Traded to the Desert Sheikh(10)

By: Caitlin Crews

That was Kavian. She’d understood it six months ago, on a deep and visceral level. She understood it even more clearly now. He was a brutal force, focused and unstoppable. He took what he wanted. He did not hesitate.

It took her a shuddering sort of moment to recognize it when he finally did stop walking, and even then, it was only because he finally let go of her arm. She couldn’t help putting her hands to her stomach as if she could stop the way it flipped and rolled, or make her lungs take in a little more air.

First she realized they were all alone. Then she glanced around.

It seemed as if they stood in an enormous cavern, lit by lanterns in the scattered seating areas and sconces in the stone walls, though she could see, far on the other side of the great space, what looked like another open courtyard bathed in the bright desert light. It took Amaya another moment or two to notice the pools of water laid out in a kind of circle around the central seating and lounging area where they stood. Some steaming, some not. And all the fountains that poured into them from a dragon’s mouth here, a lion’s mouth there, carved directly into the stone walls.

“Where are we?” she asked.

Her voice resounded in the space, coming back a damp echo, and smaller, somehow, than she’d meant it to sound.

And Kavian stood there before her, his arms crossed over his magnificent black-covered chest with the gleaming pools all around him, and smiled.

“These are the harem baths.”

There was something sour in her mouth then. “The harem.”

“The baths, yes. The harem itself comprises many more rooms, suites, courtyards. A whole wing of the palace, as you will discover.”

“It’s empty.” Amaya forced herself to look around to confirm that, and hated that she was afraid she was wrong. She didn’t particularly want his attention anyway, did she? What did it matter if it was shared with the other women who must surely be around here somewhere? Her father had been the same kind of man. She’d lived the first eight years of her life in his palace, with his other women in addition to her mother, each one of them one more lash of pain Elizaveta still carried with her today. Loving a man like your father is losing yourself, her mother had taught her, and then watching him lavish his attentions on others instead, while what remains of you shrivels up and dies. Amaya shouldn’t have been surprised, surely, that Kavian was cut from similar cloth. “Surely it can’t be a harem without...a harem.”

Again, that dark, assessing look of his that she worried could separate her flesh from her bones as easily as it bored inside her head.

“Do you not recall the conversation we had in your brother’s palace?”

She wished she didn’t. She wished she could block that entire night out of her head, but she’d tried. She’d tried for six months with little success. “No.”

“I think you do, Amaya. And I think you have become far too comfortable with the lies you tell. To yourself. To me.”

“Or perhaps I simply don’t remember, without any grand conspiracy.” But her voice was much too hoarse then and she saw that he knew it. Those eyes of his gleamed silver. “Perhaps I didn’t find a conversation with you all that interesting. Blasphemous, I know.”

“You told me, with all the blustering self-righteousness of your youth and ignorance and many years in North America, that you could not possibly consider marrying a man with a harem, as if such a thing was beneath you when you were born in one yourself. And I told you that for you, I would empty mine.” His mouth crooked again, but she felt it like a dark, sensual threat, not a smile. “Does that jog your memory? Or should I remind you what we were doing when I made this promise?”

Amaya looked away, blindly, as if she could make sense of this. What he’d told her then, when she’d been shooting off her mouth to cover the tumult he’d caused inside her. What he appeared to be telling her now.

“I didn’t think you really had a harem.” She didn’t want to look at him again. She didn’t want to see the truth on that face of his that had yet to soften a single blow for her, and she really didn’t want to question why she should care either way. “My brother doesn’t have a harem.”

“Neither do I.” He waited until, despite herself, she looked at him again as if magnetically drawn to him. As if he controlled her will as easily as he controlled her body. “I haven’t had a harem for the past six months. You are welcome.”

Amaya blinked, and tried to process that. All its implications.

As if he saw some of that internal struggle on her face, Kavian laughed, which hardly helped anything. He moved away from her, toward the nearby seating area that dominated the central expanse in the middle of the pools, all stone benches and bright floor pillows around graceful round tables covered in trays of food she didn’t want to look at, because she didn’t want to eat anything. She didn’t want to be here at all.