Saving the Sheikh
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The more he thought about it, the more optimistic he became.
Zhang understood him in a way no woman before her had. She was a phenomenal lover with a sense of humor that would warm his heart when age cooled their ardor. Beautiful, intelligent, accomplished and strong-willed.
A challenge for sure.
A man could spend a lifetime trying to tame a woman like that.
He instantly hardened as he imagined the methods he’d employ. They hadn’t used the silk scarves that he’d ordered for the desert castle. He imagined Zhang naked and bound to his bed as he teased her mercilessly until she begged him to take her. Attempting to distract his raging libido, he chose which small cap he would wear beneath his headdress to secure it. He studied his image in the mirror as he folded his keffiyeh and added the black ring around it. This is who I am – who I need to be. He shook off the tempting images of a naked Zhang that were challenging his focus. With less than a week to get her to agree to marry him, he’d have to keep a clear head and be more strategic.
He’d start by telling her their marriage would be real. That should bring her some comfort. He could also tell her more about Najriad and his goals for it. Perhaps he’d even ask her for advice. Women liked to feel that their voices were heard. Even as queen, a woman like Zhang would need something outside of their children to occupy her time. He glanced at the folder of research that he’d requested from his security – a summary of Zhang’s business holdings. Of course, he would assume control of her company, but she could start a national charity or an educational project.
He wanted her to be happy.
He’d give her wealth without work, a royal title, children and a husband. No, he didn’t love her, but he respected her. His strong sense of family and duty would keep him faithful. In return, she’d have to adapt to the ways of his people, but that was a small price to pay for a life any woman would love.
Yes, his mistake had been suggesting that they could divorce. The idea had offended her. A woman like her deserved more. And, if he were honest, one night with Zhang had created a need in him that he didn’t think a year of bedding her would lessen. He’d barely slept the night before. He’d lain in his bed craving her as he’d never craved a woman before. He wanted her touch, her kiss, her scent beside him in his bed.
Marriage would give them a lifetime to explore each other.
All he had to do was convince her that she wanted the same thing.
Midmorning, Zhang paced her new gilded cage. If she had been on vacation, she might have appreciated her suite’s blend of ancient and modern luxury. She noted the elegance of the room’s cream walls, which were accented with gold inlay and a crisp white trim. Although she didn’t like to admit it, she’d slept well on the twelve hundred–count bedsheets. The furniture in the bedroom and sitting room could have graced the most luxurious of hotels. Cream couches and other bold-red accent pieces blended well to create an expensive and feminine setting. She could only guess at what the rest of the women’s quarters looked like. A female servant who’d come to her room last night to ensure she had everything she needed had told her that the quarters filled an entire wing.
Zhang’s rooms were somewhat isolated from the rest of the women’s. Making it less likely for anyone to hear me yell for help. The large, second-story windows didn’t open, and the telephone had been removed. It was a beautiful prison cell, but a prison nonetheless.
As she moved from room to room, the material of her floor-length slate-gray satin dress and its light-pink Erdem lace overlay swished, quietly mocking her choice of attire. The gown was the polar opposite of what she normally chose to wear, but compared to the ultrafeminine collection of clothing Rachid’s staff had filled her closet with, it was conservative. Most of the outfits had gold and diamond accents. Some had sequins. Zhang shuddered. Throw me in the palace dungeon, but please don’t dress me in sequins.
Although the servant had been pleasant enough, her loyalty to the royal family had been obvious. She’d answered Zhang’s general questions about the palace, but when Zhang had pushed for specifics her only response had been a polite smile.
When the woman had looked like she was about to leave, Zhang had asked, “What’s your name?”
“Abida,” the woman answered humbly, not meeting Zhang’s eyes.
“Abida, I need a phone. Please. It’s important.”
The servant merely smiled.
Zhang pressed on urgently, “They are keeping me here against my will. You have to help me.”
Another smile, and then the woman said, “If you need anything else, please use the intercom on the wall. It connects to my room.” She took out a key.
The room key.
Zhang made a move toward her, but the woman said hastily, “There is a guard outside your door. The lock is only a formality. Please, don’t make me call for him.”
Zhang offered what she’d thought would tempt any staff member. “I’m a very rich woman. If you help me, you’ll never have to work again. I’ll set you up in any country you want. I can guarantee your safety here and wherever you decide to go. All I need is five minutes with a phone so I can contact my men.”
As the woman opened the door, she said apologetically, “Najriad is my home. You may come to love it, too.”
“I won’t be here long enough for that to happen,” Zhang swore.
The woman bowed her head politely and closed the door behind her. What kind of woman could walk away without helping? She didn’t even blink at the offer of money. Loyal staff would hinder Zhang’s plans to get to a phone, but they wouldn’t stop her. Nothing would.
