Date: June 25th, 2020, Posted by mollie
How are you all feeling? These are sure crazy up-and-down times. To keep ‘sane’, along with writing love stories, I pick up a paintbrush or a pencil and enter into the quiet contemplative world of art.
As I share in many of my books, creativity in all its guises is so healing. Whether this is learning a new skill, picking up a new hobby, or increasing the talent we already have – creativity is healing on so many levels.
Another hobby that I super enjoy is photography. My cousin Cindy was a great photographer too. She took this photo of my beautiful grandmother Molly (same name but different!)
I took this photo of this beautiful wee man on a recent trip to Wellywood
I thought he was so super gorgeous that I would feature him in my next love story, Love All of Me—I’ve changed his name to protect his privacy!
“Thanks for waiting, Zac,” Kate said, as she opened the driver door of the ute. “Now slide over.”
Zac pretended not to hear and kept his nose pressed against the top of the steering wheel.
“Zac, move over. Come on. If you could drive, I’d let you. I hate to break it to you, but you’re a dog. And dog’s can’t drive. It’s the law.”
He regarded her with determined dark eyes, then turned, and padded to the passenger side.
“You know I love you,” she said, sweeping her hand vigorously across his fur. The truth was if it wasn’t for her bees and her dog she wouldn’t be here at all. Both of them needed her. Both of them gave her a reason to live. She loved her rescue dog more than life itself. And her bees gave her something of her father to hang onto. A calling.
She clenched the steering wheel, and eye-balled the roof, willing her tears not to flow. Not here. Not now. Her mum, and her dad, and her sister had left the safety of the cruise-ship and joined a tour to the volcano on White Island—and now they were dead.
What right did she have to cry?
Kate looked back at Zac. Zac looked back at Kate, just as he had that day she had rescued him, death in his eyes. Only now she knew he was acting to get his way. He was not the dog she thought she would choose when she went to the animal centre a year ago.
She had wanted a happy bouncy puppy, one that would make her feel better. But on his best day with his sad brown eyes, and jet black coat, he looked like a professional mourner. And in the end, that had suited her fine.
Nobody had wanted a three-legged, pug dog with a skin impediment. And she couldn’t have left him in the animal rescue centre not once she found out that the day she had called in was to be his last day.
She patted his soft, sleek fur. The Excema had flared because he had been so poorly treated. And she knew, unlike her own scars, Zac’s would heal with love. Everyone needed to be loved. She needed to be loved. And now she had someone to love too.
She had Zac.
He had not been the man she had dreamed she would spend her life with. The man she had dreamed she would have children with. The man she would marry until—’Til death would they part.
Zac had been Prozac with three legs and a short, stump of a tail. He had saved her life.
“We have a lot in common you and me, and you know I couldn’t leave you knowing I could’ve saved you and didn’t.”
Zac rolled his eyes up to stare at her, still not budging from the driver seat.
“I saved your butt, now move your pudgy arse,” she said, nudging him. “Pretty please, Zac. I’ll be late for the beautician.”
Zac grunted and stumbled into the passenger seat. He hobbled round and round as he situated himself on the split tan upholstery.
“Don’t look so depressed, you’re supposed to cheer me up- not make me feel guilty.”
He didn’t get much happier as they drove away from the counselling rooms. Instead, he stared wistfully at her lap.
“Okay come on then,” she said patting her thighs. Zac didn’t wait to be asked twice. He jumped into her lap.
Zac met her eyes, squeeze her shoulders, and plunge toward her, licking her from chin to brow with sweeping slurps.
“Oh, Zac,” Kate burst into tears and wrapped her arms around him. His body was warm and wriggly and welcoming and Kate held him tighter, so thankful to have someone alive in her life. Especially at Christmas when she always felt so sad.
“It’s just me and you, Zac,” she told him, sobbing.
Zac sighed and begin to lick the tears from her face, which made Kate cry even harder.
She wrapped her arms around his pudgy belly. She felt sad and happy at the same time. it was a relief to cry after holding everything in for so long. She gave one final sniff and let go of Zac. She had to get herself together before anyone saw the tears in her eyes.
Balancing on one leg Zac pressed his paws on the window ledge and smeared the glass with his squishy nose.
“Okay, just a little but no leaping out when you see a pretty girl,” Kate said, pressing the button and lowering the window.
“You are family now, Zac,” she told him. “And I’m not losing anyone else again.”
Did you enjoy this excerpt from Love All of Me?
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Date: June 18th, 2020, Posted by mollie
I was reflecting the other night about all the conflict in the world and recalled something the great Italian artist Giorgio Morandi, reputed to be one Italy’s finest still-life painters, once said that there was beauty in opposition. It struck me as such a powerful and liberating attitude to live and love by. I used these sentiments in one of my romance stories, The Italian Billionaires Christmas Bride.
