BOUGHT BY THE SHEIKH
His Hired Bride
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:
“Sheikh Rafiq Al-Zayn… Sheikh Rafiq Al-Zayn….”
I repeated the name under my uneven breath, struggling on the step-stool. No matter what I tried, the final painting that needed to be hung for the exhibit just would not sit on the wall straight, and the task was chewing on my last nerve. It had been a long, exhausting day, and the most trying part of it hadn’t even started yet.
Wrestling with the frame, I kept up my mantra until the name started rolling off my tongue. Arabic names had always been a challenge for me, and it took practice, but I certainly wasn’t about to embarrass myself for a client as important as this. The Sheikh had phoned the gallery early in the morning, asking about availability for a last-minute private function he wished to organize for some guests from out of town. What was supposed to be a normal, boring Tuesday had ended up becoming a gauntlet of work as I closed down the gallery to the general public in preparation to host the Sheikh.
Rich clients only set up private viewings such as this if they were really interested in an artist’s work, and they usually left with at least one piece for their private collection. As it was, I couldn’t afford to refuse his offer.
Finally, the last of the hooks caught the frame with a satisfying click. I came down off the step stool and did a final check of the levels until I was satisfied.
The gallery space wasn’t much, but it was my whole world. The first floor of a pre-war building, the art space itself could only hold about fifty people max, but it was enough for me to fill easily enough on an opening night. The hardwood floors and track lighting kept me looking professional, even when my bank account said otherwise, and the old brick building was charming without looking dilapidated. In any other life, there was no way I could afford a space this valuable, but I had managed to rent it, and the studio apartment above it, at a steal, thanks to the landlord being a dear friend of my mother’s sister. Even with the networking hook-ups, though, being an artist wasn’t easy. Every month was like walking across a canyon on a tight rope, hoping I made it to the other side before a huge wind came and blew me into oblivion. So far, I had always made it. So far.
Nights like tonight could go one of two ways: they could shake the tightrope, or they could turn it into a stable and comfortable bridge. I did everything I could to make it the latter, and crossed my fingers that the rest would fall into place. But rich art collectors were nothing if not unpredictable; they lived in a world that few people would ever inhabit or understand, and as far as my experience served, they had no idea what it was like to live in the real world.
As if on cue, from around the dividing wall, the tiny bell of the gallery’s front door chimed, and my heart seized up in panic. I checked the dangling gold watch around my thin wrist; it wasn’t seven yet. Had the Sheikh decided to show up early? I wasn’t even dressed or ready for his party.
“Evangeline?” A familiar voice carried across the empty space and hardwood floors as the door shut the door gently in its antique jamb. “Sorry I’m late.”
Joel Perez, my best friend, came around the corner to find me staring at the painting, a backpack slung over one shoulder of his leather jacket. His jet-black hair was mussed up from the motorcycle helmet he had no doubt left out on his bike, and he gave me a charming smile when our eyes met.
“How are you feeling? Excited?”
Joel was certainly excited himself; the sparkling in his eyes betrayed as much, even from a distance, and I once again felt lucky to have him supporting me on nights like this.
I took a deep breath and sighed. “I think I’ll be more excited when it’s over.”
“Come on, now, that’s not the attitude to have!” said Joel. His Spanish accent gave his words even more sunshine than they already had. He walked over and put his arm around my shoulder, squeezing me into him. “Let’s get some happy in you. What can I help with?”
With a glance around the empty gallery, I said, “The refreshments table needs to be set out still, and I have to get myself ready. I haven’t had time.”
“I can handle the food, no problem. I’m sorry I wasn’t here earlier, Evie, I didn’t mean to make you hang all these by yourself…” he scolded himself.
“It’s okay, honey, I didn’t have to replace all of them. And besides, you were at work!” I waved a hand at him. “How does it look? Do you think it will pop?”
Joel dropped his backpack and wandered slowly around the gallery, spinning in slow circles, trying to get a full view of the exhibit. As my long-time friend, he had seen my paintings a million times, and from every conceivable angle, so he didn’t spend any time on the details. He knew exactly what I was asking of him. The collection had to look perfect for the Sheikh, and not just the paintings—the whole ambiance. Joel was always my second pair of eyes to keep me looking my best.
“It looks very powerful,” he said. “I love how you’ve split up the darks and lights between the divider.”
“It’s not too heavy-handed, is it?”
“Not at all, it’s very subtle. He probably won’t notice it, but his subconscious will. Did he ask for any specific works?” asked Joel.
I shook my head. “He barely asked for anything. He just wanted a private exhibit of my work set up for this evening. It had to be tonight, he said, so I thought it would be simplest to recreate the opening day exhibit with a few obvious substitutions. I still get compliments about it now.”
“Very smart idea. I don’t see Clementine anywhere, though…” Joel said, holding his chin thoughtfully.
I frowned, worried. The piece was a scene with more sexual charge than my works typically had, and at the last second, I had left it in the back room storage. Maybe my instincts had been off.
“No, I didn’t want to offend him. Should I have put it up?”
“Why would you offend him?” asked Joel.
I shrugged and wandered over to stand next to Joel in front of Oceanic, a four-foot-square scene of violent blue-gray waters and the vague hint of monsters and mermaids in the shadowy sea.
“I’ve never met a Sheikh before, so I didn’t want to take any chances. I don’t know what would offend him, I just don’t want to blow this opportunity.”
Rich clients made my life as a painter possible, but their visits weren’t frequent enough for me to have any kind of security. Not that any serious artist would ever expect anything less than a life of struggle, of course. I accepted that, and knew how fortunate I was to have the support of friends like Joel and to be successful enough to rent the gallery space in the first place. One mistake could cost me months’ worth of income, and my bank account was already starving to death. Things not working out tonight could pose a very big problem.
Joel shrugged. “You’re probably good to play it safe, mami. You just know it’s my favorite. I love seeing it up.”
“That’s just because you’re a pervert,” I said teasingly, resting my head on his shoulder with a smile.
“How can I be a pervert for body parts I don’t even like?” he said and kissed the top of my head. Joel was gay, and he enjoyed the painting’s sexuality for totally different reasons, but I liked to give him a hard time about it, anyway. “Go make yourself beautiful; I’ll get everything finished down here.”
“Yes, yes, go!” he said, shooing me toward the front door. “Time is wasting.”
My apartment was upstairs, above the studio space, a small, open-plan place with just enough room for me to sleep and relax. Even though I had some room downstairs to paint, I couldn’t stop myself from keeping one corner of the apartment for work, and glanced with longing at my current, unfinished work sitting silently on its easel. Being an artist very often meant doing work other than creating art, and some days, I found it very hard to accept—but the pile of past-due bills on the counter wouldn’t be ignored, either. It wasn’t like I had a real choice. It had to be done.
Less than an hour later, I returned to the gallery wearing my best dress and jewelry. It was a dark blue dress, cut in a vintage style with a high, tight waist and circle skirt that made my thin, pale legs seem even more doll-like. A square-cut bodice and thick straps completed the look. I let my long, shiny black hair stay down, but used a tiny faux diamond barrette to pull it away from my face. An equally delicate diamond on a white gold chain dangled from my neck, a gift from my grandma when I moved to the big city to try and make it as an artist. I wore it every time I had a showing. Simple black kitten pumps and some red lipstick polished off the clean but effective look I had worked hard to perfect over the years.
Joel had come through, as he always did, wrapping up the tasks to get the night off to a perfect start. The gallery lights had all been properly adjusted and calibrated, arranged to bring out the light and color of each work. At the rear wall, a small table draped in an elegant black cloth was stacked with an expensive array of exotic appetizers, and three bottles of chilled champagne aside clean crystal classes which were waiting to be filled. Very softly, almost indiscernibly, Golden Age jazz music played from the overhead speakers.
I had to stand there for a moment, just taking it all in with a big, deep breath and a smile. In moments like this, it seemed like all the terrible struggle of the artist life was worth it. Moments where I could stand and look at a sparkling gallery full of my work, all this pomp and circumstance to present it, all this beauty. It was so much work, but nothing made my heart happier. It made me feel like a real, bona fide artist. Joel would argue with me that I had been one of those for a long time—since I sold my very first painting, back in our hometown—but I don’t think he understood how easy it was to feel like a fraud in this world.
As my heels clicked along the hardwood floor, Joel came out from the back of the gallery with one of the floor sweepers in his hand, ready to give the hardwood one more dusting.
He gasped and smiled when he saw me. “Oh, honey, you look like a princess! Go on, give us a twirl.” He wound his finger in demonstration.
Rolling my eyes but smiling anyway, I obliged him, and admittedly did feel very princess-like as the blue fabric of my knee-length dress spun around me. Joel cheered me on, making me blush.
“Okay, okay, show’s over,” I said, looking at my watch. “We only have about ten minutes left.”
“Dios mío, I didn’t even realize,” Joel said, as he rushed with the sweeper to the front of the gallery. “Did I forget anything?”
I took a quick tour around and didn’t see anything amiss. Joel finished up sweeping the floor with only minutes to spare, and gave me a quick peck on the cheek before heading into the back room to get changed for the evening. While I waited for both him and my guest, I paced the gallery once again, eyeballing my paintings, whispering his name under my breath.
“Sheikh Rafiq Al-Zayn, Sheikh Rafiq Al-Zayn….” I turned with a whimper to Joel as he breezed past me to put the sweeper away. “These private exhibitions always make me so damn nervous, Joel. At least in a crowd, the pressure isn’t entirely on me.”
Joel stopped and turned back, dropping the sweeper on the floor. He opened up his big arms to me and held me in a tight, warm hug. Instantly my nerves started to calm.
“You’ve done this a hundred times, mami, and for all sorts of rich and powerful people. They love you! Look at you. You are a charming flower they want to put in a vase and take home. Tonight will be no different.”
“You’re the charmer,” I said. “Thank you. I don’t know how I would do this without you.”
“Try the hummus before he gets here and eats all of it—it’s incredible.” Joel winked at me and picked up the sweeper, disappearing into the back room.
Two hours later and the hummus was gone. Despite my protests to keep everything as beautiful and perfect as it was when we set it all up, Joel couldn’t help himself, not after the first hour of aimless waiting. After all, he’d come straight from work without stopping for dinner, and I didn’t protest as he greedily scooped up the dip with leftover spiced pita chips straight from the bag.
We had set up some of the plain black chairs on either side of the snack table once our feet started to hurt. I looked across at him as he finished it up, chin in my hands. Joel gave me a satisfied wink as he licked his lips.
“I can’t believe this,” I mumbled. My heart felt like it weighed a thousand pounds. “Why can’t rich people value anyone’s time but their own?”
“A question for the ages,” said Joel. “I wish I could say I was as surprised as you, but I’ve worked in too many high class restaurants to have any fantasies left about them.”
“I’ve dealt with uptight jerks before, but I’ve never been stood up by someone who went out of his way to arranging a showing. It’s insanity.” With a sigh I checked my watch for what felt like the millionth time that night.
Two hours, ten minutes past seven, and the Sheikh was a no-show. Neither my phone, nor the gallery’s landline had rung all night, and my two calls to the Sheikh had gone unanswered.
“Maybe it was a prank call or something. I should have done some research to make sure he was for real, but he called so late in the day, all I could think about was getting the gallery ready,” I muttered.
“This isn’t your fault, honey, even if it was a prank,” said Joel. He put the lid back on the empty hummus container and dropped it in the waste basket under the table. “It would have been worse if you hadn’t taken it seriously and he had shown up. There is no damage to your reputation tonight, at least. You did everything right. He’s the idiot here.”
“Yeah, well, at least I could have been smart enough not to get my hopes up about the money,” I admitted. I’d been daydreaming not only about paying the bills, but about buying a fresh set of paints all day, a dream that was quickly evaporating like steam into the open air.
We sat in silence for a few tense moments. The jazz music overhead wasn’t doing anything to calm my anger, like it usually did. Joel watched me from across the snack table with a sad, worried look in his big brown eyes.
I hated quitting. Giving up felt like a tiny death. But there was no point hanging on to the night’s fantasies, not now. With a deep breath I got out of my chair and made a half-hearted gesture in the direction of the snack table. “Do you mind if I put all of this back in the fridge? At least I’ll have lunch for a—“
The sound of the gallery door opening, the clear ring of the bell, interrupted me. Both Joel and I turned fast. Following it came the sound of sloppy high-heeled steps on the hardwood floor, accompanied by girlish giggling and squeals.
Smoothing out my dress, I walked around the dividing wall with purposeful steps and a big smile, trying to swallow the anger that was bubbling in my gut. But that anger only got hotter at the view in front of me.
The Sheikh, I could only presume, was a tall, young, attractive man with broad shoulders and a body that betrayed his hard work in the gym. His hair was even blacker than Joel’s, somehow; the color of a starless night sky. Chiseled and handsome, he wore a crisp beige linen suit and Italian leather shoes. From under his sleeves and collar, the edges of tattoos teased across his bronze skin.
On each of his arms was a blonde woman—they might have been sisters, they looked so alike—in tight but expensive cocktail dresses that accentuated their ample curves. Purses swung precariously from their forearms as they clung onto the Sheikh with each drunken step they took into the gallery, laughing and pushing at each other over some joke I must have missed.
The sight froze me. This was a new one. I gathered my composure and reset my smile. The art business was nothing if not customer service-oriented.
“Good evening, Sheikh Rafiq Al-Zayn. I’m Evangeline Pryce. We spoke on the phone earlier.”
I held out my hand to shake his, and the women looked at it as if I was trying to hand him a rotten egg. The Sheikh, who seemed to be having trouble focusing on my face, didn’t notice it at all.
“Where is your drink service?” he asked in a loud voice. When a gross belch followed, both of the women fell into uproarious laughter.
Stunned and only growing angrier, I made a gesture toward the table at the back. “I’m sure the food is cold by now, unfortunately” I said sharply.
Joel came from around the back wall, hands held politely behind his back, but the Sheikh pointed and angrily said, “I thought I specifically asked for this to be a private exhibition.”
I whirled around and exchanged a look with Joel.
“This is my assistant, Joel Perez. He’s not here to view the art, sir.”
The Sheikh only huffed and hooked his arms around the necks of each of the girls as he led them back through the gallery, toward the drinks. Joel smiled until the Sheikh passed, and then he turned to me with a bitter and twisted look on his face, like he smelled something nasty.
Joel and I stood at a distance, trying not to crowd or rush the trio, as they poured glass after glass of champagne and drank them faster than anyone I’d ever seen. After ten minutes, it became clear they’d forgotten they were in an art gallery.
Joel stealthily put his hand on my back, a gentle gesture I knew too well.
He was trying to keep me calm, but I couldn’t help myself. Instead I asked in a loud and firm voice, “Can I answer any questions about the art for you?”
None of them turned or even acknowledged I had spoken. Heat crept up my neck and face.
The Sheikh tipped over the last of the champagne bottles, and it rolled across the table and hit the wooden floor with a loud crack. He looked around a moment, ducking to glance under the table by lifting the black cloth, and once he didn’t find anything else to drink, he pulled the blondes close by their tiny waists and whispered something in a deep timbre in each of their ears. Whatever it was made both of them blush and shiver.
“Ay dios mío,” said Joel to himself. He shook his head and walked away from the scene.
I couldn’t walk away. I was too furious. Like a car wreck, I couldn’t look away from the horrible mess this night had turned into.
The drunken party headed back toward the door, breezing by me as if I were a ghost. The Sheikh said nothing to me, not even glancing at the paintings before he disappeared into the night with the two women.
Dark realization came over me as it became apparent that the Sheikh had never intended to purchase any of my art. He didn’t care about me or my work at all; he only wanted to put on a show for his lady friends, to impress them into sleeping with him. He had wasted an entire day of my life just so he could get laid.
That was the last straw. Heels pounding like a judge’s gavel on the hardwood, I marched through the gallery and out the front door to follow them. A shiny, intimidating black car sat idling on the curb, and the blondes were trying to fall inside without hurting themselves as the Sheikh and a well-dressed chauffer waited.
“Hey!” I said, stalking up to him.
The Sheikh turned at the sound, wobbling on his feet just a bit.
“What do you want?” he said.
“You’re an inconsiderate asshole, you know that?”
Suddenly the sound of the idling engine was all I could hear. The blondes had stopped wrestling with each other, and even the thin chauffer seemed to have frozen in surprise. The face of the Sheikh had lost all pretence of humor.
“What did you say to me?” he asked in a deep voice.
“I said you’re an inconsiderate asshole. You wasted my time and the time of my assistant tonight. I know the art world is just another playground for people like you, but this is my life. This is everything I am, and you just crumpled up all my work and threw it away like a piece of trash. You’re an asshole.”
The Sheikh stared at me silently, his dark eyes piercing through mine. Before he could respond, I whirled on my heels and headed back inside, slamming the door behind me and locking it. By the time Joel and I cleaned up the gallery, the car was gone.
Sleep came fitfully that night. Joel couldn’t stay much longer after we cleaned up, and he’d been such a champ for me this and many other nights that I didn’t pester him, even though I wanted the company. Instead, my company was an unopened bottle of Cabernet and a long, hot shower. Hours passed, tossing and turning, as I had imaginary conversations in my head with the arrogant asshole from the night before. What little bite I’d given him didn’t feel like enough.
The next day, I was too tired and down to worry about changing out the paintings in the gallery for the general public. The curation I had done for the Sheikh was a bit different than what I typically kept hanging up, but that was a problem for another day, I decided once I came downstairs.
The gallery opened on time at 9am, and as usual, no one was pounding on the doors to get in. At least the warm sunshine spilling across the floor and white walls seemed to be lifting my mood. After running through my opening checklist, I made a pot of burned coffee in the kitchenette in the back room and stood in the hallway, where I had a good view of the gallery floor, while I enjoyed the warmth.
Around noon, some looky-loos wandered in and planted themselves right in front of Constantine, a long horizontal piece brimming with hazy orange and yellow light, and the faint impressionist view of the Hagia Sophia’s iconic minarets. Keeping my distance at first, I let them take in the gallery and the piece before attempting any interaction. Some of these people were like bunny rabbits, and if I moved too fast, they’d be right out the door, and so would my rent money.
Before I could get to them, the gallery’s front door swung open and shut. Turning my head, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
It was the Sheikh, closing the gallery door gently behind him. The expression on his handsome face was nothing like the night before. There was no snooty power, no anger, no darkness. He was pale, his lips dry. He’d shaven cleanly and showered, and instead of a nighttime-style tailored suit, he wore a casual button-up and slacks. But he was clearly in the throes of a hangover. He took off his dark sunglasses and scanned the gallery until his eyes landed on me. His gaze softened so distinctly that I could see it from across the room.
Anger flared behind my eyes as I blinked in disbelief. I never expected he’d have the nerve to show his face around here again; but then, rich assholes obviously do whatever they want, regardless of whose days they ruin.
I looked back to the middle-aged couple near Constantine. They hadn’t noticed me approach and were still talking quietly with each other as they swept over the features of the work with pointed fingers. I changed course and headed for the Sheikh.
He stood waiting for me, and I crossed my arms as I came to a stop in front of him.
“What is it I can do for you now, Sheikh Al-Zayn? You already drank all of my champagne, remember?” I said lowly.
He cleared his throat. “I think I’ve lost the right for such respectful formality. Please, call me Rafiq.”
I didn’t respond.
Something almost wounded crossed his face, and he ran a big hand through his black hair. “Miss Pryce, I’m here to tell you that I’m truly sorry for everything that happened last night. May I ask for a moment to speak with you…” he gazed over to the couple, “in private?”
“You can speak to me right here,” I said. “Your performance last night didn’t earn you any favors from me.”
There was no way he was going to get me alone where he could intimidate me; he wasn’t the first arrogant jerk I’d met in my life.
He didn’t argue with me. “Very well. Let me apologize to you profusely for my behavior last night, and for the behavior of my… friends.” He cleared his throat. “I’m afraid things got a little out of hand at the engagement we had been attending prior, and I didn’t realize at the time that I was in no shape to make our meeting. I should have called and cancelled.”
“You should have stayed sober enough to make your appointments,” I said before I could stop myself. Some voice deep in my mind was warning me that my own behavior was crossing a line, but I was too upset to care. “I didn’t get as far as I am by letting people walk all over me, and you’re not about to be the first.”
Rafiq’s face fell, but he didn’t get angry. He only nodded again. “Fair enough. I respect that,” he said. “My behavior was selfish and indefensible. I hope you can forgive me.”
I fell silent. With a big sigh, I averted my gaze and watched the foot traffic out the window. “Your apology is appreciated,” I said, not without some bitterness. “Forgiveness, well—that might be a while.”
Rafiq didn’t press further. Instead he turned and tucked his hands behind his back as he began a sauntering stroll toward the nearest panting to his left. Actually, paintings, plural—the work was an amalgam of six smaller canvases painted with a single cohesive image. The separate canvases allowed me to create space in certain parts of the picture, but not others, and to change it at will. This was the fourth arrangement I’d tried since painting it years ago, but it was always titled Locusta.
He came to a stop in front of it and tilted his head as he took in the deep greens and royal blues, the way the strokes seemed to simultaneously suggest both snakes and rivers, while little white ruins of the Roman variety peeked out from beneath the darker tones, like cities hidden in the jungle. After watching him for a moment, I came up beside him.
“This is exceptional,” he said in a firm voice.
His compliment surprised me. “Oh?”
“Do you ever re-arrange the canvases?” he asked, shifting his hand around in the air. “Create different shapes?”
A smile rose to the corner of my lips. “In fact, I do. How did you know?”
“No reason,” he replied.
We made our way together around the gallery, and in stark difference from the night before, Rafiq stopped at each and every canvas and gave it a thorough, respectful analysis. He had nothing but glowing praise, and I found myself wondering if he was just trying to sweeten me up after last night. There was no way he didn’t know how charming his sparkling half-smile was when he flashed it at me. Even Joel, as mad as he had been the night prior, had pointed it out as we were cleaning up.
We arrived at Constantine and I realized the looky-loos from before had disappeared, empty-handed. A pang of guilt cut my heart; I probably should have paid them more attention.
Rafiq stopped short, as if stricken, when he turned his eyes to Constantine. Maybe it was the familiar landscape. He wasn’t Turkish, but surely as rich as he was, he’d been to Istanbul himself, and seen the great minarets.
After a few minutes of silence, he spoke. “Your use of color is very bold. I’m so tired of pastels and faded nostalgic tones. I don’t relate to this ache people have to live in the past.” He turned from the painting to look down at me, standing next to him. “Your work doesn’t live in the past, though, does it?” He waved a hand at the painting. “No, this is the color of the present, and the future. You may use old things in your work, but you’ve brought them from the past with you, instead of joining them there.”
Stunned, I had no response. It had been years—if it had ever happened—since someone had spoken in such a way about my work. Sure, plenty of my rich buyers gushed over the pieces they purchased, rattling off the lingo they remembered from their half-century-old Art History degrees as they talked about how envious their friends would be at the way it looked in the library.
But Rafiq’s words were different. The way he spoke about art seemed…genuine.
“I, uh…” I said. “Thank you. That is a real compliment.”
Rafiq’s eyes studied me for a moment, until I grew uncomfortable under the weight of his gaze. As if he could sense it, he smiled and moved on.
The last painting he had to see in the gallery was Oceanic, with all its swarming wet darkness and mythical monsters. Rafiq stood before this one for longer than he did any of the others, even stepping back to take in the fullness of the canvas. He pressed his face up close to get a good look at the monsters in the misty darkness, tracing the sea spray with a light fingertip.
“I must have this,” he said lowly. “It’s perfect.”
My heart seized up in my chest. I didn’t want to get my hopes up about what I thought I’d just heard. Oceanic was one of the largest canvases—and it was expensive.
Rafiq turned and repeated, “I must have this one.” He reached his hand in his fine jacket and pulled out a snakeskin wallet. From within it, he produced a platinum credit card, the likes of which I had only seen once or twice my whole career. “Please, charge this. Is your assistant here to help us wrap it for transport? I probably owe him an apology, too.”
“He’s not here at the moment,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. “He only helps with special events.”
“Not a problem, my driver can assist us,” said Rafiq, pulling his smartphone from a different pocket. He sent a quick text as he simultaneously explained, “Ahmed has been with my family for years, and he has very delicate hands. He has helped me move fine art many times before. I would not suggest it if it would put the painting at risk.”
His forthright concern for the artwork warmed my heart. As angry as I still felt about the Sheikh’s behavior, I wasn’t about to argue my way out of this meal ticket. My rent would be paid for three months on this sale alone.
“Then I’ll be right back,” I said, rushing through to the back to fetch a step stool and the wrap for the painting.
When I returned, Ahmed had joined Rafiq. I recognized him as the driver from the night before, who had looked as stunned as Rafiq when I stood up to him. They were nearly the same tall height, but Ahmed was thin like a green bean, his bronze face wrinkled with age and sun, a thick black moustache neatly manicured under his nose. He and Rafiq spoke to each other in Arabic, pointing at the painting. Judging by the look on Ahmed’s face, he liked it as much as Rafiq did.
“Miss Pryce,” said Rafiq. He held out a hand to me, and reluctantly I took it. He planted a tiny kiss on the back before gesturing with his other to the driver. “This is Ahmed. Ahmed, Miss Evangeline Pryce, the artist.”
“Ah, madam,” said Ahmed, bowing his head politely toward her. “A fine job you’ve done here, a fine job. Your work makes my heart sing.” He held his hands up in a joyous gesture.
“Thank you, sir,” I said, blushing.
I watched with some reservation as the men carefully took the canvas from the wall. They were tall enough that the step stool was entirely unnecessary. They wrapped it until it was fully protected from any errant drop of rain or worse. My heart felt a little broken, as it always did when one of my paintings left. Somehow, it was like giving up a little part of myself.
Once the painting was safely loaded in the town car, Ahmed returned to the driver’s seat, and Rafiq followed me back inside the gallery to wrap up his transaction. He waited across the counter as the credit card machine ran his four-figure bill.
“Thank you for your business,” I said to him and held out my hand. “I’m glad we could find you a piece after all.”
Rafiq smiled, and this time it most definitely was a charmer. He took my hand and covered it with both of his. “Thank you for giving me a second chance.”
Heat rushed through my skin and up my neck, and judging by the glint in his eye, Rafiq could see it, too.
I nodded and pulled my hand away gently. “I’m glad you enjoy my work.”
“I enjoy it a lot,” he said. “In fact…”
Rafiq turned on his expensive shoes and marched around the gallery one more time, as if he was looking for someone or something. I watched curiously from behind the counter until he came back up to me.
“Actually, I’ve changed my mind about my purchase,” he said.
My heart sank. “You have?”
“Yes,” he said. “I’d like to buy all of them, please. And I’ll pay double your asking price.” He slid his platinum card back across the counter toward me.
My jaw dropped. “What? You can’t be serious!”
“Why not? Are some of them already sold?” he asked with a frown.
“No, no, it’s not that…” I shook my head and closed my eyes for a second, my brain unable to comprehend what was happening. “Did you say you want all the paintings….all of them, and at double the price?”
“That’s correct,” he said. He pointed to the card again and smiled. “I will have to send a truck for them, unless that’s inconvenient.”
My mom hadn’t raised a fool, and it wasn’t like I’d just blown into the big city from Nowhereville, USA.
Picking up the platinum card, I said, “I would love nothing more than to see all these paintings in a good collection, but…I just don’t believe you would drop that kind of money without expecting something more than paintings in return. I’ve been in this business long enough to know that, Rafiq.”
A slow, lazy smile spread across Rafiq’s handsome face. “Beauty, talent, and a sharp mind.”
He sighed and, from his other inner jacket pocket, produced a mahogany-colored flask. He unscrewed the cap with harsh fingers and took a swig, apparently unconcerned by me seeing him do it.
“You can call me Evangeline,” I said.
“Evangeline,” he said softly. “I think it’s about time I found myself a girlfriend.”
His words were an utter surprise, so much so that we both began to laugh in absurdity and discomfort.
“I’m sorry, did I miss a step here?” I asked. “Weren’t we just talking about you buying my inventory outright?”
“And what I would require in exchange for such a gift, yes. I’m sure that kind of money would not be unwanted in your life, would it?”
I paused, but that in itself was the answer. “No, it wouldn’t,” I said, eyes cast down.
Rafiq sighed again and took another drink. He looked around to make sure we were alone, that no one had sneaked in the gallery unnoticed.
“Do you know who I am?” It wasn’t a haughty threat, but a sincere question.
I shook my head honestly, staring into his big brown eyes.
“Rich. Powerful. But not as rich and powerful as my father,” he said. “And at present you could say he is somewhat…displeased with me.”
Rafiq stood up straight and shrugged. “It’s a bit of a long story. Suffice it to say, the lifestyle you witnessed last night is more or less a common one for me, and it’s generated some unfortunate damage to my family’s reputation.”
“Really? I can’t imagine,” I replied dryly, unable to help myself.
