The Princess and the Villain
(House of Stratus)
Based on a true story, The Princess and the Villain tells of how one of Britain’s most wanted men, came to become personal bodyguard to Princess Jarmina, a Middle-Eastern princess and one of the wealthiest and most heavily protected women of the world.
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I’m getting married, Norm,’ Len said, obviously nervous.
‘What? To that?’ Norman jerked his head in the direction of the woman sitting next to his brother. It wasn’t that she was ugly or anything, actually she was in pretty good condition for a woman of her age. She certainly looked after herself. The figure was trim and the hair was expensively cut. There was a lot of jewellery on her. She obviously had money.
‘I heard you had a mouth on you,’ Ruby pulled a long white-tipped St Moritz cigarette out of a shiny crocodile skin case, apparently unconcerned by the insult. Her hand was shaking slightly as she flicked open a Dunhill lighter, making the chunky gold bracelets jangle on her wrists. She offered the case to Norman. Under normal circumstances he would never turn down a smoke, but these had little gold bands round them for Christ’s sake. He didn’t even bother to shake his head, staring hard into his baby brother’s shifting eyes. Ruby gave a little shrug, snapped the case shut and replaced it in her dainty crocodile handbag. She patted her hair and moistened her brightly coloured lips.
‘No,’ Len said hurriedly, obviously embarrassed by Norman’s manner. ‘This is Ruby. She’s Babs’ mother.’
‘Babs?’ Norman was becoming irritated. When they told him he had visitors he’d been hoping for someone who would bring him news of what was happening in the clubs. He hadn’t seen Len for at least two years and suddenly he was sitting in front of him with a woman who looked like she should be sipping her first gin and tonic of the day in a hotel bar somewhere in the West End rather than prison visiting.
‘Babs is my fiancée,’ Len explained. ‘She wanted to come and see you today but she had a hairdresser’s appointment.’
‘Right,’ Norman nodded as if he now understood. ‘Got any smokes?’
‘Sure,’ Len surreptitiously passed over a couple of packets of Rothmans. Norman took them without bothering to hide his actions. He knew the guards well. They weren’t likely to give him any trouble. It wouldn’t be worth their while. Len was a “Category A”, top security prisoner who knew his way around the system. That meant he was treated with respect by most of them, particularly the ones who earned from him.
‘I bullied Len into bringing me to meet you,’ Ruby spoke without moderating her voice, as if she was sitting at a North London dinner table. ‘I just kept hearing your name around the clubs. You sounded irresistible.’
‘The clubs?’ Norman’s eyes moved like lightning away from Len and onto the woman. ‘You go to the clubs?’
‘I like to play a little Kalooki now and then,’ she shrugged. ‘Some poker. It gives me something to do. A girl needs a hobby, you know.’ She moistened her lips again and stared hard into his eyes, apparently not intimidated by the blank look which Norman normally found made even the hardest of troublemakers behave like shuffling schoolboys in the presence of their headmaster. ‘Your name comes up a lot in conversations. Len here had been keeping quiet about his famous brother. I had to drag it out of him.’
‘What sort of conversations?’ Norman wondered.
‘People say you didn’t deserve to go down for this one, but you’d done a lot worse and got away with it. You’re a bit of a legend in your own time really.’
Len shifted in his seat uncomfortably. Watching his future mother-in-law flirting so outrageously with his brother was not a pleasant experience. He didn’t imagine Babs or her father were likely to be pleased with him for allowing Ruby to force him into taking her prison visiting. Not that he had told either of them anything about his big brother. He’d been so shocked when Ruby asked him outright if he was related to Norman Dorset that he’d blurted out the truth. She’d seemed excited at the prospect of being related to a notorious hard-man. Ruby had worked out pretty quickly that Len would prefer Babs and her father, Jack, not to know of Norman’s whereabouts and had made it clear he could buy her silence with an introduction.
She was hoping that being able to drop Norman Dorset’s name around the clubs would get her a bit of respect, maybe even a bit of credit.
‘One man put me here,’ Norman said eventually, his fists involuntarily tightening into a ball in his lap.
‘I heard that too,’ Ruby said. ‘Jim Moody.’
