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'Just lean slightly further forwardoh, yes, that's it.'
Kaliq clenched his teeth and resisted the urge to topple the balding excuse for a man who was leering behind the camera with such gusto that he was almost horizontal. The self-control it took not to step forward and silence him with a single flick of one long, lean finger required more resolve than he might have anticipated, for the scene was, after all, exactly as he had expected.
Unobserved in the shadows, Kaliq followed the man's lecherous gaze and bit down hard upon his lower lip as he slowly drank her in, the initial stab of recognition at seeing her again quite literally in the flesh mounting to a low insistent thud of desire in his groin. Hell, she was the very devil incarnate.
Splayed before a backdrop of fire, she was pouting provocatively, every inch of her offered up for his delectation his, and every man's. Even if technically she wasn't naked, the shimmering slip of golden fabricwhich back in Qwasir would be hard pushed to qualify as a mosquito netbarely skimmed her lush breasts before disappearing into nothing mid-thigh, and only served to enhance more of her slender figure than it covered. Never had he seen anything so close to, nor so far from his deepest fantasies both at the same time.
As the hot studio lights beat down upon her bronzed skin and those loose auburn curls, the irony forced him to suppress a sardonic laugh. Now, what was it she had said? That she wanted the freedom to live her life out of the spotlight that his attracted? Jezebel indeed, he thought, eyeing the logo on the oversized perfume bottle that was supposedly the centralprop of the photo shoot but which one might be forgiven for overlooking completely.
It had been on his trip to the Qwasirian embassy in Paris last month that he had first caught a split-second glimpse of a billboard plastered with the inviting image of a woman all at once too familiar and yet not familiar enough. Then suddenly those deceptively wide eyes and rosebud lips had been everywhere, and even the swift investigation of his closest aide was unable to prove that he was mistaken. It was Tamara Weston. Never before had anything made him so furious.
He should have suspected as much. After all, even when she had been a guest in his landnot yet a woman and yet hardly a girlshe had been too spirited, both for her age and her sex, however prim she had looked. But seven years ago, accompanying her irrefutable allure had been an innocence he had foolishly believed was as much a part of her as her beauty. Kaliq's nostrils flared. What was it then, which had made her turn down the honour he had offered her in favour of this? Had the idea of sharing her body with only one man failed to excite her? Or was it her own limelight she had sought all along?
No matter, he thought, leaning back languorously against the doorframe. He might not be able to turn back the clock, take back the misplaced respect he had once bestowed upon her, but the future was a different story. This time, her choice didn't come into it. There was no question of his being mistaken about that.
As another lewd stage-direction passed Henry's lips, Tamara allowed her mind to wander. Just what expression would cross his oily features if she leaned far enough forward to swipe the smutty look off his face?
Ignore him, she told herself, unsure why she was letting him get to her today. Every job has its downside. Heavens, she should know. In the last few years she'd had more jobs than she could count on her fingers, and probably her toes as well. But take the odd walking slime-ball like Henry out of the equationand thankfully his presence at these photo shoots was rareand she had to admit that modelling had a lot more upsides than she would ever have imagined. If she had stopped to consider it as a potential career before now, which she hadn't. For, though she was tall at five foot nine and had inherited her mother's striking colouring and good bone structure, she would never have described her appearance as anything other than average. And after witnessing her parents' divorce splashed across the papers, she had never had the desire to forge any kind of career which would involve being in the public eye. However, when her college friend Lisawho in Tamara's mind had that enviable fortune of knowing what she wanted to do with her life since the age of sixhad asked her to pose wearing her first collection of fashion designs, she had agreed as a favour. To Tamara's amazement, when Lisa hit the big time, retail giant Jezebel Cosmetics had approached her with an offer to become the new face of their brand.
At first Tamara had been reluctant to accept, but when she saw the salary they were offering, she knew she couldn't pass up the opportunity to at least try a job which would allow her to give more than just her spare time to Mike. What she hadn't expected was to discover that there was much more to the job than simply looking sultry for a few hours a day; because aside from being mentally and physically exhausting, she had to work out the best way to convey whatever emotion the piece required. She found that satisfyingly challengingeven if, when she stopped to think about it, that might have been because portraying whatever image she was asked prevented her having to contemplate who she really was. As for the pace of it all; yes, she would gladly lose the press intrusion, but travelling to new destinations and meeting new people outweighed all of that. The point was, after flitting from one job to another, she actually felt as if she might be on the cusp of finding her place in the world, a sensation she hadn't had in years, not since she had been in a very different place, a long time ago.
And, since becoming the new face of Jezebel Fragrance, fashion houses and magazine critics alike were hailing her the hottest new property in the modelling world. In the space of a few months she had gone from being just another girl in the sea of faces, to being recognised wherever she went, with photo shoots the world over. In fact, only yesterday Henry's assistant had informed her that next week she was expected in the Middle East and she couldn't wait.
But today, the moment she had walked out into the studio, she had felt ill at ease, as if there had been some kind of chemical reaction in the room and all the good had evaporated. Suddenly it seemed as if it was not just her appearance that was on display to the world, but her soul too. She couldn't put her finger on why. Henry's comments were no worse than usual. Her dress, the evocative backdrop was no different from countless other shoots. Was it perhaps down to the extra cameras that Henry's assistant had mentioned they would be using? She moved her legs beneath her uncomfortably, focusing on the multitude of people and equipment she usually pretended were not there at all. The forest of lenses and cables all angled towards her looked no denser than normal, and certainly no more alarming. Yet still the incongruous sense that she was being watched somehow differently, her instinct screaming at her to run, escape now before it was too late.
