But as they approached the line the Sheikh’s horse reared up as if something had spooked it and to Erin’s horror she saw Saladin slipping down the side of the horse, as if in slow motion.
For one heart-stopping moment she thought the king was about to disappear under the pounding hooves to certain death when Dimitri drew close to the frightened animal. Collision seemed inevitable and Erin froze as the Russian reached out, somehow anchoring Saladin to the ebony horse while grabbing the other reins and managing to bring both animals to a shaky halt. Her knees grew weak. She felt the rush of relief, which was quickly replaced by one of anxiety as she saw the look of pain which briefly distorted Dimitri’s features as he held on to the Sheikh as if his life depended on it.
And then grooms, servants, bodyguards came running out from the yard towards the two men and all hell broke loose.
‘I’VE NEVER SEEN anything so reckless. Or so...so...stupid,’ said Erin, her voice trembling with rage and fear as she held a golden goblet to Dimitri’s parched lips. ‘Here. Drink this.’
From his prone position on the velvet divan, Dimitri winced. ‘What’s in it?’
‘Nothing stronger than water. And it’s good for you. Which I suppose means you don’t want it.’
He winced a little as he shifted his position on the divan. ‘Are you angry with me, Erin?’
‘Too right I am.’ Unwanted emotions were exploding like fireworks inside her and she gritted her teeth as she registered the ashen colour of his face. ‘You could have died out there!’
‘But I didn’t.’
‘That’s not the point,’ she said stubbornly.
They were back in the palace after an incident which had clearly rocked all the spectators and left everyone in the palace reeling as they considered how much worse it could have been, if Dimitri hadn’t prevented Saladin from falling beneath the hooves of the galloping horse. But the Sheikh had emerged from the incident unscathed and it was Dimitri who was hurt. Dimitri who had winced with pain after the doctor had examined him and ordered a full-body X-ray. With Erin at his side he had been taken to the nearby hospital and given the all-clear, but the bruising was bad and he’d been told to take it easy.
Erin had stuck to his side like glue and accompanied him back to his suite and soon after their arrival Saladin had turned up, still in the same robes he’d worn while riding. His face and hair had been covered in fine dust and he had looked dark and very sombre—but his gratitude had been heartfelt as he’d thanked Dimitri.
‘I owe you,’ he had said in a low voice. ‘I owe you my life. And that means that we are now as brothers. Do you realise that, my friend?’ And then he had embraced the Russian with a powerful bear hug, which had made Dimitri wince again, before sweeping out, his retinue following closely behind.
‘You told me that you didn’t do that whole danger thing any more,’ Erin accused as she held the goblet of water to Dimitri’s lips and made him drink another mouthful. ‘You said you were respectable these days. You made out like you were a changed man. That you didn’t drink vodka any more—’
‘Which I don’t.’
‘Or embrace danger just for the sake of it.’
‘Which I don’t.’
‘Oh, really?’ She glared at him. ‘So what was that all about out there? How long since you’ve ridden?’
He shrugged. ‘I don’t remember.’
‘So what made you think you could take on one of the most celebrated horsemen in the world and win?’
‘I did win.’
Erin glared. ‘Only because the Sheikh nearly fell.’
‘Exactly.’ Dimitri stretched his long legs in front of him and through his half-closed eyes he subjected her to a mocking stare. ‘And if I hadn’t stopped to assist him, then I would have won by a much greater margin. We both know that.’
‘Why accept the challenge in the first place when anyone else would have defined it as reckless?’
‘Because I wanted to,’ he said flatly. ‘And because I’m doing business with a powerful man who might have considered it a sign of weakness if I had refused, thus putting the deal in jeopardy.’
‘Your business deals are more important than your life, are they, Dimitri?’
‘They are important,’ he said, his voice suddenly cooling. ‘They are a quantifiable success, unlike most other things in life.’
There was a soft rap on the door and Erin walked across the room to answer it, frustration simmering away inside her. Who was it this time? Why couldn’t they just leave him alone and let him recover?
She didn’t know who she expected to find but she was surprised to see a robed woman standing on the threshold—maybe because this was the only other woman she’d seen since she’d arrived in Jazratan. Petite and slender and wearing a silvery veil, which provided the perfect backdrop for her lustrous ebony hair, she was holding a small pot in her hands. Rather surprisingly, her smile was confident and she didn’t appear in the least bit shy.
‘The Sheikh has sent me,’ she said, in the loveliest accent Erin had ever heard. ‘To minister to the esteemed Russian who today risked his life to save our beloved monarch.’
Erin’s hackles started rising; she couldn’t help herself. Was she imagining the gleam in the woman’s doe-like eyes or the anticipatory curve of her soft smile as she looked over towards where Dimitri lay on the divan? A whisper of apprehension washed over her skin. No, she was not.
‘What do you mean, “minister”?’ she questioned, more sharply than she had intended.
The woman’s smile grew serene. ‘This rare cream has many healing properties,’ she said softly. ‘It is made from the fire berries which grow in the foothills of the mountains to the far north of our country and after I have applied it the Sheikh’s saviour will feel no more pain, and the bruising on his skin will disappear as if by magic.’
Erin wasn’t sure if it was paranoia or just a powerful sense of something territorial, but she knew that no way was this gorgeous young creature going to start slapping cream all over Dimitri’s chest. A thought occurred to her. It came out of nowhere but for some reason it stuck firmly in her mind and wouldn’t seem to budge. Did Saladin realise that she and the Russian weren’t having sex—had Dimitri told him that? And was he sending this luscious woman to Dimitri’s suite as some primitive way of thanking him? Nothing would surprise her about an autocratic king like Saladin, who ruled a country where the opposite sex seemed almost invisible.
Coolly, she removed the pot from the woman’s hands and smiled at her. ‘Thank you so much for taking the time to bring this, and please convey our deepest gratitude to His Royal Highness,’ she said. ‘But I think Dimitri would prefer me to minister it.’
She closed the door in the woman’s startled face and turned around to see the faintest glint of humour lighting Dimitri’s eyes, before he winced again—as if it hurt to attempt to smile.
‘You meant it, didn’t you?’ he said weakly as she began to walk across the room towards him. ‘You’re going to apply the cream yourself.’
‘I did,’ she said. ‘And I am.’
‘Be gentle with me, Erin.’
‘Why wouldn’t I be?’