It was an unsettling thought, but not even that was unsettling enough to distract him from the woman who sat at his right-hand side, who had turned him down him so summarily the previous evening.
His body had started humming as soon as she’d sat down beside him, enveloping him with a delicate and tantalising scent that made him think of cool green moss and much earthier things, like tangling naked on a soft surface.
Thankfully his voluminous robe hid the near-constant state of arousal he had little control over, which irritated him greatly. Salim usually had no problem mastering his physical impulses, no matter how attractive the woman. But of course no other woman had proved so elusive.
Charlotte had studiously avoided his eye since she’d arrived, just as she’d been studiously avoiding him all day. He’d observed her earlier, talking earnestly with both the women and the men of the tribe in Arabic. The ease she felt with them and their acceptance of her made him all at once proud and yet perversely annoyed that his diplomatic expert was being so...diplomatic.
The couple in front of them were seated face to face on cushions, about to say their vows. Salim gave in to an urge too great for him to resist and looked at Charlotte. He noticed with another spurt of irritation that she was quite oblivious to him.
After the confidences she’d shared last night—that they’d shared—he should be the one pushing her away. And yet at every moment when she’d avoided his eye today, or evaded him, it had only fired up a primal urge to hunt her down.
Her green eyes were suspiciously shiny now, and he followed her gaze back to the young couple to see that the woman’s hands were together in the prayer position and the man was placing the wedding ring over each of her fingers until he got to the ring finger.
The young man looked at the woman and said in Arabic as he slid the ring down her finger, ‘I marry you, I marry you, I marry you,’ as was this particular tribe’s custom in marriage. Then she repeated his words and actions.
Now they were married. It was that simple.
They could be separated as easily, by saying the words I divorce you three times in front of the tribe leader, but from the way the young man was looking at his bride, and she back at him, this was a love match.
Salim’s characteristic cynicism was curiously elusive.
Everyone stood up and started to cheer, and the happy young couple were shepherded out to their nuptial tent with great catcalling and fanfare.
Salim stood and put a hand out to help Charlotte stand. She looked up and he saw a definite glistening in those huge eyes before she dipped her head and smoothly rose, ignoring his hand.
His irritation at her dogged rejection was made sharper by the way the scene he’d just witnessed had sneaked under his well-worn guard.
Charlotte was turning to go and, incensed that she might evade him so easily, Salim caught her hand so she had to stop and look at him.
The lingering brightness in her eyes impacted on him in a way he didn’t welcome. To cover it up, he drawled mockingly, ‘Why, I do believe you’re a romantic.’
‘You’re a romantic.’
Charlotte stiffened under his hand. A panicky feeling made her chest tight. The last thing she was was a romantic. She’d told Salim that she’d learnt her lessons young. That she had no illusions. And yet he didn’t believe her because he could see how witnessing that achingly simple and yet profound ceremony just now—seeing the pretty girl with her elaborate wedding headdress and the dark kohl around her eyes—had affected Charlotte before she’d even absorbed the fullness of that revelation herself.
ing him all day felt like an utterly futile exercise now. He was in her mind and under her skin.
Just then Rafa appeared at Salim’s other side and, taking advantage of his momentary distraction, Charlotte pulled her hand free and fled out of the tent behind the crowd without saying a word.
She was barely aware of the fact that the wind had started whipping up since the ceremony had started, or that there was a sense of urgency as people ran from tent to tent, shouting things to each other. She made her way instinctively to the natural pool and stood at the edge, breathing hard and trying to control her rising panic.
She wasn’t a romantic. She wasn’t.
So why had that ceremony affected her so profoundly? She knew the answer—fatally. It was rooted in that place where she still yearned for an idyllic Christmas and a happy family...
The choppy water mirrored her choppy emotions. She was still captivated, in spite of herself, by the thought that you could just look at someone and say those three words three times and it was done.
Charlotte hated it that Salim had been a witness to her moment of vulnerable revelation. Thinking of the way he’d drawled ‘You’re a romantic’ scored at her insides again.
She went cold all over as something else struck her—something far more threatening and disturbing. The thought of Salim telling himself that the reason she’d refused to sleep with him was because she wanted more.
Anger rose, whipping up inside her the way the wind was now whipping at her hair and her clothes. She turned around, galvanised by the thought of wiping that mocking look off Salim’s face, and made her way back through the camp, which was now eerily empty.
Salim’s tent stood tall and imposing, apart from the camp, and she made straight for it, grabbing the heavy material covering the doorway and pulling it back to step into the space.
Immediately she was aware of the wind being muffled and a sense of stillness. Once again the tent was decadently furnished—like something from a lavish movie set. Candles threw out a golden glow, imbuing the space with warmth and luxury.