Abandoned in the desert, Julia Trevelyan finds herself at the mercy of Azhar, an imposing yet impossibly handsome Arabian merchant. Determined not to be intimidated by her rescuer—or their sizzling attraction!—she asks for his help…
But Prince Azhar is in fact the rightful heir to the Qaryma throne, returned from exile to take back his inheritance! He knows a dalliance with the enticing English adventuress is out of the question, yet he can’t deny the temptation to claim both his throne… and Julia!
Anyone who regularly peruses the romance sections of bookshops or the romance listings at Amazon will know that sheikhs are popular romantic heroes in many contemporary love stories. But there aren’t all that many to be found in historical romances, so I was intrigued when I saw that one of my favourite authors was writing a series set in the early nineteenth century in which the heroes were to be sheikhs. Marguerite Kaye has already written a couple of books which feature such characters (Innocent in the Sheikh’s Harem and The Governess and the Sheikh ) – but now comes her Hot Arabian Nights series, the first of which, The Widow and the Sheikh tells the story of a young Englishwoman and a desert prince, who find themselves trapped by circumstances and faced with difficult choices.
Julia Trevelyan awakens alone in her tent in the desert, drugged, robbed and abandoned by the guides she had hired for her journey. The widow of an eminent botanist, she is bound by her deathbed promise to her late husband to complete his final book and then see it published. But all her samples have been stolen along with her money and possessions and she is going to have to find a way to regroup so that she can begin her work again in order to complete the task. Fortunately, a fellow traveller who introduces himself as Azhar finds her and offers his help, explaining that he is a businessman and trader on his way to the kingdom of Qaryma. He offers to escort her to the capital where, he says, she will find everything she needs.
Julia gratefully accepts his proposal, but gets more than she had bargained for when, upon arrival at the Al Qaryma, Azhar reveals that he is in fact the Crown Prince, returning there for the first time in ten years. What he doesn’t immediately disclose is that his real purpose in returning is to assess the state of the kingdom and after a month, abdicate in favour of his brother, who has been ruling as regent since the death of their father.
Azhar is a deeply honourable man, but does not wish to be trapped by the demands of his position. He and his father never really saw eye-to-eye which, a decade earlier, led to Azhar’s leaving Qaryma determined never to return. He has made his own way in the world, growing a successful business empire that he enjoys running and is eager to get back to. To start with, all his focus is so strongly bent upon handing the kingdom over to his brother that he fails – or refuses – to acknowledge that all is not as it should be. But he cannot remain blind for long, and, realising that an outsider can offer a unique perspective, asks Julia to remain for one month, during which he will help her to catalogue the various and rare plants of his kingdom in return for her promising to tell him the truth about the things she sees around her in his kingdom and at the court. And, of course, this extended period of time together will also allow them to further explore their strong mutual attraction.
Both Julia and Azhar are well-drawn and engaging characters, but their determination to do the right thing means that making a life together looks to be an impossibility. Having experienced marriage to a man who, though not physically cruel, did not value her or see her as a person in her own right, Julia is now intent on retaining her independence. To this end, she decides to allow herself a month out of time; a month in which to explore her sexuality and desires with her attractive, fascinating rescuer – but after that, she will return to England and make a new life for herself there.
The romance between these two people from different worlds is beautifully written and extremely well developed. Their relationship is mutually beneficial on many levels, and I liked that Azhar trusted Julia enough to be able to share his concerns with her. She is able to provide valuable insight, while he shows her that her husband’s lack of response to her was far more of a reflection of the man’s own insecurities and fears than any fault of Julia’s. The attraction between the couple is so strong it leaps off the page, and they are not shy of acting upon it when the time is right. Ms Kaye is one of those authors who can write an intensely sensual love scene in just a few paragraphs, a talent she employs to great effect here; the scene in which the couple finally make love is one of the most deliciously romantic and sexy I’ve read in quite some time.
It’s evident that Ms Kaye knows her stuff and that her research is extensive. The idea of a western woman and a sheikh as a couple might seem outlandish, but truth really is stranger than fiction as the author reminds readers in her note at the end of the book, recalling the life of Lady Jane Digby – who was married to a sheikh. And this is one of the many things I always enjoy about her books; not only do I get to read a superbly developed romance with strong, well-drawn characters who pull me into the story, but she knows her history, too. Added to that, her descriptions of the desert landscapes, the exotic flora and opulence palace and grounds are so evocative as to put the reader right there among the shifting sands or the scented gardens.
If I have a complaint, it’s one that is engendered by the fact that the author has done such a great job in setting up her story. Azhar’s dilemma – being torn between his desire to live his own life and his innate sense of duty – is so vividly written and so incredibly well explored, that the resolution, when it comes, seems somewhat anti-climactic. That’s not to say that it’s implausible – because it most definitely isn’t – and of course, it’s wonderfully romantic. It just feels a little too easy given what has gone before. But it works and I liked that Ms Kaye has left readers with the sense that while love has triumphed, both characters are well aware that the path they have chosen will not be an easy one.
Even allowing for that minor reservation, The Widow and the Sheikh is such a strongly written, beautifully romantic story that I’m rating it highly. It’s one of the most moving books I’ve read recently, and one I have no hesitation in recommending.