Read an Excerpt
'Should I know him?' Polly Anderson pulled the A4 photograph across the table so she could see it more clearly. She squinted down at it, trying to bring it into focus.
Her friend smiled. 'Forget your contact lenses this morning?'
'I didn't forget them.' Polly accepted the black coffee Minty handed her and took a quick sip of the scalding liquid. 'It was a late night and my eyes feel like they're filled with grit if you really want to know.'
'And you're too vain to wear your glasses, of course.'
Polly grimaced. More that she'd put them down somewhere and had absolutely no idea where. She set the blue and white mug down on the table. 'I'm sure I've not met him. He's not exactly in the usual run of sheikhs that do business with Anthony, you know.'
'Not fat or old.'
'Something like that.'
Minty laughed her husky laugh and slid a second photograph along the table. 'You should see him without the headscarf. Then we just get tall, dark and deliciously dangerous.'
'Nice,' Polly said, looking down at the image of an aggressively handsome man. Actually very nice. Her sight wasn't so short she couldn't see that. It was all about the eyes, she decided. Mostly about the eyes. Unexpectedly blue in a face that was unmistakably Arab.
Exotic and familiar at the same time. And incredibly sexy. Those eyes seemed to promise feelings and sensations she'd no experience of. Or very little.
She smiled. Maybe there was more of her scandalous great-great-grandmother in her than she'd supposed. Now that was an interesting thoughtand probably one her mother would prefer her not to dwell on. 'So, who is he?' she asked, looking up.
'Officially, His Highness PrinceRashid bin Khalid bin Abdullah Al Baha. But for Western consumption he's generally known as Sheikh Rashid Al Baha. Much simpler. Twenty-nine. Six feet two and a half inches. Single. Keen horseman. Rich beyond your wildest dreams.' Minty leant forward. 'Pretty damn sexy all round.'
Polly laughed. 'Not that you're interested or anything.'
'Actually I'm not. He's a bad idea as anything other than eye candy. He's Crown Prince Khalid's second son. The one he had with his English wife'
'Oh, okay I've heard of him,' Polly interrupted. 'He's Amrah's playboy sheikh, right?'
Minty nodded. 'That's him. Plays hard and fast. Only thing he really exhibits any sort of commitment to is his horses. I don't understand all that, but he's something big in the horse world. Breeds them or something. Which is why I thought you might have met him through that slimy stepbrother of yours. But if not it doesn't really matter. We'll manage.'
Polly picked up the more traditional of the two pictures and held it out in front of her. Long flowing white robes and his dark hair concealed beneath a white headdress. Minty was right. Prince Rashid bin thingy was really very sexy. If he'd been to Shelton she'd have remembered.
She closed one eyelid to focus more clearly. 'A couple of sheikhs did come over from Amrah but they were both much older. And I doubt they were royalty because Anthony would have been much more impressed. I can probably get their names for you if you need them.'
Minty shook her head and bent over to open the file resting against the leg of her chair. 'I don't. But while we're at it, have a look at his elder brother,' she said, passing across another glossy A4 picture. 'His Highness Prince Hanif bin Khalid bin Abdullah Al Baha. Again he tends to contract all that to Sheikh Hanif Al Baha. And who can blame him?'
Polly picked up the photograph.
'Now their daddy's so ill Hanif's probably the one we should be talking to,' Minty said slowly, her eyes focused on her notes. 'They've both got the "bin Khalid bin Abdullah Al Baha". Exactly the same. Not very imaginative, is it? The only difference is the Hanif-Rashid bit.'
There was more difference between the brothers than that. Sheikh Hanif looked like a 'safe pair of hands'. At least, he did as far as you could ever judge anything from a single photo when you weren't wearing your glasses.
Polly closed one eyelid and brought the blurry image into sharp focus again. He had a solid sort of responsibility. Maybe a hint of sadness in his dark eyes? Certainly steeliness.
But Rashid was something else. There was a restlessness about him. A man who exuded an edginess. Danger. As Minty said, a bad idea. Unquestionably. Why were bad boys always so attractive?
'Neither of them have been to Shelton. I'm sure. They're both a good twenty years younger than the men I met.'