The detective constable’s name made a spasm of anger pass over Norman’s face and Len glanced nervously around, wondering if Norman was about to explode into one of his infamous tempers. It was one of those explosions that had got him back in here again. Len wished Ruby would shut up. He just wanted to get out as quickly as possible without giving his brother any cause for offence.
‘Moody’s as bent as the rest of them,’ Norman said after a long pause. ‘He makes out he’s whiter than white, but none of them can resist the money when it’s actually offered. The papers go on about the gangs running London. It’s bollocks. Scotland Yard runs the whole bleeding country. They’re all on the take.’
He didn’t really believe that about Moody. It was because he wasn’t as bent as all the others that Norman hadn’t been able to buy Moody’s silence. The man was a little worm of a creature and he showed no respect for Norman, or for the conventions of the business world. Norman found that hard to understand.
Ruby nodded her agreement. ‘Who can resist the money, eh Norman?’ She rattled her wrists as she swept an imaginary piece of hair back from her face.
Len was shocked to see a trace of a smile twitch at the corner of his brother’s mouth. It was as if he was warming to Ruby. God, he hoped this wasn’t going to cause any trouble with Jack. Marrying into this family was the best break Len could possibly have asked for. At last he would have access to some serious money and he would be able to start himself up in a proper business. He was fed up with going from one dead-end job to the next while his brother lived the high-life in the West End, with the occasional break for a prison sentence. Len could remember what it felt like when Norman was on the outside. Len would be fixing his fourth car of the day, his fingers ingrained with engine oil, by the time Norman got out of bed. He didn’t want to find himself back where he was two years ago.
Mind you, he had work to thank for bringing Babs to him. She’d turned up in her white E-Type, wanting a service, and he’d been more than happy to oblige. The other guys had been laughing at her and the way she flirted with him, but he didn’t care. Lying under the car he’d been able to see all the way up inside her tight pink mini-skirt. He hadn’t imagined she was doing more than flirting, until she came back the next day and asked him to come out in the car with her because she thought it was making a funny noise and she needed him to listen to it.
The boss had been out at the time and so Len, accompanied by the suggestive jeers of his colleagues, had agreed. Babs had laughed at him when he put plastic covers on the passenger seat to protect the upholstery from his overalls.
‘I don’t mind a bit of dirt,’ she teased, accelerating away with a screech of tyres.
She drove hard and fast out of London and Len had said nothing. He knew there were no funny noises coming from the engine. The car was going like a dream. In fact the whole experience seemed like a dream. Babs eventually stopped at a pub. There was a garden outside and she sat him down at one of the benches and went in to get them drinks and food. He didn’t argue. He hadn’t got any money on him anyway.
While they ate she told him about her father, Jack Rabitz. ‘He’s in show business,’ she said. ‘He manages all these stars, publishes their music, books them into places. You know the sort of thing. He’s out most of the time, we don’t see much of him.’
Len hadn’t interrupted her. He just stared at her. Although she had great legs, her face wasn’t up to much. She had a cute nose, which she confessed had been fixed by a plastic surgeon as a twenty first birthday present.
‘You should have seen it before,’ she laughed. ‘Jimmy bloody Durante wasn’t in it.’
Even the new nose wasn’t able to make her pretty, but she had a liveliness about her which he found attractive, and a way of stroking his thigh as she talked to him which made him moan out loud. Before driving him back to the garage she’d told him he would be taking her out the following night. She took his address and told him what time she would be picking him up. He’d expected they would go out dancing or maybe to see a film. He hadn’t expected to be taken straight home to meet her mother and father.
The house was large, sitting on the hill in Highgate with views across London. It was the sort of house that Len knew existed because he’d seen them on television, but he’d never actually been inside one. He and Norman and their sisters had been brought up in Liverpool, with a sitting room just big enough to hold a sofa, a chair and a television. They’d all had to share a bedroom. The downstairs bathroom in the Rabitz house was big enough for a three piece suite.
Jack and Ruby were obviously less than pleased to find they had an unexpected guest for dinner. Out of politeness to him they tried to make conversation, but Len could hear them rowing with Babs every time they thought he was out of earshot. They seemed to believe she’d brought home a garage mechanic just to annoy them. Len was beginning to think they might be right.
