"And Blake." Harry shook his head in disgust. "Such affectations."
"You are calling someone affected?" she asked, raising her brows. "You, who employ two secretaries, one
for your Arab dealings and one for your English? You, who are too high and mighty to write your own
Harry grinned. "That's different. At least I don't commit the sin of triteness. Calling you a 'rose.'
An 'English rose' at that. You must forgive him the hackneyed compliment. Old Blake's not much for
originality, I'm afraid."
"I thought him charming."
Harry made an unconvinced sound.
"I did. I suppose you could do better?"
"Well were I to make the effort to extol a woman's beauty, I could certainly do better than to drag out
some tired old cliche about a rose."
"You are the most monumentally egocentric man I know," Desdemona said, trying to keep the trace of
admiration out of her voice.
"You are unconvinced?" Harry asked, taking a sip of coffee and crossing his legs. "Allow me to
demonstrate… and please bear in mind that I improvise."
He spread jam over a piece of toast, studying her quizzically as he did so. She felt like a specimen,
standing there under his scrutiny. She took the chair next to his and started buttering her own toast
with supreme indifference. She was not a specimen.
"Let me see. Nothing floral. In fact, I think we'll dispense with the vegetative allusions all together.
Animal?" he asked rhetorically. "Perhaps a gazelle? No," he dismissed the idea, chomping into his toast.
"Too meek. Too inconsequential. This is difficult, Diz. To blandish a woman about her physical appearance
is so limiting."
"Yes," she said dryly, burying a pinprick of hurt. He couldn't think of anything to compliment her on.
"All right, then," he finally said. "I'd begin with the way you stand."
"Stand?" He'd caught her off guard. She blinked.
"Slender. Upright. Face lifted for the sun god's caress," he murmured slowly, musingly, as if to himself.
He cocked his head, his eyes traveling lingeringly over her body, and she recognized the potent
attraction other women must feel when Harry looked at them this way. As if she were the central
point upon which all of his world turned. As if he lo—
"Why, look," he asked in a hushed voice, some thing surprised and painful and pleased in his tone,
"even Ra himself cannot resist you. Only see how he lathes your cheeks and brow with his heated
tongue"— he reached out, brushing his fingers over her tanned cheek— "marking you with his golden kiss?"
His words were too graphic, too carnal, and she was too aware of his fingers skating along her
cheekbone and over her jaw line. He'd never spoken to her this way before. Her heartbeat quickened,
thrumming in her throat and in her wrists. She shivered. He smiled. His hand retreated.
"How can a mere mortal man stand a chance if even the gods are so enamored?" he whispered. "And how
can one single image describe you? You are a country, a country of unexplored sensation and whim,
veiled in dawn, shining, shedding light. See how the long fluid line of your throat flows to your
breasts?" If he heard the intake of her breath, he ignored it. "Or how their blue-shadowed curves ripen
above the smooth plain of your belly?"
She should stop him, he went too far, but his voice mesmerized her, like sweet, honeyed wine, warm
"Your mouth." He paused, and her lips felt suddenly sensitized, tingling as his gaze fixed on them.
"Your mouth is a sweet well sealed against me, keeping me thirsting for the clarity of your kiss. Your
flesh is like the desert sand, warmth and shifting strength beneath its golden color. Your palms open,
fingers flexed, are minarets, delicate and elegant. And your body… it is the Nile itself— the camber
of your back slipping so easily by the narrows of your waist and jettied hips to the lush delta below."
He stopped. She heard the intake of his breath. "You are my country, Desdemona." Yearning, harsh and
poignant and she felt herself swaying toward him. "My Egypt. My hot, harrowing desert and my cool, v
erdant Nile, infinitely lovely and unfathomable and sustaining."
His gaze fell, shielded by his lashes. An odd, half-mocking smile played about his lips. "You'll never
hear old Blake say something like that."
She swallowed, unable to speak, her senses abraded by his stimulating words, her pulse hammering in
"Remember my words next time he calls you a bloody English rose."
Above the vast Egyptian desert the midnight sky reflected its own eternal emptiness. This was the High
Desert. Its uncharted surface offered convenient oblivion for those who sought to hide in it.
Squatting sullenly at the base of a sand dune, the slave traders' encampment was peopled by such fugitives. It was
a small compound: a string of camels, a half-dozen tents set around afire, a score of lidless crates
piled within reach of the camp fire's illumination.
