This story is an entry for the Carlisle and Esme Summer Citrus Contest. To see the other entries for this contest, please visit tiickledpink's Community at the following address: ht tp: / / fanfiction .net/community/Carlisle_and_Esme_Summer_Citrus_Contest/93193/


Ten Hours in the Desert

by Mackenzie L.

Rating: M

Summary: Princess Esme must travel through the Sahara Desert in search of treasure to prevent an arranged marriage and preserve her kingdom. She starts off on her journey feeling confident, but everything changes once she meets her handsome young escort...

Word Count: 8,008

Disclaimer: All characters belong to their respective owners. The author of this story in no way profits from its use or distribution.


12:00 PM

At noon in the villages in Southern Egypt, the afternoon sun is already blazing overhead. In the outskirts of the Sahara, they call the sun Mother Nature's brightest lamp. It burns above the white stone cities like a crown of fierce yellow fire, but the city dwellers are not bothered by their fiery friend. They learn to live peacefully under her warm and watchful gaze.

The sun is the city's leader. There is a king and a queen who rule over the land, but even they must follow the rules of the sun.

The king and queen have a daughter – a princess who goes by the name of Esme.

The sun loves Esme most of all. Everyone says so. When the people see her walk beneath its brilliant rays, they cannot help but fall to their knees and deem her a goddess. Her long, wavy hair is the color of a camel's hide, a most rare color in these parts of Egypt. She is said to sparkle in the sunlight when she comes to stand out on her balcony above the city. Every afternoon, young men gather around the gardens of the king's palace just waiting to get a glimpse of the princess when she steps outside in the morning.

Lately, though, Esme has not been sharing her beauty with the outside world.

For the past few weeks she has been troubled by the king's will that she be married as soon as possible. He has lost luck with the neighboring lands, cut off from the lucrative stream of oil and gold coming in through the East. With so little riches to show for his title, he fears that his role as king will soon be stolen from him by a wealthier royal family.

Esme has always wanted to live a life free from arranged marriages and court duties. As her father's situation grows more dire, she sees her hopes falling apart day by day. The king has called every wealthy prince and sheik from the surrounding lands to visit his kingdom, hoping that one will win his daughter's heart, but to no avail. Esme's heart may be soft, but it is not easily fooled. No man who is willing to marry out of duty or for riches is worthy of her heart. She will have true love or no love at all.

During the days when the king tried to force his daughter into courting young heirs, Esme would often listen to the stories being told in the city streets at night. Old gypsy vendors would tell the familiar tale of a cave hidden deep in the desert where the gods kept their ancient fortune locked away in a place no mortal could find it. Esme has always thought these legends to be nothing more than foolish fantasies. However, on this day, Esme has finally made her decision to leave the kingdom in search of this mysterious cavern of treasures. In bringing back her fortune, she will save both her father's throne and her own heart from being sold to a man whom she does not love.

Deciding she must take charge of her own destiny for once, Esme begins to pack for her journey.

1:00 PM

"I am told I must marry into riches, but I do not love the man my parents have chosen for me. So, we've made an agreement. I shall venture into the desert in search of the legendary treasure, and if I find the treasure myself, I will not need to marry for wealth."

The servants seem puzzled by Esme's plans. They look at her in confusion, their eyes white and wide in their rich brown faces. She orders them to fetch her the finest travel clothes in the palace and bring them to her.

The two youngest servant girls return to the princess's bed chambers carrying a beautiful set of purple and blue travel robes. The fabric is thick but comfortable, ideal for protecting her fair skin from the harsh desert sun. The colors are light to repel the heat and to likewise complement her pale complexion. Over her shoulder the layers cling, clasped by a flattering purple jewel made to match her headband. On her feet she wears a pair of golden slippers, dainty to the eye but sturdy for the sole.

On her way out the palace gates, Esme is greeted by the guards who take her to the inn of the most trusted camel keepers in the city. There she will wait until she is introduced to the man who will be escorting her on her journey.

She expects a man of riper age, a man who appears wise enough to know the deserts by heart, to have decades of experience and have spent more than half his life memorizing every grain of sand in the Sahara.

Instead, Esme is brought face to face with a man no older than she.

Like her, he seems out of place for these parts, hardly tanned for the amount of sun he should have seen daily. As he slowly removes the white turban around his head, she can see he has been blessed with a halo of full blond hair, gilded generously by the violent Egyptian sun. His eyes match the rest of him in their brilliance, reflecting back a color so pure it seems to pierce her soul.

At first glance he is beautiful. At second glance... even more so.

He wears the poor, simple clothes of a vagabond, but his ensemble is contrasted by the notably cocky grin he wears on his face. At the sight of his expression, Esme's suspicion flares uncomfortably.

"Your highness," he greets her with a voice softer than Egyptian cotton.

