Saving the Sheikh
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Rachid bin Amir al Hantan, crown prince of Najriad – easily the most attractive man she’d ever seen and the only one she’d ever pinkie-sworn to kiss.
Lil, why did I let you talk me into this?
If she were honest, it wasn’t her new friend’s fault. It had taken Zhang just one look into those beautiful black eyes – even when they had been only digitally displayed on a wall-length screen, during Abby’s bachelorette party – to realize that years of neglect didn’t stop genitalia from functioning.
So much for using it or losing it.
Hers was a case of damming it up the best she could for years and then feeling ridiculous when a photo was enough to make her thighs quiver. Celibacy must be its own type of insanity. There was no other explanation for why a self-made, successful businesswoman would be staring longingly across an aisle at a perfect stranger, like a schoolgirl hoping her first crush would notice her, and periodically smiling at him even though he didn’t return the overture.
And why would he?
Men like Rachid aren’t attracted to women like me. Any of the women standing next to me probably would have a hundred percent better chance of gaining his attention. Forget how radiant Abby was as a bride: Her sister, Lil, exuded a sexual confidence that made men stand straighter when she entered a room. Nicole Corisi, the groom’s sister, had a cool, feminine sophistication – stunning in a way few women were. Even Maddy, Stephan’s young cousin who had recently given birth, had a playful little-sister appeal that brought out the protective side in men.
And what do I have?
The ability to back down even the most aggressive opponent.
Wow, that’s sexy.
I can sense a market trend months before others can and make millions practically in my sleep.
That and a calculator puts me at . . . what . . . negative four on a sex scale?
I wasn’t always like this.
There had been a time, long ago, when she had laughed, tucked into a lover’s embrace, and felt sexy and invincible. Until that love had demanded that she choose – and she had.
A fork in the road. One way had led to a life she’d been able to imagine every day of, and the other to one that had promised real struggle – but also the possibility of satisfying a need that had always burned within her.
Even as a young woman, Zhang had wanted to see everything and learn as much as she could, and she’d sworn to one day improve the living conditions of her family and her countrywomen. Lofty goals for someone born into poverty in a small Chinese village.
Goals she had thought Xin Yui understood. In his first year of university, they had spent many hours passionately debating the topics from his courses.
And making love.
Young and foolish.
If anyone had discovered their secret, Zhang would have paid a hefty price of both shame and punishment.
On what was easily the worst night of her life, Xin had begged her to run away with him. He’d wanted to marry quickly and return to his parents’ home together. He’d saved enough money to make the generous gifts that would win her parents’ forgiveness for their impulsive actions.
All she had to do was say yes.
Yes to putting her dreams aside.
Yes to a life she had been raised to respect.
It should have been an easy decision. This was what women did when they married. Their focus became their new husband, his family and the child they created together. At eighteen, many of her friends were married. Some had a son or daughter already. She’d thought it was what she also wanted until Xin had asked and a voice in her heart had screamed a refusal.
No to putting her dreams aside.
No to the life she had been raised to respect.
No to Xin.
Not a single one of her friends understood her decision. She’d tried to explain to them that she wasn’t passing judgment on their life choices. At first they had been worried for her, but concern became anger, and they’d lashed out as if her decision somehow threatened their own. The women in her family distanced themselves from her. Her own mother refused to speak to her for months.
Xin must have truly loved her, because he didn’t give up easily. He waited for her until he could wait no longer. Out of desperation, he had gone and spoken to her father, hoping the well-respected elder could persuade Zhang to marry him.
In a move that had shaken his standing in the community, Zhang’s father had defended her right to choose her path. Despite a public backlash – or perhaps because of it – he had taken the family’s savings and sent Zhang to the city to go to university. His support was selfless, and it had amplified Zhang’s drive to succeed. Whenever she’d doubted herself, she thought of what her father had risked for her to have her chance.
It had taken her five years to make enough money to move her parents out of their small village and into a modest home in the city. Only a few more years before they had homes all over the world and private planes to take them wherever they wanted to go.
Long ago, Zhang had surpassed even what she’d dreamt she could become. She had more money than she could spend in a thousand lifetimes, and enough political influence to enact policy changes that would improve the lives of millions of Chinese women.
So why am I not happy?
Why am I grasping at a pinkie-sworn kiss like it could change my life?
Because I’m alone.
The universe had a way of sending messages and opportunities. Most people didn’t allow themselves to hear them. Zhang was keenly attuned to these nudges and credited her success to that gift.
Lil’s words were a divine dare – a price demanded for a second chance at love. The ocean breeze whispered, Prove that you want it and it can be yours.
