The Sheikh’s Purchased 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:
It seemed like every Broadway actress had a ritual before her curtain call. Breathing exercises, mantras, stretches and impossible yoga poses; all perfectly acceptable rituals to ready the actress for her moment in the spotlight.
This was hardly Broadway, however, and Amie Shaw’s pre-show ritual wasn’t nearly anything glamorous. Nor was she the lead. In fact, she was merely the understudy, and lately, her pre-theater routine mostly consisted of circling the want ads in the Chicago Tribune while sipping back copious amounts of free green room coffee.
It’d already been two years since she’d ditched her life as a waitress in Indiana to pursue acting in Chicago. At the time, she’d had big dreams and just the right amount of naivety to believe she would make it big. The reality, however, was far from it. Since arriving in Illinois, she’d landed a couple of small acting gigs here and there, but nothing worth writing home about. She’d nearly fainted when she received the lead role in Carolina and the Bridge—that is, until she found out she’d been cast as the understudy. Thus far she hadn’t even stepped on stage once, and tonight was the last show.
She’d chosen her starter apartment before she’d even left Indiana; catching an ad online and deciding that particular choice would be low-budget enough that she wouldn’t be limited to eating boatloads of ramen upon coming into the city. She’d been in her ‘starter’ for two years now and desperately needed an upgrade. Still, with mounting bills and no acting career in sight, she’d taken to mindlessly searching the want ads in the paper and obsessively checking her phone for acting gigs and waitressing jobs.
Boy, would her parents be proud.
Though divorced, Amie’s parents could always agree on one thing: her career, or lack thereof. So it came as no surprise to her when, on separate occasions, both her mom and dad expressed concern for her pursuit of acting, especially when she decided to move out of state. She’d loved acting ever since she was a child, and she knew she was good, she just needed more opportunities. If she could get to the big city, she’d foolishly thought, the roles would come pouring in. Lately, though, she’d been thinking more and more that her parents might have been right all along.
Like most other nights, Amie had taken her place in the wings backstage at the local theater to watch another rendition of a fantastic play she had seemingly learned all the lines in vain for. She sat atop an old speaker near the stage, outfitted in sweatpants and a T-shirt; her long hazelnut hair scrunched up in a lazy bun.
She absent-mindedly tapped her fingers against her coffee cup as her eyes skimmed through the paper. There was a sudden rustle backstage that might have signaled to her that the show was starting, but there was still over an hour to go before curtain call. Before she had a chance to swallow her coffee and ask a stagehand for the scoop, the director came rushing up to her.
In standard dramatic fashion he grabbed her coffee cup and set it roughly on the speaker, causing it to spill slightly over the surface.
“Thanks for that,” she said with a grin.
“You’re honestly just sitting there?”
Amie blinked emphatically. “I have become one with this speaker. She understands me and I, her.”
“No time, no time!” he shouted.
“For that thing you do when you get sarcastic! Wardrobe!” he yelped across the green room while rubbing his temples in an over-exaggerated fashion. “This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening!”
“Michael!” she said firmly, grabbing both his shoulders. She felt comfortable sassing her director; the two had formed a close friendship over the last few weeks—watching him throw up backstage on opening night had done a good job of breaking down the walls between them. “Words. Use them. Breathe, then speak.”
“Sharon called in sick,” he said, referring to the lead actress. He placed his hand on his forehead and gave a woeful sigh. “It’s all up to you now, honey, so get into wardrobe immediately, if not sooner.”
“She’s sick?” Amie repeated, her heart doing backflips.
“Yes!” Michael said, finally taking on a normal tone. Oftentimes his theatrical nature would overwhelm even the most mundane conversation—he could make asking for a cup of coffee sound apocalyptic.
“I blame you,” he said absent-mindedly. “You must have put a hex on her just to get on stage. Now come on, to wardrobe!”
“Uh, yeah! Okay!” Amie said, ripping her ponytail from her hair and tossing the want ads to the green room floor. She quickly followed behind as Michael marched into hair and makeup, with a stylist at the ready to turn her into a perfect piece of stage art.
“It’s so funny because I’m always telling Katie that it drives me crazy how I’m getting sick like every week, yet no one else ever gets sick around here. I even told her we should start cranking up the AC,” Amie laughed, but Michael merely continued forward. “You know, so people get cold and maybe—”
“—develop a debilitating illness?” he interrupted, dragging her by the arm into a makeup chair and instructing the stylists without a word. “I get the joke, Amie, it’s just a little morbid.”
“Right…” she pursed her lips awkwardly. “I mean, I didn’t really do it, so…”
“Just, be ready in 30! You do know the lines, yes?”
“Yes, of course!” she said quickly, watching as he disappeared out of the dressing room. Her heart wouldn’t stop flipping as the women behind her fussed and fawned over her makeup and curls; deep down, beneath her sarcastic veneer, she was relishing every moment of her big debut and silently taking back every jealous thing she’d ever uttered about this play.
She practiced her lines in a whisper for the next half hour, reminding herself that she’d spent the last eight weeks rehearsing these lines alongside the play as she watched from the wings, and that she had nothing to worry about.
While Carolina and the Bridge wasn’t exactly critically acclaimed in the media, the play’s director was still renowned for throwing some of the biggest, wildest after-parties on the Chicago theater scene. It didn’t go beyond Amie’s notice when a stage hand swooped into her ear with an excited whisper announcing: “You’re so invited to the after-party.”
Amie squeezed into her first costume and was quickly shuffled about from stagehand to stagehand. She could hear the assistant director ushering her to the curtain with a wild energy as all the actors took their places.
Breathe Amie, just breathe. If she could just get out her first line, she’d be golden for the rest of the performance.
She stepped onto the stage and quickly took her place at a faux-antique writing desk. She stared at the velvet red curtains and then down at the leather-bound book before her. She could see where Sharon had scribbled on the pages, either while pretending to write, or accidentally, out of nerves. She smiled at the penmanship and took it as an unspoken sign of Sharon’s blessing on her stepping into her shoes that evening.
Suddenly, Amie realized the background music had faded and the billowing red curtains had been drawn; the bright stage lights blinding her vision of the vast audience before her.
She stared wide-eyed at the hot lights above and then back down at the book in front of her.
Say, your, line!
“Endlessly, endless dull…” she said in her best Sharon impression, sweeping the papers off the table with an over-exaggerated swing of her hand. A chuckle ran through the audience at the gesture, which Amie could only take as sign of good things to come.
Amie’s instinct was right. The next two hours went off without a hitch. In fact, she dared think that the audience seemed to react even better than they normally did. She took in every sensation and every tingle of nervous excitement she felt while on stage and could barely believe it when she found herself saying her last line of the night.
Moments later, Amie found herself taking the stage alone to do her final bow. She couldn’t believe it when the audience rose to their feet and roared with thunderous applause. She took a brief look around the stage to make sure there was no one else accompanying her, to which the audience caught on and began to laugh. She felt a small sense of shock to discover that yes, they were clapping for her. Just her! A tall, well-dressed man stood in the front row, applauding slowly as he regarded her intently; the look on his face silently telling her he thought she was absolutely brilliant.
Maybe she was just feeling a little full of herself. Still, she felt no small sense of pride as she heard a woman in the audience declare ‘She was amazing!’ to the woman she was sitting beside.
Amie almost laughed. Did they really think she was the star of the play? Didn’t they realize she was just the understudy? The thought filled her stomach with butterflies.
Her line of thinking was confirmed further as she headed backstage and was met by a barrage of co-stars, along with Michael, all congratulating her on a flawless performance.
“You’re coming to the after party tonight, right?” Michael asked, grabbing both of her hands in his.
“Um… Is that even a question?” she joked.
Michael laughed. “You know the address. Take in every moment of it, Amie. This is your night!”
Before Amie could respond, Michael suddenly seemed distracted, pointing behind her to a handsome man entering the greenroom. He had deep, tan skin and a fantastic gray suit that, she’d wager, probably cost more than the deposit on her apartment.
As the man approached, Michael leaned into her ear, whispering with a hint of annoyance, “Probably a journalist or a critic.” He looked Amie up and down, rolling his eyes and sighing playfully. “Well, at least try and act refined.”
“Thanks for that,” she responded dryly before turning to her Middle-Eastern hunk of a critic. “I don’t do autographs,” she joked before throwing her hands up in the air. “Oh, who am I kidding? Somebody get me a pen!”
Michael stared on, looking horrified for a moment before taking his leave backstage—but not before pointing to his watch and mouthing “Five minutes!” at Amie, from behind the critic’s back.
“That was a joke…” she awkwardly chirped out.
The man smiled. “You know your joke’s not funny when…”
“When you have to explain it?” she winced. “I’ve heard that before… Hey, you’re the man from the front row! Fancy suit, loud clapping, told me I was brilliant.”
“I did, did I?”
“Well, in my head you did,” she said with an easy smile. “I give it about, oh, two more minutes until you actually say it to my face.”
“You were brilliant,” he relented jokingly before making a half-hearted bow.
“Man, am I good.” Amie tried her best to act smooth but couldn’t help her face flushing red as he spoke to her; his slight accent peeking through his words. “So, you’re a journalist?”
The man looked taken aback. “Here, I thought I was in real estate? Hmm…”
“Oh, you’re not a journalist. My bad, sorry. I was told that when people come backstage it’s because they… Wait, if you’re not a journalist, what’re you doing back here?”
“I’m actually a talent scout, of sorts.”
“I thought you were in real estate?”
“What can I say, I’m a man of many talents.”
“If that’s true, then I am all ears,” she smiled.
“Good, because I think you might be exactly what I’m looking for.” He looked her over and gave his first flirtatious smile of the evening. “Perhaps I could let you get out of costume and we’ll speak further?”
Amie’s heart skipped a beat. Wow, this guy must’ve really liked her work if he was just waiting around to offer her a job right after the play. This was just the way she imagined landing her dream job; one fabulous night of acting followed by a wave of roles and opportunities coming her way. Alright, so this wasn’t exactly a wave, but it was something.
Flabbergasted, all Amie could think to say was: “You don’t like my dress?”
The man blinked and laughed. He stared down at her 1920s-style cocktail dress and the large feathered plume coming out of her flapper headband. Her eyebrows were accentuated into unthinkably long tails ending by her temples and she still held a long, ivory cigarette holder between her fingers. “I worry I’d come off as underdressed if we were to meet like this,” he laughed once more. “Meet me across the street for a drink?”
She nodded and watched the man leave backstage as quickly as he entered. Eight weeks of attending this theater as an understudy and years more as a fan led her to know exactly where he was talking about: The Delphi—a small, classy bar situated in a nook across the street. The architecture was beautiful and intricate; the wood beams and interior craftsmanship showing the building’s historic character and elegance… And besides that, they made a mean sangria.
Amie had never changed so fast in her whole life. She frowned in the mirror, at the gross sweatpants and ridiculous sweatshirt she’d come to work in. Of all days, why couldn’t she have worn something a little more dignified?
She told Michael she’d likely be late to the after party and raced across the street at lightning speed. Luckily, The Delphi was small enough that she easily spotted her mystery talent scout and made her way over to him.
“Amie Shaw,” she said as she sat down, reaching across the table to shake the scout’s hand.
He looked her outfit over and, though he never changed his expression, Amie could feel a definitive judgment about her less than stellar wardrobe.
“I came to work straight from the gym,” she lied sheepishly.
He squeezed her hand and released her from their overdue introduction, smiling charismatically as he said, “Please, call me Malik. I’ve taken the liberty of ordering us some champagne, I hope that’s all right.”
“Perfect,” she smiled and adjusted herself at the high-top table; minding the incredible chandeliers that hung over each tabletop.
“I figured you’d be in the mood to celebrate.”
She laughed and twirled her hair in mock-seduction. “What tipped you off, my amazing performance tonight, or do I just have the face of a drunk?”
“A little of both,” he said with a wink. “You’re confident. I like that. You seem perfect for a role I have in mind.”
“That’s amazing,” she smiled and gracefully picked up her champagne flute. She’d been to this establishment enough times to know how ridiculously expensive the bottle was, and inwardly chided herself for taking a giant gulp instead of sipping at the beverage like a lady. “Oops,” she said in a silly tone, referencing her chugging the champagne. Yeah, good job Amie, try and act a little more like someone who was raised in a barn!
“So, what’s the job?” she asked smoothly in an attempt to transition the conversation.
“Well, it’s… it’s a little unconventional. Kind of like a live-action drama piece.”
“Oh, neat. Like a reality show, or something?”
“Something like that.” He frowned playfully and then leaned in from over the table; a broad smile crossing his lips. He looked to be in his early thirties; short dark hair and a sharp jaw. His eyes were what intrigued her most; deep hazel, framed by dark lashes which accentuated the color.
“Picture this…” he said breathily, as though he were about to sell her something. “You’ll be whisked away from this cold Chicago weather to someplace warm; historical. You’ll be playing a bride-to-be to a sheikh of a foreign land. A prince, really.”
“A prince… So romantic,” Amie said absent-mindedly as she pulled a notepad from her purse and began furiously scribbling notes. “How long will the project run for?”
“Six weeks,” he said plainly, staring down into his champagne, yet making no move to drink from it. “It will require the utmost class, charm, and tact.”
She tapped her nose. “Act like a lady. Got it.”
“Any questions so far?”
She nodded. “Yes. When do I start, and how long will rehearsals go on for?”
“That’s the thing,” he pursed his lips and pressed his fingertips into a steeple. “How do I put this…? It’s an immediate start, as in tomorrow. And there aren’t any rehearsals. Think of it as an improvisational work.”
Amie paused for a second. She was a good actress and everything, but she wasn’t that good… or was she? She did get a standing ovation and a job offer immediately after her first performance, after all.
She sipped her drink and furrowed her brow. “The ultimate improv… I love it!”
Malik exhaled with relief and offered up another charming grin. “Fantastic. I’m pleased to hear it. I was feeling a bit doubtful that I’d ever find the right actress for the job but, well, when I saw you I just knew you’d be perfect.”
“I’m floored,” Amie said, with no small amount of shock.
“Your role will be, as I mentioned, playing an American fiancée in a foreign land. It will involve some preparation, and a bit of travel,” he said hesitantly, gauging her response carefully.
“Right…” Amie blinked; watching the well-dressed patrons of the bar come in through the door and make their way to the ornately-carved bar. She couldn’t believe all of this was happening. She was finally getting her big chance, and she would get to travel to do it? Suddenly it hit her. If she was traveling, who was going to pay her rent?
She bit her lip and quickly regained her composure. “I have a small concern,” she said politely. “If I’m going to be traveling, I’ll still need to be… you know, paying my rent and bills and the like.”
“Money shouldn’t be an issue,” he said flatly, suddenly all business.
“If only we were all so lucky,” she teased.
“You will be paid $500,000 for the project, but only after the job is complete.”
Amie gaped at the man; eyes wide as an unfamiliar noise escaped her throat. “Half a million dollars?” she repeated, dumbfounded.
“Only once the job is complete,” he affirmed calmly, as though he hadn’t just made the most insane offer she’d ever heard.
She cleared her throat and leaned back in her chair, crossing her legs in what she hoped was a play-it-cool vibe. She tapped her fingers against the stem of her glass and quipped, “Yeah, um, so excuse me while I pick my jaw up off the floor. That’s absolutely amazing!”
“Fantastic,” Malik said, unfazed as he quickly removed a sheet of paper from the briefcase that he held.
“You were that sure I’d say yes, huh?”
His eyes met hers in a confident, playful manner as he slid the sheet across the table. “This is a contract for the job. Just initial, date, and sign and print your name at the bottom of it. Please take as much time as you need to look it over.”
“Yeah,” Amie said emphatically as she skimmed the page, eyeing the eye-watering sum printed in bold, and quickly signed her name. “I have to say, I’m pretty jazzed about this. Not exactly going to turn down the most amazing opportunity of my life, am I?” She slid the contract back across the table using her pointer finger and smiled back at him. “So, when do we get started, boss?”
He looked down at the contract with a bemused, if not puzzled stare before scooping the sheet of paper back into his briefcase. “Tomorrow morning, 8am,” he said crisply, standing from his chair. He leaned over and grabbed her bar napkin, scribbling down a time and the address of where they would meet.
Before she could make a smart comment about their early meeting, or blurt out the million thank-you’s she could feel welling up inside her chest, Malik had reached his hand out to hers and given it a firm, professional handshake. He nodded curtly as he released her hand; the charm he had oozed just moments earlier suddenly seeming so far away.
“You’re an incredibly talented young woman, Amie,” he said smoothly. “You’re going to be absolutely perfect for this project.”
“Thank you so much,” she finally managed to say. “I’ll see you tomorrow, bright and early!”
Amie paced around her bedroom, fiddling with the small collection of knick-knacks and faux crystal jewelry holders she’d come to collect atop her dresser. She kicked her feet as she walked, stopping briefly to do a few yoga stretches before pausing in front of her full-length mirror.
The oval-shaped mahogany mirror had simple detailing and spun vertically to reveal another mirror on the other side. The vintage statement piece was in stark contrast to the rest of her generic, big-box furniture. It had been a splurge purchase with a hefty price tag at an antique market just one month after she moved to Chicago. Her father’s house was filled with antiques and vintage items, and she supposed, in some way, buying the piece was some attempt to feel closer to home.
She stared into the mirror and noted the bags under her eyes; she’d hardly slept. After her meeting with Malik she’d managed to catch the last hour of the wrap party for the play. It had been an endless night of compliments and laughter, not to mention congratulations for securing her high-paying new gig.
And drinks. Lots of drinks.
She was lucky enough not to be too hungover, but nervous anticipation for her early morning meeting had kept her up most of the night, wreaking havoc on her appearance. She sighed at her reflection and dabbed on another dollop of cover-up before turning, unsatisfied, from the mirror and throwing her thick hair into a high ponytail.
Amie was well-versed on what to wear to casting calls, but she wasn’t exactly sure what this meeting would entail, so of course she tore her closet apart. Clothes lay scattered about on the bed as though an atomic-blouse-bomb had gone off in the center of the room. She finally settled on fitted jeans and a black blazer. Casual, yet professional.
She could hear her cab honking from outside her window and quickly made her way down the stairs, grabbing her purse and the napkin on which Malik had written the location of their meeting. She sat behind the cab driver and read the address out from the napkin.
Then came the wait. Early morning Chicago traffic agreed with them, yet it still felt like the drive was taking forever. She looked over her resume and list of theater references before tucking them away in her purse. Even though Malik had already said she had the job, she figured it couldn’t hurt to bring along some references, just in case.
She tested her breath against her hand and then let out an unwilling sigh; after more than a half hour of driving, she couldn’t help but notice how far out of the city they’d already driven.
“Do you think we’re coming to a stop anytime soon?” she asked curiously as they slowly came upon an area of town she’d never seen before.
“Yeah,” the driver said plainly, pulling to an almost comical stop. “This is it.”
“This…” she began sarcastically, “is an airfield.”
“What can I say, this is where your address took me,” the cabbie said in a thick Mexican accent. He gave a subtle frown and looked back down at his GPS before offering Amie a grin. “Yep. Seems to me like that may just be your ride.”
The driver pointed out the window and Amie’s eyes went wide with disbelief as a she caught sight of a small white jet in the distance. Standing beside it were a small group of three or four people, along with Malik.
She blinked hard before fumbling through her purse to pay the cabbie; fighting the urge to tell him what an absolute rip off his price was. This was why she normally guided cabbies personally; otherwise, they’d take the longest routes, preferably lanes with traffic or street work. Oh, they loved going through street work. Too bad she couldn’t navigate her own way to a… private airfield?
She opened the door and was quickly met by Malik, who greeted her with another formal handshake before starting to guide her over to the jet.
“Welcome,” Malik smiled. “These are some of my associates,” he said quietly, leaning into her ear as he gestured to the small group of people boarding the jet. “I’ll introduce you all once we get in the air.”
“That’s generally what jets do.”
“I guess if it didn’t you’d be in for a massive refund,” she said, laughing nervously as her eyes looked over the glossy white aircraft.
Suddenly, she stopped in her tracks, almost digging her heels into the tarmac. “Wait, so, what are we doing here? Going on a Chicago-style air tour of the city?”
“Oh,” he gave a half-hearted frown. “Didn’t I mention that we’d be whisking you away?”
“Okay, yes…” She turned to face him with a giant smile that bordered somewhere between flirtatious and horrified. “But I didn’t think you meant like, right now. I didn’t even pack!”
“You have your purse with you?”
She paused. “Yes…”
“And your passport?”
“Well, yeah, in my purse but—”
“Then that’s everything!” he finished cheerfully.
“Hey there, did we miss the part where I don’t even have luggage? I’m pretty sure wherever we’re going will require that I wear clothes—and if it isn’t then I’m not sure it’s a place I’m willing to go!”
Malik laughed and signaled one of the men on board to give them a minute. He turned back to her and smiled. “The jet features an onboard wardrobe. Anything else you need will be provided to you.”
“Yeah, but…” she looked down at her purse in vain and then back up at Malik. “I don’t even have any makeup with me.”
“Then it’s a good thing you’re a natural beauty,” he grinned. His sentiment didn’t receive the reaction he’d hoped for and he raised both his hands in front of him as if to reason with her. “Makeup, clothing, long-distance charges to your cell phone, expenses for your home here in Chicago… all will be taken care of.” He sighed blithely and continued, “I did tell you the project would be starting immediately.”
“Okay, but maybe next time you could be a teeny-tiny bit more specific? Like, ‘Oh hey, so that job I was telling you about? Prepare for anything! Sandy, rocky, mountain, valley – and be ready at 8am!”
Malik watched her carefully, before stifling a laugh. “My apologies. Can we stop fighting now?”
“Are we fighting?” She blinked and felt her cheeks burn with a blush. Was she mouthing off to her new agent? “I mean, am I even allowed to fight with you? You are my boss and all.”
“…And yet here we are.”
She crossed her arms loosely and suddenly felt overly attached to her purse. Was this seriously the only personal item she would be taking on a six-week vacation? She sighed inwardly; her mom was right—this was her personal karma for always over-packing.
She looked at the jet and then back at Malik, smiling once more and trying to remember that this was a job, after all. “All right, I’m game.” She continued walking towards the jet. “Where are we headed?”
“Let’s leave that a surprise for now.”
She laughed. “Seriously?”
Now she wouldn’t even have time to mentally prepare for what was possibly the strangest role she’d ever taken? Amie stopped once more on the staircase ascending to the jet. She felt a tingle of apprehension in her stomach and then quickly inhaled. She was doing this for half a million dollars. Half. A. Million. She pressed forward and stepped on board.
The jet’s interior was the height of luxe; expensive-looking wood grain covered the cabin walls, along with smooth leathers and soft taupe fabrics. In the main area was a clutch of leather recliners with mounted tables in between. Across from the seats was a long sofa, covered with a scattering of taupe pillows. Amie thought absently that the carpeting alone was probably worth more than her entire apartment. Off the living area was a bedroom with a queen bed and silky-looking linens. She was almost in shock at the amount of furniture that was inside the small luxury jet.
“Wow,” she said plainly as Malik ushered her to one of the recliners. He sat her down and she blanched; staring down at the chair. “Sorry,” she winced, “I can’t sit sideways. It’s… a thing. I can’t do it on trains and I almost definitely can’t do it on a jet…”
Malik reached behind her and adjusted the seat so that it faced forward. “You sure are making this whole diva actress thing come to life.”
She blushed. “I’m… so sorry.”
“Just kidding,” he grinned and sat down on the seat beside her. “Sort of.”
With that, Malik introduced her to three of his associates; Jessica, Clint, and Samuel, as well as the pilot and co-pilot. She exchanged pleasant hellos and watched as they dispersed and went to their respective seats. Before long the jet took off and, once the aircraft stabilized, Malik undid his seatbelt and leaned into Amie.
“So,” she chuckled, “Am I allowed to ask how long the flight is?”
“We’ll be on board until much, much later tonight, for sure; about 15 hours,” he said casually.
Amie tried not to make a face. Don’t be a spoiled actress. She looked her new agent up and down. He wore dress pants and a loose button-up that currently had the top two buttons undone; no tie. Her eyes widened as a fresh worry occurred to her, but before she could protest he said, “We have pajamas, undies, all that stuff at your disposal.”
“Did you just say ‘undies’ to me?”
He laughed. “Is that a problem?”
“You can’t say ‘undies’ to me—you’re my boss!”
“Speaking of which,” he said, taking two cups of coffee from one of his assistants and passing one of them to her. The assistant set a tray with cream and sugar on the table between them and promptly left.
Malik sipped his coffee for a long while before continuing. “I’d like to talk to you a little bit more about the role, if that’s okay with you.”
“Perfect,” she agreed.
“The role actually begins the moment we land. As I said earlier, you’ll be playing the role of a wealthy heiress; bride-to-be to a prince from a country with a rich history, unique culture, and beautiful countryside.”
She nearly burst out laughing. It was a good thing she was confident in her acting chops because this role couldn’t be further from the reality of her life. Wealthy heiress? Since moving to Chicago, she’d never had more than $200 excess in her bank account. Struggling for years to find acting roles, buying a tube of mascara felt like a splurge. Refocusing back on Malik’s directions, she began to feel giddy.
“What?” he said, a choke of laughter in his voice. “You’re making a face.”
“No! No face!”
“I hired you because I believe you’re a fantastic actress who’s up to the challenge.”
She laughed into her hands. “Thank you.”
“This is going to take a lot of skill and a considerable amount of improvisation on your part. Saying that, you just need to follow my lead and we’ll be fine.”
“Oh! I didn’t realize you’d be taking part, too.”
“What, you mean I don’t scream ‘actor’ to you?”
She shrugged. “You don’t really scream ‘casting director’ or ‘real estate guy’ either, so…”
“A man of mystery, I’ll take it.”
The two laughed and slowly the cabin went silent once more, aside from the constant hum of the engine.
As the hours passed, Amie found she had all manner of things to do to pass the time. The jet was outfitted with a television, an extensive collection of movies, old and new, as well as Wi-Fi and a small library. Malik gave her a brief tour of the jet and after several hours of polite, occasionally flirty chit-chat, Amie finally decided to get some shut-eye. She sprawled across the queen bed, unable to believe just how comfortable being on board a jet could be.
By the time she awoke it was almost time to land. Malik had walked in and gently woken her, and she freshened up in the washroom before meeting him back in the bedroom.
“I have something to show you that I’m told is something of a… thrill, to women.”
She tussled her hair with her fingers and raised a curious brow. “Am I going to have to put on a sexual harassment video?”
“Trust me, you’ll like it.” He grinned and pulled open the closet doors to reveal the most intensely decorated closet Amie had ever seen, bursting full of a range of gorgeous gowns and professional attire. “Since we’ll be landing shortly, and our performance is about to begin, it’s important that you look the part.”
“Oh my gosh…” she gaped; her eyes practically glistening with cartoonish sparkles as she ran her hands along the sequins, lace and feathers. “W-well,” she stammered with delight. “What kind of scene are we going into? What should I choose?”
“Think… meeting the parents. Nothing too sexy, but still suitable for a warm climate.”
“Warm climate, hmm?”
She skimmed through the vast wardrobe, resisting the urge to salivate, and eventually settled on white kitten heels and a floor-length navy blue gown with capped sleeves. She felt like the combination of navy and white screamed classy lady, while the silhouette of the dress said success.
“Warm climate,” he nodded. “I suppose I should tell you now that we’re headed to my home country, Rabayat.”
“Rabayat…” she repeated with some hesitation. “Which is…?”
“It’s a small nation in the Middle East,” he laughed. “With that, said I’m sure you have a lot of questions for me, and we’ll get to those shortly, but for now I think it’s best you compose yourself and get ready for your opening night!”
When Malik had left the room, Amie slid into her gown. She had just enough time to refresh her curls and makeup before Malik was calling for her to fasten her seatbelt in preparation for landing.
So, this was the Middle East. Images of camels, markets, and pyramids filled Amie’s head, and she nearly swooned. Along with the rest of Malik’s team, she descended from the jet and was quickly ushered into a limousine that was waiting outside on the tarmac. The airport behind them was silver in color and vast in size. There was something sleek and almost futuristic about the architecture. The next thing to hit her was the heat; a humid 76 degrees.
The small group sat inside the limousine and Amie couldn’t help but steal a glance at the clock. 9am. The flight had lasted 15 hours, so by Chicago time, it would have been somewhere around midnight. Still, Rabayat was eight hours ahead, making the time difference something of a shock to her system.
She stretched back into the comfortable leather seats of the limo, the cushions seeming to hug her back. She couldn’t help thinking that her current surroundings sure beat the trashy cab she’d been in earlier. She could hardly believe the splendor she’d encountered so far, and had a feeling that that was only the tip of the iceberg.
Before leaving the jet, Malik had presented her with a crisp leather case, inviting her to take a collection of her choice of items from the incredible closet. She looked around the limo and felt like giggling. The last time she’d been in a limo was… wow, prom.
Amie breathed slowly and stared out the windows, trying in vain not to listen to the conversations happening around her. This crew clearly had a lot of money to spare, making her wonder just how big the production was going to be, let alone what the theater would look like. She could just imagine a grand, old building encrusted with jewels and sand bricks.
Why would it be encrusted with jewels? Why not! This was her fantasy theater, after all.
After some time driving, Amie awoke with a start, as Malik lightly shook her shoulder. Looking through the window, she could see they were pulling into town.
“You nodded off,” Malik explained with a laugh. “This is the capital, Rabayat City—it’s nearly time for the performance to start.”
“Is this where the theater is?” she asked sleepily.
He cocked a brow and smiled, obviously wanting to remain tight-lipped about the job. “Sort of,” was all he said.
Sometime later the limo finally came to a stop—but not in front of a theater. Instead, before them stood what looked to be a huge, grand art gallery with beautiful Arabic lettering scrawled across the front.
While she couldn’t make out the text, it seemed to Amie like there was some kind of ball being held inside. Beautifully-crafted stone statues lined the gold carpet that led inside; crowds of people waiting in line to enter the building.
“It’s a gala,” Malik confirmed, suddenly seeming nervous. “My family are patrons of the gallery.”
Before Amie could ask what they were doing at a gallery and not a theater, she was distracted by the brilliantly shining ring—an engagement ring—her employer now pulled from his pocket. The ring was white gold, with an oval-cut diamond in the center.
He gestured for her hand and when she gave it, he slipped the ring easily on her ring finger.
“Don’t tell me you’ve fallen for me already,” she joked.
“As of this moment, you’re officially in character,” he said quickly. He gave her a curious look that she couldn’t quite decipher and suddenly Amie felt her face go white.
“What’s… going on?” she asked with a raised brow, as her new boss let out a bashful sigh and bit his lip. “What?” she repeated; her worry mounting.
As the driver opened the door, Malik exited the limo and assisted her out, looping her arm through his and grabbing her hand.
She could feel sweat suddenly forming down her back as everything started coming together. She wasn’t going to be starring in a play or taking part in a reality show—she was going to be playing Malik’s fiancée!
Amie gritted her teeth as she walked alongside Malik, into the gala. She wasn’t sure whether she should scold her new boss, or crawl back to the limo with her tail between her legs. It was so like her to pick up the world’s strangest role.
Taking a deep breath, she told herself that as long as she was here, she would be game for anything. She walked further inside and was shocked again by the grandeur of the gallery. Ancient statues stood behind velvet ropes next to intricate, abstract paintings all among a crowd of important-looking people.
An older gentleman suddenly shouted something at Malik from across the gallery and started making his way over. He was elderly, perhaps 70 or older, and wore a black and gold robe with a black and white keffiyeh on his head. He may have been a little older, but he sure had style.
“My apologies, Azim, Amie doesn’t speak Arabic!” Malik shouted back with a laugh.
“My dear, my dear,” the man began in his best English. His smile was bright and genuine as he nodded towards Amie. “Beautiful, just as you said,” he continued, looking at Malik.
“My love, this is Azim, one of my family’s oldest and dearest friends, as well as a very busy diplomat,” Malik explained, and she smiled towards the man. “Azim, this is Amie Shaw.”
“Soon to be Bin Malehdi,” Azim corrected. “Sheikh Malik’s American fiancée,” the man mused. “So tell me, Ms. Shaw, what is it that you do? Where in the States do you come from? Have you set a date for the big day? Malik has been so tight-lipped about you; you’ve been his little secret!”
“One question at a time, Azim!” Malik chuckled. “Amie is an heiress, who happens to own a theater. The most historic theater in all of Chicago, actually.”
“Ah… the theater,” Azim said wistfully; his eyes suddenly elsewhere. “Don’t you just love the theater?”
“Oh, who doesn’t,” Amie said nervously.
“How are you liking Rabayat? And our gallery! What do you think of our gallery? Tell me Malik is taking you on a tour of the theater. You’ll adore it. Not quite American in style—even more beautiful, in fact!”
“Azim!” Malik laughed, setting his hand gently on the older man’s shoulder. “Don’t overwhelm her, we’ve only just arrived!”
Amie let out an elegant laugh and gently batted Malik on the arm. “Oh don’t be silly, darling! Azim, I may have only just arrived, but I am absolutely charmed by Rabayat. It’s so beautiful here, and I have no doubt that if Malik intends to charm me further, he’ll be showing me all the sights.” She laughed once more. “Forgive me if I turn into a stomach-turning American tourist, but I cannot wait to see more of your country.”
