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Darker Side of Desire & the Sheikh's Pregnant Prisoner(2)

By:Penny Jordan

Slenderly built with fine bones, she had an air of fragility of which she herself was unaware. Silver-blonde hair which she wore in a shoulder-length bell because it was easy to maintain, framed a classically oval face. Long-lashed grey eyes surveyed the world with a cool aloofness that had been born the day she woke up and suddenly found she was alone with full responsibility for an eight-year-old boy. Always neatly groomed, her clothes were useful rather than alluring. Neat suits and high-necked blouses which she wore for work, bought normally in end-of-season sales. There were no ‘pretty’ clothes in her wardrobe, apart from the ridiculously expensive gifts she received from her godmother; beautiful silk undies, a cashmere jumper, things she never wore without thinking how much they cost and how that money might have been eked out on more practical garments. Of course she longed for nice clothes, for luxuries, and perhaps when Teddy eventually left university… She pulled a brief face. By then she would be in her thirties… It was a subject on which she refused to dwell.

There had been several men at work who had approached her for dates, but once they learned about Teddy their interest had waned sharply. And who could blame them? She was certainly not prepared to enter into any relationship which was one of mere sexual indulgence, and yet what man would want to marry her knowing she was responsible for a young brother? That problem was one she refused to dwell on too deeply. Of course she had had the normal feminine dreams. She had envisaged for herself a husband, a family, at some dim date in the future, after she had left university and enjoyed her freedom for a few years, but now she was resigned to the fact that she would probably never marry, and since she was not prepared to go from one affair to another, she had found herself coolly freezing off any male attempts to get closer to her, knowing in advance what would happen when they learned about Teddy.

Thousands of women lived alone these days anyway; she had a good job, a comfortable if small flat. When Teddy was qualified she would be able to travel… and yet somehow the picture of her future did not appeal. Although she enjoyed her job she was no career woman. Of course she did not want to batten on to a man simply to escape being alone. She wanted to love and be loved, Claire admitted as she headed for the lift. She wanted to share and enrich her life with another human being.

Her room was on the second floor, where the corridor was carpeted in a richly warm crimson and cream with a luxuriously thick pile. The room she had shared with her godmother was almost as large as her entire flat, and far more luxuriously furnished. Dressing in a soft tweed suit in mauves and lilacs with a toning grey silk blouse, she brushed her hair into its neat bell, applied a discreet touch of make-up and then picked up her bag and key. Over breakfast she would decide how to spend her day.

At first when she stepped into the dining-room she thought she must have mistaken her directions and that she had inadvertently strayed into a private room. A large party of Arabs—all male—were seated together in deep discussion, and her own entrance occasioned an immediate and embarrassing silence which held her immobile on the threshold of the room until a waiter came forward and led her to a table.

All the way down the length of the room Claire was conscious of male eyes following her progress, studying her, assessing her, but the scrutiny she was most aware of was that which came from ice-cold green eyes that seemed to follow her every step, carelessly dismissing while still assessing her.

It was an unnerving experience, and she was dismayed to discover how much her hands trembled when she eventually sat down. She should have breakfasted in her room, but it was too late—and too obvious—to get up now and walk away.

As her composure returned she realised that she was not, as she had thought, the only female in the room. Several tables away a young Arab girl was trying to feed a small baby, strapped into a highchair. The child, a little boy, was protesting volubly, pushing away the proffered spoon, and Claire could tell that the girl was getting impatient with him. Twice she slapped the small plump legs, raising crimson marks, making the child cry loudly in retaliation. The girl was too uncaring to be the child’s mother, and Claire guessed that she must be his nurse, but there seemed to be little sympathy between them, and she was aware, as she glanced up from her own breakfast, that the man with the green eyes was also studying the little boy and his nurse, with a frown.