Cheering announced the end of the ceremony Zhang should have been paying attention to. Dominic Corisi and his new bride reluctantly broke off their passionate kiss and led the way down the aisle. One by one, bridesmaids linked arms with groomsmen and followed the newly married couple.
Lil Dartley and Jake Walton.
Nicole Corisi and Stephan Andrade.
Maddy and her husband, Richard D’Argenson.
Zhang held her breath and stepped forward, linking her arm with Rachid’s. She peeked up at him from beneath her lashes and offered him a sweet smile.
He scowled down at her.
Zhang’s hand tightened on her escort’s well-muscled arm.
You’re not going to make it easy, universe?
Get my happily-ever-after ready, because this is one sheikh who is going to be kissed before midnight.
“Please follow me,” requested one of the tuxedo-clad wedding staff as Rachid and Zhang exited the large white tent. “The bride and groom are taking pictures and have requested that you join them outside for just a few moments.” He led the way to a shaded area near the ocean bluffs.
When they came to a stop, Zhang knew she should let go of Rachid’s arm, but she didn’t. She didn’t need forever from this man. Just one kiss. How hard could that be?
Rachid leaned down and spoke softly into her ear. “I must apologize for not getting here early enough to practice the ceremony with you. My tardiness delayed our formal introduction, something we can rectify now. My name is Rachid.”
“I know,” she said breathlessly and stopped, realizing she’d revealed too much in those few words. “My name is Zhang.”
“Yes,” he said vaguely. Suddenly looking as annoyed as he had earlier.
I really should let go of his arm.
“I didn’t know you had a British accent,” Zhang said in her own stilted English. His fluency implied he’d learned the language at a much younger age than she had.
“I attended Eton,” he said dismissively, as if his years at one of England’s most prestigious preparatory schools was something he preferred to forget.
“Your English is native-like.”
His features tightened. “A byproduct of living there for more than a decade.”
“Quite useful, I’m sure.”
“Less so than you’d think,” he said vaguely.
They fell into a short and awkward silence. Zhang willed herself to relax.
Make light conversation.
“Crown prince of Najriad – that can’t be easy, considering the amount of unrest in that area right now.”
His head pulled back and he straightened. “I’d rather not discuss it,” he said abruptly. His arm dropped away in a not-so-subtle withdrawal.
Zhang wanted to stomp her foot in frustration, but she kept her features composed and her feet still.
Ok, so I’m rusty when it comes to flirting.
Note to self: Politics is not a sexy topic.
Zhang took a fortifying breath.
If I can inspire loyalty from what was once a purely mercenary security force, surely I can win over one man long enough to get a kiss.
Zhang laid a hand on Rachid’s forearm to regain his attention. With a forced flutter of her eyelashes, she said huskily, “I hope I didn’t upset you.”
“You didn’t,” he said. He cleared his throat and once again gently pulled his arm away from her. “I need a drink. Would you like one?”
Zhang answered automatically and then corrected herself. “I don’t – yes, fine. Thank you.”
He walked away with insulting speed.
Reality was not living up to her fantasy. She’d barely exchanged two words with him and already her escort had fled.
Where was the hot-blooded, passionate sheikh who had haunted her dreams since Maddy had shown her a picture of how he would look at her side today? Flashes of the two of them beneath silken sheets, exploring, teasing, brought a heat to Zhang’s face as she watched Rachid cross the grassy area to where a server stood with a tray of champagne.
From head to toe, Rachid was perfection. Thick locks battled against a conservative cut in a gloriously rebellious way that made a woman want to run her fingers through his hair and unlock his inner wild side. Even in his formal Western attire Rachid had an exotic and untamed aura about him. Zhang watched Stephan Andrade approach him and compared the two men. Both were tall with broad shoulders that their tuxes only emphasized. However, next to Rachid’s striking dark skin, black hair and brooding eyes, the blond American looked pale and one-dimensional.
Her pulse quickened. How could you not imagine a man like that naked?
I should’ve been a painter. They can get away with asking strangers to take off their clothes.
Zhang chewed her bottom lip and wondered if Rachid measured up against Stephan as favorably in other places that were presently hidden. An uncharacteristic chuckle escaped her before Zhang reined herself in.
I need professional help.
Or one night with that man.
Giving herself a mental shake, Zhang corrected her inner voice.
Not a night, just a kiss.
The longer the two men spoke, the more Zhang began to feel a bit ridiculous. She wasn’t a wild teenager, caving to an impulsive dare in the face of peer pressure. Nor was she some desperate woman who needed a man to make her life complete.
What am I doing?
I’ve made it this far alone.
I should just forget this whole stupid idea.