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The Sheikh's Twin Baby Surprise

The Sheikh’s Twin Baby Surprise

 

 

By Holly Rayner

 

Copyright 2016 by Holly Rayner

 

All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part by any means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without the explicit written permission of the author.

 

All characters depicted in this fictional work are consenting adults, of at least eighteen years of age. Any resemblance to persons living or deceased, particular businesses, events, or exact locations are entirely coincidental.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Table Of Contents:

 

 

ONE

TWO

THREE

FOUR

FIVE

SIX

SEVEN

EIGHT

NINE

TEN

ELEVEN

TWELVE

THIRTEEN

FOURTEEN

FIFTEEN

SIXTEEN

 

 

 

 

ONE

 

 

I let out a deep sigh and looked out the limo window. Evening was falling on the desert city like elegant drapery, lights flickering on in buildings and street shops, but the streets were no less bustling than usual.

 

The culture of Al-Thakri was a lively, social one, and it showed in every inch of its capital city. Beautiful women clapped along the sidewalks in stiletto heels and smart skirts, while men in fine, tailored suits bid them good evening, phones plastered to their ears.

 

Dotted in between the modern skyscrapers and high-rises, the buildings of old Al-Thakri remained, sand and limestone facades that had survived centuries of wear and war and desert heat to stand as testaments of a glorious past. The sphinx—the symbol of Al-Thakri—was everywhere, used as decoration on buildings new and old alike.

 

The place was a wonderland; a fairy tale I never would have thought I’d be able to experience.

 

And yet, even so soon after arriving, I was considering leaving it all behind. It had only been six months since I had been scooped up by the royal family of this beautiful nation to serve as a private doctor to the eldest son, but it felt like much longer.

 

The limo came to a smooth stop at a traffic light, and at the edge of my attention I heard a soft but insistent voice.

 

“Dr. Green? What are you thinking?”

 

It was Omar—or, more properly, the Sheikh of Al-Thakri, next in line to the throne, and my employer.

 

I turned at the sound of his voice, and saw his dark, handsome face staring back at me with some anticipation. His deep brown eyes glittered. In front of him, he was holding up two velvet boxes, each of which contained a pair of cufflinks.

 

“Diamond or ruby?” he asked me earnestly.

 

I took a thoughtful glance at each of the options and let my eyes wander over Omar’s face, and his perfectly tailored tuxedo. Something bright was shining in his eyes tonight.

 

“Ruby,” I said, pointing a freshly manicured finger at the velvet box on the right.

 

Omar smiled, as if he had been hoping for that answer. He snapped the box holding the diamond cufflinks shut. “Good choice.”

 

“I’m not really qualified to make decisions like that, you know,” I said back to him with just a hint of teasing in my voice. “My stylist at the palace would agree. She almost fainted when she saw the wardrobe I brought with me. So my apologies if you happen to get any comments about your cufflinks tonight.”

 

Omar laughed richly, and a happy bloom spread out in my chest as I laughed with him.

 

I didn’t add that it was nice to be of some use around him lately. As a physician who had spent two years treating patients in war-torn countries with Doctors Without Borders, the current environment was giving me more than a touch of the doldrums. It wasn’t something I had admitted to the Sheikh—I was having a hard enough time admitting it to myself.

 

The luxurious living that came with being included in the royal entourage was amazing. The fact that I had earned enough money in six months not only to deal with the angry letters regarding my overdue student loan payments, but also to put away a sizeable nest egg for the next journey in my life, were benefits for which I was extremely grateful. But there wasn’t much use for a trauma physician in the entourage of a healthy, young, handsome Sheikh who never got more than the occasional scrape from playing tennis. He hadn’t even caught a cold once the entire six months I had been in his employment. Frankly, I was bored out of my mind, and more than a little upset at the implications my boredom made about me as a person.

 

Maybe I was a terrible person, but the dullness of my employment here made me long for the dust and heat of the field hospitals where my hands actually felt like they were making a difference in the world. I saved countless lives in those two years—and lost a few, to be sure, ghosts that follow every doctor, nurse and midwife in the world. But there was no question that I was making a difference. There was no question that I was loved and appreciated by the people I helped.

 

But here? In the air-conditioned, oil-rich cities of Al-Thakri, living alongside some of the richest rulers in the world, I wasn’t so sure I was making a difference at all, and it was starting to grate on me.

 

At least I knew how to pick out a pair of cufflinks, I thought bitterly.

 

“Almost arrived, sir,” the driver, Abdul, called from the front of the limo.

 

“Wonderful,” said Omar. He finished putting on the cufflinks and gave me a big, beaming smile.

 

It made my stomach flutter. I did my best to keep from blushing as I smiled back.

 

The smile—and the butterflies—died quickly when Omar spoke. “I hope Jada is wearing something with a fiery tint to it. It will match the rubies.”

 

I nodded quickly and turned back to look through the window. “Yes, it would,” I said quietly.

 

I didn’t want to talk about his date—not this one, nor any of the others he’d had lately. In the past six months, an endless parade of heiresses and princesses had rotated in and out of the Sheikh’s life, all vying for his favor. He’d been set to take the throne ever since the death of his father, some months before I arrived, but he would need a queen alongside him to make it proper—a queen who would give him an heir to continue the royal bloodline.

 

I couldn’t quite admit to myself just how much it was beginning to hurt to watch the courtships from afar.

 

I’d long ago stopped resenting the girls personally, and I expected that Jada would be no different. Most of them were too vapid and shallow to hate properly; instead, they had become a faceless mass of competition for a man who didn’t even realize I felt anything for him.

 

Somehow, that made it all worse.

 

The car glided to a halt on the curb next to a glittering, high-rise building. Smartly-dressed shoppers glanced curiously at the tinted windows, but didn’t slow their pace down the landscaped sidewalk.

 

We’d barely waited a moment before the doors of the high-rise were opened by a doorman in a maroon uniform, and out from behind him came the woman who must have been Jada.

 

I felt a pit form in my stomach; she was a goddess with tanned skin, black hair, and a body like a supermodel. Her plump lips were stained a beautiful shade of red, and her black eyeliner was painted in a perfect cat’s eye that would have taken me weeks to apply on my own. I said a silent prayer for the stylists in the palace that I was able to access.

 

Of course, she was wearing red.

 

As she approached the car, I moved to sit next to Rafiq, Omar’s most trusted bodyguard who never left his side. Jada stepped into the car, moving carefully in her stiletto heels, and sat down next to Omar, smiling beautifully as he leaned over to kiss her cheek. She gushed over him until she noticed the rest of the entourage in the limo—myself and Rafiq—and her face squished like she smelled something rotten.

 

“This is my physician, Dr. Carrie Green,” Omar said, with a hand extended my direction. “She and Rafiq are my constant companions.”

 

“Constant?” repeated Jada suspiciously. “Why do you need a doctor everywhere you go? Are you ill?”

 

“No, no,” laughed Omar, sliding an arm around the back of the seat and her thin shoulders. “But a man in my position can’t afford to take any risks with my health. If someone were to make an attempt on my life, Dr. Green here could be the one to save me.” He looked at me with a glint in his eye. I smiled back.

 

“Someone is trying to assassinate you?” Jada’s voice sounded like she couldn’t decide if she was afraid or impressed—maybe a little of both.

 

Omar shrugged. “One never knows where the streets of his journey will take him.”

 

Jada said nothing in reply as the royal motorcade pulled back onto the streets, and I couldn’t help assuming that she was wondering if she’d bitten off more than she could chew.

 

 

 

TWO

 

Omar had hired out the grand ballroom of the city’s most exquisite hotel to serve as the venue for the party. I’d been by Omar’s side for plenty of black tie affairs, but none of them compared to the opulence of this one—the birthday party for his mother, Mirah, Queen Regent of Al-Thakri.

 

Paparazzi flash bulbs strobed against the tinted windows of the car as the limo circled the driveway and headed up toward the gilded front doors. Photographers crushed against each other to try and get as close as they could, while the black-suited security detail worked just as hard to form a chain and keep the vultures at a safe distance.

 

My nerves lit up, as they always did when I had to step out in public as part of Omar’s entourage. I still hadn’t got used to all the glitz, all the noise, all the attention poured on the Sheikh and his family. It wasn’t something a girl like me was used to dealing with, and I wasn’t sure it ever would be.

 

But Jada was clearly not a girl like me. Her thin, delicate hand, glittering with jewelry, reached over to clutch at Omar’s hand, and my stomach jumbled in a wave of nausea.

 

“Sir, we’re ready when you are. Security is in position,” said the driver. He put the car in park but did not kill the ignition—in the blazing, Middle-Eastern sun, every heartbeat without the air-conditioning was unbearable.

 

“Thank you, Abdul,” replied Omar. He leaned closely to Jada. “My dear, would you do me the honor of stepping out first so the crowd can see what a divine woman I’ve been graced with this evening?”

 

I couldn’t look at them anymore. I opened up the sequined clutch purse that matched the hue of my midnight blue dress and dug out the lipstick and compact mirror I had stuffed in there. Rafiq was responsible for carrying my triage bag; all I had to do tonight was look like I belonged at this glamorous party and try to have a good time.

 

Ignoring the canoodling happening on the seat beside me, I reapplied my lipstick with care, despite the fact that it looked as perfect as it had when we left. The stylists at the palace had done my light blond hair into a sophisticated updo, and borrowed diamond earrings dangled from my ears—dripping waterfalls of sparkling gems that matched the necklace on my chest.

 

I almost didn’t recognize myself, and couldn’t think of a single instance in my life where I’d been so gussied up before. I tried to enjoy it instead of focusing on the heartache—or comparing myself to Jada. Her tall, lithe form was goddess-like in comparison to mine. I was average height, with curves and a flat stomach, and while I had never had trouble attracting men, there also weren’t a lot of women of Jada’s caliber in the dusty towns of Ohio.

 

Not comparing myself to her was easier said than done, particularly when Omar leaned in to whisper something in her ear, making her giggle as she nuzzled against his clean-shaven face. My stomach tensed as my imagination went wild.

 

After a few excruciating moments, the valet outside received the signal from the driver and opened the rear of the limo. A furnace of heat rolled into the car, despite the sun setting stubbornly behind the cityscape, and the sounds of the crowd and photographers became loud and unsettling.

 

Like a practiced starlet, Jada stepped out of the limo and onto the soft red carpet with a beaming smile. Omar followed suit, and as I waited to follow them out, I could see one of his strong hands resting on the small of her back as he walked her into the building.

 

Rafiq was staring at me when I looked over at him.

 

“What?” I asked curiously.

 

He nodded towards the hotel. “Tonight will be the night, yes?”

 

“The night for what?”

 

“The night you tell His Highness about the truth of what is in your heart.”

 

Cheeks flushing, I shook my head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

 

“No need to lie to me, Doctor. I won’t be the one to share this secret.”

 

“There is no secret,” I replied with a little hiss in my voice, and Rafiq only shrugged and didn’t press the point.

 

Carefully, I made my way towards the limo door to step out and follow the Sheikh with Rafiq close behind. The paparazzi didn’t give a damn about the two of us, thankfully; we were just the help. We trailed a few steps behind Omar and Jada as they made a show of their approach to the hotel.

 

Inside, the ballroom had been turned into an exquisite banquet hall, large enough to hold the hundreds of guests invited by the royal family. Debutantes, kings, ambassadors, and even a few journalists mingled in the huge and well-dressed crowd.

 

As my eyes scanned the room, I realized that well-dressed was an understatement. I had never been in a room full of so much decadence—and that was saying a lot after this job. Giant chandeliers studded the dark ceiling, dripping with crystals that shuddered when the hall doors closed. Round tables with crisp white linens had been arranged throughout, with gilded table settings surrounding exquisite centerpieces bursting with colorful blooms and feathers. Guests mingled, moving around the tables like shoals of fish, their feet sinking into the plush maroon carpet.

 

The women in the room looked like they could have been drawn to life by animators of some fairy tale movie, moving with grace and poise in dresses that ran five and six figures, at a conservative guess. Rhinestones and diamonds glittered under the lights, making shining stars of the beautiful women flashing around the room. While most of the men were dressed much more uniformly, there was no denying the attractiveness of their tailored suits, fresh-cut hair, and pampered skin.

 

My stylist had selected my gown for the evening, something from a designer I’d never heard of, but which she assured me was top quality. Nonetheless, it was hard not to feel insecure in a room full of rich, beautiful, high-class women, even if you were masquerading as one of them.

 

Fortunately, no one was worried about looking at me. I was just a shadow trailing behind Omar and Jada as they soaked up the attention. Watching Jada cling to his arm tightly, comfortably, I suddenly realized why my stylist had picked out a dark blue dress for me to wear: the color helped me fade out behind the Sheikh’s party—behind his actual date.

 

After all, I was just part of the entourage; an employee of the palace, there to do a job and nothing more. I didn’t have any royal bloodline to claim or inheritance to offer, and that’s what was needed in Omar’s world. The parade of fine ladies he’d been courting for the past six months all had it, and they were all vying for one thing: to become his wife and mother to the heirs of Al-Thakri.

 

These women that came to earn his heart, they pretended it was love when they were by his side, but it wasn’t, and Omar was smart enough to know it. They didn’t know him or care about him, they just wanted to be close to his power and money. They just wanted to cling to his side and giggle, pretending they hadn’t been on a thousand dates just like this one as they tried to find the richest and most well-connected man they could. And there would be no better offer than the Sheikh; they turned up their well-practiced charm to the maximum when they were by his side.

 

But so far, Omar had broken up with each and every one—some of the breakups turning dramatic when the women realized they weren’t going to become queen. It wasn’t something I had expected, but Omar was often not what he seemed on the outside. He was consumed with trying to gather the power owed to him as the oldest of his father’s two sons, and yet it was increasingly obvious that he had no interest in giving up his heart to a woman for whom he didn’t care, just to have an heir and gain the throne.

 

There was warmth to him none of these women would ever see. He wanted true, honest love to produce a child, not just some grab for power.

 

Feeling anxiety rise in my chest, I took a deep breath and tried to divert my thoughts. It wasn’t easy since I was forced to stare at Omar’s back as he made his way through the banquet hall, stopping to shake hands and kiss the hands of beautiful ladies.

 

My skin flushed, and I had to turn away. It was getting harder and harder to deal with the feelings growing in my heart. Danger was on the horizon; I could feel it. Every day I woke up wondering whether it would be the day when I blurted out to Omar how much I had grown to admire him; how much I was falling in love with him.

 

This job was supposed to be an easy meal ticket, something to clean the dust off my skin after Doctors Without Borders. But now it was threatening to undo everything I had built. If I told Omar how I felt, I had no way of knowing how he would react. I might be fired, and my reputation ruined forever. Omar’s family had the power to make that happen.

 

My frantic thoughts thankfully began to evaporate as we approached the head table and the buzzing din of conversation grew louder. The guests, even those Omar hadn’t personally greeted, were all aware of his arrival, and stood to give him a round of applause as he approached the table. Omar smiled with his trademark charm and waved at the room.

 

Already seated was Omar’s mother, Mirah. The Queen Regent was a gorgeous middle-aged woman with jet-black hair and deep brown eyes, just like Omar’s. She wore a lovely, modest dress the color of champagne. She stood and welcomed her son with a beaming, loving smile, wrapping her arms around his strong shoulders in a warm hug. Omar introduced her to Jada, and to my surprise, Jada curtsied appropriately.

 

To the left of the Queen, Omar’s brother Sajid was waiting to greet him, with his wife Alima and three beautiful daughters standing beside him. The brothers exchanged tense smiles and a rough handshake before Sajid pulled out the chairs of each of his ladies and took a seat himself.

 

Omar turned to face the crowd and was immediately handed a wireless microphone by an attendant who scurried out of the way as fast as he’d shown up. Rafiq and I watched from the other side of the enormous round banquet table as Omar turned on the charm he was well-known for.

 

“Good evening everyone!” he smiled. “I wish to thank each and every one of you for coming this evening to celebrate the birth of the most beautiful and wondrous woman in the world: my mother, the Queen Regent of Al-Thakri.”

 

The applause was thunderous as Mirah stood and waved to the crowd, giving them a nod that was somehow both confident and humble.

 

“As you are aware, my father’s sudden passing shocked us all. The entire country lost a great man, a just ruler, and a true friend. It has been very difficult for my family to endure his loss. It hardly seems that eight months could have passed since he was here with us.”

 

The room fell into a grave silence. I could swear I heard someone crying, their sobs echoing against the vast gilded walls of the ballroom. Mirah herself looked mournful at the mention of her late husband, and her sadness made my heart ache. I hadn’t met the former king before he passed, but it was clear that he had been a good, righteous man who touched many people with his compassion.

 

Omar leaned forward to pick up a flute of bubbling champagne from the table. “But tonight is for celebrating. We celebrate my mother and her incredible life. She was a doting wife to my father, a perfect mother to myself and my brother Sajid, and is a joyously happy grandmother to her granddaughters. She is also, just as importantly, our queen regent.”

 

Glasses raised all across the banquet hall, cheers peppered throughout the crowd.

 

“So tonight we say cheers, and wish good health upon her—Mirah of Al-Thakri!” Omar ended with a loud, happy tone as the crowd raised their glasses at him and applauded his speech.

 

Omar took Jada to her seat and then took his own. Rafiq pulled out my chair for me, almost directly across from Omar, where I now knew I would be stuck watching him and Jada flirt all evening.

 

I grabbed a flute of champagne for myself and dreamed of the life I’d rejected: a tiny but clean apartment in some big American city where I could have a cat and a fish and not have to watch the man I love, ruler of an ancient country, hit on supermodels in front of me. Each time I had to endure it, I wondered if I had made a mistake accepting this job, or traipsing around the world in the first place. If I had stayed home, maybe I would already have the love I wanted.

 

The food was served almost immediately, the kitchen prepped to be timed perfectly with Omar’s speech. Small talk drifted from the members of the royal family, happy and light, as the meal began. Mirah told them how she’d taken the day off from attending royal duties to spoil herself at a local spa, and thanked her sons for the exquisite gifts they had sent to her to celebrate the occasion.

 

But by the end of the main course, tensions had begun to build, and were quickly becoming too big to ignore.

 

Sajid, Omar’s younger brother, was never great at holding his drink. In only six months, I’d learned that much. The waiters had already taken away at least three glasses of champagne when Sajid eyed Omar with a dark gaze and said the words that changed the entire mood of the evening.

 

“So, Omar,” Sajid said, nodding towards Jada in her striking red dress. “Tell us about this lovely new lady you’ve brought to the party.”

 

It was an innocent-sounding question, and Jada was clearly flattered by the attention, even as everyone else at the table took a deep breath.

 

I looked up and saw a shadow cross Omar’s face. He stared at the elaborate centerpiece in the middle of the table, clearly trying to decide how best to respond to his brother.

 

“Jada, why don’t you tell my brother a little about yourself?” Omar responded quietly. His voice was dark, angry. I recognized it well.

 

In recent months, things had become more and more tense between Omar and his brother. Their father’s death had started a contest between them as succession of power became at the forefront of their minds. As the oldest, Omar was in line to take the throne next, but because of Al-Thakri’s constitution, he couldn’t do so until he had a bride to give him an heir. Sajid felt the fact that he was already married with children meant the country should waste no more time on the issue, and skip over Omar and his romantic indecision and allow Sajid to become king.

 

It was unlike any other family squabble I had been a part of, and made the fights my sister and I used to have over Barbie dolls look pathetic.

 

Happily, Jada turned toward Sajid to answer him earnestly. “I have representation with the Tom Ford Agency, and am heiress to the Ghaschi Corporation.” There was something mechanical and rehearsed about the way she said it.

 

Sajid caught onto that, too. He was as smart as Omar. He turned back to the last of his steak with a sly, condescending smile. “Lovely, just lovely. Say, you should get a move on with this one, Omar, if you hope to be king anytime this century. She’s as ripe as the rest.”

 

Silverware clattered against porcelain as Mirah dropped her cutlery. Jada gasped, her face turning as red as her dress. The anger that had been building on Omar’s face came out in a furious expression that he directed at his brother.

 

He put an arm around Jada’s shoulder and tried to comfort her. It was a noble gesture, but it made me nauseous all the same. I surreptitiously reached for another flute of champagne.

 

“Being power-hungry makes you rude,” growled Omar to his brother. “Jada is my guest, and I won’t have you speaking so disrespectfully towards her.”

 

“Power-hungry? Yes, I would think that describes us both, don’t you?” Sajid shot back. “But at least I’m the one abiding father’s wishes by producing heirs.” He waved a hand down the table at his daughters, who looked suddenly smaller and embarrassed, trying to shrink back into their chairs.

 

Omar shook his head. “An heir is a son, or have you forgotten the constitution? I love my nieces dearly, but they do not make you a king.”

 

“And what have you produced?” said Sajid, his voice rising in both anger and volume. “You haven’t even settled down with a wife! How can we trust you with the responsibility of leading a nation if you cannot even build your own kingdom in a household? I have produced heirs. The throne should be mine. All the rest is technicality.”

 

“Sons, Sajid. Until one of us produces a son, neither of us will be king,” Omar said through gritted teeth, leaning over the table.

 

Nearby tables began to notice the emerging row. All I could do was sit and watch, wanting to help Omar bite back against the sharp tongue of his brother, but knowing I had no place to speak. That was one sure way to lose my job.

 

“Enough!” Mirah’s sharp voice cut through the bickering, and she slapped a palm on the table for good measure.

 

Both her sons stopped talking immediately and looked at her with shame in their eyes.

 

“Mother,” started Sajid—always the first to apologize, just as he was always the first to start trouble.

 

“Enough!” she repeated. She closed her eyes and shook her head. “I’ve had enough of this for three lifetimes. Your father would never put up with this nonsense, and it has been a difficult enough time without him to see you both descend into such petty foolishness.”

 

Neither of the brothers spoke back.

 

“None of us wants this to be happening,” she said. “I didn’t marry you father in hopes of becoming a queen one day. I only wanted to be his wife, and mother to his children.” Her voice shook as memories flooded her thoughts. “But Queen Regent is what I have become. And as Queen, I am going to put a stop to this nonsense with a special decree.”

 

“A decree?” gasped Sajid.

 

“This succession issue must end. The constitution of our country is ancient, and I am not allowed to amend it. The constitution says the next ruler must be male. So I say, the first of you, my sons, to deliver me a grandson will accede to the throne, and that will be the end of this.”

 

Omar and Sajid stared in shock at their mother, and I felt a great knot form in my stomach.

 

Mirah took a deep breath. “I want to retire. I want to spend my last years in the garden with my grandchildren, teaching them poetry. I certainly do not want to continue moderating the squabbling of my grown sons who continue to fight over the same toy. So let this be the end of it. Produce me a grandson, and you will have the throne of Al-Thakri.”

 

 

THREE

 

The ride back to the palace was tense and uncomfortable. Exhausted by the emotion of it, I tried to pass the time staring out the window, watching the glittering, faraway desert dunes on the outskirts of the city. Under the moonlight, they shone like beautiful mountains of white diamonds.

 

Omar and his brother had been shocked by their mother’s decree. Mirah had spent the rest of the evening mingling with her birthday guests, while Sajid had swept up his wife and daughters before the family left early in their limo. Omar had tried to enjoy himself, but I could tell he was deeply rattled by the row, stuck in his own mind. Jada must have noticed it, too; she wasn’t as cheerful as she had been, and seemed resentful of the fact that Omar was no longer fawning over her.

 

Her disappointment only seemed to increase when the motorcade stopped to drop her outside her penthouse apartment. Perhaps she had been expecting an invitation back to the Sheikh’s palace—or his bedroom; I have to admit that I felt a rush of schadenfreude at the forlorn expression on her face.

 

Omar followed Jada out of the limo and Rafiq and I waited in awkward silence as he escorted her back up to her penthouse. When Omar returned, all pretense of happiness had dropped from his face. He was angry. I heard it in his voice when he told Abdul to drive on.

 

I stared at Omar as he gazed out the window, deep in thought. I wanted desperately to comfort him. But I couldn’t quite bring myself to move to sit next to him.

 

Truthfully, I needed to be comforted myself. As a trauma doctor, being in tense situations was nothing new, but there was something vastly different about a royal family in the middle of a heated succession problem. Queen Mirah’s proclamation only made things more urgent for Omar. Sajid already had a wife, and was probably trying to produce his male heir as we sat in the limo. Omar had much more work ahead of him, and now his clock was ticking even faster.

 

I wasn’t sure I could stand to be here for the day he introduced me to a beautiful woman who was pregnant with his child. As his physician, I would become her doctor, too. I would be responsible for her health, and for ensuring the health of the heir of Al-Thakri. I would have to smile while I watched the man I loved create life with some other woman.

 

I glanced over at Omar, who was too busy in his own thoughts to notice me looking. My heart broke as I realized that I didn’t have the strength to do it; I couldn’t stay there, loving him from afar. I had to quit. I had to leave this place before the heartache of it killed me.

 

I spend the rest of the limo ride trying to hold back my tears. Like some prophet, Rafiq gave me glances that said he could tell what was going on beneath the surface, but I ignored him.

 

The motorcade passed the palace gates and wound up the asphalt roads to the rear of the palace. The place was ancient, built long before cars existed, and there was no driveway to take us to the front. Constructing one would have ruined the gorgeous beauty of the symmetrical front walk, dotted with palm trees, water features, and gorgeous blooming flowers. The modern features had been built behind the palace, so the ancient façade could obscure the modern necessities.

 

Omar stepped out first, with Rafiq following behind. As I stepped out into the semi-darkness, a strong hand was offered to me. I looked up to see Omar waiting next to the limo door with a soft smile on his face, the first I’d glimpsed since his mother had made her announcement.

 

I returned it shyly and accepted his hand, feeling the electric shock in my heart that I felt whenever we touched.

 

“Well,” Omar said, offering his arm to me as the valet closed the limo door. “That evening did not turn out as I expected.”

 

I took his arm gently and he walked us under the stone canopy towards the door. For a moment, I felt like I could be his queen.

 

“I don’t know, most birthday parties I go to end with an enormous, life-changing decree.”

 

Omar laughed in relief. It felt good to see him laugh. His whole face lit up when he did. “It sounds like your customs must be even stranger than ours.”

 

“Just more dramatic,” I replied teasingly. “And that’s saying a lot.” I pointed to the giant, gilded statues of sphinxes, erected by Omar’s ancestors, guarding the palace doors, and he laughed again.

 

“Mother is usually very even-handed, but I think she’s reached the end of her patience,” he sighed.

 

“Seems that way,” I agreed. “I can’t really blame her, though. Ruling a country must be hard even when you’ve always expected to end up doing it—I can’t imagine being thrust into power the way she’s been.”

 

“It has been hard on her. All the more reason it’s important that this heir situation gets remedied, and quickly.”

 

Talk of Omar’s heir made me clam up, suddenly uncomfortable. He must have noticed, because he looked at me curiously for a moment before he spoke again. “It’s been a funny old night. How would you feel about a nightcap?”

 

I wanted to say no. I wanted to return to my private suite and end the evening alone, probably crying in my giant bathtub as I figured out how to pen my resignation letter. But I couldn’t resist spending time with him, even if it hurt.

 

The palace hallways were quiet, most of the staff having gone home or retreated to their own quarters for the night. Only the night guards were alert, positioned evenly throughout the hallways and at the entrances, politely ignoring us as we sauntered slowly by.

 

Omar led us to his library, one of my favorite rooms, where the walls were two stories high and one had to use a ladder to get to the topmost books on the shelves. He poured us both a glass of brandy from the collection of bottles at the bar in the corner.

 

“Cheers,” he said and clinked my glass.

 

“Cheers.” I smiled back and took a sip, feeling the warmth melting down my throat.

 

After a few moments of silence, Omar asked me, “You seem lost in your thoughts tonight, Carrie. Is everything all right?”

 

The question startled me and I cleared my throat. “Lost is about right. I just have a lot on my mind, I guess.”

 

“May I ask what?”

 

I gave a nervous little laugh. “Don’t you have enough on your plate without worrying about my problems?”

 

“You’re my trusted doctor, and you live in my palace. Your problems are my problems.”

 

I blushed. He never said things like that to the other staff members, even though I know he did care about them. Unlike the rumors and stories everyone has heard about how powerful people treat the people who work for them, I hadn’t experienced anything like that in Al-Thakri. The Sheikh treated everyone with respect, and never yelled even when he was angry.

 

It was just that he seemed to treat me a little differently; he paid me just a bit more attention than anyone else—something that made my heart flutter to think about. I tried to tell myself it was nothing, but my heart wouldn’t listen.

 

I stalled with another sip of brandy. “I don’t know… I’ve just been thinking a lot, lately… about my place here.”

 

Omar frowned, his face darkening. He stepped closer to me. “What do you mean? Are you not happy with your quarters, or your salary? You know you can discuss those things with me if something is bothering you.”

 

“No, no, it’s not that,” I answered, shaking my head. “My room is a palace unto itself, and the pay is incredible. I just…” My words faded out as I scrambled for a believable excuse. This wasn’t the way I intended on delivering the news, but the words rose in my throat before I could do anything to stop them. “I think I need to resign,” I blurted out. “I’m not… I’m not sure I can stay here and be your physician anymore.”

 

The look on Omar’s face broke my heart, as much as it took me by surprise. His shoulders slumped. “Carrie, is this true? You want to leave me?”

 

I sighed. “It’s… it’s not that. I’m just not sure I’m cut out for this. It’s been six months, and I still don’t feel any more… comfortable. I’m a trauma physician; my place is somewhere more violent and desperate than between your palace walls. Besides, it’s not like you really need a doctor around you all the time. You never get sick or hurt. To be honest, I feel like I’m withering away here.”

 

“But what happens if I do need you by my side one day? Anything could happen. My father’s heart attack hit him suddenly, even with his healthy diet and lifestyle. Who will be here to help me if you leave?”

 

“You can hire another doctor,” I said, laughing hollowly. “There are hundreds of qualified applicants, probably many of them already in your country. There has to be someone who would better enjoy this quiet life than me.” Someone who is not steadily falling in love with her employer and threatening to ruin her whole life over it.

 

Omar fell silent. He moved away from me and collapsed tiredly into one of the brown leather reading chairs, downing his brandy in one big gulp.

 

The silence grew between us and made the tension in my chest even worse. Did he want me to leave the room? Did this mean my employment was officially over? I stood there, frozen like a statue, waiting for him to react.

 

Omar took a deep breath and finally spoke, but the words that came out of his mouth were not those I expected to hear. “What if I made you a different offer?”

 

I blinked. “A different offer? Like what, more money? As I said, the pay is more than generous… It’s more that I just want to feel like I’m actually needed for something. Like I have a purpose. I have skills I’m not using here.”

 

Omar rubbed his lips, as if he were nervous—something I’d only seen him do once or twice. He was not a man who got nervous very often.

 

When he looked up at me, there was emotion in his eyes that was crushing and heavy. “Well, allow me to explain, and maybe there will be purpose enough in this offer for you. Though I ask you to keep the details of this conversation between us.”

 

“Certainly.”

 

He took another deep breath before continuing. “You may have noticed that my attempts at finding a wife have been… less than successful lately.”

 

All the air seemed sucked out of the room as I listened to the Sheikh speak. “I… I have, yes.”

 

“And my mother’s decree this evening has made the situation even more urgent for me, wouldn’t you agree?”

 

“I would agree.”

 

He sighed and got up to pour another glass of brandy. After taking a sip, he continued. “Carrie, I don’t know how else to do this, so I’m just going to come out with it: how would you feel about carrying an heir for me, to assure my ascension to the throne?”

 

The glass in my hand slipped to the floor, spilling what was left of the brandy all over the intricate carpet. Neither of us seemed to notice, as we stared at each other in tense anticipation.

 

“What?” I finally said, breathless. “You want… you want me to give you a child?”

 

“That’s correct,” he said. “If my mother needs me or Sajid to produce a male heir before she can step down from the throne with peace of mind, then I need to give her one in order to take it. I can’t waste any more time with these socialites; my brother already has the significant advantage of having a wife, so I really cannot hesitate.”

 

“Sure, I understand your urgency. I can even understand you coming up with this as a solution to the problem. But why me? Why not ask Jada, or any of them? They would surely leap at the chance to carry your heir.” There was bitterness in my voice, but I didn’t care to hide it anymore. I’d just quit my job; it was time for honesty—on some topics, at least.

 

Omar shook his head impatiently. “Because I don’t love Jada, or any of them, Carrie. I’m not going to force a relationship just to produce a child. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I did, and I do not want any son of mine to grow up thinking he was simply created as a tool to get power.”

 

My throat tightened up. I was trying very hard not to hear the unspoken implication in the Sheikh’s words. Instead, I asked again, “But why me? Why should it be me to give you an heir?”

 

“I trust you,” he said simply. “You’ve become important to me as we’ve gotten to know each other these past few months. You have a beautiful and kind disposition that I believe would benefit any child, especially one who will one day become a king. You are intelligent, thoughtful, and hard-working, and you truly care about people; what other qualities would better suit an eventual heir to a kingdom?”

 

I turned red at the bombardment of compliments. For months, I had been dreaming about hearing him talk to me like this; finally hearing it was almost unbelievable.

 

Omar continued, “I would pay you, of course, for this ultimate labor—enough to wipe out any debts you may still have and keep you salaried for the rest of your life. I understand this is an incredible request to make of any you, to ask you to give up your bodily autonomy and produce a life, but I assure you I have every intent of making sure you are adequately compensated, in any way you should request.”

 

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Blood rushed in my ears like the sound of the raging ocean, fast as the thoughts that swarmed my shocked mind.

 

Finally, I had to let out a deep breath. “I’m sorry, this is just all so unbelievable. I have nothing but questions in my head. What if it doesn’t work? What if I have a girl? What if your family won’t accept a child born of me?”

 

He walked towards me slowly, standing in front of me with his glass of brandy, hope written on his handsome face. “Your payment would not change. And you would be under no obligation to try again for a boy. I’m only asking for one chance to produce the heir I need to take the throne; one chance with someone I trust and care for. My family will not be a problem. The constitution states clearly that the child must simply be my heir. The writers of the ancient world did not make any emphasis on who the mother should be. My seed is enough to ensure they will not bother you.”

 

My heart was pounding. I couldn’t process my emotions fast enough, despite the eagerness on Omar’s face as he waited for my answer.

 

“Carrie?” he asked after a few moments of my panicked silence. “What do you say? Will you help me?”

 

Finally, in a tight voice, I replied. “This isn’t the conversation I expected to have with you tonight.”

 

“Nor I,” admitted Omar. “But it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a few weeks now.”

 

“A few weeks?” The thought of Omar considering me as the mother of his child without me even knowing made me weak in the knees. “Did you know your mother was going to make the decree tonight?”

 

“No, of course not. But with every failed relationship I’ve endured in the past few months, it has dawned on me that there was no reason to force myself to be with a woman I do not love, just for the sake of producing an heir; modern science has freed us from such problems. Then the question simply became: with whom would I want to create a child, one that could grow up to rule the nation I love? And, well… the answer was very clearly you.”

 

I shook my head, feeling the long tendrils of my hair which were beginning to escape the upsweep on top of my head. The Sheikh’s words were shaking me down to my soul, and I didn’t know how to deal with it. He had no idea how I felt about him, and no idea of the true significance of what he was asking of me.

 

“I’m sorry, I can’t give you an answer yet. My head is swimming right now, Your Highness.”

 

“Hey, enough of that,” he said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “I told you a long time ago you don’t need to use such titles with me in private.”

