The Sheikh stood looking out of the big window which took in the view of rolling green fields as far as the eye could see and the gallops in the distance. Iseult’s breath hitched and her heart took up an unsteady rhythm. And then he slowly turned around and heat climbed up her chest and into her face.
She stayed near the door and saw one ebony brow arch imperiously, and was reminded in that instance who she was dealing with, and who she had trifled with. She swallowed. ‘I owe you an apology.’
The brow stayed arched, he wasn’t going to make this easy.
‘I’m sorry if I gave you the impression that I was -‘
He cut in then and she could hear the anger vibrating in his voice. ‘Rude? Obnoxious? Behaving like a petulant teenager?’
Iseult fought to clamp down on a renewed surge of anger and clenched her fists. The Sheikh walked over to sit back against the huge desk, crossing his arms over that formidable chest. In her peripheral vision Iseult could see the material of his jeans straining over his powerful thighs and for a dizzy second she forgot what he’d just said.
But then she remembered. Her vision cleared, the red mist lifted. She lifted her chin. ‘I’m apologising now for my behavior. I had no right to treat you with such disrespect.’
‘No, you didn’t.’ He sounded a little surprised and looked at her assessingly. ‘But I can appreciate that this must be a difficult situation, so I’m prepared to give you the benefit of the doubt. For now.’
His eyes dropped for a moment, in a long sweep down her body. Iseult could feel that clammy sweat break out again. Why did she feel as if he’d just undressed her every time he did that?
‘After all,’ he drawled, his eyes on hers again, ‘You can’t be more than, what? Eighteen?’
That red mist hovered close again, Iseult had to will it down and bit out, ‘I’m no child, I’m twenty-three.’
Nadim had to quell the surge of reaction when he heard how old she was. She was the same age as Sara had been when she’d – he ruthlessly cut off his thoughts there, aware uncomfortably of how different the woman in front of him was from his late wife. He didn’t appreciate being reminded of her now, it made his voice harsh.
‘Clearly a very immature twenty-three year old who can’t abide the thought of no longer being the mistress of the manor house.’
Iseult felt hysteria rising. ‘Clearly you’ve not taken a close look at your new property Sheikh, it’s been a long time since there was a mistress of this house the way you’re implying. Everyone here works day and night to keep the place running, even Mrs O’Brien hasn’t been paid in months, she’s still here out of loyalty and because we provide a roof over her head,’ her voice took on a bitter edge, ‘but evidently sheer hard work wasn’t enough to bring us through tough times.’
‘Or a good horse…’ Nadim said.
‘Or a good horse.’ Iseult repeated, unable to hide the weariness in her voice.
Nadim was aback by the sudden jump from passion to defeat, he’d clearly hit a nerve. Taking a closer look for the first time he could see that Iseult was actually bordering on being painfully thin. And when her face wasn’t flushed with anger as he’d seen often enough today, it was pale…too pale. He could see faint purple shadows under her eyes. Something shifted in his chest and a protective instinct nearly overwhelmed him with its force.
‘Is your father still drinking?’ he asked then so abruptly that Iseult’s face flushed again and curiously it made Nadim feel somehow comforted.
She shook her head fiercely, eyes flashing a warning, ‘He hasn’t touched a drop in seven years. And he won’t, ever again.’
Nadim’s mouth quirked but not with humour. ‘Not even you could guarantee that, and I saw that worried glance earlier before you saw he was drinking water. How do you know this transition won’t send him off the rails again? After all isn’t that what precipitated your decline?’
Iseult wondered dimly how he’d effortlessly articulated her own innermost worries or how he knew so much but then had to concede that her father’s drinking problem had been common knowledge within their circles, despite her attempts to hide it and take his workload onto her shoulders.
Reluctantly she explained, ‘We started to do badly when my grandfather became gravely ill, nearly thirteen years ago. We’d had a run of bad luck…disappointing foals and yearlings. The owners of horses we were training got nervous after my grandfather died and sent them to other trainers.’
Her mouth twisted, ‘We were suddenly unfashionable. And we were up against much more successful studs with infinitely more resources than we had. Not long after my grandfather died, my mother passed away and that was when my father…’
She didn’t have to finish. She couldn’t finish, in truth she was a little stunned that she’d just shared what she had. But then, some instinct had warned her that the Sheikh would dig until he got to the very bottom of their modus operandi and how they’d got to this dismal state of affairs. And if he went through paperwork it wouldn’t take long to trace events back to her grandfather’s death, and then her mother’s.
He was frowning at her now. ‘What happened then? Who did your father bring in to keep this place running?’
Iseult shook her head, feeling shame mount for the first time in her life to hear their history articulated so baldly. To know that she had failed. ‘No-one. We all pulled together. I…’ She faltered, and then hitched her chin again, ‘I helped until my father could get back on his feet again…and since I left school I’ve been working here full time.’
There was no expression on the Sheikh’s face but Iseult could see a muscle pulse in his jaw. ‘Your brothers and sisters?’
‘I’ve two brothers, and one sister. They’re away in college in Dublin. They helped out when they could.’
Nadim reeled inwardly, at the mere age of about twelve she had taken on that burden, along with school? If what Iseult was saying was true, then she’d more or less single – handedly helped keep this stables afloat. He could tell that she was embarrassed and he could also tell that she was used to protecting her father. He felt a surge of anger towards that man now and couldn’t fathom how his perception of this woman before him had changed so much in such a short space of time.
‘And Devil’s Kiss? You trained him?’
Iseult flushed, ‘With my father. We both did.’
