One Desert Night
Author:Maggie Cox


‘Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?’

The kingdom of Kabuyadir…

THE sound of crying came to Zahir on the wind. At first he thought he’d imagined it. But when he stepped out onto the balcony overlooking the mosaic-tiled courtyard he heard it again. The sound distracted him from the decision he’d already made to leave the party he was in no mood to attend and go home. He’d gone upstairs to his friend Amir’s salon, to steal a few moments to himself away from the mundane chitchat he found it hard to respond to, and very soon he would seek out his host and make his apologies for quitting the party early. In light of what was going on at home, Amir would understand completely.

But now he found himself stepping out into the courtyard, easily bypassing the interested glances that sought to detain him by adopting a detached air that he knew not even the most courageous would disregard. Instead he embraced the kiss of the warm spiced air that stirred his senses as it never failed to do and glanced around him—for what? He hardly knew. Was it a child he’d heard? Or perhaps some small wounded animal? Or was the gentle sobbing simply an imaginary product of a tired mind and heavy heart?

The sound of splashing water pouring in a crystalline flow from the mouth of a mermaid into the magnificent shell-like fountain—an impressive centrepiece in the marble-paved courtyard—dulled his hearing for a moment. The only other noise carried on the soft night air was the steady high-pitched drone of cicadas.

Out of the corner of his eyes Zahir spied a flash of pink. Narrowing his gaze, he stared hard into a dimmed corner, where there was as stone seat almost enshrouded by the shiny dark leaves of a voluptuous jasmine plant. A pair of exceedingly pretty bare feet poked out. Intrigued, he moved forward.

‘Who is there?’

He kept his voice low and unthreatening. Nevertheless it carried its usual air of authority. A sniffle, a soft intake of breath, and a long slim arm reached out to brush away some of the protective foliage that more or less kept the stone seat totally secluded. Zahir sucked in a breath.

‘It’s me…Gina Collins.’

The sweet-voiced announcement was followed by the sight of the most bewitching blue eyes he had ever seen. They all but equalled the light of the moon with their luminous crystal intensity.

‘Gina Collins?’ The name hardly computed in Zahir’s brain. But the appearance of the fair-haired beauty that emerged from her hiding place to stand before him in an ankle-length pink dress with her feet tantalisingly bare could not fail to deeply stir him.

She was a vision of loveliness that no man would soon forget. No wonder she hid out here, away from view! Was there a red-blooded male living who wouldn’t be tempted by such a vision?

Sniffing again, she stoically wiped away the damp smudges beneath her eyes with the back of her hand.

‘I am none the wiser about who you are,’ Zahir commented wryly, raising a brow.

‘I’m—I’m sorry. I’m Professor Moyle’s assistant. We came here to catalogue and study Mrs Hussein’s books on antiques and ancient artefacts.’

Zahir vaguely remembered the wife of his friend Amir—Clothilde, who was a senior lecturer in art at the university—telling him about her intention to get some help with her library of rare and valuable books. But since his mother had died they had not met, and frankly there had been far more demanding things occupying his time.

‘Is the work so distressing that it compels you to hide out here to conceal your dismay?’ he mocked gently.

The enormous blue eyes widened. ‘Not at all. The work is a joy!’

‘Then I desire to know the reason for your tears.’

‘I just—I just…’

Zahir found he did not mind waiting for an answer. Where was the need for impatience when his gaze was happy to linger in examination of exquisite features that suggested they had been created by a divine artist who clearly adored her? In particular her lush-lipped quivering mouth.

She sighed softly, and her reply had a tremulous break in it. ‘I heard the news today that my mother has been taken ill and is now in the hospital. My employers have very kindly booked me on an early flight in the morning, so tomorrow I’ll be travelling back home to the UK.’

A sympathetic wave of compassion and understanding rippled through Zahir. He knew only too well what it was like to have a beloved mother become ill, to watch her health deteriorate day by day and feel utterly helpless to do anything about it. But he was genuinely shocked at how disturbed he was at the notion that this beautiful girl was going home when he’d only just met her.

