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'Marry a stranger!'
'Don't sound so surprised, girl. You can't expect me to support you for ever.'
Leila bit back a retort that her stepfather's pockets were lined with the fortune he'd acquired by marrying her mother. She'd had years to learn open defiance wasn't worth the savage retribution that followed. Now wasn't the time to let him know he hadn't broken her spirit despite his best efforts.
'As for marrying a stranger, you'll wed the man I choose and there's an end to it.'
'Of course, Stepfather. I understand.' She'd heard servants' gossip that Gamil had his eye on another bride. He wouldn't want an inconvenient stepdaughter, a reminder of his previous wife, on hand. 'It's generous of you to organise this when you have so many business matters to deal with.'
Gamil's eyebrows lowered. His eyes narrowed as if he detected the sarcasm she hid behind a calm facade.
Leila had become adept at concealing emotion: grief, fear, boredom, anger particularly anger. It burned inside her now but she held it in check. Now was not the time.
But soon! It struck her that an arranged marriage to a foreigner who'd take her far away was the chance she'd prayed for. Her previous attempts to escape had met with humiliating defeat and ever-tighter restrictions. But what could Gamil do once she was married?
It was her chance for freedom.
A thrill of excitement raced down her spine and she had to work to keep her face expressionless. Looked at like that, marrying a man she didn't know in a cold-blooded business deal was a heaven-sent opportunity.
'It goes against the grain to let him see you like this.' Gamil waved disparagingly at her bare arms and legs, her new high heels and the delicate silk dress flown in especially from Paris.
Even without a mirror, Leila knew she looked as good as she ever would. She'd been bathed, waxed, coiffed, manicured, pedicured, scented and made up by experts.
A sacrificial virgin to Gamil's ambition, primped and polished for a stranger's approval!
Leila doused a furious surge of indignation. She'd learnt long ago life wasn't fair. And if this preposterous scheme meant escape and the chance to lead her own life
'But it's what he'll expect. He can afford the best in everything, especially women.'
Trust Gamil to see women as commodities to be bought. He was a misogynist through and through. Worse, he was pathologically controlling, revelling in his power.
His cold eyes pinioned her and Leila's skin crawled at the hatred in them. One day she'd be free of this brute. Until then she'd do whatever it took to survive.
'You'll do nothing to disappoint him. You hear?'
'Of course not.'
'And watch your tongue! None of your clever remarks. Stay silent unless asked a direct question.'
Gamil needn't have worried. Leila didn't speak when Joss Carmody entered the formal sitting room.
Her breath snagged as her gaze climbed a big frame to his rugged face. His strong features weren't chiselled but hewn, all tanned angles and sharp edges, stark lines and deep grooves. His black hair, though brushed back, curled over-long at the collar. She had the impression of unruly wildness, combed into temporary decorum, till she met his eyes and realised this man was anything but lacking in control.
He surveyed her with the keen alertness a banker devoted to his financial reports.
Joss Carmody's eyes were indigo dark, like the desert sky just before the first stars winked awake. They held hers and she felt a curious squeezing sensation high in her chest. Her pulse sped as she stood, mesmerised.
Whatever she had expected it wasn't this.
A moment later he turned to discuss business with Gamil. Oil of course. What else would bring an Australian resources tycoon halfway around the world? Or make him consider marrying her?
The land she'd inherit on marriage held the region's last and largest untapped oil reservesa unique holding Gamil used to further his own prestige.
She watched Joss Carmody sit down, cradling a cup of strong coffee, effortlessly dominating the room.
Surely even tycoons took more interest in their potential brides than this? His utter indifference rankled. Surprising how much it rankled. After years under her stepfather's brutish regime it shouldn't bother her.
Why should a stranger's indifference matter? She should be grateful he had no personal interest in her. She couldn't have gone through with this if he'd looked at her the way Gamil had once stared at her motherwith that hot, hungry possessiveness.
Joss Carmody didn't see her, just a parcel of arid, oil-rich land. She'd be safe with him.
Joss turned to the silent woman sitting opposite.
Her green-grey stare had surprised him when he arrived.
He'd sensed intelligence, curiosity and, could it be, a hint of disapproval in that gaze? The idea intrigued.
Now she lowered her eyes demurely to the cup in her hand. She was the epitome of Middle Eastern modesty melded with elegant Western sophistication. From her sleek, dark chignon to the high heels that had restricted her walk to a delicate, swaying glide, she was the real thing.
Class. She had it in spades.
He didn't need the opulent black pearl pendant or the matching bracelet of massive pearls to tell him she was accustomed to luxury. She wore them with a casual nonchalance only those born to an easy life of privilege could achieve.
