Sultan Kadir Al Sulaimar may be Europe's most notorious playboy, but since his bride-to-be finally came of age, he's sworn to be faithful to the princess he's never met.
Yet when feisty helicopter pilot Lexi Howard saves his life, she turns Kadir's regimented world upside down. His first duty must be to his country, but avoiding the sensual pilot is becoming increasingly difficult especially now that she's working for him!
Lexi's disregard for his command is somewhat refreshing. Can the desert king resist making her his finaland most forbiddenconquest?
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
'What lunatic decided to go sailing in this atrocious weather?' Lexi muttered into her headset as she piloted the coastguard rescue helicopter over the south coast of England and out across the Solent.
The narrow strait which separated the mainland from the Isle of Wight was a popular area for water sports and on a summer's day, when the sea was calm and blue, it was an idyllic sight to watch the yachts skim across the water with their sails tugging in the breeze. But October had blown in on a series of ferocious storms that had swept away the last remnants of summer and whipped the sea into mountainous waves which crashed against the chalk cliffs, spewing foam high into the air. The white horses reared up in the glare of the helicopter's searchlight but Lexi knew that an even greater threat lay beneath the sea's surface, where dangerous currents eddied and swirled, ready to drag the unwary and unwise down into the depths.
She heard the co-pilot, Gavin's response through her headphones. 'The yacht which has made an emergency call for assistance was competing in a race. Apparently the skipper thought they would be able to run ahead of the storm, but they've hit a sandbank and the boat is taking in water.'
Lexi swore beneath her breath. 'The skipper took a dangerous gamble to win a race. Jeez, I love the male ego!'
'To be fair, the storm is stronger than the Met Office predicted,' Gavin said. 'The complex tidal patterns of the Solent have caught out many experienced sailors.'
'The problem is that too many sailors don't have enough experience and fail to appreciate how unpredictable and dangerous the sea can be, like the man on holiday with his son who we were called to assist two days ago. The boy was only ten years old. He didn't stand a chance when their boat started to sink in rough seas.'
'We did all we could,' Gavin reminded her.
'Yeah, but we couldn't save the boy. He was just a kid with his whole life in front of him. What a bloody waste.'
Lexi struggled to bring her emotions under control and concentrated on flying the helicopter in the strong wind and driving rain. She prided herself on her professionalism. The first rule of working for the rescue service was not to allow your mind to linger on past eventseven something as traumatic as the death of a childbut to move on and deal with the next incident.
'The Mayday call confirmed that the three males on the yacht are all wearing life jackets,' Gavin said. 'But they're unlikely to survive for long in these rough seas. The skipper reported that he has received a head injury, but he insisted that he wants his crewmen to be rescued first.'
'It's a bit late for him to be concerned for his crew now. It's a pity he didn't take their safety into account earlier and abort the race.'
Lexi constantly moved her gaze between the flight instrument panel and the window to scan the wild waves below. Three massive chalk stacks known as the Needles rose out of the sea like jagged teeth. The famous landmark was iconic but the strong currents around the rocks could be treacherous.
An orange glow suddenly flashed in the sky.
'Did you see the flare?' Gavin peered through the windscreen as Lexi took the chopper lower. A few moments later he gave another shout. 'I've got a visualon your right-hand side.'
Lexi spotted the yacht. It had been tipped onto its side by the strong sea swell, and she could make out three figures clinging onto the rigging. She kept the helicopter hovering in position as Gavin went to the rear of the aircraft and prepared to lower the winchman, who was a paramedic, onto the stricken vessel. The buffeting wind made Lexi's job almost impossible, but she was a highly experienced pilot and had flown Chinook helicopters over the deserts of Afghanistan. A cool head and nerves of steel had been necessary when she had been a member of the RAF and those qualities were required for her job with the coastguard rescue agency.
She spoke to the paramedic over the radio. 'Chris, once you're aboard the vessel, remind the crew that the coastguard agency are in charge of the rescue and everyone is to follow your orders, including the skipper. If his head injury looks serious we'll winch him up first, whether he likes it or not. This is not the time for him to decide he wants to be a hero,' she said sardonically.
* * *
The searing pain that felt as though Kadir's skull had been split open with an axe was the result of being hit on the head by the sail boom of the White Hawkhis brand-new racing yacht that was now residing at the bottom of the sea. However, his immediate concern was not for the loss of his boat but the welfare of his crew, who were being stretchered off the helicopter that had just landed at a hospital on the mainland.
