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Bethanne Sanders lined up the aircraft with the designated runway and began the final descent. The new jet handled like a dream—all the way from Texas to the coast of the Persian Gulf. It was the first time she'd flown halfway around the world and she wished she could continue on until she circled the globe. When she left Quishari, it would be by commercial flight back through Europe.
Maybe she'd get another dream assignment like this one in the not-too-distant future. For now, she continued to scan the landscape as far as she could see as the plane began descending. Excitement built. The Persian Gulf was magnificently blue, from deep, dark navy to shades of azure and turquoise. The strip of sandy beach now visible was almost blinding beneath the sun. She had read so much about Quishari and heard so much from her father, she almost felt like she recognized the landmarks as she came in for the landing. Her heart raced at the thought of actually being here. It was like a dream come true.
Had this assignment not materialized, she still would have come—but it might have taken longer as the cost was exorbitant and savings accumulated slowly.
But fate had stepped in—almost like the answer to a prayer. She was delivering a brand-new Starcraft jet to Sheikh Rashid al Harum—and bringing in a priceless cargo. His soon-to-be fiancée.
Except for the shakedown trips around Texas, the only hours on this jet were the ones taken to fly it here. If the sheikh liked it and accepted delivery, he'd be the proud owner of the latest and greatest of the Starcraft line.
She hoped the sheikh's fiancée enjoyed the detailing of the luxury appointments and had enjoyed the flight. Bethanne had taken extra care to make the journey as smooth as possible. She found it vastly romantic that they were planning to marry—and neither had yet met the other.
A bit odd in the twenty-first century. Still, to have been chosen to be the bride of one of the fabulously wealthy sheikhs of Quishari had to be thrilling. Pictures had been exchanged, the parents had made the arrangements. How did a thirty-four-year-old man feel about having his bride hand-picked? Not too different from some of the online dating services—match likes and dislikes, find someone compatible, and there they were.
Would they kiss when meeting? Seal the deal, so to speak? Or would the woman be too shy to be bold enough for physical affection at the instant of meeting?
She had daydreamed on the long portions of the flight when autopilot had taken care of flying that she was being met by someone who would sweep her off her feet, make her feel cherished and special.
Or, alternatively, she'd also imagined her father striding along the tarmac, gathering her into his arms for one of his big bear hugs.
Blinking, Bethanne brought her attention back to the task of landing this multimillion-dollar jet.
The snowy-white exterior had already been detailed with stripes using the colors of Quishari—blue and gold and green. The interior resembled a high-end hotel lobby. The lush Persian carpet in golds and reds supported cushy sofas and armchairs, all with the requisite seat belts. The small dining area was elegant with rich walnut furnishings. The galley was fully stocked, and included a stove, oven and microwave in addition to the lavish below-counter refrigerator, wider than long, capable of carrying any supplies necessary for the sheikh's pleasure. Even the sole restroom was spacious.
Bethanne had shown Haile al Benqura all the features of the cabin before going to the cockpit for her preflight routine. The chaperone accompanying the young woman had not spoken English, but Haile had. She'd taken in everything with a solemn demeanor. Wasn't she the slightest bit excited? Apparently when the sheikh had mentioned something to the president of Starcraft, her boss had immediately offered to fly Haile from her home in Morocco to Quishari as a favor to the prospective buyer of their top-of-the-line private jet.
Bethanne glanced at her copilot, Jess Bradshaw. It was his first long-distance delivery as well and they had taken turns flying the aircraft to minimize delivery time.
"Want to bring it in?" she asked.
"No. We want this to go perfectly. I'mnot as good at it as you."
She shrugged and then brought the plane down with a kiss against the asphalt.
"Nice job," Jess said.
"Thanks. This is a sweetheart of a plane. The sheikh is one lucky man."
She followed directions from the tower and taxied to an area away from the main terminal. The immaculate hangar was already swarming with ground crew; everyone had eyes on the jet as she pulled it into the designated slot. She and Jess ran through the checklist as they shut down. She wanted to dash out and breathe the Quishari air. But duty first. She had scheduled several days here to see if she could find her dad. And to see the towns and desert that made Quishari famous.
