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EVEN ANCHORED OUT in the bay, the mega yacht, Mahnoor, towered above every other craft moored at the marina of the Greek island of Kanos, including the local ferry. For all its size and the looming tiers of deck, however, the slick lines of the pristine vessel had been designed for speed and elegance.
From the shelter of the top-deck office, the owner, Prince Raif Sultan bin Al-Rashid, better known in the business world as the billionaire resort and property developer, Raif Sultan, was receiving a prearranged call from his royal father, King Jafri of Quristan. What on earth could the father who had virtually ignored him since his birth want from him? Only seconds into the awkward opening dialogue, Raif found out and it wasn’t pleasant.
‘You have signed a contract to build a town and a resort on Quristani land,’ his father hissed. ‘You will tear it up and forget about the idea!’
Raif bristled. ‘It has the government’s support.’
‘It does not have mine!’ the older man exclaimed. ‘I do not want tourists in my country.’
‘I can only be sorry for that,’ Raif countered stiffly. ‘The new port and luxury resort would bring a lot of employment to a poor area. All conservation advice will be respected in the development and the resort will have the minimum possible impact on the natural habitat.’
‘I have told you how I feel. That should be sufficient to change your mind,’ the older man interrupted in another burst of outrage.
‘I cannot pull out of a contract that has already been signed and approved by the government,’ Raif responded wryly.
‘I will not call you my son again if you disobey me,’ King Jafri cut in fiercely. ‘Obeying me is your primary duty as my son and I will not tolerate your disobedience!’
The phone went crashing down in Quristan. Raif breathed in slowly and carefully and then swore long and low in English. His duty? His duty? Was he a child to be told what to do and how to do it? And by a man whom he barely knew? A man who had never once acted like a father to him? A man who had never made a personal call to him in his life before? Nor granted him a single one-to-one meeting?
Unlike his two much older brothers, Hashir and Waleed, Raif had grown up in the UK. His brothers were the heir and spare to the monarchy of Quristan and had grown up there, separated from Raif and his mother. The King’s third son had become an irrelevant extra after his father had said goodbye to him and his ex-wife when Raif was still a baby. Possibly guilt over the divorce and the damage that that divorce had inflicted on the former Queen’s mental health had ensured that his father had turned his back on both ex-wife and third son, because the older man had taken little further interest in Raif’s development. Aside of the royal summons Raif would receive to attend occasional ceremonial events in his birth country, it seemed that Raif was surplus to his father’s requirements.
Pure rage now roared through Raif as he recovered from the shock of his domineering royal parent’s demands and his lean hands knotted into fists. He recognised the pain of rejection laced through that rage and that only made him angrier. He was twenty-seven years old, no longer a child desperate for his father’s attention. He should be long past such weak feelings. He had survived without his father’s regard and had learned to value his own achievements.
He had realised that he had to stand on his own feet at twenty-one, when, after his obligatory year’s national service in the Quristani army, he had opted to leave soldiering behind him and return to the business world. His father hadn’t approved of that move either. He would have preferred a career soldier for a third son. Raif had merely reminded himself that neither of his older brothers had even managed to complete that single year’s service. Hashir had dropped out with a minor ankle injury and Waleed had used a weak stomach as an excuse to evade the army altogether.
In a volatile mood, he left his office to stride down the companionway and leave the yacht. He needed fresh air and activity. He stepped into the waiting speedboat, only to frown when a surge of security staff rushed in after him. He wanted to be alone. He wanted the freedom to scream to the skies if he wanted to. What did he need with a protection team on a sleepy Greek island he barely remembered the name of? There were no tourists around, no paparazzi, nobody to arouse concern.
‘But, Your Highness, we must keep you safe,’ At the Quristani government’s insistence, the crack Special Forces guard imposed on him protested while his private security team stood back.
‘I only want to go for a walk,’ Raif breathed tautly.
‘Danger lurks in unexpected places,’ Mohsin told him worriedly.
‘Watch me from a distance,’ Raif urged wearily, worn down by that intensity focussed on his safety.
Aware that he was poorly dressed for such an outing because he was wearing a business suit, Raif stepped out onto the quay, the warmth of the sun beating down on him, but it was no challenge for a man accustomed to the scorching heat of the desert.
He had spent every summer in Quristan, wandering the sands with his uncle’s nomadic tribe in Rabalissa. His mother had been the Queen of Rabalissa before she married his father and united the two countries. It had been a very popular alliance. Rabalissa was small and backward and Quristan was large and oil rich. Sadly, in spite of his late mother’s hopes, Rabalissa had profited very little from that marriage and the current government was keen to redress that inequality. Unfortunately, his father was too rigid in his views to acknowledge the poverty and dissatisfaction creating unrest in the area.
