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In his villa in the South of France, Prince Tariq Shazad ibn Zachir, paramount sheikh and ruler of the oilrich Gulf state of Jumar, tossed aside the cellular phone and turned his attention to his most trusted aide, Latif.
Shrewd at reading others, Tariq noted the strain etched on the older man's face. 'Something wrong?'
'I regret that I should have to disturb you with this matter ' Latif settled a folder down on the desk with an air of profound apology ' but I felt it should be drawn to your attention.'
Surprised by the other man's discomfiture, Tariq swept up the folder. The opening document was a detailed report from Jumar's chief of police. Tariq scanned the name of the foreign national, who had been imprisoned for bad debts. He froze, his superb bone structure clenching, narrowed dark eyes hardening with angry incredulity. It was Adrian Lawson, Faye's elder brother!
Yet another Lawson guilty of dishonesty and deception! As he read the explanation of the events which had led to Adrian's arrest his lean, strong face hardened in disgust. How could Faye's brother have dared to set up a construction firm in Jumar and rob the very citizens that he, Tariq ibn Zachir was sworn to protect?
Powerful memories were stirring, disturbing memories which Tariq had spent twelve months endeavouring to forget. What male wished to recall his own worst mistake? Faye with her fake innocence, who had laid a snare to entrap him as surely as any seasoned golddigger. The bait? Her beautiful self. The threat after the trap had snapped shut? Scandal! The paramount sheikh of Jumar might exercise feudal power over his subjects. But, even in the twentyfirst century, Tariq ibn Zachir accepted that it was his duty to maintain a conservative lifestyle. And a year ago his choices had been few for his father, Hamza, had been dying
Snapping back to the present, pale with bitter anger beneath his tawny skin, Tariq slowly breathed in deep. Unlike many other scions of Middle Eastern royal families, he had not been educated in the West. Tariq had been raised much like his ancestral forefathers. Military school, tutors, desert survival exercises with the British special forces. At the age of twentytwo, a pilot and an expert in every possible form of combat, Tariq had finally convinced his father that, while the ability to lead his future people into battle was naturally important, one hundred years of peace within their borders and with their neighbours might suggest that a business degree could be of rather more imminent use to his son.
Tariq had duly discovered a natural talent for the business world and had enriched the swollen coffers of a state already so fabulously wealthy that he and his people made the highest per capita charitable contributions of any country in the world. And with his entrance into the more liberal culture of Europe, Tariq had also received an unparalleled education on the ways of Western women. Yet even in the grip of his subsequent cynicism, he had still been slaughtered like a sitting duck when he'd met Faye Lawson.
'How do you wish me to act in this matter?' Latif enquired.
Tariq flashed him a questioning glance. 'There is no action to be taken. Let the process of law take its course.'
Latif studied his feet. 'It seems unlikely that Adrian Lawson will be able to produce the money necessary to obtain his own release.'
'He may rot.'
After a very long and tense silence, Latif cleared his throat with deprecatory hesitance.
Tariq sent him a look of grim amusement. 'Yes, I know what I do '
Uneasy though he was with that response, the older man bowed and departed again. Well aware of the source of Latif's anxiety, Tariq considered his own position with grim disfavour. Realities he had sidestepped now confronted him. His fierce pride, his fury at being set up and trapped, had come between him and common sense. But it was time to sever his connection with Faye Lawson and move on.
It should have been done a year ago. It was not a situation which could be left unresolved. Particularly not when he now had the responsibility of bringing up three young children, orphaned by the plane crash which had decimated his own family circle. He needed a wife, a warm, maternal woman. It was his duty to marry such a woman, he reminded himself. However, it could not be said that he was eager to embrace that duty.
Thrusting aside the folder on Adrian Lawson, unread beyond that first enlightening page, Tariq lounged back in his chair like a restive tiger, brooding dark golden eyes hard as iron. The Lawson siblings and their boorish stepfather, Percy, were a sly and greedy trio, who allowed no moral scruple to come between themselves and financial profit. How many other men had Faye played for a sucker? How many lives had Percy ruined with blackmail and dishonest business practices? And now it was evident that even Adrian, the only one of the trio whom Tariq had believed to be decent, was equally corrupt. Such people should be punished.
Tariq pictured the hawk that was the emblem of his family soaring high above the desert in search of tender prey. A chilling smile formed on his wellshaped mouth. There was no reason why he should not strike a blow for natural justice. Indeed there was no reason why he should not take advantage of the situation and have a little fun at the same time.
Faye sat beside her stepfather in the back of the taxi in total silence. Small and slight of build, she was dwarfed by the bulk of the man beside her.
It was only midmorning but it was hot and, after the long night flight from London, she was exhausted. The cab speeding them through the wide pristine streets of Jumar city was taking them to the prison where her brother, Adrian, was being held. Had she not been so worried about Adrian and had money not been so tight, she would have refused to share even a cab with Percy Smythe.
It still shook Faye that she could feel such intense dislike for any living person. Family loyalty had always been very important to her but she knew she would never forgive Percy for dragging her down into the dirt with him and utterly destroying any faith that Prince Tariq ibn Zachir had ever had in her. Nor could she forgive herself for being so infatuated that she had refused to allow herself to question Tariq's sudden unexpected proposal of marriage twelve months earlier.
'This is a waste of time.' Percy's plump, perspiring face was full of exasperated impatience. 'You've got to go and see Prince Tariq and ask him to have Adrian released!'
