Sheikh’s Royal Baby Revelation
Desert captives for one night… Bound forever by their unexpected baby!
When desert prince Ashraf was kidnapped alongside geologist Tori, their desperation to escape their life-threatening situation led to a moment of passionate oblivion. Rescued the next day, Ash was never able to discover Tori’s fate. He’s finally found her…but in their time apart, Tori has had his son! And now Ash will stop at nothing to claim them both!
ASHRAF WOKE TO the sound of a door slamming and the taste of blood in his mouth. Blood and dust.
He lay facedown, head and ribs burning with pain, the rest of him merely battered. Slowly he forced his eyelids open. He was in a dark room, lightened only by a spill of moonlight through a small, high window.
Then came rough voices using an obscure local dialect. Three men, he counted, walking away. He strained to hear over the merciless hammering in his head.
They’d kill him tomorrow. After Qadri arrived to enjoy the spectacle and pay them for the successful kidnap.
Ashraf gritted his jaw, ignoring the spike of pain in the back of his skull.
Of course Qadri was behind this. Who else would dare? The bandit leader had even begun to style himself as a provincial chief in the last years of Ashraf’s father’s rule.
The old Sheikh had moved slowly when dealing with problems in this remote province, the poorest and most backward in the country. He’d left Qadri alone as long as the bandit preyed only on his own people.
But Ashraf wasn’t cut from the same cloth as his father. The old Sheikh was dead and Ashraf had introduced changes that would see Qadri dispossessed.
He could expect no mercy from his captors.
Ashraf wasn’t naïve enough to believe Qadri would negotiate his release. The man would fight for his fiefdom the only way he knew: with violence.
What better way to intimidate poor villagers than to execute the new Sheikh? To prove that modernisation and the rule of law had no place in the mountains that had only known Qadri’s authority for two decades?
Ashraf cursed his eagerness to see a new irrigation project, accepting the invitation to ride out with just a local guide and a single bodyguard into an area that was supposedly now completely safe.
His belly clenched as he thought of his bodyguard, Basim, thrown from his horse by a tripwire rigged between two boulders.
Ashraf had vaulted from his horse to go to him, only to be felled by attackers. There was little satisfaction in knowing they hadn’t overpowered him easily.
Was Basim alive? Ashraf’s gut clenched at the thought of his faithful guard abandoned where he’d fallen.
Fury scoured his belly. But fury wouldn’t help now. Only cold calculation. He had to find a way out. Or a way to convey his location to those searching for him.
His father had always said he had the devil’s own luck. It had been a sneering accusation, not a fond appraisal, but for the first time Ashraf found himself hoping the old man had been right. He could do with some luck. And the energy to move.
A slight scuffling broke his train of thought.
He wasn’t alone.
Ashraf refused to lie there waiting for another knockout blow.
Ignoring the pain that exploded through him at the movement, he rolled over and up onto his feet, only to stop abruptly, his right arm yanked back.
Spinning round, Ashraf discovered he was chained to a wall. Another turn, so swift his bruised head swam and pain seared his ribs. But with his back to the wall, his feet wide, he was ready to take on any assailant.
‘Come on. Show yourself.’
Nothing. No movement. No sound.
Then, out of the darkness, something gleamed. Something pale that shone in the faint moonlight.
His guard was blond?
Ashraf blinked. It wasn’t an hallucination.
Whoever it was, he wasn’t local.
‘Who are you?’ He switched to French, then English, and heard an answering hiss of breath.
The silence grew, ratcheting his tension higher.
‘You don’t know?’ It was a whisper, as if the speaker feared being overheard.
Ashraf frowned. Had the blow to his head damaged his hearing? It couldn’t be, yet it sounded like—
‘You’re a woman?’
‘You’re not one of them, then.’ Her voice was flat, yet taut, as if produced by vocal cords under stress.
Stress he could understand.
‘By “one of them” you mean…?’
‘The men who brought me here. The men who…’ Ashraf heard a shudder in her voice ‘…kidnapped me.’
‘Definitely not one of them. They kidnapped me too.’
For which they’d pay. Ashraf had no intention of dying in what he guessed was a shepherd’s hut, from the smell of livestock. Though the sturdy chain and handcuff indicated that the place was used for other, sinister purposes. He’d heard whispers that Qadri was involved in people-smuggling. That women in particular sometimes vanished without a trace, sold to unscrupulous buyers across the border.
