1. 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
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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
5. 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.
6. 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:
7. 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
8. Woman in aSheikh’s World Sarah Morganwww.millsandboon.co.uk
9. 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
10. 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
11. 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
12. 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.
13. 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
14. 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
15. 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
16. 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
17. 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
18. 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.’
19. ‘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
20. 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.
21. 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
22. 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,
23. 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
24. 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
25. 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
26. 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.’
27. ‘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
28. 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
29. 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
30. 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
31. 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.’
32. 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
33. 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
34. 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?’
35. 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.’
36. ‘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
37. 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
38. 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
39. 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
40. 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.
41. 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.
42. 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
43. 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
44. 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.
45. 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.
46. 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
47. 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
48. 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.
49. 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
50. 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
51. 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.’
52. 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.
53. ‘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
54. 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.’
55. ‘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
56. 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
57. 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
58. 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.’
59. 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
60. 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.
61. 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
62. 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
63. 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
64. 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
65. 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
66. 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?
67. 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.
68. ‘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.
69. 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
70. 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.
71. ‘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.
72. ‘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
73. 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
74. 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.’
75. 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
76. 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
77. 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
78. 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
79. 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
80. 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
81. 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.’
82. ‘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
83. 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
84. 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
85. 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.
86. ‘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.’
87. ‘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
88. 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
89. 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
90. 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
91. 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
92. 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
93. 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
94. 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
95. 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.’
96. 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
97. 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
98. 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.’
99. 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
100. 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
101. 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
102. 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.’
103. ‘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
104. 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
105. 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.’
106. ‘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.’
107. ‘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
108. 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
109. 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?’
110. ‘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.
111. 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
112. 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
113. 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
114. 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
115. 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.’
116. ‘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
117. 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
118. 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
119. 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.
120. ‘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.’
121. ‘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
122. 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
123. 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
124. 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,
125. 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
126. 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
127. 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?
128. Because if they do then you’re going to getone. You seem angry. Are you angry?’ Shewas pushing him and he realised just howeasy he made that for her. It was doublyfrustrating because normally the desertrelaxed him. ‘I’m concerned about Kalila. It’simportant that we make the edge of themountains by dusk.’ He slowed the speedfractionally, exasperated with himself forallowing her to wind him up. ‘I know agood place to camp, but I want to set upwhile there is still some light.’ Thatobservation was greeted by silence. ‘So no chance of reaching your bridetonight then?’ ‘If she is where her sister suspectsshe is, then no. We will have to stop forone night.’ A night alone in the desert withthis woman. He was greeting that prospect
129. with almost as much enthusiasm as hisimpending wedding. ‘So if her sister knew where she wasgoing, why didn’t she stop her?’ ‘She didn’t know. Kalila sent her thesame note she sent me. Jasmina was afraidof her father’s reaction, so she contactedme instead. Which was fortunate becauseat least we have more to go on than we didbefore. She is covering for her sister. Atthe moment the Sheikh does not even knowhis daughter is not in her rooms.’ ‘Her father sounds like a realtreasure. Better to not have one than haveone who induces fear.’ It was the first time he’d ever heardher mention her father. Mal turned his head and glanced ather, but she was looking forwards, a tinyfrown between her eyes as she focused on
130. the sand dunes that rose either side ofthem. ‘I love how they change colour withthe light. And the way the pattern changes—it’s fascinating.’ ‘It’s the combination of wind andsun.’ He’d watched her fall in love withthe exotic, mysterious dunes the first timeround and he could still remember thedelight on her face when she’d witnessedher first desert sunset. Another irony, hethought, that this woman who had beenraised in a Western city should feel anaffinity for the place of his birth whileKalila, with her desert heritage, found theplace nothing short of repellent. ‘Yourfather wasn’t around when you wereyoung?’ ‘Are we playing psychotherapy next?’She met question with question and hesighed, wondering what it took to get her toopen up.
131. ‘In all the time I’ve known you,you’ve never talked about your father.’ ‘That’s because there is nothing tosay.’ Her cool tone was like a wind blownstraight from the Arctic, her wordsdesigned to freeze that line of questioningin mid-flow. Mal refused to be deflected eventhough part of him was wondering why hewas choosing to ask these questions now,when it was too late for them. ‘Did heleave when you were young?’ It was apersonal question, and probably unadvisedgiven his vow to avoid the personal, butnevertheless he asked it. He’d alwaysassumed that her father was somehowresponsible for her aversion to marriagebut she’d never given him any detail. ‘Why the sudden interest in my father?We were talking about Kalila’s situation,
132. not mine.’ ‘I’m just thinking it must have beenhard for you growing up without a man inyour life.’ ‘You’re doing it again—assuming thata woman needs a man to survive.’ Mal breathed deeply, refusing to rise.‘That is not what I assume. Why are youdeliberately misinterpreting my words?’ ‘I’m not. I just know you, Mal.’ ‘Maybe you don’t.’ He wonderedhow he could have been so blinkered. Shewas afraid. Why hadn’t he seen thatbefore? ‘We both know you have verytraditional views on the role of women.’ ‘Do not assume to know what I amthinking.’ ‘It’s not hard to guess. You’re
133. marrying a woman you barely know so thatyou can have a traditional set-up and breedchildren.’ ‘Is it so wrong to think a childbenefits from being raised in a traditionalfamily unit?’ ‘I wasn’t raised in a traditional familyunit and I’m fine.’ No, he thought. You’re not fine . ‘I’mnot saying that a child can’t be fine withone parent. But family offers security.’ ‘You’re talking rubbish. TakeKalila’s father—would she be better offwith a mother who teaches her to be strongand independent or a father who bulliesher?’ She spoke just a little too quickly.Was a little too anxious to move theconversation away from her own situation. Mal thought of his own father. Strict,yes, and often busy, of course. But never
134. too busy to spend time with his son. ‘Yourmother didn’t remarry?’ ‘I don’t know why you’re going onabout fathers. Kalila’s has frightened herinto running away and yours has pressuredyou to marry a woman you barely know.’ She hadn’t answered his question .‘He didn’t pressure me.’ This was thepoint where he should tell her the truthabout his union with Kalila but somethingheld him back. ‘We are well suited.’ ‘Because you give out the orders andshe says yes? That’s not a relationship,Mal. That’s servitude. You’ve barely had aconversation with her. You know nothingabout her likes and dislikes and you haveno idea why she’s run away or where shecould be heading. None of that suggests anunbreakable bond.’ Their conversations had always been
135. lively, but never before today had she beenso openly antagonistic. It was as if shewere trying to goad him. ‘I have a great deal of respect forKalila and I value her opinion.’ ‘When has she ever expressed anopinion? When has she ever actuallyvoiced a thought that isn’t yours?’ ‘Perhaps we think alike.’ Her beautiful mouth twisted into awry smile. ‘More likely she’s afraid to tellyou what she really thinks. Or perhaps shedoesn’t even know what she really thinksbecause she’s never been allowed to findout. You need to do something about that,Your Highness. Not only is it politicallyincorrect to want a passive wife, it’s goingto bore you in five minutes.’ The carbumped into a pothole and she winced.‘And while you’re ruling the world, you
136. really do need to do something about thestate of your roads.’ And the state of his nerves. He wastense. On edge. Angry. ‘This road is notmy responsibility. We left Zubran half anhour ago. You are now in Arhmor andinfrastructure has never been a highpriority for the Sheikh.’ The scenery hadchanged. They were approachingmountains and the road was rougher.Everything about Arhmor was rougher.‘Let’s hope we don’t blow a tyre. This isnot somewhere to break down.’ ‘So instead of mending his roads, theSheikh tries to build his empire. I supposethat’s what this marriage is about, is it?You are the wealthier state. I assume he’shoping that if you marry his daughter,you’ll fix his roads for him.’ ‘It’s true that this marriage will bring
137. political advantages—’ Mal turned thewheel to avoid another deep rut in the road‘—but that is not the only reason for themarriage. Kalila is a princess with animpeccable bloodline.’ ‘You make her sound like breedingstock. On the other hand, I suppose that’swhat she is. A brood mare to produce lotsof little Sultans for the future.’ Her toneflippant, she turned her head and lookedover her shoulder. ‘Are you sure you’retaking the right route? Because accordingto the sat nav you should have turned leftback there. You should have let me drive.Everyone knows a man can’t do two thingsat once.’ She was definitely goading him. What he didn’t understand was why.Why would she want to make this journeymore difficult and unpleasant than it
138. already was? Mal breathed deeply, transferred hisgaze to the screen and cursed softly. Shewas right. He’d missed an importantturning. Not because he couldn’t do twothings at once, but because he’d been sodistracted by Avery and by his impendingmarriage that he hadn’t been concentrating.Slamming the vehicle into reverse, he tookthe correct route. Around them, thelandscape grew steadily more bleak andbarren. ‘Say one word and I’ll dump youby the side of the road.’ ‘I wouldn’t dream of making asound.’ It was clear from her voice that shewas enjoying his mistake and he tightenedhis grip on the wheel. ‘You’re infuriating, you know that,don’t you?’ ‘Because I pointed out you were
139. going the wrong way?’ ‘I’m perfectly capable of driving. Ifyou want to pick a fight, you’re going tohave to choose a different battleground.’ ‘This is why our relationship ended.Because we can’t be civil to each other forfive minutes. The only thing we were everreally good at as a couple was fighting.’ So that was it. That was the game shewas playing. She was snapping because she wasterrified of what they’d once shared. Shewas terrified that if she stopped snapping,something else would happen. Somethingfar, far more dangerous. Wondering how he could have beenso dense, Mal slammed his foot on thebrake and the car stopped suddenly. Anger throbbing inside him, he turnedto look at her. ‘That is not why our
140. relationship ended.’ His voice thickenedwith emotion and he wondered what it wasabout this woman that triggered suchextreme feelings. ‘And we were good at agreat deal more than fighting.’ He saw thechange in her. Saw her spine grow rigidand her breathing grow shallow. ‘No, we weren’t.’ ‘We both know exactly why ourrelationship ended, Avery, and it hadnothing to do with the arguments.’ Her skin was flawless, smooth andvery, very pale. Her mouth was a tight linein her beautiful face. ‘There is nothing tobe gained by talking about this.’ ‘Maybe not, but we’re talking about itanyway.’ ‘Mal—’ ‘Our relationship ended because Iasked you to marry me,’ he said harshly.
141. ‘And you said no. That’s why it ended.’
142. CHAPTER FOUR‘STOP the car!’ For a fleeting second she’dtried telling herself that it wasn’t worthgoing over this, but her emotions were tooraw for that. She was so angry that all ofher was shaking. Her knees. Her hands …‘Stop the damn car, right now.’ She wasout of the door before the vehicle came toa standstill and Mal was right behind her,the slam of the door breaking the stillnessof the burning air. Theirs was the only vehicle in sight.They were alone in the spectacular openspace of the desert, surrounded byshimmering dunes and the soaringmountains. ‘You intend to walk from here?’ ‘Is that really your recollection ofevents? You truly believe that you “asked”
143. me to marry you?’ Her hair swung acrossher back as she turned to confront him. Herheart was racing and she felt the heat of thesun beating down on her head. She realisedthat she’d left her hat in the car, but it wastoo late to care about that now. ‘We mustbe existing in a parallel universe orsomething because I remember it verydifferently.’ Right now her anger washotter than anything produced by nature butunderneath that pulsing anger were layersof different emotions. Pain. Desire. Sexualawareness. Feelings. Feelings she didn’twant to feel. And he clearly didn’t either ifhis expression was anything to go by. Hewas watching her with the samecautiousness he would give an enragedscorpion. ‘Avery—’ ‘And when you think about it, that’snot surprising because you never ask
144. anyone anything, do you? You command.You order. You instruct.’ She ticked themoff on her fingers while he watched with adangerous glint in those dark eyes. ‘Are you finished?’ ‘I’ve barely started. You’re soarrogant you never involve anyone else inyour decisions. No wonder your virginbride has run into the desert.’ His eyes flared dark. ‘Stop callingher that.’ ‘Tell me something.’ Still shaking,Avery put her hands on her hips. ‘Did youactually ask her to marry you, Mal? Or didyou just book the wedding and thenmention it to her in passing? Perhaps that’swhat’s wrong here. Perhaps no oneremembered to tell her she was supposedto be getting married. Did you miss her offthe invitation list?’
145. A muscle flickered in his bronzedcheek. ‘I’m the first to admit that myproposal to you went awry, but there werecircumstances—’ ‘Awry? It didn’t go “awry”, Mal. Itdidn’t happen. There was no proposal.There was just assumption. Lots ofarrogant assumption.’ All the anger andhumiliation came piling back on top of her.And the terror. She’d almost losteverything. All of it. Everything she’dworked for. ‘You assumed I was a surething. That of course I’d say yes to youbecause who wouldn’t? You were so sureof yourself you didn’t even pause to thinkabout my needs, and you were so sure ofme you didn’t even bother to ask myopinion on the topic. And there are nocircumstances that can explain or excuseyour arrogance!’ ‘And if there were, you wouldn’t
146. listen to them.’ ‘The first I knew of your “proposal”w a s not when you and I had a privatemoment during which you asked me if I’dconsider marrying you, but when one of mybiggest clients rang to cancel his contractwith me because he’d heard that I was nolonger going to be running my company.When I asked him where that rumour hadoriginated, he told me that he’d heard itfrom you. That you’d told him that onceyou married me I would no longer betaking on more business. Because of you, Ilost clients. I could have lost the wholebusiness. My business. The business I builtfrom nothing.’ The thought of how closeshe’d come to losing everything thatmattered to her sent her spiralling intopanic. ‘That is what our “romance” did forme. And you wonder why I’m notromantic?’
147. There were lines of strain visiblearound his sensual mouth. ‘That is not whatI said to him.’ ‘Then what did you say to himbecause he was pretty sure of his factswhen he took his business elsewhere.Important business, I might add. Businessthat would have led to more business.Instead I found myself explaining to somevery confused people why I wasn’t gettingmarried.’ His eyes were a dark, dangerousblack. ‘And in doing so you humiliatedme.’ ‘No, you humiliated me, Mal! Youmade me look like some brainless, witlesswoman who was just waiting for a rich,handsome Prince to come along and rescueher from her sad life. All those times yousaid you loved me for who I was. You said
148. you loved my independence and mystrength. And then you cut me off at theknees. Did you really think I’d just give upmy business and marry you?’ ‘I thought you’d trust me. We’d beentogether for a year,’ he said in a thickenedtone. ‘We were happy together.’ ‘We were happy until you tried totake over my life. “Once we’re marriedshe won’t have time to run your parties.”Wasn’t that what you said to him?’ There was a tense silence. ‘Yes. Butthere were reasons—’ ‘Yes, and we both know what thosereasons were. You have to be in control.You’ve been giving orders since you wereold enough to put two words together andyou don’t know any different. The problemis, I’m not great at taking orders, Mal. Ilike to run my own life. In fact, I insist on
149. it. Damn it, why are we even having thisconversation?’ Furious to feel her eyesstinging, she stomped back to the car but asshe touched the door handle his handcovered hers. ‘Get away from me. It’s myturn to drive.’ ‘This conversation isn’t finished.’ ‘It is as far as I’m concerned.’ ‘What happened with RichardKingston was a mis-judgement on my part,I admit it. But there were circumstances—’ ‘There isn’t a single circumstance thatwould successfully excuse a mandiscussing his marital intentions witheveryone before the woman he intended tomarry.’ She felt the warmth of his hand, thestrength of those fingers as they stayed incontact with hers and forced herself to pullaway. ‘Are you crying?’
150. ‘Don’t be ridiculous. I’ve got sand inmy eyes. This is a very sandy place.’ ‘You’re wearing sunglasses.’ ‘Well, clearly they’re not veryefficient.’ Furious and miserable, Averypulled open the door and slid inside. Herheart was pounding, her control shreddedand her emotions raw. Why on earth hadshe decided to put herself through this?And in the desert. A place so closelyentwined with her relationship with Malthat she wasn’t even able to look at apicture of it without feeling sad. On her first visit to Zubran she’dfallen in love. Twice. First with thecountry; with the contrast between stunningbeaches and the wild beauty of the ever-changing dunes. Second, with the man. Andsomehow the two had become inextricablylinked so that she couldn’t imagine one
151. without the other. He was part of this wildplace and part of the place existed withinhim, had bred the strength and resiliencethat formed that steel core of hispersonality. Her feelings for him had terrified herand they terrified her still. And yes, thatwas why she’d done nothing but snap athim from the moment she’d got into thevehicle. The alternative was allowing thatdangerous chemistry to take hold and shecouldn’t do that. She wouldn’t do that. Avery tightened her fingers on thewheel as she drove, every tiny part of heralive with awareness despite all herefforts. Next to her in the passenger seat, Malsat sprawled, beautiful eyes narrowedbehind sunglasses as he stared ahead. She was silent and so was he, but that
152. silence did nothing to defuse the tension. An hour passed. And another hour. Neither of them spoke a word. Andshe was relieved to be driving. Relievedto have something to focus on other thanhim. Except that it didn’t work like that, ofcourse, because no matter how much shefocused on the road, she was still aware ofhim, right there beside her. Within touchingdistance, except that she wasn’t allowed totouch. And awareness grew and grew untilthe air was almost too thick to breathe.Until the desire to touch him was almostoverwhelming and she had to grip thewheel until her knuckles were white withthe pressure. This was why she wanted hismarriage to go ahead, she thought savagely.Because only then would he be out of her
153. head and out of her heart. She wasn’t thesort of woman who could hold ontofeelings for a married man. That would beit. She could get back to a normal life. After what felt like hours of silence,he finally spoke. ‘We’ll camp by thoserocks up ahead.’ His tone was neutral.Devoid of emotion. ‘They should offersome protection from the elements.’ She didn’t need protecting from theelements. She needed protection from him.Or was it herself? She was no longer sure. Confused and jittery, Avery parkedand sprang from the vehicle. ‘You cancamp by that rock and I’ll camp by theother.’ Distance, she thought. She neededdistance. They needn’t even see each otheruntil morning. She’d zip her tent up andshe’d keep it zipped. ‘There is just one tent, Avery.’
154. ‘What?’ His words blew out thefoundations of her fledgling plan andanswered any remaining questions she hadabout her feelings for him. ‘Just one?Why?’ ‘Why does that matter?’ He seemedunusually interested in her reaction and shepushed away disturbing images of hismuscle-packed length stretched next tohers. ‘Well, for a start, it isn’t exactly thedone thing for a man to sleep with onewoman when he is engaged to marryanother. And then there’s always thechance that I’ll kill you in my sleep.’ If sheslept. Which seemed unlikely. ‘I don’t intend to sleep with you.’ Heleaned in and pulled a bag from thevehicle. ‘Just share a tent with you. It isn’tas if we haven’t done it before.’
155. But the last time they’d been lovers.Intimate in every way. They were both hot-tempered and stubborn and those traits hadsimply intensified the sexual connectionbetween them. Avery watched as he hauled the tentand the gear from the vehicle. ‘Why didn’tyou bring two tents?’ ‘I wasn’t expecting company. If yourecall, you were the one who insisted oncoming. Having already spread the wordthat I wanted a couple of nights in thedesert alone, I could hardly articulate theneed for a second tent.’ He focused hisattention on creating their camp and sheforced herself to help, even though doingso brought her into close proximity withhim. She tried to subdue the choking,panicky feeling in her chest at the thoughtof sharing that confined space with him.
156. He’d be sleeping with his head nextto hers. His body within touching distance. She looked at his shoulders andimmediately looked away again. What if she had one of hernightmares? What if she reached for him inher sleep? Making a mental note to lie on herhands and stay awake until he was asleep,she helped secure the tent, working withoutspeaking. And it was exasperating todiscover that he was as competent at thisas he was at everything else. Avery gritted her teeth. She wasn’tlooking for things to admire about him. Shedidn’t want to admire him. Not when theywere about to spend a night crammed intoa relatively small space. At least it wasn’t cold. She’d stayoutside until the last possible moment
157. before going into the tent. With luck, he’dbe asleep by the time she joined him. ‘Nice to know you can functionwithout staff.’ She watched as he lit a fireand proceeded to cook their supper. He’dthrown a rug on the ground and she knelt onit, watching as the flames flickered to life.‘So we should reach the oasis tomorrow?What if she isn’t there?’ ‘I think she will be.’ ‘You could have just asked yoursecurity team to check it out.’ ‘If I’d done that it would have beenimpossible to keep this situation contained.I want to keep this as quiet as possible.’ ‘To protect your ego.’ ‘To protect my bride, at least untilI’ve decided how best to sort this out.’ Hecooked without fuss, lamb with spiceschargrilled over the open flame and served
158. with rice. And because she was trying hardto make the whole experience less intimateshe insisted on cooking her own, eventhough she did nowhere near as good a jobas he did. She burned the edges but still it tastedgood and Avery ate hungrily until shecaught him looking at her. Immediately herappetite vanished, as if someone hadflicked a switch. ‘What? It’s delicious.’ ‘It’s hardly gourmet. You eat in fivestar restaurants all the time and fly incelebrity chefs to cater for your parties.’ ‘Yes, but that’s my work. This isdifferent. There’s something about foodeaten outdoors in the desert. I’ve alwaysloved it here.’ Immediately she regrettedsaying it out loud because everything she’dloved about the desert was entwined with
159. everything she loved about him. Not love.She corrected herself quickly. Felt.Everything she loved about the desert wasentwined with everything she felt abouthim. Because she knew he was looking ather, she kept her eyes on the view and thatwas no hardship because she could havestared for hours at the desert landscape thataltered minute by minute under the fadinglight. The area he’d picked for campingwas rocky, but they were still on theborder with Zubran and dunes rose aheadof her, dark gold under the setting sun, thebeauty of it holding her captivated until thesun dipped behind a mound and darknessquickly spread over the desert. Grateful for that darkness, she liftedher eyes to the sky and picked a neutraltopic. ‘Why do the stars always seem somuch brighter out here?’
160. ‘Less pollution.’ His tone short, herose to his feet, doused the fire andgestured to the tent. ‘We need to get somerest. I’d like to leave at dawn.’ So he didn’t want to linger any morethan she did. Didn’t want to prolong thetime they spent together. The knowledgeshould have brought a feeling of relief butinstead she just felt hollow and numb. ‘Dawn is fine with me.’ Anything thatmeant less time in the tent with him had tobe good. She wiped her bowl clean, nibbled onone of the dates he’d left out on a plate andtried not to think about their first trip intothe desert together. It had been at thebeginning of their relationship, duringthose heady first months when they’d beenconsumed by their feelings for each other.He’d been so frustrated by the unrelenting
161. demands on his time and privacy that he’darranged a secret trip. They’d joked thathe’d kidnapped her, but really they’dstolen time away, as normal couples didall the time. He’d dismissed his securityteam. She’d left her phone behind. It wasthe first time they’d really been on theirown, away from the craziness of hisexistence and the craziness of hers. It had been the happiest week of herlife. Thinking about it now brought a lumpto her throat. The ache in her chest felt likea solid lump and she sneaked a glancetowards him, only to find him watchingher, that dark gaze fiercely intense. ‘Say it.’ ‘Say what?’ ‘Say what you are thinking.’ Avery swallowed. ‘What am I
162. thinking?’ ‘You are thinking of that week wespent together. Just the two of us.’ Hisvoice was rough and suddenly she couldn’tbreathe and the panic pressed down on herbecause that was exactly what she’d beenthinking. ‘Actually I was thinking how bleak itis here.’ His expression told her that he didn’tbelieve her but he didn’t push her. Insteadhe turned away, leaving her feeling morevulnerable than she ever had before. Now what? Not speaking about her feelings didn’tchange the fact they existed. And thethought of going into that tent—of being soclose to him—kept her sitting outside longafter she should have gone inside. Shepostponed the moment as long as possible.
