Sera shook her head. “It might’ve been true centuries ago that the best way to guarantee peace was to turn an enemy into family,” she conceded. “But that was then and this is now. There hasn’t been conflict between the Mafakhirs and our family for decades.”
Leila tilted her head. “And how do you know that’s not because the pact was in place all that time? Since it first began, there’s never been a time when there wasn’t at least one mated pair between our families. Until now. What if the pact really is the only thing keeping the peace? It’s never been broken or tested, Sera. Do you really want to be the first one to try?”
For a moment, hearing her sister’s emphatic reply, Seraphina almost bought into the whole myth. At twenty-seven, she was a practical, independent woman who knew her own mind as well as her own worth, but there was a small part of her—maybe a part of every woman—who still wanted to believe in fairy tales and romance stories.
She wanted to believe in eternal love and happy endings, but that’s not what awaited her on the other side of the powder room door.
“The pact isn’t magic. And the handfast isn’t romantic. It’s all a bunch of silly, outdated nonsense.”
“Well, call it what you will,” Leila murmured. “I think it’s charming.”
“I doubt you’d be so enthusiastic if you were the one being yanked out of your world and all the things that matter to you, only to be dropped into some strange male’s lap as his captive plaything.” Sera considered her dreamy-eyed younger sister. “Or maybe you would.”
Leila laughed and shook her head. “The handfast is only for a week. And you won’t be dropped into anyone’s lap or held against your will. You’re meant to get to know each other away from the distractions of the outside world. That’s all. Handfasting at the oasis retreat is symbolic more than anything else. Besides, I can think of worse things than spending a week in beautiful surroundings, getting to know a handsome Breed male. One who also happens to be a prince.”
Sera scoffed. “A prince in name only. The old tribes of this region aren’t any more royal than you or me.” Which they weren’t. Adopted by Omar and Amina Sanhaja as infants from orphanages for the indigent, there was no chance of that. Sera cocked a curious look on her sister. “How do you know Jehan’s handsome? I thought you’ve never met him.”
“I haven’t. But being Breed, he’s sure to have his mother’s chestnut brown hair and incredible blue eyes. The same as his brother, Marcel.”
Sara rolled her eyes. “Well, I don’t care what he looks like and I don’t care about his pedigree either. I’m not looking for a mate, and if I was, I certainly wouldn’t be going about it this way.”
Yet despite all of that—despite her unwillingness to be part of some antiquated agreement that had long outlived its expiration date as far as she was concerned—she knew she couldn’t walk away from her obligation to her family.
Honoring the pact was important to her parents, which made it important to her as well.
And there was another, more selfish reason she had finally conceded to come.
Several hundred thousand reasons. The amount of her trust fund, which her father had agreed to release to her early. She would have it all at the end of the week—after her handfast with Jehan Mafakhir was over.
Sera needed that money.
As much as her father loved her, he knew she wouldn’t be able to turn away from what he had offered. Not when there was so much she could do with that kind of gift.
That didn’t mean she had to like it.
Nor did it mean she had to like Jehan Mafakhir.
In fact, she was determined to avoid him as much as possible for the duration of their confinement together. If she was lucky, maybe they wouldn’t even need to speak to each other.
Miserable with the whole idea, she exhaled a slow, defeated sigh. “It’s only for eight nights, right?”
Leila nodded, then her eyes went wide at the sound of measured footsteps and deep voices in the hallway. Putting a finger to her lips, she cracked open the door and peered out. She reported to Sera in a hushed whisper. “Jehan just walked into the salon with his father and Marcel. You can’t leave him waiting. We have to get out of here right now!”
The bubble of anxiety Sera had been fighting suddenly spiked into hot panic. “So soon? I thought I’d have a few more minutes before—”
“Now, Sera! Let’s go!” Grabbing her by the arm, Leila opened the door and ushered her outside. As they moved toward the salon, Leila leaned in close to whisper next to Sera’s ear. “And I was right, by the way. He’s beyond handsome.”
Jehan wasn’t sure what had presented the most convincing argument for his consenting to take part in the handfasting: his brother’s earnest persuasion on the ride to the Darkhaven, or his father’s stoic greeting and his resulting obvious, if unspoken, expectation that his eldest son would shirk his obligation to the family.
If he’d been met with furious demands that he must pick up the mantle of responsibility concerning the pact with the Sanhajas, it would have been the easiest thing for Jehan to pivot on his heels and hoof his way back to Casablanca to catch the earliest flight back to Rome.
But his father hadn’t blown up or slammed his fists into his desk when Jehan arrived in his study a few minutes ago to explain that he wanted no part in the duty waiting for him in the salon. Rahim Mafakhir had listened in thoughtful silence. Then he’d simply stood up and walked toward the door of his study without a word.
Not that he’d needed to speak. His lack of reaction spoke volumes.
He’d been anticipating Jehan’s refusal.
He’d been fully prepared for his prodigal son to let him and the rest of the family down.
And as much as Jehan had wanted to pretend he was okay with that, the fact was, it had stung.
It had been at that precise moment—his father’s strong hand wrapped around the doorknob, his stern face grim with disappointment—that Jehan had blurted out words he was certain he’d live to regret.
“I’ll do it,” he’d said. “Eight nights with the Sanhaja female, as the pact requires. Nothing more. Then, after the handfast is over and my duty is fulfilled, I’ll go back to Rome and the pact can move on to the next of our kin in line to heed the call.”
Now, as Jehan entered the salon with his father and Marcel, he felt a small spark of hope.
She wasn’t there. Only his mother and an anxious-looking couple he assumed was Omar and Amina Sanhaja. No sign of the unmated Breedmate he was supposed to formally meet tonight.
Holy shit. Dare he hope the Sanhajas’ daughter had called a stop to this farce?
“Here we are!” An exuberant voice sounded brightly from behind him, killing his hope before it had a chance to fully catch fire.
The voice belonged to a leggy blonde with a megawatt smile and pretty, pale green eyes. Attractive. Certainly cheerful and energetic. As far as temporary housemates went, Marcel was right—there were worse sentences he could endure.
The blonde paused to glance behind her, and that was when Jehan realized his error.
“Come on, Seraphina!” She grabbed the hand of a tall, curvy brunette who’d hesitated momentarily just outside the threshold. “Don’t be shy. Everyone’s waiting for you.”