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'Is this a joke?'
Sitting straight-backed in an overstuffed chair, her body swathed in the black of deep mourning, Amber el-Qurib stared up at her father in disbelief. 'Please, Father, tell me you're trying to make me laugh.' But even as she pleaded she knew it was hopeless.
Her father, Sheikh Aziz of Araba NumaraLand of the Tigerwas also wearing mourning clothes, but his face was composed. He'd wept enough the first day, in the same shock as everyone else; but he hadn't cried since, apart from a few decorous tears at Fadi's funeral. 'Do you think I would make jokes about your future, Amber, or play with a decision that is so important to our nation?' His tone bordered on withering.
Yes, she ought to have known. Though he'd been a kind father, in all her life, she'd never heard her father make a joke about anything relating to the welfare of Araba Numara.
'My fiance only died six weeks ago.' Amber forced the words out through a throat thick with weeks of tears. He'd been the co-driver for his younger brother Alim, in just one rally. The Double Racing Sheikhs had caused a great deal of mirth and media interest in Abbas al-Din, as had the upcoming wedding.
Even now it seemed surreal. How could Fadi be deadand how could she marry his brother within another month, as her father wanted? How could it even be done while Alim was fighting for his life, with second- and third-degree burns? 'Itit isn't decent,' she said, trying to sound strong but, as ever when with her father, she floundered under the weight of her own opinion. Was she right?
And when her father sighed, giving her the long-suffering look she'd always hatedit made her feel selfish, or like a silly girlshe knew she'd missed something, as usual. 'There are some things more important than how we appear to others. You understand how it is, Amber.'
She did. Both their countries had fallen into uproar after Sheikh Fadi's sudden death in a car wreck. The beloved leader of Abbas al-Din had been lost before he could marry and father a legitimate son, and Amber's people had lost a union that was expected to bring closer ties to a nation far stronger and wealthier than theirs.
It was vital at this point that both nations find stability. The people needed hope: for Araba Numara, that they'd have that permanent connection to Abbas al-Din, and Fadi's people needed to know the el-Kanar family line would continue.
She swiped at her eyes again. Damn Fadi! He'd risked his life a week before their wedding, knowing he didn't want her and she didn't want himbut thousands of marriages had started with less than the respect and liking they'd had for one another. They could have worked it outbut now the whispers were circulating.
She'd endured some impertinent insinuations, from the maids to Ministers of State. That much she could bear, if only she didn't have doubts of her own, deep-held fears that woke her every night.
She'd known he wasn't happywas deeply unhappyat the arranged marriage; but had Fadi risked death to avoid marrying her?
Certainly neither of them had been in love, but that wasn't uncommon. Fadi had been deeply in love with his mistress, the sweet widow who'd borne his son. But with probably the only impulsive decision he'd ever made, he'd left his country leaderless in a minute. At the moment Alim, his brother and the remaining heir, was still fighting for his life.
'Amber?' her father asked, his tone caught between exasperation and uncertainty. 'The dynasty here must continue, and very quickly. We only gain from the mother of the dynasty being one of our daughters.'
'Then let it continue with someone else! Haven't I done enough?'
'Who do you suggest? Maya is not yet seventeen. Nafisah is but fourteen, and Amal twelve. Your cousins are of similar age to them.' Her father made a savage noise. 'You are the eldest, already here, and bound to the el-Kanar family. They are obligated by their ancient law on brides to care for you, and find you a husband within the family line. Everythingtradition, law, honour and the good of your familydemands that you accept this offer.'
Shamed but still furious, Amber kept her mouth tightly closed. Why must all this fall on her shoulders? She wanted to cry out, I'm only nineteen!
Why did some get responsibilities in life, and others all the fun? Alim had shrugged off his responsibilities to the nation for years, chasing fame and wealth on the racing circuit while Fadi and the youngest brotherwhat was his name again?had done all the work. Yes, Alim was famous around the world, and had brought so much wealth to the nation with his career in geological surveys and excavation.
And then she realised whator who it was she could be turning down. Even though a sudden marriage repulsed her sense of what felt right in her grief for the man she'd cared for deeply as a friend, the thought of who she must be marrying didn't repulse her at all.
Her father laid a hand on her shoulder. It was only with the long years of training that she managed not to shrug off the rare gesture of affection, knowing it was only given to make her stop arguing. For women of her status, any emotion was a luxury one only indulged in among the safety of other women, or not at all if one had the necessary pride. 'You know how it is, Amber. We need this marriage. One brother or another, what does it matter to you? You barely knew Fadi before your engagement was agreed upon. You only came to stay here two months before he died, and most of the time he was working or gone.'
Blushing, Amber turned her head, looking at the ground to the left of her feet. Such a beautiful rug, she thought inconsequentially; but no matter what she looked at, it didn't block out the memory of where Fadi had gone whenever he had spare timeto his mistress. And always he'd come back with Rafa's smell on his skin, some mumbled apologies and yet another promise he'd never see Rafa again when they were married: a promise given with heartbreak in his eyes.
Amber felt the shadows of the past envelop her. She alone knew where the fault lay with Fadi's death. Sweet, kind, gentle Fadi had always done the right thing, including agreeing to marry another ruler's daughter for political gain, when he was deeply in love with an unsuitable commoner, a former housemaid and Amber, too, had feelings for another, if only from afar. And nobody knew it but the three people whose lives were being torn apart.
She knew Fadi would never wish her harm, but if it had been Amber who'd died suddenly, it would have set him free to be with Rafaat least for a little while, until the next arranged political marriage.
