08 July 2010

Excerpt Thursday: Michelle Willingham

This week on Unusual Historicals we're welcoming back Michelle Willingham, whose Harlequin Historicals Undone short story, "Innocent in the Harem," is set in 1565 in the Ottoman Empire. Join us Sunday when Michelle will be here to talk about this short story and her her other fantastic Harlequin projects!

Prince Khadin knows his days are numbered. His death could come at any moment, but even he cannot help but be distracted by the Bedouin princess he sees making a daring bid for freedom from the slave market. Even in captivity, her courage and purity attract Khadin to her as much as her beauty. Unable to resist the temptation, he takes the maiden back to the palace harem—to be brought to him at night...

Ottoman Empire, 1565

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, defeated . 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 only find it . . .

A man, wearing black robes and a white turban 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 turban. 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 farther 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 consumed her. She would not be distracted by any man, not even a handsome one.

The pasha stared at her a moment longer, but at last, 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.