Salim waited a beat and imagined Charlotte waking up, those green eyes landing on him, looking for something he wasn’t prepared to give.
‘Very well,’ he said grimly, ‘let’s go.’
As he strode away from his tent he ignored the stinging of his conscience. He was just doing what he had done countless times before—walking away from a lover. This was no different and it couldn’t afford to be—because he was in danger of forgetting why he was here at all.
* * *
Charlotte rose slowly through the levels of consciousness, registering aches and muscle twinges that told of a vigorous kind of activity she’d never indulged in before.
But the acute tenderness between her legs made her recall too easily and vividly what it had felt like to have Salim’s powerful body thrusting deep inside hers, over and over again.
She opened her eyes with a snap, blinking in the dim light of the tent. The first thing she heard were voices from outside. The tent was empty, and when she came up on her elbows she saw her clothes laid out across the bottom of the bed.
Something curled up inside her.
What had she expected? To wake and find Salim mooning over her? Hadn’t she gone to great pains to tell him she wasn’t a romantic? That she just wanted dark and decadent things? And hadn’t he obliged? Thoroughly?
She grabbed her clothes and went into the bathing area, washing quickly, avoiding her reflection in the mirror. When she re-emerged she felt a little disorientated in the empty tent. It was as if last night might have been a mirage, or a feverish erotic dream.
Suddenly Charlotte was terrified that Salim would appear before she was ready to see him, and she went to the opening of the tent, pulling back the flap of material. She saw sand piled against the surrounding tents, obviously shifted there by the storm, but it appeared not to have caused too much damage.
There was no one in the immediate vicinity and she escaped back to her own tent. When she got there she took a deep breath—but then almost jumped out of her skin when someone entered just behind her. She whirled around, her heart in her mouth. Assa. Her heart went back to a regular rhythm.
The girl looked distracted. ‘Good—you’re up, Miss McQuillan. The storm wasn’t as bad as they feared, so we’ll leave for Tabat City shortly. You should gather your things. The king is eager to be back before sunset.’
I bet he is, thought Charlotte, ignoring the dart of hurt that he didn’t seem to be overly concerned as to her wellbeing this morning.
She got her things together and packed. The fact that he hadn’t been there when she’d woken, hadn’t thought to wake her, told her in no uncertain terms that she was most likely already con
signed to the box where he stored regretful experiences. If the man had any regrets—which he probably didn’t.
By the time the staff were loading up the vehicles Charlotte could see Salim in the distance, tall and dominant. He was speaking to the sheikh of the tribe, and then he got into his SUV and it took off ahead of the convoy, flanked by Security in their four by fours.
Rafa appeared, and to Charlotte’s over-sensitive mind it seemed he looked at her with an expression of pity.
‘You will travel with me, Miss McQuillan.’
She forced a smile, as if this was totally fine, and told herself that she wasn’t devastated by the way Salim obviously couldn’t bear to look at her. The thought that this genteel older gentleman might know what had happened was nearly too much to bear.
As they drove across the undulating desert, getting closer and closer to civilisation again, Salim’s morning-after treatment of Charlotte continued to grate on her exposed nerves, even though she knew it shouldn’t.
She cursed herself for having believed that something revelatory had happened last night. It had been sex. Her first sexual experience, yes. But just sex. The fact that Salim hadn’t appeared even to notice that he’d been her first lover was something she shouldn’t be disappointed by. After all, she’d hoped that he wouldn’t notice. But the fact that he hadn’t wasn’t as easy to live with as she’d thought.
And, worse, it stung her where she was most vulnerable—where her parents had left an indelible mark of rejection and abandonment. This was what she’d wanted to protect herself from, and to think that she’d allowed someone close enough to rip those wounds open again was as humiliating as it was painful.
She’d deluded herself last night, thinking she could take what Salim offered and remain untouched. She’d wanted him badly enough to lie to herself.
They reached the palace in Tabat City as the sun was setting over the ancient building, bathing everything with a lush golden light, but Charlotte was oblivious to the beauty, her guts churning.
She got out of the car and stretched her cramped legs. She saw Salim in the distance, dark shades covering his eyes. He looked in her direction briefly, but then turned and strode into the palace with his retinue following behind him. He’d never looked more king-like than at that moment.
Assa appeared at Charlotte’s side. ‘I will draw you a bath, Miss McQuillan, and have some food brought to your room. You must be tired.’
Tired, hot and dusty. And still aching in secret places.
She followed Assa back to her room but a couple of hours later, after food and a bath, Charlotte couldn’t settle.
She’d half expected—hoped—to see Salim appear, but since the sun had set and night had fallen over the desert outside there’d been no visitors. She felt powerless, and it was far too reminiscent of when she’d been younger, when she’d been at the mercy of her parents’ whims.