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Sheikh Prince Zahid's response was immediate.
The king, his son and Abdul, the king's chief aide, were walking through the second palace of Ishla, discussing the refurbishments that were necessary if it were to be inhabited again. As they walked Abdul discussed the diaries of the royal prince and king and raised the matter of Donald Foster's wedding.
The Fosters had always imbued a certain discomfort in Zahidloud, brash, their egos and need to further themselves at all costs had not sat comfortably with Zahid. As he had matured he had done his best to politely sever contact but Donald had remained persistent and they still occasionally kept in touch.
'But Donald has asked you to be his best man.'
Zahid's jaw tightened a fraction as Abdul spoke on. Zahid had not told his father that just last week Donald had called, asking him if he would be his best man at his wedding to Yvette. Zahid had said to Donald that, while flattered, he had duties in his homeland at that time and would not be able to attend. He had rather hoped that that would be the end of it, but of course Donald had persisted and it would now appear that a formal invitation had been sent, along with a repeated request that Zahid be Donald's best man. 'I have already explained that I cannot attend his wedding,' Zahid said to Abdul. 'Offer my apologies and arrange a gift
'Donald Foster?' The King halted and turned round and Zahid silently cursed Abdul for insisting that they go through the diaries now. He had been hoping that his father would not find out. 'That is the man who saved our family from shame
'That was a very long time ago, Father.'
'Our country has a long memory,' the king responded. 'You owe that man.'
'I have more than repaid my debt to him.'
Over and over Zahid had repaid his debt to Donaldhe had been his friend when, perhaps, Zahid would rather not have been, he had secured invitations to functions that Donald would never have got into had he not asked Zahid to intervene, and over the years Donald had also borrowed significant amounts of money and made no effort to pay him back.
'Were it not for Donald,' the king pointed out, 'you would have been brought into disrepute. More than that, you would have brought our country into disrepute. When is the wedding?'
'It is in two weeks,' Abdul said, then looked at Zahid. 'We could rearrange your schedule.'
'First a wedding and, given the speed it's been arranged, soon it will be a christening.' Zahid pointed out, and the King tutted.
'I would support a polite declining of your attendance at a christening for a child conceived out of wedlock, as would our people, but the wedding.'
To the king's surprise, Zahid took no more persuading, for he interrupted with a brief nod and then turned to Abdul. 'Very well, arrange my schedule but make it a brief visit, two nights at the most. I will fly out the day after the wedding.'
'If only it were that easy to get you to agree to more pressing matters,' Fahid commented, but Zahid did not respond, for he knew what was coming nexthis father had brought him here for a reason, Zahid was sure. 'We need to speak about the renovations that are needed here.'
Memories stirred for both the king and Abdul as they walked through the second jewel of Ishla. The second palace was where Zahid and his sister Layla had been born and raised. Even on their mother's death, when Zahid had been seven, they had lived here. The king had been heartbroken at the death of his wife, Annan, but thanks to the privacy the second palace had afforded them, he had been able to grieve largely in private.
Zahid deliberately kept his face impassive as they discussed the work that needed doing, but he knew that just the fact his father had chosen to speak with him here meant that the reins were tightening.
His father had long since wanted him to choose a suitable bride. So far Zahid had resisted, he liked his freedom far too much, but this was a working royal family and Zahid's skills in engineering were being utilised, his vision for Ishla was taking shape, and more and more his time was spent here.
It was time for Zahid to raise a family.
'There is much work to be done,' Abdul said. 'The chief architect is concerned about some erosion on the cliff face and, as we thought, the great hall and the master suite are in need of structural repair.'
'How long will that take?'
'Six months to a year is his best estimate,' Abdul said, and went into further detail. It wasn't as simple as commencing workthe second palace contained many valuable pieces that would need to be catalogued and stored before work could even begin.
'You do realise, Zahid,' the king said to his eldest son, 'that once it gets out that activity has commenced at the second place, our people will assume that we are preparing the palace for the crown prince and his bride.'
'I do,' Zahid replied.
