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People assumed that Tair Al Sharif was a natural diplomat, but they were wrong.
He was so not a diplomatthough there had been many occasions when that role had been forced upon him by necessitythat as his cousin's glance once more drifted from him to the young Englishwoman seated on the opposite side of the table he wanted quite badly to drag the other man from his chair, give him a good shake and demand to know what the hell he thought he was playing at.
'How is your father, Tair?'
The soft buzz of conversation around the table stilled as Tair removed his steely stare from the Crown prince of Zarhat's profile and turned his attention to the man who was the hereditary ruler of that country.
'Hassan's death was a shock to him.'
The king sighed and shook his head. 'A man should not outlive his children. It is not the natural order of things. Still he has you, Tair, and that must be a comfort to him.'
If this was the case his father was hiding it well.
There was an ironic glitter in Tair's blue eyes as his thoughts were drawn back to his last verbal exchange with his father.
'I trusted you and what did you do, Tair?' King Malik's face had been suffused with a dark colour as he'd slammed his fist down on the table, causing all the heavy silver to jump.
Years ago when he had been a boy, Tair had struggled to hide his reaction to his father's sometimes violent and unpredictable outbursts, though such displays of unbridled fury had left him sick to the stomach. Now he did not need to struggle, as his father's rages no longer seemed frightening to him, just vaguely distasteful.
'It is a pity it wasn't you who walked in front of that car instead of your brother.He knew what loyalty and respect is due me. He would have supported me in this, not taken advantage of my grief to go behind my back.'
'I tried to contact you in Paris.'
His father's grief had not interfered in any noticeable manner with his social life.
King Malik dismissed this comment with a wave of his short, heavily ringed fingers and a contemptuous snort.
'But I was told you were not to be disturbed.' Tair knew this had been shorthand for his father being in the middle of a very high-stakes poker game.
The king's eyes narrowed further as he glared at his remaining son without a hint of affection.
'Your problem, Tair, is you have no vision. You do not think on the grand scale, but of such things as a water-treatment plant ' His sneer registered utter contempt for such a project. 'You exchanged those mineral rights for a water-treatment plant instead of a new yacht!'
'Not just a water-treatment plant, but an undertaking to recruit locally whenever possible, a training programme for our people and fifty per cent of the profits for them once they have recouped a percentage of their initial outlay.'
The deal he had renegotiated had not made the international firm he was dealing with exactly happy. They had been under the impression he was there to rubber stamp the contract as it stood, but they had at least viewed him with grudging respect as they had walked away looking like men who were not quite sure what had just happened to them.
Of course, Tair conceded, he'd had the element of surprise on his side. Next timethough considering his father's reaction that might not be any time soonhe would not have that advantage.
But Tair was not a man to avoid challenges.
'Profits!' His father had dismissed those intangible projected figures with a snap of his swollen fingers. Over-indulgence had left its mark on his coarsened features and his once athletic body. 'And when will that be? I could have had the yacht next month.'
His suggestion that it would perhaps be no great hardship to make do with last year's yacht had not been received well! And though Tair had not expected, or fortunately needed, praise, the lecture had been hard to take.
It was much easier to accept the censorious finger his uncle waved in his direction because Tair knew that, unlike his own father, King Hakim's remonstrance was well intentioned. His uncle was a man who had always put the welfare of his people above his own comfort and would be able to appreciate what Tair was trying to achieve.
'Remember the next time you feel the urge to fly into a desert storm alone that you are all your father has left.'
It was hard to tell from his manner which action appalled his uncle the most: the danger of the desert storm or the fact his nephew had not travelled with an entourage of hundreds as befitted his station in life.
'There are responsibilities in being heir.'
Tair inclined his head in courteous acknowledgement of the royal rebuke. 'I am new to the role, Uncle, so I'm bound to make some errors.'
