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Master of the Desert

By:Susan Stephens

Master of the Desert
Susan Stephens

       CHAPTER ONE

SHE had the figure of a glamour model, the face of an angel-and she was threatening him with a knife.

It wasn't every day his ocean-going yacht was boarded by a barely  clothed virago. What few clothes remained on the young girl's bruised  and scratched body were ripped and sodden, and the knife she was  brandishing looked as if it had come from his galley. In her other hand,  she was holding a hunk of bread and cheese, stolen from the same place,  he presumed.

Was a French baguette worth killing for?

Probably, he mused, remembering he had persuaded a top French boulanger to open a branch in Sinnebar.

As the merciless sun sliced its way through the mist, his first impulse  was to get the pirate princess into the shade, but he remained still,  not wanting to provoke her into anything more reckless than she had  already attempted. She was young, barely out of her teens, but had  clearly been through some sort of trauma. He took in the tangled mass of  blonde hair and bruised face with slanting blue-green eyes, more  wounded than wounding. 'What do you think you're doing?' he said calmly.

'Don't!' she threatened, jabbing the sultry air with her knife.

He held the laugh, relieved she was okay. Mist hung tenaciously, making  visibility poor; she must have climbed up on deck while he'd been in the  sea checking the hull for storm damage.

'I'm warning you!' she exclaimed, though he hadn't moved.

If she backed away another inch, she'd be over the side.

Her shock at seeing him had forced her into the role of aggressor, he  concluded, remaining still so as not to alarm her. She hadn't recognised  him or she would have put down her little knife. 'Why don't you give me  the knife?' he suggested, knowing if she had meant to attack him she  would have done so by now. 'Or, better still, throw it overboard?'

She bared her teeth at that to give him a little warning growl, like a  kitten with a toothache. 'Don't you come any closer,' she warned, 'Or  I'll-'

'You'll what?' He disarmed her in one absurdly easy move. There was a  flash of warm flesh beneath his hands, then it was all shrieking and  clawing as she fought him as if to the death. 'Wildcat!' he exclaimed,  feeling a sharp thrill of pain as she dug her sharp, white teeth into  his hand. Resigned to capture, she couldn't take her eyes off the much  bigger knife he wore hanging from his belt. 'I have no intention of  harming you,' he reassured her.

She had no intention of listening, which left him dealing with a  wriggling desperado, who drummed his deck furiously with her tiny heels  as he steered her towards the opening leading to the lower deck and his  first-aid kit. Finally losing patience, he bound her arms to her side  and swung her over his shoulder. 'Stop that!' he instructed as she  arched her body and pummelled his back. 'Do you want to bang your head?'

She went rigid as he padded sure-footed below deck into what was an  all-purpose space on the ocean-going racing yacht. She was still in  shock, he registered as he set her down on the one and only seat. All  home comforts had been stripped away below deck to make room for  necessary equipment, but as he'd been trialling on this voyage rather  than racing there was plenty of fresh food on board-hence the bread his  pirate wench had stolen. He had brought other supplies and small  comforts along to make his time aboard more pleasurable, including the  cushions he'd laid out on deck so he could sleep beneath the stars.

When the girl groaned and put her head in her hands, his first thought  was to rehydrate her. He reached into the cold box for a glucose drink.  'Here,' he said, loosening the top and offering it to her. Her  expression didn't change. She remained stiffly non-responsive, staring  ahead with her jaw set in white-faced fright.

'Drink it, or I'll hold your nose and pour it down your throat.' He'd  used similar shock tactics years back when his younger brother Razi had  refused to take his medicine.

Just like then, she retaliated with a furious, 'You wouldn't dare!'

One look from him was enough to settle that argument. She held out her  hand. He gave her the bottle; she gulped down the contents greedily.                       
       
           



       

'When was the last time you had something to drink?'

She refused to answer. Swiping the back of her hand across her mouth,  she raised blue-green eyes to his face. Chips of glacial ice would have  held more heat.

No surrender, he concluded. And as for apologising for trespassing on his yacht? Forget it.

Tugging on the first top that came to hand, he began heating water to  bathe her wounds. Blocking her escape with his body, he reached into a  cupboard for antiseptic, lint and cotton wool. Adding a splash of  disinfectant to the water, he stuffed a blanket under his arm and turned  around. 'Here-put this round you.'

She flinched and refused to look at him, drawing her legs in  defensively, but it was when she crossed her arms over her chest that he  finally lost patience. 'I'm not interested in your body,' he assured  her, only to be rewarded by a tiny squeak of protest from a girl who was  clearly accustomed to being admired. Proving the point, he put the bowl  down and tugged the blanket tightly round her slender shoulders, trying  not to notice that one lush, pert breast was partially exposed.

Seeing his momentary distraction, she snatched the blanket from him,  holding it so tightly closed that her knuckles turned white.

'Don't flatter yourself.'

She was safe from him-too young, too reckless, plus he resented the  intrusion. Any other time or place and he would have had her removed  from his presence.

But she was tougher than she looked or she would have been reduced to a  hysterical mess by now. She was an irritation, but she was also  courageous, he concluded, and a breath of fresh air after the painted  harpies who regularly served themselves up at court for his perusal.

There was only one thing wrong with the girl: she reminded him of  someone else. Those tangled locks and slanting eyes held an echo of his  father's mistress, a woman who had destroyed his mother's life and who  had referred to Razi-the step-brother he couldn't have loved more if  they had shared the same blood-as the worst mistake she had ever made.  That woman might be dead now, but she had left disaster in her wake, and  as far as he was concerned she had defined his father's weakness. It  had been a fatal weakness that had stolen his father's attention away  from his country and its people. With that lesson guiding him, things  had changed for the better since he had assumed control. There was no  longer chaos in Sinnebar, and his people knew that he would never repeat  his father's mistake and become a slave to his heart.

He refocused as the girl shifted restlessly on the bench. 'I'm going to  bathe your scratches before they turn septic,' he informed her crisply.

She recognised a command, but to his astonishment something in her eyes  said she would dearly like to strike him. 'I wouldn't do that if I were  you,' he warned grimly, at which she scowled and slumped back like the  spoiled teen he thought her to be. 'When did you last eat?' he demanded  as he assessed her wounds and general condition.

Her stomach answered this question with an imperative growl, and then he  remembered the hunk of bread she'd dropped on the deck. 'When I've  finished, you can eat.'

She tilted her chin at a defiant angle to stare haughtily past him.

So, let her go hungry-though he was forced to concede he admired her  nerve. He liked the electricity between them too, but neither of these  things would affect how he dealt with her. He would administer basic  first-aid and then turn her over to the authorities. 'Arms,' he prompted  brusquely, and then, deciding he would teach her what it meant to risk  her life in the Gulf, he demanded, 'Don't you know anything about  maritime law?'

Her flickering gaze suggested not.

'If I report your actions to the ruling Sheikh in Sinnebar … You have  heard of the man known as the "Sword of Vengeance", I take it?' He had  the satisfaction of seeing her pale. 'If I tell him that you came aboard  my yacht, stole my food and threatened me with one of my own knives I  would imagine the most lenient sentence he could hand out would be life  imprisonment.'

'But you wouldn't!'

Even as she protested her eyes were narrowing in defiance. He liked her  fire. He liked her voice. He liked … 'Report you?' he rapped, calling his  wayward thoughts back to order. 'That depends on you telling me exactly  how you got here. And be completely honest with me; I shall know at once  if you lie.'                       
       
           



       

Hearing the menace in his voice, she slowly unfurled her legs as if  deciding a temporary truce was her only option. 'You were moored up, and  so I thought … '

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