Wanted: A Baby by the Sheikh (paperback)
Wanted: A Baby by the Sheikh (paperback)
Publisher : Bay Books (June 2, 2016)
Paperback : 192 pages
Item Weight : 7.1 ounces
Dimensions : 5 x 0.44 x 8 inches
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Despite the icy wind, Taina Mustonen remained on deck, watching the island grow ever larger. She pushed the collar of her white coat up high around her ears and mouth, so only her eyes were exposed. She reassured herself that it was the cold that made them water.
Behind her, the glittering lights of Helsinki pierced the night sky like cut diamonds. She glanced at them briefly, as if for strength, before turning once more to the island. There was no point in looking back. She breathed deeply of the frigid air and looked up at the house whose windows were dark, save one, where a red light stuttered around the silhouette of a man—her estranged husband, Prince Daidan ibn Saleh al-Fulan.
She swallowed. He was waiting for her.
Her gaze remained fixed on the dark shape. She couldn’t see the details of his face, but her memory filled in the gaps. He’d be watching her with that narrowed gaze that used to make her pulse race. Used to? It still did, even though she couldn’t see him. But she wasn’t here to rekindle what might have been. He was a businessman and so a business proposition was what she’d give him.
The hired boat pulled alongside the jetty and she quickly walked up the steps toward the house. She tried hard to suppress the memories of a lonely childhood spent wistfully looking out from her glass-walled home, toward the lights of the city. She failed and paused for a moment to gather herself, looking up, above the house and tree line to the irregular shape of the old castle that dominated the small island. But that brought forth only more memories she’d prefer to forget. Her gaze fell to the long low house that nestled amongst the trees. Still the one light—in the lounge she realized—still the shadow of the man she’d come to see, still the flicker of nerves which she had to contain if she wanted to succeed. She took a deep breath and walked up to the wide sweep of steps that led to the house.
She hesitated before entering the front door, feeling she should knock at her childhood home. Stupid. It was still half hers after all, even if she chose not to live in it.
She pushed open the heavy door and paused, expecting to be greeted by the housekeeper, but she didn’t appear. Daidan must have dismissed her for the night. Or perhaps for good. It was none of her business anymore she reminded herself.
She took a long calming breath before entering the lounge, willing the buzz of nerves to subside. She could do this. She’d emerged from worse situations. What could he do to her that she hadn’t already done to herself? She kept her gaze lowered as she closed the door quietly behind her.
“You took your time.”
His voice—as powerful and distinctive as ever with its foreign edge—shot straight to her heart, jump-starting it into a staccato rhythm that sent adrenaline surging through her body.
She turned to find he’d moved from the window and was now standing before the log fire, legs planted squarely apart as if expecting a fight. She could barely decipher the details of his tall silhouette but she felt his eyes upon her, as hot as the flames that framed him.
She walked briskly to the sofa, channeling the energy into movement, praying that he wouldn’t detect her weakness. For Daidan, weakness was something to exploit.
“I had things to do.”
“Like waste my money.”
She sat on the soft leather sofa and slowly crossed one long, elegant leg over the other, knowing he wouldn’t fail to notice.
“My darling husband, I believe that was the deal. You receive half my inheritance and I receive, let me think? Why yes, nothing but an annual income to play with.”
There was a long pause in which she held his cold gaze.
She nodded. While he poured the drinks, she allowed herself to scan his face, once so dear. The spare, strong bone structure of someone who was too self-controlled hadn’t changed, nor had his striking coloring of rich nutmeg skin and nearly black eyes. He was still the exotic sheikh in a land of pale Finns. But there were changes. The groove between his brows was more deeply furrowed than she remembered and his mouth was set in a firm line, as if the tense expression never left him now. She couldn’t meet his gaze as he handed her the glass of whiskey.
“Thank you. What shall we drink to?” Her voice sounded too high, strained.