163. Postponed the moment when they’d beforced together in that cramped, confinedspace that was designed to force intimacyeven between two people who wereavoiding it. Would she have insisted on joininghim if she’d known about the sleepingarrangements? No, probably not. Self-preservation would have outweighed theguilt she felt towards Kalila. Kal i l a. He was going to marryKalila. She had no idea how long she satthere. Time blurred. Misery deepened.Fatigue, the mortal enemy of optimism,caught up with her. ‘Avery? You need to come inside thetent now. It’s dark.’ His voice was deepand sexy and she squeezed her eyes closedand tried to block out the images created
164. by that voice. ‘I’m not afraid of the dark.’ ‘No, you are afraid of intimacy, butintimacy is not on offer so you areperfectly safe in this tent with me.’ ‘I’m not afraid of intimacy.’ ‘Good. In that case, get in this tentbefore you become a tasty snack for adesert creature. Unless you’d rather I pickyou up and put you here myself?’ That would be the worst of alloptions. She didn’t want him to touch herbut she knew he would make good on histhreat if she didn’t move, so she put herhand down on the rug to lever herself upand felt a sharp pain. ‘Ow.’ She snatchedher hand away and there was a scuttlingsound. ‘What—? Ugh, Mal, something justbit me. And it rattles.’ He was by her side in an instant. The
165. torch flashed and a scorpion scuttled underthe rug. ‘Not a rattlesnake—a scorpion.Good.’ ‘Good? Why is it good? From whereI’m sitting it’s seriously creepy. If wewere playing “marry, kiss or push off acliff”, the scorpion would be the one offthe cliff, I can tell you that.’ Her voice roseand she hugged her hand to her chest. ‘Arethere any more out here?’ ‘Hundreds, probably. They come outat night.’ ‘Hundreds?’ Horrified, she sprang athim, clinging like a monkey. ‘Don’t put medown.’ ‘Avery—’ ‘Whatever you do, don’t put medown. I’m never touching the floor again.Do you seriously mean hundreds? Please
166. tell me you’re kidding.’ She’d forgotten how strong he was.His arms closed around her, strong,protective. She thought he might have beenlaughing but told herself he wouldn’t darelaugh at her. ‘I thought you were fine with desertwildlife.’ ‘I’m fine with the theory. Not so goodwith the reality when it closes its jaws onme. And if you dare laugh I will kill you,Your Highness. Just a warning.’ ‘I’m not laughing. But I’m not going tolet you forget this in a hurry.’ ‘I just bet you’re not.’ She buried herface in his neck, wondering why he had tosmell so good. ‘It’s worth savouring. The momentAvery Scott became a damsel in distress.’
167. ‘No one will ever believe you and Iwill deny it until my dying breath, whichmay be soon if there are truly hundreds ofthose things out there. I’m not distressed.More freaked out. I can tell you this is thefirst time in my life I’ve jumped on a man.’ ‘I’m flattered you chose me,’ hedrawled. ‘As a matter of interest, are yougoing to let go?’ ‘Are they still out there?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Then I’m not letting go. Youthreatened to carry me to the tent. Goahead.’ She tightened her grip and he gavea soft curse. ‘You’re choking me.’ ‘I don’t care.’ ‘If I die, you fall to the ground andthey’ll swarm all over you.’
168. ‘You have a sick sense of humour.’But she loosened her grip. ‘Move, Mal! Iwant to be in the tent.’ ‘Damsels in distress don’t usuallygive the orders. And I was in the tent. Youwere the one who chose scorpions over mycompany. Are you telling me that you’rerethinking that choice?’ ‘Don’t be flattered. All it means isthat you’re better than a scorpion. Don’tmake me beg.’ She clung, her handspressed to those solid shoulders. ‘Are youlaughing?’ ‘No.’ ‘Good, because if you were laughing,I’d have to punch you with my good hand.My other hand hurts. Am I going to die?’ ‘It is rare for scorpion bites to causefatalities.’ ‘Rare? So that means that sometimes
169. people die, right?’ His hesitation was brief. ‘Yes, butit’s usually only in the very young or inpeople with health issues and you don’tfall into either category.’ ‘That’s not very reassuring. You’resupposed to say, “No, Avery, of courseyou’re not going to die.” Why don’t menever know the right thing to say at the rightmoment?’ ‘If men said the right thing at the rightmoment, we’d be women.’ He duckedinside the tent, lowered her onto a sleepingroll he’d laid out for himself and gentlydetached himself from her grip. Themovement brought their faces very closetogether. She could feel his breath on hercheek. All she had to do was turn her headand their mouths would meet. And shedidn’t have to wonder how that would feel
170. because she knew. And he knew, too. Their eyes met and she saw the heatin his and knew he would see the same inhers because the chemistry was there, aspowerful as ever. It sucked at her stomachand brushed over her skin, making hercrave the impossible. She hadn’t kissed aman since him and she missed him terribly. It was a dangerous moment and it feltas if it lasted for ever. In reality it was lessthan a couple of seconds and she wasabout to push him away when he turnedaway from her, suddenly brisk andefficient. ‘Do you normally react to bee stingsor wasp stings?’ The only thing she reacted to washim. Her mouth was so dry it felt as ifshe’d fallen face down in the desert. ‘I
171. have no idea. I’ve never been stung byeither before.’ The chemistry betweenthem had shaken her almost as much as thescorpion bite. She felt vulnerable, and shehated feeling vulnerable. The last timeshe’d felt like this was when they’d splitup. ‘How are you feeling?’ ‘My hand throbs.’ She squinted downat it and he hesitated for a moment and thenslid back the sleeve of her shirt andstudied it under the light. His fingers werestrong and firm and she had to concentrateon keeping still. On not responding. He wasn’t hers any more. And shewasn’t his. Avery stared at his bent head; at theglossy dark hair that flopped over hisforehead. She knew exactly how it wouldfeel if she sank her hands into it because
172. she’d done that. She’d trailed her mouthover his skin and tasted him. Everywhere. As if feeling her thoughts, he lifted hishead and she jerked back slightly, feelingguilty even though all she’d done was look. The man was marrying Kalila. Thefact that they seemed to barely know eachother wasn’t her business. The fact thatKalila had run away wasn’t her business. Studying her hand, he mutteredsomething under his breath. ‘I should haveused the ultraviolet torch out there.’ ‘And how would that have helped?’ ‘There is a compound in theexoskeleton of the scorpion that causes itto glow in UV light.’ He adjusted the lightto get a better look. ‘It means that we cansee where they are. They show up as aghostly green colour.’ Avery looked away so that she
173. couldn’t see his hand touching hers. Bronzeagainst creamy white. Male against female.‘That is disgusting. How do you evenknow these things?’ ‘This is my country. It is my businessto know.’ ‘Ghostly green scorpions.’ Sheshuddered. ‘I’m almost glad I couldn’t seethem. Remind me why I came?’ ‘Because you wanted to help Kalila.Tell me how badly it hurts.’ ‘I don’t know—worse than aheadache, better than the time I bounced offthe trampoline and smashed my head on thefloor of the school gym. Do you mind notfrowning? Frowning means you’re worriedor that there is something seriously wrong.By the way, my hand feels as if it’s on fire.Is that OK?’ Mal’s mouth tightened. ‘I should have
174. made you come into the tent sooner.’ ‘I didn’t want to do that.’ ‘And we both know why.’ There it was again. The chemistry thatneither of them wanted. ‘Let’s not go there.’ ‘No.’ There was a ripple ofexasperation in his voice. ‘But from nowon you are by my side the whole time, nomatter how uncomfortable that makes youfeel. Stay there a moment and don’t move.I’ll be back soon.’ ‘You’re leaving?’ Without thinking,she reached out and grabbed his arm.‘Where are you going?’ Realising whatshe’d just done, she let her hand drop.God, what was the matter with her? Shewas having a complete charactertransformation.
175. ‘To the car to get some ice.’ Hewatched her, his expression revealing thathe was every bit as surprised as she was.Reaching down, he closed his hand overher shoulder. ‘You will be fine, habibti.’ Habibti. Shock held her still because the lasttime he’d called her that, they’d been inbed together. Naked. Her legs tangled withhis. His mouth hard on hers. And he must have been experiencingthe same memory because his eyesdarkened and his gaze slid slowly to hermouth and then back to her eyes. Theirwhole past was in that one look. This time she was the one to lookaway first. ‘You’re right. Of course I’ll be fine,’she said quickly. ‘I was just—’ Clinging.Like a desperate female. She, who had
176. never clung to anyone or anything before inher life, had clung. She didn’t even want tothink about what that would do to hismacho ego. And she certainly didn’t wantto think about what it did for herreputation. Horribly embarrassed, Avery shiftedback as far as she could. ‘Go and get theice. Make sure you bring a bottle ofBollinger with it. And tell the scorpions todine elsewhere. I’m no longer on themenu.’ ‘Are you sure you’ll be all right?Only a moment ago you were clinging tome.’ ‘Clinging?’ Her attempt at light-hearted laughter was relatively convincing.‘I was just trying to avoid being bitten byanother scorpion. I’d rather they bit youthan me.’
177. ‘Thanks.’ ‘If there had been a boulder handy, Iwould have stood on that. Anything to getabove ground level. Don’t take itpersonally. Now go. I’m thirsty.’It was the first time he’d seen her lowerher guard, even briefly. And he’d lowered his guard too andcalled her habibti and that single word hadshifted the atmosphere. He didn’t knowwhether to be amused or offended that sheconsidered him a bigger threat to her well-being than the scorpion. Relieved, he thought grimly as heremembered the way he’d felt when she’dwrapped her arms around his neck.Unlocking the door, he removed ice andthe first aid kit he carried everywhere,trying to block out the way it had felt tohold her. She was slender, leggy … and
178. she’d lost weight. Was that because of him? No. That would mean she cared andhe knew she didn’t care. He stood for a moment, listening tothe sounds of the desert and the disturbingnotes of his own thoughts. Then he cursedsoftly and slammed the door. Inside the tent, she was sitting quietly.She looked shaken and a little pale but hehad no way of knowing whether herreaction was a result of the scorpion biteor the pressure of being in such closecontact with him. Trying to concentrate on the scorpionbite and nothing else, Mal pressed ice toher burning hand and she flinched. ‘Only you can produce ice in adesert.’
179. ‘I have a freezer unit in the vehicle.’And right at that moment he was workingout ways to sit in it. Anything to coolhimself down. ‘Of course you do,’ she murmured,‘because a Prince cannot be without life’slittle luxuries, even in this inhospitableterrain.’ ‘I suppose I should be relieved thatyou’re feeling well enough to aggravateme.’ ‘I really don’t need ice. You’re hot,Your Highness, but not that hot.’ Butdespite her flippant tone her cheeks wereflushed. Was it the effects of the bite? ‘Tell me how you are feeling.’ Andsuddenly he realised just how bad thiscould be. They were miles fromcivilization. Even if he called a helicopter,it wouldn’t arrive within an hour. He told
180. himself that she was fit and healthy and notin any of the high-risk groups, but stillanxiety gnawed at him because he knewthat for some people the bite of thescorpion could be deadly. ‘I don’t carryanti-venom.’ ‘Well, thank goodness for smallmercies because there is no way I’d let youjab me with a needle and inject me withmore poison.’ She flinched as he movedthe ice. ‘That is freezing. Are you trying togive me frostbite?’ ‘I’m trying to stop the venomspreading. Does it hurt?’ ‘Not at all. I can’t even feel it.’ It wasobvious that she was lying and he threwher a look. ‘You are the most exasperating,infuriating woman I’ve ever met.’ ‘Thank you.’ She smiled and that
181. smile snagged his attention. ‘What makes you think it was acompliment?’ ‘I take everything as a complimentunless I’m told otherwise. Am I going todie?’ ‘No.’ Hiding his concern, he put hishand on her forehead. ‘We need to get yourclothes off.’ Her eyes flew open. ‘You’re warped,do you know that?’ ‘This isn’t seduction. This is firstaid.’ And he didn’t want to think aboutseduction. He didn’t dare. His hands werefirm as they stripped off her clothes andshe made a feeble attempt to stop him. ‘I can’t let you see me naked.’ ‘I’ve already seen you naked on manyoccasions.’ Too many occasions. She was
182. the hottest, most beautiful woman he’dever met and he didn’t need to be in thisposition to be reminded of that fact. ‘That was different. You weren’tabout to marry another woman. I don’t getnaked with almost married men.’ Shesnatched at the sleeping bag and he let hercover herself but not before he’d caught atantalizing glimpse of creamy skin. Aglimpse that tested his self-control morethan it had ever been tested before. It was a struggle to focus on what hewas doing. ‘I have to cool you down andyou need to stop snuggling inside thatsleeping bag because you’re overheating.’He poured cool water on a cloth and heldit against her head. ‘Females tend to have amore severe reaction because of their bodymass.’ There was a dangerous gleam in her
183. eyes. ‘Are you calling me fat?’ ‘Did I mention the word fat?’ ‘You said “mass”. Don’t use the word“mass” in relation to my body.’ ‘Even if I tell you it’s because youhave a smaller body mass?’ He didn’twant to be amused. He didn’t want to feelanything for this woman. ‘Be silent. Youneed to rest.’ ‘I can’t rest with you this close.’ He rubbed his fingers over hisforehead, exhausted by the drain on his selfcontrol. It was fortunate that both of themwere too principled to give in to it. ‘I’m watching you for any adversereaction.’ ‘Well, stop watching me. It feelscreepy.’ She rolled onto her side, but amoan escaped her. ‘How long am I going
184. to feel like this, Mal?’ The tremor in hervoice concerned him more than anythingbecause he knew how tough she was. ‘You feel bad?’ ‘No, I feel great.’ Her words weremuffled by the pillow. ‘I just want to knowhow long this great feeling is going to lastso that I can make the most of it. Howlong?’ ‘Hours, habibti.’ He hesitated for amoment and then allowed himself to strokeher hair away from her face, telling himselfthat touching her was all about comfort andnothing else. ‘Possibly a bit longer.’ ‘I was stupid. You must be furiouswith me.’ If only. ‘I’m not furious.’ ‘Then try harder. It would make iteasier if you were furious.’
185. Mal gave a cynical smile becauseright at that moment he doubted anythingwould make it easier. He placed hisfingers on her wrist. ‘Your pulse is veryfast.’ ‘Well, that’s nothing to do with you,so don’t go flattering yourself. Scorpionsalways get me going.’ ‘It’s the venom. You need to tell mehow you’re feeling. If necessary I’ll callthe helicopter and have us airlifted out ofhere.’ ‘No way. We need to find your virginbride.’ Mal cursed under his breath andreached into his first aid kit for a bandage.‘Stop calling her that.’ ‘Sorry.’ She turned slightly, openedone eye and peeped at him. ‘Are you angryyet?’
186. ‘No, but I’m getting there. Keep itup.’ She grinned weakly. ‘I bet thescorpion is angry, too. I flung him acrossthe ground. Horrible creature.’ ‘Actually they play a critical role inthe ecosystem, consuming other arthropodsand even mice and snakes.’ ‘Too much information.’ ‘They can control how much poisonthey inject into you. I think you got awaylightly.’ ‘So does that mean he liked me or hedidn’t like me? Ow—now what are youdoing?’ ‘I’m bandaging the bite and liftingyour arm. I want to slow the spread of thevenom. If this doesn’t work, I’ll have tocall the helicopter.’
187. ‘Could we stop calling it venom? Andhonestly, Mal, it’s fine. Stop fussing. Canwe take the ice off now? It’s cold.’ ‘That’s the idea.’ ‘Scorpions don’t like their foodchilled?’ But she didn’t feel cold to touch. Shewas boiling-hot and her arm was burning.‘Have you ever suffered an allergicreaction to anything in the past?’ ‘No, nothing. I’m as healthy as ahorse.’ Mal felt a rush of exasperation thatthey hadn’t avoided this situation. ‘Whydidn’t you come into the tent sooner?’ ‘Because then we would have killedeach other.’ Her response was glib, but hersmile faltered. ‘Sorry. And this time Ireally am apologising.’
188. ‘Apologising for what? For beingaggravating? That is nothing new andyou’ve never felt the need to apologisebefore.’ ‘For messing everything up,’ shemuttered. ‘For making things harder foryou. I shouldn’t have come on this trip. Iwas worried about Kalila and I thought Icould help but I haven’t helped and it wasall my fault anyway.’ Her apology was assweet as it was unexpected and he feltsomething squeeze inside his chest. ‘I am touched that you cared enoughto come,’ he breathed. ‘And you will beable to talk to Kalila and persuade her toconfide in you, which is important giventhat I have failed so miserably to deliver inthat area.’ And he blamed himself for that.For being unapproachable, for assumingthat just because his bride to be hadn’t saidanything, it meant that everything was fine.
189. They had no relationship, he thoughtbleakly, and it was impossible not tocompare that with the feelings he andAvery shared. ‘You’ll make a perfect couple. I’msure you’ll be very happy. And I mean that.I’m not being sarcastic. She’s very sweetand she won’t drive you crazy. That’salways good in a marriage.’ Her voicewas barely audible and she turned herhead, the movement dislodging her hairfrom the plait. It poured over her shoulderslike honey and he stared down at the silkenmass, fighting the urge to sink his handsinto it. Once, he’d had the right to do that.And he’d done it. All the time. It had beenthe most physical relationship of his life. ‘Right now I am not thinking ofKalila.’ ‘Don’t, Mal.’ Her voice was muffled.
190. ‘Don’t do this.’ Was this the moment to be honest? Hehesitated, wrenched apart by the conflictbetween duty and his own needs. Andhonesty would just worsen the situation,wouldn’t it? ‘This marriage with Kalila—’ ‘Will be good. If she’s having secondthoughts then it’s because you haven’t triedhard enough. You can be charming whenyou want to be. Of course the rest of thetime you’re aggravating and arrogant, butdon’t show her that side of you for a whileand it will be fine.’ Her eyes were closed,her eyelashes long and thick against herpale cheeks. Mal stared down at her, unable tothink of a single time when he’d seenAvery vulnerable. It just wasn’t a word heassociated with her. But tonight—yes,tonight she was vulnerable. He wanted to
191. hold her but he didn’t dare take the risk.He wasn’t convinced he’d let her go. Instead he settled for sitting close toher. ‘Tell me why you avoided my calls.’Still worried about the bite, he tightenedthe bandage as much as he dared. ‘I was super-busy.’ ‘You are the most efficient woman Iknow. If you’d wanted to answer my calls,you could have done. When we partedcompany I thought we would remainfriends.’ He should have been thinkingabout his bride-to-be, but all he could thinkabout was the relationship he’d lost. ‘I’m too busy for friends. About thisscorpion—’ as always when a subjectbecame uncomfortable, she shifteddirection ‘—he only bit me once. Should Ibe offended? Does that mean he didn’t likethe way I tasted? Or am I like expensive
192. caviar—better consumed in smallamounts?’ He didn’t want to think about the wayshe tasted. Couldn’t allow himself to.Frustration made his voice rougher than heintended. ‘I am going to give you a coupleof tablets and then you’re going to rest.’And stop talking. ‘I don’t take tablets. I’m a drug-freezone.’ ‘You’ll take these. And if the rash onyour arm hasn’t calmed down in an hour orso, I’m going to fly you out of here.’ Andmaybe that would be the best thing for bothof them. Reaching into his bag, he foundthe tablets in the supplies he carried andhanded them to her with a drink of water,relieved when she swallowed the pillswithout question or argument but at thesame time concerned because it was so
193. unlike her not to question and argue. ‘If youfeel bad, I can call the helicopter now.’ ‘No.’ Her eyes drifted shut again. ‘Iwant to stay. I need to be with you.’ The atmosphere snapped tight. Malfelt a weight on his chest. How many timeshad he waited for her to say those words?And she said them now, when his life wasalready set on a different course. Was thatwhy she’d picked this moment? Becauseshe knew he couldn’t act on the emotionthat simmered between them? I need to bewith you. From any other woman thosewords would have felt oppressive. FromAvery they felt like victory. A victory thatwas too little, too late. ‘You need to bewith me? You are telling me this now?’ ‘Yes.’ Her voice was barely audible.‘I need to be there when you find her. Ineed to talk Kalila into marrying you. It’s
194. the best thing for all of us.’
195. CHAPTER FIVESHE dreamed of the desert. Only this timewhen she dreamed of the Prince he washolding her and she couldn’t walk awaybecause he held her close, refusing to lether go. Trapped. She struggled slightly but she washeld in a strong grip. ‘Shh. It’s just a dream. Go back tosleep.’ The deep male voice lifted her fromsleep to semi-wakefulness and she realisedthat Mal was holding her. It was still darkand she didn’t know which frightened hermore—the realisation that she felt trulyterrible, or the feeling that came frombeing held by him. Her head was on his
196. chest and she could feel the slow, steadythud of his heart. She knew she should pullaway, but she didn’t. She’d planned to sleep in the furthestcorner of the tent but here he was, lyingnext to her, holding her. And it felt good. Too good. She could feel the brush of his legagainst hers and the warmth of his body ashe held her in the curve of his arm. Thefaint glow of light from the torch simplyincreased the feeling of intimacy. ‘For God’s sake Mal, move over,’she muttered, ‘you’re in my personalspace.’ ‘I’m worried about you.’ Her stomach flipped because no onehad ever worried about her in her lifebefore. ‘Don’t be. I don’t like the ideayou’re waiting for me to drop dead. And
197. you certainly don’t need to hold me.’ ‘You’re the one holding me.’ He kepthis eyes closed, those dark lashes inkyblack against his cheek. ‘You did it in yoursleep, because you just can’t accept helpwhen you’re awake.’ ‘That’s because I don’t need helpwhen I’m awake.’ ‘Right. And I suppose you didn’t“need help” last night when you used me asa climbing frame?’ ‘That was different. We were invadedby scorpions and if it’s all right with youI’d like to forget about last night.’ Shewanted to forget all of it, especially this.She wondered why he was still holding herwhen the safe and sensible thing to dowould have been to let her go. ‘How long have you been having baddreams?’
