She didn’t need protecting from theelements. She needed protection fromhim. Or was it herself? She was nolonger sure.Confused and jittery, Avery parked andsprang from the vehicle. ‘You can camp bythat rock and I’ll camp by the other.’Distance, she thought. She neededdistance. They needn’t even see each otheruntil morning. She’d zip her tent up andkeep it zipped.‘There is just one tent, Avery.’‘What?’ His words blew out thefoundations of her fledgling plan andanswered any remaining questions she hadabout her feelings for him. ‘Just one?’‘I don’t intend to sleep with you.’ Heleaned in and pulled a bag from the
vehicle. ‘Just to share a tent with you. Itisn’t as if we haven’t done it before.’But the last time they’d been lovers.Intimate in every way. He’d be sleepingwith his head next to hers. His body withintouching distance.
THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PUBLIC PLAYBOYS Two notorious billionaires with oneunbreakable rule: work hard … and play harder! Billionaire tycoon Lucas Jackson is nostranger to business deals conducted in the desert— but even in blistering heat his heart remains ice-cold …Sheikh Malik rules the Kingdom of Zubran,and has never met anyone who didn’t bow to his command. Until now … Both are infamous worldwide for havingthe Midas touch in the boardroom … and a decadently sinful touch in the bedroom.
Last month you read Lucas Jackson’s story in A NIGHT OF NO RETURNThis month see Sheikh Malik find a queen for his desert kingdom in WOMAN IN A SHEIKH’S WORLD
About the AuthorUSA TODAY bestselling author SARAHMORGAN writes lively, sexy stories forboth Mills & Boon® Modern™ Romanceand Medical Romance™.As a child Sarah dreamed of being awriter, and although she took a fewinteresting detours on the way she is nowliving that dream. With her writing careershe has successfully combined businesswith pleasure, and she firmly believes thatreading romance is one of the mostsatisfying and fat-free escapist pleasuresavailable. Her stories are unashamedlyoptimistic, and she is always pleased whenshe receives letters from readers sayingthat her books have helped them throughhard times.
RT Book Reviews has described herwriting as ‘action-packed and sexy’, andnominated her books for their Reviewers’Choice Awards and their ‘Top Pick’ slot.Sarah lives near London with her husbandand two children, who innocently providean endless supply of authentic dialogue.When she isn’t writing or reading Sarahenjoys music, movies, and any activity thattakes her outdoors.Readers can find out more about Sarah andher books from her website:www.sarahmorgan.com. She can also befound on Facebook and Twitter.Recent titles by the same author:
A NIGHT OF NO RETURN (The Private Lives of Public Playboys) THE FORBIDDEN FERRARA ONCE A FERRARA WIFE … DOUKAKIS’S APPRENTICEDid you know these are also available as eBooks? Visit www.millsandboon.co.uk
Woman in aSheikh’s World Sarah Morganwww.millsandboon.co.uk
CHAPTER ONESHE dreamed of the desert. She dreamed of dunes turning redgold under the burning fire of the sun andof the clear blue waters of the Persian Gulflapping beaches of soft white sand. Shedreamed of savage mountains and palm-shaded pools. And she dreamed of aPrince—a Prince with eyes all shades ofthe night and the power to commandarmies. ‘Avery!’ He was calling her name butshe carried on walking without lookingback. The ground crumbled beneath herfeet and she was falling, falling … ‘Avery, wake up!’ She rose through clouds of sleep, thevoice jarring with the image in her head. It
was wrong. His voice was rich, deep andeverything male. This voice was femaleand amused. ‘Mmm?’ The delicious aroma of fresh coffeeteased her and she lifted her head andstared at the mug that had been placed nextto her on the table. With a groan, she sat upand reached for it, half blind from sleep.‘What time is it?’ ‘Seven. You were moaning. That musthave been some dream.’ Avery pushed her hand through herhair and tried to wake herself up. She hadthe same dream every night. Thankfullywhen she woke it was to find herself inLondon, not the desert. The discordantblare of taxi horns announced the start ofthe morning rush hour. No mountains andno shaded oasis—just Jenny, her bestfriend and business partner, pressing the
button on her desk to raise the blinds. Sunshine poured into the spectacularglass-clad office from all directions andAvery felt a sudden rush of relief to beawake and realise that the ground hadn’tcrumbled beneath her feet. She hadn’t losteverything. This was hers and she’d builtit from sheer hard work. ‘I need to take a quick shower beforeour meeting.’ ‘When you ordered this couch foryour office, I didn’t realise the intentionwas to sleep on it.’ Jenny put her coffeedown on Avery’s desk and slipped off hershoes. ‘Just in case you don’t actuallyknow this, I feel it’s my duty to point outthat normal human beings go home at theend of the working day.’ The disturbing dream clung toAvery’s mind like a cobweb and she tried
to brush it off, irritated by how much itcould affect her. That wasn’t her life. Thiswas. Barefoot, she strolled across heroffice and took a look at her reality. Through the floor to ceiling windows,the city sparkled in the early morningsunshine, mist wrapping the River Thamesin an ethereal cloak as delicate as abride’s veil. Familiar landmarks rosethrough the milky haze and down on thestreets below tiny figures hurried alongpavements and cars were already jammedtogether on the web of roads that criss-crossed beneath her office. Her eyes stungfrom lack of sleep but she was used to thefeeling by now. It had been her closecompanion for months, along with theempty feeling in her chest that nothingcould fill.
Jenny was looking at her. ‘Do youwant to talk about it?’ ‘Nothing to talk about.’ Avery turnedaway from the window and sat down at herdesk. Work, she thought. Work had beeneverything until her world had beendisturbed. She needed to get that feelingback. ‘The good news is that in myextended insomnia moment last night Ifinished the proposal for the launch inHong Kong. I’ve emailed it to you. I thinkI’ve excelled myself this time. Everyone isgoing to be talking about this party.’ ‘Everyone always talks about yourparties.’ The phone she’d left chargingovernight buzzed. Back in business mode,Avery reached for it and then saw the nameon the screen. Her hand froze in mid-air.Again? It was at least the fifth time he’d
called. She couldn’t do this now. Not soclose to the dream. Her hand diverted and she switchedon her computer instead, her heartthundering like a stampeding herd of wildhorses. And layered under the panic waspain. Pain that he could intentionally hurther like this. ‘That’s your private number. Whyaren’t you answering it?’ Jenny peered atthe screen of the phone and her head jerkedup. ‘Mal? The Prince is calling you?’ ‘Apparently.’ Avery opened thespreadsheet she’d been working on andnoticed with a flash of irritation that herhand wasn’t quite steady. ‘I should havechanged my number.’ He had no right tocall her private line. She should have cutall ties. Should have made sure he wasn’t
able to call her except through the office. ‘Over’ should have meant just thatexcept that he’d made sure that couldn’thappen. ‘All right, enough. I’ve ignoredwhat’s going on for too long.’ Jennyplonked herself down in the chairopposite. ‘I’m officially worried aboutyou.’ ‘Don’t be. I’m fine.’ The words hadbeen repeated so often they fell out of hermouth on their own. But they didn’tconvince Jenny. ‘The man you loved is marryinganother woman. How can you be fine? Inyour position I’d be screaming, sobbing,eating too much and drinking too much.You’re not doing any of those things.’ ‘Because I didn’t love him. We hadan affair, that’s all. An affair that ended. It
happens to people all the time. Shall weget to work now?’ ‘It was so much more than an affair,Avery. You were in love.’ ‘Good sex doesn’t have to mean love;I don’t know why people always thinkthat.’ Did she sound calm? Did she soundas if she didn’t care? Would anyone guessthat the numbers on her screen werenonsense? She knew that people werewatching her, wondering how she wasreacting as the wedding of the CrownPrince drew closer. There were timeswhen she felt like an exhibit in a zoo. Itseemed that the whole world was waitingfor her to drop to her knees and startsobbing. And that, she thought, was a shame forthem because they were going to bewaiting a long time. She’d throw out her
stilettos before she’d sob over a man.Especially a man like Mal, who wouldtake such a display of weakness as a signof another successful conquest. His egodidn’t need the boost. The ringing stopped and thenimmediately the phone on her desk rang. Jenny looked at the phone as if itwere an enraged scorpion. ‘Do you wantme to—?’ ‘No.’ ‘He’s very insistent.’ ‘He’s a Prince—’ Avery muted herphone ‘—he can’t help insisting. Mal onlyhas two settings, Prince and General.Either way, he’s commanding someone.’No wonder they’d clashed, she thoughtnumbly. No relationship could have twobosses. There was an urgent tap on the door
and Chloe, the new receptionist, virtuallyfell into the room in her excitement.‘Avery, you’ll never guess who is on thephone!’ She paused for dramatic effect.‘The Crown Prince of Zubran.’ Clearly sheexpected her announcement to have moreimpact than it did and when neither of themreacted she repeated herself. ‘Did you hearme? The Crown Prince of Zubran! I triedto put him through but you weren’t pickingup.’ ‘Insistent and persistent,’ Jennymurmured. ‘You’re going to have toanswer it.’ ‘Not right now. Chloe, please tell himI’m unavailable.’ ‘But it’s the Prince himself. Not hisassistant or his adviser or anything, buthim. In person. Complete with meltingdark voice and a very cultured accent.’
‘Give him my sincere apologies. Tellhim I’ll call back as soon as I can.’ Assoon as she’d worked out her strategy. Assoon as she was confident she wasn’tgoing to say, or do, something she’d laterregret. A conversation like that had to becarefully planned. Chloe gaped at her. ‘You sound sorelaxed, like it’s normal to have someonelike him just calling on the phone. I can’tbelieve you know him. I’d be dropping hisname into every conversation. He is sogorgeous,’ she confessed in a breathyvoice. ‘Not just in the obvious way,although I wouldn’t object if he wanted totake his shirt off and chop wood in front ofme or something, but because he’s justsuch a man if you know what I mean. He’stough in a way men aren’t allowed to beany more because it’s not consideredpolitically correct. You just know he is not
the sort to ask permission before he kissesyou.’ Avery looked at their newlyappointed receptionist and realised withsurprise that the girl didn’t know. Chloewas one of the few people not to know thatAvery Scott had once had a wild and verypublic affair with Crown Prince Malik ofZubran. She thought about the first time he’dkissed her. No, he hadn’t askedpermission. The Prince didn’t askpermission for anything. For a while she’dfound it exhilarating to be with a man whowasn’t intimidated by her confidence andsuccess. Then she’d realised that two suchstrong people in a relationship was arecipe for disaster. The Prince thought heknew what was best for everyone.Including her.