Esme takes a step backwards before he can grasp her hand, and he casually lets his arm fall back against his side.

There is something about this boy that sets her heart into knots. She is not sure yet if it is an entirely good feeling or not. Something inside of her questions whether he is trustworthy enough to handle such an important journey.

"You may bring me the best camel you have," she prompts him sharply, ignoring the feeling of unease in her stomach. "And do not dawdle. I want to be on my way before the sun reaches half point."

She feels rather awkward shouting orders to a man who bests her in height by at least ten inches, but when he obeys immediately it fills her a satisfying sense of power.

He disappears into the shelters and returns quickly with a tall brown camel in tow. The animal indeed looks proud and fine, but the moment Esme mounts her saddle, the camel bucks slightly in displeasure.

Already this camel is acting restless, nervous. It's going to cause her problems all day, she just knows it.

Esme frowns as her escort attempts to soothe the poor beast by calmly petting its head. "I thought I told you to bring your best camel," she says grumpily.

"Old Raziya here is the best we have," he replies with a reassuring grin. "She has the gift of great haste, and she's got a back quite sturdy enough to carry a princess in comfort for a long journey." He ties a harness to the camel's long neck and looks up to meet the princess's critical gaze. "Trust me."

Esme scoffs, most especially at the animal's name. It is appropriately given indeed, considering Raziya means "agreeable."

"We must learn to trust one another, your highness," the young man says, staring up at her with a tiny crinkle in his forehead. "Having only met each other several minutes ago and being about to embark on a day's long journey, it is the least we can do for ourselves, wouldn't you say?"

Deep down Esme knows that trusting her travel companion is more important than her pride, but she refuses to give him anything more than a look of disinterest.

Knowing he cannot win against her, he sighs in defeat.

"Have it your way."

And together they leave the city's gates in begrudging silence.

2:00 PM

They travel for a good while with nothing but endless dunes of sand ahead of them. The view was spectacular when they first left the villages, but now it is bland and dull, the same in every direction. The sand stretches out for miles, only decorated by the occasional pyramid poking up in the distant horizon. The skies are slightly less blue than the ocean and completely cloudless. The sun would murder anyone who dared to look at it directly. The heat is likewise beastly, but it does little to affect Esme as she sits in comfort upon her surprisingly well-behaved camel.

As he walks, her young escort hums to himself, silly songs that go nowhere. But his voice, she cannot deny, is delicious. She listens to him secretly, smiling to herself as she tries to follow along with the melodies he is making up as he goes.

"You're ruining the silence," she says, just to stir him up.

He looks back at her with a pretty grin. "My apologies, Princess. I didn't realize you were listening."

"I wasn't," she says too quickly.

Even though she is behind him, she can just about see the way his cheeks puff out from grinning. "Sure you weren't."

Esme frowns. Such a fool he is! Smiling when he should have been sulking. She had no good reason to request that he stop humming. Her being a princess should not have stopped a man like him from having his way, especially not out in the middle of the desert where no one can berate him for it. Surely that must be frustrating to him.

"Aren't you going to ask me why I made you stop humming?" she asks him in annoyance.

"You haven't even asked me my name yet," he accuses her boldly. "What interest should I have to be asking you questions?"

Inside she feels a little bit guilty that she may have hurt his feelings, but she sighs heavily as if it is a chore to ask. "Fine. What is your name, then?"

"Carlisle," he answers. He is smiling as he says it, and he briefly looks back to meet her eyes.

It suits him well, she decides in her mind. Frustratingly so.

Deciding to humor him with more questions, she asks agreeably, "And how is our path looking so far, Carlisle?"

It feels nicer to say his name than she can admit. She hopes she will not have to say it again any time soon.

He raises a hand to shield his forehead from the sun and scans the dunes with sharp eyes. "Hmmm. There appear to be some troublesome dunes ahead."

"Troublesome?" she repeats in warning.

"Some of them are pretty steep, and the sand can slip back. It may be challenging for the camel to make her way up," he explained, giving old Raziya a pat on her chin.

"Brilliant," Esme groans beneath her breath.

She knows she is giving him a tough time when there is really nothing he can do, but she can't help but enjoy watching him struggle to please her.

"Lighten up, Princess," he says, sounding infuriatingly cheerful. "We'll get you to your treasure."

3:00 PM

After another hour of riding, the sun is just as scorching, the air is just as dry, the land just as barren, and the sky just as cloudless. Esme longs for a change in scenery – anything at all to break the endless sea of dull yellow sand dunes.

She finds herself watching him instead, preoccupying herself with the way little blond strands of his hair wave in the barest of breezes as he moves forward. Although they have been on the move for quite a while, he does not appear to have yet broken a sweat. She imagines his legs must be very strong to carry him for such a long distance without resting...

