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Claudia looked up from her desk to see her boss, Sheikh Samir Al-Hamri standing in the doorway to her office, his arms folded over his chest, a smile on his devastatingly handsome face.
"The merger's going through?" They'd been working out a deal for months with a rival shipping company in his country of Tazzatine.
"Finally. It's been a long road and I couldn't have done it without you."
Claudia blushed at the compliment. She knew he appreciated her input, her willingness to work long hours and her devotion to the job. What he wouldn't appreciate, if he knew about it, was her devotion to him personally. She tried, heaven knows she tried to treat him like any other boss, but how could she when he wasn't like any other boss?
He was a sheikh, a member of the ruling family in his country, with more money than anyone could spend in a lifetime, dazzling good looks, the best education in the world and even a sense of humor. And generous. How could she forget generous, when he gave her large raises without her asking? The one thing he wasn't generous about was vacations. He didn't take them and he didn't see why she should, either.
Claudia didn't care. If she was on vacation, she wouldn't get to see him every day. Wouldn't get to discuss new shipping routes, the GNP of developing countries, or fluctuating petroleum prices. Who else would want to talk about alternate sources of energy or the future of container ships? Nobody in her knitting group or her book club. But who would have thought these subjects would interest a twenty-eight-year-old former English major like Claudia?
When she first took the job it was just a job. High-paying, demanding andhigh-energy. But working for Samir had been an eye-opener. His enthusiasm for the field of international shipping, the field he'd been born into and raised to inherit, was contagious. Now she took a real interest in the workings and the future of his family's business.
"Your family must be pleased," she said.
He hesitated a moment then walked to the window of her office and looked out across San Francisco Bay sparkling in the morning sunlight to Alcatraz, Angel Island and the Golden Gate Bridge.
"They are," he said. "Very pleased. It's the end of an era, the end to hostility and competition between the Al-Hamris and the Bayadhis, but "
She waited for him to finish his sentence. He didn't. Something was wrong. She knew him so well, knew he should be on the phone, calling friends, making plans, sharing the news with everyone including the press. Instead he was just standing there lost in thought.
"What about the papers?" She held up the file with the contract in it. "Nothing's been signed yet." Maybe that was it. He was afraid to count on the deal until it was official.
"That will happen in Tazzatine in our home office on the twenty-first of this month." He looked over at the photograph of the high-rise, waterfront headquarters of the Al-Hamri Shipping Company surrounded by residence towers, a sports complex and a shopping plaza. "For now, they have our word, we have theirs."
"You should be celebrating. Should I book a table at La Grenouille for tonight?"
He turned to face her. He rubbed his hand over his brow and didn't speak for a long moment. "Sure," he said finally. "Why not? And get two first class tickets to Tazzatine on " He crossed the room to look at the calendar on the wall. "Say, the fifteenth. Leave the return open."
Claudia scribbled the date on her notepad. "Two?"
"Two. You and I."
Her mouth fell open. "I'm going with you?" She'd never gone anywhere further than an hour or two away to meetings in Silicon Valley or Sacramento with him in the two years she'd worked there. Now she was going halfway around the world? "You're not serious."
"Of course I am. You're the one who wrote up the proposal in the first place. You have the details of the contract in your head. You don't think I'd sign anything without your being there, do you?"
"I uh "
"Especially something this important. Who knows what could go wrong at the last minute? Changes to be made? Objections? I need you there.You know I'm no good at details."
He was right. He was the one with the big plans, the overview. He was the rainmaker. She took care of the details. They were a team.
"I think I should stay here in the office. If you need me, you can always call me," she said.
"No good. You have to be there. Don't worry, it's a very modern country. You don't have to wear a veil. Women drive, go shopping, swim, play golf. At least in the capital."
She wasn't worried about wearing a veil or being able to play golf, which she didn't do, she was worried about being in his country, seeing him with his family and knowing beyond a doubt, once and for all, that she was a fool for falling in love with her boss. Any boss, but especially a boss who was in line to rule a small country one day. Whose family had certain expectations for him.
She'd feel like an outsider. Oh, no doubt they'd be nice to her. She'd heard tales of their legendary hospitality. But she was an outsider and it would finally sink in as it never had before.
