Claiming his Desert Princess – Excerpt
Kingdom of Nessarah, Arabia, July 1815
The moon was little more than a scimitar-shaped crescent in the night sky as Christopher moved stealthily towards the summit of the rocky outcrop which would provide him with the perfect vantage point. The heavens were strewn with hazy stars tonight, a scattering of dusty diamonds rather than the usual pin cushion of bright-silver discs. Though he was pretty certain that the site he had come to reconnoitre was deserted, he had taken the precaution of leaving his hobbled camel at the nearest well, located over a mile away. The soft sand had given way to gravelly rubble underfoot. Patches of sparse scrub had forced their way through the hard-packed mud. Dusty and bereft of any greenery, their thick thorns snatched at his cloak as he crept forward, his soft-soled boots making no sound.
The rock formation which was the focus of his interest rose out of the gentle swell of the ground like the battlements of an ancient keep. In this light it looked russet red in colour, the vertical striations glittering. A clearly identifiable track had been hacked through the scrub leading towards a cleft in the rock. Stooping to examine the ground, Christopher could make out the indentations created by heavy cart wheels rumbling across the terrain. He was definitely in the right place.
His heart began to race with anticipation, but he mustn’t get ahead of himself. The whispered conversations he had overheard, the careful questioning of local contacts, his own research, may yet prove unfounded. The familiar tightening in his gut, the flicker of excitement which always accompanied such discoveries, was on this occasion leavened with a healthy dose of desperation. Never in his entire career had so much been riding on a mineral find.
A single black cloud traversed the moon, casting a shadow over the rugged desert landscape laid out before him. For six months he had been scouring southern Arabia in search of the perfect confluence of natural resources without once finding this, the most elusive of them all. He had now exhausted his list of potential locations. Nessarah was pretty much his last throw of the dice.
‘But this time, I know I’m in the right place,’ Christopher muttered resolutely to himself. The answer had to be here. He had grown weary of this self-imposed quest, longing for it to be over. He could not contemplate failure.
‘And so I must succeed.’ His hand felt automatically for the pouch containing the amulet. He did not need to remove it to trace the shape cast from beaten gold, the smooth enamel interior, the setting of each individual precious stone, and the oddly-shaped gap which might hold the key to the origin of the piece. He carried it with him everywhere, a tangible reminder of all he had lost, not least his own identity.
His entire life had been shown to be a sham built on false foundations on that fateful day shortly after the funeral when he had discovered the relic, along with the document which explained its presence. He had barely been able to comprehend the contents at the time. Even now, six long months into his search, nine months after that life-changing meeting which had taken place in London, he felt sick to the pit of his stomach when contemplating the ramifications.
And so he did not allow himself to think of them. His fingers tightened around the amulet, a priceless, ancient artefact, a potent symbol of the lie he had unwittingly been living, the bribe which had been paid to ensure the hateful, sordid truth of his past remained buried. He wished he had never discovered it, but having done so, he could do nothing until he had rid himself of it, returning it to its historical home. Only then could he put an end to this shattering chapter in his life, wipe the slate of his own history clean, make a fresh start and new man of himself.
But he was not there yet. First he had to prove that this new mine could provide him with the vital connection which had so far eluded him. Force of habit made him check that the pouch containing the amulet was securely fastened, that his belt was also securely buckled, that the scimitar and the slim dagger which hung from it could be easily drawn, and that the smaller dagger was still strapped to his leg. A man never knew when drastic action might be required. A final scan of the area with his spyglass assuring him that he was quite alone, Christopher got to his feet and went in search of the mine entrance.
An hour later, Tahira tethered her camel to a gnarled acacia tree. The moon was faint, hardly ideal for exploring the site, but that did not matter greatly. This was her first visit, a reconnoitre to familiarise herself with the terrain, to have a cursory look for the tell-tale signs of ancient occupation – or the lack of it. She pulled off her headdress and cloak, folding them neatly under the acacia. Her tunic and trousers were tobacco-brown, the same colour as her riding boots, designed to allow her to easily blend into the shadows, though such caution would not be necessary tonight, for the excavations had only just begun. It was too early as yet to merit the posting of a guard. She had never before explored the site of a working mine, considering the risk of discovery too great, but she had never before needed to distract herself from such a dire situation at home. Her brother was determined to force her into obeying his will. She could not resist thumbing her nose at him by exploring this, his latest pet project, even though he would never know.
