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Arabian Nights
Arabian Nights
Arabian Nights
Ebook484 pages4 hours

Arabian Nights

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About this ebook

Book #2 in the Fairytale Series, an Aladdin/1001 Nights retelling.

Blair Bakhtiar always wanted to be royalty. Zayn al-Haydar wanted to be anything but. When one fateful summer brings them together, the two discover that maybe it's not that much better on the other side... but the journey there is always full of surprises, with love being the biggest surprise of them all.

This is a sequel to Once Upon a One Night Mistake, but can be read as a standalone.

Release dateFeb 21, 2023
Arabian Nights
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Simone Shirazi

Simone Shirazi is an avid reader and writer from Washington, D.C. who started posting novels online at the age of 14. When she’s not reading or writing, she can be found baking cakes, watching makeup tutorials on YouTube, and cuddling with her dogs.

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  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    perfect, amazingly written.... i need more of Laleh and Zayn!!1

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Arabian Nights - Simone Shirazi

PROLOGUE | It’s Hard Out There for a Sheikh

Ruling a country was not a task for the faint of heart. Then again, neither was raising eleven children.

There were days when His Majesty King Mohammed al-Haydar wondered how he’d managed to get himself into such a position. With his youngest daughter turning seven in a week, a slew of international affairs to attend to, and his country’s independence celebration in just a few hours, today was one of those days.

He had been raised knowing he would one day rule Malikbahr, a tiny island country in the Persian Gulf that his family had governed for nearly a hundred years. He had not, however, considered the possibility of having so many children he could start his own football team. Overseeing a country was simple in comparison to being a father, but when combined, he wouldn’t have wished his duties on even his bitterest enemies.

That wasn’t to say he didn’t love his children or his country—he loved both so much it physically hurt. Still, it never stopped him from wondering what life would have been like had he not become king or sired eleven souls.

The former was easy to imagine. There was no escaping the fact he was of royal blood but remaining a mere prince would have meant a chance to lead a much simpler existence. While he would have had a handful of responsibilities regarding the wellbeing of Malikbahr, it certainly wouldn’t have been as many required of a king. Someone else would have been the public face of the country—the one its people turned to in times of crisis and joy; the one who shouldered the blame when things went wrong or took all the credit when the nation flourished; the one who made all the difficult decisions when it came to war, law, and the economy.

It was a beautiful dream, but it would remain just that. A weak, distant desire that would never come to fruition. He would never let it.

His children followed the same example.

Although he loved each of them dearly, Mohammed wondered what it would have been like if he’d only had one or two. It would have been much quieter, no doubt, but it was hard to envision his life without the drama they brought to it. It hadn’t been his or his wife’s original plan to have so many, but by the grace of Allah, they had brought eleven lives into the world, and each one had the ability to drive him mad.

One of his main responsibilities as king was to provide an heir to the throne, and as the proud father of five sons and six daughters, he had fulfilled that duty several times over. Unfortunately, it also presented a problem.

It was a dilemma Mohammed had been carefully considering since the birth of his second son, but it hadn’t gotten any easier by the time the third, fourth, and final fifth arrived. He had been foolish to think that just because his firstborn had been a boy that the child would end up being crown prince one day. It may have sounded perfect on paper, but in reality, it was nothing short of a disaster.

Majid had been a happy baby and a sweet little boy, but his teenage years had been unpleasant. The chubby cheeked child had morphed into a playboy who hated rules, especially those of the Western nations he frequented. Had he not been the son of a noted foreign dignitary with the ability to rescue him from most situations, the boy probably would have been sitting in a jail cell halfway across the globe. Mohammed once thought it was just a phase, that his firstborn would grow out of it once he hit his late twenties, but Majid was thirty-one now, and it didn’t look like he would be settling down anytime soon.

