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'Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?' The kingdom of Kabuyadir
The sound of crying came to Zahir on the wind. At first he thought he'd imagined it. But when he stepped out onto the balcony overlooking the mosaic-tiled courtyard he heard it again. The sound distracted him from the decision he'd already made to leave the party he was in no mood to attend and go home. He'd gone upstairs to his friend Amir's salon, to steal a few moments to himself away from the mundane chitchat he found it hard to respond to, and very soon he would seek out his host and make his apologies for quitting the party early. In light of what was going on at home, Amir would understand completely.
But now he found himself stepping out into the courtyard, easily bypassing the interested glances that sought to detain him by adopting a detached air that he knew not even the most courageous would disregard. Instead he embraced the kiss of the warm spiced air that stirred his senses as it never failed to do and glanced round himfor what? He hardly knew. Was it a child he'd heard? Or perhaps some small wounded animal? Or was the gentle sobbing simply an imaginary product of a tired mind and heavy heart?
The sound of splashing water pouring in a crystalline flow from the mouth of a mermaid into the magnificent shell-like fountainan impressive centrepiece in the marble-paved courtyarddulled his hearing for a moment. The only other noise carried on the soft night air was the steady high-pitched drone of cicadas.
Out of the corner of his eye Zahir spied a flash of pink. Narrowing his gaze, he stared hard into a dimmed corner, where there was a stone seat almost shrouded by the shiny dark leaves of a voluptuous jasmine plant. A pair of exceedingly pretty bare feet poked out. Intrigued, he moved forward.
'Who is there?'
He kept his voice low and unthreatening. Nevertheless it carried its usual air of authority. A sniffle, a soft intake of breath, and a long slim arm reached out to brush away some of the protective foliage that more or less kept the stone seat totally secluded. Zahir sucked in a breath.
'It's me Gina Collins.'
The sweet-voiced announcement was followed by the sight of the most bewitching blue eyes he had ever seen. They all but equalled the light of the moon with their luminous crystal intensity.
'Gina Collins?' The name hardly computed in Zahir's brain. But the appearance of the fair-haired beauty that emerged from her hiding place to stand before him in an ankle-length pink dress with her feet tantalisingly bare could not fail to deeply stir him.
She was a vision of loveliness that no man would soon forget. No wonder she hid out here, away from view! Was there a red-blooded male living who wouldn't be tempted by such a vision?
Sniffing again, she stoically wiped away the damp smudges beneath her eyes with the back of her hand.
'I am none the wiser about who you are,' Zahir commented wryly, raising a brow.
'I'mI'm sorry. I'm Professor Moyle's assistant. We came here to catalogue and study Mrs Hussein's books on antiques and ancient artefacts.'
Zahir vaguely remembered the wife of his friend AmirClothilde, who was a senior lecturer in art at the universitytelling him about her intention to get some help with her library of rare and valuable books. But since his mother had died they had not met, and frankly there had been far more demanding things occupying his time.
'Is the work so distressing that it compels you to hide out here to conceal your dismay?' he mocked gently.
The enormous blue eyes widened. 'Not at all. The work is a joy!'
'Then I desire to know the reason for your tears.' 'I justI just .'
Zahir found he did not mind waiting for an answer. Where was the need for impatience when his gaze was happy to linger in examination of exquisite features that suggested they had been created by a divine artist who clearly adored her? In particular her lush-lipped quivering mouth.
She sighed softly, and her reply had a tremulous break in it. 'I heard the news today that my mother has been taken ill and is now in the hospital. My employers have very kindly booked me on an early flight in the morning, so tomorrow I'll be travelling back home to the UK.'
A sympathetic wave of compassion and understanding rippled through Zahir. He knew only too well what it was like to have a beloved mother become ill, to watch her health deteriorate day by day and feel utterly helpless to do anything about it. But he was genuinely shocked at how disturbed he was at the notion that this beautiful girl was going home when he'd only just met her.
'I am so sorry to hear your sad news But I must also confess my regret that you are going home before we have had the chance to become properly acquainted.'
A frown marred her clear brow. 'Even though my mother is ill, I wish I wasn't leaving. Do you think that's very bad of me? I would much rather stay here, if you want to know. I never realised what a painful wrench it would be for me to go, but there's a kind of magic here that's left me spellbound.'
Her response was so surprising that for a moment Zahir hardly knew what to think or say. 'So you like this part of the world? Then you must come back soon, Gina very soon. Perhaps when your mother is fully recovered?' He folded his arms across his chest and his smile was benevolent and kind.
'I would love that to come back again, I mean. I can't explain it, but this place has begun to feel more like home to me than my own country. I love it so.'
