Saving the Sheikh
Page 19

 Ruth Cardello

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Am I angry at him for not listening to me?
Or angry at myself for being happy he didn’t?
Maybe it’s something in the coffee, but I don’t seem able to think straight in Najriad.
Tomorrow, I go back to drinking tea.
The next morning, respectfully covered in a simple blue-green ankle-length dress and matching scarf, Zhang sat across from Hadia in a small café after their tour of Nilon City. Najriad was modern in some ways and strictly traditional in others. Women of all ages were either fully covered by abayas or dressed in a more Westernized – though still modest –style, favoring high necklines, long sleeves and long hems. Zhang had asked Hadia for guidance in this matter. She didn’t want her first public appearance to be an offensive one. Hadia’s tour had started with a perusal of the older woman’s closet.
Although Hadia was in her seventies, one wouldn’t have guessed that by how she kept up to date with international fashion designers. She joked that once upon a time she’d had a closet for the street and a closet for her husband, but now she simply dressed for herself. That didn’t mean she didn’t show her respect for the old ways. She still kept mostly covered in public and wore a scarf over her hair.
When Zhang had chosen her clothing based on Hadia’s suggestions, Hadia had commented, “When I read about your very independent life, I wasn’t sure if I could see you as the queen of Najriad, but you have impressed me.
Zhang had shrugged and replied, “I walk the line between two cultures already – what is a third?”
In the café, Hadia ordered coffee and Zhang ordered sanity, a British blend of it. Hadia referenced the guards who stood nearby and asked, “Does it bother you to not be able to go out alone?”
Zhang shook her head. “I lost that privilege years ago when I had my first real taste of success. If you have something, there will always be those who wish to take it from you. I usually travel with my own security.”
Hadia looked around the busy streets. “And where are these men today?”
For a woman who spent most of her days in a palace, she was sharp about the ways of the world. “They’re close,” Zhang admitted. She didn’t doubt for a moment that had she called out in distress, one of her men would have materialized from the surrounding crowd.
Hadia nodded in approval. “So, what did you think of Nilon?”
“It’s beautiful, and the focus that Rachid has placed on higher education is apparent.”
“His goal is to strengthen math and science skills at all levels so that when he moves his headquarters here, our people will not only work in the city – they will invent, create and redesign our economy through innovation.”
“An admirable goal.”
And one much like my own.
Both gracefully thanked the young woman who served their drinks. The girl recognized the king’s mother and bowed repeatedly. She was dressed in a modest, embroidered shirt and loose pants. Uncovered, her long black hair was tied neatly at her neck. Earlier, Hadia had explained that the rules for the youth were changing – something she was both happy and concerned about. However, clothing choice was no longer the topic Hadia was interested in. She said, “My grandson takes his responsibility very seriously, but he struggles with himself. Did he tell you that his mother passed away in childbirth?”
Zhang shook her head and sipped at her black tea. The topic reminded her of how little she knew about the man she would marry in a few days.
Hadia sipped her coffee, nodded with approval to the server who retreated when she did and said, “It shaped who Rachid is, but he won’t speak of it. His mother was quite controversial. She was English and no one accepted her.” Hadia smiled as she remembered the woman. “My son loved her, though. For a while, I feared that he would leave us for her, but they married and she joined him here.”
Zhang sat forward in her seat. “That couldn’t have been easy for her.”
“I imagine it wasn’t. She was rigid in some of her beliefs and that made it more difficult for both of them. She loved Amir, though, and that was enough for me to accept her. The people weren’t as easy to win over. She might have succeeded, but she got pregnant within their first year of marriage and was sickly through most of the pregnancy. She died before the people knew her – or she them.”
“That’s so sad.”
Hadia put her coffee down and looked up, revealing sadness in her eyes. “It was, in more than one way. My son, Amir, took her death hard. He was angry with himself, with the people who didn’t mourn her – even turned against his faith for a time. Amir couldn’t bear to be with Rachid in the beginning. He said it was too painful. Sometimes I think that Rachid has spent his whole life paying the price for a tragedy that was not his fault.”
“Is that why Rachid was sent away to school?” Zhang’s heart broke for the little boy who’d lost everything and for the man who somehow blamed himself.
Shrugging one shoulder slightly, Hadia said, “Amir said it was because he wanted to bring technology to Najriad. His reasoning was sound, but I never agreed with the decision. Rachid was sent away at only eight years old, too young to be on his own. He should have at least brought him home each summer, but he didn’t. He remarried, and perhaps it was easier for all to have Rachid out of the picture. I love my son, but Amir should have called Rachid home when Ghalil was born. Raising one son here and sending one son away has kept them strangers to each other. Strangers make easy adversaries. Ghalil has never had to compete for his father’s love, and everyone believed that he would become king one day.”
