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His royal highness, Prince Jasim bin Hamid al Rais, frowned when his aide told him that his brother's wife was waiting to see him. 'You should have told me that the Princess was here. My family always have first call on my time,' he admonished.
Jasim was renowned in financial circles for the astute speed and strategy he utilised in the pursuit of profit in the Rais international business empire, and his employees had a healthy respect for their chairman. He was a tough employer who set high standards and accepted nothing less than excellence. His natural survival skills were honed to a fine cutting edge by a challenging family and palace politics. He was a tall, powerfully built man in his early thirties and he was possessed of a degree of dark, devastating good looks and potent masculinity that women found irresistible.
His French-born sister-in-law, Yaminah, was a small, rather homely brunette with a strained set to her rounded face that warned him that she was struggling to control her emotions. Jasim greeted the older woman with warmth and concern. To see her he was keeping a government minister waiting, but his smooth sophistication was more than equal to the task of hiding that fact and he ordered refreshments and asked her to sit down as if time were of no object.
'Are you comfortable at Woodrow Court?' His elder brother, Crown Prince Murad, and his family were currently using Jasim's country house in Kent while they had a brand new English property built to order nearby.
'Oh, yes. It's a wonderful house and we are being very well looked after,' Yaminah rushed to assure him. 'But we never meant to put you out of your own home, Jasim. Won't you come down thisweekend?'
'Of course, if you would like me to but, believe me, I am very comfortable in my town house. It is not a sacrifice to stay in the city,' Jasim responded. 'But that is not why you are here to see me, is it? I believe something may be troubling you?'
Yaminah compressed her lips, her anxious brown gaze suddenly flooding with tears. With an exclamation of embarrassment and a choked apology, she drew out a tissue and mopped at her overflowing eyes. 'I shouldn't be bothering you with this, Jasim—'
Jasim sat down in the sofa opposite her in an effort to make the older woman feel more at ease. 'You have never bothered me in your life,' he reproved her. 'Why are you worrying about such a thing?'
Yaminah breathed in slow and deep. 'It's… it's our nanny.'
His dark brows drew together in a satiric quirk that questioned her tragic tone of voice. 'If the nanny my staff engaged to take care of my niece is not to your liking, sack her.'
'If only it were so simple…' Yaminah sighed, shredding the tissue between her restless hands and staring down at it. 'She is an excellent nanny and Zahrah is very fond of her. I'm afraid that the problem is… Murad.'
Jasim immediately became very still. His self-discipline was absolute and his lean, strong face betrayed nothing of his exasperation. His brother had always been a womaniser and his lifestyle had got him into trouble more than once. Such a weakness was a dangerous flaw in the future ruler of a small oil-rich and very conservative country like Quaram. Even worse, if Murad was targeting a member of his household right beneath his loyal and loving wife's nose his behaviour had reached a new inexcusable low in his brother's opinion.
'I cannot sack the girl. It would infuriate Murad if I was to interfere. At present I believe it is only a flirtation but she is a very beautiful girl, Jasim,' his sister-in-law murmured shakily. 'If she leaves our employ it will only drive the affair out into the open and, you know, Murad really cannot afford to be involved in another scandal.'
'I agree. The King has no patience left with him.' His handsome mouth settling into a grim line, Jasim wondered in angry frustration if his parent's weak heart would even withstand the stress of another upsetting outbreak of bad publicity and scurrilous gossip about his firstborn's morals. Would his elder brother ever learn sense and restraint? Why could he never put the needs of his family first? The older man seemed unable to withstand temptation and, this time around, Jasim felt unnervingly responsible. After all, his people had hired the wretched nanny! Why hadn't it occurred to him to order an embargo on appointing a young and beautiful woman?
His brother's wife studied him anxiously. 'Will you help me, Jasim?'
Jasim dealt her a wry look. 'Murad will not accept advice from me.'