Telling herself she had just got out of the wrong side of bed that morning, she flicked her head to the left as instructed, allowing her mass of thick, dark hair to fall over her shoulder, and berated herself for her overactive imagination. However, the moment she did so, she caught sight of something on the periphery of her vision. Or, more specifically, someone. A tall figure shrouded in darkness, set apart from everyone else.
Tamara felt her heart stop beating and rise like the bubble in a thermometer, lodging itself in her throat. Don't be stupid, she told herself, unable to discern his face without altering her pose. It couldn't be. He would never be here. It was probably just another potential client of Henry'sa regular occurrence since Jezebel sales figures had gone through the roof. Yet, try as she might to rationalise the instinct which told her it was not just anyone, it was too overwhelming.
'Lov-ing that flushed look of expectancy, Tamara. Keep at that angle.'
But Tamara wasn't listening, for she had already turned her head. And, the instant she did, the air left her lungs as if someone had dealt a blow to her stomach.
Or her heart.
She would know that profile anywhere. The rugged, regal set of his features. The proud dark head. The autocratic posture of his tall, sculpted frame. That was what made her sure it was him. Other men might be as tall, their bodies just as athletically proportioned, but no one else stood like that. Head and shoulders above the rest, and not just literally. For he emanated an infuriatingly justified self-confidence. He knew that the moment he walked into a room, whether he was announced as Kaliq Al-Zahir A'zam, crown prince of Qwasir, or not, the particles in the air changed a little, so that every womanno, every human beingwas aware of the presence of a man who could not be ignored.
She swallowed and closed her eyes in disbelief, wishing that the heat spreading through her body would somehow make her invisible, camouflaged against the flames projected behind her. But she only felt herself growing more conspicuous, naked almost, beneath his dark, penetrating gaze.
Why on earth was he here? Had he some financial interest in Jezebel Cosmetics? It was one of the world's most successful new brands, but since when did a sheikh need to dabble in the retail industry for extra cash? He bought racehorses like other people bought popcorn, for goodness' saketo liven up a little light entertainment. Tamara would have laughed at her own pathetic supposition if her heart wasn't pulsating so wildly, and if all her attention wasn't focused on looking anywhere but in his direction.
Why, then? Surely, after all this time, he hadn't come to remind her what she was missing, as if she was a task that had finally got to the top of his royal to-do list? No, he had made it perfectly clear that he never wanted to see her again. There had to be some logical explanation.
'All right, Tamara. Whilst the sight of your shivering side profile opens up a whole new realm of possibilities, it rather detracts from the heat of the piece. Let's call it a day.'
For once, Tamara was actually grateful to hear Henry's voice. Plagued with curiosity though she was, the need to escape was greater. If she was quick, she could make a dash for her dressing room behind the main stage and leave by the back door. Because, no matter how unimaginable his reason for being here, never discovering it was preferable to facing her greatest regret head-on. It was bad enough that it had followed her around like a shadow all these years.
But quick, she soon discovered, had not been quick enough. For, as she slung on her jacket and hot-footed the short distance to her dressing room and flung open the door, it became apparent that he had been quicker.
She did not know why she drew a breath in surprise. If his purpose was to speak with her, she knew he would not let a little matter like her reluctance interfere with his plans. With one leg tossed casually over the other, his suspended foot working impatiently, he sat back in the chair positioned right in the middle of her dressing room as if it were a throne. Waiting.
Tamara dared not meet his eyes: close up was fifty times more dangerous than taking in that lethal gaze from a distance. She had never seen him outside of Qwasir itself, and it struck her now more than it ever had before just how exotic he lookedthat olive skin, the opulence of his thick, black hair which, while cut short, had a definite wave that seemed to speak of wildness and control at the same time. Although he wore his dark, impeccably cut suit as if he had been born into it, seeing him in Western dress seemed only to enhance just how much an extension of the untameable desert he was.
She remained at the doorway, fighting the contradicting emotions inside her which fought for supremacy. One half hating himthe only man she had ever believed herself in love withfor waltzing through the door just when she had finally started to forget, the other half feeling as if she had just woken up from a dull and lifeless sleep and discovered it was the first day of spring. The recollection that she ought to have bowed in the presence of the crown prince and that her informal address no doubt broke a thousand codes of Qwasirian conduct came later, and was the easiest to dismiss. Though perhaps not for him, for his eyes flicked over her with such censure that she felt if she didn't say something anythingthen the room would combust.
'Believe it or not, I wasn't expecting guests.' Tamara made a point of looking at the clothes and make-up scattered around the room, hoping it explained the look of horror on her treacherously expressive face.
'Don't tell me that acting is another of your hidden talents,' he drawled, eyeing the bouquet on her dressing table, which she had hastily plonked in water before the start of the shoot. 'It can hardly be an unusual occurrence to find an admirer hovering in your dressing room, hmm?'
Tamara felt herself colour involuntarily at the insinuation, all the more so because blushing was a childhood tendency that until now she had thought she'd grown out of. The flowers were just a thank you from Mike, but she might have guessed that, to Kaliq, modelling and a lack of virtue were synonymous. Did he suppose she had a different admirer in here every day of the week? How little he knew.
'Actually, it is'
'There is no need to play the innocent with me now, Tamara,' he interjected.
'Didn't anyone ever teach you to allow a person to finish their sentence?'
Kaliq suddenly raised his head, as if the concept of someone correcting him was entirely alien and he needed to check he had heard correctly.
'I was about to say that most people pay attention to the private sign on the door.' The words rebounded in her head as soon as she had spoken them. Kaliq was many things, but he most certainly was not most people.