The Sheikh's Innocent BrideBy: Lynne Graham
HIS SERENE HIGHNESS, Prince Shahir bin Harith al-Assad, reached his vast estate in the Scottish Highlands shortly before eight in the morning.
As usual, every possible arrangement had been put in place to smooth his arrival with the seamless luxury that had been his right since birth. A limousine with blacked-out windows had collected him from the private airfield where his Lear jet had landed. At no stage had anyone sought to breach his reserve with unwelcome dialogue, for he valued his privacy beyond all other things and his staff worked hard at keeping the rest of the world at bay. Offered a seat in the limo, his estate manager, Fraser Douglas, had answered several questions and then embraced a self-effacing silence.
The only road to Strathcraig Castle stretched for more than fifteen miles, through tawny moorlands surrounded by spectacular purple-blue mountains. The lonely silence of the majestic landscape and the wide blue sky that filled the horizon reminded Shahir of the desert that he loved with an even greater passion. After the frenetic bustle and buzz of the business world, the wild, natural emptiness refreshed his eyes.
As the limo began its descent into the remote forested glen of Strathcraig the passage of a flock of sheep forced the powerful vehicle to a halt. A white-haired woman with a bicycle was also waiting by the side of the road. Only when she turned her head did Shahir appreciate that the woman had barely left her teenage years behind: her hair was not white, it was a very pale platinum-blonde, drawn back from her delicate features in smooth wings. Slender and graceful, she had wide, intelligent eyes and a sensitive, full pink mouth. Even her drab clothing could not conceal the fact that she was as proud and pure in her beauty as an angel he had once seen in an illuminated manuscript. There was, however, nothing reverent about the instant charge of lust that she ignited in Shahir. He was startled by the unfamiliar intensity of his desire, for it had been a long time since a woman had excited his interest to that extent
‘Who is that?’ he asked the estate manager seated opposite him.
‘Kirsten Ross, Your Highness,’ the square-faced older man advanced, and when the silence lay gathering dust, in a way that implied he had answered too briefly, he hastened to offer more facts. ‘I believe she’s employed as a domestic at the castle.’
Shahir would not have dreamt of bedding an employee, and the news that she worked for him in so menial a capacity struck an even less welcome note, for he was a fastidious man. ‘I haven’t seen her before.’
‘Kirsten Ross isn’t the sort to draw attention to herself.’
Hard cynicism firmed Shahir’s well-sculpted mouth. He was a connoisseur of beautiful women, and had yet to meet one unaware of her power. ‘She must be accustomed to the attention her looks excite.’
‘I shouldn’t think she’s ever been encouraged to pay much heed to a mirror,’ Fraser Douglas responded with a wry grimace. ‘Her father is a religious fanatic with a reputation for being very strict on the home front.’
Realising in some surprise that he was still staring at the exquisite blonde, Shahir averted his attention with punctilious care from her. The car drove on.
The older man’s censorious reference to the girl’s father had surprised him, for where did religious devotion end and fanaticism begin? After all, to an outsider village life in Strathcraig appeared to revolve round the church and its activities. The local community followed a very different code of values from the more liberal ways of high society circles. Indeed, the tenants on the estate had a conservative outlook that struck visitors as distinctly grim and outdated, and was probably the result of the glen’s isolation from the wider world.
Yet Shahir was more at home at Strathcraig than he was within a more laissez-faire culture. Dhemen, the Middle Eastern kingdom of his birth, was equally straitlaced. Right was right and wrong was wrong and community welfare always took precedence over the freedom of the individual. Within that clear framework few dared to stray, and those who did were punished by the opprobrium they attracted.
In much the same way Shahir accepted the limitations that fate had chosen to place on his own prospects of happiness. Any woman he took to his bed could only be a poor substitute for the one he really desired, he acknowledged wryly. He loved a woman who could never be his, and casual sexual affairs were his only outlet. But he was thirty-two years old, and that was not how he had planned to live his life.
Concerned relatives kept on lining up the names of promising bridal prospects, and the more broad-minded set up casual meetings with suitable females on his behalf. Perhaps, he reflected grimly, it was time for him to bite the bullet and choose one of those candidates. His darkly handsome features firmed. An Arabian woman would devote her energies 24/7 to the pursuit of being his wife. In return she would expect children, wealth, and the prestige of great position. Love wouldn’t come into the equation and why should it? Marriage in his world had much more to do with the practicalities of status, family connections and, primarily, the provision of an heir. His father had been extremely sympathetic towards his son’s desire to remain single for as long as possible but, as the next inline to the throne, Shahir was well aware that he could not stave off the inevitable for much longer.