Such thoughts! Surely the heat must be getting to her.

Just as she shakes the devious thought from her head, she opens her eyes to a startling vision on the horizon. Nearly a mile ahead, a lush oasis gleams in the shimmering waves of heat rising up off the surface of the sand.

She blinks once, then twice, rubs her eyes and leans forward, but the mirage does not disappear.

Yes, the heat must certainly be getting to her.

"I think perhaps we should stop and rest for a while, boy," she instructs her escort, avoiding having to say his name at all costs.

He turns his neck and looks up at her with a confused laugh. "Are you mad, Princess? Why should we stop here when that oasis is just a few more minutes away?"

So it wasn't just a mirage.

Esme looks back to the inviting spot of water and trees with hopeful eyes.

"Of course. Please hurry."

He gives the camel's harness a tug and clicks his tongue, quickening their pace. As they come closer to the oasis, Esme can barely believe the view before her is real. Tall, bushy palm trees rise up from the sand, surrounded by patches of green grass so sweet she can smell it from afar. In the center of the trees she can see an appealing pool of shiny blue water, and it beckons her forward.

When they are just yards away from the site, Esme leaps off the side of her camel and rushes toward the edge of the oasis with her hands out in front of her, ready to scoop the water from the pool. Quickly she remembers that she is a princess, and still in the presence of a young man, however annoying he may be at times. Her movements are calm as she bends down to collect the water, and she is careful to maintain some grace as she conservatively dabs her face and hands.

"I promise I will look away," Carlisle says from behind her, and she jerks her head back in surprise.

"What on earth are you talking about?"

He cocks his head with a crooked smile. "Don't you want to cool yourself down?"

"I just did," she scoffs, shaking the droplets of water from her hands.

At this he tosses his head back with a loud belly laugh. "You can't be serious, Princess!"

She crosses her arms at his ill exuberance. "I am perfectly serious. Thank you for stopping here, boy. Now if you don't mind, I'm ready to continue on my journey."

She stands up straight and steps away from the pool, ready to march back to the waiting camel.

"Well, I'm not!" Carlisle argues brightly, already slipping his feet out of his shoes.

"You are aware, sir, that I am the princess, and you must do as I say or be banished!" she scolds.

"You wouldn't banish me! I'm your only hope in finding this illusive 'treasure cave', if it even exists," he says smartly, waving one sandal around for emphasis while he speaks. "You know I need time to rest for a while if we're going to make any progress before nightfall, so why don't you just sit down and relax while I cool off?"

"Fine!"

Esme stomps off to find somewhere comfortable to sit, settling on a flat topped stone by the water's edge where the camel drinks peacefully.

Her eyes wander toward Carlisle where he is pacing around the shores of the pool, searching for its deepest point. When he finds a place that satisfies him, he wastes no time before lifting his shirt up over his head and tossing it to the ground.

She watches him discard the simple layer of clothing, relieved that he does not do the same with his pants. The sun's rays reach out in longing to touch his well defined chest as he stretches his arms toward the sky. He turns away, oblivious to her stare, and she can feel a strange, numb sort of sensation in her throat as she lets her eyes roam the muscles of his back.

He bends over smoothly, and she can hear a soft splash of water as he lets himself tumble head first into the shallow pool. She raises her head up slightly to see him emerge moments later, soaking from head to foot.

The sun has stained his skin to gold, and everything about him seems to shimmer as he lifts himself slowly out of the pool. He walks over to the place where he dropped his shirt, dripping water along the way. She may hate herself for thinking it, but he looks absurdly beautiful while wet, like a perspiring young angel. His gleaming eyes peer through the motionless green palms, finding her gaze like a magnet. She stares boldly at him through the brush, letting him stare back as the water droplets stream languidly down his cheeks. Her heart squirms.

"What are you staring at, Princess?" his voice is quiet, cleverly prying. Even in the oppressive heat, it gives her chills.

She hates the fact that she must clear her throat before speaking. "I was just thinking how foolish you look," she covers poorly.

"Ah ha." He seems satisfied with himself, clearly not buying a word she says, and she hates him for it.

She tries to look away, but her eyes are distracted as he begins to dry his hair, combing his fingers roughly through the silky blond strands. His hair is longer than she realized before, darkened by the water but still warm in color, like toasted sesame in the sunlight.

He turns around, holding the collar of his shirt between his teeth as he bends over to put his sandals back on. His back is still glistening with water droplets, but the thirsty sun is quickly devouring them one by one. Esme nearly melts at the way his hair begins to curl slightly on the back of his neck as it dries. Her shoulders hunch in humiliation, and something odd happens to her fingers – they begin to twitch, as if longing to reach out and touch him.

As usual, she conquers her gentle thoughts with a blast of spite.

