A Royal Bride at the Sheikh's Command(2)

By: Penny Jordan

The elegant and exclusive spa hotel that was her destination had its own landing stage. As she saw it approaching Natalia turned to pick up her bag. As she did so a man striding impatiently across the small square to the side of the hotel caught her eye, as much for any other reason as for his height. At almost six feet herself, she was appreciative of the visual impact of men who were taller than her, and this man was certainly that, taller, and broad shouldered, with surprisingly hard-packed muscles, too, for a man who looked as though he was closer to forty than thirty. Thick dark hair that just brushed the collar of his jacket gleamed with good health under the brilliant sunlight. His skin was warmly olive and although he was too far away for Natalia to see the colour of his eyes she could see the hard, precision hewn perfection of his facial bone structure with its high cheekbones and strong jaw. Here was a man, she acknowledged.

As though by some alchemic means he had somehow sensed her interest and paused, turning his head to look directly at her. She still could not see the colour of his eyes, but she could see that he was even more stunningly handsome face on than he had been in profile. It had to be the sun that was making her feel slightly dizzy and not the fact that he was looking at her…Had been looking at her, she recognised to her relief as he turned away and resumed his progress across the square. As the vaporetto pulled into the landing stage she admitted to herself that her brief interest in this man was not the wisest of things in a woman soon to enter into a dynastic marriage. How was she going to go on in that marriage if she was experiencing sexual desire for another man now? Sexual desire? That was ridiculous. She had simply been looking at him, that was all, and anyway he had gone now, and she was hardly likely to ever see him again, was she?

When Natalia arrived in the lobby, Maya hurried forward to hug her exuberantly. ‘This is so good of you to come and help us with the transition of ownership. We wanted it to go smoothly and there’s still so much to learn about your Nirolian spa. We had not dared to hope that you would be generous enough to come back to Venice so quickly.’

Natalia returned the hug a bit guiltily. It was impossible of course for her to tell her that the main reason she was back in Venice was because King Giorgio had wanted her out of the way until the newly discovered heir to the throne of Niroli had arrived on the island. Then she would be allowed to return and they would be presented, with full pomp and dignity, to the people of Niroli, along with the announcement of their marriage.

‘But why can’t I remain here?’ she had questioned the king. ‘After all I shall have to make arrangements for the future of the business.’

‘You are a woman and I cannot permit you to remain where you could be tempted to break the vow of secrecy I have sworn you to.’

She had of course been tempted to object to the use of that contemptuous ‘you are a woman’ but, knowing King Giorgio as she did, she had decided that there wasn’t very much point, and then she had received the frantic plea to return to Venice to discuss the handover of the business with Maya and Howard. They had expressed their wish to buy some of her special formulae for the oils she used.

The truth was that, much as his old-fashioned attitudes often infuriated her, on this occasion, and perhaps against her own best interests, she had actually felt slightly sorry for the king when he had approached her with his unexpected proposition. He had run through each and every one of his potential male heirs in turn and been forced to reject them. Loving Niroli every bit as much as he did, she had fully understood his contrasting feelings of joy at the discovery that he had fathered an illegitimate son during a brief affair over forty years ago with an Arabian princess, and anxiety about offering this son the throne in case his son’s Arabian upbringing meant that his ideas on how to rule were not suited to Niroli. And, yes, if she was honest it had been flattering—very flattering—to be told by King Giorgio that he had picked her out of all his single female subjects to become the wife of Niroli’s future King because he had seen in her certain strengths and virtues that reminded him of his beloved first wife, Queen Sophia.

Everyone knew how much the people of Niroli had loved and revered King Georigo’s first wife and how much she had done for Niroli. As a little girl Natalia had woven foolish daydreams as children did of somehow going back in time to meet Queen Sophia and ‘helping’ her with her work. Now she had been given that opportunity in reality, or at least an opportunity to continue the work Queen Sophia had begun. At the time, filled with euphoria at the thought of her coming role in the future of her country, she hadn’t thought marriage to a stranger too much of a price to pay. After all she had never been in love and had no expectation of being in love; she liked to think of herself as practically minded and she had embraced the idea of taking a marriage between two people with a common goal and making it work. Of course, even then she had had some doubts and concerns. Marriage to a future king meant producing that future king’s heirs and spares, and that of course meant having sex with him. But King Giorgio had been too thrilled not to mention the fact that his secret son looked very like him, and since the king, even now in his old age, was a very good-looking man Natalia was assuming that her future husband was reasonably physically attractive.

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