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SHE was tempted to take more shots, but her spine was tingling. And that wasn't a good sign when the man she had her camera focused on had a sidekick with a gun slung across his shoulder.
Zara guessed her target had to be one of the local tribal leaders touring the border of his land. But, whoever he was, he was magnificent. Capturing striking images was her stock-in-trade, though wildlife of a different kind had brought her to the wadi—rare desert gazelles and the Arabian oryx, graceful creatures that had been hunted to the point of extinction in some parts of the desert. They had been reintroduced into Zaddara in the early eighties and were said to drink here at dawn. The man was an unexpected bonus.
Zara tensed, realising he had started stripping off his clothes. The temptation to zoom in was irresistible. His torso was hard and tanned an even nutmeg and muscles bulged as he flexed his arms. Discarding his tunic, he let his trousers drop and she gasped as he stepped out of them, completely naked. It was a moment before she realised she hadn't taken a single shot. She made up for it now.
Wildlife photographer to hot-skin snapper? Zara smiled wryly. There was a whole world of opportunity opening up for her here. But she had no inclination to broaden her horizons in that direction even if she could use some of the images she was capturing now in the exhibition she intended to stage when she got back home... An exhibition that was supposed to contain more than wildlife images, Zara reminded herself. She had been hoping to capture something that would help her to forge a closer link with her late parents, not this incredible specimen...
Burrowing deeper into the sand hollow that served as her 'hide', Zara worked as fast as she could, hoping her camera lens wouldn't catch the sun and give her away. She had a living to earn, as well as a past to understand. And the truth about her past lay here somewhere in Zaddara...
Her parents had lost their lives in an oilfield disaster working as geologists for the late Sheikh. Sheikh Abdullah had been a simple man with a simple goal, and that had been to find oil to bring wealth to his impoverished country. Her parents had helped him to do that and had paid for it with their lives. The kingdom of Zaddara was now one of the major oil-producers in the world thanks to them, but the country had a new sheikh, and Sheikh Shahin was said to be far more ruthless than his father. Her late grandparents had always told her Shahin was responsible for the accident that had killed her parents.
Her jaw clenched as she thought about the blood money paid into her bank account each month. As soon as she was old enough, she had formed a trust to hold the money, then used it to fund the schemes she cared about. Recently she'd given a lump sum to a scheme that reintroduced rare species into their natural habitat. She refused to spend a penny of it on herself and had found solace of a sort from using the Zaddaran money to do some good.
Zara felt a shiver run through her a second time. It was a warning. Something wasn't right. Where had the bodyguard got to? Lowering the camera, she knew she shouldn't have allowed herself to become distracted. Capping her lens, she started to shuffle backwards down the slope towards her Jeep.
Shahin's jaw clenched with anger when he heard Aban's warning shout. He was poised on the edge of the wadi ready to dive in. He had waited almost a month for this promise of cool relief. He couldn't believe someone would dare to disturb his privacy now. He was in the middle of the desert. How far must he go to find solitude?
He had chosen the area for his retreat carefully. This place was at least fifty miles from the nearest habitation; only the Bedouin trails of his ancestors, hidden to those unfamiliar with the changing patterns of the desert, passed this way. There shouldn't have been a chance of him coming into contact with another human being. And now this...
Narrowing his eyes, Shahin shaded them against the first low-slanting rays of the sun. Staring up into the dunes, he could see two dark shapes silhouetted against the threatening red sky where there should only have been one. The area might be remote, but the fact that he hadn't checked their surroundings personally was a careless mistake. He could afford no more errors.
Casting another glance into the dunes, Shahin relaxed, seeing his bodyguard Aban had everything under control.
The intruder had been apprehended and it would dent the old man's pride if he were to interfere now. Aban was a good man and he would make sure he retired with honour. The elderly guard had travelled willingly into the wilderness with him to share the privations of a prince. A prince who had for a lifetime cared only for himself, and who must now be a king and father to his people. Only Aban knew the long days and nights of fasting were not just to prepare him to rule, but to drain the pus from a longstanding wound, a wound that even now could make him call out in his sleep and pound the sand with his fists in frustration that the past could not be changed. But if he must live with what he had done, he would learn from it. Diving into the freezing water, he powered across the wadi knowing that when he returned to the capital to be formally recognised by his people as the ruling sheikh of Zaddara he would take on all his father's responsibilities, however challenging. He was ready now.
Vaulting out of the water after his swim, Shahin grabbed the clean ankle-length thawb along with the flowing robe left for him by Aban. Adding a howlis to protect his head, neck and face from the harsh climate, he deftly fixed the long scarf-like head-covering in place.
A sharp breeze made him turn and in that moment he saw that Aban's captive was a young woman... Aban was holding her by the arm as they came down the dune together and she seemed none too pleased. Turning his face to the horizon, he shut her out. In his mind's eye all he could see now was the ruby-red glow enveloping the desert and the mountains in the far distance standing out in sharp black relief against a crimson sky. This was his land, a cruel land, and he loved it. He would allow nothing and no one to divert him from his chosen path.