‘I’m so sorry to hear your sad news… But I must also confess my regret that you are going home before we have had the chance to become properly acquainted.’

A frown marred her clear brow. ‘Even though my mother is ill, I wish I wasn’t leaving. Do you think that very bad of me? I would much rather stay here, if you want to know. I never realised what a painful wrench it would be for me to go, but there’s a kind of magic here that’s left me spellbound.’

Her response was so surprising that for a moment Zahir hardly knew what to think or say. ‘So you like this part of the world? Then you must come back soon, Gina…very soon. Perhaps when your mother is fully recovered?’ He folded his arms across his chest and his smile was benevolent and kind.

‘I would love that…to come back again, I mean. I can’t explain it, but this place has begun to feel more like home to me than my own country. I love it so.’

Her face glowed suddenly, as though lit from within, and suddenly he was not in such a hurry to leave Amir’s gathering after all.

‘But you must think me very rude for sitting out here on my own when everyone else in inside. Mr Hussein’s nephew’s graduation is meant to be a happy occasion, and I didn’t want to bring things down by being sad. Suddenly I just couldn’t seem to contain how I felt. It’s difficult to talk to people and be sociable when you’re upset.’

‘There is not one soul here who would not understand and sympathise with your predicament, Gina. But it is good that you attended the party. It is the custom here to invite as many friends and acquaintances as possible to share in a family’s joy when they have something to celebrate.’

‘That’s what I love about the people here. Family is really important to them.’

‘And that is not so where you are from?’

She shrugged and glanced away. ‘For some, maybe…but not for everyone.’

‘Now I have made you sad again.’

‘No…you haven’t. I mean I’m sad that my mother is ill, but to tell you the honest truth our relationship is not the loving, affectionate one I could have wished for. My parents are devoted academics…they deal in facts, not feelings. To them, feelings just get in the way. Anyway, I’ve bored you with my troubles for long enough. It was very nice meeting you…but I think I should go back inside now.’

‘There is no hurry. Perhaps you would consider staying out here for a while with me? Whatever is taking place in our lives, it is a beautiful night, no?’

Zahir’s hand reached out lightly to detain her, and the vivid blue eyes grew round as twin full moons. But, aside from being mesmerised by her startled glance, the feel of Gina Collins’s flawless satin-textured skin made him feel almost dizzy with want. He hadn’t expected that. It was as though a hot desert wind had swarmed into his bloodstream. He could hardly take his eyes off her.

‘All right, maybe I’ll stay for just another moment or two. You’re right—it is a beautiful night.’ Folding her arms, she stepped back a little, as though suddenly aware that the distance that separated them was minuscule. ‘Are you related to Mr Hussein’s family?’ she asked quietly, and Zahir saw the flare of curiosity in her limpid blue eyes that she couldn’t quite quell.

‘I am not related by blood, but Amir and I have been friends for a long time. I have always thought of him as my brother. My name is Zahir,’ he volunteered with a respectful bow.

From beneath his luxuriant dark lashes he saw that she blushed. Was it because he had bowed, or because he had only delivered his first name? It might well be the way they would have done things in the West if they had met informally at a party, but it was definitely not the way men of his rank conducted themselves here in Kabuyadir—especially not when they were destined to inherit the rule of the kingdom after their father!


She echoed his name softly—as though it were something wondrous. The sensuous sound caused a cascade of delicious shivers to erupt down Zahir’s spine.

‘Even the names here have a ring of mystery and magic,’ she added shyly.

‘Come,’ he invited, his blood heating even more at the idea of having her to himself for a while. ‘Let us walk together in the grounds. It would be a shame to waste such a glorious full moon on an empty garden with no one there to witness it, don’t you think?’

‘Won’t you be missed if you don’t go back inside soon?’

‘If my hosts are troubled by my unexplained absence they will be too polite to say so. Besides, I do not have to give an account of my actions to anyone save Allah.’

