This is one of those stories that came to be fully formed- Riya Mathur, a woman who’s determined to live her life by the parameters she has decided for it, much like the software she designs and Nathaniel Ramirez, the man who, despite his own demons, wants to topple all the walls Riya’s erected around herself.
Romantic Times Magazine gave the book 4.5 stars, calling the ending – intensely heart wrenching, a perfect icing on a delicious drama cake…;) so I’m super happy about that.
Oh, I’m also blogging over at I Heart Presents and sharing a little more about an important scene where Riya’s begging Nathan not to stop. 😉
So if you want to see how Riya, with a little white lie and a load of good intentions, lures Nathan home and how he, having arrived, starts wreaking havoc on her life, read on:
“I heard the investors sold the company to some reclusive billionaire.”
“Someone in HR said he’s only bought it for the patented software. That he intends to fire the whole lot of us.”
“I didn’t realize we had value to attract someone of that ilk.”
What ilk? What billionaire?
Riya Mathur rubbed her temples with her fingers, slapping her palms over her ears in a gesture that in no way could silence the useless speculation around her.
What had changed in the week she had been gone for the first time in two years since Drew and she had started the company? What wasn’t he telling her?
Her chat window from their internal IM program pinged, and Riya looked down at her screen.
A message from Drew: Come to my cabin, Riya.
Riya felt a knot in her stomach.
Things had steadily been going from bad to worse between her and Drew for six months now. Since New Year’s Eve to be exact. And she hadn’t known how to make it better except to put her head down and do her job.
Stepping out of the small cubicle she occupied, only separated from the open cabins in the huge hall by one movable shelf, she marched past an anxious, almost hyper group of staff amassed in the break room toward the CEO’s cabin. She had spent the better part of the morning waiting on tenterhooks, walking around the different teams and trying to persuade them to get back to work while Drew’s door remained resolutely closed.
But his continuing silence, even after an email from her, peppered with little tidbits of gossip, was making her head spin. Running her damp palms over her baggy trousers, she came to a halt at the closed door.
She tapped a couple of times cursorily, and every whisper gathered momentum in pitch and volume. Without waiting for an answer, she turned the handle and the pandemonium behind her descended into a deathly silence.
Stepping inside, she closed the door.
Drew’s lean frame was molded by the sunlight streaming through the windows, the San Francisco skyline behind him.
He opened his mouth to speak but stopped abruptly. Her heart in her throat, Riya took a step in his direction. He stiffened a little more and tilted his head.
That same awkwardness that had permeated their every conversation filled the air thickly now.
But this was work. Their company truly had been a product of them both. “The whole office is buzzing with rumors…” She came to a stop a couple of steps from him. “Whatever our personal differences, this is our company, Drew. We’re in it together—”
“It was your company until you took the first seed capital from an investor,” a new voice, every syllable punctured with a sardonic amusement, said behind her.
Riya turned around so fast she didn’t see him for a few seconds. Blinking, she brought her focus back to the huge table and the man sitting at the head of it. The chair faced away from the window. With his long legs sprawled in front of him, only his profile was visible to Riya.
The entire room was bathed in midmorning sunlight and yet the man sat in the one area of the room that the light didn’t touch. Ungluing her feet from the spot next to Drew, Riya walked across the room so that she could see better.
She felt the newcomer’s gaze on her, studying everything about her. Her usually articulate mind slowed down to a sluggish pace. The feeling that he had been waiting to see her tugged at her, a strange little premonition dancing in her gut.
“I’ve been dying to meet you, Ms. Mathur,” he said, turning the vague feeling into solid dread. “The smart mind that built the software engine that drives the company,” he added silkily. He had left something else unsaid. She knew it, just as surely as she could feel her heart skidding in her chest.
He had even pronounced her last name perfectly, elongating the a after the M just right. After knowing her since her freshman year at college, Drew still didn’t say it right. It was a small thing, and yet she felt as though this stranger knew her entire history.
