Innocent In The Sheikh's Harem by Marguerite Kaye is a very sensational title. It conjures up all sorts of images, most of them not necessarily "good." Although, technically, the title fits. Our heroine is an innocent, and she does find herself living in a sheikh's harem. But it's not what you think.....
Lady Celia Cleveden is the eldest of five daughters, her father a British diplomat. Sadly, this doesn't make her a good catch. She's not a beauty like her younger sister Cassandra. While she is intelligent, calm, practical and forthright, she's not a woman that inspires passion. So her father does what all good 19th century fathers do - he marries her off to a junior diplomat as a way to expand his influence. And George takes Celia's hand because he'd be a fool, politically speaking, not to. Besides, she's a hell of a hostess. The perfect diplomat's wife. Which is why, even though everybody thinks he's mad, George insists she travel with him to Arabia to secure access to a valuable shipping port. For her part, Celia is all for it. Our girl has an adventurous, curious spirit and the idea of exploring this mysterious part of the world excites her.
Of course it all slides south rather quickly. After bandits attack, George ends up dead. Celia is rescued from certain death (and worse) by Sheikh Ramiz al-Muhanna. Wanting to size up the Englishman he was set to meet with, Ramiz was following (OK, spying) on the traveling party from a distance. He's shocked to discover the man brought his wife. But he quickly learns all he needs to know about Celia. Her husband may be an idiot coward, but this woman most certainly is not. After he rescues her, he doesn't have much of a choice. He can't take her back to Cairo, as the attack on these visiting dignitaries was a message for him. He needs to get home and sort things out with his war-hungry, squabbling neighbors.
Celia is naturally out of sorts. She's grateful for Ramiz's rescue, but she's totally out of her depth. He's taking her back to his palace, and then when she jumps to all the wrong conclusions, he tweaks her nose about staying in his harem (in reality, his harem is empty and nowhere near a bordello that the West thinks all harems are). However she's also smart enough to see the writing on the wall. If Ramiz wanted her dead, he would have left her to fend for herself. Or he wouldn't have intervened in the attack at all. She's sad about George, but it was no great love match. They hadn't even consummated their union. Three months married and she was never really a wife. She was hoping for love in time, but his death makes her realize the cold, hard truth. He didn't want a wife. He saddled himself to her to further his career. Is she really so unattractive that not even her husband wanted her?
What I loved about this story was the excellent sense of place and the type of characters Kaye populates this world with. For readers who complain that "setting" has become nothing more than window dressing or wallpaper in historical romances - this is your book. Kaye's depiction of Arabia is lush, hypnotic and sensual. It's easy to understand how Celia is brought under it's spell, how her senses come alive in a world so unlike, yet surprisingly similar in some ways, to her native England. It's almost like a fairytale.
For his part, Ramiz became the sheikh after his war-mongering brother was killed. He's of the school of thought that diplomacy is the way to go, although convincing his old guard neighbors of this is proving difficult. He's feeling the pressure to take a wife, but the idea of marrying one of the area princesses just to secure an alliance? He's not wild about the idea. Plus, he's frankly too busy to deal with females right now. That is until he sets eyes on Celia. He knows he should stay away from her, but he can't. He takes one look at her, and immediately knows her husband was the stupidest man alive. To show this woman pleasure? Ahhh, how can he resist?
I rarely talk about sex when writing reviews, but in this case? I think it's worth mentioning. Harlequin Historicals, for a long time, lived in a PG-rated world. In recent years, I'd say some of them have crept into PG-13 territory. But this story? Probably the hottest HH title I've ever read. OK, so I haven't read the entire backlist of the line, but seriously - hot stuff. I suspect it's a by-product of Kaye writing several short stories for the spicier Undone line, and that naturally bleeds over into this, her first full-length novel. When the couple partakes in an activity named after a double-digit number? Um, yeah. This ain't your mama's Harlequin Historical title. Just sayin'.
When it's all said and done, what really worked for me, besides the evocative backdrop, were the characters themselves. I loved that Ramiz acted like an autocratic sheikh at times, but he wasn't an asshole. I loved that Celia behaved like one would think someone with her diplomatic background would behave. I also loved that she wasn't prone to hysterics, but she also wasn't above feeling uncertain, or even a little scared at times when the situation called for it. The ending did feel a little abrupt to me, but I loved the fact that the hero ends up realizing the error of his own ways, without the aid of a well-meaning third party, BFF, or whomever to show him the light.
I know some readers are never going to go out on that sheikh limb no matter what anyone says, but this historical has so much of what some readers seem to be clamoring for at the moment. Like Celia, I found myself falling more than a bit in love with this world. I can't wait to read the next book, The Governess And The Sheik.
Final Grade = B