In 1915, Morandi joined the army but suffered a breakdown and was indefinitely discharged. He retreated from people, the world—their warmongering and their conflict—and sought solace in the beauty of inanimate objects. His paintings are revered for their tonal subtlety in depicting simple subjects, which were limited mainly to vases, bottles, bowls, flowers and landscapes.
I love the still, silent, metaphysical beauty of his work. I thought I’d share a scene, where my heroine confesses her own love for his work—and introduce the hero and heroine in opposition, but also shared joy:
Her comment was met with stony silence. Not a muscle in his hard, handsome face moved as she strode ahead. Max’s walk was purposeful with a controlled, yet impatient, strength to it as he led her through the villa. Clearly, he was in a hurry to be rid of her.
Issy slowed her pace deliberately, gasping audibly as she walked past walls lined with priceless artworks she’d only ever seen in borrowed books and on the Internet.
‘This place is like a museum. It’s immaculate,’ Issy said, as she followed him past a living room double the size of a luxury hotel lobby, opening out to a massive wrap-around deck with panoramic views of the sea. The vibrant turquoise hues of the ocean spreading below contrasted with the starkness of Max’s mood. ‘You must love coming here,’ she ventured.
‘I don’t have time for holidays,’ he said. ‘I have full-time staff to ensure it is available all year round for friends or family who may want to relax,’ his tone was flat as though the thought of chilling surrounded by so much beauty didn’t excite him one little bit.
His footsteps were silent on the smooth marble floor, contrasting with her sandals clacking noisily as she quickened her pace to keep up with him. Friends with benefits no doubt, Issy thought. She didn’t know a stitch about his love life but she didn’t have to be a NASA scientist to guess that a man as handsome and wealthy as Max would be inundated with beautiful women offering their services.
Suddenly she froze, her heart pounding, as they walked down a glass panelled hallway toward a painting as small as the Mona Lisa.
‘Oh, my gosh,’ Issy’s breathing raced as she stepped closer, her nose almost pressed against the canvas as she traced every ethereal brush stroke. ‘Is that a Morandi?’ she gasped, her voice a high-pitched whisper. To anyone else the painting would just be a collection of ordinary objects—bottles and jars standing stoically against a muted background, but in the hands of a master even the ordinary could be elevated to transcendent beauty—and equally as potent.
Max’s grave mood lifted as his eyes followed the source of her attraction. He touched his mouth, drawing attention to his sensuous lips as he nodded.
She gasped, mentally computing that a painting of this worth was beyond anything she would ever experience up close in her lifetime. Her heart hammered with equal measures of thrill and fear, as though at any moment a security guard would command her to step back beyond the rail, or escort her from the house, except there was no barrier rail. And for the next few days at least, this house of treasure would be her home.
Rummaging in her bag, she whipped out her camera ‘May I take a photo?’
His gaze narrowed as his dark, fierce eyes riveted to her. He nodded. ‘Paintings should be appreciated.’
She took several photos then turned to him. ‘Gosh, this is like being in an art museum. We’ll never see paintings like this in New Zealand, and there’s no way I’ll ever get to Europe, not on my wage.’ Startled by the strange glint in his eye, she threw her attention back to the painting again.
‘It’s true when they say his paintings can transport you. Like you could fold into them and escape reality,’ she said. Nothing she was feeling was even close to reality, she thought achingly aware of her energy pulsing in tiny quivers toward Max as she stood in front of him. Not a muscle in his body moved as he stood like concrete, his broad shoulders rigid, his posture stiff, yet she sensed he felt the magnetic energy pulse between them too.
It was as if Morandi had infused the bottles with an aura-like energy, which seeped from the painting blanketing them both.
Max stood like a sentry, slightly at a distance, behind her like the stoic blue-black bottle and the fine white vase in the painting, touching but not touching.
He turned to her, his normally cool blue eyes now a penetrating black. ‘Is beauty the bringing together of opposites to make one?’ he said.
His unexpected question threw her. Whether he was speaking of the white and black bottles in the painting, or of their own obvious differences she didn’t know, but she found herself wishing recklessly it was the latter.
‘Opposites attract,’ she ventured, her voice catching as she watched the sunlight glance off his waves of dark hair, then move across the surface of his face, tracing the muscular lines of his strong cheekbones, the indentations of his dimples, before settling on the black-silk-like fibre clinging to his powerful chest. ‘There must be a reason for that.’ She forced a laugh, noticing with alarm that it sounded more nervous than confident.
There was a reason why the energy sparked and cracked and hissed between them. A reason she would never, could never, explore. ‘I know Morandi believed finding beauty in opposition would create a happier world,’ she said, steering the conversation to safer ground.
‘You are well informed.’ His eyes glistened with vitality as though he was both surprised and impressed with her level of knowledge.
‘Actually, I studied art history at college, briefly,’ she said, softly. ‘Something my parents reluctantly indulged. I remember being captivated by Morandi’s work. He was one of Italy’s finest still-life painters, but I never in a zillion years thought I’d ever see the real thing.’
