The sheikhs twin baby su.., p.2
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       The Sheikh's Twin Baby Surprise, p.2

         Part #1 of The Sheikh's Baby Surprise series by Holly Rayner
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  TWO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  “What?” I asked curiously.

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

  “The night for what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  Neither of the brothers spoke back.

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

  “A decree?” gasped Sajid.

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

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

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

 
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