She couldn’t keep fighting this. No matter how terrifying it was.
Salim hadn’t been crass enough actually to articulate what might happen, but it throbbed in the air even now.
Just then, as if to test her, something soft and light-coloured was flicked over the screen separating her from the rest of the tent and Salim’s voice floated in, far too close for comfort.
‘You can use this after you wash. It’ll be too big but it’s all I have.’
Charlotte was about to open to her mouth to declare she didn’t need to change, because she had no intention of taking off a stitch of her clothing, no matter what was going on in her head and body, but the words stuck in her throat when she found herself wondering if he had worn this tunic.
Weakly, she said nothing and pulled it over the screen into her hands. His scent drifted tantalisingly from the folds of material and something tugged deep in her belly—an ache that had become all too familiar since she’d met Salim.
She looked at herself in the mirror—her expression was one of someone who was hunted. Or haunted, to be more accurate. Haunted by her past.
It struck her then—as much as she’d done her best to move away from it—her past was still nipping at her heels, dictating everything she did. Stopping her from living fully for fear of annihilation. Rejection.
She thought she’d distanced herself from any possibility of pain, but she realised now with a sense of futility that you could never really escape pain. Unless you wanted to live half a life. And she knew now that she wanted more than that—even if it meant taking a risk.
The wind howled outside and the sense of being closed off from everything was very seductive. It whispered at her to let go of her inhibitions. It whispered at her to take a risk.
‘Charlotte? Is everything all right?’
She jumped at Salim’s voice and then answered quickly, ‘Everything is fine. I’ll be out in a minute.’
A reckless excitement filled her in that moment—a sense of seizing something vital and alive. Without really thinking about the invisible line she’d stepped over in her own mind, Charlotte stripped and stepped into the shower area, leaving her own clothes in a neat pile on a chair.
Hot water rained down over her head and body and she tipped her face up. She couldn’t help but be aware of the symbolism; she felt as if a layer of her carefully constructed persona was being washed away too.
She was in the middle of the desert in the middle of a sandstorm, sharing a tent with a man who had got under her skin and made her want more than she’d ever wanted in her life.
When she stepped out and dried herself perfunctorily with a towel cool air made her skin pop up into goosebumps. Her nipples were hard and tight. The ache deep in her core intensified.
The tunic Salim had given her fell heavily down her naked body, pooling on the ground at her feet. It had a vee neck that on him would look perfectly civilised, but on her cut right between her breasts, showing an indecent amount of flesh.
Suddenly Charlotte didn’t care. It was as if she could see her habitual self stalking out of this space, still dressed in her own clothes, determined to resist at all costs, but she didn’t want to be her any more. Or at least not for tonight.
The earth was being whipped into a frenzy outside, and they were separated from that awesome power by only a flimsy barrier. It intensified her growing urgency to seize the moment.
Charlotte took a breath and stepped out from behind the screen. For a second she couldn’t see anything in the dimly lit space, and her very recent and nebulous bravado faltered. But then her eyes fell on the bed, and she saw the unmistakably masculine shape of Salim, sprawled in careless abandon on top of the sumptuous fabrics.
The tent around them groaned ominously, but he didn’t move. Hardly breathing, Charlotte picked up the excess folds of the robe in one hand and moved forward, coming to a stop a few feet from the bed.
When her eyes had finally adjusted to the light she saw that he wasn’t moving because he was asleep, his dark lashes resting on those slashing high aristocratic cheekbones. Even though he wore clothes—he’d thrown trousers on under his robe—the latent power of that impressive body was impossible to conceal.
There was something incredibly voyeuristic about watching him in this moment of rare defencelessness, but that wasn’t strictly accurate because even now he exuded an air of force and control.
His leg moved slightly and Charlotte panicked, reality slamming into her like cold bucket of water. What was she doing? Had she really expected to walk out here and find him waiting for her just because he’d said, ‘You’ll have to spend the night here’ with that glint in his eye? Expected that he would still want her?
He was just toying with her because she was a woman unlike his other lovers—someone who intrigued him briefly. She was an idiot to think that anything fundamental had changed within her so that she was ready to throw caution to the winds, and she sent up silent thanks now that he’d never know how close she’d come to making a complete fool of herself.
She turned around to escape behind the screen, but got no further than a couple of feet when she heard Salim say, ‘Where are you going?’
Salim pushed himself up to sit on the bed. Charlotte had her back to him. He’d been listening to the sounds of the shower and imagining rivulets of water running down over her slender pale body. Then he’d heard her steal softly into the tent and he’d feigned sleep, curious to see what she’d do...
But nothing had happened and when he’d opened his eyes she’d been walking away.
She slowly turned around to face him.
Salim stood up from the bed. The robe he’d given her was comically large on her slender frame, but comical was the last thing he was feeling as he took her in.