Main Woman in a Sheikh's World

Woman in a Sheikh's World

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Year:
2012
Publisher:
HarlequinUKLtd
Language:
english
Series:
HP-3104, MMR-1240
File:
EPUB, 1.99 MB
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2012
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CHAPTER ONE

SHE dreamed of the desert.

She dreamed of dunes turning red gold under the burning fire of the sun and of the clear blue waters of the Persian Gulf lapping beaches of soft white sand. She dreamed of savage mountains and palm-shaded pools. And she dreamed of a Prince—a Prince with eyes all shades of the night and the power to command armies.

‘Avery!’ He was calling her name but she carried on walking without looking back. The ground crumbled beneath her feet and she was falling, falling …

‘Avery, wake up!’

She rose through clouds of sleep, the voice jarring with the image in her head. It was wrong. His voice was rich, deep and everything male. This voice was female and amused. ‘Mmm?’

The delicious aroma of fresh coffee teased her and she lifted her head and stared at the mug that had been placed next to her on the table. With a groan, she sat up and reached for it, half blind from sleep. ‘What time is it?’

‘Seven. You were moaning. That must have been some dream.’

Avery pushed her hand through her hair and tried to wake herself up. She had the same dream every night. Thankfully when she woke it was to find herself in London, not the desert. The discordant blare of taxi horns announced the start of the morning rush hour. No mountains and no shaded oasis—just Jenny, her best friend and business partner, pressing the button on her desk to raise the blinds.

Sunshine poured into the spectacular glass-clad office from all directions and Avery felt a sudden rush of relief to be awake and realise that the ground hadn’t crumbled beneath her feet. She hadn’t lost everything. This was hers and she’d built it from sheer hard work.

‘I need to take a quick shower before our meeting.’

‘When you ordered this couch for your office, I didn’t realise the intention was to sleep on it.’ Jenny put her coffee down on Avery’s desk and slipped off her shoes. ‘Just in case you don’t actually know this, I feel it’s my duty to point out that normal human beings go home at the end of the working day.’

The dis; turbing dream clung to Avery’s mind like a cobweb and she tried to brush it off, irritated by how much it could affect her. That wasn’t her life. This was.

Barefoot, she strolled across her office and took a look at her reality.

Through the floor to ceiling windows, the city sparkled in the early morning sunshine, mist wrapping the River Thames in an ethereal cloak as delicate as a bride’s veil. Familiar landmarks rose through the milky haze and down on the streets below tiny figures hurried along pavements and cars were already jammed together on the web of roads that criss-crossed beneath her office. Her eyes stung from lack of sleep but she was used to the feeling by now. It had been her close companion for months, along with the empty feeling in her chest that nothing could fill.

Jenny was looking at her. ‘Do you want to talk about it?’

‘Nothing to talk about.’ Avery turned away from the window and sat down at her desk. Work, she thought. Work had been everything until her world had been disturbed. She needed to get that feeling back. ‘The good news is that in my extended insomnia moment last night I finished the proposal for the launch in Hong Kong. I’ve emailed it to you. I think I’ve excelled myself this time. Everyone is going to be talking about this party.’

‘Everyone always talks about your parties.’

The phone she’d left charging overnight buzzed. Back in business mode, Avery reached for it and then saw the name on the screen. Her hand froze in mid-air. Again? It was at least the fifth time he’d called.

She couldn’t do this now. Not so close to the dream.

Her hand diverted and she switched on her computer instead, her heart thundering like a stampeding herd of wild horses. And layered under the panic was pain. Pain that he could intentionally hurt her like this.

‘That’s your private number. Why aren’t you answering it?’ Jenny peered at the screen of the phone and her head jerked up. ‘Mal? The Prince is calling you?’

‘Apparently.’ Avery opened the spreadsheet she’d been working on and noticed with a flash of irritation that her hand wasn’t quite steady. ‘I should have changed my number.’ He had no right to call her private line. She should have cut all ties. Should have made sure he wasn’t able to call her except through the office.

‘Over’ should have meant just that except that he’d made sure that couldn’t happen.

‘All right, enough. I’ve ignored what’s going on for too long.’ Jenny plonked herself down in the chair opposite. ‘I’m officially worried about you.’

‘Don’t be. I’m fine.’ The words had been repeated so often they fell out of her mouth on their own. But they didn’t convince Jenny.

‘The man you loved is marrying another woman. How can you be fine? In your 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 had an affair, that’s all. An affair that ended. It happens to people all the time. Shall we get 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 think that.’ Did she sound calm? Did she sound as if she didn’t care? Would anyone guess that the numbers on her screen were nonsense? She knew that people were watching her, wondering how she was reacting as the wedding of the Crown Prince drew closer. There were times when she felt like an exhibit in a zoo. It seemed that the whole world was waiting for her to drop to her knees and start sobbing.

And that, she thought, was a shame for them because they were going to be waiting a long time. She’d throw out her stilettos before she’d sob over a man. Especially a man like Mal, who would take such a display of weakness as a sign of another successful conquest. His ego didn’t need the boost.

The ringing stopped and then immediately the phone on her desk rang.

Jenny looked at the phone as if it were an enraged scorpion. ‘Do you want me to—?’

‘No.’

‘He’s very insistent.’

‘He’s a Prince—’ Avery muted her phone ‘—he can’t help insisting. Mal only has two settings, Prince and General. Either way, he’s commanding someone.’ No wonder they’d clashed, she thought numbly. No relationship could have two bosses.

There was an urgent tap on the door and Chloe, the new receptionist, virtually fell into the room in her excitement. ‘Avery, you’ll never guess who is on the phone!’ She paused for dramatic effect. ‘The Crown Prince of Zubran.’ Clearly she expected her announcement to have more impact than it did and when neither of them reacted she repeated herself. ‘Did you hear me? The Crown Prince of Zubran! I tried to put him through but you weren’t picking up.’

‘Insistent and persistent,’ Jenny murmured. ‘You’re going to have to answer it.’

‘Not right now. Chloe, please tell him I’m unavailable.’

‘But it’s the Prince himself. Not his assistant or his adviser or anything, but him. In person. Complete with melting dark voice and a very cultured accent.’

‘Give him my sincere apologies. Tell him I’ll call back as soon as I can.’ As soon as she’d worked out her strategy. As soon as she was confident she wasn’t going to say, or do, something she’d later regret. A conversation like that had to be carefully planned.

Chloe gaped at her. ‘You sound so relaxed, like it’s normal to have someone like him just calling on the phone. I can’t believe you know him. I’d be dropping his name into every conversation. He is so gorgeous,’ she confessed in a breathy voice. ‘Not just in the obvious way, although I wouldn’t object if he wanted to take his shirt off and chop wood in front of me or something, but because he’s just such a man if you know what I mean. He’s tough in a way men aren’t allowed to be any more because it’s not considered politically correct. You just know he is not the sort to ask permission before he kisses you.’

Avery looked at their newly appointed receptionist and realised with surprise that the girl didn’t know. Chloe was one of the few people not to know that Avery Scott had once had a wild and very public affair with Crown Prince Malik of Zubran.

She thought about the first time he’d kissed her. No, he hadn’t asked permission. The Prince didn’t ask permission for anything. For a while she’d found it exhilarating to be with a man who wasn’t intimidated by her confidence and success. Then she’d realised that two such strong people in a relationship was a recipe for disaster. The Prince thought he knew what was best for everyone. Including her.

Jenny tapped her foot impatiently. ‘Chloe, go to the bathroom and stick your head under cold running water. If that doesn’t work, try your whole body. Whatever it takes because the Prince is not going to be kissing you any time soon, with or without permission, so you can forget that. Now go and talk to him before he assumes you’ve passed out or died.’

Chloe looked confused. ‘But what if it’s something really urgent that can’t wait? You are arranging his wedding.’

Wedding.

The word sliced into Avery like a blade through soft flesh, the pain taking her by surprise. ‘I’m not arranging his wedding.’ The words almost choked her and she didn’t understand why. She’d ended their relationship. Her choice. Her decision, freely made. So why did she feel pain that he was marrying another woman? In every way, it was the best possible outcome. ‘I’m arranging the evening party and I sincerely doubt that he is calling about that. A Prince does not call to discuss minor details. He won’t even know what’s in the canapés until he puts them in his 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 while he’s in the shower—’ Jenny took over the conversation ‘—and the reason Avery can’t talk to him now is because I need to talk to her urgently about the Senator’s party.’

‘Oh. The Senator—’ Visibly impressed by all the famous names flying around the office, Chloe backed towards the door, her legs endless in skinny jeans, bangles jangling at her wrists. ‘Right. But I suspect His Royal Highness is not a man who is good at waiting or being told “no”.’

‘Then let’s give him more practise.’ Avery pushed aside memories of the other occasions he’d refused to wait. Like the time he’d stripped her naked with the tip of his ceremonial sword because he couldn’t be bothered to unbutton her dress. Or the time he’d …

No, she definitely wasn’t going to think about that one.

As the door closed behind the receptionist, Avery groped for her coffee. ‘She’s sweet. I like her. Once we’ve given her some confidence, she’ll be lovely. The clients will adore her.’

‘She was tactless. I’ll speak to her.’

‘Don’t.’

‘Why the hell are you doing this to yourself, Avery?’

‘Employing inexperienced graduates? Because everyone deserves a chance. Chloe has lots of raw potential and—’

‘I’m not talking about your employment policy, I’m talking about this whole thing with the Prince. What possessed you to agree to arrange your ex’s wedding? It is killing you.’

‘Not at all. It’s not as if I wanted to marry him and anyway I’m not arranging the actual wedding. Why does everyone keep saying I’m arranging his wedding?’ A picture of the desert at dawn appeared on her computer and she made a mental note to change her screen saver. Perhaps it was the cause of her recurring dreams. ‘I’m responsible for the evening party, that’s all.’

‘All? It has the most influential guest list of any party in the last decade.’

‘Which is why everything must be perfect. And I don’t find it remotely stressful to plan parties. How could I? Parties are happy events populated by happy people.’

‘So you really don’t care?’ Jenny flexed her toes. ‘You and the hot Prince were together for a year. And you haven’t been out with a man since.’

‘Because I’ve been busy building my business. And it wasn’t a year. None of my relationships have lasted a year.’

‘Avery, it was a year. Twelve whole months.’

‘Oh.’ Her heart lurched. A year? ‘OK, if you say so. Twelve whole months of lust.’ It helped her to diminish it. To label it neatly. ‘We’re both physical people and it was nothing more than sex. I wish people wouldn’t romanticize that. It’s why so many marriages end in divorce.’

‘If it was so incredibly amazing, why did you break up?’