The woman in front of him fell silent at that. Zahir glanced down at her small slender feet, with toenails painted the same captivating shade as her dress, and a frisson of disturbing awareness rippled though him.

‘You will need your shoes if we are to walk together.’

‘They’re over by the bench.’

Moving back towards the stone seat, with its shield of glossy green leaves and intoxicating white-flowered jasmine, Gina collected her flat tan sandals and slipped them on. When she glanced up again at Zahir, a tendril of golden hair fell forward onto her brow. She brushed it away and smiled. A woman’s smile had never had the effect of rendering him speechless before, but it did now. Clearing his throat, he didn’t even think twice about extending his hand to take hers. When she wordlessly and trustingly placed her palm inside his Zahir lost all track of space and time, and the grief and turmoil he had been so racked with since his mother had died melted into the ether…

Studying the strong-boned face, with fathomless dark brown eyes and long glossily black hair that was parallel with his shoulderblades, Gina knew she was captivated. With his full-length dark robe—the jalabiya, as it was called—and his lean waist encircled by a light brown wide leather belt, he might have been an imposing inhabitant of a bygone court of a wealthy Caliph…a highly trained soldier or a bodyguard, perhaps? He was built as if he could take care of himself and many others besides.

It might be an entirely dangerous action, putting her trust in a man she had only just met, but since such an overwhelming compulsion had never seized her before, Gina could only believe it was meant to be. Kismet as they often called it in this part of the world. Right then she needed the reassurance of a strong, understanding figure. Something told her that Zahir was a man who did understand feelings…the thought was quite intoxicating.

As she walked the meandering paved paths enclosed by a high stone wall that made the building very close to a fortress, with the shining moon benevolently following their progress, she wondered even more how she would endure the stultifying pattern of her day-to-day life when she got home.

When her mother recovered she had no doubt that its pattern would resume—just as though a false note had inadvertently been played, been quickly righted and then forgotten. But Gina couldn’t forget or deny her growing yearning to connect with something deeper and more real in her life. She might have fooled herself for a long time that diligent study and adding more and more academic credits to her name, her perusal of dusty old tomes and cataloguing times long past was enough to engage her, to help her feel fulfilled, but since she had come to Kabuyadir she had started to question whether that was the right path for her.

Oh, she still loved her work, but travelling to the other side of the world, discovering a sensual paradise of sights, sounds and scents she had never experienced beyond the descriptive pages of a history book, had forged in her a restlessness and a desire that would never again be subdued.

Her parents—both professors in their chosen fields—had found academic study more than enough to fulfill them and to cement their relationship. Their marriage had come about through mutual interest and professional admiration, but they hardly ever expressed more profound feelings and emotions towards each other. They had raised Gina responsibly, protected her from harm and danger and done all the right things. It had been a given that she be steered towards a career in academia. Rarely had they told her that they loved her…

Now her mother was ill, and she knew in her bones that her father’s way of dealing with it would be to retreat even more into the world of the intellect instead of feelings and emotions. Gina would sit awkwardly by her mother’s bedside and hardly what to say or talk about. Yes, her heart would swell with sympathy, but she should have rebelled long ago against the path that had been laid out for her. She should have given academia and books a very wide berth. What had it done for her? She was dull, dull, dull! A twenty-six-year-old singleton who lived on convenience foods because she had never learned to cook—a pattern she’d inherited from her busily studying parents—and who had never had even one relationship with a man that meant anything.

She had a couple of similarly situated friends, who scorned the very idea of a meaningful relationship because it would undoubtedly be messy and distracting and take their concentration away from their studies. But since coming to Kabuyadir Gina knew that the ‘distracting’ and totally wonderful concept of a mutually loving relationship was crystallising more and more into a longed-for desire in her heart. So much so that she could no longer ignore it…

‘Did you know that the ancient seers and astrologers used to track the destiny of kings through the stars?’ Her companion pointed up towards the navy blue bowl of sky that was liberally arrayed with clusters of tiny winking diamonds.

