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Jessa glanced up from her desk automatically when the door to the letting agency was shoved open, and then froze solid in her chair.
It was like a dreama dream she had had many times. He strode inside, the wet and the cold of the Yorkshire evening swirling around him like a great black cape.
She found herself on her feet without knowing she meant to move, her hands splayed out in front of her as if she could ward him offkeep him from stepping even further into the small office. Into her life, where she could notwould notallow him to be, ever again.
"There you are," he said in a deep, commanding voice, as if he had satisfied himself simply by laying cold eyes upon heras if, unaccountably, he had been looking for her.
Jessa's heart thudded against her ribs as her head spun. Was he an apparition, five years later? Was she dreaming?
"Tariq," she said, dazed, as if naming the dream could dispel it.
But Tariq bin Khaled Al-Nur did not look like a dream. He was nothing so insubstantial, or easily forgotten in the light of day. When she had known him he had claimed to be no more than a wealthy, overindulged member of his country's elite class; she knew that he was now its ruler. She hated that she knewas if that knowledge was written across her face and might suggest to him that she had followed his every move across the years when the truth was, she had wanted only to forget him.
But she could not seem to pull her gaze from his.
Jessa found that all these years later she could remember every detail about Tariq with perfect, shocking clarity, even as the evidence before her made it clear that he was far betterfar much morethan she had allowed herself to recall. His features were harder, more impenetrable. He was more of a man, somehow. It seemed impossible, but her memories had diminished him. The reality of Tariq was powerful, alivedazzling.
Jessa tried to concentrate on the danger. It didn't matter that her heart leaped when she saw him, even now. What mattered was the secret she knew she must keep from him. She had foolishly begun to hope that this particular day of reckoning would never come. She looked at him now, clear-eyed thanks to her shock, though that was not the improvement she might have hoped for.
He was hard-packed muscle in a deceptively lean form, all whipcord strength and leashed, impossible power beneath skin the color of nutmeg. Time seemed to stop as Jessa stood in place, cataloging the harsh lines of his face. They were more pronounced than she rememberedthe dark slash of his brows beneath his thick black hair, the masculine jut of his nose, and the high cheekbones that announced his royal blood as surely as the supremely confident, regal way he held himself. How could she have overlooked these clues five years ago? How could she have believed him when he'd claimed to be no one of any particular importance?
Those deep green eyes of his, mysterious and nearly black in the early-evening light, connected hard with a part of her she thought she'd buried years before. The part that had believed every lie he'd told her. The part that had missed, somehow, that she was being toyed with by a master manipulator. The part that had loved himheedlessly, recklessly. The part that she feared always would, despite everything.
When he was near her, she forgot herself.
He closed the door behind him, the catch clicking softly on the doorjamb. It sounded to Jessa as loud as a gunshot, and she almost flinched away from it. She could not allow herself to be weak. Not with so much at stake! Because he must know what had happened. There could be no other reason for an appearance like this, here in the forgotten back streets of York at an office that was surely far beneath his imperial notice.
He must know.
With the door closed, the noise of the evening rush in York's pedestrian center disappeared, leaving them enclosed in a tense, uncomfortable silence. The office was too small, and felt tinier by the moment. Jessa's heart hammered against her chest. Panic dug sharp claws into her sides. Tariq seemed to loom over her, to surround her, simply by standing inside the door.
He did not move, nor speak again. He held her gaze with his, daring her to look away. Challenging her. He was effortlessly commanding even in silence. Arrogant. Fierce.
He was not the easygoing playboy she remembered. Gone was his quick smile, his lazy charm. This man was not to be trifled with. This man was the king who had always lurked within the Tariq she'd known, who she'd but glimpsed in passing here and there. A shiver traced cold fingers down her spine and uncurled in her belly.
He must know.
Her pulse sounded too loud in her ears. She could feel their tangled history and her secrets all around her, dragging at her, forcibly reminding her of the darkness she'd fought so hard to escape back then. But she had more to protect now than just herself. She had to think of Jeremy, and what was best for him. Wasn't that what she had always done, no matter the cost to herself?
She let her eyes travel over Tariq, reminding herself that he was just a man, no matter how fierce. And for all his regal bearing now, back then he had disappeared without so much as a word or a backward glance or a forwarding address. He was as treacherous and formidable as the exotic desert that was his home. The exquisitely tailored clothes he wore, silk and cashmere that clung to the bold, male lines of his body, did nothing to disguise the truth of him. He was a warrior. Untamed and wild, like a shock of brilliant color in the midst of grays and browns. He was a predator. She had known it then, on some deep, feminine level, though he had smiled and joked and concealed it. Her body knew it now, and horrified her by thrilling to it even as she fought for control. Her lungs felt tight, as if he sucked up all the air in the room.
She had never thought she would see him again.
She didn't know how to react now that he was in front of her.
"No," she said, astonished to hear that her voice sounded calm even when the world around her seemed to shimmer and shake. It gave her the courage to continue. It didn't matter how compelling he was. His being so compelling had been the problem in the first place! She squared her shoulders. "No. You cannot be here."
His dark brows rose, haughty and proud. His hair, thick and black and a touch too long for civility, seemed to sparkle with the autumn rain from outside. He kept his impossible, haunting eyes trained on her face. How she had once loved those eyes, which had seemed so sad, so guarded. Tonight they seemed to see right through her. His expression was unreadable.
"And yet here I am." His voice was low, husky, and held the barest hint of the foreign lands he'd come from, wrapped in something both chocolate and smooth. Dangerous. And once morea blatant, unmistakable challenge. It hit Jessa like a fist to the midsection.
