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Shades of Lawrence of Arabia, Billie Callahan thought in stunned amazement: The prince of the desert was a golden man! She impatiently brushed strands of copper-colored hair away from her face, her eyes intent on the rider on the black Arabian stallion galloping toward her over the dunes. Her hair whipped again around her face, stinging her cheeks. The wind was definitely rising, and, standing on the top of a tiny hill, she was exposed to its full force. It seemed now to attack her clothing as well, snatching at her shirt and pants like a starving animal who’d cornered its prey and couldn’t wait to devour it.
When the Jeep had conked out a short way down the road, she’d thought it would be a good idea to climb the little hill to see if she could determine how far she’d have to walk to reach Zalandan. Now she wasn’t at all sure it had been such a good idea. She felt very vulnerable on this lonely promontory, and the sight that met her eyes wasn’t all that reassuring. Golden sand dunes rolled for miles to merge with the rapidly darkening skyline. A flash of lightning illuminated the cliffs on the horizon, but they seemed so terribly far away. Beyond those cliffs lay the safety of the city of Zalandan, Yusef had told her, but she’d never make it there before the storm struck in force. The wind lifted and swirled the sand in wild, ghostly patterns, the crests of the dunes moving like whirling dervishes.
She’d better try to get back to the Jeep and the slight protection it offered. She took a last curious glance at the rider on the black Arabian stallion before she turned and started down the hill. She’d first seen him as a blurred figure on the horizon. Despite the predicament she found herself in, the sight of him caught at her imagination.
Dressed in a white flowing burnoose that contrasted dramatically with the lustrous black coat of the horse, he looked graceful and dynamic. A prince of the desert from one of those old forties technicolor epics, she’d thought bemusedly. All he needed was a sword and a harem girl thrown across the bow of his saddle to complete the fantasy image. He came from the direction of the cliffs and probably was a resident of Zalandan, but he had all the dash of a desert brigand or a bedouin sheikh rather than a city dweller. And that was why she’d been startled when he’d come close enough for her to see his coloring. His hair wasn’t raven-black, as she’d expected, but a dark gold burnished by the sun. In the few months she’d been in Sedikhan, she’d never seen a blond native of this Mideastern country. Yet native he must be, judging by that flowing burnoose, and particularly by the way he managed the stallion.
Well, whoever he was, she mustn’t expect help from him, she thought with a shrug. He probably wasn’t headed in her direction anyway. Undoubtedly he would swerve to take the road leading to Yusef’s village, some thirty miles across the shifting dunes. Even if she was the rider’s objective, he might be more of a threat than a help. No, she couldn’t count on anyone but herself. But, then, when had she ever wanted it any other way? She’d weathered many a storm, both mental and physical, and she’d overcome this one too.
She reached the bottom of the hill and fought to keep her footing. The gusts seemed to try to lift and sweep her away as if she were just another of the millions of grains of sand they dominated so easily. The sand stung her cheeks now, and she closed her eyes to keep out the sharp particles swirling all around her.
“What the devil are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere?” The voice was rough and masculine, and she opened her eyes to see her desert prince slipping lithely out of the saddle only a few yards from her. The wind was shrieking so loudly that she hadn’t even heard the sound of hoofbeats. He was no native . . . and he certainly wasn’t Lawrence of Arabia. That drawl sounded more like Texas than Oxford.
“What does it look like I’m doing?” she asked crossly, shouting to be heard over the wind. “I’ve been told there’s nothing better for the complexion than a sandstorm, so I thought I’d drive out in the middle of one and try it.” She found her voice was quavering with nervousness, and it only increased her annoyance. “I’m trying to stay alive, dammit!”
The wind whipped that golden hair about his face as it tore at her.
“You’re not doing too good a job,” he said grimly, as he came toward her. “In a few minutes this is going to escalate into a full-fledged storm, and you’re wandering around as if you were at a garden party.” He grabbed her elbow. “Come on, we’ve got to get to shelter.”
“That’s where I was going,” she said indignantly as he hustled her briskly toward a cluster of rocks while leading the black behind them. “I was heading toward my Jeep to wait out the storm.”
“Unless it’s only a few yards away you’d never have made it,” he said tersely. “You’d probably have wandered away from the road and smothered to death within ten minutes.”