Jenny tapped her foot impatiently.‘Chloe, go to the bathroom and stick yourhead under cold running water. If thatdoesn’t work, try your whole body.Whatever it takes because the Prince is notgoing to be kissing you any time soon, withor without permission, so you can forgetthat. Now go and talk to him before heassumes you’ve passed out or died.’ Chloe looked confused. ‘But what ifit’s something really urgent that can’t wait?You are arranging his wedding.’ Wedding. The word sliced into Avery like ablade through soft flesh, the pain taking herby surprise. ‘I’m not arranging hiswedding.’ The words almost choked herand she didn’t understand why. She’dended their relationship. Her choice. Herdecision, freely made. So why did she feel
pain that he was marrying another woman?In every way, it was the best possibleoutcome. ‘I’m arranging the evening partyand I sincerely doubt that he is callingabout that. A Prince does not call todiscuss minor details. He won’t even knowwhat’s in the canapés until he puts them inhis mouth. He has staff to deal with details.A Prince has staff to do everything.Someone to drive his car, cook his meals,run his shower—’ ‘—someone to scrub his back whilehe’s in the shower—’ Jenny took over theconversation ‘—and the reason Averycan’t talk to him now is because I need totalk to her urgently about the Senator’sparty.’ ‘Oh. The Senator—’ Visiblyimpressed by all the famous names flyingaround the office, Chloe backed towardsthe door, her legs endless in skinny jeans,
bangles jangling at her wrists. ‘Right. But Isuspect His Royal Highness is not a manwho is good at waiting or being told “no”.’ ‘Then let’s give him more practise.’Avery pushed aside memories of the otheroccasions he’d refused to wait. Like thetime he’d stripped her naked with the tip ofhis ceremonial sword because he couldn’tbe bothered to unbutton her dress. Or thetime he’d … No, she definitely wasn’t going tothink about that one. As the door closed behind thereceptionist, Avery groped for her coffee.‘She’s sweet. I like her. Once we’ve givenher some confidence, she’ll be lovely. Theclients will adore her.’ ‘She was tactless. I’ll speak to her.’ ‘Don’t.’ ‘Why the hell are you doing this to
yourself, Avery?’ ‘Employing inexperienced graduates?Because everyone deserves a chance.Chloe has lots of raw potential and—’ ‘I’m not talking about youremployment policy, I’m talking about thiswhole thing with the Prince. Whatpossessed you to agree to arrange yourex’s wedding? It is killing you.’ ‘Not at all. It’s not as if I wanted tomarry him and anyway I’m not arrangingthe actual wedding. Why does everyonekeep saying I’m arranging his wedding?’ Apicture of the desert at dawn appeared onher computer and she made a mental noteto change her screen saver. Perhaps it wasthe cause of her recurring dreams. ‘I’mresponsible for the evening party, that’sall.’ ‘All? It has the most influential guest
list of any party in the last decade.’ ‘Which is why everything must beperfect. And I don’t find it remotelystressful to plan parties. How could I?Parties are happy events populated byhappy people.’ ‘So you really don’t care?’ Jennyflexed her toes. ‘You and the hot Princewere together for a year. And you haven’tbeen out with a man since.’ ‘Because I’ve been busy building mybusiness. And it wasn’t a year. None of myrelationships have lasted a year.’ ‘Avery, it was a year. Twelve wholemonths.’ ‘Oh.’ Her heart lurched. A year?‘OK, if you say so. Twelve whole monthsof lust.’ It helped her to diminish it. Tolabel it neatly. ‘We’re both physicalpeople and it was nothing more than sex. I
wish people wouldn’t romanticize that. It’swhy so many marriages end in divorce.’ ‘If it was so incredibly amazing, whydid you break up?’ Avery felt her chest tighten. Shedidn’t want to think about it. ‘He wants toget married. I don’t want to get married. Iended it because it had no future.’ Andbecause he’d been arrogant andmanipulative. ‘I’m not interested inmarriage.’ ‘So these dreams you’re having don’thave anything to do with you imagining himwith his virgin princess?’ ‘Of course not.’ Avery reached intoher bag and pulled out a packet ofindigestion tablets. There were just twoleft. She needed to buy more. ‘You wouldn’t need those if youdrank less coffee.’
‘You’re starting to sound like mymother.’ ‘No, I’m not. No offence intended, butyour mother would be saying somethinglike “I can’t believe you’ve got yourself inthis state over a man, Avery. This isexactly the sort of thing I warned you aboutwhen I taught you at the age of five that youare responsible for every aspect of yourlife, including your own orgasm.”’ ‘I was older than five when she taughtme that bit.’ She chewed the tablet, theache in her jaw telling her that she’d beengrinding her teeth at night again. Stress.‘You want to know why I said yes to thispiece of business? Because of my pride.Because when Mal called, I was so takenaback that he was getting married soquickly after we broke up, I couldn’t thinkstraight.’ And she’d been hurt. Horribly,hideously hurt in a way she’d never been
hurt before. There was a tight, panickyfeeling in her chest that refused to go away.‘He asked if it would feel awkward toarrange the party and I opened my mouth tosay yes, you insensitive bastard, of courseit would feel awkward but my pride spokeinstead and under its direction my mouthsaid no, no of course it won’t feelawkward.’ ‘You need to re-programme yourmouth. I’ve often thought so.’ ‘Thanks. And then I realised he wasprobably doing it to punish me because—’ Jenny lifted an eyebrow. ‘Because—?’ ‘Never mind.’ Avery, who neverblushed, felt herself blushing. ‘The truth is,our company is the obvious and rightchoice for an event like that. If I’d refused,everyone would have been saying, “Of
course Avery Scott isn’t organising theparty because she and the Prince wereinvolved and she just can’t handle it.”’And he would have known. He would haveknown how much he’d hurt her. But of course he already knew. And itdepressed her to think that theirrelationship had sunk that low. ‘You need to delegate this one,Avery.’ Jenny slid her shoes back on.‘You’re the toughest, most impressivewoman I’ve ever met but organising thewedding of a man you were once in lovewith—’ ‘Was in lust with—’ ‘Fine, call it whatever you like, butit’s making you ill. I’ve known you sincewe were both five years old. We’veworked together for six years but if youcarry on like this I’m going to have to ask
you to fire me for the good of my health.The tension is killing me.’ ‘Sorry.’ Out of the corner of her eyeAvery noticed that her screen saver wasback again. With a rush of irritation sheswiftly replaced the desert with a stockpicture of the Arctic. ‘Talk to me aboutwork. And then I’m going to take a showerand get ready for the day.’ ‘Ah, work. Senator’s golden weddingparty. Fussiest client we’ve ever had—’Jenny flipped open her book and checkedthrough her notes while Avery cupped hermug and took comfort from the warmth. ‘Why do you insist on using that bookof yours when I provide you with all thelatest technology?’ ‘I like my book. I can doodle and turnclients into cartoons.’ Jenny scanned herlist. ‘He’s insisting on fifty swans as a
surprise for his wife. Apparently theyrepresent fidelity.’ Avery lowered the mug. ‘The guy hashad at least three extramarital affairs, oneof them extremely public. I don’t think thisparty should be celebrating his “fidelity”,do you?’ ‘No, but I couldn’t think of a tactfulway to say that when he called me. I’m notyou.’ ‘Then think of one and think of it fastbecause if he mentions “fidelity” to hiswife on the big day we’ll have abattlefield, not a party. No swans. Apartfrom the fidelity connotations they havevery uncertain tempers. What else?’ ‘You want more?’ With a sigh, Jennywent back to her notes. ‘He wants torelease a balloon for each year of theirmarriage.’
Avery dropped her head onto herdesk. ‘Kill me now.’ ‘No, because then I’ll have to dealwith the Senator alone.’ Reluctantly, Avery lifted her head. ‘Idon’t do balloon releases. And, quite apartfrom the fact that mass balloon releases arebanned in lots of places, isn’t our Senatorworking with some environmental group atthe moment? The last thing he needs ispublicity like that. Suggest doves. Dovesare environmentally friendly and the guestscan release them and have a warm, fuzzyeco feeling.’ She sat back in her chair,trying to concentrate. ‘But not fifty,obviously. Two will be fine or the guestswill be covered in bird droppings.’ ‘Two doves.’ Jenny made a note inthe margin and tapped her pen on the pad.‘He is going to ask me what two doves
signify.’ ‘A lot less mess than fifty swans—OK, sorry, I know you can’t say that—letme think—’ Avery sipped her coffee. ‘Tellhim they signify peace and tranquillity.Actually, no, don’t tell him that, either.There is no peace and tranquillity in theirrelationship. Tell him—’ She paused,grappling for the right word. She knewnothing about long-term relationships.‘Partnership. Yes, that’s it. Partnership.The doves signify their life journeytogether.’ Jenny grinned. ‘Which has been fullof—’ ‘Exactly.’ With her free hand, Averyclosed down the spreadsheet on hercomputer before she could insert any moreerrors. ‘Take Chloe to help at theSenator’s party. We need to cure her of
being star-stuck. It will be goodexperience for her to mingle withcelebrities and she can help out if thedoves become incontinent.’ ‘Why don’t you let us do the Zubranwedding without you?’ ‘Because then everyone will say that Ican’t cope and, worse than that—’ she bither lip ‘—Mal will think I can’t cope.’ Was he still angry with her? He’dbeen furious, those hooded black eyes asmoody as a sky threatening a terriblestorm. And she’d been equally angry withhim. It had been a clash from which neitherof them had pulled back. Jenny looked at her. ‘You miss him,don’t you?’ Yes. ‘I miss the sex. And the rows.’ ‘You miss the rows?’
