Saving the Sheikh
Page 25

 Ruth Cardello

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Something about the comical expression of surprise on the artist’s face made Zhang laugh. Once she started she couldn’t stop, and suddenly she didn’t care how this evening looked to an outsider. Hadia was right.
I need to relax and enjoy the good times.
And there is no way that my mother is going to out-dance me at my own bachelorette party.
Zhang leaned down, picked up the box that held her own green, somewhat transparent costume and asked, “Lil, how did you ever think of this?”
Lil glanced over her shoulder at the friend she was dragging behind her and said, “I knew you were worried about tomorrow. I wanted to make you laugh.”
Zhang squeezed her young friend’s hand. Goal achieved. She’d actually forgotten to worry about Rachid’s emotional withdrawal, Ghalil’s recent threat and the very dangerous risk she was going to take while everyone else enjoyed dinner the next day. Even if it didn’t last, Lil had provided her with enough of a distraction that she’d forgotten everything else and, for just a few moments, had simply been a nervous bride.
Lil started shedding her clothing as soon as she reached the powder room, so Zhang hastily closed the door between them. Zhang turned when she heard Abby chuckling behind her.
Abby said, “You never actually get used to it.”
Zhang nodded with understanding and said, “And yet, I can’t imagine today without her.”
Abby’s smile turned teary in a flash. “Me either.”
“Are you okay, Abby?” Zhang asked as amusement turned to concern.
Her friend wiped a stray tear away quickly and flashed a brave smile. “Yes, I’m sorry. I’m so emotional lately.”
“Weddings can do that,” Zhang said with sympathy. “Especially weddings that cut your own honeymoon short. Thank you for being here, Abby.”
“You might not be thanking me after you’ve seen me dance,” Abby joked, and the mood lightened again.
Zhang thought, Nothing will ever top seeing my mother joyfully belly dancing in a department store harem outfit.
Lil burst out of the powder room in her bold-red costume and said, “And now for henna!”
Zhang laughed out loud and hugged Lil.
OK, Mother belly dancing while decorated in henna might require a photograph, because even I’m not going to believe this story tomorrow.
Chapter Sixteen
It was impossible not to compare the somber marriage-contract ceremony with what modern women in Bejiing often enjoyed. A wedding wasn’t supposed to happen all in one day. These legal documents and the gift exchanges shouldn’t be meshed into one event.
Is today even an auspicious date? Since she hadn’t been given a choice of day, she hadn’t checked the Chinese calendar. Sometimes it’s better not to know.
Lucky or not, it was her wedding day. There should be fireworks. Pranks. More than one dress for me to change into. Not much was matching how she’d always imagined the day would go. Except that the result is that I’ll be married to the man I love.
Zhang looked around the rectangular table of what appeared to be a conference room in the palace. Her parents were seated on one side beside her. Across from her sat Rachid and his father.
Both the king and Zhang’s father were intently reviewing the contracts that Rachid’s attorneys had prepared in both Arabic and Chinese. Her signature would be required at the bottom of the document, but the terms of the dowry and bride price were something that the eldest man in each family had to agree to. Some things were best not challenged, and family honor was one of them, as far as Zhang was concerned. She could have demanded that all of this was her decision to make, but her father was discussing the contract with the king of Najriad and he looked proud to be doing so.
Before either father signed, the king gave her parents a thick red envelope of cash. Rachid then presented her parents with a large gift box of gold coins and jewelry. The king presented Zhang with an equally large gift box of gold jewelry and diamond necklaces. Her mother gave her blankets, a new tea set and more gold.
When all but their signatures were required, King Amir asked Zhang to sit beside Rachid. He stood above them and asked Zhang if she joined into this marriage of her own free will. A week ago that question would have posed a problem, but now Zhang answered yes with sincerity.
The king spoke briefly about how Rachid would honor his wife by caring for her and being her caretaker for all time. He turned to Zhang and gave her the same speech. It was her duty to honor her husband and to be his caretaker for all time. If she agreed, all they had to do was sign the two contracts.
There was no laughter or kissing, just a quick signature and an exchange of rings. Zhang might have been able to handle the rigidity of the ceremony had Rachid smiled at her once. Was he also thinking of all the things their wedding was not?
It was not part of a weeklong celebration. The dinner that evening would replace what might otherwise have been a large reception. The next day promised to be a quiet gathering of friends and family.
Maybe that’s all you can ask for when you’ve publicly embarrassed both families on a global level.
Both sets of parents excused themselves after the contracts had been signed. The king bent and kissed Zhang on the head, saying something in Arabic that she didn’t understand. Her parents shook Rachid’s hand and said they were retiring to their room before dinner.
