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The sun belted down on the tarmac of Qusay International Airport, the combination turning the air oppressive as Rafiq stepped from the Gulfstream V. He took a moment to let his eyes adjust to the dazzling light, and even over the smell of avgas he breathed it in: the unmistakable scent of his homeland, the salt-tinged air fragrant with a thousand heady spices and dusted with the desert sands that swept so much of the island kingdom.
He smiled as his brother emerged, his robes stark white and cool-looking, from the first of two limousines waiting near the foot of the stairs. At their front, flags bearing the royal insignia fluttered, and four uniformed motorcyclists sat ready nearby, bringing home to him the reality of the bombshell his brother had dropped during his phone call. King Xavian had abdicated after learning that he was really the missing Prince Zafir of Calistan, which meant that his brother, Kareef, would soon be crowned King of Qusay.
Which made him, Rafiq, a prince.
A fleeting hint of bitterness infused his thoughts and senses—if he'd been a prince back then—but just as quickly he fought it down. That was history.
There were far better things to celebrate now, even if the bad taste in his mouth would not disappear completely. He jogged down the stairs, ignoring the heat that seemed to suck the very oxygen from the air, and took his brother by the arm, pulling him close and slapping him on the back. 'It is good to see you, big brother. Or should I call you Sire?'
Kareef waved his jest aside as he ushered his brother into the cool interior of the waiting limousine, the chauffer snicking the door softly closed behind them before sliding into the driver's seat. 'It's good you could come at such short notice,' Kareef acknowledged as the cavalcade pulled away.
'You think I would miss your coronation?'
'You almost missed Xavian's wedding. How long were you here? Three hours? Four at most.'
'It is true,' Rafiq acceded, unable to deny it. Business had been more pressing a few weeks ago—new emporiums opening almost simultaneously in Auckland and Perth, his presence required everywhere at once—but he had managed to get here, only to have his snatched visit cut even shorter with news of a warehouse fire that had threatened some of his employees' lives. 'Although as it turns out he wasn't Xavian our cousin after all. But there was no way I was not coming for your coronation. And if there is one thing I am sure of, Kareef, it's that you are indeed my brother.'
Nobody could have doubted it. The brothers shared the same height and breadth of shoulder, and the same arresting dark good-looks. Those things would have been more than enough to guarantee the family connection, but it was their uncannily blue eyes, eyes that could be as warm as the clearest summer sky or as cold as glacial frost, that cemented the family connection and took it beyond doubt.
'Speaking of brothers,' he continued, 'where is Tahir? Is our wayward brother to grace us with his presence this time?'
A frown marred Kareef s noble brow. 'I spoke with him…' He paused, and seemed to take a moment to gather his thoughts before looking up and smiling broadly. 'I spoke with him yesterday.'
'I don't believe it!'
'It's true. Though it wasn't easy to track him down in Monte Carlo, he's coming to the coronation.'
Rafiq raised a brow as he pushed himself further back into the supple leather upholstery. 'All three of us, back here at the same time?'
'It's been too long,' Kareef agreed.
The journey from the airport through the bustling city of Shafar, with its blend of the traditional low mud-brick buildings amongst modern glass skyscrapers, passed quickly as the brothers caught up on events since they had last seen each other, and soon the limousine was making its way through the massive iron gates that opened to the cobbled driveway leading to the palace. It never failed to impress. In the noonday sun, the palace glowed like the inside of a pearl shell— so massive, so bright, standing atop its headland, that travellers at sea must be able to see it from miles around, whether in the dazzling light of day or glowing brightly in the pearly light of the moon.
And as the car pulled to a halt under a shadowed portico, and a uniformed doorman swept close and saluted as he opened the door, the reality of recent events hit home once more. Now Rafiq wasn't just entering the royal palace as a member of the extended family. Now he was royalty. A prince, no less.
How ironic, when he had built himself up to be king of the business he had created for himself—ruler over his own empire. For now he was one step away from being ruler of the country that had given him birth, the country he had turned his back on so many years ago.
How life could change so quickly.
And once again an unwelcome trace of bitterness sent him poisoned thoughts.
If he'd been brother to the King back then, would she have waited for him? If he'd been a prince, how might things have been different?
He shook his head to clear the unwanted thoughts. The savage heat was definitely getting to him if he was dwelling on things that could not be changed. He hadn't been a prince back then and she had made her choice. End of story.
His brother left him then, putting a hand to Rafiq's shoulder. 'As I mentioned, there are matters I must attend to. Meanwhile Akmal will show you to your suite.'