‘You said, briefly,’ he paused, inviting her to go on.
Issy hesitated, aware that he was asking all the questions, and once again she was hogging the ear time when really the roles should be reversed. But perhaps in the sharing of what appeared to be a mutual passion she might learn a little about him. It would be the only passion they could share, she thought, willing her throbbing pulse to slow.
‘I was at college, young and dependent on my parents, we needed money. Art wasn’t an indulgence we could afford.’ Issy’s chest felt tight as she relived a part of her childhood she preferred to forget. ‘There’s no money in art”, they told me. “Get a real job. Keep it as a hobby”, blah, blah, blah.’
She forced a smile as she looked at the painting, ‘It’s ironic when you realize how much money these artists earned when they followed their passion. But anyway, it was what it was. And I wanted to please them. So, as you know, I went and trained as a clinical psychologist.’ She shook her head and gave a humourless laugh. ‘I thought it might help me figure out my dysfunctional family.’
Max studied her intensely, the gleam in his eyes acknowledging her disillusionment. ‘Perhaps I should have studied psychology too,’ he said, a weariness in his tone that came not just from tiredness, but from life. ‘But now you’re an art therapist. It is difficult to remain true to yourself and your philosophy. I respect that.’
There he was complimenting her again. His tone was so earnest Issy felt herself blush. Being understood and appreciated felt too good. And too foreign. And that was the problem she thought helplessly. Talking like this was merging the personal and the professional together dangerously. Two forces in opposition like oil and water which a sane person, a professional person, knew would never mix.
Only she wasn’t sane, she acknowledged. Not anymore. Not with him being so kind. Not with those sexy dimples indenting as his lips curved into a kind smile. It was easier to keep her distance when he was aloof and remote.
She looked away, knowing she must dismiss his comment as politeness not interest in her for fear of wanting something that would never be hers.
Cultured people like Max were raised to be polite and she mustn’t let herself think he was in the slightest bit interested in who she was as a person. But he was a good listener, and as rare as it was for someone to focus on her for a change it felt nice. She could share how art made her feel, find out what moved him and still maintain a professional distance.
‘It’s incredible how a painting can affect you,’ she said. ‘It’s completely out of your control. My heart is racing, the hairs on my arms are tingling like crazy. I feel inspired and breathless, and light-headed,’ she said. It was the painting, not him, definitely not him that was creating all these crazy physical sensations, she thought, surprised by the powerful emotions cascading through her.
‘Can you believe, my eyes are pooling, like at any moment I might cry. You know, it’s almost like the feeling you have when you’re in love. Is that why you purchased this painting?’ she said.
His eyes focused on her with razor-like intensity, sending shivers racing up her spine.
‘Art is not about emotion. Art is about power.’ His head jerked backwards sharply.
‘Oh, yes,’ she said, pleased that on this point they agreed. ‘The power of art, as Picasso once said, to wash from the soul the dust of everyday life.’
His lips twisted in a wry smile. ‘You are a romantic Ms. Riley. It is very sweet. But also naïve. The power of art, Ms Riley, is about money. Possessing what others covet and can never afford.’
Issy felt blood roar through her chest as she looked at the imposing man standing beside her. ‘No! Art is about feeling.’
‘You know, I actually think you believe that nonsense,’ he interjected. Max stepped toward her, encroaching upon her physical space until they were both nearly touching like the bottles in the painting.
Issy stood her ground, lifting her chin toward him as he stood over her. Was he really so emotionally blocked that he could feel nothing? ‘What happened to make you so unfeeling, so hard, so cynical?’
‘Life, Miss Riley. Life.’
‘Don’t you believe in love?’
‘Love,’ he grimaced, staring at the cold blue bottle in the painting, ‘is a business construct manufactured by salesmen and marketers to manipulate people like you.’
‘Have you always been so cynical?’ Issy challenged. ‘Love is a feeling. Like art is a feeling,’ she shrugged. ‘It’s hard to describe in words, but you know it when you sense it. It’s a warm, fantastic, life-giving feeling. Like eating ice-cream in summer, only without the calories.’
‘A feeling,’ Max snorted. ‘Another vague, nebulous, overused concept. I love that dress. I love those shoes. I love that painting.’ He turned toward her, looking directly into her eyes as though laying down a challenge.
‘I love you.’ His words delivered with icy hard detachment splintered through the warm air. His shoulders straightened sharply, ‘See how easy it is to say?’
He sounded cold, far more bitter than she’d expected, but something about the way Max strode stiffly toward the edge of the deck and stood gazing out at the blue sea, a pensive frown on those beautiful dark brows, made her wonder if perhaps even he thought he’d gone too far.
‘Show me a love that lasts,’ he said, turning to her at last.