“Oh!” Azim’s mouth went wide in an ‘O’ shape; his expression quickly turning to one of delight. “That American charm,” he said in a sing-song voice, addressing Malik. “You’re in for trouble.”
A moment later, a lady that Amie guessed to be Azim’s wife had made her way over. She wore a matching black and gold gown, with a beautifully embroidered hijab covering her head. Though older, her eyes were done up with black liner and she looked every bit the polished and elegant older lady. She grabbed Azim’s hand and whispered something into his ear.
Azim smiled at the woman and touched her cheek lightly, whispering back in Arabic. The connection between them was so electric, Amie almost started to feel jealous. The last relationship she’d had was more than two years ago, before she moved. She’d actually ended it, not because he was a cheating jerk or because their goals were different; simply because she was moving and his job didn’t allow him to follow her. Since neither of them thought they could handle a long-distance relationship, it ended. Since then, she’d had a brief two-month stint with an extra she’d met on an independent film, but that hardly counted. They only kissed a few times; not exactly “lifers”.
Amie refocused her attention on the magnetic couple before her, offering a broad smile to the woman at the center of the group.
“Amie, this is Azim’s wife, Galina.”
“What a beautiful name,” Amie said, and gave a small curtsey to the woman. “Your husband is full of questions.”
“Aren’t we all?” the woman said with ease; her voice soft and young. “Malik has been a window of secrets about you. We were so worried when he decided to stay in America. If we’d known he was going to meet someone as lovely as you, perhaps we all would have slept better.”
“It sounds like Malik has some wonderful people looking out for him,” Amie laughed. “Thankfully, there’s no more need for worries. My love is right where he should be.”
“It’s good you’re so confident,” Azim said with a chuckle. “Because you’re about to meet some very important people in Sheikh Malik’s life.”
Amie’s eyes felt like saucers as she laughed with surprise. She turned to Malik for guidance and in return he only offered her a playful wink.
“They’re harmless,” he whispered with a smile. While he sounded as confident as could be, she couldn’t help but notice his grip got a little tighter around her arm.
The man who approached was also elderly. He was short—shorter than Amie—and wore a green robe and gold chains around his neck. He regarded Amie briefly before speaking to Malik in Arabic; a huge grin forming on his lips.
The young woman standing next to him was absolutely breathtaking. She wore a red gown with quarter sleeves and deep-plum eyeshadow with smoky black, winged liner. She had brown eyes and perfectly-arched brows.
“Father, this is Amie.” Malik turned to his faux-fiancée then gestured towards the man. “Amie, this is my father, Mahumet.”
Mahumet looked her over carefully; with purpose. He turned back to Malik and narrowed his eyes before finally giving him an approving nod. “As-salaam ‘alaykum,” he said smoothly, then took his leave from them both.
Amie smiled and returned the nod; completely unaware as to whether doing so was an acceptable custom or not. After all, if Malik was a sheikh, wouldn’t that make his father some kind of king or something? She gave an awkward smile to the young woman still standing in front of them and the woman also gave her the once-over; her final expression not at all approving.
“He said ‘Peace be upon you,’” she said harshly. “Assuming you don’t speak Arabic?”
“No, but thank you. Now I know who to turn to for a fantastic translation.”
Azim and Galina both offered a polite chuckle, but the woman before them just looked bored.
“Oh, Zafina, please!” came Galina’s hearty laugh. “Give the poor girl a chance. She’s his fiancée, after all!”
“You remember my sister,” Malik said quickly.
“Well, we’ve never had the pleasure,” Amie winced.
“Yes,” Malik said through gritted teeth. “But I’ve told you all about her, haven’t I?”
Zafina laughed at that. “So nice to meet you, Amie. I’m sorry to say that while Malik has told you all about me, he’s hardly said a word about you.” She continued sizing Amie up, adjusting her head covering slightly as she did. “In fact, the subject of your engagement came up at quite the opportune time.” Zafina raised her hand to her mouth as if to say Oops! and laughed once more. “Pardon me. I mean, came up quite suddenly.”
Amie tilted her head to the side and smiled, rubbing Malik’s arm gently. “I’m sorry to hear that. He must have been worried I wasn’t going to make this trip. I had a… work-related emergency that I wasn’t sure I could get away from. He probably didn’t want to disappoint any of you.”
“And what a disappointment that would have been,” Zafina smirked.
With that, Azim and Galina politely excused themselves to a nearby painting and warmly expressed their delight in meeting Amie, as if to subtly scold Zafina for her behavior.
“So…” Zafina frowned, and gave a knowing smile to Malik. “How was it you two met, again?
“We met at a bar,” Amie said with a dazed smile, taking her best guess at it. She could tell she’d made the wrong guess, however, when Malik’s face suddenly fell.
“Hmm,” Zafina enunciated. “Malik said you met through his work in real estate.”
“Right, right… I had made an appointment with him about buying a new condo, but I run a theater in Chicago and we had a wrap party that night at a local restaurant. I had an early meeting so he kindly agreed to meet me there.” Amie grinned. Take that, Zafina!
The sister nodded and gave an arrogant smile. “The theater… how fascinating.”
It was time for Amie to reassess her situation; she was now dealing with a culture she had no clue about, and a mean, jealous sister who clearly had beef with Malik.
The strange thing was, while she was standing there, mortified, Malik actually seemed jovial; an endless chatter of conversation and a contagiously playful laughter spilling forth from him.
“You Americans, you love games, yes?” Zafina asked, grabbing Amie’s arm and walking her further into the gallery.
They walked past three paintings, the designs on each canvas combining to make a single image of a fallen soldier. The details within the thick brush strokes were left to interpretation, but to Amie, the hero looked decidedly happy to have fallen.
“So,” the sister continued, “who said ‘I love you’ first?”
“Malik did,” Amie smiled her best adoring smile. “In the rain, after seeing our first play together.”
“Looks like my big brother has some class after all!” Zafina said playfully, smacking Malik lightly on the shoulder. “And how did he propose?”
“It was just last week, actually,” Amie said proudly, offering Zafina her ring finger for inspection. “At my place. He set up a trail of candles leading from the entry to the ring box.”
“My, my,” Zafina said with some surprise. “And how long had you been together before he proposed?”
Amie went to speak but Malik cut her off. “Five months, Zafina. I told you that already.”
“I know,” she smiled, sliding her tongue across her teeth. “It’s just a little fast, I suppose.”
“Well, when you know, you know,” Amie confirmed, looking up into Malik’s eyes and brushing her hand against his cheek. “What about you, Zafina, are you with anyone?”
“So Amie,” the sister went on, ignoring her question. “Tell me, when is Malik’s birthday?”
Amie fought the urge to frown. Low blow, Zafina, low blow. She laughed nervously and looked to Malik for some guidance, trying to think of any plausible reason why she wouldn’t have learned his birthdate in the course of five months together.
“Oh, Zafina, she knows it’s in October,” Malik said, sounding bored. “You know how she knows?”
“Because hers is in October, too!” he lied.
Zafina stared between the two of them before finally relenting to a laugh. Her demeanor seemed to soften from that point on, and the Newlywed Game came to a halt. The three were practically inseparable for the rest of the afternoon. The gala turned to dinner and dinner turned to cocktails, and before long the pair had been socializing well into the evening, with no shortage of important patrons and well-dressed figures for Amie to meet. Many of the guests spoke English, which boded well for her. She frequently heard the term, ‘Sheikh Malik’s American fiancée’ floating around the room.
There were a few more bumps and blips throughout the night, including an incorrect pronunciation of Malik’s last name to the gallery owners, as well as not even being able to fathom a guess at his mother’s name while talking to some of his childhood friends.
To Amie’s exhausted relief, the night slowly drew to a close. The gallery owners cut the ribbon on their new art wing, as well as announcing a large donation to the local hospital, and finally, around midnight, Amie and Malik left the gallery.
The pair made their way to their waiting limo and sat in silence as they were driven back to Malik’s home. Amie had so much to say; so many things to ask, and so much frustration to express that she couldn’t even put her thoughts together. Why had he made her wait so long before telling her what her role was? Saying she could have been more prepared for tonight was beyond an understatement. Not to mention… what possible reason could he have for putting on such a gigantic ruse to his family?
“You did a fantastic job tonight,” Malik said finally, stretching back in his seat.
“Thanks,” she said curtly. “Although you could have, oh, I don’t know, given me a little time to prepare? Explained this wasn’t a play but a weird sham; that the sheikh you mentioned back at The Delphi was actually you?”
“You’re mad at me?” he said, sounding surprised.
“Of course not,” Amie said, in typical mad-girl fashion. “I can’t be mad at you, you’re my boss. Remember?”
He watched her for a moment and took a breath. As if on cue he perked up once more and leaned in towards her. “Here, I thought you were my fiancée.”
She narrowed her brows and fought a smile. “Hilarious.”
This drive was long enough without awkward tension filling the room. Malik had mentioned that his residence was on the outskirts of town, but didn’t say it would take nearly an hour to get there. Well, that was just peachy, Amie thought in frustration. Now if they ever wanted to go anywhere, they’d have to wait more than an hour. So much for going out for breakfast; she’d be dead of starvation by the time they reached their destination.
“I’m sorry,” he said genuinely, running his hand through his hair. “Everything happened so fast, I just… I trusted you, and you did well, so my trust wasn’t misplaced. You played the perfect part.”
“The perfect part, huh? What does that mean?”
“You played, basically the opposite of yourself: charming, elegant, sophisticated… Perfect!”
Amie gritted her teeth and seeing her reaction, the Sheikh began to laugh. “Whoa, whoa, whoa! That was a joke!”
She huffed into her fist and stared awkwardly out the window. So now she wasn’t even a lady?
“You were amazing, Amie. Even with all of Zafina’s attacks, you handled yourself just as I thought you would. You were brilliant. Really.”
She turned from the window and finally met his eyes; relenting to an unwanted smile.
“Really,” he repeated happily.
Amie gave an over-exaggerated sigh and couldn’t help but laugh. “Thanks. What’s up with her, anyway?”
“Oh Zafina?” He sighed and gave a dismissal with his hand. “She’s just… over-protective, perhaps? It’s hard to tell.”
Amie nodded and the two returned to a comfortable silence, which was odd considering how awkward she normally felt when it was quiet. Casting calls were a nightmare when she would finish her audition and just have to sit there, watching her betters assess her work in stark silence. It was part of the reason she babbled on so much in nearly every situation since she moved.
Yet, with Malik, it was as if they’d grown up together and never had a tense moment in their lives, despite the incredibly strained night they had just shared. She felt her spirit lift as they reached his home.
Glimpsing it at the end of the winding driveway, she saw it was something between a palace and a mansion; huge, with a vast array of windows. Windswept olive trees lined the driveway, with grass and gardens surrounding the entrance. The driveway circled around a black iris garden, ending in front of the immense front doors. Amie stepped out of the limo and was quickly assured that the driver would deliver her luggage to her room.
The pair made their way inside and Amie was once again blown away by the opulence of the place. The foyer was beautiful, with white walls and smooth textures. She barely had time to turn and admire her surroundings before Malik ushered her up the spiraling staircase, where the first doorway led them through to a sprawling bedroom suite.
“Obviously, we won’t be sharing a room,” Malik said quietly.
“You mean, this is all yours?”
He exhaled in exhaustion and looked around the room. “All mine…” he repeated, almost dismissively. While Amie was beyond impressed, Malik couldn’t even bat an eyelid at the riches that awaited him in the Middle East. If she had a bachelor pad like this, Amie thought there’d be no way she’d go back to Chicago, especially not to work in real estate.
The halls leading to Amie’s guest bedroom had the same smooth white walls and gold trimmings that she’d seen downstairs. The passage had beautiful murals framed in gold moldings; intricate and majestic. Hanging tapestries lined down the hallway along with chandeliers and luxe sofas, all with red cushions.
Down the hall, she could see something that looked like a drawing room. Before the pair could reach it, however, Malik stopped in front of a set of white double doors.
“This will be your room while we’re here. Your belongings have already been unpacked for you, and you’ll find a fresh selection of makeup, hair products, clothes, and—”
“—panties?” she interrupted with a laugh.
She managed to make him blush. “Yeah,” he said with a laugh. “All that stuff. Help yourself, sleep well, and I’ll see you in the morning.”
Amie nodded and slowly closed the door behind her. “Goodnight,” she said through the crack in the door.
As the door clicked shut behind her, Amie turned to marvel at her new bedroom; it was as extravagant as the rest of the estate. Beige and red carpeting covered the floor, complex patterns flowing through it. In the center of the room was a bed with a dark red canopy behind it. There was a large, antique vanity next to the bed, and next to that sat a group of chairs made with the same wood and fabric that decorated the canopy, all sat around a dainty tea table.
Rummaging through the dressers, Amie found a tank top and pink pajama pants which she promptly put on. It felt so good to be out of her formal dress. She made her way into the attached washroom and stared at her drained face and fallen curls. She quickly washed her face but couldn’t quite be bothered with trying to remove her mascara.
She stepped back into the bedroom and flopped into bed, hoping for some much-needed sleep. She settled into the comfortable down-filled blankets and quickly turned the lamp off.
It felt strange being in someone else’s bed, and slowly Amie’s mind began to wonder. What kind of scandal had happened between him and his family that would make his sister and father so insanely resistant to getting to know her? What tension was there that Malik would take freezing Chicago winters over a palace and endless warm nights?
She tossed and turned for hours, trying to get comfortable. She knew she’d have trouble sleeping; she always did. Throw in jet-lag, the strangest acting gig imaginable, and a rumbling stomach and you get one exhausted but unrelentingly awake Amie.
After hours in purgatory, Amie finally gave up on sleep and started wondering if she might be able to find some herbal tea in the kitchen, or a bag of chips. Really, either would do.
She tiptoed out of bed and made her way into the hallway. The whole house was quiet and dark. She did her best with the limited lighting to find her way down the winding, intricately-carved staircase. The more she looked through the house, the more she believed it had come straight out of a book of fairytales.
Her feet hit the cold tiles of the foyer and within a couple of steps Amie was in the kitchen. Luckily for her, all the cupboards were well-stocked with food. She grabbed a plate from a shelf and began loading it with pita bread, carrots, hummus, a meat skewer, and a large helping of baklava. Juggling her large plate, along with a glass of milk, she walked into the living room only to be startled by the sight of Malik, sitting in an oversized chair.
She jumped in the lamplight, spilling a dollop of milk as she did. “You scared me!” she cried, anxiously looking down at the stain spreading over the plush carpeting.
Malik laughed. He was lounging back in an emerald green chair, watching an old black and white movie. He looked down at the mark on the carpet and slowly reached for the remote, pausing the film.
With a smile he stood and moved towards the kitchen. “I’ll get it.”
Within moments he emerged with a dishtowel and wiped up the spill, giving her a teasing smile.
“What!” she laughed. “You scared me!”
“My apologies for my terrifying… watching in silence,” he laughed again and returned to his seat.
Amie sat down on the sofa across from him and set her plate down on the coffee table before her, letting out a tired laugh as she did. She sighed unevenly as she started ripping the pita bread apart and dipping it in the hummus.
Malik watched quietly as she picked at her food, the faux-couple sitting in silence until he resumed his movie.
“Anyone ever tell you it’s not polite to stare?” she said through a mouthful of food.
“Anyone ever tell you it’s not polite to raid the entire contents of a host’s fridge?”
“Here, I thought you were my husband,” she said mockingly.
“Fiancé,” he corrected.
“Then what’s yours is mine!” she joked, stuffing her mouth with baklava. “What? You said help yourself!”
They both smiled sleepily, sitting quietly for a moment before Amie pointed to the screen and asked, “So what are you watching, anyway? You’re into old movies?”
“Why do you say it like that?”
She laughed. “Like what?”
“With shock and horror,” he grinned. “Not your cup of tea?”
“Old, outdated, before my time,” she shrugged. “Uninteresting.”
“All right, Amie Shaw, I believe it’s about time we had our first pre-marriage debate,” he said, leaning forward in his chair and taking a sip from his water glass. “I take your argument and will raise you a counter to every point you make.”
Amie leaned forward playfully, cupping her hands together. “Perfect!” she said with a grin. “We betting on this debate?”
He laughed. “Do you have money to bet?”
“No,” she said bashfully. “But I heard I have half a million dollars coming my way if I pretend to be marrying this cute guy.”
Cute guy? She clenched her teeth. Why, oh why did she have to admit that to him? Joking banter aside, you probably shouldn’t call your boss cute, no matter how, well, cute he is.
If he thought her comment was out of line, he didn’t say so. Instead, he made a suggestion. “Okay then, we play for bragging rights.”
“Perfect,” she nodded. “All right, my first argument. Old movies are… old. No CGI, no special effects, just… black and white.”
He nodded and scratched his chin as if considering her point. “Counter,” he said quickly, “Black and white films have better acting and better storylines because there’s no fantastical computer-generated scenes to distract from the story. Back then, if your actors were incredible, then your film was incredible, too.”
She pursed her lips in an over-exaggerated manner and attempted to mimic how he’d scratched his chin. “Fair enough,” she concluded finally. “Second point: these fantastic storylines you just raved about may have been great at the time, but they deal with things which are now irrelevant to our culture. We simply can’t relate to the stories or scenarios anymore.”
Malik extended his hand to the movie on the screen and shook his head. “I see them as historical portraits. Fascinating little time capsules for us to look back on. What better way to see an accurate portrayal of the 1940s than to see a movie made in the 1940s, by people who actually lived in that time period? The stories were full of substance, because they had to be. They had little else to fall back on.”
“Okay,” she conceded with a groan. “But can you relate to them?”
“Sure! These were films being made back when there weren’t a thousand other films like them with the exact same storylines. They were original, and they dealt with stories that are still the forerunning themes for movies today: love, pain, the human spirit. They’re timeless.”
“And not a werewolf or vampire in sight,” Amie said, raising her brows sardonically. “All right,” she shrugged and continued picking at her plate. “So why do you like them, really? It can’t just be for the history lesson.”
“I’m something of an insomniac by nature…” He took a long breath in and watched the actors on the screen; their steps perfectly in-time as they danced together through a field of sunflowers. He smiled as they did so and, almost out of nowhere, Amie felt a flash of attraction for her new boss. “They… make me feel something indescribable. There’s a spirit in these films that you can’t find today.”
She snapped her fingers slowly and joked, “But they sure don’t help you sleep.”
“Unfortunately not,” he said with a smile. “So what about you, Amie? What brings you down here, besides your apparently insatiable appetite?”
Amie watched Malik, illuminated in the half-light of the television, and couldn’t help but think how handsome he looked. His eyes were tired, yet bright. His skin was perfectly tan, and he was well-built in frame, much taller than her, with the most enviable thick brown hair that she wouldn’t dare admit she was jealous of. What drew her in most was his smile; straight teeth, white as a cloud.
Snap out of it!
She shook her head suddenly before dropping her carrot stick and leaning back on the couch. “I just couldn’t sleep,” she said lamely. “I guess I’m still full of questions.”
“You don’t say.”
“Do you mind?”
He made a sweeping gesture with his arm and nodded. “Not at all.”
“Okay, how about we start with… why you’re doing all this? I mean, we’re taking the whole parental acceptance thing a bit far, aren’t we?” The words came out somewhat harsher than she intended and she winced slightly.
“I guess you could say that,” he laughed and gave a half-hearted roll of his eyes. “You want the truth?”
“Always,” she said softly.
“I moved to Chicago about nine years ago,” he explained, leaning back in his chair. “My father sent me there to make a name for myself.”
“And did you?”
“Oh, yes.” He gave a disappointed laugh. “Maybe a bit too much of one. I quickly discovered my passion for real estate; the market’s constantly changing, and you have to move fast to stay ahead of the competition. I was grabbing opportunities wherever I saw them, and within a couple of years I was at the top of a multi-million-dollar company. I used my savings to buy the owners out, and two years later, the business was turning a multi-billion-dollar profit.”
“Real estate, real estate, rah-rah-rah,” Amie said with mock enthusiasm, not allowing the genuine admiration she felt deep down to show. “What’s so bad about that? It sounds to me like you’re killin’ it!”
“Well, that’s not the reputation my parents were concerned about.”
“Ah,” he repeated in the same tone. “You see, I’ve developed a reputation as something of a…”
She blinked and watched him fumble over his words. “Skank?” she said frankly.
“Playboy,” he corrected.
She wrinkled her nose. “Um, yeah, that’s just a fancier word for it.”
He shrugged with a chuckle. “What can I say? I love American women. I love wining and dining them, selling them houses, doing business with them…”
She raised her brows and frowned. “Probably not something you should be telling your wife-to-be.”
“Unfortunately, American dating culture isn’t exactly accepted in my country,” he continued. “Somehow, a few months ago, word got back to my parents. My father was furious; he felt I was bringing shame on our family. So I came up with a plan. I reasoned I could dispel any rumors they were hearing—”
“—No matter how well founded,” Amie interrupted.
“No matter how well founded,” he conceded, “by bringing home my beautiful, successful, and wholesome American fiancée.”
“And you thought of me?” She feigned flattery, fanning herself with her hand and in her best Southern accent giggled out, “Why, you do make me blush!”
Malik offered her a genuine smile; staring into her eyes in the same charming way he had at the gala. It all made sense now, Amie thought. He knew how to make a girl feel good.
His eyes left hers and became fixed on the floor beneath him; his jaw set, looking sullen. She gave him a quizzical look and wasn’t sure what to say. Maybe these family-shaming rumors went further than he was letting on; maybe they bothered him more than he was saying.
Why else would anyone hire a fake fiancée?
“But…” Amie started, her brows drawing together. “Why go through all the fuss? Are you scared they’ll take away some impending fortune, or, like, your house or something? If I lived in this place, I sure would be.”
“You do babble,” he said with a grin. “No, they can’t take away anything—my fortune was granted to me when I turned 18. And my American funds are all my own.”
“A reputation isn’t as easy to buy as a home,” he said, a hint of sadness behind his usually jovial tone. “My family is important to me; I would never want to bring shame on them.”
“Ah…” Amie nodded, staring down at her plate. She decided a subject change was in order and her face brightened as she offered him a big smile. “Well, Mr. Playboy, I’m flattered you chose me as your star cast member.”
“The choice seemed pretty clear to me,” he said, seeming less tense now that the conversation was taking a different turn. “You’re brilliant. You really roll with the punches.”
She wrinkled her forehead with disbelief and gave a tired laugh before rubbing her eyes with her hand. “I wish you were a real casting director, in that case.”
Malik seemed puzzled but didn’t move to speak; his eyes alone asking for the rest of the story. When none came, he finally bit, “Your performance in Carolina and the Bridge was fantastic.”
“Yeah?” she blanched. “You know, I was only the understudy.”
“Really,” she repeated. “You see, Malik, like you, I also grab opportunities when I see them. But, apparently my judgment sucks and those opportunities rarely grab back.”
He grimaced briefly and then looked hopeful once more. “I’m sure success will come in time.”
“Yeah, maybe, but it’s already been two years. How long am I supposed to spend pursuing a career that pays nothing and never gives back? What if I’m just throwing my life away?”
Malik gave a coy smile and walked over to the couch to sit with her, and Amie thought fleetingly that it felt strange being so close to him, despite having been around him all night.
He sat beside her and looked into her eyes, the way a helpful friend might. “You got this job, didn’t you?”
She blinked, but said nothing as she watched him.
“And from what I hear it pays pretty well.”
Finally, Amie laughed. “Yeah, not nearly enough. Note to self: always read the small print.”
The two locked eyes and then looked away from one another. Despite the awkward tension, Malik didn’t get up. Instead, he leaned back into the couch and Amie instinctively leaned back against him. He resumed playing the movie and the two sat up for an hour or more watching the rest of the film.
By the end of it, Malik made sure to mock her for getting emotional, insisting that deep down she was an old film lover, just like him.
Amie laughed, just as she noticed she was leaning into the crook of his neck, and the two of them sat up suddenly.
Sensing that she was about to leave, Malik grabbed Amie’s hand and rubbed his thumb across her palm. “I really do think you’re a brilliant actress,” he said lowly. “Anyone who can pretend to adore me for an entire evening deserves an award, for sure.”
She offered a wry smile. “Isn’t women adoring you what got you into this mess in the first place?”
He let out a bested humph noise and the two locked eyes once more. Suddenly Amie felt overwhelmed with unprofessional feelings towards her new boss. Either she was ridiculously exhausted, or he looked absolutely handsome—even more so than she’d realized before.
She blinked and reached up to brush her hand through his hair. As soon as she made the move, she knew she shouldn’t have, and a moment later she could see his lips moving closer to hers.
Great job, Amie. You finally meet an attractive billionaire who makes you laugh. One problem: he just so happens to be your boss. Don’t. Be. So. Stupid!
Amie backed away from the oncoming kiss with extreme effort not to make the movement too awkward or hurried. She breathed out and mentally patted herself on the back for practicing some willpower. She smiled at Malik then got to her feet.
“I should probably get some sleep,” she said awkwardly.
“Of course, yeah,” he said as he stood from the couch, sounding equally as awkward. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
She nodded. “Goodnight, Malik.”
The next morning began with familiar steps as Amie made her way from her bedroom back downstairs to the kitchen. After her late-night rendezvous with Malik, she’d slept in well after 11am, and jumped up, dressing quickly as soon as she realized what time it was.
The smell of cooking hit her as soon as her feet touched the tiled floor. The house was even more majestic in the light of day than she remembered; the kitchen was beyond large, with marble countertops, elaborate ceiling carvings, and a kitchen island with two stainless steel sinks embedded in it. Pendant lights hung from the ceiling, illuminating the way to the feast that awaited her.
Staring at the counter, Amie nearly salivated, and was only interrupted when Malik came up behind her, wearing navy blue dress pants and a button-up shirt. Despite having been up just as long, if not longer, than her, he looked perfectly rested.
He reached his hand up and scratched his shoulders, smiling bashfully. “No hello this morning?” he asked.
She eyed her fake fiancé playfully, raising her brow uncertainly.
“You walked right by me at the staircase,” he explained.
Amie blushed as she walked to the kitchen island and began thumbing through the delectable dishes before her. “Oh, sorry. I didn’t see you!”
“Momentary lapse in judgment on my part,” he smiled. “Should have guessed you’d go straight for the kitchen.”
Her heart fluttered suddenly. Damn him for being so cute and sarcastic.
He approached, handing her a plate and a fork before moving to where the food was laid out. “I made breakfast,” he said and began pointing to the various items. “It’s a traditional Middle-Eastern breakfast. We have freshly-made pita bread, hummus, hard boiled eggs, olives, pickles, tomato and cucumber salad, fresh jams and cheeses. Take your pick.”
“You’re not saying you made all this?” Amie laughed in disbelief. “You must have a personal chef, or something, right?”
“What can I say? I like to cook,” he said simply.
“What else does an insomniac do in the early morning hours?”
“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “I usually just curl into the fetal position hoping I’ll magically fall asleep. But hey, that’s me.”
Amie began piling food onto her plate and licked her finger after dipping it into the hummus. “Let me get this straight,” she said with some suspicion, “You guys have pickles… for breakfast?”
“It’s a wild world we live in,” he mocked.
“Clearly.” She hopped atop the counter and set her plate on her lap, hungrily devouring the food she had chosen as Malik snacked on a hardboiled egg and grabbed a spoonful of fruit. “That’s all you’re having?!”
He raised his brows and gave an absent-minded nod, leaving his breakfast momentarily to grab Amie a cup of coffee. “There’s tea, if you prefer.”
“Coffee’s great,” she said, accepting the mug from him. “So what’s the plan for today? Any more relatives to draw into our web of lies?”
“I was thinking maybe a tour?”
Her eyes beamed. “Yes!”
“I didn’t even tell you where the tour is.” He laughed. “We’ll start with a tour of the house.”
The two of them sat through their breakfast in comfort, Amie firing questions at Malik about his childhood in the Middle East, including the weather, what it was like growing up there, as well as the schooling he had received. She asked as many questions as she could, hoping to avoid being at a loss, as she had been so many times the previous evening.
He was so patient; never once did he seem annoyed or puzzled, and eventually he began to reciprocate question for question. When she asked him about his friends growing up, he asked her about her high school days in Indiana. When she asked him why he put up with her annoying questions he simply shrugged, and with no small amount of charm said, “We’re supposed to be married soon. We should probably get to know one another.”
With that said Amie was under no delusion that her research was helping. After all, she was playing a role, not herself. Her middle-class high school experience was probably nothing compared to the character Amie Shaw’s life, growing up in prep-schools, with a multi-millionaire father. Fake Amie probably never had to work at a chicken restaurant, didn’t get dumped the day before junior prom, and had never had braces. Fake Amie was perfect; the dream girl next door, perfectly suitable for meeting the parents.
So that’s who she would be.
After breakfast, Malik began the tour of the house. They moved from the kitchen into the massive living area. It had three large antique sofas centered around a coffee table. A grand, marble fireplace sat in front of the set-up, only overshadowed by the ornately-carved ceiling. While Amie wasn’t exactly well-versed in home decor, she knew that marble meant money.
A sleek piano sat near the seating area and Amie asked Malik if he knew how to play. He laughed at that, saying he’d had a tutor for 16 years and couldn’t remember so much as a chord—he’d never liked sitting still as a child.
Nobody likes a show-off, Amie. Her mother’s words rang in her ear, but still, she couldn’t help slide onto the piano bench and begin playing a classical piece. “I took piano lessons on the internet.”
“Very impressive,” he said and came to sit next to her on the bench. “Did you have a tutor?”
“Nope, I just watched free videos online. Whatever I could get my hands on. I have a small keyboard at my apartment.” She shrugged. “Not as snazzy as what you’ve got going on here, but it does the job.”
“Well look at you, Amie,” he said, sounding impressed.
She raised her eyebrow and shrugged.
They dabbled at the piano for a while until realizing the only music they were making together was noise. Laughing, they exited the living room and headed toward the dining area. The room was massive, with a huge table over by the bay windows. A giant chandelier hung dangerously close to the tabletop, adding an extra air of class to the room.
Amie stared and marveled at the craftsmanship in the walls and furniture that surrounded her. Everything was so authentic. It was like being in a museum, only this time she didn’t have to stay behind a velvet rope.
She dusted her finger along the extended dining table and glanced at Malik, “Fourteen chairs for your fourteen friends?”
“Stop…” he said bashfully.
“Seriously, this is ridiculous! You actually have this many people over at once?!”
“Of course not,” he laughed softly, pausing briefly before continuing, “Okay, maybe a few times. It would be poor form to run out of chairs when entertaining.”
“Entertaining who?” she teased, referring to his female callers.
He raised his brows and clapped his hands together. “Moving on,” he said quickly.
They continued the tour of the house, each room more grandiose than the last, to the point that it made Amie want to laugh. She wasn’t jealous, really. Well, maybe a little. This was more wealth than she’d ever fathomed, and to Malik it was just a talking point. This marble came from here; these walls were designed by so-and-so… Of course, she ate it all up like the happy tourist she was, but she was continually surprised by how unimpressed Malik was with his own success.
The house contained many rooms worthy of excitement; a theater, a vast library, and her favorite: the swimming pool. At the entrance was a faux poolside; complete with lounge chairs and other upscale patio furniture. The roof peaked into an oversized skylight that let the sun’s rays in. Tiled stairs led into the L-shaped pool; the water so clear you could see the multi-colored tiles floored beneath it, as if there were nothing in the way.
Amie leaned over and dipped a toe into the water, heavenly and warm, before lazily spinning around one of the stone pillars lining the poolside.
“Okay, so instead of saying ‘we’re going on a tour’, you definitely should have said ‘we’re going swimming, like, right now.’”
“‘Like’ isn’t a big word in my vocabulary,” he teased. He watched her reaction for a moment before asking, “You really want to go swimming?”
“Is that even a question?”
He smiled. “Fair enough.”
The two went their separate ways—Malik having to remind Amie exactly how she could get back to her bedroom—and changed into bathing attire before convening back at the pool.
While Amie bashfully tiptoed down the tile stairs into the water, Malik simply splashed in at the side, racing over to drag her into the water.
“You’re one of those!” she scorned as she tried to run away from him, the water slowing her down.
Eventually, he caught up to her, grabbing her waist and spinning her around in the water, mocking as though he were going to dunk her under. The two laughed and began walking the length of the pool together.
“You sure you wouldn’t rather be in the hot tub?” he asked, pointing across the room.
“I’m pretty sure I’d rather be right here.”
He nodded and began leading her to a smaller staircase by the pool. He walked her up and opened a door at the top. The entrance led to a sprawling garden and a connected pool outside. Tall trees were planted in front of the entrance and gave way to endless greenery.
Amie beamed, taking in the stunning flora and fauna, until Malik came up behind her, picked her up, and carried back into the outdoor section of the pool. The water was perfect, and her new boss wasn’t so bad himself.
With that, she wriggled away from him and splashed water his way. “You are a man of many mysteries,” she said. “Let’s talk.”
“Let’s talk,” he repeated.
“We’re in the Middle East now,” she said factually. “So, aside from pretending to be affianced, I should probably also know, you know, how not to offend people… with my American-ness.”