'He is too stubborn to take advice from anyone, but you could help me,' Yaminah told him urgently.
Jasim frowned, believing that she overestimated his influence with his brother. Murad had not been the heir to the throne of Quaram for over fifty years without acquiring a healthy sense of his own importance. While Jasim was very fond of the older man, he knew his brother was equally fond of getting his own way, even if doing so meant trampling on other people. 'In what way might I help?'
Yaminah worried at her lower lip with her teeth. 'If you were prepared to show an interest in her yourself, the problem would disappear,' she declared in a sudden burst of enthusiasm. 'You're young and single and Murad is middle-aged and married. There can be no comparison and the girl is certain to turn her attention to you instead—'
Distaste at such a suggestion slivering through his lean, well-built frame and cooling his eyes to the darkness of a wintry night, Jasim raised his hands in a gesture that urged restraint and calm. 'Yaminah, please be sensible—'
'I am being sensible. Furthermore, if Murad thought you had a fancy for the girl, I'm convinced that he would step back,'Yaminah asserted doggedly. 'He has often said how much he wishes you would meet a woman—'
'But not one on whom he has set his heart,' Jasim was moved to insert drily.
'No, you are wrong. Since that… er… unpleasant business with that Englishwoman you were with a few years ago, Murad has been sincerely troubled by the fact that you are still unmarried. He mentioned it only yesterday, and if he believed that you were interested in Elinor Tempest he would leave her alone!' the older woman forecast with a vehemence that betrayed how desperate she was to win him round to her state of thinking.
His lean, strong face clenching, Jasim was tense. Indeed his bronzed skin had paled across his hard cheekbones, for the episode in his life that she was referring to was one he preferred not to recall. When the tabloid press had exposed the sleazy past of the woman he had planned to marry three years earlier, Jasim had experienced a degree of rage and humiliation over his own lack of judgement that he was in no way eager to recall. Ever since he had remained resolutely single and he now chose women only to warm his bed and entertain him. Lower expectations had led to much greater satisfaction, he acknowledged inwardly.
Although he had immediately discounted Yaminah's dramatic request for his assistance, however, he remained troubled enough by her visit to want more information about the woman who was the cause of her distress. He instructed his aide to check out the nanny by questioning the staff who had hired her. The initial facts he received later that same morning were disturbing enough to fix his ebony brows into a brooding frown. He studied the small photo of Elinor Tempest: she had long hair that was a particularly vibrant shade of red, a creamy English rose complexion and exotic green eyes. Certainly, even though Jasim had never found that strange colour of hair attractive, his brother's nanny was at the very least unusual and strikingly pretty.
Worryingly, however, Elinor Tempest had not won an interview for her job by appearing on the select list of trusted nannies advanced by the employment agency engaged for the purpose. Indeed, it was unlikely that the girl would ever have made it on her own merits as she was only twenty years old and had had little work experience. Evidently, Murad had personally put forward the girl's name and insisted that she be interviewed. That startling fact put his brother's relationship with the young woman onto an altogether more questionable level. Jasim was taken aback and angered by what he was finding out. How could Murad set up such a situation beneath his own roof? And what sort of young woman accepted a position from a libidinous married man and encouraged his advances? Was Yaminah wrong? Was Murad already sexually involved with his daughter's nanny?
Repugnance engulfed Jasim. His strong principles revolted against such a sordid association in the vicinity of his innocent sister-in-law and niece. He had already learnt to his own cost that the royal status and oil wealth of the Rais family made both him and his brother targets for the most unscrupulous gold-diggers, eager to use their guile and their seductive bodies to enrich themselves. Murad had already suffered several blackmail attempts that had required police intervention. Yet, once again, his brother was recklessly running the risk of an explosive scandal, whose aftershocks would reverberate all the way home to Quaram and rock the very foundation of the monarchy.
