THE SULTAN’S VIRGIN BRIDE
For Nicola Cornick, whose books
I love and whose friendship I value.
EVERYTHING was in place.
Like a predator he lay in wait, his powerful body still and his eyes alert and watchful.
Remote and unapproachable, Sultan Tariq bin Omar al-Sharma lounged silently in his chair and surveyed the ballroom from the best table in the room. The arrogant tilt of his proud head and the cynical glint in his cold dark eyes were sufficient to keep people at a respectful distance. As an additional precaution, bodyguards hovered in the background, ready to apprehend anyone brave or foolish enough to approach.
Tariq ignored them in the same way that he ignored the stares of everyone in the room, accepting the attention with the bored indifference of someone who had been the object of interest and speculation since birth.
He was the most eligible bachelor in the world, relentlessly pursued by scores of hopeful women. A man of strength and power, hard and tough and almost indecently handsome.
In a room filled with powerful, successful men, Tariq was the ultimate catch and the buzz of interest built to fever pitch. Women cast covetous glances in his direction, each one indulging in her own personal fantasy about being the one to draw his eye because to do so would be the romantic equivalent of winning the lottery.
Ordinarily he might have exploited that appeal to ruthless advantage, but tonight he was interested in only one woman.
And so far she hadn’t arrived.
Nothing about his powerful, athletic frame suggested that his presence in the room stemmed from anything other than a desire to patronize a high profile charity ball. His handsome, aristocratic face was devoid of expression, giving no hint that this evening was the culmination of months of meticulous planning.
For him, tonight was all about business.
He needed control of the Tyndall Pipeline Corporation. The construction of the pipeline was essential to the successful future of Tazkash—crucial for the security and prosperity of his people. He needed to pump oil across the desert. The project was economically, environmentally and financially viable. Everything was in place.
But Harrison Tyndall, Chief Executive Officer, wasn’t playing ball. He wasn’t even willing to negotiate. And Tariq knew the reason why.
Daddy’s baby. Spoiled little rich girl. Party girl. ‘It’ girl. The girl who’d always had everything she wanted.
Tariq’s hard mouth curved into a smile. She could have had him, he recalled. But she hadn’t liked his terms.
And Harrison Tyndall hadn’t liked them either. Weeks of delicate negotiation between the state of Tazkash and the Tyndall Pipeline Corporation had broken down and there had been no further communication on the subject for five long years.
It was a sorry state of affairs, Tariq mused silently, when the wishes of a woman dictated the flow of business.
Seated at his elbow, Hasim Akbar, his Minister for Oil Exports, cleared his throat respectfully. ‘Perhaps I should walk around the room, Your Excellency. See if the Tyndall girl has arrived yet.’
‘She hasn’t arrived.’ Tariq spoke in a lazy drawl, his fluent, perfectly accented English the product of the most expensive education money could buy. ‘If she were here, I would know.’
Hasim tapped his fingers on the table, unable to conceal his mounting anxiety. ‘Then she is extremely late.’
Tariq gave a faint smile. ‘Of course she is extremely late. To be on time or even slightly late would be a wasted opportunity.’
He had no doubt that Farrah Tyndall was currently loitering in the wings somewhere, poised to make her entrance as dramatic as possible. After all, wasn’t socializing the entire focus of her shallow, pampered existence? Having spent all day with her hairdresser and her stylist, she would be more than ready to display the fruits of their labour. Living up to her mother’s reputation. Farrah Tyndall was just like every other woman he’d ever had dealings with. She cared about nothing more important than shoes, hair and the state of her nails.
‘It is getting late. Maybe she’s here somewhere,’ Hasim suggested nervously, ‘but we just haven’t noticed her.’
‘Clearly you’ve never seen a picture of Farrah Tyndall.’ Tariq turned his head, a slightly cynical inflection to his tone as he surveyed the man next to him. ‘If you had, then you would know that being noticed is the one thing she does really, really well.’
‘She is beautiful?’
‘Sublime.’ Tariq’s gaze slid back to the head of the staircase. ‘Farrah Tyndall can light up a room with one smile from her perfectly painted mouth. If she were already here then the men in the room would be glued to the spot and staring.’
As he had stared on that first day, standing on the beach at the desert camp of Nazaar.
Her beauty was enough to blind a man. Enough to blind him to her truly shallow nature.
But it wasn’t her beauty or her personality that interested him now. For the past few months his staff had been dis-creetly buying every available share in the Tyndall Pipeline Corporation. Control was finally within his reach. All he needed to take over the company and guarantee the pipeline project was a further twenty per cent.
And Farrah Tyndall owned twenty per cent.
Hasim was breathing rapidly. ‘I still think this plan is impossible.’
Tariq gave a slow smile, totally unperturbed. ‘The challenge and stimulation of business comes from making the impossible possible,’ he observed, his long fingers toying idly with the stem of his glass, ‘and to find a solution where there appears to be none.’
‘But if you carry out your plan then you will have to marry her—’
Confronted by that unpalatable truth, Tariq’s fingers tightened on the glass. Despite his outward display of indifference, his internal reaction to the prospect of marriage bordered on the allergic. ‘Only in the short term,’ he drawled and Hasim’s expression transformed from mild concern to one of extreme anxiety.
‘You are seriously considering invoking the ancient law that allows you to divorce after forty days and forty nights?’
‘Everything my wife owns, and I do mean everything,’ Tariq inserted with silken emphasis, ‘becomes mine on marriage. I want those shares but I have no wish to stay married.’
The plan was perfect. Masterly.
Hasim fiddled nervously with the cloth of his suit. ‘To the best of my knowledge, that particular