The sheikhs captive woma.., p.1
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       The Sheikh's Captive Woman, p.1
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         Part #3 of The Sheikh's American Love series by Holly Rayner
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  ONE

  Aurora heard the sound of a yacht blowing its horn, moving away from the docks and onto the open water, and sighed. She closed her eyes, turning her face in the direction of the breeze, trying to imagine that she could smell the brine of the ocean over the solvents, oil and fuel scents that filled her nose.

  Opening her eyes, she glanced around and saw an enormous cruise ship bobbing in the water. “Aurora Evans, Cruise Ship Activity Director,” she murmured to herself, trying the sound of it. She shook her head; she needed a new job—and a new identity—much faster than it would take a cruise ship to hire her.

  She sat down on a mooring post, scrubbing lightly at her face with her hands. She’d come out to the docks in the hope that the sight of the boats would give her some kind of inspiration, some indication of her path forward. Everything in Miami seemed like a long corridor of closed doors, leading into darkness. She cringed at the thought of the job she’d left just that morning; Jorge had been so disappointed that she was quitting, especially with no notice—but he had lived in Miami long enough to know that there were only a few reasons why baristas and servers would leave suddenly, and none of them were reasons he wanted to have anywhere near his business. As soon as he’d told her about the “guy in the Italian suit” asking questions about whether he had an employee named Aurora, Aurora had known she couldn’t stick around any longer.

  “Goddam son of a bitch,” Aurora muttered to herself, shaking her head. She had thought—she had hoped—that she had lost Jon in the murky depths of the city. As far as she knew, he didn’t have her address yet, but that wouldn’t last long. Working at the café, she hadn’t had enough money to afford a decent apartment, and so she’d taken a run-down converted unit in Liberty City, along with the sagging bed that came with it. It was a far cry from the dorm she’d had back at UM Medical, which Aurora thought was a fairly solid reflection of her circumstances.

  Months before, she never would have imagined herself ending up in this situation. It was still difficult for her to believe that she could go from wandering around hawkers' stands in Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam to living in a glorified slum in the space of a few weeks. Brandon had loaned her the money for her round-trip ticket without even arguing about it, and Aurora had thought that perhaps he was interested in mending fences with her. All she’d done was mention that she wanted to make the trip, get medical school out of her blood and brains, and he’d managed to come up with the money. She hadn’t had a clue that the money hadn’t been rightfully his to begin with until she’d finally come back to the States.

  She’d gotten a call from him the day her plane touched down at MIA, saying he wanted to take her to dinner and hear about her travels. Aurora had gone along, excited to share her pictures and stories; but alarm bells had begun ringing in her mind as soon as she’d arrived at the restaurant in the downtown area, when she saw that it wasn’t just Brandon at the table.

  There had been a man, dressed in a tailored suit that looked like a Miami Vice throwback, his hair greasy and his face slightly sweaty in the subtropical humidity. He’d introduced himself as Jon, and had explained—oh, so diplomatically—that Brandon had borrowed money from him several months before. He'd said that Brandon had not paid the money back, and Brandon had informed him that most of the money he’d borrowed had actually gone to Aurora. Therefore, in exchange for writing off the rest of his debt, he’d put Aurora up to paying her chunk, plus interest.

  Brandon had left her there at the restaurant, seated across from Jon, and no matter how Aurora had explained that she hadn’t had any idea that Brandon had borrowed the money, Jon had continued to counter that it didn’t matter—she was on the hook for the amount she had received, and he expected her to come up with the cash, one way or the other.

  “You have to understand; I’m running a business here. I can’t let people get away with not paying me when I offer very generous terms,” Jon had said, shrugging off Aurora’s panicked tears. “It sucks for you that your boyfriend turned out to be the kind of guy who sells out his ex, but that’s really not my problem.”

  Aurora had done everything she could to evade Jon after that night; as soon as she’d left the restaurant, she’d backed up the information on her phone and then destroyed it, changing her phone number and using the last of the money in her bank account to get a new phone and pay the first month's rent on her shitty apartment. She had only given it out to people she thought she could absolutely trust—her parents, Jorge at the café, and a few of her friends. She had sent Brandon a scathing email detailing exactly what she thought of him, as well as her hopes of what someone would someday do to him.

  For a few weeks, Aurora had held out hope that she would somehow manage to evade Jon for long enough to figure out how to pay back the amount she suddenly owed. The temptation to tell her parents about her misadventure, to beg them to help her, was strong; but Aurora knew exactly the lecture her mother would give her if she admitted that she was in trouble. “So you’ve been lying to us for months? You keep us out of your life, and now you’re getting into trouble with loan sharks? How am I supposed to believe this isn’t your own doing? How could you have been so foolish?”