Now, sitting opposite Norman, he felt his brother was being just as disapproving of his future mother-in-law as they had been of him. Since their father had always been away at sea, Len and the sisters had looked on Norman as a father figure. When Norman moved to London Len had followed him, feeling unable to cope with life in Liverpool without him. Norman had quickly made it clear that unless Len wanted to work for him in the clubs he was going to have to get himself a life of his own. The club life was obviously not for Len. He didn’t have the front for it. He was basically an honest man and he was uncomfortable with the constant scams and dodges and the threatening air of violence that hung in the air whenever his brother was around. The loan sharking and the clip joints, the endless hours of drinking in smoky back rooms, which were all meat and drink to Norman, didn’t appeal to Len. He wanted something better. Norman was not the sort of man to allow filial duties to mess up his life. If Len wasn’t going to make himself useful he didn’t want him hanging around looking disapproving. He found a job for Len in a garage and organised a bed-sit for him in Ladbroke Grove and then left him to his own devices. Len had drifted from garage to garage after that.
‘Looks like you’ve got a couple of pennies to rub together,’ Norman said to Ruby.
‘We make a living,’ Ruby agreed, lighting herself another cigarette, having only smoked half of the first one. She didn’t bother to offer one to Norman this time. ‘I hear you made a good living yourself for a few years.’
‘Len and I didn’t have much when we were kids,’ Norman said, his face stony again. ‘I guess he’s told you about that.’
‘I can tell Babs isn’t marrying him for his family fortune,’ Ruby laughed, making her earrings swing. She patted Len on the thigh. ‘But that’s okay. Babs has all the money she needs.’
‘So, you’re a gambler,’ Norman changed the subject, feeling a twinge of pity for his brother.
‘My husband works a lot in the evenings. I don’t like sitting around the house waiting for him to come home.’
‘I can imagine. Where do you go?’
She named a string of clubs and Norman nodded. He asked a few more questions, hoping to discover what might be happening to his interests while he was away. He knew what his contacts told him, but he didn’t always know when they were telling the truth. There were people out there who liked to take advantage when a man was away for a while. He soon realised that Ruby knew nothing. She was just a punter, someone whose money they took but who didn’t share their secrets. He lost interest and returned his gaze to Len.
The boy had certainly grown up to be good looking, which was just as well because, to Norman’s eyes, he didn’t seem to have much else about him. He looked like he wanted to hide under the chair. Maybe, Norman thought, he would make a good husband for a rich, spoilt Jewish girl. It would be better than lying around under other people’s cars for the rest of his life. He stared hard at him, trying to recall what he’d been like as a child. To be honest he found it difficult to remember. His childhood was all a bit of a blur to him. He didn’t know whether it was because he’d pushed it out of sight in some dark recess of his brain, or whether he’d simply been too busy at the time to take much in. His abiding memory of Len was a constantly running nose and the whinging voice, always asking Norman to take him with him wherever he went.
Norman had never wanted to take Len with him because he’d always, from the age of seven or eight, wanted to operate alone. He’d watched the other boys in the streets, running around in gangs, and they nearly always got caught sooner or later. Norman had worked out why this was. It was because they were only ever as fast as their slowest member. If he took Len with him on a job and they had to leg it, the chances were that Len would get caught, and that would lead them to him. It wasn’t a difficult lesson to learn, but it had made Norman a great deal more successful than all the other kids in the area. No one had been able to pin anything on him until he was fourteen years old, and that had been his own fault. He’d got overconfident, believing he was invincible. It’d been inevitable. He could see that now, all part of the game.
‘Everyone has a favourite story they like to tell about you,’ Ruby was saying. ‘They call you “The Mad Scouse”.’
Len stiffened in his chair, unsure how Norman would take this piece of news. As a boy he remembered seeing his brother beat a man twice his size senseless for a lesser insult.
‘Is that right?’ Norman stared at her hard. ‘Do I seem mad to you?’
Ruby took a long, thoughtful drag on her cigarette. ‘You seem dangerous.’
‘It doesn’t seem to bother you,’ Norman said.
‘I like a bit of danger,’ she smiled and Len prayed to God that Jack Rabitz never found out he’d arranged this introduction. Jack was finding it hard enough to accept that his daughter was going to marry a no-hoper scouse kid who was going to need bank-rolling in some sort of business if he was going to make anything of his life at all. To find out that the same kid was allowing his wife to flirt with a convicted criminal would not improve their relationship.