Fortunately, the order of succession in Malikbahr was not based on primogeniture, so the king was—thankfully—free to choose whomever he wanted as heir presumptive. Had that not been the case, Mohammed was sure the country he loved with all his heart would have become the laughingstock of the world. Majid would run the kingdom into the ground.

That was the problem Mohammed faced. With his eldest son unworthy of the throne, he had to choose who he wanted to succeed him, which meant once again going through his lengthy list of children to find a replacement.

After Majid came his beautiful twin girls, two of the six jewels that ruled his heart. However, this was not a woman’s world, and the idea of a queen regnant still wasn’t acceptable. Besides, both were already married and had started families of their own. Who was he to demand they take on a responsibility that would keep the mothers away from their children? Even if they understood the inner workings of the monarchy far better than Majid ever could, there was no way he could ask such a thing.

His next son, Rashid, would have been an excellent candidate had he not already been a professional tennis player. Mohammed didn’t particularly understand his son’s passion for the sport but supported him nonetheless. The same went for Fatima, just two years younger than her tennis champion brother. She was an athlete in her own right, a world ranked equestrian who had represented Malikbahr on numerous occasions. It was a shame neither had shown any interest in politics since their bold personalities were so well suited for it.

That was usually the point when Mohammed began to truly worry about who was going to take his place on the throne one day. At sixty-two with rather poor health, he didn’t have many years left. In all honesty, he was giving himself no more than a decade, though there were days when half of that seemed more accurate. He had gone this long without naming a successor, much to the dismay of his advisors, but there had been no one suitable for the job. This wasn’t a decision he could put off for much longer, and after a visit to his physician two days ago, he knew the time had come to finally choose.

It was plain as day that none of his older children could handle the title. Ya Allah, he was having chest pains just thinking about it. It was absurd that he couldn’t rely on any of his first five to take the crown, but the idea of granting it to one of his younger children seemed even worse. He didn’t want to think about what would happen if he died tomorrow and his almost-seven-year-old daughter somehow became queen.

Then again, the idea was far better than that of letting his brother ascend to the throne. But that was a thought for another day.

With a heavy sigh, the king lifted his gaze to one of the many pictures on his desk. It was a candid shot of himself and his now twenty-year-old son, Zayn, on the day of the boy’s birth. Mohammed could remember practically all thirty hours of his wife’s labor—the longest of all their children—most of them spent pacing the halls of the hospital. She had promised him the agony had been worth it once she was able to hold their beautiful baby boy, and Mohammed had been quick to see why.

Even though the child’s mother had wailed for hours upon hours, Zayn hadn’t immediately let out a cry upon entering the world. Instead of voicing his discontent over leaving the place that had housed him for nine long months, he had fixed his dark eyes on his father and glared as if the whole thing had been Mohammed’s fault. The look had been so jarring that he had to tell himself it was impossible for the tiny infant to actually see him. It had to have been a trick of the light; there was no other explanation for it. No newborn could look at someone in such a way.

However, knowing Zayn today made him reconsider. The boy was still able to pull off that dramatic glare he had given Mohammed all those years ago, a look he still loathed to be on the receiving end of. He could only imagine what it would be like if Zayn were to fix that stare upon a world leader who refused to do something his way. Surely, they would cave to whatever demands had been made. After all, it had worked on one king plenty of times.

Had it not been for his age, the choice for crown prince would have been incontestable, but as someone just out of his teenage years, Zayn was still a child in his father’s eyes. It didn’t help that the boy was off at Oxford University and hadn’t spent a day in Malikbahr’s government. For now, Zayn simply lacked the qualifications, something that was sure to change in the future, but Mohammed didn’t know if he’d be around to witness it.

Sadly, there was no time to wait for Zayn to grow up.

The shrill sound of a phone ringing drew the king out of his reverie. He frowned, confused as to why anyone would be calling him, having given strict instructions that he was not to be disturbed for the next however-many-hours it took to write the speech for Malikbahr’s independence celebration later in the day. He could have had one of his many speechwriters do it for him, but what Mohammed planned to discuss was too close to his heart to entrust to anyone else.

