About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
But worth it. Exactly as promised.
After nothing but shades of blinding white and bleached yellow and dull red, the glimpse of greenery had Fern sitting taller, bringing her nose up the same way her camel did, searching for the scent of water. As they entered the farthest reach of the underground spring, where the palms were stunted and the grass sparse, she felt like a giant looking down on the tops of trees. The sun was already behind the canyon wall and blessedly cool air began to slither beneath the flapping edges of her abaya to caress her bare legs.
The tension of fearing for her survival began to ease. She wanted to release a laugh of relieved joy.
Outbursts of any kind weren't her thing, though. She preferred to be as invisible as possible. Fern considered herself an observer of life, not so much a participant, but for the first time she experienced something like what a frisky lamb or a cocky adolescent must feel. It was a strange awareness of being alive. Her blood cells took on new energy and her pulse returned to vigorous beats.
She wanted to throw off the weight of her clothes, expose her hot skin to the verdant air, kick up her heels and soak life through her pores. She wanted to be one with nature.
Awash in this state of renewal, she looked ahead to the clearing where the caravan would unload and saw him.
Just a man in a thobe and gutra. He could have been one of the camel keepers for all she knew, but a deep, feminine part of her recognized the kind of male that called to any woman. A leader. One whom other men looked to for direction and approval. Confident. A man of strength whose muscles strained the white tunic that draped his shoulders. He wore sandals and his feet were dusty, but he planted them firmly. With ownership.
She forced herself to lift her gaze to his face, barely able to withstand the impact of such handsomeness. How could a man be so beautiful yet so rugged? He was a product of the desert, she supposed, cheeks hollow and roughened by stubble, skin deeply tanned by the sun, mouth somber yet sculpted and how did she even sense this? Sexual. A hawkish nose and brows as straight and firm as the horizon and then
Green eyes. As startling and revitalizing as this oasis.
His sheer magnificence took her breath.
"Uncle!" the girls cried and the man's severe expression flashed with a smile that made wistfulness bloom in Fern's chest.
Men were such puzzling creatures to her, having mostly been passing ships in her life. She'd attended an all-girls school where even the principal was female. The library trustees, her mother's doctor and the few teenaged boys she'd occasionally met through Miss Ivy's club were the only males she really knew. She often found herself watching men like birders watched finches, studying their behavior and trying to make sense of them. She was always startled to discover they were quite human. The ones that were able to be tender with a child were especially fascinating to her. They made her wonder what it would be like to be close enough to truly understand one.
Not that she expected to get close to this one!
She had worked out that he was Zafir, Amineh's brother. Amineh's husband, Ra'id, hupped at his camel so it would drop to its knees. He dismounted and the men clasped hands and bent their heads together as they embraced with easy warmth.
Definitely not a camel keeper, Fern chided herself. Her students' Uncle Zafir was formally known as Sheikh abu Tariq Zafir ibn Ahmad al-Rakin Iram. He was leader of Q'Amara, the country bordering Ra'id's.
She must have sensed who he was and his stature impacted her, she reasoned. That's why she was suffering this flare of heightened interest. The significance of arriving and meeting such an important man was turning her inside out in a way that was both familiar yet amplified. She was not only shy by nature, but also a redhead with the over-active blushing response that often came with it. She had flushed uncontrollably the first time Ra'id had spoken to hershe'd been so self-conscious under the attention of such a strong personality. A domineering, angry mother had made her sensitive to all authority figures. Anxious to please. It was completely understandable that she'd have an attack of nerves when faced with meeting another sheikh.
She'd never felt blistered from the inside like this, though. Never electrified yet stimulated. It was very disconcerting.
Other men came forward. These ones were camel keepers and camp attendants, but she was aware of only one man now. Not that he noticed her, which was a relief. And why would he? She was buried under a niqab and sunglasses, well-protected against the harsh glare of the sun and the bite of blowing sand. He was busy carrying on two separate conversations with his nieces as they occupied each of his arms.
The girls wriggled to the ground when a boy arrived, crying the name Fern had heard several times since this caravan into the desert had been proposed. "Tariq!"
