His name was Khan ibn Zain al Hassad.
That was what he called himself though in truth, his name was much longer and more elaborate.
In private, he winced at the sound of it. What man of the 21st century wanted to be known as His Royal Highness, Sheikh Khan ibn Zain al Hassad, Crown Prince of Altara, Defender of its Ancient and Honorable Throne, Protector of His People, Leopard of the Finarian Hills?
All those antiquated titles…
Yes, he was proud of them. The blood of kings and warriors ran within his veins. It was just that the titles often preceded him. People bowed and scraped before they knew if he was worth the bowing or scraping.
Not that any man was worth that.
His father had always frowned and said his attitude came of having had an American mother. Worse, he’d attended an American college, an American university. Two American universities, to be accurate.
In a sense, the old man had been right. Being half North American, Khan understood the need to move forward. Being half Altaran, he understood the importance of tradition.
Both parts of him knew that titles could be intimidating.
They could also make people fawn over him.
People who wanted to sell him things he didn’t need or desire, who wanted to borrow money and, worst of all, people who wanted to bask in what they saw as his reflected glory.
Added to that were the all women who thought it was original to gaze at him from under lowered lashes and whisper, And are you a leopard in bed, my lord?
At eighteen, the question had been a challenge he’d been more than eager to prove, but he was thirty now, his father was dead and his life was one of responsibility and discipline. He was a king, even if he still preferred to call himself a prince.
Khan’s green eyes narrowed.
And there were fools out there who called him only a fantastically rich playboy.
It infuriated him.
He was the leader of his people.
Maybe rock stars enjoyed being sought after for their celebrity. All right, maybe he’d enjoyed it, too, years back, but he was older and wiser. Still, the gossip blogs and Page Six and People and half a dozen other gushing magazines loved to send photographers after him, to write lies about him, and to call him…
The damned word set his teeth on edge.
They called him ‘gorgeous.’ Such a lurid word, one you might use to describe a sunset or a mountain vista but to ascribe it to a man…
His looks were meaningless.
In truth, they had nothing to do with him.
Take a father of a certain height, a certain body type, a man descended from conquerors. Combine his DNA with that of a stunning supermodel.
Unless something went very wrong, you’d end up with a man who looked like him.
Six foot two. Leanly muscled body. Broad shoulders, narrow hips, long legs. Thickly-lashed eyes the color of emeralds, square jaw, high cheekbones…
Add in all those anachronistic titles…
Khan’s jaw tightened.
The only thing about him that was his, entirely his, was his fortune.
Forbes called him one of the ten richest men in the world. He suspected it was true but the only reason it mattered was because, unlike his looks and his titles, he had earned that fortune on his own.
Well, he thought, smiling a little as he stood on the terrace of the Texas mansion called El Sueño, well, not exactly.
The truth was, his old friend Travis Wilde had earned it for him.
The only credit he could take was for having been smart enough to have handed Travis the relatively modest inheritance his mother had left him, a decade ago.
“Do something with it,” he’d said.
Travis had glanced at the check, then at him.
“Something safe?” he’d said, with a grin. “Or something risky?”
Khan had laughed.
“Have I ever done anything that was safe?”
Back then, he had not.
He’d lived for risk. For the adrenaline high that came of sky diving, of kayaking rapids nobody sane would go near, of jumping out of hovering helicopter into virgin snow and schussing down from what was surely the edge of the world..
But that had changed.
Two years ago, his father had become ill. Very ill. Within six months, he was gone. Running the kingdom of Altara had fallen to Khan.
His Council of Ministers had told him not to worry. They would take care of things.
Khan’s mouth thinned.
And they had—with near-disastrous results.
His father had ruled as if it were still the 19th century. The ministers, not content with that, had ruled as if it were the 15th century.
Khan was a prince, accustomed to a life of pleasure, but he was not a fool. His country and his people were inexorably part of him.
He’d waited a year. Then, with determination and commitment his ministers had not expected, he had assumed control.
His life had changed, of course, but in his heart, he’d always known this was kismet, his destiny.
Under his guidance, Altara was moving forward, embracing science, technology, and a new infrastructure. Roads. Hospitals. Schools, all funded by the money his father had left, a multi-billion dollar cache the old man had amassed from the kingdom’s oil and mineral resources. His father had treated the money as if it were his own, an ancient custom followed by most of the kingdoms in the so-called Black Gold triangle along the Sapphire Sea. Not anymore.