“You’re trusting stereotypes and American propaganda?” he asked, only partially joking. “You’re not seriously concerned are you?”
“No,” she shrugged, dancing around the pool. “In fact, I’ve always wanted to come; I just want to make sure I know what I’m doing.”
“Okay,” he said slowly. He made his way to the poolside and held onto the edge as the floor dropped to a deeper area. “Ask away.”
“Tell me more about the culture here,” she said simply. “Is it… strict? Do people hate Americans?”
“Oh, come on!” he laughed. “No, not at all. My father has been the ruling monarch for as long as I can remember, and he’s always been fairly progressive.” He paused, as if wondering what else there was to tell. “Rabayat isn’t so strict about tradition; you’ll find things are a little more relaxed here than in some other areas in the region.”
“So… do I have to cover my face?”
He thought for a moment. “Not if you don’t want to; especially not here, or out in the markets. If we approach any spiritual grounds or temples, you might want to cover yourself—just out of respect.”
She nodded at this, taking a mental note as he continued.
“Saying that, you may want to cover yourself, anyway—if only to avoid the sun. Temperatures are usually in the mid-to-high 90s here.”
“Yeah,” Amie said, splashing some water on herself. “I’ve noticed. And what about my clothes; can I show my ankles?”
“Ha-ha,” he mocked. “People here tend to dress modestly, but ankles are definitely in the clear.”
“Okay, and what about being touchy-feely in public?”
“Well,” he mused, “Obviously people should know we’re a couple, just follow your common sense, and be polite. Easy, right?”
She smiled. “Okay, and what if someone flirts with me?”
“If anyone is flirting with you, don’t worry about kicking up a fuss,” he said with a dismissive shrug. “He’ll leave you alone. However, you’ll be with me…” he laughed, “Pretty much all the time, so I doubt anyone would hit on you with me standing right there. Our culture generally isn’t like that.”
“So, wait…” She paused. “All the time?”
He laughed. “Mostly. So you’d better start liking me soon!”
When it came to cultural differences, there were so many stereotypes Amie had never given a second thought to; what one person thought of as oppressive, others found respectful. When speaking of his mother and the experience of Rabayat women, Malik explained that a husband is to protect his wife as he would protect himself, because she is the guardian of his honor. When asked if women were oppressed in Rabayat, he scoffed playfully and told her that the women here were strong, proud, educated professionals. He spoke of his mother and sister with the utmost respect, telling Amie how these strong figures were the main influences in his early life.
However, he said, when he arrived in America, the notion of female friends seemed preposterous when a woman could be a lover. The respect he spoke of his mother with, and the blithe attitude he held regarding his playboy ways back in Chicago made Amie wonder how these two opinions could be held by the same person.
Re-focusing on the conversation at hand, Amie began, “I read that in the Middle East the husband gets the final say, and if he puts his foot down on an issue,” she paused for dramatic effect, “well, the wife had better listen!”
Malik frowned; his lips then softening to a gentle grin. “Sure… in theory, that’s true. But to be honest, Middle-Eastern men like peace in the home as much as Western ones do. Happy wife, happy life.”
She laughed. “Okay, what about sex? You’ve said you’re not supposed to be affectionate in public, so how does anyone have sex, you know, outside of marriage?”
He shrugged. “We sneak around as much as Americans—we just don’t get caught.” He laughed. “Though when a man is ready to marry, he usually sends his mother out to find him a suitable wife.”
“Yikes,” Amie said, her eyes widening. “Isn’t your mother going to be mad that you brought me here, then? Will she be mad because I’m not from here?”
“Given the circumstances?” He splashed about in the water. “She’s thrilled, trust me. She’ll show you a thing or two about women from Rabayat. They are certainly not passive, secondary citizens.” He laughed. “Trust me, when you meet my mother, you’ll know.”
“When will that be?”
He laughed once more. “This weekend, actually. It is the festival of the Nine Nights. It commemorates the liberation of slaves in Rabayat. The Great Liberation took place centuries ago, but it is still enthusiastically celebrated today—my people love a party.”
Amie’s eyes nearly lit up with sparkles. Sure, she’d met Malik’s father and sister already, but his mother was the person she’d really need to prove herself to. It was going to be the performance of a lifetime, and there was an awful lot hanging in the balance.
Later that week, after a few days of exploring the local markets, and evenings spent playing chess and watching old movies, the time finally came to attend the festival. Amie wore a long dress and a stylish hijab to be polite.
She wasn’t sure why, but she was genuinely excited about meeting Malik’s mother. She felt tingles in her stomach and desperately wanted to come across as likable; to have this woman think she was good enough for her charming son. It was all ridiculous, she knew, considering their entire arrangement was a farce, but some part of her ego desperately wanted his mother to find her charming; to believe in her performance.
On the way to Rabayat City, Malik told an enraptured Amie about the customs that accompanied the festival: there would be dances, local music, camel races, and a huge parade. As they stepped out of the limo, they were hit by a wall of heat, but there was no shortage of locals selling water and refreshments.
The festival was a bustle of colors, tourists, bustling market stalls, and an amazing array of foods. Amie and Malik passed the time watching the festival goers, laughing as people took colored powder and threw it into the air. The powder would catch on to sweat and moisture, caking participants in a rainbow of colors.
A few hours later, Amie, too, was baked in a rainbow of colors; her brown hair now a mess of purple, yellow, and red, and her carefully painted on makeup all done for nothing. The air smelled like heat, sand and smoke and just when she was ready to sit down and rest, Malik told her the time had come to introduce her to his mother.
The woman walked up with her husband, somehow incredibly clean from the festivities, and looked her son over with no small level of suspicion. Zafina was there, as well, and whispered something to her mother as the three of them approached.
“This is her, then?” his mother asked Malik, giving him a pointed look. So much for her not being judgmental!
Amie looked the woman over. She had a round face and high cheekbones that gave her an air of grace. She had beautiful skin, though not without its fair share of wrinkles. She looked tired and wore no makeup, but revealed a beautiful smile that reminded Amie of Malik’s. She wore a cream-colored hijab and a yellow dress with arabesque patterns of foliage and tendrils. It was a beautiful piece that Amie could only imagine had cost an arm and a leg.
“Mother,” Malik said with a smile, kissing her on both cheeks before gesturing towards Amie. “This is my fiancée, Amie Shaw. Amie, this is my mother, Sadira.”
“Such a beautiful name,” Amie said, taking on her professional woman tone and smiling warmly at Sadira. “It’s so nice to meet you.”
They walked for a few blocks before anyone properly spoke to Amie; the family too busy catching up on Malik’s life in America to begin asking her questions about herself. Every so often, his mother would look Amie up and down and nod slowly.
During their walk together, Amie was surprised at how many locals came up and asked Malik if she was his new American bride-to-be. Clearly the royal family were well-liked and respected, as all of the passers-by would give over-enthusiastic congratulations to the couple and fire all manner of questions at them: when was the wedding date, would they be getting married in Rabayat?
In truth, Amie hadn’t thought about any of those details. She was great on her feet, though, and managed to give answers that only seemed to further excite those asking. While not everyone who approached Malik spoke English, they were all kind and congratulatory and made her feel truly welcome in their country.
They spent the afternoon with Malik’s family, enjoying the festivities, before Sadira finally asked Amie if she would go for a walk with her. Amie looked to Malik with wide eyes, seeking help, but he merely laughed and waved an over-exaggerated goodbye with his hand.
They wandered between stalls selling spices and pastries, taking in the sights and sounds of the festival around them, until Sadira stopped in front of a jewelry vendor and turned to face her, addressing her solemnly. “You love my son?”
“Very much, yes,” Amie said with a polite nod.
“What do you love about him?” Sadira asked briskly.
Amie took a breath and pretended to look over the handmade jewelry laid out before them. “He has a good heart,” she said. “I know he’s very proud of his business, and he should be; he’s smart, he’s kind, and he makes me laugh.”
“A happy marriage is important. You can’t be happy if you can’t laugh. Laugh at your faults, your mistakes, whenever you can,” she said slowly, finally relenting to a small smile. “You know he has a reputation in the United States?”
Amie nodded slowly. “Yes, I know.”
“Sometimes, men…” Sadira slowed her sentence; choosing her words carefully. “Sometimes they don’t possess the same virtues that we do, but when they repent it is our duty to forgive them. Do you believe in God?”
Again, Amie nodded; Malik had told her how important faith was in his culture and suggested that even if it wasn’t true, it would probably be safer to call herself a believer.
Sadira seemed satisfied with this, until her face twisted to a new thought. “You know my Malik is a wealthy man?”
“I do,” Amie said, giving a small, polite laugh. She looked into Sadira’s eyes but the woman would not return the gaze. “His home here is truly lovely.”
“You like the Middle East?”
Sadira’s words were harsh; pointed. She was clearly looking for something to pick fault with. Suddenly Amie realized she must be experiencing the kind of interrogation her father put her high school boyfriends through.
“I haven’t been here long,” Amie said coolly, “but already it feels like home.”
Sadira seemed to consider this and adjusted her hijab before fingering through the jewelry in front of her. “Your engagement ring is beautiful,” she said finally, her accent bearing over her words. “American in style, but no less beautiful for it.”
“Shukran,” Amie spoke her thanks in Arabic, hoping Sadira might appreciate her attempt—she’d asked Malik to teach her several words so she could wow the locals with her efforts.
Her attempt seemed to work, and suddenly Sadira gave an ear-to-ear smile and put her hand gently on Amie’s back. “Do you work?” she asked simply.
“Yes. I run a large theater; very successful.”
“Malik says you’re a woman who knows the value of hard work,” Sadira said slowly. “Do you make a lot of money?” She laughed. “I know I shouldn’t ask these things, but I want to know everything about you.”
“I make enough, yes,” Amie grinned. It felt nice to be able to brag, even though it couldn’t be further from the truth. “It’s nice knowing that I’m financially secure.”
“Oh, but Malik!” Sadira protested, “Malik will take care of you. Tell me, will you keep working if you have children? You do want children?” She beamed and her face flushed red. “To be a grandmother, I would be honored.” She began to giggle and make tickling gestures with her hands, gushing, “Those little feet!”
Amie grinned. “Of course. We want a big family!” she exclaimed, and suddenly all of Sadira’s walls seemed to crumble down.
“You will be a beautiful mother,” Sadira said happily, running her hands through Amie’s mess of thick, chocolate-colored hair. “Look at this hair! When Malik came out, I thought he was a camel!”
“He was that hairy?” Amie giggled, making eye-contact with her faux mother-in-law.
“Oh!” Sadira joked, gesturing with her hand, as though she couldn’t describe it even if she tried. “I’ll show you pictures, you’ll be terrified! But such a handsome man he turned into.”
Amie grinned. “That he did.”
The two continued talking as they strolled around the market; Sadira talking about growing up in the Middle East, meeting her husband, who she only later found out was to become the ruling monarch. She explained to Amie how she used to work at children’s hospitals, and how she was determined to use her position to further the progressive and economic agenda. She told Amie she worked obsessively until childbearing stole her heart away. Her children were everything, and from the sounds of it, she was a fantastic mother.
To Amie’s surprise, Sadira also spoke of the rumors of Malik’s bachelor lifestyle in the USA and her disappointment in him, considering how she raised him to respect women.
By the time they’d been round all of the stalls, eventually ending up at the same jewelry vendor where they’d really started talking, there was no question as to whether Sadira enjoyed Amie’s company. The woman did nothing but laugh and share—overshare, actually—all the details of her life. She continually told Amie how beautiful she was and how she couldn’t wait to help plan their wedding. This sentiment made Amie feel a tinge of guilt, especially when Sadira insisted that since Amie’s mother wasn’t in the Middle East with her, she would take on the role as best she could.
Finally, with a signal to the vendor, who was eyeing them with interest, Sadira grabbed an oval-shaped, green stone ring from the stall and placed it in Amie’s hand. “Here,” she said, “I want you to have this.”
Amie nearly glowed as she stared down at the ring. It was a deep green stone with unique flecks and different shades of green and blue throughout. It was set in a silver casing with a band that looked like a twisted silver rope. It was a stunning.
“It’s gorgeous!” Amie exclaimed, as Sadira handed over several colorful bills as payment. “It’s so beautiful, Sadira. Shukran!”
Sadira laughed. “Well, now you have both American and Rabayati rings to remember your culture by. You’re one of us now, after all.”
More than three weeks had passed since the festival of the Nine Nights. Amie had since had several more outings alone with Malik’s mother and sister and was feeling absolutely secure in the success of her and Malik’s ruse. They’d spent the last few weeks attending functions, hospital benefits, and family dinners, all the while keeping up appearances as a happy engaged couple.
The only problem? The more time they spent together, the more Amie struggled to draw the line between fantasy and reality. This was especially true today, as Malik informed her that he had a surprise for her: they would be spending the weekend somewhere outside of the city.
Malik made use of his jet once more and flew the two of them from Rabayat to Egypt in just a few hours. By lunchtime, they had arrived in beautiful Cairo.
As their taxi pulled into the city, Amie exclaimed that it was everything she had pictured it to be; a sprawling metropolis, deeply rooted in its ancient past. There were urban shopping areas and large malls, as well as palm trees and familiar highway traffic. The beautiful architecture of the buildings made her swoon, and the bustling downtown left nothing to be desired. The heat beat down on them relentlessly, but Amie wouldn’t have it ruin her day trip.
Amie couldn’t help jumping for joy with every famous attraction or historic site they passed. Malik mocked her as an over-enthusiastic tourist, which was when she informed him that she’d never been outside of the United States before—even back home, she’d only visited a few places: Indiana, Chicago, New York and Colorado. She was seeing things she’d only ever seen on documentaries or travel programs.
Malik took her to the bazaar district and told her in Egypt haggling was the norm. He tried his best to help her find the best deals. There were endless souvenirs of famous pharaohs and Ancient-Egyptian-inspired jewelry; so many, in fact, that by the end of it Amie couldn’t choose any one thing to take home with her.
After a long day of exploring, the pair returned to their home for the weekend: a private residence owned by two of Malik’s childhood friends, Ali and Selma, who cooked an amazing, authentic Egyptian feast and told them all the local gossip. Before long the foursome had talked well into the wee hours of the morning. The hosts insisted they share a bedroom and, after much protesting, Amie and Malik finally relented.
Malik insisted on taking the floor, and Amie was too tired to protest. She watched as he set up the spare pillows and blankets and start making something resembling a bed on the space next to the mattress. She watched him for several minutes before she finally came down to lay on the floor with him.
“This kind of defeats the purpose of me being down here,” he whispered.
“Talk to me, just for a minute,” she said with a sleepy smile, stealing some of his blankets.
“You want to talk about how silly and proud you look when someone mistakes you for a local?”
“Pass,” she giggled. “How about… why you brought me here?”
Malik looked at her for a moment and then turned on his side, propping his head up with his hand. “I love Egypt,” he said plainly. “You become a whole other person when you’re exploring a monument or when you’re in the market.” He shrugged as best he could with only one free arm. “It’s infectious, and I wanted for you to be able to experience it. Besides, I thought we could use a break from all the acting.”
She stared in wonder. “There are so many things I don’t know.”
He laughed, hard. “Well, I could have told you that!”
“Hey!” she laughed, smacking him lightly on the chest. She smiled and stared into his hazel eyes as some unwholesome feelings once again began stirring inside of her.
She looked away from him and stared up at the ceiling above, changing the subject quickly. “So, your mother wants to take me shopping for a wedding dress. Do you think I should I go with her?”
“Of course,” he smiled, “Whatever makes it more believable.”
“I like your mother,” she said plainly.
He laughed, as though there was no need to say as much. “I know,” he said with his brows raised. “You talk about her all the time.”
“Be nice! That’s your mama you’re talking about,” she joked.
“And she’s a lovely woman with many achievements under her belt,” he said dutifully. “I just don’t need to hear about it every minute.”
She stared at him for a moment and wasn’t sure whether or not he was joking. Feeling this, he finally turned his head to her and offered a playful wink.
“So… are you in a relationship back home?” Amie ventured.
Malik chuckled. “We went straight from my mother to my sex life?”
“Actually, no one mentioned your sex life,” Amie said, her voice betraying some annoyance. “I just asked if you were seeing anybody.”
“I’m not, currently. Are you?”
She pursed her lips and shook her head. “No…”
What right she had to know about his relationships, she had no idea. Would he even call them relationships? Zafina sure did like to rub in how many women her brother had been with, or how many women in Rabayat were hopelessly in love with him.
“Does it make you feel bad?” she asked quietly, her heart suddenly pounding as she wondered if what she was about to say would land her out of a job.
“Does what?” he asked quietly, looking into her eyes and absent-mindedly taking her hand in his.
“Lying,” Amie said plainly. “To your mother—to your whole family—about all this.”
“Actually, it doesn’t,” he laughed. “What I was doing before made me feel bad. This… this feels right.” He lifted her hand into the air and looked on as their fingers intertwined. “I’d rather they not be disappointed in me, or worry that I’m shaming the family. It’s not ideal, of course, but it’s better this way.”
“It’s a mother’s right to worry,” Amie teased.
He shrugged, finally releasing her hand from his. “Well, I have to say I’m a little tired of it. I’m old enough to make my own decisions.”
“Or, you know, hide them,” she laughed.
He stared for a moment before relenting to a chuckle. “Or that, too. Now come on, to bed; we’ve got a big day ahead of us tomorrow.”
He nodded and gestured as if to tell her to scoot her back to bed. “I’ll tell you in the morning.”
Amie would have protested, but no sooner had her head touched the pillow, she was already asleep, dreaming of pyramids, desert vistas, and handsome pharaohs.
The next morning, after breakfast, the pair left Ali and Selma’s home for a camel ride across the plains of Giza, southwest of Cairo. Giza was a necropolis for ancient pharaohs, and a tourist haven for tombs and historical tours. The journey to the three famous pyramids took Amie by surprise, as they moved from bustling city to stark, beautiful desert.
The desert was hot, but no discomfort could take away from the feeling Amie got in the pit of her stomach when they started approaching the pyramids. The ancient structures towered over them, and the closer they got, the less real everything seemed.
These ancient tombs had been around longer than most other things on the planet. The tallest standing at 481 feet, these living monuments told a story.
Malik hopped off his camel and, with a bit of assistance from their tour guide, Amie soon followed suit. They began walking closer to the largest pyramid, Khufu, where they could see tourists climbing on top of the rocks and taking photos. It seemed wrong to her, somehow, that just anybody could touch such a sacred thing.
“I find it unusual that you don’t take many pictures,” Malik said suddenly; his voice cutting through the hot air.
Amie smiled. “I like to keep special memories to myself. Forgive me if I don’t want to have a milestone in my life graded by how many likes it gets.”
“Hey, I was being serious!” he laughed and came up behind her, grabbing her hand gently before letting go.
They stared in wonder at the monuments and Amie’s thoughts drifted away from the view, to Malik. She had been trying to hide it from herself, but she just couldn’t ignore her feelings any longer. Everything about this trip was making her head spin. She knew the horrors of mixing business with pleasure, but everything about her new boss made her feel welcomed, wanted, special, and full of anticipation for what would come next. No one had ever kept up with her the way he did. And his mother. What a ridiculous thing to adore, but… she had felt an instant bond with her.
And this would all be well and good… if this weren’t all a job. If Amie hadn’t made a paycheck out of deceiving this hopeful mother. Even more so, she began to feel ridiculous every time she looked at Malik, or felt a blush form across her cheeks when he smiled. Why would he bring her here, and act this way around her, she wondered, even though none of his family were around to see?
Everything in her mind screamed that her feelings were a terrible idea that should be buried, so she was trying her best. It was amazing, not to mention irritating to her, that the affections of a guy she had really only just met could overwhelm her, even when she was literally looking at one of the wonders of the world.
She sighed inwardly and turned to Malik with a smile, wanting desperately to think about anything else. Pulling herself back together she demanded, “Now, give me all the dirt.”
“They’re made of sand, not dirt,” he said mockingly.
“Ha-ha,” she said, rolling her eyes. “No, give me the dirt on the pyramids. Tell me about the conspiracies!”
“Oh no,” he laughed, walking closer to the age-old monuments. “You’re not one of those, are you?”
“Oh, stop,” she laughed. “Just tell me what people think they are, and then tell me what you think they are.”
The pair walked over to where their camels now stood with the tour guide, and they circled around the pyramids to get different angles to marvel from. Malik explained that it was believed that they were put together when rocks were brought from Aswan, some 600 miles away, over raft or makeshift boat. The rocks were carried down the Nile and removed onto makeshift sleds or rolling logs and slowly built up into the not-so-mystifying ancient wonder of today.
“Then they just… dragged them up, block by block. Tens of thousands of workers, blah, blah, blah,” he said pithily. “Imagine the unions on that nowadays.”
“Well, I think it’s amazing!”
He laughed. “Well, I didn’t say they weren’t. They’re beautiful.”
She nodded as if she’d won some non-verbal argument. “Now tell me the crazy theories.”
“If I must,” he laughed tiredly, wiping the sweat from his forehead. “Some people say the three pyramids are in the same place a couple of rocks are on Mars. Then there’s the alien theory, of course, and the story that Noah built them…”
“As in… Noah’s ark, Noah?”
“The very same,” he nodded; a smile forming at the corner of his lips. “Some say they came from Atlantis, some say they were hills that got flooded; trying to explain away why some of the other pyramids in Egypt have crumbled away to nothing.”
“Couldn’t possibly be time, age, or wear, or anything,” she said sarcastically.
He held his hand to his mouth in mock surprise and began to lead her closer to the next pyramid. They watched as some young tourists went wild with their cameras, climbing up the sides of the pyramids and shouting with excitement.
“So disrespectful,” Amie sighed.
“They’re just having fun,” Malik shrugged, jumping in front of her to bring a smile to her face.
She frowned. “Hey, that’s someone’s tomb”
“Yes, and his three wives were all buried there with him.” He paused, grinning wryly. “Still feel bad for him?”
She stared at him for a moment and laughed. “Maybe not to the same extent.”
“No, I didn’t think so.”
They spent hours strolling between the pyramids, talking about life and art and what it meant to be respected. After flying back to Rabayat, later that evening, the days that followed involved much of the same; Malik making appearances at various functions, always with Amie on his arm, and showing her the various areas of his homeland in their free time.
At first, Amie was under the impression that Malik simply wanted to keep making fun of her for gushing over every area, monument, or museum they visited like the fresh-faced tourist she was. But one day, after a beautiful dinner at a romantic restaurant rounded off a day swimming in the salty waters at Malik’s family’s private beach, Amie couldn’t help but notice how much he lit up when he talked about his childhood; showing her these places that had meant so much to him growing up.
Had he ever taken a girl to these places before, she wondered? Maybe this was as new to him as it was to her. His passion for history, art and culture was infectious. The more he spoke about the city around them, the more in love with the culture she fell. Especially when she convinced Malik to take her to his favorite place.
“This was the statue that became the basis for the festival of Nine Nights. This monument was carved entirely out of granite by the slaves after their liberation.” Malik gestured at the statue and his eyes lit up before Amie. The statue depicted a man and a woman, both with the lower body of wild dogs. In their arms, they each held a child. “The child symbolizes that they could finally start a family line that would not be oppressed. They were free, to pursue whatever they dreamed of doing.” His eyes seemed lost, suddenly; filled with emotion.
“Not building pyramids for two cents a day,” Amie joked, but Malik didn’t join in. “You like this one a lot, don’t you?” she said quietly.
“I love this one,” he corrected under his breath. “I would come here as a boy and just think, wow, they were free. What do you do when you’re finally free from those who oppressed you? From what you always knew? What bravery,” he said breathlessly.
Amie looked up at the statue but didn’t dare touch it. She smiled at Malik. “What do you mean by that?”
“How do you break out of the mold? What do you do when you’ve been caged and someone finally lets you fly?”
Suddenly Amie realized why Malik was so attached to the statue: he saw himself in the message. For all of his early life, his parents had raised him in the mold of the respectable boy they wanted him to be. Then, he left the Middle East, moved to the States; his cage was opened, and he went wild.
“Mostly… I think people don’t know what to do,” she said gingerly. “It’s like, what happens when all your dreams come true? You’d better make sure you enjoy every minute of it, and be careful not to abuse the gift you’ve been given.”
He gave her a pointed look that she couldn’t quite read. Had he caught onto her subtle lecture? Was it out of line for her to be saying anything about his life in Chicago? Suddenly she felt like she was his employee again, instead of his friend.
Or… whatever they were.
One morning, a couple of weeks after their conversation by the statue, Amie was enjoying some quality time with Malik, before she would head to his mother’s in the afternoon.
Amie was an endless chatterbox over the coffee and fruit bowls that Malik had prepared. It seemed that almost every morning he was up before her, ensuring there would be a delicious breakfast waiting for the two of them. This morning she found that she couldn’t stop talking, about the day ahead, the monuments they’d seen the days prior and the reading she’d done about them before bed…
Yet, Malik seemed farther away than she was used to. Sure, he smiled at her quips and responded with laughter in the right places, but something about him seemed… off.
“How long will you be out with my mother today?” he asked, casually sipping his coffee.
“Probably a couple of hours, why?” Amie smiled and set her cup down with a louder clink than she’d meant to. “You got big plans for me tonight, mister?”
Malik stared down at the newspaper; not to read, but to fill in the crossword. “No, actually,” he breathed slowly. “I have some business to attend to today, and I probably won’t be back until after you’re asleep.”
“I’ll leave the car with you. My driver will take you to my mother’s and then anywhere else you like after that.”
She nodded slowly and spun her teaspoon in her coffee cup; careful not to let the spoon ding any of the edges. “Company business?” she prodded cautiously, hoping her tone didn’t betray the tinge of jealousy she felt.
“That’s right,” he said simply. No explanation.
If she didn’t know any better she would say he was angry with her. Actually, the more she thought about it, the more it felt like she was angry with him.
She found herself growing eerily quiet after that, unable to help but wonder where he was really going. Was it for work, or pleasure? She had no right to be jealous, she knew, but she couldn’t help the sick pang that shot through her stomach as she wondered if he would be entertaining another woman for the day.
“You don’t mind that I’m hanging out with your mom, do you?”
“Hanging out?” Malik laughed. “No! Why, do you think I’m feeling left out?”
She shrugged and mocked, “I don’t know, she makes a pretty mean baklava.”
With a long sip, Malik finished the last of his coffee and set the cup in the sink. “Don’t I know it,” he teased. “Come here for a second, I want to show you something.”
She blinked and stood from her chair to follow him, delighted as he grabbed onto her hand to lead the way. With that, it was official: she had a crush on her boss. The way he talked, moved, spoke, ate—it didn’t matter, it all sent butterflies through her stomach. She was trying her best to stay professional, but with every day and every inch of hidden affection he showed her, she fell deeper and deeper into his charms.
He showed her to a room at the farthest end of the hall; the home theater. It was a medium size, with eight comfortable lounge chairs set in two rows of four at the center. At the far wall was an oversized projector screen. The whole room was made to look like an old-fashioned theater. Large speakers that could be seen peeking through red velvet curtains that hung at the side of either wall.
“What’s all this?” she asked with surprise.
He shrugged. “Sometimes sitting on the couch just doesn’t cut it.”
He pulled her by the hand and led her down the sloped room to where he had set up an array of pre-packaged sweet and salty snacks. On one of the center chairs was a collection of oversized pillows and a large blanket from a guest room. This must be what jumping into a pile of leaves feels like when you’re five years old, Amie thought to herself.
“I felt bad that I won’t be back till late tonight, so I have you set up for a proper marathon,” he said, handing her a nearby remote. “Just choose whichever movie you want off of the screen and be prepared for a night of relaxation.”
“Does a personal masseuse jump out of there too?” she winked.
Malik merely smiled and got cozy in the chair he had set up for her, piling the blanket into a heap on his lap. “Pretty comfortable, if I do say so myself.”
She laughed. “Can’t take your word for it. I’d better try it out for myself.”
With that, she jumped into his lap and sprawled her legs across him. She squished into his lap as though she were a cat preparing for a nap before declaring that she’d found the most comfortable spot in the house.
So much for professionalism.
Malik laughed and grabbed her waist to tickle her. She squealed and squirmed against him until the two of them were sitting dangerously close to one another.
“Hey,” she said in almost a whisper; her laughter still creeping on her lips. “Thank you. This was the sweetest thing ever.”
“Sure, no problem.”
Malik was quick to rush off after their almost-rendezvous on the cinema chair, Amie still none the wiser as to where he was going.
At the dressmakers, there was a lavish spread of tea and homemade cakes sprawled out across a low table as Amie, Zafina, and Sadira sat patiently with the intention of finding the perfect wedding dress. Deep down, Amie knew she wasn’t actually going to get to wear the dress, but since when could she say no to shopping, let alone a personalized gown?
She just couldn’t say no to Sadira. Ever since the woman had warmed to her, she had quickly become her second mother; her home away from home. She had given her tips on how to handle Malik, as well as asking endless questions about Chicago and the state of Malik’s business. This proved to be an uncomfortable topic for Amie, since she didn’t really know anything about it. When she touted that business was booming, Zafina responded with a frown and said, “I thought the market just took a hit?”
Amie didn’t know what to say. Her face flushed red until Sadira politely laughed it off, citing how protective Amie was over her son’s reputation.
After tea, Amie would finally begin trying dresses on. Sadira asked Amie if she missed her mother being here on such an important occasion, and Amie was quick to reply that she hardly felt left out, now that her new family was present.
“Besides,” Zafina said slowly, “Your mother will be there for the American ceremony, no?”
“What do you mean?” Amie frowned.
“Generally, when our people marry foreigners, there is a long, traditional wedding celebration here in Rabayat, and then a second celebration back in your home country. Malik did tell you this, yes?”
“Oh right,” Amie said, somewhat unconvincingly. “Yes, he did mention that. My mother is so excited!”
“Did you mother like Malik right away?” Sadira asked, absent-mindedly watching the dressmaker hanging wedding gowns onto a rolling rack to display. “I hope she had no qualms about his background.”
“Oh no, no, no!” Amie protested. “She was absolutely charmed by Malik. How could she not be?”
“I don’t know, his awful reputation, perhaps?” Zafina snorted.
Sadira looked uncomfortable and began fiddling with the fabric on her dress, fussing with any loose beads she found. It was clear she was trying to distance herself from the conversation, but Amie could tell she was still listening intently.
“We heard he beds a different girl every night.”
Amie’s heart sank. How was she supposed to respond to that?
Zafina watched her future sister-in-law’s face and seemed to take some pity on her, relenting somewhat as she continued. “All rumors, which of course Malik denies. Though it has to make you nervous, yes?”
“Of course,” Amie said slowly. “But when you turn yourself off from something simply based on unfounded reputations… well, you can lose out on wonderful experiences. After all, I wouldn’t be sitting here with my new sister and mother if I hadn’t taken a chance with Malik.”
Sadira looked up and smiled; tears filling her eyes. “What a wonderful answer, and so true.”
Even Zafina looked quelled by her response. For a moment, Amie thought she might finally be out of the danger zone, until Sadira reached over and grabbed her hand, politely insisting she speak to Amie’s mother over the phone.
“Usually, we would have gotten a chance to sit down and dine together—the whole family. I want to get to know your mother so badly,” she said sweetly. “Please, give me her number and tell her I wish to speak with her.”
Amie’s eyes went wide. “Oh… I don’t know,” she responded bashfully. “There’s a huge time difference between here and Indiana; I’m not sure she’ll even be awake.”
“That’s fine,” Sadira said; all problem solving. “I’ll be sure to call at a convenient time.”
“Oh…” Amie stalled; unsure what to say next as a dawning horror came upon her: she was going to end up giving Sadira her mother’s phone number—what other choice did she have?
“Can I have her call you?” Amie said finally. “She works as a doctor,” she lied—her mother was a cashier at a local used clothing store. “She’s always working. It would probably be best if I gave her the opportunity to call you at her leisure, if you don’t mind?”
Sadira finally relented and wrote down a number for Amie to pass along. She gushed about how much she looked forward to getting to know this successful doctor who raised such a bright and successful young woman. That’s when Amie realized that a new form of guilt had settled in, stretching from her neck all the way down to her toes.
Before long, the dressmaker had wheeled in her display of her most prized bridal designs. While there was no shortage of bridal shops in Rabayat, Sadira had insisted that Amie only consider dresses from her personal seamstress.
Zafina smugly informed Amie that the dress was to be modest; no skin showing. “We don’t show everything like Americans do,” she said. “Leave that for your husband.”
“Zafina!” Sadira laughed, embarrassed.
At first, Amie worried the dresses would be stuffy or matronly, but as it turned out, they were all showy, elegant pieces more beautiful than anything she’d ever seen. The seamstress held up one A-line gown almost entirely made of chiffon; it was a simple form with long sleeves and a high neckline, both of which were painstakingly embroidered with thousands of tiny, sparkling silver beads.
The next gown she tried on boasted long sleeves and a peekaboo neckline; metallic laces woven into the material for a modern feel. Amie thought it nice enough, but Sadira’s lack of enthusiasm was evident on her face.
The real treat came on the fifth dress; a long-sleeved gown that was all lace; vintage and simple in style, with a matching lace head covering with lovely white beading. If she were really having a Middle-Eastern wedding, Amie thought that this would be the dress she’d choose. She’d hardly stepped out before the girls before Sadira began gingerly wiping the tears from her eyes.
