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The moment Madison Foster exited the black stretch limo, a security detail converged upon her, signaling the extreme importance of her prospective client. The light mist turned to rain as she crossed the parking lot. One massive guard was on her right, a somewhat smaller man at her left, while two other imposing goons dressed in dark suits led the way toward the Los Angeles high-rise. A few feet from the service entrance, she heard a series of shouts and camera shutters, but she didn't dare look back. Making that fatal error could land her on the cover of some seedy tabloid with a headline that read The Playboy Prince's Latest Paramour. And a disheveled presumed paramour at that. She could already feel the effects of the humidity on her unruly hair as curls began to form at her nape beneath the low ponytail. So much for the sleek, professional look. So much for the farce that it never rained in sunny Southern California.
When the guards opened the heavy metal door and ushered her inside, Madison stepped carefully onto the damp tile surface as if walking on black ice. Couldn't they see she was wearing three-inch heels? Clearly they didn't care, she realized as they navigated the mazelike hallway at a rapid clip. Fortunately they guided her into a carpeted corridor before she took a tumble and wounded her pride, or worse. They soon reached a secluded elevator at the end of the passage where one man keyed in a code on the pad next to the door.
Like a well-oiled human machine, they moved inside the car. Madison felt as if she were surrounded by a contingent of stoic man-crows. They kept their eyes trained straight ahead, not one affording her even a casual glance, much less a kind word, on the trip to the top floor.
The elevator came to a smooth stop a few moments later where the doors slid open to a gentleman dressed in a gray silk suit, his sparse scalp and wire-rimmed glasses giving him a somewhat scholarly appearance. As soon as Madison exited the car, he offered his hand and a hesitant smile. "Welcome, Miss Foster. I'm Mr. Deeb, His Highness's personal assistant."
Madison wasn't pleased with the "Miss" reference, but for the sake of decorum, she shook his hand and returned his smile without issuing a protest. "It's nice to meet you, Mr. Deeb."
"And I you." He then stepped aside and made a sweeping gesture to his right. "Come with me, please."
With the guards bringing up the rear like good little soldiers, they traveled down the penthouse's black marble vestibule beneath soaring, two-story ceilings. As a diplomat's daughter and political consultant, she'd been exposed to her share of opulence, but she wasn't so jaded she couldn't appreciate good taste. A bank of tall windows revealing the Hollywood Hills drew her attention before her focus fell on the polished steel staircase winding upward to the second story. The clean lines and contemporary furnishings were straight out of a designer's dream, but not at all what she'd expected. She'd envisioned jewels and gold and statues befitting of royalty, not a bachelor pad. An extremely wealthy bachelor's pad nonetheless. Only the best would do for Sheikh Zain ibn Aahil Jamar Mehdi, the crown prince of Bajul, who'd recently and unexpectedly become the imminent king, the reason why she'd been summonedto restore the tarnished reputation of the man with many names. In less than a month.
After they passed beneath the staircase and took an immediate right, Madison regarded Mr. Deeb, who also seemed bent on sprinting to the finish line. "I'm surprised the prince was willing to meet with me this late in the evening."
Deeb tugged at his tie but failed to look at her. "Prince Rafiq determined the time."
Rafiq Mehdi, Prince Zain's brother, had been the one who'd hired her, so that made sense. Yet she found Deeb's odd demeanor somewhat disturbing. "His Highness is expecting me, isn't he?"
They stopped before double mahogany doors at the end of the hall where Deeb turned to face her. "When Prince Rafiq called to say you were coming, I assumed he had spoken to his brother about the matter, but I am not certain."
If Rafiq hadn't told his brother about the plan, Madison could be tossed out before her damp clothes had time to dry. "Then you're not sure if he even knows I'm here, much less why I'm here?"
Blatantly ignoring Madison's question, Deeb pointed to a small alcove containing two peacock-patterned club chairs. "If you wish to be seated, I will come for you when the emir is prepared to see you."
Provided the man actually decided to see her.