Alone with her new husband, Zhang was full of equal amounts fear and hope. Is this where he pulls me to him and kisses me senseless? Possibly deciding to consummate our vows on that sturdy table behind us?
Maybe he will declare his love for me and tell me that he considered those vows binding. You’re mine, Zhang, he’ll say in that hot, demanding way of his, and I’ll pretend at first that I don’t want to be and then I’ll let him convince me.
When Rachid stood silently before her, Zhang thought, Or we’ll just stare at each other in a long, painful silence.
“Dinner is in an hour in the main hall,” Rachid said.
And?
Zhang waited.
“Why don’t you take the opportunity to rest,” he suggested.
Rest?
Luckily we are going to have the rest of our lives together. You’ll have plenty of time to make today up to me.
Zhang gave her new husband a small smile. “I am tired. Thank you.”
Tired of not knowing what’s going on.
Tired of waiting for you to tell me.
“Would you like me to walk you back to your suite?” he asked politely. Zhang wanted to smack him but, deciding that taking advantage of the short time between the signing of the wedding contracts and the celebration dinner was a much better use of her energy, she declined.
Did he have to look so relieved that she turned down his offer?
It would be easy to take Rachid’s recent change of mood as evidence that he’d never felt more for her than a passing lust, but Zhang’s instincts told her that he was in some sort of trouble. Lust didn’t come and go that quickly. There was a reason Rachid was denying the passion between them.
Still, he’d kept his word and ensured that the marriage contracts would protected her assets. So, despite whatever else was going on, he had once again protected her. That meant more to Zhang than the sweet words he’d whispered in the heat of passion.
Not that some passion wouldn’t have been nice, but she knew that things like finances, weight and lust fluctuated in even the best marriage. However, integrity and character did not.
Rachid is a good man.
My man.
Zhang knocked once on the door of Jeremy’s room, opened it and entered without waiting for his permission. He was sitting on the edge of his bed, still bent over and in the act of tying of his shoes. He was dressed in a suit as if he were attending their celebration dinner.
He stood, slid on his other shoe and tied it while hopping toward her. “Zhang? What are you doing here?”
She scanned the room and didn’t waste time with niceties. “Did you bring your laptop?”
He pointed to the small desk that was more of a decoration than a workstation. “I’d never leave home without it.”
Taking a fortifying breath, Zhang crossed the room to the desk and decided to get straight to the point. “You’re not simply here to attend the wedding celebrations.”
Jeremy didn’t look surprised by her announcement. He said, “I figured.”
Zhang touched his closed laptop absently. “What did Dominic tell you?”
Jeremy joined her near the desk. “Nothing, but, come on, people like you don’t invite people like me to a major life event unless you need something.”
There was no use denying the truth. Zhang held her breath and waited. He stared pointedly at her hand on his laptop until she removed it. Would he help her or not? She couldn’t tell.
Meeting her eyes again, he said, “You should know that I don’t actually work for Dominic.”
“No?” Zhang asked.
Jeremy continued, “It’s more of an agreement than an employment situation.”
“And your point?”
“If you want my help, it’ll cost you.” His intelligence wasn’t contained to his hacking abilities. He wanted something, and they both knew now that he had the leverage to get it.
“Name your price,” Zhang said, shifting her weight to the aggressive stance that was her default.
With a steel-edged tone she was surprised he possessed, he said, “A favor when I ask for one.” She’d misjudged this man. Few men could enter the circle of power he’d catapulted himself into, and fewer still could leverage themselves into a position of influence once there. She wouldn’t underestimate him again.
“What sort of favor?” Zhang asked, giving him a guarded look.
Leaning a hip against his desk, he folded his arms and said, “Not important. You’re asking me to risk my life today. I want your word that you’ll go to the same lengths for me if I ask you to.”
She needed Jeremy’s help to figure out what Rachid was hiding from her, so she didn’t have much of a choice. Still, she’d dealt with enough men over her lifetime to know that some boundaries needed to be drawn. “Fine,” she said. “Just don’t let it be a request that will require me to kill you instead of granting it.”
A look of genuine surprise passed over Jeremy’s face. Then he smiled at the thought. “Don’t worry, Zhang, I have my eyes set on one woman. I always have. If this works out, I’ll be one step closer to being the kind of man she wants.”
Zhang cocked her head to one side in question.
Jeremy straightened to his full height and clarified, “Dangerous.”
“You’re doing this for a woman?” she asked incredulously. My life has truly become a soap opera.
His mouth set in determination. “Not just any woman. Alethea is everything I’ve ever wanted. She doesn’t think I’m her type, but I’m going to show her that she’s wrong.”
Trying to inject rational perspective into the situation, Zhang said, “You know you can never tell anyone about any of what happens this weekend.”
“No one needs to know. I’ll know. Now, what do you want me to hack?”