Authors: Annie West
‘I’m pretty sure it’s against the law to break a contract with the nation’s ruler.’ Her laugh was hollow. ‘Besides …’ she lifted her head and looked him straight in the eye ‘… what man would dare steal the Emir’s bride? He’d be punished, surely?’
Soraya’s upturned face was beautiful, her eyes almost beseeching, and Zahir knew a crazy urge to kiss her till the world faded and all that was left was them.
‘He’d lose all claim to honour or loyalty to the crown.’ Zahir said slowly, feeling the full weight of such a prospect. He’d made honour and loyalty his life. ‘He’d never be able to hold his head up again. He’d be stripped of official titles and positions and the council of elders would banish him from Bakhara.’ He drew a deep breath. ‘Hussein could never call him friend again.’
‘As I thought.’ Her hands dropped and she stepped abruptly out of his hold. ‘No man would even consider it.’
spent her childhood with her nose between the covers of a book—a habit she retains. After years preparing government reports and official correspondence she decided to write something she
enjoys. And there’s nothing she loves more than a great romance. Despite her office-bound past she has managed a few interesting moments—including a marriage offer with the promise of a herd of camels to sweeten the contract. She is happily married to her ever-patient husband (who has never owned a dromedary). They live with their two children amongst the tall eucalypts at beautiful Lake Macquarie, on Australia’s east coast. You can e-mail Annie at www.annie-west.com, or write to her at PO Box 1041, Warners Bay, NSW 2282, Australia.
Recent titles by the same author:
UNDONE BY HIS TOUCH
GIRL IN THE BEDOUIN TENT
PRINCE OF SCANDAL
PASSION, PURITY AND THE PRINCE
Did you know these are also available as eBooks?
With profound thanks to
Vanessa, Sharon, Karen and Kandy
for all your support.
Soraya’s nape prickled.
ripple of hot sensation skated down her arms. She fought the need to look up, knowing what she’d see.
The man in the shadows.
Big. Dark. Broad-shouldered in his leather jacket, the hard lines of his face a study in masculine strength. His upper face was in shadow yet every time she looked across the dimly lit bar there was no doubt his gaze was fixed on her. She felt the intensity of that look in her sizzling blood. And in the curious breathless catch in her throat.
His interest unsettled Soraya. She leaned closer to her group: Raoul and Jean Paul debating politics while Michelle and Marie talked fashion. Raoul roped a negligent arm around her shoulders. Instantly she stiffened, then forced herself to relax, reminding herself it was just a friendly gesture.
Soraya loved Paris’s casual lifestyle, but still hadn’t overcome her reserve. You could take the girl out of Bakhara but Bakhara still lingered in the girl. Her lips twisted. She’d no need of the chaperone her father had wanted to send.
Movement caught her eye and despite her intentions she turned.
He hadn’t moved; he still leaned back just beyond the flickering light of the candle on his table. But now he looked up at
a leggy blonde in a red satin mini-dress. The woman leaned in, her low-cut neckline a blatant invitation.
Soraya snapped her head back to her friends, ignoring the way Raoul tightened his hold.
Zahir sank back in his chair and cradled his drink, its cool condensation a respite from the heat. A heat that owed nothing to the close atmosphere of the nightclub and everything to the woman on the other side of the room.
What the devil had he walked into?
Simple, Hussein had said. Straightforward.
Zahir shook his head. Every sense screamed ‘alert’. Every instinct warned of trouble.
Still he remained. He had no choice. Now he’d found her, he couldn’t leave.
He tipped his head back so the ice slid into his mouth. He crunched it hard, as if the shock of cold might restore his equanimity.
It would take more than ice to counteract his tension.
In other circumstances he might have taken up the invitation of the voluptuous Swedish girl in the short dress. He enjoyed life’s pleasures—in his down time.
Never at the expense of his duty.
Tonight was duty, responsibility, obligation.
Yet it was something more too. Something … unfamiliar, evoked by sloe-dark eyes and a full Cupid’s bow mouth. By the woman hanging on the words of a scrawny intellectual pontificating as if he had any idea how to run a country!
Zahir snorted and put down his glass.
Whatever it was he felt, he didn’t like it. It was a complication he didn’t need. Zahir had spent a lifetime learning how to cut through complications.
Over the years he’d learned to curb his impatience. Now he mostly used a statesman’s skills: negotiation and discretion. But he’d trained as a warrior from birth. He was still technically head of the Emir’s bodyguard, a position that gave opportunities
for the satisfaction of hard, physical combat. The clash of one man against another.
He surveyed the
who was boasting of his intellect and pulling the woman in the dark dress close. The Frenchman’s hand hovered near her bare arm. Zahir’s fist tightened.