For a split second something like envy stirred.
He repressed it as he did anything that resembled untoward emotion. Instead he appraised her.
She seemed suitable. Her ownership of those enormously rich oilfields made her eminently suitable. It was the only reason he considered marriage: to get his hands on what would be the key to his next major venture. Besides that she had connections and the right background to be useful. Yet Joss never left anything to chance.
'I'd like to know your daughter better,' he said as Gamil drew breath. 'Alone.'
There was a flash of something in the other man's eyes. Fear or speculation? Then Gamil nodded and departed with one last, warning look at his daughter.
Joss pondered that look. Surely the old man didn't fear he'd force himself on her? As if Joss hadn't women enough to satisfy every whim!
'You've been very quiet. You don't take an interest in the oilfields you own?'
Eyes cool and clear as a mountain stream lifted to his. 'There seemed little to add.' Her English was flawless with a subtle, barely there accent that proved curiously enticing.
'You and my stepfather were engrossed in your plans.' Her charming smile didn't reach her eyes.
'You disapprove?' Sixth sense warned that her smile concealed rather than revealed.
She shrugged and he watched, intrigued as the silk slid and moulded a pleasing, feminine figure. His chosen bride was rounded in the right places, despite the fragility of her throat and wrists.
She was a necessary part of the deal yet he hadn't expected to feel more than slight curiosity about her.
The stirring of male appreciation in his belly surprised him. He hadn't expected a beauty. He permitted himself a moment's satisfaction. At least being with her occasionally wouldn't be a hardship.
'The fields will be developed.' Her low voice had a husky edge that drew his skin taut with anticipation. 'You have the resources to do that and my stepfather maintains a very close interest in the family business.'
In other words she didn't bother her head with sordid details like where her wealth came from. Why wasn't he surprised? He'd met lots like her: privileged, pampered and eager to live off the hard work of others.
'You don't work in the industry yourself? Take a personal interest in your assets?'
A spark of something lit her eyes, darkening them to stormy green. Her nostrils flared. Then her lips curved in another of those small Madonna smiles and she leaned forward gracefully to put her cup down with a click on the alabaster table.
Joss had an impression of something rippling like an undercurrent beneath her calm expression. Something elemental that made the air between them thicken, heavy with contained energy.
She spread her manicured hands. 'My stepfather takes care of all that.' Yet there was something ever so slightly out of kilter, perhaps the way her tinted lips thinned a fraction too much.
Then the impression was gone, leaving Joss to wonder at his flight of fancy. An overactive imagination wasn't his style.
He was accustomed to brokering deals with men as hard as himself. A life in mining had made him rough around the edges, unused to dealing with delicate females, except on the most basic level. His groin tightened as he imagined his cool bride-to-be losing that superior air and growing hot and eager under his touch. Satisfaction filled him, till he remembered that wasn't what he wanted from this deal. She'd sidetracked him.
'You expect your husband to take care of business while you enjoy the fruits of his labour?'
She darted a glance at the door where Gamil had exited. 'Forgive me. Perhaps I jumped to the wrong conclusion. I was under the impression you wanted me as a silent partner while you make the business decisions.' Her eyes were bright with apparently innocent enquiry. 'Would you welcome my interference?'
Her fine dark brows arched in eloquent surprise. For the first time in over a decade he felt wrong-footed.
Joss stiffened. It was an illusion, of course. Far from being out of his depth, he was running this whole scheme, including the marriage arrangements, to suit himself.
He didn't want her amateur meddling. Bad enough that he had to put up with her stepfather's uninformed ideas until the deal was done.
'If you have expertise in the area I'd like to hear it.' The words were mere form. Joss worked alone. There was room for only one commander in his empire. 'And of course your connections to key figures across the region will be invaluable.'
'Of course.' The flat expression in her eyes, now dulling to grey, told him she'd already lost interest. 'But I'm afraid I have no expertise in petrochemicals.'
'And where does your expertise lie?'
Again that darting glance to the door. If it weren't for her smooth serenity he'd almost believe she was worried about saying the wrong thing.
'I doubt they overlap with yours. Mine are more on the domestic scale.' She smoothed a hand over the green silk of her dress.
'Domestic as in shopping?' This desire to delve beneath her self-satisfied composure surprised him. Why the need to understand her? To label her in a box marked 'self-absorbed heiress'?
Because she was to be his wife.
After thirty-two years he was finally acquiring a spouse, if only to further his commercial interests.
Marrying went against every inclination. His life was a cautionary tale about its inherent dangers. But the commercial imperative decided him. She was a business asset.
