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She dreamed of the desert.
She dreamed of dunes turning red gold under the burning fire of the sun and of the clear blue waters of the Persian Gulf lapping beaches of soft white sand. She dreamed of savage mountains and palm-shaded pools. And she dreamed of a Princea Prince with eyes all shades of the night and the power to command armies.
'Avery!' He was calling her name but she carried on walking without looking back. The ground crumbled beneath her feet and she was falling, falling
'Avery, wake up!'
She rose through clouds of sleep, the voice jarring with the image in her head. It was wrong. His voice was rich, deep and everything male. This voice was female and amused. 'Mmm?'
The delicious aroma of fresh coffee teased her and she lifted her head and stared at the mug that had been placed next to her on the table. With a groan, she sat up and reached for it, half blind from sleep. 'What time is it?'
'Seven. You were moaning. That must have been some dream.'
Avery pushed her hand through her hair and tried to wake herself up. She had the same dream every night. Thankfully when she woke it was to find herself in London, not the desert. The discordant blare of taxi horns announced the start of the morning rush hour. No mountains and no shaded oasisjust Jenny, her best friend and business partner, pressing the button on her desk to raise the blinds.
Sunshine poured into the spectacular glass-clad office from all directions and Avery felt a sudden rush of relief to be awake and realise that the ground hadn't crumbled beneath her feet. She hadn't lost everything. This was hers and she'd built it from sheer hard work.
'I need to take a quick shower before our meeting.'
'When you ordered this couch for your office, I didn't realise the intention was to sleep on it.' Jenny put her coffee down on Avery's desk and slipped off her shoes. 'Just in case you don't actually know this, I feel it's my duty to point out that normal human beings go home at the end of the working day.'
The disturbing dream clung to Avery's mind like a cobweb and she tried to brush it off, irritated by how much it could affect her. That wasn't her life. This was.
Barefoot, she strolled across her office and took a look at her reality.
Through the floor to ceiling windows, the city sparkled in the early morning sunshine, mist wrapping the River Thames in an ethereal cloak as delicate as a bride's veil. Familiar landmarks rose through the milky haze and down on the streets below tiny figures hurried along pavements and cars were already jammed together on the web of roads that criss-crossed beneath her office. Her eyes stung from lack of sleep but she was used to the feeling by now. It had been her close companion for months, along with the empty feeling in her chest that nothing could fill.
Jenny was looking at her. 'Do you want to talk about it?'
'Nothing to talk about.' Avery turned away from the window and sat down at her desk. Work, she thought. Work had been everything until her world had been disturbed. She needed to get that feeling back. 'The good news is that in my extended insomnia moment last night I finished the proposal for the launch in Hong Kong. I've emailed it to you. I think I've excelled myself this time. Everyone is going to be talking about this party.'
'Everyone always talks about your parties.'
The phone she'd left charging overnight buzzed. Back in business mode, Avery reached for it and then saw the name on the screen. Her hand froze in mid-air. Again? It was at least the fifth time he'd called.
She couldn't do this now. Not so close to the dream.
Her hand diverted and she switched on her computer instead, her heart thundering like a stampeding herd of wild horses. And layered under the panic was pain. Pain that he could intentionally hurt her like this.
'That's your private number. Why aren't you answering it?' Jenny peered at the screen of the phone and her head jerked up. 'Mal? The Prince is calling you?'
'Apparently.' Avery opened the spreadsheet she'd been working on and noticed with a flash of irritation that her hand wasn't quite steady. 'I should have changed my number.' He had no right to call her private line. She should have cut all ties. Should have made sure he wasn't able to call her except through the office.
'Over' should have meant just that except that he'd made sure that couldn't happen.
'All right, enough. I've ignored what's going on for too long.' Jenny plonked herself down in the chair opposite. 'I'm officially worried about you.'
'Don't be. I'm fine.' The words had been repeated so often they fell out of her mouth on their own. But they didn't convince Jenny.
'The man you loved is marrying another woman. How can you be fine? In your position I'd be screaming, sobbing, eating too much and drinking too much. You're not doing any of those things.'
'Because I didn't love him. We had an affair, that's all. An affair that ended. It happens to people all the time. Shall we get to work now?'