“This is it!” the older woman shouted joyfully, approaching Amie and caressing the fabric of the dress. “Look at you! You beautiful bride!”
Amie stared in the full-length mirror before her and inspected the dress. While the bust fit a little looser, she couldn’t help but get butterflies as she looked at her reflection. This was it. This was her faux wedding gown.
“It’s perfect,” she said finally.
“Nan!” Sadira called to the dressmaker. She began requesting that the seamstress take Amie’s measurements and tailor the dress ready for their nuptials. Amie couldn’t believe what was happening and almost moved to protest but what was she supposed to do?
Was she supposed to stop her fake mother-in-law from putting a hold on her fake wedding dress; reveal it was all some big charade Malik was staging? She felt her stomach sink in utter discomfort as she watched Sadira leave the room with her checkbook in hand; ready to put a down-payment on the gown.
Zafina watched her mother leave the room and suddenly her eyes were fixated on Amie. The sister brushed her hands through her long brown locks, fussing with it as she spoke. “Malik is a hard man to love,” she said.
“Well…” Amie shrugged. “Perhaps you don’t know him the way that I do.”
“I know he doesn’t respect women, and that he definitely doesn’t like the theater—whatever he might have told you,” she said pointedly.
Amie could feel sweat forming at the top of her hairline and could only pray Zafina couldn’t read how nervous she’d just become. “I don’t know what you’re playing at, but it isn’t because of love for my brother,” Zafina continued. “Are you in this for his money?”
“What?” Amie frowned. “No, of course not!”
“You’ve won my mother’s heart, and that worries me,” the woman said simply. “If you break her heart, you will have broken many.”
“I love your brother,” Amie said emphatically, realizing that her words were no longer those of an improvised script/performance. “And I understand your reservations about my being here…” Suddenly she felt anger in the pit of her stomach and her face flushed as she turned sharply to face Zafina. “Actually, you know what? I don’t. You’ve been hostile towards me since the moment we met. Don’t you want your brother to be happy?” she snapped. “How can it bother you so much knowing he’s no longer getting into trouble or bringing shame on your family name? And how am I the least desirable candidate for him? Don’t you care what makes him happy?”
Zafina’s eyes went wide with a ferocity Amie hadn’t seen before as the woman stood from the seating area. “I know something’s going on,” she said coldly. “I might not know what it is yet, but you’d better be certain that I’m going to find out.”
With that, she turned and left.
Amie apologized profusely when Sadira returned. She explained—in vague terms—that she and Zafina had gotten into an argument and that she didn’t think Malik’s sister liked her very much.
Sadira took the news as gracefully as Amie had imagined she would; telling her not to worry and stating that Zafina could be a very unpleasant girl if the mood struck her. True to motherly fashion, Sadira assured her that, deep down, Zafina would be a good sister to her and had a good heart—just like Malik.
Amie went straight home after the shopping trip, after thanking Malik’s mother over and over again for buying the dress. That phrase she’d used, ‘a good heart’, stuck with her for the rest of the evening. Did Malik really have a good heart? Did she?
Sadira certainly seemed to think so, but how would she really feel if she knew Amie had just let her pay who knows how much money for a dress that was basically the crux of a drawn-out sham. And what about Malik? Was he as good and kind as she thought he was, or had she just been sucked in by the same charms that had seduced dozens of women before her?
Amie shuddered at the thought. She usually didn’t think of herself as a jealous person, but the idea that her affections were going unreturned was driving her insane. Then again, if Malik told her that he did share her feelings, that probably wouldn’t be good, either. Amie had been witness to too many careers ruined by young actresses who dated their agents or producers. Ick, she thought. It just wouldn’t work.
In the dark of night, Amie wandered from her bedroom to the theater room. She hadn’t bothered grabbing anything for supper that evening, even though she’d been starving.
She fell into the overly padded theater chair and selected a black and white movie to watch. She didn’t even care which one it was; if Malik had set it up for her to enjoy, there was a good chance she was going to enjoy it. She snacked on the sour candies beside the chair and quickly devoured the box. She told herself that she wouldn’t have done so had she eaten a proper dinner, but the truth was when gummy candies were around they didn’t stand a chance.
The movie was sweet and funny; everything you’d want to watch when winding down for the evening, yet Amie’s thoughts kept twisting over to Malik. The more she got to know him, the more she liked him… He was sweet, thoughtful, romantic, and had gone above and beyond to make her feel comfortable in her temporary home.
She kept tracing back to when he’d grabbed her hand; tickled her; brushed her hair behind her ears. There was nothing about his behavior that said I’m only acting. Yet, even with her feelings becoming clearer, she couldn’t shake the basic fact that her very presence in Rabayat was little more than ruse for Malik to return to Chicago and continue his high-finance, playboy lifestyle in peace.
Thoughts of ‘should I or shouldn’t I?’ kept her mind reeling for most of the night until she finally fell asleep in front of the projector screen.
She awoke to Malik caressing her bare shoulder and whispering, “What, are you a 70-year-old man, now?”
“What?” she asked groggily.
“Who falls asleep watching TV?” he chuckled.
She smiled and locked eyes with him; her gorgeous, enticing playboy employer. It was in that moment, staring into his deep brown eyes, that she decided she couldn’t cross any lines. Not for Malik, and not for any boss. Instead, she reminded herself that she had a job to do.
10,113 kilometers. 6283 miles. The exact distance from Rabayat to Chicago.
In less than four days’ time, Amie would have to travel back to her small apartment in the low-income neighborhood of the city she had called home for the last two years.
It was a subject both she and Malik had avoided ever since they’d hit the ‘one week left’ mark of her curious new job. She was still none the wiser as to the details of Malik’s ‘business’ appointment from the other day, yet her suspicions had lessened ever since she’d made the decision not to pursue her feelings for her boss.
Her career was about to take off, she could feel it, and with Malik’s stellar review of the performance art she’d been doing for the last five weeks, she knew she was going to have an amazing reference once the job was over. That being said, while she wasn’t up for making their faux romance a reality, she saw nothing wrong with developing her character somewhat by bonding more with Malik during her last few days in Rabayat.
Amie sat on the couch in a silk nightgown and put her legs across Malik’s lap, his legs now covered by goosebumps at the touch of her skin to his. He had told previously her that was his secret to knowing whether a woman was truly pretty or not; if he could feel skin to skin contact, his whole body would cascade with goosebumps.
She smiled and began to twirl her hair in between her fingers, signaling with her free hand for Malik to rub her feet.
He laughed. “Why don’t you rub my feet?”
“Unfortunately, that’s not in my contract,” she quipped. “Sorry!”
“I want to take you to the theater tonight,” he said suddenly.
“Oh my God, seriously?”
Malik beamed as he looked at her, delighted that his surprise had caused her so much excitement.
It was then that Amie remembered Zafina’s words: “He hates the theater.” Her bounding excitement evaporated as her eyes darted back and forth; suddenly wondering if this was a true gesture of affection, or if it was just one of Malik’s wily charms, making women think he loved what they loved.
“I’ve already arranged the tickets and seats,” he was saying. “We’ll have our own box and everything.”
“That’s really amazing,” she managed to say, her enthusiasm fading.
“You don’t sound all that convinced,” he teased.
“No, it’s just…” She shrugged lamely. “Your sister mentioned your, oh, I don’t know, stunning hatred for the theater.”
Malik laughed. “Zafina?! How would she know! The last time we were taken to the theater together I probably didn’t even have a license.”
Amie studied him carefully as he refuted the statement and finally decided to believe him—or at least make him think that she did.
With renewed vigor, Amie spent the whole evening prepping herself for a night of romance; choosing a beautiful dress, curling her hair, and slapping on as much makeup as she could without looking like she was trying out for the world’s oldest profession.
Rabayat City was set in a narrow valley filled with rich history: temples, tombs and monuments from the early years of civilization. With all of its architectural gems, it was no surprise to Amie how beautiful their theater looked, and just as grand and breathtaking as Azim had described, way back on her first night in the country. The outside was beautiful brick with an Old-Hollywood style marquee; the inside bustling with excited locals coming to see opening night of the newest production.
Ah, opening night. Back in Chicago, Amie hadn’t experienced opening night of Carolina and the Bridge like the rest of her cast had, but the energy backstage had still been unmistakable; a nervous, palpable excitement running through every actor as they whispered their lines and prepped their costumes over and over again. It gave her butterflies just thinking about it.
Malik took her to their seats; a private box, offset from the center balcony. The theater was a fair size, and had meticulously-carved designs down the walls, as well as that signature red curtain shielding the actors from the audience.
Amie gripped Malik’s arm and whispered excited giggles into his ear until a hushed, anticipatory silence filled the room; the play was about to start.
Malik took a look around, surveying the rest of the audience, before taking her hand in his and giving it a squeeze as the first scene began.
The play was a Middle-Eastern take on Romeo and Juliet; star-crossed lovers held back from one another by their warring families. While spoken in Arabic, the plot was easy enough to follow, which was probably why Malik had chosen it in the first place. Still, every few moments he would lean closer to her, whispering translations of the dialogue in her ear.
Seeing a play in another language proved easier than Amie had anticipated. With this story—a classic—she almost didn’t need Malik’s updates; she could feel the actor’s emotions playing across the stage. That being said, her heart nearly stopped each time she felt his breath in her ear, ghosting over her skin; their proximity to one another sending shivers down her spine.
As promised, Malik made sure Amie was able to meet some of the actors after the play. To her surprise, two of the leads knew exactly who he was and gave their best regards to his father. She shook their hands and had Malik translate what a beautiful job she thought they had done, and wished she could hear their inflections in English as they thanked her for her support.
Malik told the leads that Amie was a renowned actress from America. Hearing this, they instantly seemed bonded to her; telling her to always keep her talent in the theater. Even though Malik was over-exaggerating her success, their advice touched her all the same.
Not wanting the night to end, Malik suggested that the two of them grab a drink after the show. Unsure what the nightlife would look like in Rabayat, Amie imagined Malik would take her someplace fancy; upscale. She pictured crystal glasses with thin stems and liquor that cost more than her wedding dress had.
With this vision in mind, Amie was shocked when their car pulled up to a bustling nightclub with a playful, inviting atmosphere. Once inside she thought that the club felt younger than she imagined Malik enjoyed, with purple and pink uplighting and a heavy play on Middle-Eastern décor. The ceilings piqued to a domed roof, while in other areas vibrant red and purple fabrics were draped to give the place an exotic, romantic feel. Colorful lanterns hung everywhere and were the centerpiece of most of the couched seating areas.
There was a band playing on stage. They were singing in Arabic, but for the second time that evening, Amie realized she didn’t need to understand the words to appreciate the performance.
After speaking with the host, Malik got them a table away from the crowded interior, on the expansive patio, where brick pillars housed oversized lanterns and low-set tables were surrounded by long wooden benches for seating. Bright pillows covered each seat and added to the fun and flirty ambiance.
Amie and Malik sat down on a small loveseat, sipping gin and tonics as they nestled up beside each other.
“I like translating for you,” Malik said with a smile, watching Amie as she pulled her hair into a high set ponytail.
“Translate this song for me then?” she said cutely, leaning into his chest as she inched closer to his body.
“Okay, okay.” He put a finger to his mouth as he strained to hear the lyrics from inside the club; squinting and frowning as if to exaggerate how hard he was concentrating. “They’re saying…” he paused. “They’re saying ‘I want to pet a million cats.’”
Amie burst into a fit of tipsy laughter and pushed Malik gently. “No, they’re not!”
“They are, I swear it!” He smiled, unable to stop chuckling at her reaction. “Would I lie?”
“I don’t know,” she narrowed her eyes playfully and moved closer.
Malik stared at her for a moment longer before leaning back into the chair, sighing tiredly.
“Would you?” She stared ahead, her back to Malik’s chest as she waited for his answer. Finally, she turned and look at him with a wry smile. “You’re so cute when you’re nervous,” she stammered.
“I’m not nervous,” he said, raising his brow with a smile.
“I know,” she giggled. “But you’re still cute when you are!”
“You’re drunk,” he smiled.
But he was right, of course.
Amie had never gotten properly buzzed around Malik. Her faced flushed; she hoped she was being a lady. Still, the more she looked at him, the more she inwardly dared herself to touch his face; to stroke it like they did in the movies. She liked him.
Every time he touched her she felt consumed by lust. His hands were so soft and strong; his voice was absolutely perfect, and she hung on every word he said. Why… why… why! Why choose to care for him now, when he was an admitted player and she had only four days left in Rabayat to be with him.
“Malik,” she said quietly, tapping his chin with her finger. “You have no idea how much I’ve enjoyed getting to know you and your family these past few weeks. By that I mean mostly you,” she paused. “And not Zafina.”
Malik gave a laugh and smiled at her. “So have I,” he chuckled out.
“I know, but…” she paused, sitting up straight so she could look at him properly. “I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you. You’ve opened up to me like few people ever have. When you showed me your favorite places, and the statue of the couple, and all these movies… It just…”
“Well, it just…”
Amie, don’t be an idiot!
“It made me really, well, like you.”
Her eyes went wide as soon as she heard herself say the words, and suddenly she found herself setting down her glass and playing with her hair, solely to avoid making eye contact with him.
Feeling the sudden need to backtrack, she shrugged and tried to explain. “Even though I know…” She raised an eyebrow with a tipsy, hollow laugh. “Of course I know that this whole thing is just an act. I know we’re just ‘acting’,” she said using finger quotes. “You know, so you can go back and have like, fifty girlfriends without upsetting anybody. I know you like your freedom, and I respect that, but I guess I just wanted to say that… well, you charmed me.”
Suddenly she felt like she couldn’t breathe; like an eternity had passed since anyone had said anything. She turned nervously and finally met Malik’s eyes. He wasn’t smiling anymore.
His eyes moved in ways she suddenly couldn’t interpret. He let out a nervous exhale and stared into his drink for a moment before looking back up at her. He cocked his brow, watching her carefully as he said, “I don’t know if that’s true anymore.”
“What don’t you know?” she clarified.
He shrugged and set his drink down. “I don’t know if that’s what I want for my life.”
“What do you mean?” Amie asked with a shocked laugh. “This is… why we’re doing all this, isn’t it?”
“Of course,” he nodded. “But I feel… different. Ever since the night in Giza—since before then, actually—I can’t get you out of my head.” He laughed suddenly, despite himself. “Wow, this is difficult. You made it look so easy.”
“No,” she stressed, “I made it look ridiculous.”
“Ridiculously easy then,” he teased.
“So…” she began, desperately wanting to get away from the joking banter and backtrack to his previous statement. “Like, in a ‘I can’t get you out of my head—she’s so annoying!’ kind of sense, or…?”
“No,” he said seriously. “Everything happens for a reason, and I can’t help but think that you’re my reason.”
“For what?” she asked in a small voice; almost unable to process exactly what she was hearing.
Malik seemed to think on this question for a moment, swirling his drink in his hand before setting it on the table. “For change,” he said simply.
She stared at him for a long time, unsure how to respond. She’d been so resolute in her decision not to dredge up her feelings. Still, if she didn’t lay it all out now, she never would.
Moments of silence passed between them until finally Amie sat up straight and leaned into him, unable to hold back for a second more. His lips were perfectly shaped, fading into his face as if a graceful artist had put intense thought into them.
She was lost for words, so instead, with a devilish grin on her face, she leaned in closer to him and whispered: “I really think you should kiss me now.”
Malik didn’t reply, but answered her request immediately, with hungry passion. Their lips met, and danced around one another in a gesture that was unfamiliar, yet intoxicating. Amie’s heart raced and she wished she were strong enough to listen to the voice in her head that was telling her to stop before things got out of hand.
It wasn’t long after they shared their first embrace that Malik called for the check. They practically raced back to their faux homestead, barely speaking a word to one another in the limo as Amie sat close to Malik and he rubbed his hand up and down her thigh with excited anticipation.
Once inside the palace, the pair quietly made their way to Amie’s bedroom; a familiar surrounding he knew she’d be comfortable in. There was a nervous passion in the air that asked what would happen next.
Malik reached his hands across her face, running them through her hair quickly. After going so long without his kiss, the aggressive feeling of his lips making their way around hers and wetting them with small flicks of his tongue sent piercing butterflies through her whole body, tingling at every sensation.
He leaned over until she was lying underneath him, his hands having easily slipped her dress down off of her body. She opened her eyes and watched him kissing her until Malik saw her and smiled, breaking the kiss.
Every breath and moan he let out made her blush. Her heart was beating so hard in her chest she would swear Malik could hear it, all the more so as their eyes locked and he took his lips away from hers; his breath warm on her face as their eyes flicked back and forth, communicating wordlessly.
He pulled off his clothes until there was nothing left to reveal. He beamed as he looked at Amie in a light he had tried not to for weeks; his chest now feeling the warmth of hers pressed against him.
“You feel so good,” he whispered.
He moved his head down to her navel, kissing around her stomach before coming back up to her neck.
“Are you sure about this?” Malik asked, ever the gentlemen, and she gave him a sound nod.
She leaned back, looking at the smooth white walls behind her and smiled. She propped her head back up and brought her lips to Malik’s, flicking her tongue across his, shaking slightly with anticipation of the events to come.
The next morning, Amie woke up with her left leg sprawled across Malik’s. Her cheek was pressed against his chest, and she felt the heat of his skin as he breathed in the morning air.
Malik was already awake. He looked down at the beautiful, pale naked body lying in his sheets and looked beyond pleased.
“Good morning, habibi,” he said softly, taking her lips into his. Amie knew that Habibi meant my love, and all but swooned when he said it.
She eagerly embraced his kisses, happy to be so close to him, finally; to lay on his chest and watch their fingers intertwine without a thought to whether it was right or wrong. She didn’t have to hide her feelings any longer.
“Good morning,” she finally responded, resting her leg atop his and snuggling into him as though she couldn’t be close enough.
He put his arm around her as she nestled closer and began to stroke her hair and arms in a soft tickling motion. Finally, he let out an easy sigh and manage to chuckle, “I’m relieved.”
“That you’re still here,” he shrugged playfully, “And you’re not crying, or anything!”
“Is that a woman’s usual reaction after you make love to her?” she sassed, her fingers dancing across his chest.
“Hilarious,” he breathed. “No, I’m just relieved. No more hiding my feelings, trying to be professional,” he laughed. “It’s just you and me now. Real you and me, back in Chicago, eating American food, seeing American films and holding hands in public without eliciting shock and awe.”
She giggled, then paused, hearing the yearning in his voice. “You miss it?”
His answer surprised her on some level, especially because she hadn’t felt homesick in weeks. She certainly didn’t miss fast food, bad jobs, or rude people, and was readily embracing the Middle-Eastern culture she’d found in her faux family.
Speaking of family, Amie realized she could now breathe a giant sigh of relief that she wouldn’t have to give up her new mama-Sadira once her job was over. She smiled to herself at the thought that she’d be able to travel back to Rabayat with Malik and get even closer to his family.
“I like it here,” she said with a shrug; just happy to be feeling happy. “I’ll miss it.”
He smiled and kissed her nose before moving back to her lips; the contact instantly missed as soon as he pulled away. “I can’t stop kissing you,” he teased in a husky voice.
She giggled and returned his embrace. “Well you’re going to have to at some point,” she said shyly. “These are my last three days and I just know you have something absolutely fantastic planned for my send-off.”
Malik brushed his fingers through her hair and Amie relished the feeling of being close to him; being warmed by his body. His facial expression turned so mischievous she couldn’t help but laugh.
“What?” she asked with a smile.
“Now that you mention it, I might have something planned.”
Her eyes widened with excitement. “I knew it!” she exclaimed happily, hoping she didn’t sound too spoiled or expectant.
“Picture this,” he said enthusiastically, his hands becoming an extension of his speech. “Today, you and I visit an art museum, so you can get your last fill of Rabayat history. Later, we head out for a romantic dinner, come home, watch old movies, take a swim, then get ready for the biggest finale yet. The final part of your contract.”
“I’m liking it so far,” she giggled. “So, what’s the finale?”
“A wedding,” he revealed.
She grinned and lifted her head from his chest, staring into his eyes. “Who’s getting married?”
“We are,” he said with a laugh, as though it should have been obvious. “Not really, of course—the officiant is an actor I hired; very good, great reviews in his latest play. None of the paperwork will be binding, but I figured what better way to allay my parents’ fears than to show them a full-blown wedding?”
“Ah,” was all Amie managed to say in response.
Her heart sank over and over again while he just stared at her, expecting some wildly ecstatic response. What was she supposed to say; yippee? In truth, the very thought made her a little sick to her stomach; a small part of her still hoping he was joking.
“Was that really in the contract?” she asked flatly.
A fake wedding ceremony presided over by a hired actor? Could he possibly be serious?
“It was mentioned as a possibility, yes,” he said, somewhat taken aback by her reaction as he sat up in the bed. “I thought it was a good idea; my parents want to see me settle down, so long as they think I have, they won’t have to worry.”
Suddenly furious, Amie pulled the sheets up to hide her body from the man she’d been so happy to have spent the night with just minutes ago.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” she said; brows furrowed.
“Amie, what’s the problem?”
“What’s the problem?” she repeated, her voice full of disgust. “Um. Let me think, how about the part where you monumentally lie to your family?”
Seeing her anger, Malik made an attempt to coo her, stroking her shoulder with his hand. “It’s only pretend, is what I’m trying to say. Please, please help me satisfy their desire to know that I’m okay. I mean, how could I not be okay with such a precious pretend wife like you?”
“That’s not funny.”
Amie’s frown grew harder and she backed away from his touch. There was nothing charming about what he had just said. The level of deception involved was beyond anything she could comprehend.
She stood from the bed and began pulling her clothes on as quickly as she could.
“Amie, come on,” Malik said softly. “Don’t be like that. Please.”
“What, exactly, are we supposed to say? Oh, hey, we’re getting married like, right now, without Amie’s parents, or her friends and family? How does that make any sense to you?”
“They won’t even think about it,” he reassured her. “They’ll assume we’re having one ceremony here, and one back in Chicago. Last-minute ceremonies happen all the time here; they won’t suspect a thing.”
Amie laughed unenthusiastically, grabbing one of her shirts and buttoning it up. “And what about afterwards, when they want to see me, and you can’t provide an Amie understudy to step into the role?”
“We’ll figure it out when that time comes,” he offered.
“We’ll figure it out?” she scoffed. “I can’t believe you would put them through that.”
“What do you even care?” he asked, stepping out from the warmth of their bedsheets. “You agreed to do this in the first place, didn’t you? You had no problem lying to them about us being a couple or about your job. What difference does it make?”
“Malik,” she laughed softly, “Listen to yourself! It’s like you’ve put no thought at all into the consequences of what you’re about to do.”
He walked over to her and grabbed her hands in his; his eyes frustrated as they beamed into her. “Please,” he repeated firmly. “Please fulfill the contract and help me quell my aging parents’ fears.”
Yeah, great, use your aging parents against me. That’s totally fair.
Unable to look into his eyes and deny him his request, Amie’s harsh demeanor fell as he asked her once more to do this favor for him. She stared at the floor as she slowly nodded.
“Thank you,” he whispered, pulling her into him and putting his arms around her. “We’ll figure this all out, I promise.”
With that, Malik told her he was going to shower and then the two of them would discuss the wedding details over an elaborate brunch. He hopped into the ensuite washroom and Amie could hear him fussing from behind the door; grabbing soap and shampoo, starting up the shower and closing the glass doors behind him.
Amie sat in an oversized chair next to the bed and stared at the floor; shocked.
Suddenly she felt so… stupid.
Sure, she’d lied, but it wasn’t as though she didn’t feel guilty about it. In fact, she’d lost sleep over lying to Malik’s family. But it was all supposed to be made right now that they were together. If they were even together. If they were a couple now, what would be so wrong with telling his parents they were still engaged and then just going back to Chicago and seeing where things took them? Why was he making it so complicated? She sighed into her hands, panic overtaking her body.
Her eyes went wide and she fought off tears as she realized she’d screwed up, yet again. This was supposed to be a dream job, and now it was a nightmare. How could she have been so gullible? They weren’t a couple at all. She was just a part of his act.
Worse than that… she’d fallen for someone so conniving that he would actually fictionalize his entire life to the people who loved him most. And for what? So he could continue to avoid committing to anyone? She felt sick to her stomach.
She couldn’t do it.
Not even for Malik.
She stared at the bathroom door; her fight or flight instinct suddenly taking over. How long would he be in there for? How much time did she have to run?
Her heart began pounding a mile a minute as she raced to get dressed and grab her purse, taking off Sadira’s gifted ring and leaving it on the counter. She made her way downstairs as quickly and quietly as she could, picking up a notepad on her way to the front door.
There were so many things she wanted to say to Malik; how amazing he had made her feel last night, and yet, what an absolute jackass he was. She wanted to scream; to cry; to write a letter detailing every wonderful thing he’d made her feel during their time together and how in one fell swoop he had ripped it all away from her.
Unfortunately, in the catastrophic time crunch she was under, all she could manage to scribble was:
I can’t. I’m sorry.
She left the house terrified that Malik would realize she’d gone and come rushing after her. Usually, when she stormed away from a man she expected him to follow after her, and if he didn’t, he’d be in a world of trouble. This time, though, she didn’t know what to say to him, or how to explain herself. So she rushed to Malik’s personal driver instead.
Amie took the private car and instructed the driver to take her to the airport. She’d worried at first that he might make a phone call to Malik first, but he instantly complied and made no protest.
She arrived at the airport in what felt like no time. Funny how all these weeks leaving Malik’s home felt like it took half a day just to get into the city, but the moment she knew she wouldn’t be coming back, the time just flew by.
The airport was just as she remembered; large, modern and bustling with people. She walked up to the attendant at the information counter and, after a few nervous breaths, requested a ticket on the earliest flight to Chicago O’Hare.
“That leaves in 90 minutes, if that isn’t too soon for you,” the woman said cheerfully, waiting for Amie’s instruction to proceed with the transaction.
“That’s fine, thanks,” Amie said flatly.
This was it. She was going home, never to see Malik or his family again. Maybe he’d show the note she’d left to his family. ‘See? She couldn’t go through with it.’ The thought made her sick. She didn’t want his mother to think she would do that.
But, she supposed, that’s exactly what she was doing.
She just couldn’t keep doing this; making the wrong decisions in her life. Pretending to be a couple was a lot different than pretending they were going to spend the rest of their lives together. Maybe not entirely different, but it sent her moral compass flying all the same.
The attendant was staring at her expectantly and Amie blinked as she realized the woman must have said something to her. “I’m sorry, what?” she said clumsily.
“The price of a one way, non-stop ticket is $1,470. How would you like to pay for that?”
“Credit card, definitely,” she sighed and fetched one from her purse, hoping the transaction would go through. Not only had she just lost out on the pay she would receive from this ridiculous job, but now she was out more than a grand trying to escape her bad decision. Great job Amie, great job.
Lucky for her, the card went through and she was promptly handed an airline ticket. She made her way across the unfamiliar airport to her departure terminal and sat in the waiting area as high-priority ticket holders lined up for boarding. She watched them pass, one by one, with their oversized luggage and overpriced airport coffees, waiting to fly back home to whatever awaited them in the world.
She stared down at her feet and realized that, much like when she’d first arrived in Rabayat, she still didn’t have any luggage with her. In fact, she hadn’t even grabbed a change of clothes, nor any of the goodies she’d picked up on her adventures. She was also painfully aware that, unlike many of her fellow passengers, there would be nothing waiting for her when she got home.
Perhaps this was the universe’s way of telling her she needed to buy a cat.
She sighed once more, finally standing as they called her ticket class number and a long line quickly formed. Passengers here were no different than in America, she thought; all rude, trying to push ahead so they could board first. Why? To sit and stare until the plane took off, apparently.
Approaching the flight attendant, she handed over her ticket and showed the woman her passport. It was only when she reached the stairs that she heard a familiar voice shouting her name. She frowned and turned back, bumping into passengers making their way to board.
“Amie!” came the desperate plea.
It was Malik; his clothes haplessly tossed on and his hair still wet from the shower. “Amie, thank goodness,” he said, panting for breath. “Don’t do this, I’m begging you.”
She stared at him, feeling strangely numb. The butterflies that once filled her stomach had turned to stone. “I’m not interested,” she said coldly.
“Please,” he repeated, grabbing her hands and slowly pulling her away from the departure gate. “Please, Amie, I need you. Please just help me wrap this up and I’ll never ask a thing from you again.”
And then there was that. He’d scouted her at the theater, made her feel special, and pretended that he had the role of a lifetime waiting for her. Then he’d done the same thing to her that he likely did to their faux wedding officiant. He’d probably gone to see the man’s play and then gushed to him about a private job that would be just perfect for his acting chops.
Her heart sank. Was it one of the actors from the play the other night?
Suddenly she felt even more disgusted than before. Maybe Zafina was right, maybe Malik really did hate the theater. Maybe he only went there when he needed a favor done.
Amie hated where she was; that place where she was disposable to someone. Where she was just a girl to be lied to, and to be used as a lie. Was this just bad luck, or was this the complicated web she’d created for herself?
She could feel Malik’s eyes on her but couldn’t bring herself to look at him.
“I need you, Amie,” he said sweetly, grabbing her hands and tilting his head down to try and look at her face.
It was as though the man before her had suddenly realized she would be emotionally immovable, no longer done in by his charms, when he tried another tactic.
“I’ll pay you double.”
Her heart sped up.
“That’s one million dollars,” he said, as if daring her to say no. “One million because you are that talented an actress and I am that desperate a man. Please see this through with me, Amie.”
She sneered as she thought it over. One million dollars was a lot of money, for what was admittedly a morally reprehensible job. Still… she could use it. Ridiculously so.
She stared at him with fire in her eyes; fiery anger for him making such an offer, one he knew she couldn’t say no to.
Amie sighed audibly and finally nodded. “Fine,” she huffed. “I’ll honor the wording of my contract, which clearly I need to re-read. I will be your prim and pretty little actress,” she mocked, “but the moment the job is over, I’m done. I’m leaving the night of the ceremony, and after I get my money, I never want to see you or hear from you again. Understand?”
He looked sullen; the hurt wildly apparent as his features fell into sorrow. He stared at her for a moment, blinked, and then nodded silently.
“If,” Amie finally added, “that’s what you want.”
She stared at him, searching his face for any emotion other than sadness. Part of her still hoped he would change his mind and let her look at him the way she used to.
This was not going to be her happy ending, however, as he quietly affirmed: “Yes. It’s what I want.”
With their plans for drinks, dinner, and late-night movies out the window, Malik had instead invited his family over for dinner later that evening—apparently hell-bent on getting his money’s worth out of her performance. He watched Amie intensely the whole night, seeming to relish any moment where they had to pretend to be close to one another.
Normally, when it came to interacting with Malik’s family, Amie would get nervous; sick to her stomach with hopes of making a good impression, but tonight she felt nothing.
No, in fact, she felt completely in character. She wasn’t Amie, she was Amie Shaw: heiress, theater owner and entrepreneur.
She was playing the role just perfectly, if she did say so herself. She laughed whenever appropriate, made charming conversation with the parents, and spoke at length with Zafina about her career as a commercial lawyer.
Malik had spent most of the afternoon fussing over the food, and whatever her current feelings towards him, Amie had to admit that the meal they ate was worthy of being called a feast. The table was piled high with plates of hummus, pita bread, couscous, root vegetables, lamb kofta, and a cardamom rose petal cake that she hadn’t yet sampled but which looked amazing.
They were nearing the end of the meal when Malik grabbed Amie’s hand over the table and smiled eagerly as he began, “Father, mother, there is something we wanted to tell you and it simply can’t wait any longer.”
Zafina rolled her eyes as Sadira covered her mouth with her hand and looked expectantly at Amie, awaiting the news.
“We’re getting married, tomorrow!”
“I knew it!” Sadira announced.
Malik’s father smiled and began clapping his hands together with pride. “We had a feeling,” Mahumet said proudly, standing up to hug his son.
“Oh, Amie!” Sadira gushed. “I’m so excited for you!”
Amie merely smiled, momentarily unable to speak.
As it turned out, the “business” Malik had had to take care of the other day was actually booking a large venue and sending out a rush of invitations to dignitaries, friends, and close associates of his family. He’d also managed to book a catering service from a restaurant Amie had loved during her stay in the Middle East. She was in shock when he revealed his plans to her, and couldn’t believe he’d already taken the liberty of making the plans without even consulting her.
Still, she grinned to his family and talked with feigned girlish glee about the venue, the dress, the ceremony, and—as per Malik’s instructions—how they would be having another ceremony back in Chicago for their American friends and her family.
“We still have to meet your family!” Sadira insisted; her eyes welling up with tears. “Please, make it so. You must come back with them, all expenses paid, of course.”
“Of course,” Amie said through half-gritted teeth, shooting Malik a fierce look.
“We spoke with them last night over the phone,” Malik lied confidently. “They both gave their blessing and can’t wait to meet you.”
“We can’t either,” Mahumet said with a laugh.