What could she say? She’d notched up her Guinness Book record of impermanent affairs of the heart, the cancelled wedding her most public failure. But she wouldn’t tell him that. Not yet. Not ever. She could barely bring herself to talk about it with anyone, let alone a client she hoped to impress with her togetherness.
‘So we agree on something,’ Max said, filling the silent vacuum, ‘I’ve never felt it, never found it, never fantasized about it and I never will. Feeling is a distraction I can’t afford.’
‘Who did that to you?’ She said, wondering how a man who seemed to have everything, had so little.
Max flinched, his jaw hardening in steely resolve. ‘I’m a realist.’
‘If you don’t have love,’ Issy pressed, ‘or at least the hope of love, what do you have?’ She stepped toward him, concern widening her eyes. ‘Max?’ she whispered, probing for his reply
‘Work. I have work. Now if you’ll excuse me I’ll take you to your private bure. I’m sure you’ll find the peninsular villa to your liking. You won’t be disturbed. I only ask that you show me the same courtesy.’
Adrenaline spiked in her chest. He was banishing her. ‘But what about the session I have planned for today?’
Did you enjoy this excerpt? This story was written during a wonderful time in Fiji. I decided to set the story there. It seems like such a lifetime ago, especially now that travel to foreign shores seems so far away now.
But you can travel to paradise in your imagination when you read this beautiful “opposites attract” love story.
The idea for this story was sparked when I read about a very successful Italian fashion-tycoon who said, ‘My biggest regret is that I gave my life to my job.’ It struck me as very, very sad.
I wondered why he had chosen to live his life this way. Despite all his wealth, all his mansions around the world, and all the ‘fans’ who adored him for the identity he had carefully cultivated, he loved no one and no one loved him back for who he truly was.
Although he never said it outright, he’d thrown himself into his work following the death of his life partner. His work was pure escapism—protecting him from feeling the pain of loss again.
He’d originally trained as a medic but after experiencing the horrors of war, he sought refuge in a fantasy world.
As a child, he’d loved the glitz and glamour Hollywood offered. After a brief stint in the war where he witnessed the deaths of friends, he found an escape from the harshness of reality returning to the fantasy of Hollywood
I wondered what sort of woman would be able to touch this frozen man at the deepest level? Everything in his life was controlled measured, predictably precise. I wondered what if the darkness of the past, his unhealed wounds began to impact his work, stifling his creativity and threatening to destroy everything he had fought so hard to achieve?
I wondered what if, as part of his recovery, he was forced to spend time with a woman so opposite in every way to the order he imposed in his life? And what if this woman was a children’s art therapist? A woman unimpressed by the fame and fortune he’d amassed, but who believed strongly in the power of play, fun, and spontaneity—things he considered reckless.
What if this woman had the power to transform his life, and he hers—but they were both afraid. Hearts have been broken, love lost, trust betrayed. What if this woman had her own wounds? Don’t we all?
What would it take to make all the masks fall? To be vulnerable? To risk it all? What would it take, in spite of the fear, to believe you deserve, you want, you need to give love a second chance?
I hope you love this story as much as I loved writing it.
To enjoy your copy from Amazon, click here>> getBook.at/ChristmasBride
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Date: June 7th, 2020, Posted by mollie
“Pleasure and Pain represent as twins since there never is one without the other; and as if they were united back to back, since they are contrary to each other.”
Leonardo da Vinci
I heard it once said that we need chaos to create a dancing star. I do hope, and believe, that in the wake of the tsunami of the pain so many are experiencing that constructive change will come.
History suggests it does. Without Claudette Colvin’s pain of being arrested at the age of 15 in Montgomery, Alabama, during the segregated 50s the civil rights movement may not have been born.
Nine months before Rosa Parks defied segregation laws by refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1955, Claudette Colvin did exactly the same thing.
Colvin was the first person to be arrested for challenging Montgomery’s bus segregation policies, so her story made a few local papers – but nine months later, the same act of defiance by Rosa Parks was reported all over the world.
Like Colvin, Parks was commuting home and was seated in the “coloured section” of the bus. When the ‘white’ seats were filled, the driver, J Fred Black, asked Parks and three others to give up their seats. Like Colvin, Parks refused, and was arrested and fined.
It seems so crazy to realize how people once thought – and how some still do. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the spotlight is shone on the inequalities and abuse of power that still remain.
Today, I was appalled to learn that a statue was once erected to ‘honour’ a man who profited from slavery. This man trafficked over 80,000 men, women and children, ripping from their homes and families in Africa and shipping them to the Americas. I read a BBC report about protesters tearing down Edward Colston’s slave trader statue, posing with a knee on the figure’s neck – reminiscent of the video showing George Floyd, who died while being suffocated by a Minnesota police officer, and rolling it into the river>>https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-52954305.
And the world has spoken! This is wrong. This is unjust. The abuse of power must stop.
