The sheikhs captive woma.., p.4
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       The Sheikh's Captive Woman, p.4

         Part #3 of The Sheikh's American Love series by Holly Rayner
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  “I appreciate you giving it back so readily,” Khaleel said, his expression carefully neutral. “Of course, it’s likely you did originally intend to give it back to me, but then again, you could have been planning to just…walk off the boat with it later, sell it for cash.”

  Aurora cringed; while she hadn’t entirely settled on the possibility of selling the watch, she couldn’t exactly deny the accusation.

  “I hadn’t really decided,” she admitted. “But my first impulse was to put it back in your room, hopefully while you were away, so I wouldn’t risk being found out.” Khaleel laughed, and Aurora felt some of the tension coiling around her stomach begin to ease.

  “Honesty—that is very refreshing,” he said, his laughter fading from his voice. “I’m not going to take you back to shore, Aurora. Even if I wanted to, this yacht is on a planned route, and we’re already too far for me to justify turning back. You’re stuck on board for a little while longer, I’m afraid.”

  Aurora’s eyes widened as she thought about the prospect of being far away from home, with no clothes or possessions, and no knowledge of her ETA or where she was going. It was exciting and horrifying all at the same time.

  Khaleel cleared his throat. “The good news is that you will be on the yacht as my guest—no need to continue to pretend to be my maid. You’ll have your own quarters, and I believe there are probably some clothes available in your size, in case your impulsive scheme didn’t cover for that particular issue.”

  Aurora’s blush deepened and she fought the urge to scowl at the sleekly confident man. “Okay,” she said, keeping her voice as meek as possible. “I appreciate your generosity.”

  Khaleel chuckled again. “My generosity means very little,” he said, shrugging once more. “I have the facilities, and it’s easier to do this than it would be to turn you over to the authorities. There’s probably somewhere on board that I could convert into a brig, but the idea of arranging that—or asking my staff to do so—tires me. Easier by far to accommodate you as a guest.” He looked at her for another moment and smiled slightly. “You may be excused. Make yourself at home.”

  Aurora stared at him for a moment in shock, and then got to her feet, feeling oddly numb and tingling at the same time.

  She turned her back to him, her skin crawling with apprehension that at any moment he might change his mind; certainly the Sheikh seemed to have a whimsical streak. Aurora’s relief at not being immediately handed over to the authorities, and her desire to get as far away from her unintentional host as quickly as possible, got her out of the room almost before she knew what she was doing.

  Aurora closed the double doors behind her and shook her head, still in shock at the strange developments of the day. It was only noon and already she had been more terrified and more exhilarated than she could remember feeling in weeks.

  FIVE

  As she walked through the corridor, away from the stateroom, Aurora’s shock began to dissipate. Her relief at not hearing that she would be handed over to the police evaporated as she thought about how high-handed Khaleel’s particular method of dealing with her was.

  His words took on a mocking tone in her mind; he had known she wasn't part of the staff all along, and instead of simply confronting her about it when he called her into his room, he’d played with her, pretending to believe her story.

  “If I hadn’t confronted him about that ridiculous ‘initial evaluation,’ he would have let me completely re-clean his entire room,” Aurora muttered to herself, realizing the truth of the situation. “He was going to let me spend hours cleaning a room that was already spotless, all the while laughing to himself about what an idiot I was for doing whatever it took to maintain my cover.”

  Aurora shook her head and began to walk faster, her feet falling on the hardwood and carpeting of the winding corridors until she reached the exit onto the sun deck.

  The crew members were mostly at their stations, some of them hard at work while others were waiting for their real work to start. Aurora looked out over the sun deck and saw that the bar on the other side of the pool was staffed. One man was doing prep work: cutting up fruit, while another member of the crew filled the shelves and bins.

  Off to the side of the bar, in the shade, someone had set up a short buffet table with snacks, and Aurora felt the lurch in her stomach and the gnawing of hunger that reminded her that she hadn’t eaten that day. “Well, if I’m supposed to be his ‘guest’ then I might as well act like it,” she said bitterly.

