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"IT IS a matter of family honour…'King Zafir's voice was thin and weak but fierce longing burned in his gaze as he addressed his only surviving son. "You will bring your brother Adil's son home to us and we will raise him to adulthood."
Crown Prince Jaspar murmured tautly, "Father, with all due respect, the child has a mother—"
"A harlot unfit to be called a mother!" In a sudden explosion of anger, King Zafir raised himself from the pillows and thundered, "A shameless creature who danced until dawn while her child fought for his life in hospital! A greedy, grasping Jezebel…" At that point a choking bout of serious coughing overcame the irate older man and he struggled in vain to catch his breath.
Instantly, the King's medical team was rushed in to administer oxygen. Pale and taut, dark eyes intent, already stunned by the furious outburst that had brought on the attack, Jaspar watched the physicians go about their work and willed his parent to recover. "Please, Your Royal Highness," his father's closest aide, Rashad, begged with tears in his strained eyes. "Please agree without further discussion."
"I had not realised that my father held Western women in such violent aversion."
"His Majesty does not. Have you not read the report on this woman?"
As he registered in relief that his father was responding to the treatment the worst of the tension holding Jaspar's lean powerful frame taut ebbed and he breathed in deep. "I have not."
"I will bring the report to your office. Your Royal Highness." Rashad hurried off.
A thin hand beckoned from the great canopied bed. Jaspar strode forward and bent down to hear King Zafir's last definitive words on the subject, uttered in a thready tone of deep piety that nonetheless held a rare note of pleading. "It is your Christian duty to rescue my grandson…"
As soon as the immediate emergency was over and his father had been made comfortable, Jaspar left the room. As he crossed the anteroom beyond, every person there dropped down on their knees and bent their heads. In receipt of that respectful acknowledgement of his recent rise in royal status, he clenched his strong jawline even harder. Reflecting on the recent death of his elder brother, Adil, who had been Crown Prince since birth, only made Jaspar feel worse than ever.
One day he would be King of Quamar but he had not been brought up to be King. In the instant that Adil had died, Jaspar's life had changed for ever. He had loved his brother but had never been very close to him. Adil had, after all, been fifteen years older and cut from a different cloth. Indeed, Adil had often cheerfully called his younger brother a killjoy. But, almost inevitably, Adil's excessive appetite for food and fat Cuban cigars had contributed to his early demise at the age of forty-five.
In the splendid office that was now his, Jaspar studied an oil painting of his jovial brother with brooding regret. Adil had also been an unrepentant womaniser.
"I adore women. All of them…" Adil had once told Jaspar with his great beaming smile. "My wife, my ex-wives, my daughters included, but why should I settle for only one woman? If only we were Muslim, brother, I might have had four wives at a time and a harem of concubines. Do you never think of what life might have been like had our honoured ancestor, Kareem I, not founded us as a Christian dynasty?"
So, when Adil had not been carrying out his duties as Crown Prince, he had sailed his pleasure yacht, Beauteous Dreamer, round the Mediterranean with a string of beautiful fun-loving Western women aboard. Rumours of his eldest son's discreet double life had occasionally caused King Zafir great disquiet but Adil had always been a most gifted dissembler and his women had always been willing to cover his tracks for him.
It seemed painfully ironic that the much-wanted son which Adil had failed to father with any of his three successive wives should have been born out of wedlock. Had that child been born within marriage, he would have been second in line to the throne but his illegitimacy barred him from what should have been his rightful place in life. Jaspar suppressed a heavy sigh. In his generation, the al-Husayn royal family had had little luck when it came to producing male heirs, although, having fathered several daughters, Adil had remained excusably optimistic that a son would eventually be born.
And just two years ago, a baby boy had been born to an English woman in London. During the hours that Adil had survived before the second heart attack had struck and proved fatal, he had confessed that shocking fact to their distraught father. Unsurprisingly, the news of that unknown grandson had become an obsession with the grieving older man but extensive confidential enquiries had been required even to track the woman down. In fear of a scandal that would reverberate all the way back to Quamar, Adil had gone to considerable lengths not only to disassociate himself from that birth, but also to conceal all evidence of the child's existence.
It was a mess, an unholy mess, that he was being asked to sort out, Jaspar reflected bleakly as Rashad scurried in with much keen bowing and scraping to deliver a sealed file to his desk. His parent was too ill to be made to consider practicalities, but to bring Adil's child back to Quamar, shorn of the supposedly unsuitable mother, would be very difficult, if not impossible.
"His Majesty has made a most clever suggestion which would solve all the problems at once, Your Royal Highness," Rashad announced in a tone of excitement.
Jaspar regarded the older man in polite enquiry but with no great hope for Rashad was his father's yes-man, guaranteed to always agree with and support his royal employer's every spoken word.
"We use our special forces and snatch the child…" Jaspar drew in a very deep and necessary breath of restraint. Sometimes, his father astounded him. A feudal ruler from a young age, his exalted parent had never quite come to terms with the reality that a very different world lurked beyond Quamar's borders.