His suite proved to be a collection of high-ceilinged, richly decorated rooms of immense proportions, the walls hung with gilt-framed mirrors and colourful tapestries of exploits otherwise long forgotten, the furnishings rich and opulent, the floor coverings silken and whisper-soft.
'I trust you will be comfortable here, Your Highness,' Akmal said, bowing as he retreated backwards out the door.
'I'm sure I will,' he said, knowing there was no way he couldn't be, despite the obvious difference between the palace furnishings and the stark and streamlined way his own house in Sydney was decorated. His five-level beachside house was a testament to modern architecture and structural steel, the house clinging to the cliff overlooking Secret Cove, Sydney's most exclusive seaside suburb.
And inside it was no less lean and Spartan, all polished timber floors and stainless steel, glass and granite.
Strange, he mused, how he'd become rich on people wanting to emulate the best the Middle East had to offer, when he'd chosen the complete opposite to decorate his own home.
'And Akmal?' he called, severing that line of thought before he could analyse it too deeply. 'Before you go…'
The older man bowed again, simultaneously subservient and long-suffering in the one movement. 'Yes, Your Highness?'
'Can we drop the formalities? My name is Rafiq.'
The old adviser stiffened on an inhale, as if someone had suddenly shoved a rod up his spine. 'But here in Qusay you are Your Highness, Your Highness.'
Rafiq nodded on a sigh. As nephews to the King, he and his brothers had grown up on the periphery of the crown, in line, and yet an entire family away, and while the possibility had always existed that something might happen to the heir they'd known as Xavian before he took the crown, nobody had really believed it. Their childhood had consequently been a world away from the strained atmosphere Xavian had grown up in, even with their own domineering father. They'd had duty drilled into them, but they'd had freedom too—a freedom that had allowed Rafiq to walk away from Qusay as a nineteen-year-old when there'd been nothing left for him here.
He'd made his own way in the world since then, by clawing his way up from being a nothing and nobody in a city the other side of the world. He hadn't needed a title then. He didn't need a title now, even if he was, by virtue of Xavian's abdication, a prince. But what was the point of arguing?
After all, he'd leave for Sydney and anonymity right after the coronation. He could put up with a little deference that long. 'Of course, Akmal,' he conceded, letting the older man withdraw, his sense of propriety intact. 'I understand. Oh, and Akmal?'
The vizier turned. 'Yes, Your Highness?'
Rafiq allowed himself a smile at the emphasis. 'Please let my mother know I'll visit her this afternoon.'
He bowed again as he withdrew from the room. As you wish.'
Rafiq took the next hour to reacquaint himself with the Olympic-length swimming pool tucked away with the men's gym in one of the palace's many wings, the arched windows open to catch the slightest breeze, while the roof protected bathers from the fiery sun. There weren't any other bathers today; the palace was quiet in the midday heat as many took the opportunity for the traditional siesta.
And of course there were no women. Hidden away in the women's wing, there was a similar pool, where women could disrobe without fear of being seen by men. So different, he thought, from the beach that fronted his seaside property and the scantily clad women who adorned it and every other piece of sand along the coast. He would be a liar if he said they offended him, those women who seemed oblivious to the glances and turned heads as their swimming attire left little to the imagination, but here in Qusay, where the old ways still had meaning, this way too made sense.
The water slipped past his body as he dived in, cool but not cold, refreshing without being a shock to the system, and he pushed himself stroke after stroke, lap after lap, punishing muscles weary from travel until they burned instead with effort. He had no time for jetlag and the inconveniences of adapting to a new body clock, and physical exercise was the one way of ensuring he avoided it. When finally his head touched the pillow tonight, his body, too, would be ready to rest.
Only when he was sure his mother would have risen from her siesta did he allow his strokes to slow, his rhythm to ease. His mind felt more awake now, and the weariness in his body was borne of effort rather than the forced inactivity of international travel. Back in his suite, he showered and pulled open the wardrobe.
His suits and shirts were all there, freshly pressed and hung in his absence, and there were more clothes too. White-as-snow robes lay folded in one pile, The sirwal, worn as trousers underneath, in another. He fingered a bisht, the headdress favoured by Qusani men, his hand lingering over the double black cord that would secure it.
His mother's handiwork, no doubt, to ensure he had the 'proper' clothes to wear now he was back in Qusay.
