Claimed by the Sheikh (ebook)
Claimed by the Sheikh (ebook)
If you enjoy Harlequin's sheikh romances, you'll love this page-turning contemporary sheikh romance, full of emotion with characters who feel real!
Prince Sahmir al-Fulan had one more night in Paris before returning home to Ma’in to begin a new life with an arranged marriage, in a country he’d help make wealthy. And that was fine by him. He’d failed the women in his life before and he had no intention of opening his heart and making the same mistakes again. But then Aurora de Chambery came running into his life, down a snowy street, wearing nothing but a ball gown. And his impulsive, gallant nature won out. He had to rescue her from the man she was running from. Even if it meant risking not only his life and reputation, but his heart.
Despite appearances, beautiful French aristocrat Aurora de Chambéry, better known to her family as Rory, is an out and out tomboy. She’d rather be stomping about in rubber boots through the fields of her impoverished family estate than dressed to the nines, mixing with the rich and famous. But when her father loses the family estate to a Russian mafia boss through gambling, she ends up being held against her will by the Russian. Her only hope of escape is to be won at cards by a foreign Prince and taken far from the land she loves. It’s not the stuff of her dreams and she plans to escape just as soon as she can. What she hadn’t planned for was a baby...
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It was past midnight and the only sounds in the Place des Vosges were the lonely notes of Debussy that drifted through the open door, down to the steps where Prince Sahmir ibn Saleh al-Fulan stood drinking red wine and watching the snow fall.
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d stopped to watch snow fall. Klosters maybe? Pre-teen definitely. Like intricate pieces of frozen coral, the snowflakes drifted down from the night sky in a lazy path, past the grey slate roof, and brick and stone striped façade of his Paris home, before coming to rest on the glossy pavement. As insubstantial as they were, they were beginning to accumulate, lightening the square to a world of white.
Sahmir narrowed his eyes against the glare. He’d spent too much time in heavily curtained hotel rooms—gambling by night and trying to forget his past in the arms of women by day. Too much darkness, too little light.
He let one flake settle on his hand and remembered how snow had fascinated him as a boy when he and his mother had left the heat of Ma’in for their annual holiday in Switzerland. He felt a flicker of that memory now, as he examined the white snowflake, momentarily perfect against his dark skin. He’d used to believe in magic, in fairytales. Where had that innocence gone?
The flake melted. He sighed, took another sip of red wine and looked across at the park where the snow was beginning to create shapes in the dark trees. He wouldn’t be seeing snow again for a while. He’d done what he came to Paris to do. Now it was time to return to Ma’in, back to the responsibility he’d promised his dead sister he’d embrace.
Suddenly the sharp, urgent sound of stiletto heels unevenly stabbing the pavement came to him through the muffled, still air. He looked round to see a woman running along the street towards him. From the light of a street lamp he could see that she was tall and slender with long, dark hair that streamed behind her and she was wearing a bright red ball gown with a black bodice. No coat, despite the weather.
He could tell from the way she kept darting looks behind her that she was running from something or someone. And whoever that was had obviously put the fear of God—or the Devil—into her.
Don’t get involved, the quiet voice of his sister whispered in his head.
He frowned, warring with the gentle voice that was the only thing which lay between him and trouble.
Don’t get involved, it repeated. Look what happened last time.
As she drew level with him she turned to look behind her again and it was then that he knew he couldn’t not get involved. Her eyes were wide with fear, but it was the vulnerability he saw there that shot straight to the core of him.
He barely felt his half-empty glass slip from his fingers as he pushed himself away from the wall and leaped down the steps and into the square after her. Whoever she was, wherever she’d come from, she needed help.
Aurora, Comtesse de Chambéry didn’t bother to look which way she ran. All that mattered was that she got away from the man who she’d hoped would be her salvation, but who’d proved to be the total opposite.
Oblivious to the stares of strangers, not feeling the icy cold on her bare arms, she tried to outrun the memory of his eyes—cold and cruel—as he described in disgusting detail what he planned to do to her. Not only didn’t she have a hope in hell of regaining her beloved estate, but he also didn’t plan to release her until he’d got what he wanted from her. She could still feel the pressure marks on her arm where his fingers had gripped her, forcing her to hear him out.
She checked behind her. She couldn’t see anyone. Not yet. But it was only a matter of time before her absence would be noticed and he’d send his men to follow her.
She ran on, but her bare shoulders were starting to ache in the icy air and her wet shoes cut into frozen feet that stumbled. Where could she go? She knew nobody in Paris.
