One week before Christmas
The cool Mediterranean breeze pulls at my hair, causing my curls to slap at my shoulders and lick at my face. I grip the railing of Ahmed’s luxury yacht as I stare at the dark waters of the sea with a growing sense of unease.
Something has gone wrong in the game I’m playing, and everything is about to come back and bite me in the ass.
Behind me, Ahmed speaks quietly in Arabic to our steward. He thinks I don’t understand, but I’ve made it a point to learn some of the language.
He’s dismissing the steward with instructions for the crew not to bother us, regardless of what they may see or hear.
Ice floods my veins, but I can’t let my fear rule me. If I have any hope of making it out of this little spur-of-the-moment ‘pleasure cruise’ unscathed, I need to keep my wits about me.
“Meredith,” Ahmed says, his voice firm. The tone is something he usually reserves for those he considers beneath him, and I’ve been hearing a lot of it today.
I don’t know what has brought about this change, and it’s extremely concerning.
“Come, have a drink with me.”
I can’t disobey.
Slipping my mask back into place, I relax my lips and fix a serene look on my face as I turn to face him.
Walking towards him across the deck, the breeze whips at the skirt of my flowy dress as I force myself to imagine that I love him, that he’s handsome. That he’s everything I want in a man and not everything I actually despise… so that warm affection fills my eyes.
Ahmed extends a flute of sparkling champagne towards me while his dark eyes roam critically over me.
Shit. I don’t think he’s buying it.
Fingers wrapping around the flute, I bring it up to my lips and sip from it. The sweet liquid fizzles and pops across my tongue before sliding down my throat.
I drink just enough to settle my nerves and appease him. The last thing I need right now is to have alcohol muddling up my thought processes.
Ahmed’s eyes never leave me as he lifts his own flute and drinks deeply from it. In his own words, he’s a ‘bad Muslim’. When he leaves the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, he likes to indulge in all the vices the world has to offer.
Alcohol. Pork. Gambling.
He has admitted that his vices have caused him to fall out of favor with his family, but it hasn’t stopped him. A prince of significant power and financial means, he’s not about to let a little thing like familial favor hold him back. No, he enjoys having the world at his feet too much.
It’s what drew me to him in the first place.
For the past several weeks, I’ve been stringing him along. Slowly weaving my web around him while he’s been playing the game completely unaware.
But something changed today. Something has happened without my knowledge and tipped him off.
And I can’t figure out what.
My performance has been flawless. Everything has been progressing as it should. There’s still several weeks left to go before I move in for ‘the kill’, so to say.
Ahmed sets his empty glass down on the table and grabs me by the arm. He’s draws me closer and plucks my glass from my hand.
Setting my glass down, his eyes never leave my face. They search me, probe at me, as if he’s trying to see the things I don’t want him to see.
Things such as my true revulsion for him. For his kind. And his nationality has nothing to do with it. He’s just another man with too much money, too much power, and he’s long overdue for someone like me to knock him down a few notches.
If anything, the fact that he’s a prince only makes his fall sweeter.
Men like him, like my stepbrother, think just because they’re rich and powerful, they can get away with anything.
Get away with lies. Infidelities. Murder.
It took me a few years to find my place in this world, but now that I have I relish in it. Growing up pampered to an excess, I have no true skills. I found higher education tedious. The hours spent studying was pointless. A waste of my life. There are so many figures in my bank account, what is the point of work? To prove I have some value beyond my looks?
I don’t hunger for power. No, it’s quite the opposite. I’d prefer to be without it. Power brings too many headaches and responsibilities. And it’s a constant struggle to keep a grip on it. There’s always someone waiting around the corner, someone like me, ready to knock you down.
So what is left?
Socializing? Boring. Treat life as one long luxury vacation? Been there, done that. It’s not as fun as it sounds. Help the poor and downtrodden? With what skills? I could donate all my money, but then where would that leave me?
The only thing I seem to excel at in this life is attracting bad men then breaking them.
It’s a game I’ve perfected over the years. The only thing that gives me a thrill nowadays, and my way of contributing to the betterment of this world.
It’s simple, really, and almost too easy. The real danger doesn’t come until the end, when the man’s world comes crashing down, but I’ve grown quite adept at covering my tracks.
I reel my marks in with this stunning face God blessed me with. Then I string them along while learning all their dirty little secrets. Once I grow bored, or discover something particularly juicy, I use those secrets against them. When they fall from grace, I have the perfect excuse for leaving them and moving on to the next mark.
Ahmed draws me closer and closer, as if it will allow him to peer deeper into my soul.
