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It was the kind of night that made a man long to ride his favorite stallion across a sea of desert sand.
Black silk sky. Stars as brilliant as bonfires. An ivory moon that cast a milky glow over the endless sea of sand.
But there was no horse beneath Sheikh Karim al Safir. Not on this night. His Royal Highness the Prince of Alcantar, heir to its Ancient and Honorable throne, was twenty-five thousand feet above the desert, soaring through the darkness in the cabin of his private jet. A rapidly-cooling cup of coffee stood on a small glass-topped table beside him; his leather attache case lay open on the next seat.
Minutes ago he'd started to go through its contents until he'd suddenly thought, what the hell was the point?
He knew what was in the case.
He'd gone through the contents endlessly during the last two weeks and then again tonight, flying from the British West Indies toward his final destination, as if doing so would somehow make more sense of things when he knew damned well that was not going to happen.
Karim reached for the cup of coffee and brought it to his lips. The black liquid had gone from cool to chilly.
He drank it anyway.
He needed it. The bitterness, the punch of caffeine. He needed something, God knew, to keep him going. He was exhausted. In body. In mind. In spirit.
If only he could walk to the cockpit, tell his pilot to put the plane down. Here. Right now. On the desert below. Crazy, of course.
It was just that he ached for the few moments of tranquility he might find if he could take only one long, deep breath of desert air.
Karim snorted. His head was full of crazy thoughts tonight.
For all he knew, there would never be a sense of peace to be drawn from this land.
This was not the desert of his childhood. Alcantar was thousands of miles away and its endless miles of gently undulating sand ended at the turquoise waters of the Persian Sea.
The desert over which his plane was flying ended at the eye-popping neon lights of Las Vegas. Karim drank more cold coffee. Las Vegas.
He had been there once. An acquaintance had tried to convince him to invest in a hotel being built there. He'd flown to McCarran field early in the morning
And flown back to New York that same night.
He had not put his money into the hotelor, rather, his fund's money. And he'd never returned to Vegas.
He'd found the city tawdry. Seedy. Even its much-hyped glamour had struck him as false, like a whore trying to pass herself off as a courtesan by applying garish layers of makeup.
So, no. Las Vegas was not a city for himbut it had been one for his brother.
Rami had spent almost three months there, longer than he'd spent anywhere else the past few years. He'd have been drawn to it like a moth to flame.
Karim sat back in his leather seat.
Knowing all he now knew about his brother, that came as no surprise.
He'd finally had to face the truth about him. Tying up the loose ends of his dead brother's life had torn away the final illusions.
Tying up loose ends, Karim thought. His mouth twisted.
That was his father's phrase. What he was really doing was cleaning up the messes Rami had left behind, but then, his father didn't know about those. The King believed his younger son had simply been unable or unwilling to settle down, that he'd traveled from place to place in an endless search to find himself.
The first time his father had said those words Karim had almost pointed out that finding oneself was a luxury denied princes. They had duties to assume, obligations to keep from childhood on.
Except Rami had been exempted from such things. He'd always had a wild streak, always found ways to evade responsibility.
"You're the heir, brother," he used to tell Karim, a grin on his handsome face. "I'm only the spare."
Perhaps adherence to a code of duty and honor would have kept Rami from such an early and ugly death, but it was too late for speculation. He was gone, his throat slit on a frigid Moscow street.
When the news had come, Karim had felt an almost unbearable grief. He'd hoped that "tying up the loose ends" of his brother's life would provide some kind of meaning to it and, thus, closure.
He drew a long breath, then let it out.
Now, the best he could do was hope that he had somehow removed the stain from his brother's name, that those Rami had cheated would no longer speak that name with disgust..
Karim almost laughed.
His brother had gambled. Whored. He'd ingested a pharmacopoeia's worth of illicit drugs. He'd borrowed money and never repaid it. He'd given chits to casinos around the world, walked out on huge hotel bills.
The bottom line was that he'd left behind staggering debts in half a dozen cities. Singapore. Moscow. Paris. Rio. Jamaica. Las Vegas.
All those debts had to be settledif not for legal reasons then for moral ones.
Duty. Obligation. Responsibility.
All the things Rami had scoffed at were now Karim's burden.
So he had embarked on a pilgrimage, if you could use such a word to describe this unholy journey. He had handed over checks to bankers, to casino managers, to boutique owners. He'd paid out obscene amounts of cash to oily men in grimy rooms. He'd heard things about his brother, seen things that he suspected he would never forget, no matter how he tried.
Now, with most of the "loose ends" gone, his ugly journey through Rami's life was almost over.
Two days in Vegas. Three at the most. It was why he was flying in at night. Why waste part of tomorrow on travel when he could, instead, spend it doing the remaining cleanup chores?
After that he would return to Alcantar, assure his father that Rami's affairs were all in order without ever divulging the details. Then, at last, he could go back to his own life, to New York, to his responsibilities as head of the Alcantar Foundation.
He could put all this behind him, the reminders of a brother he'd once loved, a brother who'd lost his way"Your Highness?"
