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Johara Nazaryan had come to see the only man she'd ever love.
Before he married someone else.
Her heart sputtered on a mixture of anticipation, dread and despondence as her eyes scanned the throngs of top-fashion, highest-class denizens of the party being thrown in his honor.
There was still no sign of Shaheen Aal Shalaan.
She drew in a choppy breath and pressed deeper into her corner, hoping to continue avoiding attention. She was thankful for the extra time to compose herself even as she cursed it for giving her more of a chance to work herself up.
She still couldn't believe she'd decided to see him after twelve years.
Oh, she'd drunk in every drop of news of him for all those years, had stolen glimpses of him whenever she was near where she'd heard he'd be from the time she'd started traveling on her own. But this time, she was determined to walk up to Shaheen and say, Long time no see.
Shaheen. To the world he was a prince of the wealthy desert kingdom of Zohayd, the youngest of King Atef Aal Shalaan's three sons from the deceased queen Salwa. He was also a businessman who'd risen in the past six years to become one of the most respected powers in the worlds of construction and transportation.
To Johara he'd always be the fourteen-year-old boy who'd saved her life twenty years ago.
She was six then, on her first day in Zohayd, where she'd come to live in the royal palace with her family. Her Armenian-American father had been appointed first assistant to the royal jeweler, Nazeeh Salah. It had been "Uncle" Nazeeh, her father's mentor, who'd suggested her name, jewel in Arabic.
During her father's interview with the king, she'd slipped onto the terrace and ended up falling off its balustrade and dangling from the ledge. At her screams, everyone had come running. Unable to reach her, her father had thrown her a rope noose to slip around her wrist. As she'd tried to put it on, someone below her had urged her to let go. With panic bursting in her heart, she'd looked down.
And she'd seen him.
He'd seemed too far away to be able to catch her. But as her parents had screamed for her to hang on, she'd let go of the ledge and plummeted down the thirty-foot drop, just knowing he would.
And as fast and precise and powerful as the hawk he was named for, he had. He'd swooped in, plucked her from midair and welcomed her into the haven of his arms.
She still dissected those fraught moments from time to time. She knew she would have been able to slip the rope on. But she'd chosen to trust her safety to that magnificent creature who'd looked up at her with strength and assurance radiating from his fiery-brown eyes.
From that day on, she'd known. She'd always be his. And not only because he'd saved her. With every day that passed, the knowledge that he was the most incredible person she'd ever met had solidified, as he became her older brother Aram's best friend and far more than that to her.
But as she'd grown older, she'd realized that her dream of being his one day was impossible.
Shaheen was a prince. She was the daughter of a servant. Even though her father had become the royal jeweler, who both designed new jewelry for the royal family and had the all-important responsibility of maintaining the nation's highest treasure, the Pride of Zohayd royal jewels, he was still an underling, a foreigner who came from a poor background and had worked his way to his current position through his extraordinary talent.
And then, Shaheen wouldn't have looked at her that way even if she were the daughter of the noblest family in Zohayd. He had always been incredibly nice to her, but when it came to romantic partners, he'd had the world's most beautiful, sophisticated women falling at his feet from the time he turned seventeen. Back then, she'd been certain she possessed no beauty and would never attain any sophistication. But she'd found it enough to be near him, to love him.
For eight blissful years, Shaheen had offered her indulgence and friendship. To stay near him, she'd chosen to remain with her father when her parents had separated when she was twelve and her French mother had left Zohayd to go back home and continue her career in fashion design.
Then, suddenly, it was over. Just before her fourteenth birthday, Shaheen had abruptly pulled away from both her brother and her. Aram had told her that Shaheen thought it time to stop fraternizing with the "help" to observe his role as a prince of Zohayd.
Though she couldn't believe it of Shaheen and thought Aram's bitterness had other origins she couldn't guess at, Shaheen's sudden distance was still a wake-up call.
