Chosen for His Desert Throne
Duty, honor and red-hot desire lead to marriage in this royal desert romance from USA TODAY bestselling author Caitlin Crews.
Chosen for convenience… Bound by desire!
Sheikh Tarek’s kingdom needs a queen. His country has been scarred by unrest, and discovering a beautiful prisoner in his palace puts the nation only closer to the brink of collapse. Until he realizes Dr. Anya Turner might just be the key he’s looking for…
Anya can’t believe the sheikh is now proposing a royal wedding! But the desire that burns between herself and Tarek makes its own rules, and finds herself unable to resist! She might be queen, but will she ever be able to reach her husband’s hardened heart?
From Harlequin Presents: Escape to exotic locations where passion knows no bounds.
Chosen for His Desert Throne
Sheikh Tarek bin Alzalam had accomplished a remarkable amount in his first year as undisputed ruler of his small, mighty country.
He had accomplished more than he’d lost.
This was not only his opinion, he thought as he greeted the one-year anniversary of his father’s death. It was fact, law, and would become legend.
He stood at the window of the royal bedchamber, gazing out on the ancient, prosperous walled capital city that was now his own. The city—and the desert beyond—that he had fought so hard for.
That he would always fight for, he asserted to himself as the newly risen desert sun bathed his naked body in its light, playing over the scars he bore from this past year of unrest. The scars he would always wear as they faded from red wounds to white badges of honor—the physical manifestation of what he was willing to do for his people.
His father’s death had been sad, if not unexpected after his long illness, twelve months ago. Tarek was his eldest son and had been groomed since birth to step into power. He had grieved the loss of his father as a good son should, but he had been ready to take his rightful place at the head of the kingdom.
But his brother Rafiq had let his ambition get the best of him. Tarek hadn’t seen the danger until it was too late—and it was his younger brother’s bloody attempt to grab power no matter the cost that had required Tarek to begin his reign as more warrior than King. In the tradition of those who had carved this kingdom from the mighty desert centuries ago, one rebellion after another.
Or so he told himself. Because his was not the only brother in the history of this kingdom who had turned treacherous. There was something about being close to the throne yet never destined to rule that drove some men mad.
As King, he could almost understand it.
As a brother, he would never understand it—but he rarely allowed himself to think of that darkness. That betrayal.
Because nothing could come of it, save pain.
His mother had always told him that love was for the weak. Tarek would not make that mistake again. Ever. His blind love for Rafiq had nearly cost him the kingdom.
And his life.
But now his brother’s misguided and petty revolution was over. Tarek’s rule was both established and accepted across the land—celebrated, even—and he chose to think of the past year’s turmoil as more good than bad.
Some rulers never had the opportunity to prove to their people who they were.
Tarek, by contrast, had introduced himself to his subjects. With distinction.
He had shown them his judgment and his mercy in one, for he had not cut down his younger brother when he could have. And when he knew full well—little as he wished to know such things—that had Rafiq accomplished his dirty little coup he would have hung Tarek’s body from the highest minaret in the capital city and let it rot.
Tarek could have reacted with all the passion and anguish that had howled within him, but he preferred to play a longer game. He was a king, not a child.
He had made Rafiq’s trial swift and public. He’d wanted the whole of the kingdom to watch and tally up for themselves his once beloved brother’s many crimes against Tarek—and more important, against them. He had not taken out his feelings of betrayal on his brother, though that, too, would have been seen as a perfectly reasonable response to the kind of treachery Rafiq had attempted.
His brother had tried to kill him, yet lived.
Rafiq had been remanded to a jail cell, not the executioners block.
“Behold my mercy,” Tarek had said to him on the day of his sentencing. There in the highest court of the land, staring at his younger brother but seeing the traitor. Or trying to see nothing but the traitor his younger brother had become. “I do not require your blood, brother. Only your penance.”
The papers had run with it. A Bright and New Day Has Dawned in the Kingdom! they’d cried, and now, standing in the cleansing, pure heat of the desert’s newest sun, Tarek finally felt as if he, too, was bright straight through.
Now the dust was settled. His brother’s mess had been well and truly handled, cleaned away, and countered. It was time to set down sword and war machine alike and turn his thoughts toward more domestic matters.
And while you’re at it, think no more of what has been lost, he ordered himself.
He sighed a bit as he turned from the embrace of the sun. He did not need to look at all the portraits on his walls, particularly in the various salons that made up his royal apartments. Kings stretching back to medieval times, warlords and tyrants, beloved rulers and local saints alike. What all those men had in common with Tarek, aside from their blood, was that their domestic matters had dynastic implications.
