“Uncle Zahir! Uncle Zahir!” Aisha yells, throwing her arms around Zahir’s waist.
“Were you talking about something interesting? I was looking for Princess and I found her out here spying on you!”
Wow, I think, blinking at the little girl. This kid really does not subscribe to the “snitches get stitches” school of thought.
Zahir’s eyes narrow on me as he returns Aisha’s hug. Like a hawk. Then he bends all the way down to talk to her in soft Arabic.
Up to now, Aisha hasn’t seemed like one who follows orders easily, but Zahir must have said something convincing in all that pretty Arabic because suddenly she’s like, “Bye, Princess,” and cuts out back in the direction of the ballroom.
“Most people just call me Prin!” I call after her. “In fact, I like Prin a whole lot better!”
But the little girl is deserting me so fast, I can’t be sure if she’s even heard me. She’s gone in seconds, leaving me alone with Zahir and Holt, and two guards I’m pretty sure are packing heat under those well-cut black suit jackets.
“This is a big misunderstanding,” I say, turning to face Zahir before carefully lowering my eyes and head. “I was hoping to catch you in your office for a private conversation, so I followed you when I saw you leave with Holt. But you were out here, and I wasn’t sure what to do, so I…”
“…decided to eavesdrop?” Holt supplies, super unhelpfully.
“… hung back,” I edit, shooting my best friend’s husband a quick annoyed look before returning my eyes to Zahir’s wing-tip shoes. “I wasn’t trying to listen in, I swear,” I tell him. “I was just...waiting because I really need to talk to you.”
“You need to talk to me,” he repeats, his tone flat with disbelief.
“Yes, I need to talk to you,” I answer, keeping my eyes lowered no matter how tempted I am to look up.
“About a private matter,” I repeat.
“Why am I just now hearing about this private matter?” I hear Holt ask beside Zahir.
“Because it’s private, Holt,” I answer between clenched teeth, remembering again why I didn’t like him at first. Has this guy ever met a conversation he didn’t feel entitled to take over?
“You want to talk to me in private?” Zahir asks again, his tone unreadable. “That is what you want?”
I swallow, suddenly nervous for reasons that have nothing to do with the twins’ future. But I answer with a firm, “Yes, that’s what I want.”
Seconds that feel more like years tick by before he finally says, “I will grant this request, but not here.”
“Not here” turns out to be the huge balcony right off the ballroom floor.
Not exactly private, I think, looking around. Not only can everybody at the reception look at us through the row of arched glass doors separating the balcony from the luxurious ballroom, this balcony is on the city-facing side of the palace. I can see people milling about below on what looks like a closed off market street just beyond the palace walls, and there are even a few tourists out and about on their hotel room balconies, taking pictures of Zahir’s over-the-top abode with their camera phones.
Dude, we’re so out in the open, the guards immediately go to the rail, scanning the distance like human radars because they’re probably afraid someone will decide to take a shot at their new king.
What the hell??? That’s what I want to say. But twin goals…I catch myself again and force myself to keep my head and eyes lowered as I ask in what I hope sounds like a super deferential tone, “Are you sure your office wouldn’t be more comfortable? I don’t mind walking if it’s on another floor.”
I don’t see, but clearly feel, the up and down look he gives me in response to that question. And it makes me feel exposed and naked, even though the bridesmaid’s gown covers nearly all of me from my neck down, even my wrists.
“It wouldn’t do for me to be seen holding a private meeting with an unmarried woman in my office,” he answers.
“Oh,” I say, realizing despite its reputation as the most progressive and forward thinking of the UAK kingdoms, Jahwar still has some antiquated social mores.
And I have to ask, “But what do you do when you need to meet with business women? Do you just say no or make them bring along a male escort?”
“Talk or leave, Prin Jones,” he answers with an annoyed grate in his voice.
Okay, well, I guess it’s not for me to judge this dude’s business practices, though updating them might get him more traction when he’s trying to do business in the U.S. But whatever, I’m here for the twins, so I say, “As you undoubtedly know, your family now holds the majority stake in my dad’s old record label, which means you pretty much own it. Apparently, Asir borrowed the money from your father to buy my dad’s shares and then when your dad died, those shares passed down to you.”
