He stood with his back against the door and Charlotte looked at him. The air between them was suddenly charged with electricity. She was barely aware that the room was dark and opulently furnished, with books on every wall. Some kind of private sitting room or study.
Salim looked away from her and said, ‘This was my grandfather’s European room. He fancied himself in part as an English gentleman.’
Charlotte dragged her gaze from the man in front of her and took in the room properly. The gleaming mahogany desk with a reading lamp. The high-backed leather chair. The tartan carpet. The massive stone fireplace, which was completely incongruous when the desert lay beyond these walls.
‘He always kept it to a colder temperature in here, so that he could pretend he was in England, or Scotland, and not the Middle East.’
It might be colder, but Charlotte felt hot. Her blood was sluggish in her veins, and yet she was jittery. A disturbing mix.
She looked back at the sheikh, saying unthinkingly, ‘Salim...why have we come in—?’
But he interrupted her with a triumphant, ‘Finally. I knew I’d like the way you say my name.’
He started coming closer again and she shook her head, feeling as if she was losing her grip on reality. ‘I don’t...don’t say it any differently from anyone else’s name.’
He stopped in front of her. Too close. She took a step back.
‘Ah, but you do, Miss McQuillan. You say it with that slightly frosty tone that tells me I’m not behaving as I should.’
She immediately felt defensive. ‘I have a name too—it’s Charlotte.’
She wasn’t even aware that she was still backing away until she hit a solid surface. Shelves. She was breathing as if she’d just run a mile. All she could see were those blue eyes, boring into her.
Why was he looking at her like this? Making her blood leap and her skin prickle? Making her think of illicit things?
He stopped and put a hand over her head. Their bodies were so close they were almost touching. Charlotte felt threatened, but not by him. The threat came from the thought of her reaction to him...
And then he said it. ‘Charlotte.’ And something she’d been clinging on to gave way inside her like a wall crumbling.
Desperately she said, ‘You really should return to your guests—they’ll be wondering where you are.’
He dismissed that with a quirk of his mouth. ‘They’ll survive.’
Charlotte reacted to his louche arrogance and to the insidious suspicion that even now he was just toying with her for his own amusement.
‘Will they? Just like the people of Tabat will survive once you walk away from them?’
The intensity in the air around them changed immediately, becoming even more charged.
Salim’s body was full of tension, his eyes hard. ‘What do you care about Tabat and its people? You’ve only been here a week.’
Charlotte cursed herself for reacting to him. For exposing herself. ‘I know I’ve only been here a week, but even in that time I can see that this is a great country and that the people deserve better.’
Salim’s eyes were burning now, and his mouth was a hard line. ‘Can you, now?’
Challenging him like this was heady in the extreme. All her life Charlotte had lived with the repercussions of being forced to choose one parent over the other in a bid to keep the peace—something that had inevitably had disastrous consequences. She’d built a life and a career out of keeping the peace. And yet now, here, with this man, something was breaking apart inside her...something incredibly freeing.
All she could see was that he was no better than her feckless parents, who had used her as an unwitting pawn. He was using her for his own entertainment. Riling her up. Making her imagine all sort of crazy things...making her want things. Him.
She looked Salim straight in the eye. ‘Life is so easy for you, isn’t it? No wonder you don’t want to rule—it would put a serious cramp in your lifestyle and a dent in your empire. Have you ever had to think of anyone but yourself, Salim? Have you ever had to consider the consequences of your actions? People like you make me—’
‘Enough.’ Salim punctuated the harshly spoken word by taking her arms in his hands. He said it again. ‘Enough, Charlotte. You’ve made your point.’
She couldn’t breathe after the way he’d just said her name. Roughly. His hands were huge on her arms, and firm but not painful. She knew she should say Let me go but somehow the words wouldn’t form in her mouth.
Salim’s eyes were blazing down into hers and for a second she had the impression that she’d somehow...hurt him. But in the next instant any coherent thought fled, because he slammed his mouth down onto hers and all she was aware of was shocking heat, strength, and a surge of need such as she’d never experienced before.
* * *