Their cousin, ten years old, she'd been informed with great awe by her much younger students, wore a long tunic like his father's and challenged the girls to race him up the path to the colorful tents being erected upstream, offering them a head start.
Ra'id helped his wife once her camel was down. Amineh threw off her niqab to hug her brother with all the affection she radiated when talking about him. They all spoke in Arabic, a beautiful language Fern wasn't even close to mastering
"Oh!" Fern cried as her camel pitched forward.
Remember to lean back, Amineh had cautioned her a million times, but Fern had been so caught up in watching Zafir smile at his sister she hadn't noticed her camel was dropping to its knees. She scrambled to hang on, but was already sliding off by the time the animal hit the ground with a jarring thump.
Her dismount became the clumsiest in Arab history. She barely caught herself from crumpling into a heap. It was witnessed by everyone. So mortifying.
"Are you all right, Fern?" Amineh called. "You seemed to have the trick of it at the last stop. I should have asked Ra'id to help you."
"I'm fine. Just distracted. It's so pretty here," she babbled, trying to cover up her interest in Zafir. A giant magnifying glass might as well be narrowing its beam on her, she was in such a searing, uncomfortable spotlight. She overheard Ra'id say something in Arabic that she did understand, calling her "The English teacher."
"She is," Amineh confirmed. "Come over and meet Fern. Oh, thank you, Nudara," she added as her maid came forward with a canvas bag. Amineh peeled off her abaya and threw it into the bag then motioned for Fern to discard her dusty robe into it as well. "She'll shake the sand out of them so they're ready when the nomads arrive."
Before taking this job, the closest Fern had come to having servants was watching the Downton Abbey collection on her laptop. All her life, her mother had been too tired from cleaning other people's houses to do much of it at home, but she'd liked things shipshape. Fern had kept their small flat neat as a pin. In the final months, Fern had provided all-out hospice care, doing everything from bathing her mother to mounting the assistance bar next to the toilet. She still hadn't adjusted to leaving tasks like laundry and cooking to others. It felt presumptuous, even though Nudara took no offense.
Maybe if Fern had been on Amineh's level, making requests of servants wouldn't have bothered her, but she was in that strange limbo between being a servant and being one of the family.
Honestly, she thought with a wry, inward sigh, when had she not been the odd duck set apart from the rest of the group?
This moment was no better. Despite only having adopted the head coverings since taking her position as English tutor to Bashira and Jumanah, Fern felt terribly bold as she removed her dark glasses, unpinned her veil and tugged away both scarf and under cap in one go. It was the hair. Her abundant corkscrews of carrotorange made everyone in this country do a double take.
She kept her hair long because it was that or resemble a pot scrubber. It probably looked like it had been run through the food processor as it was. She'd been two days without more than a damp facecloth for a bath, but the enormous relief of cool air hitting her sweat-dampened scalp made her prickle with delight. Stripping her abaya, she revealed her sleeveless shirt with its forget-me-not print and lace collar then shook her cornflower-blue skirt from clinging to her legs, self-conscious that it only went to her shins.
"Is this too racy?" she asked Amineh in an undertone. "I didn't know we'd be taking off our abayas in the open like this."
"No, it's fine here," Amineh assured her absently as she stepped away to speak to a servant.
Fern looked to the sheikh for confirmation.
His aqua gaze was traveling over her like tropical sea-water, leaving tickling trails down her limbs and making her toes curl in reaction.
Men never looked at her for longer than it took to ask the time or directions. People in general failed to notice her. She dressed conservatively and was fairly plain, didn't wear makeup and spoke softly. Skinny, freckled ginger-haired girls were as common as milk in the village she'd grown up in near the Scottish border.
In this part of the world she stood out, though. Few of the servants back at Ra'id's palace were white and no one was as white as she was. Not that she ran around showing off her arms and legs there. No, the wearing of coverings worked for her. She liked being invisible.
Fat chance right now, though. The sheikh seemed to see through the damp cotton adhered to her skin, cataloguing her every flaw and projecting what she sensed was disapproval. Her heart sank. She hated making missteps, hated being judged and hated it even more when not given a chance to prove herself first.
"Welcome to the oasis," he said.
