Authors: Ella Brooke,Jessica Brooke
Of course, the only things in her refrigerator were a few leftovers in Tupperware containers. They were probably green and fuzzy by now, likely even supporting new forms of life this planet had never seen before.
A familiar warmth rubbed against her shins, and she reached down to pick up her favorite white bundle of fur.
“Ooof,” Kelly said, bringing the cat to her chest. “You are getting super heavy, Jasper. I might have to take you off wet food.”
She sighed and kissed his nose. “It’s just you and me tonight, buddy. I mean, what else is new? Do we crash with Chinese and a movie or do we do pizza and a book?”
“That’s not a helpful answer,” she playfully chastised him, as she pulled out her phone. “Hey, Mandarin Inn, it’s Kelly Kentworth. I am going to need the usual...”
“That’s how the groundbreaking is going. It will take at least a year for a hotel and shopping complex of this scale to be fully built in Zayed, but the contractors are keeping to the schedule. If we can make this work, we’ll turn Zayed into the next desirable tourist city out here. Hell, Dharr, it could be the start of making Zayed as a city that could compete with Dubai. Come for the Gucci, stay for the car racing, indoor roller coasters, and ice-skating. That sort of thing.”
Asam’s older brother grinned. “That’s something to consider, brother, but let’s see if we can get anything going forward, any momentum at all. I’ve risked a lot on various wells for HPI, but oddly, I’ve never been more nervous. New hotels or restaurants often close no matter what you do. You could start with a bang then lose all the buzz. It’s just a completely different venture for us.”
“We could give the best attractions in Vegas, Dubai, or New York a run for their money,” Asam said, running his fingers over the end of his beard.
Unlike his father who was more traditional, Asam kept his beard trimmed short. It had a tip that hung down from his chin, but it was nothing like the chest-length beard his father wore.
Story of his life.
He was always caught between two extremes—the traditions of the Hassem family name and of his father’s expectations and his own personal style and comfort. At the same time, his father’s wish for him was to be responsible and an adequate representative of the family. It was long past time for Asam to be the good son. He’d never be a leader like Faaid had been groomed to be, nor would he ever be the business mogul of the family’s oil empire like Dharr. He was the party animal who loved life. So far, he’d been unable to balance his bachelor lifestyle with all of Sheikh Azhaar’s expectations.
Hell, even his brothers struggled with all the edicts and rules their father dished out. At least they seemed to be finding their way and having great families. All Asam had going for him was the hope for a successful shopping center and hotel unveiling in a few months, if all stayed according to plan. Otherwise, he was destined to remain the “hopeless Casanova” as Dharr often teased, or worse. His mother and father were less kind and often called him a lazy cad.
“Are you okay, brother?” Dharr asked. “You seem distracted. Do you need to extra assistants or should I send Alana with you for a few weeks? I’d like to make sure all I’s are dotted, T’s are crossed, and we don’t get taken advantage of. One thing I’ve found in life is that contractors will always try to wriggle out of obligations if you don’t hold them to it.”
“And they always promise that everything will be done in two weeks,” Asam said, chuckling a little. “No, I’m not nervous like you. This is a great idea. While I’ve never ran a mall and hotel combined, we’re hiring the right people. The Hassem family has always managed its needs before. I think we can do it again. Besides, I’m an expert in which bits of luxury appeal the most. We should go with that here.”
“So those months spent poolside at the Hard Rock in Vegas or hanging out at the Plaza in New York during the holiday season were practice for your shot to be the next Hilton family?”
“Don’t aim so low,” Asam said, chuckling again. “I aim to have the next Bellagio. I mean real luxury. I’m not settling for anything less than a five-star Michelin rating.”
“I just want it done and have nothing catch on fire, be poorly rated, or for anyone to end up with food poisoning.”
“That’s optimism.” Asam slumped down onto the sofa in his brother’s office. “I know this is my first serious business venture.”
“In almost thirty years,” his brother said.
“Yes, but I have a plan. All joking aside, I’ve done my research. We’re in a growing market just with our own citizens. We’ve tripled the average salary in this country with the growth of easy oil access, and as HPI has surged, we have attracted other business ventures as well. We’re close enough to the Dead Sea for that to be a day trip from Zayed and the hotel. It really has so many draws. Yes, I know what type of tile or caviar or even terry cloth I’d prefer. Think of the last eight years since I graduated college as testing what works and what doesn’t at other hotels.”