Avery felt her chest tighten. She didn’t want to think about it. ‘He wants to get married. I don’t want to get married. I ended it because it had no future.’ And because he’d been arrogant and manipulative. ‘I’m not interested in marriage.’

‘So these dreams you’re having don’t have anything to do with you imagining him with his virgin princess?’

‘Of course not.’ Avery reached into her bag and pulled out a packet of indigestion tablets. There were just two left. She needed to buy more.

‘You wouldn’t need those if you drank less coffee.’

‘You’re starting to sound like my mother.’

‘No, I’m not. No offence intended, but your mother would be saying something like “I can’t believe you’ve got yourself in this state over a man, Avery. This is exactly the sort of thing I warned you about when I taught you at the age of five that you are responsible for every aspect of your life, including your own orgasm.”’

‘I was older than five when she taught me that bit.’ She chewed the tablet, the ache in her jaw telling her that she’d been grinding her teeth at night again. Stress. ‘You want to know why I said yes to this piece of business? Because of my pride. Because when Mal called, I was so taken aback that he was getting married so quickly after we broke up, I couldn’t think straight.’ And she’d been hurt. Horribly, hideously hurt in a way she’d never been hurt before. There was a tight, panicky feeling in her chest that refused to go away. ‘He asked if it would feel awkward to arrange the party and I opened my mouth to say yes, you insensitive bastard, of course it would feel awkward but my pride spoke instead and under its direction my mouth said no, no of course it won’t feel awkward.’

‘You need to re-programme your mouth. I’ve often thought so.’

‘Thanks. And then I realised he was probably doing it to punish me because—’

Jenny lifted an eyebrow. ‘Because—?’

‘Never mind.’ Avery, who never blushed, felt herself blushing. ‘The truth is, our company is the obvious and right choice for an event like that. If I’d refused, everyone would have been saying, “Of course Avery Scott isn’t organising the party because she and the Prince were involved and she just can’t handle it.”’ And he would have known. He would have known how much he’d hurt her.

But of course he already knew. And it depressed her to think that their relationship had sunk that low.

‘You need to delegate this one, Avery.’ Jenny slid her shoes back on. ‘You’re the toughest, most impressive woman I’ve ever met but organising the wedding of a man you were once in love with—’

‘Was in lust with—’

‘Fine, call it whatever you like, but it’s making you ill. I’ve known you since we were both five years old. We’ve worked together for six years but if you carry on like this I’m going to have to ask you to fire me for the good of my health. The tension is killing me.’

‘Sorry.’ Out of the corner of her eye Avery noticed that her screen saver was back again. With a rush of irritation she swiftly replaced the desert with a stock picture of the Arctic. ‘Talk to me about work. And then I’m going to take a shower and get ready for the day.’

‘Ah, work. Senator’s golden wedding party. Fussiest client we’ve ever had—’ Jenny flipped open her book and checked through her notes while Avery cupped her mug and took comfort from the warmth.

‘Why do you insist on using that book of yours when I provide you with all the latest technology?’

‘I like my book. I can doodle and turn clients into cartoons.’ Jenny scanned her list. ‘He’s insisting on fifty swans as a surprise for his wife. Apparently they represent fidelity.’

Avery lowered the mug. ‘The guy has had at least three extramarital affairs, one of them extremely public. I don’t think this party should be celebrating his “fidelity”, do you?’

‘No, but I couldn’t think of a tactful way to say that when he called me. I’m not you.’

‘Then think of one and think of it fast because if he mentions “fidelity” to his wife on the big day we’ll have a battlefield, not a party. No swans. Apart from the fidelity connotations they have very uncertain tempers. What else?’

‘You want more?’ With a sigh, Jenny went back to her notes. ‘He wants to release a balloon for each year of their marriage.’

Avery dropped her head onto her desk. ‘Kill me now.’

‘No, because then I’ll have to deal with the Senator alone.’

Reluctantly, Avery lifted her head. ‘I don’t do balloon releases. And, quite apart from the fact that mass balloon releases are banned in lots of places, isn’t our Senator working with some environmental group at the moment? The last thing he needs is publicity like that. Suggest doves. Doves are environmentally friendly and the guests can release them and have a warm, fuzzy eco feeling.’ She sat back in her chair, trying to concentrate. ‘But not fifty, obviously. Two will be fine or the guests will be covered in bird droppings.’

‘Two doves.’ Jenny made a note in the margin and tapped her pen on the pad. ‘He is going to ask me what two doves signify.’

‘A lot less mess than fifty swans—OK, sorry, I know you can’t say that—let me think—’ Avery sipped her coffee. ‘Tell him they signify peace and tranquillity. Actually, no, don’t tell him that, either. There is no peace and tranquillity in their relationship. Tell him—’ She paused, grappling for the right word. She knew nothing about long-term relationships. ‘Partnership. Yes, that’s it. Partnership. The doves signify their life journey together.’

Jenny grinned. ‘Which has been full of—’

‘Exactly.’ With her free hand, Avery closed down the spreadsheet on her computer before she could insert any more errors. ‘Take Chloe to help at the Senator’s party. We need to cure her of being star-stuck. It will be good experience for her to mingle with celebrities and she can help out if the doves become incontinent.’

‘Why don’t you let us do the Zubran wedding without you?’

‘Because then everyone will say that I can’t cope and, worse than that—’ she bit her lip ‘—Mal will think I can’t cope.’

Was he still angry with her? He’d been furious, those hooded black eyes as moody as a sky threatening a terrible storm. And she’d been equally angry with him. It had been a clash from which neither of them had pulled back.

Jenny looked at her. ‘You miss him, don’t you?’

Yes. ‘I miss the sex. And the rows.’

‘You miss the rows?’

Avery caught Jenny’s disbelieving glance and shrugged. ‘They were mentally stimulating. Mal is super-bright. Some people do crosswords to keep their minds alert. I like a good argument. Comes of having a mother who is a lawyer. We didn’t talk at the dinner table, we debated.’

‘I know. I still remember the one time you invited me for tea.’ Jenny shuddered. ‘It was a terrifying experience. But it does explain why you can’t admit that you cared for the Prince. Your mother dedicated her life to ending marriages.’

‘They were already broken when she got involved.’

Jenny closed her book. ‘So this wedding is fine with you? Pride is going to finish you off, you know that, don’t you? That and your overachieving personality—another thing I blame your mother for.’

‘I thank my mother. She made me the woman I am.’

‘A raving perfectionist who is truly messed up about men?’

‘I won’t apologise for wanting to do a job properly and I am not messed up about men. Just because I’m the child of a strong single parent—’

‘Avery, I love you, but you’re messed up. That one time I came for tea, your mum was arguing the case for doing away with men altogether. Did she ever even tell you the identity of your father? Did she?’

The feelings came from nowhere. Suddenly she was back in the playground again, surrounded by children who asked too many questions.

Yes, she knew who her father was. And she remembered the night her mother had told her the truth as vividly as if it had happened just yesterday. Remembered the way the strength had oozed from her limbs and the sickness rose in her stomach.

She didn’t look at Jenny. ‘My father has never been part of my life.’

‘Presumably because your mother didn’t want him interfering! She scared him away, didn’t she?’ Jenny was still in full flow. ‘The woman is bright as the sun and mad as a bunch of bananas. And don’t kid yourself that you had to say yes to this party. You did the launch party for the Zubran Ferrara Spa Resort. That was enough to prove that you’re not losing sleep over the Prince.’

The knot in Avery’s stomach tightened but part of her was just relieved that the conversation had moved away from the topic of her father. ‘There was no reason to say no. I wish Mal nothing but happiness with his virgin princess.’ There was a buzzing sound in her head. She had to stop talking about Mal. It was doing awful things to her insides. Now she had hearing problems. ‘I’m doing the wedding party and then that will be it.’ Then everyone would stop speculating that she was broken hearted because of a man. ‘You call him, Jen. Tell him I’m out of the country or something. Find out what he wants and sort it out.’

‘Does his bride really have to be a virgin?’ Jenny sounded curious and Avery felt something twist in her stomach.

‘I think she does. Pure. Untouched by human hand. Obedient in all things. His to command.’

Jenny laughed. ‘How on earth did you and the Prince ever sustain a relationship?’

‘It was … fiery. I’m better at being the commander than the commanded.’ The buzzing sound grew louder and she suddenly realised that it wasn’t coming from her head, but from outside. ‘Someone is using the helipad. We don’t have a client flying in today, do we?’

As Jenny shook her head, Avery turned to look, but the helicopter was out of view, landing above her. ‘It must be someone visiting one of the other businesses in our building.’

Flanked by armed bodyguards, Mal strode from 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,’ Mal drawled, wondering why they couldn’t see the irony. ‘Who, exactly, is going to threaten my safety in a party planning company? Will I be the victim of a balloon assault? Drowned in champagne? Rest assured, if I encounter danger in the stairwell, I’ll deal with it.’ Without giving his security guards an opportunity to respond he strode into the building.

Avery had done well for herself since they’d parted company, he thought, and the dull ache that was always with him grew just a little bit more intense as did the anger. She’d chosen this, her business, over their relationship.

But he couldn’t allow himself to think about that. He’d long since recognised the gulf between personal wishes and duty. After years pursuing the first, he was now committed to the second. Which was why this visit was professional, not personal.

If he knew Avery as well as he thought he did, then pride would prevent her from throwing him out of her office or slapping his face. He was banking on it. Or maybe she no longer cared enough to do either.

Maybe she’d never cared enough and that was just another thing he’d been wrong about.

Mal passed no one in the stairwell and emerged onto the top floor, through a set of glass doors that guarded the corporate headquarters of Avery Scott’s highly successful events planning company, Dance and Dine.

This was the hub of her operation. The nerve centre of an organisation devoted to pleasure but run with military precision. From here, Avery Scott organised parties for the rich and famous. She’d built her business on hard work and sheer nerve, turning down business that wasn’t consistent with her vision for her company. As a result of making herself exclusive, her services were so much in demand that a party organized by Avery Scott was often booked years in advance, a status symbol among those able to afford her.

It was the first time he’d visited her offices and he could see instantly that the surroundings reflected the woman. Sleek, contemporary and elegant. A statement of a successful, 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 the top of the building and light flooded through the glass onto exotic plants and shimmered on low contemporary sofas. A pretty girl sat behind the elegantly curved reception desk, answering the phones as they rang.

For this visit he’d chosen to wear a suit rather than the more traditional robes but apparently that did nothing to conceal his identity because the moment the receptionist saw him she shot to her feet, panicked and star struck in equal measure.

‘Your Highness! You’re … ohmigod—’

‘Not God,’ Mal said and then frowned as the colour faded from her cheeks. ‘Are you all right?’

