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'I'm not marrying her for her looks, Adil. I'm marrying her for the myriad reasons she will make a good Queen of AlOmar. If I'd wanted nothing but looks I could have married my last mistress. The last thing I need is the distraction of a beautiful woman.'
Princess Samia Binte Rashad al Abbas sat rigid with shock outside the Sultan of Al-Omar's private office in his London home. He hadn't been informed that she was there yet as he'd been on this call. His secretary, who had left momentarily, had inadvertently left his door slightly ajarsubjecting Samia to the deep rumble of the Sultan's voice and his even more cataclysmic words.
The drawling voice came again, tinged with something deeply cynical. 'That she may well appear, but certain people have always speculated that when the time came to take my bride I'd choose conservatively, and I'd hate to let the bookies down.'
Samia's cheeks burned. She could well imagine what the voice on the other end of the phone had said, something to the effect of her being boring.
Even if she hadn't heard this explicit conversation Samia already knew what the Sultan of Al-Omar planned to discuss with her. He wanted her hand in marriage. She hadn't slept a wink and had come here today half hoping that it would all be a terrible mistake. To hear him lay out in such bald terms that he was clearly in favour of this plan was shocking. And not only that but he evidently considered it to be a done deal!
She'd only met him once before, about eight years previously, when she'd gone to one of his legendary annual birthday parties in B'harani, the capital of Al-Omar, with her brother. Kaden had taken her before she'd gone on to England to finish her studies, in a bid to try and help her overcome her chronic shyness. Samia had been at that awfully awkward age where her limbs had had a mind of their own, her hair had been a ball of frizz and she'd still been wearing the thick bifocals that had plagued her life since she was small.
After an excruciatingly embarrassing moment in which she'd knocked over a small antique table laden with drinks, and the crowd of glittering and beautiful people had turned to look at her, she'd fled for sanctuary, finding it in a dimly lit room which had turned out to be a library.
Samia ruthlessly clamped down on that even more disturbing memory just as the Sultan's voice rose to an audible level again.
'Adil, I appreciate that as my lawyer you want to ensure I'm making the right choice, but I can assure you that she ticks all the boxesI'm not so shallow that I can't make a marriage like this work. The stability and reputation of my country comes first, and I need a wife who will enhance that.'
Mortification twisted Samia's insides. He was referring to the fact that she was a world apart from his usual women. She didn't need to overhear this conversation to know that. Samia didn't want to marry this man, and she certainly wasn't going to sit there and wait for humiliation to walk up and slap her in the face.
Sultan Sadiq Ibn Kamal Hussein put down the phone, every muscle tensed. Claustrophobia and an unwelcome sense of powerlessness drove him up out of his leather chair and to the window, where he looked out onto a busy square right in the exclusive heart of London.
Delaying the moment of inevitability a little longer, Sadiq swung back to his desk where a sheaf of photos was laid out. Princess Samia of Burquat. She was from a small independent emirate which lay on his northern borders, on the Persian Gulf. She had three younger half-sisters, and her older brother had become the ruling Emir on the death of their father some twelve years before.
Sadiq frowned minutely. He too had been crowned young, so he knew what the yoke of responsibility was like. How heavy it could be. Even so, he wasn't such a fool to consider that he and the Emir could be friends, just like that. But if the Princess agreed to this marriageand why wouldn't she?then they would be brothersin-law.
He sighed. The photos showed indistinct images of an average sized and slim-looking woman. She'd lost the puppy fat he vaguely remembered from when he'd met her at one of his parties. None of the pictures had captured her fully. The best ones were from last summer, when she'd returned from a sailing trip with two friends. But even in the press photos she was sandwiched between two other much prettier, taller girls, and a baseball cap was all but hiding her from view.
The most important consideration here was that none of the photos came from the tabloids. Princess Samia was not part of the Royal Arabian party set. She was discreet, and had carved out a quiet, respectable career as an archivist in London's National Library after completing her degree. For that reason, and many others, she was perfect. He didn't want a wife who would bring with her a dubious past life, or any whiff of scandal. He'd courted enough press attention himself over who he was dating or not dating. And to that end he'd had Samia thoroughly investigated, making sure there were no skeletons lurking in any closet.
His marriage would not be like his parents'. It would not be driven by mad, jealous rage and resemble a battlefield. He would not sink the country into a vortex of chaos as his father had done, because he'd been too distracted by a wife who'd resented every moment of being married to a man she didn't want to be married to. His father had famously pursued his mother, and it was common knowledge that in his obsession to have the renowned beauty reputed to be in love with another he'd paid her family a phenomenal dowry for her. His mother's constant sadness had driven Sadiq far away for most of his life.
He needed a quiet, stable wife who would complement him, give him heirs, and let him concentrate on running his country. And, above all, a wife who wouldn't engage his emotions. And from what he'd seen of Princess Samia she would be absolutely perfect.
With a sense of fatalism in his bones he swept all the photos into a pile and put them under a folder. He had no choice but to go forward. His best friendsthe ruling Sheikh and his brother from a small independent sheikhdom within his bordershad recently settled down, and if he remained single for much longer he would begin to look directionless and unstable.
He couldn't avoid his destiny. It was time to meet his future wife. He buzzed his secretary. 'Noor, you can send Princess Samia in.'
There was no immediate answer, and a dart of irritation went through Sadiq. He was used to being obeyed the instant he made a request. Stifling that irritation because he knew it stemmed from something much deeperthe prospect of the demise of his freedomhe strode towards his door. The Princess should be here by now, and he couldn't avoid the inevitable any longer.