If Tarek had no issue and his brother’s co-conspirators rose again, and this time managed to succeed in an assassination attempt, Rafiq could call himself the rightful King of Alzalam. Many would agree.
It was time to marry.
Like it or not.
After his usual morning routine, Tarek made his way through the halls of the palace. The royal seat of Alzalam’s royal family was a sixteenth-century showpiece that generations of his ancestors had tended to, lavishing more love upon the timeless elegance of the place than they ever had upon their wives or children.
“The palace is a symbol of what can be,” his wise father had told him long ago. “It is aspirational. You must never forget that at best, the King should be, too.”
Tarek was not as transported by architecture as some of his blood had been in the past but he, too, took pride in the great palace that spoke not only of Alzalam’s military might, but the artistic passion of its people. Like many countries in the region, packed tight on the Arabian Peninsula, his people were a mix of desert tribesmen and canny oil profiteers. His people craved their old ways even as they embraced the new, and Tarek understood that his role was to be the bridge between the two.
His father had prepared him. And before his death, the old King had arranged a sensible marriage for his son and heir that would allow Tarek to best lead the people into a future that would have to connect desert and oil, past and present.
Tarek tried and failed to pull to his mind details of his bride-to-be as he crossed the legendary central courtyard, a soothing oasis in the middle of the palace, and headed toward his offices. Where he daily left behind the fairy-tale King and was instead the London School of Economics educated CEO of this country. He could not have said which role he valued more, but he could admit, as the courtyard performed its usual magic in him, that he was pleased he could finally set aside the other role that had claimed the bulk of his attention this last year. That of warlord and general.
Everything was finally as he wished it. There had been no unrest in the kingdom since his brother had surrendered. And with him locked away at last, the kingdom could once again enjoy its prosperity. No war, no civil unrest, no reason at all not to start concentrating on making his own heirs. The more the better.
He inclined his head as he passed members of his staff, all of whom either stood at attention or bowed low at the sight of him. But he smiled at his senior aide as he entered his office suite, because Ahmed had not only proved his loyalty to the crown repeatedly in the last year—he had made it more than clear that he supported Tarek personally, too.
“Good morning, Sire,” Ahmed said, executing a low bow. “The kingdom wakes peaceful today. All is well.”
“I’m happy to hear it.” Tarek paused as he accepted the stack of messages his aide handed him. “Ahmed, I think the time has come.”
“The time, Sire?”
Tarek nodded, the decision made. “Invite my betrothed’s father to wait attendance upon me this afternoon. I’m ready to make the settlements.”
“As you wish, Sire,” Ahmed murmured, bowing his way out of the room.
Tarek could have sworn his typically unflappable aide looked…apprehensive. He couldn’t think why.
Again, Tarek tried to recall the girl in question. He knew he had known them once—if only briefly. His father had presented him with a number of choices and he had a vague memory of a certain turn of cheek—then again, perhaps that had been one of his mistresses. His father had died not long after, Rafiq had attempted his coup, and Tarek had not allowed himself the distraction of women in a long while.
It was a measure of how calm things were that he allowed it now.
Tarek tossed the stack of messages onto the imposing desk that had taken up the better part of one side of the royal office for as long as he could remember. He crossed instead to the wall of glass before him, sweeping windows and arched doors that led out to what was known as the King’s Overlook. It was an ancient balcony that allowed him to look down over his beloved fortress of a city yet again. These stones raised up from sand that his family had always protected and ever would.
He nodded, pleased.
For he would raise sons here. He would hold each one aloft, here where his father had held him, and show them what mattered. The people, the walls. The desert sun and the insistent sands. He would teach them to be good men, better rulers, excellent businessmen, and great warriors.
He would teach them, first and foremost, how to be brothers who would protect each other—not rise up against each other.
If he had to produce thirty sons himself to make certain the kingdom remained peaceful, he would do it.
“So I vow,” he said then, out loud, to the watching, waiting desert. To the kingdom at his feet that he served more than he ruled, and ever would. “So it shall be.”
But later that day he stared at the man who was meant to become his father-in-law before him without comprehension.
“Say that again,” he suggested, sitting behind his desk as if the chair was its own throne. No doubt with an expression on his face to match his lack of comprehension. “I cannot believe I heard you correctly.”
