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Gabe Steel was naked when he heard the sound of knocking.
He picked up a towel and scowled. He wanted peace. No, he needed peace. He'd come to this strange city for all kinds of reasons-but none of them included being disturbed when he had just stepped out of the shower.
He thought about the harsh light of spring he'd left behind in England. The way it could still make his heart clench with pain at this time of year. He thought how guilt never really left you, no matter how deeply you tried to bury it. If you scratched beneath the surface you could always bring up stuff you didn't want. Which was why he didn't scratch. Ever.
But sometimes you couldn't escape it, no matter how hard you tried. Hadn't one of the staff sent someone up earlier, asking if he would like any special arrangements made for his birthday? He'd wondered how the hell they had known it was his birthday- until he realised that they had seen his passport when he'd checked in yesterday.
He stood still and listened. The knocking had stopped and everything was quiet again. He started to slide the towel over one hair-roughened thigh when the sound resumed, more urgently this time.
At any other time and in any other place, he would have ignored the unwanted summons and carried on with what he was doing. But Gabe recognised that these were not normal circumstances. This job was a first. He'd never been the guest of a member of a royal family before. Correction. The head of a royal family. He'd never worked for a sultan before-a man who ruled over one of the world's wealthiest countries and who had already lavished on Gabe a breathtaking amount of hospitality. And maybe that was what was beginning to irritate him most of all-because he didn't like to be beholden to anyone, no matter how exalted their position.
Uttering a muttered curse beneath his breath, Gabe wrapped the towel around his hips and crossed a room so vast that back home the walk might almost have qualified as a workout. He'd stayed in some amazing places in his time, and his own place in London was pretty mouth-watering. But he had to acknowledge that this penthouse suite in Qurhah's finest hotel took luxury to a whole new level.
The knocking continued. A low drumming sound he found impossible to ignore-and its persistence made his impatience increase. He pulled open the door to find a woman standing there. Or rather, a woman who was doing her best not to look like a woman.
Tall and slim, her body was completely covered and her features were in shadow. She was carrying a briefcase and wearing a trench coat over a pair of jeans, with a fedora hat pulled down low over her face. Her appearance was so androgynous that she could almost have been mistaken for a man. But Gabe could smell a woman's scent in a pitch-black room, even when she wasn't wearing perfume. He could accurately assess the hip-width of a pair of panties from nothing more than a cursory glance. Where the opposite sex was concerned, he was an expert-even if his expertise went no further than the physical.
Because he didn't do emotional. He didn't need a woman to unpick his mind at the end of a stressful day, or cry on his shoulder in the mistaken belief that it might make his heart melt. And he certainly didn't want some unknown female turning up today, when his heart was dark and his schedule full.
'Where's the fire?' he demanded.
'Please.' Her voice was low and urgent and very faintly accented. 'Can I come in?'
His lips gave the faintest curve of contempt. 'I think you must have the wrong room, sweetheart,' he said and started to shut the door.
'Please,' she repeated-only this time he could hear panic underpinning her words. 'Men are trying to find me.'
It was a stark appeal and it stopped Gabe in his tracks. It wasn't the kind of thing he heard in the slick, controlled world he called his life. It took him back to a time and a place where threat was a constant. Where fear was never very far away.
He stared down at her face and he could see the wide gleam of alarm in eyes shadowed by the fedora.
'Please,' she said again.
He hesitated for no longer than a heartbeat before something kicked in. Some unwanted protective urge over which he seemed powerless. And he didn't do powerless.
'Come in,' he said abruptly. He caught the drift of her spicy perfume as she hurried past, and the fragrance seemed to cling to his skin as he closed the door and turned to face her. 'So what's the story?'
She was shaking her head and turning to look at the door as if she was petrified somebody was going to burst in behind her.
'Not now,' she said in that soft accent, which was making his senses start to prickle into life. 'There's no time. I'll tell you everything you need to know But only when it's safe. They mustn't find me here. They mustn't.'
She was looking at the far side of the vast room, where the open bedroom door revealed the unmade bed, on which he'd been taking a catnap before his shower. He saw her quickly turn her head away.
'Where can you hide me?' she questioned.
Gabe's eyes narrowed. He thought her attitude was arrogant-almost imperious-considering the way she'd burst in on him like this. He was the one doing her a favour-and a little gratitude wouldn't have gone amiss. But maybe now was not the time to give her a lecture on the etiquette of gate-crashing-not when she was looking so jittery.
