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Excerpt: The Sheikh’s Forbidden Virgin

“Excuse me.”

The voice, sharp and sudden, caused Kalila to stiffen in surprise. Aarit stood by the fountain, no more than a shadowy form in the darkness. They stared at each other, the only sound the rustling of leaves and in the distance, the gentle churring of a nightjar.

“I didn’t realise,” Aarit said after a moment, his voice stiff and formal, “that anyone was here.”

Kalila swallowed. “I thought you’d still be with my father.”

“We finished, and he wished to go to bed.”

More time must have passed than she’d realised, lost in her own unhappy reflections.

“I’ll go,” Aarit said, and began to turn.

“Please. Don’t.” The words came out in a rush, surprising her. Kalila didn’t know what she wanted from this man, so hard and strange and ungiving. Yet she knew she didn’t want him to go; she didn’t want to be alone anymore. She wanted, she realised, to be with him. To know more about him, even if there was no point. No purpose.

Aarit hesitated, still half-turned, and then as Kalila held her breath, he slowly swivelled back to her. In the darkness she couldn’t see his expression. “Is there something I can help you with, Princess?”

Kalila patted the empty seat next to her. “Please sit.”

Another long moment passed, and in the darkness Kalila thought she could see Aarit gazing thoughtfully at that empty space before he moved slowly—reluctantly—and sat down next to her, yet still far enough apart so his body did not touch hers at all.

The constraint of his behaviour, Kalila realised, was revealing in itself. Was he aware of the tension Kalila felt, that heady sense of something unfurling within her, something she’d never felt before?

Did he feel it too?

He couldn’t, Kalila decided, or if he did, he was not showing it. He sat rigidly, his hands resting on his thighs, unmoving, and it amazed her how still and controlled he was, giving nothing away by either sound or movement.

“This is a beautiful garden,” Aarit said after a moment, and Kalila was glad he’d spoken.

“I have always loved it,” she agreed quietly. “My father designed it for my mother—a taste of her homeland.”

“Like the Gardens of Babylon, built by Nebuchadnezzar for Amytis.”

“Yes.” Kalila smiled, pleased he’d recognised the connection. “My father used to call my mother Amytis, as an endearment.” She heard the wistful note in her voice and bit her lip.

“I’m sorry for her death,” Aarit said, his voice still formal and somehow remote. “The loss of a parent is a hard thing to bear.”

“Yes.”

“When did she die?”

“When I was seventeen. Cancer.” Kalila swallowed. It had been so unexpected, so swift. There had only been a few, precious, painful weeks between diagnosis and death, and then the raging emptiness afterwards. Going to Cambridge a few months later had been a relief, a new beginning, and yet Kalila knew the ache of her mother’s loss would never fully heal. It was something you carried with you, always.

“I’m sorry,” Aarit said quietly, and Kalila knew he meant it. Above them the nightjar began its steady churring once more.

“I know you lost your father and stepmother a few years ago,” she said hesitantly. “I… I heard of it. I’m sorry.” She’d written to Zakari, she remembered, expressing her condolences, and she’d received a formal letter back. Now she wondered if he’d even written it.

“Thank you. It was… difficult.” Aarit said nothing more, and Kalila did not feel she could brave the intimacy of asking. He shifted slightly, and she wondered if he was uncomfortable. There was a strange, quiet intimacy provided by the cloak of darkness, the sounds of the night gentle and hypnotic around them. She wished she could see his face, but the moon had gone beyond a cloud and she could see no more than the shadowy outline of his shoulder, his jaw, his cheek.

“Tell me about Calista,” she finally said. “You know, I’ve never been there.”

Aarit was silent for so long Kalila wondered if he’d heard her. “It’s beautiful,” he finally said. “Much like here.” He paused, and Kalila waited. “Of course, not everyone sees the beauty of the desert. It is a harsh loveliness. Was it difficult for your mother to live here?”

“Sometimes,” Kalila acknowledged. “Although she took trips back to England—I spent my first holidays in Bournemouth.”

The moon glided out from behind a cloud, and in the pale light Kalila saw his teeth gleam, and she realised he was smiling. Faintly. The gesture surprised her; he hadn’t smiled properly since she’d met him. She wished she could see more of it. She wondered if the smile lit his eyes, softened the hard planes of his face, and realised she wanted to know. “And she had the garden, of course,” she finished after a moment, her voice sounding stilted. “She loved it here.”

“And you?” Aarit asked. “Will you miss your homeland?”

Kalila swallowed. “Yes… I think so.” He said nothing, but she felt his silent censure like a physical thing, tautening the small space between them. And of course, why shouldn’t he be surprised? Disappointed even? Here she was, admitting that she didn’t know if she’d miss her own country! She opened her mouth, wanting to explain the jumble of confused emotions and disappointed dreams to him, but nothing came out. What could she say, and what would this man want to hear?

Yet somehow, strangely, she felt as if he might understand. Or was that simply the wishful thinking of a woman with too many disappointed dreams?

“I’ll miss Zaraq, of course,” she said, after a moment, wanting, needing to explain. “And my father. And friends…” She trailed off, unable to put words to the nameless longing for something else more, something deeper and more instrinsically a part of herself, something that had no name. Something, she realised despondently, she wasn’t even sure she’d ever had.

“It is a strange time,” Aarit said after a moment. His voice was still neutral, yet in the shadowy darkness Kalila saw him lift his hand and drop it again—almost as if he’d been going to touch her. Her heart beat harder at the thought. “Once you are in Calista, you will feel more settled. The people will welcome you.” He paused before adding, his voice still flat, “I’m sure they will love you.”

The people. Not Zakari. And what of him? What of Aarit? The question was ludicrous, so ridiculous and inappropriate that under the cover of darkness, Kalila’s cheeks warmed. “Thank you,” she whispered. “I suppose I sound like I am full of self-pity, but I hope—I know—“ she swallowed painfully, “that it will be better with time.”

“Time heals most things,” Aarit agreed, yet Kalila felt he was saying something else, something far from a platitude. Most things… but not all.

Aarit stirred on the bench and Kalila knew he wanted to leave. The night had grown quiet, their conversation too close. Yet the thought of his departure alarmed her, and she held out one hand, the moonlight bathing her skin in lambent silver. “Tell me about your brother.”

The words fell in the silence like the pebbles from her hand, disturbing the tranquil stillness. Kalila wished she hadn’t spoken. Why had she asked about Zakari? She didn’t want to know about him. She didn’t even want to think about him.

Excerpt From: THE SHEIKH'S FORBIDDEN VIRGIN by Kate Hewitt
Copyright © 2009 by Kate Hewitt
Permission granted by Harlequin Books S.A. All rights reserved.

January 2008