The Sheikh’s Mail Order Bride – Excerpt
Kingdom of Murimon, Arabia, May 1815
Daylight was just starting to fade as he neared his journey’s end. He guided his deliberately modest caravan, consisting of the camel on which he sat and two pack mules, through the broad sweep of the valley floor where the largest of Murimon’s oases fed the fields and orchards, sheltered from the fierce heat of the desert sun by the serried ranks of date palms laden with their ripening fruit. Towering above, the crags of the Murimon Mountains he had just traversed provided further shelter, the sliver-grey rock streaked with ochre, gold and umber glinting in the sun’s rays.
The small town which served the oasis was built into the foothills of the mountains, consisting of a steep jumble of houses and rooftops which clung precariously to the hillside, leaving every precious scrap of level land free for cultivation. The delicious aroma of roasted goat meat wafted on the faint breeze, along with the soft murmur of voices.
There was precious little chance of him being recognised for who he was. His recently ended seven years of self-imposed exile and the kingdom’s state of hibernation due to the current period of deep mourning saw to that. But he kept his gaze turned away all the same, leading his camel and his little train of pack mules past the town towards the final mountain pass he must negotiate, keffiyeh pulled over his face leaving only his eyes uncovered.
His brother would not have countenanced travelling in such a low-key manner. Butrus would have ridden in regal splendour at the head of a caravan of magnificent proportions designed to proclaim his majesty, to encourage his people to pay homage to their ruler, to marvel at and to revere him, to bask in the opulent glare of his princely person. But Butrus was dead. He, Kadar was Prince of Murimon now. Such ostentation sat uneasily with him, though he was beginning to realise that his personal views quite often differed from those of his subjects, and their expectations of him.
Three short months Kadar had reigned, and the full gamut and weight of responsibility he had been forced to assume were becoming clearer. Responsibilities that would never have been his, had fate not twisted and turned so cruelly. He had returned from his exile to attend his brother’s wedding as an honoured guest. Instead, he had attended his funeral. Now Kadar’s domain was no longer the palace library he had more or less inhabited while growing up here, but this entire nation. People and not books were his subjects, his focus. Instead of studying and interpreting the complex legal systems, both ancient and modern, of other lands, for other rulers, he must apply the laws of this land himself, sitting in judgement on a royal throne, not interpreting dusty tomes in a seat of learning.
Emerging from the narrow pass onto the plateau, Kadar brought his camel to a halt. Below him lay the the palace, the wide courtyard already lit by the lanterns hanging in the distinctive rows of palm trees which stood guard with military precision at the entrance to the palace itself. The serpentine road which wound down the cliffs to the port was also lit, lamps winking in the fast-fading light, like stars greeting the dusk. And below that, the two enveloping arms of the harbour, the dark mass of ships and the vast sweep of the Arabian sea.
The sun was setting on the horizon, a golden orb casting streaks of vermillion, scarlet, orange and dusky pink into the sky. The rhythmic swish of the waves on the shore was like a whispered lullaby. It was the sea he had missed most in his years abroad. No other sea was so brightly blue, scenting the air with that unique combination of salt and heat. Kadar took several deep breaths. The relatively short journey to a neighbouring kingdom he had just completed, his first official state visit, had changed him irrevocably, forcing him to accept that his wishes, his desires, were no longer relevant. Or rather the outcome of this visit had done so. He was a prince first now, a man second. His unwanted inheritance must take priority over all else. Accepting custody of the kingdom he had always loved, he could reconcile himself to that. But as to the stranger he had inherited as a bride…
No! Every instinct rebelled. The echoes of the past, the dark, painful memories which he had travelled half the world to escape, still had the power to wrench at his heart. He could not endure it. Yet he must, and he could.
He must not draw comparisons between the past and the present. He must not dwell on the similarities, must focus on the differences. For a start, this particular woman had made her indifference to him very clear, a sentiment he reciprocated entirely, despite her beauty. It ought to make it easier. No need for pretence. No requirement for false declarations of emotions he was incapable of feeling. Not now. Not ever again.