  She walked across the deck and browsed at the buffet table for a few moments, picking up a plate and loading it with whatever caught her fancy: pieces of melon, a few figs, some walnuts and pistachios, grilled meat and vegetables, and some warm, soft wedges of flatbread.

  Aurora watched the crew members at work as she sat down at a table under an umbrella, eating the delicious food slowly, savoring the tastes of each item. Salt, spice, sweet, and sour danced across her tongue, and Aurora wondered if the Sheikh kept a constant supply of food around at all times, or if he had prodded someone to provide it as a service to the crew—including his new, fake maid.

  It might not actually be all that bad to be a member of this crew, Aurora thought as she watched someone stop at the table to serve themselves a few bites to eat. She cleaned her plate and touched a napkin to her lips, feeling slightly better about her situation than she had when the full import of Khaleel’s scheme had become clear in her mind.

  “Want a drink?” someone called out, and Aurora glanced in the direction of the bar to see the bartender looking at her. “Kind of bored over here; I could use the work.”

  Aurora smiled and got to her feet, moving over to the bar and sitting down on one of the stools. “You definitely seem well-stocked,” she said, looking around at the bottles of top shelf alcohol that dominated the shelves.

  “Always,” the man said, nodding. “What can I get for you?”

  “That is a very good question,” Aurora said. “I have no idea what I want.”

  The bartender chuckled. He was dressed in the crew uniform, but with the addition of a black vest over his white shirt, marking him out as different from the others.

  “Well, I do have a menu for when the Sheikh entertains,” the bartender said. He reached underneath the bar and rummaged around for a moment before producing a flat, thin, leather-bound book of maybe three pages. He handed it to Aurora and she smiled, thanking him before opening the cover.

  Her gaze moved over the words and she took in each of the descriptions, trying to imagine the flavors of the finished drinks. There were some combinations that she would never have considered, but after a few moments, she decided on the most complicated cocktail, which had the added benefit of being one of the strongest that the menu boasted. “I’ll take a Zombie,” Aurora told the bartender, and he grinned, nodding his acceptance of the challenge.

  Aurora watched as he assembled the drink, pouring in the three kinds of rum, lime juice, grenadine, some kind of mix. The man picked up and poured bottles into a shaker with practiced coordination until Aurora thought that she had seen at least half of the bottles behind the bar add their contents to the shaker—though the bartender was moving too quickly and deftly for her to be sure.

  “You be careful with this,” the man said, putting a lid on the shaker and making sure it sealed. “More than three of these and you’re apt to decide to take a swan dive into the great big tropical sea.”

  Aurora chuckled, watching as he shook the cocktail together vigorously, broke the seal, and poured it into a glass. “What’s your name?” she asked. She wished that she had something to tip him with, but her bag was still in the closet where she’d stowed it.

  “Chris,” the man said. He slid the glass across the table to her, cloudy and delicious-looking, and gave her a quick smile. “Thanks for the work. When you finish that one, come and see me again.”

  “Thank you,” Aurora said, meeting his gaze and smiling gratefully. “It’s been
a hell of a day and it’s only barely the afternoon.”

  The bartender chuckled. “Don’t I know it.” He smiled again and turned away to begin cleaning the bar down.

  Aurora took an experimental sip of her drink. It was complex, fruity—tart and sweet, with a spicy undercurrent and a bite from the alcohol that warmed her all the way down to her stomach. She sighed happily and climbed down from the chair, moving away from the bar and towards one of the lounge chairs stationed around the pool.

  She kicked off her shoes and sat down, tilting her head back against the cushion and looking out over the sea as she took another sip of the alcoholic elixir. Members of the crew, running around on errands, paused in their paths from one end of the deck to the other, some frowning at the sight of her lounging; but no one said anything.

  Aurora watched the ocean, the gulls and other sea birds wheeling and darting around the yacht, while she contemplated her situation. So much had changed, so drastically, in such a short time, that she had barely had the opportunity to process what had happened to her from the moment she’d gotten up with her alarm at four in the morning to make the opening shift at the café.

