He arched a brow. Supremely comfortable. Supremely dangerous. ‘Infamous? Please, do tell me what you’ve heard. I’m intrigued.’
She cursed her runaway mouth. ‘That they’re a byword in hedonism and last for days. The last party you hosted at an oasis in the Moroccan desert ended with several of the guests being airlifted to hospital.’
He shook his head. ‘I hate to burst your righteously indignant bubble, Miss McQuillan, but contrary to what was reported the helicopter was for me, to take me to the airport in Marrakech so that I could make a meeting in Paris. Nothing more salacious than that. The party broke up a couple of days later of its own accord, and I can assure you that no one suffered anything more than sunburn and a hangover.’
Charlotte immediately felt like assuring him that she wasn’t an avid follower of tabloid gossip and that she’d only read about it while researching him and Tabat, but she resisted. ‘I told you, I’ve no intention of reneging on my contract.’
Salim shrugged and finished his wine. ‘Suit yourself.’
Struggling to try and find some equilibrium again, some vague sense of being in control, Charlotte said, ‘I really don’t think that a similar party would go down well here—unless it’s part of your plan to deliberately paint yourself in such a negative light that you think it’ll make your abdication welcome.’
He considered her words for a long moment, and then said, ‘Not a bad idea at all, Miss McQuillan. Are you sure you aren’t in the PR field?’
Before she could answer he said, ‘As much as your idea has some merit, I’m not as crass as that. The last thing I want is to portray Tabat in an unfavourable light. After all, I’m on a campaign to make it as desirable as possible. So, no, this party won’t be featuring scenes of Bacchanalian debauchery, it’ll be very civilised and elegant.’
Charlotte felt tight inside, and wasn’t even sure where all this emotion was flowing from. ‘So you’re effectively advertising your kingdom to the highest bidder?’
His mouth tightened for a moment, before relaxing into its habitual sensual lines. ‘Let’s just say I’m taking an opportunity to showcase its allure and beauty.’
The waiter came then, and removed their plates.
When he’d left Salim sat forward and said, ‘As I said, Miss McQuillan, you’re more than welcome to join us. The dress code will be full evening dress.’
Charlotte could well imagine the haute couture finery at one of his parties and thought of her one very classic, but boring black evening-dress that would only reinforce whatever negative impression he’d already formed of her. She forced a fake smile. ‘Unfortunately I don’t have any such clothes with me. I’ll have to decline your generous invitation.’
Salim stood up to leave. ‘That’s too bad, Miss McQuillan. I rather like the idea of seeing you dressed in something less...formal.’
That bright blue gaze dropped lazily down her body and back up again.
For a moment Charlotte couldn’t breathe. A wave of heat scorched her from the inside out. And then humiliation swiftly doused the heat. Seeing her in a dress would have zero effect on him. He was mocking her. Toying with her.
She stood up unsteadily. He held out a hand to indicate that she should precede him, but when she went to move her foot slipped out of her shoe. The heel was stuck in the soft ground.
She let out a gasp and hopped on one foot, bending down to get her shoe, but before she could do so a large hand was plucking it up.
She looked at Salim, who was now straightening up and holding her very staid court shoe. It had never looked less sexy.
That burn was back inside her. Mortification mixing with awareness.
To Charlotte’s shock he went down on one knee before her, and his expression was far too innocent when he looked up and said, ‘Let’s see if it fits, shall we?’
She was no Cinderella and he was not Prince Charming.
Her face was burning as she took a quick glance around the wadi. Thankfully there was no one to be seen. She looked down at Salim and hissed, ‘I can put it on myself.’
He sighed. ‘Miss McQuillan, I have no doubt you can put on your own shoe, but I am offering to do it for you—and, believe me, I don’t make a habit of helping women dress. It’s usually the reverse, so this is a novelty. Humour me.’
She would have happily strangled him right then. She put her foot out reluctantly and waited. She tensed herself, not even sure what she was tensing herself against, and when he cupped her heel in his other hand she wobbled precariously.
Because his touch will destroy you, a small voice said.
He looked up at her and his eyes seemed to have darkened, but she told herself it was her imagination. Feeling ridiculous and exposed, she tried to pull her foot away but his hold tightened. He slowly let her heel slide into the shoe, and to Charlotte’s eternal embarrassment it was the single most
erotic thing she’d ever experienced. Electric tingles went all the way up her bare legs, straight to her groin. Her nipples tightened.
Just when she thought she would be free he didn’t let her go. His hand was warm on her calf, and for a crazy moment Charlotte imagined it travelling up her leg to the back of her thigh, where—She abruptly pulled her foot free of Salim’s hands—successfully this time—horrified at where her mind had gone. She stood back and watched as he rose fluidly to his full height.
It must be second nature for him to toy with women as if they were playthings. And none better than her—gauche, and as far from his usual women as could be possible.