For, really, what did she have to look forward to but to love him, unrequitedly, until he one day entered the marriage of state that was his destiny? He might even have turned away from her because he suspected her feelings for him and was being cruel to be kind. His withdrawal had influenced her decision to leave. A few weeks after her birthday, she'd left Zohayd to live in France with her mother. She'd never returned.
Ever since that day, Johara had found comfort from the sense of loss only when she found news of Shaheen, saw that he was doing phenomenally well on every front. She'd felt she was entitled to hold on to that secret, onesided love.
But now, the blade was about to fall and she'd never again have the right to indulge her emotions, even in the privacy of her heart and mind. And she had to see him. Really see him. One last time before he committed himself to another.
She'd slipped into the farewell party that one of his business partners, Aidan McCormick, was throwing for him in New York City. If anyone questioned her presence, she'd easily defend her right to be there. As a jewelry and fashion designer who'd been making a splash beyond France in the past couple of years, she was considered one of the glitterati who were expected to stud such a function.
But validating her presence wasn't the difficult part. That was still to come. Working up the nerve to approach Shaheen.
She was praying one thing would happen when she did. That she'd find out that she'd blown him all out of proportion in her mind, and her feelings for him, as well.
Suddenly, a wave of goose bumps swept her from toes to scalp.
She turned around, the rustle of her taffeta dress magnified in her ears.
Shaheen was here.
For a long moment, she couldn't see him. But the people-packed space receded into a void where his presence radiated like a beacon. Not from the entrance, where her gaze had been glued for the past two hours, but from the other side of the room. It made no sense, until she realized he must have used McCormick's private elevator.
His aura, his vibe, hit her like a gut punch.
Then she saw him. Only him.
Everything stilled inside her. In awe. In confusion.
He'd towered over her before, though she'd been five foot seven at fourteen. Now she stood six feet wearing two-inch heels, and he still outstripped her by what appeared to be half a foot. Had she never realized how imposing he was?
No. This wasn't the Shaheen she remembered. This was new.
He'd been twenty-two the last time she'd seen him up close. She'd seen him in the flesh half a dozen times since, most recently a year ago, across a ballroom in Cannes. But during those stolen sightings, she'd barely gotten more than an impression of vitality and virility, of class and power. She'd seen photographs and footage of him throughout the years, but it was clear that neither memory, nor sightings from afar nor photographic evidence had transmitted any measure of the truth.
Sure, he'd been like a god to her anyway, but it seemed there were levels of godhood. And his present rank was at the top of the scale. A desert god, forged from its heat and hardness and harshness, from its mystery and moodiness and magnificence.
His all-black formal silk suit and shirt clung to a breadth that was almost double his younger size. There wasn't an inch of padding to his shoulders, no boosting of the power of his chest, no accentuation to the hardness of his abdomen and thighs or the slimness of his waist and hips. If he'd had the lithe power of a young hawk before, he now packed the powerhouse majesty of a full-grown, seasoned one.
And that was before taking the changes to his face into account. He'd always been what the media had called spectacular, with that wavy mane of deepest tobacco hair, those unique fiery eyes a contrast to his natural tan. Now, with every trace of softness and youth chiseled away to leave a bone structure to tear heartstrings over, he was breathtaking.
But it was his expressionand what it betrayed of his inner statethat sent tremors radiating through her.
Shaheen wasn't happy. He was deeply dissatisfied, disturbed. Distraught, even. It might not be apparent to anyone else, but she could sense it as deeply as she felt her own turmoil.
All hope of reprieve, of closure, vanished.
If she'd found him serene, content, she would have been able to move on. But now
At least there was one thing to be thankful for here. He hadn't seen her. And he wouldn't, if she didn't go through with what she'd planned. And maybe she shouldn't.
No. No maybes about it. Approaching him now would have nothing but terrible consequences. If he had this devastating an effect on her while unaware of her presence and standing thirty feet away, what would he do to her face-to-face?
