Girl in the Bedouin Tent

Amir thrust aside the heavy curtain.

No sign of the girl.

He checked, senses suddenly alert, his nape prickling.

An instant later he threw up a blocking arm as someone leapt at him out of the gloom. A jingle of clashing coins at her belt warned him of her identity just in time.

Instinct saved him. Instinct honed by years perfecting a warrior’s skills and others learning less honourable ways to survive. He pivoted and snapped an arm around her wrist, just as a blade pricked the base of his neck.

‘Wild cat!’

About the Author

ANNIE WEST
spent her childhood with her nose between the covers of a book—a habit she retains. After years preparing government reports and official correspondence she decided to write something she
really
enjoys. And there’s nothing she loves more than a great romance. Despite her office-bound past she has managed a few interesting moments—including a marriage offer with the promise of a herd of camels to sweeten the contract. She is happily married to her ever-patient husband (who has never owned a dromedary). They live with their two children amongst the tall eucalypts at beautiful Lake Macquarie, on Australia’s east coast. You can e-mail Annie at www.annie-west.com, or write to her at PO Box 1041, Warners Bay, NSW 2282, Australia.

Recent titles by the same author:

PASSION, PURITY AND THE PRINCE
PRINCE OF SCANDAL

Girl in the Bedouin Tent

Annie West

www.millsandboon.co.uk

With thanks and love to Andrew, who has been an inspiration. What a guy!

CHAPTER ONE

G
RAVEL
crunched under Amir’s boots as he strode across the starlit compound to the tent provided for him. It had been a tedious evening in poor company. Playing guest to the renegade tribal leader in a neighbouring state was
not
how Amir chose to spend his time. Especially since he had important personal business to conclude when he returned to his own country.

‘Highness.’ Faruq hurried after him. ‘We need to consult before the negotiations begin.’

‘No.’ Amir shook his head. ‘Get your sleep. Tomorrow will be a long day.’ Especially for Faruq. Amir’s aide was city-bred, not used to this wild, remote region, where old ways held sway and diplomacy was rough and ready.

‘But Highness …’ The protest died as Amir gestured to Mustafa’s guards stationed around the tent. Ostensibly for Amir’s protection, but undoubtedly to spy if possible.

Faruq ducked his head, then murmured, ‘There’s also the girl.’

The girl.

Amir’s pace slowed as he recalled the woman Mustafa had given him tonight with such ostentation. Blonde hair that shimmered in the lamplight like fluid silk framing a pale face. Luminous violet eyes that stared boldly back, holding Amir’s gaze in a way few men and no women in this region of traditional values would dare.

The unexpected combination of beauty and defiance had for an instant stalled the air in his lungs.

Until he’d remembered his taste ran to sophisticated women. Not dancing girls, or whores in gaudy make-up presented by their master to pleasure a visiting dignitary.

Amir had his pick of gorgeous women on six continents. He chose his own bed partners.

And yet … something about her had snared his interest. Perhaps the haughty way she’d arched her delicate blonde eyebrows in a look that would have done an empress proud.

Fleetingly that had intrigued.

‘You doubt my capacity to handle her?’

Faruq smothered a chuckle. ‘Of course not, Sire. But there’s something … unusual there.’

Unusual was right. In Monte Carlo, Moscow or Stockholm her colouring wouldn’t warrant a second glance. As for those eyes—that particular shade surely indicated the use of coloured contact lenses. But here, in rough border country inhabited by nomads, brigands and subsistence farmers?

‘Don’t concern yourself, Faruq. I’m sure she and I will come to some … accommodation.’

Amir nodded dismissal and entered the tent. He removed his boots in the small anteroom, his feet sinking into layered carpets.

Would she be on the bed waiting for him, her skirts spread about her? Or perhaps she’d be naked. No doubt she’d offer herself with the finesse of a professional.

Despite his distaste, Amir’s pulse hummed at the memory of a lush, sultry mouth at odds with the fire in her blazing eyes. That mouth promised sensual pleasure enough to interest any man.

Amir thrust aside the heavy curtain.

One step in and he registered the dimmed lamp on the far side of the room.

No sign of the girl.

He checked, senses suddenly alert, his nape prickling. An instant later he threw up a blocking arm as someone
leapt at him out of the gloom. Something heavy hit him a glancing blow and he swung round, grabbing his assailant.

He caught at a voluminous cloak that fell as he clutched it. A jingle of clashing coins at her belt warned him of her identity just in time. He pulled back sharply to avoid felling her with a single knockout blow.

Amir caught her arm and twisted it behind her back. His movements were controlled, precise, despite the way she threshed and fought. He’d learned to wrestle with full-grown heavyweights. He couldn’t use those tactics on a woman, even a woman who ambushed him in his own chamber.