"I'm glad we get to sleep on the way home," Jess mumbled, waiting for her to get up first. He followed her from the cockpit to the outside door of the jet. With minimum effort, Bethanne opened it, watching as stairs unfolded. She glanced back and saw the chaperone. Where was Haile? In the restroom? Probably primping to look her best when seeing the sheikh for the first time. Bethanne hoped she hadn't been there when they landed. Jess had announced their approach and told the passengers to fasten seat belts.
The chaperone looked worried, her eyes darting around the cabin, refusing to meet Bethanne's gaze. Had she been afraid of flying? Bethanne couldn't image anyone not loving it. She'd wanted to be a pilot since she turned five and first been taken up in the cockpit of a small plane. Of course, wanting to follow in her father's footsteps had also played a big part.
Two men waited at the foot of the stairs. When the steps unfolded and locked in place, the taller began to ascend. Bethanne watched him approach. He was maybe six-three or four. Which Bethanne found refreshing. Her own five-ten height usually had her eye to eye with men. His dark hair shone in the sunlight, his skin was tanned to teak. The closer he came, the more she could see—from dark eyes that watched her steadily, to a strong jaw that suggested arrogance and power, to the wide shoulders encased in a pristine white shirt and dark charcoal suit.
Her heart began to beat heavily. She was fascinated by the man. Awareness flooded through her, as did a sudden need to brush her hair—she hoped it was still neat in its French plait. Studying him as he drew closer every step, she noticed the hint of wave in his hair. She wondered what he'd look like if he ran his fingers through his hair. Or if she did.
She swallowed and tried to look away. Fantasies like that would get her nowhere. This had to be Sheikh Rashid al Harum. Almost-fiancé to the woman in the back of the plane. Oh, lucky Haile al Benqura. She had undoubtedly fallen in love with the man from the pictures exchanged. Now she would be greeted and swept off her feet with one of the most gorgeous men Bethanne had ever seen.
"I am Rashid al Harum. Welcome to Quishari," he said in English as he stepped into the aircraft.
"Thank you." She cleared her throat. That husky tone wasn't like her. This man was rattling her senses. "I'm Bethanne Sanders. My copilot, Jess Bradshaw." She saw the surprise in his eyes. Despite all the headway women had made in aviation, it was still considered primarily a male profession. She was growing used to seeing that expression—especially in locales away from the U.S.
Rashid al Harum inclined his head slightly and then looked beyond them into the cabin.
The older woman rose and began to speak in a rapid strained tone.
Bethanne still didn't see Haile. Was she ill? As the chap-erone continued, she glanced at the sheikh, wishing she understood the language. His face grew harder by the second. In a moment he turned and glared at Bethanne. "What do you know of Haile's disappearance?" he asked in English.
Bethanne looked back into the cabin. "Disappearance? Isn't she in the restroom?" she asked, suddenly worried something was wrong. What had the chaperone said? Where was Haile al Benqura?
"Apparently she never left Morocco," the sheikh said in a tight voice.
"What? That's impossible. I showed her around the plane myself. She was on board when we were ready to leave." She turned to Jess. "You saw her, right? When you boarded?"
Jess shook his head slightly. "I don't remember seeing her when I closed the door. A maintenance man ran down the stairs just as I was rounding the back to board. No one else got off the plane."
"There shouldn't have been a maintenance man aboard—there's nothing wrong with the plane," Bethanne said. What was going on? Where was Haile? "What did she say?" Bethanne gestured to the chaperone, still standing in front of the sofa.
The sheikh glared at her for a moment, then in a soft, controlled voice that did not soothe at all, said, "I suggest that you and I speak alone."
She stared at him, suddenly worried things had gone terribly wrong. He seemed to tower above her, anger evident.
"I'll check on things on the ground," Jess said with obvious relief. He eased by the two of them and hurried down the stairs. Once he was out of earshot, the sheikh turned to the older woman and spoke briefly.