Taking the last step past the overfilled bookshelf, Riya came to a halt. Her stomach did a funny dive, her sharp exhale amplified to her own ears.
Her first thought was that he belonged in a motorcycle club and not in a boardroom.
Electric eyes, a brilliant shade of ice blue, set deep in a starkly angled face, collided with hers. That gaze was familiar and strange, amused and serious. A spark of recognition lit up inside her, yet Riya had no idea where she had seen him.
Dark blond hair, so unruly and long that her fingers itched to smooth it back, fell onto his forehead. Copper highlights shimmered in his hair. The sunlight streaming in played hide-and-seek with the hollows of his cheekbones, the planes darker than the hollows. Which meant he spent a lot of time outdoors.
His skin, what she could see of it, was sunburned and looked rough. An untrimmed beard covered his jaw and chin, copper glinting in it too.
That beard, those haphazard clothes, his overall appearance—they should have diluted the intensity of his presence in the small room. It should have made him look less authoritative. Except those eyes negated everything.
They had a bright, alert look to them, a sardonic humor lurking beneath the sharp stare he directed at her.
He wore a dark leather jacket that had obviously seen better days, under which the collar of a faded shirt peeked through.
A cough from behind her brought her short and Riya felt her cheeks heat up.
Amusement deepened in those eyes.
“Who are you?” The awkwardly phrased question zoomed out of her mouth before she realized. Suddenly it was tantamount that she remember him.
Because she did, Riya realized with a certainty.
He leaned back into his chair, not in the least affected by her tone. There was a sense of contained movement about him even though he remained seated. As though he was forcing his body to do it, as though staying still was an unnatural state for him.
Riya’s mouth fell open as an article she had read just a few months in a travel magazine flashed through her mind’s eye.
Luxury Travel Mogul. Virtual Entrepreneur. Billionaire Loner.
Nathaniel Ramirez had been called a visionary in developing hotels that were an extension of the environment, a man who had made millions with zero investment. The string of temporary hotels, which he’d envisioned and built with various landowners in different parts of the world, were all the rage for celebrities who wanted a private vacation, away from prying eyes.
He had tapped into a market that not only had met an existing demand but had opened a whole new industry to the local man in so many remote corners of the world.
And more than any of that, he was an enigma who’d traveled the world over since he was seventeen, didn’t stay in one place past a few months, didn’t own a home anywhere in the world and worst of all, had no family ties or relationships.
Even the magazine hadn’t been able to get a picture of him. It had been a virtual interview.
The quintessential loner, the magazine had called him, the perfect personality for a man who traveled the world over and over. The fact that he made money doing it was just a perk, someone had heard him remark.
He’d only said his name, and nothing more about what he was doing here, in San Francisco, in Travelogue, in their start-up company’s headquarters.
Why? Why would he give his name instead of stating why he was here?
She threw a quick look behind her and noticed Drew still stood unmoving at the bay windows, his mouth tight, his gaze swinging between her and Mr. Ramirez.
“You make a living out of traveling the world. What can a small online travel sales company do for you?” She shot Drew a look of pure desperation. “And why are you sitting in Drew’s chair?”
The intensity of his gaze, while nothing new to Riya, still had a disconcerting element to it. Men stared at her. All the time.
She had never learned how to handle the attention or divert it, much less enjoy it, as Jackie did. Only painstakingly cultivated an indifference to those heated, lingering looks. But something about him made it harder.
Finally he uncoiled from his lounging position. And a strange little wave of apprehension skittered through her.
“I bought controlling interest in Travelogue last night, Ms. Mathur.”
She blinked, his soft declaration ringing in her ears. “I bought a gallon of milk and bread last night.”
The sarcastic words fell easily from her mouth while inside, she struggled not to give in to the fear gripping her.
“It wasn’t that simple,” Nathan said, getting up from the uncomfortable chair. The whole cabin was both inconvenient and way too small for him. Every way he turned, there was a desk or chair or a pile of books ready to bang into him. He felt boxed in.
