The Sheikh's Virgin(Desert Rogues, Book 13)(13) by Susan Mallery
Kateb reined in his horse and dismounted. She had a wild urge to bolt for freedom, only to remind herself she had no idea which way to go. And as much as she was frightened of that night, it was better than a slow, dry death in the desert.
She got off her horse. It took a second for her legs to remember what it was like to walk rather than ride, then she followed Kateb into the palace.
The entryway soared up several stories. The stone walls were smooth, the windows stained glass. Sunlight created colors on the floor and people passing through the entry. Large tapestries told the history of the desert.
Victoria wanted to move closer and study them. She’d found El Deharian history fascinating and was sure it would be just as interesting to study this place.
“Is there a library?” she asked.
“Can I use it?”
“Of course. Come this way.”
She followed Kateb down several long corridors. While there were still people everywhere, she ignored them as she took in the paintings and statues that dotted the palace. There were treasures everywhere she looked. Marble and gold. A portrait that looked eerily like a da Vinci. Not that she was much of an art expert. But wouldn’t it be fun to search for the signature?
She was so caught up in the beauty of the palace that she nearly forgot why she was here. It wasn’t until Kateb stopped in front of a single carved door that she remembered to be afraid.
“You will be staying here,” he said as he pulled open the door. “I trust you will find your quarters comfortable.”
It wasn’t a question, she thought, her heart pounding hard and fast.
Beautiful rugs in a rainbow of colors muffled the sounds of their steps. She had a brief impression of oval couches and overstuffed chairs, inlaid tables and hanging lanterns.
There were many rooms, all flowing from one to the other. Everything about the space spoke of time and past lives, as if they were in the oldest part of the palace.
Kateb kept walking until they reached a walled garden. Lush plants grew everywhere. Jasmine scented the air. She saw a flash of movement as a parrot flew by.
Victoria turned in a slow circle. Her brain resisted the information but it was hard to ignore. Many rooms. Walled gardens. Parrots.
The rooms would be required for all the residents who had once lived here. The walled gardens kept the women in and the men out. And the parrots concealed the sounds of their voices, for no one else could hear their words or their laughter. It was forbidden.
She stopped in front of Kateb, put her hands on her hips and wished she had something to throw at him.
“You brought me to the harem?”
“It seemed appropriate,” he said, with the hint of a smile, then left.
Victoria stared at the closed door of the harem, wondering if she’d heard the click of a lock, or if that was just her imagination at work. And did she really want to find out which? She supposed the good news was he hadn’t taken her to his own suite, which meant she would have plenty of privacy and space. A good thing, she thought, trying to find the silver lining in what might be a very dark cloud.
She turned so she could study the huge space. Dozens of rooms all flowed into each other. There were amazing tapestries on the walls and beautiful, handmade wooden tables. She crossed to one and touched the inlaid wood. Master craftsmen, she thought. How many months had it taken for just this one piece?
Had anyone bothered to document the furniture or artwork? If not, it should be done. A history preserved. Maybe, if the library had research books that could help, she could start. Assuming she wasn’t locked in here like a prisoner.
“There’s only one way to find out,” she murmured, as she crossed the stone floor. But before she reached the carved door, she heard footsteps.
She turned and saw a tall, older woman walking toward her. She was dressed in a flowing long dress that looked both cool and comfortable. Her gray hair had been piled on her head. Gold earrings dangled and there were dozens of bracelets on both wrists.
“You must be Victoria,” she said with a smile. “I was told you were coming. Welcome to the Winter Palace. I am Yusra.”
“We are all excited that the harem is back in use. It has been too many months of silence in these walls.”
That made Victoria take a step back. “You think trapping women inside these walls is a good thing?”
“Of course. The old ways must be preserved. Just because something is old doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value.”
“I agree with that, but I’m missing the positive side of being locked up against one’s will for the sole purpose of pleasing a man. How is that helpful to the women?”
Yusra frowned. “To be in the leader’s harem is to be given a privileged life. If one was fortunate enough to bear him children, then that woman would live here forever. Even if the leader got tired of her.”
“Not a great argument. Why does he get to say when he’s tired? Why not her? What if she doesn’t want to stay here? What if she wants to go out in the village and have a real husband and family?”
“Then she would go.”
“Just like that?”
“Of course. There is no lock on the outside of the door, Victoria. Only one on the inside, to keep out those who don’t belong. No woman has ever been kept in the Winter Palace against her will.”
Until now, Victoria thought grimly. Although she wasn’t here against her will. Not exactly. She’d offered herself in exchange for her father. She’d begged Kateb to take her instead.
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