  Another cruise ship blasted its horn, and Aurora looked up. Her skin crawled with the sudden apprehension that Jon was having her followed, that someone might be watching her. How else would he have found out where she worked? It wasn’t as though she’d posted anything about it on any of her online profiles—she had locked everything down as soon as she’d learned about the loan. The only way she could figure that Jon could even have discovered that she had a job, much less where it was, was that he’d sent people around the city to track her down.

  Aurora stood quickly, shivering. Even the possibility that someone might be reporting on her movements to Jon was enough to make her heart start pounding in her chest, her palms break out in a clammy sweat. “I have to get out of this city,” she said to herself, looking around the marina. She took a deep breath, reminding herself that it wasn’t the first time in her life that she’d felt panic like this—although the situation she found herself in was far more deserving of panic than waiting for the letter to let her know whether or not she had gotten into medical school.

  Aurora walked almost blindly, following the walkway next to the docks. She passed the big commercial liners one by one, reading their blandly poetic names: Mystery of the Sea, Goddess of the Tides, Carnival Breeze, Coral Princess. All at once, Aurora’s thoughts about getting out of the city had crystallized on a solution, one that had been building ever since her aimless wanderings on Dade County Transit had brought her to the port. She would find some way to get out, and this was where she was going to do it.

  As the moorings transitioned into private yachts and larger pleasure boats, Aurora slowed slightly. She took in the sleek lines of luxury, the signs of the craftsmanship behind the boats. Part of her had dreamed of sailing off across the ocean as a child, and once—as a graduation treat from her parents—she had gone on a cruise with three of her friends from college, flying down from her home in North Carolina and visiting Jamaica.

  Her mind still spinning with the threats from Jon, the pressure from her parents, the dead end she’d found herself in on returning from Southeast Asia, Aurora started to wonder where the ships she was looking at were slated to go. Images of South American ports filled her mind: tanned, muscular, Brazilian men, shining with sun tan oil, Carnival streets festooned with bunting and thundering with drums, Peruvian highlands with ancient ruins deep in the craggy mountains.

  Aurora’s heartbeat began to slow as she thought of herself getting on a boat, stowing away and waking up off the coast of England, the air crisp in her hair, rocky beaches flowing past. Or maybe she w
ould find herself in Fiji, or Hawaii, or Mexico. Maybe even Australia.

  She imagined emerging anonymously when the boat reached its destination, hiding in the midst of a crowd, and making her way into some foreign city. Somewhere she knew the language would be best, but anywhere on the planet would be better than Miami.

  She could present herself to a US embassy, get documentation that would allow her to stay wherever she ended up. She could make an entirely new life for herself, somewhere that Jon and his cronies could never, ever find her. She would change her name, meet new people. Her parents would be worried, but her parents were already worried. Once she had herself established, she would make sure they knew she was okay, even if she was on the other side of the planet by then.

  Her wanderings came to a stop as she spotted deep purple velvet ropes ahead of her, cordoning off a section of the dock. Aurora frowned, crossing her arms over her chest and watching the area. She looked out at the water and saw a huge yacht moored not far from where she’d stopped. It was enormous, even by the standards of the private boats she had already seen; large enough to even rival a few of the smaller cruise ships. For a moment Aurora tried to speculate as to who could own such an enormous vessel.

  As she looked around, Aurora saw people darting back and forth. Obviously they were getting the ship ready for departure; she saw crates moving across the dock, watched personnel load them onto the yacht while a supervisor checked over other items, consulting a clipboard. Her heart beat slightly faster as she took in the fact that most of the crew she saw getting onto the boat were dressed in black pants or skirts and white button-down shirts—the same kind of outfit she had put on that very morning, for her uniform at the café. This could be your chance, she thought.

  Aurora glanced around, making sure that there were no security agents bearing down on her, coming to tell her to move away from the private slip. It’s now or never. Can you do it? Aurora took a quick breath and unzipped her hoodie, taking off her shoulder bag and slipping out of the light jacket. She stuffed the sweater into her bag, slung the bag back over her shoulder, and with a final glance around to make sure she wasn’t being watched, quickly jumped over the closest velvet rope.

  TWO

  Aurora hurried into the flurry of staff coming and going on the dock, looking straight ahead and trying to appear as if she belonged. Her work uniform was at least a close enough match that anyone just watching casually wouldn’t notice her at all.

  Making sure to keep her head down, she found the boarding ramp. She tried not to look around too much as she stepped onto it, her skin crawling as she anticipated that at any moment, someone would tap her on the shoulder, asking who she was and what she thought she was doing getting onto a private vessel.

  No one stopped her, though, and Aurora made her way onto the boat in as few steps as she possibly could, holding her breath until she was on board. She sighed with relief and followed one of the other crew members across the deck, finally taking a moment to look around her. The yacht had looked enormous even from a distance, but up close, Aurora’s eyes picked up seemingly impossible details: a huge, sparkling pool on the deck, gleaming wood tables and lounge chairs with pristine white cushions, a decorative monogram, “KA”, on the wood flooring of the top deck.