Avery caught Jenny’s disbelievingglance and shrugged. ‘They were mentallystimulating. Mal is super-bright. Somepeople do crosswords to keep their mindsalert. I like a good argument. Comes ofhaving a mother who is a lawyer. Wedidn’t talk at the dinner table, we debated.’ ‘I know. I still remember the one timeyou invited me for tea.’ Jenny shuddered.‘It was a terrifying experience. But it doesexplain why you can’t admit that you caredfor the Prince. Your mother dedicated herlife to ending marriages.’ ‘They were already broken when shegot involved.’ Jenny closed her book. ‘So thiswedding is fine with you? Pride is going tofinish you off, you know that, don’t you?That and your overachieving personality—another thing I blame your mother for.’
‘I thank my mother. She made me thewoman I am.’ ‘A raving perfectionist who is trulymessed up about men?’ ‘I won’t apologise for wanting to do ajob properly and I am not messed up aboutmen. Just because I’m the child of a strongsingle parent—’ ‘Avery, I love you, but you’re messedup. That one time I came for tea, your mumwas arguing the case for doing away withmen altogether. Did she ever even tell youthe identity of your father? Did she?’ The feelings came from nowhere.Suddenly she was back in the playgroundagain, surrounded by children who askedtoo many questions. Yes, she knew who her father was.And she remembered the night her motherhad told her the truth as vividly as if it had
happened just yesterday. Remembered theway the strength had oozed from her limbsand the sickness rose in her stomach. She didn’t look at Jenny. ‘My fatherhas never been part of my life.’ ‘Presumably because your motherdidn’t want him interfering! She scaredhim away, didn’t she?’ Jenny was still infull flow. ‘The woman is bright as the sunand mad as a bunch of bananas. And don’tkid yourself that you had to say yes to thisparty. You did the launch party for theZubran Ferrara Spa Resort. That wasenough to prove that you’re not losingsleep over the Prince.’ The knot in Avery’s stomachtightened but part of her was just relievedthat the conversation had moved awayfrom the topic of her father. ‘There was noreason to say no. I wish Mal nothing but
happiness with his virgin princess.’ Therewas a buzzing sound in her head. She hadto stop talking about Mal. It was doingawful things to her insides. Now she hadhearing problems. ‘I’m doing the weddingparty and then that will be it.’ Theneveryone would stop speculating that shewas broken hearted because of a man.‘You call him, Jen. Tell him I’m out of thecountry or something. Find out what hewants and sort it out.’ ‘Does his bride really have to be avirgin?’ Jenny sounded curious and Averyfelt something twist in her stomach. ‘I think she does. Pure. Untouched byhuman hand. Obedient in all things. His tocommand.’ Jenny laughed. ‘How on earth did youand the Prince ever sustain a relationship?’ ‘It was … fiery. I’m better at being
the commander than the commanded.’ Thebuzzing sound grew louder and shesuddenly realised that it wasn’t comingfrom her head, but from outside. ‘Someoneis using the helipad. We don’t have a clientflying in today, do we?’ As Jenny shook her head, Averyturned to look, but the helicopter was outof view, landing above her. ‘It must besomeone visiting one of the otherbusinesses in our building.’Flanked by armed bodyguards, Mal strodefrom the helicopter. ‘Which floor?’ ‘Top floor, sir. Executive suite, but—’ ‘I’ll go alone. Wait here for me.’ ‘But, Your Highness, you can’t—’ ‘It’s a party planning company,’ Maldrawled, wondering why they couldn’t see
the irony. ‘Who, exactly, is going tothreaten my safety in a party planningcompany? Will I be the victim of a balloonassault? Drowned in champagne? Restassured, if I encounter danger in thestairwell, I’ll deal with it.’ Without givinghis security guards an opportunity torespond he strode into the building. Avery had done well for herself sincethey’d parted company, he thought, and thedull ache that was always with him grewjust a little bit more intense as did theanger. She’d chosen this, her business,over their relationship. But he couldn’t allow himself to thinkabout that. He’d long since recognised thegulf between personal wishes and duty.After years pursuing the first, he was nowcommitted to the second. Which was whythis visit was professional, not personal.
If he knew Avery as well as hethought he did, then pride would preventher from throwing him out of her office orslapping his face. He was banking on it. Ormaybe she no longer cared enough to doeither. Maybe she’d never cared enough andthat was just another thing he’d been wrongabout. Mal passed no one in the stairwelland emerged onto the top floor, through aset of glass doors that guarded thecorporate headquarters of Avery Scott’shighly successful events planning company,Dance and Dine. This was the hub of her operation.The nerve centre of an organisationdevoted to pleasure but run with militaryprecision. From here, Avery Scottorganised parties for the rich and famous.
She’d built her business on hard work andsheer nerve, turning down business thatwasn’t consistent with her vision for hercompany. As a result of making herselfexclusive, her services were so much indemand that a party organized by AveryScott was often booked years in advance, astatus symbol among those able to affordher. It was the first time he’d visited heroffices and he could see instantly that thesurroundings reflected the woman. Sleek,contemporary and elegant. A statement of asuccessful, confident high achiever. A woman who needed no one. His mouth tightened. She certainly hadn’t needed him. The foyer was a glass atrium at thetop of the building and light floodedthrough the glass onto exotic plants and
shimmered on low contemporary sofas. Apretty girl sat behind the elegantly curvedreception desk, answering the phones asthey rang. For this visit he’d chosen to wear asuit rather than the more traditional robesbut apparently that did nothing to concealhis identity because the moment thereceptionist saw him she shot to her feet,panicked and star struck in equal measure. ‘Your Highness! You’re … ohmigod—’ ‘Not God,’ Mal said and thenfrowned as the colour faded from hercheeks. ‘Are you all right?’ ‘No. I don’t think so. I’ve never met aPrince in the flesh before.’ She pressed herhand to her chest and then fanned herself. ‘Ifeel a bit—’ She swayed and Mal movedquickly, catching her before she hit the
ground. Torn between exasperation andamusement, he sat her in her chair andpushed her head gently downwards. ‘Leanforward. Now breathe. That’s it. You’llsoon feel better. Can I get you a glass ofwater?’ ‘No.’ She squeaked the word. ‘Thankyou for catching me. You’re obviouslyevery bit as strong as you look. Hope youdidn’t put your back out.’ Mal felt a flash of amusement. ‘Myback is fine.’ ‘This is seriously embarrassing. Ishould be curtseying or something, notfainting at your feet.’ She lifted her head. ‘Ipresume you’re here to see Miss Scott. Idon’t suppose there is any chance youcould not mention this? I’m supposed to becool with celebrities and famous people.
As you can see, it’s still a work inprogress.’ ‘My lips are sealed.’ Smiling, Malstraightened. ‘Sit there and recover. I’llfind her myself.’ At least the receptionisthadn’t pretended her boss wasn’t in thebuilding, which was good because hisextremely efficient security team hadalready confirmed that she was here. Thefact that she’d refused to pick up the phonehad added another couple of coals to hisalready burning temper but he wasn’t aboutto take that out on this girl. He only foughtwith people as strong as him and he rarelymet anyone who fitted that description. Fortunately Avery Scott was morethan capable of handling anything hedished out. She was the strongest womanhe’d ever met. Nothing shook that icycomposure. Apparently not even the factthat he was marrying another woman.
Temper held rigidly in control, hestrode away from the reception desk andtowards the offices and meeting rooms. Deciding that Avery would choose acorner office with a view, he swiftlycalculated the direction of the Thames.There was a large door at the end of theglass atrium and he thrust it open and there,seated behind a large glass desk andtalking to another woman was Avery,immaculate as ever, that sheet of shinyblonde hair sliding over a pearl colouredsilk shirt. In those few seconds before she sawhim, a tightness gripped his chest. He felt something he only ever feltaround this woman. As always, the image she presented tothe world was impeccable. She projectedglamour, efficiency and capability. No one
meeting Avery Scott could ever doubt thatshe would get the job done and that itwould be done perfectly. She had anaddress book that would have made anambitious socialite sob with envy but fewknew the woman beneath the surface. She’d shut him out. The closer he’dtried to get, the more she’d blocked him. He almost laughed at the irony. He’dspent his life preventing women fromgetting too close. With Avery that tactichad proved unnecessary. She was the onewho’d erected the barriers. And when he’dpushed up against those barriers too hard,she’d simply walked away. They’d been lovers for a year, friendsfor longer, but still there had been dayswhen he’d felt he didn’t know her. Butthere were some things he did know. Likethe way a tiny dimple always appeared in
the corner of her mouth when she smiled,and the fact that her mouth was addictive.Remembering that taste stirred up aresponse he’d thought he had undercontrol. The first time he’d met her he’d beenattracted by her confidence and by the wayshe squeezed every drop of opportunityfrom life. He’d admired her drive, hersuccess and her utter belief in herself. Butthe same qualities that had attracted himwere the reasons they’d parted. AveryScott was fiercely independent andterrified of anything she believedthreatened that independence. And he’d threatened it. What they’d shared had threatened it.And so she’d ended it. Crushed what theyhad until there was nothing left but thepain.
People assumed that a man of hisposition had everything. They had no idea how wrong theywere. Mal stood for a moment, tasting theunpalatable combination of regret andanger and at that moment she looked up andsaw him. He searched for some evidence thathis unexpected appearance affected her,but there was nothing. Outwardlycomposed, she rose to her feet, elegant andin control and displaying the sameunflappable calm she demonstrated even ina crisis. ‘This is a surprise. How can Ihelp you, Mal?’ Cool. Professional. Nohint that they’d once been as close as itwas possible for two people to be, apartfrom the fact that she’d called him Mal. His name had slipped from those
glossy lips without thought and yet only ahandful of close friends ever called himthat. And Avery had once been in thathallowed circle. She knew his closest friends becauseshe’d been one of them; one of the fewpeople indifferent to his wealth or hisstatus. One of the few people who’dtreated him like a man and not like the nextruler of Zubran. For a while, when he’dbeen with her, he’d forgotten about dutyand responsibility. Mal thrust that thought aside alongwith the others. Those days were gone.Today’s visit was all about duty andresponsibility. He wasn’t going to makethis personal. He couldn’t. He was about to marry anotherwoman. ‘You didn’t pick up your phone.’ He
dispensed with formal greetings orpleasantries, considering themunnecessary. ‘I was in a meeting. You, a worldleader who is generally considered anexpert in the art of diplomacy, will surelyunderstand that I couldn’t interrupt aclient.’ She spoke in the same neutral tonehe’d heard her use with difficult clients. Somewhere deep inside him he felthis nerve endings spark and fire and heremembered that their verbal sparringmatches had been their second favouriteway of passing the time they spent together. As for the first … His libido roared to life and Malturned to the other woman in the room,because privacy was essential for theconversation he was about to have. ‘Leaveus, please.’