Rafiq narrowed his eyes at me, but it was playful. “Indeed. And my father is coming halfway around the world just to scold me for it.”
Nothing about his family experience was relatable to me—not the wealth, not the power, and certainly not trouble with my parents. Though they wanted to see me stable and safe, they never shamed me for my lifestyle choices. I couldn’t imagine being halfway around the world from them, and then dreading a visit.
“What does this have to do with me?” I asked.
Rafiq rubbed his fingers against his full lips. “I would like for you to pretend to be my girlfriend while my father is in town; to make me look more respectable, more, what’s the word, traditional than I currently am. And, truly, there is no one my father will respect more than you, Evangeline. You are a perfect fit for the role.”
Heat flushed across my skin, and butterflies erupted in my stomach. I couldn’t stop my mouth from dropping open. Was he seriously offering to pay me to be with him?
“You are a gorgeous, successful American artist. Witty, strong and talented. I’ve no doubt he will see you as a perfect mate for his heir,” said Rafiq. He returned his flask to his jacket, and leaned his big hands on the counter, bending just slightly my direction. I could smell his musk, and his expensive cologne, mixed with the sharp scent of rum.
For a split second, his proposition had almost felt flattering. On the surface, Rafiq was everything a woman like me could hope for: charming, handsome, intelligent, and rich. He was clearly interested in the arts, even if he was just a casual collector. Being by his side, even temporarily, would probably end up being fancier and more exciting than any vacation I would ever be able to take. Rafiq lived the fantasy life an artist like me would never be able to touch.
But critical thinking forced its way back into my mind and suddenly everything about the situation felt uncomfortable and wrong. I felt dirty.
I shook my head and pushed his platinum card back across the counter. “Look, I… I appreciate that you enjoy my work, and thank you for taking Oceanic home. But art is the only thing for sale in this gallery, Rafiq—the artist certainly isn’t.”
Rafiq pursed his lips, but said nothing, and only nodded. He shoved one hand in the pocket of his slacks, and came out with a business card, which he tossed next to the platinum credit card that was still on the counter. “Think about it, Evangeline. I really do love your work, and I’d love to be able to bring all of it home with me.”
Before I could respond, he turned and left the gallery.
“Life is very, very weird,” I said to Joel, carefully depositing two cups of tea on the table.
“Ay, I agree, but this is isn’t just weird. This is Hollywood weird,” laughed Joel. He was typing away on the laptop and I turned off the stove and cleaned up the counter before joining him at the small plain table in my studio kitchen. “But then, you’ve always been a magnet for weirdness.”
“I have not!” I said in mock offense.
“Have too!” said Joel, sticking his tongue out. “You always seem to find your way into the trickiest labyrinths…”
“Okay, guy, enough with the editorializing. What am I going to do about it?”
When Rafiq had gone, I had been left barely able to wrap my head around what he had proposed. My first instinct had been to call my mother back home, but I was terrified she would find the proposition so offensive that she would be upset I was even considering it. Joel was the only person I trusted enough to help me with a conundrum this complex, and he came over after work happily when I told him about what had happened.
“This is like Pretty Woman, but if she was a painter instead of a prostitute,” he said with a smile.
“Oh, gee, thanks!” I said, slapping his shoulder.
“Hey, that’s a compliment. She got her happy ending, didn’t she?”
“You know I love you, Joel, but this isn’t a movie. The kind of money he’s ready to spend… I have to take this seriously. That is basically a year of prepaid bills, plus I could go home and see my parents, upgrade a few things around here…”
“And take your handsome and very single friend Joel to somewhere warm and tropical, where he can sit on a beach drinking fruity things and watching the hot boys walk by?” Joel batted his eyelashes at me and we made kissy faces at each other.
“Exactly,” I laughed. “But none of that is going to happen if I say no.”
“So what’s the problem, mami? Say yes.”
“I just can’t shake the feeling that saying yes would actually turn me into a prostitute.”
Joel shook his head and momentarily turned back to the laptop. He was doing a search on Rafiq, so we could learn more about him and his reputation before I made any decisions.
“Did he say he expected you to sleep with him?”
“Then at the most, you are selling your time, which is actually your rarest asset. I say it’s about damn time someone paid to have you around. You’ve certainly given your precious self up to plenty of dirtbags for free in the past, haven’t you? Your idiot exes who kept you away from your art and got jealous of your success? You should have been charging them!”
I laughed. “Actually is it too late to do that? They would owe me some serious cash.”
“Let this new rich one pay for them,” said Joel. “He obviously wants to. Money is nothing to them, mami, they buy their way out of everything. You’re the solution to his problem, there’s nothing wrong with that.”
I sighed. “I’m still worried, though. In this small community of artists you don’t have to do much before you end up hopelessly chewed up by the rumor mill.”
“Well let’s see what we can find out about this handsome, drunk boy, and help you make your decision.”
Joel waved his hand twice until I scooted my dining chair to sit next to him, so we could both lean over the screen of the laptop as he scrolled through the images his internet search returned.
“Well, at least we know every inch of him is as hot as his face, ay!” said Joel, scrolling through page after page of paparazzi photos of Rafiq in exotic locations all over the world.
Photos of him in swim trunks, hanging out on sun-drenched beaches, surrounded by impossibly gorgeous women; photos of him with a crew of men as handsome and well-dressed as he was, crowding around poker tables in Monte Carlo and Vegas; photos of him in elegant tuxedos with goddesses on his arm, attending red carpet events in countries I knew nothing about.
“Geez,” I said. “He lives like he’s James Bond.”
“And dresses like it, too,” said Joel.
“How did he even find out about my art?” I said, shaking my head. “This guy is clearly rubbing elbows with people much more powerful and talented than I am. I can’t believe he made his way to my shop.”
“Duh,” said Joel. “I’ve told you forever, Evie, you’re special. Your work is special.”
I wrapped my arms around his shoulders and squeezed him tight as he scrolled through the photos.
“Who’s that?” I asked, pointing to an older man in a photo with Rafiq. They were standing in a mahogany-covered office, their expressions solemn—quite a tone change from all the photos of Rafiq’s decadent partying.
“Uhhh,” said Joel, searching for the caption. “Sheikh Mehmet Al-Zayn, owner and CEO of Fatima Oil Consortium, and his son, Rafiq, inspect the company’s newest office complex in Dubai.”
My jaw dropped. “His father is an oil baron?”
“Dios mío, you’ve hit the jackpot,” said Joel without a hint of sarcasm. “There’s rich, and then there’s rich.”
“I don’t care about that,” I said.
“You should,” said Joel. “Oh, hey, look at this—Spoiled Oil Heir Crashes Engagement Party with Club Full of Strippers.”
“What?!” I said, leaning over to read what Joel had found.
Joel laughed as he read the story. “Some society engagement party wouldn’t let him bring a plus-one, so he showed up with the entire staff of a strip club! I like his style, that’s so bitchy.”
“And childish,” I said with a wrinkled nose.
Page after page of tabloid hits came up—parties ruined, fights started, millions of dollars in damage to clubs, hotel rooms and private planes. Rafiq was with a new woman—or two—every week, and didn’t seem to care what foul names they called him in the tabloids after he kicked them to the curb. He never spoke to any of the reporters in the articles, not to clear his name or enhance his reputation. It was like he couldn’t care less what they said.
Rafiq was clearly a spoiled rich kid. “I bet he didn’t care about my art at all,” I said, shaking my head. “He doesn’t care about blowing money, he just used it to try and get me to save his ass from a reputation he clearly deserves. He probably doesn’t know a damn thing about art. I bet he saw my picture somewhere and decided I’d be an easy target.”
“Come now, that’s so dark and cynical,” said Joel. “I don’t know why, but he came to you for a reason. It sure doesn’t look like he has trouble finding women to spend time with him.”
“So why doesn’t he hire one of them to be his girlfriend?”
“I don’t know, mami. But he wants you. There must be something you have that they all don’t.”
I bit my lip, but didn’t reply.
“At least we know he’s being honest about how badly he’s damaged his family’s reputation,” said Joel with a scoff. “Not a single one of these stories is flattering, except where they mention his looks, of course.”
“He seems to be a real jackass,” I said, crossing my arms. “Just like he was the other night.”
“True,” said Joel. “But he did come back and apologize.”
“Only because he wanted something.”
“So?” said Joel. “He didn’t try and pretend it was something else, and he didn’t try and bully you into it. And he’s trying to make it worth your while. At the very least, I think you can trust him to be upfront with you about what he wants. That’s not a bad quality in a bad man. Hell, it’s rare.”
“I guess you would know.”
Joel gave me a playful look. “Better than you, Virgin Mary.”
I stuck my tongue out at him. The dig wasn’t literal, but Joel always did love teasing me about how much more time I spent with my art than trying to have a love life. One of those lives was fulfilling, and it certainly wasn’t my love life, nor had it been for a very long time.
Just as Joel was laughing at me, suddenly the apartment dropped into darkness, and we were left with nothing but the glowing screen of the laptop to light the place.
“Ugh, shit,” I said with a heavy, broken sigh. “The electricity bill—Rafiq’s payment for Oceanic won’t have reached my account yet.”
In the blue glow, Joel’s face fell. “Come stay with me tonight?”
I looked at him and could feel the unspoken words between us as we sat in the dark. Part of me felt like I was sitting in a pile of my own failure, staring at a ladder being offered, and refusing it out of pride. What was I thinking? I needed the money. I could still set the rules with Rafiq, since I was the one doing him the favor in the end. I didn’t have to do anything with him I didn’t want to. What was a couple weeks of playing pretend in exchange for financial security? Was that really so different from someone pretending they enjoyed sitting in a cubicle for forty hours a week?
“Alright,” I said, defeated. I held out my hand. “Hand me my phone, please.”
Joel dropped my smartphone in my limp hand. I had already saved Rafiq’s number in my phone, secretly terrified I would lose his business card and with it, my opportunity. Joel watched, biting his nails, as I scrolled through the contacts and called him.
The phone rang for long enough that I thought he wasn’t going to answer. But then, the sound of blaring house music and thumping bass erupted in my ear.
Rafiq’s deep voice came loud slurred. “Yes, what?” he said impatiently.
“Rafiq?” I said, unsure if it was actually him. “This is Evangeline, from the gallery.”
“Evangeline,” he said. “Hold on, one moment.” There was some muffled rustling, and when he returned, the music in the background was softer. “Apologies about that. What can I do for you?”
“I, uh….” My eyes met Joel’s, and he gave me a supportive smile. “I’ve been thinking, and I’ve decided I’ll do it. I’ll accept your proposition.”
The other end fell silent. Had it not been for the far-away club music, I would have thought he had hung up on me.
Finally he said, “Excellent. I’m truly relieved to hear that. Ring up the paintings and charge them to the card I left with you. I’ll have a team drop by tomorrow to wrap and transport them. You can return my card to me in person.”
“Okay…” In the dark, I patted around on the table for paper and pen. “Where?”
“We’ll speak about that tomorrow. Until then, Evangeline.”
I turned down Joel’s offer to stay with him and instead retreated to a fitful night of sleep in my own bed. Tossing and turning, the future was a wash of confusing black mess in my mind, and it felt like all I could do was cling to my blankets and wait for the night to pass, hoping I hadn’t made the wrong choice by agreeing to Rafiq’s proposition. Once I started to count up the amount of money that would be charged to his platinum card, which was at this moment waiting safely in my own purse next to the front door, relaxation finally fell over me enough that I could get some sleep.
The gentle morning sun soothed me awake, and made me forget all about the troubles in my life for all of a few minutes. I lingered in bed, reaching for my phone, and saw I had a text from Rafiq. My heart stopped a moment as my fingers pulled it up.
Hello Evangeline. My penthouse is located at 126 Riverview Drive. Come join me for brunch, and we can discuss our arrangement in greater detail. Remember to pack whatever you will need to get through the week.
Checking the time, I licked my lips and sent him a reply saying that I would join him in about two hours. He replied straight away, saying that the doorman of his building would be expecting me.
Nerves afire and butterflies tossing around my stomach, I forced myself to complete my morning routine despite how un-routine this morning truly was. After my shower and coffee, I ran down to the gallery checked that there were no voicemails on the landline from any clients.
Then, I sat down with my inventory ledger and calculator and very, very carefully tallied up the grand total of what Rafiq would be charged for purchasing the art. I couldn’t believe the number staring back at me, and checked it another five times before I finally let myself cry a few tears of relieved happiness. I wrote up an invoice for him, and texted him a photo of it for approval.
Wonderful. We can make arrangements for delivery today, too. I very much look forward to seeing you.
He didn’t complain about the price—he didn’t even seem to have noticed it. I shook my head in disbelief and, with every I dotted and T crossed, charged his seemingly limitless platinum card for the full amount. By the time it was finished, I was grinning like an idiot, the weight of the world suddenly having been lifted from my shoulders. I placed a note on the gallery door explaining we were closed for the day due to personal business, and returned upstairs to finish polishing my look.
Skimming through my closet, I sighed. I had no idea what to wear to meet my rich, arrogant, fake boyfriend. Not a single issue of Cosmo had prepared me for this eventuality.
A royal blue dress made of comfortable cotton caught my eye, and I decided to pair it with a tan calfskin belt and matching boots. Simple gold earrings and my grandmother’s diamond necklace completed the look. I spun in front of my full-length mirror a few times before I was satisfied I looked a good mixture of professional and attractive. I had no idea what to expect, but professionalism seemed like a safe choice.
It didn’t take me very long to pack an overnight bag for my stay at Rafiq’s. I selected a blend of casual and professional outfits. I had no idea what kind of activities we would be engaging in, so I tried to pack for as many eventualities as possible. I stuffed toiletries into my makeup bag, and took an unfinished novel for good measure.
The taxi I flagged took me to a part of the city I had never been to, except maybe to pass through on the way to somewhere I could actually afford to be. It was a district of billionaire sky rises, open-air upscale malls, and parks so manicured, they didn’t look real. The view flew by the window, and with every passing mile, every new luxury thing I spotted made everything seem all the more surreal.
I stepped onto the curb next to a glittering glass penthouse tower with 126 marked in swirling design on the awning that stretched out to protect residents from the weather. Before I could get to the door, a well-dressed man with graying temples and a beaming smile came through the dark glass doors to greet me.
“Miss Pryce?” he asked, extending a white-gloved hand my direction.
“Yes,” I said.
“The Sheikh is expecting you. Allow me to escort you up.”
“Certainly,” I said with a smile.
He led me into the extravagant lobby, with marble floors and gold accents surrounding plush maroon furniture. In the middle of the room, an enormous spray of flowers sat on a round table, their scent so powerful and breathtaking that I could smell it the second I came in the door.
We headed through the lobby, around the table and past a small doorman’s desk with charming wooden drop boxes for the residents, until the doorman stopped in front of elevator doors which were polished to such a shine, they were basically a mirror.
Seeing myself standing there, in that luxurious world, was the most surreal part of all. And yet, I didn’t look as out of place as I assumed I would.
The opening doors interrupted my thoughts, and the doorman waved a hand to allow me inside first. He followed me in, and inserted a small gold key into a hole in the elevator panel as he pressed the button for the topmost floor of the tower. Then he removed the key and stepped out of the elevator.
He gave me a little salute. “The elevator opens directly to the apartment. Have a lovely day, miss!’
I smiled at him as the doors closed and left me there alone, trying to focus on my breathing as every floor passed. Of course he lived on the top floor of the fanciest building I’d ever been in—why would he settle for anything less?
With a soft bing, the elevator arrived at his apartment. The doors opened on a long, shadowed hallway, with crystal light fixtures that hadn’t yet been turned on. The hallway opened up into a wide living room, floor-to-ceiling windows flooding the entire space with bright morning sunshine. The floor was marble here, too, and my boots clicked on its polished white surface as I stepped out of the elevator.
The sound of female voices stopped me in my tracks, and I suddenly worried the doorman had sent me to the wrong floor. Two women came around the corner, wearing skimpy dresses that had almost certainly been picked out the night before. On wobbly heels they came down the hall toward me, but didn’t seem to be bothered by my presence. Talking to each other and giggling, they breezed right by me and disappeared inside the elevator.
At least I know what to expect from Rafiq, I guess—the same guy I saw in the gallery that first night. His reputation was no joke, it seemed; I knew the tabloid stories Joel had found weren’t exaggerated, now that I had seen it with my own eyes.
But it was difficult to remind myself of all that when Rafiq suddenly appeared in the living room, sidling up to his windows to look out over the city. He was shirtless, wearing only some soft looking, dark grey leisure pants, and holding a cup of coffee in his left hand as he leaned on the window with his right. To my surprise, he had quite a collection of tattoos that he had hidden in his fine tailored suits up until now. Colors and shapes swirled around his cut biceps and muscled back in designs unique to my eye.
He was one of the most attractive men I’d ever seen. Despite that, it was clear even from a distance that he wasn’t feeling himself, and apparently had quite the hangover. The room was scattered with refuse that indicated that a raucous party had probably happened here last night.
He didn’t know I was here yet, and I felt guilty for gawking at him secretly; he probably didn’t intend for me to see him like this so soon. I started toward him, taking heavier steps on the marble floor that he couldn’t help but hear. He whirled from the window, but when he saw me emerge into the living room, he smiled.
“Evangeline,” Rafiq said. To my surprise, he didn’t seem uncomfortable or embarrassed at all about being caught shirtless. In fact, I think he was rather enjoying it. “Thank you for coming.”
“Hi Rafiq,” I said, setting down my suitcase. Was it ruder to avert my eyes or to keep looking at him? “Did-did I come at a bad time?”
“No,” he said, twisting his wrist to look at the shining gold Rolex on his thick forearm. “Actually, you’re late.” He took a sip of his coffee.
“Oh,” I said, swallowing against my tight throat. “I’m sorry. Traffic was a little cluttered.”
Rafiq let out a low, quiet laugh that made me shiver. And then he came right out with it. “If you’re bothered by my outfit, I can fix it.” The glint in his eye as he took another sip of coffee told me the offer was more of a challenge.
My nervousness gave way to an awkward smile and flushed cheeks. “It’s your house; you can wear whatever you want.”
He laughed again and moved away from the window to sit on one of the plush couches, stopping first to push off a pile of unclaimed clothes and empty beer cans. Drinking his coffee, he lifted his eyebrows and pointed at a door that was ajar on the other side of the living room. “That’s your part of the house,” he said.
Following his lead, I peeked inside a huge, beautiful bedroom, fully furnished in a clean, modern style. The top of the dresser was practically brimming with lush white roses in an array of decorative vases. Everything looked brand new, and the room smelled incredible.
“Wow,” I said under my breath. “This is where I’ll be staying?”
“Is it suitable?” asked Rafiq from the couch. “I had to guess what type of mattress you would prefer. If you can’t sleep, we can exchange it without a problem. There’s no need for you to be anything but comfortable.”
“It’s gorgeous,” I said honestly. “I’m sure the bed will be fine. It certainly looks better than the one I sleep on now.”
I didn’t say it, but I was distinctly relieved that Rafiq had no expectation that I would be sleeping in his bed.
As I retrieved my suitcase from the hallway, the sound of a buzzer interrupted the quiet of the apartment, and Rafiq cursed under his breath. He pointed to another door. “That room next door is yours, too. Excuse me a moment,” he said, before disappearing down the hallway to answer the doorman’s call.
Curious, I dropped my suitcase in the bedroom and moved to investigate the second room. It was just as big as the first, but this room had been fitted out for something completely different: painting. Three easels of varying sizes waited patiently against one wall. A collection of canvases was propped in one corner, and next to it, a long supply table filled with any and every tool I could ever have use for. Too excited to help myself, I opened the doors on the cabinets underneath the table top and discovered rows and rows of paints.
This was a very surprising development. Suddenly, this whole arrangement was starting to feel less like a weird-but-necessary hassle, and more like a very well-deserved vacation. Generally speaking, taking time off from the gallery was a prospect so laughable, I never even considered it in my plans. Life ran month by month in my world, revolving completely around keeping my gallery and myself afloat for just a little bit longer.
What Rafiq offered me, I realized, was the chance to finally take a breather. Whether he knew it or not, it was something I really needed. I could stay in this gorgeous apartment and paint all day while Rafiq did whatever it was that he did. It was almost too perfect an arrangement.
As I waited for Rafiq to return, I wandered around and gave myself a quick tour. The penthouse took up the entire top floor of the building, and most of its space was open-plan, very much like my studio apartment. Floor-to-ceiling windows lined the living room and dining room, draped with delicate, sheer white curtains that did little to block the excess of natural light. Hardwood floors were covered by ornate rugs with beautiful patterns and bright colors, surely from Rafiq’s homeland.
All of the furniture was modern, with clean lines and minimal patterns, including the chairs and tables scattered around the wrap-around porch outside. Gray leather couches surrounded a flat marble coffee table, stacked with magazines, as well as forgotten, empty bottles from the night before. A chaise longue stretched in one corner near the windows, adjacent to the dining room table that looked barely used. The kitchen was silver polished and completely modern.
The penthouse had four rooms, and two of them were mine. It seemed like a freaking fairy tale, and I was the princess. I peeked in one of the other rooms, darkened as it was, and saw a four-poster bed made of wood and draped with a deep blue comforter. The room had the feel of cocooning isolation, like a cozy log cabin tucked in the middle of the woods, but the lack of décor sapped some of the warmth from the room.
Peering in further, something large caught my eye, and I realized the room wasn’t barren of décor at all; hanging on the wall opposite, facing the bed, was Oceanic, the painting Rafiq had taken home from my gallery.
I flushed a bit. This had to be Rafiq’s bedroom, no doubt. Had he really loved my painting so much that he wanted to see it right from his bed? Something about that seemed so unusual. I’d figured, after his proposition, that he had purchased Oceanic just to sweeten me up for the eventual offer. But that didn’t explain why it was here, now, in such an intimate place.
The sound of Rafiq’s voice startled me out of my thoughts. “I would be happy to give you a full tour of my bedroom, if that’s what you’re looking for.”
I whirled around, embarrassed, my cheeks flushing. “Oh, sorry, I… I was just looking around…”
Rafiq had a wicked grin on his face. He didn’t seem upset. Instead, he leaned past me and flipped on the lights to his room, getting close enough to me with his muscled, shirtless chest that I could feel the heat emanating from his skin.
“Have a look around, then. After all, this is your home for the time being.”
Since he didn’t seem to mind, I stepped inside the room to get a better look at the painting.
“I’m surprised to see this up here,” I said, pointing.
“Why’s that?” said Rafiq. He moved around a huge dresser that matched his bed, and disappeared into a walk-in closet. The rustling sound of fabric and wire hangers chimed within.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Art hung in one’s bedroom usually tends to be pretty significant to a person…I suppose I didn’t expect to see this here.”
“Are you saying you don’t think your work is special?” said Rafiq. He was buttoning up a soft pink long-sleeved shirt over his muscles, grinning at me.
The sight was incredibly attractive, and judging by the look on his face, he knew it well.
“It’s not that,” I said. The look on his face gave me feeling he was teasing me. “Are you deliberately misunderstanding me?”
“A little bit, yeah,” he said with a chuckle. “I’m just trying to help you relax. I can see you’re nervous. There’s no reason to be.”
I flushed red. “Well, I don’t exactly have a lot of experience in this particular world. I’ve never been someone’s pretend girlfriend before, and certainly not for a client who has my art hanging in their bedroom.”
“Don’t worry, Evangeline,” he said. “I’m going to make this easy for you. We will both benefit and walk away better for it.” He smiled at me. “Now, unless you’re wanting to stay for the show, I have to finish getting dressed.”
I scoffed at his assumption and rolled my eyes. There was the Rafiq I was waiting to appear.
“No, thanks. I’ll wait out here.”
Rafiq laughed gently to himself as he followed me to the bedroom door and shut it behind me.
He emerged a few minutes later, looking like he stepped off the pages of a men’s magazine; all tailored suit and slicked-back hair.
“Let’s grab something to eat, and we can get down to business,” he said, adjusting his cufflinks. “Do you have a nickname, Evangeline?”
“A what?” I asked.
“A nickname. If you’re my girlfriend, it would make sense that I have a pet name for you. Any suggestions?”
“Oh, uh…” Unprepared for the question, my mind turned, looking for an answer. “Sometimes people call me Evie.”
“Evie, that’s perfect,” he said with a sweet smile. “Shall we, Evie?”
Following his lead, we left the penthouse and loaded into his divine-smelling town car. After a few minutes’ drive, we arrived at a bistro with a line of people waiting out the door, and were immediately led to a private patio dining area.
Judging by the way the tables were fewer and more spaced out, not to mention the way we immediately bypassed the line of hungry, waiting patrons, this was clearly an area for guests of Rafiq’s stature. He told me to order whatever I wanted, and so I let myself splurge on an indulgent seafood lunch. I went with sweet tea to drink, but Rafiq ordered whiskey without any self-consciousness or hesitation.
As we waited for our meals, Rafiq decided to get down to business.
“I suppose the best way to begin this is to lay out what my expectations are for this arrangement,” he said, placing his napkin over his lap. “And then you can ask any question I haven’t answered.”
“Sounds reasonable,” I said.
Rafiq sighed. “You’ll have to forgive me, I’ve never done something like this before, so I truly don’t know how much information to give you about my personal life if we’re going to make this work. The long and short of it is that my father has a very different idea of what path my future should take than I do.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” I said. “What does he want you to be?”
“A businessman, like him,” said Rafiq, waving a hand. I couldn’t properly see his eyes behind his sunglasses, but his anger was clear regardless. “Or rather, like he’s pretended he is.”
“Pretended? He seems pretty successful to me.”
“He’s obscenely successful,” said Rafiq. “And that’s the problem. There’s no convincing him that another path might give my life value, not now. Not when this path has brought him and my entire extended family out of the desert dust and into the world’s most powerful circles. He’s convinced that business is the only way to build a foundation in today’s world. I don’t share his views, but he won’t accept that. It’s been a point of contention between us for a long time.”
“I’m not sure I can fully blame him,” I said with a shrug, sipping my water. “Doesn’t every father want his child to prosper?”
“Of course. It’s not his impulse to want me to be successful that bothers me; it’s that he won’t let me find my success my way; it’s that he demands I follow him instead of letting me blaze my own trail.”
“Your success?” I asked. Layers of Rafiq’s personality were starting to peel back, and I was interested to see what lay beneath the rough, playboy image he had cultivated. “What would you rather do with your life, if not carry on your family’s legacy?”
He stared at me a moment, silent, thinking. Clearly, there was an answer to my question on his mind, but he didn’t tell me what it was. Instead, he shook his head. “It’s not important. The point is, I don’t want to do the same thing that he does, and he isn’t willing to let me have room for that. So this is my only option.”
There was pain in his voice that I couldn’t place. Obviously, he wasn’t telling me the whole story.
Before he could continue, the waiter returned with our meals, and we spent a few minutes digging in. I almost moaned at the burst of flavor in my mouth. I don’t think I’d ever had a meal at a place this fancy and expensive, and the food was incredible. Rafiq looked bored as he cut up his rare steak, probably as used to this level of delicacy as I was to ramen noodles.
“So tell me how I come into all of this,” I asked, as my stomach started to feel full. “What does you having a girlfriend have to do with your father wanting you to take over the business?”
“It all comes back to tradition,” said Rafiq. “A businessman is a traditional, respected, stable career. And to go along with that, a good businessman should have a good woman by his side. Otherwise, I resemble those Wall Street frat boys your country is so fond of producing, who somehow manage to live as both businessmen and playboys. My father needs me to be a stable businessman, so that is how I must appear. In my culture—in his culture—these pretences are required for any amount of success. It’s the foundation to the castle, in other words.”
“And I’m supposed to help you look stable in front of your father.”
“Yes, that’s the point.”
“You understand that being an artist is about one of the most unstable lifestyle choices a person can make, right?” I let out a laugh as I cut up my fish. “I’m not so sure my life is going to inspire confidence in your father. I mean, if you hadn’t come along yesterday, I might not have been able to pay rent this month.”
“That won’t matter to him,” he said. “Because in his mind, you have me to support you and provide a safety net. That’s all it takes to turn you from a starving artist into a stable artist: a patron, just as the Romans used to provide. There’s a reason we still value their contributions to the arts. Whatever instability your life might offer you, my presence balances it. You’re not a liability, Evie, you’re all benefit.”
His words made me blush, and I had to nod. “That’s a pretty good point.”
What he was describing didn’t sound like the worst life for an artist, either, now that I was thinking about it. To have a supportive and successful partner making sure all the necessities of life were met, allowing me room to be creative, to breathe and be inspired? What more could an artist ask for?
Some part of me deeply wondered if this life could ever be real for anyone, let alone for me.
“What’s important to my father, Evie, is that I have a lovely, intelligent, and witty woman by my side to tether me to the earth, and make me behave well enough to deserve inheriting his massive business empire. I need to play the part of an obedient, competent heir, to calm down my father and those who deal in business with him. To do that, I need a beautiful, supportive partner. That’s the role I need you to play. That you are an artist will only sweeten the deal; my father enjoys passionate people.”
