A Christmas Bride for the King

Page 21

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By day three Charlotte was surprised at how easily she’d settled into the rhythm of moving from place to place. And at how little she missed civilisation. As they had moved deeper and deeper into the desert she’d found herself unwinding, helpless not to do so in the face of a much more primeval rhythm.
The evening was closing in over the oasis that was the current base for the Jadar tribe—one of the oldest in the region. It was where the name Jandor had come from, when this tribe’s ancestors had sacked and invaded the city.
She walked through the camp back to her tent after meeting with the tribe’s leaders. This tribe was different from most and run on more egalitarian lines. Women were just as much a part of important discussions as men and they didn’t wear veils, so Charlotte had left hers off and relished the breeze through her hair now.
During the meetings Charlotte had been surprised at how deferential Salim had been, and how attentive. She’d expected to find herself cringing as he made his reluctance to be there known, but he’d been effortlessly respectful while also displaying an innate sense of authority that had nothing to do with arrogance.
She’d just returned to her small tent, and was unpacking her bag, appreciating the thought of her own private space for the first time in three nights, when a noise made her look round.
Assa was at the opening of the tent and she said, ‘King Al-Noury would like you to join him for dinner in his tent.’
Even though he wasn’t yet crowned, his people already called him king.
Charlotte’s belly flipped. She’d managed to more or less avoid him since the other morning, keeping their conversation to a minimum as they travelled from place to place. But her awareness of him was increasing exponentially. Along with her confusion that he wasn’t behaving as she might have expected.
What could Charlotte say? She’d been summoned by the king. ‘Of course. I’ll just change quickly.’
The fine desert sand seemed to get everywhere, so Charlotte availed herself of the small bathroom attached to the tent and refreshed herself and changed into a clean set of trousers and a tunic. When she re-emerged Assa was waiting to show her to Salim’s tent.
Darkness had fallen over the camp and there were familiar sounds of rattling plates and utensils, fractious children crying and soothing voices.
Charlotte absorbed the nomadic atmosphere of the camp. Mouth-watering smells of cooking reminded her she hadn’t eaten in a few hours. She stopped and smiled when some small children ran around her as they played a game of catch before disappearing behind one of the tents.
Strangely, because she’d never thought of herself as being remotely maternal—especially after her experiences at the hands of her self-absorbed mother and absent father—she was taken completely unawares by a pang of yearning, and when she saw Assa waiting for her outside a much larger tent, with golden light spilling out into the camp, she realised far too belatedly that she was not ready to face Salim’s all too blistering blue gaze.
But, as if hearing her thoughts, Salim appeared in the entrance of the tent, easily filling the space. ‘Please, come in.’
And she had to keep moving forward, pushing that alien emotion down.
When she walked into his tent her jaw dropped and she forgot everything for a moment. It was like something out of an Arabian fantasy. Luxurious floor-coverings, sumptuous soft furnishings in bright jewel colours. A dining area that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Parisian restaurant and a bed that Charlotte couldn’t take her eyes off. It dominated the space and was covered in silk and satin, with muslin drapes around it, fluttering in the light breeze.
She’d never have guessed from the rest of the far more humble camp that this could exist.
‘It’s a bit much, isn’t it?’
Charlotte managed to tear her gaze from the bed to look at Salim, who was wincing slightly. Feeling something light bubble up inside her she asked innocently, ‘Not to your specifications, then?’
He looked at her and his mouth tipped up wryly. ‘No.’
He gestured for her to take a seat at the dining table, and she said as she watched him take a seat opposite her, ‘Let me guess—you’re into stark minimalism and masculine colours? Abstract art?’
He flicked out a linen napkin. ‘You say that like it’s a bad thing.’
A moment shimmered between them, light and fragile, and then he said, ‘You looked as if you’d just seen a ghost when you walked in—I hope that wasn’t a reaction to my invitation.’
Charlotte avoided his eye for a moment, placing her own napkin on her lap. When she looked up again he was watching her with a narrowed gaze. She heard noises coming from the back of the tent, the sounds and smells of dinner. It helped to lessen the feeling of being in a lavish cocoon with this man.
She shrugged minutely. ‘I just noticed something...walking through the camp. A real sense of community that you don’t find in many places any more.’
Salim said, ‘You do seem at home here. And I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you this, but you’re a natural diplomat. I’ve watched how you put everyone at ease and can converse equally with a sheikh or the girl washing the dishes.’
Ridiculously, Charlotte blushed at Salim’s praise—even though she knew without false modesty that she was good at her job. ‘Thank you. This part of the world has always been fascinating to me.’
They were interrupted by staff appearing with a tray of delicious-smelling food. When they were alone again Salim held up a bottle of red wine and said, ‘May I?’
Charlotte felt as if she needed the sustenance so she nodded. He filled her glass and she took a sip.