Striding away from the harbour, Raif chose to follow a worn track out of the village that followed the coastline. Only briefly did he consider contacting his brothers for advice and he quickly discarded the idea. From what he had witnessed from afar over the years, his older brothers managed their father by never ever disagreeing with him, no matter how unreasonable he was. But surely even the King had to recognise that a legal contract could not be set aside once it was signed? Raif breathed out in exasperation, his pace picking up as he strode below the trees. Frustration currented through him because he realised that the vast development project would now be beset by every stumbling block his father could find to throw in its path.
As the path dipped into a small, secluded cove, Raif crossed the sand. He wrenched his tie loose, tugging it off to put it in the pocket of his jacket. The blue-green water looked so inviting and he was getting warm. It was peaceful being alone and he didn’t get to be alone often enough, he conceded ruefully. Well, he no longer felt like screaming to the skies, but he did feel like getting into the water to cool off.
From below the shade of the tree sheltering her from the sun, Claire was taking a video of the gorgeous view for the benefit of Lottie, her friend back in London. When a man in a suit appeared in the lens, she frowned in bemusement because he was such an incongruous sight. Nobody got dressed up on the island unless there was a wedding or a funeral but, come to think of it, she reflected, she had seen flowers being carried into the village church, so he could well be a guest. He peeled off his jacket and set it down on a rock and then removed his shirt. So, he was going in for a swim, she assumed, watching him haul off the shirt to reveal a muscular golden torso straight out of a superhero movie.
At that point, Claire was transfixed, peering into her phone, intent on the sight. He was very tall and black-haired, and he was indisputably incredibly well built. It had been longer than she liked to admit since she had seen such a very attractive man because most of the islanders were middle-aged or elderly. He tossed off shoes and socks and peeled off the narrow-cut trousers to reveal what she assumed to be boxers, rather than swim shorts. However, at that point, she got a little uncomfortable and decided that if the boxers came off as well, she should stop filming and look away. But without hesitation he turned and walked into the sea, long, powerful, hair-roughened legs ploughing through the surf.
He was a strong swimmer as well, bowling through the currents near the rocks that made her nervous. With a sigh, Claire stopped filming and sent the clip off for Lottie’s enjoyment. At least it would give her friend a wicked giggle.
‘You’re the only person I know who’s spent over six months in Greece and hasn’t even picked up a boyfriend,’ Lottie had lamented during their most recent chat. ‘I’m a mum, a wife and an employee in a very boring job. I need some titillation.’
A boyfriend was the last thing she needed, Claire thought ruefully, although since her mother’s demise, she had felt agonisingly lonely and isolated. The past tumultuous ten months had been a time of confusion and emotional turmoil but ultimately a kind of renewal even though she had been left sad and alone. She had learned so much about herself, yet everything she had once believed she knew about her parentage had been thrown up in the air and the pattern of the truth had proved startlingly different once all the pieces had settled back into place. It had all begun when she had been clearing her father’s desk out after his death…
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t realise that there was anyone here,’ a rather correct English masculine drawl imparted.
Claire emerged from her reverie and went rather hot in the face as she looked up and saw the man who had strayed into her video of the bay, standing only a few feet away. He was holding his clothes in a bundle in front of him. And close up he was the best-looking guy she had seen in her entire life, so excitingly, wickedly hot he was literally off-the-scale perfection. Fine ebony brows slashed over dark golden eyes that were deep set, rimmed with dense black lashes and frankly stunning. Add in a refined bone structure, cheekbones like blades, a classic nose and a wide full mouth and he just about took her breath away.
‘I hope I didn’t disturb you,’ he completed, studying her with an intent gaze, because she was an outrageously pretty woman with long, silky corn-gold hair sliding round her shoulders, big blue eyes and a scattering of freckles.
‘No, but you gave me a great video clip,’ she told him with a radiant smile. ‘I was filming the cove and I wasn’t expecting a man to walk into view and do a strip for me.’
‘You filmed me…undressed?’ Raif breathed in shock, because that was not the kind of thing he could afford to have floating about the Internet. Although he had grown up in a very different world, he tried to honour the very conservative mores of his Quristani family as best he could.
‘It’s not as though you were naked!’ Claire declared, picking up on his discomfiture and colouring over the suspicion that he believed that she had done something that she shouldn’t have done. ‘It’s a public beach. People take off their clothes to go swimming. It’s no big deal.’
‘I must ask you out of courtesy to delete it from your camera.’