Responding to that command withoutquestion, the woman rose. As the doorclosed behind her Avery turned on him,blue eyes ice-cold. ‘You just can’t help it, can you? Youjust can’t help telling people what to do.’ ‘This is not a conversation I intend toconduct in public.’ ‘This is my office. My business. Youare not in charge here. Whatever yourreason for being here, nothing justifies youwalking in without knocking and breakingup my meeting. I wouldn’t do it to you. Idon’t expect you to do it to me.’ It was as if a high-voltage electricalcurrent had suddenly been diverted throughthe room. It crackled, sizzled andthreatened to leave them both singed, and itaggravated him as much as he knew itirritated her.
‘Why wouldn’t you take my calls?’ Two streaks of colour darkened hercheeks. ‘You called at inconvenientmoments.’ ‘And does ignoring your clients’phone calls generally work well for you?I’d always assumed that customer serviceis everything in your business.’ ‘You weren’t calling about business.’ ‘And you weren’t thinking aboutbusiness when you refused to take my callsso let’s stop pretending we don’t knowwhat’s going on here.’ Deeply unsettled bythe strength of his own feelings, Mal strodeto the huge glass windows that envelopedher office and reminded himself that hisreason for being here had nothing to dowith his past relationship with this woman.That was irrelevant. It had to be irrelevant.‘Nice views. You’ve done extraordinarily
well for yourself. Your business isbooming while others fold.’ ‘Why do you find it extraordinary? Iwork hard and I understand my market.’ Her reply made him smile but he keptthat smile to himself. ‘Less than fiveminutes together and already you’repicking a fight.’ ‘You’re the one who landed ahelicopter on my roof and barged into myoffice. I would say you were the onepicking the fight, Mal.’ For the first time in weeks he felt theenergy flow through him. Not to anyonewould he have admitted how good it felt tohave someone speak without restraint. Toargue with him. To challenge— ‘I was merely congratulating you onthe astonishing growth of your business ina difficult economic climate.’
‘You could have done that in anemail. I have absolutely no idea whyyou’re here or why you’ve been phoningme every two minutes but I’m assumingyou don’t want to talk about guest lists orcolour schemes.’ ‘I am not remotely interested in thedetails of the party. That is your job.’ ‘For once we’re in agreement. Andnow I’d be grateful if you’d leave so that Ican do that job.’ Sufficiently energized, he turned. ‘Noone but you would dare speak to me likethat.’ ‘So fire me, Mal. Go on. Do it. Takeyour business elsewhere.’ Those eyeslocked on his and he wondered why shewould be encouraging him to back out ofwhat must be for her a prime piece ofbusiness. Under the perfectly applied
make-up, she looked tired. His gaze slid toher hands and he saw her fiddlingnervously with the pen she was holding. Avery never fiddled. Avery wasnever nervous. His attention caught, he watched herfor a moment, trying to read her. ‘I’m notfiring you.’ ‘Then at least get to the point. Whyare you here?’ ‘I’m here because at the moment theparty cannot go ahead. Something crucialis missing.’ The mere suggestion that somethingmight be less than perfect had her bristlingdefensively as she always did if anyone somuch as questioned her competence. Thatbeautifully shod foot tapped the floor.Those eyes narrowed as she mentallyscrolled through the checklist she kept
permanently updated in her head. ‘I canassure you that nothing is “missing”, Mal. Ihave been over the plans meticulously andchecked every last detail personally. Itwill all be absolutely as planned.’ She had complete confidence in herown ability and that confidence wasjustified because Avery Scott neveroverlooked anything. Nothing escaped her.Her attention to detail drove her team mad.It had driven him mad, and yet at the sametime he’d admired it because she’d builtherself a successful business on the back ofnothing but her own hard work. Thiswoman had never freeloaded in her life.Nor had she ever asked anyone foranything. She was the first woman he’d metwho wasn’t interested in anything he had tooffer. For a moment he felt a pang of regret,but regret was a sentiment he couldn’t
afford and he moved on quickly. ‘You misunderstand me. I’m sure thateverything your company has planned isperfect, as ever.’ ‘So if that is the case, what canpossibly be missing?’ Mal paused, hesitating because hewas about to trust her with information thathe hadn’t entrusted to another living soul.Even now he was wondering whethercoming here had been a mistake. ‘What am I missing? The mostimportant thing of all,’ he drawled softly.‘I’m missing my bride.’
CHAPTER TWO‘YOUR bride?’ The word clung to her drymouth. Oh God, she was cracking up. Theeffort of holding it together was just toomuch. It was bad enough that he was herein person, but the fact that he was here totalk about his bride was a double blow.Did he have no tact? No sensitivity at all? Shock cut through the sickness she feltat seeing him. She needed to think, but thatwas impossible with him dominating heroffice in that sleek dark suit thatemphasised the width of those shouldersand the muscular strength of his powerfulframe. It bothered her that she noticed hisbody. It bothered her even more to feel theanswering response in her own. This officewas her personal space. Having it invadedby him felt difficult and she hated the fact
that it felt difficult because she so badlywanted to feel nothing. She was used tobeing in control of herself at all times.Wanted it most of all at this time. But as that control slipped from her,she felt a buzz of panic. Over the past yearshe’d turned off news coverage abouteconomic and political stability in hiscountry. Even though her company wasresponsible for the evening party to followhis wedding, she’d averted her eyes fromstories about that event. If she didn’t needto read it, she didn’t read it. When theirpaths crossed at events she was organizingor attending as a guest, she restricted theircontact to a brief nod across a crowdedroom even though the only man in the roomshe ever saw was him. She’d avoided it allin an attempt to regain control of her lifeand her feelings. Everything she did, shedid to protect herself. Mal had hurt her.
And he’d hurt her so badly that seeing himnow brought her right back to the edge. What frightened her most wasn’t thesense of power and authority that couldsubdue a room full of people, nor was ithis spectacular looks, even though thelethal combination of dark masculinity andperfect musculature was sufficient to makehappily married women contemplateinfidelity. No, what frightened her—whatmade her truly vulnerable—was thesensual gleam in those dangerous blackeyes. He was the most sexual man she’dever met. Or maybe it was just their historythat made her think that about him. The look he gave her was reservedfor her and her alone. It was a look thatblatantly acknowledged a past she wouldrather have forgotten. It made every
interaction deeply personal and the lastthing she wanted was personal. Shewanted to forget every intimacy they’dever shared. He was marrying another woman. Remembering that, she kept her toneneutral and refused to let herself respondto that velvety dark gaze that threatened tostrip away every defence she’d constructedbetween them. This wasn’t about her. Itwas about his bride. ‘Kalila is missing?’ Despite her owntangled emotions and natural instinct forself-preservation, she felt a rush ofconcern. She’d met Kalila on a fewoccasions and had found her friendly, ifrather shy. The girl had seemed more thana little overwhelmed by the Prince eventhough they’d reportedly known oneanother for years. ‘Are you saying she’s
been kidnapped or something?’ ‘No, not kidnapped.’ ‘But if she’s missing, how can you beso sure she hasn’t been kidnapped? I mean,she is a princess. I suppose there arepeople who—’ ‘A note was delivered to me.’ ‘A note?’ Her brain wasn’t workingproperly. All she could think about washim. ‘But—’ ‘Not a ransom note. A note from her.’ ‘I don’t understand.’ It was a struggleto concentrate. Looking at him sent imageschasing into her head. Images that usuallyonly haunted her when she slept. ‘She has run away—’ The wordswere offered up with obvious reluctanceand Avery stared at him in silence. Andthat silence stretched so long that in the end
he broke it with an impatient gesture. ‘Herreasons are irrelevant.’ ‘Irrelevant?’ She shook her head toclear it of all the thoughts she shouldn’t behaving. What would have driven the shy,compliant Kalila to do something soradical? ‘How can her reasons possibly beirrelevant? How can you dismiss herviews like that?’ ‘I’m not dismissing her views. Butwhat matters is not the reasons she left, butgetting her back.’ ‘And you don’t think the two of thosethings might be linked? Why did she leave?For someone like Kalila to do somethingso dramatic, she must have had a reallygood reason.’ ‘She doesn’t want this marriage.’ Hespoke through his teeth and Averywondered if the tension she heard in his
tone reflected his irritation at thedisruption of his plans or his sentimentstowards his bride-to-be. Mal was a man who was relentlesslysure of himself, a skilled negotiator,composed and in control and she knewfrom personal experience that he didn’treact well to anything that disrupted hisplans. ‘Oh dear.’ It was a patheticcommentary on the situation but the bestshe could come up with. ‘That isinconvenient. Hard to get married withouta bride, I do see that.’ ‘It is far more than “inconvenient”.This wedding must go ahead.’ ‘Because it is what her father wants?’ ‘Because it is what I want. I need toreassure her that our marriage can work. Ineed her to know I am nothing like her
father. I can protect her.’ Avery stared at him numbly. Had he ever been this protective ofher? No. Of course not. And she wouldn’thave wanted him to be. She didn’t needprotecting, did she? She never had. Whathurt was the fact that he could move fromone woman to another with such ease. ‘Soyou’re about to leap onto horsebackwielding your sword to protect her. Good.That’s … good. I’m sure she’ll appreciatethe gesture.’ All this time she’d beentelling herself that this marriage was nomore than a political union. That he didn’thave feelings for Kalila. Clearly she’d been wrong about that,too. He had strong feelings. Why elsewould he be so determined to go throughwith this?
