Authors: Caitlin Crews
He let her
walk away from him. He was barely aware of the room around them, so inured was
he to the trappings of the Qaderi wealth and consequence. The ancient,
sumptuous tapestries that cascaded down the walls were lost on him; they served
only to frame Lucy in reds and golds as she moved over the deep carpet, past
the magnificent four-poster bed that rose like an edifice in the middle of the
that mesmerizing sway of her hips, and could not help but admire the perfect
hourglass lushness of her body, her voluptuous curves. She had mesmerized him
back in Manchester, and she bewitched him now.
She was a
wild magic, this woman, and he had lost everything because of her. His
self-respect. The politically advantageous marriage he'd been plotting for
years. His standing in his particular Alakkulian circle of high-ranking
ministers and power brokers, all of whom had expected better from Rafi Qaderi
than a shotgun wedding to a woman like her. In some parts of Alakkul, it might
as well still be the twelfth century—and to those of his countrymen, some of
whom graced the halls of power for all that they were hidebound, a
might as well be a scarlet-painted whore. Even his own staff had
been appalled that he could fall so low.
ruined him. But the greater sin was that he had let her.
appreciate the high drama of this performance, Lucy, I truly do." He did
not bother to raise his voice. She stopped walking, though she did not turn
around. "But it is wasted on me. I fly back to Germany in the
morning." He shook his head. "Assuming your great emergency does not
conveniently strike in the dark of night, of course."
She did turn
then. He had the strangest notion that she was someone else for a moment—the
woman she was pretending to be, all elegance and affront, staring at him from
across the lavish room as if he had gravely disappointed her. Again. It was no
doubt the incongruity that made him feel something perilously close to shame.
not playing games, Rafi." Her voice was quiet, but he heard the faint
tremor in it.
that affect him? And yet something moved through him, acid and heavy, that felt
too much like regret.
flight to Manchester leaves tomorrow," she said, still in that cool,
detached tone. "I've hired a car to pick me up and take me to the airport
in the city. Soon it will be as if I was never here at all."
far too late for that, much as we both might wish it otherwise," he said,
and he almost did regret the coldness of his tone and the way she visibly
steeled herself against it, as if she expected nothing more from him. "But
I have no intention of letting you go, Lucy."
have no choice—" she began, that hectic color working over her pale skin
again, and he should not have taken such satisfaction in that.
will be no separation, no divorce, no hint of scandal at all," he said
softly, watching her brace herself against each word. "This is the
marriage you wanted, Lucy. The one you worked so hard to achieve. I suggest you
enjoy it. We are both stuck in it for the rest of our lives."
stared at him for a moment, her expression unreadable, and then she turned and
left the room.
herself in the small sitting room off the master suite later that evening,
fighting to get her riotous emotions under control. She only had to make it
through this one night, she reminded herself, and in the morning she would get
on that flight and put all of this—this painful, impossible chapter of her
life—behind her. She couldn't wait. She curled up on her favorite settee, and
let her thoughts run wild as she looked out at the thick, dark night that had
Rafi was her
husband, and there was no denying that he was a powerful man—but he was not the
god she'd believed him to be once upon a time, not by a long shot. If she
wanted to leave him, to divorce him—and she did, she told herself fiercely, of
course she did—then she would do so. He could not control her. He could not—
this?" His voice was dry, amused. "A strategic retreat?"
stiffened. She turned to look at Rafi as he moved into the room in that low,
confident way of his. He had changed and showered; he smelled of the scented
soap he preferred and his dark black hair gleamed. He'd traded his perfect suit
for dark trousers and a simple long-sleeved shirt that showcased his impossibly
breathtaking physique. He was, quite simply, the most beautiful man she had
remembered, suddenly, the first time she'd seen him. She'd been covering a
friend's shift at the Manchester nightclub where she worked, and she'd been
dead on her feet. Oh, she'd smiled and flirted with the punters by rote, but
she'd been counting down the minutes to closing time. She hadn't seen him come
in; she'd only noted the new group of men at one of her tables.
swells, from the look of them,
she'd judged, and she'd plastered on her
Rafi had been
sprawled across the banquette, careless and nearly regal in his indolence.
She'd noticed that confidence first. And then he'd glanced up at her, and
everything had stopped. The noise of the crowd, the music, the boisterous
sounds of his friends. All gone. There had only been that arrested look in his
thundercloud gaze, and that faintly dazed expression on his harshly masculine,
impossibly beautiful face as they'd locked eyes. And that sweet, addictive
pulse, long and low and insistent, in her blood. Her throat. Between her legs.
for his drink order and lost herself, then and there.
It was no
different now, Lucy realized helplessly. She jerked her gaze away from his
body, wishing her own did not ready itself for him so quickly, so
thoughtlessly. As if nothing had happened between them at all. As if none of it
almost Christmas," she said instead of responding to him. She pulled the
wrap she wore tighter around herself, and looked out the window instead of at
him. "Only a few days to go now."
generally happens around this time of year," he agreed, though she told
herself his voice was not as cold as it had been before. "It is
the derision in his voice, and thought, not for the first time, how little she
knew this man who had changed the whole of her life. That should not have made
her feel too big for her own skin, and yet it did.
