HE’D DIED WHILE SHE was somewhere over the Atlantic, probably catching up on old episodes of Friends. He’d died while she was high in the sky, and she’d wondered if his spirit had passed through the aircraft, on its way to heaven.
She hadn’t known, until she’d landed in Abu Faya. Nothing had seemed amiss, at first, but once the plane had touched down and the aircraft doors had opened, the country’s chief security minister had met her, his expression somber.
“Sharafaha,” he addressed her with the deference due her position, as someone who was the consort to the King of this country. “We must leave, quickly.”
She was impatient to be back in the palace now. She’d been in America with Bella for two weeks, and as much as she loved her sister, and adored spending time with her, Sophia had no doubts her real life was here in Abu Faya. Her future, too. Her blonde hair, long and loose, carried in the sultry desert air, lifting off her face, and she caught it in one hand, the diamond ring on her finger glinting in the afternoon sunlight.
“Why? Has something happened?”
He met her eyes and then looked away once more. “Now, Sharafaha.”
Displeasure at having not been answered sat inside of her, but she ignored it, suppressing her irritation as she had learned to do over the years. Sheikhas did not roll their eyes, nor sigh audibly. Sheikhas did not express what they might be feeling, even when they were feeling it in every bone of their body.
Settled in the back of the limousine, she lifted her phone from her bag and tried calling Addan. It rung out. She texted him instead, “Just landed. What’s going on?”
She put the phone away, her eyes chasing the sights of this country she loved so much as the limousine ate up the miles. The airport was nestled in desert, just a few low-lying buildings surrounded it, but beyond the desert was the enormous, modern city of Khatra, a place of wealth, privilege and dreams. It had been forged from the ideas of mankind, and it stood now as a sentinel to their strength and formidable spirit when their attention was properly focused. Khatra was a city that survived in the face of extreme adversity – it had grown from nothing and stood proud.
It was a city for dreamers, a city for doers, and beyond its magnificent modernity was the ancient, sand-swept landscape the country was famed for. Deserts, dunes, oases and the Bedouin tribes that moved around, seeking one another out, following the historic customs of this place.
It was a twenty minute drive from the airport to the palace. She watched the undulations of the land and finally, the palace rose as if by magic from the sands that had created it. She would never grow tired of that sight. As they approached, she remembered the first time she’d seen it – then as a small child who believed in fairytales and magic, who thought princes were the creation of Hans Christian Andersen and desert principalities the providence of the Arabian nights stories her father had loved to read her. All white walls and curling turrets, windows carved like teardrops into the sides, and palm trees lining the entrance and forming a perimeter. There were roses too, and persimmons, quinces and pomegranates forming an edible but impenetrable hedge. As children, she and Addan had built houses from the thickets, and when she’d pricked her finger on the thorn of a pomegranate bush, he’d wiped the blood away with his white shirt and kissed her fingertip better. She’d been eight and he’d been twelve – but they’d become best friends that day. Brother and sister before they’d had any thought of marriage.
The car pulled to a stop at the entrance to the palace; she didn’t notice anything except the fragrance of the night-flowering jasmine that was beginning to sweeten the air, taking away the day’s sultry heat, replacing it with romance and beauty.
“Where is Addan, Minister Hereth?” She asked, moving towards the large doors that led to the palace.
“This way,” he kept his head bowed low and moved quickly, preceding her into the marble corridor. Ancient tapestries ran along its length, each telling a story of the country’s heritage. As a child, she’d spent days learning about them and trying to draw them. Once, she’d reached out to touch one, to feel the nobbled stitches in the time-worn fabric, but Addan had grabbed her fingers and held them, shaking his head.
“It’s back luck,” he’d said, in that way he had, that made it impossible to know if he was joking or not.
“I don’t believe in bad luck,” she had responded defiantly, her sharp chin tilted in an angle of defiance, her blue eyes firing dismissively.
Six months later her father had died, and she’d learned that there was such a thing as loss and luck and curses and fate – the very bottom had dropped out of her world, wrenching her violently from everything she knew.
Only Addan had been there, dear Addan, looking into her eyes comfortingly, his own young face stretched by an empathy she hadn’t then understood. “I know this feeling, Sophia; I’ve held it in my heart, just like you. Disbelief and rage, despair at your powerlessness. I wish I could take it away for you, but I can’t. I can hold your hand though, and promise you this will get better.” And he’d smiled, extending his palm and she’d felt a glimmer of hope that everything really would be okay, one day.
Minister Hereth led Sophia through the corridors of the palace, corridors she knew as well as she’d ever known at any home in her life. At the door to Addan’s office, Hereth came to a stop and knocked on its shining wooden surface, his skin unusually pale.
Sophia studied the taut lines of his face, in profile, and her heart rate kicked up a notch. “Minister, is something the matter?”
He didn’t answer at first and then, as the door opened inwards, “Yes, Sharafaha. There is.”
She blinked at him. “What? What’s happened?”
He didn’t speak. Her nerves stretched taut. Warily, she stepped inside.
“Addan?” She shook her hair loose from the pale headscarf she wore, draping it over the back of a chair. “Whatever is going on?”
But the dark figure by the window was not that of the man she was going to marry. Where Addan had been tall yet slim, elegant in his build, his brother Malik was a warrior, cast from the same tribal mold of Kings who had ruled this country for eons.
