Saving the Sheikh
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Half-reclining, half-sitting against Rachid the next morning, Zhang sampled the breakfast breads that the house staff had delivered to their room. She popped a small bite into his mouth and shivered in response to the feel of his lips closing around her fingers.
Rachid ran his hand possessively down her bare back and gave her rump a light smack. “We haven’t talked about you using a hacker to access the royal server.”
Zhang smiled and rubbed his chest with one hand. “Genius, wasn’t it?”
Rachid caught her hand and held it to him. “Or treason. What if it hadn’t worked out the way it did? You’re lucky you didn’t land yourself in prison.”
Dismissing what had clearly not happened, Zhang said, “Now that would be a fun fantasy, but I’d rather be the jailor. You could be the very naughty international spy whom I have to interrogate.”
Amusement rumbled through Rachid’s chest and he said, “You and your fantasies! That’s how this all started.”
Zhang didn’t want to think about how one decision had changed her whole life, because then she would have to consider how close she and Rachid had come to never being together. She remembered her American friends cautioning her at Abby’s bachelorette party to choose her wedding escort with care and chuckled at how right they had been. One seemingly random event had changed everything. She shook off the past and refocused on the delectable present. “Exactly. Are you telling me that you wouldn’t love to be tied up while I torture you slowly?” She ran a hand lightly down his flat stomach and muscular thigh, avoiding touching what was eagerly springing to life and begging for her touch. “Again and again until you beg for release?”
He pulled her beneath him and pinned both hands above her head. “What if I like being in control?”
She rubbed her bare chest against his, loving how his breathing quickened and how he burned for her. She whispered against his lips. “We could take turns.”
He smiled and murmured, “I like the way you think.”
Still joined together, Rachid and Zhang jumped at the knock on the outer door of his suite. Zhang dismissed it, settled back into position and asked, “Did you order more food?”
Rachid shook his head and eased out from under his wife. “Stay here, I’ll check who it is.”
She rolled onto her back, pulled the sheet up over her chest and closed her eyes again. “See, I can follow orders.”
He leaned down, kissed her relaxed lips and suggested playfully, “Only because you’re feeling too lazy to get up.”
Eyes closed, Zhang returned the kiss, then stretched and smiled into a pillow. “If you wanted feisty this morning you shouldn’t have tired me out last night.”
Not moving from his position above her, Rachid teased, “Is that all it takes to get an obedient wife? Wild marathon sex sprees? You should have said something earlier.”
Zhang’s eyes flew open and she swatted at him with a pillow. He easily avoided the hit.
The knock on the door was louder the second time.
Rachid picked up the white sirwal pants he’d worn the night before and padded to the door. His stomach flipped when he saw it was Marshid, the head of the Royal Guardsmen. “Is it Ghalil?” he asked in a rush.
“No, Your Highness. The latest report from the hospital is that your brother is awake and out of danger. However, the king wishes to see you and your wife in the library.”
Rachid looked quickly back at the bedroom door he’d closed behind him. “Did he say why?”
“No, Your Highness.”
Rachid nodded and said, “Tell him that we will meet him in fifteen minutes.”
With a slight bow the guard left, and Rachid returned to the bedroom. He said, “My father wants to see both of us.”
Zhang sat straight up in bed. “Is he angry?”
Rachid shrugged, but sat on the edge of the bed. “I would never let anyone hurt you.”
Zhang leaned forward and touched the very serious man she’d made up her mind to spend the rest of her life with. “I know you wouldn’t.”
“He may question the advisability of me taking the title in October.”
“Do you want it?” she asked and watched his expression tighten.
“Yes and no. What if I’m not the right man? What if my brother is correct and I’m not Arab enough?”
Zhang scooted closer until she was kneeling in front of her husband, and then she took both of his hands in hers. “I wasted too much of my life trying to decide who I am, and I didn’t figure it out until I met you. I’m not a traditional, family-oriented woman from a small village in China. I’m not a die-hard, successful career woman of the world. I am a wonderfully complex combination of both those people. My culture is the beautiful canvas on which I have painted the details of my life. Who would I be without either of those elements?” Rachid took her hand tightly in his and absorbed her words. “I don’t think you will succeed here until you stop denying that the same is true for you. It seems like since you’ve come home to Najriad, you’ve tried to deny the man you were for the past two decades. Half a man cannot lead a country. But what if your experience out there gives you the strength you need to rule here? You think you can only be a good king if the people love and fear you, but those ways are outdated. If you stay and show your people what you can do for them – really show them – they will love and respect you. Maybe that’s why your father sent you away – so you would be a bridge between the past and the future.”
