bonnie vanak

The Cobra and the Concubine

May 2005
Dorchester Publishing

The Cobra and the Concubine

Badra sought refuge in the Sahara, but there is no true escape from the sheikh who stole her childhood. The villain proved she aroused a passion in men that meant only pain—and neither his death nor protection by her rescuers, the Khamsin changed that. Badra can no more forget it than one Khamsin’s burning sapphire eyes. Kenneth Tristan, heir to the duke of Caldwell, rode with the Khamsin since his English family’s slaughter. Known as Khepri, the Cobra, he grew up in Egypt. He loved this land, yet it is all sand in the wind, nothing, for he cannot touch the woman he loves, cannot save her from the past. He will sacrifice everything to make her whole. And until he does, they would be just…THE COBRA & THE CONCUBINE

Reviews : Excerpt

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Reviews

"Ms. Vanak sweeps the reader away with a fast-paced tale of adventure, intrigue, betrayal and the healing power of love. With love scenes that are hotter than the sun-scorched sand of the desert that surrounds the lovers, this is a book you won’t want to put down until the final page." —Tish Glasson, Fresh Fiction



"Vanak's latest novel recalls the big, exciting historical romances of the past—the ones with lots of adventure, [and] exotic locales, ...but with some entertaining plot twists of its own. " —Gerry Benninger, RT BOOKclub



"If you aren’t a fan of Bonnie Vanak’s novels you should be. Her newest novel, The Cobra and the Concubine continues her series of novels that are set in Egypt and focus on the nomadic Khamsin warriors; a group of men who could definitely star in a woman’s fantasy ...THE COBRA & THE CONCUBINE is a must read for all historical romance fans. ...those of you who like a little action and drama in their books, don’t despair this book has that too- in spades! I highly recommend this book as one wild and enjoyable ride into the world of warriors and secrets." —Jen, A Romance Review



"When a heroine haunted by her brutal past finds new hope and love with a hero torn between two cultures, their passion for each other proves to be as scorchingly hot as the desert sands in the latest of Vanak's vivid, lushly sensual historical romances set in colorful nineteenth-century Egypt. " —BookList



"The lush backdrops of English and Egypt set the tone for this wonderful and, at times, heart wrenching story. Badra's self reliance makes me proud to be a woman, while the storyline with Khepri and a fellow warrior, Rashid, nearly brought me to tears. And, when the three main Khamsin warriors, Jabari, Khepri, and Ramses connect and bond, and even find laughter and joy in troubling times, I knew I was reading something special." —Shannon Johnson, Romance Reader at Haert



"Once again, in THE COBRA & THE CONCUBINE, Ms. Vanak has delivered a story that you can sink your teeth into, one that stirs the senses as well as the heart. The scope of the story goes from Egyptian desert to English drawing room, from the archeological digs to the bordellos of Cairo. THE COBRA & THE CONCUBINE has more delightful twists, turns, and plot excitement than a Cairo alley, and around each bend, there is a surprise. ... This is a tale you won't want to miss. " —Rose, Romance at Heart



"The dialogue is realistic and the research is well done. This character-driven tale with its unique premise gripped me from the opening page to its very satisfying and exciting conclusion." —Jani Brooks, Romance Reviews Today



"THE COBRA & THE CONCUBINE has everything you need in a summer romance!...Ms. Vanak's descriptions are vivid, almost lyrical in places, and her characters are compelling and full of life...More than your typical romance, THE COBRA & THE CONCUBINE is a historical novel, a mystery, an action adventure story, and a bittersweet love story all in one." —Beverly Forehand, Roundtable Reviews



"Bonnie Vanak’s latest historical romance is a wonderful tale that brings alive a bygone era on the sands of the Sahara at a time when Egyptology was the rage in London. The story line brings back Badra, a victim in THE FALCON & THE DOVE as the female lead, who exasperates the man who cherishes her. Khepri is an intriguing protagonist struggling between his heritage and his lifestyle. Ms. Vanak is at her best with this triumphant tale of second chances." —Harriet Klausner

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Excerpt

Chapter 1

Eastern desert of Egypt, 1889

Someone, please help me.

The silent plea ran through Badra’s mind in a frantic chant. She quivered behind the large limestone boulder just outside the peppering of black goat’s hair tents. Sounds of war raged, the screams of men dying, the triumphant war whoops of their enemies gaining a stronghold. The two fiercest desert tribes in Egypt, the Al-Hajid and the Khamsin warriors of the wind, fought each other in a bloody clash.

