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The Oil Tycoon and Her Sexy Sheikh
By Ros Clarke, Alethea Spiridon Hopson
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2012 Ros Clarke
All rights reserved.
Khaled leaned back against the mirrored wall, folded his arms, and tried not to think of all the places he would rather be this morning than in the lift on his way to the boardroom. He was here because his father had asked him to come. When the Emir of Saqat asked, his son knew better than to refuse. So Khaled was in the embassy, speeding up to the twelfth floor to meet the CEO of an oil company.
Oil. He practically choked on the word. It was the very thing that made this meeting such a waste of time. There was no way on Earth that Oliver McInnes of MCI Oil could persuade Khaled to let him drill in the unspoiled waters in his part of the Persian Gulf.
The door pinged and he strode out of the lift. He nodded politely at Saleema, the receptionist. It wasn't her fault he'd been sent on this fool's errand.
"Good morning, Your Highness."
"Morning, Saleema. Is my appointment here?"
Before he could ask what she meant, a woman — a new secretary, he presumed — stepped out of the photocopying room and hurried toward him.
"Excuse me," she said, without looking up at Khaled. He stepped aside automatically to let her pass. She had to be new if no one had informed her of the correct etiquette when addressing him.
He turned his head to watch her disappear along the corridor and into the ladies' loo. Not a Saqati woman, which was unexpected here. English, he guessed, with her pale skin and dark hair, and smartly dressed for a secretary in an extremely well-cut trouser suit that clung beautifully to the curves of her backside. A shame she worked for him.
Saleema's question dragged him back from his contemplation of the secretary's curves to the reason for his visit.
"You were saying about Oliver McInnes?"
"Yes, sir. I am afraid he is indisposed. He has sent a representative instead."
"Fine. Send him in and arrange for some coffee, please."
Saleema paused. Khaled gave her a curious glance. "What is it?"
"That was her." She tilted her head down the corridor where the secretary had gone. "He sent his daughter."
Khaled's gaze ran up and down, lazily assessing his opponent in the boardroom. Expensive, charcoal-gray pinstriped suit. Smart, polished shoes. Blue and lavender striped silk tie. White, perfectly laundered shirt. Not Oliver McInnes.
Although, if he were judging by appearances, he'd have guessed that she would have preferred to be Oliver. This businesswoman was dressed in the nearest thing to a man's outfit that she could get away with. If she was hoping to disguise her femininity, he could have told her it wasn't working. Earlier he'd noticed her curves from behind, and now that she was facing him, he had a whole different set of curves to appreciate, all of which were wholly feminine and utterly alluring. Noticing that was not helping Khaled concentrate on her presentation, nor was the way her short dark hair showed just a hint of curl at her collar. She wore discreet gold studs in her ears and barely a trace of makeup, which allowed Khaled to see exactly how her cheeks flushed delicate pink with nervousness. Ms. McInnes was not quite as in control as she would have liked him to believe.
For the hundredth time, she tucked a nonexistent strand of hair behind her ear and glanced down at her notes. Khaled watched in silence. The boardroom might not be his natural environment, but he'd been involved in enough negotiations to know when to let his opponents speak. It was usually easier to let them dig their own grave than to surge into battle head on.
He had to admit that the MCI Oil presentation was impressive. Olivia McInnes had done her research. He wondered whether she really was a last-minute substitute for her father, or whether the exchange had been deliberately planned to set him off guard. She spoke confidently about the engineering required and gave cogent reasons for the proposed figures. She even knew a little about Saqat. Not much, but more than a glance at a Wikipedia entry could have told her. He was impressed. Most people Khaled met in England had barely heard of the tiny nation on the shores of the Persian Gulf that was his home.
Olivia had stopped talking. She was smiling coolly at Khaled, waiting for his response. Something in the way she met his eyes indicated that she was expecting him to agree.
He tossed the report onto the table and stood up. He needed to think. Instinctively, he wandered over to the glass wall of the London office. Gray buildings, gray clouds, gray smoke. This was what the world called civilization? He took a slow breath and looked again, more carefully. Bright-eyed pigeons circled below. Green trees pushed up defiantly toward the sky. The harder he looked, the more he knew he would see. Nature was too strong to be beaten down, even in the center of a concrete city.
His lips tightened, but he turned to speak to her. "Ms. McInnes."
She was standing up, presumably because he was.
"Sit down." He called for more coffee and thumbed idly through the MCI report again. It was thorough, but not thorough enough. Not where it counted.
Saleema refilled his cup, and he waved at Ms. McInnes, indicating that she should have whatever she wanted. She smiled at Saleema and asked for tea. It was an unexpected smile, wide and full, with a flash of warmth that was immediately extinguished behind the cool façade of the businessperson.
But the smile remained in Khaled's vision. A smile like that could intoxicate a man if he weren't careful.
Khaled turned his attention to the report on the table. "This is an excellent proposal, Ms. McInnes. My father has done extensive research on MCI Oil and I know that he is eager to do business with you."
