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Authors: Kris Pearson

Taken by the Sheikh (23 page)

BOOK: Taken by the Sheikh
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Bet I get right across before that taxi draws level.

Bet Alexander Beaufort will be about seventy-five with a bristling white mustache and a comb-over.

She flashed her press ID at the forty-something receptionist. “Kerri Lush, to interview Alexander Beaufort about his very impressive gift.”

Her pulse lurched to a hectic rhythm as she caught sight of the ‘Gambling wrecks lives’ poster on the wall. Could the woman see Kerri’s own life was a mess?

She climbed the half-flight of stairs to where glasses clinked and voices brayed in animated conversation. A local TV crew had set up their gear. Other familiar media faces were in evidence. Maybe this was a bigger deal than she’d thought?

She lifted a white wine from a passing tray and sipped with caution

in case it was Chateau Cardboard. To her surprise, it tasted crisp and dry and delicious. More brownie-points to Alexander Beaufort.

And was there food? She’d missed lunch because of a tight deadline and the sudden re-assignment of this job. A little something to nibble would be wise in view of the wine’s attractions.

She sauntered to a serving table and found the other guests had already made fast and loose with the goodies. 

One lonely cracker with a sliver of avocado and a couple of shrimps sat amongst a tide of parsley sprigs, empty kebab sticks, and crumbs. Kerri grabbed it before anyone else could, swallowed her remaining half-glass of wine, and claimed a refill.

Seconds later the woman at the reception desk approached the podium and the noise-level ebbed away. 

“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen,” she began. “I’m Addictions Councilor Lydia Herbert, and I’d like to welcome you all here today to view our wonderful new facility. A safe financial future for Gamblers Anonymous New Zealand is possible because of the generosity and far-sightedness of one man. Please welcome Monsieur Alexandre Beaufort.”

Enthusiastic applause broke out.

Kerri’s eyes roamed over the assembled males, seeking a suitable old johnnie with a big moustache and a gleaming pate. Alexandre? Not Alexander then—so much for her boss’s haphazard keyboard skills.  

And he was French? She took an appreciative swig from her second glass of wine and washed a lingering cracker-crumb down the wrong way.

Spluttering, bent double, furiously embarrassed, she missed the tall dark man who strode in from a rear doorway brandishing a mobile phone.

But she heard him.

“Apologies,
mes amis
, technology is taking over our lives, no?” he said in a voice so husky it caressed her skin like a fine sprinkling of toasted hazelnuts settling over ice-cream.

Despite his sexy accent raising every hair on Kerri’s body she continued to cough and snort. Wine slopped over the edge of her lurching glass and onto the new taupe carpet. God—this was all she needed on an already-bad day! 

So far out of breath that her face almost matched her scarlet shoes, and half-blinded by the sting of running mascara, she registered faces staring in her direction, wondering who the unfortunate fool was. 

She prayed for a distraction. 

Nothing happened.  

No-one spoke.  

His speech did not begin. 

When she regained her composure, she found herself being inspected by a riveting pair of dark blue eyes. Alexandre Beaufort was not in his dotage as she’d assumed. Not bald. Not mustached, although he did have a most attractive dusting of dark stubble on his determined chin and top lip. Neither was he in a suit like most of the assembled men. He wore motor-cycle leathers. 

Kerri hiccupped with surprise and clapped a hand across her mouth. The addictions councilor bustled up with a big glass of water—surely for the coughing and not the newly arrived hiccups? And Monsieur Beaufort smiled and said in the voice that had Kerri all on edge, “Young lady, you ‘ave stolen my thunder.”

If she could have sunk through her patch of wine-spotted carpet, she would have. This not being an option, she took a grateful sip of water, swallowed, cleared her throat in the deafening silence, and gave another huge hiccup.

“Some more?” Lydia Herbert suggested.

Kerri obeyed.

“Sorry!” she gasped in Alexandre Beaufort’s direction. “Please ignore me if you can. Perhaps I’d better leave?”

“Good heavens, no,” Lydia Herbert murmured, placing a restraining hand on Kerri’s arm. “You’re here to interview Monsieur. Do stay.”  