“Practically all of them with more than your fair share of buxom companions,” Dharr said, his voice taking on a harder edge.
Asam rolled his eyes.
Usually Dharr was the only one who defended him. The family’s tendency to pile on him was one of the big reasons he avoided staying at main palace in Marasimaq when he could. He was only here now because going over the plans was best done in person and not over Skype. Still, he could usually depend on Dharr to understand his restlessness and desire to try everything life had to offer. He couldn’t believe that even Dharr was disdainful of his life choices of late. Maybe being a dad had changed him.
People assumed they had become as wise as Buddha and Confucius combined once they had a kiddo. As much as Asam adored his nephew, he didn’t think Gabriel came along with the secrets of life.
“You too, brother?”
Dharr arched an eyebrow. “What?”
“Don’t play coy. You lack the ability to do it. It doesn’t fool anyone.”
“Then you need to spell things out more.”
“That tone. I know what it means. It means you’ve joined Faaid, Mother, and Father on the ‘ne’er-do-well brother must settle down’ train.”
“I have never said the phrase ‘ne’er-do-well’ in my life, just so you know.”
“A technicality,” Asam replied, stretching his legs out on the sofa. “You think I shouldn’t keep exploring options and having fun.”
“Running a business full-time once the Oasis opens will stop a lot of that extra travel. You can only do so much over email and video chat. Anyway, I admit it’s been on my mind, but not in a ‘you’re bringing shame to us’ way. I’m hardly one to talk.”
“But you’ve done better since the accident and what happened. You weren’t the only one who consented to race.”
Dharr nodded, but he didn’t speak for a while. Asam could understand. His brother had been an even bigger goofball and even less responsible, or at least he was until the racing accident. Asam had no idea what that depth of guilt must feel like, but he knew it had sobered his brother and made him grow up in a way few things ever had.
Finally, Dharr seemed collected enough to continue their conversation. “Kelly visited us last week. She seemed so down.”
“Yes, Kelly’s winning personality probably has a lot to do with that. That kitten has claws, and she’s never been shy about scratching my eyes out when I talk to her. If she’s as nice to other guys, I can understand how she might be on the path to becoming a crazy cat lady.”
“She’s very nice. Alana and I both agreed that you and she should be Gabriel’s godparents.”
“That’s probably as close to a couple as we’ll ever get. I tried to smooth things over with her, but she was nasty at both your wedding and last Ramadan. I’ve gotten to the point where even trying to speak with her ends up feeling like being dipped in acid. I can’t do it. Besides, when have you ever played matchmaker, brother?”
Dharr shrugged. “I don’t, but Alana strongly hinted that if I didn’t want to sleep on the couch, I might want to tell you to get your act together.”
“Like you’d ever let her do that. You’re a sheikh. If she got mad, she’d have to go to a couch or a hotel on her own.”
“You obviously don’t know Alana. She’s as stubborn as any woman I’ve ever met. I’m sure it’s the lawyer in her. It didn’t hurt to bring it up.” Dharr crossed his arms over his chest. “I have to say I agree on this. There seemed to be something between you two at the bachelor party, and you might have made her upset.”
“I went off with a fire-eating stripper, and I’ve never heard the end of it since. I’ve tried apologizing to her or even having a civil conversation. Alana’s misreading the signs, even if Kelly is her best friend. Trust me. Ms. Kentworth would like nothing more than my head on a pike.”
“I doubt Kelly’s that angry,” Dharr said, shaking his head.
“Well then.” Asam sat up on the sofa, leaning forward toward his brother. “If she doesn’t want my head on a pike, I’m still pretty sure she’d castrate me. I appreciate Alana is looking out for her best friend and that you’re trying to help me too, Dharr, but some things just don’t work out. Besides, I have a private yacht cruise next week with half of the Victoria’s Secret new angels for this year. It’s going to be legendary.”
