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Heart heavy with guilt at his envy, Zahir listened to his youngest brother speak his wedding vows.
Amir's voice came close to breaking as he promised, not just simple fidelity, but also love to his bride. Grace's eyes glistened, but her smile grew as she gazed at her groom with rapt fascination. Her own voice trembled as she returned the promise of love.
Both his brothers had found it with women not altogether suitable. But as neither were heir to the throne, their choices were hardly world-shattering. It was not the same for him.
His choice of bride had been set by an agreement between Zohra and Jawhar a decade past. His gaze skimmed the guests nearest the bridal party, gliding past his beaming father, king of their small Middle Eastern country, and his teary-eyed mother, to the woman he would one day wed. Though they shared no blood relation, Angele bin Cemal was treated as a favored niece by his uncle, the King of Jawhar.
Their eyes met, but she broke the gaze immediately, firmly fixing her gaze on the couple saying their vows.
He felt the dismissal, but was not surprised by it. Not after the past months preparing for the royal wedding.
Shocking everyone, the woman both royal families acknowledged would one day be his wife had refused to be a member of the bridal party or to participate in any meaningful way in the wedding. Citing her lack of close relationship to either the bride or the groom as her excuse, Angele had stood firm against every attempt by his mother and even Grace to include her.
Zahir had taken her uncustomary intransigence for what it was: a demand that he formalize an engagement between the two of them. Clearly she was done waiting patiently for her own nuptials. And, after the events of the past month, he realized the time had come to do his duty.
Besides, her father had kept his part of the bargain; he'd long since cleaned up his behavior so that he no longer courted tabloid attention.
After Zahir's mother had told him how devastated Angele was by her father's string of infidelities and the fact she had not spoken to the man in more than a year, Zahir had decided the time had come to do something about it. He wasn't close to his future bride, but Cemal would one day be a member of his family and Zahir wasn't about to stand by while the older man embarrassed them with his lack of discretion.
So, Zahir had laid down the law to Cemal. He'd told the older man that he would not marry a woman whose father's tabloid fame rivaled that of a European rock star.
Cemal had believed him. He'd patched things up with his wife and had not been featured in a scandal rag for almost five years, proving he took his daughter's future more seriously than his own marriage vows. Zahir kept the grimace such thoughts brought from his face.
He would never be that manloveless marriage, or not.
He suspected that, unlike her mother, Angele would never tolerate it. Her surprising streak of stubbornness gave him hope for the years ahead. He did not want to tie his life to a doormat.
Regardless of how intriguing Zahir found this new side of Angele, his patience grew thinner by the minute as the wedding festivities marched forward. She took her stubbornness to a new, inexplicable level. She repeatedly declined to be in any of the formal wedding photos.
"Come, my little princess, I believe your point has been made." King Malik of Jawhar patted Angele's shoulder, his words showing he had put the same interpretation on her actions as Zahir had done. "Do not be the camel that tries to drink with its tail."
Angele smiled at her honorary uncle, though the expression did not reach her too serious eyes, and shook her head. "The formal shots are for family, not friends."
Stunned, and a little impressed, Zahir frowned. He had never heard her deny the king before.
"You are nearly family." And would be soon enough, Zahir implied, knowing she was intelligent enough to get his meaning.
She simply shook her head again and turned as if to go.
He reached out to grab her arm and then yanked his hand back, realizing what he'd almost done. They were not formally betrothed and to touch her so familiarly in this setting would be highly improper. As future king of Zohra, Zahir never acted without propriety. At least in a public setting.
His behind-the-scenes impropriety was over as well, and he still felt a fool for pining after what he could not have.
A life of love and happiness, as his brothers were building for themselves, was not to be for him.
King Malik laughed. "You begin to see the child as a woman with her own will, do you not?"
Zahir could not deny it. He had never seen Angele dressed with such an evident intent to entice, either. It had worked. He found her quite alluring. Used to barely noticing her at all, he'd been shocked by the low burn of arousal he'd felt when she had arrived. With new highlights shining in her dark brown hair, she wore it swept up to show off the slender column of her neck and the creamy, delicate slope of her shoulders.
The soft peach color of her couture dress was the only thing demure about it. Clinging to her slight curves, it fell inches short of her knees. While she did not share her mother's supermodel stature, in the dress and matching heels that added at least four inches to her height, Angele's legs looked every bit as long as the Brazilian beauty's today. And twice as sexy.
Add to that the fact that her stubborn refusal to participate in the wedding as a member-to-be of the family had intrigued him from her first refusal three months ago, and it was a lethal combination to his recently restrained libido.
Reminding him that his future wife had not been raised in the secluded environment inhabited by the women in the royal palace of Jawhar, she had continued to stand by her first denial. He'd been more than a little stunned to realize he liked it.
While his marriage would not be the love-match his brother had made, it would not be as much of a dry connection of two overly similar lives as he had always anticipated, either.
Frankly love could go hang, as far as he was concerned. This newfound passion and interest was all that he required, or wanted.
"Wasn't the wedding beautiful?"
A bittersweet smile curving her lips, Angela looked up at her mother. "It was, but the love between Amir and Grace made it even more so."
"It reminds me of your father and my wedding." Lou-Belia sighed with a fond reminiscence that Angele found difficult to understand. "We were so much in love."
"I do not think Amir is like my father."
Lou-Belia frowned. "You know Cemal has settled down."
Angele did know. She still floundered in her feelings for a man who spent the better part of two decades flaunting his marriage vows, only to become the model of propriety in the face of his only child's betrayal-fueled rage and disapproval.
She was thrilled for her mother that the older couple's marriage seemed to be working again. The two spent a great deal more time together now, going so far as to live in the same domicile even. Her father was quite affectionate toward her mother these days, too.
