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King Rafiq ibn Fayiz Mehdi possessed keen intelligence, vast power and infinite riches. Yet none had aided him in preventing a devastating tragedya tragedy for which he had been partially responsible.
As the sun began to set, he stood on the palace's rooftop veranda and peered at the panorama stretched out before him. The diverse terrain he once revered now seemed ominous, inviting disturbing recollections that cut into his composure like a well-honed blade.
A dark, winding road at midnight. Silence and dread. Flashing lights illuminating the bottom of a cliff. The twisted metal wreckage
"If you believe you'll move mountains by staring at them, I assure you it will not work."
At the sound of the familiar voice, Rafiq glanced back to see his brother standing only a few steps behind him. "Why are you here?"
Zain claimed the space beside Rafiq and leaned back against the stone wall. "Is that how you greet the man who so generously handed you the keys to the kingdom over a year ago?"
The same man who had abdicated the throne for the sake of love, an emotion Rafiq had never quite embraced. "My apologies, brother. I was not expecting you for another month."
"Since I completed my initial preparation for the water conservation project, I felt the timing was right for my return."
Under normal circumstances, he would appreciate Zain's company. Lately he preferred solitude. "Did you travel alone?"
"Of course not," Zain said in an irritable tone. "I do not travel without my family unless absolutely necessary."
Rafiq had never believed he would hear his womanizing brother utter those words. "Then Madison is with you?"
"Yes, and my children. I've been anxious for you to finally meet your niece and nephew."
Rafiq did not share in Zain's enthusiasm. Being in the presence of two infants would only serve to remind him of what he had lost. "Where are they now?"
"Madison and Elena are tending to them."
At least he could temporarily avoid the painful introduction. "I am glad you have finally returned Elena to her rightful place. The household does not run well without her."
"So I have heard," Zain said. "I have also heard you are in danger of causing an uprising among the palace staff if you continue to terrorize them."
Rafiq admittedly had trouble maintaining calm in recent days, but he did not care for the exaggerated accusation. "I have not terrorized the staff. I have only corrected them when necessary."
"It's my understanding you have found it necessary to correct them on a daily basis, brother. I've also learned you have not been cooperative with the council."
Rafiq began to question the real reason behind Zain's surprise appearance. "Have you been speaking with our younger brother?"
Zain's gaze faltered. "I have been in touch with Adan on occasion."
His anger began to build. "And you have clearly been discussing me."
"He only mentioned you've been having a difficult time since Rima's death."
Rafiq's suspicions had been confirmedZain had arrived early to play nursemaid. "Despite what you and Adan might believe, I do not need a keeper."
Zain leaned forward, his expression suddenly somber. "We both understand how devastating it must be to lose your wife and your unborn child"
"How could you understand?" No one would ever understand the constant guilt and regret unless they had experienced it. "You have a wife and two healthy children."
"As I was saying," Zain continued, "it's understandable that you are still harboring a good measure of anger, particularly with so many unanswered questions about the accident. However, your attitude is proving disruptive. Perhaps you should consider taking a sabbatical."
Impossible and unnecessary. "And who would run the country in my stead?"
"I would," Zain said. "After all, I prepared many years to assume that responsibility before I gave up the position. Adan is willing to assist me."
Rafiq released a cynical laugh. "First, Adan has no interest in governing Bajul. He's only interested in flying planes and seducing women. As far as you are concerned, our people have not forgotten you abandoned them for a second time."
Barely contained fury called out from Zain's narrowed eyes. "I still have an abiding love for this country, and I am quite capable of seeing that it runs smoothly, as I promised before I returned with Madison to the States. Do not forget, I alone developed the water conservation plan that will secure Bajul's future. And I have earned the council's support."
Rafiq recognized he had been wrong to criticize Zain. "My apologies. I do appreciate your support, but I assure you I do not need a sabbatical."
"A sabbatical would allow you to assess your feelings about the situation."
Rafiq was growing weary of the interference. "My feelings are not significant. My duties to Bajul are of the utmost importance."
"Yet your emotional upheaval has understandably begun to affect your leadership. Grieving requires time, Rafiq. You have not allowed yourself enough for that."
He had grieved more than anyone would know. "It has been six months. Life must continue as planned."
Zain whisked a hand through his dark hair. "Plans go awry, brother, and life sometimes comes to a standstill. You have suffered a great loss and if you choose not to acknowledge that, you will only suffer more."
