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Undone by the Sultan’s Touch
When Cleo Churchill’s travels land her in the path of Khaled bin Aziz, Sultan of Jhurat, she’s instantly transfixed by his warrior physique, commanding presence and intense eyes. But what would a sultan want with an ordinary girl like her?
Cleo is exactly what Khaled needs—a convenient, yet beautiful bride to unite his warring country. He’ll offer her diamonds and riches but nothing more.
Yet as their marriage plays out in the darkness of the night, the passions unearthed threaten to consume them both!
Undone by the Sultan’s Touch
The girl came out of nowhere.
Cleo Churchill stamped on the brakes in her tiny rental car, gasping as the car swerved before coming to a jolting halt in the narrow little alley of a road somewhere deep in the twisting, ancient heart of the capital city of Jhurat.
For one panicked heartbeat, then another, she thought she'd been seeing things. The blazing desert sun was only then beginning to drop behind the ornate historic buildings, making the shadows lengthen and stretch. She'd lost her way in the tangle of old streets and one city looked very much like another after six months of traveling all around Europe and into the Middle East. And more to the point, there was absolutely no reason a girl should dive in front of her car—
But there she was, young and wide-eyed and startlingly pretty behind her flowing scarves, right there at the passenger window—seemingly unharmed.
I didn't hit her, thank God.
"Please!" The girl spoke through the car's open window, desperate and direct. "Help me!"
Cleo didn't think. The adrenaline of the near miss hummed through her with an almost sickening electricity, but she motioned toward the door, aware as she did it that her hands were shaking.
"Are you all right?" she asked as the girl wrenched open the door and threw herself inside. "Are you hurt? Do you need—?"
"Drive!" the girl cried as if pursued by demons. "Please! Before—"
Cleo didn't wait to find out before what. She'd escaped her own demons, hadn't she? She knew how it was done. She stepped on the gas pedal, scowling as she concentrated fiercely on the narrow road in front of her, which she dearly hoped led back out of this maze of ancient narrow streets that wound erratically around Jhurat's central palace, home to its governing sultan. Beside her, the girl breathed heavily and high-pitched, as if she'd been running.
"You're okay," Cleo said, trying to soothe her—or even herself. "We're okay now."
And then a man stalked out of the shadows, directly into the car's path, as if daring Cleo to run straight into him. She heard herself gasp out a curse, but her eyes were fixed on him as surely as if he'd demanded it.
He was tall and fierce, forbidding and uncompromising in the loose robes that marked him a local—a wealthy local—and did nothing at all to conceal his markedly powerful form. The sun was behind him and hid his face, but Cleo could still feel the weight of his stare. Like an impossible knot in her own chest.
He stood there in the center of the road, imperious and bold. He crossed his arms over his broad chest and waited—and it wasn't until she realized he wasn't moving that she also realized she wasn't, either. That she'd stopped the car directly in front of him as if he'd held up his hands like a police officer and commanded it.
When all he'd done was stare.
Despite herself, Cleo shivered. Foreboding. Fear.
And something else, maybe, beneath it, that she'd never felt before.
He bit out something ferocious in Arabic that made the girl beside her jerk in her seat as if he'd slapped her, and Cleo's stomach twisted.
This is not good, she thought.
"Get out of the car," he said then, his voice deep and autocratic, and it took a long, shuddering moment for Cleo to realize that this time, he was speaking directly to her. Issuing an implacable order in a language she could understand, right through the glass. "Now."
"Who is that?" she whispered, still unable to pull her gaze away from him. He was simply too mesmerizing. Too powerful.
The girl beside her let out a sound that was something like a sob, but far angrier. When Cleo finally managed to yank her attention away from the dark and dangerous man taking over the road before them, the girl's jaw was set in a stubborn line, and her mouth trembled. Making her look even younger than Cleo had originally thought she was.
"That," the girl said bitterly, staring out the front window at the man who still stood there, not moving an inch, as if he expected it to be nothing but a matter of moments before he was obeyed, "is His Excellency, the Sultan of Jhurat."
This was, Cleo realized dimly then, a great deal worse than not good.