But it hurt something deep inside Angele that her father had not stopped his behavior until she had confronted him, and then refused to have anything to do with him for more than a year. What did that say of the strength of his love for his wife?
He'd pleaded with her mother to fix the breach between them and in the process, Cemal and Lou-Belia had found each other again.
"So, the past does not exist?" she asked helplessly.
"We let it go for the sake of the future." Lou-Belia's world-famous smile was soft but tinged with chiding. "It has been five years, menina"
Little girl. Angele hadn't been her mother's little girl for a long time, no matter what Lou-Belia, or Zahir for that matter, believed.
Still, she gave her mother a tight hug. "You are a kind and forgiving woman. I love you."
But I don't want to be you, she thought to herself.
With that truth burning in her mind, she went looking for the man who would one day be king.
Some minutes later, Angele slid around the partially opened door to Zahir's office. He had disappeared from the wedding feast and she'd known she would find him here.
"Shirking your duty, Prince Zahir?" Her arms crossed over the sweetheart neckline of her short-short designer original. "Tsk, tsk, tsk. What would your father say?"
The room was very much like Zahir: masculine, rich and imposing. And yet there was something in the artwork and the old world furnishings that reflected more, something specialan appreciation for beauty that she knew few were aware of.
But while Zahir didn't pay her any particular attention, she had watched him closely and probably knew more about the real man than most. She still wondered at her ignorance of the secret revealed short months ago.
She'd decided it was willful blindness on her part, but that had not made her feel any better. Only mind-numbingly stupid.
She was a twenty-three-year-old virgin with no prospects and she knew she was to blame for that fact. She had clung to hopes and fairy tales that would never come true in the real world. Her parents' marriage should have made her realize that.
Zahir looked up from some papers on his desk, his gray eyes widening a fraction at the sight of her. He quickly stood to his full, impressive six feet four inches. He wore the traditional robes and head covering of a crown sheikh over a tailored suit that made him look mouthwateringly attractive to her.
Not that he was even remotely aware of the effect he had on her. She would have to be on his radar as an actual woman for that to happen.
"Princess Angele, what are you doing here?" He had always called her Princess, though she was not one.
But her godfather, King Malik, had nicknamed her such and the nickname had stuck. She'd always thought it sweet, but now realized it was one more barrier that Zahir kept between them.
His refusal to call her simply by her first name, as any man intent on marrying a woman might do.
He looked past her, no doubt expecting some kind of chaperone. But she'd left her mother and all other potential protectors of her virtue at the feast. She pressed the door closed, the snick of the catch mechanism engaging loud in the silent room.
"Have I forgotten we were to meet?" he asked, sounding perplexed, but not wary. "Did you expect me to escort you to the table?"
"I'm perfectly capable of walking to my own table." At her request, they had not been seated next to one other. "I know about Elsa Bosch."
She hadn't meant for that to be her opening salvo, but it would have to do. She'd paid the blackmailer, not once, but twice. After this weekend, Zahir's reputation would no longer be her concern. The picture taker would have to find another cash cow.
Distaste flicked over Zahir's features, at what she was not sure. Was he disgusted by the gossip rag that had printed a picture of him and his lover at a tete-a-tete in Paris the week before last?
Compared to the pictures Angele had seen, the two sitting at an intimate table for two was a boringly tame image. But as she'd suspected, the very fact Zahir was "friends" with the actress was cause for speculation and scandal.
Or was he disappointed in his prim and proper almost-fiancée bringing the subject up? She'd worked so hard for so many years to be the perfect image of his future queen.
Little did he know it, but that Angele was in ashes on the floor of her office back in America.
"That is not something you need concern yourself with."
Those words shocked her, hurting her when she thought no more wounds could be made. She had expected his anger. Disdain. Frustration, maybe. But not dismissal. She'd not expected him to believe that she had nothing to say about the women he shared himself with while leaving her untouched. Unclaimed. And ach-ingly unfulfilled.
She wasn't ignorant. She knew that sex could and should be wonderful for a woman, but she was entirely inexperienced and she intended for that to change. Tonight.
The realization that Zahir had more in common with her father than she had ever believed almost derailed her determination but, in some strange way, it made it okay for her to make her bargain.
"The picture was rather flattering, to you both."
He stood up, "Listen, Princess"
"My name is Angele."
"I am aware."
"I prefer you use it." If only for this one night, he would see her as a person in her own right. "I am not a princess."
And never would be now. Nor was she the starry-eyed child who had reacted with delirious joy upon the announcement of their future marriage. The past ten years had finally brought her not only adulthood, but a definitive check with reality.
The man she had loved for too long and if her mother was to be believed, would probably love until the day she died, had no more desire to marry her than he wanted to dance naked at the next royal ball. Perhaps even less.
"Angele," he said, as if making a great concession. "Ms. Bosch is not an issue between us."
He was so wrong. On so many levels, but her plan did not include enumerating them, so she didn't. "You were smiling in the picture. You looked happy."
Certainly he had never given Angele the affection filled gaze he'd given the German actress even in that single, oh so tame, picture in the tabloid.
Zahir looked at Angele as if she had spoken something other than one of the five languages he conversed in with extreme fluency.
"I read that you broke things off with her." Angele had gone from supremely ignorant of her fiancé's social activities to an expert on the gossip surrounding him.
"Because you were photographed together."
He frowned, but gave a quick jerk of his head in acknowledgment. "Yes."
She found that sad. For Zahir. For herself. For Elsa Bosch even. Had the woman realized she was so expendable? Then again, she might well have been the person who had extorted money for silence from Angele.
Regardless, Elsa was not the real issue here. And Angele needed to remember that, no matter how hot her retinas burned with the images of the other woman in Zahir's arms.