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EVERYTHING was in place.
Like a predator he lay in wait, his powerful body still and his eyes alert and watchful.
Remote and unapproachable, Sultan Tariq bin Omar al–Sharma lounged silently in his chair and surveyed the ballroom from the best table in the room. The arrogant tilt of his proud head and the cynical glint in his cold dark eyes were sufficient to keep people at a respectful distance. As an additional precaution, bodyguards hovered in the background, ready to apprehend anyone brave or foolish enough to approach.
Tariq ignored them in the same way that he ignored the stares of everyone in the room, accepting the attention with the bored indifference of someone who had been the object of interest and speculation since birth.
He was the most eligible bachelor in the world, relentlessly pursued by scores of hopeful women. A man of strength and power, hard and tough and almost indecently handsome.
In a room filled with powerful, successful men, Tariq was the ultimate catch and the buzz of interest built to fever pitch. Women cast covetous glances in his direction, each one indulging in her own personal fantasy about being the one to draw his eye because to do so would be the romantic equivalent of winning the lottery.
Ordinarily he might have exploited that appeal to ruthless advantage, but tonight he was interested in only one woman.
And so far she hadn't arrived. Nothing about his powerful, athletic frame suggested that his presence in the room stemmed from anything other than a desire to patronize a high profile charity ball. His handsome, aristocratic face was devoid of expression, giving nohint that this evening was the culmination of months of meticulous planning.
For him, tonight was all about business.
He needed control of the Tyndall Pipeline Corporation. The construction of the pipeline was essential to the successful future of Tazkash–crucial for the security and prosperity of his people. He needed to pump oil across the desert. The project was economically, environmentally and financially viable. Everything was in place.
But Harrison Tyndall, Chief Executive Officer, wasn't playing ball. He wasn't even willing to negotiate. And Tariq knew the reason why.
Daddy's baby. Spoiled little rich girl. Party girl. 'It' girl. The girl who'd always had everything she wanted.
Tariq's hard mouth curved into a smile. She could have had him, he recalled. But she hadn't liked his terms.
And Harrison Tyndall hadn't liked them either. Weeks of delicate negotiation between the state of Tazkash and the Tyndall Pipeline Corporation had broken down and there had been no further communication on the subject for five long years.
It was a sorry state of affairs, Tariq mused silently, when the wishes of a woman dictated the flow of business.
Seated at his elbow, HasimAkbar, his Minister for Oil Exports, cleared his throat respectfully. 'Perhaps I should walk around the room, Your Excellency. See if the Tyndall girl has arrived yet."
"She hasn't arrived." Tariq spoke in a lazy drawl, his fluent, perfectly accented English the product of the most expensive education money could buy. 'If she were here, I would know."
Hasim tapped his fingers on the table, unable to conceal his mounting anxiety. 'Then she is extremely late."
Tariq gave a faint smile. 'Of course she is extremely late. To be on time or even slightly late would be a wasted opportunity."
He had no doubt that Farrah Tyndall was currently loitering in the wings somewhere, poised to make her entrance as dramatic as possible. After all, wasn't socializing the entire focus of her shallow, pampered existence? Having spent all day with her hairdresser and her stylist, she would be more than ready to display the fruits of their labour. Living up to her mother's reputation. Farrah Tyndall was just like every other woman he'd ever had dealings with. She cared about nothing more important than shoes, hair and the state of her nails.
"It is getting late. Maybe she's here somewhere," Hasim suggested nervously, 'but we just haven't noticed her."
"Clearly you've never seen a picture of Farrah Tyndall."Tariq turned his head, a slightly cynical inflection to his tone as he surveyed the man next to him. 'If you had, then you would know that being noticed is the one thing she does really, really well."
"She is beautiful?" 'Sublime." Tariq's gaze slid back to the head of the staircase. 'Farrah Tyndall can light up a room with one smile from her perfectly painted mouth. If she were already here then the men in the room would be glued to the spot and staring."
As he had stared on that first day, standing on the beach at the desert camp of Nazaar.
Her beauty was enough to blind a man. Enough to blind him to her truly shallow nature.