Even if the warning wasn’t enough, he would have thought the fact that it was currently six in the morning would have deterred any disruptions. Whoever was calling either had some urgent message to relay or was just an early riser.

So after a moment’s hesitation, Mohammed lifted the receiver to his ear. Yes?

Static washed over the line, but the king was able to make out the words the caller murmured.

"Assalamu alaikum, Father."

A smile cracked Mohammed’s solemn face. "Wa alaikum salaam, Zayn. I certainly haven’t heard from you in some time."

Another wave of static almost drowned out the boy’s chuckle. I feel guilty for not calling sooner, but I’ve been busy with school. It’s been…intense, to say the least.

All is forgiven. Mohammed laughed. I understand how demanding your schedule is. You have some time off now, yes? Summer break?

Two glorious months. Just enough time to come home and savor the desert heat before I’m shipped back to the land of nonstop rain.

When do you plan on returning? the king inquired, turning in his chair to glance out at the sprawling city forty stories below him. Soon, I hope.

Actually, I’m about to land in Abu Dhabi, Zayn revealed, referencing the emirate connected to one of Malikbahr’s port cities by bridge. I had planned to leave yesterday, but my flight was canceled due to the weather. I almost couldn’t get out of London today since there were no flights home, but a friend of mine was kind enough to allow me to use his private plane. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get clearance to land anywhere in Malikbahr on such short notice, so I’ve arranged for a car to take us across the bridge.

It was then Mohammed realized it wasn’t static he had been hearing, but the roar of a jet’s engine. Traveling in style, he mused. "Your friend is with you?

He is. I invited him to the National Day celebrations as a thank-you for giving me a ride home. Thought I might as well expose him to some of our traditions.

He’s not Arab, I’m assuming.

Persian, actually, but he grew up in America. Zayn paused as the engines reached a deafening level. We’re about to touch down, so we should be home in an hour or two. The excitement in his voice only made Mohammed’s smile grow. I can’t wait to see you, Father. England may be the hub of the Western world, but Malikbahr will always have my heart. I’ll see you soon.

A loud click signaled the end of the call, but it hardly registered to Mohammed.

To even think he had considered bestowing the title of crown prince upon any of his other children was enough to make the King of Malikbahr want to hit his head against the wall. There was only one person worthy of the title.

Besides, Crown Prince Zayn bin Mohammed al-Haydar had a nice ring to it.


The Prince and the Non-Pauper

It wasn’t often that Zayn al-Haydar wished he wasn’t royalty, but as of late, his last name felt more like a burden than a blessing.

Although he was from one of the lesser-known royal families in the world, his title still loomed over his head. True, he didn’t have it nearly as bad as William or Harry, but sometimes he wondered what it would be like to lead a normal, non-royal existence for a day.

Holy fuck, Zayn’s companion, Khalid Bakhtiar, breathed out in awe as they began their trek through Abu Dhabi International Airport. I feel like I’m escorting a celebrity or something. There are so many people looking at you.

Well, that was one way to put it. Zayn had never considered himself any kind of celebrity, but with the way people were snapping pictures and calling his name, it may have been easy for a Westerner to mistake him for one.

Wait until we get to my country. He chuckled, raising a hand to greet the people. It’ll be even crazier, believe me.

Zayn found himself graciously thanking Allah that his security team was there. Without the four men that made up his entourage, there was no way he and Khalid would have been able to fight off the masses and make it to the car waiting for them. Dealing with so many people wasn’t new, but it never seemed to get any easier.

How much crazier? Khalid’s wide, seafoam green eyes darted from person to person in the crowd. Are you expecting a mob scene or something?

No, but I am expecting a parade.


Zayn nodded, trying hard not to laugh. It’s in celebration of our National Day, which is sort of like your Independence Day, I suppose. Fourth of July, right?

