The building was quiet that morning, which I liked. England pretty much shut down during the holidays, so the only sound was my footsteps on the marble tile as I walked in the direction of my corner office.
I checked into the other offices, but I didn’t hear the regular clicking of fingers over keyboards or anyone on the phone chatting about numbers or negotiations with other companies.
I closed my eyes for a moment and took it all in. I preferred it silent, but the hustle and bustle of people moving around the building meant that we were making money. Every time someone hung up the phone, I could almost hear the ring of a cash register.
For now, I reveled in the peace, knowing it wouldn’t last for too long. I wouldn’t allow it.
Celebrating Christmas wasn’t important to me in a religious sense, but I appreciated the lights, the decorations, and the sense of joy that filled everyone around me. A lot of people spent time with their families during the holidays, but I couldn’t relate to that. I moved to England to get away from my family. As much as I loved them, we were better hundreds of miles apart.
It was early enough in the day that the employees who were scheduled to work wouldn’t be in for an hour or so. The upcoming New Year’s Eve celebrations the next evening were going to be on their minds. I knew they would work faster and harder to earn the day off in preparation for whatever party would ring in the New Year.
I wasn’t much of a partier, so I would be at my flat getting a jump start on the new quarter.
I’d given my secretary Justine the week off, but she continued to field phone calls and emails from home. My inbox pinged again as I stepped into my office.
The brilliant sun beamed through the floor-to-ceiling windows serving as two of the four walls in my office. The reflection glinted off the freshly fallen snow covering every surface outside, and it was enough to start my morning off with a headache.
It was all a facade since the temperatures weren’t sunny at all. My hand brushed against the cool window as I pulled the shades closed. Blinking black dots out of my vision, I sat down behind my desk. Flicking the mouse, the computer screen lit up.
I barely had my butt in the chair before heavy footsteps sounded from the hallway and my office door swung open.
“All right, mate?” Maddox, my good friend and right-hand man, stood in the doorway.
I narrowed my eyes at him. “I thought I locked that.”
Maddox stepped into my office and closed the door behind him. “Special privileges and all that. I thought you’d be in the office, so I took a chance and came up to say hello to the boss man.”
“I hate when you call me that,” I said, standing up and tugging the lapels of my jacket together before buttoning it. With Maddox in my office, I wasn’t going to get anything done.
“I know,” he said with a grin. “What’s with the shades closed? You hungover from holiday festivities?”
“Not in the least. It’s too bloody bright with the snow.”
Maddox clicked his tongue. “Says the guy with the corner office. Can’t win them all.”
“Guess not,” I said. “Can I help you? I have loads of work to accomplish this morning.”
“That’s what I figured. Just wanted to let you know that the deals that I’ve been working on have been closed.”
“Both of them?”
“That’s right, mate. I’m not just a pretty face.” To accentuate that, he pressed his forefingers into his cheeks and smiled, something you might see a mum doing for her kid during a photograph.
“Brilliant,” I said. “Good job.”
Maddox winked at me. “Be sure to put in a good word with payroll for my bonus.”
With those two deals closed, his commission alone would be more than his bonus this year. He and the others assigned to foreign accounts were bringing in the dough this year and would be handsomely rewarded. There was no better motivator than money, and we had plenty of it.
“Now that that’s taken care of, how about you tell me how we’re going to celebrate these victories?” Maddox asked, clapping his hands and rubbing them together.
“You’re talking about tomorrow night, aren’t you?”
Maddox had been on my ass about celebrating New Year’s Eve for the last two weeks. I had thought my consistent refusals would give him a hint.
Maddox grinned. “It’s the biggest bash of the year, my friend. You can’t expect me to let you sit at home and do nothing except count your billions like Scrooge.”
I crossed the room and opened the shades a little, peering outside. I didn’t get to this point without working my ass off. Maddox wasn’t a stranger to hard work, but to keep my family business running, there was no time for partying.
“I’m not Scrooge,” I said. “I’ll be working. Someone has to.”
“Of course you will,” Maddox said, not hiding the disappointment in his voice. It wasn’t as if I went out all the time. He had to have known that I wouldn’t change my mind.
“Don’t look at me like that,” I said.
Maddox shoved his hands into his pockets. “Like what?”
“Like I kicked your puppy,” I said.
“Promise me a drink on Wednesday, then,” he said. “I won’t take no for an answer.”
“You sure you won’t be too hungover?”
“There’s no such thing,” he said. “I’m off. See you next year.”
I rolled my eyes at his corny joke, and he laughed all the way out of my office and down the hallway.
Turning back to the window, I peered down at the people walking along the streets below. All of them were looking forward to partying the night away tomorrow night.
