The Sheik and the Bride Who Said No(Desert Rogues, Book 9)(40) by Susan Mallery
“I can’t believe it,” she breathed. “It’s like finding out the Easter bunny is real.”
“Sabrina is an expert on the antiquities there. Due to her influence, several pieces have already been returned to some countries. She will take you on a tour if you would like.”
“I’d love it. When do we get there?”
He laughed. “Not so fast. First we must ride deep into the desert and find our way to the edge of the world.”
“I’ve never been there,” she admitted, more than a little intrigued.
“It is a place worth visiting.”
Daphne might hate the way Murat had arranged their marriage and not enjoy being kept in Bahania against her will, but she had to admit that the man knew how to travel and travel well.
Small trucks with large tires kept pace with the group on horse-and camelback.
Several vehicles were designated as moving cafeterias, offering everything from cold water to sandwiches and fresh fruit.
Lunch had been a hit-and-miss affair, eaten while her horse drank and rested, but Murat promised a dinner feast when they reached their camp for the first night.
He had also promised more people would join them, and he was true to his word.
By midafternoon, the number of travelers had tripled. Every hour or so another group appeared on the horizon and moved toward them. There were families with small herds of camels or goats, several young men with carts, and what looked like entire tribes.
Murat’s security spoke with them first, inspected a few bags and boxes, then let them join the growing throng. A few of the men rode to the front of the queue and spoke briefly with Murat. She noticed that those brave enough to do so seemed to focus most of their attention on her.
“Why do they do that?” she asked as a man bowed low in his saddle and returned to his family somewhere behind them. “If they want to meet me, why don’t they just ask?”
“It is not our way. First they must speak with me and remind me of their great service to me or my father. Perhaps their connection is through a bloodline or marriage. Once I have acknowledged their place, they retreat. Later, at camp, they will bring their wives and children and introductions will be made.”
He glanced at her and smiled. “I do not flatter myself that so many people are interested in traveling with me. I have gone into the desert dozens of times. It is their future queen who sparks their imagination.”
Daphne felt both flattered and guilty. She was happy to meet anyone interested in meeting her, but she hated the thought of letting them think her position as Murat’s wife was permanent.
“Your eyes betray you,” he said. “How tender your feelings for those you have not yet met. Perhaps if you opened your heart to your husband, you would be less troubled.”
“Perhaps if my husband had bothered to win my affection instead of forcing something I never wanted, I could open my heart to him.”
Instead of looking subdued or chagrined or even slightly guilty, Murat appeared pleased. “You have not called me that before.”
How like him to only hear that part of the sentence. “Don’t get too excited. I didn’t mean it in a good way.”
“Nevertheless it is true. We are bound.” His gaze dropped to her midsection.
“Perhaps by a child growing even now.”
“Don’t count on it.”
She knew that if he had his way, he would will her to be pregnant. And if she had hers…she would be gone by morning.
Daphne breathed in the sweet air of the desert. The sounds delighted her—the laughter of the children, the jingling of the harnesses on the horses and camels, the call of the birds following them overhead.
As always the vastness of the wilderness left her feeling both small and yet very much a part of the world. All right—if truth be told, she would not wish herself away just yet. Perhaps it would be better if she left Murat after this trip.
“It has been many years since my people have had a queen to call their own,” he said.
“Then you should encourage your father to remarry.”
“He has had four wives and several great loves. I think he prefers his various mistresses.”
“What man wouldn’t?”
Murat’s expression hardened. “Is that what you think? Do you resist me because you assume I will not keep my vows? I assure you, I have no interest in being with another woman. You are my wife and I seek solace in your bed alone.”
Had things been different, the information would have thrilled her. As it was, she felt a slight flicker in her chest, but she quickly doused it.
“For now,” she said.
He drew his horse so close, her leg brushed against his.
“I am Crown Prince Murat of Bahania. My word is law. I will honor our vows to my death.”
The declaration had the desired effect. She felt bad for doubting him and for the briefest moment wondered if she was being incredibly dumb to resist him.
Yes, he’d married her against her will, but it wasn’t as if he planned to mistreat her.
Wait! Was that her standard for a happy marriage? Lack of mistreatment? What about love and respect? What about treating each other with dignity? What about the fact that for the rest of their lives together, he would think it was all right to ignore her opinion and desires and simply do what he wanted?
“I plan to release you well before you breathe your last,” she said.
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