Something dawned on me. “Oh… so you’re hoping he’ll be too happy and distracted by what I do for a living to question where I come from, is that it? Since he couldn’t have known anything about me until recently?”
Rafiq gave me that wicked smile again. “There’s no hiding anything from you, is there? Yes, I would consider that a fringe benefit.”
I blushed downwardly and laughed without replying. Rafiq was definitely charming, and I was feeling much lighter now about this whole arrangement. Even though the tabloid searches Joel and I had done painted a picture of Rafiq as the arrogant jackass, clearly there was more to him. The man sitting across from me seemed quite unlike the man who had drunkenly ignored me at my gallery. He was softer, and sweeter. I wondered why Rafiq wasn’t like this all the time. What was he hiding from?
I swallowed hard against a tight throat. Was I getting a crush on Rafiq?
“So tell me about yourself,” said Rafiq. “How did you become an artist?”
Pulled from my thoughts, I stumbled. “Oh, uh, well… I started painting when I was pretty little, nothing serious. But classes in middle school made me start taking it seriously, and eventually my whole world became paints, easels and art shows… To be honest, it just feels like this is where I was always going to be. After college, I convinced Joel—that’s my friend, the assistant you met the other night—to move to the city with me so I could try and become a ‘real artist’. The first few years were pretty difficult, but eventually things picked up, and now I’m just doing everything I can to keep my little gallery afloat.”
Rafiq stopped cutting his steak and watched me curiously behind his sunglasses. “That’s beautiful. That must be a very comforting thing to feel—to be where you belong.”
“Sometimes,” I admitted. “It doesn’t stop those days where you feel like a fraud, though. Sometimes I get this unshakable feeling that I accidentally sneaked into a place where I don’t belong, and any moment someone is going to discover me, kick me out, and make me move back to my home town to work at the local burger joint forever.” I laughed, like I often did when I was talking about upsetting feelings. “Then it’s easy to wish I ended up somewhere else, somewhere safer, where I didn’t have those thoughts so often. But it always passes in the end.”
“Safer,” repeated Rafiq. “That’s it, isn’t it? That’s the choice. People assume there are safe choices and so they give up on their dreams in exchange for it.”
I nodded sadly. “I’ve lost a lot of friends over the years because of it. I understand the impulse. I just… I don’t share it.” The memory made me sad.
As if he could sense it, Rafiq said, “Evie, you’re braver than any single person I’ve ever met. Don’t be ashamed because you don’t share that impulse. It’s people like you who make a difference in the world. You’re stronger than all of them, and you have nothing to be ashamed of. You refused to let your dreams die.”
I lowered my fork slowly, stunned and moved by his kind words. Something in me wanted to believe he was just messing with me, but nothing in his voice or expression suggested he was being anything less than sincere.
“Thank you,” I replied quietly. “I don’t feel that way a lot. It’s nice to hear.”
Rafiq nodded at me and smiled. “My father will love hearing about your artistic strength. You’ll be perfect for this.”
“When will I meet him?”
“He’s coming in from the Middle East on his jet sometime tomorrow. He’s a very busy man with a constantly fluctuating schedule, which is why it’s important for us to maintain the appearance that we live together. It’s just easier to do it than to fake it. He could show up at any time, but I know he has plans to return home at the end of the week.”
“So we only have to pull this off for a week?”
“Give or take,” said Rafiq. “And then you can return to your gallery a richer woman, and hopefully find some of that stability your creativity needs to flourish.”
I loved the sound of that, and smiled. “I think we can definitely do business, Rafiq.” I raised my water glass and he clinked his whiskey against it with a half-smile. “Cheers.”
“Cheers,” he replied with a smile.
We were interrupted when the bistro’s social photographer arrived, beaming from ear to ear, and offering to take a photo of us to remember the occasion. I was surprised, but Rafiq seemed to expect it, and he scooted his chair over next to mine.
He wrapped his arm around my shoulder and pulled me close to his body, his head resting against mine. “Smile, darling,” he said to me. “This will be one for the scrapbook.”
I tried to ignore the sparks shooting through my skin when Rafiq touched me, and smiled at the camera, leaning against him as if he really was my lover. The photographer directed us with annoying little hand waves until he liked the way we were posing, and then rapidly clicked a few photos with his bright flash.
The photographer seemed pleased with the results, and Rafiq handed him a hundred-dollar bill, asking for a copy of the best photo. The photographer promised to have a print ready by the time we left, and came through on his offer, presenting Rafiq with a beautiful eight-by-ten copy of the portrait in a white envelope as we reached the doors.
“Can I see?” I asked, trying to slip the envelope from his grasp.
He pulled it away teasingly as he led me out the front door of the bistro. “Darling, I’m going to get it framed for you, don’t spoil the surprise.”
I rolled my eyes and laughed. “If you say so, darling,” I repeated. It had been a long time since I had used a pet name on anyone but Joel, but I figured I should start practicing now, before it really mattered.
Rafiq chuckled and offered me his arm, leading me back to the town car and helping me inside.
“The penthouse, please, Ahmed,” said Rafiq to his driver through the intercom. Ahmed didn’t reply, but pulled the car away from the curb and into traffic.
Rafiq sighed and threw an arm on the back of the seat. “Thank you for doing this for me, Evie,” he said. “You’re wonderful for it. I’m going to make sure all my rich, art-loving friends get familiar with your work.”
I blushed and tucked my hair behind my ear. “Well, wonderful and broke… I’m not totally selfless in helping you. It’s not like I’m a nun, here.” I laughed.
“No… no you’re not,” said Rafiq lowly.
Something in his voice sounded different, and when I looked over to meet his eyes, I saw lust blazing in them. His gaze wandered slowly and deliberately down my face and body, like he wanted me to feel it.
My heart stopped in my chest. Even though part of me hungered for his gaze, the moment was all wrong, and my stomach tied up in knots.
Rafiq reached over with his right hand and placed it firmly on my thigh, half-covered by the blue cloth of my dress. His touch sent electricity through my skin, and I gasped in surprise.
“Rafiq,” I panted, “what are you doing?”
His hand was sliding up my thigh. “I know you find me attractive,” he said, leaning his body over toward me. “And I certainly think the same of you…”
With my forearm, I pushed his chest back and tossed his hand off my thigh. He made a grunting noise as he fell back against the leather seats, blinking in surprise.
“Good God, are you kidding me?” I said angrily, pulling down the hem of my skirt. “I thought this was a business arrangement!”
Shock and confusion painted Rafiq’s face. “It is a business arrangement, but it doesn’t have to be limited to that. Why should it?”
“Actually, it does,” I said firmly, crossing my arms. I slid away from Rafiq on the bench seat, as close to the other door as I could get. “And you’ll do well to remember that, or this won’t be an arrangement at all. I have no problem going back to being a starving artist, Rafiq, I’ve done it for long enough. It’s your choice.”
Rafiq’s silence was filled with anger, and it made the interior of the town car tense. I was sure even Ahmed could feel it. Rafiq didn’t reply, he just twisted his mouth up and turned away from me to stare out the window. When we arrived at the penthouse, he didn’t get out of the car with me. Hell, he wouldn’t even look at me.
“I’m going to meet some friends in the city,” he said in a cold voice. “Don’t wait up.”
I scoffed. “Why would I?”
I slammed the car door before he could reply and headed into the building without looking back as the town car roared away behind me.
Angry at Rafiq’s presumptuous act in the car, I found myself pacing his expansive penthouse, upset but unable to relax. All this time, I thought I had found a fantastic deal, but I should have known it was too good to be true. Of course a playboy like Rafiq was going to try and get whatever he could out of me; he didn’t seem to go a day without bedding a new woman.
My anger felt like it was going to hit a boiling point, until I abruptly remembered the painting room. Quickly, I changed out of my dress and went to my bedroom to find my yoga pants and a T-shirt, the outfit I usually slept in, and the least valuable clothing I had brought to Rafiq’s. On a hunch, I snooped around further inside the cabinets of the painting room, and found spotless, brand-new painter’s robes to put over my clothes.
It occurred to me, even in my anger, that Rafiq really had thought of everything to put in the painting room—even the little details the average person wouldn’t have thought of. But then, he probably just hired someone to put it together, just like he hired me to fix his problems with his father.
All the assumptions I had about him being a capable, successful businessman felt like a girl’s fantasies, now. Rafiq was just another trust fund kid trying to have his cake and eat it too, access daddy’s fortune without any of the responsibility or pressure it took to earn the money. Typical, and so cliché it was almost boring.
He was the opposite of everything I was: spoiled, entitled, and ungrateful. He threw more money at strippers than I made in a year. And instead of being an honest person and living his life in some sort of earnest, forthright way, he just hired people to get around the rules. How much energy had he wasted on schemes and plans like this, instead of just being honest with his father?
He made me furious. I could still feel his warm hand on my leg, and while the sensation wasn’t totally unwelcome, the context certainly was. He may have hired me, but Rafiq didn’t own me, and if he thought that our arrangement was going to transform into that, he was in for a very rude awakening.
I stuffed my long black hair into a hair tie to keep it out of my face. For a few minutes, I went through the sizes and shapes of canvases that were stacked against the wall, and eventually settled on a tall rectangle, which I placed vertically on the biggest easel in the room. The shape gave me the sensation I felt in my chest when I thought about Rafiq: the sensation of falling, of simultaneously ascending, being trapped in a thin moment of time where I couldn’t tell which end was up.
I mixed my paints and let out all my rage and emotion on the canvas. The sun set through the living room windows behind me without my noticing, lost as I was in creating the dark, toxic gradient out of deep blues and grays on the canvas. My strokes were thicker than usual because the muscles of my arm were full of adrenaline, but I didn’t try to correct them or smooth them out. I allowed them to be big and angry; that was exactly the way my heart felt right now.
I must not have heard the sound of the elevator arriving; I certainly hadn’t heard the buzzer from the doorman. One moment, I was leaning very closely against the canvas to apply white detail with a thin horsehair brush, the next, I started at the sound of rumbling laughter and exaggerated screams coming from the living room.
I jerked forward, startled, and my face hit the canvas with a smack, bumping my nose into the wooden frame and smearing paint across my skin. With a growl, I threw my brush down on the tray full of paints and rags and stalked to the living room to confront whatever was happening in the penthouse.
My jaw dropped at the sight of people spilling into the apartment like someone had opened a floodgate to the hallway. There must have been over forty people filling the living and dining room, and every single one of them seemed drunk. Someone quickly found Rafiq’s stereo, and dance music started to blare throughout the house, rattling the glass in the windows and drowning out the sloppy conversational din.
The revelers cheered when the music started up, and someone turned out most of the lights in response in some feeble attempt to create a nightclub atmosphere. Like locusts, the drunk partiers swarmed over the rooms of the penthouse, heading for the fridge and the liquor cabinets, collapsing on the couches and chaise lounges, and starting up the fireplace. A stumbling couple were making out and pulling at each other’s clothes, already looking for a quiet place to go have sex—and they were headed right for my bedroom.
“Oh, hell no,” I said out loud, and stalked over to block their path. Slamming my door shut, I gave them a sour smile when they looked at me, and pointed them instead to Rafiq’s room, “Try over there.” They obliged, and I didn’t feel even a little bad about it.
A headache rocked its way up into my skull as the music pounded away. People danced and touched like they were the only ones in the room. They were all dressed like Rafiq, in fancy cut suits and expensive but revealing dresses, the party crowd of the one percent, here to ruin my night and keep me from even being able to paint. Fury raced through my veins.
The sensible part of me knew I should just head to bed and talk to Rafiq in the morning. If he was going to be raging like this every single night, he might have to add some cash to that total he had already paid me for this arrangement, because this was not my scene and I wanted no part of it.
But my anger was too much to ignore. I wanted to tear his head off, even just with my words. At the very least, he couldn’t expect me to sleep with all this damn noise. If this was some pathetic revenge plot to get back at me for rejecting him, he surely wasn’t going to get away with it cleanly.
In the dancing light of the fireplace, I spotted Rafiq across the crowd, grinding against a beautiful redheaded woman in a tight white dress. He held her tiny body against him, running his hands over her curves with abandon. She suckled at his neck, her thin arms wrapped around his neck, her fingers combing through his jet black hair.
The sight pierced my heart in a way I didn’t understand—or didn’t want to understand. I tried to push through the crowd to get to him, but I was met with so many drunk, groping hands that it quickly became much more hassle than it was worth, and I gave up.
I left Rafiq and his wonderful friends to their debauchery and, after making sure the door to my studio was shut and my new canvas was safely stored, I retreated to my bedroom and locked the door for safe measure, fearing another horny couple would stumble their way in while I was sleeping.
The music blared through the walls for most of the night, and I only managed to fall asleep after wrapping one of the fine memory foam pillows around my ears. As I drifted off, I couldn’t help wondering if I had made a huge mistake by accepting this devil’s bargain with Rafiq.
Even in the comfort of the expensive, borrowed bed, sleep came fitfully and full of dreams in which I angrily chewed out Rafiq and all of his idiot friends. The redheaded woman with whom Rafiq had been making out was at the top of my list, and she found herself on the wrong end of quite the angry dream-monologue.
When morning finally came, my body felt like I hadn’t slept at all. Nothing sounded better than a long, hot shower, and a giant cup of coffee. I wanted nothing less than to speak to Rafiq, possibly for the entirety of the day.
Folding my silk robe over my yoga pants and T-shirt, I peeked out into the living room to assess the damage. The place was a wreck, but at the very least, it seemed like everyone had finally bailed back to their own penthouses, or wherever it was that they slept.
Padding across the floor toward the kitchen, I heard a soft moan in the living room and jumped, startled. Rafiq was passed out on the couch, sleeping so deeply I hadn’t noticed him at first.
Anger bubbled up inside me as all the memories of the day before came rushing back. All I could hear in my head was the blasting music from the night before, and all I could see was his handsome, stupid face in the crowd, blissfully unaware of me, and wrapped up in the arms of another woman.
But as I stood there and watched him sleeping, something else came over me. The memories from the party began to fade, and the present moment before my eyes took hold. Arrogant, snobby, thoughtless Rafiq was nowhere to be seen. Instead, I watched this different version of him, stretched out with his arms all askew like a kid about to fall off a bunk bed after a restless night of sleep. Shirtless, his bronze skin glistened with the tiniest layer of sweat. His tattoos were alive with color, rising and falling with the soft rhythm of his breathing. The soft expression on his sleeping face made him seem more honest, more human, than I had ever seen him before.
It was like I was looking at the real Rafiq, and the real Rafiq was beautiful, sensitive, soft, and almost innocent.
A pang of hurt hit my chest, realizing that he’d never looked more peaceful than when he was sleeping, and wondering what turmoil was in his mind, keeping it from him during the day. I’d been around long enough to know that no one partied as hard as Rafiq did for no reason. He was running, or hiding, from something. But in this moment, right here in his living room, he couldn’t hide. It was the real him.
An urge I recognized all too well rang like a clear bell in the back of mind. I forgot the coffee and the shower; something else had come up.
I went to the painting room and quickly gathered up an easel and a medium-sized canvas, as well as paints, brushes, and scrapers. It took me a few moments to find the right angle for the easel in the living room, but when I did, a smile burst across my face.
I began to paint Rafiq as I saw him in this moment, in his deep innocence, asleep on the couch. The way the sunlight filtered through the penthouse windows to warm up the skin on his back brought fervor to the colors I used. I opted for bright yellows and whites and oranges to match not only the natural light in the room, but the overwhelming warmth and tenderness I felt looking at the scene.
The palate spoke of nostalgia, but the boldness of the colors themselves made it more than that. One day, this moment would be nostalgia. But I would have this painting to remember what brightness lay underneath, once upon a time.
I remembered Rafiq in my gallery, saying how much he hated nostalgia, and it only made me paint faster.
Two hours flew by before I realized any time had passed. Like always happened in the midst of a moment of true inspiration, I completely blocked out my tired body, my growling stomach, and my anger for Rafiq. I painted furiously until I looked up and saw Rafiq shifting, his eyelids fluttering open as consciousness came over him.
My heart seized up in my chest. I had the sudden urge to hide, but instead, I just froze there like a deer caught in headlights, trapped behind the canvas.
Rafiq groaned unhappily as he moved his no doubt exhausted and hungover body, rolling over on the couch and rubbing his hands over his face. He sat up and rubbed at a sore spot on his neck, realizing a few seconds later that he wasn’t alone. He looked up slowly and his eyes met mine, peeking around the side of the canvas, watching him.
Rafiq frowned. “Evangeline?”
His voice was dry, cracked, almost non-existent, and his eyes darted from me to the back of the canvas and easel.
“Uh, hi,” I said meekly. “Morning, Rafiq.”
“What are you doing?” he asked, instantly suspicious.
I swallowed. “Just painting.” Technically not a lie, right?
“Painting what?” Rafiq stood up, and something dark had come over his face.
He stalked over to the canvas to call my bluff. Worried he might damage it, I stood in front of the canvas like a human shield, preventing him from getting to it.
Rafiq gave a look so stern, it made my knees quiver.
“Let me see,” he said.
“Look, I wasn’t…”
“Let me see.” There was nothing joking or playful in his voice.
The tiniest sliver of fear ran through my veins. I stepped off to the side to reveal the painting to him. Red darkness washed over his eyes as he frowned at the sight.
“What is this?” he said in a harsh whisper, pointing. “Is this me?”
“It’s just a painting,” I said, my voice small and submissive. “I… I got inspired.”
“You got inspired to paint me, sleeping and shirtless, without my consent?” said Rafiq. Fury came off his skin in waves. “Who do you think you are? You can’t just go around painting people without their permission like this!”
There was so much rage in his voice that I actually felt stung, wounded, as if he’d taken a razor to my skin. Tears stared to burn the back of my eyes. “I didn’t mean to violate your privacy. I just… I had to do it. I saw you there on the couch like that, and I…” My mind scrambled to find the right words for my emotions. “I couldn’t look away. You were so different in that moment, I wanted to capture it. I’m sorry, Rafiq.”
The last words dropped from my lips and silence fell in the living room. Rafiq watched me, studying me, his nostrils flaring with his heated breathing. Almost as if pulled by an outside force, his gaze tore away from me and back to the painting itself. Like a magic trick, I watched as the muscles in Rafiq’s face slowly softened. His knitted brows relaxed, and the light came back to his deep brown eyes.
He turned and faced the painting head on, staring. He didn’t speak for so long that eventually I softly put a hand on his shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I wasn’t trying to hurt you, Rafiq, truly. I should have given it more thought, I just… I got caught up in the inspiration.”
At first, he said nothing. Then Rafiq reached up and planted one of his big hands on top of mine, and gave it a soft squeeze. Warmth and hope washed through me, and my panic died.
“You-you didn’t,” he said suddenly, clearing his throat. “You didn’t hurt me. I’m sorry, Evie, I shouldn’t have lost my temper. I should be the one to apologize.”
“No, you’re right,” I said. “I shouldn’t have painted you without asking first. You were right to be upset. It was a violation.”
Rafiq didn’t acknowledge my words. “This isn’t what I thought it was,” he said, eyes still on the painting. “I’ve never…”
“Never what?” I asked when he trailed off.
He took a deep breath. “I don’t remember the last time someone took this kind of interest in me.”
His words surprised me. “How can you say that? The paparazzi are constantly on your heels, and you can pluck any woman you want from a crowd. Isn’t that taking an interest in you?”
Rafiq blinked slowly. When he looked at me, there was a pain in his eyes that made me sorry I had questioned what he said.
“It’s not the same,” he replied. “I don’t know how to make you understand without being in this world, but it’s not the same. They aren’t interested in me. They just use me for what they need. The paparazzi only like me because pictures of me, and stories about my life, they make money. I don’t know why, but they do. And the women, well…there’s a lot about me they enjoy, but it certainly isn’t me. It’s only parts of me. Often times, it’s just my money, and my power.”
His words made me hurt for him. I squeezed tighter on his shoulder.
“This is the first time I feel like anyone has ever seen me,” said Rafiq. “Not only did you see me…you painted me; you immortalized me.” He turned to face me, his expression soft. “This is a great gift you’ve given me, Evie. I’m sorry I got upset with you.”
Overwhelmed, I averted my gaze, feeling Rafiq’s hand tighten over mine.
“It’s okay. I’m glad you like it.” I could feel myself blushing even as I tried to stop it.
“I love it,” he said. “Are you finished with it?”
I gave the painting a careful gaze. “Yeah, I hit the final stroke right before you woke up. Why do you ask?”
“Because I want to hang it up.”
“Yes,” he said. “I want this in my home forever. You can charge me for it when you return to your gallery.”
At this, I let out a breathy laugh. “I think I feel fine about giving you this one gratis, Rafiq, since I did violate your privacy to get it and all.”
Rafiq gave me an amused, lopsided smile. He disappeared into the kitchen to find the tools he needed, and then returned to make his measurements for the painting. He decided to hang it on the blank expanse of wall between my temporary bedroom, and the studio.
Once he had the fixtures hung, Rafiq carefully lifted the canvas off the easel and attached it to the wall fixtures. I spotted him for him from across the living room as he tweaked the angle to get it level. When it was perfect, I came up next to him as he stood back to admire it.
“It’s beautiful,” he said. “I’m very happy that I’ll get to look at it every day.”
I smiled sheepishly and nodded, grateful, but unsure what to do in the face of all his compliments.
“Thank you, Evangeline. You’ve given me so much in the short time we’ve known each other.”
Without warning, Rafiq turned and wrapped his strong arms around me completely, drawing me into a warm embrace.
At first, I tensed up in surprise, but the inviting strength of his arms and chest quickly relaxed me, and I felt like I was melting against him as he held me close to his body. The fingers of one of his hands gently stroked at my hair. I closed my eyes and allowed myself to enjoy this moment, the feeling of being in the strong arms of a capable and attractive man, even if it was only a farce.
Deep in my heart, something very real was spreading and growing, even if I refused to look directly at it. Feeling Rafiq’s body against mine, and his arms around me, only made the feeling spread faster. I took a deep breath against his chest.
A high-pitched beeping erupted, breaking through the moment like a shrieking toddler in a library.
Rafiq sighed as he pulled away from the embrace. “Sorry. That’s my phone, I should answer it.”
“Sure,” I said, tucking my hair behind my ear. I was too flustered to look him in the eyes.
Rafiq pawed around the living room, tossing cans and pillows about until he found his ringing cell phone. One look at the screen, and his face fell into a serious mask. He answered the phone in his deep, stern business voice, and spoke briefly in Arabic with whoever was on the other end.
“What was that?” I asked, when he hung up.
“Trouble,” he said, running into his bedroom.
I froze. “Trouble? Why?”
Rafiq came back out, buttoning up a long-sleeve black shirt over his bare, beautiful chest.
“My father’s almost here.”
“Almost here, as in, almost at the penthouse?” I looked around at the chaotic, messy space. “But we aren’t ready for him!”
“Yes,” he said. “He’s early. He does this.”
“Oh, does he? That makes me feel better,” I said sarcastically as my nerves lit up with worry. “Where do you keep your garbage bags?”
“In the kitchen, bottom drawer next to the refrigerator,” said Rafiq as he took my hint and scrambled, bent at the waist, to pick up all the scattered trash from his party the night before. I rushed into the kitchen to retrieve a garbage sack, and together we quickly tossed everything into the bag. Rafiq stowed it in the kitchen pantry until we could better deal with it.
“Here, there’s one more important thing,” Rafiq said.
Shirt buttoned up, he came up to me quickly, rummaging in his pocket. He took my left hand in his, and gently pushed the most gorgeous, glittering diamond ring onto my ring finger.
It was the biggest rock I had ever seen, and all I could do was stare at it.
“What the hell is this?”
Rafiq took my hands in his and said, “Just play along.”
My mouth was still hanging open when the polite ding of the elevator sounded from down the hallway.
“Showtime,” said Rafiq. He slid a strong arm around my back, his hand pulling me close into his body. “Don’t let the security detail startle you.”
The doors slid open and immediately, two huge men in black suits and sunglasses emerged. From their ears, the twisted white wires of their earpieces dangled, like they were wearing pieces of pasta for earrings. Stone-faced, they hustled down the hallway, eyeing the ceilings and dark corners. They split when they entered the living room to continue their inspection around the apartment.
What they were looking for, I could only imagine. It seemed strange for the Sheikh to fear trouble in his own son’s apartment, but then again, there was a great deal about Rafiq’s world I didn’t understand.
Walking behind them was a man who looked so much like Rafiq, I did a double-take. Although the gentleman coming down the hallway was older and a few inches shorter, he had the same sharp features, flawless bronze skin, and stern darkness of his son. I would even wager that, behind those huge dark sunglasses, he had the same quietly soft brown eyes.
He proved me right when he came to a stop at the end of the hallway and removed them. He stood there and waited, letting us take him in, an entrance that couldn’t help but inspire respect—or at least a little fear. Forgoing the traditional wear of his homeland, he was dressed in a fine tailored, dark brown pinstripe suit. Gold rings sparkled on several of his fingers, and his black hair was graying at the temples, which only made him look more dignified.
“Welcome, father,” said Rafiq. “Did you have any trouble on your flight?”
“More than some; the private hanger at O’Hare is still terribly inefficient,” his father replied. “Is this she?” He was looking at me expectantly, and I tried not to shrink beneath his gaze. I immediately understood why Rafiq felt the way he did about his father—the man was naturally intimidating.
Rafiq smiled down at me and squeezed me into his side. “Yes, this is the woman who has stolen my heart, Evangeline Pryce. Evangeline, this is my father, Sheikh Mehmet Al-Zayn.”
“Please, call me Mehmet, my dear,” his father said immediately. “After all, we are to be family.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you sir,” I said, and miraculously my voice came out steady.
“My goodness,” said Mehmet in a smooth voice. “My son has always demonstrated capability for great taste; it’s good to see he has finally put it to use when it comes to women.” He moved across the living room with sure steps straight toward me, while behind him, the bodyguards snooped around the room like curious cats. “My beautiful new daughter, I’m so pleased to meet you.”
There were so many millions of thoughts running through my mind that I could only stand there and stare, smiling tightly at Rafiq’s powerful father. I was terrified I was about to blow our cover, but also furious at the realization that Rafiq had already planned our “engagement” long before this moment. I had thought his move with the ring was a spontaneous fail-safe, a last-minute decision he might have made in panic. But no; he’d been planning this all along, and just hadn’t bothered, or hadn’t wanted, to tell me about it.
“Thank you….father,” I said. “My fiancée is certainly full of surprises, isn’t he?”
I turned and looked up at Rafiq to make sure he could hear the sarcasm dripping from every word. Judging by the look in his eyes, he heard it just fine, but he only smiled back and dropped a kiss on top of my head.
“I’ve got a tea service ready,” said Rafiq. “Why don’t you two take a seat while I go collect it?” He gestured to the couches.
Mehmet moved to one of the couches, and sat down square in the middle. I took the edge of the adjoining love seat, figuring it would force me and Rafiq to sit close to one another. As angry as I was, we were supposed to be in love.
Over the sounds of Rafiq gathering the tea service in the kitchen, Mehmet lightly dropped both hands on his knees and said, “Well, Evangeline, it is very exciting to finally see this day arrive. I was beginning to worry that Rafiq would never find a suitable woman to settle down with, but it seems I was mistaken, and for that I’m happy.”
“Yes, it’s exciting for me, too. Rafiq has been a big improvement to my life,” I said with a tight nod. My cheek muscles were starting to ache from the strain of the smile I was forcing on my face. “I’m… I can’t believe I get to share my life with him.”
The lie felt strange coming out of my mouth, but Mehmet didn’t seem to notice.
“My son tells me you are a successful artist,” said Mehmet. “That is wonderful to hear. Our family has a great deal of history in the arts.”
“Oh?” I turned with surprise toward the kitchen, as if Rafiq could see me, and respond to my questioning expression.
“I was once a painter,” said Mehmet. “Though I could never quite find my place in the art world the way I did in business. I’m surprised Rafiq didn’t mention it to you before, given your occupation.”
“Oh, well,” I said, scrambling in my head for a response. “You could say we’ve had a bit of a whirlwind romance.”
“I see… How did you meet?”
“Rafiq stopped into my gallery to view my paintings some time ago, and ended up purchasing one. We got to chatting and, well…one thing led to another, and here we are.”
I was getting good at thinking on my feet. Why hadn’t Rafiq planned a cover story for how we met? He really hadn’t thought this grand scheme through, it seemed.
Thankfully, Mehmet nodded in approval. “I’m very pleased he has found someone who understands the arts and who has found success in such a noble field.”
I cleared my throat, bashful, and shifted in my seat. “Oh, well, I suppose I do all right. I haven’t had any major gallery showings in a few years now.”