 

“Still,” I replied. “I can’t give you an answer right this second. This is all too much, too fast. I mean, hell, I was ready to leave this job ten minutes ago, and now you’re asking me to have your child. Until right now, I was of the mind that having children was an adventure I was never going to have.”

 

He frowned. “Why do you say that?”

 

I shrugged, suddenly self-conscious at blurting out such private information. “I don’t know. The lifestyle of a globetrotting trauma doctor isn’t exactly conducive to raising children. I just figured I had to pick between the two, and I made my choice when I entered med school.”

 

There was sadness on his face. “Well, I’m sorry to hear that you thought that, Carrie, but it seems now that fate has presented you with the option to do both.”

 

“Sort of,” I retorted. “The child wouldn’t be coming with me, though. He would stay here with you; I would basically be a surrogate.”

 

He opened his mouth to answer, but seemed to think better of his response, and hesitated. “I suppose… I suppose that’s true, yes.” He cleared his throat uncomfortably.

 

“That’s a totally different ball game. I’m just going to need time to think about this, okay?” I took a few steps forward. “I’m flattered, I really am. I just have to think about this. It won’t do either of us any good if I agree to this and end up miserable.”

 

He stared deep into my eyes and shook his head. “Of course, Carrie. It would kill me if I made you unhappy. You’re under no pressure to accept my offer unless you really feel that you want to do this.”

 

I gave him a tight smile even as his words touched my heart. “Then I need some time to think, please.”

 

The Sheikh nodded gravely. “I understand. Please let me know as soon as possible whether you are staying to help… or leaving.”

 

I swallowed against a tight throat and nodded back to him. Too shocked to say anything else, I simply bowed my head a little and turned, hurrying out of the library and down the palace hallways.

 

By the time I rounded the corner near my private suite, I was practically running like Cinderella trying to catch her pumpkin before midnight struck, hot tears streaming down my face.

 

 

FOUR

 

Relaxing after the talk with Omar was almost impossible. Neither the jet tub nor a few more glasses of wine did anything to wring out the tension that galloped through my muscles at the thought of the decision before me. I paced around the plush carpet of my private suite for hours, trying to weigh the pros and cons, asking myself the hard questions. It had been daunting enough to consider quitting this job and finding myself a new place to live and work. Now on top of that, I had to consider a much bigger, more life-changing decision, and one I never expected to have to make.

 

The man I secretly love asking me to carry his child—as a business arrangement. What had my life become? Six months ago, I was tying tourniquets gritted with sand and trying to get my hands on any local remedy that would wash the constant smell of blood out of my hair. Now, there was an evening gown on the floor of my plush suite, looking like a dark puddle of water in an ocean of cream-colored carpet, and I had to decide if I wanted to carry the heir of one of the oldest countries in the Middle East so that the man I loved could take the throne.

 

Desperate for guidance, I rang my family back home, hoping in some vague way that the time difference suddenly wouldn’t matter and my mother would answer, bright-eyed and ready to help. But she didn’t.

 

Teary-eyed, I sighed as I hung up the call, hovering on the edge of my enormous canopy bed. It was probably for the best, anyway. There was no easy way to explain what was happening here, and my mother would be horrified at the prospect of me selling out my womb to anyone, Sheikh or not.

 

My mother was a traditionalist, as were most of my family back home in Ohio, and I couldn’t think of any way to explain this to them. They didn’t understand a lot of my life decisions. My mother cried for three days when I told her I was headed to be a doctor in a war-torn country. She was proud of me, sure, but she didn’t understand why I would give up the comfort of middle-class American life for one of danger, uncertainty and struggle. I had no idea how to explain it to her, just like I had no idea how to explain that I was thinking of having a man’s baby for money.

 

The thought hit me like a landslide. That’s what he was asking of me, wasn’t it? To rent out my reproductive organs in order to produce something he needed. Some part of that realization horrified me.

 

And yet, how many young women found themselves pregnant and with no father around to help raise the child? At least Omar was willing to make sure I never wanted for anything—and our child certainly wouldn’t. He or she would be raised in one of the most prosperous places in the world, taught by world-class tutors and coaches, brought up with every advantage in order to become a fine ruler one day. How many mothers would happily pay any price to ensure that for their child? Was I selfish if I turned it down? If I had my own kids one day, outside of such an arrangement, I doubted I would be able to provide them even a fraction of the kind of security Omar could offer.

 

And then there was the whole business of surrogacy—willing, healthy women carrying children for couples who couldn’t otherwise conceive, so that the joy of parenthood could be spread. Was there anything dishonorable about that profession? Of course not. As a doctor, I knew surrogates and egg and sperm donors brought an immeasurable amount of happiness to people’s lives, giving them hope when they had none. There was nothing shameful about it; they were helping people, and at great personal sacrifice. It was exactly the kind of life I wanted to live.

 

So why did I feel so badly about the idea?

 

After a hot bath, I dressed in one of the silk nightgowns from my dresser and moved to lay in bed and finish off the bottle of red wine I had opened. Sleep was going to be elusive tonight, and I figured I would try and coax her in with a little bait.

 

I lay there and looked down at my body, and my flat belly. With a soft hand, I rubbed it, and imagined myself with child. My body would go through some drastic changes if I made this decision, some of which would be permanent. I would never be the same woman after it was over, even if it was a business transaction and not a family choice. The weight of that realization settled over me like a wet wool coat. My body, my mind, my spirit, everything would be changed forever once I went through the experience of carrying and giving birth to a child.

 

Tears began to stream down my cheek with sudden timing. A family choice; that was the choice I really wanted to be making. Having children was always in my life plan, ever since I was a little girl. Being a doctor, and one who was attracted to dangerous work, had put a bit of a delay on that plan to be sure, but the hope never really died.

 

I’d always figured I would eventually find some attractive fellow doctor or nurse who enjoyed travel and excitement as much as I did, and we would run off together, healing people and raising our kids as worldly little nomads who understood the truth of culture, beauty and people. Part of me always worried that it was just a pipe dream, and that eventually I would have to give up one or the other in order to survive. With every year that passed, the less likely it became, and I knew that a day would come when it would be impossible for me to bear children. One of my dreams was always doomed to die, an ugly voice in the back of my head told me.

 

But what girl dreams of selling her womb to a sheikh? Was this really the way I wanted to bring a child into the world—as a business transaction with a man who saw me only as an employee? Even though I loved him, it was a one-way street. This wouldn’t be an act of love on his part, so much as self-preservation.

 

Flashes of social media pages and birth announcements from my girlfriends back at college entered my mind. They were easy enough to ignore when I had more pressing, life-saving issues at hand. But in the dark of night, I had to admit that being in my thirties, watching all my peers settle down and start families was starting to bite at my heels like a yappy dog. I always knew that having a baby while I was on my own and out in the world wasn’t feasible. I didn’t have the time, money, or energy to trot the globe with a baby on my back, and it wouldn’t be fair to any child to make them go without just because their mother wanted to be a globetrotter.

 

But Omar’s offer seemed to fix that conundrum. I could have a child, and know that he would want for nothing, while I continued on with my adventurous lifestyle. Omar would make a wonderful father; I was certain of that much. I had seen him with his nieces enough times to have faith in his ability to be patient, caring, and loving to any child. He was a good man. It would crush me not to be a parent alongside him to a child of our making, but my feelings weren’t the point here.

 

Omar wasn’t asking me this because he loved me. He needed an heir to ensure his life continued on the track he had been planning. And my love for him couldn’t factor into this; that was a surefire way to get my heart broken.

 

 

FIVE

 

I tossed and turned between the sheets of my borrowed palace bed for most of the night. Come morning, the sun rose with an orange heat over the desert horizon, and the soft sounds of songbirds in the palace garden floated in on the same breeze that gently shook the curtains of my open windows. The land around the palace was a peaceful place, far from the city center and the noise of the freeways and airports, and the only sounds that greeted me each morning were natural and beautiful.

 

I couldn’t help thinking that a child waking up in this place every morning would be one lucky child. He would be safe; he would be loved. And, one day, he would be in a place of power where he could, in turn, help a lot of other people.

 

If what I wanted to do was make a difference in the world, having a child who would one day rule a country would certainly do that.

 

Even though there was heaviness in my heart at the prospect, I knew then what I needed to do. My decision could provide future security for all of us—myself, Omar, and our child. Saying no would rob us all.

 

Thinking I should clean myself up from the rough night of sleep, I moved from the bed to the enormous, marbled bathroom. I gave my face a gentle wash to get rid of the tear-stains and puffiness from lack of rest, and let down my hair from the upsweep it was still holding onto half-heartedly, brushing it out into gentle waves that framed my face. I stared back at the girl in the mirror and took a deep breath.

 

I changed quickly into casual workout clothes; the palace had rules about ladies being seen in their nightdresses outside their chambers, and it was a custom I had adapted to after the first two times the guards yelled at me for it. Living out in the desert with Doctors Without Borders quickly stripped a person of any semblance of modesty and privacy—at least as far as the high-class world defined it.

 

I stepped out into the hallway, which was still quiet. Soon, it would be bustling as the palace reacted to Queen Mirah’s decree, which would be announced publicly today.

 

I had to see Omar before all hell broke loose.

 

The guards near my room shifted stirred at the sight of me. I still hadn’t learned all their names, but the closest one today was a mountain of a man, a head taller than even Omar’s impressive stature, with shoulders twice as wide. He seemed surprised when I stopped in front of him.

 

“Is the Sheikh awake yet?” I asked.

 

He blinked a few times before nodding wordlessly.

 

“Do you know where he is? He’s expecting to talk with me this morning.”

 

The guard stared at me suspiciously. Then he looked down the hallway and spoke in Arabic into the tiny microphone implanted in the wrist of his suit jacket. He listened as someone answered him back in the speaker in his right ear. I could only hear the sound of a voice, but couldn’t make out what it was saying. The guard exchanged a few more words with whoever was on the other end, eyeballing me the whole time.

 

“His Highness is taking breakfast in the east courtyard,” he said finally, in a booming voice. His English was very good, but his accent was heavy, and he took care pronouncing each word. “You may go to him.”

 

I nodded and thanked the guard, turning around the other direction to head for the east courtyard.

 

As per the traditions of many Middle-Eastern countries, the Sheikh’s palace was bursting with courtyards, arboretums, gardens and water features. In a land of dry desert, there was nothing more celebrated than water and nature.

 

It was one of my favorite traditions of this place. Warmth spread throughout my body when I imagined my son enjoying them, learning about varieties of bright blooming plants and visiting tropical birds. He would giggle and squeal when he reached in the ponds and felt the slimy scales of a fish swim by his hand, or the futile paddling of the water turtles’ feet when he picked them up.

 

Every step I took, I felt more and more like this was the right decision.

 

The two guards at the entrance of the east courtyard barely gave me a sideways glance. I moved between them and out towards the soft morning sunshine that was just beginning to light up the palace walls. At a thick bronze-and-glass table setting, surrounded by plush trees, Omar sat with a tray of breakfast food and a pile of newspapers, catching up on what was happening in his kingdom.

 

His cup was halfway to his lips when he looked over and saw me standing at the entrance. His eyes widened and he immediately put the cup down, spilling some coffee on the table in his hurry. He tossed the newspaper aside and stood up to greet me.

 

He looked so dashing in his casual white linens, contrasting against the smooth glow of his bronze skin. The curls in his jet-black hair were still a little mussed from sleep; he clearly hadn’t met with his stylist yet. Judging by the puffiness around his deep brown eyes, he’d had as rough a night’s sleep as I had.

 

The eagerness in his expression as I approached made my heart hurt. No matter when or how I did it, leaving Omar would be the most difficult thing I ever did.

 

“Carrie,” he said. “Good morning. Did you sleep well?”

 

I laughed softly. “No, of course not. Are you telling me you did?”

 

He gave me a sweet half-smile and ran a hand through his hair. “No, not at all. I couldn’t stop thinking about you all night.” He cleared his throat and immediately corrected himself. “About your decision, I mean.”

 

I nodded and licked my lips. My hands, as they always did when I was at my most nervous, began to fidget with each other. “Well, hopefully we can both sleep better tonight, because I think I’ve made my decision.”

 

“You have?” he was surprised, and eagerly took a few steps forward. “What is it?”

 

I smiled at him. “My answer is yes. I will give you an heir on the conditions you set.”

 

Omar’s face lit up in a beaming smile. Instantly, the lines disappeared from the corners of his eyes, as if he were suddenly ten years younger. “This is wonderful, glorious news! I am thrilled, simply thrilled at this. You will not regret the decision, Carrie. I promise, I will ensure our son has everything he could ever need or want. He will grow up a compassionate and caring man, and a just ruler.”

 

“I know you will take care of him,” I replied. “I’m not worried about that at all. I’ve seen you with your nieces and other children that come around. I know you’ll be a great father.”

 

“Thank you for this gift. Thank you, my friend.”

 

Omar stepped forward without warning and threw his arms around me in a tight embrace. It was the most we had ever touched in the six months I had known him, and I wasn’t prepared for it. I wrapped my arms around him in return, relishing the feeling of his warmth against me.

 

It was only when one of the guards at the door cleared his throat that we realized how long the embrace had gone on for. Omar stepped away from me sheepishly, redness tinting his sharp cheekbones. He ran a hand through his hair again and gestured towards the table with the other.

 

He waved at me first, then at one of the attendants waiting patiently near the doors, just out of earshot. “Please, sit. Let’s get you breakfast, and then we’ll talk about what happens next.”

 

 

SIX

 

A few days passed before Omar was able to find the time for us to take the next step in our adventure together. There seemed to be no end to his royal duties, and he had to deal with the fallout of his mother’s decree, both to the press and the subjects of his country. He hadn’t spoken with his brother since the disastrous birthday dinner, but all the darkness and anger of that night seemed to have faded completely from his mind. Despite dealing with the headache of the work, Omar was in great spirits.

 

Knowing I had helped make him so happy only made me happier, even if that joy came with a lot of fear attached.

 

It was late afternoon when Omar called me into the palace’s medical ward, where he had gathered the country’s top OB/GYN physicians for a consultation regarding the little bundle of royal joy we were trying to cook. Since I wasn’t Omar’s queen, the only option left to us was artificial insemination.

 

Even as a doctor, I was a little nervous about the procedure. It wasn’t something I had ever imagined myself doing, and there was a type of coldness about it I didn’t appreciate. I knew that any number of complications and surprises could happen when doctors tried to replicate the natural reproductive system, but it was what Omar needed, and so I would do it for him.

 

Being the patient was another thing I wasn’t used to. As if sensing my nervousness, Omar took my hand and helped me gently up onto the examination table. After a few words of encouragement, he politely left the room as one of the doctors sat down to examine me. Once I was dressed, Omar re-joined us so the doctors could explain what would happen next.

 

“Dr. Green is in perfect reproductive health,” beamed Dr. Issa, a warm, middle-aged woman who was born and raised in Al-Thakri. Omar smiled at me as the doctor continued. “For your needs, we recommend the intrauterine insemination procedure. Assuming your blood tests and physical exams come back with good news, we will then do an analysis of His Highness’ sperm. If he is as healthy as you are, Dr. Green, we won’t need to worry about administering any fertility drugs to assist with the process. You are both at ripe reproductive age.”

 

Omar and I exchanged a somewhat awkward but excited smile. I had the urge to reach over and grab his hand, but suppressed it. The need to try and make this more comfortable for us both was overwhelming.

 

“I will need you to track your ovulation cycles,” the doctor said to me. “That way, we may be able to double the insemination procedure each cycle and hopefully get you pregnant much faster. One His Highness’ sample is processed, we will apply the sperm inside you using a catheter and syringe, before using a cervical cap to ensure it remains in place. Your Highness,” she continued, turning to Omar. “We recommend that you be here with Dr. Green during the procedure. She will need to be at her most relaxed, and your presence should help with that.”

 

Omar looked to me, as if looking for confirmation of what the doctor was saying, and I smiled with a gentle nod.

 

“That would be great,” I agreed. “Doing this alone would be much harder.”

 

“You’re not alone,” said Omar, before looking back at Dr. Issa. “Of course I’ll be here—whenever Carrie needs me to be.”

 

“Are you sure that’s do-able?” I asked him quietly. “I mean, your royal duties… you’re not going to be able to just drop everything for this. If you need me to handle it alone, I can do that. I’ve been on my own in much more stressful situations.”

 

Omar gave me a sly smile that made my stomach flutter. “This is the most important thing I’ve ever done—and it is my country’s future. Let someone try to stop me from being here for every minute of it.”

 

I could feel my cheeks flushing and looked away before Omar could notice.

 

“Do I need to make any lifestyle changes?” I asked the doctors.

 

“It never hurts to start treating your body better—preparing the den for the cubs, so to speak,” smiled the elderly male doctor to the left. “If you smoke, it’s essential that you quit now. Cutting back on alcohol, making sure you’re exercising and getting a balanced diet; all of these things will help your overall health as well as your chances of conceiving.”

 

“I’ll pass on orders to the kitchen staff,” nodded Omar. “I’ll have my nutritionist assist with Carrie’s meals. It shouldn’t be a problem.”

 

“And I’ll start visiting the palace gym more often,” I added. “Lord knows I pass by it enough; I guess it’s time to start actually going inside.”

 

The doctors laughed at that.

 

“Conceiving a child isn’t always easy,” said the elderly doctor. “Don’t be hard on yourself if the process takes some time. The human body is a delicate thing, and each individual has her own needs. There isn’t a magic solution to anything. Just be patient and calm.”

 

Omar rubbed his hair, a gesture I was realizing came whenever he got a little nervous. “You see… patience is not necessarily a virtue we have time for, doctors. The heir needs to be born before my brother can produce one.”

 

The doctors exchanged concerned glances.

 

“Ah yes,” said the elderly doctor. “We did hear about the Queen Regent’s decree.” He shrugged a little helplessly. “We’ll certainly do everything we can to make this process a speedy one, but we aren’t gods. Just make sure you follow our directions closely, and come to us if there is any change that concerns you, even if it seems fickle.”

 

“I will,” I agreed with a nod. “Having you all so close is a big help.”

 

“Indeed, and one of us is on duty twenty-four seven,” he said.

 

Omar looked at me intently. Then, without warning, he reached over and clasped one of my hands in his. The sensation was warm and loving.

 

“Thank you so much for doing this for me, Carrie,” he said with wet eyes. “Our baby is going to be a wonderful ruler.”

 

Blushing slightly, I squeezed his hand back. “Yes, he will.”

 

 

 

SEVEN

 

A few weeks went by after the first insemination procedure without any noticeable change to my body. As the doctors recommended, I made adjustments to my day-to-day life, but it wasn’t looking positive. Omar and I met with his nutritionist and the palace chefs to design a perfectly balanced meal plan for a woman my age looking to get pregnant. Even though I preferred to get my exercise by running from triage to triage, saving lives, I still dragged myself out of bed as the sun rose every morning to head to the palace gym, which included an Olympic-sized swimming pool. The water was much more inviting than a treadmill, so five days a week, I did laps until I was too tired to move.

 

Even though I appreciated that I was getting more lean and toned, that wasn’t the point. In fact, I needed to get the opposite of lean and toned. I needed to be getting bigger, specifically in the belly region.

 

As the weeks went by, the frustration began to build for both me and Omar. He would wait eagerly in my private suite while I took pregnancy tests in the bathroom, but every time I came out with the same dejected expression. He would sigh and put his arms on my shoulders—just shy of an actual embrace—and smile at me with hope. “Don’t worry, Carrie,” he would say. “It will happen. The doctors said we should be patient, so let us try harder to be.”

 

I knew he was more worried than he let on—I could see it in the wrinkles at the corner of his eyes, the way they were growing darker around the edges from losing sleep. Sajid and his wife would be trying every single night, most likely, to get her pregnant again in hopes of beating Omar to the throne. Every day that passed without the process working was another day Omar could lose everything.

 

It was almost a month later when I finally approached Omar, who was doing paperwork in his incredibly beautiful office. He sensed the frustration on me even before I spoke.

 

“Is everything all right?” he asked immediately.

 

I shook my head. “I can’t understand why this isn’t working. I think we should go speak to the OB/GYNs again. There has to be something else we can do.”

 

Omar shrugged. “Sometimes things just take time. There’s nothing wrong with you, Carrie.”

 

“That’s not how I feel,” I said glumly, crossing my arms over my chest—even though, deep down, I was feeling more and more inadequate as each day passed.

 

Worry crossed Omar’s handsome brow. He put down his pen and stood, coming around the desk to put his arms on my shoulders and gaze into my eyes, his expression full of concern.

 

“There’s nothing wrong with you,” he repeated, refusing to look away from my gaze. “You are a beautiful, strong, intelligent woman, and I know you are going to give me a wonderful son. I dare say you seem more eager even than me at this point. Are you in such a hurry to be gone from here?” There was pain in his voice when he spoke the last line, even though he capped it off with a soft laugh.

 

I shook my head immediately. “No,” I promised. “I haven’t thought about leaving again since we agreed to this, actually. All I can think about is… him. Our son.” I put my hands on my stubbornly empty belly. “And about how much this means to you and your future. I don’t think I’ve wanted anything so badly since I was applying to med school.”

 

Omar’s expression fell into something both happy and sad. He rubbed his hand gently up and down my arm. “You are truly an amazing woman, Carrie. You shouldn’t be worried about my future or happiness, and yet you are. Our son is going to be the luckiest boy in the world to have such a gentle and caring mother.”

 

I blushed and looked away from him. “Thank you.”

 

“If you’re worried, we can make an appointment with the doctors today,” he said. “You are the goddess here, bringing forth life into the world. Whatever you need, just ask, and I will deliver it. When do you want to meet with them? Say the word, and I’ll make it happen.”

 

I shrugged. “The sooner the better, really—this afternoon would be ideal. I don’t like carrying all this doom and gloom around with me.”

 

“I don’t like it, either,” agreed Omar. “This afternoon it is. I’ll call you as soon as I confirm the time.”

 

“Okay. I’ll be in my suite.”

 

“I’ll find you there.” He smiled and squeezed my arms.

 

***

 

It was just before dinner when we met with the doctors, and in a rambling, breathless rant, I expressed my worries about the procedure not working, begging for some answers. Omar sat next to me the whole time, silent and supportive. The doctors listened intently and didn’t make me feel guilty for being so worried about what was—or wasn’t—happening.

 

When I was done, I felt like a weight had been lifted from the room. Even as a doctor myself, I was surprised at the intense anxiety that came with trying to conceive a baby.

 

Dr. Issa stepped forward with a soft smile. “It’s normal for you to be concerned, Dr. Green. After all, this is the start of many more worries you will have—all of them normal. This is part of motherhood.”

 

“But what can we do?” I asked urgently. “There has to be something else we can try to help this along.”

 

The doctor was thoughtfully silent before she spoke again. “How is your stress level?”

 

“Well, bad, obviously,” I half-laughed. “I’m stressing about not being pregnant already most of the time.”

 

“Certainly, but is there anything else weighing on you that you may not have considered yet? What about your duties to the palace?” she turned to look at Omar.

 

“The usual,” I said with a shrug. “I give His Highness and the Queen Regent a short exam each week—just the basics. One of the security staff has been ill lately, so I’ve been attending to him. He’s caught whatever bug it is that half of Al-Thakri have endured this spring.”

 

“Is he stable?”

 

“Oh, yes. It’s nothing life-threatening.”

 

“And is there anyone under your care that is in dire straits?”

 

“No, not at all,” I said, shaking my head. “It’s all very minor, as usual. Why do you ask?”

 

“Even so,” Dr. Issa said, “work can be a stressful activity that can prevent you from focusing on relaxation. Perhaps you should think about taking some time off and having His Highness hire another doctor to take over for you, at least through the conceiving stage, if not the entire pregnancy.”

 

I looked at Omar questioningly. We hadn’t talked about me quitting my duties since my decision to stay on and have his baby. But the look on his face was determined, and he was clearly taking Dr. Issa’s words to heart.

 

“She will take leave,” said Omar without hesitation, nodding at me. “I will hire another physician to be on-call in her stead. I’ll make the arrangements at once.”

 

“Are you sure?” I said to him in a quiet aside. “I hate the idea of not doing my job. That’s what I came here for, after all.”

 

“You are doing your job,” countered Omar. “You agreed to be the mother of my child. That is your most important job right now. There are other doctors in the city; let them deal with the minor scrapes of my staff.”

 

I felt a little uncertain about the decision. Being a doctor was all I knew—I hadn’t taken a break from it since I entered med school.

 

“I’m afraid,” I admitted to him. “Work has been my whole life up to now.”

 

“Well, now you have a different life,” said Omar softly. “At least for a little while. You deserve a break, Carrie. You’ve been working hard your whole life, saving others in war zones and the like. What could be wrong about taking a few months off to bring your own life into the world?”

 

“I agree with His Highness,” said Dr. Issa. “Your reputation precedes you, Dr. Green. I’ve heard of your work in Africa. No one would ever doubt your commitment to your duties, or how much you love your work. Everyone deserves a break once in a while.”

 

I took a deep breath. They were right. If my goal was to give Omar a healthy son who would take the throne one day, then I should do everything I could to make that happen, even if it meant taking a break from work.

 

“Okay,” I told them finally. “I’ll step down from my position, at least until the baby is born.”

 

“I think that is wise,” agreed Omar with a smile.

 

After a few more of my nervous questions, we left the OB/GYN’s and walked casually back toward Omar’s office, where he had more work to attend to.

 

Outside Omar’s office, Rafiq was in his usual protective spot. He gave me a sly glance when I passed him by. I returned it with a playfully sour one, but he only winked at me knowingly.

 

“Do you feel better?” asked Omar once we were alone. He poured us both a glass of pure spring water from one of the underground wells on the palace property, iced and garnished with cucumber.

 

I took a glass from him and nodded. “I do, in fact. Much better. Thank you for indulging my neurotic nature.”

 

“It’s nothing,” said Omar with a smile. “My only concern is you and your health.”

 

I blushed and looked away. “It’s not every day a girl gets to hear that from the ruler of a kingdom.”

 

Omar seemed suddenly nervous. He ran a hand through his thick black curls and cleared his throat. “So I will go about the work of finding you an immediate replacement on the staff.”

 

“That would be great. Do you need my help in the vetting process?”

 

“No, no,” laughed Omar. “We’re trying to get you away from work, remember?”

 

I turned red and laughed. “True. I guess I just hate not being able to help.”

 

“You are helping,” said Omar. “But my staff can handle the transfer. In the meantime, I’ll ask Dr. Issa if she’d be willing to pick up emergency duties in the palace grounds until your replacement is found.”

 

“That’s a good idea.”

 

He cleared his throat again, then looked away. “Since you’re no longer under my employ, there’s something else I wanted to ask you, Carrie.”

 

“Oh?” I asked, fidgeting with the telescope that was stationed by one of the office’s floor-to-ceiling windows. “What’s that?”

 

“I wondered if perhaps you would like to go on a date with me.”

 

I turned so fast, I knocked the telescope off its settings. Omar only laughed.

 

“You—you what?” I asked. “You want to go on a date? Like… a real date?”

 

“Yes, a real date.” I was sure I could see a red tint to his beautiful face.

 

“I… I had no idea you felt that way about me.”

 

My heart raced as Omar shrugged self-consciously. “It wasn’t exactly an easy topic to approach. You were my employee, after all, and with all this succession business… sometimes having power doesn’t actually provide one with the power he truly needs. The time was never right to ask. But now, I feel, is as good a time as any.”

 

I was breathless, my head swimming with happiness. “Omar, I would love to go on a date with you.”

 

He beamed and stood straighter, taking a few steps closer to me. “You would? Carrie, you don’t have to agree to this just because of the baby, you know. I fully understand that it’s not the same.”

 

“It’s not that,” I promised with a shake of my head. “I’ve wanted to go on a date with you for a while, too.”

 

Omar beamed. He picked up my hand and planted a sweet, long kiss on it. With the other, he pushed my hair out of my face and caressed my cheek. “I’ll arrange for us to have dinner in the gardens tonight. Would you like that?”

 

“That sounds perfect,” I whispered.

 

Omar grinned in a way that made my knees weak. He turned back to his desk for just a moment, rummaging in one of the drawers, until his hand emerged, holding a small velvet box.

 

“For you,” he said, holding the box out to me. “I got them for you the night after I asked you to carry my heir. I was going to save them for his birthday, but I think you should have them now.”

 

Stunned, I took the box and opened it gently. A pair of gold and ruby earrings glittered inside, looking very much like the cufflinks I had picked for Omar the night of his mother’s party.

 

“They remind me of fire—of you,” he added. “I want you to have them.”

 

“Omar,” I said softly, touching the earrings with my fingertip. “These are so beautiful. No one’s ever given me something like this before.”

 

“It is the first of many gifts,” he promised. “You’ll find I’m a bit of generous heart that way. I can’t help it.”

 

I felt like a school girl, the way I smiled back at him. My heart fluttered at the glittering in his eyes as he looked at me.

 

“Why don’t you head into town? Buy whatever you’d like to wear tonight. And anything else you want, especially for the baby. You should ask my mother about her favorite spa—she swears by its healing powers. Give yourself some pampering. You deserve it.”

 

“Is that a royal decree?” I teased.

 

He pursed his lips in a playful smile. “If it must be, yes.”

 

“Well then, I wouldn’t want to disobey a king.”

 

“I’m only a sheikh, my dear.”

 

“Not for long, you aren’t.”

 

 

 

 

EIGHT

 

 

Never in my life had I been so nervous getting ready for a date. I took Omar’s advice and spent most of the rest of the afternoon shopping in the luxurious downtown district of Al-Thakri’s capital, where the blistering desert heat was offset by shady green trees and giant misting fans to keep the shoppers cool. Queen Mirah made an appointment for me at her spa, and it was clear to me why she recommended it so highly. Even though I only got a few services, including a facial, a manicure and a massage, I felt like a queen myself by the time I left.

 

From the window of one of the boutiques, a soft flowing dress called my name. It was bold pink with a hem that fell just above the knee and a gorgeous layer of sheer fabric over the shoulders and back. After excitedly trying it on, I got the pink dress, along with some beautiful gold gladiator sandals with a tiny kitten heel, wondering vaguely when was the last time I had bought a piece of clothing that wasn’t purely functional.

 

Back at the palace, I took a relaxing bath before getting dressed. My nerves got worse with every passing hour and it took me more than a few tries to put on the sparkling ruby earrings Omar had gifted me. Once they were on, though, I was almost taken aback at my own reflection. They glittered like fire on either side of my face, lighting up my eyes.

 

Omar asked to meet me in the royal gardens, one of his favorite spots—and one of mine, truth be told. To have an oasis so deep in the desert sands meant a great deal to the culture of Al-Thakri, and that love and respect lived deep within Omar’s blood. Every step I took down the palace hallways made my heart pound faster and faster.

 

Remembering what the doctors had said, I instinctively raised a hand to my belly and rubbed gently, concerned. I slowed my steps and took deep breaths to calm my racing heart, and it worked. By the time I arrived at the beautiful sandstone archway that led to the gardens, I was feeling much more like myself.

 

That only lasted for a few seconds, however—until I saw Omar, handsome and dashing in his casual white linens, waiting for me with a beaming smile. He had picked one of the tropical flowers from the garden and held it out to me as I approached.

 

Blushing deeply, I took the bloom and brought it to my nose. The scent was clean and sweet. “This is beautiful,” I said to him.

 

“As are you,” said Omar, eyeing my flowing pink sundress. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you wear something so bright before. It suits you.”

 

The feeling of his eyes wandering over my body made me flush anew. “There’s not very much about a dress like this that says ‘professional’. I never wanted to seem out of place in your entourage.”

 

“That’s because you are a woman of integrity,” smiled Omar. He lifted his hand, beckoning silently for mine. I placed my hand in his and he brought it to his lips, planting a gentle kiss on top. “It’s part of what makes you so attractive to me.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Truly,” said Omar with a nod. “So few people live with integrity. That’s one truth you discover very quickly when you are born into power. Some people only care about themselves, or what they can scam out of a person. But you aren’t like that, Carrie. You only care for how you can help people.”

 

I shrugged, my heart fluttering at this unexpected attention. “I don’t know what to say. I just try to do the best I can with what I’ve got.”

 

Omar smiled at me, as if my response only proved his point. “Come,” he beckoned, offering his arm to me. It was the same gesture he made the night we arrived home from his mother’s gala, and yet, this time, it felt so much more significant.

 

I slid my arm into his and he led us slowly through the stone walkways of the garden, pointing out some of his favorite flowers and teaching me their proper names. We were surrounded by blooms unlike any I had ever seen, save on exotic nature documentaries.

 

“Part of me never wants to leave this garden,” I said to him. “Something about this place just makes me relax.”

 

“Good,” replied Omar, squeezing my hand gently. “We need you relaxed. You shouldn’t be concerning yourself with anything except taking care of yourself.”

 

“Well, that’s a little hard for me,” I admitted with a sheepish laugh. “You may have noticed I’m a bit of a workaholic.”

 

Omar chuckled. “It had crossed my mind, yes. I saw the panic on your face when the doctors suggested you take some time off. After all, only a workaholic would accept a position like this in the first place, being on-call constantly for a royal family.”

 

“Yeah,” I agreed, blushing. “You got me there.”

 

“Saying that,” added Omar, “even though we’ve spent so many hours beside each other, there’s still so much I don’t know about you, Carrie.”

 

“I guess getting to know each other is what we’re supposed to do on a first date, right?” I said, and he grinned warmly. “I don’t really know where to start. My family is a pretty typical Midwestern bunch. I’ve always been kind of a restless person. I drove my parents crazy when I was a kid, getting into trouble and refusing to be clamped down. They wanted me to be more like my older sister, who loved school and following the rules.”

 

“You mean you’ve experienced sibling rivalry as well?” laughed Omar with wide eyes. “I suppose that makes watching this nonsense with Sajid much more understandable.”

 

“Oh, yes,” I giggled, leaning my head towards him. “I understand completely. I’m just glad my sister and I never had a kingdom to fight over—we had a tough time just sharing the treehouse. I decided to go into medicine because I figured it would cure my restlessness with the crazy hours and the adrenaline that comes with saving lives. Signing up for Doctors Without Borders was always my goal. I knew I wanted to be out in the world where I could do good for the people who needed it most. And, selfishly, I knew I wanted to travel as much as I could.”

 

Omar’s face lit up at that. “You love travel too?”

 

“More than almost anything,” I said.

 

“Me too,” replied Omar. “There are so many beautiful places on this planet. I remember my father taking Sajid and I on occasion when he would make diplomatic visits. Those are among my favorite childhood memories—when I was encouraged to take in the world around me in wonder. Father nurtured my curiosity; he wanted me to be excited about new cultures and places. He knew it would make me a more compassionate and informed ruler. It’s something I want to instill in our son.”

 

The memory was touching in ways I didn’t expect. To hear Omar talk of what he wanted to give our son made my heart ache.

 

“That’s beautiful,” I said quietly. “I wish everyone could travel. I think they would all get along much better once they realize everyone is just trying to make it the best they can, same as us.”

 

“I couldn’t agree more,” said Omar.

 

“So why don’t you travel more? We haven’t had a single trip outside the kingdom since I’ve been here.”

 

Omar sighed, and I felt immediately guilty for turning the mood of the date. “Things have just been hectic since father’s death.”

 

I gave his arm a gentle, loving squeeze and changed the subject as we rounded a corner and came upon a huge aviary tucked within the greenery. Exotic birds began to caw and flap their wings at the sight of us. One of them talked back to Omar when he spoke to it in Arabic, and he smiled at me, impressed with himself.

 

“Just like Doctor Doom,” he said.

 

I laughed. “What?”

 

“That character from your country that can speak to animals.”

