The Sheikh's Secret Baby (paperback)
The Sheikh's Secret Baby (paperback)
READ A SAMPLE
READ A SAMPLE
“A letter? For me?” Ruby Armand shouted, trying to make herself heard above the thumping beat of the nightclub.
“Si!” The stranger thrust it into her hand and disappeared into the sea of people who rose and fell as one to the pulsing beat.
“You receiving your post in nightclubs now?” Raife’s breath tickled her ear. She moved away.
“Apparently.” She twisted the letter in her hand so the writing could catch the light. There was nothing except her name.
“A billet-doux, perhaps?” Raife smiled. “A love letter from a stranger or from someone you know?”
“No idea. There’s no indication who it’s from.”
“Then open it.”
Ruby tapped the envelope on the table. Her thumb smoothed over thick, embossed paper. She rarely received letters any more—just short electronic one-liners. Certainly not letters in expensive envelopes. “I…” She trailed off as she placed it in her bag, for some reason unwilling to open it in public. “I’ll go to the rest room. The light is better there.”
Raife flashed the smile that had made him the highest paid model in Italy and turned his attention to someone else. It didn’t concern Ruby. She had many friends, many admirers, but few were close, and even fewer were indispensable.
Once in the elegant restroom she sat down and slid her finger along the barely sealed envelope. Suddenly a group of women burst in and clustered around the mirror, applying lipstick, running their fingers through long, sun-kissed hair and talking over each other. Their conversation stuttered as they gave her a second glance—everyone always did, she was instantly recognizable from the countless fashion shoots she’d done, countless gossip columns she’d featured in—before they turned back to the mirror and resumed talking.
Ruby walked into one of the toilets and closed the door. She hooked up her bag, leaned against the wall and pulled one solitary piece of paper from the envelope. It was a short note, just a couple of paragraphs, with an embossed coat of arms in one corner. She scanned down to the signature.
Her heart raced. Amir? After all these years?
She skimmed the letter and frowned, not understanding the words at first. She read through again, slowly this time. Her eyes stopped on the words “our son”. Her mouth dried and the paper slipped from her hands as a sob—loud and naked—escaped her lips. The chatter outside the toilet stopped instantly. But she didn’t make any further sound, just stared at the elaborate wallpaper as the memories she constantly tried to suppress surged into her mind.
“Are you okay?” one of the girls called out.
It was only when she relaxed her mouth from framing the noiseless sob that the tears began to roll down her face. “I’m fine, thanks,” she answered, pressing the palm of her hand against her pounding forehead, as she tried to contain the shock that she’d found her son after all these years.
She tried to stop the gasping sobs that now threatened to overwhelm her, but bile rose and she turned and vomited into the toilet. Shakily she wiped her mouth, ran cold water into the sink and splashed her face. She gripped the sides of the basin and looked up at her reflection in the mirror.
Her long blonde hair still framed her face, her skin was still translucent, a favorite with photographers, but her eyes had changed. Swimming with tears and fear—fear that she’d found what she’d been searching for these past five years, only for it to be taken away. Because of all the scenarios that had haunted her, Amir Al-Rahman—her baby’s father—having adopted their son, even knowing about their son, had never crossed her mind.
* * *
Ten minutes until she arrived.
Sheikh Amir Al-Rahman drummed his fingers on the side of the solid oak chair and tried to concentrate on what his assistant was saying. He never had to try to concentrate. Just the thought of seeing Ruby again was fracturing his control. He stopped drumming and gripped the chair.
His executive assistant stopped talking mid-sentence and opened his eyes in surprise. “But the—”
Amir narrowed his eyes. It was all he had to do to make the man collect the papers and rise. No one questioned him. He’d inherited his kingdom, one-third of the fabled Havilah lands, from his father and his father before him, and had absolute control of it. “Leave now. And make sure I’m not disturbed after Miss Armand arrives.” The flustered assistant nodded obsequiously and walked out the room. The deep silence of the private wing of the ancient palace settled around him once more.
He didn’t need to check the time. He’d been aware of each passing minute from the moment he’d awoken, as if his body clock was set on an alarm, programmed to go off on her arrival.
He opened his laptop—the only concession to modernity in the library—responded to a couple of emails and closed the computer once more.
He tapped his fingertips lightly together as he focused on the pale blue spring sky and the distant sound of a car entering the inner compound of the palace. Suddenly it was real. What he’d imagined in weak moments over the past five years was about to happen.
