The sheikhs captive woma.., p.5
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       The Sheikh's Captive Woman, p.5

         Part #3 of The Sheikh's American Love series by Holly Rayner
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  even,’ or something like that.”

  Khaleel took another sip of his drink and another member of the crew appeared at his elbow, holding a plate with a few items from the buffet table: nuts, fruit, some salad.

  “I wouldn’t have let you go through my closets,” Khaleel said dismissively. “Especially considering you had my watch in your pocket.”

  “I gave that back to you!” Aurora said, scowling at him. “As soon as I remembered I had it there. If you’d let me keep going, I'd have realized it and put it away somewhere while you weren’t looking.”

  “I would have heard it beeping no matter if you were sitting across the coffee table from me or organizing my clothes,” Khaleel told her. He took a bite of his food and shook his head, smiling. “A stowaway and a thief. You’ve had a colorful career for a woman in her twenties.”

  “I’m not—you’re—this wasn’t anything I planned,” Aurora protested, crossing her arms over her chest and only belatedly remembering the flower she had at her breast pocket. “Just because I didn’t grow up mega-wealthy doesn’t mean I must be a thief.”

  “You were thinking about selling my watch off; admit it.”

  Aurora shrugged off the accusation. “I didn’t—I wasn’t definitely going to do it,” she said, thinking of Jon and the debt she had been wrongly saddled with. “If you assumed right off the bat that just because I had your watch in my pocket, I was going to steal it—that says more about you than it does about me,” Aurora told him defiantly.

  “And what does that say about me? That I’ve been stolen from in the past by my own employees?”

  “No, it says that you assume someone who’s 'lower' than you is absolutely going to steal from you,” Aurora said firmly. “And just because I wasn’t born on silk sheets or given a gilded pacifier, it doesn’t mean I’m worth any less than you.”

  Khaleel smiled, taking another long drink of his cocktail. “No woman in her right mind would give birth on silk sheets,” he said, his voice rippling with amusement.

  “Marie Antoinette did it,” Aurora countered.

  “I don’t know that she was in her right mind, strictly speaking,” Khaleel pointed out. “She was so far removed from real life. Didn’t she build her own little village at one of her castles or something? Run around in silk peasant shirts?”

  Aurora shrugged. “Based just on this yacht, I wouldn’t say that you’re all that connected to real life,” she said. “Your quarters are as big as my entire apartment. I think the boat is possibly bigger than my parents’ house.”

  “Not likely,” Khaleel said dismissively. “I can fit maybe sixteen guests on board, along with the crew. And most of the quarters—including your own—are considerably smaller than mine.”

  “My own?” Aurora frowned in confusion.

  “You are a guest on this yacht,” Khaleel said. “It wouldn’t be right to make you sleep on a lounge chair on the deck. You have a room, with a bathroom and some clothes I was able to find for you.”

  Aurora stared at Khaleel, unsure whether she should feel grateful for his generosity, or insulted at what the move implied. At the end of the day, you’re still stuck here, she thought with a touch of resentment.

  “It sounds like charity,” Aurora said sulkily. “And I still say you think you’re better than me.”

  Khaleel shrugged. “You know, my life isn’t as carefree and simple as you seem to think,” he told her.

  “Oh yes, I can see that,” Aurora said, her voice tart. “You grew up filthy rich, never wanting for anything, never being told no, probably given whatever treats and presents you wanted. Now you’ve inherited the family business and can sail around the world at your whim. Your life has been so hard.”

  “You really don’t know what my life has been like,” Khaleel pointed out. “If you knew me a little better, you’d know I’m not the spoiled brat you just described.”

  Aurora shrugged, finishing off the last of her cocktail. I’d better stick with water for a while, she thought, some innate sense of caution worming its way through the light haze of her tipsy brain.

  “All I know is that I’ve had to work for everything I’ve ever had,” Aurora said. That wasn’t precisely the truth; she hadn’t had to work for the trip to Asia. But her schooling, her apartment—everything that was essential in her life—she had worked for. “My parents were tough on me from a young age too. They were well off, but they never spoiled me.”

  “That’s a lovely flower you have,” Khaleel said abruptly. “I meant to ask you before—what’s the significance of it?”

  “Changing the subject much?” Aurora raised an eyebrow and smiled at him wryly. She looked down at the flower pinned to her blouse pocket.

  “Well, it was the first thing that blew your cover,” Khaleel told her. “It’s not part of the dress code.”

  “No, it isn’t,” Aurora said, grimacing. “Actually, before I even went to your room for the first time, one of the crew members told me that I was going to get a demerit for it. I probably should have listened to her.”

  “You’d be cleaning something right now if you had,” Khaleel pointed out. “Why would you keep it on if you knew that it was going to potentially out you because of it?”

  Aurora shrugged, feeling the blood rising into her face, warming her cheeks. The alcohol in her system brought the truth of the matter to the fore of her mind. She thought absently that she had been lying for weeks—for months, really. Ever since she had made the decision to drop out of medical school, and potentially even before that. She hadn’t told anyone the reason why she’d dropped out; she hadn’t even told anyone that she didn’t really want to go to medical school to begin with.

  “It’s probably really stupid,” Aurora said slowly. “But I guess stupid and honest is better than a slick lie.” She sighed. “I wear it because…it's unique, and I’m not. I’m just another brunette, another twenty-something woman, a face in the crowd, you know? There were a dozen girls in my graduating class who could be described in exactly the same terms as me.”

  “I don’t know about that,” Khaleel said. “You seem pretty unique to me.”

  Aurora snorted. “Every person is unique, I guess,” she agreed. “But some people are more unique than others. I’m not a genius, or absurdly gorgeous, or anything that really makes me stand out from thousands of other people in Miami. I actually thought at one point that I looked normal enough that I could blend in perfectly.”