Peeking around the stone, Farah watched. Sun burned down mercilessly upon them. Wind drifted across the dusky sands, ruffling her long black hair. At twenty, Farah was five years older than Badra in both experience and wisdom. She was the one who had urged her to escape.

Farah turned, her face flushed with urgency. “The Khamsin are departing our camp! Now is the time.”

Badra's feet remained frozen to the sands. They had fled the harem tent in the confusion and made it outside the camp. If they escaped now, Sheikh Fareeq would find them. “You are my slave, Badra,” he had snarled. “Escape to the Sinai and I will find you. I do not let slaves go free.”

Farah’s voice snapped her back to the present.

“Please, let us flee,” she pleaded. Somewhere deep inside her, Badra found a tiny core of strength and drew on it. The women ran out from behind the sheltering rocks.

Chaos erupted about them as a blur of movement on fast, sleek Arabians rode past. The Khamsin had recovered their prize breeding stallion and were leaving the Al-Hajid behind. A beautiful white Arabian stallion tethered to the saddle snorted as the Khamsin sheikh rode toward them on his mare.

Farah did not hesitate. She immediately darted out, clutching Badra’s hand and screaming for him to stop.

The sheikh pulled his mount up in an expert move, the mare’s nostrils flaring. The sheikh of the Khamsin warriors of the wind presented a magnificent figure. An indigo veil draped across his lower face, shielding his features. He leaned forward and his dark eyes flashed fury until Farah laid a hand upon the trouser-clad thigh clinging to the horse’s side.

“Please,” she begged, her voice frantic, “we belong to Sheikh Fareeq. Please, I beg you, sire, take us with you as your concubines. I know you are Jabari bin Tarik Hassid, sheikh of the Khamsin. I have heard you are a just and righteous leader.”

Badra raised her eyes hopefully to the leader, silently imploring him. Words fled her. She could not speak. The leader frowned and two more warriors, one short, but with a powerful build, the other taller and leaner, pulled up, effectively trapping them between the sheikh and their horses. Three veiled faces stared down at them with hidden menace. Badra began to shake violently, wondering if she fled a familiar horror to one yet unknown.

“Sire, what is the delay?” the muscled warrior asked.

“These women, Nazim. They ask sanctuary as my concubines.”

The one called Nazim leaned over his mare and gave them a cursory glance. “Then offer it,” he hissed. “But let us hurry!”

Jabari looked down at them, then questioningly at the other warrior. “Khepri, my brother, what is your opinion? Is it a trap or should I take them into my care?”

“You could do with a few concubines,” the other warrior said in an amused tone. “Perhaps if they keep you busy enough in your bed, you will be less inclined to ride into trouble.”

“Watch your tongue lest I cut it out for you,” Jabari warned, but it seemed to Badra he had a smile in his voice. “Very well, I will offer refuge in my household.”

The Khamsin sheikh stared down at Farah, nodded. He reached down and scooped her into the saddle.

“Khepri, take the little one,” Jabari instructed. “I am entrusting you to keep her safe for me.”

“Come, little one,” the warrior name Khepri called to her.

She could not move, for she was too terrified. Leaving with him constituted the bravest act she’d undertaken since being sold to Fareeq four years ago when she was only 11. Dust rose in a thick cloud as the others rode off. Khepri motioned toward her, the blue veil hiding all but his eyes.

The warrior looked over his shoulder. Distant, angry shouts filled the air; sounds of men gathering. The Al-Hajid had recovered and would soon ride after them. He slid off his mare in a graceful move and went toward her, holding out his hand. Badra dragged her frightened gaze up to meet his then recoiled. He had the same bronzed coloring as those men familiar to her, but his eyes burned a fierce blue like the Egyptian sky.

The man tore off his veil revealing features that tore every breath from her lungs. Badra stared, awestruck. Lean, sculpted cheeks and a taut jaw line accommodated a dark-bearded chin that made him appear fierce, but he offered her a gentle smile and his tone was soothing and low.

“I am Khepri bin Tarik Hassid, brother to the sheikh. Have no fear, little one. You are safe with me.”

