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"I don't want to see another woman. Ever again."
A long moment of silence greeted the fed-up finality of Sheikh Fareed Aal Zaafer's declaration. His companion's empathy and exasperation hung heavy in the stillness.
Then Emad ibn Elkaateb sighed. "I am almost resigned a woman isn't in the cards for you. But because this isn't about you or your inexplicable personal choices, I have to insist."
Fareed's laugh was one of incredulous fury. "What is this? You, who brought me damning proof on each impos-ter? You're now asking me to suffer another one? To grit my teeth through more pathetic, disgusting lies? Just who are you and what have you done with Emad?"
Suddenly the decorum Emad maintained dissolved. Fareed blinked. Emad rarely budged in giving him the "dues of his birthright," insisted it was an integral part of his honor as Fareed's right-hand man to observe Fareed's position as his prince.
Now Emad's expression softened with the indulgence of twenty-five years of being closer to Fareed than his family, friends and staff in his medical center combined. "Anticipating your disappointment was the only reason I objected to the scheme that brought upon you all of those opportunists. On any other account, I can't begin to fault your methods. My own haven't produced results either. Hesham hid too well."
Fareed gritted his teeth on the upsurge of frustration and futility. Of grief.
Hesham. The sensitive soul and exceptional artist. And out of Fareed's nine siblings, the youngest brother and the most beloved.
It was their father and king's fault that Hesham had hidden. Over three years ago, Hesham had returned from a long stay in the States to announce that he was getting married. He'd made the mistake of believing their father might be persuaded to give him his blessing. Instead, the king had flared into an unprecedented rage. He'd forbidden Hesham to contact his fiancée again, or to consider wedding anyone not chosen by their royal house.
When Hesham refused to obey him, the king's fury had escalated. He'd ranted that he'd find the American hussy who'd tried to insinuate herself into the royal line and make her wish she'd never plotted to ensnare his son. As for Hesham, he wasn't letting him dabble in his pointless artistic pursuits and shirk his royal duties anymore. This was no longer about what or whom Hesham chose to amuse himself with. This was about heritage. He wouldn't let him taint their bloodline with an inferior union. Hesham would obey, or there would be hell to pay.
Fareed and his brothers and sisters had intervened on their brother's behalf, then had worked together to release him when their father had placed Hesham under house arrest.
Hesham had wept as he'd hugged them and told them he had to disappear, to escape their father's injustice and to protect his beloved. He'd begged for their word that they'd never look for him, to consider him dead, for all of their sakes.
None of them had been able to give that word.
But even though each had tried to keep track of him, with Fareed the one who'd gone to the greatest lengths, Hesham had all but erased himself from existence.
A new wave of rage against their father scorched his blood.
If it hadn't been for the oath he'd taken to serve his people, he would have left Jizaan, too. But that wouldn't have been a punishment for their father. He wouldn't have cared about losing another son. All he'd said after Hes-ham's disappearance had been that he cared only that Hesham did nothing to disgrace their family and kingdom. Fareed believed that their father would have preferred to see Hesham and any of his future children dead before that came to pass.
What had come to pass had been even worse.
After years of Fareed yearning for any contact with him, Hesham's call came from an E.R. in the States. Hesham had called him only to use his last breaths to beg for a favor. Not for himself, but for the woman for whom he'd left his world, who'd become his world.
Take care of Lyn, Fareed and my child protect them tell her she's everything tell her I'm sorry I couldn't give her what she deserves, that I'll leave her alone with
There'd been no more words. He'd almost bloodied his throat roaring for Hesham to tell him more, to wait for him to come save him. He'd heard only an alien voice, telling him his brother had been taken to surgery.
He'd flown out immediately, dread warring with the hope that he'd be in time to save him. He'd arrived to find him long dead.
Learning that Hesham had been in no way responsible for the accident had deepened his anguish. An eighteen-wheeler had lost control and decimated eleven cars, killing many and injuring more. Grief had compromised his sanity, yet he'd fought it to offer his services. As an internationally recognized surgeon and one of the leading experts in his field, he had been gratefully accepted, and he'd operated on the most serious neurological injuries, had saved other victims as he hadn't been able to save Hesham.
It had been too late by the time he'd learned that a woman had been with Hesham in the car. She'd had no injuries, no identification, and had left the hospital as soon as Hesham had died. Descriptions had varied wildly in the wake of the mass casualties.