‘We should be going,’ Len said, standing up to show he meant business.
‘Yeah,’ Norman nodded, keeping his eyes fixed on Ruby’s. ‘You probably should. Keep in touch. Let me know what’s going on in the clubs. Tell them I’ll be back soon.’
‘How much longer do you reckon you’ll be in here, then?’ she asked, still not standing up or looking away from his gaze.
‘About another couple of years should do it,’ Norman said. He knew what her game was. If things were going badly for her at the poker table one night she would casually mention that her friend Norman Dorset was going to be out soon and she would find them more than happy to grant her more credit, maybe even forget her debts for the evening. He could live with that. She might be useful to him. She was certainly going to be useful to Len.
Pretending to notice for the first time that Len had stood to leave, Ruby stubbed her cigarette out, snapped her bag shut and stood beside him. Her eyes fixing themselves back onto Norman’s.
‘I’ll be in touch,’ she said, speaking more with her lips than her voice. Then turned and walked away. Len glanced back over his shoulder and saw Norman pull himself to his feet and walk off in the opposite direction with the guard. It reminded him of the times they’d sat with their mother, watching their father walking out of the house.
Jarmina peered out of the limousine window at the passing city streets. It was the first time she’d been to London. The first time to Europe. In fact, the only other times she’d been out of the Kingdom of Domai had been to visit relatives in other Middle Eastern countries. It had taken a great deal of nagging to get herself included in this trip. She’d finally managed to convince her father that she would be good company for her mother.
The Queen was sitting beside her on the back seat of the Daimler, paying less attention to the scenery than to the box of Black Magic chocolates which lay open on the seat between them. She made a great show of choosing exactly the one she wanted before popping it into her mouth, even though Jarmina knew she would have eaten them all by the time they reached the hotel. She worried about her mother. The Queen was now well over twenty stone and took no exercise beyond walking from her limousines to her bedrooms. All she seemed to do all day was eat chocolate and gossip with the coterie of attending women who travelled with her everywhere. The thought that her life might pan out to be equally pointless weighed heavily on Jarmina’s mind. She glanced through the back window to see if the identical limousine carrying this entourage was still with them. It was. Behind it another car carried the rest of their luggage.
She went back to studying the people on the pavements. The clothes amazed her. Everyone looked like the pictures she’d seen in the glossy magazines that were delivered to the palaces in Domai. There were women showing bare legs and bare shoulders, some of them were even exposing the tops of their breasts. She pulled her scarf comfortingly around her head, feeling the warm protection of the many layers of brightly coloured silk which encased her from head to foot.
While she pitied her poor sisters and cousins who had married into other royal families like the Saudis, and had to cover their faces as well as their bodies in black every time they stepped outside their palaces, or when they were in the presence of men, she still couldn’t understand how these western girls could bear to walk around practically naked, with men staring at their exposed flesh. Sometimes she had a nightmare, from which she would wake with a scream of panic, in which she found herself walking down a street with no clothes on at all. It made her heart pound with excitement but the feelings of embarrassment and disgrace would stay with her for several hours after waking. She tried to imagine how she would feel to be in one of the mini skirts and low-cut tops that she could see all around. The thought made her shiver.
She wondered what it felt like to be able to walk along a street full of people on your own. She had never been anywhere without a convoy of cars and bodyguards. In her own country there would be armed guards in the car with her and the streets would be cleared to allow her to travel, uninterrupted by crowds or traffic, to her destination. If she wanted to shop then the stores would be emptied of people and she would be able to stroll, unhindered, with her troop of female relatives, friends, servants and bodyguards trailing along behind, laughing at every joke she made, rushing to put right anything that annoyed her. The shopkeepers would bow their heads and kiss her outstretched hand. She couldn’t imagine what it must feel like to be alone in such a situation. It must seem dangerous and exciting. She sat back in her seat and helped herself to one of her mother’s chocolates.
‘That was my favourite!’ the Queen complained, a troubled cloud passing temporarily over her usually sunny expression.
‘You know the doctor has told you to eat less of these,’ Jarmina replied petulantly. ‘I’m just trying to improve your health, Mother.’