I can’t believe you actually remembered, Khalid joked, adjusting the strap of the messenger bag on his shoulder. You should become an honorary American citizen for that—if our people will have you.

Zayn knew damn well they wouldn’t.

It was no secret the majority of America wasn’t fond of Middle Eastern royalty. With the way the media distorted the images of countless kings, sheikhs, and emirs, it was obvious why they believed every royal house had a hand in terrorism. It was sickening that there were so many who believed every person of Arab heritage was some radical fundamentalist who wished death to all Westerners.

I don’t have much interest in becoming an American, he said. "I’m Malikbahri by blood and birth, and I have no intention of ever renouncing my citizenship for a country like yours."

His cheeks warmed when he realized how his words sounded and hoped no one but his friend had heard. Such speech could be easily misinterpreted, and that was the last thing he—and his country—needed.

Okay, Mr. High and Mighty. You can get down from your horse now.

Zayn scowled just as a flashbulb went off in the crowd. "But it’s true. I remember when my father visited your president back in two-thousand-two. All your media could talk about was how he had appointed a cabinet member with ties to al-Qaeda. It was an unfounded rumor!"

We were still sore about 9/11, Khalid reasoned, though he didn’t sound particularly convinced by it. We were looking for anything we could in those days.

Yes, well, if anyone ever suggests such a thing again, we’re cutting off your oil supply, he joked, trying to lighten the mood that had quickly soured. How does thirty dollars a gallon sound to you?

Sounds a hell of a lot cheaper than if Saudi Arabia cut us off. Khalid shot him a grin as they stepped out of the airport and into the desert heat, but the smile was quick to wilt. Fucking hell, it’s a million degrees out here. How do you stand it?

Zayn shrugged as they approached the waiting limo, secretly savoring the high temperatures and cloudless sky. Just used to it, I suppose.

If it wasn’t expected of him to go back for his third year at Oxford come the end of the summer, Zayn would have never left the Gulf. Although he wasn’t officially home yet, Abu Dhabi was a step in the right direction. The towering skyscrapers, the bustling downtown setting, and the men in white thobes were just a few common similarities, but if he had to choose between the UAE and Malikbahr, his country would have won hands down.

Then again, he was a little biased.

And here I was thinking summers in DC were bad, Khalid grumbled. This is a thousand times worse.

Zayn laughed and climbed into the limo, sliding across the leather seat until Khalid had enough room to join him.

Go back to America then, he teased, pushing back the stubborn black curls that had fallen into his eyes. And don’t ask me to come with you.

Khalid rolled his eyes as the car door slammed shut, shielding them from the ruckus outside. One day, I’ll get you to my hometown. Mark my words.

Never going to happen, he wanted to say but held his tongue.

The boys fell into an amicable silence as the limo pulled away from the curb, each occupied with their own thoughts and the sights outside. Fifteen minutes passed before the Zayed-Fakhir Bridge came into view, an eight-lane steel monstrosity that seemed to be suspended in midair over the azure waters of the Gulf. Traffic whizzed by in both directions, transporting goods and people into and out of both cities. Border checkpoints marked each end of the bridge, but the limo bearing the flag of Malikbahr was able to pass through the first with ease. While he disliked being a prince the majority of the time, Zayn knew his title certainly had its perks. This was one of them.

The twenty-minute drive across the bridge went by in a blur, and before he knew it, they had rolled onto Malikbahri soil.

Not that it was hard to tell.

Khalid, who had been staring off into space just moments ago, snapped to attention as he stared out at the city in front of them. Except, his gaze wasn’t trained on any of the impressive buildings, but on a rather expensive car that had just pulled up beside them.

Your face is on a car, he breathed out in awe, glancing back and forth between the decal on the Ferrari and Zayn himself. "Holy shit, man."

The prince glanced at his friend. What, you don’t put pictures of your president and his family on cars for your Independence Day?