‘No. I don’t think so. I’ve never met a Prince in the flesh before.’ She pressed her hand to her chest and then fanned herself. ‘I feel a bit—’ She swayed and Mal moved quickly, catching her before she hit the ground.

Torn between exasperation and amusement, he sat her in her chair and pushed her head gently downwards. ‘Lean forward. Now breathe. That’s it. You’ll soon feel better. Can I get you a glass of water?’

‘No.’ She squeaked the word. ‘Thank you for catching me. You’re obviously every bit as strong as you look. Hope you didn’t put your back out.’

Mal felt a flash of amusement. ‘My back is fine.’

‘This is seriously embarrassing. I should be curtseying or something, not fainting at your feet.’ She lifted her head. ‘I presume you’re here to see Miss Scott. I don’t suppose there is any chance you could not mention this? I’m supposed to be cool with celebrities and famous people. As you can see, it’s still a work in progress.’

‘My lips are sealed.’ Smiling, Mal straightened. ‘Sit there and recover. I’ll find her myself.’ At least the receptionist hadn’t pretended her boss wasn’t in the building, which was good because his extremely efficient security team had already confirmed that she was here. The fact that she’d refused to pick up the phone had added another couple of coals to his already burning temper but he wasn’t about to take that out on this girl. He only fought with people as strong as him and he rarely met anyone who fitted that description.

Fortunately Avery Scott was more than capable of handling anything he dished out. She was the strongest woman he’d ever met. Nothing shook that icy composure. Apparently not even the fact that he was marrying another woman.

Temper held rigidly in control, he strode away from the reception desk and towards the offices and meeting rooms.

Deciding that Avery would choose a corner office with a view, he swiftly calculated the direction of the Thames. There was a large door at the end of the glass atrium and he thrust it open and there, seated behind a large glass desk and talking to another woman was Avery, immaculate as ever, that sheet of shiny blonde hair sliding over a pearl coloured silk shirt.

In those few seconds before she saw him, a tightness gripped his chest.

He felt something he only ever felt around this woman.

As always, the image she presented to the world was impeccable. She projected glamour, efficiency and capability. No one meeting Avery Scott could ever doubt that she would get the job done and that it would be done perfectly. She had an address book that would have made an ambitious socialite sob with envy but few knew the woman beneath the surface.

She’d shut him out. The closer he’d tried to get, the more she’d blocked him.

He almost laughed at the irony. He’d spent his life preventing women from getting too close. With Avery that tactic had proved unnecessary. She was the one who’d erected the barriers. And when he’d pushed up against those barriers too hard, she’d simply walked away.

They’d been lovers for a year, friends for longer, but still there had been days when he’d felt he didn’t know her. But there were some things he did know. Like the way a tiny dimple always appeared in the corner of her mouth when she smiled, and the fact that her mouth was addictive. Remembering that taste stirred up a response he’d thought he had under control.

The first time he’d met her he’d been attracted by her confidence and by the way she squeezed every drop of opportunity from life. He’d admired her drive, her success and her utter belief in herself. But the same qualities that had attracted him were the reasons they’d parted. Avery Scott was fiercely independent and terrified of anything she believed threatened that independence.

And he’d threatened it.

What they’d shared had threatened it. And so she’d ended it. Crushed what they had until there was nothing left but the pain.

People assumed that a man of his position had everything.

They had no idea how wrong they were.

Mal stood for a moment, tasting the unpalatable combination of regret and anger and at that moment she looked up and saw him.

He searched for some evidence that his unexpected appearance affected her, but there was nothing. Outwardly composed, she rose to her feet, elegant and in control and displaying the same unflappable calm she demonstrated even in a crisis. ‘This is a surprise. How can I help you, Mal?’ Cool. Professional. No hint that they’d once been as close as it was possible for two people to be, apart from the fact that she’d called him Mal.

His name had slipped from those glossy lips without thought and yet only a handful of close friends ever called him that. And Avery had once been in that hallowed circle.

She knew his closest friends because she’d been one of them; one of the few people indifferent to his wealth or his status. One of the few people who’d treated him like a man and not like the next ruler of Zubran. For a while, when he’d been with her, he’d forgotten about duty and responsibility.

Mal thrust that thought aside along with the others. Those days were gone. Today’s visit was all about duty and responsibility. He wasn’t going to make this personal. He couldn’t.

He was about to marry another woman.

‘You didn’t pick up your phone.’ He dispensed with formal greetings or pleasantries, considering them unnecessary.

‘I was in a meeting. You, a world leader who is generally considered an expert in the art of diplomacy, will surely understand that I couldn’t interrupt a client.’ She spoke in the same neutral tone he’d heard her use with difficult clients.

Somewhere deep inside him he felt his nerve endings spark and fire and he remembered that their verbal sparring matches had been their second favourite way of passing the time they spent together.

As for the first …

His libido roared to life and Mal turned to the other woman in the room, because privacy was essential for the conversation he was about to have. ‘Leave us, please.’

Responding to that command without question, the woman rose. As the door closed behind her Avery turned on him, blue eyes ice-cold.

‘You just can’t help it, can you? You just can’t help telling people what to do.’

‘This is not a conversation I intend to conduct in public.’

‘This is my office. My business. You are not in charge here. Whatever your reason for being here, nothing justifies you walking in without knocking and breaking up my meeting. I wouldn’t do it to you. I don’t expect you to do it to me.’

It was as if a high-voltage electrical current had suddenly been diverted through the room. It crackled, sizzled and threatened to leave them both singed, and it aggravated him as much as he knew it irritated her.

‘Why wouldn’t you take my calls?’

Two streaks of colour darkened her cheeks. ‘You called at inconvenient moments.’

‘And does ignoring your clients’ phone calls generally work well for you? I’d always assumed that customer service is everything in your business.’

‘You weren’t calling about business.’

‘And you weren’t thinking about business when you refused to take my calls so let’s stop pretending we don’t know what’s going on here.’ Deeply unsettled by the strength of his own feelings, Mal strode to the huge glass windows that enveloped her office and reminded himself that his reason for being here had nothing to do with his past relationship with this woman. That was irrelevant. It had to be irrelevant. ‘Nice views. You’ve done extraordinarily well for yourself. Your business is booming while others fold.’

‘Why do you find it extraordinary? I work hard and I understand my market.’

Her reply made him smile but he kept that smile to himself. ‘Less than five minutes together and already you’re picking a fight.’

‘You’re the one who landed a helicopter on my roof and barged into my office. I would say you were the one picking the fight, Mal.’

For the first time in weeks he felt the energy flow through him. Not to anyone would he have admitted how good it felt to have someone speak without restraint. To argue with him. To challenge—

‘I was merely congratulating you on the astonishing growth of your business in a difficult economic climate.’

‘You could have done that in an email. I have absolutely no idea why you’re here or why you’ve been phoning me every two minutes but I’m assuming you don’t want to talk about guest lists or colour schemes.’

‘I am not remotely interested in the details of the party. That is your job.’

‘For once we’re in agreement. And now I’d be grateful if you’d leave so that I can do that job.’

Sufficiently energized, he turned. ‘No one but you would dare speak to me like that.’

‘So fire me, Mal. Go on. Do it. Take your business elsewhere.’ Those eyes locked on his and he wondered why she would be encouraging him to back out of what must be for her a prime piece of business. Under the perfectly applied make-up, she looked tired. His gaze slid to her hands and he saw her fiddling nervously with the pen she was holding.

Avery never fiddled. Avery was never nervous.

His attention caught, he watched her for a moment, trying to read her. ‘I’m not firing you.’

‘Then at least get to the point. Why are you here?’

‘I’m here because at the moment the party cannot go ahead. Something crucial is missing.’

The mere suggestion that something might be less than perfect had her bristling defensively as she always did if anyone so much as questioned her competence. That beautifully shod foot tapped the floor. Those eyes narrowed as she mentally scrolled through the checklist she kept permanently updated in her head. ‘I can assure you that nothing is “missing”, Mal. I have been over the plans meticulously and checked every last detail personally. It will all be absolutely as planned.’

She had complete confidence in her own ability and that confidence was justified because Avery Scott never overlooked anything. Nothing escaped her. Her attention to detail drove her team mad. It had driven him mad, and yet at the same time he’d admired it because she’d built herself a successful business on the back of nothing but her own hard work. This woman had never freeloaded in her life. Nor had she ever asked anyone for anything. She was the first woman he’d met who wasn’t interested in anything he had to offer.

For a moment he felt a pang of regret, but regret was a sentiment he couldn’t afford and he moved on quickly.

‘You misunderstand me. I’m sure that everything your company has planned is perfect, as ever.’

‘So if that is the case, what can possibly be missing?’

Mal paused, hesitating because he was about to trust her with information that he hadn’t entrusted to another living soul. Even now he was wondering whether coming here had been a mistake.

‘What am I missing? The most important thing of all,’ he drawled softly. ‘I’m missing my bride.’







CHAPTER TWO

‘YOUR bride?’ The word clung to her dry mouth. Oh God, she was cracking up. The effort of holding it together was just too much. It was bad enough that he was here in person, but the fact that he was here to talk about his bride was a double blow. Did he have no tact? No sensitivity at all?

Shock cut through the sickness she felt at seeing him. She needed to think, but that was impossible with him dominating her office in that sleek dark suit that emphasised the width of those shoulders and the muscular strength of his powerful frame. It bothered her that she noticed his body. It bothered her even more to feel the answering response in her own. This office was her personal space. Having it invaded by him felt difficult and she hated the fact that it felt difficult because she so badly wanted to feel nothing. She was used to being 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 year she’d turned off news coverage about economic and political stability in his country. Even though her company was responsible for the evening party to follow his wedding, she’d averted her eyes from stories about that event. If she didn’t need to read it, she didn’t read it. When their paths crossed at events she was organizing or attending as a guest, she restricted their contact to a brief nod across a crowded room even though the only man in the room she ever saw was him. She’d avoided it all in an attempt to regain control of her life and her feelings. Everything she did, she did to protect herself. Mal had hurt her. And he’d hurt her so badly that seeing him now brought her right back to the edge.

What frightened her most wasn’t the sense of power and authority that could subdue a room full of people, nor was it his spectacular looks, even though the lethal combination of dark masculinity and perfect musculature was sufficient to make happily married women contemplate infidelity. No, what frightened her—what made her truly vulnerable—was the sensual gleam in those dangerous black eyes.

He was the most sexual man she’d ever met. Or maybe it was just their history that made her think that about him.

The look he gave her was reserved for her and her alone. It was a look that blatantly acknowledged a past she would rather have forgotten. It made every interaction deeply personal and the last thing she wanted was personal. She wanted to forget every intimacy they’d ever shared.