With a bleeding heart, he'd taken Hesham's body back to Jizaan. After a heart-wrenching funeral, which the king hadn't attended, Fareed had launched a search for Lyn and the child.
But Hesham had hidden too well. It seemed he'd been erasing each step as he'd taken it. Investigations into the new identity he'd assumed had revealed no wife or child. Even the car he'd died in had been a rental under yet another name.
After a month of dead ends, Fareed had taken the only option left. If he couldn't find Hesham's woman, he'd let her find him.
He'd returned to where Hesham had died, placed appeals in all the media for the woman to contact him. He'd kept his message cryptic so only the right person would approach him. Or so he'd intended
Women had swamped him.
Emad had weeded out the most blatant liars, like those with teenaged children or with none, and still advised Fareed not to waste his time on the rest. He'd been certain they'd all turn out to be fortune hunters. Being a billionaire surgeon and desert prince, Fareed had always been a target for gold diggers. And he'd invited them by the drove.
Fareed couldn't comply, couldn't let anyone who remotely answered the criteria go without an audience.
He'd felt antipathy toward every candidate before she'd opened her mouth. But he'd forced himself to see each performance to its exasperating end. He believed Hesham, the lover and creator of beauty, would have fallen in love only with someone flawless inside and out, someone refined, worthy and trustworthy. But what if Hesham hadn't been as discerning as he'd thought?
But after a month of agonizing letdowns, Fareed had gone home admitting his method's failure. He'd known any new attempt would fail without new information to use. For two more months, he'd been driven to the brink on a daily basis thinking his brother's flesh and blood was out there and might be in need.
He'd groped for a sanity-saving measure, answered a plea from a teaching hospital in the States to perform charity surgeries. A part of his schedule was always dedicated to charity work, but he'd never tackled so many within such a tight time frame. And his work at his own medical center was too organized to provide solace. For the last four weeks he'd lost himself in the grueling endeavor that had managed to anesthetize his pain.
Today was the last day. And after the distraction provided by the crushing schedule, he dreaded the impending release like an imminent jump off a cliff
"Somow 'wak? "
Emad's prodding "Your Highness" brought him out of his lapse into memories and frustration.
Fareed heaved to his feet. "I'm not seeing any more women, Emad. You were right all along. Don't go soft on me now."
"I assure you I'm not. I've been sending the women who've come asking for an interview with you away."
Fareed blinked. "There's been more?"
"Dozens more. But I interviewed them in your stead without inflicting even a mention of them on you."
Fareed shook his head. Seemed his desperate measure would haunt him for Ullah only knew how long. "So what's new now? Don't tell me you're suddenly hoping that my 'grief-blinded gamble' might, 'against all rationality and odds,' bear fruit?"
Emad's lips twitched at Fareed's reminder of his reprimands. "Somow'wak has an impeccable memory."
"Aih, it's a curse." A suspicion suddenly struck him. "Are you telling me you want me to start this farce all over again?"
"I want you to see this one woman."
Fareed winced at the look that entered his eyes. Emad wouldn't look at a lion with more caution.
Jameel. Great. He was losing it. He huffed in disgust at his wavering stamina. "Why this one? Why is she special?"
Emad sighed, clearly not appreciating needing to explain his conviction. "Her approach was unlike any other. She didn't use the contact number you specified in the ad but has been trying to reserve an appointment with you through the hospital from the day we arrived. Today they told her that you were leaving and she started weeping ."
Fareed slammed down the dossier he'd picked up. "So she's even more cunning than the rest, realized that the others' approach hadn't borne fruit and tried to get past your screening by conning her way to me through my work. And when that didn't work, she made a scene. Is that why you want me to see her? Damage control? To stop compounding the 'scandal I created for myself and my family'?"
Emad's dark eyes emptied of expression. "I wouldn't want to resurrect that mess after I managed to contain it. But that's not why. The people in reception today are new. They only heard the story of her waiting around for the past four weeks in case you had an opening in your schedule from her disjointed accounts. When they couldn't deal with her, they sent for me, and I saw her, heard what little she'd been able to say. She. feels different from the rest. Feels truly distraught."
Fareed snorted. "An even more superlative actress, eh?"
"Or maybe the real thing."
His heart boomed with hope, once, before it plummeted again into despondence. "You don't believe that."
