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She had a backpack the size of the world. Hoisting it off the luggage carousel, she almost knocked out the eye of the woman standing next to her. Buckles and straps jangled from it, along with a rope, a waterproof bedsheet, and a pair of sand boots. She had her hair scraped back and a camouflage hat with a highly becoming neck-flap crammed on her head.
Hearing she was to travel to the interior of A'Qaban as part of her job as marketing executive to that country's development agency, Casey had ditched the power suit and Jimmy Choos in favour of a safari suit and sandproof knickers. But this wasn't an airstrip in the furthest reaches of A'Qaban, but A'Qaban International Airport, where the desert came in bijou-sized pieces, each grain of sand polished to a heady sheen by the world's top designers.
As with any other project she undertook for the company, Casey had researched this one thoroughly. It had only been on the point of boarding the aircraft that she had been told her itinerary had been changedand by none other than the recently crowned King, Sheikh Rafik al Bad-Boy himself. Apparently His Majesty had insisted on meeting all his key employees before ruling the country took his eye off the business.
Surprised to find an underling like herself under the spotlight, Casey had allowed herself a momentary glow, until it was pointed out to her that Raffa, as the Eton educated and Special Forces hardened Sheik preferred to be known, was well into weeding out the weak links in his organisation. So, here she was, dressed like a park ranger in the midst of Glitz Central, and with no office clothes to save the day.
She had a wardrobe full of smart business suits back home, but what was the point in kicking herself? She was here and she had to get on with it, Casey reflected, hoisting her backpack into a more comfortable position. The Sheikh of A'Qaban was known to test his employees to the limit and she should have had it covered. She might be at a disadvantage, but not for long. As soon as she cleared Customs it would be all about the shopping mall.
Could sexual heat pass through glass? Watching Casey Michaels cross the baggage hall, he thought it could. Even in that outfit she looked good funny, but good.
How could she not look better than the uptight fashion victim he'd taken a look at in her file? He could see that was an old photo, way out of date now. She had blossomed since it had been takenmore flesh on her bones, and way more blonde hair falling down beneath her ugly hat. That, combined with the good-humoured curve of her lips, the direct, unflus-tered gaze and the determined stride, made for quite a packageeven if that package was bundled up in the most unflattering of clothes.
Her clothes could change. He was wearing jeans and a top for this reconnaissance mission. Official robes were a costume he wore when appropriatejust as Casey would step into a different role when she put on a severely tailored business suit.
The thought of unlacing those office stays and discovering the real woman underneath was an image that pleased him perhaps more than it should have done. Thumbing his sharp black stubble, he weighed up the supple frame beneath the unflattering safari suit. Virginal innocence sang out loud and clear.
And he never mixed business with pleasure.
He turned his mind to the point of Casey's visit. Could she inspire? Could she lead? Was she prepared to fight for her people? Those were the things that mattered to him. With the livelihoods of thousands of employees at stake, only the strongest executives would survive his cut.
But she intrigued him. He pulled back from his vantage point. It was time to move on if he wanted to keep an eye on Casey's progress. Thanking each of his customs officials in turn by name for their hospitality, he left the viewing room. He felt super-wiredthe way he always felt when the hunt was on. And there was nothing wrong with that. He needed a little cra-ziness in his life, a little freshness.
In his life?
Business and pleasure?
A glint of humour was in his eyes as he joined the bustle in the arrivals hall. Some people recognised him; some stood gaping; some didn't know him from Adam. The question was, would she recognise him?
His ever-present bodyguards knew to remain invisible. Taken out of context, he had been mistaken by some of his failed employees for just another travelerwhich was how he liked it. He was looking for people who could bring something unique and special to A'Qaban, and so far he'd been disappointed. Plus, he liked mingling with his people. It allowed him to feel the pulse of the country and test the mood of his fellow countrymenthat and the acuity of his staff.
En garde, Casey Michaels!
