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 a hundred, a thousand, 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 completely 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 awaited 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.
I waited for him to come down the stairs and take my bag, but he just stood there looking at me.
Hmm. The travel editor had warned me it would be hard to maintain my objectivity because staff would be spoiling me rotten from the moment I arrived. Early signs indicated spoiling wasn’t high on the agenda, however. Unless Tall-dark-and-silent had some specific responsibility that precluded him from helping people with their bags and someone else was on the way out.
‘I’m Jenna Martin from World Business Elite magazine,’ I said, thinking it might spark some salaaming.
I grabbed my bag and started up the stairs. ‘The hotel is expecting me.’
Another few steps. ‘I’m doing the review.’
‘The review. You know?’
I’d reached the top and was standing under the arch with him. Green. His eyes were a light, magnetic green. ‘For the travel section,’ I finished. I was suddenly breathless. The climb up the stairs with my bag. The shock of his eyes. Or maybe just because I was standing beside someone who had such . . . such presence, he was taking up every particle of air around him.
‘Welcome to my home, Jenna Martin,’ he said finally, and my heart gave another appreciative thump because his voice was like dark, smoky treacle. Formal English tones, but rich and throaty, with an underlying hint of a more intriguing accent.
A gush of sex hormones had rendered me momentarily brain dead, so it took a few seconds for what he’d said to register. And then it clicked into place – who he was, why he was waiting for me.
I thrust out my hand. ‘You’re the manager of the resort? I’m very glad to meet you.’
Heartbeat. Two. Three. Hand sitting out there neglected, not even being glanced at, because his eyes were fixed on my face. Thump, thump, went my heart. And then my untouched fingers twitched again, and I remembered that my tip sheet had included a mention about some local men not touching women who weren’t related to them. Not that I thought that was a politic move from a guy whose resort was being featured in one of the top business magazines in America, but so be it. If you were fast enough, apparently you could recover a handshake rejection by transferring your hand to rest poetically on your heart. But I was a beat or two past that, and I wasn’t exactly a hand-on-heart kind of gal anyway (number three on the Manifesto was ‘unromantic’) so I only managed an awkward drop.
‘This is not a resort,’ he said, just as the silence became unendurable. ‘I live here.’
I took a moment to compute that, looking around, taking in the size of the place. ‘You can’t.’
Up went his impressive eyebrows.
‘I mean . . .’ Another look around. ‘Nobody lives at a resort. Or . . . hang on, is this place like the Chateau Marmont? You know, where the occasional celebrity sets up house?’
‘No, I am not a celebrity so that’s not it.’
I stared at him.
He stared back.
‘This is Muntaj Badiya ? No, that’s not right. Um . . . the resort, you know? The one called Muntaj . . . er . . . some . . . thing?’
His mouth twisted fractionally. ‘I think you mean Muntaja’a Najmat Al Badiya, but this is not it.’
‘Then . . . I don’t . . . Huh?’
He smiled then, and the flash of brilliant white took my breath for a moment. ‘You have arrived at Qasr Al Malaz – which means “palace sanctuary”. My sanctuary. My home.’
My mouth dropped open. Seriously? This magnificence was a private residence? And I still had to find my way to the resort?
I rearranged my gaping mouth into the best smile I could manage. ‘Right, got it, sorry,’ I said. ‘So I don’t suppose you’d be kind enough to point me in the right direction of Muntaja-whatever, would you?’
He looked at me like he was reading something inside my head and my heart thumped again – this time accompanied by a little shiver down my spine. It felt like I was being drawn into him through his eyes, being enclosed in something warm and tight. It took every ounce of willpower I possessed not to look away from the . . . the force of him. But I’d taught myself never to break eye contact during the incessant round of interviews that had landed me the job at World Business Elite, and I wasn’t going to blink now.
And okay, this wasn’t a job interview, but it felt like one. So I just kept looking right back at him, even though that shiver kept running the length of my backbone, my heart was beating hard enough to crack a rib, and the hairs on the back of my neck rose and I could have sworn they were actually vibrating.
He shook his head, very slowly. ‘I don’t think so.’
Visions of sex slavery danced into my head. Me in a marble room full of luscious women, wearing something gauzy, floaty, diaphanous. Being singled out, cut from the harem herd. ‘The master wants the blonde one prepared for his bed. Fetch the unguents and oils . . .’
‘And no,’ he said, ‘I’m not going to abduct you for my harem.’
I started. What the ? ‘Did you just say harem?’
‘Did you just think it?’ A low chuckle – very sexy. ‘Don’t worry, we don’t keep harems anymore. We can have four wives – that is quite enough.’