A totally helpless shiver briefly convulsed Gina. Not only were Zahir’s darkly handsome looks mesmerising, but his voice was imbued with power and magic, too. Coupled with the dreamlike atmosphere of a still-warm desert night, enchantment was being woven round her heart with delicate but unbreakable gossamer threads that would hold it willing prisoner for a long, long time.

‘What about those of us who are merely ordinary, and not kings and queens or anybody special? Do the stars show us our destiny too?’

Gina’s heart missed a beat when Zahir captured her free hand and turned both her palms upwards. His dark gaze looked to be deeply examining the fine lines—some with intricate little chains—that mapped her otherwise smooth skin. The playful caress of a soft breeze lifted a fiercely shiny coil of his hair and let it drop back against his cheekbone. Heat invaded her insides like a wild summer storm that plastered her clothes to her frame and ripped her hair free from its usual neat arrangement as though it wanted to free her soul, too.

‘I do not believe that you are ordinary in any way. Your destiny is beautiful, rohi. How could it be otherwise?’

‘You’re just being kind. You don’t know me. Nothing extraordinary ever happens to me…apart from coming here, I mean.’

‘It grieves me that you clearly have no sense of your own great worth, Gina…your incandescent loveliness.’

‘No one has said such things to me before.’

‘Then the people in your life must be blind…deadened to beauty and grace.’

She stared wide-eyed as he bent his head towards hers, with no thought of trying to struggle against a tide that now seemed inevitable. Her sadness and frustration with life was completely banished, to be replaced by the most ridiculous hope and longing as his large strong hands settled firmly on either side of her hips. The intimate contact was like a sizzling brand, burning through the thin material of her dress. When Zahir’s mouth descended on hers, his lips were softer that down and more tender and exotic than Gina could have imagined.

He gentled her as though she were a nervous lamb, or a small bird he didn’t want to scare or overwhelm with his powerful strength. Beneath his mindful gentle exploration a melting heat drowned her insides in a sea of sensuous honey. The dark trimmed hair that covered his chin and the space above his upper lip was far softer that she would have expected. It was a pleasurable sensation like no other. She would never forget it. As his masculine head and scent invaded her blood like a drugging opiate, she sensed her knees tremble violently. It shocked her to realise that she wanted more…much more of this potent magic he was delivering.

‘You are cold?’ he asked concernedly, his hands still clasped round her hips as his eyes smiled down into hers.

‘No, not cold…I’m shaking because I’m nervous, that’s all.’

‘I have overwhelmed you…’

When Zahir would have respectfully withdrawn, Gina reached out to lay her hand over his heart. The fine cotton of his robe was as sensuous to the touch as the most luxurious velvet. Beneath it she sensed muscles that radiated the masculine strength and energy of a trained warrior contract. The instant flaring of his inky-dark pupils easily confirmed just how he felt about her touching him. In a trice his arms came around her waist, and suddenly her trembling body was on shockingly intimate terms with the hard male reality of him.

Her thoughts careened into an abyss as pure compelling sensation took over. How could something she’d never even come close to experiencing before suddenly be as essential to her as breathing? If he let her go now she would have to beg him to keep holding her. She would risk everything—her pride, her fear, her very heart.

Just before his lips claimed hers, the mingling perfumes of jasmine, rose and orange blossom was carried on the air from the flowers that abounded in the garden, heightening moments that would be imprinted on Gina’s mind and heart for an eternity. There was a sense of wildness—a raw, elemental hunger about Zahir’s passionate kiss. The suggestion of bare control thrilled her, echoing as it did her own helpless urgency and gnawing need. As her mouth cleaved to his, their tongues swirling and entwining hotly, it made her cling to him to keep her balance.

He tore his lips away from hers, his breath ragged, his glance molten. ‘You are leaving tomorrow, and I…’ He shook his head, his expression torn. ‘I do not know how I can bear to let you go.’