He shifted the photos of his dark-haired wife and blond son on his desk, his gaze lingering on his son, Hani. He regretted it instantly. He felt the pain seep into him like a bruise receiving a further blow, sending the blood further into his body, wounding and hurting. The boy’s pallor had always concerned him and now he knew why. But he would deal with it, like he dealt with everything else.
The car stopped outside the front entrance and two sets of footsteps approached: one barely heard, the other sharp-heeled against the ancient stone floor, growing louder as they came towards him, keeping time with the increased tempo of his pounding heart. Both sets of footsteps stopped, followed by a tentative knock at the door.
The door opened and his assistant let her in. The smell of her perfume—the same as it had always been, despite the fact she could now afford the best—wafted over to him. He rose and turned to her slowly, intent on retaining the control that simply her presence threatened. And he needed all that control when he looked into her eyes, because they were the eyes of a stranger.
He’d seen photos, more than he’d wanted—of course he had. She was as glamorous as the magazines portrayed her. He knew how she wore her long blonde hair—often in an upswept messy bun which suited her delicate features—and knew her preference for bright, bold, sexy clothes. Today was no exception. She was dressed in a short, tight shift dress, the color of sunshine. But she was taller in her high heels, her figure slighter than it had been five years before, and her skin wasn’t pale, but had a soft golden tan that made her bright blue eyes appear almost violet.
Superficially, all was as he’d expected. What he hadn’t anticipated was the change in the expression of her eyes. Five years ago, they’d been full of fun, life and love. Now they held only hostility and anger. They were hard.
She dropped the fashionably large handbag with a clunk onto the floor, walked up to the desk, gripped it—the chunky gold bracelet falling to her wrist, hitting the hard surface of the desk with a clatter—and leaned over, her eyes fierce.
“Where’s my son?”
Lust slammed into his gut at the feel of her so close, her lips, full and soft with the gloss of coral lipstick, and the long lines of her slender arms in the sleeveless dress that glanced off subtle curves. He hadn’t expected that blast of need. It was as if his body had an elastic memory, like a form of plastic that, when subjected to a heat source, resumes its original form. It made him feel vulnerable. It made him feel angry. It banished the turmoil.
“Sit down.” His voice held its usual strength and command. He was not used to being disobeyed and didn’t expect it. He would get what he wanted.
“No. Not until you tell me where my son is.”
“Sit down and I might consider it.”
“Might?” She cocked her head to one side, her fine brows arched in an arrogant question. “Might? Don’t tell me you’ve brought me all this way for some other reason.” She brought her head closer to his, her eyes ranging over his face, faltering slightly. “Because”—she drew back, suddenly less sure—“I won’t believe it.”
“Sit down, Miss Armand.”
She continued to pull away slowly, even as her eyes moved over his face. He could see she was checking him out, just as he was checking her out. The glint of hardness faded a little, and, as she turned to find a chair, she nipped her bottom lip. But, by the time she’d turned back, crossed her slim legs and folded her hands in front of her, the small sign of uncertainty had vanished.
“‘Miss Armand’,” she repeated. “Why so formal? Have you forgotten the name of the mother of your child?”
“I know the name of the mother of my child. Her name was Mia.”
“That’s the name of the woman you left me for. That’s the name of your wife. That is not the name of my son’s mother.”
He held her hard stare. “Mia was, as I say, my child’s mother. You forfeited that right when you signed the adoption papers. You’d made it clear you didn’t want him.”
For a moment, when he caught sight of her shocked expression before she turned away, he almost regretted the words. They’d meant to hurt. And they had. But he didn’t usually deal such low blows.
“You don’t understand. I made a mistake, I was sick, I—”
“No excuses. You signed your rights away, left the hospital and didn’t look back.”
Anger sparked into her eyes and she jumped up. “Don’t you dare tell me I didn’t look back. I’ve been trying for years to track him down. And I’ve been blocked. Every time I’ve gone to the records office, I’ve had some clerk look at me like I’m dirt and tell me absolutely nothing.”
He rarely felt regret but he couldn’t soften. That was what she did—wormed her way under your skin, into your soul and before you knew it, you were at her mercy. He shrugged. “But he wasn’t adopted. I am his father. After I discovered his existence and my paternity was confirmed by a DNA test, I added my name to the birth certificate. There was no need for me and my wife to adopt him. You made your decision and all I was doing was making sure you abided by it.”
