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Sheikh Nadim Bin Kalid al Saqr's dark eyes followed the horse and rider as they exercised on the gallops. He was blinded not only by the sheer magnificence of the colt, which had quickened his pulse and sent a thrill of triumph through him as soon as he'd seen its exquisite lines, but also by the intense green of everything as far as the eye could see. Softly falling rain covered everything in a fine mist, even though it was an unseasonably warm September day.
For a man who considered himself hewn from the uncompromising aridity of mountains and desert, he hadn't expected to feel a kinship with this inclement part of the world, but strangely, standing here now, he felt its lushness pull on his soul in a way he hadn't anticipated.
Up until now he'd been content to confine his interest in thoroughbred racing and breeding to his home on the Arabian peninsula, trusting his aides to buy in Europe and transport the horses to him. But now it was time to set up a European base, and he'd chosen Kildare, the Irish capital of thoroughbred breeding and training.
Ireland's reputation as home to the world's best horses, breeders and trainers was not in doubt. The man beside him, despite his florid appearance, which more than hinted at a drinking problem, had reputedly been one of the best trainers in the world, but until very recently had all but disappeared from the racing world.
The silence grew taut but he didn't speak for a few moments longer, unperturbed, studying the two-year-old.
His eyes drifted up from the horse to the rider. He could see that not only was the horse perhaps one of the most magnificent he'd seen in a long time, the rider too was one of the most accomplished he'd seenand that included his own carefully handpicked staff back home. He looked to be about eighteen, slim build, definitely young. Yet he exuded an effortless way of handling the horse which Nadim knew only came from true talent, sheer courage and experience. And the animal was spirited.
The man moved restlessly beside him and Nadim took pity, saying finally, 'He's a stunning colt.'
'Yes,' Paddy O'Sullivan said with more than a hint of relief in his voice. 'I was sure you'd see it straight away.'
The horse they observed and spoke of was one of the main reasons for Nadim's visit to Ireland, and the reason why he was about to buy Paddy O'Sullivan out of his failing modest-sized training grounds and stud farm.
'It'd be hard not to see it,' Nadim murmured, his eyes once again mesmerised by the sleek move of powerful muscles under the thoroughbred's glossy coat. Already he was imagining the lineage that such a stallion and his brood mares could produce one day.
He'd sent his most senior equestrian aide to research this part of the world for him, and had instantly seen the potential; the stud was about two miles down the road from the house and training grounds. Perfect for his European base.
His mouth firmed when he recalled how his aide had been all but run off the beleaguered property by some angry woman with a rabid doghence his advice to steer well clear. But Nadim had made sure that his people had approached Paddy O'Sullivan directly and made an offer that no drowning man hoping for a life-raft could refuse
The O'Sullivan stud had once been very successful, breeding numerous winners. It was that pure bloodline which had produced this colt, who was already making a name for itself, having won two of Ireland's highest-profile flat races in recent months. Excitement kicked low in Nadim's bellya sensation he hadn't felt in a long timemaking him aware of how rarely spontaneous emotion impacted on his day-to-day life. Just the way he liked it.
O'Sullivan spoke again, 'Iseult has been working with him tirelessly. He wouldn't be the horse he is today without her.'
Nadim frowned and took his eyes off the horse for a moment to look down at the much shorter man beside him. He hadn't heard that name before, and assumed it had to be of Irish origin. 'Eesult?'
The man gestured with his white head to the field, blue eyes fond. 'Iseult is my daughtermy eldest. She's got the gift. Been able to communicate with and control every animal she's encountered since she was barely walking.'
Nadim's eyes went back to the rider on the horse. He felt slightly stunned. That was a girl? And this girl had trained this colt? Impossible; he'd worked with plenty of female trainers, but never one so young. Too youngno matter how innate her talent might be.