Khalid shook his head, gaze still trained on the Ferrari. "Hell no. T-shirts and hats, maybe, but not cars. And definitely not cars that expensive. He paused momentarily when the Ferrari sped away, only to be replaced by a limited release Lamborghini. I am officially in love with your country. Think your dad will adopt me?"

Sorry, Zayn laughed. He already has eleven children. I don’t think he could handle a twelfth.

Shame. I wouldn’t have minded being a prince.

Believe me, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. His eyes drifted toward the window, where the outline of one of the world’s most famous hotels loomed in the distance. You can’t go anywhere or do anything without someone tracking your every move. Sometimes I wish I knew what it was like to be…normal.

It’s boring, trust me, Khalid attempted to reassure him. Then again, I guess I’m not exactly normal either. I mean, you know who my adoptive father is.

Zayn nodded. Amir Bakhtiar was well known in this part of the world, mostly due to his dealings in crude oil, natural gas, and other forms of energy. Seeing as Malikbahr was one of the top ten oil producing countries in the world, Amir was often there on behalf of PersOil, the company his family had run for decades. Zayn had met the elder Bakhtiar on a few occasions but had never known Amir had a son—albeit adopted—until he and Khalid ended up as roommates at Oxford.

Well, my family may not be famous, Khalid continued, but when you have as much money as Amir, you’re bound to be well-known around the world.

I know how that is. Zayn sighed as the limo made a sharp turn and began to slow. A quick glance out the window revealed an all too familiar set of gates swinging open. We’re here.

Khalid glanced up and looked out at the spectacular structure coming into view farther down the road. Is that the palace?

One of them, Zayn replied, already anxious to get out of the car. This is where my mother and younger siblings live. My father divides his time between here and another palace closer to the beach.

"This is amazing. Khalid’s face was all but glued to the window. It puts our fifteen-bedroom summer house in the Hamptons to shame. How many rooms does this place even have?"

A lot. I used to get lost all the time when I was a child. I would be looking for my playroom and somehow end up in one of the three indoor pools.

His roommate shot him a stunned look. Three pools?

It gets hot during the summer, Zayn answered simply, as if that were a sufficient reason for anyone to have that many swimming pools in one place. You would do the same if you lived around here in the summer.

I suppose you’re right. Now are you going to show me those pools, or am I going to have to get lost and discover them all on my own?

Zayn grinned as the car finally came to a halt in the circular drive. Patience is a virtue, he said, though he was just about ready to throw open the door and run inside. Just wait.

Fuck patience. My ass is asleep, and I want to meet your family. Who all is at the palace today?

Everyone but my father, he answered as the driver came around to open the door. It’s honestly rare to have all eleven children in the same place at one time, though.

Why’s that?

Zayn slid out of the car and waited for Khalid to join him outside the towering palace doors. Our schedules are crazy. Majid is off jet setting, Jamilah and Kamilah are with their kids, Rashid and Fatima are usually at a tournament of some sort, Ahmed and Nasim go to boarding school in Switzerland, Alia’s in a ballet program, Hessa spends most of her time in the library, Haifa is always with Mother, and I’m off in the UK. It’s virtually unheard of to have us all together.

Khalid looked rightfully lost. You don’t expect me to remember all those names, do you?

I’ll quiz you on them later, he chuckled, putting a hand to the heavy wood door.

Oh, you’re cruel. Khalid gave him a friendly shot to the shoulder. Now let me into your not-so-humble abode. I want to see how the highest class lives.

With a grin, Zayn allowed the doors to swing open, exposing his roommate to the splendor that was the al-Haydar palace.

But to him, it was just home.


Virgin Territory

As the son of a multi-billionaire, Khalid Bakhtiar had seen a fair share of opulence. Between the private planes, the international properties, and the sheer amount of money at his fingertips, luxury was something he was familiar with.

But this? This was on another level.