I wasn’t a complete stick in the mud, but there was no time for rest or partying for me. Of course, that didn’t mean I couldn’t think about it. I imagined sitting in a corner booth with a woman, her body tucked close to mine while we sipped from champagne glasses. At the stroke of midnight, I’d pull her close and kiss her—
A sharp rap on the door blasted me back to the present.
“What is it, Maddox?” I shouted, more from him startling me than actual anger. “I told you, I’m not—”
The door crashed open, and it was definitely not Maddox.
“Father,” I said, straightening my spine. Tensing all of my muscles was a reflex whenever I was in his presence. Years of living in the palace with dignitaries and other royalty visiting our home had drilled the mannerisms into me so hard that they transformed my body within seconds.
King Erol Shamon walked into my office as if he owned the place. Technically, he did but he rarely came to England unless something was wrong. He didn’t need to check up on me, though. So, why was he here?
He glanced over my desk and then narrowed his eyes at the closed curtains. He untucked his hands from the folds of his bisht and strode to the windows to pull the curtains open.
“What has brought you here?” I asked, annoyed at my formal tone. I was the boss of the company, and I had earned respect from my employees. But in the face of my father, I turned ten years old again, ready to be disciplined.
“The new year will bring a lot of changes to our family,” he said without turning to look at me. I hated when he spoke like that, almost as if I had to figure out his riddles. Again, I was a kid, trying to decipher whatever plan he had in mind for me.
“What might those changes be?” I hoped he wasn’t going to ask what I thought he might ask. I’d been dreading the demand for years, which was why I fled to England. I had offered to run the business far away from my family and my responsibility. I had never asked to be raised in a palace, and yet, my future seemed to be set in stone, according to him.
“Don’t pretend to be so naive, Luke,” he said, finally turning to me. His dark eyes locked with mine, and his chin lifted ever so slightly, reminding me of his status. As if I needed reminding.
“I will be stepping down as king, and I expect you to take my place,” he said.
There it was. The unspoken words were finally out there, sealing my fate, the fate I had no interest in following through with.
“You know that isn’t what I want,” I said, forcing the words out as calmly as I could. Taking over the throne was a point of contention between us that he always brought up at the most inconvenient times, usually during family gatherings when he thought that my mother might influence me to agree. She wasn’t in my office today, so why did I still feel her presence in the tightness of my shoulders and the pressure in my chest as if she were?
“This is your birthright,” he said and then quickly clamped his mouth shut.
“You know it’s not,” I said. “But I appreciate you thinking of me for it. I like the life I have here. I’m still serving the family, just in a different way. Can’t you see that?”
“I don’t see it your way,” he said. “At all. This is the role that your mother and I have always seen for you. You have the temperament and the talent to lead.”
“What about Abir?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“He’s not fit to be king,” Father said.
Abir would have been heir if I wasn’t seventeen years older than him, but his gentle demeanor was not a good fit for being a strong leader. Father was right to choose me, but I hated the idea of it. I wanted to live in the Western world. Even though I didn’t have time to enjoy much of it, I didn’t want to be tied down to the kingdom and live under the strict regulations of that life.
“I’m not fit either,” I said. “It’s ridiculous that you would continue to force this on me when it’s not something that I want.”
“Responsibility doesn’t always align with what we want, son,” he said.
How many times were we going to circle this topic? Me saying no and him pressuring me? It was exhausting, and now, time was running out.
“Do you even care about what I do here?” I asked him. “I’ve increased our profits exponentially since I took over. Don’t you think my talents are better suited here? Isn’t this a better way to serve the family?”
“Our heritage supersedes this business. I can find another CEO. Anyone would be happy to take your place.”
I exhaled sharply through my nose. He was right, of course, but if I told him that, then he’d have more leverage on forcing this decision. So, I held firm to my choice. At least while I had any choice at all.
“This decision doesn’t need to be made in one day,” he said. “I’m giving you a month to decide.”
“Is that why you came here today?” I asked. “To give me a month to decide the rest of my life?”
“I came to bring you home at the request of your mother,” he said.
I knew what her request would be. With him taking me back to Qatar, the both of them would be hounding me, forcing their wishes on me.
“As I said, you will have a month to decide.”
“And what if I refuse? Will you find someone else to succeed you?”
“I’m giving you the time as a courtesy,” he said. “I won’t press the issue during that time—”
I snorted, cutting him off. His eyes narrowed. Even though he was my father and the king, it was rare that those two things were separate. He was the king through and through, and it had never been any different.
“But,” he continued. “I trust that you remember your duty and make the right decision.”
The right decision, or his decision?