The Sheikh and the Virgin Princess(Desert Rogues, Book 5)(40) by Susan Mallery
Zara stared at the antique weapon. She could imagine it covered in blood. “I didn’t realize that Bahania had been involved in the Crusades.”
Hassan shook his head. “There wasn’t any fighting here, but the true believers traveled to keep out the infidels.” His expression turned serious. “It was a time of great unrest, and many died. Over the years, the royal family began to see that an attitude of tolerance was better for our people. By the sixteenth century, all were allowed to worship as each saw fit. We were very progressive.”
“Apparently.” Zara knew that in the sixteenth century, Europe had been a land of intolerance, especially between those of different beliefs.
“We were less progressive about women,” Hassan said with an apologetic tone. “The royal harem existed until my father’s time.”
“I can’t imagine such a thing.”
“While I can imagine it, I’m not sure how a ruling monarch would find the time,” Hassan said teasingly. “Matters of state keep me very occupied.”
They continued to walk through the halls of the oldest part of the palace. Treasures filled every corner, including paintings, stunning mosaics, statues and carvings done directly into the walls and ceilings.
A small gray cat strolled up to join them. Hassan bent over and picked up the feline, cradling it in his arms.
“How are you, my precious one?” he asked, his tone low and affectionate.
A small tag hung from a braided collar. Hassan touched the tag with his finger, turning it so he could read the name.
“Ah. You are Muffin.” He shook his head. “Occasionally I permit school children to come to the palace and name the new cats. I frequently regret the visits.”
Zara laughed. “You don’t approve of Muffin as a name for a cat?”
“Not a royal one.” Still, he scratched the cat’s head and rubbed it under the chin. The tame creature purred, relaxing in Hassan’s arms.
“How did you come to be so fond of cats?” she asked.
“My mother enjoyed having them around.” He set Muffin back on the ground. “You are named for my mother. Did you know?”
“Not until you told me. I’d looked up the origin of the name once and saw that it was a derivation of Sara but I didn’t think anything more than that. I figured my mother had simply liked the name.”
Hassan led the way to an alcove. Large windows looked out onto an elaborate garden. Zara had noticed that Bahania was much more lush than she would have expected.
She took the seat next to the king and tried to ignore the small group that had trailed them throughout the tour. Apparently Hassan didn’t go many places alone.
“I was surprised to learn that Fiona had remembered me telling her about my mother.” He touched Zara’s hair. “Surprised and pleased. My mother also would have enjoyed knowing she had not been forgotten.”
Zara didn’t know what to say to that. Fiona had never spoken of Hassan or his mother. The king seemed to read her mind.
“If you only learned about me through her papers, obviously she did not tell you anything.”
“I would ask questions,” Zara said, because it was true and she sensed it was something Hassan would want to hear. “I used to beg her to tell me about my father, but she never said a word. I didn’t know why.”
“Your life would have been very different if she’d told either of us,” Hassan said. “I want to think I would have been willing to let her live her life without me as was her wish, but I’m not sure.”
He stared into the distance. Zara knew he was seeing the past he’d shared with Fiona.
“Tell me about your life as a child,” he said quietly. “Tell me about Fiona.”
Zara shifted slightly on the bench. Even though the king’s entourage stayed out of earshot, she was aware of them lurking. There were a couple of assistants, someone who could only be a bodyguard and Rafe. His was the only presence she didn’t mind.
“Fiona was always beautiful,” Zara began slowly. “Tall, elegant and so graceful. She could make the most ordinary task in the world look like an intricate dance. I wanted to be like her.”
“There is a great likeness,” Hassan said.
She laughed. “You danced with me at the dinner. I’m sure I trod on your toes at least once.” Zara’s smile faded slightly. “I inherited many good qualities from my mother, but grace wasn’t one of them. I had no talent for dancing, although she tried for years. I would attend classes and stumble my way through. Finally she gave in to my pleas and allowed me to spend my afternoons in the library instead of in her studio.”
“Was there—” Hassan’s voice trailed off. He cleared his throat. “Fiona had a way about her. There must have been many men. Before you said there wasn’t anyone special, but she must have had admirers.”
Zara suddenly sensed dangerous territory. Fortunately, she could tell the truth. “From time to time she dated. A relationship might last for a couple of months. But they were never serious. She told me that she had no interest in getting married. I think she’d already given away her heart.”
Hassan shrugged. “I want it to be so. How could I not? Fiona was my one true love. If only she’d agreed to marry me.”
Zara found that thought daunting. If her mother had married the king, then they all would have lived in Bahania. What would that have been like?
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