"You really should consider cutting your hair," she blurts out, her voice carrying a tone of disfavor.

"My hair?" he repeats in muffled disbelief, finally letting his shirt drop from his teeth. "Is it such a shocking length?" he laughs sarcastically.

"Since you've gotten it wet I can see how long it is now," she points out snippily, "and I don't care for it."

He shrugs, seemingly unbothered as he slides his shirt back over his shoulders. "You have your opinion."

"I would suggest trimming some off the ends," she presses on with a grin, "but of course it will have to wait since I did not bring any shears with me on this trip." She shakes her head in mock disappointment.

He snorts. "Are you certain your hair doesn't need cutting as well?"

She shakes her head tauntingly at him as her fingers weave vainly through her long, caramel tresses. "A woman takes pride in having longer hair. For a man, it is a sign of carelessness."

"Is it now?" he asks lazily.

Now fully dressed, he stands upright in front of her with both hands on his hips, trying to contain a smile.

"Naturally."

4:00 PM

It has been nearly ten minutes since they left the oasis, and the temperature has risen nearly ten more degrees.

"It is so terribly hot out here!" Esme's shrill voice rings out across the sands.

"Impossible!" Carlisle shouts mockingly, feigning shock. "We're in the desert. It never gets hot out here!"

She throws him an ungrateful look, still fanning herself uselessly with one of her slippers, and he chuckles to himself.

"You should have made better use of that oasis when we found it," he tells her simply.

"Hmph." She hates that he must make himself out to be the wiser one. "The water was probably too warm to swim in anyway." It was a lame excuse, but it was all she could think of.

"Actually it was quite cool," he responds matter-of-factly. "Very refreshing."

It takes all her willpower not to toss her slipper at the back of his blond head.

"Ugh."

"You know, I must say I'm surprised that you're feeling the heat at all," he says casually, and she knows something sarcastic will follow. "With a personality like yours, I'd think you'd be growing frost on your skin."

"How dare you?" she hisses.

"Oh, but I'm only making an innocent observation, your highness." He smiles agreeably.

"Innocent indeed. Hah! I could have you banished from the kingdom for remarks like that!" she exclaims.

"You make it sound as though I'd just suggested something treasonous!" he laughs in outrage, shaking his head at her. "But I speak the truth, as you know. You do have quite a ... chilling demeanor about you," he adds in a low voice.

"Chilling you say?" she repeats darkly, her eyes narrowing on the back of his head. "Just you wait until night falls."

5:00 PM

"You're moving too slow, boy! Hurry along! I want to find my treasure before the darkness sets in," Esme orders with a nervous glance toward the sky. It is still bright enough, but the sun has just begun its descent towards the West.

"I'm moving as fast as my feet will carry me, your highness," he sighs heavily, dragging his sandals along through the shifty waves of sand. "It's not the easiest thing in the world to keep a steady pace while the sun has been beating down on you for nearly five hours straight."

As her eyes fall on his straining back, she suppresses a twinge of pity for him. "Well, then you'll just have to work a little harder, now won't you?" she snaps impatiently.

"Ever think you might want to switch places for a while?" he suggests wearily. "Let me have a leisurely camel ride while you drag your feet through the hot sand?"

Her laughter rings out like the chime of bells. "Charming, really. I'm so thrilled the sun hasn't burned away your sense of humor."

His mouth forms a grim line as he rolls his eyes. "Funny. You didn't even need the sun to burn away yours."

For the first time today, the amusement in his voice falters a bit, and this worries her.

"You think you know everything about me, but you really don't know me at all," she says with a sad shake of her head.

"Forgive me, Princess, but I'm beginning to think it's a good thing that I don't know you any better than I already do." He laughs, and it sounds beautiful... but bitter.

Offended, Esme sniffs and raises her voice. "You're clearly just afraid of me, and you defend yourself by using humor and false cheer to cover up how intimidated you really are."

"If I were so intimidated by you I would not have agreed to escort you on this journey in the first place," he points out, giving the camel's harness a frustrated tug as he guides them up another hill.

"On the contrary, I believe that is precisely the reason you did agree," Esme argues, the heat rising up her neck as her words grow bolder. "You knew it was the only way to impress a woman of royal status; you knew you had no choice in the matter. To deny me your services would be incredibly ...well, stupid." She catches his eye, simpering sarcastically. "But as I can see, your talents don't end there."

"Why are you so keen on insulting me?" he asks suddenly. He sounds hurt, and again it troubles her.

"I'm not trying to," she says lamely. He gives her a dubious look over his shoulder. "Alright, maybe I was just trying to... provoke you a little."

"Mmhm."

She utters a forceful sigh. "Forgive me. I'm bored," she says honestly.