Maybe that's what she needed.A reality check. Time to stop fantasizing that one day he'd look up from his desk, see her and gasp. "Claudia, you're beautiful," he'd say. "What's wrong with me? I never knew it before but I'm in love with you."
She shook her head to clear it from this daydream. It wasn't going to happen. He wasn't in love with her and never would be. As far as she knew he'd never been in love with anyone though not from a lack of opportunity. There were plenty of women who would be only too happy to fall in love with him. Women who were stunningly beautiful and socially prominent. She saw their pictures in the newspaper in the society column. She fielded their phone calls.
If he hadn't fallen for any of them, how did someone like her have a chance with him? She was far from beautiful. She was downright plain. His dates wore glamorous designer clothes, hers were practical and straight off the rack. They had their hair and nails done at salons downtown, she did her own. Their families were the crème de la crème of San Francisco society. Hers was far from that.
She had no intention of changing. Even if she wanted to, how could she? What was the point? Imagine what he'd say if she suddenly turned up like some fashionista in a clingy, form-fitting dress, her hair colored and cut by some high-priced stylist, her face covered with makeup and her feet in stiletto heels.
It should be enough that he respected her, counted on her, depended on her. It had to be enough because that's all it ever would be.
"What's wrong?" he said, leaning over her desk to look into her eyes. "You were a million miles away. Have you heard a word I've said?"
"Yes, of course," she said, pushing her chair back and standing. She had to get away from that penetrating gaze of his. Away from six feet plus of masculine charm. Away from that voice tinged with just a hint of a foreign accent despite his schooling here and on the continent. This was not the time to argue with him about going to Tazzatine. Not when she was light-headed and dizzy. "I just don't see the need " she blurted.
"I don't know what you're worried about. The flight is quite comfortable and it's a fascinating country, a blend of old and new. Full of possibilities."
"I know. You told me about the modern city and the desert, the oases and the horses you raise. I'm sure it's beautiful, but " She held out her hands, palms forward, as if to push him away. As if she could.
"It's a different world from this," he said. "You have to see it to appreciate it. See everything, not just the offshore rigs or the new skyline, not just the desert, or our family villa in the Palmerie. You'll also have the opportunity to meet the people like my family. And the Bayadhi family. And you'll realize what this deal means to everyone. Yes, you're coming."
All right, maybe she did have to go. Maybe it was the chance of a lifetime to see his world through his eyes. How could she turn him down when he looked at her like that? Those brown eyes so deep and dark a girl could get lost in them. His dark hair falling across his forehead until he brushed it back with an impatient gesture. His jaw clenched tight with determination. Determination. He had enough for ten men. Some called it arrogance, because when Samir AlHamri wanted something, he always got it.
"Okay, I'll go," she said.
"I knew I could count on you."
Of course he knew that. When had she ever turned him down for anything whether it was working late, running errands or making excuses for something he didn't want to do? No one said no to Sheikh Samir Al-Hamri. The very idea was preposterous.
"Now I need some coffee," she said, feeling a desperate need to get away and out of his orbit where she was in constant danger of being sucked in and never getting out.
"Can I bring you some?"
"Yes, thanks. Cream and two sugars."
She smiled weakly. After two years, he thought she didn't know how he liked his coffee? Thought she didn't know he liked mustard rather than mayonnaise on his sandwich? Thought she didn't know he preferred Merlot to Cabernet, the circus to the opera, Schumann to Stravinsky?
"Oh, and Claudia?"
She turned and paused at the door.
"Another thing. While we're in Tazzatine I'm getting engaged."
She grabbed the doorknob with one hand while the room spun around so fast she thought she might pass out. She took a deep breath and forced herself to stay standing and remain calm.
"Congratulations," she blurted. What else could she say?
"This is a a surprise."
"Not really. It's been in the works for a long time. Our families are old friends. This is just a formality."
"Just a formality," she murmured. "How nice." Claudia made it to one of the smooth leather chairs against the wall of her office and sat down. Just for a moment. Just to catch her breath. Just until her legs stopped shaking. It was all she could do to keep her features arranged in an expression of polite interest, no more, no less.
"You're getting engaged," she repeated numbly as if that would help it sink in. Maybe she hadn't heard right. He couldn't possibly be getting engaged, formality or not, without her hearing about it. She saw all his correspondence, took all his phone calls and forwarded his e-mail. "Who is she?"
