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Zahir Ra'if Quarishi, hereditary king of the gulf state of Maraban, leapt up from behind his desk when his younger brother, Akram, literally burst into his office.
'What has happened?' Zahir demanded urgently, straightening to his full six feet three inches of height, his lean powerful body tensing like the army officer he had been into immediate battle readiness.
His face unusually flushed, Akram came to an abrupt halt to execute a jerky bow as he belatedly recalled the niceties of court etiquette. 'My apologies for the interruption, Your Majesty'
'I assume there's a good reason,' Zahir conceded, his rigidity easing as he read Akram's troubled expression and recognised that something of a more private and personal nature had precipitated his impulsive entry to one of the very few places in which Zahir could usually depend on receiving the peace he required to work.
Akram stiffened, embarrassment claiming his open good-natured face. 'I don't know how to tell you this'
'Sit down and take a deep breath,' Zahir advised calmly, his innate natural assurance taking over as he settled his big frame down into an armchair in the corner of the room and rested his piercing dark-as-night eyes on the younger man while moving a graceful hand to urge him to sit down as well. 'There's nothing we can't discuss. I will never be as intimidating as our late father.'
At that reminder, Akram turned deadly pale, for their late and unlamented parent had been as much of a tyrant and a bully in the royal palace with his family as he was in his role as a ruler over what had once been one of the most backward countries in the Middle East. While Fareed the Magnificent, as he had insisted on being called, had been in power, Maraban's oil wealth had flowed only one way into the royal coffers while their people continued to live in the Dark Ages, denied education, modern technology and adequate medical support. It had been three years since Zahir took the throne and the changes he had immediately instigated still remained a massive undertaking. Angrily conscious that his brother worked just about every hour of the day in his determination to improve the lives of his subjects, Akram suddenly dreaded giving Zahir the news he had learned. Zahir never mentioned his first marriage. It was too controversial a topic, Akram acknowledged awkwardly. How could it not be? His brother had paid a high price for defying their late father and marrying a foreigner from a different culture. That he had done so for a woman clearly unworthy of his faith could only be an additional source of aggravation.
'Akram ?' Zahir prompted impatiently. 'I have a meeting in thirty minutes.'
'It's her! That woman you married!' Akram recovered his tongue abruptly. 'She's out there in the streets of our capital city shaming you even as we speak!'
Zahir froze and frowned, his spectacular bone structure tightening beneath taut skin the colour of honey, his wide sensual mouth compressing hard. 'What the hell are you talking about?'
'Sapphire's here filming some television commercial for cosmetics!' Akram told him in fierce condemnation, resenting what he saw as an inexcusable insult to his elder brother.
Zahir's lean strong hands clenched into fists. 'Here?' he repeated in thunderous disbelief. 'Sapphire is filming here in Maraban?'
'Wakil told me,' his brother told him, referring to one of Zahir's former bodyguards. 'He couldn't believe his eyes when he recognised her! It's lucky that our father refused to announce your marriage to our peopleI never thought we'd live to be grateful for that '
Zahir was stunned at the idea that his ex-wife could have dared to set a single foot within the borders of his country. Rage and bitterness flamed through his taut powerful frame and he sprang restively upright again. He had tried not to be bitter, he had tried even harder to forget his failed marriage only that was a little hard to do when your ex became an internationally famous supermodel, featuring in countless magazines and newspapers and even once in a giant advertising hoarding over Times Square. In truth a mere five years ago he had been a sitting duck of a target for a cunning schemer of Sapphire Marshall's ilk and that lowering awareness had left an indelible stain on his masculine ego. At twenty-five years of age he had, thanks to his father's oppression, still been a virgin, ignorant of the West and Western women, but although he hadn't had a clue he had at least tried to make his marriage work. His bride, on the other hand, had refused to make the smallest effort to sort out their problems. He had fought hard to keep a wife who didn't want to be his wife, indeed who couldn't even bear for him to touch her.
