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Jenan Aal Ghamdi watched the man she was getting engaged to flit among throngs of congratulatorsand almost barfed. Again.
It never failed. Every time she looked at him, hell, every time she thought of him, nausea overpowered her. It was a testament to her self-control that she hadn't thrown up all over him yet.
The one thing stopping her from giving in to the compulsion was the stronger aversion to rejoining that tragic farce of an engagement celebration. It had taken her over an hour to escape the hordes of pryingand pityingguests and take refuge at the far end of the massive ballroom. She'd managed to slink away unnoticed only because she'd refused to wear the getup her "fiance" had sent her. He'd wanted to flaunt his newly massive wealth and drape his "acquisition" in an oppressively ornate costume complete with scaffolding. With the ton of clashing jewelry he'd provided, she would have glittered with the power of ten disco balls. As it was, in her most obscure and suitably mournful matte black evening gown, she now blended into the darkness of the ballroom's periphery. It was a minuscule victory, but with her expectations reduced to nil, anything counted now.
Retreating farther away from everyone's line of sight, she started breathing normally again. And a surreal sense of detachment descended on her yet again. It was as if none of this was really happening to her but to someone else. As if this was some ridiculous dream she was confident would fade into nothingness the moment she woke up.
The artificial serenity lasted only moments before the illusion splintered and reality crashed over her again, with another wave of queasiness.
She was really getting engaged to Hassan Aal Ghaa-nem!
The man who happened to be the king of Saraya, who held Zafrana, his neighboring desert kingdom and her homeland, hostage.
No, she wasn't getting engaged to the man, she was being bartered to him. Sold. Tonight felt like the beginning of the end of her life as she knew it. The end of her life, period. Whatever came after marrying him wouldn't be considered life. Not in her book.
But though this fate was inescapable, she'd still refused to have this reception in Saraya, or even in Zafrana. It had been another empty triumph when he'd relented and agreed to hold it here, in her New York City stomping grounds.
The city had been her home for the past twelve years. It would stop being so once she started serving her life sentence as Hassan's wife. But she'd refused to go back to that region to be buried there for the rest of her life a second before she absolutely had to. She'd fled, determined to never return, except for fleeting visits, which had been few and very brief.
But she'd been regretting her insistence since the moment she'd seen that man's over-the-top arrangements. If there was anything more abhorrent to her than Hassan himself right now, it was being the center of attention in such an extravagant, overexposed event.
If this party had been held in their homelands, it wouldn't have gotten any coverage, what with the privacy measures imposed by the ruling class. But in the heart of New York City and in such a venue with all those high-profile attendees, this engagement party would be all over the worldwide media. Which taught her not to struggle while sinking in quicksand. Her attempt to assert herself had only made her sink deeper in this mess.
But teaching her a lesson about defying him hadn't been Hassan's objective in arranging this spectacle. The man considered nothing but himself. And as the king of a recently prosperous kingdomnow that King Mohab Aal Ghaanem of Jareer was giving Saraya 30 percent of the new kingdom's massive oil wealthHassan Aal Ghaanem had been on a splurging spree after decades of being held back by his kingdom's limited finances.
So here they were, in the Terrace Room at The Plaza, where many a legendary celebrity had held prominent events. After all, Hassan considered himself on par with those people.
Any other time, she would have appreciated the almost five-thousand-square-foot ballroom that had been restored to its early 1900s grandeur. When she'd been here before, the painted ceilings, cathedral-like arches and elaborate pillars leading to its wraparound gallery had transported her to the Renaissance, while the original crystal chandeliers, wall paneling and carpeting had added a golden age refinement to the classical setting. Being here now, for this horrendous occasion, it felt like the setting of her life's worst nightmare. It literally was.
Tearing her gaze away from the five hundred guests that filled the ballroom to capacity, her eyes fell to her bare hands. She'd refused to accept the priceless pieces from Saraya's royal jewelry to be her shabkahwhat literally meant "binding." She was damned if she'd wear his shackles for all to see
"Are you sure about this, Jen?"
The soft voice, barely audible above the Sarayan celebratory songs blaring over the sound system, sent a spasm through her chest with its melancholy. Zeena, her baby half sister. If anyone was feeling as bad as she was about this whole thing, it was her.