As Malik’s parents explained how traditional wedding celebrations in Rabayat would last a week or more, depending on the family’s finances, Amie couldn’t help but wonder how the bride didn’t end up with the record of “Worst Hangover Ever” after a full week of partying.
The festivities, Sadira explained, would begin with a small group of friends and family, and then eventually the entire party would arrive to celebrate with the happy couple. Hundreds of guests, she insisted. Hundreds.
Amie didn’t even know a hundred people.
At the wedding, there would be a weeklong feast, complete with henna painting, music, and storytelling. Zafina informed Amie that on one of the days leading up to the ceremony, all of the men in the bridal party would attend a bathhouse and endure an intense cleaning ritual that involved slick shaving and singing.
Hearing this, Amie’s eyes went wide, but she resisted the urge to tell Zafina what men in America did the night before the wedding: strippers and beer. Somehow a clean shave and a couple of frat-house jokes seemed much more appealing.
Still, with the abrupt timing, Sadira said this would have to be a compacted version of a traditional ceremony, and she hoped Amie would still find joy in her smaller wedding. She said there would still be a procession of cars to celebrate, as well as fireworks later in the evening, but everything else would need to be cut down exponentially.
For his part, Malik’s usually curt father was all smiles and welcoming embraces tonight, giving Malik sound, fatherly advice on how to be a good husband and to lead his household with dignity. In fact, the whole family seemed elated by the spontaneously-booked wedding. Even Zafina sat back in her chair with a broad grin on her face, as though she couldn’t help but be infected by the joyous excitement in the air.
True to Malik’s fears, both of his parents made subtle digs about his former life as a man about town. His father teased that there would be no more women in Malik’s life, unless he wanted to suffer the wrath of an angry wife.
“When she’s not happy,” Mahumet laughed heartily. “Nobody’s happy! So you do your best to be a good man.”
The dinner went on as most of their other social gatherings did: light and airy with the overwhelming ambiance of family, and of course, amazing food. This time, Amie didn’t particularly care about making a good impression, but still, she stuck to her contract, acting every inch the refined and excited bride-to-be.
The only part of the evening that puzzled Amie was Zafina’s reaction. Aside from a brief “congratulations”, the sister said very little to either of them. It was surprisingly unlike her to be so fuss-free.
Since the ‘wedding’ was to take place the following morning, the entire family was staying at Malik’s palace so they could get ready together.
Later, as the happy couple were heading to their respective rooms, Zafina finally made her strike.
She approached them with her arms crossed; a smug smile creeping across her face as she cornered them in the hallway. Then she said the five most fear-inspiring words she could have chosen: “I know what you’re doing.”
Zafina raised her eyebrow condescendingly and both Malik and Amie froze on the spot. “That’s right,” she continued slowly; clearly loving every minute. “I’ve been doing some research—”
Before the sister has a chance to finish her thought, however, Malik quickly covered her mouth with his hand and instructed her to come and talk somewhere a little more private.
The three of them made their way onto the roof; a flat terrace that looked out over the desert countryside. The night was warm, with a cool breeze coming every so often as a refreshment.
Once on the roof, Zafina grinned smugly and raised both of her brows as she asked, “May I continue, brother?”
Malik gave a dismissive wave of his hand and sighed. “If you must.”
“There is nothing about this that made sense,” Zafina said accusingly. “First, I read about your affair with a high profile businesswoman, back in the States; pictures all over the internet. Then you’re calling mother and father saying no, it isn’t true, and that you’ve been seeing someone else.”
“So?” Malik asked, sounding bored. “I am seeing someone else.”
“And yet you couldn’t tell us a thing about her! You wouldn’t even tell us her name. Want to know why?”
He raised his eyebrows. “This’ll be good.”
“Because you didn’t know her name yet,” she said with finality. “I looked Amie up online. Sorry, Amie,” she said looking at her faux sister-in-law to be.
Amie merely shrugged sadly; guilt rushing through every inch of her body, but Malik kept up the act, refusing to give in to Zafina’s claims so easily.
“Amie’s mother is no doctor, she’s a cashier! And Amie doesn’t run a theater; she’s an out-of-work actress!”
“The information you found is incorrect,” Malik said easily, his voice smooth and convincing.
Zafina scoffed and pulled several print-outs from her purse. “I have the proof right here,” she stated simply. “Now stop lying and tell me what’s going on.”
Amie hung her head in shame and gave way to tears. Malik quickly put his arms around her and glared at Zafina, who now looked awkward before them.
“I didn’t mean to upset you, Amie,” Zafina said quietly. “I just… I don’t know what you guys think you’re doing. I’m not impressed with all these lies, and if I’m not, imagine what our parents will think.”
“I know,” Malik said in a whispered sigh. “Please, don’t tell them, Zafina. You know how they are.”
Zafina went to speak but seemed to think better of it. She gave Amie a long look and then sighed, reaching for Malik’s hand. “I’m just… so disappointed,” she said heavily.
“I understand,” he said, sounding absolutely ashamed.
Zafina frowned, as though she were battling an intense inner argument. Finally, she made eye contact with Amie and sighed. “I like you,” she said begrudgingly. “At first, I found you annoying, but damn it, I just can’t help but like you,” she swore with a laugh. “And you!” she glared at her brother. “You’re an idiot… but I love you. I’ll keep your secret.”
Malik sighed with relief and squeezed his sister’s hand. “Thank you. Thank you, Zafina.”
“I know it wasn’t always easy for you after you left Rabayat. And I understand, sort of, what you’re trying to do. I know that they need peace,” she said of her parents. “I also know they want what’s best for you and for certain they think Amie is it. But, please, at least tell me you at least love the girl?”
“Amie?” Malik repeated with some surprise.
Zafina raised her brows as though the answer should be obvious and Malik laughed.
“I do,” Malik said firmly. “I love her very much.”
The sentiment sent shivers down Amie’s arms and all at once her tears stopped; she’d learned to sense when Malik was acting, and this didn’t feel like it.
Zafina squinted her eyes as though she were feeling her brother out. Finally, she let his hand go. “Then you might not be as stupid as I thought.”
Malik laughed with relief. “Honestly, thank you Zafina. You have no idea how much this means to me. To both of us,” he corrected.
“Yeah, yeah,” Zafina rolled her eyes as she started making her way over to the staircase. “You’re still an idiot.”
Amie and Malik stood frozen on the rooftop for some time, both unwilling to be the first one to speak. After a long, tense silence, the two of them made their way down to the living room where Malik’s parents were happily chatting away, oohing and ahhing over the impromptu wedding to come.
Amie felt rotten. She could still hear them chattering in the house as she made her way into the back gardens alone. Her head was reeling. She couldn’t think of anything besides the people she would be disappointing. And what would Malik say, down the road? That she’d left him? What would happen when he did meet a girl he wanted to marry? Would he just not bring her home, on account of his fake wife from years gone by? These were all the questions she kept asking, and all the answers Malik didn’t have.
She sat by the garden waterfall. The water that flowed from it was crystal clear and highlighted by the sunset in an array of reds and purples as it gushed over the rock fountain into the pool below. She could hear footsteps drawing nearer to her and turned to see Malik standing before her.
He took a seat next to her and looked her up and down. She still wore her dress from dinner; elegant, short sleeved with frills, contrasting greatly with the bare feet that squeezed into the moist soil below them.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he chirped quietly. He waited for a response, and when one failed to present itself, began walking around the pool.
Amie stayed silent, merely watching him as he looked down at the water with his hands in his pockets. The dawning night began to hide the colors around them, but she knew his brown eyes were still there, wondering and watching. He looked over at her once more, a melancholy look that she couldn’t help but feel something for.
“Yes, it’s beautiful,” came her delayed response.
Hearing her voice, Malik came and sat down beside her. Both of them watched in silence, listening to the sounds of falling water. And then, it started to rain.
Rain was not usual in Rabayat, especially not outside the rainy season. Malik watched as a droplet made its way down Amie’s warm skin, hitting the tip of her nose and past her pink lips. Finally, she smiled at him, and it was obvious now that she was crying.
She sniffed and her cheeks flushed. She’d tried so hard to be angry with him, and now she didn’t know what she felt. He looked so hurt… but then why continue the farce?
He inched closer to her and grabbed her hand; small and cold, her fingers stiff.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Oh, you know, just everything,” she said, hanging her head and giving a helpless shrug as salty tears washed over her.
“Don’t worry about Zafina; she won’t say anything,” he said. His voice was so reassuring, she almost believed him.
She shook her head and squeezed his hand. “I’m begging you,” she said through her tears. “Please don’t do this. We can call off the wedding and just be together. Don’t you want that?” She laughed, despite herself. “That’s all I wanted, just to be with you. Why can’t we just do that and avoid all of these lies?”
“Yes,” he finally laughed. “I want that! I want to be with you. I want to whisk you back to America right now and take you to all the places I love, to meet your family, to see your apartment and watch you perform on stage. I want all of it.”
“Did you really mean what you said to Zafina, about your feelings for me?”
There was a moment of silence before Malik sighed; a smile coming over him. “I do love you, yes.”
Amie’s eyes filled with tears and for the first time since that morning her stomach finally settled. “And you really want all those things with me?” she asked softly as he cupped her cheek with his hand. “Really?”
“Really,” he smiled. “We just need to finish this first.”
And there went her stomach again.
“Malik!” she scolded. “If that’s the case then I… I can’t be with you.”
“Why not?” he asked, his brows narrowed painfully.
She stared at him, hard, and put her hand flat on his chest, pushing for emphasis. “Look, as charming as the whole ‘mysterious bad-boy’ thing is, I promised myself I’d stop with those guys when I was, oh, I don’t know… 17?”
“A promise you’ve kept?” he teased.
She narrowed her eyes. “Don’t play with me, Malik,” she said firmly. “I can’t be with someone who would do this to his family. Please… please, let’s just come clean about it, or at least tell them we’ve decided not to go through with the wedding until we can get both of our families together.”
“We’ve already lied, what’s the difference?” he asked harshly.
“We can still make it right. We can stop all this from snowballing out of control.”
Malik stood from her and stared down at the floor; the disappointment scrawled clear across his face. “You just don’t understand,” he said simply. “I’m sorry I put you in this situation, but we’re here now, and this is just what has to happen.”
Amie looked down at the ground and said nothing, her face a sad picture of resignation as she heard Malik walking away from her, closing the poolroom doors behind him as he entered the house once more.
She was wrong. He wasn’t going to turn it around. The future she had daydreamed about—it turned out it didn’t exist in the slightest.
The next morning proved to be one of the hardest yet. Amie had just one full day left in Rabayat: her wedding day. She spent the morning getting ready with Zafina and Sadira; slipping into her beautiful wedding gown and having her hair styled in a long side braid, complete with tiny, colorful flowers.
She felt like an idiot pretending in front of Zafina when she knew exactly what was going on. Sadira excused herself to begin getting ready as Zafina started applying a warm coral blush to Amie’s cheeks. “Just in case he doesn’t make you feel like blushing for real,” she joked, ending her sentence with the same laugh that Malik would give.
“Funny girl,” Amie said sadly. “I do love him, you know.”
Zafina brushed the peachy powder along Amie’s cheekbone and smiled proudly, setting the brush on her lap. “I know.”
“I can see it in your eyes,” Zafina said simply. “It’s why I decided not to tell my parents… whatever it is you guys are doing. That, and the way that he looks at you in return. I’ve seen Malik with a lot of women, but I’ve never seen him this way before.” She shrugged. “Sorry, I’m sure you don’t want to hear about all that right now.”
Amie raised her brows and laughed. “No, no… it’s fine.”
“You two… fit each other,” Zafina said with a grin—a rare but pretty sight on the girl. “Try not to worry so much.”
Try not to worry so much? Did Zafina think this was a real wedding, or not? Was she completely on to their scheme, or did she truly believe they were in love? She felt her heart sink and her whole body rush with adrenaline. It seemed Zafina’s cooing instruction had had the opposite effect.
“Do your parents know?”
“No,” Amie answered honestly.
“Ah. That sneaky Malik,” she said with a snap of her fingers. She clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth and stared at Amie; her eyes searching for something else. “I think…” she paused. “I think you’ll be all right. Malik has his ways. His wiles and schemes, also,” she added with a laugh, “but you have his heart, so it will all work out.”
With that, Amie’s stomach seemed to settle slightly. Maybe Zafina was right.
Or, maybe not.
Amie tried to overcome her misgivings about the situation, but her nerves welled up again once she entered her private car. The driver knew where to take her: the theater. That Malik sure had a sense of humor.
The outside of the theater was done up with white flowers and the marquee read Malik and Amie. At first, she had been infuriated by the fact that wedding was to take place at the theater. And yet, the more she looked around, the more she realized Malik had chosen a venue that truly meant something to them. Not only had she been in love with the theater since she was a little girl, it had been the first place they ever set eyes on each other. Not only that, she had also fallen in love with Malik the night they saw their first play together.
Shock overcame her when she saw the red carpet outside and the crowd of friends, family, and media assembled there. She grinned as she glimpsed Azim and Galina—as immaculately turned out as ever—waving at her as the limo pulled up outside.
Reporters swirled around the building, snapping photos to commemorate the marriage of Sheikh Mahumet’s son. She had known, since Malik was the ruler’s son, that the wedding would be a bit of a big deal, but not this.
Seeing the sheer amount of friends and well-wishers, Amie realized she deeply missed her own family. She wished they were here, even if it wasn’t a real wedding.
Suddenly she began to worry that her name would be dragged into online reports about the wedding. What if her mother saw? She had no idea how her mother would come across an Arabic news story, but stranger things had happened.
She watched as the hundreds of guests piled into the theater until only she and the news media were left outside. She took a deep breath and stepped out of the car, walking down the red carpet, being bombarded by questions from eager reporters. She gulped; maybe her instincts were right, maybe she’d finally bitten off more than she could chew.
“Miss Shaw! Miss Shaw!” a reporter yelled, gesturing for her to turn toward him.
She did so and gave him her best Hollywood smile; doing her best to show off her dress and to come off charming yet respectful. Her heart beat out of her chest as she entered the building, finally escaping the paparazzi.
As the music started up, an usher signaled to Amie that it was time to make her way down the aisle. The aisle was actually the theater aisle, where she was to make her way onto the main stage. How fitting, she thought darkly, that their fake wedding was going to consist of her humiliating herself on stage.
The music was traditional, with a Middle-Eastern spin, and Amie couldn’t help but feel giddy as she began to walk down the aisle. The photographers’ flashbulbs popped, making her feel even more glamorous as she made her way to the stage.
Amie’s heart all but leaped out of her chest as she approached Malik. For six weeks straight, she’d spent basically all day, every day, by his side. But now, on her faux wedding day, she hadn’t heard a peep from him, and the sight of him filled her with glee.
Malik wore a sharp beige suit and looked every inch the confident, handsome sheikh and future ruler of a nation.
As Amie approached, however, a nervous anxiety seemed to cloud his expression. He looked at her in shock, his eyes filling with affection and awe as he eyed her up and down in her dress.
“You look beautiful,” he whispered, nearly stumbling over his words.
Amie blushed and looked down bashfully as another usher hooked both of them up to microphones, so the audience could better hear them giving their vows.
The officiant made his way to the stage; he was an older man, dressed in traditional Middle-Eastern attire and also hooked up to a microphone. Malik had assured Amie over and over again that the man was a hired actor, so she wasn’t too concerned about the legal consequences. No, at this very moment, she was more concerned about getting sick all over the stage.
She grinned nervously at Malik as they were instructed to hold hands before the audience. She stared at the man in front of her as the minister began to speak, listing off reasons why this couple was going to be ever-so-happy together, painting a fairytale image of their future lives together. Laying it on a little thick there, buddy, Amie thought.
Watching Malik, she wondered again about the consequences of their actions. She loved him, and he’d told her he felt the same. She should have been over the moon, but their farcical behavior only made her worry what would happen when his parents inevitably found out the truth. How long would it be before Zafina told them?
Furthermore, how close could she possibly get to somebody who’d put on such an explosive lie? No matter what her feelings for him, she knew it could never be.
Her eyes went wide and she squeezed his hand, gritting her teeth with nerves.
“We are gathered here today to unite Sheikh Malik bin Malehdi and his bride, Amie Shaw. This couple is to be united in love, under God and the watchful eyes of their friends and family.”
The man turned to Amie and her stomach flipped. “Amie, please repeat after me.”
She listened to his words carefully and took a steadying breath. Don’t fall over on stage, don’t humiliate yourself… Remember, your, lines!
“I, Amie Shaw, offer you myself in marriage in accordance with the Holy word. I pledge in honesty and with sincerity, to be a faithful wife to you, giving you all my love for as long as I live.”
“Perfect!” the officiant shouted with a laugh and the guests began clapping.
Amie could see Sadira from the corner of her eye; the older woman had erupted into tears and a smile of joy was strewn across her face. She could see that Malik was watching her; his face suddenly serious as the officiant addressed him.
“Now, Malik. Please do our guests the honor of repeating your vows to your beautiful bride.”
Malik watched the audience, both of his hands clasped around hers, before catching her eye. “I pledge, in honesty and sincerity—”
He stared at the floor and pressed his eyes shut; flicking them open suddenly and looking up at Amie once more. “To be for you a faithful and helpful—”
He stopped again.
What was going on? Was he seriously considering ditching her at their fake wedding?
He stared at her and pursed his lips unsurely, scratching his stubble and taking a step back. Something was wrong.
“I love you,” he whispered to Amie and let go of her hand, backing away from her and rubbing his hands across his forehead.
She could nearly feel his hesitation flowing through the room as he turned to address the crowd.
“Father, mother,” he said, walking closer to the edge of the stage. “I love Amie Shaw. She has been the lightest part of my dark days and will never cease to challenge me and amaze me, and show me the respect and honor that I hardly deserve.”
Amie looked to Malik’s parents and watched his mother’s tears and the pride in his father’s eyes turn to shock as he continued. “But she is not my fiancée. Nor is she my girlfriend. She is an actress.”
Amie covered her face; her hands shaking at the sudden admission. Why was he doing this? Why now?
“I love you both so much,” he said, his voice now trembling with emotion. “And I know that all I have done is disappoint you. I wanted you to see that I was happy; that I was responsible and respectable enough to win the heart of someone as wonderful as the woman who stands before me now. She agreed, under my coaxing, to pretend to be my fiancée, so that I could alleviate your fears and make you proud of me.”
The reporters were going wild with their cameras as the whole auditorium erupted with whispers and gasps. Malik’s father hung his head, shaking it sorrowfully, and just as she feared, Sadira was staring at her in shock and confusion.
“All I can say is that I’m sorry. Sorry to my family for putting them through these proceedings, all because of my insecurities. I know they fell in love with Amie Shaw, just as I have.”
He finally walked back to Amie and brushed her hair behind her ear. “I love you, Amie. I have fallen so deeply in love with you that I can’t bear to put you through this any longer. You were right about everything. This…” He looked around before shrugging helplessly; laughing despite himself. “This was a very bad idea.”
Amie couldn’t help but stifle a giggle. “You think?”
He nodded. “I should have listened to you. I should always listen to you. You make me better in every way possible and I honestly can’t imagine my life without you. Please, don’t make me,” he said softly; his eyes vulnerable as he waited for her next move.
She looked up at him and smiled; her first genuine smile in a long time. Despite the bizarre circumstances that brought them together, he reminded her of adventure; of the risk and reward that comes with taking a chance. Somehow, in all of the wild moments she’d had in her life… all of the most notable ones had happened with Malik.
He smiled as he looked down at their hands, still clasped together. He looked up at her as if to say ‘whoops’ and began untwisting his fingers, but Amie kept her fingers firmly locked with his, leaning in closer to him.
Malik’s thick, dark hair prickled against her fingers as she worked her free hand up the back of his head. They stared at each other in silence with a feeling that needed no utterance or declaration.
He stared at her eyes and then her lips. He leaned in closer, pausing before reaching her lips, feeling her breath ghosting over his mouth, before embracing her so vigorously that their guests burst into cheers and claps.
“I can’t be without you, either,” she said softly, kissing him once more. “I love you so much, Malik.”
Her heart spun with joy; he had made the right decision. He had made it all right, and she could once again believe that the good heart she’d seen all along was real. This was the man she fell in love with.
Malik’s eyes filled with tears and he smiled at her once more before walking off the stage and finding his family amongst the crowd. “Forgive me,” he said sadly. “I was lying to you, to all of you, just so I could pursue…” he chewed his lip before finally affirming, “a life that I no longer want. All that I want is standing right here next to me; the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with.”
Sadira wiped the tears from her eyes and embraced her son. Amie knew Sadira would understand; she knew the goodness in Malik like nobody else.
Malik swallowed hard, grabbing Zafina’s hands at the same time as his mother embraced him. “Can you forgive me?” he asked sincerely as his mother backed away from him. He looked his father in the eye, man to man, and asked again, “Will you all forgive me for being so unworthy?”
Zafina wiped away a single tear, nodding silently and giving her brother a proud smile. Mahumet grabbed his son by the shoulders and nodded towards him, his emotion evident in his expression. “We can forgive you, son. I think the more important question is, can Amie?”
Malik turned back to Amie, walking back to the stage and kneeling down on both knees before her. “Amie, I love you. You brought me back to life, and without you there is nothing. It would only ever be for you that I would make a fool of myself on stage like this, begging you to forgive me.”
Amie chuckled; tears of joy and confusion now streaming down her face. “Of course,” she said. “Now, get up here.”
“There’s just one more thing. I need to make you an offer—without any acting involved, don’t worry,” he chuckled and tapped his nose. “Amie Elizabeth Shaw, would you do me the great honor of growing together in love and life, for all of eternity?”
She blinked at him, dumbfounded, her heart racing with joy. “W-what?”
“Oh, Amie,” he laughed. “Will you marry me, the right way this time?”
She grabbed Malik’s hand and pulled, gesturing for him to stand back up.
“Yes!” She shouted. “Yes, yes, yes!”
Her mind couldn’t escape the immense love that had grown between them over so many weeks. The wild romantic gestures; dancing in the gardens to no music at all, the way he spoiled her with affection, the way his whispers at the theater had made her feel truly cared for. Still, these seemed like nothing compared to all of the small moments they had shared together; the first night she had found him downstairs watching black and white movies, the hidden caresses, and their night together making love.
All of these moments together made her feel like she had already lived a lifetime with this man, and it still wasn’t enough. She wanted all that he could give, and she wanted to give him everything. If he had grown because of her, she had blossomed because of him. Talents aside, his presence in her life had brought her back to the land of the living. Life had meaning again; life had excitement. A reason to wake up in the morning was something entirely overlooked by the average person, and she finally had her reason, for everything.
They shared a passionate kiss and once more Amie found herself enveloped in the arms of the man who had spun her world upside down and made her heart beat again after so long without love. Sure, they didn’t exactly meet at a coffee shop. They didn’t date for years only to find out they were meant to be together. No, their story was full of unbelievable twists and turns; a whirlwind fairytale of exotic travel and late night talks. Their story was anything but conventional.
But, more than anything, it was theirs.
Thank you for reading. As promised, here are the first few chapters of my book, The Sheikh’s Secret Princess
It was all Anita could do to keep herself from skipping on the way to work. The late spring Houston sun beat down on her, and a trickle of sweat trickled down her neck as she walked towards her family’s restaurant, but she hardly felt uncomfortable. Her mood was too light.
Today was a good day. The best. The last of her grades had come in and it was official: the college education she’d fought for, squeezing in study between shifts at the restaurant, was finally complete.
The night ahead would be a busy one; Fridays always were. Normally, she dreaded them; being run off her feet by this request or that one, and trying to keep a huge number of orders straight when every table was packed wasn’t exactly her idea of a perfect start to the weekend.
Today was different. Today, nothing could ruin her mood. The hectic night at the restaurant would only be a reminder of how lucky she and Fadi were that Fadi’s Place was in such high demand. But as she entered the building and was greeted by the suspiciously empty hostess’ station, she found her theory put to the test.
Anita’s almond-shaped green eyes scanned the room, searching for any sign of one of their regular hostesses. Maybe she just missed them, she thought. Maybe they had just stepped aside for a minute or two, and they’d be back.
But there was no trace of them.
The skip vanished from Anita’s step as she strode towards the kitchen, past busy servers and busboys all preparing for the rush ahead.
“Fadi!” she called out, waiting for the call back so that she could locate her father in the crowded kitchen.
“Anita!” came the reply, from the far left corner, many hot pans and billowing steam clouds away.
Fadi had answered in the same harassed tone as she had called to him, and the annoyed desperation in his voice made her smile in spite of herself.
Carefully and quickly, she wound her way through the kitchen. It would be dangerous for someone else to so casually wander through at this speed, but she knew this kitchen as well as she knew her own room. After all, she’d essentially grown up in it.
When she got back to where Fadi was preparing a huge dish in advance of the night’s rush, she put on her best annoyed face.
“Tell me it’s not what I think it is,” she said. Maybe a bit dramatic, she thought, but it got her point across.
Fadi played dumb. “What can it be? What vexes you so?”
She shot him a no-nonsense stare. “Neither of the hostesses can come in? Really?”
He shrugged, and fished out a tasting spoon. “What can I say? There must be something going around. It’s unfortunate, really. But here, try this.”
He held the spoon up to her lips, as though she was a child again and he was making her eat her food. She wanted to refuse, but it smelled amazing, and she found her mind changed for her.
She tasted the dish: a meaty, saucy curry with rice and chickpeas sprinkled liberally throughout. Her eyes rolled back in her head with pleasure as she ate it.
“That’s incredible,” she said. But she couldn’t let herself be derailed. “But Fadi, really… can’t one of the other waitresses cover it? I know you’re particular about who greets the guests first, but…” She could see from his stony expression that she was making no more headway in the conversation than the last eight times they’d had it, so she changed tactic. “And what if I refuse?”
His expression went from stony to exaggerated outrage in a split second. “Refuse? Refuse?!”
In spite of herself, Anita began smiling at the familiar caricature her father was putting on.
“Well, then I’ll send you back to Al-Dali!”
Anita tried to stifle her smile at the familiar words. “But Fadi,” she said, “I cannot swim!”
He slipped a tasting spoon of his own into the dish and tasted it. He nodded, satisfied with his work, before continuing their little ritual.
“Then I will buy you a boat!”
“But Fadi,” Anita replied, “I cannot row!”
This time, there was no delay. “Then I will buy you a plane!”
“But Fadi…” Anita began.
The words that should have come next were on the tip of Anita’s tongue. I cannot fly! But she felt like mixing things up. She let herself break out into a wide smile. “If you had enough money to buy me a plane, you’d be able to afford to hire more workers so I didn’t have to both hostess and waitress tonight!”
Fadi laughed. Anita appreciated the way his laugh filled the kitchen. He’d been head chef since he first opened the restaurant, back when Anita was too young to remember, and his great, booming laugh bouncing off the stoves and prep tables had always been one of her favorite sounds.
“There’s something different about you today, child,” he said.
Anita had a brief twinge at the way he called her “child.” It seemed inappropriate, on today of all days. But she didn’t correct him, only nodded.
“Right! Of course!” he said, and then looked at her expectantly. “Have you gotten all your grades back?”
She nodded, as the large, apron-clad man stepped back from the pot and walked around to hug her. “All A’s,” she said, before correcting herself: “Well, one B, but I swear that professor had it in for me from the start.”
“Oh Anita,” she heard Fadi’s voice close to her ear. “Today, of all days, I am so proud of the daughter I’m blessed with.”
Anita basked in his approval, but it was only a few more seconds before the moment was over, and the chef was back about his tasks.
“Now, you’d better get ready!” he said, putting out a huge ladle to stir the dish he was preparing. “Tonight’s going to be a busy one!”
He wasn’t wrong. Anita wasn’t the only one, it seemed, who was glad to be done with classes for the year. Their usual bustling Friday crowd was supplemented by dozens of spur-of-the-moment celebrators, and Anita found herself rushed off her feet trying to keep track of manning the hostess stand with every new group’s arrival, as well as looking after the tables she couldn’t convince the other waitresses to take off her hands.
But as long as nothing went wrong, she knew from experience, she would manage to get through. Usually, nothing did, but tonight of all nights, it seemed, they were in for something different. They were down to what was usually the very last rush of arrivals for the night when a large party of men entered, most of them wearing traditional Middle-Eastern clothing.
Anita’s heart sunk. The men didn’t have a reservation. Even if she hadn’t already taken a look at the reservation book and made note of all of the large parties due to arrive that night, she’d have known it: there were no tables available that would seat even half this number.
She strode resolutely towards the hostess stand, clearing her throat for the tense conversation that she was inevitably about to have. As she did, she saw one of the men in traditional attire walking up to greet her. Anita gave him an acknowledging smile, and he gave her an overly wide one in return, and she had the passing thought that they were like knights, greeting each other before a joust.
“Good evening, miss,” he said. There was something about the way he said the word “miss” that Anita didn’t like, but she let it pass—if she got annoyed at every condescending thing a customer said to her, she wouldn’t be long for the hospitality world.
“It’s certainly a busy one, sir,” she replied, as calmly as she could and with as big a smile as she could muster. “Do you have a reservation?”
The man lost steam for a second, when faced with her smiling, ready-to-refuse demeanor, which Anita took as a personal victory. But it was only for an instant, then he gathered his self-importance around him like a cloud, and blustered through it.
“We don’t, but I’m sure that you can find someone who has finished enjoying their dinner for the night,” he said. As he spoke, he subtly slipped two hundred-dollar bills across the stand towards her.
Anita caught her breath, but tried not to show how impressive the size of his attempted bribe was to her. She redoubled her smile, and slid the bills back towards him.
“Sir,” she said, “here in the United States, it is only customary to tip waitresses at the end of the meal. Also, we are not in the habit of rushing anyone through their evening. But if you could wait—”
She tried to get her sentence out, but the man interrupted her. He did it quietly, so that the rest of his party wouldn’t hear, but the furious urgency of his words made Anita unintentionally lean back from the hostess stand.
“Do you know who that is?” he said, jerking his thumb in the direction of the only member of the party wearing a suit rather than traditional garb. “That is Sheikh Hakim al Kamal bin Masfari, heir to the throne of Az Kajir. And you should thank your lucky stars that he wishes to eat at your restaurant. So I suggest,” he looked down at her nametag, “Anita, that you see that he has a table at which to do so.”
She didn’t answer right away. She just stared at him with a placid smile, trying to show him that his words had no effect. Inside, her heart was pounding.
“As I was trying to say, sir,” she said finally. “If you and the Sheikh could wait a few minutes, I think I may have a solution.”
Her shock-proof façade appeared to have been successful, and the man nodded uncertainly. That would have to be good enough.
Anita took off at a quick walk, scanning the room for the busboys.
“Are you busy?” she asked them, and both of them gave her a look that said they’d roll their eyes if they weren’t being asked by the boss’ daughter.
“OK, right. Fair enough. But I need a few minutes of your time. The outside dining area in the alley, how close is that to being finished?”
There was a short one, and a tall one, and their names were Mark and Darryl, but she could never quite remember which was which, since she interacted with them so rarely.
“They’ve got the cobblestones done, and the wrought-iron barriers. But no tables or decorations yet, and the shade canopy hasn’t been installed.”
Anita nodded, a smile spreading across her face. “Ok, great. Close enough. I’m going to seat this party out there. Mark, go grab the long table from the staff room, and some of the extra guest chairs we’ve got stacked in the store room. Darryl, go get some of the plants from my dad’s office. Just the big ones, though.”
She nodded her head as they ran off. This would work. It had to.
She braced herself for the go-between’s reaction as she returned to the hostess stand and explained to him that his party would be eating in the alley. He took the news about as well as Anita had expected.
He was still trying to hiss at her—to keep his voice low enough to escape notice from his employer—but his rage was too pronounced. “This kind of disrespect is unacceptable. It’s no wonder: we should have known better than to visit a restaurant from Al-Dali!”
He spat the name of her home country like an insult, and it was all that Anita could do to keep her professional composure.
“Ahmed, a little class, please.”
Anita’s eyes shot to the source of the cool, smooth voice that had interrupted the man’s rant. It was a firm censure, but a kind one.
Anita felt her mouth drop open as she looked up at the man who had issued it.
The Sheikh was a tall man, with an impeccable bespoke suit and a precisely-trimmed beard. His hair looked tousled, but Anita couldn’t tell whether that was intentionally planned, or whether he was just naturally blessed with hair that fell in that attractive wavy style.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Ahmed gets a little wound up sometimes. We certainly do not mean to disrespect your establishment, or your country. Al-Dali is our closest neighbor, and the moment I heard there was a restaurant from there in Houston I just couldn’t resist the opportunity to have a meal from so close to home.”
He paused, and Anita tried to search for something clever or endearing to say. But she was too busy looking at his eyes. They seemed kind and inviting, even as his appearance, his status, and his whole entourage said reserved and cold.
“We must have neglected to make a reservation in our haste to eat here. You have my apologies for that. Of course, we would be grateful for a table wherever or whenever you can fit us in.”
Anita nodded dumbly a few times before she found her voice. “Thank you, sir. Yes, of course. We just need a few minutes to prepare your table.”
She swallowed hard and sped away from the hostess’ station, hoping like hell she’d come off half as smooth, calm and collected as he had.
The full reality of the situation hit Anita as she climbed the stairs. A real prince! A Sheikh, even! Here, at her family’s restaurant!