When the proffered spoon was pushed away for the umpteenth time the girl lost her temper, forcing it into the small mouth. The result was inevitable. The child started to cry loudly, and his efforts to avoid the unwanted food dislodged the dish holding it, spreading it over the table and the floor. The girl threw down the spoon, smacking the chubby legs hard as she pushed away her own chair. Claire noticed that as she stood up she glanced at her watch, hesitated, and then saying something in Arabic to the gathered men, walked towards the door.

The baby was still crying, quite hard now, and against her will Claire felt herself sympathising with him. He had been naughty with his food, but perhaps if the girl had cajoled instead of forced he might have been better behaved. He was wriggling violently in his chair, and Claire gasped as she saw it tilt, rushing instinctively to steady it before it fell.

Close to the baby was enchanting, with soft olive skin and huge tear-drowned dark eyes. He clutched hold of her blouse, the crying stopping as he gazed up at her. He wasn’t even secured properly in the chair, and Claire wondered a little at the child’s parents, allowing such an inexperienced and uncaring girl to have charge of him. Was one of the men seated at the table the child’s father? She glanced towards them and found herself pinned where she stood by the sharply cold glance of the man with the green eyes. What was the matter with him? she thought, unconsciously touching her tongue to suddenly dry lips. Did he think she was going to run off with the baby? His eyes dared her to so much as touch the child, and perhaps it was that, or perhaps it was the piercingly forlorn cry the baby gave as she started to move away that prompted her next action.

Almost automatically she turned back, smiling a little as the baby, sensing victory, lifted his arms. She half expected the man watching them to tear the baby out of her arms, but surprisingly no one moved. When she had been training to be a secretary she had often supplemented her income by baby-sitting and although it had been a couple of years since she had last held such a small child she found herself instinctively slipping back into the mothering role.

The olive cheeks were faintly flushed, his skin hot, and Claire guessed that he was probably teething. His clothes were obviously expensive but crumpled and stained with food. Suddenly realising what she was doing Claire moved to put him back into the chair. He cried protestingly, clinging on to her. Torn between common sense and an inborn instinct to comfort him she glanced across the room. He was still watching her and it was something in that look that impelled her towards defiance. Turning away from the chair and walking back to her own table, she soothed the complaining howls, murmuring soft nonsense which seemed to have the desired effect for the cries gradually ceased. She had just reached her table and turned when she saw the men enter the room.

Later she decided she could only have acted by blind instinct, because surely there hadn’t been enough time for her to register the menacing appearance of the gun; the silent intent of the man pointing it towards the now empty highchair, and even as he sought her out she was pushing over the sturdy table and crouching behind it, cradling the baby as she heard the sharp splinter of china and another noise that chilled her blood.

Gunfire was something she was familiar with from television, but she had never before experienced it so close at hand. The silence that followed those staccato spurts of sound was, in its way, even more terrifying than what had gone before. Dimly she was aware of running feet, of doors being closed, of someone approaching, a dark hand resting on her shoulder. She knew she tensed, unable to turn and look up, her too-vivid imagination working overtime, so that when she was eventually able to move the first thing she saw was the gun, held casually in the hand of the man standing over her.

Fear thundered through her body, leaving her drenched in perspiration, and trembling so much that he had to drop the gun to pull her to her feet. She heard him mutter something she couldn’t understand and she had a vivid moment’s recognition of green eyes, no longer ice-cold but hard with a burning anger, as her head was pushed against his shoulder and her body, betrayingly, sank gratefully against solidly braced male muscles, taking the support they offered without paying the slightest heed to her brain’s feverish command to resist and pull away.

Dimly she was aware of the doors opening, of hurried, staccato conversation; her eyes fluttered open, to discover that she was still holding the baby and that both of them were safe and unharmed.

The arms that had been holding her fell away and she told herself it was foolish to experience such an acute sense of loss. Dizzily she became aware of her surroundings; of the limp, lifeless dark-suited bodies lying on the floor; of the small, voluable middle-aged man who had erupted into the room, and whose features she vaguely recognised; but most of all of the man who had been holding her and who was now standing several feet away talking calmly to his plump, disturbed companion, both of them pausing to glance at Claire.