Those incredible blue eyes suddenly blazed with mischief. “And I promise you Jabari is a considerate man. If you have any trouble, I will punish him most severely.” He winked.

Whether the teasing or the gentle manner, something about this man pulled at her. Badra nodded. He hoisted her easily onto the saddle and then pulled up behind her, cradling her with his firm, warm body. Another shiver went through her, this time not of fear but a deeper intensity.

They rode fast through hard canyons and deep desert to meet up with the others then rode ceaselessly, taking short breaks. She did not speak. On one of the rest periods the Khamsin warriors cast her searching glances. Sly remarks followed.

“Fareeq took our breeding stallion, so our sheikh will bed Fareeq’s concubines as revenge. Jabari will prove he is the virile leader Fareeq is not,” one warrior commented.

Handing Badra a goatskin of water, Khepri frowned at the man. “Must you talk around the women as if they do not exist? You have as many words as a storm has sand, Hassan, but a sandstorm is far more pleasant on the ears.”

Shards of sharp panic pinched as the men laughed. The Khamsin sheikh would bed her immediately to prove himself to his warriors. Would he also brutalize her?

When they reached the camp, she gazed around with wide-eyed curiosity. Blue-scarfed women looked curiously at her. Farah came over to her, offering a encouraging smile as Khepri escorted them over to a many-poled tent. A middle-aged woman introducing herself as Asriyah, the sheikh’s aunt, welcomed them. She was given water for washing, a change of clothing and shown to a soft bed. Badra fell asleep as soon as her body touched the mattress.

* * *

When she awoke the next day, Badra sat up, confused and afraid. She glanced around the interior, at the low sandalwood table near her bed, the rich, thick carpets, the elegant carvings set upon a handsome wood chest. The Khamsin camp. Now she had a new master. She touched the cotton sheets with a trembling hand. Despite the reassurances Khepri had given her last night, Badra could not believe she was safe.

Fareeq would come for her. Badra had only escaped his attention while pregnant. Childless Fareeq was desperate for a son. So she broke the secret pact among his concubines to ensure he’d remain childless and stopped taking the herbs preventing contraception. It was a difficult pregnancy and her labor started two weeks early. Badra swallowed a lump in her throat. Her little girl. She had held her in her arms, marveling at the tiny, precious life. They had taken her away while she fell into an exhausted slumber. When she awoke, they told her Jasmine had been too little and died. Barely had she recovered when he began raping and flogging her once more…

She clutched the sheet as the woven door to her chamber lifted. Farah entered, smiling blissfully.

“The sheikh has taken me to his bed. He is a wonderful lover and brought me to a pleasure I had never imagined. He is unmarried. Perhaps he will wed me,” Farah told her.

Her friend possessed a sinuous grace. Like Fareeq’s other women, she had evaded the whip, using wiles she taught Badra to lessen Fareeq’s abuse. A sage look came into her dark eyes.

“He has called for you next. He is quite virile, this one.”

Badra flinched, remembering Fareeq’s nightly visits, the rough way he had shoved himself into her body until she cried. Men did not deliver pleasure. Only pain.

Her friend’s expression softened. “You must go to him, Badra, lest you anger him. Do you want to return to Fareeq?”

Fear twisted like a loathsome snake about her spine. How could she endure sharing her new master’s bed? Yet she had no choice. Her mouth went dry.

Farah drifted away, a dreamy expression on her face as Asriyah came inside. “I am told you are called Badra. I have been instructed to bring you to the sheikh’s tent as soon as you are prepared for him. Hurry,” the woman told her.

Badra washed, dressed and subjected herself to the woman’s gentle touch as she brushed her hair. “You are quite beautiful,” Asriyah commented. “My nephew will be pleased.”

She tensed, thinking of the horrors to come.

The sheikh’s aunt escorted her to the largest tent. Badra removed her sandals. Sucking in a deep breath, she walked inside the tent’s main room, her feet treading noiselessly on a thick jewel-toned carpet. Wind blew softly through the enclosure from the flaps partly rolled up. Jabari sat cross-legged on the floor next to the warrior she’d heard him call Nazim. The men ate dates from a bowl on the floor and talked and laughed. She studied her new master with care. Much younger than she first thought, somewhere in his early twenties. Quite handsome and tall, with long black hair spilling beneath his indigo turban. She prayed the ebony eyes would hold kindness and he would show a little of the warmth she’d glimpsed yesterday.

