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'Thank you so much for your time, Your Highness.' The journalist was practically curtseying to him. Something Karim really, really hated.
But he managed to stay polite. 'No problem. Nice to meet you.' He was aware that he was wearing just as false a mask as the journalist was.
No doubt she thought she had some great quotes to use in a diary piece. This was the kind of party that always made the gossip columnshigh-level people from the business world, politicians and hotshot brokers and a sprinkling of actors and pop stars.
And he knew exactly what the spin was going to be where he was concerned. That His Royal Highness Karim al-Hassan had been partying hard, with a champagne reception every day for the last week and languorous lunch engagements that started before midday and never finished before three.
Five years ago, they might've been right. He'd partied with the best of them. Burned the candle at both ends.
But now it was old news. Though in some respects it suited himpeople were nowhere near as guarded with him when they thought he was just out for fun, a charming and sophisticated dilettante.
What the newspapers all missed was that Karim's glass usually held sparkling mineral water rather than gin and tonic.
That he had a retentive memory and didn't need to make noteshe could recall every detail of a meeting and follow it up with letters or reports as necessary. And none of them had any idea that when he left a lunch meeting or a party, he'd be working on complicated figures or reading reports from focus groups until the early hours.
Since his father had entrusted him with such an important taskdeveloping tourism and foreigninvestment in Harrat SalmaKarim had been more businessman than playboy. He'd done the research, met the right people, made the right contacts, written his business plans. And now he needed to make the most of it. He'd set up a series of meetings with people he knew would bring in investment that would help create more jobs, better infrastructures and the chance to develop sustainable energy sources in his country. All of which would help put Harrat Salma at the forefront.
Even as he chatted pleasantly among a group of people, smiling and making appropriate comments in the right places to show he'd been listening, Karim's mind was working on his business plan. Though something nagged at him to turn round. Like a whisper in his head that wouldn't go away.
Eventually, he gave in.
The woman across the other side of the room caught his attention immediately, despite the fact that she was clearly dressed to be invisible rather than to shine. Her hair was an ordinary brown, caught back at the nape. Her black shift dress was simple, elegant and very plain. Her shoes were low-heeled, rather than strappy high heels. She wore no jewellery, not even a watch. No make-up, unless she'd gone for the 'barely there' look that he knew from experience was incredibly high maintenance though, given the rest of her appearance, he didn't think so.
She was the complete opposite of the women he usually dated. Given that she'd dressed to be ignored, he shouldn't even have noticed her. Yet she was beautiful in her simplicity. And something about her drew him. As if there were some connection between them.
He'd never seen her before. He would've remembered her, he was sure. He had no idea who she wasbut right at that moment he really wanted to know. And even though he was supposed to be networking, he could allow himself five minutes off. Just long enough to find out who she was and ask her out to dinner.
She was talking to Felicity Browne, the hostess. Karim quietly slipped away from the group and sauntered casually across the room towards the two women. When their conversation ended and she turned away, he quickened his pace slightly and intercepted her path. 'Hello.'
'Hello,' she said politely.
She had a faint South London accent, he noticed. And up close he could see that her eyes were a serious, quiet grey-blue.
Serious and quiet. Definitely not like the women he usually dated.
'You don't have a drink,' he said, shepherding her over towards a waiter bearing a tray of glasses.
'Because I'm not really here,' she said.
Although she was obviously aiming to sound cool and collected, Karim had trained himself to notice the little things and he noticed that she was very slightly flustered.
Given that she'd been talking to Felicity, it was a fair bet that she was a member of Felicity's staff. So it followed that she was probably worried about getting into trouble for hanging around at a party she really wasn't dressed to attendor invited to.
Well, he could fix that.
'Let's go somewhere quieter,' he said. 'I'll get you a drink first.'
'Thank you, but I don't drink.'
