The Widow and the Sheikh
I love stories about Arabia. The historical Middle East is, to me, a land of fairy tale and passion. Given the sheer volume of romances containing the word “Sheikh” in the title I think I can safely say I am not alone.
Julia Trevelyan awakens from a drugged sleep to find herself in quite the mess. It seems that while she lay dreaming her guide and his men had packed up the camp – camels, mules and all their supplies – and slunk off into the night with pretty much everything she owned. Morning – or technically morning for her, afternoon for the rest of the world – finds her with a tent, a bedroll, a few bank notes and little else. Her greatest loss is the trunk full of research which would have fulfilled her promise to her dead husband Daniel. Without the drawings of desert flowers she had painstakingly created, without the plants specimens she had conscientiously collected and preserved she cannot finish her husband’s book, his comprehensive illustrated guide to rare and exotic species. Finishing that book is a big goal for Julia because fulfilling this obligation will free her to live life on her own terms.
Just as she is coming to an understanding of the dangerous nature of her predicament she hears hoof beats. At first she thinks it is her erstwhile companions, drawn back to her either by an attack of conscience or greed. She dismisses that idea when she realizes that it is a lone rider who is approaching the oasis; an extremely handsome man but a complete stranger nevertheless.
Prince Azhar of Qaryma could not possibly have expected what met him at the Zazim Oasis – a lone English woman, beautiful and sensual and clearly in need of aid. Once the two get past some initial introductions and a brief question and answer period to determine how Julia wound up in the desert alone, he agrees to help her reach safety. This isn’t just a gesture of human kindness; Azhar finds himself drawn to Julia as well as feeling a kinship with her. Both of them find themselves undertaking a journey through the desert that they did not want to make. Both of them are fulfilling the imperious demands of significant men once close to them who have since died. Only in Azhar’s case, his obligations would not end with the publication of a book – he has been summoned home to take on his role as the Crown Prince of Qaryma.
Naturally he doesn’t tell Julia this and she is surprised when they get to the capital and her rescuer turns out to be not the simple trader that he claimed but a king. She adapts quickly to his change in status and before long finds herself a resident of the royal palace. Her plan to leave within a few days, however, is changed when Azhar makes her an offer: he will help her catalog the rare plants of his desert kingdom and she will offer him her opinions on the goings on of his country and court. Her fresh perspective will help him decide what actions to take as he prepares to abdicate in favor of his younger brother. The deal offers both of them one more advantage – the opportunity to stay together and explore the increasingly strong attraction between them.
From the start, Julia and Azhar’s relationship is a catalytic one; being with Azhar forces Julia to question many things about her relationship with her first husband. It is not just the fact that he points out Daniel was careless of her safety (and the man really was that) or the fact that she comes to see how little he appreciated her contributions. It isn’t even her growing awareness that Daniel’s pettiness wasn’t based on her incompetence but on his own. Julia’s biggest discovery is in the sexual realm: It is quickly made clear to her that Daniel’s rejection of her passion wasn’t because she was unnatural in some way but instead showed his fear, selfishness and inadequacy in that department.
Naturally, Azhar is all the things Daniel wasn’t. From the beginning he is impressed with Julia’s competence, independence, courage and intellect. He is as drawn to Julia’s passion as Daniel was repulsed by it. She serves as an impetus to make him question his decision regarding the throne. She sees him as a man of both honor and a keen sense of responsibility; she also sees his intense love for his land and people. Combined she sees all those things as the makings of a great king and forces him to really think about what he is doing rather than just defaulting to it.
All of that proves that Ms. Kaye is an experienced author with a strong ability to craft intelligent, compelling and sympathetic characters. I think many people have someone like Daniel in their life – someone determined to shine at their expense – and can relate to what Julia experiences. We can also rejoice with her when she finds someone who truly loves her. The romance here is strong simply because the hero values his heroine and the two characters are such a natural fit. They embody that old expression “made for each other”.
In spite of all that I do have one quibble. Romance novels vary on how much of a suspension of disbelief they require and I felt this one was on the high end of the spectrum. At an early point in the story Julia “couldn’t quite believe her own good fortune. To have been rescued by a prince, taken to his magical castle and given her heart’s desire!” She admits, “This might feel like a fairy tale.” Why yes, yes it does. It really does.
That said, The Widow and the Sheikh is an excellent example of how a good story can be delivered in a short page count. This tale is every bit as emotionally charged and entertaining as a much longer length book and I am happy to recommend it to fans of historical romance.