Emad leveled his gaze on him. "The real thing does exist."
"And she doesn't want to be found," Fareed growled. "She must know I've turned the world upside down to find her and she didn't come forward. Why would she decide to show up when nothing has changed?"
"Maybe nothing we know of."
Fareed closed his eyes. Emad's calm logic was maddening him. He was in a far worse condition than he'd realized if anything Emad, of all people, said or did had him within a hair's breadth of going berserk. It seemed he'd distracted himself at the cost of pushing himself to a breakdown.
Emad's deep tones, so carefully neutral, felt like discordant nails against his restraint. "But what we do know is that Hesham's Lyn is still out there."
And what if that woman down there was her?
He closed his eyes against hope's insidious prodding. But it was too late. It had already eaten through his resistance.
This woman most probably wasn't; but really, what was one more performance to suffer? He'd better get this over with.
He opened his eyes as Emad opened his mouth to deliver another argument. He raised his hand, aborting it. "Send her up. I'm giving her ten minutes, not a second more. Tell her that. Then I'm walking out and I'm never coming back to this country."
Emad gave a curt nod, turned on his heels.
He watched him exit the ultramodern space the hospital had given him as his consultation room, before he sagged in the luxury of the leather swiveling chair. It felt as if he'd sunk into thorns.
If more fake, stomach-turning stories about his brother were flung in his face, he would not be responsible for his actions.
He glowered at the door. He'd seen all kinds. From the sniveling to the simpering to the seductive. He had an idea which type this one would be. The hysterical. Maybe even the delusional.
He steeled himself for another ugly confrontation as the door was pushed open. Emad preceded the woman into the room.
But he barely saw him. He didn't hear what Emad said before he left, or notice when he did.
All he saw was the golden vision approaching until only the wide desk stood between them.
He found himself on his feet without realizing he'd moved, only one thought reverberating in his mind.
Please, don't be Hesham's Lyn!
The thought stuttered to a standstill.
B 'Ellahi, what was he thinking? He should be wishing that she was, that his search was over.
It shouldn't make a difference that her drowned sky-at-dawn eyes dissolved his coherence and the sunlight silk that cascaded over her bosom made his hands ache to twist in it. It didn't matter that the trembling of her lush lips shook his resolve and her graceful litheness gripped his guts in a snare of instant hunger. If she turned out to be Hesham's Lyn.
His thoughts convulsed to a halt again.
He wanted her to be anything but that. Even another imposter.
The answer churned inside him with that desire that had surged out of nowhere at her sight.
Because Hesham's Lyn would be off-limits to him. And he wanted this woman for himself. He wanted her.
As he 'd wanted her the first and only time he 'd seen her.
He remembered her now!
It was the total unexpectedness of seeing her again, let alone here, that had thrown him at first. That, and the changes in her.
That time he'd seen her, her luminous hair had been scraped back in a severe bun. She'd been wearing makeup that he now realized had obscured her true coloring and downplayed her features. A dark suit of masculine severity had attempted to mask her screaming femininity.
She'd been younger, far more curvaceous, yet somehow less ripe. Her vibe had been cool, professional until she'd seen him.
One thing remained the same. Her impact on him. It was as all-consuming as it had been when he'd walked into that conference room.
He vaguely remembered people scurrying to empty a place for him at the front row. She'd been at the podium. It wasn't until the stunning effect she'd had on him ebbed slightly that he realized what she'd been doing there.
She'd been delivering the very presentation he'd gone to that conference to attend, about a drug that helped regenerate nerves after pathological degeneration or trauma. He'd heard so much about the outstanding young researcher, the head of the R & D team. He'd had a mental image to go with her prodigious achievements, one that had collapsed under its own inaccuracy at the sight of her.
He'd held her gaze captive as he'd sat grappling with impatience for the presentation to be over so he could approach her, claim her. Only his knowledge that the sight of him had been as disruptive to her had mitigated his tension. His pleasure had mounted at seeing her poise shaken. She'd managed to continue, but her crisp efficiency had become colored by the self-consciousness he'd evoked. Every move of her elegant body and eloquent hands, every inflection of her cultured delivery, everything about her had made focusing on the data she'd been conveying a challenge. But her work had been even more impressive than he'd anticipated, only deepening his delight with her. .
"Is it all a lie? Are you a lie?"