Closer to home, I am proud to say that New Zealand has a clear history of standing against oppression. New Zealand signed a partnership agreement with Maori to help curtail the law-breaking British. New Zealand was also the first country to give women the right to vote.
In early colonial New Zealand, as in other European societies, women were excluded from any involvement in politics. Most people – men and women – accepted the idea that women were naturally suited for domestic affairs, such as keeping house and raising children! Only men were fitted for public life and the rough-and-tumble world of politics.
It seems to me current politics in many countries have become too rough-and-tumble —even vulgar.
Conflict often heralds change. As current protestors have said, “We’re tired of being afraid.”
Oppressors rule via the active cultivation of fear.
When women in New Zealand first agitated for the vote they were knocked back. A number of New Zealand’s leading male politicians supported women’s suffrage. But three attempts in 1878, 1879 and 1887 bills or amendments extending the vote to women (or at least female ratepayers – another hurdle) failed to pass in Parliament.
Skilfully led by Kate Sheppard, campaigners and others organised a series of huge petitions to Parliament: in 1891 more than 9000 signatures were gathered, in 1892 almost 20,000, and finally, in 1893 nearly 32,000 were obtained – almost a quarter of the adult European female population of New Zealand.
Political manoeuvring stepped up and played dirty to try to stop change. By the early 1890s opponents of women’s suffrage began to mobilise. They warned that any disturbance of the ‘natural’ gender roles of men and women might have terrible consequences. The liquor industry, fearful that women would support growing demands for the prohibition of alcohol, lobbied sympathetic Members of Parliament and organised their own counter-petitions. (today the liquor industry is still a powerful and dangerous force – so much violence and family harm is caused by this highly addictive substance)
“The suffragists’ arch-enemy” writes nzhistory.govt, was Henry Smith Fish, “a boorish Dunedin politician who hired canvassers to circulate anti-suffrage petitions in pubs. This tactic backfired, however, when it was found that some signatures were false or obtained by trickery. (mmm – does history repeat?).
People who gain from maintaining the status quo will fight hard to retain their position. Which is why we must all play our part in standing against abuses of power. Whether this is teaching, painting, creating art that uplights the world, telling our stories of standing against abuse and regaining our power, promoting and supporting the disadvantaged or joining a protest movement —what matters is we use our power.
For example, Colvin credits her teacher with instilling her with the knowledge that later led her to feel empowered. “They (our teachers) lectured us about Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and we were taught about an opera singer called Marian Anderson who wasn’t allowed to sing at Constitutional Hall just because she was black, so she sang at Lincoln Memorial instead.”
As a therapist, I remember a Maori client saying to me, “I never thought a person like me would be able to be helped by a person like you.”
I was so shocked. “Why? What’s wrong with you?” I asked. Looking back I realize, quite possibly I was seeing the world through my eyes, not hers.
I wasn’t naive, I had taught students at University about the injustices inflicted upon indigenous peoples following the British occupation of New Zealand, and attempts to partner, not over power. Including the creation and signing of The Treaty of Waitangi. But intentions can be lost in translation. Years later Maori are still fighting for equality and true shared Sovereignty.
An African man we met in the Caribbean told me a similar story of feeling marginalised. As a poor man, he said, they were given access to inferior, less-skilled doctors. As a result of receiving poor medical care, his daughter had died.
‘Our time starts now,” says David Attenborough in an exclusive interview in Mindfood magazine. We need fresh thinking and new ways to discover how to make a difference. It’s up to every one of us to help preserve peace, beauty, and kindness on this planet. There are simple and effective ways to do this.
I try to play a small part in the stories I tell and the books I write. As one reader wrote about Claimed by The Sheikh:
“Look after the animals and plants. This is their planet as well as ours,” says Sir David Attenborough, reminding us that the whole world is in peril. Which is why I created a hero, Sheikh Tariq an Hassir, who rescues animals who have been abandoned in zoos or trafficked.
Claimed by The Sheikh, touches on a number of subjects I love and care about with the twists and turns in the plot. I always love celebrating the strength of the human spirit, and what people do when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges in their lives, and how unexpected events can turn disaster or tragedy into something good.
I love the fact that Melanie follows an unusual path as a pioneering architect—traditionally regarded as a male-only career. I love how hard she works at it. I always enjoy exploring how each of us uses and expresses our particular talents. And I felt a bond with her because I too studied architecture—but I didn’t have the courage and determination that Melanie had to finish.
Watching Melanie struggle with discrimination, knock-backs, and success, and the price you pay for them, was familiar to me too. Each person lives success diﬀerently and her adventures along the way help her become the person she is destined to be.
Whatever your path in life, you have a gift. Something nobody else can do as beautifully and skillfully as you. It may be standing up to discrimination, marching against the abuse of power, speaking forcefully to stop people setting fire to their cities, or quietly penning a blog post to encourage others or spotlight abuses.