She stopped running, suddenly aware that the street had given way to a garden, dense with the stark tracery of clipped limes topped with snow. Her hand instinctively sought out the wrought-iron gate as she looked up into the dark-limbed trees, remembering with vivid clarity her estate that was no longer hers.
There was a shout from behind her and with a panicked sob she fumbled with the iron latch and ran into the garden. She ran up the path towards the central stand of limes until she found her way blocked by a frozen fountain, whose smooth rivulets of water ran solid from its center, down into an icy, ruffled surface.
Heart pumping, she clutched the sides of the fountain and looked down into its opaque depths as she tried to regain her breath which heaved mistily into the freezing air, aware that the pounding of feet had also stopped behind her. There was nowhere else she could run. She would have to face the man who claimed he owned her family’s estate and take whatever he wanted to do to her. There was no escape this time.
She took a deep, shuddering breath, willing herself to be calm. But when a large, male hand reached out and touched her arm she screamed, jumped around, twisted her ankle, and fell heavily to the icy ground. As she fell she saw the man’s face—not the Russian’s—and dark eyes, so concerned, so kind—so definitely not the Russian’s.
“Mademoiselle, s’il vous plait! Qu’est-ce qu’il y a?”
He leaned towards her—pressing down his arm to flatten out the skirts that billowed around her—and reached out for her hand to help her up.
But she didn’t move. Whether it was the fear that her ankle wouldn’t take her weight, or the relief that this man wasn’t the Russian, she didn’t know. It couldn’t have been anything to do with the hand reaching out, but not taking, or those eyes, full of warmth and concern.
“Qu’est-ce qu’il y a?” he repeated.
“The matter?” She looked over his shoulder, then panicked as she remembered what exactly the matter was. “Everything.” She accepted his hand and grimaced at the twinge in her ankle as he pulled her up. “I need help.”
The smile vanished. “Tell me.”
It was a command from someone used to giving orders. But it was a command she wanted to obey. “A man.” She couldn’t bring herself to say his name. She shivered and looked out of the square toward the road. It was empty. She felt his grip tighten on her hand.
“A man is chasing you?” The look of shocked outrage confirmed her initial feeling that she could trust this stranger.
“Oui. I need to get away from him.”
He frowned. “You must come home with me and I’ll call a taxi to take you wherever you wish to go.”
“No!” The idea of being trapped in a stranger’s house, so close to the Russian’s, panicked her. “No,” she said more firmly. “I need to leave, to….” She trailed off, not knowing where she needed to go. Another shiver wracked her body, followed by another and she stumbled a little, her strength leaching out of her with the cold.
“Would you like me to take you to the police station for help?”
She shook her head. “Non!” The memory of the Chief of Police enjoying her captor’s hospitality was proof the police wouldn’t help her.
“Look, until you decide where to go, come inside my house for a few moments to recover. You won’t go far on that ankle and you’ll freeze if we stay here a moment longer. What you need is a stiff brandy and warm clothing, before you do anything. These things, I can give you.” He took off his dinner jacket and swept it around her shoulders. “We’re wasting time. If there is someone after you, then you’ll be safer off the streets.”
He brushed snow from her hair. “Do you have a better plan?”
Plan? She’d only ever had one plan—to stay on the family estate which her father had ending up losing in a card game. “Non. No plans.”
She tried to take a step forward but, whether from the numbing cold or a sprain, her leg gave way beneath her, and she stumbled. But, before she could fall, he scooped her up and brought her tight against his chest and began to walk back to the street.
“Non!” Her cry was instinctive and yet, strangely, she felt no fear. Only warmth as the heat from his body slowly calmed the shivers that wracked hers.
“Don’t worry,” his deep voice rumbled in her ear, pressed close to his chest. “I won’t hurt you.”
“No! I have to, to…”
“To what?” His voice was deep and comforting.
“To run away.” She tried to look over his shoulder, but his arms held her too securely. All she could do was look up into eyes that held the kind of smile from which you couldn’t turn away, the kind of smile that made you melt a little inside. It may have been calculated to charm, Aurora wouldn’t have known with her inexperience—all she knew was that it was working.
“I think you’ve done that already.”
“But where have I run to?”
“To me.” He opened the park gate and they were once more on the quiet street. Perhaps he felt her tense at his words, perhaps he just wanted to hold her more firmly—whatever the reason, he gripped her body more tightly. “Temporarily, to me. Don’t worry. I’ll take you to my house and we’ll work out how to further your plan of running away, then. When you’re warm and safe.”
