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One Night with the Sheikh
By Penny Jordan
Thorndike PressCopyright © 2003 Penny Jordan
All right reserved.
Chapter One"You won't forget your mummy whilst I'm away working, will you, my precious baby girl?"
Mariella watched sympathetically as her younger half-sister Tanya's eyes filled with tears as she handed her precious four-month-old daughter over to her.
"I know that Fleur couldn't have anyone better to look after her than you, Ella," Tanya acknowledged emotionally. "After all, you became my mother as well as my sister when Mum and Dad died. I just wish I could have got a job that didn't mean I have to be away, but this six-week contract on this cruise liner pays so well that I just can't afford to give it up! Yes, I know you would support us both," she continued before Mariella could say anything, "but that isn't what I want. I want to be as independent as I can be. Anyway," she told Mariella bitterly, "supporting Fleur financially should be her father's job and not yours! What I ever saw in that weak, lying rat of a man, I'll never know! My wonderful sexy dream fantasy of a sheikh! Some dream he turned out to be - more of a nightmare."
Mariella let her vent her feelings, without comment, knowing just how devastated and hurt her half-sister had been when her lover had abandoned her.
"You don't have to do this, Tanya," she told her gently now. "I'm earning enough to support us all,and this house is big enough for the three of us."
"Oh, Mariella, I know that. I know you'd starve yourself to give to me and Fleur, but that isn't what I want. You've done so much for me since Mum and Dad died. You were only eighteen, after all, three years younger than I am now, when we found out that there wasn't going to be any money! I suppose Dad wanted to give us all so much that he simply didn't think about what would happen if anything happened to him, and with him remortgaging the house because of the stock market crisis."
Silently the sisters looked at one another.
Both of them had inherited their mother's delicate bone structure and heart-shaped face, along with her strawberry-blonde hair and peach perfect complexion, but where Tanya had inherited her father's height and hazel eyes, Mariella had inherited intensely turquoise eyes from her father, the man who had decided less than a year after her birth that the responsibilities of fatherhood and marriage simply weren't for him and walked out on his wife and baby daughter.
"It's not fair," Tanya had mock complained to her when she had announced that she was not going to go to university as Mariella had hoped she would, but wanted to pursue a career singing and dancing. "If I had your eyes, I'd have a ready-made advantage over everyone else whenever I went for a part."
Although she knew how headstrong and impulsive her half-sister could be, Mariella admired her for what she was doing, even whilst she worried about how she was going to cope with being away from her daughter for six long weeks.
Whatever small differences there might ever have been between them, in their passionate and protective love for baby Fleur they were totally united.
"I'll ring every day," Tanya promised chokily.
"And I want to know everything she does, Ella ... Every tiny little thing. Oh, Ella ... I feel so guilty about all of this ... I know how you suffered as a little girl because your father wasn't there; because he'd abandoned you and Mum ... and I know too how lucky I was to have both Mum and Dad and you there for me, and yet here is my poor little Fleur ..."
Holding Fleur in one arm, Mariella hugged her sister tightly with the other.
"The taxi's here," she warned, before releasing Tanya and tenderly brushing the tears off her face.
"Ella! I've got the most fab commission for you."
Recognising the voice of her agent, Mariella shifted Fleur's warm weight from one arm to the other, smiling lovingly at her as the baby guzzled happily on her bottle. "It's racehorses, dozens of them. The client owns his own racing yard out in Zuran. He's a member of the Zuran royal family, and apparently he heard about you via that chap in Kentucky, whose Kentucky Derby winner you painted the other year. Anyway - he wants to fly you out there, all expenses paid, so that you can discuss the project with him, see the beasts in situ so to speak!"
Mariella laughed. Kate, with her immaculate designer clothes and equally immaculate all-white apartment, was not an animal lover. "Ella, what is that noise?" she demanded plaintively.
Mariella laughed. "It's Fleur. I'm just giving her her bottle. It does sound promising, but right now I'm pretty booked with commissions, and, to be honest, I don't really think that going to Zuran is on. For a start, I'm looking after Fleur for the next six weeks, and -"
"That's no problem - I am sure Prince Sayid wouldn't mind you taking her with you and February is the perfect time of year to go there; the weather will be wonderful - warm and mild. Ella, you can't turn this one down. Just what I'd earn in commission is making my mouth water," she admitted frankly.
Ella laughed. "Ah, I see ..."
She had begun painting animal "portraits" almost by accident. Her painting had been merely a small hobby and her "pet portraits" done for friends, but her reputation had spread by word of mouth, and eventually she had decided to make it her full-time career.
Now she earned what to her was a very comfortable living from her work, and she knew she would normally have leapt at the chance she was being offered.
"I'd love to go, Kate," she replied. "But Fleur is my priority right now ..."
"Well, don't turn it down out of hand," Kate warned her. "Like I said, there's no reason why Fleur shouldn't go with you. You won't be working on this trip, it's only a mutual look-see. You'd be gone just over a week, and forget any idiotic ideas you might have about potential health hazards to any young baby out there - Zuran is second to none when it comes to being a world-class cosmopolitan city!"
One of the reasons Mariella had originally bought her small three-storey house had been because of the excellent north-facing window on the top floor, which she had turned into her studio. With Fleur contently fed she looked out at the grey early February day. The rain that had been sheeting down all week had turned to a mere drizzle. A walk in the park and some fresh air would do them both good, Mariella decided, putting Fleur down whilst she went to prepare her pram.
It had been her decision to buy the baby a huge old-fashioned "nanny" style pram.
"You can use the running stroller if you want," she had informed Tanya firmly. "But when I walk her it will be in a traditional vehicle and at a traditional pace!"
"Ella, you talk as though you were sixty-eight, not twenty-eight," Tanya had protested. Perhaps she was a little bit old-fashioned, Mariella conceded as she started to remove the blankets from the running stroller to put in the pram. Her father's desertion and her mother's consequent vulnerability and helplessness had left her with a very strong determination to stand on her own two feet, and an extremely strong disinclination to allow herself to be emotionally vulnerable through loving a man too much as her mother had done.
After all, as Tanya had proved, it was possible to inherit a tendency!
She frowned as her fingers brushed against a balled-up piece of paper as she removed the bedding. It could easily have scratched Fleur's delicate skin. She was on the point of throwing it away, when a line of her sister's handwriting suddenly caught her eye.
The piece of paper was a letter, Mariella recognised, and she could see the name and address on it quite plainly.
"Sheikh Xavier Al Agir, No. 24, Quaffire Beach Road, Zuran City."
Excerpted from One Night with the Sheikh by Penny Jordan Copyright © 2003 by Penny Jordan. Excerpted by permission.
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