Craving BeautyBy: Nalini Singh
The Clendon readers are the first-round judges for the Clendon Award, founded by Barbara and Peter Clendon.
Though their identities are fiercely guarded,
I've met many of them through the score sheets
they filled out for my entries for the award.
Their comments and encouragement were invaluable
to a writer walking the rocky road to publication.
I'd like to take this chance to thank those anonymous
judges for the work that they do, and the Clendons,
for creating the award. Merci beaucoup.
“With this bond, I take my life and put it in the keeping of Marc Pierre Bordeaux. Forever and eternity." Hira's heart shattered into a thousand pieces as she repeated the ritual words.
Smiling, the elder lifted the trailing edge of the silken red ribbon tied around Hira's wrist arid fed it through the lacy aperture atop the wall dividing the men from the women. The marriage ceremony was almost complete— soon she'd be wife to a man with ghost-gray eyes.
What should've been the most wonderful day of her life was instead marking the destruction of her dreams. Dreams of love, dreams of family, dreams of tenderness. Because instead of being wooed and won, Hira Dazi-rah had been part and parcel of a business agreement.
Her wrist jerked as the ribbon went taut. At the same time, the elder said, "He is bound."
On the other side of the wall, a single voice rose in the haunting cadences of the blessing chant.
Per the customs of her homeland, Zulheil, in a few more seconds Marc would be her husband. Marc with his slow smile and eyes full of temptation. Marc with his warrior's face and hunter's walk. Marc, who'd demanded her father seal their business deal with his daughter's hand.
She'd thought him different. From the first, his obvious strength had attracted her, as had the way he had of looking at her as though she was precious. Then he'd smiled at her in that slow, sexy way. Unable to resist, she'd softened inside and out, responding to the glittering passion in his eyes.
Believing that their shared smile augured the beginning of something priceless, she'd waited for him to court her. For the first time since Romaz had trampled on her heart, she'd felt the bloom of new hope.
Two days later he'd offered for her hand, without having spoken to her, and her illusions about her American stranger had shattered. Instead of wanting to know the woman, Marc had been entranced by the shell of her body, the beauty of her face. The staggering pain of her bewilderingly intense disappointment had yet to leave her. It sat like a heavy rock on her heart, crushing and unable to be ignored.
"It is done," her mother, Amira, said. "The blessing chant has been completed. You are married, daughter."
Hira blinked and nodded, none of her anguish showing on her face. They sat in a sumptuous room filled with the women of the Dazirah family, women whose sharp eyes missed nothing. She would never shame her mother by coming apart at the seams.
Amira stroked her cheek. "I know this is not what you wanted for yourself, but it will be all right. Though your new husband is scarred, he doesn't appear cruel."
Not unless cruelty could be defined as inciting hope and then crushing it. "No," she whispered. "He doesn't."
But that told her nothing. Romaz hadn't appeared cruel, yet he'd ripped out her heart and laughed at her while he'd done it. She'd thought herself in love, so much so that she'd left her home and ran to him, ready to marry him without her father's consent.
It had been the only time in her life that she'd considered an action that would've brought the scorn of society on her proud family. That fateful day, her happiness had been as iridescent as a summer rainbow, joyous and pure.
The minute he'd seen her in the doorway of his humble apartment, Romaz's dark-lashed eyes had lit up in surprise. "Hira. What are you doing here?" He'd glanced over her shoulder, as if expecting an entourage.
She'd walked in, brushing past him, sure of her welcome. After all, he'd told her that he loved her. "I have come to stay," she'd said, excited and a little afraid but so glad to be with the man she loved.
He hadn't embraced her as she'd anticipated. "Your family?" he'd asked, a frown on his handsome face.
She'd thought his reserve sprang from displeasure at her forwardness and had been sure that once he heard what she had to say, he'd forgive her for taking the initiative. "They won't miss me till dinner. We have time to marry. They cannot stop us after that."
Some of her nervous joy had started to fade at his continued lack of a response. "Romaz?" She'd glanced at the still-open door, wondering why he didn't shut it so they could have privacy to make their plans.