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It was the sort of December afternoon that touched Fifth Avenue with magic.
Dusk had not yet fallen but the streetlights had already blinked on, gilding the fat snowdrops that fell lazily from the sky. Windows glowed with honeyed warmth from the multi-million dollar condos that filled the high-rise buildings lining the fabled street. Across the way, Central Park glittered under its soft dusting of white.
It was enough to make even jaded New Yorkers smile but not the man who stood at a window sixteen stories above the scene.
Why would a man smile when he was consumed by cold rage?
Sheikh Salim al Taj, crown prince of the Kingdom of Senahdar, Lion of the Alhandra Desert and Guardian of his Nation, stood motionless, a Baccarat snifter of brandy clutched in his hand. A casual observer might have thought his pale blue eyes were fixed on the scene below. The truth was, he'd hardly noticed it.
His vision was turned inward. He was reliving what had happened five long months ago until a sudden flash of movement brought him back to the present.
It was a hawk.
For a moment, the wild creature seemed poised in midair. Then it dropped gracefully on to the parapet of the terrace beyond the window, clinging to it with razor-sharp talons as it had done so often these past months.
The hawk didn't belong in the city. It certainly didn't belong in these concrete canyons at this time of year but the bird, like Salim, was a survivor.
Salim felt some of his tension ease. He smiled, lifted his glass in silent salute, then drank deep of the amber liquid it held.
He was not a sentimentalist. Sentimentality was a weakness. He was, however, a man who admired courage, resolve andsingle-minded determination. The hawk embodied all those qualities. It had survived in this alien setting; hell, it had flourished.
So had he.
Perhaps the metaphor was self-indulgent. Still, it was impossible to avoid. Salim was many things, not all of them good as these last months had proven, but he was not given to avoidance. Reality had to be faced, no matter what the consequences.
Outside, on the parapet, the hawk ruffled its brown and amber feathers and fixed its blazing eyes on the park. Night would descend soon; the hawk was readying itself for its final hunt of the day.
Would the hunt be successful? Salim had no doubt that it would. The creature was a predator. A consummate hunter whose cool intent, when properly focused, spelled doom for its fleeing prey.
Another metaphor, Salim thought, and felt a muscle tic high in his cheek.
The hawk had appeared a year ago, soaring effortlessly over the snarled traffic, then landing on the parapet as Salim watched.
The sight had startled him.
He knew hawks well. He had raised them, trained them, flown them in the mountains and deserts of Senahdar. He knew their courage. Their independence. The elegant savagery that beat in their blood, no matter how calmly they learned to sit on a man's fist.
Watching the bird, he'd felt a wrenching sorrow at what would surely be its fate. A wild creature could not survive here.
The hawk had claimed the elegant avenue and the park as its own, dominating them as it would have dominated the forests or deserts that surely should have been its home. Salim had gladly given over the terrace. There were two othersone on each floor of his triplex; he was more than willing to share ownership of one with his wild guest.
The hawk thrived on solitude and by trusting its own instincts. It would never let anything defeat it.
Salim's smile faded.
Neither would he. He'd been made a fool of five months before and the insult would be dealt with, and soon. Lifting the brandy snifter to his lips, he let the last of the liquid's fire sear his throat.
It still infuriated him to remember. How he had been lied to. How he had fallen for the oldest game in the world.
How the woman had humiliated him.
She had lied to him in the worst way possible. She had played a game in his arms, the kind he'd never believed he would fall victim to.
She had lied to him with her body.
Her sighs. Her moans. The little whispers that had driven him crazy.
Yes, oh, yes. Do that again. Touch me, there, Salim. Ah. Ah, like that. Like that. Just yes. Your mouth. Your hands
Just remembering turned him hard. Lies, all of it but still, he couldn't forget the feel of her. All that silken heat. The sweetness of her mouth. The weight of her breasts in his hands.
None of it had been real. Her sexual appetite, yes. But her hunger for himfor him, not for what or who he washad been a lie. She had deceived him, toyed with him, made him blind to the truth.
