But when heartbreak drives him to recklessness, Azeez nearly loses everything, including his life. Now he must make a choice. Spend his life in the shadows of the past, or embrace his future as the true king of Dahaar.
Behind every strong man
Dr. Nikhat Zakhari left Azeez because she couldn't give him what he needed to rule. But now the only man she's ever loved needs her healing touch, and she is powerless to refuse him.
Azeez knows he must assume the crownbut will this unforgettable woman agree to be his desert queen?
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Dr. Nikhat Zakhari followed the uniformed guard through the carpeted corridor of the Dahaaran palace, assaulted from every side by bittersweet memories. Eight years ago she had known every inch of these corridors and halls, every wall and arch. This palace, the royal family, they had all been part of a dream she had weaved as a naive girl of twenty-two.
Before it had come crumbling down upon her and shattered her.
She stepped over the threshold into the office and the guard closed the door behind her. The formal pumps she had chosen instead of her usual Crocs sank into the lush carpet with a sigh.
She had been in this office one night when the Crown Prince had been the man she had loved, the two of them slipping in like thieves in the night.
All because she had voiced a juvenile wish to see it. Her long-sleeved thick silk jacket couldn't dispel the chill that settled on her skin at the memory.
Drawn to the huge portrait of the royal family behind the dark sandalwood desk, she gave in to nostalgia.
King Malik and Queen Fatima, Ayaan and Amira, each member of the royal family was smiling in the picture except Azeez. Because of what Nikhat had told him that day eight years ago.
A cavern of longing opened up inside of her. Even thousands of miles away, she had felt as if she had lost her own family when she heard of the attack. Her throat ached, her vision felt dizzy. She ran trembling fingers over Azeez's face in the photo.
She leaned her head against the wall. Seeing this familiar place without him was shaking the very foundations of the life she had resolutely built for herself.
And she couldn'tshe wouldn'tgive that much power to a memory. Couldn't let it undo everything she had accomplished.
"How have you been, Nikhat?"
She turned around and stared at the new Crown Prince, Ayaan bin Riyaaz Al-Sharif, the boy she had once tutored in chemistry. His copper-gold gaze shone with warmth. The cut of his features, so similar to Azeez's, knocked the breath out of her.
She had gone into shock the day she had heard of the terrorist attack. To see Ayaan again, so many years later filled her with a joy she couldn't contain. Nikhat reached him, and hugged him.
Something she wouldn't have dared do eight years earlier.
A soft chuckle shook his lean frame. Stepping back, Nikhat fought the urge to apologize for her impulsive gesture. Her composure was shaken by being back here but not torn. A woman, and one not connected to the royal family in any way, would never have hugged the Crown Prince. But she was not the average Dahaaran woman anymore, bound by its traditions and customs. "It's good to see you, Ayaan."
He nodded, his gaze studying her with unhidden thoroughness. "You, too, Nikhat."
He led her to the sitting area, where a silver tea service waited. Settling down opposite him, Nikhat shook her head when he inquired if she wanted something.
The Ayaan that she had known had always had a twinkle in his eyes, a core made of pure joy. The Crown Prince that looked at her now had the mantle of Dahaar weighing him down. There was grief in those eyes of his, a hardness that had found a permanent place in his features.
She had been back in the capital city of Dahaara hardly a day before she had been summoned to a private meeting by the Crown Prince. Not something she could have actually refused, even if she had wanted to. "How did you know I was back in Dahaara?" she said, getting straight to the point.
He shrugged and crossed his legs. Hesitation danced in his eyes before he said, "I have an offer for you."
Nikhat frowned. After eight years with no word from her father, she had been beyond thrilled to hear his voice. But now "You ordered my father to call me home," she said, the unease she had felt the minute she had received his request solidifying. "You knew how eager I would be to see my family. That's a low blow, Your Highness."
Ayaan rubbed his brow, no hint of guilt in his steady gaze. "It's the price I have to pay for that title, Nikhat."
His words were simple, yet the weight of responsibility behind them struck Nikhat. Clamping down her anger, she remained seated. "Fine, you have me here now. I should warn you though. I'm not a genie to automatically grant your wish."
A sudden smile split his mouth, warmth spilling into his eyes. And the flash of another face, smiling like that, similar yet different, rose in front of her eyes.
Her chest felt incredibly tight and she forced herself to breathe through it. There were going to be reminders of Azeez everywhere in Dahaar. And she refused to spiral into an emotional mess every time she came across one.
She had done that long enough when she had left eight years ago.
"I see that you have not changed at all. Which is good for me."
"No riddles, Ayaan," she said, forcing herself to address him as the young man she once knew.
