The Sheikh’s Sinful Seduction
Ruled by duty…
A king among men, Sheikh Zafir cannot allow emotion or feelings to color his judgment. His carnal desires must be curbed for the sake of peace in his kingdom. But his control is tested by the feisty Fern Davenport; Zafir must have her.
Driven by desire…
Innocent Fern Davenport tries to resist the sheikh’s skillful seduction—she knows that he could never marry her. But under the blistering sun an incendiary thirst awakes, and one incredible night results in a very lasting consequence.
Now this sheikh must claim his heir and his bride!
Seven Sexy Sins—The true taste of temptation!
"I’m not here to pay you off. I’m here to claim my child."
— Sheikh Zafir, The Sheikh’s Sinful Seduction
This book was a complete surprise for me. I had just begun writing what would become Seduced Into the Greek’s World when I received an email from my editor in London.
The team was putting together a multi-author series idea and wanted me to write one of the stories. The theme was the seven deadly sins, except they were calling them Seven Sexy Sins (the true taste of temptation!)
I’ll be honest. I might not have been quite so enthused if they’d given me any other sin but the one I got, which was lust. Talk about winning the lottery!
The first thing I did is what any romance author worth her salt would do. I googled ‘lust.’ What was the nature of it? What caused it?
A wiki article claimed that lust was provoked by the exotic. It’s mother nature’s way of keeping the gene pool varied and improving adaptability.
So, I made my characters polar opposites: a shy, pale, redheaded English virgin and a wickedly rakish sheikh. Cool, damp England against hot, dry desert. Fern is teaching his sister’s children; they all meet at his oasis.
Oddly, the whole time I was writing it, I had the song Midnight At The Oasis stuck in my head. Even more oddly, a reviewer told me she heard the song the whole time she was reading it. Let me know if it happens to you.
share this excerpt!
The Sheikh’s Sinful Seduction
Arriving at the oasis brought Fern Davenport back to life in a way she’d never experienced. The two-day camel trek through the dunes that she had anticipated with such excitement had been exactly what her employer and friend, Amineh, had warned it would be: a test of endurance.
But worth it. Exactly as promised.
After nothing but shades of blinding white and bleached yellow and dull red, the glimpse of greenery had Fern sitting taller, bringing her nose up the same way her camel did, searching for the scent of water. As they entered the farthest reach of the underground spring, where the palms were stunted and the grass sparse, she felt like a giant looking down on the tops of trees. The sun was already behind the canyon wall and blessedly cool air began to slither beneath the flapping edges of her abaya to caress her bare legs.
The tension of fearing for her survival began to ease. She wanted to release a laugh of relieved joy.
Outbursts of any kind weren’t her thing, though. She preferred to be as invisible as possible. Fern considered herself an observer of life, not so much a participant, but for the first time she experienced something like what a frisky lamb or a cocky adolescent must feel. It was a strange awareness of being alive. Her blood cells took on new energy and her pulse returned to vigorous beats. She wanted to throw off the weight of her clothes, expose her hot skin to the verdant air, kick up her heels and soak life through her pores. She wanted to be one with nature.
Awash in this state of renewal, she looked ahead to the clearing where the caravan would unload and saw him.
Just a man in a thobe and gutra. He could have been one of the camel keepers for all she knew, but a deep, feminine part of her recognized the kind of male that called to any woman. A leader. One whom other men looked to for direction and approval. Confident. A man of strength whose muscles strained the white tunic that draped his shoulders. He wore sandals and his feet were dusty, but he planted them firmly. With ownership.
She forced herself to lift her gaze to his face, barely able to withstand the impact of such handsomeness. How could a man be so beautiful yet so rugged? He was a product of the desert, she supposed, cheeks hollow and roughened by stubble, skin deeply tanned by the sun, mouth somber yet sculpted and…how did she even sense this? Sexual. A hawkish nose and brows as straight and firm as the horizon and then…
Green eyes. As startling and revitalizing as this oasis.
His sheer magnificence took her breath.
“Uncle!” the girls cried and the man’s severe expression flashed with a smile that made wistfulness bloom in Fern’s chest.
Men were such puzzling creatures to her, having mostly been passing ships in her life. She’d attended an all-girls school where even the principal was female. The library trustees, her mother’s doctor and the few teenaged boys she’d occasionally met through Miss Ivy’s club were the only males she really knew. She often found herself watching men like birders watched finches, studying their behavior and trying to make sense of them. She was always startled to discover they were quite human. The ones that were able to be tender with a child were especially fascinating to her. They made her wonder what it would be like to be close enough to truly understand one.
Not that she expected to get close to this one!
She had worked out that he was Zafir, Amineh’s brother. Amineh’s husband, Ra’id, hupped at his camel so it would drop to its knees. He dismounted and the men clasped hands and bent their heads together as they embraced with easy warmth.
Definitely not a camel keeper, Fern chided herself. Her students’ Uncle Zafir was formally known as Sheikh abu Tariq Zafir ibn Ahmad al-Rakin Iram. He was leader of Q’Amara, the country bordering Ra’id’s.
She must have sensed who he was and his stature impacted her, she reasoned. That’s why she was suffering this flare of heightened interest. The significance of arriving and meeting such an important man was turning her inside out in a way that was both familiar yet amplified. She was not only shy by nature, but also a redhead with the overactive blushing response that often came with it. She had flushed uncontrollably the first time Ra’id had spoken to her—she’d been so self-conscious under the attention of such a strong personality. A domineering, angry mother had made her sensitive to all authority figures. Anxious to please. It was completely understandable that she’d have an attack of nerves when faced with meeting another sheikh.
She’d never felt blistered from the inside like this, though. Never electrified yet stimulated. It was very disconcerting.
Other men came forward. These ones were camel keepers and camp attendants, but she was aware of only one man now. Not that he noticed her, which was a relief. And why would he? She was buried under a niqab and sunglasses, well-protected against the harsh glare of the sun and the bite of blowing sand. He was busy carrying on two separate conversations with his nieces as they occupied each of his arms.
The girls wriggled to the ground when a boy arrived, crying the name Fern had heard several times since this caravan into the desert had been proposed. “Tariq!”
Their cousin, ten years old, she’d been informed with great awe by her much younger students, wore a long tunic like his father’s and challenged the girls to race him up the path to the colorful tents being erected upstream, offering them a head start.
Ra’id helped his wife once her camel was down. Amineh threw off her niqab to hug her brother with all the affection she radiated when talking about him. They all spoke in Arabic, a beautiful language Fern wasn’t even close to mastering—
“Oh!” Fern cried as her camel pitched forward.
Remember to lean back, Amineh had cautioned her a million times, but Fern had been so caught up in watching Zafir smile at his sister she hadn’t noticed her camel was dropping to its knees. She scrambled to hang on, but was already sliding off by the time the animal hit the ground with a jarring thump.
Her dismount became the clumsiest in Arab history. She barely caught herself from crumpling into a heap. It was witnessed by everyone. So mortifying.
“Are you all right, Fern?” Amineh called. “You seemed to have the trick of it at the last stop. I should have asked Ra’id to help you.”
“I’m fine. Just distracted. It’s so pretty here,” she babbled, trying to cover up her interest in Zafir. A giant magnifying glass might as well be narrowing its beam on her, she was in such a searing, uncomfortable spotlight. She overheard Ra’id say something in Arabic that she did understand, calling her “The English teacher.”
“She is,” Amineh confirmed. “Come over and meet Fern. Oh, thank you, Nudara,” she added as her maid came forward with a canvas bag. Amineh peeled off her abaya and threw it into the bag then motioned for Fern to discard her dusty robe into it as well. “She’ll shake the sand out of them so they’re ready when the nomads arrive.”