The sound of the woman's voice intruded on his contemplation. Her voice was raised in anger and he resented the intrusion. Who was she? What did she want? Belting his robe, he turned to stare as the two figures approached. She was like a young colt walking awkwardly on the sand. Why was she alone in the desert? What type of person took such a risk? Was this journey into one of the most remote regions of the world worth so much to her?
His expression darkened when he saw how poorly she was equipped. Her outfit had no doubt been purchased from some fancy adventure-holiday equipment shop... But where was her survival gear? Where was her water canister? Where was her knife, her rope, her radio alarm...? Where were her flares? Didn't she know the first thing about the desert? Didn't she realise that a sandstorm could cut her off from her vehicle in seconds? Did she think she could snap her way out of trouble with that expensive-looking camera she was hanging on to so desperately?
As he strode towards them all these questions and more were beating a path to his eyes. But as the young woman raised a protective arm to her face he halted mid-stride. Did she think he was going to hit her? His expression was enough to make anyone think that, Shahin realised, standing stock still for a moment in silence. The breeze whipped up and took hold of his stark black robe, pressing it against his thighs, thighs that were still burning from his morning exercise. He saw her looking and felt his senses stir.
"Let her go." He issued the command in a low voice, but even though he had spoken in the throaty Zaddaran dialect she immediately caught his meaning and her face lit with anger.
"I should think so too!" Furiously she shook herself free from Aban's grasp.
As Aban moved to catch her again he was forced to make a fierce gesture to warn his faithful old servant to let her be. Such autocratic gestures didn't sit easily with him, but if he were to remain anonymous in front of this woman discretion was paramount. "She's not going anywhere," he observed, in English this time. "Bring her to my tent..."
"What?" she exclaimed.
Her incredulity drew a faint smile to his lips as he walked away.
"Come back here!" she cried. "Who do you think you are, telling me what to do?"
He had to stop, turn around and pacify Aban, before the old man made good the threat he made after this second outburst. It was fortunate for the young woman that she didn't understand the language! Grit, fire, courage, Shahin thought, noting the way she was glaring back at him. His curiosity deepened, but then Aban started to grumble again and, to defuse the situation, he was forced to point out that she was only armed with a camera.
Still muttering, the old man shook his head. "Come with me." He addressed her directly, gesturing towards his pavilion. The Bedouin blood running through his veins made hospitality mandatory however unpalatable that might be, and he had vowed to espouse all his father's values, not just cherry-pick them at will.
This time she made no protest. He was impressed by her self-possession as she walked alongside him, though he could tell Aban was incensed by her easy manner. The old man thought no one should walk next to his king.
The old ways dictated that any guest must be welcomed to his tent for three days and three nights, which wasn't such a bad option in this instance. The young woman had obviously come to the desert seeking adventure—who was he to disappoint her?
As they drew close he could see that she wanted to take some shots of the Bedouin tent. He had to stop her before she went to work. "No photographs," he said firmly.
"What?" She didn't believe him at first, but quickly realised he was serious and left the camera to swing on the cord around her neck.
For the first time he had a chance to observe her properly and he could see that, beneath the layer of dirt and grime, she was quite beautiful. Her long hair, caught up in a casual ponytail, was the colour of creamy caramel. There was a hint of gold as well that the dust rising up from the sand couldn't hide...
Dust that had started to lift all around them, Shahin noted with concern. Staring out towards the horizon, he frowned. The red dawn sky had been an early warning of a storm blowing up. "Move the Jeep to higher ground and stay with it," he ordered Aban. "The tents are secure, and I'll check them again before the weather worsens."
Aban's smaller tent was pitched twenty yards or so from his own, but it was also beneath the same sheltering rocks. There was a third tent in the back of the off-road vehicle that Aban could use until it was safe for him to return.
Turning his attention back to the woman, he saw her swallow with apprehension. She had caught the urgency in his words and he felt he should say something to reassure her. "The weather is deteriorating, but you'll be safe here with me. Don't argue," he warned, when she started to protest. "You have no alternative but to stay. Aban tells me we have about an hour before the storm hits—and that's if we're lucky."
"But it only took me two hours to get here from the city—"
Behind the defiance he saw her fear. "That was before there were dangerous weather conditions to consider. You can't outrun the wind," he pointed out.
He had no time to waste on persuasion and started off for the temporary structure that had been his home during his retreat, eager to check all the supports and ensure that they would withstand the force of the wind. To his surprise, she ran ahead of him and cut him off.
"If your man's leaving now, I want to leave too. We could travel in convoy—" Her chin tilted at a defiant angle as she held his gaze. "And why don't you come with us? Why stay here if it's so dangerous?"
Because there were too many memories inside his tent, too many things that had belonged to his parents for him to risk losing them... The tent had been his father Abdullah's before he had claimed his kingdom. There wasn't time to dismantle it now, and so he would stay with it. But that wasn't her business. "That just isn't possible," he said coldly. "And it's too risky for Aban to waste time trying to recover your Jeep. If Aban is to remain safe he must leave right away.'Veering away from her, he walked on.
She chased after him. "But why can't I go with him?"