“You did it!” Ilara announced excitedly to the couple sitting nervously across the desk. “You really did it!”
Ilara watched as the couple’s mouths fell open. “We…did?” The couple clasped hands. “Are you sure?”
Ilara understood and her grin widened. They’d come a long way in order to reach this point, overcoming several setbacks along the way. “Yes! You are completely out of debt!” She pressed a few buttons on her computer and the printer behind her came to life. When the papers landed in the tray, Ilara pushed them across her inexpensive desk, using her pen to point to the zero balance at the bottom of the spreadsheet. “Look at this…”
The door to Ilara’s office flew open and she looked up, startled, dropping her pen.
“Hello, Ilara,” the man said, his voice deep and scratchy. Unfortunately, that voice was also terrifyingly familiar.
Thankfully, his greeting snapped her out of her shock and she straightened, turning the financial papers over to protect her clients’ privacy. “What are you doing here?” she demanded then shook her head. “Never mind. I don’t care why you’re here. Leave. You are interrupting a private meeting.”
The man in question only lifted a mocking eyebrow at her before turning to the couple.
“Would you excuse us for a moment?” he asked, radiating charm.
Ilara’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. She knew him all too well, and exactly what he was capable of.
“Jabril, this couple just finished paying off a massive debt. This is an exciting and private moment and I have a few more things–”
“Congratulations,” he interrupted, bowed slightly. “That’s a major milestone.” He pulled a business card from his breast pocket. “Please, speak with Ramon at this restaurant and have dinner to celebrate. My treat.”
The couple stared at the card, then up at Jabril in stunned silence. Ilara knew this sweet couple had absolutely no idea who Jabril was, but they beamed, excited at the generous offer.
“Are you serious?” The husband of the couple asked. Ilara knew that the couple had struggled for everything and luck was rarely on their side.
“Absolutely! A milestone such as what you’ve accomplished should be celebrated in grand style.”
Her clients laughed and accepted the card. “You’re right! Let’s go!” He took his wife’s hand, pulling her out of the office. Before they shut the door, he glanced over at Ilara apologetically. “We’ll call to schedule a time to come back to discuss the next step, okay?”
Ilara nodded, trying to hide her frustration behind a professional smile. A moment later, they were gone, leaving silence in their wake.
Angry, blistering silence.
Ilara glared at the man who had ruined her meeting. “Who the hell do you think you are?” she demanded, stalking around the desk. Jabril al Mustar, Sheik of Piara, was irritatingly tall and obnoxiously big. His shoulders alone could shrink by half and would probably still be broader than the average male. The outrageously expensive suit he wore only emphasized those shoulders, that tapered waist. She wanted to punch the smug look off his face.. Kick him out of her office.
But he was too big for that, so she settled for glaring.
The smirk that lifted the corners of his mouth didn’t bode well and her stomach tightened with dread. Ilara knew that, whatever it was he wanted to say, she didn’t want to hear it.
“I think I’m your future husband, Ilara,” he replied with a calm that she’d love to emulate.
Her eyes narrowed. Was he out of his mind?! “Since when?”
He leaned forward, his eyes flinty. “You’re about to turn twenty-five,” he pointed out softly.
The heat radiating from him startled her. The man wasn’t even touching her but she could feel the warmth of his body.
Pulling back, she crossed her arms over her stomach, trying to ignore those broad shoulders. “I’m fully aware of my birthday.”
Not by word or blink of his ridiculously long eyelashes did he acknowledge her fury. “Then you’re also fully aware that you need to marry. Soon. Otherwise, your uncle will take full control of your country. The people of Ditra need you.”
She shrugged, unconcerned with who ruled her birth country, as long as her people were well cared for. If a stab of longing hit her at the reminder of her birthright, she ignored it and focused instead on getting Jabril out of her office. “Uncle Kasim has things well under control,” she announced, suppressing the selfish longing to see her country again. “I talk to him regularly and he sends me constant updates.”
Jabril’s eyes narrowed ominously. For some reason, Ilara felt judged…and falling short.
“You are Princess Ilara of Ditra. You were born to rule the country and protect your people.”
She shifted uncomfortably, guilt pouring her. She’d said the same thing to herself too often over the past several years. She’d had the same argument with her uncle and they’d both come to the conclusion that Ditra was safe and thriving under his wise guidance. “I know that I was raised to rule Ditra. But only if I marry. That’s the law.”
“So, you’re willing to give up your birth right because of a formality?” he asked. His tone remained calm, but she could feel the outrage building underneath his words.
