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Craving Beauty

By:Nalini Singh

Craving Beauty
Nalini Singh

       Acknowledgements



The Clendon readers are the first-round judges for the Clendon Award, founded by Barbara and Peter Clendon.

Though their identities are fiercely guarded,

I've met many of them through the score sheets

they filled out for my entries for the award.

Their comments and encouragement were invaluable

to a writer walking the rocky road to publication.

I'd like to take this chance to thank those anonymous

judges for the work that they do, and the Clendons,

for creating the award. Merci beaucoup.





One

"With this bond, I take my life and put it in the keeping of Marc Pierre   Bordeaux. Forever and eternity." Hira's heart shattered into a  thousand  pieces as she repeated the ritual words.



Smiling, the elder lifted the trailing edge of the silken red ribbon   tied around Hira's wrist arid fed it through the lacy aperture atop the   wall dividing the men from the women. The marriage ceremony was almost   complete- soon she'd be wife to a man with ghost-gray eyes.



What should've been the most wonderful day of her life was instead   marking the destruction of her dreams. Dreams of love, dreams of family,   dreams of tenderness. Because instead of being wooed and won, Hira   Dazi-rah had been part and parcel of a business agreement.



Her wrist jerked as the ribbon went taut. At the same time, the elder said, "He is bound."



On the other side of the wall, a single voice rose in the haunting cadences of the blessing chant.



Per the customs of her homeland, Zulheil, in a few more seconds Marc   would be her husband. Marc with his slow smile and eyes full of   temptation. Marc with his warrior's face and hunter's walk. Marc, who'd   demanded her father seal their business deal with his daughter's hand.



She'd thought him different. From the first, his obvious strength had   attracted her, as had the way he had of looking at her as though she was   precious. Then he'd smiled at her in that slow, sexy way. Unable to   resist, she'd softened inside and out, responding to the glittering   passion in his eyes.



Believing that their shared smile augured the beginning of something   priceless, she'd waited for him to court her. For the first time since   Romaz had trampled on her heart, she'd felt the bloom of new hope.



Two days later he'd offered for her hand, without having spoken to her,   and her illusions about her American stranger had shattered. Instead of   wanting to know the woman, Marc had been entranced by the shell of her   body, the beauty of her face. The staggering pain of her bewilderingly   intense disappointment had yet to leave her. It sat like a heavy rock  on  her heart, crushing and unable to be ignored.



"It is done," her mother, Amira, said. "The blessing chant has been completed. You are married, daughter."



Hira blinked and nodded, none of her anguish showing on her face. They   sat in a sumptuous room filled with the women of the Dazirah family,   women whose sharp eyes missed nothing. She would never shame her mother   by coming apart at the seams.



Amira stroked her cheek. "I know this is not what you wanted for   yourself, but it will be all right. Though your new husband is scarred,   he doesn't appear cruel."



Not unless cruelty could be defined as inciting hope and then crushing it. "No," she whispered. "He doesn't."



But that told her nothing. Romaz hadn't appeared cruel, yet he'd ripped   out her heart and laughed at her while he'd done it. She'd thought   herself in love, so much so that she'd left her home and ran to him,   ready to marry him without her father's consent.



It had been the only time in her life that she'd considered an action   that would've brought the scorn of society on her proud family. That   fateful day, her happiness had been as iridescent as a summer rainbow,   joyous and pure.



The minute he'd seen her in the doorway of his humble apartment, Romaz's   dark-lashed eyes had lit up in surprise. "Hira. What are you doing   here?" He'd glanced over her shoulder, as if expecting an entourage.



She'd walked in, brushing past him, sure of her welcome. After all, he'd   told her that he loved her. "I have come to stay," she'd said, excited   and a little afraid but so glad to be with the man she loved.



He hadn't embraced her as she'd anticipated. "Your family?" he'd asked, a frown on his handsome face.



She'd thought his reserve sprang from displeasure at her forwardness and   had been sure that once he heard what she had to say, he'd forgive her   for taking the initiative. "They won't miss me till dinner. We have  time  to marry. They cannot stop us after that."



Some of her nervous joy had started to fade at his continued lack of a   response. "Romaz?" She'd glanced at the still-open door, wondering why   he didn't shut it so they could have privacy to make their plans.                       
       
           



       



He'd given her a strained smile. "Your father will disown you. You must think this through."



"I have! He'll never agree to our marriage. Never. Already he seeks   other matches for me." She'd wanted to touch him, but there had been an   unfamiliar hardness in his eyes that had stopped her. "We don't need my   father's money. You work hard and I'll get work, too. We'll survive."



The bitter smirk on his face had confused her. "You? You wouldn't know honest work if it hit you in the face."



Shocked, she'd stood there, unable to understand his anger. "Romaz?"



"Do you think I'll be able to keep you in the style to which you're   accustomed?" He'd glanced dismissively at the bracelets around her   wrists and the baubles in her ears.



His response sprang from male pride, she'd thought, relief shooting   through her body like cool spring rain, bringing renewed hope. "None of   it belongs to me. It is the family's." Stupidly she'd thought that that   would reassure him. "I don't need such things if I have your love."   She'd been so earnest in her desire to nurture his self-confidence.



"Well you might not, but I do," he'd snapped.



Later she'd realized it was the very naiveté of her statements that had caused his charming veneer to crumble.

Her attempt at salvaging his pride had instead proved the futility of   his courtship. Financially Hira was worth nothing without her family.



"What's the use of marrying you if I don't get access to the Dazirah coffers?" He'd raked her body up and down.

"You might be beautiful, but in the dark, one female body is the same as another."



She'd been so badly wounded by that unexpected blow that she'd frozen,   her feet rooted to the floor. "You won't marry me unless I come with my   father's money?"



He'd shrugged. "How else do you expect me to move up in life? Unlike   your wealthy family, I have only one asset-my looks." He'd pointed to a   face so handsome it routinely caused women to stop and stare in the   streets. "I intend to use them to my advantage. I don't want to labor   all my life like my father."



His sneer had destroyed her final illusions about him, for his father   was a respected and skilled man. His family wasn't as rich as hers, but   they weren't poor, either. Zulheil looked after its own, but no man   could expect to gain wealth without work. Her father, too, spent much   time "laboring" in his businesses.



Yet, even after Romaz had said those horrible things, even after she'd   seen the truth of his nature, she hadn't wanted to give up the tattered   remains of her dreams. Hadn't wanted to admit she'd made such a  horrible  mistake. She'd been so foolishly innocent of the ways of the  world, so  untutored in deceit. "But.. .you said you loved me."



His expression had turned into a leer. "Any man would love a body like   yours. Of course, I'll take that part of you if you're offering it   without charge. Marriage is too high a price to own just you."



He'd crushed her with that dishonorable proposition. Barely able to   function, she'd run from his apartment, wandering the quiet back streets   for three hours. Just before darkness fell, she'd returned home by the   same secret route she'd used to leave, and no one had ever learned of   her attempted elopement. They just knew that suddenly all the fight had   gone out of her. In one afternoon Romaz had achieved the outcome her   father had been aiming for, for twenty-four years.



Now, almost six months after Romaz had cast her aside because her body   alone wasn't enough, it was the greatest irony that she found herself   married to a man who cared nothing for her money and only for her body.

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