She felt a shiver run through her that she tried to mask with a light laugh. “Nonsense. I have a wonderful sense of direction. I’d have made it.”
“I’m glad you’re so confident.” He pushed her behind the sheltering rocks that were barely waist-high. “Stay there while I take care of old Nick, here.” He led the horse toward another cluster of rocks nearby.
Billie sank down into the shelter of the boulders and suddenly felt very alone and afraid. How stupid to be so scared; soon the storm would be over and she would have survived it, as she had all the others in her life.
A white blur appeared through the curtain of sand that enveloped her, and the golden-haired desert man dropped down beside her. “It’s not too bad here yet, but the wind is picking up steadily. We’re going to get the brunt of it any time now.”
Her violet eyes widened apprehensively. “It’s going to get worse?” How could it get any worse, when the world already seemed to be splitting open and releasing all the gibbering fiends of hell? She drew a deep breath and said with forced lightness, “Well, it probably won’t be all that bad. We have the base of the hill on one side and a humongous rock on the other to protect us.”
“Don’t kid yourself,” he said as he drew the loose hood of the burnoose over his hair. “I’ve seen storms like this shift tons of sand and completely rearrange the landscape. An hour from now there could be a twenty-foot dune where we’re sitting.”
“Do you have to be so reassuring?” she asked ironically. “You wouldn’t want me to get too cocky about our chances for survival.”
“We’ll survive,” he said absently. “Lie down.”
“What?” she asked, startled.
“Lie down. I’m going to cover you with my body. The burnoose will give us both a small measure of protection. Not much, but we need every edge we can get.”
“But I don’t—”
He didn’t wait for her to finish, and she suddenly found herself flat on her back in the sand with him astride her. He parted the robe to reveal a soft white shirslung, faded jeans. Definitely not Lawrence of Arabia, she thought hazily. Then he lowered his body on top of hers and she found that she couldn’t think at all. She could feel the warm heat of his body through the material of the clothing that separated them, and it came as a little shock. He was resting his weight on his knees and elbows on each side of her, but she could feel every line of his lean, muscular body with a detailed intimacy that made her oddly breathless. Her face was pressed into the soft white shirt, and she was aware of a faint lemony scent blended with the clean smell of soap and the tangy musk odor of the virile male.
“I don’t think this is really necessary,” she said faintly.
He lifted himself a little to look down at her, and she got another shock that was almost as great as the touch of his body. Good Lord, he was beautiful! She hadn’t been conscious of anything but that golden hair and deep, vibrant voice in the swirling mist of sand that had surrounded them, since he’d appeared beside her. Now there were only a few inches between them, and she knew she’d never seen a more beautiful human being before in her life. His finely molded bone structure was almost classical, and the golden bronze of his skin shone like the patina on a statue that might have graced the Acropolis. Still, there was nothing in the least hard or rigid in the sensual curve of his lips, and his eyes were the clearest, deepest blue she’d ever seen. She’d always thought blue eyes were a little cold, but now she realized they could be as warm as the first breath of spring. Warm and understanding and wise. Wise? What a strange adjective to come to mind in connection with an explosively virile man who couldn’t be older than his late twenties. Yet there was a gentle wisdom in the depths of those eyes that went far beyond intelligence and might have belonged to a man in the twilight of his life.
“What?” She had forgotten the protest she’d made a moment before, and she hastily pulled her attention from those wise, clear eyes and that beautifully sensual mouth to the matter at hand.
“You can’t be very comfortable. If you’ll just let me up, I’ll be quite all right.”
“Shhh.” He smiled down at her, and the smile lit his face with such gentle glowing warmth that she felt a strange unfolding deep inside her. “Relax, windflower. I know how strong and sturdy you are. You won’t lose any of that strength by letting me shelter you for a few minutes. I only want to keep your pretty petals from being hurt and torn.”
The wind howled like a lost soul now. The sheets of sand around them seemed to be thickening, and she felt a swift rush of panic. “That’s all very poetic,” she said shakily. “I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone compare me to a flower before. Certainly not when we were both about to be smothered to death.”