My skin crawls under the grip of his soft hand and my nose wants to wrinkle at the thick scent of his perfumed musk.
Reaching up, he tucks one of my wayward curls behind my ear. The action should be tender, but it feels more like a threat.
“Is there anything you would like to tell me, Meredith?” he asks as the tips of his fingers trail down my cheek.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
It’s just as I suspected, but what does he know?
I squint my eyes a little bit, just enough to cause wrinkles to appear on my brow so that I appear confused. “Tell you? No… I don’t think so.”
He stares at me for a long moment then gives a nod of his head as if that’s the answer he expected. His fingers suddenly dig painfully into my arm as he tightens his grip.
With a hard tug he begins to drag me towards the side of the yacht.
“Ow! Ahmed, you’re hurting me!” I cry out, hoping to earn some sympathy so he’ll lighten up.
It only causes his grip to dig in even deeper.
Dammit. Whatever he knows is bad.
Once we reach the rail, he uses my arm to jerk me around so that I’m facing him. My shoulder screams in agony as he then pushes my back up against the railing.
“I’m going to give you one more chance, Meredith,” he says calmly. “Is there something you want to tell me?”
My mind races, trying to figure out what he can possibly know. I’ve been careful, so careful. The only way he could possibly know anything at all is if one of my former marks somehow found him.
But even then, even if they were aware of what happened, would they want to admit they had been suckered by woman?
No, it’s not likely. That’s why I only choose the ones with huge egos…
I search his face, looking for a hint, for anything that will give me a clue of what he knows, my confusion now genuine.
But all I see is his eyes growing darker and darker with anger.
“Have I done something wrong, darling? If I have, I’m truly sorry. I can assure you it wasn’t intentional…”
Despite the pain of his grip, despite the rail that’s digging into my back, I reach out and stroke his arm.
If I act afraid now it will only prove my guilt.
“I’ll make it up to you, I promise,” I say, flooding my gaze with heat and lowering my lashes.
His eyes begin to soften and his grip loosens a fraction.
I haven’t slept with him yet, despite his rather aggressive advances. Not only because I find the thought of it repugnant, but because once you spread your legs for a man like him they’re done with you and ready to move on to the next conquest.
I continue to stroke his arm, letting my eyes do all the talking for me. I think of the all the dirty little things I could do for him if he was someone I actually found attractive.
Just as I feel like I’m pulling him back into my web, his expression suddenly hardens. His hand releases my arm and he reaches up and wraps it around my neck.
Squeezing his fingers together, he leans over me and begins to push me back.
Panicked, I stop stroking his arm. My fingers scramble up and desperately claw at the fingers squeezing around my throat.
“Stop playing games with me, Meredith. I’m on to you.”
He keeps pushing and pushing, looming over me until I’m nearly bent in half. I can feel the mist of the choppy waves splashing up. The drops of water that hit my nape and dampen my curls are uncomfortably cold.
I glance to the side and all I see is endless black sea.
This was always a possibility, being killed by a mark, and it’s what makes the game so thrilling in the first place.
But I’m not ready to go just yet.
“Tell me who those men at the dock are,” he demands and my attention snaps back to him.
“What men?!” I cry out.
I honestly have no clue what he’s talking about.
His face twists into an ugly expression of rage and his fingers squeeze harder, cutting my air off. “No more lies! The two men who were following you.”
I cough and cough, unable to breathe, and my heels scrape against the deck as I struggle not to fall over the rail.
Realizing I can’t answer him, his grip lets up just enough for me to draw in some much needed air. I gulp at it, swallowing up as much of it as I can.
When I don’t immediately answer him, he shakes me hard. “Who are they?!”
“I don’t know!” I scream honestly and clutch at his forearm with both hands as I feel my heels slipping on the decking.
I have no clue why two men would be following me. It’s a little concerning, but not as concerning as falling to my watery death.
Ahmed’s nostrils flare as he huffs and puffs and his face is flushed an angry red.
“I swear, Ahmed, I swear on everything, I had no idea people were following me,” I plead.
I don’t want to die, especially when for once in my life I’m telling the truth.
Grip tightening around my neck again, he pulls me closer, until we’re almost nose to nose. His hot breath hits my face and it takes every ounce of my self-control to keep from recoiling in revulsion.
“If you are lying to me, Meredith…” he threatens.
“I’m not!” I insist. “I swear.”
Ahmed closes his eyes and I pray that I’ve been convincing enough.