The pale glow came closer. Ashraf saw her now. Silvery hair, pale skin and eyes that looked hollow in the shadows. She swallowed and he made out the convulsive movement of her throat. Calm overlying panic. At least she wasn’t hysterical.
‘Are you hurt?’ he asked.
A tiny huff of amusement greeted his question. ‘That’s my line. You’re the one who’s bleeding.’
Ashraf looked down. Parting his torn shirt, he discovered a long cut, no longer bleeding. A knife wound, he guessed, but not deep.
Despite the playboy reputation Ashraf had once acquired, he’d done his time in the army. A stint which his father had ensured was tougher and more dangerous than usual. Ashraf knew enough about wounds to be sure he’d be alive when his executioner arrived tomorrow.
‘How about you?’
* * *
Tori stared at him, wanting to laugh and cry at the same time.
Except tears wouldn’t help. And she feared if she laughed it would turn into hysteria.
‘Just scrapes and bruises.’ She was lucky and she knew it. Her jaw ached where she’d been backhanded across the face but that was the worst. Despite the hungry gleam she’d seen in her captors’ eyes as they’d inspected her, they hadn’t touched her except to subdue her and throw her in here.
Looking at this injured man, she trembled, thinking she’d got off lightly. So far.
He’d been unconscious when they’d dumped him on the dirt floor. Either he’d put up a mighty fight or they had a grudge against him to beat him up like that.
She hadn’t had time to investigate how badly he was injured. His shirt was torn and stained and his head was bloody on one side. Even so, he stood tall. His ragged shirt hung from wide, straight shoulders and his dusty trousers clung to a horseman’s thighs. He looked fit and powerful despite his injuries. Under the grime he had strong-boned features that she guessed might be handsome, or at least arresting.
Would she see him in daylight or would they come for her before that? Terror shuddered down her spine and turned her knees to jelly. Panic bit her insides as she imagined what was in store for her.
‘Where are we?’ Like her, the stranger kept his voice low, yet something about the smooth, deep note eased a fraction of the tension pinching her.
‘Somewhere in the foothills. I couldn’t see from the back of the van.’ She wrapped her arms around her middle, remembering that trip, facing a grim stranger with a knife in his hand.
‘There’s a road?’ The man before her pounced on that.
‘Part of the way. I walked the last part blindfolded.’ Which was why her knees were rubbed raw after she’d stumbled and fallen time and again over uneven ground.
‘Is there a guard at the door?’
‘I don’t think so.’
She’d heard the men talking as they walked away. Even so she crept to the door, peeking through the gap between it and the wall. No one. She moved along the wall but it was surprisingly solid, with no chinks to peer through.
As if it had been used as a prison before.
Tori thought of the heavy chain that secured her companion and her stomach curdled.
‘There’s a light further away. A campfire, I think. But no one here as far as I can tell.’
Why would they bother? The door was bolted. Her companion was chained and she didn’t have as much as a pocket knife to use as a tool.
What wouldn’t she give for her geologist’s hammer right now? Designed for cracking rocks, the sharp end might prise open the chain and it would make an effective weapon.
‘What are you doing?’ He’d turned his back on her and she heard the rattle of metal links.
‘Testing this chain.’ There was a grunt, then a muffled oath.
She crossed to stand behind him. ‘You won’t pull it out,’ she whispered. ‘It’s fixed securely. Believe me.’
‘You’ve checked?’ His hunched shoulders straightened as he lifted his head and turned around.
Suddenly he was closer than she’d expected, towering above her. Her hissed breath cut the thick silence.
Only hours ago she’d been grabbed by strangers: big men who’d overpowered her despite her frantic struggle. Fear curdled her belly anew and adrenaline pumped hard in her blood, freezing her to the spot.
Yet as she stiffened the man stepped back towards the wall. Giving her space.
Logic said he wasn’t the enemy. Her abductors had kidnapped him too.
Tori sucked in oxygen and tried to steady her breathing. In the gloom she met his eyes. It was too dark to be sure but she’d swear she read sympathy in his face. And something else. Pity?
Because the fate of a woman abducted by violent men would be truly pitiful.
Tori stiffened her knees against the images she’d tried so hard not to picture. She couldn’t afford to crack up now.
‘Of course I checked.’ She made herself concentrate on the conversation, not her fear. ‘I thought if I could pry it loose I might use it as a weapon when they came back.’
‘One against three?’
Despite their desperate situation, Tori felt a throb of satisfaction at surprising him. ‘I won’t go down without a fight.’
