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Rafiq slid his arms into his linen shirt and sat straddling the chair. The pale fabric gaped to reveal the perfectly delineated muscles of his deep gold upper torso—a lot more delineated since he'd dropped almost fifteen pounds.
None of the turbulent seething in his chest was reflected in his expression as, his hands clenched into fists, he fought to control his totally irrational compulsion to drag the grey-haired Frenchman from his seat and throttle a retraction from him.
He was lying—he had to be lying!
He didn't, and not just because the doctor was a good twenty years his senior, but because he recognised denial even when he was the one doing the denying. Rafiq knew the man wasn't lying. It was the truth. Not a truth anyone wanted to hear, but the truth.
He wasn't going to see his fiftieth birthday—or, for that matter, his thirty-third!
Once the drumming in his ears had softened to a dull roar a phrase separated itself from the disconnected jumble of thoughts swirling in his head: roll with the punches.
It sounded so easy.
Years of practice at rigidly disciplining himself helped, and slowly an icy calm settled over him.
Pierre Henri adjusted his suit jacket—no white coat; he was far too celebrated to need a uniform to establish his authority—and got up slowly. He walked across the room and pulled the X-rays down from the screen, sliding them back into their envelope while he struggled to select his words carefully.
Breaking bad news was a part of the job that he did not enjoy, but it was an integral part of that job and he was considered good at it. He did not normally struggle for words in these circumstances.
He knew the importance of positive body language—it wasn't just what you said but the way you said it—and he knew how emphasising the positive even when there was precious little to be positive about could make a world of difference to the way the person listening felt.
Everyone was different, but years of experience had given him an insight that enabled him to tailor his response to what an individual patient needed from him.
Of course there were exceptions. And this man, he thought, retaking a seat opposite his patient, was one of them!
As his patient's dark eyes locked on to his Pierre felt sweat break out along his upper lip. Insecurity was not something that troubled the eminent physician, yet as he met the pewter-flecked inscrutable gaze of the Crown Prince of Zantara he felt the roles of patient and doctor were oddly reversed.
This man—despite the fact he had just dropped the worst news possible on him—was the one in control.
It was pointless, he knew, to try and understand Rafiq Al Kamil. He was a one-off, a maverick, and neither quality was a feature of his wealth and status—although even for someone like Pierre, who was accustomed to being consulted by the rich and powerful, the sheer scale of the Zantaran royal family's assets was almost surreal.
Pierre was out of his professional comfort zone. Shock, denial, anger—there were as many reactions as there were people. But never in his professional life had he encountered anyone who showed such a total lack of response, and he was thrown.
It was desperately hard to be supportive to someone who appeared not to require any support.
A nicely timed warm handclasp to the shoulder often did wonders, but in this instance he felt any such attempt would be treated as a sign of disrespect—it might even be treasonable!
'I will have to push you, Doctor.'
Pierre started, and coloured at the younger man's prompt.
For the first time the Prince was showing some emotion— and it was impatience. Such control was daunting. This wasn't a display of dispassion, it was… Pierre shook his head slightly as his professional vocabulary failed him. It was spooky, he concluded!
He was conscious of feeling more anger and bitterness than this young man was displaying. He had never been able to deliver this sort of news and not feel failure, and this went doubly so when the person concerned should have had his whole life ahead of him, when he was full of life and vigour. It seemed such a tragic waste.
It suddenly occurred to the doctor that the Prince's attitude could stem from the fact that he did not fully comprehend the gravity of his situation. Pierre pushed his glasses further up his nose and angled a kindly look at the tall heir to the throne of Zantara.
'Perhaps I did not explain myself fully, Prince Rafiq?'
'I admit some of the technical language passed over my head.'
I doubt that, thought the Frenchman, not fooled by the self-deprecating response. The intelligence shining in the younger man's eyes was one of the first things he had noticed. And even if he hadn't noticed, it had become clear from the battery of searching questions he had asked that this man had mind like a steel trap.
