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Desert Fantasies(6)

By:Trish Morey

And what right had she to feel so mightily aggrieved when marriage was the only thing required of her? Whereas his marriage to her was only one tiresome necessity in a long list of requirements his vizier had put before him in order to enable him to take the throne of Al-Jirad. And who had the time for any of this? The ability to speak fluent Jiradi as well as Arabic; the need to be able to quote from the sacred book of Jiradi which he must learn by heart before the coronation; having to honour the alliance between commitment to replenish the blood stock of Al-Jirad with a princess of noble birth from their sister state of Jemeya.

No. Suddenly he was tired of it all.

He sighed as she looked up at him, eyes defiant and openly hostile. He was sick of this whole damn situation before it had even properly begun.

‘King Hamra is dead.’

She blinked. Once. Again. And then it seemed her entire face turned into a question mark, eyes wide, mouth open in shock. Then she shook her head. ‘No.’ Her hands flew to her mouth. ‘You said it was Queen Petra. No!’

He watched those hands. He remembered them. Slim, he recalled. Long-fingered. Hands that had come perilously close to grazing the fabric covering his swelling organ last night. Hands that would soon have that privilege and that right, a right he hoped they would soon exercise.

Then he noticed her eyes and found them already filling with tears, threatening to spill over. He simultaneously wondered at her ability to distract him and cursed it when he knew the news he had to deliver was only going to make her feel worse. ‘But how?’ she cried. ‘When?’

‘The morning before you were kidnapped. King Hamra was on his way to Egypt for a holiday—he and the Queen in one helicopter with his close advisers, his mother and sons, their wives and families in the other. For some reason the two helicopters ventured too close to each other. Nobody knows why. But it seems that their blades touched and both helicopters plummeted to the ground.’

He gave her a moment to let the news sink in before he added, ‘There were no survivors.’

Her face was almost devoid of colour, her dark eyes and lashes suddenly starkly standing out on a skin so deathly pale that he worried she might actually collapse.

He took hold of her shoulders before she might fall and steered her to the nearest chair where she sagged, limp and boneless.

‘But surely not all of them? Not Akram and Renata? Not Kaleem and Akra? And, please, no, surely not the children? They were so young, just babies …’

He could offer her nothing, so he said nothing, just gave the slightest shake of his head.

‘Nobody told me!’ she cried when she realised the truth and the extent of the disaster. ‘I knew nothing. All the time I was in that desert camp they told me nothing. Oh yes, they laughed and smirked and made crude jokes about what Mustafa intended to do with me, but nobody told me that the King and his family had been killed. Nobody told me …’

She looked up at him, the shock, hurt and misery right there in her eyes to see, and for a moment he almost felt sorry for her and sorry for the upset all this damned mess would cause her. But, hell, why should he feel sorry for her, when his life had been similarly turned upside down, his future curtailed by the rules laid down by those of centuries past? The fact was that they were both the victims in this situation.

‘Is this why all this is happening? Because it is somehow connected to that tragedy?’

Why did she have to look so damned vulnerable? He wanted to be angry with her, the spoilt princess who was having to do what her nation needed instead of what she wanted for a change. The last thing on earth he wanted was to feel empathy for her. To feel sorry. Especially when he was being subjected to the same external forces. He sucked in air. ‘Al-Jirad needs a king.’

She looked up at him through glassy eyes, her long black lashes heavy with tears. ‘That man—the vizier—he called you Excellency. Are you to be that king?’

‘I am one possibility. King Hamra was my uncle. My father had two sons to two different wives. One was Mustafa. The other was me.’ He paused. ‘And, of course, whichever one of us it is to be is decided by the pact.’

She nodded, her eyes hardening with the realisation of what this came down to, the grief still there, but framed in anger now. ‘So that’s what this is all about, then, this game of Hunt the Princess. Whoever marries the princess first wins the crown of Al-Jirad.’

