Saving the Sheikh
Page 14

 Ruth Cardello

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Rachid smiled at his father’s dry humor. “The day isn’t over yet. I may.”
Suddenly serious, the king cautioned, “Be careful, Son. I’m here if you need me.”
“I have everything under control, Father.”
“Of course,” his father said with a smile. “Have you won over your betrothed yet?”
Rachid smiled again. “Not yet.”
His father clasped his hands behind his back and said, “Try lilies.”
“Flowers?” Really?
“Your mother always loved them.” And with that, his father turned and walked away.
Lilies.
Well, it was as good as any other idea he’d had that day.
Not one who normally spent hours on quiet reflection, Zhang found the isolation of her suite strangely calming. She couldn’t contact her business team, so there wasn’t much use worrying about how they were dealing with her absence. She’d hired the best and paid them well. They could keep it functioning for the short time it would take her to make her escape.
The desire to have her security team storm the walls of the castle had ebbed as the day went on. She didn’t want to see anyone hurt. Not her men, not these men. Not even Rachid.
I just want to go home.
Wherever the hell that is.
The sound of a key in the lock jolted Zhang. She spun toward the opening door. A tiny older woman who looked to be in her seventies entered. She was dressed in a long Western-style lavender gown that was obviously haute couture despite its simple lines. She approached Zhang with both hands outstretched. “So, this is the woman who has set my household off balance.”
Zhang didn’t take the hand the woman offered, but her resistance didn’t seem to offend her. She walked over to one of the chaises and settled herself gracefully down upon it. Then she patted her lap and waved toward a nearby chair. “Come and talk with me.”
Reluctantly, Zhang took the seat across from her. Perhaps this woman could be persuaded to release her. Only a fool let pride forfeit an opportunity.
“My name is Hadia. You may call me that.” She smiled at Zhang impishly. “Or ‘Grandmother,’ if you prefer.”
Zhang choked a bit on that. She quickly recovered her composure and said, “Hadia – that’s a beautiful name.”
The older woman smiled. “Thank you. Now, tell me what foolishness is going on under this roof. The men would have me believe that my grandson kidnapped you from a wedding, but I know Rachid and he would never behave so irresponsibly.”
“You don’t know him as well as you think.”
A wise glint lit Hadia’s eyes. “You were unwilling?”
Zhang looked away and blushed. “I am now.”
The older woman had a gentle way about her, but there was also a firmness behind her questions. “So, you have a man who waits for you back in China?”
Zhang shook her head.
“Or in America perhaps? Europe?”
I get it. Spare me the list of continents. “I’m single,” Zhang clarified.
“Then you think you can find better than my grandson? A taller man? One more handsome?” Hadia’s eyes narrowed. “You think you will find a more honorable one?”
Frustrated, Zhang snapped, “How about a less insufferably controlling one? A husband of my choosing won’t be quite so quick to lock me up like I’m a piece of property he doesn’t want to lose.”
“And if you were not locked in?”
“I would leave.”
“Then perhaps my grandson is wise to remove the weight of that option from you.”
Zhang glared at Rachid’s grandmother. “What is wrong with the women here? How can you agree with how I’m being treated?”
“Is he mistreating you? Are there bruises beneath the silk he adorns you with?”
Zhang sighed. “No. However, I don’t want to be here. Isn’t that enough?”
The older woman smoothed the material of her gown. “Normally, yes, but you need to look outside of yourself for a moment and see the larger situation.”
Zhang stood and her voice rose with irritation. “What I see clearly is that Rachid doesn’t care what I want, only what’s best for him.”
Hadia raised one shoulder slightly and said, “A man with his back against a wall must make difficult decisions. Rachid is fighting for more than his title. The very future of Najriad is in danger. He isn’t asking you to give up more than he has. Are you so important that your inconvenience is worth the lives that will be lost if our borders fail?”
Zhang fought the pull of Hadia’s words. She didn’t want to picture Rachid as a hero. It was easy to walk away when she imagined Rachid as a coward, but to know that he was willing to sacrifice his freedom for his people was heartbreaking and only made her resolve more painful to maintain. It also reminded her that he wanted to marry her for political reasons and not because he couldn’t imagine his life without her. “A marriage wouldn’t be a mere inconvenience for me. I have a company to run and people who rely on me. If we discussed this rationally, we might come up with a way to smooth the situation over without this extreme solution.”
“There is nothing rational about war, Zhang, and that is what our country is on the verge of.”
“And marrying me does what – gives Rachid access to money to fund his defense?”
“Money isn’t what my grandson needs from you,” Hadia said vaguely.
Zhang sat beside Hadia again. I want to believe that. “Really? He’s already talking about taking control of my company. He said he would remove that worry from me.”
