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Kamal ben Hareth ben Essam Ed-Deen Aal Masood's fist smashed into his inert opponent with a bone-crunching crack.
The bag swung away in a wide arc before hurtling right back at him like a battering ram.
Snarling, imagining it one of the people who had put him in this predicament, this disaster, he met it with a barrage that would have left anything living a mass of broken bones and mangled flesh.
A full thirty minutes into his rampage, his punching bag seemed to grin back at him, pristine and unimpressed with either his strength or his punishment. Leave it to something inanimate to point out the futility of his fury.
He caught it on its last rebound, leaned his face on its cool surface on a harsh exhalation of exertion and resignation.
It was no good. He was still mad as hell. Madder. The edge hadn't even dulled. Would the rage ever lessen? Would the shock?
The king of Judar was dead. Long live the king. Him.
Blood surged in his head again. His fingers dug into the bag.
The bag should have been his brothers. He'd bet they would have stood there and taken whatever he dished out.
And why not? After all, they'd gotten what they'd wanted. First Farooq, followed by Shehab, his in-total-control brothers had done the unthinkableforsaken the world for love and dumped the succession to Judar's throne in his lap. Then, two days before he'd gone through the succession transfer ritual, the king's long-expected death had come to pass.
Now he would participate in a ceremony of a different kind. An ascensionor rather, as it was known in Judar, a joloosa sitting down on the throne. Farooq and Shehab had become the crownprince and the spare, and they kept patting him on the back for taking the throne off their hands so they could live in a perpetual haze of domestic lust and breed princesses for Judar at light speed.
How he wanted to batter sense into them, to bellow that the women for whom they'd forsaken the throne would end up tearing out their hearts and treading on them. He had made his augury unadorned and brutal. He'd gotten identical answers from the brothers he'd once thought the most discerning men he knew. Serene glances and pitying voices telling him time would show him how wrong he was.
Muttering his verdictthat his brothers had had their minds licked away by the honeyed tongues of two sirenshe tore his soaked sweatshirt over his head, balled it up and slammed it against the wall on his way into the shower/sauna/dressing area.
If all Farooq and Shehab had done was set themselves up for destruction, he would have kept trying to save them. And as victims of witchcraft, they could have had his forgiveness if all they'd done was shove him onto the throne.
But now he had to marry the woman who came with it.
He still might have accepted this fate worse than life imprisonment had it been any other woman.
Any woman but Aliyah Morgan.
Ya Ullah, when would he lurch awake to find all this another nightmare featuring the woman he'd been struggling to forget for the past seven years?
But it wasn't a nightmare. It was far worse. It was real.
And in this nightmare of a reality, by a macabre twist of fate, Aliyah had become the woman the future king of Judar had to marry, to fulfill the terms of the peace settlement that would secure the throne and restore balance to the whole region.
He should refuse his brothers' abdication, insist one of them take back the throne. Then one of them would be forced to marry Aliyah, even though he had another wife
He stopped in midstride, stared through the flawless Plexiglas wall into the marble and stainless-steel shower compartment, a fist balling in his gut, images deluging him.
Aliyah marrying Farooq or Shehab, in either of their beds, writhing beneath them, driving them wild
The fist tightened, wrenched, forcing a groan from his lips.
B'Ellahi, had he lost his reason again? How could he still feel the least possessive over a woman he'd never possessed in truth, who wasn't worth possessing?
He entered the shower, turned the heat up to rival his internal seething, hissed his pain-laden relief as needles of scalding water bombarded his flesh and steam billowed around him, engulfing him in its suffocating embrace.
Damn his power of flawless recall. It gave him an edge that made him rise in every field he'd decided to enter, to conquer. It was also a curse. He never forgot. Anything.
He had only to close his eyes to feel it all again. Every sensation and thought since the moment he'd laid eyes on her.
Until that moment, to him, women had been either beloved family, cherished friends, potential-mate material, or self-acknowledged huntresses who understood that he had no needs, only fancies to be roused with utmost effort and appeased, swiftly, irrevocably. He had yet to meet a woman who hadn't fallen into one of those categories.