More fool him, he reflected with hard cynicism, for he was no longer an innocent when it came to women. The explanation for Sapphire's extraordinary behaviour had become clear as crystal to him once he shed his idealistic assumptions about his wife's honour: his bride had only married him because he was wealthy beyond avarice and a prince, not because she cared about him. Unpardonably, her goal in marrying him had simply been the rich pay-off that would follow their divorce. He had married a woman with all the heart of a cash register and she had, not only, ripped him off but also got away scot free while he had paid in spades. At that reflection, his even white teeth ground together, tiny gold flames igniting in his fierce eyes. If only he had been dealing with her in the present as a male who now knew the score, he would have known exactly how to handle her.
'I'm sorry, Zahir,' Akram muttered in the seething silence, ill at ease with the rare dark fury that had flared in his brother's face. 'I thought you had a right to know that she'd had the cheek to come here.'
'It's five years since I divorced her,' Zahir pointed out harshly, his lean strong face impassive. 'Why should I care what she does?'
'Because she's an embarrassment!' Akram rushed to declare. 'Imagine how you would feel if the media found out that she was once your wife! She must be shameless and without conscience to come to Maraban to make her stupid commercial!'
'This is all very emotive stuff, Akram,' Zahir countered, reluctantly touched by his brother's concern on his behalf. 'I'm grateful you told me but what do you expect me to do?'
'Throw her and her film crew out of Maraban!' his brother told him instantly.
'You are still young and impetuous, my brother,' Zahir replied drily. 'The paparazzi follow my ex-wife everywhere she goes. Try to picture the likely consequences of deporting a world-famous celebrity. Why would I want to create headlines to alert the world's media to a past that is more wisely left buried?'
When Akram had finally departed, still incredulous that his brother had failed to express a desire for retribution, Zahir made several phone calls that would have astonished the younger man. It was a supreme irony but Zahir's coolly astute brain was perpetually at all-out war with the volatile passion of his temperament. While it made no logical sense whatsoever he wanted the chance to see Sapphire in the flesh again. Did that desire imply that he still had some lingering need for closure where she was concerned? Or was it simple and natural curiosity because he was currently facing the prospect of having to take another wife? Once, in a desperate search for a solution to his seemingly incurable problems with Sapphire, Zahir had read books about all sorts of strange subjects before he finally accepted that the simplest explanation of the apparently inexplicable was usually the closest to the truth. Since then events in his ex-wife's life had suggested that his sceptical convictions about her true character were spot-on. He had wed a gold-digging social climber with not an atom of true feeling for him. After all, he was well aware that Sapphire was now cosily ensconced in a live-in relationship with the award-winning Scottish wildlife photographer, Cameron McDonald. Presumably she wasn't having any difficulty bedding him Zahir's dark eyes burned afresh like golden flames at that incendiary thought.
Saffy dutifully angled her hot face into the flow of air gushing from the wind machine so that her mane of blonde hair wafted back in a cloud over her shoulders. Not an atom of her growing irritation and discomfort showed on her flawless features. Saffy was never less than professional when she was working. But how many times had her make-up already needed retouched in the stifling heat? It was simply melting off her face. How many times had the set security had to interrupt filming to make the crowd of over-excited spectators back away to give her colleagues the space to work? Coming to Maraban to film the Desert Ice cosmetics commercial had been a foolish mistake. The support systems the film crew took for granted were non-existent.
'Give me that sexy look, Saffy ' Dylan, the photographer, urged pleadingly. 'What is wrong with you this week? You're not on form'
And as if someone had zapped her with an electrified cattle prod, Saffy struggled to switch on the expression he wanted because she hated the fact that anyone should have noticed that anything was amiss with her mood. Inside her head, she fought to focus on the fantasy that never failed to ignite that much vaunted look of desire on her face. So ironic, she reflected momentarily, so very cruelly ironic that she should have to focus on what she had often dreamt of and never yet managed to experience in reality. But when she was working a shoot costing her clients thousands of pounds was not the time to allow all that old bad stuff to resurface. With the strong determination that was the backbone of her temperament, Saffy forced the distressing memories back down into her subconscious again and then mentally searched to extract the required familiar image: a man with jet-black hair down to his broad brown shoulders, a man who positively oozed raw animal magnetism from every pore with a lean powerfully naked body encased in warm gilded skin. In every image he would slowly turn his head to look at her, revealing fiercely stunning eyes of gold surrounded by black lashes so lush they acted like eye liner on a guy already so savagely masculine and passionate that at one glance he took her breath away. And all those wretched frustrating responses swam back through her taut body in a wave, her nipples beading below the scrap of silk she wore, her entire body dampening with shocking awareness.
