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Claimed by the Desert Prince

Claimed by the Desert Prince by Meredith Webber
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Jen lifted the almost weightless child onto her hip and turned towards the car approaching them, hoping the driver would stop before he reached the tents so the cloud of gritty sand the vehicle was kicking up would settle outside rather than inside her makeshift hospital.

He did stop. The battered four-wheel-drive pulled up some twenty metres from where she stood, but a perverse drift of wind lifted the trailing red cloud and carried it in her direction, so she had to step backwards in order not to be engulfed in its dust. She put her hand over the little girl's nose and mouth, and scowled at the man stepping out from behind the wheel.

Unexpected visitors usually meant trouble. Most of the small states in this area had moved quickly into the twentieth century and then the twenty-first, with modern cities, wonderful facilities and the best of medical care, but in Zaheer, the ruling sheikh did not agree with modern ways and though he himself was rarely seen, his minions made the presence of even essential aid services uncomfortable.

The man who disembarked wore rather tattered jeans and a T-shirt, not the flowing robes of the usual official sent to ask what they were doing and to be shown around, suspicion of the organisation's aims bristling in the air.

This man was very different, though why Jen had that impression she couldn't say.

Was he a traveller lost in the desert, or something else?

Some instinct she'd never felt before warned her to be wary but she dismissed this vague unease with a sharp, unspoken Nonsense! Beneath the dust on the vehicle there appeared to be some kind of logo, so maybe he was an official, or an aid worker from another organisation.

She wanted to ignore him, to turn away, tired of the battles she fought with red tape, but with more refugees arriving at the camp every day she needed all the help she could get, and he might just be helpful to her.

She stood her ground.

But she didn't smile.

Which was probably just as well, she realised as the man stepped out of his dust cloud and she caught her first good look at the tall, well-built figure, the tanned skin, the dark, dark hair and—surely not green eyes?

She looked again as he came closer—they were green, pale, translucent almost, and so compelling she knew she was staring.

But all in all he was a man women would stare at automatically, and smile at as well—probably to cover the fluttering in the region of their hearts.

Not that she did heart flutters over men—not since David…

'Dr Stapleton?'

The visitor's voice was deep, but with a huskiness that suggested he might have a cold or sore throat, or that he might have cultivated it—a bedroom voice, practised for seduction…

Seduction? Where had that thought sprung from?

'Yes!' she managed, nodding to reinforce the spoken confirmation, knowing the fleeting thought of danger was nonsensical.

'I'm Kam Rahman,' the stranger said, stepping closer and offering his hand. 'Head office of Aid for All heard you were in trouble—trying to look after the medical needs of the people in the camp as well as run the TB programme—and sent me along to look into setting up a medical clinic here and to investigate the needs of the refugees.'

'You're a doctor?' Jen asked, taking in the threadbare jeans and the T-shirt that looked older than she was, once again trying not to be distracted by the blatant maleness of the body inside them.

'Trained in London,' he said, bowing deeply. 'But my father was an official of sorts in this country so I grew up here and speak the language, which is why Aid for All thought I'd be more useful here than in South America, where my language skills would be useless. Although, given the way the world works, it's a wonder I didn't end up there.'

He smiled, perhaps in the hope she'd enjoyed his little joke, but the smile made the sense of danger stronger and Jen found herself taking a backward step and shifting Rosana so the child was between her and the stranger.

Not that the man noticed her movement, or registered that she hadn't taken his proffered hand. He was too busy looking around, his keen eyes scanning the tent city that spread outward from the end of the road.

'You're more than welcome,' Jen told him, although inside she didn't feel at all welcoming. Inside she felt disturbed, which, she supposed, wasn't all that unbelievable because the man, with his erect carriage, his strong body, high cheekbones, the slightly hooded but miss-nothing green eyes, oozed sex appeal.

Startled by the directions of her thoughts, she realised it had been a long time since she'd noticed a man as a man, let alone considered whether he was sexy or not.

But there was something else about him that diverted her from personal reactions, something in his bearing…

Authority?