The Queen pushed another chocolate into her mouth quickly, before the Princess could steal it and frowned. She sometimes worried about her daughter’s impertinence. She would never have dared to speak to an elder in such tones when she was twenty five. She blamed her husband and son. They both indulged Jarmina far too much. It was almost as if they feared the lash of her tongue. The Queen had been brought up amongst men who were afraid of nothing and she sometimes pined for those days. She also knew that there was truth in what her daughter said. She could see the back of her personal doctor’s head in the front of the car, sitting between the driver and the bodyguard. She was well aware that he believed she should be losing weight and, she vowed to herself, she would. Just as soon as she had finished this last box of chocolates.
The cars swept to a halt in front of Claridge’s and were immediately surrounded by doormen, bell-boys and reception staff as the ladies and their luggage were disembarked and ushered the few yards across the pavement into the calm security of the hotel. The Queen’s entourage gathered around her, clucking and whispering, as she waddled towards the lift. The Princess stood back a few feet, allowing them to re-instate themselves around her mother. She wanted to take her time getting to the suite, knowing that once she was inside she would be virtually a prisoner again. She wanted to stare at the other people in the foyer, some of whom, she noticed, were staring at them. She realised they made a colourful spectacle in their long flowing skirts and scarves. She didn’t imagine that London saw too many people like them.
Eventually they were all installed in the suite. The Queen was lying on her four poster bed and one of her friends, a woman who was married to the King’s younger brother, squatting beside her, breaking open a fresh box of Black Magic for her while another plumped up the pillows behind her. The Queen sank into them with a deep sigh, as if reaching the end of an arduous journey. She decided to have just one more box of chocolates to comfort herself before starting her diet.
Jarmina felt quite different. She felt as if she had just arrived somewhere so exciting she couldn’t wait to go exploring. She watched with mounting despair as the other women settled themselves down on the bed or rolled out mats on the floor around it, roosting like exotically plumed chickens. She could see they were not intending to go anywhere else that day. They made her want to scream with frustration.
Excusing herself with a badly acted yawn, she left the room and went to her own bedroom. Walking to the window she pulled back the net curtains and stared out. She scuffled with the window catch and, just as she was about to give up and call for someone to do it for her, finally managed to work it out, throwing the window open and leaning on the sill to look out. Below her the street was bustling with people. She knelt down, resting her chin on her hands, and stared at them for a while, as fascinated as a small child unearthing an ants’ nest for the first time. After a few minutes she began to feel bored and unsatisfied with simply watching. She wanted to get in amongst them and stir the ants up. She didn’t want to be a distant observer, she wanted to be part of the world around her.
Standing up she stamped across the room and threw herself down on the bed, burying her face in her pillow. She would have liked to scream and beat her fists but there was no one in the room to hear her. She would have liked to cry but somehow the tears wouldn’t come. Sitting back up again she folded her arms and stared straight ahead with a furious frown, as if concentrating on the empty ache inside her would make it go away. But it didn’t. She was going to have to take some action if she wanted to change her life.
Climbing off the bed she opened the bedroom door a crack and peered out. She could hear the other women’s voices chattering and laughing in her mother’s bedroom. The door to the suite was open and bell boys were wheeling in trolleys piled with matching luggage. She stepped out of her bedroom, pulling her scarf across her face to shield herself from the men’s eyes. The staff had been well trained in how to deal with the Arab women who were starting to arrive in London and did not address her or look in her direction. They continued with their work, waiting for her to speak to them. She walked quietly to the open door and went out into the corridor.
Her heart was thumping in her chest and she liked the sensation. She was tempted to run to the lifts, but forced herself to walk at a slow, discreet pace. She did not want to draw any attention to herself. Once in the lift she indicated the bell boy should press the button for the ground floor, hardly able to breathe from the excitement as the floors passed and the doors opened out onto the sedate bustle of the lobby.
At any moment she expected to hear her name called out and some man to hurry her back up to the suite. As she made for the door a uniformed man stepped forward and opened it for her with a broad smile and a faint nod of the head. Jarmina didn’t respond. She’d never been taught to smile at servants, or even to signify that they were there unless it was to issue an instruction or a reprimand. She walked through the door into the street.
