Read an Excerpt
Did he know?
Celia Davidson took a deep breath and tried to stop her hands from shaking.
The Arabian Sea glittered outside the window of the elegant hotel offices, lapping against a ribbon of pure white sand.
The beach had probably been trucked in, along with the palm trees and the elegant hotel villas that lined its shores. With enough money you could remake anything.
Make it look as though the past had never happened.
The elaborately carved door in front of her opened and her stomach clenched in response.
"Mr. Al Mansur will see you now." His well-coiffed assistant smiled politely.
Celia brushed at her jacket, rumpled by the long journey from New York to Oman, and tucked a flyaway strand of mousy blond hair behind her ear.
Silly. He hadn't brought her here to rekindle their on-again, off-again romance.
Or had he?
That certainly wasn't going to happen. She wouldn't give him another chance to crush her heart beneath his heel.
And there was a lot more at stake now.
A rustling of papers from inside the office made her heart stutter, but she bravely took a step inside. Crisp white walls framed a high domed ceiling and two arched windows laid a spectacular view of the sea-lined horizon at her feet.
An antique desk filled the center of the room, its shiny surface devoid of clutter. Behind it, facing the windows, the broad back of a leather armchair concealed its occupant.
Her anxiety ratcheted up a notch as the chair swung to face her. Dark eyes locked onto hers. Black hair swept back from the aristocratic face and his wide, arrogant mouth sat in a hard line.
Unfortunately, he was every bit as handsome as when she'd last seen him, almost four years ago.
"Celia." He rose from the chair and strode toward her.
Blood rushed to Celia's head and she struggled to keep her feet steady on the thick carpet.
"Hello," she stammered. She extended her fingers and slid them into his large hand. A jolt of energy startled her, though it shouldn't since he'd always had that effect on her.
Her heart still ached from the last time he'd brushed her off and slammed the doors of his life against her—again.
Was that why she'd come? He'd finally invited her into the inner sanctum and she couldn't resist a chance to walk the glittering floors and fondle the treasures he'd never shown her before.
His eyes were expressionless as his palm pressed against hers, the formal gesture a stark contrast to the intimacy they once shared.
She pulled her hand back, skin humming.
Salim's stern good looks had always intimidated her as much as they'd attracted her. His tailored suit barely concealed the muscled body she remembered far too well.
"Thank you for coming." He smiled and gestured for her to take a seat. "As you've been told, I'm planning a land reclamation project. I understand that you specialize in sensitive treatment of ecologically challenging sites."
Celia blinked. Apparently he intended to gloss over the fact that they'd slept together the last time they met.
Focus. "I've worked on a number of desert projects, including an oil field in West Texas that I restored to native short grass prairie. I'm experienced with the issues involved and I—"
"Yes. I read your online portfolio." He turned and strode away from her. His broad shoulders tapered to his slim waist, accentuated by the well-cut suit.
He hadn't bothered to attend her presentation at the conference where they'd had their steamy tryst. No doubt he had more important things to do.
Silenced by his brusque comment, she scanned her surroundings. Pictureless walls and ornament-free shelves. The only decoration was a gold-sheathed dagger that hung on the wall.
Probably used to pierce his business rivals.
She knew he was capable of utter ruthlessness. He'd cut her adrift without a backward glance.
Though, really, she had only herself to blame for letting it happen again. Their college relationship was long over, but she'd fallen back into his bed at the first opportunity like a lemming running for the cliff edge.
"The site is out in the desert." His deep voice jerked her back to the present.
He walked to the window and stood silhouetted against the bright view of the manicured bay. "My mother's people owned the land and it was explored and drilled in the 1970s. By the end of the decade it lay exhausted and abandoned and has remained in that condition ever since."
She steeled herself to ask the question landowners hated most. "Is the land polluted?"
"Probably." His eyes met hers, cool and dark, devoid of emotion.
Which was fine, because she felt enough for both of them. Sheer terror raced along her nerves at what still hung unspoken between them.
You don't have to tell him.
Her friends thought she was crazy to come here. They'd begged her to keep her distance and her secret.
Those sharp black eyes fixed on hers again. "I'll need to take you out to the site."
"Of course." She pulled her PDA out of her pocket, trying not to think about being all alone with him, way out in the middle of nowhere. "That would be great. When would you like to go? I'm an early riser and I…"
"Right now." He rose from the chair as if ready to head for his car.
Not a question. A statement of fact. Apparently Salim Al Mansur was used to issuing orders and he expected her to jump.
"But it's afternoon. Won't the desert be awfully hot right now?" Couldn't she at least unpack and change? She was tired and disoriented. She'd come right here from the airport without even stopping to drop her bags off in her room at the hotel.
Though technically she was in the hotel right now. Salim owned it, part of his string of luxury resorts in the Gulf region. This office was his on-site throne room.
His eyes narrowed as he stared at her. For the first time the slightest flicker of humor seemed to glimmer in their lightless depths. "The desert is hot. It is in its nature."
She gulped. "You're right, of course." She forced a thin smile. "Might as well face things head-on."
The elephant in the room lumbered silently.
Had he summoned her here because he'd somehow learned the truth?
Salim strode toward his car. The desire to move— anywhere—surged through his limbs on a wave of thoughts and sensations.
He'd hoped that memories had deceived him, but unfortunately Celia Davidson was even more beautiful than he remembered. Although she'd come straight off a long flight, her skin glowed and her eyes shone blue as the Bahr al-Arab in the afternoon sun.
He dismissed the driver and pulled open the passenger door for Celia. His eyes strayed as she climbed in, and her boxy beige suit couldn't hide the lithe and shapely body he'd held in his arms.
Some memories were a curse that haunted you through all eternity.