“Bah,” said Mehmet with a wave of his hand. “That’s not the point, is it? The art world is as corrupt as politics and has no monopoly on judging talent. Rafiq has told me that you have a very special gift. It’s exciting for me to see him with a woman of passion, and artistic integrity.”
“I guess this is not a typical romance for him, then?” I said with a self-effacing laugh.
But it seemed that Mehmet was being serious. “Rafiq is a…capable man, but with women, he has always tended to take the path of least resistance,” said Mehmet without a hint of worry about discussing such a subject with me. “He has not learned the truth of love yet.”
“What truth is that?” I asked.
“A love that doesn’t challenge you to become your best self is no real love at all.”
Mehmet’s words fell heavy on my heart, even though I didn’t fully understand why. “That’s very beautiful. I hope… I hope I can be that for Rafiq. And that he can be that for me.”
“You would not be here otherwise,” said Mehmet with a knowing smile. “You must be bringing out the best in Rafiq, finally challenging him as I have always tried to do, to become his best self.”
I could feel eyes on me, and looked up toward the kitchen to see Rafiq standing in the doorway. His face was lit up with a brilliant smile as he sat there watching me talking with his father. A deep, unexplainable warmth began to fill my chest.
“Is this yours, Evangeline?” said Mehmet to my side.
I turned to see he was pointing across the room, at the new painting Rafiq had hung on the wall between my rooms—the painting of Rafiq, shirtless, sleeping on the couch, and enveloped in warm light.
Instantly my face went red, terrified I had offended Mehmet with the painting. As sincere and loving as I found the portrayal of my “fiancée”, I also hadn’t skimped on the honesty of the scene, including the clear signs of hedonistic revelry that surrounded Rafiq’s sleeping form. It might as well have been a snapshot of proof that his son wasn’t living the life the father wanted for him.
“Oh, uh… yes, I…” I couldn’t think of what to say to fix this.
Concerned, I turned to Rafiq as he approached, balancing the empty tea glasses and steaming pot on the tray in his hands. The look on his face said he wasn’t quite sure what was about to happen, either.
“Yes,” answered Rafiq in a firm voice. “Evangeline finished that one just this morning. It’s her newest masterpiece—a requiem to a past life, it would seem.” He looked down at me with a smile and winked.
As his son set the tea service on the coffee table, Mehmet rose from the couch and walked over to get a closer look at the painting. Rafiq and I exchanged heavy glances before turning to watch his reaction.
For a few moments, Mehmet said nothing, as he studied the painting from different angles, twisting his head, and blocking the strong light from the window with his flattened hand to get a better sense of the tone of the colors. He got close enough to see the strokes.
When he turned finally, I was sure he was about to scold us both for willingly displaying this side of Rafiq’s life, even if his father believed it was long over.
Instead, Mehmet clasped his hands together and said, “My dear, you are a born artist. This is truly exceptional. I can see Rafiq was not exaggerating about your abilities.”
My eyes widened. “Thank you very much, sir…”
Mehmet turned to the painting, waving his hand. “Your use of color and space is highly commendable; you are creating a physical fantasy for the viewer to exist within. You pull me into this moment, into this light. And when I am there, all I feel is warmth, and love.” He turned back toward us. “I can feel the love you have for my son in this painting. That is the work of a true artist.”
The blood drained from my face, and I stopped breathing. I felt naked and vulnerable, standing there in front of the Al-Zayns. My instinct was to protest against Mehmet’s accusations about my feelings behind the portrait. I didn’t love Rafiq; this was all business. No, he was seeing something wrong in the painting. He had to be.
Despite every part of me being terrified to do it, I looked over at Rafiq. His expression was something I hadn’t seen on his face before; it was true astonishment, almost a realization.
No matter how badly I wanted to deny his assumption, I couldn’t argue with Mehmet. I was supposed to be in love with Rafiq, after all, and it certainly wouldn’t inspire confidence if I protested.
“Thank you,” I said. “I don’t know how to respond to such a compliment. I’m honored that you enjoy my work.”
“And I am honored that you are joining my family.”
I blushed and looked away, the pressure of emotions finally becoming too much for me. I turned to the cookies and steaming cup of tea Rafiq had placed before me.
Mehmet returned to his seat on the couch as Rafiq joined me on the loveseat, putting an arm around my shoulders.
“You see, father? I told you she was priceless. All this worry you’ve had for me over the years, and it was for nothing.”
“Yes, and for once you are delivering on your promises. My worry did not develop out of thin air, Rafiq. It comes from years of unfortunate experience.”
“Oh, come now,” said Rafiq. He tried to make his words light, but I could hear the pain in his voice. “Just be happy you’re going to have such a talented daughter-in-law, after so many years of ‘unfortunate experience.’”
“I hope she will help you become the man you are meant to be. Speaking of which, are you finally ready to give some serious thought to business school? My luncheon today, incidentally, is with the dean of admissions at Renault Academy.”
Tension began to creep back into the room. Discomfort squirmed in my gut, but it was obvious that this wasn’t about me.
Rafiq took a breath before he answered, as if he was trying to keep from getting upset. “This, again, father? Perhaps we could wait and talk about this alone, away from Evie.” He caressed my shoulder.
“Yes, this again, son—until the situation has been resolved to its proper conclusion,” Mehmet said sternly. He turned his attention to me. “My son needs to return to business school, to gain the education he will require to manage the empire he will one day inherit—the empire I built for the Al-Zayn family.” He turned back to his son. “Now that beautiful Evangeline is here to add creativity to the family, there is no need for you to keep up this charade any longer. Let her paint, and you, take your place at the head of the family, as you should.”
I had never heard anyone talk to their child this way. My parents didn’t fully understand my artistic life, but they had certainly never tried to tell me what my life should be. And what was Mehmet referring to—what creative charade was Rafiq living? He had admitted that he didn’t want to be a businessman, sure. But what did art have to do with it?
“Father,” said Rafiq, shaking his head. “Please. Can we discuss this later?” He made a nod in my direction, and whatever message was passing between father and son seemed to be received.
Mehmet didn’t look pleased, but he finally seemed to give into his son’s request.
As he fixed up his tea, Mehmet gave Rafiq a stern gaze and changed the subject. “You don’t look well today, son. You seem pale. Have you been sleeping well?”
Mehmet couldn’t know that Rafiq was terribly hungover, so I quickly chimed in. “Rafiq hasn’t been feeling very well the last few days.” I turned to him with a sympathetic look, and he blinked slowly at me as he smiled. “I think he caught the cold that’s been going around the building. I’ve been trying to get him to lie down and rest, but he was insistent that everything be perfect for your arrival.”
Mehmet made a gruff noise but didn’t reply. The good cheer I had cultivated earlier had apparently evaporated into the atmosphere. He took a few sips of tea, and then with a sly voice said, “I don’t remember some of those tattoos.”
Rafiq stiffened next to me. “What?” he said. He had carefully dressed to hide them, as he always did, under an expensive button-up shirt.
Mehmet nodded at my painting of Rafiq. “You said this was her newest masterpiece—last night, was it? I can smell the paint on the canvas. Some of the tattoos on the portrait are new to me.” He cleared his throat. “I was certain, the last time we discussed this issue, that it was the final time.”
The mood in the room suddenly dropped below freezing. Even the bodyguards, who had long ago taken up posts at either end of the hallway, seemed to tense up at the overheard change of tone.
Mehmet seemed intent on drawing emotional blood from his son, even on what was supposed to be a lighthearted visit to meet his daughter-in-law. Sympathy for Rafiq filled my heart as I experienced first-hand the kind of pressure he had to deal with on a daily basis.
“That’s my fault,” I said, the words to defend him coming out of my mouth in a tumble
“Your fault?” said Mehmet, surprised.
Rafiq was squeezing his nails into my side secretly, as if trying to warn me against whatever it was I was doing.
I ignored him. “Yes, you see, I uh, I drew some designs one day, and Rafiq…” I turned to him in what felt like a dramatic manner, but which probably looked exactly right to his father. “Your son is so endlessly supportive of my work. When he saw the designs, he said he had to have them as a part of him forever. So he took them to his old tattoo artist and had them done.”
Mehmet made a single gruff sound, looking from me to Rafiq. “Is that a fact?”
“He told me about your displeasure with the tattoos he already had… I know I should have tried harder to talk him out of it,” I said, taking Rafiq’s hand in mine and holding it in my lap. “But I’m sure you know better than me how he is when he decides he wants something. He was certainly as persistent in pursuing me.” Not technically a lie, but it felt odd to admit out loud that Rafiq had been pursuing me just like a legitimate romantic conquest.
After a few seconds of tense silence, Mehmet grinned and gave out a belly laugh. “Yes, my son is nothing if not stubborn. I suppose even the love of his life would not be immune from it.”
I laughed with Mehmet as the tension in the room cleared. Rafiq squeezed my hand tightly, like he was thanking me.
“I am truly excited by this union,” said Mehmet as he put down his tea on the table. “Rafiq, you have found a lovely woman, and nothing makes me happier than to see you hold onto her as you should. Your mother will be thrilled at the prospect of planning the wedding.”
“Oh, let’s not get into all that already,” groaned Rafiq good-naturedly. “This creative beauty has had me running around looking at venues and flower arrangements already.”
We looked at each other, Rafiq smiling down at me and rubbing my hand in his, and at that moment, nothing about this felt fake. Something about the look in his eyes told me Rafiq was feeling the same.
Mehmet ended the moment when he cleared his throat and checked the Rolex that looked a lot like the one Rafiq wore. “I would love to continue this further, but I do have some business appointments to make while I am in the city.”
The three of us rose to our feet, as Rafiq said, “Do you still have time for a nice dinner with us before you leave town? I would hate for this to be your only time with your new daughter-in-law.”
“Yes, of course,” said Mehmet. He leaned forward and clasped both of my hands in his, then brought them to his lips for a gentle peck. “I would not dream of leaving without seeing this angel again. I’ll be in touch.”
I blushed. “I look forward to it, father.”
Mehmet shook his son’s hand and gave him a hearty pat on the shoulder before turning toward the elevator, followed closely by his silent bodyguards. With his arm around my shoulder, Rafiq and I followed and stood at the end of the hallway, waving, until the doors closed and Mehmet and his bodyguards were gone.
Rafiq let out a huge sigh of relief and dropped his head. “Thank you so much. You handled that flawlessly.”
I pushed his arm off my shoulder and frowned up at him. “Fortunately for you, I’m very adaptable and smart. Unfortunately, I also tend to get a little bit upset when someone who is supposed to be working with me hangs me out to dry.”
Rafiq looked wounded. “What? I don’t…”
“When were you going to tell me that we’re supposed to be engaged?” Anger finally found its way into my voice, and I put my hands on my hips as I faced him. “You don’t think that was an important bit of information for me to have before Mehmet got here? We could have ruined everything. I thought you wanted this to work, isn’t that the whole point?”
Redness flushed Rafiq’s face, and he lowered his eyes in a way that I hadn’t seen him do before.
“You’re right. I’m sorry. It was reckless.”
“Why didn’t you just tell me?” I said, exasperated.
“I don’t know.”
I shook my head. “You’re a piece of work. It’s like you’re not thinking any of this through.”
“Hey, I’ve never done this before,” said Rafiq, holding his big arms open. “I may have talked my way into some places I don’t belong, but this is a whole different ball game, Evie. I’m doing the best I can.”
“Maybe you should try harder,” I snapped. “If you want this to work, that is. I don’t know why I feel like I care about this more than you do—it’s your life on the line, isn’t it?”
Rafiq frowned. He seemed hurt, but I didn’t take my words back.
“Well, at least this is temporary. You won’t have to worry about dealing with my stupid mistakes much longer. You can go back to your well-ordered life soon.”
The bitterness in his voice was overwhelming, but I didn’t respond.
“My father will be heading back to the Middle East at the end of the week, once he’s met all of his business contacts and spent what he deems to be sufficient time with me and you. As soon as he’s gone, this can end. And then you don’t have to see me again.”
Silence hung heavy between us. I suddenly realized that I didn’t want that, but I couldn’t find the words, and I didn’t understand why I felt that way. His mistakes did drive me crazy, but somehow, that wasn’t translating to anger like it was before.
This was all too much. My mind was a violent ocean of thoughts, emotions, and worries. I wanted some familiar comfort, something to help ground me as I floated around this dream world like a lost balloon.
I turned away from Rafiq and started toward my bedroom. “I have to go back to the gallery. I can’t keep it closed for so many days in a row. It’s probably best we have some space right now, anyway.”
Rafiq frowned. “Why not? It’s not like you need the money now, is it?”
Offended, I whirled around to face him. “It’s not about the money,” I said. “It’s never been about the money, Rafiq. Money is just a thing I need to keep my lights on and my house warm, and if I could figure out a way around it, I would do so in a heartbeat. The gallery—my work—is my life. But I guess you wouldn’t understand anything about that, since you don’t really have anything to work for.” I gestured widely to his opulent, yet empty apartment; the one we had just barely cleaned from a night of hedonistic partying.
I wanted the line to cut him, but I still wasn’t ready for the pain on Rafiq’s face when I said it. Still, I held his stare and didn’t apologize. He was wrong, and he was going to know it. I would never allow anyone to devalue my work, least of all Rafiq.
He was silent for a few moments. “Well, you’re not going to the gallery alone.”
I blinked. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me,” he said. “If you’re going, I’m going with you.”
“I don’t need a chaperone.”
“I’m going to help you sell your work. I have experience selling art work, I can help you.”
“Is that right?” I said, crossing my arms. “And what makes you think I need your help?”
“You’ve already completed most of our deal,” said Rafiq. “I’m not afraid of you cutting and running on me. You’re not that kind of woman.”
His words softened me, but I didn’t let him know that. “So what is it, then, if not babysitting?”
“Just what I said: I’m coming to help you, whether or not you need it. And that’s the end of it.”
The town car ride back to my gallery was certainly more comfortable than a taxi, but still I refused to speak to Rafiq the entire way. Something was brewing between us that I didn’t fully understand, and I wasn’t sure I wanted it. Feelings rushed through my heart like a tidal wave that I couldn’t stop. All I could do was hold my breath and hope I came up for air soon.
Rafiq took the hint quickly that I wasn’t in the mood for conversation, and sat apart from me with a neat whiskey in his hands from the tiny bar in the car, staring out of the window from behind his sunglasses. I watched him for a moment or two, trying to decide if I wanted to kiss him or slap him. I didn’t understand what he wanted from me, and when I thought about it, I didn’t understand what I wanted from him, either.
Was it just the money? Because it didn’t feel that way. Rafiq’s words had power over my emotions that went beyond a simple business transaction. I wanted him to value me, as well as my work. I wanted to be around the sweet Rafiq I had glimpsed; the one who wasn’t trying to scheme or look hard or put on a show. I wanted things from him that a business partner wouldn’t give me.
Coming back to the gallery felt much better than I expected; no matter how nice Rafiq’s apartment was, it wasn’t home, and I had missed the comfort of my beat-up but charming little gallery. I gathered up the newspapers and other junk mail left at the front door, and after I unlocked it, Rafiq held it open for me.
“Since you’re determined to help,” I said to him with a smirk, “why don’t you start by sweeping and mopping the floors?”
Rafiq blanched as he followed me to the back of the gallery. But his hesitation only lasted for a minute. “Sure, fine. I can do that. Show me where the supplies are.”
His acquiescence surprised me. I had expected a fight, or at least some righteous indignation at being asked to do such a menial task.
I dropped the mail on the empty counter and flipped on all the lights in the room. Rafiq’s collection was still on the walls.
I let out a big sigh and put my hands on my hips. “We have a lot of work to do. We have to replace all of these before we open.”
Rafiq looked around and saw what I meant. “The paintings, of course. I’ll get my transport men over here right away.” He pulled his phone out of his pocket and made the call as he slipped by me into the back room.
With Rafiq occupied, I made a quick trip up to my apartment to make sure things were okay. After watering my plants and checking my messages, I opened the mail. Seeing the unreal number now attached to my bank account, I nearly fell to my knees right there on my studio floor. Immediately I began to swipe up all the information for my bills. Every single one of them was getting paid off today.
Rafiq had the floor shining by the time I returned, and he actually looked pretty proud of his work. His men arrived with the transport truck about fifteen minutes, and he immediately went to work directing them.
“Do they know what they’re doing?” I asked, watching the burly men pile into the gallery in their matching gray coveralls, putting on thin but worn gloves. The truck was a simple white panel truck, and all I could imagine was the paintings jostling around so badly that they would end up getting punctured on the ride.
Rafiq snickered at me. “I’ve been buying art for a very long time. I would never hire men who didn’t know what they were doing.” He turned back to watch them. “And certainly not with paintings as precious as these. I had this truck custom-made to transport art. Don’t worry, Evie. I won’t let anything happen to them.”
His words made my heart flutter, but he didn’t look back to see my reaction. I swallowed against a tight throat and turned away to find something else to do.
One by one, the paintings Rafiq had purchased in exchange for my part in his scheme disappeared out the gallery door. I occupied myself going through the back stock and looking for replacement works to get up on the gallery wall. By the time Rafiq returned and announced the truck was packed up and ready to head out, I had the entirety of the new collection picked out and ready to be displayed.
The work took longer than I wanted, but, thanks to Rafiq’s strength and height, by noon we had hung a whole new set of paintings around the gallery, and made all the necessary lighting adjustments. We opened the doors, and for the first few empty hours, Rafiq seemed impatient and upset at the lack of customers. I just watched him, amused, enjoying my coffee and catching up on my bills on the laptop as he paced around and practically started cursing the passing foot traffic through the windows.
“This is the business,” I said to him with a smirk. “You’ll have to get used to it. Or, you know, you could just head back to the penthouse.”
“Get used to it?” he said. He seemed to have missed my second, snarkier suggestion. “I just can’t understand how every single passerby isn’t stopping to look at your work. Are they blind or something?”
“You’re a flatterer,” I said. “And people don’t care about art as much as you think. Or as much as we do, I guess.” I shrugged.
“Well, that’s unacceptable.”
I laughed at him. “You don’t like it when things are outside of your control, do you?”
Rafiq turned from the window to look at me with a shrug. “Does anyone?”
I raised an eyebrow. “Touché.”
Rafiq gave me a satisfied smile and returned to people watching.
Eventually the day picked up, spurred on by the lovely weather and a cultural festival which was happening nearby. By the late afternoon, there were many more potential customers passing through than I typically saw on a weekday afternoon. Rafiq’s enthusiasm to sell my paintings became immediately apparent as he engaged the guests, first one by one, and then fluttering like a butterfly around a garden, stopping at each group to inspire the conversation and get them asking questions about my work.
I joined him on the floor and spoke to a few people myself. Once I got a free moment, however, I made the point to move closer and eavesdrop on Rafiq and the art lovers he was currently entertaining.
Over the conversational buzz of the gallery, I stood behind him as he spoke to a lovely pair of ladies who had been contemplating a big, angry, red piece called Under Luna. The swirling, circular patterns of the red faded darker toward the center, becoming black and then white, creating a sort of vortex that pulled the viewer in like drowning in a current.
“You have to imagine the rage,” Rafiq was saying, his hands animated. He traced the swirl of the red without touching the canvas. “Rage is a circular emotion; it traps you in a constant, helpless whirlpool from which it is difficult to escape… Anger doesn’t do it justice, and sadness isn’t strong enough. Rage motivates, where despair only numbs. That’s the importance of the red here. It demands action.”
My heart ached, listening to the way he spoke about my work. He saw so much in the things I created, and he was so excellent at sharing his passion with others. Immediately the women lit up, agreeing with him, and gushing over the work as they hadn’t before.
Sure, his incredible looks and charm were part of the deal. Rafiq, I had noticed, tended to light up the rooms he entered without knowing it. Maybe the women just wanted to agree with this handsome man and impress him with their knowledge of art.
It didn’t seem to matter what the reason was when they shuffled up to the counter half an hour later. I couldn’t help but be stunned as I rang up their purchase of Under Luna. Rafiq was like a magician, the way he was able to charm anyone into listening to his ideas. Hell, he had talked me into faking a whole life by his side—talking people into buying art seemed like small potatoes after that.
It was the first of seven paintings Rafiq sold that day, helping me break my record. All the anger that had risen in me as a result of his little scheme seemed like a years-old beef by the time we closed up for the night.
Counting up the day’s totals, I smiled up at Rafiq as he passed by the counter, giving the hardwood floor another sweep from all the day’s traffic.
“That’s two records broken today,” I said. “Most single paintings sold, and most money made in a single day!”
“Wait a second,” said Rafiq with a frown. “Wasn’t my purchase the most you made in a single day?”
“Well, yes, technically, but that one doesn’t count.”
“Doesn’t count?” He put on a dramatic, pouty face and clutched at his chest playfully. “Ouch! Is my money not real enough for you?”
I laughed. “I just meant that your purchase didn’t exactly count as a ‘typical day’s work.’”
He chuckled and nodded. “I suppose you have a point there, my dear.”
The closing tasks went much more swiftly with Rafiq’s help, and Ahmed was waiting for us in the town car by the time we locked up for the night. The car rolled up to the penthouse just as the summer night was slowly creeping up the skyline of the city, turning the remains of the day into sinking yellows, reds and pinks streaked across the sky.
In the elevator we laughed and shared stories of the day’s customers, and once we were back in our makeshift “home” together, Rafiq insisted we wind down the night in a celebratory fashion.
After whipping up a batch of delicious cocktails, he took me out on the penthouse patio for the first time. Despite the height of the building, it was warm and quiet, and the view took my breath away. The city sounds floated far away, muffled by distance and the soft summer breeze.
Even out here, Rafiq had comfortable, stylish furniture. He sat down on the cushy black loveseat and gestured for me to join him with a smile. I sat down close to him.
“To a successful day,” said Rafiq, holding up his glass.
Clinking my glass against his, I said, “To a most successful day.”
He smiled at me as we sipped our drinks. The alcohol warmed my throat and relaxed my muscles.
“You really did an amazing job,” I said as I settled back against the loveseat. “Thank you for that. I’ve made more money this week than in my entire life put together.”
“You deserve every penny, and more, Evie. You’re very talented,” said Rafiq. “I never paid lip service to your work, I hope you know that. Despite this arrangement and all its… complications, please know your art stands above all that. I wouldn’t make that up, not for anything.”
I smiled softly at him. “It’s nice to feel so supported. Sometimes this life is a bit terrifying, being out here on my own. I mean, not all on my own, I have my parents back home, and Joel of course, but really, most of the weight I carry by myself.”
“You’re braver than me,” he said. “Brave enough to head out into the world on your own terms, and unafraid of living uncomfortably. You should never sell that short.”
“Is that what you’re afraid of, Rafiq?” I asked. “Losing all this luxury and comfort?”
Rafiq looked down at me for a moment before he put his arm around my shoulder. “Would you think less of me if I said yes?”
My knee-jerk reaction was to say yes, but I didn’t. Instead I asked him, “Why are you afraid of that? You know most people live their lives without it every day, and still live happy, right?”
Rafiq sighed and looked out toward the city skyline. The sound of the busy streets below wafted up like soft background music. Somewhere distant, a siren sounded. “I don’t know, Evie. I suppose it’s just perspective, really. I’ve never known anything else but this life, so to live without it seems…”
“Scary,” I finished for him.
“Yeah,” he said. “A little.” He wouldn’t look at me.
I didn’t know what to say to him—I had never had this level of luxury and security to consider giving up in the first place. I laid my head on his shoulder.
“Would your father really cut you off if you kept up your life the way it’s going?” I asked quietly. “He would really and truly leave you out to dry?”
“Really and truly,” sighed Rafiq, staring out at the city. “He’s said it since I was a young man. Ever since I first started to show signs that his influence over me was…waning. I have some of my own money, of course, but my life apart from him would undoubtedly look different.” He sighed again. “Or, rather, still could become different. I guess we’re not out of the woods yet.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I wish things could be different for you. I may not know exactly what you’re going through, but I can see the way it hurts you, Rafiq. And I know that pain is real. I hope you can find a way to get rid of the pain one day… I hope you can find some way to reconcile all this and be at peace.”
Rafiq’s eyes were misty and full of emotion when he looked over at me. I squeezed his hand and gave him a little smile.
“Maybe one day I’ll be brave like you,” he said.
His words hurt my heart. “Well, even if you aren’t, you should know I didn’t exactly hate spending time with you today. So you achieved more than you thought today, it would seem.”
I could almost feel the tension evaporating from his muscles beneath me. He smiled. “Am I growing on you, Evie?”
I laughed. “I suppose you could say that. We made a pretty good team today.”
“Yeah,” said Rafiq thoughtfully. “We really did.”
Rafiq pulled me closer against his body, and laid his head on top of mine as we watched the setting sun.
I didn’t remember finally dozing off, snuggled tightly in Rafiq’s arms. But I certainly remember the huge and startling realization that I was falling in love with Rafiq, and didn’t want our time together to end.
Rafiq woke up first, somewhere around midnight, and gently shook me awake. Realizing we had fallen asleep in each other’s arms on the porch couch , we chuckled sheepishly as we moved back into the penthouse and relocated to our separate beds for the rest of the night. Despite the luxurious warmth of the bed in my spare room, it felt utterly lacking without Rafiq’s arms around me, and I fell asleep wishing he was still with me.
The next morning, the romantic haze had washed away and my heart was filled with worry. My day with Rafiq had to have been a fluke. Sure, he had been on fantastic form at the gallery, and every moment afterward, but how could I trust it? Every time he did something incredible, it seemed like some sort of jackass move wasn’t far behind it. After all, he had admitted that he wasn’t brave enough to face the truth of his life. I had known instinctively, right from our first meeting, that Rafiq was hiding from something with all his partying. Now I knew it for sure.
The feelings I had for this version of Rafiq were doomed to destroy my heart the second he called up his hard-partying buddies and scantily clad girls for another night of debauchery. Even imagining the scenario made my heart hurt, and I knew then I had gone too far; I’d let myself get too close to him.
Rookie mistake, I thought, scolding myself. He was a rich, eligible bachelor who liked the night life. He liked it so much, he was willing to deceive his father in order to keep it and his fortune, instead of simply giving up his partying ways. Even though I truly believed him when he said he enjoyed my art, it didn’t change who Rafiq really was, or how he lived his life. And it wasn’t the life for me. I’d cleaned up all the beer cans and party mess I wanted to clean up for a good long while.
My thoughts washed over me like a dark flood that cast away all the relief I had felt the night before in Rafiq’s arms. It left me feeling sour and upset, and yearning for the comfort of the gallery, where at least life made a little bit more sense than the wonderland I had gotten myself into.
I was grateful my bedroom had its own connecting bathroom when I heard Rafiq stirring outside in the penthouse living room. I took my time getting ready, including taking a very long, hot shower. Part of me wasn’t ready to face Rafiq yet. My feelings were still raging, fighting each other for dominance.
But he was ready to face me, I discovered, when I finally came out of my bedroom. In fact, he was excited to see me. When I emerged, rubbing my wet hair with a towel, I saw his face light up from where he sat on the living room couch, perusing through some paperwork.
“Good morning!” he said. “How did you sleep?”
I gave him half-smile, deciding to play it as cool as I could. “Better, once I was in a real bed,” I joked. “My neck’s a little cricked, though.”
“Mine too,” he said, rubbing his hand across the back of his strong neck. “Do you want me to massage it for you?”
Heat flushed my skin. “No, no,” I said quickly, but I must have been too quick, or too sharp, and Rafiq looked wounded at my rejection of him. “I’m already running late.”
“Late for what?”
“For the gallery,” I laughed. “Most people work every day during the week, Rafiq, remember?”
Rafiq got up from the couch and put the papers down on the table. As he came over to me, he said, “Well, actually, I had something else in mind for us to do today.”
My emotions flared. Why did he have to be so sweet and thoughtful now, when all I wanted to do was back off from this? Was this some kind of game for him?
But even as I thought it, I knew it was wrong. Rafiq was arrogant and selfish, but he wasn’t malicious. He wasn’t trying to make things hard for me.
“Oh?” I finally answered, folding my arms in front of me. Determined as I was to head to the gallery regardless of what he had to say, he had stoked my curiosity. “And what did you have in mind?”
“Have you ever been to the aquarium?”
“Sure, once or twice,” I shrugged nonchalantly.
“Well it just happens that I’m the largest donor to their funds,” he said with a proud smile. “I called and arranged for us to have a private tour, and lunch cooked by the chef who runs their upscale dinner restaurant.”
A little stunned, I laughed and said, “Rafiq…”
“After, I want to take you to the Franklin Gallery of Modern Art on Vine Street. They just started an exhibition of Cai Guo-Qiang, and I have it on good authority the artist will be making a surprise appearance.”
“And then we can wrap up with dinner at La Mer. I’ve already reserved us a table, since you seemed to really enjoy the seafood at lunch the other day. That is, after I’ve taken you shopping at Hanneman’s, of course. A lady could always use a new dress,” he said sardonically.
“Rafiq,” I said, loudly enough this time that he finally stopped talking.