Still she fought. She was like a tigress, alternately trying to wrest herself free or disable him with vicious kicks to the groin.

‘Enough!’ His patience was at an end. He reached to grab her free arm. But before he could catch it she twisted, rose and brought her arm down in a desperate slashing motion.

Instinct saved him. Instinct honed by years perfecting a warrior’s skills and others learning less honourable ways to survive. He pivoted and snapped an arm around her wrist, just as a blade pricked the base of his neck.

‘Wild cat!’ He squeezed and the knife clattered to the floor. Without compunction he hooked his foot around her legs and brought her down, slamming into her as she collapsed. She landed heavily on her back, his full weight on her, his legs surrounding hers.

An instant later he’d captured both her slender wrists and pinioned them on the carpet high above her head.

She was spent, so still that for a moment he even wondered if she breathed. Then he felt the tremulous rise of full breasts beneath him and heard a raw, shuddering gasp as she drew in air.

Slowly he raised his hand to his throat. A thin trail of wetness slid down from his collarbone. She’d stabbed him!

Reflexively his hold on her hands tightened and she cried
out—a sharp mew of pain, quickly stifled. Immediately he eased his grip.

Jaw set, he reached for the blade on the floor. Her breath hitched and she froze rigid, but he barely noticed as he balanced it in his hand. Small, sharp and beautiful. An antique paring knife. Keen enough to peel fruit, or inflict serious injury on the unwary.

The blade caught the lamplight and she flinched. What? Did she think he’d use it on her?

With a curse he tossed it to the far side of the room.

‘Who sent you to do this? Mustafa?’

It didn’t make sense. His host had no reason to wish him dead. Nor could he think of anyone who’d resort to royal assassination. Yet the trickle of blood across his skin was real.

This was one hell of a way to spice up a distasteful duty visit!

Curiosity and fury vied for dominance as he surveyed those lush, scarlet lips now parted to drag in air. The impossibly violet kohl-rimmed eyes, huge beneath thick purple eyeshadow.

‘Who
are
you?’ He leaned over her, his face bare inches from hers, but her expression was blank, as if schooled to show no fear no matter the threat.

Cursing, he rose on one arm. The movement pressed his groin harder against her body and part of his brain registered her satisfying softness, an innate invitation he couldn’t quite ignore despite his scorching anger.

He forced his mind into action. This was no time to be distracted.

If she had one knife there might be others. He rolled to one side, careful to keep her thighs pinioned with one of his and her hands imprisoned.

Her breathing shallowed as he surveyed the expanse of bare skin revealed by her belly dancer’s outfit. Her breasts rose and fell rapidly, threatening to pull free of the skimpy bodice. Surely there was no room for a lethal weapon there.

His gaze dropped, skimming her smooth, pale torso, past the dip to her neat waist accentuated by a decorative chain and the flare of her hips. The old-fashioned coin belt sitting low on her hips might be wide enough to conceal something, but her side-slit skirt was too filmy for a hiding place.

Amir lowered his palm to her belly, registering the flinch of her velvet soft skin. He paused. In all his years he’d never touched an unwilling woman. His mouth flattened in distaste. This had to be done—it wasn’t sexual, just self-preservation.

Deftly he slid his hand under her belt.

Instantly she erupted in convulsing movement. Her hips bucked and writhed, her torso twisted, her legs scrabbled fruitlessly for purchase.

‘No! Please, no!’ The words rang hoarsely. Not in any of the local dialects but in a language rarely heard here.

‘You’re English?’

Amir whipped his head round and froze as he saw the expression in those wide violet eyes. Sheer terror.

It was his stillness that finally penetrated Cassie’s panic. That and the fact he’d slipped his large hand free of her clothes and held it, palm outward, as if to placate her.

Her heart thudded high in her throat and clammy sweat beaded her brow as she stared up at him. She couldn’t get her breath, though she gulped in huge, racking breaths.

‘You’re English?’ he said again in that language, and his black eyebrows drew down in a scowl that accentuated the hard, sculpted lines of his face. He looked fierce and frightening and aggressively male.

Would it matter if she was English? Frantically her mind scrabbled to work out if her nationality would make a difference. Was one nationality safer than another in this place where travellers were abducted and imprisoned?

‘American?’ His head tilted to one side and tiny lines of concentration wrinkled his brow.

He didn’t look angry now, but the weight of his solid thigh, the firm grasp that bound her wrists, reminded her she was still at his mercy. He could subdue her with ease.

Her eyes flicked to the scarlet dribble of blood at his throat and she shuddered, fear rising anew. She’d thought to save herself with a pre-emptive attack, knocking him out with the brass pot, but he’d been too quick for her. Too quick, too strong, too dangerous.

