Sheikh's Forbidden Conquest(12)

By: Chantelle Shaw

His eyes strayed across the room to where Lexi was chatting to a petite woman with a mass of dark brown hair and wearing a dress in an unflattering shade of acid-yellow. It was curious that the Howard sisters were so unalike, he thought.

He saw Lexi glance around the room and stiffen when she noticed him. From across the ballroom he felt waves of hostility emanating from her, challenging him, exciting him. Kadir felt his heart jolt against his ribs. He held Lexi’s gaze as he raised his glass to her, before he sipped his Virgin Mary, feeling the peppery warmth of the drink heat his blood.

* * *

‘Do you think I look fat in this dress? I wish I could wear black like you but it makes my skin look sallow.’

Lexi forced her mind from the humiliating spectacle that had taken place in Sultan Kadir of Zenhab’s hotel suite earlier and concentrated on her sister. ‘You look lovely,’ she said, in what she hoped was a convincing voice.

Athena’s face brightened. ‘Lady Fairfax helped me to choose my dress. She said the colour suits me.’

‘Did she?’ Lexi suspected that Charles Fairfax’s mother had her reasons for persuading Athena to wear the ghastly yellow satin dress. Charles was her only son and would eventually become the next Lord Fairfax, and Lexi had overheard several party guests comment that Charles’s parents wished him to marry a woman with a title.

Athena fiddled with the large satin bow on her shoulder. ‘I wish I looked elegant and sophisticated like you,’ she blurted. ‘You would be a much better wife for Charlie than me. You would know how to talk to people at dinner parties, and you’d never spill your wine or drop your spoon into the soup. I’m so clumsy. Sometimes I think Charlie finds me an embarrassment.’

Lexi frowned. ‘You can’t help being short-sighted. Charlie should be more supportive. Presumably he asked you to marry him because he loves you, not because he wants you to be his unpaid social hostess.’ She gave her sister an exasperated look and was tempted to ask Athena why she had agreed to marry Charles, who was a wimp with a distinctly spiteful side to his nature. ‘To be honest, I’m not convinced that he’s the right man for you.’

‘Maybe you’re jealous that I’m getting married and you’re not.’ Athena bit her lip. ‘I’m sorry, Lexi. That was a horrible thing to say. It’s just that since you broke up with Steven you’ve pushed people away more than ever, including Mum and Dad...and me.’

‘I was over Steven a long time ago,’ Lexi said curtly. ‘I don’t push people away.’ She remembered the coastguard commander Roger Norris’s comment that she came across as intimidating. ‘I admit I’m independent, but I had to be when I was growing up. I always knew I had been adopted, but you are Marcus and Veronica’s own daughter and it was natural that they doted on you.’

Athena looked as though she was going to cry and Lexi silently cursed her runaway tongue. It wasn’t her sister’s fault that she had been the favourite child.

‘Mum and Dad are really proud of you, and they’re always telling people that you were a pilot in the RAF and received an award for bravery for your work in Afghanistan. They wanted to catch up with you tonight, but they couldn’t make the party because their cruise was booked ages ago.

‘I’m sure Mum and Dad wish I was as clever as you,’ Athena admitted. ‘They are both doctors and I suppose they naturally assumed I would be academic like them. They even named me after the Greek goddess of wisdom, for heaven’s sake! I know they were disappointed when I failed to get the grades to go to university. At least they’re pleased that I’m going to marry Charlie and I’ll be Lady Fairfax one day.’

‘You can’t marry him just to win parental approval.’

‘I’m not... Of course I love him,’ Athena insisted, too earnestly, in Lexi’s opinion. But she did not voice her concerns. Her sister was an adult and perfectly able to decide who she wanted to marry. In truth, Lexi was surprised that Athena had confided in her. The close bond they had shared as children had faded when Lexi had been sent away to boarding school.

She looked around the room. ‘Where is Charlie, anyway? This is your engagement party but I haven’t seen him all evening.’

‘Oh, he’s with one of his old school friends from Eton. Charlie was so surprised when Earl Montgomery phoned out of the blue earlier this evening and said he would like to catch up on old times. Naturally, Charlie immediately invited him to the party. I think they must still be in the library.’ Athena squinted around the room. ‘Oh, look, they’re over by the bar. The Earl is very good-looking, don’t you think? But don’t tell Charlie I said so, will you?’ she said worriedly.