A defiant womanin a desert king’s world!
After inheriting a broken kingdom, Prince Rafiq made a vow to restore its pride by winning a prestigious horse race. To ensure success, he hires an English expert. But even notoriously controlled Rafiq is shocked when his new employee is introduced as Miss Stephanie Darvill!
Stephanie is determined to leave her shameful past and broken dreams behind she will prove to Rafiq she deserves his trust! But this hard-hearted desert sheikh calls to Stephanie in the most primal of ways Dare she give in to her wildest desires?
The Harlot and the Sheikh is the third book in Marguerite Kaye’s series of historical romances set in early nineteenth century Arabia, and once again features a heroine with an unusual occupation; in this case, she’s a veterinarian specialising in the care and treatment of horses. Ms. Kaye’s research into the scientific background and interests of each of her heroines so far is obviously extensive, and the notes she provides at end of each novel are interesting and informative. But at the heart of each book is a complex, heartfelt and satisfying romance; and one of the things I so admire about this author is the way she is able to develop that romance while also telling an engaging story that incorporates fascinating historical and technical detail while also producing such superb descriptive prose that the reader is immediately transported to whatever location she is writing about.
Rafiq al-Antarah, Prince of the Arabian Kingdom of Bharym is a troubled young man with a great weight of responsibility upon his shoulders. Years before, and aged just sixteen, he had watched his father destroy himself, the honour of the royal family and the spirit of his people by losing the Sabr, the renowned endurance race that symbolises Bharym’s pride and honour. The kingdom is famous for breeding the finest horses in the world, horses whose bloodlines can be traced back to the purest of antecedents; but following a fire that devastated the stables and stud farm after the loss of the Sabr, the kingdom – and Rafiq’s father – entered a slow and lingering decline. When he came to the throne at twenty-two, Rafiq inherited a kingdom that seemed to have lost its way, and promised his people that he would make Bharym a better place, keen to make a number of changes and improvements and to employ various technical advancements in order to make Bharym a kingdom fit for the new century. But his proposals and enthusiasm were met by disinterest and apathy; for Rafiq’s people, the only thing that seems to matter is to reclaim their lost pride by winning the Sabr.
Now, eight years later, it seems that victory might, at last, be within Rafiq’s grasp. He has worked hard to rebuild his stables and the stud farm and sacrificed much of his personal happiness and peace of mind in order to do so. But it seems that isn’t enough, because over the last few months, Rafiq has been dealt another crushing blow as he has had to watch eight of his priceless breeding stock die of an unknown disease.
He needs specialist help and he needs it quickly, so he sends for Richard Darvill, the renowned veterinary surgeon attached to the Seventh Hussars who is reputed to be the foremost equine expert in the world. So he is not best pleased when his summons is answered not by Darvill, but by his daughter, Stephanie, who explains that her father is unable to leave his regiment given Napoleon’s progress through Europe, and that she has been expertly tutored and works alongside him as his assistant.
What Stephanie doesn’t disclose is that she jumped at the chance to travel to Arabia because of her need to get away from a scandal. A couple of years earlier, she thought herself in love and allowed herself to be seduced by one of the Hussar officers, only to be devastated when she discovered he had no intention of marrying her. While a man is patted on the back and praised for his sexual exploits, the woman is branded loose and wanton; Stephanie’s reputation was ruined and, not wanting to risk her father’s position with the regiment, she left, first heading back to England where she continued her work and studies at a Newmarket stud farm, and thence to Bharym, with her father’s blessing.
The fact that Stephanie is a woman is not a great issue for Rafiq, although he knows that it will be one for his Master of the Horse, who believes that a woman in the stables will bring very bad luck. But Rafiq, impressed with Stephanie’s good sense and honesty – she does not promise a miracle, only that she will do everything in her power to help – decides to appoint her as Royal Horse Surgeon.
Although they both try to resist the pull between them, the attraction between Stephanie and Rafiq is intense and really leaps off the page. He is impressed by her knowledge and her methods – and even by the fact that she is prepared to stand up to him when necessary – and very gradually, gets her to open up to him about her past disgrace. She expects him to be disgusted; he shows her clearly that he is not and through his kindness and respect, helps her to start to regain her self-respect and rebuild her self-esteem. And in turn, Stephanie helps Rafiq to lay aside the burden of guilt he still carries over the death of his wife and shows him that sometimes it’s necessary to bend in order not to break, that while tradition is important, there are times when a fresh approach is needed.
The plotline concerning the mysterious illness that plagues the horses and Stephanie’s unstinting efforts on their behalf is absorbing, and the romance between the prince and his Royal Horse Surgeon is equally so. The couple is allowed time to get to know and understand each other, and I liked that they admit the strength of their mutual attraction and agree to explore it further in a mature way. The air sizzles between them and their physical encounters are sensual and nicely steamy. Rafiq is a gorgeous hero – jaw-droppingly handsome, of course, but also honourable, caring and fully sensible of the responsibilities he bears; and Stephanie is perfect for him in every way – intelligent, determined and spirited while being aware of the importance of tradition and convention in the society in which she finds herself. My one quibble is that they manage to surmount the difficulties posed by the huge gulf in their social stations very easily (he’s a prince, she’s the daughter of a former farrier), but sometimes you just have to embrace the fairy tale and go with the flow.
The Harlot and the Sheikh is a thoroughly enjoyable read from start to finish and makes another fine addition to this series of Arabian-set historicals – so if you’re looking for an historical romance with an unusual setting and background, then you need look no further.