'It was so much more than an affair, Avery. You were in love.'
'Good sex doesn't have to mean love; I don't know why people always think that.' Did she sound calm? Did she sound as if she didn't care? Would anyone guess that the numbers on her screen were nonsense? She knew that people were watching her, wondering how she was reacting as the wedding of the Crown Prince drew closer. There were times when she felt like an exhibit in a zoo. It seemed that the whole world was waiting for her to drop to her knees and start sobbing.
And that, she thought, was a shame for them because they were going to be waiting a long time. She'd throw out her stilettos before she'd sob over a man. Especially a man like Mal, who would take such a display of weakness as a sign of another successful conquest. His ego didn't need the boost.
The ringing stopped and then immediately the phone on her desk rang.
Jenny looked at the phone as if it were an enraged scorpion. 'Do you want me to?'
'He's very insistent.'
'He's a Prince' Avery muted her phone 'he can't help insisting. Mal only has two settings, Prince and General. Either way, he's commanding someone.' No wonder they'd clashed, she thought numbly. No relationship could have two bosses.
There was an urgent tap on the door and Chloe, the new receptionist, virtually fell into the room in her excitement. 'Avery, you'll never guess who is on the phone!' She paused for dramatic effect. 'The Crown Prince of Zubran.' Clearly she expected her announcement to have more impact than it did and when neither of them reacted she repeated herself. 'Did you hear me? The Crown Prince of Zubran! I tried to put him through but you weren't picking up.'
'Insistent and persistent,' Jenny murmured. 'You're going to have to answer it.'
'Not right now. Chloe, please tell him I'm unavailable.'
'But it's the Prince himself. Not his assistant or his adviser or anything, but him. In person. Complete with melting dark voice and a very cultured accent.'
'Give him my sincere apologies. Tell him I'll call back as soon as I can.' As soon as she'd worked out her strategy. As soon as she was confident she wasn't going to say, or do, something she'd later regret. A conversation like that had to be carefully planned.
Chloe gaped at her. 'You sound so relaxed, like it's normal to have someone like him just calling on the phone. I can't believe you know him. I'd be dropping his name into every conversation. He is so gorgeous,' she confessed in a breathy voice. 'Not just in the obvious way, although I wouldn't object if he wanted to take his shirt off and chop wood in front of me or something, but because he's just such a man if you know what I mean. He's tough in a way men aren't allowed to be any more because it's not considered politically correct. You just know he is not the sort to ask permission before he kisses you.'
Avery looked at their newly appointed receptionist and realised with surprise that the girl didn't know. Chloe was one of the few people not to know that Avery Scott had once had a wild and very public affair with Crown Prince Malik of Zubran.
She thought about the first time he'd kissed her. No, he hadn't asked permission. The Prince didn't ask permission for anything. For a while she'd found it exhilarating to be with a man who wasn't intimidated by her confidence and success. Then she'd realised that two such strong people in a relationship was a recipe for disaster. The Prince thought he knew what was best for everyone. Including her.
Jenny tapped her foot impatiently. 'Chloe, go to the bathroom and stick your head under cold running water. If that doesn't work, try your whole body. Whatever it takes because the Prince is not going to be kissing you any time soon, with or without permission, so you can forget that. Now go and talk to him before he assumes you've passed out or died.'
Chloe looked confused. 'But what if it's something really urgent that can't wait? You are arranging his wedding.'
The word sliced into Avery like a blade through soft flesh, the pain taking her by surprise. 'I'm not arranging his wedding.' The words almost choked her and she didn't understand why. She'd ended their relationship. Her choice. Her decision, freely made. So why did she feel pain that he was marrying another woman? In every way, it was the best possible outcome. 'I'm arranging the evening party and I sincerely doubt that he is calling about that. A Prince does not call to discuss minor details. He won't even know what's in the canapes until he puts them in his mouth. He has staff to deal with details. A Prince has staff to do everything. Someone to drive his car, cook his meals, run his shower'
'someone to scrub his back while he's in the shower' Jenny took over the conversation 'and the reason Avery can't talk to him now is because I need to talk to her urgently about the Senator's party.'
