Charlotte walked over to a nearby window that looked out over a seemingly unending sea of sand under a painfully blue sky. The sun was a blazing orb and she shivered lightly in the air-conditioning, imagining how merciless that heat must be with no shade. The little taste of it she’d had walking from the plane to the sheikh’s chauffeur-driven car and then into the palace had almost felled her.
With her fair, strawberry-blonde colouring, Charlotte had never been a sun-worshipper. And yet here she was. Because when the opportunity had come up to escape London in the full throes of Christmas countdown she’d jumped at it.
To say it wasn’t her favourite time of the year was an understatement. She loathed Christmas, with all its glittery twinkling lights and forced festive joviality, because this was the time of year when her world had fallen apart and she’d realised that happiness and security were just an illusion that could be ripped away at any moment.
Like the Wizard of Oz, who had appeared from behind his carefully constructed façade to reveal he wasn’t a wizard at all. Far from it.
And yet as she looked out over this alien view that couldn’t be more removed from that London scene, she didn’t feel relieved. She felt a pang. Worse. A yearning.
Because in spite of everything a tiny, traitorous part of her secretly ached for the kind of Christmas celebrated in cheesy movies and on cards depicting happy families and togetherness. The fact that she usually spent her Christmas Day alone, with tears coursing down her face as she watched Miracle On 34th Street or It’s a Wonderful Life for the hundredth time was a shameful secret she would take to her grave.
She made a disgusted sound at herself and turned her back on the view, firmly shoving any such rogue yearnings down deep where they belonged. She distracted herself by taking in the vast expanse of the King’s Royal Office—which, if the correct protocol was being observed, she should never have been allowed into without his presence. She sighed.
She could see that at one time it had been impressive, with its huge floor-to-ceiling murals depicting scenes that looked as if they’d been plucked from a book of Arabian mythology. But now they were badly faded.
Everything Charlotte had seen so far of Tabat and its eponymous capital city had an air of faded glory and neglect. But it had charmed her with its ancient winding streets, clusters of stone buildings and the river that ran all the way from the Tabat Mountains to the sea on the coast of neighbouring Jandor.
The country was rich in natural resources—oil being the most important and lucrative. But its infrastructure was in serious need of modernisation, along with myriad other aspects of the country—education, government, economy... It badly needed a leader prepared to take on the mammoth task of hauling it into the twenty-first century. Its potential was abundant and just waiting to be tapped into.
But, from the little she knew of Sheikh Al-Noury and his reputation, she didn’t hold out much hope for that happening any time soon. He’d made no secret of the fact that his priorities lay with his myriad business empires in the West.
She’d been hired by his brother, King Zafir of Jandor, to advise Salim Al-Noury on international diplomacy and relations in the run-up to his coronation, but in the two weeks since she’d accepted the assignment neither the sheikh nor his people had made any effort to return Charlotte’s calls or provide her with any information.
Charlotte checked her watch again. He was now well over an hour late. Feeling frustrated, and not a little irritated and tired after her journey, she walked over to where she’d put down her document case, prepared to leave and find someone who could direct her to her room. But just as she drew near to the huge doors they swung open abruptly in her face and a man walked in.
One thing was immediately and glaringly apparent. In spite of seeing his picture online, Charlotte was not remotely prepared for Sheikh Salim Ibn Hafiz Al-Noury in the flesh. For the first time in her life she was rendered speechless.
For a start he was taller than she’d expected. Much taller. Well over six feet. And his body matched that height with broad shoulders and a wide chest narrowing down to lean hips and long legs. He was a big man, and she hadn’t expected him to be so physically formidable. The impression was one of sheer force and power.
Messily tousled over-long dark hair framed his exquisitely handsome face, which was liberally stubbled. His eyes were so blue they immediately reminded Charlotte of the vast sky outside—vivid and sharp. His mouth was disconcertingly sensual—a contrast to the hard angles of his body and bone structure.
A loose-fitting white shirt did little to disguise the solid mass of muscle on his chest and a tantalising glimpse of dark hair. It was tucked into very worn jodhpurs that clung to hard and well muscled thighs in a way that could only be described as provocative. Scuffed leather boots hugged his calves.
It was only then, belatedly, that Charlotte registered the very earthy and surprisingly sensual smell of horseflesh and something else—male sweat. To her utter horror she realised that she was reacting to him as if she’d taken complete leave of her senses.
He frowned. ‘Mrs McQuillan?’
She nodded, only vaguely registering that he’d got her title wrong.
‘You were leaving?’
His deep and intriguingly accented voice reverberated through her nerve-endings in a very distracting way.
Charlotte finally broke herself out of the disturbing inertia that was rendering her insensible. What on earth was wrong with her? It wasn’t as if she hadn’t seen a handsome man before. She tried to ignore the fact that she’d just made such an intense inspection of the man and shelved her unfortunate reaction to him until she could study it in private, later.
She looked him in the eye. ‘I’ve been waiting here for over an hour, Your Majesty, I thought you weren’t coming.’
Those remarkable eyes flashed with what looked like censure. ‘I’m not king yet.’
He looked down, and Charlotte became conscious of her rigid grasp on her case. She forced herself to relax.
He met her eye again. ‘Were you offered any refreshment?’
Charlotte shook her head. King—no, Sheikh Al-Noury walked back to the doorway and shouted for someone. A young boy in a long tunic and turban appeared—the same one who had shown her into the office—looking pathetically eager to please. He looked terrified, however, after the stream of rapid Arabic Sheikh Al-Noury subjected him to, and then he ran.
When Charlotte registered what he’d said she stepped forward saying heatedly, ‘That was uncalled for! How was he to know to offer me anything when he only looks about twelve? Someone senior should have been here to meet me. Where are your staff?’
Sheikh Al-Noury turned around slowly. He arched a brow and leant against the doorframe, crossing his arms. Totally nonchalant and unfazed by her outburst. ‘You speak Arabic?’