There and then, Jasim reached a cool and snappy decision. When a crisis arose he liked to deal with it quickly. His firmly modelled lips compressed, he lifted his dark imperious head high. He would spend the weekend at Woodrow Court and size up the situation. One way or another, he would rid Yaminah's household of this calculating little slut who was threatening everything that he held dear…
'My word, what came over you?' As Louise took in Elinor's fashionable appearance her pale blue eyes rounded with surprise below her brown fringe. 'You usually dress like somebody's granny!'
Elinor winced at that blunt condemnation, her bright green eyes veiling. She supposed her lifelong reluctance to be bold in the fashion stakes dated back to her father's poisonous attacks on any garment that outlined her curves or showed her knees. A university professor and an unrepentant intellectual snob, Ernest Tempest had always been a ferociously critical parent to his only child. Only now that she was living away from home was Elinor able to spread her wings and relax, but she was the first to admit that, but for the encouragement of a shrewd and attentive saleswoman, she would not even have dared to try on the garment, never mind buy it.
Elinor strove to recall the mirror reflection that had reassured her earlier that evening. The dress's neat fit had seemed to emphasise her willowy curves but it did display a generous length of her shapely legs. Beneath her companion's critical gaze, Elinor raised an uncertain hand to its glittering beaded neckline. 'I just fell in love with it.'
Louise rolled her eyes and said drily, 'Well, you can certainly afford to lash out in the fashion stakes these days. How is life in the royal family of Quaram? You must be stacking up the cash in an offshore account by now.'
'You must be joking,' Elinor hastened to declare. 'And it isn't money for jam. I do work extremely long hours—'
'Nonsense! You've only the one kid to look after and she's at nursery school,' Louise protested as she thrust a tumbler full of liquid into Elinor's hand. 'Drink up! You're not allowed to be a party-pooper at your own twenty-first birthday bash!'
Elinor sipped at the sickly sweet concoction even though it wasn't to her taste. She didn't want to get off on the wrong foot with hot-tempered Louise, who was quick to see any form of alcoholic sobriety as a personal challenge. Both women had trained as nannies at the same college and remained friends afterwards, but Elinor was uneasily aware of the undertones in the atmosphere. It had taken months for Louise to find a decent job and she had very much resented Elinor's good fortune in the same field.
'How is work?' Louise prompted.
'The prince and his wife often go abroad or spend weekends in London and I'm left in full charge of Zahrah at Woodrow, so time off—or the lack of it—is a problem. In fact sometimes I feel more like her mother than her nanny,' Elinor confided ruefully. 'I attend everything on her behalf… even the events at her school.'
'There's got to be some drawback to all that lovely cash you're earning!' Louise commented tartly.
'Nothing's ever perfect.' Elinor shrugged with the easy tolerance of someone accustomed to an imperfect world. 'The rest of the staff are from Quaram and speak their own language, so it's quite a lonely household to live in as well. Shall we get going? Our transport awaits us.'
When Prince Murad had realised it was her birthday, he had presented Elinor with free vouchers for an upmarket London nightclub and had insisted that she make use of a chauffeur-driven limousine to travel into London. The same vehicle would also waft her home at the end of the evening.
'A twenty-first birthday only comes once in a lifetime,' Zahrah's father had pointed out cheerfully. 'Make the most of being young. Time moves cruelly fast. On my twenty-first, my father took me hawking in the desert and instructed me on what I should never forget when I became King in his place.' A wry expression had crossed the older man's visage. 'It did not occur to me then that thirty years on I would still be waiting in the wings. Not that I would have it any other way, of course; my honoured father is a very wise ruler and any man would struggle to follow his example.'
Prince Murad was a benevolent man, Elinor acknowledged reflectively. She admired the older man's strong sense of the family values of love, trust and loyalty. After her mother's death when she was ten years old, Elinor's upbringing had conspicuously lacked such sterling qualities and she was still feeling the pain of that loss. If only her own father had had an ounce of the prince's warm and kindly nature!