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Eight years later
Maram Aal Waaked was finally getting her chance at the Mad Prince.
At least, Amjad Aal Shalaan was known that way to the world.
To her, he was the best thing since chocolate fudge.
He'd been tantalizing her with his dark, rich lusciousness for four years now and leaving her starving for more. But this time she had him cornered.
Yeah, right. Cornered among dozens of nosy male royals in the open desert. The man who was so slippery, he could pull a Houdini in a heavily guarded oneexit room.
He had once, during closed negotiations she'd attended representing her emirate. When others had begun to rant, he'd given that worthyofsonnets smirk of his, said, "Bored now." Then he'd disappeared. Poof.
Her friends called her crazy for even thinking about him.
Sure, they said, he was a phenomenal male who made women within a onemile radius swoon. But he also made them cringe, because he was a madman who would pulverize any woman in his power.
She said if he were, he would have collected women to abuse. Not letting anyone get close to him proved that he was actually merciful and sane.
They dismissed the reasons for his paranoia, said he should have gotten over his past already. She thought that no one could come back from something so terrible except through something equally wonderful. Or at least through someone who appreciated his ruthlessness, cared nothing for his wealth and power and saw the wounded soul, the noble, heroic man underneath.
She lived for the chance to prove she was that someone.
But before she could achieve such ambitious aspirations, she had to make him stay put long enough to have a real conversation.
Apart from one epic incident, he'd spared her nothing but a few acerbicwitfilled moments before leaving her to deliver her volleys to his departing back.
But she was going to soothe that magnificent beast if it was the last thing she did. All the pleasures she'd experience when she could finally let him were worth any battle scars.
The first skirmish was about to begin.
Her GPS said she was minutes from the battleground, a fivemile solidearth flat track among the dunes. Amjad's location of choice for the region's royal horse race. Zohayd hosted the race annually on the last day of fall. This year, due to unchangeable commitments, Amjad had brought the date forward.
Everyone had been horrified at his proposal to hold the race midsummer. In response, Amjad had sent taunting letters, something only he could get away with, considering the recipients were hardhitting royals with egos to complement their lofty status.
She'd seen his letter to her father, could hear his lazy, lethal voice in her head as she'd read his elegant, forceful handwriting.
Was her father afraid of roughing it in the sun, outside his rarefied cocoon of luxury? Was the big, tough man afraid of some sweat, when he wasn't even racing?
He must have tailored his missives to each recipient's idiosyncrasies. Her father was too wary physically, too fastidious about his neatness. Not that anyone knew this. Her father recognized these characteristics as a potential source of ridicule, projected the opposite. But Amjad Aal Shalaan was infallible in deciphering people. That was just one among the endless weapons that made him unstoppable in the worlds of highestlevel finance and politics.
Needless to say, everyone had succumbed to his wishes. He'd specified three o'clock for arrival.
It was noon. She'd just called her father to tell him she'd arrived. He'd exclaimed his anxiety that she'd gone alone, had left behind the entourage he'd tried to saddle her with. She'd told him they could catch up, that she had no problem going back with them. But she was getting some oneonone time with Amjad first, before the desert became a forest of people for him to fade among.
She eased her foot off the accelerator to savor the last moments of approach. The sight warranted the most leisurely of zooms, to savor its every smidge of magnificence.
And no, she didn't mean the majestic desert with its undulating dunes surrounding the naturally flat land. That and the canopy of bleachedblue sky, painted in wisps of incandescent white, were indeed glorious. But it was the sight of him that spread firecrackers of pleasure through her system, had flutters of anticipation accumulating in her rib cage.
He stood in front of one of the huge tents. Dozens of his men flitted around him. She saw only him. Standing half a foot taller than anyone else, broad, lean and loaded with inborn grace and inimitable power, uncaring of the mercilessness of the sun beating down on his raven head, indifferent to existence in its whole.
The man was so aptly named "most glorious."
And that was before you took into account the difference in him today. She'd only ever seen him in handsculpted suits that looked to be made of living silk, designed and delighted to worship his body. She'd thought that nothing could look better than that.
He did now. All in white, his billowy shirt tucked into skintight pants and those into tan boots, he was descriptiondefying.
She parked beside the other cars, grabbed her bag and hat and hopped down from the steel behemoth her father had bequeathed her for the trip. She slung her bag across her torso and hid from the sun's pummeling rays beneath the hat, willing the necessities to cool down her urge to run to him.