Her throat felt thick. There was aburning sensation behind her eyes. Fortunately he didn’t notice. ‘She isextremely vulnerable. Not that I’d expectyou to understand that. You don’t do“vulnerable”, do you?’ He had no idea. ‘I understand thatyou want to slay her dragons.’ ‘Whereas you would rather a mangave you a dragon so that you could slay ityourself.’ ‘I’m an animal lover. If you’d boughtme a dragon I would have kept it as a pet.’ Once, an exchange like that wouldhave ended in laughter. He would havechallenged her. She would have challengedhim right back and eventually the clashwould have led where it always led—tothe bedroom, or any other place that couldafford them the privacy they craved.
‘I simply think it would be wiser ifshe learned to protect herself.’ ‘Not every woman is like you.’ Therewas a dark bitterness in his tone that stungwounds still not healed. She’d started todespair they ever would be. Her stress levels soared skyward.Her jaw ached from clenching her teeth.Her insides were churning and suddenlyshe wished she hadn’t drunk the coffee onan empty stomach. ‘I do see your problem.It’s hard to get married without a bride.However, while I sympathise with yourdilemma and applaud your machoprotective streak, which I’m sure yourbride will find extremely touching, I reallydon’t understand my role in this. I carryspares of most things, but not brides I’mafraid.’ ‘Kalila liked you. She admired you.
She considered you her friend. Or as closeto a friend as someone with her life couldever have.’ His wide shoulders shiftedslightly as if he were trying to ease tensionand she realised that he was every bit asstressed as she was. There was a glint inthose eyes, a simmering tension in thatpowerful frame that told her he was feelingwhat she was feeling. ‘I’m asking for yourhelp.’ ‘My help?’ She wondered why hemade her feel vulnerable. She was tall, buthis height and build overpowered her. ‘Idon’t understand how I can possibly help.’Looking at him now, she wondered howthey’d ever sustained their relationship forso long. He was so autocratic. Very muchthe Crown Prince, a man of breathtakingpower and influence. There was no sign ofthe man who had laughed with her andenjoyed philosophical arguments long into
the night. This man was austere and, yes,intimidating. Those eyes looked straightthrough to her mind, seeing things shedidn’t want him to see. He’d once told herthat he could judge a person’s reactionmore accurately from what they did thanwhat they said. It was a skill that had stoodhim in good stead in handling diplomatictensions between neighbouring countries. Remembering that, she stood still anddid nothing. She didn’t allow her gaze toslide from his. If her body language wasn’tsilent, then at least it was muted. ‘I cannotimagine what help I can possibly offer. Iorganize parties. I have it on goodauthority that I lead a life of unimpededfrivolity.’ The glance he sent her told her that heremembered that bitter exchange as well asshe did. Her business had been just onemore point of contention between them.
‘You are a resourceful andindependent woman and you knew her. Shetalked to you—’ he ignored her referenceto their past ‘—I wondered if you had anyidea where she might have gone. Thinkback to your conversations. Did she eversay anything that might be of use? Anythingat all.’ She’d been trying to forget thoseconversations. She’d been trying to forgetKalila altogether because whenever sheimagined her, she imagined her entwinedwith Mal and the image was so painful toview she wanted to close her eyes andscream. Feeling her hands start to shake again,Avery clasped them behind her back. ‘Ihonestly don’t—’ ‘Come on, Avery, think! What didyou talk about?’ His voice was harsh.
‘Several times you talked to her at parties.You helped her choose a dress when shehosted that charity dinner. You put her intouch with her wedding dress designer.She idolized you. You were her rolemodel. She longed to be like you.’ ‘Really?’ A small laugh escaped.Afraid that she sounded hysterical, sheclamped her mouth shut. ‘Well, that’sironic. I’m sure you talked her out of thatfast enough.’ His only response to that obliquereference to their shared past was a slighttightening of his beautiful mouth. ‘Did shesay anything?’ ‘No.’ Leave, why don’t you? Justleave, she thought. But of course he didn’tbecause the Prince didn’t leave until hehad what he wanted. ‘I honestly don’tknow where she would have gone.’ And
worry slowly uncurled itself inside herbecause Kalila was vulnerable and Averydidn’t like to think of any woman beingvulnerable. As soon as Mal left, she’d callher. Not that there were any guarantees thatshe’d pick up the phone but at least shewould have tried. ‘Did she mention a particular place toyou?’ Those ebony eyes locked on hers,his intention no doubt to increase theimpact of his words. Instead he succeededonly in increasing the intimacy and thechemistry between them. His response tothat was to frown. Hers was to back away,hit by such a powerful need to touch himthat retreat seemed like the only option.And of course he noticed that stepbackwards, because he was a man whonoticed everything. The tension snapped tight betweenthem. Heat poured through her body and
into her pelvis and still he looked at herand she looked right back at him becauseto look away was something her pridewouldn’t allow. Or maybe it was justbecause she couldn’t. The look connectedthem in a way far deeper than any verbalexchange and Avery felt her stomachplunge. ‘You’re the one with a high-techsecurity team just a phone call away.’Somehow her voice sounded normal.‘Can’t they track her down?’ ‘Not so far. We think she might haveadopted a disguise, but I can’t questionpeople without raising suspicions and Iwant to solve this as discreetly aspossible.’ ‘Have you talked to her friends?’ ‘She wasn’t allowed friends. She wasraised in a very protected environment.’
Avery remembered her saying asmuch when they’d spoken. Rememberedthinking how odd it must be to live likethat, a prisoner of luxury, locked awayfrom reality. ‘You’re the one marrying her. Youshould be the one who knows where sheis.’ ‘We’ve spent very little timetogether.’ The admission was draggedfrom him with obvious reluctance and hepaced over to the window, leaving heronly with a view of his back. ‘I admit thatwas a failing on my part. I madeassumptions.’ ‘You always do. You always knowwhat’s best for everyone.’ The tension in his shoulders increasedbut he chose not to respond to that. ‘That isnot important right now. What is important
is finding her. If this marriage does not goahead there will be serious diplomaticconsequences.’ ‘Diplomatic consequences?’ Averyrolled her eyes in exasperation at hispriorities. ‘No wonder Kalila left—it’s notvery romantic, is it?’ ‘I’m surprised you’re even able torecognise a romantic.’ He stood like aconqueror, powerful legs spread apart ashe stared down at the view. ‘Why? Because I’m not romanticmyself? We’re not talking about me.’Reflecting on the fact that men could betruly clueless when it came to women, shetried to control her emotions. ‘She reallygave you no clue that she felt this way?The two of you have known each other foryears.’ ‘We’ve barely spoken five words to
each other.’ Avery hid her surprise. ‘Oh.’ So if hedidn’t love Kalila, why had he been insuch a hurry to marry her? Only oneexplanation presented itself. They’dbroken up. He was angry. He’d done it tohurt her. ‘On the few occasions she spoke tome, she usually just agreed with whatever Iwas saying.’ Numb, Avery thought about all thelively debates they’d shared on every topicfrom economics to human rights andwondered how a man like Mal could behappy with a wife whose sole purpose inlife was to agree with him. He’d be bored rigid. And it would serve him right if hewere consigned to a life of misery fortaking this enormous step just to score
points against her. ‘If she’s that obedient maybe youshould have just ordered her to “sit” and“stay”.’ ‘This is not the time for sarcasm. Icame to see if you could shed any light onher whereabouts.’ ‘I can’t. And truly I cannot imaginewhy you would ask me.’ And now she wasjust desperate for him to leave, not justbecause of the way he made her feel butbecause she wanted to call Kalila andmake a few enquiries of her own. It wasn’t right that Kalila should beused as a pawn in their fight. ‘You and I were friends once—’ Heturned his head to look at her and just for amoment she saw the past in his eyes.‘Good friends.’ What he’d introduced into the room
was more frightening than any dragon.‘Mal—’ ‘I’m asking you as a friend. There arefew enough people I can trust in my lifebut, despite everything, I do trust you.Whatever happened between us, I still trustyou and I realise that this situation ispotentially awkward—’ His dark gazefastened on her like some sort of high-techimaging device designed to penetrate fleshand bone in the search for truth. ‘If you stillhad feelings for me I would never haveinvolved you. You ended our relationshipso I assumed that wasn’t the case. If I waswrong about that then tell me now.’ Tell him what? That she dreamedabout him every night? That she found ithard to focus and that it took her twice aslong to accomplish simple tasks becauseshe was preoccupied? That in the monthsfollowing their break-up she’d barely
recognised the woman she’d become? Even now, she sometimes looked inthe mirror and saw a stranger staring backat her. Avery’s mouth was dry. Her heartwas bumping against her chest so hard shewas surprised he couldn’t see it. ‘If youstill had feelings for me—’ No mention ofhis feelings. Which shouldn’t havesurprised her and certainly shouldn’t havehurt. If he’d had feelings for her hewouldn’t have been able to move withsuch ease from one woman to another. ‘I don’t have feelings.’ She adoptedthe chilly tone she used when men tried toget too close to her at functions. ‘Myinability to help you has nothing to do withour history, but the fact that I have nouseful information.’ ‘What did you talk about when you
were together?’ ‘I can’t remember—’ she didn’t wantto remember because talking to his bridehad been like sticking knives into herself‘—shoes, dresses and education forwomen. She never talked about runningaway.’ Or had she? The ghost of a memoryflitted into her head. Avery gave a tinyfrown and Mal spotted the change in herinstantly, pouncing like a lion on a gazelle. ‘What?’ ‘Nothing.’ She shook her head. ‘I—’ ‘“Nothing” is all I have to go on rightnow.’ ‘Is there a chance she might have goneinto the desert?’ Mal’s expression changed. His eyeswere shuttered. ‘Definitely not. Kalilahates the desert.’