“Safe…” She hadn’t felt safe for a long time. She shouldn’t feel safe now, in a stranger’s arms, but somehow, she did.
She looked around the street, praying there would be no sign of the Russian. But there was no-one to disturb the snow that lay like icing on the road, on the old-fashioned streetlights, and on the pillars that held aloft the vaulted arcade which fronted the mansions. It was like a scene from a Victorian picture book, except for the fear that from behind each snow-topped bough, each corner of the square, the Russian would suddenly appear—large and angry.
Mercifully, the stranger must have understood something of her panic and he ran up the wide, deep steps of one of the houses to an open door from which light spilled.
She glanced down and noticed drops of red stuff on the snow. She stiffened and then saw that it was wine, only red wine. An empty glass lay next to it. But still she shivered.
Once in the hall, he closed the door with his foot and for one long moment they looked at each other under the bright hall light.
An undone bow tie dangled from his open shirt, and stubble on his chin darkened his already dark skin. She felt compelled to look higher on his face and wished she hadn’t when dark eyes looked down on her from above high cheekbones. He was the most handsome man she’d ever seen.
She shifted in his arms. “Thank you, I…”
“Of course.” He released her and she stood up, shivering almost uncontrollably now.
He brought her close to his side, supporting her and warming her at the same time, as they walked across the hallway to an open door from which music drifted. He was so close she couldn’t help inhaling his scent—a blend of red wine, cinnamon and the watery smell of snowy fresh air. He smelled of Christmas. She closed her eyes more tightly and tried to stop a bubble of hysteria rising from deep inside. She didn’t know whether to cry or laugh.
They entered the front reception room where a chaise longue was pulled up in front of a fire, burning low in the grate. All around, the furniture was covered in white dust sheets, like snow drifts. Gratefully she sank down onto the chaise.
“Don’t move. I’ll get a warm cover and a hot drink.”
Move? She wasn’t going anywhere immediately. Not just because she felt safer with this man than running through the empty streets of Paris, but also because she sincerely doubted that her legs, numbed by the cold, would hold her. Shivers continued to wrack her body and she stretched out her hands—which looked as deathly white as the snow—towards the glowing embers of the fire.
Moments later he returned with a feather duvet which he tossed over her. She immediately felt welcome heat return to her body and the shivers subsided. He nodded, as if he’d seen the difference the cover had made, and went to the drinks cabinet where he poured two large glasses of brandy. He passed her a brandy balloon. “Drink this.”
She held it to her face and narrowed her eyes against the pungent brandy fumes.
“It’ll do you good,” he said encouragingly. He was obviously under the false impression she’d never tasted brandy before. She took a small sip—it was good, the best—and then she took a much larger one. He raised an amused eyebrow. “You like brandy?”
She nodded. “My grandfather always kept the best. He was of the opinion that childhood should be as brief as possible.”
“An unusual attitude. Particularly with a grand-daughter.”
“He was an unusual man.”
“Where is your family now? Can you go to them? I can take you there, if you wish?”
She paused as she remembered her grandfather—now passed away—and her remaining family, staying in their holiday home on Lake Lucerne. Waiting. Depending on her to make everything right with the estate. Not knowing that she’d made everything worse. She shook her head. “There’s no-one who can help.”
He sat on the chair opposite and reached over for her hands. “You’re warmer already.” He looked up into her eyes. “Who are you, and who are you running from? I may be able to help.”
Just the thought of this gorgeous man becoming embroiled in her problems, dirtying himself with a connection to the Russian, made her fearful. She had to get away. She couldn’t involve him. “Look, I’m really sorry about this. But I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t involve you.”
“Involve me? I think it’s too late for regrets. I’m involved whether you like it or not.” He rubbed her hands between his. “You can trust me, you know.”
She knew it. She could see it in his eyes. She gave him a faint, rueful smile. “Trusting isn’t my problem. I always trust too much.”
“And I, too little, so we’re perfectly balanced. Tell me about yourself. I don’t even know your name.”
She hesitated. She wouldn’t give the name she was known by. It was too risky. “Aurora.” She just stopped herself from adding her surname.
“Aurora,” he repeated softly, as if savoring her name.
“Yes, afraid so.”
“A beautiful name. Sleeping Beauty’s name.”
“Quite. A comic curse for someone who sleeps little and who has no interest in trying to look beautiful.”
He frowned and stared at her in disbelief. She really didn’t need to hear any comments about how she should wear make-up or about how she should have her hair styled. “But—”
“And you are?”