She was being watched. She could feel it like a ripple down her spine. Someone was stalking her; someone far more powerful than the officials she'd encountered so far was watching her. The constant warning signal in her head was making it hard to concentrate.
Impossible, Casey accepted with a gasp as she collided with a door.
Ouch! He grimaced as he watched Casey regroup and recover herself before moving on with the crowd heading for Immigration. At least she hadn' t hurt herself, and the only thing stinging was her pride. Her cheeks had pinked up, but to her credit she showed no other outward sign of dismay. He moved ahead of her, always watching from an upper level. Casey worked for him, and therefore she was under his protection. This visit was a trial and as such it had to be fair. The other candidates had jumped through hoops and so would she, but he'd keep her safe as he'd kept them all safenot that he'd watched any of the rest quite so avidly.
But that didn't mean he was going to step over the boundary of care into the dangerous territory of personal interest. It was just that Casey seemed to need more care than most. Other than that he was showing her the same courtesy he had extended to all of his employees.
Had he felt like this when he'd first encountered the other candidates he would have had some serious concerns about his sexual orientation by now. And he had none.
She had researched the vast steel and glass structure that was A'Qaban International Airport on-line, but nothing could have prepared her for the sheer scale of the place. The glamour of gleaming crystal, bronze and glass, together with the cleanliness and the faint scent of something spicy on the air, was both exciting and distracting.
So no more walking into doors, Casey warned herself firmlythough it was easy to be sidetracked when she was basking in the husky Arabian language, the sound of robes fluttering and the pad of sandalled feet. Just the walk up to Immigration was an exotic introduction to the mysterious east, as the countless portraits of A'Qaban's leader were a heart-racing introduction to her boss.
There were images of the powerful young leader everywhere, and as Casey paused for a moment to take stock of one she realised it was the same official portrait they had back home, showing a magnificent figure clad in the traditional robes of a Bedouin warrior. She had never seen her boss in western clothes. She turned from that to inspect the royal standard, which was flying from a flagpole in the centre of the hall. A rich blue background hosted a silvery crescent moon, beneath which a rampant lion bared its teeth and roared a warning.
A shiver ran down Casey's spine as she remembered the lion was Sheikh Rafik's personal symbol. She had always thought it perfect for a man who had rowed for Eton, played rugby for Oxford, and boxed for the army during his time in the Special Forces, before stamping his authority on the business world as well as his country. Rafik al Rafar was the undisputed alpha lion of the Arabian Gulfa man whose personal work ethic was famously merciless, and who expected nothing less of his team. A quiver of anticipation that had nothing to do with business ran through her at the prospect of meeting him.
Impressed by the efficiency of the airport staff, Casey was soon part of a fast-moving line in which she thought about her place in the Sheikh's organisation. Her passion for his country had no doubt helped her rise. Rebuilding A'Qaban was the most exciting project she could imagine. Bordered by a turquoise sea and framed by granite mountains, the country boasted a capital city to rival any in the world, and Casey was determined to see it become a market leader in the global tourist industry.
A'Qaban also had a priceless jewelone that was largely undiscovered. In Casey's opinion its interior was the country's crowning glory. It was a wilderness largely untouched by man, other than the wandering Bedouin tribesmen, whom Sheikh Rafik al Rafar protected. Casey envisaged tours that respected the Bedouins' freedom to travel whilst celebrating their culture with carefully monitored wildlife safaris, ecological and educational trips, even archaeological digs to pique the interest of the world.
Her lips pressed down briefly with disappointment when she remembered that she would be in the desert right now if the Sheikh hadn't changed his mind about her destination. There could be no other reason for her being dressed like an extra from the set of Indiana Jones and attracting more sideways glances than a stray camel. But if that was the only disappointment she had to cope with today
Buoyed up with anticipation, she was just about to check her passport when her old friend intuition came knocking again. There was someone watching her. She had the strongest sense that a hunt was on and that she was the prey. But that was clearly the result of watching too many movies recently. The stack of DVDs back home fleshed out her non-existent personal life, and in the absence of romantic action kept her company at night.
