“I don’t want to see another woman. Ever again.”
A long moment of silence greeted the fed-up finality of Sheikh Fareed Aal Zaafer’s declaration. His companion’s empathy and exasperation hung heavy in the stillness.
Then Emad ibn Elkaateb sighed. “I am almost resigned a woman isn’t in the cards for you. But because this isn’t about you or your inexplicable personal choices, I have to insist.”
Fareed’s laugh was one of incredulous fury. “What is this? You, who brought me damning proof on each imposter? You’re now asking me to suffer another one? To grit my teeth through more pathetic, disgusting lies? Just who are you and what have you done with Emad?”
Suddenly the decorum Emad maintained dissolved. Fareed blinked. Emad rarely budged in giving him the “dues of his birthright,” insisted it was an integral part of his honor as Fareed’s right-hand man to observe Fareed’s position as his prince.
Now Emad’s expression softened with the indulgence of twenty-five years of being closer to Fareed than his family, friends and staff in his medical center combined. “Anticipating your disappointment was the only reason I objected to the…scheme that brought upon you all of those opportunists. On any other account, I can’t begin to fault your methods. My own haven’t produced results either. Hesham hid too well.”
Fareed gritted his teeth on the upsurge of frustration and futility. Of grief.
Hesham. The sensitive soul and exceptional artist. And out of Fareed’s nine siblings, the youngest brother and the most beloved.
It was their father and king’s fault that Hesham had hidden. Over three years ago, Hesham had returned from a long stay in the States to announce that he was getting married. He’d made the mistake of believing their father might be persuaded to give him his blessing. Instead, the king had flared into an unprecedented rage. He’d forbidden Hesham to contact his fiancée again, or to consider wedding anyone not chosen by their royal house.
When Hesham refused to obey him, the king’s fury had escalated. He’d ranted that he’d find the American hussy who’d tried to insinuate herself into the royal line and make her wish she’d never plotted to ensnare his son. As for Hesham, he wasn’t letting him dabble in his pointless artistic pursuits and shirk his royal duties anymore. This was no longer about what or whom Hesham chose to amuse himself with. This was about heritage. He wouldn’t let him taint their bloodline with an inferior union. Hesham would obey, or there would be hell to pay.
Fareed and his brothers and sisters had intervened on their brother’s behalf, then had worked together to release him when their father had placed Hesham under house arrest.
Hesham had wept as he’d hugged them and told them he had to disappear, to escape their father’s injustice and to protect his beloved. He’d begged for their word that they’d never look for him, to consider him dead, for all of their sakes.
None of them had been able to give that word.
But even though each had tried to keep track of him, with Fareed the one who’d gone to the greatest lengths, Hesham had all but erased himself from existence.
A new wave of rage against their father scorched his blood.
If it hadn’t been for the oath he’d taken to serve his people, he would have left Jizaan, too. But that wouldn’t have been a punishment for their father. He wouldn’t have cared about losing another son. All he’d said after Hesham’s disappearance had been that he cared only that Hesham did nothing to disgrace their family and kingdom. Fareed believed that their father would have preferred to see Hesham and any of his future children dead before that came to pass.
What had come to pass had been even worse.
After years of Fareed yearning for any contact with him, Hesham’s call came from an E.R. in the States. Hesham had called him only to use his last breaths to beg for a favor. Not for himself, but for the woman for whom he’d left his world, who’d become his world.
Take care of Lyn, Fareed…and my child…protect them…tell her she’s everything…tell her…I’m sorry I couldn’t give her what she deserves, that I’ll leave her alone with…
There’d been no more words. He’d almost bloodied his throat roaring for Hesham to tell him more, to wait for him to come save him. He’d heard only an alien voice, telling him his brother had been taken to surgery.
He’d flown out immediately, dread warring with the hope that he’d be in time to save him. He’d arrived to find him long dead.
Learning that Hesham had been in no way responsible for the accident had deepened his anguish. An eighteen-wheeler had lost control and decimated eleven cars, killing many and injuring more. Grief had compromised his sanity, yet he’d fought it to offer his services. As an internationally recognized surgeon and one of the leading experts in his field, he had been gratefully accepted, and he’d operated on the most serious neurological injuries, had saved other victims as he hadn’t been able to save Hesham.
It had been too late by the time he’d learned that a woman had been with Hesham in the car. She’d had no injuries, no identification, and had left the hospital as soon as Hesham had died. Descriptions had varied wildly in the wake of the mass casualties.
With a bleeding heart, he’d taken Hesham’s body back to Jizaan. After a heart-wrenching funeral, which the king hadn’t attended, Fareed had launched a search for Lyn and the child.
But Hesham had hidden too well. It seemed he’d been erasing each step as he’d taken it. Investigations into the new identity he’d assumed had revealed no wife or child. Even the car he’d died in had been a rental under yet another name.
After a month of dead ends, Fareed had taken the only option left. If he couldn’t find Hesham’s woman, he’d let her find him.
He’d returned to where Hesham had died, placed appeals in all the media for the woman to contact him. He’d kept his message cryptic so only the right person would approach him. Or so he’d intended…
Women had swamped him.
Emad had weeded out the most blatant liars, like those with teenaged children or with none, and still advised Fareed not to waste his time on the rest. He’d been certain they’d all turn out to be fortune hunters. Being a billionaire surgeon and desert prince, Fareed had always been a target for gold diggers. And he’d invited them by the drove.
Fareed couldn’t comply, couldn’t let anyone who remotely answered the criteria go without an audience.