 

“That’s Doctor Dolittle,” I corrected with a teasing smile. “Doctor Doom is far less nice than him.”

 

“I did think that was a strange name for a veterinarian,” he laughed.

 

Omar led us through the aviary as we the conversation moved to lighter fare. We discovered we had much more in common than might be expected of a sheikh and a western doctor. Both of us had grown up restless, taking part in sports and any activity we could be a part of to stave away the dreaded specter of boredom. We both had huge soft spots for animals, and cared passionately about the rights of the oppressed and the working class—something Omar had demonstrated many times in his official work for the kingdom.

 

I couldn’t believe that my date with the Sheikh was swiftly becoming the most successful date I’d ever had. The chemistry we’d been fighting for so many months flowed out of us like a river in spring runoff, surging and full of life.

 

I realized how foolish I’d been to not see it before; Omar had been holding feelings for me just as long as I had held feelings for him. It was an endless relief to know I hadn’t just been holding a candle in the dark, waiting for a day that was never going to come. All that time, Omar had been thinking about me, too. He had dreamed about me like I’d dreamed about him. And we were both so happy to finally come together and say it.

 

When we reached the garden’s intricate fountain, there was already a table set out for us. A selection of Mediterranean delicacies had been spread out over pure white dishes; meats and cheeses, olives, figs, fresh-baked bread, grapes, and dipping oils beckoned to us. Two bottles of wine chilled in a silver, ice-filled bucket, and a small but decadent-looking chocolate cake waited enticingly under a glass dome.

 

“I know the doctors said to cut back on alcohol, but I figured since you’re not pregnant, a glass of wine might do wonders helping you relax,” said Omar as he lifted one of the bottles out of the ice bucket. “May I?”

 

“Please,” I said, grateful for the nerve-calming alcohol.

 

Dinner was a playful affair. Omar told me stories about growing up as a royal son, and I shared with him the gory details of working my way through college and medical school. For some reason, he was enchanted by my stories about growing up in boring old Ohio—stories I usually kept out of my repertoire because they were so mundane. But for someone who had grown up on the other side of the world, learning how to rule a country, hearing about carefree summers catching bullfrogs and climbing trees was like hearing a fairy tale.

 

“Do you know how I got interested in medicine?”

 

“No, tell me,” said Omar, a hint of tipsiness teasing his expression.

 

“I started collecting animal bones I would find along the train tracks outside of town, trying to rebuild the skeletons. Of course, most of them ended up abominations because I had the wrong parts, in the wrong places. Mom hated my collection—she thought it was terribly macabre—but I was just trying to understand how the animals were built so that one day I could help them. Eventually, I decided I cared about helping people more than animals.”

 

He seemed delighted at that anecdote. “You truly are a scientist at heart.”

 

“Or maybe I was just a morbid little kid,” I joked.

 

“Well, if it brought you to such an honorable calling—and to me—then I’m glad for your morbid childhood,” laughed Omar with a wink.

 

“It certainly got me the hell out of Ohio,” I said, sighing heavily and gazing up over the tall façade of the palace as a flock of white birds passed by overhead, sparkling in the sun. “It’s brought me to some amazing places. I can’t wait to start traveling again.”

 

Omar’s wine glass was halfway to his lips when he paused suddenly and lowered it, deep in thought. He looked almost sad.

 

“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Did I say something?”

 

He shook his head insistently. “You did nothing wrong. I was only thinking—wishing, really—that travel was still an option for me.”

 

“Why do you say that it’s not?”

 

“This,” he said, waving his hand toward the palace. “My kingdom needs a constant, steady hand to guide it, or she will fall into disrepair and millions of people will suffer. Their leader cannot be gallivanting around the world, appeasing his own whims. He has to be here, supporting and living among them, attending to all the duties that keep everything running.” Omar sighed. He looked sadder than I’d ever seen him. “Carrie, I fear that when I become king, I will never be able to leave my country again.”

 

“That’s not true,” I said, desperate to comfort him. “What about diplomatic missions, like the ones your father used to take you on?”

 

He scoffed. “That isn’t traveling. It’s just business negotiations in faceless meeting rooms.”

 

I couldn’t help but laugh hollowly at that. “I’m sorry, Omar. I feel awful hearing you say things like that. I want you to have what you want.”

 

He looked at me softly, studying the details of my face as if he were trying to memorize them. After a few moments of silence, he spoke quietly. “What I want is to travel the world with you.”

 

I couldn’t take it any longer. The feelings I’d been trying to hide for so long bubbled up too strongly, and there was nowhere left for them to go.

 

Without warning, I leaned forward and smashed my lips against Omar’s. He moaned in surprise for a moment, but then melted into the kiss, pulling me into his lap as his tongue pushed gently into my mouth.

 

And suddenly, the feelings we’d been holding inside came bursting out. Omar wrapped his strong arms around me, holding me close as he passionately kissing me, both of us moaning into each other’s mouths. One of his hands tangled itself carelessly in my hair, bringing my face closer to his as if he wanted to meld us into one body.

 

“Carrie,” he whispered against my lips. “I’ve dreamed about this so many times.”

 

“So have I,” I replied, my voice deep with lust. “So many nights I’ve wanted to feel your lips against mine.”

 

Omar smiled and kissed me again, holding me tight. In one sweeping motion he stood up and brought me with him, holding me like a fairy-tale princess and making me squeal in girlish delight. I didn’t care how silly we looked to the entourage of guards stationed all over the garden, I was just happy to finally be in Omar’s arms.

 

Moments later, he was carrying me into the palace where, hand in hand, we rushed back to his royal suite as fast as our legs would take us.

 

 

 

 

NINE

 

 

The next fortnight felt like a blissful paradise; I was being swept away by a handsome prince and showered with love and affection like I had never known. Since my duties at the palace had ended, my days were spent pampering myself, resting, eating fresh fruit, and enjoying the gardens until Omar was able to tear himself away from royal business to be with me. We spent hours in bed, cuddling and talking and sharing dreams of our future child.

 

“You should get him a pet,” I told Omar as we lounged around one afternoon, waiting for our appointment with the OB/GYN doctors. “Like a good dog, or a cat that will follow him around the palace and chase birds to make him laugh.”

 

“A pet?” asked Omar curiously. “I never did have one of those, unless you count the birds in the aviary, or the fish.”

 

“No, I mean something that could be his own,” I said. “I had a dog, growing up in Ohio, and it was the best. You always have companion with you. It helps a lot with loneliness.”

 

The suggestion seemed to stick with Omar, who had expressed his own loneliness as a child to me during one of our deep evening talks. He nodded thoughtfully.

 

“Plus, if you get a big, well-trained dog, he could even act as another bodyguard to keep him safe.”

 

“I suppose we should start thinking about the best breed, then,” agreed Omar. “I’ll have my researchers begin looking around for trainers, as well. Wouldn’t it be ideal to have the puppy around soon after he is born, so they can grow up together?”

 

“I think that’s just about the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard.”

 

Omar leaned over me where I lay in his bed, and gave me a gentle kiss. “I’m so lucky that you’ll be carrying my heir. He’s going to inherit so much of your goodness and beauty, I just know it.”

 

Grinning, I kissed Omar again. “And he’ll inherit your strength and smarts.”

 

“He’ll be unstoppable,” joked Omar.

 

We made our way through the palace slowly until we reached the medical ward, where the doctors were waiting to conduct the second insemination attempt. Even though they had told me to be patient, and to prepare for it taking several tries, I was still feeling pretty wound up inside about the first attempt not having taken.

 

Again, Omar waited outside the examination room while I was given a pelvic exam before the process could begin. The doctors assured us that, as before, he would be invited back in to support me during the procedure; it was invasive and uncomfortable, and having him by my side made it much easier.

 

Having taken a blood sample, Dr. Issa returned from the lab with a curious expression on her face.

 

“Is something wrong?”

 

“Not at all.”

 

There was a grin on the corner of the doctor’s lips as she spoke.

 

I could hardly hear anything over the sound of my heart pounding in my ears. “What is it?”

 

“The hCG test is reading a positive,” said the doctor. “But we’ll need to do another test to confirm.”

 

Quickly, the doctor painlessly drew a second sample of my blood. I re-dressed and went into the hall to wait anxiously with Omar as she did the lab work.

 

She called us both back into the exam room after ten tense minutes. The doctor was grinning widely.

 

Omar sat next to me, concerned, and took my hand. “What is it, doctor? What’s wrong?”

 

“Nothing’s wrong, Your Highness, we just won’t be performing the procedure today.”

 

“Why not? We’ve done everything you recommended—”

 

“Because Carrie is already pregnant,” said the doctor in a triumphant voice. “Congratulations to you both!”

 

A wave of shock rolled over my body. It seemed impossible—we knew the procedure hadn’t worked the first time, the doctors had confirmed it. And yet… here I was, with child.

 

As Omar’s wide eyes looked deeply into mine, I realized that I must have gotten pregnant the night of our first date, two weeks ago, when we made love for the first time. I gasped and covered my mouth as tears streamed down my face.

 

“We did it,” he whispered, his forehead nuzzling against mine. He wrapped his arms around me and pulled me close to his chest. “We did it, Carrie. We created a new life.”

 

“Omar, I can’t believe it.” I grasped his white linen shirt in my hands and put my head on his shoulder, completely overwhelmed. A life—our shared life—was growing inside of me already. It seemed like a waking dream.

 

“I’m so very happy for you both,” Dr. Issa beamed.

 

Omar turned to her, his cheeks stained with tears. “Doctor, thank you. Thank you so much for helping with this miracle.”

 

“If this isn’t too forward of me, Your Highness, from the looks of it I didn’t have much to do with this at all,” she teased.

 

We both turned red as we shared a knowing glance.

 

“Please, Doctor,” Omar said, “keep this information to yourself. While my family is fully aware that I’m trying to create an heir, none of them know about Carrie yet. I have to find the right time to tell them, and it has to be done delicately.”

 

“Sir, say no more. This is all doctor-patient confidentiality. My team and I are here for you, Carrie and the baby, and that’s all.”

 

Omar nodded happily and gave her a sudden, intense hug. The doctor laughed and returned it, patting him warmly on the back.

 

“I think I can see now why people choose OB/GYN over trauma care,” I said jokingly to her.

 

She nodded from over Omar’s shoulder. “Bringing in new life is just as satisfying as saving one.”

 

 

 

TEN

 

 

We left the medical wing in a dazed happiness. Omar whisked me back to his suite and immediately ordered dinner from the chefs, including some celebratory sparkling apple juice. “I will quit drinking alongside you, my dear,” he told me after hanging up the phone. “We’ll endure a new, healthy lifestyle together for the sake of our child.”

 

“Our child,” I said thoughtfully, rubbing my still-flat belly. “I can’t believe we did it. All that medical science, but all we needed was to come together naturally.”

 

“And now our son will be born of love, and nothing else.”

 

I held my breath at his words. “Omar, do you love me?” I asked tearfully.

 

He stepped over to me and wrapped his arms around me. “Of course I do, Carrie. I’ve loved you for a long time; this past fortnight has only confirmed all the beautiful things I already knew about you. And now you’re going to give me the greatest gift of all: a beautiful baby boy.”

 

“Or girl,” I teased through my tears. “It could still turn out to be a girl, you know.”

 

“And I shall love her with all the fire in my heart,” he replied.

 

“I love you too, Omar. I’ve been waiting so long to speak those words to you. So many months watching you spend your affection on other women… it was so difficult.”

 

He stroked his hand gently over my hair and kissed my forehead, then my lips. “Those days are over now. It’s the dawn of a new time, and a new family—our family.”

 

His words melted my heart. I leaned into Omar and let him envelop me in his strong arms, listening to his heart beat underneath his skin.

 

Our family… that’s what this would be. And yet, this had all begun as a business arrangement—a labor I was carrying out for money. I’d never planned to stay around and be with my son after he was born. My intention had been to earn enough money to follow my true passions, and leave behind the doldrums of being a palace doctor.

 

But that was before all of this, and before Omar had confessed his feelings to me. Before we had finally made love and spent the night wrapped in each other’s arms, sharing dreams and fears and hopes for the future. Was I going to leave all of that behind still? Would I be able to do it, even if I wanted to? Would I be able to look into the face of my beautiful son, and the eyes of his father that radiated so much love for me, and turn and walk away?

 

Or would I be here forever, in this decadent but sedate life, away from the people who needed my help and the career I had dedicated my entire life to building?

 

There were no easy answers to these questions, and they began to haunt me, gnawing at my gut. Omar must have sensed the change in me, because he became even more doting and attentive than usual, turning down a phone call from one of his senior staff members in order to stay with me and make sure I had what I needed. When dinner arrived, he made me stay in bed and did all the serving and cleaning up.

 

After dinner, when he finally asked me what was wrong, I only told him that the shock of everything was settling, and the reality that a baby was growing inside me was beginning to take hold. “I think I’m just tired,” I said—not entirely untruthful.

 

Omar seemed to understand that, and readily accepted that the pregnancy was already doing things to my mood and body. “What do you need, my love? Ask for anything and I will bring it to you.”

 

“The only thing I think I want right now is some chocolate ice cream,” I giggled at him, running my hand through his hair.

 

He smiled at me. “Then you shall have it. I’ll call the kitchen.”

 

“With sprinkles!” I called after him as he moved across the enormous bedroom to the telephone.

 

As Omar made the call, I fretted over whether to burden him with my worries about staying or going. Everything had seemed so simple before, when I was providing a service to him and saying my goodbyes.

 

But now everything was different, and I didn’t know what I was going to do.

 

I couldn’t tell him, not now. The joy on his face at knowing he was finally going to be a father was too much. I couldn’t strip that joy away from him so quickly; I couldn’t break up the dream he clearly had of us being one big, happy royal family.

 

I didn’t know what I was going to do when the baby arrived. I only prayed the coming weeks and months would light a path for me that made some sort of sense.

 

ELEVEN

 

Four Months Later

 

Omar squeezed my hand and pulled it into his lap, sitting next to me on the plush limo seat. I looked over at his loving face and smiled.

 

“You look absolutely stunning, my love,” he told me, pulling my hand to his lips and giving it a soft kiss.

 

“I can’t say I feel very stunning,” I replied, only half-joking. Already, our son was proving to be a healthy, growing boy. My belly felt like it was getting bigger and bigger every day, and he was quite an active little thing, doing summersaults and kicking his tiny little feet into my ribs every chance he got. As I thought about him, he moved again, and I instinctively put a hand on my belly.

 

Omar repeated the gesture and grinned, his whole face lighting up when he felt the baby move. Even though he’d felt it dozens of times already, it still never failed to amaze him. “You are stunning, Carrie. Pregnancy is kind to you; your skin is absolutely glowing. You look like a goddess.”

 

I blushed and planted a kiss on his lips. “You’re too sweet to me.”

 

“Nonsense.”

 

From the other limo seat, Rafiq chuckled to himself, making both Omar and I look over with curious surprise.

 

“What’s so funny, Rafiq?” Omar asked lightly.

 

“Nothing, sir,” he answered quickly, looking suddenly shameful and self-conscious.

 

“Come now, out with it.”

 

Rafiq looked at me with a warm grin. “It is only that I remember teasing Dr. Green months ago, in this very car, saying that she needed to tell you about her feelings, and she promised me there was none to speak of. And now, here we are.” He followed up in a speedy voice. “I do not mean to speak out of place.”

 

I squished up my nose and gave Rafiq a playful little glare. “Yes, yes, you were right, Rafiq. Happy now?”

 

He chuckled again and nodded before turning away from the conversation.

 

“Well, his job is to be observant,” shrugged Omar with a laugh.

 

“Maybe he’s observed enough to tell me how your family will react to the news tonight,” I said, biting my lip with worry. “I’m still very unsure about this. I think you should tell them without me around. I don’t think they’re going to react well.”

 

“But why? You are the mother of my child and I love you.”

 

“I love you, too. But your mother scares me.”

 

Omar laughed loud and long at that, kissing me warmly when he’d calmed a little. “She is not as scary as she seems—that’s only her queenly demeanor coming out to take over when she needs it to do so. My mother grew up in a very different royal family; she was taught a different way of showing her power.”

 

“And do you think she might be keen to show it to silly American girls who fall in love with her son?”

 

“Not at all. You have nothing to worry about, my love. I’m going to be there right by your side through this whole dinner, and the baby will be here sooner than we think. Once he is born, neither my mother nor Sajid’s opinions—whatever they may be—will matter at all. I will be king, and they will have no choice but to accept that I love you. And I trust completely that they will come to love you, too.”

 

Omar meant his words to be comforting, but somehow they weren’t. There was nothing in my upbringing or experiences—even the most adventurous ones—to prepare me for this: a dinner with a royal family, during which we would announce that I was pregnant with the heir to the kingdom.

 

Not only that, but we would also be announcing our own deep love for each other, and revealing that this wasn’t simply a business arrangement. Tonight would be a night of history, and turning points, and as sure as Omar seemed to be about what would happen, I knew there was no telling how his family was going to react to the news. In my darkest anxiety dreams, I had imagined them disowning Omar, or trying to shame him, or hurt him for his decision to love me and have me carry his child. I worried about what would happen to his legacy.

 

But Omar wasn’t worried. He was still overjoyed at the thought of becoming a father to our son. He was already doting on him by doting on me, and never let me lift a finger around the palace. He had hired me my own assistant, a young woman named Zaynab who was helpful and intelligent and kept me company when Omar had to attend to his duties. Even though she was younger than me by almost a decade, we had become fast friends and had lots of fun going shopping or having lunch in the gardens. My fear of boredom meant I couldn’t just sit around in bed, waiting for the baby to arrive and doing nothing until he did. Zaynab seemed to understand that, and helped me find safe activities to keep my mind occupied and my body healthy.

 

Every day, Omar came in with new gifts for me and the baby. He had already re-arranged his enormous suite to include a grand nursery in one corner, complete with every bit of furniture we would need for the baby. I spent hours in the rocking chair, resting my back and feet that ached anew every day, reading stories to my unborn son, hoping he could hear.

 

Omar had come to every single check-up with me, beaming with joy when the doctors announced all was well and the baby was perfectly healthy. He promised them all raises and the finest casks of wine and whiskey the kingdom could offer, and they would just laugh at him and tell him they were just doing their job.

 

Watching Omar’s happiness at his impending fatherhood made me happier than I ever thought I could be. I could only imagine how much better it would get when our son finally arrived—even if a kingdom’s-worth of anxiety came along with it. On top of everything, I was simply terrified of giving birth. Even as a doctor, I knew the experience was going to be joyous and scary, painful and incredible.

 

I couldn’t imagine doing this alone; I couldn’t imagine doing it without Omar by my side.

 

We arrived right on time at the restaurant Omar had reserved for dinner with his family. The place had been fully bought out for the night so that the royal family could dine undisturbed, and a cadre of security guards was already surrounding the building, creating a wall of black suits to allow us clear passage to the front doors. A few paparazzi were here, anyway, trying to snap photos and get any gossip they could.

 

Omar kept a protective arm around me as we left the limo for the restaurant.

 

“Aren’t you worried about our pictures appearing in the gossip rags?” I asked him, pressing my lips against his ears.

 

“It won’t matter after tonight,” he replied. “Once my family knows, there will be no reason to keep our relationship a secret. No one will be able to do anything about it, no matter how much they dislike it. Let them gossip, I don’t care. I only care about our family.”

 

I smiled up at him and let him lead me delicately inside. The restaurant’s maître-d’ was waiting eagerly for our arrival. He didn’t seem to think my presence was odd or unusual—either that, or he was very good at his job of not looking like he cared about his guests’ business.

 

“Your Highness! Good evening, good evening.” He bowed before us. “Welcome, both of you. Your brother and his family have already been seated. We’ve received word that your mother is on her way, but that she’s running a bit late. Appetizers have been served to the table.”

 

“Wonderful,” said Omar. “Can you please find some pomegranate juice and bring it to the table, chilled? My love has grown quite fond of it lately.” He gave me a smile and squeezed my hand.

 

“Certainly, sir, right away. Let me take you to your seats.”

 

He led us through the romantically-lit restaurant. All the other tables had their place settings out, waiting perfectly for dinner guests that would not arrive tonight. The table Omar had reserved was near the back, far away from the prying eyes of the street crowds or paparazzi, where the family could talk together in private.

 

As we approached, Sajid stood from the table, as did his beautiful wife and daughters. I could see the dawning shock on his face as he realized Omar was leading me by the hand—not something one would do with an employee. Sajid frowned at us, as if he were trying to figure out what was going on, as we approached the table and Omar pulled my seat out for me.

 

“Brother,” said Omar. “I’m sure you remember Dr. Green?”

 

“Of course,” said Sajid curiously, reaching out to take my hand for a polite kiss. “How are you, Doctor?”

 

“I’m well, thank you,” I replied with a stiff smile.

 

Omar greeted his nieces and sister-in-law with kisses and hugs, complimenting each of them as he did. The girls giggled at him, and I smiled; I loved seeing how wonderful he already was with children. Even Sajid’s wife turned a little pink in the cheeks when Omar complemented how beautiful she looked in her glittering gold and white dress.

 

“Mother should be here soon,” Sajid said. “And then we can get on with this big news.”

 

“Yes, it is big,” agreed Omar. He thanked the waiter who had interrupted to serve me the pomegranate juice. I’d been craving it something fierce ever since the second month of my pregnancy—Omar told me it was just the legacy of my son’s Middle-Eastern blood coming forward, craving the fruit his ancestors had loved for centuries. I loved the idea.

 

It wasn’t long before Mirah arrived, looking as gorgeous as ever with her long black swept up on top of her head. She beamed at her sons as she walked around the table to greet everyone. Though she was used to the sight of me around the palace, there was some surprise on her face as she saw me standing at Omar’s side.

 

“Apologies for my tardiness,” said Mirah as Omar helped her take her seat. “There was some nonsense business at the palace to attend to; some problems with the caterer for next month’s fundraiser.”

 

“Don’t worry, Mother, we haven’t been waiting long,” assured Sajid.

 

“And I hope I haven’t missed the big announcement?” Mirah asked.

 

“Of course not,” smiled Omar, pouring her a glass of wine. “But let us have some dinner first. There’s no need to rush into official business.”

 

As she picked at the appetizers already laid out on the table, Mirah seemed to agree. But Sajid only snickered at his older brother in a way that made me angry and want to jump in and defend Omar. I stayed quiet.

 

“Must this all be so dramatic?” mocked Sajid. “Or is it that you want us to have food in our tummies because you the news you need to share is less than pleasant?”

 

“Quite the opposite. I only thought it would be more civilized of us to enjoy each other’s company instead of meeting simply to exchange news,” retorted Omar. “We are still a family, are we not?”

 

For whatever reason, that line made Sajid shut up, and he accepted Omar’s suggestion of waiting until after the meal had been served. The cook had prepared an amazing feast of roasted pheasant spiced with flavorsome peppers, and garnished with an array of roasted veggies and potatoes.

 

The baby started to kick much more after the meal, but I said nothing to Omar. I knew what he would say. My son is already remembering the spices and flavors of his kingdom.

 

The family made small talk during dinner, most of which I was left out of simply by virtue of my position. They discussed diplomats I had never heard of and big royal plans that were far above my pay grade. Both Alima, Sajid’s wife, and I were silent during most of the meal. I stole glances at her, and noticed she looked a little bit paler than I remembered. I thought perhaps she must be feeling ill, but had said nothing, not wanting to inconvenience anyone. I didn’t know her very well, so couldn’t be sure—we had only spoken a few times over the last six months, and it was always little more than small talk and pleasantries.

 

Once dinner had been cleared away and dessert had been served—a chocolate mousse Omar had arranged just for me, knowing how bad my chocolate cravings had gotten—Omar cleared his throat, clearly deciding it was time to discuss the big news.

 

“My family, thank you for coming here tonight,” he began. Under the table, he grasped my hand and pulled it into his lap. “I know the last year has been very hard on us. We have carried a great heaviness in our hearts at the loss of father, and at the issues of succession we have to face.”

 

I expected Sajid to have a snotty retort to this, but he was silent, staring at his brother intently.

 

“But I have some joyous news that I hope will begin to pull us out of the darkness we have had to endure.” He looked to me with a gentle, loving smile and brought our joined hands up on the table for all to see. “It appears I have finally fallen in love—with the ravishing woman sitting next to me, Dr. Carrie Green.”

 

Mirah gasped audibly, while Sajid and Alima looked up in shocked surprise, eyes wide. I felt myself shrinking under their gazes, but Omar only squeezed my hand and made me feel brave again. Being by his side was all that mattered, and I held onto that thought alone.

 

“Is that so?” said Sajid curiously. “Of all the women in all the kingdoms of all the world, you choose your own doctor? What’s come over you, Omar?”

 

“Love chooses us,” replied Omar. “I cannot control who I love any more than you can, brother. And Carrie is the woman I love.” He grinned at me happily. “And more than that, she is going to be the mother of my child.”

 

“What?” gasped Mirah, leaning forward in her seat. “What are you saying, my son?”

 

“I’m saying you are once again going to be the most beautiful grandmother in all of Al-Thakri, because Carrie is pregnant with my child. And we’ve just today had an appointment with the doctors which confirmed that our child is a son. The next heir of Al-Thakri will be born in only a few short months.”

 

Mirah squealed, overjoyed in a way that I didn’t expect in my wildest dreams. Her big brown eyes filled with tears, and she stood up quickly from her chair to come around the table towards me. I could barely get to my feet fast enough before she was embracing me, throwing her arms tightly around my shoulders.

 

“This is glorious news!” cried Mirah. “Finally, an heir to continue on the line and put this succession business to rest. I have grown so weary of ruling, and wearier still watching this battle tear my sons apart. And what a beautiful mother my grandson will have!” She pulled away to search my face, smiling so widely that her whole face lit up. “I’m so happy to welcome you to the family, Dr. Green.”

 

“Please, I think you can call me Carrie at this point,” I replied with a grin.

 

“Of course—Carrie. You’ve been a trusted part of my son’s entourage and protected his life, and now you will be the ward of my grandson’s life. I’m so thrilled my eldest son has finally found love.” She put her hands on either side of my face as she spoke, and then gave me a gentle kiss on my forehead.

 

Tears welled in my eyes, despite my best efforts to keep them at bay. I hugged Mirah back and relished in the warmth of a mother’s love—something I had been so far away from since leaving the States to pursue a life of adventure.

 

“Thank you, Your Highness. I’m so happy to be here.”

 

“And you had best get used to calling me ‘Mother,’” laughed Mirah. “May I?” She gestured gently towards my just-protruding belly with her hand.

 

“Yes, of course,” I said. “Your grandson is already full of fire and life. He barely wants to sleep. He would rather run around my belly all day, playing soccer with my organs.”

 

Mirah laughed uproariously as she put her palm on my belly. Almost immediately, my son responded with a series of kicks, and Mirah squealed in delight. “Omar was exactly the same way,” she said. “He was ready to be born, ready to face the world and all the adventure it had to offer. He hated being cooped up, even in the womb.”

 

“Well this is certainly his son,” I nodded and laughed. “This kid cannot wait to get out.”

 

“I’m so happy for you, my dear.” She turned to Omar and wrapped her arms around his shoulders, kissing his cheeks. “And for you, my precious son. You’ve waited so long for happiness to find you. It has been difficult as a mother to watch.”

 

Omar seemed emotional at hearing her words, and patted her arms, giving her hands a kiss. “I’m very happy, too, Mother. It has been a long time coming. I’m anxious to be the best father I can be to my son.”

 

“Have you decided on a name yet?”

 

“Not yet,” I told her. “But we have a short list we’ve been thinking about.”

 

Across the table, Sajid finally couldn’t take any more. He threw his napkin down on the table and everyone turned to look at his angry, sullen face.

 

“This is an outrage,” he said firmly. “You think this is cause for happiness, Mother? You think this is what will put the succession issue to rest? That your oldest son, our supposed king, is going to have an heir from a western woman?”

 

Next to him, Alima gasped and put a gentle hand on his arm, but Sajid ignored it.

 

Omar’s expression darkened noticeably. “Sajid, must you be so selfish as to interrupt every happy moment this family has? First, you had to pull a tantrum at mother’s birthday gala, and now this? Is it so much to ask that you simply be happy for me, or do you hate me so much that this is an impossible request?”

 

“I don’t hate you, Omar. But I love Al-Thakri more than you do. I love this country as much, if not more, than father ever did.”

 

Mirah hissed. “Watch your tongue, my son. How dare you speak ill of your father? This country was his world.”

 

Sajid continued, “No monarch of this country has ever been born of a foreign woman. It’s unheard of, and an outrage. You should have found yourself a woman of Al-Thakri, or at the very least a woman with some sort of civilized upbringing.”

 

I flushed red, embarrassed, with no response to give Sajid. I could feel my son becoming upset by his words, and he began to kick and twirl in earnest, making me grasp my belly to try and calm him down.

 

Omar rose from his chair, somehow looking even taller than he was, his broad shoulders squared and his hands clenched into fists. “Brother, I will not have you insult Carrie. She is a talented, accomplished woman with a beautiful heart and a gentle soul. She has spent her life training to help people as a doctor, and instead of working in a cushy American hospital, she chose to travel the world and help people who were suffering in much more desperate circumstances. She has sacrificed everything in order to make the world a better place. How dare you sit there and insult her when you’ve barely been outside the country’s borders to see how the rest of the world is fairing. You sit in your palace and move your chess pieces trying to ensure more power for yourself, and then dare to look down your nose at someone who has saved lives?”

 

Sajid seemed to blush, his brother’s words hitting home in some way I hadn’t expected. Omar’s passionate defense of me made my heart swell and my eyes water. The pregnancy hormones only compounded things, and tears began to fall down my cheeks before I could stop them.

 

“This is enough, Sajid,” said the Queen. “It’s time for you to grow up and accept that things do not always go the way you think they should go. I know you are still raw about your place in the line of succession, but this has been the way of the monarchy for millennia, and you have to accept it or your anger will kill you while you are still young. Is that what you want? To leave your daughters fatherless, your wife without her husband’s embrace while she raises your girls? Is it so important to you to beat your brother? Why not join him—work with him to make this country you claim to love a better place, instead of wasting all your energy bashing your head against a wall?”

 

Before Sajid could form any sort of response to his mother’s crushing words, Alima suddenly stood up from her chair looking dazed and afraid. Sajid turned from his mother suddenly to ask what she was doing, but he could barely get out a full question; no sooner had she stood up then she began to wobble on her feet, grasping for the back of her chair. It only lasted a few seconds, but we all watched in horror as she fainted before our eyes, slipping to the floor with a loud thunk.

 

***

 

“Alima!” cried Sajid, leaping out of his chair. The couple’s daughters screamed out in fright, and the youngest, barely older than six, began to cry in fear.

 

Mirah rushed to comfort her granddaughters while Omar and I moved swiftly around the table to attend to Alima. Omar barked at the staff to bring water and a cold compress, and they hurried to fulfill his orders.

 

I kneeled next to Sajid on the floor and quickly examined Alima. She was breathing steadily, still fluttering on the edges of unconsciousness.

 

“Rafiq, my bag,” I ordered. Quickly he delivered it, his strong face tainted with worry at the scene before him.

 

I dug inside my doctor’s bag and instantly found my stethoscope. I placed it on Alima’s heart and listened to its quick, steady beating. It was slowing every second, which was a good sign, but I could hear something else in the echo of the stethoscope that made my own heart flutter a bit.

 

Curiously, I moved the chestpiece down to her belly and was shocked at what I heard within: another, separate heartbeat.

 

“Oh my God,” I whispered.

 

“What is it?” cried Mirah, her granddaughters huddled around her like frightened baby ducklings.

 

I looked up at Sajid. “Alima is pregnant.”

 

The look on Sajid’s face told me that Alima hadn’t yet told him the news. He stared at me in shock, as if he were waiting for me to say “just kidding!” But when it didn’t come, he placed his ear on his wife’s stomach to listen for himself. I handed him the ears of the stethoscope so he could get a proper listen, and his eyes filled up with tears at the sound of his child’s heartbeat deep within his wife’s womb.

 

“By God, it’s true,” he whispered.

 

I looked up at Omar, who was hovering over me with worry all over his face.

 

“That’s why her blood pressure dropped,” I said to Sajid. “She needs to go home and get some rest, and be seen by her OB/GYN.”

 

“But why did she collapse?”

 

“I’m not entirely sure, but her vitals are steadying. I think she’s probably just tired, stressed and overheated. Some pregnancies are difficult.” I didn’t add how grateful I was in that moment that mine had not been so far.

 

As I spoke, Alima’s eyes were fluttering open, consciousness returning to her like a slow awakening from a dream. She moaned under her breath, mumbling words that didn’t make sense.

 

I shushed her quietly and told her to rest, not to try and move. “Your family is here,” I told her in a soft, even voice. “Just relax and breathe deeply. Everything is fine.”

 

“Call an ambulance,” said Omar to the wait staff.

 

To his own bodyguards, Sajid said, “Get my palace doctors ready to see her immediately. I want the same OB/GYNs that delivered my daughters and I want them waiting for us by the time we arrive.” Sajid then looked at me and humbly asked, “Is she all right, Carrie? Is our child okay?”

 

“She’ll be fine, she just fainted,” I told him, putting my hand on his. “I can’t tell anything about the baby from this, but I’m sure the child is fine, too. We just need to get her back home so she can rest.”

 

By the time Alima came to, the ambulance had arrived and carefully helped load her into the back. The EMTs confirmed what I suspected: that there were no signs of anything serious happening to Alima, only exhaustion and strain on her delicate body as it worked to grow a child in the blistering desert heat. Mirah insisted that Sajid ride with his wife, while she would take the girls in her limo to meet them back at Sajid’s palace.

 

Before he stepped into the back of the ambulance, Omar stopped his brother with a silent gaze and put a strong hand on his shoulder. Something quiet passed between them for just a moment, before Sajid disappeared into the back of the white truck.

 

Omar and I stood off to the side of the movement. He held me close to him, rubbing my back lovingly.

 

“All the dinners you take me to are so interesting,” I joked, breathlessly.

 

Omar let out a single chuckle and wrapped his arm around my shoulder, kissing the top of my head. “I’m glad Alima is going to be all right. I don’t know what my family would do if they lost another member.”

 

“I know.”

 

“It all happened so fast.”

 

“It usually does,” I said.

 

“I’m glad you were here,” he said, pulling me closer into his side.

 

“I didn’t do much,” I insisted.

 

“You are a goddess.”

 

For a moment we stood in silence, watching the reflection of the setting sun in the windows of the city high-rises.

 

“Well,” I said to him with a sigh. “I suppose it’s a race, now.”

 

“A race?” he said.

 

“According to your mother’s decree, if Alima is pregnant with a boy, whichever of our babies is born first will declare the heir of Al-Thakri,” I said with some sadness in my voice. “I’m sorry, my love. I thought we had guaranteed your rule.”

 

Omar gave me sweet half-smile, and put his lips on mine gently. “Whatever happens, Carrie, you have already given me the world.”

 

 

TWELVE

 

Four Months Later

 

I groaned as Omar’s strong hands rubbed my tired, aching back muscles as we lay together in bed. The plush penthouse had once been only his, but now it was ours, all my belongings moved in and mingled with his, along with the belongings of our son, who was due to arrive any day.

 

And I couldn’t have been more grateful for it. Most of my anxiety about giving birth had been replaced by eager desperation to have my beautiful but active son out of my body. Over the last few months, my belly had grown so enormous that feeling attractive was a laughable pipe dream, and now even getting to the pool with Zaynab had become a task of the highest difficulty. I could barely walk under all the weight, but the swimming did wonders for relieving my joint pain, so it was a catch-22 that I was still determined to solve.