Walking around the table, he stopped at arm’s length from her, the fear hidden under her sarcastic barb obvious. Gratification filled him even as he gave the rampant curiosity inside him free rein.
Like mother, like daughter.
He pushed the insidiously nasty thought away. True, Riya Mathur was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, and as a man who had traveled to all the corners of the world, he’d seen more than his share.
She was also, apparently, extremely smart and as possessed of the talent for messing with men’s minds as her mother, if everything he had heard and Drew Anderson’s blatantly obvious craze for her was anything to go by.
But where Jacqueline met the world with a devil-may-care attitude, flaunting her beauty with an irreverent smile, her daughter’s beauty was diluted with intelligence and a carefully constructed air of indifference.
Which, he realized with a self-deprecating smile, made every male of the species assume himself equal to the task of unraveling all that beauty and fire.
Exquisite almond-shaped, golden brown eyes, defiant, scared and hidden behind spectacles, a high forehead, a straight, distinctive nose that hinted at stubbornness and a bow-shaped mouth. All this on the backdrop of a golden caramel-colored silky smooth complexion, as though Jackie’s alabaster and her Indian father’s brown had been mixed in perfect proportions.
She had dressed to underplay everything about herself, and this only spurred him on to observe more. It was like a cloud hovering over a mountaintop, trying to hide the magnificence of the peak beneath it.
A wary and puzzled look lingered in her eyes since she had stepped inside. Which meant it was only a matter of time before she remembered him.
Because he had changed his last name, and he looked eons different from the sobbing seventeen-year-old she had seen eleven years ago.
He should just tell her and get it over with, he knew. And yet he kept quiet, his curiosity about her drumming out every other instinct.
“I had to call in a lot of favors to find your investors. Once they were informed of my intent, they were more than happy to accommodate me. Apparently they’re not happy with the ways things are being run.”
“You mean disappointed about the bucket loads of money they want us to make?” A flash of regret crossed her face as soon as she said it.
She was nervous, which was what he’d intended.
“And that’s wrong how, Ms. Mathur? Why do you think investors fund start-ups? Out of the goodness of their hearts?”
“I don’t think so. But there’s growth and there’s risk.” She took a deep breath as though striving to get herself under control. “And if it’s profits that you’re after, then why buy us at all?”
“Let’s just say it caught my fancy.”
Frustration radiated out of her. “Our livelihood, everything we’ve worked toward the past four years is hanging in the balance. And all you’re talking about is late night shopping, things catching your fancy. Maybe living your life on the periphery of civilization all these years, cut off from your fellow man, traipsing through the world with no ties—”
“Riya, no….” She heard Drew’s soft warning behind her. But she was far too scared to pay heed.
“—has made you see only profit margins, but for us, the human element is just as important as the bottom line.”
“You make me sound like a lone wolf, Ms. Mathur.”
“Well, you are one, aren’t you?” She closed her eyes and fought for control. “Look, all I care about is what is that you intend to do with the company. With us.”
Something inched into his features, hardening the look in his eyes. “Leave us alone, Mr. Anderson.”
“No,” Riya said aloud as Mr. Ramirez walked around the table and toward her. Panic made her words rushed. “There’s nothing you have to say to me that Drew can’t hear.”
Stopping next to her, Drew met her gaze finally. The resignation in his eyes knocked the breath out of her as nothing else could. “Drew, whatever you’re thinking, we can fight this. We own the patent to the software engine—”
“Does nothing else matter to you except the blasted company? Statues possess more feelings than you do.”
Bitterness spewed from every word, and the hurt festering beneath them lanced through her. She paled under his attack, struggled to put into words why.
“I’m done, Riya,” Drew said, with a hint of regret.
“But, Drew, I…”
His hands on her shoulders, Drew bent and kissed her cheek, all the while the deep-set ice-blue gaze of the arrogant man who was kicking Drew out stayed on her without blinking.