“What?” he said. Confusion spread over his handsome features. “It doesn’t have to be a dress. It can be whatever you want.”
I had to laugh at him. There was something almost childlike in how excited he was to take me out today, but I couldn’t trust it.
Not with fresh memories of hot blonde women in tight dresses ambling about his apartment. Not when he had barely gone a single night without partying or going out to a club. He was probably just trying to find some relief from the stress he was feeling about his father’s visit by being sweet with me. This wasn’t real, I kept telling myself. None of this was real—no matter how badly I wanted it to be.
“I have to go to the gallery,” I said. “I’m sorry. Maybe we can do those things another time, okay?”
Crestfallen, Rafiq blinked a few times, and shifted on his feet. “Oh. Did you not like my ideas?”
“No, it’s not that,” I said, sad that I had clearly hurt his feelings. “It’s very sweet of you to offer, I just… I still have to take care of my life. I like being here with you, but this is temporary, remember? I can’t just abandon my work.”
He shook his head sadly. “Right. This is all temporary, of course.”
“Are you upset?”
I shouldn’t have asked, but in spite of myself, I cared. I didn’t want to upset him.
He shook his head again. “No. It’s fine, I understand.” He waved a hand and walked away from me.
“Rafiq,” I called after him, as the distance between us increased.
“Really, it’s fine,” he said. The closed-lipped smile on his face was a lie. “You’re right, you need to take care of your life. I’ll be here when you get back.” He disappeared into the kitchen before I could reply.
Now feeling hurt myself, I left the penthouse and took a taxi back to my gallery.
The day had been slow. I had been hoping for more overflow from yesterday’s festival, but it didn’t seem like that was going to happen. Only a few looky-loos had wandered in, and all of them had left soon after I spoke with them. They were like crows pecking at someone else’s corn, and the slightest rustle sent them squawking away toward the sky.
Normally the looky-loos didn’t get to me, but I was on edge today. I couldn’t get the image of Rafiq’s sad eyes out of my head. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had made a mistake by refusing his offer of a grand day out.
“Excuse me.” A small feminine voice brought me out of my thoughts. A short middle-aged lady with a smart brunette bob and an expensive red pea coat stood in front of the counter where I was sitting.
“Hi, how can I help you?”
“Are you the artist?” she asked.
“I certainly am. Can I answer any questions for you?”
I got up from the stool, ready to come around the counter, just as the woman pointed a bony finger sparkling with a huge emerald ring toward a painting full of pinks that was called Anastasia.
“I just love this one. Is it one of a kind?”
“Much like the artist, yes, all of her works are one of a kind.”
Rafiq’s voice sounded before I could answer. He had been walking toward us, a big smile on his face as he approached. The woman whirled around to face him.
“Rafiq, what are you doing here?” I asked, my eyebrows raised.
“I’m here to do my job,” he said, sidling up next to the woman in the red coat. She had to crane her neck back to look up at him, such was their height difference, but she clearly enjoyed his smile once she did. “And convince this beautiful young woman to take Anastasia home with her tonight.”
The woman giggled and wrapped her hand around the elbow Rafiq offered to her. “By all means, young man, convince away.”
He led her back toward the painting, spinning a web as he did.
“Miss Pryce is a self-taught American artist. She was raised in a loving, supportive home, and thus she was allowed room to find her vision and let it flourish. It’s all in the colors, you see. That’s what you first noticed, isn’t it?”
“You’re exactly right, it is,” said the woman.
“Tell me the way the colors of this make you feel. Why do you like it?” Rafiq asked her.
“I like the way it reminds me of being a little girl again. It reminds me of the dollhouse my father and brother built for me for my 12th birthday. Just looking at it I can still taste the pastries my mother baked us.”
“You see?” said Rafiq. “None of that is here in the painting, and yet all of it is. This painting had the power to take you back to your childhood and fill your tongue with the taste of forgotten sweetness. This is the power of color that Miss Pryce has mastered. To have one of her works in your home is akin to hanging a living memory on your wall. Think of having that happy sensation every time you walk by it from now on.”
Whether he knew it or not, Rafiq had drawn a crowd of gallery customers who stood at staggered distances, listening intently to his bold delivery. He was an impressive orator, and art fans loved nothing more than to hear someone knowledgeable dissect art. Rafiq had them eating out of the palm of his hand.
The woman in the red coat waved her hands at me from across the room, loudly reminding me that the painting was hers.
“I asked first!” she said. “Create an invoice for me, please!” She seemed genuinely concerned that one of the other patrons would swipe it out from under her.
Rafiq looked up at me from over the top of her head with a wink and a smile.
I didn’t have any strength to resist him at that moment. I smiled back with all the happiness I felt, watching him advocate for my craft and my livelihood with all the passion of an artist himself.
He was making it very, very difficult not to fall in love with him.
“The art is priceless, friends,” said Rafiq to the crowd. “And you would be truly foolish to pass up the chance to own a Pryce. In fact, this may be the last time her work is within your budget.” The crowd laughed and a few clapped.
Rafiq turned toward me, still waiting, a little stunned, behind my white counter. He took careful steps toward me as he spoke. The crowd moved to let him by, as if he was a boat cutting through crystal clear water.
“Speaking of foolishness, I might be the greatest fool here today, even though I own more Pryce paintings than the artist herself at this point.” The crowd loved his jokes, but he didn’t stop to enjoy their laughter. “If failing to worship her art is foolish, then what is to be said about the man who fails to worship the artist?”
He stared at me, and my heart stopped beating. Heat rose on my skin as the emotions I’d been trying so hard to fight and bury started bubbling up to the surface, beckoned by Rafiq. Something heavy was gathering in the air of the room.
“Being in this gallery is to be surrounded by beauty,” he said. “But Evie, truly…you are the most beautiful work of all.” He held his hand out to me.
Not knowing what else to do in front of all the staring eyes, I took his hand, and he kissed the back of mine delicately. Shivers ran down my spine.
The crowd watched with hushed, baited breath.
“Evangeline, I have to ask you something,” he said.
My breath caught in my throat. “Ask me something?”
“I know that our relationship began as something… professional,” he said, caressing my hand in both of his. His palms were strong and warm, comforting. “But it’s become more than that for me, and I think it has for you, too. I didn’t expect it, but I would be a fool to run from it. You’ve made me want to be a braver man, and there’s no better time to begin making brave decisions than right now.”
Some of the women in the audience began to coo, and I was suddenly very aware of the sea of eyes staring at us, watching, waiting.
“Evangeline, I want you to be with me. Honestly be with me. I want to take care of you, and love you,” he said. “Do you love me, Evie? Will you let me be yours?”
A thousand tons of pressure weighed on my heart and lungs, and I almost felt ready to pass out. Part of my mind was begging to scream at him yes, yes!, and I fought with great difficulty to quiet that voice. I couldn’t do it to myself. No matter what he was saying to me now—especially here, putting on a show, in front of an audience—I knew what he was really like. I knew how he spent his nights and days and what he found worthwhile, and it certainly wasn’t domestic bliss with me, or anyone else. This was just another show, just like our relationship was a show for his father.
It was fake, I told myself. It had to be fake; there was no way Rafiq loved me.
With every passing second, the smile on Rafiq’s face faded just a bit.
Finally I found the voice to blurt it out. “Rafiq, I…I can’t.”
His shoulders fell. Behind him, people in the crowd exchanged low, sad words, and some of them started to drift away, as if trying to spare Rafiq the embarrassment of their gaze.
“What do you mean?” he said. “Don’t… don’t you feel anything for me? Did I just imagine what was happening between us? I know I didn’t imagine it, Evie. I felt it last night, holding you in my arms.”
His questions pierced the core of me, and I couldn’t find it in myself to lie to him about what I really felt, but I couldn’t tell him, either. Or maybe it was that I couldn’t admit it out loud to myself.
“It’s just…our lives are so different, Rafiq. I don’t think you would really be happy with me. I don’t live like you live, with all the parties, the constant nightlife…”
Rafiq’s posture straightened, as if I had hit a deep nerve in him that overcame the sadness of the rejection itself.
“Oh, is that what it is? I see.” He suddenly started looking around, seemingly at anything but me. “Look, it’s fine. I understand. You’re right, our lives are very different.”
“Rafiq, I’m sorry,” I said, reaching out to cover his hand that lay on the counter. “I’m not trying to hurt you, honestly. And it’s not that I don’t care…”
As soon as my skin touched his, Rafiq pulled away as if I had shocked him. The motion was as upsetting as seeing the pain on his face.
“I don’t need you to care, Evie. It’s fine. Hell, I’ve got a hundred other women waiting in my contact list. Why settle down, right? That’s not who I am. I’m the party boy. So I will go be the party boy and leave you to your work. I’m sorry to have interrupted your day.”
The pain in his voice, and in his eyes, betrayed any illusion Rafiq was trying to build that he was unhurt at the rejection. Seeing him so clearly wounded and upset made me feel sick to my stomach, but I didn’t know what else to do. I’d already decided that committing to a man like Rafiq was like laying down on a railroad and crossing your fingers that the track wasn’t being used anymore; it was a risk with almost certain pain involved.
But as I looked at him there, standing across from me in such obvious pain, that reasoning didn’t feel so flawless anymore. In fact, it had holes big enough to drive a bus through. All I wanted to do was make him feel better, and take his pain away.
“I’ll leave you to your work,” said Rafiq, running a hand through his smooth black hair. He turned and headed out of the gallery without looking back, or saying another word to me, and there was nothing I could do to deny the hollow his absence left in my heart.
The rest of the night at the gallery went slowly. Despite a few conversations and even two great sales thanks to Rafiq’s earlier efforts, I was in a gloom that couldn’t be lifted by a few smiling faces. Even the money didn’t help, now that Rafiq’s series of purchases had meant I was safe in that regard. Rafiq’s departure had hurt something much deeper inside of me.
As a storm of emotions raged inside me, I mechanically went through the motions of closing the store, counting down the day’s numbers, and turning off all the track lights except those which lit the front window through the night.
Fury at Rafiq for his bold and public exhibition competed with the feelings I had for him deep in my heart. It wasn’t that his words had hurt me; in fact, my heart had soared to hear that he had feelings for me like I did for him. But it was the way he did it, and that he was so oblivious to his own life that he thought I would immediately believe he was ready to settle down with me.
He was a conundrum, thoughtful and thoughtless at the same time. How did I reconcile that to my aching heart? How could I commit to a man like that?
Lost in my thoughts, I almost wandered up to my apartment out of habit before I remembered that “home” was somewhere else right now—Rafiq’s penthouse. Dark clouds gathered in my chest. Would he even want me there now, after I publically rejected his advances?
I couldn’t imagine that he would. He was probably embarrassed, and angry. There’s no way Rafiq would want this arrangement to continue, and it was probably for the best, anyway, that it didn’t. As much as I was going to miss having him in my life…
I shook the thoughts out of my head. No, I couldn’t do that to myself. Rafiq didn’t belong in my life. He was a temporary, albeit exciting, diversion, and nothing more. This would end, and my life would go back to normal. I would be fine.
The thoughts didn’t make me feel any better. Instead, I tried to focus on hailing a taxi and counting the stoplights on the drive until we arrived at Rafiq’s building.
My nerves became hotter and hotter as the elevator ascended. A thousand scenarios ran through my mind; of Rafiq starting a fight or saying something to hurt me. Even knowing I would have to look at those broken, sad brown eyes again, filled me with heartache.
But when the doors opened, it was into an empty, dark apartment. Rafiq wasn’t home, and hadn’t left any indication to his whereabouts as far as I could tell. As I wandered through the rooms to ensure I was alone, I checked my phone again to make sure he hadn’t texted, but there was nothing.
Somehow, his silent absence hurt worse than if he had been here waiting to rage at me.
As I walked around the penthouse, all the details of the furniture, lighting and artwork started to burn into my brain like I was trying to save it to remember one cloudy day. I was going to miss it, I realized, and not just because of the luxury. I wanted to remember every part of my time with Rafiq.
It didn’t take me very long to pack the things from my room back into my overnight bags. After I was done, I sat on the end of the plush bed. Listening to the silence of the penthouse, my thoughts became too heavy to take. I thought about going into the painting room to get my frustration out, or maybe settling down in the living room in front of the enormous TV that Rafiq had hanging on the wall and just drowning my emotions out with some numbing entertainment.
But my feet didn’t want to move me from where I was sitting. Instead, I simply kicked my shoes off and snuggled up in the plush, expensive bed of my temporary bedroom one last time.
There was no doubt in my mind that Rafiq was out drowning the pain from my rejection with booze and other women. The realization stung my heart, as true as I knew it to be. I wanted him here in my arms, and yet, at the same time, I didn’t, because I wasn’t sure I had the guts to face him without falling apart completely.
Tears dripped on the stark white of the pillow beneath my face.
It didn’t seem like he would be home tonight. With my bags already packed, I could be out of here first thing in the morning, and then this insane adventure would be over. My life would go back to its own struggles, and I would once again be without Rafiq.
My heart ached even as I fell asleep.
As the early hours of the morning crept over the sleeping city, the charming bing of the penthouse elevator echoed through down the hall of the silent penthouse. On the edge of sleep, I heard it and began to blink awake.
A few moments later, the sound of unsure, stumbling footsteps clopping on the marble floor pulled me entirely out of my doze. I listened closely as I heard keys and other objects being dropped in a wooden bowl; the crinkle of paper; the heavy footsteps of Rafiq as he maneuvered around his living room in the early morning dark.
At first, anxiety clutched my chest as I lay there quietly in the dark of the bedroom. I had hoped not to confront Rafiq again. I just wanted this to be over so both of us could go back to our lives and be out of this misery.
But listening to him sloppily move around in the dark, no doubt drunk but thankfully alone, anger washed over my fear and sadness. The pain we were both carrying—it was all his fault.
It didn’t have to end like this, but Rafiq had to pull his stunts, just like he had from the first day I met him, staging the exhibition for his blonde friends, making his grand gestures to get me to consider the arrangement. Everything he did was a show, a big elaborate scheme to get what he wanted and nothing more.
The anger was too much. I whipped the sheets off my body and threw my feet to the floor. Wearing only pajama shorts and a tank top, it didn’t even occur to me to look ‘proper’ as I stalked into the living room and flipped on the lights in a sudden movement.
Rafiq froze across the room, surprised, and caught in the glare of the lights. He turned around to face me, and the look in his eyes said he wasn’t sure what he was seeing was real.
“Evangeline?” His voice was heavy and slow. “I didn’t think you would be here.”
“I’m sure you didn’t,” I said, crossing my arms. “And I guess if I had any brains, I wouldn’t be.”
Rafiq didn’t answer, but looked stricken.
“I can’t believe you did that to me yesterday.” Just like that, the words came pouring out like the water behind a broken dam. “And in front of my clientele, at my place of business. My life, Rafiq! Do you realize what kind of position that put me in? I might have lost customers forever if any of them walked away thinking I’m a selfish, heartless bitch who turned down a romantic proposal for no reason!”
He didn’t interrupt me, only stared at me as I spoke, his face humble.
“You know what? Sure, you’re charming, and you’re handsome, but you treat other people like we’re playthings, as if we were all put here for your amusement.” I took a few hard steps closer to him, gesturing wildly. “You think your fancy, dramatic gestures are more important than being a decent person, but you’re wrong. You’ve been putting on a show since the first day I met you. Well, your shows hurt people, Rafiq. They hurt.” Tears ran down my face, but I was too angry to care. “I would rather have none of this fancy pretense and instead have the real Rafiq, the one who makes things happen. The one who faces the world honestly.”
Rafiq went pale, but still, he said nothing. The way he blinked at me, it was almost as if for once, he didn’t know what to say. I had been expecting his usual arrogant comebacks, and I didn’t know what to do with his silence.
Maybe it was his silence that allowed me to see what I had missed before: the large, wrapped rectangle Rafiq was holding in his hands, clutched delicately against his body.
“What…what’s that?” I asked, pointing.
Rafiq glanced at the package in his hand before he moved around the couches and toward me. As he did, he pulled the brown paper carefully off of what I could see now was a canvas. When he turned the uncovered canvas around to face me, I gasped.
It was me. It was a stunning painting of me, wearing the dark blue cotton dress from our lunch at the bistro a few days before. The painting style was like nothing I had ever seen before, with incredible use of color and thick, deliberate outlines used strategically to draw the viewer toward the focal point: my bright blue eyes and laughing smile.
My eyes filled with tears. “Rafiq, I don’t understand…”
When he spoke, his voice was humble, quiet, and soft. “I didn’t want us to part with me in your debt. You painted a portrait of me…” He nodded toward the painting, still hanging on his wall. “I wanted to give you one of you. Now we’re even.”
My eyes widened. “Rafiq, are you telling me you painted this?”
He hesitated. “Yes,” he said. “I used the photo from our lunch the other day as a reference, since you looked so radiant in it.” At that moment, he couldn’t help but look down and give a tiny smile at his own work. “Do you like it?”
Stunned, I came closer to get a better look. “Rafiq, I don’t know what to say. I love it. I had no idea you had this talent,” I said. “How long have you been painting?”
“I, uh…always,” he said bashfully. I’d never seen him look unsure of himself, but now he was shifting on his feet like a teenage boy being asked to prom. “I’ve always painted, since I was a child.”
“Why didn’t you tell me you paint too?”
Rafiq shrugged. “How can I compare my amateur work to yours, Evie? You’re a professional. Honestly, I was afraid you wouldn’t like it.”
“Rafiq, you must be joking. Just look at your work, it’s incredible. Why wouldn’t I like it?”
“I don’t know, Evie. Maybe it’s because my father never succeeded in his work, and he passed that fear of rejection onto me. Once he found out I loved to paint as a child, he put so much pressure on me to succeed in the art world that I ended up hating it, and running away from it at full speed.”
My eyes widened in epiphany. “Running right for the party world, the opposite of what your father wanted.”
Rafiq nodded. “Mehmet wanted to have an artist son more than anything. I loved the art, I loved the work, but like many fathers, he assumed his way was the only proper way to work. My vision began to suffocate until I couldn’t even stand to look at an easel or canvas anymore. I’m not sure he ever really forgave me for that. Sometimes I think that’s why he pushes me so hard into business, as if he wants to punish me for my cowardice.”
“I’m sure it’s not that,” I said softly. “Your father loves you, Rafiq.”
He shrugged, uncomfortable. “He made me give up the thing I loved the most. It’s very hard to reconcile those things.”
“But you didn’t quit,” I said matter-of-factly with a gesture at the painting. “This is not the technique of a man who hasn’t painted since childhood. You’ve been practicing this entire time anyway, haven’t you? Even as you’ve been out partying, you’ve been painting, too.”
Rafiq smiled and actually blushed. It was terribly endearing. “No… I didn’t quit. But I’m also not brave like you, Evie. I never had the bravery to fight for the life I really wanted to live. Instead, I just protested the one given to me like a sullen child, instead of fixing it to be what I wanted. You’re right to be angry with me. You’re twice the person I am.”
“Rafiq,” I said sadly, shaking my head. “Don’t talk like that about yourself.”
“No, it’s true,” he said. “And I’m not afraid to admit that anymore. I have to face the truth of what I am if I ever want to become more than what I am. You taught me that, Evie. I can’t keep running from my mistakes or the person I’ve allowed myself to become.”
“What are you saying, Rafiq?” My heart was bursting in my chest as I listened to him speak so boldly.
“I’m saying I want to change the way I live my life. I don’t want to hide from things anymore. I want to be like you—to face the world like you, Evie. You’ve inspired me.”
My cheeks flushed, and I had to look away from Rafiq’s handsome, intense gaze.
“I want you to have this,” he said, holding out the portrait to me.
“Are you sure?” I said, taking the canvas delicately.
“Absolutely,” he said. “It was always for you. Take it.”
With a smile, I did, and tucked it along with the rest of my waiting possessions in the bedroom.
When I came back out, Rafiq was waiting, watching me with his arms crossed, and the most sad, sullen look I had ever seen on his gorgeous face.
“I know I don’t deserve this, Evie. You were right about everything you’ve said about me, and I don’t deserve it, but…would you…” he looked down shyly. “Would you consider staying with me tonight? Please? I want to feel you next to me one last time before you go forever.”
Softly, I walked up to Rafiq and stood before him. Meeting his eyes, I nodded with a smile, and wrapped my arms around his broad, strong shoulders. At first, he tensed in surprise, as if he hadn’t expected it, but soon he was melting under my touch.
Rafiq’s arms slid around me hungrily as I stood up on my tiptoes to kiss him. He bent down and met my lips with an aching fervor. My heart danced, finally feeling his soft lips on mine, and the way his arms enveloped me as he held me against his body.
Rafiq pulled away from the passionate kiss with a breathless smile. “I’ve been dreaming of that.”
“Me too,” I whispered. “By the way, I want to change my mind, too.”
“Change your mind? About what?”
“About your proposal, earlier today,” I said, tracing a fingertip down his firm chest. “I want to be your girlfriend, Rafiq. I really do. Is your offer still on the table?”
Rafiq’s smile became a big, beaming thing. “Evie, do you mean that?” He cupped my jaw gently in his hand when I nodded, and gave me a loving, passionate kiss. “Of course! Nothing in the world would make me happier.”
He pulled away to scoop me up in his arms, and I squealed in surprise and delight, wrapping my arms around his neck as he carried me to his bedroom.
Morning came, soft and slow, sunlight creeping across Rafiq’s room like a lazy ocean tide. Nestled against his warm skin, everything felt like a dream. His chest rose and fell in a deep rhythm under my hand. I didn’t want to open my eyes, fearing it would all evaporate once I did.
The night had been incredible, and passionate—more passionate than any lovemaking I had ever experienced. The feel of Rafiq’s gentle hands and hungry, aching kisses still lingered on my skin. I wanted to forget the entire world existed and simply lay here in his arms forever, nestled in his warm love.
The shrill ringing of a cell phone erupted in the morning quiet, mercilessly reminding me that the world wasn’t going to be ignored, not today or any day.
Rafiq inhaled deeply as he rose up into consciousness, dragged from sleep by the sound of his phone. Immediately, the arm wrapped around my shoulder pulled me closer into his body, and instead of turning for the phone, he bent his head and pressed his lips against my hair with a soft kiss.
I smiled against his skin and kissed his shoulder. “You should probably get that,” I murmured.
With a reluctant growl, Rafiq obliged and reached one arm out to paw around on the nightstand for his smartphone. As soon as he looked at the screen, his muscles tensed up beneath me.
“Oh, shit,” he said. “My father, I completely forgot.”
“What?” I said, sitting up to look at him.
He didn’t reply. Instead, he swiped a finger across the screen and answered the incoming call. I waited with baited breath while he spoke in quiet Arabic to his father for about ten seconds, and then hung up, tossing the phone back on the nightstand.
“Mehmet’s coming to visit today before he returns home. Sorry, I completely forgot to tell you, what with all the excitement yesterday…”
“Must we get out of bed?” I said in a soft, seductive voice.
Rafiq gave me a playful glare, rolling over to pin me down and attack me with kisses while I giggled underneath him. The kisses began to turn into something more passionate, until Rafiq reluctantly slammed the brakes on.
“My father will be here within the hour,” he said. “I wish we had time for that… so, so badly.” He gave my neck a frisky, soft bite to make me squeal.
“Later,” I said with a wink, and kissed him.
We each took a quick shower and got dressed, ready to meet with Mehmet. Rafiq went to the kitchen to prepare the tea service he knew his father would be expecting, while I went back into my room and began to unpack all of the belongings I’d gathered the night before. It wasn’t that I intending to move in immediately, of course, but suddenly, getting back to my apartment didn’t seem like such an important task on my to-do list after all.
Seeing the portrait Rafiq made for me had made my heart soar all over again. I couldn’t believe he had been hiding this talent from me all this time. Wanting to look at the painting as much as possible, I decided to follow his lead.
While he was busy in the kitchen, I hung up the portrait next to his on the wall outside the spare bedroom, and stepped back to inspect my handiwork. The warm tones in my portrait of Rafiq, already on the wall, were the perfect complement to the cool, nighttime shades he had used to bring out the dark blues of my eyes and dress.
“You completed us,” I said softly.
“What was that, honey?” said Rafiq from behind me as he came in the room carrying the tea tray. “Did you say something?”
“You completed us,” I repeated, turning to him with a smile. “Did you do that on purpose?”
Rafiq wasn’t looking at me as he carefully laid out the tea service on the coffee table.
“Do what on purpose?”
“The colors you used. Look,” I pointed. “On their own, these paintings are each their own, opposite worlds. But when you put them together, they become complimentary. They’re complete together… It’s night and day.”
Rafiq followed my gaze and smiled when he saw his painting hanging on the wall. The smile only grew as he considered what I was telling him. “You’re right,” he said. “They really do complement each other. I hadn’t realized when I started painting… All I could think about was creating the perfect space to bring out the glow in your eyes. They have quite the sparkle when you smile, you know.”
From across the room, I met his eyes, and couldn’t believe the love I felt in his gaze. It filled every inch of my heart with a warmth I had never known.
The buzzing of the intercom interrupted our moment. I hurried into the spare room to finish brushing my hair and applying a bit of makeup, and Rafiq answered the doorman, who was calling up to say his father’s cars had just arrived. By the time I came back out, the elevator doors were opening, and a whole cadre of people came spilling out in a cloud of loud shoes and multilingual chatter.
Surprised, I asked Rafiq in a quiet voice, “What is this all about?”
“This is how my father typically travels,” laughed Rafiq. “He left his crew downstairs on the first visit. He said he didn’t want to intimidate you right off the bat”
“But now I’m fair game, I guess?” I joked.
Rafiq leaned in and whispered next to my ear, “Don’t worry, the accountant is the only one who bites.”
I giggled and gave his arm a pinch.
Mehmet emerged from the middle of the group, which included the same two bodyguards we had met before, plus two other men in dark blue suits, and a thin blonde woman with her hair in a sophisticated upsweep, carrying a tablet in one hand and a bag full of other phones and devices. She had one of the phones pressed to her ear, and didn’t even acknowledge us aside from asking for a quiet place to work. Rafiq directed her to his office. The bodyguards spread out on their safety sweeps, and the men in blue suits wandered toward the penthouse windows, speaking lowly to each other.
Mehmet was beaming at me as he came forward with arms spread wide. “My beautiful angel,” he said, wrapping me in a tight hug. “It’s wonderful to see you again before I leave. I’m sorry we couldn’t make a day of it, but the business world is so unpredictable.”
“Hello, father,” I said and hugged him back. “Think nothing of it, I understand.”
“Rafiq told me you had a wonderful week at the gallery,” said Mehmet. “You broke your record for selling paintings, yes?”
I smiled up at Rafiq and said, “He’s right, we did. I couldn’t have done it without him. Rafiq is excellent when it comes to the art world.”
“Nonsense,” said Rafiq immediately, putting an arm around my shoulder. “Anything I do is only stating the obvious: your work is beauty. Any guest in your gallery who can’t see that is blind and unworthy of buying it.”
I never got tired of hearing it from him, especially now that I understood why he was able to communicate his artistic tastes so well; he wasn’t just paying lip service, he was a talented artist in his own right.
“You flatter me, darling,” I said, blushing. It felt wonderful to be using the pet name sincerely, for once.
Rafiq responded by taking my hand and pulling it up to his lips for a soft kiss, his eyes staring into mine. Heat rushed through my body and I suddenly wished we were alone in the penthouse.
“Wait, what’s this?” interrupted Mehmet, breaking the spell of the moment. “Where is your ring?”
I turned with a surprise. “I’m sorry?”
“Your engagement ring.” He pointed to the hand that Rafiq was holding up, practically showcasing for anyone who wanted to look that I was no longer wearing the engagement ring he’d given me. “Has something happened to it?”
My heart froze. Last night, when I’d been angry and convinced it was my last night in the penthouse under our arrangement, I’d left the ring on the dresser in the spare bedroom. I didn’t want to accidentally take off with it and give Rafiq a reason to bother me after I’d gone.
Caught up in the whirlwind of our emotional night, I’d completely forgotten to put the ring back on before Mehmet arrived.
“Oh, uh, I…” My mind raced for an excuse that would not blow our cover—we were so close to solving Rafiq’s problems—but all I could do was rub my hands together and stutter helplessly.
But my love came to the rescue, as he always seemed to do.
“Father,” said Rafiq in a firm voice, “I have something to tell you. Evangeline is not wearing her ring because, the truth of it is, we are not actually engaged.”
Mehmet started, and I turned to Rafiq feeling alarmed. What was he doing?
“What is this?” said Mehmet. “Has something happened? Have you decided not to get married? There is really no reason to delay this event, Rafiq; I’m sure we can arrange whatever venue your beautiful bride desires…”
“No, father, it has nothing to do with that. We were never engaged. In fact, before last night, Evie and I had never been anything more than business partners,” said Rafiq. “I tried to deceive you, father. I’m sorry. I hired Evangeline to pose as my future wife because I didn’t want to reject your legacy—but I didn’t want to follow it, either. I hired Evie to help me.”
