Authors: Cara Albany
The Sheikh's Pretend Bride
The Qazhar Sheikhs : Book Two
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"But, there is no evidence that is what is going on at the border," Sheikh Raz Al Kharif roared, slamming his hand down on the expensive wooden desk. The sound of his large hand on the surface echoed hollow in the boardroom of the office.
Raz rose from his high-backed leather chair and strode to the expanse of floor to ceiling windows that revealed a stunning view of the city thirty floors below.
From behind him, Raz heard his brother, Zayed move toward him. "The reports we have are confusing. I'll admit that," Zayed said. "But, you know that we've been having a problem with Karim's kingdom for a while now."
Raz turned and looked at his brother. "They've been denying these accusations for months now. But, we can't prove a thing."
Raz saw his brother's brows furrow. "We'll get the proof we need.," Zayed said. "If we don't, then they'll be able to carry on doing what they've been doing."
"Which is stealing, pure and simple," Raz exclaimed.
Raz glanced out across the cityscape that stretched all the way to the distant seashore. The sun was bright and the faraway sea shimmered in the light. He wanted to be away from all of this. The last thing he needed right now was to have to deal with Karim and his attempts at thievery.
"What makes matters worse is that there are allegations of pollution. Seems like Karim is dumping his toxic waste across the border and into our kingdom."
Raz felt his jaw tighten. It was just like Karim to do something like that. The man had a heart of stone when it came to his responsibilities toward his own people. So, his solution? Dump the waste from his oil processing plants across the border.
"We're getting heat from the overseas media," Zayed said.
Raz ran a hand through his dark hair and sighed. "Don't I know it. I've had the TV people demanding interviews all week, since this story leaked out."
Zayed nodded. "Maybe the upcoming conference will give us a chance to put some of Karim's lies to the test. We might even be able to expose what he's up to."
"I don't know, brother," Raz replied. "Karim's a wily old dog. Father told me things about him that would make your hair curl."
Zayed laid a hand on Raz's shoulder. "Karim's getting old. He's still stuck in the past. He doesn't believe in the progressive ways we're adopting."
"He thinks we're fools," Raz replied.
Zayed smiled. "We're the new generation. We represent change. He hates that. He'll do anything to take advantage of us."
Raz let out a heavy, angry breath. "That's what makes me furious. He doesn't show respect for tradition. And, when it comes to our own people, well, let's say it's our duty to protect them from men like Karim."
Zayed smiled reassuringly. "I agree, Raz. That's what father brought us up to believe. That we are responsible for ensuring our people's live are the best they can be."
Raz smiled at Zayed. His older brother always did have a way of saying things that would calm Raz's outbursts. Raz loved Zayed and he was glad to see that his recent marriage to Chloe had mellowed him.
The burst of indignation that had seized Raz started to subside. He smiled at Zayed. "Speaking of responsibilities, how is married life suiting you?" he asked Zayed.
Zayed cocked his head to one side and smiled, raising an appreciative brow. "I suppose you could say that things are going well," he replied.
Raz poked a finger into his brother's chest. "I heard she's driving the servants at the palace crazy with all her American ways."
Zayed smirked. "That's Chloe!" he said.
Raz smiled. He could see the love written on his brother's face. It was plain to see that he adored his new wife. Raz felt a brief tug of jealousy and immediately did what he always did when he felt that same, unwelcome emotion. He tucked it well away and tried to pretend he hadn't felt anything. Raz had his own life to live, and it certainly didn't involve getting married any time soon.
Zayed looked at Raz and punched him playfully on the shoulder. "It'll be your turn soon," Zayed said. "And Tariq's," he added, referring to their younger brother.
Raz took a step back and shook his head. "Oh, no. That's not going to be happening."
"You have to settle down sometime, Raz," Zayed said.
"Sometime isn't right now," Raz replied.
"Not even if it would make father and mother happy?" Zayed asked.
Raz rolled his eyes. "After what father almost made you do, I think I'd like to hold onto my bachelor lifestyle just a little while longer," Raz said.
Raz shuddered when he recalled how close Zayed had come to succumbing to a marriage of convenience. Even if the proposed bride had come from a fine family, Raz was sure that Zayed wouldn't have been as happy as he so obviously was with Chloe. Sometimes Raz's father, Kamal, just drove him crazy with fear. Raz never knew what his father would get up to next in his determination to marry off all three of his sons. At least Zayed had chosen his own bride.
"That lifestyle of yours is worrying mother," Zayed said.
"What do you mean?" Raz demanded.
Zayed frowned. "Apparently she's been hearing stories again."
"What kind of stories?" Raz asked moving closer to Zayed.
"You know. Where you've been seen. Who you've been seen with."
"She doesn't have anything to worry about," Raz said defensively.
"I know that. But, Beatrice worries about you. She just wants to see you happy."
"I am happy. I'm in charge of the country's oil business," Raz explained. "I have to spend a certain amount of time pressing the flesh. Getting to know the right people. Making connections."
Zayed grinned. "You see, that's the problem. It's the flesh your pressing, and those connections you're making that are the real worry," he said with a smile.
Raz sighed and shook his head. "You needn't worry about me. I do my job well."
"I know you do, brother," Zayed said. "There must be a woman out there who's just perfect for you. Someone you could settle down with."