Khan held a view some of his ministers saw as quaint, even radical.
He believed that Altara’s wealth belonged to Altara.
A New Beginning for an Ancient Kingdom, the New York Times had trumpeted. It was the first time he’d smiled at a headline that involved him.
But there were still those who preferred to see him as a stereotype, a libertine prince with too much money and too few morals.
He came across them all the time.
Tonight, for instance.
He was back to that. The woman. The brunette in the house behind him.
A vein in his temple throbbed.
Ridiculous, that he should permit such an incident to anger him, especially this evening, when he had important business to conduct in Dallas as well as here, at the Wilde ranch.
A sea of oil lay under the endless sands of Altara but much of the drilling equipment was old and outdated. His engineers had tried to convince Khan’s father to invest in new techniques but the older man had been deaf to their pleas.
Khan had listened.
He understood the benefits of looking beyond the Black Gold triangle for new environmental and ecological drilling techniques, and he knew that there were men in Texas who understood such things.
Men like the Wilde brothers.
They were his oldest friends, and for years, they had been among his most trusted advisors.
Jacob was the one to consult about the horses Khan bred on ranches in Brazil and in Altara. Caleb handled all his stateside legal affairs. Travis was the reason he had become almost embarrassingly rich even before he’d ascended the throne.
The four of them had met as undergrads at Columbia University. They’d been acquaintances.
Then, one memorable night, they’d become friends. The memory eased him, and made him smile.
Somehow, they’d ended up going out together after they’d all survived tough finals. The night had been a long journey through pleasure.
They’d ended it in a tough bar off Amsterdam Avenue.
A bunch of punks had decided the three guys with the funny Southern drawls and the guy with the definitely un-American accent would be easy to take.
A couple of bloody noses later, the punks stumbled out into the night. Khan and the Wildes had grinned at each other, and then ordered a round of Buds for the crowd of admirers who’d stood back and watched the brawl.
As the night wore on, they’d talked about the future. Jake wanted to fly combat helicopters. Travis, already a pilot, wanted to fly jets and do in the bad guys. Caleb was talking with a recruiter for a hush-hush government agency.
“I’d tell you all about it,” he’d said solemnly, “but then I’d have to kill you.”
Everybody laughed. Then Caleb looked at Khan.
“So,” he’d said, “what’s it like to be a prince?”
By then, the heady combination of wine, women and a bar fight had loosened Khan’s tongue.
“Actually,” he’d said, “it sucks.”
The Wildes had looked at each other.
“Such princely talk,” Caleb had said.
“You wanted the truth. Well, that’s the truth.” The downside of too much of any indulgence was reality, and Khan had plummeted into a lake of it. “Men should not be judged by such arcane nonsense as titles.”
Silence. Then Jake had raised his eyebrows.
“Arcane,” he’d said, solemnly.
“Arcane,” Travis had echoed.
Caleb had nodded.
“Easy for you to say,” he’d muttered, “even if nobody’s sure what the hell it really means—unless you’re complaining about that title pulling in more babes than any one man can handle.”
It was the truth, but nobody had ever dared be that blunt about it. Nobody was ever blunt, when they dealt with a prince.
In a heartbeat, his mood had soared from zero to ten.
“Oh, I can handle them,” Khan he’d said, modestly, “but if you guys play your cards right, I might just direct the overflow in your direction.”
The Wildes, good-looking and rich and known for the ease with which they attracted women, had burst out laughing. Khan had, too, and after that, there were no barriers between them. In fact, once they knew how he felt about his string of titles, they only used them when things got slow and they wanted to piss him off.
The only times he used them was when a little show of power was needed, and that wasn’t very often.
Over the years, Khan had developed the ability to control virtually all situations with a look, a word, a natural air of quiet command. He never lost control, not in business, not in politics, not in bed.
For a man with his responsibilities, control, self-control, was everything.
And that was precisely why he was so annoyed right now.
For a man who never lost control, he hadn’t done very well tonight.
The Wildes had thrown a small, very civilized party for him tonight. He should have been inside the house, enjoying it.
The woman had eliminated that possibility.
A two minute incident, the kind of thing he’d normally have simply ignored…
Khan drew a long breath, then expelled it.
Okay. Maybe his reaction had been understandable. He was tired. Exhausted, after flying through endless time zones, then spending the day in meetings.