Careful of the fountain, Zayn warned as they made their way through the open-air foyer, past two rows of waiting servants. It spits a bit.

While the marble fountain was distracting in its own right, the entrance hall as a whole was spectacular. Hand painted tiles lined not only the floors, but the walls as well, creating a mosaic of script, geometric shapes, and color. It embraced and welcomed its visitors, directing them to the sweeping staircases on either sides of the room, or straight through the archway that led into the lush, green courtyard garden.

Zayn guided them with the ease of someone who had spent plenty of time wandering this grand palace, never faltering or hesitating. Khalid gaped as they made their way up one of the staircases and into the west wing, unsure of what to focus on, because the classic Arabesque architecture was nothing short of a masterpiece.

The color schemes and furnishings changed subtly from hall to hall, but they all flowed smoothly into each other. While the fluidity was a nice touch, Khalid couldn’t tell where exactly they were going, or where they had even come from because of it. Now he could understand how Zayn had gotten so lost in here as a child, because Khalid was certain there was no way he could get out of here on his own. But that wasn’t a problem; he was fine with stumbling along behind Zayn, jaw practically on the floor as they made their way from one end of the palace to the other.

What seemed like an eternity later, Zayn paused in front of a set of intricately carved doors before throwing them open. What looked to be his bedroom lay before them, yet another vast room with a vaulted ceiling and plenty of natural light. Unlike the rest of the colorful building, the space was done in pure white, the only hint of color coming from outside the balcony doors, which peered down at not only the estate’s main garden but hinted at the ocean off in the distance. Khalid was almost certain this was the best view in the entire palace.

As Khalid continued to admire it, Zayn threw himself onto the bed. "Ya Khalid, you don’t know how good it is to be back home. He sighed in bliss. And I get to be here for the next two months, insha’Allah. It doesn’t get any better."

Khalid dropped into an oversized chair in the corner of the room. Nothing like sleeping in your own bed. I should be back in mine soon enough, barring any trouble getting home.

Enjoy it. You excited to see your family?

He nodded before letting his head fall back. My sister and grandmother, at least.

Not your father?

Khalid squeezed his eyes shut. I’m not sure he’s going to be all that happy with me.

No? Zayn lifted his head from the bed. Why not?

I... Khalid trailed off before heaving a sigh and opening his eyes. My sister and I lied to him about something, and he’s probably discovered it by now. I can’t imagine the aftermath is going to be pretty.

It felt strange to be so vague with Zayn about this. The guy may have been his closest friend, but this was a family matter and he was determined to keep family drama contained. Unlike the rest of the Bakhtiars—and probably every other Persian on the planet—he preferred to keep his life private. There was no need to gossip or involve other people in things that didn’t concern them. Too bad everyone he knew felt the exact opposite.

This was between him and his sister. The news of her failed fake engagement and impending arranged—or really, forced—marriage didn’t need to become the latest gossip. Not that he thought Zayn would tell anyone, but it still wasn’t Khalid’s place to speak.

Then why did you lie in the first place? Zayn asked. It was a gentle enough question, but it twisted the knife of guilt in Khalid’s stomach.

He grimaced and dragged a hand through his hair. It’s a long story, but I thought I was protecting her. Turns out, I just made it worse.

Worse was an understatement. Luckily, Amir was still conducting business in Iran, just a few hundred miles away from where Khalid was now, but there was bound to be trouble when they both returned home to DC. Khalid couldn’t imagine the news hadn’t reached Amir yet, and while his sister was sure to bear the brunt of Amir’s wrath, Khalid knew he wouldn’t escape it unscathed either.

I understand, Zayn said softly, pushing himself up on an elbow. I would do anything for my sisters.

Uneasiness lingered in his chest. All he could do now was change the subject and hope it would go away. Speaking of your sisters, when do I get to meet everyone? You can’t expect me to fly all the way out here and not meet your family.