‘I know.’ And she’d always thought itreally odd that a girl raised in thatlandscape could loathe it. Even morestrange that she’d agreed to marry a manwhose love for the desert was widelyknown. ‘She told me how much it scaredher—’ She broke off, an uncomfortablememory pricking her conscience. His eyes narrowed as he registeredthe guilt in her face. ‘And what advice didyou offer on that topic?’ Avery felt her cheeks heat. ‘We mighthave had a conversation about facing ourfears,’ she muttered. ‘Just a short one.’ His mouth tightened ominously.‘And?’ ‘And nothing. I just said that the bestway to get over being afraid of somethingis to just do it, which actually is verysound advice, but obviously that comment
wasn’t directed specifically at her.’ Butwhat if she’d taken it that way? Averyshifted uncomfortably, her guilt trebling asshe watched the colour drain from hishandsome face. ‘You told her that she should go intothe desert alone?’ ‘No, of course not!’ But Avery felt astab of panic as she realised how herwords could have been interpreted. ‘I justsuggested that sometimes it’s empoweringto do something that scares you. That youlearn you can cope with it and you comeout stronger.’ ‘Or you come out dead. Do yourealise how dangerous the desert is forsomeone with no experience or expertisein desert survival?’ ‘Yes! And I don’t know why you’reblaming me!’ Her voice rose. ‘I did not
tell her to go into the desert alone.’ ‘Then let’s hope that isn’t what she’sdone. She would last five minutes.’Anxiety stamped into his features, Malpulled out his phone and made a call,talking rapidly to his security team whileAvery stood there, an agonized witness tohis obvious worry and feeling hideouslyresponsible for the part she’d possiblyplayed. What if Kalila really had taken herliterally and gone into the desert alone? Surely she wouldn’t have doneanything so foolish. Would she? Her brain argued it back and forth andeventually she pressed her fingers to herforehead as if by doing so she might beable to shut down her thoughts. ‘Look,maybe I can—’ ‘You’ve done enough. Thank you for
your help. You’ve told me all I need toknow.’ He was chillingly formal. Therewas a hardness to him that she didn’tremember ever seeing before. He wastough, yes, and she knew that most peoplefound him intimidating, but she never had.And he hadn’t found her intimidatingeither. Unlike many men, he hadn’t beendaunted by her success and that had beenso refreshing. ‘This is not my fault.’ But her voicelacked conviction because deep down shewas afraid that it was at least partially herfault. Had she unwittingly put the idea inKalila’s head? ‘And if that is what she’sdone, then maybe it isn’t such a bad thing.Maybe this will build her confidence inherself. I think it was very brave of her togo into the desert if that is what she’s done…’ Her voice tailed off as he turned on hersavagely.
‘Brave?’ Contempt dripped from him.‘Will you think she’s “brave” when she’sbeen bitten by a scorpion? Caught in asandstorm? Drowned in a flash flood?’ Guilt ignited her own temper. ‘Maybeshe’ll surprise you. And maybe theexperience will be the making of her.Maybe it will give her the courage to standup for herself and tell you what she wants.And whether it does or doesn’t, you shouldask yourself why she finds the prospect ofthose things less scary than marriage. She’srun into the desert to get away from you,Mal!’ The truth earned her a fierce look.‘You are assuming that her disappearanceis some sort of statement about ourrelationship.’ ‘Well, that’s how it looks from whereI’m standing.’
‘She agreed to this. She wanted thismarriage.’ ‘How would you know? Did you evenask her? Or did you “assume” like youalways assume. Maybe she didn’t want thismarriage and she was afraid to tell you.’Avery knew she should stop talking. Stopnow, before something was said thatcouldn’t be unsaid, but she couldn’t helpherself. ‘Maybe marriage was the last thingshe wanted.’ ‘Not every woman sees marriage ascaptivity to be avoided at all costs.’ Hiseyes clashed with hers and her heartstarted to race because suddenly theyweren’t talking about Kalila. They were sparring, as they’d alwayssparred. The only difference was that thisencounter wasn’t going to end with theirmouths and bodies locked together. And he
was clearly thinking along the same linesbecause a tiny frown appeared betweenthose bold black eyebrows and his eyesdarkened dangerously. The air was stifling. Avery wondered how theconversation had shifted from safe territoryto unsafe territory. Had that been her faultor his? ‘We were talking about Kalila.’ Shesnapped the words and then hated herselffor appearing anything other than calm inhis presence. ‘Yes. Kalila.’ His voice was thickand it was clear he wasn’t faring any betterthan she was with the direction theconversation had taken. ‘All I’m saying is that maybe sheexpressed her opinion in the only way shewas able. She voted with her feet. I don’t
know anything about the politics of thissituation, nor do I want to, but you askedme what I thought and—’ ‘No, I didn’t. I already know yourposition on marriage so I would never ask.Our opinions on that subject are in directopposition, as we both know.’ Why did he keep bringing the subjectback to her when it should have been hisbride-to-be that they were discussing? ‘As you rightly point out, I amunlikely to have the faintest clue whatKalila is feeling. But it’s obvious she’spanicking about the wedding.’ And nowperhaps she was lying in the desert,gasping with thirst or worse … Perhapsshe was already unconscious, her frailbody being pecked by giant birds. Crap. ‘What is obvious to me is that she has
indeed followed your advice and gone intothe desert. It would explain why we canfind no trace of her in the city.’ Angershone in his eyes. ‘I suppose it’s too muchto ask to expect you to know exactly whereshe went? Was there a particular place thatyou recommended as perfect for her to“face her fears”?’ Avery squirmed. ‘No! But maybe Icould—’ ‘You’ve already done more thanenough.’ He strode towards the door.‘Thank you for your time. I know howprecious it is, so feel free to bill me.’ So that was it. He was leaving. The pressure in her throat increased.‘Mal—’ ‘I have to go. I do not want to leavethis innocent girl out there at the mercy ofthe desert and the capricious whims of the
man who she is unfortunate enough to haveas a father. She is extremely vulnerable.’ Avery felt something twist inside her.She felt an irrational spurt of jealousy forthe woman who had dragged such tenderfeelings out of a man known for his lack ofsentimentality. Mal was tough. A soldierand a skilled diplomat, used to dealingwith the toughest of adversaries. She’dnever seen him reveal any soft, sensitivefeelings before. The fact that he was doingso now for another woman made herinsides ache. Whatever his reasons for marryingKalila, it seemed he did care for her. Any tension between them had beenburned away by that exchange and now hewas chillingly detached. ‘I will let youknow if the wedding party is likely toproceed. In the meantime you can put your
arrangements on hold and invoice me forany costs incurred to date.’ ‘For goodness’ sake, stop talkingabout money! I don’t care about the money.I’m worried about Kalila, too. Wait!’ ‘I have a desert to search.’ ‘Then I’ll search it with you.’ Thewords came tumbling out of her mouth andshe didn’t know which one of them was themore surprised. He turned to face her,incredulity lighting his eyes. ‘I beg your pardon?’ Avery took a step backwards but thewords were out there now and theycouldn’t be withdrawn. She couldn’tbelieve she’d actually said it. A momentago she hadn’t been able to wait for him toleave and now she was suggestingtravelling into the desert with him? Whatthe hell was she doing? When their
relationship had crashed she’d almost losteverything. Everything she’d worked sohard to build. What they’d shared had beenso intense, so powerful, and here she wasvolunteering to risk exposing those rawtender feelings again, and all so that shecould help him marry another woman. Avery wanted to pull the words backbut her conscience wouldn’t let her. ‘IfKalila had thought she could talk to you,then she would have talked to you. If youdo find her—’ ‘When I find her—’ His eyespromised all sorts of dire punishments ifthat didn’t happen and Avery swallowed. ‘Of course, that’s what I meant. Whenyou find her, you’ll need to have a properconversation, but what if she won’t talk toyou? She’s never managed to talk to youbefore, has she? Why would she talk to you
now? She’s more likely to talk to me.’ There was a long, throbbing silence. ‘Let me get this straight—’ darklashes shielded the expression in thoseebony eyes ‘—you’re offering to help findmy bride and then talk her into marryingme?’ ‘Absolutely.’ Avery forced the wordsout and he stared at her for a long momentas if he were trying to peel away the layersand see beneath the façade she presented tothe world. ‘Why not?’ Her question was greeted byprolonged silence and then he straightenedhis shoulders. ‘I thought maybe—’ hisvoice was rough ‘—it might be difficult foryou to see me marrying another woman.’ ‘Difficult?’ She hoped her laughsounded more convincing to him than it didto her. ‘Why would you think that? Our
relationship is in the past, Mal. No one ismore enthusiastic to see you married than Iam. How else am I going to organize anafter-wedding-party and bill you forshedloads of money? Let’s get this done.’
CHAPTER THREE‘YOU said what? OK, now I know for sureyou’re mad. You’re going into the desert tofind a wimpy princess who doesn’t havethe courage to speak her own mind so thatshe can marry the man you were in lovewith?’ Jenny lay sprawled on the bed inAvery’s apartment, watching as her friendpacked. ‘It’s like something out of a reallybad soap opera. Scratch that—no onecould make this stuff up. It is going to endin tears. And those are going to be yourtears, by the way.’ ‘I’ve never cried over a man in mylife. And stop saying I was in love withhim.’ A skilled packer, Avery rolled acouple of shirts to prevent them creasing.‘And Kalila isn’t wimpy. It’s not her faultif she’s been bullied into submission all
her life by her father. I feel sorry for her.Better not to have a father around than havea bad one.’ ‘Let’s leave your father issues out ofthis. There’s enough going on without that.’ ‘I do not have father issues.’ Jenny rearranged the pillows andcushions on the bed and slumped againstthem. ‘What I don’t understand is why thePrince would even ask you to do this. Thatmust have taken some nerve.’ ‘He didn’t ask. I offered. Without abride he can’t get married and I want himmarried.’ ‘You want him married?’ ‘Of course.’ Avery added two pairsof trousers to her packing. Once he wasmarried there would be no going back. Ifnothing else could kill her feelings forMal, then surely marriage would. It would
bring the finality she’d been looking for.‘And I want the party to go ahead. It’s badfor business if a party is cancelled.’ ‘So you’re doing this for thebusiness?’ ‘I’m doing it because I’m worriedabout Kalila. You should have seen theway he looked at me when I told him whatI’d said to her. As if I’d pushed her into thelion’s cage and locked the door from theoutside. I like her.’ ‘Really? She sounds like a wimp tome.’ ‘I think she’s a victim of hercircumstances. She’s sweet. And yes, I feelresponsible.’ Avery sorted through hermake-up, picking out the bare minimum sheneeded in order to not look like a trainwreck. ‘And guilty. That is the last time Iever tell anyone to face their fears.’