This was no servant who stood across from him. Mahmoud Al Jazeer was one of the richest men in the kingdom, from an ancient line that had once held royal aspirations. Tarek’s own father had considered the man a close, personal friend.
It was very unlikely that the man had ever bent a knee to anyone, but here, today, he wrung his hands. And folded himself in half, assuming a servile position that would have been astounding—even amusing—in any other circumstances.
Had not what Mahmoud just told his King been impossible.
On every level.
“I cannot explain this turn of events, Sire,” the older man said, his voice perilously close to a wail—also astonishing. “I am humiliated. My family will bear the black mark of this shame forever. But I cannot pretend it has not happened.”
Tarek sat back in his chair, studying Mahmoud. And letting the insult of what the other man had confessed sit there between them, unadorned.
“What you are telling me is that you have no control over your own family,” he said with a soft menace. “No ability to keep the promises you made yourself. You are proclaiming aloud that your word is worthless. Is that what you are telling your King?”
The other man looked ill. “Nabeeha has always been a headstrong girl. I must confess that I spoiled her all her life, as her mother has long been the favorite of all my wives. My sons warned me of this danger, but I did not listen. The fault is mine.”
“The betrothal was agreed upon,” Tarek reminded him. “Vows were made and witnessed while my father yet lived.”
He remembered the signing of all those documents, here in this very room. His father, already weak, had been thrilled that his son’s future was settled. Mahmoud had been delighted that he would take a place of even greater prominence in the kingdom. But it had taken Ahmed’s presentation of the dossier the palace kept on the woman who was to be his Queen to refresh his recollection of the girl in question, who had not been present that day, as it was not her signature that mattered.
Perhaps that had been an oversight.
“I would have her keep those vows,” Mahmoud said hurriedly. “She was only meant to get an education. A little bit of polish, the better to acquit herself on your arm, Sire. That was the only reason I agreed to let her go overseas. It was all in service to your greater glory.”
“Those are pretty words, but they are only words. Meanwhile, my betrothed is…what? At large in North America? Never to be heard from again?”
“I am humiliated by her actions,” Mahmoud cried, and this time, it was definitely a wail. And well he should wail, Tarek thought. For his daughter’s defection was not only an embarrassment—it would cost his family dear. “But she has asked for asylum in Canada. And worse, received it.”
“This gets better and better.” Tarek shook his head, and even laughed, though the sound seemed to hit the other man like a bullet. “On what grounds does the pampered daughter of an international businessman, fiancée of a king, seek asylum?”
“I cannot possibly understand the workings of the Western governments,” the man hedged. “Can anyone?”
Tarek's mouth curved. It was not a smile. “You do understand that I betrothed myself to your daughter as a favor to my father. An acknowledgment of the friendship he shared with you. But you and I? We do not share this same bond. And if your daughter does not respect it…”
He shrugged. The other man quailed and shook.
“Sire, I beg of you…”
“If your daughter does not wish to marry her King, I will not force her.” Tarek kept his gaze on his father’s friend, and did not attempt to soften his tone. “I will find a girl with gratitude for the honor being done her, Mahmoud. Your daughter is welcome to enjoy her asylum as she sees fit.”
Despite the increased wailing that occurred then, Tarek dismissed the older man before he was tempted to indulge his own sense of insult further.
“You must take the part of the kingdom,” his father had always cautioned him. “Your own feelings cannot matter when the country hangs in the balance.”
He reminded himself of that as he looked at the photograph before him of the blandly smiling girl, a stranger to him, who had so disliked the notion of marrying him that she had thrown herself on the mercy of a foreign government. What was he to make of that?
Then, with a single barked command, he summoned Ahmed before him.
“Why have I not been made aware that the woman who was to become my bride has sought, and apparently received, political asylum in a foreign country?”
Ahmed did not dissemble. It was one reason Tarek trusted him. “It was a developing situation we hoped to solve, Sire. Preferably before you knew of it.”
“Am I such an ineffectual monarch that I am to be kept in the dark about my own kingdom?” Tarek asked, his voice quiet.
“We hoped to resolve the situation,” Ahmed said calmly. No wailing. No shaking. “There was no wish to deceive and, if you do not mind my saying so, you had matters of far greater importance weighing upon you this last year. What was a tantrum of a spoiled girl next to an attempted coup?”
Tarek could see the truth in that. His sense of insult faded. “And can you explain to me, as her father could not, why it is that the girl would be granted political asylum in the first place? She was allowed to leave the kingdom to pursue her studies. Supported entirely by me and my government. She would face no reprisals of any kind were she to return. How does she qualify?”