Impatiently, Ilara huffed and leaned forward. “Look, Jabril,” she snapped. He might be sheik of a massive, wealthy country, but here in California, he was just another guy. Far better built than most! But just a guy. “You and I don’t think along the same terms. I don’t…” she paused because even she could hear the lie. “I don’t need to rule. My uncle has done a much better job running Ditra than I ever could. He’s increased jobs, set up a nationwide health care, and there’s even a university now! That means that our young people don’t have to travel abroad to get an education!” Her heart was heavy, her uncle had done so much more than she could hope to accomplish. “He stepped up to rule Ditra in order to give me the time to get an education here in California,. My goal was always to get my degree and return, take on my role as ruler of Ditra, but…” she shrugged, pushing a hand impatiently through her hair as she slumped back against the desk. “I want to make a difference in people’s lives, but my uncle is so much better at ruling Ditra than I ever could be.”
“It is your country,” Jabril argued emphatically.
She shrugged, swamped by the sudden desire to go home. But, if she returned, there would be chaos. So, she fell back on history as her defense. “Technically, it is your country. My family stole it from Piara fifty years ago. Since you are ruler of Piara, then….” She trailed off, unable to say the words.
His eyes narrowed. “I agree. It is part of my country. Are you saying I should take it back by force?”
By force? “No! You wouldn’t dare!” she gasped, horrified at the very idea. “You and I both know that wars only hurt the little people. The generals stand back and observe, tell the others where to shoot and watching them die.” She sliced a hand through the air. “Don’t you dare invade Ditra! I don’t care how legitimate your claim might be. There are better ways!”
Did his expression relax somewhat? She couldn’t tell.
“So, you are passionate about protecting your people. You worry about their welfare. And yet, you are unwilling to take your place as their leader?”
She couldn’t hold his gaze and studied her shoes instead, choosing her words carefully. “Like I said, my uncle has done a much better job than I ever could. My people deserve an experienced ruler.” She glanced around her small office. “I’m doing good things here. I earned my degree is in economics and political science. I help people realize their financial dreams! This is better.” If there was discontent behind her words, she pressed them deeper down inside of her.
He stared at her for so long, it took all of her willpower not to fidget.
And then he offered an envelope that she hadn’t realized he was holding. “By the laws of Ditra, you must marry in order to claim the right to rule the country. But, also by rights, Ditra is a province of Piara. I want my country whole again.”
Anger overrode her guilt. “That’s not going to happen. My people are happy and thriving under my uncle’s rule.”
He cocked his head to the side, “Are they?”
Five minutes ago, Ilara knew she was doing the right thing by not interfering in her uncle’s rule. If she returned, her people would be confused if she didn’t marry and take control. Ilara had spoken to her uncle at great length, debating the pros and cons of returning. In the end, they came to the conclusion that it would be better if she ignored the antiquated law that required her to marry by the age of twenty-five. The plan was for her to simply let her birthday pass quietly and her uncle would remain in power. He’d also be required to marry and produce a child, but men weren’t subjected to the same strict age requirements as the women. The age issue stemmed from an ancient ritual that had something to do with the solstice, the sun and moon, and tribal beliefs. Centuries ago, Ditra was considered progressive for even allowing women to rule, despite the marriage requirement.
“You said you are in regular contact with your uncle?”
“Yes. We speak as often as we can.” Why did she have a bad feeling about that envelope? “When we can’t connect via telephone, we chat online. He sends me articles about what’s happening in Ditra, the good and the bad news. So, I’m fully aware of the progress he’s made for my people.” She rubbed her forehead. “Trust me. He’s a much better ruler than I could ever be.” Second, third, and fourth thoughts about what basically amounted to abdicating hit her hard. The guilt was nearly overwhelming, but Ilara had convinced herself that she just needed to get through her birthday next month and the guilt would go away, along with her right to rule.
“He’s been telling you how well off the people of Ditra are, correct?” he asked.
The horrible feeling in her stomach intensified. “Yes.”
“Interesting,” he commented conversationally. “That explains a lot.” He pulled a picture out of the envelope. “Unfortunately, your uncle has been lying to you.” He laid the picture on her desk. Ilara stared at it, trying to make sense of the image. It was of a group of people and they looked…haunted! Hungry. No, not hungry, they looked as if they’d been starved! Their bones pressed against their skin, and their eyes looked too big for their faces. Not to mention sad. As if they’d given up hope.
“What is this?” she whispered through numb lips as the horror of the picture hit her.
