete nincompoop.”
“Cassie, Augustus failed you, not the other way round.”
“He was my choice.”
“You can’t choose who you fall in love with, Cass.”
“I’ll tell you something Celia, I’m going to make very sure I choose not to fall in love ever again.”
“Oh Cassie, you say the silliest things.” Celia patted her sister’s knee. “Of course you will fall in love again. The surprising thing is that you have not fallen in love before, for you are such a romantic.”
“Which is precisely the problem. So I’m not going to be, not any more. I’ve learned a hard lesson, and I’m determined not to have to learn it again. If I tell you how it was, maybe then you’ll understand.”
“Only if you’re sure you want to.”
“Why not? You can’t think worse of me than I already do. No, don’t look like that Celia, I don’t deserve your pity.” Cassie toyed with the cerulean blue ribbons which were laced up the full sleeve of her delicate figured muslin dress. “Augustus said these ribbons were the same colour as my eyes,” she said with a wistful smile. “Then again, he also told me that my eyes were the colour of the sky at midnight, and that they put a field of lavender to shame. He brought me a posy of violets in a silver filigree holder and told me they were a hymn to my eyes too, now I come to think about it. I didn’t even question the veracity of it, though I know perfectly well what colour of blue my own eyes are. That should give you an idea of how deeply in love I thought I was.”
A pink flush stole up the elegant line of Cassie’s throat. Even now, three months after it had all come to such a horrible end, the shame could still overwhelm her. Hindsight, as Aunt Sophia said, was a wonderful thing, but every time Cassie examined the course of events – and she examined them in minute detail most frequently – it was not Augustus’s shockingly caddish behaviour but her own singular lack of judgement which mortified her most.
“Augustus St John Marne.” The name, once so precious, felt bitter on her tongue. Cassie made a moue of distaste. “I first met him at Almacks, where I was fresh from another run-in with Bella.”
“Bella Frobisher!,” Celia exclaimed, “who would have believed Papa could stoop so low. I still can’t believe she’s taken Mama’s place. I doubt I will ever be able to bring myself to address her as Lady Armstrong.”
“No, even Aunt Sophia stops short of that, and she has been pretty much won over since James was born. I have to say though Celia, our half-brother is quite adorable.”
“A son and heir for Papa. So the auspicious event has mollified even our terrifying aunt?”
Cassie giggled. “Bella Frobisher may be a witless flibberty-gibbet,” she said in a fair imitation of their formidable Aunt Sophia’s austere tone, “but her breeding is sound, and she’s come up trumps with young James. A fine lusty boy to secure the title and the line, just what the family needs. And honestly Celia, you should see Papa. He actually visits James in the nursery, which is far more than he did with any of us, I’m sure. He has him signed up for Harrow already. Bella thinks I’m jealous, of course.”
Cassie frowned. “I don’t know, maybe I am, a little. Papa has only ever been interested in us girls as pawns in his diplomatic games – he and Bella had drawn up a short list of suitors for me, you know. I mean, I ask you, a short list! How unromantic can one get. It was what I was arguing with Bella about the night I met Augustus.”
“Ah,” Celia said.
“What does that mean?”
“Nothing. Only you must admit that when someone tells you to do something you are very much inclined to do the exact opposite.”
“That’s not true!” Cassie’s bosom heaved indignantly. “I fell in love with Augustus because he was a poet, with a poet’s soul. And because I thought he liked all the things I did. And because he is so very good looking, and most understanding and…”
“And exactly the sort of romantic hero you have always dreamed of falling in love with.” Celia kissed the now sated and sleeping Bashirah and placed her carefully back into her basket. “And partly, Cassie, you must admit, because you knew Bella and Papa would not approve.”
“I concede, that might have been a tiny part of the attraction.” Cassie bit her lip. Celia had merely articulated what she herself had long suspected. When Bella had handed her the list of suitors her father had compiled, Cassie had promptly torn it in two. The confrontation had ended, as most of her confrontations with Bella ended, in an impasse, but over dinner, and during the coach ride to King Street, Cassie had found her resentment growing. It was while in this rebellious mood that she had encountered Augustus, a singularly beautiful young man who was most gratifyingly disparaging of her step-mother’s treatment of her.