'How did you guess I love to shop?' she cooed, stroking the pearls at her wrist. Yet the light in her eyes and that heightened spark of energy humming between them said something else went on inside that lovely head.
'Just so long as you're not under the impression I'm looking for someone to domesticate me.' He didn't want her thinking this was personal.
Her eyes rounded and a gurgle of delicious laughter broke across his senses, tightening his skin and circling his vitals. He straightened. But already she'd clamped her lips against the sound.
Domesticating Joss Carmody!
Who in their right mind would take on that challenge? He was a big, hard man, all sharp edges and steely determination. It would take someone foolishly besotted by his brooding aura of power and that sizzle of unashamed male sexuality. Someone stupid enough to believe he could ever truly care.
He wasn't the same as Gamil, she could already see that. Yet viewing those coolly calculating eyes, that formidable self-possession and monumental ego, Leila saw enough similarities.
Joss Carmody didn't have a softer side.
'Don't look so worried,' Leila said hurriedly, appalled that surprise had provoked a genuine response from her. 'The idea hadn't crossed my mind.'
'You're sure?' His straight eyebrows scrunched down in a scowl of disbelief.
Leila supposed he saw himself as a matrimonial prize. With his looks and obscene wealth women must flock to him.
Yet surely she wasn't the only one to see him for what he was: self-contained, dangerous and definitely not ready for domestication. Impatience at his all-conquering attitude blindsided her.
'Surprisingly enough, I am.' To her amazement Leila heard the rapier-sharp provocation in her tone. His expression told her he heard it too.
After years guarding every word, how could she trip herself up now? Where was her hard-won composure? Even Gamil at his worst couldn't provoke an outburst these days. It was vital she play to the Australian's expectations if the marriage was to go ahead.
'So what did you envisage, Leila?' His voice dropped half an octave, slowing on her name. He rolled it around his mouth, almost as if savouring it.
Fine hairs rose on her arms and nape. No man had ever said her name like that. A challenge and an invitation at the same time.
Heat flushed her throat as she realised she'd stepped into perilous waters. He didn't threaten like Gamil, but she sensed danger in his sultry invitation. Not the danger of physical punishment but of something more insidious.
Her lack of experience with men told against her now.
She blinked. Gamil was no doubt hidden beyond the doorway, sifting each word, ready to mete out punishment for errors.
The laugh had been a mistake. She'd read it in Joss's surprise. Yet she couldn't regret it. He deserved to be shocked from his insufferable self-satisfaction, even if her stepfather made her pay later.
'I thought you were interested in my inheritance, not me personally.' She kept her tone even, holding his gaze, refusing to reveal how much hinged on his response.
After a moment he nodded brusquely. 'I'm not after an heir and I have no interest in playing happy families.'
At least he didn't expect intimacy. Relief swelled.
She'd wondered whether, when it came down to it, she would be able to sell herself into an intimate relationship in order to escape. Had wondered too about the logistics of disappearing as soon as they were married to avoid giving herself physically to a man she didn't want. Now it seemed she wouldn't have to.
This was pure business. He'd gain the oil reserves, while Gamil gained income and status through his new son-in-law.
She was supposed to be thrilled by Joss Carmody's offer of matrimony. Though come to think of it there'd been no offer. It had been a deal done between power-hungry men.
She squashed instinctive outrage as a luxury she couldn't afford.
'I don't want a wife who will cling or make demands.'
'Of course not.' She couldn't imagine him accepting emotional ties. Nor did she want any.
'So tell me, Leila' he leaned closer, his voice a deep thread of sound that shivered across her flesh 'why do you want to marry me?'
Her brain froze as she watched those firmly sculpted lips shaping her name, feeling again that tremulous shock of disturbance deep inside.
Then she breathed deeply, her mind clicking into gear, considering and discarding possibilities.
Tell him what he expects to hear and seal the deal.
'For what you can give me.' His almost-imperceptible nod confirmed she was on the right track, feeding him the response he expected. 'To see the world and live the life of a billionaire's wife. Bakhara is my homeland but it's rather confining.' Wry laughter threatened at the understatement and she bit her cheek, using pain to counter weakness. It was a trick Gamil, if only he'd known it, had inadvertently taught her over the years, with his regime of punishments for imagined infringements. 'Married to you my life will change for ever.'
Dark eyes surveyed her so closely she saw the exact moment he made up his mind. His lips pursed and his eyes gleamed approvingly.
Joss Carmody knew what he wanted. A wife who wouldn't clutter his life. A woman who'd marry him for his wealth and prestige. A woman who would shop and amuse herself while he got on with what interested him: making even more billions of dollars. Money drove him. Nothing else.
What would he do if he realised he meant just one thing to her?