What he needed was a night’s sleep…
Or perhaps a woman. Sex. The relief of tension that came of spending himself within a warm, willing body…
An image flashed through his mind. Dark, soft curls. Enormous blue eyes. A full, rose-pink mouth.
Why was he thinking about her? He probably wouldn’t even have noticed her if Travis hadn’t pointed her out.
They’d been walking him through the huge living room, Travis introducing him to the select group of guests. He’d made small talk with a couple of congressmen, the CEOs of two oil companies, the COO of a third.
Then, Travis had put his hand lightly on his arm.
“There’s someone you need to meet,” he’d murmured, jerking his head toward a brunette who’d just come through the door.
Khan’s first reaction was that the woman was striking but not the type he found attractive. Not that it mattered. This was a business event, not a social one. Still, he was male, she was female, and automatic assessments were, he supposed, inevitable.
She was tall and slender. He liked his women petite and curvy. She wore a severely-tailored suit and—what were shoes like that called? Pumps. That was it. The other women were all wearing silk dresses and delicate sandals. The only outstanding things about her were that the suit was expensive and the shoes had skinny heels high enough to make her already long legs look even longer.
“Who is she?” he’d asked, as Travis led him toward her.
“Her name is Laurel Cruz. She’s an associate at Maxwell and Mayberry. Big law firm—the ‘Maxwell’ is Senator Joseph Maxwell. He’s been out of D.C. for a few years but he’s still got the right contacts, and Laurel’s his right-hand man.”
By then, they’d reached her.
“Right-hand woman,” she’d said, with not even a trace of humor.
Travis had grinned, leaned down, and kissed her on the cheek.
“Uh oh,” he’d said lightly. “Rough day in the legal trenches?”
“Most of them are rough,” Laurel Cruz had replied, shifting her gaze to Khan, appraising him with cool blue eyes.
“Laurel, I’d like to introduce you to our guest of honor—”
“Khan al Hassad. Yes. I know who he is.”
That was how it had all started. The way she’d spoken, not to him but about him, as if he weren’t even there. The disdain in her voice. Her deliberate avoidance of his title—and why in hell that she had bothered him, given his own feelings about titles…
He’d felt his belly knot.
The woman disliked him.
He had no idea why and, frankly, he didn’t much care. He had only to remain polite. He was here as his country’s representative, and he was well-schooled in diplomacy.
Smiling, showing nothing of his feelings, he’d extended his hand.
“Miss Cruz. It’s a pleasure to—”
“It’s Ms. Cruz, and if you want to meet with the senator, I suggest you phone our office for an appointment.”
Khan had held the smile, but with some effort.
“You’re here on oil business.”
“I am, yes.”
“Surely you want help from our satellites, perhaps access to our seismic technology, and the senator has friends in high places.”
Khan’s smile had vanished. “I’m afraid you’ve jumped to conclusions, Ms. Cruz. I am not interested in help from the senator or his friends. I’ve come to discuss Altara’s oil development plans with those best suited to advise me.”
“I must admit, I’m surprised by your willingness to admit you need advice from anyone.”
“Laurel,” Travis had said in a low voice, “the prince is my guest.”
“Of course.” Her smile had been saccharine-sweet. “But aren’t we all supposed to address him as ‘king’?”
“Try speaking directly to me,” Khan had said coldly. “You’ll get better answers.”
“I doubt that.”
Travis had groaned. “I’m sorry, man. I don’t know what—”
“Don’t apologize on Ms. Cruz’s behalf, Travis.” Khan’s eyes had narrowed to icy slits. “And don’t try to silence her. I’m fascinated. She is obviously a woman with strong opinions.”
“And you’re not accustomed to women with opinions,” “Laurel Cruz had said, her eyes as cold as his, “or, at least, to hearing those opinions expressed.
Another time, he might have laughed.
His newly-appointed Minister of Education was a woman. His personal assistant, who was privy to all the secrets of running the kingdom, was a woman. He was about to appoint a woman to head up the newly-instituted Ministry of Health.
“How nice,” he said, with a twist of his lips that bore little resemblance to a smile, “that you are so well-informed.”
Travis had cleared his throat.
“Listen,” he’d said briskly, “I hate to break this up but—”
“”Women like me are well-informed. And that’s going to be the eventual end of you and men like you.”
“Jesus, Laurel,” Travis had hissed, “what’s the matter with you?”