198. ‘I don’t have bad dreams.’ ‘You had a bad dream. That’s howyou ended up clinging to me.’ Embarrassment washed over her likeburning liquid. ‘If I had a bad dream lastnight then it must have been a scorpion-venom-induced nightmare.’ She tried topull away but he was stronger than she wasand he held her tightly. ‘It wasn’t scorpions you were talkingabout in your sleep.’ She’d been talking in her sleep?Could this get any worse? She wanted toask if she’d spoken his name, but didn’twant to hear the answer and anyway it wasimpossible to concentrate with him holdingher. It felt dangerously familiar. ‘That’s another scorpion venom thing—’ Her cheek was still against his chestand she could feel hard muscle through the
199. softness of his T-shirt. ‘Check outWikipedia. I bet it will say somethingabout nightmares. And I’m well and trulyawake now, so you can let me go.’ He didn’t. ‘Go back to sleep.’ He expected her to sleep while hewas holding her? She could have pulledaway, of course, but she didn’t. Couldn’t.This was the way she wanted to sleep.Holding each other. Not wanting to beparted even in sleep. And she’d longed forit so much over the long, barren monthsthey’d been apart. This was the last timethey’d ever hold each other and she didn’twant it to end. Without warning, her eyesstarted to sting. ‘I don’t need you to fussover me.’ ‘You never need anything, do you,Avery Scott?’ His voice was soft in thedarkness and she squeezed her eyes tightly
200. so that the tears didn’t fall. She couldn’tbelieve she was actually crying. She couldjust imagine what her mother would say tothat. ‘Sometimes I pretend to needsomeone, just to stroke a masculine ego.’ ‘I doubt you have ever stroked aman’s ego in your life. Knifed it, possibly.’ She smiled against his chest, safe inthe knowledge that he couldn’t see her.‘Good job yours is robust.’ ‘Are you smiling?’ ‘No. What is there to smile about?I’m scorpion chow.’ And she was a mess.The pain in her hand was nothingcompared to the pain in her heart and hemust have sensed her feelings because shefelt his hand stroke her hair. Just the slightbrush of his fingers, but it was enough tomake her tense and he must have felt that
201. too because he stilled, as if aware he’dcrossed a line. ‘Go back to sleep, Avery. And, justthis once, don’t fight me. A woman doesn’thave to be in charge one hundred per centof the time.’ His soft voice meltedeverything hard inside her. When they’d parted it had almostbroken her. Being with him had threatenedeverything she’d built. She should bepulling away from him, but what shewanted to do was bury her face in his neck,touch her mouth to his skin and use hertongue and her lips to drive him wild. Picturing Kalila in her head, sheeased away from him and this time he lether go. ‘I’m still in charge,’ she whisperedback. ‘I just let you hold me because itfeeds your manly ego.’
202. ‘You’re all heart.’ Well, that was true, she thoughtbleakly as she turned on her side with herback to him. It was a good descriptionbecause, right now, it was the only part ofherself of which she was aware and it wasfilled to the brim with her feelings for him. Even with her back to him, she couldfeel him watching her and she squeezed hereyes shut and refused to let herself turn andlook at him. Gritting her teeth, she resigned herselfto a night without sleep.She was alone in the tent when she woke. Outside she could hear noises. Malwas up and dismantling their camp. Avery lay for a moment, staring up atthe canvas, remembering the night beforein excruciating detail.
203. Muttering a soft curse, she sat upright.The bite on her hand had calmed downovernight and was now nothing more than ared mark. If only all her other feelings hadfaded so easily. She didn’t want to thinkabout the way he’d held her. She definitelydidn’t want to think about what she mighthave said when she’d talked in her sleep. Grabbing her bag, she cleansed herface with one of the wipes she alwayscarried, applied suncream and minimalmake-up and scooped her hair into aponytail. Then she tugged a fresh shirt outof her bag and changed quickly. That was the easy part. The hard partwas leaving the tent. Facing him, after what had happenedthe night before. ‘Coffee—’ Mal handed her a smallcup of strong coffee and she took it with a
204. murmur of thanks, avoiding eye contact asshe sipped. ‘So you’re ready to move out?’ ‘Whenever you are. How are youfeeling?’ ‘Fine! Never better.’ And never moreembarrassed. She couldn’t decide whetherto pretend it hadn’t happened or talk itdown. ‘Let me see.’ He took her hand in hisand somehow she resisted the impulse tosnatch it away. ‘It’s settled down.’ Which was morethan could be said for her pulse rate. Couldhe feel it? Could he feel what he wasdoing to her? ‘How’s the scorpion feelingthis morning? Perky?’ His mouth flickered at the corners.‘Deprived, I should think. He only got totake a single bite. I’m sure it was nowhere
205. near enough.’ Her eyes skidded to his and thenaway again. ‘Well, that’s all he’s getting.’She tugged her hand away from his andfinished her coffee. ‘I’ll take the tentdown.’ ‘No. I want you to rest your hand. I’lldo it.’ He strode away from her and Averybreathed out slowly. She felt weird andshe didn’t know if it was the after-effectsof the scorpion bite or the after-effects of anight spent close to Mal. He had the tent down in record timeand the site cleared while Avery stood,eyeing the ground for more scorpions andwondering whether or not to saysomething. ‘Listen—’ she watched as hethrew the tent into the trunk, distracted asthe powerful muscles in his shouldersrippled and flexed ‘—about last night—’
206. ‘Which part of last night?’ ‘The part when I—’ She cleared herthroat. ‘The part when I wasn’t quitemyself.’ ‘Was that the moment when you clungto me, or the moment you begged me not toleave you?’ ‘I didn’t beg. And I didn’t cling.’ Sheemptied the dregs of her coffee onto theground. ‘Not exactly.’ ‘You needed me. But I can understandthat it’s hard for you to admit to needinganyone.’ There was an edge to his voicethat she didn’t understand because surelythey were way past this in theirrelationship. ‘I didn’t need you, but if it suits you tobelieve that then fine. I wish I’d nevermentioned it. How long until we find yourbride?’ The sooner the better as far as she
207. was concerned. Suddenly she wished shehadn’t allowed her conscience to push herinto this trip. No matter what she’d said toKalila, if the girl had chosen to leg it intothe desert that was ultimately herresponsibility, wasn’t it? Nothing wasworth this additional stress. ‘It is about a two-hour drive fromhere.’ He slung the rest of their gear intothe vehicle and sprang into the driver’sseat. Two hours and that would be it, shethought numbly. He’d find his bride.They’d sort things out. Mal would marryher. And all she’d ever be to him was apast he wanted to forget. They’d see each other at theoccasional high profile party. They’d bepolite and friendly and formal. And in timethe pain would fade.
208. She rubbed her hand over her chest. He caught the movement and frownedslightly but Avery ignored his quizzicallook and walked round to the passengerside. This time, instead of arguing, theymade the journey in silence but it didn’tseem to make a difference. She waspainfully conscious of him, her eyes drawnto every tiny movement. The flex of histhigh as he drove, the strength of his handson the wheel. The atmosphere was so tenseand loaded that when they finally pulled into the camp Avery was the first out of thecar. She wanted to get this done. She hadto get this done. ‘Stay there. I’ll ask a few questionsand try to find out where she is. You’lldraw too much attention to yourself.’Without waiting for his response, she
209. walked towards the tent that doubled as‘reception’ but, before she reached it, shenoticed the slim figure of a girl hurrying,head down, into a tent at the far side of thecamp. Kalila? Sure it was her, Avery walkedstraight towards the tent where she’d seenthe girl disappear. ‘Have you seen her?’ Mal was rightbehind her and she scowled at him. ‘I don’t know. I think so, butpresumably she doesn’t want to see you orshe would have gone to you in the firstplace. I think you should wait in the car.’ ‘Am I so fearsome?’ Those ebonyeyes glittered down at her and just for amoment she felt the connection, powerfuland unsettling. Yes, he was fearsome .Because of him she’d almost lost
210. everything she’d worked to build. ‘I have no idea what she thinks aboutyou. And I’m not going to find out if you’restanding there scowling. Go and take astroll in the desert for a few minutes.’Pulling aside the flap of the tent, shestepped inside. And stared in dismaybecause there, in the centre of the tent wasKalila. And wrapped around her was aman. A man who was most certainly nother bridegroom to be. Avery absorbed the undeniableevidence that yet another relationship hadcrashed and burned. Despite her ownunshakeable cynicism, this time she wasshocked. Of all the scenarios that hadplayed around in her head, this had notbeen among them. Or maybe she hadn’tallowed herself to think that the marriagemight not go ahead. It had to go ahead. Ithad to.
211. Panic rippled through her and thistime she didn’t know if it was for herselfor Kalila. Maybe if Mal didn’t see—if shecould just talk to Kalila—do something— She tried to back out of the tent beforethe couple noticed her and almost trippedover Mal, who was right behind her. Herretreat blocked by his powerful body, shetried to thrust him back. ‘It’s not her. Mymistake.’ He stood firm, refusing to budge, hishandsome face blank of expression as hecontemplated the scene in front of him.There was no visible sign of emotion, butit wasn’t hard to guess his feelings and herheart squeezed. Damn. It wasn’t even as if shebelieved in happy endings. But to have theending before the beginning was
212. particularly harsh. Whatever his reasons,he’d wanted this marriage to work. She wanted to cover his eyes, to pushhim away, to catch his illusions in her barehands before they hit the ground andshattered. But it was already too late forthat. In the circumstances, his controlsurprised her. There was no cursing orexplosion of possessive temper. Instead hejust stood, legs braced apart as he watchedin silence. Everything about him screamedpower and Avery felt her breath catchbecause most of the time she thought of himas a man first and Prince second but rightnow he was very much the Prince. Clearly Kalila thought so too becauseas she caught sight of him she draggedherself out of the arms of her lover soquickly she almost fell. ‘Oh no!’
213. Mal walked past Avery into the tent,his dark gaze fixed intently on the man whohad been kissing Kalila. ‘And you are—?’ ‘No! I won’t let you touch him!’ Hertone infused with drama and desperation,Kalila plastered herself in front of herlover—was he a lover?—and Averybraced herself. No doubt there would be abattle for masculine supremacy. Holdingher breath, she waited for him to face Mal,man to man, but instead he stayed firmlybehind the Princess and then prostratedhimself. ‘Your Highness—’ Avery’s brows rose because she’dexpected fists, not fawning. Astonished,her gaze flickered to Mal and their gazesbriefly connected. She subdued aridiculous urge to laugh and then realisedthat there was nothing funny about this
214. situation. Mal was desperate for thismarriage to go ahead. He would fight forKalila, she was sure of it. ‘Get up.’ Mal issued the commandthrough clenched teeth and the manstumbled upright, but stayed behind Kalilawith his head bowed. Avery watched in disbelief. Whatwoman in her right mind would choose thatcowering wimp over Mal? Not that shewanted to see them fight, but surely heshould at least look his adversary in theeye and take control. Where was thestrength? Where was courage? Nowhere, apparently, because theman, scarlet-faced, continued to stare at thefloor while Kalila sent him an adoringglance. In the end it was Kalila whobraced her shoulders and faced the manshe was supposed to be marrying.
215. ‘I won’t let you lay a finger on him.’ ‘I have no intention of touching him,’Mal drawled, ‘but an introduction wouldbe appropriate at this point, don’t youthink?’ ‘This is Karim.’ Kalila’s voice was aterrified squeak. ‘He’s my bodyguard.’ ‘ Yo u have to be kidding.’ Averystared at the cowering man. ‘Yourbodyguard? But—’ She caught Mal’ssingle warning glance and broke off in midsentence. ‘Sorry. I’m not saying anything.Nothing at all. I’m totally silent on thesubject. Mute. Lips are sealed.’ ‘If only,’ Mal breathed, returning hisattention to the couple in front of him. ‘Soyour “bodyguard” appears to be taking hisresponsibilities extremely seriously.Presumably he was wrapped that closelyaround you to protect you from flying
216. bullets?’ His biting sarcasm drew anuncomfortable glance from the other manbut he didn’t speak. The talking was left to Kalila, whowas every bit as red faced as the man nextto her. ‘Wh-what are you doing here, YourHighness?’ ‘I was searching for my bride-to-be,’Mal said softly, ‘to find out why she’d runaway. But apparently I have my answer.’ What? Braced to defuse serious tension,Avery stared at him. Was that it? Was thatall he was going to say? Kalila seemed equally taken aback.‘Your Highness, I can explain—’ ‘You can call me Mal. I believe I’vetold you that on more than one occasion.And the situation doesn’t merit any furtherexplanation.’
217. Why wasn’t he fighting? Avery wondered if he had heatstroke.Something had affected his brain, that wasfor sure. Kalila was still clasping thebodyguard’s hand tightly. Probably to stophim running away, Avery thought. ‘I can’tbelieve you came looking for me. Whywould you do that?’ ‘Because he’s a decent person and hewas worried about you,’ Avery snappedand then caught Mal’s eye again. ‘Allright. It’s just that you’re not sayinganything and it’s really hard to stay silent—’ ‘Try,’ Mal advised silkily and Averyclamped her jaws shut. Without evenrealising it, she’d moved closer to him sothat now all she had to do was reach outher hand and she’d be touching him. And
218. she wanted to touch him. She wanted totouch him so badly. ‘We came looking for you becausenaturally we were concerned that youmight be in danger. But I can see thatyou’re fine.’ Mal was calm and composedand Avery resisted the temptation to pokehim to check he was actually still alive.Surely he should be seething with anger?Burning up with raw jealousy? Or perhaps he was just in shock. Yes,that had to be it. Shock. But if he wasn’t careful the moment toact would have passed. And if he wasn’tcapable of taking action, then she’d do itfor him. ‘What Mal is trying to say is that—’ ‘I can’t marry you, Your Highness.’Kalila blurted the words out. ‘It’s toolate.’
219. Avery closed her eyes. ‘Of course it’snot too late! Honestly, you shouldn’t makehasty decisions, Kalila. You need sometime to think about this. And when you’vetalked it through I’m sure you’ll changeyour mind because Mal is a fantastic catchfor any girl and you’re really lucky.’ ‘This is nothing to do with His RoyalHighness—’ Kalila avoided Mal’s gaze‘—I don’t want to be the Sultan’s wife. I’dbe hopeless. I’m shy and I’m not aninteresting person.’ Avery gave Mal a look, expecting himto contradict her and when he didn’t, shetook over. ‘That is not true at all. Justbecause you’re shy doesn’t mean you’renot interesting.’ ‘You have no idea how hard I find itin crowds. And the Prince doesn’t want tomarry a mute. He gets really impatient
220. when I don’t speak.’ ‘Of course he doesn’t!’ Avery droveher elbow into Mal’s ribs to prompt him tospeak but he remained ominously silent.‘Mal loves you just the way you are.’ Herless than subtle hint went unrewarded. ‘He doesn’t love me,’ Kalilastammered, her face scarlet, ‘he lovesyou.’ Silence filled the tent. Avery felt as if someone was chokingher. She lifted her hand to her throat, butthere was nothing there, of course. Nothingshe could loosen to help her breathing.‘That isn’t true. He loves you. He askedyou to marry him!’ ‘He asked you first.’ Oh, for crying out loud. ‘No, hedidn’t, actually.’ Avery spoke through herteeth. ‘I don’t know what you’ve heard, but
221. that was all a big misunderstanding. Youdon’t know the details.’ And why wasn’tMal telling her the truth? Putting herright? ‘I do know the details. I was there. Iheard what he said. I heard him have a rowwith that horrible man who runs that oilproduction company and thinks he’sirresistible—’ Avery frowned, confused. ‘Richard?’ ‘Yes, him. He told Mal that you wereplanning his party and he was going tohave you as a bonus. Mal was so angry hepunched him. And when he dragged himout of the dirt where he’d knocked him, hetold him that he was going to marry youand that you wouldn’t be able to run anyparties for him, now or in the future,personal or otherwise.’ Avery discovered that her mouth was
222. open. Slowly, she turned her head to look atMal, waiting for him to deny it, but still hesaid nothing. Apart from a faint streak ofcolour across his cheekbones, he made noresponse. Confusion washed over her. Sheknew he hadn’t loved her. He’d proposedto Kalila within weeks of them parting.‘You misunderstood.’ ‘I was there,’ Kalila said quietly.‘There was no misunderstanding. It’s theonly time anyone has seen Mal lose hiscool.’ ‘Well, Richard can be a veryannoying person. I’ve almost lost my coolwith him a million times.’ Dismissing theincident as a display of male jealousy,Avery forced herself back to the immediatesituation. ‘He was obviously trying to
223. wind Mal up and he succeeded, which iswhy he said all that about marriage … Thatdoesn’t have any impact on what is goingon here. Of course he wants to marry you.We’ve just spent two days chasing throughthe desert trying to find you.’ Kalila looked at her steadily.‘Together.’ ‘Not together as such—’ Avery felther cheeks darken as she thought abouttheir night in the tent ‘—just because that’sthe way it worked out.’ ‘He went straight to you with theproblem because he loves you and trustsyou.’ ‘He came straight to me because hethought I might know where you were! Thatdoesn’t mean he loves me. He doesn’t! I’dbe a terrible Sultan’s wife. Actually I’d bea terrible wife, full stop. I don’t have any
224. of the qualities necessary, in particular thefundamental one of actually wanting to getmarried.’ She was stammering, fallingover her words like a child practisingpublic speaking for the first time,exasperated by Kalila’s insistence that Malloved her. ‘We’re just friends. And noteven that, most of the time.’ Mal remained silent. Why on earth didn’t he speak? Andwhy couldn’t Kalila stop talking? ‘You’re the only woman he’s everloved,’ she said. ‘He was just marrying mefor political reasons. Because it wasagreed between our families.’ ‘Well, political reasons are as good ajustification for marriage as any. I’veknown many fine, successful marriages thatstarted from a lot less than that—’ ‘Avery—’ Mal’s voice was soft and
225. he didn’t turn his head in her direction ‘—you’ve said enough.’ ‘Enough? I’ve barely started. Andyou’re not saying anything at all! Honestly,the pair of you just need to—’ Her voicetailed off as he lifted his hand and shewondered how it was that he could silenceher with a single subtle gesture that wasbarely visible to others. Kalila bit her lip. ‘You don’t need toworry about it. It doesn’t bother me thatyou don’t love me, Your Highness. I don’tlove you either. It says something thatwe’ve known each other for years andwe’ve barely spoken. To be honest—’ ‘Don’t be honest,’ Avery saidquickly, interrupting before Kalila saidsomething that couldn’t be unsaid.‘Honesty is an overrated quality in certaincircumstances and this is definitely one of
226. them.’ ‘I need to say how I feel.’ Kalilastuck her chin out and Avery sighed. ‘Oh go on then, if you must, but you’renot displaying any of the cardinal signs ofshyness, I can tell you that. From whereI’m standing you’d be fine at a publicgathering. The challenge would be allowingsomeone else to get a word in edgeways.’ Kalila ignored her. ‘Mal is gorgeous,of course. But he’s also intimidating.’ ‘That’s just his Prince act and he hasto do that, otherwise he’d be mobbed bywell-wishers, but underneath that frownhe’s a really gentle, cuddly guy—’ Averycaught the lift of his dark eyebrows andcleared her throat ‘Well, perhaps notgentle, exactly, but very decent.Principled. Good. And—’
227. ‘All right, that’s enough. We’re goingto discuss this now and then the subjectwill never be raised again.’ Finally Maltook charge and Avery relaxed slightly. About time too. Mal’s eyes were fixed on his bride.‘You don’t want to be married to a manwho will become the Sultan?’ Avery gave a growl of exasperation.What was he doing? That was hardly goingto persuade Kalila, was it? And, as if toprove her right, Kalila shook her headvigorously. ‘No. I’ll be hopeless, especially at allthose meet and greet things you do.Parties.’ She shuddered. ‘The very worstof me would be on display.’ Giving up on Mal, Avery intervenedagain. ‘Did your father tell you that?Because honestly, it’s nonsense. You have
228. a lovely personality. Stop putting yourselfdown! You have plenty to talk about. Andanyway, all you have to do at these meetand greet gatherings is get people to talkabout themselves. That’s what I do all thetime at my parties. I barely have to say aword. It’s stopping people talking aboutthemselves that’s usually the problem, notstarting them.’ ‘I’m nothing like you.’ ‘I know! And that’s what makes youperfect for Mal. And you are perfect forhim.’ Avery beamed at her, hoping that herbody language would reinforce thepositive message. ‘The moment I saw the two of youtogether, I knew you were a match made inheaven.’ Kalila’s startled glance made herrealise she might have been a bit too
229. enthusiastic. Afraid that her response mighthave a counter-effect, she moderated hertone. ‘There is no “right” personality forbeing a Sultan’s bride. You’ll be friendlyand approachable and a real hit.’ ‘But I’ll hate it. I will dread everymoment.’ ‘It will get easier with time, I’m sure.I have some girls working for me whowere pretty shy when they started and nowI can’t shut them up. Honestly, Kalila,you’re going to be a huge success and verypopular. I wish you’d just talked tosomeone about this instead of runningaway.’ ‘I did. I talked to you! You were myinspiration.’ Avery gulped. Heat rushed into hercheeks as she remembered Mal sayingsomething similar. ‘Me?’
230. ‘Yes. You told me to face my fearsand that’s what I did. I can’t thank youenough.’ Avery made a vow never to giveanother person advice again as long as shelived. ‘I was speaking metaphorically. Ididn’t actually mean for you to run off intothe desert just because you’re afraid of it.’ ‘That wasn’t the fear I was facing.’Kalila lifted her chin, surprisinglystubborn. ‘The fear I was facing—am stillfacing—is my father. All my life he’s usedfear to control me. I’ve never beenallowed to do what I wanted to do. I’m noteven allowed to express an opinion.’ Sympathy was eclipsed by her ownfeelings of panic as Avery watched thesituation unravel. ‘Your father doesn’teven know you’re gone yet. Everyone hasbeen covering for you. You haven’t
231. actually faced him. You’ve avoided him.’ ‘I’ve faced the fear of him. For thefirst time in my life, I’ve done something Iknow will incur his disapproval. I knowthere will be consequences and I’m willingto take them. I knew that if I ran off hewould never forgive me. He will not haveme back in his house, under his roof. I willno longer be his daughter.’ Kalila claspedher hands together nervously. ‘And that’swhat I want.’ ‘Well then, that’s perfect, becausesoon you can be Mal’s wife. This doesn’tmean you can’t marry the Prince. I’m surethere’s a way round this that is going to befine for everyone—’ Her voice tailed offbecause Kalila was staring at her indisbelief and Avery realised how crazyshe must sound. Apart from admitting thatthe last thing in the world she wanted wasto be the Sultan’s wife, the woman was
232. clearly obsessed with her bodyguard.There was no way on this planet Malwould marry her now. How could he? Andtruly, she wouldn’t want that for him,would she? She, who knew how badly somany marriages ended, would never wantone to start in such inauspiciouscircumstances. Avery’s shoulders slumped. She stolea glance at Mal but he seemedmaddeningly calm about the whole thing. ‘So this is what you want, Kalila?’His blunt question brought colour pouringinto Kalila’s cheeks. ‘Yes. I’m in love with Karim. I justwant to live with him quietly.’ She gaveher shrinking beau a trembling smile. ‘Forever. Happily ever after. I feel so happy.’ ‘I feel so sick,’ Avery muttered butMal ignored her.
233. ‘Fine. If you’re sure that’s what youwant, then I’ll make that happen. If yourfather won’t approve the match then youcan live in Zubran under my protection.You can have your happy ever after,Kalila, with my compliments.’‘“You can have your happy ever after ”!What sort of romantic claptrap is that?Have you gone totally mad?’ Exasperatedand upset for him, Avery followed Mal ashe strode from the tent towards the desert.Her head was in a spin. ‘You didn’t evenbother trying to talk her out of it. Ifanything you made it easy for her byoffering her sanctuary. Why didn’t you justoffer to conduct the ceremony while youwere at it?’ Not only did she not understand it, butMal seemed in no hurry to explain himself. ‘Drop it, Avery.’
