‘Orla, Orla, there’s a helicopter circling the farm. Gerry just gave them permission to land on the back pasture. Gerry says it’s him, the sheikh who’s going to put us all out on the street.’
Orla Calhoun paused while mucking out Aderyn’s stall at her sister Dervla’s panicked shout. The sleek black stallion jostled her as he shuffled his hooves. She pressed her hand to his nose, to soothe him. Unlike most retired racehorses, Aderyn was placid enough for her to muck him out while he was still in the stall. He liked the company, almost as much as she did, but even so…
‘Shh, fella, it’s okay, she’s just stressed,’ she whispered, before leaving the stall. She propped the rake beside the stall, latched the stable door, whipped off her work gloves and glared at her sister. ‘For goodness’ sake, Dervla, how many times have I told you not to raise your voice around the horses?’ she hissed. ‘You could spook them and someone could get hurt, or, worse, the animal could get hurt.’
They only had six horses left now, but each one of them meant everything to her—and she still mourned the loss of the horses they’d been forced to sell in the last year. Each one unique, with a personality and a purpose that had always meant more to Orla than just winning races or accruing stud fees. Perhaps that was why she had ultimately failed in her attempt to keep Calhouns going, not because she hadn’t been good at training and caring for the horses, but because they had always meant more to her than just a business.
And now she was going to lose it all…
‘All right, all right. I get you,’ Dervla whispered back, grabbing her elbow to drag her away from the stall, and not sounding all that apologetic. ‘But what are we going to do about him?’
Orla heard it then, the sound of a helicopter powering down. It was far enough away not to disturb the animals, but the sound would never be quiet enough not to disturb her.
‘Are you sure it’s him?’ she asked. ‘He’s not due here till Friday.’
The liquidator had arranged to have Crown Prince Karim Jamal Amari Khan view the facility before the auction on Saturday. This must be a preliminary visit by one of his minions. Sure, it had to be. She wasn’t ready for him.
She glanced down at her work boots and dirty jeans, the sweat-stained camisole that clung to her breasts. She’d been up at dawn to take Aderyn out on the gallops and had been mucking out the stalls ever since, because they’d laid off the last of the stable boys almost a month ago.
‘Gerry said he spoke to him,’ Dervla whispered. As if the man was standing behind them. ‘He’s piloting the helicopter! He came on his own, Gerry says.’
The anxiety that had gripped her stomach ever since she’d been forced to face the inevitable took another vicious twist.
She’d had a plan to have the house and herself spotless when he arrived. When you were going to beg a favour from a playboy sheikh, you needed to look your best.
‘Go keep him busy, then, while I wash up here,’ Orla said, her mind racing. ‘And get Maeve to bring over my best trousers, fresh underwear and the blouse I ironed yesterday in my wardrobe.’
She shoved her sister out of the stable entrance, then shot towards the washroom at the back of the stalls. Kicking off her boots, she ripped open the fly of her jeans. She could rinse herself here to get the stink off and then get changed before going to greet him.
Sophisticated and demure was out now, but she’d always been a tomboy and had never fitted into the racing high society her father frequented. She’d tried that by getting engaged to Patrick Quinn. And it had been a disaster.
‘What did you expect? Men have needs, Orla. And you’re as frigid as a nun.’
She flinched, remembering Patrick’s parting words from five years back, and the sickening sight of him and Meghan O’Reilly wrapped around each other like superglue in the gazebo during their engagement party. Orla dumped her jeans by the sinks and ignored the shiver of humiliation that always accompanied the distressing memories.
Doesn’t matter, you’re well shot of him.
But Patrick had been right about one thing: she had never been any good at playing the flirtatious debutante. So trying to impress a playboy sheikh with her socialite credentials would always have been a stretch. Even if she’d had the time to prepare properly.
But if she changed into something not filthy, she could at least manage cool, calm and in control—something she needed to be to have any chance of persuading Karim Khan to let her stay at Calhouns.
The man knew their financial situation, that they were being forced to sell, so she didn’t have much bargaining power.
She’d done a ton of Internet research on Khan last night, as soon as they’d got wind of Amari Corp’s interest from the liquidator. From what she could tell their potential buyer was rich, entitled and arrogant, a royal prince who was used to having people like her at his beck and call and who was rich enough to think he could buy his way into a legacy that had taken her family ten generations to build. But she’d be damned if she’d let Crown Prince Whoever cut her out completely from the work she had dedicated her life to.