  Aurora ducked into the body of the ship and drank in still more luxurious details: a lounge with a crystal chandelier, all of the floors either polished hardwood or thick carpet, everything shined and gleaming.

  Members of the crew walked past her, on one errand or another, and Aurora tried to look as if she knew where she was going, as if she had something important to do. As she passed by a supply closet—open, but abandoned—she slipped her bag off of her shoulder and stuffed it at the back of the uppermost shelf, under some linens, where she hoped it wouldn’t be noticed by anyone.

  Moving away from the closet, Aurora’s eyes widened at the sight of gold decorating the handles and fixtures. Everything was beautiful, ornate, dripping with wealth. Aurora was torn between wonder and disgust at her opulent surroundings, trying to wrap her mind around the incredible vessel. Who has the kind of money to afford this?

  She felt a tap on her shoulder and Aurora bit back a yelp, turning quickly on her heel. She found herself face to face with a crew member—a woman with dishwater blond hair tied back in a sleek bun, minimal makeup, and the same white shirt and black skirt that Aurora was wearing.

  “Steph—what are you doing wandering around?” Aurora’s heart pounded in her chest as the woman shook her head at her. “You’re late.”

  “S-sorry,” Aurora said, feeling her cheeks burn. She stepped back slightly, hoping that the woman’s mistake on her identity would hold up at least for a few minutes more; enough time for her to get away, maybe slip deeper into the yacht. Find somewhere you won’t be noticed. There’s got to be unused rooms somewhere.

  “Yeah, well, the Sheikh is waiting for his breakfast, and you know how he gets when his meals aren’t on time,” the woman said, starting to turn away. She frowned, and Aurora’s heart stuttered again in her chest. “What are you wearing that for?” The woman pointed to the flower that Aurora had tucked into the pocket of her blouse, secured with a safety pin. “You know personal jewelry is against the dress code.”

  “I—uh—someone gave it to me earlier, and…”

  “Get rid of it when you get the chance; you don’t want demerits for breaking policy,” the woman said blandly. “Go grab the Sheikh’s breakfast from the kitchen and take it to his room; he’s waiting.” The woman pointed down the hall to an open entryway and then turned away again, hurrying towards the sundeck. Aurora stared after her for a moment, amazed that she had somehow managed to get through the situation.

  She took a quick, deep breath and started down the hall, following the instructions the woman had given her. Aurora shook her head, thinking that what she was doing was insanity. The Sheikh? Aurora considered the other woman's comment as she stepped through the entryway into the kitchen.

  The staff in the galley were all busy, putting supplies away and prepping food for the next meal. She spotted a big tray set aside, laden with plates and cutlery: obviously a breakfast. There was a small, stainless steel carafe that Aurora reasoned must be coffee, a hot, covered bowl which she assumed must be porridge, an almost-overflowing bowl of fruit, a jar of honey, a ramekin filled with chopped walnuts and almonds, gleaming silver and two folded white napkins. Aurora’s stomach lurched and she wished longingly that she could grab something of her own to eat; she’d been so upset by Jorge’s news that she hadn’t even had a breakfast of her own.

  What do I do now? Aurora picked up the tray—it would at least give her something to do, a purpose that would distract anyone from noticing that she wasn't supposed to be there. But as she left the kitchen, she realized she had no idea where the Sheikh’s chambers were.

  Shit, shit, shit. Aurora moved briskly along the corridor, looking straight ahead just as she had on the quay. She couldn’t ask anyone where she was supposed to be going, that would blow her cover straight away. God. This was a mistake. A huge, enormous mistake.

  Aurora debated the possibilities as she kept moving forward. She could drop the tray somewhere, sneak off of the ship, and maybe find a less heavily crewed yacht to stow away on. Or she could sneak onto one of the cruise ships she'd passed by—surely one of them would have similarly nondescript uniforms? Aurora bit her bottom lip and began to slow down, looking for a place that she could drop her burden off without it being noticed immediately.

  Just as she began to formulate a plan, however, Aurora felt the floor lurch underneath her feet and her stomach fell to her knees. The sound of the ship’s horn blared out, and she realized it was setting sail.

  “Well, shit,” she murmured. There would be no way to escape now. Even if jumping off the deck was a realistic way to get off the yacht, it would be far too conspicuous—both to the people on the ship and to anyone watching from the docks. She could only hope to br
azen through the task she’d been given and then maybe—if she was lucky—find an unused compartment to hide out in until the vessel reached its destination.

  Aurora began walking again, trying to avoid the other members of the crew as she searched for the Sheikh’s quarters. One corridor led into another, and gradually, through the process of elimination, Aurora found the room she was looking for. She breathed a sigh of relief as the huge double doors of an enormous suite loomed in front of her at the end of a hallway; it was the second-largest entryway of any of the rooms on the yacht, and the only bigger one had led into what looked like some kind of ballroom.

 
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