With a laugh, Zayn rolled out of bed and took a moment to stretch. You’re a brave soul to want to. He dropped his arms back to his sides, then motioned for Khalid to follow him. Come on, if you’re going to meet my family, we have to dress you for the occasion.

That sounds ominous, Khalid joked but got up from the chair.

Zayn glanced over his shoulder, taking in Khalid’s outfit of jeans, a black t-shirt, and sneakers. Your attire isn’t exactly appropriate for a National Day celebration, especially as a guest of the royal family.

Hey, this shirt is Gucci, he attempted to protest but stopped when he realized what Zayn meant. "Oh, no. No, no. You will not get me into one of your...dresses."

Zayn grinned, and Khalid didn’t like it one bit. "Come on, what do you have against wearing a thobe?"

Did he really have to answer that? Other than simply coming from two cultures where thobes weren’t part of day-to-day dress, it just seemed weird. It wasn’t that he had anything against thobes—or dishdashas, or kanduras, or…whatever they called them in this damn country—because on actual men from the Gulf they were appropriate, stylish, and he couldn’t deny they looked pretty great.

But on him? A Persian-American who couldn’t stand the idea of wearing something that most Americans would simply mistake for a long, white shirt-dress? Yeah, he’d pass on that.

Unfortunately, his complaints went ignored. Twenty minutes later, Khalid found himself standing next to Zayn in the walk-in closet, assessing their almost identical outfits of thobes and white headdresses held in place by black circlets of rope.

And, well, he couldn’t deny they both looked good.

We could be twins. Khalid snickered, looking back and forth between them. Really, I can’t tell the difference.

"The difference is that my thobe costs about two grand more than yours. And this. Zayn grabbed what looked to be a long, sheer black cloak embroidered with gold off a nearby hook and draped it across his shoulders. You don’t get one of these, sorry."

I’m not complaining, I’d probably roast in that thing. He shook his head, still getting used to the feel of the ghutra. Besides, this feels wrong enough as is. I think I’ve become too Americanized.

I could have told you that ages ago.

Khalid gave him a friendly shot to the shoulder. Asshole.

Come on, let’s get out of here. Zayn laughed, flipping the edge of his ghutra over his shoulder with ease. Last thing I need is to be late for my own father’s speech.

Khalid motioned for Zayn to lead the way, knowing there was no way they would have made it out of the palace before midnight if he had been responsible for guiding them. Even still, it took close to five minutes to make it back to the grand entryway, where a lone figure dressed head to toe in black stood at the bottom of the staircase.

Mama! Zayn exclaimed, practically jumping over the last three steps to reach the abaya clad woman. "Assalamu alaikum, it’s so good to see you."

"Wa alaikum salaam, habibi." The woman laughed, allowing her son to sweep her into a hug.

As happy as Khalid was for his friend’s reunion, the sight of their embrace made his chest constrict. For a moment, all Khalid could see was his own mother, a woman he had lost—along with his biological father and aunt Sahar—many years ago in a tragic accident. It wasn’t often he thought of her, but it was moments like this that made him miss her desperately.

But she was in a better place now. At least, that was what he liked to tell himself. He had never considered himself to be very religious even though he’d been raised Muslim, but if some form of a beautiful afterlife existed, that was where he imagined his mother would be.

The conversation turned fully to Arabic after that, and Khalid had to listen closely to make out what they were saying, distracting him from thoughts of his mother. English was his first language, followed closely by Farsi, but Arabic was something he’d been working on since middle school. At this point he was fluent in the language, but with all the differing dialects, it could be hard to figure out what anyone was saying.

Thankfully, when the conversation finally shifted to include him, Khalid somehow managed to introduce himself to Zayn’s mother without making a fool of himself, a feat he was immensely proud of.

Eventually, Zayn kissed his mother on both of her niqaab covered cheeks and motioned to Khalid that it was finally time to go. Khalid tossed one last goodbye over his shoulder to the woman before stepping out the front doors and back into the sweltering heat of the day.

