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Jamilah Moreau had to restrain herself from turning her walk into a light-hearted skip as she walked up the French boulevard with the Eiffel Tower in the distance. She grimaced at herself. It was such a cliche but it was Paris, it was springtime, and she was in love. She wanted to throw her bags of shopping in the air and laugh out loud, and turn her face up to the blossoms floating lazily to the ground from the trees.
She wanted to hug everyone. She forced back an irrepressible grin. She'd always thought people over-exaggerated Paris's romantic allure, but now she knew why. You had to be in love to get it. No wonder her French father and Merkazadi mother had fallen in love herehow could they not have?
She was unaware of the admiring looks her jet-black hair, exotic olive-skinned colouring and startlingly blue eyes drew from people passing byboth men and women. Her heart was beating so fast with excitement that she knew she had to calm herself. But all she felt like doing was shouting out to the world with arms wide: I'm in love with Salman al Saqr and he loves me, too!
At that thought, though, her step faltered slightly and her conscience pricked. He hadn't actually said he loved her. Not even when she'd told him she loved him that morning, as they'd lain in bed, when Jamilah had felt as if she'd expire with happiness and sensual satedness. She couldn't have held it back any longer. The words had been trembling on her lips for days.
Three weeks. That was all it had been since she'd literally bumped into Salman in the street, when she'd emerged from the university where she'd just finished her final exams. She'd practically grown up with him, but hadn't seen him in a few years, and a seismic reaction had washed through her at seeing the object of her lifelong crush. As darkly handsome as he'd ever been, and even more so. Because now he was a man. Tall, broad, and powerful.
His hands had wrapped around her arms to steady her, and he'd been about to let her go, with a thrillingly appreciative gleam in his dark gaze, when suddenly those black brows had drawn together, his eyes had narrowed and he'd snapped out disbelievingly, 'Jamilah?' She'd nodded, her heart thumping and a hot blush rising up through her body. She'd fantasised about him looking at her like that for so long
They'd gone for a coffee. When they'd stood in the street afterwards she'd been about to walk away, feeling as though her heart was being torn from her chest, when Salman had stopped her and said quickly, 'Wait have dinner with me tonight?'
And that had been the start of the most magical three weeks of her life. She'd said yes quickly. Too quickly. Jamilah grimaced again as a dose of reality hit. She should have been more cool, more sophisticated but it would have been impossible after years of idolising him from afara childhood crush which had developed into teenage obsession and now adult longing.
That first weekend Salman had taken her back to his apartment and made love to her for the first time. and even now a deep flowing heat invaded her lower body, making her blush as X-rated images flooded her mind.
She shook her head to dispel the images, kept walking. She was on her way to his apartment now, to cook him dinner. Her conscience struck again. Salman hadn't actually invited her over this eveningin fact he'd been unusually quiet that morning. But Jamilah was confident that when he saw her, saw the delicious supplies she'd bought, he'd smile that sexy, crooked smile and open his door wide.
As she waited to cross the busy road across from his imposing eighteenth-century apartment building she thought of the instances when she'd seen an intense darkness pervade Salmanwhenever she mentioned Merkazad, where they were both from, or his older brother Sheikh Nadim, ruler of Merkazad.
Salman had always had an innate darkness, but it had never intimidated Jamilah. From as far back as she could remember she'd felt an affinity with him, and had never questioned the fact that he was a loner and didn't seem to share the social ease of his older brother. But in the past few weeks Jamilah had quickly learnt to avoid talking of Nadim or Merkazad.
She was due to return to Merkazad in a week's time, but she was going to tell Salman tonight that if he wanted her to stay in Paris she would. It wasn't what she'd planned at all, but the anatomy of her world had changed utterly since she'd met him again.
She arrived at the ornate door of Salman's building, where he lived on the top floor in a stunning open-plan apartment. The concierge started to greet her warmly when she came in, but then a look flashed over his face and he said, 'Excusez-moi, mademoiselle, but is the Sheikh expecting you this evening?'
