In the softly lit anteroom of his friend’s palace, Sheikh Hassan Al Abbas let out an irritated breath and turned to the man standing a few deferential paces away from him.
‘Do you think there’s any chance I could just slip away and leave them to get on with it, Benedict?’ he demanded, knowing only too well how his loyal English aide would respond.
There was a pause. ‘Your absence would almost certainly be noticed, Your Highness,’ answered Benedict carefully. ‘Since you are one of the most esteemed guests present. And furthermore it would offend your oldest friend if he knew that you could not be bothered to stay to wish him happiness on the night of his engagement.’
Hassan’s fists clenched against the unaccustomed lounge suit which clothed his hard body, hating the strictures of collar and tie. He wished he was wearing soft and silken robes against his naked skin. That he was galloping free on his horse, with the warm desert wind blowing against his face. ‘And what if I believed deep in my heart that such a wish would not only be futile but hypocritical?’ he iced back. ‘That I think Alex is about to make the biggest mistake of his life?’
‘It is often difficult for two men to see eye to eye when it comes to the subject of women,’ answered Benedict diplomatically. ‘Particularly regarding the subject of marriage.’
‘It’s not just his choice of fiancée I don’t agree with!’ Hassan said, unable to contain the frustration which had been growing inside him since his oldest friend, Prince Alessandro Santina, had announced that he was to marry Allegra Jackson. ‘Though that is bad enough. Even worse is that he has abandoned the woman to whom he has been betrothed since he was born! A woman of noble birth, who would make a far more suitable bride.’
‘Perhaps his love is too strong to be—’
‘Love?’ interrupted Hassan, and now he could feel the bitter lump which had risen in his throat like a ball of nails. A brief yet undeniable pain clenched at his heart. For didn’t he know better than anyone that ‘love’ was nothing but an illusion which could wreck lives with its seductive power?
‘Love is nothing more than a fancy name for lust,’ he bit out. ‘And a ruler cannot allow himself to be guided by the stir of his loins or the beat of his heart. He must put duty before desire.’
‘Yes, Highness,’ said Benedict obediently.
Hassan shook his head in disbelief, still unwilling to accept that his high-born friend had let his standards dip so low. ‘Did you realise that Alex’s future father-in-law is some grubby ex-footballer with a long list of wives and mistresses he has been publicly unfaithful to?’
‘I had heard something along those lines, Highness.’
‘I cannot believe that he is willing to marry into such a disreputable family as these Jacksons! Did you see the way they were behaving at the ball? It turned my stomach to watch them quaffing champagne as if it was water and making fools of themselves on the dance floor.’
‘This woman Allegra cannot possibly become the wife of a Crown Prince!’ Angrily, Hassan slammed the flat of his hand against an adjacent table and its delicate frame juddered beneath the contemptuous force. ‘She is a tramp—just like her mother and her sisters! Did you witness the spectacle which brought me seeking refuge in here, when the sister with the voice of a crow stormed the stage and attempted to sing?’
‘Yes, Highness, I saw her,’ said Benedict softly. ‘But the Crown Prince has made up his mind that he will marry Miss Jackson, and I doubt whether even you will be able to change it. And should you not now return to the ballroom before your absence is commented upon?’
But Hassan was not listening—at least, not to his aide. He raised a hand for silence, his ears straining for the whispering of a sound. His body tensed. Had he heard something? Someone? Or had the recent harsh months spent in battle meant that he suspected danger lurking everywhere? Yet he could have sworn that the room had been empty when he’d come searching for an escape.
‘Did you hear something?’ he questioned as he felt the instinctive pricking of his skin.
‘No, Highness. I heard nothing.’
There was a brief silence before Hassan nodded, feeling some of the tension ease from his body as he allowed himself to be reassured by his aide. This might be the worst party in living memory, but at least security was tight. ‘Then let us return to this mockery of a reception. Let me see whether I can find anyone tolerably attractive enough to dance with.’ He gave a sardonic laugh. ‘A woman who is the very antithesis of Allegra Jackson and her vulgar family!’