 

“How are you feeling, my love?” asked Omar softly. “Can I get you the heating pad?”

 

“That would be glorious,” I responded with another moan. “I feel like my back hasn’t stopped hurting in six months.”

 

“Indeed, my son is making you work for his arrival.” Omar gave a soft little laugh and leaned over to kiss my cheek.

 

He left bed just long enough to grab the heating pad before returning to place it on my lower back muscles. The soothing heat helped instantly, and I could feel myself relaxing just a little bit more.

 

“I hate to see you in such pain,” Omar said. “Will you be able to get to sleep?”

 

“I’m sure I will,” I said. “Eventually. As long as I don’t break the bed when I roll over.”

 

Omar laughed, leaning over to plant a kiss on my nose. “You are a beautiful treasure, Carrie. I know you don’t feel like yourself right now, but I assure you, you’ve never been more attractive to me.”

 

“Well, no offense, but I hope we get back to the less-attractive version of me very, very soon,” I replied with a laugh, rubbing my belly. “This son of yours has wanted to get out from the earliest days of this pregnancy and I think we will both be much happier when he does.”

 

The pregnancy hadn’t been complicated, and I knew I was lucky to have had such a comparatively easy time. After all, Alima had been put on bed rest only a few short weeks after she fainted at the family dinner. Her doctors were concerned about her low blood pressure and demanded she stay as restful and quiet as possible. I couldn’t imagine having spent the last four months cooped up in bed; it was bad enough that I barely got out of the palace anymore.

 

From the looks of my belly, I was going to give birth to an enormous baby, and even though it was going to be the most beautiful day of my life, I was also more afraid than I had ever been of anything.

 

Omar listened patiently to all my fears. He wasn’t afraid, not even a little. He was overjoyed with every day that got closer to the day his son arrived. He kissed my tummy gently and leaned his head against it to listen to the sleepy movement of the baby in my womb.

 

I ran my fingers through his hair and let out a deep sigh, momentarily content.

 

I couldn’t believe how happy it made me just to lay here in bed with the man I loved while he worshiped me for carrying his child. It was its own kind of adventure—a much more blissful kind than those I had been on before.

 

But like all adventures, it had to come to an end, or at least a fork in the road.

 

As he worked to massage the pain out of my muscles, I could sense Omar growing nervous, clearing his throat. When I saw him put his hand in his curly hair, I knew he had something on his mind.

 

“What’s bothering you?” I asked him. “Is something going on at the office?”

 

Omar looked surprised for just a moment, and then he gave me a small smile. “Your intuition is only getting stronger every day; you know that? Being a mother is good for you.”

 

“And I think you try and use that silver tongue of yours to change the subject when you don’t want to talk,” I retorted playfully. “Tell me, love, please?”

 

Omar sighed. “I just worry this is not the best time to bring up my concerns, that’s all. The last thing I want to do is cause you or the baby undue stress.”

 

“When would be the best time, then? After the baby is born and I’m exhausted from being up all night breastfeeding and crazy with hormones?” I laughed. “Now is the only time.”

 

Omar hesitated a few moments, his gaze running over my face as I turned to look at him. Finally, he relented. “There is something I want to ask you… about our future, Carrie. And we are running out of time to discuss it.”

 

Carefully, and with great ache, I rolled over to face him properly. I had known deep down that this conversation was coming eventually, but some foolish part of me had been hoping we could somehow bypass it. I was never great at planning my future, and just as bad at talking about my emotions. Of course, the future had been on my mind every single day since Omar had asked me to carry his child. With every step we had taken beyond that, the questions had only become more and more urgent.

 

I had always liked my life with an escape hatch so that I never felt trapped. I didn’t want to grow old and regret tying myself right back into the Leave-It-to-Beaver family I had grown up in. Sure, I wanted that at some point, perhaps, but wasn’t that what older age was for? What good was my youth if I spent it simply re-creating the life I had already experienced as a child? I wanted to see the world. I wanted to feel the warmth of the sun on every ocean’s shore, to experience how different it felt on my skin.

 

But Omar was right. Time was running out for me to face that fork in the road. My son—our son—would be arriving any day, and there would be no turning back after that.

 

“My love,” whispered Omar as he nuzzled against my face. “I need to know what you intend to do after the baby has arrived. I know his creation began as a much more practical arrangement, but I think he—and we—have grown beyond that.” He curled his fingers in mine and pulled my body against him.

 

“Yes, we have,” I agreed, squeezing his hand.

 

“Our son was born of love, not through a procedure in a medical lab,” said Omar. “And I am truly grateful that, whatever happens next, I can tell him that with utmost honesty. He will know he was the product of love.”

 

“Yes, he is,” I said, smiling. I ran a hand down the side of Omar’s smooth, handsome face. “I do love you, Omar.”

 

“And I love you.” He kissed my hand. “I think you know what I would ask of you. I want to know if you intend on following through with our original arrangement, or if you could be persuaded to stay here in Al-Thakri with me, and our son.”

 

Hearing the decision laid out so starkly only made my anxiety and fear loom bigger. I took a deep breath and let it out, trying to suppress the groan that came with it. I didn’t want to hurt Omar’s feelings. He was only doing what was right, confirming with me how I felt so that we could think about the future together, like mature adults. But in that moment, I didn’t want to face reality.

 

I didn’t want to face it because I still didn’t know what I was going to do. Shameful or not, I was still torn between the old, adventuring me, and the new Carrie who was emerging just as surely as her son was: one day at a time. Neither of them had pulled ahead of the other in this internal civil war, and I didn’t want to break Omar’s heart by telling him that. Not when he was in such joyous spirits about our son.

 

Omar waited, searching my face for any hint of what was in my head. Before I could form any sort of reasonable answer to give him, a sharp pain erupted in my belly, and I cried out. My hands flew to my stomach.

 

“Oh my God,” I whispered breathlessly.

 

Omar’s expression twisted in worry as he sat bolt upright. “What is it? Are you all right?”

 

I grasped my belly and waited, trying to breathe, when the pain came again, stronger and deeper this time. “Oh God. Omar… the baby is coming. He’s coming right now!”

 

He blinked twice at me, as if I’d spoken in a foreign language.

 

“Omar, I said the baby is coming!” I repeated with a stressed laugh. “Now’s not the time to gape at me like a fish!”

 

Reality hit him all at once. His eyes lit up and his face flushed with the rush of adrenaline. “The baby! My son is coming!”

 

He leaped from the bed and ran for the hallway to call in Rafiq, who was posted outside in his usual position. Omar ordered his faithful bodyguard to gather up the overnight bags we had packed weeks ago.

 

“Get them down to the garage and load them in the Rolls Royce,” he said to Rafiq, who seemed more than a little disoriented at the sudden interruption. “We have no time to arrange the royal transport. We’ll take her ourselves.”

 

Rafiq turned a little pale. “Sir?”

 

“Go, go!” Omar waved his hands toward the door. “We’ll be right behind you!”

 

Rafiq didn’t argue. He gave me a tight-lipped, nervous smile before turning on his heel and disappearing out the door with my leather bag full of necessities. The heels of his dress shoes echoed in the hallway, pounding on the marble floor as he ran for the garage.

 

The contractions were still at an early stage, but already the pain was beginning to be too much to bear. Suddenly, all the toughness I used to feel when dragging patients around in desert dust, protecting them from nearby artillery shells, seemed to evaporate.

 

“Omar, we have to hurry. Do you have the wheelchair? I don’t think I can—” Another agonizing wave of pain came over me and stole my words as I moaned out.

 

“Yes, my love, hold on!” Omar fetched the wheelchair we had procured from the medical ward and helped me move delicately into it from the bed. He kissed my forehead and kneeled down in front of me. “Do you need anything else before we go?”

 

“Everything should be in the bag,” I replied in a tense voice, bending over as much as I could to try and absorb another contraction. “Make sure to grab my phone from the nightstand. My mother will murder me if she’s not the first to get a picture.”

 

“Yes, of course. Pull the brakes up, let’s get you to the hospital.”

 

 

THIRTEEN

 

We had arranged for a private ward at the local hospital for the baby’s birth, too concerned about complications to have the labor at the palace. Even though we trusted our doctors implicitly, the palace simply didn’t have the equipment on-hand to take care of any eventuality. All the scans and tests of our son had been positive, but we weren’t going to take a single chance. We wanted to be where all the help was if anything happened to go wrong.

 

Omar wheeled me swiftly but carefully down the palace halls. The guards who were on duty stared in wonder as the Sheikh and future king of Al-Thakri rushed by them, pushing his pregnant lover who was clearly in dire pain. I sensed that they wanted to try and help, but had no idea what to do besides open doors and make sure the hallways were clear. It was help enough.

 

Rafiq had the car waiting, engine running, in the garage by the time we got out of the elevator. Together, he and Omar lifted me into the backseat like I weighed nothing—a welcome sensation. Omar climbed in the back with me, leaving the wheelchair for one of the guards to attend to.

 

“Step on it, Rafiq, but by God, make sure you drive safely,” said Omar. “The very future of your country is counting on it.”

 

The bodyguard nodded, stone-faced, and obeyed. He weaved expertly through the bustling streets of the city, almost as if he had taken some sort of stunt driving course in another job before this. At one point we hit traffic just as the contractions began again, and I thought for sure I was going to end up giving birth in the back of a leather-clad Rolls Royce. My mother in Ohio would never believe it even if I did send her pictures.

 

We finally arrived at the memorial hospital Omar’s grandfather had built and named after Omar’s grandmother—Adilah Memorial Hospital. It was a beautiful building, and when Omar had told me its origins, I’d known there was no way we could pick anywhere else to have our son. Maybe it was the hormones, but the thought of giving birth to Omar’s heir in the hospital his grandfather built brought me to tears.

 

Rafiq pulled around to the emergency doors to allow us to exit before he parked the car. As the hospital staff helped Omar load me into another wheelchair, Rafiq suddenly pointed and asked, “Your Highness, that car there has royal plates. Is it your brother’s?”

 

Omar and I leaned to look around to where Rafiq was pointing. Indeed, a Jaguar bearing the plates of the royal family was parked haphazardly near the emergency exit. Recognition fell over Omar’s face.

 

“It is,” he confirmed. “That’s Sajid’s car.”

 

I looked up at him from the wheelchair. “I bet Alima’s in labor, too. That has to be it.”

 

Omar laughed breathlessly and shook his head. “I’m starting to think this is the work of my father from the afterlife, teasing us one last time. He always did love to point out to my brother and I how powerless we were to fate.”

 

“Well, let’s hope you were his favorite,” I joked, even as I winced in pain. “Because this race to the throne is about to go down to the wire.”

 

Quickly, I was whisked away to the private ward that Omar had arranged for the birth of his son. Somewhere, we suspected, Sajid had set up exactly the same facilities for Alima, but we had no time to go search him out and hospital staff was strictly forbidden from sharing their patients’ details without permission.

 

In my suite, my doctors from the palace were all there, waiting to help me through the birthing process, assisted by the best staff the hospital had to offer. The room was filled with all manner of medical equipment, and even though I recognized most of it, it still made me nervous to see it all—as if they were anticipating a problem.

 

As soon as I was laid back and comfortable in the hospital bed, Dr. Issa put a gentle hand on my shoulder, as if sensing my worry. “Don’t worry, Dr. Green. This is all just precaution—and part of the perks of having a private ward.”

 

“Perks?” I said through my heavy breathing.

 

“Whatever might go wrong, we have something in this room that can deal with it. There are only a handful of hospitals in the world that can say that tonight,” she assured me. “Nothing is going to go wrong. You are about to have a beautiful, perfect son.”

 

Things calmed down for a little bit once I was set up in bed, hooked up to IVs and monitoring equipment, and surrounded by a room full of medical experts. The doctors got Omar outfitted in sterile scrubs and made him wash his hands like a surgeon, and I tried to memorize the moment, because I knew it would be a long time before the King of Al-Thakri obeyed someone as intently as he did the doctors. He wasn’t a king then—he was just a man about to become a father, overwhelmed with the emotion and worry of it all. His whole world was in this room.

 

Once he was cleaned up, Omar came back by my side and stood, holding my hand and caressing my hair to comfort me. When contractions hit, he bent his head down against mine as if he could absorb my pain, holding me tight. After a few sets had passed, one of the nurses exposed my enormous belly to the air and slathered on some cool, lubricating gel in order to perform an ultrasound.

 

“Let’s do a quick check on this little guy and make sure everything looks okay before your contractions get closer together,” she said with a bright smile.

 

All three of us watched the screen intently, listening to the mechanical waves and the loud, beautiful sound of a fetal heartbeat.

 

“Huh? But that’s…” Omar was first to notice the unusual sound.

 

But the nurse didn’t seem to hear him. “Everything looks good, Your Highness! Your boys are ready to come into the world.”

 

Omar and I looked at each other with loving smiles, but as the nurse’s words dawned on us, those smiles faded into shocked, open mouths.

 

“Excuse me—my boys?” I demanded. “Plural?!”

 

The nurse turned pale. “Boys, yes… Your twin boys.” She pointed to the image on the ultrasound and raised an eyebrow as if we were playing some kind of joke on her.

 

“Twins?!” I screeched. “I’m having twins?”

 

Dr. Issa rushed over to the bedside at the sound of the commotion, and immediately her jaw dropped at the sight of the ultrasound. “Heavens, how did our scans miss this?” she gasped.

 

“Twins…” muttered Omar.

 

“Well that explains why I feel like a beached whale,” I said, somewhat relieved. “I’ve got two little guys hanging out in there.”

 

“I can’t believe this,” whispered Omar. “Carrie, we’re having twins?”

 

“Well, we were having trouble deciding between the first two names on the list. I guess now we can use them both.”

 

Omar laughed. “What a beautiful twist of fate.”

 

“Beautiful? I’m the one who has to give birth twice today!” I tried to laugh about it, but inside, I was terrified.

 

“And I’ll be here with you the whole way through,” he promised, kissing the top of my head. “Look at how amazing you are. I ask you to give me an heir, and you bring me two. You truly are a goddess. I love you.”

 

“I love you, too, Omar,” I replied.

 

My smile quickly faded as another wave of contractions overcame my body—much, much worse than the last had been. The sensation was unlike anything I could imagine, crushing my insides and blinding me to almost everything in the room. I felt every inch of my enormous body and nothing else.

 

For hours, with Omar staying diligently by my side the whole time, I worked to deliver his heirs into the world. The doctors and nurses kept me as pain-free as possible, but there was nothing that was going to dull the pain of this most purely human act. Each set of contractions became closer together and more painful until finally, the babies were rotated and positioned and ready to be born.

 

Dr. Issa was positioned between my knees, her dark hair done up in a powder blue hair net, her face covered by a mask. Her eyes still smiled above it, assuring me everything was fine, using her calming voice to guide me through the contractions.

 

Omar told me to squeeze his hands as hard as I could as I pushed. He didn’t complain a single time, only kept his head pressed against mine, whispering in my ear how much he loved me and how grateful he was for what I was giving him.

 

When our first son came crying into the world, we looked at each other and called him Roni. It was the name of Mirah’s father, and his entrance meant that he first would be destined to rule in his father’s stead someday.

 

Roni’s brother, Zamir, came along a few minutes later. This name, I had chosen from a book I’d found in Omar’s library, an old book of children’s tales from Al-Thakri. The story was about a little boy who could talk to birds.

 

As soon as they emerged, my sons were whisked over to sterile bassinettes to be cleaned off and examined for any possible problem. My breathing heavy, sweat still pouring off my skin, I clung desperately to Omar’s hand as we waited. It was the longest wait of my life.

 

Moments later, two nurses with wet eyes and happy smiles brought our sons over to us, swaddled in pure white blankets. They handed one baby to each of us—Roni to Omar, and Zamir to me.

 

“They’re perfect,” one of the nurses said. “Perfectly healthy, happy boys.”

 

I looked down into Zamir’s beautiful, sleepy face, puffed up and red from his birth and from crying, and I started crying too. His skin was so soft underneath my fingertips, and already he was grasping to hold them in his tiny little hands. I looked up at Omar and saw that he was staring down at Roni in complete, total awe, as if he were seeing the face of God.

 

“My beautiful sons…” he whispered. He turned to me, his big brown eyes filled with tears. “Thank you, Carrie. Truly, I can never repay you for what you’ve done for me.”

 

“For us,” I said immediately. “Omar, aren’t they gorgeous?”

 

“They are the most beautiful children ever to be born in this country,” he said. “My mother is going to be overjoyed.”

 

I gave a chuckle. “Especially when she finds out she got three new grandchildren today.”

 

Omar’s face lit up, remembering that we had seen Sajid’s car out front when we arrived. As I moved to begin nursing Zamir, who was already clamoring for his first meal, Omar went to the door and invited Rafiq to meet his older son. Even from the bed, I could hear the pride in Omar’s voice as he introduced his lifelong bodyguard to Roni. Rafiq stared down at the baby with a soft look on his face, and I swear I even caught a smile as Roni reached to grasp at his finger.

 

“Go and contact Sajid’s security staff,” Omar asked quietly. “Find out where he and Alima are in the hospital and let him know we’re here and would love to see them if they’re ready for visitors.”

 

A few minutes later, there was a soft knock at the door, and Sajid was standing there looking happier than I ever thought would have thought possible for the moody prince. In his arms, Sajid held a wriggling bundle of baby boy who seemed less than pleased at being so far from his mother already.

 

From the doorway Sajid gave me a kind smile that surprised me. I watched happily as the two brothers introduced their newborn sons to each other, speaking quietly and happily as they congratulated one another.

 

“His name is Jarah,” Sajid said. “My first son.”

 

“He is perfect, Sajid,” replied Omar. “Simply perfect.”

 

For a moment, it felt like all the succession bickering had never happened. They were just two brothers sharing a beautiful day together, the stresses of ruling Al-Thakri relegated to mere background noise.

 

 

FOURTEEN

 

Adventure was what I had always wanted in my life, and already I was learning that there might not be a bigger one than raising twins.

 

We left the hospital the day after I gave birth, after the doctors gave me and the boys a clean bill of health and were satisfied that both of them were eating well. As if they could sense their mother’s exhaustion, they slept most of the day, apart from when they were eating or being bathed and changed. Both of the boys were napping peacefully in their carriers—Zamir in Omar’s arms, Roni in my lap as I sat in the wheelchair—when we finally left the hospital. Rafiq, along with other members of the security team, had been on a mad scramble all night, gathering duplicates of all the supplies we had bought before we knew of Zamir’s existence. Omar even had the palace staff prepare the nursery before we got home, so that everything would be perfect for the arrival of two babies.

 

We said a quick and loving goodbye to Sajid and Alima in their hospital room before we left. Alima’s doctors had insisted she stay an extra day, since she had had such a complicated pregnancy, just to make sure everything looked good for her and little Jarah. She looked glowing and beautiful as she waved at us from her bed.

 

We had a little trouble getting the carriers buckled into the town car, and something told me these cars weren’t exactly made for people transporting infants. Eventually we got them safe and secure, and Omar and I climbed in after. Rafiq took the Rolls Royce back to the palace, while Ahmed drove us in the royal car, its tinted windows keeping the babies shaded from the sun.

 

My body was still completely thrashed from giving birth, and so I allowed Omar to wheel me back to our bedroom using the palace wheelchair. It was a happy surprise to see a doubling of all the baby furniture in the corner of the room that we had designated the nursery. Rafiq had done an excellent job getting exactly the same crib, changing table, and other necessities for Zamir to be completely comfortable.

 

For the first time, Omar and I were alone with our sons. We lifted them each out of their carriers and held them close on our chests as they stubbornly slept, and we cried. For a while, we sat in the rocking chairs in the nursery, our fingers intertwined with each other’s and a sleeping son on each of our shoulders.

 

I knew in that moment that I could never leave this behind. The thought of never feeling the beautiful, warm weight of my sons sleeping in my arms again was unbearable.

 

And yet the anxiety of what to do about my future didn’t leave me. There was still so much about the palace life that I didn’t want to deal with. I would never be my full, free self again. I would always have to travel with a bodyguard in order to keep me safe from people who would try to hurt Omar by hurting me. My sons would have to be protected, too, and wouldn’t know a normal life like I had known. They would have their father to commiserate with on that point, but it still seemed unfair.

 

And what happened when someone else came up to challenge the throne? What happened when my sons came of age, and Zamir decided that he, like Sajid, was upset at his brother simply for being born first? Roni would be king once Omar was no longer on the throne, that was certain. But I never wanted either of my sons to feel inadequate.

 

I found that I suddenly understood Mirah so much better than I had before. Her pain became my pain. She had had to bury her husband, and watch her sons claw at each other’s throats over the scraps he left behind. Was that what the future held for Zamir and Roni? Was there anything I could do to stop it?

 

I would be a royal housewife and mother. Sure, there were plenty of perks to the job, but I had spent my whole life working to be a doctor, living through hunger, exhaustion and trauma just to chase my passion. Practicing medicine would be impossible if I were the queen. What time was not spent on raising the boys would have to be dedicated to the myriad royal duties that fell on the lady of the house, and while they weren’t necessarily as important as Omar’s, they were still important enough that I wouldn’t be able to abstain from them. That went double because I was a foreign woman. The citizens of this country would rightly be upset if a foreign queen turned her nose up at their traditions while she was in power, and I would never want to do anything to upset Omar’s homeland. He loved this country, and it was his dream to rule as it was mine to save lives.

 

The choice was impossible. Either I stayed to be with Omar and my sons, and raise my family in the palace, or I left to return, alone, to the trenches of medicine and resume the adventure I had been on before.

 

Every minute that I wasn’t attending to my sons, the thoughts ate at me. I was grateful for the distraction of Omar’s impending coronation, only a week after the boys’ birth. As soon as news traveled that my twins had been born before Alima gave birth, it was clear to all that there was no more fight to be had for the throne. It belonged to Omar, as it rightly should have all along.

 

The citizens of Al-Thakri seemed grateful that the succession issue had finally been solved. Newspapers and TV reports showed throngs of celebrating people all over the land, excited both to have a new king to crown, and at having new royal babies to fuss over. Omar brought in a professional photographer to take portraits of the boys to share with the country. Omar and I insisted we remain out of them for the time being; neither of us wanted the focus to be on us. We wanted to celebrate Roni and Zamir with the rest of the country.

 

The coronation was set for Friday evening, and included a grand dinner beforehand. The palace would be hosting the crème-de-la-crème of Al-Thakrian society, as well as a slew of diplomats, rulers and dignitaries, who would come to pay their respects to the royal family in anticipation of long years working together to establish prosperity and peace. Al-Thakri was both prosperous and peaceful, and Omar’s father had been a well-respected ruler. The world was excited and hopeful for his oldest son to take up the throne in his stead.

 

Dinner was to be a private affair, only for the royal family, before all the chaos and pageantry began. Omar asked the kitchen to make up a fine dinner and pulled his most aged and expensive wines from the palace cellar. He even brought in dessert chefs from France to assist his kitchen staff with creating something extraordinary.

 

While Omar sweated over the coronation preparations, I did my best to prepare our handsome, wiggly sons for their first public appearances. Mirah was all too happy to help me bathe them and get them dressed in tiny versions of the traditional, flowing white garb Omar would be wearing as he ascended to the throne. They looked like adorable little sheikhs themselves by the time we were done, drifting off to sleep in a double stroller.

 

“I’m not sure I’m ready for all this,” I confessed to Mirah as I watched them sleep.

 

“What, motherhood?” she said with a gentle smile. “None of us are ready when it happens.”

 

“I’m not sure I’m ready for the coronation, either. At least I can find solid advice from people on how to be a mother, but on how to be a makeshift queen? Even the internet was quiet on that one.”

 

Mirah’s laugh was light and lilting. She put a thin arm around my shoulder. “But women are naturally queens. You already have that inside of you; you only have to release it.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Really,” she nodded. “How else do you think we are able to go through the pain and torment of birthing children—even two, in your case—and be upright and back to ourselves the next day? Out working, or leading, or taking care of others? We have power in us, Carrie. You don’t need to be worried. And even if you are, I’m here to help you.”

 

I smiled at her, but must have looked more tight-lipped and worried than I intended. Her eyes looked sad. “Omar has told me you miss your old life being a doctor out in the world.”

 

I sighed, feeling a mix of shame and relief that Mirah knew about my conundrum. Things never seemed as bad when they weren’t pent up inside like a secret. “I do miss it.” I glanced down at my sleeping sons. “But I would probably miss this even worse. I don’t know what to do.”

 

“Do you love my son?”

 

“Of course,” I said. “And I love our sons.”

 

“Then things will work themselves out,” she assured me. “And you will be together, whatever happens.”

 

Tears stung my eyes. “What makes you so sure?”

 

“That is the point of love: to make sure we end up where we are supposed to be.”

 

 

FIFTEEN

 

Mirah’s words rang in my head long after we parted to our separate rooms to prepare for the coronation. As my sons slept, Zaynab helped me get into the dress I had gotten for the occasion. I was in no place to go out shopping, so my wonderful assistant had gone into town for me and let me window shop via video chat on her smartphone. Together, we had found a flowing red dress that matched the ruby earrings Omar had given me on our first date. Zaynab had given the shop all my measurements, and the dress had been delivered a few days later in a beautiful box filled with tissue paper.

 

Zaynab had her own new dress on; floor-length, in a dark blue color with white lace accents that looked like a smattering of stars in the night sky. She would be helping me to take care of the boys during the coronation ceremony, and she was excited to be attending something so historical and beautiful.

 

Omar was incredibly busy, so busy that we couldn’t meet up to spend time together before dinner. With Zaynab by my side, I wheeled the stroller down the palace hallway towards the dining hall. The sun was setting, and the light was gorgeous and golden, the garden alive with the sound of birds. We had to stop every few feet, because the security guards all wanted to get a chance to coo at the babies and get their first glimpse of the future leader of Al-Thakri. It was almost too adorable to bear, watching these huge hulking men crumble into smiles and baby talk.

 

We were only waiting a moment in the dining room before Omar arrived. He rushed over to me with a beaming smile and took me in his arms. He kissed me deeply, unconcerned with the small audience of security in the room. “How are you feeling, my love? How are the boys?”

 

“Tired but ready for this feast; your sons are about the same,” I joked, gesturing to their sleeping forms in the stroller. They were good eaters and it wouldn’t be long until one or both of them were up and wanting a meal from the pre-pumped bottles Zaynab had waiting.

 

Omar’s smile grew, and he separated from my embrace to kneel in front of the strollers and delicately stroke each of the babies’ cheeks. He stared at them like he still didn’t believe they were real.

 

“They are already more handsome than me,” he laughed. “We’re going to have quite the line of eager ladies at the palace gates.”

 

“Oh, Lord,” I replied with a hand on my forehead. “I’m still feeling labor pains; can we please keep the talk about them being teenagers to a minimum?”

 

Omar chuckled and stood to kiss me again. “Are you recovering well? Is there anything you need? I’m sorry I’ve been so absent the last few days. I had no idea how much work this coronation business required.”

 

“Don’t worry about it, honey.” I patted a palm on his chest lovingly. “You have a country to run; of course you’re going to be busy and absent sometimes. We’re doing just fine. I have everything I need to hand—except you, that is.”

 

I meant it as a light-hearted joke, but Omar sighed deeply, his brow furrowing. “All I want is to spend time with you and my sons.”

 

I ran a hand over his face gently. “We’re right here, Omar.”

 

It didn’t seem to satisfy him, but as he leaned in to kiss me again, we were interrupted by a royal attendant barging into the dining hall to announce that Sajid and his family had arrived.

 

Omar closed his eyes and took another deep breath, clearly annoyed. “Thank you,” he told the attendant in an even voice. He opened his eyes to look at me, their dark colors heavy with worry. “I’m going to send someone to fetch my mother. Will you greet Sajid and Alima for me?”

 

“Of course.” I kissed him.

 

He embraced me once more and left the room. Sajid and his family entered a few moments later, beaming happily as Alima carried their new son in her arms. He was awake but not fussy, staring in blurry-eyed wonder at all the fresh colors and sights in the room.

 

Sajid was polite but stiff when he greeted me, while Alima was nothing but warmth and sunshine, kissing me on both cheeks and showing off her beautiful baby. He already had Sajid’s full head of thick, dark hair, and darker skin than my sons. He was truly gorgeous and I told Alima so. His three older sisters gathered around him like little nannies, fussing with his socks, rubbing gently at the soft hair on his head. They already loved him to pieces.

 

Omar and Mirah came to the dining room soon after, and Mirah was overwhelmed at the sight before her.

 

“My whole family, all six of my grandchildren… Six!” she cried happily, clapping her hands together. “Three boys, three girls. What more could a woman ask for?”

 

“It warms my heart to see you so happy, mother,” said Omar as he put an arm around her. “You’ve endured so much this past year or so.”

 

“And now I’m ready to endure more happiness than any person has a right to have,” she agreed, nodding with a teary smile. She insisted on sitting at the end of the table with her granddaughters and Zaynab, who was keeping an eye on all three baby boys as they slept away in their strollers and the portable cradle Sajid’s attendant had brought for his son. She was clearly very happy to be getting on with her life outside of royal duties.

 

Throughout the dinner, Sajid seemed in happier spirits than I had ever seen him, and I thought it must be due to his newborn son. After all, Omar was the same. But as the night progressed, it became clear that it was something else. Once the kitchen staff had cleaned up the dishes from the main course, he decided the time was right to reveal it.

 

Sajid cleared his throat and wiped his mouth with a napkin. Then he slowly pulled a piece of folded paper from the inside of his robes where it had been tucked. He opened it to reveal a language I couldn’t read, but which looked like an official document of some kind; I recognized the royal seal of Al-Thakri prominently displayed at the top.

 

Omar’s face went dark. “What is this?” he demanded.

 

Sajid’s good mood fell quickly like a hammer. He slapped the paper on the table and rudely shoved it across towards Omar and me on the other side. Omar gave me a concerned look and snatched the papers up. There was a portion highlighted almost a third of the way down.

 

“You should know what it is, since you’re the man who presumes to be our future king,” sniped Sajid.

 

“Presumes?” countered Omar. “Brother, you’ve just handed me the constitution of Al-Thakri, so you know well that I am not presuming anything. The throne is mine. Both the constitution and mother’s decree have been satisfied by the birth of my sons. How much longer are you going to try and raise the ghost of this issue?”

 

The room filled with thick tension that seemingly even the security guards felt, shifting uncomfortably in their polished shoes.

 

Next to Sajid, Alima was silent, eyes downcast. But Sajid only rose to his feet, slamming his fist on the table. “You are wrong, Omar. The throne will not be yours, and the constitution proves it. The law specifically states that any sheikh ascending to the throne must have produce one male heir.”

 

Omar rolled his eyes. “Have I not introduced you to my two sons?” He sarcastically gestured towards the strollers.

 

“Yes, your two sons. Two. The constitution says that the sheikh ascending must have one son, in the singular. That means the throne is mine. Dr. Green gave you twins, and blessings upon you for that as a father, but for Al-Thakri, it means you cannot be king. The throne should be mine.”

 

At the end of the table, Mirah shook her head, thoroughly exhausted with the bickering. Unlike before, however, she said nothing to interrupt it.

 

Omar was red with rage, his eyes darker and angrier than I had ever seen them. His breathing quickened, chest rising and falling as he absorbed his brother’s words.

 

He was quiet for a long time—long enough that even Sajid started to grow uncomfortable with the silence.

 

Finally, Omar stood up from his chair, throwing his napkin down on the table.

 

“I’ve had just about enough of this,” said Omar in a voice that was both dark and quiet, yet somehow loud enough to echo off the walls. “Ever since we lost Father, you’ve become consumed with vying for power, Sajid. Consumed, like you are cursed. It has been painful to watch and even more painful to endure. All our lives, Father trained me—trained both of us—for the roles we would one day take on. And his grave wasn’t even cold before you tried to do everything you could to upend that training, and upend father’s wishes… the wishes of Al-Thakri.”

 

Sajid stared at his brother in shock, like a deer caught in headlights. This was not the fight he expected from Omar, and he hadn’t finished.

 

“I thought with the birth of our sons that this had finally been put to rest, and that we could sit back and become a family once more. I thought we would raise our sons together, like we were raised.” His voice grew angry and he gestured wildly. “That they could be brothers and take care of each other as I took care of you. But I was wrong, wasn’t I? If this is you, Sajid, if this is how low you are willing to stoop to gain something that was never yours in the first place, then you know what? You can have it. You have poisoned everything about this I ever loved. I no longer want it.”

 

It took a moment for everyone in the room to realize the weight of Omar’s words. At the end of the table, Mirah stood up slowly, her face shocked. Sajid straightened, his fists falling away, while the girls looked at each other curiously, waiting for someone to explain what had just happened.

 

“What are you saying?” Sajid said slowly.

 

“My son, think about what you’re doing!” cried Mirah. “Think of the country!”

 

“I am thinking, mother. I’m thinking clearly for perhaps the first time since father died,” Omar replied evenly. He turned to Sajid with a stone expression. “If the throne means so much to you that you’re willing to cut your family at every turn in order to achieve it, then take the throne, Sajid. Tonight will not be my coronation; it will be my abdication. You can finally have what you really want.”

 

“You are mocking me,” said Sajid, his face suspicious.

 

“No,” replied Omar, shaking his head. “I’m done with games. I’m done with trying to best you or convince you that what you’re doing is foolish. Instead, I am going to heed the wise words of our father and realize that I have no control over fate. Fate is presenting me with a choice today. I can either stay here and spend my days trying to run a country that will always have problems to solve, protecting my throne from my power-hungry brother who will most likely challenge everything I try to do, while watching my sons grow up at a distance. Or, I can do what my heart really desires.”

 

Omar looked down at me—completely surprised and without words to respond—and put a gentle hand on my cheek. “I could leave here with Carrie and my sons, and go explore the world as we both want. I can teach Roni and Zamir what the world really looks like, and let them decide for themselves where they want to be within it. I can spend my hours loving my family and making them happy.”

 

Tears filled my eyes as I listened to Omar speak. My heart felt like it was ready to burst in my chest. All my sleepless nights worrying about what I was going to do when the babies were born, and I never once imagined an outcome like this.

 

“I choose the latter,” declared Omar. “I love Carrie and my sons more than some petty title, more than this royal legacy that only we will ever remember. I don’t want a part of this anymore. I’m tired of fighting you, Sajid. The throne is yours—on one condition.”

 

Still in a state of suspicious disbelief, Sajid folded his arms and snorted. “Yes, and what is that? A failsafe that you should be able to return and reclaim it whenever you decide you’re done being a globetrotter?”

 

“No,” argued Omar. “The condition is that you meet with the royal advisors and amend the constitution so that this mockery will never happen again. Amend the constitution to include heirs of either gender. Had we had such an amendment, you would have taken the throne anyway, and none of this infighting would have happened. That a woman can act as queen regent and raise royal heirs, but not rule herself, is a stain on our country and will cause us nothing but problems. Fix it, Sajid. That is my condition.”

 

I was so proud of Omar in that moment, it took everything to hold back my tears. At the end of the table, Mirah put her hands over her mouth, her face overwhelmed with joyful emotion.

 

Sajid hesitated, silent a moment, as if he were trying to figure out if this was a trap of some kind. Finally, he nodded. “Fine. I agree with you. Our country would do well to fix this succession issue. It will bring peace to the royal family.”

 

Omar nodded at his brother. “Good. Then the throne is yours. I suggest you begin your rule now by announcing to the press and waiting audience that there will be a major announcement at tonight’s coronation.”

 

Sajid went to argue with him, but realized Omar was right. He started to smile as he realized that this unexpected turn of events was actually happening.