Not that Amjad was in any rush to acknowledge her. It was only when she slammed the door that he glanced sideways at her in that maddeningly delicious, delightfully nonchalant way of his.
From beneath the arch of worldfamous eyebrows, legendary emerald eyes documented her approach with ponderous detachment. She felt them drilling into her recesses, taking her apart one cell at a time. His ruthlessly sensuous mouth was set, every hollow and slash of his masterpiece bone structure showcased by the almostperpendicular sunrays. While the harsh shadows they cast turned others into grotesque caricatures of themselves, they made him into the god of vengeance that he was. The ultimate yum that he was.
As she closed the last feet between them, he sort offaced her, looked at her in his patented insignificanceinducing way.
Undeterred as usual, she waved a salute to all present, then focused on him, gave him her brightest smile and said, "I'm here!"
She is here.
The words reverberated inside Amjad's mind.
B'haggej'jaheem! What, in hell's name, was Princess Aal Waaked doing here? He'd invited Prince Aal Waaked.
Yet Maram Aal Waaked was here. As she'd so triumphantly announced after walking up to him with all the mesmerizing intent of a stalking, starving tigress.
Amjad forced every muscle in his body into neutral as Maram's every detail surged through his awareness.
Lushness encased in a loose beige pantsuit that still did nothing to obscure each long limb and ripe curve, each undulation of feminine assurance and fluid grace. A ponytail that would cascade into a waterfall of goldshot butterscotch when released. Eyes as hot as the sun, as fathomless as the desert, deepset in mystery and selfpossession. Features sculpted from cream flawlessness by a higher god of beauty. A bearing of one who knew her worth, wielded it like a weapon, cast it like a spell.
His lungs burned.
It was seconds before he realized why and breathed again.
Seemed being male was incurable.
Problem was, his maleness only manifested around this manifestation of brazen womanliness.
There was no mistaking it. Maram Aal Waaked was a hazard wherever creatures of the XY persuasion trod.
And that wasn't his "paranoia" talking.
At thirty, Maram had already gone through two men. Officially. A prince and a businessempire heir. One older than her father, the other young enough to be her kid brother. Off the record, dozens were no doubt scattered on either side of the swath she'd cut through the male population.
She now had her eye on him. Both of her dippedinmoltengoldandcapturedsunshine eyes.
Before that implied he was anything special, he had to amend the statement. She had her eye on him and his brother.
Whichever fell into her honey trap would do. She probably wouldn't mind and could handle it just fine if they both did.
She'd sooner entrap the devil than him. But his half brother, Haidar, while a wily, temperamental fiend in his own right, wasn't as impervious. He'd shared some syrupy friendship with her since they'd been young, and she might penetrate his defenses through nostalgia. Not that he could see any man other than himself even considering resisting her if she made her desire evident.
She was her name, after all. The aspired to. The coveted. But never by him. And she was now more offlimits than ever before.
If he'd once put her on his mostabhorred list due to her own actions, he now put her on the list of his mostbitter enemies due to her father.
Yusuf Aal Waaked, ruling prince of the neighboring emirate of Ossaylan, was behind the theft of the Pride of Zohayd jewels, the master conspirator behind the plot to dethrone the Aal Shalaans.
Now, the serpent's daughtera boa constrictor herself who'd squeezed the reason and life out of many a manwas looking up at him with that excitement that always threatened to devour him.
He inclined his head at her, injected his voice with its maximum level of scorn. "Princess Haram."
Maram blinked. Had he just called her Haram? The glint in those unique eyes said he had! Sinful. Wicked. Evil. Taboo. The word encompassed all that. And more. And he'd made sure everyone had heard it. So. How did he expect her to react? Get flustered? Defensive? Outraged?
No. The Amjad she knew would expect her to engage him. And boy, would she.
She gave him a curtsy, fluttered her lashes. "Prince Abghad!"
Amjad's eyes snapped a fraction wider before danger slithered across his heartstoppingly gorgeous face, his hand flattening over his heart in mock hurt. "And here I thought you liked me."
"I far more than like you. And you know it." She grinned up at him. "But a Haram deserves at least an Abghad."
"Princess Sinful and Prince Hateful," Amjad said slowly, as if tasting the slurs, his darkestchocolate voice making them as delicious as the sweetest compliments. "Those do have a far better ring to them than the trite names our pompous parents saddled us with."
She nodded, enjoyment rising. "They'd sure make for better protagonists in a fantasy novel or D&D video game."
