Kasia Salah squinted at the heat haze on the horizon and the ominous cloud of dust that shimmered above it, then glared at her mobile phone.
She breathed the swear word she’d learned during her years at Cambridge University as sweat collected on her upper lip and trickled down her back beneath her T-shirt and the voluminous robe she wore to stave off the heat and dust of the desert landscape. It was the sort of swear word she would have been punished by her grandmother for even knowing—let alone saying—once upon a time. She tucked her smartphone into the back pocket of her shorts, taking several more frustrating moments to locate it under the miles of fabric. Then transferred her glare to the engine of the black SUV—and swore again, louder this time. After all, there was no one within a fifty-mile radius to hear her—and it felt empowering, even if it wasn’t going to help.
Why hadn’t she thought to take a satellite phone with her before leaving the palace for this research trip? Or a companion? Preferably one who knew a bit more than she did about car mechanics? She sighed and kicked the tyre of the broken-down Jeep.
It had been reckless, over-confident and overly optimistic…her three favourite flaws.
Then again, she hadn’t intended to break down in the middle of nowhere with no phone signal.
Sheikh Zane Ali Nawari Khan, her best friend Catherine’s husband, the ruler of Narabia and, nominally, her boss, had worked long and hard to bring internet connectivity and a cellphone network to large parts of the kingdom. But she suspected she was too close to the borderlands here—an undeveloped desert, flanked by the mountain region in the south, populated only by the Kholadi nomads. From what she could remember, the Kholadi didn’t even have running water, so the chances of them needing a phone signal were fairly slim.
Using the robe to cover her hands, so she didn’t burn them on the hot metal, she unhooked the defunct vehicle’s bonnet. It slammed down, the sound echoing in the febrile air. Luckily, she had given Cat and her assistant Nadia a detailed itinerary of her day trip, so when she didn’t return this evening they would send out a search party.
But that still meant spending a night in the Jeep.
Wasn’t that going to be fun, especially when the temperature plummeted as soon as the sun dipped below the desert floor.
The hot, dry wind swept a sprinkle of sand into her face. Tugging the robe’s head scarf over her nose and mouth so she didn’t inhale the gritty swirls, she peered towards the horizon. The cloud she had spotted earlier had grown, spreading across the land in both directions and blotting out the shimmering heat haze like a malevolent force.
Adrenaline kicked at her ribs like one of Zane’s thoroughbred Arabian stallions. And the anxiety she’d been keeping a tight rein on rippled down her spine.
Was that a sandstorm?
And was it headed her way?
She’d never experienced one before, having been cloistered in the luxurious safety of the Golden Palace’s women’s quarters for most of her life.
But she’d heard about the sandstorms. The carnage they wrought could strike terror into the hearts of grown men and women. Her grandmother had whispered about them in hushed reverential tones; how the worst of them had laid waste to the kingdom, turning farmland back into desert and causing numerous fatalities.
She swallowed down the panic threatening to overwhelm her.
Stop being a drama queen.
It was another one of her flaws. Seeing everything too vividly.
Her grandmother, for all her innate wisdom, had been a drama queen, too. Kasia had been only four years old when she’d gone to live with her, eventually becoming part of the palace staff herself when the old Sheikh had died, and the new Sheikh, Zane, had hired Catherine Smith, a Cambridge scholar, to write a book on the kingdom.
Getting a job as Catherine’s personal assistant at the age of nineteen had changed her life—especially when Cat had married Zane and become Narabia’s Queen, opening Kasia’s eyes to an exciting world beyond the palace walls. She wasn’t that over-eager, over-imaginative and overly romantic teenager any more—hiding all her insecurities behind a veil of unfulfillable dreams. She was a grown woman now with dreams she was already achieving of becoming an environmental scientist who would save Narabia’s agricultural land from the desert that threatened to consume it.
Some sand and a night in a Jeep wasn’t going to faze her…much. In fact, a night spent in the desert might afford her some useful research data.
And who said this was even a sandstorm? There had been no reports of any adverse weather, because she’d checked both the local and the satellite reports before she’d left the palace. She might be reckless, but she was not an idiot.
She repeated the reassuring words, but her gaze remained superglued to the horizon.
The dark, impenetrable cloud grew, blocking out the sun. It had to be at least thirty or forty miles wide, and although it was still a mile away it was advancing fast. The noise cut through the desert silence. Tiny creatures—a lizard, a snake, a rodent—scurried and slithered past her boots, rushing to burrow into the ground. The bright, cloudless sky darkened.
Fear clawed at her throat as her mind tried to engage. Should she get into the SUV? Should she get under it?
Then she saw something—a blot on the horizon—emerge from the cloud like a bullet. It took a while for the shimmering blot to solidify into a silhouette. It was a person, on a horse, galloping fast.