Made it possible for her to steal his honor.
How else to describe waking up one morning to discover that she was gone and with her, ten million dollars?
A tremor of pure rage shot through him. He turned his back to the window, crossed the elegant room to a wall-length teak cabinet. The bottle of Courvoisier stood where he'd left it; he unstoppered it and poured himself a second drink.
All right. Part of that was an overstatement. He had not actually awakened to find Grace gone. How could he, when they'd never spent the entire night together?
Well, once. Twice, perhaps. Not more than that, and those times he'd stayed the night because of the weather or the lateness of the hour. Never for any other reason. She had her apartment. He had his. That was the way he liked it, always, no matter how long an affair lasted. Too much togetherness, no matter how good the sex, invariably led to familiarity and familiarity led to boredom.
That last time, he'd left her bed on a Friday night, flown to the West Coast on business. And when he'd returned to New York a week later, she was gone. So was the ten million, embezzled from the investment firm he'd built into a worldwide power.
Embezzled from an account inaccessible to anyone but him.
Salim took a long drink of the brandy, turned and walked slowly to the wall of glass. The snow had eased; the hawk was still perched on the parapet, motionless except for the slight ruffling of its brown, gray and amber feathers.
Ten million dollars, none of it found or recovered. The woman who'd stolen it had not been found, either. But she would be. Oh, yes, she would be, and very soon.
It was all he'd been able to think about today, after the call from the private detective he'd hired after the police and the FBI had proven useless. It was all he could think about now, as he waited for the man to arrive.
Five months. Twenty weeks. One hundred and forty-something days and now, finally, he would get what he hungered for, an old concept his ancestors would surely have approved.
Another swallow of brandy. It left a trail of smooth flame as it went down his throat but the truth was, nothing could warm him. Not anymore. Not until he finished what had begun last summer, when he'd taken Grace Hudson as his mistress.
Nothing unusual in that.
He was male, he was in his sexual prime, he waswhy be foolishly modest?he was a man who'd never had to go searching for women. They'd discovered him at sixteen, back home in Senahdar; if he'd been without a woman at any time since, it had been by choice, not necessity.
It was his selection of Grace as his mistress that had been unusual.
The women he took as lovers were invariably beautiful. He especially liked petite brunettes. They were also invariably charming. Why shouldn't a woman go out of her way to please a man? He was modern; he had been educated in the States but tradition was tradition and a woman who knew that it was important to cater to a man's wishes was a woman capable of holding a man's interest.
Grace had been none of those things.
She was tall. Five-eight, five-ninestill only up to his shoulder, even in the stiletto heels she favored, but there was no way one would describe her as "petite."
Her hair was not darkit was tawny. The first time he'd seen her, his fingers had ached to take the pins from it and let it down and when, finally, he had, she had reminded him of a magnificent lioness.
As for going out of her way to please a man She didn't go out of her way to please anyone. She was polite, well-spoken, but she was as direct as any man Salim had ever known. She had opinions on everything and never hesitated to state them.
She was a beautiful, enigmatic challenge. Not once had she sent out the signals women did when they were interested in a man.
Now, of course, he knew the reason. She'd been plotting from the start, cleverly baiting the trap. He hadn't seen it. He'd only seen that she was different.
Salim's jaw tightened.
Damned right, she was different.
She'd worked for him.
He never mixed business with pleasure. You didn't work and play in the same place. If you did, it was a surefire prescription for trouble. He'd always known that.
An unexpected event had brought her into his life. His chief financial officera staid, almost dour bachelor with a comb-over, thick glasses and no sense of humorhad stumbled into a midlife crisis that involved a bottle blonde and a Porsche. One day, the man was at his desk. The next, he was living with Blondie in a Miami condo.
Everyone had laughed.
"Lost his marbles over a babe," Salim had heard someone say. He'd chuckled right along with everyone else but the situation was serious. They needed a replacement, and quickly. Salim did what was logical, promoted the assistant CFO, Thomas Shipley, to the top job.