"Without invitation," she pointed out, pleased her tone was just this side of curt. Anything to seem stronger than she felt. Anything to look tougher than she was. Anything to protect Jeremy.
"Do I require an invitation to enter a letting agent's?" he asked, unperturbed. "You must excuse me if I have forgotten British customs. I was under the impression places such as these encourage walk-in clientele."
"Do you have an appointment?" Jessa asked, forcing her jaw to stop clenching. It was what she would ask any other person who appeared off the street, wasn't it? And really, why should Tariq bin Khaled Al-Nur be any different?
"In a manner of speaking," he said, his tone hinting at some significance that was lost on Jessa, though she sensed he expected her to understand his meaning. "Yes."
His eyes traveled over her, no doubt comparing her to his memories. Jessa felt her cheeks flame, in some combination of distress and fury. She had the sudden worry that she fell short, and then could have kicked herself. Or, preferably, him. Why should she care about such things? Nothing would change the fact that she was an ordinary girl from Yorkshire and he was a king.
"It is nice to see you again, Jessa," Tariq said with a dangerous politeness that did not conceal the ruthlessness beneath. She wished he would not say her name. It was like a caress. It teased at the back of her neck, swirled through her blood, and traced phantom patterns across her skin.
"I'm afraid I can't say the same," she replied coolly. Because she had a spine. Because she needed to get rid of him, and make certain he never returned. Because their past was far too complicated to ever be brought out into the present. "You are the very last person I would ever wish to see again. If you go away quickly, we can pretend it never happened."
Tariq's dark jade eyes seemed to sharpen. He thrust his long, elegant hands into the pockets of his trousers with a casualness Jessa could not quite believe. The Tariq she'd known had been nonchalant, at ease, but that man had never existed, had he? And this man in front of her was nothing like the man Tariq had pretended to be. He was too hard, too fierce.
"I see the years have sharpened your tongue." He considered her. "What else has changed, I wonder?"
There was one specific way she had changed that she could not possibly share with him. Did he already know it? Was he baiting her?
" I have changed," Jessa said, glaring at him, deciding that an offense was better than any defense she might try to throw up against this strangely familiar man, who was much more like steel than the lover she remembered. "It's called growing up." She lifted her chin in defiance, and could feel her hands ball into fists at her sides. "I am no longer likely to beg for anyone's attention. Not anymore."
She did not see him move but she had the sense that he tensed, as if readying himself for battle. She braced herself, but he only watched her. Something too ruthless to be a smile curled in the corner of his hard mouth.
"I do not recall a single instance of you begging," Tariq replied, an edge in his dark voice. "Unless you mean in my bed." He let that hang there, as if daring her to remember. Mute, Jessa stared back at him. "But if you wish to reenact some such scene, by all means, do so."
"I think not," she gritted out from between her teeth. She would not think about his bed, or what she had done in it. She would not. "My days of clinging to pathetic international playboys are long past."
She felt the air tighten between them. His dark green eyes narrowed, and once again she was reminded that he was not a regular man. He was not even the man she had once known. He was too wild, too unmanageable, and she was a fool to underestimate himor overestimate herself. Her weakness where he was concerned was legendary, and humiliating, and should have left her when he had.
But she could feel itfeel himthroughout her body, like nothing had changed, even though everything had. Like he still owned and controlled her as effortlessly and carelessly as he had years before. Her breasts felt tight against her blouse, her skin was flushed, and she felt a familiar, sweet, hot ache low in her belly. She bit her lip against the heat that threatened to spill over from behind her eyes and show him all the things she wanted to hide.
She knew she could not let this happen, whatever this was. She wanted nothing to do with him. There were secrets she would do anything in her power to keep from him. Chemistry was simply that: a chemical, physical reaction. It meant nothing.
But she did not look away.
She had haunted him, and Tariq bin Khaled Al-Nur was not a man who believed in ghosts.
He stared at the woman who had tortured him for years, no matter where he went or with whom, and who now had the audacity to challenge him with no thought for her own danger. Tariq considered himself a modern sheikh, a modern king, but he understood in this moment that if he had one of his horses at his disposal he would have no qualm whatsoever about tossing Jessa Heath across the saddle and carrying her away to a tent far off in the desert that comprised most of his homeland on the Arabian Peninsula.
In fact, he would enjoy it.
He was right to have come here. To have faced this woman, finally. Even as she called him names, and continued to defy him. Just as she had done so long before. His mouth twisted in a hard smile.
He knew that he should be furious that she wished to keep him at arm's length, that she dared to poke at him as if he was some insipid weakling. He knew that he should feel shame that he, Sheikh Tariq bin Khaled Al-Nur, King of Nur, had come crawling back to the only woman who had ever dared abandon him. The only woman he had ever missed. Who stood before him now in an ugly suit that did not become her or flatter her lushness, unwelcoming and cold instead of pleased to see him again. He should be enraged at the insult.
But instead, he wanted her.
It was that simple. That consuming. He had finally stopped fighting it.
One look at the curvy body he still reached for in his sleep, her wide eyes the color of cinnamon, her sinful, lickable mouth, and he was hard, readyalive with need. He could taste her skin, feel the heat of her desire. Or he remembered it. Either way, he needed to be deep inside her once again.
Then, perhaps, they could see how defiant she really was.
"A pathetic playboy, am I?" he asked, keeping his tone light, though he could not disguise the intent beneath. This woman reminded him so strongly of his other, wasted lifeyet he still wanted her. He would have her. "An intriguing accusation."
Temper rose in her cheeks, turning ivory to peach. "I can't imagine what that means," she snapped. "It is not an accusation, it's the truth. It is who you are."