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The Sheikh's Baby Bet by Holly Rayner (1)

Chapter One

Tiffany’s fingers snapped over the keyboard at her desk. It was just after six o’clock on Friday afternoon, and her office, in the tiny Middle Eastern country of Al Barait, was clearing out for the weekend. Like her, many of the travel company’s employees were American, working to bring wealthy Westerners to the gorgeous desert landscape of the Persian Gulf.

Was it her dream job? Maybe not. But at this point in her career, she just wanted to flee bad memories in America, and make a new life for herself.

She’d graduated from a good university, and tourism had been her major which almost overqualified her for the executive position she held. Of course, it didn’t hurt that her father was the U.S. ambassador to Al Barait, and had been for the past ten years. Tiffany knew the country intimately, had vacationed there during summers throughout high school and college, and—when the time had come to move away from her university town—she’d seen no other option. She certainly wasn’t going to join her mother in Florida, of all places. In her mind, that was where Americans went to live a slower life. To retire. And Tiffany Ashworth was anything but passive.

Her stunted relationship with her mother didn’t help, either.

A British woman named Mallory appeared on the other side of her desk, grinning at her from behind thick-rimmed glasses. Her dyed red hair fell in ringlets around her shoulders. “Aren’t you going to have a crazy weekend in the city, Tiff?” she asked, her eyebrows high. “You’re too young to work your weekend away.”

Tiffany brushed her fingers through her long and luscious brown hair. She hated it when older people commented that she worked too hard, or implied that she was wasting her youth. “I have plans,” she said, shrugging slightly. “I promise.”

“With a nice young man, I hope,” Mallory said.

Tiffany batted her long lashes, and giggled just enough to satisfy the older woman. “Mallory, if I had a boyfriend, nothing would get done around here. You know that.”

Mallory chuckled good-naturedly. Slowly, the other woman eased a finger over the power button on Tiffany’s computer screen, cutting it to black. Certain now that it was high time for her to leave, Tiffany sighed begrudgingly and followed Mallory from the air-conditioned building, into the steaming desert heat of the city streets. On some level, she knew that Mallory was right; her professional career was slowly eating away at her regular life.

Mallory spoke in a bouncy, British accent, explaining that she and her husband were trying out a new yoga routine that weekend. “But he’s far too tight in his thighs,” she explained. “He can barely touch his toes.”

Outside, she and Mallory hopped on a train, bolting back to the center of the city. Mallory and her husband, Jacob, had moved to Al Barait nearly ten years before, wanting the dry heat and the gorgeous desert landscape. “And if I were twenty years younger, darling,” she said often, “these Middle Eastern men are absolutely divine! Jacob says all the time how frumpy he feels in comparison. I can’t say I don’t agree. I mean, I am making him do just about every form of exercise I can think of.”

Tiffany struck off by herself in the center of town, waving goodbye to Mallory as the train doors snipped closed between them. Striding across the train station, she let her shoulders loosen, and allowed her mind to wander. Her thoughts had been focused on prices of plane tickets that had been arranged for special guests, not to mention the constant fear that their little firm wouldn’t make its numbers this quarter. Instead, as she pushed into the revving streets of downtown, she allowed herself to people-watch. The city was vibrant, and international, with women dressed in bright, flowing dresses, and men in immaculate suits and expensive sunglasses. As she walked, she couldn’t help but smile.

Tiffany’s good friend Zarina had been her first roommate when she’d moved out to Al Barait. They had lived in a tiny apartment, both of them earning meager salaries, and sometimes Tiffany had felt that she had made a huge mistake in leaving the US.

In an attempt to combat her homesickness, Zarina had become like a sister to her: telling her about her wildest dreams, cooking with her, and sharing everything, including her small victories, miseries, and loneliness. Several months back, the friends had opted to live separately, in their own, one-bedroom apartments, more suited for the type of women they wanted to become. They had continued to meet up regularly, each complaining in ways they used to—at one in the morning on their kitchen floor. Each filling in the gaps of what they’d missed in each other’s lives.

That Friday, Zarina had suggested they meet at a new cocktail bar and restaurant between their two apartments. With expensive drinks and attractive waiters, each of them wearing stylish beards and directing delicious smiles in their direction when they walked past, Tiffany anticipated a truly interesting evening.

Poised at the intersection, just a block or two away from the restaurant, Tiffany watched as a sleek, orange supercar flashed around the corner, to her left. Whooshing between the other cars, it slid along the yellow line, nearly blasting into a group of pedestrians as it raced. Shocked, Tiffany gaped at it. The man in the front seat was wild looking, attractive, with his dark hair whipping behind him. His smile was firm, his teeth bright white. And, as Tiffany inhaled every little detail about him, she realized that she knew precisely who it was.

The man was Sheikh Kazra El-Youradi, the notorious eldest son of Al Barait’s current Sheikh. Nearly every day of the week, his face was plastered all over the country’s tabloid magazines, which discussed all of his scandalous exploits. He was a prolific reveler and gregarious host, bringing in celebrities from all over the world to sail out on his yacht, to destroy his penthouse apartment, and to flit along with the most gorgeous models in the Middle East. Every time Tiffany saw his photograph, or caught wind of a story about him, her stomach flipped. Mostly because she was disgusted that anyone could live like that without consequences. And also because she had to admit, each and every time, that he was still the most handsome man she’d ever seen.

As the car raced past the intersection, a gust of desert wind blasted into Tiffany’s face, mussing up her hair. Tossing her head back, she let out a sigh. With tentative fingers, she attempted to fix it, slipping the curls down her shoulders. “That’s another thing he’ll get away with,” she whispered, feeling suddenly grumpy. She could already hear herself complaining about him to her father, next time she saw him. “The nerve of that man!”