Inspecting the contents of these crates were several
dozen men. Some were obviously merchants who, having come into the desert from towns miles away, were
here to acquire the black market goods being offered. The merchants were Arabs, relative newcomers to
Egypt--fourteen centuries being relative in this ancient land. The others--heavily veiled even now,
at night--were Tuareks, of Coptic origin, the true descendants of the ancient Egyptians. They were
the sellers. And, sitting just beyond the reach of the firelight, was the rarest and most precious
offering among merchandise rife with the unique and invaluable: a young, blond Englishwoman.
The pale and proud girl faced her captors, making no effort to hide her disdainful glare. When first
snatched from the Cairo market four days before, fear had paralyzed her usually agile intelligence,
terror had crippled her spirit with the certainty that soon she would become the plaything of some
cruel desert sheik.
But now four days had passed and no desert prince had come for her. Indeed, no
one came near her at all, and the sweet, tender flower of womanhood found that terror, numbed by
the potent drink her captors forced upon her, had given way to... to...
Desdemona Carlisle slouched tipsily against a pile of Persian rugs, gravely considering the word.
It seemed too cavalier for her situation, but she couldn't claim she felt exactly terrorized anymore.
She stuck a finger under the wretched chadar, the face veil her captors insisted she wear at
all times, and scratched.
The young lady, courageous and valiant, was impatient to confront her fate.
But first, thought Desdemona, the young lady would have another swig of the unique, and not altogether
unpalatable, milky beverage that the sullen-looking boy, Rabi, spent most of his free time encouraging
her to imbibe.
Indeed, other than sitting about being bored--impatient, penning entries in an imaginary
diary, and sipping this stuff--there wasn't much to do. The fake papyrus scroll Rabi had given her as
a means of keeping her occupied was fascinating, yes, but a bit too... absorbing...to be studied properly
here and now. It was more suitable reading for a private setting.
She was sure she could have found other
interesting things in the crates heaped around camp. She had glimpsed glints of shining metal, colored
stone, shapes and figurines. But every time she ventured near the crates, her guards barked at her;
every time she tried to run away, they fetched her back--with increasing ill grace--and every time
she tried to hold a civil conversation, they stared at her in mute contempt.
The most obvious
explanation for their aloofness, she concluded, was that her purity was being safeguarded to
ensure she would command a greater price on the auction block. She shivered and groped around
in the sand for her tin cup.
She found it and looked up. Rabi was staring at her. As soon as he
noted the direction of her gaze, he turned and slunk away like a cadaverous Anubis puppy. Wise
lad, she thought darkly.
It had been Rabi who'd kidnapped her. One minute she'd been examining a
nice, authentic-looking canopic jar and the next she was being gagged with some hideous cloth,
her head stuffed in an equally vile sack, and she'd been flung over a bony shoulder. A moment
later he'd thrown her atop what--judging from the smell and lumps--could only be a camel. She'd
spent an entire day jolting about in front of him, sweating beneath the heavy sack covering her.
Once they'd arrived, he had plopped her on her feet for her unveiling and, his young voice flush
with the pride of conquest, hailed the camp. Then, with a spectacular flourish, he'd snapped the
sack--and her headdress--off.
Confused, frightened, and seasick from the rocking camel ride, she
had squinted into the sudden blinding light, peering at the silent, shadowy faces crowding
around her. Someone said something that sounded suspiciously like the Arabic equivalent of
"Uh-oh." In a flurry of motion, the men had snatched their burkos in front of their faces.
She'd not seen an unveiled man since.
Soon after, they'd taken Rabi aside and given him the
thrashing of his young life. She assumed it was because he had attempted to assert his masculine
rights of ownership over her. Her mouth twined at the thought. A fifteen-year-old boy-child was
not her idea of--What ever was she thinking about?
She lifted her tin cup to her lips and sipped nothing. Drat. It was empty.
"Hey, Rabi!" she called. "I say, I could do with a spot more of that
what-have-you!" As if by magic, the sound of her voice cut off all conversation in the camp.
Every man, especially the town merchants, turned and stared at her. Within five minutes the
Arabs had fled, leaving her alone with her veiled captors. They glared at her, looking decidedly
"Well? I'm sorry but they certainly weren't going to buy me. They couldn't even afford
your fake faience. Not a sheik in the lot, I'd wager," she said with alcohol-imbued logic.
Indeed, the departed men had looked more like middle-age--and none too prosperous--businessmen
than proper white slavers. She glanced about, trying to determine where they'd gone and if she
could go with. Maybe she had this white slave thing all wrong. Maybe she..
It was then that she saw him.
Wind and darkness coalesced in the distance. A rider so much a part of his steed
that he seemed more centaur than man crested the moon-silvered edge of a dune. His cape billowed
in the wind like great black wings. Closer he sped, myth embodied, galloping across the midnight-shrouded
sands, racing toward her.