I wait for a response, but he merely stands there like a statue in a tux, giving me nothing.
I reach into my purse and pull out a CD, a USB power stick, and a cassette tape. “I was hoping you could listen to this demo my sisters put together. They’re talented. Like, exceptionally so, especially for their age. But the thing is, my father signed them to a 12-album contract right before he died and it’s beyond horrible. It says they can only record with Majesty Records until they deliver those albums, which is something they’ve been more than willing to do for years now. But three years later, with the girls about to graduate from high school this spring, Majesty’s A&R department has yet to return any of my calls or emails about recording their first album.”
I allow myself a moment of irritation before saying, “It’s obvious they don’t want to work with the girls, but the way the contract’s written, Majesty Records would either have to cancel their contract, or we’d have to make the albums on our own, which we don’t have the funds to do. And even if we did, I wouldn’t want the twins to put that kind of effort into twelve albums—especially since their contracted royalty rate is so low that the record company would reap the majority of the profits on whatever they make. Since Majesty Records is refusing to play ball, I’m asking you to let the twins out of their egregious contract, so they can sign with another label or go indie if they prefer.”
I hold the three versions of the demo out to him, careful to keep both my eyes and head lowered as I do so. “And if you listen to this demo of covers they put together, you’ll see what a crime it is to let a contract they never should have been allowed to sign at the age of 15 silence their voices.”
I expel a breath. It feels like I’ve been talking forever. And when I risk a small glance up, I see that Zahir’s expression still hasn’t changed which leaves me to wonder if he’s even been listening while I explained the truly horrible position my father put my sisters in before up and dying. But then Zahir gestures to one of the guards and points to me.
Apparently, this translates to, “Take the CD, USB stick, and old-school cassette from her,” because that’s what the guard steps forward to do.
However, before I can thank him for agreeing to give the twins’ demo a listen, he asks, “Why do you think Majesty Records isn’t returning your calls?”
I still, because I don’t “think” the reason. I know the reason.
And so does Zahir, apparently. “I believe it is because your father embezzled so much money from his own company, the label would have gone under after his death if not for my brother’s ill-considered buy out of his shares.”
Funny, I remember every word of our previous conversation in Holt’s penthouse eleven years ago, but I’d forgotten how precise his English is. Like direct hits wrapped in a posh accent and disguised as conversation.
I falter under his hard assessment, but eventually I come back with, “Yes, my father embezzled money from Majesty Records. Not the twins. They’re victims of his crime same as all the other artists he hurt, and they shouldn’t be punished for what my father did.”
I try to keep my head and eyes down as I say this, I do. But my basic nature gets the better of me and I meet his gaze, too firm in my convictions to remain deferential.
He stares back at me for a cold second, then takes a step forward. It’s one step, but it eats up the space between us, bringing him as close as he can get without actually touching me.
Then he dips his head down so I can feel his hot breath on the side of my cheek as his quiet words hit my ear. “Eleven years ago, I specifically told you to stay away from my brother. Did you do as I instructed?”
A thousand protests spring to mind, but in the end, I lower my eyes and admit, “No.”
“No,” he repeats, “You did not. In fact, instead of staying away from him, you drew him deeper into your world. Instead of serving his family, he served yours. Instead of learning business, he learned to make inane pop records that did not advance our family in any way.”
I clamp my lips, remembering how Asir tentatively sat on my bed the weekend after Holt’s party. How hopeful he’d looked as he played me the CD of beats he’d secretly made alone in his dorm room, even though he’d known his family would disapprove of his newfound passion. How his face had lit up when I brought out my notebook of lyrics and shyly told him I could help him put together a song…if he wanted. For a while all his dreams had come true. Because of me.
But using his family’s money to buy my father’s record label was the last thing Asir ever did as far as his career in music was concerned. When everything came to light after my father’s death, his father gave him an ultimatum: finish college and go to B-school or be disinherited. With no money to continue on with his passion, Asir had re-enrolled at Manhattan University, just like his family wanted. Zahir was still angry at me, but in the end, he and his close-minded family had won, hadn’t they?
