The Sheikh's Pregnant Bride
ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
Sheikh, Husband, Father!
Idris Delacour never expected to be king of Dalmaya, but his cousin’s sudden death changes all that. And that’s not all—there’s a royal baby on the way, too!
Being a surrogate mom should’ve given Saskia Harper and her little brother Jack a new start. Only, for her unborn child to inherit the throne she must now marry the new king—the man whose kisses she’s never forgotten. Saskia wants to trust Idris—but can she ever find a way into her sheikh’s guarded heart?
A king’s life wasn’t his—he knew that all too well. His own needs, his own desires, his own likes would always be second to duty.
And Idris saw his duty all too clearly. All of it.
His mind raced as he ruthlessly ousted all emotions from his mind, concentrating on the cold, hard facts, looking for the path ahead. First, it was clearly in the baby’s best interests to have a mother’s care right from birth. Secondly, he—Idris—was the legal heir, whether he liked it or not. But, thirdly, at the same time the unborn baby was the rightful heir. Fourthly, he was said baby’s guardian.
The pieces began to fall into place one by one.
What had the lawyer said? That if a man was married to the mother when a child was born then he was automatically that child’s legal father, regardless of actual paternity?
He looked over at the other man. ‘Let me get this straight. If I marry Sayeda Saskia then the baby will be my child, my heir, both in law and in the eyes of the world?’
The lawyer’s answer was drowned out by Saskia’s indignant voice.
‘There is no way I would marry you, Idris Delacour, not if you were the last man alive!’
But Idris saw the lawyer’s nod and knew what he had to do. For Fayaz, for the country, for the baby.
He had to marry Saskia Harper.
The Sheikh’s Pregnant Bride
A former au pair, bookseller, marketing manager and seafront trader, JESSICA GILMORE now works for an environmental charity in York, England. Married with one daughter, one fluffy dog and two dog-loathing cats, she spends her time avoiding housework and can usually be found with her nose in a book. Jessica writes emotional romance with a hint of humour, a splash of sunshine and a great deal of delicious food—and equally delicious heroes!
All these years I thought I was a cat person—turns out I’m all about the canine.Thank you for letting me talk plots through at you, for all those head-clearing walks and for keeping me company through long hours at my keyboard. xxx
HE’D SAID HE’D be there in twelve hours, but in the end it was barely eight hours after he’d received the earth-shattering phone call when Idris Delacour strode into the cool, dark Council Chamber, his eyes still shielded against the harsh sun that had greeted him at the airport despite the still early hour. Grimly he stood by the empty seat at the end of the long table and, taking off his sunglasses, regarded the four sombre men who had stood at his entrance. They were all dressed in the customary long white robes and headdresses worn by traditionalists in Dalmaya and Idris’s dark trousers and grey shirt looked both drab and shockingly modern by contrast.
He nodded at the men and waited until they took their seats before seating himself in the ornately carved wooden chair. He was aware of every curve, every bump in the ancient seat. A seat that should never have been his. A seat he was all too willing to relinquish. He cleared his throat. ‘Salam.’
They repeated the greeting back to him, the words barely uttered before he continued, ‘There can be no mistake?’
‘None, Your Highness.’
He flinched at the title but there was more pressing business than his own unwanted and tenuous claim to the Dalmayan throne. ‘They are both dead?’
‘The King and Her Majesty, yes.’
‘Terrorism?’ Idris already knew the answers. He had asked the same question during the shock call that had shaken the entire chateau just eight hours before and had been extensively briefed and updated both whilst travelling to the airport and again once on the private jet that had awaited him there.
‘We’ll have to investigate further obviously,’ the grey-faced man to his right answered. Idris recognised him as Sheikh Ibrahim Al Kouri, Dalmaya’s Head of Security. ‘But it doesn’t seem so. It looks like it was simply a tragic accident.’
Simply? Such an odd way to describe the annihilation of an entire family. The better half of Idris’s own family. ‘And what? The car simply ran off the road?’
The General shook his head. ‘The King and his wife were returning from a day’s excursion and I believe His Majesty may have challenged the guards in the accompanying car to a race.’ He paused. ‘It would not have been the first time.’
Of course not. Fayaz loved to compete, always wanting to prove he was a winner in his own right, not just because of the privilege of his birth.
Sheikh Ibrahim continued in the same monotone voice, shock seemed to have flattened all his usual military pomp. ‘The road was flat and empty and should have been quite safe but it would seem that either His Majesty or the other driver lost control of the wheel and crashed into the other car with a loss of all lives. We have experts on the scene and should have more information for you imminently.’ He looked down at his notes. ‘Four of my agents were in the crash.’
