Polly didn’t expect to be happy.
Family loyalty and the knowledge that her love for Chris would never be returned led Polly to accept marriage to Prince Raschid, heir to a desert kingdom. The problems she thought she’d face were practical ones – such as how she’d adjust to life in a very different culture. What a shock it was to discover that the handsome autocratic man she’d married was a complex and wonderful companion and that her emotions were certainly involved!
POLLY’S throat constricted when she saw the long limousine turning through the gates of her home. She linked her hands together to stop them trembling. Prince Raschid ibn Saud al Azarin was about to arrive. She turned away from the view.
‘Why are you standing over there?’ her fifteen-year-old sister demanded. ‘You won’t be able to see him.’
‘I think I can wait for that pleasure,’ Polly muttered tightly.
Maggie was swiftly joined by twelve-year-old Joan and four-year-old Elaine, who had not a clue what the excitement was about but was determined not to be left out of it. The window-seat was a tight squeeze for the three of them, each craning their necks for a better view. In an effort to to calm her nerves, Polly breathed in slowly. What her sisters were finding so fascinating was sheer purgatory for her. Could this be real? she asked herself tautly.
This was England in the eighties, an era of female liberation. How could she possibly be on the brink of an arranged marriage to a complete stranger?
But she was.
‘The car’s stopping…it’s got a little flag on the bonnet. Those must be the colours of the Dhareini royal family.’ It was Maggie cheerfully keeping up the running commentary. ‘The chauffeur’s getting out…oh, he’s very dark, he does look foreign…he’s opening the rear door…I can see a trouser leg…’
‘Oh, for pity’s sake, stop it!’ The plea broke from Polly on the back of a stifled sob, shocking everybody into silence.
Guiltily biting her lower lip, Maggie watched her sister sink down into one of the shabby nursery armchairs, covering her face briefly with her spread hands.
‘He’s not wearing robes,’ complained Joan.
‘Shut up!’ Maggie gave her a pointed nudge. ‘Polly’s not feeling well.’
Joan stared at her eldest sister with unconcealed horror. ‘You can’t be ill now! Daddy will blow a gasket and Mummy’s nearly in orbit as it is!’
‘Polly!’ cried Maggie suddenly. ‘Raschid is gorgeous—I’m not kidding!’
‘Prince Raschid,’ Joan corrected loftily. ‘You can’t be too familiar.’
‘For heaven’s sake, he’s going to be our brother-in-law!’ Maggie shot back witheringly.
Polly flinched visibly. Her temples were pounding with the nagging beat of a tension that no amount of painkillers would put to flight. The morning had crawled past. Hardly anybody had talked over the lunch table. Polly hadn’t eaten. Her father hadn’t eaten either. As if he couldn’t stand the look in Polly’s helplessly accusing eyes any longer, he had taken himself off to the library even before dessert arrived.
Maggie placed an awkward hand on Polly’s taut shoulder. ‘He really is scrumptious-looking, honestly he is.’
‘Then why can’t he buy a wife at home?’ Polly spluttered tearfully into her tissue, her nerves taking her over again.
‘Scram!’ Maggie glowered at Joan and Elaine. ‘And don’t you dare tell Mother that Polly’s crying!’
Irritated by these histrionics, the ever practical and status-conscious Joan frowned. ‘What’s she got to cry about? She’s going to be a princess. I wouldn’t cry, I’d be over the moon.’
‘Well, isn’t it a shame you weren’t the eldest?’ Maggie threw the door wide.
The door slammed. Ashamed of her over-emotional behaviour, Polly pushed an unsteady hand through the silvery blonde curls falling untidily over her brow and wiped at her wet eyes. ‘I still can’t believe this is really happening,’ she confided stiffly. ‘I thought he mightn’t turn up.’
‘Dad said there was no question that he wouldn’t, it being a matter of honour and all that.’ Maggie sounded distinctly vague. ‘Isn’t it strange that we all used to laugh when Dad bored on about the time he saved King Reija’s life by stopping a bullet? I mean, if we’ve heard that story a hundred times, we’ve heard it a thousand,’ she exaggerated. ‘And I used to pull your leg something awful about you becoming Wife Number Two…it was a family joke!’
Well, it certainly wasn’t a joke now, Polly conceded miserably. Thirty-odd years ago Ernest Barrington had been a youthful diplomat attached to an embassy in one of the Gulf States. During his years in the Middle East he had spent his leave exploring neighbouring countries. On one such trip he had ventured into the wilds of Dharein in Southern Arabia, a country still torn by the fierce feuds of warring tribes and relatively little more civilised than it had been a century earlier. Her father had been taken ill on that particular journey and had sought assistance from a nomadic encampment presided over by Prince Achmed, brother of Dharein’s feudal ruler, King Reija.
Fearing for the young Englishman’s health, Achmed had taken him to the palace outside Jumani where he had received proper medical attention. There he had recovered his strength, and shortly before his departure he had been honoured by an invitation to join a royal hunting party.
Out in the desert an assassination attempt had been made on his royal host. The details of that shocking episode were somewhat blurred. Polly’s father tended to embellish the story year by year, pepping it up to keep it fresh. Shorn of extras, the most basic version ran that, seeing a rifle glinting in the sunlight, Ernest had thrown himself in front of the King and dragged him to the ground, suffering a minor head wound in the process. Overcome by gratitude and a sense of masculine fellowship, King Reija had stated there and then that his firstborn son would marry Ernest Barrington’s firstborn daughter.
‘Let me tell you, I was pretty taken aback,’ Ernest was wont to chuckle at that point in the story. ‘I wasn’t even married then! But it was obviously the highest honour the King could think to offer. I should add that, since he’s highly suspicious of Westerners, it was an even bigger mark of esteem.’