Expelling a harsh breath, Rachid pulled Zhang into his arms and held her tightly against his wildly beating heart. “When I’m with you I feel invincible.”
Zhang hugged him back. “I feel the same way.”
Rachid smiled into her hair and said, “Invincible or not, we shouldn’t make my father wait.”
They rushed through a shared shower and quickly threw on clothing. To Zhang’s surprise, Rachid chose a charcoal suit instead of his traditional white thobe. He added the white headdress with black accent rope. The combination was impressive and powerful. The doubt she’d sensed earlier was gone from the proud man who stood tall before her.
He held out his hand to Zhang said, “Come, it’s time for my father to meet his son.”
King Amir didn’t look pleased to see either of them when they joined him in the library. He left the view from the large window to take a seat, then waved at the two chairs near him and motioned for Rachid and Zhang to join him. They did.
The silence was painful and prolonged.
Zhang was the first to speak. “Your Highness, I’m so sorry about Ghalil. I would have never involved him if I had known that the danger was imminent.”
Rachid leaned forward, placed a hand on Zhang’s arm and said, “The fault is mine, Father. I should have told you of my plan.”
Raising one impatient hand, the king said, “Enough. It’s time for both of you to listen.”
They sat back in their chairs.
Nothing about the king’s stern expression implied that they would like what he was going to say. “I have spent half the night sorting through yesterday’s events with everyone from my advisor to each of the remaining guardsmen. Zhang, you accessed the royal server without permission. You brought strangers into my home and spent time alone with the men in their private quarters. This isn’t behavior befitting a future queen. You must learn to respect our ways.”
I would do it all again, Zhang thought, but for Rachid’s sake, she put her pride aside and said, “I will. I do.”
The king continued harshly, “Rachid, do you believe that you will be able to control your wife in the future?”
Rachid looked at Zhang and then boldly met his father’s eyes. “No, and I don’t want to.” His father frowned, and Zhang worried for just a moment until her husband added, “I love her the way she is. If you don’t feel that she is fit to be queen then I am not fit to be king, because she is part of me.” He took her hand in his. “Wherever she goes, I will go.”
His father’s voice boomed through the small room. “You would abdicate your crown and walk away?”
Rachid squared his shoulders and squeezed Zhang’s hand in his. “Not unless you want me to. You once asked me to go into the world and bring back the best of what I found.” He held up Zhang’s hand and kissed it. “That’s exactly what I did. Proximus could give our people a new source of revenue, and my fierce wife has the expertise to help make my dream a reality. Together, we will fight for causes we feel strongly about – here and across the globe. Najriad is my country, but Zhang is my home.”
“I see,” the king said and rubbed his short beard thoughtfully. “I’m not happy with the way you and your bride dealt with this breach of security.” Zhang and Rachid held their breath. The king said, “However, I am indebted to your wife.”
Zhang wasn’t sure which of her actions of the past week could have earned his gratitude, since she still blamed herself for Ghalil’s injury.
The king said, “Daughter, because of you, my sons have proven to themselves and to the world that they would die for each other. I have always known that for Najriad to survive they would have to stand together.” He looked into his son’s eyes and said, “I know the price you paid honoring my request to leave, Rachid, but I didn’t see another way. My father ruled with fear and I grew up with a tolerance for bloodshed. You needed to experience more than I had. I have done many things that I regret, but I don’t regret you. You will make a fine king, and your brother will help you navigate these difficult times. Together, you can bring a real peace to our people.”
Rachid said, “Father, I will dedicate my life to improving and protecting our people.”
The king nodded with approval and said, “That’s all I could ask for.” A gleam entered his eye as he returned his attention to his daughter-in-law. “That, and grandchildren. At least four.”
Zhang jolted in her seat and looked at Rachid. “Four?” she asked in shock.
Rachid smiled. “You want more?”
“Only if you grow a uterus,” Zhang tossed back.
Both Rachid and his father threw back their heads and laughed.
A bit of sadness entered the king’s eyes as he studied his new daughter-in-law. He said, “Rachid, your mother was outspoken also. I spent our time together trying to change her. In the end, she changed me.”
Zhang’s eyes filled with tears.
The king stood and smiled down at the next generation. “I still miss her.” He touched Zhang’s cheek softly and said, “You chose well, Son.”
Rachid stood and pulled his wife up beside him. “I’d like to take the credit, but rumor has it that she chose me.”
The king looked interested in the story, but Rachid didn’t offer more details. Thank God, Zhang thought. Some stories needed to be cleaned up a bit before they joined a family’s history.