She nodded. "As is my father eager to do business with the nation of Saqat."
"Quite. And yet, neither your father nor mine is here."
She had apologized for that at the start of their meeting.
She frowned. "Are you telling me you are not authorized to make the deal on your father's behalf? I understood that ..."
"I have the authority."
"Good. So do I." She folded her hands in her lap.
"But I am not so easily satisfied as my father." He couldn't do it. He couldn't just sign Saqat's future away.
"What do you mean?"
He picked up a pen and tapped it against the report. "Tell me about the environmental impact of your proposals, Ms. McInnes."
"As I mentioned before, a full environmental survey of the area has been undertaken, and the results are in the report you were sent. Provisions are laid out in the contract should any unforeseen consequences arise from the drilling."
"Financial compensation. Restoration. Containment."
He'd seen the contract with its standard industry clauses that covered everything from minor habitat damage to the devastation of a full-scale leak. None of them went far enough.
"Have you ever been to the Persian Gulf?" The starched and suited Ms. McInnes looked as though she'd never been out of her air-conditioned boardroom.
"No. I've traveled to Dubai and Saudi Arabia, but never to the Gulf itself."
"I see. And have you ever seen the consequences of an oil spill in a natural environment?"
"Yes. It's terrible. That's why MCI employs a belt and braces approach to safety, Your Highness."
"Enough with the highnesses." No one in England bothered with that except his embassy staff. "Call me Sheikh Khaled."
"Yes, Your ... Sheikh."
He shook his head, but he smiled. It was reassuring to know Olivia McInnes could get flustered. "Not 'Your Sheikh.' Sheikh Khaled."
She batted the mistake away. "Sheikh Khaled," she repeated coolly. "As I was saying, our safety record is second to none, and we employ a stringent set of checks to ensure that such a disaster will never happen."
"Never again, you mean." If she wasn't going to mention it, he would.
"That was a long time ago."
"Yet the effects are still being felt."
"What do you mean?" She couldn't quite hide the anxiety in her voice.
Khaled pressed his advantage. "The mating population of puffins on Straer Island has never recovered to its previous level. The fish population is steady, but there is a locally high proportion of adults with stunted growth and abnormal tumors."
Twenty years ago, an oil leak in the North Sea had hit Straer Island, off the eastern coast of Scotland. The clean-up job had been finished for nearly fifteen years. Olivia's eyes grew wider as he continued to list the ongoing effects of the spill.
"Residual oil in the sand continues to affect the shellfish. Just because the seaweed has grown back and you can see a seagull or two overhead does not mean that the environment has recovered."
She shook her head slowly in stunned amazement. "How do you know all this?"
"How do you not know? Is this the way MCI Oil makes provisions for disaster? By doing the sketchiest possible clean-up job and moving out as soon as the public outcry has died down? Because I assure you, Ms. McInnes ..." He stood and leaned over the table, "... that will not do for Saqat."
"No ... I ... yes ... I mean ..."
He laughed, though he felt no amusement. "That's what I thought. You really should have done your homework a little better."
She pushed back her chair and stood up to him, her cool blue eyes flashing like flint. "Tell me about your country, Sheikh Khaled. Your people. They enjoy a high standard of living, do they? All that wealth of the Arab nations. Some of it must have trickled down to them. I expect they all wear gold watches and drive flashy cars, don't they?"
"My people are quite content." He hoped they were, but he knew it was hard living in a poor nation surrounded by the opulence of oil-rich neighbors. Very few Saqati citizens had vehicles at all, let alone flashy cars to show off their wealth. The souks in Saqat City sold food, spices, serviceable fabrics, but not gold or jewels. As far as he knew, no one went hungry, but few were rich, as Olivia McInnes no doubt knew.
"They are content to be the poor relation, living on handouts from their rich neighbors, are they? How long do you suppose that generosity will last before Saqat is expected to start exploiting its own natural resources? If not with MCI Oil, with some other company whose environmental track record is far worse than ours."
He turned away from her to stare out of the window again. She was right. Damn her, she was right and that was why his father had set up the meeting. The Emir had always done his duty by his people, and now it was Khaled's time to step up to the mark.
"Your people need this deal, Sheikh Khaled. They deserve the opportunity to earn the freedoms that come with wealth. They deserve a better education system, health care, technology, everything your oil could provide. Surely that is more important than protecting against the unlikely chance of an environmental problem?"
"Problem! Disaster would be a better word. Destruction. Devastation."
"Call it what you like. Can you deny your people their inheritance?"
No, he couldn't do that, but there was more than one kind of inheritance that mattered, and he couldn't explain it here in a gray office at the top of a gray building in a gray city.
"Come with me."
He didn't wait for her. If she wanted this deal, she would follow. She caught up to him at the elevator, still shoving papers back into her briefcase. The door slid back, and he indicated she should enter. He pressed the button for the ground floor.
"Are you kidnapping me?" she asked calmly.
