Read Heart of the Desert Online

Authors: Carol Marinelli

Heart of the Desert (8 page)

‘I shouldn’t have said anything. I hope I haven’t got Karim into trouble.’

‘As if I’m going to tell on him. So that’s why he was always out in the desert? I was wondering what his problem was—how much contemplation one man needed?’

He did make her laugh, but it changed into a cough and Ibrahim was still cross with himself for placing her in danger. ‘I checked before we came out … there was no indication of a storm as big as this one. It seems to have come from nowhere.’

‘Are there lots of them?’

Ibrahim nodded. ‘But this is severe.’

‘Could the tent blow away?’

Ibrahim just laughed. ‘They are designed for these conditions.’ And then he went into engineer mode, talking about vents and rigging, but Georgie had other things on her mind.

‘Will Felicity and Karim be all right?’ She thought of them out there and her heart started racing.

‘They will be fine,’ he assured her. ‘Karim will know exactly what to do. They will be waiting it out like us. They just won’t be able to fly back.’

‘Felicity will be frantic.’ Georgie closed her eyes. ‘I should have stayed at the palace and looked after Azizah.’

‘In case her mother got caught in a storm?’ Ibrahim shook his head. ‘You can’t think like that.’ The wind screeched a warning and Ibrahim knew when he was beaten. ‘We will stay till it passes, but I think we are here for the night.’ They headed back out to the lounge area and he stood as she roamed, watched her expression as she looked at the wall hangings and her nosy little fingers picked up priceless heirlooms and weighed them. He would never have planned this. Would never have bought her here if he’d know they would be alone.

Her cheeks were pink from the sun and her arms just a little bit sunburnt. Her clothes were grubby and her hair wild from the sand and the wind. And how he wanted her. Though he would not blatantly defy the desert, he would follow the rules while he was here, but his way.

Ibrahim did not have to chase, all he had was the thrill of the catch. He had never had to want or wait or been said no to—except once.

And here she was.

With him tonight, and now he didn’t want to wait till London.

Tonight he would sample the thrill of the chase; tonight he would make certain that she would not refuse him again. He would romance her, feed her, turn on every ounce of his undeniable charm—he would ripen her with his mind and let her simmer overnight. They
would rise early, Ibrahim decided, she could see the sunrise and then he would take her to a hotel and bed her, take her ripe and ready and plump and delicious. And he wouldn’t even need to reach out. She would fall into his hands without plucking.

In fact, he decided with a smile, she would beg.

‘What?’ Georgie asked, seeing a smile pass over his face.

‘I was just thinking. You will have your authentic desert experience. Bedra will have left food, the table is set, we can feast tonight, and tomorrow, and when the storm is past you can rise early and see the sunrise.’ He saw a flicker of a frown on her face, but he moved to relax her. ‘We must have separate rooms. Come, I’ll show you the guest quarters.’

They walked through the lounge, the air thick and warm, and she glimpsed a large curtained area with a bed so high and deep you would almost need stairs and a springboard to dive into it. The room was heavy with scent—musky, exotic oils that aroused, to ensure future generations, and the bed throbbed with colour, drapes and cushions. He let her eyes linger for more than a moment, made sure she had seen it, and then gently he took her elbow.

‘That is mine. Your room is over here.’

It was thirty-four steps away, she knew because she counted the distance between their rooms. Ibrahim knew she would be counting them again in her head later, for though hers was absolutely beautiful, for royal guest,
not a princess, and just that tiny bat of her eyelashes told him she knew.

‘It’s lovely,’ Georgie said, because it was.

It was!

Apart from the palace, it was absolutely the nicest room she had ever been a guest in, and she told herself that again as she enthused and thanked him, but her mind was somehow in his room, with heavy silk spreads and a bed you could drown in. ‘Here.’ Ibrahim was supremely polite. ‘Make use of the guest quarters as you please.’ He pulled back a drape and the space pulsed with colour and rich fabrics.

‘I can’t just wear someone’s things.’

‘These are for guests who arrive unprepared.’ He slowly looked around the room. ‘Nothing changes …’ There was a pensive note to his voice, but he didn’t elaborate. ‘I will leave you to bathe, just help yourself to anything. Perhaps dress for dinner?’

‘Dress?’

‘You wanted an authentic desert experience, well, let me give you one.’ He watched her swallow. ‘I’ll prepare the lounge.’

Despite the ancient ornaments and artefacts, there was every modern convenience and Georgie filled the heavy bath with steaming water and chose from the array of fragrant oils. After several hours in the Jeep and the grit and the sand she had accumulated, it was bliss to stretch out in the warm, scented water. She could have lain for ages, except she really was hungry.

Georgie had had no intention of selecting clothing from the guests’ wardrobe.

A charity cupboard stocked for inappropriate guests she did not need, and she wasn’t keen on the idea of playing dress up. Except maybe she was, because she thought of Ibrahim in his robes in London and there were still angry red marks on her waist where her capri pants had cut into her, and the pale fabric that had looked so cool and elegant on the hanger in the high-street store was now crumpled and rather grubby.

Georgie flicked through the wardrobe: vast kaftans that would swamp her delicate frame. And what was it with Zaqar and shades of yellow? Yet her first brisk hand movements grew slower, her eyes drawn to the intricate beading and embroidery, every piece a work of art. They were in decreasing sizes too, she realised, for there near the end was a slim robe in a dark blood red with small glass beads on the front and a dance of gold leaves around the hem—it was nothing like something she would ever choose for herself, but was perhaps the most beautiful article of clothing she had ever seen.

The fabric slid coolly beneath her fingers, the finest of silks. It beckoned, and she closed her eyes in bliss as she gave in and slid it over her head. It skimmed her body. As she looked in the mirror and saw a different Georgie, her stomach tightened in strange recognition at the woman who met her gaze. Not a girl or a young woman but a woman with all awkwardness gone, and it bewildered her. It was as if the fragrant bath had surgically removed that awkwardness, because
she liked what she saw and wanted to enhance it. Her eyes glanced down to the heavy brushes and flat glass containers filled with rich colours to perfume bottles, and she pulled the stopper from one and inhaled the musky scent, she wanted to dress for him. She wanted her night in the desert.

Ibrahim’s catering skills ran to ringing his favourite restaurant and telling them the number of guests. His kitchen in London was stocked and maintained by his housekeeper. At the palace, occasionally at night he wandered in and chatted to the overnight chef, who would prepare Ibrahim a late-night or rather pre-dawn snack, but here in the desert things were different—here, a young prince was left for a period to fend for himself. Not that he had to this evening, for Bedra
was
both a doctor and royal housekeeper. When he opened the third fridge, there were platters fit for a king, or should a reprobate prince happen by, and there were jugs too, all lined up and ready, that had herbs measured and prepared. All Ibrahim had to do was add water and carry trays through, but he was pleased with his handiwork. He even lit some candles and incense and turned on some music to soften the noise of the wind. Then he headed to his quarters to bath and change.

Ibrahim shaved, which he did not normally do in the desert, but his face was rough and as watched the blade slice over his chin, he thought of Georgie’s cheeks, of her mouth and her face and, yes, deny it as he may, he was preparing himself for her.

Preparing himself for tomorrow, Ibrahim warned himself, because this tent was a place you brought your bride. This was a place where the union was sealed and even if he didn’t strictly believe in the tradition, tonight he would respect it.

He headed out to the lounge area. He wanted to eat and wondered what was taking her so long, because he was ready and had
prepared
dinner too. But every moment of waiting was worth it as, looking just a little bit shy but definitely not awkward, she came to him.

‘You look …’ He did not finish, he could not finish, because not only did she look beautiful as she stood with her long blonde hair coiling as it dried, her skin flushed from the warm water, somehow she looked as if she came from the desert. Somehow, despite her pale features, despite it all, she looked as if she belonged here, and Ibrahim wondered if this night, together but apart, was more than he should have taken on.

Wondered how far he should tease her.

Her eyes were very blue in her pale face. She had none of that kohl that sharpened them, just a shimmer of silver on her lids that glittered each time she blinked. It was her mouth that had been painted, in the same blood red as her dress, and it trembled a little as his eyes fell on it, and it killed him that he must wait till tomorrow to kiss it.

She sat on the floor at the low table and Ibrahim did the same. He had seen her a little nervous around food, but now her eyes were just curious. The nerves, he knew, were for another reason, for long before she had
sat down he had seen the leaping pulse in her throat, the glitter not just on her eyelids but in eyes that shone with arousal.

‘Here.’ He handed her a heavy fruit, which looked like a cross between a peach and an apple, and selected one for himself. As she went to take a tentative bite he shook his head. ‘It is marula, you drink it.’ He squeezed the heavy fruit between his fingers and she watched as sticky goo ran between them. He selected a straw and plunged it into the fruit and he took her mind to mad places, because the fruit was her flesh and she held her breath as he pierced it.

‘You,’ he said, and she broke the skin of her fruit, not as easily as him but it worked and she drank from it. Though the fluid was sweet and warm and delicious, somehow she wanted to lean and lick the moisture still damp on his fingers.

She ate, and it was different, because she was thinking about food again, about every morsel that slid down her throat, but it was far from with loathing, because each swallow of her throat was watched by him—and she wanted his mouth there.

She wanted their tongues to meet in one half of the pomegranate, but he offered her only her share and then ate his.

‘No spoons.’ Ibrahim said, and made eating seem debauched, but in the most thrilling of ways, and for the first time there was regret that a meal was over. As they moved to the couches, she wanted back at his table.

And Ibrahim knew.

But it was safer on the sofa and she sipped sweet coffee gratefully and had another cup to help her sober up, because that was how he sometimes made her feel.

‘The trouble with antiques,’ Ibrahim drawled, filling her cup with the jug that had been used since his childhood, ‘is that nothing gets thrown out. Nothing changes. Always it is the same.’

‘You hate it here?’

‘No.’ Ibrahim said, and then went on, ‘Not always.’ He saw her confusion. ‘I know every corner of this tent. We came as children—it was good then.’ He didn’t want to talk, he wanted to slowly seduce, he wanted her wanting him in the morning, but somehow she demanded, without him always realising, more from him.

Sometimes he found himself talking with her, not about things that teased but things that tortured. He heard his voice saying things he had never said before, and she didn’t just listen, as others would have, she did not agree but partook.

‘When your mother was here? Was it after she left when it changed?’ she probed, and he closed his eyes, but her question remained and he thought about it, because when his mother had been here, it had been different. Then his father would laugh and the children would play and spend a whole day searching for one rare wild flower for the maid to put on their mother’s breakfast tray. He
and Ahmed would play in a cave a morning’s walk from here and the servants would find them at dusk, but the scolding had always been worth it.

Then there had been no fear when he had been with Ahmed, just the arrogance of youth, for surely nothing could harm the young princes.

‘It just changed,’ Ibrahim said.

‘After Ahmed died?’

She had gone where no one should, where not even he dared.

‘For him I would have been king.’ He was beyond angry, his voice was raw. ‘Had he just asked me, had he even bothered to tell me his fears. Instead …’ He could not forgive his brother, and that killed a part of Ibrahim too, and he could not linger on it either, so he spoke of other things instead. ‘It changed for many reasons. For a while it was a playground, but at seventeen you spend a month alone before you go to the military. It is a time of transition. For a month you wander and then return to the tent.’

‘No staff?’

‘None,’ Ibrahim said. ‘You remember the fear when you were left as a child, but there is no one watching this time. So slowly you build up for the walk home.’

‘You walk home?’ She could not keep the shock from her voice—that a teenager would be left to fend for himself then walk for miles. ‘And then you get to join the army—some reward!’

‘No.’ Ibrahim shook his head. ‘First you become a man. There is a very good reason to find your bearings
and keep walking back to the palace. There, waiting, is your reward.’

Georgie blinked and as his eyes never left her face, as realisation slowly dawned, her pale skin darkened. ‘That’s disgusting,’ Georgie spluttered.

‘Why?’ He was genuinely bemused. ‘I am a royal prince—the woman I marry must be a virgin. It is my duty to be a skilled lover.’

‘To teach her!’ Georgie spat.

‘Of course.’ Ibrahim said. ‘But even a teacher first has to be taught.’

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