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Not easily impressed, Liyah Amari very nearly stopped to gawp upon entering the Chatsfield London for the first time.
Flagship of the Chatsfield family's hotel empire, the lodging preferred by Europe's elite was magnificent.
San Francisco's property where her mother had worked since before Liyah's birth was beautiful, but nothing compared to the opulence of this hotel. From the liveried doormen to the grandeur of the ballroom-size lobby, she felt as if she'd stepped into a bygone era of luxury.
A decidedly frenetic air of anticipation and preparation was at odds with the elegant surroundings, though. One maid rushed through the lobby-which Liyah was certain was anything but a normal occurrence-while another polished the walnut banisters of the grand staircase.
It looked like an impromptu but serious meeting was happening near the concierge desk. The desk reception staff were busy with the phone and computer, respectively, checking in an attractive elderly couple.
"Welcome to the Chatsfield London, Mr. and Mrs. Michaels. Here is your room key," the young man said, "and here is your complimentary hospitality pack. We very much hope that you enjoy your stay."
Both staff were too busy to pay attention to who might be entering the hotel. Behind reception, Liyah saw a row of photographs depicting the Chatsfield London's staff. Something in her chest tightened as she caught the image of Lucilla Chatsfield staring back at her from within a frame.
One of the Chatsfield siblings Liyah admired and wished she could get to know, Lucilla was too far up the hotel's ranks for that to ever be likely.
A noise from behind her dragged her attention to where maintenance was replacing a bulb in the giant chandelier that cast the saffron walls with an elegant glow. Ecru moldings and columns added a tasteful but subtly lavish touch and the faint but lingering smell of fresh paint indicated they'd had a recent tidying up.
Liyah's sensible shoes made no noise as she crossed the black-and-white marble-tiled floor, heading directly for the elevator as she'd been instructed to do.
A man stepped in front of her. "May I help you find someone?"
His tone and expression were polite, but it had to be obvious to him that Liyah in her well-fitting but conservative black gabardine suit was not a guest at the Chatsfield.
"I have an appointment with Mrs. Miller." As was her usual habit, Liyah was fifteen minutes early for her meeting with the senior housekeeper.
The man's eyes lit up. "Oh, you must be the maid from Zeena Sahra."
No. That had been her mother. "I am familiar with Zeena Sahran culture, but I was born in America."
Liyah had been hired as a floor supervising chambermaid on the presidential level with special concierge services, just below the hotel's penthouse suites. With hospitality as well as housekeeping duties, she would be working in tandem with the concierge team in a new initiative designed to increase customer satisfaction.
It would be a much more satisfying job for Liyah than the one her mother had held for almost three decades and Hena would have approved wholeheartedly.
"Yes, of course. The elevator is right this way." The man started walking. "I will have to key your access to the basement level."
Liyah was still a few minutes early when she knocked on the senior housekeeper's office door. "Enter," came from within.
Mrs. Miller was a tall, thin woman who wore a more severe version of Liyah's suit with a starched white blouse buttoned all the way up.
"I'm pleased you are here, Miss Amari, but I hope you've come prepared to begin work immediately," she said after the pleasantries were out of the way.
"Yes, of course."
"Good. Your concierge floor has been booked for the sheikh's harem." Mrs. Miller gave a disdainful sniff with the word harem.
"Excuse me? A sheikh from Zeena Sahra is coming to stay?" And he needed an entire floor for his harem?
No wonder they'd wanted to transfer her mother from the Chatsfield San Francisco.
"Yes, Sheikh bin Falah will be staying with us for two weeks. His fiancée will be joining him for the second one."
Liyah schooled the shock from her features. "Sheikh al Zeena, or Sheikh bin Falah al Zeena, but he would not be referred to as Sheikh bin Falah. To do so would cause offence."
Liyah wasn't sure about correcting her boss, but she assumed this sort of knowledge was why she'd been hired.
At least now she understood the need for her expertise. Not just a tribal sheikh but the crown prince of Zeena Sahra was coming to stay at the Chatsfield London.
Probably the single most gorgeous man alive, he could easily be an international playboy with a string of supermodels hanging on his arm. However, he had a reputation for being buttoned-down and focused entirely on his duties as emir of Zeena Sahra.
"I see. I'll make a note of it. I presume addressing him as Your Highness is acceptable."
"It is, though from what I have read, since Zeena Sahra is an emirate, he prefers the title of emir!''
Mrs. Miller's mouth pursed. "Why didn't we know this?"
