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Saafir hated secret meetings. They reeked of corruption and backroom deals that had no place in Qamsar's government. At least, not anymore. Saafir's brother, the former emir, had abdicated the throne when it was revealed that his fiancée was allied with a terrorist network. As the second oldest male of his father's recognized lineage, Saafir was next in line for the throne. He'd been thrown into the position of emir, and he had made it his policy to be open and honest. Anything less and he would break the already shaky faith of his countrymen and be ousted.
"These are the files you requested, your excellency," Frederick said, handing Saafir a folder thick with its contents. "There are a number of them to go through."
Saafir opened the folder. His advisor and friend's assessment was an understatement. Dozens of profiles to review, and he had to pick the right one.
Saafir's position was precarious, holding together the three political factions of the Assembly with the Conservatives, the Progressives and the Loyalists. The Conservatives, with Rabah Wasam leading them, believed Saafir and his entire family should be cast out of the ruling seat they had held for over two hundred years for taking a reformist stance on culture and the economy. Saafir's personal history with Wasam didn't help matters.
The Progressives were distrustful of Saafir, viewing him as no better than his brother, who'd tried to keep social change from taking hold in Qamsar. Only members of the Loyalists party stood steadfast at his side, although Saafir had heard murmurs of dissension. Threats of violent revolution were a weekly occurrence. Saafir didn't want civil war, and he was working against extreme rhetoric, polarizing positions and unrealistic demands.
Saafir had never wanted to be the emir. He had been raised to believe that position would belong to Mikhail. Saafir had made decisions about his life based on not being in the spotlight. But the laws of Qamsar were clear. Saafir had inherited the throne, the title and the responsibilities.
He sat in his private library inside his compound in Qamsar with two of the country's most powerful men, both members of the Loyalist party, discussing a bizarre and uncomfortable topic: his wife. Or lack thereof. His lack of wife presented a political opportunity. Once a trade agreement with America was in place, a marriage to one of the daughters of a leader of the Conservative party would seal the trust between them and the royal family. With the Loyalists and Conservatives united, and if Saafir could forge a successful trade agreement with America to please the Progressives, they'd move the small desert Middle Eastern country in a forward direction and give the economy and the culture a chance for growth.
The candidate list was long, and the profiles were detailed. Frederick laid out each one, a photograph and a written profile, like resumes from job applicants. Each was pretty and from a prominent Qamsarian family. Saafir hated to choose a wife this way. A picture and resume spoke nothing of who each woman was, only of what they had done and their credentials, as if being his wife were a job. In some ways, he supposed it was. He hoped whoever was chosen was happy with the match. Being the emir's wife came with benefitswealth, power and prestigebut in the current environment, many drawbacks. The uncertainty swirling around the royal family, a husband who was busy and traveled often and little privacy weren't part of the hopes and dreams of many women.
Saafir didn't know a single one of them, and he knew none of them would have his heart. Frederick pressed on, oblivious to Saafir's discomfort and un-happiness.
"We've arranged the women in order of preference. Some women provide benefits over the others," Frederick said.
Benefits. Not love. Never love. As long as he could form an amicable, mutually beneficial relationship with a woman and they could tolerate each other long enough to have children, it didn't matter to Saafir who was selected. The best woman for the position was the one who provided something his flailing country needed.
"You don't have to do this, Saafir," the third man said. "You should not do this."
The third man did not sit at the table with Saafir and Frederick. He stood in the shadows near the doorway, leaning against the wall with a lazy sense of ease. Saafir knew nothing was further from the truth. Saa-fir had known Adham since their time together in the military, and his head of security was anything but lazy and never at ease. He could explode into action at a moment's notice. He'd already thwarted four assassination attempts on Saafir's life since Saafir had become the emir.
"I have to do this," Saafir said. "Qamsar needs me to do this."
Frederick nodded his agreement. "The people want to see a married emir with a growing brood of children. It will give them a sense of security and clarify the line of succession."
