Journalist Jenna Martin has led a very unadventurous life - until now.
Sent to the Arabian desert to review an exclusive new holiday resort, she stumbles into the path of a beautiful, exotic stranger, Kalan Al Talyani.
Over one unforgettable night, the reclusive billionaire will tempt her, test her, seduce her, and offer her an electrifying taste of a life outside her comfort zone.
When Jenna returns to America she tells herself it was just a magical one-night stand, an experience that's already starting to feel more dream than reality.
But then Kalan follows her home to Boston - and Jenna is forced to make a choice. Should she stay within the confines of her current life? Or take a risk on a life that's different from anything she's ever imagined . . .?
Your mission, should you choose to accept it…
Remembering that solemnly intoned phrase, I started laughing.
My mission, set by my BFFs Beth and Angie over too many margaritas, was to get some extra bang for my buck on my work trip to Abu Dhabi by hooking up with an exotic hunk for a night. But I’d been driving for hours and was beginning to think the only man in my future would be the one who accidentally dug my desiccated corpse out of a sand dune while drilling for oil many years from now.
If Beth and Angie could have seen me, they would have been laughing too.
Not that the parlous state of my love life, which had kick-started my margarita-fuelled mission, was all that funny, even though I’d chortled along with the girls that night for form’s sake, the way I usually did.
I’d recently been dumped by Mick Riggs – or as we liked to call him, Mick-Missionary-Position – who’d been kind enough to provide me with a list of five reasons for jettisoning me. We’d christened the list Mick’s Manifesto, and the number one gripe on it was the monotony of our sex life. It was a little unfair to be laying that squarely at my door – I mean, we didn’t call him Mick-Missionary-Position for nothing! – but I had to admit it wasn’t exactly wrong. There was a definite pattern to my sexual liaisons: an orgasm apiece as quickly as possible, followed by a see-you-round-sometime farewell. I’d joked that it was learned behaviour rather than natural instinct, born of my dishearteningly broad experience with Boston men, who didn’t tend to hang around for an afterglow cuddle. Well, Boston men and one Australian – and what had happened with Sean had definitely not been funny. And neither, bringing myself back to the moment, was being lost in the desert.
A regular girl in my position would have had the brains to be at least a little terrified. First time out of America, tooling solo around a strange, barren land, searching for a resort that seemingly didn’t exist, with darkness only minutes away.
But it seemed number two on Mick’s Manifesto – that I was ‘too prosaic to be feminine’ – wasn’t exactly wrong either, because from my perspective, being lost in the desert was way more exciting than my usual post-breakup routine of parking myself on my couch with Netflix and a pint of Rocky Road ice cream.
I had plenty of gas, I had water, I had a cell phone. Life would therefore be sustained. It was all good. All very good, in fact.
The sun had set by the time I came upon the massive pillars standing like sentinels on either side of the road. They were the colour of the desert – gold and beige and red, all at once. Lit from below, they had an other-worldly glow that was spine-tingling, but in a good way.
I sucked in an expectant breath as I drove between them, prepared to be blown away by what the travel editor had told me was a new wonder of the world – only for the breath to wheeze thinly out.
There was no resort.
Just a dirt road threading a path through the sand, far into the distance.
I slowed the car to a crawl. I had to admit that an entrance leading to nowhere was unnerving, even for prosaic, unfeminine me. But surely people didn’t stick pillars out in the middle of nowhere for no reason ‒ which meant the resort had to be up ahead somewhere.
Gas, water, cell phone, I reminded myself. Plus I had a Snickers stashed for emergency purposes. Still all good. Drive on. Adventure ahoy.
Ten minutes later, there was another loom of pillars, even more toweringly grand than the first set. I sucked in a fresh anticipatory breath as I drove through, ready-set-amaze me, aaand ‒
‘What the fuck?’ I said it out loud as I saw that in front of me was nothing. If you didn’t count sand and sky and stars.
I sallied forth, but my confidence was waning. This resort was taking itself way too seriously with the whole ‘exclusivity’ angle – as I’d state in my article. It was one thing being discreetly positioned away from main traffic areas; quite another to be the Arabian equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle.
When I saw the third set of pillars ahead, I moved past the stage of what-the-fuckery and onto actual alarm. This was getting weird. Something my body seemed to recognise, because it was having its own primeval reaction. My skin prickled; my heart sped up; my breath caught; my blood fizzed. The pillars, which were huge and radiant as they stretched skyward, seemed to be beckoning me forward, daring me to keep coming. A fanciful thought for a girl like me. The desert getting to me? Or a sixth sense warning me? I just felt, so strongly, that something was waiting for me beyond them.
