The Sheikh King's Ward (Halabi Sheikhs #1) by Leslie North

1





Fiona felt good. The sky was clear, the sun was up, and for the first time in months, she felt like she could breathe. The lump that’d stuck in her throat the day of the plane crash had melted at last, and she’d enjoyed her morning tea. It still felt too quiet with her parents gone, but the birds in the courtyard were helping with that. She’d woken up to a mynah and a crow squabbling over breakfast, churning up the gardenias with their wings. She was painting them now, a storm of claws and feathers against the green.

Raised voices drifted from the foyer, a man and a woman. Fiona ignored them. It was laundry day, and the staff would be scrambling, stripping the beds and collecting the hand towels. Pretending this was still a lively household, not just Fiona rattling around like the last pea in the pod. She stepped back from her canvas and looked past it to the terraced garden marching down the hill. Fragrant lemon trees lined white stone paths, all the way to the shore. The Arabian Sea lay beyond, bright blue and calm. It was sweet to be out with the breeze in her face, not cooped up in her bedroom to avoid her father’s scorn. Painting was a hobby, he’d maintained, and not a particularly useful one. It was for Americans and dilettantes, folks with more money than sense. That wasn’t how he’d raised her. It wasn’t—

“Miss Nadide?”

She turned with a start. “Khadija! What’d I tell you about sneaking up on me?”

“To do it as often as possible and always wear soft-soled shoes?”

Fiona tried to frown but laughed instead. Khadija had always been able to make her smile, ever since she was a small child. She’d joined the household as a tutor and stayed on as a maid, but really she was family.

“What is it, then?” Fiona turned back to her canvas. “Don’t tell me it’s lunch time already.”

“Almost, but no. His Majesty is here to collect you. He seems quite determined.”

“I’m sure he does.” She daubed in a tiny red flower, petals scattering in the wind. The king’s flunkies had been barking at her door for months, demanding her presence at the palace. It was insulting, really; here she was, twenty-seven years old, legally an adult everywhere but here, expected to submit to a man’s protection like some wayward child. “Tell him I’m grieving. I’m not fit to see anyone.”

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll see me.” A new voice cut in, low and male and sexy. Fiona jumped, slashing the crow’s throat with red. She spun on her heel, and there he was: Bashar Halabi, King of Al-Mifadhir. He’d come in person? This was more serious than she’d thought. Her brush clattered to the floor.

“Oh. Your Majesty.” She dropped a quick curtsey, mostly to hide the weakness in her knees. The king had a presence about him that didn’t come across on TV, dark and brooding, eyes black as agate. His beard was short and bristly, his body long and lean. He’d drawn himself up in his annoyance, and he towered over her, hard and dangerous. Fiona took a step back. “What brings you to our humble home?”

“Humble home, eh?” He surveyed the terrace, eyes narrowed. His gaze lit on an Ottoman-era bench inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and he smirked. “I’ve come to collect my ward,” he said. “Fetch her at once. She can send for her things once she’s settled.”

“Your ward.” Fiona cleared her throat. So he had no idea he was looking right at her. She picked up her brush and set it aside. “Begging Your Majesty’s pardon, but Miss Nadide is in mourning. The loss of her parents came as a terrible blow. She’s asked for peace and quiet, and I think—”

“I don’t have time for games.” The king squared his shoulders. “I haven’t time for any of this. Now, my car’s waiting. You’ll fetch Miss Nadide, and you’ll fetch her right now.”

Fiona swallowed hard. That lump was back in her throat. She forced a smile and felt it curdle on her lips. “Even if I could, surely you’d agree it’d be cruel to uproot her without warning and with none of the comforts of home. Give her time to grieve, to gather a few mementos…”

“I’ve given her four months,” said the King. “I believe I’ve been more than fair. Now—”

There was a rattling at the door, and Khadija reappeared with a tray. “Coffee for you and your guest, Miss Nadide?”

Fiona’s heart sank. The king’s brows shot up, his stern expression turning to one of amusement. “Miss Nadide, is it?” He took a step forward, then another. “Well, isn’t this a surprise?”