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Maggie bowed her head against the sheets of icy rain as she plodded along the muddy road.
Slick fabric stuck to her where she'd forgotten to do up her raincoat. Water sluiced down her legs, into her wellington boots. Her hair, so carefully washed and dried, now hung in saturated rat-tails against her neck. Vaguely she was aware of the chill numbing her body. After running, stumbling, then trudging so far in the lashing darkness, her steps slowed, became unsteady.
If she'd been thinking clearly, she'd have taken her battered Jeep. That hadn't occurred to her. One look between the carelessly drawn curtains of Marcus's sitting room and coherent thought had fled.
She'd stood, rooted to the spot, heedless of the drenching rain. When her brain had finally caught up with the message her eyes had conveyed, she'd simply run. She must have raced past her car into the welcoming blackness.
Pain tore at her throat as she sobbed in a deep racking breath. She had to get home, before the emotions churning inside overcame her.
Yet she couldn't escape the memory of what she'd seen: Marcus, naked in the arms of his lover.
Now she understood why he'd blown hot and cold, sometimes too busy to see her and at others attentive and loving. His affection had been a sham. He'd only wanted her to conceal his affair with the trophy wife of a jealous horse breeder.
Maggie's stomach churned. She'd been so gullible.
She'd believed him when he'd spoken of respecting her, not rushing her after her recent loss. He'd said she needed to be sure before they took their relationship further.
In her innocence Maggie had been sure. She'd decided to show him she was a desirable woman, mature and ready fora deeper relationship. She'd read every magazine she could lay her hands on, aiming to transform herself into the sort of woman she thought he wanted. She'd overcome her fears and thrust aside self-doubt. She'd even taken the long trip to town and bought herself a dress!
Her bitter laughter was swallowed by the rushing wind.
He'd never wanted her. She'd been too inexperienced and starved of affection to see he was using her. Nausea welled in her throat and she bent over to dry-retch again.
Strangely, this time as she looked down she could see her boots and her legs, wet and muddy below the raincoat. She frowned muzzily, trying to focus on the present, not the scene of contorting naked bodies replaying in her head.
Where was the light coming from?
'Do you need help?' A deep voice curled out of the roaring darkness to reach her.
Blindly, she raised her head and found herself blinking in the headlights of a massive off-road vehicle. A man stood silhouetted before it. He was tall, lean and unfamiliar. Something about the set of his broad shoulders and his wide-planted feet intimated he was a man prepared for anything, a man able to deal with trouble of any kind.
Maggie knew an instant's insane craving to lean forward into his strong body, rest against those more-than-capable shoulders and slump into oblivion.
Then sense overcame instinct. She had no idea who he was. Besides, she'd just learned her judgement was fatally flawed.
She'd believed Marcus to be everything she wanted in a man, a lover, a mate. She'd thought
The shadow moved closer, near enough to make her stunningly aware of his superior height and power.
'You're not well. How can I assist?' This time Maggie caught the faintest trace of an accent.
'Who are you?' she said, barely recognising the reedy whisper as her own voice.
Silence for a moment as the wind stirred the collar of her coat and drove the rain almost horizontal.
'I'm a guest at the Tallawanta Stud. Staying up at the homestead.'
Now she recognised the latest top-of-the-range vehicle. Only the best for those at the big house. And there was a special guest this week. The Sheikh of Shajehar, who owned the whole enormous horse stud, had sent an envoy on an inspection tour.
That explained his accent. The precise, clipped English, as if he'd attended a top British public school. It was overlaid with a slight softening of consonants that hinted at something far more exotic.
'Or do you intend that we both stand out here till we're saturated to the skin?'
There was no impatience in that voice, but nor was there any mistaking its steely undertone. Maggie jumped, reining in her wandering thoughts. What was wrong with her? She couldn't seem to concentrate properly.
Only now did she realise the stranger wore no overcoat. He must be even wetter than she.
'I'm sorry.' She shook her head dazedly. 'I'm not '
'Have you been in an accident?' Again that easy, calm voice with just a hint of iron in its depths.
'No. No accident. I Could you give me a lift, please?' Maggie had no qualms now about cadging a ride from him. He was the visiting dignitary she'd heard about. They were on the estate's private road and no one would be out in this weather unless they belonged here.