‘It is what the pact requires. Where the crown of Al-Jirad is compromised, the alliance will be renewed by the marriage between the royal families of our two countries. Because of your older sister’s situation …’

‘You mean, because she has two children to two different fathers and she never actually bothered marrying either of them, she’s no longer eligible for the position? But surely she has a proven track-record. If it’s heirs you need—and when has any monarchy not been all about heirs?—Marina has proven child-bearing capabilities, where sadly I do not.’

‘Your sister is, to put it mildly, over-qualified for the position. The fact you have not yet bred is still in your favour.’

Have not yet bred. She itched to hit something. Anything. Maybe him. Except princesses were not supposed to do such things, were not expected to give in to such base instincts. But still, the claim that this agreement was somehow in her favour rubbed, and rubbed raw.

‘How can it be in my favour when it forces me into this situation?’

‘It is duty, Princess. It is not personal.’

Not personal? Maybe that was why she hated it so much. Because it wasn’t personal. And she had dreamed—oh, how she had dreamed—that being so far down the line to the crown, and a woman into the deal, would ensure she would never be subjected to the strictures of the first or even the second-born sons. She had watched her brothers with their tutors, seen how little rope they had been given. And she had watched her sister, who had been given too much too quickly while all the attention was on her brothers and their futures. She had been foolish enough to think she could somehow escape the madness of it all unscathed and lead a near-normal life. She had stupidly hoped she might even marry for love.

Zoltan watched her as she sat there, trying to absorb the enormity of the situation that confronted her. But it was hardly the end of the world, as she made it out to be. He would be the one on the throne, a position he’d never been prepared for, whereas she would go from princess to queen, a job she’d been primed for her entire life. What was so difficult about that?

They could still have a decent enough marriage if they both wanted. She was beautiful, this princess, long-limbed and lithe, with skin like satin. It would be no hardship at all to bed her to procure the heirs Al-Jirad required. And she had a fire burning beneath that cool, princessly exterior, a fire he was curious to discover more about, a fire he was keen to stoke for himself.

Why shouldn’t it work, at least in the bedroom? And, if it didn’t, then there were ways and means around that. An heir and a spare and they both would have done their duty; they could both look at different options. So just because they had to marry didn’t make it a death sentence.

Then she shook her head, rising to her feet and brushing at the creases in her trousers, and he got the impression she would just as simply brush away the obligations laid upon her by the pact between their two countries.

And just as fruitlessly.

‘So marrying you is to be my fate, then, decided by some crusty piece of paper that is hundreds of years old?’

‘The pact sets out what must happen in the event of a situation such as this.’

‘And of course we all must do what the pact says we must do.’

‘It is the foundation stone of both our countries’ constitutions—you know that. Are you so averse to doing your duty as a princess of one of those two countries?’

‘Yes! Of course I am, if it means my fate is to marry either you or Mustafa! Of course I object.’

‘Then maybe it is just as well you do not have a choice in the matter.’

‘I refuse to believe that. What if I simply refuse to marry either of you? What if I have other plans for my life that don’t include being married to some despot who thinks he can lay claim to a woman merely because of an accident of her birth?’

‘That accident of birth, as you put it, gives you much wealth and many privileges, Princess. But it also comes with responsibilities. Your sister chose to shrug them off. Being the only other member of the royal Jemeyan family who can satisfy the terms of the pact, you do not have that option.’

‘You can’t make me marry you. I can still say no and I do say no.’

‘Like I said, that is not an option available to you.’

She shrieked, a brittle sound of frustration and exasperation, her hands curled into tight, tense fists at her side. He yawned and looked at his watch. Any moment now he expected she would stamp her feet, maybe even throw herself to the floor and pound the tiles with her curled-up fists like a spoilt child. Not that it would do her any good.

‘Look,’ she started, the spark in her eye telling him she’d hit on some new plan of attack. Her hands unwound and she took a deep breath. She even smiled, if you could call it that. At least, it was the closest thing to a smile he’d seen her give to date. ‘This is all so unnecessary. The pact is centuries old and we’ve all moved on a long way since then. There must be some misunderstanding.’