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Jewel in His Crown(3)

By:Lynne Graham

‘Your brothers were brave young men,’ Wajid told her. ‘They died fighting for their country.’

Ruby nodded with a respectful smile and thought sadly about the two younger brothers she had never got the chance to meet. Had they ever wondered what she was like? She suspected that royal protocol might well have divided them even if, unlike the rest of their family, they had had sufficient interest to want to get to know her.

‘I share these tragedies with you so that you can understand that you are now the present heir to the throne of Ashur, Your Royal Highness.’

‘I’m the heir?’ Ruby laughed out loud in sheer disbelief. ‘How is that possible? I’m a girl, for goodness’ sake! And why do you keep on calling me Your Royal Highness as if I have a title?’

‘Whether you use it or otherwise, you have carried the title of Princess since the day you were born,’ Wajid asserted with confidence. ‘It is your birthright as the daughter of a king.’

It all sounded very impressive but Ruby was well aware that in reality, Ashur was still picking up the pieces in the aftermath of the conflict. That such a country had fought a war with its wealthy neighbour over the oil fields on their disputed boundary was a testament to their dogged pride and determination in spite of the odds against them. Even so she had been hugely relieved when she heard on the news that the war was finally over.

She struggled to appear composed when she was actually shaken by the assurance that she had a legal right to call herself a princess and then her natural common sense reasserted its sway. Could there be anything more ridiculously inappropriate than a princess who worked as a humble receptionist and had to struggle to pay her rent most months? Even with few extras in her budget Ruby was invariably broke and she often did a weekend shift at Stella’s supermarket to help make ends meet.

‘There’s no room for titles and such things in my life,’ she said gently, reluctant to cause offence by being any more blunt. ‘I’m a very ordinary girl.’

‘But that is exactly what our people would like most about you. We are a country of ordinary hard-working people,’ Wajid declared with ringing pride. ‘You are the only heir to the throne of Ashur and you must take your rightful place.’

Ruby’s soft pink lips parted in astonishment. ‘Let me get this straight—you are asking me to come out to Ashur and live there as a princess?’

‘Yes. That is why we are here, to make you aware of your position and to bring you home.’ Wajid spread his arms expansively to emphasise his enthusiasm for the venture.

A good deal less expressive, Ruby tensed and shook her fair head in a quiet negative motion. ‘Ashur is not my home. Nobody in the royal family has even seen me since I left the country as a baby. There has been no contact and no interest.’

The older man looked grave. ‘That is true, but the tragedies that have almost wiped out the Shakarian family have ensured that everything has changed. You are now a very important person in Ashur, a princess, the daughter of a recent king and the niece of another, with a strong legal claim to the throne—’

‘But I don’t want to claim the throne, and in any case I do know enough about Ashur to know that women don’t rule there,’ Ruby cut in, her impatience growing, for she felt she was being fed a rather hypocritical official line that was a whitewash of the less palatable truth. ‘I’m quite sure there is some man hovering in the wings ready to do the ruling in Ashur.’

The court advisor would have squirmed with dismay had he not possessed the carriage of a man with an iron bar welded to his short spine. Visibly, however, he stiffened even more. ‘You are, of course, correct when you say that women do not rule in Ashur. Our country has long practised male preference primogeniture—’

‘So I am really not quite as important as you would like to make out?’ Ruby marvelled that he could ever have believed she might be so ignorant of the hereditary male role of kingship in Ashur. After all, hadn’t her poor mother’s marriage ended in tears and divorce thanks to those strict rules? Her father had taken another wife in a desperate attempt to have a son.

Placed in an awkward spot when he had least expected it, Wajid reddened and revised up his assumptions about the level of the princess’s intelligence. ‘I am sorry to contradict you but you are unquestionably a very important young woman in the eyes of our people. Without you there can be no King,’ he admitted baldly.

‘Excuse me?’ Her fine brows were pleating. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you mean.’

Wajid hesitated. ‘Ashur and Najar are to be united and jointly ruled by a marriage between the two royal families. That was integral to the peace terms that were agreed to at the end of the war.’

