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THE HEIR TO the throne of the Middle Eastern kingdom of Alharia, Prince Saif Basara, frowned as his father’s chief adviser, Dalil Khouri, knocked and entered his office with a charged air of importance and the solemn bearing of a man about to deliver vital information.
In recent years Saif had heard every possible story relating to his father’s eccentric dictates and views. He was thirty years old, his difficult parent’s successor, and the courtiers of his father’s inner circle were now routinely playing a double game—nodding with false humility at his father’s medieval dictums and then coming to Saif to complain and lament.
The Emir of Alharia was eighty-five years old and horrendously out of step with the modern world.
Of course, Saif’s father, Feroz, had come to the throne in a very different age, a feudal ruler in an unstable era when a troubled country was overwhelmingly grateful to have a safe and steady monarch. Oil had then been discovered. Subsequently, the coffers of Alharia had overflowed and for decades everyone had been happy with that largesse. Unhappily for Feroz, the desire for democratic government had eventually blossomed in his people, as well as the wish to modify cultural rules with an easier and more contemporary way of life. He, however, remained rigidly opposed to change of any kind.
‘You are to be married!’ Dalil announced with so much throbbing drama that Saif very nearly laughed until he registered that the older man was deadly serious.
Married? Saif stiffened in surprise, well aware that only his father’s misogyny had allowed him to remain single for longer than most sons in his position. After four failed marriages in succession, Feroz had become deeply distrustful of women. His final wife, Saif’s mother, had inflicted the deepest wound of all. An Arabian princess of irreproachable lineage, she had, nonetheless, abandoned both infant son and elderly husband to run away with another man. That she had then married that man and become joint ruler of another small country and thereafter thrived in tabloid newspaper photographs enraptured with her beauty had definitely been salt rubbed in an open wound.
‘Married to a very bad choice of a woman,’ Dalil completed with regret, mopping his perspiring brow with an immaculate linen handkerchief. ‘The Emir has turned his back on all the many respectable possibilities both in Alharia and amongst our neighbours’ families and has picked a foreigner.’
‘A foreigner,’ Saif repeated in wonderment. ‘How is that possible?’
‘This woman is the granddaughter of your father’s late English friend, Rodney Hamilton.’
As a young man, the Emir had undergone a few months of military training at Sandhurst in England, where he had formed an unbreakable friendship with a British army officer. For years, the two men had exchanged letters and at least once there had been a visit. Saif dimly recalled a whiny, weepy little girl with blond pigtails appearing in his nursery. His future bride? Was that even possible?
Dalil dug out the mobile phone he kept carefully hidden from the Emir, to whom mobile phones were an abomination. He flicked through photos and handed it to Saif, saying, ‘At least she is a beauty.’
Saif noted that his father’s adviser took it for granted that he would accept an arranged marriage with a stranger, and he swallowed hard, shocked by the apparent belief that he was required to make that sacrifice. He stared down unimpressed at a laughing, slender blonde in an evening gown. She looked frivolous and wholly unsuited to the life that he led. ‘What do you know about her?’ he prompted.
‘Tatiana Hamilton is a socialite, an extravagant party girl…not at all the kind of wife you would wish for, but in time…’ Dalil hesitated to avoid referring to the reality that the Emir’s failing health would not conserve the ruler for ever. ‘Obviously, you would divorce her.’
‘It is possible that I will refuse this proposition,’ Saif confessed tautly.
‘You can’t…it could kill your father to go into one of his rages now!’ Dalil protested in consternation. ‘Forgive me for speaking so bluntly, but you do not want that on your conscience.’
Saif breathed in slow and deep as he faced the truth that he was trapped. He banked down his anger with the ease of long practice, for he had grown up in a world in which personal choice about anything was a rare gift. He had been raised to be a dutiful son and, now that his parent was weak and ailing, it was a huge challenge to break that conditioning. It didn’t help that he also understood that it would be very painful for his traditional parent to be confronted by a defiant son. Arranged marriages might have been out of fashion for decades in Alharia but, at heart, the Emir was a caring father and Saif was not cruel. He was also very conscious that he was indebted to his father for the loving care he had practised in an effort to ensure that his son was less damaged by his mother’s abandonment.
