Marta Forbes felt like a sardine jammed in someone’s icebox. The hotel conference room was both crowded and freezing cold. But Duncan just had to land this overseas job! Marta believed in her hard-working young husband. Yet, as she looked around at the other engineers and their wives, she felt totally outclassed. The other young couples looked so knowledgeable and experienced. They clearly came from all over the world. They had the lean, tanned features of experienced overseas travelers, and she even heard one of the wives ask a question about the Kingdom of Martuk in fluent French!??
Rather than expose her own ignorance and hurt Duncan’s chances, Marta kept a low profile during the endless initial screening and orientation process. She carefully filled out her questionnaire, then slipped quietly out of the conference room and went down the hall, her high heels clacking on the polished floor. When she pushed open the unused rear door, heat from the summer day in Atlanta rippled over her body in welcome waves, making her close her eyes and shudder with grateful relief.
“You prefer warm weather, I see,” said an amused male voice with an exotic foreign accent.
“It’s like the Yukon in there!” Marta ran her slim white hands up and down the gooseflesh on her bare arms, smiling at the distinguished looking older man in the dark blue Oxford suit. He was clearly part of the Martuk delegation, but something warm and vital in his twinkling dark eyes instantly put her at ease.
He responded to her flash of humor with a ripple of male laughter, deep and rich and musical. “We are recruiting people to work in a desert country, yet we conduct the initial selection process in an air-conditioned room.” The tall, dark and elegant man with silver-streaked hair gracefully extended a slim gold cigarette case. “Does it not seem illogical to you?”
Marta shrugged, instinctively reaching for a cigarette even though her health-conscious husband had been after her to quit for months. “There are lots of people in the conference room who’ve lived in desert countries before,” she said. “They know what they’re getting into!”
“And you do not?”
Marta looked into the older man’s eyes as she leaned towards the flame of his lighter. She was certain that one wrong word would torpedo Duncan’s chances. Yet something about this very attractive older man’s admiring gaze made her feel that she could be completely open and sincere.
“My husband Duncan married me when I was just a waitress in a tacky Myrtle Beach resort,” she said, blowing out a plume of smoke and speaking with defiant pride. “He’s a rich college boy, from a wonderful smart family. Me, I’m just a redneck girl from a tiny tobacco town. But I’m loyal and I don’t lie. If he wants me to follow him to Martuk, I’ll do whatever I have to do to fit in there.”
Her companion raised slim silver eyebrows in mock disbelief. “I thought in America every woman had a college degree and a career of her own?”
“That’s right,” Marta said. “Just like every man in Martuk is a billionaire with five wives.” The two of them laughed together, an easy connection seeming to click into place.
“Some of us do have too many wives,” her new friend admitted. “They spend their days in idleness and luxury, and spend our money on all sorts of extravagant pleasures!”
“Don’t the men have ways of keeping their women in line?” Marta asked, flirting a little.
“Oh yes, but as a foreign woman you will be subject only to your husband’s discipline.”
?A few nights later, Duncan came home from his temporary job at the computer superstore with a funny look on his boyish, freckled face. “Marta, they called me at work today. I got the job.”
“You got the job?” Marta carefully slid the chicken breasts into the oven. Duncan looked dazed, scared and worried instead of excited. He was such a little boy in some ways. Marta found herself frowning impatiently for a moment before the news hit home. Martuk! Duncan was finally going to get a chance to use his engineering degree, and she was finally going to see the world!?? ?
“Honey, I’m so proud of you!” Marta threw herself into Duncan’s arms, wrapping her arms around his neck and giving him a noisy kiss on both cheeks.
“We’re off to see the wizard.” Duncan laughed, a little nervously. He gave her ass a pat.
“Mm. Follow the yellow brick road.” Marta kissed him again, this time smack on the lips. After a moment, he kissed her back. It was always that way. Duncan was crazy about her, he loved smelling her perfume and watching her dress up nice, but when it came to sex he was always a little shy. Of course it was only because he came from a good family, was raised by strong women, and was a gentleman. For some reason Marta found herself picturing that tall, dark and sophisticated looking older man she’d met at the orientation meeting. He’d been a perfect, gracious gentleman too, but the intense way he undressed her with his eyes had almost shocked her. Marta wasn’t used to feeling sexual and vulnerable. She was used to feeling safe and warm with sweet, gentle Duncan.?