Now, why would she think that?

'So, are you going to show me around?'

The same authority in his voice, and it was authority—of that she had no doubt.

He'd thrust his hands into his jeans pockets, making the fabric tight around his butt as he turned, the better to see the extent of the camp, and Jen was distracted again.

Aware she should be thinking about the reason the man was here, not whether or not he had a good backside, Jen dragged her mind back into order.

'You're really an Aid for All worker—really a doctor?'

He turned back to her and smiled, which didn't help the disturbance in her body, then he crossed to the dirty vehicle and rubbed his hand across the passenger door to clear the dust from the logo.

'See, same as yours.' He nodded towards the equally dusty vehicle she and her team used. 'I don't have my framed medical graduation certificate with me—hard to hang things on the walls of tents—but I do have some ID.'

He plunged his hand into his pocket and pulled out a plastic-covered tag similar to the one Jen wore around her neck.

'There, we match,' he said, slipping the cord over his head.

Kam with a K, she noticed, but the ID looked genuine.

So why did she still feel wary about this man?

Because he was so handsome?

Well, if that was the case, she'd better get over it. The people in the camp needed all the help they could get.

'Come on, I'll show you around,' she said, as Rosana wriggled in her arms.

Jen looked down at the little mite, dark eyes huge in her thin face, stick legs bent with rickets, stomach distended from starvation. 'There isn't much to see, well, not in the medical tent. It's very basic. If you're setting up a general medicine clinic, maybe we can get another tent for it so we're not tripping over each other.'

She looked hopefully at the newcomer.

'I don't suppose you brought a tent?'

He was frowning at her—frowning angrily—as he shook his head, although she couldn't think why he should be angry.

Until he spoke.

'Weren't tents supplied by the government? Tents for the refugees as well as tents for the people helping them? Didn't I hear that somewhere?'

Jen shrugged.

'I don't know, although I have heard that the old sheikh has been ill for a very long time so maybe the country isn't running as well as it should be. And Aid for All certainly had a battle getting permission to test for and treat TB in the camp, so once we received the permission we weren't going to push our luck by asking for more. The tent we use was housing a family when we arrived, and they moved out so we could have it.'

Kamid Rahman al'Kawali, heir to the sheikhdom but travelling incognito through his country, shook his head as he looked around at the tent village. Things were far worse than he and his twin brother Arun had imagined. And they had to take at least part of the responsibility, for they'd pretended not to notice what was happening in Zaheer, throwing themselves into their hospital duties, telling themselves their medical work was more important than disputes between government officials, changing what they could change at the hospital where they worked, but slowly and cautiously. They'd been constantly frustrated in their endeavours because, even ill, their father had been strong enough to refuse to hand over any authority to his sons.

So they'd worked, and learnt, attending conferences and courses all over the world, finding good excuses to not visit their father until the last possible moment when they'd come out of duty to their mother, not out of concern for an irascible old man who had made their childhoods a misery, and who had refused to move with his country into the twenty-first century.

He had despised the city that had grown where the old capital had been, the new city built by foreign oil barons made richer by the oil they pumped from beneath the desert sands, and by foreign hotel chains who had built luxury housing for the oil barons.

He had objected to the idea of his country becoming a democracy, although when he realised it was inevitable he had made sure his brothers and their sons had stood as candidates and been elected to look after the interests of the family. Then he'd hidden himself away in the fastness of his winter palace, the hereditary, but not ruling, ruler, allowing those in the far-off city to do as they wished. That aim seemed to be to make the city more prosperous, not to mention glamorous enough to be attractive to foreigners, and to ignore the fate of the rest of the country.

Which was why a foreign aid organisation was now testing for TB in a tent in this refugee camp near the border of the neighbouring country, while in the city, in nearly new hospitals, first-class surgeons recruited from around the world were performing face lifts and tummy tucks not only on women but on men who had become soft and flabby from indulging in their wealth.

Foreign aid! How could this have happened when the whole basis for the tribal life of his people was looking after their own? And the people in this refugee camp, although they may have come in from over the border, were still their own, descendants of the same tribes that had roamed the desert for centuries.