He was marrying another woman.

Remembering that, she kept her tone neutral and refused to let herself respond to that velvety dark gaze that threatened to strip away every defence she’d constructed between them. This wasn’t about her. It was about his bride.

‘Kalila is missing?’ Despite her own tangled emotions and natural instinct for self-preservation, she felt a rush of concern. She’d met Kalila on a few occasions and had found her friendly, if rather shy. The girl had seemed more than a little overwhelmed by the Prince even though they’d reportedly known one another for years. ‘Are you saying she’s been kidnapped or something?’

‘No, not kidnapped.’

‘But if she’s missing, how can you be so sure she hasn’t been kidnapped? I mean, she is a princess. I suppose there are people who—’

‘A note was delivered to me.’

‘A note?’ Her brain wasn’t working properly. All she could think about was him. ‘But—’

‘Not a ransom note. A note from her.’

‘I don’t understand.’ It was a struggle to concentrate. Looking at him sent images chasing into her head. Images that usually only haunted her when she slept.

‘She has run away—’ The words were offered up with obvious reluctance and Avery stared at him in silence. And that silence stretched so long that in the end he broke it with an impatient gesture. ‘Her reasons are irrelevant.’

‘Irrelevant?’ She shook her head to clear it of all the thoughts she shouldn’t be having. What would have driven the shy, compliant Kalila to do something so radical? ‘How can her reasons possibly be irrelevant? How can you dismiss her views like that?’

‘I’m not dismissing her views. But what matters is not the reasons she left, but getting her back.’

‘And you don’t think the two of those things might be linked? Why did she leave? For someone like Kalila to do something so dramatic, she must have had a really good reason.’

‘She doesn’t want this marriage.’ He spoke through his teeth and Avery wondered if the tension she heard in his tone reflected his irritation at the disruption of his plans or his sentiments towards his bride-to-be.

Mal was a man who was relentlessly sure of himself, a skilled negotiator, composed and in control and she knew from personal experience that he didn’t react well to anything that disrupted his plans.

‘Oh dear.’ It was a pathetic commentary on the situation but the best she could come up with. ‘That is inconvenient. Hard to get married without a 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 to reassure her that our marriage can work. I need her to know I am nothing like her father. I can protect her.’

Avery stared at him numbly.

Had he ever been this protective of her? No. Of course not. And she wouldn’t have wanted him to be. She didn’t need protecting, did she? She never had. What hurt was the fact that he could move from one woman to another with such ease. ‘So you’re about to leap onto horseback wielding your sword to protect her. Good. That’s … good. I’m sure she’ll appreciate the gesture.’ All this time she’d been telling herself that this marriage was no more than a political union. That he didn’t have feelings for Kalila.

Clearly she’d been wrong about that, too.

He had strong feelings. Why else would he be so determined to go through with this?

Her throat felt thick. There was a burning sensation behind her eyes.

Fortunately he didn’t notice. ‘She is extremely vulnerable. Not that I’d expect you to understand that. You don’t do “vulnerable”, do you?’

He had no idea. ‘I understand that you want to slay her dragons.’

‘Whereas you would rather a man gave you a dragon so that you could slay it yourself.’

‘I’m an animal lover. If you’d bought me a dragon I would have kept it as a pet.’

Once, an exchange like that would have ended in laughter. He would have challenged her. She would have challenged him right back and eventually the clash would have led where it always led—to the bedroom, or any other place that could afford them the privacy they craved.

‘I simply think it would be wiser if she learned to protect herself.’

‘Not every woman is like you.’ There was a dark bitterness in his tone that stung wounds still not healed. She’d started to despair they ever would be.

Her stress levels soared skyward. Her jaw ached from clenching her teeth. Her insides were churning and suddenly she wished she hadn’t drunk the coffee on an empty stomach. ‘I do see your problem. It’s hard to get married without a bride. However, while I sympathise with your dilemma and applaud your macho protective streak, which I’m sure your bride will find extremely touching, I really don’t understand my role in this. I carry spares of most things, but not brides I’m afraid.’

‘Kalila liked you. She admired you. She considered you her friend. Or as close to a friend as someone with her life could ever have.’ His wide shoulders shifted slightly as if he were trying to ease tension and she realised that he was every bit as stressed as she was. There was a glint in those eyes, a simmering tension in that powerful frame that told her he was feeling what she was feeling. ‘I’m asking for your help.’

‘My help?’ She wondered why he made her feel vulnerable. She was tall, but his height and build overpowered her. ‘I don’t understand how I can possibly help.’ Looking at him now, she wondered how they’d ever sustained their relationship for so long. He was so autocratic. Very much the Crown Prince, a man of breathtaking power and influence. There was no sign of the man who had laughed with her and enjoyed philosophical arguments long into the night. This man was austere and, yes, intimidating. Those eyes looked straight through to her mind, seeing things she didn’t want him to see. He’d once told her that he could judge a person’s reaction more accurately from what they did than what they said. It was a skill that had stood him in good stead in handling diplomatic tensions between neighbouring countries.

Remembering that, she stood still and did nothing. She didn’t allow her gaze to slide from his. If her body language wasn’t silent, then at least it was muted. ‘I cannot imagine what help I can possibly offer. I organize parties. I have it on good authority that I lead a life of unimpeded frivolity.’

The glance he sent her told her that he remembered that bitter exchange as well as she did. Her business had been just one more point of contention between them.

‘You are a resourceful and independent woman and you knew her. She talked to you—’ he ignored her reference to their past ‘—I wondered if you had any idea where she might have gone. Think back to your conversations. Did she ever say anything that might be of use? Anything at all.’

She’d been trying to forget those conversations. She’d been trying to forget Kalila altogether because whenever she imagined her, she imagined her entwined with Mal and the image was so painful to view she wanted to close her eyes and scream.

Feeling her hands start to shake again, Avery clasped them behind her back. ‘I honestly don’t—’

‘Come on, Avery, think! What did you talk about?’ His voice was harsh. ‘Several times you talked to her at parties. You helped her choose a dress when she hosted that charity dinner. You put her in touch with her wedding dress designer. She idolized you. You were her role model. She longed to be like you.’

‘Really?’ A small laugh escaped. Afraid that she sounded hysterical, she clamped her mouth shut. ‘Well, that’s ironic. I’m sure you talked her out of that fast enough.’

His only response to that oblique reference to their shared past was a slight tightening of his beautiful mouth. ‘Did she say anything?’

‘No.’ Leave, why don’t you? Just leave, she thought. But of course he didn’t because the Prince didn’t leave until he had what he wanted. ‘I honestly don’t know where she would have gone.’ And worry slowly uncurled itself inside her because Kalila was vulnerable and Avery didn’t like to think of any woman being vulnerable. As soon as Mal left, she’d call her. Not that there were any guarantees that she’d pick up the phone but at least she would have tried.

‘Did she mention a particular place to you?’ Those ebony eyes locked on hers, his intention no doubt to increase the impact of his words. Instead he succeeded only in increasing the intimacy and the chemistry between them. His response to that was to frown. Hers was to back away, hit by such a powerful need to touch him that retreat seemed like the only option. And of course he noticed that step backwards, because he was a man who noticed everything.

The tension snapped tight between them. Heat poured through her body and into her pelvis and still he looked at her and she looked right back at him because to look away was something her pride wouldn’t allow. Or maybe it was just because she couldn’t. The look connected them in a way far deeper than any verbal exchange and Avery felt her stomach plunge.

‘You’re the one with a high-tech security team just a phone call away.’ Somehow her voice sounded normal. ‘Can’t they track her down?’

‘Not so far. We think she might have adopted a disguise, but I can’t question people without raising suspicions and I want to solve this as discreetly as possible.’

‘Have you talked to her friends?’

‘She wasn’t allowed friends. She was raised in a very protected environment.’

Avery remembered her saying as much when they’d spoken. Remembered thinking how odd it must be to live like that, a prisoner of luxury, locked away from reality.

‘You’re the one marrying her. You should be the one who knows where she is.’

‘We’ve spent very little time together.’ The admission was dragged from him with obvious reluctance and he paced over to the window, leaving her only with a view of his back. ‘I admit that was a failing on my part. I made assumptions.’

‘You always do. You always know what’s best for everyone.’

The tension in his shoulders increased but he chose not to respond to that. ‘That is not important right now. What is important is finding her. If this marriage does not go ahead there will be serious diplomatic consequences.’

‘Diplomatic consequences?’ Avery rolled her eyes in exasperation at his priorities. ‘No wonder Kalila left—it’s not very romantic, is it?’

‘I’m surprised you’re even able to recognise a romantic.’ He stood like a conqueror, powerful legs spread apart as he stared down at the view.

‘Why? Because I’m not romantic myself? We’re not talking about me.’ Reflecting on the fact that men could be truly clueless when it came to women, she tried to control her emotions. ‘She really gave you no clue that she felt this way? The two of you have known each other for years.’

‘We’ve barely spoken five words to each other.’

Avery hid her surprise. ‘Oh.’ So if he didn’t love Kalila, why had he been in such a hurry to marry her? Only one explanation presented itself. They’d broken up. He was angry. He’d done it to hurt her.

‘On the few occasions she spoke to me, she usually just agreed with whatever I was saying.’

Numb, Avery thought about all the lively debates they’d shared on every topic from economics to human rights and wondered how a man like Mal could be happy with a wife whose sole purpose in life was to agree with him.

He’d be bored rigid.

And it would serve him right if he were consigned to a life of misery for taking this enormous step just to score points against her.

‘If she’s that obedient maybe you should have just ordered her to “sit” and “stay”.’

‘This is not the time for sarcasm. I came to see if you could shed any light on her whereabouts.’

‘I can’t. And truly I cannot imagine why you would ask me.’ And now she was just desperate for him to leave, not just because of the way he made her feel but because she wanted to call Kalila and make a few enquiries of her own.

It wasn’t right that Kalila should be used as a pawn in their fight.

‘You and I were friends once—’ He turned his head to look at her and just for a moment she saw the past in his eyes. ‘Good friends.’

What he’d introduced into the room was more frightening than any dragon. ‘Mal—’

‘I’m asking you as a friend. There are few enough people I can trust in my life but, despite everything, I do trust you. Whatever happened between us, I still trust you and I realise that this situation is potentially awkward—’ His dark gaze fastened on her like some sort of high-tech imaging device designed to penetrate flesh and bone in the search for truth. ‘If you still had feelings for me I would never have involved you. You ended our relationship so I assumed that wasn’t the case. If I was wrong about that then tell me now.’