Tiny lines appeared at the corner of his eyes as he grinned down at her. “But you are like a windflower. I thought so the minute I saw you standing on the top of that hill with the wind tearing at those bright, shining curls and whipping at your delicate body. You remind me a little of a chrysanthemum, but there’s more strength and endurance in you than they have. Yes, you’re definitely a windflower.” Then his eyes narrowed on her face, which was showing more strain each moment. “You’re really frightened, aren’t you? I thought you were joking, but I can feel you trembling against me.”
“No,” she denied quickly. “I’m not afraid. It’s just that I’ve never been in a sandstorm before and I don’t know what to expect.” She made a conscious effort to still the quaking that had betrayed her, but she found to her disgust that it couldn’t be done. “Just give me a minute and I’ll be—”
“I’ll give you all the time you need, windflower,” he interrupted gently. “And you shouldn’t be ashamed of being afraid. We’re all afraid at some time or other. I was scared to death myself when I saw the wind trying to push you off the top of the hill. I wasn’t sure you had the strength to fight it, and I was so far away I wouldn’t have had time to get to you if you hadn’t.” He spread the folds of his burnoose so that it covered her like a sheet, and his hard, smooth cheek was suddenly against her own. The loose hood that covered his head now covered hers as well, and she felt wrapped in a dark cocoon of security. “You’re not going to die, windflower. Not for a long, long time, and when you do I’ll be there holding you just like this.” His voice was a deep velvet murmur in her hair, and she felt almost mesmerized by the intimate darkness, the tactile warmth and fragrance that was being woven about her senses. “We’re going to get through this together. Forget about the wind, the sand, the storm. Just think of the two of us lying here giving our strength to each other. Do you know how wonderful that sharing can be? Two people able to reach out and touch each other, helping each other to climb. Think about that instead.”
She did think about it and, oh, how like a lovely dream it was. His body on hers felt as familiar as if they’d lain like this a thousand times before; his intimate words had the same odd familiarity. Intimate? She felt a tiny shock zing through the velvet that encircled them. This wasn’t only intimacy, a virile male making a move on an available, not unattractive woman. This stranger was making love to her with words, and that was totally insane.
“This is crazy,” she said dazedly, trying to stiffen against him. The action only brought her in closer contact with the hard warmth of the body that she was finding so exciting. She decided she was better off lying pliant and unresisting. “You’re crazy. I don’t want you to say things like that.”
“Are you feeling threatened?” he asked tenderly. His lips moved against her temple in the most delicate of gossamer kisses. “All right. I’ll back off, windflower. If I can’t take your mind off your nervousness one way, I’ll have to take another approach. Talk to me. What’s your name?”
Windflower. The word zoomed out of the jumble of emotions cascading through her. “Billie Callahan, and I’m not nervous.”
His chuckle was like warm velvet against her forehead. “Right, of course you’re not. What are you doing out here in the middle of the Sedikhan desert, Billie Callahan?”
“I was on my way to Zalandan when my Jeep broke down. I’ve been visiting for the last few days in a small village about fifteen miles from here.”
“Visiting who?” An edge of sharpness was just barely discernible beneath the velvet.
“Yusef Ibraheim and his family.” She made a face he couldn’t see because of their closeness, but he caught the ruefulness in her voice. “Yusef and I have been something of a matched set for the last few weeks, and I thought it would be a good idea to take him home and deposit him with his family.”
“He’s your lover?” The sharpness had cut through the velvet now, and it startled her.
“Heavens, no! I just did him a favor once, and Yusef seems to have some wildly antiquated ideas about his obligations in regard to returning that favor.” There was a thread of exasperation in her voice. “Besides, he has this crazy idea I need someone to take care of me, and he’s elected himself to do it. I thought returning him to his family would make him forget all about me. It didn’t work, so I took off for Zalandan on my own in the middle of the night.”
“I see.” His tone was solemn, but she could detect a note of underlying amusement that annoyed her exceedingly. “I don’t know why he couldn’t understand how totally capable you are of running your own life. I’d be interested to know what experiences triggered a misapprehension like that. You wouldn’t care to enlighten me, would you, windflower?”
“Billie,” she corrected. She certainly wasn’t about to “enlighten” him, she thought crossly. It would make her look like even more of an irresponsible idiot than she did now. Circumstances and her own impulsiveness seemed constantly to conspire to project that image anyway. “It doesn’t matter, does it? We don’t even know each other. You couldn’t possibly be interested.”