His eyes slowly open and he yanks me upright. I stumble, getting my feet under me, and almost fall into him. Before I can push away from him, his hand releases my neck and his other arm wraps around me, pulling me into his chest.
“I believe you, habibti,” he says, suddenly tender again. Reaching up, he brushes my hair back, out of my face. I feel so much relief tears fill my eyes. That was too damn close for comfort. “But I fear you are in danger.”
I nod my head as I lean into him as if I need his strength right now. What I really want to do is slap him across his face for doing what he did to me. Instead, I give into my tears so that he believes I’m weak and stupid.
Ahmed frowns at the tears that roll down my cheeks. “Don’t cry. I will protect you.”
Oh, that’s just rich. After almost killing me himself now he wants to ‘protect me’.
I nod my head and look down so he doesn’t catch the anger in my eyes.
“We will marry. I will take you as my third wife, and we will return to my home. You will be safe in my compound.”
Wait… what? He wants to take me to Saudi Arabia and marry me? And I’ll be his third wife?
I shudder at the thought of being trapped in a country where I’ll be essentially owned by him and forced to completely cover myself from head to ankle in public.
I can’t live like that, I can’t. But I also can’t risk angering him again…
“You would do that for me?” I sniffle and lift my gaze, turning the full force of my glistening eyes on him.
“For you, habibti, I will do anything,” he says with so much emotion I almost believe him.
But I know he’s not offering this out of love, despite his little pet name. He’s doing this because he wants to possess me like I’m a trophy. He doesn’t know me, the real me. He hasn’t even tried to get to know the fake me. I’m just a beautiful toy in his eyes, something to claim so no one else can play with it.
I do the only thing I can do at this moment. I lean into him and give him a kiss that shows how much I appreciate his declaration.
He seems surprised at first, but quickly throws himself into it. His lips greedily push into my lips and then his tongue is trying to thrust its way past them. I open for him even though I feel sick to my stomach kissing a man that almost killed me.
His tongue sloppily swipes at my tongue and I want to throw up, but somehow I muscle my way through it. I manage to work him around, turning him just a bit here and there until his back is facing the railing.
Finally, when I can bear no more, I push away from him and break the kiss.
Panting heavily, he immediately reaches for me and tries to pull me back.
“No… no… darling,” I say, shaking my head at him. “I want to show you how much I love you…”
I slowly begin to sink to my knees so he draws his own conclusions.
He stares at me for a moment, and I’m not sure if it’s because he’s offended or if he can’t believe his good fortune.
Then he asks, “Really, habibti? You would do this for me?”
I smile at him and nod.
Oh, I’m going to do it for you, buddy.
Muttering something in Arabic, he reaches down and begins to fumble with the buckle of his belt.
I start the countdown in my head.
Yanking hard on his belt, he manages to undo the buckle and quickly unbuttons his slacks.
Eagerly, he pulls down his zipper and takes himself in his hand.
Surging forward, I push out with everything I have. I scream as my hands connect with his stomach, praying that it’s enough.
His arms flail out and he takes one stumbling step back, then another.
For a split second, I fear it wasn’t enough and I have no fucking clue what I’ll do now, but then his back hits the rail and he goes tumbling over.
He hits the water with a loud splash and I rush up to the rail. Gripping it, I lean over and watch the water.
A couple of seconds pass before his head bobs up, breaking the surface.
“Meredith!” he yells, flailing about.
Yeah, I never understood why the stupid fuck owns a yacht if he doesn’t know how to swim.
His head sinks below the surface and I glance nervously towards the cabins. If any of the crew appears I’ll just act hysteric. After all, it was a total accident.
His servants must be very afraid of him though because none come running to his rescue.
Good for me, bad for him.
I look back to the water and try to watch for bubbles, but it’s hard to see given the dark and all the waves the yacht is kicking up.
His dark head suddenly surfaces again, farther away, but he doesn’t cry out. No, he’s completely silent before he disappears again.
I watch and watch. Seconds turning into minutes. When he doesn’t make a reappearance, I finally relax.
He’s gone… and it was almost too easy. Shouldn’t murder be harder? I don’t know. I’ll have to ask Matthew…
But no, it wasn’t quite murder was it? It was self-defense. Yes, self-defense. It was kill or be killed. Because if he would have taken me to Saudi Arabia and made me his third wife, there’s no way I would have survived. Once he learned who I really am, they probably would have stoned me to death.
I had no choice, really. He forced my hand.
Bolstered by my reasoning, I push away from the rail and straighten my dress.
Now all that remains is to sneak out once we dock before the crew figures out what happened.