The Sheikh's Virgin(Desert Rogues, Book 13)(12) by Susan Mallery
Victoria moved well in the saddle, although her shoulders were slumped forward, as if weighed down by a heavy burden.
Did she speak the truth? He didn’t know her well enough to trust her word, but the shame in her eyes had been real, as had the pain in her voice. If she had grown up as poor as she said, perhaps he could understand why security was so important to her. It also explained her obsession with clothes and finding things on sale.
She rode up to the slight rise, then reined in her horse. He joined her.
“Is that the village?” she asked, surprised.
“You have to work on your definitions.”
Victoria had imagined a few tents, a primitive barn, maybe a lean-to. What she saw instead was a thriving rural city, with streets and houses and barns and fields.
“They farm?” she asked.
“Yes. There are several underground rivers that provide irrigation. In the desert, water is life.”
She couldn’t take it all in. “How many people live here?”
“Hardly a village.”
“It has grown.”
The fields were outside the structures, stretching out along the edges of the valley and up the hills in terraces. There were several open-air markets, a larger building that could have been a church or a school. A road wound down into the valley. She could see the trucks slowly moving toward the village. At the far end of the valley, up against the cliffs, a stone structure seemed to dominate the landscape.
“What’s that?” she asked, pointing toward it.
“The Winter Palace.”
“Palace for whom?”
“In ancient times, the King of El Deharia would spend a few months here each year. When that stopped, the elders’ council established a leader for the people. He is nominated and serves a twenty-five-year term.”
She remembered hearing about that. Kateb was supposed to be on the short list for that job. “Twenty-five years is a long time. They don’t want to make a mistake.”
“If they do, there are ways to unseat him.”
“And it always has to be a man, right?”
He flashed that killer smile again. “Of course. We are progressive, but we do not yet support the idea of a woman ruling.”
“That is just so typical,” she muttered. “So the leader gets the palace and all that goes with it?”
“Yes. The previous leader, Bahjat, died a few months ago, causing the new search. He graciously allowed me rooms in the palace when I was in residence.”
“Because you’re the king’s son.”
“Partially. We were close. He was like a grandfather to me.”
“Then you must miss him.”
Kateb nodded and started down the side of the mountain.
The trail was easier than it looked. Victoria hung on, letting her horse pick his way. She would guess he was a lot more sure-footed than she would be.
It took nearly an hour to make their way to the valley. They rode past fields and farmhouses, then moved onto a dirt path beside a paved road. She couldn’t believe how big the so-called village was and how many people lived here. There was an interesting combination of old and new. Watermills nestled next to generators.
The houses were mostly stone, with big windows and thick walls. Porches provided shade. Nearly every home had a garden and pipes bringing in water.
People waved at Kateb and called out greetings. He waved back. She felt the stares and didn’t know what she was supposed to do.
The relative calm of the journey faded as they approached the end of the trip. Kateb had given her a brief reprieve and it was nearly over. What was going to happen next?
“Will I be at the palace?” she asked. “Or somewhere else?”
“You will have quarters at the palace. They are separate from mine.”
Okay—that was good. She could use her own space.
“Is there a shower?”
He glanced at her. Amusement brightened his eyes. “One that will satisfy even you.”
How nice. But what happened after the shower? What happened that night?
“You will find electricity and many other modern improvements,” he said.
She did her best to ignore the chill brought on by fear. One step at a time, she told herself. They would get to the palace and then she could deal with the rest of her life. For now she should just enjoy the ride.
But the ride was going to be too short, she thought, feeling the first wisps of panic curling through her.
She did her best to distract herself by studying the open-air market they passed. There were plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables for sale, along with a display of the woven gold she liked so much. Later she would come back to shop. That would make her happy. Shopping was—
They turned a corner and the Winter Palace loomed before them.
From what she could see, the palace was made up of several buildings, with the central one being the largest. It was stone, with rising towers and a formidable stone wall surrounding the grounds. The roof was tile and seemed to have an iridescent quality that glimmered in the bright sun. There was a real drawbridge in the center of the stone wall, along with several permanent bridges to the right and left. People walked back and forth through the opening.
“How will the trucks get in?” she asked.
“The road goes around back. There are garages and a delivery entrance.”
Once they rode over the drawbridge, more people called to Kateb. They greeted him warmly, welcoming him back. Although they glanced at her, no one asked why she was here. Victoria didn’t want to know what they were thinking. As there had been no talk of Kateb taking a new bride, they would probably guess the reason for her presence. That she was here to service the prince. It was like standing in the free-lunch line in elementary school all over again.
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