‘You can ?? Four?’ I squeaked, my diaphanously-swathed doppelganger re-forming into the real Jenna Martin, journalist, in a jarring instant. ‘Do you really have four wives?’
‘No. I don’t even have one.’
‘But you can have four?’
He inclined his head. ‘Theoretically. Does that shock you?’
‘Well . . . yes, actually. But I’m kind of interested, too. About the . . . the practicalities, I guess. I mean, with four wives, what would you ?? Or four husbands, if it came to that.’ I laughed. ‘Four husbands. Polyandry. Well, why the hell not, right?’
Clearly, I was experiencing jetlag – people said jetlag did strange things to you, and this conversation was way strange. Four husbands! I couldn’t even keep Mick-Missionary-Position interested, and the five months I’d spent with him had been my longest relationship.
‘Why would you need four?’ he asked, seeming to find the concept just as interesting as I did.
‘To cover all the bases. Like a division of duties. One, a provider – well, duh! Two, a friend – who doesn’t need one of those? Three, bring on the handyman – because I’m so in need of some creative storage solutions for my tiny apartment. And four, of course, is ?’ I broke off as my brain engaged. One did not talk to strange men in foreign lands about sex, did one? Unless one wanted to end up axe-murdered and buried in a sand dune?
‘Four is . . .?’ he prompted.
‘Not nothing, I think.’
I racked my brain for a safe answer but nothing came darting into that recalcitrant organ. I looked cautiously into his eyes, which were regarding me with a sort of rapt amusement, and intuitively knew he wasn’t the kind of guy to wield an axe. Even minus my own intuition, I couldn’t picture blood spatter being allowed to mess up his immaculate kandura. And really, he could have axed me already if he was so inclined. So I thought, Well, hell, why not go for broke? – that’s jetlag for you!
‘As a matter of fact, number four is the most important,’ I said daringly. ‘Number four would be my lover.’
And then – bang – it was in my head, right alongside that sneaky image of me in a diaphanous gown being moisturised. Your mission, should you choose to accept it . . . No! I couldn’t! Could I?
Green-eyes, not seeming to realise I was having a light-bulb moment, laughed – a rich, warm, inviting sound, as though I’d both surprised and delighted him.
And that laugh decided my course. I was going to do it. Now or never. Fortune favours the brave. I dare all. Kick some ass. Et cetera. Why not? Nobody here knew me. Hadn’t I already decided I could be anyone I wanted to be while I was here? I could, therefore, be a sex siren.
Deep breath, like deep, and then, ‘So has anyone ever asked you to be their number four? For a night, I mean. As in . . . as in just one night?’
There, it was out. Done. He’d be saying ‘yes’ to a one-night stand any second now, because guys always said ‘yes’ when you asked them to have sex with you. That’s what Angie had assured me, when I’d raised doubts about my ability to achieve this mission.
He looked at me for a long time, and again I had that feeling he was reading my mind. His eyes had become hooded, shadowy. I wanted to put my fingers over them and feel what was happening behind them – which was such an inexplicable thing to want, I half-feared he was implanting the thought in me telepathically. And then his breathing changed slightly and his body tensed, and I was thinking of the harem again. Of him stripping me, licking my skin, murmuring to me in a foreign language as his fingers edged between my legs, where I was wet and waiting to be touched.
‘You know, Jenna,’ he said, and his dark-arts voice made me tremble in anticipation. ‘I usually see myself as number one in all things.’
Hormones were interfering with my brain again, confusing me. ‘Number . . .?’
‘One. Only one.’
And then I got it. He was turning me down. I’d made a fool of myself and achieved nothing while doing so. Well, of course I’d achieved nothing! As if a guy like him was ever going to say yes to a girl like me, even for one night! Wince, cringe, blush. ‘One, not four. I understand.’
‘I’m not sure you do,’ he said, watching me closely. ‘Perhaps I should explain that with wives, having more than one is not as simple as you might think. There is a strict code of providing for each wife equally. Even if all you want to do is give one particular wife a rose, all wives must receive such a rose. If I were one of four husbands, I am quite sure I wouldn’t like knowing the rose was being given to the others.’
‘And if one wife gets a night, the others all have to get their own night? Kind of exhausting if there are four, huh? Well, I did wonder about the practicalities, didn’t I?’ I tried to laugh but it came out like a feeble cackle, which made me want to slap my hands over my mouth to make sure no other embarrassing sounds could be emitted. God, I should never have been let out of America.
I had no idea how to talk to people outside my own narrow sphere.
‘Impossible, most would say,’ he said. And when he smiled this time it lit up his whole face, making my heart give another helpless thump. ‘Hence there are very few men here with more than one wife.’ The air felt heavy as he paused there, as though he were weighing his words. ‘I would want to give the rose to only one.’
