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He knew he wanted her from the moment he saw her.
Sharif bin Nazih al-Aktoum, the Emir of Makhtar, had been laughing at the joke of a friend when he turned and saw a woman, standing alone in the Italian moonlight, on the shores of Lake Como.
She stood past a thicket of trees farther down the hill. Her white dress was translucent in the silvery glow of light, and the bare trees of November left latticed shadows like dark lace against her skin. Her black hair cascaded down her shoulders, tumbling, lustrous as onyx. Her eyes were closed in her heart-stoppingly lovely face as her sensual lips whispered unheard words.
Sharif's laughter fled. Was she a ghost? A dream?
Just some wedding guest, he told himself harshly. Nothing special. A trick of moonlight.
He stared at her.
Moments before, he'd been chuckling at the poor bridegroom, who'd recently been a famous playboy but had made the mistake of getting his housekeeper pregnant. The new bride was very beautiful, yes, he conceded, and seemed loyal and kind. But still, Sharif would never get caught that way. Not until the bitter end.
Sharif pushed the thought away, jerking his chin in the direction of the lakeshore. "Who is that?"
"The woman. By the lake."
His friend, the Duque de Alzacar, craned his head right and left. "I don't see anyone."
Between them and the unknown woman well-dressed wedding guests were milling about the terraces, drinking champagne and enjoying the coolness of the late-autumn night. The intimate evening wedding, held in a medieval chapel on an Italian tycoon's estate, had just ended, and they were waiting for the dinner reception to begin. But surely his friend could see the angel by the lake. "Are you blind?" Sharif said impatiently.
"Describe her to me."
Sharif parted his lips to do just that, then thought better of it. The Spanish duke was the most reckless, irredeemable womanizer he knew-which reminded him of the old saying about the pot and the kettle. But looking back at the soft moonlight on the houri by the lake, Sharif felt the sudden strange need to protect her, even from another man's glance. She seemed from another world. Sensual, magical-pure
"Never mind," he said abruptly. "Excuse me." He started walking down the path toward the shore. He heard a low snort of laughter behind him.
"Take care you don't get bewitched by the moonlight, my friend," the Duque de Alzacar called. "I'd hate to be soon attending one of these events for you "
Sharif ignored him. Holding up a hand to tell his bodyguards to remain behind, in the shadows of the villa, he went down to the thicket of trees. Where was she? Had he lost her?
Had he dreamed her?
He saw a flash of movement and exhaled. She had moved farther down the shore. He followed silently in his white robes, stalking her like one of the lions that had existed in his Makhtari homeland centuries before.
She moved so sensually. He heard her softly whispered voice. Sharif's eyes narrowed to see whom she was speaking with, but there was no one. Half expecting her to disappear, he came out into the clearing beside her, feeling suddenly clumsy as he stepped on a branch.
At the sound, the woman whirled to face him. They stared at each other.
She wasn't dressed in white, as he'd first thought, but in a pale pink dress, the color of spring's first blush. Her skin was creamy and smooth, plump cheeks the colour of faint roses, standing out starkly against her long black hair. She was barely over twenty, he guessed, and of middle height. Her features were too strong to be conventionally beautiful, with her sharp nose, slash of dark eyebrows and the determined set to her chin; but her full mouth was tender, and her eyes were deep brown, big and wistful and wise. And they were full of tears.
Looking directly into her face, Sharif caught his breath.
"Who are you?" she whispered.
Sharif blinked. Then frowned. "You don't know who I am?"
She shook her head. "Should I?"
Now Sharif knew the woman had to be from another place or time. Everyone knew the playboy sheikh who'd swathed his way through continents of the world's most glamorous women, the Emir of Makhtar who often spent millions of euros on a single evening out with his entourage, who always had six bodyguards close at hand and who was rumored to have a bedroom in his royal palace made entirely out of diamonds-false-and that he'd once offered to buy Manchester United on a drunken whim-true.
Did she truly not know who he was? Or was it a pretense, a way for her to play hard to get? He shrugged but watched her closely as he said, "I'm a wedding guest."
"Oh." She exhaled. "Me, too."
"Why are you crying?"
He watched as a single tear escaped her lashes to trail down her cheek in the moonlight. "No?"
She wiped her cheek fiercely. "No."