 

He left the room to attend to the duties, and at the end of the table, Jarah began to cry. Alima, still in shock, got up to attend to her son.

 

Omar sat down next to me, meeting my surprised expression with one of love and warmth.

 

“Honey,” I whispered. “Is this really what you want? You’ve worked your whole life to prepare for being on the throne… Are you really just going to give it up?”

 

He nodded and brushed a stray hair from my face. “I want to be happy, Carrie. Ruling has made me nothing but miserable, and I’ve barely started doing it. I would have been doing it right up until the day I died, just like father. No being voted out, like in your country; no returning to some normal life one day. Our lives would have been chaos, and not the kind an adventure-lover like you enjoys.”

 

I grinned at him, even as tears streamed down my face. “I can’t believe this is happening. I was so scared that I was going to have to choose between you and my life… I couldn’t imagine leaving our sons.” I turned to check on them, and saw Mirah singing sweetly to them, awake and content in the stroller.

 

“You don’t,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about anything anymore. I have money enough that we never have to come home. Our sons will see the world and be better men than I ever could be.”

 

“I’m not sure that’s possible.”

 

He smiled and kissed me sweetly. “And if we like a place enough, we could settle down there for a while. I’m sure you’ll have no trouble finding a local hospital to lend your skills to if you want, and I have plenty of friends who I would love to guilt into donating money to underfunded operations. We can make a real difference wherever we go.”

 

It was all too perfect. I threw my arms around Omar’s neck and he held me tight against him. I closed my eyes and inhaled his beautiful scent. “I love you so much, Omar. Thank you.”

 

“Thank you, my love,” he whispered back. “Thank you for my sons. And thank you for helping me see the truth. I’ll spend the rest of my life repaying you for both.”

 

 

SIXTEEN

 

Despite fantasies of us whisking out into the world that very night, Omar was not about to abandon the complex task of handing over power to his younger brother. His abdication shocked the nation, and pictures of him were plastered on newspapers and TV channels around the world. The people of Al-Thakri had been overjoyed at the news of the twins’ birth, and even more ready to accept Omar as their new king. There was a mingled sense of mourning and excitement when he went up to the podium and announced that the coronation ceremony would continue, only with his brother acceding to power instead.

 

Sajid, who had been hurriedly dressed in the traditional garb of the ascending king, looked beaming and proud as he participated in the ancient ceremony. I stood next to Omar, each of us holding one of our sons, as we watched his brother take the throne that was never his. Alima was sobbing with happiness, and the girls were thrilled with all the attention they were suddenly getting as the royal daughters. It wouldn’t be too long before Alima would have to start vetting suitors for them, and I didn’t envy her the task. It was another complication of power that Omar had saved us from; I would never have to break the hearts of my sons by telling them the person they loved wouldn’t be accepted by the kingdom. They were free to be whoever they grew up to be.

 

Mirah was shocked, but there was also some sort of light and happiness in her expression, something that felt like it was a long time coming. Maybe this was something she had always dreamed for herself; Omar’s father giving up power to spend more time with her and their sons. She never confided in me that that’s what it was, but I could see it on her face as she helped us pack.

 

Part of me felt guilty that Mirah’s grandsons wouldn’t be as close to her now, but with Sajid’s family moving into the main palace, I knew she would be kept busy helping to raise Jarah and the girls. We promised that we would return often to visit as the boys grew up; plus, with technology nowadays, she didn’t have to miss a moment, and I told her to expect dozens of videos and photos. She asked for hundreds.

 

We chose our first destination together: South America. Omar had never been, and I had only visited Brazil, on a short conference trip during med school.

 

The day before we were to leave for our new life, as the sun was setting, I found him in the greenery of the royal garden. He was cooing at the birds in their gilded aviary, his shoulders heavy, his eyes a little sad.

 

When I approached, he looked up and smiled. “Remember the pink dress you wore out here on our first date?” he said. “I love that dress. You should wear it tomorrow.”

 

“I think I will,” I replied, leaning in to kiss him. I rubbed my palm on his back. “Are you okay? I know it must be hard for you to leave here.”

 

Omar nodded. “It is hard. It’s hard to accept that something so ugly would be the cause of me finally chasing my deepest wants. I’m still very sad about Sajid’s behavior.”

 

“I know. I know he hurt you. But people seem to think he’s going to make a competent ruler; that’s something, isn’t it?”

 

“He will make a fine king,” replied Omar. “Sajid is an intelligent and hard-working man. He has always thrived off the responsibility, the rushing about, the chaos. It’s why he has successfully launched so many different projects and companies over his career. Kingship will be good to him, and as long as he can remember to keep his heart open, he will be good to Al-Thakri.”

 

I put my head on Omar’s shoulder. “You have a legacy here too, you know. Because of you, Al-Thakri will have its first queen in thousands of years. You’ve granted great power to his eldest daughter, and who knows what amazing things she will do for her country?”

 

Omar gave me a small smile. “Do you really think that?”

 

“Yes, I do!” I assured him. “No matter what Sajid does now, it will be because of you in the end. You made room for him, and in turn, for change in Al-Thakri. You have saved Sajid’s children from going through the very same torment you’re going through right now. They won’t have to fight each other because the succession will be clear as crystal.”

 

“Thank you, my love. You always know how to lift my spirits when they’re down.”

 

“Your other great legacy will, of course, be the wonderful sons you’re going to raise with me,” I smiled. “I can’t wait to see what our boys grow up to be like. Maybe one of them will want to be a doctor. Maybe one of them will save the world.”

 

Omar laughed and pulled me by the waist against his body. I wrapped my arms around his neck and he kissed me deeply. “Whatever they become, they will have a treasure of a mother to love them and teach them how to be extraordinary men. They are already blessed with that.”

 

“And I’m blessed with you,” I said, nuzzling into his face. “I can’t imagine my life without you and the boys. When I was pregnant, I often thought about where I would be if I hadn’t accepted your job offer.” I shook my head as if I could shake out the unattractive thoughts. “I would be in a much different, much worse place.”

 

“Come now, you love being in worse places, that’s where all the patients are,” he winked.

 

I gave him a playful slap on the chest. “You know what I mean! I wouldn’t have this beautiful future that you’ve given me. Omar, I never imagined I could meet a man like you, or find love like this. I never imagined I’d be a mother, never mind the mother of twins.”

 

“I should have mentioned they run in the family,” he snickered.

 

“Well, I know that now. And I’m glad for it. I can’t imagine life without either of them.”

 

“Will you still be saying that when we’re chasing their furious toddler legs around the beaches of Thailand? Or dealing with their tears because they sneaked a bite of our African-spiced food?”

 

I laughed. “Yeah, I think I will. Probably even more so. I dreamed so long about having children and being able to show them the world. I never thought it would come true.”

 

Omar leaned his head down on mine and kissed me again. “It’s true, my love.”

 

“And I know from experience that nothing will ever fully take away the pain of being away from your home,” I told him. “But that just means we have to visit more often, since we’ll have the money to do it. This won’t be the last time you walk in this garden, Omar. And your sons will know and love it, too, just like you did.”

 

“I would love that,” admitted Omar. “And when will we be taking them back to Ohio?”

 

“Oh, as soon as possible,” I told him. “My mother’s chomping at the bit, and I can’t wait for my old high school friends to meet my handsome, royal husband and our gorgeous sons. In fact, maybe we should swing by there on the way to South America.”

 

Omar chuckled and hugged me tightly. Together, we walked through the gardens of the palace, taking our time to smell the tropical flowers and listen to the birds call as we passed. The sun was setting behind the sandstone palace walls, and on Omar’s reign as Sheikh, but it was only just rising on our lives together.

 

I couldn’t wait for this new day to start.

 

 

The End

 

Holly Rayner

 

 

And now, as promised, enjoy the first few chapters of my previous novel, The Sheikh’s American Baby.

 

 

ONE

 

 

Lucie stared at the ceiling, unable to sleep. She wanted to call it excitement, but she knew it wasn’t.

 

Jet lag. Something she’d never experienced before. Growing up, family vacations had always been trips to the lakeside campground a two-hour drive away. She’d never been far enough from home to have to deal with adjusting to a different time zone.

 

But now, here she was. On the other side of the planet, and out of her element.

 

The alarm on her phone went off and she sighed as she reached out to silence it. She pulled back the covers and went to the window. Pulling back the curtains let in the glow of dawn, illuminating the opulent hotel room where she’d spent the night, to try and get some rest before what would be the biggest day of her academic life, and very possibly the beginning of her career.

 

She’d thought about Al-Brehoni a lot. She’d seen countless pictures of all the towns and all the historical sites, from all sorts of different time periods. Her focus, as a student of archeology writing a PhD dissertation on the small Middle-Eastern nation, had always been on ancient Al-Brehoni. But looking out at the city, still in the cool of the morning before the sun would bake the streets and make life more difficult for everyone below, Lucie couldn’t help but think that she could have stood to spend more time on the modern day Al-Brehoni, as well.

 

The way the city mixed the old and the new was breathtaking. Harvard, where she’d spent the last four years, had its own kind of history. It had its own traditions, which it called ancient, even though the university had only been founded a few hundred years ago. In Al-Brehoni, history had a whole different scale.

 

Outside her hotel, she could see from her window, was the ancient part of the city. She knew from historical artifacts that had been recovered there that it had been continuously occupied since before there was recorded history. The things that ground had seen…

 

And yet, right next to it stood a cluster of skyscrapers; a testament to the strides Al-Brehoni had been making in recent years.

 

Lucie might have stayed there, captivated by the view, for another hour or more. But she was interrupted by the ringing of the hotel phone.

 

She walked over to it, simultaneously curious and a little afraid that something might have gone wrong. For all the hard work that she’d done to get here, sometimes she couldn’t help but feel like an imposter, afraid that at any moment she’d be chucked out of this opulent suite and sent back to the blue-collar neighborhood where she grew up.

 

“Hello?”

 

Her voice was groggy from the disturbed sleep she’d slipped in and out of during the night, but the voice on the other end of the line didn’t seem to notice.

 

“Lucie! Are you awake?”

 

Lucie rolled her eyes and bit her tongue to avoid saying something sarcastic.

 

Ah, Zach. She’d been delighted when she’d heard that another of the Harvard PhD students was the son of none other than the esteemed Millard husband-and-wife archaeology team. But her excitement at having such a prestigious name as one of her peers had expired only a few minutes after actually meeting him.

 

“Yeah, I just woke up. We leave in an hour, right?”

 

She could practically hear Zach sighing over the phone. She could picture the face he was doubtlessly making: playful, patronizing, and well-rehearsed.

 

“The plane leaves in an hour. We’re supposed to be leaving the hotel now.”

 

Lucie’s heartbeat immediately accelerated. She pulled out her phone and looked at it.

 

“But it’s five-thirty. I thought—”

 

“It’s six-thirty. You haven’t taken your phone out of airplane mode since the last layover, have you?”

 

Lucie’s heart sank. She hadn’t thought about it when they’d landed and checked into their rooms here. She’d just been so tired from the journey, and ready for some peace and quiet.

 

But then, this was Zach’s world. He’d never make a mistake like that.

 

“Don’t worry about it,” he was saying. Comforting words, if it weren’t for the condescension he’d managed to pack into them.

 

Lucie didn’t want to hear it. This was the biggest day of her life, and she was already running behind.

 

She hung up the phone and gathered her things at lightning speed. Then she rushed downstairs, right past Zach to the car that was waiting for them outside the hotel.

 

“Hey sleepyhead,” he said, touching her shoulder as he slid in beside her and closed the door.

 

She hated when he did that.

 

When Lucie had been applying for her PhD, one of the things that had concerned her was how little she would get to work with other students. Previously, having classes in common had always allowed her to make friends, and what she had learned for certain was that making friends was a must when you were trying to make your way in a world you were not born into. But the more time she spent with Zach, the more she realized that spending time with other students could be very overrated.

 

“I wasn’t sleeping,” she said, trying to defend herself as the car pulled out of the parking lot and into traffic.

 

Again, the same playful glance from Zach, though Lucie hardly saw it. Her eyes were drawn to the city flying by through the windows.

 

It looked different than it had from the high story window, and much different than it did when they were coming in last night in the dark. Last night it had been a mad rush of people. Like most countries in the region, Al-Brehoni had a shifted time-schedule in relation to westerners. People tended to rise much later, and stay out much later, too.

 

This time of the morning, the streets were filled with tradesmen. Roving packs of uniformed men picked up litter and trimmed the topiary on the landscaped medians.

 

Lucie was dimly aware of Zach saying something—she’d been too mesmerized by the world they were being whisked through to actually listen.

 

“What is it?” she asked, perhaps a little too testily.

 

“Oh, wow. I wouldn’t have pegged you for someone who had such a hard time with mornings.”

 

He was mock offended. He was turning her annoyance into a game. Everything she said was just an excuse for him to create some little inside joke, like he was trying to build up a cache of shared memories that he could parade out in front of strangers to prove they had a connection.

 

Lucie sighed. This was an important trip. She was so close to finishing her PhD that she could practically taste it. She couldn’t let her annoyance with her fellow student ruin it all.

 

She turned to him, calling on the strategies she’d perfected to survive their run-ins over the years. She had to stay neutral. Give nothing away.

 

She smiled graciously, but not too graciously.

 

“Sorry, I guess I can be a bit tense in the mornings sometimes.”

 

A lie, but a necessary one. If she admitted she was nervous, or that she’d been flustered by her mistake, he’d grab on to that.

 

“What is it you were saying?” she continued. “I was a bit distracted.”

 

“Distracted?” he asked playfully. “By what, the worker men? Is that what you go for?”

 

Joking, presumptive, and just a tiny little bit crude—that phrase had Zach written all over it.

 

She shot him back her best no-nonsense, not-amused face. “By the architecture.”

 

And then, since she knew it was likely his next move to tease her about her lack of travel experience, she headed him off at the pass.

 

“I’ve never been outside of the US before, so it’s all very interesting to me, as I’m sure you can imagine.”

 

He was looking for a way to offer her advice, she could tell. She had to follow it up with something quickly.

 

“And I hope you’ll forgive me, but, like you said, I’m not much of a morning person. And I’m so tired. Do you mind if I just take a nap while we drive to the airfield?”

 

That did it. Her asking for permission in that slightly self-effacing way was a request he couldn’t refuse.

 

Finally, some peace.

 

They were going to a private plane, she knew. Before today she’d only been on commercial planes twice, and now, she was going to be making the jump to a private plane.

 

It felt like an extravagance, much like the hotel had seemed. But it wasn’t up to Lucie to tell the Al-Brehoni Research Assistance Fund how to spend their money. If they wanted to treat visiting students to a taste of the high life, well, that was hardly something she was going to complain about.

 

She had expected security checks when they got to the airfield, but when she opened her eyes, she was surprised to find their car had parked right there on the tarmac.

 

“Your chariot awaits,” Zach was saying, with the obligatory cheesy grin.

 

She smiled in spite of herself. Sometimes, when Zach forgot who he was for a second, he could almost be charming.

 

Almost.

 

If they were running late because of Lucie’s mix-up no one said anything. Everyone was polite. An attendant ushered her up the stairs and into the cushy private plane.

 

It was awkward for her, having everyone try and help her with things. She felt like she should stop them. She felt like an imposition. But the heat of the day, already ramping up, made her glad that someone was ready and waiting to take her bags for her.

 

Zach, for his part, was comfortable in this role. And it showed. Ordering people around in exotic locales was more or less his natural habitat, and he seemed to have no squeamishness about the way everyone was scrambling to assist him.

 

Inside the plane, Lucie was glad to see that there was plenty of room for her and Zach to have their own personal space. And yet, as she should have predicted, that was not to be. When she sat down at one of the tables in the back and began to dig out her books, she found that Zach had no qualms about coming right up and sitting at her table.

 

“Nice plane,” he said. “A bit small. But I suppose it’s only a one-hour flight.”

 

She noticed how he raised his voice just slightly, so that he could be heard above the noise of the crew speaking to each other in Arabic, preparing the systems for takeoff and running their final checks.

 

“Yes…” Lucie said, and then shifted her eyes down.

 

In front of her lay a reference guide for idiomatic Arabic in the Persian Gulf region. It was a good resource, and one that she intended to peruse for the duration of their plane ride to the site.

 

She’d spent years working on her Arabic. It was a requirement for her degree—for entrance into her degree program, even. But when she’d started studying Arabic, she’d learned the variety spoken in North Africa, her justification being that she thought she would end up studying there.

 

It wasn’t until later that she’d learned of the burgeoning archeological renaissance happening in Al-Brehoni, now that the crowned prince had begun opening up sites for excavation that had previously been off limits. Though she never expected she’d actually get to be involved in a dig here, she had jumped at the chance to shift her dissertation subject.

 

So Lucie found herself here, with most of her expertise in the wrong variety of Arabic. She’d been retraining herself for months, but the differences were sometimes large, and she was grateful for this chance to review a few things before she could embarrass herself in front of their hosts at the dig site.

 

But no sooner had she opened the book, then she saw Zach’s hand reach out across it, pulling it away from her.

 

“Arabic?” he shouted, above the whirr of the engines warming up. “But your Arabic is great!”

 

She couldn’t help herself.

 

“Did you just accidentally give me an actual, normal compliment?” she said incredulously.

 

She immediately regretted it. She was playing into his game. The back and forth. It was exactly what he wanted.

 

Luckily, they were interrupted by a besuited man insisting that they fasten their seatbelts and listen to a brief security demonstration.

 

And then they were climbing into the sky. Zach seemed almost bored with it all, but Lucie didn’t let that bring her down. She peered excitedly out the window, looking at the city fall away as a seemingly endless expanse of desert opened up beneath them.

 

She wasn’t going to let Zach ruin this trip for her. She wasn’t going to let anyone ruin this trip for her. This was what she’d been working towards her entire life, and, come hell or high water, she was going to make the most of it.

 

 

TWO

 

Lucie knew the duration of the flight was an hour, but as they prepared for landing, it felt as though it had been far shorter. She’d managed to get Zach to leave her alone so that she could revise the Arabic she so desperately needed, despite Zach’s insistence that everyone would speak English anyway.

 

When the plane came in to land, Lucie felt her pent-up excitement come bubbling to the surface. She’d been trying to hold it down for the last few weeks, ever since she had received confirmation that she was going to be coming here. She’d been trying not to get ahead of herself, and to keep her expectations low.

 

But now that she was here, she realized she needn’t have worried. It was incredible. It felt as though she had been transported through time. Yes, they were standing on an airfield, but it was dusty and remote, and basically just a flattened patch of earth. The nearest ramshackle building looked like it could have been built hundreds of years ago.

 

The crew of the plane, their job now done, were already making moves to get going again. They tossed Lucie and Zach’s bags unceremoniously on the ground and were on their way. The engines had barely shut down before they were starting up again, and the plane was taxiing off towards the makeshift runway.

 

Not that Lucie was sorry to see the shiny private plane go. It felt out of place here, where she could see more goats than vehicles.

 

In fact, scanning the world around her carefully, she only saw one car.

 

It was in the distance, and just looked like a dust-trail so far. She slipped on her sunglasses to protect her eyes against the harsh glare of the sun, but still had to squint to make it out.

 

“Are they really just going to leave us here?” Zach asked, and Lucie sensed just a hint of uncertainty in his voice.

 

“Oh, I’m sure we’ll be fine,” she said, the hint of a knowing grin on her lips. “Everyone speaks English, right?”

 

The car heading towards them turned out to be a jeep, loaded down with three archeologists who pulled up to the airfield and greeted them. Much to Lucie’s annoyance—and Zach’s barely contained joy—they did in fact speak perfect English.

 

“Did you have to leave the site to come get us?” Lucie asked, as she and Zach piled into the car. She was slightly dismayed at having interrupted their work.

 

The head archeologist, Professor Hasseb, was a kind-looking older Arab man with a silver mustache. He shook his head as he started up the jeep.

 

“We were just on our way back from town. There’s a possibility of storms later, and we wanted to make sure we’ve got everything we need at camp, in case the roads get blown out.”

 

At the mention of storms, Lucie saw Zach scan the horizon, as though he expected to see a great billowing dust cloud coming right at them. It was just like him, she thought, to get concerned about the weather.

 

All her life, Lucie had dreamed of being an archeologist. Her parents had been supportive, at first. Then, when she’d started devoting all her time to study, to the extent that she never got around to finding the man they expected her to marry or the grandchildren they expected her to produce, they’d gotten a little less supportive.

 

Everyone had always talked down to her, as though they thought she’d just watched Indiana Jones a few too many times as a kid and gotten a little obsessed.

 

She’d thought things would get better in academia, but they only marginally had. At Harvard, among those who spent their time writing papers on new interpretations of things already found in museums, her enthusiasm to get out into the field had largely been met with derision. She would learn, they’d told her. She would go out, and find that it wasn’t nearly so rosy as she had assumed. Not without a mountain of funding and a well-established team to make life easier, the implication always seemed to be.

 

But now, as she listened to the three researchers talk about the day-to-day running of the camp they’d built, and plans for how they would go about gridding out the north-eastern quadrant of the site, Lucie knew: she’d been right.

 

The archeologists were two Al-Brehonian men and one French woman, but they felt immediately like family to her. They talked excitedly about their work in a way Lucie had never heard anyone else do—other than herself. They talked about the people who had lived in the town that they were excavating as though they might have been their neighbors, or friends.

 

Lucie belonged. Finally, she found, she belonged.

 

But she didn’t get to bask in the warm feeling of having found her people for long. No sooner had they arrived at camp, and Professor Hasseb began introducing them to the other researchers working at the site, then an officious-looking little man in spectacles came up to Professor Hasseb and started speaking to him in quick, sharp Arabic.

 

“What’s he saying?” Zach asked quietly.

 

“Uh, he’s saying the storm is moving faster than they expected, and the weather report says it’s…”

 

She tried to focus. He was hard to understand.

 

“Something about categories. The sandstorm is a different category. Or something. He says the site’s going to be impossible to work with, and…”

 

Again, she lost the thread of the conversation and wished that she’d manage to get in a bit more study of Gulf States Arabic.

 

“Something about the city?”

 

“Town,” said the French woman, whose name had been crowded out of Lucie’s brain by the flurry of introductions she’d just made. Was it Christine? Christina?

 

“He said we’re all going to have to get out of here. The storm’s been picking up speed and it’s worse than we thought. We can’t wait it out here.”

 

Lucie felt like the wind had been knocked out of her. There was mounting rush of activity occurring around them, as Professor Hasseb was directing everyone to pack up, but it felt to Lucie like the world was standing still.

 

She only had a week here, and now it was being taken from her. She’d heard reports of storms shutting down sites for days, and rendering everything they left in their wake so hard to put back together that progress on site essentially stopped for weeks.

 

This was the only shot she was going to get at getting the information she needed for her dissertation. She’d extrapolated, based on the location of fragments, that this place was a previously unknown center for pottery production. But without access to the whole site, and the ability to help in excavating further fragments, how would she be able to prove it?

 

Zach was talking, but she tuned him out. She didn’t need to hear him right now.

 

Professor Hasseb mentioned that he was going to wait out the storm in a hotel in the nearest town, and offered to take them with him. Zach accepted immediately, but Lucie hesitated. It would be giving up.

 

Zach answered that Lucie would be coming, too, and the older man moved on. He was too busy to worry about a couple of students losing everything they’d been working towards.

 

“Why did you do that?” Lucie heard the words creak out of her. They sounded guttural. Angry.

 

She must have looked furious, because Zach seemed genuinely ill at ease. He stuttered, trying to find words to reply, but was interrupted when a luxury SUV pulled up next to them.

 

The rest of the people in the camp hardly seemed to notice. They were too busy packing up ahead of the encroaching storm.

 

The shiny black surface of the vehicle seemed out of place in the dusty, windy desert. Lucie’s attention was drawn by the figure of the driver climbing out. As out of place as the vehicle looked, this man only looked more so. Everyone else was wearing casual clothing. It was all khaki and T-shirts as far as the eye could see. But this man wore an official-looking uniform, with Arabic calligraphy on the epaulets, so ornate that Lucie couldn’t quite make it out.

 

“Miss Milligan, Mr. Millard?”

 

She sensed Zach nodding beside her as she found her voice.

 

“That’s us.”

 

The man gave a sharp nod, as though proud of himself for having correctly identified them in the hubbub of the camp.

 

“You’ll be coming with me.”

 

 

THREE

 

Lucie wanted to argue, but Zach beat her to it, telling the stranger that they would be going nowhere with anyone who did not identify themselves.

 

Zach was all hot air, and the man seemed to know it. He didn’t honor Zach’s indignation with a response—he simply opened the passenger door.

 

So bright was the sun that it was difficult to see inside. Lucie could just make out that the interior of the SUV appeared to be set up very much like the inside of a limo, with one set of seats facing backwards, and the outline of a figure sitting there.

 

The storm seemed to almost be upon them already, and it was making it uncomfortable to stand outside. The winds were picking up, and were much more noticeable now than when they’d landed, to the point that they were whipping around strands of Lucie’s blond hair, and she could feel the dust already coating her skin.

 

Let Zach argue, she thought. They were entirely at the mercy of the people in their host country, and it was unlikely that they would be able to tell the good from the bad in a hurried situation like this, anyway.

 

So she slid inside.

 

The air inside the car was much cooler than outside, and Lucie found that she suddenly seemed to be sweating much more than she had been out in the hot air. Sweating and dirty in this luxurious space, it felt uncomfortable and embarrassing.

 

She sat in one of the backwards-facing seats, giving a wide berth to the man elaborately dressed in traditional Middle-Eastern garb.

 

As she cast a glance at him, Lucie suddenly felt herself sweating for an entirely different reason.

 

“Sir…” she said, and then trailed off. Should she have said “Your Highness?”

 

“What’s going on?” she heard Zach ask as he slid in behind her, pulling the door shut. “Who is this?”

 

She wanted to answer, but in the moment wasn’t certain she’d get all of his titles right. Instead, she reached into her pocket and found some coins. The largest of them would do, she thought.

 

Lucie tossed Zach the coin and watched the look of bemusement on his face as the car pulled out of the camp. He didn’t seem to believe what he was seeing, and kept looking back and forth between the image on the coin and the man sitting in the car, as though the resemblance would disappear if he just kept comparing them.

 

With the door closed, and the world shut out by heavily-tinted windows, it was easy to forget the encroaching storm. It was quiet in here. Peaceful, even.

 

“So, you’re…” Zach began, but like Lucie had moments before, he trailed off.

 

“Yes,” the man replied. “I am Sheikh Abdul al Syed bin Rahji. I wanted to take the chance to welcome you both to my country, as well as to apologize for the weather and the delay it has caused to your planned studies. You’re the first Americans to participate in our academic partnership program, and we regret that your time here has gotten off to such a rough start.”

 

“Well, it’s not like you can control the weather.”

 

A perfect score on the SATs. Early admission to Yale, a 4.0 GPA and top of her class for all of her undergraduate career. All these things, Lucie had taken in her stride, but now, when she really needed her mind to perform, apparently that was the best she could do at cracking a joke. Lucie was mortified.

 

To her surprise, the Sheikh grinned.

 

“Well, not yet, anyway.”

 

And then he did the unthinkable: he winked.

 

Lucie heard herself let out a quick, sharp laugh, and the Sheikh’s face, which had a quality of being cast out of metal like it was on one of his coins, seemed to break as a smile spread across his, too.

 

And then he seemed to remember himself, and his demeanor became more serious.

 

“I want to invite you to wait out the storm at my palace. There’s plenty of room, and it will probably be a more enjoyable experience than trying to squeeze into the hotels in the nearest town. The archeologists already here will have booked them all by now, certainly.”

 

“Of course, we’d be honored.”

 

For the second time in the space of a minute, Lucie spoke without thinking. It earned her a harsh look from Zach, who seemed peeved at not having been consulted.

 

But Lucie was done with him—the big man on campus. All their advisors, all the students they taught on their work study programs… all of them seemed to think that something of the archeological godhood of his parents had rubbed off on him, despite the fact that he’d been at Harvard for two years before Lucie had even shown up. It seemed to bother no one that in all his time there, Zach had barely made any progress towards finishing his dissertation.

 

And now, he hadn’t even recognized the leader of the country they were both doing their dissertations on.

 

“Do you have something to say, Zach?”

 

Lucie addressed him directly, daring him to protest. He couldn’t, she knew. Not in front of a monarch.

 

“No, of course not,” he said, sounding wounded.

 

The Sheikh seemed to pick up on this.

 

“And you, I presume, are Zach Millard?” he said.

 

At being recognized, Zach seemed to find a little bit more of a comfortable place in the conversation.

 

“Ah, you’ve heard of my parents?”

 

The Sheikh nodded. “In researching who should be allowed access to our newly developing historical sites, I’ve been hearing about a great many archeologists. But I know you, of course, from your application to come and work here, with us, so that you may finish your dissertation. And what is it that your dissertation is on, again? If I may ask?”

 

Lucie wasn’t sure how to feel about this line of conversation. On the one hand, talking to the Sheikh had almost a high connected to it. He was the most powerful man in the country. Studying at Harvard, and at Yale before that, Lucie had come into contact with her fair share of important people. But she’d never come across a royal before. It was, it seemed, a completely different form of power.

 

The Sheikh moving his attention to Zach gave her the opportunity to catch her breath and consider this new development.

 

If anything Lucie had learned in her research on modern-day Al-Brehoni was correct, being invited to the Sheikh’s palace was extremely rare, if not unheard of. The building was centuries old, and the Al-Brehonian royal family had always had a healthy mistrust of letting others into it. Some scholars suspected that that wariness had stemmed from the slaughter of nearly the entire dynasty around 1130BCE, when they’d invited their neighboring kingdom’s rulers for a wedding feast.

 

Lucie let the sound of Zach waffling on about his dissertation cut through her hazy knowledge of the Al-Brehonian royal family. She couldn’t tell for sure whether Zach knew what his dissertation was supposed to be shaping up to be. There was no way it would pass the dissertation defense. Well, not unless the board took into account his family name…

 

She was getting sidetracked again. What she really needed was to see if she could get the Sheikh to agree to an interview; the opening of the country’s archeological sites after decades of being out of bounds was more interesting to more people than her dissertation could ever be. As far as Lucie had read—and she had read up on the matter pretty thoroughly—the Sheikh hadn’t yet given any account of his motivations for making such changes.

 

That would have to wait, though, as the Sheikh had apparently tired of hearing Zach spew forth the web of confusion that was his dissertation project. He was looking at Lucie, now.

 

“And as for you, Lucie… Have I said that right? Lucie?”

 

She nodded. “Yes, it’s spelled differently, but said the same. My parents wanted me to be unique, but not too unique.”

 

Again, that grin. The grin that made him look like he could be anyone except a king.

 

“That’s very like parents, I find.”

 

She regretted mentioning her parents almost immediately. The Sheikh’s face barely revealed it, but she could see a trace of sadness at the subject.

 

He pushed past it, moving back seamlessly to his original question.

 

“Your dissertation was to do with pottery, I believe?”

 

Lucie nodded, impressed that the Sheikh apparently took a personal role in vetting the candidates in his new program.

 

She outlined her theory the same way she’d done many times before, at parties, or small get-togethers. Whenever it came up that she’d spent nearly four years working on a single essay, people tended to be curious.

 

Still, the people who asked her about it were usually only interested for a minute or two, so Lucie had boiled her subject down to a few sentences on how there was evidence of a key trading and production hub for specialized pottery in the ancient Middle-East, and that this newly-opened dig in Al-Brehoni showed a lot of promise for being this mysterious site.

 

When she’d finished this short explanation, she was used to being greeted by a glib sentence about that being really interesting. Some people would ask her what she’d do if it turned out she was wrong and the last four years of her life had been spent trying to prove something that wasn’t true.

 

But the Sheikh didn’t say any of those things, nor did he look ready to move on.

 

“Go on,” he said, when it became clear that Lucie’s hesitance wasn’t going to clear any time soon.

 

“As in?”

 

“As in, what makes you think this is the site you’ve been seeing all this evidence for?”

 

She was not practiced at this next part. She had created a structure for her essay. The findings. What looked like an ancient version of the much-later-normalized maker’s marks on some shards of pottery. The abnormal proliferation of some dyes and firing methods. But she had never explained any of this to the layman. Her supervisor aside, no one had ever really been interested before.

 

Unsure where to start, she began with the first subject she explored in her dissertation. It was fresh in her mind, as she’d been editing it and re-editing it at length, almost like a nervous habit, as she had waited to hear whether she had been accepted to come to Al-Brehoni.

 

She watched his face carefully as she spoke, looking for any trace of boredom or confusion. But there was none. Either he was a talented actor, or he was genuinely interested and understood what she was talking about, nodding encouragingly for her to continue.

 

And she did. Once it was clear that the Sheikh wanted to hear more about her work, the words flowed from her like water. Until that moment, she hadn’t realized just how much she had wanted to say, and how deprived she’d felt at not having anyone who was actually interested in hearing about it.

 

She’d been talking for a while, she realized, as her voice began to grow a little hoarse. But the Sheikh kept nodding, even asking the odd question.

 

His questions had the exceptional quality of being both intelligent and knowledgeable. He was even raising possibilities that she’d been too close to the subject for too long to consider.

 

She found, the more she spoke, the less she spoke directly about her dissertation topic, and the more she wandered off into a general discussion about what she knew and what she was excited to learn about Al-Brehoni.

 

Lucie had been keeping as informed as possible with the archeological digs that had been allowed to begin in Al-Brehoni over the last three years. She had alerts set for any new articles published, and regularly scoured archeological journals for accounts of new discoveries within the country.

 

But the process of discovering, writing and finally publishing can often be a long one, and Lucie was painfully aware that there might be things happening that would not have made it anywhere near the journals yet. And there were always smaller, interesting but not-yet-explained findings that wouldn’t make it into the journals for some time—perhaps ever.

 

The Sheikh seemed well up to date with all these happenings. The conversation slowly, seamlessly, shifted to him doing most of the talking, and Lucie listened with rapt attention, savoring every word.

 

As she listened, she found she was noticing more than just the information leaving his lips—she was noticing the lips themselves. She found herself, quite uncharacteristically and quite inappropriately for the situation, thinking that she could just lean over and kiss them.

 

She forced herself to push those thoughts aside. She was tired, and it had been a roller coaster of a day; her mind could be forgiven for wandering off where it didn’t belong.

 

But the thought of his lips, and the unbidden image of her kissing them, opened the door to her noticing other things. She noticed the way he casually injected just the smallest bit of humor, now and then. Occasionally, she even caught a pun. She would have sworn it was accidental, but it happened more than once.

 

It was like he was being funny if no other reason than to entertain himself. He wasn’t forcing it on anyone else. He wasn’t trying to ingratiate himself, or to build himself up. This was a man, Lucie was suddenly very aware, who had never needed to ingratiate himself, or build himself up in others’ eyes. He was already there.

 

Lucie began, with every dry, half-humorous phrase, to allow herself to react. Just a little. Not enough so that Zach, tuned out and staring out of the window, would notice. But she saw that the Sheikh noticed. And that, she thought, was more than enough.

 

She noticed the way his clothes looked stiff on him. Not in a bad way; it wasn’t as though he looked the slightest bit uncomfortable or awkward. But they looked like they were not his everyday clothes. They looked like he broke them out only for special occasions.

 

She wanted to let her mind wander down the path of why that might be, but she stopped herself. She was prone to fantasy. She had grown up reading fantastic tales about sorcerers and ancient kingdoms, and in a large part that had probably fed her desire to find out what those ancient kingdoms (devoid of sorcerers, of course) had actually been like. She was at home imagining things that could not be.