Kerri nodded, and hiccupped again, managing to hold the sound inside her rather better this time.

“I bet my mascara’s running,” she whispered.

“Hardly at all,” Lydia soothed.

“How much?” Kerri enquired, emitting an ear-splitting hiccup on the ‘how’.

Some of the audience had now given in to helpless laughter, and Alexandre Beaufort had still not started his speech. Indeed, he’d left the podium to stride toward her like a darkly dangerous road warrior, all sneer and scowl and quietly creaking leather.

Merde!
she muttered. It was the only French curse she knew, and it summed up his disturbing effect on her perfectly.

The nearer he prowled, the taller he seemed. Way taller than her five foot three. Way more impressive than any other man in the room, despite his casual clothing.

She looked up into his heavy-lidded dark blue eyes and felt a delicious shimmer of danger thread itself through her embarrassment. Those eyes seemed to be suggesting all sorts of very private things they could do together. 

Private things she’d never had much interest in until now. Private things that would require her to undo those sexy silver zippers in the black leather until she’d stripped him down to his no-doubt beautifully-tanned skin...

“My
grandmere
had a foolproof cure for hiccups,” he said, taking the glass of water from her and dragging her back to reality. “You drink it—like this.” He bent over and demonstrated.

“I’ll spill it,” she objected, as her skin-and-zippers fantasy went up in smoke.

“No more than the wine,” he suggested, placing a large hand on her nape and pressing so she was obliged to bend double. Being too out of breath to battle his insistence, Kerri found herself almost buried in his snug leather trousers. Hastily she began to drink the water.

“Swallow hard,” Alexandre Beaufort ordered.

Kerri didn’t see how she could swallow any other way with her head upside-down. Anyhow, her brain seemed to have gone on holiday, and she sensed that meek compliance was probably all that would get her through such a ridiculous situation. She managed half a dozen strangled gulps, which emptied the glass.

His hand slid to her shoulder and patted, in a way she found totally condescending. He allowed her to stand up again, and swept those all-seeing eyes over her hot and bothered face.

She seethed at being made to appear even more of a fool, and held her breath. The hiccups did not return.

“Good old Granny. Thank-you,” she finally snapped. Their eyes remained locked for a few extra electric seconds. 

Bet it would feel good kissing that curly French-looking mouth...   

A smattering of applause erupted from the rest of the room as the road warrior swept back to his microphone.

Kerri stared with resentment at his broad shoulders and very long legs as he walked away from her. The soft leather flexed around a powerful body that escaped being bulky because of his height. 

God—those shoulders...that accent...those eyes...
 

She trembled all over but had no idea if it was from anger or suddenly wakened lust. 

Kerri didn’t do lust. Had never met a man who affected her like this one so inconveniently did.

She tried to cut him down to size in her fevered brain. He was only someone she’d been sent to interview. Full of himself, obviously. Arrogant enough to make her teeth curl. 

What kind of man attended a formal occasion dressed this way? How did he expect anyone to take him seriously in head-to-toe biker gear?

But as Alexandre Beaufort turned to his audience Kerri saw he was deadly serious. His sapphire eyes roved around the room until he had total attention. The silence became absolute.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began. “We have now had three examples of how easily life can be disrupted. First, the Wellington arrival of your inter-island ferry was unexpectedly delayed. I’ve been touring your beautiful South Island by motor-cycle, and have had no time to change my clothing for this auspicious occasion. I am literally ‘off the boat’.”

He ripped the long front zipper of his jacket open and spread his arms wide to indicate his embarrassment. There was a murmur of understanding and forgiveness from his audience. As the leather swung apart, Kerri’s eyes zeroed in on the white T-shirt stretched over his beautifully defined chest.

Bet he does lots of weight training.

“Second, I received a most important phone-call only seconds before I was to speak. Happily I can return to that in a few minutes.”

The crowd chuckled and nodded.  

“And third, our proceedings were delayed by a charming young lady whose ticklish throat decided to misbehave at the wrong moment.”

You bastard! I’ve only just got myself together and you’re poking insults at me again.