He tilted his head, frowning. "Are you in love with the bridegroom? Is that why you're crying?"
"Many women were. Half of the women of London, it is said, wept when they heard Cesare Falconeri was to wed his housekeeper."
"I'm Emma's friend!"
He tilted his head. "So you're crying because you're planning to betray her, and seduce him after the honeymoon is done?"
She stared at him as if he was crazy. "What kind of women do you hang out with? I would never-I could never-" She shook her head, and wiped her eyes again. "I'm happy for them! They're meant for each other!"
"Ah," Sharif said, bored by such trite, polite statements. "So it is not him. You weep over some other man."
She grit her teeth. "No "
"Then what is it?"
"What it is-is none of your business!"
Sharif stepped toward her, just two of them hidden behind a copse of trees on the shore of the lake. They were almost close enough to touch. He heard her intake of breath as she took an involuntary step back. Good. So she was aware of him then, as he was of her, no matter her feisty words.
Her eyes held infinite depths, he thought, like a night filled with stars and shadows. He felt strangely dazzled. He'd never seen eyes so full of warmth and buried secrets. Secrets he wanted to learn. Warmth he wanted to feel against his skin.
It was also possible he was just desperate to be distracted from his own thoughts. If so, this woman offered a very pleasurable distraction indeed.
Lifting his eyebrow, Sharif gave her the smile no woman could resist-at least, none ever had-deliberately unleashing the full power of his attention on her. "Tell me why you're crying, signorina" he said softly. "Tell me why you left the wedding party and came down to the shore alone."
Her lips parted, then closed. She looked away. "I told you. I'm not crying."
"Just as you also told me you have no idea who I am."
If she was lying about the one, Sharif decided, she was likely lying about the other. Good to know where he stood. He slowly looked up and down her body. The pale pink dress fit her like a glove. She was so curvaceous. So different.
She blushed beneath his gaze, becoming more impossibly desirable than ever. Sharif suddenly realized it wasn't just his desire to forgot about weddings and marriage that made him want her. He'd been bored for a long, long time. He craved different. He craved this woman.
And so, he would have her.
Whether she knew who he was or not, whether she was truly ignorant of his identity or merely putting on an act in an attempt to gain his attention, this woman was nothing truly magical or rare, no matter what his body was telling him. She was different from his usual type, yes. But beyond that, she was nothing more than a beautiful stranger. And he knew exactly how to deal with a beautiful stranger.
"The night is growing cold." Sharif's voice was a low purr as he held out his arm. "Come back to the villa. We will continue this conversation over champagne. Over dinner."
"W-with you?" she stammered, looking startled. She didn't move.
He cast a quick glance to her left hand. "You are not married. Are you engaged?"
She shook her head.
"I didn't think so," he said.
She lifted her head sharply. "You can tell?"
He bared his teeth in a sensual smile. "You are just not the married type."
To his surprise, she looked furious. More than furious. She looked as if he'd just served her a mortal insult.
"And why is that?" she said coldly.
Because of what he was planning to do to her tonight. Because of the delectable images that had started forming in his mind from the instant he'd seen her, of her curvaceous body naked against his, as her plump lips softly moaned against his skin. It had been impossible-absolutely impossible-that fate would be so cruel to have her already bound to another.
But Sharif didn't think it strategically advisable to explain. Not when her dark eyes were glinting sparks of rage.
He frowned, observing the flush on her cheeks. "Why are you angry? What could I possibly have said to-ah." His eyes crinkled in sudden understanding. "I see."
"The reason you came down to the shore, in this quiet, hidden place." He lifted a dark eyebrow knowingly. "I forget how women are affected by weddings. You no doubt wept through the candlelit ceremony, in romantic dreams at the beauty of love" His lip curled at the word. "There is some boy back home that you wish would propose. You feel alone. That is why you were crying. That is why you are angry. You are tired of waiting for your lover."
She pulled back, looking as if she'd been slapped.
"You are so wrong," she choked out. "About everything."
"I am pleased to hear it," Sharif murmured, and he was. If there was no other man in the picture, his path to her bed would be a foregone conclusion. "In that case.what-ever your reason for sadness, there will be no more tears tonight. Only enjoyment and pleasure. You are spending the evening with me." His eyes met hers. "Not just the evening, but the night."