"There would be no need to negotiate with the foreign Jezebel and the boy would be whisked back to Quamar, renamed and raised as an orphan. Perhaps we could say that he is a distant cousin's child," Rashad completed with immense enthusiasm.
Only the fond memory of Rashad playing with him when he was a child himself prevented Jaspar from venting his incredulous dismissal of such an outrageous suggestion. Rashad was not a clever man and he was out of his depth, his sole motivation being a desperate desire to tell his ailing royal employer what he most wanted to hear. As for his honoured parent and sovereign, Jaspar reflected in rueful exasperation, illness and grief had evidently temporarily deprived the head of the house of al-Husayn of his usual common sense and caution.
"Please inform His Majesty that the situation will be resolved without the need for such a dramatic intervention," Jaspar stated drily.
"His Majesty fears that he will die before he ever lays eyes on the child," Rashad lamented emotively.
Jaspar was well aware of that fact but also convinced that his father would soon recover his once excellent health if only he would stop fretting himself into pointless rages and thinking of dying. Casting open the file, he expected to see a photo of a leggy brunette of the type his late brother had appeared to find irresistible but there was no photo of either mother or child. So eager had the private detective been to report back on his success in locating the woman that he had wasted no time in gathering supporting evidence.
The child's mother, Erica Sutton, had been christened Frederica, and her own mother had deserted her and her father within weeks of the birth of her twin sisters. At eighteen, Erica had left home with a neighbour's husband in tow but that liaison had soon ended. Becoming a model but rarely working, she had then gone on to enjoy numerous affairs with wealthy married men.slightest idea who had fathered him, but his mother's newfound financial security had been marked by her purchase of a palatial apartment and the high-spending lifestyle of a party girl in constant search of amusement. As Jaspar read on, his lean, darkly handsome features grew steadily more grave. He was appalled by what he was learning and was no longer surprised by his father's rage and concern. Taking the easy way out of an embarrassing predicament, Adil had left his infant son to the care of a cruelly irresponsible and selfish young woman, who appeared to have not the smallest maternal instinct.
Thrusting aside the file in disgust, Jaspar had not the slightest doubt that it was his duty to remove his nephew from such an unsuitable home. That a devoted nanny had evidently protected the child from the worst of his mother's excesses was of little consolation, for a nanny was only an employee whose services might be dispensed with at any time. The little boy was at undeniable risk both emotionally and physically in his current environment, Jaspar conceded grimly.
His father had spoken wisely and Jaspar was ashamed that he had set such little store by the older man's outraged condemnation of the child's mother. The only solution was for his nephew to be brought out to Quamar. However, and Jaspar allowed himself a wry smile, he would achieve that feat without resorting to springing melodramatic manoeuvres with the army's special forces and causing a diplomatic furore.
Frederica Sutton, known as Freddy since the age of eight and by her own choice, passed the letter from Switzerland over to the grey-haired older woman seated across the table from her. "What am I going to do now?"
Donning her spectacles and looking very much the retired schoolteacher that she indeed was, Ruth scanned the few lines with a frown. "Well, that's that, then. You've exhausted every avenue—"
"The only avenue." Freddy's sole lead had been the Swiss bank account from which her late cousin, Erica, had received her generous income.
She had written to the financial institution concerned, explaining the circumstances in some detail. She had hoped that she might somehow establish even third-party contact with whoever had originally set up that payment system. Unfortunately, the cagey response she had received had made it painfully clear that the tenet of client confidentiality forbade any such sharing of information while adding that any more approaches from her or indeed anyone else would be a complete waste of time.
"It's hardly your fault that Ben's father didn't make provision for the reality that at some stage there might be a genuine need for further contact," Ruth Coulter mused ruefully. "Possibly he was making it clear that he wanted no more involvement under any circumstances…and who could have dreamt that a woman as young as Erica would die?"
At that reminder, Freddy's aquamarine eyes clouded and she bent her blonde head until she had got her emotions back under control. Her cousin, Erica, had been only twenty-seven when she had met her death on the ski slopes in an accident that could have been avoided. But then Erica had died much as she had lived, Freddy conceded reluctantly, as though every day might be her last, running risk without thought and never, ever thinking of the future.
"I know you miss Erica." The older woman gave Freddy's hand a brief bracing squeeze. "But it's been six weeks now and life has to go on, most particularly where Ben is concerned. I doubt if you will ever learn who his father is but in the long run that may even be for the best. Your cousin wasn't very choosy about her male friends."
"She was trying to sort herself out," Freddy protested. "Was she?" Ruth raised an unimpressed brow. "Of course, it's wisest not to dwell on someone's failings once they've gone. Naturally one prefers to remember the good things but one might be challenged in this particular case—"
"Ruth…please!"Freddy was sincerely pained by that frank opinion. "Surely you remember what a dreadful childhood Erica had?"