Before taking this job, the closest Fern had come to having servants was watching the Downton Abbey collection on her laptop. All her life, her mother had been too tired from cleaning other people’s houses to do much of it at home, but she’d liked things shipshape. Fern had kept their small flat neat as a pin. In the final months, Fern had provided all-out hospice care, doing everything from bathing her mother to mounting the assistance bar next to the toilet. She still hadn’t adjusted to leaving tasks like laundry and cooking to others. It felt presumptuous, even though Nudara took no offense.
Maybe if Fern had been on Amineh’s level, making requests of servants wouldn’t have bothered her, but she was in that strange limbo between being a servant and being one of the family.
Honestly, she thought with a wry, inward sigh, when had she not been the odd duck set apart from the rest of the group?
This moment was no better. Despite only having adopted the head coverings since taking her position as English tutor to Bashira and Jumanah, Fern felt terribly bold as she removed her dark glasses, unpinned her veil and tugged away both scarf and under cap in one go. It was the hair. Her abundant corkscrews of carrot-orange made everyone in this country do a double take.
She kept her hair long because it was that or resemble a pot scrubber. It probably looked like it had been run through the food processor as it was. She’d been two days without more than a damp facecloth for a bath, but the enormous relief of cool air hitting her sweat-dampened scalp made her prickle with delight. Stripping her abaya, she revealed her sleeveless shirt with its forget-me-not print and lace collar then shook her cornflower-blue skirt from clinging to her legs, self-conscious that it only went to her shins.
“Is this too racy?” she asked Amineh in an undertone. “I didn’t know we’d be taking off our abayas in the open like this.”
“No, it’s fine here,” Amineh assured her absently as she stepped away to speak to a servant.
Fern looked to the sheikh for confirmation.
His aqua gaze was traveling over her like tropical seawater, leaving tickling trails down her limbs and making her toes curl in reaction.
Men never looked at her for longer than it took to ask the time or directions. People in general failed to notice her. She dressed conservatively and was fairly plain, didn’t wear makeup and spoke softly. Skinny, freckled ginger-haired girls were as common as milk in the village she’d grown up in near the Scottish border.
In this part of the world she stood out, though. Few of the servants back at Ra’id’s palace were white and no one was as white as she was. Not that she ran around showing off her arms and legs there. No, the wearing of coverings worked for her. She liked being invisible.
Fat chance right now, though. The sheikh seemed to see through the damp cotton adhered to her skin, cataloguing her every flaw and projecting what she sensed was disapproval. Her heart sank. She hated making missteps, hated being judged and hated it even more when not given a chance to prove herself first.
“Welcome to the oasis,” he said.
His husky baritone wafted over her like a hot breeze, spreading a ripple of disconcerting awareness through her. Similar to Amineh’s English, his accent held an intriguing mix of exotic Middle East and cool, upper-class Brit. Zafir was all man.
A widower, according to Amineh. His wife had died of cancer three years ago. It hit him hard. He doesn’t talk about her much. When he does, it’s always with great admiration, Amineh had said.
That meant she ought to be feeling sympathy toward him, Fern thought, but experienced a rush of defensive animosity. She didn’t like it. For the most part, she avoided conflict of any kind. If she was cornered, she was perfectly capable of lashing out with vicious sarcasm, but she hated being that person so she tried not to let it happen.
But he was looking at her as though he knew something about her. Like whatever assumption he reached made him cynical and dismayed.
His continued study made her hyperaware of herself. Reflexively, she started doing Miss Ivy’s bolstering exercises, reminding herself of all her good qualities. She was smart and kind, good at crafts if she had a pattern to follow…
Distantly, she realized this was a hugely protective reaction. He was a stranger and Miss Ivy always urged patience and not leaping to conclusions about what a new acquaintance might think.
But along with an irrational, panicked certainty that he had taken an instant dislike to her, she felt his rebuff in a way that was surprisingly devastating. She wasn’t a snob, not even an intellectual one, didn’t put on airs despite knowing the Dewey decimal system inside and out… Why on earth would she feel a near irresistible urge to tell him that? She wasn’t here to impress him and wouldn’t with statements like that.
But she was intimidated by the kind of man he was. So imperious. When had she ever come into the sphere of anyone like him? The natural instincts of the weak wanted someone this powerful to be on her side. She recognized that, but there was something else going on inside her, something she’d never really experienced before. She feared it might be attraction. Not a passing “oh, he’s nice-looking,” but something far more elemental. Please consider me.
That involuntary yearning was deeply confusing and beyond inappropriate.
A blush began to climb from her tight chest into her closing throat and across her face until her ears felt like they were on fire. She hated herself then. Hated her body and its over-the-top reaction. She was embarrassed by her own embarrassment and wanted to die.
Zafir watched a million freckles disappear in a bath of red and felt an unexpected urge to laugh.
Not nice, he realized, glancing away to hide the amusement brimming his eyes. He didn’t want to soften toward this English teacher, who was drowning in her own blush of sexual attraction. He was experienced enough to know that’s what was happening to her and man enough to like it.
Despite knowing how inappropriate she was for him, the prowling tomcat within him kept his tail standing at attention. His eyes traveled back to her of their own accord, counting the freckles that dotted her arms like cocoa sprinkled onto foamed milk. They were all over her, even the tops of her feet. The full effect naked would be an incredible sight.
One he would not make any attempts to see, he cautioned his libido, no matter how amenable she might seem.
He lifted his gaze from her disaster of a skirt, to shoulders covered in that Milky Way of freckles barely visible against the pink of her extensive blush, to liquid eyes locked on his face. He recognized the look, which was somewhere between nervous bunny and dazzled groupie.
Being a duke’s grandson had entitled him to more than an academic education. Alongside economics and diplomacy, he’d learned that Western women could be incredibly accommodating to a man’s basest needs. If he wanted her, he could have her.
That’s why he began fantasizing about setting his mouth against her shoulder, feeling the heat under her skin and tasting that smooth, pale flesh. That’s why his palm tingled to push into the folds of her skirt, to discover the shape of her backside and lock her hips into his own.
But tanned blondes were his preference. American or Scandinavian and only while traveling. He had enough power struggles with the conservatives in his country without having affairs inside his borders. He dismissed her with an arrogant blink, deliberately letting her see his rejection.
She swallowed, face blazing and lashes dropping. The corners of her lips pulled into the tortured bite of her teeth.
He had a near irresistible urge to cover her pursed doll’s mouth with his own, to lightly torture her until her lips were swollen and open. He could practically feel that wild hair tangled around his fingers as he held her under him, her clasp on him tight as he thrust deep and watched her eyes fog with ecstasy.
English, he reminded with a mild curse at his own weakness. Was it genetic that he could be blindsided by lust for one, so much so that he couldn’t smile, let alone speak?
He was only responding to her because he hadn’t been with any woman in over two months, he reasoned. It had nothing to do with a tainted streak in his makeup. He wasn’t like his father, who had fallen so hard for the wrong woman he’d gotten himself killed for it, leaving his bastard half-blood son to clean up the mess.
“Fern, this is my brother, Zafir. She may call you that while we’re here, yes?” Amineh turned back and clasped his arm, then leaned her weight on him in a familiar way that yanked him back into awareness. “Be nice to her. She’s shy.”
Fern. It was oddly suitable. His country favored names inspired by nature and something in her buttoned-down demeanor reminded him of those tightly curled fiddleheads he used to spy when tramping through his grandfather’s estate, searching for signs of spring and the end of the semester, when he could return to the warmth of home.