‘I don’t want to go…but I have to, Zahir.’

‘Must we part this way? On my honour, Gina, I have never felt like this with any other woman before… As if…as if she were a part of me that I never even knew I had lost until I saw her.’

Devouring him with her eyes, Gina felt her heart squeeze with anguish at the mere though of them being separated. Would people judge her as heartless—as cold and unfeeling—because she preferred to stay here with Zahir instead of going home to see her sick mother? Right then she didn’t care. How could she when she’d been so bereft of love—of warm, human touch—for too long? Why should she feel guilty and weigh herself down with painful responsibility when his impassioned confession echoed the heartfelt yearning in her to reach out for something wild, warm and wonderful beyond imagining?

‘You are staying in one of the houses in the grounds, I presume?’ He drew her with him beneath the shelter of a shady tree, glancing behind them as if to check whether they were being observed. But the shadowed fragrant garden was empty and still except for the hypnotic drone of the cicadas and the soft gushing of the water fountain.

Worrying her lip with the edge of her teeth, Gina nodded.

‘Can we go there?’ Zahir’s thumb was stroking back and forth across the fine skin of her fingers, and the tension between them grew tight as a bowstring on the verge of snapping in two.


They moved in silence towards the end of the garden, where a vine-leaved arbour led onto another paved area. There sat a long, low adobe-style residence, with an arch-shaped entrance like the Ace of Spades. It was decoratively outlined by ornate gypsum, its walls inset with traditionally narrow windows to keep out the glare of the heat. Within the garden was a tranquil pond and a beautiful mosaic-tiled fountain. Because rainfall was more abundant up here in the mountains greenery thrived, and heavily perfumed blossoms were everywhere. The temperature was not so fierce, either. Occasionally they were blessed with distinctly cool breezes.

About two hundred yards away, secluded by magnificent date-palm trees, was another building. This was occupied by Gina’s boss, Peter Moyle. But Peter was still at the Husseins’ party, and she and Zahir could slip inside Gina’s lodgings unnoticed.

Feeling daring and wild, as well as a little afraid, she knew her behaviour was unlike any she had displayed before. She’d thought of herself as staid and boring for so long that the uncharacteristic impulse to reach for something she yearned for with all her heart and not fear the consequences was utterly exhilarating. Reaching for the slim iron key that was in the pocket of her dress, she inserted it into the lock and gave it a twist.

The Moroccan lanterns she’d left burning softly cast a seductive glow round the wide decorative vestibule that led into the main living area. When Gina started to move in that direction Zahir caught her by the waist, and what she saw blazing in his eyes smothered every thought in her head to silence.

‘Where is it that you sleep?’ he asked, his voice low and imbued with the sensuous drugging heat of the desert itself.

Slipping her hand into his, she led him into the blissfully cool bedroom, with its marble floor, and to the bed that was graced with a silken canopy the colour of a dramatic burnt orange and red sunset. Brass wall lights and another softly glowing lantern rendered the interior warmly intimate.

Stepping in front of her, Zahir cupped her face between his hands—hands that were warm and capable and big. He had the hands of a protector, for sure. And his gaze…his steady dark gaze…was a benevolent silky ocean that Gina would willingly submerge herself in for the longest time.

Inside his chest, Zahir’s heart drummed hard. His confession that he had never wanted a woman this much before was perfectly true. How could attraction be so instant and so…so violent? he mused. His every sense was irrefutably held captive, and he could barely think, let alone hope for some understandable explanation. He found himself intimately examining the arresting features before him. In contrast to the brightness of her golden hair, Gina’s arched brows were dark and generous. They raised her exquisitely formed features to a visage far beyond merely pretty, stamping them with a beauty that was hard to forget.

It was, Zahir thought, perhaps the only night they could be together for a long time. Who knew how long Gina’s mother would be in the hospital? How long before her lovely daughter could return to Kabuyadir? The idea made his insides lurch painfully. Why had fate brought him this treasure only to rip it away from him so soon…too soon?

