Traded to the Desert Sheikh(3)

By: Caitlin Crews

“How thoughtful you were six months ago,” she said faintly. “It’s funny how you didn’t mention any of that at the time. You were too busy posturing and grandstanding with my brother. Playing to the press. I was nothing more than a little bit of set dressing at my own engagement party.”

“Are you as vain as your mother before you, then?” His voice turned so hard it left her feeling hollow, as if it had punched straight through her, though he still didn’t move at all. “That is a great pity. The desert is not kind to vanity, you will find. It will strip you down to the bone and leave only who you really are behind, whether you are ready to face that harsh truth or not.”

Something flickered behind that fierce gaze of his, she thought—though she didn’t want to know what it was, what it meant. She didn’t want to imagine who he really was. Not when he was so overwhelming already.

“You paint such a lovely picture,” she threw back at him. She didn’t understand why she was still sitting there, doing nothing but chatting with him. Chatting. Why did she feel paralyzed when he was near? The same thing had happened the last time, at their celebration six months ago. And then far worse—but she refused to think about that. Not here. Not now, with him watching her. “Who wouldn’t want to race off to the desert right now on such a delightful voyage of self-discovery?”

Kavian moved then, and that was worse than his alarming stillness. Far worse. He rose to his feet with a lethal show of grace that made Amaya’s temples pound, her throat go dry. Then he reached down, took her hand without asking or even hesitating and pulled her to her feet.

And the insane part was that she went.

She didn’t fight. She didn’t recoil. She didn’t even try. His hand was calloused and rough against hers, hot and strong, and her stomach flipped, then dropped. Her toes arched in the boots she wore. She came up too fast and once again, found herself teetering too close to this man. This stranger she could not, would not marry.

This man she could not think about without that answering fire so deep within.

“Let go of me,” she whispered.

“What will you do if I do not?”

His voice was still calm, but she was closer to him now, and she felt the rumble of it like a deep bass line inside her. His skin was the color of cinnamon, and heat seemed to blast from him, from his hand around hers and his face bent toward her. He was bigger than she was, tall enough that her head reached only his shoulder, and the fact that he’d spent his whole life training in the art of war was like a living flame between them. It was written deep into every proud inch of him. She could see the white line of an old scar etched across the proud column of his throat, and refused to let herself think about how he might have come by it.

He was a war machine, this man. Kavian is of the old school, in every meaning of the term, her brother had told her. She’d known that going in. She couldn’t pretend otherwise.

What she hadn’t realized was how it would affect her. It felt as if she were standing too close to a wicked bonfire, her face on the verge of blistering from the intense heat, with no way to tell when the wind might change.

Kavian tugged on her hand, bringing her closer against his chest, then bending his head to speak directly into her ear.

“Will you scream?” he asked softly. Or perhaps it was a taunt. “Cry out for help from all these soft strangers? What do you think will happen if you do? I am not a civilized man, Amaya. I do not live by your rules. I do not care who gets in my way.”

And she shook, as much from the sensation of his breath against her ear as the words he used. Or maybe it wasn’t either of those—maybe it was that he was holding her against that body of his again, and she was still haunted by what had happened the last time. What she hadn’t done a single thing to stop—but that was desert madness, nothing more, she told herself harshly.

She had no choice but to believe that. It was the only thing that made any sense.

“I believe you,” she hissed at him. “But I doubt that you want to end up on the evening news, uncivilized or not. That would be a bit too much scandal, I think we can agree.”

“Is this a theory you truly wish to test?”

She yanked herself back from him, out of his grip, and it wasn’t lost on her that he let her go. That he had been in control of her since the moment he walked into this café—or before, she realized as her stomach flipped over inside her again and then slammed down at her feet. It must have been before.

Amaya looked around a little bit wildly and realized—belatedly—that the café was unusually empty for the early afternoon. The handful of locals who remained seemed to have studiously averted their gazes in a way that suggested someone had either told them to do so or compensated them for it. And she could see the two brawny men, also in head-to-toe, relentless black, standing at the front door like sentries and worse, the sleek black SUV idling at the curb outside. Waiting.