“We danced a quadrille that night at Almacks,” Cassie said, forcing herself to continue with her confession, “and during supper Augustus composed a quatrain comparing me to Aphrodite. He dashed it off right there on the table linen. I thought it was just the most romantic thing ever. Imagine, being a poet’s muse. When he told me about his impoverished state, I positively encouraged myself to fall in love, and the more Papa and Bella protested against my betrothal, the more determined I was to go through with it.” Cassie brushed a stray tear away angrily. “The terrible thing is, I sort of knew it wasn’t real. I mean, there was a part of me that looked at Augustus sometimes and thought, are you seriously intending to marry this man, Cassandra? Then I’d think about how much he loved me, and I’d feel guilty, and I’d think about how smug Bella would be if I changed my mind for it would prove her right, and – and so I didn’t do anything. And the funny thing is, that though there were times when I questioned my own heart, I never once doubted Augustus. He was so impassioned and so eloquent in his declarations. When he – when he jilted me it was such a shock. He did it in a letter, you know, he didn’t even have the decency to tell me to my face.”
“What a coward!” Celia’s elegant fingers curled into two small fists. “Who was she, this heiress of his that he abandoned you for? Do I know her?”
“I don’t think so. Millicent Redwood, the daughter of one of those coal magnates from somewhere up north. They say she has fifty thousand. I suppose it could have been worse,” Cassie replied, her voice wobbling, “if it had been a mere twenty…”
“Oh Cassie.” Celia enfolded her sister in a warm embrace, and held her close as she wept, stroking her golden hair away from her cheeks, just as she had done when they were girls, mourning their poor departed Mama.
For a few moments Cassie surrendered to the temptation to cry, allowing herself the comfort of thinking that Celia would make everything better, just as she always had. But only for a few moments, for she had resolved not to spill any more tears. Augustus did not deserve them, she had to stop wallowing in self pity, and anyway, what good did tears do? She sat up, fumbling for her handkerchief, and hastily rubbed her cheeks dry, taking a big gulp of air, then another. “So you see, Bella and Papa were right all along. I’m selfish, headstrong and foolish, and far too full of romantic notions which have no place in the real world. A heart which can be given so easily cannot be relied upon, and must never again be given free rein, that’s what Aunt Sophia said, and I have to say I agree with her. I have tasted love,” Cassie declared dramatically, temporarily forgetting that she had abandoned her romantic streak, “and though the first sip was sweet, the aftertaste was bitter. I will not drink from that poisoned chalice again.”
Celia bit her lip in an effort not to smile, for Cassie in full unabridged Cassandra mode had always amused her terribly. It was reassuring that her sister wasn’t so completely given over to the blue melancholy as to have lost her endearing qualities, and it gave her the tiniest bit of hope that perhaps her very tender heart would recover from the almost-fatal wound dealt it by Augustus St John Marne. Ramiz would have dispensed swift retribution if he ever got his hands on him. Celia toyed momentarily with the satisfying vision of the feckless poet staked out, his pale foppish skin blistering and desiccating under the fierce desert sun, a legendary punishment meted out to transgressors in bygone days in A’Qadiz. And then, as was her wont, she turned her mind to practicalities.
“You are expected at the border of Daar-el-Abbah in three days. Ramiz will escort you there, but Bashirah is too young to travel and I’m afraid I can’t bear to leave her so I won’t be coming with you. It’s not too late to change your mind about all this though Cassie. The city of Daar is five days travel from here and you are likely to be the only European there. You will also have sole responsibility for the princess. She has a dreadful reputation, poor little mite, for she has been left to the care of a whole series of chaperones since her mother died in the process of giving birth to her. The prince will expect a lot from you.”
“And I won’t let him down,” Cassie said, clasping her hands together. “Who better than I to empathise with little Linah’s plight, did I not lose our own mother? Have I not helped you to raise our three sisters?”
“Well, I suppose in a way, but…”
“I am sure all she needs is a little gentle leading in the right direction and a lot of understanding.”
“And a lot of love. I have plenty of that to give, having no other outlet for it.”
“Cassie, you cannot be thinking to sacrifice your life to a little girl like Linah. This position cannot be of a permanent nature, you must think of it as an interlude only. It is an opportunity to allow yourself to recover, and to do some good along the way, nothing more. Then you must return to England, resume your life.”