"She is Zahara Odalya." He reached in his vest pocket and pulled out a picture. Claudia couldn't believe it. He kept a picture of her in his pocket. It made her feel physically sick. Who keeps a photo of his fiancée in his pocket unless he's really in love with her? Her boss in love? It seemed like it. It seemed she had him pegged all wrong.
"Here," he said, handing her a photo of a gorgeous woman with a cloud of dark hair, and a cool expression on her flawless face.
"Oh, she's beautiful," Claudia blurted. How she got that sentence out of her mouth with a lump in her throat the size of Plymouth Rock she had no idea.
"Looks that way."
"You don't know?"
"I haven't seen her for a long time. When I knew her years ago she was a little brat who played with my sister. She went off to school in London while I was in Paris and I never saw her again."
"I'm surprised she isn't married already," Claudia murmured. Anyone who looked like that and was part of Middle Eastern high society should be. What was wrong with her?
He took the photo out of Claudia's hand and studied it with a frown on his face. "So am I. I guess she's been saving herself for me. Why not?" He shrugged. "Everyone agrees it's a good match. Family connections mean everything in our part of the world. You'll see."
No, she wouldn't see. She would not go halfway around the world to see her boss get engaged to someone he didn't love. Or who didn't love him. Or even worse to someone he loved. Or to anyone at all. She might be a loyal employee, but she was no masochist.
"You know, Sam " It wasn't easy to call him Sam, considering who he was, but he insisted. "I really can't go with you."
He stood there, one eyebrow raised, waiting for her to tell him why she couldn't, so he could tell her why she could. Why she must. Her mind was racing. She had to make it good. He was determined, but so was she.
"I have a prior commitment."
"What kind of commitment? Your commitment is to me and it's a requirement of your job."
"I know. It always has been, but I'm to be a bridesmaid in my friend Susan's wedding which happens to be right at the same time as this trip you're making." She had a friend named Susan, but she wasn't getting married anytime soon. But how would Sam ever know that? He might not believe her. The look on his face told her he didn't, but he couldn't prove otherwise.
"What a coincidence. Your friend getting married just as the merger takes place. Poor planning on our part I guess. I wonder you didn't mention it before," he said dryly.
"I'm sorry. I guess it slipped my mind. I should have remembered. Because it's June," Claudia said. "Everyone gets married in June."
Claudia bit her lip. He would have to remind her of her brief marriage, which he only knew about because of the box she'd checked on the application when he hired her. It's not like she ever talked about it or even thought about it very much. "I got married in October and divorced in December. It really doesn't count."
"Is that what this is all about?" he asked, walking to her desk and back again. He always paced when he hit an obstacle in his path as if he could smash it with his feet as he walked.
"You had a bad marriage so you're worried about me making the same mistake."
He was so far off the mark she almost laughed.
"I'm sure it won't be the same," she said. Her husband cheated on her even before they got married, then he walked out. There was no way she was going to tell Sam that whole humiliating story. "I'm sure you'll be very happy."
"How can you be so sure?" he asked.
She glanced at the door. Why hadn't she walked out to get coffee before she got embroiled in this no-win argument?
"Because you have no illusions. You're going into this, uh, engagement with your eyes wide-open. You know why you're doing it and so does she."
"And you didn't?"
"I thought I was in love."
"What made you think that?"
She stood and went to the door, determined to get out of the office. "Why does anyone think they're in love?" she asked impatiently. "Their heart beats faster, they daydream, they can't sleep, they can't eat, they can't concentrate. They think they can't survive without the other person."
"Sounds delightful," he said with a sardonic smile. "Glad it's never happened to me."
"You're lucky. You'll never have to suffer."
"The way you did."
She opened her mouth to deny it then stopped. "This is not about me, it's about you. You're the one getting engaged. I'm happy for you. You'll have a lovely party surrounded by your families."
"And you. You'll be there."
"No, I won't. I told you."
"I can't believe you'd even consider this prior commitment. I thought I meant more to you than that. I've always been fair with you, haven't I?" he asked. He leaned back against her desk across the room and leveled the full force of his gaze on her.
She sighed. "Yes."
"I've never asked anything out of bounds. Well, maybe the time you got me out of the bachelor auction by feigning a sudden illness. Everyone felt terrible about it.