"Buckle your seat belt." He started the ignition and pulled out of the hotel parking lot, leaving the sparkling oasis he'd created for the grittier and dustier world outside.
Celia belonged to that world, and he'd do well to remember it.
Funny how she still wore her golden hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, like the college student he remembered. She'd never been one to fuss over her appearance and he'd admired that at the time. Now it irked him that she glowed more than women who spent all day preening.
"Is it a long drive?" She stared straight ahead. Avoiding his glance, perhaps.
"That depends on what you're used to. Here in Oman almost everywhere is a long drive. Have you been to our country before?"
"You always said you wanted to come."
He watched as she turned, startled. She hadn't expected him to bring up the past.
"And I meant it." Her steady blue gaze stabbed him with accusation. Reminding him she'd expected so much more of him than he'd been able to give. She tore her eyes away with visible effort. "But that was a long time ago."
"I wasn't sure you'd be interested in this job." He shot a sideways glance. "I think I expected you to refuse."
He watched her neck lengthen. "Because of our history together?"
A moment of weakness had led him to her bed again after all those years apart. He'd been shocked at seeing her in the unfamiliar circumstances of a hoteliers' conference looking just as she had when they were in college together.
They'd been so young and innocent.
Celia had been deadly silent when he'd made it clear their renewed liaison had no future. She was a woman of reason. Surely she wouldn't expect a man in his position to continue an affair that could never end in marriage?
He glanced sideways at her, taking in the unchanged elegance of her profile. "I expected you to refuse because of the challenging nature of the project. I imagine most sensible landscape architects would laugh in my face."
Their encounter four years earlier was at a Manhattan conference on hotel design, so he knew she was in the landscape field. Still, he'd been surprised when his assistant had brought him her portfolio to consider as the landscape architect for this project.
The odd coincidence had presented an opportunity to face the past head-on—and push it from his mind forever.
"I enjoy taking on challenging projects." She sounded defensive, but he wasn't sure why. "And the location is a new one for me."
"You must travel a lot." He guided the car out of the hotel's palm-lined drive and onto the road.
"Yes. Manhattan is my home base work-wise. I live nearby in Connecticut, but I'm on the road two weeks out of most months."
Curiosity clawed at Salim. Or was it jealousy? "Your boyfriend doesn't mind you being away so much?"
She blinked. "I don't have a boyfriend." She tucked a strand of escaped blond hair nervously behind her ear.
"I'm sorry." Relief crept through his chest.
"Why should you be sorry? My life is very full." She stared straight ahead, jaw stiff as she uttered the words.
Why had he offered a condolence? She'd told him four years ago that she'd never married. Perhaps he felt guilty that he'd ruined her for all other men?
No doubt he gave himself too much credit.
But he'd never forgotten her. In fact, he blamed her for the demise of his first marriage, though she'd been at least three thousand miles away the entire time.
Their whirlwind romance at the conference had only deepened her infuriating hold over him. How could he take a suitable wife and hope for a successful marriage if he was enthralled by another woman?
Banishing Celia Davidson from his heart and mind would obviously be a challenge, but it must be done. The future of the Al Mansur dynasty depended on it.
Salalah's neat rows of boxy buildings gave way to plantations of palm trees. Celia couldn't help staring. How did they water this emerald forest of lushness out here in the desert?
"Salalah is naturally fertile. We get more rainfall than the rest of the country." Salim's low voice penetrated her scattered thoughts.
"That must come in useful when you're landscaping your hotels. How many do you have?"
Phew. She'd managed to get the conversation back on a semiprofessional track.
"Twelve, at last count." He turned the steering wheel with a capable hand.
A big, leather-clad wheel, on what was obviously a very expensive car. Salim Al Mansur could probably buy and sell a few small nations with his pocket change.
"You must have bought quite a few palm trees."
The side of his mouth nearest her hitched slightly. A smile or a scowl, she couldn't be sure. "And I'll buy a few more if fate allows."
The palm trees receded behind them as the landscape opened up to the kind of bare, brown nothingness she'd expected. Some places were meant to be bare and brown, yet she could rarely persuade her clients of that. They'd rather install thousands of sprinkler heads in a quixotic attempt to create paradise in a place that was never meant to be one.
Celia squinted. Had the sun created a mirage, or was she staring straight ahead at a range of mountains?
"The Fog Mountains." His low voice interrupted her disbelief. Salim must have noticed her staring.
"Wow," was all she could manage.
A band of clouds hung low over the tree-cloaked crags, green as Vermont, like something out of a fairy tale.
She'd been so wrapped up in her personal angst about coming here that she'd totally neglected to research the region. Better keep quiet about that, too.
Salim had always told her his country was full of surprises. Once upon a time she'd assumed they'd discover them together, but not like this.
How odd to be sitting inches away from him after everything that had happened. His solid, masculine presence next to her was only too familiar.
His unique scent, warm and spicy, drew her back into the past. He shared her bed for two whole years. They'd grown from childhood to adulthood together, sharing intimacies and joys and…incredible sex.
Her face heated at the memory. She'd fully expected to spend the rest of her life with him.
Then he'd ended it all in the most horrible way imaginable.
They climbed the lush green heights in silence and descended back to the rumpled beige floor of the desert. Relentless in its bleakness, it stretched to the heat-blurred horizon, broken only by the occasional isolated building.
As they drove, Celia found herself waiting for something marvelous to happen, like palm trees or mountains appearing out of the dusty haze.
Isn't that why she'd come here? Hoping for a miracle of some sort?
Salim turned off the main road and headed west on a dirt track to…nowhere.
After some minutes he pulled over, next to a dilapidated metal shed whose roof had fallen in, and climbed out in silence.
Confusion clouded Celia's mind as he opened her door and ushered her out onto the hot, sandy ground.