He laughs in a surprisingly kind way. "I understand," he says, rubbing the back of his neck with his knuckles. "And you know I'd be lying if I said it wasn't entertaining to be around you."

A pleased smile crosses her face when he isn't looking.

"I know you came out here with good intentions, Princess," he says gently, slowing the pace as he patiently helps the old camel over a steep dune. He pauses to look up at her when they reach the crest, his eyes like a fierce golden sandstorm, reflecting the deep sunlight. "But you must know that I did, too."

She takes a moment to stare at him, to admire the sincerity in his handsome face, to finally study his features at length after denying herself for hours out of prideful ignorance. The way he squints slightly in the sunlight makes him look humble and approachable, and the tiny crease in his forehead makes her question his obvious youth.

"I know that," she says softly, letting her eyes drop to his feet. After such a long walk any other man would have blisters, but not him. He has sacrificed his entire day just for her, with the purpose of helping her fulfill her quest... and he does not even expect any reward in return.

He smiles softly up at her – not a cocky grin, not a humorless wince – a true, gentle smile. "Good."

His dimples make her heart wild. Two soft little marks on each corner of his mouth where it appears a pair of angels have kissed his cheeks.

"Let's find this treasure," she proposes, finally offering him a smile in return.

He turns around to face the horizon and takes the first step down the other side of the dune.

"We can't be far now."

6:00 PM

The sun hangs slightly lower in the sky now, shimmering like a big fat golden coin. Esme licks her lips as she thinks of the riches that surely await her, and she imagines that they will shine just like that sun.

"So you don't want to marry…" Carlisle's warm voice comes from up ahead. The camel makes a small noise in return, as if she wants to nose in on the conversation.

"I never said that," Esme corrects with a wry smile. "I just refuse to marry for wealth alone. That is the lowest thing a woman can possibly do."

"Is that so?" Carlisle asks, interested.

"It certainly is," she says surely, turning her head up proudly toward the sunset. "I'd sooner spend a decade scouring this entire desert in search of gold before I sell myself over to some monstrous man for the coins in his pockets."

As she finishes speaking, her escort falls into a pensive silence. "Hm."

"What?"

"I'm impressed," he says "I must admit I was tempted to think less of you, but I can see now that you do possess some admirable qualities after all."

She smirks smugly to herself and tells him to quicken the pace.

7:00 PM

The sun is dipping dangerously low in the sky, turning tangerine orange as it sinks slowly toward the horizon. They know that the moon will be bright on such a clear night, but Carlisle has lit a lantern to help them find their way through the uncharted parts of the desert once the sun has set.

He carries it in front of him, guiding their way down the deep valley where the caverns are said to be hidden.

The air is cooling rapidly around them, and it draws a shiver from Esme as they descend into the shadowy depths of the valley. Knowing there is no possibility of a mirage now, she must squint in disbelief when she sees the hollow black spot gaping out at them at the bottom of a very steep ridge.

A gasp of surprise flees her lips, and she is stunned speechless when the view becomes clear enough to confirm.

They have found the caves.

She tells Carlisle to go faster, but the camel is worn down from the journey, and he must be as well. She hits his shoulder with the sash of her robe, urging him to pick up the pace, but he ignores her demands.

"We'll get there in a minute, Princess!" he tells her, but she is too impatient.

"Oh, I cannot wait any longer!"

With a cry of exaltation, Esme jumps off the camel, snatches the lantern from Carlisle's hand, and runs to the cave with her robes flapping clumsily around her. Already she can feel the cold golden coins between her fingers, see the glitter of a thousand gemstones beneath her feet...

"Princess Esme!"

She is too excited to respond to his calls, and before he can catch up to her, she jumps into the mouth of the cave, stumbling into a cascading tunnel filled with treasure.

She gives a shriek of victory that echoes gloriously throughout the cave, sharing her jubilation with the entire desert. One hand swings the lantern to and fro as she scampers over her newfound riches, splashing bright orange light over the heaping piles of gold.

Carlisle finally reaches the entrance to the cave, stepping inside to find his princess running wild with joy. He watches her happily as she celebrates her discovery, knowing that her joy may be short-lived once she remembers that they have to travel the same distance back home. He decides he can afford to allow her a few moments of carefree celebration.

"So... You've found your treasure," he announces with a cool smile, though inside he is just as excited as she is.

"Yes! Oh, yes! My parents thought they could arrange my marriage to any old clown with a pot of gold – well, I'll show them!" She throws a fistful of coins into the air and lets them rain down around her, whilst shouting merrily, "I'll come home richer than them all!"

"You certainly shall," Carlisle agrees.

She stops and looks at him with humorously heavy breath, her face flushed with joy in the light of the lantern, strings of pearls hanging from her fingers and both shoes missing from her feet. Carlisle thinks he has never seen a sight more charming… nor more strangely alluring.

