Saving the Sheikh
Page 18

 Ruth Cardello

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Zhang said, “The wedding is going to be very small. Family and a few friends. It’s more of a formality than a celebration. I doubt we’ll follow many traditions on either side.”
Lil pressed, “You only get married once. Why not enjoy it?”
Lil had a point. Yes, there were aspects of the wedding that she had no control over, but why not enjoy what she could? It was time to give the palace staff something to do besides guard her.
Zhang said, “If you come on Friday, I’ll have a henna party with you both.”
“Really?”
“Sure.”
Abby said, “That’s not necessary, Zhang. It’s your wedding. You don’t have to do anything special for us to attend.”
Zhang said, “I don’t have to – I want to.”
Lil said, “Abby, relax. This will be fun. And I bet Zhang is looking for a way to keep her mind off everything that’s going on.” Zhang didn’t deny the claim, and Lil continued. “Abby doesn’t think like us, Zhang. Dominic is the only wild choice she’s ever made.”
“Us?” Zhang asked.
Lil said, “I knew when I first met you that we were kindred souls, Zhang. I know exactly how this situation made you feel when it got out of control. I do shit like this all the time. Just know that the mortification and embarrassment you feel passes. Sometimes it even turns out well. You can’t let the ugly stuff they’re saying about you in the news get to you.”
Abby hastily put the brakes on her sister’s monologue. “Lil, you’re not making Zhang feel better.”
Lil countered, “You don’t think she’s read the papers?”
Oh, Lil. Zhang said, “I appreciate what you’re trying to do. No matter what the papers say, though, we’re going with the story of a staged bride-napping elopement.”
Lil asked, “And you want us to keep to that story?”
Harsh as it sounded, some things needed to be said. “No, I’m asking you to say nothing. Don’t talk to anyone about this.”
“Don’t worry, Zhang.”
“Lil, this is important. No one.”
Lil sighed dramatically. “I made one mistake with the paparazzi and it never aired.”
Zhang stressed, “Lives will be lost if you make that mistake here, Lil. This isn’t Boston or New York. A mistake won’t be embarrassing here, it’ll be deadly.”
For once, Lil didn’t have a witty response.
Abby asked quietly, “Is it safe for us to come?”
Zhang said, “I wouldn’t ask you if I didn’t think so, but perhaps Colby shouldn’t . . .”
Lil said, “I’ll ask Marie to watch her. She loves Colby and she won’t mind flying out here to do it. Jake would probably have insisted on that, anyway. I used to think he was so in control of his emotions, but you should see him melt when she cries. She knows exactly how to wrap him around her little finger. It’s hilarious to watch.”
Always a planner, Abby asked, “So the earliest you’d like us to come is Friday morning? We’ll set up things on this end and then we can fly over early if you’d like.”
As lovely as the two women were, the less time they actually spent in Najriad, the less of a chance there was that something else could go wrong. “Yes, I have things I need to do before you arrive.”
Like find my sanity.
Zhang continued, “On Saturday, Rachid and I will sign various contracts with our parents. We’ll actually be married then, but only our families will attend that. We will have a dinner that night to celebrate.” Fresh from attending an elaborate and joyous wedding, Zhang felt that she needed to prepare her friends for the difference. Circumstances had diminished what would have been a weeklong extravaganza in Zhang’s or Rachid’s culture into a formal, low-key, one-day affair. Neither family was particularly proud of the publicity that surrounded their wedding day. Since the outcome would be the same, there was really no use focusing on what would have been. If you spend your life mourning what isn’t, you miss out on what is. “It won’t be like yours, Abby, but I’m pleased that you’ll both attend.”
“Anything special we should know?” Abby asked.
Zhang thought about it and said, “Dress conservatively. Even for the wedding. Wear something that covers your shoulders, and keep your skirts long.”
Lil said, “How oppressive. I can’t imagine living somewhere where I can’t dress the way I want to.”
Zhang said, “Different isn’t better or worse, Lil. Often better is merely whatever you’ve grown up with and are used to.”
Never one to hold back, Lil asked, “Are the women there treated like second-class citizens?”
Zhang answered honestly, “I haven’t been here long enough to tell you how the majority of women are treated. However, I would suspect that Najriad is just like every other society – it has its strengths and it has a dark underbelly. Show me a country that doesn’t have something it’s ashamed of and I’ll show you a people who are living a lie. There is always something beautiful and always something ugly. That’s the balance of nature.”
Abby interjected, “It’s difficult for even me to imagine you being told what to do, Zhang.”
“I’ll admit that not every aspect of this will be easy for me.”