'And does six months to one year sound like a timeframe you could operate within?'
Black eyes met black eyes and there was a small stand-off. The king had raised a leader, which meant Zahid would not simply be told what he should do.
'I think that at this stage, it would be premature to go ahead with the renovations.' Zahid did not flinch as he defied his father's request that he marry soon.
'Your country wants to know that they have a prince who will'
'They have a prince,' Zahid calmly interrupted, 'who shall one day rule fairly and wisely. I do not need a bride to assure them of that.'
'You need an heir,' the king said. 'If something should happen to you, they need to know that the line will continue.' He let out an irritated breath. Zahid refused to be pushed into anything, which the king grudgingly admired, but the people needed reassuring. Time was running out for the king and so he chose now to play the one card he had that just might persuade Zahid to submit to his will. 'Of course, should something happen to you, it would be Layla's son who would be next in line.'
Zahid's jaw gritted because Layla did not have a husband, let alone a son.
'Perhaps,' the king continued, 'if the crown prince chooses not to marry yet, another royal wedding might appease the people.'
' Zahid addressed him as a father and not a king, trying to reach for his softer side, for the king truly adored his daughter. 'Layla does not like any of her prospective husbands.'
'Layla needs to understand that with privilege comes responsibility. I am thinking of inviting the Fayeds to dine here at the palace next week.'
Zahid thought about Layla, who had kicked, screamed and bitten when her father had once attempted to drag her out to meet suitors.
She was a rebel, a challenge, and reminded him of
Perhaps it was the wedding invitation but Zahid's mind drifted back in time and he recalled Trinity. Not the kiss but the fire in her eyes and a spirit that would not be crushed. Imagine Trinity being forced to marry. It would never happen.
'You wouldn't do that to Layla,' Zahid said, but the king nodded for Abdul to leave them for a moment and, once alone, he addressed his son.
'Today there are reports in the news that I have lost weight. Last week it was reported that during my last overseas trip I was hospitalised. Soon I will not be well enough to leave Ishla for my treatments and the people will know that I have little time left. They need to know the future is secure.' It was said without emotion and should be accepted the same way. Feelings were frowned upon, especially for a male royal, but Zahid could not allow Layla to be used as a pawn. If he married then he could change things for Layla, who, unlike him, believed in foolish things like a marriage based on love.
It was not just the king that Layla had wrapped around her little finger. History meant that Zahid too, was extremely protective towards his sister. Not that Layla knew why, for the time of the queen's death and its aftermath must never be discussed.
'I want to announce a royal wedding,' the king reiterated. 'I want to hear cheering in the street when you walk onto the balcony with your chosen bride.'
'Chosen?' Zahid's word was tart. For all the dining with families that would take place, for all the pomp and ceremony that went in to choosing a bride, both the king and Zahid knew it was a given. Zahid must choose Princess Sameena of Bishram and right his father's wrongs for Fahid had not chosen wisely.
Instead of choosing Princess Raina of Bishram, a younger Fahid had fallen in love.
Zahid though, would choose wisely. Sameena was his father's first choice, for the long-ago snub to the now Queen Raina still caused problems and both men hoped for friendlier relations between Ishla and Bishram.
Zahid, though, leaned towards Sheikha Kumu.
Her country, though small, was prosperous and had an extremely efficient army.
It was a business decision to Zahid and one he would not take lightly.
'You do not need to ask the Fayeds to dine just yet.' Finally Zahid relented. 'You are right: the people have already waited long enough for their prince to choose his bride. Six months to a year sounds a suitable time frame.'
'I am pleased to hear it,' the king said, and then called his aide to join them again. 'Abdul, do what is necessary for the renovations to commence.' He did little to contain the smile of victory that played on his lips as he continued speaking. 'And send out the invitations for potential brides and their families to dine.'
Zahid walked through to the master suite and on the king's instruction a servant opened the huge shutter and the sun streamed into the room and fell on a large carved wooden bed. Here, Zahid and his bride would first live till, on the king's death, they moved to the first palace to rule the land that he loved.