'Correct me if I am wrong,' Rafiq invited, thinking, Please correct me. Let this all be a massive misunderstanding. 'I have a rare blood disorder, and it has reached an advanced stage where there is no hope of cure?' His dark brows lifted towards his hairline. 'There is something else I need to know?' His gesture invited the older man to expand.
Pierre Henri cleared his throat. 'You are probably thinking Why me?'
Rafiq's broad shoulders lifted as he stood to tuck the hem of his shirt into the waistband of his trousers. He paused to consider the question before replying. At six-five he towered over the seated man. Broad of shoulder and long of leg, Rafiq's streamlined, muscle-packed frame was athletically formed, and it would have made him stand out even had he not possessed a face of startling, symmetrical male beauty, of the type normally seen on classical statues.
'Why not me?' Why should he be exempt from the capricious cruelty of fate? Innocents were given far worse to bear, and he was no innocent—but he was a man with a job to do.
He supposed that everyone in his position felt they needed longer—but he really did need longer.
'Just so. A very…erm… healthy attitude—marvellous philosophy.'
'So, how long do I have?'
Information was power—so they said. Even information you'd have been happier to remain in ignorance of. In Rafiq's mind he equated power with control, and that was a commodity in short supply. He could feel it slipping through his fingers like grains of sand. He could definitely use a little top-up.
The older man's eyes fell. 'Well…erm…these things are very hard to gauge with any precision.'
In other words the news was not good. Rafiq mentally squared his shoulders. 'Make an educated guess.'
'You can, if you wish, have a second opinion.'
Many patients confronted by a diagnosis they did not wish to believe did so—especially those who had the finances to fly doctors from Paris by private jet for a consultation.
'Are you not the best in your field?'
Rafiq was conscious that he ought to be feeling… feeling what? More, he supposed. But after the initial kick in the gut moment when he had realised the truth, he had felt very little except a sense of urgency.
'How long do I have?'
'It is hard to be definitive, but I'd say six…'
Rafiq recognised the man's discomfort but felt little sympathy for it. Instead he was conscious of a growing sense of impatience. 'Days? Weeks…? Months…?' None would be long enough to prepare his little brother to step into his shoes.
Nothing in the younger man's demeanour suggested that he had just been given a death sentence.
'Of course the progression of the disease can vary, and if you accepted the palliative treatment we spoke of…'
'This treatment could affect my faculties, my memory?'
The doctor conceded the possibility with a nod. 'It could extend six months to possibly a year, though.'
Rafiq dismissed the suggestion with a wave of his hand. 'Out of the question.'
'I can review your case weekly.'
'As you wish, Doctor.'
'I am so very sorry, Your Highness.'
The offer of sympathy drew a look of cold disdain from the younger man, who sketched a smile and murmured 'You're kind' before excusing himself.
Out in the corridor Rafiq Al Kamil allowed his mask to slip, and his emotions bubbled to the surface in one vicious, corrosive explosion. With a curse he slammed his clenched fist into an innocent wall.
Through his closed eyelids he could still see the pity in the Frenchman's face. Pity. It was one thing that he could not, would not endure. He recoiled from the idea of seeing that same expression on the faces of people when they met him.
His jaw hardened and a look of steely determination and pride settled on his patrician features. That wasn't going to happen. Eyes closed, Rafiq expelled the pent-up emotion in one long, sibilant breath. He refused to give way to terror or pity. He would die as he would live—on his own terms. But first there was much to do.
His face set in lines of ruthless resolve, he made his way out into the sunlight. Half an hour later he found himself in the stables, with no recollection of how he came to be there.
Hassan, the groom who had put him on his first horse as a boy, approached.
'Prince Rafiq.' The older man's manner was deferential but not obsequious as he bowed his head.
'Hassan.' Rafiq's smile left his dark eyes bleak.
'You wish me to saddle a horse?'
Rafiq reached out and touched the flank of the mare in the nearest stall. He nodded and said carelessly, 'Why not?'
Riding in the desert was to him the most life-affirming experience possible—and for the moment at least he was still alive. The desert was where he always found himself at times of stress. The sight and sounds of the ageless landscape always cleared his head and restored his focus.