Tell him what? That she dreamed about him every night? That she found it hard to focus and that it took her twice as long to accomplish simple tasks because she was preoccupied? That in the months following their break-up she’d barely recognised the woman she’d become?

Even now, she sometimes looked in the mirror and saw a stranger staring back at her.

Avery’s mouth was dry. Her heart was bumping against her chest so hard she was surprised he couldn’t see it. ‘If you still had feelings for me—’ No mention of his feelings. Which shouldn’t have surprised her and certainly shouldn’t have hurt. If he’d had feelings for her he wouldn’t have been able to move with such ease from one woman to another.

‘I don’t have feelings.’ She adopted the chilly tone she used when men tried to get too close to her at functions. ‘My inability to help you has nothing to do with our history, but the fact that I have no useful information.’

‘What did you talk about when you were together?’

‘I can’t remember—’ she didn’t want to remember because talking to his bride had been like sticking knives into herself ‘—shoes, dresses and education for women. She never talked about running away.’ Or had she? The ghost of a memory flitted into her head. Avery gave a tiny frown and Mal spotted the change in her instantly, pouncing like a lion on a gazelle.

‘What?’

‘Nothing.’ She shook her head. ‘I—’

‘“Nothing” is all I have to go on right now.’

‘Is there a chance she might have gone into the desert?’

Mal’s expression changed. His eyes were shuttered. ‘Definitely not. Kalila hates the desert.’

‘I know.’ And she’d always thought it really odd that a girl raised in that landscape could loathe it. Even more strange that she’d agreed to marry a man whose love for the desert was widely known. ‘She told me how much it scared her—’ She broke off, an uncomfortable memory pricking her conscience.

His eyes narrowed as he registered the guilt in her face. ‘And what advice did you offer on that topic?’

Avery felt her cheeks heat. ‘We might have had a conversation about facing our fears,’ she muttered. ‘Just a short one.’

His mouth tightened ominously. ‘And?’

‘And nothing. I just said that the best way to get over being afraid of something is to just do it, which actually is very sound advice, but obviously that comment wasn’t directed specifically at her.’ But what if she’d taken it that way? Avery shifted uncomfortably, her guilt trebling as she watched the colour drain from his handsome face.

‘You told her that she should go into the desert alone?’

‘No, of course not!’ But Avery felt a stab of panic as she realised how her words could have been interpreted. ‘I just suggested that sometimes it’s empowering to do something that scares you. That you learn you can cope with it and you come out stronger.’

‘Or you come out dead. Do you realise how dangerous the desert is for someone with no experience or expertise in desert survival?’

‘Yes! And I don’t know why you’re blaming me!’ Her voice rose. ‘I did not tell her to go into the desert alone.’

‘Then let’s hope that isn’t what she’s done. She would last five minutes.’ Anxiety stamped into his features, Mal pulled out his phone and made a call, talking rapidly to his security team while Avery stood there, an agonized witness to his obvious worry and feeling hideously responsible for the part she’d possibly played.

What if Kalila really had taken her literally and gone into the desert alone?

Surely she wouldn’t have done anything so foolish. Would she?

Her brain argued it back and forth and eventually she pressed her fingers to her forehead as if by doing so she might be able to shut down her thoughts. ‘Look, maybe I can—’

‘You’ve done enough. Thank you for your help. You’ve told me all I need to know.’ He was chillingly formal. There was a hardness to him that she didn’t remember ever seeing before. He was tough, yes, and she knew that most people found him intimidating, but she never had. And he hadn’t found her intimidating either. Unlike many men, he hadn’t been daunted by her success and that had been so refreshing.

‘This is not my fault.’ But her voice lacked conviction because deep down she was afraid that it was at least partially her fault. Had she unwittingly put the idea in Kalila’s head? ‘And if that is what she’s done, then maybe it isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe this will build her confidence in herself. I think it was very brave of her to go into the desert if that is what she’s done …’ Her voice tailed off as he turned on her savagely.

‘Brave?’ Contempt dripped from him. ‘Will you think she’s “brave” when she’s been bitten by a scorpion? Caught in a sandstorm? Drowned in a flash flood?’

Guilt ignited her own temper. ‘Maybe she’ll surprise you. And maybe the experience will be the making of her. Maybe it will give her the courage to stand up for herself and tell you what she wants. And whether it does or doesn’t, you should ask yourself why she finds the prospect of those things less scary than marriage. She’s run into the desert to get away from you, Mal!’

The truth earned her a fierce look. ‘You are assuming that her disappearance is some sort of statement about our relationship.’

‘Well, that’s how it looks from where I’m standing.’

‘She agreed to this. She wanted this marriage.’

‘How would you know? Did you even ask her? Or did you “assume” like you always assume. Maybe she didn’t want this marriage and she was afraid to tell you.’ Avery knew she should stop talking. Stop now, before something was said that couldn’t be unsaid, but she couldn’t help herself. ‘Maybe marriage was the last thing she wanted.’

‘Not every woman sees marriage as captivity to be avoided at all costs.’ His eyes clashed with hers and her heart started to race because suddenly they weren’t talking about Kalila.

They were sparring, as they’d always sparred. The only difference was that this encounter wasn’t going to end with their mouths and bodies locked together. And he was clearly thinking along the same lines because a tiny frown appeared between those bold black eyebrows and his eyes darkened dangerously.

The air was stifling.

Avery wondered how the conversation had shifted from safe territory to unsafe territory. Had that been her fault or his?

‘We were talking about Kalila.’ She snapped the words and then hated herself for appearing anything other than calm in his presence.

‘Yes. Kalila.’ His voice was thick and it was clear he wasn’t faring any better than she was with the direction the conversation had taken.

‘All I’m saying is that maybe she expressed her opinion in the only way she was able. She voted with her feet. I don’t know anything about the politics of this situation, nor do I want to, but you asked me what I thought and—’

‘No, I didn’t. I already know your position on marriage so I would never ask. Our opinions on that subject are in direct opposition, as we both know.’

Why did he keep bringing the subject back to her when it should have been his bride-to-be that they were discussing?

‘As you rightly point out, I am unlikely to have the faintest clue what Kalila is feeling. But it’s obvious she’s panicking about the wedding.’ And now perhaps she was lying in the desert, gasping with thirst or worse … Perhaps she was already unconscious, her frail body being pecked by giant birds.

Crap.

‘What is obvious to me is that she has indeed followed your advice and gone into the desert. It would explain why we can find no trace of her in the city.’ Anger shone in his eyes. ‘I suppose it’s too much to ask to expect you to know exactly where she went? Was there a particular place that you recommended as perfect for her to “face her fears”?’

Avery squirmed. ‘No! But maybe I could—’

‘You’ve already done more than enough.’ He strode towards the door. ‘Thank you for your time. I know how precious 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 leave this innocent girl out there at the mercy of the desert and the capricious whims of the man who she is unfortunate enough to have as a father. She is extremely vulnerable.’

Avery felt something twist inside her. She felt an irrational spurt of jealousy for the woman who had dragged such tender feelings out of a man known for his lack of sentimentality. Mal was tough. A soldier and a skilled diplomat, used to dealing with the toughest of adversaries. She’d never seen him reveal any soft, sensitive feelings before. The fact that he was doing so now for another woman made her insides ache.

Whatever his reasons for marrying Kalila, it seemed he did care for her.

Any tension between them had been burned away by that exchange and now he was chillingly detached. ‘I will let you know if the wedding party is likely to proceed. In the meantime you can put your arrangements on hold and invoice me for any costs incurred to date.’

‘For goodness’ sake, stop talking about 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.’ The words came tumbling out of her mouth and she didn’t know which one of them was the more surprised. He turned to face her, incredulity lighting his eyes.

‘I beg your pardon?’

Avery took a step backwards but the words were out there now and they couldn’t be withdrawn. She couldn’t believe she’d actually said it. A moment ago she hadn’t been able to wait for him to leave and now she was suggesting travelling into the desert with him? What the hell was she doing? When their relationship had crashed she’d almost lost everything. Everything she’d worked so hard to build. What they’d shared had been so intense, so powerful, and here she was volunteering to risk exposing those raw tender feelings again, and all so that she could help him marry another woman.

Avery wanted to pull the words back but her conscience wouldn’t let her. ‘If Kalila had thought she could talk to you, then she would have talked to you. If you do find her—’

‘When I find her—’ His eyes promised all sorts of dire punishments if that didn’t happen and Avery swallowed.

‘Of course, that’s what I meant. When you find her, you’ll need to have a proper conversation, but what if she won’t talk to you? She’s never managed to talk to you before, has she? Why would she talk to you now? She’s more likely to talk to me.’

There was a long, throbbing silence.

‘Let me get this straight—’ dark lashes shielded the expression in those ebony eyes ‘—you’re offering to help find my bride and then talk her into marrying me?’

‘Absolutely.’ Avery forced the words out and he stared at her for a long moment as if he were trying to peel away the layers and see beneath the façade she presented to the world. ‘Why not?’

Her question was greeted by prolonged silence and then he straightened his shoulders. ‘I thought maybe—’ his voice was rough ‘—it might be difficult for you to see me marrying another woman.’

‘Difficult?’ She hoped her laugh sounded more convincing to him than it did to her. ‘Why would you think that? Our relationship is in the past, Mal. No one is more enthusiastic to see you married than I am. How else am I going to organize an after-wedding-party and bill you for shedloads of money? Let’s get this done.’







CHAPTER THREE

‘YOU said what? OK, now I know for sure you’re mad. You’re going into the desert to find a wimpy princess who doesn’t have the courage to speak her own mind so that she can marry the man you were in love with?’ Jenny lay sprawled on the bed in Avery’s apartment, watching as her friend packed. ‘It’s like something out of a really bad soap opera. Scratch that—no one could make this stuff up. It is going to end in tears. And those are going to be your tears, by the way.’

‘I’ve never cried over a man in my life. And stop saying I was in love with him.’ A skilled packer, Avery rolled a couple of shirts to prevent them creasing. ‘And Kalila isn’t wimpy. It’s not her fault if she’s been bullied into submission all her life by her father. I feel sorry for her. Better not to have a father around than have a bad one.’

‘Let’s leave your father issues out of this. There’s enough going on without that.’

‘I do not have father issues.’

Jenny rearranged the pillows and cushions on the bed and slumped against them. ‘What I don’t understand is why the Prince would even ask you to do this. That must have taken some nerve.’

‘He didn’t ask. I offered. Without a bride he can’t get married and I want him married.’

‘You want him married?’

‘Of course.’ Avery added two pairs of trousers to her packing. Once he was married there would be no going back. If nothing else could kill her feelings for Mal, then surely marriage would. It would bring the finality she’d been looking for. ‘And I want the party to go ahead. It’s bad for business if a party is cancelled.’