It ought to make it easier, and yet still he struggled to reconcile himself to this passionless contract. He must steel himself. He must remember that this wedding was what his people demanded, his country required. To honour his brother’s memory by fulfilling his brother’s vision of a new royal dynasty and a suitable heir. And more importantly for Kadar, a large dowry, money with which he could transform Murimon, bring it into the Nineteenth Century, implement his own golden vision for his people’s future.
Yes, he could do that. It was a huge personal sacrifice, but it was one worth making.
Arabian Sea, Three Weeks Earlier
The storm had been gathering ominously on the horizon for some time. Lady Constance Montgomery, standing in what had become her habitual position on the deck of the East Indiaman sailing ship Kent, watched as the grey clouds mustered, rolling onto the distant stage one after the other as if in response to some invisible cue.
They had been at sea for nine weeks. Captain Cobb reckoned it would be another three before they reached their destination, Bombay. Only three more weeks before Constance would meet, for the first time, the prominent East India merchant who was to be her husband. No matter how hard she tried, she was still unable to prevent that sickening little lurch in her stomach every time she was reminded of this call of duty that took her half way around the world.
She had resisted this marriage which was convenient for all but herself. She had reasoned. She had come up with any number of alternatives. She had even, to her shame, resorted to tears. But when all her stratagems failed, when it became clear that her fate was sealed, she had resigned herself to it. Boarding the Kent at Plymouth, she had felt as if she was jumping off a cliff rather than stepping onto a ship, her eyes screwed shut to avoid the ground rushing up to meet her. The ground, in the form of this arranged match, was not rushing, but it was inching inexorably closer as the East Indiaman sailed across the ocean on fickle winds, edging closer to Bombay. Constance had began to dread their arrival. This marriage – or any marriage for that matter – ran counter to all her inclinations.
Oh dear! She had promised herself not to pick over it all again. The deed was done, the deal had been made – for a business transaction by another name this marriage most certainly was. The exorbitant sum of money Papa required to save the estates had been despatched by Mr Gilmour Edgbaston. The goods, in the form of Constance, were in transit in the opposite direction. ‘And there’s no point in railing against your fate,’ the most expensive piece of cargo on the ship told herself firmly. ‘The only thing to be done is to make the best of it.’
An excellent resolution and one, she had persuaded herself before she sailed, which was quite achievable. But before she had sailed, she had been bolstered by Mama’s happy smiles and confident assertions that Constance was doing the right thing. Now, very far from home indeed, with far too much time to consider the reality of the situation, she was not at all sure that Mama’s simple philosophy that money was the root of all evils and the source of all happiness had any foundation at all. Not that she had ever believed it. She’d simply had no option but to pretend to do so, because Papa had given Mama no choice, and so Mama had been forced to demand this ultimate sacrifice of her daughter.
It hurt. It hurt a great deal more than Constance had ever permitted Mama to see. A great deal more than she cared to admit even to herself too, so she endeavoured not to think about it and she succeeded, mostly. Save that here she was again, dwelling on it most pointlessly. ‘When my time would be a great deal more productively spent dwelling on how I can make sure my marriage does not become a prison cell in which I must serve a life sentence,’ she told herself sternly.
Her heart sank. She didn’t want to think about it. She didn’t want to force herself to feel positive about something so very negative. She had three more weeks at sea. Three last weeks of freedom, three more weeks to make the most of the spectacular star-gazing opportunities the long sea journey had granted her as they travelled under unfamiliar skies, crossing the equator into the southern hemisphere before crossing back into the northern hemisphere again on this final part of the journey.
Mind you, it was doubtful whether she’d see anything of value through her telescope tonight, Constance thought. The clouds had merged into one roiling mass now, an angry pewter colour, dense iron grey at the centre. Around her on the deck the crew were struggling with the rigging. The calm deep-blue of the Arabian sea, with its crystal-tipped waves, like the clouds, seemed to be forming into one foaming mass, a more sinister sea which moved in one great rolling motion, sending the Kent high above the horizon before plunging low, into the depths of the swell.