Zahid did not have six months left to enjoy being single for once his bride was officially chosen his playboy reputation must become a thing of the past.
It was a very sobering thought and one that did not go unnoticed by his sister.
As he prepared to fly to London for Donald's wedding, Layla came to his suite.
'Father says that the renovations are starting.'
'Do you know who you will choose as your bride?'
Zahid did not answer, not that Layla let that stop the conversation.
'Perhaps Sheikha Kumu?' Layla fished. 'She is well connected and very pretty, or maybe Princess Sameena, she's so beautiful'
'It is not about looks,' Zahid interrupted. 'I will choose the bride who will best serve our people. One who will understand that my heart belongs to them.'
Layla rolled her eyes. 'Ah, but I bet you take looks into consideration when you are choosing your lovers.'
'Layla!' Zahid warned, but she would not quiet.
'Why don't women get to go overseas? Why were you allowed to leave Ishla for your education?'
'You know why, Layla.'
'Well, it's not fair. At least you have had some fun before you choose your bride. Father is speaking about the Fayeds again. I don't want Hassain to be my first love.' She pulled a face and Zahid suppressed a smile. He wanted to tell his sister that when he was king he would change things, but that conversation was too dangerous to have just yet.
'I want to know what it is to fall in love.' Layla pouted.
Zahid could think of nothing worse than a mind dizzied by emotion. He truly could not stand the thought of a life lived in love.
Yes, there was a year of her life that Layla didn't know about.
The first year.
He looked at his sister who lived with her head in the clouds, yet he cared for her so. He could still remember her screaming in the crib, could still recall their father's repeated rejection of his second born, who he had blamed for his wife's death.
No, Layla must never know.
'Layla, the palace will be busy preparing for my wedding. You do not have to worry for a while.'
'But I do worry,' Layla said. 'Zahid, can I come to England with you? I would love to see the sights, and to go to a real English wedding
'Layla, you know that you cannot travel until you are married.'
'No,' Layla corrected him, 'the rule is that I cannot travel unless I am escorted by a family member. If you took me.'
'I am not taking you to England with me,' Zahid said. He would already have his work cut out with the Fosters and their debauched ways, let alone adding Layla to the mix. Zahid rolled his eyes. There was no doubt in his mind that his best-man duties would involve policing Trinity.
Once he had agreed to attend the wedding, Zahid had looked her up and his face had hardened as he had read on and flicked through images. Having completed school, or rather, as Zahid knew from Donald, a stint in rehab, Trinity had, it would seem, jumped straight off the wagon. There were several pieces about how she loved to party, combined with several images of her falling out of nightclubs. Things had gone quiet in recent years, though. She was now living in California and only came home on occasion, such as for the wedding of her brother.
His curiosity about Trinity surprised even Zahid. He could barely remember most of the women he had dated, yet the one kiss that he and Trinity had shared still remained clear in his mind, so much so that it took a moment to drag his mind back to the conversation.
'Can I come on your honeymoon, then?' Layla persisted.
'I will hopefully be busy on my honeymoon,' Zahid said.
'Not the desert part.' Layla laughed. 'After. When you travel overseas, can I at least come with you then?'
It was not such a strange requestsisters often travelled as companionship for the new bride.
'You might not like the bride I choose,' Zahid pointed out.
''You might not like the bride you choose.' Layla smiled. 'So I will entertain her so that you do not have to worry about such things as shopping and lunch.'
'We shall see.'
'Promise me that you will take me, Zahid,' Layla said. 'I need something to look forward to.' 'You are up to something?'
'No,' Layla said. 'I am just bored and I want something to dream about, something to look forward to.' She glanced at the clock. 'I need to go and meet my students.'
'Then go,' Zahid said, but Layla would not move till she got her way.
'How can I teach my students about the world when I have never even left Ishla?'
Zahid accepted that she made a good point. 'Very well, you can travel overseas with us when I take my bride on honeymoon.'
It was no big deal to Zahid.
Romance was not part of the equation in any marriage that he had in mind and that was the reason he said yes.