“Nothing’s the matter with me,” Laurel Cruz had snapped. “I’m simply making the most of an opportunity to ask questions.”
“I have not heard a question yet,” Khan had growled.
“Well, here’s one. Do you ever think about the people who grovel before you, Mr. al Hassad? Probably not—but if you do, have you ever wondered if they do it out of choice—or because it is what you and your kind expect?”
Khan had felt a vein in his temple start to throb.
“And what, exactly, is ‘my kind,’ Ms. Cruz?”
“You expect subservience,” she’d said, answering her own question instead of his, her chin lifted, her eyes shot with cold fire. “Blind obedience. Being treated as if you own the world, especially by women. Men like you, Mr. al Hassad, are barbarians!”
By then, she’d been breathing hard. Khan had barely been breathing at all. What he’d been was half-crazed with rage.
He’d taken a step forward. She’d taken a step back. As far as he was concerned, that was the first good thing that had happened since Travis had made the mistake of introducing them.
“I am addressed as Prince Khan,” he’d said, his voice low and hard. “Or as Your Highness. And if we should ever have the misfortune to see each other again, you will also remember that you are to show me the respect I am due.” One step more and his body brushed hers. Despite his anger, he felt the fullness of her breasts, smelled the light floral scent of her hair. That he was aware of her as a woman drove his rage even higher. “If we were in my country, you would do those things on pain of death—and what a pity it is we are not.”
The still-functioning part of his mind had wanted to laugh at the stupid, cheesy lies—but when the color drained from her face, he’d felt a kind of bitter triumph. He knew she was trying to come up with some kind of response, but she failed.
It was time to walk away.
“My regards to the senator,” he’d said, and he’d moved past her, through the remaining knot of guests, and stepped through the open French doors to the patio.
Travis had come after him.
“Khan. I’m sorry about that.”
“You’re our friend. Our guest. And Laurel—”
Khan had whirled toward him.
“What was that all about?”
“Well, she’s an attorney. A hotshot attorney. And—”
“And, what does that have to do with anything?”
“She’s into human rights. Women’s rights. Maybe you read about an incident here a year or so back. A bunch of cretins who’d come here from a place nobody could pronounce or find on a map, raped a woman. A girl, really. She was, I don’t know, fifteen, sixteen. Anyway, she was a bloodied, beaten mess. Somehow, she got home to her folks—and her brothers killed her because they said her rape had dishonored the family.”
“And?” Khan said coldly. “I am responsible for this?”
“No, of course not. See, while Laurel was in law school, she worked with the Justice Project. They’re the ones who try to get—”
“I know what they do,” Khan said impatiently. “They work to set aside the sentences of those who’ve been wrongly imprisoned.”
“Yeah. Well, Laurel started up something similar, except her idea was to get justice for victims like this poor girl.”
“I can almost hear you saying ‘but.'”
“But,” Travis said, “there was some kind of hush-hush diplomatic intervention in Washington, way up the food chain, on behalf of a couple of small, wealthy, oil-rich countries. Laurel’s funding was shut down; the couple of D.C. politicos who’d shown an interest in what she was doing suddenly went deaf, dumb, and blind—”
“In other words, yes, I am responsible because I am from a small, wealthy, oil-rich country.”
“No!” Travis threw out his hands. “All I’m saying is, if you try to see this from Laurel’s side of the fence—”
“Am I the ruler of some hellish piece of earth whose name nobody can pronounce?” Khan had said in white-lipped fury. “Does my nation treat women that way? Do I have anything to do with such barbarism?”
“Of course not. But—”
Khan had raised his hand. “Travis. It wasn’t your fault. Let’s drop it.”
“Sure,” Travis had said, after a long, deep breath. “Okay. We’ll drop it. Come back inside. Have a drink. Let me introduce you to some other people.”
“In a minute.”
Travis had started to say something. Then he’d shrugged, clapped a hand on Khan’s shoulder, and gone back inside the house.
Twenty minutes, perhaps more, had gone by, and he was still on the patio, anger burning a hole in his gut.
He hated what had just happened.
And hated that it had happened before.
Not the same sort of accusation, no, but he’d been judged by outsiders who didn’t know him or his nation or his people. He’d been spoken of as if he were a medieval monster.