"What?" she asked weakly, that thudding panic hitting harder, sending out shock waves. He didn't look like a sultan. He looked like some kind of warrior angel, sent down to smite and awe. She felt both smitten and awed, the sensations too hot and almost painful inside of her. "Why would a sultan—the sultan—chase you down an alley?"
"Because he is a demon from hell." The girl's mouth twisted. "He is also my brother."
Cleo swallowed, hard.
He stood there, waiting. And now she understood what that proud ruthlessness meant. What that thing was that emanated from him like a force field, rendering the whole city small and inconsequential beside him.
Cleo's mind raced, and for some reason, she thought of Brian then. Weak, lying Brian. Brian, who had humiliated her. Brian, who had said he loved her but couldn't possibly have meant it, could he? Brian, who she'd believed so completely when he'd never had even a shred of the intensity or authority the man before her simply… oozed.
The sultan jerked his head in a silent yet remarkably eloquent command to exit the vehicle.
And Cleo forgot about stupid, cheating Brian and the girlfriend he'd kept on the side for almost the entirety of their doomed engagement.
This was exactly the kind of thing she'd promised her parents back in Ohio would never happen to her, because she'd imagined she was too smart, or too cynical, to fall prey to scenarios like this. This was exactly what her mother and her hysterical aunts had predicted would happen if she did something so radical as explore the world by herself. She could practically hear the doom-and-gloom predictions they'd all shared with her whether she'd wanted them to or not, like a going-away present, as if they were whispering it in her ear from across the planet.
They'd begged her not to do this. They'd told her running away from her problems was only running straight into new ones. And now look what had happened.
The sultan waited. Less patient by the moment.
"Just drive over him," the girl beside her demanded. "Mow him down where he stands."
"I can't," Cleo said, except she found she was whispering. "I can't do that."
And everything seemed to slow down, as though the air was made of syrup and there was nothing but him. That man. The sultan.She shifted the car into Park. Beside her, the girl let out a frustrated noise, but Cleo's attention was riveted on the man at the end of her bumper. Still. Watchful. Ferocious.
Her neck prickled with a deep foreboding. With anxiety. With the sense of immensity, as if what she was about to do was already sealed in stone, as ancient and unmoving and inevitable as the venerable city around her, as the old streets beneath her.
As the man before her. The sultan of all he surveyed.
Who couldn't be weak, she knew somehow, if he tried.
Cleo turned off the rental car's ignition with a decisive click and then opened her door, ignoring the girl in the passenger seat as she got out and stood there.
The sultan moved then. He nodded at someone behind her and men in military uniforms appeared as if from thin air, surrounding the rental car, all wearing machine guns that dwarfed their bodies.
Cleo didn't understand a single word of the rapid-fire Arabic, all shouted back and forth in so many harsh and loud male voices, and yet somehow she couldn't bring herself to look away from the sultan as he continued to stand there staring back at her.
One of his men appeared beside her and held out his hand, making Cleo flinch. She glanced at him, then back at the sultan, aware then of how fragile she was. She felt it in ways she never had before. Fragile and exposed and frighteningly vulnerable.
And it was still better than how Brian had made her feel, two weeks before their wedding, when she'd come home early from work and found him on the living room floor of his condo with that woman.
The sultan said something, and she realized it wasn't the first time.
"I'm sorry, I didn't hear you," she said, and she hardly sounded like herself.
He paused, and she wished she had something more than this shadowy impression of his face. That the sun would hide behind the buildings at last so she could look at him without her eyes watering. So she could convince herself that he was neither as cruel nor as inhuman as he appeared while backlit like a god.
So she could tell herself that the twisting heat that knotted her belly, low and hot, was based on something more than the intuition she'd learned better than to trust.
But his voice, when it came, was as calm as it was deep, despite the tension she could hear beneath it, and for no reason at all, it eased her. Even as it set her on fire.
"Do you know who I am?"
A faint nod. "Give my man your keys."
An implacable order delivered in perfect English, with a crisp British accent to boot. Cleo knew she should ask questions. Demand to know what was happening to her, what he planned to do next. Instead, she simply obeyed.