“Of course,” he managed to respond, fine with the level of stiffness in his tone. He was in the throes of a very wrong-time, wrong-place reaction. The feeling annoyed him enough to reflect in his voice. Still, he heard himself say, “If I may call you Fern.” He would regardless, but he willed permission from her all the same. Cooperation.
Damn. He really shouldn’t want her so badly that he was already finding ways to stake a claim. Like it was a given that he would have her. This was lust. Garden-variety. He was on vacation, relaxed. Horny. Of course he responded to an available woman. That’s all this was and he could resist it.
Her lashes quivered and she nodded shakily, fingers playing together restlessly.
Her discomfiture left him grimly pleased. He was vital and sexual and alpha. Asserting himself was second nature, but there was more at play here. Amineh might see only a blush, but Fern’s reaction was carnal and that held a special allure for him.
“We’re very informal here,” Amineh chattered on. “We’ll cover up again when the Bedouins come through, but for now the oasis is ours. That’s why I love it. Oh, I’ve been looking forward to this.” She squeezed his arm again, then gave him a frown. “But you look grumpy. Why? We’re going to have fun. Act like kids again. Come on, Fern. Let’s walk up to the camp and get settled.”
Fern began to gather her bags onto her shoulder.
Zafir bit back an urging for her to leave them for the servants, but she was Ra’id’s employee, he reminded himself. Not an ambassador’s daughter. She knew her place better than he did.
She packed like an ambassador’s daughter, he noted with a grimace, as he watched her try to heft a third bag onto her shoulder.
He moved to take it.
“I can come back for it,” she insisted, but he brushed past her attempts to keep it and reached to remove one of the others already bending her slender spine. His thumb grazed skin like duck down, punching a shot of hot need into his gut.
What the hell? From barely touching her?
The hair on his scalp stood on end with both alarm and excitement.
She dipped her head, making it impossible for him to decipher whether she had reacted as intensely. But if he wasn’t mistaken, her nipples were standing up in sharp points. It couldn’t be from a chill in this heat.
Which should not make his belly tighten with anticipation, but it did.
Amineh was halfway up the path with Ra’id, leaving him to accompany Fern. He forced himself to find a neutral topic of conversation.
“The oasis is roughly seventeen square kilometers. My father designated this as a nature reserve when we were children. We have one tribe allowed to camp here without a permit as they follow bird migrations. We anticipate they’ll come through while we’re here, but otherwise access is strictly limited.”
“I read about it before we came.” Her quick statement seemed to say “thanks, but I know all I need to.” She hurried along.
Let it go, he told himself. Let her go. If she had received the message that he wasn’t welcome to a come-on, that was a good thing.
But his longer legs easily kept up to the scurrying pace that kept the color high in her cheeks. And he couldn’t take his eyes off the way her remarkable hair bounced and her small, firm breasts barely moved.
And all the while, she looked straight ahead as though trying to ignore him.
“How long have you been teaching the girls?” he asked.
“Three months.” She flashed a look up at him that was vaguely defensive. “I feel a bit of a fraud, to be honest. Amineh, I mean, umm Bashira…”
“It’s fine,” he said. “As she said, we’re casual here. No need to use her title.”
“Right. Thank you. What I was going to say is that her English is perfect and the girls are already switching back and forth very easily. Aside from correcting their grammar and spelling, I’m not sure they really need me. It’s just such a remarkable opportunity to experience another culture and…” She cleared her throat and her gaze flickered over him like a searchlight picking out the best parts. “The girls are lovely,” she murmured faintly. “I feel very fortunate to be here. Well, there. And here.”
Another blush. She was really in the throes of sexual interest. How utterly captivating. The hormones that told a man to pursue a woman seared his veins like adrenaline.
“I’m sure she’s delighted to have you in the household,” he said, his voice as tight as his skin, brain somehow maintaining a grasp on the conversation. “My sister and I prefer our father’s world, but we often feel homesick for England.” He closed his mouth, not sure why he had said it like that. It wasn’t real homesickness, just that all his life he’d wished he could live in both places at the same time.
Which felt like a traitorous admission, as though he wasn’t wholly committed to the country he ruled, but he was. Willing to make deep sacrifices for it even. He frowned.
Beside him, Fern halted abruptly and cast a jerky glance up and down the beach. It was a scene of controlled chaos: tents going up, pillows spilling from baskets and silk rugs unrolled. “I, um, don’t know where I’m going. Do I sleep with the children?”
“No, they have their own tent.” He pointed to where his son was hanging the partition between his side and the girls’ in the undersized tent they used.
The servants were settling near the water pump at the far end of the beach, where the cooking fire would be laid. A large tent was going up not far from the children’s, for Amineh and Ra’id. His own tent was already standing at the end of a small bench of sand facing the water. Security would place their small tents at strategic places at the perimeter of the oasis.
Deductive reasoning allowed him to single out the only unclaimed lodging. Halfway between the two ends of the camp, tucked beneath an overhang of palms where a small footprint of sand pushed into the tall grass, sat a bundled tent.
Apparently Fern was expected to know how to erect the tent herself.
“That one,” he said, as he grazed light fingers on her upper arm to catch her attention then pointed.
Yes, he was that weak. Unable to resist touching her again.
Her breath caught and he experienced a surprisingly strong pulse of satisfaction that she responded so sharply to his barely there caress.
This was going to be a difficult two weeks.
Fern wished Zafir would take a hike so she could figure out what was going on.
Obviously she found him attractive. Who wouldn’t? He was gorgeous. And he’d noticed, obviously, because she was useless at disguising her thoughts and feelings. That’s why she preferred to hide behind books and library desks and had taken a job a million miles from home so she’d only have two students and hardly see any men at all.
Men made her nervous. Not outright afraid. They’d have to notice her for her to feel threatened, but she’d learned the hardest way possible not to beg for approval. As much as she might have a curiosity about dating and mating, she was highly reluctant to put her hard-won confidence on the line. It had been far easier over the years to stay home and not rile her mother by going out with men. Instead, she had excelled at her studies and worked hard to help pay rent and, yes, had even taken a martyr’s pride in being the dutiful daughter. She’d told herself she was too busy for romance, but really, she’d been too cowardly.
Or perhaps, hadn’t met a man exciting enough to provoke her past her reservations. The fact that something had been awakened in her today, making her want to be noticed and appreciated and found worthy, made her anxious. Emotionally vulnerable.
And disturbingly aware of herself physically. She’d never responded to a man in such an animal way. Her knowledge about sex was mostly gleaned from the deliciously graphic passages in romance novels. They always gave her a nice flush of pleasure, but thinking about doing those sorts of things in real life, wondering what Zafir liked to do to women and what it might feel like to have his hands and mouth on her naked body, made sharp sensations pierce her nipples and between her thighs. Heat that was both embarrassment and excitement throbbed painfully in her, making her feel all the more defenseless and exposed.
It was so unnerving.
This was why her mother had always said sex was dangerous. Fern had wondered why so many people did it if it was so bad, but until today she’d never had a man touch her. Not really. Not so she felt it like a lightning bolt into her belly. That was why people did it. The sensations were compelling enough to overcome logic and common sense.
She desperately wanted to move away from him and take time to examine exactly what was happening to her, label it, then put it in storage forever. Especially because some primal part of her felt like he… But no. She was making it up. Fretting because that’s what she did best. She was misinterpreting basic courtesy as…
She didn’t even know the words for what she thought she sensed, only that she felt like she was trapped in a tiger’s cage and he was pacing around her, curious enough to sniff, but not genuinely hungry. Bored maybe. Looking for something to play with.
He walked across to drop her bags by a red bundle.
Oh, dear. Was that her tent? Well, she wasn’t above reading directions. She tried to retrieve the card from its plastic pocket.