"I never thought I'd say this, Princess, but... I am very happy that you found what you were looking for," he tells her, hoping she can see that he is being truthful.

"Thank you... Carlisle," she murmurs his name – and to her lips it feels like heaven, and to his ears it sounds like home. "Now help me load this camel up with gold!"

8:00 PM

The sky is an eerie greenish blue as the sun has completely disappeared, sparing a visit to the other side of the world for the night. Old Raziya does not particularly appreciate the extra weight of having both a princess and several bags full of treasure on her back, but like all camels she is built for carrying cargo on long journeys, and she accepts her duty with grace.

This time Esme is the one humming tuneless melodies as they make their way back through the desert. Carlisle can hear her clearly in the silence, but he would never dream of asking her to stop – even if it were done in teasing revenge. He is content to listen with a smile and occasionally offer small morsels to Raziya to thank her for a job well done.

The three of them have become strangely close-knit on this day-long journey; now that the sun has set, anything seems possible for them. They are able to travel a little further towards home, but as it gets darker and colder, they decide it is safer to make camp for the night.

Raziya drops to her knees and falls fast asleep long before Carlisle has built up a fire. Esme watches quietly with her back pressed against the camel's fuzzy flank, trying to keep warm. She can scarcely believe that the sand beneath her hands was once scorching to the touch. Now it is like soft icy dust between her fingers after the sun's departure.

There are a billion stars overhead, and a full moon that looks more like a big silver plate. The night sky is always so beautiful in the middle of the desert. Esme lets her head rest back so that her eyes may roam across the heavens, seeking that familiar band of milky way.

As soon as Carlisle finishes with the fire, he settles down by her side, sharing his warmth out of necessity rather than will. Still, she thinks that he does not mind very much that she must snuggle with him to preserve body heat.

Admittedly, she does not mind it so much either.

She is happy to find that his chest makes a comfortable cushion for her cheek. His arms keep her feeling safe, and he seems to know just the right rhythm by which to breathe. This close, he smells surprisingly wonderful – earthy yet sweet, like the gardens back at the palace. The damp, bittersweet scent of oasis water still clings to his wavy blond hair.

"I must have been right about the frost growing on your skin," he mentions with a low chuckle as she discreetly burrows deeper against his chest.

"Oh, be quiet," she mumbles, nudging closer to him as she tries to ward off the cold.

"You know I'm rather enjoying this...closeness," he says slyly, and for a moment she wonders if he's only joking with her.

"You would," she snorts, playing it safe in case he isn't serious.

He never elaborates, and instead he changes the subject. "Now that you have your treasure, what are you going to do when you arrive back home?"

She yawns delicately and shrugs against him. "Tell my parents that I'm not getting married, I suppose."

His voice is deeper than the deepest sand dunes when he finally speaks. "What if, in theory, you decided that you still wanted to be married... to someone else?"

"I ... I hadn't really thought about that very much," she lies quietly; meanwhile hundreds of thoughts are racing through her head.

"May I be bold with you for a moment, Princess?"

His words greatly excite her heart, but she keeps a cool expression, only allowing her eyes to lift in slight curiosity. "If you must..."

He catches her gaze, and she has never seen him looking so thoughtful before. She can see that he is meticulously arranging what he plans to say, carefully constructing his ideas into words before he opens his mouth.

"Do not write off marriage entirely," he says at last. She lifts her eyebrows in surprise. "Finding this treasure could either be a blessing or a curse, depending on how you choose to use it. If it is happiness you seek, you will not find it in riches alone." He looks down at her hand where it lays on the sand, then takes hold of it gently as he speaks. "Seek out a good man, a man you can love with all your heart. Only then will this treasure be worth something to you."

She knows that what he speaks is right, but this time it does not infuriate her. This time, what he says comforts her and brings a smile to her face.

"Carlisle..." His name drifts easily from her lips.

"Yes, Princess?"

"You're wiser than I thought."

The stars illuminate a crooked smirk on his lips. "I seem to recall the words 'incredibly stupid' in your earlier assessment of me."

They both share a sheepish laugh at the memory, knowing that none of their exchanges in the beginning had been anything near sincere.

"Well, I was the fool for judging you too quickly," she amends quietly. "You are one of the kindest, most hard-working, and reasonable men I've met."

"I'm honored by your sincerity, Princess," he says a bit stiffly, as if he is afraid to be too bold with her.

Her title is beginning to sound more like paper every time he uses it.

"I would like to reward you for all your help," she tells him adamantly. "I wouldn't have found this treasure without you, so I believe you deserve a fair share."

"Oh, I couldn't-"

"I want you to take half," she declares in a tone that will brook no refusals. "Like you said, this treasure isn't worth something unless you have someone to share it with."

