The Sheikh's Virgin(Desert Rogues, Book 13)(30) by Susan Mallery
Until then she hadn’t thought about Kateb’s place in all this. He had many responsibilities and now that he had been nominated as leader, there would only be more. He was trusted to help his people grow and prosper. He would be the last voice of judgment for crimes. It was a heavy burden and one he carried alone.
Why hadn’t he married? Why was he alone? Shouldn’t some desert beauty have caught him by now?
She left the closet. On her way back to the main room, she saw a plain door and opened it.
The room was small—perhaps an office or even a nursery, she thought. It was difficult to tell. The walls were white, there was no decoration, no furniture save a rocking chair. There were also several boxes and trunks.
The room felt abandoned and dusty. She crossed to a trunk sitting on top of a stack of boxes and opened the top. Inside where folded clothes carelessly covered with photos. She picked up the top one.
Kateb laughed back at her. There was an ease about him she hadn’t seen before. His dark eyes radiated joy. He stood next to a beautiful, dark-haired woman, his arm around her, the woman smiling up at him. They looked perfect together.
Something caught her eye. She looked closer and saw a wedding band on the woman’s hand. A thicker, matching band glinted from Kateb’s finger.
He’d been married, she thought, carefully putting the picture back on the pile and closing the lid. He’d been married and completely in love with his wife. Who was she? What had happened to her?
Victoria spun and saw Yusra standing in the doorway.
“She was his wife?”
“Yes. Her name was Cantara. She was the daughter of a chieftain. They’d known each other since he first came here when he was ten. They grew up together.”
She was having trouble with the idea, despite the photos. Shouldn’t she have heard about this before? Maybe a desert union had been easy to keep secret. “He must have loved her very much.”
“She was everything to him,” Yusra said, walking over to another trunk and opening it. She reached inside and pulled out wedding photos.
Victoria looked at the laughing young woman in the pictures. Kateb gazed at her adoringly. They were the perfect couple.
“How did she die?”
“A car accident in Rome. It was one of those things. Nearly five years ago. Afterward Kateb disappeared into the desert for nearly ten months. No one saw him or heard from him. We worried he might be dead. But one day he returned.”
Victoria dropped the photo back into the trunk and stepped back. “I didn’t know.”
“He doesn’t speak of it. No one does. But everyone worries. He’s been alone too long. When he brought you here…” She shrugged and closed the trunk. “We had hoped he had decided to trust his heart again.”
“I’m not here because of his heart,” Victoria said, not sure why she felt sick to her stomach. She hurried out of the storage room, through Kateb’s quarters and out into the hallway.
She didn’t know how to get back to the stairs, so she simply started walking. She had to get as far away as she could.
He’d been married. He’d been in love and his wife was dead. How was that possible? How could she not have known?
Now she understood why both Yusra and Rasha had spoken about him being lonely. He was haunted by his painful loss. This explained the distance, the cynicism, the darkness in his eyes.
At last she found the stairs and the ugly vase. She made her way back to the harem and walked out into the walled garden. Once there, she could finally breathe again.
She didn’t know why the information changed everything, but it did. It was as if her world had shifted to another dimension. She pressed her hand to her stomach, willing it to calm down.
Until this moment, she’d never considered the possibility of being pregnant, but now she turned the idea over in her mind. Carrying Kateb’s baby would mean staying here, haunted by a beautiful woman and her laughter. It would mean being trapped here with ghosts…forever.
“Three bids was a starting place,” Victoria said as she clicked to the next screen on her PowerPoint presentation. “I can get more, if you’d like. Selling to the home shopping channels on American and European television is really appealing but they would require us to set up meetings and go there with samples. That seems like a complicated first step. This, at least, is easier.”
Kateb studied the computer screen. “You are talking about international distribution.”
“It sounds more grand than it is. I’m talking about opening up U.S. and European markets.”
“Which is international.”
“Technically, yes, but it’s not like I’m trying to start new manufacturing in China or something. We can test market in a few boutiques in major cities. If we’re lucky, get into the trade shows. There’s very little up-front cost for this. Rasha has put together a budget and they nearly have all the money they need. Does El Deharia have anything like a small-business administration to help them? I don’t think they want to go to their husbands, although I guess they could.”
Kateb frowned. “Print out five copies of your business plan and let me study it. I will check your numbers and have my staff research your distributors. If everything is as it appears, I will loan them the money they need to expand.”
If she’d been standing she would have fallen over in shock. “You?”
He kept his attention on the computer screen. “As you pointed out, diversification is a good thing. Perhaps there are other people who have ideas for small businesses. Word will spread. Bahjat was a good leader, but he didn’t believe women had a place in business.”
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