'That's it that's exactly it!' Dylan crooned in enthusiasm, leaping around her posed figure to take photos from different angles as she shifted position with languorous ease, that image inside her head like an indelible tattoo below her skin. 'Lower your lids a little morewe want to see that eye shadow brilliant, sweetheart, now pout that gorgeous mouth '
A couple of minutes passed before with a tiny jerk of displacement, Saffy returned to the present and was suddenly plunged back into the heat, the noise and the curious crowds, her huge bluer-than-blue eyes reflecting her discomfiture at the massive attention they were attracting. But Dylan had got the shots he wanted and he leapt around like a maniac punching the air with satisfaction. Her single-minded concentration on her role gone now, she looked out above the crowds and saw a vehicle parked at the height of a giant rolling ochre-coloured sand dune with a robed figure standing nearby holding something in his hand that glinted in the sun.
Zahir had his high-definition binoculars trained on his stunningly beautiful ex-wife. With her glorious mane of golden hair blowing back from her face like a sheet of gleaming silk and seated atop a pile of giant fake ice cubes, she would have looked spectacularly eye-catching by any standards. But in the beauty stakes, Sapphire occupied a category all of her own and the sight of her took Zahir's hot-blooded temper to new and dangerous heights. He was outraged that she was appearing in public in Maraban clad in only a couple of scraps of azure silk that displayed the surprisingly bountiful mounds of her breasts, the smooth skin of her now bejewelled midriff and the incredible svelte stretch of her very long and perfect legs.
He watched the men involved in the shoot dart slavishly around Sapphire, offering her drinks and food and fussing with her hair and her face, and he wondered with vicious coarseness which of them had had the pleasure of her beautiful body. After all, she might live with Cameron McDonald, but the UK tabloids had, nonetheless, exposed the fact that she had had several affairs with other men. Clearly she was anything but a faithful lover. Of course, it was possible that Cameron and Sapphire enjoyed a civilly negotiated 'open' relationship, but Zahir was not impressed by that possibility or even by the concept of open relationships. He didn't sleep around, he had never slept around even when he finally had the freedom to make such choices. His ex-wife had to be a bit of a slut, he decided with dark brooding bitterness, his lean strong face set granite hard at the acknowledgement. He had married an embryo slut and, worst of all, she was a slut he still lusted after. At that final disturbing admission, Zahir ground his even white teeth while perspiration beaded his upper lip, his tall, powerful body furiously tense and aggressively aroused by his perusal of that perfect body and even more perfect face.
Sapphire, the one mistake he had ever made and the payback had been unforgettably brutal. He had endured indescribable punishment to keep her as his wife for even a year. She owed him, she definitely owed him for twelve months of unadulterated hell. Add in the millions she had received from him since the charade of their marriage finally ran aground in a divorce and he had every right to feel ill-done by, every right to still be aggrieved and hostile. She had used and abused him before walking away unharmed and considerably richer. Maybe it was finally payback time, Zahir reflected grimly, his adrenalin spiking at the idea. And bearing in mind that she and her film crew had chosen to come to Maraban and film without the permission of the relevant authority, she had put herself and her precious high-flying career in his power. And the very thought of Sapphire being in his power was the most seductive image that Zahir had indulged in for years. He lowered the binoculars, thinking fast, squashing the disconcerting logical objections already trying to assail him to persuade him to restrain his primal responses. It wouldn't be the same between them now, he reasoned angrily; he was not the same man. This time around he had the weapons to make her want him back.
That process of self-persuasion was incredibly seductive. Throughout his life Zahir had very rarely done what he wanted to do, for the necessity of always considering the needs of others had taken precedence. But why shouldn't he put his own desires first for once? He had already checked Sapphire's schedule and she was due to leave Maraban within hours, an awareness that merely made him all the more single-minded. Zahir made his plans there and then with ruthless cool and the same kind of fierce, almost suicidal resolution that had once persuaded him to take a foreign wife without first asking his despotic father's permission. As that reality and comparison briefly occurred to him he stubbornly suppressed the piercing shard of unease it awakened.