Jabari glanced up. A reassuring smile touched his mouth. Kindness shone in his eyes and his manner seemed gentle.

“Nazim,” he said in husky voice. “Leave us.”

The other warrior gave his sheikh a grin and a wink and left. Badra trembled. Jabari invited her to sit, offered her a date. She took one as he talked. His voice was deep and soothing, but she heard little. Sweat trickled down her back. Her stomach pitched as he unfolded his muscled body and stood. “Come,” he told her, holding out his hand.

The sheikh led her to a back room. A massive bed stood near one tent wall. She knew what he wanted. Her heart thudded.

“Undress for me,” he instructed softly.

Moisture dampened her palms. Badra bit her lip, filled with revulsion. But if she did not obey, this man might flog her as Fareeq had. The sheikh’s broad shoulders hinted of muscle that could wield a whip harder than Fareeq. She felt helpless.

Her shaking fingers tugged off the indigo kuftan and stripped off the underlying kamis shirt and wide, blousy trousers. Naked, she stood before Jabari, displaying what Fareeq had coveted since eyeing her at the Pleasure Palace, the brothel where her parents had sold her. The sheikh’s jaw dropped.

“Allah,” he said hoarsely. “You are lovely.”

She hated this. Hated herself. Badra tried to quell the horror rushing through her at the lusty gleam in his dark eyes. He put a palm upon her breast.

No! Not again! She could not. Terrified, she jerked away. No where to run. Badra felt trapped. Instinct drove her into the tent’s corner. She crumbled on the carpet and crouched, facing the wall. Her arms wrapped about her for protection.

Maybe if she curled up so very tightly, and made no noise, he would leave her alone. Violent shivers wracked her.

“Badra, what is wrong? What are you doing?” Bewilderment filled the sheikh’s voice.

Badra crawled further into the corner. She felt humiliated and ashamed. Yet she could not stop.

“Do not be afraid of me,” he said gently.

Air brushed her naked skin as he lifted her hair. A warm hand suddenly settled over her exposed back, upon the deepest of the scars carved there. She flinched. Badra stuffed a fist into her mouth to stifle a scream.

No noise. Noise meant he’d hit her harder.

“Allah,” the sheikh said in a shocked voice. “That fat jackal of a bastard, what did he do to your back?”

Badra whimpered.

“Please Badra, come out. I will not hurt you.”

Lies. Always the lies. Of course you say you will not hurt me. Then you do. Oh please, don’t touch me. I cannot bear it.

His words became a buzz in her ears. She peeked and saw him offer her clothing. Another trick. He would offer covering, and then rip it off. And beat her. And laugh.

Finally the sheikh stood. She heard him leave. A few minutes later, he returned and she heard Farah’s voice.

“She will not say a word to me. What did that bastard do to this poor girl?” Jabari said.

“Badra hasn’t spoken in months to anyone. She was our master’s favorite. He enjoyed flogging her.”

Farah crouched down. Badra stole a peek.

“Badra, stop this before the sheikh becomes angry,” she pleaded. “He is a skillful lover, more than our master. Why, the Khamsin sheikh’s member is far larger than our master’s, like the towering obelisks of Egypt it is…”

“Thank you,” the sheikh said dryly. “You may leave now. Call Nazim in here.”

He went to the tent’s main section. She heard the firm tread of a man’s footsteps and a deep, cheerful male voice.

“Do you need assistance, sire? Advice? I had thought you needed no instructions in this matter,” Nazim joked.

“Stop joking, Nazim. Badra ran into a corner and will not come out. Farah attempted to reassure her by telling her my member is large as the obelisks of Egypt.”

“Ah, very reassuring. And not true,” Nazim chuckled.

“The girl is terrified. Fareeq flogged her. Come here and see if you can work your famous charm to coax her out.”

She heard them enter the bedchamber. Badra squeezed her eyes shut. If Jabari wanted her, he’d have to pull her. No words would force her from the slim safety the corner provided.

“Look, she’s shivering, poor girl. I would carve my dagger upon that bastard Fareeq for what he has done,” Nazim said quietly.

Opening one eye, Badra saw him lean over, murmuring something soothing. Compassion shone in his odd, whiskey-colored eyes, but she knew looks could deceive. He touched her bare arm.

She shrieked and huddled further into the corner.

