Read an Excerpt
Monday seven a.m. on a cold, foggy day in London a breakfast meeting was being held by a powerful consortium set up to acquire the world's biggest diamond mine. The group of three men was led by Sheikh Sharif al Kareshi, a leading geologist otherwise known as the Black Sheikh, thanks to his discovery of vast oil lakes beneath the desert sands of Kareshi. Concealed lighting was set at the perfect level for reading the fine print on a contract, and the surroundings were sumptuous as befitted the ruling Sheikh of Kareshi in his London home. Seated with the sheikh at the table were two men of roughly the same age, that was to say, thirty-two. One was a Spaniard, and the other owned an island off southern Italy. All three men were giants in the world of commerce, and heartbreakers in the game of life. Colossal sums of money were being bandied about. The atmosphere was tense.
'A diamond mine beyond the Arctic circle?' the darkly glamorous Count Roman Quisvada remarked.
'Diamonds were discovered in the Canadian Arctic some years back,' Sharif explained, leaning back. 'Why not the European Arctic, my friend?'
All three men had been friends since boarding school in England, and, although they had all gone on to make individual fortunes, they were bound by friendship and trusted each other implicitly.
'My first pass over the findings suggests this discovery by Skavanga Mining could be even larger than we suspected,' Sharif went on, pushing some documents across the table to the other two men.
'And I hear that Skavanga boasts three sisters who have become known as the Skavanga Diamonds, which in itself intrigues me,' the dangerous-looking Spaniard commented as he peeled a Valencia orange with a blade as sharp as a scalpel.
'I'll tell you what I know, Raffa,' the sheikh promised his friend, better known as Don Rafael de Leon, Duke of Cantalabria, a mountainous and very beautiful region of Spain.
Count Roman Quisvada also sat forward. Roman was an expert in diamonds, with laboratories that specialised in cutting and polishing high-value stones, while Raffa owned the world's largest and most exclusive chain of highend retail jewellers. The Black Sheikh, the Italian count, and the Spanish duke had the diamond business sewn up.
There was just one loose end, Sharif reflected, and that was a company called Skavanga Mining. Owned by the three sisters, Britt, Eva and Leila Skavanga, along with the girls' absentee brother, Tyr, Skavanga Mining had reported the discovery of the largest diamond deposits ever recorded. He was on the point of going to Skavanga to check out these reports for himself.
While he was there he would check out Britt Skavanga, the oldest sister, who was currently running the company, Sharif mused as he drew a photograph towards him. She looked like a worthy opponent with her clear grey eyes, firm mouth and the tilt of that chin. He looked forward to meeting her. A deal with the added spice of down time in the bedroom held obvious appeal. There was no sentiment in business and he certainly wasted none on women.
'Why do you get all the fun?' Roman complained, frowning when Sharif told the other men about his plan.
'There are plenty to go round,' he reassured them dryly as the other two men studied the photographs of the sisters. Glancing at Raffa, he felt a momentary twinge of something close to apprehension. The youngest sister, whom Raffa was studying, was clearly an innocent, while Raffa was most certainly not.
'Three good-looking women,' Roman commented, glancing between his friends.
'For three ruthless asset strippers,' Raffa added, devouring the last piece of orange with relish. 'I look forward to stripping the assets off this one'
Raffa's dark eyes blackened dangerously as Sharif gathered the photographs in. Sharif hardly realised that he was caressing the photograph of Britt Skavanga with his forefinger while denying Raffa further study of Leila, the youngest sister.
'This could be our most promising project to date,' the man known to the world as the Black Sheikh commented.
'And if anyone can land this deal, Sharif can,' Roman remarked, hoping to heal the momentary rift between his friends. He could only be thankful their interest wasn't in the same girl.
Raffa's laugh relaxed them all. 'Didn't I hear you have some interesting sexual techniques in Kareshi, Sharif? Silken ties? Chiffon blindfolds?'
Roman huffed a laugh at this. 'I've heard the same thing. In the harem tents it's said they use creams and potions to send sensation through the roof'
'Enough,' Sharif rapped, raising his hands to silence his friends. 'Can we please return to business?'
Within seconds the Skavanga girls were forgotten and the talk was all of balance sheets and financial predictions, but in one part of his mind Sharif was still thinking about a pair of cool grey eyes and a full, expressive mouth, and what could be accomplished with a little expert tutelage.
An absolute monarch, bred to a hard life in the desert, Sharif had been trained to rule and fight and argue at council with the wisest of menwomen being notable by their absence, which was something he had changed as soon as he took over the country. Women in Kareshi had used to be regarded as ornaments to be pampered and spoiled and hidden away; under his rule they were expected to pull their weight. Education for all was now the law.
