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Series Information

Harlequin presents ; 3378.

Record details

  • ISBN: 9781460386507
  • ISBN: 1460386507
  • ISBN: 9780373133840
  • ISBN: 0373133847
  • Physical Description: remote
    1 online resource.
  • Publisher: Don Mills, Ontario : Harlequin Enterprises Limited, 2015.

Content descriptions

Summary, etc.: Sheikh Saladin Al Mektala insists on bringing horse whisperer Olivia Miller to his desert kingdom when she refuses his generous offer in exchange for helping his favorite mare.
Source of Description Note:
Print version record.
Subject: Man-woman relationships Fiction
Genre: Christmas fiction.
Romance fiction.
Love stories.
Christmas stories.
Electronic books.

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 po-nytail 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 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.'

Saladin could barely disguise his growing irritation. 'But you don't know what it is they were asking of you.'

'Something to do with a horse. And that was enough for me.'

She drew herself up to her full height but he still towered over her. He found himself thinking that he could probably lift her up with one hand. When he'd heard about her ability to soothe huge and very temperamental horses, he'd never imagined she could be so…petite.

'Because I don't have anything to do with horses anymore,' she finished gravely.

Dragging his gaze from her slender frame to eyes that were the colour of honey, he fixed her with a questioning look. 'Why not?'

She gave a little clicking sound of irritation, but not before he had seen something dark in her eyes. A flash of something uncomfortable that he stored away for future reference.

'That's really none of your business,' she said, tilting her chin in a gesture of defiance. 'I don't have to offer any kind of explanation for my decisions, particularly to people who turn up unannounced on my doorstep at one of the busiest times of the year.'

Saladin felt the first flicker of heat. And of challenge. He was not used to resistance, or defiance. In his world, whatever he wanted was his. A click of his fingers or a cool glance was usually enough to guarantee him whatever he desired. Certainly, this kind of opposition was largely unknown to him, and certainly when it came from a woman, because women enjoyed submitting to his will—not opposing it. His response was one of renewed determination, which was quickly followed by the first sweet shimmer of sexual arousal and that surprised him. Because although Olivia Miller was reputed to have a magical touch when it came to horses, she certainly hadn't applied the same fairy dust to her appearance.

Saladin's lips curled. She was one of those women who the English called tomboys—and he didn't approve, for weren't women supposed to look like women? Her hair was pale brown, touched by red—a colour named after the great Italian painter Titian and a colour rare enough to be admired—but it was tied back in a functional ponytail, and her freckled face was completely bare of artifice. Why, even her jeans failed to do the only commendable thing that jeans were capable of—they were loose around her bottom instead of clinging to it like syrup. Which made the undeniable stir of lust he was feeling difficult to understand. Because why on earth should he be attracted to someone who sublimated her femininity as much as possible?

He narrowed his eyes. 'Are you aware that your attitude could be termed as insolence?' he questioned softly. 'And that it is unwise to answer the king of Jaz-ratan in such a way?'

Again, that defiant tilt of the chin. He wondered if she was aware that such a positioning of her face made her look as if she were inviting him to kiss her.

'I wasn't intending to be insolent,' she said, although the message in her eyes told him otherwise. 'I was simply stating a fact. What I chose to do with my life has nothing to do with you. I owe you no explanation. I am not one of your royal subjects.'

'No, you are not, but you might at least grant me the courtesy of hearing what I have to say,' he bit out. 'Or does the word hospitality mean nothing to you? Are you aware that I have travelled many miles in the most inclement weather in order to meet you?'

Livvy eyed the remaining bunches of mistletoe still waiting to be hung and thought about all the other things that needed to be done before her guests arrived. She wanted to make more cake to fill the house with sweet smells, and there were fires to make up in all the bedrooms. Her to-do list was as long as her arm and this handsome and vaguely intimidating stranger was hindering her. 'You could have chosen a more convenient time than just before Christmas,' she said.

'And when would have been a more convenient time?' he retorted. 'When you have consistently refused to be pinned down?'

'Most people would have taken the hint and cut their losses.'

'I am a king. I don't do hints' came his stony response.

Livvy hesitated. His behaviour confirmed everything she'd ever heard about him. He had been known for his arrogance on the racing circuit—seemingly with good reason—and she was so tempted to tell him to go. But she was running a business—even if it was currently a struggling business—and if she angered Saladin Al Mektala any more than he was already clearly angered, he might just spread a malicious word or two around the place. She could imagine it would be easy for someone like him to drip a little more poison onto her already damaged reputation. And adverse publicity could be death if you worked in the hospitality industry.

Behind him, she could see the falling snow, which had been coming down in bucketloads since before breakfast. Fat flakes were tumbling past like a neverending slide show. Lawns that earlier had been merely spattered with the stuff now sported a thick white mantle—as if someone had been layering on cotton wool while she hadn't been looking. If it carried on like this, the lanes would soon be impassable and she'd never get rid of him. And she wanted to get rid of him. She didn't like him dominating her doorway and exuding all that testosterone and making her think about stuff she hadn't thought about in a long time. She didn't like the way he made her feel.

Farther up the drive stood a black four-wheel drive and she wondered if anyone was sitting shivering inside.