‘Please.’ It was a hoarse whisper from a throat tight with dread. ‘Don’t do this.’

Every muscle and tendon in her body tensed as she waited for his response.

His sensual mouth lifted at one corner in a snarl of displeasure and his eyebrows shot up. ‘You want me to release you? After this?’ He gestured to his wound.

Cassie let go a quivering breath. His deep voice with its crisp English and just a hint of an exotic accent had broached her defences. And sharpened the nightmare horror of her situation.

This couldn’t be happening. It just couldn’t!

‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I just.’ Her eyelids fluttered as the world began to dip and swirl about her.

Desperately she clawed back to full consciousness. Fear and fury had kept her strong through the last twenty-four hours. She refused to faint now! Not when she sensed she’d be safe only as long as she kept him talking.

Cassie snapped her eyes open to find he’d bent closer. She saw the slight shadow darkening his strong jaw, a pale scar to the side of his mouth, the way his nostrils flared as if scenting her. The gleam of eyes so dark and so close they looked black and fathomless.

‘Please,’ she choked. ‘Don’t rape me.’

Instantly he reared back, letting cool air rush between them. His eyes widened and his fingers tightened convulsively around her wrists. She bit her tongue rather than cry out her pain.

‘You think …?’ He gestured to her skirts with his free hand and suddenly it was distaste she read in his expression. ‘You
really
think …?’ He shook his head slowly and said something under his breath in Arabic.

She flinched at the violence in his tone but refused to look away. She was already at his mercy. To appear weak could be a fatal mistake.

His mouth snapped shut, his eyes zeroing in on her face. She felt the intensity of his stare like the burn of ice on bare flesh.

He drew a breath that expanded his chest impressively. Sickly she realised she had no hope if he forced her.

Memories swirled. The metallic tang of terror filled her mouth again as she recalled being pinioned against a door by a man twice her size and three times her age. She’d been only sixteen, but even now she remembered the feel of his meaty hand thrusting inside her shirt, his other hand bruising her thigh, his weight suffocating as he tried to—

‘I would not stoop to such an act. No matter what the provocation.’ The stranger’s voice rang clear with outrage, shattering the past.

Cassie blinked up at a face carved of stone. His jaw clenched as if she’d offered him the worst imaginable insult and he tilted his head, looking down at her as if he’d never seen her like.

‘I prefer my women willing.’

His headscarf had come off in the tussle. Glossy black hair was cut close to his well-shaped head. His eyes flashed and emotion drew the skin tight over an impressive bone structure for which any of the leading men she’d performed with would give their eye teeth.

This man would have no trouble finding willing women.

‘Then let me go.’

Lying half-naked beneath him, she couldn’t trust his word no matter how indignant he looked. She was too aware of his big, hard body, all heavy muscle and bone, imprisoning
her. Of his callused hand encircling hers with almost casual dominance. Of the intrinsically male scent of his skin in her nostrils.

‘When I’m sure you’re not hiding another weapon.’

Cassie’s eyes bulged. That was what he’d been doing? Looking for concealed weapons? If she’d had something other than that little knife they’d left beside the fruit platter she’d have used it as soon as he walked through the door. When she’d felt his hand thrusting down into her skirt she’d been sure—

She choked as a bubble of desperate mirth rose from tight lungs. She tried to force it away but the idea was ludicrous. As if there was space in her skimpy clothes to hide anything! Her vision blurred as she gasped for breath over the ragged, sickening laughter she couldn’t stifle.

‘Stop it! Now!’ Firm hands shook her shoulders.

The off-key laughter died abruptly.

He sat on his heels, his eyes fixed on her. This close they looked like black velvet. His skin was golden, his brows dark as sin. A hard angular jaw and strong nose gave him an air of purpose.

His big hands clasped her shoulders, a reminder of his latent strength. A wisp of something shimmered in the air between them for a second. Something new. Her dazed brain tried to grab at it but it vanished as he withdrew his hands and she drew another breath, less ragged this time.

Her wrists throbbed as blood surged through them again. Slowly, each movement painful, she dragged her hands down to cradle them at her chest.

He’d let her go! She could scarcely believe it.

‘Thank you,’ she whispered, swallowing hard.

Yet, free of his hold, exhaustion engulfed her as the manic surge of adrenalin ebbed.

Twenty-four hours living on the edge of terror had sapped her reserves of strength. It took a few moments to gather herself and find the energy to stir.

Conscious of his gaze assessing every movement, of his tense body still far too close, she rolled to her side and braced her hands against the carpet, ready to get up. Each action took so much energy, and she still felt winded from the impact of what surely must be six feet three of powerfully muscled man tumbling her to the floor.

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