Traded to the Desert Sheikh(2)

By: Caitlin Crews

He looked like an assassin, not a king. Or perhaps a king in hiding as some kind of nightmare. Her nightmare. Either way, he looked catastrophically out of place here, so far across the planet from Daar Talaas, where his rule seemed as natural as the desolate desert and the stark, forbidding mountains that dominated his remote country.

Or perhaps the only catastrophe was the way her heart thundered inside her chest, louder by the second. He was like a shot of unwanted, far-too-tactile memory and adrenaline mixed into one, reminding her of the treacherous, unwelcoming desert where she’d been born and where she’d spent the first few years of her life, wrapped up tight in all that sweltering heat, storming sand and blinding, terrible light.

Amaya hated the desert.

She told herself she wasn’t any fonder of Kavian.

“You are quite enterprising.”

She didn’t think that was a compliment. Not exactly. Not from this man, with his harsh gaze and that assessing way he looked at her, as if he was sizing her up for structural weaknesses he could then set about exploiting for his own ends. That’s exactly what he’s doing, she told herself.

“We almost had you in Prague two months ago.”

“Unlikely, as I was never in Prague.”

That crook of his mouth again, that made her breath feel choppy and her lips sting, and Amaya was certain he knew full well that she was lying.

“Are you proud of yourself?” he asked. She noticed then that he hadn’t moved in all the time he’d sat there. That he remained too still, too watchful. Like a sentry. Or a sniper. “You have caused untold damage with this pointless escapade of yours. The scandal alone could topple two kingdoms and yet here you sit, happy to lie to my face and sip at a latte in the wilds of Canada as if you are a stranger to your own responsibilities.”

There was no reason that should hit Amaya like a blow.

She was the half sister of the current king of Bakri, it was true. But she hadn’t been raised in the palace or even in the country, as some kind of royal princess draped in tiaras and expectations. Her mother had taken Amaya with her when she left and then divorced the former king—Amaya’s father—and Amaya had been raised in her mother’s painful whirlwind of a wake. A season here, a season there. Yachts in the south of France or Miami, artistic communes in places like Taos, New Mexico, or the beach resorts of Bali. Glitzy cities bristling with the rich and famous in their high-class penthouses and hotel suites, distant ranches ringed with fat, sleek cattle and more rustic interpretations of excessive wealth. Wherever the wind had blown Elizaveta al Bakri, wherever there were people to adore her appropriately and pay for the privilege, which Amaya had come to understand was her mother’s substitute for the love her father hadn’t given her, that was where they’d gone—as long as it was never, ever back to Bakri, the scene of the crime as far as Elizaveta was concerned.

That Amaya had returned to the country of her birth at all, much less because Rihad had prevailed upon her after their father had died and somehow gotten into her head with his talk of her birthright, had caused a distinct rift between Amaya and her mother. Elizaveta had been noticeably frosty to her only child since the old king’s funeral, which Amaya had attended and which had been, in Elizaveta’s view, a deep betrayal.

Amaya understood. Elizaveta still loved her lost king, Amaya was sure of it. It was just that Elizaveta’s thwarted love had grown more than a little gnarled and knotted over all these years, becoming indistinguishable from hate.

But there was no point thinking about her complicated relationship with her mother, much less her mother’s even more complicated relationship with emotions. It solved nothing—especially not Amaya’s current predicament. Or what Kavian viewed as her responsibilities.

“You’re talking about my brother’s responsibilities,” Amaya said now, somehow holding Kavian’s hard warrior gaze steadily as if she weren’t in the least moved by his appearance before her. It she did it long enough, maybe she’d believe it herself. “Not mine.”

“Six months ago, I was prepared to be patient with you.” His voice was soft. It was the only thing about him that was. “I was not unaware of the way you were raised, so ignorant of your own history and the ancient ways, forever on the run. I knew this union   would present challenges for you. Six months ago, I intended to meet those challenges as civilly and carefully as possible.”

The world, so still already since he’d sat across from her, shrank down until it was nothing but that flame of sheer, crackling temper in his dangerous gaze. Gray and fierce. Piercing into her, beneath her skin, like a terrible burning she could neither control nor extinguish. It seared through her, rolling too fast, too unchecked, too massive to bear.