Idris pinched the top of his nose, the words spinning around in his head. He could see the scene so clearly: Fayaz laughing as the open-topped four-wheel drives wove in and out of each other’s path on the wide, sand-covered road, encouraged by the screams of Maya, his wife and Queen. At what point had those screams become real—or had it all been over too fast for any of the party to be aware of how the game would end? He hoped so. He hoped they were laughing right until the end; it would be how he remembered them. Happy and so full of life it hurt.
‘I’m sorry. Please pass on my condolences to your agents’ families and take care of any outstanding pension and compensation arrangements.’
The General nodded and Idris turned to the man on his left, Minister of the Interior and his own great-uncle. ‘What happens next?’
Sheikh Malik Al Osman pushed his tablet to one side. His eyes were heavy, his shoulders slumped as if he couldn’t bear the burden that had fallen upon him. ‘We’ve kept news of the accident under wraps while we made sure of no hostile involvement, but now you’re here we’ll brief state media and Parliament. The funerals will take place this evening and the official mourning period will commence then.’
Idris nodded. ‘And then?’
Sheikh Ibrahim jumped in. ‘Your Majesty. You know the terms of your grandfather’s will. His Highness Sheikh Fayaz Al Osman and his line inherited the throne of Dalmaya, but if he died without issue then the kingdom passes to you and your line.’
Of course Idris knew this. Technically he had always been aware he was Fayaz’s legal heir. He remembered the shock—a shock mingled with the warmth of acceptance—when his grandfather’s will had been made public, cementing him firmly into the family. But the prospect of actually becoming King had been so far away he had never considered he would actually be called to do so. Fayaz had already been married at the time of their grandfather’s death and his wife was young and healthy. There was no reason to believe they wouldn’t soon have many children of their own to take precedence over Idris.
Besides, despite his grandfather’s decree, Idris knew how unorthodox his claim was. ‘My claim to the throne is through my mother. No King has ever inherited through the maternal line before.’ Not only that but his mother’s name was a byword for scandal in Dalmaya and, possibly even more unconventionally, his father was French—would the people of this proud kingdom accept the son of such a pair as their ruler?
The point was moot. His vineyard, chateau and his wine export business were all the kingdom Idris needed. He was fond of Dalmaya but he had no intention of living and ruling there. He didn’t belong.
‘Your grandfather’s will...’ the General repeated, but from the corner of his eye Idris saw a speculative look pass over his great-uncle’s face and turned back to him.
‘What do you think, Sheikh Malik?’ Hope twisted in his chest, mingling with the fatigue and grief already consuming him. He knew how hard his grandfather had worked to keep the kingdom safe, to modernise it, to introduce universal healthcare and education. He couldn’t just walk away from that legacy, not if there was no other option. But the Al Osman family was extensive. Surely there must be someone qualified and near enough the ruling branch for Idris to be able to hand over the crown with a clear conscience?
His uncle looked directly at Idris. ‘His Excellency is of course correct and if Fayaz died without any issue you are by law the next King. But there is the baby...’
Idris blinked. He’d seen Maya just a few months ago and she hadn’t mentioned any pregnancy. Besides, Fayaz would have told him straight away if he had had a child. Wouldn’t he? ‘The baby?’ The rest of the table looked as confused as he felt. ‘What baby?’
* * *
Saskia stretched and stared out at the enticing view. The sky was so bright and blue it almost hurt, the colour mirrored in the infinity pool just outside the folding glass doors and in the still sea beyond that. Another beautiful day in paradise, and if she could just drag herself off the insanely comfortable sofa and brave the intense heat for the ten seconds it took to step outside the air-conditioned villa and plunge into the pool then she would definitely have a swim. After all, the pool was the only place she was truly comfortable any more, her weight buoyed by the water, her bulk less ungainly.
Her hands strayed down to the tight bump as she caressed it. Just six weeks to go. Not that she was exactly looking forward to what awaited her at the end of that six weeks despite her daily private pregnancy yoga lessons, her doula, personal midwife and the deluxe delivery suite already pre-booked and awaiting her arrival. Nothing but the best to ease the birth of the new Crown Prince or Princess of Dalmaya.