Every security force had a flaw. She doubted that the palace routinely held women captive. Most likely, the guardsmen were skilled at keeping people out of the palace but lacked experience in containment.
She’d use that weakness to her advantage.
An hour later, Abida returned and said, “Prince Rachid would like you to join him for breakfast.”
Prince Rachid can kiss my ass, Zhang thought, but she forced a smile. Leaving the room would increase her opportunity to discover a way out. “I’m surprised he didn’t deliver the invitation himself.”
The woman said, “Men are not allowed inside this wing.”
“And yet I have a man with a machine gun standing guard at my door.”
“Yes,” the woman answered. “The prince thought it was necessary.”
I bet he did.
“And the prince gets what the prince wants,” Zhang grumbled and followed the woman through the door and down a long white hallway.
“Yes,” the woman said, “but he is a generous man, too. He wants you to be comfortable here. Everyone was instructed to keep you safe and as content as possible.”
Now, there was a possibly useful bit of information.
“I won’t be any level of content as long as I’m kept here against my will. Can’t you see that?”
The woman didn’t respond. She led Zhang down a main stairway and through another long hallway, where she finally stopped near a door. She raised her hand to knock, but before she did, she said, “You are marrying the prince in a few days. When he becomes king, you will be our queen. I cannot imagine a greater honor.” She rapped on the door once softly and opened it, revealing Rachid standing beside a table that had been set for two. The servant bowed and excused herself.
Dressed in the traditional Arab clothing that she was becoming accustomed to seeing him in, Rachid smiled and held out a hand. “You look beautiful this morning.”
Zhang ignored his outstretched hand. “Save the compliments. I want access to a phone – now.”
Instead of responding, Rachid put a hand on Zhang’s lower back and guided her into the room. She hated how her skin warmed and tingled beneath his touch. He held a seat out for her. Zhang considered refusing to sit but decided to choose her battles with care.
“I wasn’t sure what you’d like for breakfast, so I had the cook prepare a variety of foods,” he referenced the plates of fruits and breads. When she didn’t respond, he added, “I can request something else if you’d like.”
“I’m not hungry,” she said, even as her stomach rumbled and she realized she hadn’t eaten anything since the intimate snacks they’d shared at the desert castle.
He took the seat across from her, said, “Suit yourself,” and picked up a luscious piece of melon and bit into it. “I’m starving.”
Her stomach complained again, loudly this time.
Rachid filled a small plate with fruit and cake-like breads. He put it before Zhang. “Eating won’t make me doubt your level of displeasure with me.”
Zhang tasted one of the cakes. It melted in her mouth, its deliciousness surely only due to her hunger. Rachid was right – not eating wasn’t going to prove anything. She took another heavenly bite.
“Coffee?” he offered.
“Please,” she said and marveled at the ridiculousness of their polite exchange. Her mother would cringe at her choice of beverage, but coffee was invigorating and part of the other culture Zhang spent half of her life immersed in. To be successful on a global scale, she’d needed to be as comfortable in the West as she was in the East. And she was, although she sometimes felt it had cost her as much as it had gained her.
Rachid filled her cup and gestured to the cream and sugar. She wondered where the staff was, then decided that he’d probably excused them. You wouldn’t want your help to know how much your bride wanted to leave. Although, after meeting Abida, Zhang wasn’t sure that anyone would care.
Rachid sat back in his chair and said, “I made a mistake yesterday.”
Zhang’s eyes flew to his. “Yes, you did.”
He continued, “I understand why you’re upset.”
Hope filled Zhang. Better late then never.
He said, “No woman wants to marry a man who talks of divorcing her in year. Your anger is justified. You deserve better than that. I don’t have another woman in my life at this time. There’s no reason why our marriage can’t be real.”
Zhang gasped and choked on a crumb. The food lodged in her windpipe, causing her to cough and cough. She took a sip of her coffee and realized too late that, without cream, it was scalding hot.
Rachid handed her a glass of water.
She accepted it angrily and took a fast gulp. As her breathing resumed, she chose the words she’d use to wake her delirious prince up.
He took her hand in his. “I’ll take care of your real estate business for you. You’ll have every luxury you had before, without any of the worry. You’ll finally have the home you were looking for. Here, with me.”
Zhang stood, pulling her hand away from his. “You think I’m upset because I can’t stay longer? You arrogant ass! The reason why our marriage can’t be real is because it’s not going to happen.” Her chest heaved with anger.
He joined her on one side of the table and slid his hands around her waist, pulling her to press against him. “My proud little Zhang, I can give you everything you’ve ever wanted.”