Karim bit back a groan. His flight crew was small and efficient. Two pilots, one flight attendantbut this attendant was new and still visibly thrilled to be on the royal staff.
She knew only what everyone else knew: that the duty of settling his brother's affairs had fallen to him. He assumed she misread his tight-lipped silence for grief when the truth was that his pain warred with rage.
It was difficult to know which emotion had the upper hand.
As if all that weren't enough, she couldn't seem to absorb the fact that he hated being hovered over. "Yes, Miss Sterling?"
"It's Moira, sir, and we'll be landing within the hour."
"Thank you," he said politely.
"Is there anything I can do for you before then?"
Could she turn back the calendar and return his brother to life so he could shake some sense into him?
Better still, could she bring back the carefree, laughing Rami from their childhood?
"Thank you, I'm fine."
"Yes, Your Highnessbut if you should change your mind"
The girl did a little knee-bob that was not quite the curtsy he was sure his chief of staff had warned her against.
"Most certainly, Your Highness."
Another dip of the knee and then, mercifully, she walked back up the aisle and disappeared into the galley.
He'd have to remember to have his chief of staff remind her that the world was long past the time when people bowed to royalty. Hell.
Karim laid his head back against the head-rest.
The girl was only doing what she saw as her duty. He, better than anyone, understood that.
He had been raised to honor his obligations. His father and mother had instilled that in him from childhood on.
His father had been and still was a stern man, a king first and a father second.
His mother had been a sometime movie-star-cum-Boston-debutante with great beauty, impeccable manners and, ultimately, a burning need to spend her life as far from her husband and sons as possible.
She'd hated Alcantar. The hot days, the cool nights, the wind that could whip the sea of sand into a blinding froth
She'd despised it all.
In some of his earliest memories of her he stood clutching a nanny's hand, holding back tears because a prince was not permitted to cry, watching as his beautiful mother drove off in a limousine.
Rami had looked just like her. Tall. Fair-haired. Intense blue eyes.
Karim, on the other hand, was an amalgam of both his parents.
In him, his mother's blue eyes and his father's brown ones had somehow morphed into ice-gray. He had her high cheekbones and firmly-sculpted mouth, but his buildbroad shoulders, long legs, hard, leanly muscled bodyhe owed to his father.
Rami had favored her in other ways. He hadn't hated Alcantar but he'd always preferred places of sybaritic comfort.
Karim, on the other hand, could not remember a time he had not loved his desert homeland.
He'd grown up in his father's palace, built on a huge oasis at the foot of the Great Wilderness Mountains. His companions were Rami and the sons of his father's ministers and advisors.
By the age of seven he'd been able to ride a horse bareback, start a fire with kindling and flint, sleep as contentedly under the cold fire of the stars as if he were in the elaborate palace nursery.
Even then, twenty-six years ago, only a handful of Alcantaran tribesmen had still lived that kind of life, but the King had deemed it vital to understand and respect it.
"One day," he would say to Karim, "you will rule our people and they must know that you understand the old ways." Always there would be a pause, and then he would look at Rami and say, not unkindly, "You must respect the people and the old ways as well, my son, even though you will not sit on the throne."
Had that been the turning point for his brother? Karim wondered. Or had it come when their mother died and their father, mourning her even though she had spent most of her time far from him and her children, had thrown himself ever deeper into the business of governance and sent his sons away?
He sent them to the United States, to be educated, he said, as their mother would have wished.
With terrifying suddenness the brothers had found themselves in what seemed an alien culture. They'd both been brutally homesick, though for different reasons.
Rami had longed for the luxuries of the palace.
Karim had longed for the endless sky of the desert.
Rami had coped by cutting classes and taking up with a bunch of kids who went from one scrape to another. He'd barely made it through prep school and had been admitted to a small college in California where he'd majored in women and cards, and in promises that he never kept.
Karin had coped by burying himself in his studies. He'd finished preparatory school with honors and had been admitted to Yale, where he'd majored in finance and law. At twenty-six he'd created a private investment fund for the benefit of his people and managed it himself instead of turning it over to a slick-talking Wall Street wizard.
Rami had taken a job in Hollywood. Assistant to a B-list producer, assistant to this and assistant thatall of it dependent upon his looks, his glib line of patter and his title.
At thirty, when he'd come into a trust left him by their mother, he'd given up any pretense at work and instead had done what she had done.
He'd traveled the world.
Karim had tried to talk to him. Not once. Not twice. Many, many times. He'd spoken of responsibility. Of duty. Of honor.
Rami's reply had always been the same, and always delivered with a grin.
"Not me," he'd say. "I'm just the spare, not the heir."
After a while they hadn't seen much of each other. And now
Now Rami was dead.
Dead, Karim thought.
His belly knotted.
His brother's body had been flown home from Moscow and laid to rest with all the panoply befitting a prince.
Their father had stood stiffly at his grave.
"How did he die?" he'd asked Karim.
And Karim, seeing how fragile the older man had become, had lied.
"An automobile accident," he'd told him. It was almost true.