He returned to his position before the fire. “How about the truth for a change?” His eyes narrowed until their dark brown tones had disappeared leaving only a streak of dark charcoal. “Why have you returned? Why now? What is it you want?”
“The truth?” She allowed her mouth to quirk into a smile that held no laughter. “I wonder if you’d know it if it came and slapped you in the face.” She brought the glass to her lips—watching his gaze dip to her mouth—and slowly sipped the whiskey.
“You, Taina, are the only person who’s ever had the nerve to slap me in the face.” He knocked back a mouthful of his drink and a silence fell that only the crackle of the fire relieved. He swallowed and she watched the movement of his Adam’s apple with fascination. He looked down at her suddenly and she looked away, as if caught out. “Like the spoilt child you were.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t slap me back.”
“So am I.” He held her gaze without blinking. The shadows from the firelight darted over his face, changing and distorting his features until she no longer recognized him. “I should have done it. Maybe then you’d have grown up more quickly.”
“Convenient—for you to believe anyone who disagrees with you is immature.”
“In your case, I’m right.” He held her gaze for one long, silent moment. “You still haven’t told me why you’ve returned, what it is you want.”
It was too soon. She shifted in her seat, recrossing her legs to distract him. “Tell me, Daidan, how’s business?”
His frown deepened. “Business? Since when have you been interested in business?”
“Since now. The latest report from the mine sounds promising.”
His face relaxed as she moved onto the one thing that truly interested him—the diamond mine in northern Finland they co-owned. “It is. Early reports look to be outstanding. The new equipment and mining standards we’ve implemented have been well-received internationally. But…”
She raised an elegant eyebrow. “But?”
“But, nothing. You still haven’t told me why you’re here.”
“All in good time. Tell me about the ‘but’.”
“Why do you want to know?” The guard was in place again.
She shrugged lightly. “I don’t know. Maybe because I co-own it? And would have had one hundred percent ownership if you hadn’t persuaded my father to sell you half.”
He gritted his teeth and a muscle twitched in his jaw. Seconds passed before he continued. “We’ve had a few problems. The Russians aren’t pleased with our improved safety records. It has highlighted the bad conditions in their own mines and they’ve lost some contracts to us. And they’re not happy. I’ve had to put extra security measures in place.” He shrugged. “But we’re expanding as planned and our international reputation will be cemented with the launch of the new jewelry collection.”
“You’re using the jewelry designs Mama was working on before she died?” She never talked about either her mother or her mother’s work, but she had to know.
He nodded. “Yes, they’ll give us the credibility we need. I’ve hired a new design team to complete them.”
“Good, they’re too beautiful not to use.”
“Indeed. So, are you going to tell me what this is all about yet?” He held up his hand before she could answer. “Wait, I think I know. You realize how much you love me and miss me and want to begin again.” Before she could answer, his lip curled in disdain. “As if… No, it’s something different you want. Something’s happened. I can see it in your eyes. Tell me.”
His obvious indifference to her was like a knife to her heart. But she’d be damned if she’d show it. “Please, keep on guessing, it’s so entertaining. I wonder what you’ll come up with next?”
His eyes darkened. “No more games. We’re not at one of your cocktail parties. Tell me what the hell you want from me.”
It was now or never. “Okay, you’re right. I do want something.”
She channeled her tension into a smile: tight at first but with focus it transformed into the mocking smile she desired. “I’ve decided to keep my side of the bargain.”
That caught his attention. No one else would have noticed the change in his expression. It was so slight. But she did. It was there in the quick flare in his eyes, in the brief pinched frown. But nothing else moved, not his mouth, his body, nothing. But did the slight change simply denote surprise or something more?
“And which bargain might that be?” His voice was ice-cold.
“To have our child. I produce a baby and you gain complete control of the mine, just as you and my father had arranged.”
He didn’t speak.
