Lost to the Desert Warrior(6)

By: Sarah Morgan

 Unsettled that the facts had given her such an incomplete picture, Layla remembered what her sister had said about the rumours. That Raz Al Zahki was a man who knew women. Before he’d fallen in love he’d been wild, and afterwards he’d locked it all away. Every emotion. Every feeling.

 ‘How do you know me?’

 ‘I make a point of knowing my enemy.’

 ‘I am not your enemy.’ And yet she could hardly blame him for thinking that, could she? His family had suffered terribly at the hands of hers. They stood on opposite sides of an enormous rift that had divided their families for generations.

 ‘Which brings me to my second question—where is Hassan? Or is he so lacking in courage he sends a woman with his messages?’

 Layla shivered, but whether it was his tone or his words that affected her she didn’t know.

 ‘I’m not here because of Hassan. I was with my sister, Yasmin, but I fell from the horse.’ She saw his beautiful mouth tighten. ‘I’m sorry—I—you have to help me find her. Please. She’s alone in the desert and she won’t have a clue how to survive.’ The thought filled her with despair but still he showed no emotion. No sympathy. Nothing.

 ‘So where is Hassan?’

 ‘He could be back at the palace, or he could be out there looking for us. I don’t know.’

 ‘You don’t know? And yet this is the man you’re supposed to be marrying in a matter of hours.’

 And if Hassan found Yasmin first—

 His words slowly seeped into her numb brain. ‘You know about the wedding?’

 ‘I know everything.’

 ‘If you think I want to marry Hassan then clearly you don’t know everything.’ The tent was dimly lit, but there was enough light for her to see the flash of surprise in his eyes.

 ‘How did you leave, if not with his consent?’

 ‘We escaped. My sister loves horses. She took the fastest horse in the stables. Unfortunately she omitted to tell me she couldn’t control him.’ Layla rubbed her palm across her bruised back. ‘He proved too much for both of us.’

 ‘Both of you?’ A dark eyebrow lifted. ‘You rode one horse?’

 ‘Yes. We’re not that heavy and we didn’t want to be separated.’ Layla didn’t tell him that she’d never ridden before. This man was renowned for his horsemanship. She had a feeling he wouldn’t be impressed by the fact she knew everything about the breeding history of the Arabian horse, but nothing about the reality of riding one. ‘Something scared him and he reared up. I fell and he bolted with Yasmin on his back. She won’t be strong enough to stop him. She’s probably fallen, too.’ Panicking, she tried to stand up again, but her body protested so violently she sank back onto her knees just as two large dogs bounded into the tent.

 Terror sucked the strength from her limbs. She was at eye level with the two beasts as they came to a standstill, teeth bared.

 Raz said something to them and they whimpered and sank down to their bellies, huge eyes fixed on him in adoration.

 ‘Saluki?’ The fear was so sharp Layla could hardly breathe. ‘You own Saluki?’

 ‘You recognise the breed?’

 ‘Of course.’ Her mouth felt as if she’d swallowed all the sand in the desert. If dogs could smell fear, she was doomed. ‘The Saluki is one of the oldest breeds in existence. They have been found in the Pyramids of Egypt, mummified alongside the bodies of pharaohs.’ She didn’t reveal that her familiarity with the breed came from a darker, more personal experience. An experience she’d tried to block from her mind.

 ‘You said you were escaping. What was your destination?’

 ‘You. You were my destination.’ Reminding herself that the dogs were unlikely to attack without provocation or command, Layla kept utterly still, watching the animals. ‘We were trying to find you.’

 ‘On the night your father died? From the lack of tears it would seem you have inherited his lack of sentimentality.’

 Was that what he thought?

 Shocked, Layla almost corrected him, but she knew this wasn’t the right time. Misunderstandings could be corrected later. Or maybe they didn’t even matter. ‘It was my father’s dying wish that I marry Hassan.’

 The darkening of his eyes was barely perceptible. ‘So why come looking for me?’

 She’d practised a hundred alternative ways to say what she wanted to say but every word vanished under that icy scrutiny. ‘You are the rightful ruler, but if he marries me that weakens your claim and strengthens his.’