The sheikhs secret princ.., p.16
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       The Sheikh's Secret Princess, p.16
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         Part #2 of The Sheikh's Every Wish series by Holly Rayner
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  He looked her up and down, and Anita had the uneasy feeling that he knew at once that she wasn’t supposed to be here.

  “What are you doing here?” she asked, before he could say anything.

  “I’m covering the event for the paper. I went back there a few years ago. I still teach from time to time. But the real question is, what is my favorite student of her freshman journalism class doing at a big oil gala?”

  Anita was stuck. She was drawing a total and complete blank.

  He laughed. “Can I help you find your table at least?”

  It was now or never. She had to trust him or the game was up.

  She leaned in, hoping no passersby would be interested enough in their conversation to listen in.

  “Look, I wasn’t exactly invited, but I have a good reason to be here, I promise. If you let me have your seat, I promise there’ll be a story in it for you. Something interesting.”

  He was intrigued, and thankfully Mr. Farr agreed.

  “I’m mostly going to be wandering around taking pictures, anyway. All the old money of Houston is here, oil money and otherwise. And by God, these people love getting their picture in the paper.”

  She thanked him, and sat down. Mr. Farr wandered off, but not before snapping a quick photo of her.

  “For the story,” he said.

  Now there was photo evidence of her trespassing. Wonderful. But at least the seat Mr. Farr had been assigned was far enough back that if Hakim were here, he probably wouldn’t see her.

  That didn’t stop Anita from looking around furtively, desperately hoping she would see him, but that he didn’t see her. She’d been sidelined. She wasn’t thinking about finding his parents anymore. She was just afraid.

  The crowd meandered slowly to their tables, every last one except the reporter taking pictures and the security guards finding their places at their own table.

  The people at Anita’s table tried to talk to her, and she found herself woefully unprepared. She hadn’t thought of a story beforehand. Why hadn’t she thought of a story?

  But then it occurred to her. She didn’t need a story. She had the truth.

  “Al-Dali… Where is that, exactly?”

  She slipped into the role of uninterested royal as seamlessly as she could, rolling her eyes at the question. It seemed to go well enough, until another one of her table mates, a thin middle-aged man with thick black glasses, felt the need to cut in.

  “Al-Dali? But I thought they didn’t have a royal family?”

  He was the kind of man who was happier to be right than to be liked, and Anita shot him an icy look.

  “Well, technically we’re deposed,” she said.

  To her satisfaction, the woman sitting next to the man hit him lightly on the shoulder with the back of her hand, whispering something to him under her breath.

  “I’m sorry, Your Highness,” she said, and Anita nodded, with her lips pursed, as though resentfully accepting their apology.

  No one at her table bothered her again. There were some things about being a princess, Anita thought, that she could grow to like.

  But her joy over her good fortune didn’t last long. Soon after that exchange, the lights began to dim, and the stage lit up.

  The eyes of everyone present went to it, and the glittering crystal curtain.

  That’s when Anita saw him.

  Hakim strode out across the stage, waving to the thunderous applause that rose when the crowd saw him.

  “Thank you,” he said softly.

  The two words shot down Anita’s spine like ice on a sensitive tooth. She was never supposed to see him again. Not knowing that she couldn’t have him. But there he was.

  “Thank you all for being here with us tonight, and for celebrating twenty years of my family doing business with your wonderful community here in Houston.”

  More applause, although Anita looked around and realized there were some present who were very pointedly not clapping.

  “Now, I know there are some of you who would say that twenty years isn’t that long a time. There are those that would ask why we would celebrate.”

  No applause now. No sound of any kind. Everyone was watching intently. Anita could sense surprise in the crowd, as well as curiosity over what he was about to say next.

  “But I believe that history has to be celebrated. I believe that the past is important.”

  Still complete silence. Anita forced herself to look at him. He looked like she felt—like he hadn’t slept in a year and hadn’t had a moment’s rest from the thoughts running around in his mind.

  “But I also believe that even as we celebrate the past, we need to recognize it for what it is. It’s easy to look at the way things were, and think that it was better than it really was. To assume that it would always be that way. To trust the opinions of the people that came before, more than we trust out own.”

  Here he looked down, and Anita thought she could sense an immense anger in him.

  “But that’s not fair. Simply because something has been done a certain way doesn’t mean it should be done that way forever. And suspicion of new people, or people different from yourself, serves no one. Sometimes, in fact, people who decades ago would have been considered enemies can be your greatest chance of success now. And to be blind to that is only to hurt yourself.”

  Anita forced herself to take her eyes off of Hakim and look around the room. The people who had refused to clap before had hard looks on their faces now. But some of them seemed to be reconsidering.

