Charlotte nodded jerkily. ‘Among numerous other languages. But that’s not the point—’
He straightened from the door. ‘I’m sorry. I would have been here to meet you but I got delayed at the stables, taking delivery of a new thoroughbred—a present from Sheikh Nadim Al Saqr of Merkazad. He was skittish after the journey so it took a while to settle him.’
Sheikh Al-Noury had crossed the expanse of the Royal Office before Charlotte could get her thoughts in order. The fact that his apology hadn’t sounded remotely sincere was something that got lost in a haze as she found herself once again momentarily mesmerised by his sheer athletic grace. He moved like no other man she’d ever seen—all coiled muscle and barely restrained sexual magnetism. It was an assault on her senses.
He looked over his shoulder from where he was pouring dark golden liquid into a bulbous glass. ‘Can I get you anything?’
Charlotte’s throat suddenly felt as dry as the surrounding desert and she said, ‘Just water, please, if you have it.’
He came back towards her, holding out a glass of iced water, and once again Charlotte was struck by his sheer physicality. She reached for the glass and their fingers touched. A raw jolt of electricity shot up her arm, making her accept it jerkily. She immediately raised it to her mouth to give herself something to do, feeling as if she was floundering. She didn’t like it.
Sheikh Al-Noury indicated the chair from which she’d only just picked up her bag, intending to leave.
‘Please, take a seat, Mrs McQuillan.’
He walked around to the other side of his desk and sat down, lifting his feet carelessly onto the desk-top and crossing them at the ankle. Charlotte’s eyes grew wide at this less than respectful pose, and she forgot his offer to take a seat. Right now all he was missing was a half-naked showgirl sitting in his lap.
He swirled the drink in his glass and took a sip before looking at her and raising a brow. ‘I presume from the expression on your face that I’m about to get my first lesson in diplomacy and etiquette?’
Charlotte dragged her horrified gaze away from the very battered soles of his boots. There were dark stains that looked and smelt suspiciously like animal waste, and as her gaze clashed with that painfully blue one she said frigidly, ‘It is generally considered an insult of varying proportions to expose the soles of your feet to a guest anywhere in the world.’
The man did nothing for a long moment, and then he just shrugged minutely. ‘Well, we are in this part of the world now—and, believe me, we have far more inventive ways of insulting people. Nevertheless, I will endeavour to refrain from insulting my etiquette advisor.’
He lifted his legs, which only drew Charlotte’s attention to his thighs again, and then they were hidden from view under his desk. She felt the strangest twist in her belly. Almost a pang of regret. It angered her to be behaving so oddly.
That anger made her say through gritted teeth, ‘I am much more than an “etiquette advisor”, Sheikh Al-Noury. I am an expert in international relations and diplomacy, with a master’s degree in Middle Eastern Relations. I speak seven languages and I’ve just completed a successful assignment with King Alix Saint Croix, ensuring his smooth transition back onto the world stage after regaining his throne...’
Charlotte stopped and took a breath, slightly aghast at how much had just tumbled from her mouth.
Sheikh Al-Noury barely moved a muscle from his louche pose as he said, ‘Mrs McQuillan—’
‘And it’s not Mrs McQuillan,’ Charlotte snapped, feeling as if she was fraying from the inside out while this man remained utterly nonchalant. ‘It’s Miss.’
The sheikh’s bright gaze dropped down over her upper body and back up, making Charlotte feel hot all over and yet as if she’d suddenly been found wanting. He’d obviously come to some unflattering conclusion about her single status.
He looked at her and said, with an almost infinitesimal twitching at the corner of his sensual mouth, ‘Quite. Forgive me for the error. I’m afraid I’d just assumed...’ He sat up straighter then, and pointed to the chair on the other side of his desk. ‘Please, sit down, Miss McQuillan. You’re making me nervous, looming over me like that.’
Charlotte doubted anything would make this man remotely nervous, and to her disgust felt perilously close to wanting to stamp her foot and storm out. Did he have to make her feel like an admonishing parent? And why should that be pricking at her insides like a hot poker?
Charlotte’s habitual cool head was irritatingly elusive. She’d never been so aware of herself. She knew that she presented a slightly conservative front, but in her business it was paramount to appear at all times elegant and refined. Giving no cause for possible offence or provocation.
She reluctantly did as he’d bade and sat down, aware of her skirt feeling tight and the top button of her shirt digging into her throat. Clothes that had never felt restrictive before, now felt shrink-wrapped to her body.
He put the glass down on the desk and said, ‘Look, your credentials are not in doubt. King Alix of Isle Saint Croix rang me himself to sing your praises. But the fact is that I did not look for your expertise. My brother hired you in spite of my protests. I would have told you before not to bother coming, but I’m afraid I got caught up in ensuring my business concerns are attended to in my absence. However, I will be more than happy to ensure your return to the UK immediately, and of course you will receive full payment in recompense.’
This man’s casual disregard for who and what she was made Charlotte’s hackles rise. As did his arrogant assumption that she would be so easily dismissed.
She pointed out with faux sweetness, ‘As it was your brother who hired me, then I’m afraid he is the only one who has the power to terminate this contract.’
Sheikh Al-Noury immediately scowled, but it only enhanced the wickedly beautiful symmetry of his features. His gaze narrowed on her and she stopped herself from fidgeting.
‘Are you seriously tellin
g me that you would prefer to stay here in this landlocked sandpit of a country, in a city that is routinely plunged into darkness when the archaic electricity infrastructure fails, rather than be at home amongst your first-world comforts enjoying all of the festivities of the season? My coronation is due to take place a couple of days before Christmas, Miss McQuillan, and if you stay I can’t guarantee that you’ll make it home in time. You might not be married, but I’m sure there’s someone who is expecting your...company.’
It took Charlotte a few precious seconds to assimilate everything he was saying, but what caught at her gut was the way he’d hesitated over the word company, as if he’d had to find a diplomatic—ha!—way of suggesting that there might be someone waiting for her.
Next she registered his obvious disdain for his inherited kingdom—this landlocked sandpit of a country. True, there was something pitilessly unrelenting about the sea of sand on all sides of this ancient city, but Charlotte had felt a quickening of something deep in her soul—an urge to go out and explore, knowing from her research and studies of this region that it hid treasures not immediately apparent.