The Sheikh's Secret Bride(Desert Rogues, Book 3)(13) by Susan Mallery
But not just yet, he told himself. Perhaps tomorrow, or maybe at the end of the week. For now he wanted her close by. Even though she was unlikely to want to speak with him or see him, he liked knowing she was within the palace walls, that if he were to command that she be brought to him, she would be forced to appear.
He was a fool, and that was something he’d always tried to avoid being. He wished he could explain why he was so interested in this woman. What combination of features, personality and fate had made him act so out of character? Perhaps Fatima had cast a spell on him.
Malik grinned at the thought of his very practical grandmother dabbling in love spells. Fatima was too down-to-earth to have patience for such things. No, he was going to have accept responsibility for his actions all on his own.
A flicker of movement caught his attention. He looked up and saw Liana’s young daughter moving in the direction of a stable. He allowed himself a faint smile. No doubt she wanted to see the many horses there and perhaps find out about riding one.
Despite the meeting due to start in ten minutes and the pile of work still awaiting his attention, Malik rose to his feet and left the office. He informed his startled male assistant that he would be out for an hour or so and please to reschedule the meeting for a more convenient time. Then he hurried toward the stables on the far side of the palace.
Less than five minutes later he found young Bethany Archer gently touching the soft nose of a bay. The child had changed from her school uniform into jeans and a T-shirt. Her hair was about three shades lighter than her mother’s, and she’d pulled the blond strands back into a braid. Her nose wrinkled as she gazed earnestly at the gelding, petting him with a wistfulness that betrayed her heart’s desire.
“Do you ride?” he asked.
The girl jumped and spun toward him. “I was just saying hello,” she said as she took a large step away from the stable door and tucked her hands behind her back. “I’d never hurt them.”
He held in a smile. “I know that.”
She glanced up at him. “Are you angry? I didn’t exactly let my mom know I was coming to see the horses because I was afraid she’d tell me no. So I said I wanted to look around. You know, get to know the palace. Then she said to stay inside and not to wander too far or get in the way.” Her mouth twisted slightly. “Grown-ups have too many rules. And they never write them down. Sometimes the rules change. My mom’s real good about keeping the rules the same, but not everyone is like her. Don’t you hate it when that happens?”
Blond bangs fell to her eyebrows, emphasizing the blue of her irises. He could see a lot of her mother in her. She was pretty and smart and probably the most charming child he’d ever met.
“I do hate it,” he said solemnly, even though he wasn’t sure what he was agreeing to. “So you like horses?”
She nodded. “Very much. They’re lovely. I’ve always wanted to ride. Where we lived, back in California I mean, there was a lot of horse property. Old Mr. Preston used to give riding lessons, but they were expensive. I was going to think up ways to earn money this year so I could take some. He’s got ten horses. A couple are old, but the rest are nice.”
He motioned to the long row of stalls. “Would you like to meet my horses?”
She pressed her hands together in front of her thin chest. “Sure. How many do you have?”
“There are a half dozen or so for riding. I also own some race horses, along with breeding stock. The horses are a hobby of mine.”
Her eyes had widened. “So you have way more than Mr. Preston.”
“I would think so.” He led the way, walking down past a few stalls, then stopped in front of an oversized pen. “This is Alexander the Great. He’s my favorite riding horse. He likes attention, so it’s safe to pet him. In fact, he’s a bit vain. If we ride by water, he likes to go slowly so he can stare at his reflection.”
Bethany giggled, then slowly reached up her hand to touch the black stallion. Alexander snuffled her palm and gave a snort of disgust.
“He wants a treat.” Malik pointed to a small bin set against the center of the far wall. “You’ll find oats in there. You may feed him a handful, but no more. Too much will make him sick.”
Bethany nodded, then ran over to collect the treat. She carefully flattened her hand to feed the horse and was rewarded when the animal consented to be petted. The girl sighed with pleasure.
“When I grow up I want to own lots of horses. I’ll ride all day and learn to jump and it will feel like flying.”
Her blue eyes sparkled as she spoke of her dreams. There was color in her pale cheeks and an energy that made him feel old. Had he ever had such simple hopes for his own future? Doubtful, he thought. He couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t known he would someday rule El Bahar. But Bethany’s life was very different. He envied her her freedom, all the while knowing that even if given a chance he wouldn’t change his destiny.
“You’ll need to start by learning how to ride,” he said. “I would be happy to teach you.”
She stared at him and pressed her lips together. Her entire body quivered with excitement. “Really? You’d teach me on one of your horses?”
“Yes. I have an old gelding who has just the right temperament. He has a white star on his forehead, which makes him very handsome, although he’s not vain like Alexander here.”
“Thank you,” Bethany breathed reverently, then tilted her head and gave an exaggerated grimace. “Except I have to ask my mom, and I’m afraid she’ll say no.”
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