  She finished her drink and got another one, mining the buffet table for a few more choice treats before heading back to her lounge chair. She thought to herself that, had she been in Khaleel’s place, she would not have been convinced anywhere near as easily to let the stowaway stay on board. At the very least, she thought, she would have kept the intruder confined. Is he really a better person than me? Or am I just getting too tipsy to think straight?

  She asked Chris for a glass of water to even out the effects of all the alcohol and sipped at it slowly, watching the light of the afternoon shift and change on the deck. It was beautiful, but more boring than she would have thought to just sit there, admiring the view and doing nothing. It’s been ages since I’ve done nothing for more than maybe thirty minutes, Aurora thought. Even when she’d been in Vietnam, or Thailand, or Singapore, she had crammed so much activity into every day that by the time she’d stumbled into her hostel bed, she’d been thoroughly exhausted.

  Aurora wished she had a book, or something she could do on her phone—anything to pass the time that wasn't eating, drinking and lounging. She thought briefly that it almost would have been better if she had continued her charade of being one of the crew; she could have found something to do around the ship if she had really wanted to. But she had been too hungry, too angry, and filled with too much spite to try and maintain her cover when the person she had most needed to deceive had already blown it.

  Her irritation rose once more at the thought that if she hadn’t confronted Khaleel about the ridiculousness of his “initial evaluation,” she might still be cleaning his room, wearing herself out for a man who wasn’t ever going to pay her for her trouble.

  She took a long sip of her cocktail, grateful that the day hadn't taken a more dramatic turn, with her being arrested by the coast guard, and that all she had to worry about, for the moment at least, was keeping herself entertained.

  SIX

  As the afternoon blurred into evening, Aurora considered the possibility that she might be spending the rest of the night by herself. She had seen no sign of the Sheikh, and she thought he must be the most boring wealthy man on the planet if he was just going to spend the entire journey in his room, working on his laptop.

  But then, Khaleel emerged from the interior of the yacht, looking around the deck, surveying his domain. His gaze landed on Aurora and she caught the sight of his amused smile before he wiped the expression away. She set down her cocktail glass as he approached the lounge chair she had taken, pulling up one of his own and sitting down.

  “You seem to have made yourself at home,” he said, resting his hands lightly in his lap.

  Aurora frowned, hearing the slightly mocking tone in his voice. “Well, what other option did I have?” She gestured around the deck. “I mean, I could have kept pretending to be a maid, but it’s not worth trying to convince anyone else on this boat if I can’t convince you.”

  Khaleel chuckled. “Not even to avoid the daggers people are staring at you?”

  Aurora shrugged, blinking slowly. She realized she had had more cocktails than she had really considered and told herself to be careful—just because Khaleel hadn’t apparently taken offense at her stowing away didn’t mean he didn’t have any capacity at all for being angered.

  “Well they can’t kick me off, and I got my instructions from you to make myself at home,” Aurora pointed out tartly. “If I’m going to be held prisoner on a yacht, I might as well enjoy myself as much as I can, right?”

  Khaleel raised an eyebrow just as Chris appeared at their side, carrying a tray with a tall, slim glass, which he handed to the Sheikh.

  “Good afternoon, sir,” Chris said, inclining his head slightly. “I hope the day finds you well. If you require something else from the kitchens, I’ll be happy to place your order.”

  Khaleel nodded, murmuring a soft thank you to the bartender, and then turned his attention back onto Aurora. “Prisoner?” He raised his eyebrow again, taking a sip of his drink. “You were the one who stowed away; I didn’t force you to come on board.”

  “But you’re not letting me go back to shore either,” Aurora pointed out.

  Khaleel chuckled. “If you’d gotten onto a jet and were told it was a one-way flight with no stop-overs, would you demand they turn around and go back to the airport?”

  Aurora’s cheeks warmed and she took a sip of the water she’d kept at her side for between cocktails. “I still think it was an asshole move for you to pretend like you totally bought my story and pull that ridiculous ‘initial evaluation’ crap,” she told him firmly. “If I hadn’t mustered the guts to call you out, I probably would have been cleaning your room until…maybe right now.” Aurora shook her head, frowning. “You could have just called me to your room and said, ‘Look; I know you’re a stowaway, and I don’t care what the reason is. Stay out of my way and we’ll call it
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