Something flitted in that gaze. An insinuation? A challenge? There one minute, chased away by a cool mockery the next.
But Riya didn’t look away. Locking her hands by her side, she stood frozen to the spot.
Stepping back from her, Drew turned. “I’ll set up something with your assistant, Nathan.”
Without breaking her gaze, the hateful man nodded.
The words felt so final that Riya shivered.
Leaving her flailing in the middle of the room, Drew closed the door behind him. It felt as if she were locked in a cage with a wild animal even as her mind was sifting and delving deeper.
Nathan…Nathan…Nathaniel Ramirez. Owns a group of travel and vacation companies called RunAway International, has traveled the world since he was seventeen…
A strange shiver began at the base of her spine, inched everywhere. She pushed her fingers through her hair, a nervous gesture she had never gotten over. “What did Drew mean?”
“Mr. Anderson decided he wanted to move on. From…” His gaze swept over her, a puzzle in it. “…Travelogue,” he finished, leaving something unsaid.
Riya felt as if he had slapped her. He had said so much without saying anything, and she couldn’t even defend herself against what she didn’t understand. She had never felt more out of her depth. “Who the hell do you think you are? And you can’t just kick him out. Drew and I own—”
“He sold his share of the stock. To me. I now own seventy-five percent of your company. I’m your new partner, Riya. Or boss, or really…there are so many things we could call each other.”
If you liked what you read so far, here are the Buy link! 😉
Good Morning, everyone! Hope you’ve had a good weekend!!
You can still read the first chapter of my Nov Release, The True King of Dahaar blog here:
“I want to see it, Azeez,” Nikhat spoke in a rushed whisper. The cavernous room amplified their voices, enveloping them together.
“Not the best time to see it, latifa. Steam tends to do things to it,” he said with a sinful curve of his mouth.
“What?” Heat scorched her cheeks as his meaning sunk in. “I’m not talking about your…your…”
“Yes, Dr. Zakhari? What precisely are you not talking about?” Challenge glinted in his words, his mouth tugged up at the corners.
That glimpse of his old roguish humor—it sent a blast of longing through her.
She had graduated with honors in her class. She was an ob-gyn, yes, but she had seen naked men before. And she wasn’t going to let the Prince of Dahaar reduce her into a blushing twit. “Your penis, okay? That’s not what I want to see. And you know what? I can also say sex, vagina, erection and—”
He threw his head back and laughed. A rich, powerful, hearty sound that brought prickling tears to her eyes, and the most painful tightness to her chest. She wanted to hear it again and again, see the flash of his teeth, feel the warmth of it steal into her. To forever be the one who made him laugh like that.
The corners of her own mouth tugged up.
“It is like you are a different woman, Nikhat. More fun, daring…” His gaze gleamed with an inferno of emotion. “Whatever it is that you…did in New York really agrees with you.”
The unspoken question sizzled in the silence. But she didn’t take his bait this time.
“I want to see your wound.”
Here are the Buy Links if that whetted your appetite!!
It’s release day for the True King of Dahaar all across the world.
RT Book Reviews gave it 4.5 stars and called it a painfully sincere twist-of-fate tale…If you want a teaser, I have posted the entire chapter here…
CHAPTER ONE /In which Our Hero throws a bottle at the Heroine
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’t—she wouldn’t—give 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 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 her—a symbol of her intelligence—almond-shaped copper-hued eyes, which were her best feature, her too-long nose—a bit on the strong side—and 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.
White-hot pain exploded in his right side, radiating from his hip, traveling up and down. He had been sitting for way too long today and had barely exercised since his brother had locked him up here in the palace.
Gritting his teeth, he breathed through the throbbing pain. He leaned against the pillar and looked up.
The sight that met his eyes stole his breath. The intense throbbing in his hip was nothing compared to the dark chasm opening up in his gut.
Because, now the mirage was torturing him.
