One Reckless Decision

By: Caitlin Crews
CHAPTER ONE


JESSA glanced up from her desk automatically when the door to the letting agency was shoved open, and then froze solid in her chair.

It was like a dream—a dream she had had many times. He strode inside, the wet and the cold of the Yorkshire evening swirling around him like a great black cape.

She found herself on her feet without knowing she meant to move, her hands splayed out in front of her as if she could ward him off—keep him from stepping even further into the small office. Into her life, where she could not—would not—allow him to be, ever again.

“There you are,” he said in a deep, commanding voice, as if he had satisfied himself simply by laying cold eyes upon her—as if, unaccountably, he had been looking for her.

Jessa’s heart thudded against her ribs as her head spun. Was he an apparition, five years later? Was she dreaming?

“Tariq,” she said, dazed, as if naming the dream could dispel it.

But Tariq bin Khaled Al-Nur did not look like a dream. He was nothing so insubstantial, or easily forgotten in the light of day. When she had known him he had claimed to be no more than a wealthy, overindulged member of his country’s elite class; she knew that he was now its ruler. She hated that she knew—as if that knowledge was written across her face and might suggest to him that she had followed his every move across the years when the truth was, she had wanted only to forget him.

But she could not seem to pull her gaze from his.

Jessa found that all these years later she could remember every detail about Tariq with perfect, shocking clarity, even as the evidence before her made it clear that he was far better—far much more—than she had allowed herself to recall. His features were harder, more impenetrable. He was more of a man, somehow. It seemed impossible, but her memories had diminished him. The reality of Tariq was powerful, alive—dazzling.

Dangerous.

Jessa tried to concentrate on the danger. It didn’t matter that her heart leaped when she saw him, even now. What mattered was the secret she knew she must keep from him. She had foolishly begun to hope that this particular day of reckoning would never come. She looked at him now, clear-eyed thanks to her shock, though that was not the improvement she might have hoped for.

He was hard-packed muscle in a deceptively lean form, all whipcord strength and leashed, impossible power beneath skin the color of nutmeg. Time seemed to stop as Jessa stood in place, cataloging the harsh lines of his face. They were more pronounced than she remembered—the dark slash of his brows beneath his thick black hair, the masculine jut of his nose, and the high cheekbones that announced his royal blood as surely as the supremely confident, regal way he held himself. How could she have overlooked these clues five years ago? How could she have believed him when he’d claimed to be no one of any particular importance?

Those deep green eyes of his, mysterious and nearly black in the early-evening light, connected hard with a part of her she thought she’d buried years before. The part that had believed every lie he’d told her. The part that had missed, somehow, that she was being toyed with by a master manipulator. The part that had loved him heedlessly, recklessly. The part that she feared always would, despite everything.

When he was near her, she forgot herself.

He closed the door behind him, the catch clicking softly on the doorjamb. It sounded to Jessa as loud as a gunshot, and she almost flinched away from it. She could not allow herself to be weak. Not with so much at stake! Because he must know what had happened. There could be no other reason for an appearance like this, here in the forgotten back streets of York at an office that was surely far beneath his imperial notice.

He must know.

With the door closed, the noise of the evening rush in York’s pedestrian center disappeared, leaving them enclosed in a tense, uncomfortable silence. The office was too small, and felt tinier by the moment. Jessa’s heart hammered against her chest. Panic dug sharp claws into her sides. Tariq seemed to loom over her, to surround her, simply by standing inside the door.

He did not move, nor speak again. He held her gaze with his, daring her to look away. Challenging her. He was effortlessly commanding even in silence. Arrogant. Fierce.

He was not the easygoing playboy she remembered. Gone was his quick smile, his lazy charm. This man was not to be trifled with. This man was the king who had always lurked within the Tariq she’d known, who she’d but glimpsed in passing here and there. A shiver traced cold fingers down her spine and uncurled in her belly.

He must know.

Her pulse sounded too loud in her ears. She could feel their tangled history and her secrets all around her, dragging at her, forcibly reminding her of the darkness she’d fought so hard to escape back then. But she had more to protect now than just herself. She had to think of Jeremy, and what was best for him. Wasn’t that what she had always done, no matter the cost to herself?

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