He could no longer suffer through this conversation. "I prefer not to discuss it further, so if you will excuse me"
The sound of footfalls silenced Rafiq and drew his attention to Zain's blonde American bride walking toward them, a round-faced, dark-haired infant propped on one hip. He immediately noticed the happiness reflected in his sister-in-law's face and the obvious adoration in her blue eyes when she met Zain's gaze. "I have a baby girl who insists on being with her daddy."
Zain presented a warm smile. "And her father is more than happy to accommodate her."
After Madison handed the infant to Zain, she drew Rafiq into an embrace. "It's good to see you, my dear brother-in-law."
"And you, Madison," he said. "You are looking well, as usual. I would never have known you had given birth." Ironically, only a few days after he had buried his wife.
She pushed her somewhat disheveled hair back and blushed. "Thank you. Elena told me to tell you that she'll see you as soon as she has Joseph in bed. She seems to be able to calm our son better than anyone, but then after raising the Mehdi boys, she's had quite a bit of experience."
Zain moved closer to Rafiq and regarded his child. "Cala, this is your uncle Rafiq. And yes, we do favor each other, except for that goatee, but I am much more handsome."
Rafiq experienced sheer sadness at the sound of his mother's name that his brother had given his daughter.
The mother he had barely known yet still revered. " She is a beautiful child, Zain. Congratulations."
"Do you wish to hold your niece?" Zain asked.
If he dared, he risked destroying the emotional fortress he had built for protection. "Perhaps later. At the moment I have some documents to review." He leaned and kissed Madison's cheek. "You have honored my brother by giving him the greatest of gifts. For that, I am grateful."
Needing to escape, Rafiq strode across the veranda, only to be halted by Zain, who handed the child back to Madison and followed him to the door. "Wait, Rafiq."
He reluctantly faced his brother again. "What is it now?"
Zain rested a hand on Rafiq's shoulder. "I understand why it would be difficult to discuss anything involving emotional issues with your siblings. For that reason, I believe you should seek out a friend who understands you better than most."
He could only recall one soul who would currently meet that requirement, and they had not interacted as friends in quite some time. "If you are referring to Shamil Barad, he is away while the resort is being renovated."
"I am referring to his sister, Maysa."
The name sent a spear of regret through Rafiq's heart, and a rush of memories into his mind. He recalled the way her long, dark hair cascaded down her back and fell below her waist. The deep creases in her cheeks that framed her beautiful smile. He remembered the way she had looked that long-ago night when they had made lovetheir greatest mistake. He also remembered the pain in her brown eyes the day he had told her they could never be together. "I have not spoken with Maysa at length in many years. She severed all ties when"
"You chose Rima Acar over her?"
He did not care to defend the decision, but he would. "I was not consulted when the agreement between our fathers was made."
Zain rubbed his shaded jaw. "Ah, yes. I believe Sheikh Acar trumped Maysa's father's offer during the bridal bartering. I also recall that you did nothing to plead your case. You never attempted to convince either party that you belonged with Maysa."
And he had regretted that decision more than once. "In accordance with tradition, it was not within my power to do so."
Zain's expression turned to stone. "A tradition that forced me to choose between my royal duty and my wife. An antiquated custom that has done nothing but lead to your misery, and Maysa's, as well. The choice the sultan made for Maysa resulted in divorce and nearly ruined her, and you were anything but happy with your queen."
Anger as hot as a firebrand shot through Rafiq. "You know nothing about my relationship with Rima."
"I know what I witnessed when I saw the two of you together." Zain studied him for a long moment. "Were you happy, Rafiq? Was Rima happy?"
He could not answer truthfully without confirming Zain's conjecture. "I cared a great deal for Rima. We were friends long before we wed. Her death has been difficult for me, whether you choose to believe that or not."
"My apologies for sounding insensitive," Zain said.
"As I told you earlier, it's very apparent you are in great turmoil, which brings me back to my suggestion you talk with Maysa. She will understand."
Perhaps so, but other issues still existed. "Even if she agreed to see me, which I suspect she will not, any liaison with Maysa would not be considered acceptable. She is divorced and I have been widowed for only a brief time."
Zain's frustration came out in a scowl. "First of all, I am only suggesting you speak with her, not wed her. Second, if you are concerned that someone will assume an affair, then steal away in the night to prevent detection. It has always worked to my advantage. Should you need assistance, I will be glad to make the arrangements."