'Oh. The Senator' Visibly impressed by all the famous names flying around the office, Chloe backed towards the door, her legs endless in skinny jeans, bangles jangling at her wrists. 'Right. But I suspect His Royal Highness is not a man who is good at waiting or being told "no".'
'Then let's give him more practise.' Avery pushed aside memories of the other occasions he'd refused to wait. Like the time he'd stripped her naked with the tip of his ceremonial sword because he couldn't be bothered to unbutton her dress. Or the time he'd.
No, she definitely wasn't going to think about that one.
As the door closed behind the receptionist, Avery groped for her coffee. 'She's sweet. I like her. Once we've given her some confidence, she'll be lovely. The clients will adore her.'
'She was tactless. I'll speak to her.'
'Why the hell are you doing this to yourself, Avery?'
'Employing inexperienced graduates? Because everyone deserves a chance. Chloe has lots of raw potential and'
'I'm not talking about your employment policy, I'm talking about this whole thing with the Prince. What possessed you to agree to arrange your ex's wedding? It is killing you.'
'Not at all. It's not as if I wanted to marry him and anyway I'm not arranging the actual wedding. Why does everyone keep saying I'm arranging his wedding?' A picture of the desert at dawn appeared on her computer and she made a mental note to change her screen saver. Perhaps it was the cause of her recurring dreams. 'I'm responsible for the evening party, that's all.'
''All? It has the most influential guest list of any party in the last decade.'
'Which is why everything must be perfect. And I don't find it remotely stressful to plan parties. How could I? Parties are happy events populated by happy people.'
'So you really don't care?' Jenny flexed her toes. 'You and the hot Prince were together for a year. And you haven't been out with a man since.'
'Because I've been busy building my business. And it wasn't a year. None of my relationships have lasted a year.'
'Avery, it was a year. Twelve whole months.'
'Oh.' Her heart lurched. A year? 'OK, if you say so. Twelve whole months of lust.' It helped her to diminish it. To label it neatly. 'We're both physical people and it was nothing more than sex. I wish people wouldn't romanticize that. It's why so many marriages end in divorce.'
'If it was so incredibly amazing, why did you break up?'
Avery felt her chest tighten. She didn't want to think about it. 'He wants to get married. I don't want to get married. I ended it because it had no future.' And because he 'd been arrogant and manipulative. 'I'm not interested in marriage.'
'So these dreams you're having don't have anything to do with you imagining him with his virgin princess?'
'Of course not.' Avery reached into her bag and pulled out a packet of indigestion tablets. There were just two left. She needed to buy more.
'You wouldn't need those if you drank less coffee.'
'You're starting to sound like my mother.'
'No, I'm not. No offence intended, but your mother would be saying something like "I can't believe you've got yourself in this state over a man, Avery. This is exactly the sort of thing I warned you about when I taught you at the age of five that you are responsible for every aspect of your life, including your own orgasm."'
'I was older than five when she taught me that bit.' She chewed the tablet, the ache in her jaw telling her that she'd been grinding her teeth at night again. Stress. 'You want to know why I said yes to this piece of business? Because of my pride. Because when Mal called, I was so taken aback that he was getting married so quickly after we broke up, I couldn't think straight.' And she'd been hurt. Horribly, hideously hurt in a way she'd never been hurt before. There was a tight, panicky feeling in her chest that refused to go away. 'He asked if it would feel awkward to arrange the party and I opened my mouth to say yes, you insensitive bastard, of course it would feel awkward but my pride spoke instead and under its direction my mouth said no, no of course it won't feel awkward.'
'You need to re-programme your mouth. I've often thought so.'
'Thanks. And then I realised he was probably doing it to punish me because'
Jenny lifted an eyebrow. 'Because?'
'Never mind.' Avery, who never blushed, felt herself blushing. 'The truth is, our company is the obvious and right choice for an event like that. If I'd refused, everyone would have been saying, "Of course Avery Scott isn't organising the party because she and the Prince were involved and she just can't handle it."' And he would have known. He would have known how much he'd hurt her.
But of course he already knew. And it depressed her to think that their relationship had sunk that low.