Saving the Sheikh
Page 17

 Ruth Cardello

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Rachid said, “Father, I should have told you . . .”
His father dismissed his son’s concerns with a wave of his hand. “Don’t worry, Son, I am finding each guest more interesting than the last.” He sat and encouraged the group to take seats. Only one did. Amir gestured to the older man who had taken the seat to his right. “Mr. Andrade and his son, Stephan, are here to discuss a possible business opportunity. Mr. Walton says that he received a disturbing text from a friend he thought was in danger, but who I see now is . . .” He paused as he took in the bruises on Dominic’s face, then added, “No longer a point of concern.”
Dominic scowled at Jake. “It took you long enough to get here.” When he saw the half-eaten plate of fruit in front of his business partner, he asked sarcastically, “How was lunch?”
Jake didn’t look bothered by his friend’s irritation. “I was in London when I found out you’d come here. You’re lucky that I was already on my way when I received your text.”
“Lucky?” Dominic asked. “My version of a rescue mission doesn’t include a snack.”
Jake smiled. “Diplomacy, Dominic. I wasn’t leaving without you.”
Dominic turned to the blond man in the room and boomed out another question: “Did you come to save me, too, Stephan?”
Stephan took a moment to study the marks on Dominic’s face and his mouth twitched with humor he tried to contain. “I was invited. I’m not sure what happened to you, but my visit has been quite pleasant so far.”
Dominic reached forward and grabbed the man by his shirt collar. Instead of cowering as some might have, Stephan burst out laughing. “Dominic, I can’t . . . I can’t pretend the idea of you being held by Najriad’s royal security isn’t funny.”
When Dominic’s left hand pulled back to punch the humor out of his old adversary, Stephan only laughed more and raised one hand in a mockery of defending himself. “Remember your sister, Dom. She doesn’t like it when we fight.”
With a grunt of frustration, Dominic shoved a still-smiling Stephan away from him. “You’ll push me too far one day, Stephan.”
Stephan straightened his clothing, not looking the least bit concerned. “Is it my fault that you’re so easy to bait?”
Jake moved between the two men. “This isn’t helping anyone.”
Stephan said, “Five minutes ago you found humor in the situation. Don’t pretend you didn’t.”
Rachid stepped into the mix. “Perhaps we should move on to a less exciting topic.”
Jake said, “Like what we’re all doing here? I left Lil in London, but she’s worried about Zhang.”
Rachid said, “There’s no reason for anyone to be concerned. Zhang and I will marry this weekend.”
Jake said, “I’d like to see her if it’s possible.”
Dominic said, “I met with her. She’s not doing it under duress.”
Rachid’s father said, “Of course you are all welcome to attend the wedding to see for yourselves.”
Stephan said, “Are you sure Najriad can handle two visits from Dominic?”
Dominic made an ugly sound in his throat. “Rachid, let Stephan meet your security. Please.”
Rachid laughed.
Antonio Andrade entered the testosterone-filled conversation from his seat, gently admonishing his son. “Stephan, enough. King Amir will think I raised you with no manners.”
The king laughed in sympathy with his fellow father. “I have two sons. If no blood is spilled, I’m not usually concerned.”
Antonio joined his laughter. “Isn’t it difficult to turn the reins over when they still sound like schoolboys at times?”
Amir met his son’s eyes across the room and said, “I admit to moments of concern in the past, but my son impresses me more with each passing day.”
Feeling much younger than his thirty years, Rachid straightened with pride. For the first time since his father had summoned him home, he began to think he might save Najriad after all.
A short time later, Stephan and his father stood and shook hands with the king and Rachid. Stephan said, “Thank you. We have all of the information we need, and we’ll send you over some proposals based on what we discussed earlier.”
Antonio said, “We don’t expect a quick response since this is sure to be a busy week for your family. Please contact either of us if you have any questions.”
As Stephan passed Dominic, he said, “Do you need a ride home?”
Dominic shook his head and said, “Say hello to Nicole for me.”
Antonio shook Dominic’s hand warmly and said, “Will you return to the States before the weekend?”
Dominic said, “I’ll be joining Abby in London for a few days.”
Rachid called two guards over to walk Stephan and his father out.
Lil Dartley answered her phone on the fourth ring, sounding as flustered as she normally did, which was oddly reassuring. Parts of Zhang’s world might be entirely upside down, but Lil was proof that some of it was still intact.
“Lil,” Zhang started but was quickly overridden by her friend.
“Oh, my God, Zhang! Are you all right?” Lil raised her voice and said loudly, “Abby, it’s Zhang!”
Zhang groaned. “I was hoping to speak with you privately.”
Lil made a dramatic correction to her sister. “No, no, I didn’t say Zhang. I said . . . Stan?”