Consequently, he would wed a stranger, he acknowledged, bitterness darkening his stunning green eyes.
‘Why would a spoilt English socialite want to marry me and come out here?’ he demanded of the older man in sudden incomprehension. ‘For a title? Surely not?’
A look of distaste stamped Dalil’s wrinkled face. ‘For the money, Your Royal Highness. For the lavish dowry your father is prepared to pay her family,’ he replied in a tone of repugnance. ‘They will be greatly enriched by this marriage and that is why you will wish to divorce her as soon as possible.’
Saif was aghast at that statement. It gave him the worst possible impression of his future bride and filled him with revulsion. He knew that he would find it very hard to pretend any kind of acceptance of such an unprincipled woman…
‘George has just asked me to marry him!’ Ana carolled, practically dancing out of the bathroom where she had been talking on the phone to her ex-boyfriend. ‘Isn’t that typical of a man? It took me to come to Alharia and be on the very brink of marrying another man to get George to the point!’
‘Well, it’s a bit foolish, him asking you this late in the day,’ Tati opined with innate practicality as she studied her beautiful and lively cousin with sympathetic blue eyes. ‘I mean, we’re here in the royal palace and you’re committed now. The preparations for the wedding are starting in less than an hour.’
‘Oh, I’m not going through with this stupid wedding now—not if George wants me to marry him instead!’ Ana declared with sunny conviction. ‘George has already booked me on a flight home. He’s planning to pick me up at the airport and whisk me away for a beach wedding somewhere.’
‘But your parents…the money.’
‘Why should I have to marry some rich foreign royal because my father’s in debt to his eyeballs?’ Ana interrupted with unconcealed resentment.
Tati winced at that piece of plain speaking. ‘Well, I didn’t think you should have to either, but you did agree to do it and if you back out now, it’ll plunge us all into a nightmare. Your father will go spare!’
‘Yes, but that’s where you are going to help me play for time and ensure that I can get back out of this wretched country!’ her cousin told her without hesitation.
‘Me? How can I help?’ Tati argued in bewilderment, because she was the most powerless member of the Hamilton family, the proverbial poor relation often treated as little more than a servant by Ana’s parents.
‘Because you can go through these silly bridal preparations pretending to be me, so that nobody will know that the bride has scarpered until it’s too late. I mean, in a place as backward as this, they might try to stop me leaving at the airport if they find out beforehand! I bet it’s a serious crime to jilt the heir to the throne at the altar!’ Ana exclaimed with a melodramatic roll of her big brown eyes. ‘But, luckily, no member of the groom’s family has even seen me yet and Mum’s certainly not going to be getting involved with these Alharian wedding rituals, so the parents won’t find out either until the very last minute, by which time I’ll be safely airborne!’
Tati dragged in a ragged breath as her cousin completed that confident little speech. ‘Are you sure this isn’t an attack of cold feet?’ she pressed.
‘You know I’m in love with George and I have been…for ever!’ her cousin stressed with strong feeling. ‘Didn’t you hear me, Tati? George has finally proposed and I’m going home to him!’
Tati resisted the urge to remind her cousin how many other men she had been wildly in love with in recent years. Ana’s affections were unreliable and only a month earlier she had claimed to be excitedly looking forward to her wedding in Alharia. Back then, Ana had been as delighted as her parents at the prospect of no longer being short of cash, but of course, that angle would no longer matter to her, Tati conceded ruefully, because George Davis-Appleton was a wealthy man.
‘I can understand that you want to do that.’ Tati sighed. ‘But I don’t think I want to get involved in the fallout. Your parents will be furious with me.’
‘Oh, don’t be such a wet blanket, Tati! You’re still family,’ Ana declared, impervious as always to her cousin’s low standing in that sacrosanct circle. ‘Mum and Dad will get over their disappointment and they’ll just have to ask the bank for a loan instead.’
‘Your father said that he’d been refused a loan,’ Tati reminded her gently.