Hadia shook her head in sympathy. “Perhaps it’s because of my age, but I no longer put much merit in what a person says. If you want to know what is in a man’s heart, look to his actions. My grandson built his fortune with hard work and integrity. He has remained loyal to family and country. Now he intends to marry you. I don’t believe that he would take advantage of your situation to rob you.”
“Even with his back against the wall? I’m sorry, I don’t share your faith in humanity.” Zhang felt for the woman across from her, so she shared more than she normally would have. “I fought too hard for my independence – no one is going to take that away from me.”
Hadia leaned forward and put a key in Zhang’s hand. She stood slowly. “I dismissed the guard from your door. There is a phone in the room across the hall and a car at the bottom of the left stairway. The driver is loyal to me and will take you wherever you ask. If you leave.”
Zhang’s hand closed over the key. “Thank you.” She stood and squared her shoulders. “I’m sorry that I couldn’t help you. It’s not my war to fight.”
“Of course,” the woman said sadly. “If you’re here tomorrow, I’ll give you a tour of Nilon and you’ll see what Rachid is willing to fight so hard to save.”
The key dug into Zhang’s clenched hand. “I won’t be here.”
The woman touched Zhang’s shaking hand softly. “Promise me that you will do one thing before you leave.”
I can’t promise to see Rachid again. I would never hide my intention from him.
“If I can,” Zhang answered honestly.
Hadia gave her hands a last supportive squeeze and said, “Call your parents, then make your decision.”
That was the last thing she would have thought the grandmother would ask of her. Call first. Call after. What did it matter? It was an easy promise to make, and one that remarkably satisfied the woman enough to leave her.
Zhang stood in the middle of the room with the key biting into the soft flesh of one hand, long after Hadia had gone. I’m free. She walked through the open door and crossed the hallway to where she found a phone, just as Hadia had promised.
Mom, Dad, a funny thing happened at the wedding I went to this weekend.
No, that’s not right.
Mom, I’m okay. Stop crying. I’m fine.
Sorry about the whole global-shame thing I brought upon our family.
Zhang sighed and reached for the phone.
There really is no chance that they are going to take this news well, is there?
Her mother answered in a Beijing dialect. “Zhang! We expected to hear from you yesterday.”
Zhang looked at the ceiling and chose only bits of the truth. “I was busy.”
“You’re always busy, but this is news that a family shouldn’t hear from a stranger.”
“Mother,” Zhang chose her words carefully, “not everything is as it was presented to you.”
Xiaoli’s voice went up several hysterical octaves. “You’re not going to marry the prince?”
Here it comes.
“He’s not the man for me, Mother. I am leaving today and –”
Her mother cut her off. “Not the man for you? There is no man who is good enough for you, is there? Xin wasn’t good enough. More than a billion people in China and you couldn’t find one here. You had to choose a foreign man I won’t be able to speak to.”
Zhang rubbed her forehead in irritation. “Because you refuse to learn English.”
“Why should I? I never asked for any of this. I was happy in our village. This is your dream. It doesn’t matter to you how it affects the rest of us. How could you do this to me? Do you care that you have humiliated me with this? I can’t leave the house. You are all everyone is talking about and very few believe that you were kidnapped. They say my daughter is a whore. And now you tell me that you are not going to marry this man? Even he is not good enough for you?” The sound of her mother breaking down into tears tore at Zhang.
“Mother,” Zhang said urgently, wishing she were there beside her, but knowing that even if she had been was nothing she could say that would have eased her mother’s pain. Some disappointments run too deep.
“I don’t know you, Zhang. I don’t understand how you could do this to us,” Xiaoli said tearfully, and the phone clattered as if it had dropped to the floor.
A moment later, Zhang’s father was on the phone, comforting his daughter in English. “Your mother will be fine. It’s a relief to hear your voice.”
Zhang choked on the emotion that swelled within her.
“Is it true that you’re not marrying the prince?” Qiang asked.
Was there a right answer to that question?
“Is he a cruel man?” her father asked when she didn’t respond.
Thinking back over the last couple of days, Zhang knew he wasn’t. He was infuriatingly sure of himself, but outside of detaining her, she couldn’t fault how he had treated her. “No, Father.”
“Is he an honorable man?” Qiang asked quietly.
Once again, difficult as it was to admit, Rachid’s loyalty to his family and his people was something she reluctantly respected. “Yes,” she whispered.
Her father’s voice deepened with emotion. “You are my child, Zhang. I would do anything for you. Tell me that you have been mistreated and I will gather resources here and come for you. There will not be a corner of the planet where this Prince Rachid can hide from my vengeance. I will gladly give my last breath to save you and protect you when you return. I don’t care what people say. If someone hurt you, we will stand together.” Slow, hot tears poured down Zhang’s face as Qiang continued to speak. “But if you went with this man willingly – if you did what people say – you need to make this right.”