Zhang heard Abby say, “You are the world’s worst liar, Lil. If that’s Zhang, can you ask her if she’s okay? Then I’ll leave you alone to talk to her.”
Lil said nothing for a moment and then said, “This feels like one of those trick questions. If I ask her how she’s doing you’re going to know it’s Zhang.”
Abby said, “I already do.”
Lil’s voice deepened with irritation. “She wants to talk to me privately.”
“What if she needs help and only has one minute to tell us before they catch her?”
In a rush, Lil said, “Oh, shit, I didn’t think of that. Zhang, are you okay? Say something.”
Zhang smiled into the phone. “I miss you two.” She rolled her eyes in resignation. “Put me on speakerphone.”
Abby said, “Dom and I were in South America when we saw the photos. What happened, Zhang? The news said that you were taken against your will. We tried to contact you and when you didn’t answer your phone I knew something was wrong. Dominic sent me to London to meet up with Lil and went on to Najriad.”
Lil said, “Jake should be there by now, too.”
Zhang said, “I only saw Dominic.”
Abby said, “And he’s fine? He was so angry I was afraid he was going to do something dangerous and get himself killed.”
Zhang remembered the bruises on his face but kept that to herself. Abby would only worry more. “He and Rachid were going to see his father when I left them.”
Lil said, “Knowing Jake, he is probably having lunch with the king.” Zhang had to admit that Lil’s guess was probably right on target. If Jake was in Najriad, he would be smoothing things over.
Too late to save her, but sweet nonetheless.
Abby said, “I hated to see him go, but I’ll never forget how you came for me when I needed you.” She paused, then asked, “If you’re not in any danger, why didn’t you answer your phone?”
Lil reluctantly added, “I have her phone.”
Abby’s voice rose as she asked, “You have her phone and you didn’t tell me? Wait, why do you have Zhang’s phone?” She directed her next question to Zhang. “Why does she have your phone?”
Zhang opened her mouth to answer, but as usual, the Americans supplied their own answers. Abby said, “Lil, what did you do?”
Lil said, “I may have dared her to kiss Rachid.”
Abby sighed. “Lil, how could you?”
Lil defended herself. “I just said ‘kiss.’ I don’t know what they were doing in that photo, but none of that was my fault.”
Zhang cut in. “Abby, don’t blame your sister. I took the dare. I left with Rachid. Neither of us noticed the photographer. Lil’s idea just got a little out of hand.”
“That’s nothing new,” Abby said. “Lil, you ruined my honeymoon.”
Lil didn’t sound contrite when she answered, “You can afford another one. How many chances was Zhang going to have to kiss a hot sheikh?”
During the ensuing pause in the sisters’ conversation, Zhang said, “I am sorry about your honeymoon, Abby. I know this will delay it even further, but I’m calling to invite both of you to a wedding dinner on Saturday.”
For one blissful moment, both women were quiet. Then Lil burst out, “Are you getting married, Zhang?”
Zhang almost laughed at the excitement in the young woman’s voice.
Abby sounded much more cautious. “Is this what you want, Zhang? If it’s not, we can fix this. I don’t know how, but I’m sure there is something we can do.”
Lil said, “I have to hear how he proposed! It must have been amazing for you to say yes.”
Abby said, “Lil, she didn’t know him before our wedding. Do you honestly think they are in love?”
Lil defended her enthusiasm. “You decided to marry Dominic after a week.”
Abby said, “That was different.”
Lil said, “Sure, so different. Let’s see. You hooked up with Dominic, flew to another country with him, the world thought he’d kidnapped you, but you were really in love with him and ready to marry him. I can see how this is totally different.”
Abby sighed and then laughed. “I hate when you’re so wrong and so right at the same time. It makes arguing with you very hard.”
Lil laughed too. “Just because I see things differently doesn’t make my view wrong. Now, can we get back to Zhang? Zhang, are you still there?”
Zhang chuckled. “Yes, I’m here.”
Lil asked, “You’re not being forced to marry Rachid, are you, Zhang?”
Zhang hesitated. She doubted either of these women would understand how honor trumped personal happiness. Americans saw themselves as individuals, responsible only for their own happiness. They prided themselves on their independence. Even though there were parts of her culture that she had defied, family honor was still as important to Zhang as her own life was. She knew Rachid felt the same. Beyond that, it wasn’t as if she could explain the tangled sexual web she’d woven for herself. So she simply said, “No one is forcing me.”
Abby asked, “You’re happy?”
Yes would have been a lie. “I want to marry him.”
Abby said, “It seems so sudden.” From the worried tone in her voice, it was clear that she was still unconvinced.
Lil said, “Well, I think it’s romantic. And we get to attend a second wedding in one week!” She thought about it and asked, “Zhang, can we do that henna thing? You know, how they do those temporary tattoos?”