After the assistant executed an about-face and disappeared through the doors, Madison claimed a chair, smoothed a palm over her navy pencil skirt and prepared to wait. She surveyed the guards lined up along the walls with two positioned on either side of the entry. Heavily armed guards. Not surprising. When a soon-to-be-king was involved, enemies were sure to follow. She'd initially been considered a possible threat, apparent when they rifled through her leather purse looking for concealed weapons before she'd entered the limo. She highly doubted she could do much damage with a tube of lipstick and a nail file.
Madison suddenly detected the sound of a raised voice, though she couldn't make out what that voice might be saying. Even if she could, she probably wouldn't understand most of the Arabic words. Yet there was no mistaking someone was angry, and she'd bet her last bottle of merlot she knew the identity of that someone.
Zain Mehdi reportedly didn't know the meaning of restraint, evidenced by his questionable activities. The notorious sheikh had left his country some seven years ago and taken up residence in the States. He'd often disappeared for months at a time, only to surface with some starlet or supermodel on his arm, earning him the title "Phantom Prince of Arabia."
That behavior hadn't necessarily shocked Madison. Many years ago, she'd met him at a dinner party she'd attended with her parents in Milan. Back then, he'd been an incurable sixteen-year-old flirt. Not that he'd flirted with her, or that he would even remember her at all, a gawky preteen with no confidence. A girl who'd been content to blend into the background, very much like her mother.
She didn't do the blending-in thing these days. She intended to be front and center, and if she managed to succeed at this assignment, that would prove to be another huge feather in her professional cap.
When the doors opened wide, Madison came to her feet, adjusted her white linen jacket and held her breath in hopes that she wouldn't be dismissed. "Well?" she asked when Deeb didn't immediately speak.
"The emir will see you now," he said, his tone somewhat wary. "But he is not happy about it."
As long as she had the opportunity to win him over, Madison didn't give a horse's patoot about the prince's current mood. "Fair enough."
Deeb opened the door and followed her inside the well-appointed office. But she didn't have the timeor the inclinationto study the room further. The six-foot-plus man leaning back against the massive desk, arms folded across his chest, his intense gaze contrasting with his casual stance, now captured her complete attention. Publicity photosor her distant memoriesdefinitely didn't do Zain Mehdi justice.
With his perfectly symmetrical features, golden skin and deep brown eyes framed by ridiculously long black lashes, he could easily be pegged as a Hollywood star preparing to play the role of a Middle Eastern monarch. Yet he'd forgone the royal robes for a white tailored shirt rolled up at the sleeves and a pair of dark slacks. He also wore an expression that said he viewed her as an intruder.
Madison tamped down her nerves, shored up her frame and faked a calm facade. "Good evening, Your Highness. I'm Madison Foster."
He studied her offered hand but ignored the gesture. "I know who you are. You are the daughter of Anson Foster, a member of the diplomatic corps and a longtime acquaintance of my father's."
At least he remembered her father, even if he probably didn't remember her. "My sincerest condolences on your loss, Your Highness. I'm sure the king's sudden passing came as quite a shock."
He shifted his weight slightly, a sure sign of discomfort. "Not as shocking as learning of his death two weeks after the fact."
"The emir was traveling when his father passed," Deeb added from behind Madison.
The sheikh sent his assistant a quelling look. "That will be all, Deeb. Ms. Foster and I will continue this conversation in private."
Madison glanced over her shoulder to see Deeb nodding before he said, "As you wish, Emir."
As soon as the right-hand man left the room, the sheikh strolled around the desk, dropped down into the leather chair and gestured toward the opposing chair.
Say please, Madison wanted to toss out. Instead, she slid into the chair, set her bag at her feet and made a mental note to work on his manners. "Now that we've established you know who I am, do you understand why I'm here?"
He leaned back and streaked a palm over his shadowed jaw. "You are here at my brother's request, not mine. According to Rafiq, you are one of the best political consultants in this country. If your reputation holds true."
If his reputation held true, she had her work cut out for her. "I've worked alongside political strategists in successfully assisting high-profile figures with public perception."
"And why do you believe I would need your assistance with that?"
Okay, she'd draw him a picture, but it wouldn't be pretty. "For starters, you haven't been back to Bajul in years. Second, I know there's concern that you won't be welcomed with open arms when you do return to assume your position as king. And last, there is the issue with the women."