Hearing Salman being described as 'the Sheikh' gave Jamilah a little jolt; she'd almost forgotten about his status as next in line to be ruler of Merkazad after Nadim. Merkazad was a small independent sheikhdom within the bigger country of Al-Omar on the Arabian peninsula. It had been her mother's home and birthplace, where Jamilah had been brought up after her birth in Paris. Her French father had worked for Salman's father as an advisor.
Jamilah smiled widely and held up the bulging bags of shopping. 'I'm cooking dinner.'
The concierge smiled back, but he looked a little uncomfortable, and a shiver of unease went down Jamilah's spine for no good reason as the lift ascended. When it came to a smooth halt and the doors opened the trickle of unease got stronger. Salman's door was partially open, and she heard a deep-throated, very feminine chuckle just as she pushed it open fully.
It took a few seconds for the scene in front of her to register. Salman was standing with his head bent, about to kiss a very beautiful red-haired woman who was twined around him like a climbing vine. Jamilah suddenly felt stupidly self-conscious in her student uniform of jeans and T-shirt.
Their mouths met, and Salman's hands were on the woman's slender waist as he hauled her closer. Exactly the way he had done with Jamilah. She must have made a sound or somethingit was only afterwards that she'd realised that was the moment she'd dropped the shopping.
Salman broke off the kiss and looked round. But, Jamilah noted, he didn't take his hands off the woman, who was now looking at her, too, her beautiful green eyes flashing at the interruption.
Jamilah barely registered Salman's thick dark unruly hair, which had always curled a touch too near his collar, or his intensely dark flashing eyes, which she'd always thought held a universe of shadows and secrets. The hard line of his jaw, and his exquisitely sculpted cheekbones which somehow didn't diminish the harsh masculinity of his face, were all peripheral to her shock.
Numb with that shock, and a million and one other things all at once, Jamilah just stood stupidly and watched Salman say something low and succinct to the woman, who gave a little moue of displeasure before she stepped back and picked up her bag and coat.
She brushed past Jamilah on her way out, trailing a noxious cloud of perfume behind her, and said huskily, Je te voir plus tard, cheri.'
See you later, darling.
The door closed behind Jamilah and reaction started to set in. Salman faced her now, hands on narrow hips, dressed in a dark suit, crisp shirt and tie. It was the first time she'd seen him dressed so formally, and it made him look austere. She knew that he was an investment banker, but he'd never really discussed it. She realised now he'd never really discussed anything personal with herjust seduced her to within an inch of her life.
Jamilah could feel a trembling starting up in her legs, but before she could speak Salman said curtly, 'I didn't expect to see you this evening. We made no arrangement.'
They'd made no arrangement to turn her life upside down in the space of three weeks, either! Jamilah's numb brain was trying to equate this distant stranger with the man who had made love to her less than twelve hours before. The same man who had whispered words of endearment in her ears as he'd thrust so deeply inside her that she'd arched her back and gasped out loud, raking her nails down his back to his buttocks.
She fought to block the images and felt like crying. 'I wanted to surprise you. I was going to cook dinner.'
Jamilah looked down then, to see carnage. Broken eggs seeped all over the parquet floor. A bottle of wine, which thankfully hadn't broken, lolled on its side. She looked up again jerkily when Salman said, 'You can't just wander in here when you feel like it, Jamilah.'
A muscle ticking in his jaw showed his displeasure. And, from a depth she'd not known she had, a self-preserving instinct kicked in. Jamilah hitched up her chin minutely, even as her world started to crumble around her.
'Of course I wouldn't have come if I'd known that you would be busy.' And then she couldn't help asking. 'Were you ?' A poison-tipped arrow pierced her heart. 'Were you seeing her while you were seeing me?'
Salman shook his head briefly, abruptly. Impatiently.
Jamilah said through numb lips, 'Clearly, though, you're seeing her now. Evidently you've already grown bored. Three weeks must be your limit.'