He’d like to get his hands on that buffoon and give him a short, sharp lesson in the real meaning of power.
The intensity of his bloodlust brought him up short.
Premonition skittered like icy fingers down his spine.
This mission was a mistake. He felt it in his bones.
Soraya moved back as far as Raoul’s encircling arms allowed.
It was ridiculously late and she’d rather be home in bed. Except her flatmate Lisle had finally made peace with her boyfriend and Soraya knew they needed privacy, even if it meant staying out till dawn. Lisle had been a good friend and friendship was something precious to her.
But she’d made a mistake, finally agreeing to dance with Raoul. She frowned and shifted his straying hand.
Usually Soraya didn’t make such mistakes. Keeping her distance from men came naturally. She’d acted out of character, spooked by the need to escape the stranger’s unnerving stare. It had made her feel … heated. Aware.
Yet even now she felt his gaze like a brand on her back, her bare arms, her cheeks.
What did he
? She wasn’t eye-catching. Her dress was modest—positively maidenly, Lisle would say.
Soraya wanted to march across the room and demand he stop it. But this was Paris. Men stared at women all the time. It was a national pastime.
Raoul’s marauding hand cut her line of thought and she stiffened. Enough was enough. ‘Stop it! Move your hand or—’
‘The lady is ready for a change, I believe.’ The voice, a deep burr, curled around her like a caress, but there was no mistaking its steely undertone.
Raoul stumbled to a halt then stepped back abruptly as a
large hand removed his arm from Soraya’s waist. His eyes flared as he drew himself up. Yet, tall as he was, the stranger topped him easily.
Raoul spluttered as he was shouldered aside. Soraya felt the tensile strength in the intruder’s big body as he clasped her in a waltz hold and swung her away.
Torn between relief at being rid of Raoul’s octopus hands and stomach-dipping shock at the newcomer’s actions, protest froze in Soraya’s throat.
, the man who’d watched her all evening.
Suddenly he was so near, his breath feathered her forehead, the heat of his body warmed hers and his big hands grasped her so easily it was obvious he was used to being close to a woman.
Soraya shivered as an unfamiliar sensation swirled deep. Not trepidation. Not indignation. But something that tied her thoughts in knots and prompted her to fall in step unthinkingly as he moved to the slow tune.
‘Now just you wait—’ Over the stranger’s shoulder she saw Raoul’s face, red with indignation, his fist raised. Soraya’s eyes widened. Could he be violent?
‘Raoul! No! That’s enough.’
‘Excuse me a moment.’ The stranger released her, swung round to confront Raoul and said something under his breath that made the graduate student pale and falter back a pace.
Then, before she had time to question, he turned back, gathered her to him and swung her across the dance floor.
It was an impressive example of a male staking his territory. But Soraya didn’t appreciate being swept away without so much as a by-your-leave.
Even if he had rescued her from Raoul’s pawing.
‘There’s no need for this.’ She’d rather just get off the dance floor. But he gave no indication he’d heard.
It chagrined her that her feet automatically followed his lead. She’d never followed
man, except her beloved father!
She could wrench herself from his arms and off the dance
floor, but she shied from making more of a scene unless absolutely necessary.
Besides, she was curious.
‘What makes you think I want to dance with you?’ She jutted her chin defiantly to counteract the strange, breathy quality of her voice.
The movement was a mistake. With her face tilted, her gaze collided with sizzling dark-emerald fire. Shock jolted her and only quick reflexes kept her from stumbling.
His eyes were heavy-lidded, almost lazy. Yet there was nothing lazy about his rapier-sharp scrutiny. She sucked in a breath as it roved her face.
His features were compelling. Strong, with an earthy stamp of male sexuality that melded with sharp cheekbones, a determined jaw and a long blade of a nose to create a breathtaking whole. His skin was dark gold, eyes rayed with the tiny lines that spoke of hours spent outdoors. She couldn’t believe they were smile lines. Not on this man who surveyed her so grimly.
Soraya blinked and tore her gaze away, disturbed to find her pulse skittering faster.
your dance with him?’ He shrugged and she knew in that moment that, despite his perfect French, he wasn’t local. There was none of the Gallic insouciance in that movement. Instead she read the fluid yet deliberate action of a man who had more on his mind than a little light flirtation.
He moved with a lithe grace yet every action, from the way he held her hand to the light clasp of his other palm at her waist, was carefully controlled.
For all his agility he was a big man, all hard-packed muscle, iron-hard sinew and bone. Formidable.
Suddenly she felt … trapped, at risk. Ridiculous, since she was in full public view with her friends close by.
