The Sheikh's Seduction

By: Emma Darcy

CHAPTER ONE

“MY NAME is Sarah Hillyard. My father trains racehorses in Australia...”

The artless words of a twelve-year-old child.

A child he’d liked and remembered seven years later when he’d come to choosing a trainer in Australia.

Sheikh Tareq al-Khaima shook his head in self-derision. Stupid to have let a sentimental memory influence his judgment. He’d hired Drew Hillyard, entrusted him with the progeny of some of the best bloodlines in the world, and the man had proved to be a cheat and a crook, wasting what he’d been given in favour of sure money, bribe money.

It was an effort to remain civil, sitting beside him in the Members’ Stand at Flemington Racecourse, waiting for the Melbourne Cup to be run. Recognised as one of the great races on the international calendar, The Cup was a prize coveted by trainers and owners. It made reputations. It sealed a horse’s fame. It was the return on an investment.

If Firefly won today, Drew Hillyard might earn himself another chance. If Firefly lost, the trainer could kiss Tareq’s string of thoroughbreds goodbye. The moment of truth was fast approaching. The horses were being boxed, ready for the start of the race.

“He should run well,” Drew Hillyard said reassuringly.

Tareq turned to Sarah’s father. The older man’s brown curly hair was streaked with lustreless grey and cut so short, the ringlets sat tightly against his scalp. His dark eyes were opaque, as though he’d fitted blinds over the windows of his soul. The memory of Drew Hillyard’s daughter flashed into Tareq’s mind—a glorious mop of burnished brown curls framing a fascinating face with eyes so dark and brilliant he’d loved watching them. He didn’t want to even look at her father.

“Yes, he should,” he answered, and returned his gaze to the track. Firefly had been bred from champion stayers. If he’d been trained properly he should eat this race. He should, but Tareq wasn’t banking on it. None of the horses he’d placed in Drew Hillyard’s stables had lived up to their breeding. The initial promise of the first two years had been whittled away by sly corruption.

Susan Hillyard claimed his attention. “Did you place a bet on Firefly, Tareq?”

He looked at her, wondering if she knew the truth. Drew Hillyard’s wife—second wife—was a thin, nervous blonde. With every reason to be nervous, Tareq thought darkly. “I never bet, Mrs. Hillyard. It’s performance that interests me. On every level. I like to see my horses fulfil the promise of their bloodlines.”

“Oh!” she said and retreated, her hands twisting worriedly in her lap.

Sarah’s stepmother.

My father’s marrying again. Since my mother’s made her home here in Ireland now, she’s arranged for me to go to boarding school in England. So she can more easily visit me, she says. I get to go home to my father in the summer break.

A lonely, disillusioned child, her world torn apart by divorce. Tareq wondered what had become of her, where she was. Not here at Flemington. He’d looked for her, curious to see the woman she’d grown into. He was tempted to ask about her but revealing a personal interest went against his grain in this situation. Sarah, the child, was a piece of the past, eleven years gone. Comprehensively gone after today, if Firefly failed.

A roar went up from the crowd, signalling the start of the race. Tareq stood with the rest of the people around him, binoculars lifted to his eyes. The commentator’s voice boomed over the loudspeakers, whipping up excitement. Tareq focused all his attention on the horse that had brought him here, a magnificent stallion who’d be worth his weight in gold if he won.

He was poetry in motion, well positioned for the early part of the race and running with a fluid grace and ease that was exciting to watch. He took the lead at the halfway mark and streaked ahead of the field. Too soon, Tareq thought. Yet he held a gap of three lengths into the last hundred metres. Then he visibly flagged, other horses catching him and sweeping past to the finishing post. Eighth. Respectable enough in a class field of twenty-two horses, people would say. Except Tareq knew better.

“Ran out of puff,” Drew Hillyard said, his weatherbeaten face appropriately mournful with disappointment.