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Darker Side of Desire & the Sheikh's Pregnant Prisoner(4)

By:Penny Jordan

She had always loathed arrogant, self-assured men, Claire reminded herself as she let the door slam behind her and hurried towards the lift, and if she had responded momentarily to the sheer male power of his body against her, it had been a reaction intensified by weakness and relief. After all, she would be a fool to think for one moment that those green eyes might burn with tenderness and passion for her, or that that hard, faintly cruel mouth might touch hers in need and hunger. A complete fool.


THERE was no reason for her to feel so dissatisfied. Her day had passed pleasantly enough, Claire told herself. She had visited the Tate to admire many old favourites, and then there had been a pleasant walk through the park. Now she was on her way back to the Dorchester to indulge herself with afternoon tea in the promenade room, so why should she feel this tiny feathering of restlessness that kept disturbing her? Perhaps it was because she was alone. She would write to Teddy, send him a postcard of the hotel. Thinking of Teddy reminded her of her ever-present worries about finding his school fees. Generous though her salary was, it couldn’t cover them. She would have to find a part-time job. By her reckoning, she could just about manage two more terms with what savings they had left, and the present term’s were paid.

‘Afternoon tea, madam?’ The waiter’s voice broke into her reverie, and when she nodded he showed her to a comfortable padded chair, the small table in front of her set for two.

It was just gone five o’clock, obviously a popular time for tea, because most of the tables were taken, and Claire amused herself as she waited for hers to be brought by studying her surroundings. The room itself was long and rectangular with several sets of doors leading off it which she knew led to the restaurants. Decorated in soft buttercup-yellow with the frieze picked out in gold, the decor was an attractive one. Marble columns soared up to the ceiling, and underfoot was a soft patterned carpet rather like an Aubusson. Voices rose and fell mingling with the chink of china cups and the clatter of cutlery against plates.

Nibbling her dainty sandwiches, Claire continued her scrutiny. Expensively and elegantly dressed men and women sat at the small tables, couples in the main, although there were some family groups. All at once she felt very alone, the food she was eating turning to sawdust in her mouth. Pushing away her plate, Claire got up unsteadily, the events of the morning catching up with her. The Head Porter handed her her key when she asked for it, and also an envelope bearing her name. Unable to recognise the handwriting, Claire frowned as she headed for the lift, the small mystery solved when she opened the envelope and realised that the letter was from Sheikh Ahmed.

The lift came. She was the sole passenger and started to read her letter as she was borne upwards. Barely able to take in its contents before the lift stopped, she hurried to her room, unlocking the door with nervous fingers, sinking down into the comfortable chair by the window before unfolding the heavy, expensive paper and reading through the note again.

The Sheikh wanted to see her to discuss something with her. But what? The note was almost deliberately evasive, full of gratitude for what she had done and yet really telling her nothing of the Sheikh’s purpose in writing to her. He would send someone to escort her to his suite, his note informed her. Obviously she wasn’t going to be allowed to refuse.

Repressing a sigh, Claire found the card she had bought for Teddy and started to write to him. The summer holidays were coming up and she already knew that Teddy had been invited to join a schoolfriend on his father’s yacht. She had been worrying about how she was going to pay for the clothes that he would need, but her godmother’s generous cheque had solved that problem. It would also enable her to give Teddy some money of his own to spend while he was away and she was just writing to him to this effect when she heard the sharp rap on her door. Guessing in advance that it would be one of Sheikh Ahmed’s armed men, she went to the door and opened it, suppressing a small stunned gasp of dismay when she realised he had sent Raoul.

‘I’ll just get my bag and my key,’ she told him, surprised to find that he was following her into her room. Her key and bag were on the far bed and as she picked them up she was astounded to discover that Raoul was openly reading the card she had been writing to Teddy.

‘Your lover?’ he questioned, without a hint of embarrassment at being discovered.

‘My relationship with Teddy is private,’ Claire responded furiously. From the first moment she had set eyes on him something about this man had antagonised her, and it was plain that he shared her antipathy. He was looking at her with something that bordered on acute dislike.