"It's a small thing, really.'
"No," Mrs. Miller said sharply. "There's nothing small about this visit from the sheikh. Every detail must be seen to with absolute attention. If not, mistakes happen. Only last week someone wanted to send silk napkins to the Chatsfield Preitalle with the inscription 'Princess Mad-die.' Can you believe it? For a royal wedding? This is why each detail must be perfect."
"I will do my best."
"Yes. In addition to your usual duties, for the duration of the sheikh's visit, you will also personally oversee the housekeeping staff for his suite and the adjoining rooms for his security people."
Nothing like being thrown in at the deep end, but Liyah didn't mind. She thrived on a challenge.
Nevertheless, it was a good thing Liyah had gotten her degree in hospitality management. It didn't hurt either that she'd cleaned rooms at the Chatsfield San Francisco every summer break through high school and college, not that her mother had encouraged Liyah to make her career there.
Quite the opposite, Hena had been adamant that her daughter not work for the Chatsfield. And now that she knew what she did, maybe Liyah understood that better.
After a somewhat harried orientation, during which staff members she met asked as many questions of Liyah about Zeena Sahra as she asked them about the Chatsfield London, she returned to her newly rented bedsit.
About the size of a college dorm room with an efficiency kitchen and miniscule bath tacked on, it was a far cry from the two-bedroom apartment with a balcony she'd shared with her mother in San Francisco. An apartment she'd been only too happy to move out of when she got the floor supervisory position with the Chatsfield London.
The job offer was a brilliant coincidence that Liyah's mother would have called destiny. But then Hena Amari had had a romantic streak her daughter did not share.
Although her outlook on life was decidedly more pragmatic, once Liyah had seen the contents of her mother's safety-deposit box and read Hena's final letter, she'd known she had to come to England.
The new job had allowed her to do so without dipping too deeply into what was left from the proceeds of her mother's life insurance policy. The money had been welcome if entirely unexpected. The policy had been one of the many profound shocks Liyah had found in that safety-deposit box.
Shocks that had ultimately ended with her working for the Chatsfield London.
The hotel had been looking specifically for someone with knowledge of Zeena Sahran culture and hospitality norms. Ironically, they had contacted the San Francisco property's senior housekeeper, Stephanie Carter, in hopes of transferring Hena Amari.
With Hena's sudden death, Stephanie, knowing about Liyah, had suggested her instead. Even though Liyah had not worked for the Chatsfield San Francisco since the summer before her last year of university, her education and experience had made her uniquely eligible for a newly created position.
The irony that a job with the hotel would make it possible for her daughter to fulfill Hena's final wish was not lost on Liyah.
Liyah did not resent her mother's silence on any front, but only superb emotional control had allowed her to take one stunning revelation after another without cracking.
On the outside.
The most stunning revelation of all had been that the extremely wealthy English hotelier Gene Chatsfield was Liyah's biological father.
After years of seeing the exploits of his legitimate children in the tabloid press, Liyah found it nearly impossible to believe his blood ran through her veins. What did she, a woman who had worked hard for everything she had, have in common with this notorious, spoiled family?
She had an almost morbid curiosity to discover what kind of man raised his children to be so profligate while sending the most meager of stipends to Hena on Liyah's behalf.
The answer might lie in the very fact of Liyah's existence, the result of Gene's indulgence in numerous affairs with his hotel maids. Affairs that did not make it into the press.
Hena hadn't known about the hotelier's wife, much less his propensity for seducing the chambermaids, until after he left San Francisco and a pregnant Hena behind. It had all been in the final letter Hena had left Liyah.
She'd never told another soul the identity of Liyah's father. Hena's shame in the fact he'd been a married man colored the rest of her life and yet she'd written in her letter that Liyah needed to forgive him.
Hena had claimed that Gene Chatsfield was not a villain, not a demon, not even a very bad man. But he had been a man going through a very bad time. Her final request had been for Liyah to come to London and make herself known to her father.
Liyah would respect her mother's last wishes, but she was happy to have the opportunity to observe the man incognito-as an employee, not the daughter he'd never acknowledged.
Her uniform crisp, her long black hair caught in an impeccable bun, Liyah stood tucked away in a nook near the grand staircase. She'd been in London two weeks and working at the Chatsfield ten hectic days, but had yet to catch a glimpse of her father.
Word had come down that the Honorable Sheikh Sayed bin Falah al Zeena was arriving today, though. Liyah had no doubts her father would be on hand to greet the sheikh personally.