"I never used those words..." His sentence trails off, leaving a few very sweet implications dangling in the air between them.

"But you implied them," she states forwardly, her hand gripping his in a tight promise.

"Princess..."

"Stop calling me that," she whispers as if he has committed a most terrible offense.

"What shall I call you?" he asks her secretively, the answer already sparkling in his eyes.

"Esme," she responds, treating his firm cheek to a soft kiss. "Call me Esme."

"Esme..." he whispers in a raspy voice, and for miles around them, the desert sands quiver.

In one swift bow of his head, his lips collect hers, bringing them to the home they have been searching for since the beginning of time.

9:00 PM

When the sun has fully set, the stars are spread like fiery white diamonds across a rich blue night sky. The desert is no longer as frigid as it was only minutes ago. Slowly but surely, they are helping to heat it up again.

They use his clothes for a mattress and her robes for a blanket. Old Raziya doesn't know it, but she serves as their pillow when they need one. The peaceful camel drowns herself in sweet dreams filled with oasis waters while the young lovers beside her drown themselves in each other.

The princess reclines on their makeshift bed of discarded clothes without shame, displaying her flawless body for Carlisle's eyes to feast upon. She is an exquisite sight to behold after a long day spent in the Sahara's unforgiving heat. Such a journey would make any man weary, but he is lucky enough to have her as a reward for all his hard work. He will gladly sacrifice sleep for the entire night if it means making love to her until the sun rises.

Carlisle is fascinated by Esme's hands. They truly are the hands of a princess – soft and small, white as Greek yogurt in the moonlight. She has not a scratch or mark on them, no blemishes to be found. She is not shy with her hands as a new lover should be; instead she touches him as if she has been touching him since the beginning of time. She seems to know every curve and angle and slope of his body, sensing where he most longs to be touched. With her swift, slender little fingers she is able to elicit the most glorious sensations in him. A desperate need for her begins to build inside of him, coiling deep in his belly like a desert cobra.

Her hands travel up his chest and around his neck, and he recalls the way the desert sun had kissed him earlier that day, how it does not even compare to the heat Esme's touch leaves behind on his skin. Her hands bury themselves at last in his hair, each finger finding its own modest curl to twist at the nape of his neck. He groans with pleasure as her fingers begin to massage his scalp, affectionately dragging through the blond waves that surround his chiseled face.

"I thought you didn't care for my hair at this length," he says, contentedly nudging his head against her open palm.

"I lied," she confesses, and her voice sounds maddeningly wicked in the darkness. She runs her hands more roughly through his thick blond mane and nearly growls, "I love the length of it."

"I daresay that isn't the only thing you'll love the length of," he whispers forwardly, his eyes smoldering above her.

She embraces his waist with eager arms, mewling excitedly at the scandalous implications of his words. Through the tangled fabric of her travel robes around his muscular legs she can feel his promised length, a gentle but impressive weight upon her thigh.

She tosses her head back, her full lips whispering to him, singing his praises as his hands acquaint themselves with the curve of her belly, her back, her hip. Every part of her seems as though it has been created to receive him. He wants to touch every place on her body and watch the look in her eyes as he does so.

When she sees that intimate twinkle in his gaze, she knows that he cannot be a stranger. A stranger could never love her the way he is loving her right now. A stranger would never know her deepest secrets before he discovered them. But Carlisle does know these things, and it frightens her as much as it soothes her.

He kisses her mouth, her chin, her neck, then her breasts – in that very order – and then he repeats it slowly in reverse. He is like a living, breathing statue, hovering above her. His body is perfectly built, sturdy and yet simultaneously gentle – a true masterpiece. Just looking at him, she can imagine how lovingly the hands of the gods had worked to mold every muscle, every delightful curve and contour that comprises his solid figure.

His expressions are more dynamic than a cloud of smoke in a windstorm, every feature on his face disclosing some new little secret of his soul. He moves the excess clothes out of the way, baring both their bodies to the wild eyes of the sky overhead. Her own eyes trail down his belly to where he is beautifully erect for her, and she does indeed love every inch of him. With a guided hand she touches him delicately, as if he is a piece of rare art not meant to be touched.

He shivers in encouragement and presses himself against her soft palm with a needy whimper. She invites him closer to her body, lets him rub himself against the crook of her waist, the back of her thigh, the slope of her hip bone. He leaves behind droplets of love that glisten in the moonlight before his hands find each of her thighs and firmly coax them apart.

Their bodies fit together like a glove, snug and exquisite. He clenches his teeth as he slowly descends into her, desperate not to overwhelm her but insane with the need to pound into her. She is too precious for him to treat her so brashly; she deserves to be savored. With every fiber of his being, he clings to his restraint, waiting for the moment she will give him permission to explore her further.

