She needed to get her head on straight. She needed to remember what it was she was doing here.
That thought deflated her. She sank to the couch. What she was doing here was marrying Ferran Bashar, the man she’d sworn to kill. Because it was the right thing to do. For their countries. It was a greater good she couldn’t simply ignore.
This was a true sacrificial act, not just something that would assuage the burning anguish inside of her. She’d talked herself into thinking his murder, and her subsequent death, a death she’d been nearly certain of, would be sacrificial. But perhaps not. Perhaps it had only been an act born of blinding rage and desperation.
The same sort of rage that had driven her father.
The thought hit her hard, a realization she slid sickly through her veins like cold tar. She was not her father. She was not a mindless rage machine who would destroy all simply to get revenge upon his wife and her new lover.
And on the heels of that realization, the other was cemented.
She was going to marry Ferran. She was going to be his wife.
God help her. It was real.
A tear slid down her cheek and dropped onto her hand. And for the first time since her mother wandered into the desert and never returned, Samarah Al-Azem let herself cry.
* * *
When she stumbled outside an hour later, she didn’t feel any less stunned, but she did feel a renewed sense of purpose. Determination. She felt…she felt as if she was truly on a new path. As if she’d reconciled this change.
At least in part.
She looked up at the sun, which was resting low over the horizon now. A chill spread over the desert sand, along with a hazy blue blanket that seemed to thicken the air. Gnats swarmed over the reeds, and she batted them away from her face as she walked through the tall plants down to the water.
She grabbed a large stick and let it go before her, doing a sweep for snakes as she went along.
Thankfully, none had seen the need to get in her path.
She came to the damp, cold mud and stopped, looking out at the water. The surface rippled, then broke, and Ferran appeared. He stood, his back to her, water droplets rolling through the valleys in his flesh, created by the hard-cut muscles that she’d been enjoying on the ride over.
He took a step up toward the bank that was to the left, and the waterline lowered on his body, so that it revealed two deep grooves in his lower back before showing his…oh.
He took another step and the water slid off his skin. And she could see now that he was naked. And he was…
She’d never really looked at a man’s butt before. Not like this. Not one that was bare, and muscular and…well, bare.
More importantly, she’d never been given to the urge to simply stare at a man like this, clothed or not. As a man and not a threat. As a man and not a mere weapon. But flesh and blood. He was fascinating. Especially with their earlier conversation playing through her mind, combined with the close proximity of the horse ride.
And her recent acceptance, full acceptance, of the fact that she was to be his wife.
Yes, it was all that that had her there, staring and unable to stop. Her mouth was agape. Truly. Her face felt like it was on fire and her heart…her heart was beating faster than she’d thought was physically possible.
The only time it had ever come close to this was in moments of sheer, unadulterated terror. Those she’d had. Those she was familiar with. This? This was something else. Something new. Something that had nothing to do with the past.
He turned to the side and she couldn’t breathe. It all just gathered in her chest like a ball and stopped. She was completely frozen, held captive by him. She wanted to see him. All of him. She wanted so badly for the mystery to be solved. To know now what he looked like. All over. Because not knowing…it made her more afraid of the future. She just needed to know.
She tried to swallow, but it got caught with the knot of air.
Then he turned to face her, dark eyes boring into hers. But she only met his gaze for a moment. Then, completely without thought, she was looking down.
She bit her lip, taking the moment to study him in detail. It was her first glimpse of a naked man and she found she could only stare. And that she could not remain wholly detached.
“See something you’re interested in.”
She wasn’t sure interested was the word. She forced her gaze back to his. “I’m sorry.”
He lifted one shoulder and the muscles in his chest shifted. Fascinating. “No need to apologize. I didn’t hang a sign out.”
“Do you…do you have a sign?” she asked, feeling slow, her brain processing things at half the speed. The lack of oxygen was probably to blame.
“No, I don’t have a sign.”
“It would be the best way to warn people.”