From the moment Tair had become heir to the throne many had considered his life public property and he accepted this, but there were some freedoms that he was not willing to relinquish. He needed places, moments and people with whom he could be himself in order to preserve his sanity.
'But you are not new to fobbing off old men. Do you think I don't know that you smile, say the right things and then do exactly what you want, Tair? However I know that, despite your action-man antics, you are aware of your duties. More aware than your brother ever was. I know one should not speak ill of the dead, but I say nothing now that I would not have said to his face and nothing I have not in the past said to your father.
'Malik did nobody any favours when he turned a blind eye to your brother's scandals and as for the dubious business dealings ?' Clicking his tongue, King Hakim shook his leonine head in disapproval. 'I have always been of the opinion that your country would have been better off if you had been born the elder.'
It wasn't often that Tair struggled for words, but, more accustomed to defending his actions from criticism, he was stunned to uncomfortable silence by this unexpected tribute from his uncle.
It was Beatrice who came to his rescue.
'I wouldn't mind getting my pilot's licence one day.'
The innocent comment from a heavily pregnant and glowing princess successfully diverted her father-in-law's attention from his nephewas Tair was sure it was intended toand began a good-natured joking debate among the younger generation around the table that centred on the hotly disputed superior ability of men to master any skill that required hand-eye co-ordination.
Everyone joined in except the mouselike English girl, who either through shyness or total lack of social skillsTair suspected the latterhad barely spoken a word throughout the meal unless directly addressed.
The second silent party was Tariq.
Tair's irritation escalated and his suspicion increased as he watched the pair through icy blue eyes.
Tariq was the man who had it all, including a wife who adored him, a wife who was carrying his first child.
Tair's expression softened as his glance flickered to the other end of the table where Beatrice Al Kamal sat looking every inch the regal princess even when she winked at him over the head of her father-in-law the king.
He turned his head, the half-smile that was tugging at his own lips fading as he saw that Tariq was still staring like some pathetic puppy at the English mouse.
Tair's lip curled in disgust. He had always liked and admired the other man, and had always considered his cousin strong not only in the physical but also in the moral sense. Tair had felt it couldn't have happened to a more deserving man when Tariq had met and married the glorious Titian-haired Beatrice after a whirlwind romance.
If two people were ever meant to be together it was Beatrice and Tariq. Their clear devotion had touched even Tair's cynical heart, and made him hope in his less realistic moments that there was such a soul mate waiting for him somewhere, though even if there was it seemed unlikely they were destined to be together.
His future was intrinsically linked with that of the country he would one day rule. What his country needed and deserved after years of neglect by his father and Hassan, who had both been of the opinion the country was their own personal bank, was political and financial stability. It was Tair's duty to make a marriage that supplied both. Improving transport links and dragging the medical facilities of Zabrania, the neighbouring country to Zarhat, into the twenty-first century were more important things than true love.
He directed another icy glare at his cousin, and considered the other man's stupidity. Tariq didn't seem to have a clue as to how lucky he was!
Didn't the man know he had it all?
And even if he wasn't insane enough to risk his marriage by actually being unfaithfulthough in Tair's eyes the distinction between fantasy and physical infidelity was at best blurredhe was obviously stupid enough to risk hurting Beatrice by being so damned obvious.
Even a total imbecile could have picked up on the signals his cousin was being so mystifyingly indiscreet about hiding, and Beatrice was far from stupid.
It was totally inexplicable to Tair that Tariq could have so little respect for his wife that he would insult her this way, and for what ?
He allowed his own scornful gaze to drift in the direction of the English girl, who was clearly not the innocent she seemed because no man acted like Tariq without some encouragement. Tair tried and failed to see something in the mouselike girl that could tempt a man like Tariq or for that matter any man!
Unlike red-headed, voluptuous Beatrice, this was not a girl who would turn heads. Small and slight, her brown hair secured in a twist at the nape of her necka good neck, Tair grudgingly noticed as he allowed his glance to linger momentarily on the slender pale columnshe was not the sort of woman who exuded any strong allure for the opposite sex.