The woman had tears in those beautiful eyes. Her lips whispered his name. Again and again, as though she couldn’t help it, as though her very breath depended on saying his name.
In the mirage, the woman he had once loved more than anything else in life, the woman who had eventually destroyed him, was standing within touching distance. And for a man who had almost died happily, only to discover that he was alive, and a cripple at that, it was still the cruelest punishment to see her standing there, teasing him, tormenting him.
With a cry that never left his throat, he threw the bottle at the mirage, needing it to dissolve, needing the torturous cycle of self-loathing to abate.
Except, unlike all the other times he had done it, the woman flinched. Even as the bottle missed her, shattering as it hit the floor with a sound that fractured the silence.
Her soft gasp hit him hard in the gut, slicing through the drunken haze in his head. Shock waves pulsing through him, he moved as fast as his damaged hip would allow.
His fingers trembled as he extended his hand and touched her cheek. Her skin was as silky soft as he remembered. Bile filled his mouth and he had to suck in a harsh breath to keep it at bay. “Nikhat?”
Fear and self-loathing tangled inside him, his heart slamming hard against his rib cage.
The sheen of liquid in her beautiful dark brown eyes was real. The tremble in those rose-hued lips was real.
Azeez cursed, every muscle in his body freezing into ice. And before he could blink again, she was touching him, devouring him with her steady copper gaze.
She caught his roughened palm between hers, sending a jolt of sensation rioting through his body. It was as though a haze was lifted from his every sense, as though every nerve ending in him had been electrocuted into alertness. “Hello, Azeez.”
He pushed her away from him and jerked back. Leaning against the pillar, he caught his breath, kept his eyes closed, waiting for the dancing spots in front of him to abate. He heard her soft exhale, heard the step she took toward him.
Suddenly, utter fury washed through him, ferociously hot in contrast to the cold that had frozen his very blood just a few minutes ago. “Who dared to let you in here? I might be a cripple but I’m still Prince Azeez bin Rashid Al Sharif of Dahaar. Get out before I throw you out myself.”
Nikhat flinched, the walls she had built around herself denting at his words. But she couldn’t let the bitterness of them seep in and become a part of her. This was not about her. “I have every right to be here, not that I think you’re lucid enough to understand that.”
He didn’t snarl back at her as she expected.
He just stood there, staring at her, and she stared back, eight years of hunger ripping through all her stupid defenses.
Jet-black eyes set deep in his face, and even more now with the dark shadows beneath, gazed at her, a maelstrom of emotions blazing within. His aristocratic nose had a bump to it that hadn’t been there before. It looked as if it had been broken and had never healed right.
And then came the most sensuous, cruelest mouth she had ever seen. Even before the terrorist attack, even before she had left him without looking back, he had had a fierce, dark smile that stole into her very skin and lodged there.
Being at the receiving end of that smile had been like being in the desert at night. When the Prince of Dahaar had looked at you, he demanded every inch of your focus and you gave it to him, willingly.
Right now, the same mouth was flattened into a rigid line.
The white, long-sleeved shirt he wore was open halfway through, showing his thin frame. His long hair curled over his collar.
“Leave, Nikhat. Now,” he said, drawing her attention back to him. His gaze didn’t linger on her face. He didn’t meet her eyes, either. “Or I won’t be responsible for what I do next.”
“Apologize to me. That bottle could have done serious damage,” she said, giving up the fight against herself.
The moment she had stepped out of her suite into the dimly lighted corridor, unable to sleep a wink, and wandered through this wing of the palace, wondering if he was nearby, exposing herself to the guard outside, she had given up any sense she’d ever had.
Only, she had thought she would take a quick look and slink away in the dark of the night. Self-delusion had never been her weakness and she couldn’t let it take root now.
“No,” Azeez said without compunction. “Didn’t my brother warn you? You took the risk of visiting a savage animal in the middle of the night.”
“I’m not afraid of you, Azeez. I never will be.”