234. ‘Drop it?’ She virtually had to run tokeep pace with him. ‘Sorry, but did we ordid we not just spend two days roughing itin the desert in order to find Kalila andpersuade her not to run away?’ ‘Certainly the intention was to findher. And we did that. Thank you for yourassistance.’ Avery gave a murmur of frustration.She opened her mouth to ask him if the sunhad gone to his head but he was alreadyseveral strides ahead of her and she couldsee that he was angry. Well, of course he was angry. He’d found Kalila with another man. Perhaps that explained his reaction,or lack of it. He was too gutted to respond.And too hurt to discuss it with her now. She tried to imagine how he must feel,but as someone who had never seen
235. marriage as an attractive option shehonestly didn’t have a clue. In his positionshe would have been rejoicing at thenarrow escape, but of course he wasn’tgoing to feel that way. He’d wanted thismarriage. And as for the business withRichard— And everything Kalila had said aboutMal being in love with her— Avery stared after him, Kalila’swords in her head. He hadn’t been in love with her.She’d presented him with a challenge, thatwas all. They’d had fun together. How could he have been in love? Themoment they’d broken up he’d becomeengaged to another woman. He’d startedplanning his wedding. Those weren’t theactions of a man in love. She glanced towards the car and then
236. back towards his rapidly vanishing figure. ‘Damn and blast.’ How could sheleave him on his own? When he hurt, shehurt. It was like being physically connectedand it was a bond she’d been trying tobreak for longer than she cared toremember. Muttering under her breath, Averystrode after him, tugging the brim of her hatdown over her eyes to shield herself fromthe blaze of the desert sun and the scrutinyof curious tourists. Relationships, shethought. Why did anyone bother? Hermother was right. They were nothing buttrouble. As she approached him, she tried towork out what to say. Better now than in ten years’ time … Lucky escape, my friend … One in three marriages end in
237. divorce and that’s without counting thenumber that carry on in faithless misery… Truthfully, she wasn’t good at brokenrelationship counselling. When friends’ relationships brokedown her standard support offering was agirls’ night in. Or out. Either eveningfeatured copious volumes of good winecombined with a boosting talk about thebenefits of being single. By the time theevening was over they were generallytalking about lucky escapes and excitingfutures. If the malaise continued shedragged them shoe shopping, used herconnections to get them a discount on adreamy hotel in an exotic location andpointed out all the things they could dosingle that they couldn’t do as a couple.Unfortunately she had nothing in herarmoury to prepare her for consoling a
238. Prince who had lost his bride. Normally she considered herself acompetent person but right now she feltanything but competent. As she strolled upto his side, his shoulders stiffened but hedidn’t turn. Avery stood awkwardly, trying toimagine what he was thinking so that shecould say the right thing. She knew howimportant this marriage had been to him.And now he had to unravel what couldonly be described as a mess. Despite that,he’d treated Kalila with patience andkindness—probably more kindness thanshe’d been shown in her life before. The girl was a fool, Avery thoughtsavagely, tilting her head back and staringup at the perfect blue of the desert sky. Forsomeone dreaming of happy endings asKalila clearly was, she couldn’t have done
239. better than Mal. Slowly, she turned her head to look athim, her gaze resting on the strong, proudlines of his handsome face. Not knowingwhat to do, she lifted her hand, hesitated,and then placed it on his shoulder, feelingthe tension in the muscle under her fingers.‘I’m sorry. I know how upset you are. AndI’m sorry I couldn’t fix it.’ ‘But you had to keep trying.’ Hisvoice was harsh and she blinked, takenaback by his tone. ‘Er … yes. Obviously I was trying topersuade her to change her mind.’ ‘Then let’s just be grateful you didn’tsucceed.’ ‘Grateful?’ Avery let her hand fallfrom his shoulder. ‘But you wanted thismarriage! I know you wanted thismarriage.’
240. He turned his head and the look in hiseyes made her heart stutter in her chest.His mouth twisted into a cynical smile ashe observed her reaction. ‘You consideryourself an expert on what I want,habibti?’ The look in his eyes confused her.Were they still talking about Kalila? ‘Youhave a wedding planned. We’ve justchased across a desert to find your bride. Itseems reasonable to assume this is whatyou wanted and yet now that she’s brokenit off you’re not putting up a fight and youdon’t seem remotely heartbroken.’ There was a strange light in his eyes.‘Heartbroken?’ Exasperated and confused by his lackof emotion, Avery held back her temper.‘OK, so obviously you’re not heartbrokenbecause you don’t have a heart. Silly me.’
241. ‘You think I don’t have a heart?’Under the sweep of thick dark lashes,something dangerous lurked in his eyes andAvery felt as if she’d just jumped into theocean and found herself way out of herdepth. How had she ever become trapped inthis conversation? They were supposed tobe talking about Kalila. ‘All I know is that you don’t seem tobe fighting to keep her. Is it pride?’ Andshe knew all about that, didn’t she?‘Because honestly I think you should tryand get over that. She’s perfect for you inso many ways. Go back in there now, givethat muscle-bound wimp his marchingorders—and by the way, she needs a newbodyguard because that one definitely isn’tfit for purpose—and talk some sense intoher.’
242. Her words were greeted by aprolonged silence. Just when it was becoming awkward,he breathed deeply. ‘Are you really thatdesperate to see me married to someoneelse?’ ‘Yes—’ Her heart was bumping andshe trod through the conversation likesomeone walking on quicksand. ‘Yes, Iam.’ There was a hard, humourless slant tohis smile. ‘Would that make it easier?’ It would have been a waste of time topretend she didn’t know what he wastalking about. Their eyes locked for a briefmoment but it was long enough for her toknow that she was in trouble. ‘Let’s not dothis, Mal.’ But of course he didn’t listen. Hishand slid beneath her chin and he forced
243. her to look at him. ‘We’re doing this.’ Thistime his tone was harsh. ‘We’ve wastedenough time and taken enough wrongturnings. Just because we made a mistakeonce doesn’t mean we have to do it again.’ ‘For crying out loud—’ the wordswere shaky ‘—five minutes ago you wereengaged to marry another woman.’ ‘That wasn’t my choice. This is.’ That didn’t make sense to her.Despite duty and responsibility, he was aman who chose his own path. ‘What the hell are you saying? Mal—’ ‘Tell me why you were so determinedthat I marry Kalila. Tell me, Avery. Spellit out.’ ‘Because you’re the marrying typeand because she’s perfect for you andbecause—’ she choked on the confession
244. ‘—and because I thought it would make iteasier if you were married.’ Emotion flared in his eyes. ‘And didit?’ ‘No.’ The words came out as awhisper. ‘No. It didn’t. Nothing does. Butthat doesn’t stop me hoping and trying.’ ‘You don’t have to do either.’ Yes, she did. ‘Nothing has changed,Mal—’ That clearly wasn’t the answer hewanted and he looked away for a moment,jaw tense. ‘No? If that’s true then it’s justbecause you are the most stubborn womanI’ve ever met. But I can be stubborn too.’Without giving her a chance to respond, heclosed his hand over hers and pulled hisphone out of his pocket. After a brief one-way conversation during which hedelivered what sounded like a volley of
245. instructions in his own language, he hungup. ‘Is there anything in your bag that youneed? Because if there is, tell me now.’ ‘Need for what? Who were youphoning?’ ‘Rafiq. You remember my ChiefAdviser?’ ‘Of course. I love him. I would haveoffered him a job on my team if I’d thoughtthere was any chance that he’d leave you.So what completely unreasonable requesthave you placed in the poor man’s lap thistime?’ As the words left her mouth sheheard the sound of a helicopter approachand looked up, her brows lifting as shesaw the Sultan’s insignia. ‘I see you anddiscretion have parted company.’ ‘There is no longer a need fordiscretion. There is, however, a need toget the next part of the journey over as fast
246. as possible.’ ‘You’re leaving in style, Mal, I haveto hand you that.’ ‘We’re leaving in style.’ His grip onher hand tightened. ‘You’re coming withme.’ It was a command, not a question. Avery’s heart stumbled but whetherthat was because of his unexpected wordsor the feel of his fingers locked with hers,she wasn’t sure. ‘What about Kalila?’ ‘Can we stop talking about Kalila?’His tone was raw. ‘She has my protectionand I will do my best for her, but right nowI don’t want to waste any more timethinking about it.’ ‘I really ought to get back to London. Ihave the Senator’s party to run and I can’tjust take time off.’
247. ‘Of course you can. You’re the boss.You can do whatever you like. Call Jennyand put her in charge for a few days.’ ‘I couldn’t possibly do that.’ Hermouth was dry and her heart was pounding.‘It’s out of the question.’ ‘Really? The advice you give othersis to face your fears—’ ebony eyesglittered dark with mockery ‘—and yet Idon’t see you facing yours.’ ‘There’s nothing to face. I’m notafraid.’ ‘Yes, you are. You’re terrified. Soterrified that your hands are shaking.’ ‘You’re wrong.’ She stuffed herhands in her pockets. ‘So if you’re such anexpert you’d better tell me what it is I’msupposedly afraid of.’ ‘Me,’ he said softly. ‘You’re afraid tobe alone with me.’
248. CHAPTER SIXMAL was braced for her to throw a millionarguments why she couldn’t do this but shesimply lifted her chin in the air and walkedbriskly by his side to the helicopter and heallowed himself a smile because althoughshe would have hated to admit it, she wastotally predictable. Because he’dchallenged her, she just had to prove himwrong. As the ever loyal Rafiq appeared,Mal delivered a series of succinctinstructions, threw him the keys to thevehicle and followed Avery into thehelicopter. There were a million things thatdemanded his attention, but only one thathe cared about right at that moment. And suddenly he was grateful for her
249. pride and stubbornness because it wasonly those two things that had her steppinginto his helicopter without an argument. Itwas pride that kept that back straight as shesettled into her seat, pride that had hergreeting his pilot with her usual warmsmile and no visible evidence of tension. As the doors closed, she turned tohim, her gaze cool. ‘So here I am. By yourside and unafraid. Sorry to disappoint you.You’ve lost.’ ‘I’m not disappointed.’ And hecertainly hadn’t lost. ‘So where are we going?’ ‘Somewhere we can be sure ofprivacy.’ He watched as her shouldersshifted defensively and her mouth tightenedas she instinctively recoiled from the threatof intimacy. ‘I’m surprised you don’t just want to
250. return to the palace. Your wedding planshave fallen apart. Shouldn’t you be talkingto your father?’ ‘I’ve already spoken to him. I toldhim I will be back in a few days and wecan discuss it further then.’ ‘I would have thought the cancellationof your marriage would have takenprecedence over everything else.’ ‘Not everything.’ Not this. The mostimportant thing of all. He realised now how badly he’d gotit wrong. He, who prided himself on hisnegotiation skills, had made so manyfundamental errors with this woman whowas so unlike any other woman. He’d been complacent. Sure ofhimself. Sure of her. It wasn’t a mistake he was going tomake again.
251. The helicopter rose into the air andneither of them spoke again during theforty-minute journey. And then he saw thechange in her as she finally realised theirdestination. ‘The Zubran Desert Spa?’ She’d used it as a venue for an eventa while back. It had been the place they’dmoved from friends to something more. Ithad significance, marking an importantmilestone in their relationship. He’d chosen it for that reason. He’dwanted significance. He wanted to teardown every barrier she erected betweenthem and when she turned to face him heknew he’d succeeded. ‘Why here?’ ‘Why not?’ Blame mingled with vulnerability.‘You’re not playing fair.’ Could he be accused of dirty tactics?
252. Possibly, but he felt no guilt. When thestakes were this high, all tactics werejustified. He was going to use everything athis disposal to get her to open up. He wasgoing to fight for their relationship, fighther if necessary, and he’d keep fightinguntil he had the outcome he wanted. Hehadn’t expected to get a second chance butnow he had, he wasn’t going to waste it. ‘I don’t play to be fair. I play to win.’ ‘You mean you have to get your ownway in everything.’ ‘Hardly.’ If he’d had his own waythey never would have parted. It had beenthe first time in his life he’d felt helpless. As the doors to the helicopter opened,they were met by the hotel manager and anentourage of excited staff. ‘They’ve mistaken you for a rockstar,’ Avery murmured as she reached for
253. her bag and stood up. ‘Do you want tobreak it to them that you’re no oneimportant, or shall I?’ ‘I suggest you don’t ruin their fun.’ ‘When a new employee starts in myoffice and they’re overwhelmed by thepeople we deal with, I remind them thatfamous people are all human beings withthe same basic needs.’ ‘Sexual?’ Colour warmed her cheeks. ‘Howtypical of you to pick that need first. Otherswould have gone for something different.’ ‘Others haven’t just been trapped in adesert with you for two days.’ Speakingunder his breath, Mal urged her towardsthe welcoming committee. ‘Your Highness, it is a pleasure towelcome you back. We are so honouredthat you have chosen to spend a few days
254. with us.’ Clearly overwhelmed by theimportance of his guest, the manager of thehotel bowed deeply. ‘Your instructionshave been carried out precisely, but shouldyou need anything else—’ ‘Privacy.’ Mal’s eyes were onAvery’s taut profile. ‘My greatest needright at this moment is for privacy.’ ‘And we pride ourselves on ourability to offer our guests exactly that. Iwill escort you straight to the Sultan’sSuite, Your Highness, and can I say onceagain what an honour it is to be able towelcome you.’The Sultan’s Suite . The place they’d spenttheir first night together. Avery tried to slow her pace but hegripped her hand firmly as they walkedalong the curving path that led to theexclusive desert villa. And it was no use
255. pretending that he was forcing her. Shewas a grown woman with a mind of herown. She could have walked away at anypoint in the past few hours, but she hadn’t.And what did that make her? A fool,definitely. If only he hadn’t accused her of beingscared. That comment alone had made itimpossible for her to refuse, and— —he’d made it impossible for her torefuse! Her eyes narrowed dangerously. She turned her head to look at him, themovement sending her hair whippingacross her back. ‘You are an underhanded,manipulative snake.’ She kept her voicelow so that the manager couldn’t overhearbut clearly Mal caught the words becausehe smiled. ‘Save the compliments until we are
256. alone, habibti.’ ‘You made that comment about mebeing afraid because you knew I’d have toprove you wrong.’ ‘So does that make me manipulativeor you predictable?’ The fact that he knew her so welldidn’t improve her mood. ‘I suppose youthink you’re clever.’ ‘Desperate,’ he murmured, his thumbstroking her palm. ‘Desperate would be theword I’d use. Even famous people haveneeds, you know.’ She did know. And the contrast between his gentle,seductive touch and the raw desire she sawin his eyes unsettled her more than wordscould. The heat rushed through her andsuddenly she was truly afraid. Not of himbut for herself. She’d spent the past months
257. trying to get over him. Hauling herself outof bed every day and reminding herself thatshe was not going to ruin her life over aman, even a spectacular man. And yet hereshe was, about to risk it all again. And now there was no Kalila. Therewas no virgin bride. Nothing to keep themapart. Nothing except all the usual reasons. She tried to snatch her hand from hisbut his grip was unyielding. ‘This is amistake.’ ‘If it’s a mistake then I’ll take it like aman.’ That offered her no comfort becausehis masculinity had never been in question.From the hard-packed muscle of his wideshoulders to the powerful legs and the ironself-discipline that drove him, he wasmore of a man than any she’d met.
258. ‘You’re going to regret this.’ And so was she. When he’d told her to drop everythingand come with him she should havepleaded workload or an event that couldn’tpossibly continue without her personalattention. Anything that would have got herout of this situation. But the manager was already bowingagain as they reached the doorway of theexclusive villa and it was too late for herto back out. ‘The doctor is waiting for you, YourHighness, as instructed.’ Mal murmured his thanks and Averyfrowned. ‘Doctor?’ She tugged her hand free ofhis and pulled off her hiking boots. It was arelief to be rid of them because they wereheavy and hot. ‘Who needs a doctor?’
259. ‘You do. I want you checked after thatscorpion bite.’ ‘Oh for goodness’ sake, I’m fine.’ ‘The doctor will decide that.’ ‘He might send me home,’ shemuttered in an undertone. ‘Have youthought of that?’ ‘Or he might send you to bed, whereyou are going to end up either way.’ ‘You think so? Maybe you’re a littleover-confident, Your Highness.’ ‘And you are the most aggravatingwoman I’ve ever encountered. Thescorpion met its match. Even now it isprobably engaged in a session ofpsychotherapy as part of the recoveryprocess.’ Mal stepped forward and therewas a brief exchange with the doctor,during which Avery tapped her footimpatiently.
260. ‘I am as healthy as a horse.’ ‘When I hear that from a professionalI will be reassured. If you go through to themaster bedroom, he will examine you. Andtry not to take your frustration out on thedoctor. He’s an innocent party.’ ‘You think I’m frustrated?’ ‘I truly hope so. But we’ll talk aboutthis later.’ Maddeningly cool, Mal strolledtowards the bedroom and opened the doorsand her heart skidded in her chest becausethere in the centre was the hand-craftedbed that had witnessed the shift in theirrelationship from friends to lovers. The sensual, unashamed luxury of thesuite unsettled her as much as the look inhis eyes. ‘What’s the doctor supposed to do?Declare me fit for action?’ Her responsewas flippant and she realised that she
261. hadn’t thought about the scorpion bite forhours. She’d been too caught up in all thedrama and the swirling mess of her ownfeelings. She’d been too busy thinkingabout him. And he knew it. He hovered while the doctorexamined her and Avery almost felt sorryfor the man as Mal subjected him to avolley of cross-questioning until finally hewas satisfied. Exhausted, she flopped back againstthe pillows. ‘You terrified that poor man.His hands were shaking. For God’s sake,Mal, ease up on people, will you?’ ‘I just wanted to make sure he wasthorough.’ The room was the ultimate insophistication. Decorated with elaboratewoven rugs and antique furniture, the doors
262. opened onto an uninterrupted view of thedesert. Last time she was here with himshe’d taken a picture of the same view atsunset and made it her screen saver. Seeingit again now made her heart lift and ache atthe same time because it brought backmemories of a time when life had beenclose to perfect. The mattress dipped slightly as Malsat down next to her. ‘You are thinkingabout the last time we were here.’ ‘No. I don’t do that sort of thing. Ifyou wanted sentimental then you picked thewrong woman. But you discovered that awhile ago.’ Sliding away from him, Averysprang from the bed. ‘What I was actuallythinking is that I need a shower. My hair isfull of sand. My clothes are full of sand.Right now I’m more camel than human.’She shot towards the bathroom because itwas the only room with a lock on the door,
263. but he caught her easily and pulled herfirmly back towards him. ‘There is nowhere to run. It’s just youand me, habibti.’ ‘And you only have yourself to blamefor that. I told you you’d regret it.’ ‘Do I look as if I’m regretting it?’Smiling slightly, he slid his hands eitherside of her face, tilting her head. ‘Do youreally want to fight? Because I’ll fight ifthat’s what you want. Or you could listento an alternative suggestion as to how wecan spend this time we have together.’ ‘No.’ The word was meant to be firmand decisive. Instead it sounded more likea pathetic plea and he frowned, the smilefading from his eyes. ‘How long are you going to keeppretending this isn’t what you want?’ ‘As long as it takes for you to get the
264. message. What I want is a shower.’ Hervoice was croaky. And she was terrified.Terrified of the thought of doing this again.Of risking everything. Of being hurt. ‘Shower first?’ He lifted his hand andfreed her hair. ‘First?’ ‘I thought you might be hungry.’ ‘Shower sounds good. But I don’thave clothes to change into. You shouldhave thought of that before you kidnappedme.’ His fingers lingered on her hair. ‘Ican solve that, too.’ ‘How?’ ‘Sometimes being a Prince has itsadvantages.’ Her heart was beating fast butwhether it was the fact that he was
265. touching her or the fact that he wasstanding so close to her, she didn’t know.‘So you’ve been shamelessly using yourposition and influence to coerce people.’ ‘Something like that.’ ‘I’m not impressed. It doesn’t workon me.’ ‘It never did. But you do want me.Are you going to admit it?’ ‘Not until all the sand has blown fromthe desert.’ His eyes glittered dark. ‘Then I’llhave to use other means to get the truthfrom you.’ ‘You resort to violence now?’ His mouth twisted. ‘Not violence. Butyou will be honest because I am finishedwith games.’ They were talking, but words were
266. only part of the communication betweenthem. There was the subtle brush of hishand against her cheek. The meaningfullook. The sudden rapid sprint of her heartas it hammered against her ribs. It wasuseless to pretend he had no effect on her.That she was immune. She was assusceptible now as she always had been.And he knew it. And the fact that he knewit made her furious. Furious with herself.Even more furious with him. Avery pulled away and stalked overto the bathroom that adjoined the mastersuite. She knew her way. Had been therebefore. But even here the memoriesfollowed her because they’d used thisroom for more than a shower. ‘You’recrowding me and I need time to think.Don’t follow me, Mal.’ And because she didn’t trust him notto do that, she locked the door. And then
267. spent several minutes just staring at it,knowing he was on the other side anddiscovering that a locked door wasn’tenough to keep the feelings away. And thatwas because he wasn’t the problem, washe? The problem was her. She stripped off her clothes, thenwalked into the shower and stood underthe sharp needles of hot water, washingaway two days of hot, sticky travelling inthe desert. She lathered her hair inexpensive shampoo that smelt like lotusflowers, massaged conditioner and thenstood for ages with her eyes closed whilethe water washed over her. But she couldn’t stay in the showerfor ever. Reluctantly, she turned off the flow ofwater and wrapped herself in one of thelarge fluffy towels that were stacked inside
268. a glass cabinet. Then she turned and found himstanding there. ‘You forgot that the bathroom has twoentrances. You only locked one door.’ ‘Another man would have taken thatas a hint.’ ‘And you know that how?’ His ebonyhair glistened dark and his broad shoulderswere still damp from the shower he’dclearly taken in another bathroom. He wasin the process of knotting the towel aroundhis hips. ‘Have you had other lovers in thetime we’ve been apart?’ Other lovers? The question wouldhave made her laugh if it hadn’t hurt somuch. He didn’t have a clue what he’ddone to her. She was distracted by the flat planesof his abdomen, as hard as a board and
269. with a tantalising line of dark hairvanishing beneath the towel. ‘Of course Ihad other lovers. Why do you ask? Did youthink I’d been pining for you?’ ‘Be grateful that I know you’re lying.And I take it as a good sign that you’retrying to protect yourself.’ ‘Well, if you think you know so muchabout me, why ask?’ ‘Because I want you to admit how youfeel.’ ‘Right now? Pretty annoyed. You’rein my personal space.’ ‘You think I’m in your personalspace? Try this—’ He moved so fast thatshe didn’t see it coming and before shecould even murmur his name his mouthwas on hers and the chemistry wasinstantaneous and as powerful as ever.Everything they’d been holding back came
270. rushing straight at them. His hands were onher hips, tugging away the towel and herswere doing the same to his until they wereboth naked and the only sounds in the roomwere his harsh breathing and her softgasps. Abstinence bred desperation anddesperation had him scooping her into hisarms and carrying her to the bedroom, stillkissing, their mouths hungry and demandingas they made up for lost time. ‘Only you can do this to me.’ Hemurmured the words against her mouth ashe lowered her into the centre of the hugehand-crafted bed. ‘Only you, and this timewe are doing this properly. No moreencounters in the bathroom or desperatesnatched moments wherever we can takethem.’ She didn’t care. She didn’t carewhere they were as long as they weretogether and when he came down on top of
271. her she immediately rolled so that he wasunderneath. ‘Battle for supremacy?’ His eyesglittered dark and she smiled down at him,her lips skimming his because after so longwithout touching him she needed to touch. ‘Can you take it?’ ‘Can you?’ And it was a question she was to askherself over and over again as he used allhis skill and knowledge to drive her wild.She didn’t believe in love. She didn’tbelieve in happy ever after. But shebelieved in this and wondered how she’dsurvived so long without his touch and thenrealised that she barely had. That everyday since they’d parted she’d been starvingfor him. He was hard, hot and hers, and beingwith him again felt crazily good. So good
272. that she was clumsy as she moved againsthim and of course he took instantadvantage of that, rolling and pinning herbeneath him. ‘I missed you.’ He groaned the wordsagainst her neck and she closed her eyesbecause hearing him say it choked her upso badly. ‘No, you didn’t.’ ‘Yes, I did. And you missed me too.’ ‘No, I didn’t.’ ‘Yes, you did. Say those words backto me, Avery. Be honest.’ His hand cuppedher face. ‘It doesn’t make you weak toadmit it.’ No, but it made her vulnerable. ‘Imissed having someone to argue with,that’s true.’ She made the mistake ofopening her eyes at that moment and metthe heat in his. His mouth curved into a
273. slow, sexy smile of completeunderstanding. ‘Of course, you missed the argumentsand that is all. You didn’t miss this—’eyes half shut, he stroked a hand down herbody and she gasped ‘—or this—’ hemoved his hand lower still and this timeshe moaned ‘—and you definitely didn’tmiss this.’ This had her writhing under him buthe denied her the satisfaction she craved,easing away slightly when she arched herhips against him. ‘Do you realise that the only time youshow your feelings is when we’re in bedtogether?’ His voice was husky and hepinned her arms above her head, holdingher captive. ‘Apart from the scorpion sting,the only time I’ve ever seen you vulnerableis when you’re in my bed.’
