More Precious than a Crown

By: Carol Marinelli

PROLOGUE


‘HAS ANYONE SEEN TRINITY?’

Dianne’s voice carried through the still night. It had become a familiar cry this past year or so, and one that Sheikh Prince Zahid of Ishla had grown more than a little used to whenever he spent time at the Fosters’ residence.

Zahid had been a regular guest to the household since he had been sixteen but now, about to turn twenty-two, he had made the decision that this would be his last time he would stay here. The next time he was invited he would politely decline.

Zahid walked through the woods at the edge of the Foster property. He could hear the sounds of laughter carry across the lake on this clear summer night. Zahid was flying back to Ishla soon and he hoped that his driver would arrive early rather than promptly, for he really would rather not be here. The Fosters were throwing a party to celebrate their son Donald’s graduation and, given that they had added the fact that Zahid too was graduating, it would have been rude to decline.

Next time he would.

Zahid did not enjoy their company, he never really had. Gus Foster was a politician and it seemed to Zahid that he never switched off. His wife Dianne’s sole purpose in life seemed to be to stand by her man whatever Gus did. Since Zahid had known the family, there had been the humiliation of two very public affairs as well as the scandalous revelations of sleazier encounters and not once had Dianne’s plastic smile wavered.

After tonight he would not have to see it again, Zahid thought. Neither would he have to make polite small talk with the obnoxious Gus. He only did it because he was a friend of their son Donald.

Well, as much as Zahid had friends.

Zahid was a lone wolf and very independent. He preferred the company of a beautiful woman on a Saturday night rather than this type of thing, but obligation had brought him here.

When he had been sixteen and a boarder at a top school there had been a random locker inspection and a wad of cash and drugs had been found in Zahid’s locker. They had not been Zahid’s. It hadn’t been the mandatory suspension that had been the problem, though. It had been the deep shame that such a scandal would cause his family.

On hearing the news, Zahid’s father, King Fahid, had immediately boarded his jet to fly from Ishla to speak with the headmaster, not to cover things up, for that was not how things worked in Ishla. Instead, Zahid had explained to Donald, the king was on his way to England to apologise and take his disgraced son home. Once in Ishla, Zahid would have to publicly apologise to the people of Ishla.

‘Even if you didn’t do it?’ Donald had asked.

Zahid had nodded.

‘It is up to the people if they forgive me.’

Zahid had stepped into the headmaster’s office with his back straight and his head held high, ready to meet his fate, only to find out that there had been a misunderstanding.

Donald, the headmaster had informed the prince and king, on hearing about the locker inspection, had panicked and placed the money and drugs in Zahid’s. It was Donald who would now be suspended and the school offered its sincere apologies for the disruption the incident had caused the king.

As the king and young prince had stepped out of the headmaster’s office, there had stood Donald with his father, Gus.

‘Thank you,’ King Fahid had said to Donald, ‘for being man enough to admit the error of your ways.’

‘You miss the point,’ Gus had said to the king. ‘My son would never do drugs, he did this to help a friend.’

The Fosters had taken it on the chin.

Gus had even given a speech in Parliament, stating that even the most loving, functional families were not exempt from the perils of teenage years.

Functional?

Zahid had frowned at the choice of word then and was frowning now as he walked, recalling that time all those years ago.

The Fosters had appeared on the front pages on the Sunday newspapers. Dianne, smiling her plastic smile for the cameras, Gus with his arm around his suitably sheepish-looking son. The only one who had spoiled the picture-perfect image had been Trinity—she had been dressed in her Sunday best but, rather than smiling, she had scowled at the cameras.

Zahid actually smiled as he recalled the photo from yesteryear but he wasn’t smiling a few seconds later when a streak of blonde caught his eye.

There was Trinity.

She was hiding a bag of clothes beneath a tree and wiping lipstick off, and jumped when she heard Zahid call out and start walking towards her.

‘Trinity!’ Zahid said. ‘Your mother has been calling for you. Where have you been?’

She swung around to face him. ‘Please, Zahid, can I say that I’ve been with you?’

‘You know I don’t lie.’

‘Please,’ Trinity said, and then sighed. Zahid was so austere, so formal and so rigid that it was pointless even trying to get him on side. Yet, just as she went to walk off and face the music, he halted her.