‘Oh, for God’s sake, Jenna, there’ll be nothing there.’ I said the bold words loudly, but I have to admit my voice was a little quavery.
I inched the car along, all my senses on high alert. My eyes were wide and unblinking, my heart beating like crazy. Inch, inch, inch. If there was nothing there this time, I was going to turn tail and head back the way I’d come. Inch, inch. Because really, enough was enough. Inch, inch. Lights ahead. Inch, inch. Almost between the pillars. Inch, inch. ‘It’s just a resort, not a portal to another world,’ I said, but my voice was heading into a full-on wobble. ‘Stop being so ‒ Oh! Ohhhh …’
Because there it was.
A new wonder of the world indeed.
I switched off the ignition with a reverent, ‘Wow!’
It was smaller than I’d expected, but more enchanting. It looked like the love child of a citadel and a ranch ‒ a combination of turreted towers and low-slung buildings that seemed to have grown out of the sand, shimmering with what seemed like a million soft lights. Welcoming and forbidding at the same time.
I sat in the car, overwhelmed. Not only by the staggering grandeur of the place, but because I’d really and truly made it. Jenna Martin, ordinary girl from Boston, had driven herself right into the heart of the desert, to a different world, a fascinating world where nobody knew her, where anything was possible, where magic could happen.
A world where I could be anyone I wanted to be …
I caught my awestruck reflection in the rearview mirror, and had to laugh because there was a smudge of dirt across my left cheek. ‘Yeah, that’s you, Jenna, international woman of mystery for two whole days,’ I said, and swiped at the dirt. ‘You’re writing a resort review, not a Lord of the Rings sequel, so get a grip.’
I got out of the car and cast a quick look around. I was in what seemed to be an oversized courtyard but there were no other cars. No bustling hotel staff. Nobody eager to relieve me of the bag I heaved out of the trunk. It felt a little odd for a six star resort. Off-key. Not that I had any experience of six star resorts, or even five or four star resorts if it came to that.
Then again, since when had I ever expected anyone to do my fetching and carrying for me? Since never, that’s when. No big deal, was it, to look after my own bag? Especially when any moment now, I’d be sinking into a luxe bath full of floating rose petals – like the one I’d seen on the hotel’s website – surrounded by a dozen pretty candles, with a glass of champagne in hand.
I wheeled my bag over the bumpy cobblestoned path, but a few feet away from the steps leading up to the entrance, I was overcome by an urge to stop and soak everything in while I was still alone, with nobody telling me what I should think or feel or do. Not the travel editor giving me tips and suggestions. Not my parents warning me to be careful. Not Beth and Angie choosing a new challenge for me. Just me. All this belonged to me. The stillness, the silence, the atmosphere. I let go of my bag and stood for a moment, just … breathing. I was bewitched, and I hadn’t even gotten inside yet, where apparently all kind of luxuries were awaiting me. I held out my hands as though I could catch the air and hold it, and twirled around quickly, again, again. And then … one last slow, enraptured spin. When I stopped, I was facing the desert. More magical stillness, more enthralling silence. I threw back my head to look at the sky. Oh, the sky. It stole my breath. The vastness of it, the clarity, the stars. Dazzling.
‘I’m here.’ It was only a whisper, but I heard the amazement in my voice. ‘I’m really here,’ I said, louder this time. I laughed, opened my mouth to say it louder again, to shout it at the sky – but a sound, an intake of breath, stopped me.
I turned back to the entrance.
And that’s when I saw him. Jaw-droppingly, heart-stoppingly beautiful him, standing under a stone archway at the top of the stairs.
He had a poise that suggested he’d been waiting in that exact spot for a thousand years, even though I could have sworn he hadn’t been there when I pulled up. The first I’d known of his existence was that intake of air. Had I really just heard him breathe?
I couldn’t see the colour of his eyes from where I was standing, but I could tell they were pale. Set in that swarthy, chiselled face, they were startling enough to make my heart thump. Black, slashing brows. Shadow of a just-there, perfectly defined beard.
He was tall and I could somehow tell he was elegantly muscular despite the fact that his tunic – the long, white kandura all the local men apparently wore – wasn’t exactly showing off the goods. It was in the way he held himself – straight, confident, proud. If the resort was going for an authentic look with a kandura-clad meeter-and-greeter, they should have made him wear the headgear that went with the tunic, but I had to hand it to them – although this guy was bare-headed, he still looked perfect for the part. His hair was short and black, and looked like a sleek, thick pelt. I’m talking mink-coat-must-touch quality hair. And God, did I want to touch it. So much, my fingers twitched.