But it wasn't her beauty or her personality that interested him now. For the past few months his staff had been discreetly buying every available share in the Tyndall Pipeline Corporation. Control was finally within his reach. All he needed to take over the company and guarantee the pipeline project was a further twenty per cent.
And Farrah Tyndall owned twenty per cent. Hasim was breathing rapidly. 'I still think this plan is impossible."
Tariq gave a slow smile, totally unperturbed. 'The challenge and stimulation of business comes from making the impossible possible,"he observed, his long fingers toying idly with the stem of his glass, 'and to find a solution where there appears to be none."
"But if you carry out your plan then you will have to marry her—"
Confronted by that unpalatable truth, Tariq's fingers tightened on the glass. Despite his outward display of indifference, his internal reaction to the prospect of marriage bordered on the allergic. 'Only in the short term,"he drawled and Hasim's expression transformed from mild concern to one of extreme anxiety.
"You are seriously considering invoking the ancient law that allows you to divorce after forty days and forty nights?"
"Everything my wife owns, and I do mean every– thing," Tariq inserted with silken emphasis, 'becomes mine on marriage. I want those shares but I have no wish to stay married."
The plan was perfect. Masterly.
Hasim fiddled nervously with the cloth of his suit. 'To the best of my knowledge, that particular divorce law has not been applied for centuries."
"And most people have forgotten its existence, which is clearly to our advantage."
"It is an insult to a bride and her family, Your Excellency." Hasim's voice was hoarse and Tariq lifted an ebony brow.
"How is it possible to insult a woman who thinks only of partying and possessions?" His tone was sardonic. 'If you're expecting me to feel sorry for Farrah Tyndall then you're wasting your time."
"But what if she doesn't come tonight? Everything depends on the girl." The Minister shifted on his chair, beads of sweat standing out on his brow as the prolonged wait started to affect his nerves.
By contrast Tariq, who had nerves of steel and had never doubted his own abilities, sat relaxed and confident, his gaze still focused on the sweep of stairs that led down into the ballroom. 'She will come. Her father is patron of this charity and she's never been one to miss a good party. You can safely leave the girl to me, Hasim."
And even as he said the words she appeared at the top of the staircase.
Poised like a princess, her golden hair piled high on her head in a style no doubt selected in order to display her long slender neck to greatest advantage, the dress a sheath of glittering gold falling from neck to ankles and hugging a body that was nothing short of female perfection.
Clearly he'd been right in his assumption that she'd spent the entire afternoon at the hairdresser and with her stylist, Tariq thought with cold objectivity, his expert gaze sliding slowly down her body.
Which meant that her priorities hadn't changed at all in the five years since they'd last met.
But there were changes, he noticed, as he watched the way she drifted down the stairs with the effortless grace of a dancer. She carried herself differently. No longer the leggy teenager who had appeared slightly awkward and self–conscious, she'd developed poise and sophistication. She'd grown into her stunning looks.
The girl he'd once known had become a woman. Although he was careful to betray nothing, he felt everything inside him tighten in a vicious attack of lust. Desire, hot and fierce, gripped his lean, athletic frame and, for a moment, he was sorely tempted to drag her from the ballroom and make use of the nearest available flat surface.
Which just went to prove, he thought grimly, that the male libido was no judge of character and completely disconnected from the brain.
Irritated by the violence of his own response to her, he watched in brooding silence as she weaved between tables, pausing occasionally to meet and greet. Her smile was an intriguing mix of allure and innocence and she used it well, captivating her male audience with the gentle curve of her lips and the teasing flash of her eyes.
She was an accomplished flirt. A woman of exceptional beauty who knew exactly how to use the gifts that nature had bestowed upon her to best advantage. And she used each gift to its full as she worked the room, shining brighter than any star as she moved towards her table with a group of friends.
Her table was next to his. He knew that because his instructions to his staff had been quite specific and, like a jungle cat lying in wait for its prey, Tariq remained still, poised for her to notice him.
The tension inside him rose and anticipation thrummed in his veins.
Any moment now…
She exchanged a few words with a passing male, who laughed and kissed her hand. Then she dropped her tiny bag on the table and turned, the smile still on her lips.
And saw him.