She took another step, bracing herself for the changes in him. He had lost weight and it showed in his face. The sharp bridge of his nose, and those hollowed-out cheekbones, they stood out, giving him a gaunt, hard look.
“Ayaan told me about you last night,” she said, opting for truth. One gut-wrenching lie was enough for this lifetime. “I couldn’t wait. I…couldn’t wait till morning.”
His fisted his hands at his sides, his fury stamped into his features. “And?” he said in a low growl that gave her instant goose bumps. He clasped her cheek with his fingers, moving fast for a man in obvious pain. His grip was infuriatingly gentle yet she knew he was holding back a storm of fury.
His gaze collided with hers and what she saw there twisted her stomach; it was the one thing that did scare her. His eyes were empty, as though the spark that had been him, the very force of life that he had been, had died out.
“Have you seen enough, latifa? Is your curiosity satisfied?”
She clutched his wrists with her fingers, refusing to let him push her away.
And it wasn’t for him. It was for her.
She hadn’t cried when she had learned the news of the terrorist attack and of his death. Her heart had solidified into hard rock long before then. And she wouldn’t cry now. But she allowed herself to touch him. She needed to know he was standing there. She touched his face, his shoulders, his chest, ignoring his sucked-in breath. “I’m so sorry. About Amira, about Ayaan, about you.”
With a gentle grip, he pushed her back. There was nothing in his gaze when he looked at her. Not fury, not contempt, not even resentment. His initial shock had faded fast and he looked as if nothing she said would ever touch him. “Are you, truly?” he whispered.
She wasn’t responsible for the terrorist attack, she knew that. And yet, nothing she had said to herself had prepared her for the tumult of seeing him like this.
“You’re not responsible for what I’ve become. But if you want, you can do me a favor.”
The force of his request didn’t scare her. If she could do something to help him, she would. Ayaan had been right. She owed it to Azeez. “Anything, Azeez.”
“Leave Dahaar before the sun is up. Leave and never come back. If you have ever felt anything true for me, Nikhat, do not show me your face ever again.”
Nikhat stood rooted to the spot as he walked away from her. It seemed she was always going to disappoint him.
She couldn’t leave now, just as she hadn’t been able to stay when he had asked her eight years ago.
If it whetted your apetite, here are the links:
I needed distraction this weekend as I wrote a lot in the past two weeks. More than the word count, it was the steady pace that I’m glad about. Anyway, there were a lot of things weighing on my mind and usually, the first thing I do is jump into a book. And I did…Wow, what a book I picked!
Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, a YA fantasy that I LOVED.
And even though it has a romance, , of course, it was the heroine that made the book for me.
Karou will be one of my favorite heroines for a long time to come. And I loved how atmospheric the author made snowy Prague and hot Marrakesh…
I’m kind of scared of starting the second one but also can’t wait to read it…looked at a couple of reviews and then clicked away…:(
If you like strong heroines and high stakes fantasy, you’ll love this.
What have you read recently that made you go WOW? Why?
I had a late night last evening….yes, reading a book. After I made my word count for the day.
I read the first one in J.D. Robb’s In Death series, Naked in Death in four hours straight.
Don’t have to mention that I LOVED Eve Dallas and Roarke. And the BEST part is that there are so so many books in that series that I can glom without waiting.
So of course, this morning, I couldn’t keep my eyes open and get my brain working for the school run. I put Salt in the kiddos’ milk instead of Sugar.
6yo couldn’t fathom how this was possible when the containers are so clearly labeled.
“How could this happen? Didn’t you read the label? Did you do this before?”
To which, her dad gleefully replied that yes, she did that to my tea once.
But yes, it was totally worth it to look like a ghoul this morning and have my daughter and hubster make fun of me..
Are you a morning person? If you are, I have to hate you a little. Just a little.
Oh and here’s a pic of my April release The Last Prince of Dahaar in Walmart, nicely cuddled between two of my favorite peeps, Michelle and Maya!! It’s such a thrill to still see my book in the world!