He thought about where he used to hide whenever the bailiffs bashed on the door. The one room which always seemed safer than any other.
'Go through into the bathroom,' he said, flicking his fingers in the direction of the en-suite. 'Crawl underneath the tub and stay there until I tell you otherwise. And your explanation had better be good enough to warrant this unwanted intrusion into my time.'
But she didn't appear to be listening. She was already moving towards the bathroom with an unconscious sway of her slender bottom before she was lost to view.
And somehow she had managed to transfer her anxiety to Gabe and his body began to react accordingly. He could feel adrenalin coursing through his bloodstream and the sudden pounding of his heart. He wondered whether he should put on some clothes and then realised there was no time, because he could hear the heavy approach of footsteps in the corridor outside.
The rap on the door was loud and he opened it to find two men outside, their eyes as dark and pinched as raisins. Loose suits did little to conceal their burly strength, and Gabe could detect the telltale bulges of gun holsters packed against each of their bodies.
The taller of the two let his gaze flicker to Gabe's still-damp torso and then to the small towel which was knotted at his hip. 'We are sorry to disturb you, Mr Steel.'
'No problem,' said Gabe pleasantly, registering that they knew his name, just as everyone else in the hotel seemed to. And that their accents sounded like a pronounced version of the one used by the mystery woman currently cowering in his bathroom. 'What can I do for you?'
The man's accent was thick. 'We are looking for a woman.'
'Aren't we all?' questioned Gabe conspiratorially, with a silken stab at humour. But neither man took the bait and neither did they respond to the joke. Their faces remained unsmiling as they stared at him.
'Have you seen her?'
'Depends what she looks like,' said Gabe.
'Tall. Early twenties. Dark hair,' said the smaller of the two men. 'A very striking woman.'
Gabe gestured towards the tiny towel at his hips and rubbed his hands over his upper arms, miming a chill which wasn't quite fictitious, since the icy kick of the air-conditioning was giving him goose-bumps. 'As you can see-I've been taking a shower. And I can assure you that nobody was keeping me company at the time-more's the pity.' He glanced over his shoulder towards the room before turning back to them, his forced smile hinting at a growing irritation. 'Of course, you're perfectly at liberty to look for yourselves, but I'd appreciate it if you could do it swiftly. I still have to get dressed and shaved-and I'm due to dine with the Sultan in a couple of hours.'
It worked. The mere mention of the Sultan's name produced the reaction he'd hoped for. Gabe thought it almost comical as he watched both men take a step back in perfect unison.
'Of course. Forgive us for interrupting you. We will take up no more of your time, Mr Steel. Thank you for your help.'
'My pleasure,' said Gabe, and closed the door softly behind them.
His footsteps across the carpet were equally soft, and when he opened the bathroom door, the woman was just slithering out from under the bathtub like some kind of sexy serpent. He felt the instant rush of heat to his groin as she scrambled to her feet and began brushing her hands over her body.
The fedora had fallen off and as she raised her face and he got a proper look at her for the first time he felt awareness icing his skin. Because suddenly he was looking at the most arresting woman he had ever seen. His mouth dried with lust. She looked like a fantasy come to life. Like a character from the Arabian Nights who had wandered into his hotel bathroom by mistake.
Her olive skin was luminous and her dark-fringed eyes were a bright shade of blue. A ponytail of black hair hung almost to her waist-hair so shiny that it looked as if she might have spent the morning polishing it. Despite the silky trench coat, he could see that her breasts were neat and her legs so long that she would have been at home on any international catwalk.
Her face remained impassive as he looked her over, as if she was no stranger to submission. Only the faintest flush of pink in her cheeks gave any indication that she might be finding his attention unsettling. But what did she expect? If you burst into a strange man's bedroom and demanded refuge, then surely the normal rules of conduct flew right out of the window.
'They've gone,' he said shortly.
'So I heard.' She hesitated. 'Thank you.'
He noticed the way her gaze kept flickering towards his bare torso and then away again. As if she knew she shouldn't stare at him but couldn't help herself. He gave a grim kind of smile. It wasn't the first time he had encountered such a problem.
'I think you owe me an explanation,' he said. 'Don't you?'
'Sure.' She bent to pick up her briefcase, and as she straightened up she did that not-quite-looking thing at his chest again. 'Just not not in here.'
Was the intimacy of the setting too much for her? he wondered. Was she aware that beneath the tiny towel his body was beginning to respond to her in a way which might make itself embarrassingly obvious if he wasn't careful? He could feel the hot pump of arousal at his groin and suddenly he felt curiously vulnerable.
