The Sheikh's Christmas Conquest

By: Sharon Kendrick

CHAPTER ONE

 LIVVY WAS HANGING mistletoe when the doorbell rang. Expensive, mocking mistletoe tied with ribbon the colour of blood. The sudden sound startled her because the heavy snow had made the world silent and she wasn’t expecting anyone until Christmas Eve.

 Go away, whoever you are, she thought as several white berries bounced onto the floor like miniature ping-pong balls. But the doorbell rang again—for much longer this time—because whoever was outside had decided to jam their thumb against the buzzer.

 Livvy wished the unwanted caller would vanish, because there was still so much to do before the guests arrived, and the snowfall meant that Stella, her part-time help, hadn’t turned up. But you couldn’t run a successful business and behave like a prima donna—even if it was only four days before Christmas and you didn’t have any room vacancies. She climbed down the ladder with a feeling of irritation that died the instant she opened the door.

 She was unprepared for the man who stood on her doorstep. A stranger, yet not quite a stranger—although it took a moment for her to place him. He was famous in the horse-racing world she’d once inhabited. Some might say infamous. He was certainly unforgettable with eyes like gleaming jet and rich olive skin that showcased his hawklike features. His hard body spoke of exercise and discipline, and he was the kind of man who would make you take a second glance and then maybe a third.

 But it wasn’t just his appearance or his undeniable charisma that made Livvy blink her eyes in disbelief—it was his lofty status. Because it wasn’t just any man who stood there surveying her so unsmilingly—it was Saladin Al Mektala, the king of Jazratan. A real-life desert sheikh standing on her doorstep.

 She wondered if there was some sort of protocol for greeting one of the world’s wealthiest men, especially when they also happened to be royal. Once upon a time she might have been intimidated by his reputation and his presence—but not anymore. She’d had to do a lot of growing up these past few years and her experiences had made her strong. These days she lived an independent life she was proud of—even if currently it felt as if she was clinging on to that independence by her fingernails.

 ‘Didn’t anyone ever tell you,’ she said, tipping her head to one side, ‘that it’s polite to wait for someone to answer the first ring, rather than deafening them with a repeated summons?’

 Saladin raised his eyebrows, unable to hide his surprise at her feisty response. It was an untraditional greeting to receive, even here in England where the demands of protocol were less rigid than in his homeland. But even so. His royal presence was usually enough to guarantee total deference, and although he sometimes complained to his advisors that people were never normal around him, he missed deference when it wasn’t there.

 He narrowed his eyes and studied her. ‘Do you know who I am?’

 She laughed. She actually laughed—her shiny ponytail swaying from side to side, like the tail of a chestnut horse.

 ‘I thought that was the kind of question B-list celebrities asked when they were trying to get into the latest seedy nightclub,’ she said.

 Saladin felt a flicker of annoyance and something else. Something that was a little harder to define. He had been warned that she was difficult. That she could be prickly and stubborn—but these were qualities that were usually melted away by the sheer force of his personality and his position in society. And, not to put too fine a point on it, by his impact on the opposite sex, who usually melted like ice in the desert whenever he was around. His instinct was to bite back a withering response to put her in her place, but Livvy Miller had something he badly wanted so that he was forced to adopt a reasonable tone, something that didn’t come easily to him. ‘It was a genuine question,’ he said. ‘I am Saladin Al Mektala.’

 ‘I know who you are.’

 ‘And my office have been trying to contact you.’ He paused. ‘Repeatedly.’

 She smiled, but Saladin noted that the smile did not reach her eyes.

 ‘I know that, too,’ she said. ‘In fact, they’ve been bombarding me with emails and phone calls for the past week. I’ve barely been able to switch on my computer without a new message from [email protected] pinging into my inbox.’

 ‘Yet you chose to ignore them?’

 ‘That is my prerogative, surely?’ She leaned on the doorjamb, her unusual eyes shaded by their forest of lashes. ‘I gave them the same answer every time. I told them I wasn’t interested. If they were unable to accept that, then surely the fault lies with them. My position hasn’t changed.’

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