‘So you’re doing this for the business?’

‘I’m doing it because I’m worried about Kalila. You should have seen the way he looked at me when I told him what I’d said to her. As if I’d pushed her into the lion’s cage and locked the door from the outside. I like her.’

‘Really? She sounds like a wimp to me.’

‘I think she’s a victim of her circumstances. She’s sweet. And yes, I feel responsible.’ Avery sorted through her make-up, picking out the bare minimum she needed in order to not look like a train wreck. ‘And guilty. That is the last time I ever tell anyone to face their fears.’

Jenny picked up a lipgloss and tried it on the back of her hand. ‘You’re not responsible for the fact she clearly has appalling judgement and did something rash and stupid. Nice colour, by the way.’

‘Maybe I am responsible.’ Avery rescued the lipgloss and added it to her bag. ‘I was the one who put the idea in her head. Without me, she wouldn’t even have thought of doing something so radical.’ She packed carefully, referring to the list on her phone, knowing that the right clothing might be all that stood between her and an unpleasant experience in the desert. She picked items designed to cover her, not just because of concessions towards modesty or even protection against the sun, but because she wanted to do nothing that might be remotely described as provocative. The last thing she needed was Mal thinking she was trying to attract his attention.

‘This is ridiculous. You’re running a business, Avery. You don’t have time to gallivant off after some woman you barely know with a guy you used to date. You should have—what are those—?’ Jenny stared in alarm as Avery packed her sturdy hiking boots.

‘“Those” are going to save me from snake bites and scorpion stings.’

Jenny recoiled. ‘OK, forget my last sentence. No wonder the Princess ran away. She isn’t wimpy, she’s sensible. She’s thinking long-term. Better a brief stint in the desert now than a lifetime of the place. If I had to wear boots like that I wouldn’t marry the Prince either. It was meant to be a glass slipper, honey, not a hiking boot.’

‘The desert is beautiful. Wild and stunning.’

‘This from a woman who never likes to be more than ten minutes from a spa?’

‘Actually I did stay in a spa while I was there, but I also stayed in a Bedouin camp and I enjoyed that as much. It’s a really romantic place.’

‘You’re not romantic.’ Jenny shook her head slowly. ‘You’re in trouble; you know that, don’t you?’

Yes, she knew that. ‘I’m not in trouble. I know what I’m doing. I’m in control.’

Jenny flopped back against the cushions. ‘So I guess this means I’ll have to call the Senator myself and break the news about the swans and the balloons.’

‘Yes. Just speak with authority. And if there are problems you can call me. I’ll have my phone. What I might not have is a signal. But Mal will have a satellite phone so I can use that to call you. You’re not to tell anyone where we are. We’re going to rescue her and then make up some story to cover her absence.’

‘What sort of story?’

‘I don’t know. The spa idea is a good one. Maybe she and I went into the desert for a girly break or something. I just need you to be vague. If anyone asks, tell them I’m with a friend. I’ll be gone two days. Three at the most.’ Avery caught Jenny’s expression. ‘What? Why are you looking at me like that?’

‘You’re assuming she’s going to want to come back with you, marry Mal and live happily ever after. What if it doesn’t happen like that?’

‘It will.’

‘She ran away from him.’

‘They just need to start communicating with each other. It will be fine.’ She was going to make sure it was fine.

‘I hope you’re right.’ Jenny handed her a bottle of sunscreen that had fallen out of her bag. ‘In the meantime, you don’t even know where to start looking.’

‘We’ve got a few ideas. I’ve already spoken to Kalila’s sister. She thinks she’s probably hiding out in a desert community she was sent to when she was a teenager so we’re going to start there.’

‘Like a summer camp?’

‘That sort of thing.’ Avery found her passport and dropped it into her bag. ‘It’s a find-yourself, Zen type of place.’

‘Camp with scorpions. Thank goodness my parents didn’t send me to that one.’ Jenny shuddered but Avery didn’t smile because she knew her problem wasn’t going to be the desert wildlife or even the inhospitable terrain.

It was Mal. Or, more specifically, her feelings about Mal.

‘The scorpions aren’t a problem as long as you remember to shake your boots out in the morning before you put them on and you’re careful about moving rocks and things.’

Jenny curled her legs under her. ‘You are the woman who knows everything there is 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 that now. Didn’t dare think about it, but of course having heard that comment Jenny wasn’t about to let it go.

‘He’s the Crown Prince. I assumed that when he went into the desert he had jewel-encrusted tents and hundreds of people to wait on him. Surely scorpions aren’t allowed in the royal presence?’

‘His father sent him to spend a year with a desert tribe to understand how they lived. And he spent a couple of years in the Zubrani military after Cambridge. He knows the desert, although this is different because we’re travelling into Arhmor, which is where his princess comes from. Which hat?’ Avery held two of them up and when Jenny pointed she dropped it into her bag. ‘Apparently we’re pretending to be tourists.’

‘Won’t he be recognised? For that matter, won’t you be recognised? With your blonde hair and your blue eyes, you’re going to stand out like a pair of red shoes at a white wedding.’

‘That’s why I’m packing the hat.’ Avery added a silk wrap to her packing. ‘And anyway, no one will expect to see the Crown Prince of Zubran slumming it in a four-by-four, and because they don’t expect to see him, they won’t see him. But you make a good point. I don’t think travelling in disguise is his thing. Can you grab me a baseball hat with “I love London” on it or something?’

Jenny shuddered. ‘If I have to. But are you absolutely sure you’re fine with travelling alone through the desert with a man you were once in love with?’

‘I wasn’t in love with him. I’ve told you that a thousand times.’

‘Maybe after another thousand times I might actually believe you.’ Jenny slid off the bed. ‘I’m just worried this is going to be so hard for you.’

‘It’s not. It’s going to cure me.’ Avery snapped her case shut. ‘Five minutes alone with Mal in the desert and he’ll be driving me mad. I’ll be doing everything I can to make sure he marries someone else. In fact I’ll probably push her up the aisle myself.’

She was driving him mad.

Five minutes alone in her company and already Mal was asking himself how they’d ever survived a year together. No other woman had this effect on him. Certainly not the woman he was supposed to be marrying. His mouth tightened as he contemplated Kalila’s obvious change of heart. Could he really blame her for running? They had no relationship and never had. He hadn’t lied when he’d told Avery they’d barely spoken. What had been a lie was the implication that their lack of communication had been driven by Kalila’s strict upbringing. In fact even when the opportunity had arisen, they’d had nothing to say to each other.

The marriage was about duty, nothing more. The deal was clearly as distasteful to Kalila as it was to him, but he’d made his choice and he’d thought she had too. And if there had been a moment in his life when he’d thought that duty and desire just might coincide, then that was in the past.

Except that the ‘past’ was hoisting a bag off her shoulder and glaring at him as if he were personally responsible for global warming and the economic crisis.

He was a fool to have allowed her to come. To have put himself in this position.

‘I’ll drive.’ She slung her bag into the back of the four-by-four, slim and elegant in linen trousers and a long-sleeved shirt that shielded her slender arms from the sun. That shiny blond fall of hair was restrained in a tight plait that fell between her narrow shoulder blades.

Mal dragged his eyes from the lean lines of her body and focused on her face. As always, her skin was flawless and her make-up perfect. There were no signs that she was finding the situation stressful. And why would she? She’d ended their relationship, hadn’t she? And since that day—that day now forged in his memory—she’d shown no regrets about that decision.

‘I’m driving.’ He wanted to give himself something to focus on other than her. ‘It will attract less attention.’

‘The driver attracts more attention than the passenger. I will drive.’

‘Are we going to argue every point?’

‘That’s up to you.’ Her blue eyes were cool. ‘If you’re a tourist then you need to look like a tourist. Good job I brought you a gift from London.’ She tossed a baseball hat at him and he caught it and read the words on the front.

‘“I love London”?’

‘I tried to get a matching T-shirt but no 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 was such a brief look that to an outsider it wouldn’t have seemed significant but he was looking for other signs and this time he found them. The slight change in her breathing. The way she was careful to step away from him. ‘Now all you have to do is stop ordering me around.’

‘I have never ordered you around. You have always done exactly as you wanted to do.’ Because he was still watching, he saw her expression flicker.

For a moment he thought she was going to say something personal. Possibly even admit that travelling alone together like this was far more difficult than she’d imagined it would be. But then she gave a careless smile.

‘Good. So in that case you won’t mind if I drive.’ Breaking the connection, she opened the driver’s door and was about to jump inside when he caught her arm and pulled her back to him. The contact was minimal but that was all it took, the attraction so deep, so fierce that he released her instantly. But it was too late because his body had already recognised her. This close, her perfume seeped into his senses and the scent of it was so evocative it acted like a brake to his thinking. He couldn’t remember what he’d been about to say. He couldn’t think about anything except how much he wanted her.

Her mouth was so close to his that he could feel the tiny shallow breaths that were her attempts to draw air into her lungs. He knew that mouth. He wanted that mouth.

Her eyes lifted to his and for one unguarded moment he saw something there he’d never seen before. Not pain. It was so much more than pain. Misery? Heartbreak? Fear? Even as he was struggling to name what he saw, it was gone—as if someone had closed a blind on a window, leaving him wondering if he’d imagined that brief glimpse into someone’s strictly guarded privacy.

She was the one who looked away first. ‘Fine, you drive if it bothers you so much.’ There were many shades of emotion in her voice, but not the one he was looking for. He heard bored. He heard amused. He didn’t hear heartbreak or pain and he assumed he’d conjured that from his own brain.

‘Avery—’

Ignoring him, she strode round to the passenger side and dragged open the door. ‘If you need to reinforce your masculinity behind the wheel, you go right ahead. Maybe you can spear us an antelope for lunch, or strangle us a rattlesnake with your bare hands. Whisk us up a tasty scorpion soup?’ She sprang inside, lithe and athletic, the plait of her hair swinging across her back like a shiny golden rope. ‘But drive at a decent pace, will you? Nothing makes me madder than tentative male drivers and you don’t want to be trapped with me when I’m mad.’

Mal ground his teeth.

He didn’t want to be trapped with her at all. It was already driving him mad.

Only the knowledge that she’d be useful once they found Kalila prevented him from making the decision to leave her behind.

He slid into the driver’s seat. ‘We will check the desert camp first. We should arrive there tomorrow morning.’

If she was unsettled at the thought of a night in the desert with him then she didn’t let it show. ‘You could just fly there in your helicopter.’