Kam sighed and looked at the woman in front of him. The smooth skin of her face, framed by a dark scarf, was lightly tanned and sprinkled with freckles that had a look of casually scattered gold dust to them, while her eyes were a darker gold, brown, he supposed they'd be called, but so flecked with golden lights the brown was hardly noticeable. Pink, shapely but unpainted lips, slightly chapped—had no one told her the dry desert air could suck all moisture out of you in a few hours?—were pursed by worry or concern…

And why was he suddenly so observant?

With so much to learn and so much to do to right the wrongs of the past, this was no time to be noticing a pretty woman…

'I can get tents,' he said.

'Just like that? You can get tents?' Jen demanded. 'I've been sending messages to the city for months now, saying we need more help—Oh!'

She lifted her hand and held it to her mouth—to stop herself putting her foot further into it?

'You are more help,' she muttered, then smiled tentatively at him. 'I'm sorry I haven't been more welcoming. But tents?'

Kam returned the smile.

'Influence in the city—I grew up here, remember.'

He was fascinated by the freckles but knew he shouldn't stare, so he let his gaze rove casually over her, then smiled once more to cover the fact that his attention had been so easily diverted.

Again!

'Tents are easy.'

Jen didn't miss his casual scan of her body, but she refused to blush, although she was only too aware of what a sight she must present, her Western garb of jeans and a long-sleeved shirt covered by a long, all-enveloping grey tunic, red desert sand coating it and probably her face as well, and turning her blonde plait, beneath her headscarf, a dried-out, gingery colour.

But his inspection of her apparel—and his apparent dismissal of it, although she had attempted to adapt her clothing to meet the customs of the land—had annoyed her sufficiently to go on the attack. 'Good, and if you've that much influence, I'll make a list of other things we need.'

He held up his hand.

'Best if I work it out for myself,' he said. 'After all, I know these people and can assess what will suit them, while you might be imposing Western needs on them.'

'I would think clean water and sanitation would be basic needs for anyone,' Jen muttered, but she suspected he was right as far as details were concerned.

'Of course, and these things, too, can be provided,' he assured her.

'And perhaps better housing before the worst of winter blows along the valley,' Jen suggested hopefully.

He looked around and Jenny tried to see the camp through his eyes—the motley collection of patched and tattered tents, the tethered goats, the children running down the alleys between the dwellings, a small flock of ragged-looking sheep grazing on the lower hillside, while two hobbled camels slept nearby.

He shook his head.

'Housing? I don't think so. These people are refugees from across the border, this isn't their country. If we build them houses, aren't we telling them that they will never return to their own lands? Wouldn't we be taking away their hope?'

He was extraordinarily good-looking and it was distracting her, and the distraction made her snippy. Although she could see where he was coming from, she wasn't ready to give in too easily.

'You don't want these people who have lost everything to have some comfort and a proper place where they can be treated while they are ill?' she demanded.

'I would love them to have comfortable homes and a hospital as well, but back where they belong—back where they grew up and where their families have roamed for generations. Back in the places of their hearts! Here, surely, if we build something resembling a permanent camp, they will feel even more lost, displaced and stateless. It's like saying to them, "Give up all hope because the war will never end in your country so you'll just have to sit here on the edge of ours and live on whatever charity can provide." I doubt there are people anywhere in the world who could accept that, let alone these fiercely proud desert inhabitants.'

'Well, you obviously know best,' Jen said, turning away from him towards the big tent and adding under her breath, 'Or think you do!'

An anger she couldn't understand was simmering deep inside her, although she didn't know what had caused it— surely not this man pointing out something she should have known herself? And surely not the passion that had crept into his words as if he truly understood, and possibly felt, these people's yearnings for their home?

Harlequin; May 2009
192 pages; ISBN 9781426832451
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Title: Claimed by the Desert Prince
Author: Meredith Webber
 
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ISBNs
1426832451
9780373527182
9781426832451