The Sheikh's Virgin(Desert Rogues, Book 13)(54) by Susan Mallery
He ignored her humor. “I am not finished with the conversation.”
“Sorry, your time is up. You have to be at the arena.”
She was right and that irritated him. “We will discuss this later.”
“I hope so,” she whispered. “I really hope so.”
Victoria waited until she was sure Kateb was gone before leaving the harem and going to Yusra.
“That is what you are wearing?” the older woman asked when they met up by the kitchen door.
“I had thought something more traditional.”
“If I’m going to die today, I’m going to be comfortable. And you have to admit, the boots are spectacular.”
Yusra hugged her. “I have been praying for your safety.”
Victoria hugged her back. “Good. I’ve been doing a little quality time with God myself. I really hope this works out.”
“You can change your mind. The elders will understand.”
“I can’t,” Victoria said, even though she was starting to feel sick to her stomach. “I have a bad feeling about this whole thing. I need to make sure Kateb is all right. I can’t explain it.”
“You love him. There’s nothing to explain.”
They started for the arena. “If this goes badly and I don’t make it,” Victoria said, “feel free to spend the next fifty years making him feel guilty.”
Yusra’s laughter turned into a hiccup-sob. “I will. I promise.”
“Good. I mean, I want him alive, but there’s no reason he can’t be suffering at the same time.”
They moved into the main road leading to the arena. It was a hot, sunny day and everyone in the village had come to see the challenge. There was a festive air to the afternoon. Carts stood along the side of the road selling everything from frozen treats to bottled water.
When they reached the main entrance to the arena, she and Yusra turned left and went toward the doors leading under the seating. The guards there let them in at once. They were led to the elders’ chambers, where Zayd greeted them.
“Is that what you’re wearing?” he asked Victoria.
“Get off of me. Yes. I’m wearing jeans.”
“But you’re a woman.”
She looked at the kindly older man and knew it would be rude to wrestle him to the ground in front of all his friends.
Zayd seemed to sense her impatience. “It is of no matter,” he said. “You are here as the sacrifice?”
“Yes, on behalf of Prince Kateb.” This was the official part of the event. Yusra had told her what to say. “I don’t want him to know,” she added. “Not unless I’m needed. If everything goes great and he defeats Fuad, then no one tells him, ever. Right?”
Zayd nodded. “As you have requested. We honor the wish of the sacrifice.”
“Then I’d really like a donut.”
“Never mind.” It wasn’t as if she could eat. Nerves danced in her stomach. She was terrified and not just for herself. What if something happened to Kateb?
Kateb waited by the field. The broadsword felt good in his hand, heavy and powerful. It wasn’t pretty to look at. No jewels adorned the handle and the blade itself showed marks from battle. But he had trained with this sword while growing up, learning the art of battle, as dictated by tradition. He and the sword were old friends. There was trust between them.
The sun was bright, the arena full, but he ignored everything around him. There was only himself and Fuad and the possibility of death.
He did not want to kill the son. The death of the father had been bad enough and that man had been a criminal. To end a young man’s life for no reason save revenge was a waste he couldn’t stomach.
Sometimes tradition sucked, he thought, smiling as he heard Victoria’s voice in his head. She was right. He would change the law, but it would be too late for Fuad.
Tonight there would be great celebrating. Kateb would be named leader and stories would be told about his victory. How many would see the falseness of the moment? How many would mourn Fuad?
Victoria would understand. She would know he would sleep uneasily for some time, hating what tradition forced him to do. She would chase away the ghosts.
Except she would be gone. She was leaving after the challenge. Forbidding her from leaving would change nothing. She wouldn’t listen. He could hold her prisoner, but to cage her was to cage something wild and beautiful. In time she would wither and he couldn’t bear to see that.
“Impossible woman,” he growled.
She would agree to that, too, and point out the solution was simple. All he had to do was love her. Admit what he felt in his heart. Give her all that he was, and she would be his.
To risk himself again that way? To believe in her, in them, and know that at any second, she could be gone? It was too much.
But to live without her? What was that, but years of emptiness?
“It is time,” the master of the arena told him.
Kateb cleared his mind of everything but the battle to come and stepped onto the field. A cheer shook the arena. The very ground seemed to shake from the sound. He ignored it all, looking at the young man approaching.
“You have grown tall,” he told Fuad when they were only a few feet apart.
The boy was now near twenty, muscled and determined. His dark eyes promised death, but Kateb saw past them to a lonely child who had grown up in the shadow of his father’s shame. Was this Sa’id in ten years if Victoria had not intervened? Was Fuad what his people had made?
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