‘Taxi Your Highness?’ the doorman enquired and she waved him away with an imperious gesture. If she had climbed into a taxi she wouldn’t have known what to say to the driver, and she would have no idea how to pay him at the end of the ride. She didn’t know where she wanted to go, she just knew she wanted to go somewhere.
Should she turn left or right? She chose right and walked briskly away, trying to look purposeful and feeling suddenly exposed in her traditional flowing robes. Looking around she could see no one else dressed in anything remotely similar. She pulled her scarf more tightly across her face and kept on walking. She crossed a small street and then came to a cross-roads. She turned right again, comforted by the sight of expensive shops lining both sides of the road. They were the sort of shops she was used to seeing. She even had clothes from places like these, although she was never allowed to wear them in public. Some of the suitcases in the suite held expensive western designs which none of the women had yet worn. She’d also bought shoes and jewellery from stores like these in hotels back home. She glanced up at the street sign and recognised the words “Bond Street”. She’d heard the older women talking about this place.
Gaining confidence from the fact that no-one had yet accosted her, she slowed her pace and began to look in the windows. Her heart rate was beginning to settle down and she felt a curious lightness and freedom. She grew used to the feel of people looking at her. She noticed they would nearly always look away if she caught their eye, embarrassed to have been caught staring. One or two of them smiled at her, but she merely pulled up her scarf and averted her gaze. She paused to look at a clock in a window of Asprey’s and was suddenly aware of a man standing beside her.
‘Hello, pretty lady,’ he said, making her jump and look into his face before she had time to cover herself. Flustered, she grabbed at her head-dress and tried to move round him, but he moved too, blocking her path.
‘Has anyone ever told you, you have beautiful eyes?’
He was a handsome, swarthy young man with an accent she didn’t recognise. She tried again to dodge round him, her heart thumping once more. No man in Domai had ever had the courage to talk to her in this familiar manner and she had no idea how to respond. Her English was good enough to grasp the gist of what he was saying, but not good enough to be able to manufacture an appropriate reply which might get rid of him.
The man could tell that it didn’t matter how many clichés he used, this woman would not have heard them before. He’d learned long ago that if he delivered his corny pick-up lines with enough confidence most young women would be too polite to laugh in his face.
‘I come from Rome,’ he said, ‘so I have seen many beautiful women, but I have never seen anyone like you.’
She put her head down and tried again to pass him, unable to think of a single thing to say.
‘Don’t rush away, pretty one. Tell me your name at least, so that I can dream about you.’
She could see his shoes were expensive, his trousers neatly creased. Swivelling on her heel she found herself facing the doorway to Asprey’s. She lunged towards it and a doorman appeared, as if by magic, on the other side, pulling it open and allowing her in. The man followed and she felt trapped.
‘Let me buy you a gift,’ he was saying. ‘Choose something and I will buy it for you. So you will think of me whenever you look at it.’
She tried to think of the right words to ask one of the shop assistants for help. They were all hovering back, unsure what the situation was. Were these two lovers having a tiff? Was the man annoying her or courting her? They often saw these sort of men with rich women. They knew what their game was, but then they too were involved in the same games of flattery and seduction, although with different goals in mind.
Finally losing her cool, Jarmina started flapping her hands at the man, making noises as if she were shooing away a persistent dog. As several staff members in black tails and pinstriped trousers moved forward to assist the lady, the young man held up his hands in mock surrender.
‘Just remember,’ he said, ‘that a handsome Italian man once told you you had the most beautiful eyes in the world. Just think of me sometimes.’ He blew her a kiss before turning and walking calmly from the premises.
An assistant led her to a chair and she sat down, fanning herself wildly with her fingers, in a mannerism she had seen her mother do a thousand times and hated. A manager had been discreetly summoned from the back and appeared by her side. He knew who she was. It was his job to know such things.
‘Is there anything we can do to help, Your Highness?’
It didn’t seem strange to her that this man she had never seen before in her life should know who she was. Everyone in the shops in Domai would have recognised her as well.
‘Please,’ she said, taking a deep breath and summoning her English. ‘Ring for my car to come and collect me.’
‘Certainly, Your Highness. Who should I ring?’