And who would dare to argue with the Black Sheikh? Not Britt Skavanga, that was for sure. Staring at Britt's photograph and seeing the steely determination so similar to his own in her eyes only reinforced his intention to check out all the assets in Skavanga personally. Britt possessed the generous, giving mouth of a concubine, with the unrelenting gaze of a Viking warrior. The combination aroused him. Even the severity of the suit she was wearing intrigued him. Her breasts thrusting against the soft wool stirred his senses in a most agreeable way. He adored severe tailoring on a woman. It was a type of shorthand he had learned to read many years ago. Severe equalled repressed, or possibly a player who liked to tease. Either way, he was a huge fan.
'Are you still with us, Sharif?' Raffa enquired with amusement as his friend finally pushed Britt's photograph away.
'Yes, but not for long as I will be leaving for Skavanga in the morning, travelling in my capacity of geologist and advisor to the consortium. This will allow me to make an impartial assessment of the situation without ruffling any feathers.'
'That's sensible,' Raffa agreed. 'Talk of the Black Sheikh descending on a business would be enough to send anyone into a panic.'
'Have you ever descended on a tasty business prospect without devouring it?' Roman enquired, hiding his smile.
'The fact that this mysterious figure, conjured by the press and known to the world as the Black Sheikh, has never had a photograph published will surely be an advantage to you,' Raffa suggested.
'I reserve judgement until we meet again when I will be in a position to tell you if the claims that have been made about the Skavanga Diamonds are true,' Sharif said with a closing gesture.
'We can ask for no more than that,' his two friends agreed.
'Well, clearly, I must be the one to meet him,' Britt insisted as the three sisters sat round the interestingly shapedif not very practical, thanks to the holes the designer had punched in itblonde wood kitchen table in Britt's sleek, minimalist, barely lived-in penthouse.
'Clearlywhy?' Britt's feisty middle sister, Eva, demanded. 'Who says you have the right to take the lead in this new venture? Shouldn't we all have a part in it? What about the equality you're always banging on about, Britt?'
'Britt has far more business experience than we have,' the youngest and most mild-mannered sister, Leila, pointed out. 'And that's a perfectly sensible reason for Britt to be the one to meet with him,' Leila added, sweeping anxious fingers through her tumbling blonde curls.
'Perfectly sensible?' Eva scoffed. 'Britt has experience in mining iron ore and copper. But diamonds?' Eva rolled her emerald eyes. 'You must agree the three of us are virgins where diamonds are concerned?'
And Eva was likely to remain a virgin in every sense if she kept on like this, Britt thought, fretting like a mother over her middle sister. Eva had been a glass-half-empty type of person for as long as Britt could remember and sadly there were no dashing Petruchios in Skavanga to prevent Eva from turning into a fully-fledged shrew. 'I'm going to deal with thisand with him,' she said firmly.
'You and the Black Sheikh?' Eva said scornfully. 'You might be a hotshot businesswoman here in Ska-vanga, but the sheikh's business interests are globaland he runs a country. What on earth makes you think you can take a man like that on?'
'I know my business,' Britt said calmly. 'I know our mine and I'll be factual. I'll be cool and I'll be reasoned.'
'Britt's very good at doing stuff like this without engaging her emotions,' Leila added.
'Really?' Eva mocked. 'Whether she can or not remains to be seen.'
'I won't let you down,' Britt promised, knowing her sisters' concerns both for her and for the business had prompted this row. 'I've handled difficult people in the past and I'm well prepared to meet the Black Sheikh. I realise I must handle him with kid gloves'
'Nice.' Eva laughed.
Britt ignored this. 'We would be unwise to underestimate him,' she said. 'The ruler of Kareshi is known as the Black Sheikh for a very good reason'
'Rape and pillage?' Eva suggested scathingly.
Britt held her tongue. 'Sheikh Sharif is one of the foremost geologists in the world.'
'It's a shame we couldn't find any photographs of him,' Leila mused.
'He's a geologist, not a film star,' Britt pointed out. 'And how many Arab rulers have you seen photographs of?'
'He's probably so ugly he'd break the camera,' Eva muttered. 'I bet he's a nerd with pebble glasses and a bristly chin.'
'If he is he would be easier for Britt to deal with,' Leila said hopefully.
'A ruler who has moved his country forward and brought peace sounds like a decent man to me, so, whatever he looks like, it doesn't matter. I just need your support. Fact: the minerals at the mine are running out and we need investment. The consortium this man heads up has the money to allow us to mine the diamonds.'
There was a silence as Britt's sisters accepted the truth of this and she breathed a sigh of relief when they nodded their heads. Now she had a chance to rescue the mine and the town of Skavanga that was built around it. That, together with all the fresh challenges ahead of her, made her meeting with the so-called Black Sheikh seem less of a problem.
She was feeling slightly less sanguine the following day.
'Serves you right for building up your hopes,' Eva said as the girls gathered in Britt's study after hearing her groan. 'Your famous Black Sheikh can't even be bothered to meet with you,' Eva remarked, peering over Britt's shoulder at the email message on the computer screen. 'So he's sending a representative instead,' she scoffed, turning to throw an I-told-you-so look at Leila.