Panic and anxiety tightened around her throat.
Black flowing robes lifted in the wind behind the charging figure, like the wings of a giant predatory bird, as the horse’s hooves became audible over the roar of the sand.
The rider was a man. A very big man. His outline broad and strong, the fluid graceful movements powerful and overwhelming as he seemed to become one with the stallion as it galloped at full speed. He wore a headdress, masking most of his face.
The panic wrapped around her heart, the thundering beat matching the clump-clump-clump of the approaching hooves—as she saw the horse and rider change course and veer straight towards her.
Then she noticed the rifle strap crossing his broad chest.
A bandit. What else could he be, miles from civilisation?
Run, Kasia, run.
The silent scream echoed inside her head. The howling winds lifted the sand around her. Then in her grandmother’s voice—a voice she had always associated with salvation—Stay calm. Don’t panic. He’s just a man.
But even as she tried to rationalise the fear, liberate herself from the panic—reminding her of the sight of her mother walking away for the last time—a strange melting sensation at her core plunged into her abdomen.
A shout rang out, muffled by his scarf, in a dialect she didn’t recognise.
He was almost upon her.
For goodness’ sake, Kasia, stop standing there like a ninny and move.
The call to action helped drown out the fear of being alone and defenceless, a fear she had spent years conquering in childhood.
You’re not that little girl who wasn’t good enough. You’re brave and smart and accomplished.
She scrambled round the Jeep, wrenched open the passenger door, and dived into the stuffy interior. The sand peppering the windows sounded like rifle shots as her hand landed on the pistol in the passenger seat.
Zane had insisted she learn to shoot before he would allow her to go into the desert alone. But as her fingers closed over the metal, her heart butted her tonsils.
She knew how to shoot at a target with some degree of accuracy, but she had never shot a living thing.
The charging horse came to an abrupt stop only inches from the SUV’s bumper. Scrambling out, the sand slicing her cheeks like a whip, Kasia lifted the pistol in both hands and pressed a trembling finger to the trigger.
‘Stop there or I’ll shoot,’ she shouted in English, because it had become her first language after five years in the UK.
Chocolate eyes narrowed above the mask—glittering with intent and fury. The warmth in her abdomen became hot and heavy. And all the more terrifying.
The bandit swung a leg over the horse’s neck and jumped down in one fluid movement without speaking, those dark eyes burning into her soul.
She jerked back a step and the pistol went off. The pop was barely audible in the storm, but the recoil threw her down hard on her backside and she saw the man jerk back.
Had she hit him?
Before the thought had a chance to register, the stallion reared, its hooves pawing the air above her head. The bandit caught the horse’s reins before the animal could trample her into the desert floor, and she felt a rush of relief. Within seconds, though, he loomed over her again and the relief that she hadn’t killed him turned to panic. She scrambled back on her bottom, kicked out with her feet.
‘Get away from me.’
Where was the gun?
She searched for it frantically, but her vision was all but obscured by the swirling sands. He had become the only focus, the ominous outline bearing down on her.
Long fingers shot from the storm and gripped her arm. He hauled her up, bent down and hefted her onto his shoulder with such speed and strength she could barely grasp what was happening before she found herself straddling the huge black horse’s sweat-soaked back.
She lifted her leg, trying to dismount, but before she could get her knee over the pommel, he had mounted behind her.
He grasped the reins with one hand and banded his other arm around her midriff, pulling her into the unyielding strength of his body.
She let out an ‘Oomph…’ as the air was expelled from her lungs. The iron band of his forearm pressed into her breasts. Then suddenly they were flying, her bottom bouncing on the saddle—abandoning the Jeep, which was already half-buried in sand. Her body was forced to succumb to the will of his much bigger, much stronger one as he bent forward, his robes shielding her from the sand stinging her eyes. She tried to cry out, to fight the lethargy wrought by terror, the visceral heat coursing through her body making her too aware of every place their bodies touched.
He’s kidnapping you. You must fight. You must survive.
The words screamed in her head, but her breathing was so rapid now it was painful, her whole body confined, subdued, overwhelmed by his and the storm of sand and dust and darkness raging around them.
They seemed to ride for ever through the swirl of sand—until eventually her fear and panic stopped crushing her ribs and her body melted into exhaustion. The rhythm of the horse’s movements seeped into her bones, the man’s unyielding strength cocooning her against the elements.
Was this Stockholm syndrome? she wondered vaguely, her tired mind no longer capable of engaging with the terror as her body succumbed to the impenetrable darkness, the controlled purpose of her captor’s movements and the stultifying heat coursing through her.
As her eyes drifted shut and her bones turned to water, she dropped down through the years, until she became that little girl again. But this time she was no longer alone and defenceless, her mother gone without a backward glance, but sheltered in strong arms against the storm.