All she needed was a chance to prove to him she could still be useful at the stud. After all, she’d been as good as managing the place for five years now, ever since she turned seventeen and her father had become trapped in the well of grief left by her mother’s death.
But she couldn’t do that looking like Little Orphan Annie. From all the press reports she’d read, he was the sort of man who only paid attention to beautiful, sophisticated women with manicured nails, designer clothes and perfectly styled hair that reached down to their bums. The sort of woman she’d never been, even when she had fancied herself in love with the son of the neighbouring Quinn stud.
Standing in her camisole and panties, she grabbed the hose they used to wash the tack and turned it on. A whole body shiver raked her body as she doused her head with the frigid water. And cursed, loudly.
Why had Khan come five days early? Was he trying to catch her out?
A throat cleared loudly behind her.
‘Ms Calhoun, I presume?’ The deep, curt British accent had her swinging round so fast the hose flew out of her hand, sprinkling water everywhere.
Heat leapt into her cheeks and burned across her collarbone.
A tall man stood with his shoulder propped against the washroom door, his face cast into shadow by the sunshine, but she recognised him instantly from all the research.
What the ever-loving…?
She banded her arms across her chest to shield herself, but couldn’t stop the humiliating shivers—as his cold assessing gaze set her freezing skin alight.
Seriously? Could she have made a worse impression? And how had he found her here so quickly?
Dervla, I’m going to strangle you.
‘Mr… Mr Khan?’ She stuck her chin out, trying to claw back a modicum of dignity, even though she knew she had to look like a drowned rat. ‘We weren’t expecting you until Friday. And what are you doing in the stables?’
He wore blue jeans, a black crew-neck sweater that clung to his impressively muscular chest, and black leather boots polished to a high gleam. His complexion was dark, his hair even darker. She had a sudden recollection of the villainous king in a book she’d read as a child who had been cruel and cold and all powerful, but also weirdly hot for the villain in a children’s storybook. She’d loved that book once upon a time, reading it over and over again. And now she knew why.
‘What am I doing here?’ he said, the sarcastic tone cutting through her little reminiscence like a scalpel. ‘I plan to buy your stud, Ms Calhoun. Today.’
Renewed panic sprinted up her spine, but then he turned into the light to grab the towel that hung from a peg on the washroom wall. And every thought flew out of her head bar one.
He’s even hotter than the villainous king in Flinty O’Toole’s Epic Quest.
Her lungs squeezed and the heat of mortification morphed into something a great deal more disturbing.
She already knew Karim Khan was stupidly handsome. She’d studied enough photographs of him last night at gala events, in tuxedos and designer suits, his hair perfectly styled as he paraded supermodels and actresses about as if they were accessories.
But the photos had not done him justice. In the flesh, and up close, and even without the luxury of a stylist, the man was quite simply breathtaking. Her heart literally stopped beating as she devoured the sight of firm, sensual lips, a strong jaw, high sculpted cheekbones and the long blade-like nose. The slight bump in the bridge and a sickle-shaped scar above his left eye marred the perfect symmetry of his face, but only made him look more rugged and masculine and overwhelming.
The burning heat in her cheeks shot through her veins, and her nipples, which were already like bullets, tightened into torpedoes. She squeezed her folded arms harder over her chest trying to quell the throbbing ache. She was more humiliated now than she’d been when she’d found her fiancé eating the face off another woman at her engagement party. And she’d always believed that humiliation could never be topped.
‘Dry off,’ he said, throwing her the towel.
She caught it one-handed, struggling to inflate her lungs when the light hit his face again and she saw the impatience in his eyes—which were a beautiful golden brown. Because, of course they were.
All the better to devastate you with, Orla. Because he’s a god among men and you’re a shivering, almost naked tomboy pauper.
As she frantically wrapped the towel around her nakedness, his gaze skimmed down, coasting over every inch of exposed skin until it got to the puddle of water forming at her bare feet.
‘I’ll meet you at the house in fifteen minutes,’ he said, speaking to her as if she were a disobedient and particularly irritating ten-year-old. ‘I need this deal finalised today.’
Despite her breathing difficulties, Orla felt her hackles rising.
Who did he think he was, speaking to her like that? Just because he was gorgeous and loaded and dry and fully clothed and she… Well… She wasn’t.
But before she could come up with a suitably indignant reply, or gather enough courage—and breath—to actually enunciate it, the impossible man had strode back out of the stables and was gone.