He nodded, smiling, understanding her interruption and respecting it. “Sahmir.”
She extended her hand to hers. “Pleased to meet you Sahmir.”
“And I’m very pleased to meet you, also. Now”—he sat back and took a sip of his drink—“why don’t you tell me what happened and I’ll see what I can do to help?”
She took another sip of her rapidly diminishing brandy. “I’m… involved, with some powerful men. A powerful man. Just one, really. He’d brought me to Paris under false pretenses… I thought he was offering something I desperately want. But”—she grimaced—“he wasn’t. Instead he wanted things from me… things I wasn’t prepared to give.” She bit her lip, not wanting to describe what exactly the Russian had wanted, what it was that he’d tried to take by force.
She looked up suddenly, surprised at his grim tone, which had shown only gentle consideration up to now.
“You don’t have to elaborate,” continued Sahmir. “I can guess.”
Without thinking, she rubbed her arm where finger-sized bruises marred her skin. He leaned forward and took her hand in his, pulling it free of the duvet. “And these bruises? This man caused them?”
She nodded and he rose and paced over to the window, his mouth grim, anger edging his movements. He stood looking out of the window. She shifted in her chair and followed his gaze out to the square.
Snow lay heavily on every available horizontal surface: from the top of the square-clipped limes to the trim on the dormer windows that peeped out from the grey slate roofs of the mansions opposite. It was like a perfectly symmetrical cake, delicately frosted especially for Christmas. Christmas—the time for peace and goodwill to all men. That was a joke.
“I’m sorry,” he said without turning round to her. “I hate violence—in any shape or form—particularly to the vulnerable.”
She was surprised by how strongly he’d reacted to her words and waited for him to elaborate. But he didn’t. Instead, the silence lengthened as he continued to look out the window.
“It’s stopped snowing,” he said at last.
She looked up at the scattering of stars. “It’ll freeze tonight.” She shivered at the thought of herself, outside. With nowhere to go, no money. She’d have died of exposure in the park.
He turned to her. “Are you still cold?”
She shook her head, swallowing back the fear. “No. It’s just… I can’t go out there again. I can’t risk being seen by him again. He’ll make sure I won’t escape next time.”
“There won’t be a next time. Stay here. I can protect you.”
She shook her head. What could this man do to protect her from people as evil as the Russian and his entourage? “No. I can’t stay here. It’s too close to him.”
He frowned and walked up to her. “Who is he? Where does he live?”
“I can’t tell you. It’s too dangerous.”
He plucked a phone from his pocket and dialed.
“Who are you calling?”
“The police. We’ll let them deal with this.”
She snatched the phone from his hands and pressed the screen, cutting off the dial tone. “No! I’m sorry, but no. He has friends everywhere. Even in the police.”
“Who is this man?”
She shook her head. “It’s best you don’t know.” She looked around, panicking once more. What the hell was she doing here? Not only was she endangering this man but, all the time she sat, lulled by the comfort of the brandy and fire, she wasn’t putting space between her and the Russian. “I’ve got to go. Now!” She threw off the duvet and jumped to her feet.
“Where? You won’t go to the police.”
“A hotel. Where no-one knows me. It’ll be better for me somewhere public.”
“And then what?”
“I’ll return to my family in Lucerne, get what I need and then go to ground in the country. I know of a place where he won’t find me.” She nodded, relieved to have come up with something of a plan. “That’s what I’ll do.”
“If this man knows where your family is, I suggest you all go into hiding directly.”
“I have no money, no clothes, no anything.”
“You can stay here, you know.”
She shook her head. ”No. No, I can’t.”
“Okay, but let me help you.” He walked over to his desk and picked up a wallet and plucked out a handful of notes. “Here.” He handed it to her. “This will keep you going.” He picked up his phone. “Tell me your account number and I’ll have more money credited to your account immediately. Once you’re out of Paris you can access these funds to set yourself up with whatever you need.”
“But I can’t pay you back. Not yet anyway.”
“There’s no need. I’m happy to help.”
“Why?” she half-whispered, overcome by the generosity of this stranger.
“Because…” He looked away and shrugged. “Do I need a reason?”
“No, I guess not. It’s just that it’s so generous of you.”
A single chime of a church bell rang out, pristine in the icy stillness.
He nodded to himself, as if coming to a decision. “I’ll take you to the Ritz.”
“Not the Ritz. Something smaller, something less showy, more discreet…”
“Somewhere where this man won’t think to look.”