Her face glowed suddenly, as though lit from within, and suddenly he was not in such a hurry to leave Amir's gathering after all.
'But you must think me very rude for sitting out here on my own when everyone else is inside. Mr Hussein's nephew's graduation is meant to be a happy occasion, and I didn't want to bring things down by being sad. Suddenly I just couldn't seem to contain how I felt. It's difficult to talk to people and be sociable when you're upset.'
'There is not one soul here who would not understand and sympathise with your predicament, Gina. But it is good that you attended the party. It is the custom here to invite as many friends and acquaintances as possible to share in a family's joy when they have something to celebrate.'
'That's what I love about the people here. Family is really important to them.'
'And that is not so where you are from?'
She shrugged and glanced away. 'For some, maybe but not for everyone.'
'Now I have made you sad again.'
'No.. you haven't. I mean I'm sad that my mother is ill, but to tell you the honest truth our relationship is not the loving, affectionate one I could have wished for. My parents are devoted academics they deal in facts, not feelings. To them, feelings just get in the way. Anyway, I've bored you with my troubles for long enough. It was very nice meeting you.but I think I should go back inside now.'
'There is no hurry. Perhaps you would consider staying out here for a while with me? Whatever is taking place in our lives, it is a beautiful night, no?'
Zahir's hand reached out lightly to detain her, and the vivid blue eyes grew round as twin full moons. But, aside from being mesmerised by her startled glance, the feel of Gina Collins's flawless satin-textured skin made him feel almost dizzy with want. He hadn't expected that. It was as though a hot desert wind had swarmed into his bloodstream. He could hardly take his eyes off her.
'All right, maybe I'll stay for just another moment or two. You're rightit is a beautiful night.' Folding her arms, she stepped back a little, as though suddenly aware that the distance that separated them was minuscule. 'Are you related to Mr Hussein's family?' she asked quietly, and Zahir saw the flare of curiosity in her limpid blue eyes that she couldn't quite quell.
'I am not related by blood, but Amir and I have been friends for a long time. I have always thought of him as my brother. My name is Zahir,' he volunteered with a respectful bow.
From beneath his luxuriant dark lashes he saw that she blushed. Was it because he had bowed, or because he had only delivered his first name? It might be the way they would have done things in the West if they had met informally at a party, but it was definitely not the way men of his rank conducted themselves here in Kabuyadirespecially not when they were destined to inherit the rule of the kingdom after their father!
She echoed his name softlyas though it were something wondrous. The sensuous sound caused a cascade of delicious shivers to erupt down Zahir's spine.
'Even the names here have a ring of mystery and magic,' she added shyly.
'Come,' he invited, his blood heating even more at the idea of having her to himself for a while. 'Let us walk together in the grounds. It would be a shame to waste such a glorious full moon on an empty garden with no one there to witness it, don't you think?'
'Won't you be missed if you don't go back inside soon?'
'If my hosts are troubled by my unexplained absence they will be too polite to say so. Besides, I do not have to give an account of my actions to anyone save Allah.'
The woman in front of him fell silent at that. Zahir glanced down at her small slender feet, with toenails painted the same captivating shade as her dress, and a frisson of disturbing awareness rippled through him.
'You will need your shoes if we are to walk together.'
'They're over by the bench.'
Moving back towards the stone seat, with its shield of glossy green leaves and intoxicating white-flowered jasmine, Gina collected her flat tan sandals and slipped them on. When she glanced up again at Zahir, a tendril of golden hair fell forward onto her brow. She brushed it away and smiled. A woman's smile had never had the effect of rendering him speechless before, but it did now. Clearing his throat, he didn't even think twice about extending his hand to take hers. When she wordlessly and trustingly placed her palm inside his Zahir lost all track of space and time, and the grief and turmoil he had been so racked with since his mother had died melted into the ether.
Studying the strong-boned face, with fathomless dark brown eyes and long glossily black hair that was parallel with his shoulderblades, Gina knew she was captivated. With his full-length dark robethe jalabiya, as it was calledand his lean waist encircled by a light brown wide leather belt, he might have been an imposing inhabitant of a bygone court of a wealthy Caliph a highly trained soldier or a bodyguard, perhaps? He was built as if he could take care of himself and many others besides.
It might be an entirely dangerous action, putting her trust in a man she had only just met, but since such an overwhelming compulsion had never seized her before Gina could only believe it was meant to be. Kismet as they often called it in this part of the world. Right then she needed the reassurance of a strong, understanding figure. Something told her that Zahir was a man who did understand feelings.the thought was quite intoxicating.