Undone by the Sultan's TouchBy: Caitlin Crews
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?”