Trying to picture the small oval-shaped face without the large heavy-framed spectacles that were perched on the end of a slightly tip-tilted nose, Tair conceded that an investment in contact lenses might make her more than passable.
But such a change would not alter the fact that her body, covered at this moment in a peculiar sacklike dress the shade of mud, totally lacked the feminine curves which, like most men, he found attractive in the opposite sex.
His blue eyes narrowed as he watched the English girl turn her head to meet Tariq's eyes. For a moment the two simply looked at one another as though there were nobody else in the room. The outrage, locked in Tair's chest like a clenched fist, tightened another notch.
Then she smiled, her long curling eyelashes sweeping downwards creating a shadow across her smooth, softly flushed cheeks and the corners of her mouth. How had he missed the blatant sensuality of that full pouting lower lip?
Tair's mild concern and annoyance at his cousin's uncharacteristic behaviour morphed abruptly into genuine apprehension. Up until this point he had thought that his cousin had simply needed reminding that he was one of the good guys; now it seemed that more might be required.
This silent exchange suggested to him a worrying degree of intimacy. For the first time he seriously considered the possibility that this situation had progressed beyond mild flirtation.
Tair's long fingers tightened around the glass he was holding. Under the dark shield of his lashes his blue eyes, now turned navy with anger, slid around the table. The other guests at the family party continued to talk and laugh, seemingly oblivious to the silent communication between Tariq and the deceptively demure guest.
His brows twitched into a straight line above his strong masterful nose. Were they all blind?
How was it possible, he wondered incredulously, that he was the only person present who could see what was going on?
Could they not see the connection between these two?
Then his study of his guests revealed that Beatrice was also watching the interchange between her husband and friend. Tair's admiration of the woman his cousin had married went up another level when she responded to a comment made by her brother-in-law, Khalid, with a relaxed smile that hid whatever hurt or anxiety she might be feeling.
Beatrice was a classy lady. Clearly her mouse friend was not; she was a predator in mouse's clothing and his cousin was her prey.
He briefly considered the option of speaking directly to Tariq and telling him point-blank he was playing with fire. Such a discussion would end at best in harsh words and at worst in an exchange of blowsnot really ideal from either a personal or political perspective. On reflection he decided it would be better by far to speak to the woman who was pursuing Tariq.
He would warn Miss Mouse that he would not stand by and watch her ruin the marriage of his friends. And if Miss Mouse didn't listen he would have to take direct action. He had no idea what form that direct action would take, but Tair's inspiration had so far not let him down. He had frequently walked into a room full of dignitaries whom his brother had insulted with no idea what he was going to say, but the right words had always come.
Though maybe this situation would require more than words He gave a mental shrug, as he was capable of that too. Capable, according to some, of great ruthlessness, but Tair did not think of it in such emotive terms, he just did what was necessary and he never asked anyone else to perform an unpleasant task that he himself was not willing to do.
He looked at the sexy curve of the Mouse's mouth and wondered if that unpleasantness would take the form of sampling those lips ? Perhaps at a chosen moment when his actions could be observed by his cousin. The plan, unlike the lady, had some virtue as he was sure Tariq was not a man who would enjoy sharing any more than he would.
She was, he mused, staring at that mouth, nothing like any woman he had ever kissed. She had nothing to recommend her beyond neatness, a conniving nature and a sexyactually very sexymouth, and he had done worse to help a friend.
The Mouse, perhaps sensing his study, suddenly stopped gazing at Tariq and turned her head, the action briefly causing her gaze to collide with his cold, hostile stare.
He watched with clinical detachment, the guilty colour rise up her slender neck until her small face was suffused with heat.
His lip curled in contempt as he smiled and watched her literally recoil before she looked away. At least she now knew that there was someone who was not fooled by her meek and mild act.