Saving the Sheikh
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There’s my next career if this doesn’t work out – children’s books.
Fairy Tales From the Edge, by Princess Zhang bin Amir al Hantan.
Each book would come with one of those adorable, elaborately dressed dolls, but when a child pulled the string coming out of its back, instead of spouting sweet phrases it would say, “Don’t fuck with my happy ending.”
That evening, Zhang served tea to her mother in the lavish sitting room of the suite the king had designated for her parents. Her mother was dressed in formfitting long-sleeved rose qipao. The collar was buttoned and embroidered with blue flowers. The silk dress was accented beautifully by an embroidered sash that crossed the bodice at an angle.
Conversation hadn’t come easily to the two women since Zhang had left Xin. In Mandarin, Zhang asked, “Do you have everything you need?”
Her mother made a delicately displeased face and said, “The tea is British. You should have warned me.”
Zhang breathed a sigh of relief. Her mother had chosen a safe topic. Her criticisms were harmless in general. Zhang doubted her mother knew how to give a compliment. Critiquing the choice of tea was practically an olive branch as far as Zhang was concerned. “I’ll have one of the staff locate some green tea. I’m sure they have it.”
Her mother took another sip. “I met the king. He seemed pleasant. A bit fat.”
Zhang bit her lip to conceal the smile that almost spread across her face. Sometimes it was not a bad thing that her mother refused to learn English.
“Your father told me that we will be attending a henna party.” A hint of distaste flitted across her face. “Isn’t that when people put temporary tattoos on? I hope your friends don’t have an allergic reaction to it.”
Zhang choked on her tea. Her mother was planning on being there? “I didn’t think you’d want to attend the party today. I thought you’d want to rest.”
Her mother’s eyes burned into hers. “I was told all female members of the family were invited. Rachid’s grandmother is attending. Do you not want me there?”
Why do I always feel like I’m navigating a minefield when I talk to her?
“Of course I want you there.”
Liar, liar. . .
Putting her cup down, her mother said, “Tomorrow you join your husband’s family. I used to think that was the saddest part of having a daughter.” When Zhang started to say something, her mother smoothed the skirt of her dress and said, “It’s not.”
Oh, boy, here it comes.
“Sad is when you lose your daughter before marriage.” Her mother drove her words home by meeting her daughter’s eyes as she said, “I do hope you enjoy your new family more than you did ours.”
Instant tears clogged Zhang’s throat. “Mother . . .”
Chin held high with pride, her mother said, “Please don’t deny it, Zhang. I was never the mother you wanted. Never good enough for you. If it weren’t for your father, I doubt you would have included me in this weekend at all.”
Zhang couldn’t deny the truth in her mother’s accusation, although it wasn’t because she didn’t think her mother was good enough. Quite the reverse. She sought a conciliatory approach. “Father says we are too much alike to get along.”
A delicate, skeptical eyebrow rose on her mother’s face.
Zhang added, “I’m stubborn to a fault.”
Her mother agreed. “And outspoken to the point of rudeness.”
Zhang continued, “I could pick a fight with Ghandi.”
Her mother smiled ever so faintly and said, “You could.”
Zhang grinned. “And win.”
Her mother shook her head in disapproval but said, “You probably would.”
Zhang deliberately added, “You’d do the same.”
For just a heartbeat their differences faded into the background. “I might.”
Zhang stopped herself from reaching out to touch her mother as she said, “I know I’m not the daughter you wanted, but you’re wrong about some things. You were a very good mother and I wanted to want the things you did. If I could have, I would have stayed with Xin and made you proud of me, but I needed something else.”
“Something better?” Although the question was issued in a harsh tone, Zhang heard the hurt.
“No.” Leaning forward, Zhang willed her mother to understand. “Just different.”
Neither woman spoke for a moment. Then her mother gestured to the room with one hand and said, “Well, this place is certainly different. Your prince is a handsome man, for a foreigner.”
Her mother stood. “Let’s go to this henna party. My hands could do with some decoration.”
Amazed and feeling somewhat hopeful, Zhang asked, “You’re going to let someone tattoo you?”
Completely straight-faced, her mother asked, “You think you’re the only one with a wild side?”
Zhang laughed until a lone tear ran down her face. She joined her mother near the door and said, “I pick and choose which traditions I follow. Tomorrow, I’ll join Rachid’s family, but only on the condition that you and Father are welcome to live here as well. We may have our issues, but you never lost me and you never will.”
Her mother waited for Zhang to open the door for her and countered, “We? I don’t have issues,” but there was a twinkle in her eyes that Zhang hadn’t seen in many, many years.
Zhang bowed respectfully, smiling at the floor. “Of course not, Mother.”