The rescue had been dramaticand just in time. Once Kadir had realised the yacht was sinking, everything had happened so quickly. He hadn't had time to feel fear, but for a few seconds he had pictured himself galloping across a golden desert on his black stallion Baha', and his heart had ached for what would become of the kingdom his father had entrusted to him.
But, like a miracle, out of the dark sky had appeared a shining light, and he had heard the distinctive whump-whump of helicopter rotor blades. Kadir had flown in a helicopter many times, and as he'd clung to the rigging of his wrecked yacht being battered by forty-foot waves he had recognised the skill and bravery of the pilot flying the coastguard rescue chopper in the worsening gale.
He knew that he and his crew had been lucky to survive. But the two young sailors who had crewed for him since the start of the race in the Canary Islands were suffering from hypothermia and were in a bad way. As Kadir watched them being wheeled across the helipad, frustration surged through him. His clothes were wet and stiff with sea salt and the wind whipping across the helipad chilled him to his bones. He lifted a hand to his throbbing head and felt a swelling the size of an egg on his temple.
The coastguard paramedic gave him a worried look. 'Sir, please lie down on the stretcher and one of the medical staff will take you down to the A&E department so that your injuries can be treated.'
'I'm fine; I can walk,' Kadir said impatiently. 'It's my crew who I'm concerned about. I wish you had followed my instructions and rescued them first. They got too cold because they were in the sea for so long. You should have winched them up onto the helicopter before you rescued me.'
'I was under instructions to rescue injured casualties first and it was obvious that you had sustained a possibly serious head injury,' the paramedic explained.
'My crew were my responsibility,' Kadir argued. He was interrupted by another voice.
'I hardly think you are in a position to question the professional judgement of a member of the coastguard team when it was your poor judgement in deciding to sail in atrocious weather that put your crew in danger.'
Frowning, Kadir turned towards the person who had jumped down from the helicopter cockpit. Like the other members of the rescue team, the figure was wearing a bulky jumpsuit, but as they removed their flight helmet Kadir's confusion grew.
'Who are you?' he demanded.
'Flight Captain Lexi Howard. I was in charge of the rescue operation. The helicopter crew acted under my instructions, which were to winch up injured casualties first.'
'You're a woman!'
The instant the words left his lips Kadir realised he had made a crass fool of himself. There was a crowd of people standing on the helipadmedical staff and a team of firemen, who were required to be present whenever a helicopter landed at the hospital, and everyone fell silent and stared at him.
He could blame his shocked reaction to the female helicopter pilot on his recent trauma of nearly drowning, and also on the fact thatdespite the new laws and policy changes he was gradually trying to introducegender equality was still a relatively new concept in his country, the isolated desert kingdom of Zenhab. But it was obvious from the pilot's icy expression that any excuse Kadir might offer for his tactless comment would not be well received.
'Full marks for observation,' the Flight Captain said drily. 'If the fact that I'm a woman bothers you so much I could always drop you back in the sea where I found you and your crew.'
The reminder of the two injured sailors reignited Ka-dir's sense of frustration that he was not in charge of the situation. He was used to making decisions and having them obeyed without question, and he was struggling to accept that in this instance the female Flight Captain was in control. It didn't help matters that his head felt as if it was going to explode. He gritted his teeth, fighting the nausea that threatened to overwhelm him and destroy what was left of his dignity.
'As the yacht's skipper, it was my duty to ensure the safety of my crew,' he insisted. 'I was in a better position to judge their physical condition than you were and I could see that they were both exhausted.'
'It was my duty to ensure the safety of all the casualties in need of rescue, as well as the safety of my flight crew,' the Flight Captain said coldly. 'How dare you question my authority?'
How dare he? No one had ever dared to address Kadir with such insolence, least of all a woman, and certainly not in public. The knowledge that he was indebted to this self-assured young woman for saving his life made him feel emasculated. The fact that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen only made him feel worse.
In the nightclubs and casinosthe playgrounds across Europe of the rich and boredKadir had met countless beautiful women, and in his youth he had bedded more of them than he cared to remember. For the past decade he had lived his life in the fast lane and played hard, but at thirty-two he felt jaded. It was a long time since his curiosity had been aroused by a woman, but Flight Captain Lexi Howard intrigued him.
Beneath the floodlights on the helipad, her complexion was flawless and so fair that the skin stretched over her high, slanting cheekbones was almost translucent. Her long braid of ash-blonde hair suggested possible Nordic ancestry and the impression was further enhanced by her light blue eyes that reminded Kadir of the cool, clear skies above the Swiss Alps where he skied every winter.