"How would you like to spearhead a top-notch women's clinic here in Dahaara? You'll have complete authority on its administration. I'll even get the Ministry to sign off on a health-care-worker training program, specifically for women. It is something I have had in mind and you are without a doubt the best candidate for it."
Shock spiraling through her, Nikhat had no words.
All the longing she had held at bay for eight years, the loneliness that had churned through her, rose to the surface. It was what she had wanted when she had begged her father to let her study medicine, her one goal that had become her focus and anchor when everything else had fallen apart, the impossible dream that had pulled her back to Dahaar from a prestigious position in New York.
She had readied herself for an uphill battle against prejudices masquerading as traditions, and so much more. The sound of disbelief ringing through her must have escaped, because Ayaan clasped her hand.
"You can make a home here in Dahaara, Nikhat. Be near your family again," Ayaan continued.
Nikhat nodded, eternally grateful for his understanding. Ayaan had always been the kinder of the two brothers. Whereas Azeez there had never been any middle ground with him.
She returned his clasp, clinging to the high of his announcement. "It's all I've ever wanted, Ayaan."
A flicker of unease entered his gaze. "There's something I require from you in exchange, however. A personal favor for the royal family."
Nikhat shook her head. "I owe my profession to your father. Without King Malik's aid and support, my father would've never let me finish high school, much less study medicine. I don't need to be manipulated or offered incentives if you need something from me. All you have to do is ask."
Ayaan nodded, but the wariness in his gaze didn't recede. "This position, this is something I want you to have. It's what my father wanted for you when he supported your education. But what I'm about to ask stretches the boundaries of gratitude."
Nikhat nodded, trying to keep the anxiety his words caused from her face.
He sucked in a deep breath. "Azeez is alive, Nikhat."
For a few seconds, the meaning of his words didn't sink in.
It felt as if the world around her had slowed down, waiting for the buzzing in her ears to pass. The tightness in her chest morphed into a fist in her throat as she saw the truth in his eyes. A stormlike shiver swept through Nikhat and she fought to hold herself together, to fight the urge to flee the palace and never look back.
How many times was she going to flee?
She had worked so hard to realize her dream, had waited all these years to see her family again and she couldn't let anyone stop her now. Not even the man she had once loved with every breath in her body.
Letting herself breathe through the panic in her head, she forced calm into her voice. "I haven't heard a word about this."
"Because no one other than a few trusted servants and my parents know. Until I can be sure that revealing that he's alive doesn't have a negative effect on Dahaar, I have to contain it." His voice shook and Nikhat reached for his hand this time, even as she fought her own alarm.
How could he be alive after all these years? How was he now?
"I found him four months ago in the desert and I still have no idea how he survived or what he did these past six years. He refuses to see our parents, he barely tolerates my visits. The true prince of Dahaar is now my prisoner." Utter desolation spewed into his words. "I have managed to keep it a secret until now. It would crush the people of Dahaar to see him like this. They "
"They worshipped him, I know." He'd been their golden prince, arrogant but charming, courageous, born to rule his country. And he had loved Dahaar with a passion that had colored everything he had done.
His love, his passion they were like a desert storm, consuming you, changing you if you came out alive.
"I'd hoped that he would get better, that sooner or later, he would decide to rejoin the living." Powerlessness colored his gaze, his words raw and jittery. "But with each passing day, he."
Azeez is alive.
The words rang round and round in her head. But with the dizzying of her emotions also came the control she had developed in order to flourish in her career. "Ayaan? What's wrong with him?" she demanded, forgetting propriety.
"He is little more than a breathing corpse. He refuses to talk, he refuses to see a doctor. He's refusing to live Nikhat, and I can't lose him all over again."
A knot of fear unraveled in her stomach now. "What exactly is this favor that you want to ask me?"
"Spend some time with him."
No. The word rang through her. Shaking her head, she stepped away from Ayaan. "I'm an obstetrician, Ayaan. Not a psychiatrist. There's nothing I can do for him that all your specialists can't."
"He won't let anyone see him. You you he won't refuse."
She felt brittle now, as if her calm was nothing but a facade, as if she would fracture under it. But she couldn't fall apart, she refused to let pain and powerlessness wreak havoc on her again. "You don't know what your brother will do if he sees me."
"Anything is better than what he is now."
"And what about the price I'll have to pay?" The question escaped her before she knew she had said it.
His head jerking up, he studied her. Nikhat looked away. The air between with them reverberated with questions he didn't ask and she didn't answer.
Ayaan reached her, his jaw tight with determination. There was no grief or comforting familiarity in his face now. He was the man who had come back to life against all odds, the man who fought his demons every day to do his duty by Dahaar.
