A Christmas Bride for the King

Page 20

Charlotte wasn’t in the tent, out of respect for the customs of the tribe that forbade women from attending formal meetings, and Salim welcomed the momentary space even as he hungered to lay his gaze on her.
He was still reeling from her far too perceptive observation earlier. No one had ever questioned his motives about anything before. No one had ever looked at him like that, as if trying to figure him out. Coming far too close to the bone.
So he told himself he was glad she wasn’t here, and that ancient custom dictated women must be apart from the men, because he didn’t care to be under her far too incisive green-eyed scrutiny as he listened to this sheikh and found himself feeling a sense of kinship that he’d never experienced before.
* * *
At dawn the following morning Charlotte was standing at the edge of the camp, watching as the sun rose in the east, slowly saturating the horizon with pink light. There was a low hum of activity behind her as the camp woke up, but there was an all-encompassing silence that surrounded her, deep and infinitely peaceful. Her instinct that she’d find the desert fascinating had been right.
‘Bored yet?’
She started at the deep voice beside her and looked round to see Salim—tall and broad. He filled her vision in spite of the vast desert, and she realised that he truly fitted into this world even if he didn’t want to. He was hewn from its very unforgiving landscape, from a long line of warriors.
She looked back out to the horizon, afraid he might see something of her fanciful thoughts on her face. ‘I don’t see how anyone could ever be bored here.’
‘How did you sleep?’
In truth, she hadn’t slept well. It might have been because she’d been sharing quarters with women and children, but they hadn’t been the reason she’d lain awake. She’d been wondering about Salim, and about the fact that he was far more enigmatic than she’d ever anticipated.
She looked back at him and forced a bright smile. ‘Like a log—and you?’
He smiled too, showing his teeth. ‘Like a log.’
The hell he had. He’d spent hours alternating between ignoring his guilty conscience and battling images of this woman with her shirt undone and one pale plump breast filling his palm. That soft lush mouth under his.
The rising sun was bathing her in a warm glow. She was dressed traditionally again. Her hair peeped out from under the veil she wore. Her face was bare of make-up. He could see freckles. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen such fresh-faced beauty.
The way she got to him made him ask caustically, ‘You’re not missing your home comforts too much?’
It rankled with him now that he knew she’d had to share a tent with some of the higher born women and children and yet it didn’t seem to have fazed her in the slightest.
Those green eyes sparked and Salim felt an answering fire burn deep in his core. More than lust. Distur
She folded her arms and faced him. ‘Still trying to get rid of me?’
No way.
The strength of that assertion surprised him. He clamped his mouth shut in case it slipped out.
When he didn’t respond, she said, ‘Look, I told you—I’ve travelled. It’s a privilege to spend time with people like these.’ She sounded exasperated.
He’d seen her yesterday, sitting cross-legged with a group of women, smiling and conversing with them as best she could, given the differences in dialect. She’d looked utterly comfortable and graceful in spite of her dusty clothes and very basic surroundings. And they’d looked at her with awe.
She turned now and Salim’s chest tightened. She’d looked so serene and peaceful standing there, watching the sunrise. He’d intruded because he’d been envious of that peace and absorption. And because he’d wanted her attention on him.
He put a hand on her arm and she stopped, looking at him warily. He cursed himself for not just letting her go.
‘Did you want something?’
He let her arm go. ‘Just to say we’ll be leaving shortly.’
She nodded after a moment. ‘I’ll be ready.’
Salim turned back to face the desert and had an uncomfortable skin-prickling sense of foreboding that this trip was not going to pan out as he’d planned it.
At all.