Commanded by the sheikh

By: Kate Hewitt

CHAPTER ONE


‘I NEED YOU, OLIVIA.’

Olivia Ellis quickly suppressed the flare of feeling Sheikh Aziz al Bakir’s simply stated words caused inside her. Of course he needed her. He needed her to change his sheets, polish his silver and keep his Parisian townhouse on the Ile de la Cité pristine.

That didn’t explain what she was doing here, in the royal palace of Kadar.

Less than eight hours ago she’d been summoned by one of Aziz’s men, asked unequivocally to accompany him on the royal jet to Siyad—the capital of Kadar—where Aziz had recently ascended the throne.

Olivia had gone reluctantly, because she liked the quiet life she’d made for herself in Paris: mornings with the concierge across the street sipping coffee, afternoons in the garden pruning roses. It was a life that held no excitement or passion, but it was hers and it made her happy, or as happy as she knew how to be. It was enough, and she didn’t want it to change.

‘What do you need of me, Your Highness?’ she asked. She’d spent the endless flight to Kadar composing reasons why she should stay in Paris. She needed to stay in Paris, needed the safety and comfort of her quiet life.

‘Considering the circumstances, I think you should call me Aziz.’ The smile he gave her was whimsical, effortlessly charming, yet Olivia tried to remain unmoved. She’d often observed Aziz’s charm from a distance, had heard the honeyed words slide from his lips as he entertained one of his many female guests in Paris. She’d picked up the discarded lingerie from the staircase and had poured coffee for the women who crept from his bed before breakfast, their hair mussed and their lips swollen.

She, however, had always considered herself immune to ‘the Gentleman Playboy’, as the tabloids had nicknamed him. A bit of an oxymoron, Olivia thought, but she had to admit Aziz possessed a certain charisma.

She felt it now, with him focusing all of his attention on her, the opulent palace with its frescoed walls and gold fixtures stretching around them.

‘Very well, Aziz. What do you need of me?’ She spoke briskly, as she had when discussing replacing the roof tiles or the guest list for a dinner party. Yet it took a little more effort now, being in this strange and overwhelming place with this man.

He was, Olivia had to admit, beautiful. She could acknowledge that, just as she acknowledged that Michelangelo’s David was a magnificent sculpture; it was nothing more than a simple appreciation of undeniable beauty. In any case, she didn’t have anything left inside her to feel more than that. Not for Aziz, not for anyone.

She gazed now at the ink-black hair that flopped carelessly over his forehead; his grey eyes that could flare silver; the surprisingly full lips that could curve into a most engaging smile.

And as for his body...powerful, lean perfection, without an extra ounce of fat anywhere, just pure, perfect muscle.

Aziz steepled his fingers under his chin and turned towards the window so his back was partially to her. Olivia waited, felt the silence inexplicably tauten between them. ‘You have been in my employ for six years now?’ he said after a moment, his voice lilting as if it was a question, even though Olivia knew it was not.

‘Yes, that’s correct.’

‘And I have been very pleased with your dedicated service in all of that time.’

She tensed. He sounded as if he were about to fire her. And so now I’m afraid I have to tell you that I have no need of you any more...

She took a careful breath, let it out silently. ‘I’m very glad to hear that, Your Highness.’

‘Aziz, remember.’

‘Considering your status, it doesn’t seem appropriate to call you by your first name.’

‘Even if I demand it by royal decree?’

He turned around and raised his eyebrows, clearing teasing her. Olivia’s mouth compressed. ‘If you demand it, I shall of course comply,’ she answered coolly. ‘But in any case I shall do my best to call you by your first name.’

‘I know you will. You have always done your best, Olivia, and that is exactly what I need from you today.’

She waited, unease creeping its cold fingers along her spine. What on earth could he need her for now, here in Kadar? She didn’t like surprises or uncertainty; she’d spent six years creating something safe, small and good and she was terribly afraid of losing it. Of losing herself.

‘In Paris you have done an admirable job keeping my home clean and comfortable and welcoming,’ Aziz told her. ‘I have another task entirely for you here, but it shall be short, and I trust you are capable of it.’

She had no idea what he was talking about, but if it was short she hoped it meant that she’d be able to return to Paris, and soon. ‘I hope that I am, Your—Aziz.’