Minty flicked through the pages of her notebook. 'I can't get my head round these names at all. The dad is Crown Prince Khalid bin Abdullah bin Abdul-Aalee Al Baha. Jeez'
'"Bin" means "son of",' Polly said, putting the photographs down and picking up her coffee. She wrapped her fingers round the comforting warmth and blew across the top of the mug. 'Think of it like a family tree. And Baha is King Abdullah's family name so that pinpoints them as being close to the centre of things.'
'That makes it all as clear as mud.' Minty rubbed at her forehead. 'Not that it matters. I think as long as you cover your shoulders and don't wear miniskirts while in Amrah we'll be just fine even if we don't get all that sorted.'
'Right.' Polly stretched out long legs encased in the finest ten-denier stockings. 'I can manage that. Seems a bit of a pity to hide my best feature, though, don't you think?'
'Better than getting arrested for immorality in a public place.'
'Do they do that?'
'I've absolutely no idea. Let's not risk it.' Then as she caught the edge of Polly's startled gaze, 'Don't let it worry you. I've got a team working on the practical side of things. Nothing horrible will happen to you, I promise.'
Polly nodded, only partially reassured.
And Matthew Wriggley, the tame historian we found, is painstakingly putting together some wonderful detail on your Elizabeth Lewis. Really exciting. You'll love it.' She gathered the photographs together and put them inside her slip file. 'It was all going great until Crown Prince Khalid fell ill and the permission to begin filming was mired in red tape.'
Polly said nothing. She took another sip of her coffee and waited. She'd known Minty for something like nine years and she knew there was more to come.
'So now I need you to cultivate Sheikh Rashid, get his support and encourage him to fast-track it all or we'll miss the best of the weather. Convince him we don't have any kind of subversive agenda.'
Two frown lines appeared in the centre of Polly's forehead. 'I thought you said we needed to negotiate with the elder brother now Crown Prince Khalid is ill.'
'I knew you weren't paying attention to me. Sheikh Hanif is the brother we should be talking to since he's generally thought to be his father's right-hand man, but he's completely un-get-able-at.'
'That's not a word.'
'You know what I mean,' Minty said, ripping the top off a sachet of artificial sweetener and dropping the contents in her coffee. 'He's doing the bedside vigil thing. Which leaves us with Sheikh Rashid'
'who isn't, and who fortunately has a well-documented soft spot for English blondes.'
'How fortuitous,' Polly said dryly.
'Isn't it? Even better is that he's going to be at your place for the big charity bash this weekend. I've no idea why he isn't also sitting at his father's bedside but that's not important'
Polly shook her head. That couldn't be right. 'His name isn't on the guest list,' she said with the quiet certainty of someone who'd been through it twice last week.
'He is. He's in the Duke of Aylesbury's party. Part of the "plus six".'
'How the heck do you know that when I don't?'
'One very boring dinner party sat next to an inebriated old Etonian and hey presto. It's all in the flirting.' Minty picked up her spoon and stirred her coffee. 'Apparently big brother Hanif was at Eton with the Duke of Aylesbury and they're close friends. Presumably that friendship has extended to little brother, too, I don't know. Whatever the reason, he'll be at Shelton on Saturday.'
Polly sat back in her chair and gazed in frank admiration.
'So, if you do your "charming lady of the castle" thing and get his support that should speed everything up beautifully. We've had all the appropriate forms in now for about four months'
'Do my what?'
Minty looked up and laughed. 'You know what I mean. Foreigners love that stuff. Take him to see the Rembrandt or something. Talk about your mother the dowager duchess. Toss your hair a bit. Don't mention you're more the Cinderella of the outfit. He'll love it.' Distracted, she glanced over her shoulder, then back at Polly. 'What is that noise?'
'Aargh! That's my phone. Sorry.' Polly made a dive for her handbag. 'I should have switched it off.' The handle caught on her chair arm and by the time she'd opened her bag the ringing had stopped.
Polly glanced down at the number. 'Probably not. It's Anthony.' She turned it off and returned the phone to the depths of her bag. 'I'll call him later.'
'Good plan! Let him sort out the latest crisis. It's about bloody time he did something.'
Polly allowed herself a tiny smile. Loyalty to her late stepfather meant she always stopped short of joining in criticism of Anthony.
'How long is it now since Richard died?' Minty asked suddenly.
'Three years. Almost. It'll be three years in May.' Was it really that long? Polly replaced her bag back on the floor and picked up her coffee once again. In another four months her mother would have been widowed longer than she'd been married. Unbelievable. So much had happened.