‘It would be safer if you don’t resist.’
Tori opened her mouth to protest but he went on.
‘Three to one aren’t good odds. Wait till you’re alone with one of them. Someone will probably transport you elsewhere tomorrow.’
‘How do you know? What did they say about me?’ Her voice was harsh with fear.
He shook his head, then winced. The soft whisper that followed might have been in a language she didn’t know, but she knew a curse when she heard one.
‘I didn’t hear them mention you,’ he said finally. ‘But their leader arrives tomorrow. They’re expecting payment for their efforts then. They’ll leave us be until he arrives.’
Tori sagged, her knees giving way suddenly. She stumbled to the wall, propping herself against it. For hours she’d been on tenterhooks, expecting at any moment—
‘Are you okay?’ He moved closer before stopping, as if recalling her earlier recoil.
She nodded. When she opened her mouth to reply a jagged, out-of-control laugh escaped. She clapped a hand to her lips, hating the hot tears behind her eyes and the sensation that she was on the verge of collapse.
It was ridiculous to feel relief, hearing she was safe for tonight. She was still in terrible danger. Even so, her exhausted body reacted to the news by slumping abruptly.
Firm hands caught her upper arms as she sank, taking her weight and easing her descent to the floor.
His hands were big and hard, yet surprisingly gentle. Tori heard the clank of metal as he withdrew, hunkering before her.
‘Sorry.’ The word wobbled and she tried again. ‘I just…’ She looked up into dark eyes. ‘What else did they say? What are they going to do with us?’
Did she imagine that his expression turned blank? In this light it was impossible to tell.
‘Nothing about you.’ He paused, then continued slowly. ‘I have no proof, but I suspect they’ll take you over the border.’
Like a smuggled commodity? Tori bit her bottom lip. She’d heard stories of the illegal slave trade, particularly in women. Nausea rose as she contemplated where she might end up.
‘If that’s so there might be a chance to escape. Maybe some of them will stay here.’ Tori knew she was grasping at straws but it was better than giving up hope.
‘I can guarantee it.’ His tone grabbed her attention.
‘Why? What else did you hear?’
He shrugged those wide shoulders and sank cross-legged before her. Despite the heavy chain and his injuries he looked at ease. Strange how his air of confidence reassured her.
‘Their leader is my enemy. I think it fair to assume he’ll be more focused on me than you.’ There was a note in that deep voice that sounded almost like wry humour. Grim lines bracketed his mouth.
Suddenly Tori remembered the gesture one of their captors had made as he’d chained this man to the wall. One man had asked a question and another had laughed, a sound that had sent a chill skittering down her backbone. He’d said something sharp and dragged his finger across his throat in a gesture that crossed all languages. Death.
They were going to kill this man.
She should warn him.
Except even as she thought it she realised he knew. Tori read it in that stern face, a chiaroscuro masterpiece of male strength, and knew he wouldn’t surrender to fate. Not with that pugnacious set to his jaw.
Instinctively she reached out, her hand fleetingly touching his, feeling living warmth flow into her chilled fingers. ‘What can we do?’
For long seconds he surveyed her. Then gave another infinitesimal shrug. ‘Check for a way out.’
‘I’ve done that. It’s all I’ve done for the last five hours or so.’ That and try not to panic.
‘I don’t suppose you’ve got a hairpin?’
‘For picking the lock on your handcuff?’ Tori shook her head. ‘I don’t need hairpins with a ponytail.’
He watched the swish of her hair around her shoulders and something unexpected zipped through her. Something other than fear and despair.
‘And I unfortunately didn’t think to bring bolt cutters for the chain.’
She choked down a laugh. It was only mildly amusing, but in her emotional state any humour was a welcome break from constant fear.
‘The windows are too small even for you.’ He paused. ‘The roof?’
He rose in a single fluid motion that revealed enviable core strength and left Tori gawping. A short time ago he’d been unconscious.
‘Come.’ He extended his hand.
She didn’t know if it was the command in his tone or not, but a second later her hand was in his and he was drawing her up. They stood so close that she identified the tang of cinnamon and male, and the comforting smell of horse, before he stepped away, surveying the roof.
‘Here.’ He turned and beckoned.
‘What do you have in mind?’
‘Hands on my shoulders. I’ll lift you so you can check for a way out.’
‘But you can’t get out.’ Her gaze dropped to the manacle on his wrist.
‘That’s no reason for you not to try.’