"They'd also spawn far better descriptions than the ones we've earned so far. Instead of the HalfBlood Princess you'd be the Blonde Taboo and instead of the Mad Prince I'd be Bad, Mad and Loathsome. We'd sell millions."
She grabbed her ponytail, wagged it at him. "I'm not blonde, Your Horrid Highness."
"Technicalities, Your Venerable Vileness."
Her grin widened as she noticed that everyone had left their prince to his sparring match.
"Where's Prince Assef?" he said offhandedly. "Couldn't wake up early after a nightlong taxing game of solitaire?"
A chuckle burst out of her at his double pun. In Arabic Prince Assef meant the Sorry Prince. In English
She giggled again. "He is Assef, that he can't come."
Everything about him seemed to hit pause. She felt as if the whole desert froze, bating its breath for his reaction.
When it came, it sent a frisson sliding through her spine. His narrowed eyes became laserlike slits. "He isn't coming at all?"
Weird. That his annoyance would be so great that it would show.
"He recently had pneumonia and his doctors feared a relapse with exposure to unfavorable weather conditions." She smiled coaxingly. "But isn't it your lucky day he sent me in his place?"
His spectacularly sculpted lips twisted with disdain. "It feels like every unwanted present I've been cursed to receive has burst open in my face at once."
Relieved that he'd gotten back to searing sarcasm, she chuckled. "Oh, I love it when you try to be mean."
"I assure you, when I do try, you won't love it that much."
"Take your best shot, Prince Abrad."
At her taunt, another pun meaning meanest or coldest, those obsidian pupils that seemed to respond to his whims overpowered the sun's constriction, almost obliterating his irises. "You wouldn't survive it Princess Kalam."
She hooted. "I'd thrive on it. Go ahead, see if I'm 'All Talk.'"
"Where's the fun if you're impervious, Princess Rokham?"
She struggled with the urge to reach up to grab his raven mane, drag his witty venomdripping lips down to hers.
She sighed her frustration. "It won't be because I'm made of marble that your barbs won't penetrate me."
At her last two words, his pupils almost vanished, leaving his eyes blazing emerald.
She hadn't meant it that way! But she wasn't babbling a qualification.
"And the pathetic thing is, your tactics work spectacularly with men." He shook his head. "I'm deeply ashamed of my gender."
"Don't be a boor, Amjad," she chided, fighting another urge to pinch his chiseled cheeks.
"But Moom! I am a boor." His whineyboy impersonation tickled her. "But chin up, no one has died of my boordom. Yet."
She couldn't help it. She stuck her tongue out at him.
That stopped him in his tracks.
She pressed her advantage. "You're delightful when you're booring, but I'm not as genetically equipped as you are to handle the desert."
He jerked one formidable shoulder. "You're standing four paces away from a climatecontrolled cocoon. Put one foot in front of the other and take your genetically deficient self into its protection."
She arched an eyebrow at him. "Okay, let's try this again. Do pretend hostdom this time."
He tsked. "What? You expect me to carry you across the threshold?"
"I drove two hundred miles to come here, after an hour's flight. It would be the least you could do."
"First, I'm not this little do's host, I'm its warden. Second, I "God forbid your reputation be tarnished by an act of chivalry, eh?"
"You got it."
She grinned. "Oh, well, I guess I can take four more steps under my own power."
With that she brushed past him, opened the tent's door and stepped into a shock of blessed dimness and fragrant coolness.
She took in the twentyfoothigh interior with its sumptuous, bedouininspired decor and furnishings, heard the almostinaudible burr of the AC and electricity generators. She swung around, afraid Amjad had let her enter alone. She breathed in relief to find him standing at the tent's nowclosed entrance, thumbs hooked at his waistband, eyes crackling a more intense emerald in the dimness.
Her shiver had nothing to do with the drop in temperature.
She couldn't fight the urge to counter one of his previous statements/accusations. "By the way, I don't have tactics."
His gaze didn't waver on a change of expression. "You do. They are unique to you, making them even more dangerous and devious."
"I'm the farthest thing from either," she said patiently. "And what would I need tactics for? They don't work on the only one of your 'gender' I'm interested in. You."
Her straightforwardness gained her a grimace. "And the only one of your gender I'm interested in iswait! I'm not interested in any of you."
She nodded vigorously. "With good reason."
One eyebrow rose in mockery. "Ah, so kind of you to sanction it. It is the best, isn't it?"
"Ingeniously evil, yes."
"Indeed. But you don't think I'm so pathetic that I'd hang on to my 'complex' for this long, hold one woman's crimes against the whole sex, do you?"