Shamed in the Sands

By: Sharon Kendrick

 GABE STEEL WAS naked when he heard the sound of knocking.

 He picked up a towel and scowled. He wanted peace. No, he needed peace. He’d come to this strange city for all kinds of reasons—but none of them included being disturbed when he had just stepped out of the shower.

 He thought about the harsh light of spring he’d left behind in England. The way it could still make his heart clench with pain at this time of year. He thought how guilt never really left you, no matter how deeply you tried to bury it. If you scratched beneath the surface you could always bring up stuff you didn’t want. Which was why he didn’t scratch. Ever.

 But sometimes you couldn’t escape it, no matter how hard you tried. Hadn’t one of the staff sent someone up earlier, asking if he would like any special arrangements made for his birthday? He’d wondered how the hell they had known it was his birthday—until he realised that they had seen his passport when he’d checked in yesterday.

 He stood still and listened. The knocking had stopped and everything was quiet again. He started to slide the towel over one hair-roughened thigh when the sound resumed, more urgently this time.

 At any other time and in any other place, he would have ignored the unwanted summons and carried on with what he was doing. But Gabe recognised that these were not normal circumstances. This job was a first. He’d never been the guest of a member of a royal family before. Correction. The head of a royal family. He’d never worked for a sultan before—a man who ruled over one of the world’s wealthiest countries and who had already lavished on Gabe a breathtaking amount of hospitality. And maybe that was what was beginning to irritate him most of all—because he didn’t like to be beholden to anyone, no matter how exalted their position.

 Uttering a muttered curse beneath his breath, Gabe wrapped the towel around his hips and crossed a room so vast that back home the walk might almost have qualified as a workout. He’d stayed in some amazing places in his time, and his own place in London was pretty mouth-watering. But he had to acknowledge that this penthouse suite in Qurhah’s finest hotel took luxury to a whole new level.

 The knocking continued. A low drumming sound he found impossible to ignore—and its persistence made his impatience increase. He pulled open the door to find a woman standing there. Or rather, a woman who was doing her best not to look like a woman.

 Tall and slim, her body was completely covered and her features were in shadow. She was carrying a briefcase and wearing a trench coat over a pair of jeans, with a fedora hat pulled down low over her face. Her appearance was so androgynous that she could almost have been mistaken for a man. But Gabe could smell a woman’s scent in a pitch-black room, even when she wasn’t wearing perfume. He could accurately assess the hip-width of a pair of panties from nothing more than a cursory glance. Where the opposite sex was concerned, he was an expert—even if his expertise went no further than the physical.

 Because he didn’t do emotional. He didn’t need a woman to unpick his mind at the end of a stressful day, or cry on his shoulder in the mistaken belief that it might make his heart melt. And he certainly didn’t want some unknown female turning up today, when his heart was dark and his schedule full.

 ‘Where’s the fire?’ he demanded.

 ‘Please.’ Her voice was low and urgent and very faintly accented. ‘Can I come in?’

 His lips gave the faintest curve of contempt. ‘I think you must have the wrong room, sweetheart,’ he said and started to shut the door.

 ‘Please,’ she repeated—only this time he could hear panic underpinning her words. ‘Men are trying to find me.’

 It was a stark appeal and it stopped Gabe in his tracks. It wasn’t the kind of thing he heard in the slick, controlled world he called his life. It took him back to a time and a place where threat was a constant. Where fear was never very far away.

 He stared down at her face and he could see the wide gleam of alarm in eyes shadowed by the fedora.

 ‘Please,’ she said again.

 He hesitated for no longer than a heartbeat before something kicked in. Some unwanted protective urge over which he seemed powerless. And he didn’t do powerless.

 ‘Come in,’ he said abruptly. He caught the drift of her spicy perfume as she hurried past, and the fragrance seemed to cling to his skin as he closed the door and turned to face her. ‘So what’s the story?’

 She was shaking her head and turning to look at the door as if she was petrified somebody was going to burst in behind her.