He shook his head, mentally trying to take it in, and only then started to see the subtle differences. Her waist dipped in and out more than a boy's should. The silhouette of her shoulders was slight, the hint of her neck delicate. Apart from that he couldn't tell much else, because she was covered up in jeans and a fleece, hair tucked up and under a flat cap. His belly clenched as he tasted the old fear when he realised belatedly that she wasn't wearing a hard hat. He drove it down. This wasn't Merkazad. The ground was soft herenot fatally hard.
But still she should be wearing adequate protection. A surge of irritation prickled across Nadim's skin. If she was at his stables right now she'd be seriously reprimanded for not wearing appropriate head protection.
O'Sullivan said now, sotto voce, even though no one could overhear, 'I'm sorry about what happened.. with your assistant. Iseult's not happy about the sale of either our stud farm or Devil's Kiss.' He continued nervously, 'She's very attached to her home and her ' The man blustered for a moment and corrected himself, 'That is, your horse.'
Nadim's blood started to boil ominously. This girl was the person who'd practically set a dog on his assistant Adil? This was intolerable. Where Nadim came from daughters were dutiful. Independent, yes, but not openly wilful and opinionated. And they weren't trainers who looked to be barely out of their teens. He thanked his lucky stars that he'd come now. This girl, if left to her own devices, could have ruined all his chances for acquiring this property.
She was clearly bent on obstructing a sale, and right now he wouldn't put it past her to sabotage the horse he wanted so badly. He was well aware that the racing world was littered with great two-year-olds who peaked too early and never went on to achieve anything else.
Those thoughts made his voice more autocratic. 'He is about to become mine, as is your propertyunless of course you've changed your mind?'
O'Sullivan blustered and stuttered, 'No, Sheikh Nadim. I never meant that at all. It's just that Iseult has been training Devil's Kiss.so she's attached.'
Nadim flicked the man beside him a dark look, hiding the fact that he was taken aback anew to hear it confirmed that she'd trained him. And he had to admit, despite his misgivings, that the horse looked good.
'I would hope that the advantage of keeping the training grounds and stud in your name, along with being kept on as manager, is benefit enough compared to the alternativewhich is that your bank is ready to throw you out on the street.'
The older man was all but wringing his hands, clearly terrified he'd offended the new landlord. 'Of course, Sheikh Nadim I never meant to imply anything It's just that Iseultwell, she's a bit headstrong. I hope that she doesn't offend.'
His voice trailed away as the rider slowed and came to a halt, turning the horse slowly to face where Nadim and Paddy O'Sullivan stood. Nadim watched as they approached, and the rider became more obviously a young girl. Just how old was she, anyway? he wondered as they drew closer and closer. It was impossible to tell.
He noted with increasing displeasure that she wasn't jumping off the horse to make his acquaintance.
For some reason, when his attention should have been taken by the horse, he found his eye resting curiously on its rider, his thoughts staying on her. A face was partially revealed beneath the lip of the cap. And something in his chest kicked once. Like an electric shock to his heart.
He could see that her face was exquisitely sculpedhigh cheekbones and a delicately firm jaw, straight nose. Her eyes were hidden by the cap, and her mouth was set in a mutinous line, but Nadim imagined that in repose it would be sensuously full. His gaze dropped and he saw the unmistakable line of slight but feminine curves beneath her T-shirt. He felt another kick then, in a more base part of his anatomy, and was astounded.
He expected such responses when he moved in sophisticated circles where mature, experienced, sensually confident women abounded. Not here in a strange country, on the edge of a green field, looking at a girl he'd moments ago dismissed as a boy. And who was irritating him more with each passing minute. Anger at his own unbidden response made the muscles in his face tighten.
Iseult O'Sullivan had hated every minute of having to exercise Devil's Kiss for the man who had come to inspect the spoils of his takeoverespecially when he didn't even care enough to see what he was buying himself before he came today to sign the deal.
He'd sent an assistant to trespass on their land and take photographs, after which he'd quietly bought the adjoining land some months previously. And since then he'd been biding his time, waiting to strikelike a vulture circling over a decaying carcassuntil they'd had no choice but to announce the sale. But as she looked down now, her boiling anger seemed to drain away.