Christmas," she said softly. She sensed more than saw him drop into the
chair closest to her, and then he stretched out his long legs and she could
scarcely avoid them. Even so, she kept her eyes trained on her own lap.
"Growing up, there wasn't any money for gifts, so on Christmas morning Mum
would tell us stories instead. About how we would be princesses when we were
older, how we'd never be cold again and how we would eat whatever we liked in
golden palaces, bathed in sun and laughter." She smiled. "That was my
favorite part. Even when there were gifts, I preferred the stories. I used to
lie by the fire and imagine they all came true."
know why she'd told him that. Surely she should have learned better by now. He
was not at all what she wanted him to be, and she could not understand why she
insisted on testing that theory. It never ended well.
suppose that your story did come true," he said after a moment, and there
was an odd note in his voice. She looked up and found herself snared in his
dark gaze. She caught her breath. He waved a hand at the room surrounding them,
the paintings on the walls, the lavish furnishings. But then his cruel mouth
crooked into that smirk she recognized too well, and whatever warmth she'd
started to feel disappeared. "How enterprising of you."
all," she said, squaring her shoulders against that dry, insinuating tone.
Meeting his eyes as if he had no power to hurt her, when they both knew better.
But what else did she have? What else could she do? "In the stories my
mother told me, the handsome man who inevitably swept me away from my former
His dark gray
eyes gleamed, but she still did not look away. Whole hours could have passed.
Days. And still he gazed upon her as if he were reading into the most shadowed corners
of her soul. Lucy was far too afraid of what he might find there.
something else, something she was afraid to name, she got to her feet and moved
away from him. Distance was good, she thought. Safer. She went and stood by the
fire that crackled invitingly in the grate, and welcomed the heat of the flames
against her skin. Better to be burned by fire than by Rafi. Burns from a flame
healed. The kind of damage Rafi inflicted lasted forever.
understand you," he said quietly, in that cold way of his that sliced into
her and made her bones weak. "You play the part of the victim so
beautifully, but we both know you are no such thing. And yet you never drop the
act, not even when we're alone."
It was too
much. This never-ending assault. Why had she thought that summoning him here
would be better than surviving somehow the long insult of his absence? What
could she have been thinking?
to face him, a storm inside of her, building by the moment and tearing her
you want from me, Rafi?" she begged him. She forgot about pride, about
shame. She searched his face, her hands open in supplication. "How long do
you plan to punish me? I hardly became pregnant on my own, did I?"
He rose to
his feet then, his eyes stark, his mouth a tight line. She thought he paled.
dare to throw that lie at me?" he asked, his voice the barest thread of
sound. "Now? After you have been exposed?"
She shook her head, reeling, her heart pounding. She felt sick. "Is that
what you call it?"
word I prefer is
" Rafi growled, advancing on her. He
towered over her, his eyes black. Condemning. "Your
pregnancy, which I, a man of honor, could only address in one way. Followed by
of a conveniently timed miscarriage, barely a month after
the wedding. And this after I had proclaimed your innocence, your innate
goodness, to the whole of my country. How much of a fool do you take me for,
She stared at
him in horror.
who you think I am?" she asked, stunned. Horrifed.
exactly who you are," he retorted.
him far less of a fool than she was, she realized, her stomach lurching. This,
finally, explained the way he'd treated her for these long months.
despised her. Believed her to be the worst kind of woman.
And she was
the idiot who was still in love with him.
at him, looking stricken. As if he'd wounded her, deeply and unfairly. Rafi bit
back a curse. How did she do that? How could she act as if the truth were a
weapon wielded against her?
She is good
at what she does,
his aide, Safir, had said to him months ago when
Rafi had uncharacteristically let some of his anguish at her betrayal slip out.
She has made it her life's work,
was good at it, Rafi thought. She had lied her way into what was, for her, a
spectacular marriage. He was the one who had to suffer the consequences.
that's why you disappeared," she said after a long moment. "You think
I lied about the baby and the miscarriage." Her brown eyes were wide with
distress, and one delicate hand hovered near her throat. This close, he could
smell her unique, intoxicating scent. The faintest hint of jasmine, the
suggestion of her warmth. He longed to haul her into his arms, to lose himself
in her as he had before. "That's why this is the first time I've seen you
in more than three months."
all evidence to the contrary," he said quietly, deliberately, holding her
gaze with his, "I did not want to suspect you of this. I wanted to believe
you were exactly who you claimed to be. A woman as swept away by what happened
between us as I was."
It hurt him
to admit that, but it was true. It was just as everyone had warned him, though
he had been so determined not to believe it in the beginning. But what he had
never admitted was that there was some part of him that had been
relieved—because if she were that scheming, that grasping, it absolved him of
responsibility, didn't it? Every man had a weakness, even him. And he would
spend the rest of his life coming to terms with what his own weakness had
to believe it," she said softly, her eyes moving over his face as if she
searched for something. Her lips trembled slightly as if she fought off some
great emotion. "But you did not."
investigator found out quickly enough that you weren't supposed to be working
at the club that night," Rafi said. "The only question is, how did
you know I would be there? Did you target me specifically, or were you simply
casting a wide net? I must commend you, Lucy. I was completely taken in."