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They called him the Beast of Hajar for a reason. Katharine could see that now. Zahir S'ad al Din was every bit as frightening as they said. He was an entirely different man from the one she'd met so many years ago. Cold, completely forbidding.
But Katharine didn't have the luxury of being frightened by him. Anyway, she was used to cold, forbidding men.
"Sheikh Zahir," she began, taking a step toward his expansive desk. He wasn't looking at her, his dark head inclined, his focus on a paper in front of him. "I have been waiting for you to contact me. You haven't."
"No, I have not. Which makes me wonder why you are here."
Katharine swallowed. "To marry you."
"Is that right, Princess Katharine? I had heard a rumor about that, but I didn't believe it." He lifted his head and for the first time, Katharine saw his face.
Yes, he was every bit as frightening as they said. The skin on the left side of his face ravaged, his eye not as focused or sharp on that side. Yet she still felt like he was seeing all the way into her, as if the accident that had served to cloud his physical vision had made him able to see more than a mere mortal man.
That he was a ghost, or a god of some kind was part of his legend, and looking at him now, she understood why.
"I did call." She hadn't exactly talked to Zahir, but she'd talked to his advisor. And she hadn't really been invited, either.
"I didn't think you would travel all the way from the comfort of your palace to have your marriage proposal turned down, as I was certain I had relayed my thoughts on the matter."
She straightened her shoulders. "I thought you owed me a conversation. A personal one, not your relayed response. And I didn't come to be turned down. I came to make sure the contract was honored. The deal was struck six years ago
"For you to marry Malik. Not me."
Thinking of Malik always made her feel sad. But her sadness was for a young life cut short, nothing deeper. He had been her destiny, her duty, for all of her adult life, and while she had liked him, cared for him in some ways, she had not loved him.
At first it seemed like losing him had changed everything, that her horizons had opened, that she might have a different future before her. It was clear now that nothing had changed.
Instead of Malik, it would be Zahir. But she was still destined to be sold into marriage for the sake of her country. She'd accepted it. Ultimately she hadn't felt that the change in groom had mattered all that much.
Although, looking at him now it became a whole different matter than it had been in theory. He was
he was something much more than she'd counted on.
This was never about you. Never about your feelings. You have to be prepared to see this through.
"That's what I thought. But when I examined the documents a little bit closer
" Her father had handled most of the legal portion of the marriage agreement that had been drawn up between her and Malik.
It hadn't really been of personal interest to her. Her relationship with him had been nothing more than political maneuvering by their parents. She'd only met him on a few occasions. She'd simply accepted that it was what she could do for her country, that the marriage was what she could contribute. She had never personally studied the agreement. Until recently.
"Well, yes. But really, if you look at the wording, I am promised to Malik. Unless he is not able to assume the throne of Hajar. In that case, it is his successor that I'm meant to marry. That's you."
So strange to be standing before him, all but begging him to marry her when a large part of herself wanted to run out of the room. She didn't want to marry him, not on a personal level, any more than he wanted to marry her.
But her father was dying. Far too soon, and that put everything on a tight timetable. Her marriage had been pushed to some far off, fuzzy future after Malik's death, and for a while, no one had bothered her about it. For a while she had been allowed to serve in more of a practical manner, visiting the sick in hospitals, doing vital networking to bring more tourism dollars into the country. It had been liberating in a way, to find some use for herself outside of her gender and appearance.
But that time was over.
Her father only had a few months left, and Alexander, her brother and future king, didn't reach the legal age to rule for another six years. That meant someone had to be appointed Regent in the event of her father's death, and she lacked the necessary physical equipment to be considered.
She was over being bitter about that. Now she was ready to act.
If she didn't have a husband when her father died, the man placed in charge of her country would be her closest male relative. And what her closest male relative would do with that kind of power didn't even bear thinking about. She couldn't let it happen.
More than that, she had sworn to her father it would not happen. That she would secure the alliance with Hajar and the marriage to Zahir. That she would protect Alexander.
Failure was not an option. She couldn't look her father in the eye and tell him that she'd failed. She was a woman, and in the eyes of the authorities of her country, it made her subpar. In the eyes of her father, it seemed to have the same effect. Her father pushed her harder, demanded more and praised her less than he did Alexander. He saw Alexander's worth as a given; part and parcel to being the only male child. And Katharine had to work and work to prove she possessed any.
And she had welcomed it. She had been up to the challenge, always, to be all that she could be. To serve her family, her country and her people. A good thing, since she was the only hope left.
She wouldn't trip now, not in this last leg of the race. The thought of it made her insides tremble with sickness and dread. It made Zahir look friendly in comparison.
"I do not want a wife," he said, looking down again, obscuring his face from her view.
She crossed her arms beneath her breasts and tilted her chin up. "I didn't say I wanted a husband. This isn't about want. This is about need. About doing what is best for both of our countries. This marriage will strengthen the economy for both nations and whether it's Malik or
it doesn't change that it's the right thing to do."
Her words were cold. Mercenary. They chilled her to the bone. And yet she had to do this. For the lives of her people, the future of a nation.
Anyway, it wasn't as though she was sacrificing herself on the altar. Though in many ways she might be termed the Virgin Sacrifice.
The thought made her shudder. She would never be that. This was her choice. No one had forced her into Zahir's office. If she wanted to stand back and watch her country go to hell while she partied in Europe, there was nothing to stop her from doing it. Nothing except common decency, a sense of what was right. Nothing but the need to prove that when it counted, she could be worth something.