He continued to hold out his arm in complete assurance. But the woman just stared at him. Her lips parted as she said faintly, "That's your idea of small talk?"
He gave her a sensual smile. "I believe in cutting through unnecessary words to get to the heart of things."
"Then you believe in being rude." Still not touching him, she lifted her chin. "Excuse me."
And without another word, she walked around him, as if the billionaire Emir of Makhtar were no better than a churlish boy. She walked fleet-footed up the path, heading toward the eighteenth-century villa on the hillside, where music and laughter wafted through the cool November night.
Twisting his head, Sharif stared up after her in shock.
Waiting for your lover. Waiting for your lover.
The rhythm of the darkly handsome sheikh's words seemed to taunt Irene Taylor's footsteps as she went back up the path.
Waiting for your lover.
Irene blinked back tears. With unthinking cruelty he'd spoken the exact fear that had haunted her heart throughout her friend's beautiful wedding. The words that had driven her to leave the other guests to stand alone on the lakeshore in quiet, silent heartbreak. She was twenty-three years old, and she'd been waiting for her lover all her life. She was starting to think he wasn't coming.
She'd dreamed of the life she wanted, the home she wanted, since she was five years old and she'd come home crying from her first day of kindergarten. Her own house was silent, but their closest neighbor had seen Irene walk by, crying and snuffling with a broken lunch box in her hand. Dorothy Abbott had taken her in, wiped the blood off her forehead, given her a big homemade cookie and a glass of milk. Irene had been comforted-and dazzled. How wonderful it would be to live in a little cottage with a white picket fence, baking cookies, tending a garden, with an honest, loyal, loving man as her husband. Ever since that day, Irene had wanted what Dorothy and Bill Abbott had had, married for fifty-four years, caring for each other until the day they'd died, one day apart.
Irene had also known what she didn't want. A rickety house on the desolate edge of a small town. Her mother, drunk most of the time, and her much older sister, entertaining "gentlemen" at all hours, believing their lying words, taking their money afterward. Irene had vowed her life would be different, but still, after high school, she'd worked at minimum-wage jobs, trying to save money for college, falling short when her mother and sister inevitably needed her meager earnings.
When Dorothy and Bill died, she'd felt so alone and sad that when the mayor's son smiled at her, she'd fallen for him. Hard. Even when she should have known better.
Funny how it was Carter who'd finally managed to drive her out of town.
I just wanted to have some fun with you, Irene. That's all. You're not the type I'd marry. He'd given an incredulous laugh. Did you actually think a man like me, with my background and a woman like you, with yours could ever ?
Yes, she had. She wiped her nose, which was starting to snuffle. Thank heaven she hadn't slept with Carter two years ago. Just the humiliation of loving him had been enough to make her flee Colorado, first for a job in New York, then Paris.
She'd told herself she wanted a fresh start, in a place no one knew about her family's sordid history. But some secret part of her had dreamed, if she went away, she might return self-assured and stylish and thin, like in an Audrey Hepburn movie. She'd dreamed she'd return to her small Colorado town in a sleek little suit with a sophisticated red smile, and Carter would take one look at the New Her and want to give her his love. Not just his love, but his name.
Stupid. It made Irene's cheeks burn to think about it now. She wiped the tears away fiercely. As if living in New York or Paris, as if mere geography, could achieve such a miracle-turning her into the type of woman Carter would want to marry! As if designer clothes and a new hairstyle would make him take her away from the shabby house on the wrong side of the tracks, the one that had men sneaking in so often at night on paid "dates" with her mother and older sister, to the enormous hundred-year-old Linsey Mansion on the hill!
Well, she'd never know now. Instead, she'd be going home even worse off than she'd left-unemployed, broke and with all the baguettes and croissants she'd eaten in Paris, not exactly thinner, either.
She'd thought she could make a better life for herself.
Even after the unfortunate incident that had gotten her fired six months ago, she'd still held out hope she'd find a new job in Paris. She'd gone through her savings, even the precious thousand-dollar bequest that the Abbotts had left her when they died.
Irene stopped. She pressed her fingers against her eyes, trying not to feel the jagged pain in her throat.
There will be no more tears tonight. Only enjoyment and pleasure. She could still hear his low, husky voice. You are spending the evening with me. Not just the evening, but the night.