She was suddenly absurdly glad to be sitting astride Devil's back, because she knew if she was standing she might not be able to remember why she was angry. Her hands gripped the reins and Devil's Kiss moved restlessly underneath her, sensing her inner agitation, his highly strung nature never too far from the surface.
The man was like something from another planet, and nothing like the stereotypical Arabic Sheikh she might have imagined if she hadn't already Googled him for information and seen pictures. And, despite having seen pictures of him, it was still hard for her to deal with the reality. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, and was as insanely good-looking as his pictures had promised. Tall, handsome, and dangerously dark.
He was wearing faded jeans which clung indecently to powerful thigh muscles, and a dark long-sleeved polo shirt, its sleeves rolled up to reveal muscled forearms. His biceps bulged against the material of his shirt, and the fine Irish mist settled over him like a glittering diamond coat. His darkly olive skin stood out against the lush backdrop like an exotic hothouse flower.
One booted foot was lifted to rest negligently on the bottom rung of the fence. His hair was short and dark, but thick, as if it would lean towards unruly curls if allowed to grow any longer.
She took in all this in a second, with an accelerating heartbeat. Virile sexuality drenched the air around him like a tangible forcefield and Iseult shivered involuntarily, recognising a base sexuality that seemed to resonate with something equally base within her.
He carried an air of authority and power suited to the monarch he was, ruling over a wealthy sheikhdom where he owned one of the most exclusive thoroughbred stables on the Arabian peninsula. The kind of stables where legendary winners were bred and trained.
With her heart stuttering in her chest, Iseult watched as the Sheikh calmly and gracefully vaulted over the fence, not a hint of strain on his face even though the fence was over five feet. Immediately Devil's head reared back, nostrils flaring, and he stepped sideways with a skittish move. Iseult patted the horse and murmured encouragement for him to not make this easy on his new owner.
Her father, standing just a few feet away, was sending fervent silent signals to Iseult: Please behave. But she was too heartsore to behave, no matter how she'd been momentarily thrown. This man was coolly and calmly taking everything she'd ever known and loved, and there wasn't a thing she could do about it except not make it easy for him.
The Sheikh was looking up at her, and she could see the expressions crossing his face, and his anger mounting that she wasn't jumping off, jumping to attention. While she'd have liked to think that she was consciously making her displeasure known, she knew her inability to move had more to do with his sheer male charisma than any rebellion. Finally her father's voice intruded, and she could hear the fear. 'Iseult, please allow Sheikh Nadim to ride Devil's Kiss. He's come a long way.'
With much less grace than she was used to Iseult slipped off the horse and came around his head to hand the reins to the Sheikh. Her legs turned to water when she recognised just how tall and well built he was. Like one long, lean and hardened muscle, with shoulders so broad they blocked out the background.
She felt innately feminine next to his superior build. It was very disturbing when she'd long ago given up any attempt to explore that side of herself, assuming she just didn't have it in her. Reaction to her thoughts made her all but thrust the reins at him. 'Here you are.'
His black eyes glittered dangerously, and Iseult was glad of the protection of her cap. She desperately wanted him to take the reins before he could see how her hand was starting to shake, and to her intense relief he did. But not before his fingers touched off hers, and she jerked back so quickly that Devil's Kiss moved skittishly again.
Before she could lose it completely she turned and walked away through the soft damp grass, and climbed over the fence jerkily to stand by her father, who was radiating waves of disapproval. She'd never felt so out of control of her own body and emotions, and she didn't like it one bit.
She watched with a thumping heart as Sheikh Nadim coolly and calmly walked around the horse, lengthening the stirrups and running a large brown hand over his flanks. Iseult's belly tightened and she felt a flare of something hot in her abdomen.
Then he vaulted onto the horse with a fluid grace she'd never seen before, and nudged Devil's Kiss straight into a canter. Iseult's throat dried up completely. Devil's Kiss was an absolute traitor; he'd shown not even a flicker of rebellion at seating this man, clearly recognising his skill and authority.