How you express it, how you live it, and how you share it with others is unique to you. You have your own special way of dealing with life and the talents you’ve been given, whether you hide those gifts or share them openly.
I hope you enjoy reading this post and also enjoy Claimed by The Sheikh. Victory and success come in many forms and guises. Sheikh an Hassir has created a sanctuary for endangered animals who now flourish under his care.
Melanie creates an award-winning building to showcase many of their animals to dedicated the world and unite people of differing faiths. Both overcame significant obstacles. Their path is an exciting, fascinating, and rewarding one, and I’m sure yours will be too!
Remember, be kind and keep hope close to your hearts.
I hope you enjoy this excerpt from Claimed by The Sheikh.
“Are you trying to kill her?” Tariq na Hassir, the formidable ruler of the Kingdom of Avana, seized the animal handler’s arm, forcing him to release the rope laced around the baby giraﬀe’s neck.
“She has suﬀered enough trauma.” Tariq dismissed the man with a fierce scowl that struck fear into enemies.
A slither of panic crept into the young man’s hushed apology. “I am sorry your Excellency.”
“Release the others from their cages,” Tariq growled.
The man did not have to be asked twice. He knew from experience that the Sheikh’s retribution for disobedience would be swift and merciless.
“You are safe from harm,” Tariq said softly, stroking the baby giraﬀe’s long neck with a gentleness that belied his strength.
“No one will ever hurt you again, Noor,” he said softly, impulsively naming her as his fingertips swept through the calf ’s fur. He let his long supple fingers linger a moment upon her tail. Thankfully they had saved her in time, he thought as he reached for the reins, clenching his powerful hands around the soft leather.
The rage he had first felt on hearing about the ruthless murder of the new born’s mother still roared through him. Had she been executed to pay a tail dowry to the father of some money-mongering bride, he wondered? Or did some heinous person pay thousands of dollars for a wretched fly swatter?
Noor looked up and met Tariq’s dark gaze. In her innocent eyes, he saw her despair, her disillusionment, her disgust with humanity. He recognized her trauma as though it was his own. Because it was.
“Humans,” he said, his voice marinated with contempt. “The people you should be able to trust, the people who say they care, the people whose actions should be driven by love—the majority are driven by nothing but selfishness, deception, and lies.”
Taking a bottle of milk, Tariq placed the teat to Noor’s lips. The calf ’s silky black lashes grazed her cheeks as she gazed down at the foreign object then looked back at Tariq. She stared silently up at him, her eyes moist and bewildered.
Tariq had trained himself to shut down his emotions but that skill suddenly failed him. His chest trembled with suppressed rage knowing the orphaned baby would never again taste her mother’s milk.
“What passes for love among some people is abhorrent,” he said in a low, strained voice. “On behalf of humanity, I apologize.”
The killing of the calf ’s mother and three other rare Kordofan giraﬀes by trophy hunters seeking their tails further motivated the Sheikh’s commitment to transform his anger into action.
“Do you really think you can save her?”
Tariq looked at Anwar, his younger brother by 11 months. His head was slightly bowed but he could see his eyes were fixed in sadness and longing.
Tension ripped down Tariq’s spine. “Our father’s reign of terror and tyranny have robbed Avana of prosperity and peace. I will make it my personal mission to right the injustices of the past. War and hostility must end. And it starts with how we treat those most vulnerable.”
His fingers shook as he gripped the bottle of milk as Noor, at last, began to suckle.
An eerie silence swept across the precipitous landscape of Avana’s Tiwa oasis. Tariq lifted his gaze to the horizon. The only movement visible to his naked eye was the wind etching a delicate furrow as it crawled over the golden dunes.
“Not only will I provide a sanctuary for hunted wildlife and orphans like Noor, but I will liberate God’s most precious creatures from the many closing zoos and other inhumane habitats around the world,” he said as he glanced over at the other animals being unloaded from the custom-built crates.
“I will create a world-acclaimed sanctuary, impenetrable by those with impure and malicious hearts. It will be the most magical, marvelous, mesmerizingly unique place, the number one eco-tourism destination in the world. I will create meaningful employment for our people, restoring their dignity, attracting millions of visitors annually and contributing billions to the economy. But more importantly, I will show the world how kindness and compassion can be turned into plutonium and change the world.”
Anwar glanced at the now lush landscape and recalled how barren it had once been. With no sign of life in sight, others had found it impossible to fathom his brother’s vision to transform the punishing and unforgiving conditions into a haven for so many endangered species. Yet, as with everything Tariq turned his formidable will and mind-blowing wealth to, he had succeeded where mere mortals were destined to fail.
Anwar’s heart swelled with pride as he thought of all his brother’s achievements. “It’s an audacious and admirable plan. And if anyone can pull it oﬀ it’s you, brother. Your passion, your drive, your unrelenting ambition and pursuit of goals exceeds mere mortals. And you have the endurance and power of 13,000 Arabian horses, but aren’t you setting yourself up for too much hard work? Why don’t you relax? Kick back. Enjoy the fruits of your reign?” Anwar said, tossing his head in the direction of the harem. “Other men would.”
