Shades of Lawrence of Arabia, Billie Callahan thought in stunned amazement: The prince of the desert was a golden man! She impatiently brushed strands of copper-colored hair away from her face, her eyes intent on the rider on the black Arabian stallion galloping toward her over the dunes. Her hair whipped again around her face, stinging her cheeks. The wind was definitely rising, and, standing on the top of a tiny hill, she was exposed to its full force. It seemed now to attack her clothing as well, snatching at her shirt and pants like a starving animal who’d cornered its prey and couldn’t wait to devour it.
When the Jeep had conked out a short way down the road, she’d thought it would be a good idea to climb the little hill to see if she could determine how far she’d have to walk to reach Zalandan. Now she wasn’t at all sure it had been such a good idea. She felt very vulnerable on this lonely promontory, and the sight that met her eyes wasn’t all that reassuring. Golden sand dunes rolled for miles to merge with the rapidly darkening skyline. A flash of lightning illuminated the cliffs on the horizon, but they seemed so terribly far away. Beyond those cliffs lay the safety of the city of Zalandan, Yusef had told her, but she’d never make it there before the storm struck in force. The wind lifted and swirled the sand in wild, ghostly patterns, the crests of the dunes moving like whirling dervishes.
She’d better try to get back to the Jeep and the slight protection it offered. She took a last curious glance at the rider on the black Arabian stallion before she turned and started down the hill. She’d first seen him as a blurred figure on the horizon. Despite the predicament she found herself in, the sight of him caught at her imagination.
Dressed in a white flowing burnoose that contrasted dramatically with the lustrous black coat of the horse, he looked graceful and dynamic. A prince of the desert from one of those old forties technicolor epics, she’d thought bemusedly. All he needed was a sword and a harem girl thrown across the bow of his saddle to complete the fantasy image. He came from the direction of the cliffs and probably was a resident of Zalandan, but he had all the dash of a desert brigand or a bedouin sheikh rather than a city dweller. And that was why she’d been startled when he’d come close enough for her to see his coloring. His hair wasn’t raven-black, as she’d expected, but a dark gold burnished by the sun. In the few months she’d been in Sedikhan, she’d never seen a blond native of this Mideastern country. Yet native he must be, judging by that flowing burnoose, and particularly by the way he managed the stallion.
Well, whoever he was, she mustn’t expect help from him, she thought with a shrug. He probably wasn’t headed in her direction anyway. Undoubtedly he would swerve to take the road leading to Yusef’s village, some thirty miles across the shifting dunes. Even if she was the rider’s objective, he might be more of a threat than a help. No, she couldn’t count on anyone but herself. But, then, when had she ever wanted it any other way? She’d weathered many a storm, both mental and physical, and she’d overcome this one too.
She reached the bottom of the hill and fought to keep her footing. The gusts seemed to try to lift and sweep her away as if she were just another of the millions of grains of sand they dominated so easily. The sand stung her cheeks now, and she closed her eyes to keep out the sharp particles swirling all around her.
“What the devil are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere?” The voice was rough and masculine, and she opened her eyes to see her desert prince slipping lithely out of the saddle only a few yards from her. The wind was shrieking so loudly that she hadn’t even heard the sound of hoofbeats. He was no native . . . and he certainly wasn’t Lawrence of Arabia. That drawl sounded more like Texas than Oxford.
“What does it look like I’m doing?” she asked crossly, shouting to be heard over the wind. “I’ve been told there’s nothing better for the complexion than a sandstorm, so I thought I’d drive out in the middle of one and try it.” She found her voice was quavering with nervousness, and it only increased her annoyance. “I’m trying to stay alive, dammit!”
The wind whipped that golden hair about his face as it tore at her.
“You’re not doing too good a job,” he said grimly, as he came toward her. “In a few minutes this is going to escalate into a full-fledged storm, and you’re wandering around as if you were at a garden party.” He grabbed her elbow. “Come on, we’ve got to get to shelter.”
