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Her desert knight(9)

By:Jennifer Lewis

The countryside hummed with life that echoed in his body. A soft breeze  tossed Dani's hair and arousal kissed her cheeks with pink. The  secluded natural setting, high up above the world, was the perfect place  for a little impromptu lovemaking.

But something told him that wasn't going to happen.

Dani's lips had tightened into a white line. "I need to get home."

What had changed? She'd warmed to the kiss instantly, and enjoyed it as  much as he. She was giving back as much as he gave the entire time.  They'd kissed for a full three or four minutes! Part of him wanted to  seize her in his arms and kiss her again, so they could jump right back  into that world of passion.

But he could tell that would be a terrible idea. "What's the matter?"

She shook her head, blinked. She inhaled as if to speak, then didn't.

"Is it that we don't know each other well enough?"

"Yes." She spoke fast, obviously glad of a way to respond. "But it's not just that."

"We can get to know each other slowly." He took her hand and squeezed it. It felt cold, and tightened in his grasp.

"We can't. You're leaving soon."

"Not that soon." He'd be here for at least two weeks. On the other  hand, maybe that was no time at all to her. He wasn't too sure of Omani  dating customs. It was probably customary for them to glance at each  other across the stalls of a souk for nine months before a single word  was exchanged.

But she was wearing jeans and a khaki T-shirt and looked like an  American today. Even the lush green hillside with its winding, rocky  trails looked like somewhere in the Ozarks. He didn't care where they  were. All he knew was that he needed to keep her here. If he drove her  home now he'd never see her again. "Let's climb higher so we can look  down on the eagles. Maybe we'll even see their nests."

"I don't think that's a good idea." Her dark eyes wide, she looked so confused he just wanted to take her in his arms.

"Of course it is. We're grown adults and we can do anything we set our  minds to." He scanned the horizon, hoping for an impressive eagle, or at  least some rare sparrow to distract her with.

"I don't know what came over me. I haven't kissed anyone since...since..."

"Your marriage?"

She nodded. A furrow formed between her elegant brows. "I didn't think I'd ever want to kiss someone again."

He smiled. "And then you did."

He heard her inhale. "It was a mistake."

"I should take that as an insult." Her whole body was so tense he could  tell she was deadly serious, but still he wanted to lighten the mood.

"It's not you, it's me."

"You're a lovely woman. You're single, or at least so you've told me. What's wrong with you enjoying a kiss?"

"I am single." She looked shocked that he'd called that into question.  "And believe me, I am not looking to get into a relationship ever  again."

He wanted to quip that she'd found the right man for that-relationships  were not his strong point-but he restrained himself. "Just because it  didn't work out with one man, doesn't mean you shouldn't ever enjoy  romance again."

"Yes, it does." She hugged herself as a breeze ruffled the trees. "Can we leave now?" Her eyes implored him.

"I guess we could start walking back toward the car." It was a good  twenty minutes away. Hopefully he could win her around by then. "Why are  you so afraid of another relationship?"

She walked ahead of him. "Being part of a couple turned me into someone else."

"How?" He walked faster to catch up with her.

"I lost myself. I became the person he shaped me into. The weak and useless person he despised." He saw her shoulders shiver.

"You didn't become that person. He just made you feel that way. Was he abusive?"

"Not physically. He never hit me." Her voice was very quiet. "He didn't  do much at all. I became a victim so easily. I gave up my career, gave  up my friends, stopped doing everything I enjoyed and turned into the  nobody he wanted to hate." Gravel scattered at her feet as she hurried  along the loose surface of the trail, over tree roots and around rocks.  At this rate they'd be back at the car in less than ten minutes.                       


"He sounds like a jackass."

She stopped and turned around. "Yes. He was a jackass. I can see that  now, but at the time I thought it was me. I lost all perspective on my  own life. You can see how I don't want to get myself into a situation  like that again."

"You won't. You just had the bad luck to give your heart, and your  trust, to someone who didn't deserve it. Most men aren't anything like  that."

"Aren't they?" A pained expression flickered across her face. "My father thinks I'm a fool."

"Then you need to get away from him, too."

"I can't. I have no job and very little money. The divorce lawyers took  almost everything I had left, which wasn't much. We didn't have any  assets to split and I didn't want alimony as it would have given my  ex-husband a hold over me when I needed a complete break. With my-as  both my father and ex-husband pointed out-useless career, I'm not likely  to make money anytime soon." Tears rose in her eyes. "I guess I planned  my life like a fairy tale, where I'd live my dreams surrounded by art  and love. I was stupid."

She turned and started walking again, batting branches away from her  face, descending the trail so fast he worried she'd slip on the loose  gravel.

Quasar's chest swelled with pity. Which annoyed him. She didn't want  pity. He hurried after her. "You had a job at Princeton. That's the  epitome of success."

"And I gave it up because it interfered with me being home to vacuum the carpets. Obviously I didn't deserve it."

He grabbed her arm. "What kind of pity party is this? You need to turn your life around, not whine about it."

She'd stiffened at his grip, and now she tried to tug her arm away.  Then a sob emerged from her throat, like the sound a wounded animal  would make. "I know. I know! I hate myself."

Remorse clutched at his heart. Had he added to her sorrows by insulting  her like the men who'd tried to crush her? "I didn't mean to hurt you.  I'm just upset to see an intelligent and capable-and very  beautiful-woman selling herself so short. You have an amazing amount of  potential and you should tap into it."

Her eyes were bright with tears. "I know I do. I don't know what's wrong with me."

"Nothing's wrong with you." He'd softened his grip on her arm, but  didn't let go. He couldn't shake the feeling that she'd run away if he  did. "You need to believe that. And a good start would be to look around  at the incredible beauty surrounding us and let yourself appreciate it  for a moment."

She blinked, and a small tear rolled quietly down her cheek. She looked  up and he saw the sky reflected in her gaze. A dark shape darted across  her pupil: the flickering outline of a bird high above. He turned and  watched a kestrel circling over them. "Careful," he whispered. "Don't  show any weakness or he might come eat us."

A smile tugged at her sad mouth. "We'd be awfully big bites."

"And I'll protect you with my bare hands." He lifted the one that wasn't holding her upper arm.

"You have very capable hands for a businessman."

"I play sports."

"Oh." She glanced at his body. A flash of awareness jumped inside him. He hoped she felt it, too.

"So I'm fit enough to protect you."

"I guess that's reassuring." The smile now reached to her eyes. "And  you're right. It is stunning here. I mustn't let myself get wrapped up  in fear again. I'm trying to get away from that."

"Good. Because before that happened I think you were enjoying our kiss."

She looked up at the bird again. "I was." Her lip quivered slightly. "Too much. I enjoyed kissing my ex-husband at first, too."

"I'm not him." He let go of her arm gently. She didn't run off. That was a start.

"I know you're not." She fixed her eyes on him. "It's just that I was  so in love. It started with attraction and quickly spiraled into me  giving him my entire life. I don't trust myself to be sensible."

"I don't trust myself to be sensible, either, very often." He was more  inclined to plunge in headfirst and deal with the fallout later.  "Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith. Don't lose the part of you  that feels, or that cares. That's what makes us human." He couldn't  stand that she thought shutting herself off from experience was the best  way to protect herself from pain.