She had known that a Middle-Eastern royal family was involved in the oil fields about town. They had had a presence in Houston for a long time, and had apparently been gaining more and more ground lately. Patrons would occasionally ask Anita if her family was linked to theirs, and her answer had always been that they couldn’t even be from the same country—Al-Dali didn’t even have a royal family.
As she climbed the stairs to the apartment she and her father shared above the restaurant, she started wishing she’d done a little more research. The Sheikh had to be in Houston for business, and it wasn’t that unbelievable that he would be wanting a meal that tasted of home, but still…
Her train of thought was momentarily interrupted as she scanned the living room, looking for the box of Christmas decorations that her father had been meaning to put in the attic for months.
“There it is!” she said aloud when she saw it, and then looked around as though worried someone could have heard her, talking to herself in the empty apartment. Royalty had her on edge, it seemed.
She tried to tell herself, as she rifled through the box and found a string of white fairy lights, that she should treat this party no different from any other. She should make an effort to treat the Sheikh as normally as possible. That was what younger royals wanted, these days, right?
And he had seemed so approachable! It wasn’t that he had seemed embarrassed at the awkwardness of his station, and how insistent his go-between had been. He didn’t seem like a man who was even capable of embarrassment, and yet he had been all smooth apologies. A man like that surely wouldn’t want to be treated like anything other than a regular customer.
Well, she thought, as she hurried down the stairs and back into the restaurant, she would certainly try.
When she reached the back patio, Anita smiled to herself. The staff table was a long, rustic affair, in solid wood. She was lucky, she thought, that since Fadi had made this table, not long after the restaurant first opened, styles had circled around so much that it was now once again the height of fashion. The mismatched chairs looked good around it, too, and the plants filled in the empty space between the table, which the busboys were even now hurriedly setting, and the wrought-iron barriers that separated the patio seating from the alley around it.
The busboys had taken some initiative and broken out a few of the tea lights they kept in the back, forming a flickering line of flames down the center of the table. Anita made a mental note to tell her father they’d done well tonight.
Still, the setting was a bit dim, even with the tea lights and the lights spilling through the windows of the restaurant. So Anita set to work, quickly stringing the white fairy lights around and across the wrought-iron frame that would eventually hold a canopy, once the patio was finished and open to the public. She had to work quickly—she didn’t want to keep the prince waiting after he’d been so understanding and stood up for her in the face of his underling’s anger.
When she stepped back, she thought it still looked a little bit dim. They’d done well, but was it suitable for royalty?
Anita watched the men’s reactions carefully as she led them out to the table. They were, by and large, stone-faced men, but she thought she overheard a few appreciative murmurs.
She seated the Sheikh at the head of the table. It seemed like the right thing to do, until she remembered, with a pit in the bottom of her stomach, that when she was ten she had carved her own name, surrounded by the shape of a heart, into the table—right in front of where he was now sitting.
Hopefully, he wouldn’t notice, she thought. Hopefully the light was dim enough.
They ordered drinks quickly enough, and Anita was able to get back to serving her neglected tables. Her fellow waitresses had had to step in in a few cases, and Anita couldn’t help but curse herself for the lapse. The rest of them were regulars, who didn’t seem to mind the delay too much. Some even seemed almost honored to be neglected in favor of a prince, once Anita confirmed, in as low-key a way as possible, that it was, in fact, him.
Things seemed to be going well enough, but still Anita felt nervous. She’d already gone out three times, asking the Sheikh’s table if they were ready to order, and three times they’d told her that they were still making up their minds.
Finally, she decided she should do something. She wandered over to where the Sheikh was sitting and summoned up all her courage.
“Do you have any questions about the menu?” she asked.
He looked up, startled, as though she’d interrupted his thoughts. “Yes, ah…” He seemed like he was considering saying something, but wasn’t sure how to phrase it. “I know you’re quite busy, and you’ve already bent over backwards to accommodate us. I appreciate it, really.”
“It’s really no problem,” Anita rushed to say.
The prince continued. “It’s just that I didn’t realize until now how much I had my heart set on chakchouka. I think you have it in Al-Dali, as we do.”
Anita was nodding as though she was trying to make her head fall off. She didn’t mean to be so accommodating. She wanted to come across as cool, calm, and laid-back. But there was something about the Sheikh that made her want to please him, and she had a feeling that it wasn’t just his status.
“We do,” she said. “My father used to make it for me when I was a little girl, actually. I don’t really know why we don’t have it on the menu, but I’m sure my father could make it for you.”
He cocked his head. “Your father?”
Anita blinked, suddenly unsure she should have shared this much about herself. “This is my family’s restaurant… mine and my father’s.”
This only led to another confused look.
“And your mother’s?”
Anita looked down. “I have no mother. Fadi, the head chef here, is my adopted father.”
The Sheikh apologized, but Anita waved it off, saying that it had happened a long time ago, and she had never met her birth parents, as far as she knew.
She thought that was the end of it, but her explanation was met with another blank look. He didn’t press her for more information, though. He only thanked her for accepting his ordering off-menu, and let her go around the table collecting everyone else’s orders.
Anita tried to shake off the strangeness of the conversation as she went about her duties. Luckily, the restaurant would likely only get emptier, and she was a little less run off her feet than she had been earlier in the night. But still, she found that her attention was constantly drawn to the party on the patio in the alley, wondering how they were doing, and hoping they were having a good time.
She was peering out the windows, trying to get a look at their faces from across the restaurant, when another of the waitresses interrupted her thoughts.
“Your father wants to see you.”
Anita was startled. “What? why?”
The waitress, a small curvy blonde called Lauren, shrugged. She looked like she’d had a busy night, too, and didn’t have the mental energy for this conversation. “I don’t know, but he does. You should ask him.”
Anita thanked Lauren, and shrugged off her slightly terse manner—it had been a strange night for everyone.
When she went back to the kitchen, Anita was struck by how much it looked like a war zone. Fadi insisted they run a clean kitchen, but even so, in the course of service on a busy night, there was always this or that that went wrong and wasn’t able to be taken care of right away. A workstation splattered with a red sauce here, a collection of eggshells swept back behind a table there, until they could be properly cleaned up at night’s end.
It was always that way, and the kitchen staff were always a little bit on edge after a busy night like this. But when she saw Fadi, Anita knew that something was different.
He was chopping up a piece of meat, coming down just a little bit too hard with every cleave. He was not usually this angry. He was never this angry.
“Who has ordered off-menu?” he barked. “Who ordered the chakchouka?”
Anita paused. Something made her hesitant to respond. She got the sense that Fadi already knew the answer, and for some reason, it made him angry as sin.
She couldn’t remember having seen him angry often. She’d seen him play angry, as in their little game earlier. But he had this quiet, barely contained intensity to him now, with fire in his eyes.
She swallowed hard. “The prince did. Sheikh Hakim al Kamal bin Masfari, of Az Kajir.”
The words dripped off her tongue so easily. She hadn’t realized his full name and title had stuck so well in her mind.
Fadi’s knife came down hard on the meat. “And you just decided to serve these men? You know of the bad blood between their kingdom and ours.”
Anita frowned. “Well… yes. But that all happened a long time ago—”
Her father’s shout reverberated through the kitchen in much the same way as his laugh often did. It made her jump. Her eyes quickly scanned the room, and she saw that the other cooks were likewise startled.
Fadi saw their reactions too. He continued, but with his voice markedly lower. “Nothing of the old world is very long ago or far away. It may seem that way to you, but it’s a trick. You can never think it is.”
Anita was shaken. It had already been a strange night, but Fadi’s reaction was infinitely stranger. She couldn’t think of a response, and he didn’t wait for her.
“You will not serve them,” he said, turning his attention back to the meat in front of him.
Anita let out a little sound of protest, and Fadi’s eyes shot back to her. They were still so angry.
“I have to,” she lied. “No one else can cover it. They’re all too loaded down with their own tables.”
He saw straight through her. He always could. But everyone was still watching, and the defiant set of her face must have changed his mind, because he didn’t insist further.
“And you’ll make the chakchouka?” Anita felt she was pushing her luck now, but she couldn’t help it.
In response, Fadi called out to a kitchen assistant to bring him eggs.
Good enough, Anita thought sullenly.
She headed back out to the table and asked if the men needed anything. They didn’t. But observing them sat around the table, passing around appetizers and laughing, Anita felt like everything was going to work out swimmingly after all. Whatever Fadi’s opinion on the matter was.
She looked up to the head of the table, to where the Sheikh was sitting. He was talking animatedly to his entourage, but his fingers were absentmindedly rubbing over something on the table.
Anita’s blood froze. Her carving. It had to be. But she had no way of knowing for sure if he’d read it, or even if he could make out what it even was in this dim light.
Anita felt vexed. He’d known something, earlier, that she hadn’t. She’d seen him holding back. And Fadi knew something. It was high time she knew something, as well.
She made her way to the head of the table.
“And how are you doing, sire? Is there anything I can get you?”
She knew as soon as she said it that it was not the right thing to say, but it was too late. It sounded ridiculous, but the Sheikh just replied with the hint of a laugh in his voice and a trace of a smile on his lips.
“Please, call me Hakim.”
Instinctively, seeing his smile, and the rush of warm familiarity he had extended, Anita smiled too.
“And no, I’m quite all right. I hope you’re not coming out to say that the chakchouka was too much trouble after all…”
Anita shook her head reassuringly. “Oh, no. I’ve checked with my father myself. It’s no trouble whatsoever.”
“Oh, good. I hope you’ll thank him for me.”
Anita paused. At this point, a better waitress would have left him in peace to enjoy the night, but she couldn’t help herself.
“Hakim,” she said, his name rolling off her tongue easily as his full title had. “Earlier you looked like you wanted to say something. When I was talking about my family, I mean. What was it?”
There was a long pause, and she noticed him look down at her hands. She did so, too, and realized what he was looking at.
“My ring?” she asked, fiddling with the gold signet ring she had worn around her thumb from the time her thumb had been big enough.
She looked back at the Sheikh, and found her eyes darting to his own hands. There, on his right hand, was a very similar signet ring.
“It’s just unusual, is all. Usually women do not wear these rings.”
“No…” she said. “It was my father’s.”
Suddenly, she felt like he was prying. It was a sensitive subject that she didn’t share with most people. When others asked, usually she lied and said she’d found it at a flea market.
“It’s not your adoptive father’s, is it?” he asked.
One look at the Sheikh and Anita knew she couldn’t lie to him. “No,” she said. “It belonged to my birth father. It’s all I have of his. How did you know?”
“Chefs don’t wear these rings,” the Sheikh said. “Whoever your birth father was, he was an important man. I can tell you that much. Anyway, I’m sorry to bother you about it. It’s just rare to see. And it’s lovely to see a woman wearing it.”
Anita shook her head, trying to clear it. This was more than she had bargained for.
“Thank you,” was all she could say. And then she left to go tend her other tables, that would doubtless not be so fraught with emotion.
The rest of the night went well. The Sheikh—Hakim, Anita mentally corrected herself—seemed to greatly enjoy his chakchouka, and the men’s laughter bouncing through the alley was a constant, every time Anita came out to refill drinks, or see if they needed anything.
The group managed to plow through more hummus, pita and meat than Anita would have thought possible, but Hakim just kept ordering more. It was as though, Anita allowed herself to think in a particularly weak moment, he wanted an excuse to stay.
Not long before closing, Hakim’s go-between—the one who had first tried to get the table without a reservation—got up and whispered something in his ear. Whatever it was, it seemed to upset Hakim, who looked hurriedly at his watch.
The man, who Anita remembered was called Ahmed, signaled for the bill, reaching out his hand for it when Anita brought it over.
Anita’s heart sunk; she didn’t have high hopes for a good tip if Ahmed was the man in charge of handling payments for his employer.
Still, she held off on looking at the signed receipt until she had said goodbye to the whole party. Each of the men, all of them in high spirits, thanked her personally, so it took a little while. Their enthusiasm was contagious, and Anita found herself smiling broadly at every over-the-top goodbye. She felt more like she had hosted them at her house than that she had just waited on them at a restaurant.
When it was finally Hakim’s turn to say goodbye, Anita wasn’t sure what to expect. But he gave her the same, gracious goodbye as the others had, even telling her that the chakchouka was the best he’d ever tasted, and that he would be sure to come back next time he was in Houston.
Was it just her imagination, or did he linger just a little bit longer than the others?
When they had all left, Anita felt as though the wind had been let out of her sails. She had expected a bit of a letdown, excitement-wise, once the night was over, but she hadn’t expected this. She felt… sad. Empty, even.
She opened up the check—better get the disappointment of no tip on a huge bill over with, she thought glumly.
She blinked twice when she saw the number. $200. Ahmed had left her a tip as large as the bribe he’d originally been going to give her.
Anita squinted at the elaborately-written note on the top line next to it.
“For the best table in the house,” it read.
She smiled. Maybe the guy wasn’t so bad after all.
She began stacking up the plates, bowls and cups. She’d told the busboys to go home early, as they had come through for her when she needed it, so she’d have to get all this put away on her own.
She tried not to let her mind wander back over the night. Her energy was waning, and now that the adrenaline rush was finally gone for good, she found that she wanted nothing nearly so much as to be upstairs in bed.
But she couldn’t help but wonder, again, if Hakim had seen the carving of her name, and if he had put it all together. Her gaze flicked up to the head of the table where he had been sitting.
That was when she saw it: just a glint of gold amongst the reflection of the twinkling lights.
Anita dropped the pile of dishes heavily on the table, not caring about the crashing sound they made, her heart beating faster as her body managed just one more little jolt of adrenaline. She rushed over to the glint of gold.
It was just what she had thought: Hakim’s ring, left behind by accident, she could only assume.
She scooped it up and took off at a run. Her tired feet stumbled, but she’d navigated the dining room so many times that she didn’t trip over any of the tables or chairs strewn about.
She reached the front door and looked frantically left and right. She could only hope they were still there.
It was dark, and it took her eyes a minute to adjust, but she was able to make out a limousine down the street to the left. The cluster of dishdasha-clad men around it made it clear that this was her aim, and she stumbled towards it, moving as quickly as she could without looking like a complete fool.
When she was close enough, she called out Hakim’s name. She saw him turn, so distinct in his suit. She saw him look down at her hands, and the precious object within them, and break into a wide smile.
“My ring!” he said when she reached him.
Anita set the ring in his open palm. Her fingertips grazed his skin as she set it down, and her heart, that had begun to calm, started racing anew.
This was no time for a crush, she thought. This was not the man to get awkward feelings for.
But it certainly wasn’t helping that he stepped closer to her as he picked up his hand to get a closer look at the ring.
“I fiddle with it sometimes,” he said, under his breath. If he hadn’t been standing so close, Anita doubted she would have heard him.
“I’m glad I caught you in time,” she said. Her mouth was running away and talking without permission from her brain. “I can’t imagine what I would do if I lost mine.”
“No…” he said, still apparently mesmerized by the ring he’d almost lost.
And then, as if released from a spell, he slid it onto his finger. “You must let me thank you.”
“I mean it,” he insisted. “You’ve saved me from losing something precious. Please, let me have your number. I’d like to take you out to dinner.”
Take her out? To dinner?
Ahmed was behind him. “Sir, we really must be on our way. They’ll be waiting.”
“Yes, just a moment,” Hakim replied, then focused his attention back on Anita. “I’ve got to go. Let me have your number, so I can work out the details with you.”
The flash of the anger in Fadi’s eyes flitted through Anita’s brain. But in the rush of it all, there was nothing else she felt like she could do.
She spouted out her phone number, feeling ridiculous as soon as she did so—his phone wasn’t out, there wasn’t a pen, and she’d left her pad of paper inside.
“You’ll forget…” she said, silently cursing herself for having put the pad away.
“Never!” he said with a wink.
Anita blushed as the Sheikh disappeared into the limo and sped off into the night, leaving her standing in its wake, unsure what exactly had just happened, but certain that whatever it was, it was something good.
It turned out that a good way of getting a second wind on a night that had been punishingly busy and stressful was to get asked out to dinner by a handsome sheikh.
Or so Anita was finding. The exhaustion that had begun settling in when the Sheikh’s party had gotten up had left her completely.
It had been a hard night, and there was no one left in the restaurant but her and Fadi. Fadi had sent the dishwashers home, not realizing that Anita had already sent the busboys home, leaving them with no one left to help them close up for the night.
So they did it all themselves.
Anita could tell that Fadi was still in a sour mood, it was just that it was hard to care when she was floating on a cloud the way she was. She turned up the music, which they would normally turn off during cleanup, and danced around him.
She was determined to pull him out of whatever kind of funk he was in, but Fadi wasn’t having any of it. She couldn’t remember a time when he’d so stubbornly committed to being upset, so she tried harder, turning her enthusiasm up a notch, and putting on a song that she knew for a fact he liked, even if he would deny it if she ever told anyone.
She sang in his ear. “Shake it off, ah ah ah, shake it off!”
“Enough!” His voice was a half-growl, half-roar.
It scared Anita. Fadi had never scared her. He’d made her anxious to please him, and sorry she’d disappointed him. But scared?
“Turn that off,” he said, more quietly. “I need to talk to you.”
Like a puppet on strings, Anita went to the sound system and turned off the music. The restaurant felt so cold and empty without it.
She returned, and stood in front of him, waiting for whatever punishment was coming.
“Now,” he said. “The waitresses said they saw you talking to the Sheikh tonight. Is this true?”
She nodded. She wanted to add something in her defense, about how they had just been making the usual waitress-customer small talk, but it wouldn’t have been true, and she had a feeling that excuses would only have made things worse.
“And am I to assume,” he continued, with the same glowing coal of anger in his eyes, “that your good mood is due to something he has said?”
Anita nodded again, but this time Fadi looked like he was waiting for further explanation. She gave it to him, her voice sounding quiet and weak in the light of her father’s anger.
“He lost his ring. I returned it to him. He said he wanted to take me out to dinner to thank me.”
Fadi looked like he was about to boil over again, but he held it in. There was something else in his expression that Anita couldn’t quite make out.
And then she placed it. It was fear.
“You’re not going,” he said, then he turned away, as though that was the end of the discussion.
Anita was worn out from a day that had been an endless roller coaster of emotions. She was in no mood to have one of the greatest feelings she had felt in her young life yanked away from her with no explanation.
“I am going,” she replied. Her voice shook when she said it.
Fadi’s voice shook when he answered, but with anger rather than trepidation. “You have no idea what I’ve given up for you.”
Anita felt her own anger rising to meet his. “And how would I? You never tell me anything!”
He turned back to face her, the hot coal in his eyes again.
Anita continued, her own emotions rising. “Hakim taught me more about my family in two sentences than you have in eighteen years! I have a right to know!”
He started stepping towards her, now, and the fear she’d felt earlier was coming back. He was like a powerful beast, she thought. She’d never given much thought to how strong he was, but he was more musclebound than a cook had any right to be.
“Right?” he bellowed. “What right? You don’t have a right to anything, girl. You only think you do because I raised you like a little princess!”
Anita felt her rage turn into righteous anger. He’d done nothing of the sort. She’d worked alongside him for everything they’d ever got. Yes, he’d struggled to make a life for them, but she’d always struggled with him. Nothing had ever been handed to her. And he had the nerve to insult her that way now, just because she had talked to a man that he didn’t approve of?
“Well, I’m not a little princess anymore. I’m not a little anything anymore. And I deserve to know.”
She could see the conflict in him. It was like he wanted to say two things at once, but he couldn’t say either. Instead, his rage boiled over. He grabbed a glass candleholder off the nearest table, and hurled it across the restaurant.
The sudden movement seemed to break the spell. All Anita could think was that that was quite a lot of rage for her never to have seen in the last eighteen years.
Fadi turned back to face her. The emotions had drained from his face, his anger broken with the glass candle holder.
“It’s dangerous for you to talk to those men. You won’t do it. You can’t. That’s all you need to know.”
And then he walked away, leaving Anita alone in the empty restaurant.
Anita began trying to get the restaurant back into order, but realized very quickly that she had no chance of doing it by herself. The day was hitting her, hard, and the second wind she’d gotten at Hakim’s invitation was completely gone now she knew she couldn’t accept it.
She wanted to rage at Fadi. She wanted to rebel, and tell him he had no power over her, and he couldn’t tell her what to do. But tonight had been so different. It had been like she didn’t even know him. The strangers had brought out a side to him that she’d never even known existed, and wished now that she had never seen.
The one thing that she knew was that after seeing him like that, and seeing the way he insisted that it was too dangerous to see Hakim, she couldn’t see him.
She resolved to keep asking. Now that she knew a little more about the history of her ring, she felt it like a hand on her, reaching out from the past. It was like her father was calling out to her.
But she would never get anything out of Fadi if she disobeyed him in such a serious way. And one evening of polite conversation with a man who felt indebted to her for returning his lost ring felt like a bad trade for a lifetime relationship with her father.
She climbed the stairs slowly, heading towards her bed, convinced that if Hakim actually did remember her number and ever contacted her, she would have to turn him down.
She changed into her pajamas and climbed into bed. This, at least, was still the same. This room was home. It had been home for as long as she could remember.
This was her life. It was the one where she worked her hardest at the restaurant, and at school. It was the life where she was a dutiful daughter who cared about her family, and her friends, and didn’t get asked out by handsome princes.
Anita was just beginning to doze off, her eyes opening and closing sleepily, when she saw her ceiling light up, followed by the subtle buzz of her phone. She reached out to grab it off the nightstand, her tired arm grasping awkwardly and accidentally knocking a book to the floor.
She picked up the phone and looked. A text from an unknown number:
Hello Anita. Are you still awake?
Anita laughed into the empty room, careful to keep her laughter quiet enough that Fadi wouldn’t be able to hear it through the walls.
It was Hakim. It had to be. And he didn’t text much, judging by his weirdly formal text speak. Besides, anyone who did much texting would know that a text like that, sent at 1:30am, was a booty call. And there was nothing funnier than the idea of the proper, elegant sheikh she’d met earlier making a booty call.
She went to reply that she was, then hesitated. She had to turn him down. She had to tell him she couldn’t see him. But, Anita thought, she didn’t have to do it right away. It would be rude not to at least have a little bit of a conversation with him.
I am. Is this Hakim?
A silly question, but she felt a little awkward texting the man with the entourage and the limousine from the pink and yellow patterned bedroom she’d had since she was three.
She saw the little bubble. Typing…. Typing… Never had that little typing bubble been more annoying to her than it was now. Finally, she got a response.
Oh good, I remembered right. Thank you again for finding my ring. I hope you will allow me the honor of taking your out to dinner tomorrow night. Pardon my contacting you at such a late hour. I only did so because I needed to know if you would be available, so that I can make the proper arrangements as early in the morning as possible.
It was, by leaps and bounds, the longest text Anita had ever received. No, the Sheikh apparently did not text.
She bit her lip. She couldn’t answer his question right away. If she did, the conversation would be over before it started. She wanted to live in the moment a little longer.
Since she was never going to see him again, Anita figured she might as well say what she really wanted to. She typed it into her phone and pressed send, holding her breath while the progress bar filled at the top of the screen.
Is that the only reason?
A typing bubble. And then no typing bubble. And then a typing bubble again. Was he trying to kill her?
Finally, a response.
For shame. Such implications! And here I am, innocently begging you to promise to see me when you’re almost certainly in bed. Innocently. Like an innocent person.
Anita smiled to herself. He didn’t do texting, but the man certainly did sarcasm.
She thought for a moment, and then replied.
Oh, good. I was worried. There have been far too many saucy sheikhs around here lately. I have to be sure.
She should stop. She knew it. She shouldn’t keep on like this—not if she was going to honor the promise she had made in her mind to Fadi—but with every message, she found it harder to imagine not meeting up with him the next day.
Finally, she had to put an end to it. It had been, in many ways, the most exhausting, overwhelming day of her life. It was time it came to a close, but she wasn’t sure how to broach the subject.
Luckily, or unluckily, Hakim brought it up himself.
So, you’ll meet me tomorrow night?
Now was the time. Anita knew what she had to do.
I’m sorry. I can’t meet you.
She clutched her phone as she waited for a response.
How do you make the pictures on this?
Wait, I found it.
And then there was a picture of a sad-faced emoji.
It was too late for Anita to laugh again in her room; Fadi was only a few rooms over. But something about the idea of the heir apparent to the throne of Az Kajir sending her emoji’s was a bit too much to take. She texted back.
His reply came quickly.
Well enough done that you’ll meet me?
Who was he to say? But then, just now, it felt like he wasn’t asking too much
Even as she typed the word, she could feel her conviction waning.
I command you as your prince.
Anita realized she hadn’t stopped grinning like an idiot this entire time, and this response only made it worse.
You’re not my prince.
A bubble. No bubble. A bubble again.
Anita clutched her phone to her chest and stared up at the ceiling, at the glow-in-the-dark stars she’d put up there when she was young. She should have removed them long ago, but she couldn’t quite bring herself to do it.
“What should I do?” she whispered up at them now, as though they would provide her with guidance.
There was no answer. But she had no willpower to go on refusing.
She told Hakim she agreed, and he fired back a happy-faced emoji.
You’re getting the hang of this.
His reply came back almost instantly.
I’m a quick learner.
He sent an address through, and they said goodnight.
Anita tried to sleep, but she kept looking at the phone in the dark, hoping for another message, even though they’d already said goodnight. She’d have to tell him the next day that they couldn’t be together, she thought. It wasn’t fair to string him along.
Still, she couldn’t help but be excited. There were butterflies in her stomach, and they fought hard against her exhaustion.
But finally, it was all too much, and she fell into a deep sleep.
Anita did her best to act normal the next day. She even tried to seem a little cross and disappointed when she was around Fadi.
It was difficult. She’d never been much of an actor, and she’d been a good, well-behaved enough daughter that she’d rarely needed to pretend with him. The sensation felt strange, and if she weren’t so excited for her date, it would have been a miserable day.
By the time evening came, the whole thing was forgotten as Anita felt her excitement bubbling over. She’d barely resisted the urge to google the address Hakim had given her. She desperately wanted to know, but it was clear that he wanted it to be a surprise, and she found the idea of disappointing him intolerable.
It was Anita’s night off, and Fadi was hard at work down in the restaurant. She knew she couldn’t go out the front without anyone seeing her, and it was too late to come up with an excuse; she’d told Fadi she would be in her room, reading and watching Netflix. He would accept that; it was boring enough for him to believe.
This left her with one option: the fire escape.
It had been years since she’d sneaked out using it, and when she had, there hadn’t been nearly so much at stake. Now, she flinched at every mournful creak of the metal, as though it would summon him out from the kitchen and he would catch her in the act.
Anita adjusted her skirt once she was on the ground. She’d gone back and forth on what to wear. Hakim had worn his tailored suit like he was born in it, and Anita had a feeling that he was usually dressed up to that degree. But she couldn’t compete with that. Plus, whatever his surprise was, she needed to be prepared. So she’d gone the semi-casual route, with a skirt, some new sandals, and a T-shirt. She had a thin cardigan stuffed into her bag in case they were out late and it got chilly, although the warmth of the night seemed unlikely to let up anytime soon.
This was her, she thought. This was who she was. This was how she dressed. If he really liked her, he’d accept it.
As she walked, Anita chided herself for thinking that way. He wouldn’t have to accept it, because they wouldn’t be seeing each other again. Right?
Anita reached the building just about on time. She was a few minutes early, and was glad that she’d left herself enough of a buffer to account for the walk. To her surprise, the building in front of her was a warehouse. And an abandoned one, at that. It wasn’t derelict or dirty, but it clearly wasn’t in use, either. The front door must once have had a sign on it, showing its former presence by the non-faded square of paint beneath.
She must have gotten the wrong address, Anita thought. She rechecked it on her phone. No, this was definitely where he had told her to come. She looked up at the building again. Up on her tip-toes, she peaked through the window in the door.
And then she saw it. Just behind the door was a long stairway, about six feet wide, leading up into the mysterious depths of the building. On either end of each one of the treads were tea lights, not unlike the ones that had been on the Sheikh’s table the previous night.
Anita smiled, and tried the door. It pushed open easily beneath her hand.
She walked up the stairs. The old building was right on the line between spooky and romantic; it could have been eerie, with the way no one was around, but the soft light from the candles gave it a warm glow. One flight of stairs led to another, where the candles changed from tea lights to tall candlesticks in shimmering golden holders.
She could feel her heartbeat quickening. It was, she was certain, the most elaborate, excessive measure she’d even been treated to.
When the staircase bent again, she saw the final set of stairs, lit up by a mixture of tall candelabras, little tea lights, candlesticks, and big, round candles. They were scattered along the sides of the stairs, giving the whole thing a beautiful, carefully-curated look. Between the lights, where Anita would walk, were flower petals. They weren’t red roses—that would have felt a little on-the-nose, she thought. Instead, they were huge baby-blue petals, from a kind of flower she’d never seen before.
Anita held her breath as she climbed the stairs. All she could hear was the sound of her footsteps on the petals, and the crackling of the many, many candles around her.
When she reached the door at the very top of the stairs, another sound met her ears.
Frowning, Anita let out her breath, and swung the door open.
She found herself standing on the roof. It was a large, flat space, and though the candles and petals all stopped, there was still something—someone—here waiting for her: Hakim.
He was facing away from her, wearing another beautifully-fitting suit, as she’d assumed he would be, and speaking in rapid Arabic into a cellphone.
Anita concentrated. Fadi had tried to teach her some Arabic when she was younger, but as she’d grown older, it had seemed less and less important to her, compared to other things. She only had a rudimentary grasp of it now, and Hakim was speaking far too quickly for her to keep up.
Even though she couldn’t make out the words, Anita could tell that Hakim was upset about something. Angry, in a way, but not out of control.
She moved up behind him, creeping up without really meaning to. She heard the tone of their conversation change from anger to frustration, and finally disappointment.
And then he hung up the phone, and was startled to see her, mere feet away from where he was standing.
She looked around the rooftop, as though looking for some other Anita. “What, me?”
His face broke out into a smile, just as she’d hoped it would. But it wasn’t enough to pierce through his disappointment.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
Anita furrowed her brows. “For what? What could you possibly be sorry for?”
He gestured around them. “This is my helipad. Do you see anything missing?”
Anita made a show of looking, although she knew immediately what he was getting at. “I see,” she said. “No helicopter. Whatever shall we do?”
It didn’t work. His mood didn’t lift. She was surprised by how much his disappointment bothered her.
Feeling more confident than she could have predicted, Anita reached out and took his arm. “Come on. We didn’t want a helicopter anyway. Going out with a prince is a first for me. Tonight should be a first for you, too. You’ve probably been on a helicopter plenty of times.”
He cocked an eyebrow. “What do you have in mind?”
She opened her mouth to tell him, but then thought better of it. “The helicopter was going to be a surprise for me. Let this be a surprise for you.”
She tugged gently at his arm, trying to get him to move towards the door, and the stairs, still illuminated with countless candles. But he stood firm.
“I was really supposed to be the one surprising you,” he said, still hesitating.
“Well, it wouldn’t really have been a surprise if you’d planned it, would it?”
And with that, she got him to move, and she saw him begin to loosen up. Anita was glad the staircase was so wide, as they strode down it together.
“I did get one surprise,” she said, indicating the beautiful, elaborate scene surrounding them.
“That’s true,” he said, warming up. “Did you like it?”
Anita nodded, but not as vigorously as she had the previous night. She was glad to have gotten control of herself, now. She could have normal human reactions in front of the prince. That was a start.
“Yes. I loved it, actually.”
She looked to him in time to see just a glimmer of candlelight glint off of his teeth; he was smiling.
“A bit of a fire hazard, though, really,” Hakim said, as they kept descending the stairs.
Anita laughed. “A dramatic fire hazard, though. What is this place?”
They were walking together so leisurely that Anita felt less like she was on a first date and more like she was taking a walk along with someone she’d known for a long time.
“This was one of the first buildings my family bought when we started doing business here. We outgrew it long ago, but it’s good to remember where we started.”
Anita laughed. “So you put a fire hazard in a warehouse that’s been used for the oil industry for years and years?”
He paused mid-step, then laughed. “Yes, it seems I did,” he said, as he recovered and started walking again. “Don’t worry, someone will be around after us to put out all the candles.”
Anita hadn’t been expecting this. She wasn’t sure what she’d expected, exactly, but it definitely hadn’t been someone this down to earth. She’d thought he would be a man who always had his entourage around him, a man who was always just a little divorced from reality. Certainly, when she’d seen the elaborate staging he’d made for her on the stairs, that had seemed to be the case.
But their conversation was showing that Hakim lived in her world, more than she had realized. And together, they strode easily through the streets.
“At least tell me if your surprise is far from here.”
She shook her head. “Nope, not telling.”
“Mm, can you tell me if I’m overdressed for it?”
Anita chuckled. “Oh, you’re definitely overdressed.”
“Right,” he said. “So that narrows it down.”
“Does it, though?” she asked teasingly.
He laughed, sliding his hand down her arm so that he was holding her hand as they walked. “All right, point taken. From here on out, I’ll just wear an old pair of… what do you call them… the jean pants that are also kind of a shirt…”
“Overalls,” Anita supplied, as she watched him making the shape of overall straps with his free hand.
