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THERE she was.
Arik adjusted the binoculars a fraction to bring her into clearer focus.
A slow smile stretched his mouth as the early light limned her figure with gold.
Surprising to realise how disappointed he'd been just moments ago, thinking she wouldn't arrive. She'd become the highlight of each tedious day as she appeared on the beach, a lone, perfect Aphrodite with her long rippling hair, her delicious curves and her air of innocent allure.
Even at a distance of five hundred metres, the sight of her tightened each muscle in his lower body, turned his blood sluggish as his heartbeat slowed to a heavy anticipatory thud.
He lowered the binoculars and scrubbed his hand over his face.
Hell! What had he come to? Six weeks in plaster and he was reduced to playing the voyeur. Maybe he should have accepted one of the offers of feminine companionship he'd received while he recuperated.
But he'd been impatient to get this leg healed. He didn't want any fawning women around, fussing over him and nurturing false hopes of domestic bliss, staying here in his home. He'd seen the look in Helene's eyes just a couple of months ago and had known immediately it was time to end their relationship.
A pity. Helene was clever and witty, as well as sleekly seductive and with an appetite for sex he found rare in a woman. Their time together had been stimulating, satisfying and fun. But once she'd started dreaming about happily-ever-after, it was over.
He worked hard and played hard, seeking out women who'd enjoy the fast-paced ride with him. He wasn't into breaking hearts.
No, what he needed now was a diversion, a short, satisfying affair that would keep hismind off the frustration of being cooped up here.
He lifted the binoculars again and was rewarded with a sight that made him lean forward, elbows braced on the parapet.
His golden girl had put up her easel, positioned for the view along the beach to the next rocky headland. But, instead of concentrating on her paints, she was unbuttoning her shirt.
Arik's heart jolted in expectation. Yes! Her hands skimmed quickly down the shirt, then she shrugged it off, revealing smooth shoulders and arms and a curvaceous body that made him want to discard the wheelchair and hobble down to help her undress. Slim at the waist but full-breasted: she'd be a delicious handful, he decided as he watched her bend to strip off her trousers. A ripe peach of a derriÃ¨re, invitingly curved hips and slim shapely legs.
Just as he'd suspected. A woman worth knowing better. He watched her walk down to the waves curling in on the sand. Saw her pause as the water frothed about her ankles. It would be warm, caressing her skin. The current in this part of the Arabian Sea kept the temperature inviting.
His gaze roved appreciatively down her back, her legs and up again to the swell of her breasts as she turned. Abruptly her chin lifted and she stared straight up at him, as if she could make him out among the shadows on the long terrace.
A frisson of something shot through him.
Recognition? No, that was impossible.
And yet the illusion that their eyes met and held for one, two, three long pulse beats was strong enough to jerk him out of his complacent speculation.
He lowered the glasses and stared at her. But already she'd turned away, stepping out into the shallows till the waves lapped around her dark one-piece swimsuit.
She'd look better in a bikini.
Or best of all, nude. He watched as she waded out further, then, with a sinuous shallow dive, swam out with an easy stroke into the bay. He leaned back in his seat, relieved to see she was clearly at home in the water. There'd be no need for any emergency rescue.
She swam for twenty minutes then waded ashore. The first rosy light of dawn had dissipated as the sun rose higher and brighter. It lit her to perfection, slanting off a body that made him itch to be rid of the full-leg plaster and down on the sand beside her. Close. Touching. Learning the texture of those smooth limbs, her scent, the taste of her skin against his lips, the sound of her sighs as she surrendered to pleasure.
Heat roared through him, a blaze of wanting so strong he shifted in his seat, fully aroused and impatient that he couldn't get what he wanted immediately.
If they'd been alive a hundred years ago, he could have snapped his fingers and had her brought instantly before him. It was a shame some of the old ways had died. There were definite drawbacks to the march of progress. To being a civilised man. Especially when there was something utterly uncivilised about the feelings this woman sparked in him.
Who was she? Where was she from? With that long swathe of blonde hair she was no local.
He leaned back in the chair as he contemplated the possibilities.
A girl: gorgeous, alone, tempting.
A man: bored, frustrated and intrigued.
Another smile curved his lips. He wasn't the sort to sit and wonder. He was all for action and that was exactly what he planned to get.
Soon-very soon-he'd satisfy his curiosity about her. And more...
Rosalie tucked her hair behind her ear and critically surveyed her landscape. After days of effort she'd made pathetically little progress. Despite every attempt, the scene still eluded her. She'd sketched the outline of beach and headland, attempted a watercolour and toyed with oils. But nothing had worked. Nor had the photos she'd taken captured the spirit of the place, the sheer magic of it.
The translucent ripple of the early morning tide, the impossible blush-pink of the fine-grained sand marking the long crescent of beach, the sheer vertical drop of the blue-shadowed headland, like a brooding sentinel. And the Moorish fantasy of angled walls, perfect arches and deep terraces that comprised the ancient ochre-coloured fort dominating the cliff line.
From the first morning she'd rounded the point and discovered this bay, she'd felt the unfamiliar fizz of excitement, of anticipation in her veins. It had taken her by surprise. A sensation she'd never thought to experience again.
The stark beauty of the place had made her long to paint once more. And surely it was inspirational enough to reawaken her long-neglected talent, coax and inspire her into achieving something at least passably encouraging.
It had given her the courage to open the art supplies her mother had smuggled hopefully into the luggage.
But years of inactivity had taken their toll. Whatever artistic talent Rosalie had once aspired to, it would clearly take more than this spectacular scene to reawaken it.
Perhaps she'd lost it for ever-that joyous gift of translating what she saw into something worth keeping on canvas.