Khaled smiled briefly. "Certainly not. You are free to leave at any time. Of course, if you do, I won't have signed your contract."
She nodded. "Very well. But won't you at least tell me where we're going?"
A car was waiting for them outside the building. Khaled opened the door for Olivia, then went around to the other side. As they pulled away smoothly into the busy London traffic, he answered her question.
"The Natural History Museum. I want to show you my people's true inheritance."
It had been twenty years since Olivia last visited the London museums. As a child, she'd been unimpressed with the dull old paintings in the National Gallery and unsure what to make of the elaborate, useless exhibits in the Victoria and Albert. It was the Science Museum that had held her spellbound with its interactive displays that opened a fascinating window into the way the world worked. After that, the Natural History Museum could only ever have been second best. She had vague memories of skeletons and trays of butterflies pinned horribly through their stomachs for display. It was hard to see what that had to do with the Saqati oil.
The sheikh's car drew up outside the main entrance. Olivia exited and stepped onto the pavement before Sheikh Khaled could help her out. He raised an eyebrow at her, but said nothing and leaned into the car to give a murmured instruction to his driver.
"This way," he said, walking away from the grand entrance with its impressive Victorian gothic architecture.
Olivia followed hastily. "Where are we going now?"
"Tradesman's entrance," he told her, with a teasing smile.
He led her around the back of the building and through a series of security gates, which he opened as easily as if he worked here every day. When the receptionist greeted him with a warm smile and an assurance that his lab results were waiting, Olivia couldn't hold back any longer.
"You work here?"
"Of course," he replied smoothly. "It is the best."
"The best what?"
He laughed. "The best place for my research, of course. Come."
"What research? What work?" But he was already striding down a long corridor and showed no sign of answering her questions. Eventually, he stopped by a door with a brass plate screwed to it. By the side of the door, a black plate listed the names of the researchers involved with the collection. The first name on the list was disconcertingly familiar.
"Dr. K. Saqat? You're a doctor?"
"Marine biology. That's how you know all about the oil spill."
"Yes. My doctoral dissertation was on the long-term effects of oil spills on marine life. The results were not good."
"But we have scientists, too," she said. "They say that so long as we clear up properly, everything will be normal again within a few years."
"Is that what you pay them to say?"
"No!" She met his enquiring gaze squarely. "No. At least ... not as far as I know."
Sheikh Khaled nodded. "My research was self-funded. There was no external pressure to come up with the 'right' results. And believe me, no one would have been happier than I to know that the human greed for oil was not destroying the world around it."
"I would be happy to know that, too," she asserted firmly.
He looked at her for a long moment. "Very well," he said at last. "See for yourself."
He unlocked the door and held it open for her.
She nodded at the brass plaque. "'The Al Mayim Collection.' Is it yours?"
"It is the collection from my country, Saqat al Mayim. But since the collection focuses on the marine specimens found in our waters, it seemed appropriate to give it that name. Al Mayim is the Arabic word for the sea."
"The Natural History Museum has a collection from Saqat?"
"Of course. They have specimens here from all over the globe, but this collection is at the heart of my research."
As Olivia entered the room, she saw shelf after shelf of jars and trays containing all kinds of fantastical and faintly gruesome creatures.
"What is your research?"
"I'm making a collection of all the indigenous marine life in the Persian Gulf. There are many species unique to the Gulf and several whose natural habitat is found only in the Gulf and the Great Barrier Reef." He shrugged off his jacket and rolled up his shirtsleeves to reveal tanned forearms. Beautifully muscular tanned forearms that had nothing to do with the reason she was here.
Olivia dragged her eyes away from the sheikh's arms and tried to come up with a sensible question. "Isn't the Great Barrier Reef endangered too?"
"Everywhere that human activity reaches is endangered. But they have done some good work in recent years to protect the reef."
"Do you have coral in Saqat as well?"
He grinned. "See." He took her to another part of the room and swept his hand carelessly along the row, where hundreds of specimens of coral in all colors and shapes were stored.
She gasped. "It's beautiful."
"Yes. More beautiful at the bottom of the sea."
"You dive?" She shook her head. "Stupid question. Of course you would have to."
"I learned as a child. It was years before I bothered with scuba equipment."
He had already moved on to the next shelf of specimens. Olivia followed in fascination. He was totally absorbed in the work, describing to her the smallest details of feeding habits and breeding colonies. She barely understood half of what he was saying. Preserved fish and crustaceans were not the sort of subjects that easily held her attention. But Sheikh Khaled — or Dr. Saqat — was an object of profound interest to Olivia. She was entranced by the way his eyes narrowed slightly when he focused on some minute feature of the specimen he was describing to her. She watched the way he handled the tiniest glass jar with delicacy and precision, and noticed the sure touch of his long fingers when he reached out to stroke the coral. He would know how to touch a woman.
Excerpted from The Oil Tycoon and Her Sexy Sheikh by Ros Clarke, Alethea Spiridon Hopson. Copyright © 2012 Ros Clarke. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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