Saving the Sheikh
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Don’t second-guess yourself now.
Zhang said, “The palace has an internal server. I need you to access whatever files you can.”
Jeremy opened his bag, took out some wires, connected his computer to a port on the wall and turned it on. “What am I looking for?”
Zhang shrugged. “I don’t know. Something unusual.”
Already opening programs on his screen, Jeremy said, “We’re in a palace in Najriad, for cripes sake. Everything is going to look unusual to me.”
Fighting the rush of adrenaline that came with nerves, Zhang began to pace behind him. “I have a feeling that the royal family is in danger, but I don’t know from whom. There has to be a clue on that server.”
Jeremy paused and looked at her over his shoulder. “Is the feeling based on anything concrete?”
“My instincts,” Zhang stated firmly.
He continued to study her a moment, then said, “Good enough for me,” and turned back to his laptop. “This is interesting,” he said.
Zhang spun on her heel and rushed to peer over his shoulder. “What?”
He pointed to a newly translated spreadsheet. “Do you know that they order machine guns as part of the household budget?” He let out a low whistle. “I’d like to go on that shopping run. Two tubs of butter, six M-16s, a box of rounds and some bread, please.”
Expelling a frustrated breath, Zhang looked quickly at the door and said, “We don’t have much time, Jeremy. Focus.”
“Sorry, this is too cool. I don’t know how much a Najriadian dinar is worth, but two thousand of them is what it costs to keep all the royal vehicles washed and detailed each month.”
“Okay, okay,” he muttered. “Hey, wait, here is something.”
“Last weekend someone ordered five thousand dinars’ worth of pillows. That is a classic cover for buying something else. No one needs that many pillows.”
Zhang closed her eyes briefly to hide her sudden embarrassment. “That’s nothing. Keep looking.”
“Hang on, they also claimed to have spent ten thousand dinars on a harem outfit, tapestries and silk scarves and had it all shipped out to the Salnyra Oasis. You can’t tell me something kinky wasn’t going on there.”
No time to reminisce now and not something I want to discuss. “Would you forget about that? Maybe you should check e-mails instead.”
Jeremy looked over his shoulder again and asked, “You were at the Oasis last weekend, weren’t you?”
“Do you want to live?”
He merely smiled and said, “You are so much cooler than anyone knows.”
Thankfully, he turned and began typing again. “Next time, though, you and your prince might want to keep your private purchases off the royal budget spreadsheet – unless you’re into that sort of sharing.”
Zhang cursed in Mandarin.
Not seeming the least bit bothered, Jeremy laughed. “Listen, this is going to take some time. My software will translate the e-mails, but it’s never exact so I’ll need a couple of hours to sort through them. Why don’t I text you when I find something?”
Zhang checked her watch and reluctantly agreed. Dinner was in less than thirty minutes. “I’ll tell everyone that you’re not feeling well.”
Jeremy said, “Make it convincing or Jeisa will hunt me down and drag me to dinner. It’s her personal mission to socialize me.” He waved over his shoulder without looking up. “Now, get out of here, I need to concentrate. Especially if we don’t have much time.”
“Time is the one thing we don’t have a lot of.”
“Unlike those pillows,” he joked.
Zhang gripped the door handle hard enough to instantly whiten her knuckles. Her emotions were running high and she found no humor in his words. Was she really trusting her life and possibly Rachid’s to a man who probably considered this mission as challenging as his latest video game?
Do I have a choice?
Sensing that she was still in the room, Jeremy paused and said, “Dominic brought me here because he knows I’m the best. I can stop now if you feel that he’s wrong.”
There was something unsettling about Jeremy’s confidence. Did he know how quickly the situation could turn deadly? “This is dangerous, even if you don’t find anything.”
Jeremy looked across the room at her. “I don’t know about you, Zhang, but I’m tired of settling for what I thought my life had to be. I’d rather die this weekend fighting for my dreams than spend the next fifty years as the man I was. ”
Zhang thought about the times when she had felt the same and said, “Be very careful what you wish for, Jeremy. It doesn’t always turn out the way we plan.” With that, she quickly opened the door and reentered the hallway.
As she stepped away from Jeremy’s room, she sensed that she wasn’t the only one in the hallway. Ghalil. His disapproval was clear, but he didn’t confront her. He turned away and strode down the hall in the opposite direction. She could only imagine what he thought she was doing with Jeremy.
I need a Plan B.
Their wedding dinner was a painfully formal affair that, thankfully for Zhang’s plans, Ghalil attended. Hopefully he was still figuring out how to take her down and hadn’t already sent guards to Jeremy’s room. They wouldn’t like what they found.