274. ‘It wasn’t always your bed.Sometimes it was my bed.’ Her heart wasthumping because of course she wasvulnerable. Terrifyingly so, naked in everyway. All of her exposed to this man whosaw so much and yet still insisted on more. ‘Are you going to tell me why you’reso afraid?’ ‘Afraid?’ She tugged gently at hishands but he held her firmly. ‘I’m notafraid.’ ‘If you’re not afraid then stop trying tofree yourself.’ His mouth trailed over hershoulder, his tongue slow and explicit ashe traced her skin. ‘If you’re not afraidthen you should just trust me not to hurtyou. It shouldn’t be hard.’ It was the hardest thing in the world,to put her safety in the hands of anotherperson. To trust her heart to the one person
275. in the world who could break it. It was toomuch to ask. He wanted her to surrendersomething she couldn’t surrender. Tosubmit to something that terrified herbecause she knew that whatever he gave,he could also take away. His mouth moved lower, his tongueflicked her nipple and a low moan ofpleasure escaped her. ‘Mal—’ ‘Trust me not to hurt you.’ Hemurmured the words against her skin,against her body, already damp from histongue and shivering with an excitement sointense it was impossible to keep still. Shesquirmed and her breath caught at the feelof him, the rough hardness of his thigh andthe thickness of his penis as his powerfulbody brushed against hers. The extent ofhis arousal mirrored hers and she tried to
276. wrap her arms around him and urge him onbut he held her hands fast so that she hadno choice but to submit to his will. Struggling to stay in control, to stay incharge, Avery closed her eyes and blockedout the sensual gleam in those dark eyes.As always, he drove her to the edge. Evenwith her eyes closed she felt restraint slip.She couldn’t remember actually why shewas trying to prevent this happening.Excitement engulfed her in great wavesuntil she was drowning in sensation, thefeelings of her body colliding with herfears. His tongue flicked over the sensitivetips of her breasts, his touch so skilled thatshe felt the sensation deep inside her. Shesquirmed, her hips shifting against theluxurious sheets, but he showed her nomercy. A moan escaped her lips but hisresponse to that was to slide his hand
277. between her legs, to apply his expertise tothat part of her that now ached for histouch. And touch her he did, those long,strong fingers shamelessly knowing as hedrove her wild, controlling her responseand easing back as he felt the first ripple ofher body. ‘No. Not yet.’ Denied the completion she craved,she moaned against his mouth. ‘Not fair.’ ‘I want you. All of you.’ Hemurmured the words against her mouth andshe parted her lips and tried to steal a kissbut with her hands held and her bodytrapped beneath the powerful strength ofmale muscle, she wasn’t the one in control.He kept his mouth just out of reach of hers,close enough to drive her crazy and makeher desperate for his kiss, not close enoughfor her to take control.
278. ‘Mal—’ ‘I want you to trust me.’ He spokesoftly but there was no mistaking thecommand in his voice and had they been ina different position she would have smiledbecause he just couldn’t help himself. Evennow, in this position of extreme intimacy,he had to be in control. ‘I don’t trust anyone but myself.’ ‘Up until now that might have beentrue—’ His fingers, placed tantalizinglyclose to that delicate part of her, traced herso gently, so skilfully that the exquisitepleasure swelled to something close topain. Her body throbbed with her need forhim and he knew it. She knew he knew itbecause she felt his smile against hermouth as he finally lowered his head tohers and gave her what she’d craved. Histongue slid over hers, bold, demanding and
279. unashamedly sensual while all the time hisfingers worked magic. And still he heldher hands. Still he held her trapped and theease with which he did it confirmed thatphysically he was the stronger, but shecouldn’t allow herself to surrender in theway he wanted her to surrender. ‘Let go of me. I want to touch you.’ ‘No. For now, I’m the one in charge.The sooner you acknowledge that, thesooner I let you go.’ His hand pushed herthighs wider and with a single smoothmovement he was inside her. Deep, surebut achingly slow and gentle and thatcontrol on his part tore at the last strainingthreads of hers. She moaned and he withdrew slightlyand then moved again, deeper this time, hishand on her hip, controlling hermovements. The look in his eyes made it
280. hard to catch her breath and she wanted toclose hers, to block him out, but somethingin her wouldn’t allow it so the connectioncontinued, deepening an experience thatwas already terrifying. It had never been like this before. Thesex had always been amazing and eachtime had been different but never, ever hadit felt like this. Never this close. Never this—personal. He’d never demanded this much fromher and she’d never given this much. She felt the strength of him, the powerof him stretching her, possessing her andshe wrapped her legs around him, alwaysactive, never passive and he smiled againsther lips because he recognised that need inher. He knew her so well. He knew all ofher and she tried again to block him outbecause the level of intimacy was
281. terrifying. She was bound, not by the factthat he held her hands, but by the fact thathe held her heart. If she begged him, he’dlet her hands go. Physically, she’d be free.Emotionally, she knew she’d never be free.He was the only man she wanted. He wasthe only man she’d ever wanted and thosefeelings bound her to him as securely as ifshe’d been handcuffed. ‘Stop fighting it—’ he kissed herslowly ‘—stop fighting me and pushing meaway.’ ‘I’m not pushing you. Thanks to you, Ican’t move.’ ‘I’m not talking about physically andyou know it.’ His mouth was still on hers.Gentle and yet demanding at the same time.‘I’m talking about everything else.’ ‘What else is there?’ ‘You know.’
282. Yes, she knew and this time shemanaged to close her eyes, moaning a lowdenial. ‘You are asking too much.’ ‘I’m asking a lot. But not too much.’ ‘You don’t know.’ ‘If there are things I don’t know thenit’s because you’ve never trusted meenough to tell me. I won’t hurt you.’ And she knew he wasn’t talking aboutthe physical side of their relationship. Hewasn’t talking about sex or anything thatthey were doing right now in this bed. Thatwouldn’t have scared her. What scared herwas the fact that he would hurt her. Maybenot now, or even tomorrow but at somepoint in their relationship, perhaps evenwhen she’d started to rely on having him inher life. He’d hurt her before … Panic washed over her. ‘Mal—’
283. ‘I want it all, Avery. Everythingyou’ve never given before. I want that fromyou.’ His free hand locked in her hair. ‘Iwon’t be satisfied with less thaneverything.’ She moaned because he was deepinside her and thinking clearly no longerseemed easy and natural. In fact thinkingfelt impossible as he took her in a slow,sensuous rhythm that drove her wild. ‘I want to know about the dream.’ ‘The dream?’ ‘Those dreams you have. Tell me—’he breathed the words against her mouth ashe broke one erotic kiss and startedanother ‘—tell me what it is that makesyou moan in your sleep and wake withdark circles under those beautiful eyes.’ She was dizzy from his kisses,melting and desperate from each carefully
284. timed thrust. ‘I dream about work—’ shemoaned as his tongue slid into contact withhers and her senses exploded ‘—work.’ ‘Work?’ His hand moved down,lower, sliding under her bottom, holdingher firm as he deepened his possession.‘It’s work that makes you cry out?’ ‘Yes.’ She was on the point ofbegging because he’d held her at this pointfor so long and she didn’t think she couldstand it any longer. She ached with need.She craved him in a way that was indecent. ‘You’re lying. Tell me what youdream about.’ The husky tone of his voicewas unbearably sexy and she wonderedhow he could still string a sentencetogether when she herself was barely ableto give voice to a moan. ‘Avery—’ Purring her name, he sankdeep into her quivering flesh and Avery
285. lost her grip on control, every sense in herbody teased to its limits under his skilledtouch. As she lost control of herself sherealised that her mother had got it wrong.Yes, she could be responsible for her ownorgasm, but it was so much better whensomeone else was. And she could beresponsible for her own heart too, butsharing it was the greatest gift she couldgive and she wanted to share it with thisman. ‘You,’ she gasped as he broughtecstasy crashing down on them. ‘I dreamabout you.’Mal lay in the dark, wrapped in the scentof her and the softness of her, holding herin the curve of his arm as the rising sunsent arrows of golden light shooting acrossthe desert. Apart from the night of thescorpion sting, this was the first time she’d
286. allowed herself to fall asleep in his arms,as if it were somehow a weakness to dothat. And there was no doubt in his mindthat she saw it that way. As if admitting tohaving feelings for a man somehowthreatened who she was. It was ironic, he thought, because inmany ways she was the strongest person heknew and yet he understood that herindependence was driven by fear as muchas anything. Fear of being let down. Fearof hurt. She’d told him little about her pastbut what little she’d told him had beensufficient for him to form a picture of a lifelived devoid of paternal influence. He’d read about her mother. Aboutthe impressive divorce lawyer who hadsacrificed everything on her way to the top.Clearly she’d also sacrificed her
287. relationship with Avery’s father becausethere was no mention of him anywhere, andno doubt that negative experience wasresponsible for her damaged view ofmarriage. He told himself that he shouldn’tjudge, especially given that he knewcountless men who had done the samething. Men who had put their ownambitions before the needs of their lovedones. Marriages died. It was a fact of life. But they’d made progress. It wasn’t much of a leap to go from ‘Idream about you’ to ‘I love you’. And he was confident she was readyto make that leap.She woke to warmth and a safe feeling.Struggling up through clouds of sleep,Avery opened her eyes and the first thingshe saw was bronzed skin and malemuscle.
288. Mal. She’d spent the night with Mal. Thewhole night. Not just a few hours and noteven just sleeping in the same bed, butwith him, snuggled. Joined. And aftermonths of trying to piece herself backtogether, piece by broken piece. Warmth was replaced by dismay.What had she done? It was like spending a year on a dietand then taking a job in a chocolate factoryand binging from dawn to dusk. She wasfurious with herself—and with him forassuming that he could just pick up wherehe’d left off. Panic exploded and she tried towrench herself away from him but his armstightened like a steel band, locking heragainst him. ‘What’s the matter?’
289. ‘I’m suffering a serious case ofmorning-after regret. Let me go.’ Had healways had muscles like this? She strainedagainst his hold but there was no shiftinghim. ‘You’re not going anywhere. If thereare things you want to say then you can saythem here.’ Pressed against his warm naked bodywith every passing second reminding herof last night and weakening her resolve? ‘Let me go.’ ‘Never.’ He didn’t open his eyes anda slight smile tilted the corners of his firm,sexy mouth. ‘You are running away fromme yet again like the coward you are.’ ‘I’m not a coward.’ ‘No?’ His eyes opened a fraction andhe looked at her, his expression shieldedby the thickness of dark lashes. ‘Prove it,
290. habibti. Stay where you are. Do not createthe distance your instinct tells you tocreate. Last night, for once, you werehonest. Embrace it. Face the fear.’ ‘Last night I was an idiot. And I don’twant this! I had it once before and it wastruly horrible.’ She shoved him hard andsprang from the bed, her heart racing andpanic gripping her like the talons of one ofhis falcons. ‘Horrible?’ His tone was severalshades cooler. ‘You are saying ourrelationship was horrible?’ ‘Not our relationship, no, the partwhen it ended.’ Flustered and confusedand horribly conscious that she was naked,she grabbed the nearest item of clothing,which just happened to be his discardedshirt. ‘You just don’t get it, do you?’ He lifted himself onto his elbow, his
291. inky black hair flopping over his forehead.The sheet drifted down, displaying packedmuscle and abs as hard as steel. ‘Giventhat you were the one who ended it, no, Idon’t.’ She thought back to that time anddidn’t know whether to cry or punch him.‘Never mind.’ The words were thickenedaround the lump in her throat and shepulled on the shirt, covering herself.‘Forget it. I’d be grateful if you’d do yourpowerful Prince thing and call yourhelicopter. It’s time for me to go home.’ ‘Wearing nothing but my shirt?’ ‘I’ll change.’ ‘Don’t bother. I’m not letting you goagain.’ He was so sure of himself and whocould blame him after the way she’dfolded in his arms only a few hours earlier. ‘It isn’t your choice, it’s mine and I
292. choose not to do this again. I won’t makethe same mistake twice.’ But she’d alreadymade it, hadn’t she? She’d already takenmore than a few steps down that path. Andthe wounds of her healing heart werealready bleeding again. And that was herfault. Despite everything, she’d allowedthem to be ripped open a second time. ‘Are you pretending that we’re notgood together?’ His lack of insight was like a punch toher belly. Her emotions overflowed. ‘Youdon’t have a clue, do you? You haveabsolutely no idea.’ She paced to the farside of the bedroom on legs that shook sobadly she wasn’t confident of their abilityto fulfil their purpose. ‘We’ve done thisonce before, Mal, and when it fell apart itleft me in pieces. I was … was broken,and helpless and utterly pathetic and …God, I can’t believe I just told you that.’
293. Turning away from him, she covered herface with her hands. ‘Just stop this, please.I don’t want a post-mortem. Last night waslast night but that’s it. That’s all it was.One night. No more. I can’t give anymore.’ But it was too late. He was alreadyout of the bed and next to her, gloriouslynaked and completely indifferent to thatfact. ‘You were in pieces?’ The lighthumour had gone. In its place was nothingbut raw emotion. ‘When were you inpieces? Because whenever I contactedyou, you were the most perfect example ofsomeone completely together. I did not seea woman in pieces, I saw a woman whodidn’t give a damn. Until last night that’sall I’ve ever seen when I’ve looked atyou.’ ‘Well, what did you expect?’ She lether hands drop and she was yelling now,
294. completely forgetting to lower her voiceand incapable of playing it cool. ‘Aftereverything I gave you, you did that to me.’ ‘Everything you gave me?’ ‘Yes.’ Her voice cracked. ‘With you Idid something I’d never done with a manbefore—I gave you my heart and yousliced it up into a million pieces andserved it up in public like chopped liver.“Here, look at this everyone, helpyourself.”‘ That confession was followedby a horrible silence. She waited for himto say something but instead he simplystared at her, his cheeks unnaturally pale. He swallowed, although thatmanoeuvre appeared to cause himdifficulty. ‘You were the one who endedour relationship.’ ‘And weeks later you were engagedto Kalila. And news of that engagement
295. was everywhere. I couldn’t go on theInternet without having pictures of thehappy couple flashed in front of my face.And everyone was watching me, waitingfor me to fall apart. Everyone. It was likebeing an exhibit in a zoo. Do you knowhow hard it was to drag myself out of bedin the morning and face the world?Because I can tell you it was hell.’ He looked shell-shocked. ‘Avery—’ ‘And as if it wasn’t bad enough, youthen had the gall to ask me to organise theevening party to celebrate your wedding.You had to rub my face in it.’ All theemotion that had been locked inside her forso long came flowing out, smothering herand choking her. ‘And I had to laugh andsmile and say, “Of course I don’t mind,”to what felt like a million nosy people whowanted to stop and stare at our massive carcrash of a relationship. It was bad enough
296. that you asked her to marry you so soonafter we broke up, but to ask me toorganise the party knowing that I wouldn’tfeel able to refuse—’ she was sobbingnow, tears soaking her cheeks as shefinally lost control. ‘How could you dothat? How could you want to hurt me andhumiliate me like that? How could you?’ Ashen, he muttered somethingunintelligible and reached for her but shesnatched her hand away and dodged him. ‘No! There is nothing you can do orsay to make this right. I’ve always thoughtthat long-term relationships were doomedbut with you, just for a moment, I washappy. And hopeful. And then you didthat.’ The words ended on a hiccup. ‘Andit wasn’t an accident. You did it to hurt me.And you did. You did hurt me, Mal. And Iwon’t let you do it again.’
297. CHAPTER SEVENMAL stood frozen to the spot, staring at thespace where only a moment ago she’dstood. Stunned, he sifted through the wordsshe’d thrown at him, sorting them in orderof importance. And when he’d done that,he cursed softly. Mouth tight, he rapped on the door ofthe bathroom. The door that she’d locked,of course. ‘Avery? Open up. Now.’ When there was no answer, hestepped back and contemplated hisoptions. Examining the lock, he strodeacross the bedroom and retrieved the baghe’d taken into the desert. The knife feltheavy in his hand and he stared at theblade, wondering if it would serve hispurpose. Silently thanking Rafiq who hadensured that he was armed with no end of
298. practical skills, he manoeuvred the knifeand successfully unlocked the door. She was huddled on the floor of thebathroom, her arms locked around her legs,his shirt barely covering the tops of herpale thighs. His entry earned him a scowl.‘So now you can walk through lockeddoors? Get out.’ ‘No.’ ‘It isn’t enough to hurt me once? Youhave to do it again and again?’ Her gazedropped to his hands. ‘And with a knife? Isthis a new blood sport?’ He’d forgotten about the knife in hishand and instantly he put it down, thinkingthat he’d never seen her like this before.Never seen her with her emotions soclearly on display. ‘I did not hurt youintentionally.’ With the same care andcaution that he would have approached an
299. injured animal, Mal squatted down next toher. ‘I didn’t know, habibti.’ Hepurposefully kept his voice soft and non-confrontational but that didn’t stop thesudden blaze of fire in her eyes. ‘Didn’t know what? That you are aninsensitive bastard? That just means youhave a depressing lack of self-insight.’ He chose to ignore the insult becausehe recognised it for what it was—a lastfrantic defence from someone who wasterrified. ‘I didn’t know you’d given meyour heart. Until today, I didn’t think youhad. I thought that was a prize I hadn’twon. You didn’t say anything and I—’ helet out a breath ‘—I failed to pick up thesignals.’ ‘And you’re such an expert in bodylanguage.’ ‘Apparently not.’
300. ‘You didn’t have to be an expert.’The derisive glance she sent in hisdirection spoke volumes about her view onrelationships. ‘I was with you for a year. Awhole year. What do you think that says?’ ‘To me it said that we were having agood time.’ Mal saw the shimmer of anunshed tear stuck to her eyelashes and hisheart clenched. He lifted his hand to brushit away gently with his thumb but sheflinched away from him. The shirt she’dgrabbed was too big for her and as sheflattened herself against the wall of thebathroom it slid down, exposing one paleshoulder. Just a glimpse, and yet it wasenough to force him to shift positions forhis own comfort. Enough to remind himthat this woman affected him in a way thatno other woman ever had. ‘It didn’t tell methat you were in love with me. I didn’tpresume that and you didn’t tell me that.
301. Not once did you say those words.’ ‘Neither did you.’ Was it that simple? Was that all itwould have taken? ‘I was ready to saythem. I was ready to ask you to marry me. Ihad plans. And then you told me it wasover and walked away.’ ‘The first I knew of your “plans” waswhen a creepy guy who could never keephis hands to himself rang me to make me anoffer for my business because he’d heard Iwas giving it all up to walk five stepsbehind you for the rest of my life.’ Mal reined in the anger, refusing to besidetracked. ‘I didn’t know he’d made anoffer on your business.’ ‘He was taunting me because he knewhow much my company meant to me. And Ifell for it, of course.’ Eyes closed, she lether head fall back against the wall. ‘He
302. understood my weaknesses better than youdid.’ ‘And he understood mine.’ Hismuscles protesting at his cramped position,Mal stood up and lifted her to her feet,relieved when the shirt she was wearingslid back into place and covered slightlymore of her. ‘I thought you were Prince Perfect.You don’t have any weaknesses.’ Her hairtumbled over her shoulders, softly tangledafter a night in his bed. Without her make-up she looked impossibly young and Malfelt something soften inside him. He’d sorarely seen her like this. This was the realAvery, not the businesswoman. ‘You think I don’t have a weakness?’He slid his hands into her hair and tiltedher head. ‘My weakness is you, habibti.It’s always been you. And Richard knew it.
303. He knew exactly what to say to causemaximum havoc. And his plan was aspectacular success. I lost my cool.’ Her beautiful eyes were bruised andwary. ‘Sorry, but I just can’t imagine that.’ ‘Try. It was bad.’ Mal’s mouthtwisted into a smile of self-mockery. ‘Verybad. You want details? Because it wasn’tpretty. I lost control, just as Kalila toldyou.’ ‘I didn’t believe her. You never losecontrol.’ ‘Everyone has a breaking point. Hefound mine with embarrassing ease. I’dplanned to ask you to marry me. To do it“properly”. I knew we were happytogether. I knew you were the woman Iwanted to spend my life with. It was anunfortunate coincidence that Richardconfronted me before I’d had a chance to
304. have time alone with you.’ She stared at a point at the centre ofhis chest. ‘It might have helped if you’dactually included me in your plans.’ ‘I’m very traditional. I wanted to askyou in a traditional manner.’ She pulled away, her narrowshoulders suddenly tense. ‘Yes, you’retraditional. And that brings us full circle.Even if you’d managed to ask me to marryyou in the conventional way, face to face,you still would have expected me to giveup my business.’ It was the elephant in the room. Thething they’d never talked about because ithad seemed insurmountable. Even backthen, when he’d been determined to make itwork, he’d seen the difficulties because itwas absolutely true that to run a businesslike hers would require a time commitment
305. that the woman who married him wouldnot be able to afford. Mal hesitated for a beat but even thatwas a beat too long because he saw hershoulders sag as she took that fatalhesitation on his part as confirmation ofher fears. ‘I would not have expected youto give up your business.’ But he saw fromher cynical expression that she didn’tbelieve him and he sighed. ‘You wouldn’thave been able to work eighteen hour days,that’s true, but we would have found away.’ ‘A way that involved me giving upeverything and you giving up nothing.’ ‘No. We would have talked about it.Come to some mutual agreement, but wedidn’t communicate as well as we mighthave done.’ ‘If that’s the case then it’s your fault.’
