His unfamiliar interest in her personal life was beguiling, but it was making her think about stuff it was better to avoid. Her parents had wanted her and Tara to marry for love because they believed in love. She did not. She believed in providing security and protection for yourself because love was flaky and unreliable. It made people make stupid, random decisions like going off to the other end of the world, fuelled by nothing but a pipe dream, just as they had done.
But once she had believed in love, hadn’t she? She had been sucked in by that meaningless fairy tale, just like everyone else. She’d misinterpreted her boss’s relaxed attitude towards her and thought it might be something else. Her feelings for him had bubbled away, getting hotter and hotter. By the time he’d kissed her that night in his apartment, all her immunity had gone—and she realised too late that she could never get it back again. Before, she had been Erin his trusted aide...and afterwards?
Afterwards, she had been just another woman he’d bedded. Just another woman he couldn’t wait to see the back of, scrabbling around on the floor to locate her scattered underwear. But at least she had one thing to thank Dimitri for. With one stroke he had effectively destroyed the love myth which had been building up inside her. As she’d walked home that morning, wearing last night’s clothes, she had vowed she would never be like her parents.
She shook her head. ‘They think that babies should only be the product of love. And even if that patently isn’t true—I don’t want that kind of love.’
‘You don’t want love?’ he echoed slowly. ‘Why not?’
‘Because it takes over your life.’ She shook her head impatiently. ‘I’ve seen what it does to people—the way my parents allowed it to dominate their lives, so that nothing else really mattered. I’ve seen it break hearts and cause jealousy. It’s nothing but a con. A way of justifying desire, that’s all. Now who’s the one looking shocked? What’s the matter, Dimitri? Do you think all women are programmed to lose their hearts to a man?’
He didn’t take the bait. ‘Going back to your parents, do they know I’m the father of your child?’
She shook her head. ‘No. Nobody does, except Tara.’
‘So why not? Why the desire for secrecy? You could have taken the story to the press,’ he observed. ‘You could have earned yourself a nice little payout without having to resort to a sham marriage.’
‘I would never do that,’ she said fiercely. ‘That kind of cheap publicity is the last thing I would inflict on Leo.’
He regarded her thoughtfully. ‘But there was another reason for your discretion, wasn’t there, Erin? Because if you’d gone to the press—I would inevitably have found out and that was something you didn’t want to risk, did you?’
Erin stared at him as the silence seemed to expand the space between them. She heard the hurt and the anger in his voice, knowing both were justified, and the stab at her conscience was almost more than she could bear. ‘You’re right,’ she said in a low voice. ‘I wanted to keep him hidden away from you.’
She hardly dared look at him to see his reaction, but she knew that to avert her gaze would be the act of an emotional coward. She wondered if she had imagined that brief, hard flare of sadness in his eyes, when she had been expecting the full force of his anger.
‘It’s history now,’ he said abruptly as he glanced down at his watch. ‘It’s nearly eight o’clock. Are you coming to watch me ride?’
Erin hesitated. The conversation had left her feeling raw and exposed—but what else was she going to do if he went off to ride with the Sheikh? Sit alone in her suite while crazy thoughts circulated in her head—or take a solitary breakfast while all those silent servants watched her?
‘Only if you promise not to take any unnecessary risks.’
‘Ah! So you do care?’ he taunted.
‘Only because if you’re going to meet Leo, I’d like you to meet him in one piece.’
A sharp rap on the door put an end to any further talk and a robed servant led them through the corridors to the vast stable complex, which was situated on the eastern side of the palace.
The sun was already warm as two grooms led a pair of magnificent stallions out into the yard—one golden and one black. Erin thought they looked like textbook versions of equine perfection with their coats gleaming in the brightness of the morning light. In the far distance she could see the Sheikh making his way towards them, his usual phalanx of servants surrounding him. She noticed that he was wearing his robes, not jodhpurs—and wondered how on earth he could ride in them.
Dimitri moved towards the horses and she watched his every step, wishing she weren’t so shockingly aware of his muscular body and the sun gilding his thick hair. She wasn’t surprised to see him jump onto the golden horse, which seemed to echo his own colouring, but wondered why the two men briefly shook hands before the king mounted his own ebony stallion. For a few moments she watched as they trotted the horses round and round the yard. Dimitri was clearly trying to gauge the temperament of his mount and even a novice like Erin could see that the animal was powerful and strong. A flicker of apprehension ran down her spine. He’d given her all that spiel about having learned to ride in the Russian army and how brilliant the teaching had been, but he hadn’t actually mentioned how long ago it was since he’d last ridden.
She could see the Sheikh leaning across to say something to him and the quick flash of anticipation in Dimitri’s eyes made Erin stiffen. Because she knew that look. It was the same look he used to wear when poised on the brink of some monumental deal. The same look which usually heralded a long night spent drinking, or playing cards. It was a reckless look, edged with danger, and it took her right back to a place where she used to be frozen with fear, just wondering what the hell he was going to do next and imagining the worst.
She knew then that he had just accepted a challenge from the Sheikh—who just happened to be one of the world’s most accomplished horsemen. The stupid fool was going to race against a man with way more experience than himself.
Her first thought was one of anger, because he’d told her he’d changed. He’d said he’d become Mr Respectable and she knew now why she’d found it so hard to believe. Because it wasn’t true. Respectable men didn’t race a temperamental thoroughbred they’d never ridden before, did they? They didn’t take their life in their hands—especially when they hadn’t even met the son they’d made so much fuss about meeting.
She wanted to dash over to stop them and she did actually take a step forward before sanity prevailed. Because what good could she do in a land where the king was hell-bent on racing a man desperate to buy some of his oil fields? Did she really think that either Dimitri or Saladin would listen to her?
She watched as they lined the two horses up at the edge of the gallops, sensing the excitement in the restless stallions as they strained forward. Suddenly, one of the servants fired a loud starting pistol but barely had Erin recovered from her startled reaction, when the two men took off at a furious pace.
Barely able to breathe, she watched as they galloped past, two gleaming streaks of ebony and gold—their hooves pounding the ground like thunder. The Sheikh was ahead by a margin which was gradually increasing and for a moment she thought that Dimitri was going to do the sensible thing and just let him win. But she hadn’t factored in his highly competitive nature. She could see the determination on his face as he pressed his thighs hard into the animal’s flanks and she could read the hungry tension in the Russian’s body as he crouched over the horse and urged it forward.
He was coming up closer to the man ahead of him, and then closer still. He had almost caught up with the king of Jazratan as they rounded the bend but now both horses were going at a breakneck pace. Please just let him be safe, prayed Erin as waves of emotion too complex