‘That will be something my uncle hasn’t bargained for,’ he murmured under his breath as he straightened up, but before Claire could question him further he was heading for the door, the small courtesy of opening it for her and then standing back so that she could precede him, drawing a thin, sardonic smile from his lips. ‘My mother used to say that the thing that made her fall in love with my father was his good manners. My countrymen…’

‘Believe in treating their women like possessions,’ Claire said unwisely. ‘No wonder your mother chose to marry a European.’

‘You prefer European males to Eastern?’ The dark eyebrows shot up. ‘Why is that, I wonder? Because you know it is easier to dominate them? Are you then a modern, liberated woman, Miss Miles, who believes herself equal or indeed superior to my sex? A woman who chooses her lovers as her grandmother might have done a new gown and discards them just as easily…’

Trying to hold on to her temper, Claire responded briefly, ‘And you? Am I to infer from what you have said that you prefer your women to be of a more biddable disposition; Muslim women, in fact, taught from the cradle to revere and worship the dominant male? How fortunate we both are that we can indulge our separate tastes without opposition.’

She had meant the words as a taunt, but had been totally unprepared for the look of dark, almost brooding anger that tightened every feature, his eyes almost black as they bored into puzzled grey ones.

‘You might be able to indulge your preferences, Miss Miles,’ he said at last, ‘I am less fortunate. Muslim fathers are careful where they bestow their daughters, and like any child of a dual-race marriage, I am totally accepted by neither. Indeed, if it were not for the good offices of my uncle Sheikh Ahmed, I doubt I would even have a country to call my own.’ He saw her expression and his face hardened further. ‘You might find the thought of a marriage between East and West a romantic concept, Miss Miles,’ he told her, correctly reading her thoughts, ‘but my mother soon discovered to her cost that my father had no intention of keeping the promises he made when they became man and wife. In the East at least a woman has the comfort of her family if she should be deserted or ill-treated by her husband, in the West… My father married my mother purely for her wealth. Once they were married and I was conceived, he devoted all his spare time to other women and gambling. My mother died shortly after I was born. The shame of her husband’s desertion was something she could no longer endure, and once my father discovered that he was not going to benefit from his marriage, he gave my uncle the option of either bringing me up himself or placing me in an orphanage.’

Why was he telling her this? Only this morning he had savaged her with the knife thrust of his contempt for merely betraying a brief curiosity, but now he was telling her the intimate details of his life, and in such a taut, bitter way that she guessed every word was a sharp thorn piercing an old wound. She couldn’t understand it.

They were borne upwards in the lift towards the Sheikh’s private suite. As before, the Sheikh was alone, his smile welcoming and she was sure sincere, as he waved her into a chair.

‘Please, sit down, Miss Miles,’ he glanced at his nephew as Claire obediently sank into a plush chair. ‘Has Raoul said anything to you of my purpose in asking you to join us?’

‘I have told her nothing. You know my views.’

‘But if she is agreeable you will…’

‘I will do whatever is needed to protect the child, you know that.’

Alarmed by the harsh tone of his voice and the undercurrents she could sense seething between the two men, Claire glanced from Raoul’s set, dark face to the Sheikh’s kinder, but no less resolute one.

‘You are alarming our guest, Raoul,’ he berated mildly ‘My dear, there is no need to be afraid. Indeed we are the ones to suffer that emotion lest you should…’ He broke off while Claire stared up at him in mystification. Neither of them struck her as men who would fear anything, especially Raoul. By his actions this morning he had proved that when it came to physical danger… She shuddered, suddenly over-taken by a vivid memory of the gunmen and the rapid sound of gunfire, the fear that had been pushed aside by the adrenalin-induced need to act now emerging to surge sickeningly through her veins. Only the knowledge that Raoul was watching her and would no doubt relish her weakness gave her the strength to suppress her feelings, her nerves as taut as fine wire as she waited for the Sheikh to continue.

‘I have a proposition to put to you, Miss Miles,’ he began quietly, and beneath the calm dignity of his manner Claire sensed a deep inner disquietude. ‘Indeed, it is only because I sense within you a warm and sympathetic personality that I am able to speak of this matter to you at all.’ He gave her a charming smile. ‘You might say that I am taking an unfair advantage of your good nature, and I’m afraid that is true. This morning you risked your own life to save that of my nephew…’