“Why? You are content to stay here.”
“Because I fell in love with Ramiz. You too will fall in love one day, properly in love, with the right man. No matter what you think now, there will come a time when looking after someone else’s child is not enough.”
“Perhaps Prince Jamil will marry again, and have other children. Then he will need me to stay on as governess.”
“I don’t think you understand how unusual it is, his taking you into the royal household in the first place. Daar-el-Abbah is a much more traditional kingdom than A’Qadiz. Should he take another wife – which he must, eventually, for he needs a son and heir – then he will resort to the tradition of the harem, I think. There will be no need for governesses then.”
“What is Prince Jamil like?”
Celia furrowed her brow. “I don’t know him very well. Ramiz has a huge respect for him so he must be an excellent ruler, but I’ve only met him briefly. In many ways he’s a typical Arabian prince – haughty, distant, used to being revered.”
“You make him sound like a tyrant.”
“Oh no, not at all. If I thought that, I’d hardly allow you to go and live in his household. His situation makes it difficult for him to be anything other than a bit remote, for his people idolise him, but Ramiz says he is one of the most honourable men of his acquaintance. He is anxious to forge an alliance with him. And he’s very, very good looking.”
“Celia! I’m surprised you noticed, you’re so besotted with your own desert sheik.”
“I am, but even I could not fail to notice Prince Jamil. There’s something about him that draws attention. His eyes, I think, they are the most striking colour. And he’s quite young you know, he can’t be any more than twenty-nine or thirty.”
“I didn’t realise. I had assumed he would be older.”
“Though he has not married again, it is not for lack of opportunity. I don’t know him well enough to like him – I doubt any woman does – but what’s important is, I trust him. The thing is though,” Celia hesitated, and took Cassie’s hand in her own, “he’s not a man who will readily tolerate failure, and he’s not a man to cross either. You must curb your tongue in his presence Cassie, and try to think before you speak. Not that I expect you’ll see very much of him – from what I’ve heard, one of the contributing factors to his daughter’s bad behaviour is his complete lack of interest in her.”
“Oh, how awful. Why, no wonder she is a bit of a rebel.”
Celia laughed. “There, you see, that is exactly what I have just warned you against. You must not allow your heart to rule your head, and you must wait until you understand the whole situation before leaping in with opinions and judgements. Prince Jamil is not a man to get on the wrong side of, and I am absolutely certain that should you do so he would have no hesitation in trampling you underfoot. The point of this exercise is to restore your confidence, not have it forever shattered.”
“You need have no fear, I will be a model governess,” Cassie declared, her flagging spirits fortified by the touching nature of the challenge which lay ahead of her. She, who had resolved never to love again, would re-unite this little family by showing Linah and her father how to love each other. It would be her sacred mission, her vocation. “I promise you,” Cassandra said with a fervour which lit her eyes and flushed her cheeks and made Celia question her judgement in having ever suggested her sister as a sober, level-headed governess, “I promise you Celia, that Prince Jamil will be so delighted with my efforts that it will reflect well on both you and Ramiz.”
“I take it then,” Celia said wryly, “that you are not having second thoughts or falling prey to doubts?”
Cassie got to her feet, shook out her dress and tossed back her head. Her eyes shone with excitement. She looked, Celia could not help thinking, magnificent and quite beautiful, all the more so for being completely unaware of her appearance. Cassie had many faults, but vanity was not one of them. She felt a momentary pang of doubt. How much did she really know of Jamil al-Nazarri the man, as opposed to the prince? Cassie was so very lovely, and she would be very much alone and therefore potentially vulnerable. Celia stood up, placing a restraining hand on her sister’s arm. “Maybe it is best that you should take a little more time, stay here for a few more days before committing yourself.”
“I have decided. And in any case, it is all arranged. You are worried that Prince Jamil may have designs on me, I can see it in your face, but you need not, I assure you. Even if he did – which seems to me most unlikely, for though in England I pass for a beauty, here in Arabia they admire a very different kind of woman – it would come to nothing. I told you, I am done with men, and I am done forever with love.”
“Then I must be done with trying to persuade you to reconsider,” Celia said lightly, realising that further protestations on her part would only unsettle Cassie further. “Come then, let me help you pack, for the caravan must leave at first light.”
Back to The Governess and the Sheikh