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Banks craned her head to catch a glimpse of the island of Biryal as the plane burst from a thick blanket of cottony clouds and the Indian Ocean stretched below them, an endless expanse of glittering blue.
She squinted, looking for a strip of land, anything green to signal that they were approaching their destination, but there was nothing to be seen.
Breathing a sigh of relief, she leaned back in her seat. She wasn't ready to face Biryal, or more to the point its Crown Prince, Sheikh Khaled el Farrar.
Just his name brought a tumbled kaleidoscope of memories and images to her mindhis easy smile, the way his darkly golden eyes had caught and held hers across a crowded pub after a match, the fizz of feeling that one look caused within her, the bubbles of anticipation racing along her veins, buoying her heart.
And then, unbidden, came the stronger, sweeter and more sensual memories. The ones she'd kept close to her heart even as she tried to keep them from her mind. Now, for a moment, she indulged them, indulged herself, and let the memories wash over her, making her blush in shame even as her heart ached with longing. Still.
Lying in Khaled's arms, late-afternoon sunlight pouring through the window, and laughterpure joyrising unheeded within her. His lips on hers, his hands smoothing her skin, touching her like a treasure, as their bodies moved, their hearts joined. And she'd been utterly shameless.
Shamelessly she'd revelled in his attention, his caress. She'd delighted in the freedom of loving and being loved. It had seemed so simple, so obvious, so right.
The shame had come later, scalding her soul and breaking her heart, when Khaled had left England, left her, without an explanation or even a goodbye.
She'd faced his teammateswho'd watched her fall hard, had seen Khaled reel her in with practised easeand now knew he'd just walked away.
Lucy swallowed and forced the memories back. Even the sweet, secret ones hurt, like scars that had never healed, just scabbed over till she helplessly picked at them once more.
'All right?' Eric Chandler slid into the seat next to her, his eyebrows lifting in compassionate query.
Lucy tilted her chin at a determined angle and forced a smile. 'I'm fine.'
Of all the people who had witnessed her infatuation with Khaled, Eric perhaps understood itherthe best. He'd been Khaled's best friend, and when Khaled had gone he'd become one of hers. But she didn't want his compassion; it was too close to pity.
'You didn't have to come,' he said, and Lucy heard the faint thread of bitterness in his voice. This was a conversation they'd had before, when the opportunity of a friendly match with Biryal's fledgling team had come up.
She shook her head wearily, not wanting to go over old ground. Eric knew why she'd come as much as she did. 'You don't owe him anything,' Eric continued, and Lucy sighed. She suspected Eric had felt as betrayed as she had when Khaled had left so abruptly, even though he'd never said as much.
'I owe Khaled the truth,' she replied quietly. Her fingers flicked nervously at the metal clasp of her seat belt. 'I owe him that much, at least.'
The truth, and that was all; a message given and received, and then she could walk away with a clear conscience, a light heart. Or so she hoped. Needed. She'd come to Biryal for that, and craved the closure she hoped seeing Khaled face to face would finally bring.
Khaled el Farrar had made a fool of her once. He would not do so again.
Khaled stood stiffly on the blazing tarmac of Biryal's single airport, watching as the jet dipped lower and prepared to land.
He felt his gut clench, his knee ache and throb, and he purposely kept his face relaxed and ready to smile.
Who was on that plane? He hadn't enquired too closely, although he knew some of the team would be the same. There would be people he would know, and of course the team's coach, Brian Abingdon.
He hadn't seen any of them, save Eric, since he'd been carried off the pitch mid-match, half-unconscious. He'd wanted it that way; it had seemed the only choice left to him. The rest had been taken away.
And what of Lucy? The question slipped slyly into his mind, and he pressed his lips together in a firm line, his eyes narrowing against the harsh glare of the sun.
He wouldn't think of Lucy. He hadn't thought of her in four years. It was astonishing, really, how much effort it took not to think of someone. Of her.
The silky slide of her hair through his fingers, the way her lashes brushed her cheek, the sudden throaty chuckle that took him by surprise, had made him powerless to do anything but pull her into his arms.
