Dr Lauren Stephens is volunteering in Karesh when she uncovers a crime and is forced to flee for her life. When a huge sandstorm leaves her stranded in the middle of the desert, a handsome stranger comes to her rescue, taking her to his luxurious camp. As they shelter there, the attraction between career-focused Lauren and the man she assumes is a simple Bedouin herder becomes undeniable.
Crown Prince Sharif has come to this remote camp to escape from the pressure to find a suitable wife before his 30th birthday – a prerequisite for inheriting the throne. He rescues Lauren out of traditional Kareshian hospitality, but is soon captivated by her beauty and intelligence – and the fact that she is falling for him rather than his title.
As they give in to their passion, they know that their affair will be brief. But when a threat against his father’s rule reunites them, will they find a way to make a future together?
Lauren willed her conscience to stop screaming the damning word at her.
You’re guilty of sabotage!
“I had no choice,” she answered her conscience firmly as her hands clenched around the steering wheel of the four-wheel drive vehicle.
When the letter from headquarters had arrived, she’d done what she’d needed to do—seized the opportunity to put her plan into action and got the hell out of there.
Playing the events over in her mind, she tried to reassure herself that neither Keith nor Richard would suspect her deceit.
She’d thought it out.
Played it cool.
Nobody had seen her enter the communication tent.
She’d been in and out quickly, rendering the radio transponder ineffective so nobody could check her story and discover her lie.
The radio signal was wildly inconsistent and communication with the outside world was unreliable. It would likely be hours before anyone at the camp discovered it’d been deliberately tampered with—if they discovered it at all. With a bit of luck they’d simply assume it’d finally and completely given up.
Besides, even if they did find out the transponder had been sabotaged, would they connect the incident to her sudden departure?
Sifting through memories, she assured herself she’d done nothing out of the ordinary in her attitude or behaviour since her shocking discovery.
As much as she tried to calm herself, her adrenal system worked overtime. She perspired despite the air conditioning in the car.
Take a deep breath.
Every minute you drive, you’re closer to the capital and closer to boarding the plane and flying to safety.
The road stretched ahead, long and straight, between gently sloping dunes and scattered rock formations. Running well, the vehicle was eating up the miles and putting her further away from Richard and Keith—and anyone else who might be involved in the illegal activity.
Every time she looked in her rear-vision mirror, she was afraid she’d see one of the men pursuing her—catching her and forcing her to admit to what she’d done.
Forcing her to admit to what she’d discovered.
So far, so good. Hers was the only vehicle on the long stretch of road.
Half an hour later, the afternoon sun dimmed ominously and small swirls of sand danced across the tarred surface. Looking through the car window, Lauren saw fine particles sweeping across the tops of the dunes. A desert breeze was no cause for alarm, but the view in her rear-vision mirror increased the trepidation skittering down her spine.
She was being pursued all right, but the danger wasn’t a convoy or even a single vehicle closing in on her. Instead, she was confronted by an unexpected threat—a massive dark brown cloud obscuring the horizon behind her.
Adrenaline spurted faster through her veins and Lauren floored the accelerator pedal, even while telling herself not to panic.
Keep a clear head.
Hadn’t she learnt the importance of being calm in a crisis during her medical training?
But this wasn’t an operating theatre where she could apply a clamp to stop a bleeding artery, or reach for a surgical needle to suture a tear. Here, she had no control. Nature’s elements were far more unpredictable than the human body.
There was no certainty she could outpace the huge sandstorm—no way to tell exactly how fast it travelled and whether it would maintain its current direction. It had seemingly come from nowhere and she knew it could overtake her.
‘If you’re caught driving in a haboob, you must try to shelter your vehicle. If there’s a rocky outcrop close by, head for it. Close all your windows and air vents, put on your goggles and mask, have your emergency water supply within reach and wait for the sandstorm to pass.’
Replaying the instructions she’d been given for this exact scenario, she scanned the surroundings. If she left the road and went up and over the sand dunes, she should be able to reach the closest rocks in time to shelter from the onslaught of the storm.
She’d be fine, but this was an unexpected setback.
She’d lose time.
If the men had discovered she’d lied about her transfer—discovered the radio sabotage—would the sandstorm hold up her pursuers or would it give them a chance to catch her?