Stretching again, Saskia winced as her back twinged. Even with the best care possible, pregnancy was the most uncomfortable experience she had ever been through. Don’t be so spoiled, she told herself firmly, heaving herself to her feet and padding towards the doors. She was safe, ultra-healthily fed, looked after and, more importantly, so was Jack. Once the baby was safely delivered and in the loving arms of his or her parents then she and her little brother could get back to their lives. Only this time she would be able to afford to give Jack the kind of childhood he deserved. And she would finally catch a break.
Right. Saskia heaved herself off the sofa and took an unsteady step and then another, regaining her balance as she did so. Balance. She missed that, along with being able to see her toes and not swiping things off tables with her belly when she turned around. A swim and then she would settle down and tackle the essay she had been putting off. She might have the money to go back to university thanks to Fayaz and Maya, but if she could just get the first year completed long distance then she would have more money for a house—and for Jack.
Shucking off the loose cotton robe she wore over the frankly vast maternity swimsuit, Saskia opened the door, almost recoiling from the scalding temperature that hit her the second she stepped out. She hurried as best she could to the pool and cautiously sat herself down by the side, near the wide steps that led down into its blissfully cool depths. Sitting on the floor without needing a forklift to help her back up, that was another simple pleasure she was looking forward to.
‘Sorry, little one,’ she murmured, her hand slipping back to her belly. ‘I do appreciate what a good baby you’ve been to look after for Maya but I think we’re both getting a little uncomfortable here. Besides, you must be looking forward to meeting your mummy and daddy, hmm? I know they can’t wait to meet you.’
That was an understatement. Fayaz and Maya were determined to be there for every step of the pregnancy. They had recorded stories for Saskia to play for the baby daily so that their voices would be instantly familiar when it was born and Maya had been as regular a visitor as she could manage. ‘Not long now,’ Saskia continued as she slid her aching legs into the deliciously cool water. ‘Mummy comes to live with us next week so she can spend every moment with you until she can take you home. Won’t that be lovely?’
Sharing this huge, luxurious villa would be very different from the old days, gossiping in the college student kitchen, but Saskia was still looking forward to some heart-to-hearts with her old friend and to some adult company. Fayaz and Maya hadn’t wanted anyone to know that Saskia was carrying their baby and so she had been confined to the villa since her arrival in Dalmaya nearly seven months ago. No matter how luxurious it might be, a place she wasn’t allowed to leave couldn’t help but feel like a prison. A self-imposed prison, sure; Saskia had known every single term and condition before she’d signed the surrogacy agreement, but a prison nonetheless.
She lowered herself into the water, a shiver of delight trembling through her as the cold enveloped her uncomfortably warm skin, and kicked off. She had been warned not to overexert herself and consciously made herself swim slow, considered lengths, concentrating on her breathing and the style of each stroke. Excited as she was to start her new life, there were some things about her prison she would miss. There were unlikely to be any infinity pools in her future, and in London grey skies were far more probable than this never-ending blue. Saskia turned onto her back and floated, eyes shut against the bright sun.
She didn’t know how long she stayed there, an ungainly mermaid basking in the sunshine, but a prickling at her neck and a sense of unease penetrated through her sun-induced haze. Saskia opened her eyes slowly, lowering her body until she was treading water upright, her hair slicked back. Whatever, whoever it was that disturbed her was behind her, at the head of the pool. Slowly she turned, awareness of her vulnerability rippling through her. She stopped. Shock hitting her hard.
It couldn’t be. Maya had promised her he was in France and swore she would never reveal to him that Saskia had carried her baby. No one outside Maya and Fayaz’s immediate family was supposed to know the baby had been born to a surrogate at all.
But of course Idris was their family.
Her toes found the bottom of the pool and Saskia anchored herself as she stared at the tall man regarding her inscrutably. He looked exactly the same as he had done seven years ago. No, there were a few small changes. He was more put together, less earnest than the young man she had once been so besotted with. It wasn’t just the well-cut, if slightly crumpled suit, the expensively tousled haircut or the dark shadow grazing his cheeks and chin. It was the confidence in the way he carried himself, a self-assuredness that, for all his pretence, the younger Idris hadn’t yet achieved. The harsh lines around his mouth were new and looked to be forged by fatigue and grief and the dark brown eyes were dull—at first anyway.
Saskia stood tall, wishing she weren’t in a tight swimsuit and stuck in a swimming pool looking up at him like a suppliant, as recognition dawned and Idris’s gaze kindled, his eyebrows snapping together.
‘Saskia? What on earth are you doing here?’ She’d forgotten the impact his voice had always had on her, low, almost gravelly, his French accent more of a hint than a full-on reminder of his heritage.