A heavy sigh rushed from Nazim. “She has too much fear, Jabari. I advise you to be gentle with her. Give her time.”

She heard him leave, then the sheikh sat nearby.

“I see we are at an impasse, Badra.” Jabari said quietly. “But I am a patient man and will wait for you to come out. As long as it takes.”

* * *

Two hours. What was Jabari doing to her?

He had counted every minute since the sheikh had taken the new girl Badra into his tent. Finally Khepri could take it no longer. He stood near Jabari’s quarters, fashioning a new harness for a farmer’s donkey. Irritated, he frowned at two warriors exchanging sly grins as they glanced at the sheikh’s tent. Ribald remarks about Jabari’s sexual prowess followed. His brother needed to prove himself to his men. He was only 23 and had assumed leadership barely two months ago. Bedding Fareeq’s concubines gained the warriors’ respect.

“Two hours! Our sheikh is a strong man,” one joked.

Khepri grimaced. The other warrior laughed. “Look, his brother already is thinking how to surpass him. Always determined to be the best. I hear fathers lock their daughters away when Khepri visits the village. They have seen how his mistress cannot walk straight for days after. Perhaps our sheikh will do the same to his new concubine.”

His insides twisted at the idea. The little concubine called Badra seemed terrified. Her beautiful dark eyes had begged him for help. Pity and an odd protective feeling stabbed him. He too, had quivered with fear when he came to the Khamsin, his parents’ death screams still ringing in his ears.

To cover his agitation, and any noise of coupling inside the sheikh’s tent, he began to sing. Khepri tried not to think about Jabari bedding Badra. She belonged to the sheikh and he was foolish to covet her. But still, he couldn’t help the jealousy stinging him him like a cactus needle.

* * *

Her muscles ached. Badra dared not move. The sheikh studied a sheaf of papers. Her body ached from huddling in one position so long. But here was safety.

A horrid noise sounded outside. It sounded like someone…singing? Badra realized it was Khepri. He sounded worse than a braying donkey. As if to confirm her thoughts, a donkey brayed. Her lips twitched with sudden mirth.

“He sounds like a camel farting,” Jabari muttered.

The warrior sang louder. The donkey made an unmistakable rude noise. She smothered a laugh.

“Stubborn beast! I am the fiercest warrior in Egypt. Have you no respect?” Khepri yelled.

This time, the giggle escaped. Jabari looked at her.

“He makes you laugh, does he not?”

She could not help a small smile.

“Badra, if you like Khepri, I can bring him here. I would truly enjoy seeing you smile again. Would you like that?”

She gnawed on her lip, considering. Khepri seemed gentle and protective. Safer than the sheikh. Her mind worked frantically. The sheikh seemed a proud man. He would not accost her in front of Khepri. She nodded.

“If I bring him inside, you must get dressed and come out of the corner,” he cajoled.

Badra hesitated, staring at the clothing the sheikh held in his outstretched hands. Was this a trick? His expression looked encouraging. She snatched the kuftan and tugged it on.

Her muscles screamed in protest as she stood. Her legs felt wobbly, but she cautiously followed him to the tent’s main room. The sheikh went to the tent door. “Khepri, come here immediately. Your noises can be heard to the Sinai.”

Then Jabari turned. The smile he gave softened the stern lines about his face. Perhaps he wasn’t such a beast, Badra thought.

The young Khamsin warrior trudged inside, looking sullen.

“Apologize to my concubine for your rudeness,” Jabari commanded. “Your singing has hurt her ears. It is worse than listening to your donkey pass wind.”

Khepri scowled, then saw the sheikh’s mocking grin. He offered Badra a charming smile.

“I apologize for the noises you heard, but the donkey is the rude one. He does not believe in the artistry of my voice, so he teases me, like my brother.“ He winked.

A small giggle escaped her.

“You mock my pain,” he teased her. “But I assure you, Jabari sings no better than I. Shall I ask him to demonstrate?”

“Don't ask the singer to sing until he wishes to sing by himself,” she croaked, remembering the ancient Arab proverb.

The words, the first she had spoken since losing her baby and all hope, shocked her. Her voice sounded cracked and dry. Jabari’s jaw dropped. Khepri smiled.