Raz felt a rush of panic and his heart started to thud frantically. He swallowed and tried to hide the reaction to Zayed's words. Even if it were true that he should give up the life he had, where was Raz going to find someone who would make him as happy as Chloe had made Zayed. It was impossible. Raz knew himself. There was no woman alive who could tame him.
"Maybe you're right, Zayed. Perhaps one day," Raz said.
The buzzer sounded on the desk. Raz pressed the button and heard his secretary's voice. "Your visitor is here, Mr Al Kharif," she said.
Raz saw Zayed's brows rise. "Some woman from the environmental charity I was telling you about," Raz explained. He leaned closer to the intercom. "Send her in," he instructed.
"Is this the same woman who leaked the story to the media?" Zayed asked.
Raz nodded and felt the annoyance rise within him again. This woman, whoever she was, had been a thorn in his side for the last few weeks. It had been her organization that had found out about the problem on the border between Qazhar and neighboring, Raqal. There had been allegations of illegal dumping of toxic waste from oil processing plants.
To make matters worse an indigenous tribe that was settled on the Qazhar border had claimed to have been affected by the alleged illegal dumping. The organization this woman was working for had exposed the issue to the world media. Raz wanted to find out just how they had gotten hold of the damning images that had been plastered all over the news. The reputation of his country was at stake, as well as Raz's personal reputation as the overseer of his country's natural resources.
"She's probably some frosty old matron in jeans and t-shirt," Raz said dismissively.
Zayed looked concerned. "The charity she's working for obviously cares about the welfare of people. Maybe her heart is in the right place."
Raz sighed. "I don't care about that. They shouldn't have exposed the things they way they did. They could have come to me, instead. I would have looked into things and gotten to the truth. They didn't need to make our country look so bad in the eyes of the world."
"So this woman has come to give you a piece of her mind?" Zayed asked with a grin.
"That's what she thinks," Raz said. "I figured it might be wise to meet with her and find out what the concerns are. Dress things up a little. She'll be putty in my hands. I know how to deal with women like her."
"I'll leave you to it, then," Zayed said turning toward the door.
Raz sat down at his desk and tugged on his jacket, preparing himself for what he was sure would be a tiresome encounter.
Raz glanced down at the screen of his laptop. The most recent email from the woman was displayed there. It demanded an immediate meeting with Raz. Her charity had influence with the media, and it would be in their mutual interests to discuss the situation on the border of his kingdom. It all sounded very nice, very proper. Raz understood the value of good public relations.
What was the woman's name again? Ella Brant. Yes. That was her name. Raz thought the name sounded just right for someone who was, essentially, a troublemaker. It had an almost sharp and abrasive feel to it.
Well, Miss Brant was about to find out just what it meant to demand the co-operation of a Sheikh of Qazhar.
He heard the door open and he drew his attention away from the laptop's screen.
Raz leaned back in his chair and prepared to utter the courteous but frosty words he had briefly prepared in his mind. His mouth opened and he drew in a soft breath. But, the words froze on his lips.
His gaze locked on the woman who was standing in the doorway.
That word flashed into his mind, and he quickly pushed it away, determined to maintain his composure. But, he quickly realized it was too late. Raz had already been thrown off balance.
The woman who was walking toward Raz across the thick carpet was quite simply one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. Ella Brant wore no jeans and T-shirt; her hair wasn't gray and frizzy. She was elegantly attired in a dark suit that hugged her curvy figure.
Raz scolded himself for having such preconceptions. What had he been thinking of?
Ella Brant walked slowly toward Raz, a warm, inviting smile on her even-featured face. She flicked some loose blonde hairs away from her shimmering green eyes. She paused a moment as one of the heels of her shoes got caught in the thick rug in the middle of the room.
Raz saw a brief flash of annoyance flicker across her face. Then, she ran a hand down the front of her elegant, dark suit, tracing a path over those lush, full curves.
Raz felt his heart race. This woman was a revelation. A genuine surprise.
Raz cleared his throat and stood quickly, thrusting the chair back. He came out from behind his desk and extended a hand. "Miss Brant. Pleased to meet you," he said firmly, but politely. "I am Raz Al Kharif."
Ella Brant halted in front of Raz and peered up into his eyes. She squinted at him for a moment, her full lips pursing slightly. Then he saw the corner of her mouth crease with a slight smile. "Of course you are," she said.
Raz felt a tug of concern. "Sorry?"
Ella cocked her head and frowned. "I finally get to meet the man responsible for the worst toxic waste spill for decades in this region."
Raz felt his mouth open in shock. For a moment he was at a loss for words. Finally he managed to utter a confused, "Sorry?"
Raz saw Ella's eyes trace a path from his head all the way down his body to the tips of his Gucci shoes. Ella's gaze locked on Raz's face and paused for a moment. Then he heard her sigh. She flopped down on the chair in front of his desk, tucking her long legs beneath the chair and thrusting her hands into her lap.
"Now, if you don't mind, can we get down to business?"
After a pause, Raz managed to drag his body around the desk and down into his own chair. He gazed across at Ella Brant. Her gaze was locked on him, her chin tilted high with a defiant poise. There was expectation in those eyes, as if she was waiting for him to explain himself, justify his actions.