“Women were our father’s weakness,” bitterness bled from Tariq’s words. “I too once made the same mistake. I too paid the price.”
There was a tense silence while Tariq lifted his gaze to the sky and studied the giant falcon circling above.
“Was it not you who once taught that your greatest weakness can also be your greatest strength?” Anwar asked.
Tariq shook his head, biting down a terse retort. “I was misled,” he said. He nodded his command to the animal handler lingering at a respectful distance and petted Noor as she was led away.
“All kinds of atrocities are committed in the name of love, which is why it is the most dangerous of emotions, and why I am forever turned oﬀ to women.”
Shielding his eyes from the blazing sun, Tariq looked skyward, honing in on the falcon’s intense, focused gaze. The power, the force, the courage and the vision of the hunting dog of the sky inspired him. And unlike humans falcons were loyal—a quality Tariq valued above all else.
“The best time for a man is the time he spends with his family,” he said, glancing toward his brother. “My people are my family. My animals are my family. You are my family,” he said, patting his brother’s shoulders.
“The first responsibility of a leader is to make his people happy and then to provide them with the required security, stability, comfort, progress and development to ensure their survival. My loyalty is to you all.”
Tariq’s head jerked backward sharply as he recalled the brutal tyranny of his father. “Besides what sort of man doesn’t want to care for his family? Only an ego-driven tyrant like our father would turn a blind eye to the plight of our people and the cruelty imposed on God’s creatures.”
Tariq gritted his teeth, his jaw locking against the strain of suppressing his emotions. There was no point voicing the hostility he felt toward his father. There was no purpose in reminding his brother that his father was a behemoth, a beast, a toxic mix of oppressiveness and evilness who had wielded monstrous power and made their lives a misery.
“This has to be the most isolated place in the world,” Anwar muttered, gazing out forlornly at the neutrals and as-far-as-the-eye-can-see block tones of the desert. “No wonder mother fled to London.”
While Tariq missed his mother deeply he didn’t share his brother’s despair. He was a thirty-six-year-old ruler who was pouring his power, his infinite wealth, his heart and soul into the land and the animals who he now offered sanctuary. He was a king filled with purpose.
“There is a lot of anti-Islamic sentiment in the world. People believe we are a nation of murderers. Thanks to people who corrupt our ways for their evil agenda. Thanks to our father and his violent, corrupt rule. Thanks to warlords and governments who seek to profit from war and spread their lies. Because of all these things the international community fears us. They have been driven away. I want to bring people back here. I want to restore our nation’s pride. I want to show the world the beauty and kindness of true Islam. Our people have suﬀered enough shaming and violence,” Tariq said.
“Again, you have set yourself a formidable task. Are you sure you’re not throwing yourself into this audacious cause just to forget about your disobedient wife?” Anwar said.
“My ex-wife,” Tariq corrected. His brief marriage had been a disaster. He should have resisted the arrangement. He should have refused to cement his father’s power-base by marrying the daughter of his pugnacious uncle.
Loyalty. That was Tariq’s weakness. Loyalty, to family, no matter the personal cost.
The marriage was as archaic as it was disastrous. But that didn’t stop Tariq wanting a family—one that didn’t place demands on him he wasn’t equipped to keep.
Duty—that’s what counted.
The irony didn’t escape him. Duty had claimed his marriage. He knew Fatima took other lovers, just like he knew that some people weren’t suited to marriage. But he also knew that if he hadn’t been more married to his people and his quest than he’d ever been to his wife, he might have prevented her from escaping in the night with his bodyguard in a run-down-old jeep. He might have prevented her from being buried in the sandstorm that led to her death.
He gazed out at the stark, undulating desert landscape. If he had to atone for his sins, he’d rather do it out here where there was nothing but the eerie silence and the hot wind surfing over the dunes. Where there was nothing other than his rescued wildlife meandering over what felt like the plains of the Serengeti. Where there was nothing but the blazing desert, the sand beneath his toes, and the endless Arabian sea cutting them off from the world.
Duty required sacrifice.
Tension knotted his gut as his mind drifted to the woman who angered him most. Melanie Jones. It had been her fault his older brother Zayed had abdicated, and Tariq had been catapulted into the role of ruler.
Tariq vowed long ago that while he loved his older brother dearly, his disloyalty had cost too high a price. He had vowed, no matter how painful, he would never speak or think of him again.
Tariq ran his fingers down the dark brown back feathers of the hawk. “He who wants to advance should always look ahead,” he said, turning to his younger brother.
“There are worse things than an eternity spent in this beautiful kingdom of islands, miles away from anything, draped in wind and quiet, sandstorms and hot desert breezes. Anchored between the majestic desert and surrounded by the shimmering Arabian sea. You will understand the preciousness of this gift soon enough, Anwar.”