Claire froze and noted the grim hold he had on his clothes. In a sudden move she pulled out the towel she had used as a pad at her back and extended it to him. ‘Here. You might as well get dressed while we argue.’
‘Thank you. I have no intention of having an argument with you,’ Raif told her smoothly, accepting the towel and walking away to turn his back on her to towel himself dry and dress. He was kind of cautious and almost shy for a guy who looked as though he would be a complete extrovert. His rock-solid confidence and sophistication had been dazzlingly obvious until she’d made the mistake of mentioning the video clip.
Disconcerted by that jarring contrast, Claire shook her head slightly as though to clear it and watched the long golden muscles of his back flex, her face warming again. He was somehow like chocolate when she was on a diet. He had an irresistible allure she had never seen in a man before. One look didn’t cut it. She would keep on looking as long as she could. Instant attraction, she supposed. That was a new experience for her.
He walked back towards her, all lean and long and golden with still damp black hair. He looked amazing. ‘Look, let me buy your phone from you and replace it because I am inconveniencing you,’ he suggested levelly.
‘Let’s not get silly about something so trivial,’ Claire urged in dismay as voices sounded on the path above them.
‘Are you on holiday here?’ he enquired.
‘No. I’ve been living here for a while but I’m planning to return to the UK.’ Her voice trailed off because she wouldn’t be doing that until she had saved up enough for the flight home and had sufficient cash to put towards accommodation. Her decision to stay in Greece with her late mother had left her pretty much penniless but she had no regrets about the sacrifices she had made.
A bunch of local children with a lone adult in tow flooded the beach with whoops and cries and a football. As her companion returned the towel to her with an air of reluctance, Claire gave him an uneasy smile. She stood up, gathering her book, and hesitated before deciding to be honest. ‘There would be no point in deleting that clip from my phone. I’ve already sent it on to a friend. I will, naturally, ask her to ensure that she doesn’t share it with anyone else and I doubt if she will. I’m afraid that’s the best I can offer…oomph!’ She gasped as the football struck her squarely in the solar plexus and knocked her off balance.
She almost contrived to right herself and then she fell, glancing off the rocks below her into the sand, striking one leg painfully on the rough surface.
She was instantly the centre of attention and it was the sort of fuss Claire hated. The adult rushed over to apologise and to ask if she was all right. Her male companion lifted her out of the sand in silence and expressively eyed the blood running from the abrasion on her knee. He addressed the little footballer in a censorious tone as the boy bleated out fervent apologies. He was the son of Claire’s landlord, a nice child, and she was quick to assure him that accidents happened and that she was fine.
‘But you’re not…fine,’ the man beside her pronounced.
‘I’ll survive!’ Claire hissed up at him, intimidated by the sheer height of him now that they were standing level. She was exactly five feet tall and he topped her by more than a foot.
‘You have been hurt,’ he continued with concern.
And in truth she had been. She had bashed her leg and her hip, and both were aching, while her knee was stinging like mad, but she had no intention of parading either her bruises or her wound. She flung him an upward glance that heavily suggested he stay silent. ‘I’m on my way home anyway,’ she announced brightly in the hope that the crowd of interested onlookers around her would lose interest.
‘Where do you live?’
‘Only a few yards up the hill. You can’t see the house because of the trees. This cove is almost my front garden,’ she joked, wincing as she moved up the beach.
‘I’ll see you back to your home,’ he insisted.
‘It’s not necessary.’
He gave her a look of unapologetic disagreement. Heavens, those tortoiseshell eyes practically talked, she thought in a daze as they both moved up the steep path to the small house behind the trees where her mother had lived for years.
‘Are you in the habit of taking pictures of random strangers taking off their clothes?’
‘Why are you making me sound like some pervert?’ Claire gasped in horror. ‘It’s a public beach. If you’re so precious about your privacy, why did you undress there?’
‘I was thoughtless. I believed I was alone. I was enjoying that sensation. I wasn’t trying to make you feel like a pervert. I was simply trying to understand what made you do such a peculiar thing.’
‘Well, you wandered into the viewing lens, and I saw you, and I sort of stared without thinking about what I was doing…’ Claire snatched in a ragged breath because the hill had a stiff gradient and she was embarrassed. ‘And I thought… I thought—’
‘You thought what?’ he sliced in impatiently, his tension palpable in his wary appraisal. ‘That you recognised me from somewhere?’
Claire stopped dead outside the low-built house. ‘No, why would I have? I thought you were beautiful. No harm in that, is there?’
Raif eyed her burning face. ‘Beautiful?’ he repeated incredulously. ‘Men aren’t beautiful.’