The sheikhs secret princ.., p.15
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       The Sheikh's Secret Princess, p.15
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         Part #2 of The Sheikh's Every Wish series by Holly Rayner
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  only child to him.

  “And my mother?”

  Here, Fadi hesitated for longer. It seemed like he had any number of things to say, but didn’t quite know how to say them.

  “Your mother was a gracious woman,” he said at last. “Kinder that someone who had been raised with everything had any right to be. She was a smart woman, who never hesitated to think things through. And beautiful! The first time I saw her, I was a young man. I thought she must be an angel. She was the kind of woman who made every commoner wish he had been born a king. Or, at least, that the world was a different place, so that things that might never be, could be.”

  Watching Fadi, Anita saw more emotion in him that she had ever seen before. He might have told her that she should never regret, but now, she saw regret in him.

  “The way things are today, you mean?” she asked.

  Fadi cocked an eyebrow. “I suppose. But it is a very different world, now. And Al-Dali is a very different place. The government formed by the people who rose up against your parents didn’t last long. It was corrupt and inefficient. It couldn’t last. And when it fell, it was replaced by a peaceful, democratic republic.”

  The day was beginning to get on. There would be work to be done soon, and Anita felt she’d put her father through enough.

  She tried to get back to normal. She tried to help him get the restaurant ready for service. She even went with him to the market, to pick out the food, as she used to do when she was younger. Friends she’d seen little of in the last week were beginning to send her worried texts, not used to being ignored by Anita the way they had been lately.

  But there was something that kept bothering her as she went about trying to reenter her old life. Something more than the deep, lingering pain at the idea of never seeing Hakim again. That would be with her for a long time, she thought, and it had no answer. No, it was something that still didn’t make sense in her mind.

  “Fadi,” she asked, in the swiftly closing window before the staff would begin filtering into the restaurant. “Do you regret any of it?”

  He seemed taken aback. “Do I regret what? What happened to your family? No, regret is not the right word. That was… There was nothing I could have done differently. I wish that were not how it was, and I still feel ashamed there was nothing I could do.”

  “No, not that. It seems like there’s something you regret. When you talk about it all, I can see it. When you talk about how things were before…”

  He was busy washing vegetables in one of the sinks, but at her words, he stopped, and sighed. “You are an observant one. You always have been.”

  “What is it?” Anita asked, her voice quivering. “It’s just… I’m afraid. I’m afraid that I’m going to regret the same thing.”

  Fadi went back to what he had been doing, as though burying himself in it would make it easier to say the words.

  “I regret not trying,” he said at last. “That is all you need to know.”

  There was a catch in Anita’s voice as she asked her next question.

  “Even if it was impossible?”

  He nodded, a faraway look in his eye. When he spoke, she heard the quiet burning of more than twenty years of regret.

  “Especially then.”

  Anita couldn’t say why, but the words unleashed a flood of emotions in her that she didn’t know she had. She’d been so concerned with the pain and the grief that had consumed her, but what awoke in her now was anger. It was unjust. It was cruel that things should be this way—that her own happiness should be decided by events that happened so long ago and so far away. It wasn’t fair.

  Fadi smiled. “There she is,” he said, even as Anita was taking off her apron. “There’s my Anita.”

  She barely heard him. She didn’t have much time; she had a gala to get to.

  FIFTEEN

  The gala was her only chance, Anita thought, as she made her way out of the restaurant and up to the apartment. It was the only time she would be able to get past security, and get to Hakim’s parents without him noticing. They’d never agree to see her if she gave them a choice in the matter.

  If she was going to stand a chance of blending in at the gala, Anita knew she would have to look the part. As soon as she got to her room, she pulled out all the dresses from the chest at the end of the bed. It had been years since she’d seen them all, and she’d forgotten how dated a few of them were. The nineties were not exactly a great time for fashion in Al-Dali, Anita surmised.

  At last, she found the dress she had been looking for. It was green, like her eyes, and it was a dress that would make her feel, more than anything, like the princess she apparently was.

  It was in a western style, though a little more modest, in line with the culture of her homeland. It had what looked like a corset, but with a delicate green lace covering the shoulders, set with a few tiny glimmering white gems that, Anita now realized, were probably real diamonds. The skirt was a little lighter, in a soft, fluffy fabric Anita couldn’t identify.

  She’d worn this one often, as a child. Though Fadi had refused to have any of the dresses altered, for reasons she only now understood, he’d given her a ribbon to tie it onto her, and she’d run around in it, holding up the soft mass of the skirt with her tiny arms.

  Now, it fit her perfectly, and Anita held her breath as she looked at herself in the mirror. She still didn’t know what her mother had looked like, but now, wearing her dress, Anita felt like she knew a bit of what she had looked like at least for one night of her life.