She exhaled roughly and looked around, as if for some reason, some escape, some explanation. She turned and paced away, pushed her fingers through her hair, seemed to regain her control and strode back to him. “I just wanted to know he was okay, that he was cared for.”
“I had no interest in what you wanted.” He watched his cold words take effect. They sparked her into an anger that didn’t threaten to break his resolve. Anger he could deal with, coldness he could deal with.
“No. It was always about what you wanted, wasn’t it? You wanted sex with me, then you wanted to marry Mia. You got both. And a child into the bargain. How neatly it all worked out for you.”
He ground his teeth. “Neatly?” He clenched and unclenched his fist. He couldn’t lose his temper.
“Yes, neatly. Everything you do, you do for a purpose. Your life is one huge chess game. You plan everything; you control everything.”
“Of course. Without control there’s only chaos. And you’d know all about that, wouldn’t you?”
“Don’t go criticizing—”
He held up his hand. “Sit down, Ruby. Be quiet. We have things to discuss.”
“You don’t say?”
He watched her anger fade as she realized he was right. Slowly she withdrew her hands from the desk and sat down. But he could still see the tension in her lightly wrung hands and in her eyes that hadn’t moved from his.
“Just tell me this,” she continued. “Why the hell didn’t you inform me you’d taken him? Why?” she repeated.
“You’re not here to ask questions. You’re here at my invitation, because I want you to be.”
“I want to see him.” Her chin jutted forward in a mulish air of determination. A battle of will over emotion played out over her trembling lips.
He opened his mouth to speak but hesitated. It suddenly occurred to him that she might be more upset than he’d imagined she’d be. It was a small thought that winkled its way to some soft place he didn’t know he had. He cleared his throat. “And you can. But first there are things to discuss.”
She nodded. “Okay. But first, tell me. Was Mia good to him?”
“She loved him. Treated him as if he were her own.”
“Good.” She looked away, and then back at him. “I was sorry, you know. Sorry to hear about Mia.”
“Of course. You think me so heartless I wouldn’t be sorry she’d died in a car accident?”
“I think you so heartless that you’d willingly rid yourself of our child, without even telling me about Hani.”
He watched her pale beneath her tan. “Hani…” she said softly. “Hani.” Her outstretched hand trembled. “So you use the name I gave him. Is it because you knew it was special, that it was my father’s name?”
He did, of course, but he’d rather lie than allow her to realize this trace of sentiment. “My wife liked the name.”
She nodded slowly and swiped her hand across her brow. The energy had suddenly left her and she inhaled a long, deep breath. “So, what’s this all about? Why now? Mia’s been dead a year. It can’t be connected with her. What is it you want? Because I’m sure it’s not for my satisfaction I’ve been invited here.”
“So astute.” It had seemed easy to bring her here before he’d seen her again. Seeing her made everything so much harder. “It’s because I need to buy something from you.”
“What can I possibly have that you want?”
“Something… very personal.”
She shook her head, frowning. “What are you talking about?”
“He needs something from you.”
“All in good time.”
“For pity’s sake, Amir, let me see him.”
He nodded to the window. “You can see him from there, for now.”
She looked at him briefly, with a complex expression of intense longing and fear, before walking swiftly to the window, her hands gripping the deep window ledge as she leaned forward scanning the garden. Suddenly she was very still. Then she pushed the large casement window open to the courtyard outside, and the sound of Hani’s laughter drifted into the room. Her body tensed and he heard a sound like a sob as she slumped against the window frame.
Before he knew it he was standing behind her. But he couldn’t bridge the distance of five years so easily. He simply watched as her hand rose, following Hani’s progress as he chased a ball and disappeared beyond a high hedge.
She swayed slightly—as if that small glimpse was too much, coming after so little—and turned away from the window, not aware he was so close. She reached out to steady herself and pressed the flat of her hand against his chest. It shook him to the core.
She closed her eyes, and he gripped her hand and pressed it tighter against his chest. Her warm breath teased his cheek, sending a ripple of awareness through his body. It was like flicking a switch that had lain dormant for five long years. But before he could bring her closer, before he could obey the commands of his body, she pulled away, stepped to one side, pulling her hand away from his, confusion in her eyes and in her movements.
He felt the withdrawal like the cold, sharp, devastating withdrawal of an addiction. Five minutes in the room and he was putty in her hands.
She shook her head. “I’m okay. I don’t need your support. All I need is Hani.”