  She thought of Jon, and the fact that he’d somehow managed to track her down at her new job. That he was almost certainly going to find her address. “I’m just a normal girl; there are a million people who could do any of the jobs I’ve ever had just as well as I could.” She sighed. “I guess the flower makes me feel…special, different. My own person.” Aurora stole a glance at Khaleel, barely daring to look at him in the confessional mood that the bizarre circumstances had brought upon her. “It’s dumb, I know.”

  “It’s not dumb to feel like that,” Khaleel insisted. “I just don't agree with you.” He smiled slightly. “As for me, I’ve always been different. I always thought that it would be kind of nice to be normal, and not have a bunch of expectations on you everywhere you went.” He gestured at his clothes. “I have never in my life worn just a standard pair of jeans and a tee shirt. It wouldn’t have been allowed.” He laughed and Aurora heard a faint sadness in the sound. “It would almost be nice to be invisible, to be normal and average, for once.”

  SEVEN

  The afternoon wore on, and Aurora found her anger at the Sheikh dissolving more and more as their conversation went on.

  “I love to travel by yacht,” Khaleel told her, looking out over the water. “It’s soothing in a way that no other form of travel is.”

  “Trains are soothing sometimes,” Aurora pointed out. “If you can find a good one, the rhythm of the movement is steady, just like waves, you know?” She sighed, and felt a shudder pass through the deck beneath her. “Did we just
slow down?”

  “We must be getting closer to our destination,” Khaleel said absently. “It should be about time. I planned for a late afternoon landfall.”

  “You know, for all the stress and pressure of growing up wealthy, you have to admit that it’s nice to be able to take off and go somewhere on your own, without having to answer to anyone,” Aurora said.

  Khaleel smiled slightly. “It is nice to get away,” he agreed.

  The yacht continued to slow down, and Aurora looked out at the water, watched the movement of the seascape gradually grow sharper as the slowing speed ceased to blur it. She hadn’t realized how thoroughly she’d gotten used to the engine sounds until they began to quieten, and then stop.

  “Where are we?”

  Khaleel stirred at her question. “It's a private island,” he said simply. “Part of the same chain as the Bahamas.”

  “Oh, wow,” Aurora said with a grin. “I don’t need my passport for this, do I?”

  Khaleel chuckled. “No, no—it’s privately owned, it’s not a separate country,” he said. “In fact, I think we might have arrived.”

  The sky was beginning to turn orange and pink in the west. The sun wasn’t going down yet, but Aurora estimated that in another hour or so the sky would be dark.

  Khaleel stood and walked over to the railing that surrounded the sun deck. “Yep. We're here.”

  A crew member emerged from the interior of the yacht, glancing at Aurora with uncertainty before turning his attention onto Khaleel. “We've laid anchor, sir. You can arrange your landfall just as you like.”

  Khaleel nodded. “How far out are we from the shore?”

  “Maybe fifteen meters,” the crew member replied.

  “I’ll take a dip, then,” Khaleel said, and the crew member nodded and turned away. Khaleel looked at Aurora and grinned. “Want to get off this boat for a bit?”

  “Yes please,” Aurora said, nodding quickly.

  “You’re not too drunk to swim, are you?”

  Aurora shook her head, and everything spun slightly, but she was able to regain her equilibrium after just a moment. “I’m okay,” she said.

  Khaleel smiled slowly, looking utterly mischievous. “Follow me, then,” he said.

  Aurora watched as he strode quickly to a ladder that led from the sun deck to the lower deck, and nimbly began to climb down it. She took a quick, deep breath, tingling all over with a mixture of nervousness and excitement, and took the same path her host had, steadying herself for a moment before she started down the ladder.

  Khaleel waited on the lower deck, leaning against a railing; it was clear that he had watched her climb down. “Ready?” he asked.

  Aurora shrugged. “Ready for what?” She looked around. The boat bobbed slightly in the waves, but a quick glance told her that the waters weren’t overly rough.

  In answer to her question, Khaleel lifted a catch on the railing, and the bars transformed into a gate, swinging out, revealing a ledge. He glanced at her again, smiling broadly, and stepped onto the ledge. Aurora’s heart leaped into her throat as she watched the designer suit-clad billionaire crouch slightly and then jump from the deck of the boat, into the water below.

  She hurried to the railing, her heart pounding rabbit-quick, and watched him emerge from the blue-green waters, his hands pushing his wet hair back from his face.

  He looked up at her and grinned, challenging her. “If you want off the boat, this is the only way,” he called up. Aurora looked down at her clothes and shook her head slightly; she hadn’t exactly planned to sneak on board that morning, and hadn't brought anything with her to change into.

  But then she remembered: Khaleel had said that he’d managed to find some clothes, some spares that had been lying around. Aurora took a quick, deep breath and stepped carefully onto the ledge, wondering if she had somehow managed to lose her mind in the time since that morning. Pushing the thought aside, Aurora followed Khaleel’s example, springing from the ledge, coiling and then jumping out as far as she could.

  The water that rose up to surround her was almost as warm as a bath, and Aurora plunged deeper and deeper for a few heartbeats, her momentum carrying her down into the water. She kicked her legs, pushing out with her arms, and after a brief flurry of panic, her face broke through the brine, and Aurora blew water out through her nose, reaching up to brush it away from her eyes before she opened them.

  “Not a bad jump,” Khaleel said, a few feet away from her.

  Aurora laughed, delighted to be off of the yacht, excited at the success of her leap. “That was kind of terrifying,” she told him, shaking her head and meeting his gaze.

 
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