The car drew to a stop outside a stately house with the Tabat flag flying on a pole outside. Seeing it made Charlotte feel even more homesick for a country where she’d only spent a few weeks.
She clambered out before Salim could come around to help her, and he looked at her as she preceded him up the steps and into the house.
The house was decorated for Christmas, making Charlotte feel a disjointed mixture of rejection and yearning. She felt churlish. A huge tree dominated the hall, and the smell of mulled wine and spices infused the air. It was surprisingly homely and familiar, and it was pushing about a million of her buttons.
Salim came to stand in front of her. ‘The function will take place here, in the ceremonial ballroom. I have to attend a meeting with the ambassador first—I’ll collect you at seven.’
‘I’m sure I can make my own way there,’ Charlotte responded quickly, wanting to put some distance between them. Especially when she felt so all over the place.
A familiar steely expression settled over Salim’s face. ‘I’ll meet you at seven.’
Charlotte saw a smartly dressed older man waiting with her bags and forced a smile. ‘Fine—if you insist.’
Salim watched as Charlotte disappeared up the main staircase behind the housekeeper. He frowned. It was almost as if she’d become a different person as soon as they’d landed in London. She’d hunched in on herself, as far away from him as possible in the back of the car, looking haunted and hunted.
He felt an uncharacteristic sense of concern...a compulsion to go after her and—what...? He cursed himself. Charlotte was just a lover. Different from any lover he’d had before, but that was all.
Salim turned from where he’d been staring into space—which further irritated him. He didn’t stand staring into space, wondering about a lover. Mooning after her.
A secretary smiled and said, ‘Let me show you to the ambassador’s office.’
Salim resisted the urge to slide a finger under the collar of his shirt to ease the sense of constriction as he followed the older woman.
Taking him unawares was the strength of yearning he felt to be back in Tabat and looking out over the endless desert. He’d once dismissed it as a sandpit, but he now knew that it teemed with life. Humans and animals and plants. Majestic. Beholden to none but themselves...
How had he never really appreciated that before?
* * *
When Charlotte was alone in her luxurious suite of rooms she paced back and forth in front of the window, oblivious to her surroundings or the view of a private park outside.
What was she doing?
She should have insisted on making her way back to her own apartment from the airport, and she should have let Salim know that she was terminating her contract. After all, King Zafir had all but terminated it the previous evening.
He’d pulled her aside for a moment at the banquet and said, ‘Thank you for everything you’ve done for my brother...’
Charlotte had fought not to go puce, and he’d continued before she could come up with a suitable response.
‘I think you know by now as well as I do that Salim follows his own path and seeks help from no one. He never has. However, I just wanted to say that as far as I’m concerned you’ve fulfilled the terms of our agreement. If you do decide to stay for the coronation, or longer than that, it’ll be an agreement between you and my brother...’
Feeling a sense of grim fatalism, Charlotte went to the wardrobe, where the housekeeper had insisted on putting away her things. She was going to pack and tell Salim that she was leaving...or, better yet, leave now before he could come and get her.
But every thought left her head when she opened the wardrobe and saw a familiar silky green gown hanging inside.
Her heart spasmed. It was the gown Salim had sent to her room to wear at his party. The one she’d refused to go to. The one where she’d confronted him and he’d kissed her.
Barely daring to breathe, she took it out and held it up. It was as stunning as she remembered, falling in a swathe of silk from under the bust. A symphony of simplicity and elegance.
Charlotte cursed Assa—she must have seen it hanging up at the back of the wardrobe in Tabat and packed it.
A very rogue desire swept over her—one more night with Salim. One more night to indulge in fantasy and let herself believe that this was her world and he was her man.
She could protect herself, couldn’t she? She wasn’t so far gone that she would