Saving the Sheikh, Page 1Ruth Cardello
Sometimes when you gamble, you lose.
On the small island of Isola Santos, off the coast of Italy, a tuxedo-clad Rachid bin Amir al Hantan stood in the grass to one side of a flower-covered wedding arch, shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the most influential men in the technological world, and attempted to appear interested in the ceremony. Self-recrimination blocked his ability to share in the happiness that was apparent on the face of his old college friend, Dominic Corisi, as he exchanged vows with his bride.
An ocean breeze blew through Rachid’s short black hair – highlighting his decision not to wear his traditional keffiyeh headdress. Mocking him. The undeniable truth that he was more at home in Western clothing only intensified his sour mood.
I shouldn’t have come.
He spared a glance at the rows of smiling faces and winced. The actual ceremony was a small affair, no more than a hundred or so in attendance, but it was a high-profile wedding and would be talked about for months. Even though the press had been banned, there was no way to keep his participation out of the news.
Which normally wouldn’t have been a problem, but Najriad, his home country, was verging on serious political upheaval, and his participation could easily be spun against him – presented as another example of how he didn’t care about his people. Even as the wedding crowd laughed over some joke Dominic made in his vows, Najriad’s borders were being tested with minor raids. It wouldn’t be long before those nips turned to deadly bites.
The same natural resources that had brought them financial comfort were once again a dangerous temptation for their neighbors. His small country had a strong military and an aggressive political policy that had been enough to keep their enemies at bay for nearly thirty years.
Until Father announced that I would be the one to take his place and called me home.
And no matter what happens, that is what Najriad is – my family, my people, my home.
Even if I am not the ruler they want.
I will do my duty.
I will make my father proud.
Rachid understood his people’s concerns. A sheikh was as much a spiritual leader as he was a figure of authority. The title was attained through more than just lineage, and in his absence even his enemies had begun to think that his younger brother, Ghalil, would be ruler one day.
Ghalil had been traditionally educated in Najriad.
He was faithful to the teachings of his people.
And, most importantly, he had never left them.
Not that Rachid had been given a choice. It had been at his father’s request that Rachid had left home at the age of eight to attend private schools in England. Amir had asked his son to learn about the technological ways of the West and to bring the best of what he found back to Najriad.
Some who wished to sow dissension between the family members had speculated that Rachid had been sent away so that his father could marry again – and this time produce a full-blooded Arab son, unlike Rachid. Some had whispered that Amir had never forgiven Rachid for his first, English wife dying in childbirth and that Rachid’s mere existence had been too much of a reminder of what he had lost.
Whatever his father’s reasons, Rachid had excelled in foreign schools, finishing his education at Harvard in the United States. At the time, MIT had seemed like a better choice, but his English relatives had connections to the Cambridge-based Ivy League school, and in the end his attendance had proved to be immensely advantageous.
After all, Harvard was where he’d met Dominic Corisi and Jake Walton. Unlike many he’d encountered, they hadn’t cared about his royal title or his country of origin. They had a vision of an empire they wanted to build and it was difficult to spend any time with either of them and not feel inspired to do the same.
The concept for his business, Proximus Solutions, had come from one of their “think tank” sessions; once nothing more than scribbles on the back of a notebook, it now had headquarters all over the world, providing interfacing solutions for countless multibillion-dollar companies. Rachid had intended to base Proximus in Najriad, but opportunity and convenience had caused him to eventually locate its headquarters in Bangalore, India. There had always been a part of him that hoped if he made enough money his people would welcome him again.
Outside of Najriad, he was a wildly successful businessman – both rich and powerful. He didn’t second-guess his decisions. His orders were acted upon immediately and without question.
In his country, he was an outsider – someone who spoke English better than he spoke Arabic, appearing socially inept simply because he had grown up outside of his own culture.
The exact opposite of his influential and beloved younger brother.
Money hadn’t changed the reality of that.
His father should have chosen Ghalil, but he hadn’t. When Rachid had privately questioned his father’s choice, the older man had simply said, “Do this for me, son. ”
That was all Rachid had needed to hear.
A child blissfully allows his parents to carry the burden of the world; a son, a good son, gracefully accepts that burden when it’s time for his father to rest.
Family. Responsibility. Loyalty.
Once he would have added faith to that list, but that had been another casualty of the crusade his father had sent him on. More nights than he cared to admit, he stared at the ceiling above his bed and wondered what right he had to lead anyone when he himself was lost.
Father, how could I have done everything you’ve asked of me and still be so wrong?
During an interlude of music, the groomsman next to him pulled Rachid temporarily out of his dark reverie with a question. “So, what do you think of your date?” Richard D’Argenson, the brother-in-law of Dominic’s rival, Stephan, had an easy smile that spoke of a lack of stress Rachid couldn’t imagine. If this sandstorm ever settled, he’d have to ask Dominic about his odd choice of new friends.