'Plenty of time for him to have got used to the idea of running the show'
If only. Anthony still showed absolutely no inclination to do anything of the sort.
'And if his well-bred wife thought of something other than horses that'd help.'
'They'll have to manage while I'm away filming'
'If we get our permit.'
'If Polly agreed mildly.
'Well, try to sound like you mind one way or the other!'
'I do.' Her smiled twisted. Sort of. It was just leaving Shelton was going to be difficult, particularly since she knew it wasn't in safe hands. Every time she tried to imagine herself packing her case and walking away from it she couldn't.
Instead she'd think about how much there was to do. The Burns Night Supper, for example, or the Valentine's Ball, or the craft fair held at the castle each Easter weekend
All bringing in desperately needed revenue if the conservation programme was to continue. The trouble was she cared. Somehow, and she didn't really understand how, it had got into her bones. Shelton Castle had become her raison d'être.
And, the truth was, it wasn't hers to love. It was Anthony's. His birthright. His privilege to nurture and succour the castle for future generations. And if she didn't manage to detach herself she would eventually be left with nothing.
Minty watched her with narrowed eyes. 'We agreed. It's time you left Shelton.'
They had agreed that.
And way past time you did a job for which you're being properly paid.'
Also true. Her head agreed. It was her heart that was more difficult to control.
'You've got no savings, no pension, no career structure'
'I know.' And she did. It wasn't something that kept her awake at night, but she did know she'd allowed herself to drift for too long.
And she knew Amrah could be the answer. The first real attempt she'd made to cut the umbilical cord that tied her to the castle.
'Well, then, be nice to Sheikh Rashid and I'll have you on a plane within twenty-four hours of getting the paperwork through.'
'Be nice to Sheikh Rashid.' That was easier said than done. There was no getting near the man. Polly moved back to conceal herself behind an extravagant white floral display of alstromeria, lisianthus and roses so she could watch him more easily. Or, more accurately, so she could watch him without anyone noticing that was what she was doing.
Sheikh Rashid sat facing out across the ballroom. As he'd done all evening. His long legs stretched out in front of him, a look of faint boredom on his face. Silent. Arrogant. And rude, if she was honest.
From the very first moment he'd arrived he'd been permanently surrounded by women who looked as if they'd stepped out of a Bond movie, but they could have been invisible for all the attention he paid them. Perhaps he was so used to it he didn't notice they were there?
But it was rude all the same. And, speaking as someone who'd often been all but invisible, she didn't like it.
Of course, they should have moved away rather than continue to try to attract his attention. That would have been classier, but they didn't. Of course they didn't. They hovered about, smiling and laughing. Hoping he might notice them.
All of which made Minty's cunning plan just that little bit
more difficult to bring to fulfilment and left Polly stuck behind a large floral arrangement completely uncertain what to do next.
Polly bit her lip. Minty would have powered her way across the ballroom and flicked aside all competition like flies off a trifle, but she wasn't Minty.
And he wasn't the kind of man she'd ever be comfortable approaching. Contact lenses in, she was able to confirm her initial assessment of His Highness Prince Rashid bin Khalid binAbdullahAlBahaas sex on legs. Orwouldbe, if you liked that kind of thing. Which she didn't.
He was all too much. Too tall. Too handsome. Too powerful. He looked like the kind of man who could crack a nut with his bare hands and wouldn't hesitate to do the same to people if he had to. And, from all she'd read, he came from a long line of men who'd had to. Centuries of tribal disputes, years of colonial occupation and violent coups had shaped Amrah into the country it was. They'd shaped the men who ruled it, too.
It was strange to think her great-great-grandmother had been an active participant in all that history. Or a small slice of it at least.
Polly turned to look down at her mother. 'No. Why?'
'You're frowning. I wondered if the ice sculpture was melting or the fireworks had got damp,' she said, bringing her wheelchair into line. 'It's not often I see you frowning.'
'Nothing like that. As far as I know.' Polly smiled and set her glass of untouched champagne down on the window sill behind her. 'But I ought to stop standing about and check.'
'I just wanted to say you've done a beautiful job tonight. Again.' Her mother reached out and lightly touched her hand.
'I know Anthony doesn't appreciate the work that goes into something like this, but I do.'