Three years ago she'd accepted the loss with a sullen stoicism. It hadn't even distressed her, given the fact that her whole world had shattered around her. Three years ago she hadn't wanted to paint any more. It had been left to her family and friends to fret over the change in her.
But now, to her surprise, something, a tentative hope, a flutter of excitement, had flared into life. Only to be extinguished by disappointing reality.
She ripped the page from her sketchbook in disgust. There was something missing.
Her lips curved in a cynical smile. Talent, obviously. But something else too, she realised as she scrutinised the view. Despite the rolling surge of waves on the shore and the slow whirl of a falcon high over the cliff ahead, the scene lacked life.
She stood and stretched her cramped muscles.
It didn't matter. She couldn't do it justice anyway.
She was no artist. Not any more. She firmed her lips to counter the sudden absurd wobble of her chin as devastation rocked her.
Stupid, stupid, to even hope to regain what she'd lost. That part of her life had gone for ever.
She sucked in a deep sustaining breath. She was a survivor, she'd dragged herself out of fear and fury and grief and got on with living. More than that, she'd found peace and joy in her new life. A happiness she'd never thought to experience. She was a lucky woman. What did it matter if she'd never be an artist?
But her hands trembled as she gathered her gear, carefully stowed each item in her bag. Somehow the truth was harder to bear now after that brief surge of hope and inspiration.
She wouldn't walk this way again and torture herself with what she couldn't have. Instead she'd concentrate on other things. Sightseeing in the quaint old coastal town with its souk and its minarets. Maybe take a trip into the desert. Get back into swimming each day and finally open the paperback mystery she'd brought on her holiday.
She'd forget the haunting beauty of the deserted bay and its Arabian Nights fortress.
Her bag was almost packed when something, some distant sound or flash of motion, made her look up.
At the far end of the beach something moved. Something that resolved itself into two shapes, white-gold in the early light. Shapes that moved towards her with a steady pace, then plunged suddenly towards the sea.
Rosalie stared, recognising the beasts now. How could she not, since her brother-in-law was an enthusiastic breeder of horses? These two weren't just any horses; they were Arabs, finely proportioned with arched elegant necks and a sure gait. A colour somewhere between palest dove-grey and white, she decided as they approached, dancing a little as a wave coursed in around their hooves.
She heard a whinny and saw one toss a long mane. The man on its back leaned forward as if speaking to it, his dark hair ebony against the equine paleness. She saw the horse's ear flicker back, its head turn a fraction.
It was hard to tell where man ended and beast began. He wore white: trousers and a loose long-sleeved shirt, the neck open to reveal a V of dark bronzed skin. There was no saddle and he sat with the easy grace of one who'd grown up on horseback. His powerful shoulders and long frame seemed at odds with the lazy grace of his hands-one on the reins and one holding the second horse's lead.
Without any perceptible direction from the rider, both horses wheeled as one and picked their way through the shallows towards deeper water.
By the time they were fetlock-deep, Rosalie had her sketchbook in her hands, automatically following the graceful curve of necks and powerful haunches, such a contrast to the lean hard lines of the man with them. He was in profile now and for an instant her hand faltered at the pure masculine beauty of him. Too far away to read the details of his face, but even from here there was something arresting about the tilt of his head, the angle of his nose, the long, burnished column of his throat.
Her heart beat faster as she stared, imprinting impressions on her mind as her hand flew across the paper, desperate to get down the sense of what she saw.
And while she focused on the trio, now deep in the water, she realised that this was precisely what she'd needed to complete the wider landscape. Something living, vibrant and beautiful to breathe energy into the scene.
Over the rush of the waves another sound reached her the man's deep voice, murmuring what could only be Arabic endearments. The sound rippled across the water and right down into her chest, creating the oddest sensation of loosening warmth deep within her. Then he laughed, a low sound, rich as dark chocolate, and the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. She shivered, aware of the tightening of her muscles and sudden tension in her spine. But she dismissed it and sketched faster.
Too soon they turned and headed back to shore. They'd be gone before she had a chance to capture even part of what she was trying to achieve.
Frantically Rosalie hunched over her work, trying to catch something of the bond between rider and animal that made them move as one.
It took a few moments to realise they'd turned towards her rather than back the way they'd come.
Details caught her attention as they approached: the faint jingle of harness, the flare of equine nostrils as the horses scented her, the quickening pace, the rider's bare feet, strong and well-shaped. And the way his sodden trousers clung to him, revealing long muscled thighs; even his thin cotton shirt had been liberally splashed, become translucent in places where it caught his skin. Hard planes, flat belly, a ridge of muscle.
Rosalie stopped sketching and lifted her gaze higher.
He was watching her. His eyes were narrowed a little against the angle of the sun but she could see they were liquiddark and piercing. She sat straighter, barely aware of her rapidly thumping heart. She must have got carried away by the excitement of working again.
But as she met his look she wondered, just for an instant, if it was artistic fervour that notched up her pulse, or something else.
Impossible. Her mouth pinched automatically. There was no other explanation. Not for her.
Nevertheless, she couldn't deny he had the sort of face any woman would love to look at. Or any artist.
His body was supple yet powerful. He looked to be around thirty, a study in latent vitality. The breeze ruffled his hair, making it spring with the hint of a curl. His face was long and lean, with exotic, high cut cheekbones. His nose, slightly aquiline, spoke of power and energy, but those angled brows and hooded eyes belonged in a bedroom.
Hastily she looked away, reaching down to pick up the crayon that had fallen to the ground.
Perhaps he was angry that she'd taken his likeness. She hadn't thought of that. She had no idea how the locals would react to her work. Now she wondered about Q'aroumi protocols-whether she should have asked permission first.
She felt the intensity of his regard even while she fumbled in the sand.
"Saba'a alkair." His voice was low and even more attractive up close.