Lil said, “I wish . . . I wish I was as good at giving advice as you are, Zhang. You really helped me understand myself better. I want to do the same for you, but I don’t know what to say.”
Zhang smiled gently into the phone. “Sometimes all you can do is support someone.”
Abby said, “We can do that.”
Putting the seriousness behind her, Lil asked, “Hey, will you have a camel at the wedding?”
Abby groaned.
Zhang laughed. “The castle we’re staying in is in the middle of a large city . . . about the size of London. You’d have a better chance of seeing a camel in New York.”
Abby added, “Not to mention, Lil, it’s an awful stereotype to have of an entire region of the world that is actually quite modernized.”
Lil challenged, “Are you telling me that there are no camels at all over there?”
Zhang admitted with a guilty smile that only Lil could wring from her, “I did see one near the desert castle.”
Lil leapt on that one. “Desert castle! I knew it! Oh, Zhang, you are going to have to tell me everything.”
Sorry, Lil, it’s a bit too spicy to share.
Abby said, “Lil, some things are private.”
Confidently, Lil replied, “Not between Zhang and me. We have this connection.”
Zhang’s smile widened and unexpected tears filled her eyes. She didn’t have any female members of her family that she was close to. No one had ever spoken to her the way Lil did, and for a moment she wondered if this was how it felt to have a sister. Even though Abby and Lil bickered, did these two women realize how absolutely blessed they were have each other?
Zhang said, “I am honored that you will both attend my wedding. Abby, I do regret you cutting your honeymoon short for this.”
Abby said, “Well, it’s not like we were holed up in a private cabin. We were touring potential sites to build schools. As a wedding present, Dominic started an educational foundation in my name, and we’re starting a program in South America. It’s exciting work, but nothing that can’t easily be done in a couple of weeks. Your wedding is important. Dominic will be busy with his new Chinese server the following week. I’m just happy that his impromptu visit to Najriad didn’t get him in trouble.”
So am I, Zhang thought.
“So, I’ll see you both on Friday?” Zhang asked in closing.
Abby said, “We wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Lil said, “Wait? What do you want as a wedding present?”
“I have everything I need, or almost everything,” she said. “Bring my phone.”
The second call Zhang made was to the head of her security team. After a brief explanation of the situation, one based on her elopement story, Zhang said abruptly, “Plant men in and around Najriad. I’m staying in the city palace in Nilon. No one can know you’re here. As of now, I don’t need you to do anything except stay close and ready.”
When you pay someone well enough for long enough, they don’t ask why – they just follow your orders. He asked, “Do you have a specific concern, or is this a precaution?”
“A precaution for now, but keep your ears open for chatter. I have a bad feeling, but I can’t pin it down.”
“Do you want someone in the palace?”
Zhang thought about how loyal the servants had proven to be so far and said, “Yes, but you’ll have to recruit a local and be extremely generous.”
Her team hadn’t disappointed her yet in the six years they’d worked for her. I’m not a helpless captive. It was time she showed Rachid exactly who he was marrying. A few days of being with the real her and he might quickly change his mind about how long their marriage would or wouldn’t last.
Oddly, that thought saddened her more than she liked to admit.
Her third call was the one she least wanted to make. She gathered the lead team of Eight Lions Development, her real estate company, and informed them that she would be temporarily working from out of the country . . . very far out.
Why?
Oh, I’m getting married.
Since she didn’t trust any of them enough to share the real story, the explanation was a painfully long exchange of lies and congratulations. Followed by more lies and reassurances that her marriage would only affect her ability to meet with clients for a short time.
Zhang returned to her suite, alone and tired. She slipped off her low-heel shoes and pulled the gown over her head, folding it neatly and placing it on one of the benches in her room. In just her underclothing, she padded over to the walk-in closet and chose a peach silk nightgown. A quick hot shower eased some of her tension, but her mind was still racing when she slipped into the large bed.
Alone isn’t all bad.
Didn’t married women complain of snoring, fighting for blankets and odd smells that were denied in the beginning of marriage and joked about as the couple became more comfortable? Her bed had been the same way for more than ten years – absolutely quiet, all hers without dispute and lightly scented by her preferred perfume – a Jasmine oil. All of that would change on Saturday night. Legally, she and Rachid would be married as soon as they signed the contracts. Rachid might wait until after the guests left on Sunday before moving her to his room, but she doubted that he’d be that patient.
One of Zhang’s strengths was that she made decisions quickly. Indecision hinders action and breeds weakness. There is strength in the mere act of choosing a course and directing all of your energy toward it.
I told him that our marriage would be for six months.
I told him that I didn’t want to sleep with him again.
He dismissed both ideas.
Zhang flipped over onto her stomach and punched the pillow.