“Those are a few of the citizens that you have abandoned to the dubious mercies of your uncle,” Jabril explained flatly.
Jabril watched Ilara’s features carefully, trying to determine if she was telling the truth or…something else. His instincts told him that she was being completely honest, that the horror in her eyes was sincere. But he wasn’t sure he could trust his instincts where she was concerned. From the moment he’d opened her office door, he’d been taken aback by her beauty. When she’d turned those angry, chocolate eyes towards him, his body had tightened with immediate awareness and…lust. He didn’t like it, but there it was.
For decades, he’d planned to take back the land she considered her country. The land wasn’t strategically important, but it was his land, his people! This woman’s father had taken the land through impressive maneuvers and held onto it for too long.
Jabril couldn’t wait any longer. People were suffering due to her negligence. Instinct pushed him to protect his people and better their lives. Every day of his life, he’d been taught the need to protect his people, to fight for them and ensure that they had opportunities to thrive.
This woman had done the exact opposite. She’d abandoned them to a maniacal, self-serving despot, refusing to protect the citizens of the country she claimed to love.
At least, that’s what he’d believed up until this moment.
Was there more to the story? Was she truly unaware of what her uncle was doing to the people who lived under his rule?
“Are they sick?”
He kept his face still, refusing to give her any leniency. “I suppose one could say that. The people of Ditra survive on stale bread, when they can buy it at the stores. Or when they can find a store that is open and has food to sell.”
She frowned, startled by his words. “Bread? They don’t have…?”
“The markets were closed years ago,” he replied, hardening his resolve against her perplexed expression. She had abandoned her people. He was on a mission to save them, a pair of lovely eyes would not sway him!
Her fingers trembled as she put the picture down, hiding her hands behind her.
“Someone tried to kill your uncle when he went through the market one day.”
Her face paled and she shook her head, although he wasn’t sure if the gesture was one of denial or confusion. Either was possible, he conceded. “Why would anyone want to kill my uncle? My people love him! They adore him!”
Somehow, Jabril was able to avoid rolling his eyes. “Ilara, your uncle’s guards are in prison for treason, because your uncle didn’t think they had protected him well enough that day. He brought in a company of mercenaries from South Africa to protect him. And they are brutal with anyone they even suspect of harming your father. Dozens of people have been thrown into prison, without being charged and without a trial, simply because these mercenaries suspected that they might harm your uncle.”
She glanced down at the horrible picture again. He pulled another out of the envelope. This was the remains of a farm, the barn and house nothing more than charred, blackened rubble. The crops were in ruins and weeds beginning to invade in the background. “This person dared to speak out against your father’s farming proposal.”
He took out a third picture, laying it silently on the desk. This one showed a family desperately huddled together, holding each other as men in black uniforms lit their house on fire. Ilara cringed away. But, impressively, she took a deep breath, straightened her spine, and looked at the picture. Jabril’s anger towards her lessened slightly.
“No!” she whispered, transfixed by the image. “No, my uncle told me just last week that the farmers were being subsidized because the markets were flooded with food and prices were dropping to historic lows. The low prices meant that the farmers couldn’t bring home a sustainable wage. He’s right to subsidize! It’s good agricultural and economic policy.”
Jabril sighed. Apparently, her uncle hadn’t only manipulated the people in Ditra, but was pulling Ilara’s strings as well.
Horror such as he was witnessing would be hard to fake, he acknowledged. It was possible, if Princess Ilara were a trained actress. But to his knowledge, the princess had studied only business, economics, and public policy.
Regardless, she had to know the truth. He pulled out several more photographs. “This is the market in the capital city,” he explained, placing a picture of the once thriving market that had filled several blocks with produce and other goods. It was now barren, the beautiful, colorful tents, that the vendors took pride in weaving and decorating, were in dusty shreds, hanging drunkenly from broken supports. Even the wooden shelves were broken, crumbled heaps of tinder on the ground. There were a few areas that had products, but not many and the price on the small pile of apples was about ten times what she remembered paying.
“No!” she snapped. “No! This is a lie!” She turned to her laptop and started typing, before turning it around to show him pictures. “This is the Central Market,” she told him, revealing a market with fabulous tents and laughing vendors showing off their figs, oranges, lemons, pomegranates, persimmons, and other exotic fruits and vegetables that were grown in the fertile soil of Ditra. In the background, there were also purses and dresses, hats, and various other craft items for sale. “This is what is happening.” She pushed the pictures Jabril had given her away. “These are lies!”