He allowed himself to inhale her light floral fragrance—bright and delicious, just like her—before he stepped away. He walked back to his desk, fighting for control. “Would you care for coffee?”
She sighed. “Sure. If that’s what it’ll take for me to see him.”
He ordered the coffees and watched as she walked back to her seat and sat down, a different woman now the anger had left her.
She looked up at him with eyes that were no longer hard, but revealed a depth of emotion which made his heart thump heavily. “Tell me about him. Tell me about Hani. What’s he like?”
He swallowed and forced himself to focus. “He’s a good boy. Although he prefers playing to studying.”
For the first time she looked at him with something like the old expression in her eyes, bright, full of fun. Her lips curled into a sweet smile. “I guess you wouldn’t understand that. I can picture you as a boy Hani’s age—studious, responsible, dutiful. Some things don’t change, do they?”
“I hope Hani’s attitude to his studies changes.”
“It will, when he finds what interests him.” She paused as if trying to frame an important question. “Can I see him? Not just through the window, I mean, but meet him?”
Anger flamed once more in her eyes. “Dammit, Amir! Stop punishing me. Is it so hard to understand why I agreed to an adoption? Hey? You’d told me in no uncertain terms we had no future, and that you were to marry another woman. I hardly thought you’d welcome the news that you’d made me pregnant. I hardly thought I owed you anything at all.”
“Not even the truth?”
“Least of all the truth. I still don’t understand how you knew about him—who told you? So few people knew.”
He sighed. “Ah, Ruby, you underestimate the power attached to wealth and royalty.”
“You weren’t Italian royalty.”
“I didn’t need to be. My grandfather established business links with Milan which I still retain. People knew of our relationship, and I was told about Hani. Did you really believe I wouldn’t find out?” But he could see from her eyes that she had. He shook his head in disbelief. “You’d discharged yourself by the time the DNA test confirmed I was his father. I had a new birth certificate issued and he came home with Mia and me. Anyway, I haven’t brought you here to talk about the past.”
“Then tell me why I’m here.”
“Hani’s ill? He looked fine. What’s the matter with him?”
“His kidneys aren’t functioning well. He needs a blood transfusion. I’m not a match but you should be.”
She gasped. “A blood transfusion?” She shook her head in confusion. “But why me? Why bring me here when it’s obvious you’d have preferred not to? You could find suitable blood anywhere.”
He didn’t speak immediately and her frown deepened. She wanted answers. She wouldn’t be getting them. Not yet. “I don’t wish to have a stranger’s blood in my son.” But he could see she wasn’t satisfied with his answer. “It’s… complicated.”
She gasped and looked away, bringing her hand up to shield her eyes from his gaze. “How sick is he?” Her voice was a shadow of what it had been only moments before. He hadn’t considered that she’d be upset.
“He’s only recently been diagnosed with the beginnings of rare kind of kidney failure. A genetically profiled blood transfusion, together with a new drug is the recommended treatment. Further transfusions may be required.”
She dropped her hand but her eyes were closed tight. “No.”
“I expected that from someone who signed their son away.” He sighed heavily with disappointment. “You will be paid.”
She shook her head, hardly hearing what he was saying. “No,” she repeated. “My son can’t be sick.”
“You really won’t even do this for him, will you?”
She stared at him, incredulous. “I’ll do anything to save him.”
He exhaled roughly with derision. “You’re not spinning tales to magazines now. I know you, Ruby. I know you. You’re only interested in saving yourself.”
She just shook her head. “You don’t know me at all. You know nothing about me. I’ve been looking for him. I can’t find him only to lose him again.”
“I don’t believe you.” He scanned her face, trying to read her, but failed. “I don’t trust your maternal instincts. You rejected him five years ago. Why would you help him now? You did nothing at his birth and you’ll do nothing now.” He opened a drawer, pulled out a check and slid it across to her. “You’ll do nothing, unless you have an incentive.”
Ruby looked down at the check. “One million dollars.” She read the words out loud but they meant nothing. Her mind and heart were swirling with a confusion of feelings that just seeing Hani, just being with Amir again, had created in her. She hadn’t even known the feelings were still there, but they’d surfaced as soon as she’d set eyes on him. And now this. To see Hani, and then to lose him? Impossible! She raised her eyes to Amir’s. They were as hard as the black strokes that formed the words on the check.
“You really think you have to buy me?”
