Authors: Iris Johansen
“Visiting who?” An edge of sharpness was just barely discernible beneath the velvet.
“Yusef Ibraheim and his family.” She made a face he couldn’t see because of their closeness, but he caught the ruefulness in her voice. “Yusef and I have been something of a matched set for the last few weeks, and I thought it would be a good idea to take him home and deposit him with his family.”
“He’s your lover?” The sharpness had cut through the velvet now, and it startled her.
“Heavens, no! I just did him a favor once, and Yusef seems to have some wildly antiquated ideas about his obligations in regard to returning that favor.” There was a thread of exasperation in her voice. “Besides, he has this crazy idea I need someone to take care of me, and he’s elected himself to do it. I thought returning him to his family would make him forget all about me. It didn’t work, so I took off for Zalandan on my own in the middle of the night.”
“I see.” His tone was solemn, but she could detect a note of underlying amusement that annoyed her exceedingly. “I don’t know why he couldn’t understand how totally capable you are of running your own life. I’d be interested to know what experiences triggered a misapprehension like that. You wouldn’t care to enlighten me, would you, windflower?”
“Billie,” she corrected. She certainly wasn’t about to “enlighten” him, she thought crossly. It would make her look like even more of an irresponsible idiot than she did now. Circumstances and her own impulsiveness seemed constantly to conspire to project that image anyway. “It doesn’t matter, does it? We don’t even know each other. You couldn’t possibly be interested.”
“Oh, I’m interested, all right,” he said. “‘Intrigued’ is more the word. But then, I knew the first time I caught sight of you that you were going to be a constant source of delight and fascination to me. If you won’t go into your adventures with Yusef, perhaps you’ll tell me what you’re doing in Sedikhan. We don’t get too many Americans here other than oil technicians. Do you work for one of the oil companies?”
That was a reasonable assumption, since Sedikhan was one of the richest oil kingdoms in the world. She suddenly wished she could have answered in the affirmative. It sounded so sensible, and doubtless would have improved her credibility. “No, I came to Sedikhan to play a features role in
, an adventure movie that was filmed partially in a village on the outskirts of Marasef.”
“You’re an actress?”
The incredulity in his voice caused her to bristle. “I did very well for a first role. My director said so.” Then she added with reluctant honesty, “Well, that’s not quite true. He said I was very effective, which is a different thing entirely. We both knew I was a lousy actress, but he didn’t care as long as I looked vulnerable and wistful. It was the expression on my face he wanted, not my acting ability.”
“I can understand that.” He raised his head to look down into deep violet eyes framed in extravagant lashes; her eyes had the mistiness of a dreamer of dreams. Hers was not a beautiful face, but there was something so sensitive and loving in the curve of those lips and the clear honesty in her eyes that it tugged at the heart. “I find that I’m wanting that face very much myself. I want it on the pillow next to mine and across the breakfast table and…”
“You weren’t going to say things like that,” she interjected hurriedly.
“Sorry.” He didn’t sound at all apologetic. “Go on. You were saying that you were a lousy actress?”
“Terrible. But it didn’t make any difference, because this is probably the only film I’ll be in anyway. I only accepted the role because it was a chance to get a free trip to Sedikhan. I like to visit new places.”
“Windflower.” This time his tone was thoughtful. “But even windflowers have roots. What are yours, Billie? A family, a special place?”
“I’m an orphanage brat,” she said lightly. “And all places are special in their own way. And I can’t possibly be a windflower, because I don’t have any roots. I’m a gypsy, and I’ll probably still be one when I’m ninety. I like my life very much just the way it is.”
“You don’t have to be so forceful about it. No one’s arguing with you. We all have to be what we are. I don’t want to change you, Billie; that would be altering the natural order of things.” He rubbed his cheek lightly, almost teasingly, against hers. “But it’s not unnatural to blossom and develop into all you can be. That can be very beautiful. I’d like to watch that happening to you, windflower.”
“You’re absolutely unbelievable,” Billie said blankly. “I’ve never known anyone to speak to a complete stranger the way you do. Windflowers and blossoms and philosophy. Are you always like this?”