Apprehension slid from her. She realized the sheikh had moved away, giving her much-needed space. When he told Khepri to leave and summon Nazim, rolling up the tent flaps fully to expose the room to passers-by, she no longer felt afraid. He made no move to touch her, but spoke quietly.

“Badra, I cannot change the past and what Fareeq did to you. But I promise you, it will not happen again under my care.”

Nazim came inside, smiling with delight upon seeing her. The sheikh beckoned them to sit on the carpet near stacked camel saddles, away from listening ears. She obeyed cautiously.

“Nazim, I cannot make her my concubine. I did not, and will not bed her, seeing what Fareeq did. Farah will, ah, keep me occupied enough.”

The warrior looked worried. “Sire, the men believe you are pleased with her, since she was here for two hours.”

Jabari frowned. “I see you were counting the minutes.”

“Every man was,” Nazim said. “The entire tribe is talking of your… astounding skills. If you do not claim her as your concubine, you shame her.” But his look said what words did not. And you shame yourself.

A frustrated sigh fled the sheikh. He studied her. “Then Badra, I will call you my concubine, but in name only. You will not share my bed. You are under my protection. Do you understand? You no longer belong to Fareeq.”

“You are wrong,” she said in a broken whisper. “I will always belong to Fareeq. He will never stop looking for me. You and your men are in grave danger.”

Nazim put a hand on his scimitar’s hilt and spoke. “Listen to me, Badra. We have long been enemies with the Al-Hajid. They have never defeated us in battle nor will they. I vow this, as does every warrior in this tribe.”

“You cannot stop him from coming for me,” she insisted.

“Then I will give you a strong warrior to watch over you to safeguard your every step so you feel safe,” Jabari assured her. “Khepri leads my saqrs, my falcon guards. I am appointing him as your protector. Wherever you go, he will remain with you. He is a brave warrior. I trust him absolutely and you should. You are Fareeq’s slave no longer.”

“Fareeq will not beat you again,” Nazim added. His amber gaze looked at her with pity.

Heated shame flushed her body. Would every tribal member look at her the same way? She could not bear it if they knew her dark secret.

“Please. Do not tell anyone else… what Fareeq has done to me. I beg you,” she pleaded.

“I must tell Khepri, so he knows your past and how important it is to protect you,” the sheikh countered.

“No,” she cried out. “Please, I beg you. I cannot bear it.”

She could not stand the disgrace if anyone else knew. They would feel repulsed and disgusted. They would blame her.

Jabari sighed. “It shall remain within these tent walls.” He turned to Nazim. “Call Khepri in here.”

While he did so, the sheikh leaned forward. “Badra, if I give you Khepri as your protector, you must trust me. Will you trust me? Or at least try?”

“I will try,” she whispered.

A torrent of wild emotions swept over her as the young warrior entered the tent again. His merry blue eyes flashed with friendliness as he eyed her. She tried to smile. It felt like her face cracked in two, but she managed.

The expression did not escape Jabari’s notice. A satisfied look came over him. “Do not be dismayed by his youthful appearance. Khepri is only nineteen, impetuous and reckless, but a brave warrior and fierce.”

“Being impetuous is a shared trait in this family,” Khepri shot back, grinning impudently. “Unlike being the best warrior.”

Nazim cuffed his arm in a friendly gesture. “Mind your manners, young one. Do not make assertions you cannot defend.”

“Ah, my brother’s guardian takes offense at my staking his claim of being the best warrior. I apologize for telling the truth.” Khepri said in a mocking tone.

“Enough,” Jabari ordered, but a fond smile touched his mouth. She relaxed, seeing the camaraderie between the trio.

The sheikh turned serious. “I called you here to confide in you and assign you a very special duty. I did not bed Badra and I will not. This information will remain inside these tent walls. But she will remain known as my concubine.”

“You did not? Why? She is beautiful,” Khepri blurted out.

Jabari gave him a stern look that stated it was none of his business. But the warrior’s puzzled frown indicated his brother wanted an answer. Her frantic gaze sought the sheikh’s.

“She is too young and frail,” Jabari said carefully. “Unlike my enemy, I am more considerate of the women I take to my bed. But since the entire tribe seems to think I have, it is best she remains my concubine.”

He shot her a knowing glance. Tension eased from her taut body. The sheikh told the truth without revealing her secret. Yes, perhaps she could trust this man.

Surprise and an odd relief showed in the young warrior’s wide eyes. “Of course,” he said solemnly. “What do you want?”

