Hidden in the Sheikh's Harem: Christmas at the Castello

By: Michelle Conder
CHAPTER ONE

PRINCE ZACHIM BAKR AL-DARKHAN tried not to slam the door as he left the palace apartment his half-brother was using for his brief visit but it wasn’t easy. Nadir was being a cranky, stubborn hard-ass, refusing to take his rightful place as the next King of Bakaan, which left Zach in line for the job.

‘Everything, all right, Highness?’

Damn; he was so preoccupied with what had just gone down he hadn’t even sensed the elderly servant he’d known all his life waiting in the shadowed recess of the arched windows.

But, no, everything was not all right. Every day that passed without a leader made their people more and more uneasy. His father had only been dead for two weeks but already there were whispers of some of the more insurgent tribes gathering for ‘talks’.

Yeah, like the Al-Hajjar tribe. Once their families had been rival dynasties, but two centuries ago the Darkhans had defeated the Hajjars in a brutal war, creating resentments that still remained. But Zach knew that the current leader of the tribe—Mohamed Hajjar—hated his father, not only because of their history, but because he held his father responsible for the death of his pregnant wife ten years ago. And probably his father had been partly responsible because, Allah knew, he had been responsible for the death of Nadir’s mother for entirely different reasons.

The fact was their father had been a miserly tyrant who’d ruled through fear and had been ruthless when he didn’t get his own way. As a result Bakaan was stuck in the dark ages, both in its laws and infrastructure, and it was going to be an enormous challenge to pull it into the twenty-first century.

A challenge that his brother was better suited to take on than Zach. And not just because Nadir was politically savvy with finely honed boardroom instincts, but also because it was his rightful place as the eldest son. With Nadir taking charge it would also free Zach up to do what he did best—creating and managing change at street level where he could do the most good.

Something he’d already started doing after his delicate mother had begged him to come home five years ago when Bakaan had been on the brink of civil war. The cause of the unrest had stemmed from a rogue publication started by someone in one of the mountain tribes detailing his father’s failings and calling for change. There wasn’t much in the publication Zach could argue with, but he’d done his duty and settled the unrest in his father’s favour. Then, appalled at the state his country was in, he’d set aside his Western lifestyle and stayed, working behind the scenes to do what he could until his increasingly narcissistic and paranoid father had either seen sense or died. Death had come first and the only thing Zach felt was hollow inside. Hollow for the man who had only ever seen him as the spare to the throne, and not a very worthy one at that.

‘Highness?’

‘Sorry, Staph.’ Zach shook off the memories he didn’t want to delve into and started striding towards his own private wing of the palace, Staph quickstepping to keep pace with him. ‘But, no, everything is not all right. My brother is proving to be stubborn.’

‘Ah, he does not wish to return to Bakaan?’

No, he did not. Zach knew Nadir had good reason for not wanting to, but he also knew that his brother was born to be king, and that if Nadir could get past the bitterness he felt for their father, he would want to rule their small kingdom. Realising that Staph was having trouble keeping pace with him, Zach slowed. ‘He has some other considerations to think of right now,’ he hedged.

Like an infant daughter he hadn’t known about and the mother he was set on marrying. Now, there had been a revelation to shock the hell out of Zach. Out of the two of them it was he who believed in love and marriage, while Nadir thought the concept had been created by the masses to counter boredom and a lack of productivity. Zach didn’t believe that. He knew that one day he’d have a family who he’d treat a lot better than their old man had treated his.

In fact, he’d nearly proposed to a woman once; right before he’d been called home. Amy Anderson had ticked all his boxes—sophisticated, polished and blonde. Their courtship had gone smoothly and he still didn’t know what had made him pull back. Nadir had been no help at the time, claiming that Zach had a tendency to choose women who were all wrong for him so that he didn’t have to make a commitment at all.

Zach bid Staph goodnight and strode into his apartment. As if he’d ever take relationship advice from a confirmed bachelor. Or confirmed ex-bachelor, so it seemed.

Shedding his clothes on the way to the shower, he doused himself in steaming hot water before lying on his bed and willing himself to sleep. He’d agreed to meet his brother the following lunchtime so that Nadir could abdicate in front of the council but Zach was hoping he would see sense way before then.

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