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CROWN PRINCE RAFIQ AL RAHMAN of Zenara strode into his uncle’s private sitting room with an easy smile. Even bending his proud dark head in a respectful bow, he towered over the older man, who stood up in defiance of all protocol to greet his nephew.
‘Rafiq,’ the Regent said warmly.
‘Sit down, sir, before you scandalise your guards,’ Rafiq urged uncomfortably.
‘You were my King at twelve years old and always will be,’ Jalil informed him quietly. ‘And in little more than eighteen months you will take your rightful place when I step down.’
The reminder was unnecessary for Rafiq who, at the age of twenty-eight, was chafing against the restrictions set down by the government’s executive council when Prince Jalil had been invited to become Regent of the kingdom and raise his orphaned nephews to adulthood. Thirty had been set in stone as the date of Rafiq’s maturity and ascension to the throne of his forefathers, but Rafiq had long been ready to embrace that challenge. Yet feeling that way troubled his conscience, because his uncle had been both an excellent ruler and a caring guardian—a man, indeed, infinitely more fit for the throne than Rafiq’s late father Azhar had proved to be. Azhar’s licentious ways and corrupt practices had plunged their hereditary monarchy into disrepute.
Without a doubt their parent’s ugly history explained why Rafiq and his kid brother, Zayn, had had to endure a rigidly traditional, old-fashioned upbringing in which their every move had been hedged with prohibitions. Everybody had been terrified that Rafiq or Zayn might start revealing their father’s traits although Rafiq himself had had little fear of that possibility, having been long convinced that his father had committed his worst excesses while in the grip of drug abuse.
‘You said you had to see me immediately,’ Rafiq reminded the older man gently, keen as he was to return to his own wing of the palace and enjoy a little relaxation before making an official report on Zenara’s financial investments to the executive council. ‘What has happened?’
Jalil breathed in deep and crossed the room to stand by the archway that led out onto a balcony from which a welcome waft of fresh air emanated and chased the heat of midday. ‘I must ask you to speak to your brother about his marriage. He is proving…stubborn in the extreme.’
In receipt of that news, Rafiq stiffened and paled. ‘You already know my opinion. Zayn is seventeen. He is too young.’
The Regent sighed heavily. ‘I suppose that tells me very clearly how you feel about having been married off at sixteen.’
‘No disrespect was intended,’ Rafiq hastened to assert, discomfiture and guilt gripping him.
Yet how could he stand by and let his little brother pay the price of his own refusal to remarry? It was only two years since his wife, Fadith, had died but within weeks Rafiq had been approached by the council and asked to consider a second marriage. His marriage to Fadith, unhappily, had been childless and, although the medics had been unable to find anything wrong with either of them and had made much use of that catch-all phrase ‘unexplained infertility’, Rafiq was still in no hurry to enter a second union and very probably go through the same torturous process again. He was in no mood to apologise either for wanting to continue enjoying the freedom that had long been denied to him.
But, of course, that was not an excuse that his uncle either wanted to hear or would even understand. Jalil had married young and remained very happily married and, like the council, he feared the sexual liberty that all were convinced had been his late father Azhar’s downfall and which had caused so many scandals. Azhar had preyed on the female staff and on the wives of his officials and his friends. No attractive woman had been safe in his vicinity. But Rafiq was neither a sex addict nor a drug addict in constant search of another high.
‘Zayn must marry,’ Jalil responded gravely. ‘He must provide you with an heir.’
‘In that case I will agree to remarry,’ Rafiq breathed in a driven undertone, grimly accepting that he no longer had a choice.
He had withstood the arguments in favour of his remarriage for as long as he could, staving off the prospect of his brother being forced into a union while he was still too young for that responsibility. While he accepted that his remarriage was unlikely to lead to the much-desired heir, at least it would buy his little brother freedom for longer.
‘I will remarry,’ he repeated. ‘But only on the understanding that my brother is given several more years before he is expected to take a wife.’
‘Neither I nor the council would want you to feel forced into marriage against your own inclinations,’ the older man protested in dismay.
‘I will not feel forced,’ Rafiq lied smoothly, determined to do the one thing he could to protect his kid brother from being compelled to grow up too soon. ‘It is a necessity for me, after all, to have a wife. If there is to be a king, there must also be a queen.’
‘If you are sure…’ The Regent hesitated. ‘The council will find this news of your change of heart very welcome indeed and who knows? In a second marriage a child may be conceived.’
‘I think it is wisest to assume that there will not be a child,’ Rafiq parried flatly. ‘Of course, any potential bride will be aware of that likelihood from the outset.’
‘Is there a woman for whom you have formed a preference?’ his uncle prompted hopefully.
‘Sadly not, but when I return from my next trip you may put suggestions to me,’ Rafiq murmured, forcing a smile. ‘I am a poor bargain for any woman.’
‘A billionaire and future king feted on social media as the most handsome prince in the Middle East?’ the older man countered feelingly. ‘Social media is so shamelessly disrespectful!’
‘There’s nothing we can do to silence such nonsense.’ Rafiq shrugged. Both he and his brother had long been barred from such public forms of expression, closed off in every way from their peers. And the movie-star good looks that he had inherited from his very beautiful late mother, an Italian socialite, merely embarrassed him.
It was a tribute only to Rafiq’s force of will that he had completed his degree in business and finance with an executive council who had refused to see the benefits of an educated ruler. In so far as it was possible within the restrictions foisted on him, Rafiq had had a normal education, but nothing else about his life had been remotely normal. He was always surrounded by bodyguards and he was sentenced to travel with a cook and even a food taster because his father had died from poison.
Rafiq was much inclined to believe that that misfortune had had nothing to do with sedition but was much more likely to have been the act of an embittered husband, a vengeful woman or the consequence of an unjust settling of one of the many tribal disputes for which his father had favoured his cronies or demanded bribes. Unsurprisingly, his late father had had many, many enemies. In spite of keen investigation, nobody had ever been found to answer for his father’s murder. Many had suspected various scandalous causes to have prompted his father’s death but there had been insufficient evidence to fuel a prosecution and, sadly, his father’s passing had been more of a relief than a source of grief to the executive council.
In comparison to his father, however, Rafiq was not only honest and honourable but also a skilled diplomatist. Not that that had helped him much in his role as a husband, he conceded with a near shudder, so repulsed was he by the concept of remarriage. He had absolutely no desire for another wife. Naturally he didn’t want to feel trapped again. He had hated being married and knew that his attitude was a visceral reaction to what he had endured. He didn’t want to be worshipped like a golden idol either and he certainly didn’t want to be cursed a second time with a woman who wanted a child much more than she had ever wanted him. Yet he had remained faithful during his marriage.
Only after his wife had died had he been able to discover that there were other kinds of sexual experiences, casual encounters that could be fun and occasionally even exciting, where both partners walked away afterwards without a backward glance. No ties, no regrets, not even an exchange of phone numbers. That was what he liked the most but so aware was he of his father’s addiction to sex that he rigorously controlled his strong sexual drive and rarely allowed himself to indulge his physical needs. But when he remarried, he would never enjoy unvarnished sexual pleasure again, he reminded himself grimly, knowing that he was going to find a woman on his next trip to the UK and spend mindless hours in bed with her. One last sin, he told himself wryly as he took his leave of his clean-living uncle, one last sin before his life and his privacy were stolen from him again…