Saving the Sheikh
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Jeremy spoke under his breath to Dominic. “You should probably hug her or something.”
Dominic shifted uneasily and said, “I’m not really good with crying women. You do it.”
Jeremy protested, “You’ve known her longer.”
Jake stepped forward, pulled Zhang into a warm embrace that she didn’t bother to pretend she didn’t need, and let her sob into his dress shirt. She wept out the emotions of the week. She cried for the fears she was ready to put aside, the man she’d almost lost and the brother who had finally defended Rachid. When she had settled enough to take a calming breath, she heard Jake say, “Women and children are messy, but you get used to it.”
Zhang stepped away from him, dried her eyes and smiled up at the three large men who loomed above her. She didn’t have brothers, but she had the next best thing. She straightened her gown and said, “I won’t tell anyone that you’re all idiots if you don’t share how I just lost it.”
Dominic said, “Agreed, the less Abby knows about the gunman, the better.”
Jake said, “Why don’t we walk you back to your suite? I can send Lil over.”
Zhang accepted the escort but said, “Tell Lil I’ll see her tomorrow.”
Zhang walked down the hallway with her three tuxedoed bodyguards and their trailing security guards. Normally she’d love to see Lil, but she had no intention of waiting patiently for Rachid to come see her tomorrow.
I don’t want to be alone.
And I’m not going to be – not if I have anything to do with it.
A little past three in morning, Rachid wearily entered his private suite at the palace. When he’d left the hospital, Ghalil was stable and, although he’d lost a lot of blood, the doctors had said that none of his major organs had been damaged. He’d make a full recovery.
Rachid wasn’t sure the same could be said for him. He shed his clothing as if removing it would somehow lesson some of the weight of his thoughts. For now, the story was contained and the official statement regarding Prince Ghalil’s hospital visit was exhaustion. I’m sure being shot is exhausting. The treating staff had all been spoken to and asked to sign nondisclosures. Luckily, no foreign press had been present at the hospital. Najriadian National News would print whatever the royal family instructed it to say. King Amir had poured a heavy amount of the country’s oil fortune into improving the living conditions of his people, but the same hand that reached out with kindness could just as quickly strike a deadly blow when opposed.
An effective monarch needed to be both loved and feared.
Nude and bone tired, Rachid stepped beneath the hot sting of his shower. He absently washed as his mind raced. He should be celebrating the roundup of his enemies. Thanks to Dominic’s hacker, Marshid had been able to surprise all of those involved. Even the general implicated in the emails had been caught unaware thanks to the swiftness of the response from the most trusted royal guardsmen. Punishments would be harsh, fast and outside of the public view.
Rachid knew he should be figuring out how to explain the actions of his friends to his father. Or, at the very least, begin to formulate a plan so that none of this would ever happen again.
Instead, his mind kept returning to what was now the worst moment of his life: that brief time when he thought he would be the reason Zhang died. When he’d seen her in the doorway of the patio, nothing beyond saving her had mattered. His life, sadly even the life of his brother, had come second in his need to protect her.
Rachid turned off the water, toweled dry and padded to his bedroom while wrapping the plush material around his waist.
In another time or life, he would have proclaimed his love for Zhang, but how could he ask her to give up her freedom and career when he wasn’t sure he could keep her safe? He closed his eyes and shook his head at the thought of Zhang hacking into the royal server and taking on his security like some secret agent. All that disobedience had saved his life, and he owed her the same selflessness.
No matter how it looked to his people or what his father said, he would let Zhang go tomorrow. If she needed the cover of his name, they could stay married for whatever amount of time she requested. But he wouldn’t keep her in Najriad. She deserved the freedom she’d fought so hard for. And she would have it.
The light on one side of the room flipped on. There, in the middle of his bed, was the very woman who was tormenting his thoughts. Dressed in a red satin slip of a nightgown, she pushed back the bed sheets and stood, facing him boldly as if they’d always shared a room together.
“How is your brother?” she asked.
Rachid didn’t move. The sight of her, mussed from sleep and reaching for him, was almost too tempting to resist. She deserved better than this, better than him. He turned away before he gave in to the overwhelming desire to lose himself in her arms. “He’ll recover.” With his back to her, Rachid said, “You need to leave, Zhang. You shouldn’t be here. I told you that we’d talk tomorrow.”
Instead of doing as he said, she moved to stand behind him and laid one of her delicate hands on his back. He shuddered with need for her but didn’t turn.
“What’s wrong, Rachid? Why turn me away?”
He clung to the last of his resolve and insisted, “I was wrong to push you to marry me. You can go home with your friends tomorrow.”
“And if I don’t want to?”
“You have to.”
As she slipped around to stand in front of him, he clenched his hands at his sides to stop from pulling her into his chest. He was trying to do the right thing, but the wrong thing was quickly starting to feel like a better option. He fought his weakness.