“Most of the time,” he said simply. “Something happened to me quite a few years ago that burned all the small talk out of me. Now I don’t even try to play word games. Life is too short for us not to be completely honest with one another.”
“That could be very dangerous,” Billie said slowly. “The world can be a very devious place, and complete honesty leaves you terribly open to hurt.”
“It also leaves you open to beauty and truth and the lovely rhythms of life,” he said quietly. “And to the knowledge of gypsies like Billie Callahan.”
“I’m hoping that if I leave myself open you’ll want to come near and give a little of yourself to me. Rest against me and let me learn you. Do you suppose that’s possible?”
In that moment she could believe anything was possible with this eccentric man whose voice was mellow as honey and whose words glittered clear as crystal yet bewildered at the same time. “I have an idea it wouldn’t make any difference if I said no. Doesn’t the fact that we’re complete strangers make any difference to you?”
“Why should it? I’ve always known what I wanted. I’d just never found it before I lifted my head and saw a windflower clinging to the top of a hill.
She stirred uneasily, and he recognized the disturbance for what it was. “All right. I’ll be quiet,” he said with a chuckle. “I know you’re not ready for all this yet.” This time she was certain he kissed her temple. “But you’ve got to admit it’s taken your mind off the storm.”
It certainly had done that, she realized with astonishment. She’d been more aware of the storm of emotions he was arousing under the flowing burnoose than of the one that was going on around their little cocoon. But now she was conscious that the wind was screaming with a fury that was even greater than before, and she tensed involuntarily.
“Yes, it’s getting worse,” he said quietly. “I think it will reach its height in a few minutes, and I don’t know how long it will last after that.” He was fumbling in his pocket and brought out a pristine handkerchief that he spread over the lower half of her face, covering her mouth and nostrils. Lemon again and something a little spicy. “Some of the sand is so fine that it’s bound to find its way under this hood. It’s important to filter it before it fills your mouth and nostrils.”
“What about you?” she asked, concerned.
“I have my own filter,” he said, burrowing his face contentedly in the copper curls at her temple. “A soft mop of chrysanthemums, silky and smelling deliciously of Shalimar.”
Shalimar, and it appeared he was suspiciously knowledgeable about scents more sophisticated than those of the flowers his speech was sprinkled with. Well, why shouldn’t he be? The man was perfectly gorgeous, and women were probably falling all over him. For some reason she shivered with distaste at the thought, and he stiffened against her.
“You’re frightened again,” he said with a touch of impatience in his voice. “And you won’t let me say any of the things that might distract you. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let you go through this scared out of your mind.”
“But I wasn’t—” she started to protest, but she was interrupted by his low, mischievous chuckle.
“I think I’ve come up with something that might help,” he drawled. “I always have believed actions speak louder than words. Suppose you think of this instead of what’s going on around us.” He slowly brought his loins down to rub intimately in the cradle of her hips before nestling comfortably as if he’d found a home. “I told you I believed in total honesty whenever possible.”
She inhaled sharply. Nothing could be more boldly honest than the hard arousal that was cuddled against her. “But you couldn’t,” she gasped. “For heaven’s sake, we’re practically at death’s door, and I’m not even sexy!”
“You’re not? You could have fooled me.” His teeth nibbled delicately at the lobe of her ear, and she felt a thrill of heat start somewhere in the pit of her stomach. “I’m obviously finding you very sexy indeed.” He rubbed teasingly against her again. “And I hate to disillusion you, Billie, but I’d probably have an identical reaction if we were on a raft in the Indian Ocean in the middle of a hurricane.”
“Perhaps you’d better try to distract me with philosophy and windflowers again,” Billie said faintly. “I think it might be safer.”
“Too late.” He chuckled. “I’m finding this much more entertaining. Don’t worry, love, I’m not going to rush you into anything. But I do want you, and it’s best you realize that’s a part of it too.”
“I’m finding it hard to ignore it.”
“That’s the idea,” he said softly in her ear. “Now, you just lie here and think about how much I want you and all the delicious things I’d like to do to you. I’ll even whisper a few of them to you from time to time. Try to think about that instead.”