Infatuated, immature moron that she was, she'd achieved only one thing by seeing him again. She'd compounded her problem and added more heartache to deal with. She could now only curtail further damages.
Cursing herself for a fool, she stepped forward to leave. And felt as if she'd slammed into an impenetrable force field.
The impact almost demolished her precarious balance as his eyes bored through her.
She'd always thought they resembled burning coals, even when he'd trained them on her with utmost kindness. But now, with the flare of recognition accompanied by a focus searing in intensity and devoid of gentleness, she felt their burn down to her bones. Her blood started to sizzle, her cheeks to steam.
She'd gravely underestimated the size of the mistake she'd made coming here. She now had no doubt it was one she'd regret for the rest of her life.
She stood, rooted, mesmerized as he approached her, watching him with the same fatalism one would an out-of-control car on a collision course.
Regret had swamped Shaheen the moment he'd set foot in Aidan's sprawling penthouse. It intensified with every step deeper into the cacophony of forced gaiety.
He shouldn't have agreed to come. He should have told Aidan this wasn't a farewell party to him, but a funeral pyre.
And here was his friend and partner, coming to add to his misery with a blithe smile splitting his face.
"Hey, Sheen!" Aidan exclaimed over the skull-splitting techno music. "I thought you'd decided to let me look like a fool. Again."
Shaheen winced an attempt at a smile. He hated it when his friends abbreviated his name to Sheen. His western friends did so because it was a more familiar name to them, and those back home because that was the first letter of his name in Arabic. He didn't know why he put up with it. But then again, what was a nickname he disliked compared to what he would be forced to endure from now on?
Shaheen peered down into his friend's grinning face, his lips twisting on his barely leashed irritation. "If I 'd known what kind of event you were planning, Aidan, I would have."
"You know what they say about all work and no play." Aidan hooked his arm high up around Shaheen's shoulder.
Shaheen almost flinched. He liked the man, and he did come from a culture where physical demonstrations of affection were the norm, contradictorily between members of the same gender. Apart from immediate family, he didn't appreciate being touched. Even in sexual situations, he didn't like women to paw him, as they seemed to unanimously wish to. His liaisons were about taking off an edge, not about intimacy. He'd made that clear, on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, to all the women he'd had such liaisons with.
He could barely remember his last sexual encounter. Such carnal couplings, devoid of any deeper connection, had lost their appeal and begun to grate, to defile. To be expected, he guessed, when the women he liked and respected didn't arouse any carnal inclinations in him.
He stepped away smoothly, severing his friend's embrace without letting him feel the distaste behind the move. "If being dull is the opposite of this frenzy, I assure you, I prefer it."
A disconcerted expression seeped into Aidan's eyes, replacing the teasing. After six years of business partnership, the man had no idea what Shaheen appreciated. Probably because he kept Aidan, like everyone else, at arm's length. But Aidan had set this up with the best of intentions. And though those usually led to hell, it wasn't fair to show him how wasted his efforts truly were.
He gathered the remnants of his decorum. "But it's not every day I say goodbye to my freedom. So the fanfare is " he paused before he forced himself to add " welcome."
Aidan's face cleared, and his words came out in the rush of the eager to please. "It's not like you'll really lose your freedom. I hear these royal arranged marriages are the epitome of flexibility." Aidan added that last word with a huge wink and slap on the back.
Shaheen almost snapped his oblivious friend's head off. It was a good thing Aidan turned away from him, exclaiming at the top of his voice to the people who'd flocked over to shake Shaheen's hand.
Shaheen set himself on auto, performing as Aidan wished him to. No point in setting Aidan straight anyway. He wasn't really all there with a few drinks in him. Shaheen should let him wallow in his rare surrender to heedlessness without dragging him into the land of harsh reality where he now existed.
His whole existence was about to cave in.
Not on the professional level. There, he'd never stopped soaring from one success to another. But on the personal level, things had been unraveling for a long time. He could even pinpoint the day when it had all started to go downhill. His fight with Aram.