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Sayid al Kadar scanned the empty street and tugged the collar of his coat up, shielding the back of his neck from the raindrops that were threatening to infiltrate. The Portland drizzle was intolerable in his opinion.
Even in this more desirable part of the city, everything seemed locked together. Stone on the road, the walk, the buildings that stretched up into the sky. It all felt closed in. A glass-and-steel prison. It was no place for a man like him.
No place for the heir to the throne of Attar. And yet, according to every piece of data he'd gathered over the past twenty-four hours, this is where the heir to the throne of Attar was.
The moment he'd found the paperwork in his brother's secret vault, he'd been driven to find out if there was a chance that the heir had survived. Alik had confirmed not only the child's survival, but his whereabouts, in record time. Not that his friend's speed and efficiency should surprise Sayid at this point. Alik never failed.
Sayid shoved his hands into his pockets and crossed the street, just as a woman was approaching the same apartment building he was intent on.
He smiled at her, reaching for the kind of charm he'd buried long ago, if he'd ever truly possessed it. A kind of charm he rarely bothered to feign anymore. It worked. She keyed in her code and then held the door open for him, her smile wide and inviting.
He wasn't looking for that kind of invitation.
He went into a different elevator than she'd chosen and waited for it to carry him to the top floor. He felt out of place here, and yet, being away from the palace brought its own relief.
His jaw tightened as the lift rose, tension bunching his muscles to the point of pain by the time the doors slid open. The hallway was narrow, the building broadcasting its age with each creak of the floorboards. Dampness hung in the air, clung to his clothes, his skin, another side effect of the unpleasant climate.
It reminded him of a jail cell. He had never had a reason to come to the United States before. His place was in Attar, in the broad expanse of the desert. Though, now that his duties kept him close to the palace, it felt nearly as foreign as this cold, damp place.
Since his plane had touched down, he'd been struck by the constant wetness. A chill that soaked through everything, wrapped itself around his bones.
Or maybe the chill wasn't something that could be blamed on the weather. If he were honest, he would admit that he'd been cold for more than six weeks now. Ever since the word had come about the death of his brother and sister-in-law.
And now there was this.
The child. He made it a goal of his to avoid children, babies in particular. But there would be no avoiding this.
He paused at the door that had a thirteen bolted to it and knocked. He could not remember the last time he'd knocked.
"Just a second." There was a crashing noise, a loud curse and the wail of a baby, then footsteps. He could hear someone leaning against the door. Checking the peephole most likely.
In which case he doubted he would be given admittance. Something else he could not remember facing at any time in his recent memory, at least outside of a combat situation.
He heard a shuffling noise and imagined that the woman who was behind the door was now leaning against it, not opening it, as she'd just seen who was on the other side.
But there was no benefit to Chloe James hiding from him. None at all.
"Chloe James?" he said.
"What?" Her response was muffled by the heavy door between them.
"I am Sheikh Sayid al Kadar, regent of Attar."
"Regent, you say? Interesting. Attar. Nice country I hear. In northern Africa right near"
"I am aware of the geography of my country, as are you, in ways that go beyond textbook knowledge. You and I both know this."
There was a sharp spike in the crying, the volume rising, the tone growing more shrill. Loud in the contained environment. Louder behind the apartment door, he imagined.
"Um, I'm busy," Chloe said. "You've woken up the baby now and I have to get him back to sleep so "
"That is what I'm here about, Chloe. The baby."
"He's cranky right now. But I'll see if I can fit you into his diary."
"Ms. James," he said, aiming for civility. He could push the door in with relative ease, but he doubted that was the right way to go for this. He didn't usually care. But not causing an international incident was a high priority to him at the moment, and he imagined breaking in and simply taking the child might create one. "If you will let me in we can discuss the circumstances of the situation we find ourselves in."
"What do you want with him?"
"Exactly what my brother wanted with him. A legal agreement has been signed, and you should know exactly what it says, as yours was one of the signatures. I have it in my possession. Either I go through the court system, or we discuss it now."
He didn't want to involve the courts of either the United States or Attar. He wanted this to go smoothly, silently, to not make a ripple until he and his advisers were able to devise a story about how the child had survived, and why the child had been kept from the public in the weeks since the sheikh had died.
Before he did any of that, he had to find out just what the situation was. If the papers that had been drawn up were reflective of the truth, or if there had been more to his brother's relationship with Chloe James than was documented anywhere.
That could complicate things. Could prevent him from taking the child with him. And that was not acceptable.
The door opened a crack, a chain keeping it from swinging open all the way, and one wide blue eye, fringed with long dark lashes, peered at him through the opening. "ID?"
He released a frustrated sigh and reached into the inside of his coat, pulling out his wallet and producing his passport, showing it to the eye that was staring at him with distrust.
"Not in the least." The door shut and he heard the jingle of the chain, then it opened. "Come in."
He stepped into the room, the cramped feeling of it squeezing down on him. Bookshelves lined the walls, pushing them in, heightening the feeling of tightness. There was a laptop on the coffee table, more books in a stack to the right of it and a whiteboard on a stand in the corner with another stack of books placed next to it. There was a logic to the placement of everything, and yet the lack of space gave it all a feeling of barely organized chaos. Nothing like the military precision with which he ordered his life.
He let his eyes fall to Chloe next. She was small, her hair a deep, unusual shade of red, her skin pale and freckled. Her breasts were generous, her waist a bit thick. She looked very much like a woman who had just given birth and who had spent the weeks since in a state of sleep deprivation.