As they stepped into the hallway, her mother asked, “Are you sure you want to wear that dress tonight?”
Zhang looked down at the green silk qipao that Hadia had given her for the evening. It was less ornate than her mother’s but was an exquisitely made piece of Chinese formal wear. She knew her mother loved her choice and therefore wasn’t bothered by her question. There was relief in returning to normal. Parts of their relationship would always be comfortably uncomfortable.
And that’s okay.
On the first floor of the palace, Rachid’s bachelor party was underway. Despite the Egyptian pop musician that played in the background and the smoke haze of the Behike cigars the men were smoking, the mood remained relatively serious. King Amir and Zhang’s father had retired to another room, claiming they didn’t want to slow the younger men down. Since alcohol and female dancers were not an option, Rachid doubted there would be very much difference between the level of excitement with or without the two fathers.
Rachid asked, “Dominic, how does it look for China next week?”
Dominic took a puff of his cigar and studied his old friend before answering. “Everything is on schedule.” Another puff and he asked casually, “I’d rather discuss why you decided to partner with Andrade Solutions when you needed an innovative product for Proximus.”
Jeremy, the man Dominic had requested attend the wedding for “socialization” purposes, entered the conversation with complete disregard for the tension in Dominic’s voice. “Andrade Solutions is cutting-edge. They are designing atomic-scale wires that will blow the roof off of how many transistors can be squeezed onto an integrated circuit. That’s going to seriously shrink the size of supercomputers.”
Jake sat forward in his chair and said, “You never cease to amaze me, Jeremy.”
Even Rachid wasn’t sure if Jake was complimenting or insulting the hacker, but Jeremy shrugged and heard what he wanted to. “Because I can read? It’s all over the Internet. I’m dying for quantum computers to become a viable option for the public. In fact, I wish they’d take the patents out of the hands of physicists and give them to game developers – the technology would be in the market already instead of stashed away at university labs. I want holographic screens, expression recognition, and I want them in something the size of my phone.”
In the pause that followed, Rachid realized Dominic was ignoring Jeremy’s enthusiastic endorsement of Stephan’s latest projects and was waiting for Rachid’s answer. He said, “Dom, I would have approached you at your wedding, but it wasn’t the best place to talk business. I haven’t signed a contract with Stephan. We are merely talking.”
“I don’t give a damn about the business side of this, Rachid. If you need something, you come to me,” Dominic said in a tone that brought an uncomfortable stillness to the room.
As generous as the offer was, even Dominic couldn’t fix this situation. “I appreciate that, Dom.”
“I’m serious, Rachid. At the end of the day, we’ve been friends for more than ten years. You can ask me for anything.” He ground out what was left of his cigar on the tray next to him. “Unless I’m on my postponed honeymoon. If anyone calls me that week, they had better be gasping their last breath.”
Curious, Jeremy latched on to what he found fascinating. “How did you all meet?”
Grateful for the change of subject, Rachid said, “I believe I stumbled upon Jake trying to stop a rugby team from beating the life out of Dominic.”
Jake smiled. “I almost forgot that’s how we met.”
Dominic countered, “I was fine. It wasn’t the whole team.”
Rachid shared what he remembered. “Only about eight of them. Huge, hairy guys. Two of them were holding Dom while another punched. What did you do to deserve that beating?”
Leaning back in his chair, Dominic shrugged. “I don’t even remember now.”
Jake laughed. “I do. You told one of them that when you’d left their mother that morning she hadn’t mentioned how ugly her son was. Or something like that.”
Dominic grinned. “Oh, yeah. Trust me, that was nothing compared to what he’d said to me about mine. I may have miscalculated how angry they would all be when I retaliated.”
Jake leaned toward Jeremy as if he were sharing confidential information. “Dominic used to have a bit of an attitude problem.”
Shaking his head in amusement, Dominic denied the accusation. “I was working to pay my way through college. I didn’t have the energy for an attitude. You were the one living comfortably off Mom and Dad’s money. You should have jumped in and saved me.”
“I did. I convinced them that if it took that many of them to take you down, they should consider asking you to join their team,” Jake said.
Dominic groaned. “So, I have you to thank for the following two years of broken noses and fractures.”
Jake pointed to Rachid. “You can also blame him. They were his teammates.”
Rachid put both hands up and laughed. “Hey, by the time I came on the scene it was mostly over, and Jake sounded like he was negotiating a professional career contract for you with the captain. All I did was agree that you should join the team.”
Shrugging, Jake said, “It was good for you, Dom. You needed an outlet for all that anger.” Moving on to another topic, he said, “I wonder what the women are up to today.”