Excitement made her heart flutter. There was nothing quite like it, being out here all alone in the desert. Nothing compared to that tingling sense of anticipation, wondering what hidden treasures she might uncover. She had always possessed a strong, vital sense of connection with the past that she never could explain to her sisters. They simply couldn’t understand the affinity, the way her blood stirred when she held an ancient artefact, or stood on a spot where her antecedents once stood. Not that she would dream of admitting to such first-hand experience. Her sisters would be horrified if they ever found out about her night-time escapades, terrified by the consequences were she to be caught. She would not risk compromising them by sharing such information, preferring to keep her secret firmly to herself, and in doing so, keeping the three people she loved most in the world safe.
The three people in the world who, if her brother had his way, she would soon be forced to abandon. With the pressure on her to comply increasing daily, she was determined to make the most of her fleeting moments of freedom, storing up these precious nights as ballast against the future that others were determined to force upon her. A future she neither wanted nor had any say in. Here, under cover of darkness, released from the gilded cage she inhabited, she could cast off the burden of her birth right, forget the fate she was trying so assiduously to avoid, and inhabit another world, where no-one but herself could dictate her actions.
Doing so was not without considerable risk, but as her sense of impending doom increased, so too did her determination to reward herself with these stolen hours. She would not think about the consequences of discovery. She refused to believe she would be caught. Besides, she reasoned, her activities were so improbable, it was highly unlikely that anyone would imagine her capable of them. There were advantages, after all, to being a mere female. Her brother and her father would not believe such defiance possible even if they gave it a second’s thought – which they would not. How satisfying it would be to confound them, to see the incredulity on their faces. Or it would be, if by doing so she would not immediately guarantee at the very least an abrupt cessation of her nocturnal activities.
A soft breeze whispered through the scrub, ruffling her tunic, tugging at the scarf which tied her hair back from her face. A gentle reminder that she had work to do. Shouldering the leather bag which contained her notebook and tools, Tahira began to explore the site.
She had completed a full circuit of the circumference of the rock formation, and had just clambered up to examine the entrance to the mine when the flicker of light from a lantern coming from inside the tunnel made her freeze in horror. There was a guard on duty after all. Heart bumping, mouth dry, Tahira turned away, bracing herself to flee down the steep incline towards her camel. He must have moved with the litheness and lightning speed of a sand cat, for she had taken no more than two steps when one very strong arm encircled her waist, lifting her clean off her feet.
‘How dare you! Release me at once.’
She could not decipher the guard’s response, for it was uttered in a foreign tongue, but he set her down immediately before turning her around to face him. ‘A woman! What in the name of the stars are you doing here?’
He spoke in Arabic now, though his accent was odd. Tahira blinked up at him in astonishment. ‘You are not a guard. What are you doing here, creeping about like a thief in the middle of the night?’
He laughed brazenly, holding the lantern higher. ‘I might reasonably ask you the same question.’
He was tall, dressed in dusty, everyday garb, a, drab brown tunic and trousers rather like her own, a cloak that may have been white at some point in the distant past, and brown leather riding boots, but there was nothing at all everyday about the man himself. In fact Tahira’s first thought was that here was a man one would never forget meeting. Her second was that he was not only memorable, but at a visceral level extremely attractive. His tousled hair gleamed gold in the lantern light. His skin was deeply tanned, he had a strong nose and a sensual mouth, but it was his eyes which drew her attention, for they were the most extraordinary piercing blue rimmed with grey and, even more than the vicious scimitar which hung from his belt, proclaimed him dangerous.
She shivered as a mixture of fear and excitement coursed through her. ‘You realise that you are trespassing? This mine is the rightful property of King Haydar.’
‘As are all the mines in the kingdom of Nessarah, I believe, but it appears I am not the only trespasser.’ He adjusted the lantern so it illuminated her face. ‘I would hazard a guess that you are not a miner, though if you are, you are the most extraordinarily attractive one I have had the good fortune to meet. And believe me, I have encountered my fair share of miners.’
His supreme self-assurance in the face of what he must realise was a perilous situation was astonishing. And intoxicating. If he showed no fear, why should she? He made no attempt to prevent her leaving. Tahira knew she ought to do just that, but now she was sure she had not been recognised, she didn’t want to leave. She had no reason at all to trust this man, yet her instincts told her he meant her no harm. Besides, she was very curious. And yes, very attracted too. His smile made her catch her breath. It made her wonder, shockingly, what it would be like to feel his lips on hers – she, who had never in all her twenty-four years been kissed even once.
‘Your deductive powers are to be admired,’ Tahira said, unable to resist returning that smile. ‘You are quite correct, I am not a miner.’
The stranger exhaled sharply. ‘But you are a beauty. What are you doing out here alone in the desert at night?’