“It’s not going to be easy, you know,” Duncan sighed. They were lying in bed after dinner.? He was never the type to rush into sex, he liked to keep his routine and have a proper evening meal. “Martuk is a very traditional desert society. We’ll be living in the capital city, Daboush, but in a very exclusive neighborhood with very old-fashioned neighbors. The king’s younger brother lives there, you know. He actually came to the orientation meeting that day, but I guess he didn’t introduce himself to anyone. I heard he was on the final selection board, though. I wonder why he chose us.”
“He chose us because you’re a genius, honey. You’re sweet and good and you work hard.” Marta kissed her golden-haired husband on the lips, this time lightly and gently. Like all southern girls, she knew how to build a man up when he was feeling low. She just didn’t understand why her husband was so afraid of making a new start. And when Duncan began to make love to her, she didn’t understand why she kept thinking about that very attractive older man from Martuk.?
* * *
Three months later?
“No, no, no, Marta-boush! You must turn and then sway, like this.” Marjallah’s stout figure twirled with surprising grace through the final steps of the traditional desert dance. “Now you try.”
Marta took a deep breath and steeled herself to concentrate, ignoring both the stifling afternoon heat and the hushed giggles of the younger palace wives. As the king’s oldest wife, Marjallah was both an expert on tribal traditions and a strict authority figure, but here in Marta’s own home the atmosphere was relatively relaxed and informal. The younger, prettier wives were lounging here and there on cushions on the high-walled patio, clad only in the traditional indoor attire. Marta had adopted the uniform of thin satin trousers and midriff-baring blouses soon after her arrival. She just wished the ancient steps of the ceremonial dance were as easy to slip into as the clothing!
“Much better,” Marjallah said, after Marta had whirled and swayed through the steps to the rhythmic clapping of her wrinkled hands. “Remember, as a married woman you will have a much younger partner ? and the little girl will look to you to lead the way. Start again, please!”
Just then Marta’s cell phone rang, interrupting the rehearsal. As she flipped it open, Marta motioned for the other women to help themselves to diet soft drinks from the cooler nearby.
“Guess what, honey!” Duncan’s cheerful voice cried out. “Tonight I’m bringing a guest home for dinner. He’s been a huge help to me, a real lifesaver. But you’ll never guess what his name is!”
“Why, is he someone from back home? Is he an American, honey?” Marta was glad that Duncan sounded happy for a change, but there was an enormous amount of noise from the engineering site, grinding machinery and roaring truck engines and the shouts of hard-working men.
“No, no!” Duncan cried, over a burst of noisy static. “Someone you’ll love having ? Prince Jumadi Al-jubai!” Just then the call went dead, seemingly cut off by electrical interference.
“I’m sorry, ladies,” Marta said, putting down her cell and speaking to the group on the patio.? “My husband has invited guests for dinner, and I must prepare myself.”
“Of course, Marta-boush,” said Marjallah, motioning for the girls to rise. “You are learning very rapidly. Always remember, in Martuk a woman is truthful and loyal. Above all she is obedient!”
Later, as she was relaxing with her feet up in a warm perfumed bath, Marta found herself wondering whether it was always possible for a woman to be both truthful and loyal. Prince Jumadi was the very attractive older man she had met back in the states, just before Duncan landed his job.
Marta had told Duncan about the encounter, and during the long flight the two of them had laughed over the way she had charmed the kingdom’s highest official. Duncan called her his secret weapon.
Of course they hadn’t spoken more than a word or two since she came to Martuk. On the two or three occasions when Marta had actually run into the prince, at palace ceremonies and the like, she had been heavily veiled and clad in sack-like dark garments that covered her from head to toe. But since there were very few blue-eyed women in Martuk, Marta had stuck out even when covered up.
Lying in the hot bath, she remembered her surprise and pleasure when Prince Jumadi smiled at her.? They had only been close for a second or two, there in the reception line, but the prince had squeezed her hand and slipped her a business card with his private cell phone number. And now Marta was going to call him ? to plead a headache and beg him to decline her husband’s invitation.?