 

She knew she had to be careful not to make more of anything the Sheikh was saying. He was offering an olive branch to the archeological community, so long shunned by his country, and welcoming the first American students to his nation—of course he’d want to make a good impression.

 

Or maybe, she mused, he’d just happened to pick his newest clothes today for no reason at all, and she was making entirely too much of it altogether.

 

Lucie noticed, over time, that the ride became smoother and smoother.

 

They were re-entering civilization.

 

Unusually, the palace was not located in the capital city. The royal palace of Al-Brehoni had been, for many years, a retreat. It was built around an oasis, far from the prying eyes and inconveniences the city might bring. With the advent of the telephone and then the internet, however, it had slowly become the main residence of a particularly reclusive royal family.

 

On the few occasions Lucie tore her eyes away from the Sheikh, sneaking glances out the window, she was greeted with nothing but the rolling dunes of the desert. It wasn’t until the SUV stopped and the Sheikh broke into a wide smile that she could be certain they were drawing closer to their destination.

 

“Ah,” he said, looking behind her at a view she could not see. “We have arrived.”

 

 

FOUR

 

Lucie was stiff from the long car ride. Her legs felt as though they’d fallen asleep, as the rest of her so longed to do, but the sheer adrenaline of what she was about to see kept her heart pumping and her mind alive with wonder.

 

She wasn’t sure exactly what she was going to see when she turned around for the first time. Photographs of the palace had not been allowed since the 1930s, when one lucky photographer had captured a spectacularly grainy image.

 

She’d studied that image before. She’d looked at it carefully, and tried to imagine what it would look like clearer and in color. Even at the quality it was, it had provoked in her a great deal of curiosity, but Lucie saw now that the photograph didn’t even slightly do the palace justice.

 

For one thing, the photograph had made the palace look like it could only be two or three stories tall. But now that she saw it in person, she could tell that the windows were double height, and what had seemed like a three or four story building was, in fact, closer to eight.

 

And they were stained glass! She hadn’t expected that. They looked to be quite old and elaborate designs, and she longed to get up close to them. A great deal of her second year of PhD study had been related to the patterns created by the ancient Al-Brehonians, and the idea of being the first to analyze some authentic stained glass windows was a huge thrill for her.

 

She stepped forward without being asked to. Her eyes were drawn towards the house, wanting to get a closer look, and she had no choice but to follow them.

 

The Sheikh spared her the trouble of having to wait for him by walking up beside her and keeping pace.

 

He was, Lucie remarked to herself, a gracious host. First, he’d set Zach at ease when he’d clearly been feeling left out, then he’d genuinely engaged in Lucie’s explanation of her dissertation. And now, he’d seen how she’d been drawn to the house and walked with her, smoothing over any embarrassment she might have had at expressing her sense of wonder.

 

She forced herself to walk more slowly. The building was wonderful, yes, but she had to remind herself that the reason she was allowed to gaze upon it at all was because of the man beside her.

 

As she tore herself aside from the historical touches, she began to notice other details. There were servants around the place. She could see them, walking here or there. But even with the servants, there was a great feeling of stillness and space. It was like being in the desert, the way she’d seen it from the plane: endless oceans of sand. Calm, but lonely.

 

There was beauty in that, she thought. There was something beautiful about the way their voices echoed in the grand entrance, devoid of anyone there to greet them. They could just stand and look at the mosaic inlay of the floor and the graceful, sweeping staircases that had been retrofitted to the ancient brick.

 

The Sheikh, who insisted now he had brought them into his home on them calling him Abdul, offered to show Lucie and Zach around the main floor. Tired though she was, Lucie agreed immediately.

 

She almost regretted it when she saw a servant—she suspected it might be the driver from before, but she couldn’t be sure—bringing in their bags. She wanted to follow them to wherever they were being taken. Surely there would be a bed there!

 

But at the same time, she couldn’t imagine refusing Abdul’s offer of a tour. She didn’t know how long the storm would last, and she’d never forgive herself if she slept through her only opportunity to see the secret palace of the Al-Brehonian royal family.

 

So she followed along, room after room. Her exhaustion meant that she struggled to focus on anything, so instead she just let the general feel of the place wash over her like a warm wave on a beach.

 

She would expect gold from a sheikh’s palace. Golden embellishments were, indeed, present, but it wasn’t the gaudy, tasteless gold she’d imagined when staring at the grainy old photograph—just a touch, here and there. Things weren’t flashy so much as it just felt like everything was well-made. It was thoughtful. The home—and the more of it Lucie saw, the more she felt it really was a home—seemed to be made of a thousand small, careful choices, that together blended into the feeling of being taken care of.

 

There was a grand ballroom, although it looked rarely used. The family hadn’t thrown any large events at the palace in modern memory, so it felt odd that it was even still there.

 

As though reading her mind, the Sheikh answered her unasked question. “This place was built long ago—before my family was quite so reclusive. It had a use, once, although it hasn’t seen an event in a long while.”

 

“But perhaps it will again?”

 

She didn’t know what gave her the courage for the sudden boldness. Maybe it was her exhaustion, or the way the Sheikh seemed to get more and more approachable as she spent more time with him. Or maybe it was the way he was opening up the country his father had insisted must stay so closed for so long.

 

Whatever it was, Lucie’s words didn’t seem to bother the Sheikh, who only nodded thoughtfully.

 

“You’d have to re-do the floors, though,” Zach said, as though he didn’t have anything useful to contribute, but felt the need to chime in anyway.

 

Lucie looked down at the tiles beneath her feet. They were arranged in a mosaic pattern, as much of the flooring in the older parts of the palace was. Where elsewhere the tiles had been lovingly, carefully restored, however, here it did indeed seem that some work needed to be done.

 

Lucie looked away, taking in the rest of the hall, but immediately she found her eyes drawn back down to the floors, almost against her will. There was something there.

 

“That’s strange,” she said softly.

 

“What is?” the Sheikh asked, seeming genuinely curious.

 

“The pattern on the floor… it’s quite distinct. It’s… it’s a pattern found on much of the pottery from my dissertation. It’s a big part of why I think there was once a central location for pottery production in this area. You just don’t see that being made anywhere else. But here…”

 

The Sheikh was nodding, solemnly. “Yes, you’re right. I remember the pictures you included, now. The patterns do match. I’m in here so rarely, I didn’t even realize.”

 

So, he’d seen pictures? It made sense, she supposed. She had submitted a draft section of her dissertation as part of her application to come and research here. But if he’d already read her dissertation, why had he been so interested to listen to her talk about it?

 

They extinguished the lights in the ballroom and moved to another part of the palace, although Lucie found that the pattern on the floor lingered in her mind for a long time after they walked away. There was something there she would have to investigate; there was something about it that just seemed to make sense.

 

They walked through long hallways and living rooms. They walked through a music room with a piano, and a room set up like a little movie theater.

 

“It hasn’t been used in a long time,” the Sheikh said, as they looked at the outdated décor. “When we were children, my cousins and I… well, that was a long time ago.”

 

Lucie could imagine why he wouldn’t want to change it; the couches looked like high-end versions of the couches that she and her brothers and sisters had sat on when they watched movies together as children. The room felt like nostalgia, and there was something in the Sheikh’s expression as they left it that made Lucie think that he’d left it untouched after all this time specifically for this reason.

 

Abdul seemed to notice that Lucie was blinking more and more sleepily. He told her and Zach that servants would see them to their suites, where refreshments would be available. “I hope I will see you at dinner, though,” he added.

 

For a man who could be certain that his guests would invariably do whatever he asked of them, Lucie thought that he had spoken with a strange inflection of hope in his voice. And, when he had spoken, he had looked directly at her.

 

Even through the haze of her sleep deprivation, she could feel his eyes on her. They were a deep, warm brown.

 

“I’m sure we will.”

 

Zach had taken the opportunity to answer for her, even putting his arm around her as though they could respond as one.

 

Lucie considered pointedly wriggling out of his grasp, but the gesture seemed needlessly confrontational for her current level of energy. Besides, she could see from the playful grin on the Sheikh’s face that he did not in the slightest interpret Zach’s actions as they doubtlessly were intended.

 

And the Sheikh wandered off, to somewhere in the depths of the house, leaving the two of them with a few servants to show them where they would be sleeping.

 

“Interesting, isn’t it?” Zach said.

 

He was trying to act nonchalant, but despite the fact that Zach had doubtless seen many impressive things in his lifetime, Lucie didn’t buy for a moment that he had glimpsed anything even close to the opulent home they’d been granted access to.

 

Of all the things that annoyed her about Zach, this had to be top of the list. He’d been handed a life full of so many wonderful things. He’d been nearby when history had been made, time after time. He’d seen inside ruins that hadn’t seen the light of day for thousands of years. He’d been given a front row seat to the unraveling of the mystery of human innovation, and he never seemed impressed by any of it.

 

Instead of answering him, Lucie turned to one of the servants, asking if he would be so kind as to show her to where she would be staying, slipping from Zach’s grasp as she did.

 

As she walked away, following the servant’s quick clip, she cast a quick glance back at Zach. He seemed so small, so unimpressive standing there, surrounded by the palace and all its finery. She wondered if somewhere, deep inside, he knew it.

 

She hoped that he did.

 

 

 

FIVE

 

When she arrived at her suite, Lucie found it exceeded her expectations, whatever they had been.

 

It was gorgeous—nicer even than the luxury hotel she’d started the day out at. Like the rest of the palace, it had an effortlessness to it—everything just worked. Nothing looked like it was trying too hard, or had been designed to impress.

 

Like the hotel, all the basics were there: a luxurious bed, an exquisite bathroom, a sitting room. Bizarrely it felt like, here, she was home. It was like she had just stepped out for a few days, and somehow, in her brief time away, the whole life she’d lived up to now had happened.

 

Her things hadn’t just been brought in for her; they had also been taken out of her bags and put up in the closet. Her bags themselves were nowhere to be found.

 

If this had happened at a hotel, she would have felt violated. She would have wondered which faceless person had gotten into everything she owned and invaded her privacy in such a way. But here, it just seemed… normal. She trusted out of hand whoever it was who had done this. The Sheikh was not a foolish man, and she trusted his judgment enough to trust whoever he had chosen to have in his employ here, in this most private of spaces.

 

In addition to her own things in the closet, she found a robe. Her fingers ran across it by accident, when they were running over her clothes; at the feeling of the impossibly soft terry-cloth fabric, her touch had lingered.

 

She was very aware of the layer of dust that the day had put on her. She’d thought, when she’d been following along on the tour, that as soon as she got access to a bed she would flop down on it immediately. But now, with the grit and dust that had gotten all over her skin and in her hair, she was more anxious to feel clean again.

 

She’d shower now, she thought, as she slipped off her clothes. After all, it would be criminal if by some miracle the storm cleared up faster than expected, and she didn’t get to use the sleek marvel of a shower, with all its showerheads and rainfall-patterned glory.

 

When she was clean and wrapped up in the impossibly soft robe, she finally found her way to the bed her body had desperately needed for the last few hours. She slid between the sheets like there was nothing there but air, barely feeling the fine cotton against her skin.

 

She should be counting her lucky stars, she thought, that she’d gotten the opportunity to experience such luxury. If her life went the way she was planning, after all, she would be spending most of her time out on digs in remote locations, far from anything approaching the level of comfort she found here.

 

But that wasn’t what she thought about as she lay in bed, her eyelids moving slower and slower with every blink. Instead, she thought of Abdul. He was younger than she’d thought. Not in age… she’d known that he was thirty from her research. It was more the way he acted; she’d thought heads of state had to be severe, somehow. She’d expected that he would seem like an old man trapped in a young man’s body.

 

But Abdul, he seemed like he actually had a passion for things—for many of the same things Lucie did, actually. The way he’d talked about opening up his country, and changing the way things had been done under his father… it had been as though he was a kid who had suddenly been given the keys to the family car, and had all kinds of places he wanted to go, and was only concerned that he didn’t crash it.

 

But he wouldn’t crash it, Lucie thought. He didn’t seem capable of that kind of lack of judgment.

 

There was so much that still felt unexplained about him. She felt like she knew him, to a certain degree, from their conversation earlier. But why would a man who was so powerful invite two strangers into his home? Surely a ride to a hotel would have sufficed?

 

No, there was something else to him. And it piqued Lucie’s curiosity. And anything that piqued her curiosity had a way of holding her interest.

 

And so, as Lucie fell asleep, she didn’t see ruins, books and ancient treasures. She saw Abdul’s face, and heard his voice.

 

 

SIX

 

When Lucie awoke, it took her a moment to remember where she was. It had gotten dim outside, and the quiet of the palace was momentarily unsettling. But as she came to her senses, she felt a smile spread across her face.

 

She looked around the room. The tray that had held her uneaten lunch had been cleared away, and in its place an outfit from her own luggage had been laid out: a slim-cut violet and black dress.

 

She almost laughed. It was a suggestion, it seemed, from whatever ghost was looking after her. They thought she should be prepared for a somewhat formal dinner, it seemed.

 

It was a dress that she’d packed despite misgivings. She hadn’t really thought she was going to get a chance to wear it; it was designed for the kind of woman who lived a very different life than Lucie thought she ever would.

 

It was something like a cocktail dress, short and sweet, with just a touch of glitz. If she’d been the kind of woman who went out partying, she’d doubtless have worn it on the hunt for a man. But as it was, she’d only brought it along because her constant need to be over-prepared for every possibility demanded it.

 

And tonight that need had, apparently, paid off.

 

She slipped the lacy fabric over her head. Her skin felt so much softer than she was used to—a benefit of whatever was in the strange but sweet-smelling products stocked in the bathroom, she supposed. Regardless of what had caused it, she somehow felt very differently from any time she’d dressed up in the past.

 

Usually, she felt out of place. It wasn’t that she wasn’t attractive—her thin frame had always been a point of envy for her sister, and her blond hair behaved well enough whenever she put time and effort into taming it. It was just that she’d just always felt like she was trying to be someone else when she dressed for anything other than the library.

 

But tonight, looking in the mirror, and surrounded by this place that felt, quite surprisingly, like home, Lucie felt like she belonged in the dress. So, hungry from her lack of lunch and with a spring in her step, she headed downstairs, to dinner.

 

It took a bit of remembering to be able to find her way successfully to the dining room. The tour beforehand had been exhaustive, and there were enough halls and rooms and passages that if Lucie didn’t concentrate, they all ran together in her mind. They were to dine in the semi-formal dining area. It was one step above the cozy breakfast nook off the kitchen, and one step below the grand formal dining area with seats for 25 and a sense of being rarely used.

 

The smell hit her before she even got to the door. It was aromatic and savory, and it quickened her step without her consciously realizing it.

 

Zach and Abdul were both there already, sitting across each other. The table probably could have accommodated five or six, but there were only three chairs: the ones that the men sat in and one at the head of the table, reserved, apparently, for her.

 

As she sat down, she judged the expressions on their faces carefully. The room had a tension to it that she hadn’t been expecting, and the natural curiosity in her wanted to know why. Abdul looked content and in control, with perhaps just the slightest look of victory about him. Zach, on the other hand, had a very uncharacteristic unpleasant look to him, like he’d just been listening to something that didn’t sit well with his idea of the world.

 

Lucie wanted to ask, but she didn’t want to get bogged down in the details of it all. She’d half expected that Zach’s presence would spoil the research trip for her, but she was determined not to let him ruin this unexpected opportunity to spend time in the royal palace.

 

“Did you rest well?” Abdul asked as she sat down. The food was starting to appear at the doors, as though the staff had been waiting for precisely the moment she arrived to bring the dishes in.

 

“I did, yes. Thank you again, so much, for your hospitality.”

 

He nodded graciously. “Certainly. What kind of a host would I be if I didn’t make sure that the first Americans to accept my invitation weren’t well looked after?”

 

The questions that had occurred to Lucie earlier, about the oddness of his looking after them, reared their ugly heads again, but she stayed quiet. There was no way of asking him about it that wouldn’t have seemed ungrateful.

 

Besides, he was already moving on.

 

“And might I say, you look lovely. Not that being covered in dust didn’t suit you…”

 

Lucie noticed a trace of a smile on his lips. From Zach, that phrase would have been accompanied by a mocking tone. But from Abdul, it seemed more like a genuine sentiment.

 

“I don’t know,” Zach piped up from the other side of the table. “I like the gold dress better.”

 

The gold dress? She had no idea what he was talking about, at first. Then she remembered another PhD student who had worn a gold dress to a function. Even in trying to assert his familiarity, Zach had failed.

 

Or had he? Lucie sometimes wondered if he made little mistakes like that—attributing a dress to another girl, or forgetting a name—on purpose. She’d read somewhere that certain men did that sort of thing to set girls on edge, making themselves seem to have the upper hand.

 

She wondered whether or not to correct him. Usually, she wouldn’t. It wasn’t worth the aggravation to respond to half of the things that Zach said, generally. But then she remembered the tension she’d sensed in the room when she’d walked in, and decided to speak up.

 

“That was Jill,” she said, the three words silencing him for a moment.

 

“Oh, I only meant that the dress she wore would look better on you than this one.”

 

He hadn’t. She knew it. Abdul knew it. But now that she’d let him embarrass himself, and that slight air of victory had appeared again on Abdul’s face, it felt like it was time to move the conversation on.

 

The food was exquisite. There were no restaurants that served Al-Brehonian food in Illinois—where her family was from—or in Cambridge. While Lucie had tried to replicate some of the delicacies she’d read about at home, she’d never been much of a cook, and she saw now that her attempts at mimicking Al-Brehonian cuisine had been, at best, pale imitations.

 

Throughout the meal, she was continually surprised by the flavors. She’d eaten at a lot of restaurants that served food from the region at large, but there were flavors she was experiencing tonight that she never so much as tasted before.

 

She asked Abdul about it, and he smiled.

 

“There are a lot of advantages to opening up the country—that’s why I’m doing it, after all. But at the same time, there are some advantages, I find, to being a bit more… sheltered.”

 

Lucie wanted to respond. She’d been wondering for several years now about the work the Sheikh had been doing to open up his country. It had made a great difference to her, obviously, as it meant she was able to write her dissertation on Al-Brehoni—a subject so new to the archaeological community that her work was bound to contain some first-hand discovery.

 

Now would be the perfect time to ask, or at least to broach the subject and get a read on how welcome further questions might be. The trick would be to do it delicately, so it wouldn’t seem like she was looking a gift horse in the mouth.

 

But before she had put together what she wanted to say, Zach interrupted.

 

“Well, all I can say is that our country has benefitted from not being quite so isolationist.”

 

It was just like Zach to speak without thinking.

 

“Oh, is that so?” Abdul said. “And you think it has always been this way, thoughout your history?”

 

Zach went to respond again, but Lucie cleared her throat, prompting him to think about it a little bit more, and remember periods in the past where the United States had swung towards its own brand of isolationism.

 

Abdul seemed primed for an answer, but Lucie could only imagine the thinly-veiled animosity between the two erupting into something more overt if she didn’t change the way the conversation was going.

 

“And what has prompted this?” she asked quickly.

 

It felt very forward to say it out loud, and Lucie found herself blushing a little as Abdul’s eyes focused on her.

 

“I mean, I heard about your father’s passing…”

 

She trailed off. Matters of state felt a lot harder to ask about when they were also matters of family.

 

The Sheikh’s father’s passing was, to Lucie, a matter of history. It was the changeover from one ruler to another, and in many ways a logical and unemotional thing. But even though it was a few years ago now, she could tell that for Abdul, the wound was still fresh. She saw his eyes dart to the portrait hanging on the wall behind Zach.

 

Abdul cleared his throat and replied. “My father was many things. And I admired him greatly. But the way he saw Al-Brehoni interacting with the outside world was more…” He tilted his head back and forth, as though rolling the words around in his brain.

 

“Traditional?” Lucie offered.

 

He smiled. “I would have said pigheaded.”

 

“But not so pigheaded you still don’t follow some of his policies.”

 

Zach had interrupted, his mouth full as he spoke. For someone raised in such a high social class, he sure did let his emotions overpower his good manners. There was something about the tone of his voice that made Lucie sit up a little straighter in her chair, as though she were subconsciously preparing for a full-on brawl.

 

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean,” Abdul replied, but even though she’d only met him that day, Lucie already knew the Sheikh well enough to be certain that that was not the case.

 

“I mean, you still don’t allow archeologists outside of your little program to access your sites.”

 

Zach’s tone had gone from mildly upset to a boiling, barely-controlled anger. He seemed a little drunk, and Lucie noticed that the glass of sweet-smelling liquor before him was mostly empty. He must have gotten a good head start on it before she came in.

 

“The program that we are very, very grateful to have been a part of,” Lucie added, trying to salvage the situation.

 

The Sheikh reached out a hand, as though to reassure Lucie, while gesturing for Zach to continue at the same time.

 

“Please, I’m afraid I’m not sure what you are getting at. If you’d be so kind as to enlighten me?”

 

Again, Lucie thought, he did know. But Zach was already responding.

 

“I spoke with my parents this afternoon. They were really curious about what the dig was like here, and wanted to know how the trip was going. They had a lot of questions, and said they wished they could be here, too.”

 

At these words, Lucie experienced a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. She didn’t like conflict, and it seemed as though there was more to come.

 

“I thought that was a little weird, because if they wanted to come here, certainly they would have. But they said they applied to work down on the southern site, and were denied.”

 

Lucie was mortified, but also intrigued. She’d grown up reading about the exploits of the Millards. They’d been all kinds of places, and been the first to make many discoveries—why hadn’t they flocked to Al-Brehoni as soon as the regulations on archeological explorations began to loosen?

 

The Sheikh let that fact—which Zach had somehow manufactured into an accusation—hang in the air. When he did respond, it was with a careful, controlled tone.

 

“As I said earlier, I look into the reputations and previous work of those who wish to do work in my country. Our history is precious, and we do not have a second chance to uncover the gems we are discovering now.”

 

Zach’s tone went from angry to sneering. “My parents are two of the foremost archeologists of their generation. If you knew half the places they’d been, and the projects they’d led—”

 

“I do, actually. And what I found led me to decide not to allow them access.”

 

It was like something snapped in Zach’s head. Lucie had never seen him lost for words for so long. Normally he had a quick comeback to everything, but now he was just sitting there, staring straight ahead, but not seeming to see anything.

 

And then he gave his head a quick, clearing shake, and reached for his glass of liquor, which he downed in one final sip.

 

“Come,” Abdul said, very consciously and graciously changing the subject. “I think we’ve all finished eating, and you seem to favor our local spirit. Let me show you how we usually drink it.”

 

The Sheikh stood and walked to the door, leading the way out into the hallway. Lucie stood, too, but Zach stayed seated.

 

“Well,” Abdul said calmly, “whenever you’re ready.”

 

And then he left, and Lucie and Zach were alone.

 

“Can you believe him?” Zach asked, as though there weren’t servants just outside that could hear every word.

“I believe him. I’m not sure I believe you.”

 

She wouldn’t have thought that she could wound Zach. He was all bravado, and had been since the day she’d met him. But at those words, Zach finally stood. He looked defeated, but not hopeless. More like bitter.

 

“Well, go get drunk with the corrupt dictator if you want,” he spat. “I’ll be getting over my jet lag so I’m ready to do some real work tomorrow.”

 

Lucie watched him stumble to the doorway and disappear through it. Now, if she asked the servants to escort her to where the king was, it would be just the two of them. They would be drinking together, alone, into the night.

 

The thought of it sent a thrill of fear and excitement shooting up her spine. She could make an excuse about jet lag. She could do the proper thing, and take more time to study up for the work they would hopefully be able to do once the storm was over.

 

But even as she thought about it, she knew she wouldn’t do it. This was happening. This was, it felt like, the first real thing that was happening in her whole life.

 

 

SEVEN

 

A servant led her to the room where the Sheikh was waiting. He looked up when she entered, and shot her a long, lingering look. He didn’t seem surprised to see that Zach wasn’t with her.

 

The room they were in now had not been an interior part of the original castle. It must have been the top of a rampart, Lucie surmised. She could see how part of the wall had been blown away—probably in battle, if she had to guess.

 

The area had been transformed into a sitting room by encasing it in glass, and adding a huge fireplace in one corner. A fire crackled in it, now, with a glow just low enough so as not to encumber the view of the stars.

 

Lucie could see out across the desert from here, and the whole of the perfect, star-laden night sky. It was breathtaking, and again made her conscious that she was, in a very real way, in the middle of nowhere.

 

“For a man that’s in love with the past,” she said, “you sure seem to have a love for the modern, as well.”

 

He smiled at that. “I try not to limit myself.”

 

There was no furniture, and the room was empty save for the fire, a few floor cushions, the bottle of alcohol, and the two of them. The tiled floor was covered by a thick, luxurious rug, alive with bright and intricate patterning.

 

Lucie slipped off her shoes. The carpet was a piece of art, and subjecting it to shoes seemed wrong. Something about the combination of her bare feet and the slinkiness of the dress made her move with delicate, smooth movements. She felt like a dancer. She felt like the room, and the night, and the man before her had somehow transformed her into the kind of graceful, sophisticated lady that her life had never led her towards becoming.

 

As she settled down next to the Sheikh, she felt like the stars were settling in around her. It was the strangest combination; feeling exposed to the night air, while still being cozy with the cushions, the soft rug and the warm fire.

 

“I’m sorry about Zach,” Lucie said. She didn’t pass along his excuse about jet lag, feeling it would be disrespectful to be so blatantly dishonest. “I find it hard to understand the way he acts sometimes—we come from very different places.”

 

“As do you and I.”

 

He left it at that, and poured her a glass of the alcohol Zach had been so fond of. With the liquor in her glass, Lucie could see it had a faint murkiness to it that she hadn’t noticed before.

 

She took a sip, and grimaced at its strength, making Abdul laugh in surprise.

 

“I thought you’d be a bit of a drinker. I don’t know why.”

 

She rolled her eyes dramatically. “You all think the underclasses just have to drink to make it through the day, don’t you?”

 

Somehow, the booze seemed to have attacked her inhibitions right on. She was playfully joking with a ruler, who before she’d been almost afraid to directly address.

 

She took another sip, this time expecting the hit.

 

“Is that honey I can taste?” she asked, and the Sheikh nodded. “Is this what I think it is?”

 

His smile was wider, now that it didn’t have to be hidden. “That depends entirely on what you think it is.”

 

She took another sip, again grimacing at the burn, trying to see past it.

 

“I thought they stopped making this years ago.”

 

He topped up her glass as he replied. “Centuries. I’m trying to revive the practice, actually.”

 

Lucie could feel a tension releasing in her shoulders that she hadn’t even realized was there. She leaned back a little on the plush cushion she’d selected as her seat.

 

“Well, Zach certainly approves.”

 

She regretted bringing Zach back up again. She wanted to forget him, and focus on enjoying her time with the Sheikh. She hoped Abdul would just ignore the reference and move on, but she had no such luck.

 

“Tell me, are the two of you together?”

 

Lucie didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at that.

 

“We’re travelling together,” she answered flatly.

 

“And nothing more?”

 

She shot the Sheikh a look that she hoped conveyed the disgust she felt at the thought of dating Zach.

 

He laughed. “Well, it certainly seems like he wants to be.”

 

“I’m not in charge of what he wants,” she replied. “And besides, I’m too busy to date anyone at the moment. Far too stressed.”

 

She didn’t know why she’d said that. She wished she could fish the words back in from the air. She didn’t like how they sounded; like she was somehow above the idea of romance.

 

Maybe that was why she’d said it in the first place. Maybe she wanted to feel a little less intimidated by the Sheikh, and the rowdy menagerie of emotions he was calling forth in her. But she couldn’t take her words back. The best she could do was hope for a distraction.

 

To that end, she tipped her glass of honey liquor up and took a large swig—unprepared for when the strong taste of it, and the burn at the back of her throat, multiplied exponentially.

 

She coughed and the Sheikh laughed, reaching his hand out to help, even as she waved off his concern.

 

“So, Lucie,” he said when they had both quieted down, as though opening up a new chapter between them. “You clearly don’t spend your time drinking. I feel a little misled; the movies always say that American students do nothing else.”

 

Lucie giggled, the alcohol having gotten to her now. “Well, that’s on you for believing what you see in the movies instead of asking the real article.”

 

He raised his eyebrows. “Well then, real article: if you don’t date and you don’t drink, what do you do?”

 

Lucie sighed, trying to come up with something more interesting than the truth, and failing. “I study. And then I write about what I studied. And then I study what I want to write.”

 

He sipped his honey liquor slowly, savoring the taste. “Sounds like a vicious cycle,” he said.

 

“Maybe not vicious, but it is a busy one.”

 

They sat for a time in silence, Lucie ruing the moment she’d admitted that her work was all there was to her. Her study had always been enough for her in the past, but now she was sitting here, desperately wishing for something she could say to sound worldly or impressive, she wished that it hadn’t been.

 

“That sounds like a very productive way to live,” the Sheikh said at last.

 

Lucie had a hard time telling if there was any concealed condescension in his words. There didn’t seem to be. He seemed only to be kind, but it seemed wrong, to Lucie, that he should be so accepting.

 

Up until now, she’d been noticing the effects of the liquor on herself, but hadn’t been too bothered by them. Now she felt the fuzziness setting into her brain, and she began doubting herself.

 

“It’s what got me here,” she said, defending herself even though there’d been no accusation.

 

She watched the Sheikh’s face carefully. There was a pang of sadness, she thought, at his being misunderstood. She immediately regretted her words.

 

“Of course it did,” he said gently. “And it’s hugely impressive, what you’ve done so far; the conclusions you’ve come to with so little to work from.”

 

No, she’d read it wrong. It wasn’t just pain at being misunderstood. There was more to it.

 

“I try. I love this country. I know it isn’t mine, and I’m not trying… I’m not trying to presume anything. I just…”

 

He cut her off, and she was glad he did.

 

“And you should have had more information. What I’m doing… what I’ve been doing for the past few years should have been done a decade ago.”

 

“And why wasn’t it?”

 

It was a bold thing to say, but it was an honest question, and the liquor seemed to have reached her courage.

 

“I should have talked to my father. I should have insisted, and told him that it was important.”

 

“Do you think he would have listened?”

 

He paused here, and drank more.

 

“I don’t know. In some ways, I knew him very well. He was a good listener, and he always helped me whenever he could. But in others…” He shook his head. “It’s different. It’s different when you are more than yourself. He had to be a king. When my mother and sister died, he didn’t grieve. He had to show the country that they could go on. But no one ever told him that he could.”

 

She wanted to reach out to him. The man she’d seen in the car, and the man that she’d seen in the recorded televised speeches he’d given about the program she’d been accepted to and the general movement towards openness that he was moving his country toward was very different than the man in front of her.

 

And yet, they were somehow still the same. He had that same kind of confident vulnerability. He had an honesty to him that she could always sense, even when he was speaking about entirely unrelated things. It was like he carried that honesty, and that caring to everything he did.

 

And now that he was talking about the heart of it, she felt as though she were approaching something unquestioningly precious.

 

But then he drew back from the edge.

 

“I’ve been trying to make up for lost time, and hopefully I didn’t wait too long to do so. Anyway, I hope that the weather will not be such a problem that you will still have good things to say about your time here.”

 

She would, Lucie thought. She knew that already. Even if she never even got to see the site, other than the quick look she’d gotten earlier.

 

They talked on into the night. Once she got used to it, Lucie found that the honey liquor wasn’t as hard to handle as it had seemed at first. It came on strong, and made her feel brave.

 

They talked about her work again; it was the easiest thing to talk about, even though it wasn’t what she most wanted to discuss with the Sheikh.

 

And he seemed to want to listen. He listened as she talked about the dinosaur book she had had when she was a child, and how convinced she was that she was going to be the first to design a dinosaur saddle.

 

She talked about how ashamed she’d been when she’d found out that this was impossible, and how upset she had been with her parents for indulging the whole thing. It was only when she got to college that she’d realized her parents probably hadn’t done it on purpose.

 

She’d never told any of this to her classmates, or to any of the dates she’d had. Even the few guys that she had dated for a few months, she’d never dared mention it to. There was still something about it that embarrassed her, and yet she felt comfortable telling this man, this leader, that she’d only really just met.

 

She didn’t know whether she was embarrassed about that story because it showed that she had been so passionate about history from such a young age. It had always felt like she tried a little bit too hard, and that anyone who was listening to her would write her off as being obsessed.

 

And if it weren’t that, then they would look down on her parents. They would judge where she had come from. Not her for coming from there, exactly, but the place itself. There was always this unspoken assumption, whenever she talked about her hometown, that she must be glad that she was out of it.

 

But in Abdul’s eyes, as she told him about all of this, she found no judgment. When she talked about her passions, there was a sense of recognition. And when she was done talking, he told her about his own passions as a child, and his own foolish mistakes and grand ambitions.

 

And when she talked about her parents, and how she had realized much later on what they probably did and did not know, he only nodded. He didn’t expect her to judge them anymore than he could judge his own father for the choices he had made.

 

“Yes,” he said. “So much of life, when you’re young, is trying to prove your parents wrong. Finding out that they’re capable of being wrong seems like it should be a victory. But I’ve been learning more and more, these last few years, that it isn’t.”

 

There it was again, that vulnerability. He had this great big wall of secrecy around him, and it was taunting her. The Sheikh was confident and imposing, in so many ways, and yet there was this pain at the core of him that she could see him wanting to share with her, if only she could persuade him she was worth sharing it with.

 

As they eased gently toward the topic of his father, she felt as though he were letting her closer and closer to that place. She was certain they were just about to start speaking about him, when Abdul stood up, as though he had remembered something.

 

“I have something to show you,” he said, with a distant look about him.

 

 

The Sheikh’s American Baby is available now.

 

As another free teaser, take a look at the first few chapters of my best-selling romance, Hassan: The Bad Boy Sheikh’s Baby…

 

 

ONE

 

 

“Another round for the pretty lady?”

 

Morgan glanced up from her Diet Coke and into the twinkling eyes of the bartender. He was trying to be funny, she knew, but she graced him with a small smile anyway.

 

“Why not?” she replied, taking one last pull from her straw and allowing the soda to slurp loudly against the ice in her glass before sliding it across the wooden bar.

 

The bartender snatched it up and went to pull the soda hose from the back, tipping the glass slightly to prevent too much fizz forming at the top. Morgan thanked him as he slid the full glass back to her with a wink, shaking her head with a bemused expression.

 

Men were idiots.

 

Morgan’s mind reeled back to a particularly rainy day, a few years back, when she had been pulled over by a cop, and her life had changed forever.

 

Cursing, she shielded her eyes from the blinding light glaring through her back window as she reached for her license and registration. She rolled down her window to find a pudgy man in a blue suit and lopsided hat glaring down at her.

 

“Do you know why I pulled you over, miss?” he asked.

 

Morgan quirked an eyebrow at him. “Because I was going five over the speed limit, sir?” She tried to keep her tone pleasant, but her annoyance leaked through anyway.

 

“Left tail light’s out,” he replied, reaching a hand out for her documents, which she duly handed over. “Not safe in this kind of weather.”

 

“It’s Houston. The rain will be over in five minutes,” she said, curt. She knew this behavior wasn’t going to save her from a ticket, but she wasn’t the type of person to cry just to get out of a violation. She liked to meet people straight on, with honesty. If they didn’t like it, that was their problem.

 

To her surprise, the cop chuckled. “I suppose that’s true.”

 

“Hey, can I ask you something?’ Morgan said. “What’s it like, being a cop?”