'Of course.' He bowed his head, then preceded her to the four-wheel drive. His stride was long, purposeful and easy, as if pacing down a carpeted corridor instead of a muddy, uneven gravel road. Maggie stumbled after him as best she could, her limbs horribly uncoordinated.
He opened the door and stood back for her to get in.
'Thank you,' she murmured as a firm hand cupped her elbow and helped her into the high cabin. Without his support she wouldn't have made it.
Maggie subsided onto the cushioned seat. Slowly she loosened her cramped fingers and let go of the straps of her high-heeled sandals from one hand, her frivolous new purse from the other. They tumbled to the floor. She'd barely been aware she still held them.
The door closed and she sank back, stunned by the warm comfort of the cabin after the howling wind and teeming rain that had drummed incessantly in her ears.
This was luxury. Heaven.
Maggie shut her eyes, overcome by the quiet peace.
'Here,' a deep voice filtered into her consciousness, 'take this.'
Slowly she turned towards the velvet-soft voice, fighting the intense dragging weariness that consumed her. She didn't want to rouse herself, but he was insistent.
Reluctantly, she opened her eyes. He sat in the driver's seat and she looked up into the blackest eyes she'd ever seen. Deep-set, hooded eyes that surveyed her closely, taking in every nuance of her appearance.
Maggie's eyes widened at the sight of her rescuer in the cabin's pale overhead light.
His jet-black hair was slicked back from a face tanned almost to bronze. Her breath snagged at the strong, spare beauty of his features, each plane emphasised by the sheen of rain on burnished flesh. Lean cheeks with slanted cheekbones that mirrored the stark angle of his brows. A strong, aristocratic nose with just a hint of the aquiline. Narrow, well-shaped lips that she could imagine tipping into a smile or turning down in displeasure. A jaw that spoke of solid power and bone-deep assurance.
The combination took her breath away. It was as if someone had opened a precious old book and conjured a warrior prince straight from the Arabian Nights.
But nothing in her juvenile reading matched this man for pure magnetism. He looked exotic and masterful.
Maggie had never known any man could look so
'Here,' he repeated, thrusting a soft woollen blanket into her hands. His brows angled down in a frown as he surveyed her. 'Are you sure you're not injured?'
She nodded, then hid her face in the folds of wool, holding the blanket with hands that trembled. Embarrassment washed through her, whether because he'd caught her staring, or because of her strange wayward thoughts, she didn't know.
She must be in shock. That would explain her heedless flight and the muzzy feeling that everything was distant, unreal. Yes, that was it. Shock.
Any woman would be shocked to discover what she had tonight. And no doubt she looked a sight: workaday raingear over her beaded dress
'Stop it.' A firm hand curved around her jaw and swung her face towards him. His fingers were hard and warm and comfortingly real against her numb flesh.
Maggie blinked, amazed to discover the water spiking her lashes wasn't rain, but tears. They burned her eyes.
'Stop what?' she whispered on a hiccough, staring into liquid dark eyes that held hers mesmerised.
Gradually her galloping heartbeat slowed. The breath shuddered out of her constricted lungs. She dragged in air, conscious of a tight ache around her chest.
'You were becoming hysterical.'
His clasp of her chin shifted, fingers splaying wide to tilt her head higher as if he needed to see her better in the dim light. The heat of his touch burned life back into her frozen skin and she was content to let him hold her so. She felt strangely lethargic.
'S-s-sorry.' She frowned. She'd never stuttered in her life. And as for being hysterical 'I've had a bit of a sh-shock.' There, she finally got it out. She had trouble coordinating her lips and tongue. 'I'll be all r-right.'
'You've been out in this storm too long.' He took the wool from her white-knuckled grasp and lifted the blanket around her shoulders, pulling the edges together. The enveloping comfort relaxed her into a boneless huddle and the movement drew him close. She caught his scent, faint yet intriguing. Heat and sandalwood, spice and damp male skin. Her nostrils flared as she slumped forward.
Large hands on her shoulders propped her away from him.
'Where did you come from? How long have you been out?'
Maggie's lips curved up in a dreamy smile as her eyelids drifted lower. She really did love that accent. The softening consonants and lilting rhythm almost hidden behind the crisp intonation sounded quite seductive. She could imagine going to sleep to the sound of that voice.
Her eyes popped open as fingers curled hard into her shoulders.
'Did someone hurt you?' His voice sounded different. She shivered anew at the hint of anger in his tone.
