Pregnant by the Sheikh

By: Olivia Gates

 One

  Jenan Aal Ghamdi watched the man she was getting engaged to flit among throngs of congratulators—and almost barfed. Again.

  It never failed. Every time she looked at him, hell, every time she thought of him, nausea overpowered her. It was a testament to her self-control that she hadn’t thrown up all over him yet.

  The one thing stopping her from giving in to the compulsion was the stronger aversion to rejoining that tragic farce of an engagement celebration. It had taken her over an hour to escape the hordes of prying—and pitying—guests and take refuge at the far end of the massive ballroom. She’d managed to slink away unnoticed only because she’d refused to wear the getup her “fiancé” had sent her. He’d wanted to flaunt his newly massive wealth and drape his “acquisition” in an oppressively ornate costume complete with scaffolding. With the ton of clashing jewelry he’d provided, she would have glittered with the power of ten disco balls. As it was, in her most obscure and suitably mournful matte black evening gown, she now blended into the darkness of the ballroom’s periphery. It was a minuscule victory, but with her expectations reduced to nil, anything counted now.

  Retreating farther away from everyone’s line of sight, she started breathing normally again. And a surreal sense of detachment descended on her yet again. It was as if none of this was really happening to her but to someone else. As if this was some ridiculous dream she was confident would fade into nothingness the moment she woke up.

  The artificial serenity lasted only moments before the illusion splintered and reality crashed over her again, with another wave of queasiness.

  She was really getting engaged to Hassan Aal Ghaanem!

  The man who happened to be the king of Saraya, who held Zafrana, his neighboring desert kingdom and her homeland, hostage.

  No, she wasn’t getting engaged to the man, she was being bartered to him. Sold. Tonight felt like the beginning of the end of her life as she knew it. The end of her life, period. Whatever came after marrying him wouldn’t be considered life. Not in her book.

  But though this fate was inescapable, she’d still refused to have this reception in Saraya, or even in Zafrana. It had been another empty triumph when he’d relented and agreed to hold it here, in her New York City stomping grounds.

  The city had been her home for the past twelve years. It would stop being so once she started serving her life sentence as Hassan’s wife. But she’d refused to go back to that region to be buried there for the rest of her life a second before she absolutely had to. She’d fled, determined to never return, except for fleeting visits, which had been few and very brief.

  But she’d been regretting her insistence since the moment she’d seen that man’s over-the-top arrangements. If there was anything more abhorrent to her than Hassan himself right now, it was being the center of attention in such an extravagant, overexposed event.

  If this party had been held in their homelands, it wouldn’t have gotten any coverage, what with the privacy measures imposed by the ruling class. But in the heart of New York City and in such a venue with all those high-profile attendees, this engagement party would be all over the worldwide media. Which taught her not to struggle while sinking in quicksand. Her attempt to assert herself had only made her sink deeper in this mess.

  But teaching her a lesson about defying him hadn’t been Hassan’s objective in arranging this spectacle. The man considered nothing but himself. And as the king of a recently prosperous kingdom—now that King Mohab Aal Ghaanem of Jareer was giving Saraya 30 percent of the new kingdom’s massive oil wealth—Hassan Aal Ghaanem had been on a splurging spree after decades of being held back by his kingdom’s limited finances.

  So here they were, in the Terrace Room at The Plaza, where many a legendary celebrity had held prominent events. After all, Hassan considered himself on par with those people.

  Any other time, she would have appreciated the almost five-thousand-square-foot ballroom that had been restored to its early 1900s grandeur. When she’d been here before, the painted ceilings, cathedral-like arches and elaborate pillars leading to its wraparound gallery had transported her to the Renaissance, while the original crystal chandeliers, wall paneling and carpeting had added a golden age refinement to the classical setting. Being here now, for this horrendous occasion, it felt like the setting of her life’s worst nightmare. It literally was.

  Tearing her gaze away from the five hundred guests that filled the ballroom to capacity, her eyes fell to her bare hands. She’d refused to accept the priceless pieces from Saraya’s royal jewelry to be her shabkah—what literally meant “binding.” She was damned if she’d wear his shackles for all to see...

  “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 debt...to 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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