It was Malik who turned slowly to face her; Malik whose eyes, so black they were like shining coal, regarded her with the coldness and guardedness that had always been a part of his response to her – as though he instinctively didn’t like nor trust her.
And heat flicked at her spine, the instant, unwelcome recognition a biological response to him she had learned to flatten, to ignore. A response she was glad she didn’t have to fight often – by silent yet mutual consent, they avoided one another as much as possible.
She hadn’t seen Malik in months, since he’d come to Addan’s birthday ball with a Swedish supermodel, and danced with the stunning woman all night, his body cleaved to hers, his eyes promising seduction and heat that had made Sophia blush. And she’d stared at them. She’d stared at his body, the way he flicked his hips and the woman’s eyes had swept shut. They’d danced but it had been so intimate, so sexy, and something like a raging fire of lust had burst in her gut.
She blushed now at the memory, and to cover it, assumed an expression of cross impatience. “What are you doing here?” She forgot, in that moment, that she generally attempted to preserve an air of respect. He was, after all, second in line to the throne. Besides which, Addan adored him – and revered him in equal measure.
“There was an accident, earlier today.”
Her brows lifted, as she waited for him to continue.
The thick column of his neck, covered in dark stubble, shifted, as he seemed to weigh what he was going to say next. “My brother died.”
The words, spoken in her native English, jarred, like stones in the sole of her shoe. She heard them but she couldn’t make sense of what he’d said, she couldn’t unravel his statement. She shook her head, certain he’d misspoken or she’d misunderstood.
“I’m sorry,” she lifted a hand to her throat, toying with the necklace there – a gift from Addan a long time ago. “What did you say?”
“Addan is dead.”
Belatedly, realization hit Sophia and she stumbled backwards, reaching for something – anything – to support her. Only there was nothing, just air, and it was not thick enough to provide any kind of strength. She shook her head, unable to accept this, needing him to explain why he would say something so cruel, why he would lie to her.
But mistaking her anger for something weaker, he crossed the room and gripped her shoulders, holding her steady when she might otherwise have fallen. He stared down at her with the sense of resentment that was familiar to Sophia. “It was an accident.” The words were steely, but she heard the condemnation beneath the surface. “It happened quickly.”
Grief splintered through her, tearing her apart. “I don’t believe it.”
“I understand.” His lips were grim. “Nor did I, at first.”
“It can’t be…”
“I have seen his body,” he said, and she realized she was being held by the only person on earth who could understand the emptiness of her heart. That Addan’s death bonded them in an awful, horrifying way.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, looking up at him, seeing the pain, the raw despair in his stony features and sobbing suddenly. “What happened?” She asked again.
“The helicopter he was flying; the blades stalled.”
“Don’t,” she shuddered, burying her face in Malik’s shirt, his masculine, musky fragrance lacing through her on a biological level. “Don’t tell me he took that damned thing…”
Addan had been restoring an old helicopter for years, tinkering with it, loving it for its rudimentary nature.
“It doesn’t matter now. Don’t you understand?” A muscle throbbed, low in his jaw, and he guided her to Addan’s desk chair, placing her down on it. But she didn’t want to sit there. She didn’t want to sit at all, but especially not where Addan had been so at home. She jerked out of the chair, her body still weak from shock, her mind slow and groggy. “He’s gone. He’s gone.”
She sobbed, lifting her hands to her lips, the words so cold, so violent for their truth, and the reality they painted.
“I’m so sorry,” she said again.
“As am I.”
Her eyes shifted to Malik’s face as the full reality of this situation wrapped around her. “You are King,” she said, sitting into Addan’s chair now, collapsing into it, taking in a shaking breath.
“Yes,” he crossed his arms over his chest, “I will inherit Addan’s throne, and all that entails.”
She swallowed, his promotion one she knew he didn’t wish for, one she knew he didn’t take any joy in. Addan had said, many times, that Malik – eleven months younger – should have been born first. That he was the natural born leader. And while Sophia could see that Malik had the strength to be Sheikh, it was also abundantly clear he had zero desire for the role.
Sheikh Malik bin Hazari was a renowned playboy prince. Never at the palace, always off sleeping his way around Europe.
How many times had she opened a news website on her phone to see his photo? At a fashion parade, on a celebrity’s yacht, a glamorous beach, always with a beautiful woman at his side. Something heated sparked inside of her. Sympathy, she told herself, because that life of his was at an end.
He can do that, Sharafaha, because he is not the heir, Addan had pointed out, when she’d questioned him once over Malik’s antics.
And yet, his destiny was now to lead, to take up Addan’s role within this ancient Kingdom. Everything would change. Addan’s death shifted the whole world – or Sophia’s part of it, at least.
“Your highness,” she spoke softly, the words almost impossible to catch. “I’d like to be alone now.”
He didn’t answer, his eyes holding hers for a moment before she spun and moved to the door. But as her fingers curved around the handle, poised to open it, his voice arrested her.
“You are part of that, Sharafaha.”
She turned to face him. “Part of what?”
“When he died, I inherited all that was his. Including you.”
A frisson of alarm jolted her spine. “I don’t… understand.”
“This palace, the title, the country, his duties. All of it. And also, your betrothal to Addan, on his death, by unbreakable law, passed to me.”