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Thirty years later
She'd been brought here to fail. It was expected of her. Hoped for.
Sara Reeves exited the conference room last, following the men, as was the custom in the region. Jeff had drilled that into her head. Whatever you do, commit no offense. He'd made it clear it was the most important thing he expected of her on this trip, the only thing.
"Let us go see the new well," Ahmad Maluk, one of the three directors who represented MMPOIL at today's meeting, said, gesturing toward the bank of elevators. "It'll be a twenty-minute helicopter ride. Miss Reeves is welcome to stay at the hotel and rest if she so wishes."
She wished they could meet the sheik. But they'd already been told that was not going to happen. "I'd love to see the well," she said with respect, talking to no one in particular, not wanting to offend the men by addressing them directly.
"You rest," Jeff said, solicitous as ever. "I can handle it."
He could always handle everything except the actual work. At schmoozing he was king. Hard to believe there'd been a time when she'd been in love with the man.
"Perhaps we should wait until tomorrow," Husam, the man on Ahmad's left, suggested. He was the youngest of the three Beharrainians, around thirty if that, with a sharp chin and nose, and even sharper eyes that he'd kept on Sara for most of the meeting.
She glanced away, hating the submissive gesture, but knowing that in this culture it was expected of women. One of the slew of oddities that made it difficult for her to stand on even ground for the negotiations.
They should have seen the well and been back by now, but Jeff had had stomach problems that morning and they'd had to delay their meetings. He had used her as an excuse, told everyone she'd been sick. The Arabs put a lot of stock in the strength of a man. If Jeff appeared weak for any reason it would be detrimental to their negotiations. And she could appear a little weaker, so as not to challenge their ideas of women and give offense. The world according to Jeff.
The best thing Sara had ever done for herself was to break their engagement. Unfortunately, untangling their business interests proved more difficult.
Jeff flashed her one of those smiles she had fallen for four years ago, before she'd realized that they, along with most things about him, were fake. "You could go shopping," he said.
With admirable restraint, she kept herself from voicing the response forming on her tongue. "I'd prefer to see the well."
Jeff shrugged with annoyance, but didn't push further. Perhaps he'd given up on trying to manipulate her for the time being.
She zeroed in on the hallway to the left, where she'd seen a sign for a restroom on their way in. Since she knew they would be spending several hours in the desert today, she'd doubled her water intake. "Why don't you go up? I'll be with you in a second." She nodded toward her destination.
Jeff scowled, as if her basic necessities were nothing but feminine whims he was forced to put up with.
She hurried down the hall, trying not to be too paranoid and obsess over what he would say this time to undermine her in her absence. Of course, with this potential customer, the fact that she was a woman was probably enough.
Glancing into the mirror as she exited the restroom two minutes later, she made sure her insecurities didn't show. B. T. Reeves Studio, a public relations firm specializing in the oil industry, was as much her company as Jeff'smore so, in her opinion. No matter how hard he pushed her, she was not going to relinquish her heritage. She wanted more than anything to regain control of the company and make it a success, a tribute to her father, who had started it.
Husam's dark shape ahead caught her eye, his back half-turned to her. Was he waiting for her? She hadn't liked the way he'd stared at her all through the meeting. She didn't want to be stuck in the close quarters of an elevator with him. He was talking on his cell phone in Arabic, sounding nervous and angry at the same time.
Grateful for the soft carpet, which allowed her to remain undetected, she walked in the other direction. MMPOIL's headquarters was a giant building. There had to be more than one bank of elevators.
She turned the corner and was relieved to see she'd been right. She pushed the call button and held her breath until the bell dinged and the doors opened. They were just starting to close behind her when a man stepped through. For a moment, all she registered was relief that he wasn't Husam.
Oh, my. Definitely not. Wasn't even in the same category.
This guy was close to forty and a good head taller than Husam. He brought a strong sense of presence with him as he stepped inside, so strong his body almost vibrated with intensity. The space in the elevator seemed to shrink, the air thinning all of a sudden.
There was a stark wildness to his masculine features, his tanned face and dark hair. Sara's first impression had been of a hard-set, square jaw and wide shoulders stiff with displeasure, but that seemed to disappear as he watched her. His dark eyes held her gaze.
"Hello." His deeply masculine voice was as spellbinding as the rest of him.
"Hi." She should have looked away politely. She couldn't, even with all her senses suggesting that this guy was several levels above Husam on the danger scale.
Husam hadn't really done anything but stare at her. Maybe he wasn't used to blondes, or women in a negotiating position. She was in a whole new culture. She had to adjust to certain oddities.