He had the gall to give her a devil-may-care grin. "You cannot believe everything you hear, Ms. Foster."
"True, but many people believe what they read. Therefore, it's imperative we convey that you're focused on being an effective leader like your father."
His smile disappeared out of sight. "Then I am to assume you wish to mold me into the image of my father."
She found the comment to be extremely telling. "No. I want to help you build a more favorable image of yourself."
"And how do you propose to do that?"
Very carefully. "By reintroducing you to your people through a series of public appearances and social events."
He inclined his head and studied her straight-on. "You intend to invite the entire country to a cocktail party?"
She could now add sarcastic along with sexy to his list of attributes. "The social events would be private. I'll include only those in your close circle of friends and your family, as well as members of the governing council. Possibly a few foreign dignitaries and politicians and perhaps some investors."
He grabbed a pen from the desktop and began to turn it over and over. "Go on."
At least he seemed mildly interested. "As far as the public appearances are concerned, I have a lot of experience with speech writing," she said. "I'd be happy to assist you with that."
He frowned. "I have a graduate degree in economics from Oxford and I am fluent in five languages, Ms. Foster. What makes you think I cannot compose my own speeches in an articulate manner?"
Nothing like stepping on his royal pride. "I'm sure you're quite capable, Your Highness, which is why I said I'd assist you. What you say and how you say it will be extremely important in winning over the masses."
He tossed the pen aside and released a gruff sigh. "I have no reason to engage in political maneuvering. In the event you haven't heard, my position is already secure. I was chosen to be king, and my word is the law. I am the law."
"True, but when people are happy with their leader, that makes for a more peaceful country. And we have less than a month before your official coronation to change your country's opinion of you. During that time, we'll cover all the details, from the way you speak and act to the way you dress."
He sent her a sly, overtly sensual smile. "Will you be dressing me?"
The sudden images flitting around Madison's mind would be deemed less than appropriate. They even leaned a little toward being downright dirty. "I'm sure your staff can assist you with that."
"It's unfortunate that's not among your duties," he said. "I would be more inclined to agree to your plan."
As far as she was concerned, he could put that charisma card right back into the deck. "Look, I realize you're used to charming women into doing your bidding, but that tact doesn't work with me."
He gave her a skeptical look. "If I decide to accept your offer, would you be willing to stay on after the coronation?"
She hadn't expected that question. "Possibly, if you could afford to keep me on staff. My services aren't cheap."
He released a sharp, cynical laugh. "Look around, Ms. Foster. Does it appear I'm destitute?"
Not even close. "We can discuss the possibility later. Right now, we need to concentrate on the current issue at hand, if you're willing to work with me."
He studied the ceiling for a moment before bringing his gaze back to hers. "The answer is no, I am not willing to work with you. I am quite capable of handling my own affairs."
She wasn't ready to give up without pointing out the most major concern. "Speaking of affairs, I'm also skilled when it comes to dealing with scandals, in case you have any of those little sex skeletons hiding in a closet."
His expression turned steely as he stood. "My apologies for wasting your time, but I believe we are finished now."
Apparently she'd hit a serious nerve, and yes, they were definitely finished.
Madison came to her feet, withdrew a business card from her bag and placed it on the desk. "Should you change your mind, here's my number. I'll let you break the news to your brother."
"Believe me, I have much to stay to my brother," he said. "That is first on my agenda when I return to Bajul."
She'd like to have front row seats to that. She'd also like to think he might reconsider. Unfortunately, neither fell into the realm of possibility at the moment. "I wish you all the best for a smooth transition, Your Highness. Again, let me know if you decide you need my services."
After slipping the bag's strap back on her shoulder, Madison covered her disappointment with a determined walk to the door. But before she made a hasty exit, the sheikh called her back. "Yes?" she said as she faced him, trying hard not to seem too hopeful.
He'd rounded the desk and now stood only a few feet away. "You've changed quite a bit since we first met all those years ago."
The fact he did recall the dinner party, and he hadn't bothered to mention it before now, thoroughly shocked her. "I'm surprised you remember me at all."
"Very difficult to forget such an innocent face, ocean-blue eyes and those remarkable blond curls."