Defiant in the DesertBy: Sharon Kendrick
‘THERE’S A MAN downstairs in Reception who says he wants to see you.’
‘Who is it?’ questioned Sara, not bothering to lift her head from the drawing which was currently engrossing her.
‘He wouldn’t say.’
At this Sara did look up to find Alice, the office runner, staring at her with an odd sort of expression. Alice was young and very enthusiastic, but right now she looked almost transported. Her face was tight with excitement and disbelief—as if Santa Claus himself had arrived early with a full contingent of reindeer.
‘It’s Christmas Eve afternoon,’ said Sara, glancing out of the window at the dark grey sky and wincing. No snow, unfortunately. Only a few heavy raindrops spattering against the glass. Pity. Snow might have helped boost her mood—to help shift off the inevitable feeling of not quite fitting in which always descended on her at this time of year. She never found it easy to enjoy Christmas—which was one of the main reasons why she tended to ignore the festival until it had gone away.
She pushed a smile to the corners of her mouth, trying to pick up on Alice’s happy pre-holiday mood. ‘And very soon I’m going to be packing up and going home. If it’s a salesman, I’m not interested and if it’s anyone else, then tell them to go away and make an appointment to see me in the new year.’
‘He says he’s not going anywhere,’ said Alice and then paused dramatically. ‘Until he’s seen you.’
Sara put her purple felt-tip pen down with fingers which had annoyingly started to tremble, telling herself not to be so stupid. Telling herself that she was perfectly safe here, in this bright, open-plan office of the highly successful advertising agency where she worked. That there was no reason for this dark feeling of foreboding which had started whispering over her skin.
But of course, there was...
‘What do you mean—he’s not going anywhere?’ she demanded, trying to keep her voice from rising with panic. ‘What exactly did he say?’
‘That he wants to see you,’ repeated Alice and now she made another face which Sara had never seen before. ‘And that he craves just a few minutes of your time.’
It was a word which jarred like an ice cream eaten on a winter day. No modern Englishman would ever have used a word like that. Sara felt the cold clamp of fear tightening around her heart, like an iron band.
‘What...what does he look like?’ she asked, her voice a croaky-sounding husk.
Alice played with the pendant which was dangling from her neck in an unconscious display of sexual awareness. ‘He’s...well, he’s pretty unbelievable, if you must know. Not just because of the way he’s built—though he must work out practically non-stop to get a body like that—but more...more...’ Her voice tailed off. ‘Well, it’s his eyes really.’
‘What about his eyes?’ barked Sara, feeling her pulse begin to rocket.
‘They were like...black. But like, really black. Like the sky when there’s no moon or stars. Like—’
‘Alice,’ cut in Sara, desperately trying to inject a note of normality into the girl’s uncharacteristically gushing description. Because at that stage she was still trying to fool herself into thinking that it wasn’t happening. That it might all be some terrible mistake. A simple mix-up. Anything, but the one thing she most feared. ‘Tell him—’
‘Why don’t you tell me yourself, Sara?’
A cold, accented voice cut through her words and Sara whirled round to see a man standing in the doorway of the office. Shock, pain and desire washed over her in rapid succession. She hadn’t seen him for five long years and for a moment she almost didn’t recognise him. He had always been dark and utterly gorgeous, gifted with a face and a mind which had captured her heart so completely. But now...
Her heart pounded.
Something about him had changed.
His dark head was bare and he wore a custom-made suit instead of his usual robes. The charcoal jacket defined his honed torso just as well as any folds of flowing silk and the immaculately cut trousers emphasised the endless length of his powerful thighs. He had always carried the cachet which came from being the Sultan of Qurhah’s closest advisor, but now his natural air of authority seemed to be underpinned with a steely layer Sara had never seen before. And suddenly she recognised it for what it was.
It seemed to crackle from every pore of his body. To pervade the serene office environment like high-voltage electricity. It made her wary—warier than she felt already, with her heart beating so fast it felt as if it might burst right out of her chest.