And, if the storm didn’t pass quickly, she wouldn’t make it to the capital of Karesh in time to catch the evening flight to London.
It was imperative she make the flight.
She had to put as much distance between herself and Karesh as possible—as quickly as possible.
Her body shook.
No. Don’t go there.
One problem at a time.
Gritting her teeth, she focused on the immediate threat—the storm. She changed to low gear and picked the point ahead where she’d veer off the road. The largest dune was the most direct route to the distant rocks. Although she hadn’t done any practical dune driving, she knew the theory—go straight up and straight down. Don’t change gear. Keep up momentum and ease off right before the peak.
Perspiration pricked at the nape of her neck. Of course there were risks. If the car rolled, she’d be in a worse predicament, but the safety briefing at her induction had said taking shelter was the best option.
Almost as soon as she veered off the tarred surface, the four-wheel drive began sinking into the sand.
Realising she’d forgotten to reduce the tyre pressure to improve traction, she turned off the engine, slapped her forehead with the heel of her hand and called herself all types of idiot.
“Damn. Damn. Damn.”
A quick check over her shoulder confirmed the storm was still headed her way.
Despair clamped tightly around her chest when she got out of the car and saw it was buried up to the axles. Looking back at the road, there were definitely no other travellers in sight—friend or foe. Not for the first time in her life, she was completely alone.
After ten minutes of digging with no progress, her panic increased. The wind had strengthened and the sand grazed her bare skin. Now, her only option was to shelter in the four-wheel drive and hope someone would come to her aid and get her back on the road again once the storm had passed.
And hope Keith and Richard hadn’t learned the truth.
As she straightened, a shiny four-wheel drive sped over the dune she’d been intending to climb. Relief washed through her and she let out a breath she hadn’t even realised she’d been holding. But, as the white vehicle stopped beside her, a sixth sense screamed at her to be on her guard.
Engine still running, the driver’s darkly tinted window lowered fractionally and a baritone voice commanded in accented English, “Quickly! Get in.”
Something dangerously compelling flickered in the pit of her belly in response to the timbre of his autocratic tone. Her thoughts tangled and an explosion of heat burst through her veins, burning hotter than the desert sun. Curiosity, and the threat of the storm, urged her to move towards his vehicle, even while uncertainty had her keeping her shovel in front of her like a defensive shield.
Do not get in that car.
Karesh had a very low crime rate and a reputation for being a safe country for travellers. However its neighbour, Qu’adarash, was stricken with civil unrest and crime. She didn’t know this road. Was she still relatively close to the border?
The knocking of her heart against her ribs reminded her she was alone and vulnerable.
There was no way to be certain the crime rings involved in human trafficking in Qu’adarash hadn’t infiltrated Karesh and that she wouldn’t be spirited off and sold somewhere as a slave.
She couldn’t see the driver and although his accent was cultured, there was no guarantee he wasn’t part of one of those thriving criminal networks.
Her attention fixed firmly on the stranger’s car door, she shook her head.
The driver uttered the only Kareshian profanity Lauren recognised and his car door swung open. She was unable to read his expression because he’d drawn the traditional keffiyeh up over his nose. However, when he got out of his vehicle, the sheer power in every inch of the frame that towered over her made her feel vulnerable. Everything in his movements suggested he was the essence of a desert warrior who was in complete control and would never face a situation in life he couldn’t handle. His manner should’ve provided her with reassurance, but it didn’t. It took less than a heartbeat for her to realise he was used to everyone around him bending to his will and expected her to do the same.
Lauren refused to bend.
Her pulse quickened as he strode towards her, but she squared her shoulders and her grip tightened on the handle of the shovel.
“In the car, now!”
His impatience shimmered in the air between them.
Fight or flight?
Sheer panic, and a strong sense of survival, galvanised her into flight. There was no way she’d win a physical struggle against this man who was over six feet five and all broad shoulders and determination. But, if she could make it into her car and lock the door, he might give up and go away to get to safety before the storm enveloped them.
Dropping the shovel, she fled.
For a moment, she thought she was going to make it. She got as far as the car, opened the door and was scrambling in when he grabbed hold of her waist to haul her out.
Lauren was momentarily blindsided as a high voltage current zapped through her from the firm grasp of his hands at her waist.
