A Christmas Bride for the King

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THE PUNISHINGLY HOT shower Sheikh Salim Ibn Hafiz Al-Noury had just subjected himself to had done little to dispel the hollow feeling that lingered after his less than sensually satisfying encounter with a convenient lover. It wasn’t her fault. She was stunning. And, what was more important, she accepted his strict no-strings rules.
He never engaged with women who didn’t, because he’d built his life around an independence he’d cultivated as far back as he could remember. Distancing himself from his own family and the heavy legacy of his birth. Distancing himself from painful memories. Distancing himself from emotional entanglements or investment, which could only lead to unbearable heartbreak.
Salim and his brother, Zafir, had been bred as coldly and calculatedly as animals bred for their coats or meat. They’d been bred to inherit neighbouring kingdoms—Jandor, the home of their father, where they’d been born and brought up along with Salim’s twin sister, Sara, and Tabat, their mother’s ancestral home.
The two countries had been at war for hundreds of years, but a peace agreement had been brokered when their mother, the Crown Princess of Tabat, had married the new King of Jandor and they’d pledged to have their sons eventually ruling both countries in a bid to secure peace in the region.
On the death of their father over a year ago Zafir, as the eldest, had assumed his role as King of Jandor—which had always been more of a home to him than to Salim.
But Salim had yet to assume his role, as King of Tabat, and the pressure to do so was mounting on all sides.
He hitched a towel around his waist, irritated that his thoughts were straying in this direction. He ignored the sting of his conscience that told him it was a situation he had to deal with.
He’d managed to avoid dealing with it for this long because he’d built up a vast empire of business concerns, ranging from real estate to media and tech industries, none of which he could easily walk away from. None of which he wanted to walk away from. And yet, if he was honest with himself, he knew he’d finally achieved a level of success and security that could enable him to step back—if he had to.
The steam of the shower cleared and Salim caught his reflection in the mirror. He was momentarily taken off guard by the cynical weariness etched into his face. Blue eyes stood out starkly against the darkness of his skin. Stubble lined a hard jaw. Too hard.
With no sense of satisfaction he took in the aesthetically pleasing symmetry of his features, which called to mind another set of features—the feminine version of this face. Except that face was frozen in time, at eleven years old when his twin sister had died.
A part of Salim had broken irreparably that day: his heart. And with it any illusion of invincibility or a belief that the world was a benign place. He’d lost his soul-mate when Sara had died, and he never wanted to experience that kind of excoriating pain again.
For a moment the memory of his sister’s lifeless form and pale face was sharp enough to make him draw a breath. Even after all this time. Nineteen years. He had avenged her death, but instead of bringing him peace it had compounded the emptiness inside him.
Salim’s hands curled around the sink so tightly that his knuckles shone white through the skin. It was only a persistent ringing noise that broke him out of the moment.
He went into the bedroom of his New York penthouse apartment and saw his phone flashing on the nightstand. As he picked it up he registered who it was and immediately felt a tightening sensation in his chest, along with a familiar mix of turbulent emotions, the strongest of which was guilt. He was tempted to let the call go to voicemail, but he knew it would only be delaying the inevitable.
He answered with a curtness arising out of that mix of emotions and memories. ‘Brother. How nice to hear from you.’
Zafir made a rude sound at this less than effusive greeting. ‘I’ve been trying to contact you for weeks. Hell, Salim, why are you doing this? You’re making it harder for everyone—including yourself.’
Salim ignored what Zafir had said and replied, ‘I believe congratulations are in order. I’m sorry I didn’t make the wedding.’
Zafir sighed. ‘It’s not as if I really expected you to come, Salim, but it would have been nice for you to meet Kat. She wants to meet you.’
His tone made the tightness in Salim’s chest intensify. He’d done such a good job of pushing Zafir away for as long as he could remember that it seemed impossible to bridge the chasm now. And why did he suddenly feel the need to?
He shut down that rogue impulse and assured himself that he owed Zafir nothing—nor his new sister-in-law, who was now Queen of Jandor.
‘I don’t really have time to chat, Zafir. Why did you call?’
His brother’s voice hardened. ‘You know exactly why I’m calling. You’ve shirked your duties for long enough. Officials in Tabat have been waiting for over a year for you to assume your role as king—as per the terms of our father’s will.’
Before Salim could react to that succinct summary of his situation, Zafir was continuing.
‘Tabat is close to descending into chaos. This isn’t just about you, Salim. People will get hurt if stability isn’t restored. It’s time for you to take responsibility. You are king, whether you like it or not.’
Salim wanted to snarl down the phone that he was the furthest thing from a king that a man could be. He’d pursued a life far from royal politics and that closed, rarefied world. He’d never asked for this role—it had been thrust upon him before he’d even been born. His brother’s acceptance of the status quo was in direct contrast to Salim’s rejection of it.
Before he could say anything, Zafir went on. ‘You can’t avoid this, Salim. It’s your destiny, and if you don’t face up to that destiny you’ll have blood on your hands.’
Destiny. Salim’s anger dissipated as he thought bleakly of their sister’s destiny. Had it been her destiny to suffer unspeakable trauma and die so young?
After what had happened to his sister Salim didn’t believe in destiny. He believed you made your own destiny. And that was what he had done for his whole life—as much for himself as to honour the life his sister had lost.
He looked out over the skyline of Manhattan, where the late autumn dawn was slowly breaking, bathing everything in a soft pink glow. It was beautiful, but it left him untouched.
At that moment a falcon glided on the air outside his window, majestic and deadly, its head swivelling back and forth, looking for prey. It was a long way from its natural habitat, and yet this bird of prey had adapted to city life as well as humans had.
A memory floated back, of him and Sara in the desert with their pet falcons. Sara had lifted her hand to encourage hers to fly high, teasing Salim that his was too lazy to budge itself... She’d been so carefree, innocent...
His brother’s voice broke the silence and a heavy weight settled in Salim’s gut. Destiny or not, he knew he couldn’t keep avoiding this inheritance he’d never asked for. It had to be dealt with.
‘Fine,’ he said grimly. ‘I will give them their coronation. Let them know that I’m coming.’
And in doing so, he assured himself silently, he would sever his ties with his so-called destiny and the past for good.
CHARLOTTE MCQUILLAN PACED back and forth in the empty office and looked at her watch for the umpteenth time. The king, Salim Ibn Hafiz Al-Noury—or technically the king when he was crowned in three weeks—had kept her waiting for an hour now.
It was no secret that he was probably the most reluctant king in the world, having deferred his coronation for well over a year. Long after his older brother had been crowned king of neighbouring Jandor.
She might have expected as much from the enfant terrible of the international billionaire playboy scene.
Charlotte knew of Sheikh Salim Ibn Hafiz Al-Noury’s reputation, but only in a peripheral sense. Salacious celebrity gossip magazines were anathema to her, because she’d been the focal point of a celebrity scandal at a very young age, but even she was aware of the sheikh with the outrageous good looks, near mythical virility and his ability to turn anything he touched to gold.
His playboy exploits were matched only by his ruthless reputation and his ability to amass huge wealth and success in the many business spheres he turned his attention to.