“You’ve shown me nothing to make me think otherwise. Take it. Providing tests on your blood are satisfactory, after the transfusion you can continue to do as you’ve been doing—live the high life, feature in all the magazines, leave a trail of lovers.”
His expression had scarcely altered since she’d walked into the room. Whatever she’d said, whatever he’d said, his face had remained cold and impassive. He looked exactly the same as five years before—tall, powerful, with eyes so dark that one could lose oneself in them—but he’d never had this blank unfeeling control that chilled her to her bones. His voice was full of hate, full of bitterness. That he could truly believe she was so heartless, so cold and lacking in love, killed her.
“You hate me.” The words slipped out. “Of course you do.”
“I don’t hate you.” His voice remained low. He looked away with an uncharacteristic sideways glance. Then he appeared to collect himself. “Hate is too strong an emotion. It’s the opposite of love.” His eyes became cold once more. “I don’t hate you. I’m indifferent.”
“Indifference sounds deadlier.”
He shrugged. “I feel sorry for you. Your life is one long circus of people, events, partying. One long search for excitement and entertainment.”
“You’ve no idea what my life’s been like. Don’t begin to try to make up something about which you know nothing.”
“I know. I’ve watched.”
A chill shiver swept through her body before settling in her gut. He’d watched her every move these past five years and she hadn’t known it. All this time she’d thought he’d forgotten about her existence, he’d been aware of her. She didn’t query his claim. Despite what he thought, she was well aware of his power, which opened doors for him everywhere. Not only in his homeland of Janub Havilah, but also in Italy, where’d they’d met. But here he owned everything—from the stone walls of the palace, the ochre tones of the ancient roof tiles, to every square foot of land from border to border of this small middle eastern country.
“You may have watched, but you haven’t understood.” Slowly she rose and walked to the window. She couldn’t sit opposite him any longer, looking into those eyes that were so cold to her. There was no sign of Hani in the garden now.
“I’m not interested in understanding you, Ruby. I’m interested in you only in as far as you can help Hani.”
She turned to him, coolly. “You really are a bastard. You’d use anybody to further your own wishes, wouldn’t you?”
“I get what I want.”
“Then all I can say is I’m very happy you don’t want me.”
“Not then, and not now.”
“I’m glad that’s clear.” She walked over to her bag and picked it up. “I take it you’ve no further revelations? If my blood is a match and nothing untoward is found in it, you want it—but you don’t want my heart. Not that a million bucks would buy my heart.”
“But it will undoubtedly buy your blood.”
“Undoubtedly?” She shook her head, incredulous. What the hell had happened to him to believe that he could buy anybody or anything? His country and family had taken him and turned him into someone devoid of humanity, someone who thought everyone had a price.
“Of course. I’ve covered everything. I’ve left nothing to chance.”
“You know? I’m tempted to exercise my mind, that you always found so chaotic, and find something you haven’t covered—some eventuality that would throw you.”
He shrugged. “Your prerogative. Amuse yourself how you wish.”
She flashed him a brief smile. “I will. Now, where’s Hani? I want to see him. Spend some time with him.”
“Not until you agree to take the money.”
She looked from him to the check and shook her head, still unable to believe he thought she could be bought. But, then, if taking the money was going to get her to see her son, so be it. Let him think what he wanted, she’d rip up the check as soon as she could. She reached out, took the check, folded it in half and dropped it carelessly in her bag. “I agree. Now take me to him.”
His lip curled and his eyes narrowed with contempt. Momentarily she felt his disdain cut into her. But, she reminded herself, it didn’t matter. She’d lost his respect years ago. And there was nothing she could do about it.
He rose—the energy and sexuality of the man she once knew, contained now in that tall, powerful body—and opened the door. “This way.”
She walked toward him and stopped—so close she could see his nostrils flare as he inhaled her. A wave of satisfaction flowed over her, and she smiled and leaned in to him. She brought her finger to the lapel of his jacket and ran it down its length. “One thing’s changed about you. You dress better now.”
“I’ve changed a lot more than that. I’m not the same man you once knew.”
“Oh.” She looked up at him suddenly and saw his brown eyes darken in response. “I think you are. You just hide it better.”
Allowing a light smile to play on her lips, she walked out the door. He’d have seen—she knew he had. She was determined to play him at his own game. Yes, she was here for Hani. Yes, she’d do anything for him. And she was determined in the process to show Amir he was wrong. He thought he controlled everything. He’d made a mistake. He didn’t control her and never would.