'No! No, I'm fine. Just ' The words petered out and she blinked, confused. She really did feel odd. 'I need to g-g-get back. Please.'
Abruptly, he nodded, pushing her back into the moulded seat and reaching for her seat belt. The heat of his torso as he leant near was warmer by far than any blanket.
He straightened and immediately the chill invaded her body again. When he switched on the ignition the cabin was plunged into darkness but for the light from the control panel. Her gaze strayed to his shadowy profile: powerful yet elegant in a toughly masculine way.
Instinct told her she could trust him absolutely.
'Another s-s-six k-kilometres. Then r-right. I'll direct you f-from there.'
He eased the vehicle forward. Rain pounded on the roof and the four-wheel drive slid in the thick mud.
Mud. Her boots. Her gaze spanned the interior of the luxury vehicle.
'I'm sorry,' she whispered. 'My b-boots are f-filthy.'
'This is a farm vehicle,' he responded. 'I'm sure it collects its fair share of mud.'
Spoken like a man who never had to clean said vehicle, Maggie realised. This was no work vehicle. It was reserved for important guests, used when only the best would do.
'Who are you?'
For a moment she thought he hadn't heard her question over the sound of the rain.
'My name is Khalid. And yours?'
'Maggie.' She hugged the blanket closer, 'Maggie Lewis.' Thank goodness her teeth had stopped chattering.
'I'm pleased to meet you, Maggie.' His voice was grave, almost formal. Suddenly she wondered how this man spent his time when he wasn't visiting Australian horse studs or rescuing stranded women from deserted roads.
Khalid concentrated on the road as driving conditions deteriorated. He had to get her warm and dry quickly. She was in shock and might be on the verge of hypothermia.
Six kilometres and then how far to reach her destination? He couldn't take that risk. Instead he'd drive her to Tallawanta till she recovered.
She was an enigma. There was no abandoned car and those weren't work clothes beneath her oilskin. The glimpse of long slender legs below her coat had instantly caught his interest. And the high heels she'd dangled from her hand were for dancing the night away or seducing a man.
Was that what had happened? Had some man hurt her?
Despite her height, tall enough to top his shoulder, there was a fragile air about this woman. Her shadowed eyes were huge in that milky pale face. Her bowed neck as she'd hunched over in the road was long and slender and delicate.
She hadn't been at tonight's dinner of luminaries who'd turned out to meet the heir to the throne of Shajehar. Khalid would have noticed.
He flicked a glance at her, huddled beneath the tartan rug, her eyes closed and her head lolling against the seat. She looked weak and defenceless, but she must have a core of gritty strength to head out in this weather on foot. The woman was an intriguing mix that triggered his curiosity. That hadn't happened in a long time.
He felt a spurt of satisfaction that tonight, for once, he was without his entourage of security aides and obsequious hosts. He could indulge his curiosity, follow his instincts. Given the tight perimeter security on the vast estate, he'd won the argument that he was safe alone within its boundaries. Perhaps his security chief had realised too that it would be wise to give him space.
For six weeks Khalid had dutifully toured his half-brother's royal holdings in Europe, the Americas and Australia. But he didn't share Faruq's enjoyment of pomp and luxury. As heir to his terminally ill half-brother, Khalid had recently acquired a huge security retinue. Its size was due to Faruq's love of ostentation rather than any threat. Plus he had a schedule full of social engagements.
Social engagements! His time would be better spent supervising his latest project, a fresh water pipeline from the mountains in remote Shajehar. At least that would bring tangible benefits to his people.
Lights shone ahead in the streaming darkness and the tension eased across his shoulders and arms. Once he got her inside, in the light and warmth, he could assess her injuries, call a doctor if need be.
He bypassed the garages and drove round to the private owner's wing of the sprawling homestead.
'Here we are.' He leaned across to shake her awake. She was limp beneath his hand. Frowning, he paused only a moment before touching her pale cheek. It was icy.
'Maggie! Wake up.'
That voice again. The crisp warm voice with its tantalising hint of a lilt. She smiled to herself as she pictured an exotic prince in flowing robes, a gleaming scimitar in his hand.
She shrugged off a hand that threatened to interrupt her lovely dream. In her mind her prince smiled and tugged her to him. Eyes brighter than gems gleamed down at her and her breath caught. He slipped his hand beneath her legs and lifted her in his embrace, his arms like cushioned steel.