As the line moved smoothly forward Casey took the sensation shimmering down her spine as a reminder to keep her wits about her. Her colleagues had warned her that Rafik al Rafar didn' t play by the rulesa prospect that had excited her at the time, because she liked a challenge. But now she was here, in the middle of this trial by disorientation, she wasn't feeling quite so confident.
She shook off the feeling. She was determined to enjoy every moment of this tripeven the terminal building, which was decked out like the lobby of a six-star hotel. There were fountains to soothe the senses and cool the air, along with an abundance of lush green plants, and even indoor palm trees stretching their spiny fingers towards the twinkling glass ceiling.
It was just Casey Michaels who was feeling a little out of sorts, Casey accepted as she fought the feeling of being a very small speck of travelling dust in a busy, purposeful world. She was under no misapprehension. She was a piece on the Sheikh's chessboard, and if she didn't play the right move at the right time she would be swept out of the game.
A group of A'Qabani women distracted Casey as they fluttered past on silent feet, like so many graceful butterflies. As she smiled, kohl-lined eyes smiled back.
The A'Qabanis seemed such a friendly people. They made her wish she could understand the secret language the women seemed to be transmitting from behind their silken veils. Their language hinted at a hidden world, and it was a world she longed to know more about. But, like the desert interior, that world would have to wait.
Casey passed through Immigration without incident, and at Customs was surprised to be waved on. It seemed strange to her that she, the most disreputable-looking person in the line, hadn't attracted so much as a challenge. But, heigh-ho, was she complaining? She had no desire to flaunt her stock of big knickers and sensible vests to a line of customs officials dressed in the immaculate robes and headdresses of A'Qaban.
Focusing on the exit signs, Casey quickened her pace. She didn't expect anyone to be waiting for her so her plan was to call a cab and ask to be taken to the nearest hotel. Once there, she would freshen up and contact the office.
She had barely made it halfway across the concourse when the crowd she was part of peeled away; moments after that she was surrounded by fearsome-looking guards. They wore a uniform of black tunics and baggy trousers, and they all had lethal daggers tucked into their belts. She turned full circle, but there was no escape.
The blood drained from Casey's face as dark, expressionless eyes confronted her. Nothing like this had ever happened to her before, and it was easily the most frightening experience of her life. What terrible sin had she unwittingly committed?
She didn't have to wait long to find out. The circle parted almost immediately to admit one man. A hunk in jeans.
Snug-fitting blue jeans, desert boots and a form-fitting top, to be precise. And that was before she took in the ruffled inky hair, sharp gaze, deep tan, sensual mouth and an earring?
Casey's mind went into freefall. For a moment she couldn't think straight. The man was tallthreateningly soand built like a kick boxer fresh from the ring. Swallowing deep, she called on all her powers of quick recovery. This was not the moment to be wrong-footed by the Sheikh.
'You move faster than I thought, Casey Michaels.'
Sheikh Rafik al Rafar's brown-black eyes were stunning, she registered shakily, stumbling into an awkward curtsey. 'Your Majesty'
'Leave your toadying at the door and call me Raffa.'
Raffa was not only the best-looking man she had seen in a long timeif everhe had a voice that was honey-warm and barely accented, which strummed her senses in a way she had never experienced before. 'Raffa.'
'Ahlan wa sahlan, Casey Michaels '
There was just the faintest touch of mockery in his voice. Could the bad-boy Sheikh tune in to her thoughts? She stared up into eyes that told a story Casey wasn't sure she was old enough to read, and her heart-rate soared when the ruler of A'Qaban touched his hand to his heart, his lips, and finally to his forehead.
'Ahlan wa sahlan beek, Yourer, Raffa.' She lowered her eyes, thanking her lucky stars that on joining a company owned by an Arab Sheikh she had learned the basics of his language. When she raised her head again it was to find the observant gaze licking over her with interest. Had she managed to buy herself a second chance?
'Come,' he said.