Shamed in the Sands(5)

By: Sharon Kendrick


 But her clothes were as irrelevant as his reaction to them. She had worn them in order to look modern and for no other reason. The most important thing to remember was that this man held the key to a different kind of future. And she was going to make him turn that key—whether he wanted to or not.

 Fighting another wave of anxiety, she opened the briefcase she’d been holding and pulled out a clutch of carefully chosen contents.

 ‘I’d like you to have a look at these,’ she said.

 He raised his eyebrows. ‘What are they?’

 She walked over towards a beautiful table and spread out the pictures on the gleaming inlaid surface. ‘Have a look for yourself.’

 He walked over to stand beside her, his dark shadow falling over her. She could detect the tang of lime and soap combined with the much more potent scent of masculinity. She remembered him wearing nothing but that tiny white towel and suddenly her mouth grew as dry as dust.

 ‘Photographs,’ he observed.

 Leila licked her lips. ‘That’s right.’

 She watched him study them and prayed he would like them because she had been taking photos for as long as she could remember. It had been her passion and escape—the one thing at which she’d shown real flair. But perhaps her position as princess meant that she was ideally placed to take photos, for her essentially lonely role meant that she was always on the outside looking in.

 Ever since she’d been given her very first camera, Leila had captured the images which surrounded her. The palace gardens and the beautiful horses which her brother kept in his stables had given way to candid shots of the servants and portraits of their children.

 But most of the photos she’d brought to show Gabe Steel were of the desert. Stark images of a landscape she doubted he would have seen anywhere else and, since few people had been given access to the sacred and secret sites of Qurhah, they were also unique. And she suspected that a man like Gabe Steel would have seen enough in his privileged life to value something which was unique.

 He was studying one in particular and she watched as his eyes narrowed in appreciation.

 ‘Who took these?’ he questioned, raising his head at last and capturing her in that cool grey gaze. ‘You?’

 She nodded. ‘Yes.’

 There was a pause. ‘You’re good,’ he said slowly. ‘Very good.’

 His praise felt like a caress. Like the most wonderful compliment she had ever received. Leila glowed with a fierce kind of pride. ‘Thank you.’

 ‘Where is this place?’

 ‘It’s in the desert, close to the Sultan’s summer palace. An area of outstanding natural beauty known as the Mekathasinian Sands,’ she said, aware that his unsettling gaze was now drifting over her rather than the photo he was holding. He was close enough for her to be able to touch him, and she found herself wanting to do just that. She wanted to tangle her fingers in the thick, molten gold of his hair and then run them down over that hard, lean body. And how crazy was that?

 With an effort, she tried to focus her attention on the photo and not on the symmetry of his chiselled features.

 ‘I took this after one of the rare downpours of rain and subsequent flooding, which occur maybe once in twenty years, if you’re lucky.’ She smiled. ‘They call it the desert miracle. Flower seeds lie dormant in the sands for decades and when the floods recede, they suddenly germinate—and flower. So that millions of blooms provide a carpet of colour which is truly magical—though it only lasts a couple of weeks.’

 ‘It’s an extraordinary picture. I’ve never seen anything like it.’

 She could hear the sense of wonder in his voice and she felt another swell of pride. But suddenly, her work didn’t seem as important as his unsettling proximity. She should have been daunted by that and she couldn’t work out why she wasn’t. She was alone in a hotel room with the playboy Gabe Steel and all she was aware of was a growing sense of excitement.

 With an effort, she forced her attention back to the photo. ‘If...if you look closely, you can see the palace in the distance.’

 ‘Where?’

 ‘Right over there.’ The urge to touch him was overwhelming. It was the strongest impulse she’d ever felt, and suddenly Leila found herself unable to resist it. Leaning forward so that her arm brushed almost imperceptibly against his, she pointed out the glimmering golden palace. She felt his body stiffen as she made that barely there contact. She thought she could hear his breath catch in his throat. Was his heart hammering as hers was hammering? Was he too filled with an inexplicable sense of breathless wonder?

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