'Then have a mineral water.' He took two glasses from the waiter's tray and handed one to her. A quick check told him that the reporter had indeed left the party: good. Now he could relax. He tucked her free arm through his before heading for the French doors he knew led to a balcony.
Oh, help, Lily thought.
She'd only slipped into the room for a few momentsvery quietly and discreetlyto check that Felicity was happy with everything. Then she'd intended to go straight back to the kitchen and sort out the puddings. She certainly hadn't intended to let herself be waylaid like this.
Even if he was the most stunning man Lily had ever seen.
He was dressed like the rest of the male guests, in a dinner suit teamed with a white, wing-collar pleated-front shirt. His black silk bow tie was hand-tied rather than ready-made. A swift glance at his highly polished black shoes told her that they were handmade, and the cut of the suit was definitely made-to-measure rather than off-the-peg. Expensive made-to-measure, judging by the feel of the cloth against her fingers. Everything about him screamed class.
Well, it would. Felicity Browne was posh with a capital P, and her guests were the same.
Lily had met a few of them beforecooked for them, evenbut she'd never met him. She would've remembered. He had the same accent as most of the men in the roomone she recognised as public school followed by Oxbridgeand his almost black hair was cut slightly too long with a fringe that flopped over his eyes. Definitely an upper-class playboy.
Though his olive skin and amber-coloured eyes were just a touch too exotic for him to be English.
'I really shouldn't b' she began again as he opened the French doors, guided her onto the balcony and closed the doors behind them.
'Don't worry. If Felicity says anything, I'll tell her I kidnapped you and it wasn't your fault,' he reassured her.
'Shh.' He placed his forefinger against her lips, his touch gentle yet firm enough to tell her he meant it. No more protesting.
And then he held her gaze and traced the tip of his forefinger across her lower lip. The lightest, sheerest contactand yet Lily couldn't move. Didn't want to move. There was something compelling about him, something that drew her to him. From the look in his eyes, she had a feeling it was exactly the same for him.
Spark to a flame.
A single touch would be enough to ignite it.
She should leave now. If she acted on her heart instead of her head, it would be a disaster. She couldn't afford the kind of gossip that would undoubtedly followgossip that would insidiously eat away at the foundations of the business she'd worked so hard to build, and bring it crashing down.
But, for the life of her, she couldn't walk away.
'What's your name?' he asked softly.
'Karim,' he introduced himself.
Exoticand yet he had that very English accent. Intriguing. And she wanted to know more.
'One question,' he said softly. 'Are you married, involved with anyone?'
She knew instinctively that if she said yes, he'd let her go. Then she could escape back to the kitchen. She actually considered lying to him; although dishonesty was something she usually despised, in this case she knew a white lie would be the most sensible course of action.
But her body wasn't listening to her head. She gave the tiniest, tiniest shake of her head, and saw relief bloom in his expression. Followed quickly by a hunger that made her body tighten in response.
He put his glass down on the table, then took hers from her hand and placed it next to his, all the while keeping his gaze fixed on hers. He captured her hand and raised it to his mouth; as he kissed each fingertip in turn she couldn't help her lips parting and her head tipping back slightly in offering.
He saw the invitation and took it, dipping his head so that his mouth just brushed her own. The lightest, sweetest, erotic whisper of skin against skin.
It wasn't enough.
She needed more.
She slid her arms round his neck, drawing his head back down to hers. Even as she did it she knew it was crazy. They'd barely spoken a word to each other. Had only just exchanged first names. She didn't do things like this.
Yet here she was, kissing a complete stranger. A man she knew nothing about, except for his first name and the fact that he had the sexiest mouth she'd ever seen.
And then she stopped thinking as he deepened the kiss and her fingers tangled in his hair, urging him closer. His hair felt clean and springy under her fingers and she could smell the exotic scent of his aftershave, a sensual mixture of bergamot and citrus and amber. Simply gorgeous.