Two years it had been since he had last worn the robes of his countrymen, and then it had only been out of respect at his father's funeral. Before that it would have been a decade or more since he'd worn them—a decade since his youthful dreams had been shattered and he'd turned his back on Qusay and left to make his own way in the world.
And his own style. It was Armani now that he favoured next to his skin, Armani that showcased who he was and just how far he'd come since turning his back on the country that had let him down. With a sigh, he dropped the black igal back on the shelf and pulled a fresh shirt and clean suit from the wardrobe.
He might be back in Qusay, and he might be a prince, but he wasn't ready to embrace the old ways yet.
The palace was coming to life when he emerged to make the long walk to his mother's apartments. Servants were busy cleaning crystal chandeliers or beating carpets, while gardeners lovingly tended the orange and lemon trees that formed an orchard one side of the cloistered pathway, the tang of citrus infusing the air. All around was an air of anticipation, of excitement, as the palace prepared for the upcoming coronation.
He was on the long covered balcony that led to his mother's suite when he saw a woman leaving her rooms, pulling closed the door behind her and turning towards him, her sandals slapping almost noiselessly over the marble floor. A black shapeless gown covered everything but the stoop of her shoulders; a black scarf over her head hid all but her downcast eyes. One of his mother's ladies-in-waiting, he assumed, going off to fetch coffee or sweets for their meeting.
And then he drew closer, and a tiny spark of familiarity, some shred of recognition at the way she seemed to glide effortlessly along the passageway, sent the skin at the back of his neck to prickly awareness.
But it couldn't be.
She was married and living the high life in Paris or Rome, or another of the world's party capitals. And this woman was too stooped. Too sad.
He'd almost discounted the notion entirely, thinking maybe he hadn't completely swum off his jetlagged brain after all, when the woman sensed his approach, her sorrowful eyes lifting momentarily from their study of the floor.
A moment was all it took. Air was punched from his lungs, adrenaline filled his veins, and anger swirled and spun and congealed in his gut like a lead weight.
Her kohl-rimmed eyes opened wide, and in their familiar dark depths he saw shock and disbelief and a crashing wave of panic.
And then the shutters came down, and she turned her gaze away, concentrating once more on the marble flagstones as her steps, faster now, edged her sideways, as far away from him as she could get, even as they passed. Her robe fluttered in the breeze of her own making, and the scent of incense and jasmine left in her wake was a scent that took him back to a different time and a different world—a scent that tugged at him like a silken thread.
He stopped and turned, resenting himself for doing so but at the same time unable to prevent himself from watching her flight, bristling that she could so easily brush past him, angry that once again she could so easily dismiss him. So many years, and she'd found not one word to say to him. Didn't she owe him at least that? Damn it to hell if she didn' t owe him one hell of a lot more!
'Sera!' The name reverberated as hard as the stone of the cloister, no request but a demand, yet still she didn't stop, didn't turn. He didn't know what he'd say if she did. He didn't even know why he'd felt compelled to put voice to a name he'd refused to say even to himself these last ten years or more. He had no doubt she'd heard him, though. Her quickening footsteps were even faster now, her hands gathering her voluminous gown above her feet to prevent her from tripping on its length as she fled.
'Sera!' he called again, louder this time, his voice booming in the stone passageway, although she was already disappearing around a corner, her robes fluttering in her wake.
So maybe he was no more interested in small talk than she was, but there was a time once when his voice would have stopped her in her tracks—a time when she could no more have walked away from him than stopped breathing.
He spun around on his heel and strode swiftly and decisively to his mother's apartments. Those days were long gone, just as the girl he'd known as Sera had gone. Had she ever existed, or had she been fantasy all along, a fantasy he'd chosen to believe because it had been the only bright spot in a world otherwise dominated by his father's tyranny? A fantasy that had come unstuck in the most spectacular fashion!
He was still breathing heavily, adrenaline coursing through his veins, when he entered his mother's suite. He was led to one of the inner rooms, the walls hung in silks of gold and ruby around vibrant tapestries, the floor covered with the work of one artisan's lifetime in one rich silk carpet, where his mother sat straight and tall amidst a circle of cushions, a tray laden with a coffee pot and tiny cups and small dishes of dates and figs to one side.
She sat wreathed in robes of turquoise silk, beaming the smile of mothers worldwide when she saw him enter, and for a moment, as she rose effortlessly to her feet, he almost forgot—almost—what had made him so angry.
'Rafiq,' she said, as he took her outstretched hand and pressed it to his lips before drawing her into the circle of his arms. 'It's been too long.'