“That’s where I was going,” she said indignantly as he hustled her briskly toward a cluster of rocks while leading the black behind them. “I was heading toward my Jeep to wait out the storm.”
“Unless it’s only a few yards away you’d never have made it,” he said tersely. “You’d probably have
wandered away from the road and smothered to death within ten minutes.”
She felt a shiver run through her that she tried to mask with a light laugh. “Nonsense. I have a wonderful sense of direction. I’d have made it.”
“I’m glad you’re so confident.” He pushed her behind the sheltering rocks that were barely waist-high. “Stay there while I take care of old Nick, here.” He led the horse toward another cluster of rocks nearby.
Billie sank down into the shelter of the boulders and suddenly felt very alone and afraid. How stupid to be so scared; soon the storm would be over and she would have survived it, as she had all the others in her life.
A white blur appeared through the curtain of sand that enveloped her, and the golden-haired desert man dropped down beside her. “It’s not too bad here yet, but the wind is picking up steadily. We’re going to get the brunt of it any time now.”
Her violet eyes widened apprehensively. “It’s going to get worse?” How could it get any worse, when the world already seemed to be splitting open and releasing all the gibbering fiends of hell? She drew a deep breath and said with forced lightness, “Well, it probably won’t be all that bad. We have the base of the hill on one side and a humongous rock on the other to protect us.”
“Don’t kid yourself,” he said as he drew the loose hood of the burnoose over his hair. “I’ve seen storms like this shift tons of sand and completely rearrange the landscape. An hour from now there could be a twenty-foot dune where we’re sitting.”
“Do you have to be so reassuring?” she asked ironically. “You wouldn’t want me to get too cocky about our chances for survival.”
“We’ll survive,” he said absently. “Lie down.”
“What?” she asked, startled.
“Lie down. I’m going to cover you with my body. The burnoose will give us both a small measure of protection. Not much, but we need every edge we can get.”
“But I don’t—”
He didn’t wait for her to finish, and she suddenly found herself flat on her back in the sand with him astride her. He parted the robe to reveal a soft white shirslung, faded jeans. Definitely not Lawrence of Arabia, she thought hazily. Then he lowered his body on top of hers and she found that she couldn’t think at all. She could feel the warm heat of his body through the material of the clothing that separated them, and it came as a little shock. He was resting his weight on his knees and elbows on each side of her, but she could feel every line of his lean, muscular body with a detailed intimacy that made her oddly breathless. Her face was pressed into the soft white shirt, and she was aware of a faint lemony scent blended with the clean smell of soap and the tangy musk odor of the virile male.
“I don’t think this is really necessary,” she said faintly.
He lifted himself a little to look down at her, and she got another shock that was almost as great as the touch of his body. Good Lord, he was beautiful! She hadn’t been conscious of anything but that golden hair and deep, vibrant voice in the swirling mist of sand that had surrounded them, since he’d appeared beside her. Now there were only a few inches between them, and she knew she’d never seen a more beautiful human being before in her life. His finely molded bone structure was almost classical, and the golden bronze of his skin shone like the patina on a statue that might have graced the Acropolis. Still, there was nothing in the least hard or rigid in the sensual curve of his lips, and his eyes were the clearest, deepest blue she’d ever seen. She’d always thought blue eyes were a little cold, but now she realized they could be as warm as the first breath of spring. Warm and understanding and wise. Wise? What a strange adjective to come to mind in connection with an explosively virile man who couldn’t be older than his late twenties. Yet there was a gentle wisdom in the depths of those eyes that went far beyond intelligence and might have belonged to a man in the twilight of his life.
“What?” She had forgotten the protest she’d made a moment before, and she hastily pulled her attention from those wise, clear eyes and that beautifully sensual mouth to the matter at hand.
“You can’t be very comfortable. If you’ll just let me up, I’ll be quite all right.”
“Shhh.” He smiled down at her, and the smile lit his face wi...
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