The Sheikh's Virgin(Desert Rogues, Book 13)(38) by Susan Mallery
Yusra put down her clipboard. “I know of him. His mother died some time ago. His father stole camels and rather than accept his punishment—he escaped into the desert. The boy bears his father’s dishonor.” She returned to a stack of towels.
“Wait a minute,” Victoria said. “That’s it? What does ‘bears his father’s dishonor’ mean?”
“That the boy will be punished in his father’s absence.”
“He is no longer one of us.”
Victoria stared at her. “As in abandoned? He gets to fend for himself? He’s what, nine?”
“Yes. It is our way.”
“Your way sucks. He can starve and no one cares?”
“He must be punished.”
“But he didn’t do anything wrong!”
Yusra sighed. “There are things you can’t understand. This is what we do.”
“It’s wrong and I won’t let it happen.”
“You can’t stop it.”
The meeting with the head of agriculture normally kept Kateb’s interest. Not only did the village produce enough for themselves, but there was plenty to export to the city and even to neighboring countries. This afternoon, however, he found his attention drawn to the sight of Victoria pacing outside the conference room. He could see her every time she passed in front of the open door. She never once glanced inside, but she was obviously waiting for him. If her stiff back and set expression were anything to go by, she wasn’t happy.
After five more minutes of her passing back and forth, he stopped the conversation and rescheduled the discussion for later in the week. As the men filed out, she looked at him. He gestured for her to join him in his office.
“What was the meeting about?” she asked as she entered.
“Crop yields for the season.”
“How nice. So some people get to eat. Tell me, is there a chart? Do you have to make sure your name is on the list before you get a meal?”
She was obviously furious. He could feel her anger from several feet away. Her eyes snapped with temper and she looked like she wanted to throw something.
His interest in what bothered her surprised him. He would have thought he would easily dismiss her and her concerns without knowing the cause, but that wasn’t true. He wanted to hear what had happened and, even more unexpected, he wanted to fix the problem.
He stood from the conference table and crossed to her. After taking both her hands in his, he stared into her blue eyes. “Tell me what is bothering you,” he said.
She jerked free of his touch and paced the length of the room. “You won’t believe it. Or maybe you will. I don’t believe it. I like it here. Did you know that? I think it’s beautiful and the people are warm and friendly. I love the palace and the architecture and nearly everything. But it’s like seeing a dead body in the sun. At first everything is fine, but when you get close you see the crawling maggots. It’s disgusting.”
“You paint a vivid picture,” he told her. “What are you talking about?”
“There’s a little boy. Sa’id. Apparently his mother is dead and his father stole camels. Rather than accept his punishment, the man ran off, leaving Sa’id on his own. Now the boy is being punished for what his father did. He’s maybe nine and living on the streets. No one is taking care of him, he’s not getting any food or medical attention. I’m sure he’s not going to school. Where is he supposed to sleep at night? Is he just going to starve?”
Tears filled her eyes. “I don’t understand how this is possible. I really liked Rasha, but she dismissed him as if he were nothing. Yusra told me it wasn’t my concern. But I can’t let a child suffer and die, especially not one right in front of me. I hate this and I hate them for letting it happen.”
A single tear spilled onto her cheek. She brushed it away impatiently. “I swear to God, Kateb, if you tell me to leave this alone, I will kill you in your sleep.”
He crossed to her and pulled her against him. “No, you won’t.”
“I’ll want to.”
“A difference I will cling to in my fear.”
She looked up at him, but didn’t smile. “There is a starving child in your village. You have to fix this.”
“You don’t understand our ways. They appear harsh—”
She stepped back and glared at him. “They are harsh. Yes, Sa’id’s father is a jerk. That’s not his fault. He can’t change his father. He can’t make the situation better.”
Just like she couldn’t with her father, he thought, seeing this affected her more than she realized.
“The rules are harsh,” he said again, “but they serve a purpose. Other adults see the boy’s suffering and know their own behavior has consequences.”
“So he gets to be an object lesson? I can’t believe he is destined to die on the streets. Then what? Who removes his body, or is it left there for the dogs?” More tears fell. “I don’t accept this. I won’t. This has to be better. Is he the only one? Are there more? Do the people of the village make it a habit to starve children to death? What happened to just loving them? Why is anything about this acceptable?”
Once again he reached for her. This time she came willingly. She leaned against him and cried as if her heart were breaking.
“You can’t allow this,” she whispered into his shoulder.
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