That left another hole in the organizational chart. Now his new CFO needed an assistant.
"Dominoes," the new CFO said with an apologetic shrug, but Salim knew it was the truth. He told him to hire someone. Such a simple thing. Such a damned simple thing
Hell. The brandy snifter was empty again. Salim went to the bar and refilled it. Where was the detective? Their appointment was for four-thirty. He looked at his watch. It was barely four. His impatience was getting to him.
Calm down, he told himself. He had waited this long; he could wait just a little longer.
Outside, the long darkness of the winter night was setting in; it was time to switch on the lights, but darkness better suited his mood.
Every detail of what had happened after he'd told his new CFO to hire an assistant remained vivid, including the moment two weeks later when Shipley stepped into his office.
"Good news," he'd said. "I've found three candidates. Any of them would be an excellent choice."
Salim was in the midst of a deal that involved a billion dollar takeover. He had no time for anything else.
"Why tell me?" he'd said brusquely. "Select one."
Shipley had demurred. "I'm new," he'd said, "and this assistant will be new, too. I'd rather not take complete responsibility, sir. I think you should make the final decision."
Salim had grumbled, but he knew Shipley was right. Alhandra Investments was, to use American parlance, his baby. He had founded it; he ran it. He granted his people full authority but he always made it clear he was to be kept in the loop and the loop he was dangling now would require working closely with his new assistant CFO.
He met with the three candidates the next day. They all had excellent CVs but the résumé of one was outstanding.
There was only one drawback.
She was a woman.
A woman, as assistant CFO? He was not biased against womenof course, he wasn'tbut, really, how capable could a woman be when it came to the intricacies of corporate finance?
Extremely capable, as it turned out.
Grace Hudson had degrees from Cornell and Stanford. She had worked for two of the best firms on Wall Street. She was articulate, knowledgeable, and if she was also the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen, what did that matter?
Her manner was polite but reserved. So was his. There was that thing about never mixing business with pleasure and, besides, she wasn't his type.
The fact that the huskiness of her voice haunted his dreams that night, that he found himself wondering what she'd look like with that mass of tawny curls loose about her heart-shaped face, that during the interview he'd had one incredible instant wondering what she had on beneath her black Armani suit
Not important, any of it. He told himself that, and he hired her.
Three months later, he bedded her.
It had been a Friday evening. They'd been working late, he offered her a ride home. She lived in Soho; he mentioned he'd been invited to a gallery showing in her neighborhood on Sunday. Would she like to go with him? He had not meant to make the suggestion but once he did, he told himself it was too late to rescind it. When she hesitated, he made a joke about how awful these things usually were and how she could save him from dying of boredom if she said "yes."
She laughed, said well, okay, why not? They exchanged a polite good-night.
They were polite on Sunday, too, right up until the second he took her home. Then their eyes met and he knew he'd been kidding himself, that though he'd never touched her save for shaking her hand the day he'd hired her, he'd been dreaming of her, hungering for her for weeks.
Without warning, he'd caught her by the shoulders and gathered her into his arms.
"No," she said, and then his mouth captured hers.
Her mouth was hot and sweet, her kisses as wild as his. It was as if he had never kissed a woman until that moment. The taste of her had been like a drug; the way her pupils widened until her eyes were pools of deepest black had made him want to drown in their depths.
"Salim," she'd whispered as he framed her face with his hands, "Salim, we shouldn't "
His hands had slipped under her jacket, his fingertips grazing her nipples, and she'd made a little sound he'd never forget and a minute later he'd had her against the wall, her demure skirt pushed up to her hips, her lace panties torn aside and he was inside her, deep inside her, swallowing her cries with his mouth, moving, moving, claiming her as he had longed to do from the first and to hell with the fact that they were still in the hall outside her apartment and anyone could have come along to see them, to hell with right or wrong, to hell with propriety.
To hell with everything except the passion that had consumed them both.