‘Taking a swim.’ Thank goodness her voice didn’t waver. ‘The question is, Idris, what you are doing here. This is private property and I don’t recall inviting you in.’ Petty but the words felt good. A small revenge for the way he had treated her all those years ago.
‘I’m here to see the surr...’ He stopped mid-sentence, his gaze dropping to her stomach, and incredulity stole over his face. ‘You? You’re the surrogate?’
Saskia raised her chin. ‘I don’t see how that’s any of your business. I’m not supposed to be experiencing any stress so please leave and let me get on with my swim.’
He glared. ‘Gladly. Only I need to speak to you. It’s important.’
‘Okay. Make it brief.’
‘No, not out here. You need to be sat down. Dressed.’ His gaze swept down her, impersonal, as if he had never seen her body before. Never touched her. Saskia’s cheeks burned but she remained upright, head held high.
‘You don’t give the orders round here, Idris. You ask. Nicely.’
His gaze smouldered but he bit back whatever cutting retort sprang to his lips. ‘Please,’ he ground out. ‘Saskia, this is important. Believe me, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t.’
She held his gaze, searching for answers within its darkness, fear uncoiling down her spine. Something was very, very wrong here. Why wasn’t Idris in France? Where was Maya? Saskia nodded, slowly. ‘Give me fifteen minutes. Everything takes a little longer right now.’
* * *
For the last couple of months Saskia had lived either in yoga pants or sheer voluminous kaftans, which made her look as if she were about to act as a sail in an am-dram version of The Tempest but, crucially, were cool and comfortable. Neither seemed right just now, instinct warning her that she needed more armour than casual, comfortable clothes would provide.
Luckily Maya had provided her with a designer pregnancy wardrobe fit for a princess. Saskia had pointed out that, confined to the villa as she was, she wouldn’t have the opportunity to wear a tenth of the clothes but Maya had waved off her objections. ‘You can keep them all and use them when you have your own baby, Sas,’ she’d said. Saskia hadn’t had the heart to tell her that having a baby of her own didn’t figure anywhere in her plans, sensing Maya was buying her the wardrobe she herself wished she could have owned. So Saskia had accepted each gift with a smile and tried not to think about where on earth she would store several wardrobes full of unworn maternity clothes when she finally returned home.
She selected a pair of white cropped linen trousers and teamed them with a nude pink vest top, which gathered in a knot just below her breasts, the material flowing nicely over her bump. Many redheads eschewed pink, even as pale a shade as this, but Saskia loved the colour. She pulled her still-wet hair back into a loose plait and slipped her feet into a pair of flat sandals. She was ready.
Idris was here.
The enormity of what was happening hit her anew and Saskia reached out to the ornately carved bedpost for support. What on earth had brought him back to her after seven years? It was clear that he hadn’t expected to see her; he’d looked just as thrown by the recognition as she had been.
Her lips tightened. She was a different person now. Strong, independent. A survivor. Just because Idris’s kisses used to make her forget who she was didn’t mean he had any power over her now. She had this situation in hand. She had to.
Summoning a confidence that wasn’t quite real, yet not entirely fake, Saskia left her suite and slowly descended the villa’s majestic staircase. The stairway led to the large central hallway from which all the other ground-floor rooms were situated. All marble and dark polished wood, it was lined with two impossibly long, armless couches. Idris lounged on the right-hand couch, seemingly completely at ease as he scrolled impatiently through his tablet. He didn’t even raise his gaze to watch her as she walked carefully down the marble stairs.
One of the many occasional tables that were scattered around the villa had been brought to his side and a jug of coffee sat there along with a half-full cup. The aroma floated tantalisingly towards Saskia. Coffee was one of the many prohibited food and drinks she had agreed not to touch until three months after the baby was born and her duties had ended. Many she barely touched anyway—she didn’t have the budget for shellfish, brie or wine—but coffee was her lifeline and she missed it every day; mint tea just didn’t have the same effect.
As the thought flitted across her mind Hamid, the houseboy, pulled up a second table and placed a cup of the herbal beverage upon it. Suppressing a longing sigh, Saskia smiled her thanks. She made no move to sit, nor did she have any intention of standing in front of Idris and waiting for him to notice her. Instead she picked up the cup and walked away into her favourite sitting area, the smallest of the living rooms with stunning views of the pool and the sea beyond. She curled up on the couch, picked up a book and waited for Idris to come to her.
ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî