'Soraya. What are you doing down here when the party's in full swing upstairs?' 

Zahir halted several paces away. His eyes ate her up, luscious in a long dress of dusky rose. A gown that was innocently demure by the standards of the scantily dressed socialites at the party. Yet it skimmed her body in a way that reminded him too clearly of the hour glass figure that tempted him during each day's swimming lesson. 

Heat clutched deep in his belly. 

Her scent, wildflowers rather than hothouse exotics, teased his nostrils. Her hair, held back by jewelled clips, cascaded down her back in a ripple of thick silk. 

More than one man had cast covetous eyes on her tonight and Zahir had been busy staking a possessive claim on her to prevent any untoward advances. 

Staking a claim on behalf of Hussein, he reminded himself. 

She half turned but didn't meet his eyes. 'I wanted some peace and quiet.' 

At her words he stiffened. He'd seen her excited, happy, indignant and angry but never listless. 

There'd been inevitable tension after their kiss. But he'd worked hard not to let her see that taste of her had driven him to the brink of endurance. For her part, Soraya had thrown herself into sightseeing with a fervour that gave no hint she wanted anything else. 

At first he'd wondered if she was a little too enthusiastic, then chided himself. It wasn't that he wanted her pining for what could never be. 

'You're not enjoying yourself?' Tonight he'd sought safety in numbers. This exclusive society party had seemed a perfect alternative to a night alone with Soraya and the terrible gnawing tension within. 

Beautiful women with come hither eyes and smiles that promised pleasure were here tonight in droves. Yet none had drawn a second glance from him. 

Not one could hold a candle to Soraya for beauty or character. She was gentle, despite her bravado in standing up for herself, capable, caring, inquisitive and deeply fascinating. Her fierce independence, her determination and natural exuberance entranced him. With her he'd felt more than he had in a decade and a half. It was like emerging from a grey half life into a world of sunshine and colour. 

'The party is amazing. Thank you for bringing me.' Yet she didn't sound as enthusiastic as when she discussed her research project. 'So many interesting people. So many celebrities. And I've never seen so much bling in my life.' 


She shook her head and those long tresses slid and curled around her slim back. Was it ridiculous to resent the fact she wore her hair down tonight? He hated the way men looked at her, imagining that bountiful hair loose around her shoulders as she made love. 

He knew they did. Any man would. 

He did. God help him! 

'But it's only days till our flight from Rome to Bakhara.' Her husky words drew his belly tight. 'It's crept up on me and I needed time to digest it.' 

She went home to marry the finest man he knew. 

Zahir ignored the wave of nausea that passed through him at the thought. 

'I know Hussein is looking forward to seeing you.' If Hussein had any idea of the lovely woman she'd become, he'd be eager for her arrival. 

Soraya bowed her head as if in assent. But her grip on the railing reminded him of a falcon's claws clamped hard and sharp on a leather glove. 

'Soraya?' He took a pace towards her then, realising, stopped. 'Are you all right?' 

'Of course.' She tilted her chin up as she stared across the shimmering brightness. 'What could be wrong?' 

Something was. He'd come to recognise the way she angled that neat chin as a defence mechanism. 

He reminded himself his duty was simply to return her safe to Bakhara, not delve into her thoughts and fears. 

Yet telling himself couldn't make it so. Nor could he banish the suspicion he knew exactly what was wrong. That despite her proud front, Soraya felt as he did. That they'd circled an unspoken truth for weeks. 

'Tell me!' 

Perhaps the harsh gravel in his voice surprised her for she turned her head, eyes wide and it was there again, that jangle along the senses as if lightning had sparked between them. 

Damn it. He shouldn't feel this. He shouldn't feel anything except impersonal concern for her wellbeing. 

Yet what he felt was personal. Far too personal. 

Did she feel it too? Is that why she whipped her head round so fast? 

'Soraya. Please.' It was no good telling himself this was merely a job. It had ceased to be just a job the moment he saw her in that Paris nightclub. 

'I don't want to go back,' she said at last. 'I don't want... ' Her voice dipped and she swallowed convulsively. That single movement spoke of a vulnerability that tugged at something in his very core. Something he couldn't name. 

He found himself behind her. Not touching, but mirroring her body with his as if to protect her. He couldn't keep back. 

'What don't you want, Soraya?' His breath held. 

A deep breath lifted her narrow shoulders. 'I don't want to marry the Emir.'

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