She rests her soft forehead against his shoulder, releasing breath after shallow breath against his strong neck as he waits patiently inside of her.

"Carlisle…" She whispers his name with a sweet, unfamiliar urgency to her voice. Then in a softer, pleading whimper, she repeats it. "...Carlisle..."

The power just his name holds when said in her lusty voice is overwhelming. He rejoices inside as she tugs him in closer, deeper, welcoming him into the burning depths of her luscious femininity. Soon they are moving together in a harsh, desperate rhythm that stirs the sands beneath them. The silence of the desert is peppered with their unexpected gasps and simultaneous sighs of yearning. Occasionally, a cool wind beats against Carlisle's bare back as he thrusts into his lover; like a gentle whip against a stallion it is, commanding him to move faster.

He tangles his fingers in her hair and holds her impossibly close, as if it is the first and last time they will be together. He whispers subconscious stanzas of poetry into her hair and against her fragrant skin. She sighs and lets her head fall back submissively, weary from the pleasure, fatigued from the high of having him inside her. But she still desires more.

"Faster..." she implores him, grasping his back with hungry hands, her legs forming a vice around his hips.

He has no will now but to serve her, obey her every wish. "Yes, Princess," he groans indulgently, all too glad to hasten his already desperate pace.

Her eyes glitter as she stares up at him, more brilliant than any jewels they collected from the caves. Her lips are open, beckoning him with every breath, and her neck is stretched back generously to the moonlight, inviting his kisses to find purchase in her smooth ivory skin.

His lips claim her many times, and in everything he does, he remains loyal to the rhythm he has set between them. Every stroke, every kiss, every word he utters is part of a delightful percussion that fills the barren night with energy and seductive vibrance. His princess appears more and more beautiful with each moment that passes until her beauty has become almost unbearable for his eyes to see.

Her body moves with his, her limbs wrapping around him, slipping and tangling and grasping him everywhere. She follows his lead, never venturing from his rhythm, her hips dancing frantically against his until she can offer him no more.

At the pinnacle of her seductive dance, she shatters in his arms, crying out to the stars for relief from the unspeakable pleasure that courses through her body. She convulses so beautifully as he holds her, making him feel like a hero in the dark. She cannot see the curve of a shadowy smile that claims his lips, nor can she sense the way his masculine pride is swelling with every sharp exhale she breaths as she loses herself to her climax.

She clutches him feverishly over and over, stealing bits of his control with every merciless grasp until he spills blissfully within her. His satisfaction burns and sparks deep in his belly like an untamed bonfire, knowing her passage has been claimed by him and him alone. He can rest peacefully tonight, having bathed within her and given up his virtue for her to consume.

When they collapse together on the sand, it is as if they have spent an eternity making love. They can scarcely catch their breath, but they have never felt more free. The crackling fire throws titillating flashes of amber light over their naked bodies, still struggling to offer them all the warmth it can before it dies down. In the distance, they can hear tiny grains of sand humming with satisfaction as the western winds glide over the vast desert hills. Though the night has only just begun, it seems to encourage them to prolong their moment of undisturbed peace.

"I'm not so cold anymore," she whispers against his cheek.

He holds her tighter as he stares wonderingly up at the stars. "Neither am I."

10:00 PM

Several feet away from where they lay in the sand, old Raziya still does not move a muscle. Sadly, she will never be moving from that spot – not tonight, nor the next night, nor the night after that. She has always loved the desert, so they believe it is appropriate that she remain here. They will leave her behind with happy hearts, knowing that she is where she belongs.

"I'm sorry, dear. I just couldn't resist," Esme murmurs to her lover with a bashful giggle.

"Neither could I," Carlisle replies, discreetly wiping a streak of red from his bottom lip.

Esme turns to the eternally sleeping camel and sighs in dismay. "How are we going to carry the treasure back now?"

Carlisle smirks as he gathers his clothes and gives the four large sacks of gold a look of consideration. "I don't think we'll be needing a camel to carry our precious cargo, do you?"

Esme shrugs into her robes and easily lifts two heavy sacks full of treasure onto her shoulders.

"Now that you mention it, she was delaying our trip quite a bit."


A/N: Oh, no! Was anyone actually fooled by this one? I admit I didn't even know where I was taking this until I reached the ending and realized I had to figure out whether I wanted them to be vampires or not. But as it turns out I just love my tricky role-playing Carlisle and Esme too much to let them go!

For those who may wonder, yes, I do consider this 'canon'. Consider it a detour on their way back from India after "A Pair of Emerald Earrings." ;)

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Heartfelt thanks to everyone who voted for this story, allowing it to receive the honor of a first place spot in the Top Three. I would also like to extend congratulations to all those authors who also placed in the Top Three/Four/Five that were selected in the Contest! And thank you to Chloe for hosting it.