‘If I am going to cover for you, first I need to know what you have been up to.’

Trinity slowly turned. Even when she had asked Zahid to cover for her, she’d never really expected him to agree, yet it sounded now like he might. ‘I was at my friend Suzanne’s,’ came her cautious reply.

‘Doing what?’

‘Just...’ Trinity shrugged.

‘Just what?’

‘Dancing.’

‘You have been to a party?’

‘No! We were just listening to music in her room and dancing.’ Trinity almost rolled her eyes as she attempted to explain to his nonplussed expression, because clearly that wasn’t the type of behaviour Zahid would understand. ‘We were trying on make-up, that sort of thing.’

‘Why are you hiding clothes?’ Zahid looked at what she was wearing—a long-sleeved top and a pair of jeans—and then he watched as Trinity screwed her blue eyes closed, no doubt to come up with a suitable lie.

Trinity was, Zahid knew, a skilled liar, only what he didn’t know was that she wasn’t trying to lie now. She simply didn’t know, in this, how she could tell the truth, when it was just a feeling she had.

How could she explain that Suzanne had suggested she borrow some clothes because Trinity hadn’t liked the way her aunt’s new husband had been looking at her in the dress her mother had bought for her? Trinity didn’t understand enough herself, let alone know how to explain it to Zahid, just how awkward Clive made her feel.

She refused to call him Uncle.

He was the reason that she’d run off.

It was the reason that Trinity was always running off at family things and, given that Zahid was only ever there on family occasions, he saw this behaviour all too often.

‘Last time I was here, I caught you climbing out of your bedroom window,’ Zahid said, and watched as Trinity did her very best to keep her face straight. ‘It is not a laughing matter.’

No, it wasn’t a laughing matter, Trinity thought, but the memory of it made her smile. Zahid had refused to believe she had simply been hungry and, rather than facing all the guests, had simply been trying to sneak into the kitchen. He’d brought her out a plate of food and then watched as she’d climbed back up to her room, using a tree and the trellis. Given her practised movements, it had been a presumably well-worn path for Trinity.

‘I haven’t done anything wrong,’ Trinity said.

‘Perhaps not, but on family occasions you should be here.’ It was black and white to Zahid yet sometimes with Trinity it blurred to grey. She was so spirited and wilful and just so visibly unimpressed with her family that at times she made Zahid silently cheer, not that he would let her know that. ‘You don’t just disappear.’

‘I know, I know,’ Trinity started, but then a mischievous smile prettied her sulky face. ‘So, what’s your excuse, then?’

‘Excuse?’

‘What are you doing in the woods?’ And then, as realisation hit, she started to laugh. ‘Sorry, that was a stupid question.’ Zahid’s frown only deepened the more she tried to explain. ‘Well, I guess you needed to...’ Trinity stopped then. There was not a single vulgar thing about Zahid and, no, now that she came to think of it, Trinity could not imagine Zahid popping into the woods to answer the call of nature! ‘My mistake.’

‘I went for a walk so that I could think.’ Zahid looked down at her. Of all the Fosters, Trinity was the only one he would miss. Yes, she made him smile at times, but he wasn’t smiling as he saw that since her last escapade Trinity had changed. She had, in fact, grown into a very beautiful young woman. Her hair was blonde and had been cut in a jagged style, her eyes were huge in a too-thin face and they sparkled as she waited for him to speak. ‘If you were in Ishla you would be expected to support your parents and mix with the guests...’

‘I’m not in Ishla, though.’

As they started to walk back towards the party, Trinity tripped a little.

‘Have you been drinking?’

‘No.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘I think I’d remember if I had.’

He turned her to him and took her cheeks in his hands. He saw her dilated pupils and neither quite recognised the lust between them yet. ‘Blow.’

‘You’re breath-testing me?’

‘Blow,’ Zahid said, and she did, but he could smell no alcohol.

‘What are you up to, Trinity?’ Zahid asked, except his hands did not leave her face and neither did Trinity want them to. Yes, he was boring, yes, he was yawn-yawn dignified, but sometimes when he smiled, sometimes when his subtle humour went completely over her parents’ heads, he made her laugh. She had never understood what women saw in him. Donald was bitterly jealous and complained often to his family that women only went after Zahid for his title.

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