The Sheikh's Ransomed Bride

By: Annie West
CHAPTER ONE


BELLE clasped her hands tight together and concentrated on not being scared.



The rough floor was hard beneath her weary body, making her wish she wore something more than a swimsuit. The un-forgiving rasp of iron around the chafed skin of her wrists and ankles was bearable if she didn’t move.



But she couldn’t dispel the acrid taste of fear on her tongue. Or the brutal images of violence that replayed in her mind.



Shivering, she looked down at Duncan. Her colleague was pale, but mercifully asleep on the narrow pallet. She’d splinted his leg as best she could, and the bleeding had stopped. There wasn’t anything more she could do for him.



Except pray.



She’d done little else for thirty hours. Since their kidnappers had dumped them here: not merely isolated in this ramshackle hut, but the only people on the whole blisteringly hot islet.



Yesterday she’d explored, scouring it for anything they could use to summon help or to escape. She couldn’t have missed anything.

She’d had to crawl on her hands and knees since the heavy shackles had kept tripping her up.



If she’d been able to walk properly she’d have circled the island in five minutes. A bare atoll: sand, a couple of palm trees and this ruined hut. No help. No supplies.



Unwillingly she let her gaze stray to the single large water bottle their captors had left behind. She hadn’t tasted water since sunrise, knowing Duncan needed it more. Now the bottle was perilously close to empty. Her tongue was thick and swollen from dehydration. Had they been left to die? Her empty stomach cramped savagely at the thought.



None of this made sense. Not the abduction from their dive-boat or their abandonment. She and Duncan weren’t typical kidnap victims. They weren’t rich or powerful. They hadn’t offended local sensibilities with their survey of a sunken first-century trading ship. Everyone in Q’aroum had been so friendly and helpful.



Belle chewed her lip, trying not to dwell on the possibility that two marine archaeologists might die of thirst before they could be rescued. The Arabian Sea was vast, and this island so tiny it wouldn’t be on a map.



Would they be back, those brutal men who’d looked as if they’d enjoy nothing better than slitting her throat?



Even with masks hiding their faces, she’d known they wouldn’t hesitate to kill. There’d been callous excitement in their hard, glittering eyes. Sadistic enjoyment of their victims’ desperate fear.



Belle shuddered and blinked her gritty eyes against scalding tears of fury and fright. She would not give in to panic. Her only hope, hers and Duncan’s, was to be strong. To concentrate on staying alive. No matter what the odds.



Deliberately she turned her thoughts to her family in Australia. She drew strength from the knowledge that, if she survived this ordeal, her mum and sister would be waiting for her.



When, she reminded herself, not if she escaped.





Belle pressed her palms to her aching eyes, ignoring the burn of unshed tears against her lids. She hadn’t slept and exhaustion sapped her strength. She couldn’t stop shaking. She slumped, fighting the despair that welled up inside her, clogging her throat and weighting her heart.



Gingerly she settled herself on the floor. She wouldn’t sleep, but she needed to recruit her strength.



Reluctantly she closed her eyes.



The noise woke her. A yowling wail that tore through the air and made the roof groan. They were in for a storm.



Belle opened her eyes and realized where she was. And that they weren’t alone any more.



Her heart thudded frantically, the sound of it swelling to a deafening roar in her ears. Her parched throat closed as she watched a man bend over Duncan. A torch propped on the floor illuminated the puckered scar that lined the man’s cheek and ran up to his short grizzled hair. A large gun was slung over his shoulder, and on the floor beside his boot she saw a long, curved blade. The Middle Eastern version of a Bowie-knife.



He reached out a hand towards Duncan’s throat, and Belle knew with terrified certainty that she had to act fast. Her colleague was in no state to save himself.



And yet she had to force herself to move. Dread was a physical weight pushing down on her. She knew she had no hope against the stranger.

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