306. And that made him smile because shesounded so much like herself and it was arelief. ‘I agree. My fault. Except for thepart that was your fault.’ Noticing that theshirt was slipping again, he took her handand led her out of the bathroom, ignoringher attempts to resist him. ‘Sorry, but weneed to have this conversation somewherethat doesn’t make me think of you naked inthe shower if we’re to stand any chance ofactually resolving this. It would help if youcould button the shirt to the neck.’ ‘You’re thinking about sex at a timelike this?’ He gave a wry smile. ‘Aren’t you?’ She dragged her eyes from hisshoulders. ‘No. You don’t turn me on,Your Highness.’ His smile drew a shrugfrom her. ‘All right, maybe I am thinkingabout sex, but if anything that makes it
307. worse because good sex cannot sustain arelationship. Good sex does not change thefact that our relationship is impossible.’ ‘Not impossible.’ ‘We want different things.’ ‘Then we will compromise. It is justa question of negotiation.’ ‘In other words you’ll bully me untilyou get your own way.’ They were in the living area now,with its sumptuous furniture andbreathtaking views of the desert but neitherof them was conscious of theirsurroundings. Just each other. Averysnatched her hand from his and took refugein the furthest corner of the sofa, as faraway from him as possible. ‘What time is the helicopter arrivingto pick me up?’
308. ‘It’s not.’ He paused, unwilling togive her the option to leave but knowingthat he would never keep this woman bybinding her to his side. ‘But if you stillwant the helicopter when we have finishedthis conversation to the satisfaction of bothparties then I will fly you home myself.Fair?’ Her eyes skidded to his and thenaway. ‘Go on then, Your Highness. Slayme with your superior negotiationtechniques.’ This time he didn’t hesitate. ‘Youaccuse me of being insensitive, and I admitthe charge but you share some of the blamebecause I had no clue as to the depth ofyour feelings. You never told me. Youwere so busy protecting yourself—’ ‘—something I was obviously right todo.’
309. ‘No. If you’d trusted me—if we’dunderstood each other better—’ He felt arush of exasperation as he rememberedhow much she’d held back. ‘Every time Itried to talk to you I came up against thistough, competent, ball-breakingbusinesswoman. Nothing could shatter thatshield you put between yourself and theworld.’ ‘It’s not a shield. It’s who I am.’ ‘It’s a shield. Why do you think Iasked you to organise my wedding party?’ ‘I thought we were already inagreement on that one. Because you’reinsensitive.’ Her tone was flippant but hesaw the pain in her eyes and that pain wasmatched by his. ‘You cut me off.’ His tone was raw,his grip on control as slippery as it alwayswas around this woman. ‘You didn’t even
310. give me the right to reply. You just told methat you weren’t prepared to make the“sacrifice” necessary to be my wife—apoint which, by the way, hurt almost asmuch as the realisation that you were notprepared to fight for the survival of ourrelationship.’ ‘Relationships end, Mal. It’s a fact oflife. Fighting just prolongs the inevitable.’ ‘Some relationships end.’ He realisedjust how deeply he’d underestimated thelevel of her insecurities. ‘Others endure.’ ‘If I want endurance, I’ll run amarathon.’ Sensing that the way was blocked, heshifted his approach. ‘I once consideredyou the most open-minded, educated,impressive woman in my acquaintance buton the subject of marriage you areblinkered and deeply prejudiced. How did
311. I not realise that sooner?’ ‘If this is an elaborate way of shiftingblame for the fact that you were cruelenough to force me to plan the celebrationsfor your wedding to another woman, thenyou’ll need to work harder. I am not toblame for your shortcomings.’ ‘You didn’t even afford me thecourtesy of a face to face conversation.You just told me it was over. You refusedto speak to me until that final phone call,the details of which are welded in mybrain.’ He had the satisfaction of seeingher shift slightly. ‘That’s right. The onewhen you told me that the only way I wasgoing to be able to speak to you again wasif I booked you in a professional capacity.So that’s what I did. I booked you.’ Hewatched as the truth settled home. Watchedas she acknowledged her part in what hadhappened.
312. ‘I didn’t mean it literally.’ ‘Well, I took it literally.’ ‘You chose to marry another woman,’she snapped, ‘and you expect me tobelieve that you were broken-hearted?Sorry, but look at the evidence from mypoint of view. I hear from someone elsethat we are getting married and that I’mgiving up my job, and your response whenI say “no” to that less than appealingprospect is to immediately propose tosomeone else. That merely confirmedeverything I already knew about thetransitory nature of relationships.’ It all came back to that, he thoughtand realised that this was the moment heshould tell her the truth about hisengagement to Kalila. But if he told her, itwould be over and he wasn’t ready to lether go without a fight. ‘I believed our
313. relationship was at an end.’ He draggedhis hand over the back of his neck, forcinghimself to relive those horrible months. ‘Ithought that was it.’ ‘And it didn’t take you long torecover, did it? If you cared about me thatmuch, why did you ask Kalila to marryyou?’ ‘I didn’t ask her. Our marriage wasarranged by the Council. That was the dealI made with my father.’ That much, at least,was true. All that was missing was thedetail. ‘The deal?’ ‘I told him I wanted to marry you—’he sat down on the sofa next to her andtook it as a positive sign that she didn’timmediately leap out of her seat ‘—and hepredicted that you would refuse.’ She studied her fingernails. ‘Your
314. father is a wise man, I always said so, but Ifail to see how even he would know thatwithout consulting me.’ ‘He met you. You’d charmed him asyou charm everyone you meet, but he alsosaw the problems. Perhaps he saw things Iwas not prepared to confront. He warnedme that the sacrifice required would be toogreat for a woman like you. And it turnedout he was right. Because I couldn’t marryyou, it didn’t matter to me who I married.So I let them make the arrangements theywanted to make.’ Silence spread across the room. Shelifted her gaze to his. ‘You could have said no.’ No, he couldn’t have said no. Mal felt tension spread across hisshoulders. ‘Why would I? I have to marry.That point is not in question. My father is
315. not in good health and yet under his ruleZubran has achieved an unprecedentedlevel of stability and progress. Oureconomy is strong, I am taking over moreand more of his role and ultimately I willbe responsible for the country’s future.That is a huge responsibility, but one thatI’m prepared for.’ He breathed deeply.‘But the prospect would have been moreappealing had I been able to do it with youby my side. That was what I wanted.’ Something that might have been shockflickered in those blue eyes. She tucked her legs under her andmade herself smaller. ‘So now you’retelling me that? Your timing sucks, YourHighness.’ ‘I would have to agree with that.’ ‘Why didn’t you say it before?’ ‘Because you would have run faster
316. than a stallion in the Zubran Derby.’ The corners of her mouth flickered.Her lips curved. Those lovely lips that hecouldn’t look at without wanting to kissthem. ‘So you suffered when we broke up?’ ‘Greatly.’ ‘Good.’ There was a gleam in hereyes. ‘Because if I went through hell I’dhate to think that you got away free.’ ‘Believe me, I didn’t. I asked you toarrange the wedding party in a last-ditchattempt to get some response from you. Asmall part of me still hoped that you hadfeelings for me and I assumed that if youhad feelings for me then you would refuseto take the business because it would betoo difficult for you to plan an event thatcelebrated my wedding to another woman.’ ‘I can’t believe you asked me to do
317. that. It was a terrible thing to do. A sign ofa sick mind.’ ‘Or the sign of a desperate man.’ Hestretched his arm along the back of thesofa. ‘I hoped that by being forced tocommunicate with me, eventually youwould crack and admit how you felt.’ ‘You thought I’d ruin someone else’srelationship? You really don’t know mevery well. I wouldn’t touch a man whowas engaged to someone else.’ ‘Kalila didn’t want this marriage anymore than I did. She probably would havebeen grateful if I’d been the one to back outbecause it would have saved her fromdoing it and risking the wrath of her father.And that’s enough of that topic. I’ve hadenough of talking about Kalila and the pastand the total and utter mess we made ofsomething special. I want to talk about last
318. night.’ ‘Last night was last night. It doesn’tchange anything.’ ‘Last night I saw the real you. And thereal you confessed that you dream aboutme.’ Mal drew her to her feet and this timeshe didn’t resist. ‘Have I told you that youlook cute in my shirt?’ ‘Stop trying to soften me up.’ But herbreathing wasn’t quite steady. ‘We can’tdo this, Mal. I can’t do this.’ Her voiceshook and he realised the fragility of whathe was holding in his hands. ‘Yes, you can. This is one of thoseoccasions when you’re supposed to faceyour fears.’Face your fears. He made it sound so easy and yet itwas the scariest thing she’d ever faced.
319. ‘You think I’d risk letting you hurt metwice? Do I look stupid?’ ‘I didn’t hurt you the first time. Atleast not intentionally, and you are at leastpartially to blame for that fiasco.’ ‘It’s not a fiasco, it’s a relationship.That’s what happens in relationships. Theybreak. It’s a question of how, not whether.’Avery pulled away from him and wrappedher arms around herself. She was stillwearing the shirt she’d grabbed andsuddenly she regretted not getting dressedand putting on make-up because somehowit was easier to project a different side toherself when she was wearing herwarpaint. ‘People start off optimistically,thinking that nothing can go wrong, andthen eventually it starts to fall apart. Theonly unknown factor is how and when.’ ‘That’s your mother talking. Your
320. mother the divorce lawyer.’ ‘You paid someone to dig into mybackground?’ ‘No, I looked you up, but I shouldn’thave had to. We were together for a yearand our relationship was serious enoughfor you to trust me with at least some basicinformation about your family, althoughthere was nothing there about your father.’ Of course there wasn’t. ‘Why does my family matter?’ Herheart was thumping at her ribcage. ‘Youwere with me, not my mother.’ ‘It might have helped me understandyou. Is it her profession that makes you sowary of relationships? Is that the reasonyou didn’t introduce us?’ ‘I don’t take people home to meet mymother. We don’t have one of those cosymother-daughter relationships where we
321. shop together and get our nails done.’Nerves made her snappy. ‘She wouldn’thave embraced you; she would havewarned me off. My mother’s idea ofirresponsible behaviour is a relationshiplasting more than a few months and being aPrince wouldn’t have earned you points. Ifthere is one thing she hates more than aman, it’s an alpha, macho man. You shouldbe grateful I didn’t introduce you. It wasfor your own protection.’ ‘Do I look as if I need protecting?’He’d pulled on a pair of trousers but historso was bare, bronzed flesh gleamingover solid muscle. Distracted by that muscle, Averyalmost lost the thread of the conversation.‘All right, maybe it was for my protection.’ ‘She sounds like a formidablewoman.’
322. ‘Formidable and utterly messed up.Like me, only very possibly worse if youcan imagine that. I can see her faults, butthat doesn’t mean I can dismiss everythingshe believes because I believe some of ittoo. When we broke up I was a mess.’Remembering it was terrifying. Thinkingabout how much she’d changed. How muchof herself she’d almost given up. Justthinking about losing her business madeher break into a sweat. ‘I can’t do this,Mal. I just can’t. My business gives meindependence. It’s my life and I won’t givethat up. Seriously, we’d be crazy to eventhink of doing this again because the endingwill be the same.’ ‘No it won’t, because this time we’rebeing honest with each other. This timewe’re going to understand each other.We’ll find a way.’ His gaze didn’t flickerfrom hers. ‘I love you.’
323. She felt a lightness inside her. Alightness that spread and grew. She felt asif she could float, spin, dance in the air.‘You love me?’ ‘Yes. All of you. Even theaggravating parts.’ He gave a wry smile.‘Especially the aggravating parts.’ Avery lifted her hand to her throat.This was the moment she was supposed tosay it back. Those three words she’d neversaid to another human being. Those threewords that her mother had warned heralways made a woman stupid. ‘I—’ The words jammed in hermouth, as if her body was putting up a finalfight. ‘I—’ ‘You—?’ Those dark eyes were fixedon her expectantly and she felt as if shewere being strangled. ‘I really need some fresh air,’ she
324. muttered. ‘Can we go for a ride?’Galloping across the desert on an Arabianhorse was the most exhilarating feeling inthe world. More like floating, Averythought, as she urged the mare faster. Soon,the sun would be too high, the day too hotfor riding or any other strenuous activity,but for now they were able to enjoy thisspectacular wilderness in a traditionalway. And with Mal by her side it couldn’tbe anything other than exciting. Being withhim was when she was at her happiest, butdidn’t all relationships start with peoplefeeling that way? She adjusted the scarf that protectedher face from the drifting sand and cast hima look. ‘Do I look mysterious?’ ‘You don’t need a scarf for that.’ Hisresponse was as dry as the landscapearound them. ‘With or without the scarf,
325. you are the most mysterious woman I’veever met.’ ‘Somehow that doesn’t sound like acompliment.’ ‘A little less mystery would makethings easier.’ His stallion dancedimpatiently and Mal released his grip onthe reins slightly. ‘We should go back.You’ll burn in this sun.’ ‘I won’t burn. You’re talking tosomeone with pale skin who has anaddiction to sunscreen.’ But Avery turnedback towards the Spa and urged her mareforward. ‘It’s stunning here. Beautiful. ButI feel guilty. Do you know how much workI have waiting for me at home?’ ‘You employ competent people.Delegate.’ ‘I have to go back, Mal.’ ‘We both know that your desire to go
326. back has nothing to do with your workloadand everything to do with the fact thatyou’re scared.’ With an enviable economyof movement that revealed his riding skill,he guided the sleek black stallion closer.‘Tell me about your mother.’ ‘Why this sudden obsession with mymother?’ ‘Because when I have a challenge toface then I start by finding out the facts.Was it her work as a divorce lawyer thatmade her cynical about relationships, orwas it being cynical about relationshipsthat fuelled her choice of profession?’ ‘She was always cynical.’ ‘Not always, presumably, since shemet and had a relationship with yourfather.’ Despite the heat of the sun, her skinfelt cold. Avery kept her eyes straight
327. ahead, feeling slightly sick as she alwaysdid when that topic was raised. ‘Believeme, my mother was always cynical.’ ‘That was why her relationship withyour father failed?’ She never talked about this. Never,not to anyone. Not even to her mother afterthat first occasion when she’d been told theshocking truth about her father. She’d stared at her mother,surrounded by the tattered remains of herbeliefs and assumptions. And she couldstill remember the words she’d shouted.‘That isn’t true. Tell me it isn’t true. Tellme you didn’t do that.’ Witnessing the visible evidence ofher daughter’s shock, her mother hadsimply shrugged. ‘Half the children in yourclass don’t have a father living at homewith them. You don’t need a father at home
328. or a man in your life. A woman can existperfectly well by herself. I am living proofof that. Trust me, it’s better this way.’ It hadn’t seemed better to Avery, whowas at that age where every littledifference from her peers seemedmagnified a thousand times. ‘Those kidsstill see their dads.’ ‘Poor them. I’ve spared you from thetrauma of being shuttled between tworowing parents and growing up anemotional mess. Be grateful.’ But Avery hadn’t been able to accessgratitude. Right then, she would haveswapped places with any one of thechildren in her class. Her mother wantedher to celebrate an absent father but Averyhad wanted a father in her life, even if heturned out to be an eternal disappointment. She’d never again discussed it with
329. her mother. Couldn’t bear even to thinkabout the truth because thinking about itmade it real and she didn’t want it to bereal. At school she’d made up lies. She’deven started to believe some of them. Herdad was just away for a while—asuccessful businessman who travelled alot. Her father adored her but he wasworking in the Far East and her mother’sjob was in London. She’d stopped askingfor affection from her mother, who wasclearly incapable of providing it, andinstead asked for money, the only currencyher mother valued and understood. She’dused it to add credence to her lies. Sheproduced presents that he’d sent from histrips. Fortunately, no one had ever foundout the truth—that she’d bought all thepresents herself from a small Japaneseshop in Soho. That she’d never even mether father.
330. And the lie had persisted intoadulthood. Until somehow, here she was, acompetent adult with the insecurities ofchildhood still hanging around her neck. She should probably just tell Mal thetruth. But she’d guarded the lie for too longto expose it easily and it sat now, like aweight pressing down on her. ‘I don’t seemy father. I’ve … never met my father.’ ‘Does he even know you exist? Didshe tell him about you?’ They were surrounded by open spaceand yet she felt as if the desert wereclosing in on her. Avery tried to urge themare forward into a canter but the animalrefused to leave the side of the other horse,and Mal reached across and closed hishand over her reins, preventing her fromriding off. ‘You’ve never tried to contact him?’
331. ‘No. And he absolutely wouldn’twant to hear from me, I can tell you that.’Once again she tried again to kick the mareinto a canter, but the horse was stubbornlyunresponsive, as if she realised that thiswas a conversation Avery needed to haveand was somehow colluding with thePrince. And he obviously had no intention ofdropping the subject. ‘Avery, no matterwhat the circumstances, a man would wantto know that he had a child.’ ‘Actually, no, there are circumstanceswhen a man would not want to know thatand this is one of them. Trust me on that.’But she didn’t expect him to understand.Despite his wild years, or maybe becauseof them, he was a man who took hisresponsibilities seriously. ‘Whatever problems he and your
332. mother had doesn’t mean that the two ofyou can’t form a bond. Your mother hasturned you against him and I believe thatoften happens in acrimonious breakups, buttheir problems are not yours. He has aresponsibility towards you.’ ‘No, he doesn’t. I’m an adult.’ ‘At least he might be able to shedlight on what went wrong. He owes it toyou to tell you his side of the story.’ ‘I know his side of the story.’ Why,oh why, had she ever allowed thisconversation to advance so far? ‘I’m happyas I am. I’m too old to adapt to having adad in my life now. Oh look, moregazelle!’ Trying to distract him, she wavedher arm but all that achieved was to scarethe horses and almost land her on herbottom in the sand. Keeping his hand on her reins, Mal
333. steadied both horses. ‘You are such anintelligent woman. I cannot understand whythis issue affects you so badly. You aresurrounded by evidence of goodrelationships. Why must you only focus onthe bad?’ Avery rubbed her hand over themare’s soft coat. This she could talk aboutand maybe if she gave him this, he’d besatisfied and let the rest of it go. ‘Mymother wasn’t what you’d call a hands-onmother.’ That had to be the understatementof the year. ‘She encouraged me to beindependent, so pretty much the only timewe met up was dinner in the evening. Fiveminutes were spent reviewing my grades,and after that she talked about her work,which basically meant that I listened to amillion ways for a marriage to die. Everynight my mother would talk about her daybecause she believed it was important that
334. I understood exactly how a relationshipcould go wrong. I heard about the impactof affairs, job losses, gambling,alcoholism, addictions—lots of those indifferent subsections—I heard about thecorrosive effects of lack of trust, about theimpact of not listening … the list goes on.’It had seeped into her, becoming part ofher. ‘I was one of the few five-year-olds inthe land who understood the legaldefinition of “unreasonable behaviour”before I’d even learned to add. Do youwant me to carry on? Because I haveendless experience, gathered from eighteenyears of living at home.’ ‘And did she ever describe any of theways a successful relationship couldwork?’ There were layers of steel beneathhis mild tone. ‘Did she ever talk aboutthat?’ Avery stared straight ahead, through
335. her mare’s twitching ears. There was no sound except themetallic jingle of the bridles and the softcreak of leather. ‘No,’ she said. ‘She never talkedabout that.’ ‘Did you have boyfriends?’ ‘Yes, but I never brought them home.She always believed that most of thefactors that contributed to a breakup of arelationship could be easily predicted andshe wouldn’t have hesitated to point themout.’ ‘So you were trained to spot thepotential pitfalls. You don’t enter arelationship waiting for it to go right, butwaiting for it to go wrong.’ ‘I suppose so. But given that asignificant proportion do go wrong, that’snot as mad as it sounds.’
336. ‘It sounds like a shocking upbringingfor the child of a single mother and it is nowonder you are so wary of relationships.’ ‘There is nothing wrong with beingthe child of a single mother.’ ‘Agreed. But there is plenty wrongwith a single mother who chooses topoison her daughter’s mind against menbased on nothing but her own prejudices.’The stallion shied at some imaginarythreat, leaping sideways, nostrils flared.Mal sat firm, soothing the animal with firmhands and a gentle voice. It took him a moment to calm theanimal, a moment during which she hadplenty of time to dwell on the strength ofhis shoulders and the strength of him. Only when he’d calmed the stalliondid he look at her again. ‘In my opinion shehad a moral duty to bring you up with a
337. balanced view of relationships,particularly given that you didn’t have anexample of a positive one in your ownhousehold. You spent your formative yearsliving alongside stories of couples at themost miserable point of their relationship.’ ‘Yes.’ It was the first time she’d trulyacknowledged the effect it had had on her.‘I think that’s the reason I went into partyplanning. The end of a relationship wasterrifying, but the beginning—that wasexciting. I loved glittering events, thedressing up, the possibilities—’ ‘Possibilities?’ ‘Yes, so many possibilities, even ifonly for the short-term. I know that at myparties, people are happy. I make surethey’re happy, even if that is onlytransitory. Talking of which, I assume youwant me to cancel arrangements for the
338. wedding party?’ Her fingers were sweatyon the reins but she told herself it was justthe heat. He stared at her for a long moment,thick lashes framing those eyes that madewomen lose their grip on reality. ‘No. Notyet.’ ‘But—’ ‘You were the one who wanted toride.’ He released her reins and urged thestallion forwards. ‘Let’s ride.’
339. CHAPTER EIGHTTHEY made love in the still waters of theirsecluded pool under the warm glow of thesetting sun. Afterwards, they dinedoverlooking the dunes, their private feastilluminated by flickering candles. They hadn’t spent enough time likethis, he thought. The madness of their liveshad interfered with their relationship. Ithad prevented the intimacy needed todevelop trust. ‘You look beautiful in that dress.’ Hetopped up her glass with the chilledchampagne he knew was her favourite. ‘I suppose you think you’re clever forproducing it in the middle of the desert?’ ‘Not clever, no. Fortunate. And notthe wardrobe part, that was easy, but the
340. fact that you are here to wear it.’ He’dnever been so unsure of a relationship.Never so unsure of a woman. ‘I wasn’tsure you’d stay.’ ‘The Crown Prince of Zubran not sureof someone or something? This must be awhole new experience.’ Her eyes teasedhim and he had to force himself to stay inhis seat and not rush this. Timing waseverything. And his timing had been wrongbefore. ‘It is a fairly new experience. And notone I’m enjoying.’ ‘You know your problem?’ Glass inhand, she leaned forward, the movementaccentuating the tempting dip between herbreasts. ‘Life has been too easy for you.Your playboy past has spoiled you.You’ve had it easy.’ ‘My father and my late uncle would
341. agree with you, but you’d all be wrong.’ She put her glass down and rested herchin on her palm, studying him across thetable. ‘When has a woman ever said no toyou?’ ‘You did.’ The humour in her eyes faded. Thecaution that was never far from the surfacereappeared, and she sat up and droppedher hands into her lap. ‘You don’t like tobe crossed. You like to get your own way.That’s probably what this is all about.’ ‘That is not what is going on here andyou know it.’ ‘Have you ever had to work at arelationship with a woman?’ ‘Is that a serious question?’ He heardthe irony in his tone. ‘Because if it is, Ithink you already know the answer to that.’