Ruby froze at that grudging explanation and resisted the urge to release an incredulous laugh, for she suddenly grasped what her true value was to this stern little man. They needed a princess to marry off, a princess who could claim to be in line to the throne of Ashur. And here she was young and single. Nothing personal or even complimentary as such in her selection, she reflected with a stab of resentment and regret. It did, however, make more sense to her that she was only finally being acknowledged in Ashur as a member of the royal family because there was nobody else more suitable available.

‘I didn’t know that arranged marriages still took place in Ashur.’

‘Mainly within the royal family,’ Wajid conceded grudgingly. ‘Sometimes parents know their children better than their children know themselves.’

‘Well, I no longer have parents to make that decision for me. In any case, my father never took the time to get to know me at all. I’m afraid you’re wasting your time here, Mr Sulieman. I don’t want to be a princess and I don’t want to marry a stranger, either. I’m quite content with my life as it is.’ Rising to her feet to indicate that she felt it was time that her visitors took their leave, Ruby felt sorry enough for the older man in his ignorance of contemporary Western values to offer him a look of sympathy. ‘These days few young women would be attracted by an arrangement of that nature.’

Long after the limousine had disappeared from view Ruby and Stella sat discussing the visit.

‘A princess?’ Stella kept on repeating, studying the girl she had known from primary school with growing fascination. ‘And you honestly didn’t know?’

‘I don’t think they can have wanted Mum to know,’ Ruby offered evenly. ‘After the divorce my father and his family were happy for her to leave Ashur and from then on they preferred to pretend that she and I didn’t exist.’

‘I wonder what the guy they want you to marry is like,’ Stella remarked, twirling her dark fringe with dreamy eyes, her imagination clearly caught.

‘If he’s anything like as callous as my father I’m not missing anything. My father was willing to break Mum’s heart to have a son and no doubt the man they want me to marry would do anything to become King of Ashur—’

‘The guy has to be from the other country, right?’

‘Najar? Must be. Probably some ambitious poor relation of their royal family looking for a leg up the ladder,’ Ruby contended with rich cynicism, her scorn unconcealed.

‘I’m not sure I would have been so quick to send your visitors packing. I mean, if you leave the husband out of it, being a princess might have been very exciting.’

‘There was nothing exciting about Ashur,’ Ruby assured her friend with a guilty wince at still being bitter about the country that had rejected her, for she had recognised Wajid Sulieman’s sincere love for his country and the news of that awful trail of family deaths had been sobering and had left her feeling sad.

After a normal weekend during which her impressions of that astounding visit from the court advisor faded a little, Ruby went back to work. She had met up with Steve briefly on the Saturday afternoon and had told him that their relationship was over. He had taken it badly and had texted her repeatedly since then, alternately asking for another chance and then truculently criticising her and demanding to know what was wrong with him. She began ignoring the texts, wishing she had never gone out with him in the first place. He was acting a bit obsessive for a man she had only dated for a few weeks.

‘Men always go mad over you,’ Stella had sighed enviously when the texts started coming through again at breakfast, which the girls snatched standing up in the tiny kitchen. ‘I know Steve’s being a nuisance but I wouldn’t mind the attention.’

‘That kind of attention you’d be welcome to,’ Ruby declared without hesitation and she felt the same at work when her phone began buzzing before lunchtime with more messages, for she had nothing left to say to Steve.

A tall guy with luxuriant black hair strode through the door. There was something about him that immediately grabbed attention and Ruby found herself helplessly staring. Maybe it was his clothes, which stood out in a town where decent suits were only seen at weddings and then usually hired. He wore a strikingly elegant dark business suit that would have looked right at home in a designer advertisement in an exclusive magazine. It was perfectly modelled on his tall, well-built frame and long powerful legs. His razor-edged cheekbones were perfectly chiselled too, and as for those eyes, deep set, dark as sloes and brooding. Wow, Ruby thought for the very first time in her life as she looked at a man….