The Harlot and the Sheikh
I love stories set in other countries. A big part of this probably has to do with my love of travel – I grew up with parents far more interested in navigating a city where no one speaks English than in spending a day at the beach. Since most historical romance novels are set in England, sometimes continental Europe, a book set in Arabia is a rare find. I snapped The Harlot and the Sheikh right up.
Rafiq al-Antarah, Prince and ruler of Bharym, is a quintessential tortured hero. The book opens with him in his prized stables, putting down one of his beloved thoroughbreds. For the last six months the Bharym royal stables have been plagued by a strange illness. Rafiq is desperate to save his horses, because they are an essential part of his country’s pride. His father lost their stallions in a bet eight years ago, and since ascending to the throne, Rafiq has worked tirelessly to rebuild the stock. The final step in this process of returning Bharym to its former glory will be wining the Sabr, an extremely long horse race which Bharym was famous for always winning. Well, until his father lost it eight years ago. Without healthy horses Rafiq cannot enter the race, which is why he has summoned the renowned horse doctor Richard Darvill to come to his aid.
To Rafiq’s surprise, it is Stephanie Darvill, Richard Darvill’s daughter, who answers his call. She reports that her father is too busy tending to the British Army’s cavalry, but that she has been trained by him and is the next best person for handling Rafiq’s problem. Although he is initially hesitant, Rafiq ultimately agrees to trust her and sets Stephanie up as his official Horse Doctor.
Of course, while Stephanie never lies about her father’s busy schedule, it takes some time for her to trust Rafiq enough to open up about her own personal reasons for coming all the way to Bharym. It seems Stephanie was seduced by an officer in her father’s regiment who ultimately refused to marry her. Finding herself ruined, Stephanie fled to Arabia. She tells him about this as the two are becoming more aware of their attraction, wanting her lover to be aware of the baggage she carries.
Rafiq, on the other hand, is more guarded about his issues. As I said, he is a tortured hero, and just like every other character of his ilk I’ve encountered, he takes approximately forever to tell Stephanie about his problems. Instead he simply makes dramatic statements about how winning the Sabr will be his atonement, and that it’s his fault that his wife died. I won’t give everything away, because the reader doesn’t get any real answers until Stephanie does, but I will say that Rafiq’s zipped lips, while understandable, did begin to grate on me by the end.
Far worse than that, though, was the too-tidy ending. On the whole, up until the last chapter or so, I was happy with The Harlot and the Sheikh. It’s a well-written book, set in an interesting culture, with likeable characters. The end, however, is far too pat. Just as Stephanie is preparing to leave Bharym, Rafiq comes up to her to beg her not to leave. This ends, unsurprisingly, with the two of them engaged. While I’m all for happy endings, I was nowhere near satisfied with Rafiq’s explanation that “we could use new blood” when Stephanie expressed worry about being an Englishwoman marrying an Arabian prince. The engagement springs up out of the blue, with Rafiq having spent little to no time considering it before proposing (instead all he does is feel guilty and train with the horses). A country so steeped in superstitions and traditions surrounding horse racing is unlikely to just accept this foreigner as a Rafiq’s wife, and the assumption that they would left me dissatisfied as I closed the book.
That said, I’m sure I’ll seek out other books by Ms. Kaye in the future. I liked my first taste of her work well enough to check out her backlist at a later date. And for anyone looking for a book set in Arabia, I would imagine the Hot Arabian Nights series is a fine place to start.