 

The officer hesitated, thinking for a moment before he replied. “Oh, it’s not so bad. On slow days we’re pulling people over for minor traffic violations, but there are times when we get to save people’s lives—make the community a better place. It’s nice to feel like you’re making a difference in the world, even when people don’t thank you all the time for it.”

 

Morgan thought about that for a moment.

 

The officer leaned in a little closer. “Are you thinking of joining?” he asked, and Morgan laughed.

 

“I don’t know what I’m thinking. I’ve got a job—I just hate it.”

 

“What are you, Army?”

 

“No, corporate. You know, the cube farm; small talk, meddling middle management. Not my bag at all.”

 

“Sounds like you need to get out of there. There’s a preliminary entrance exam coming up in a few weeks. You look like you’re in good shape—why don’t you come try out the physical exam and see if it’s something you want to do?”

 

“Maybe I will,” she replied, her gaze darting to the man’s paunch and wondering how he got into the force if you really did have to be in “good shape.”

 

With that, the cop handed back her license and registration. “On good faith,” he said simply. “Come to the exam, Miss Springfield. You strike me as a good fit for our force.”

 

Morgan had had some time to think about it, sitting in her cold, gray cubicle. What was she doing with her life?

 

On the afternoon of the physical exams, she ended up being one of only three women there to perform the series of tests to be considered for the police force, and she was the only one who passed. One long month later, and she was officially a member of the Houston Police Department.

 

At first it had been exciting. Morgan got to ride in police cars. She got to perform undercover detective work, following clues that led to bad guys being arrested. It wasn’t long, however, before she started to get frustrated.

 

“Morgan, stay in the car. I’ve got this!” was a phrase she quickly got tired of hearing. The men—always men—she worked with wanted to keep her safe. On one level, it was gentlemanly. On another, it was annoying and sexist as all hell. Did they think that she couldn’t handle taking down a three-hundred-pound meathead just because she was a woman? She did it during training sessions every single week. Yet somehow they always tried to leave her behind.

 

Then there was the red tape. So much red tape. Morgan could barely keep up with the bureaucracy of getting anything done. She watched in agony as criminals dodged jail time because there simply wasn’t enough evidence to convict them. She watched killers walked free because they were able to make a deal, or because their daddies were wealthy. Corruption was everywhere, but it didn’t mean that Morgan had to be a part of it.

 

It was a year ago when she’d finally reached breaking point. She was in hot pursuit of an assailant who had just stabbed a pregnant woman at a gas station. After leaving the woman in the care of the emergency services, Morgan had taken off after the guy. She sprinted down dark, winding alleys, the man just a few paces beyond her reach. She dodged as he launched trash cans in her path, leapt as he threw anything he could in her way, until she finally caught up with the guy, taking him down. They rolled along the ground, finally crashing right into Morgan’s partner, who was waiting at the end of the alleyway.

 

“Got him!” Brett, her entitled beefcake of a partner shouted. He pulled Morgan off of the guy and cuffed him, slamming him face-first into the waiting police car.

 

“Stop!” Morgan shouted, but Brett just slammed him into the car again.

 

“That’s enough!” Morgan yelled, using Brett’s strength against him to maneuver his arm behind his back.

 

He tugged away roughly, and Morgan let him go, checking on the runner as the man slumped to the ground.

 

“Oh what, now your motherly instincts are setting in?” Brett asked, his voice laced with condescension.

 

Morgan glared at him. “We’re not thugs, you asshole. We’re cops. Our job is to keep people safe, not beat them to death.”

 

“That man stabbed a pregnant woman, and you think he has rights?” Brett yelled.

 

Morgan heaved the man up and lifted him into the back of their cruiser.

 

Brett didn’t move, his arms crossed as he stood by, watching her do the grunt work.

 

“Thanks for the help,” Morgan grumbled, heading to the driver’s side of the car.

 

Brett put a hand on her arm, and she froze instantly. How dare he touch her?

 

“You think I don’t know what this whole thing is about?” he said bitterly. “You’re just a place holder, Morgan. Your job is to make the force look like they buy into all that feminist bullshit, but women will never be as strong as men—that’s just reality. So why don’t you get your perky little ass into the passenger seat, and I’ll get this asshole into a cell where he belongs.”

 

Morgan stood rooted to the spot, blood pounding in her temples. Everything in her body was screaming at her to show this muscly piece of garbage just what a woman could do. But what good would that be? For all that he was an ogre of a partner, they were still, unfortunately, on the same team.

 

“Well since you’re clearly the hero of the day, why don’t you take him in and do all the paperwork? Being a figurehead for womankind, clearly I don’t know how to use a computer, right?” Morgan said, turning on her heel before Brett could get a final say.

 

She heard him mumble, “Crazy bitch,” or something like that as she strode off into the night.

 

The next day she handed in her notice.

 

“Morgan, come on. We all know Brett’s a piece of work, but there’s no reason you should leave the force because of him,” Sergeant Brown said with a frown.

 

“Let me see last night’s report,” she said, her tone clipped.

 

Sergeant Brown glanced at his computer screen and clicked around, looking for the file. When he found it, he printed it off and handed the pages to her.

 

Morgan scanned the document quickly, reading the last part of the report out loud.

 

“Officer Brett Wilkerson chased down the assailant, apprehending him. Minor facial injuries were recorded on registration at the department. Bail was set at ten thousand dollars.”

 

Morgan glared at her boss. “It was me who chased that man down and cuffed him. And he was perfectly fine until Brett decided to slam him into the side of the car. All this before he belittled me and took full credit for the job himself.”

 

The Sergeant’s bushy, gray eyebrows rose at this. “These are very serious accusations, Morgan. You would need proof…”

 

“And the Houston Police Department stands by its decision not to place cameras on officers, right? So no, I don’t have any proof. But what I do have is my resignation. Thank you for the opportunity to serve, sir,” Morgan said, standing and holding out her hand.

 

Sergeant Brown sighed, and then rose and gave her a firm handshake. “I’m sorry to see you go, Officer. You’re a good cop who cares about the people she serves. What will you do now?”

 

Morgan grinned. “I’m going private.”

 

Starting the very next day, Morgan filed her personal business as a private detective, and set out getting clients she could help on her own. After a few years in the force she had made some good connections, and while it wasn’t exactly glamourous living, it wasn’t long before she was earning enough to pay for the roof over her head and put food on her table.

 

At least she had been able to. Recently, the work had started to dry up.

 

As she sat sipping her Diet Coke, Morgan took out her smartphone and checked her bank account, frowning at the number on the screen. The niggling thought that always poked at her during times like these reared its ugly head.

 

You could always go back to the force.

 

Morgan shook her head. She couldn’t go back there. She couldn’t deal with the egos and the testosterone she was forced to babysit day in and day out. She didn’t want to go back to not getting credit and being held back and left behind. Still, if she didn’t land another job soon…

 

“Well, hello there,” a male voice said, and Morgan turned to her right to see a musclebound stranger had plopped himself down on the seat next to her.

 

“Hi,” she said, her voice dull. She looked back down at her soda, seemingly entranced by the bubbles. There was no need to encourage these bozos.

 

The man grinned. “Oh come on, now. Things can’t be all that bad. Why don’t you turn that pretty mouth upwards and give me a smile?”

 

“I don’t smile for men who demand it of me,” Morgan said, fighting down a grin as the man frowned in confusion; he was handsome enough that Morgan knew he wasn’t used to women turning him away.

 

His shoulders relaxed as he pushed down his annoyance and pressed on, determined. “Well, what if I ask politely?” he said, leaning in a little closer.

 

Morgan could smell hot whiskey on his breath, mixed with heavy cologne. She was a firm believer that men who wore that much cologne were compensating for something.

 

She kept her face neutral, not wanting him to think that any grin on her part had anything to do with him.

 

“The answer is still ‘no’. I don’t cater to whiskey-soaked fools.”

 

“I am no fool, darling. You want a taste, don’t you?” he said, reaching over and wrapping a sweaty palm around her buttocks.

 

That was the last straw.

 

Before the asshole could blink, Morgan seized his arm and wrapped it painfully behind his back, flipping him to the floor.

 

“What the hell?!” the man shouted, his voice muffled by the sticky floor of the bar.

 

Morgan pressed him into the floor with her elbow, leaning in close. “When a lady wants to be left alone, you leave her alone. Got it?”

 

“Get off me!”

 

“What are you going to do the next time a woman says ‘no’, stranger?”

 

The man hesitated, clearly not wanting to give in.

 

Morgan decided to give him some more motivation, and pushed a little harder. She glanced up to find the whole bar staring at them.

 

Finally, the man relented. “It won’t happen again. I’m sorry,” he mumbled pathetically.

 

“What was that? For everyone to hear now,” she said, pulling his hair so that he could get a good view of the crowd of onlookers.

 

“I’m sorry!” he shouted.

 

Morgan released him, and he slumped on the ground. Reaching for her purse, she pulled out a few bills, but the bartender put up his hands.

 

“No charge, miss. I’m sorry you had to experience that in my bar. Next time we’ll be more careful about who we let in.”

 

“I’d appreciate that,” she said, then turned to the bar at large.

 

“Let that be a lesson, folks. You never know just what a woman can do to defend herself,” she said, grinning widely before she made her way outside, into the hot, humid air of spring.

 

 

TWO

 

Morgan strolled along the busy city streets, relishing being in the fresh air. Houston in springtime was pleasant—at least, when there weren’t any floods or thunderstorms. The tropical climate was perfect for her dry skin, and she enjoyed living in the heat.

 

She was pondering the distant clouds when her phone rang. Reaching for it, she didn’t recognize the phone number, though it was a Houston area code, and she tapped the answer key.

 

“Morgan Springfield,” she said, her usual professional greeting.

 

“Hello?” The accented male voice on the other end sounded confused. Maybe it was a wrong number. Morgan considered hanging up.

 

“Hello,” she said, waiting for the man to get to what he was calling about. It better not be some kind of telemarketing scam. Morgan had already had to put one man in his place today, and didn’t quite feel like doing it again.

 

“Hello, miss. My name is Ahmed. I’ve heard that you are a private detective, yes?”

 

Morgan’s heart gave a little leap. This could mean a job!

 

“That’s correct. Can you tell me your full name, sir?”

 

There was a short silence on the other end of the line.

 

“It’s best if I don’t tell you my full name on the phone. Miss Springfield, I found your website after an extensive internet search, and I think you are the best person to help me with a simple search job. Would you be willing to meet me later this evening?”

 

Morgan tried to keep the excitement out of her voice. She had been so bored after weeks of no new jobs, and, if she was being honest, so desperate to have funds coming in. She worked to keep her thoughts clear.

 

“Where would you like to meet?” she asked.

 

“There is a restaurant downtown, Abu Nawas. Have you heard of it?”

 

Morgan’s eyebrows rose. Had she heard of it? Abu Nawas was one of the most exclusive and expensive places in town, and she’d heard the food was exquisite—not that she’d ever been able to afford to visit. It was a Middle-Eastern place, which would explain the man’s accent.

 

“I have, and I would be happy to meet you there,” she said, hoping that he wasn’t expecting her to actually eat; she couldn’t afford the water there, never mind the food.

 

“Excellent! If you could meet us there at eleven tonight, that would be perfect.”

 

“I’ll be there, Ahmed,” she said.

 

“You will? Very good! Very good. We look forward to seeing you this evening, Miss Springfield. Goodbye.”

 

And the call was ended. It didn’t escape Morgan’s attention that Ahmed had originally said she would be meeting with him, but said “we” at the end of the call, implying that she would be meeting with a group. Eleven at night was late for a meet up, though Morgan assumed that it might perhaps be a cultural thing.

 

Regardless, the man had to be rich if he wanted to meet her at Abu Nawas, and Morgan was ready to watch her bank account grow again.

 

***

 

Heading back home, she kicked off her shoes and ate a small bag of chips before opening up her files and preparing a fresh document for her new client.

 

All that was left to do was wait, and then she would be making money again.

 

After writing up a few pages for her file, Morgan placed it in a black briefcase and opened up her laptop ready to do some research. She liked to see what she could find on people prior to meeting with them—even the ones not willing to provide a last name.

 

There were several reasons why a person might not want to give their name over the phone. Once, when she was still with the police, Morgan had answered a call from a big-name celebrity who was being stalked at her hotel, and who had wanted to remain anonymous to avoid the press. Fortunately, Morgan had been able to apprehend the perpetrator quietly and without hassle. That is, until someone placed a call to the paparazzi and had them swarming the hotel, exactly like the person didn’t want. Later that week, Morgan had gritted her teeth as Brett strolled in with a diamond watch—the price of ratting someone out.

 

Morgan pulled up Google and began researching the restaurant. Abu Nawas had opened a few years ago and taken off immediately. The international experience was all the rage these days, and the beautiful, glittering inside was enough to bring in all of Houston’s finest.

 

She looked intently at the pictures, googling the name Ahmed as well and coming up with nothing. The restaurant’s website said only that it was launched by a well-known woman from a Middle-Eastern country Morgan wasn’t familiar with. It was her first dead end.

 

Closing her laptop, Morgan rubbed a hand along the back of her neck and stretched.

 

There was a knock at her door, and she looked at the time. Eight o’clock—three more hours before she got to meet Ahmed.

 

Rising, she went to the door and peeked through the hole, seeing a familiar face and sighing inwardly. She pulled the lock from the chain and opened her door to a smiling, handsome face.

 

“Hi, beautiful,” Stephen said.

 

He was her neighbor. When he’d first moved in, Morgan had thought she might be interested, but as time went on she’d realized he was too clingy for her taste. He tried way too hard to impress her all the time, but he was so soft-hearted and lonely that she also didn’t have it in her to turn him away.

 

“I have a name, Stephen,” she said, still standing in front of the door.

 

Stephen grinned deeper. “I know you do, beautiful.” And then he giggled.

 

Morgan lifted an eyebrow. “Stephen, are you drunk?”

 

“No! You’re drunk!” he replied, slumping against the door frame.

 

Morgan groaned as she ducked beneath his arm and heaved him over to the sofa. He plopped down and stared ahead for a minute before swiveling his head in her direction.

 

“She turned me down, Morgan,” he slurred. Without warning, his face crumbled and he began weeping into his palms.

 

Not knowing what else to do, Morgan sat next to him and patted his back gingerly.

 

“It’s okay, Stephen. It happens. That’s all dating is—trying on different people and seeing if they’re a good fit. This one wasn’t. The next one will be.”

 

“You weren’t, either,” he said, sobbing still.

 

Not wanting to be dishonest, Morgan replied, “That’s true, but there are seven billion people on this planet, Stephen. Just because it didn’t work out with the two of us doesn’t mean there’s no one out there for you.”

 

Stephen sniffled loudly, looking up at Morgan with bright blue eyes, rimmed with red from his tears.

 

“You really think that?”

 

Morgan gave him a reassuring smile. “Of course I do. You’re a great guy, Stephen,” she said, and he grinned ruefully.

 

“Yeah, right.”

 

“Oh, come on now. Listen, you’ve got a clouded mind full of alcohol and rejection. Let’s get you to bed and I’m sure you’ll feel right as rain in the morning.”

 

Stephen looked hopeful at that. “Will you stay with me for a while?”

 

“Come on,” she said, purposefully not answering his question as she helped him back down the hall to his own apartment. They were small studios, with the living room, kitchen and bedroom all in the same space. Morgan couldn’t really afford much else, and she didn’t need that much space anyway.

 

Opening Stephen’s door, she laid him on the bed and made to exit, but he grasped her wrist.

 

“Morgan, please stay? I don’t want to be alone,” he sniffled.

 

Morgan sighed. “Sometimes it’s better to be alone. Especially when I’m not the person who should be in that bed with you. Drink some water and get some sleep,” she said gently.

 

There was a part of her that wanted to comfort Stephen, to tell him that it was going to be all right, and hold him until it didn’t hurt anymore. But what good would that do? She wasn’t the person for that job, and she knew it.

 

Back in her apartment, Morgan closed and locked her door back up, pressing her back against it as she gazed around the tiny space. It was clean and tidy, with everything in its place.

 

She sat on her small couch and opened her laptop once more, turning on a movie until it was time to head out. As much as she hated to admit it, she was wondering the same thing as Stephen.

 

Was there really someone out there for her, too?

 

The movie passed without Morgan really focusing, her mind elsewhere, until it was time to dress again and head to her meeting.

 

On her way out, Morgan checked in on Stephen, who never locked his door, no matter how many times she told him he should. He was fast asleep on his side, snoring. Good. He would likely have a hangover in the morning, but he would recover.

 

Everyone always did.

 

Steeling herself for a potentially long night ahead, Morgan headed down to the garage below the building where her car was parked.

 

It was time to find out just who Ahmed was, and what he wanted.

 

 

 

THREE

 

Morgan stared up at the glowing neon sign. Abu Nawas had closed an hour earlier, and she felt like a fool. She hadn’t even thought to check the hours on the website, busy as she had been, looking for traces of who Ahmed might be.

 

Still, not wanting to give up that easily, she pressed her face against the glass door, and was surprised to see the lights still on. An older woman in Middle-Eastern dress met her gaze and hurried over to the door, unlocking it and letting her in.

 

“Hello, hello! Welcome to our restaurant!” the woman said, grasping Morgan’s hands with a small bow.

 

Not knowing the proper greeting for her culture, Morgan simply gave the woman’s hands a firm squeeze back, and a smile.

 

“I’m glad you found me—for a moment there I thought I’d been given a cold case.”

 

“Of course not! Your services are much needed, my dear.”

 

The woman ushered Morgan into the opulent dining room, where a man in white cotton clothing was seated at a table in the center. He wore a thick pair of glasses and was examining some documents, but when Morgan and the woman entered, he stood to greet them, removing his spectacles.

 

“Miss Springfield,” he said, his voice recognizable as the one from the phone call earlier that day. “Thank you for coming.”

 

Morgan tried not to gape at her opulent, bejeweled surroundings. The chandeliers had to be Swarovski crystals—they glittered and glistened, giving the room an ethereal feel.

 

Taking a breath, Morgan realized she could smell something amazing, and, to her embarrassment, her stomach rumbled.

 

The woman didn’t miss a beat. “I’ll have some food brought out for us. The chef is still here,” she said, scurrying off.

 

The man—Ahmed, she supposed—gestured to a seat across from him, and Morgan took it, gratefully. The chair was well cushioned, and she sank into it for a moment before remembering herself and sitting upright.

 

Ahmed grinned. “We brought in all the finest furnishings; we’re very proud of this place,” he said, his accent even more melodious in person.

 

Without knowing him, Morgan liked him immediately. That didn’t mean terribly much, but she prided herself on her instincts, even as she allowed for the possibility that they could be wrong.

 

A heartbeat later, two waiters were at the table, setting down plates of creamy hummus and warm pita bread. Morgan’s mouth instantly began to water, but she waited for Ahmed to make a move before diving in.

 

“Please, help yourself, Miss Springfield,” he said, gesturing at the plates. “I think you’ll find our hummus to be the best in town,” he beamed, clearly proud of his establishment.

 

Needing no further encouragement, Morgan scooped up a large helping of hummus, and took a bite. The creamy spread melted in her mouth, and she had to fight off a moan of pleasure. How long had it been since she’d had decent food?

 

The woman returned to the table and took a seat beside Ahmed. Both of them stared at Morgan for a moment, and she stopped eating, suddenly self-conscious.

 

“Miss Springfield,” Ahmed finally began. “Do you know what a sheikh is?”

 

Morgan racked her brain, remembering the title from her research.

 

“Isn’t it like, a king or something?”

 

Ahmed smiled. “Something like that, yes. In my country I am known as Sheikh Ahmed Al-Khali. This is my wife, Sheikha Almera Al-Khali. We are the ceremonial heads of a tribe in our home nation of Al-Harrari, and the owners of Abu Nawas.”

 

Morgan stared. Ahmed and his wife were Middle-Eastern royalty. She blinked, unsure how to address them.

 

“So…what brings you to Houston?” was all she could think to ask.

 

It was Almera’s turn to smile. “We own a number of oil fields back in our country, but there is quite a business to be had in America, and we have long wanted to be a part of it. I have a deep love and appreciation for our traditional cuisine, and have always wanted to share it with others, with the hope that any distrust between our cultures can be laid to rest over a table of delicious food.”

 

“Have you been here long?” Morgan asked, and their smiles faded.

 

“We have not,” Ahmed said. “While Almera came some years ago to set up the restaurant and visit our son at college, we have had much to take care of back home. We have only been here for a few weeks,” he finished, rubbing a hand across his eyes.

 

Morgan saw the deep circles underneath them, then. She saw the lines of age creasing his face—worry lines.

 

“It’s your son, isn’t it?” she guessed, and the couple’s shoulders slumped.

 

She had guessed correctly.

 

“His name is Hassan,” Almera said, pulling a clean cloth napkin from the table and dabbing her eyes. A small smudge of kohl stained the pristine white cloth, but the older woman didn’t seem to notice. She turned her watery gaze to Morgan.

 

“He chose to go to school in America, which was fine with us. It’s good to broaden your horizons; get new perspectives. But he changed so much while he was here. He stopped taking our calls. He refused to even talk about coming home. We continued to fund his lifestyle…” Almera cast a sideways glance at Ahmed, who turned a slight shade of red.

 

“He was being reckless with our money, and with our reputation. The things we’ve heard since coming over…well,” Ahmed said, composing himself. “He has, for whatever reason, convinced himself that he does not want to be a part of our family. He has disappeared, quite suddenly, and we need you to help us find him.”

 

Almera rose and walked over to the wall by the kitchens, where a small series of photographs were hung along the hallway. When she returned, she handed a heavily framed photograph to Morgan, who glanced down at the image.

 

Ahmed and what appeared to be a handsome, younger version of him stood behind an elaborate chair, in which Almera was seated. The young man, presumably Hassan, draped one hand casually over the chair. He wore a brightly-colored ceremonial outfit, but that wasn’t what caught Morgan’s attention.

 

He was beyond handsome. His face was chiseled like that of a god, his eyes mesmerizing, demanding the attention of the viewer. Even in this photograph Morgan could sense his presence, his powerful draw.

 

She blinked, and looked back up at the man’s parents.

 

“How old is he now?”

 

“Twenty-seven,” Ahmed said, taking the picture and setting it upright on the table, where they could still look at it. “He was just out of college when this picture was taken—that was the last time he travelled back home.”

 

“He refuses to accept anything from us. We’ve tried to help him so many times, but now we don’t even know where he is. If anything has happened to him…” Almera began to weep again, silently, and Ahmed placed a steadying hand on her shoulder as she continued her futile attempt to maintain her composure.

 

Morgan cleared her throat. “So why me?” she asked, cutting to the chase. “If your son has gone missing, you should be involving the police. They could be a real asset in finding him.”

 

It killed her to say the words, but they were true. If anything truly serious had happened to Hassan, it would be better to involve the authorities from the outset. Morgan was good at finding people, but she was better at finding them when they were still alive.

 

“I don’t believe he is missing, per se,” Ahmed said. “He is being…difficult. A few weeks ago he called us, finally—he must have known we were sick with worry. He declared his intention to move on from this life—from our life—and that was the end of it. We were able to trace the phone call to a phone booth outside of Bledsoe, but we’ve heard nothing from him since. We would rather this incident not be made public, which would be the case were we to involve the local authorities. You understand?”

 

Morgan nodded. If the couple wanted to keep their son’s errant behavior under wraps, a private detective would be a much better way to handle the situation.

 

Ahmed reached under a pile of papers and pulled out a plain white envelope. He slid it across the table to Morgan and she saw that on the front of the envelope a number was written in cursive—a very large number.

 

“We are willing to pay for him to be returned to us—money is no object. Inside that envelope is a good faith payment—the first installment of your fee. You will get the rest when you bring Hassan back to us, or at least bring back information about his whereabouts.”

 

Morgan stared at the envelope. The number on the front would be enough to support her for several months, at least. It was a huge sum.

 

She didn’t touch it. Instead, she looked Ahmed dead in the eye.

 

“Why me? With your means, you could have your pick of any private detective in the city, and there are some who have much more experience than I do.”

 

She knew she was risking blowing the best gig she’d get in a long time, but she wouldn’t go into the job without having her questions answered. She had to know the truth.

 

Almera sighed. “The truth is, you are not our first attempt, my dear. We have had two other detectives go looking for our son, all for nothing. They came back empty-handed,” she said, frowning.

 

“They were also male,” Ahmed said with a knowing look. “You might need to know that Hassan has a certain weakness for women. I think with your looks and your skills, you are truly our best hope for bringing him home.”

 

“And what is that supposed to mean?” Morgan demanded, rising.

 

Ahmed sat still as a statue, looking up at her.

 

“It means that you are a beautiful young woman with a quick mind. Please don’t be offended, Miss Springfield. I only wish to speak freely with you, as you seem to desire.”

 

Almera grasped Morgan’s hand, and she sat back down, secretly embracing the soft cushion.

 

“I have a few things to give you, in the event that you find our son. Here is Hassan’s insignia ring—his proof of title. We found it in his apartment when we first began our search.”

 

Almera reached into her pocket and pulled out a large ruby ring. She opened Morgan’s hand and pressed the heavy piece of jewelry into her palm, closing her hand around it. The metal was cold against her flesh.

 

“Even if he decides not to come home—if he insists on rejecting us,” Almera sniffled here, but worked to hold herself together, “he deserves to have this with him. To remember where he came from.”

 

Releasing her grip on Morgan’s hand, Almera placed their family portrait face down on the table and released the clips holding it in place. Carefully, she pulled the paper image from its casing and handed it to Morgan as well.

 

“Study his image, so you can find him; so that you don’t forget.”

 

Morgan took a breath, looking at the pile of money on the table, feeling that ring burn a hole in her palm. Then she grasped the envelope in the other hand and stood. Ahmed and Almera stood as well.

 

“I accept your proposal. I will go looking for Hassan, and if I am not able to find him, your payment will be returned in full. Is that all right?”

 

Ahmed reached out and shook her hand. “It is more than all right. You are our last hope of finding our son, Miss Springfield. We look forward to hearing your report,” he said, releasing her hand.

 

With one last grasping handshake, Morgan bid farewell to Almera as well, and headed back out the gold-plated front doors, her mind a whirlwind.

 

***

 

Back at her apartment, Morgan pulled out the envelope and carefully counted the money—a thick wad of twenty-dollar bills. It was more money than she had seen in a long, long time.

 

A pang of guilt struck her belly as she finished counting it. Ahmed and Almera were so desperate for her help that they were willing to potentially throw away this much cash. They hadn’t even made her sign a contract or anything; a foolish mistake, but one that wasn’t uncommon among desperate people searching for answers about the ones they loved.

 

She tossed the money and the photograph on her bed, changing out of her clothes and into a comfy pair of shorts and a tank top. She pulled her thick brown hair up into a messy bun before plopping down cross-legged on her comforter and picking the picture up.

 

Morgan stared at the man in the picture, memorizing his features. He was so polished. So pristine. So miserable-looking.

 

Morgan gazed into the unseeing eyes of Hassan; eyes that looked completely lost. His posture was good. His clothing was exceptional. But he was unhappy, at least to her eyes, and he wasn’t hiding it very well.

 

She wondered, not for the first time, what would make this man give up a life of wealth and opulence. Sure, the responsibility of being a royal would be a lot to handle, but any adult brought up to hold that position would surely get over that eventually. Everyone had to grow up at some point.

 

Morgan jumped as her phone rang on the bedside table. Setting the picture down, she tapped the answer key.

 

“Hi, Mom.”

 

“Morgan Elizabeth, why haven’t you called me?”

 

Morgan rubbed her eyes with her index finger and thumb. She was never prepared for these conversations.

 

“Mom, I’m really busy. I’m sorry I can’t call you as much as you’d like…”

 

“As much as I’d like? Morgan, I haven’t heard from you in weeks! Maybe if you worked a regular job like everyone else it wouldn’t matter as much, but I know the kind of people you deal with. For all I know you could be dead! A simple text is not a lot to ask, honey…”

 

Morgan pulled the phone slightly away from her ear as her mother went on with her diatribe. After a few minutes she seemed to have talked herself hoarse, and finally took a breath.

 

“Are you done?” Morgan asked, propelling her mother into another wild rant about how inconsiderate she was and how she must have failed as a mother to raise a child who so clearly wanted nothing to do with her own family.

 

“Mom, you moved to Florida four years ago. What do you want from me? I’ve got a job here, and this is my home!”

 

“Well, maybe you should consider moving out to Tampa. If you’re going to put yourself in harm’s way, you could at least do it a little closer to me.”

 

“The thing is, I’ve just been offered another job, Mom. I can’t come to Florida. I’m sorry,” Morgan said, her voice dull as she tried to soften the blow.

 

“Remember that nice marketing job you had before this? The one in health insurance? Remember how good it felt to have a stable, reliable career, in a safe office building?”

 

“Nowhere is totally safe, Mom.”

 

“Some places are safer than others,” she countered.

 

Morgan sighed. “Look, Mom, I know you’re just trying to look out for me, but I’ve got a job to do, and a life to live. My life. Can you let me live it as I see fit?”

 

“I know you better than you know yourself, Morgan. I created you. Or did you forget that?”

 

It was an argument Morgan could never win.

 

“Look, Mom, I love you, okay? But my phone’s dying. I, uh, talk soon…”

 

“Morgan don’t you dare hang up on me! I know that your phone isn’t dying. If you think for one second…”

 

And Morgan ended the call.

 

Looking back at the picture of Hassan, she picked it up one more time.

 

“I think I get where you’re coming from, dude,” she said. Too tired to carry on working, she placed the photo and the money in a side table drawer before curling up under her ratty, comfortable old quilt and falling into a dreamless sleep. Tomorrow there would be plenty of time to think on the long drive to West Texas.

 

 

 

FOUR

 

Morgan jumped as her alarm went off. Blinking into the dark of night, she reached out blindly for her side table lamp and turned it on, squinting against the bright glow. The display on her alarm clock read 3AM.

 

She allowed herself a few moments to wake up as she sat up in bed, dangling her bare feet against the carpet. After a languid stretch, she stood and packed a small bag for the day ahead.

 

Before heading down to the parking garage beneath the building, Morgan grabbed her pistol and strapped it to her calf; Bledsoe was a long way from Houston, and she knew she would have to be prepared for anything.

 

Turning on her headlights, she navigated out of Houston, which was quiet so early in the morning, though not completely asleep. As she drove out of the city, the Texan sky loomed overhead, and the further out of the city she got, the more stars popped out for her to enjoy.

 

There was something peaceful about being able to see a sky full of stars. It was a sight that never failed to remind Morgan of her childhood.

 

She had always been a daddy’s girl. She’d loved her father more than anything. She’d grown up fishing and hunting, learning how to survive in the outdoors. They went on so many adventures she lost count.

 

Then he died.

 

She’d been in her early twenties at the time. She’d already accepted the job in marketing, and was packing up her dorm room to move into her new apartment when she got the call.

 

“Morgan?” her mother said, her voice shaky.

 

“What’s going on, Mom?”

 

“You need to come home, now.”

 

“Why? What’s going on?” Morgan felt a sinking feeling in her stomach.

 

“It’s your father. He’s died.”

 

With those words, Morgan’s world came crashing down, splitting into shards all around her.

 

It was all a blur after that, really. The funeral, the droves of people approaching her with tears in their eyes as they told her what an amazing man her father was, like she didn’t know that already.

 

“I’m moving,” her mother had said one day, out of the blue. They’d been sitting on the couch, watching a movie, desperately trying to find normalcy and coming up short.

 

Morgan had stared at her, not surprised. The house was a constant reminder of him. The pictures still hung on the wall. His clothing still hung in the closet.

 

“Where will you go?” Morgan had asked, taking a bite of chocolate. Her father had loved junk food. It wasn’t what killed him, in the end; that was a drunk driver. Morgan had tried to take solace in the fact that he had died quickly, but it still rang a little hollow. She hadn’t had a sip of alcohol ever since.

 

“I’m going to sell this place and retire in Florida. Texas is too full of memories; living here was your father’s decision.”

 

And I’m so grateful, Morgan had thought. Her father had passed his love of Texas on to her, though he also encouraged her to travel and see the world. Funny that he never did. He’d loved working at his little hunting and fishing store, and had never complained a day in his life about work. It was what he loved to do.

 

Morgan stopped off at a gas station outside of Waco, getting in a good stretch and filling up her tank. Her memories of home having sparked some nostalgia, she placed a phone call to her aunt, who lived nearby.

 

“Hello?” Shirley said. Shirley was her dad’s sister. With the distance they didn’t get to see her all that often, and what other chance would Morgan have to see her again?

 

“Aunt Shirley?” she said, and Shirley whooped into the phone.

 

“Is that Miss Morgan Springfield I hear on the other end of the line? Hal, its Morgan calling!” she shouted, one hand pressed against the receiver.

 

Morgan grinned, pulling the gas pump from her car and tapping the buttons to finish the transaction.

 

“To what do we owe this great honor, honey?” Shirley asked, her voice clear and bright despite the early hour.

 

“I’m actually just outside of Waco and I wanted to see if I could stop in to say hello.”

 

Shirley whooped again, so loud that Morgan had to pull the phone away from her ear.

 

“That would be wonderful, darlin’! You’ll be just in time for breakfast. You remember how to get here?”

 

Morgan told her she did, and ended the call, slipping back into the driver’s seat and heading over toward Shirley and Hal’s suburban home—a flat-roofed house that looked straight out of the seventies.

 

When she pulled into the driveway, her stout little aunt came running out the front door, hands already out for a hug.

 

No sooner had Morgan stepped out from the car, Shirley wrapped her in a tight embrace, rocking from side to side.

 

“Oh my baby girl! What a pleasant surprise! I’m so glad we were home when you called!”

 

“Aren’t you always?” Morgan said with a grin.

 

Shirley swatted her niece playfully on the shoulder. “Now, now. Just because we’re homebodies doesn’t mean we aren’t adventurous. I’ll have you know your Uncle Hal has started a beehive, and we just harvested our first jar of honey. Took forever to do it, but we’re suburban honey pioneers! Now all the neighbors are getting into it, of course. Jess up the street just built herself a chicken coop. Everyone’s into self-sustainment these days…”

 

Shirley chattered all the way into the house, where they met Uncle Hal and Morgan got another round of hugs. It felt good to be loved, to see her father reflected in her aunt’s eyes.

 

Morgan sat down on the couch and took the offered orange juice from her uncle.

 

“Sit, sit!” he implored. “Tell us everything! How are you? How’s life in the force?”

 

Morgan blushed. “Well, I’m actually not a police officer anymore. I’m a private detective.”

 

Shirley’s mouth made a round ‘O’. Her bright red hair was curly, with strands of gray along her temples, and she had clearly made no attempt to tame it this morning.

 

“Well, that sounds interesting. Do you meet a lot of crazy characters on the job?” she asked.

 

“Crazier than my mother?” Morgan replied.

 

Shirley frowned. “Now, Morgan. Your mother did the best she could, and she suffered when your father died. You should cut her some slack.”

 

“Easier said than done,” Morgan mumbled bashfully.

 

“You look so beautiful, honey,” Shirley said, changing the subject with practiced finesse. “You have your mother’s hair, but those are definitely your father’s eyes,” she said, tipping Morgan’s chin side to side as she looked at her tenderly.

 

Morgan tried not to blush again, but failed.

 

“So, tell us about men,” Shirley demanded, not missing a beat.

 

If it were possible for Morgan to turn any redder, she did, gazing into her lap for a moment.

 

“There’s nothing to tell. I’m working on building my business first, then maybe I’ll think about dating.”

 

“Hogwash,” Shirley said with a wave of her hand. “Morgan, you’re a strong, beautiful and kind woman. There is no reason for you to be alone in this world when you can have love.”