Then he'd felt her gaze on him, and all his preconceptions had been blasted away. He'd approached her at once, and her cutting intelligence and crackling energy, her exhilarating openness about his equally powerful effect on her, had deepened her impact on him by the second.
Fearing his unprecedented involvement, his aides had cautioned him. Aliyah wasn't using her modeling profession to insinuate herself into the highest tiers of society, hunting for sponsorsshe was doing far worse. Not only was she exploiting her unconventional beauty, but also her status as a princess of Zohayd, violating the rules of her culture and rank to catapult herself to stardom through scandal and controversy.
But Kamal, for once out of his controlled, focused mind with hunger, had rejected the cautioning. To him she'd been a miracle, something he'd thought he'd never find. A woman created for him. One who lived in the West but had her roots in his culture, an equal who "got" him and mirrored him on every levelthe duality of his nature, the struggle between the magnate who abided no rules with the prince who knew nothing but. He'd thought it was fate.
And it had been. Fate at its cruelest, setting him up for the biggest fall of his life.
The ugliness of the discoveries, of that last confrontation, still lashed him. But only with anger at himself, for blinding himself that much, that long, for still being so weak he'd counted on others to make it impossible for her to reach him again.
Now it was others who'd given her access to him for life.
The accursed Carmen and Farah, who'd ensnared his brothers. His idiotic brothers, who'd succumbed to their wives'influence. The damned Aal Shalaans, who'd demanded this marriage on threat of civil war. And the miserable Aal Masoods, who'd considered the marriage a peaceful solution. But it was originally the king of Zohayd's fault.
King Atef was the one who'd fathered Aliyah then refused to acknowledge her. Then her American mother had given her up for adoption, and King Atef's own sister had adopted her No, they were all to blame.
The mess of mistakes would have remained a secret if King Atef hadn't sought out his ex-lover and assumed the daughter she'd raised was his. But his ex-lover had adopted Farah only when remorse over giving up Aliyah had overwhelmed her. It had ended well for Farah. She was now the wife whom Shehab, the fool, worshipped.
But it hadn't ended well for him. It had come full circle, throwing him together with Aliyah, now permanently. Aliyah, the half-blood princess whom everyone in formal society pretended didn't exist, but whose debauched life in the States provided constant fodder for malicious gossip in the region's royal social circles.
It enraged him that an accident of birth could make kingdoms steeped in tradition and conservative values consider such a woman queen material and an instrument of peace.
To heap insults on injuries, she was pretending outrage herself. She'd more or less told her father, her king, to go to hell, that she'd rather die than marry Kamal.
He was certain she'd known the declaration would hurl its way to him, a challenge designed to goad him to rise to it.
And he would. He was damned if he didn't make her eat her words. But not for any personal reasons, he told himself.
This was for the throne of Judar.
He stepped out of the shower, every nerve stinging from the combined punishment of overexertion and physical and mental overheating. He tore a towel off the nearest rack and, without bothering to do more than tie it around his waist, he stalked out of his workout area and made his way to his offices.
The bodyguards who'd proliferated in number and intensified in vigilance since he'd risen to the rank of king-to-be faded into the background so as not to encroach on his privacy or purpose.
As if anything could. He'd lived with all kinds of infringement all his life, had learned early on to thoroughly tune them out. Right now, it would take an attacking army to distract him from his intentions.
He strode to his computer station in measured steps, came to a stop before the central screen, clicked the mouse, accessed his e-mail program. Two clicks brought up the e-mail address he'd acquired hours ago. He clicked open a new message.
He paused for a long moment, rivulets coursing down his chest and back from his still-soaked hair, his mind a blank.
What could he say to the woman he'd parted from on the worst terms a lifetime ago? The woman who would now become his enforced wife, his queen, the mother of his heirs?
Nothing, that was what. He'd say nothing to her. He'd give her an order. The first of many.
Inhaling a deep breath, his fingers flew over the keys. Two terse sentences flowed onto the screen.