Ahmed straightened, which was not a good sign. “I believe that there are some factions in the West who feel that you have…violated certain laws.”
Tarek arched a brow. “I make the laws and therefore, by definition, cannot violate them.”
“Not your laws, Sire.” Ahmed bowed slightly, another warning. “There are allegations of human rights abuses.”
“Against me?” Tarek was genuinely surprised. “They must mean my brother, surely.”
He did try not to speak his brother’s name. Not thinking it was more difficult.
“No, the complaint is against you. Your government, not his attempt at one.”
“I had the option for capital punishment,” Tarek argued. “I chose instead to demonstrate benevolence. Was this not clear?”
“It does not concern your brother or his treatment.” Ahmed met Tarek’s gaze, and held it. “It is about the doctors.”
He might as well have said, the unicorns.
Tarek blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“The doctors, Sire. They were picked up eight months ago after an illegal border crossing in the north.”
“What sort of doctors?” But even as Tarek asked, a vague memory reasserted itself. “Wait. I remember now. It is that aid organization, isn’t it? Traveling doctors, moving about from one war zone to another.”
“They are viewed as heroes.”
Tarek sighed. “Release these heroes, then. Why is this an issue?”
“The male doctors were released once you reclaimed your throne,” Ahmed said without inflection, another one of his strengths. “As were all the political prisoners, according to your orders at the time. But there was one female doctor in the group. And because she was a Western woman, and because there are no facilities for female prisoners in the capital city, she was placed in the dungeon.”
Tarek found himself sitting forward. “The dungeon. My dungeon? Here in the palace?”
“Yes, sire.” Ahmed inclined his head. “And as you are aware, I am sure, prisoners cannot be released from the palace dungeons except by your personal decree.”
Tarek slowly climbed to his feet, his blood pumping through him as if he found himself in another battle. Much like the ones he had fought in his own halls on that bloody night Rafiq and his men had come. The ones he wore still on his body and always would.
“Ahmed.” The lash of his voice would have felled a lesser man, but Ahmed stood tall. “Am I to understand that after the lengths I went to, to show the world that I am a merciful and just ruler of this kingdom…this whole time, there has been not merely a Western woman locked beneath my feet, but a doctor? A do-gooder who roams the planet, healing others as she goes?”
Ahmed nodded. “I am afraid so.”
“I might as well have locked up a saint. No wonder an otherwise pointless girl, who should have considered herself lucky to be chosen as my bride, has instead thrown herself on the tender mercies of the Canadians. I am tempted to do the same.”
“It was an oversight, Sire. Nothing more. There was so much upheaval. And then the trial. And then, I think, it was assumed that you were pleased to keep things as they were.”
The worst part was that Tarek could blame no one but himself, much as he might have liked to. This was his kingdom. His palace, his prisoners. He might not have ordered the woman jailed, but he hadn’t asked after the status of any state prisoners, had he?
He would not make that mistake again. He could feel the scars on his body, throbbing as if they were new. This was on him.
Tarek did not waste any more time talking. He set off through the palace again, grimly this time. He bypassed graceful halls of marble and delicate, filigreed details enhancing each and every archway. He crossed the main courtyard and then the smaller, more private one. This one a pageant of flowers, the next symphony of fountains.
He marched through to the oldest part of the palace, the medieval keep. And the ancient dungeons that had been built beneath it by men long dead and gone.
The guards standing at the huge main door did double takes that would have been comical had Tarek been in a lighter mood. They leaped aside, flinging open the iron doors, and Tarek strode within. He was aware that not only Ahmed, but a parade of staff scurried behind him, as if clinging to the hem of his robes that towed them all along with the force of his displeasure.
He had played in these dungeons as a child, though it had been expressly forbidden by his various tutors. But there had never been any actual prisoners here in his lifetime. The dungeons were a threat, nothing more. The bogeyman the adults in his life had trotted out to convince a headstrong child to behave.
Tarek expected to find them dark and grim, like something out of an old movie.
But it turned out there were lights. An upgrade from torches set in the thick walls, but it was still a place of grim stone and despair. His temper pounded through him as he walked ancient halls he hadn’t visited since he was a child. He tried to look at this from all angles, determined to figure out a way to play this public relations disaster to his advantage.
Before he worried about that, however, he would have to tend to the prisoner herself. See her pampered, cared for, made well again. And he had no idea what he would find.