Try? She was having difficulty thinking of anything else. She was only conscious of the hard, warm heat of him, the scent of lemon and spice and musk, and his words whispering erotically in her ear. Did men really do those things to women? They sounded
kinky spoken in that slow velvet drawl. But exciting! She couldn’t deny that he made it all sound breathlessly exciting. Was he putting her on, making up stories to scare away the bogeyman? She almost asked him, but she was half afraid she’d receive that low chuckle of amusement that had become so familiar in answer. No, she’d just lie here and let him tell her his Scheherazadean tales, let his voice flow over her. There was no harm in it, and girls like her who looked more like boys seldom had the opportunity to have a beautiful sheikh croon erotic litanies in their ears. Yes, she would relax and enjoy it. There was no hint of a threat in this strange golden man. She knew with an odd, rocklike certainty that he’d never do anything to her she didn’t want, despite the evidence of desire that was so blatant.
She was conscious of an overpowering heat and felt a drop of perspiration appear on the temple pressed to her own. Was it caused by the smothering oppression of the storm or the excitement engendered by the verbal pictures he was drawing for her? She couldn’t get her breath, but it could be because of the shocking variation he’d just suggested. No, that one he definitely must have made up, she thought in amusement.
She must have giggled, because she heard his low laugh. “Oh! You like that one? We’ll have to try it, then. Though we might have to take some acrobatic training first.” The smothering heat increased, and his arms tightened around her. “If you like that one, just wait until you hear the one I’ve been saving up for the
pièce de résistance
.” And the passionate litany went on.
Some of the things he suggested were so outrageous, she could only laugh, and some so arousing that it caused a slow-burning flame in places she’d never even known were erogenous. Either way, they wrapped her in a fascination so intense it actually startled her when he suddenly stopped speaking. She impatiently waited for him to start again and then realized that his body was oddly tense and that he was listening. Listening to what? It was the absence of sound that he’d become conscious of. The wind had stopped!
“The storm’s over,” he said quietly. He lifted his head, and the deep azure eyes were twinkling. “We can get up now. Disappointing, isn’t it? I’d only reached number sixty-two in the
. I thought surely I’d have time to go on to a few Japanese and Arabic variations. Oh, well, maybe next time.” He lifted his brow quizzically. “Unless you prefer we continue now?”
“No. I believe you’ve gone quite far enough,” she said quickly. Too far for her peace of mind. “I think we’d better get up and see if I can find my Jeep under all this sand.”
“If you insist.” He sighed. “Close your eyes. There must be two feet of sand on my back, and when I get up, you’re going to get a sand shower.”
Then, with some effort, he heaved upward. She barely had time to obey his injunction before she was deluged by a heavy cloud of sand that replaced the hard warmth of his body as he stood up. Despite the handkerchief that still covered her mouth and nose, she found herself choking and coughing. She had a sudden chilling realization of what it would have been like if she hadn’t been protected by that strong, lithe body. She hadn’t really been aware of how close they’d been to death while he was holding her, distracting her. But he’d been fully aware of the danger, she realized suddenly. It was all there in the sober keenness with which he was surveying the terrain. “We’re going to have the devil of a time plowing our way through all this loose sand to get to your Jeep. How far down the road did you leave it?”
She sat up and shook her head like a wet puppy. Sand flew in all directions. Lord, she felt gritty. “About half a mile. But there’s no use going back there—I told you it had conked out.” She lifted a brow. “Unless you think you can fix it.”
“No chance,” he said with a grimace. “I don’t know enough about the insides of a car to change a spark plug. I just thought you’d want to pick up any valuables before I took you on to Zalandan.”
“I don’t have anything of real value, but there is something I’d like to bring with me. My guitar.”
“An old friend?” he asked understandingly.
She nodded. “An old friend.” She got to her feet, her short suede boots sinking to the ankle in the loose sand, which she tried to dust from her jeans and soft tunic top. “Suppose I hike down and get it while you check on your horse. That Arabian looked a little high-strung to me. We’ll be lucky if he hasn’t run away and left us both to hike to Zalandan.”