Jenny picked up a lipgloss and tried iton the back of her hand. ‘You’re notresponsible for the fact she clearly hasappalling judgement and did somethingrash and stupid. Nice colour, by the way.’ ‘Maybe I am responsible.’ Averyrescued the lipgloss and added it to herbag. ‘I was the one who put the idea in herhead. Without me, she wouldn’t even havethought of doing something so radical.’ Shepacked carefully, referring to the list onher phone, knowing that the right clothingmight be all that stood between her and anunpleasant experience in the desert. Shepicked items designed to cover her, notjust because of concessions towardsmodesty or even protection against the sun,but because she wanted to do nothing thatmight be remotely described asprovocative. The last thing she needed wasMal thinking she was trying to attract his
attention. ‘This is ridiculous. You’re running abusiness, Avery. You don’t have time togallivant off after some woman you barelyknow with a guy you used to date. Youshould have—what are those—?’ Jennystared in alarm as Avery packed her sturdyhiking boots. ‘“Those” are going to save me fromsnake bites and scorpion stings.’ Jenny recoiled. ‘OK, forget my lastsentence. No wonder the Princess ranaway. She isn’t wimpy, she’s sensible.She’s thinking long-term. Better a briefstint in the desert now than a lifetime of theplace. If I had to wear boots like that Iwouldn’t marry the Prince either. It wasmeant to be a glass slipper, honey, not ahiking boot.’ ‘The desert is beautiful. Wild and
stunning.’ ‘This from a woman who never likesto be more than ten minutes from a spa?’ ‘Actually I did stay in a spa while Iwas there, but I also stayed in a Bedouincamp and I enjoyed that as much. It’s areally romantic place.’ ‘You’re not romantic.’ Jenny shookher head slowly. ‘You’re in trouble; youknow that, don’t you?’ Yes, she knew that . ‘I’m not introuble. I know what I’m doing. I’m incontrol.’ Jenny flopped back against thecushions. ‘So I guess this means I’ll haveto call the Senator myself and break thenews about the swans and the balloons.’ ‘Yes. Just speak with authority. Andif there are problems you can call me. I’llhave my phone. What I might not have is a
signal. But Mal will have a satellite phoneso I can use that to call you. You’re not totell anyone where we are. We’re going torescue her and then make up some story tocover her absence.’ ‘What sort of story?’ ‘I don’t know. The spa idea is a goodone. Maybe she and I went into the desertfor a girly break or something. I just needyou to be vague. If anyone asks, tell themI’m with a friend. I’ll be gone two days.Three at the most.’ Avery caught Jenny’sexpression. ‘What? Why are you looking atme like that?’ ‘You’re assuming she’s going to wantto come back with you, marry Mal and livehappily ever after. What if it doesn’thappen like that?’ ‘It will.’ ‘She ran away from him.’
‘They just need to startcommunicating with each other. It will befine.’ She was going to make sure it wasfine. ‘I hope you’re right.’ Jenny handedher a bottle of sunscreen that had fallen outof her bag. ‘In the meantime, you don’teven know where to start looking.’ ‘We’ve got a few ideas. I’ve alreadyspoken to Kalila’s sister. She thinks she’sprobably hiding out in a desert communityshe was sent to when she was a teenagerso we’re going to start there.’ ‘Like a summer camp?’ ‘That sort of thing.’ Avery found herpassport and dropped it into her bag. ‘It’sa find-yourself, Zen type of place.’ ‘Camp with scorpions. Thankgoodness my parents didn’t send me to thatone.’ Jenny shuddered but Avery didn’t
smile because she knew her problemwasn’t going to be the desert wildlife oreven the inhospitable terrain. It was Mal. Or, more specifically, herfeelings about Mal. ‘The scorpions aren’t a problem aslong as you remember to shake your bootsout in the morning before you put them onand you’re careful about moving rocks andthings.’ Jenny curled her legs under her. ‘Youare the woman who knows everything thereis to know about throwing a good party.When did you learn about scorpions?’ ‘I spent time in the desert with Mal.’And she didn’t want to think about thatnow. Didn’t dare think about it, but ofcourse having heard that comment Jennywasn’t about to let it go. ‘He’s the Crown Prince. I assumed
that when he went into the desert he hadjewel-encrusted tents and hundreds ofpeople to wait on him. Surely scorpionsaren’t allowed in the royal presence?’ ‘His father sent him to spend a yearwith a desert tribe to understand how theylived. And he spent a couple of years in theZubrani military after Cambridge. Heknows the desert, although this is differentbecause we’re travelling into Arhmor,which is where his princess comes from.Which hat?’ Avery held two of them upand when Jenny pointed she dropped it intoher bag. ‘Apparently we’re pretending tobe tourists.’ ‘Won’t he be recognised? For thatmatter, won’t you be recognised? Withyour blonde hair and your blue eyes,you’re going to stand out like a pair of redshoes at a white wedding.’
‘That’s why I’m packing the hat.’Avery added a silk wrap to her packing.‘And anyway, no one will expect to see theCrown Prince of Zubran slumming it in afour-by-four, and because they don’texpect to see him, they won’t see him. Butyou make a good point. I don’t thinktravelling in disguise is his thing. Can yougrab me a baseball hat with “I loveLondon” on it or something?’ Jenny shuddered. ‘If I have to. But areyou absolutely sure you’re fine withtravelling alone through the desert with aman you were once in love with?’ ‘I wasn’t in love with him. I’ve toldyou that a thousand times.’ ‘Maybe after another thousand times Imight actually believe you.’ Jenny slid offthe bed. ‘I’m just worried this is going tobe so hard for you.’
‘It’s not. It’s going to cure me.’ Averysnapped her case shut. ‘Five minutes alonewith Mal in the desert and he’ll be drivingme mad. I’ll be doing everything I can tomake sure he marries someone else. In factI’ll probably push her up the aisle myself.’She was driving him mad. Five minutes alone in her companyand already Mal was asking himself howthey’d ever survived a year together. Noother woman had this effect on him.Certainly not the woman he was supposedto be marrying. His mouth tightened as hecontemplated Kalila’s obvious change ofheart. Could he really blame her forrunning? They had no relationship andnever had. He hadn’t lied when he’d toldAvery they’d barely spoken. What hadbeen a lie was the implication that theirlack of communication had been driven by
Kalila’s strict upbringing. In fact evenwhen the opportunity had arisen, they’dhad nothing to say to each other. The marriage was about duty, nothingmore. The deal was clearly as distastefulto Kalila as it was to him, but he’d madehis choice and he’d thought she had too.And if there had been a moment in his lifewhen he’d thought that duty and desire justmight coincide, then that was in the past. Except that the ‘past’ was hoisting abag off her shoulder and glaring at him asif he were personally responsible forglobal warming and the economic crisis. He was a fool to have allowed her toc o me . To have put himself in thisposition. ‘I’ll drive.’ She slung her bag into theback of the four-by-four, slim and elegantin linen trousers and a long-sleeved shirt
that shielded her slender arms from thes un. That shiny blond fall of hair wasrestrained in a tight plait that fell betweenher narrow shoulder blades. Mal dragged his eyes from the leanlines of her body and focused on her face.As always, her skin was flawless and hermake-up perfect. There were no signs thatshe was finding the situation stressful. Andwhy would she? She’d ended theirrelationship, hadn’t she? And since thatday—that day now forged in his memory—she’d shown no regrets about thatdecision. ‘I’m driving.’ He wanted to givehimself something to focus on other thanher. ‘It will attract less attention.’ ‘The driver attracts more attentionthan the passenger. I will drive.’ ‘Are we going to argue every point?’
‘That’s up to you.’ Her blue eyeswere cool. ‘If you’re a tourist then youneed to look like a tourist. Good job Ibrought you a gift from London.’ Shetossed a baseball hat at him and he caughtit and read the words on the front. ‘“I love London”?’ ‘I tried to get a matching T-shirt butno luck. They only had small or medium.At least you look slightly closer to“tourist” than you did five minutes ago.’Her eyes skimmed his shoulders. It wassuch a brief look that to an outsider itwouldn’t have seemed significant but hewas looking for other signs and this timehe found them. The slight change in herbreathing. The way she was careful to stepaway from him. ‘Now all you have to do isstop ordering me around.’ ‘I have never ordered you around.