‘I never expected…’

Gina sucked in a breath, her lips visibly trembling, bringing home to Zahir how nervous she was. How to convey without the use of words—words that would surely be woefully inadequate—that he would never knowingly cause her hurt or bring her shame? Those same reasons had made him check to see if they were being observed just now in the garden. He would willingly shoulder all the blame if someone were to even think of judging her.

‘Neither did I, rohi.’ He laid the pad of his thumb across her plump lower lip and stroked it. ‘And if all we are destined to have together far a while is this one night…then I will make sure it is a night that our bodies and souls will never forget. That is a promise I make to you straight from my heart…’

Three years later…

‘Dad, are you there? It’s only me,’ Gina called out after letting herself in with her key.

She gathered up the stack of letters on the mat inside the door, frowned, and made her way along the rather gloomy hallway to the back of the three-storied Victorian house, where her father had this study. He was hunched over at his desk, staring at what looked to be an aged, yellowed document. Just then, with his mussed greying hair and his too-thin shoulders in a blue unironed shirt, he seemed not just preoccupied and isolated, but sad and neglected, too.

In Gina’s heart a pang of guilt mingled with her sorrow. She’d been working hard at her new job at a prestigious auction house, had rung him nightly, but hadn’t called in for a week.

‘How are you?’ Leaning towards him, she brushed the side of his unshaven cheek lightly with her lips.

He stared up at her with shock in his eyes…just as if he’d seen a ghost. Then he grimaced and forced a smile. ‘I thought you were Charlotte. You’re looking more and more like your mother every day, Gina.’

‘Am I?’ The comment surprised her, and made her heart skip a beat. It was the closest thing to a personal remark Jeremy Collins had made to her in weeks. He particularly avoided mentioning his wife, Gina’s mother, if he could help it. Her death three years ago had hit him much harder that she’d ever envisaged it would. Gina was disturbed that he should bring her up now.

‘Yes, you are.’ Shrugging his shoulders, Jeremy laid down the yellowed document and tried for a smile. ‘How’s the job going at the auction house?’

‘It’s really testing my mettle, if I’m honest. I mean, just when you think you’ve got a handle on something you discover there’s so much more to learn.’

‘You sound as if you’re learning some valuable wisdom along the way as well.’

‘I hope so. No matter how many diplomas I’ve succeeded in getting, I still feel very much a junior in this trade, Dad.’

‘I understand, dear. But don’t be in such a hurry to get somewhere. This “trade,” as you call it, is a lifetime’s passion for most who enter into it, and you never stop learning and discovering things you didn’t know before. You’re still so young… How old? Remind me?’


‘Good God!’

His exclamation made Gina giggle. ‘How old did you think I was?’ she playfully challenged him. At least he wasn’t looking so down and distracted now, she noticed.

The greying eyebrows made a concertina motion. ‘In my mind I always remember you at round about five years old…reaching a sticky exploring little hand towards the papers on my desk. Even then you had an interest in history, Gee-Gee.’

Dumbfounded, Gina stared hard, ‘Gee-Gee?’

‘It was my pet name for you. Don’t you remember? Your mother thought it highly amusing that a distinguished professor of antiquities and ancient history should have the imagination to come up with something like that.’

‘Here.’ There was a lump in her throat the size of an egg as she handed him the letters she’d found on the mat.

‘What’s this?’

‘Your post…looks like it’s been accumulating for days. Why didn’t Mrs Babbage bring it in for you?’

‘What?’ The pale blue gaze was distracted again. ‘Mrs Babbage resigned last week, I’m afraid. Her husband had to go into hospital for a major operation and she wanted to be able to visit him as often as she could. Under the circumstances, she couldn’t keep her job here. Anyway, I shall need to interview for a new housekeeper.’

Reaching out her hand, Gina laid it briefly on his shoulder. She was shocked to feel how little flesh covered it beneath his shirt. ‘That’s the third housekeeper you’ve lost in a year,’ she commented worriedly.