“Badra will be your responsibility from this moment forward. You are assigned exclusively to be her falcon guard and shield her from all harm. I need a warrior whom I can trust, for she is very beautiful and many men will covet her. You will allow no man to touch her.” The sheikh paused and gave him an intent look. “No man, including yourself. I am giving you this honor because I know you would fall upon your scimitar to defend her honor and her life. Do you understand?”

A look of quiet pride settled about him as he drew himself up, placing a hand on his sword hilt. “I do, sire,” he stated. “I will defend Badra’s honor and her life to the death.”

“Like your totem, the cobra, may you always strike her enemies as fiercely as you have struck mine,” Jabari said in formal tones.

Their ceremonial-sounding words should have reassured her, but did not. Badra knew Fareeq. He would come for her. And when he did, much blood would be shed. Including hers.

* * *

Night settled about the Khamsin camp with a soft sigh of the desert wind. Badra lay in bed. Asriyah had left a small oil lamp burning, but even the light gave her no peace from the shadows in her mind, the tiny, winged fears beating at her.

She knew he was coming. Khepri had reassured her Fareeq would not claim her any longer, but she knew Fareeq’s resolve, his unwillingness to relinquish anything belonging to him. If he could not have her, he would kill her. Death would be a welcome release to the barbaric sufferings she had endured. She could almost cry with joy at the cold bite of a blade.

The night air settled around her with a chill that sank into her bones. She sensed it. Felt it in the air, as thick and menacing as a dark cloud of fire. He was coming for her.

Minutes later, shouts filled the air along with the sound of pounding hooves upon the hard sands. Sitting bolt upright, she trembled violently. The woven door of her chamber jerked to one side as Khepri stormed inside, clutching his scimitar. He lowered it and beckoned to her. She rose from the bed, the nightdress clinging to her as she ran to him.

“The Al-Hajid are raiding. Jabari expected this and I am to remain at your side. Do not fear, little one. I will guard you.”

Badra rocked back and forth, tears coursing down her cheeks. “Your people will be needlessly slaughtered.”

A cocky smile touched his mouth as he held the long, curved scimitar aloft. “Then you have never seen Khamsin warriors battle. We never lose.”

He barely finished speaking when a knife slit the tent walls. Badra screamed as two Al-Hajid warriors spilled inside, swords held aloft, eyes shining with cruelty as they saw her.

Khepri draped the trailing end of his indigo turban across his face. He touched the sword hilt to his heart and then his lips, then warbled a long, undulating cry she knew was the Khamsin war song. He stepped in front, sheltering her with his muscled body and sliced the air with his scimitar. “Tell that dirty disgusting dog of the desert, she is no longer his. She is Khamsin now. I am Cobra, her falcon guard and will shed the last drop of my blood before you jackals lay one hand on her.”

“Die trying,” one laughed.

“I will,” he stated calmly and lunged forward.

Badra cringed as he effortlessly dueled with the two warriors. Harsh sounds of metal clanking against metal screamed in her ears. Shouts sounded outside the tent as other Khamsin battled the raiders. She shrank back and squeezed her eyes shut.

Silence suddenly fell. She opened her eyes. Khepri turned, a look of savage satisfaction. He peered out of the tent.

“They have fled, the cowards.” Khepri wiped the blade upon the robes of his enemies then sheathed it.

He turned, his manner reassuring and gentle. “You are safe now, Badra. No man will harm you.”

Badra looked at the dead men lying on the carpet and felt no ease. Fareeq would not rest. One attempt was not enough. Others would come for her, return her to the black tent of pain.

There remained only one choice. Salvation hung from the young Khamsin warrior’s belt. The curved dagger’s wicked point would spear her heart. Darting forward, she pulled it from the sheath. Khepri whirled in a move resembling his cobra totem. Badra cried out as he wrapped his hand about the blade and yanked it from her, grimacing as he tossed it aside.

Hot tears filled her eyes. Badra looked at the discarded dagger with deep shame at her failure. “Please, let me die before others come to return me to him. Let me feel death’s peace, for the blade will release me from Fareeq.”

“No Badra,” he said softly, his eyes never leaving hers. “You are so wrong. Death is never the correct choice.”

“It is for me. I cannot live as a slave any longer.”