“Even though Rachid was the eldest?”
“In Najriad, a ruling sheikh is chosen by his family. Lineage is important, but Amir could pass his title on to a brother or a cousin as easily as he could to his children.”
“Did Rachid consider turning the title down?”
“I’m sure he did. The people don’t know or trust him. I’ve seen him struggle to express himself in Arabic. It can’t be easy for him to try to prove himself worthy.”
“Then why accept it? He has a successful life outside of Najriad. His brother could become king and it seems that they would both be happier.” Anger surfaced for the loyalty Rachid had shown a country that thus far didn’t appreciate the sacrifices he’d made for it.
Hadia took another sip of her coffee and said, “Amir chose Rachid. It’s as simple as that. As far as I know, Rachid has only said no to his father one time.”
Zhang raised an eyebrow in question.
“For you. Amir’s original plan involved tossing you to the proverbial wolves, but Rachid wouldn’t hear of it.” She watched Zhang closely as she said, “He cares about you.”
The news rocked Zhang’s composure. Rachid had defied his father? For her? “He’s only marrying me for political reasons.” She clung to a theory that was becoming more and more difficult to believe.
Hadia smiled gently. “Is he? He was offered another option that would have satisfied his father and his country, but he wouldn’t allow you to be publicly disgraced.”
Uncomfortable with a topic that threatened to make her question the path she had set for herself, Zhang said, “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because your words say you will marry my grandson, but your eyes tell a different story.”
Zhang answered stiffly while pretending to watch the people who passed by the window. “I am marrying Rachid on Saturday.”
“And then?” Hadia asked.
Zhang hedged, “Does anyone know what tomorrow holds?”
“They do if they have already outlined it in their heart.”
We finally come to why you wanted to see me today. Turning to look Hadia in the eye again, Zhang asked, “What do you want from me, Hadia?”
“I want my grandson to finally be happy. You think he needs this wedding to save his country, but he could easily have not married you.” She leaned forward and said earnestly, “I know Rachid. When he promises you forever, he’ll mean it. Will you?”
Zhang’s heart pounded in her chest. She wanted to tell Hadia that none of this was her business, but it was impossible to look into those wise old eyes and do anything but tell her the truth. She whispered, “Rachid wants to control me.”
Hadia suddenly looked amused. “They all try, Zhang. Would you really want a man who whimpered at your feet at the first sign of your displeasure? What fun would that man be in bed?”
Zhang flushed a deep red.
Hadia touched her hand lightly. “I’ve embarrassed you. That wasn’t my intention. Please, forgive me.”
Zhang met the older woman’s eyes and said, “No apology is necessary. Your comment simply took me by surprise.”
Hadia laughed. “Ah, the young always think the old were born wrinkled and chaste. Once upon a time, I married an arrogant desert prince of my own.” Memories temporarily added a shine to her eyes. “I still miss him.” She gripped Zhang’s hand and said, “When you’re my age, will your pride have given you children and grandchildren? Will the independence that you are so afraid of losing comfort you through the losses life will eventually send your way? What is all you have worth if you don’t share it with someone you love?”
Zhang’s throat tightened around a truth that hurt to admit even to herself. She said, “Rachid and I are not in love.”
Hadia made a face. “In love. I have never liked that expression. Love isn’t a bucket one can fall in and out of. Love is a seed of trust deliberately planted in commitment and friendship. If tended to with respect and passion – it flourishes. You’re afraid, and that’s natural – but did you let fear stop you from reaching your business goals? You can’t tell me that you don’t want Rachid. I see the yearning in your eyes whenever we speak of him. You can have it all, Zhang. You can have love and a fulfilling life, but you’ll have to fight for it. Fight for this as hard as you fought for your business and you just might find that you can have both. The question you need to ask yourself is if you want my grandson. If you do, put your fears behind you and go get him. The rest will take care of itself.”
All I have to do is admit that I want it?
Not for one night.
Not for six months.
Forever.
With Rachid.
I want his passion, his protection – his baby.
I want to say those vows and mean them.
Hadia interrupted her thoughts. “I met one of your friends.”
Lil? Abby? It’s a pathetically short list.
“Perhaps friend is too strong of a description. She sat with you a few years ago at a weeklong United Nations conference regarding the conditions of women around the world. She was moved by your commitment to help the women in your country. Her name is Caroline Thelemaque.”
The name did not immediately bring a face to mind. “I’m sorry, I don’t remember her.”
Hadia waved at someone who was stepping out of a cab and onto the street. “That’s fine, because she’s here now.”