His brother puckered his lips, looking like he’d sucked on a lemon. “I know what it’s like to have fun, but I also know it eventually gets stale. You can think I’m lame or whipped after you go back to your room, but I’ve never been happier in my life. Gabriel and Alana are the reasons why. There’s something about the constant love and support of your own family that makes the rest of life worthwhile. There aren’t enough underwear models in the world to replicate that.”
“Have you met every underwear model in the world? Oh, that might be a good life goal,” Asam retorted.
“I don’t buy that the leering ladies’ man is all you are anymore. It might be a college thing, but it’s not for you now. For Alana’s sake, I wish you and Kelly could rekindle things. I know that’s not something I can hope for. However, no matter what shame Mother and Father keep trying to make you feel, I just wish you’d find the right girl. Deep down I think you’re lonelier than you let on, brother.”
“I’m having fun. Seeing six out of the seven continents whenever I feel like it, and I’m building up my first big real estate project. I couldn’t be happier,” he added, smirking back at his brother, even if it was a forced expression. Asam didn’t feel nearly as nonchalant about any of it as he wished he did.
Damn Dharr for knowing his every tell and grinning knowingly back at him. “As you wish, Asam. You can lie to me as long as you want, but you know how you feel inside. You must feel empty somewhere in your soul because two years ago, before Alana, I felt the same way. Even if Kelly isn’t the one, you’re long past the time of playing with underwear models, and I think you know that.” Dharr stood from his desk. “I need to go check on Alana, actually. She’s drawing up contracts for a new oil company merger with new wells being acquired. You can stay as long as you like, and if you ever get tired of the wild bachelor lifestyle, then Alana can set you up.”
“Victoria’s Secret, Dharr. I never will tire of it.” He leaned back on the sofa and closed his eyes. He’d flown in from Los Angeles after a courtside seat at a Lakers game yesterday, so Asam was still catching up from jet lag. A quick catnap on his brother’s luxurious leather couch couldn’t hurt. “But thank you for offering,” he said, trying to be nice. He lifted his left arm over his eyes. “I’ll catch a quick nap before I walk back to my room. I might have been more exhausted from flying than I thought.”
“You almost face-planted into your dates and honey at breakfast this morning. You’re exactly as tired as I assumed you were,” his brother said.
Asam just shrugged. He was glad when his brother left.
Oddly, Dharr’s quiet concern was harder to deal with than the very vocal complaints of his mother, father, and Faaid. Probably because when the “why aren’t you married yet?” nitpicking came from the rest of his family, it sounded condescending and self-involved. Always more about how Asam’s lifestyle reflected on the Hassem name than about actually caring for him. It was easy to ignore those endless lectures. It was different when he realized his brother and his sister-in-law were hurting for him.
He just didn’t know how to be any different. He wasn’t sure how to make the effort to succeed. After all, for a few brief hours, he’d really connected once with Kelly and felt something he’d never had with a woman before.
But that had all been a mistake, and she’d hated him ever since.
What was wrong with having fun if Faaid and Dharr managed the family business and had all that vaunted responsibility covered?
Heavy footsteps sounded on the tiled floor along with a third distinct thump with every shuffle. Groaning, Asam opened his eyes. Just as he’d feared, his father hunched over his cane. His dark eyes narrowed at Asam, and he shook his head as if Asam would ever be so dense as to miss the clear signs of his father’s disapproval.
The only thing Azhaar Hassem ever seemed to feel for him in his twenty-nine years was disappointment. Well, that mixed with disdain and probably a desire to disown Asam altogether.
“Father, I was hoping I could avoid you this visit.”
His father wheezed and regarded him further. “You hope to avoid me every visit. I can understand why. That’s something to aim for when you know you’re a chronic disappointment.”
Asam surged to his feet. That was clearly his cue to leave. No good ever came from being near Father Dearest. “It’s good to know you’re consistent, Father.”
“Your brothers have grown into the men and leaders I’d hoped they’d be. With Dharr, it took a bit of convincing on my part.”
“You blackmailed and forced him get a bride. Then when he tried to marry Alana, you threw a fit because she wasn’t Muslim enough even if her mother is Lebanese.”
“Her father is still a fumbling infidel, but your brother has straightened out his ways. He no longer races or gets his name in every tabloid and salacious site on the planet.”