She looked up and hoped her glittering eyes wouldn’t betray her. “Surely you haven’t forgotten the bargain you and Papa made shortly before his death?” she continued. “The bargain which Papa’s lawyer informed me of on our wedding day. I knew we talked about children but, silly me, I thought you just wanted a family with me. Pure and simple.” She looked up at him and at that moment, wondered if she could continue without breaking down. “But nothing’s pure and simple with you, or Papa, is it? You’d both agreed I should have a baby with you. A child in return for total control of the mine.”
“You’ve returned because you want to have a child,” he repeated as a statement, as if unable to understand.
She nodded and focused her attention on brushing her fingertips over the soft pile of the arctic white cushion, noticing how her fingers were so tense that their tips quivered. She sunk them deeper so that he wouldn’t notice. She steeled herself and looked up at him. “Yes, I want our child.”
His gaze was narrowed and he shook his head in disbelief. “You walked away from our wedding, just walked away and kept walking while I waited for you, not knowing. And I heard nothing from you except a trail of bank transactions, credit card bills, for over a year. Now, without explanation you return saying you want our baby. What the hell is going on, Taina?”
A spark of anger at this simplistic version of events chased away the nerves. “You know full well why I left.”
At least he had the grace to look uncomfortable. “I thought you knew everything.”
“I knew I wanted to marry you and I’d believed you wanted to marry me. Just those two things were all I knew.”
“Life is never that simple.”
“Yes, I knew life—my life in particular—wasn’t simple, and yet I still believed it could be.” She shook her head. “Naïve.” She looked down at her drink and swilled it around in irritation at the memory. “I was stupid. I should have realized I’d been sold by my father to the highest bidder. When I found out, I even accepted it until I discovered giving you a child was also part of the deal. I drew the line at that.”
“Now...” She met his steady gaze. “Now, I’ve changed my mind.”
She should tell him straight away. He wanted honesty and she could be honest. It’d just been a long time since she had been. His expression was both curious and mocking. These she could deal with. But there was one emotion she couldn’t risk seeing in his eyes—pity.
“I can’t see it matters. I’m here to keep my side of the bargain.” She forced herself to look him in the eye. “If you’re no longer interested, just say so and I’ll leave. But a child is what you always said you wanted.” She couldn’t show him how much she, too, now wanted it.
With cool deliberation he placed his glass on the mantelpiece, his long dark fingers caressing the crystal momentarily, just as they’d used to caress her. Then he came and stood before her, searching her face as if trying to understand her. At that moment she felt the full blast of her connection with him. He didn’t touch her—he didn’t have to. From the first time they’d met it had been the same. He only had to look at her with those dark eyes—full of the heat of the desert rather than the ice of the north—for her to want him. Despite all that had gone before, it was the same now.
She tried to control the warmth that spread through her body, but she shifted her stockinged legs one against the other instinctively, and his gaze dropped to her legs. When his gaze returned to hers, it was hot with desire. But instead of acting on it, as he had in the past, he shook his head and walked away.
He flung the window open wide, sending in a blast of snowy, late spring air, which set the flames in the fire surging. She watched the snowflakes drift into the room and settle momentarily on the leather sofa before melting, leaving a darkened patch like blood on the honey-colored leather. She shivered.
He turned his back to the window and she dredged up every last bit of courage, rose from her chair and walked over to him. She could smell his aftershave and something more… something indefinably him. It made her mouth water. “It’s what you wanted,” she repeated.
For a moment she thought she had him as he inclined his head to hers. “No longer,” he whispered into her ear, flaring a trail of goosebumps down her spine.
She hadn’t come this far to risk what she wanted so much. She laid her hand on his arm and looked up at him from beneath lowered lashes. “I don’t believe you.” He glanced at her hand and then back into her eyes with an unchanging expression.
He took her hand and for one moment she thought he was going to thread his fingers through hers and pull her to him until she was held tight in his embrace. Just as he had done whenever they used to meet, before they married. But he dropped her hand. “For some reason you’ve returned. I don’t kid myself it’s for me. I don’t even know if it’s for a child. I don’t know whether you’re able to tell the truth anymore.”
