As’ad’s first thought was that he regretted that whoever had let Kayleen go out by herself could not be flogged. Sometimes he missed the old ways. His second was the low-grade worry at the thought of a defenseless young woman alone in the desert. It was not a place to be traveled lightly.
The girls crowded close, as if seeking comfort from him. Although he had no time for this, he resisted the urge to push them away and instead awkwardly patted them on their shoulders.
“All will be well,” he told them. “I will find Kayleen and return her to you.”
“Promise?” Pepper asked, her lashes spiky from her tears.
He crouched down until he could look her in the eye. “I am Prince As’ad of El Deharia. My word is law.”
Pepper sniffed. “Promise?”
He gave her a slight smile. “I promise.”
Ten minutes later the girls were settled with Lina and he was in the garage, sliding into an open Jeep. The desert was a vast space and in theory, Kayleen could be anywhere. But in truth, an inexperienced rider would stick to trails and not get far. Unless she had been thrown.
He did not allow himself to consider that option. He would find her and if she were hurt, he would deal with the situation as it arose.
He found the riding trail easily. He had been taking it all his life. As it bent to the left, he considered how far Kayleen might have traveled, then accelerated. A mere ten miles into the desert was the permanent outpost of a local tribe. If Kayleen kept to the trail, she would end up there.
He drove slowly, checking the area for signs of any accident, or a woman walking without a horse, but found nothing. At the outskirts of the outpost he saw a cluster of people gathered around a petite woman with flaming red hair. She was holding on to a horse and gesturing wildly.
As’ad eased the Jeep to a stop and picked up the satellite phone. When he was connected with his aunt, he informed her he had found Kayleen and that she appeared fine.
“Will you be coming right back?” Lina asked.
As’ad considered. “I believe we’ll stay for dinner.”
“That’s fine. I’ll put the girls to bed. Thanks for letting me know. They were worried.”
He disconnected the call and parked, then walked toward the crowd.
Kayleen saw him and excused herself from the group, then raced toward him. When she was close enough, she launched herself at him.
He caught her and held her against him as she trembled in his embrace.
“You came,” she breathed. “It’s the girls. They’re gone. They were late and we had no way to get in touch with them and I was so worried, so I took a horse out myself. I found this village, but no one speaks English and I can’t tell if they’ve seen the girls. What if something happened to them? I’ll never forgive myself.”
She was distraught and panicked and surprisingly beautiful. Her hazel eyes darkened with emotion and her cheeks were flushed. Impulsively, he bent down and lightly brushed her mouth with his.
“They’re fine,” he told her. “All three of them returned unharmed. You are the one who is missing.”
“What?” She drew in a breath. “They’re all right?”
“Perfectly fine, although suffering from guilt for causing you distress. Kayleen, the girls are good riders. The head groom took them out himself to confirm that. They also had someone with them. Why did you feel it necessary to go rescue them yourself?”
“I don’t know. I was worried and I acted.”
She glanced down. “Yes, well, that’s an ongoing problem.”
She looked around and noticed the villagers gathered close. “Oh.” She pulled back.
As’ad let her go, but only reluctantly. She had felt good in his arms. He wanted to kiss her again—but thoroughly and without an audience. He wanted to push aside her unattractive clothing and touch the soft skin beneath. Instead he stepped back and turned to greet Sharif, the village chieftain.
“She is your woman?” Sharif asked.
Kayleen spun toward the old man. “You speak English? You stood there, pretending not to understand and you speak English?”
“They don’t know you,” As’ad told her. “They were being cautious.”
“What about desert hospitality? What about claiming sanctuary or asylum or something?”
Kayleen pressed her lips together. “No. I was asking if they’d seen the girls. They wouldn’t answer and they weren’t speaking English.”
As’ad glanced at Sharif. “She is mine.”
“Then you are both welcome. You will stay and eat with us?”