Salim’s voice was curt and he saw how she flinched minutely. He cursed silently. He was on edge because of his unprecedented reaction to her, but also because he hadn’t really acknowledged the possibility of meeting with the desert people of Tabat.
In the city it was easier to think of this as a business transaction—he was preparing this country to be strong so that it would flourish and thrive under new leadership. But now he would have to look into the eyes of those people, and it was as if he knew on some primal level that he was about to come face to face with himself in a way he’d never had to before.
And all under the cool green gaze of the woman looking at him now.
He opened the passenger door of the vehicle beside him. ‘You’ll travel with me.’
After a second when he thought she might argue Salim realised that, much as she provoked him, he found the prospect of her not being in close proximity to him was also unacceptable.
Eventually she moved towards the SUV and got in.
There was a flurry of activity as various bodyguards and staff finished packing away luggage and supplies in other vehicles.
Then Rafa approached Salim and bowed slightly, saying, ‘Everything is ready, sire.’
Salim wanted to tell him not to bow, and not to call him sire, but he just nodded and got into the car himself, behind the steering wheel.
It was time to meet his destiny whether he liked it or not.
* * *
Charlotte could feel the tension rolling off Salim in waves and it surprised her. She’d assumed he would approach visiting the tribes with the same louche disregard with which he seemed to approach everything else. But he looked serious.
The city limits had been left far behind and there were at least three vehicles ahead of them and another three behind, carrying Rafa and Assa as well as other staff.
Nothing but endless sand stretched out all around them. Dunes rose and fell under the blinding sun and the horizon shimmered in the heat. Charlotte sent up silent thanks that they were protected by air-conditioning in the sturdy vehicle that navigated this shifting terrain easily.
Salim clearly didn’t want to be making this trip. Charlotte took in his profile, which was effortlessly regal in spite of his reluctance to govern. He was wearing traditional robes, but hadn’t made much more of an effort to clean up his appearance.
His hair was still wild and unruly, and Charlotte’s fingers itched to see if it felt as silky and luxurious as it looked. She felt a crazy regret that she hadn’t explored more when she’d had the chance. She clenched her hands into fists and ignored those itchy fingers.
But then her eye fell on his very stubbled jaw, and that made her think of how it had felt when he’d kissed her. The burn he’d left along her jaw...a physical brand. It made her wonder how it would feel on other parts of her body...
In a desperate bid to divert her mind, she asked, ‘Why are you so reluctant to assume your role as king?’
His hand tightened on the wheel and the tension spiked. She thought he wasn’t going to answer her when he was silent for so long, but then he said, ‘I’ve already told you—I have numerous business concerns, thousands of employees. It’s a role I never asked for or welcomed.’
‘But...’ Charlotte ignored the voice telling her to be quiet. ‘No one asks to rule. They’re born to rule.’
Salim’s jaw tightened, but he kept his eyes on the road. ‘That may be the case, but there’s a better choice than me for Tabat.’
She assimilated what he’d just said and knew she should stay quiet but couldn’t. She turned in her seat to face him. ‘I don’t think there is, actually. I think you know it’s your destiny, and yet there’s some other reason why you’re so reluctant to take what’s yours.’
Charlotte should have been alerted by the fact that the tension in the confined space suddenly changed and became more charged. Salim looked at her and let his eyes drift down over her body and immediately her blood sizzled.
‘Believe me,’ he drawled, ‘I’m not reluctant to take what’s mine at all.’
What’s mine. He wasn’t talking about Tabat. The thought that he considered her his was enough to render her speechless. No doubt exactly what he’d intended with this clever deflection.
Charlotte turned to face the front, locking her muscles tight against the betraying rush of arousal.
She refused to look at him for fear of what she’d see on his face. She’d learnt her lesson. She didn’t care what this man’s motivations were—she just wanted to get through the week unscathed.
* * *
Several hours later Salim was seated on a low chair in the tent of the local sheikh—the leader of the Rab’sah tribe. Charlotte had been right—the hospitality was so generous it was almost embarrassing. Even in spite of the cool reception Salim had received, which had been his due considering he hadn’t come to visit them before now.
Their hospitality was even more overwhelming when he considered that they didn’t have much. At all. There was a time when these nomadic tribes had had many riches—when they’d come into the city and bartered and sold precious gems and fat animals. But the world had marched on and left people like this behind, and it struck Salim somewhere very deeply now to see the aristocratic features and inherent pride of the tribe reduced to a mere shadow of its former self.