The Sheik and the Bride Who Said No(Desert Rogues, Book 9)(46) by Susan Mallery
Each had a fresh brand—their only brand. But the leader had three.
Murat listened to all the evidence, then turned to the council.
“Death,” each of them said.
When it was his turn to speak, he said, “You decided not to end your thieving yourself. We will do it for you.”
The criminal dropped his head to his chest. “I have two children and no wife.”
Murat nodded for the children to be brought out.
A boy of maybe fourteen stepped forward, holding on to the hand of a much younger girl. The boy fought tears, but the little girl seemed more confused, as if she didn’t understand what was happening.
“What of this?” Murat asked the boy. “Do you have a brand on your arm?”
The teenager squared his shoulders. “I do not steal, Prince Murat. I protect my sister and honor the memory of my mother.”
“Very well.” Murat turned his attention to the crowd. “Two children of the thief.”
There was a moment of silence, then a tall man in his early forties stepped toward the dais.
“I will take them,” he said.
Murat was silent.
The man nodded. “I give my word that they will be treated well and raised as my own. The boy will be given the opportunity to attend college if he likes.”
Daphne glared at the man and raised her eyebrows.
He caught her gaze and took a step back. “Ah, the girl, too.”
“Better,” she murmured.
“She-wolf,” Murat whispered back. But he sounded pleased.
Still Murat did not speak to the man making the offer. At last the man sighed.
He called out to the crowd. Several people turned to watch as a young girl of eleven or so stepped out and walked to the man.
“My youngest,” he said heavily. “The daughter of my heart. I give her into your keeping, to ensure the safety of those I take in.”
The girl stared up at him. “Papa?”
He patted her head. “All will be well, child.”
Murat rose. “I agree,” he said. “The children of the thief will enter a new family. Their pasts will be washed clean and they will not carry their father’s burden.”
He walked to Daphne and held out his hand. She stood and took it, then followed him off the dais, toward the rear of the tent.
“What was all that?” she asked. “Why did that man bring out his daughter?”
“Because she is insurance. We will check on the condition of the two children he is taking in, but here, desert traditions run deep. Should he not treat them well, they will be removed from his care, along with his daughter. She gives him incentive to keep his word.”
She’d never heard of such a thing. “An interesting form of foster care.”
“It is more than that. He will take those children into his home and treat them as his own. I meant what I said—they will not bear the stigma of their father’s crimes.” He urged her toward their tent. “It is often this way with the children of criminals. They are taken in and given a good home. I have never heard of one of them being ill treated. I know the man who claimed them. He will be good to them.”
She ducked into the tent and found lunch waiting for them. “I guess it really does take a village.”
“For us it does.”
He held out her chair, then took the seat across from hers. A young woman carried a tray of food toward them.
“What happens this afternoon?” Daphne asked as she served herself some salad.
“No. The petitions. Anyone may approach me directly and ask me to settle a dispute.”
“That must keep you busy.”
He smiled. “Not as busy as you would think. My word is law, and I have a reputation of being stern and difficult. Only the truly brave seek my form of justice.”
“Are you fair?” she asked.
He shrugged. “The fate of my people rests in my hands. I do not take that responsibility lightly. I do my best to see both sides of the situation and find the best solution for all concerned.”
He wasn’t what she thought. At first she’d described Murat as being just like her family—friendly and supportive as long as he got his way. But now she questioned that. He wanted to be a good leader. A good man.
How did she reconcile that with what he’d done to her? What was the solution to her dilemma? How did she show him that they had to be honest with each other before they had any hope of a relationship together?
After lunch Murat met with his tribal council, and Daphne went for a walk. She strolled by the makeshift stables and stopped to watch several children play soccer. A young woman approached and bowed.
“Greetings, Princess,” she said. “I am Aisha. It is a great honor to meet you.”
“The honor is mine,” Daphne said with a smile.
The girl was maybe sixteen or seventeen and incredibly beautiful. In the safety of the camp, she left her head uncovered. Her large brown eyes crinkled slightly at the corners as if she found life amusing. Her full mouth curved up at the corners. Jewelry glinted from her ears and caught the sunlight.
“I must confess I sought you out on purpose,” Aisha said. “I have a petition for the prince, but I dare not deliver it myself.”
The girl ducked her head. “My father has forbidden me.”
Daphne didn’t like the sound of that. “He forbids you to seek justice?”
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