He found he could not look away from her and he felt a sudden tightness in his chest as if a fist had gripped his heart. Heat surged through his veins. He tried to convince himself that the fire inside him was a natural response after his recent brush with death, but deep in his core something hot and hungry stirred.
'Surely you checked the Met Office shipping forecast and realised that a storm was approaching?' Lexi glared at the yacht's skipper, infuriated that he'd had the cheek to criticise how the rescue operation had been carried out. She guessed he was an inexperienced sailor, and his failure to respond to the worsening weather conditions had compromised the safety of his crew.
Her mind flew back to the incident the coastguard helicopter had attended two days ago and the young boy they had been unable to save. 'Not every rescue can be successful,' the coastguard station commander had reminded Lexi at the debriefing afterwards. 'Part of the job is to accept that you can't save everyone.'
Lexi's RAF commanding officer of the Medical Emergency Rescue Team in Afghanistan had said the same thing. Many of the things she had seen, the terrible injuries received by soldiers caught in landmine explosions and sniper fire, had been harrowing, but if she had gone to pieces she wouldn't have been able to do her job. The same was true working for the coastguard rescue. Her common sense told her she must not allow one tragedy to haunt her, but in her heart she had taken the failure to save the boy hard.
The tragedy two days ago and the incident today could have been avoided if the yacht's skipper in each case had acted more responsibly, she thought grimly. She was tempted to tell the man standing in front of her what she thought of him, but something about him made her swallow her angry words. Despite his dishevelled appearance and the large purple swelling above his right eye, he had an aura of power about him that set him apart from other men.
He was looking at Lexi in a way that no man had looked at her for a long time. Too longthe treacherous thought slid into her head. She tried to push it away but a picture flashed into her mind of the man's strong, tanned hands on her body, dark against pale, hard muscle pressed against soft yielding flesh.
Shocked by her wayward imagination, she narrowed her eyes to hide her thoughts as she studied him. He was sinfully attractive, with exotic olive-gold skin and over-long, thick black hair that curled at his nape and fell forward onto his brow so that he raked it back with an impatient flick of his hand. Lexi's gaze was drawn to his dark brown eyesliquid pools of chocolate fringed by ridiculously long, silky lashes and set beneath heavy black brows. The gleam in his eyes unsettled her, and the blatantly sensual curve of his lips made her wonder how it would feel if he pressed his mouth against hers.
She shook her head, trying to break free from the disturbing effect he had on her, praying he hadn't noticed that she had been staring at him. She did not understand her reaction to him. It had been a long time since she had looked at a man and felt a quiver in her belly. Too long, she acknowledged ruefully.
'You should have waited for the weather to improve, instead of putting your life and the lives of your crew at risk.' She spoke sharply, desperate to hide her confusing awareness of the yacht's skipper. 'Your behaviour was irresponsible. Offshore sailing is not for inexperienced sailors.'
The man arrogantly threw back his head, drawing Lexi's attention to his broad shoulders. She assessed him to be several inches over six feet tall.
'I'm not a fool,' he said curtly. 'Of course I checked the marine forecast and I was aware of the storm. The White Hawk could easily have run ahead of the bad weather, but we must have hit something in the water that ripped the keel from the hull and resulted in the yacht capsizing.'
He broke off abruptly. Following the direction of his gaze, Lexi saw two men hurrying towards them. The helipad was strictly out of bounds to the public but, as she stepped forward to ask the men to leave, they halted in front of the White Hawk's skipper and, to Lexi's astonishment, bowed to him. She had learned enough Arabic during her tours of duty in the Middle East to recognise the language they spoke. After a brief conversation with the men, the skipper swung away from Lexi without giving her another glance and strode across the helipad, followed by his two companions.
'A word of thanks for saving his life would have been nice,' she said disgustedly, not caring if her words carried across the helipad to him. She glanced at the coastguard paramedic. 'Did you see how those men bowed to him as if they were his servants? He actually clicked his fingers for them to follow him! Who the hell does he think he is?'
Chris gave her an amused look. 'I take it from the way you ripped into him that you didn't recognise him? That was His Royal Highness, Sultan Kadir Al Sulaimar of Zenhab, and I'm guessing that the men who came to collect him are his servants. Not only is he a Sultan, he was the skipper of the Zenhab Team Valiant who won the America's Cup in the summer.' He grinned at Lexi's startled expression. 'I got the feeling that he didn't take kindly to you calling him an inexperienced sailor.'