342. Her fingers slid slowly round thebase of her glass. ‘You’re a complicatedman, Mal.’ ‘This from a woman renowned forkeeping her relationships superficial.’ ‘A sensible strategy. For some reasonI didn’t apply it with you and look how thatturned out.’ ‘All relationships have rockymoments.’ ‘Well, forgive me if I chose not tobecome another ship wrecked on yourshores, Your Highness.’ Her tone wasflippant but there was a bleakness in hereyes that tore at him and suddenly he knewhe had to risk more if he was expecting thatof her. ‘I’m sorry I hurt you. That was nevermy intention.’ ‘I’m not sure if that makes it better or
343. worse.’ ‘Better. I was so in love with you.’Admitting it was hard, particularly as he’dbeen raised not to share his thoughts andfeelings outside the family circle. But hewanted her to be his family and he knew ifthere was to be any hope of that, he had togive. ‘I’d never felt that way about awoman before. I’d never been in love. Itscared me as much as it scared youbecause it changed everything. I wasn’tprepared for it.’ Neither of them took any notice of themeal. The food remained untouched andforgotten on the table between them. ‘I know—’ her mouth flickered ‘—you needed a virgin princess.’ ‘It was you I needed.’ His tone wasraw. ‘You. From the first day I met you, incharge of that enormous event and yet so
344. cool that I could have put ice on you and itwouldn’t have melted. I’d been careful, socareful, about choosing the women I spenttime with.’ ‘Your reputation suggests otherwise.’ ‘My reputation only tells one part ofthe story.’ She toyed with the stem of her glass.‘Let’s face it, Mal, you wanted me becauseI wasn’t impressed by your rank or the sizeof your wallet. I was turned off by itbecause in the past I’ve found that men likeyou generally think they have a free passwhen it comes to women. I said no. Andyou were arrogant enough to see me as achallenge.’ ‘Arrogant? You saw that asarrogance? Yes, there were women—’ andhe couldn’t even remember them nowbecause next to her there was no one ‘—
345. but there will always be women who areattracted by wealth and the opportunity tomingle with the famous and the influential,but that’s one single part of the life I lead.Then there is the other part—’ he pausedbecause this degree of honesty was soalien to him ‘—the part that means yourchoices are rarely your own and the partthat requires you to serve others whileforfeiting your own wishes and invariablyyour privacy too. You want to trust people,so you do and then you make a mistake andyou learn that trust is a luxury afforded toother people. It’s a hard lesson, but youlearn to trust no one except your immediatefamily.’ She was still now, the humour gonefrom her eyes as she listened. ‘Mal—’ ‘You learn how it feels to go throughlife alone and because you are alone youare forced to develop confidence in your
346. own decisions. And that isn’t easy. In thebeginning you’re afraid that all thosedecisions are wrong.’ Remembering, hegave a humourless laugh. ‘You wait for theworld to fall apart and for everyone todiscover that just because you are a Princedoesn’t mean you know what you’retalking about. You want to ask advice, butyou don’t dare because to display such alack of confidence would be a politicalerror. It’s back to trust again, and youremember that you can’t afford to do that.So you make the decisions alone and youmake them with confidence and you learnnot to question or hesitate because whenyou do, people lose faith in you. Is thatarrogance?’ He lifted his head and lookedher in the eyes, wondering if anything he’dsaid made any sense to her. ‘I see it moreas a product of a lifetime of makingdecisions alone.’
347. She was silent for a moment. Then thecorners of her mouth flickered. ‘Well,that’s put me in my place.’ Her tone waslight but her expression was serious. ‘Younever told me this.’ ‘No. And I should have. When youand I argued, I was more myself than Ihave ever been in my life before. I foundmyself trusting you.’ He reached across thetable and took her hand. ‘Suddenly I wascontemplating something I’d alwaysthought unobtainable. Sharing my life andmy future with someone I could love andsomeone I knew could cope with the life Ilead. For once what I wanted coincidedwith what my father wanted for me. I madethe decision the way I’ve made every otherdecision. By myself. I told my father andhe was supportive.’ ‘You were sure of me.’
348. ‘I was sure you loved me as much as Iloved you, even though you hadn’t told methat. I was about to tell you how I felt andask you to marry me—’ The memory camealong with a rush of frustration. ‘I had thering in my pocket on the night I metRichard and he taunted me. Implied thatyou and he—’ ‘I have better taste in men than that.’ ‘I know. I overreacted and it cost methe only relationship that would haveworked for me.’ ‘That wasn’t the reason.’ She easedher hand out of his and sat back in herchair. ‘I was raised to see marriage assomething that damaged a relationship.Something that removed choice and meantnothing but personal sacrifice. Being witha man meant giving up part of yourself. Itried moving past that. Tried telling myself
349. that it didn’t always happen that way andwith you I’d begun to believe it—’ shestared at the bubbles rising in her glass andthen back at him, her gaze frank and honest.‘But then I took that call from Richard andinstead of seeing it for what it was—amanipulative attempt to break us up—Ichose to let it feed all my insecurities. Youcan find evidence for anything if you wantto and I took this as evidence that ourrelationship couldn’t work. That you weretaking over my life. Making decisions forme. You wanted me to give up my job. Iwas waiting for a reason to run, and hegave it to me.’ ‘I gave it to you. I see that now. I wasso used to making decisions on my ownthat I failed to share my thoughts and thatwas a fundamental error to make with awoman like you. I underestimated the depthof your insecurities and I—’ he gripped his
350. glass ‘—I overestimated your feelings forme.’ ‘Maybe the first is true, but thesecond—’ she lifted her head and gave hima faltering smile ‘—no. You didn’toverestimate. I did have those feelings.You were right about that. But the feelingsweren’t enough to cancel out theinsecurities.’ ‘And now?’ He hardly dared ask thequestion. ‘Are those feelings enough foryou to overcome everything your mothertaught you? Can you forget One Thousandand One ways for a marriage to die andinstead think about ways it can work?’ The only sound was the relaxingsound of water that came from theornamental fountain by the pool. Then she stood up abruptly andwalked to the edge of the pool, her back to
351. hi m. Like a wild animal disturbed, hethought, watching in silence. ‘Don’t do this, Mal.’ ‘I am doing it.’ She wrapped her arms around herselfeven though the evening was oppressivelywarm. ‘Why can’t you leave it alone? Whydoes it have to be marriage?’ ‘Because for me there is no otherpossible outcome. It has to be marriage.But, unlike you, I don’t see that as anegative. I love you. You’re the onlywoman I want to spend my life with somarriage is logical to me.’ He rose to hisfeet, careful to give her time. He rescuedher chair, but she didn’t sit down. Juststood there, looking at him over hershoulder as if she was deciding whether itwas safe to stay. Whether she should run ornot. Hunted and hunter.
352. ‘I am an independent woman—’ ‘You’re a frightened woman.’ Hecurved his hand around her waist andpulled her against him. It felt like progresswhen she didn’t pull away. ‘It’s time toseparate what your mother told you fromwhat you know to be true. I love you. Youhave to believe that I love you. I want youto marry me.’ He felt the fear ripplethrough her but he kept his arm round herand held her. She placed her hand flat against hischest, as if it was essential to keep somedistance even now, during this mostintimate of conversations. ‘You want tokill what we have stone-dead?’ ‘It doesn’t have to be that way. It’snot going to be that way for us.’ ‘People say that—’ There wasdesperation in the way she blurted the
353. words out. ‘They make promises andexchange rings and believe that it’s goingto last, and then it doesn’t. Relationshipsfail all the time. How can you possiblyknow what you’ll want, or feel, in thefuture?’ ‘When you started your business,were you afraid of failing? Did it everoccur to you that perhaps it was better notto try in case it didn’t succeed?’ She looked up at him and then lookedaway again. ‘No, of course not. But that’sdifferent.’ ‘Businesses fail every day, habibti. Ifyours had failed—’ ‘I wouldn’t have let it fail.’ ‘Exactly. You wouldn’t have let itfail. That is the reason your business isflourishing in this economic climate.Because of your determination. Because
354. when something feels wrong, you deal withit. You flex. You compromise. And youwill bring all those skills to our marriageand it will be a success.’ ‘Marriage is different than business.’ ‘But the same qualities are requiredfor both. You start with a burning passion,and that burning passion is what keepsthings alive if problems arise.’ He couldsee her weighing it up, pitting his wordsagainst her ingrained beliefs and he heldhis breath because he had no idea how thatfight would end. ‘I’m scared—’ She covered her facewith her hands and leaned her foreheadagainst his chest. ‘I can’t believe I’madmitting that.’ ‘I’m pleased you’re admitting that.For once you’re being honest. I can workwith that. Now all I have to do is get you to
355. admit that you love me.’ He closed hishands around her wrists and drew herhands away from her face so that he couldlook at her. ‘Is it unreasonable to hope thatone day you’ll actually say those words tome?’ There was humour in her eyes. Andsomething else. Something warm he’dalways hoped to see when she looked athim. ‘I don’t think your ego needs theboost.’ He lowered his head, smiling againsther mouth as he brushed his lips over hers.‘Try me. Let’s see what happens.’ ‘We’re too different. We wantdifferent things.’ ‘I want you. You want me. What’sdifferent about that?’ Her fingers were locked in the front
356. of his shirt. ‘You’d expect me to give upmy job.’ ‘Not true, at least not in the sense thatyou mean.’ He trailed his fingers down herneck, touching the diamonds she wore ather throat. His diamonds. ‘You are amaster of organisation—that is why yourparties are always such a success. You canjuggle a million projects at once. You haveconsummate social skills and you knowjust what to say to put people at ease. Youare beautiful, poised, generous and warm.All these are perfect qualities for the roleof Sultan’s wife.’ ‘Are you asking me to marry you orare you offering me a job?’ ‘I haven’t asked you to marry me yet.I’m leading up to that.’ ‘Oh.’ She was trembling against him.‘So you’re offering me a job. You’re
357. asking me to give up everything and inreturn you give up nothing.’ ‘Life is all about perspective,habibti. Some would say I was offeringyou everything.’ The dimple appeared at the corner ofher mouth. ‘You have a high opinion ofyourself, Your Highness.’ ‘I’m sure a life spent with you willcure me of that.’ Hoping that he’d judgedthe moment perfectly, he slid his hand intohis pocket and pulled out the ring. ‘Lasttime I did this badly—’ ‘If we’re talking about a marriageproposal, you didn’t do it at all.’ Her tonewas light but the look in her eyes waspanic and he took her face in his hands andkissed her gently. ‘Breathe.’ ‘I’m breathing.’
358. ‘I want you to marry me, not because Iwant to ruin your life, but because I wantto make it happy. I want to make youhappy.’ ‘Now that is arrogance, YourHighness—’ But her eyes were fixed onthe ring. ‘Was it Kalila’s?’ The fact that she would ask him thatquestion intensified his guilt. ‘I am willingto concede that sensitivity towards yourfeelings has not been my strong point, buteven I would not be so thoughtless as togive a gift I bought for one woman toanother. It belonged to my great-grandmother.’ Unsure of her response tothat, he paused, watching as her facechanged. ‘She had a long and happymarriage, so perhaps you’ll consider thatauspicious.’ Carefully, she took it from him,
359. turning it so that the stone winked in thesunshine. ‘It’s exquisite.’ ‘But will you wear it?’ She hesitated for what felt like alifetime but which was, in reality, onlyseconds. ‘This is huge.’ ‘The diamond or the commitment?’ ‘Both?’ But his words drew the smilehe’d been hoping for and he took ruthlessadvantage of that and slid the ring onto herfinger. ‘It doesn’t feel huge. It feels right. Itfits, habibti. It’s an omen.’ ‘I don’t believe in omens and neitherdo you.’ ‘But I believe in us. And I want youto believe in us, too. Will you marry me?’He tilted her face and she stared up at him,more vulnerable than he’d ever seen her.
360. ‘Yes.’ She stumbled over the word.‘But if you hurt me, I’ll kill you.’ He laughed. ‘That sounds fair to me.’And if she still hadn’t said that she lovedhim, he told himself he had to be patient.They spent two more days in the desert.Two days during which they only left thebed to swim, ride and eat. Days duringwhich Avery was conscious of the weightof the ring on her finger. She was aware ofit all the time, aware of him all the time.And the feelings inside her were astomach-churning mixture of excitementand trepidation. But already the Palace machine wasrolling into action. Arrangements werebeing made for her to become his brideand although it made her feel uneasy andout of control, she understood. Because ofwho he was, it had to be that way.
361. ‘Don’t they mind that it’s not Kalila?’ ‘Turns out that there was more toKalila than either of us knew. I’m informedthat she married her bodyguard withinhours of us leaving.’ ‘What?’ ‘I would have preferred she waited. Itwould have been easier for her to let metake responsibility, but I suppose she wasafraid that her father might find a way tostop her.’ ‘Or perhaps she needed to takeresponsibility for her own decisions.’Avery understood that, but it didn’t stopher being concerned for Kalila. ‘What willher father do now?’ ‘He can’t do much. Rafiq is arrangingfor them to come back to Zubran, at leastfor the time being. But I don’t want to talkabout Kalila right now. I promise she
362. won’t suffer for her decision.’ He loweredhis mouth to hers. ‘I want to think about us,and if we are discussing a wedding, I wantit to be ours. Talking of which, do youintend to invite your mother?’ The questionwas asked casually but there was no suchthing as casual when it came to discussingher relationship with her mother. ‘No. I’ve told you—we’re not reallyin touch much now.’ ‘Perhaps a wedding would be a goodtime to reconcile.’ He had no idea. ‘Believe me, mymother would be the very last personanyone would choose to invite to awedding. Not if they want it to be a happyevent.’ ‘And your father? I was thinking thatthis might be a perfect time to makecontact.’
363. ‘No.’ Suddenly cold, she pulled awayfrom him. ‘I’ll give you a list of people I’dlike to invite. Friends and people fromwork.’ ‘In other words you don’t want to talkabout your father.’ ‘That’s right.’ Closing down theconversation, she slid from the bed andpulled on a silk wrap, knotting it firmly atthe waist. ‘Not all families are like yours,Mal. I wish you’d try and understand that.’Without giving him an opportunity torespond, she walked through to thebathroom and locked the door. And this time he didn’t follow her. Was this the start of it? she wondered,leaning her head back against the door andclosing her eyes. Was this how ithappened? The first crack. And thenanother crack, until the cracks became a
364. rift, and the rift became a canyon andsuddenly there was nothing between thembut space that couldn’t be bridged. ‘It is not going to happen the wayyou’re thinking.’ His dry tone came fromthe other doorway and she felt a rush ofexasperation with herself for forgettingabout the second door, but also reliefbecause she hated feeling the way she wasfeeling. ‘Please tell me that your apartment inthe Palace doesn’t have two doors in thebathroom.’ He crossed the room to her, lean,powerful and confident. ‘It doesn’t, butunless you stop trying to knock down whatwe are building with every thought youhave, then I’m going to remove all thewalls and we will be living open-plan. Iknow which part of our conversation had
365. you running from my bed and I won’tmention it again. If you don’t want to traceyour father then that is your decision, but ifyou ever change your mind then let meknow. I will use my contacts to find thetruth.’ She already knew the truth but anyguilt she felt at not revealing that wasdrowned out by more urgent feelings as hepulled her into his arms and brought hismouth down on hers. And afterwards, hours afterwards asthey lay in the darkness in sheets tangledfrom their loving, she told herself that itdidn’t matter, that it didn’t make adifference, but the feeling that she wassomehow deceiving him stayed with herand it was still with her when they finallylanded in Zubran City. The Old Palace, the Sultan’s official
366. residence, was a fascinating labyrinth ofprivate courtyards, soaring ceilings andopulence built on the shores of the PersianGulf. Avery had planned parties in themost luxurious and exclusive venues in theworld, but nowhere had left her quite asbreathless as this place. The Palace wasbeautiful, but her real love was thegardens, particularly the water gardens thatprovided a cooling sanctuary from theblistering desert heat. It became her favourite place toescape from the madness and chaos of thewedding plans, none of which seemed torequire her input. As someone used torunning things, it felt strange not to have arole in what was surely the biggest eventof her life. While Mal was occupied with statebusiness, Avery flew back to London tosee clients and deal with aspects of her
367. own business that Jenny couldn’t handle.Far from being concerned about Avery’smarriage to Mal, her friend was delighted.Together they agreed to a few changes tothe running of the business, giving Jennymore day to day control. Avery returned toZubran knowing her business was in safehands and feeling slightly redundant. It wasa strange feeling. She loved her work andwas proud of her achievements, but sheknew that for her it wasn’t just a means toindependence, but a shield againstintimacy. She’d been afraid to shareherself, afraid to trust, and her motherwould have said that was a sensibleapproach. Until a few weeks ago, Averywould have agreed. That was before she realised howgood it felt to love and be loved. And shewas loved, she was sure of that. Mal loved her.
368. How could she doubt it? He loved herso much that he couldn’t wait to marry her.There was no hesitation on his part. Hewas so sure of himself and of her and thatmade her feel wanted in a way she’d neverbeen wanted. Her mother’s onlycontribution as a parent had been to teachher that it was better to live her life alone.She’d never mentioned the richness of alife shared and Avery was starting toappreciate the flavour of that. Ten days after they’d arrived back atthe Palace she’d taken coffee and her workdown to her favourite spot and was sittingin the shade reading through a documentJenny had sent through to her when Malfound her. ‘The entire Palace is searching foryou.’ She closed the document she was
369. reading. ‘I wasn’t hiding. I like it here. Ilove the water gardens. The sound is sosoothing.’ ‘The gardens were a wedding gift formy mother. She liked the sound, too. Shetold me that it was the one place in themadness of the Palace and her life that shecould be sure of finding peace.’ ‘I can understand that. It’s verysoothing.’ ‘Do you need soothing? Are youstressed?’ He sat down next to her and sherealised how tired he looked. Since they’darrived back in Zubran he’d been inendless meetings, his presence requiredalmost continuously either by the Councilor by his father. ‘ I should be stressed. Marriage andme. Can’t believe I’m saying those twowords in the same sentence and not
370. freaking out and running through the Palacescreaming.’ Laughing at herself, Averytwisted the ring on her finger, realising thatit no longer felt heavy. It felt good. He breathed deeply and took her handin his. ‘You have no idea how relieved Iam that you’re not freaking out.’ ‘I trust you. And I love you.’ Shecurled her fingers around his and smiled.‘Did you hear that? I said, “I love you.”And now I just said it again. That’s twicein as many minutes. I’m getting good at it.’ ‘It’s practice.’ ‘Not practice. Trust.’ She watched asa butterfly settled on the border of flowersnext to her and opened its wings to the sun,trusting that no harm would come to itwhile it stole the moment for itself. ‘Trustis like a door. I always assumed thatkeeping that door closed kept you safe, but
371. now I see that opening it can let in goodthings. Things I’ve never felt before.’ ‘Avery—’ He seemed unusually tenseand she kissed him. ‘Although we were together for thatyear, I didn’t really understand the level ofresponsibility you face. I didn’t understandthe pressure. Everyone wants a piece ofyou and you have to juggle so many things.I think my job is busy, but yours is stupid.And everyone comes to you expecting adecision. I see now why you behaved theway you did when horrid Richard tried togoad you. As far as you were concerned,you’d already made that decision andmoved on to the next. You were decisivebecause you loved me.’ He cupped her face in his hands. ‘I dolove you. Don’t ever forget that.’ Hekissed her and then stood up. ‘These party
372. organising skills of yours—do they extendto children’s parties?’ ‘You want to hold a children’sparty?’ ‘My mother was patron of a charitydevoted to equal educational opportunitiesfor all. Once a year we hold a giantchildren’s party.’ He gave a helpless lift ofhis shoulders. ‘I confess that running itdoesn’t play to my skills.’ Pleased to finally have somethingpositive to do, Avery smiled. ‘Just as longas you don’t expect me to do a balloonrelease or hire fifty swans. What’s mybudget?’‘Change the day.’ Mal faced the Council,staring at faces aged with worry andexperience, faces that had been part of hislife for as long as he could remember.‘Even if you shift it by a week, that would
373. work.’ ‘Your Highness, we cannot do that.You know that circumstances do not allowus any flexibility.’ He did know. He’d been living withthose ‘circumstances’ for a decade. Healso knew how Avery would react if shefound out what that date signified. And then the door to the Councilchamber opened and she stood there, firein her eyes, and he knew that, somehow,from someone, she had found out. Across the room, their eyes met andhe stood, forcing himself to absorb thesilent accusation that flowed across theroom like a lethal mist. So that was it, then. Regret stabbedhim along with disappointment andfrustration at the timing. Maybe if they’dhad a little longer in this phase of their
374. relationship. Maybe if those fragile strandsof trust had been given time to strengthen… He addressed the Council. ‘Leaveus.’ Something in his tone clearlycommunicated itself to them because theyrose instantly, those men for whom dutyexceeded all other priorities, exchangingworried glances as they shuffled from theroom. He knew there would be mutterings,but he didn’t care. The only thing he caredabout was the woman holding his gaze. She stalked into the room, her heelstapping on the marble floor of the Palacethat had housed his ancestors for centuries.She’d come to reject him, as a small partof him had known she would—reject herrole as his lover, his wife, his princess. The irony was she looked regal; this
375. woman who had turned his life upsidedown from the moment he’d met herwalked with the confidence of a Queen. The moment the door closed behindthe last Council member, she pounced. ‘Inthe middle of planning this party, I had avery illuminating conversation with one ofthe Palace staff. Were you going to tellme?’ He didn’t pretend not to know whatshe was talking about. ‘I was afraid youwould misinterpret the facts.’ ‘That is not an answer. Were yougoing to tell me?’ ‘I hoped I wouldn’t need to.’ ‘So if I hadn’t found out, that wouldhave been all right?’ ‘Yes, because it has nothing to dowith my feelings for you. It has nothing todo with us.’
376. ‘But it has everything to do with ourmarriage, doesn’t it?’ Her voice was atraumatized whisper. ‘You demanded that Itrust you, and I did. I’ve never done thatbefore, but with you I made that leap.’ ‘Avery—’ ‘You told me so much about yourself,Mal. But you didn’t tell me the mostimportant thing of all, did you? That youhave to be married, and that your marriagehas to take place by the end of the month.And it seems everyone knows that but me.’Her laugh was agonised. ‘Whenever I feltdoubts, I looked at the evidence to provethat you loved me. I said to myself, Hecan’t wait to marry me.’ ‘That is true. I do love you and I can’twait to marry you.’ ‘But the reason you can’t wait hasnothing to do with the depth of your
377. feelings and everything to do with theterms of your late uncle’s will.’ ‘I made no secret of the fact that Ihave to marry.’ ‘No, but you made it sound like ageneral thing, not something specific. Youdidn’t mention the will. You didn’tmention that you have to have a bride by afixed date. It doesn’t even matter who thebride is, does it?’ Her voice rose. ‘Justany bride will do in order to fulfil theterms of your uncle’s will.’ ‘I repeat, that has no bearing on us.’ ‘So, postpone the wedding. Changethe date.’ He didn’t tell her that he’d been tryingto do exactly that. ‘You don’t understand.’ ‘I understand that I was a pawn andso was Kalila.’
378. ‘Kalila was an attempt by the Councilto fulfil the terms of my uncle’s will, that’strue, but she was fully apprised of thereasons behind the marriage right from thestart.’ ‘So you were happy to tell her and notme?’ ‘The circumstances were different.The only reason I proposed marriage toKalila was to fulfil the terms of my uncle’swill.’ ‘No wonder she ran.’ Her chin lifted.‘What I don’t understand is why you feltable to tell her, and not me.’ ‘I was honest with her about the termsof our marriage and I have been equallyhonest with you.’ ‘That isn’t true.’ ‘Yes, it is.’ He saw the flicker ofsurprise in her eyes at his savage response
379. but he was past caring. Past hidinganything. ‘My reason for marrying you waslove, but because you never believed inthat love, because you never believed inus, I didn’t dare tell you about the terms ofmy uncle’s will. I knew you would use thatas more food for your wretchedinsecurities as you have done before, so Itold myself that I would tell you when ourrelationship had progressed a little further,when we had strengthened the bond, whenI was confident that what we had couldwithstand a confession like that.’ She stood still, absorbing that. Herchest rising and falling as she breathed.‘You should have told me.’ ‘Apart from the element of fulldisclosure, my uncle’s will had no bearingon our future. I would have married youanyway. The timing of that is immaterial.’