‘I am quite accustomed to being alone in the desert at night, and until now, have been adept at protecting my solitude.’
His teeth flashed white as he grinned. ‘Then we are kindred spirits, Madam…?’
She hesitated, but it was highly unlikely he would make anything of her first name. ‘Given the informal nature of our introduction, I think you may call me Tahira.’
His eyebrows quirked. ‘A woman of discretion. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Tahira. Permit me to introduce myself in a similarly informal manner. My name is Christopher,’ he said, making a flourishing bow. ‘At your service.’
‘Christopher,’ she repeated slowly. ‘An English name?’ she hazarded, and when he nodded, added, ‘you are very far from home.’
‘I have no home.’ His expression clouded momentarily, but then he shrugged. ‘And you, Tahira, are you far from home?’
Now it was her turn to shrug. ‘Not so very far.’
‘You are mysterious as well as discrete.’
She laughed. ‘Significantly less mysterious than you, a stranger to these lands.’
‘I beg to differ,’ the Englishman said with another of his devastating smiles. ‘Your presence here raises a multitude of questions. What is a beautiful woman dressed in male garb doing examining the workings of a mine, quite alone and in the middle of the night? How did she get here? Where did she come from? Why the disguise? You cannot, surely, expect anyone to be fooled into thinking you a man?’
Though his tone was teasing still, she had the distinct impression that his questions had a point to them. It was natural enough for him to be curious, she supposed, given her unorthodox appearance, but she could not risk him becoming too curious. ‘My clothes are merely practical, like yours,’ Tahira said.
She had under-estimated him. ‘Made from considerably more expensive material than mine, and considerably less worn too. Proof, if proof were needed, that you are not a miner,’ he said. ‘And yet you knew of the existence of this mine. It has only just been opened up, excavation is in its infancy. How came you by your information?’
Tahira’s stomach knotted. She shrugged in what she hoped was a careless manner. ‘I could ask you the same question.’
‘You could,’ the Englishman responded, ‘but I asked it of you first.’
There was no change in his tone, which remained pleasant enough, no change either in his expression, yet she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he meant to get an answer. What could he possibly suspect? Instinctively she knew he would see through any lie, but the truth – no, that was impossible. The safest thing would be to leave without comment, but she found she didn’t want to play safe.
‘I have no interest in the mine itself,’ Tahira said, opting for a partial version of the truth. ‘I am interested only in the possibility that the seam may have been excavated in ancient times, and that the miners left evidence of their settlement here.’
She did not expect her answer to have such a startling effect on the Englishman, nor had she truly believed it would distract him from his original question, but it did. His fair brows shot up, all traces of a smile fading. ‘And have you found any such evidence?’ he demanded. ‘Do you have any idea how old such a settlement might be.’
‘This is my first visit to this site, but a number of our – of Nessarah’s reserves of minerals and ores have been mined to some degree since ancient times,’ Tahira replied, struggling to understand the change in him. ‘Goodness, is it possible – are you yourself interested in such sites?’
Her incredulity made him smile again. ‘I am more than interested. In fact, I’m a passionate antiquarian myself.’
Now it was her turn to stare in astonishment. ‘Are you teasing me?’
‘No, I assure you. For some years now, I have been involved in a number of archaeological digs. Some in Britain, but the majority in Egypt. I have to say though, that in all my travels I have not encountered a female antiquarian. Are you working quite alone?’
‘I am not working as such. It is an interest with me, that is all.’
‘An interest you choose to pursue in the hours of darkness?’
That look again, it was silly to imagine he could read her thoughts, but it was how she felt. Tahira crossed her arms, meeting his bright blue eyes square on. ‘As you do?’
‘As you have already deduced, I don’t have permission from the king to be here, any more than you. I wonder, what is it that drew you here, to this particular mine on this particular night?’
She couldn’t understand the edge to his voice. What on earth did he suspect her of? ‘You cannot possibly be imagining that my presence has anything to do with yours?’
She had spoken flippantly, yet she had, astoundingly, hit the mark. ‘It is rather a coincidence, you’ll admit,’ Christopher said.
‘A coincidence and nothing more,’ Tahira countered, quite nonplussed. ‘Who are you, to imagine I would go to such extreme measures to make your acquaintance?’
He had the grace to look sheepish. ‘Forgive me. I am simply suspicious by nature. And also innately curious. If this encounter of ours is mere coincidence, then is a most delightful one. Do you happen to know what it is they expect to find here?’
He had turned his attentions to extinguishing the lantern, but she was not fooled. ‘Do you?’