"I'm afraid I don't have much faith in the fashionable excuses for downright immoral behaviour. Erica brought that poor child into this world only because it paid her to do so." Ruth grimaced, her distaste palpable. "She lived like a lottery winner on the child support she received from Ben's father but took not the slightest interest in her own son—"
"She put Ben to bed and read him a story for the first time shortly before she died. They were beginning to bond—"
"No doubt you shamed and coaxed her into the effort. If Ben's father had not been an extremely rich and evidently very scared married man willing to pay heavily for her discretion, Erica would have had that pregnancy terminated,"Ruth opined without hesitation. "She had no interest in children."
Giving up on her attempt to soften Ruth's attitude towards Ben's late mother, Freddy got up and knelt down by the little boy playing on the rug. Ben had his little cars lined up. He was dive-bombing them with a toy aeroplane and all the accompanying noisy sound effects. Aware that her hostess was finding the racket something of an irritation, Freddy directed Ben's interest to a puzzle instead and sat by his side until his attention was fully engaged. He was a very lovable child and she adored him as though he were her own. An affectionate and good-natured little boy with dark curls and enormous brown eyes, Ben had been a premature baby.
Freddy had actually been living with Erica by the time that her cousin had gone into labour. Ben had spent the first few weeks of his life confined to an incubator and Freddy had always blamed that unfortunate fact for her cousin's distressing inability to bond with her baby. Over the months that had followed in her role as nanny to Ben, Freddy had tried everything to encourage that maternal bond to develop and had even taken advice from a psychologist on her cousin's behalf. But nothing had worked. Erica had continued to demonstrate little more interest in Ben than she might have done in a strange child passing her by in the street.
"As you can't contact the father, you need to contact the authorities and notify them about the situation,"Ruth advised. "It's unfortunate that Erica didn't simplify matters by leaving a will but, naturally, once her solicitor has sorted out her estate, everything will go to Ben as well as that continuing income."
"Ben's going to be a very rich little boy," Freddy muttered heavily. "I expect people will queue up to adopt him and social services are bound to look for a family that are already wealthy in their own right. What hope have I got against that kind of competition? I'm single, currently unemployed and I'm only twenty-four—"
"You're also that child's only known relative and you've been with him since birth." But Ruth Coulter spoke as if neither fact that might support the adoption application that the younger woman was determined to make was a source of satisfaction to her. "I wish you'd never got involved, Freddy. I can't approve of an unmarried woman of your age taking on such a burden—"
"Ben's not a burden." Freddy's chin took on a stubborn tilt. "You've had no life of your own since you got tangled up with Erica's problems." The older woman's disapproval was unconcealed. "She used you quite shamelessly to take care of her responsibilities—"
"I was paid an excellent salary to look after Ben," Freddy reminded her defensively.
"For weeks on end without a break? Day and night and weekends too?"Ruth enquired drily. "Your cousin took advantage of your good nature and it's no wonder you're now thinking of that little boy as though he was your son. For the past two years, he might as well have been!"
Studying Freddy's now flushed and guilty face, Ruth compressed her lips. She had once lived next door to the Sutton family and she had known both Erica and Freddy as children. Children who had been forever joking about the foolish fact that they both had the exact same name—Frederica. Their fathers had been brothers and both had named their daughters in honour of a spinster great-aunt in the forlorn hope that they would eventually be enriched by that piece of flattery. As, at that time, the two families had lost touch with each other, the coincidence had not been discovered until years later. When Erica's parents had been killed in a car accident, Freddy's widowed father had taken in his niece and brought her up with his own daughter.
But who could ever have dreamt that that generous act could have ended up working to Freddy's detriment? In Ruth's opinion, even as a child Erica had been dishonest and precocious, essentially shallow in nature but capable of exercising great charm when it suited her to do so. Ruth had not been impressed by Erica's highly coloured stories of her late parents" cruelty towards her, but a lot of people had been impressed even though there had been no proof whatsoever to back up her claims. Within the space of six months, Freddy had been the less favoured child in her own home, for Freddy had never been one to push herself forward or flatter.
Having always been very fond of the younger woman, who had lost her own mother at an early age, Ruth had not been as sorry as she felt she should have been when Erica had run off with a neighbour's husband. Ruth had hoped that without her cousin around to hog the limelight, Freddy would grow in confidence. After all, Freddy was a pretty girl but, having had her self-esteem punctured by Erica at a sensitive age, she regarded herself as plain. Ruth was fond of little Ben as well but she was a pragmatic thinker. She did not want to watch Freddy sacrifice her youth and her freedom just to raise Erica's son. Conscious of Ruth's concerned disapproval and discomfited, Freddy left rather earlier than usual and caught the tube back to her late cousin's apartment. For an instant, entering the spacious hall which gave only a tiny taste of the opulence yet to come, Freddy felt spooked. At any minute she expected Erica to drawl from the drawing-room, "Is that you, Freddy darling? I have the most horrible hangover. My appetite will need tempting tonight…or do you think I ought to settle for a hair of the dog that bit me? Do you think sobering up was the mistake?"
Her eyes stung with tears afresh. She had known Erica's faults, had often despaired over her cousin's self-destructive habits, but had continued to love her like a sister. In the right mood, Erica had been tremendous fun to be around and if she had been around a lot less than Freddy had wished since Ben's birth, who was to blame for that?