I could only stand there in silent shock as the tension mounted between Mehmet and Rafiq, so palpable it was like a force in the air.
But Rafiq was not the man he had been before. Standing with his back straight, he faced his father with calm assurance and a steady gaze. There was nothing insecure or afraid in his eyes, not anymore. It made my heart sing to see him so confident, so sure of himself.
“This is outrageous,” said Mehmet finally. I learned in that moment that Mehmet didn’t have to yell to be intimidating. There was razor-blade sharpness in every syllable, and his dark eyes burned into his son. “I should have known that you were never going to change, Rafiq. You have always been hell-bent on defying me, even when I know what is best for you. So be it! You can have the rejection you have always craved. I am cutting you off from this day forward. You can starve and struggle your way through the world like everyone else, and ignore everything I’ve built to keep you safe. That is clearly the life you have always wanted for yourself, no matter what your mother and I sacrifice to keep you safe.”
Even though he wasn’t my father, hearing the Sheikh’s words still cut me. I could only imagine what they were doing to Rafiq. Without looking, I felt for his hand and grasped it tightly in my own, to let him know I was here and with him. He squeezed back lovingly without looking away from his father.
“You can do whatever you feel is right, father,” said Rafiq. There was no hint of fear or even bitterness in his voice. “You’re right. I have always defied you, and I’m truly sorry for the heartache I’ve caused you and mother over the years. But I didn’t understand why I was doing it; not until I saw what real courage, real bravery was. Not until Evie showed me.” He looked down at me, and then back at his father. “I’ve always tried to have it both ways—to be your legacy, and to be my own man—but I see now that I can’t.”
Mehmet made a move to interrupt, but Rafiq put up a palm to silence him, and shockingly, his father obeyed, as if he too could sense the change in his son’s demeanor.
“Father, I respect the life you’ve built for yourself and our family, but I have to be my own man. I’m going to live by my own choices, not yours. If I fail or starve, it’s going to be because of my own efforts and decisions, not because I was trying to please you. I’m not going to be held hostage by the family money and trudge through life hating myself and everything I do. Not anymore. I’m sorry I can’t be the man you want me to be, but if you put your faith in me, I know I can prove to you that I can still be a good man, and a worthy son.”
Surprising us both, Rafiq removed the black cotton shirt he had been wearing, exposing his tattoos to his father. Mehmet’s eyes widened as he realized just how much body art Rafiq had hidden from him over the years.
“These are my choices,” said Rafiq, running his hands over his skin. “These are my design, all of them. Evie only covered for me. I made these, father, and I bled for them. They all represent something I’ve been through, something that has made me a better man, and yet you shame me for them, based on what? Some old-fashioned idea of respectability? Shouldn’t it be more important to you that your son has a strong heart and his own passions? Or do you really want me to be just another cog in the machine?”
Tears stung my eyes. There was pain in Rafiq’s voice; he’d been waiting so many years to say these things to his father. Mehmet could only stare, stunned, and I realized his entourage, scattered throughout the room, was doing the same. I wondered silently if they had ever seen anyone talked to the great Mehmet Al-Zayn in such a way.
“You do what you need to do, father. You’ve earned your fortune, and it is yours to deny me.” Rafiq put his shirt back on. “But I’m going to live my life according to my own rules. I would love to have your support, but I understand if I do not.”
Mehmet blinked at his son. He looked over at me, as if I could explain any of this. His gaze drifted over to behind where Rafiq was standing, stopping when he spotted the new painting on the wall, next to the portrait of Rafiq he had already seen.
Frowning, Mehmet walked away from us and toward the painting. He stared at it as Rafiq and I slowly walked up behind him, hands still joined together.
Mehmet pointed to the signature at the bottom right corner of the portrait. “This signature… Rafiq, is this your work?”
“It is,” said Rafiq. “It was a gift for my love.” He pulled me into his side and dropped a kiss on my head.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” I said. “It’s the greatest gift anyone has ever given me. Rafiq has been hiding this talent from all of us, and if it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to make him show it to the world.”
When Mehmet turned around, there were tears brimming in his big, dark eyes. He had the same dark eyes Rafiq had, and now there was no more anger in them, not anymore.
“My son,” he said, “this is extraordinary.”
The way Rafiq squeezed my shoulder told me he wasn’t expecting that response.
“You like it, truly?” he asked his father.
“I can’t remember the last time I saw you exhibit such passion, Rafiq. True passion, not the masquerade you have been living for so long.” He gestured toward the portrait. “I wish you hadn’t lied to me and deceived me about your marriage. But this, I can see now…your love for her is real. And she’s found a way to uncover the passion inside of you that I knew was still waiting.”
“And your technique! Your talent!” exclaimed Mehmet in sudden animation, as if now he’d started, he couldn’t stop. “Rafiq, you have improved so much since the last time I saw you create. You’ve found your style, your voice. This is a feat I was never able to accomplish.”
Rafiq’s mouth dropped open. “I’ve never heard you talk like that, father.”
“It’s the truth,” said Mehmet. “If this is a day for truths, let it be so. I’m sorry I pressed you with such intensity to try and make up for my own artistic failures, Rafiq. I saw your talent and I must have lost my mind. But…” he looked back at the painting. “At least I can say now for certain that what I saw was true. You were born an artist, my son; a true artist, just like the beautiful woman at your side.”
I blushed as Rafiq pulled me closer and looked down at me with a jubilant smile.
“I’m proud of you, Rafiq,” said Mehmet. He walked up to his son and clapped both hands on his shoulders, giving him a gentle shake. “I’m so proud of you. This is the beginning of your life, my son. Now that you understand the kind of man you want to be, nothing will stand in your way. You and Evie will make a beautiful life together, full of art and passion and beauty. That is all I ever wanted for you, son. I only wanted you to be happy.” Tears escaped from his eyes as he embraced his son with strong arms.
Shocked at first, Rafiq moved his arm from around me and hugged his father back. It was clear to me that they hadn’t shared a moment like this in a very long time, and it made my heart soar.
One Year Later
“Ay, my feet are killing me!” said Joel, leaning against the wall in the gallery’s back room. He had removed one of his gorgeous brown leather shoes and was massaging his black-socked foot with one hand.
As I clicked by him in my own black high heels, I laughed and squished his cheek between my fingers gently. “Why don’t we trade shoes, then? I’ll take yours over mine any day.”
“Rafiq would never forgive me,” said Joel. “You see the way your ass looks in them? Whew!” He pretended to fan himself with a chuckle.
“You’re not wrong,” I said with a laugh. Rafiq had picked out my tiny black cocktail dress and matching black heels exactly for the way my curves looked in them. I’d taken myself to a salon to have my long black hair done up in a gorgeous bundle of curls that felt like a crown on top of my head. “I’m pretty sure your feet are just a little bit bigger than mine, anyway. Sorry dear, can’t help you.”
“It’s my fault for not breaking these in, but damn it, they looked so good in the store window on the way over here.” He looked regretfully at his other, shoed foot on the floor. “Why does it have to hurt to look so good?”
“Well, you look very handsome in them, so suck it up. The night’s almost done.” I leaned over and gave him a quick peck on the cheek before heading down the long hallway toward the gallery.
Even though it was late in the evening, the room was still buzzing with art lovers who had stayed all night, and the new arrivals who had most likely been out at nearby galleries all evening, and selected us for their final stop.
Looking around, I still couldn’t believe that this was my life. Tonight was the grand opening of the new gallery, bigger than anything I could ever have hoped to be a part of, and it was all thanks to my new life with Rafiq.
I spotted him in the crowd, not just because of his height, but because he was carrying himself like a king. Even among other powerful people, he stood out, shining like a jewel from the desert.
He always caught me staring at him, and tonight was no different. He looked up across the crowd and met my eyes with a smirk and a wink. I smiled back and blew him a kiss.
“Tonight has been perfect,” said Joel, coming up from behind me. “You must be so proud, mami.”
“I am,” I admitted with a nod. “And I’m proud of Rafiq. He’s come so far, he’s like a whole new man. He makes me so happy.”
“And they love his work!” said Joel with a gesture around. “Everyone has been gushing about it all evening! I think you might have a rival.”
I laughed as I gazed over the gallery walls. This place was ours, Rafiq’s and mine, and our work hung together, side by side. We had even completed a joint piece, the first piece visitors encountered when they entered the gallery. My wildest daydreams had never come close to the reality I was living now. I had a wonderful, passionate man to share not only my life with, but my work, too.
“I’m not sure I would want to be Rafiq’s rival, to be honest. I love his work more than my own most times.”
“That’s how I know you are in love,” said Joel, putting his arm around me for a sweet hug. “And it’s about damn time.”
“I couldn’t agree more.”
Rafiq was coming up to join us with a glass of champagne in his hand, and a handsome smile on his face. He gave Joel a friendly hug. “Thank you for all your help tonight, Joel, we couldn’t have done this without you.”
“That’s what I’ve been saying to her for years,” said Joel with a teasing glance at me. “But I get to tell everyone that my dearest friend is both a successful artist and a princess, so it works out.”
“A princess?” I laughed.
“Well, more or less,” said Joel with a wink. “Right, I’m going to go talk that gorgeous German gentleman into buying the painting he’s been staring at for ten minutes. Excuse me, you two.” He gave us both a pat on the shoulder before maneuvering his way through the crowd.
Rafiq pulled me into a close embrace. “This evening has been a dream come true for me, my love.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” I said, grateful that in these heels, I didn’t even have to get on my tip-toes to reach his soft lips for a gentle, sensual kiss. “I’m so lucky to have you, Rafiq. You’ve made so many of my dreams come true.”
“I intend to make them all come true,” he said. “Every last one.”
“Even the one where I have a pet dinosaur that I ride to work?”
Rafiq laughed and nodded. “I already have my top scientists working on the cloning technology.”
I giggled and shook my head at him as he pulled me in for another kiss.
“There’s one more dream I want to make come true tonight,” he said. “A dream of mine… and hopefully, a dream of yours too.” There was a secret sparkle in his eyes.
“Oh?” I said, raising an eyebrow, a playful smirk on my painted lips. “And what dream is that, darling?”
Rafiq stepped away from me, holding my hand, and began to speak loudly—not to me, but to the art lovers perusing the gallery. “May I have your attention, please?”
After a few more seconds of excited buzz, the crowd quieted down, several coming from across the large space to get closer. The group was a well-dressed mass of beautiful people holding glasses of champagne, eyes bright from laughter and cheeks warmed from the alcohol.
Rafiq caressed my hand in his as he spoke. “I want to thank all of you for coming tonight, on the opening night of our gallery. It means the world to us that you would spend your evening in our company, taking in the work—both artistic and otherwise—that we have been pouring our blood, sweat, and tears into for over a year.”
Rafiq was an incredible orator, and ever since the day he had stood up to his father, his confidence had only grown. He was brimming with so much charisma that he had the entire crowd eating every word. When he spoke with passion, there was no ignoring him.
“As many of you will be aware, the work on these walls belongs to myself, and my beautiful partner, the love of my life, Miss Evangeline Pryce.” He held up my hand to make sure everyone could see me, and some of the crowd applauded.
He was speaking to them, but he only looked at me. “Evangeline is the real reason we are all here tonight. Without her love and beauty in my life, I could never have found the courage to live my life honestly and fully, as she does. She has never let the world stop her from being who she is. Even when it threatened her with loneliness and insecurity, she held fast to her vision. She is braver than any single person I’ve ever met, and without her, my life would be in a much different and darker place right now. The truth is, Evie saved me.”
Rafiq’s words melted my heart. Tears ran down my cheeks, and the smile on my face was so big, it hurt.
“She saved me from myself,” said Rafiq, his voice cracking with emotion. “I was numb, and directionless. But then she came and made me feel again, and helped me become a better man. Of all the works in this gallery tonight, or any other night, Evangeline is the most beautiful work of all.”
My heart seized and I gasped when Rafiq dropped to one knee on the hardwood floor. He opened his right hand to show a tiny, velvet box.
He opened the box; inside it was a beautiful, glittering diamond ring. It wasn’t the ring he had used to fool his father during our fake engagement. This one was new, and I could tell immediately from the design of the gems that Rafiq had had this made just for me. Tears filled my eyes.
“Evangeline,” he said. His hand grasped mine tighter, and he held the box up to me. “I had no life, no love, before you came to me. I never want to be without you again. Will you marry me?”
My heart soared. “Yes!” I cried right away, throwing my arms around his neck. “Yes, of course Rafiq. I love you so much.”
Rafiq wrapped his arms around me tightly and held me against him as he stood up, burying his face in my hair. The crowd erupted into cheers and applause, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
“I love you, Evangeline,” he whispered against my ear. “You are the best thing that has ever happened to me.”
And now, as promised, enjoy the first few chapters of my novel, The Sheikh’s First Christmas!
Christmas in Seattle was typically a cold, rainy affair, with gray skies and muddy streets that would never feature on a holiday card or storefront display. This year was no exception. It was two days before Christmas, and if you didn’t have much holiday cheer of your own, the scenery and weather were not about to inspire it. I had none, so I frowned as I switched my car radio between stations, looking for any music that wasn’t about warm hearths and trees all aglow. As I drove away from town and toward the high-end suburbs, I passed manicured yards decorated with glowing lights, light posts wrapped in pine boughs and red bows, nativities and reindeer and evergreen wreaths. Christmas was everywhere.
“Soon,” I murmured. “Soon, all this junk will be gone.”
I heard the bitterness in my voice and sighed. I hadn't always been this tired, irritated person, eager for the holiday season to hurry up and be done. I'd loved Christmas growing up. I'd been raised by a single mom, and we'd never had much, but she'd always managed to make the holiday special for us. A stocking full of sweets, a special dinner, a treasured gift or two -- it might not have been impressive to kids who'd grown up in wealthier families, but, for my sister and me, it had been utter magic.
I said a silent prayer for a different kind of magic as I parked my car, a battered old Ford. I chose a spot at the back of a little-used alley that ran behind a bank and a drug store, both closed at this time of night. There was little foot traffic through here, and even less chance that one of the homeless people or shift workers who passed through would notice or remember my unremarkable car. I killed the engine and jammed the keys into the pocket of my jeans. I got out of the car, settling my backpack on my shoulders as I did.
It took almost twenty minutes to walk from the commercial district to the upper-class neighborhood that had been my favorite for the past few months. Twenty minutes wasn’t long enough for me to quiet the fluttering in my belly. I knew there was no real reason to be afraid. I’d prepared meticulously, checking the house I’d chosen again and again over the last week. The work I did was risky, but I always did everything I could to make that risk as small as possible. And, of course, I always made sure the risk was worth it.
My first visit had told me that there were things inside worth stealing. It wasn’t just the size of the house, which would be more correctly described as a mansion—hell, add a few turrets and a moat, and the place was a castle. I liked more than the size of this one, though. It was small details that told me the occupants appreciated nice things, expensive things. The curtains visible through the windows were heavy, elaborately-woven tapestries, the kind of custom dressings that cost tens of thousands of dollars. Through the half-moon window in the front double doors, I could make out a brass and crystal chandelier that I was sure cost more than I’d ever earned in a year. Even the planters on the front porch, some empty, their summer flowers dead and gone; some displaying round, glossy-leaved bushes, looked high-end. There was no question of coming away from this house with a valuable haul.
Of course, a fancy home full of pricey knick-knacks wasn’t all I looked for when I chose a target. All the valuables in the world are worthless unless you can get in and out without getting caught. The sprawling mansion on Bradford Lane was protected by only the most perfunctory security system, an outdated model that did little more than a thumb lock when it came to keeping out an experienced thief. I spotted the sticker on my first visit to the place and could hardly believe my luck. I knew this system inside and out, and had gotten past it easily a half dozen times before. It was one of the few systems today that still relied on a landline phone connection; cut the connection, and the system died with it. And cutting the connection would be easy, because this house had an advantage that I simply couldn’t pass up: it was empty.
It wasn’t unusual for houses in this neighborhood to be empty at this time of year. Seattle was wet and overcast for most of the year, but it was particularly dismal in winter. Wealthy people often chose to spend the colder months elsewhere, in places where the air was still warm and the sun shone. I guessed this is what the owners of my target had done, speculating that they probably had six house-castles like this, all over the world, to suit whatever mood they happened to wake in. There were cars parked in the massive garage, but rich people always had extras. I’d set a stick against the base of the garage door to check whether anybody came or went, and the stick hadn’t moved all week. The curtains inside the windows hadn’t opened, I’d neither seen nor heard a soul around the place, and no mail had been delivered, either—a sure sign that the occupants had stopped delivery while they relaxed on some sunny beach in Florida or Spain.
Despite my attempts to imagine them as rude, careless aristocrats, I felt a pang of guilt as I imagined the homeowners. I pushed it back hard. I wouldn’t take much, I told myself, just enough to keep my lights on and my rent paid, and to cover my sister, Marion’s, spring tuition. More likely than not, they wouldn’t even miss the handful of trinkets I took from them. And even if they did, I needed them more than they did.
It’ll just give them an excuse to go shopping. Rich people love to shop.
Arriving at the front of the house, I walked up to it without hesitation. This was important—no one noticed you if you acted as though you belonged. I knew that some thieves used the tactic of a workman’s uniform and clipboard to blend in. I’d done that a couple of times, at the beginning, but I never felt that it worked for me the way it did for older, male burglars. I was too obviously female, too young and too petite to pass for a laborer. I’d decided instead to act as though I was a college student, perhaps a grown child of the homeowners, coming home late from a party. When I was preparing for a job, I put my long, blonde hair into a ponytail, slipped on a university sweatshirt (a good school, a place only the children of wealthy parents could afford to study), and strapped on an empty backpack. The backpack was a particularly inspired choice, since it gave me a way to carry out stolen items without notice.
I’d never been caught, or even questioned. Sometimes, the neighbors even waved at me and called “hello.” Later, once the burglary was discovered, they might be able to tell the police about the woman they saw, but they would never have a better description than young, pretty and blonde. I disguised my eyes with sunglasses and never stuck around long enough for them to get more than a quick glance at me. I’d burgled more than a dozen houses in this way. It was almost too easy.
Of course, I was always a little afraid. The thing about getting caught is that it only has to happen once.
I silenced that fear as I strode up the front walk toward the mansion. I didn’t go to the front door, choosing instead to circle around to the back of the house. A high privacy hedge protected the back yard from view and would give me cover while I worked on the security system.
“There we go,” I murmured, as I spotted the utility box attached to a rear brick wall of the structure. It only took a moment to figure out which cable was the phone line. I pulled a pair of utility snips out of my pocket and swiftly cut the line.
Now that I knew my intrusion wouldn’t draw the police with a silent alarm, I stepped back from the house, trying to decide how I’d get in. I considered the patio doors, or perhaps the cellar entrance. I wasn’t an expert lock pick, but I’d been working at it, and I could probably get one of the doors open. Still, if I could find an easier way, I would.
I looked up at the second story and saw that there was a window open, just an inch or two. I frowned. Most people closed all their windows before heading out of town, but I was sure that the place was empty. I stood on the lawn for a few moments, deliberating. I finally decided to accept the homeowner’s lapse in attention for the gift that it was and go in through the upstairs window. It wasn’t standard practice, but it wouldn’t be the first time I’d found a multimillion dollar mansion with open windows or unlocked doors. Complacence is a thief’s best friend.
There was a sturdy iron terrace on part of the back wall, a second piece of luck that almost made me want to whistle “Deck the Halls.” I scaled the terrace easily, climbing from there onto a lower portion of slanting rooftop beneath the open window.
When I got to the window, rather than opening it immediately, I waited, listening. I held perfectly still, straining to detect the sound of a voice, a television, a washing machine, anything that would signal I’d been wrong about the place being empty. I crouched in place, forcing myself to keep still and wait. Three minutes ticked by, then five. It was dark enough that I didn’t need to worry too much about anyone spotting me up here, but my position was still too exposed for my comfort. When almost ten minutes had passed I decided it was long enough. I hadn’t heard a sound from inside the house. I lifted the window and slipped inside.
Once inside, I located the small flashlight in the side pocket of my backpack. I closed the drapes over the window I’d just come through before switching it on.
I was in a bedroom, a large one. I ran my beam over the perimeter of the room, and over the furniture. The bed and dressers were all heavy wooden pieces, stained dark and polished glossy. I immediately spotted silver picture frames, carved statues, and a mahogany box that likely held jewelry. Something else caught my eye, too, something wrong. The massive four-poster bed had been left unmade—not how the one per cent generally left their homes when they were away for an extended period of time.
I guess money’s no guarantee that someone’s not a slob, I reasoned, not quite convincing myself. I stepped closer to one of the dressers and saw that there was a thin film of dust on its wooden surface. See? No one is here. Stop freaking yourself out and get to work.
I couldn’t shake my uneasiness, though, imagining the homeowner out of bed for a drink of water. Coming back, finding me here. He’d call the police, and they come quick to this neighborhood. Why did I park the car so far away?
Stop it. Stop this right now.
I curled my fists into tight balls, counted slowly to ten, and forced them to relax open.
You did the work. You are careful, and you are correct. The house is empty. Now get to work.
Calmer now, I nonetheless decided to make this one as quick as possible. I went for the jewelry box first. When you’re committing a burglary with only a backpack, it’s essential to pick items that are expensive, but small. I opened the box and was disappointed to find it mostly empty. It contained only a men’s wristwatch. Holding it in the beam of my flashlight, I smiled. It was gold, Cartier, and almost certainly the real thing. I hadn’t seen very many of these, but I guessed that the watch would have sold for about $45,000 new. Of course, I wouldn’t get that much for it, but it’d easily pay for Marion’s tuition for a semester, even longer.
And a nice dinner for me, maybe a massage, a bottle of wine…
I slipped the watch into my backpack and zipped it up.
I considered the other items on the dressers and shelves. There were some wooden carved figurines, beautiful, but in an abstract way. I reached out to pick up the closest one, then changed my mind. They would be hard to fence; art always was. I’d get back only a small fraction of their value, and I’d be at huge risk of having the statues tracked back to me once the owners reported the burglary. More than that, though, the statues were exactly the kind of items that I didn’t steal, for the sake of my own conscience. They had sentimental value and the owner would certainly miss them. I only stole replaceable things if I could help it. For now, the watch would be enough—I still had the rest of the house to search.
Or, I could go now.
I glanced at the window. If I left now, I reasoned, this job would still be a success. I still had that feeling, that sense that something about this place wasn’t quite right. Some part of me had wanted to go since I’d seen the open window, and the longer I was inside this house, the louder that part got.
I tried to talk myself down again.
You’re being stupid. Take your time and do this right. A couple more jewelry boxes, and you won’t have to steal for another year.
That thought pulled me away from the window and out of the bedroom to check out the rest of the house. As I went, I accidentally brushed against a low bookshelf, knocking a thick, hardcover volume to the floor. The muffled thump seemed as loud as a gunshot in the silence of the bedroom. I cursed silently and froze, bracing myself for… what? No neighbor was going to hear a book hitting the carpeted floor. I forced myself to take a deep breath and keep going.
I made my way down the dark hallway, keeping my hand over the flashlight beam so it cast only as much light as I absolutely needed in order to find my way. There weren’t many things more suspicious than flashlight beams spotted through the window of your neighbor’s supposedly vacant home. I had no intention of being caught because of such a foolish mistake.
I found another bedroom, but after a quick search I guessed it was a spare room with nothing worth taking. The bed was neatly made, but there were only a few pieces of furniture in the room, and no personal items. The dresser drawers were empty. The lamps were gorgeous designer pieces, but I couldn’t carry out a lamp in my backpack. I moved on.
I opened a door at the end of the hallway and was surprised to find a short flight of narrow metal stairs on the other side. Maybe an attic, or some kind of storage room? I decided to check it out.
At the top of the stairs was another door, standing open. It was heavier than the bedroom doors, made of some kind of reinforced metal. I stepped inside, even as the uneasy part of me told me to turn around and go, now.
I swept the beam of the flashlight in an arc around the room. It was windowless and almost entirely empty. There was a chair, a small cot, and a miniature refrigerator clustered together in one corner. The only other item in the room was a black case in the corner opposite the cot. It was made of thick plastic, the size of a large suitcase, with latches on all sides holding it closed. I recognized the brand stamped onto the plastic from other jobs, where I’d found expensive cameras, binoculars, and other delicate items that needed protecting in the same kind of case.
Cameras were easy to sell, and they fit into backpacks. So were binoculars, and lots of other things someone might keep in a case like that. I hurried to the case and started to open it, struggling a bit with the latches. After finally getting the last latch to pop open, I opened the case and shined my flashlight on what was inside.
“What the hell?” I murmured.
The interior was padded with foam, with openings cut to fit the items inside. That was normal enough, but the items themselves, together, made no sense.
The first was a black metal handgun. This one surprised me the least. I found a lot of weapons in the houses I burgled. I never took them, though. To fence a gun, you had to get rid of the serial number, unless you wanted someone to trace it back to the owner, who could then trace it from the pawn shop and, ultimately, to the thief. Plus, guns would only end up on the street, and despite my illegal occupation, I went to great efforts to avoid association with the wider criminal community. It seemed to me that getting more deeply connected with other criminals would change stealing from something I did to something I was. And, anyway, guns made me nervous. Guns were how simple break-ins went wrong; how jobs went out of control, and people got hurt. I left the gun where it was.
The next item was another case, a small, red one. A quick examination told me that it was a first-aid kit, and not the kind you’d find in a soccer mom’s trunk. I pulled it out and popped it open. It had all the things you’d expect—bandages, burn cream, gauze—and a lot of more serious medical supplies, too. There were suture kits, bottles of antibiotics and narcotic pain medications, tourniquets, and many other items I couldn’t identify. I began to wonder if my homeowner was one of those people obsessed with preparing for the apocalypse, someone who’d leave an upstairs bedroom window open because they worried more about a zombie invasion than an opportunistic thief; someone who didn’t worry about making the beds because he had bigger things, like the collapse of society, on his mind. Whatever their reasons, I wasn’t interested in taking the medical kit. I put it back where I’d found it.
The last item in the case took the collection from strange to baffling. It was some sort of device, black, rectangular metal, about the size of a computer keyboard. It was covered in buttons, dozens of them, probably more than a hundred in total. There were numbers, a full alphabet, and other symbols, some familiar, some strange. It made me think of a giant remote control. I picked it up and was surprised by the weight of it. I wondered if it was worth anything, or who I could possibly sell it to.
I was still weighing up whether to take the remote gadget when the door banged shut behind me. The sound of the slam, metal on metal, was deafening. I jumped to my feet as the lights switched on, florescent and harsh, blinding me briefly. I braced my hand against a wall, shielding my eyes with the other. As my vision adjusted, a voice boomed into the room, amplified by some electronic system I couldn’t see. The voice was a man’s, and it was no less terrifying for how calm it sounded.
“The police are on their way. I suggest you don’t waste your energy trying to free yourself before they arrive.”
I ran to the door and pulled on the handle. It didn’t move.
“It’s a magnetic lock,” the man’s voice said. “A nuclear explosion wouldn’t break through it, let alone a little thing like you.”
He can see me? I searched the ceiling until I spotted the dark glass circle of the camera’s lens.
“Please,” I said, hating the way my voice broke on the word. “I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I, uh, I have a friend who lives around here. I thought this was the house, but—” It was an awful attempt at an excuse, but I couldn’t think of anything better.
The sound of the man’s laughter echoed richly around the room.
“You weren’t sure of the address, so you thought you’d just climb in a window and creep around with a flashlight?”
“I, uh, he— I thought he might be sleeping, so…”
I didn’t blame him. I sounded ridiculous.
“You think no one’s tried to rob me before?” He had the hint of an accent that I couldn’t identify. “I can assure you you’re not the first. You are, however, the first one who’s managed get locked in my panic room.”
A panic room. The pieces came together in my mind, and I wondered how I hadn’t realized before. I’d known they existed, but I’d never seen one, and it hadn’t occurred to me to expect it.
It only takes one mistake.
I decided it was time to beg.
“Please, sir. You’re right, I was robbing you, but I wasn’t going to take much, and I wasn’t going to hurt anyone. I needed the money. You have to understand.”
“Do I? It seems to me that every thief believes he’s justified in his crime.”
“I’m not a thief!”
“I suspect the police will find otherwise when they arrive.”
“You can’t let them take me,” I cried. “My sister—I’m all that she has!”
There was a long silence. I wondered if he’d walked away. I imagined him greeting the city police at the door and ushering them to where I waited, trapped like an animal. I blinked back tears.
“You’re spinning me a sad story,” he said, suddenly. “You needn’t bother, I’m no fool.”
“I’m not lying to you. Her name is Marion. She’s nineteen and a sophomore at Northwest.”
“You barely look nineteen yourself. You should have come up with a better story than that. You should have said she was in grade school.”
“It’s not a story, and I’m twenty-three…”
“Then why aren’t you in college, instead of invading homes in the middle of the night?”