She did not expect him to answer, but after a brief hesitation he did. ‘Turquoise.’
‘That is supposed to be a very closely guarded secret.’
Too late, she understood the speculative look, realised that she had walked straight into his trap as his eyes lit up. ‘So it’s true!’
‘Are you a speculator?’
He grasped her arm. ‘Is it true? How do you know for certain? If this is indeed a turquoise mine it would signal the end of a very long journey for me.’
There was a fervent light in his eyes, a rapt expression on his face. Bitterly disappointed, she pulled her arm free. ‘So you are a speculator after all, in search of riches.’
But Christopher shook his head vehemently. ‘If I was, don’t you think I’d be more interested in locating a new diamond or gold mine? Nessarah is well endowed with both, and not all of it has been worked yet, by any manner of means.’
‘How on earth do you know that?’
‘It is of no import. What’s vital is confirming beyond doubt that this is indeed a turquoise mine.’
‘It isn’t any sort of mine as yet,’ Tahira exclaimed, becoming quite frustrated. ‘If you’re truly an antiquarian as you claim, why are you more interested in the mineral being mined than the possibility that it was mined in ancient times?’
‘The truth is I that both are crucial to the successful conclusion of my quest.’
‘Quest? You make it sound like some noble undertaking.’
‘There is nothing noble about it, quite the opposite, but it is an undertaking and a solemn one at that.’ The Englishman pursed his lips, frowning deeply. ‘have no idea who you are, why you’re here alone, or how you have come by your information, but if you possess knowledge of Nessarah’s ancient mining history, you could be a precious find worth a great deal more than diamonds to me.’
Which admission could not but capture her interest, though she tried not to let it show. ‘I would not claim to be an expert, but the study of Nessarah’s history is a passion of mine,’ Tahira said cautiously. ‘I did not lie about my reason for being here.’
‘I promise you, I didn’t lie either. I too came here in search of an ancient settlement, because it would bring me one step closer to solving an ancient mystery.’
‘By the stars, what mystery?’ she asked, abandoning any attempt to disguise her interest.
But Christopher, having come tantalisingly close to confiding in her, now seemed to be having second thoughts. ‘How do I know I can trust you? How do I know that you won’t head back to wherever it is you came from and tell your husband who will report me to the authorities?’
‘Firstly because I have no husband. Secondly, and more importantly, the very last thing I would do is inform anyone of our encounter. As you must already have surmised, I’m not supposed to be here. And if it were discovered that I was, and not where I should be…’ Tahira broke off, suppressing a shudder. ‘Be assured, I would not be so foolish to betray you, when to do so would be to betray myself.’
‘Do you mean that you have run away?’
‘Escaped, in a manner of speaking, but only temporarily.’
‘Escaped from what?’
‘My life. My home,’ she amended, not wishing to sound over-dramatic, even if it was the truth.
Christopher’s brows rose. ‘So you’re supposed to be tucked up in bed safe and sound, but you’ve escaped into the night in order to pursue your interest in Nessarah’s ancient heritage?’
‘Is that so hard to believe?’
‘Tahira.’ Christopher touched her arm lightly. ‘I’m not mocking you. I’m simply – I’m impressed. To take such a risk shows a true love of the past which certainly equals if not exceeds mine.’
‘Oh.’ She was absurdly pleased by the complement. ‘I am only – it is something I do only for myself. No-one else – well, they can’t know. Do you understand now why I would not betray you?’
‘You assume that I am not going to betray you either.’
She had done exactly that. Was she being utterly naïve? ‘Why would you, when you have just described me, in rather melodramatic terms, as a precious find? Unless of course that was a crude attempt at flattery. More tellingly, your presence here in the dead of night, proves that, for whatever reason, you have no more desire to be discovered than I.’
‘You are, of course, quite correct,’ Christopher said, visibly relaxing. ‘But I was not flattering you. Your knowledge of Nessarah’s history could well prove to be of great assistance to me. If you are not in a hurry to melt back into the night, perhaps I can explain why I am here?’
This man was a foreigner as well as a complete stranger. She really ought to get on her camel and head home. But she knew she would regret it. An ancient mystery. A quest which was solemn but not noble. She had to know more. Besides, she had never before felt so drawn to a man. Hardly surprising, since her circumstances meant she met very few, but this man was different. He shared her fascination for the past. And yes, he was handsome too, but it was his eyes which set him apart. And that smile, which seemed to connect directly with her insides, making her certain, despite her utter lack of experience, that the attraction was mutual.
‘I am in no great rush,’ Tahira said. ‘I do not promise that I can help you, but I would very much like to hear more.’
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