And yes, he knew there were places were women were still thought of as property, treated as second-class citizens, that though his father had never physically abused his mother, the way autocratic way he’d dealt with her might well be the reason she’d run away and died in the sudden sandstorm that had sent her car spinning, finally burying it in the ever-shifting, endless sands of the desert…
What was he doing?
So what if Laurel Cruz thought she knew all there was to know about him? So what if she believed his cultural beliefs were those of a barbarian?
The only barbaric thing about him was that a few minutes ago, he’d thought of her and sex in the same instant, but what could you expect of a man who’d been going, non-stop, for God knew how many hours?
Exhaustion was equally barbaric.
He needed some rest. A long, hot shower instead of the quick under-the-spray, out-of-the-spray thing that had been all he’d had time for in the bathroom on his private plane. He needed some time alone where he could be himself, not a man cursed with a hatful of titles.
He took a deep breath. Ran a hand through his hair. Straightened his maroon silk tie, his dark blue Savile Row suit jacket.
Good. Excellent. He was much calmer now.
All he lacked was a smile, and he managed that just as he walked into the living room. Caleb, Jake and Travis were waiting, looking as if they were ready to pick up the pieces.
“Khan?” Jake said. “You okay?”
“You sure? Because we can end everybody home—”
“No. Why would you do that?” He glanced around him. Excellent. No one was looking at him, which surely meant that no one had noticed the little scene that had taken place earlier. And Laurel Cruz was gone. That was even better. “Give me a minute to wash up. Then I want to meet the rest of your guests.”
“Sure. The downstairs lav is—”
“I remember where it is.” Khan clapped Jake on the back, flashed smiles at Travis and Caleb. “I’ll be right back.”
What he needed was to splash his face with cold water, because he wasn’t quite as calm as he’d insisted. If he were, he wouldn’t have found himself looking for the Cruz woman…
And there she was, in the foyer, standing with her back to him as she put on a tan leather jacket.
Did she somehow sense his presence? She must have, because she went still. Then, slowly, she swung around and looked at him.
Her eyes widened.
Just for an instant, she looked wary.
Then she clutched the edges of her lapels. Her chin rose, her gaze zeroed in on his. It was a combative stance, and she erased any doubt when she flashed him a smile filled with contempt.
He could almost feel his blood pressure climb for the sky.
To hell with this, he thought grimly, and started toward her.
It was sheer pleasure to see that look of contempt change to one of fear. She was a woman with foolish opinions, he thought grimly, but she was not a fool.
She swung away from him, went quickly to the massive front door, opened it, and stepped out into the night.
Khan followed her.
She was heading for a red Honda parked in the gravel driveway. By now, she was damn near running but he was bigger, stronger and faster.
It was no contest.
He reached the Honda with seconds to spare.
“You were right,” he said in a low, dangerous voice.
“Get out of my way!”
“Don’t you want to know what you were right about?”
She reached in her pocket, took out her keys, started to point them at the car. Khan plucked them from her hand.
“You said I always get what I want. Then you called me a barbarian.”
She started past him, back toward the house. He grabbed her by the shoulders.
“Let go of me,” she gasped. “Let go, damn you, or I’ll—”
“And what I want right now,” he said, “is this.”
Laurel read what he was going to do in his eyes, in the way his muscles tensed, in the way he looked at her mouth.
Then he lowered his head to hers.
Terror sent her heart racing.
He laughed. She pushed against his chest, tried to twist her face away, but it was useless. He thrust one hand into her hair, cupped the back of her head, and it was all over.
The best she could do was steel herself for his kiss, meant to punish. To subdue. To reinforce what she already knew about men like him, that he didn’t give a damn for anyone but himself and the few exalted souls he considered his equals.
She tensed, waited for his mouth to assault hers.
He brushed his lips over hers, did it again, then settled his mouth against hers in a kiss that was gentle and soft.
He slid his hand down her spine, drew her against him, lifted her into him. And he went on kissing her, kissing her until a breathless little sound escaped her throat, until she felt her lips soften, mold against his, part under his…
That was when he put her from him.
She blinked. And found herself staring up into eyes the frigid green of a winter sea.
“Possessed by a barbarian,” he said in a low voice. “What a hell of a fate to suffer.”
She wanted to say something witty or, at least, insulting. She couldn’t. Her mind was a blank. All she could do was watch the Prince of Altara stride past her, get behind the wheel of a black Land Rover, and gun the engine to life.
The Rover sped off, leaving a spray of gravel in its wake.