Charlotte stood inside the main door to the ballroom and instantly felt like an utter fool. She should have put on the dress.
The dress that had been delivered to her room earlier that day. The most exquisite dress she’d ever seen. Green silk...strapless.
She’d held it up and the material had dropped to the floor with a whisper of expensive fabric. She had imagined how it would mould to her body. Emphasising curves she didn’t even have and hiding any flaws and imperfections.
She had imagined how she would feel... As if she was the kind of woman who could walk into a room and have men look at her. Desire her.
One man in particular.
As that thought had entered her head she’d let the dress fall back onto the bed, aghast at how instantly it had seduced her. Seduced her into thinking for a second that she could risk the almost certain rejection she’d face.
Sheikh Salim Al-Noury had sent her this dress to toy with her. To mock her for staying and not leaving. If she put on the dress and went to his party, no matter how ironically she did it, she would be exposing herself in a way that would make her unbearably vulnerable.
Since her father had walked away from her all those years ago, effectively cutting himself out of her life, Charlotte had shunned intimate male attention and relationships. She was too fearful of experiencing that excoriating pain again. She knew it was irrational, and that no man could hurt her unless she allowed him to, but no man had slid under her skin so immediately and effectively as this reluctant king.
So, galvanised by hurt and anger that he thought he could manipulate her so easily for his own amusement, Charlotte had stormed off to find the party. She’d collided briefly in the corridor with a tall, arrestingly handsome man who’d looked vaguely familiar, even though she was sure she’d never seen him before, but that hadn’t stopped her.
And now she was here and she felt like an impetuous idiot.
She’d never seen such a glittering scene. She wasn’t sure what she had expected, but it was not this restrained...elegance. Candles bathed the guests in golden light. Men were dressed in tuxedoes. Women were arrayed in stunning jewel-coloured dresses with diamonds sparkling at their throats and hands.
A string quartet played on a dais in one corner. French doors were open to a long terrace, where more people mingled, and the dusk painted the vast sky outside purple and grey.
She was used to exclusive events, but always in a peripheral sense, because she was usually working. And she’d never felt more peripheral than right now, in her very boring skirt and shirt, with her hair pulled back in a tidy bun. She looked as if she was about to take dictation.
If Salim saw her now... She flushed with self-conscious heat to think of how he’d mock her—she’d have been damned if she’d worn the dress and was damned now that she hadn’t.
She was about to turn to make her escape when she saw him, cutting a swathe through the crowd and coming straight for her, his eyes locked on hers. Intense.
Even from here she could see the glint in his eye. The faintly turned up corner of that wicked mouth. It made a total mockery of her fantasy. He’d noticed her now for all the wrong reasons.
Her heart thumped and her skin grew clammy when he came to a stop in front of her. He was breathtakingly handsome. The tuxedo moulded to his muscles and tall frame like a second skin. It lent him an air of civility that had never felt more like a token gesture. His hair was still unruly and his jaw dark with stubble. This man was wild, through and through. As wild as the desert outside.
He drawled, ‘Miss McQuillan—welcome. I shouldn’t be surprised that you have chosen not to wear the dress; for someone whose career is all about diplomacy you’ve got a surprisingly rebellious streak.’
His words landed like tiny poisonous darts. Charlotte had never felt remotely rebellious before meeting him. She refused to be made so acutely aware of how she stood out like a limp flower next to hothouse orchids.
She curled her hands into fists at her sides. ‘Believe me, you bring out my worst traits. Thank you for the dress, but it wasn’t necessary. I’m not here for your amusement, I’m he
re to do a job, and that is to help you transition from your current role to your new one, no matter how long you choose to stay in it.’
He folded his arms across that massive chest. ‘Haven’t you heard that all work and no play makes Miss McQuillan a very boring girl?’
Charlotte sucked in air to try and calm her racing pulse and emotions. This man shouldn’t be appealing to her emotions. But he was. And that was bad. It made her feel threatened and she blurted out words before she could stop herself or think them through.
‘You know,’ she said, ‘maybe you’re right. Maybe I should just call your brother and tell him that he’s wasting his money.’
She’d turned to walk away, but before she could move a hard hand clamped around her wrist. Her pulse hammered against his hand. She looked at him, recalling all too easily how his hands had felt on her the other day.
Any mockery was gone from his expression now. ‘You disappoint me...admitting defeat so easily?’
Before Charlotte could say a word her eye was caught by a stunning amazon of a woman dressed in a very revealing black lace dress. She was bearing down on them with a determined look on her vaguely familiar face. At the last second Charlotte realised she was a famous actress.
Salim had looked around too, but instead of letting Charlotte go his grip tightened and he muttered something rude under his breath, quickly turning and walking away, dragging Charlotte with him.
He’d taken her into an anteroom nearby and locked the door behind him before she’d even fully registered what had happened.