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Marrying a man she didn't love was surprisingly easy, Jasmine Kouri thought as she handed her empty champagne flute to a passing waiter. Why had she wasted so much time struggling to be alone? She should have done this a year ago.
Her engagement party was in full force. All of Qusay's high society—everyone who'd once scorned her—was now milling beneath the white pavilion on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, sipping Cristal in solid gold flutes as they toasted her engagement to the second richest man in Qusay.
Her fiancé had spared no expense. Jasmine's fifteen-carat diamond ring scattered prisms and rainbows of refracted sunlight every time she moved her left hand. It was also very heavy, and the pale green chiffon dress he'd chosen for her in Paris felt hot as her skirts swirled in the desert wind. Across the wide grassy vista, the turrets of his sprawling Italianate mansion flew red flags emblazoned with his personal crest.
Then again, Umar Hajjar never spared any expense— on anything. Everything he owned, from his world-class racehorses to his homes around the world, proclaimed his money and prestige. He'd pursued Jasmine for a year in New York, and yesterday, she'd suddenly accepted his proposal. This party was Umar's first step in making the people of Qusay forget her old scandal. He would shape Jasmine into his perfect bride, the same as he trained a promising colt into a winner: at any cost.
But that wasn't why Jasmine's heart was pounding as she looked anxiously through the crowds in the pavilion. She didn't care about money. She was after something far more precious.
Jewel-laden socialites pressed forward to congratulate her, including some whose vicious gossip had ruined her when she was young and defenseless. But it would be bad manners to remember that now, so Jasmine just thanked them and smiled until her cheeks hurt.
Then she caught her breath as she saw the people she'd been waiting for.
The last time she'd seen them, Jasmine had been a scared sixteen-year-old girl, packed off into poverty and exile by her harsh, heartbroken father and quietly weeping mother. Now because of this marriage, no one would ever be able hurt Jasmine—or her family—ever again.
With a joyful cry, she held her arms wide, and her grown-up sisters ran to embrace her.
"I'm proud of you, my daughter," her father said gruffly, patting her on the shoulder. "At last you've done well."
"Oh, my precious child." Her mother hugged her tearfully, kissing her cheek. "It's too long you've been away!"
Both her parents had grown older. Her proud father was stooped, her mother gray. The sisters Jasmine remembered as skinny children were now plump matrons with husbands and children of their own. As her family embraced her, the wind blew around Jasmine's ladylike dress, swirling around them all in waves of sea-foam chiffon.
It was all worth it, she thought in a rush of emotion. To be with her family again, to be back at home and have a place in the world, she would have given up a hundred careers in New York. She would have married Umar a thousand times.
"I missed you all so much," Jasmine whispered. But all too soon, she was forced to pull away from her family to greet other guests. Moments later, she felt Umar's hand on her arm.
He smiled down at her. "Happy, darling?"
"Yes," she replied, wiping away the streaks of her earlier tears. Umar hated to see her mussed. "But some of the guests are growing impatient for dinner. Who is this special guest of yours and why is he so late?"
"You'll see," he replied, leaning down to kiss her cheek. Tall and thin and in his late forties, Umar Hajjar was the type of man who wore a designer suit to his stables. His face was pale and wrinkle-free with the careful application of sunscreen; his dark gray hair was slicked back with gel. He tilted his head. "Listen."
Frowning, she listened, then gradually heard a sound like thunder. She looked up, but as usual in the desert island kingdom, there were no clouds, just clear sky blending into sea in endless shades of blue. "What is that?"
"It's our guest." Umar's smile widened. "The king."
She sucked in her breath.
"The…king?" Sudden fear pinched her heart. "What king?"
He laughed. "There is only one king, darling."
As if in slow motion, she looked back across the wide grass.
Three men on horseback had just come through the massive wrought-iron front gate. The Hajjar security guards were bowing low, their noses almost to the ground, as the leader of the horsemen rode past, followed by two men in black robes.
They all had rifles and hard, glowering faces, but the leader was far taller and more broad-shouldered than the others. A ceremonial jeweled dagger at his hip proclaimed his status while the hard look in his blue eyes betrayed his ruthlessness. Beneath the hot Qusani sun, his robes were stark white against his deeply tanned skin as he leapt gracefully down from his black stallion.