'What about your bodyguards—are they in the car?' Her gaze swept around the wintry garden. 'Hiding in the bushes, perhaps—or waiting to jump from a tree?'

'I don't have any bodyguards with me.'

So they were all alone.

Livvy's anxiety increased. Something about his powerful body and brooding features was making her skin prickle with a weird kind of foreboding—and an even more alarming sense of anticipation. For the first time she found herself wishing that she had a dog who would bark at him, rather than a soppy feline mop called Peppa, who was currently stretched out in front of the fire in the drawing room, purring happily.

But she wasn't going to allow this man to intimidate her. And if she wasn't intimidated, then it followed that she shouldn't keep avoiding a meeting with him. Maybe this was the only way he would understand that she meant what she said. If she kept repeating that she wasn't interested in whatever he was offering, then surely he would have no choice other than to believe her. And to leave her alone.

'You'd better come in,' she said as an icy gust brought a flurry of snow into the hall. 'I can give you thirty minutes but no longer. I'm expecting guests for Christmas and I have a lot to do before they arrive.'

She saw his faintly triumphant smile as he stepped inside and noticed how the elegant proportions of the airy entrance hall seemed to shrink once she had closed the front door on the snowy afternoon. There was something so intensely masculine about him, she thought reluctantly. Something that was both exciting and dangerous—and she forced herself to take a deep breath in an attempt to slow the sudden galloping of her heart. Act as if he's a guest, she told herself. Put on your best, bright smile and switch on your professional hospitality mode.

'Why don't you come into the drawing room?' she suggested politely. 'There's a fire there.'

He nodded and she saw his narrowed gaze take in the high ceilings and the elaborate wooden staircase as he followed her across the hallway. 'This is a beautiful old house,' he observed, a note of approval deepening his voice.

'Thank you,' she said, automatically slipping into her role as guide. 'Parts of it date back to the twelfth century. They certainly don't build them like this anymore—perhaps that's a good thing, considering the amount of maintenance that's needed.' The building's history was one of the reasons why people travelled to this out-of-the-way spot to hire a room. Because the past defined the present and people hungered after the idea of an elegant past. Or at least, they had—until the rise of several nearby boutique hotels had started offering the kind of competition that was seriously affecting her turnover.

But Livvy couldn't deny her thrill of pleasure as the sheikh walked into the drawing room, because she was proud of her old family home, despite the fact that it had started to look a little frayed around the edges.

The big fire was banked with apple logs, which scented the air, and although the huge Christmas tree was still bare there weren't many rooms that could accommodate a tree of that size. At some point later she would have to drag herself up to the dusty attic and haul down the decorations, which had been in the family since the year dot, and go through the ritual of bringing the tree to life. Soon it would be covered in spangles and fairy lights and topped with the ancient little angel she'd once made with her mother. And for a while, Christmas would work its brief and sometimes unbearable magic of merging past and present.

She looked up to find Saladin Al Mektala studying her intently and, once again, a shiver of something inexplicable made her nostalgic sentiments dissolve as she began to study him right back.

He wasn't dressed like a sheikh. There were no flowing robes or billowing headdress to indicate his desert king status. The dark cashmere overcoat that he was removing—without having been invited to—was worn over dark trousers and a charcoal sweater that hugged his honed torso. He looked disturbingly modern, she thought—even if the flinty glint of his dark eyes made him seem disturbingly primitive. She watched as he hung the cashmere coat over the back of a chair and saw the gleam of melted snow on his black hair as he stepped a little closer to the fire.

'So,' she said. 'You must want something very badly if you're prepared to travel to the wilds of Derbyshire in order to get it.'

'Oh, but I do,' he said silkily. 'I want you.'

Something in his sultry tone kick-started feelings Livvy had repressed for longer than she cared to remember and for a split second, she found herself imagining what it would feel like to be the object of desire to a man like Saladin Al Mektala. Would those flinty eyes soften before he kissed you? Would a woman feel helpless if she was being held in arms as powerful as his?

She swallowed, surprised by the unexpected path her thoughts had taken her down because she didn't fall in lust with total strangers. Actually, she didn't fall in lust at all. She quickly justified her wayward fantasy by reminding herself that he was being deliberately provocative and had made that statement in such a way—as if he was seeking to shock her. 'You'll have to be a little more specific than that,' she said crisply. 'What do you want me to do?'

His face changed as the provocation left it and she saw a shadow pass over the hawklike features. 'I have a sick horse,' he said, his voice tightening. 'A badly injured stallion. My favourite.'

His distress affected her—how could it fail to do so? But Livvy hardened her heart to his problems, because didn't she have enough of her own? 'I'm sorry to hear that,' she said. 'But as a king of considerable wealth, no doubt you have the best veterinary surgeons at your disposal. I'm sure they'll be able to work out some plan of action for your injured horse.'

'They say not.'

'Really?' Linking her fingers together, she looked up at him. 'What exactly is the problem?'

'A suspensory ligament,' he said, 'which has torn away from the bone.'

Livvy winced. 'That's bad.'

'I know it's bad,' he gritted out. 'Why the hell do you think I'm here?'
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