"Only a fool marries for anything other than love," Adham said. "You will resent any woman you choose for not loving you. She will resent you for using her as a political tool. You will only find sorrow in this."
"I will remind you that you are speaking to the emir," Frederick said to Adham, glaring at the larger man, trying to silence him. Saafir gave Frederick points for courage. Few had the mettle to openly disagree with Adham.
"I am glad Adham speaks his mind, but in this case, it doesn't change the facts. Love is a luxury an emir cannot afford," Saafir said.
"Did your father love your mother?" Adham asked.
The words were daggers to Saafir's chest. His parents' arranged marriage had resulted in a love match that had lasted until his father's death. His mother and father had been lucky to be given to each other.
Saafir's thoughts were interrupted by the sound of shattering glass. Something had been hurled through the large window on the far side of the room. Saafir dropped to the ground, pulling Frederick with him.
Adham raced to Saafir's side. He and Saafir turned the table on its side to create a barrier against whatever may follow. In the process, Frederick's organized files scattered like party confetti. Adham covered Saafir with his body.
Saafir craned his neck to look at the object that had come through his study window.
It was a brick, not a bomb. "Move, Adham," Saafir said, pushing his friend aside.
Adham was speaking commands into his comm device as he moved to investigate the brick that had come through the window, peeling a piece of paper from around it. "Nibal, take the south side. See if you can catch the perpetrator. Jafar, check the security footage."
Saafir raced to the window, taking cover to the side, and peered out. A black hooded figure was racing across the grounds. Adham reached for his gun and Saafir touched Adham's arm, stopping him. "We will not respond with lethal force." Escalating the situation by killing the perpetrator, likely a member of the Conservative party, netted them nothing but higher tensions and added more fuel to the fire.
"We have to strike back and show strength," Adham said.
"I have no interest in starting a war," Saafir said.
"Then let me start it," Adham said.
Adham's response time was fast, but he needed to let cooler heads prevail. Striving for peace wasn't a weakness. "Let me see the note," Saafir said.
Adham handed it to him. What was it this time?
The attached paper read, "True sons of Qamsar will take the throne back from the unworthy one!"
Another threat. It was worrying that they had penetrated the royal compound grounds, getting close enough to fling something into the second-story window. A threat this time, but next time it could be a bomb.
Saafir let his head of security's drone drift off along with Frederick's curses. A woman's picture from the folder, one he vaguely recognized, was lodged under his foot. Her profile had remained attached.
He bent to pick it up. "This one," he said. His words silenced both Adham and Frederick. "She will be my wife."
"Alaina Faris?" Frederick asked. "She is a difficult woman. She has had many disparaging things to say about you and your family."
Saafir didn't like hearing that, but what did it matter? It seemed everyone had an agenda and a criticism. Saafir turned the photo over and scanned the paper. "Her father is Mohammad Faris, prominent member of the Conservative party. By marrying Alaina, I can bring the Conservatives to our cause. That is what we've decided is the best course of action."
Adham looked as if he wanted to say more, but he kept his mouth shut.
"Do you want to meet her?" Frederick asked.
It was the next logical step, even if Saafir had no desire to forward this along. "Please invite her family to the royal country home for dinner on the Saturday following my return from the summit. I will make myself available from seven until nine in the evening. If both parties are amenable, I will speak with her father about the appropriate arrangements for our courtship." The word courtship stuck in his throat. He wasn't skittish about a commitment, but choosing a woman in this way left him cold.
Frederick nodded, bowed and left the study. As soon as his advisor left, Adham clapped him on the back. "She will never love you, Saafir."
Saafir nodded. He knew it. "She does not have to love me. She only needs to love Qamsar."
One problem down, an infinite number remaining. He needed to stay one step ahead of those who wanted him dead and to prepare for the trade summit that would restore his nation to economic prosperity. And yet his mind wouldn't let go of his impending engagement. His father had ruled Qamsar and found love. Why couldn't he?