‘Claridge’s,’ Jarmina said in a small voice. She knew now that she was going to be in trouble, but she wanted to get back to the safety of the suite more than anything else. She had had enough adventure for one day.
The King’s suite was on the same floor as the Queen’s, but sufficiently separate for him not to be disturbed by any dramas that might occur there. As Jarmina was being brought back to the hotel from Asprey’s in the limousine, the King and his advisers were listening politely to what Sir Roderick Salisbury had to say.
‘All we are saying, Your Highness,’ Sir Roderick repeated patiently, as if talking to a small child, ‘is that we would like to ensure that your borders are not encroached upon by any of your neighbours. We are simply extending a hand of friendship to someone we have known and enjoyed friendly relations with for a long time.’
He paused and tried to read the King’s expression. It was impassive. The lines in his face were deeply etched and folds of tired skin hung down over his eyes, masking any thoughts he might have. He looked not unlike one of the many camels which his ancestors had traded so successfully for so many centuries. The advisers all waited with Sir Roderick in silence, not knowing what reaction their master expected from them. After what seemed like an age, just as Sir Roderick was about to surrender the silence and start talking again, the King burst out laughing. It was a deep, gurgling roar of pleasure, bubbling up from his stomach in an uncontrollable explosion. Sir Roderick smiled uncomfortably, not aware he had said anything that amusing, feeling like a sober man amongst drunks as all the advisers joined in with their King.
When the King finally managed to control himself and was wiping the tears from his eyes, he let out a deep sigh of satisfaction, as if the laughter had somehow cleansed his spirits and he now felt ready to carry on with the serious business of the meeting.
‘Oh, Sir Roderick,’ he said, ‘how charmingly you express yourself.’
Sir Roderick inclined his head in thanks for the compliment, aware it was likely to carry a sting in the tail.
‘I’m deeply touched that your government should have my welfare so much at heart. But I am puzzled as to why you should think I am in so much danger from my neighbours, many of whom are my friends and allies. Some of whom are even married to my sisters and my daughters. One of my neighbours is my wife’s brother. I’m surprised that you think they would want to invade my country.’
‘That isn’t what I said,’ Sir Roderick raised his hands in protest. ‘We’re well aware that you have excellent diplomatic relations with all your neighbours, but these are unstable times. It would only require one revolution and a change of leadership to alter the political geography of the whole area. Domai is an immensely rich country with only a small army. An opportunist coming suddenly to power might find your oil wells just too tempting to resist. We would simply like to offer you our protection.’
‘We have so many friends,’ the King laughed. ‘You want to protect us, so do the Americans, so do the Russians. It amazes me how popular we are with you government people when, in the newspapers, I read how much the Arabs are disliked by the people of your country.’
‘The newspapers are an inaccurate barometer of any country’s true feelings,’ Sir Roderick protested rather feebly.
‘Oh, Sir Roderick,’ the King said again, as if despairing of his old friend. ‘You were not always like this. I remember when we first met. Do you remember that day?’
‘Of course.’ Sir Roderick nodded with a faint smile. He would never forget it. He’d been travelling across the deserts of Arabia, a young man in search of adventure. His father, a successful trader, had given him introductions to a number of local chieftains, including the King. He could clearly picture the tent in the middle of the sand, a bonfire burning beside it to keep off the chill of the night air, the smell of roasting meat and coffee mixing with camel dung and perfumes.
‘You were a free man then,’ the King said wistfully. ‘We both were. Now I’m rich beyond anything my father could ever have dreamed of, and you are a powerful man and can no longer say what is truly on your mind.’
‘I try to speak truthfully,’ Sir Roderick blustered.
‘Tell me truthfully why you want to move your troops into Domai?’ the King said. ‘No. I will tell you, to save you from telling more lies. You want to have a presence in the area. You want control of the oil. You want to keep the flag of the old empire flying over a bit of the world for a little longer. This is the truth. I am sure you are sincere when you say you want to protect Domai from invasion, but you do not mean that as an act of friendship. It is an act of self-interest.’