“Right, overalls. From now on, I’ll wear nothing but overalls.”
Anita felt like this date had been nothing but laughing, and she couldn’t help herself. “It’s hilarious imagining you in overalls.”
“Honestly,” he replied, “I’m a little insulted that you even can.”
He turned his head to face her. They were walking forward, now, neither of them looking ahead. She felt like she could kiss him just then. She felt like she could just lean in, and…
Anita stumbled. They’d somehow gone off the curb. She nearly fell but he caught her.
“Well, it’s not easy,” she said, not missing a beat in their conversation, “but I have a wild imagination.”
In mere minutes, they arrived at their destination, although Anita found herself wishing she’d picked somewhere further away.
Anita turned to face him, her face illuminated by the bright, flashing sign of the crazy golf course. “I can’t tell whether I’m catching you at a disadvantage, because they don’t have golf courses in Az Kajir, or if I’m putting myself at a disadvantage by challenging a businessman to a round of golf.”
He raised an eyebrow, but his face gave no indication either way. “Well, we’ll just have to see, won’t we?”
There was a little bit of a wait to play, as there were other parties that had come in in front of them. Hakim seemed unfamiliar with the experience of waiting. He looked around, as though someone should be fixing it for them. That was more the man she had expected, she supposed: looked after for all his life. But he didn’t complain, nor did he really seem to mind waiting. Not as they were, standing hand in hand.
Around twenty minutes later, the competition began, and from the very first shot, Anita knew she was in trouble. Hakim kept shielding his eyes from the flashing lights of the room. The clubs and balls were both neon, and lit up in an omnipresent black light, as did their teeth.
“I should mention; you know we do have golf courses in Az Kajir. The grass takes some encouraging, but we do our best. Have you never been back home?”
With that, he sunk a hole-in-one, and raised his arms in victory.
“Don’t get cocky,” Anita said, as she dropped her ball into the hole on the third shot. “They get harder.”
She was glad the hole-in-one had distracted Hakim from where their conversation had been headed. She didn’t know quite what to tell him. Well, she knew the truth, but she also knew that if Fadi was opposed to her talking to this man, then talking about their homeland and giving exact details about their lives was probably an even greater betrayal.
The reminder of Fadi brought her mood down, and for the next few holes Anita had a difficult time concentrating on where she was and who she was with.
“Is something wrong?” Hakim eventually asked, his voice laden with concern. “Have I done something?”
“No, nothing. Sorry. I was thinking of something sad, but I shouldn’t be. Not tonight.”
He gave her a warm smile, and, again, Anita was tempted, just for a moment, to kiss him.
The game, in the end, was a massacre. Hakim teased Anita relentlessly, up to the limit of what she could take, but no more.
By the time they got out, the night had calmed down considerably. The threatening clouds that had kept Hakim’s helicopter from him had cleared, and the sky above them was lit up with stars. The air had cooled just enough that Anita considered digging out her sweater, but didn’t quite feel the need.
Their eyes were adjusting from the constant bombardment of light and movement inside the crazy golf course. Out here everything seemed hard, and true, and real.
Especially him. Always him.
This had been the night of her life. She would never forget it, and she was glad she had gone for it, whatever Fadi would have to say about it.
“So where to, now?”
Hakim, apparently, wanted it to keep going.
Anita was at a loss. “I… I’m not sure. That’s all I had.”
Hakim looked around them. “It’s a beautiful night. How about we just pick a direction, and walk?”
Anita looked around her. Living in Houston since she was three, she’d gotten to know the city pretty well. But, still, the city seemed different to her tonight. It seemed like a different world entirely.
She agreed, and was expecting for Hakim to pick a direction at random, but instead she felt his hand over her eyes. How had he moved around to get behind her so quickly? She was disoriented by the night, and the memory of the lights and the candles, and the impossibility of her time with this man.
“Point straight ahead,” he told her, and for the first time she thought she could detect a hint of an accent in his voice. It must have been that she could only hear it when he was close to her like this, his lips just inches from her ear.
She did as she was told, and gave way as he began spinning around with her, his free hand on her shoulder. She thought he’d spin her around once, maybe twice, but he kept going. Anita felt herself begin stumbling, and losing control.
“Are you ready?”
His voice was still coming from close to her ear, but she was so dizzy that it was hard to place.
“Whoa there, featherweight,” she heard him say, as her arm collided with his face.
And then his hand was gone from across her eyes, and his other hand was gone from her shoulder, and the warmth of his body was replaced by the growing cool of the night.
Anita stumbled, confused and disoriented, trying to get her bearings. At last, she came to a stop. “That way,” she said, adjusting her arm so that it aligned with a street.
Hakim was still rubbing his jaw, but he took her by the arm anyway. “Right, let’s go.”
“Sorry about that,” she said, as he walked along beside her. “Did I hurt you?”
She liked how he leaned in to talk to her, now.
“You didn’t hurt me, no. Well, nothing that I can’t forgive.”
This road was darker than the others they’d been walking down, but a streetlamp illuminated his winning smile as they passed under it.
Anita hugged his arm close to her. Nothing about the evening had gone as she’d expected, but then, she hadn’t really known what to expect. The direction fate had chosen for them was little-traveled, which would have left them time to talk. But Anita didn’t want to talk. Not now. She just wanted to enjoy his presence, the night, and the city that felt like it was theirs and theirs alone.
Eventually, the path they were walking started to feel more familiar, and Anita found she recognized a few buildings.
“Oh, I know where we are!” she said quietly.
“Oh really?” Hakim asked.
Instead of answering, she took off at a faster pace, breaking to the left and dragging him along with her.
Hakim didn’t question her, only followed along. And when they arrived at a brightly-colored truck, a couple of minutes later, all became clear.
“Oh, I see,” he said. “You just want sweet things.”
“Always,” Anita said, looking up at him. “This is the best late night ice cream truck in Houston. That may not sound like much, but I swear it’s amazing.”
He took her word for it, and waited in line with her, telling the man behind the counter to surprise him, while Anita ordered the same salted caramel and chocolate concoction she always got when she and her friends found themselves in the vicinity of the truck late at night.
As they were walking away, a thought occurred to Anita. “You like surprises, don’t you?”
He seemed taken aback. It was a moment before he answered. “You know, there was a time when I didn’t. But tonight, I think they’re growing on me.”
They meandered, not walking anywhere in particular. Suddenly, Hakim pulled back and stared at his ice cream as though it had bitten him.
“What?” Anita asked.
“There are… there are leaves in my ice cream.”
Anita had to giggle. “What, really?”
He held his cone out to her to take a taste.
“Ohhh,” she said, when she’d found out what he meant. “That’s kale. I’m not sure what they’ve done with it to make it go in ice cream, but that’s definitely kale. The hipsters always sneak up on you when you’re not looking.”
He took another lick, thoughtfully. “You know, even with leaves in it, it isn’t bad.”
Surprises. Good ones. That’s what tonight was, wasn’t it?
They walked on until they found a fountain square. There were a few people milling about, but no one really staying there. Someone, maybe the city, or perhaps a prankster, had put soap in it, and there were bubbles piling up in the fountain.
They sat at the fountain’s edge, and finished off their ice cream. Anita found that her legs were getting cold, and instinctively leaned them into his.
Without a word, Hakim took off his suit jacket, and put it over her bare legs. She looked at him questioningly, but he only shrugged.
“You were cold,” he said, like it was a simple matter of cause and effect.
He took care of her. Or he wanted to, she thought.
The idea sent a wave of guilt through her; she wasn’t quite sure why at first, but then it dawned on her: Fadi was her protector. But Fadi thought she needed protecting from this man.
She looked at Hakim like she was seeing him for the first time that night. What was it about him that Fadi found so threatening?
He had a look to him like he could do some harm—if you were his business rival, that was. He seemed shrewd and smart, and willing to act decisively. But what harm would he cause her?
He wasn’t old-fashioned, if that was what Fadi was worried about. There was no way he was still clinging to the old rivalries of their homelands. Sure, he seemed to respect his family, in the way that he had talked about them, briefly, while they were playing crazy golf. But there was a reason that he had been dressed in a suit when the whole party around him had been wearing traditional Middle-Eastern clothes. He was a man of this century, with impeccable English and what seemed to be an American mindset.
And if they’d been followed around by any kind of security team all night, Anita sure hadn’t seen them. No, there was nothing about Hakim that made Anita think for even a moment he was a potential danger. But she knew her father thought differently.
“What are you thinking about?”
Hakim’s face was full of concern, and Anita realized she must have let the guilt and worry she was feeling show through.
She considered just shrugging it off, and telling him it was nothing. But she didn’t want to lie to him. Not now. She wanted to be honest with him.
She took the last bite of her ice cream for courage, and jumped into it.
“I’ve been forbidden from seeing you.”
He sat back in surprise. “Really?” he said. “That’s a first. Usually it’s my parents that disapprove, not the other way around.”
“Do you know why?”
He got the wrong idea. “No, why?”
Anita shook her head. “No, I was really asking. Because I don’t. He says you’re dangerous. He says all of you are dangerous. But you don’t seem dangerous to me.”
Hakim put on a mock-serious face, and posed like a figure on a movie poster. “Oh, don’t I?”
She hit him lightly on his arm. “No, if you must know.”
She should tell him now, she thought. She should tell him she had been serious when she turned him down the first time, although she hadn’t shared with him the whole reason. She should tell him that her father meant the world to her, that, even if he was wrong, she couldn’t betray him. But even as she opened her mouth to say the words, she knew that she couldn’t betray Hakim.
“Well, then I guess you’re the one who’s being dangerous tonight. Breaking all the rules.”
She liked the way he teased her. At first glance he seemed to be carved out of stone, but when he teased her he seemed so much more approachable.
“Well, just one rule,” she said, wishing she had more ice cream left.
“I don’t know about that. Seems like a waste. If you’re going to break one rule, you might as well break a few.”
She could see an idea coming into his head, and she wasn’t sure she liked it.
“You may be above the law, but I’m not,” she said, trying to head the whole mad enterprise off at the pass.
“Oh, please… do you mean to tell me there’s nothing that you’ve been wanting to do that would get you in trouble?”
Anita didn’t want to answer his question, but her mind thought back, looking for an answer. When she thought of it, she groaned, but there would be no helping it now. It was going to happen.
“Oh, you have to tell me now. You can’t pretend you haven’t thought of something.”
He was on his feet, now, ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Anita hesitated. “It’s silly. It’s the most ridiculous thing…”
He cocked his head and raised an eyebrow. “Maybe I like ridiculous things.”
She sighed. “Oh, all right. But you can’t laugh. Back in high school, there was… a kind of tradition. Every year, some of the seniors would sneak into the zoo at night, after it was closed.”
He didn’t laugh. “And what did you do?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t go with them. I was too afraid my father would find out. They looked at the animals, I guess?”
“Come,” he said, offering his hand to help her stand. “Which way to the zoo?”
It wasn’t far from the front entrance, but they had to sneak around the side boundary. There were security guards at the entrance, and huge, tall fences.
Anita knew where the easiest place to enter the grounds was. She’d gone with her friends that day, but hadn’t actually done it. It was only at the last possible moment that she had chickened out and walked home alone.
This time, her trouble was mostly in climbing the fence in the skirt she’d brought, but Hakim helped her over.
And there they were, only four years too late: standing after hours in the zoo.
She had been there before. Mostly when she was young, but a few times since. It wasn’t exactly a scintillating experience, usually. But this time, just wandering down the paths and looking at the mostly-sleeping animals, it had an unbelievable thrill to it. She was where she shouldn’t be, with a man she shouldn’t be with. And she’d never felt better in her life.
They held hands as they meandered around, and the nervousness that Anita had felt when they’d jumped the fence began to fade more and more, until it was all but nonexistent.
And then, with one call from a suspicious security guard, instantly it was back.
They ran, as fast as their feet would carry them, back to where they’d jumped the fence to get in. Anita was afraid, but she couldn’t stop herself from quietly giggling.
Hakim lifted her up and over the fence before she even had the chance to try for herself. She realized now how he had been letting her try before, only to make herself feel better. His strong arms raised her up as though it took no effort at all.
She slid along the tree branch that made entering possible, and then dropped down on the other side, watching Hakim as he did the same.
Then they stood, hearts beating hard in their chests, waiting to hear any sign that the guard had come after them.
When they heard nothing, Anita figured they’d gotten away clean. But the adrenaline of almost getting caught was still pumping through her system. She felt alive, in a way she never had before.
And then she felt Hakim’s arm, the one that had just lifted her so easily, slide around her back, and she felt him leaning into her, and she felt his strong, soft lips on hers.
She felt as though she was melting into him. She couldn’t feel anything in her body except for where she was touching him, and she couldn’t think of anything except for how she had longed for this moment her whole life without even knowing it.
When he drew back, she lay her head against his chest, listening to the way it rumbled when he spoke.
“Will you see me again?”
Her lips curled upward in a smile. “Does my prince command it?”
Her head bounced softly on his chest as he let out a quiet laugh. “Oh, he does. He absolutely does.”
The Sheikh’s Secret Princess is on sale now
And here are the first few chapters of my previous book, The Greek Billionaire’s Marriage Matchmaker.
Zoey Forde sat sullenly in her seat in the badly-lit subway car, squeezed horribly by the rather rotund gentleman sitting beside her. A large crowd of people had shoved their way on board at the last stop, and were jostling for space like blocks in a badly-played game of Tetris. The armrest was beginning to bite into her leg, but she didn’t complain—she knew she was lucky to be sitting at all. She tried to enjoy it while it lasted; she was sure she wouldn’t be so lucky when she had to change trains.
Twenty minutes had passed since the dark-haired beauty had left her Brooklyn apartment. She had not been in a particularly sunny mood then, but now, tucked in among a forest of bodies, she was perfectly miserable.
There has to be an easier way! she thought to herself, before she remembered the alternative to the underground sardine can was the New York traffic. The subway might have been bad, but that was a fate worse than death.
Zoey swore quietly, but not quietly enough.
“Hey, lady! Watch your language! There’s kids around here!”
She sighed deeply, while several people laughed. It wasn’t even nine in the morning, but a ten-year-old was already telling her off.
She ignored the kid who’d reprimanded her, as well as the guy standing to her right, who kept tossing creepy glances in her direction. Zoey kept an eye on him. She carried pepper spray in her purse, and she was not afraid to use it.
“And there’re twenty more minutes of this, at least,” she murmured, frowning at the wrinkles the close quarters were putting in her cream business suit.
Desperately seeking a distraction, Zoey fished her smartphone out of her purse, and went straight to her favorite news site.
The first article she saw was about some Hollywood mogul who was producing a show his girlfriend had come up with. Zoey shook her head at that, but tried not to dismiss the girl’s talents just because she was sleeping with her producer. The next story she came to was about a senator in Washington, DC who was resigning because of a sex scandal. That seemed to happen so often that Zoey wondered how the entire Congress wasn’t female by now. Finally, her eyes alighted on a story that instantly caught her attention.
“Former actress Emma Knightly, 25, famous for her show-stealing performances in the Marble House trilogy, today announced she is divorcing 55-year-old millionaire fast fashion designer Eddie Brooks Jr. The couple were married on April 7, 2015, just a year and two days ago. Sources close to Ms. Knightly tell us the marriage broke down almost immediately.”
Zoey didn’t bother to finish the article, looking instead for an e-book to read, hopelessness welling in her veins. She clearly remembered the day the Knightly woman had stepped foot in her mother’s agency—no one that had been there would ever forget it. She had glided in, wearing the long white satin dress of the 1940s songstress she had made famous in her Marble House movies. Her bleach-blonde hair was cut short, and she wore what looked like a diamond tiara. She moved her thin white limbs in imitation of a queen, and pointing regally at the secretary, demanded to be announced.
“This is supposedly the city’s premier matchmaking service,” she had started in arrogant tones, “but I doubt you’ll be able to find someone worthy of a date with me. I very nearly earned an Academy Award, after all…”
Emma had continued her boasting until Zoey’s mother, Melinda Forde, swept into the elegant reception area. Feeling something very much like disgust, Zoey saw her mother’s ersatz smile and heard her rolling, sycophantic, voice.
“Welcome to Melinda Forde Singles, my dear. Please allow me to say that your performance in Marble House moved myself and my daughter to tears. ‘Jenifer Swan’s brief and tragic music career is portrayed to perfection by Ms. Knightly’,” she said, quoting a review she had read in the Times. “I just hope our agency can perform as well for you as you have for your adoring public. A client like you deserves only our finest, most experienced matchmaker.” So saying, Melinda had taken the former actress back to Zoey’s stylish, well-appointed rear office.
The train came to a halt, and Zoey inwardly celebrated as the rotund man saw his stop and left the train. She swore in her head when that gentleman was replaced by a fossil of a woman that smelled strongly of liniment.
Zoey had settled on reading A Study in Scarlet, but between the smell and her thoughts, she was finding it hard to concentrate. In her mind’s eye, she saw herself sitting at her desk. Emma Knightly sat across from her, sipping a glass of complimentary champagne. Zoey was asking the actress a series of question and plugging her curt responses into her computer. The answers, and Emma’s dismissive nature, were grinding her nerves, but Zoey kept her composure. That was her job, after all. Within five minutes, it was perfectly clear what Emma wanted: a wealthy man who would be mesmerized by her beauty and put his fortunes at her command. It was obvious Emma didn’t care about love in the slightest, and the moment she realized that, Zoey knew she should have sent the woman away, or at least tried to get her to consider something other than her materialistic desires, but even back then, Zoey had known there was precious little point.
Zoey had long ago learned that trying to argue with customers was more trouble than it was worth. She’d scanned the system until her eyes landed on Edward Alva Brooks Jr., a man that fit the bill perfectly. She was sure the fifty-five-year-old would be attracted to Emma’s body, and that Emma would be attracted to his money. They had nothing in common, no shared values, nothing two people could build a lasting relationship on, but Zoey didn’t argue. She simply made the match.
She forced herself to keep reading her Sherlock Holmes mystery. She knew it was the only relief she was going to have for several hours. In a few moments she would transfer to another train, which would take her the rest of the way to the Manhattan offices of her mother’s relationship services agency. From the moment she arrived until four-thirty that afternoon, Zoey would be tasked with ignoring her own emotions, lying to people, and above all, turning a profit.
All day long, she would listen to women—almost always former actresses and models—complain about the men that had formerly been in their lives. How they neglected them, how they lied and cheated, how they never earned enough money, and on and on. Men came though Melinda Forde’s doors as well, with complaints of draconian women, gold diggers, and unfaithful lovers. Each of these people would tell Zoey they were looking for true love, but when she questioned them, she always found that was the last thing they sought. And on it would go, hour after hour, until the hypocrisy became a physical weight upon her heart. Each day, it became harder and harder to suffer through, and Zoey was sure that soon, quite soon the way things were going, something in her mind was going to snap.
A sudden thought cut through her misery like a laser, and all at once, Zoey felt a small welling of hope within her. She only had to make it to the end of the day, and then something wonderful would happen, because for the first time in forever, she had a date of her own that evening. She’d had to sneak behind her mother’s back and use the Ember dating app to accomplish that much, but she felt that the ends justified the means.
The guy she would be meeting, Blake Howard, didn’t seem obsessed with hooking up, and it was obvious to Zoey that he’d taken the unusual step of actually reading her profile before he messaged her. None of his messages went along the usual line of Ember conversations, which generally boiled down to “when can we hook up?” He was handsome, intelligent, and soft-spoken, but a streak of mischief ran through him that Zoey had to admit she found exciting. She had enjoyed every one of their conversations, and was really looking forward to finally meeting him.
“Maybe all of this bullshit has a silver lining,” she murmured to herself, and the fossil sitting beside her gave her a strange look.
Even after all the time she’d spent on the train, Zoey still had six blocks to walk before she reached her mother’s building. The creepy guy from the subway could have been trying to follow her surreptitiously, so she walked directly toward the first NYPD officer she saw. He broke off his pursuit, and Zoey pointed him out to the police, before heading toward the miserable day that waited for her. She tried to focus her mind on her upcoming date, and cling to the tiny bit of hope it afforded her.
Eventually, she arrived at a block that was dripping with affluence. Every building featured impressive aesthetic touches; elegant hanging plants and outdoor torches. Each building had a clean, modern look that was somehow appealing, despite the fact that everything inside them was ungodly expensive. Zoey glanced at a fashion accessories store across the street from her workplace, wincing as she remembered, from personal reconnaissance, that the cheapest thing in there was priced at eighteen hundred dollars.
Zoey turned to face Melinda Forde Singles, a striking building fronted with gold-flecked black marble. The name was written in letters of burnished gold above the brass-handled glass doors. Zoey let herself in, determined to push through the day as fast as possible.
Inside, the agency looked a lot like the lobby of a boutique hotel. An intricately-patterned carpet, handmade by an association of women in Afghanistan, covered the floor along one wall. Generally, even the most conceited of Melinda’s customers couldn’t help commenting on its beautiful design, and as she passed it now, Zoey could see why.
On top of the carpet was a long white sofa that customers regularly reported was unbelievably comfortable. Round, glass end tables sat on either side of the sofa. These bore gorgeous porcelain lamps that shimmered in the artificial light they produced. A glass table was just in front of the sofa, standing on curved, brass feet.
The entire space gave an impression of sophistication, and even Zoey, who knew that an impression was all it was, had to resist being sucked in by everything. Despite the marble-topped receptionist’s desk and the oak-paneled walls, she knew she was walking toward her own little prison.
Along the rear wall, the paneling gave way to a frosted glass door with golden block letters placed at eye level. “Zoey Amelia Forde,” they proclaimed. “Senior Relationship Services Expert.” The title sounded official enough, but Zoey knew it was mostly bullshit.
She walked into her office and booted up her laptop, determined to get through her personal emails before her mother came through to spy on her.
Zoey’s computer sat on a smaller writing desk that was built into an elaborate wall unit made of handsome ebony wood. The cabinet doors were arched at the top, and a metal that looked like silver made lace patterns across the glass. Leather-bound books and dozens of curios filled the cabinets in neat arrangements. Very few of them actually belonged to Zoey, however—most of the books and trinkets were her mother’s idea of creating atmosphere.
She quickly logged in to her email account and began sifting through her inbox. She was happy to see a message from Blake confirming their date that evening. With a small smile she skimmed through the other emails, a mixture of thank you notes from her previous clients, charity appeals, and sales alerts from stores she had shopped at recently. She archived some of the messages and spent a few minutes replying to others until a sharp series of knocks rang out against the wooden frame of the door.
Before Zoey could say anything in response, the door swung open to reveal her mother.
Melinda Forde still looked every bit the striking beauty queen she had been two decades ago. Her long, jet-black hair shone under the light. Her eyes were intense, radiating a fierce pride. The deep, golden-brown irises always made Zoey think of semiprecious stones. Her thin, beautifully-angled face was nearly flawless, with only a few frown lines and a tiny bit of puffiness under the eyes. In the flowing, crimson dress she was wearing, she looked like nothing less than royalty.
“Good morning, Zoey dear,” she said, as Zoey guiltily clicked away from her inbox. “I thought I would bring your first client of today through personally. You’ll find the gentleman listed in the registry. Over the past few years, he has become something of a leader in his field, and I’ve assured him that, as our finest expert, you will be best placed to address his needs.”
With that, Melinda turned to face someone standing in the corridor. “I hope you have a pleasant day,” she said as she swept back through the door.
By this time, Zoey had turned to her office desk and the company PC perched upon it. Scanning the registry, she saw that her first client that day was a man called Alexis Manolas.
The gentleman that entered was nearly six feet tall and wore a light tan. His black hair was slicked back and crowned a strong face that looked at once rugged and spangled with boyish charm. He wore slacks, a black turtleneck, and a brown jacket through which Zoey could easily spot a toned midsection.
Not bad at all, she thought appreciatively as he shut the door and took a seat on the black leather ottoman angled in front of her desk.
Under Zoey’s desk, tucked out of sight, was a mini refrigerator. Reaching into this, she produced a chilled glass of champagne.
“A complimentary glass of champagne, Mr. Zakiridis?” she asked, holding it out to him.
He accepted the offering with a small laugh. “I suppose the assumed name was pointless. I apologize for the deception, but the Post and the Daily News would have had a field day if they found out I was here.”
“You can rely on our complete discretion,” Zoey replied, extending her hand, “Welcome to Melinda Forde, Mr. Zakiridis.”
The man claiming to be Alexis Manolas was, in fact, Mr. Stelios Zakiridis, a property magnate who had emigrated from Greece as a child. Around eight years ago, as best as Zoey could remember, he had taken over his family’s business, the Dolphin Realty Group, and in his short tenure as CEO, had overseen unprecedented growth, making him one of New York’s youngest billionaires.
“When there are billboards with your face on them all over the city, you need more than a name to disguise your identity,” Zoey said with a smile.
“Yes, I suppose you’re right about that,” Stelios answered mirthfully. “I’m afraid your mother failed to explain how this process works.”
“Why don’t you begin by telling me what you’re looking for in a partner?”
“Well, I’ve just turned thirty-two, so I feel I’m getting older, and when I think about it, I begin to question what I’ve been doing all this time. I’ve spent so much time in the salt mines that it didn’t occur to me until recently that I’d like to have someone to share my life with. I’d like to meet an intelligent woman with a winning personality who will appreciate me for who I really am.”
Boy, are you ever in the wrong place, Zoey thought, but she didn’t allow the smile she was wearing to waver.
Her mother’s agency catered specifically to the wealthy, and Zoey was used to sitting across from millionaires on a daily basis. Even by Melinda Forde standards, however, Stelios was a huge client—one that could take the entire agency to new heights, if handled correctly. Zoey had to ignore the knot that had formed in her stomach at hearing Stelios speak so plainly about his needs. She knew that very soon she would have to saddle him with one of the women on her list, any one of whom could quite easily ruin his life and shatter his faith in love.
“That’s a very nice sentiment, Mr. Zakiridis,” she said with fake perkiness. “I’d like to ask you a few questions so I can build a profile for you. That way, through a combination of experience, and our patented algorithm, I can match you with someone who will fit your needs exactly.”
The words flowed from her mouth like water, as they did every day, but not a single one of them was true. The only algorithm that existed at Melinda Forde was Zoey making a best-guess selection. She asked Stelios her standard questions, noting down his responses, but the more he talked, the guiltier she felt.
He’s in the wrong place, she tried to tell herself. A grown man—a billionaire—should know better than to trust a dating service to help him find love. It’s like getting financial advice from psychic friends: if you’re dumb enough to fall for it, you can’t blame people for taking advantage of you.
No matter what she told herself, however, she couldn’t help feeling horrible about what she was about to do. A sudden thought filled her with disgust: a year ago, she wouldn’t even have considered causing someone misery for the money. Now here she was, trying to justify it.
“I can’t do it,” she mumbled bitterly. “Not this time.”
“Did you say something, Ms. Forde?” Stelios inquired gently.
“Yes, I did, Mr. Zakiridis. I need to be completely honest with you, even if it really isn’t good for business. I truly hate to disappoint you, but all of the women we currently have registered are more interested in wealth than anything else, and it’s my professional opinion that dating them for any length of time would make you perfectly miserable.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Stelios replied, unable to quite believe his ears.
“I’m afraid not,” Zoey replied sullenly.
“Well, I appreciate you being honest with me,” he said, getting to his feet with a somewhat bemused expression on his face.
Zoey let him out of her office, and in a moment or two, he had left the building altogether.
Triumph blared through her heart for a few seconds; for the first time in more than a year, she had gone against her mother, and spared someone weeks—months, even—of bitterness and disappointment. But it all came crashing down the moment her mother opened her office door.
“Zoey, what in God’s name have you done?” Melinda asked, struggling to keep her voice under control. “You simply needed to match him with any one of the women on our rolls. That’s literally all you had to do, Zoey. It isn’t complicated, which is why I want to know why the receptionist saw him leaving here so quickly.”
“Well, Mother,” returned Zoey, “there was no one on those rolls he could have had any sort of relationship with. Those women would only use him for his money. They wouldn’t care about anything else.”
“I’m using him for his damn money!” Melinda returned hotly. “We aren’t running a charity here. When someone comes through those doors, they need to leave with a date. That’s your job, Zoey!”
“I thought my job was ‘Relationship Services Expert’,” she said sarcastically, “helping people to find actual love. And yet so far, no one I’ve matched has lasted longer than a year!”
“Darling, actual love is for fairy tales, songs on the radio, and nitwits with small brains and huge bank accounts. You’re not nine years old anymore, so don’t give me that talk about true love. You’ve just let millions of dollars’ worth of business, advertising and influence walk right out of my door! Why did you do that? Because of some stupid fantasy?”
“Because I didn’t want to be as cynical as you!”
Zoey didn’t know where the words had come from, or why she had shouted them with such ferocity, but Melinda moved toward her so quickly, the woman might as well have been gliding. She lowered her voice and glared at her daughter with cold anger in her eyes.
“Let me tell you something. This ‘cynical’ woman is the only reason you have anything right now. Every scrap of food that passes down that disrespectful little throat of yours is there because I allow it to be, and unless you want me to throw your lazy ass out on the street, you’re going to wrap up this sentimental nonsense and do your job!”
Zoey thought she could hear people gathering outside the door, but her mother didn’t seem the least bit worried about who could hear what she was saying.
“Not another word, girl. I’m your mother, and I’m not asking, I’m telling you what you’re going to do. You’re going to call Zakiridis back, and you’re going to tell him you’ve found a woman good enough for him to marry. If you haven’t done that by noon today, you’ll be gone. Do I make myself clear?”
“Crystal!” Zoey growled through clenched teeth.
Without another word, Melinda stormed out, leaving her daughter seething in her wake.
Zoey’s insides were writhing with hatred, and the worst of it was, as much as she hated to admit it, her mother was right. If she was fired, she only had enough saved to last her a few weeks. After that, if she couldn’t find work, things would get difficult for her extremely quickly. Every cell in her body was against calling Stelios back, but in lieu of a surprise lottery win, she simply had no better options.
“Let’s just get this over with,” she said, picking up the office phone. Checking her records, she found the Greek’s number and dialed, swearing liberally as she did so.
“Good morning, Mr. Zakiridis,” she said when he answered. “This is Zoey calling from Melinda Forde Singles. Sir, after our meeting this morning I went through our records with a fine-tooth comb because I simply hate to have to disappoint our clients. I discovered that I was wrong earlier, and that I do in fact have a woman that matches your profile. Her name is Brie Hudson. She was formerly a backing singer for the rhythm and blues group Nu Vogue, and now she’s an up-and-coming reality star. Brie exudes each of the qualities you listed,” Zoey lied. “I think you’ll make an excellent match.”
“Well, okay, that’s an unexpected development, and she sounds very interesting,” Stelios replied. “I look forward to meeting her. My car has internet access. Let’s set up the details, and then I can pay you online.”
“That will work perfectly, Mr. Zakiridis.” Zoey said, struggling with all her might to keep her voice light. She kept reminding herself that she had no choice; that it was either this or unemployment.
After hanging up with Stelios, Zoey tried to drown out her guilty thoughts by wrapping herself up in her other cases. It barely worked, and ten minutes later, her mother returned to her office, wearing a huge false smile that made Zoey feel sick to her stomach.
“That’s my good little girl,” Melinda said in saccharine tones. “Now, honestly, Zoey, that wasn’t so bad, was it? I have a great deal more money than I had this morning, and thanks to my forgiving nature, you still have a job. You should really be thanking me for keeping a cool head and looking after the both of us all this time.”
“Were you like this when Dad…” Zoey began, fighting down her emotions.
“You leave your father out of this!” Melinda returned harshly, looking as if she had been stung with a whip. She headed back out of Zoey’s office, giving her daughter a dirty look as she did so.
Zoey sighed in defeat before returning to her computer and the rest of her workload for that morning, trying not to think that all of that fuss had been over one client and that she had several more left to match before lunch.
Five hours and nine clients later, Zoey boarded a subway train and headed for home. She took it as a good sign that this time round she had room to sit, without having her body shoved against anything. She needed every good sign she could get.
Zoey sighed deeply as she told herself that the day was finally over, and she was going to put every thought of it out of her mind. There was a date in three hours that needed her undivided attention, after all. It was going to be her first one in months, and she was determined to enjoy it.
Halfway back, Zoey spotted an adorable little girl in a pink and white dress. She couldn’t have been a day over five. Her bushy brown hair flew in all directions as she ran around her mother’s legs. Every so often, she’d grab at a pole to steady herself, or else teeter into her mother’s arms. She was peppering her mom with questions at auctioneer speeds, and the overload of cuteness swelled in Zoey’s heart. Almost before she knew it, a smile was playing on her lips, and all her problems seemed to recede to the edges of her mind.
“CDs, DVDs, Blu-rays. Two for twenty,” a voice suddenly called out, and Zoey could only laugh at how spectacularly its owner had ruined the moment.
The trip back felt shorter than the one she had made that morning, and in not too long Zoey was back in Brooklyn, at the door to her apartment building, a five-story, brick affair. Zoey took the elevator straight up to the fourth floor and made a beeline for her apartment.