Beneath the pale blonde hair which merely served to accentuate her present lack of colour, Faye's delicate profile froze. 'I couldn't:
'Well, how are you going to feel if Adrian picks up some ghastly Middle Eastern infection and pops his clogs?' Percy demanded with brutal bluntness. 'You know he's never been strong!'
Her sensitive stomach churned for there was more truth in that melodramatic warning than she liked to credit. As a child, Adrian had had leukaemia and, although he had recovered, he still tended to catch every passing bug. His uncertain health had finally destroyed the army career he'd loved, forcing him to rethink his future and plunge into the business venture which had led to his current plight.
'The Foreign Office assured us that he was being well treated,' Faye reminded the older man tautly.
'Insofar as he's been locked up indefinitely! If I was a superstitious man, I would believe that your desert warrior put a hex on us all last year,' Percy complained bitterly. 'I was riding high then, making money hand over fist and look at me nowI'm practically broke!'
Just as he deserved to be, Faye reflected heavily. Her stepfather would walk over anyone and do anything to feather his own nest. But there was one surprising exception to that rule: Adrian had somehow become as dear to Percy as any fleshandblood son. It was ironic that Percy should have sacrificed his own security in trying and failing to keep her brother's business afloat.
The prison lay well outside the city limits, housed in a grim fortress surrounded by high walls and lookout towers. They had to wait for some time before they were shown into a room where a line of seats sat in front of a sturdy glass partition. Faye only then appreciated that neither privacy nor physical contact were allowed between inmates and visitors.
But a bigger shock was in store for her when Adrian appeared. He had lost a lot of weight and his prison clothes hung loose on his thin frame. The drawn pallor of his features alarmed her: her brother looked far from well. His bloodshot eyes were strained and reluctant to meet hers.
'You shouldn't have come, sis,' Adrian groaned on the phone provided for communication. 'This is my mess. I got too cocky and overextended myself. I let Lizzie spend like there was no tomorrow. It's the way people live here you go a bit mad trying to keep up'
Percy snatched the receiver from Faye and growled, 'I'll go to the press back home and kick up such a stink they'll let you out of this hell hole!'
Adrian studied his stepfather in open horror. 'Are you crazy?' he mouthed silently through the glass barrier.
Faye retrieved the phone, her violetblue eyes full of anxiety. 'We can't raise the kind of money you need to get out of here. Your lawyer met us off our flight but he said that he could no longer act for you and that the case was closed. You have to tell us what else we can do to fight this.'
Adrian gave her a bleak defeated look. 'There is nothing. Didn't my lawyer tell you that there is no right of appeal in a case like mine? How are Lizzie and the kids holding up?'
At that reference to his wife, Faye tensed for she had no good news to offer. After the experience of having her luxurious home in Jumar repossessed and being deported with her twin toddlers because she no longer had any means of support, her sisterinlaw, Lizzie, was feeling very sorry for herself.
'Like that, is it?' Adrian read his sister's evasive gaze. 'Lizzie didn't even send me a letter?'
'She's pretty down ' Faye hated adding to his misery with that admission. 'She asked me to tell you that she loves you but that right now she's having a problem just coping with being back home without you.'
Adrian's eyes filled with moisture and he twisted his head away, swallowing hard to get himself back under control.
Faye blinked back tears at her brother's distress and hurried to change the subject. 'How are you managing?'
'Fine.' her brother mumbled curtly.
'Are you being treated all right?' Faye was intimidated by the suspicious appraisal of the two armed officers watching their every move.
'I have no cause for complaint just that it's hell because I hate the food, speak rotten Arabic and keep on getting sick.' Her brother's jerky voice faltered. 'But whatever you do, don't let Percy go screaming to the media because that will make me a marked man in here. The locals see any criticism of Jumar as criticism of their lousy womanising ruler, Prince Tariq'
In an abrupt movement, one of the armed officers strode forward looking outraged and wrenched the phone from Adrian's grasp.
'What's wrong what's happening?' Faye surged upright in a panic.
But on their side of the restrictive glass, she and her stepfather might as well have been invisible. Adrian was escorted back to the doorway through which he had earlier entered and vanished from view.
'I bet those thugs are taking him away to beat him up!' Percy was as aghast as Faye at what had happened.
'But neither of those men put a hand on Adrian'
'Not in front of us but how do you know what they're doing to him now?'
They waited ten minutes to see if Adrian would reappear but he did not. Instead a severelooking older man in uniform came in to speak to them.
'I want to know what's going on here,' Percy demanded aggressively.
'Visits are a privilege we extend to relatives, not a right in law. Your visit was terminated because we will not allow our most honoured ruler to be referred to in offensive terms.' As Percy swelled like a ripe red fruit ready to burst in messy rage, the senior prison officer added loftily, 'Let me also assure you that we do not abuse our prisoners. Jumar is a civilised and humane country. You may request another visit later this week.'
Registering then that every word spoken during such visits appeared to be monitored and that Adrian must have been equally unaware of that reality, Faye hurried her stepfather out of the room before he could add to her brother's offence.
Percy raved in frustrated fury all the way back to their small hotel in the suburbs. Faye was grateful that the taxi driver did not seem to understand a word of Percy's vitriolic diatribe against Jumar and all things Jumarian. Taking Tariq's name in vain in a public place might well be tantamount to inviting a physical assault. As her stepfather headed straight for the residents' bar on the ground floor, Faye got into the lift and went back up to her hotel room.