One thing that had become patently obvious in the past ten days: the sheikh's stay was incredibly important to the hotel, and even more significant to the Chatsfield's proprietor.
Apparently, in another ironic twist of fate, Gene Chatsfield currently resided in the Chatsfield New York, leaving his new and highly acclaimed CEO, Christos Giatrakos, alone to handle operations from London. However, Gene Chatsfield's arrival in London to personally oversee the emir's visit said it all.
Knowing how key this high-profile guest's stay was to her father, Liyah was determined to do her job well. When she made herself known to Gene, there would be nothing to disappoint him in her work ethic.
Her floor was in impeccable order, each of the rooms to be occupied garnished with a crystal bowl of fruit and a vase of fragrant jasmine. She'd arranged for a screen to be placed at the elevator bank on her floor, as well, effectively blocking the harem quarters from curious looks.
She'd made sure the sheikh's suite was similarly taken care of. There was nothing to offend and a great deal to appreciate in her setup of his rooms and the floor below.
Thoughts of her work faded as an older man walked with supreme confidence across the lobby. His air that of a man who owned all he surveyed, he acknowledged the numerous greetings by his employees with a regal tip of his head. Her father.
Stopping in front of the reception desk, he was clearly prepared to welcome the sheikh upon arrival.
Gray hair shot with silver, his blue eyes were still clear, his six-foot-one frame just slightly stooped. Garbed in a perfectly tailored Pierre Cardin suit, his shoes no doubt handmade, he looked like a man who would fit right in with the fabulously wealthy people his hotel catered to.
Gene smiled and said something to the head of desk reception. And all the air expelled from Liyah's lungs in a single whoosh.
She'd seen that smile in the mirror her whole life. His lips were thinner, but the wide smile above a slightly pointed chin? That was so familiar it made her heart ache.
His eyes were blue, hers were green-but their shape was the same. That hadn't been obvious in the publicity shots she'd seen of him.
She'd gotten her mother's honey-colored skin, oval face, small nose and arched brows, not to mention Hena's black hair and five-foot-five stature. Their mother-daughter connection had been obvious to anyone who saw them together.
Liyah had never considered she might also share physical traits with her father.
The resemblance wasn't overly noticeable by any means, but that smile? Undeniably like hers.
This man was her father.
Hit with the profundity of the moment, Liyah's knees went to jelly and she had to put her hand against the wall for stability.
Unaware of her father's moderate financial support and way too aware of the Amari rejection of any connection, Liyah had spent her life knowing of only one person in her family.
Her mom was the only Amari who had ever recognized Liyah as a member of that family. A family who had cast her out for her disgrace.
And since her mom's death, Liyah had been alone. In that moment, she realized that if this man accepted her- even into the periphery of his life-she wouldn't be alone any longer.
Her father's face changed, the smile shifting to something a lot tenser than the expression he'd worn only seconds before. He stood a little straighter, his entire demeanor more alert.
Liyah's gaze followed his, and for the second time in as many minutes she went weak in the knees.
Surrounded by an impressive entourage and dressed in the traditional garb of a Zeena Sahran sheikh stood the most beautiful man Liyah had ever seen. Known for his macho pursuits and outlook, despite his supreme political diplomacy, the emir wouldn't appreciate the description, she was sure.
But regardless of. .or maybe because of his over-six-foot height, square jaw and neatly trimmed, close-cropped facial hair, the sheikh's masculine looks carried a beauty she'd never before encountered.
No picture she'd ever seen did him justice. Two-dimensional imagery could never catch the reality of Sheikh Sayed bin Falah al Zeena's presence. Not his gorgeous looks or the leashed power that crackled in the air around him like electricity.
Nothing about the unadorned black abaya worn over Armani, burgundy keffiyeh on his head and black triple-stranded egal holding it in place expressed anything but conservative control. The Zeena Sahran color of royalty of the keffiyeh and three strands of the egal, rather than the usual two, subtly indicated his status as emir.
Wearing the traditional robe over a tailored designer suit with the head scarf implied supreme civilization. And yet, to her at least, it was obvious the blood of desert warriors ran in his veins.
The first melech of Zeena Sahra had won independence for his tribe-which later became the founding people of the emirate of Zeena Sahra-through bloody battles western history books often glossed over.
Inexplicably and undeniably drawn to the powerful man, Liyah's feet carried her forward without her conscious thought or volition. It was only when she stood mere feet from the royal sheikh that Liyah came to an abrupt, embarrassed stop.
It was too late, though.