Constance retreated into the lea of the main-mast in the middle of the ship, but spray soaked her face and travelling gown. Above her, terrifyingly high on the crow’s nest, a sailor signalled frantically to the crew.
‘Best get down below decks your ladyship,’ one of the ship’s officers told her. ‘We’re going to head in towards the shelter of the coast, but I’m not sure we’ll be able to outrun the storm. It’s going to get a tad rough.
‘A tad?’ Staggering as the Kent crested the swell like a rearing stallion, Constance laughed. ‘That sounds to me rather an understatement.’
‘Aye. So you’d best get below sharpish. If you thought the Bay of Biscay was rough, I assure you it was nothing to what’s heading our way. Now if you’ll excuse me.’
The ship listed again. Above her, the mast creaked alarmingly. Bare-footed jack-tars clung tenaciously to the sodden decks, going about the business of steering the huge three-master towards safer waters. Several of the soldiers of the 31st Regiment of Foot, en route to a posting in India, were helping out, looking decidedly unsteady in comparison to the sailors, but Constance was the only civilian left on deck. The wives and children of the soldiers and the twenty other private passengers including Mrs Peacock, the returning merchant’s wife whom Papa had paid to act as companion and protect his daughter’s valuable reputation during the voyage, were all safe and dry below.
She really ought to join them. It was becoming treacherous here on deck, but it was also incredibly invigorating. Here was a breath of true freedom. Constance found a more secure spot under the main-mast, out of the way of the crew and mostly out of sight too. Though her stomach lurched with every climb and dip, she had discovered very early on in the voyage that she was an excellent sailor, and felt not remotely ill. Spray, heavy with salt, burned her skin. Her hair escaped from its rather haphazard coiffure, whipping her cheeks, blowing wildly about her face. The wind was up now, roaring and whistling through the rigging, making the sails crack. The ship too was protesting at the tempest, the timbers emitting an oddly human groan as they strained against the nails and caulking which bound them together.
The spray had become a thick mist through which Constance could make out only the very hazy outlines of scurrying sailors. The ship listed violently to port, throwing her from her hiding place, sending her sliding out of control across the deck, saved only when her flailing hands caught at a rope. The swell was transformed into terrifyingly high walls of water which broke over the decks. Clutching desperately at her rope, she was dimly aware of other bodies slipping and sliding around her. The ship listed again, this time to starboard. Men cried out, their voices sharp with fear. Below decks, women were screaming.
This time when the Kent tilted on her side, perilously close to the water, Constance didn’t think she could possibly be righted. By some miracle, the vessel came round, but a blistering sound preceded the sheering of the mizzen-mast from the decking. Chaos ensued. Screaming. Tearing canvas. Crashing timber. The hoarse, desperate cries of sailors trying to save their ship and their passengers and themselves. The thud and scramble of feet on decks. And above all the roaring and crashing of the sea as it fought for supremacy.
It was no easy battle. The Kent was built to ride such storms, and her captain was a man experienced in doing so. Staggering like a drunken sot, the ship careered towards the calmer waters of the Arabian coast. Women and children, soldiers and sailors, spilled out onto the top deck, scrambling up from below to cling to the remnants of the fallen mast, to the rigging, to the torn sails, to each other.
Constance, flung against the fore-mast, her skirts tangled in rope, saw it all through a sheen of spray, frozen with fear and at the same time fiercely determined to live. It was invigorating, this determination, proof that her spirit was neither tamed nor broken.
She would not allow herself to perish. On she clung, and on the ship tossed and dived, corkscrewing and listing, so that even Constance’s strong stomach protested, until finally land came into sight and with it the promise of safety, the force of the storm either spent or left behind them.
She was loosening her painful grip on the rope when the main-mast suddenly went, taking the fore-mast with it. The Kent rolled onto her starboard side, hurling Constance overboard, throwing her high into the air before she plunged headlong into the Arabian Sea.
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