“I’ll do it,” he said, looking disgruntled as he picked up the bundle, opened the drawstring and shook the contents onto the sand. He discarded the nylon outer bag.
“I’m sure I can work it out.” She picked up the empty bag and turned it over to see the card was covered in foreign cursive.
“Do you read Arabic?” he asked dryly, then handed her a corner of the tent and backed away to shake out the large square.
“Not yet,” she answered, moving to extend the other corner. As she did, she picked up the bag of pegs so they wouldn’t be caught underneath. “Is there really no English? Because this doesn’t look like traditional Bedouin accommodation.”
“No, these modern designs are too lightweight and practical to ignore for the sake of custom.” He snagged the small mallet she drew from the bag of pegs. “Even the nomads have moved to lighter fabrics than woven camel hair, but you’ll see more authentic tents when they come through.” He held out his hand for a peg.
“I can manage. I’ll ask one of the other men if I can’t. I don’t want to inconvenience you.” There. She had an assertive side. It was very polite and obliging, but it got the job done when she needed it.
He flicked his sharp gaze around the camp as though looking for one of these men she might enlist when really, she’d probably ask Amineh’s maid for help before she’d find the courage to approach a stranger and beg a favor.
When his gaze came back to hers, he seemed disapproving and vaguely challenging. “I’ll do it,” he stated.
She locked her teeth, having learned long ago to pick her battles.
At least she was able to hurry the process. She willed her fingers to be nimble as she followed him down the side and across the back of the tent, struggling all the loops onto the pegs as he hammered them into the sand. The feeling of having her every action scrutinized was her own baggage, she reminded herself as she moved toward the front. He wasn’t watching her. He was having some kind of manly back-to-nature moment, indulging his instinct to prove his superiority over nature.
Nevertheless, as she straightened from making the last attachment, the tension was killing her. She glanced at him and his green eyes were waiting, snagging her like a hook, with a pierce and a tug.
She caught her breath, limbs paralyzed with shock.
He calmly continued what he was doing, lengthening a pole in increments with a smooth stroke of his hand and a light twist of his wrist, eyes staying on her like they’d been there a while.
He lifted the opening of the tent and slid the pole inside.
She blushed. God help her, she blushed hard.
A noise escaped him. Might have been a snort of amusement or a tsk of impatience. She wasn’t sure because he bent to take up another shortened pole and began to extend it. When his gaze came back to hers, his was fierce and almost scolding.
His rebuke burned. She knew her reaction was obvious. Her ability to demure was nil. Worse, she knew she didn’t inspire male desire. She wasn’t particularly curvy on her chest or bottom. She wouldn’t know how to apply eye shadow if she’d ever had the spare notes to buy it. Between the braces to fix terribly crooked teeth, the secondhand clothes, the extra studies to win a scholarship and then maintaining her position at the library while she earned her degree, she’d been the most easily overlooked nerd her entire life.
Maybe he was one of those jocks who occasionally noticed she was an easy mark and was having his fun teasing her. Maybe he was silently taunting her, sending a pithy “as if.”
She usually walked away when feeling picked on, but despite the seventeen square kilometers around her, she didn’t have anywhere to go. The only place she could hide from Zafir was her own quarters, so she ducked into them. She bent under the light weight of the silky red fabric to pick up the pole from the ground and worked her way to the center, where a grommet awaited on the roof and the floor.
Of course it wasn’t as easy as it looked. She got the top one hooked in, but even though the tent wasn’t heavy, the tension in the fabric was resistant to her attempts to align the bottom of the pole into the floor.
“You spaced the pegs too far away,” she told him, hearing her mother’s voice and cringing.
“I’ve pitched more tents than you have, Fern,” he drawled and she narrowed her eyes at him even though they couldn’t see each other.
Another pole made a zipping noise as he slid it into the pocket that would form one of the corners. “Let me finish this part then I’ll help you.”
Oh, great. I’ll just stand here looking stupid then.
The tent shifted on her hair, making it crackle with static. She debated crawling out, but couldn’t make herself go out there and face him.
Another zip, zip, zip and he had the back and walls stabilized.
Leave when he comes in, she thought, but he lifted the front of the tent and took up all the space, bringing the middle of the tent pole so it slid through her light grip and the roof climbed as he neared her. Then he was standing before her, the narrow pole between them, his tanned face tinged by the translucent red of the fabric, his gaze fixed on hers.
He slid his hands over her limp ones and guided the bottom end of the pole into place.
She tried to look away, but he was tall and very close. He smelled good. Earthy and sweaty, but not overpowering. Masculine and intriguing. Aside from her mother’s specialist, she’d never met a man with such an air of command and that physician had been white-haired and potbellied. Zafir was in his prime, not just healthy, but radiating supremacy.
In the back of her mind, she knew she was behaving like some kind of rock-band superfan, speechless in the presence of a man with star quality, unable to move, but he was so incredible. She found herself staring into his eyes for too long. She knew it was too long, but she couldn’t look away from those crystal blue-green depths. They quested, delving into hers, demanding something she didn’t even understand.
Say something, she thought, and let her tongue wet her lips.
His gaze lowered to her mouth.
Her breath evaporated.
She found her own gaze dropping to his mouth, wondering how it would feel to have those smooth lips rubbing against hers. Her heart was fluttering like a trapped bird, her pulse pounding in her ears.
He lifted his hand to hover hotly next to her cheek, scorching her. His brows jerked in some type of struggle. Was he going to kiss her?
It was remarkable yet terrifying. Did she really want to do this? It was so wrong, but he was right there.
“Miss Davenport, are you in there?” Bashira called from outside.
Fern’s heart went into free fall. Her conscience gave her a hard shake and she jerked back, shocked.
“I am,” she stammered, discovering her hand was still trapped under Zafir’s on the pole.
His grip tightened briefly before he released her with a flare of his fingers. He lifted away his touch as though she’d burned him. A muscle ticked in his cheek. He looked very displeased. Accusatory, but also confused.
She surreptitiously touched her mouth, and avoided looking at him as she edged around him to open the flap of the tent.
The rush of fresh air, dry and hot as it was, made her realize how stifling it had been inside, where things had been sultry and musky. Her heart was still pounding hard and loud. It took everything she had to muster a smile for the children as they approached.
“Mama said these are for you.” Bashira struggled with Jumanah to drag a basket across the sand toward her. Tariq followed, staggering under the weight of a bedroll on his shoulder.
“Have you met my son?” Zafir asked as he emerged beside her. He didn’t stand so close as to be improper, but the air crackled with energy that bounced back and forth between them.
Fern stepped forward to escape the field of it. “Not yet.”
What had just happened in there? Was he messing with her? She hadn’t known what to expect from Amineh’s brother, but cruelty wasn’t on the list. The thought that he would toy with her for his own amusement was not only painful, but also opened the gap of deep vulnerability in her even wider. She wouldn’t be able to avoid him here.
He moved forward to take the bedroll off his son, introduced the boy then disappeared inside the tent to lay it out.
Far too intimate a thing to do. How was she supposed to sleep on something he had touched?
“Your cousins speak very highly of you, Tariq,” she said shakily. “I’m looking forward to getting to know you.”
The boy regarded her with a very serious expression. Not his father’s eyes, thank goodness. His were like black coffee, but they held the same intelligence and confidence.
“They speak well of you, too, but may I say with all proper respect that I no longer have need of a nanny. I have a guard.” He quarter turned to indicate a man observing from a position near the children’s tent. “To protect me from outside threats. I am allowed to make my own mistakes and learn from them.”
Pleasantly diverted by that statement, Fern nodded. “I can see you’re mature enough to do so. But I’m not a nanny. I tutor the girls in English.”
“I’m on vacation,” Tariq stated promptly. “My English is excellent.”