  “And so that is why I would like to thank you, Houston, for the last twenty years. For being able to move past old prejudices in order for us to work together. I look forward to another twenty years of letting go of what has been tried and, yes, what has failed in the past, so that we can have a successful future together. Thank you.”

  The applause this time was different. Anita thought she could see a few people reluctantly clapping now who were not before.

  Hakim left the stage, walking down a set of steps into the ballroom. He looked out at the crowd and for one terrified moment, Anita thought he might have seen her. But it was a false alarm, and he was seated there at the head table, along with his father and various other important-looking people. Anita thought she recognized one of them as the mayor.

  And now Hakim’s mother took the stage. She made a grand speech about celebrating the day and the milestone as it should be celebrated.

  Anita didn’t suffer herself to look directly at the woman. She didn’t want to let her have any more attention than necessary.

  Thankfully, Zahrah’s address was a short one, and with that, the feast began.

  Food was being brought out by a virtual army of waiters in identical black and white uniforms.

  Anita had no intention of sitting quietly and being fed. With all the people milling about, it seemed like she now had as good a chance as ever to get herself out of there.

  She had an idea of where she would go. Somewhere private, but close enough to the action that the threat of her making a scene would be real, and they would have to deal with her. The wings of the stage, just in the curtains, out of eyeshot of the gathered group, would serve her needs perfectly.

  She had her note, scribbled on a piece of paper during the queen’s speech, telling them where they should come meet her if they didn’t want her causing a scene. She passed it off to a waiter, telling him to give it to the king and queen, and to make sure that the prince didn’t see it.

  And then she was off, trying to find her way to the back entrance to the stage. Her heart was pounding. What if she didn’t find it in time? How effective would it be to stand up the queen at her own blackmail meeting?

  But she did find the right door, and swept through it quickly, taking care to keep her long dress from getting caught in it behind her.

  And then there she was, standing just at the edge of the crystal curtain, little rainbows of light reflecting on her through its many prisms. She could h
ear the roaring conversations of the tipsy Texan crowd, reduced to a murmur by the dampening effect of the heavy velvet curtains.

  Now she only had to wait, and try and resolve in her mind what it was she would say.

  She didn’t have to wait long. The king and queen arrived from the stage. The queen was in the lead, and she looked livid. The king, on the other hand, seemed half-worried, half-curious.

  The queen grabbed Anita’s arm roughly, dragging her back away from the stage, further into the dressing areas behind it.

  “What is the meaning of this?” she hissed.

  Anita was afraid. The woman was a powerhouse, who could buy and sell her family several times over and ruin her lie in an instant.

  But, then, Anita could be a powerhouse, too.

  “You will take your hands off of me,” she said coolly. “I am a royal, even as you are a royal. A princess, and the last of my line. And you will treat me with respect.

  The queen removed her hand and stood at a distance, though she still wore a sneer on her face.

  Now was the time. This was it. Anita could barely hear the crowd, now.

  “We’ve met before,” Anita began, only stating the obvious. She hoped they couldn’t tell how nervous she was. She spoke to them in words she knew they would understand.

  “You looked at me, but you didn’t listen to me. You will listen to me now, though. You owe me that much. If only for my parents. If only because my station demands it.”

  The sneer on the queen’s face had subsided, and the king’s had a very shrewd look on it now. He was listening. She had his full attention. And for some reason, that was even more intimidating that the queen’s still-hostile glare.

  She’d gotten their attention, and she’d done it the only way she could: with feigned confidence and demands. But now she had to do something different. She had to beg.

  She addressed her first words directly to the queen herself. “I didn’t know who I was until Hakim told me. I know you didn’t believe that, and it may be difficult for you to understand how that came to be, but it’s true. For my own safety, the man I grew up with as my father felt it was best if I never knew. And whatever your intentions, what you have done revealed my family to me. And for that, I will always thank you.

  “I came to your son with no expectations. Whatever scheme you thought I had in my head, it wasn’t true. All I thought would happen was dinner. But your son… Hakim, he’s a special man. He’s an incredible man. I’ve never met a man like him, and I know in my heart that I never will again. From the moment we met I felt like we knew each other. I felt that he was the sort of man I could fall for, if I let myself. And I tried hard not to. But if you know your son at all, you know that he usually gets what he wants. He wanted my heart. And he got it.

  “I love your son. I love him with everything I am, and everything I have, although I know it isn’t much. And I know that you may not trust me, but I will spend the rest of my life earning your trust if I have to. I will spend every day of our lives proving to you that I want him wholly and completely, and for the man he is—not for his title, or his kingdom.”

  She shifted her focus to the king.

  “And I know you think there are those who may have a problem with who my parents were. I understand that. I know that for your people,
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