She dropped her gaze and nodded. Gathering her few things, she walked to the back and sat on the edge of the sofa, gazing out one of the small windows.
"According to her, Haile took off before the plane departed Morocco, running to meet a lover."
"What? How is that possible? I thought she was coming here to meet you—your fiancée, or almost," Bethanne blurted out before thinking. How could the woman choose someone else over this man? was Bethanne's first thought.
"So she is, was, to be. Her family and mine have been in negotiations for months over an oil deal that would prove advantageous to both countries. Included in that was the merger of our two families through marriage. Now my entire family—not to mention others in this country—expects the arrival of a woman who is to be my wife—and she is not on board."
Bethanne swallowed hard at the anger in his eyes. Surreptitiously wiping her palms against the fabric of her uniform, she raised her chin and said, "I'm not responsible for her leaving the plane. I thought she was on board. She was when I last saw her."
"You're the captain of the aircraft. What goes on is your responsibility. I hold you accountable. How could you let her leave?" His dark eyes pinned her in place. His entire demeanor shimmered with anger—controlled, which made it seem even stronger.
"How was I suppose to know she didn't want to come here? I thought everything was arranged." She would not tell him how romantic she found the scenario. Maybe she hadn't thought it through if the woman had fled rather than come to Quishari. "Though if I had known the circumstances, maybe I would have questioned whether anyone wanted to be negotiated into a marriage. I thought it was an old-fashioned mailorder-bride situation. But if the bride wasn't willing, I'm glad I did not have a part in bringing her here." She looked at the older woman. "She's the one you should hold responsible. Bringing them from Morocco to Quishari was a favor to you by our company."
"But the favor was not fulfilled. She is not here."
"I can see that. What do you want me to do about it now?" Bethanne said.
"The marriage would be an arrangement that benefits both countries," he said with a dismissing gesture. "That is not any concern of yours. The decision has been made. What is of your concern, is the fact Haile went missing on your watch."
Bethanne met his gaze bravely. It was not her fault the woman had deplaned. Why hadn't the chaperone stopped her? Or told someone before they took off from Morocco? What else could she say?
This was certainly not the happy arrival at Quishari she'd anticipated.
"The immediate need, now, is for damage control," he said after a moment. The sheikh looked back at the woman sitting so still in the back of the jet. For a moment Bethanne imagined she could see the wheels spinning in his head. How could she have known Haile wasn't as interested in the marriage as she had thought? She would never have suspected a young woman like Haile would disguise herself and slip away between the time Bethanne went into the cockpit and Jess joined her. It couldn't have been more than five minutes. Obviously it had not been a spur-of-the-moment decision. It had taken planning and daring. Bethanne's romantic mind imagined Haile deplaning surreptitiously and finding her lover and both fleeing, whilst her father and his minions followed on horseback. She blinked. Her overactive imagination could get her in trouble.
"I'm sorry I can't help you," she said, hoping to ease the tension that was as thick as butter. Her primary goal was to deliver the plane, which she'd done. Now all the sheikh had to do was accept the delivery, sign the paperwork and Bethanne could begin her vacation in Quishari while Jess would be flying back to Texas on the next available flight.
"Ah, but you can help. In fact, I insist." He turned back to her. The serious expression in his eyes held her in thrall. What did he mean?
"How can I help? Fly back to Morocco and find her? I wouldn't begin to know where to look."
"Despite my family's efforts to keep the entire matter solely within the family, rumors have been flying around the country. I've ignored them, but I know they speculate a special visitor will arrive soon. My coming to meet this plane would have fueled speculation even more. So, you're it."
"I'm what it?" she asked, wondering what would happen if there was no special visitor. Some gossip, more speculation about when his fiancée would arrive.
"The woman I came to meet. It's as if it was meant to be. What are the odds of having a female pilot bringing the plane—and one who is young and pretty enough to pass muster?"
"Muster for what?" Bethanne wondered if she'd fallen down the rabbit hole. Nothing was making sense.
"To pass as my special guest, of course."