She was aware of the raw pain throbbing through her voice. She couldn't hold it back. Not for the life of her. All she could think of was how she'd bared her heart and soul to this man in the early dawn hours. She'd said hesitantly, huskily, 'I love you, Salman. I think I've always loved you.'
He'd smiled his lopsided smile and said, 'Don't be ridiculous. You barely know me.'
Jamilah had been fierce. 'I've known you all my life, Salman and I know that I love you.' And that was when he'd pulled back and become monosyllabic. She could see it now, clear as day.
Salman asked now, with fatal softness, 'Just what exactly were you expecting, Jamilah?'
Jamilah shut her emotions away. 'Nothing. It would have been stupid of me to expect anything, wouldn't it? You're already moving on. Were you even going to tell me?'
Salman's mouth thinned. 'What's to tell? We've had an enjoyable fling. In one week you're going back to Merkazad, and, yes, of course I'll be moving on.'
Jamilah felt herself recoil inwardly, as if from a blow. This man had been her first lover to call what had happened between them a fling reduced every moment to a travesty. Reduced the gift of her innocence that she'd given him to nothing.
Salman frowned and took a step closer. 'You are going back to Merkazad, aren't you?' He cursed under his breathan Arabic curse that Jamilah had only heard in the souks of Merkazad amongst menand said harshly, 'You didn't seriously expect anything more, did you?'
Her face must have been giving her away spectacularly, despite her best efforts, because then he said, with chilling devastation, 'I never promised you anything. I never gave you any hint to expect anything more, did
She shook her head on auto-pilot. No, he hadn't. The utter devastation of his words sank in somewhere deep and vulnerable. It took all of Jamilah's strength just to stay standing. He couldn't know how much he was hurting her. She'd played with fire and she was getting burnt by a master. Every day had been heady, magical, but at no point had Salman made a plan anything more than twenty-four hours in advance. Now she just wanted to leave and curl up into a ball, far away, where she could curse her own naivety. But she couldn't move.
Salman watched the woman before him. He'd cut himself off from any kind of emotion so long ago that he almost didn't recognise it now, as it struggled to break through. An aching pain constricted his chest, but he ruthlessly pushed it down. For the past three weeks he'd indulged in a haze of unreality, in believing that perhaps he wasn't as damned as he'd always believed. Bumping into Jamilah, seeing her againseeing how utterly beautiful she'd becomehad broken something open inside him. He'd had the gall to think for a second that some of her innately pure goodness could rub off on him.
When he'd seen Jamilah cross the street minutes before, a huge grin on her face, he'd realised that she'd meant what she'd said that morningshe was in love with him. He'd tried to block her words out all day, tried to reassure himself that she hadn't meant it tried to ignore the uncomfortable feeling of guilt and responsibility.
He'd felt in that moment as he'd watched her approach his apartment as if he was holding a tiny, delicate butterfly in his hands, which he could not fail to crusheven if he wanted to protect its fragile beauty.
Eloise, his colleague, who had followed him up to his apartment on the flimsy pretext of getting a document, had come on to him at that exact moment, her brash, over-confident sexuality in direct contrast to the subtle sensuality of the woman approaching his apartment. In that moment he'd known he had to let Jamilah go. so comprehensively that she would be left in no doubt that it was over. So when his concierge had confirmed that Jamilah was indeed coming up, he'd felt something shut down inside him. He would crush the butterfly to pieces. Because he had no choicehad nothing to offer other than a battered soul riven with dark secrets. He could not love.
For a long moment Salman said nothing, just looked at Jamilah until she felt dizzy. Perhaps she'd imagined the awful scene? His frosty manner? That woman For a second she thought she saw something like regret in his eyes, but then Salman finally spoke, and he stuck the knife in so deep that Jamilah felt her heart slice in two.
'I knew you were coming up. The concierge warned me.' He shrugged, and she knew in that moment what real cruelty looked like. 'I could have stopped myself from kissing Eloise, but I figured what was the point? Better that you find out now the kind of person I am.' He twisted the knife.
'This never should have happened. It was weak of me to seduce you.'