'He is not in the best of moods,' Hassan warned. 'Restless and in need of exercise.' He was looking at the Prince as he said this.
The information was unnecessary as the black stallion being led towards him rolled his eyes, reared up on his hind legs and pawed the air.
'I think perhaps you both are…?' The older man's eyes held a concern he knew better than to express as they scanned the Prince's face.
He had watched the Prince grow from a lively, animated child into the man he was today—strong, resolute, decisive and strong-minded. Yet he was capable of compassion—for all but himself. A man, in short, who embodied all the qualities people expected of a leader, though occasionally in an unguarded moment Hassan fancied he glimpsed briefly the mischievous little boy who had once haunted the stables. The little boy whose passing he regretted.
A man, Hassan reflected, should have a place he could let down his guard, and it saddened him that for his Prince the stables were the closest thing he had to such a sanctuary.
Rafiq stepped forward with a grin. 'I think you are right.' He flashed the groom a warm smile. 'Thank you, Hassan. I will go and change.'
'It is always a pleasure to be of service, Prince Rafiq.'
Gabby identified herself politely. Little option, really, when her path was blocked by two big, bearded men wearing black flowing robes. It had always been her policy to be polite to very large men dressed in black—especially when they were both gripping the jewelled handles of scimitars. Common sense told her the barbaric-looking weapons were purely ornamental—she hoped.
Actually, this entire venture was a lesson in hope, but she always had been a 'glass half full' sort of person—though the last two days had cut deeply into her natural optimism.
It was impossible to tell from the larger of the two men's stony expression if he understood a word she was saying, so Gabby repeated herself—this time speaking more slowly and waving her hands descriptively.
'I have an appointment,' she lied. 'I got lost. The King is expecting me.'
The man looked at her in silence, his glance sliding briefly over her dishevelled figure. Gabby was sure guilt and desperation must be written all over her face—she had never really mastered the art of hiding her feelings.
It occurred to her that she should have dressed for the occasion, then her story might not have been met with such obvious scepticism. It was likely people did not take tea with the King of Zantara wearing grubby jeans and a torn shirt.
'I had a slight accident on the way here,' she told the silent man as she lifted a hand to smooth hair that at the best of times refused to be tamed, but just now probably gave her the appearance of an extra in a film that involved mad women and lunatic asylums.
When the man did break his silence it was not to speak to Gabby, whom he regarded with deep suspicion, but to the similarly clad man with him. They conversed briefly in Arabic, then the second man, after sliding a stern look in Gabby's direction, gave a deferential nod of his head to the first and vanished through a door she had not noticed to the left.
Gabby smiled. It was rare that Gabby's smile did not evoke a response from its recipient, but the man in the black robe seemed unfortunately immune to the infectious warmth and her dimple.
'Children and animals like me.'
The limp quip did not draw any response.
He had, she decided, very poor people skills. Maybe being miserable came with the job of protecting the Zantaran royal family from contact with ordinary people? Did they ever step down from their ivory towers?
On the other hand, she conceded, it was possible he knew who she was, and this was the way he treated relatives of almost convicted felons—not that the almost, according to the man at the embassy, was anything more than a formality.
As far as he was concerned Paul was as guilty as hell—and this was the man who was meant to be on her brother's side!
'Your brother was caught carrying the drugs, Miss Barton,' he had reminded Gabby, in response to her angry diatribe on the justice system in this dustbowl of a country. 'And Zantara is not actually a dustbowl. There are desert areas, obviously, but due to the mountain range to the east and—' He had caught Gabby's eye and cut short the geography lesson, concluding apologetically, 'And in fairness the zero tolerance attitude to drugs here is well known to visitors. Our own government guidelines to travellers actually—'
Gabby, who was not interested in fairness, had cut in, explaining she was not there to read government guidelines but to get her brother out of jail and back home, where she had every intention of throttling him personally.
'My brother is not a drug runner. Stupid, yes,' she conceded. 'Very stupid,' she added grimly. Only a total imbecile would carry a stuffed toy through Customs for a girl just because she'd smiled at him and looked helpless.