I had been in college. I’d been a semester away from my pre-law degree, with plans to matriculate to Stanford. Then my mother died, in the same month I was notified that the scholarship I’d been receiving was being cut due to funding problems. I could have taken out loans to complete my pre-law degree, but there was no way I could have borrowed enough to pay for law school, too. It’s not like I would have been able to leave, anyway. Marion hadn’t even graduated high school, and our mother’s death devastated her. So I dropped out of school and moved back to the little house I’d shared with my mother and sister for almost ten years. Leaving school had made me miserable, but seeing Marion excel in her college courses helped.
“Not everybody gets to make the choices they want to,” I said to the unseen man. “Right now, my sister needs my support. When she graduates, that’s when I’ll start worrying about myself.”
“Does your sister know that you do this? Rob innocent people two days before Christmas? I may despise the holiday, but at least I don’t destroy the joy of others.”
“No, she doesn’t know anything,” I said, struck by a sudden fear that Marion could somehow be implicated in my crime. “She has nothing to do with this.”
He didn’t answer me. Anger suddenly rose in my chest, surprising me. I understood why he’d called the police, but taunting me like this was pointless and cruel.
“Anyway,” I went on, “why should you despise Christmas? You have everything you need. You can look down on what I do to survive because you’ve never had to do it. You have no idea what it’s like to be poor. You have no idea how it feels to know that the person you love most in the world needs something you can’t give them.”
“You know nothing about my life,” he shot back, his voice suddenly hard.
I looked up at the camera, wishing I could see his face. I felt somehow that, if I could see him, I could make him understand.
“Maybe I don’t,” I said. “But what I do know, what I am telling you with absolute honesty, is that, if I go to prison, an innocent person will end up suffering for it. I truly am sorry for the trouble I’ve caused you, but if you let me leave here, empty-handed, you’ll never see or hear from me again. I swear it.”
I stared at the camera, waiting. Minutes ticked by, but there was no response. I finally gave up and turned away, moving to sit down on the cot, my shoulders slumped. I let my head fall back and rest against the cold wall behind me.
I thought about when the mortgage payment on the house was due, and how long it would be before Marion didn’t have electricity or heat. I thought about what she’d do when she was forced to leave school. Half of a degree in biology didn’t get you much these days. She’d had plans for medical school. She’d have made an excellent doctor, but now she’d be a waitress, maybe a receptionist if she were lucky. I wrapped my arms around myself and tried not to cry.
A loud click startled me, and I opened my eyes just as the door of the room swung open. My heart raced, and I started to put up my hands, expecting police officers with guns drawn. But the man standing in the door wasn’t a cop. He wore dark slacks and a tan sweater that was just a little tight over his broad shoulders and muscled chest. His feet were bare. He looked to be in his early thirties, handsome enough that I’d have looked twice at him no matter where I’d met him. His dark hair, golden brown skin, and strong, middle-eastern features matched the slight accent I’d heard.
He leaned casually against the doorframe and looked at me without speaking. I shrank back, but he didn’t come closer. He didn’t seem angry, just tired.
He glanced at the opened case in the corner.
“How come you didn’t take the gun?”
“I wasn’t planning on shooting anyone.”
“You didn’t want to steal it?”
“I don’t steal guns,” I said.
“Ah,” he chuckled. “A thief with standards.”
I shrugged, annoyed. I knew, of course, that I was a thief, but it stung to hear someone say it out loud.
“How many houses have you stolen from, before mine?”
Fifteen, I thought.
“Two,” I said.
He raised an eyebrow. “Fine, then. Don’t tell me.”
He stepped back from the doorway and gestured back toward the stairs. Eyes narrowed, I didn’t move.
“You’re welcome to stay in here, but unless you very much enjoy dry rations and your own company, I suggest you come out now.”
“But the police…” I began.
“No police,” he said. “They aren’t coming.”
Hope leaped within me.
“You didn’t call them?”
“Why would I do that?”
“There was a burglar in your house.”
“You think I can’t deal with a skinny little girl with a knapsack on my own?” he asked, laughing. The sound echoed in the room. He saw my frown and put up his hands. “All right, all right. You’re terrifying. Is that better?” He laughed again. “Now go on, you terrifying criminal. Go home to your sister or your boyfriend or whoever is actually waiting for you.”
Haltingly, I got to my feet. I glanced at the stairway, now brightly lit with overhead lights, and back at him.
“I’m not going to hurt you, girl,” he said. Our eyes met, and I realized that I believed him.
I took small, careful steps across the room to the door, watching him closely as I did. After a pause, I stepped past him into the close passage of the stairway, my arm brushing his chest as I did. He smelled faintly of alcohol.
He let me get a few steps ahead of him before following me down to the second floor.
“Turn to your right,” he said when the hallway intersected with another one. “The stairs are just ahead of you. Mind your step.”
A wide, curving staircase led to a huge marble foyer at the front entrance of the mansion. Ahead were the double doors I’d spied from the street when I’d cased the house. I looked up and, sure enough, the crystal chandelier gleamed overhead. My steps echoed through the space as I approached the doors. When I reached them, I turned back. I knew I wanted to say something to the man who’d caught me and let me go, but I didn’t know what.
He wasn’t behind me, though. He’d turned at the bottom of the stairs. I caught a glimpse of him just before he disappeared down a different hallway, and followed him out of a sense of curiosity.
I followed him down the long hallway, past numerous closed doors, to a darkened room. A single lamp cast dim light from a corner table. Ornate chairs and couches and dark wooden tables sank into the thick shadows of the room. Like the bedroom upstairs, the sitting room showed signs of neglect. Heavy, faceted crystal glasses sat empty and abandoned in various places around the room, on low tables and the long stone mantle over the unlit fireplace. Glass bottles that had once held expensive liquor were scattered among them, along with cigar butts, some in ashtrays, some left carelessly on the bricks of the hearth. I glanced down and saw a newspaper on the floor. The headline told me that the paper was at least a month old.
The man’s back was turned to me. As I approached him, I saw that he was pouring a drink. That wasn’t surprising, given the nature of the clutter I’d already seen. He didn’t look at me as he took a seat in an armchair by the cold hearth, his full glass in one hand, a thick, leather-bound book in the other. The chair was old, beautiful, luxurious, but nothing about the man told me that he enjoyed anything about the wealth that surrounded him.
“Do you want to go to jail so badly?” he asked, and sipped from the glass.
It was a good question. Why wasn’t I leaving? I didn’t have a good answer to that question. Nor did I know why I felt so certain that this man meant me no harm.
“I… No,” I stammered. “I just—”
His eyes met mine. Amid the weariness and impatience I saw in them was a deep sadness.
“Why did you let me go?”
He looked away from me, not at the book, but at some point beyond it.
“You remind me of someone,” he said after a pause. “She’ll never get another chance, but perhaps you won’t waste yours.”
A second chance. If only it were that simple.
“Thank you,” I said. The words felt much too small for the mercy he’d given me tonight. “I’m not proud of what I do, and I’m sorry for the trouble I’ve caused you. You didn’t deserve it.”
Something in his face changed. I thought he’d speak again, but he just gave a small nod before looking back to his book. His jaw was clenched hard, and I didn’t think he was reading the words on the page. I could feel him waiting, wishing for me to leave.
I could do that much for him, at least. I retraced my steps and found the front door again. It closed behind me with an echoing thump that I imagined he would have heard from his dismal study. I made my way down his driveway, to the sidewalk. With each step that took me farther from the house, I expected to feel some kind some safety, some sense of relief, but I didn’t. Even though I was free from the panic room, and free from arrest, a feeling of guilt pulled at me.
I didn’t look back as I hurried along the wet sidewalk, huddled against the chill.
I found my car where I’d left it. My hands shook as I turned the key in the ignition, and I drove home without stopping, adrenaline still flooding my body.
I half expected the police to be waiting for me, but they weren’t. No one had followed me. No one had been called. I flicked on the living room light. My feet were wet in my sneakers, and I could still feel the night’s cold in my bones. I wanted to go to my bedroom, get undressed, and take a shower, but something stopped me. I stood in the living room, staring at the stolen items which surrounded me.
While I sold most of what I took from the houses, sometimes I was unable to move an item and had to keep it. That’s what happened with the broken clock that sat on my narrow, painted mantle over the fireplace. The yellow vase in the corner hadn’t turned out to be worth as much as I’d expected, so, rather than risk fencing such a cheap item, I’d kept it. I hadn’t noticed the silver money clip in the desk drawer was monogrammed until I’d gotten home with it, and it was far too risky to fence personalized items.
Those items, the ones I couldn’t sell, were easy to justify keeping. But there were others, things I’d taken and kept for myself simply because I wanted them. The music box upstairs on my bedroom dresser. The silver soap dish in the bathroom. The tapestry in the hallway. Those things proved that I really was what the man had called me: a thief. There was no nobility in breaking into houses simply because you like pretty things. I’d never be the good guy in anyone’s story.
I sighed and headed to the bathroom, tossing my backpack into my bedroom as I passed it on the way.
As I showered, I thought about what the man had said. I didn’t know if I deserved a second chance, or even if I wanted one. I hadn’t set out to become a thief, after all. My first job after dropping out of college had been waiting tables at a pizza place downtown. The money had been okay, but it was never enough to pay the household bills, let alone provide Marion with the things she needed. I took a second job cleaning office buildings and empty apartments, but still, month after month, I fell short. Marion graduated from high school, the summer began, and her first day of college loomed before me. I’d told her it was no problem—that she was going to Northwest, her first choice school, the one she’d worked so hard to get into. I planned the move with her, and even bought her a few things for her dorm move, just as if there weren’t a $10,000 tuition bill that I had no idea how I was going to pay.
It was a week before the payment deadline when I was sitting outside the pizza place on my fifteen-minute break. I gazed at the people rushing by, but I didn’t really see them. I was rehearsing, in my head, how to tell her that she couldn’t go. I leaned against the brick wall of the restaurant, my hands clenched into fists at my sides. It was all too much.
That’s how he found me, wearing that stained uniform, my eyes full of tears. His name was Derek, and we’d gone out for a few months in the summer after I’d graduated high school. It hadn’t lasted, partly because of his mean temper and partly because of his wandering eye. I hadn’t thought about him in years, and I certainly wasn’t glad to see him again after so long.
He made a lazy pass at me, but it felt more like habit than genuine interest on his part. I expected him to leave after I’d shut him down, but he didn’t. Instead, he asked me if I needed a job.
“I have a job,” I said, pointing at my uniform before glancing at my watch. My break was almost over.
“Yeah, and you make what in a shift? Fifty bucks? A hundred?” He pulled a crumpled pack of cigarettes out of his pocket.
I shrugged. “What do you care?”
“My friends need help with something. The job pays five hundred dollars for two hours’ work.”
I made a face. “Go to hell, Derek. I’m not a hooker.” I meant it, but still felt a flash of temptation at the thought of the money.
He laughed at me. “Don’t flatter yourself, honey. You’re good, but not five hundred dollars good.”
I ignored his insult.
“What’s the job, then?”
He shook a cigarette out and lit it. He put the pack away and glanced around, then came closer to me.
He explained that the job was a warehouse robbery, some place where one of his buddies worked. They were going to move out a bunch of electronics and needed someone to stand lookout. He assured me that the job was low-risk. If it went bad, I could just walk away and pretend I wasn’t with them.
Five hundred wouldn’t be enough to pay Marion’s tuition, but the college might agree to make a payment plan if I had something to give them up front.
I bummed a cigarette from him as I thought about it. I rarely smoked, and the first drag made my head spin, adding to the absurdity of the moment.
“Five hundred isn’t enough,” I said.
We eventually settled on seven hundred, and the job was a simple as Derek had promised. He and his three friends left that day with over three hundred flat-screen televisions and five hundred laptop computers. The guys were giddy with the size of the haul and decided to make my cut an even thousand. They thought I was good luck.
I never went back to the pizza place.
The day after the warehouse job, I called Northwest and set up a payment plan. The day that I signed the installment agreement for Marion’s tuition was the day that I truly became a thief. The payments were enormous; there wasn’t a waitressing job in the world that would allow me to earn that amount.
It’s amazing what you can make yourself do when you think you don’t have a choice. That’s what I said to myself, over and over, whenever my conscience would rise up. I thought about Jean Valjean, the noble thief from Les Misérables. I told myself that I was brave, and that no one needed the things I took—at least, not as much as I did.
I’m still regularly flabbergasted by the unbelievable wealth of Seattle’s upper class. In the houses I’ve broken into, I’ve found solid gold picture frames, dog collars studded with diamonds, toothbrushes with ivory handles. I’ve found cigar boxes full of cash and baggies of drugs stashed in sock drawers. I once found a child’s piggy bank with over six thousand dollars stuffed inside, mostly in crumpled twenties and fifties.
Do they know that people a mile away from here are starving? That someone tonight will have their heat turned off because of an eighty dollar unpaid bill?
I almost hated them for their excesses, and that made it easier, too.
At first, all the money went to Marion’s school. The payment arrangement I’d made with them made me uneasy, and I relaxed a little more when I’d paid her bill in full for that year. I’d planned to take a break from stealing after that, but found myself going out anyhow. I told myself that I needed to put money into savings for next year’s tuition bill. I did save money, but I spent it, too. I replaced the battered living room furniture, I fixed the roof that leaked after bad storms, and the oven that didn’t heat up. I bought clothes for myself and a computer for Marion. The joy on her face when she opened her gift that Christmas made me forget my guilt, at least for a few days. But then she went back to school, and I was alone again.
The house had been my mother’s, and her presence was still everywhere. She’d worked tirelessly to support the three of us. She’d done it alone, and she’d done it honestly. She hadn’t raised us to lie or to steal. I knew she’d never approve of what I was doing. I imagined her sadness each time I returned from a job carrying things that did not belong to me. I rid the place of the things that had belonged to her, filling it with the things I’d stolen or bought with ill-gotten money, but I couldn’t make that feeling go away. It would always be my mother’s house.
I wondered what my mother would have thought about the man I’d met tonight, the one who’d given me a second chance.
You know damn well what she’d think. That you were lucky. That you need to wake up. That you won’t be able to help Marion or yourself if you end up in prison.
By the time I stepped out of the shower, I felt more tired than ashamed. I toweled off my hair, smelling the boutique shampoo that I’d never been able to afford on a waitress’s pay. I went to my bedroom, put on a soft t-shirt to sleep in, and slipped between sheets that belonged in a luxury resort, not a college dropout’s tiny house in a low-rent suburb. I reached over and turned off an antique lamp I’d concealed in a baby carriage before I took it from a lake-front mansion six months ago.
Even in the darkness, I felt surrounded, suffocated by my sins. A lump rose in my throat as I wondered if I’d ever again feel like a good person, someone worthy of being loved by someone as amazing as my mother.
It’s never too late to make things right.
I heard her voice in my head, and even though I knew it was just my own thoughts, love for my mother swelled in my chest.
“I miss you,” I whispered in the darkness. “I wish you were here, Mom. I’ve screwed up so badly and I don’t know what to do.”
I love you anyway. You know that I do. I will always love you, no matter what you do.
I let the tears come, half wishing I’d been raised by someone less wonderful; maybe then I wouldn’t miss her so much.
By the time my tears dried, I knew what I had to do. I lay in the dark making a mental list of everything I’d taken that I still had in my house.
The clock, the tapestry, that scarf, the green ring, the music box…
I never forgot a house, and I never forgot an item. I couldn’t do anything about the things that had already been sold, but it was in my power to return the things I still had. Maybe it wouldn’t mean anything to the people I’d stolen from, but on the other hand, maybe the lamp was a family heirloom. Maybe the tapestry was a gift from a lost lover. Maybe I could undo a little of the damage I’d caused. And even if I couldn’t, I’d still know that I’d done everything I could to make things right. I never again wanted to feel the fear I’d felt tonight when I’d thought the police were coming for me, and I never again wanted to wonder if my mother would still love me if she were here now.
The violin, the red shoes, the silver bracelet…
I began to drift off, feeling more peaceful than I had in months. Just as my eyes closed, though, they shot open again. I sat up straight in bed, then got out of it, fumbling in the dark for the backpack I’d tossed aside.
Sure enough, it was there. The room was too dark for me to see clearly, but there was no mistaking the cold weight of the watch I’d stolen from the sad, mysterious man in that dismal mansion—I never gave it back.
I didn’t sleep well that night. The watch, now on my bedside table, seemed to fill the whole room. I imagined the man finding it gone. Would he think that I’d played him for a fool? That I’d had no intention of taking advantage of the second chance he’d given me? I knew almost nothing about him, not even his name. It shouldn’t have mattered what he thought about me, but somehow, it did.
I went to the kitchen to start some coffee, but stopped short when I glimpsed my front yard outside the window. The grass, the trees, my shabby little car—everything was blanketed in bright white.
“I’ll be damned,” I whispered.
It hadn’t snowed in Seattle at Christmas in years, not since I’d been in high school. We always got snow after the New Year, when the temperature dropped further. But there was no mistaking the scene in my front yard; at least five inches had fallen overnight. Sunlight bounced off the surface of the snow and made the frosted tree branches sparkle against a bright blue sky.
It made me wish that Marion was coming home for the holiday this year. Her roommate, a sociology major from a wealthy family, had invited her to stay with them in Vancouver, though, and she’d accepted. It was a great opportunity to see a new place and strengthen that friendship, and I’d encouraged her to do it. I’d told myself that I was relieved not to have to pretend holiday cheer I didn’t feel. Now, though, I only felt deeply sad that she wasn’t here.
Marion would have freaked out over the snow. We’d have behaved like children, throwing snowballs and building a snowman. I’d have made hot chocolate for both of us. We’d have watched silly holiday movies, the ones we’d grown up watching every year with Mom. It would have been a lovely day.
I made the coffee and thought about how I’d spend the day. I needed to return the watch. A voice inside complained that I was giving away Marion’s tuition money for next year, but I ignored it. I’d find another way to pay it, even if I didn’t know what that was now. I couldn’t be a thief anymore. I was done.
It was Christmas Eve, a day that I normally wouldn’t expect someone to be home alone, but something told me that the owner of the watch would be. I ate a quick breakfast, showered, and dressed. A quick check outside told me that the snow hadn’t been cleared off my street, but my car had front wheel drive. Getting out shouldn’t be a problem, and the main roads should be fine. I had to dig in the back of my closet to find my only pair of snow boots. My red hat and scarf had been one of the last gifts I’d received from my mother, and I smiled as I put them on.
It was late morning by the time I knocked on the front door of the house I’d intended to rob only the night before. I waited, but no one came to the door. I knocked again.
I’d almost decided that I must have been wrong, that the man actually did have somewhere to be this Christmas Eve, when the handle of the door turned. It was the same man. He was casually dressed and his hair was wet, making me think that it was the shower that had kept him from coming to the door more quickly. He looked surprised to see me, and not entirely pleased.
“Congratulations, you’re officially the most incompetent criminal I have ever known.”
I felt my face flush.
“No, I’m not—” I stopped and started again. “I’m very sorry to bother you.”
“And yet, here you stand.”
I wasn’t certain, but I thought I could hear amusement in his lightly accented words.
“I needed to give you this,” I said. I dug in my purse and found the watch. His eyes widened when I held it out to him. I couldn’t read his expression as he looked from the watch, to me, and back again.
He took the watch from me, his warm hand brushing against my cold one as he did. He looked at me and nodded. There was something different now in how he looked at me.
“You look like you’re freezing out there. Would you like to come in for a drink?” he asked.
It may have been eleven a.m. on Christmas Eve, but I couldn’t think of a time when I’d felt more in need of a stiff drink. I suspected that this man understood the feeling better than most.
“Yes, I would like that.”
There was an indescribable surreality in following him back into the mansion. I asked myself what the hell I was doing, following a strange man into his empty house. My reservations were half-hearted, though. If he’d wanted to hurt me, he could easily have done so last night.
The hallway to the first floor study was longer than I’d remembered it. Despite the sunny day, the room was nearly as dark as it had been the night before. Heavy drapes were drawn over the huge French windows, shutting out the light. The room smelled faintly of cigar smoke and whiskey.
“Bourbon?” he asked. “Or Scotch?”
“Bourbon is fine,” I said, though I hadn’t drunk it in years. He poured a few fingers of the golden liquid into a glass and handed it to me before pouring another for himself. He sat down in the same chair he’d been sitting in the night before. After a brief hesitation, I sat down on the couch opposite him. The silence grew tense as we sipped our drinks.
“Sadiq,” he said, startling me.
“My name, it’s Sadiq.” He leaned back in the chair, watching me. “May I know yours, little thief?”
I knew that I shouldn’t tell him, that knowing who I was would mean he could send the police for me at any time. I was surprised when I heard myself answer him.
“Annabelle,” I said. “Annabelle Christensen.”
“Annabelle,” he repeated, sounding thoughtful. “I don’t think I’ve ever met someone with that name before.”
“My mother was old-fashioned. I hated it when I was younger. I wanted to change my name to Brianna or Mackenzie.”
“Now I treasure everything my mother gave me, name included.”
“Your mother has passed,” he said. It wasn’t a question.
“Yes, three years ago.”
He sighed, and the corners of his mouth pulled back, making a hard line.
“You’re very young to have suffered such a loss. But, then, so many are.”
His words weren’t the standard I’m so sorry for your loss, and I didn’t know how to reply. He spoke again before I could.
“Why did you bring back the watch? You could have sold it. It’s valuable.”
“Oh, I know that,” I blurted out without thinking. He laughed.
“So, you’re an unlucky thief, but not an uninformed one. Why didn’t you sell it?”
I took a long sip of my drink as I thought about his question. The liquor made a hot trail down my throat to my belly, and I felt myself begin to relax.
“I don’t entirely know why,” I said. “Maybe I’m just done. Maybe…” I looked into my drink as I spoke. “The world can be a lot of things. It can be hard, senseless. Last night, I saw that it could be merciful, too. I didn’t want to turn my back on that. I’m worried that, if I do, if I go on like this, I might forget that there’s mercy in the world. I might forget who I was before I started stealing. I don’t want to forget.”
I glanced up at him. He was still watching me. The intensity in his dark eyes made me shift in my seat. He started to speak, but the sound of a phone ringing from another room cut him off. It rang again, and again, but he didn’t move.
“Don’t you need to get that?” I asked.
“I suppose I should,” he said. He sighed, rising. “Please excuse me.”
While he was out of the room, I took a closer look at the room I was in. I took in the ornate furniture, the hand-carved fixtures, the bookshelves full of antique volumes. Despite myself, I found myself noticing what items were most valuable—the things I’d usually take. There was a particularly nice set of bookends, wrought in a scrolled leaf pattern, almost certainly real silver. And the books… I couldn’t even guess at the price they’d bring. Collector’s items were riskier to sell, but it could be done…
“See anything you like?” Sadiq’s voice from the doorway made me jump.
“No, of course not,” I said. My face grew red. I got up from my seat, needing to move with the nervous energy I felt.
“Relax, Annabelle.” He smiled, and his face lit up.
He should smile more often. It’s wonderful.
“Another drink?” he offered.
While he poured another round, I went to the windows and started to pull back the curtains.
“What are you doing?” he asked, turning around.
“I can hardly see you in this light,” I said. “It’s a lovely day out, haven’t you noticed?”
I pulled, and the drapes slid open, flooding the room in sunlight. Tiny dust particles floated in the bright shafts of light. Squinting, Sadiq held up a hand to shade his eyes.
“I wish you hadn’t done that,” he said.
“Well, I apologize if the daylight interrupts your very important brooding-and-drinking-alone time.” I took the drink he held out for me, reminding myself to slow down. I wasn’t much of a drinker, and it didn’t take much to get me tipsy. Already, I felt my verbal filter slipping away.
“We each spend the holidays our own way. You commit Class E felonies. I keep my liver from growing idle.”
“But why?” I flopped back down onto the couch. “It’s gorgeous outside. You’re not an old man, Sadiq. You seem to be pretty healthy, and you’re definitely rich. What reason do you have to spend Christmas like this?”
“And how would you expect me to spend Christmas?” He said, raising an eyebrow.
“Oh, right. Where you’re from, they don’t—”
He laughed again as I covered my face with my hands, humiliated.
“Why are Americans so terrified of saying what they mean? You’re not going to offend me, little thief. You can ask me whatever you like.”
I lowered my hands and peeked at him. He looked amused, not annoyed. I put my hands in my lap.
“Well, you don’t sound like you grew up in the United States.”
“I didn’t. I was born in Almarain.” He must have seen the look on my face, because he added, “If you haven’t heard of it, you’re not alone. It’s a small country, South of Jordan. We’re too peaceful to make it onto American news coverage of the Middle East very often.”
“That’s good, though. Right?” He was right; everything I’d seen on television about the Middle East was about violence and war.
“It’s very good. My country is blessed with rich oil reserves, and we sell to the U.S. and China. Our nearer neighbors don’t need oil from us, and we send cash aid to countries who might otherwise find reason to quarrel with us.”
“What is it like there?” I asked, thinking of clay houses, sun-baked streets, and bazaars full of merchants. It was hard to imagine Sadiq in such a setting, as he sat sipping whiskey, surrounded by luxury.
“Probably not how you think,” he said. “Almarain is a prosperous nation. The capital, where I’m from, looks a lot like many American cities. The weather is different, of course—hot and dry most of the year—but life there is modern. People live in houses, not tents or huts. You can get McDonald’s or Starbucks just as easily as you can here. There are more accountants there than shepherds.”
“What did you do, when you were living there?”
“My family owns land. The land has oil. That is our business.”
I had a hundred questions about that, but something about his expression told me that he’d said as much as he wanted to. I decided to shift the direction of the conversation.
“Are people in Almarain Muslim?”
“Most are, to one degree or another, but, overall, the country is more liberal than others in the region. We’re free to practice whatever religion we choose.”
“And what about you, Sadiq? Are you Muslim?”
“My family is, and I respect their practice, particularly when I visit. My parents were more secular than their parents, who were quite devout. As for me, I don’t consider myself religious.”
“Does that bother your family?”
“Like I said, I follow the practices when I visit, out of respect to them. My grandparents always assumed I was a believer. My parents knew I wasn’t, but they didn’t mind. Their religion was largely a cultural habit. They had no fear for my soul.”
“My mom was like that,” I said. “We went to church sometimes, but only when my grandmother was still alive. She was really religious and wanted to make sure we’d make it into heaven, too.”
“Everyone finds their own way to express their love for their family,” he said, and the sadness behind his eyes was back.
Sensing I was touching on an uncomfortable topic, I jumped up.
“Let’s go outside,” I said, wrapping my scarf around my neck.
“Why on Earth would we do that?”
“Look out there! Actual snow! And it’s not too cold to pack.” I took his drink from his hand and set it on the table beside his chair. “You can’t waste snow like this. Come on!” I grabbed his hand and tugged him to his feet. He let me do it, watching me the whole time with disbelieving eyes.
He had a good coat, but no boots, so made do with sneakers.
“What about gloves?” I asked, pulling my mittens from my coat pockets.
“Will these do?” He grabbed a pair of soft, calfskin driving gloves from a nearby shelf.
“No! They’ll get ruined. Don’t you have any cheap ones?”
“I do not.” He sounded a little shocked at the idea.
I huffed in mock exasperation.
“Well, I guess you’ll just have to risk your fancy ones.”
We crunched into the snow that covered his vast front garden. At the center of the lawn, we stopped, not speaking, drinking in the delicious, dense silence that only happened when there was fresh snow on the ground. Sadiq looked down at the snow, but I could tell his mind was far away.
His attention returned to me abruptly when my snowball collided with the side of his head.
“Are you insane?” he cried, shaking the snow from his dark hair.
“It’s just snow,” I laughed. “I didn’t even pack it that hard.” I bent over and scooped up another handful.
He was quiet for a moment, seemingly torn between irritation and amusement. Finally, he grinned.
“How many life lessons am I going to have to teach you in the same twenty-four hours?” He grinned as he started gathering up snow, packing it into a massive clump. “You really think this is a smart fight to pick, girl?”
I stuck out my tongue and flung my second snowball at him, just missing his head. I ran for the cover of some low bushes, stumbling as I hit a deeper drift. The giant snowball Sadiq had made slammed into my back, and I squealed as icy bits ran down the back of my neck.
I made a few more counterstrikes before calling for a truce. We were both breathing hard, our cheeks red with cold, when the end of the snowball war was called. I stuck out my mittened hand and he shook it seriously.
“Well?” he asked. “Does that qualify as sufficient respect paid to unseasonable, packing-grade snow?”
“Not even. There has to be a snowman.”
He sighed and rolled his eyes, but dutifully went to work rolling up the base. It was, indeed, excellent packing snow, and we quickly had the snowman’s body assembled.
“He needs a nose,” I said, regarding the snowman with my hands on my hips. “Do you have a carrot?”
“You seem quite certain about that.”
“Yeah, because carrots are food, and there isn’t a lot of that around here.”