The Kingdom of Avana had been the crown in the jewel of Tariq’s ancestors since time began. Only this time, under his rule, instead of bloody and catastrophic wars provoked by his father’s oppressive regime, the Kingdom of Avana would enjoy a reign of prosperous peace.
And he’d dedicate himself to his cause—and none other. Because when he looked around Tariq didn’t see the life-sentence his younger brother Anwar imagined, or the chokehold his older brother Zayed had felt.
He saw his home.
Yet, while he wasn’t given to despair he could see his future as well as anyone if he continued alone. Today’s reclusive hermit is tomorrow’s bitter, old relic, Tariq told himself as the falcon left his arm and flew toward the object of his ardent desire.
He watched as the giant bird of prey courted a female falcon with acrobatic displays of daring aerial feats, Tariq was acutely aware that a kingdom wasn’t a kingdom with only a king to rule. To avoid Avana falling into the clutches of his father’s tyrannical oﬀspring he needed an heir.
The possibility was as outrageous as it was urgent. To bear an heir he needed a wife. The whole idea was impossible. Once betrayed, a thousand times wiser, he reminded himself.
His dark brows curved into a frown as he saw his bodyguard gallop on horseback away from the towering walls of the palace toward him.
His body tensed with the stillness of a wild animal whose every sense was alert, suspicious and wary as he approached.
“Your Excellency! Come quickly. There’s been an accident.”
“Please, please, please choose me,” Melanie Jones prayed inwardly. She swallowed hard, an ache building in her chest, as she checked her watch, then checked again as she paced the floor outside the Council administrative oﬃces in central London. She heaved a deep breath as her thoughts raced.
Six minutes until her fate would be decided. She checked her watch again. Five minutes, 59 seconds until the oﬃcials from The Council, and the other key teams assessing her architectural design for the new community library, would decide her fate.
Had she done a good enough job to convince them to sign oﬀ her concept for the project? The newly elected bureaucrats in the state government had challenged her design and costings, and the whole concept was in danger of coming to a crashing end.
Had she conceded too much when she yielded to their demands to rein in her vision?
Just for once she wished she could shrug oﬀ the stigma that dogged her when time after time, despite her award-winning designs, none of her buildings were ever constructed.
Just once she wished the vision she saw, the beauty she visualized, the joy she knew would be felt by those who eventually inhabited her buildings, was shared by those with access to the vault of money needed to bring her designs into reality.
If she could just get the dammed bureaucrats to say ‘yes’. Until then she’d be nothing but a paper architect. Her life’s work nothing but drawings and dreams.
Melanie rubbed her temple, erasing the one dream she had promised herself to forsake. She was not going to think of him.
Her ebony-black brows knitted in a fierce line as she forced her mind to the task at hand. She glanced down at the scatter of sketches splayed across the boardroom desk, feeling a mix of awe and pride—and aloneness.
Despite the fact that her design was breath stompingly beautiful, and searingly exquisite, her concept was also daringly innovative. The sweeping feminine curves confronted many people’s sense of what architecture was and what it wasn’t.
While she did everything in her power to minimize her own feminineness, in her designs aggressive masculine lines, straight edges and harsh corners were resolutely banished.
Dispelled were the sharp, angular lines and boxy shapes that so many in her field admired for their cost eﬃciencies. Eradicated were the shapes and forms that looked more like watchtowers in the worst of the concentration camps. Welcomed were the soaring sweeps and sensuous curves that inspired and nurtured and united people regardless of race, gender, or belief.
Melanie slid her palms over the stiﬀ folds of her shapeless noir-black upside-down jacket. The touch of tarpaulin did an adequate job of disguising her generous breasts, but even this wouldn’t detract from what many considered to be her biggest failing.
She was a woman. A woman competing in a man’s world.
People, she knew only too painfully, didn’t like breaking with tradition. And they didn’t like change. And they most definitely didn’t like a woman telling them what to do.
Everyone had told her that convincing these officials, as with all other decision-makers she had to influence, would take more than skill and strength of purpose. She was the outsider, just as her buildings were. On the edge, confronting other people’s notions of compliance, and predictability, and subservience.
She’d stayed late at her oﬃce working through the night as she always did. She was quietly confident, but it was an audacious design. Why couldn’t she do what her mother had always told her to do? Why couldn’t she settle for less?
The community library was the biggest project she and her small team of fledgling architects had ever handled—and the most important. Books changed lives. Books made people better citizens. Books liberated people from their constrained lives.
Liberation. Freedom. Escape. She owed it to people. Her architecture was designed for everyday men and women—not the elite.
She had worked on the concept tirelessly, sacrificing the rest of her life. Architecture was her big love. Her only love. Work kept her guilt, and her anger, and her shame at bay, she told herself, ignoring the emptiness and longing that slopped in her belly, calling her a liar.
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