‘Suleiman,’ she said, her voice unsteady and a little unsure. ‘What are you doing here?’
He smiled, but it was the coldest smile she had ever seen. Even colder than the one which he had iced into her the last time they’d been together. When he had torn himself away from her passionate embrace and looked down at her as if she was the lowest of the low.
‘I think you can probably work that one out for yourself, can’t you, Sara?’
He stepped into the office, his clever black eyes narrowing.
‘You are an intelligent woman, if a somewhat misguided one,’ he continued. ‘You have been ignoring repeated requests from the Sultan to return to Qurhah to become his wife. Haven’t you?’
‘And if I have?’
He looked at her, but there was nothing but indifference in his eyes and, stupidly, that hurt.
‘If you have, then you have been behaving like a fool.’
His phrase was coated with an implicit threat which made her skin turn to ice and Sara heard Alice gasp. She turned her head slightly, expecting to see horror on the face of the trendy office runner, with her pink-streaked hair and bottom-hugging skirt. Because it wasn’t cool for men to talk that way, was it? But she saw nothing like horror there. Instead, the bohemian youngster was staring at Suleiman with a look of rapt adoration.
Sara swallowed. Cool obviously flew straight out of the window when you had a towering black-haired male standing in your office just oozing testosterone. Why wouldn’t Alice acknowledge the presence of a man unlike any other she had probably met? Despite all the attractive hunks who worked in Gabe Steel’s advertising empire—didn’t Suleiman Abd al-Aziz stand out like a spot of black oil on a white linen dress? Didn’t he redefine the very concept of masculinity and make it a hundred times more meaningful?
For her, he had always had the ability to make every other man fade into insignificance—even royal princes and sultans—but now something about him had changed. There was an indefinable quality about him. Something dangerous.
Gone was the affection with which he always used to regard her. The man who had drifted in and out of her childhood and taught her to ride seemed to have been replaced by someone else. The black eyes were flat and cold; his lips unsmiling. It wasn’t exactly hatred she could see on his face—for his expression implied that she wasn’t worthy of an emotion as strong as hate. It was more as if she was a hindrance. As if he was here under sufferance, in the very last place he wanted to be.
And she had only herself to blame. She knew that. If she hadn’t flung herself at him. If she hadn’t allowed him to kiss her and then silently invited him to do so much more than that. To...
She tried a smile, though she wasn’t sure how convincing a smile it was. She had done everything in her power to forget about Suleiman and the way he’d made her feel, but wasn’t it funny how just one glimpse of him could stir up all those familiar emotions? Suddenly her heart was turning over with that painful clench of feeling she’d once thought was love. She could feel the sink of her stomach as she was reminded that he could never be hers.
Well, he would never know that. He wouldn’t ever guess that he could still make her feel this way. She wasn’t going to give him the chance to humiliate her and reject her. Not again.
‘Nice of you to drop in so unexpectedly, Suleiman,’ she said, her voice as airy as she could manage. ‘But I’m afraid I’m pretty busy at the moment. It is Christmas Eve, you know.’
‘But you don’t celebrate Christmas, Sara. Or at least, I wasn’t aware that you did. Have you really changed so much that you have adopted, wholesale, the values of the West?’
He was looking around the large, open-plan office with an expression of distaste curving his carved lips which he didn’t bother to hide. His flat black eyes were registering the garish tinsel which was looped over posters depicting some of the company’s many successful advertising campaigns. His gaze rested briefly on the old-fashioned fir tree, complete with flashing lights and a glittering star at the top, which had been erected as a kind of passé tribute to Christmases past. His expression darkened.
Sara put her fingers in her lap, horribly aware that they were trembling, and it suddenly became terribly important that he shouldn’t see that, either. She didn’t want him to think she was scared, even if that moment she was feeling something very close to scared. And she couldn’t quite work out what she was afraid of—her, or him.
‘Look, I really am very busy,’ she said. ‘And Alice doesn’t want to hear—’