“Hello?” The voice on the other end of the line was warm and at the same time very strong. Marta got a picture of Jumadi sitting behind his desk, a powerful older man with great authority.
“It’s Marta Forbes,” she said breathlessly. “I’m sorry, Prince Jumadi, but I have a terrible headache and I was just wondering if you might consider canceling on dinner at our house tonight.” The words came out in a rush as Marta reclined naked in the bath, feeling oddly wound up and tense.
“But my dear young lady, I haven’t received any dinner invitations for tonight!” The warm ripples of Prince Jumadi’s deep male laughter washed over Marta as if he were in the room with her.
“Has your charming young husband gotten very jealous and forbidden you to see any outside males? I am very pleased for you, my dear. He is learning our ways quickly.”
“No, no, no! Duncan called me from work a few minutes ago. He said he was bringing home a guest ? someone I would absolutely love having for dinner!”
“And naturally you assumed it was me.” Jumadi’s laughter was quieter now, but still knowing. Just the sound of it made Marta imagine the way his expressive, velvety dark eyes sparkled with pleasure every time he caught sight of her, even in her heavy veils and robes.
“Duncan said it was someone important,” Marta said tartly. “And he gave your name. You don’t have a twin brother by any chance, do you?”
“No,” the prince said, seriously. “I have a son.”
“Oh.” A son meant there was a wife as well. Furiously, Marta told herself that she was a married woman, and that her gnawing disappointment was unacceptable. Duncan was her husband. His happiness was all she wanted. “So, this son of yours must be brilliant and hard-working, just like his daddy? Is his mother your favorite wife, your only wife, or are there dozens more?”
The prince laughed again, but without the joy of moments before. “Young Jumadi is my only son, by the only woman I have ever loved. Had she lived, perhaps… well, I am glad that Juma will be dining with you and your Duncan this evening. He needs to see that true love and friendship is possible between man and woman. His coming marriage is very important to the nation of Martuk.”
“What does he have against?” Marta was eager to find out more about the prince’s wayward son, but just then he got a business call on his other line rang and was forced to leave her hanging.
When she met Jumadi Junior later that evening, Marta’s first thought was that he was even better looking than his father. Young Prince Juma wore skin-tight jeans and a polo shirt. Yet he had the same deep black eyes, the same cleft chin, and the same proud tilt of his sleek dark head. And he had his father’s charm, kissing Marta’s hand at the doorstep and singing her praises in poetic language.
“So you are the bird of paradise our chief engineer flies home to nest with every night,” he cried, looking Marta up and down and openly admiring her slender figure in a turquoise satin gown.
“Thank you for entering our humble home, prince,” Marta said, in the local language. Her evening gown was modern, her greeting an ancient custom. “I hope you will enjoy our hospitality.”
The three of them dined in native fashion, reclining on cushions and eating from a low table. While they ate Marta tried to play the gracious hostess, and ask about her guest’s coming marriage. But both Jumadi and her husband wanted to talk about work instead.
“I can’t believe how our team’s productivity has increased so much in the past week,” Duncan said, his green eyes twinkling with boyish admiration as he shoveled more roast lamb into his mouth. “My new supervisor, Jumadi, is just the most amazing leader you ever saw, Marta!”
“It is nothing.” The young prince shrugged slim shoulders, eating his lamb far more neatly than Duncan could. There was something about his quick, sharp movements that made Marta think of a fierce hawk, swooping down and tearing at his quivering prey. He wasn’t warm like his father.
“But the way you handled the situation was so decisive, so quick and easy. You really put that guy back in line!” Duncan was looking at him with shining eyes.
“A swift crack across the backside is a common punishment in the land of Martuk,” the young prince said, looking over the low table and smiling into Marta’s eyes. “For man or woman.”
“I’m very glad you’ve been able to help my husband get ahead,” Marta said coldly. Something about her new dinner guest made her nervous, full of grim foreboding. Of course, no one had the right to discipline her except her husband. And Duncan was the gentlest man she knew.
?“Darn it!” Duncan had been pouring out small cups of liquor for himself and his new friend. Somehow he’d knocked over one of the cups and spilled most of the amber liquid into Jumadi’s lap.