In turn, his arms were wrapped round her, one hand resting on the curve of her buttocks and the other flat against her back, drawing her closer against his body. So close that she could practically feel his heart beating, a deep and rapid throb that matched her own quickening pulse rate.
She'd heard people talking about seeing stars when they kissed and had always thought it an exaggeration. Now she knew exactly what they were talking about. This was like nothing else she'd ever experienced: as if fireworks were going off inside her head.
When he finally broke the kiss, she was shaking with need and desire. Every nerve ending in her body was sensitised and the sensation ratcheted up another notch when he traced a path of kisses along her jawbone to her ear lobe, and then another along the sensitive cord at the site of her neck. She shivered and arched against him; in response, he pulled her closer, close enough for her to feel his erection pressing against her belly. His palm flattened against her hip and stroked upwards, moulding her curves; when he cupped one breast, his thumb rubbing the hard peak of her nipple through the material of her dress, her knees went weak.
All her senses were focused on him. The tang of his aftershave, the more personal scent of his skin, the taste of his mouth on hers, the warmth of his hands through her clothes a thin barrier that was suddenly way, way too thick for her liking. Right at that moment she really needed to feel his skin against hers. Soft and warm and incredibly sexy.
Then he went absolutely still. Lily opened her eyes and pulled back slightly, about to ask what was wrong, when she heard it, too.
The sound of a door closing.
The chink of glasses.
They weren't alone on the balcony any more. And she'd been so lost in the way he was kissing her No doubt she looked as dishevelled as he did, with mussed hair and a mouth that was slightly reddened and swollen with kisses, making it obvious what they'd just been doing.
This was a disaster.
But hopefully it was fixable.
At least they weren't immediately in full sight; somehow while he'd been kissing her he'd managed to manoeuvre them behind one of the large potted palms at the side of the balcony, screening them from view.
Frantically, she smoothed her dress, removed the band keeping her hair tied and yanked her hair back into tight order. It was just as well they'd been interrupted, or who knew what they might have done?
She'd just broken every single one of her personal rules. Even though she'd hand-picked her staff and she knew they were perfectly capable of holding the fort, she should still have been there to oversee things and sort out any last-minute hitches. She was supposed to be working. And instead she'd let a complete stranger whisk her off to the balcony to kiss her stupid. She'd followed her libido instead of her common sense.
Had she really learned nothing from the wreck of her marriage?
Karim, too, was restoring order to his clothes.
'I really have to go,' she whispered, keeping her voice low so she wouldn't be overheard by the others on the balcony.
'Not yet,' he said, his voice equally soft. He traced the fullness of her lower lip with his thumb. 'Or I think both of us will be embarrassed.'
'But we didn't ' Lily's voice faded as a picture slammed into her minda picture of what would have happened if they hadn't been interrupted. A picture of him drawing the hem of her dress up around her waist while she undid his bow tie and opened his shirt. A picture of him lifting her, balancing her against the wall, and then his body fitting against hers, easing in and then
'Don't,' he warned huskily, and she saw his pupils dilate. No doubt her thoughts had shown in her eyes, and he was thinking something along exactly the same lines.
All he had to do was dip his head slightly and he'd be kissing her again. Tasting her. Inciting her to taste him, touch him in return. And, Lord, she wanted to touch. Taste. Feel him filling her.
She swallowed hard.
Whatever was wrong with her? She never, but never, turned into a lust-crazed maniac. For the last four years she'd been single and perfectly happy with that situation. She had no intention of getting involved again. But this man had drawn an instant response from her. Made her feel the way nobody had before.
Which, as he was a total stranger, was insane.
This shouldn't be happening.
She only hoped the people who'd come out onto the balcony would go back into the main room again. The longer they had to stay behind the potted palm, the more embarrassing it would be when they finally emerged.
Again, his thoughts must have been in tandem with hers, because he said softly, 'The French doors are the only way out. Unless you're a gymnast in disguise and can launch yourself off the balcony onto a distant drainpipe, then shin down it.'