It was something she was subconsciously aware of but had managed to successfully ignore for a long time. She’d been so focused on her career—
She stopped, catching her reflection in the mirror over the sink where she was about to wash herself.
Her cheeks were flushed bright red and her neat shoulder-length bob was a lot less sleek than usual. She was pathetic. The reason she was a virgin had nothing to do with her career and everything to do with the fact that she was too afraid to let anyone close enough to hurt her as much as her parents had.
But when she thought about Salim’s arrogant proposal just now—yes, arrogant—the last thing she’d been afraid of was getting hurt. It had been the fear of incineration if he kis
sed her again. The fear of exposure. And the fear of his look of incredulity if he found out how innocent she was. She doubted a man like that had ever slept with a virgin in his life.
He’d summed her up from the start as uptight. He would laugh in her face if he knew how right he was.
She’d already told Salim far too much this evening. She wasn’t going to bare herself—literally—even more. He wasn’t worth risking her precious independence for. He wasn’t, she told herself fiercely as she did her best to ignore the ache, which only seemed to grow more acute.
‘IT LOOKS LIKE we’ll have to stay here for a couple of days.’
‘Oh, no—why?’ Charlotte looked at Assa and felt panicky.
They’d been due to return to Tabat City the following morning, and frankly she couldn’t wait to get back. The vast desert now felt as oppressive as a small confined space after enduring Salim’s civil yet cool demeanour since they’d arrived at their last stop, the oasis camp of the Wahir tribe, earlier that day.
That morning, when Rafa had asked if Salim minded if he joined him in the car to discuss matters of state on the journey from Jadar, Charlotte had jumped at the opportunity to escape and had taken Rafa’s place in his own transport.
The intense look Salim had sent her still made her shiver. She didn’t want to know what he might have said to her if they’d been alone. She’d vowed not to be alone with him ever again.
Since they’d arrived, Salim had been in intense discussion with the Wahir tribe’s leaders. Charlotte had been allowed to sit in on the meetings, concentrating hard to follow the very stylised Arabic they used. Once again she’d been surprised to note that Salim was respectful and attentive.
Assa said, ‘I don’t mind staying another night if we have to—it’s as beautiful here as everyone said it was.’
Charlotte was pulled out of her spiralling thoughts. Assa was right: this camp was the most picturesque they’d been to yet. A beautiful green oasis with palm trees and a huge pool of clear green water.
‘Why do we have to stay?’
The young girl looked at her, her dark eyes huge. ‘They say a sandstorm will hit tonight, and if it does it’ll take at least another day to unearth all the vehicles to travel back to Tabat.’
‘Can’t they avoid that happening?’ Charlotte asked weakly, knowing she was being ridiculous. A meteorological event was hardly negotiable.
‘We’re on high ground, Miss McQuillan, but there’s no escaping the power of a storm.’
Assa took an armful of Charlotte’s dirty laundry—in spite of her protests that she could wash her own things—and turned at the opening of the tent.
‘You’ll come to the wedding later, won’t you? It would be considered very rude not to as an honoured guest.’
‘Of course,’ Charlotte answered.
All the king’s entourage had been invited to attend the wedding of the oldest daughter of the tribe’s leader and Charlotte was intrigued, having never witnessed a Bedouin wedding before. There was an air of great excitement in the camp, and Charlotte had noticed that there were a lot more people there than there had been earlier.
Charlotte had every intention of making sure she stayed well out of Salim’s way, and if a sandstorm hit overnight she’d be one of the first helping to unearth the vehicles in the morning.
* * *
Salim was acutely conscious of the ritual he was witnessing in a way that he might not have anticipated before embarking on this trip. Taking place in front of him was a centuries-old custom designed to bind families and neighbouring tribes together in a way that would unify them and promote peace in a place where wars had once been rife and deadly.
He was surprised at the strength of an echo inside him that recognised and accepted this on some deep level, in spite of doing his damnedest to deny that he was part of this history and culture.
Destiny. The hated word slid into his mind, but for once it didn’t induce the same level of rejection as it normally did. The truth was that he came from these people. His ancestors had said these same words, more or less.
For the first time Salim felt a sense of belonging he’d never experienced before creep over him. As if ancient and invisible bindings were slowly but inexorably wrapping around him like tentacles and tying him to the life he was so determined to reject. As if he was a nomad who was returning home.