Sarah Parker pulled open the door to the liquor store. She needed a bottle of wine to take the edge off. She blew by the aisles filled with the cheap stuff and the aisles of expensive stuff that tasted cheap. Her job had trained her to tell the difference at a glance, and she kept going until she made it to the aisles that had something worth the calories.
The really expensive stuff.
It was more than she could afford to spend on a bottle of wine, but today, she needed it. Today, she had received her finalized divorce papers from her lawyer. While she hadn't been living with Alec for more than two years and their relationship had been on the rocks for the three years before that, the final nail in the coffin of their marriage had struck her hard.
It was over. She was no longer a missus.
If only Alec had stayed clean, they could have worked it out. If only one of his first three stints in rehab had worked, they might still be married. If only, if only, if only. Maybe his current stay would help him. This time, Sarah wasn't holding herself responsible for his sobriety except for agreeing to foot the bill from the clinic. Just this one last time, she would pay for Alec's rehab and hope it worked. It was money she didn't have to spare, but she would find a way to pay. She had to do everything possible to help him and then she could move on and live her life without the nagging guilt that she hadn't tried hard enough.
After paying for her wine, she walked the remaining ten blocks to her apartment in high heels. She'd had back-to-back meetings since 8:00 a.m. Organizing details with the florist, the caterer, the hotel manager, the media and the security team were her responsibility. Thanks to the kindness and amazing connections of her former brother-in-law, Owen, her fledgling business had secured a huge contract. The new emir of Qamsar, Sheik Saafir bin Jassim Al Sharani, would be arriving in America on Monday morning to begin work on a trade agreement with the United States. For months, Sarah had been preparing, conferring with the sheik's advisors, keeping lists and agendas, and ensuring she was prepared to play hostess to the leader of Qamsar.
She had her orders: keep him comfortable, wine and dine him and roll out the red carpet wherever he went.
The United States wanted the petroleum readily available in Qamsar and Qamsar wanted favorable trade arrangements with the United States. It should be a straightforward exchange; however, nothing involving money was ever simple. Politics, culture, economics and ego played a role in every decision made in Washington, D.C.
Sarah entered her apartment and put the bottle of wine on her recently installed granite countertops. After she and Alec had separated, she had moved out of the apartment she'd shared with him and downsized into this one, a small space in a converted stone town-house that was now three units. It had made her happy to look at the gleaming cabinets and countertops for a few days. Then it had made her feel pathetic. In the last five years, she hadn't invited her friends over and cooked them dinnernot once. They always met at a bar or restaurant. Sarah planned events for other people, sometimes pro bono, but she didn't make time to plan any for herself. Not even for her birthday.
All that would change. Sarah had to think about her new life, now that her marriage to Alec had ended. She made a mental note to invite someone over for dinner in the next month.
She peeled off her suit and tugged on a T-shirt and stretchy yoga pants. She wasn't planning to exercise, but she would be comfortable while she drank her overpriced wine and stared at the television screen.
Two reruns of her favorite comedy later and deep in a funk, Sarah received a text message from her good friend Molly.
"Krista & I at Palazzo lounge. Stop sulking. Come play. Happy Birthday!"
Sarah smiled. Her two closest friends had remembered her birthday. She texted them that she'd be there in twenty minutes, and changed into a knee-length blue dress with cap sleeves and a pair of black heels. The weather had turned warm enough that she wouldn't need a sweater. A night out with friends and some good food would turn her mood around. Besides, everyone deserved a slice of cake on their birthday.
Twenty-five minutes later, Sarah was sliding into a booth beside Molly.
Her friend gave her a hug. "Happy Birthday!"
Krista pushed a drink they had ordered her closer. "Relax. Have a drink. You seem tense."
Sarah didn't want to rain on her friends' cheerful moods by dumping on them about Alec, so she sipped her drink and listened. As the conversation turned from work to men to apartments, Sarah followed the flow. This was what she needed. A break from her work, even if it was only for a few hours.
"Why are you in a mood? It can't be that you're a year older," Molly said.