And though Asir had been gracious about everything, insisting to me that it wasn’t my fault, I will never stop feeling guilty about how many lives my father ruined, including his. Asir was so talented…anyone with half a heart or brain would have done what I did—
Once more, I forcefully cut my thoughts off. Reminding myself that I must play this right, remain docile even if every word out of Zahir’s mouth feels like a slap.
Keeping my eyes down, I say, “Asir…he was talented. I thought he deserved to live his dream and I was only trying to help him do that. Just like I’m trying to help the twins live their dream. I am deeply sorry for everything my father did, including not paying you back, but please don’t punish the twins because you lost money on Asir’s investment.”
Zahir chuckles, but the sound holds no mirth. “Do you think this is about money, Prin Jones? As far as our empire is concerned, that little music label is a mere drop in a bucket. If I wanted to, I could sign our stake in Majesty Records over to you and it wouldn’t feel like a loss.”
I blink, unable to fathom that the multi-million dollar record label my father spent nearly his entire life building from the ground up was just a drop in the bucket of the thirty-two-year-old standing in front of me.
“But I won’t sign it over to you for the same reason the record label will not return your calls…” Zahir continues “…because it is you making the request. You claim you only wanted to help Asir, who is of no blood relation to you and your half-sisters. But now your sisters’ creative futures are in the hands of a man who you told to, how did you so eloquently put it? Oh yes, to ‘go fuck myself,’ just like I tried to fuck you against the door.”
My eyes come up in surprise that he still recalls my words. And as if reading my mind, he says, “Yes, I remember your words, Prin Jones. Which means in this particular situation, your request for help has only made it so Asir and your half-sisters now have absolutely no chance of getting what they want.”
His expression finally changes, a cruel smile surfacing as he says, “It would seem you have more in common with your father than you think. You’re very good at ruining the lives of those you supposedly want to help.”
Wow, and I thought my real talk to Luca had been a direct hit. I’ve got nothing on Zahir. My entire body tightens with the validity of his words, like I’ve just taken a truth bullet straight to the gut.
Nonetheless, I push me eyes down and quietly plead, “Please don’t punish them because you’re mad at me. They don’t deserve that.”
He is so silent and still that for moments on end it feels like I am taking part in the most intense mannequin challenge ever.
But then his hand once again comes up and this time, he points it in the direction of the guard who took the CD, cassette tape, and USB stick from me. “Watch…” he says, the single word slicing across the air like a razor.
I turn in the direction he’s indicating, and my eyes widen when the guard holds the items he took from me over the balcony. “No, don’t—” I start to say.
But too late. They drop from the guard’s hand and in the next moment, they’re gone like so much trash.
I stare at the guard’s empty hand, feeling like he’s dropped my sisters off the side of that balcony.
“Da fuck!?!” I explode, coming out of my deferential stoop to straight cuss him out. “You spoiled-ass motherfucker! Who the hell do you think you are?!”
Apparently, language is taken very seriously here, because the two guards take a step forward with their hands inside their suit jacket, like they’re ready to light me up for daring to talk to their king this way.
But Zahir’s hand goes up, stopping them in place even as a smirk raises one side of his mouth. “Who am I? I’m Zahir al-Jahwari, sheikh of the original Jahwari tribe, king of this land. And despite your efforts to appear reformed, you remain the hot-headed girl who flipped me off within moments of making my acquaintance. I see now that my instincts about your true character were correct.”
That said, he turns to leave, dismissing me with little more than a contemptuous smirk.
Years later, I will still be trying to figure out exactly what happened next.
One second, I am watching him turn away. And the next, I grab his arm.
Zahir rounds on me, his arm stiffening as if in anticipation of my punch. But I don’t punch him. No, I…
I wrap my other hand around his neck, pull him down, and press my lips hard into his.
I can’t tell you exactly why I did it. But with two armed guards standing by, the kiss felt like my only alternative to letting him completely humiliate me. A way to channel my rage and frustration and get justice all at once…a least for a moment or two.
But then I feel it against my stomach. Long and thick and insanely hard.
My eyes widen, and I let him go. Not understanding. Because his dick hasn’t swelled up against my stomach…it is hard at first touch, as if it had been that way coming in—maybe even during our entire conversation…
We stare at each other, the implications of what I just felt beating like a primal drum between us.