The King fell quiet again and Sir Roderick looked down at his hands for a moment, trying to arrange his thoughts. ‘I’m very sorry if you believe that, Your Highness,’ he said, eventually, ‘because I truly regard you as a friend. I hope that you and your advisers will consider what I have said and try to imagine what might happen to Domai should the area become unstable. It might be harder for our government to come to your aid once trouble has started than it would be for us to help you create a deterrent against any aggression.’ He paused for a moment and then asked, ‘How is your son? I trust he is well.’
‘Najid is well,’ the King nodded, his face inscrutable once more. ‘As you know he is commander in chief of our army. The army which you hold in such low esteem….’
‘I didn’t say that,’ Sir Roderick protested, but the King held up his hand to silence him.
‘But thank you for enquiring.’
‘And your daughters?’
‘All married now, except for the Princess Jarmina. In fact she is here in London now with her mother. I tell you, Sir Roderick, if you truly wish to show me the extent of your friendship, find me a man who will marry that girl.’
He smiled and the twinkle in his hooded eyes betrayed the affection which the old man felt for his eldest and prettiest daughter.
‘I often think that if Jarmina had been a boy then the future of Domai would be more than secure,’ he went on. ‘She’s the most fearsome of women. I have introduced her to any number of eligible princes and she has turned them all down flat. Even King Hussein came calling on her and was sent packing. Her mother and I despair.’
‘I will put my mind to it, Your Highness,’ Sir Roderick replied with a smile to indicate that he appreciated what the old man was saying. If Jarmina was to be the next ruler of Domai instead of Najid things would indeed be very different. It was something he was already aware of. He thanked God there was no chance, even in the relatively westernised country of Domai, that a woman could ascend a throne. Dealing with Jarmina would be as difficult as dealing with her father, possibly even more difficult. Her brother, Najid, was already in Sir Roderick’s sights.
When Jarmina was delivered back to the suite in Claridge’s the women swarmed around her, telling her off for being so reckless with her precious life and wanting to know every detail of the adventure. All of them had dreamed at one time or another of doing exactly as she had done, but none of them had ever had the courage. The Princess was a mystery to them. They could not understand how she had managed to hold out for so long against her father and brother’s wishes that she should be married. They didn’t understand how she could have turned down marriage proposals from some of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the world. She frightened them with her imperious manner and sarcastic tongue, but at the same time they pitied her because they knew she was as trapped as they were. She might not have to submit herself to the attentions of a husband, but she was still not free to do as she wished.
They carried her along on a wave of chatter to the Queen’s bedroom. The Queen had broken open another box of chocolates to soothe her nerves when she heard that her daughter had left the hotel unattended and had almost finished it by the time the Princess arrived back in the suite.
‘What am I going to tell your father and brother?’ the Queen moaned. ‘They will be so angry with me.’
‘If they have to know,’ Jarmina was calm now, back in control of her emotions, ‘then I will tell them I escaped. That it was all my fault.’
‘They’ll say this is proof you should be married,’ the Queen wagged a fat be-ringed finger at her daughter. ‘You should have children and a household to look after by now. Then you wouldn’t have the time or the inclination for such foolishness.’
Jarmina said nothing, waiting patiently for the storm to pass. She would never be disrespectful enough to really argue with her mother. There was no point anyway, she would never be able to make her understand how she felt.
‘You could have been murdered or kidnapped,’ the Queen wailed on. ‘What were you thinking of? You must never go out without guards. You have royal blood flowing in your veins. There are many people out there who would like to see it staining the street.’
Jarmina bowed her head. She had to admit that her mother had a point. She had felt horribly vulnerable outside the confines of the hotel. It had been exhilarating to start with, but the way in which the Italian man had approached her, with no respect for her royal blood, had unsettled her. He had also, she now realised, excited her in a way none of her formal suitors had been able to do. His well practised words echoed in her head and she couldn’t help but imagine what would have happened if she had succumbed to his charms. She blushed at the boldness of her own thoughts. She felt a shiver run through her as she remembered his handsome face. It was an unfamiliar feeling.
‘You are right, Mother,’ she said eventually, her eyes fixed to the floor for fear of what her mother would be able to read in them. ‘I have learned my lesson. It was a foolish thing to do. I will not go anywhere without guards in future.’
With a respectful bow she returned to her own bedroom. She wanted to be alone with her thoughts, to replay everything that had happened in the previous couple of hours and to try to understand the feelings that were passing through her.