Abundant self-assurance was obviously a genetic trait. Her lips were still fiery and buzzing from having Zafir stare at them. Now they twitched with amusement.
“I hope you’ll join us for our field lessons anyway,” Fern said. “I’m excited to explore the oasis. I brought a microscope, some tracking books and sketching supplies. Perhaps you could teach me some things about your country and its wildlife.”
“Oh, yes, I could do that,” he stated with generosity. “My father is also very knowledgeable,” he said as Zafir emerged again to stand at her side. “He finds an animal even when it’s trying to hide.”
Fern outright refused to look at Zafir with that remark hovering like a balloon ready to burst. She was not interested in being laughed at even more.
“That would be a treat,” she murmured, throat tightening with indignation. “But he’s already gone out of his way on my behalf. I don’t want to impose.”
“You would do it for my cousins, wouldn’t you, Baba?” Tariq said, neck craned to look up at his father.
“Of course,” Zafir promised with a hand clasping warmly to Tariq’s shoulder. “That’s why we are here. To spend time with our family. You’ll show our guest where to find everything? I can’t put off confirming that everyone has arrived safely as scheduled.” Turning to her, Zafir explained, “Rescues are difficult and time sensitive, so we have very low criteria for setting them off. Any delay of a message will do it. Excuse me.”
As if nothing had happened between them, he nodded and walked away.
Of course, nothing had happened, she reminded herself. Maybe she’d imagined that whole thing.
Except her cheek still burned where he’d almost touched her.
She forced her gaze not to linger on his back, but she couldn’t help wondering what that back would look like naked. Tanned and strong. When had she ever, ever fantasized about running light fingers down a man’s spine? Or sprawling naked upon one?
This place was supernatural, casting a spell of some kind over her.
Distressed, she forced her attention to the children. They showed her where to find boiled water for drinking and pointed out the latrine and gave her a short broom to use to sweep out scorpions—really?—if they wandered into her tent. Then they left her to unpack as they scampered off in search of wild dates.
Fern entered the privacy of her tent and let out a long, anxious breath. Amineh had talked about the oasis like it was a place of freedom, but Fern had a sense of being kidnapped—into luxury, sure. The tent was bigger than the tiny bedroom she’d grown up in. The bedding and pillows the children had brought her were silky and colorful, while the pallet Zafir had unrolled was wide enough for two.
How had she even wound up here at the end of the earth? She’d grown up expecting she would take a position in a village day school, perhaps going home to a tidy flat where she’d have a cat named Fabio. Her only aspiration had been to provide the same ray of hope Miss Ivy had instilled in her—to help withdrawn, unhappy students discover their own hidden potential.
Hers had apparently been the ability to become an international teacher.
She hadn’t even considered an overseas position while her mother had been alive, but after her mother had passed away, Fern had needed a fresh start. On a whim, she’d applied to a placement agency and expected to wind up in a missionary school, but had found herself in the running for this job.
It still felt like a miracle that she’d won it, but her quiet nature seemed to fit with a culture that valued modesty. She and Amineh had got on immediately, which surprised Fern. At first she had thought it was only because Amineh appreciated Fern’s genuine affection for the girls and her earnest desire to act in their best interests. Now she knew Amineh better, she recognized a like soul in the sense that they’d both struggled to find their place in the jungle of female cliques during their school years.
Amineh and Zafir, Fern had learned, were the product of a rather notorious affair between an Arab sheikh and an English duke’s daughter. They’d ping-ponged back and forth between their parents, not quite fitting fully into either culture. Amineh had found stability by marrying her brother’s best friend, Ra’id, and living permanently in his country.
Zafir still fought for the right to rule their father’s homeland, Q’Amara. He’d married the daughter of a sheikh, trying to ease resistance at having a man with such heavy Western influences governing their country.
Somehow she couldn’t picture him wearing the same sad frown Amineh wore when she talked about their difficult early years. He seemed too fiercely proud to allow prejudice to reach his heart. It was hard to imagine a man that dynamic and confident struggling with anything.
Peeking out of her tent, she saw him down at the water, shin-deep in the spring where the children had told her bathing was allowed. He stood with his sharp profile angled upward to the top of the worn canyon on the far side of the water. Then he crouched, not taking any heed that his robe was soaked through. He scooped his hands into the water and splashed his face, then lifted his gutra to wet the back of his neck.
She swallowed, going weak as she watched him. He was so comfortable in his skin, so self-assured and compelling.
It dawned on her that this was a crush. She was suffering a full-blown case of unfounded infatuation, behaving exactly like her adolescent schoolmates used to. She stood here spying on a boy, acting geeky and awkward and keyed up, entertaining uncharacteristic fantasies of kissing the back of his neck. How puerile. If only his wife was alive to deter her.
Look away, she told herself, but she couldn’t make herself do it. Why did he have to be out there acting all brooding and sexy anyway?
He stood and turned to stare directly at her tent. His shoulders were set at what seemed a tense angle, his demeanor projecting dissatisfaction.
She couldn’t tell if he saw her, but she retreated to the back wall.
This was going to be an interminable two weeks.
Fern used the excuse of ferreting out her supplies and setting up her mock classroom to avoid everyone for the rest of the day. She usually ate alone so when she smelled the evening meal, she found Nudara, who fetched her a bowl of spicy stew and flatbread with some kind of yoghurt dolloped on top.
Taking it back to her tent, Fern told herself the peacefulness was nice. The bustle of the camp settled as everyone sat to eat. The children’s laughter rang out often, along with Amineh’s and the occasional rich male chuckle—one of which made Fern listen harder and feel…
She sighed and shook her head at herself. The light breeze whispered through the palm leaves above her, snickering. An unknown bird tittered at her.
It grew dark quickly, but the nearly full moon rose shortly after. The trip had been organized around the fattest moon as that was the likeliest time for the Bedouins to visit the oasis. The waxing orb’s glow turned the landscape a pale blue and a velvety breeze caressed her cheek as she walked her dishes back to the outdoor kitchen.
Later, after she had brushed her teeth, she put herself to bed early. She’d had a long, active couple of days, she told herself, even though she could hear the children laughing over music from a stringed instrument. No one else was turning in yet. They were visiting and having fun.
Sociology classes had taught her this sort of camp built the relationships between members of a tribe. The servants were certainly in good spirits, teasing one another and making jokes. Zafir’s coming together with his neighbor, Ra’id, had strengthened relations between their two countries in ancient ways, even if they only traded gossip. Corporations called something like this a “team-building exercise” and paid small fortunes for their employees to attend.
Fern was the luckiest person in the world to be able to experience this.
She told herself.
As she held her eyes closed against an inexplicable sting.
She had absolutely no reason to feel lonely in this wide bed. Miss Ivy would enjoy hearing about all of this when Fern had an online connection again.
Make some notes, she cajoled herself, but didn’t move. Instead she mentally wrote something entirely different, something that belonged in an erotic novel. It was a scene where Zafir came to her tent and touched a lot more than her cheek.
It was the worst night of her life. She tossed and turned, unable to shut off her mind from conjuring fantasies of making love with Zafir.
She didn’t even know how it was properly done! Obviously she knew the mechanics, but she’d been firmly sheltered from any sort of expressions of sexual passion. Her mother hadn’t allowed her to go to sexy movies or watch any of those daytime serials on television. The romance novels at the library had been read from an angle under the desk. Guilt always assailed her for enjoying those stories and more than one academic friend had shamed her for picking them up, but Fern couldn’t help wondering why was it so bad to like stories about love and happily ever after?
Because of the sex, her mother’s voice said in her head. Heaven help any woman who gave in to her hormones. That only brought heartache and disappointment.
Fern being the disappointment in question, she had long ago surmised.
