Read an Excerpt
It wasn't every day a man was offered a throne.
When that man was Haidar, it should have been a matter of never.
But the people of Azmaharat least, the clans that made up a good percentage of the kingdom's populationhad offered just that.
They'd sent their best-spoken representatives to demand, cajole, plead for him to be their candidate in the race for the vacant throne of Azmahar. He'd thought they were kidding.
He'd kept his straightest face on to match their earnest efforts, pretending to accept, to brainstorm his campaign and the policy direction for a kingdom that was coming apart at the seams.
When he'd realized they were seriousthen he'd gotten angry.
Were they out of their minds, offering him the throne of the kingdom that his closest maternal kin had almost destroyed, and his paternal ones had just dealt the killing blow? Who in Azmahar would want him to set foot there again, let alone rule the damn place?
They'd insisted they represented those who saw him as the savior Azmahar needed.
One thing Haidar had never imagined himself as was a savior. It was a genetic impossibility.
How could he be a savior when he was demon spawn?
According to his estranged twin, he amalgamated the worst of his colorful gene pool in a new brand of bad. His recruiters had countered that he mixed the best of the lofty bloodlines running through his veins, would be Azmahar's perfect king.
"King Haidar ben Atef Aal Shalaan."
He tried the words out loud.
They sounded like a premium load of bull. Not only the "king" part. The names themselves soundedfeltlike lies. They no longer felt as if they indicated him. Belonged to him.
Had they ever?
He wasn't an Aal Shalaan, after all. Not a real one like his older brothers. Without the incontrovertible proof of their heritage stamped all over Jalal, he'd bet cries would have risen that he didn't belong to King Atef. From all evidence, he belonged, flesh, blood and spirit, to the Aal Munsoori family. To his mother. The Demon Queen.
The ex-Demon Queen.
Too bad he could never be ex-demon spawn.
His mother had besieged him from birth with her fear that her abhorred enemy, the Aal Shalaans, starting with her husband and his older sons, would taint him, the "true part" of her. She'd made sure they had no part of him. Starting with his name.
From the moment she'd laid eyes on her newborn sons, she'd seen that he was the one who was a replica of her, hadn't bothered thinking of a name for his twin. Their father had named Jalal, proclaiming him the "grandeur" of the Aal Shalaans.
Jalal was doing a bang-up job proving their father's ambitious claims right.
She'd named him. Haidar, the lion, one type of king. She'd been plotting to make him one that far back. When she'd known it was impossible. Through non-insurrectionist means, that was.
As a princess of Azmahar, she'd entered into the marriage of state with the king of Zohayd knowing her half-Azmaharian sons would not be in line to the throne. As per succession rules, only purely Zohaydan princes could play the game of thrones.
So she'd plotted, apparently from day one, to take Zohayd apart, then put it back together with herself in charge. She would have then been able to dictate new laws that would make her sons the only ones eligible for the throne, with him being first in line.
Two years after her conspiracy had been discovered and aborted, he still had moments when denial choked him up.
She could have caused a war. She would have, gladly, if it had gained her her objective.
She'd stolen the Pride of Zohayd jewels that conferred the right to rule the kingdom. She'd planned to give them to Prince Yusuf Aal Waaked, ruling prince of Ossaylan, so that he could dethrone her husband and claim the throne. Having only a daughter and being unable to sire another child, he would have named her sons his successors.
Haidar imagined she would have gone all black widow on Yusuf right after his sitting on the throne in the joloos, intimidated her brotherthe newly abdicated king of Azmaharinto abdicating then, and put him, her firstborn by seven minutes, on the throne of a new superkingdom comprising Zohayd, Azmahar and Ossaylan.
She'd had such heartfelt convictions for such a heartlessly ambitious plan. When he'd pleaded with her to tell him where she'd hidden the jewels, to save Zohayd from chaos and herself from a traitor's fate, she'd calmly, lovingly, stated those convictions as facts.
After heavy initial damage, her plans were for the ultimate good. For who better than he to unite these kingdoms, lead them to a future of power and prosperity instead of the ruin they were heading for under the infirm hands of old fools and their deficient successors? He, the embodiment of the best of the Aal Munsooris? She was certain he'd one day surpass even her in everything.