‘Oh, if only Granny Milly was still alive…she would have helped!’ Ana lamented. ‘But it’s not my problem…it’s Dad’s.’
Tati said nothing, only reflecting that their late and much-missed Russian grandmother had had little time for her son Rupert’s extravagant lifestyle. Milly Tatiana Hamilton, after whom both girls had been named, had controlled the only real money in her family for many years. Tati had been surprised at her uncle getting into debt again because she had assumed that he had inherited a sizeable amount after his mother’s death.
‘Sadly, she’s gone.’ Tati sighed heavily.
She did not, of course, point out that she had a vested interest in her aunt and uncle remaining financially afloat because she felt that that would be utterly unfair to Ana. She could hardly expect her cousin to go through with a marriage that would be abhorrent to her simply for Tati’s benefit. In any case, Ana appeared to have no idea that her father paid for his sister Mariana’s care in her nursing home. Tati’s mother, Mariana, had lived there since her daughter was a teenager, having contracted early onset dementia.
‘So, will you do it?’ the beautiful blonde demanded expectantly.
Tati flinched because she knew that she shouldn’t risk angering her aunt and uncle lest they withdraw their financial support from her mother, but at the same time, she was as close to Ana as a sister. Ana was only two years older than Tati’s almost twenty-two years. The pair of them had grown up on the same country estate and had attended the same schools. Regardless of how different in personality the two women were, Tati loved her cousin. Selfish and spoilt Ana might occasionally be, but Tati was accustomed to looking after Ana as though she were a young and vulnerable sister because Ana was not the sharpest tool in the box.
The whole ‘marrying a foreign prince sight unseen to gain a fat dowry’ scenario had never struck sensible Tati as anything but ludicrous. Naturally, her cousin should have had the sense to refuse to marry Prince Saif from the start because Ana was not the self-sacrificing type. But at first, Ana had seen herself as a heroine coming to the aid of her family. Furthermore, the tantalising prospect of increased wealth and status had soothed an ego crushed by George’s refusal to commit to a future with her. Sadly, now that reality had set in, Ana was ready to run for the hills.
For a split second, Tati felt rather sorry for the bridegroom, whoever he might be, for he had no presence whatsoever on social media. Alharia seemed to be decades behind in the technology stakes—decades behind in most things, if she was honest, Tati had reflected after their drive through the desert wastes to the remote palace, which was an ancient fortress with mainly Victorian furnishings.
‘All that money and no idea how to spend it or what to spend it on,’ her aunt Elizabeth had bemoaned in envious anguish, soon after their arrival. And it was true: the Basara royal family might be oil billionaires, but there was little visible sign of that tremendous wealth.
Ana had met someone who had sworn blind that Prince Saif was ‘absolutely gorgeous’ but, as even Ana had said, how much faith could she place in that when people tended to be more generous when it came to describing rich, titled young men? Even if the poor chap were as ugly as sin, most would find something positive to say about him.
Tati knew all about that approach and the accompanying unkind comparisons, having grown up labelled a plain Jane beside her much prettier and thinner cousin. Of course, Tati was the family ‘mistake’ being illegitimate, something which might not matter to others, but which had seriously mattered to the uptight Hamilton family and had embarrassed them.
Both girls were blonde, but Tati had blue eyes and Ana had brown and Ana was a tall, slim beauty while Tati rejoiced rather more simply in good skin, a mane of healthy hair and curves. Well, she had never exactly rejoiced in her body, she conceded ruefully, particularly not after her only serious boyfriend had taken one look at her cousin and had fallen in love with her to the extent that he had made an embarrassing nuisance of himself, even though Ana had not had the smallest interest in him.
‘Have you even thought of how you’re going to get back to the airport?’ Tati asked her cousin when she returned to the bedroom they were sharing.
‘Already sorted,’ Ana said smugly. ‘You don’t need the lingo to get by here. I flashed the cash, pointed to a car and it’s downstairs waiting for me already.’
‘Oh…’ Tati whispered in shock as she watched her cousin scooping up her belongings and cramming them back into the suitcase she had refused to allow the maid to unpack. ‘You’re definitely doing this, then?’
‘Of course, I am.’