“What do you mean? I’ve always told you the truth.” For a moment she faltered. She’d never lied exactly, but maybe she’d withheld the truth.
His lip curled with disdain. “Like when you didn’t turn up to that function in New York you’d agreed to attend before you left me?” The memory of why she couldn’t do as she’d agreed made her turn away. There, right there, was the limit to her truth.
“It wasn’t like that.”
He scoffed. “No, I’m sure it wasn’t.”
She turned back to him. “Look…” But she could see there would be no point in arguing, no point in saying anything when the truth could destroy the world he’d carefully created. She sighed. She should go. There was no point in staying. She walked over to the sofa and picked up her coat. “I shouldn’t have returned.”
She didn’t hear him come up behind her but his touch halted her mid-stride. “You came because you needed to. Now tell me why.” He slid his hand down her arm and grabbed hold of her wrist and pulled her to face him. “Why?” he asked again, his tone softer, more cajoling now.
She swallowed. “I’m telling the truth, Daidan. I want a baby.”
“Why do you want a baby so badly all of a sudden?”
“It’s not sudden. It’s… I can’t explain.”
“Because you don’t understand? It is natural, habibti. You are a woman.”
She nearly choked at his arrogant sexism and was about to contradict him before she stopped herself. There was no point in telling him he was wrong because he’d only want to know the truth and there was no way she was telling him that. She nodded slowly. “I expect that’s it.”
He stroked her face once, as if needing to check that she was really there, and she closed her eyes against his devastating touch. Please God, let him be satisfied with that.
“Open your eyes, habibti.”
She pressed them closed more tightly. He knew. But there was no avoiding it now. She opened them to see his eyes as intense as ever, probing into the very heart of her.
“There’s something more. Tell me.”
“Isn’t it enough that I want our baby?” She tried to pull away but his hold on her hand tightened.
“No. I want to know why. Why now? What’s happened to make you change your mind?”
She shrugged stiffly. “It was never that I was against having a baby, just that I didn’t want it to be a requirement of our marriage.”
“I understand that. But you’re still not telling me something. Tell me the truth. Why do you want our baby? Why now?”
She licked her suddenly dry lips, unable to draw her gaze away from his. “I…” She couldn’t say the words. She hadn’t rehearsed them, she’d forgotten how perceptive he was, and how determined.
“Go on,” he gentled. He tilted his head quizzically to one side. “What could happen to make you realize you want a child? Did a friend have a baby?”
She shook her head.
“It couldn’t be the ticking clock… you are still too young. So not the presence of a baby, not the passing of time. What else could make you want something so much, that you’d risk the humiliation of me declining? This need for a child must be strong.”
“Tell me.” He stroked her hand gently and she remembered how he used to do that when they were courting. When the slightest touch would stir desires she’d never even imagined.
For the first time she suddenly thought that maybe, just maybe, he’d understand. That she could tell him and he’d think no worse of her, and that everything would be okay. And suddenly she wanted that more than anything. She opened her mouth to speak but he narrowed his eyes.
“You’re afraid. You’re afraid of my response.” The gentle touch on her hand turned into a tight grip. “What the hell happened to you, Taina?”
And in that instant she knew she couldn’t tell him. It would only make everything so much worse than it already was.
She pulled her hand away from his and walked away. “You’re imagining things, Daidan. I simply want a child. As you say, it’s natural in a woman. You’re my husband, and this is my home. A year away and I realize I want to be in my home.” She shrugged. “All quite natural.”
“You expect me to welcome you back with open arms because on a whim you have decided you want a baby. What happens when you grow bored with the baby?”
“That won’t happen.”
She must have conveyed her seriousness to him because he nodded slowly.
“So, what’s your answer?”
“My answer? That depends.”
“Stop playing games, Daidan.”
“You accuse me of playing games?”