‘I know. Must be my sparkling personality or something.’

Ignoring the droll reply, Gina gazed at him, seriously concerned. ‘What have you been living on for a week? Not much, by the looks of it. Why didn’t you tell me about this when I rang you, Dad?’

For a moment the expression on her father’s long thin face reminded her of a small boy who had been reprimanded by a teacher and told to stand at the back of the class. The lump inside her throat seemed to swell.

‘Didn’t want to worry you, dear… You’re not responsible, you see. It’s my own stupid fault that I never took the time to learn how to cope with the domestics… Head always in some book or other, you see. Since your mother went I don’t seem to have the heart for much else. People thought I was a cold fish when I didn’t cry at her funeral. But I cried inside, Gina…’ His voice broke, and moisture glazed the pale, serious eyes. ‘I cried inside…’

She hardly knew what to say—how to respond. It was as though a stranger sat in front of her—not the remote, self-contained, preoccupied man who was her father. The man she would have been hard put to it to say had any feelings at all.

Patting his bony shoulder again, she gave it what she hoped was a reassuring squeeze. ‘Why don’t I make us both a nice cup of tea? We’ll have it in the living room, then I’ll nip out to the supermarket to get you some supplies for the fridge.’

‘Are you in a hurry tonight, Gina?’ The moisture beneath the pale eyes had been dashed away, and now his eyes glimmered with warmth…affection, even.

‘No, I’m not in a hurry. Why?’

‘Would you—I mean could you stay for a while? We could—we could talk. You could tell me a bit more about your work at the auction house.’

Was this some kind of breakthrough in their difficult and sometimes distant relationship? Why now, when it had been three years since she had lost her mother? Had it taken him that long to realise that he’d really loved Charlotte? That he loved his daughter?

Gina didn’t know right then whether she felt hopeful or angry. Shrugging off her raincoat, she folded it over her arm, then crossed to the still open study door. ‘I don’t have to rush off. I’ll go and put the kettle on. Why don’t you go into the living room and make up the fire? The house is chilly.’

In the kitchen, staring at the peeling paintwork and the cupboards that she guessed were as bare as Mother Hubbard’s, Gina filled the kettle at the sink and plugged it in. Before she realised it, her eyes were awash with tears. To find her father dejected, sad and reminiscing about her as a child was disturbing enough, but earlier on today her senses had received another jolt.

She’d been asked to work with a team of researchers on the provenance and history of a valuable jewel from Kabuyadir. Just the name of the place had the power to arouse the most potent of memories, and make her ache for a man whose skin was imbued with the scent of the desert, whose eyes burned with a passion that had consumed her from the very first glance—a man Gina had reluctantly had to say a premature goodbye to that magical, unforgettable night three years ago, because she’d been returning to the UK to see her mother in hospital.

When Charlotte Collins had passed unexpectedly away shortly afterwards, it had knocked Gina for six. It had also heightened her overwhelming sense of responsibility towards her father. So much so that when Zahir had rung her for the second time from Kabuyadir, in the days following the funeral, she had determinedly decided to put their night of wonderful passion and kismet behind her to focus instead on an academic career. Her father had told her that her mother would have wanted to see her make a resounding success of it.

With tears burning her eyes, and a lump in her throat the size of Gibraltar, Gina had declined Zahir’s heartfelt pleas to return to Kabuyadir soon and told him she was sorry—what had happened had been wonderful, but the idea that they could be together wasn’t remotely realistic. Now that she was back in the UK it was her career that had to be her focus, not some love affair she’d be completely foolish to trust in.

Even as she’d been speaking she’d felt as if a stranger had taken over her body and mind…a despondent stranger who certainly didn’t believe in love at first sight or happy-ever-after. When more time had passed, she’d continued quietly, he would see it that way, too, she was certain.

Zahir’s parting words had broken her heart. ‘How could you do this to me, Gina…to us?’