That was why she was here. Ready to do what she had to, ready to face Zahir head-on, even while her knees shook slightly.
He looked at her, his dark eyes cold, disinterested. The flatness in them sent a chill straight into her soul, made her feel like she was staring into a bottomless, empty well. His face, distorted by injury, made him seem less human.
He inclined his head. "You are dismissed."
She looked at him, her mouth dropping open. "Excuse me?" She'd never been dismissed in her life.
"I have been trying to excuse you for the past ten minutes. Get out of my office."
"I will not," she said. Because she couldn't. But for one second she wished she could. Just for a moment. That she could walk out of his dark office and into the bright Hajari sunlight, head to the market, the mall and melt into the crowd.
Just for a second. And then she remembered. Remembered that she had to do this. Because if she didn't, Alexander would be shoved to one side while John claimed the throne, and if he managed to change laws to keep himself on there permanently
or even the possibility of him spending six years messing with the economy. It was unacceptable.
And it would mean she'd failed. Failed at the one thing her father felt she would be useful doing.
Zahir stood from his position at his desk. She stepped backward, the move instinctive, the action that prey would take when it knew it was eyed by a predator. He was big.
Much bigger than she remembered. Broad and toned, his tunic shirt clinging to the muscles on his chest.
"Haven't you gawked long enough? Why don't you go, sell the tale of your encounter with me to the highest bidder?"
"That isn't why I'm here."
"No, of course not, you just want to marry me. Live here, in the palace." He rounded the desk with long strides and his gait languid for two steps before she noticed a break in the rhythm, before she noticed the slight limp that accompanied his movements. He stopped in his tracks then, arms crossed over his broad chest. "With me. Because how could Princess Katharine Rauch, from her idyllic Alpine country ever resist such an opportunity? Do you imagine you'll be having grand, Arabian Night-themed balls? Is that it? I am not Malik."
"I know that," she said, her throat tightening. She was losing control, losing her footing. She couldn't lose. She had given her word to her father. And she had made a blood oath to her people from the moment of her birth. She was born a Rauch, she was meant to protect her country. And this was the only way she was allowed to do it.
That sense of duty was like a weight on her shoulders, her chest. Some days it made it hard to breathe. But it was a part of her, of who she was.
Katharine's heart rate kicked up when he took another step toward her, the light in his eyes dark, his black eyebrows locked together. "If you think it doesn't matter, the difference between Malik and myself, then you live in a foolish fantasy. The reality is this." He simply stood there and she knew he meant him. His scars. The scars he'd gotten in the same attack on the royal family that had seen Zahir's parents, and Malik, killed. Not just the royal family, but citizens who had come to watch the procession through the city.
All because of a power grab from a neighboring country. For money and land. What despicable things men did for both. She was trying to keep the same from happening in her own country.
His lip curled into a sneer, tugging at the scar tissue on his cheek. While part of his lip curled up, the edge of his mouth turned down slightly, fused there by a thick ridge of badly healed flesh. "Is this the man you want in your bed at night? For the rest of your life?"
Her eyes went then, not to his face, but to his hands. Large hands, wide and square, they bore scars too. But they also looked like they possessed strength, confidence. The images in her mind were quick and hot, dark hands on pale skin.
Katharine's body heated from the inside out, warmth pooling in her stomach and spreading slowly through her. The way that he said it was intended to sound like a threat, but his deep, smooth voice made it sound like a promise. Rather than repel her, it fascinated her on a level she didn't quite understand. No, he didn't frighten her, but that feeling did. Foreign and strong, filling her with adrenaline and languor at the same time, weakness and strength.
She didn't know how it had happened. How simple words had affected her like that. She threw it off, pushed ahead. She wasn't here to be intimidated; she was here to get what she needed. "There is an agreement."
"Out," he said, his voice hard, rough.
"I can't do that. I need to see that this marriage happens, for the good of both of our people. If you can't see it, I
He took another step toward her, so close now she could feel the heat radiating off his body. And not just heat. Rage. And for one fleeting moment a grief that she could almost feel echoing inside of her. It went beyond the strength of normal feelings, and she had the feeling that if it ever found its hold in her, in anyone, it would fill them completely. Consume them completely. It made her wonder how he was able to stand.
And yet he did. Strong and tall.
"I want to be left alone," he said, the words flat and cold, final in the stillness of the room.
She looked at him, at his face, at the exquisite bone structure beneath his damaged skin, high cheekbones, square jaw, straight, prominent nose. Smooth, olive skin was still present on one side of his face. Beautiful, compelling, offering a glimpse at the man he had been.
But there was nothing beautiful about the scars that marred the other half of his face. They were evil, ugly things that broadcast his pain to the world.
There was something about his eyes, though. They were still enticing, mesmerizing. Fringed with thick, dark lashes, the color of them so dark they seemed black. Even though it was clear one lacked sight, they were incredible eyes. Intelligent and piercing.
Most importantly, they reminded her that he was a man. Not a beast. She could see him in there this time, Zahir, as he had been before the attack. The man she had once met, so many years ago. She had barely spoken with him, but she remembered him. Always quieter than his brother, his face more serious, sort of aloof. All of him had been beautiful then. Captivating in a way that few people were.
He was still captivating, but it wasn't in the same way.