He'd heard that before. According to Jalal, he already had.
But no matter what he'd thought her capable of, what she'd done had surpassed his worst predictions. And as usual, without obtaining his consent, let alone his approval, she'd executed her plans with seamless precision to force his "deserved greatness" on him. She'd been positive he'd come to appreciate what she'd done, embrace the role she'd tailored for him.
And she could have so easily succeeded.
Even Amjad, his oldest brother and now king of Zohayd, who suspected everything that moved, hadn't suspected her. As queen of Zohayd, she had seemed to have as much to lose as anyone if her husband was deposed. Ingenious.
He recognized that convoluted, long-term premeditation in his own mind and methods. But he consciously confined it to business, driving himself to the top of his tech-development and investment field in record-breaking time. His mother used her intricate intelligence with every breath.
"Please, fasten your seat belt, Your Highness."
He swept his gaze up to the flight attendant. He'd almost forgotten he was on board his private jet.
The beautiful brunette could have said, Please, unfasten me, for all the invitation in her eyes. She'd jump on the least measure of response in his attitude.
He regarded her with his signature impassiveness, which had frozen hardened tycoons and brazen media people in their tracks.
Her color heightened. "We are landing."
He clicked his seat belt into place. "As I gathered."
She tried again. "Will you be needing anything?"
"La, Shokrun." He looked away, dismissing her.
Once she'd turned, he watched her undulate away, sighed.
He would order Khaleel to assign her a desk job. And to confine his immediate personnel to men, or women at least twenty years his senior.
He exhaled again, peered from his window at Durrat Al Sahelthe Pearl of the CoastAzmahar's capital. From up here he had an eagle-eye view of the crisis he'd been called upon to wrestle with.
He'd thought he'd seen the worst of it in the oil spill off the coast. The ominous blackness tainting the emerald waters was terrible enough. But seeing the disorganization and deterioration even from this altitude was a candid demonstration of how deep the problem ran. How hard it would be to fix.
His heart tightened as the pilot started the final descent, bringing more details into sharper focus.
Azmahar. The other half of his heritage. Decaying.
What a crushing pity.
He hadn't thought he'd ever see this place again. The day Roxanne had walked out on him, he'd left Azmahar swearing he'd never return.
He wasn't only returninghe'd promised to consider the kingship candidacy. He'd made the proviso that his return would be unannounced, that he'd make his own covert investigations and reach a decision uninfluenced by more sales pitches or pleas.
He was still stunned he'd conceded that much. From all evidence, this was one catastrophic mistake in the making.
Life really had a way of giving a man reason to commit the unreasonable.
After his fatherland had rejected him, his motherland claimed to be desperate for his intervention. Investigating if he could be the one to offer it salvation was near irresistible.
He also had to admit, the idea of redeeming himself was too powerful a lure. No matter that logic separated him from his mother's treachery, the fact remained. Her actions had skewered into his very identity, which had already been compromised from birth by her influence. Her most outrageous transgression had tarnished his honor and image, no matter what his family said. Most of them, anyway.
Jalal had less favorable views. Of course.
Jalal. Another reason he was considering this.
His twin was another candidate for the throne, after all.
Then there was Rashid. His and Jalal's best friend turned bitterest rival. And yet another candidate.
Was it any wonder he was tempted?
Trouncing those two blowhards was an end unto itself.
So whether it was duty, redemption or rivalry that drove him, each reason was imperative on its own.
But none of them was the true catalyst that had him Azmahar-bound now.
She was back in Azmahar.
He took it as the fates nudging him to stop trying not to think of her. As he'd done for eight years. Eight years.
Way past high time he ended her occupation of his memories, her near monopoly of his bitterness. He had enough unfinishable business. He would lay the ghost of her share of it to rest.
He would damn well exorcise it.
" repercussions and resolutions, Ms. Gleeson?" Roxanne blinked at the distinguished, silver-haired man looking expectantly at her.
Sheikh Aasem Al-Qadi had been her liaison to the interim government since she'd started this post two months ago. And she had to concentrate to remember who he was, and what hehell, what shewas doing here.
