HE KNEW HE wanted her from the moment he saw her.
Sharif bin Nazih al-Aktoum, the Emir of Makhtar, had been laughing at the joke of a friend when he turned and saw a woman, standing alone in the Italian moonlight, on the shores of Lake Como.
She stood past a thicket of trees farther down the hill. Her white dress was translucent in the silvery glow of light, and the bare trees of November left latticed shadows like dark lace against her skin. Her black hair cascaded down her shoulders, tumbling, lustrous as onyx. Her eyes were closed in her heart-stoppingly lovely face as her sensual lips whispered unheard words.
Sharif’s laughter fled. Was she a ghost? A dream?
Just some wedding guest, he told himself harshly. Nothing special. A trick of moonlight.
He stared at her.
Moments before, he’d been chuckling at the poor bridegroom, who’d recently been a famous playboy but had made the mistake of getting his housekeeper pregnant. The new bride was very beautiful, yes, he conceded, and seemed loyal and kind. But still, Sharif would never get caught that way. Not until the bitter end.
Sharif pushed the thought away, jerking his chin in the direction of the lakeshore. “Who is that?”
“The woman. By the lake.”
His friend, the Duque de Alzacar, craned his head right and left. “I don’t see anyone.”
Between them and the unknown woman well-dressed wedding guests were milling about the terraces, drinking champagne and enjoying the coolness of the late-autumn night. The intimate evening wedding, held in a medieval chapel on an Italian
tycoon’s estate, had just ended, and they were waiting for the dinner reception to begin. But surely his friend could see the angel by the lake. “Are you blind?” Sharif said impatiently.
“Describe her to me.”
Sharif parted his lips to do just that, then thought better of it. The Spanish duke was the most reckless, irredeemable womanizer he knew—which reminded him of the old saying about the pot and the kettle. But looking back at the soft moonlight on the houri by the lake, Sharif felt the sudden strange need to protect her, even from another man’s glance. She seemed from another world. Sensual, magical—pure...
“Never mind,” he said abruptly. “Excuse me.” He started walking down the path toward the shore. He heard a low snort of laughter behind him.
“Take care you don’t get bewitched by the moonlight, my friend,” the Duque de Alzacar called. “I’d hate to be soon attending one of these events for you...”
Sharif ignored him. Holding up a hand to tell his bodyguards to remain behind, in the shadows of the villa, he went down to the thicket of trees. Where was she? Had he lost her?
Had he dreamed her?
He saw a flash of movement and exhaled. She had moved farther down the shore. He followed silently in his white robes, stalking her like one of the lions that had existed in his Makhtari homeland centuries before.
She moved so sensually. He heard her softly whispered voice. Sharif’s eyes narrowed to see whom she was speaking with, but there was no one. Half expecting her to disappear, he came out into the clearing beside her, feeling suddenly clumsy as he stepped on a branch.
the sound, the woman whirled to face him. They stared at each other.
She wasn’t dressed in white, as he’d first thought, but in a pale pink dress, the color of spring’s first blush. Her skin was creamy and smooth, plump cheeks the colour of faint roses, standing out starkly against her long black hair. She was barely over twenty, he guessed, and of middle height. Her features were too strong to be conventionally beautiful, with her sharp nose, slash of dark eyebrows and the determined set to her chin; but her full mouth was tender, and her eyes were deep brown, big and wistful and wise. And they were full of tears.
Looking directly into her face, Sharif caught his breath.
“Who are you?” she whispered.
Sharif blinked. Then frowned. “You don’t know who I am?”
She shook her head. “Should I?”
Now Sharif knew the woman had to be from another place or time. Everyone knew the playboy sheikh who’d swathed his way through continents of the world’s most glamorous women, the Emir of Makhtar who often spent millions of euros on a single evening out with his entourage, who always had six bodyguards close at hand and who was rumored to have a bedroom in his royal palace made entirely out of diamonds—false—and that he’d once offered to buy Manchester United on a drunken whim—true.
Did she truly not know who he was? Or was it a pretense, a way for her to play hard to get? He shrugged but watched her closely as he said, “I’m a wedding guest.”