Saving the Sheikh
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“Do we have any leads?”
“Only that whoever it is, they know where your father won’t be. You must consider everyone.” He paused, then said, “Even Ghalil.”
“No,” Rachid said hotly. It was one thing to admit that Ghalil was angry and distrustful, but a traitor? He wouldn’t believe it. “My brother is not involved in this.”
Basir wisely lowered his eyes respectfully as he said, “History is littered with stories of dead royals who thought the same.”
Rachid said, “I know my brother. He’s young and he often speaks without thinking, but he wouldn’t do something like this.”
“I hope your faith in him does not prove to be your undoing.”
I hope so, too.
There was another possibility.
“Basir, it could be a member of the royal guard.” His next words were the toughest to voice. “They aren’t loyal to me.”
Basir made no attempt to deny the truth. He said, “It is a sign of real strength to be able to admit a weakness.”
Rachid pounded an angry hand on the wall. “This particular weakness may get us all killed. How can I run a financial empire outside Najriad – one where my orders are followed without question – but here in my own country I must repeat myself and add a threat for anything to happen?”
Basir said, “It sounds like you understand what motivates one more than the other.”
Rachid sighed. “Sometimes I ask myself if I’m the right man to rule Najriad.”
Basir said, “Perhaps you are not.” Rachid’s head swung around in shock. Plain speaking was what made Basir a valuable asset to the Hantan family, but that didn’t remove the sting from his words. Basir added, “Not as long as you ask yourself that. What makes a good king, Rachid?” When Rachid didn’t answer, Basir asked, “Why do the people love your father?”
“My father has devoted his life to Najriad.”
“Yes, he sacrificed many things along the way – even his first son.” Rachid turned and simply absorbed Basir’s words. “He gave you to the world because he knew you would come back and do what he was unable to – break our dependency on natural resources. He didn’t make the decision easily, but he did it. The royal guard protects him because he protects all of us. If you wish for a man to be willing to give his life for you, you must first ask yourself if you are willing to give yours for him.”
Rachid growled, “I am.”
“Then prove it, Your Highness, and the people will follow you.”
“How am I supposed to do that?”
Basir bowed his head. “Only you can answer that question, Your Highness.”
Rachid turned his back on the advisor and stared out the window.
Accepting his dismissal, Basir opened the door and said quietly, “Find comfort, young prince, in the knowledge that your father once asked me the same question and I gave him the same answer.”
Later that day, Zhang paced the rooms of her palace suite like a caged lioness.
Hadia’s words haunted her. “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.”
I’m not afraid to fight for what I want.
But is this what I want?
Rachid was chauvinistic and arrogant, but he was also tender and strong. Yes, he had locked her in like she was a purchased addition to a harem, but he’d done it to protect her. If Hadia spoke the truth, he’d stood up to his father to defend her and had given her honor more importance than his freedom.
In the middle of a battle for the sovereignty of his country and for his right to rule it, he had chosen to protect her. No, he didn’t see her as his equal yet. If he did, he would open up to her and she would hear of his troubles from him rather than his grandmother. But he was a good man who cared about her and wanted her with the same intensity that she wanted him.
I can work with that. Zhang used Rachid’s own words and smiled.
“You’re mine,” he’d said in his passionate, possessive manner.
I can work with that, too, she thought, as long as it goes both ways.
She considered calling Rachid to tell him that she’d changed her mind. They wouldn’t have time alone once the guests arrived. As it was, now that she’d agreed to the wedding, their time together was frowned upon. According to the customs of Najriad, Zhang was supposed to retreat into a period of reflection and preparation. The next time she was scheduled to see Rachid was when her parents met the king and they signed the wedding contract.
I don’t know if I can wait that long. What if he doesn’t come to me before then?
He’ll think I’m crazy if I demand to see him now just to tell him that I want to marry him – even though we’re already getting married. You don’t tell a man that your independence is the only thing you care about one day and say the exact opposite the next day.
A marriage can’t be ordered as if from a menu.
Did I say temporary with a side of get me the hell out of here?
I meant forever with a splash of happily ever after.
Panic flooded Zhang and she sat heavily on the edge of her bed, clasping her shaking hands on her lap.
I’ve lost my mind.
Or your heart, the universe whispered.
Or my heart, Zhang repeated in agreement.
She let herself imagine a life in Najriad with Rachid. She’d help him bring the headquarters of Proximus to Nilon. Together they could work to increase opportunities for the rural families who lived in poverty – men and women. With Hadia’s advice, she would learn how to navigate the local customs.