She dropped her gaze to the floor as everyone’s eyes once more swiveled in her direction as though she’d just smashed a killer forehand on Wimbledon’s centre court. 

So he’d picked her out to make fun of? She really didn’t need that. She was tired, horribly broke, unfed apart from that one fateful cracker-biscuit, and filling in for someone else anyway. The last thing she wanted was any more agro.

“But each of these is a small disruption indeed compared to the upheaval families suffer when gambling gets out of hand,” Alexandre continued. “Kiwis are willing to bet on anything. Slot machines whirr and jangle constantly in the gaming rooms of bars. Your casinos attract both international and local punters to their blackjack tables and roulette wheels. You can legally place bets on horses and greyhounds and the outcomes of any number of sports events. There are card-games and lotteries and various other activities that are dangerously addictive to many people.”

He paused a second or two. And then with consummate effect added, “My New Zealand-born mother, Isabelle, was among those unfortunate souls.” 

There were some gasps at this, and Kerri’s wide brown eyes raced back to lock with his dark blue ones. That was quite an admission he’d just made—and an excellent angle for the article she’d been so hurriedly assigned to write.

“You can have no idea,” he continued, “how difficult it was being the son of a compulsive gambler. Sometimes there was money for dinner, and sometimes not. When her luck was in, my mother was the happiest woman in the world. When her luck ran out, and the money ran out, she was among the most desolate.” 

With those few devastating words he’d snared the sympathy of the whole room. Kerri tried to imagine such a big confident man as a scared and hungry little boy. It was impossible.  

Her attention drifted away from his message. As he continued to speak all she noticed was the movement of his throat, the gleam of his dark hair, the fervor in his eyes and the proud angle of his head. Even though she was still furious at being singled out as a target, she had to concede he was beautiful. She could have watched him for hours.

She jerked from her daydream as a camera flashed. Apparently his speech had ended because everyone was applauding. She clapped along with the others, hoping she could slip off somewhere to repair her makeup before it was time to interview hunky, bossy Monsieur Beaufort with the know-it-all granny. For sure she wasn’t going to let him see her up close again looking like this. 

Lydia seemed a helpful sort. Kerri tracked her down and was directed to the ladies powder-room. And yes, darn it, the damage was considerable.

She tidied her long dark hair and splashed cold water onto her flushed face, then got rid of the worst of the mascara smudges with a paper towel and a dribble of liquid soap. 

Bet this isn’t doing my skin any good.

Sighing, she resorted to the old mineral-powder compact in her briefcase to calm down the hectic color that remained stubbornly in her face even after the cold-water treatment. 

Lip-gloss and another coat of mascara helped, but she still felt as though she’d been through the wringer—and worse, looked as though she had.

As her hand reached for the door knob, another trickle of unease rippled all the way down to her toes.

Get a grip, Kerri,
she snapped at herself.
It’s only a building. You’re here to work. After this you’ll never have to see him again.

She took three deep breaths, sensed no hint of returning hiccups, and went out to face the Frenchman.

 

Alexandre leaned back in the swivel chair and hiked an ankle up over his opposite knee. He swung the chair back and forth. Where had his hiccupping journalist got to?

Lydia had been adamant about keeping to a tight schedule. Time for drinks, time for speeches, time for photographs, time for interviews. If the ferry had docked on schedule things would have run perfectly. That he’d had to appear in his travelling clothes was a minor glitch in the bigger scheme of things. His invited guests had still listened, the TV crew had still recorded, and the building had still been admired.  

Indeed, perhaps the road-trip could be turned to his advantage? Maybe people would like to know that he’d enjoyed exploring the amazing New Zealand countryside up close and personal? He certainly didn’t want to be seen as a moneyed fat-cat ensconced in limousined luxury. Yes, Miss Hiccups might be persuaded to mention his trip...

Someone knocked on the half-open door.


Oiu
?” Alexandre stopped his swiveling and placed both booted feet on the floor. 

Miss Hiccups walked toward him in her seductive scarlet stilettos. She thrust out her hand. He noticed it was a very small and delicate hand; the shoes transformed her into a much taller woman than she really was.

BOOK: Taken by the Sheikh
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