‘Which would alert everyone to the fact that my bride has run away.’ He snapped on his seat belt and eased the vehicle onto the dusty road. ‘For obvious reasons I’m trying to avoid that. I’m trying to protect Kalila. If possible, I don’t want her father to find out. Since my helicopter is emblazoned with the colours of the Royal Flight, using it would hardly help me stay under the radar.’

‘Yes, it’s not great publicity, I can see that. The Prince and his Runaway Bride isn’t the best headline. Your PR team are going to have fun spinning that one.’ As the vehicle hit a bump she gripped her seat. ‘Any time you want me to drive, just let me know.’

‘We have barely been moving for five minutes. You are a terrible passenger.’

‘I like to be the one in control. If I’m going to die, I want to choose when and where. And generally, who with, but beggars can’t be choosers.’

His mouth twitched. ‘I’m an exceptionally good driver.’

‘To be exceptionally good at something requires practice and you were virtually born in a chauffeur-driven armoured limousine.’

‘I frequently drive myself unless I have work to do. I fly myself, too. And you know it.’ He gave her a sideways glance and met her glare.

‘Keep your eyes on the road. You need to be in one piece when you meet up with your little virgin princess.’

‘As a matter of interest, is your objection to the fact she is a virgin or a princess?’

‘I don’t have any objections. It was just a descriptive phrase.’

‘Interesting choice of words. You don’t like Kalila?’

‘I like her very much.’ She leaned forward and fished in her bag for a pair of sunglasses. She slid them on, protecting her eyes from the harsh glare of the desert sun. ‘I happen to think she’s perfect for you.’

‘Meaning?’

‘She won’t ever disagree with you. Whatever you do or say, you’ll always be the one in charge and sweet Kalila will admire you and never question whether you’re right or not because it wouldn’t enter her head that you wouldn’t be.’

‘That could be because I am right.’ He saw the smile curve her soft lips and felt a rush of irritation. ‘Kalila is a sweet-natured, compliant young woman.’

‘As I said—’ she adjusted her glasses with a perfectly manicured finger ‘—perfect for you. Oh look! Are those gazelle?’

Dragging his eyes from those slim fingers, he followed the direction of her gaze and watched as a small herd of slender gazelle sprinted away. From this distance they appeared to be floating on the sand. ‘Yes. You think I am afraid to be challenged?’

‘You hate to be challenged, Mal. And it happens so rarely you’re unlikely to have the opportunity to get used to it. Which is why you always assume you’re right. Isn’t it unusual to see herds of gazelle here? What type are they?’ She reached into her bag for her phone so that she could take a photograph. ‘They’re gorgeous. So graceful.’

‘They are sand gazelle—the word gazelle comes from the Arabic ?az?l. We support numerous conservation projects. Protecting wildlife and preserving their natural habitat is important to us. Killing and capture of all wildlife is illegal in Zubran. And you should stop changing the subject.’

‘I love the colour of their coats. So pale.’

‘Typical of you to comment on their appearance.’ His gaze flickered briefly to the plait of blonde hair that gleamed like gold in the sunlight. ‘The sand gazelle has adapted for life in the desert. The coat reflects the sun’s rays instead of absorbing them and of course it provides camouflage. And, by the way, I have no objection at all to being challenged.’ He knew she was trying to rile him and wondered why she would feel the need when the atmosphere in the car was already heavy with tension. ‘My wife will be my equal.’

Her laughter was spontaneous and genuine and she was still laughing as she slipped her phone back into her bag. ‘Sorry, but you have to admit that’s funny.’

‘What is funny?’

‘You thinking that your wife will be your equal. In which universe, Mal?’

It was a struggle to hang onto his temper. ‘She will be my equal.’

‘As long as she agrees with you.’ Laughter gone, she was cool and suddenly he wanted to shake that cool.

‘So the thought of me marrying her doesn’t upset you?’

‘Why would I be upset?’ The sunglasses were back on her nose, obscuring her expression. ‘You are free to marry whomever you choose. It’s none of my business, although I’m wishing now I’d made it my business. I should have called Kalila and given her the chance for girl talk. Poor thing.’

‘Poor thing? You and I were together for over a year.’

‘It felt much, much longer, don’t you think? And now we’re not together, which is a big relief for both of us. If you’re asking me if news of your wedding was a shock, then the answer is no. I always knew you’d get married. You’re the marrying kind, Mal.’ Her answer was just a little too swift. A little too glib.

‘And what is “the marrying kind”?’

‘Someone who wants to get married, obviously. People get married for different reasons. Sometimes it’s because they need financial security. Sometimes it’s because they’re too maladjusted to live by themselves—’ she suppressed a yawn ‘—increasingly it’s because they see divorce as a lucrative option. In your case it’s because you have a sense of responsibility towards your father and your country. You feel a duty to produce children and for that you need a wife because you wouldn’t contemplate any other alternative.’

Mal had forgotten just how cynical she was about marriage.

He assumed her extreme reaction was somehow linked with her own background but, apart from telling him her mother had raised her alone, she’d given him no details. They’d spent their time in the present, never revisiting the past.

Would things have been different, he wondered, if he’d questioned her more? Would it have helped if he’d gained more insight into the workings of her mind?

‘You think those are the only reasons for marriage?’ He drove fast, speeding along one of the wide roads that crossed the desert, wishing they’d never started this conversation. Truthfully, he didn’t want to talk about his impending marriage. He didn’t want to think about it until the moment came to make his vows. He’d delayed for as long as he could and now it was oppressively close, reality pressing in on him like dark clouds.

It was true that he’d proposed marriage to Kalila within weeks of his relationship with Avery breaking down, but there were reasons for that. Reasons he hadn’t shared with her and didn’t intend to share with her.

What was the point?

Her phone rang and she took the call. Already this morning she’d been on the phone to the office at least four times, addressing problems.

‘Doves?’ Mal failed to keep the sarcasm out of his voice as she ended yet another call. ‘You really do deal with the big issues, don’t you?’

‘If you’re implying that my business has no value then I feel obliged to point out that the success of the launch party I arranged for the opening of the new hotel in Zubran has resulted in such effective publicity that the place is now running at one hundred per cent occupancy, thus offering a considerable boost to your local economy both in terms of employment and increased tourism, which has additional benefits for the surrounding area.’ Without looking up, she scrolled through her emails. ‘But it’s true that as well as the proven commercial benefits of employing my company, there are less tangible ones. I create memories for people. Memories that will last for ever. I am often privileged to be present at the happiest moments of people’s lives. Anniversaries, engagements, weddings—moments that would undoubtedly always be special, but which I can make unforgettable. By recommending those doves that you consider to be of so little importance, I have probably saved his marriage. It’s ironic, don’t you think, that I, a self-confessed cynic about marriage, should be working to preserve one while you, a staunch supporter, mock my efforts.’

‘I wasn’t mocking you.’

‘You mocked my business, Mal. You never took my business seriously.’ There was a snap in her voice and she leaned her head back against the seat and closed her eyes. ‘Sorry. This is history. I don’t know why we’re talking about it except that it passes the time.’

‘I apologise,’ he breathed. ‘No one could fail to admire what you’ve achieved with your company.’

‘Is it the “frivolous” nature of my business that disturbs you most, or the fact that I work like a man?’

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ But he did know what she was talking about and his hands gripped the wheel just a little bit tighter.

‘Oh come on, Mal! You like to think of yourself as progressive, but you’re not comfortable with a woman who is as passionate about her work as a man would be. You don’t think I should fly around the world, live out of suitcases and occasionally sleep in my office. That’s what men do, isn’t it? You believe that work is what a woman does until she finds a man, marries and has a family. It would be quaint if it weren’t so exasperating.’

‘I have no problems with your work ethic. I admire it.’

‘From a distance. Even now, you can’t admit the truth.’

‘And what is “the truth”? Enlighten me.’ They were snapping at each other, releasing the almost intolerable energy they created together in the only way open to them.

‘You want a woman barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. No opinions. No life of her own. That is why you are marrying Kalila.’

He was marrying Kalila because it was 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”. Do they give speeding tickets out here? Because if they do then you’re going to get one. You seem angry. Are you angry?’ She was pushing him and he realised just how easy he made that for her. It was doubly frustrating because normally the desert relaxed him.

‘I’m concerned about Kalila. It’s important that we make the edge of the mountains by dusk.’ He slowed the speed fractionally, exasperated with himself for allowing her to wind him up. ‘I know a good place to camp, but I want to set up while there is still some light.’ That observation was greeted by silence.

‘So no chance of reaching your bride tonight then?’

‘If she is where her sister suspects she is, then no. We will have to stop for one night.’ A night alone in the desert with this woman. He was greeting that prospect with almost as much enthusiasm as his impending wedding.

‘So if her sister knew where she was going, why didn’t she stop her?’

‘She didn’t know. Kalila sent her the same note she sent me. Jasmina was afraid of her father’s reaction, so she contacted me instead. Which was fortunate because at least we have more to go on than we did before. She is covering for her sister. At the moment the Sheikh does not even know his daughter is not in her rooms.’

‘Her father sounds like a real treasure. Better to not have one than have one who induces fear.’

It was the first time he’d ever heard her mention her father.

Mal turned his head and glanced at her, but she was looking forwards, a tiny frown between her eyes as she focused on the sand dunes that rose either side of them. ‘I love how they change colour with the light. And the way the pattern changes—it’s fascinating.’

‘It’s the combination of wind and sun.’ He’d watched her fall in love with the exotic, mysterious dunes the first time round and he could still remember the delight on her face when she’d witnessed her first desert sunset. Another irony, he thought, that this woman who had been raised in a Western city should feel an affinity for the place of his birth while Kalila, with her desert heritage, found the place nothing short of repellent. ‘Your father wasn’t around when you were young?’

‘Are we playing psychotherapy next?’ She met question with question and he sighed, wondering what it took to get her to open up.

‘In all the time I’ve known you, you’ve never talked about your father.’

‘That’s because there is nothing to say.’ Her cool tone was like a wind blown straight from the Arctic, her words designed to freeze that line of questioning in mid-flow.

Mal refused to be deflected even though part of him was wondering why he was choosing to ask these questions now, when it was too late for them. ‘Did he leave when you were young?’ It was a personal question, and probably unadvised given his vow to avoid the personal, but nevertheless he asked it. He’d always assumed that her father was somehow responsible for her aversion to marriage but she’d never given him any detail.

‘Why the sudden interest in my father? We were talking about Kalila’s situation, not mine.’

‘I’m just thinking it must have been hard for you growing up without a man in your life.’

‘You’re doing it again—assuming that a woman needs a man to survive.’

Mal breathed deeply, refusing to rise. ‘That is not what I assume. Why are you deliberately misinterpreting my words?’

‘I’m not. I just know you, Mal.’