She opened her hand and the man beside her took the keys from her palm, and the whole time she was lost in the will of the powerful man whose face was still in shadows before her.
Why couldn't she seem to breathe? Why did it feel as if the earth were buckling beneath her feet when she could see—because no one else was reacting to it, no one else was moving, the car was solid and unmoving beside her—that it was only happening inside of her?
Everything seemed to stretch out, slow and taut, but then the car engine turned over beside her, the men and the car and the angry girl disappeared after a brief consultation, and Cleo was standing alone in an alleyway in a foreign country with a man so great and powerful he held a title she'd half believed only existed in books.
He moved then, and she wished he hadn't. He was like liquid, a threat wrapped in poetry, athletic and menacing at once. The knot inside her pulled taut, red and hot. Cleo stood still as he walked in a slow circle around her. He held something in his hands and she realized it was the wallet she'd left sitting in one of the cup holders in the car. One of his men must have—
"Eyes on me," he ordered her, his voice a silken command.
And when she jerked her attention back up from her wallet to his face, she could see it, finally. Could see him.
Beautiful, something whispered inside her, though he wasn't.
He was much too fierce. He reminded her of those remote villages she'd found in her travels, clinging to the sides of rugged mountains long days from anywhere, proud and breathtaking and unimaginably tough. He had thick dark hair and a poet's face made shockingly masculine by a warrior's cool, light gaze and the sort of tough jaw Cleo associated with soldiers and martial artists—and thugs. A blade of a nose. Faint lines around his eyes suggested he must have smiled at some point in his life, but she couldn't imagine it. He seemed carved entirely from stone.
He looked so masculine and so inarguably fierce it was almost as if he and soft, round-faced, nice-looking Brian were of a different species. She told herself that was why her heart beat so fast. Because he was the not Brian.
And because he really was beautiful.
"You are American."
It wasn't a question.
His gaze moved over her and she had to fight not to squirm. She was wearing dark trousers and scuffed boots beneath a loose-fitting T-shirt, and a dark jacket as much to cover herself in this conservative part of the world as to block the faint chill in the air, hinting at the coming fall night. She'd twisted her long hair back, but the long day had coaxed some of it down again, strands falling forward messily and making her feel much younger than her twenty-five years.
Cleo didn't want to ask herself why, exactly, she wished there was something more in his dark gaze then. Something to match that heat inside her.
He flipped open her wallet and looked inside. "You are a very long way from Ohio."
"I'm traveling," she said, and her voice sounded strange. Huskier than usual. Raw, somehow. "Backpacking."
She didn't want to admit that, for some reason. For a hundred reasons. But he lifted his gaze from her wallet and the license he was presumably studying, and she felt hot. Caught.
"Yes," she said, fighting to sound normal. "It's been six months. I fly home in two weeks."
And the truth was, she didn't want to go back. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
"Unless, of course, you find yourself detained," he said, as if he could read her mind.
She frowned. "Why would I find myself detained?"
"A prison sentence would be considered a lenient penalty in this country for a foreign national caught in the act of kidnapping a member of the sultan's family," he said, almost casually.
It was undoubtedly suicidal to scowl at this man. But Cleo only thought about that after she did it.
"I didn't kidnap anyone. Your sister ran in front of my car. Should I have flattened her beneath my tires?" She didn't remember herself so much as see that incredulous expression on his face, and she coughed once. Delicately. "I thought I was helping. And also not committing vehicular manslaughter."
The sultan stared at her for a moment, that incredulous expression shifting to something else. Something far more dangerous.
"What do you imagine my sister was running from?" he asked, and it occurred to her that his easy, casual tone was in truth neither of those things.
"Maybe you're marrying her off? To some ally or other?"
But that notion came from novels she'd read, not any particular knowledge about this place or him, and he seemed to know that. Even to expect it, she thought, when his slate-gray eyes darkened.
His magnificent mouth, already close to cruel in its beauty, thinned. He watched her for a moment, his cool gaze like a fire inside her, turning her inside out.
That had to be panic, she told herself, but she knew better.
"What a vivid imagination you have, Miss Churchill."