Inside, she went to her bedroom and began peeling off her clothes. Her room featured a wall unit on the wall opposite the door. It had a small wardrobe on each side, and a chest of drawers in the middle. A thirty-two-inch television sat on top of the drawers, and a mirror was fixed to the wall above that. To the right of the door, as Zoey came in, sat a small nightstand, and a queen-sized bed stood directly beside that.
Wearing nothing but her underwear, Zoey went to the bathroom and filled the tub with bath soap, beads, and soothing hot water. When she liked the temperature, she shed her underthings and dove in, shutting her eyes and allowing herself to relax.
For the first time that day, she felt completely at peace as the beads invigorated her body, and the water drew the tension out of it. Her disgust with her mother and hatred of her job seemed to evaporate, leaving only blissful silence. The water enveloped her like a blanket, and the longer she lay in it, the longer she wanted to stay. But Blake was meeting her at Big Tony’s in a little under two hours’ time, and she could barely remember the last time she had been on a date. That fact barely bothered her now, but Zoey knew that would change when she was out of the water.
At last, she grabbed a nearby loofah and began washing in earnest. Soon, she added the spray of the shower so that she could give her hair a thorough washing. In minutes, she emerged from her bathroom feeling refreshed, but whatever spell the bath had put her under was broken, and her stomach was working itself into knots.
Zoey was convinced she would say or do something awkward, or worse, draw a blank in the middle of a conversation. For some time now, her job at Melinda Forde had been almost her only extended daily contact with people. There, she merely had to rely on a script built on lies, but she was going to have to wing it soon and she didn’t know if she was ready.
“At least I clean up okay,” Zoey said, staring in her mirror. In her stunning sapphire dress that accented her figure and matched her eyes, she felt fairly confident that Blake was going to be blown away by her, and felt a spreading sense of hope as she called herself a cab.
Fortunately for Zoey, Big Tony’s was situated in a part of Manhattan that was much closer to her apartment than the dating agency. Traffic was light by New York standards, and it wasn’t difficult for her to get there at all. Her only problem on the ride over was that the cab driver was seemingly addicted to the sound of his own voice.
The diner was a small building with a simple welcome mat and glass doors that bore steel handles. Inside, there were around two dozen elegantly-decorated round tables that appealed to Zoey immediately. A soft jazz instrumental wafted through the intimately-lighted space, and pictures of famous New Yorkers hung on the walls. It was one of those places that sold the atmosphere it provided nearly as much as the items on its menu.
Zoey allowed herself to be led to the table Blake had reserved, and ordered a Long Island Iced Tea while she waited for him to arrive. She was still jittery, but her mood had greatly improved.
Ten minutes later, she was nibbling on a roll, mostly out of simply needing something to do. She texted Blake, only to get an automatic reply. Zoey didn’t like the look of that in the slightest, but she told herself to stay positive. After all, it had only been ten minutes; people were late all the time, and busy people set their smartphones to automatic reply—she had done it herself just a few days ago. But two more drinks and twenty minutes later, things began to get embarrassing.
“Miss, are you ready to order now, or are you still waiting for the rest of your party?”
Her waitress had asked the question with all the politeness in the world, but it was clear from her tone what she thought had happened.
Zoey was unwilling to accept that yet. Not after everything else that had gone wrong that day.
“He texted to say he was running a bit late,” she lied. “Got a flat on the way over here. They’ve said it may take a bit of time to fix, so he suggested I order an appetizer in the meantime.”
With that, Zoey put in an order for Asian dumplings and prayed she would have someone to share them with by the time they arrived. She did not, but mercifully her waitress tactfully avoided the issue.
Zoey found she could barely taste the ginger-flavored pot stickers before her. She wanted to cry. Not in the composed, quiet, way an adult cries, but with the wild abandon of a child throwing a full blown temper tantrum. She wanted to kick her legs and scream “it’s not fair” at the top of her lungs. She wanted someone to wipe her eyes and tell her everything would be all right. But she knew her mother was right about one thing: she wasn’t nine anymore. Adults didn’t get to throw tantrums.
Zoey was perfectly aware that there was no point in doing so, but she waited another fifteen minutes anyway, just to give him the benefit of the doubt. By that point, she had been at Big Tony’s for a full hour and texted Blake three more times.
She finally settled her bill, feeling dejected and unloved, and took the subway back home, no longer caring what an army of jostling people might do to her dress.
“Some relationship expert I turned out to be,” she muttered dejectedly. “I try to help people find love all day, but I can’t even find a good match for myself.”
By the time she reached her apartment, Zoey felt as if a storm cloud was hanging over her. She fell into bed and reflected that, aside from the sympathetic waitress, at least there were no witnesses to her humiliation, and that it was still possible, if unlikely, that Blake had an excellent excuse for not showing up.
The next morning, however, Zoey woke up to a very long text from Blake, explaining where he had been the previous night. As it turned out, about two hours before the date, he had discovered the Facebook page of a woman he used to know, named Elmyra. In high school, Blake had allegedly carried a torch for the girl, but he’d never had the courage to tell her so. He had messaged her, and the two had talked for several hours. It had been long past midnight when the conversation ended, and only then had he remembered his rendezvous with Zoey. He apologized for standing her up, but even more, he was sorry to report he and Elmyra had decided to go out on a date.
Zoey’s face crumpled as she read the message. She had been forgotten. Just plain forgotten, and dumped via text message. She couldn’t decide whether to cry or break everything within reach, so she settled for swearing furiously every few moments. She called the agency and told her mother she was sick because she didn’t think she could face looking at another human being.
Zoey remained at home all that day and the next one, seething at being so horribly cast away. Her phone lay on the floor in several pieces—she had thrown it against the wall when Blake texted to ask if she could recommend a good hookah bar for him and Elmyra to meet at.
By the morning of the third day, Zoey felt reasonably sure she could get back to work without breaking down at her desk, so she got ready and hopped on the subway.
She would have been stuck standing the entire way to Manhattan, except the five-year-old kid from a few days ago was there again, and she talked her into taking her seat. Half a dozen people praised the girl for doing what any of them easily could have, and she took the accolades in her stride, giving most of the credit to her mother for teaching her manners.
Zoey thought about what her mother was teaching her: cynicism, deception, apathy and greed. She had to admit that Melinda had been a much more loving person a long time ago, before her relationship with Zoey’s father had started to go south. But Zoey didn’t want to spend her commute thinking about relationships—she would have enough of that to do when she got to work.
She picked up her smartphone and went to her favorite news site. Almost immediately, she saw something among the top stories that made her sigh.
“Spotted at the city’s exclusive Three Rivers restaurant: real estate magnate Stelios Zakiridis and reality television star Brie Hudson. Speculation is that the pair are dating, though neither could be reached for comment.”
The article was accompanied by several paparazzi photographs of Stelios and Brie in the vicinity of the restaurant. Zoey couldn’t help noting that her client wasn’t smiling in any of them.
“Melinda Forde strikes again,” she muttered. “Well, at the very least this will get my mother off my back for a while. She might even be in a good mood for once.”
And yet, Zoey felt a nameless sort of worry, like another boot was about to drop. She tried to ignore it, instead focusing on the old guy a few seats down. He was singing an old soul ballad in an effort to try and woo a woman half his age. She was listening politely, but it was obvious it wasn’t working. Nearby, two teenagers were filming the whole thing for YouTube. Zoey briefly toyed with the idea of belting out the old Carmen Sandiego theme, but in the end she decided she had enough problems already without a train full of people looking at her awkwardly.
When Zoey arrived at work, it was to find a very conspicuous looking black town car in front of the building. The moment she saw it, she had an ominous feeling, and when she went inside, it grew stronger still. Her office door was open and she could hear an animated conversation going on inside. Her mother was talking to someone, and there were no prizes for guessing who it was.
Tentatively, Zoey stepped inside.
“Oh, there you are, Zoey dear. We’ve just been talking about you. Mr. Zakiridis has some concerns he would like you to address. I think I shall just leave you to it. Have a pleasant day, Mr. Zakiridis.”
Before Zoey could utter a word of protest, Melinda was gone. Zoey saw the bottle of champagne she kept in her fridge was on her desk. It was nearly halfway gone.
She turned to Stelios, who looked very disgruntled indeed. His hair was disheveled and his eyes were a little wild.
Seeing her staring, he smoothed his hair back and took a breath. “Let me see,” he began in a voice he was clearly trying to keep even, “if I can convey to you what happened to me last night…”
“She sounded sweet enough on the phone, and even sweeter when she found out who I was, and why I was calling. We set up the date, and she asked me to send a limousine for her because she had been feeling a little down lately and thought a little pomp and circumstance would help her feel better.”
Zoey nodded, listening intently.
“I bought that story, and I picked her up. I suggested we see a Broadway play. The moment I said that, I regretted it. All she would talk about afterward was her own experiences onstage. She went on about her former music group until we got to the theater, and started on her reality career until the play started. She whispered all the way through, trying to explain acting techniques and critiquing the actors’ performances until the intermission. When we stepped into the bar, we were told we would not be welcome at the second half.”
Zoey nodded empathetically, the knot in her stomach tightening.
“When Brie discovered this, she made such a fuss that the theater ushers called in security. I had to make a huge donation to the theater, and promise to keep Brie silent, in order to see the remainder of the play. She apologized so convincingly, and remained so quiet throughout the second half that, remembering your recommendation,” he said the last word somewhat resentfully, “I gave her a second chance. I asked her to pick a restaurant and of course she picks The Three Rivers. One of the most expensive restaurants in the city. Its waiting list is legendary. But I had already agreed to take her out, and I really wanted to try and make the evening work.
So we head to the restaurant and manage to get a table after I have an expensive little talk with the management. The wait staff is slow because the place is packed, and Brie quickly loses all patience. She’s admonishing the poor staff members, criticizing the chef, at one point she threw a glass of wine in a server’s face. The poor woman just snapped and leaped at Brie. I spent the next ten minutes trying to keep them from killing each other. They caused hundreds of dollars’ worth of damage. Customers and staff were running all over the place until security came in to restore order. I’ve been threatened with several…”
“Mr. Zakiridis!” Zoey interrupted.
She couldn’t listen anymore. She felt sorry for the guy, sure, but it wasn’t like she hadn’t tried to spare him everything he had gone through. It was unfair that she was on the hot seat for something her mother had forced her to do. Her mind was whirling at a mile a minute, desperately trying to think of something she could say that wouldn’t get her fired.
“Look, I’m sorry you had such a terrible experience. Sometimes our profiles…”
“I’d rather not hear about profiles right now. The entire story will be in the gossip columns later today. I’ll be asked about the incident, and when I am, I’ll be bound to mention Melinda Forde. But I won’t do that if you’ll do one thing for me.”
Zoey didn’t like the sound of that at all, but if Stelios followed through with his threat, it could ruin her mother, and maybe cost her her job in the process.
“What is it that you would like me to do?” she asked tentatively.
“I want you to agree to go on a date with me, Ms. Forde. After all, it was your recommendation that started all this. Brie Hudson was an unparalleled disaster, the likes of which I hope to never see again. I really think this is the best way for you to make up for it, don’t you?” he asked, folding his arms, and eyeing her slyly.
Zoey was stunned into silence, unable to think of an appropriate response. In her mind, she struggled to discern what was motivating Stelios to do this. She was certain it wasn’t really to make up for sending him out with Brie Hudson. What’s more, he was a client. He was attractive—there was no denying that—but he was still a client. On top of everything, she was an average woman who worked in an office and mostly made things up for a living. What on earth did a billionaire who had most likely been to every corner of the world want with a woman who had spent nearly her entire life within the confines of one city?
After a few moments, Zoey found her voice and prepared to use it to refuse the offer, as tempting as it was. Just at that moment, however, her office door flew open.
“Hello again. I just thought I ought to check on you two.”
Zoey sighed inwardly. It was her mother.
“Have you worked everything out?” Melinda asked, giving her daughter a significant look. “We always strive to give our clients the best experience possible.”
“I think we may have hit on an acceptable solution,” Stelios answered her. “In fact, we were just discussing that when you walked in, weren’t we, Ms. Forde?”
Zoey found herself under a full court press. Between her mother and her client, there was simply no way out of it that she could see.
“Yes, we were,” Zoey finally replied, fighting to arrange her features into a smile. “Mr. Zakiridis thinks he might enjoy a date with me, and I’m happy to give it a try.”
“Well!” Melinda exclaimed, exuding surprise, though if Zoey knew her mother at all, she had doubtless been in the hallway, listening the entire time. “That’s absolutely wonderful. When is this happening?”
“I have an opening in my schedule tomorrow at six. If that works for you I can pick you up at your home.”
That would be fine,” Zoey replied, a little stiffly. “I look forward it.”
“So do I,” replied Stelios. “I’d better go now. I’m glad we had the opportunity to work through this.”
So saying, the Greek quickly walked out of the office. Moments later, Zoey and Melinda watched through the window as he left the building and jumped into the black town car.
Glaring darkly at her mother, Zoey sat down at her desk and went to work.
For what might have been the first time ever, Zoey truly appreciated her job because it kept her from thinking about Blake or Stelios, or just what the enigmatic Greek billionaire could be planning for the rest of the day. She spent the next few hours going through her profiles, answering emails, and matching her clients, happy to be able to escape from her thoughts.
All too soon, the workday came to an end, and Zoey marched toward the subway with a hopeful air about her. This time, no one bothered to offer her a seat, so she gripped a pole and let her thoughts wash over her as she made her way back to Brooklyn.
Why did Stelios want to take her out? It was a question that wouldn’t leave Zoey alone. She was wearing her nightgown and sitting in her living room, on a beige cloth sofa that she had had for years. A glass of wine rested on the coffee table in front of her, like some sort of counselor. Why was Stelios coming tomorrow to take her somewhere? Why does a billionaire date someone out of the blue?
Her best guess so far was that he needed somebody to make him feel better and restore his reputation after the Brie Hudson disaster. He was using her. That made sense to Zoey. After all, her own mother was using her for almost the same reason. But at the same time, everything he had said to Zoey the other day had seemed genuine, and none of it had made him sound like the type of person that made a habit of using people.
“What else could it be?” she asked herself, taking a long sip of the wine. No other answers came to her, or rather, none that were plausible. She considered for a moment that maybe he had seen something in her that touched him, but she dismissed that idea at once.
“This isn’t a fairy tale,” she told herself firmly. “Men don’t just appear for no reason and sweep women off their feet. Everyone has some sort of agenda.”
As soon as she said it, she felt slightly ashamed of herself.
There was a time, not all that long ago, when Zoey would have embraced Stelios’ date proposal. Back then, she wouldn’t have sat up half the night pretending to watch television, and searching his words for ulterior motives. She had been more trusting, more open, and more hopeful. In those days, she had looked at each day as its own adventure. But Zoey had still been in college back then; yet to take up her post at Melinda Forde and learn that everyone had an angle, no matter how clever they were at hiding it.
Zoey was ashamed that her job and her mother were succeeding in killing the trust and openness she once felt. She decided to try to put her conspiracy theories away for the time being and meet Stelios the following day with an open mind.
To Zoey’s relief, the next day was Friday. Friday night normally meant the weekend, and a temporary reprieve from Melinda Forde, but today it meant something completely different. At six o’clock that evening, a billionaire was coming to take her out.
Her mother had been so excited, she’d given her the day off “to get prepared”. It was obvious she wanted her daughter to use every trick in the book to turn their date into a relationship. For her part, Zoey wasn’t sure how she felt about the billionaire Greek. After all, she had only met the man twice, and in both of those cases, her mother had been there.
When six o’clock came, Zoey was no closer to knowing what she felt for Stelios, but she was finally ready for their date. Her makeup was subtle, but finished with a bold red lip, and her dark hair had been crinkled to perfection. She wore a luxurious white cashmere sweater that she had gotten in the sale of the century, and completed her look with black slacks and flats, which straddled the line between formal and casual. A new smartphone rested inside her clutch and bore the same number as the old one.
Despite herself, Zoey felt her heart quake with excitement. And that was before the peals of the ringing doorbell filled the room.
Striding over quickly, she opened the door to a beanpole of a driver in a stylish gray uniform. He looked fairly young and had an elongated face. A thin little mustache sat atop his upper lip.
“Good evening, Ms. Forde. The car is waiting downstairs. I’ve come up to escort you, if you’re ready.”
“I am. Thank you,” she replied, thinking it was thoughtful of Stelios to have someone escort her downstairs.
Outside her building, Zoey saw the familiar town car. With the ease of habit, the driver glided past and held the back door open for her.
“Where’s your boss?” she asked the driver when she didn’t see Stelios inside.
“He would like that to be a surprise, miss. Step inside and I’ll drive you to him.”
Feeling excited and a little cautious, Zoey followed the instructions and her driver took off, expertly weaving through New York traffic.
When it felt to Zoey that a good half hour had passed, she asked the driver, who wasn’t overly communicative, how much farther away their destination was. At that moment, they pulled in front of Xenia, possibly the most exclusive Greek restaurant on the East Coast. People came from all over the country to sample the cuisine, especially wealthy immigrants from Greece longing for a taste of home.
Zoey was by no means surprised that Stelios has chosen a Greek restaurant for their encounter, and she was thankful she could consider herself something of a fan.
The driver came around and let her out, allowing her to see the magnificent structure properly. The building was made of black marble and took up a huge part of the block. There was an exquisite outdoor café area, cordoned off by artful, wrought-iron gates. Zoey guessed that the restaurant was at least three stories high, and she could glimpse a lavish balcony area on the top floor. To the right of the building was a triangular field filled with tiny holes and surrounded by small, colored spotlights. Every few moments, water would jet out of the holes in different patterns, and the lights would make the streams change color. The doors were made of heavy oak, and the top half of each one bore a circular painting of pastoral Greece. It was breathtaking.
Again, the driver passed her, and with more of an effort than Zoey would have thought necessary, pulled open Xenia’s door.
Zoey stepped inside and beheld the vestibule with awe. It was larger than she had expected, and lit with a massive chandelier. On the wall to her right, in engraved, golden letters, were quotes from several of Ancient Greece’s most famous philosophers and statesmen. On the wall to her left was a skillful rendering of Mount Olympus and the Twelve Olympians.
Beyond the vestibule was the restaurant itself, a huge area that was nonetheless lit to feel intimate and private. A dozen or so rectangular tables bore starched, white cloths, and fine china. Along the far wall an intricately-decorated staircase led to the upper floors.
Zoey was still taking everything in when a sudden, magnificent crash rocked the restaurant, and the smell of smoke began to fill her nostrils.
“What in the world is going on?” Zoey said, to no one in particular—as far as she could see, the restaurant was empty. Had someone broken in? Was something on fire?
She thought about running outside while she still had the chance. She had just turned in the direction of the door when a small, clear, “ahem” stopped her in her tracks.
Zoey turned and beheld a skinny boy, about sixteen years old. He wore black slacks and vest, and had an eager face, wavy hair, and a pencil-thin mustache.
“Good evening, miss,” he said politely. “My name is Ravi. I’m one of the busboys here. Are you looking for Mr. Zakiridis?”
“Er…yes,” Zoey replied skeptically. “Yes I was. I was supposed to meet him here. Is he in the restaurant?”
“Yes, miss. Follow me.”
Zoey was a little unsure, but didn’t seem to have too many better options, so tailed the boy down a long hallway at the very rear of the restaurant. The farther they walked, the hotter it got and the more loudly Zoey heard the banging of pots and pans.
At last, they arrived at a pair of padded swing doors.
“Just through there, miss. I was just finishing up when you arrived, so I’m going to get going now. It was a pleasure meeting you.”
Zoey thanked Ravi as well as she could over the clattering of the pans.
As the boy went back toward the front, she turned and plunged through the doors, and there, battling back a cloud of smoke, was billionaire real estate mogul Stelios Zakiridis.
He wore a pair of black slacks, a white, collared shirt, and an apron covered in splatters of grease. His sleeves were rolled up to just over the elbow, revealing two rather muscular forearms. A sheen of sweat lay on his forehead as he fussed over a baking pan full of dough and meat. Even from where she was standing, Zoey could tell it was badly burned.
What on earth does he think he’s doing? she wondered. Why is he working in the kitchen?
“It’s supposed to be kreatopita, a savory pie that marries wine and herbs, ground beef and buttery phyllo dough. What I seem to have done, however, is to marry heat and grease to create a large charcoal briquette.”
“Not to be rude or anything,” said Zoey, trying not to betray her confusion, “but what are you doing back here? I thought we had a date.”
“Indeed we do, Zoey, and this was supposed to be it: a homemade dinner in the best Greek restaurant outside of Greece. You see, I actually own the place. It’s one of my most cherished investments, so I thought this would be the perfect place for a date. I sent my driver to bring you here and paid the staff to go home for the evening. Everyone but Ravi, that is, who was helping me set up the dining area. He should be gone by now too. I was hoping to have this done by the time you got here so I could impress you with my amazing cooking skills. As you can see, though, I may have bitten off more than I can chew.”
“In that case, you’d better let me help,” said Zoey, pulling off her cashmere sweater to reveal a black polo underneath. Placing the sweater on a clean, unused table, she donned a spare white apron and walked to the Greek’s side. “Now let’s try it together,” she said. “What’s the first thing we need to do?”
Stelios put the baking pan he was holding down and grinned. “The first thing we need to do is dice two onions.”
Zoey tried desperately not to show it, but after everything that had happened to her recently, Stelios’ romantic surprise was having a profound effect upon her. A billionaire—a man who could literally have whatever he wanted—had nearly burned down the kitchen of his own five-star restaurant trying to impress her. She felt weightless and impossibly heavy all at once, but she had to focus; Stelios had just slipped a sharp knife in her hand.
His hand gently cupped her left one, pushing the fingers into a loose fist on top of an onion he had just cut in half. His right hand gripped the knife handle, just behind Zoey’s right wrist, and guided it to a point on the onion a hair’s breadth away from her fingers.
“Use your left hand to feed the onion into the blade,” Stelios said, slowly guiding her, “while the right one rocks the blade through it.”
“And I’m not going to cut my fingers?” Zoey asked worriedly as the sharp blade fell incredibly close to them.
“No,” Stelios smiled. “Your knuckles are going to keep that from happening. Plus, the more you do it, the easier it gets.”
When the onions were sufficiently diced, Stelios chopped up some dill while Zoey crumbled a block of feta. The Greek was working much more slowly than before, and Zoey noted there was far less banging than she had heard on the way in.
“Who taught you how to cook, anyway?” Zoey asked, watching Stelios measure cups of wine and chicken broth. “Did someone show you how or are you just trying to look like you know what you’re doing?” she said with a playful smile.
“A little bit of both,” Stelios laughed. “My mother loved showing me how to cook her food. I remember her saying, ‘You may be in America now, but you should always have something from your country’. She used to make the most wonderful tirokroketes. You’d happily fight people to get to them.”
“And tirokroketes are…?” Zoey asked, as she fetched butter and ground beef from the fridge.
“Basically, they’re fried cheese balls.”
“That sounds delicious. My mother and I never really did any cooking together, except once, when I needed to make brownies for a school fundraiser. We got all the ingredients together and my mom dug up a cookbook she’d bought when I was about four. For some reason, she’d never used it. We put everything in the bowl, but we didn’t have a mixer, so I volunteered. The stuff was so thick I thought my arms would fall off, but I wanted to do it myself. My mom kept cheering me on as I stirred, and in the end, it came together.”
“I hope your brownies turned out better than my first attempt,” he said, shaking his head and tossing onions into the pan.
Zoey didn’t have the heart to tell him that they had. Instead, she asked him about the restaurant.
“I bought the place about four years ago. I was feeling kind of homesick, and I wanted something that would remind me of Greece and my family. I had to work really hard to get it to where it is now—the previous owner was a terrible manager, and did a lot of skimping to save money. The guy wasn’t big on upkeep, and it’s taken me a long this time to deal with the damage from that. I used to think I’d never get everything fixed. But now,” he said as Zoey introduced the ground beef to the pan, “nearly everything’s been handled, and the restaurant has been a success.”
“That’s wonderful,” said Zoey over the hissing of the oil. “I couldn’t help noticing how beautiful everything looked on the way in here.”
“Thanks. I was very enthusiastic about the design. I’m glad the décor impressed you, even if I couldn’t.”
“Oh, you’re a very impressive person, Stelios,” Zoey said. “You just needed to slow things down a bit.”
“I think you’re right,” the Greek replied, as he started on a reduction. Thanks to you, we’ll soon have a meal we can stomach.”
“Thanks to us, you mean, “Zoey insisted with a smile. “I was having trouble cutting an onion five minutes ago, remember?”
Over the next forty-five minutes, the two worked together, cutting the phyllo to fit a baking pan. Following Stelios’ instructions, Zoey buttered eight sheets of the stuff and layered it in the pan. Stelios topped that with the meat, and Zoey added eight more sheets. They popped their creation into the oven, sure this time that the effort would succeed. When it did, they congratulated each other as a rich, warm scent wafted through the air.
It had barely been an hour, but Zoey was beginning to feel at home. She was surprised to find a soft little smile wouldn’t leave her face. Stelios was just starting to tell her about the first time he made kreatopita when every light in the kitchen flickered violently.
“Shit,” Stelios exclaimed, just a loud whirring noise filled the air.
It was the familiar sound that Zoey knew indicated a power drain. The room was suddenly plunged into darkness. Every device in the kitchen went dead, except the gas burners. Stelios turned a few more of them on.
“Well, the joys of living in New York huh?” Zoey said, fishing her phone out of her pocket and turning on the flashlight app.
“It seems so, Zoey. There’s a little supply closet in the corner over there. Could you grab a few candles?”
“Sure. No problem.” Zoey moved to the right-hand corner of the kitchen and fished a handful of candles out of a small cupboard.
Taking several candleholders and a box of matches, she went into the main restaurant and began creating pools of light. In moments, the entire area had a cozy glow, and Zoey placed a candlestick in the center of the table nearest to the kitchen, ready for them to sit down.
A few minutes later, Stelios came out of the kitchen with a tray that bore two decently-plated helpings of kreatopita, a bright, green salad, a chilled bottle of wine, and two glasses. Setting everything on the table, he made a place setting for Zoey and filled her glass. Once he had done the same for himself, he took a seat beside her, and for a moment, he watched the reflected candlelight flicker in her eyes.
“Not quite what you were expecting, huh?” Stelios remarked, handing Zoey a cloth napkin.”
“Not at all,” she admitted, “but when you think about it, it really isn’t that bad. In a way, it’s kind of romantic.”
“Great. Then my master plan has succeeded,” he joked. “I hope you enjoy the food,” he added.
“I’m sure I will,” Zoey replied, cutting herself a piece of the meat pie. She put it in her mouth and her face lit up. Savory spices combined pleasantly with a flaky, buttery crust, and the rich flavor of the ground beef brought the whole thing together. True, she thought the crust was a little harder than it probably should have been, but it was a good effort and a very tasty one.
“This is excellent, Stelios. You did a great job.”
“We did a great job, remember?” he reminded her, sipping some of his wine.
Zoey gave a little laugh and nodded in agreement before taking another bite. “This really is good, though,” she said as Stelios followed her lead. “I think I taste oregano and…I can’t make out the other spice. What else did you put in?”
“Dill. I’ve been told it helps to balance the flavors. This turned out well but it doesn’t hold a candle to my mother’s cooking. No pun intended.”
Zoey giggled, even as she rolled her eyes.
“Whenever my mother made anything, it felt like an event. People were always telling her she should open a restaurant. I believe she wanted to, but she never found the time. That’s part of why this place means so much to me. In a way, it feels like I helped her accomplish one of her dreams.”
Zoey put her fork down for a moment. She was looking at Stelios’ face, and though he was valiantly trying to hide it, she saw that his features had drawn tight, the corners of his lips had turned down, and his eyes looked suddenly heavy with the weight of tears he refused to shed. A profound sadness had covered his face like a fog, and it sprang into Zoey’s heart and took root.
“What happened to your mother,” she asked quietly, though she was almost certain what the answer would be.
“She and my father left the world eight years ago. They were coming back from visiting our family in Greece. The authorities still aren’t entirely sure how it happened, but the plane…” He paused. “It crashed on its way back here.”
“That’s awful,” Zoey replied soberly. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you,” Stelios replied with a brave smile, doing his best to lighten the mood a little. “I miss them every day, but I try to remember that they led rich lives. I wanted to go to Greece with them, but I felt like someone had to stay here and look after the business. It’s older than I am, and I wouldn’t have trusted anyone outside of the family to run it. Ever since they died, I’ve just been working as hard as I can to make it better. It’s really all I have left of them.”
“Well, I’m sure they would be extremely proud of you,” said Zoey. “You’ve been a fantastic success in real estate, and you’re a wonderful person. You’re even a half decent cook,” she added with a bit of a smirk, patting him affectionately on the shoulder.
The Greek felt the muscles in his face relax. “That’s nice of you to say, Zoey. Thank you,” he returned. “Originally, I’d planned to keep up the pace permanently, but then a couple of weeks ago, I turned thirty-two.”
“Thanks. My father was the same age when I was born, and that starting me thinking seriously about a lot of things that hadn’t crossed my mind before. What I realized was that I was all alone, with no one to share everything I’ve been building with. It suddenly occurred to me that it was time to find a good person to settle down with. I saw that the best way to remember my parents was with a family of my own. And that’s why I decided to pay a visit to your mother.”
What a nice thought, Zoey thought to herself, feeling moved and a little intimidated at the same time. The fact that he had put so much effort into their date was a clear indication that he was considering her as someone to share his life with. Zoey thought his intentions were sweet, but she also wondered what Stelios wanted with her. She was a normal woman, with an overbearing mother, and a desk job. What was a handsome, famous billionaire going to do with her?
“I sensed you were a good person when you sent me away from the appointment the other day,” Stelios continued, seemingly reading her thoughts with the skill of a telepath. “Really, I was sure there was something special about you the second I entered your office.”
“It’s true!” he answered Zoey’s surprised look. “Even if you hadn’t called me back that morning, I was planning to ask you out.”
Most people find it feels good to be told that they are special and Zoey was no exception. Especially since the person that was saying so was a very nice guy who looked amazing and happened to be a billionaire.
“Well for the record, I’m glad I agreed to do it.”
“Even if you’re sitting in the dark right now?”
“Yes, even though I’m sitting in the dark right now.”
“I’m very happy to hear that. While we are on the subject of dating, is there any competition I should be aware of?” Stelios queried in light tones.
Zoey chuckled and shook her head. “Nothing’s been going on in that department for some time now. I really haven’t had time to find something meaningful. On top of that, I have way more than enough romance to deal with at work.”
“Well I hope I can change your mind about that,” Stelios replied, gently taking her hand in his.
The contact sent a current up her spine and a warmth flowing within her heart. The pair moved closer together and saw each other for the first time, by the flickering light of the nearby candles.
“You truly are beautiful, Zoey,” Stelios said, almost whispering. With an air almost of awe, he ran his fingers through her raven-tinted hair.
Without a word, she drew him into a deep, passionate kiss that sent every one of her senses on fire. She sensed the need in his lips, smelled his intoxicating aftershave, and felt his heart beating rapidly against her own. Everything ceased to exist beyond the spark of flame between them. Everything else in the world was plunged into darkness.
An hour later, sitting in her own room, Zoey still felt like a woman in a dream. She didn’t know how it was possible to feel so incredibly and completely different from the way she had just two days ago. She was elated, excited, and full of hope. She felt desired and loved by someone for a change, and the thought of it danced through her body like electricity. The date had succeeded beyond anything she would have believed, and for the first time in what felt like ages, she was happy.
Pulling off her sweater and slacks, Zoey duly changed into her nightclothes, but she knew sleep wasn’t going to come to her for several hours. Her heart just wouldn’t stop beating faster than usual, and her thoughts had no intention of quieting down. It was lucky, she thought, that she had nowhere to be the next morning.
Eventually, after about three hours of trying, Zoey fell into a blissful sleep. Even though she wouldn’t remember it the next day, she was smiling; her dreams filled with the adventures that awaited her and Stelios in the future.
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Amie Shaw is a struggling actress, desperate for her one big break. After a chance meeting with a tall, dark, and mysterious man, sheâ€™s offered the role of a lifetime: the chance to portray a role in a luxurious Middle-Eastern country, and the outrageous sum of $500,000 for doing so. It seems irresistible, but Amie doesnâ€™t yet know what sheâ€™s getting herself intoâ€¦ Sheikh Malik bin Malehdi is a fabulously wealthy, undeniably handsome playboy, who quickly needs a way to prove to his traditionalist parents that he isnâ€™t the hedonist the rumors have made him out to be. What better way than to purchase a fake fiancÃ©e? After being thrown in at the deep end, Amie soon finds herself taking to her new role, playing the part of the Sheikhâ€™s witty and urbane American fiancÃ©e at every social function they visit. What Amie canâ€™t deny, however, is that sheâ€™s slowly beginning to fall for her â€˜fakeâ€™ husband to be, and as their lie spirals further out of control, she has a decision to make. Does she play along? And can she really trust her charismatic â€˜employerâ€™, and hopeful lover? This is a standalone Sheikh romance novel from best-selling author Holly Rayner. It contains a guaranteed HEA, and a tale of romance that will capture your heart. As an added gift, it also contains the first few chapters of Holly Rayner's prior novels, The Sheikh's Secret Princess, and The Greek Billionaireâ€™s Marriage Matchmaker.