She fixed her attention on the closed doors, but couldn't hold it there long before glancing again at the man next to her. He was staring at the sheet of paper in his hand, no longer looking at her, which should have made him seem less intimidating. It didn't.
She acknowledged the fact, but wouldn't let it bother her. She was used to intimidation on a daily basis.
"Do you know if this goes to the helipad?" she asked, unsure whether he would understand her. Anybody could say "hello."
"I'll show you when we get up there." His U.S., West Coast accent surprised her. Another American?
She relaxed marginally, but then her business persona kicked in. "Do you work here or are you visiting?" If MMPOIL had solicited other U.S. companies to bid on the same project she and Jeff were here for, she needed to know.
"I work here," he said, setting her mind at ease.
He folded the paper and slid it into the inner pocket of his suit jacket, then looked at her again. His gaze was sharp and intelligent, intense, but lacking Husam's disquieting intrusion. "Are you here with the Dallas delegation?"
She nodded, wondering how he knew, and what his role was at the company. A subtle, pleasant scent of sandalwood filled the small space and surrounded her. He didn't crowd her as people had tended to do since her arrival apparently due to their different attitude about personal spacebut stood back, detached.
"You work with the sheik?" she asked, registering at last that he hadn't pushed another button. The fiftieth floor was still the only one lit. That meant he was going to the top, as well, which, according to Jeff, was Sheik Abdullah's domain. And also the location of the only elevator that went to the roof. This way, access to the helipad was restricted. For security reasons, she supposed.
The man nodded with a short, deliberate movement of his head, power evident even in such small a gesture as that.
He worked with the sheik. A slide show of romanticized pictures flashed through her mind, straight from the sheik romance novels she'd read. "Is he here today?"
"I suppose he doesn't attend low-level meetings," she said, hiding her chagrin pretty well, she thought.
"He doesn't attend any meetings if he can help it." Her companion had the bearing and self-assurance of a man in charge, but he wasn't among the top tier of executives. Jeff and she had been introduced to them at a reception upon arrival.
She wondered if he might be a close, trusted assistant to the sheik, but his body language and air didn't seem to fit the secretary image. He had a commanding physical presence, his form well-built and powerful. There was a watchful awareness about him that wasn't typical of the average office worker. Nor was his impeccable suit.
And then it clicked. He was probably one of the sheik's bodyguards.
The elevator stopped and he gestured for her to step out first, very atypical of her experience here so far. Maybe he hadn't been in the country long enough for the local attitude to rub off on him. She wondered how long ago he'd been shipped in from the U.S. as a security consultant to the sheik. He had to be good at what he did to be brought all this way.
No doubt about it. She stole another furtive glance, not wanting him to notice her obvious interest. He looked to be the kind of guy who would be good at whatever he did. She couldn't imagine him turning all that intense energy to a purpose and not succeeding.
He gestured at an elevator directly opposite theirs. "That'll take you to the helipad."
He held her gaze for another second, fire and mystery swirling in his dark eyes. God, this setting was making her ridiculously fanciful. Then, moving with an inborn elegance, he strode toward the opaque doors that closed off the short hallway from the rest of the floor.
She craned her neck, hoping to catch a glimpse of the sheik's private offices. It would be neat to see a real-life sheik. She'd been disappointed when she'd realized their itinerary didn't include meeting the man.
"What is he like, the sheik?" she couldn't help calling after him. She pictured Sheik Abdullah in flowing white robes edged with gold, a kaffiyeh on his head, looking fiercely royal, surrounded by the splendor of his station. She was a little sketchy on the splendor part. Sometimes it showed up in her imagination as a gilded room in some palace, other times as a tent with priceless Persian rugs, set up at a breathtaking oasis in the middle of the desert.
He turned toward her and said, "Not someone you'd want to meet."
Was that amusement glinting in his eyes?
"He's a morose bastard." He placed a tanned hand on the door. "Enjoy your time in Beharrain, Miss Reeves," he said before he slipped through.
She blinked, then shook her head slightly and walked to the elevator, refusing to feel guilty for having made the men wait. She squared her shoulders as she stepped in, getting ready for the subtle manipulations she would have to deal with on the way to the well. Jeff was going to do everything he could to pressure her into remaining in the background at tomorrow's presentation. She wasn't going to let him. Nor would she ever allow him to get his hands on her share of the company.
Would he eventually give up?
But as the elevator door opened to the roof, and oppressive heat surrounded her, a second question popped into her mind, for a moment overriding the first. How did the sheik's bodyguard know her name?