"Would it be such a high price? All I'm asking for is a few months. I'm running out of options. I have to find something that will pull him from this spiral. Spend some time with him alone in the palace. Talk to him, try anything that might"
"If word of this gets out, I'll be damned for the rest of my life in Dahaara," she said, only realizing after she spoke that she was even considering the proposition. "That clinic you are baiting me with will be nothing but a sand castle."
"The Crown Princess Zohra is pregnant. She needs someone who will stay in the palace, a dedicated ob-gyn.
And as to any time you spend with Azeez, no one will know you are with him. I give you my word, Nikhat. I will protect your reputation with everything I have. My coronation is in two months. At that time, whatever state he is in, you can walk away from him. No one will stop you."
Two months with a man who would once again plunge her into her darkest fear. Two months revisiting everything she couldn't have, couldn't be. Ya Allah, no. "You've no idea what you're asking me to do."
"I was hoping that you would accept my proposition, but I cannot give you a choice, Nikhat. Desperation never leaves you with one. As of this moment, you're either the Crown Prince's guest or prisoner. If I have to lock you with him, I'll " His words reverberated with a pain she herself was very familiar with. "He's my brother. He was once your friend. We owe it to him."
Her friend? Hysterical laughter bubbled up inside her.
Azeez bin Rashid Al Sharif had never been just her friend. He had been her champion, he had been her prince, and he had been the man who had promised to make her every dream come true.
And he had kept each and every one of his promises.
Nikhat sprang to her feet and straightened her shoulders. She met Ayaan's gaze and nodded before she could refuse, before ghosts of the past crippled her courage, before her bitterest fear trampled her sense of duty.
She would do it because she owed it to King Malik for turning a middle-class girl's fantastic dream to be a doctor into reality; she would do it for a childhood friend who had been through hell and survived; but more than anything, she would do it for the man who had once loved her more than anything in the world.
It was not his fault that she wasn't the woman he had thought her. "I will do it," she whispered, the true consequences of what she had accepted weighing her down.
Strong arms embraced her tightly. "I have to warn you, Nikhat. He's not the man you or I knew. I'm not even sure that man exists anymore."
There she was again, tall, beautiful, graceful.
Like a mirage in the desert, she appeared every day during this time to taunt him, to remind him of everything he was not.
The darkest time of the day when dawn was a mere hour away, when he found himself staring at the rise of another day with nothing but self-loathing to greet it with.
However drunk he got, it was the time the reality of everything he had become, everything he had done, pressed upon Azeez.
He had been the Crown Prince once. Now he was the Crown Prince's prisoner, a fitting punishment for the man responsible for his sister's death, his brother's suffering and so much more.
Just the passing thought was enough to feel the palace walls close around him.
A cold breeze flew in through the wide-open doors to his right. The cold nipped at his bare chest, slowly but silently insinuating itself into his muscles. He would feel the effect of it tomorrow morning. His right hip would be stiff enough to seize up.
But his imagination was stubborn tonight, the moment passed, and he saw her again.
Tonight, she wore a dark brown, long-sleeved kaftan made of simple cotton with leggings of the same color underneath. She had always been simple in real life, too, never allowing him to splurge on her, never allowing him anything he had wanted to do with her, for that matter.
Like kiss her, or touch her or possess her.
And yet, he had been her slave.
Her hair, a silky mass of dark brown, was tied back into a high ponytail in the no-nonsense way she had liked. Leaving her golden skin pulled tightly over her features.
A high forehead that had always bothered hera symbol of her intelligencealmond-shaped copper-hued eyes, which were her best feature, her too-long nosea bit on the strong sideand a wide pink-lipped mouth. If one studied those features objectively and separately, as he had done for innumerable hours, there was nothing outstanding about any of them.
And yet all together, she had the most beautiful face he had ever seen. It was full of character, full of laughter and full of love.
Or being a naive, arrogant young fool, so he had thought. Until his love for her had destroyed him, shattered him to pathetic pieces.
Leaning over the side of the lounger he was sitting on, Azeez extended his right hand. The movement pressed his hip into the chair and a sharp lance of pain shot up through it. Reaching the bottle of scotch, he took a quick sip.
The fiery liquid burned his throat and chest, making his vision another notch blurrier.
But the image in front of his eyes didn't waver. In fact, it became much more focused, as if it had been amplified and brought much closer for his very pleasure.
Because now he could see her long neck, the neck he had caressed with his fingers so long ago. The cheap, well-worn cotton draped loosely over her breasts, losing the fight to cover up their lushness. The fabric dipped neatly at the curve of her hip.
Wiping the back of his mouth with his hand, he grabbed the bottle with his other hand and stood up abruptly.
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Realreader Made myself finish it. I've read other books by her. This just didn't flow.