She turned to her, her lips crooking in an attempt at lightness. "Oh, I am, Zee. I'm sure there's no other way out of the mess Father and Zafrana are in but for me to marry that old goat."
And that mess wasn't a recent development, but one with decades-long roots. It was also one she had an indirect hand in.
It had started when her father, Khalil Aal Ghamdi, had found himself on Zafrana's throne after King Zayd, his second cousin, had died, with him as his closest male relative. Pushed into a position he'd been unsuited for, her father, a dreamer and an artist, had been unable to become a man of state and had been led astray by many an unqualified or malicious counselor.
When she'd returned to Zafrana after graduating from Cornell University with degrees in economics and business administration, she'd seen how her father's imprudent policies had led to the kingdom's steady deterioration. She'd tried to guide him, but his entourage's opposition had been vicious. They'd undone everything she'd accomplished until she'd found herself with only two choices: dedicate her life to fighting that vicious cycle or withdraw from the battle and flee the whole region, where the very way of life was anathema to her. She'd chosen to give up and leave.
As a result of her withdrawal, Zafrana was now crip-plingly in debt
to Saraya. And Hassan was now poised to annex the kingdom through a marriage of state. Which, her father had informed her, was the only way to save Zafrana. Knowing the depths of the debt, she believed him.
"But you can't marry him. He'she's old!"
At Zeena's horrified lament, Jen huffed in bitter irony. "Yeah, I noticed. Hard to miss when your prospective groom is as old as your own father, and reprehensible to boot. Not to mention heinously boring. And to think when the marriage of state was first proposed, I point-blank refused to marry Najeeb."
Zeena's honey-brown eyes flared with hope. "Maybe it's not too late to take your refusal back! I know you love Najeeb like a brother, but if you have to marry anyone, at least he's a great guy. And a real hunk. You might end up loving him
Jen regarded her seventeen-year-old stunning beauty of a sister and remembered again why she was doing this. She sighed. "You think I wouldn't have grabbed that option if it was still on the table? But Najeeb was as adamant in refusing to marry me just to serve his father's political ambitions. Then he left to places unknown on another of his globe-trotting humanitarian missions. That's why Hassan decided he'd marry me himself."
"Doesn't this man have a shred of decency? He's actually two years older than Father!"
"He actually considers he's done the noble thing, offering his oldest son and crown prince first, and that it was my and Najeeb's refusals that made him resort to this option. He feels quite righteous, I assure you."
Zeena looked on the verge of crying again. She'd been looking like that ever since she'd heard the news. But she was clearly past the shock phase and into the bargaining one.
"But if you really have to go through with it" she paused to shudder "maybe it won't be for long."
"You're hoping he'll soon drop dead and release me from my life sentence?" She shook her head at yet more proof of how young and naive her sister was. "Zee, darling, I know anyone over forty is ancient to you. Hell, I'm only thirty, and you make me feel old whenever you're shocked I do stuff you think reserved for only 'young' people. But Hassan is a very robust sixty-five, and I expect him to live another healthy, obnoxious thirty years."
Zeena clearly couldn't imagine that terrible fate, or could, and it horrified her. Her tears finally flowed, her voice breaking. "At least tell me it will only be for show."
Jen sighed again, not knowing what to tell her sister. Their father had mumbled such an assurance, but she figured it had to be what he'd told himself so he wouldn't feel even guiltier about sacrificing her. Hassan already had a chokehold over Zafrana's resources and assets, but in their region, blood mattered far more than money when it came to political power. This marriage had to produce an heir, one who'd become her father's, too, for Hassan to acquire all the power he wanted over Zafrana. Only through such an heir could Hassan rule Zafrana during her father's lifetime, then fully annex it in the event of his death, once his heir became king, and Hassan became regent until said heir came of age. Hassan sure had his ducks in a row. And she was the first one he had sitting just where he wanted her.
Zeena must have read the truth in her resigned eyes, as her tears flowed faster. But she still tried again. "If all he has over Father and Zafrana are debts, maybe we can find someone to pay them off. Like the other royals in the region. Surely great men and kings like King Kamal and King Mohab will help."
