Innocent in the Harem

Istanbul, Ottoman Empire

Laila binte Nur Hamidah’s heartbeat shuddered within her chest as she stood beside the other women in the slave market. The heat of the sun sent a bead of perspiration sliding beneath the ferace that covered her body. Fear paralyzed her, but she held her posture straight. All she could do was watch the other women and await her turn upon the auction block.

The air was a stifling blend of tobacco, spices, and coffee, foreign odors that made her all-too-aware that she didn’t belong here. When the next young maiden was stripped and inspected, strangers touched the slave’s breasts and bottom, testing her skin for firmness. They examined her like a prized mare, fit for breeding. A hard lump formed in Laila’s throat. Was this to be her fate? Fondled and pinched by strangers, humiliated before everyone?

Her vision swam, and she took a deep breath, trying to center herself. She tried to envision her father and brothers . . . the familiar black tents of the Bedouin camp. The lilting voice of her mother as she told stories that had been passed down for generations.

No more. They were gone, killed in battle when a neighboring tribe had attacked. Laila had tried to flee, only to be captured by the enemy. And now, here she stood. Her appearance and her virginity had kept her value high, which was why her enslaver had left her untouched.

With a light shove, she was forced to step upon the block of wood, a whip resting at her shoulder. “Do exactly as I tell you,” the slave merchant ordered. “If you are fortunate, you may be taken into a man’s harem to become a concubine. If you resist, you will feel the lash against your tender skin.” Callused hands tore the ferace away, exposing her to the crowd.

Laila stared straight ahead, her teeth clenched. Ropes bound her wrists, and the crowd of men watched from below. She refused to cower before them, letting them defeat her. Regardless of this shame, she would survive it. The cold fear metamorphosed into a purpose-before she was handed over to a master, she might find a chance to escape.

Her gaze fastened upon the Arabian mares tethered nearby. Their necks craned with unrest, their hooves pawing at the ground. These animals were not meant to be crowded, nor did they like it.

If she could get close enough, she might be able to steal one of the horses and escape. There had to be a way to leave the marketplace. If she could simply find it . . .

A man, wearing black robes and a white kaffiyeh around his head, rode forward, blocking off the mares. His wealth was evident from the stallion he rode and the rubies set within the horse’s bridle. Behind him, she spied a dozen guards, and she wondered who he was. A pasha or a lord, perhaps. She wondered what had caused him to stop. Noblemen rarely ventured within the marketplace.

She met his gaze without shame, not bothering to feign a demure presence before him. Though she was completely unclothed, she refused to surrender her pride. By the grace of Allah, she intended to free herself from this nightmare or die trying.

She ignored the hands reaching toward her and the lustful stares. Instead, she remained focused upon the horses, determining which mare would obey her command. It would not be easy. Most Arabian horses were loyal to their masters, intelligent creatures who would balk at being taken. She had to find the right one.

As the men continued to bid, the pasha rode closer, his gaze fixed upon her. Laila stared back, surprised to see such blue eyes shaded by his kaffiyeh. His face was darkened by the sun, his jaw firm. His features held an exotic cast, like a man whose mother was a great beauty, perhaps a woman from Al Andalus or further north. He rested his hands upon his saddle, absorbing the atmosphere and ignoring the merchants who dared to approach him, asking if he cared to bid for her.

Laila met his curious expression, and then turned her attention back to the horses. The desperate need to escape meant everything to her. She could not be distracted by any man, not even a handsome one.

The pasha stared at her a moment longer, but at last, he turned away. The merchants followed behind him, trying to cajole him into making a purchase. Raucous voices sounded in the marketplace. “My lord! For you, only one thousand kurush!” When he continued on his path, the merchant offered, “Nine hundred!”

The slight distraction was the opportunity Laila had been waiting for. She wrenched her ropes free of her captor, leaping off the block toward the horses. Running swiftly, she heard the crack of the whip. The tip of the lash missed her but caught the delicate skin of the mare, ripping through the horse’s flanks. Furious, the mare reared up in pain, her hooves striking out.

Once again, the slave trader cracked his whip, and the other horses began to strain against their tethers, baring their teeth. Laila knew better than to step in front of enraged animals, but she had only precious seconds before the men might seize her again.
This was her last and only chance.

Prince Khadin pulled hard on the reins of his mount, unable to believe what he was seeing. The slave maiden had leaped from the auction block, running toward a group of horses. Any other woman would have screamed in terror when the mares reared high, but the slave stood perfectly still.

“My lord,” one of his men asked, “shall I go back?”

“Not yet.” Khadin eased his mount forward, watching as the woman lifted her hands in appeasement, speaking to the horses. A hush fell over the merchants in astonishment as the maiden used her voice to soothe the animals.

Was she an enchantress? He’d never seen a woman charm a horse that had suffered from the lash. There was no fear upon her face, as if she understood the animal’s anger.

“I know you’re upset, beautiful one,” the woman said, keeping her eyes fixed upon the animal. The mare’s oval eyes met her own, and the slave continued uttering a stream of soft compliments. The other horses seemed to sense that she meant them no harm, and one by one, they quieted.