She nodded. “Yes.”
He took her hand and hesitated as he searched her face, for what, she had no clue. And for one long moment she had the notion that when he inclined his head to hers, he was going to kiss her. She swayed a little toward him, from pure instinct. But he stepped away.
“I hope, Aurora, that you evade this man, and will be able to stop running away. Running away is never the answer.”
“Sometimes it is. When there’s no place else to go, it is. Haven’t you ever done that? Ever run, rather than face what you can’t change, what you can’t escape from any other way?”
He appeared to almost recoil at her words. He shook his head in a jerky motion that she took to be a negative response.
“You’re lucky then.” She looked around the room that was prepared for his imminent departure. “So, what takes you away from this beautiful house at Christmas? Family?”
“Sort of. I’ve spent many years based in Paris. But it’s time to return home, back to the sun, to the light.”
She gestured to the uncurtained window. “That’s ironic. Just look how bright it is out there.” He followed her gaze and looked out at a world clothed in an ethereal white glow.
She knew about heartache, knew about how you projected your own feelings onto the world. She turned and looked, really looked, at this charming, kind man with the devastating smile. He wasn’t smiling now and she could see a story of pain in his eyes. “Perhaps it’s not outside where it’s dark.” Anger flashed into his eyes as he turned back to her. And she stepped away. What the hell was she thinking? “I have to go. Could you call me a taxi?”
The anger was gone as soon as it appeared. But the smile didn’t return. “I’ll take you. I know of a place.”
It was a short drive through the Paris streets to the small but exclusive hotel which Sahmir used occasionally when he needed to be discreet about his lovers.
He swung the car in front of the closed doors and turned off the engine. “The concierge will be here in a few moments.”
She didn’t answer, just sat looking anxiously up at the elegant facade. “Are you sure I’ll be safe there?”
No he wasn’t. But it was the only place he knew where a woman could buy a change of clothes, rest, and have a hire car waiting for her first thing in the morning.
“It’s the best place I can think of. They’ve been discreet in the past about which Middle Eastern sheikh was sleeping with which Premier’s married daughter.”
She looked at him with those blue eyes, their color no longer visible in the dim interior of the car. But he knew their shade, not sapphire as he’d first thought, but something more delicate—like a rain-washed sky. “Are you that sheikh?”
The sound of a door being unbolted saved him from answering. He began to rise from his seat but she put out her hand to stop him. “Don’t come out. I’m fine. You’ve done more than enough. You don’t need to risk any more rumors about sheikhs with heiresses.”
“And is that what you are?”
“Was.” She smiled briefly. “Thank you so much. For everything.”
She leaned forward and kissed his cheek. At the same time he turned to face her and their lips touched. It was brief but the effect was anything but. He felt her small gasp of surprise on his lips before she withdrew and he felt the same shock within himself. It was like the coming together of the opposite ends of a magnet. It just felt right.
“You’re welcome. Maybe one day we’ll meet under different circumstances. And you’ll wear that beautiful dress in the sunshine when you’re happy.”
“That’ll never happen.”
He frowned. “Why?”
“I always wear jeans. I dress to please myself, not anyone else.”
“You never want to please anyone?”
“Not now. Not ever again.”
She pulled away suddenly and was out of the car before he knew it. Instinctively he reached for her. She turned and, instead, he said, “Bonne chance”, and closed the door behind her.
He stayed only to watch her enter the lobby. Then he drove off into the night, back to his home. But only for tonight. He’d got what he’d come to Paris for—finance that secured his country’s future. Now it was time to leave.
As soon as she entered the hotel lobby, Aurora knew she’d made a dreadful mistake. It was the quickly shifting eyes of the concierge, despite his otherwise neutral expression, which first alerted her. But it was after she was ushered into a small room beside the reception desk that she knew for sure.
The door closed with a too secure click and she turned to find the concierge hadn’t followed her into the room. Then she stared in horror as the door opposite opened and the Russian entered the room.
He smiled a smile that sent chills washing through her body. She thought she was going to be sick, and it was only the refusal to humiliate herself in front of this man that stopped her. Sahmir had betrayed her. She’d trusted in someone yet again who’d betrayed her. He must have guessed where she’d come from and contacted the Russian when he’d gone to fetch the duvet.
“Vadim!” she said, her chin held high. “I’m staying here the night and then I’m leaving Paris.”
He laughed and walked up close to her, trying to intimidate her by his height and heaviness. “No, my sweet, you won’t be leaving Paris tomorrow. You’re coming back with me.”