Jen shook her head, wanting to end this. "I approached everyone with power in the region myself, but all kings Kamal, Mohab, Amjad and Rashid could do was try to make Hassan relinquish those debts to them, and he refused. Without resorting to drastic measures, there's nothing they can do."
"Why won't they employ those measures? This is drastic!"
"It isn't as easy as that, Zee. These men owe it to their own kingdoms not to involve them in other nations' conflicts. And since the influx of oil money, Hassan now has major foreign allies whose interests lie with Saraya and who'd take exception if the other kingdoms enforced embargos on it, or initiated a bigger conflict with it. Also, with the tribal nature of the region, those kings have family alliances with Saraya, making things even more complicated."
She knew each king wanted to tear Hassan apart with his bare hands. But those hands were tied by so many protocols. They were forced to accept any form of peaceful resolution, even if they itched for something extreme. Said peaceful resolution was now her, and her hopefully fertile womb.
"So this is for real?" Zeena asked. "There's no way out?"
Her succinct response fell like a blow on Zeena, rocking her on her feet. The next second, Zeena's arms were convulsing around her, and her tears were wetting her bosom.
Jen's eyes filled, too. She hadn't shed tears since her mother's death when she was seven. But she'd never been able to bear her baby sisters' distress.
Apart from loving her most in the world, Zeena and Fayza looked up to her. Her every success had been a triumph to them. She'd been their role model, her life one they hoped to model theirs after. Zeena wasn't only weeping for Jen's derailed future, but for a loss of hope in her own.
But that was why Jen had agreed to this marriage. To protect her sisters' futures.
She'd only told Zeena there was no way out so she wouldn't compound her distress with guilt. For there certainly was a way out for Jen had she wanted to take it. She could have told her father and Hassan to take flying jumps off their respective kingdoms' tallest skyscraper. But she hadn't. For two reasons.
The first and lesser reason was that she couldn't stand aside and let their father be humiliated and hurt. She loved him, in spite of his weaknesses, felt even more protective of him because of them. She knew he shouldn't have become king, that it continued to be an unbearable burden. But fate had conspired to put him on the throne, and it had been the one thing that had appeased many a tribe at the time. He'd sacrificed his own desires for Zafrana's. This current mess was not solely his fault. In her pursuit of independence, her career and immigration to the United States, she'd stopped following the developments in Zafrana, until things had deteriorated beyond resolution. The internal situation was now so volatile, if the major tribes didn't get a solution soon and with their interests finally threatened by Saraya's impending takeover, civil war would erupt.
But the major reason she'd agreed to the marriage remained her sisters. Even if she'd been able to leave her father and her people to a doom they'd caused, she couldn't leave Zeena and Fayza to a fate they hadn't brought on themselves. If Hassan couldn't have her, he'd ask for one of her sisters. And their father would be forced to comply.
But they were nothing like her. They were too young, too sheltered and too inexperienced in life and with men. They didn't have the power of another nationality and the protection of personal wealth. If Jen left, neither of her sisters would be able to resist being shoved into this marriage. Zeena would crumble, and the two-years-older Fayza would do something drastic.
So it was up to her to protect them. She had to marry that power-grabbing old man and save them. And along with them, her whole family and kingdom.
She hugged the sobbing Zeena tighter, kissed the top of her head soothingly. "Don't worry about me, Zee. You know me. I'm a survivor, a winner, and I'll find a way to
Words and thoughts petered away. The whole scene in front of her blurred, then disappeared. Nothing remained but a man. The most magnificent male she'd ever laid eyes on.
Jen started at the question, blinked as if coming out of a trance. For seconds she couldn't remember where she was, why she and Zeena were sharing this fervent hug and why her baby sister was looking up at her with such entreaty.
Then noise and lights and movements and memories started to register again. But her senses remained trained on the man as he stood at the ballroom's wide-open doors, surveying it with all the somberness of a general studying a battlefield. He filled her awareness, the sheer force of his presence nullifying everything else. As if he had some kind of gravity well that nothing could resist or escape.
Then he moved, and the crowd parted for him, seemingly unable to withstand being in his path. It felt as if he had a spotlight trained on him, illuminating him even as he dipped in areas of shadow. What else explained why he looked more vivid, more in focus than anyone else who was dozens of feet closer?