My Afternoon in the Harem
with Tess O'Shea and
Abigail Randall

Shivers spike up and down my spine as I enter the harem in the Algerian Palace. Decorated with cream-colored marble floors with matching columns with blue and white-tiled walls, the two-story gathering room is both exquisite and intimidating at the same time. Women and children occupy nearly every inch in this palatial room, and all eyes are focused on me. There is absolute silence, and I now understand the newcomer’s uneasiness when they enter the harem for the first time. It’s so quiet that I can hear myself breathe. Soon their silence is replaced by whispers and laughter. I can only imagine what they are saying to each other. My first inclination is to run and hide.  

The harem’s overseer is the only person to approach me. Dressed in red Ottoman trousers and a gold tunic, Bashira glides across the room with a peaceful smile on her lips. The overseer is the epitome of an Ottoman beauty, except she’s old enough to have grown children. In my humble opinion, her age makes her all the more beautiful.

Bashira: Josanna, how nice to see you again.

Josanna: It is good to see you too. (I’m tempted to hug her as I usually do when I greet my friends, but I worry that she may feel that hugging is inappropriate.)

Bashira: How can I assist you?

Josanna: I’m here to ask Tess O’Shea and Abigail Randall a few questions. You are welcome to join our conversation.

Bashira: Thank you for the invitation; I must decline your offer. I have much to do today. Come see me when you are finished. I will arrange for you to have a steam bath and massage.

I raise an eyebrow as I contemplate receiving a genuine Persian message. Then again, I would welcome a message anytime, especially with my stiff back.
Josanna: Thank you, I will gladly take you up on your offer.

Bashira: You will find Tess and Abigail in their usual corner.

I scan the room.
Josanna: I see them.

Bashira: If you will excuse me, I will leave you.

Josanna: Thank you, Bashira.

The overseer offers me a polite smile before strolling away.

The women in the harem have already returned to their normal activities. I seem to have become invisible to them. A few, however, watch me approach my friends. Tess’s brown eyes scan me from head to toe, then back again. Abigail jumps to her feet and hugs me. Tess remains seated.

Abigail: Josanna, it’s so good to see you again.

I hug Abigail back and spot Molly playing with a group of girls about her age.

Josanna: It’s good to see the both of you.

Tess: Josanna, how many times do I have to tell you that you are too old for the harem?

My eyes narrow, and I offer Tess a forced smile even though I know she is teasing.
Josanna: I’m not staying.

Tess: Will you take us with you when you leave?

Abigail: Pay no mind to Tess. She’s in one of her moods. Come, sit by me.

Tess moves over so that I can sit on the tan cushion. Abigail takes a seat across from Tess and me.
Abigail: What do we owe the honor of your visit?

Josanna: As you know, your story will be in print in a few weeks. I am asking the characters if they had a favorite scene.

Tess: Oh I like the scene when Sarah is sold at market. If you ask me, you should have gone through with the sale. 

Josanna: Well, that would have been the end of the story, and you wouldn’t have made it to the next.

Abigail shifts in her seat and leans forward.
Abigail: So, we are in the next book?

Josanna: You both are in the whole series.

Abigail offers me a beaming smile; Tess barely raises an eyebrow.
Abigail: What happens to us? Do I marry?

I grimace. I’m a little reluctant to tell Abigail and Tess about their fates.

Abigail: Is it that bad?

Josanna: You do marry once you are reunited with your family in England.

Abigail: I do? Is he handsome, and is he from a good family.

Josanna: Yes, on both accounts.

Tess raises a brow.
Tess: Do I marry too? (She asks with mild interest.)

Josanna: I’m sorry, but you become a very successful business woman.

Tess: Do I at least have a lover?

Josanna: You have several.

Tess: Good, I never wanted to marry anyway. I always thought I would be bored as a wife.

Abigail: Tess.

Josanna: Returning to my original question, do you have a favorite scene in this story?

Abigail: There is one scene I liked. It’s the one where Tess and I find the dresses in Captain Aziz’s cabin.

Tess shrugs.
Tess: I suppose that is a good as any other.

Josanna: Thank you, Ladies. If you will excuse me, Bashira promised me a message.

Abigail: Would you like us to introduce the scene to your readers?

Josanna: Sure.

Abigail: This is our favorite scene in the story. Tess and I hope you will enjoy it as much as we did.

Tess: Are you going to keep reading or just stare like a blithering idiot?

Abigail: Tess, you’re going to offend our readers talking to them that way.