Yet here she was, indulging her own hormones with imaginary banquets of kisses and caresses. It wasn’t the first time she’d lain in bed and imagined she wasn’t alone, but she’d never been quite so explicit with her fantasies or had a particular man in mind.
It had to stop.
Throwing off her light sheet, she quietly unzipped her tent and stepped into the cool of predawn. The camp was silent, the stillness only broken by the relentless pounding of her pulse.
Dressed in her knee-length cotton nightgown, she walked down to the beach and sighed as her feet found the damp sand at the water’s edge. The burning inside her began to ease. This was what she’d needed. A cold shower.
Was that why Zafir had come to the water yesterday?
No. No more daydreams that he fancied her. He’d only been washing off travel grime.
Still, she found herself tracking to the place where he’d stood in the water. It felt deliciously cool as it closed over her feet and climbed to the backs of her knees.
Drawn forward, she sucked in a breath as the pool deepened quickly, soaking through to weigh the fabric of her nightgown. Chilly water hit her loins, then her navel. She sucked in her stomach, got as far as her breasts and held her breath.
She dipped until the cold water closed over her and stayed under a moment, nose plugged, letting the chill seep to her bones. Then she titled back her head and rose, baptized into a creature of this foreign yet intoxicating world.
The thought made her smile naturally for the first time since arriving here. Oh, she felt a million times better!
Which was silly. One little plunge into a spring couldn’t wash away a lifetime of baggage and misgivings, but she wished it could be that easy. Her mother’s shaking finger always seemed to follow her, though, undermining her ability to enjoy the simplest sensual experience. She would no doubt criticize her for… Well, everything. Her mother wouldn’t approve of anything Fern had done since the service. Ever in her life, really.
At least she wasn’t burning with desire for a man beyond her reach anymore. She thought she could sleep now and escape all her disturbing ruminations about Zafir.
Turning, she marveled at how clear the water was, completely entranced by its perfection, feeling mammalian and part of the universe as she watched her feet. Not all creatures were herd animals, she reminded herself. Many lived alone most of their lives, only seeking another of their kind to mate—
Bare, tanned feet stood on the beach before her.
Her heart stalled and her soggy nightgown clung like a skin of dread. Her feet halted and her knees locked in denial.
How? No one else was up.
Her gaze climbed athletic shins to where unbleached linen board shorts ended at his knees.
Leave it to him to wear drawstring shorts that were still the epitome of class, tailored to hang low across his brown hips in the most disreputable yet erotic way. He wasn’t wearing a shirt and he was a perfect specimen of the human male. His tense, flat abs were bisected by a line of hair that flared across his brown chest. The pattern accentuated his broad shoulders and the relaxed muscles of his upper arms.
His mouth was set in a grim line, the stubble on his jaw dark making him look even more piratical and dangerous than the first glimpse she’d had of him. He had black hair, she noted. Trimmed close to keep it tight against his scalp.
His brows stayed heavy over those remarkable, glittering eyes as he opened a towel with a flick. She hadn’t noticed he was holding one. He beckoned her with two bent fingers, then hissed a word in Arabic that she’d heard Amineh use to hurry the girls.
“Now,” he said in a stern whisper. “The guards don’t need to see you like that.”
She glanced down to see her nightgown was plastered to her front, her nipples standing out from the high curves of her breasts like traffic cones. Her lack of underwear was flagrantly obvious.
The light was coming up fast with the sun. She couldn’t approach him looking like this!
Her tent looked miles away from here, however, and… Oh, help me. He didn’t wait. He waded into the water and snapped the towel around her back, barely giving her a chance to lift her arms out of the way before he closed it across her chest and tucked it tight.
She grabbed at it to finish the job herself, then brushed his hands away and glared up at him, even though she was the idiot who’d gotten herself into this mortifying position.
“I didn’t think anyone else was awake,” she hissed.
“The guards patrol around the clock.”
She scowled at the surrounding area, right up to the top of the jagged wall of the canyon, seeing no one. “Well, I wasn’t planning to swim when I came out.”
“Good thing I was.” He nodded at the towel, matching her whisper, but still managing to sound patronizing.
“I wasn’t trying to insult anyone,” she explained, upset that she’d made a cultural gaffe.
He snorted. “That was the least of my reasons for covering you.”
Again he used the tone that suggested she was a bit of a half-wit. She glared up at him, but the eye contact only sent a current of electricity through her that stayed active and hummed in her veins so her breaths stumbled unevenly. A shiver chased over her even as the burn that had kept her awake through the night rekindled.
She forced herself to look toward her tent. Told her feet to carry her in that direction, but all the illicit fantasies she’d had in there loomed large in her mind. The blood she’d cooled with her swim heated and moved with a sensual slither through her veins, creating a simmering warmth in her belly and lower. Very personal muscles clenched in anticipation.
The return to a state of receptiveness was so primeval and quick, her breath hitched in a helpless catch. How did he do this to her by only standing near? It was unsettling to have no control over her reactions.
She didn’t want to know if he knew, hoped he didn’t, but her gaze tracked to his to see.
He was waiting for her. Something fierce flashed in his eyes. This time when he stepped close and lowered his head, as proprietary as a man could get, she didn’t feel any alarm. No sense of self-preservation. Just anticipation. Please.
His lips burned on contact against her cool ones, sliding easily against the dampness left from her swim.
Her eyes closed and her senses came alive to the feel of his firm mouth settling purposefully onto hers. He parted her lips with a lick of his tongue, causing heat to flow into them so fast it stung. Her whole body came alive with a jolt of powerful excitement so intense she shuddered.
And she returned the pressure of his mouth instinctively, moving hers in a type of hungry greed, Her heart pounded with excitement and fear-spiked awareness that she wanted things from him he could never give her. This was futile, but irresistible.
And so exquisite. When his tongue dashed deeper against her inner lips, both daring and deliciously stimulating, she touched her own to his. He tasted smoky and spicy, not like cigarettes, but like open fires and exotic foods. He was remarkable. The sensations he provoked in her were so sweet she wanted to moan aloud. She was drowning—
It hit her that they were still standing in the pool where anyone could see them.
Stricken, she jerked back with a splashing step.
He steadied her, mouth tightening to a harsh line as he scanned over her head. When his searing green gaze came back to hers, his eyes were brimming with frustration.
“Let’s take this to my tent,” he said in a graveled undertone.
Her heart exploded inside her chest like an overinflated balloon, bursting into ragged pieces. Hookups were just that easy? Women were, she supposed. For him. He obviously thought she was.
“Just like that?” she asked breathily, anguished that she’d dropped herself so low in his estimation.
He cocked his head, expression cynical. “You don’t want to?”
His tone was full of the knowledge that she’d kissed him back, making it doubly hard to claim she didn’t want to. Her chest was still rising jaggedly and her vision was full of a naked chest she longed to touch. She swallowed.
“I happen to like my job,” she said, hating herself for not being able to honestly say she wasn’t even tempted. She was. Deeply.
“They don’t have to know,” he said, flatly brushing that away.
“Look.” She must be glowing redder than the sky at the horizon. “I can do the math. You don’t have many options here.” She used her chin to indicate the camp. “I suppose it’s a good offer, that I should feel flattered, but I’m not in your league.”
It was a detail she’d been using in her head to counter her longing and it didn’t seem to sway him any better than it did her.
His expression hardened with derision. “We’ll be on exactly the same level once we’re horizontal.”
Nice, she mentally scoffed, taking that remark like a sword in the gut, while the thought of being horizontal, with him atop her, shorted out her brain.