 

“Yes, but you’re forgetting that I have to find a man who is capable of that emotion.”

 

“What about that one guy, what was his name?”

 

Morgan began to regret this little pit stop. Hashing out her personal life was not something she liked doing, ever.

 

“Wasn’t it something kooky, like Danish or Donut or something?” Shirley said.

 

“It was Dashwood,” Morgan corrected. “And things didn’t work out.”

 

Dashwood had been alluring at first, but it took about two months of dating him before Morgan realized he was a self-absorbed jerk. She ended it quickly, and he hadn’t taken it well. It was, to date, the longest relationship Morgan had ever had.

 

Shirley tsked. “Ah, well. You’ll find the right man for you, Morgan. I’ll pray to Saint Jude tonight.”

 

Morgan paused. “Isn’t Saint Jude the patron saint of lost causes?”

 

“Nothing gets by you,” Shirley said with a wink, and Morgan laughed.

 

They chatted for a short time after that about the beehive and home repairs as Shirley cooked up a good-sized breakfast of bacon, eggs and pancakes. Morgan finished her meal with a large spoonful of homemade honey before insisting that she had to go.

 

“But you only just arrived!” Shirley protested while Morgan stood and gave her another hug.

 

“I know, but I’m on my way to another job, and I don’t have much time. I just really wanted to see you,” she admitted, hugging Uncle Hal again, too.

 

‘We’re always happy to see you, darlin’. You just stop in any time you’re around—we’ll be here!” Shirley said, waving as Morgan pulled her car out of the driveway and made her way back to the highway.

 

***

 

It had been nice to stop and take a break, but talking to her aunt and uncle had left Morgan feeling drained.

 

Why was it that a woman couldn’t be single without people looking at her like she was a freak?

 

Morgan had enjoyed being alone most of her life. There was nothing wrong with her. She was a fully capable person, making a living and benefitting society in her own way. Why was it that she had to be in a relationship before anyone considered her to be of any value?

 

Morgan pondered this as she drove on, her mind wandering as radio station after radio station faded out and she had to scan for a new one each time. One couldn’t live in Texas and not like country music, so Morgan enjoyed the twanging banjo of her favorite artists, rolling the windows down as she drove on and on across the deserted Texas landscape.

 

She glanced at her file in the passenger seat, sneaking another look at Hassan’s picture. Keeping her gaze on the road, which was bare except for her car, she stashed her phone in its hands-free mount and used voice recognition to find the phone number of the Bledsoe Police Department.

 

Rolling up the windows to keep the wind from blowing into the receiver, she dialed the number.

 

“Bledsoe Police Department. How can I direct your call?” A woman’s voice answered.

 

“Hi there. I’m looking for anyone who might know a man named Hassan Al-Khali,” Morgan said.

 

The woman scoffed. “Hassan Al-Khali? You really think anyone by that name is going to be out here?”

 

“That’s why I’m calling, yeah.”

 

“Goddam time-wasters,” the woman grumbled, and the call ended.

 

Well then.

 

It was just about what Morgan expected. The more rural one got in Texas, the more uncommon Hassan’s name would become, and the more he would stand out. Morgan had figured he would choose some kind of nickname that would allow him to fly freely under the radar.

 

That would make her job more difficult, though. If Hassan was using an alias, she would have to be even more studious in pursuing his movements. His description matched any number of men that could live out here…except for the fact that he was stunning. A man like that wouldn’t go unnoticed, and Morgan took comfort in that fact as she continued to drive on toward her destination. She wondered just what kind of man Hassan was, that he would give up a lifetime of financial security to live in the middle of the Texan desert.

 

After all, what kind of man would do such a thing?

 

 

 

FIVE

 

Morgan yawned.

 

She’d been driving for nine hours, all the way across Texas. The highway had been one long stretch of black pavement cast against barren landscape and an enormous, blue sky.

 

Between meeting Ahmed and Almera at eleven at night and waking up at three in the morning, Morgan was beyond exhausted. Still, she was used to functioning on very little sleep, and pressed on through waves of drowsiness.

 

It paid off. By the time she pulled into the gas station to fill up one more time outside of Lubbock, it was nearly noon. Stepping out of the car, Morgan reached her arms high into the air in a satisfying stretch.

 

Somewhere between Houston and Lubbock, all of the moisture had been sucked out of the air. Her hair whipped around her head in the swirling wind, and the air seemed somewhat cooler here. How strange, she thought, that one state could have such vastly different climates. She inserted the gas pump into her car and headed into the old gas station building.

 

An ancient-looking man sat behind the counter, surrounded by cigarettes and candy bars. Morgan reached for a Snickers and placed it in front of the man, who sat up with a creak to enter her order into the register.

 

“Good morning,” Morgan said with a smile.

 

The man said nothing. Instead, he pointed at the register where the price of the candy bar was displayed and waited to Morgan to hand over her money, which she did—one of the twenty dollar bills her benefactors had so graciously provided.

 

The man cashed out her bill and handed her the change, still not making eye contact.

 

“I wonder if you could help me with something,” she said, undeterred by his attitude. She’d dealt with reluctant talkers before; this was nothing Morgan Springfield couldn’t handle.

 

The man sat back in his chair. This time he did look at her face, though not directly into her eyes.

 

Morgan pulled out the picture of Hassan and pointed to him, showing it to the man.

 

“Have you seen this gentleman around here in the past few weeks?”

 

The man’s cloudy gray eyes darted to the picture, then back up to Morgan. She could tell he didn’t even take a look at it.

 

He glared at her, slowly, and shook his head. Then he sat back in his seat and turned to face a television that was showing some kind of gameshow.

 

Morgan grabbed her candy bar and left, replacing the gas pump and sliding into the driver’s seat of her car. She reached her arms up into the air and twisted from side to side, stretching one last time before the next stop.

 

Already, this wasn’t looking good. While the man had said nothing, his eyes had given something away. His glare at seeing the picture had made it plain that there was something there he didn’t like.

 

Turning the key in the ignition, Morgan continued westward toward the New Mexico border. Ahmed had said that Hassan had called them from a phone booth outside of Bledsoe, which was a short hour away from her current location.

 

The road continued on, straight and flat, and Morgan watched as a tumbleweed floated across the road. She was literally in the middle of nowhere.

 

Why would a sheikh with a fortune to inherit choose to come here?

 

When the town sign for Bledsoe came up on the left, Morgan glanced around at a series of old, withering buildings. The wind seemed to be blowing everything slowly into dust.

 

She noticed a small convenience store on the right, and pulled over on the side of the road. Parking clearly wouldn’t be an issue here—there were maybe one or two cars parked on the entire main road. It felt like a ghost town.

 

Small bells jingled on the door as Morgan entered the store. Inside were shelves filled with dusty nonperishables, canned ravioli and the like. Behind the register was an old white man reading a newspaper, his large gray mustache twitching slightly.

 

Morgan approached, clearing her throat, and slowly, the man lowered his paper and raised a bushy eyebrow.

 

“I’m looking for someone,” Morgan said, getting straight to the point. No one seemed particularly amenable to small talk out here, and it was clear that strangers weren’t well-received, either.

 

The man’s eyebrow didn’t lower. “And?”

 

“And I’m hoping you might be able to help me find him,” she said, pulling out Hassan’s picture once more and showing it to the man.

 

This time the gentleman took his time looking at the image. He stared at it for a few minutes before looking up at Morgan.

 

“Looks like some terrorists to me,” he said.

 

Morgan bit back a sigh. Clearly, a woman looking for a Middle-Eastern man was not something that happened in this part of the world very often.

 

Replacing the picture back into her purse, Morgan flashed a forced smile.

 

“You have a good day, sir,” she said before turning her back on him and heading out the door.

 

When she got back to her car, she kicked the tire, stubbing her toe in the process.

 

“Dammit,” she cursed, casting weary eyes around the desolate town. No one was walking on the cracked sidewalks. No one was doing anything. Where were all the people? How had the trail gone cold this fast?

 

Morgan caught sight of a flashing neon sign down the road. It wasn’t too hard to read, even if it was written in pink cursive.

 

Curl Up and Dye!

 

It was a hair salon. Maybe she might have more luck there.

 

Morgan reined in her frustration as she pressed the glass door forward, entering the salon.

 

Everything was pink. The chairs, the hairdryers, the brushes, the walls. Morgan nearly went blind staring at it all.

 

The front windows let in the bright afternoon sun, and a voice from the back called out.

 

“I’ll be with you in just a moment!”

 

Seconds later, Morgan watched as a large lady waddled her way to the front of the store, smiling broadly. Morgan bit back a grin at the trace of white donut powder still clinging to the woman’s upper lip.

 

“How can I help you today?” the woman said, still smiling as she looked Morgan up and down, examining her. “Looks like you could use some highlights, especially with the summer season upon us! A nice cut wouldn’t hurt either. We’ve got a great deal on a color and cut,” she said, gesturing to a poster on the wall with prices and options written on it.

 

Morgan cleared her throat. “Um, actually I’m looking for someone, and I was hoping you might be able to help me.”

 

The woman’s penciled-in eyebrows shot up at this. “Help? Me? Well isn’t that exciting! I’m so glad you came in—this will be the best gossip I’ve had in months!”

 

“Right. Well, I’m looking for someone, and I was wondering if you might be able to identify him,” Morgan said, pulling out the picture and holding it up for the woman to see.

 

The woman plucked the image from her with meaty fingertips and looked closely at the picture. She examined it for several minutes while Morgan waited in silence, trying not to look around lest she infect her eyes with any more pink. Then the woman looked up.

 

“I’ve never seen them before, but you don’t get too many Arab folks around here, you know. Still, if it’s a Middle-Eastern gentleman you’re looking for, I think I might know of one who was around not too long ago.”

 

Morgan’s heart leapt, but she kept her face neutral. How lucky was it to find the town gossip? She might have everything Morgan needed!

 

“Please, go on,” Morgan encouraged, and the woman rubbed her chin and gazed up into space, thinking.

 

“I think I might remember him a bit better if my hands are busy,” she said, gazing pointedly at Morgan’s split ends.

 

Taking a breath, Morgan forced herself to maintain a neutral expression. “And how would you like to do that?”

 

Again, the woman pointed to the sign.

 

A color and a cut was fifty dollars, and Morgan imagined this lady didn’t get too many customers out here.

 

“Fine. But just a cut. No color,” Morgan said, dropping her purse by one of the bright pink chairs and sitting down.

 

The portly hairdresser was surprisingly light on her feet as she whisked around Morgan and sprayed water onto her hair, which had to be greasy after a day of going unwashed.

 

The woman began clipping away, and, to Morgan’s relief, also began talking.

 

“Yes, come to think of it I had one of my regulars in here not too long ago telling me all about some handsome rogue. Mentioned on the sly that he was from abroad or something, but I think she was just trying to cover up the fact that she was seeing an Arab gentleman. Of course I don’t see anything wrong with it. Love is love, if you ask me, but not everyone feels that way.”

 

“So you know a woman who might have a connection to this man?” Morgan pressed. If she wasn’t careful the woman would go on chatting all day long, and she didn’t have that kind of time on her hands.

 

The woman smiled, clipping up a section of Morgan’s hair and snipping at it. Morgan wondered what she was going to look like after this, but tried not to care. As long as she could put her hair back in a serviceable ponytail, it didn’t matter.

 

“I just might. If you keep heading over on Main Street, you’ll eventually get to a bar called Ed’s Place. Can’t miss it—it’s the bright red barn on the side of the road. Ain’t no other buildings around. Ask for Channie, and you might just get the information you’re looking for.”

 

Morgan smiled then, ecstatic to have something to go on. She sat impatiently as the woman finished her cut and pulled out a blow-dryer and a brush.

 

It seemed to Morgan at least that she took her sweet time styling her hair, but when she looked into the mirror at the end she was relieved to see that she didn’t look all that different, though the style did compliment her face a little better.

 

Morgan smiled. “That looks great, thank you. So Ed’s Place, you said?”

 

The woman removed Morgan’s sheet and allowed the loose hair clippings to fall to the floor. “That’s the one. And Channie. She’s a great gal. Should be on shift right about now.”

 

Morgan handed the woman a twenty. “Thank you, ma’am. You’ve been most helpful.”

 

“Are you sure you don’t want a quick coloring, miss? It would really bring out the little green flecks in your eyes.”

 

“Not right now, thanks. Another time, maybe,” Morgan said, even though she had no intention of coming back unless she needed more town gossip to help her case.

 

The woman’s parting smile was friendly, and Morgan waved a hand as she departed and slipped into her car, heading straight to the bright red barn she could easily see from where she was parked. That was one good thing about this sparse location—everything was visible.

 

Morgan entered the barn through two saloon-style doors, which swung back and forth behind her as she made her way to the bar and took a seat on an old wooden stool.

 

A young woman with bleached-blond hair approached her right away. “Can I get you somethin’ to drink, miss?”

 

“Just a Diet Coke, please,” Morgan said, casually examining the woman. She was pretty—and the first person under fifty that she had come across in the small town.

 

When the woman came back, Morgan caught sight of her name tag: Channie.

 

Bingo.

 

“Thank you, Channie,” Morgan said, turning on the charm.

 

Channie smiled, her teeth straight and blindingly white. “You’re welcome,” she said, clearly evaluating her new customer. After a brief hesitation she said, “We don’t get too many strangers around here. It’s not exactly an exciting vacation destination.”

 

Morgan grinned. “You mean people aren’t dying to spend a glorious week bathing in lotion, hiding from the winds and enjoying the abundance of tumbleweeds?”

 

Channie laughed, and Morgan found that she liked the girl, which was saying something.

 

“It’s not all bad. The people here are pretty decent, once you get to know them.”

 

Morgan pointedly looked around the bar. At one table, a pair of old men sat playing checkers. At another, two young women were looking at their phones and giggling. That was it.

 

“I’m sorry, what people?” Morgan asked.

 

Channie smiled broadly. “They exist. It’s the middle of the day on a weekday; where do you think they are?”

 

Morgan had to grant her that. Still, the bar seemed unusually empty—though maybe that was just her Houston upbringing surfacing. She was used to having people around her all the time and found it comforting, which was maybe one reason why she felt so uneasy in the middle of nowhere.

 

When Morgan didn’t offer an answer to her rhetorical question, Channie pressed on, clearly looking for a conversation to pass the time.

 

“So what did bring you here, miss?”

 

Morgan pulled out her picture and slid it across the lacquered surface of the bar. She watched Channie’s expression carefully, catching the slight widening of her eyes as she looked at the image before glancing back up at Morgan.

 

“Who’s this then? Your boyfriend? Ex-boyfriend” Channie asked, unable to mask the slight hint of jealousy in her voice.

 

Morgan grinned. “Not at all. We’re old friends, actually. When I couldn’t get hold of him I thought I’d look into it,” she lied, not wanting the woman to suspect the truth.

 

Channie’s expression closed. “Never seen him before in my life. Besides, how would you know to find him all the way out here?”

 

Sensing that she was about to be rumbled, Morgan decided to tell the truth. “I can see you’re not one to be lied to, Channie, and I’m sorry about that. The truth is, I work for Hassan’s parents. They’re desperate to find him, just sick with worry,” Morgan knit her eyebrows, working to play the sympathy card.

 

“I…I…” Channie stuttered, looking down at the picture of Hassan.

 

Morgan placed a reassuring hand on Channie’s, her eyes pleading. “Please, Channie. His parents love him very much. All they want is to know that he’s safe. If you can tell me that, I promise I’ll leave you alone.”

 

Channie continued to look at the picture, but when she raised her eyes to Morgan, they were full of tears.

 

“I don’t know if he’s safe or not, if I’m being honest. We were together a few weeks ago, just for a night. He was so…” she gazed off into space, and Morgan could just imagine what she was thinking. Mesmerizing. Charming. Perfect. She’d thought all those things just looking at a picture of him, though she hardly wanted to admit it to herself.

 

Channie focused back in on Morgan after a moment. “You’re really here to help him? I don’t think he deals with the cleanest of people, but I don’t want to get him in trouble. He’s a good man, miss.”

 

“Call me Morgan,” she said, her smile reassuring. She could see Channie’s walls crashing down.

 

The woman leaned in and began to whisper. “A few weeks ago we spent the night together. He was such a gentleman, so kind. He drove me home the next morning on his motorcycle, but I haven’t seen or heard from him since. He did say he was on his way to New Mexico, and he didn’t know when he’d be able to call…”

 

Channie’s expression was sad. Morgan felt for her then. A young girl out in Nowhere, Texas.

 

Channie continued after a pause. “He mentioned a friend of his. Daryl Trent, I think his name was? You don’t often forget names here—not enough of them, you see? Said Daryl was just across the border, maybe thirty minutes out from here. It might be worth looking into. Maybe if you find his friend, you’ll find him next.”

 

Morgan gave Channie’s hand a squeeze. “Thank you, Channie. This is a huge help.”

 

“Can you do something for me, when you find him?” Channie asked, squeezing Morgan’s hand back before letting it go and moving to wipe down the bar top.

 

Morgan nodded, waiting for her request.

 

“Can you tell him ‘thank you’ for me? Thank you and I’m sorry,” Channie said.

 

Morgan lifted an eyebrow, but Channie’s mouth was firmly shut. She clearly had no intention of explaining more than that.

 

Nodding one more time, Morgan rose from the bar and threw another twenty next to her still-full glass.

 

“I will, Channie. Thank you for your help. I will keep you posted,” she said before making her way out of the bar and back to her car.

 

It was time to go find out just who Daryl Trent was, and what he knew about the mysterious, handsome Sheikh.

 

 

 

SIX

 

It didn’t take Morgan long to find El Gato Negro, the next closest bar across the border. The building was dilapidated, the flat roof slanting to one side and looking like it could collapse at any moment. A billboard-sized black cat was propped against the building, with an outline of blinking purple neon just flickering on as dusk began to settle.

 

Ignoring her growling stomach, Morgan locked her car door and headed into the establishment, repressing a cough.

 

The whole place reeked of cigarette smoke. Round tables full of sketchy-looking men peppered the warehouse-sized room, and in the back she glimpsed a series of pool tables with green lights suspended above them. Even from the front door Morgan could see smoke dancing under the distant light, slinking past into the otherwise shadowy corners.

 

The place was a dump.

 

Morgan took a seat at one of the tables and pulled a crusty menu out of the condiment holder. In spite of herself, she thought about ordering some food.

 

A shadow fell across her menu, and she looked up to see its owner.

 

A tall man in jeans, a denim shirt and a fringed, leather vest was staring down at her, a hungry expression in his dark-brown, almost black eyes. His hair was past his shoulders, unwashed and unbrushed.

 

Morgan stared him down for some time until the man shifted his foot and cleared his throat.

 

“We don’t get a lot of women in here…or strangers, for that matter. Who are you?”

 

So direct, Morgan thought. How pleasant of him. She tried not to grimace as the man straightened his belt, like he was trying to put his crotch even closer to her face.

 

She leaned back in her seat, assuming a posture of nonchalance.

 

“I’m looking for a man named Daryl Trent. You know him?”

 

The man’s dark eyes bored into her face, but Morgan met his stare with determination. She wasn’t the type to be cowed by silence or intimidation; she was ready to bust this place up in a moment’s notice if needed.

 

At the sound of footsteps approaching, Morgan allowed her gaze to dart behind the man’s shoulder, and she held back a gasp.

 

A huge skinhead had strolled up to the table, and was standing menacingly behind the dark-eyed man, who could clearly feel his presence.

 

Without hesitation, the first man stepped aside and moved along, not looking back. He slinked back into the shadows of the bar as the skinhead took a seat at Morgan’s table.

 

He was so large he barely fit in the chair. His blue eyes were cold—colder than any Morgan had ever seen, and she had seen a lot of darkness in the world.

 

“Now, here I am, minding my own business, playing a game of pool, when I hear my name from the lips of a beautiful woman from across the bar. Isn’t that interesting?” he said, his gaze running up and down Morgan’s body.

 

Morgan sat up, leaning in. “You’re Daryl Trent, I assume?”

 

“You assume correctly. Now, how can I help a pretty little thing like you?” he asked, leaning in as well.

 

It took everything Morgan had not to slap him and run from the bar. Her skin was crawling, shivers of warning slinking up and down her spine. This man was evil, and she wanted to get out of his vicinity as soon as possible. As usual, the best way to do that would be blunt honesty.

 

“You can tell me where I can find Hassan Al-Khali,” she said.

 

Daryl shot backward, nearly tipping his chair over as he did. His tattooed face was contorted with rage. “You dare bring up that name to me? Who are you?”

 

Morgan held firm, her face neutral. “I’m looking for him, and I hear you’re the one to talk to about finding him. I heard you were a friend of his.”

 

Daryl spit on the already filthy wooden floor. “The Sheikh has no friends here,” he sneered. “The guy’s a snake. I paid him good money to come through on a…deal, shall we say? The bastard took the money and disappeared. He’s marked for me, and me alone. So tell me, what do you know about his whereabouts, ma’am?”

 

The way he hissed out that last moniker was enough to make Morgan’s knees tremble a little. She didn’t know anything about Daryl Trent, but it was pretty obvious he was willing to do whatever it took to achieve his purpose, whatever that may be.

 

On the surface, however, she was cool as a cucumber. “A friend of mine was hoping to reunite with him…romantically. You were my only hope of a connection, but it looks like I’ve barked up the wrong tree. Thank you for your time, Mr. Trent,” Morgan said, rising to her feet.

 

Daryl rose too, grasping her arm.

 

Morgan tensed, ready to attack if necessary, but Daryl only grinned menacingly at her.

 

“You’re lying. I can tell. I’m going to let you walk out of here, but if you do find the bastard before I do without telling me, you’ll both pay the price on his head. Understood?”

 

Morgan moved closer and glared up into his eyes. “Don’t threaten me with a good time,” she said, gently prying his hand from her arm before strolling out of the bar.

 

She didn’t look back, but she kept her ears perked for the sound of a gun being cocked. Sometimes this kind of job just didn’t pay.

 

 

 

SEVEN

 

It was full on dark by the time she left El Gato Negro, and Morgan slid into her car once more, locking the doors immediately and taking a deep breath. Whatever Hassan was involved in, it wasn’t good, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to be a part of it.

 

As she pulled out of the lot, she drove north, thinking only of trying to find a motel she could crash in for a good night’s sleep.

 

It was around twenty minutes later when Morgan realized that the pair of headlights that had been behind her since leaving the bar weren’t going anywhere but her direction. Glancing in her rearview mirror one more time, she took another turn at random and sped up.

 

The car took the turn as well, staying exactly the same distance behind her.

 

A chill ran down Morgan’s spine. She was being followed.

 

Taking deep breaths to calm herself down, Morgan continued down the road, keeping an eye out for anywhere she could go that was well-populated—like such a place even existed out in the boonies.

 

A glowing red light caught her eye up ahead, and she drove until she reached another tacky-looking bar where the parking lot was filled with cars. Red neon spelled out the words “The Painted Pony”, accompanied by a rearing horse. Morgan could care less what the bar was—she only cared about staying in public, in front of witnesses…

 

Morgan parked her car right up next to the front of the building, squeezing it between two massive pickup trucks. She locked the car and held her keys firmly between her fingers—the better to use as a weapon, if necessary—and strode quickly into the bar.

 

This place was much more touristy than the other establishment’s she’d visited that day. There was a mechanical bull in the back with college girls taking turns riding it; country music was blaring as long lines of people drank cheap beer and danced in step with each other, laughing and having a good time.

 

Morgan made her way up to the bar, taking a seat, and a young man who looked like he was still in college came right up to her.

 

“Can I get you something to drink, miss?” he asked with a smile.

 

Wondering just how many times she’d heard that question in the past 24 hours, Morgan ordered her usual soda and tried not to glance around too suspiciously. The bartender brought her drink over, and she took a sip while eyeing some particularly nasty-looking nuts in a plastic bowl, wondering if it was worth it. Her stomach forgot all about its hunger, however, when two very large, very tattooed men sat down on either side of her.

 

“Hey kid,” one of them growled.

 

The bartender looked up and approached them with caution. Clearly he had dealt with these two before.

 

“Yeah?” he said, and the meathead on the left laughed.

 

“Now what kind of manners are those? Poor customer service, if you ask me.”

 

“I don’t want any trouble,” the bartender said, but his voice shook. He was no match for these two, and he knew it.

 

The one on the right laughed this time. “Trouble? Us? Never! Two buds on tap. Now,” he said, his glare piercing through the young bartender.

 

Morgan felt a pang of sympathy for him, but it was nothing compared to her own tremors. Without backup she was on her own out here. Hell, she didn’t even know where the nearest police station was.

 

Two beers slid onto the bar on either side of her before the shadow of the barkeep passed into the back room. Clearly he felt the need to hide, which was hardly encouraging.

 

“Hey, Johnny Boy,” said the one on the left. “You hear about that little gal who came into town asking questions?”

 

“You know, now that you mention it, I think I did hear something about some girl asking about things that don’t concern her,” the one on the right replied. He was stroking his bearded face as Morgan kept her gaze on her drink, preparing to pull out her gun if necessary.

 

The men took deep drinks of their beers.

 

“I’d hate to see what would happen to someone like that. Bad men ‘round these parts. All kinds of maniacs roaming about. The things they could do to a defenseless young woman, well, I can’t even say them out loud,” Johnny Boy said, and Morgan could hear the grin in his voice.

 

They were threatening her, torturously.

 

Her gun felt heavy tucked against her calf, strapped in tight. She would have to be quick. She didn’t believe they would do anything in public, but she couldn’t bank on that guess, either. Morgan felt a cool breeze dance along her back, and realized the bar area had gone noticeably silent.

 

As the dancers in the corner laughed on and the mechanical bull took on a new rider, Morgan finally looked up to one of the meatheads, and found him staring with a frosty expression at the door. She turned then, and there he was.

 

Hassan.

 

He was unmistakable. He had aged since the picture was taken, but maybe it just appeared that way because of the dark stubble clinging to his strong jaw. His eyes were dark and hooded as he glared at the men either side of her.

 

Everyone else in the bar immediately found a strong interest in their drinks, keeping their gazes down.

 

Hassan grinned then, and Morgan’s heart did a little flip.

 

“Alex. Johnny Boy. Long time no see,” he said, his voice holding only a small trace of his native accent. His tone was deep and masculine, exactly as Morgan had imagined it.

 

The men on either side of her chugged the last of their beers before they rose and turned to face Hassan.

 

“Sheikh,” Alex said. He cracked his knuckles as he approached, but Hassan continued to stare him and Johnny Boy down.

 

Morgan watched in wonder as the men spit on the ground at his feet, then made their exit out the front door.

 

Hassan stared ahead, and Morgan could tell he was listening for their exit. She watched through the window as their car pulled out of the lot, and Hassan took a breath and made his way over to the bar.

 

The frightened bartender reappeared to take the empty glasses from the counter.

 

“Did they pay you, Josh?” Hassan asked, not unkindly.

 

The bartender shrugged and took a deep breath. “Nah, but it’s all right. I gave ‘em the cheap stuff,” he grinned.

 

Her gaze focused intently on her soda, Morgan felt rather than saw Hassan turn to look down at her.

 

“Are you all right?” he asked, his voice gentle.

 

She looked up at him, into those deep brown eyes she had examined so many times in that picture, and saw that there was so much more in them than could be captured in a photograph.

 

She let out a shaky breath that she hadn’t known she was holding on to. “Yeah, I think so.”

 

“I’m Hassan,” he said with a nod.

 

“Morgan,” she replied with a small smile.

 

“Those aren’t the kind of dudes you want to get caught up with, Morgan,” he said, and Morgan raised an eyebrow at him.

 

“I’d gathered as much. You think I asked for their attention?”

 

Hassan relented quickly. “Of course not, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that.”

 

An awkward silence followed, and even though the music was blaring and people were laughing all around them again, the growl of Morgan’s stomach could still be heard. She blushed, taking a drink in an attempt to quiet it down.

 

Hassan looked back at the bartender. “Hey, Josh, can we get a couple of menus over here?”

 

Josh reached for a pair of crusty paper menus behind the counter and slid them in front of Hassan and Morgan.

 

Taking a look at the offerings, Morgan quickly ordered a burger and fries, and Hassan ordered a steak.

 

“So, what brings a city girl like you all the way out here?”

 

Morgan lifted an inquisitive eyebrow. “What makes you think I’m from the city?”

 

Hassan laughed. It was a warm sound—the kind one could never tire of.

 

“Your clothes, for starters. No one this side of Waco is that trendy.”

 

Morgan glanced down at her simple outfit—a blouse and a pair of pants wide enough to hide the gun that rested against her calf. Nothing special. Still, as she glanced around the room it became obvious that she did indeed stand out. Everyone was wearing some version of plaid and jeans, some paired with boots and a cowboy hat. Compared that that, Morgan was basically in a ball gown.

 

She grinned. “I guess you’re right,” she said, not answering his question.

 

Hassan didn’t miss a beat. “Why are you here, Morgan?” he asked again. His gaze was direct, like he could see right through her.

 

She smiled her most winning smile. “Just passing through. Wanted to see what life was like on the outskirts of New Mexico,” she lied, failing to hide her excitement as their food arrived in front of them.

 

Morgan didn’t care how unladylike it was—she was starving. She pounced on her French fries, smothering them in ketchup before taking bite after glorious bite. Like her father, Morgan had always had a weakness for junk food. It was why she worked out as much as she did.

 

“I can’t say that I’m finding it terribly exciting,” she blurted out between mouthfuls.

 

Hassan cut through his steak and took a bite, chewing for a few moments before he spoke again. “Not that exciting? You were just about to be abducted by two skinheads. I’d say that’s notable, wouldn’t you?”

 

Morgan frowned. “I’m sure they were just being bullies, and nothing more,” she said, not sounding entirely convincing, even to herself. Unwilling to meet Hassan’s eye, she focused instead on her burger, doing her best not to shove the whole thing in her mouth at once.

 

“Uh huh,” Hassan said, staring at her profile. “So tell me, what do you think about motorcycles?”

 

Morgan looked up then, surprised. “Um, I think they’re okay. Why?”

 

Hassan grinned. “Ever wanted to ride on the back of one?”

 

“Let me get this straight. You tell me I’m on the verge of being kidnapped, then you, a stranger, offer to give me a ride on your bike, with no destination in mind?”

 

“Well at least I’m a gentleman—I bought you dinner first, didn’t I?” he replied with a grin, tossing a few bills on the bar.

 

Morgan stared at the money, then back at Hassan.

 

“I don’t need you to pay for me,” she said, stubborn to the last. In truth, the more of Hassan’s parents’ money she spent, the worse she felt; even though she had found him, there was still no guarantee that she would be able to get him back home.

 

Hassan stood. “Of course you don’t, but if you’ll allow me, I think I can show you what the ‘outskirts’ of New Mexico really have to offer. Do you dare?” he asked, his gaze full of challenge.

 

He reached out a hand for her to take, and she glanced at it before meeting his eyes again. God, he was handsome. He wore a simple pair of jeans and a black T-shirt, like some Middle-Eastern James Dean.

 

Morgan narrowed her eyes, then slid her hand into his. It was warm and dry, the skin somewhat calloused. She liked the way it felt.

 

“I do,” she said, rising and following him out of the bar.

 

As the Sheikh strode toward a large, wide-handled motorcycle, Morgan cast a glance at her car.

 

Following her gaze, Hassan said, “Don’t worry about that. Lots of folks drink too much and leave their cars for the night here. They always just come back to get ‘em in the morning. Not much of a parking problem around here, you know.”

 

“I’ve noticed,” Morgan said, trying to ignore the increasingly rapid beating of her heart as they approached the bike.

 

She told herself that she was simply doing her job; she had found her missing person and had to stick to him like glue. If she was being honest with herself, though, she was thrilled to be going on an adventure with him.

 

They reached the bike and Hassan pulled a helmet off of the handlebars, handing it to Morgan.

 

“Here. It might be a bit big, but it should do the trick.”

 

Morgan plopped the heavy helmet over her head, shifting it until she could see out of the front. “Don’t you have a helmet?” she asked, her voice muffled behind the mouth piece.

 

Hassan grinned. “That’s the only one. I don’t do this all that often, as it goes.”

 

“What, give your only helmet to a lady while you seduce her with your wheels?”

 

“Who said I was seducing you?” he asked, his grin carving a dimple in his left cheek.

 

Morgan wanted to kiss that dimple, and then mentally chided herself for thinking as much. She shrugged her shoulders and said nothing as Hassan mounted the bike and looked over to her.

 

“Hop on,” he said, and she straddled her legs around his waist, holding onto the side of the bike. When he turned the engine on, the smell of gasoline and the vibration of the bike was an instant rush. Morgan’s stomach filled with butterflies, and as Hassan pulled out of the lot her arms wrapped around his middle of their own volition.

 

Under the full moon, the desert landscape took on an ethereal glow. Morgan breathed in the dry air as the wind blew all around them, encasing them in their own little bubble.

 

Hassan drove on the main road for some time, until Morgan saw a mountainscape come into view ahead of them. The Sheikh drove right up one of the hills, curling the bike onto a dirt road and continuing up the hilltop through scattered brush.

 

Morgan tried not to feel nervous as Hassan drove them deeper into the woods; his parents were good people, and her instincts told her that Hassan was, too. Still, she could tell he was dangerous—she just wasn’t sure what kind of danger she was in.

 

The bike’s lights flashed on an old wooden cabin, nestled within a smattering of trees, and Hassan pulled the motorcycle in front of it, turning the engine off.

 

Fighting off a pang of disappointment that the ride was over, Morgan pulled her leg around the back of the bike to dismount. Reluctantly, she slid her arms back from around Hassan’s middle, which was clearly muscular—she could feel his six-pack through the thin fabric of his shirt. Her legs felt stiff from being in the same position for so long, and she stretched as Hassan tended to his bike.

 

Removing the helmet, she tried to assemble her hair into something decent, handing it back to Hassan as he turned around.

 

“Thanks, Morgan,” he said, taking it. “Now, why don’t we go inside, and you can tell me the truth about why you’re really here.”

 

Morgan took a breath, meeting Hassan’s stare head on. There was no point in lying any longer. He’d seen right through her the moment he’d sat at the bar.

 

Hassan: The Sheikh’s Bad Boy Baby is available now.

 

 

Holly Rayner


The Sheikh's Twin Baby Surprise

Sheikh Omar Fakim Al-Daqqa has a problem: as presumptive heir to the throne of Al-Thakri, the Middle-Eastern nation’s constitution demands that he must have a child in order to accede to the throne. Knowing that his power-hungry brother is desperate to usurp his throne and have a baby before him, Omar knows he must act quickly, and he already has a potential mother in mind… Carrie Green is Sheikh Omar’s personal physician, and she’s quickly growing disillusioned with life in Al-Thakri. Wishing to travel the world and put her skills to better use, she needs a way out. However, when the Sheikh makes her a scandalous offer – an outrageous sum of money to have his child, and as quickly as possible - Carrie cannot turn him down. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Carrie has long harbored feelings for her gorgeous Sheikh employer, but she soon encounters second thoughts. Can Carrie really go through with it, and become pregnant by royalty? This is a standalone Sheikh romance novel from best-selling author Holly Rayner. It contains a guaranteed HEA, and a tale of romance that will capture your heart. As an added gift, it also contains the first few chapters of Holly Rayner's previous romances, The Sheikh's American Baby, and Hassan: The Bad Boy Sheikh's Baby.

  • Author: Forbidden Fruit Press
  • Published: 2017-05-09 18:50:26
  • Words: 61429
The Sheikh's Twin Baby Surprise The Sheikh's Twin Baby Surprise