It occurred to him to wonder, for the first time, what it was his guards did in his name.
“Where is she?” he growled at the man in uniform who rushed to bow before him, clearly the head of this dungeon guard he hadn’t known he possessed.
“She is in the Queen’s Cell,” the man replied.
The Queen’s Cell. So named for the treacherous wife of an ancient king who had been too prominent to execute. The King she had betrayed had built her a cell of her very own down here in these cold, dark stones. Tarek’s memory of it was the same stone walls and iron bars as any other cell, but fitted with a great many tightly barred windows, too.
So she could look out and mourn the world she would never be a part of again.
This was where he—for it was his responsibility and no matter that he hadn’t known—had locked away a Western doctor, God help him.
But Tarek had been fighting more dangerous battles for a year. He did not waste time girding his loins. He dove in. He rounded the last corner and marched himself up to the mouth of the cell.
And then stopped dead.
Because the human misery he been expecting… wasn’t on display.
The cell was no longer bare and imposing, the way it was in Tarek’s memory. There was a rug on the floor. Books on shelves that newly-lined the walls. And the bed—a cot in place of a pallet on the stone floor—was piled high with linens. Perhaps not the finest linens he’d ever beheld, but clearly there with an eye toward comfort.
And curled up on the bed—neither in chains nor in a broken heap on the floor—was a woman.
She wore a long tunic and pants, a typical outfit for a local woman, and the garments did not look ragged or torn. They were loose, but clean. Her dark hair was long and fell about her shoulders, but it too looked perfectly clean and even brushed. She was lean, but not the sort of skinny that would indicate she’d been in any way malnourished. And try as he might, Tarek could not see a single bruise or injury.
He assessed the whole of her, twice, then found her eyes.
They were dark and clever. A bit astonished, he thought, but the longer she stared back at him, the less he was tempted to imagine it was the awe he usually inspired. And the longer he gazed at her, the more he noticed more things about her than simply the welfare of her body.
Like the fact she was young. Much younger than he’d imagined, he realized. He’d expected to find an older woman who suited the image of a doctor in his head. Gray-haired, lined cheeks… But this doctor not only showed no obvious signs of mistreatment, she was…
“You look important,” the woman said, shocking Tarek by using his native tongue.
“I expected you to speak English,” he replied, in the same language, though Ahmed had only said she was Western, not English speaking. She could have been French. German. Spanish.
“We can do that,” she replied. And she was still lounging there on the bed, whatever book she’d been reading still open before her as if he was an annoyance, nothing more. It took Tarek a moment, once he got past the insolent tone, to realize she’d switched languages. And was American. “You don’t really look like a prison guard. Too shiny.”
Tarek knew that his staff had filed in behind him at the shocked sounds they all made. He lifted a finger, and there was silence.
And he watched as the woman tracked that, smirked, and then raised her gaze to his again. As if they were equals.
“Important and you have a magic finger,” she said.
Tarek was not accustomed to insolence. From anyone—and certainly not from women, who spent the better part of any time in his presence attempting to curry his favor, by whatever means available to them.
He waited, but this woman only gazed back at him, expectantly.
As if he was here to wait upon her.
He reminded himself, grudgingly, that he was. That he had not fought a war, against his own brother, so that the world could sit back and judge him harshly.
At least not for things he had not done deliberately.
“I am Tarek bin Alzalam,” he informed her, as behind him, all the men bowed their heads in appropriate deference. The woman did not. He continued, then. “I am the ruler of this kingdom.”
The doctor blinked, but if that was deference, it was insufficient. And gone in a flash. “You’re the Sheikh?”
She sat up then, pushing her hair back from her face, though she did not rise fully from her bed. Nor fall to her knees before him, her mouth alive with songs of praise.
In point of fact, she smirked again. And her eyes flashed.
“I’ve been waiting to meet you for eight long months,” she said, the slap of her voice so disrespectful it made Tarek’s eyes widen.
Around him, his men made audible noises of dismay.
Once again, he quieted them. Once again, she tracked the movement of his finger and looked upon him with insolence.
“And so you have,” Tarek gritted out.
There was still no sign of deference. No hint that she might wish to plead for her freedom.
“I’m Dr. Anya Turner, emergency medicine.” Again, her dark eyes flashed. “I’m a doctor. I help people. While you’re nothing but a tiny little man who thinks his dungeon and his armed guards make him something other than a pig.”
End of excerpt
Chosen for His Desert Throne
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