She startled at the way his hand gentled on her arm as it moved in a light caress that raised prickling sensations across her shoulders and up the back of her neck. He was making no effort to temper his sexuality and was quite overwhelming. Everything about him made her heart race with both apprehension and excitement. His touch was so possessive and strong that every little caress of his thumb against her skin would stay with her for the rest of her life.
“You really want me to believe you don’t want to?” he chided.
“Of course I want to,” she admitted painfully. There was no point in denying it. She was lousy at dissembling. Stronger people walked all over her because she had few natural defenses. It made her great with children and hopeless when it came to a captivating man like him.
So she realized what a chance she was taking in revealing how attracted she was to him. If he took it into his head to pursue her, she’d have no way of stopping him.
“Then let it happen.” His reassuring caress became something more, something drugging and inducing. “I’m not going to hurt you, Fern.”
“I’ve been given to believe differently,” she protested with the caustic sarcasm she hated resorting to, but her back was to the wall. “Apparently it does hurt. The first time.”
So there, she told him with a pointed look into stunned aqua eyes. Her face ached. Yes, she mentally transmitted. No one had ever wanted her enough to take her virginity. It was lowering and painful, but it was true.
Now her feet found the ability to propel her away to somewhere dark and small. Chest aching, she let her shaky legs carry her back to her tent.
Her plan was to shamelessly use the children as deflective shields if Zafir approached her, but he didn’t.
Which was unconscionably disappointing.
But what did she think? That she was irresistible? With this bedhead?
She’d woken from a deep sleep that had been an escape from a desire to cry. If an unfamiliar towel hadn’t been lying in a heap next to her still damp nightgown, she might have thought she’d dreamed the whole thing.
Sadly she hadn’t. And now Zafir knew she was a virgin. One who was inordinately hot for him.
Funny how Mother was always right. Lust did make you miserable. Fern supposed she ought to be glad it hadn’t also got her pregnant, kicked out of her home and abandoned by the father. She wouldn’t be so busy trying to make ends meet and raising a burden alone that life would pass her by in an astringent blur.
“Excellent!” Tariq declared, making Fern look up from kneeling next to Bashira as she helped the girl focus the microscope.
“What is?” she prompted, but a tickling shiver chased up her spine and she knew without following Tariq’s gaze over her head.
“My father is coming to take us for a walk.”
Standing, she pivoted to face Zafir, taking a breath to argue, but he stole her ability to speak simply by arriving and casting a respectful eye over her overturned wicker basket and tablet, which showed pictures of water bugs.
The girls leaped up to fetch proper shoes with Tariq.
“Why…?” she asked, feeling persecuted as they were left alone.
“You’re safe, Fern,” he assured her, one hand lifting to calm her as he held his distance.
She didn’t feel safe! Not when his sweeping gaze seemed to visualize her nude beneath a soaked gown. She crossed her arms, hiding that her nipples prickled into points and trying to protect the fragile ego squirming like a wisp of smoke behind her breastbone.
“I shouldn’t have presumed this morning.” A mixture of compunction and frustration flashed in his expression. “If I frightened you, I apologize.” He sounded sincere. Looked it, even though his gaze was now penetrating hers in a way that was extremely uncomfortable. “It won’t happen again.”
Well, that certainly told her how irresistible she was. Her eyes grew damp with a startling mixture of frustration and longing. She lowered her lashes to hide her completely misplaced disappointment.
“Lust is bad,” she managed to say, stating it for her own benefit, hoping to soothe this sting of rejection by making it sound like she wouldn’t go to bed with him even if he wanted her to.
His mouth twitched, the corners deepening with a pained and secretive smile. “Says the woman who doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” He sobered into the man she had read was a determined leader of a troubled populace. “But in this case, yes. The consequences aren’t worth it.”
A thick lump rose in her throat. His words cut to the bone and set her adrift. Funny how it really didn’t matter that Zafir’s kiss had been incidental, brought on by proximity and availability, nothing personal. She had done what females did around alpha males: projected willingness. His reaction had been as biological as hers.
She shouldn’t want him to do it again, but she did.
Lust. Hormones. Whatever it was, they were very detrimental to a woman’s good sense. She ought to thank him for dismissing any possibility of giving in to it.
But she was just hurt.
He smiled and offered, “I’m only here because Tariq pled your case at lunch.”
“His own,” he answered with a tilt of his head. “Ra’id has asked you not to take the girls beyond the camp without him, but he has agreed with Tariq that I am an acceptable escort. “
“I—” think, she urged herself “—don’t want to impose.”
“We’re also facilitating for Ra’id and Amineh,” he said.
“In what way?” She looked up from setting rocks on the children’s sketches so they wouldn’t blow away if the wind came up.
Zafir’s dry lift of his brows made the wheels roll and click in her head. But he couldn’t really be saying what she thought he was saying. They were having sex?
“You’re like one of those chameleons that switches color between one breath and the next.” His husky tone laughed at her flush.
“Well, I can’t believe what you just implied! It’s rather personal, isn’t it? And she’s your sister. Did they actually ask you…?”
“No. And I’m not going to dwell on whether that’s what they’re really doing. But the girls both have birthdays about nine months after past vacations here. Ra’id has had a killer travel schedule the last few years, but he told me last night they’re looking forward to a more settled life next year.” He shrugged. “And he loves his girls, but his successor is his brother. He’d like a son.”
“What about your son?” she asked tartly. “Also an oasis baby?”
He lost all hint of humor as his expression shuttered. “Wedding night.”
Conversation closed, she heard loud and clear. It left her feeling as though she’d overstepped, but he started it.
The children returned and they headed out. Twenty minutes later, they had followed a track through tall grass that crackled like green flames around them, then they climbed to a vantage point above the spring. Zafir explained the relay station that kept them in contact with the outside world and the girls waved at the servants in the camp below.
No sign of Ra’id and Amineh. That shouldn’t make her feel envious, but Fern was. Greener than the oasis.
We all have different paths, Miss Ivy would say. Bloom where you’re planted. She was full of those sorts of sayings. Most of the time Fern appreciated that encouraging, make-the-best-of-it quality in her friend. Today she just felt…single.
Unloved and unlovable.
Zafir showed the children how to use his digital camera then stepped back to watch them stalk geckos in the rocks.
Fern stood a few feet away, looking over the camp below. Her narrow waist was emphasized by the wide band of her beige skirt and her arms were covered by an equally dull-colored shirt, but his mind kept seeing her as she’d looked this morning: a water nymph sent to inflame him. She’d risen from the water, small breasts high and firm and topped by pebbled nipples he’d longed to tongue and suck. Her form was sleek, her femininity understated, but she’d been undeniably all woman when the fabric of her nightgown had painted her stomach and upper thighs, falling away into a frustrating veil that hid her most intimate flesh.
He’d already been primed for her, having spent the night recalling those confusing moments in her tent. She’d been such a curious mixture of invitation and hesitation, baffling him. Experienced women could be notorious teases, but he hadn’t caught that vibe from her. More an alarmed hesitation that had stopped him as much as the knowledge that kissing her at all was reckless.
He’d been so sure she was feeling the attraction as strongly as he was, but she’d tripped away like a frightened rabbit. He didn’t prey on women so her reaction had made him feel like a cad.
Her faltering made sense now that he understood how inexperienced she was, but through the night he’d pulled his own insecurities into the equation and tortured himself by wondering whether she really wanted him. The idea that she didn’t, when he burned for her so strongly, had been painful. Really, truly agonizing.
And then she’d stood before him in the pool and projected all those signals of yearning again, her body on display. He’d had to know.
Her lips had latched to his as she surrendered to passion and that had been it. He couldn’t remember a time when a simple kiss had ignited him so thoroughly. They were a perfect match and only the knowledge that his and Ra’id’s men were watching over them had kept him from giving in to the barbarian ancestry that had raged to the fore. He’d trembled with the effort to keep from pressing her back onto the dry sand, lifting her night dress and filling her with the flesh that had thickened in powerful response to the sight of her.