Nadim felt on a more even keel here. ‘How do you know that you haven’t over trained him? That he isn’t peaking too early?’
Sheer pride straightened Iseult’s back. ‘Do you think he’s peaking too early? Couldn’t you tell just from riding him today that if anything his winning those races was just a sign of things to come?’
Her confidence astounded him but he had to admit grudgingly to himself that he had formed that opinion. ‘You’re very confident.’
‘Because I know horses, and I know Devil’s Kiss. He’s not yet shown half his potential. His lineage is pure thoroughbred; his father was Hawk Eye and his dam was Sheila’s Wish whose line goes back directly to Queen of Tara.’
Nadim knew Devil’s Kiss’s stellar lineage back to front, and Iseult was right. ‘If what you say is true…you do know what you’re saying?’
Iseult nodded, ‘He could become something very special.’
‘More than special, a world champion.’
Iseult nodded again, surprised to recognise that he was hearing her and taking her opinion on board. She’d chafed to think that he didn’t rate her training skill, and while she knew she had a long way to go, she’d always had the confidence instilled within her from her grandfather to trust her instincts. And she knew she was right when it came to Devil’s Kiss.
The Sheikh stood from the desk then and in a skittish move Iseult took a step back even though feet separated them. She caught his dark look and cursed herself for reacting, hating that he might suspect she was so aware of him. She watched as he walked around the desk and sat down in the high backed leather chair that had been her grandfather’s.
He gestured her forward to take the seat on the other side. Too hot inside and bemused, Iseult couldn’t even feel insulted that he was taking clear control. When she’d sat down, he flicked a hand over a sheaf of papers on the desk.
‘The papers are signed Iseult, I now own everything.’ His dark look speared her, ‘I now own you.’
Iseult’s throat dried up. She was reacting to too many things at once. The fact that he’d just called her by her name with that deep voice and sexy accent making it sound deliciously foreign and sensual. And also, despite her assertion earlier that she wasn’t part of the inventory, she couldn’t refute his claim that he owned her. She was as much a part of this stud as the earth of the land and the stones of the house. She’d even been born in her parents bedroom upstairs.
‘So…’ she managed to croak out, ‘…what?’
Nadim looked at the young woman opposite him. He didn’t like to acknowledge how hearing how old she was had seemed to make his awareness of her increase thousandfold within him, as if he’d been denying it to himself when he’d believed her to be out of bounds.
And she still was. Yet, despite that assertion he knew what he wanted with stunning clarity and what he wanted was to keep this woman close, for such myriad reasons that he wasn’t even going to investigate them now. He made a split second decision.
‘A chain of events has been set into motion. This will become my European base. It will need to be built up. As you may already now, I’ve acquired the land adjoining to the stud down the road…’
Iseult nodded in acknowledgment, it had been the first sign of how determined he was to buy them out. He’d been so confident of acquiring their stud that he’d invested in the land around them before they’d announced the sale. Her anger at his arrogance had surged from that point. But in fairness, she could see now that it would have been directed at anyone who had stepped in to buy them out…
‘I’ve already hired a new manager to come in and take over both facilities, the training grounds and the stud – ‘
Iseult gasped, pulled out of her straying thoughts, ‘I thought you were going to allow my father to stay on,’ Anger blurred her vision, for a second there she’d been distracted by this man’s sheer charisma when all along – ‘If you think that you can come in here like this and just-‘
He surged up from his seat to place both hands on the desk and towered over Iseult in the chair, ‘Stop talking right now.’
Her heart nearly jumped out of her chest, and along with the shock at his quick anger, Iseult also felt a dangerous thrill to be so close to that vibrant tightly coiled energy.
He sat back down and raked a hand through his hair, impatience bouncing off him in waves, ‘You are unbelievably impertinent, no – one speaks to me like this, no – one. The fact that you are even here and having this conversation with me is because I recognised the role you played here. That is all. Believe me, in any other instance you would be lucky to have me acknowledge your existence, never mind conduct a discourse like this.’
Iseult clamped her mouth shut, words aching to trip off her tongue at his arrogance. In truth, he was intimidating her more than she cared to admit and after seeing the evidence of his protective entourage, she could well imagine that he wouldn’t have cast someone like her a second glance. And the thought surprisingly sank like a lead balloon in her belly.
‘Your father is being kept on, exactly as I promised. But in an advisory capacity at first. I will not allow someone to take over the running of this place who so obviously let it slip between his fingers. And despite your noble defence of him, I’m also not convinced that his weakest traits are behind him.’
Iseult could feel herself blanch. He meant her father’s drinking. She couldn’t meet the Sheikh’s eyes for long, feeling as if he was looking right into her soul and seeing her own private fears laid bare. Because she wasn’t entirely sure herself how her father would react.
‘My newly appointed manager will start here tomorrow, early, and I expect you to give him a full run down of everything. I know you still have some mares. The fact that you have a training facility here at the house is one of your great advantages, making this a fully sufficient stud, which is exactly what I wanted to expand upon. Then will come the task of acquiring new foals, yearlings, stallions and mares and slowly building everything from the ground up again…’
Iseult nodded her head, a tiny spark of excitement spiking through her to think of them getting an overhaul and breeding once again. ‘I can fill the new manager in when he comes…we’ll have some time though won’t we? The autumn yearling sales won’t be starting for a few weeks.’
Nadim just looked at her and Iseult felt something unspoken move between them, instinctively she shivered.
‘He will have plenty of time, yes, along with your father. You however will have just the morning to acquaint him with everything as you’ve dealt with it. Because tomorrow early evening you’ll be travelling to Merkazad with Devil’s Kiss…and me.’