His husky baritone wafted over her like a hot breeze, spreading a ripple of disconcerting awareness through her. Similar to Amineh's English, his accent held an intriguing mix of exotic Middle East and cool, upper-class Brit. Zafir was all man.
A widower, according to Amineh. His wife had died of cancer three years ago. It hit him hard. He doesn't talk about her much. When he does, it's always with great admiration, Amineh had said.
That meant she ought to be feeling sympathy toward him, Fern thought, but experienced a rush of defensive animosity. She didn't like it. For the most part, she avoided conflict of any kind. If she was cornered, she was perfectly capable of lashing out with vicious sarcasm, but she hated being that person so she tried not to let it happen.
But he was looking at her as though he knew something about her. Like whatever assumption he reached made him cynical and dismayed.
His continued study made her hyperaware of herself. Reflexively, she started doing Miss Ivy's bolstering exercises, reminding herself of all her good qualities. She was smart and kind, good at crafts if she had a pattern to follow.
Distantly, she realized this was a hugely protective reaction. He was a stranger and Miss Ivy always urged patience and not leaping to conclusions about what a new acquaintance might think.
But along with an irrational, panicked certainty that he had taken an instant dislike to her, she felt his rebuff in a way that was surprisingly devastating. She wasn't a snob, not even an intellectual one, didn't put on airs despite knowing the Dewey decimal system inside and out Why on earth would she feel a near irresistible urge to tell him that? She wasn't here to impress him and wouldn't with statements like that.
But she was intimidated by the kind of man he was. So imperious. When had she ever come into the sphere of anyone like him? The natural instincts of the weak wanted someone this powerful to be on her side. She recognized that, but there was something else going on inside her, something she'd never really experienced before. She feared it might be attraction. Not a passing "oh, he's nice-looking," but something far more elemental. Please consider me.
That involuntary yearning was deeply confusing and beyond inappropriate.
A blush began to climb from her tight chest into her closing throat and across her face until her ears felt like they were on fire. She hated herself then. Hated her body and its over-the-top reaction. She was embarrassed by her own embarrassment and wanted to die.
Zafir watched a million freckles disappear in a bath of red and felt an unexpected urge to laugh.
Not nice, he realized, glancing away to hide the amusement brimming his eyes. He didn't want to soften toward this English teacher, who was drowning in her own blush of sexual attraction. He was experienced enough to know that's what was happening to her and man enough to like it.
Despite knowing how inappropriate she was for him, the prowling tomcat within him kept his tail standing at attention. His eyes traveled back to her of their own accord, counting the freckles that dotted her arms like cocoa sprinkled onto foamed milk. They were all over her, even the tops of her feet. The full effect naked would be an incredible sight.
One he would not make any attempts to see, he cautioned his libido, no matter how amenable she might seem.
He lifted his gaze from her disaster of a skirt, to shoulders covered in that Milky Way of freckles barely visible against the pink of her extensive blush, to liquid eyes locked on his face. He recognized the look, which was somewhere between nervous bunny and dazzled groupie.
Being a duke's grandson had entitled him to more than an academic education. Alongside economics and diplomacy, he'd learned that Western women could be incredibly accommodating to a man's basest needs. If he wanted her, he could have her.
That's why he began fantasizing about setting his mouth against her shoulder, feeling the heat under her skin and tasting that smooth, pale flesh. That's why his palm tingled to push into the folds of her skirt, to discover the shape of her backside and lock her hips into his own.
But tanned blondes were his preference. American or Scandinavian and only while traveling. He had enough power struggles with the conservatives in his country without having affairs inside his borders. He dismissed her with an arrogant blink, deliberately letting her see his rejection.
She swallowed, face blazing and lashes dropping. The corners of her lips pulled into the tortured bite of her teeth.
He had a near irresistible urge to cover her pursed doll's mouth with his own, to lightly torture her until her lips were swollen and open. He could practically feel that wild hair tangled around his fingers as he held her under him, her clasp on him tight as he thrust deep and watched her eyes fog with ecstasy.
English, he reminded with a mild curse at his own weakness. Was it genetic that he could be blindsided by lust for one, so much so that he couldn't smile, let alone speak?