Pregnant by the Sheikh(2)

By: Olivia Gates

“Are you sure about this, Jen?”

The soft voice, barely audible above the Sarayan celebratory songs blaring over the sound system, sent a spasm through her chest with its melancholy. Zeena, her baby half sister. If anyone was feeling as bad as she was about this whole thing, it was her.

She turned to her, her lips crooking in an attempt at lightness. “Oh, I am, Zee. I’m sure there’s no other way out of the mess Father and Zafrana are in but for me to marry that old goat.”

And that mess wasn’t a recent development, but one with decades-long roots. It was also one she had an indirect hand in.

It had started when her father, Khalil Aal Ghamdi, had found himself on Zafrana’s throne after King Zayd, his second cousin, had died, with him as his closest male relative. Pushed into a position he’d been unsuited for, her father, a dreamer and an artist, had been unable to become a man of state and had been led astray by many an unqualified or malicious counselor.

When she’d returned to Zafrana after graduating from Cornell University with degrees in economics and business administration, she’d seen how her father’s imprudent policies had led to the kingdom’s steady deterioration. She’d tried to guide him, but his entourage’s opposition had been vicious. They’d undone everything she’d accomplished until she’d found herself with only two choices: dedicate her life to fighting that vicious cycle or withdraw from the battle and flee the whole region, where the very way of life was anathema to her. She’d chosen to give up and leave.

As a result of her withdrawal, Zafrana was now cripplingly in Saraya. And Hassan was now poised to annex the kingdom through a marriage of state. Which, her father had informed her, was the only way to save Zafrana. Knowing the depths of the debt, she believed him.

“But you can’t marry him. He’s—he’s old!”

At Zeena’s horrified lament, Jen huffed in bitter irony. “Yeah, I noticed. Hard to miss when your prospective groom is as old as your own father, and reprehensible to boot. Not to mention heinously boring. And to think when the marriage of state was first proposed, I point-blank refused to marry Najeeb.”

Zeena’s honey-brown eyes flared with hope. “Maybe it’s not too late to take your refusal back! I know you love Najeeb like a brother, but if you have to marry anyone, at least he’s a great guy. And a real hunk. You might end up loving him...that way!”

Jen regarded her seventeen-year-old stunning beauty of a sister and remembered again why she was doing this. She sighed. “You think I wouldn’t have grabbed that option if it was still on the table? But Najeeb was as adamant in refusing to marry me just to serve his father’s political ambitions. Then he left to places unknown on another of his globe-trotting humanitarian missions. That’s why Hassan decided he’d marry me himself.”

“Doesn’t this man have a shred of decency? He’s actually two years older than Father!”

“He actually considers he’s done the noble thing, offering his oldest son and crown prince first, and that it was my and Najeeb’s refusals that made him resort to this option. He feels quite righteous, I assure you.”

Zeena looked on the verge of crying again. She’d been looking like that ever since she’d heard the news. But she was clearly past the shock phase and into the bargaining one.

“But if you really have to go through with it—” she paused to shudder “—maybe it won’t be for long.”

“You’re hoping he’ll soon drop dead and release me from my life sentence?” She shook her head at yet more proof of how young and naive her sister was. “Zee, darling, I know anyone over forty is ancient to you. Hell, I’m only thirty, and you make me feel old whenever you’re shocked I do stuff you think reserved for only ‘young’ people. But Hassan is a very robust sixty-five, and I expect him to live another healthy, obnoxious thirty years.”

Zeena clearly couldn’t imagine that terrible fate, or could, and it horrified her. Her tears finally flowed, her voice breaking. “At least tell me it will only be for show.”

Jen sighed again, not knowing what to tell her sister. Their father had mumbled such an assurance, but she figured it had to be what he’d told himself so he wouldn’t feel even guiltier about sacrificing her. Hassan already had a chokehold over Zafrana’s resources and assets, but in their region, blood mattered far more than money when it came to political power. This marriage had to produce an heir, one who’d become her father’s, too, for Hassan to acquire all the power he wanted over Zafrana. Only through such an heir could Hassan rule Zafrana during her father’s lifetime, then fully annex it in the event of his death, once his heir became king, and Hassan became regent until said heir came of age. Hassan sure had his ducks in a row. And she was the first one he had sitting just where he wanted her.

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