He smiled, his gaze sweeping over her in approval. ‘See what a quick learner you are?’ he murmured.

Olivia said nothing. She ignored the little flutter of—something—Aziz’s lazy murmur had caused inside her. In Paris their conversations were so mundane Olivia simply hadn’t felt the full force of the Gentleman Playboy’s charisma. That she should feel it here, now, was disconcerting but understandable. She was out of her element, in this beautiful yet overwhelming palace, and Aziz wasn’t talking to her about house repairs or his social diary.

She gave him a quick, cool, professional smile. ‘I’m afraid I still don’t understand why I’m here.’

‘All in good time.’ Aziz flashed her an answering smile before walking over to a walnut desk inlaid with hand-tooled leather. He pressed a button on the side of the desk and within seconds Olivia heard a knock on the door.

‘Enter,’ Aziz said, and the same man who had escorted her to the room came in.

‘Your Highness?’

Aziz braced one hip against the desk. ‘What do you think, Malik? Will she do?’

Malik’s gaze flicked to Olivia. ‘The hair...’

Aziz snapped his fingers. ‘Easily dealt with.’

‘Eyes?’

‘Not necessary.’

Malik nodded slowly. ‘She’s about the right height.’

‘I thought so.’

The man turned to look at Aziz. ‘Discreet?’

‘Absolutely.’

‘Then I think it’s a possibility.’

‘It’s more than a possibility, Malik, it’s a necessity. I’m holding a press conference in one hour.’

Malik shook his head. ‘One hour—there won’t be time.’

‘There has to be. You know I can’t risk any more instability.’ Olivia watched as Aziz’s expression shuttered, his mouth hardening into a grim line, turning him into someone utterly unlike the laughing, careless playboy she was familiar with. ‘One rumour at this point will be like a lit match. Everything could go up in flames.’

‘Indeed, Your Highness. I’ll start making preparations.’

‘Thank you.’

Malik withdrew and Olivia turned to Aziz. ‘What on earth was all that about?’

‘I apologise for speaking in such a way with Malik. I’m sure you are more confused than ever.’

‘You’re right,’ Olivia answered, her voice coming out in something close to a snap. She hadn’t liked the way the two men had discussed her...as if she were an object. She might be Aziz’s housekeeper, but she wasn’t his possession, and she had no intention of letting another person control her actions or attitude ever again.

‘Pax, Olivia.’ Aziz held up his hands. ‘There would have been no point continuing our discussion if Malik hadn’t approved of you.’

‘Approved of me?’

‘Found you suitable.’

‘For what?’

Aziz let out a little sigh, the sound sudden. ‘I presume you are not aware of the terms of my father’s will?’ he asked.

‘No, I’m not,’ Olivia replied. ‘I’m not privy to such information, naturally.’

He shrugged, the movement careless, negligent, yet utterly graceful. ‘It could have leaked out. There have been rumours of what the will requires.’

‘I don’t pay any attention to rumours.’ She didn’t even know what they were; she didn’t read gossip magazines or tabloids.

Aziz lifted his eyebrows. ‘You know I am engaged to Queen Elena of Thallia?’

‘Yes, of course.’ Their engagement had been announced publicly last week; Olivia knew the wedding was in the next few days, here in Kadar.

‘You might have wondered why Queen Elena and I became engaged so quickly,’ Aziz remarked, his dark gaze steady on her as he waited for her reaction.

Olivia gave a little shrug. Gentleman though he might be, Aziz was still a playboy. She’d seen the evidence herself in the women he’d brought home to his Paris house, had turned away more than one ardent admirer who’d received the diamond bracelet and bouquet of lilies that was Aziz’s standard parting gift.

‘I expect you feel a need to marry, now that you are Sheikh,’ she said, and Aziz let out a little laugh, the sound hard, abrupt and utterly unlike him.

‘You could say that.’ He gazed out of the window once more, his lips pressed together in a firm line. ‘My father has never approved of my choices,’ he said after a moment. ‘Or of me. I suspect the requirements of his will were put in place so he could keep me in Kadar, bound by the old traditions.’ He lifted one shoulder in a shrug. ‘Or perhaps he just wanted to punish me. That is perfectly possible.’ He spoke easily, almost as if he was mentioning something pleasant or perhaps trivial, but she saw a coldness, or perhaps even a hurt, in his eyes.

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