I didn’t catch like half of that conversation, Khalid admitted. Please tell me I didn’t miss anything important.

Zayn laughed as he plucked a set of car keys from the outstretched palm of one of the palace staff members. No, it was mostly her saying how much she missed me. And that my father wanted to speak to me.

Do you need to go do that now? I can hang out with your mom instead.

It can wait, Zayn said, waving a hand to dismiss the idea. His speech is in less than an hour anyway, so I’m sure he meant he wanted to talk afterward.

You sure?

Positive. Now, come on, we have to fight our way through National Day traffic.

Khalid watched as Zayn motioned toward the Rolls Royce with a Malikbahri flag decal on the side parked just a few feet away, and he could’ve sworn his heart skipped a beat. It was love at first sight.

It just keeps getting better, he said under his breath, reaching out to open the passenger side door. I love this place.

Although Zayn had mentioned something about fighting National Day traffic, it was no trouble when you had a military escort directly from the palace gates. It put the US president’s motorcade—which Khalid had seen hundreds of time thanks to being a DC native—to shame, and this wasn’t even for a head of state.

It was a short fifteen minutes when Zayn finally pulled to a stop on a side street just a few hundred yards from the capital city’s main square. The street was lined with what had to be at least a few hundred people, with even more packed into the square ahead, but it wasn’t the people themselves Khalid found impressive. No, it was the show of patriotism currently on display.

Everywhere he looked, he saw only green, white, black, and red, the colors of the Malikbahri flag. It was painted on the faces of children, draped around the shoulders of elders, and waved above the heads of all. Amongst the flags were the faces of the royal family, printed or even hand painted on massive posters, adorned with calligraphy. While King Mohammed’s face was the most prominent, Khalid was quick to note just how many seemed to be of Zayn.

And, of course, he was also quick to note just how many absolutely breathtaking women were in the crowd.

You have a kingdom full of beautiful women, Khalid murmured to Zayn as they got out of the car, a gorgeous girl in black jeans, heels, and a loosely held together abaya breezing by. "God bless."

Zayn grinned but didn’t turn to look at the girl. Lower your gaze, brother, he teased, nudging Khalid in the ribs. You’re not supposed to stare.

How can you not? he scoffed. There must be something in the water because your people are gorgeous. No wonder your oldest brother is always in the papers with a different girl on his arm each week.

Zayn’s shoulders tensed, but he kept walking, following the lead of his security team. Don’t remind me.

What about you? Khalid prodded, figuring Zayn didn’t want to talk about Majid, the notorious playboy of the al-Haydar family. Have you bedded very many of your subjects?

That’s an inappropriate question to be asking.

Forgive me, your highness, Khalid mocked, grinning as he curtseyed in apology. But I think we’re past the point where any topic is inappropriate.

Zayn gave him a light shove, laughing. "You’re an idiot. And it’s royal highness."

Thank you for correcting me, your royal pain in the ass. He grinned as they continued to walk, coming upon the barricade that led to a massive stage in the middle of the city square. But really, how many?

Zayn stayed silent, seeming to simply listen to the happy shouts and loud music. Zero, he finally answered.

That’s no fun. Khalid took a moment to nod at the guard who let them through the barricade and into the area where a handful of diplomats, high-ranking government officials, and what appeared to be the rest of Zayn’s family were seated. You more interested in girls not from your country? I know I’ve seen you hanging around with a few at school.

It’s still zero.

The grin disappeared from Khalid’s face, and he stopped abruptly. Zero?

Zayn smiled serenely in response.

You mean you’re…

A virgin, yes.

I… Khalid began, unsure of what to say. Wow. Shit. I wasn’t expecting that.

It surprises me too sometimes, Zayn replied, nudging Khalid into walking again.


Zayn hesitated before answering. Let’s just say I did some things in the past I regret. You could call it my rebellious phase.

"And what exactly did you get

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