Tess sighs.
Tess. Our favorite scene is below. Is that better? I’m going to take a bath.

Abigail: We hope you enjoy it. Tess, wait for me!

Abigail stared at Tess’s clothes. "Are you going to wear that tonight?"

"I would if I were having an intimate dinner with Nathan.” Tess peeled off her robe and threw it onto the dining table. She looked down at her see-through trousers and frowned. "What am I going to wear? I haven't worn a dress since I left Ireland.”

"Didn't you say that Captain Shelby was a pirate?" Abigail said, thoughtfully.
"Perhaps he acquired a dress during one of his exploits.”

Tess looked at her friend with a raised brow. "If I were a dress, where would I be stored?" She tapped her yellowed teeth with the edge of her fingernail.

Abigail went over to the entrance of the dressing area. “There are several trunks next to the highboy.”

“I suppose that’s a good place to start as any.” Tess shrugged.

“Where should we look?” Abigail rested her hands on her waist and divided her gaze between the highboy and the two trunks.

“I suppose it doesn't matter.” Tess knelt in front of the chest sitting in the corner and raised the lid.  Her breath hitched when her eyes fell on a white cloth folded across the top. She reached for one end of the cloth. Her eyes lit up when she unfolded the dress. It was made out of fine silk. The edges of the high neck and puffy silk sleeves were adorned with the most delicate lace that she had ever seen.

"My goodness!" Abigail exclaimed. "This is exquisite!" She reached around Tess and pulled out the next dress on the pile; this one was made out of pink silk and white lace. "Did this trunk belong to a princess?”

Tess and Abigail removed and examined the chest's contents. It contained everything that a lady needed, including a hairbrush and firs. All that was missing were the undergarments. The two women spent the next hour trying on the dresses. Each one fit perfectly. They also found several pairs of shoes in the bottom of the trunk but quickly discovered that they were too small for their feet.

"Are there any colors other than white and pink?" Tess groaned.

"White and pale colors are very fashionable," Abigail said in a snooty tone. "What color are you hoping for, red?”

"And what's wrong with red?" Tess asked with casual interest.

"Nothing, I suppose. Ladies do not wear red, at least not at home,” Abigail said, looking down her nose at Tess.

“That is why all of you are bores.”

"Then wear your harem clothes. I doubt that the officers would mind. I like this one." Abigail held up the dress and admired how the pink fabric flowed to the floor.

Tess sighed and shook her head. She laid the other gowns across the dining table. Nibbling on her fingernail, Tess studied her choices. "What would a lady wear to a party?”

Abigail examined each dress and reached for the first gown that Tess pulled out of the trunk. “Wear this one.”

“White?” Tess sighed.

“Yes. All unmarried ladies wear white. The color symbolizes purity,” Abigail said emphatically.

Tess looked at the gown with disgust. “If I must,” she groaned.

Abigail bit her lip. "Do you think there are any jewels in this cabin?”

"Hmm." Tess tilted her head to the side. "Perhaps.”

The women returned to the dressing room and discovered the second chest filled with more gowns. When they didn't find any jewels in the trunks, Tess began opening the other drawers in the highboy, but all they found were men's clothing.

Abigail hung her head when they didn't find what they were searching for. "At least we have something to wear tonight," she said in a tone laced with disappointment.

Tess continued looking at the bottom of the trunk sitting in the corner of the room. "Is it just me, or does the bottom look like it should be deeper?”

"Perhaps," Abigail shrugged.

Tess knelt in front of the trunk. She spotted a finger-size hole at the edge of one side and scrape marks on the inside panels. "I wonder.” Tess poked her finger through the hole and exclaimed, "I knew it. It's a false bottom." She pulled up the bottom of the trunk and leaned it against the bulkhead beside her. The two women gasped when they spotted small-lumpy bags strewn across the lower part of the trunk. Tess’s hand trembled as she picked up the bag closest to her. She reached inside and pulled out a gold and ruby necklace.

"Oh my goodness!" Abigail exclaimed. She reached for the bag closest to her and discovered a diamond broach inside the pouch.

Tess and Abigail removed bags of jewels from both trunks. They dumped them out over the dresses and stared at the cache sparkling back at them.

“These trunks really must have belonged to a queen or a princess,” she said admiring a diamond and sapphire necklace. “Do you think that we should give Sarah a dress to wear tonight? “

Tess glared at her friend with her lips pressed together. “That whore is not coming,” she said with a snarl.

”But she is Captain Shelby’s wife.”

“Sarah is not coming! I’ll make sure of it.”

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