“Why?” she whispered, and he made the mistake of looking down into those beautiful dark eyes of hers.
Raggedly, he confessed, “I love you.”
Her head flew back, exposing her long, lovely neck while she laughed softly. She said, “I wouldn’t consider that a deal breaker for a marriage. Some might even say it’s a good thing.”
Giving in to his overwhelming need to touch her, he pulled her against him and simply hugged her. Desire shook him again and he said, “Just before Ghalil was shot, I saw you in the doorway, and suddenly it didn’t matter that I had a gun to my head. I have never been so afraid in my life. Nothing mattered except your safety, and I wasn’t sure I could save you. You can’t stay here, Zhang. You have to see that.”
Zhang wrapped her arms around his waist and laid her head on his chest. “No, I don’t see that at all.”
He groaned and pulled her closer. “I’m no Prince Charming, Zhang. I’m just a man – a man with a crushing amount of responsibility. I wish I could tell you that things will be better next week or next year, but I have to face that they may never be better. Violence may always be part of my life and I can’t ask you to accept that. I won’t put you at risk again.”
Raising her head so she could look up into his face, Zhang said, “You don’t get to make that decision. You don’t get to tell me what I can or can’t handle. It’s a violent world out there, Rachid. The small village I grew up in held its own dangers. I wouldn’t have armed men on my payroll if my own life were without risk. Danger is part of life. No one is immune from it, no matter how they may try to insulate themselves. No, I don’t have a problem with danger.”
When Rachid would have said something, Zhang pinched the skin on his ribs and continued on angrily. “What I struggle with is that you think you have to shoulder all of the responsibility yourself. You say you love me, but what exactly is it that you love? Because I’m not sure you see me. I fought for everything I have and I’m willing to help you fight for Najriad, but I need to know that you love me the way I am. It’s your lack of faith in my ability to share the weight of this that makes me angry. And I suspect that your brother feels the same.”
“Ghalil is just a boy.”
“No, he’s a man who took a bullet for you and is just as willing to give his life for his family and country as you are. Maybe it’s time the two of you sat down and talked about that. You’re not alone.”
Thinking back over the conversations he’d had with his brother, Rachid realized that he’d cultivated the issues he had with Ghalil. By treating his younger brother like a child, he had pushed him to prove his manhood. Of course Ghalil would feel threatened and insulted. How didn’t I see that? Rachid ran his hand through the shoulder-length hair of the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. “Princess Zhang, how did you get so wise?”
Zhang laughed with self-deprecation. “Trust me, I’m no Cinderella, Rachid. I’m just a woman – a woman with very strong opinions and a problem accepting authority. I can’t promise you that life with me will be easy, but when we’re together I feel like I’m –”
He finished the sentence for her. “Home.”
Tears filled her eyes. “Yes. Home. And it doesn’t matter to me if we live in Najriad or on the moon as long as I’m with you. Choose us, Rachid, and we’ll work everything else out.”
The last wall in Rachid’s heart crumbled and he stepped back to lift her nightgown over her head. He kissed her until they were shaking against each other from a mixture of the intensity of their emotions and a desire to express their love in hot actions. “How did I find such an incredible wife?”
Standing exposed and proud before the worshiping eyes of her husband, Zhang joked, “I have this thing for sheikhs.”
Rachid lifted her easily in his arms and tossed her onto the bed behind her. “Sheikhs in general, or one in particular?” He dropped his towel and crawled across the large bed to loom over her.
She laughed up at him, “I’m not sure. There was one who used to do this thing with his tongue that I loved. Was that you?”
With a growl, Rachid pounced. He spread her legs and positioned himself between her knees. Ever so slowly he began to kiss the sensitive flesh of her thighs. His large hands lifted her rump and held her so he could savor the path to her. His hot tongue warmed and teased her stomach and finally parted her folds and delved in with expertise.
Zhang threw her head back, grabbed the bedding beside her and exclaimed passionately, “Yes, that’s what I remember.”
Rachid laughed against her and said, “Are you sure? Because I could spend the night reminding you.” He circled and lapped at her most sensitive spot while his hands firmly massaged her ass. “My own memory is fuzzy, but I seem to remember that you like this . . .” He slid a finger within her and rolled it gently, enjoying how Zhang clenched around him.
He repositioned himself so he could continue to stroke her intimately while he looked down into her flushed face. “God, I hope you meant what you said, because I don’t have the strength to let you go.”
Zhang circled his face with both of her hands and pulled him down for a kiss. She said, “I love you, Rachid. I’m not going anywhere.” When her lips met his, coherent conversation was replaced by an urgency on both sides that would no longer be denied. The rest of the night was filled with intense pleasure, hot whispered suggestions and shared satisfaction until they fell asleep, exhausted and spent in each other’s arms.