Zhang doubted that the young man’s expression would be so dark if he’d already uncovered her secret. No, he wouldn’t be able to keep his excitement to himself.
Zhang studied the somber group. The king sat at the head of the table. Hadia was seated at his side, and next to her sat Ghalil and his mother. It was the first time Zhang had seen the woman who had made excuses all week to avoid meeting her. She was appropriately covered and, although she sat tall in her seat, Zhang sensed that she felt uncomfortable being on display. Her eyes remained lowered most of the time.
The king had made a safe choice with his second spouse. Beautiful, reserved, respectfully quiet and Arab. Nothing that would offend. Very likely what his people considered the perfect wife.
My exact opposite.
Zhang snuck a look at her new husband. He was seated next to her, on the other side of his father, and looked every bit of the sheikh he was.
He caught her looking at him and his lips set in a determined line. Beneath the cover of the table, his hand sought hers. She entwined her fingers with his, clinging to hope as she searched his face for some hint that he was still the man who had sworn that they would spend the rest of their lives together.
He bent his head and said so that only she could hear, “No matter what happens, don’t get involved. Promise me.”
She hedged. “I don’t understand.”
Unable to look into those tormented black eyes and lie, she said, “No.”
His face set in harsh lines.
The king stood and, as he began to speak, his voice carried easily over the respectfully subdued volume of those at the table. “I would like to thank everyone for sharing in this celebration tonight. Some of you have traveled far to be with us. Some of you had to change your plans due to the unexpectedness of this joyous event. Your kindness will be remembered.” He nodded at Rachid and smiled. “If my son can pull his eyes away from his new bride for a moment, I know that he would also like to say a few words.”
Rachid released Zhang’s hand and stood, bowing to his father before turning to his guests. “I would also like to thank everyone here today. I didn’t know when I attended a wedding of an old college friend that I would be inviting him to mine so soon.”
Across the table, Dominic nodded in acknowledgement of his reference. Light laughter from several guests followed Rachid’s words.
Rachid continued, “Since this is a gathering of many of those who are important to me, I hope you will allow me to take advantage of this opportunity to make an announcement.”
His father frowned up at him, obviously not happy to be taken by surprise. Still, he didn’t stop his son.
“As you know, I have agreed to accept the royal crown on my next birthday. However, with my father’s blessing, I would like to move the coronation up. So, with your permission, Father, I would put forth October first as the date of my coronation and our next large day of celebration.”
The room was absolutely quiet as guests and family waited for the king’s response. Amir’s smile didn’t quite reach his eyes as he said, “Nothing would bring me greater pleasure. Of course you have my blessing.”
Ghalil stood, his face red with emotion.
His father looked at his youngest and said, “Let your next words be those of congratulations, my son, or let them die unspoken on your lips.” When Ghalil said nothing, his father said harshly, “Then sit.”
The air hummed with the young man’s fury, but he did as his father instructed. His mother put a hand on his arm, but he shook it off and glared at the table.
Rachid spoke as if the exchange between his father and brother hadn’t occurred. “Let’s eat.”
King and prince took their seats simultaneously, a sign that power was already being conceded.
In the silence that followed, Lil’s stage whisper to Jake was easily audible to the room. “I feel like we should clap.”
Jake shook his head in wonder, but his smile made clear her comment hadn’t embarrassed him. He raised his hands and clapped three times slowly. By the third clap, everyone around the table had joined in with enthusiasm.
As the applause gradually faded, the king looked down the table and, with a twinkle of mischief in his eyes, asked, “Dominic, how are you enjoying your stay this weekend?”
Dominic flashed the confident smile he was known for. “Much better than my last visit, Your Excellency.”
“Good,” the king said. “Perhaps now things will settle down.”
Zhang looked across at the prince who was still visibly furious and who unfortunately knew that she’d gone to see Jeremy. He’d use that information against her as soon as he figured out how.
What she couldn’t quite understand was why Rachid would move up his acceptance of a title he wasn’t sure he wanted. Especially if something foul was afoot.
Unless he thought someone didn’t want him to take the crown.
Had there been a threat? Her heart sped up at the thought.
Was that what he was asking her not to get involved in? The more she thought back to how quickly his mood had changed, the more she felt her guess was right.
Moving up the coronation would force the hand of whoever was trying to stop him.
You’d only do that if you didn’t know who posed the threat. Is that what you’re doing? Trying to draw your enemy out? Oh, God, Rachid. You are not allowed to get yourself killed when I just realized that I love you.
She reached for contact beneath the table and shuddered when his large hand closed over hers. She wanted to yank on it and demand that he tell her everything, but she doubted he would even if he’d had the privacy to do so.