She touched her fingertips to the mare’s nose, and the horse nudged her in response. Like an ancient goddess, the woman stood naked in the crowd, her long dark hair falling past her waist in a stark contrast to the mare’s white neck. With a full mouth and slanted dark eyes, this slave intrigued him. Her body was slender, as though she had not had enough to eat. Sleek muscles tightened her arms, revealing strength enough to control a wayward horse. Her long legs and bottom were tight and firm, as though she were accustomed to riding on horseback. The swell of soft breasts peeked from beneath her hair, and Khadin knew he wasn’t the only man who desired her.

But he didn’t need a woman. Especially now.

Moments later, the slaver reached the woman and dragged her backwards. She cried out, but her captor began boasting of her skill with animals, doubling her price.

Khadin didn’t know what provoked him, but he ignored all the warnings within his mind. He rode forward, urging his stallion toward the woman. In one swift motion, he leaned down and lifted the woman onto his own horse. He tore off an emerald from his kaftan and threw it at the merchant in payment.

The slave fought him, her bound hands clawing at his face. “Let me go!”

“Stop,” he commanded, jerking her ropes taut. “Unless you want me to take you back to be sold.”

She grew still, trying to cover her nakedness. Khadin unfastened his cloak and draped it over her before slicing the ropes that bound her wrists.
She was shivering, her hands clenching the fabric as though she could absorb it into her skin.

Why, in the name of all that was holy, had he rescued her? Khadin wondered. She was a slave, nothing more. It didn’t matter what man owned her or what he did with her. Who was he to intervene with her fate?

His own days were numbered. The moment of his death might be within hours, if not days. Bringing her with him wasn’t fair, nor was it right. Better to give her over to the harem and let them find a place for her.

When he increased the pace of his mount, he held onto her waist. It was then that he saw the tears sliding down her face. Though she spoke not a word, she sat up as though trying to hold herself together.

“What is your name?” he asked gently.

“I am Laila binte Nur Hamidah.” Her voice remained steady, as though she were fighting to maintain her composure. “Who are you?” She rested her palms upon his stallion’s mane, as if drawing strength from the creature. “Where are you taking me?”

“To the Topkapi Palace.” He didn’t answer her first question, for as of yet, he didn’t want her to know his identity until he’d decided what to do with her. He’d never before met a woman who would face a rearing horse with no fear. There was a calm serenity about her, a courage that he admired.

“You weren’t a slave before, were you?” he prompted.

“I was a Bedouin,” she admitted. “My father was the chief of our tribe.”

It explained her rigid pride and her gift for controlling horses. The Bedouin were known for their expertise with animals, and Khadin owned more than a few Arabians that had been trained among the nomadic tribes.

“Who are you?” she repeated.

He hesitated, choosing his words with care. “You may call me Khadin.” Deliberately, he omitted his family name but added, “The sultan is my master.”

And his father. Suleiman the Magnificent was brooding over his failed invasion of Malta, and his dissatisfaction had only heightened when Khadin had not extended the boundaries of his own province. Though he’d returned to the palace over a week ago, after his summons, not once had the sultan sent for him. There was a cool reception, an atmosphere of foreboding.

His elder brother Mustafa had already been murdered, by his father’s own hand, when Suleiman had believed his son was conspiring with the shah of Persia. Khadin suspected his own fate would be the same, if his enemies had whispered lies into his father’s ears.

For now, the torturous wait preyed upon him. He suspected that the time for his own death was drawing closer, for only this morning, another slave girl had died tasting his food. Poison or strangling were favored methods of killing, for it was forbidden to shed the blood of a prince. Most likely, he’d die one morning, choked by a silken cord.

He had to find a way to convince his father that he was no threat to the empire or to Selim, the heir. He preferred governing his own province of Nerassia, far away from the Topkapi Palace. No doubt his life depended on the actions he took to appease the sultan during these next few days.

As they drew near to the imperial gate, the high arch towered above them. Over a hundred guards patrolled every inch of the perimeter, keeping the palace free from attack. Surrounded by his escorts, Khadin rode inside. Though he held Laila closely, she kept her shoulders stiff in an effort to avoid his touch.

They rode past rows of marble columns and elaborate pavilions, the air redolent with fragrant flowers, though it was now autumn. Silence governed the palace, the hundreds of slaves moving about their duties with soft footsteps. It was an order that no man or woman should disturb the peace.
Khadin dismounted within the courtyard and lifted Laila down from the horse. Her face was gripped with fear, her dark brown eyes terrified. “Keep the cloak for now,” he bade her, “until more suitable clothing has been given to you.”

“You’re leaving me here?” she whispered.

He gave a tight nod. The private quarters of the harem were forbidden to all, save the eunuchs and the royal family. Surely, it would be the safest place for her. He reached out to touch Laila’s hair, silently reassuring her that everything would be all right.

But he knew it might not be. Jealousy and vengeance were the darker shadows within the harem. Every woman held a rank, and Laila would be given the lowest place, commanded to serve the other ladies. This courageous woman, by all rights a Bedouin princess, deserved more.
Leave her be, his mind ordered. Your own life might end at dawn. Let her go.

But Laila was different from the others, a woman unafraid to look violence in the eye and face it with serenity. Someone who might grant him comfort, until he faced his father’s wrath or earned back his own redemption.

Khadin gestured for the kizlar aÄŸasi, the chief black eunuch to come forward. “Take her to the harem and prepare her. And tonight, bring her to me.”

From the book Innocent in the Harem
Copyright © 2010 by Michelle Willingham
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The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
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