“You have a new life now, Badra,” he said, stepping closer. “And a falcon guard now.” Resolve shimmered in his deep blue eyes. “A falcon guard who has sworn an oath to his sheikh to protect you with his life. It is an oath not easily given and an oath I will honor all my days.”

But his words meant nothing. “You have taken the last chance for peace away from me,” she whispered.

Compassion filled his eyes as he gazed intently at her.

“No, Badra,” he said quietly. “You are free to choose your own destiny now. Fareeq holds no power over you. Trust me, there are new beginnings. I know. For I was not born Khamsin.”

Where his words did not sway her, the anguished look did. “Your eyes,” she guessed.

A bitter smile touched his features. “All anyone knows of my family is they were foreigners crossing the desert to the Red Sea. Their caravan was attacked and everyone killed. I remember little, but Jabari’s father, Tarik, told me the story so I would honor my parents, who died to keep me safe.”

“What happened?” she asked.

“When I was barely four, the Al-Hajid raided our caravan. My parents hid me in a large basket. When the Khamsin attacked the Al-Hajid after they rode off with the spoils, they took the basket. I shook with fear as the lid came off, thinking I would die like my parents, my brother, the servants. I looked up and saw two faces staring at me, one with black eyes and one with amber. The one with black eyes said…”

Here he paused and smiled. “Father, there is no treasure in this basket. I do not think there is anything of value here.”

Badra watched his jaw tense as he glanced away. “Then Jabari’s father looked into the basket and said, ‘You are wrong, my son. There is something of enormous value. A little boy.’ The sheikh looked at me and said the same words I said to you.”

“Have no fear, little one,” she echoed softly.

He gave a solemn nod. “Tarik sent warriors to investigate the caravan, but they found only the dead. Fareeq had burned the bodies so they were unrecognizable.” His eyes closed momentarily. “Jabari’s father raised me as his son. There is peace here. You can make a new life. I will help you. Jabari’s father named me Khepri, after the Egyptian god of the sunrise, to reflect the new dawn of my life.”

Her voice wobbled. “Khepri, the god of the sunrise. And I am Badra, named after the full moon. We are opposites.”

A small smile quirked his lips upwards. “It may appear so, but the sun and the moon cannot exist without each other.”

She stared, wanting to trust him. “But does the moon dare to trust the sunrise, for it pushes her from the sky with its blinding light, away from the sheltering dark. The sunrise is burning and far more powerful than the moon.”

A fierce expression tightened his face, chasing away the boyish charm she’d glimpsed earlier with the hard resolve of a warrior sworn to duty. “Powerful to shield the moon so none may find her. Badra, I am your falcon guard, given to you as your protector. I am sworn to defend you unto death. I am a Khamsin warrior of the wind and will never let anything happen to you. I promise. You are safe from Fareeq.”

Giving a reassuring smile, he gently touched her cheek and wiped away tears with his thumb. Something warm and wet replaced the salt water coursing from her eyes. His blood.

She turned the reddened palm over to examine it. He cut himself while wrestling the knife from her. “You’re hurt!”

Giving a soft cry of distress, she took the sash from his belt and wrapped it around his bleeding hand. Badra pressed it tight, staring at Khepri. No man had ever hurt himself for her. No man had ever combated another to defend and protect her.

A twinkle lit his eyes, turning them into a deeper blue. “Ah, if I had known wounding myself would have caused you to come to my rescue, I would have cut myself much earlier.”

For the first time in four long years, Badra offered a genuine smile. “You are sworn to be my falcon guard and protect me, Khepri. So I suppose I had best return the favor and treat your injuries. Since you have vowed to give up your life for me, it is the least I may do for you.”

“Little one, it is not a great sacrifice. For seeing you smile, I would gladly surrender my life,” he said in hushed tones.

Mesmerized by the tenderness on his face, she leaned close. Badra reached up and for the first time since she had been enslaved, willingly touched a man. Her trembling hand caressed the softness of his dark beard.

Khepri groaned deeply and pulled away. He closed his eyes. When he opened them, a distant look came into them.

“Ah, little one,” Khepri mused and she heard an odd note of deep regret in his voice. “Daggers and scimitars hold no danger for me. But you, I think, are more deadly. You hold the power to enslave my heart. I could fall in love with you. God help me, I think I already have. Because you could wound me much deeper than any knife ever could. To the bone. To my very bones.”

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