With a high-pitched scream, she shoved her elbow backward with all her might, hoping to inflict some damage, but his hold didn’t weaken. She managed to kick her foot back and make contact with some part of his body. Evidently it wasn’t the part that mattered most because he lifted her away from the driver’s seat effortlessly and her feet hit the soft sand.
“Stop!” Even though his deep voice was muffled, the word held absolute authority.
Struggling against him as he pulled her backwards, she heard her car door slam and realised her escape route had been cut off.
Encircled by his muscular arms, and drawn back against a body that may as well have been hewn from granite, there was no room now to hit or kick out at him but she still tried to wriggle free. “Let me go!”
“Don’t fight me. We have little time.”
He eased his hold fractionally and there was some space between them. Sand particles stung at her back where her shirt had ridden up from the waistband of her trousers and she registered the increased intensity of the wind as it began to whine around them.
“Come.” There was steely resolve in his voice. “I’m taking you to safety.”
Gulping in air after her struggle, Lauren began to cough because the air was laden with particles of dust. “I’ll be safe here if you just let me go.”
“Don’t be stupid. Your car could be buried under sand.”
Surely not? He must be trying to frighten her into submission as he continued to manhandle her against the whipping wind and towards his vehicle.
“There’s a severe penalty in this country for kidnapping,” she warned.
“A death penalty awaits you if I leave.” He stopped at the side of his car, turned her around and took her chin firmly in his fingers.
She had no choice but to look up directly into his eyes.
Startlingly blue eyes, framed by thick dark lashes and set in a deeply tanned complexion.
Magnificent eyes that jammed her breath in her throat even while she urged herself to rally against his blistering intent to bend her to his will.
“Trust me. I only mean to rescue you from the storm.”
For a moment the sound of the wind was muted and her skin was numbed to the attack from the sand granules. There was only his voice and touch.
Lauren had never felt so disconcerted—so helplessly aware of her femininity in the face of such arrant masculinity. The hammering of her heart was now due to a rush of attraction rather than fear.
This was wrong.
Her reaction didn’t make sense.
How could she possibly have this primal reaction to a complete stranger who was, despite his assurances to the contrary, trying to spirit her away against her will?
For the long, hypnotic seconds that he held her gaze, her panic subsided.
She sensed he was a proud, capable man.
A man of honour.
A man who protected those around him.
And boy, she was in need of protection.
She swallowed against the dryness of her throat.
Should she trust him?
Could she trust him?
“Do you have a death wish?” His words jolted her back to the threat of the storm.
Looking over her shoulder she saw the brown cloud was still headed directly for them and it now loomed as high as a mountain range.
Lauren was wracked with indecision. The storm threatened and there was every possibility Keith and Richard might be right behind it. If she didn’t take a chance on this man, who else would come along and help her get her car back on the road?
Her physical reaction only added to her confusion. She wanted to cocoon herself in his arms like the type of weak, helpless female she’d always secretly scorned.
Her reactions defied all logic. They were completely out of character and quite absurd given the gravity of the situation.
Then again, she’d been on edge for the last two weeks—trying to act normally when every day had been fraught with tension. Acting out a lie every waking moment. Given the circumstances, wasn’t it normal to react to this stranger as though he was her saviour?
You’re grasping at straws.
“I…I can’t come with you. I don’t know anything about you.”
It’s not him. I’m not reacting to him. This dangerous situation has addled my senses, she tried to convince herself.
He let go abruptly and took a decisive step away from her.
Instantly she felt bereft.
“Your choice.” His words hardly carried to her in the wind.
“You’re leaving me?” She berated herself for the contradictions running through her.
“I don’t carry references.”
God damn it! She’d fought against him and now she was frightened he’d abandon her. This situation had her so rattled she couldn’t think straight and she needed to get a handle on her own good sense and start thinking as she normally did—rationally.
“Get back into your car and there’s a good chance you’ll die. Come with me and live.” His frustration and impatience communicated itself from his narrowed eyes. “You have two seconds to decide.”
He’s not forcing me. He’s giving me a choice.
If he was to be believed, there really was no choice.
“One second,” he spat out.
She looked again at the cloud growing larger by the second and decided she had no other option but to trust him.
“Okay.” With a terse nod, she raced around to the other side of the car, opened the door and did something she’d been told from childhood never to do—she got into a car with a complete stranger.