Rescued by the Sheikh(2)

By: Jennifer Lewis

His throaty laugh rang out in the empty desert. “A tow truck? At night? Do you think you’re in New York City?” He gestured to his car. “Grab your bags and jump in. I wouldn’t leave anything behind. There are some unsavory characters on this road at night.” His voice dropped for the last sentence and made her wonder if he included himself in that group.

They had two choices. They could stay here and face whoever else might wander along the road that night. Or they could go with someone whose intentions and motivations were unclear, but who at least spoke English. Right now the latter seemed like an easy choice.

“Let’s get our stuff.” She jostled Allan gently to push him into action, and before she had time to talk herself out of it, they were piling their duffel bags of clothing and equipment into the back of his black Mercedes.

Their rescuer ushered her into the front seat next to him and Allan into the backseat behind her. She realized, as she buckled her seat belt, that she hadn’t introduced herself. In fact, she hadn’t even looked at him properly yet. The interior lights were still on from the doors opening, and she turned sideways in time to catch a bold profile with a strong, aquiline nose and a determined chin. His head was bare and his hair cropped quite short. He turned to look at her, and she felt the full force of his dark gaze for a split second before the lights went out.

She recognized him instantly. Those eyes shone with fierce intensity from even in the grainiest newspaper photo, and she’d seen several during her research. In fact, she’d had a hard time getting his strongly hewn features out of her mind. She thrust out her hand, determined to keep her head. “I’m Sam Bechtel. Samantha.”

He took her hand but didn’t shake it. Instead, he held it for a moment, as her palm heated against his. “Osman Al Kilanjar, at your service.”

She resolved not to be intimidated, even now that she knew for sure that their rescuer was a member of the ruling family. And was taller and more handsome in person than she’d imagined from seeing his photos. His English was excellent, with a hint of a British accent, which wasn’t exactly surprising since she’d read that he was educated overseas.

Not exactly the armed bandit Allan had anticipated. She started to relax a bit.

Then he lifted her hand to his mouth and kissed it.

An odd sensation, powerful and unsettling, flashed through her, and on instinct she jerked her hand back. He let go, and it slammed against her chest. Her heart pounded, and her just-kissed hand throbbed with awareness.

She felt as if he’d just claimed her.

“I’m Allan Strano,” came a thin voice from the backseat. “We’re here in the desert to shoot a documentary about the festival. Our car broke down a couple of hours ago and yours is the first car we’ve seen.”

Her heart swelled to hear her fiancé galloping to the rescue. Likely the hand kiss was just some archaic custom of the region and she was reading too much into it. She sucked in a breath and tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “I’m the producer, and Allan’s the director. It’s so frustrating to break down when the festival starts tomorrow. We need to be in Nabattur to record the opening ceremony.”

“When the streets are strewn with rose petals.” His voice was very deep, with a hint of humor. She saw his eyes gleam in the dark.

“Yes, thousands of rose petals. It seems extraordinary to sacrifice so many flowers in a place where it must be so hard to grow them.”

His low chuckle filled the car. “Perhaps the roses are the lucky ones, to participate in such a joyous occasion. You know it’s a festival of love?”

“Yes. A group wedding ceremony. I did as much reading as I could about it.” Which wasn’t much. This region was both obscure and impenetrable due to geographical isolation behind several intimidating ranges of mountains. Which only made her more excited to explore it for herself.

“We take love seriously here in the high country. Most of our songs and stories address it. Our world is harsh and demanding, and the choice of your life’s partner is the most crucial test.” His low voice crept into her ear.

“A test? I’ve never heard it described that way before.” Allan piped up from the back seat.

“Absolutely.” He fixed his gaze on her, which was disconcerting, even in the dark. “Choosing the wrong partner brings the worst kind of bad luck. Some believe that our ancestors will come back to haunt us if we make a poor choice.”

“I suppose it’s all about picking someone who can be fruitful and multiply,” muttered Sam. Traditional cultures sometimes set her teeth on edge. At least this region didn’t seem to believe in more barbaric rituals like clitoridectomy.

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