  She did her hair and makeup in a hurry. There was little she could do about the telltale signs that she hadn’t slept well, or that she’d been crying; that was too real to be hidden.

  Shoes were another problem. She should really be wearing elaborate heels with this kind of dress, but she didn’t have any. Flats would have to do—they were all she had in even a remotely coordinating color. And besides, it wasn’t impossible that at some point in the evening, she would need to do some running.

  She put them on, and did one final check in the mirror. They couldn’t be seen under the hem of her dress. Good enough.

  She grabbed a small clutch that she hoped wouldn’t look too obviously cheap, and headed out the door. She was already dreading driving in the dress—especially in her old beater, a manual that was about as likely to break down as it was to get her to the gala on time.

  But when she got downstairs, she saw Fadi waiting outside for her in his own car. Instinctively, Anita looked to the sign at the front of the restaurant. The “open” sign was flipped to closed, and below it, Fadi had tacked on a little handwritten note that said “for the night.”

  Anita smiled broadly, and got in.

  “To the Da Vinci?” Fadi asked with a grin.

  “But how did you know about the gala?”

  “Please,” he scoffed. “I read the news. Give me some credit.”

  His driving now, in the heat of the moment, reminded her a little bit of Hakim’s... but only to a point. He had the speed right now, but he certainly didn’t have the control.

  Fadi laughed when he saw her expression. “You wanted to know about home? This is how we drive at home!”

  They parked a block away from the Da Vinci, to prevent Anita being seen getting out of such a low-priced car at such a high class event.

  Fadi wished her luck, and she thanked him before stepping out of the car. She smoothed down her skirt and was just about to head off when she heard his voice.

  “Anita!” he said, calling her back for one more word.

  She went and leaned in through the open window.

  “I just wanted you to know that whatever happens in there… today, of all days, I am very proud of the daughter I’m blessed with.”

  She smiled, and set off. It was time.

  ***

  As she drew close to the entrance of the hotel, Anita breathed a sigh of relief. She’d timed it well; there were more people arriving than security could han
dle. They were checking invitations at the entrance, sure, but were wholly and entirely consumed with doing so. There was no way they would notice her if she snuck around to the side door the cooks kept ajar for easier smoke breaks around the side.

  Mentally thanking her father’s former sous chef for sharing war stories about places he’d worked before, Anita checked for the rock he said they always used to prop the door open. Times must have changed, though, as instead she found a heavy brick.

  She opened the door, and slipped inside.

  She wasn’t sure where the hallway led, but she only had one option: forward. She passed the kitchen on the left, where the cooks were luckily still too consumed with the night’s preparations to notice a woman in an enormous green dress passing by.

  Put another win on the wall for her good luck, Anita thought.

  The hallway led to an elevator bank. She took it up one floor, and found herself up on the level of the main lobby itself, lost in the crowd.

  That was sneaking in taken care of. Now came the hard part.

  Anita was used to walking around behind the scenes, not being noticed and not wanting to be. But blending in at a high profile event put on by royalty? That was new.

  She had to stop herself from desperately looking around for security. Instead, she tried to focus on scanning the room for the people she needed to see. She knew she could get to them here. As for how she would get them to listen to her, she wasn’t quite sure. But she was in the room, now, and that was a start.

  Still unable to spot her targets, Anita followed the general movement of the crowd inward, towards the hotel’s ballroom.

  For all that Anita disliked the woman, she had to admit: Hakim’s mother knew how to put on a party. The ceiling of the ballroom was draped in flowing silk fabric in deep purples and blues. On one wall, there was a huge “20” in lights. The stage had somehow acquired a sparkling crystal backdrop, which Anita felt would probably look tacky, if it weren’t surrounded by so many elegant people in elegant dresses and tuxes.

  Apparently, Hakim hadn’t been able to fight his mother much on the decorations.

  Hakim.

  The thought of him struck her like a physical blow. She’d tried not to think of him. She knew she couldn’t do what she needed to if she did.

  She had a moment of panic. What if he saw her? She was here to see his parents. She couldn’t face him.

  No, she needed to stay in the background as much as possible.

  She scanned the room, thankful that the stage made it so that she could be reasonably certain what part of the room he would likely be sitting in.

  She began going from table to table, looking at the names on the placeholders. This wasn’t suspicious at all, she thought wryly. Hopefully, to the casual observer, it would look like she was just searching for her name.

  Unfortunately, she had no idea what she was searching for.

  “Anita?”

  She spun around, the sound of her own name setting off alarm bells in her brain.

  It wasn’t Hakim’s voice, and as soon as she registered that, it calmed her slightly.

  “Mr. Farr!” she said, as the man with the camera around his neck seemed to emerge from the background. “I’m surprised you remember me.”

 
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