Too late Khaled realised he was thinking of her. He was indulging himself in sentimental remembrance, and there was no point. He'd made sure of that. He doubted Lucy was on that plane, and even if she was
Even if she was
His heart lurched with something too close to hope, and Khaled shook his head in disgust. Even if she was, it hardly mattered.
It didn't matter at all.
He'd made a choice for both of them four years ago and he had to live with it. Still. Always.
The plane was approaching the runway now, and with a couple of bumps it landed, gliding to a stop just a few-dozen yards away from him.
Khaled straightened, his hands kept loosely at his sides, his head lifted proudly.
He'd been working for this moment for the last four years, and he would not hide from it now. He wanted this, he ached for it, despiteand because ofthe pain. It was his goal; it was also his reckoning.
Lucy squinted in the bright sunlight as she stepped off the plane onto the tarmac. Having come from a drizzly January afternoon in London, she wasn't prepared for the hot, dry breeze that blew over her with the twin scents of salt and sand. The landscape seemed to be glittering with light, diamond-bright and just as hard and unforgiving.
She fumbled in her bag for sunglasses, and felt Eric reach for her elbow to guide her from the flimsy aeroplane steps.
'He's here,' he murmured in her ear, and even as her heart contracted she felt a flash of annoyance. She didn't need Eric scripting this drama for her. She didn't want any drama.
She'd already had that, lived it, felt it. Now was the time to stop the theatrics, to act grown up and in control. Cool. Composed.
She pulled her elbow from Eric's grasp and settled the glasses on her nose. Tinted with shadow, she could see the landscape more clearly: a stretch of tarmac, some scrubby brush, a rugged fringe of barren mountains on the horizon.
And Khaled. Her gaze came to a rest on his profile, and she realised she'd been looking for him all along. He was some yards distant, little more than a tall, proud figure, and yet she knew it was him. She felt it.
He was talking to Brian, the national team's coach, his movements stiff and almost awkward, although his smile was wide and easy, and he clapped the other man on the shoulder in a gesture of obvious friendship and warmth.
With effort she jerked her gaze away and busied herself with finding some lip balm in her bag.
She hadn't meant to walk towards Khaled; she wasn't ready to see him so soon, and yet somehow that was where her legs took her. She stopped a few feet away from him, feeling trapped, obvious, and then Khaled looked up.
As always, even from a distance, his gaze nailed her to the ground, turned her helpless. Weak. She was grateful for the protection of her sunglasses. If she hadn't been wearing them what would he have seen in her eyessorrow? Longing?
Lucy lifted her chin. Khaled's expressionless gaze continued to hold herslong enough for her to notice the new grooves on the sides of his mouth, the unemotional hardness in his eyesand then, without a blink or waver, it moved on.
She might as well have been a stranger, or even a statue, for all the notice he took of her. And before she could stop it Lucy felt a wave of sick humiliation sweep over her. Again.
She felt a few curious stares from the crowd around her; there were still enough people among the team and its entourage who remembered. Who knew.
Straightening her back, she hitched her bag higher on her shoulder and walked off with her head high and a deliberate air of unconcern. Right now this useless charade felt like all she had.
Still, she couldn't keep the scalding rush of humiliation and pain from sweeping over her. It hurt to remember, to feel that shame and rejection again.
It was just a look, she told herself sharply. Stop the melodrama. When Khaled had left England four years ago, Lucy had indulged herself. She'd sobbed and stormed, curled up in her bed with ice cream and endless cups of tea for hours. Days. She'd never felt so broken, so useless, so discarded.
And now just one dismissive look from Khaled had her remembering, feeling, those terrible emotions all over again.
Lucy shook her head, an instinctive movement of self-denial, self-protection. No. She wouldn't let Khaled make her feel that way; she wouldn't give him the power. He'd had it once, but now she was in control.
Except, she acknowledged grimly, it didn't feel that way right now.
The next twenty minutes were spent in blessed, numbing activity, sorting out luggage and passports, with sweat trickling down between her shoulder blades and beading on her brow.
It was hot, hotter than she'd expected, and she couldn't help but notice as her gaze slid inadvertently, instinctively, to Khaled that he didn't look bothered by the heat at all.