She shifted and her hair caught the light, a shock of red-gold burning bright beneath the lamp. If the child was hers genetically, there would be some sign, of that he was certain. She was very unlike his olive-skinned brother and his beautiful, dark-haired bride.
"You realize that you have no security to speak of here," he said. The crying had ceased, everything in the tiny apartment calm now. "If I had wanted to force my way in, I could have done so. And anyone seeking to harm the child could have done so, as well. You do him no favors by keeping him here."
"I didn't have anywhere else to take him," she said.
"And where is the child now?"
"Aden?" she responded, a chill in her tone. "You don't need to see him now, do you?"
"I would like to," he said.
"Why?" She edged around the front of the sofa, as if she meant to block his way. Laughable. She was so petite, and he was a highly trained soldier who could remove a man twice his size without feeling any sort of exertion. He could break her easily if he had a mind to, and she just stood there, a small, flame-haired tigress.
"He is my nephew. My blood," he said.
"I.I didn't think you would feel any connection to him."
"Why not?" It was true that his was not a heart connection, not the sort of family connection she might mean. His was a blood bond, a sworn oath to protect the ruler of his country with his very life if it came to it. It was a connection that he felt in his veins, one he couldn't change or deny. Only death could break it. And in that scenario, the death had better be his own.
She blinked rapidly. "You've never been close to the family. I mean, Rashid said."
"Ah. Rashid." Her use of his brother's first name was telling. And not in a good way. In a way that might complicate things. If she was the mother of the child, the biological mother, it would be much more difficult to use the legal documents against her. Difficult, though, not impossible.
And failing that, he would simply create an international incident and bring the child back with him. By force if necessary.
"Yes, Rashid. Why did you say it like that?"
"I'm trying to ascertain the nature of your relationship with my brother."
She crossed her arms beneath her breasts. "Well, I gave birth to his child."
A cold, calm sort of fury washed through him, the ice in his veins chilling the rage as it ran through him. If his brother had done anything to compromise the future of the country
But his brother was dead. There would be no consequence for Rashid, no matter the circumstances. He was finished now, with this life. And Sayid was left to ensure that Attar did not crumble. That life went on, as smoothly as possible, for the millions of people who called the desert nation home.
"And you drew up this agreement" he produced a folded stack of papers from the inside of his coat "so that if anyone caught on to the fact that it wasn't Tamara who gave birth to Aden, they would believe it had been a part of the plan from the beginning?"
"Wait what?" She curled her lip, one rounded hip cocked to the side.
"You conspired to invent the story about the surrogacy to cover up the relationship that you had with."
She held both hands up, palms out. "Hey! No. Oh no. I gave birth to his child, as a surrogate. His and Tamara's." There was a slight wobble in her voice now and she looked down.
"Why didn't you come to me?" He wasn't certain he believed her answer, but he wasn't going to press, either. Not now.
"I don't I don't know. I was scared. They were on their way here when it happened. On their way to the hospital from the airport. I was already in labor, I went a little earlier than anticipated. They were going to have me moved to a private facility, and their doctor was with them during the everyone who knew was with them."
He looked around the room, his top lip curling. "So you brought him here, to your very insecure apartment, to protect him?"
"No one knew I was here."
"It took my men less than twenty-four hours from the discovery of your existence to pinpoint your location, and for me to come to your front door. You are lucky that I am the one who found you. Lucky that it wasn't an enemy of my brother, of Attar."
"I couldn't be sure that you wouldn't be an enemy to Aden."
"Be sure of that now."
Chloe raised her gaze and met hard, dark eyes. She couldn't believe that Sayid al Kadar was in her living room. She'd been watching the news about Attar carefully since Aden's birth. Had seen the man assume power with ease and grace, an almost eerie calm, amidst a tragedy that had rocked a nation.
The sheikh and his wife were dead. As was their unborn heir.
So everyone had assumed.
But what no one knew was that the sheikh and sheikha had used a surrogate. And that the surrogate, and the child, were safe.
She'd had no idea what to do. When the royals' private doctor hadn't materialized during delivery, and then Tamara and Rashid hadn't come, either
She could still feel it, the sick, cold dread that had washed over her. She'd known. She'd just known. And then she'd asked a nurse to turn the television on and it had been everywhere, on every channel. The loss of Attar's royal family and the doctor to the royal family, killed in an accident on a highway in the Pacific Northwest.
And all she'd been able to do was hold the babythe baby that wasn't hers, the baby that was never supposed to be hers, the baby who had no one but herclose to her chest and try not to dissolve completely.
In the weeks since she'd been in a daze. Mourning her half sister, Tamara, though she'd barely known her, and trying to decide what she was supposed to do with Aden. Trying to decide if she should trust his uncle. Because if it was revealed that Aden was alive, then Sayid was not the ruler of Attar, he was merely regent.
And the idea of what he might do to preserve his position had frightened her. She knew it was unlikely, ridiculous, even. Rashid had never spoken badly of his younger brother, and neither had Tamara.
Still, this sort of strange, never-before-felt protectiveness had her in its grip, digging into her like claws, not releasing its hold. Aden was her nephew, and because of that, she did have a connection to him, but it was more. She'd imagined that it wouldn't be. She didn't want children, after all. Had never seen herself as the maternal type.
But she'd carried him in her body. Nurtured him in that way. No matter what she'd believed, it wasn't a bond that she could simply break. Her head knew one thing, but her body firmly believed another.