Getting her into his tent and under him had been imperative.
And if she had agreed, he would have breached her maidenhead.
That still confounded him. Her reluctant “of course I want to” had been ringing in his head since she’d said it, soothing his ego. It now offered bittersweet consolation as he faced that he really couldn’t seduce her. It would be the height of dishonor.
Why couldn’t she be the sophisticate that most of her countrywomen were?
“Tell me about yourself, Fern,” he commanded, still not fully believing what she’d revealed. “Have you never been curious?”
She flashed him a startled, slightly harassed look, then glanced at the children working out a rotation system for the camera. Tariq’s guard had wandered farther up the path and beyond their hearing.
“I’m highly curious,” she argued with small flags of pink on her cheekbones. “For instance, I wonder why Tariq’s guard came with us but none to watch the girls. What conclusion should I draw from that?”
“My son’s guard is our best snake handler,” he replied with amusement, more than aware his culture was still quite sexist by Western standards, but in this case his reasons were purely practical. “I thought it wise to have him scout the area before letting the children poke around. Now stop evading my question. You know what I’m really asking. How old are you? If you were from this part of the world I wouldn’t be surprised, but how does an English girl remain untouched until she’s twenty-two?”
“Three,” she countered with a little grimace and a defensive fold of her arms. She pushed her straw hat more firmly onto her head, no doubt trying to hide beneath its wide brim. “I had other priorities,” she said. “And it’s not something I want to throw away out of mere curiosity.”
She sounded prudish and uptight, not like a typical product of the Western world. Male or female, most people her age were hooking up out of boredom if nothing else. He’d been a kid in a candy store at that age, having developed some skill by his early twenties and feeling the pressure to marry soon. He’d taken advantage of every opportunity while he’d had his freedom.
Good thing he had, since his married years had been dry.
“That wasn’t meant to sound like a challenge,” she added, sending him a look he supposed was intended as a rebuff, but as he held her gaze, her expression softened to yesterday’s absorption.
She didn’t realize it, but that mixed signal of defensiveness and yearning challenged him to show her what she was missing. Just touching her bare arm had filled him with excitement. Something more could be truly volatile and he was darkly tempted to discover the extent of it.
“There are other ways to find pleasure without going all the way,” he pointed out, mind already several hundred meters down that road with her. “I’m having trouble believing you’re so inexperienced you’ve never been kissed.”
“I didn’t say that,” she retorted. “Just that I haven’t—” Pain flashed across her expression and she fixed her attention on the children. “I’m no supermodel. Men don’t find me interesting.”
Her bruised confidence got to him. It made him soft and weak when he needed to be strong and resistant, but he understood the feeling of being spurned better than most. Her lack of self-assurance wasn’t something he could ignore and allow to grow like a cancer.
“Don’t underestimate yourself. Men are lazy and will pick the lowest-hanging fruit. It doesn’t mean the apples higher up aren’t appealing.”
“Says the man who turned up his nose at the only fruit in the bowl this morning,” she retorted, then went red. “Ignore that. You’re right. Let’s forget all of this. It makes me feel ridiculous.”
Such a quick, defensive reaction suggested he’d hit a nerve. Her insecurity went deeper than he’d realized. That made him uncomfortable. He ought to let her think he had rejected her and leave it at that, but he couldn’t.
“I covered you this morning because I didn’t want other men seeing what I want for myself. You have my interest, Fern,” he admitted.
His words snapped her head around, her shocked face framed in the brim of her silly hat. A vulnerable softness that was appealing and very temptingly receptive edged into her eyes.
He reached for what little control he had, which was surprisingly tenuous.
“But do you know anything about our history?” His low tone came out aggressive and rough, colored by lifelong bitterness at the hurdles put in front of him by the accident of his birth and now the addition of this…denial of something he wanted quite badly.
“My father’s affair with my mother caused a huge rift in our country. He called off his arranged marriage, flaunted his half-breed son as his heir. Any hint of my Western upbringing is seen as a flaw by my detractors. If we were in London, I would seduce you into my bed right this second, but we’re not. So even though one of my favorite things in the world is finding wild strawberries in a field, for the sake of my country and quite possibly my life, you and I can’t happen.”
His words poured lava through her arteries. Not the part where he made it clear the consequences of sleeping with her really might be dire, but the part where he acted like he truly wanted to. That made sensuous feelings pool into her loins as a hot, heavy ache turned her into the ripe fruit he was talking about. Reach for me. Consume me.
She couldn’t look away from him and didn’t know how to hide the effect he had on her. With a kind of desperation, she searched to be sure there was no laughter or subterfuge in his expression and only saw his pupils flare.
Her heart skipped.
“What kills me is knowing you have options,” he said in a begrudging growl, flicking a glance toward Tariq’s guard. “Several.”
“What?” She glanced at the man who was nudging beneath a stunted bush with a long stick. “I’m not attracted to him! Not to any of the men.”
“Only me?” he challenged, but even though there was a hint of belligerence in his tone, it was a statement, one that made him nod once in satisfaction. “Good.”
“No, it’s not!” she said loudly enough to make the children stop and look toward them.
Fern crossed her arms, annoyed with herself, but Zafir easily excused her outburst.
“Miss Davenport is taking issue with my calling England soggy. She doesn’t realize I’m speaking with the affection of a countryman.” Turning back to her, he contradicted quietly, “If you began visiting other men’s tents, I don’t think I would react very well.”
“I don’t… What does that mean? You’d be…” She couldn’t make herself say it. It would be reaching way beyond her grasp and she’d fall on her face.
“Jealous?” Zafir suggested through teeth set in a dangerous smile. “It’s worse than that. My ego likes knowing you react only to me. It’s not civilized, but only half of me is English. The other half is centuries-old barbarian. I want you, but if I can’t have you, no one else can.”
Her brain was doing three-sixties, stunned by his arrogance, cursing her inability to disguise her attraction, and some wicked part of her was deeply thrilled by his seeming possessiveness. It made her realize exactly how seductive it was to feel wanted by the person who intrigued you.
On the other hand… “This is ludicrous,” she muttered. “No one has ever… I am completely English. Is this how you talk to every woman you meet?” She was blushing—of course she was—but she was indignant enough to feel her spine lock into place. “Because I can’t believe you’re acting as if this is…something that could really happen. I barely know you.”
“But the way you look at me says I can have you. I want to have you,” he warned, looking every inch the desert warrior who stole women for his harem and kept every single one of them pleasured.
A swirl of excitement spiraled downward from her throat to sting her breasts, coil in her abdomen and end as a spark between her thighs. It was a promise of something that had eluded her all her life and she wanted to hang on to it, kindle it and watch it glow hotter.
“You could help me out,” he said with a feral growl, nostrils flaring. “Tell me I’m wrong. Refuse me.”
She opened her mouth, knowing she should, but he stood there so commandingly. This wasn’t about her being too shy or intimidated to assert herself. It was about her being an honest person who was overwhelmed with attraction for the first time in her life. She wasn’t a victim of her own urges or his aggression. She finally felt alive and wanted to embrace everything about this glorious awareness.
So not a good idea.
She lifted a hopeless hand. “I told you men don’t come on to me. How much experience do you think I have with refusing one?”
He bit out an old-fashioned English curse, one she supposed was apropos, and turned away, too athletic to lurch, but his movements were jerky as he joined the children and admired the shots they’d taken so far.
Fern forced her gaze to the footprints he’d left behind, fearful that she was more like her mother than she’d ever be able to bear.