But then he wouldn't, would he? He was from here, had grown up on this island. He was its prince. None of these facts had ever really registered with Lucy. She'd only known him as the charming rugby star, Eton educated, sounding as if he'd spent his summers in Surrey or Kent.
She'd never associated him with anything else, not until he'd gone halfway around the world, and when she'd needed to find him he'd been impossible to reach.
Even a dozen feet away, she reflected with a pang of sorrow, he still was.
Everyone was boarding the bus, and Lucy watched as Khaled turned to his own private sedan, its windows darkly tinted, luxurious and discreet. He didn't look back, and she felt someone at her elbow.
'Lucy? It's time to go.'
Lucy turned to see Dan Winters, the team's physician, and essentially her boss. She nodded and from somewhere found a smile.
Lucy boarded the bus, moving to the back and an empty seat. She glanced out the window and saw the sedan pulling sleekly away, kicking up a cloud of dust as it headed down the lone road through the brush, towards the barren mountains.
Lucy leaned her head back against the seat and closed her eyes. Why had she bothered to track Khaled's car? Why did she care?
When she'd decided to come to Biryal for the friendly match, a warm-up to the Six Nations tournament, she'd told herself she wouldn't let Khaled affect her.
No, Lucy realised, she'd convinced herself that he didn't affect her.
And he wouldn't. She pressed her lips together in a firm, stubborn line as resolve hardened into grim determination within her. The first time she saw him was bound to be surprising, unnerving. That didn't mean the rest of her time in Biryal would be.
She let out a slow breath, felt her composure trickle slowly back and smiled.
The bus wound its way along the road that was little more than a gravel-pitted track, towards Biryal's capital city, Lahji. Lucy leaned across the seat to address Aimee, the team's nutritionist.
'Do you know where we're staying?'
Aimee grinned, excitement sparking in her eyes. 'Didn't you hear? We're to stay in the palace, as special guests of the prince.'
'What?' Lucy blinked, the words registering slowly, and then with increasing dismay. 'You mean Prince Khaled?'
Aimee's grin widened, and Lucy resisted the urge to say something to wipe it off. 'Yes, wasn't he gorgeous? I didn't think I'd ever go for a sheikh, for heaven's sake, but'
'I see.' Lucy cut her off, her voice crisp. She leaned back in the seat and looked out of the window, her mind spinning. The scrub and brush had been replaced by low buildings, little more than mud huts with straw roofs. Lucy watched as a few skinny goats tethered to a rusty metal picket fence bleated mournfully before they were obscured in the cloud of sandy dust the bus kicked up.
They were staying at the palace. With Khaled. Lucy hadn't imagined this, hadn't prepared for it. When she'd envisioned her conversation with Khaledthe one she knew they'd had to haveshe'd pictured it happening in a neutral place, the stadium perhaps, or a hotel lounge. She'd imagined something brief, impersonal, safe. And then they'd both move on.
They could still have that conversation, she consoled herself. Staying at the palace didn't have to change anything. It wouldn't.
She gazed out of the window again and saw they were entering Lahji. She didn't know that much about Biryalshe hadn't wanted to learnbut she did know its one major city was small and well-preserved. Now she saw that was the case, for the squat buildings of red clay looked like they'd stood, slowly crumbling, for thousands of years.
In the distance she glimpsed a tiny town, no more than a handful of buildings, a brief winking of glass and chrome, before the bus rumbled on. And then they were out of the city and back into the endless scrub, the sea no more than a dark smudge on the horizon.
The mountains loomed closer, dark, craggy and ominous. They weren't pretty mountains with meadows and evergreens, capped with snow, Lucy reflected. They were bare and black, sharp and cruel-looking.
'There's the palace!' Aimee said with a breathless little laugh, and, leaning forward, Lucy saw that the palace Khaled's homewas built into one of those terrible peaks like a hawk's nest.
The bus wound its way slowly up the mountain on a perilous, narrow road, one side sheer rock, the other dropping sharply off. Lucy leaned her head back against the seat and suppressed a shudder as the bus climbed slowly, impossibly higher.
'Wow,' Aimee breathed, after a few endless minutes where the only noise was the bus's painful juddering, and Lucy opened her eyes.