“Seriously? You must have a huge kitchen in this place.”
He hunted around in the bushes until he came up with some red berries and short sticks. “Here, try these.” I took them and went to work giving our snowman a face.
“Don’t rich people eat? Or do you pay someone else to do that for you?”
“Hilarious, Annabelle. Yes, I eat. I don’t cook, though.”
“You can pay people to do that, too. I’m surprised you don’t.”
“I used to. After a time, though, I could no longer tolerate having people around so much. Eventually I sent all the staff away.” His voice was carefully neutral. I glanced at him sideways.
“I guess that’s why the bedroom was such a mess,” I murmured, but apparently not too softly for him to hear.
“My apologies. If I’d know I was going to be robbed, I’d have tidied up first. Perhaps put out some snacks and tea.” He stepped back and narrowed his eyes at the snowman. “It’s not right. What’s he missing?”
“He needs a hat,” I said. I took the red knit cap from my own head and plopped it onto the snowman. I paused before adding the scarf. “Just a loan. Got that, Frosty?” I slipped my mittens off and put them on the ends of the sticks that stuck out crookedly from its sides. I wrapped my arms around myself as I started to shiver.
“You’re going to freeze to death to dress a snowman, silly,” he said, coming closer to me. He rubbed my upper arms briskly with his palms. I inched closer to his broad chest, already feeling warmer. Our breath made clouds in the chilly air. I looked up at him. He was so tall. How had I not noticed that before? And he had a little scar, just next to the corner of his mouth…
The moment stretched out, tension building. Each passing second made it more difficult to find something to say that wouldn’t be ridiculous.
He smelled good, like soap and ice and something else, something utterly male and entirely him.
“You’re so tall,” I said finally, when I could stand the silence no longer. I needed to say something or kiss him.
He tilted his head a little, smiling, confused. “I’m not so tall, Annabelle Christensen. You just happen to be very, very short.”
“I’m only slightly shorter than average,” I said. “I’m five two.”
“That’s good to know. In case my silver goes missing later.”
I punched his chest playfully and turned away.
“The winter gods have been appeased,” I declared, trudging back toward the house so he couldn’t see my blush. My voice echoed over the snow. “Let us return to our castle and celebrate with a mighty feast.”
“The feast will have to be a figurative one,” he said as he followed me. “No food, remember?”
“That’s okay,” I replied seriously. “The gods are in the mood for Thai anyway. They know this great place in Belltown that delivers.”
He chucked as he trailed after me.
We were still grinning as we shed our coats in his cavernous foyer.
“Hurry, you have to get the snow brushed off your pants before it melts,” I scolded him. “You’ll be wet for hours if you don’t act fast.”
“You’re remarkably skilled at snow-related activities,” he said.
“No, you’re just remarkably bad at it. Didn’t you have snow days when you were a kid?”
I shook out my thick blonde hair, running my fingers through the damp mess it had become.
“Not so much,” he said dryly. “It doesn’t snow where I’m from.”
“Not at all?”
“Not at all,” he said, kicking off his sneakers.
“So, I’m guessing your family didn’t celebrate Christmas?”
“No. Most Almarainian families don’t, but I’ve spent time in the U.S. since I was a boy. We always tried to take part in local observances when we traveled. My parents believed it to be educational. But even so, somehow, Christmas just passed us by.”
All of a sudden, it made sense; why he was spending Christmas Eve alone in an empty, undecorated house. But right now our spirits were light. I decided to leave the subject alone for now.
“You’re like a kid from California,” I said. “You’re aware of Christmas, but you have no idea what all that white stuff on the ground is in A Christmas Carol. You never got why Bob Cratchit was all about adding coal to Scrooge’s stove when the temperature never falls below seventy.”
He shrugged. “My father didn’t care for snow. He never understood some Americans’ romantic fascination with the stuff. We avoided traveling to cold climates in the winter.”
“Well, then I guess it’s not your fault that you suck at snow. Your parents really neglected this part of your upbringing, though. Every kid should spend some days half frozen. It builds character. I bet you don’t even have hot chocolate in the house.” I pulled off my boots and set them up against the door.
“You’d be right about that.” he said. “Like I said, when I heard someone knocking over furniture upstairs in the dead of night, I didn’t realize I’d need refreshments for them.”
I started to tell him that we’d have to make do with pad Thai and bourbon when the doorbell chimed. Sadiq turned and walked the few steps over to the front door.
The blood drained from my face when I saw two uniformed police officers standing outside.
I couldn’t believe how stupid I’d been. Of course he’d called the police. I’d stolen from him, then I’d returned to his home, harassed him, and dragged him out into the snow like a crazy person.
“Oh, God,” I breathed.
“Don’t worry, dear,” Sadiq said, smiling broadly. “Your aunt will understand if we’re a little bit late to dinner.” He turned back to the cops. “Can I help you, officers?”
“Yes, sir,” the cop on the right said. He had a thick mustache that completely covered his top lip and heavy jowls that moved when he talked. “We’re sorry to bother you on the holiday. We’ve gotten reports of burglaries in this area over the last few weeks, and wanted to see if you’d noticed any suspicious activity in the neighborhood recently.”
“I don’t think so,” Sadiq said. He frowned; his look of concern was perfect. “Should I be worried?”
“Probably not. Just make sure your doors and windows stay closed and locked. You may also want to update your alarm system.”
“I’d have to be a real fool to leave my windows standing open,” he said. I thought my legs were going to give out from under me. Maybe he noticed, because he put an arm around my shoulders.
“You’d be surprised,” the other cop said. She was younger than her partner, with a snub nose and brown hair cut very short. “It’s easy to forget this time of year that not everyone is good people. Bad folks up to bad things, any day of the year. I mean, what kind of lowlife robs houses at Christmas?”
I stared daggers at her. Sadiq squeezed my shoulder in warning. I forced a tight smile.
“Indeed, who would do that?” he said.
The first cop reached into his jacket pocket and produced a slightly-crumpled business card.
“Well, if you see anything that doesn’t seem right, or if you remember anyone hanging around the neighborhood who didn’t seem to belong, please give us a call.”
“I certainly will,” Sadiq said, slipping the card into his pants pocket. “Thank you.”
“Yes, thank you,” I said. It came out in a high squeak, and Sadiq squeezed my shoulder again. I didn’t try to talk anymore after that.
“You have a Merry Christmas,” the female cop said, nodding to each of us.
I watched them follow the foot prints they’d left in the snow back to where they’d left their patrol car parked in Sadiq’s driveway. Officer Mustache gave a final wave before climbing back inside. Sadiq and I waved back. We stood and watched in silence as the car backed along the winding length of the driveway, pausing at the turn-off to the street before backing out and driving out of sight.
Sadiq closed the door. I staggered back and leaned against the wall, pressing my fingertips against my temples.
“That’s just what would happen, too. The day I decide to quit, the day I return a forty-thousand dollar watch—”
“Eighty thousand,” Sadiq corrected as he pulled off his gloves and laid them on a glass-topped table standing against one of the foyer walls.
“Eighty?” I repeated, choking on the word.
Sadiq nodded. “It was a gift, from a Sheikh who was a friend of my father. It came to me when my father left this world. I was quite relieved when you brought it back.”
“You’re welcome,” I said.
“Don’t sound so happy about it,” he teased, smiling at the agony in my expression.
“Of course I’m happy you got it back. It was your father’s, and anyway I had no right to… Eighty? Really?”
He laughed. “That’s right, but it’s not about the money. I don’t care about that. It’s sentimental to me.”
“Sentimental,” I repeated. Sadiq’s little keepsake could have gotten Marion well-launched into medical school. I didn’t regret returning it, but I decided it was a very good thing I hadn’t known what it was worth before I had. I was sorry, but I didn’t know if I was eighty thousand dollars sorry.
“Now, shall we see about finding something to stand in for the hot chocolate I have so embarrassingly failed to keep on hand in case of snow?”
I’d expected a huge kitchen, but this was something beyond. Row after row of gleaming chrome counters stood empty. I counted three, no four ovens, topped with cast-iron burners and stainless steel griddles. Hundreds of pots and pans hung from the ceiling at stations throughout the room. There was an entire wall of refrigerators, and a door that I guessed led to a walk-in freezer. Sadiq started opening and closing cupboards, finding most of them empty. He opened a door, revealing a walk-in pantry. I peered in at the empty shelves. There were cobwebs in the corners and dust on the shelves.
“Ha!” he said, reaching behind an enormous can of crushed tomatoes. “It’s not cocoa, but it will at least be hot.” He showed me a small tin labeled in Arabic writing.
“What is it?”
“It’s tea, and it’s very good. Not as fresh as I’d like, but still much better than what you have here.”
We hunted through more cupboards until we found a copper-bottomed teakettle. I hopped up and sat on one of the metal food prep stations while we waited for the water to boil. Sadiq crossed his arms and leaned back on the counter beside me.
“Your father was friends with a Sheikh?” I said. He nodded, but didn’t say anything more, so I prodded him further. “Seems like there’d be a story there.”
He shrugged. “It’s smart to be on good terms with Sheikhs from other families. My father was never satisfied simply not to have them for enemies. He always went further, won their friendship. It was difficult to dislike my father once he’d decided to become your friend.”
“Wait, your father was a Sheikh, too?” My mind was flooded with stereotypical images; I’d only ever learned about Sheikhs in cartoons and comic books, sources whose realism I doubted.
“Mm hmm,” he said. “He became Sheikh when he was twenty-five, when my grandfather died. My father was the youngest leader the family had known in centuries, but he was the best, too.” His voice was heavy with defeat.
“So, if your father passed away, does that make one of your brothers Sheikh? Or your uncle?”
“It would, but my father had only sisters, as did I.”
“So… that means it’s you. You’re a Sheikh!” My words sounded so bizarre to me that I almost laughed out loud. “Wow.”
The kettle began to whistle, and we realized we’d forgotten to find mugs. The screeching of the kettle grew louder as Sadiq opened cupboard after cupboard, searching. By the time he pulled out two ceramic mugs and dusted them off with a towel, I was covering my ears and laughing. He dropped a tea bag into each mug and poured the steaming water over it. A spicy aroma rose into the air as the tea infused, turning the water a rich orange color.
“Do we add sugar?” I asked, inhaling over my mug.
“Just a little bit,” he said. He broke into a sheepish smile. “If I can find it.”
“No sugar is fine.”
I sipped from the mug. The flavor was unfamiliar, but I quickly decided that I agreed with Sadiq that American tea couldn’t compete with it. I was grateful for the warmth against my hands and in my stomach. I still felt chilly from our time in the snow, and didn’t feel much warmer in the empty kitchen. I shivered, wondering if Sadiq bothered to heat this part of the house at all, since he obviously didn’t use it.
He noticed me shivering and frowned. “Come on. Bring your tea back to the study and I’ll get a fire started.”
“A fine idea,” I said. “Lead the way.” I wasn’t being cute; the truth was, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to find my way back.
He built a fire, and I ordered the pad Thai. I learned that adding a generous slug of whiskey made the tea no less delicious. I curled my feet beneath me and wrapped my hands around the mug, finally beginning to thaw. Sadiq stepped out of the room and returned a moment later with a soft knit blanket. He unfolded it and wrapped it around me, cocooning me in its thick folds.
I expected him to sit opposite me, in the antique armchair, but instead he took a seat on the couch, just a couple of feet away from me. He leaned back, drink in hand, his long legs stretched out in front of him.
“Is your sister waiting at home for you?” he asked. This was the first time he’d mentioned her without the cynical, sardonic tone he’d used when I was locked in his panic room. He didn’t think I was lying to him anymore.
“No,” I said. “She’s spending Christmas with friends.”
“You miss her.”
The way he said it, the weight in his words, made me search his face, but it was impossible to read anything there.
“Yes,” I said. “I really do. She’s getting older. She’s not the homesick kid who went off to college a year ago. She doesn’t need me so much anymore.”
“Well, I’m sorry that you have to miss her, but I’m glad for myself. It’s been an entirely unexpected delight, this day with you, Annabelle.” He studied his drink as he spoke.
His words unbalanced me. I picked nervously at the edge of the blanket on my lap.
“I deserve to be in prison right now,” I said. “And I’m not. I’m not even alone at home. That place is so full of my mother, but still so empty of her. I’m grateful to you, Sadiq, for taking me away from there. And… I like you. I didn’t expect to like you.”
“No more surprised than I,” he said. The corner of his mouth twitched with the beginning of a smile.
The food arrived, and we sat, cross-legged, on the floor in front of the fireplace as we hungrily pinched up bites of noodles with our chopsticks. In my haste I dropped a noodle, and watched with horror as it landed on the rug.
“Oh, no. I’m so sorry.”
“Forget it,” he said, waving his chopsticks dismissively.
“But the oil, it’ll leave a spot.”
“It’s fine. It doesn’t matter.”
“I feel stupid asking this.”
“What do you want to know?”
“A Sheikh—what, um, what is that, exactly?”
He didn’t laugh at my ignorance, as I’d expected him to.
“It’s a leader of a ruling family, in my case. A family in power. Sometimes a Sheikh leads a village or tribe, but that tends to be in more rural areas.”
“So, like, a Godfather.”
He looked at me in confusion.
“You know, like the movie, The Godfather. When that old man was the boss of the mafia family.”
“It’s not quite like that. For one thing, my family’s business ventures are entirely legal.”
“Okay, but you’re still in charge.”
“And your family has a lot going on, with their businesses and all that.”
“Okay, so, why are you here? Why are you all by yourself? And why isn’t anyone taking care of your house?” I ran my finger along the countertop’s dusty surface and held it out to him.
He looked down at the paper carton in his hands.
“Annabelle, I’m afraid that we aren’t yet good enough friends for me to tell you that story.”
His words were quiet. They made me wish I hadn’t allowed my curiosity to disturb this painful thing he kept so carefully hidden.
“Okay,” I said.
“Okay,” he replied, and rose to pour us more drinks.
“I can’t believe this! You weren’t kidding!”
“Why would I kid about this?”
“It’s a ballroom, Sadiq. You have an honest-to-God ballroom. In your house.”
I took a few steps toward the center of the polished marble floor, wobbling just a little. With each drink Sadiq had poured for me, the bourbon had gone down a little smoother. I tilted my head back and stared at the massive crystal chandelier that hung overhead. The electric lights at the center made spots appear in front of my eyes. I was only half sure this was really happening.
“It’s just a big room, Annabelle.” Sadiq stood waiting in the doorway, his arms crossed over his chest as he regarded me with amusement.
“It is not!” I pointed my finger at him seriously. “It’s a room that you fill with fancy dresses, tuxedos, an orchestra… It’s a fairytale room. You have a fairytale house and you don’t even know it.”
He shook his head.
“Formal balls are not as fun in real life as they are in cartoons, little thief. At a real ball, everyone stands around and speaks very carefully. The drinks are horribly weak, and the laughter is fake.”
“I’d come to your ball and laugh for real,” I said, closing my eyes and picturing it. I attempted a one-person waltz, turning in spinning steps around the floor.
“I know that you would,” he said. His words didn’t slur the least bit. Despite matching me drink for drink, he gave no sign of intoxication. I, on the other hand, knew I would be leaving his house in a cab tonight.
I stopped dancing when the dizziness became too intense. We stood at opposite sides of the room, staring at each other across the empty space.
How strange this night had become.
Earlier, as we shared our fireside Thai food and bourbon, we’d started trading stories of our respective holiday traditions. I told Sadiq about the almond cookies my mother had baked with Marion and me every year to set out for Santa. The recipe had been my grandmother’s, and we only had the cookies at Christmas.
“We should totally make them now,” I said, struggling to my feet.
“With what?” he laughed. “We hardly managed tea, remember?”
“Oh, right.” I sat back down on the couch. “Well, you tell me one of yours. What does a sort-of-Muslim family traveling in America do on Christmas?”
“My mother hung stockings for us,” he said. “That tradition doesn’t just exist in the West, you know. Many people hang stockings or put out shoes to be filled with treats.”
“What did you get in your stocking? My mother always put in an orange, down in the toe.”
“Hmm, I’m not sure I remember,” he said. “Chocolate, I think. And…yes, hazelnuts!” His face brightened at the memory. “My father loved hazelnuts and always stole them from us.”
“What about your presents?” I asked. “I mean, I’m sure yours were better than mine. I bet you got ponies and stuff, but did you have to wait until Christmas to open them?”
“Yes and no,” he said. “The first Christmas my parents ever tried to celebrate, years before I was born, was in Peru, where they were traveling for business. It’s traditional there to wait until midnight on Christmas Eve, then eat a feast. That’s how they did it for us.
It was great fun as a child, being allowed to stay awake so late. We even opened gifts once—no, not ponies—played games, put on music…” He went quiet, his mind far away. When he looked back at me, his eyes were shining. “I’ve not thought about that in a very long time.”
“They were good days,” I said, putting my hand over his.
“The best days,” he agreed.
I held up my glass, and he touched his to it; a silent toast to those remembered times. We drank, and I thought about how strange it is, to treasure such painful things.
The mood was suddenly somber, and I tried to lighten it by suggesting we partake in another tradition.
“How about we play charades?” I asked, hiccupping. “I was always the best at it. They could always guess mine.”
“Charades?” His brow furrowed.
“Come on. You don’t have charades back home?”
“I don’t think so. But, anyway, this is home for me now, not Almarain.”
The way his voice hardened when he named the country made me more determined to get him laughing with me again.
“Well, if you go back and visit, you should teach them. Everyone should know how to play charades.”
I was in the middle of taking a sip when he answered me, so I could only shake my head to indicate how unacceptable his ignorance was. I handed him my glass and held up a finger—one minute—as I swallowed and climbed unsteadily to my feet.
“Okay, not everyone gets a lesson in charades from the Christensen family champion. I’ll have you know that I once got them to correctly guess ‘Everything’s coming up roses.’”
He stared at me blankly.
“Okay, fine,” I said, “I guarantee you’ll be extremely impressed by that after I teach you the game.”
“I’m sure I will,” he said, the beginnings of a smile forming on his lips.
“Okay, so, first, you show how many words the answer is…”
I drunkenly explained how the game was played, and when I thought he was clear on the rules, I started to act out a charade for him to guess. Being new to the game, it took a long time for Sadiq to figure out my clues.
Finally, understanding dawned on his face.
“Breaking and entering?” His eyebrows rose in mock disapproval.
I touched my nose, nodded, and collapsed backward onto the couch, giggling.
“See? I am the master!”
The skin at the corners of his eyes crinkled when he laughed. He was gorgeous in the firelight. It was hard to think about him here, alone in this room, night after night. Something in him was so joyful and alive, but I wondered how much longer it would be if he stayed here with only his books for company, and only a bottle for comfort.
“You’re like someone in a story,” I said, realizing as I did how ridiculous I must sound.
“You’re like someone… I don’t know. Trapped in a castle. Under a spell. You can’t be real, Sadiq. This place can’t be real. I feel like if I go looking for a bathroom I’m going to end up in a ballroom.”
His expression changed slightly, and my mouth dropped open.
“No…” I said.
“I’m afraid so.”
“Seriously? You have a ballroom?”
“Just a small one. All the old estate homes have them.” He waved his hand dismissively and drained his glass.
“Wow,” I said. “Well, I guess that settles it, doesn’t it?”
“I never got through your window last night. I lost my balance, fell off the trellis, knocked my head, and now I’m in some kind of Disney-inspired coma dream.” I gave him a little salute with my drinking glass, and tipped it back, finishing it. I set the glass down on an end table.
“I’d offer you another, but that might be unwise, unless you wish to spend Christmas terribly ill.”
“No, no…” I said, watching the fire. “I want…I want…” I turned to him and our eyes met. His seemed to grow darker.
“What do you want, little thief?” He rested his hand against the floor and leaned closer to me.
“I want to see the ballroom.”
He led me through the dark mansion, down two hallways and up a flight of stairs. The room was as dusty and neglected as he’d warned me it would be. There were covers over most of the furniture. When Sadiq switched on the breaker for the lights, two bulbs in the chandelier buzzed and popped, going dark.
There was light enough, though, to see him as he strode toward me now. All teasing was gone from his face. The gaze he fixed on me was one of desire, and intention.
I lay my hand over my heart, feeling it race. I felt… I couldn’t name it. Was it fear? Desire? Or something else? It occurred to me that I hadn’t truly felt anything in years. I had the thought, and then I didn’t care that this was crazy or dangerous. I didn’t care that I hardly knew him. I felt alive inside, and I knew I’d do anything to feel this way for a little longer. I kept my eyes on his, not moving, even when he was in arms’ reach.
He didn’t hesitate before he put his right hand on my hip. It was a large hand, and a strong one. He slid it around my hip and to the small of my back. Spreading his fingers wide, he pressed me close to him. His chest was hard against mine. He held me against him and with his other hand found mine. He lifted my hand in his, holding it lightly.
There was a question in his eyes when they met mine. I looked at him uncertainly, and then I thought I understood. I put the hand he wasn’t holding on his shoulder and stood up straighter. He gave a small nod and smiled.
Then we were moving. I wasn’t much of a dancer. A friend had taught me a little, but that was years ago. Now, though, as I moved across the empty ballroom in Sadiq’s arms, I remembered something she’d said: “Dancing with a strong partner feels like flying.”
There was no music, and he kept the steps simple for my sake, but he made me feel as graceful as any leading lady gliding across a movie screen.
He started to spin me and I stumbled, but he just caught me against him, holding me against his chest with arms like steel as we turned together. Then suddenly he stopped, and I saw that look of intention in his eyes again, along with another look, something that was almost like pain. I pressed my body against his as he lowered me slowly. My feet had just touched the floor when a clock began to chime.
He smiled and lifted his hand, brushing my cheek lightly with the backs of his fingers.
“Midnight,” he said. “Merry Christmas, Annabelle.” And he brought his lips down to mine.
His kiss was everything I’d never known I was looking for. It was sweet and sure, strong, but almost teasing. I pressed up on my toes to reach him better, and his fingers dug into my back in response. A helpless sound escaped my throat as I clung to him.
All analysis and confusion about my feelings for him dissolved into plain truth: with every cell in my body, I wanted him.
“Sadiq,” I breathed when his lips left mine. He held my face in his hands, breathing hard.
“Annabelle… ya amar…”
I stretched up, trying to kiss him again, but he pulled back. He wrapped his arms around me and drew a deep breath. A moment later, he looked down at me.
“You almost make me forget myself, little thief.”
He released me from his arms and stepped back. I frowned.
“What’s wrong, Sadiq?”
He shook his head slowly.
“I poured your drinks myself. If I were to have you tonight…” He looked away, his jaw clenched. “That’s not the man I am.”
I nodded, torn between embarrassment and lust.
“Will you let me make you comfortable here tonight?” he asked. “I can take you home in the morning.”
“Yes, thank you,” I said, realizing how exhausted I was as I stifled a yawn.
I followed him down the hallway to a large bedroom.
“You can sleep here,” he said. “The bathroom is just through that door. You’ll find everything you need in there.” He smiled ruefully and turned to leave.
“Stay with me,” I blurted out, grabbing his hand.
He turned back to face me, frowning.
“Annabelle, I don’t think I should share your bed tonight.”
I don’t see the problem, I thought, frustrated, but I pushed the words away. It wasn’t fair to press him on this. It was just my own luck that I’d managed to find the last honorable man in Seattle.
But I couldn’t be alone tonight. The rush of feeling that had come over me earlier was still there, like a fire in my breast. I felt as though I’d opened a door, one I’d kept shut tightly for too long. There was no telling what might come out of that closed-off place inside me, and I wasn’t ready to face whatever it was on my own. Tonight was too tender, too lovely.
“Let’s just sit a while longer,” I said. “We can go back to the study, by the fire where it’s warm.”
“If things get too hot and heavy, we can always play charades until it passes,” I said.
“All right, then,” he agreed. “We’ll meet the dawn together.”
Sadiq grabbed a pillow to take along with us. I took his hand as he led me from the guest bedroom back to the study.
The fire was burning lower now. Sadiq stoked it, waking the last of the flames from the shrinking logs. He pulled the fireplace screen closed before coming to join me on the couch.
“So we don’t burn up in each other’s arms,” he explained, shoving the pillow behind his back as he reclined against the arm of the couch.
“We wouldn’t want that,” I said softly.
I stretched out in front of him, leaning back against his chest. I covered us in the blanket he’d given me earlier. His arms circled around me. I felt small and safe, and a little like I was someone else. That was okay, though. It would be my gift to myself this Christmas. I would let this man hold me and not ruin it with too much thinking.
I drifted somewhere between sleep and waking. Sadiq was quiet but I knew he wasn’t asleep; his fingertips stroked my arm lightly. I didn’t want to fall asleep, not yet. Tonight was a perfect, balmy place, an enchanted bubble in time that cradled me as sweetly as this man’s arms did. Once I slept, tonight would be gone, and tomorrow… Well, tomorrow could be anything.
“Sadiq?” I asked, yawning.
“Yes?” He sounded tired, too.
“Tell me a story?”
I wouldn’t have blamed him for laughing, but he didn’t. Nor did he answer right away. When he did speak, he sounded thoughtful.
“I’m not sure I can.”
“Don’t know any good ones?”
“Oh no, I know a good one. I’m not sure it will be the same in English, though.”
“Then don’t tell me in English.”
Another pause, then he began to speak. The unfamiliar syllables flowed over me like music. I closed my eyes and listened as he spoke. In my mind, I tried to invent a story to go along with the words I couldn’t understand.
I imagined the tale he told me was about a boy who was born so beautiful that the moon fell in love with him and wanted to keep him for herself. The boy didn’t want to live on the moon, so he had to flee his homeland and hide away in a castle in a strange land.
But what happens when a girl from the village discovers the beautiful boy? Does she hide with him forever in the castle? Do they flee together and find a land so full of sunlight that the moon cannot reach them? Or maybe she fights the moon; maybe the village girl is so fierce in her love that the moon herself flees, and leaves the lovers in peace.
I shifted onto my side. Sadiq caught the edge of the blanket as I moved, keeping me covered and warm. My ear lay against his chest now. When he continued the story, I could hear the rumble of his words within him.
I fell asleep before the story was finished. In my dreams, I stood with Sadiq on a beach as white as milk. It was night, and the waves crashed with a sound like voices as he kissed me beneath a moonless sky.
The Sheikh’s First Christmas is available now.
Also from Holly Rayner:
Sold To The Sheikh: His Indecent Proposal
He wants me, he needs me. I never thought I could be in this position; propositioned to be a surrogate to his child, the likely heir of his fortune and family’s legacy. And he’ll pay me! Enough to put off my money worries for the rest of my life…
The question is, do I want to do it? He’s Rami Al-Hassan, a billionaire Sheikh of The Principality of Al-Andalus, and he certainly isn’t accustomed to being turned down.
I never could have imagined doing something like this before now, but looking into that gorgeously chiseled face, and those sparkling, enigmatic eyes, I can see something behind the ostentatious exterior. Something like love…
Can I find it within myself to accept the Sheikh’s indecent proposal? Can I sell my body to the Sheikh? Can I really carry his child?
The Sheikh’s First Christmas
Annabelle Christensen has a busy Christmas planned, but not in the way you might expect. She’s a thief; a professional burglar, who robs the palatial mansions of the rich and famous to put her sister through college and carve out a less than wholesome life for herself. However, this Christmas, she’s going to get caught, and nothing will ever be the same again…
Sheikh Sadiq Al’Adash is used to spending his Christmases locked away in lonely isolation, unwilling to let the cheer of Christmas into his life. So when his house is invaded by Annabelle, he’s torn between defending his miserly traditions, and letting a rare ray of Christmas-time cheer shine upon him…
After a botched burglary attempt, Annabelle is caught locked inside the Sheikh’s panic room. She knows her time is up. What she doesn’t know is that her Christmas tale is just beginning…
Can Annabelle find in the Sheikh a way to turn her life around? Can Sheikh Sadiq finally face his own holiday-time demons, and discover a new-found love of Christmas? And can the two of them foster a love from the unlikeliest of meetings, that will change their lives forever?
Sheikh Rafiq Al-Zayn is a man who can have anything he desires. Today, he wants a fiance... Faced with an impending visit from his judgemental father - the head of the family Mehmet - Rafiq must give up his narcissistic playboy ways for just long enough to fool him into believing he's settled down, and will embarrass the family no more. And what better way to achieve this, than to put a ring on a girl's finger? Evangeline Pryce is a struggling artist, barely making enough money from her life's passion to pay the bills. After a chance meeting, Sheikh Rafiq decides she'll be a perfect fiancée; attractive, smart, and possessing the abilities to impress his art-loving father. The deception has begun: they'll play make-believe for the duration of Mehmet's visit, and Evangeline will make a small fortune. What neither of them planned, however, is that they might just fall in love for real... 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 warm the depths of your heart. As an added gift, it also contains the first few chapters of Holly Rayner's prior novel, The Sheikh's First Christmas.