Desperately she sucked in a deep breath and sought out her companions. They watched, rapt, elbows on the table and mouths moving as if they’d never seen anything more fascinating
than Soraya dancing, and with a stranger. As her eyes met Raoul’s, he flushed and moved closer to Marie.
‘That’s not the point.’
‘So you don’t disagree. He was annoying you.’ His voice was low yet she had an inkling he worked to keep his tone easy.
‘I don’t need a protector!’ Soraya prided herself on her independence.
‘Then why didn’t you stop him grabbing at you?’ There was no mistaking the thread of anger in that deep voice, or the quiver of repressed power that rippled through him in a rolling tide.
It was her turn to shrug.
What was there to say? That despite the freedom of studying abroad she wasn’t used to dealing with groping hands? She usually kept a discreet distance from male colleagues. Soraya had perfected the art of blending into a crowd and avoiding individual male attention. Tonight was the first time she’d ever danced with a man.
No way was she confessing that! It was the norm for a well-brought-up girl in Bakhara. Here it would make her seem like a freak.
As would the fact she preferred it that way. She had no interest in a love affair.
‘Nothing to say?’
‘What I do is none of your business.’
At her words his lips firmed, deep lines bracketing a mobile mouth that revealed tension despite his air of command. One sleek black eyebrow climbed towards close-cropped dark hair.
That superior look would goad any woman’s patience.
The music finished and they slowed to a stop.
‘Thank you for the dance.’ Formal politeness barely masked her annoyance. How dared he suggest she should be thankful to him?
She turned and took a step away, only to find his hold tightening at her waist. Long fingers and a broad palm seared
through the soft fabric of her dress, warming her in a way that suddenly seemed too intimate.
The music resumed and with a swift movement he tugged her close so she stumbled against a hard wall of hot muscle.
‘What if I choose to make it my business?’ His breath was warm on her face. Those straight eyebrows arrowed down in a scowl that accentuated the intensity of his blazing green stare.
It was as if he memorised everything, from her too-short nose and plain brown eyes to the wisps of hair escaping her once-neat chignon.
The intensity of that look dazed her. ‘Sorry?’
‘You heard me, princess. Don’t play games.’
‘Play games?’ She shook her head, her jaw clenching in indignation. She planted her hands against his upper arms, trying to prise herself free, and felt only unyielding steel. ‘I’ve done nothing! It’s you playing games. Sitting there all night, just watching me.’
Her eyes met his again and her chest tightened at the simmering heat she saw there. Her skin tingled all over.
‘You wanted me to do more than watch?’ His words were a whispered thread of frayed velvet. ‘Is that why you cosied up to your friend over there—to trigger a response?’
‘No!’ Soraya rocked back on her heels, but his arm at her waist, like a rope of steel, lashed her to him.
For an instant she read something in his gaze, something half-hidden that both disturbed and fascinated.
Then she came to her senses. With a swift, well-executed movement she ground her stiletto heel onto his instep with all her weight.
A moment later she was free. His hand fell away and with it the warmth at her waist she’d almost grown used to.
She strode from the dance floor, head up and shoulders back. A woman in control.
But at the back of her mind lingered the image of his face when she’d fought to break free. There’d been no flicker of pain
in his eyes, no hint of a wince on his face, despite what must have been piercing agony.
What sort of man trained himself not to react to pain?
The question unnerved her.
So did the realisation she was only free because he’d
to release her.
Holding her in his arms had been a mistake.
Zahir grimaced and ruthlessly shoved aside any analysis of
it was a mistake.
No need to go there. All that mattered was that she was trouble with a capital T.
He’d known it when he’d arrived at her apartment and found, not the respectable accommodation he’d expected, but a love nest for an almost-naked couple. Clearly they’d tumbled out of bed only because his insistent ringing of the bell had threatened to attract the neighbours.
His assessment had been reinforced when he’d finally tracked her to this seedy club. True, she didn’t flaunt herself half-naked like some women. But that dress, the colour of ripe plums, clung lovingly to curves designed to snare a man’s attention. Its skirt flirted and flounced around shapely legs when she moved. It slithered enticingly under a man’s palm, making him itch to explore further.
Zahir swallowed a curse as his palms tingled.
This wasn’t about what she made him feel.
He wasn’t in the business of feeling
Except disgust that she’d played Hussein for a fool. Look at the way she’d snuggled up to that turkey with the ridiculously sculpted excuse for a beard!
He stifled a low growl of anger.
No, she was
what he’d been led to believe. And he didn’t just mean the fact that the old photo he’d been given showed the round, almost chubby face of an innocent. The woman tonight had the cheekbones, sexy curves and full, pouting lips of
a born seductress. And those shoes—spangled four-inch stilettos that screamed
‘take me … now!’.