'Go through there,' he said abruptly. 'While I get dressed.'
The stir of his erection had subsided by the time he'd pulled on some jeans and a T-shirt and walked through to the sitting room to see her standing with her back to him. She was staring out of the panoramic windows which overlooked the city of Simdahab, where golden minarets and towers gleamed in the rich light of the late afternoon sun. But Gabe barely noticed the magnificent view-his attention remained captivated by the mystery stranger.
She had removed her trench coat and had slung it over the back of one of the sofas-was she planning on staying?-and suddenly there were no more concealing folds to hide her from his eyes. His gaze travelled to where denim clung to the high curves of her bottom, to where her dark ponytail hung down her back like a dark stream of satin.
She must have sensed that he was in the room because she turned round-the ponytail swinging in slow motion-and from this angle he thought the view was even better. She looked at him with those clear blue eyes, and suddenly all he could see was temptation.
He wondered if she had been sent to him by the
Sultan-a delicious package for him to open and enjoy at his leisure. Another lavish gift, just like the others which had been arriving at his hotel suite all morning. It was said that, despite his relative youth, the Sultan was an old-fashioned man and this might be a very old-fashioned gesture on his part. Mightn't the powerful potentate have decided to sweeten up Gabe with a woman? A submissive and beautiful woman who would cater to his every whim.
'Who are you?' he questioned coolly. 'A hooker?'
Her face showed no reaction to his crude question, but it seemed to take for ever before she spoke.
'No, I'm not a hooker. My name is Leila,' she said, and now her blue eyes were watchful.
'Pretty name, but I'm still no wiser.'
Gabe shook his head in faint disbelief. 'How come everyone in this city knows my name?'
The woman smiled-her lips softening into cushioned and rosy curves. And even though he had never paid for sex in his life, in that moment he almost wished she were a hooker. What would he get her to do first? he wondered. Unzip him and take him in her delicious mouth, and suck him until he came? Or lower those narrow hips and bounce around on him until he cried out with pleasure?
'People know who you are because you are the guest of the Sultan,' she was saying. 'Your name is Gabe Steel and you are an advertising genius who has come to Qurhah to improve our global image.'
'That's a very flattering summary,' offered Gabe drily. 'But I'm afraid that unsolicited flattery doesn't really do it for me and it still doesn't explain why you're here. Why you burst into my hotel room uninvited and hid in my bathroom. Leila.'
For a moment there was silence.
Leila's heart pounded against her ribcage as she heard the blatant challenge in his voice, which countered the silky way he emphasised her name. Her mind was in a muddle and her senses felt raw and exposed. She had taken a risk and she needed to follow it through, but it was proving more difficult than she'd anticipated. Everything so far was going according to plan but suddenly she was filled with a powerful rush of nerves. She wondered how she could have been so stupid. How she could have failed to take into account Gabe Steel himself and the effect he would have on her.
She looked into his grey eyes. Strange, quicksilver eyes, which seemed to pierce her skin and see straight through to the bones beneath. She tried to find the right words to put her case to him, but everything she'd been planning to say flew clean out of her mind.
She wasn't used to being alone with strange men and she certainly wasn't used to being in a hotel room with a foreigner. Especially one who looked like this.
He was gorgeous.
She'd read up about him on the internet, of course. She'd made it her business to do so once she'd discovered that her brother was going to employ him. She'd found out all the external things about Gabe Steel. She knew he owned Zeitgeist-one of the world's biggest advertising agencies. That he'd been a millionaire by the age of twenty-four and had made it into multi-millions by the time he reached thirty. At thirty-five, he remained unmarried-though not for the lack of women trying to get a wedding ring on their finger. Or at least, not according to reports from the rather more downmarket sources.
She'd seen images of him, too. Crystal-clear images, which she'd gazed at with something approaching wonder as they'd flashed up onto her computer screen. Because Gabe Steel seemed to have it all- certainly in the physical sense. His golden-dark hair gave him the appearance of an ancient god, and his muscular body would have rivalled that of any Olympian athlete.
She'd seen photos of him collecting awards, dressed in an immaculate tuxedo. There had been a snatched shot of him-paparazzi, she assumed- wearing faded jeans and an open shirt as he straddled a huge motorbike, minus a helmet. On one level she had known that he was the type of man who would take your breath away when you met him for real. And she hadn't been wrong.
She just hadn't expected him to be so charismatic.