He stared at them for minutes before his gaze gravitated to the name in the address bar. Aliyah
How could it still wield such influence, strike such disturbance in a composure he'd thought unshakable?
It had to be echoes of the weakness he'd once had for her. Echoes of an illusion. As unreal as everything they'd ever shared.
He ground his teeth and hit Send.
* * *
The phone slipped from Aliyah's fingers, hit her lap.
She leaned forward, fighting down a fresh wave of nausea.
She'd almost forgotten how that malignant turmoil used to seize her, contort her emotions and reactions. She'd fought too long, too hard for control, and feeling it ebbing away again
She should cling to one thing. This time, her upheaval wasn't being generated inside a chemically imbalanced mind. She had major-with-a-skyscraper-high-M reasons to thank for her current state. This was no overreaction brought on by drug residues, or worse, a resurrection of her old volatility, as had been implied.
Oh, no. This wasn't a pathological reaction. She'd bet every cent she'd ever madeand she'd made heapsthat no one would react differently if, after twenty-seven years of a turbulent enough existence on this planet they discovered that everything they'd thought they knew about their life was one convoluted lie.
And what a lie. It had been perpetuated by the very people who'd been the pillars of her existence, who'd now brought it all down around her ears.
Could she accept it all one day? That Randall Morgan wasn't her father but rather her adoptive one, that Bahiyah Aal Shalaan wasn't her mother but her paternal aunt, that King Atef wasn't her uncle but her biological father, and her biological mother was some American woman she'd never met in her life?
Yet everyone begrudged her her shock. They'd dropped the bomb on her and had expected her to gasp in surprise then shrug and carry on as if nothing had changed. They'd implied that her distress lasting for more than a couple of days indicated a return of her instability. They made her feel unreasonable for demanding time to grapple with the revelations, for resisting being shoved into this new persona and accepting her fate with a smile. That last call from her uncle/father/whoever-he-was had made her feel cruel for not rushing back to Zohayd to meet the woman who'd given her up for adoption, starting the chain reaction that had led to this point. This mess.
Well, she was entitled to her freak-out time. As she was entitled not to see said woman, or any of them. Not just yet.
And no, it wasn't only because they'd managed to twist the course of her life, past and future. She would eventually come to terms with the rewriting of her history and her identity. What she couldn't bear hearing or thinking about was the main disaster they were railroading her toward
A sharp ping startled her. She set her teeth as she sat up. She had to change that irritating "new e-mail" alert. But to what? All available alerts were equally aggravating.
Sighing, she clicked the track pad and the laptop's screen woke up. Her e-mail program window swam into view.
It took three beats for her heart to stop.
Just when she thought it wouldn't restart, all the missed beats converged in a detonation that almost blasted the organ out of her ribs.
She choked as the name rippled across her vision, passed through the barrier of shock, sank into her brain, into the brand it had long seared there.
Kamal Aal Masood.
She collapsed back, lungs burning, stomach churning.
An e-mail. From him. The man she despised above all, the man who'd taken all the love and passion and dreams of her too-stupid-to-live twenty-year-old self and ripped them to shreds.
The man everyone was insane enough to say she had to marry.
Every muscle twitched with the enervation that followed the blow as her vision wavered over the screen again. There was nothing in the subject line. Just his name in the "from" area.
Figured. What could the subject line be, from the man who'd thrown her out of his life like so much garbage? To Clinging Idiot? Re: Sickening Slut? Parting Threat Renewal Notice?
There was nothing to say. He'd said it all then.
So what had he sent her? More abuse? She'd welcome that now. It would be written proof of the ludicrousness of the political marriage everyone was talking about as fait accompli.
Her hand trembled over the track pad. The cursor shook across the screen, missed its target. Hissing, she squeezed her hand to steady it, returned it to the track pad, clicked the e-mail open.
She stared at the words for what could have been an hour.
We will have dinner to discuss the situation. You will be picked up at 7:00 p.m.
That was all. No closing. No signature.