Shaking in sudden panic, Jasmine looked at him, praying she was wrong. It couldn't be him. Couldn't!
But when she looked at his handsome, brutal face, she could not deny his identity. For thirteen years, she'd seen his face in her dreams.
Kareef Al'Ramiz, the barbarian prince of the desert.
The party guests recognized him with a low gasp that echoed her own.
Kareef. The man who'd seduced and deserted her to shame and exile. The man who'd caused the loneliness and grief of half her life. The man who'd made her pay so dearly for the crime of loving him.
And in a few days, Kareef Al'Ramiz would be crowned king of all Qusay.
Fierce hatred flashed through her, hatred so pure it nearly caused her to stagger. She clutched at Umar's arm. "What is he doing here?"
His thin lips curved in a smile. "The king is my friend. Are you impressed? It's part of my plan. Come."
He pulled her across the grass to greet the royal arrival. She tried to resist, but Umar kept dragging her forward in his thin, sinewy grip. The colors of white tent and green grass and blue sea seemed to blend and melt around her. Trying to catch her breath, to regain control, she twisted her engagement ring tightly around her finger. The enormous diamond felt hard and cold against her skin.
"Sire!" Hajjar called jovially across the lawn. "You do me great honor!"
"This had better be important, Umar," the other man growled. "Only for you would I return to the city in the middle of a ride."
At the sound of Kareef's voice—the deep, low timbre that had once sounded like music to her—the swirls of color started to spin faster. She started to fear she might faint at her own party. How would Umar react to that?
Marry me, Jasmine. Kareef's long-ago whisper echoed in her mind. He'd stroked her cheek, looking down at her with the deep hunger of desire. Marry me.
No! She couldn't face Kareef after all these years. Not now. Not ever!
Her heart pounded furiously in her chest. "I have to go," she croaked, pulling frantically away from Umar's grasp. "Excuse me—"
Startled by her strength, Umar abruptly let go. Knocked off balance, she stumbled forward and fell across the grass in an explosion of pale green chiffon.
She heard a low exclamation. Suddenly hands were on her, lifting her to her feet.
She felt the electricity of a rough touch, so masculine and strong, so different from Umar's cool, slender hands. She looked up.
Kareef's handsome, implacable face was silhouetted against the sun as he lifted her to her feet. His ruthless eyes were full of shadow. Blinding light cast a halo around his black hair against the unrelenting blue sky.
His hand was still wrapped over hers as their eyes locked. His pupils dilated.
"Jasmine," he breathed, his fingers tightening on hers.
She couldn't answer. Couldn't even breathe. She dimly heard the cry of the seagulls soaring over the nearby Mediterranean, heard the buzz of insects. She was barely aware of the two hundred highborn guests behind them, watching from the pavilion.
Time had stopped. There was only the two of them. She saw him. She felt his touch on her skin. Exactly as she'd dreamed every night for the last thirteen years, in dark unwilling dreams she'd had alone in her New York penthouse.
Umar stepped between them.
"Sire," the older man said, beaming. "Allow me to present Jasmine Kouri. My bride."
Kareef stared down at her beautiful face in shock.
He'd never thought he would see Jasmine Kouri again. Seeing her so unexpectedly—touching her— caused a blast of ice and fire to surge through his body, from his hair to his fingertips.
Against his will, his eyes devoured every detail of her face. Her long black eyelashes trembling against her creamy skin. The pink tip of her tongue darting out to lick the center of her full, red lips.
Jasmine's dark hair, once long and stick-straight, now was thickly layered past her shoulders, cascading over a flowy, diaphanous dress that seemed straight out of a 1930s Hollywood movie. The gown skimmed her full breasts and hips, tightly belted at her slim waist. Her graceful, slender arms could be seen through long sheer sleeves.
She was almost entirely covered from head to toe, showing bare skin only at the collarbone and hands, but the effect was devastating. She looked glamorous. Untouchable. He wanted to grab her shoulders, to touch and taste and feel her all over and know she was real. Just the mere contact of his fingers against hers burned his skin.