‘I’ll bet that’s a relief to your . . . your girlfriend . . .? I guess you must have one of those.’
‘I have no girlfriend. I have not yet found my chosen one.’
Chosen one. How lovely was that? It all sounded very unlike the Mick-Missionary-Position types who were my usual speed. Ah, well. I ordered my heart back to its normal rhythm, straightened my shoulders and sucked up the unpalatable truth that guys might never say ‘no’ to Angie when it came to one-night stands, but they easily managed a ‘no’ when I was the one on offer.
‘Well that sounds quite . . . quite lovely, actually. Good for you.’ I said. ‘So I’ll be on my way, and I’m sorry for the intrusion.’
‘I’m not sorry, Jenna. Not at all sorry. And you will not be on your way.’
Right about then a regular girl would have been rethinking the whole axe/blood spatter/desert grave thing, but I was so demoralised at that point, I probably would have taken the axe out of his hands and whacked myself with it, after having dug my own grave. ‘What is it?’ I asked, and forced out another laugh that at least managed to sound half-natural. ‘Have I accidentally crossed a border into the wrong country and need a new visa or something?’
Another of those brilliant white-flash smiles. ‘I meant only that since you made it here – very hard to find – when you were aiming for there – not hard to find – I’ll sleep better tonight if I have one of my people take you there and I know you’re safe.’
‘But my car ?’
‘Will be fine here until tomorrow,’ he finished for me, and without giving me time for another protest, he moved slightly away, pulled a cell phone out of his pocket, made a call, and spoke briefly in what I guessed was Arabic.
A cell phone! Who knew those kanduras had pockets and that something as ordinary as a phone would be in one?
I thought about what Missionary-Mick carried in his pockets. A wallet, keys, Tic Tacs, a condom. I couldn’t picture Tic Tacs in a kandura pocket somehow – too humdrum. Or a condom.
Condom . . . harem . . . hot hunk . . . Dammit! Why couldn’t the stars have aligned for me just this once?
I sighed. ‘“Your mission, should you choose to accept it.” Ha! It’ll take two years to get laid at this rate, not two days.’ I said it softly, for my ears only – but apparently not softly enough, because Green-eyes, who’d just finished his call, darted an alert look at me that retriggered my wince/cringe/ blush reflex.
‘Two days, Jenna?’ he asked, coming back to me. ‘What does that mean?’
‘It’s just . . . I’m just . . . I’m only here for two days,’ I stammered out.
‘Two days only,’ he said slowly, frowning as though I’d said something profoundly disturbing.
I got the feeling his brain was whirring behind his motionless façade, and my body did that primeval thing again – skin prickling, heart racing, breath catching, blood fizzing.
I almost sagged with relief when the sound of an approaching car gave me a reason to turn away from his hypnotic gaze.
When I actually saw the vehicle, I could only stare with bugged-out eyes. It was a Hummer. A stretch Hummer! Nobody back home was going to believe it!
The driver got out, and without a word or a touch, managed to usher me into the back of the extraordinary vehicle.
My eyes bugged out a little further as I took in my new surroundings. It was like a private jet on wheels. Cushioned seating, Persian carpet, snack bar, magazines, lap rugs.
No chandelier? I wanted to ask, but the driver didn’t look like he had much of a sense of humour – and in any case, he’d hit some switch and a glass panel was rising, separating him in the driver’s cabin from me sitting in solitary splendour in the back.
I looked out the window and caught my exotic stranger staring at me again. Why was he so interested in my face? I was a very normal American girl-next-door type. Blue eyes, freckles, undistinguished nose, mouth wide enough to put one and a half feet in, too much blonde hair to properly control. Nothing special, and yet when he looked at me, I felt . . . different.
My heart was thumping again, and it kept thumping, even after the Hummer moved off.
What the hell had just happened to me?
What I’d thought would be a straightforward visit to review a new Arabic-themed resort – get there, experience it, write the article, find someone to have rebound sex with, fly home – had morphed into something midway between exhilarating and ridiculous, and the real part of the trip hadn’t even started yet.
Jenna Martin, business journalist filling in as a last-minute replacement on a travel assignment, gets lost in the desert, is found by a sexy local, propositions said local, is summarily rejected as a bed partner, is bundled into a stretch Hummer and now – whoosh – she’s zooming across the sand in a four-wheel hurry.
All that was missing was some evocative Arabian music.
As if on cue, exotic music oozed from the speakers.
All right, it was official: this was not my life.
Even with the summary rejection, this life was fucking awesome.