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"Malik, I'm' There was a slight pause as Sorrel struggled to push the words out. She cleared her throat and tried againforcing a smile which felt as if it was slicing her face in two. "I'm leaving you," she said, and then wished she could have bitten the words right back, wondering why the hell it had come out like that.
Malik looked up from the document he had been reading and a spark of undisguised irritation flashed from his black eyes. Eyes which had been described by the press as cold, or intimidating, or evenin the more colourful publicationsas being like those of a lithe predator, about to strike its helpless victim. "What?" he questioned impatiently.
"I mean' Sorrel stared at the dark-skinned Sheikh, sitting in his shimmering silken robes at his desk. He had barely noticed her entering the room and he was barely looking at her nowand worrying about how her words had been interpreted was obviously a complete waste of time, since he obviously hadn't been listening either! "That I'm leaving Kharastan," she finished huskily.
A frown creased Malik's olive browfor he was too preoccupied with affairs of state to have heard her. More importantly, he had no desire to bother himself with the internal domestic squabbling of the palace. Surely she knew that? 'Not now, Sorrel," he growled.
Not now? If ever Sorrel had needed confirmation that she was doing the right thing, then it came in the Sheikh's moody and offhand response to her. He spoke as if she was a troublesome fly who had buzzed into his large office suite and he was just about to carelessly swat it.
Amber sunlight slanted in through the window, turning the sumptuous apartment into a tableau of pure gold and illuminating the man who sat at the desk like some glorious living statue. As always, just the sight of him made Sorrel's heart yearnbut the sooner she got out of the habit of doing that then the sooner she would recover from the impact of his potent charm. Instead, Sorrel tried very hard to ignore his physical attributes, and fixed him with a questioning look instead. "When, then? When can we discuss it, Malik?"
"Look!' Impatiently, he waved his hand at the large pile of paperwork awaiting the royal stamp and the royal signature. Beside them lay his open diary, crammed with engagement after engagement. "You know that there is an important border issue with Maraban which needs to be resolved quicklyand I have a new ambassador to welcome later this morning. Can't you see how busy I am?"
"Yes, Malik," she said, with a sigh. "Of course I can see."It hurt that he should even askfor surely he must know that she always had his interests at heart? Once, she had been alone in looking out for Malikin the days when he had been nothing more than the Sheikh's most valued and trusted aidebut now all eyes were fixed on him.
In the royal palaceand in the desert lands be- yondhe was the centre of the universe. To be a desert king was considered irresistible in the eyes of the world. When Malik said 'jump', people leaptusually with a smarmy and obsequious smile pinned to their faces.
It hadn't always been that way, of course. Malik was a late starter in the royal gamehe hadn't even realised that he was the illegitimate son of the Sheikh until two years ago, when the bombshell announcement had been made. The old ruler had died, and Malik had been crownedfrom aide to king in a simple ceremony from commoner to royal in an instant. And yet Malik seemed to have adapted to his new status like a falcon which took its first solo flight in the desert sky.
His always haughty air had become fine tunedbut now he had developed a cool dismissiveness towards others. The practical side of Sorrel's character acknowl- edged that he needed distanceliterally, to stop anyone from getting too close to him and to attempt to claw back some of his most precious commodity: time.
Yet, deep down, hadn't Sorrel been hoping that in her case he might make an exception? Didn't it occur to him that she was itching to tell him of her decision and to get on with itto start making something of her own life, instead of just existing as some invisible sa- tellite of his? No, of course it didn't!
Ever since Sorrel had known him Malik had been an autocratic and supremely dominant manbut since he had inherited the Kingdom of Kharastan his pride and his arrogance had known no bounds. His wishes were always paramountnothing else mattered except what the Sheikh wantedand Sorrel had come to the heart- breaking conclusion that there was simply no place for her in his life any more.
Everything had changedhe had, and she had. Suddenly she no longer felt she belongedcertainly not in the land where she had lived most of her life.
Then just where do you belong? The question which had haunted her for so long popped into her head, even though she had been trying to ignore itbecause every time she let herself think about it she was frightened by the vision of a great gaping hole in her future.
Malik's black eyes were now scanning the cream parchment pages of his diary and, knowing that he could be seen by none of his servants, he scowled. It was unlike Sorrel to add to the burden of his work.
"There is no appointment for me to see you marked out in my diary." He frowned, and then he looked up again. "Did you make one?"
Once, Sorrel might have wanted to weep at such a matter-of-fact statement coming from the man she had idolised ever since she could remember. The man who had in effect 'rescueD' her, who had become her legal guardian after the sudden and tragic death of her parents and allowed her to remain in Kharastan instead of being carted off back to England. But this harsh new attitude towards her hurt more than she could have thought possible, and even though she tried very hard to tell herself he wasn't being unreasonableit wasn't easy.