Then he realized what Umar Hajjar had said.
As if he'd been struck by a blow, Kareef abruptly released her. He glanced down at his fingers and was almost bewildered to find them whole. After the electricity he'd felt touching her hand, he'd half expected to find his fingers burned beyond recognition.
With a deep breath, he slowly looked up at her. "You—are married?"
Jasmine's dark eyes met his, stabbing into his soul as deeply as a blade. Licking her lips nervously, she didn't answer.
"Not yet," Umar purred beside her. "But we will be. Immediately following the Qais Cup."
Kareef continued to look at Jasmine, but she didn't speak. Not one word.
Once, she used to chatter away in his company— she'd cajoled away his bad moods, making him laugh in spite of himself. He'd found her easy conversation relaxing. Charming. Perhaps because it was so natural—so unguarded and real. She'd been shy at first, a bookish girl more comfortable with reading newspapers and studying charts than speaking to the son of a sheikh. But once he'd coaxed her out of her shell, she'd happily told him every thought in her head.
They'd both been so young then. So innocent.
Fire burned through him now as he looked at her. Jasmine. Her name was like a spell and he could barely stop himself from breathing it aloud. He had to force his face to remain expressionless, his body taut and implacable as if ready for battle.
To attack what? To defend what?
"I'm so pleased you could attend our party at such late notice," Umar continued, placing his hands on Jasmine's shoulders. "We await your permission to serve dinner, my king."
Kareef found himself staring at Umar's possessive hands on her shoulders. He had the sudden urge to knock them away—to start a brawl with the man who had once saved his life!
But this wasn't just any woman. It was Jasmine. The girl he'd once asked to be his wife.
"Yes. Dinner." Still clenching his jaw, Kareef motioned to his two bodyguards to attend to the horses. He glanced toward the white pavilion and all the eager waiting faces. Several of the bolder guests were already inching closer to him, trying to catch his eye, hoping to join the conversation. After so many years of solitude in the northern desert of Qais, Kareef was not known for his sociability. But somehow being inaccessible and cold had just made him more desirable to the elite Qusanis of Shafar. Everyone in this godforsaken city seemed desperate for the barbarian king's attention, his favor, his body or his soul.
He wasn't even crowned yet, but according to Qusani tradition they already called him king—and treated him almost like a god. The people of Qusay had seen what he'd done for the desert people of Qais, and wanted that same prosperity for themselves. So they worshipped him.
Kareef hated it. He'd never wanted to come back here. But a few weeks ago, shortly after the death of the old king in a plane crash, his cousin, the crown prince, had abruptly removed himself from the line of succession. Xavian—no, Zafir, Kareef corrected himself, so strange to suddenly call the man he had thought his cousin by a new name!—had learned he had not a single drop of Al'Ramiz blood in his veins, and he'd abdicated the throne. He'd left to jointly rule the nation of Haydar with his wife, Queen Layla.
Zafir's decision had been correct and honorable. Kareef would have approved his actions completely, except for one thing: it had forced him to accept the throne in his place.
And now—he would see Jasmine married to another man before his very eyes.
Or would he? Legally, morally, could he allow it?
He cursed beneath his breath.
"You honor us, sire." Umar Hajjar bowed. "If I may ask another favor…"
Kareef growled a reply.
"Will you do my future bride the honor of escorting her into the pavilion?"
He wanted Kareef to touch her? To take her by the hand? Just looking at Jasmine was torture. She'd once been an enchanting girl with big dark eyes and a willowy figure. Now she'd grown into her curves. She'd become a mature woman. Her expression held mystery and hidden sorrows. A man could look into that face for years and never discover all her secrets.
Jasmine Kouri was, quite simply, the most beautiful woman Kareef had ever seen in his life.
And she continued to look at him silently with her dark gaze, her eyes accusing him of everything her lips did not. Reminding him of everything he'd nearly killed himself to forget.
Kareef closed his eyes, briefly blocking her from his vision. He forced his body to be calm, his breathing to become steady and even. He discarded emotion from his body, brushing it from his soul like dirt off his skin. After so many years of practice, he knew exactly what to do.
Then he opened his eyes and discovered he'd learned nothing.