“Clumsy fool,” growled the Martuki prince.
Yet as his glittering black eyes took in Duncan’s flushed face and clumsy movements, Marta saw that the dashing prince was more pleased than angry. “I’ll call one of the maids,” she stammered, wishing she could shake off her own sense of something inexplicable and mysterious taking place right in front of her.
“No, no, don’t bother!” Duncan had grabbed up one of the large linen napkins and was busy scrubbing the stains from Jumadi’s skin-tight jeans. While Duncan rubbed his thigh, the two men shared a mysterious look, a knowing look that made Marta feel both heated shame and confusion. Her husband was waiting on the young prince exactly like a desert woman!
“So is it the custom to spank a woman in public, just like you spanked that lazy man at work?” she asked, desperately trying to steer the conversation back to safer territory.
The sleek young prince smiled, gently patting Duncan’s wrist. “That is enough, my friend. Your lovely wife is feeling neglected.” He looked at Marta, giving her one of those icy smiles. “For a foreign woman, there is nothing to fear. You can only be spanked by your husband, in private. But sometimes, if a man has a wife who has wronged others outside the family, he may choose to discipline her in public. That is a ceremony which is attended by men and women, and the shamed woman has her bottom spanked in full view of all her family, and the family she has wronged.”
“How on earth could a woman harm others outside the family?” Duncan asked, stuffing some sticky, plump dates into his mouth. “Women have no rights here. How can they get into trouble?”
Jumadi shrugged, leaning back on his cushions. He was looking both lazy and satisfied, like a great cat lounging after a good meal. “The ceremony is very rarely performed,” he said. “Most spankings here are private, a matter of man wishing to dominate and woman seeking to please.”
?“Well, I’m glad my husband is too civilized to want to spank me!” Marta laughed, but it was a nervous laugh. She was feeling jittery, but the two very attractive men lounging across from her were obviously very comfortable together. They were still all wrapped up in talking about work.?
“Marta’s right,” Duncan said cheerfully. “I’m not the spanking type. I’m much too civilized!”
“It is an easy skill to learn, my friend,” the young prince said, looking into Duncan’s eyes. “You need only learn to take such punishment, and soon you will be able to give it. To enjoy it, too.”
“Duncan was never spanked as a child,” Marta said sharply. “His mother and father are wonderful people. They’re liberal and progressive, and they would never spank a child for being naughty. My daddy was a state trooper, and I got plenty of lickings in my time!”
“Ah,” Prince Jumadi said. “You loved your father very much?”
“No!” Marta made a nasty face. “I hated him.”
“Marta worked really hard to get herself away from her family,” Duncan explained. “Sometimes I think the only reason she married me was because I was a rich kid from up north.”
“Duncan, how can you say that?” Marta’s eyes filled with tears, but she also felt a guilty flush stain her cheeks. Duncan was so sweet and good, but he wasn’t the type to stir a girl’s fantasies. Somehow that part of their marriage had never seemed very important, until they came to Martuk.
“Don’t be angry, Marta. You’re my strength and soul, you always have been. You’re the one with all the ambition, and the guts.” Duncan turned back to the prince. “Marta’s worked so hard, learning your language, learning to cook. She’s becoming more of a desert woman every day.”
“Perhaps she’s done enough work for one day,” the prince said, with unexpected gentleness. “Why don’t you dismiss your wife, Duncan, and you and I can go down to the basement and talk about workforce discipline in private. I have many other ideas and techniques for you to consider.”
“Don’t you want me to stay and talk? Duncan?” Even to her own ears, Marta’s voice sounded shrill. She was coming across as frightened and desperate instead of friendly and cheerful.
Duncan shook his head, ignoring all the hurt filled questions in his wife’s tearful blue eyes. “No, Marta, that was just super! You shouldn’t be waiting on us hand and foot all night. You’re still an American girl, and I’m an American man. I just want to talk about guy stuff with Jumadi.”
Late that night, as she was tossing restlessly in bed, Marta was disturbed by the faint sounds of blows and groans drifting up from the basement below. She tried to ignore the smacking sounds of flesh on flesh, but the moans of pleasure haunted her even after she finally fell into a restless sleep.