That voice, as smooth and rich as her favourite coffee, warmed her as his gaze captured hers. Tori’s racing thoughts stilled. She felt a moment of communion, as if this stranger understood the guilt that made her protest even as the idea of escape made her thrill with excitement.
‘What’s your name?’
The question made her pause. What would it be like to hear him ask that in different circumstances? There was something about this man…the resonance of his deep voice, his inner strength in the face of adversity, his sureness…that drew her.
Her heart beat hard against her ribs.
‘Tori. And you?’
‘You may call me Ash.’
Before she could wonder at his phrasing, he continued.
‘If you can get onto the roof and away, there’s a chance you can raise the alert before daybreak.’
He didn’t have to spell out what would happen when day came. That captor’s slicing gesture was vivid in her mind.
‘But I don’t know where I am. Or where to go.’
Long fingers folded around her hand, steadying her. ‘You don’t have to know. Get away from the hut and the campfire. Stay low. When you’re a safe distance out, circle the camp. You’ll eventually come across the trail where you entered. Keep out of sight and follow the trail.’
‘And hope to find the road or a village?’
‘You have a better idea?’
Tori shook her head. It was their best chance. Possibly Ash’s only chance.
‘Let’s do this.’ She planted her palms on his shoulders, then sucked in a breath as he bent, wrapped his big hands around her and lifted.
* * *
It was probably only fifteen minutes before they admitted defeat. To Ashraf it felt like hours.
Frustrating hours, with that cursed chain curtailing his movements. They had only been able to explore one end of the roof and it was disappointingly sturdy.
The slashing pain across his ribs had become a sear of agony. His head pounded. Stiff muscles ached from boosting his companion high, then holding her up while she strained and twisted, trying to find a weakness in the roof structure she could exploit.
Physical exertion compounded with frustration at his helplessness. But it was another sort of torture, holding Tori.
Trying to ignore her rounded breasts and buttocks. Standing solid, holding her high, his face pressed to her soft belly as she heaved and twisted, trying to force her way through the roof. Feeling the narrowness of her waist, inhaling her female essence, fresh and inviting, despite the overlay of dust and fear.
Beneath the loose trousers and long-sleeved shirt she was all woman. Firmly toned, supple and fragrantly feminine.
By the time he lowered her for the last time and sagged against the wall his body shook all over. From reaction to his wounds. From fury at himself for allowing Qadri to get the better of him.
And from arousal. Flagrant and flaming hot.
Ashraf told himself it was the adrenaline high—a response to life-or-death danger. Naturally his reactions were heightened. His need to fight his way free. His primal urge was to defy death in the same way generations had done since the dawn of time, by losing himself in the comfort of a warm, willing woman. Spilling his seed in the hope of ensuring survival, if not for himself, then for the next generation.
‘Are you all right?’
She was so close her breath was a puff of warm air against his face.
‘I knew it was too much with your wounds. We should have stopped earlier. Are you bleeding again?’
A gentle hand touched his chest just above his wound.
‘Don’t!’ Ashraf grabbed her hand, flattening it against his chest. His eyes snapped wide and he found her staring up at him, clearly concerned. This close, he saw her eyes were pale. Blue? Grey? Maybe amber?
Realisation slammed into him.
She feels it too.
The tug of need. The connection between two people trapped and desperate. The powerful urge to find comfort in the face of impending death. For, even if she wasn’t being executed in the morning, Tori’s fate was dark.
‘Don’t fuss. I’m fine.’ He pulled her palm away from his body. Yet he couldn’t bring himself to relinquish her hand.
Because her touch brought unexpected comfort?
He was furious with himself for getting captured. Frustrated that, after all that had happened, maybe his life would end tomorrow and his father would have been right. The old man had said he’d never amount to anything. If Ashraf died within the first six months of his reign, with none of his changes cemented in place…
He released Tori and turned from her searching stare.
‘I’m not fussing.’
She drew herself up so her head topped his chin. Her little sound of frustration reminded him of his favourite falcon, fluffing up her feathers in huffy disapproval when he didn’t immediately release her for flight.
‘I apologise.’ He paused, surprised as the unfamiliar words escaped. ‘I’m not bleeding again.’ Hopefully. ‘It was kind of you to be concerned.’
‘Kind?’ She choked on the word and it hit Ashraf that she was fighting back tears.
For him? No, she couldn’t know that he faced death tomorrow. It was a reaction to her kidnap. She’d been courageous—more courageous than most men he knew—projecting a calm façade, persevering in trying to find a way out when many would have given up.