She grunted with frustration and put on her coat. “I’m going. I’ve obviously wasted my time.” She picked up her bag and was half-way to the door before he spoke.
“I didn’t say I wasn’t interested in your proposal.”
She stopped dead in her tracks and turned back to him. “I thought disapproval and anger probably indicated that.”
He walked slowly over to her. “Then you thought wrong.” He picked up a scarf she’d accidentally left on the sofa and hooked it around her neck, his hands dragging down each side of the soft cashmere. “You want to bargain? Then I will. But not your way. You can have the child you want. You can return to your life in Finland, to the family home.”
She tensed as she waited for him to finish. “Go on.”
He smiled briefly. “Most people would have thought that was it. But you know me too well.”
“I’ve tried hard to forget, but it’s proved more difficult than I imagined. I guess when someone uses you with such ease, when someone tricks you into a marriage, all for their own gain, then it’s hard to forget.”
His face hardened. “You believe what you want to believe. You always have and no doubt you always will.” He paced away from her as if he couldn’t bear to be near her. “As I said you can have the property and land your parents left you, and you can have the child you apparently desire so much. But, in return, I want you to work.”
“Work? Doing what? Typing your letters?”
“I want you to work in your family jewelry business—in Kielo. In the ten years since your mother died, the company has lost its edge. I’m re-launching it with a new team of designers as a showcase for our diamonds. You trained as a designer and simply being a Mustonen will help our marketing.”
“It was so useful that I never changed my name after we married. No doubt another part of the agreement between you and my father about which I knew nothing.”
“Yes, it is useful,” he said, deliberately ignoring her sarcasm. “It’s a prestigious name in Finland, a name that will help the company’s branding as a reliable family firm. A firm in which you will work.”
She shook her head. “You are joking, aren’t you? What do I know about the business? My design training was for show only. I’ve never used it. My father brought me up to marry and breed. I’ve done the former, now I’m here to begin a family. That’s the only role I’ve been raised for.”
“I want you to work on the public launch of the diamond company,” he continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “The advertising agency says the company needs someone to represent the company brand… someone like you. Someone beautiful, someone well-connected, someone to be the face of the company. You do this for me, for our company, and you can have your child.”
“And I suppose you still want one hundred percent ownership of the mine?”
“No. No, I don’t. We’ll continue to own it jointly and it’ll be inherited by our children. Because, Taina, if you have a child by me we will remain together.”
“Just one big happy family.”
Again he ignored her sarcasm. “I don’t see why not. And if we’re not”—he shrugged—“we will at least appear to be, for the sake of the children. I suggest you accept my offer, Taina. Because there will be no other.”
It was as she’d imagined—at least some form of family life, as her parents had given her. What she hadn’t imagined was his declining 100% ownership of the mine. Was he trying to show he regretted what had happened? She also hadn’t imagined becoming involved with her mother’s company. That would be harder for her than Daidan thought—and not for the reasons she’d given. But she had no choice but to accept his offer. The heartache remained. She guessed it always would. But she had to try to ease it, try to heal, to begin again.
She nodded. He held out his hand and she took it, closing her eyes briefly as his large warm hand engulfed her slender one.
“Do you agree?”
“Tomorrow morning. My office.”
He turned away and went back to his stance in front of the fire, just as he’d been when she’d first entered.
She walked away, out the door, and along the jetty to the boat. She didn’t look back as the boat moved away from the island. Shivering under her coat, she narrowed her eyes against the dancing lights of Helsinki. Coming ever nearer. Her future. And with it, the child she so desperately wanted. Something to stem the heartache that throbbed continually, deep down, never easing. Time hadn’t done it. She hoped a child would do it—fill this aching void.
But it wouldn’t be easy because Daidan had been correct. She wasn’t telling him everything. And if she still cared for him, even a little bit, it would have to stay that way. Because her secret had the potential to destroy his whole world. And she couldn’t do that to him.