She cleared her throat and mind. "As you know, this affects the whole region and many intertwining international entities, each with their own complexities, interests and ideas about how to handle the situation. A rushed study would only cause more misinformation and complications."
The man raised an elegant hand adorned with an onyx-set silver ring, his refined face taking on an even more genial cast. "The last thing I intend to do is rush you, Ms. Gleeson." And if he did, he knew nothing about her if he thought an in-person nudge would make her step up her efforts. She and her team had been flat out digging in that sea. "I'm merely hoping for a more hands-on role in your investigations, and if it's available, a look at a timeline for your intended work plan."
"I assure you, you'll be the first to know when a realistic timeline can be set." She tried on the smile she'd long practiced, formal and friendly at once, which always gained her cooperation. "And my team could certainly do with the high-level insider's perspective you'd bring to the table."
After much cordiality and what she felt was a reaffirmed faith in her effectiveness, Sheikh Al-Qadi left her office.
She leaned against the door she'd closed behind him, groaned.
What was she doing here?
So this post was a politico-economic analyst's holy grail. And she had been bred for the role. But it had brought her back to where she could stumble upon Haidar.
She'd been certain she wouldn't. She'd kept track of him, and he'd never come back to Azmahar. And then, she was no longer the girl who'd fallen head over heels in love with him. She was one of the most sought-after analyst-strategists in the field now, Azmahar being her third major post. If the "ax lodged in the head," as they said here, and she did meet him, she'd treat him with the neutrality and diplomacy of the professional that she was.
But she wouldn't have risked it if not for her mother.
When all you had in the way of family was your mother, a word from her wielded unfair power. She hadn't stood a chance when her mother had shed tears as she'd insisted that this post, an expanded version of her old job, was her redemption, the perfect apology for the way she'd been driven from Azmahar in shame.
When Roxanne had argued that they should have been reinstating her, she'd revealed she had been offered the job but didn't want to come out of retirement. It was Roxanne who was building her career, who was in the unique position of possessing her mother's knowledge along with her own fresh perspective and intrepid methods. She'd been the second on the two-candidate shortlist for this post, and the only one with the skill set to make a difference in it now.
She'd capitulated, signed on and packed up. And she'd been excited. There was so much to fix in Azmahar.
According to Azmaharians, the one thing King Nedal had done right since his joloos decades ago was arrange his sister Sondoss's marriage to King Atef Aal Shalaan, winning them Zohayd's alliance. Which had nearly been severed by Son-doss herself, the snake-in-the-grass mother of that premium serpent, Haidar.
Roxanne had no doubt Sondoss's exile-instead-of-imprisonment verdict had been wheedled out of the Aal Sha-laans by Haidar, who could seduce the stripes off a tiger.
But when Amjad had become king, everyone had thought the first thing he'd do was deal Azmahar the killing blow of letting go of its proverbial hand. He hadn't owed his ex-stepmother's homeland any mercy. Strangely enough, he hadn't ended the alliance.
Then, one month after she'd arrived, all hell had broken loose.
The arrogant fool of a now ex-crown prince had voted against Zohayd for an armed intervention in a neighboring country in the region's latest defense summit, snapping the tenuous tolerance Amjad had maintained for Azmahar. And the kingdom that had been held together by the glue of its ally's clout had come apart.
Just as Azmahar was gasping from the alienation, catastrophe struck. An explosion in one of its major oil drills caused a massive spill off its shores. Unable to deal with the upheavals, in response to the national and regional outcry, the overwhelmed and disgraced king had abdicated.
His brothers and sons, held as responsible, would no longer succeed him. Azmahar was in chaos, and Roxanne was one of those called upon to contain the situation, internally and internationally, as the most influential clans started fighting among themselves.
Out of the anarchy, consolidations had formed, splitting the kingdom into three fronts. Each backed one man for new king.
One of the candidates was Haidar.
Which meant he would come back. And she would stumble upon him.
She wanted that as much as she wanted a hole in the heart.
Then again, he'd already pulverized hers.
She cursed under her breath. This was ancient history, and she was probably blowing it out of proportion, anyway. She'd been a twenty-one-year-old only child who'd been sheltered into having the emotional resilience of a fourteen-year-old.
And man, had he been good. Phenomenal wouldn't do him justice.