'I'll get some fresh coffee,' Leila offered.
Eva's carping was really getting on Britt's nerves. She'd been up since dawn exchanging emails with Kareshi. It was practically noon for her, Britt reflected angrily as Leila brought the coffee in. Her sisters loved staying in the city with her, but sometimes they forgot that, while they could lounge around, she had a job to do. 'I'm still going to meet with him. What else am I going to do?' she demanded, swinging round to confront her sisters. 'Do you two have any better ideas?'
Eva fell silent, while Leila gave Britt a sympathetic look as she handed her a mug of coffee. 'I'm just sorry we're going back home and leaving you with all this to deal with.'
'That's my job,' Britt said, controlling her anger. She could never be angry with Leila. 'Of course I'm disappointed I won't be meeting the Black Sheikh, but all I've ever asked for is your support, Eva.'
'Sorry,' Eva muttered awkwardly. 'I know you got landed with the company when Mum and Dad died. I'm just worried about what's going to happen now all the commodities are running out. I do realise the mine's sunk without the diamonds. And I know you'll do your very best to land this deal, but I'm worried about you, Britt. This is too much on your shoulders.'
'Stop it,' Britt warned, giving her sister a hug. 'Whoever the Black Sheikh sends, I can deal with him.'
'It says that the man you're to expect is a qualified geologist,' Leila pointed out. 'So at least you'll have something in common.' Britt's degree was also in Geology, with a Master's in Business Management.
'Yes,' Eva agreed, trying to sound as optimistic as her sister. 'I'm sure it will be fine.'
Britt knew that both her sisters were genuinely concerned about her. They just had different ways of showing it. 'Well, I'm excited,' she said firmly to lift the mood. 'When this man gets here we're another step closer to saving the company.'
'I wish Tyr were here to help you.'
Leila's words made them all silent. Tyr was their long-lost brother and they rarely talked about him because it hurt too much. They couldn't understand why he had left in the first place, much less why Tyr had never contacted them.
Britt broke the silence first. 'Tyr would do exactly what we're doing. He thinks the same as us. He cares about the company and the people here.'
'Which explains why he stays away,' Eva murmured.
'He's still one of us,' Britt insisted. 'We stick together. Remember that. The discovery of diamonds might even encourage him to return home.'
'But Tyr isn't motivated by money,' Leila piped up.
Even Eva couldn't disagree with that. Tyr was an idealist, an adventurer. Their brother was many things, but money was not his god, though Britt wished he would come home again. She missed him. Tyr had been away too long.
'Here's something that will make you laugh,' Leila said in an attempt to lift the mood. Pulling the newspaper towards her, she pointed to an article in the newspaper that referred to the three sisters as the Skavanga Diamonds. 'They haven't tired of giving us that ridiculous nickname.'
'It's just so patronising,' Eva huffed, brushing a cascade of fiery red curls away from her face.
'I've been called worse things,' Britt argued calmly.
'Don't be so naive,' Eva snapped. 'All that article does is wave a flag in front of the nose of every fortune-hunter out there'
'And what's wrong with that?' Leila interrupted. 'I'd just like to see a man who isn't drunk by nine o'clock'
This brought a shocked intake of breath from Britt and Eva, as Leila had mentioned something else they never spoke about. There had long been a rumour that their father had been drunk when he piloted the small company plane to disaster with their mother on board.
Leila flushed red as she realised her mistake. 'I'm sorryI'm just tired of your sniping, Eva. We really should get behind Britt.'
'Leila's right,' Britt insisted. 'It's crucial we keep our focus and make this deal work. We certainly can't afford to fall out between us. That article is fluff and we shouldn't even be wasting time discussing it. If Ska-vanga Mining is going to have a future we have to consider every offer on the tableand so far the consortium's is the only offer.'
'I suppose you could always give the sheikh's representative a proper welcome, Skavanga style,' Eva suggested, brightening.
Leila relaxed into a smile. 'I'm sure Britt has got a few ideas up her sleeve.'
'It's not my sleeve you need to worry about,' Britt commented dryly, relieved that they were all the best of friends again.
'Just promise me you won't do anything you'll regret,' Leila said, remembering to worry.
'I won't regret it at the time,' Britt promised dryly.
'Unless he truly is a boffin with pebble glassesin which case I'll just have to put a paper bag over his head.'
'Don't become overconfident,' Eva warned.
'I'm not worried. If he proves difficult I'll cut a hole in the ice and send him swimming. That will soon cool his ardour'
'Why stop there?' Eva added. 'Don't forget the birch twig switches. You can always give him a good thrashing. That'll sort him out.'
'I'll certainly consider it'
'Tell me you're joking?' Leila begged.
Thankfully, Britt's younger sister missed the look Britt and Eva exchanged.