Hadia. Zhang smiled when she thought about the woman she would never underestimate again.
My grandmother if I choose this life.
And I do.
Rachid is a good man and we can work together to make a strong marriage – one in which love will take root and flourish. A life that isn’t about my goals or his goals, but about our shared vision for both.
Her heart soared as her indecision fell away and she knew exactly what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.
Regardless of what I’ve said, on Saturday I will make this solemn vow: Rachid bin Amir al Hantan – I will give you forever.
On the other side of the palace, Rachid paced the rooms of his suite like a caged lion.
I can’t even protect my own family – why did I think I could protect Zhang?
His first instinct was to cancel the wedding. However, it was too late to change course. Zhang’s family would be dealt a public embarrassment if the wedding didn’t happen, and appearing indecisive would only help his enemies make their case against him.
He should call his American friends and tell them not to come, but changing plans in response to the recent attack would be taken as weakness. Nothing is more dangerous than showing your enemy that you’re vulnerable.
I should have never asked her to marry me. I should have found another way, but once again satisfying my own needs has put someone I care about in danger.
Yes, on some level the decision had been to restore her honor, but Rachid was battling the disturbing knowledge that it had also stemmed from a much less noble truth. I wanted her. I didn’t care that she was afraid of what it would do to the life she’d built. I didn’t care enough about her to look for another solution. I laid claim to her and in my arrogance I thought we could build a future on that shaky foundation.
I let lust drive my actions, and the result is that a good woman must pay the price for my mistakes. Possibly with her life, if I don’t find the traitor in my household.
He sat heavily on the edge of his bed, one that he’d told her they’d soon share, and knew what he had to do.
She was right to ask to keep the marriage short.
I can’t go back in time and undo what we’ve done.
I can’t guarantee that she won’t regret her time here, but I can give her what she wants more than anything else.
On Saturday, regardless of what I say aloud, I will make this solemn vow: Zhang Yajun – I will set you free.
To Zhang’s surprise, the next morning Rachid sent for her to join him in the castle office. He remained planted in the middle of the room as she entered, his hands clasped behind him. He was still dressed in a simple white thobe and keffiyeh, but there was something different about him. “Come in,” he said.
She walked directly up to him, hoping he liked the black gown she’d chosen with him in mind, and deliberately placed herself within his reach. His features remained set in harsh lines, far from the reaction she was hoping for. His mood was so distinctly different from any of their other times together that Zhang asked, “Has something happened?”
“No,” he answered. “However, we marry tomorrow and there are things we need to discuss.”
You have that right!
If this is where you remind me that despite what I said about wanting to keep our marriage platonic, we are going to share the same bed – I’m okay with that now. You don’t even have to say you love me, just give me some indication that Hadia is right and you do care for me.
He cleared his throat. “I made sure that part of the marriage contract clearly states that I will have no access to your company or your money, regardless of how long our marriage lasts. Also, after Sunday, you will be free to go back and forth to China as you need to.”
“Thank you,” Zhang said as her stomach twisted painfully.
“Consider this office at your disposal for now. You don’t need an escort to move around the palace, but you may want to request one until you learn the layout. If you’d prefer, I can have an office set up near your rooms.”
My rooms? What about our rooms? “That’s very kind of you,” she said slowly. “Either will be fine.”
Zhang couldn’t interpret the look in Rachid’s eyes. She reached out a hand to touch his chest, but he took a step back. Her hand dropped to her side. Okay. Now I’m concerned.
He said, “How did you enjoy your tour of Nilon with my grandmother?”
“I enjoyed the tour immensely and your grandmother is an incredible woman.” She wanted to say more but sensed that he wasn’t finished speaking. How had they gone from whispering their secret desires to each other to speaking like acquaintances making light conversation? She wanted to grab him by the shoulders and shake him until he told her what was going on.
Rachid continued his polite discourse. “It’s good that you get along. She can help you prepare whatever you need for the ceremony. Guests have already started to arrive. My grandmother said that you have a small party planned for tonight.”
“Yes,” Zhang said, “henna for the women.”
Talk to me, Rachid. Although he was looking at her, her fiancé felt a million miles away.
Rachid nodded. “My grandmother will enjoy that.”
Luckily it wasn’t going to be a wild party.
Rachid said, “You understand what will happen on Saturday? We will make our vows before my father in the meeting room, in front of your parents. They will exchange presents. We will sign papers. There will be a short interval.” He looked uncomfortable for a moment. “Traditionally, this was when the bride and groom would consummate their vows and then return to share a meal with their new families. More often the time is now used to take photos, but neither will be necessary for us.”