‘Thoughtful,’ he amended.
She shook her head and silvery hair flared out from her ponytail. Ashraf’s hands curled tight. He knew an urgent desire to see that shimmering hair loose, so he could tunnel his fingers through it.
Temptation was a cruel thing. He couldn’t take what he wanted. Or ask for it. Not from this proud woman who still fought panic.
‘You’d better get some rest,’ he murmured, his voice gruff as he ruthlessly harnessed his baser, selfish instincts. ‘That’s what I intend to do.’
Ashraf lowered himself to the floor. He felt every muscle, every movement. His wrist had rubbed raw against the manacle and there seemed little hope of escape.
Yet despite the pain he felt a sense of exultation. He was still alive. He had no intention of meekly submitting to execution for Qadri’s pleasure.
Ashraf had spent his life fighting for his place, proving himself, ignoring the jibes. Showing his father that his disdain meant nothing. Thumbing his nose at him by building a public profile as a pleasure-seeking playboy, delighting in scandals that he knew would rock the old man.
Now he was back in Za’daq and everything had changed. Especially given his brother’s recent sacrifice. Ashraf’s belly contracted at the thought of Karim.
‘I’d feel better if you’d let me examine your wounds.’
Tori knelt beside him. So close he barely had to move to touch her face, her rounded breast. Too close for a man so severely tempted.
‘There’s nothing you can do in this light. Unless you have a torch and a first aid kit hidden somewhere?’
She pursed her lips and looked away, that silvery mane sliding over one shoulder.
Instantly he regretted his harsh response. He felt ashamed. It wasn’t concern for Karim that had made him snap, but his visceral sexual response to her. He wanted things he shouldn’t.
‘I’m sorry.’ It was the second time he’d apologised. ‘That was uncalled-for. You’re right, there’s some pain, but it’s not as bad as it looks.’ What were bruises and cuts in comparison to what tomorrow held for him? ‘But there’s something you could do.’
‘Rest. We need to conserve our strength.’ He stretched out, stifling a groan as abused muscles throbbed.
After a long silence she finally followed his example, lying down nearby.
Ashraf didn’t sleep. Instead he focused on tomorrow, wondering if his security detail would find him before it was too late. Wondering if Basim was alive.
Finally a tiny sound caught his attention. Were Tori’s teeth chattering? The desert night had turned chill.
‘Come here, Tori. We’ll be warmer together.’
She lifted her head. ‘But your injuries…’
He reached out his untethered arm. ‘Snuggle against this side.’
When she did Ashraf bit his tongue against a sigh of satisfaction.
‘Put your head on my shoulder.’ She complied and he felt the gentle whisper of her breath through his torn shirt. Soft curves cushioned his side, silky strands of hair tickled his neck and her hand rested warm at his waist.
Ashraf lifted his hand to stroke her hair. It was silken. Like the softest cushions in the royal harem, spun in the days when the Sheikhs of Za’daq had had a bevy of concubines devoted to their pleasure.
Pressed against him from shoulder to knee, she felt…
His breath clogged in his lungs and a tremor started low in his body, vibrating out.
‘Am I too heavy?’
She shifted as if to move away and Ashraf rolled a little towards her, capturing her knee between his.
‘Just relax. You’re not hurting me.’
It wasn’t strictly true. He was definitely in pain. But the ache of his wounds and the indignity of the chain were eclipsed by another sort of pain. The taut stretch of a body fighting luscious temptation.
Ashraf’s mouth stretched in a mirthless smile. He’d spent years giving in to temptation. He wished he had more experience at resisting it. Perhaps that was why the tension he felt was so acute, the tug of war between honour and desire so fierce.
But honour won.
Finally he felt her breathing slow. She shifted, shimmying her hips as if to get more comfortable, and the friction was exquisite torture. But it was a torture he willingly bore.
Till she moved her arm and her hand accidentally brushed the evidence of his arousal straining against his trousers.
Everything inside him stilled.
Ashraf swore they both stopped breathing.
Then his blood pumped again—harder, more urgent. His groin tightened. He had to force himself not to tilt his pelvis, seeking the feel of her palm against him.
‘It’s okay. You’re safe with me, Tori.’ Could she tell he spoke through gritted teeth? ‘Nothing’s going to happen.’
Silence. He waited for her to scurry away.
Then he knew he was hearing things when she said, ‘Maybe I don’t want to be safe with you.’