She truly grieved for the loss of the gentle-hearted ruler, as she would grieve for any friend lost. Fadi had understood her feelings and sympathised with her, was like the moon's sweet light in her darkness. Sowas it awful of her to feel this sudden little thrill that her wayward heart's feelings were no longer forbidden?
Fadi, I did care for you. I'm so sorry, but you're the only one who'd understand
'I'm still in deep mourning, and you expect me to marry his brother while he's still in hospital with second- and third-degree burns? Won't that lookwell, rather desperate on our part?' she mumbled, wishing she had something better to say, wishing she didn't feel quite so excited. Hoping to heaven her father wouldn't see it on her face. 'Can't you ask Alim if he'd be willing to wait a few months for the wedding?'
'You will not be marrying Alim,' her father interrupted her bluntly.
Amber's head shot up. 'What?'
'I'm sorry, my dear,' her father said quietly. 'Alim disappeared from the hospital last night, unequivocally refusing both Fadi's position and Fadi's bride. I doubt he'll return for a long time, if ever.'
Amber almost snarledalmost. Women of her station didn't snarl, not even when the man sheshe liked had just run out on her; but she managed to hang onto her self-control. 'Where did he go? How did he manage it?'
'Within hours of waking, Alim used his private jet and his medical team from the racing circuit to help him transfer to a private facilitywe think he went somewhere in Switzerland. He still needs a lot of graft work on his burns, but he made it obvious that he won't return here when it's done.'
'He must have been desperate to escape from me, leaving hospital when he's at death's door,' she muttered, fighting off a sudden jolt of queasiness in her stomach.
'I doubt it was a personal rejection, my dear. He hardly knew you. I think it was perhaps more ofah, a matter of principle, or a reaction made in grief.' Her father slanted her a look of semi-apology; so he was capable of embarrassment, at least. 'I find it hard to blame him, after the part he played in Fadi's death imagine him waking up to find Fadi's skin on his body. He must have felt he'd taken enough from his brotherlife, skin it must be horrifying enough, but wedding and bedding Fadi's bride on top of all that must have felt as if he'd done it all on purpose.'
'Indeed,' she agreed, but with a trace of bitterness. Surely this day couldn't get any worse?
'Since you won't ask, I'll tell you. The youngest brother Harun has taken up the position as Hereditary Sheikh, and has agreed also to become your husband.'
The swirling winds of change had come right from the sun, scorching her to her core. 'Of course he has!' Amber didn't know she spoke aloud, the fury of rejection boiling over. 'So having been rejected by brothers one and two, I'm expected toto wed and bed brother number three with a smile? There are limits to the amount of humiliation I must accept, surely, Father?'
'You will accept whatever I arrange for you, Amber.' His voice now was pure ice. 'And you should be grateful that I have given such thought to your marriage.'
'Oh, such thought indeed, Father! Why not send me to the princess pound? Because that's what I've become to you, isn't ita dog, a piece of property returned for you to find a good home and husband elsewhere? Find another owner for Amber because we don't want her back.'
'Stop it,' her father said sharply. 'You're a beautiful woman. Many men have wanted to marry you, but I chose the el-Kanar brothers because they are truly good men.'
'Oh, yes, I know that well,' she mocked, knowing Father would punish her for this unprecedented outburst later, but not caring. 'Unfortunately for me, it seems they're good men who'd do anything to avoid me.' She spoke as coldly as she couldanything to hide the tears stinging her eyes and the huge lump in her throat. Alim, the wild and dashing Racing Sheikh, had risked his recovery, his very life to get away from her. As far as insults went, it outranked Fadi's by a million miles. 'Am I so repulsive, Father? What's wrong with me?'
'I see you are in need of relieving your, ah, feelings,' her father said with a strong streak of cold disapproval that she had feelings to vent. 'But we are not home, Amber. Royal women do not scream or make emotional outbursts.'
'I can't believe the last remaining brother in the dynasty is willing to risk it,' she pushed in the stinging acid of grief and humiliation without relief. 'Perhaps you should offer him one of my sisters instead, because it seems the el-Kanar men are allergic to me.'
'The Lord Harun has expressed complete willingness to marry you, Amber,' her father said in quiet rebuke.
'Oh, how noble is Brother Number Three, to take the unwanted responsibilities of his older brothers, nation and wife alike, when the other just can't face it!'
'Amber,' her father said sharply. 'That's enough. Your future husband has a name. You will not shame him, or our family, in this manner. He's lost enough!'
She knew what was expected of her. 'I'm sorry, Father. I will behave,' she said dully. She dragged a breath in and out, willing calm, some form of decorum. 'That was uncalled for. I have nothing against the Lordum, Harun, and I apologise, Father.'
'You should apologise.' Her father's voice was cold with disapproval. 'Harun was only eight when his father died in the plane crash, and his mother died three months later. For the past six weeks he's been grieving for a brother who had been more like a father to him, and he couldn't stop working long enough to stay at the hospital while the only brother he has left, his only close living relative, was fighting for his life. With so many high-ranking families wanting to take over the sudden wealth in Abbas al-Din, Harun had to assume the sheikh's position and run the country in Alim's name, not knowing if Alim would live or die. Now Harun's been left completely alone with the responsibility of running the nation and marrying you, and all this while he's in deepest mourning. He's lost his entire family. Is it so much to ask that you could stop mocking him, be a woman and help him in his time of greatest need?'
Amber felt the flush of shame cover her face.