Jabril looked at the picture on the monitor with a shake of his head. “No Ilara, the pictures your uncle sent are the lies.”
She visibly pulled back. “I don’t believe you.” She sat down, wrapping her arms around herself. “Why would he do that? It is in the best interests of every ruler to ensure that their people are healthy and prosperous. That’s how I was raised! My uncle as well.”
Jabril noticed that the last four words were almost an afterthought, tacked on to reinforce her argument. But she wasn’t sure and that gave him pause. She hadn’t known, he was sure of it.
Unfortunately, he didn’t have time to ease her into the truth. The people of Ditra were in dire circumstances and he had to act quickly, before more people died. Relaxing his stance slightly, he changed tactics, shifting from fury over her negligence, to insistence that she face reality and fix the situation. “Your uncle has drained the resources of Ditra for his own personal gain. The people are starving, businesses have gone under because of the new tax regulations, which are complicated and apply a massive burden to most businesses, and even the military has been oppressed, curtailed so that he has them entirely under his power.”
Ilara shook her head, but Jabril could see the doubt in her face. “No! He’s a gentle ruler!” she repeated, unconsciously pushing her chair back and crossing her arms over her chest, trying to get away from his words.
Instead of saying anything more, he pulled other pictures out of the envelope, spreading them across her desk one by one. He showed her pictures of desperate people, abandoned stores, deserted villages, and the capital city with empty streets, which should have been thriving.
He didn’t say anything, allowing the images to speak. She’d grown up in Ditra and recognized the street signs and the buildings. Jabril watched carefully, waiting for signs that she might dismiss what was happening.
Unfortunately, he needed Ilara. He needed her cooperation in order to make a swift change. He could regain the land without her through force, but as she’d pointed out, more people would get hurt. The people of Ditra had endured so much already. If he could unite his country without violence, he’d do it. If he couldn’t gain her cooperation, then he had a plan B, but marrying Ilara would give her the right to rule and speed up the recovery process for the people and the economy.
“Stop!” she gasped, turning the pictures over so she didn’t have to look at them. Jabril considered that a good sign. She couldn’t be part of her uncle’s horrible machinations if she couldn’t stand looking at the destruction.
“He didn’t do this,” she murmured, standing up and looking through the small window of her office, trying to hide her expression.
“Why do you say that?” he demanded,. She wanted to deny everything, but he suspected from her reaction that she’d had clues before this moment.
“Because my uncle sends me reports about what’s going on in Ditra. He and I talk. He’s encouraged me to come back and take my place.”
“Why haven’t you then?” he asked, tamping down his sudden fury.
“Because…” she closed her eyes, pressing her lips together as the pieces came together. “Because he convinced me that getting my degree was more important for the people of my country. It would help me help them more effectively.” She pressed shaking fingers to her lips. “He said I had to think long term and getting a degree from a good school would serve them better in the long term.”
“So that’s why you left Ditra,” he commented, more to himself than to her. “He’s right. Getting an education should have helped. But you graduated last summer.”
She sighed, rubbing her forehead. “He…convinced me that getting a bit of experience out in the world would help.”
Jabril didn’t say anything. He let the silence fill the room, allowing her to think it through. From what his security team had discovered, Ilara was an intelligent, thoughtful woman with deep loyalty to Ditra. Only now was he starting to understand why she hadn’t returned to take her place in the government.
“I don’t believe you,” she finally said, turning to face him.
Her words were disappointing, he thought, but not unexpected.
“Come with me,” he ordered. “We’ll fly to Ditra and you can see for yourself.”
Without a second thought, she shut down her computer and grabbed her purse. Her willingness further eased his anger towards her. If she’d known what was going on, even suspected, she wouldn’t be willing to prove him wrong.
“Your information is wrong,” she insisted as she shoved her laptop into her computer bag. “I don’t know where those pictures were taken, but they aren’t from Ditra.” She stood up straight, glaring up into his eyes. He admired her spunk, even if he could see her trembling from head to toe..
Princess Ilara might be a beautiful woman, but the people of Ditra needed his focus now. They needed him to protect them. Focusing her full, rounded breasts or her slender waist was not helping them in any way.
With absolute resolution, she tilted her head towards the door. “I’ll show you the real Ditra. And if you decide to invade my country…”
“My country, that your father stole from me,” he corrected.
Ilara didn’t acknowledge his words. “…Then I will expect an apology and an investigation into who told you those lies,” she finished, nodding to the envelope with the pictures.
“And if I’m telling the truth, you will marry me and help me save Ditra.