He had no doubt Zain could. His brother had made covert disappearance an art form. "I do not need your assistance, nor do I plan to see Maysa."
"Do not dismiss it completely, Rafiq. She could be the one person to see you through this difficult phase."
At one time, that would have held true. Maysa had known him better than any living soul, understood him better, and she had been a welcome source of support during their formative years. She had also been his greatest weakness, and he had been her greatest disappointment.
For that reason, he should stay away from her. Yet as he left his brother's company and returned to his quarters, alone with his continuing guilt, he began to wonder if perhaps Zain might be right. Reconnecting with Maysa again, if only for a brief time, could very well be worth the risks.
* * *
As the village's primary physician, Maysa Barad answered the midnight summons expecting a messenger requesting she tend to an ailing child or a mother in labor. She did not expect to find Rafiq Mehdi, the recently crownedand newly widowedKing of Bajul. Her childhood friend. Her first love. Her first lover.
The changes in Rafiq were somewhat apparent, but subtle. He was still tall and lean. Still as incredibly handsome as he'd always been, despite that he now chose to wear a neatly trimmed goatee framing his sensual mouth. His eyes and hair were still as dark, much the same as hers, yet maturity had lent him an even greater aura of power. A power that had crushed her resolve on more than one occasion many years before.
She could not remember the last time he had called on her. She couldn't imagine why he was here now, but she intended to find out. "Good evening, Your Majesty. To what do I owe this pleasure?"
"I need to speak with you."
His serious tone and intense gaze prompted Maysa to press the panic button. "Are you ill?"
"No. I will explain why I am here as soon as we are in a private setting."
Maysa glanced around him to see a black car parked in the portico, and surprisingly not one of the requisite sentries. "Where are your guards?"
"At the palace. Only select members of my staff know I am here."
Being completely alone with him somewhat concerned Maysa. She considered asking him to return in the morning, when she was appropriately dressed, well rested and better prepared. However, he was still the king and his wish would have to be her command, an all too familiar concept. During their youth, she would have done anything he asked of her. One fateful night, she had.
Despite all the concerns racing through her mind, and the threat to her composure, she opened the door wide to allow him entry. "I suppose you may come in for a while."
After Rafiq stepped into the foyer, Maysa closed and locked the door, then faced him to find his dark, pensive gaze leveled on hers. "I sincerely appreciate your willingness to see me at this hour," he said without a hint of familiarity.
She sincerely questioned the wisdom in allowing him in her home. "You are welcome. Follow me."
Maysa led him down the corridor and paused when one of the staff appeared from around the corner. She waved the befuddled woman away and continued past the myriad rooms comprising the expansive house belonging to her father, and on loan to her. The same house where she'd gone from teenager to woman in her childhood bed, courtesy of the man walking behind her.
Once they reached her private living area, she shut the door and gestured toward the settee. "Feel free to be seated."
"I prefer to stand," he said as he began to pace the room like a caged tiger, his hands firmly planted in the pockets of his black slacks.
Maysa dropped down onto the sofa, curled her legs beneath her and adjusted the aqua caftan to where it covered her bare feet. She chose to continue to speak in English, should one of the staff decide to eavesdrop. "What can I do for you, Rafiq?"
He stopped to stare out the window overlooking the mountains. "I could not sleep. I've had difficulty sleeping since "
"The accident," she said when his words trailed away. The mysterious, single-car accident that had claimed the queen's life six months ago. "Insomnia and restlessness are understandable. Rima's death was tragic and unexpected. If you would like me to prescribe a sleep aid, I would certainly be willing to do that."
He turned toward her, some unnamed emotion in his near-black eyes. "I do not wish a pill, Maysa. I wish to go back to that night and find a way to prevent my wife's death. I want to find some peace."
His feelings for his queen apparently were much deeper than Maysa had realized. "It takes time to recover from losing someone you cared about, Rafiq."
"It has been six months," he said. "And I did not care enough, which directly contributed to her demise."
Evidently she had made an erroneous assumption. It seemed Rafiq's marriage to Rima Acar had been little more than a long-standing agreement between their patriarchs. Yet she didn't understand why he blamed himself for her death. "You weren't driving the car, Rafiq."
He crossed the room and joined her on the opposite end of the small settee. "But I did drive her away that night."
She wasn't certain she wanted to hear the details, but since he'd decided to take her into his confidence for the first time in years, she chose to listen. "Did you argue before she left?"