A haughty young heiress …for whom the world is a playground… A savage son of the Sahara… who knows no law but his own… When pride and passion vie for supremacy, blistering desert days are nothing compared to sizzling Sahara nights…
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French Algeria- 1920
My gaze tracked upward to rest on his sun-bronzed and lightly bearded face. Harsh and angular in the lamplight, it was at once the handsomest and cruelest face I had ever seen. He regarded me fiercely with scornful eyes. Those eyes! Surely I had seen them before.
I gasped. It was him! The man from the party who had eyed me with such insolence. Even now he gazed at me as no other man had ever dared—in a way that made me acutely, almost painfully, conscious of my sex.
“Who are you?” I asked hoarsely, speaking in French without thinking.
He replied in French as well, “I am the Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan.”
The name conveyed nothing. “Is it money that you want? Are you holding me for ransom?”
He regarded me for a long and silent moment with an expression of contempt. “I have no need of your money.”
“What then?” I demanded, but deep down I already knew it was not a question of ransom. The way he looked at me was far too revealing and made my stomach churn. “Do you think that you can keep me here, you fool?” I lashed out in growing panic. “Do you suppose I can vanish into the desert and that no notice will be taken of my disappearance? That no inquiries will be made?”
“There will be no inquiries,” he answered me calmly.
“There will be inquiries,” I choked out. “I am not such a nonentity that nothing will be done when I am missed. The English authorities will make the French government find out who is responsible. You will pay for what you have done.”
“Pay?” His amused look sent a cold feeling of dread through me. “I have already paid…in gold that matches your hair, my gazelle. Besides,” he continued, “the French have no jurisdiction over me. There is no authority here above my own.”
My trepidation grew by the second. “Why have you done this? Why have you brought me here?”
“Why have I brought you here?” he repeated with a slow and heated appraisal. “Bon Dieu! Are you not woman enough to know?”
Understanding descended upon me in a nauseas wave that flooded me with heat, filling me with a horror that made each separate nerve in my system cringe. Instinctively, I shrank back. My gaze fell away from his, darting to the flap of the tent, but he read my mind, catching me in his arms before I could flee. My limbs quivered, and he laughed softly, his breath hot in my ear. His mirth was more frightening to me than anything he had said.
I averted my head, refusing to look at him, but he forcibly turned my face to his. I set my teeth and squeezed my lids shut, but I could not block out the vision of his eyes burning into me, nor the feeling of his hot, moist, mint-scented breath fanning my skin.
“I wanted you from the moment I saw you, my golden one…And now,” the backs of his long brown fingers brushed my hair, “you are mine.”
You are mine. His whispered words sent a wave of shock jolting through me.
“Damn you to hell!” I cried. “I am my own woman! No one owns me!” I knew he intended to force himself upon me, and the anticipation made me shudder with fear and revulsion. I could not win, but still I fought, writhing in an effort to free myself. When this attempt failed, I slumped in his arms in a feint of submission.
Unfazed, his lips neared mine. He murmured low and dark, his breath hot and faintly sweet against my face, “On the contrary, my gazelle, I do. I exchanged a large sum in gold with your would-be murderer. I bought your life. You are mine to do with as I wish.”
I willed myself to remain passive as his scorching lips met mine and his scalding tongue invaded my mouth, but the urge to escape resurfaced, reanimating my numbed nerves and galvanizing me to act. In a sudden surge of strength, I stomped the heel of my boot onto his instep. He drew back with a fierce curse, his grip loosening just enough for me to spin in his arms, yet when I tried to lurch free, the union with his bigger and stronger body remained. It was my valiant last stand…and it had failed.
“You will not get away with this,” I babbled. “Mustafa Ali or one of the caravan men has surely given the alarm in Biskra by now.”
“Mustafa Ali will not give any alarm in Biskra…or anywhere else for that matter.”
“Why not? Have you murdered them all?” I asked in a choked whisper. Myriad tales of ruthless Arab cruelty surged through my mind.
“No. I have not murdered them,” he replied. “There was no need when all had been arranged. When you come to know me better, you will realize that I leave little to chance. Of course, all things are with Allah, blessed be his name, but it is well to remember that Allah does not always concern himself with the affairs of men.”
My head swam dizzily at his reply. “What are you saying, that you planned all of this?”
He smiled slowly. “Voyons! It was all very simple. You engaged a caravan in the charge of Mustafa Ali to travel in the desert. You set out from Biskra, with the intent of traveling northward to Oran, where you would dismiss the caravan. From there you were to cross to Marseilles, then on to Cherbourg to embark for America where you would join your brother.” His slow, casual voice detailed my itinerary with the quiet certainty of perfect knowledge.
I swayed on my feet and whispered with dry lips, “H-how can you know…all…this?”
He replied with a blithe half-smile, “I wished to know.”
“I have told you, my dove. As to how, you paid Mustafa Ali to guide you into the desert. Your brother paid him even more to leave you for dead, and then I paid him even better to lead you to me. Well enough indeed to make him content to remove himself from Biskra, where awkward questions might be asked. Indeed, well enough to retire to a place where he no longer has a need to make his living as a caravan leader.”
To my amazement, he released me. I was too stunned to run, yet my mind raced with all he had revealed. Though I tried to reject it all as lies, tiny glimmers of truth broke through the darkness. I recalled vividly waking in my hotel room to a fleeting vision. There had been someone there. My revolver had been tampered with. I had not missed my shots; they had been substituted with blanks. Mustafa Ali’s shifting eyes, his desire to hurry from the oasis where we had rested at mid-day, his tone, were all explained. He had acted his part to perfection right down to the imaginary wound that had toppled him from his saddle. My faithless and deceitful guide had led me to a man who had bribed him to betray me. Even the horse I rode was trained to this sheik’s whistle. I could not deny that at least part of this absurdity was indeed truth.
The knowledge that I had been duped filled me with impotent rage, but the suggestion of Aubrey’s complicity was ludicrous! Nevertheless, seeds of doubt took root in my mind. Could this be why Aubrey had reacted so uncharacteristically the night before? Suddenly I recollected the last moments before our parting. What had he and the guide been discussing just before my departure? Had he really planned to kill me? But why? Aubrey lived a life of extravagance. Could he be in need of funds? In the event of my death, my entire fortune would be his.
I recalled the strange look in his eyes. Was it a pang of guilt over the murder he had planned? Had he had second thoughts at the last minute? Had Aubrey really paid the guide to kill me? My hands gripped my throat. My God! It could not be true!
“I don’t believe a word you say!” I gasped. “You are a brigand and a liar!”
His expression grew grim. His eyes shone cold, hard, and black as onyx. He came close behind me, placing his hands on my shoulders and then slowly slid them up to rest around my neck, where his thumbs caressed my pulse. His voice was low and soft. “Were you a man, I would slice your throat for such calumny. Do not ever disparage my character again.”
My heart stood still. “But why me?” I choked out.
He dipped his head to murmur in my ear. “It was fated. I saw you once before—in Paris. You were surrounded by your panting lapdogs and would have none of them. It was then I knew that I alone would have you. The rest was Allah’s will,” he continued matter-of-factly. “You came to Biskra. You arranged a tour in the desert. You were bored and wanted adventure. I have granted that wish.” He flashed a feral smile. “And now you will grant mine.”