‘Maybe you don’t.’ He wondered how he could have been so blinkered. She was afraid. Why hadn’t he seen that before?

‘We both know you have very traditional views on the role of women.’

‘Do not assume to know what I am thinking.’

‘It’s not hard to guess. You’re marrying a woman you barely know so that you can have a traditional set-up and breed children.’

‘Is it so wrong to think a child benefits from being raised in a traditional family unit?’

‘I wasn’t raised in a traditional family unit and I’m fine.’

No, he thought. You’re not fine. ‘I’m not saying that a child can’t be fine with one parent. But family offers security.’

‘You’re talking rubbish. Take Kalila’s father—would she be better off with a mother who teaches her to be strong and independent or a father who bullies her?’ She spoke just a little too quickly. Was a little too anxious to move the conversation away from her own situation.

Mal thought of his own father. Strict, yes, and often busy, of course. But never too busy to spend time with his son. ‘Your mother didn’t remarry?’

‘I don’t know why you’re going on about fathers. Kalila’s has frightened her into running away and yours has pressured you to marry a woman you barely know.’

She hadn’t answered his question. ‘He didn’t pressure me.’ This was the point where he should tell her the truth about his union with Kalila but something held him back. ‘We are well suited.’

‘Because you give out the orders and she says yes? That’s not a relationship, Mal. That’s servitude. You’ve barely had a conversation with her. You know nothing about her likes and dislikes and you have no idea why she’s run away or where she could be heading. None of that suggests an unbreakable bond.’

Their conversations had always been lively, but never before today had she been so openly antagonistic. It was as if she were trying to goad him.

‘I have a great deal of respect for Kalila and I value her opinion.’

‘When has she ever expressed an opinion? When has she ever actually voiced a thought that isn’t yours?’

‘Perhaps we think alike.’

Her beautiful mouth twisted into a wry smile. ‘More likely she’s afraid to tell you what she really thinks. Or perhaps she doesn’t even know what she really thinks because she’s never been allowed to find out. You need to do something about that, Your Highness. Not only is it politically incorrect to want a passive wife, it’s going to bore you in five minutes.’ The car bumped into a pothole and she winced. ‘And while you’re ruling the world, you really do need to do something about the state of your roads.’

And the state of his nerves. He was tense. On edge. Angry. ‘This road is not my responsibility. We left Zubran half an hour ago. You are now in Arhmor and infrastructure has never been a high priority for the Sheikh.’ The scenery had changed. They were approaching mountains and the road was rougher. Everything about Arhmor was rougher. ‘Let’s hope we don’t blow a tyre. This is not somewhere to break down.’

‘So instead of mending his roads, the Sheikh tries to build his empire. I suppose that’s what this marriage is about, is it? You are the wealthier state. I assume he’s hoping that if you marry his daughter, you’ll fix his roads for him.’

‘It’s true that this marriage will bring political advantages—’ Mal turned the wheel to avoid another deep rut in the road ‘—but that is not the only reason for the marriage. Kalila is a princess with an impeccable bloodline.’

‘You make her sound like breeding stock. On the other hand, I suppose that’s what she is. A brood mare to produce lots of little Sultans for the future.’ Her tone flippant, she turned her head and looked over her shoulder. ‘Are you sure you’re taking the right route? Because according to the sat nav you should have turned left back there. You should have let me drive. Everyone knows a man can’t do two things at once.’

She was definitely goading him.

What he didn’t understand was why. Why would she want to make this journey more difficult and unpleasant than it already was?

Mal breathed deeply, transferred his gaze to the screen and cursed softly. She was right. He’d missed an important turning. Not because he couldn’t do two things at once, but because he’d been so distracted by Avery and by his impending marriage that he hadn’t been concentrating. Slamming the vehicle into reverse, he took the correct route. Around them, the landscape grew steadily more bleak and barren. ‘Say one word and I’ll dump you by the side of the road.’

‘I wouldn’t dream of making a sound.’ It was clear from her voice that she was enjoying his mistake and he tightened his grip on the wheel.

‘You’re infuriating, you know that, don’t you?’

‘Because I pointed out you were going the wrong way?’

‘I’m perfectly capable of driving. If you want to pick a fight, you’re going to have to choose a different battleground.’

‘This is why our relationship ended. Because we can’t be civil to each other for five minutes. The only thing we were ever really good at as a couple was fighting.’

So that was it. That was the game she was playing.

She was snapping because she was terrified of what they’d once shared. She was terrified that if she stopped snapping, something else would happen. Something far, far more dangerous.

Wondering how he could have been so dense, Mal slammed his foot on the brake and the car stopped suddenly.

Anger throbbing inside him, he turned to look at her. ‘That is not why our relationship ended.’ His voice thickened with emotion and he wondered what it was about this woman that triggered such extreme feelings. ‘And we were good at a great deal more than fighting.’ He saw the change in her. Saw her spine grow rigid and her breathing grow shallow.

‘No, we weren’t.’

‘We both know exactly why our relationship ended, Avery, and it had nothing to do with the arguments.’

Her skin was flawless, smooth and very, very pale. Her mouth was a tight line in her beautiful face. ‘There is nothing to be gained by talking about this.’

‘Maybe not, but we’re talking about it anyway.’

‘Mal—’

‘Our relationship ended because I asked you to marry me,’ he said harshly. ‘And you said no. That’s why it ended.’







CHAPTER FOUR

‘STOP the car!’ For a fleeting second she’d tried telling herself that it wasn’t worth going over this, but her emotions were too raw for that. She was so angry that all of her was shaking. Her knees. Her hands … ‘Stop the damn car, right now.’ She was out of the door before the vehicle came to a standstill and Mal was right behind her, the slam of the door breaking the stillness of the burning air.

Theirs was the only vehicle in sight. They were alone in the spectacular open space of the desert, surrounded by shimmering dunes and the soaring mountains.

‘You intend to walk from here?’

‘Is that really your recollection of events? You truly believe that you “asked” me to marry you?’ Her hair swung across her back as she turned to confront him. Her heart was racing and she felt the heat of the sun beating down on her head. She realised that she’d left her hat in the car, but it was too late to care about that now. ‘We must be existing in a parallel universe or something because I remember it very differently.’ Right now her anger was hotter than anything produced by nature but underneath that pulsing anger were layers of different emotions. Pain. Desire. Sexual awareness. Feelings. Feelings she didn’t want to feel. And he clearly didn’t either if his expression was anything to go by. He was watching her with the same cautiousness he would give an enraged scorpion.

‘Avery—’

‘And when you think about it, that’s not surprising because you never ask anyone anything, do you? You command. You order. You instruct.’ She ticked them off on her fingers while he watched with a dangerous glint in those dark eyes.

‘Are you finished?’

‘I’ve barely started. You’re so arrogant you never involve anyone else in your decisions. No wonder your virgin bride has run into the desert.’

His eyes flared dark. ‘Stop calling her that.’

‘Tell me something.’ Still shaking, Avery put her hands on her hips. ‘Did you actually ask her to marry you, Mal? Or did you just book the wedding and then mention it to her in passing? Perhaps that’s what’s wrong here. Perhaps no one remembered to tell her she was supposed to be getting married. Did you miss her off the invitation list?’

A muscle flickered in his bronzed cheek. ‘I’m the first to admit that my proposal to you went awry, but there were circumstances—’

‘Awry? It didn’t go “awry”, Mal. It didn’t happen. There was no proposal. There was just assumption. Lots of arrogant assumption.’ All the anger and humiliation came piling back on top of her. And the terror. She’d almost lost everything. All of it. Everything she’d worked for. ‘You assumed I was a sure thing. That of course I’d say yes to you because who wouldn’t? You were so sure of yourself you didn’t even pause to think about my needs, and you were so sure of me you didn’t even bother to ask my opinion on the topic. And there are no circumstances that can explain or excuse your arrogance!’

‘And if there were, you wouldn’t listen to them.’

‘The first I knew of your “proposal” was not when you and I had a private moment during which you asked me if I’d consider marrying you, but when one of my biggest clients rang to cancel his contract with me because he’d heard that I was no longer going to be running my company. When I asked him where that rumour had originated, he told me that he’d heard it from you. That you’d told him that once you married me I would no longer be taking on more business. Because of you, I lost clients. I could have lost the whole business. My business. The business I built from nothing.’ The thought of how close she’d come to losing everything that mattered to her sent her spiralling into panic. ‘That is what our “romance” did for me. And you wonder why I’m not romantic?’

There were lines of strain visible around his sensual mouth. ‘That is not what I said to him.’

‘Then what did you say to him because he was pretty sure of his facts when he took his business elsewhere. Important business, I might add. Business that would have led to more business. Instead I found myself explaining to some very confused people why I wasn’t getting married.’

His eyes were a dark, dangerous black. ‘And in doing so you humiliated me.’

‘No, you humiliated me, Mal! You made me look like some brainless, witless woman who was just waiting for a rich, handsome Prince to come along and rescue her from her sad life. All those times you said you loved me for who I was. You said you loved my independence and my strength. And then you cut me off at the knees. Did you really think I’d just give up my business and marry you?’

‘I thought you’d trust me. We’d been together for a year,’ he said in a thickened tone. ‘We were happy together.’

‘We were happy until you tried to take over my life. “Once we’re married she won’t have time to run your parties.” Wasn’t that what you said to him?’

There was a tense silence. ‘Yes. But there were reasons—’

‘Yes, and we both know what those reasons were. You have to be in control. You’ve been giving orders since you were old enough to put two words together and you don’t know any different. The problem is, I’m not great at taking orders, Mal. I like to run my own life. In fact, I insist on it. Damn it, why are we even having this conversation?’ Furious to feel her eyes stinging, she stomped back to the car but as she touched the door handle his hand covered hers. ‘Get away from me. It’s my turn to drive.’

‘This conversation isn’t finished.’

‘It is as far as I’m concerned.’

‘What happened with Richard Kingston was a mis-judgement on my part, I admit it. But there were circumstances—’

‘There isn’t a single circumstance that would successfully excuse a man discussing his marital intentions with everyone before the woman he intended to marry.’ She felt the warmth of his hand, the strength of those fingers as they stayed in contact with hers and forced herself to pull away.

‘Are you crying?’

‘Don’t be ridiculous. I’ve got sand in my eyes. This is a very sandy place.’

‘You’re wearing sunglasses.’

‘Well, clearly they’re not very efficient.’ Furious and miserable, Avery pulled open the door and slid inside. Her heart was pounding, her control shredded and her emotions raw. Why on earth had she decided to put herself through this? And in the desert. A place so closely entwined with her relationship with Mal that she wasn’t even able to look at a picture of it without fee