Right now, even the ridiculous was a welcome reprieve from his thoughts. “Excuse me?”
“Zhang Yajun. ” When he still looked confused, Richard added, “The woman you’re going to walk down the aisle with in a moment. ”
Rachid’s attention flew to the beautiful Chinese woman standing beside the three American bridesmaids. Her flawless skin and lovely neck were accentuated by the bun she’d swept her ebony hair up into and her charcoal strapless dress. He sucked in an appreciative breath as he allowed himself the brief indulgence of studying this delicately boned beauty. The tight fit of the dress hugged her small curves in a way every man there likely wanted to. He’d spent enough time in the West to be used to the casual way in which women displayed their bodies. Normally it didn’t bother him, but something about this woman made him want to hide her from the leering eyes of other men. He denied the strangely possessive thought.
She’s nothing to me.
“Date” was a deliberate exaggeration of what was a temporary pairing for the sake of the ceremony. “I hadn’t given her much thought,” Rachid said firmly.
“You should,” Richard replied.
A woman like Zhang didn’t require the Frenchman’s endorsement. Women like that only went home alone if they wanted to.
“Really?” he said dismissively. Tempting as she was, there was no room in his life at the moment for a woman. Not tonight. Not in general.
Even one as sexy as Zhang.
She looked at him across the altar and met his eyes, and he felt like he’d been kicked in the abdomen.
Especially one as sexy as Zhang.
Richard said, “The women are hoping there is a love connection there. ”
straightened his shoulders. “I’m not interested. ”
Stephan Andrade whispered back at the two of them. “Keep talking over the officiant and Dominic might just forget that I’m the one he doesn’t like. ”
Rachid glared at the arrogant blond man. He didn’t trust Stephan. Vendettas didn’t turn off like spigots. Stephan had gone after Dominic for too many years to not still harbor some ill feeling toward him. Was this a case of keeping friends close and enemies closer? Dominic said love had changed Stephan.
Love was a myth perpetuated by the young and all too often confused with simple lust.
It would take far more than that to change a man’s character.
Rachid resolved to keep a close eye on Stephan. Even if he left the wedding with nothing, Rachid owed Dominic that much. He countered the American’s joke with a serious warning. “He might forget, but I won’t. ”
The blond’s eyes narrowed. “I’m going to enjoy watching you fall. ”
Rachid stiffened. Was the direness of his situation a topic of global discussion? His face tightened with fury. “Not going to happen. ”
Stephan smirked and turned away, taunting softly as he did. “You don’t know my cousin. ”
The Frenchman whispered again. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you. My wife takes matchmaking quite seriously. ”
Fury left Rachid in a wave. All this chatter was about a woman?
He looked across the aisle again at the stunning self-made billionaire. Richard and Stephan were having fun with him. If they wanted him to believe them, however, they should have picked a more plausible scenario. It was impossible to imagine Zhang giggling like a schoolgirl and plotting against his virtue.
A tiny warrior.
Even in her floor-length gown, she stood with her shoulders squared and her feet planted slightly apart, as if she were braced for a battle. He found the proud set of her chin and the direct way her eyes met his when she caught him looking at her surprisingly sexy.
I’d love to kiss the fight right out of her.
She smiled at him as if she could hear his thoughts, and he straightened uncomfortably in response to the heat rushing through him. If not for the jacket of his tuxedo, everyone gathered might have seen the effect she was having on him.
He returned his attention to the happy, newly married couple.
It was bad enough that Dominic and Jake were hopelessly absorbed in the women they were with, leaving very little opportunity for Rachid to talk business with them. He had to return with something that would prove to his people that his time away had not been wasted. Money wasn’t enough – he had to show his people he had the connections to support the type of technological infrastructure he’d proposed. A contract with Dominic’s Corisi Enterprises would do that.
I still have time.
It’s often the last key in the bunch that opens the door.
The wedding isn’t over yet.
He glanced at Zhang, felt his chest tighten in excited response, and quickly looked away again. If I don’t let her distract me.
One by one the other groomsmen joined a bridesmaid, following Dominic and his new bride down the aisle. Zhang linked her arm with Rachid’s and smiled up at him from beneath thick, flirtatious lashes.
He scowled down at the temptation.
Zhang’s hand tightened on his arm, and he would have sworn that her jaw set with determination as she looked away.
Zhang Yajun knew that her attention should be on the ceremony being performed a few feet away from her, but her heart was racing in her chest and her eyes were repeatedly drawn to the dark-haired groomsman on the other side of the aisle.