"No, I didn't make an appointment," she said flatly. Malik's eyes narrowed. What was the matter with her lately? From being someone he could talk to and relax with, she had becomeedgy. "Well, be quick," he said impatiently, flicking a glance at the modern watch which looked so at odds when contrasted against the fine silk of the flowing robes he wore. "What is it?"
Sorrel wondered what he would say if she blurted out I think you've become an arrogant and insufferable pig. Would he have her taken away for treason?
She flicked her tongue out over lips which had grown suddenly dry. "I want to go to England, "she said.
"England?" Malik frowned. "Why?"
"Because' Where did she begin? Not with the truth, that was for sure.
Because I'm in love with you. I've been in love with you for years, Malik, and you've never even deigned to notice me as a woman.
No, the truth would horrify him. Sorrel had no real experience of menbut the palace library was stocked with the world's greatest literature, and she had read enough classic love stories to realise that she was wasting her time with the black-eyed Sheikh of Kharastan, who had steel for a heart. "Because I am now twenty-five."
"No, Sorrel," he negated. "You cannot be."
This was the kind of remark which once she would have found sweet, and amusingbut which now rankled as if he had just insulted her. And in a way he hadfor his failure to know her real age went some way towards explaining why he treated her as if she was about six years old.
"I really think that if anyone happens to know how old I am, it's me," she said, as near as she came to sarcasm with His Mightiness these days.
"Yes. Of course. Twenty-five," he repeated wonder- ingly, and for a second he met her gaze full-on. "How can this be?"
Sorrel steeled her heart against the sudden faraway look in his ebony eyes. A sad, wistful, almost dreamy lookas if he had lost himself in the past.
Which just proved how unrealistically sentimental she had becomeas if Malik would be longing for the days when he had been just the aide to the Sheikh, instead of the Sheikh himself!
"The years go by more quickly than any of us realise," Sorrel said briskly, realising how prim she soundedbut that was the trouble: she was prim. Basically, the years were zooming by, and with them her youth, and she was wasting it pining for a man who never noticed her. Well, not as a woman.
One dayprobably in the not-too-distant-future Malik would start casting his eyes around for a suitable bride. A woman of Kharastani stock who could provide him with pure-bred Kharastani babies. "And I can't stay here for ever," she finished.
"But you don't know England," objected Malik. "You haven't lived there for years."
"Not since I was at boarding school," Sorrel agreed. "And even then I didn't what you might call live there. Being allowed out to the sweet shop in the village every Saturday morning to spend my pocket money hardly counts as interacting with the country of my birth!"
Malik's hard mouth momentarily softened. He had known her since she was a childa blonde-haired poppet, as her father had used to call her. And he had been right. Sunny little Sorrel had charmed everyone.
Her parents had been diplomatsclever academics with a hunger for facts and experience which had ended over the treacherous peaks of the Maraban mountain range which bordered the Western side of the country. There, one hot and stormy evening, their plane and their dreams had crashed and lain in pieces on the ground, and the sixteen-year-old Sorrel had been left an orphan.
Perhaps if she had been younger then she would have been unable to refuse to return to her homeland, to be cared for by a distant relative. And if she had been older then there would have been no need for a protec- tor. But she had needed someone, and Malika great friend and confidant of her ambassador fatherhad been named as guardian in their will.
He had been more than a decade older, and in a more liberal country than Kharastan questions might have been asked about whether such an arrangement was ap- propriate between a teenage girl and a red-blooded single man. But no questions had been asked. Malik's reputation where honour and duty were concerned was unimpeachable. He had overseen her education and her upbringing with a stern eye, far stricter than that of any fatherthough Sorrel had never given him cause for concern, not even a hint of rebellion.
He stared at her. She was almost completely covered in pale silk, as Kharastani custom dictated, so it was almost impossible to known what her figure was really like, though from the drape and fall of the cloth, and the perfect oval of her face, it was easy to recognise that beneath it she was a slim and healthy young woman.
Only a strand of moon-pale hair peeped out from beneath the soft silver lace which covered it, and the only colour which was apparent was the bright blue of her eyes and the natural rose gleam of her lips. For the first time Malik began to realise that somewhere along the way she had become a womanand he hadn't even noticed.
Should he let her go? 'Can't you just have a holiday in England?" he enquired moodily. "And then come back again?"
Sorrel sighed. He was missing the pointonly she couldn't really tell him what the point was, could she?
"No, Malik," she said patiently, aware from the sudden narrowing of his eyes that few people said 'no' to him since his sudden elevation in status. "I've spent my whole life having holidays in EnglandI haven't lived there properly for years. Why, I even went to uni- versity here, in Kumush Ay"