You have always done exactly as youwanted to do.’ Because he was stillwatching, he saw her expression flicker. For a moment he thought she wasgoing to say something personal. Possiblyeven admit that travelling alone togetherlike this was far more difficult than she’dimagined it would be. But then she gave acareless smile. ‘Good. So in that case you won’tmind if I drive.’ Breaking the connection,she opened the driver’s door and wasabout to jump inside when he caught herarm and pulled her back to him. Thecontact was minimal but that was all ittook, the attraction so deep, so fierce thathe released her instantly. But it was toolate because his body had alreadyrecognised her. This close, her perfumeseeped into his senses and the scent of itwas so evocative it acted like a brake to
his thinking. He couldn’t remember whathe’d been about to say. He couldn’t thinkabout anything except how much he wantedher. Her mouth was so close to his that hecould feel the tiny shallow breaths thatwere her attempts to draw air into herlungs. He knew that mouth. He wanted thatmouth. Her eyes lifted to his and for oneunguarded moment he saw something therehe’d never seen before. Not pain. It was somuch more than pain. Misery? Heartbreak?Fear? Even as he was struggling to namewhat he saw, it was gone—as if someonehad closed a blind on a window, leavinghim wondering if he’d imagined that briefglimpse into someone’s strictly guardedprivacy. She was the one who looked away
first. ‘Fine, you drive if it bothers you somuch.’ There were many shades ofemotion in her voice, but not the one hewas looking for. He heard bored. He heardamused. He didn’t hear heartbreak or painand he assumed he’d conjured that from hisown brain. ‘Avery—’ Ignoring him, she strode round to thepassenger side and dragged open the door.‘If you need to reinforce your masculinitybehind the wheel, you go right ahead.Maybe you can spear us an antelope forlunch, or strangle us a rattlesnake withyour bare hands. Whisk us up a tastyscorpion soup?’ She sprang inside, litheand athletic, the plait of her hair swingingacross her back like a shiny golden rope.‘But drive at a decent pace, will you?Nothing makes me madder than tentativemale drivers and you don’t want to be
trapped with me when I’m mad.’ Mal ground his teeth. He didn’t want to be trapped with herat all. It was already driving him mad. Only the knowledge that she’d beuseful once they found Kalila preventedhim from making the decision to leave herbehind. He slid into the driver’s seat. ‘Wewill check the desert camp first. Weshould arrive there tomorrow morning.’ If she was unsettled at the thought of anight in the desert with him then she didn’tlet it show. ‘You could just fly there inyour helicopter.’ ‘Which would alert everyone to thefact that my bride has run away.’ Hesnapped on his seat belt and eased thevehicle onto the dusty road. ‘For obviousreasons I’m trying to avoid that. I’m trying
to protect Kalila. If possible, I don’t wanther father to find out. Since my helicopteris emblazoned with the colours of theRoyal Flight, using it would hardly helpme stay under the radar.’ ‘Yes, it’s not great publicity, I can seethat. The Prince and his Runaway Brideisn’t the best headline. Your PR team aregoing to have fun spinning that one.’ As thevehicle hit a bump she gripped her seat.‘Any time you want me to drive, just let meknow.’ ‘We have barely been moving for fiveminutes. You are a terrible passenger.’ ‘I like to be the one in control. If I’mgoing to die, I want to choose when andwhere. And generally, who with, butbeggars can’t be choosers.’ His mouth twitched. ‘I’m anexceptionally good driver.’
‘To be exceptionally good atsomething requires practice and you werevirtually born in a chauffeur-drivenarmoured limousine.’ ‘I frequently drive myself unless Ihave work to do. I fly myself, too. And youknow it.’ He gave her a sideways glanceand met her glare. ‘Keep your eyes on the road. Youneed to be in one piece when you meet upwith your little virgin princess.’ ‘As a matter of interest, is yourobjection to the fact she is a virgin or aprincess?’ ‘I don’t have any objections. It wasjust a descriptive phrase.’ ‘Interesting choice of words. Youdon’t like Kalila?’ ‘I like her very much.’ She leanedforward and fished in her bag for a pair of
sunglasses. She slid them on, protectingher eyes from the harsh glare of the desertsun. ‘I happen to think she’s perfect foryou.’ ‘Meaning?’ ‘She won’t ever disagree with you.Whatever you do or say, you’ll always bethe one in charge and sweet Kalila willadmire you and never question whetheryou’re right or not because it wouldn’tenter her head that you wouldn’t be.’ ‘That could be because I am right.’He saw the smile curve her soft lips andfelt a rush of irritation. ‘Kalila is a sweet-natured, compliant young woman.’ ‘As I said—’ she adjusted her glasseswith a perfectly manicured finger ‘—perfect for you. Oh look! Are thosegazelle?’ Dragging his eyes from those slim
fingers, he followed the direction of hergaze and watched as a small herd ofslender gazelle sprinted away. From thisdistance they appeared to be floating on thesand. ‘Yes. You think I am afraid to bechallenged?’ ‘You hate to be challenged, Mal. Andit happens so rarely you’re unlikely to havethe opportunity to get used to it. Which iswhy you always assume you’re right. Isn’tit unusual to see herds of gazelle here?What type are they?’ She reached into herbag for her phone so that she could take aphotograph. ‘They’re gorgeous. Sograceful.’ ‘They are sand gazelle—the wordgazelle comes from the Arabic ?az?l. Wesupport numerous conservation projects.Protecting wildlife and preserving theirnatural habitat is important to us. Killingand capture of all wildlife is illegal in
Zubran. And you should stop changing thesubject.’ ‘I love the colour of their coats. Sopale.’ ‘Typical of you to comment on theirappearance.’ His gaze flickered briefly tothe plait of blonde hair that gleamed likegold in the sunlight. ‘The sand gazelle hasadapted for life in the desert. The coatreflects the sun’s rays instead of absorbingthem and of course it provides camouflage.And, by the way, I have no objection at allto being challenged.’ He knew she wastrying to rile him and wondered why shewould feel the need when the atmospherein the car was already heavy with tension.‘My wife will be my equal.’ Her laughter was spontaneous andgenuine and she was still laughing as sheslipped her phone back into her bag.
‘Sorry, but you have to admit that’s funny.’ ‘What is funny?’ ‘You thinking that your wife will beyour equal. In which universe, Mal?’ It was a struggle to hang onto histemper. ‘She will be my equal.’ ‘As long as she agrees with you.’Laughter gone, she was cool and suddenlyhe wanted to shake that cool. ‘So the thought of me marrying herdoesn’t upset you?’ ‘Why would I be upset?’ Thesunglasses were back on her nose,obscuring her expression. ‘You are free tomarry whomever you choose. It’s none ofmy business, although I’m wishing now I’dmade it my business. I should have calledKalila and given her the chance for girltalk. Poor thing.’
‘Poor thing? You and I were togetherfor over a year.’ ‘It felt much, much longer, don’t youthink? And now we’re not together, whichis a big relief for both of us. If you’reasking me if news of your wedding was ashock, then the answer is no. I alwaysknew you’d get married. You’re themarrying kind, Mal.’ Her answer was justa little too swift. A little too glib. ‘And what is “the marrying kind”?’ ‘Someone who wants to get married,obviously. People get married for differentreasons. Sometimes it’s because they needfinancial security. Sometimes it’s becausethey’re too maladjusted to live bythemselves—’ she suppressed a yawn ‘—increasingly it’s because they see divorceas a lucrative option. In your case it’sbecause you have a sense of responsibility
towards your father and your country. Youfeel a duty to produce children and for thatyou need a wife because you wouldn’tcontemplate any other alternative.’ Mal had forgotten just how cynicalshe was about marriage. He assumed her extreme reaction wassomehow linked with her own backgroundbut, apart from telling him her mother hadraised her alone, she’d given him nodetails. They’d spent their time in thepresent, never revisiting the past. Would things have been different, hewondered, if he’d questioned her more?Would it have helped if he’d gained moreinsight into the workings of her mind? ‘You think those are the only reasonsfor marriage?’ He drove fast, speedingalong one of the wide roads that crossedthe desert, wishing they’d never started
this conversation. Truthfully, he didn’twant to talk about his impending marriage.He didn’t want to think about it until themoment came to make his vows. He’ddelayed for as long as he could and now itwas oppressively close, reality pressing inon him like dark clouds. It was true that he’d proposedmarriage to Kalila within weeks of hisrelationship with Avery breaking down,but there were reasons for that. Reasons hehadn’t shared with her and didn’t intend toshare with her. What was the point? Her phone rang and she took the call.Already this morning she’d been on thephone to the office at least four times,addressing problems. ‘Doves?’ Mal failed to keep thesarcasm out of his voice as she ended yet
another call. ‘You really do deal with thebig issues, don’t you?’ ‘If you’re implying that my businesshas no value then I feel obliged to point outthat the success of the launch party Iarranged for the opening of the new hotelin Zubran has resulted in such effectivepublicity that the place is now running atone hundred per cent occupancy, thusoffering a considerable boost to your localeconomy both in terms of employment andincreased tourism, which has additionalbenefits for the surrounding area.’ Withoutlooking up, she scrolled through heremails. ‘But it’s true that as well as theproven commercial benefits of employingmy company, there are less tangible ones. Icreate memories for people. Memories thatwill last for ever. I am often privileged tobe present at the happiest moments ofpeople’s lives. Anniversaries,
engagements, weddings—moments thatwould undoubtedly always be special, butwhich I can make unforgettable. Byrecommending those doves that youconsider to be of so little importance, Ihave probably saved his marriage. It’sironic, don’t you think, that I, a self-confessed cynic about marriage, should beworking to preserve one while you, astaunch supporter, mock my efforts.’ ‘I wasn’t mocking you.’ ‘You mocked my business, Mal. Younever took my business seriously.’ Therewas a snap in her voice and she leaned herhead back against the seat and closed hereyes. ‘Sorry. This is history. I don’t knowwhy we’re talking about it except that itpasses the time.’ ‘I apologise,’ he breathed. ‘No onecould fail to admire what you’ve achieved
with your company.’ ‘Is it the “frivolous” nature of mybusiness that disturbs you most, or the factthat I work like a man?’ ‘I don’t know what you’re talkingabout.’ But he did know what she wastalking about and his hands gripped thewheel just a little bit tighter. ‘Oh come on, Mal! You like to thinkof yourself as progressive, but you’re notcomfortable with a woman who is aspassionate about her work as a man wouldbe. You don’t think I should fly around theworld, live out of suitcases andoccasionally sleep in my office. That’swhat men do, isn’t it? You believe thatwork is what a woman does until she findsa man, marries and has a family. It wouldbe quaint if it weren’t so exasperating.’ ‘I have no problems with your work
ethic. I admire it.’ ‘From a distance. Even now, youcan’t admit the truth.’ ‘And what is “the truth”? Enlightenme.’ They were snapping at each other,releasing the almost intolerable energythey created together in the only way opento them. ‘You want a woman barefoot andpregnant in the kitchen. No opinions. Nolife of her own. That is why you aremarrying Kalila.’ He was marrying Kalila because itwas the only option left to him. ‘This is a pointless conversation.’ Her glossy mouth curved into a smile.‘Men always say that when they’ve lost.Never “you’re right” or “I screwed up”,just “this is a pointless conversation”. Dothey give speeding tickets out here?