380. ‘But it isn’t immaterial, is it?’ ‘I will tell you a story and you willjudge.’ Mal paced to the far side of theroom and stared out of the pretty archedwindow that looked down on the stables.‘My grandfather had two sons. Twins. Theright of succession naturally passes to theeldest twin—’ he turned, watching her faceto be sure she understood the impact of hiswords ‘—but no one knew who that was.’ ‘I don’t understand.’ ‘There was a crisis during the birth.An obstetric emergency. People were soconcerned about the welfare of the motherthat somehow the midwife who deliveredthe twins lost track of which was bornfirst. A matter of little importance, youmight think, but you’d be wrong. Unable tothink of any other solution, my grandfatherdecided to divide Zubran and give one half
381. to each son, on the understanding thatwhichever of them had a son first, hewould be the successor. It meant thatultimately the land would be united again.And that was me. My uncle had nochildren, so there was only me and he wasconcerned by my partying and what he sawas my decadent lifestyle.’ His mouthtwisted as he recalled the bitter exchangesthey’d had over that particular subject overthe years. ‘My father tried to assure himthat my actions were nothing more than thenormal behaviour of a young man. For ashort time they fell out over it, but then theyagreed a compromise. My uncle agreed toname me as his successor in his will,providing that I was married by the age ofthirty-two. If by that age I hadn’t settleddown, then the succession would go to adistant cousin.’ ‘Which would keep the land divided.’
382. ‘Yes. I always knew I would have tomarry because it was essential that Zubranbe reunited as one country, but I’d alwaysassumed it would be a political marriagebased on nothing more than economic gain.I’ve met many women, but not a single onewho I would have wanted to spend alifetime with. Until I met you.’ Her eyes met his. ‘Why didn’t youjust tell me this before?’ ‘If I’d said to you, “I have to bemarried by the time I’m thirty-two,” wouldyou have listened to anything else I said?You, who are always looking for evidenceto endorse your view that all relationshipsare doomed? Tell me you wouldn’t haveinterpreted that as a sign I was pursuingyou for less than romantic reasons, just asyou are now.’ He saw her shift slightly andgave a derisive smile. ‘Precisely. I wouldhave lost you on day one and I had no
383. intention of doing that. So I kept quiet untilday two, and then until day three and I letthe relationship run and hoped that if youfound out, when you found out, the bondwe shared would be sufficiently deep foryou to trust me. Yes, the date by which Ihave to marry is almost here. It matters tomy father and my people that Zubranbecomes one country again. And it mattersto me. But none of that has any bearing onmy feelings for you and that is why I didn’tmention it.’ ‘And if I had said no? What then?’ It was a question he hadn’t wantedher to ask. A question he hadn’t evenwanted to ask himself because there reallywas only one answer. ‘I would havemarried someone else. When you’rewealthy and well connected there isalways someone who is willing tosacrifice romance for reality. And now, no
384. doubt, you will go away and add that toyour armoury of reasons why our marriagewould fail. No doubt you will hear thevoice of your mother warning you that aman who needs to marry is a man whosemarriage is doomed.’ He threw it out thereand waited for her to throw it back at him,to tell him that of course she didn’t thinkthat, but she was ominously silent and hesaw the telltale sheen in her eyes. ‘Mal—’ He was afraid to let her speak in casethis was the moment when she told him itwas over. ‘Has it occurred to you that yourmother could have been wrong? You’re noteven willing to entertain the idea ofcontacting your father, but it might behelpful. It might shed light on theirrelationship. Perhaps it wasn’t all him,perhaps it was her; have you thought ofthat? Perhaps she killed her own
385. relationship, the way she has tried to killall of yours simply by the way she raisedyou.’ Her face was white, as if he’dsuggested something shocking. Watching her with a mixture ofexasperation and despair, Mal wonderedwhy this was such a block for her. Was she afraid that she’d track downher father, only for him to reject her allover again? Was that what he was seeing in thosebeautiful blue eyes? She stood still as if she wanted to saysomething and then she gave a little shakeof her head, turned and walked towards thedoor. Mal resisted the temptation to strideafter her and turn the key in the lock. ‘Thisisn’t about the fact I didn’t tell you about
386. my deadline to get married. It isn’t aboutany of that. It’s about you, Avery. You.Once again you are looking for excuses torun. You are expecting it to fall apart, justas your mother no doubt did with yourfather. Are you really going to kill what wehave in the same way that she did?’ Say no. Say no and stop walking. But she didn’t stop walking and hefelt a heaviness in his chest, an ache thatrefused to go away. ‘I will be there tomorrow, ready tomarry you,’ he said in a thickened tone,‘because that is what I want and because Ibelieve in us. Despite everything, I believein us. The question is, do you believe in ustoo, habibti?’ Finally her steps slowed. He saw hershoulders move as the breath rippledthrough her and then she increased the pace
387. again and walked from the room without abackward glance.
388. CHAPTER NINEIT was a night without sleep. She stayedup. Saw both sunset and sunrise as she satalone in the water garden, feet bare, hairloose, tucked away in a place that no onewould think of looking, apart from Mal,and he hadn’t bothered. I will be there tomorrow, ready tomarry you. But how could she do that now thatshe knew he had to get married? Itexplained everything. The speed withwhich he’d put that ring on her finger; thefact that he’d asked her so quickly after hisrelationship with Kalila had collapsed. Itwasn’t to do with the depth of his love forher. It was all to do with his uncle’s will. He hadn’t been honest.
389. Avery turned her head. Inside thePalace, lights burned as an army of staffbusied themselves with final preparationsfor the wedding of the Crown Prince andMiss Avery Scott. Miss Avery Scott, thewoman who’d been raised to believe that awoman was stronger without a man, that alife was happier, and more secure, if itwere lived alone. That the only guaranteesand promises worth believing were theones you made to yourself. No, he hadn’t been honest with her.But she hadn’t been honest with him either,had she? As if on cue, her phone beeped andshe found a text from her mother. Theyhadn’t spoken for months. She opened it—there was only one line Heard rumour you’re gettingmarried. Don’t do anything stupid.
390. Don’t do anything stupid … Her eyes filled. It was exactly whatshe needed to see. What had she beenthinking? What had she been doing? Therewas no way she could put herself throughthat pain again. Avery stared at that message for along time. Then she slipped on her shoes.Even the tranquil sound of the fountains inthe water garden couldn’t soothe her. Her mother was right. It was really important not to dosomething stupid.She found Mal sprawled on the balcony ofhis bedroom, apparently oblivious to thebuzz of excitement that gripped the rest ofthe Palace. But that was because only thetwo of them understood that this weddingmight not happen.
391. He took one look at her, his dark gazesweeping over her, taking in her jeans andthe casual shirt she was wearing and hissensual mouth hardened. ‘So that is yourdecision. Thank you for not waiting until Iwas standing in front of a thousand gueststo break the news to me.’ ‘I’m not here about the wedding. I’mnot here to talk about us. This is about me.There’s something I have to tell you aboutme.’ She took in the roughness of his jawand the shadows beneath his eyes. ‘Youdidn’t sleep last night either.’ ‘Did you really think I would? Justsay what you have to say, Avery.’ Thechill in his voice was less thanencouraging but somehow she forced thewords out. ‘I have to tell you about my father. Ishould have told you before, but it’s not
392. something I’ve ever discussed withanyone.’ And it felt terrifying to discuss itnow but he was already sitting up. Payingattention. ‘What about your father?’ She could hear the splash of waterfrom the fountain that formed thecentrepiece in the courtyard beneath them.‘He didn’t leave, Mal. He didn’t walk outon me or abandon me. He wasn’t a high-powered businessman frequently out oftown, which is what I used to tell myschool friends.’ One by one she slicedthrough the lies she’d created over theyears and watched them fall, leaving onlythe truth. ‘I’m not afraid of marriagebecause my own parents’ marriage failed.That isn’t what happened.’ She’d come thisfar but, even so, saying those last wordsfelt hard. She waited for him to saysomething. To prompt her in some way, but
393. he didn’t. He just watched and waited and in theend she turned away slightly becausesaying this was hard enough without sayingit while looking at him. ‘The man who fathered me was neverpart of my life. Or part of my mother’slife.’ ‘He was a one-night stand? Yourmother became pregnant by accident?’ ‘It wasn’t an accident.’ Did she soundbitter? She was amazed that, after so manyyears, she could have an emotion left onthe topic. ‘My mother doesn’t haveaccidents. Everything she does in life iscalculated. She plans everything. Shecontrols everything. Her relationship withmy father played out exactly the way shewanted it to play out.’ ‘And he was fine with that? He made
394. her pregnant and wasn’t interested in beingpart of your life?’ ‘That’s right.’ The condemnation inhis voice made her nervous about tellinghim the rest. She paused, trying to findwords that didn’t make it seem quite socold and clinical. ‘But it wasn’t the wayyou’re imagining it. My mother didn’t havea relationship with anyone. I don’t knowmy father’s name.’ ‘He was a stranger?’ ‘In a manner of speaking. I may notknow his name, but I do know his cliniccode.’ ‘Clinic code?’ He looked confusedand she couldn’t blame him for that. It washardly the first thing that came to mindwhen discussing someone’s parentage. ‘My mother used donated sperm.’ Itwas easier to say than she’d thought it
395. would be, given that she’d never said itbefore. ‘Donor sperm? She had infertilityissues?’ ‘No. No infertility issues. Just manissues. She wanted to cut the “man” partout of the deal.’ She glanced at him,looking for shock, disgust, any of theemotions she’d anticipated seeing, butthere was nothing. ‘She struggled to trust men so whenshe chose to have a child of her own, shechose to have one alone?’ If only. Avery felt her throat thicken.‘That wasn’t it, either. I truly wish it were.At least then I would have known I wasloved by at least one of my parents. But thetruth is I was another of my mother’s socialstatements. She wanted to prove that awoman doesn’t need a man for anything,
396. not even to produce a baby, althoughobviously that wasn’t what she told them inthe clinic. She was determined to provethat she could do it all by herself, and shedid. The trouble was, she forgot that herexperiment was permanent. Once she’dproved her point, she was stuck with me.Not that she let that interfere with herlifestyle, you understand.’ As Mal rose to his feet, she backedaway with a quick shake of her head. ‘Don’t speak. I n-need to finish thisnow or I won’t ever say it,’ shestammered. ‘I’ve never said it before andit’s … hard because I’m used to being aconfident person and I am confident in mywork, just not about this.’ ‘Avery—’ ‘My childhood was nothing like
397. yours. It was nothing like anyone’s. Yourfamily was close and tight-knit. You hadtwo parents, cousins, uncles and aunts.Even when you disagreed, you were a unit.And yes, I’m sure there were hugepressures, but you shared those pressures.I’m sure that being a Prince mustoccasionally have been lonely but evenwhen you were lonely you knew therewere people around you who loved you.You knew who you were and what wasexpected of you. You belonged.’ He opened his mouth, but then caughther desperate look and closed it again. Avery’s mouth was dry. ‘I didn’t havethat. On the outside my family looked fine.Single mother. No biggie. Loads of peoplehave that, right? I hid the truth about myfather because I thought it was so shamingthat my mother couldn’t sustain arelationship for long enough even for a
398. single bout of sex, but what really affectedme wasn’t the fact that I didn’t have afather, but the fact that I didn’t have amother, either. All I had was a woman whotaught me how to be a version of her.’ ‘Avery—’ ‘Most of the time I hated her.’ It wasthe first time she’d ever admitted that.‘There was no affection because she sawthat as weakness. No involvement in mylife. We spent mealtimes together, duringwhich she talked about her work and abouthow lucky we were to have avoided thatcomplex relationship trauma. And I vowedI wasn’t going to be like that. I vowed thatmy relationships would be normal, butshe’d done her job well and the only thingthat was ever in my head at the start of arelationship was, How will this end? Shetaught me how to live alone. She didn’t tellme how to live with other people. And it
399. never really mattered. Until I met you.’ ‘Why didn’t you tell me this before?’His tone was raw and this time when hepulled her into his arms she didn’t resist.‘All that time we spent together—all thetimes I brought up the subject of your fatherand you never once mentioned it.’ ‘Because I’ve kept it a secret for solong from everyone. And you mattered tome more than anyone I’d ever met. Itwasn’t just that I was ashamed. I wasafraid that if you knew, it would kill whatwe had.’ Admitting it was agony. ‘I wasafraid that if you knew the truth about me,you wouldn’t want me any more. Youknow who you are. Your ancestors areSultans and Princes. You can trace yourfamily back for centuries. And I’m—’ Hervoice cracked and she gave a despairingshrug. ‘I don’t even know who I am. I’m a… I’m the result of my mother’s unofficial
400. social experiment.’ He took her face in his hands andrested his forehead against hers, his gazeholding her steady. ‘You’re the woman Ilove. The only woman I want.’ She hadn’t dared hope that she wouldhear that. ‘Even now you know?’ Shediscovered that her cheeks were wet andshe brushed her palm over her face self-consciously. ‘I’m crying. I never cry.’ Hervoice was unsteady and his was equallyunsteady. ‘I’m not marrying you for where youcame from. I’m marrying you for who youare and who you are going to be. You are abright, talented, very sexy woman whowill make a perfect Princess. I don’t careabout your past, except for the degree towhich it affects our future. Can you shut outeverything she ever taught you and believe
401. in us, no matter what? Or are you going towalk away?’ ‘Last night she sent me a text. She’dheard I was getting married and she toldme not to do anything stupid. And Irealised that she was right. It is importantnot to do something stupid—’ she felt himtense and, because she saw pain flickerinto his eyes, she carried on quickly ‘—and it would be stupid not to marry you. Itwould be the stupidest thing I’ve everdone.’ He breathed in sharply. ‘Avery—’ ‘I love you. That’s why I took a riskwith you the first time, because I cared foryou so much. And it’s why I’m here now. Iwas upset when I found out that you had toget married by a certain date, that’s true,but I only needed a few minutes alone torealise that everything you told me made
402. sense. And it’s partly my fault that youdidn’t tell me because I’m so screwed up. Ido believe you love me but when you’vebelieved yourself unlovable for so long,it’s hard not to doubt that. I love you—’ thewords caught in her throat ‘—I really loveyou. And if you still want me, then I wantto marry you.’ ‘If I still want you?’ He hauled heragainst him and held her so tightly shecould hardly breathe. ‘There is no “if”.There never has been an “if” in my mind. Ihave always been sure. Too sure, whichwas why I messed it up so badly the firsttime. And I did mess it up.’ He eased heraway from him and smoothed away hertears with his thumbs. ‘I understand thatnow. You accused me of arrogance andperhaps I was guilty of that but most of allI was guilty of being too sure of us. I knewwe were perfect together.’
403. ‘I’m pleased to hear you think I’mperfect.’ She laughed up at him and hesmiled back, but it was a shaky smile. Thesmile of someone who had come close tolosing everything that mattered. ‘You know your problem? You’rearrogant.’ ‘A moment ago I was perfect.’ ‘You’re perfect for me.’ A warm feeling spread through her.‘I’ve never had that.’ Her voice faltered ashe kissed her. ‘I don’t honestly thinkanyone has ever loved me before. Apartfrom Jen. And most of the time I drive hermad.’ ‘Not so mad that she didn’t agree tofly out for our wedding.’ Avery stared at him. ‘She—?’ ‘My plane lands in the next hour. She
404. is on it. She can help you get ready and shehas strict instructions to call me if oneword of doubt crosses your lips.’ ‘It won’t.’ ‘What if your mother texts you again?’ ‘She can’t. I dropped my phone in thefountain.’ Her voice faltered. ‘But I amafraid of messing everything up. I don’tknow anything about making a relationshipwork. Nothing.’ ‘There is only one thing you need toknow about making a relationship workand that is that you don’t give up.’ Hisfingers slid into her hair, strong andpossessive. ‘Whatever you feel, you tellme. You shout, you yell, anything, but younever walk away. Never.’ It should have felt terrifying butinstead it felt blissfully good. ‘My mothertold me that marriage was a sacrifice, but
405. it feels so much more like a gift.’ His eyes gleamed. ‘I look forward tounwrapping you, habibti. And in themeantime, do you think you could changeinto something that will make theunwrapping more fun? Everyone would bedisappointed to see the elegant Avery Scottwearing jeans on her wedding day.’ She curled her hand into his shirt andpulled him towards her. ‘You want thedance of the seven veils?’ ‘That sounds like the perfect way tobegin a marriage.’‘Where exactly are we going? Couldsomeone please tell me what’s going on?’Avery was so nervous she felt sick. ‘Jen?’ Her friend shook her head. ‘This isone event you’re not organizing, Avery.Just relax.’
406. ‘I’m not a relaxed sort of person.’Despite the air conditioning in thelimousine, her palms felt damp and herstomach was a knot of nerves. ‘I’msupposed to be marrying Mal so it wouldbe great if someone could tell me whywe’re driving in this car away from thePalace and with blacked-out windows so Ican’t even see where I’m going.’ ‘It’s a surprise. You’re controlling,you do know that, don’t you?’ ‘I’m efficient, not controlling. I getthings done. And it’s hard to get a weddingdone when the groom is in one place andthe bride is in another.’ Just saying thosewords made her heart race. Bride. Groom.She was getting married. ‘And you, by theway, are supposed to be on my side.’ ‘I’m on your side. You’re scared,Avery.’ Jenny reached across and took her
407. hand. ‘Don’t be. It’s the right thing. I neversaw two people as right for each other asyou and Mal. And I’ve seen a few.’ ‘I haven’t.’ Avery’s teeth werechattering. ‘I haven’t seen any.’ ‘You can borrow some of mine. OK,so there’s Peggy and Jim—they’reclocking up sixty years. True, neither ofthem has their own teeth left but that hasn’tbeen a barrier to lasting happiness. Thenthere’s David and Pamela—’ Jenny tickedthem off on her fingers ‘—a happier coupleyou never did meet. And Rose and Michael—they just celebrated sixty years.’ Avery stared at her, confused. ‘Whatare you talking about?’ ‘I’m listing all the people I knowwhose marriages have lasted more thansixty years so that you don’t sit there with alist of your mother’s divorce cases in your
408. head.’ Avery moved the hem of her weddingdress so that it didn’t catch in her heel.‘You know all those people?’ ‘My Aunt Peggy does. They all live inher retirement home.’ ‘But—’ Avery looked at her inexasperation. ‘What does this have to dowith my wedding to Mal?’ ‘I was distracting you before youexploded with fear.’ ‘I’m not afraid!’ ‘Yes, you are. But you’re facing yourfear and that makes me so, so proud of you.And I really want to hug you right now butI daren’t ruin your hair and make-upbecause you look stunning.’ Jenny’s eyesglistened and she sniffed and flapped herhand in front of her face. ‘Oh look at me!I’m going to ruin my own make-up and
409. everyone will think your best friend is apanda. You are a lucky woman, AveryScott. Mal is gorgeous. He was the onewho insisted on all this. The whole Palacehas been in an uproar, changing everythingon his orders.’ ‘Changing everything? Changingwhat?’ Completely confused, Averyrealised that the car had stopped. ‘Whereare we?’ The door opened and Rafiq stoodthere. ‘Welcome. Can I help you with yourdress, Your Highness?’ ‘I’m not Your Highness yet, Rafiq, butthank you.’ With Jenny helping, Averystepped out of the air-conditioned limo andgasped. ‘The desert?’ She blinked in theblaze of the sun. For a moment she juststood, overwhelmed by the savage beautyof the golden landscape. She never grew
410. tired of looking at it. Never. ‘But thewedding was going to take place at thePalace.’ ‘But you love the desert,’ Rafiq saidquietly. ‘Although this has to be a publicaffair, His Highness was insistent that itshould also be personal. The weddingitself is for the people, but this part—thisis for you. ‘ Avery heard Jenny sniff but sheignored her. ‘But … oh … isn’t everyoneangry that they had to come to the desertand stand in the heat?’ ‘Angry that their future Queen lovestheir country as they do?’ Rafiq gave anindulgent smile. ‘I hardly think so. Andnow everyone is waiting for you. Are youready?’ Avery stared at the sea of faces. Shewas used to large gatherings, but never one
411. where the attention was focused on her.She felt a sudden rush of nerves. ‘Where’sMal?’ ‘I’m right here.’ He was standingbehind her, stunningly handsome in flowingrobes, his eyes gleaming dark and thesmile on his face intended only for her. Even the unflappable Rafiq wasshocked. ‘Your Highness! Conventionstates that—’ ‘I don’t care about convention, I careabout my bride.’ Mal took her hand in hisand lifted it to his lips, his eyes holdinghers. ‘Are you afraid, habibti?’ She should be. She was giving him everything. Herlove, her trust and her heart. But themoment she’d seen him standing there,she’d been sure and the feeling filled herand warmed her. ‘I’m not afraid. I can’t
412. believe you did this for me.’ ‘I couldn’t change the date, but Icould change the place.’ The words werefor her and her alone. He managed tocreate intimacy despite the crowdwatching and waiting. ‘Are you pleasedthat we’re marrying in the desert?’ ‘Yes. You know I love it. I had ourpicture on the computer. It was the firstthing I saw in the morning.’ ‘I did the same. And every time I sawthat picture I dreamed of this moment.’ Her eyes filled and she gave astrangled laugh. ‘Don’t make me cry!’ ‘Never.’ As he lowered his headtowards her, she closed her eyes and liftedher mouth to his but Jenny gave a shriekand intervened. ‘What are you doing? You can’t kissher! You’ll mess up her make-up and she’ll
413. look terrible in the photographs. Stop it,the pair of you. Rafiq, do something.’ ‘Sadly, it seems I am powerless,madam. A fact I have long suspected.’ Butthere was humour in his voice as he bowedto Jenny. ‘May I escort you to your seat?The others are already waiting.’ ‘Others?’ Avery glanced at Mal.‘Who? I don’t have family.’ ‘But you have friends.’ He spokesoftly, his eyes gentle. ‘Many, manyfriends, all of whom want to wish you welland would not miss this, the most importantparty of your life.’ She glanced through the crowd ofpeople, now silent and curious, and sawfaces she knew. So many faces. All smilingat her. ‘You have some seriously coolfriends, I’ll give you that,’ Jenny muttered
414. under her breath. ‘Chloe is probably goingto pass out.’ Mal smiled. ‘Chloe has alreadypassed out. Twice. I have someone lookingout for her.’ Jenny glanced at Avery in despair.‘She passed out last week at the Senator’sparty. Which was a great success, by theway. The doves were sweet. I hope you’rehaving doves.’ ‘We will have doves for our fiftiethanniversary,’ Mal breathed, ‘and now, ifno one objects, I’d like to marry thewoman I love in the company of the peoplewho love her.’ ‘Can we walk up there together?’Avery slipped her hand in his and hesmiled down at her. ‘I would have it no other way,habibti.’
415. Rafiq looked desperate. ‘But YourHighness, tradition states that the brideshould be brought to the groom. That ishow the marriage begins.’ ‘Not this marriage.’ His voice wasdeep and sure. ‘This marriage begins theway it will continue. With the bride andgroom side by side as equals. Are youready?’ Avery smiled. ‘I’ve never been moreready for anything in my life.’
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