The sheikhs accidental b.., p.2
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       The Sheikh's Accidental Bride, p.2
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         Part #2 of The Sheikh Wants A Wife series by Holly Rayner

  TWO

  LaGuardia wasn’t particularly crowded, and Nadya was glad for it. Her bag came out quickly on the carousel, and she scooped it up and wheeled her way towards the exit.

  She scanned the faces waiting in Arrivals for that of her sister. She and Jasmine looked almost perfectly alike, except for the color of their eyes. Their mother’s Middle-Eastern heritage had given them both round faces, olive skin and dark hair. They’d both grown up pulling it back in a long braid that ran down their backs, but lately Jasmine had chopped it off, and wore it as a sleek bob instead.

  Nadya frowned. She didn’t see her sister there waiting. It was a relief, in a way, even if it was an inconvenient one. At least she’d have the cab ride to recover from the flight and try and think of what she’d say to her. But at the same time, it would cost a fortune, and while Nadya was getting by on waitressing, she couldn’t afford to splash out that way.

  Idly, she read the signs that the chauffeurs held to gather unrecognized new arrivals, looking at the calligraphy of the names. Many were from hotels, with a few that looked like they were business contacts. Looking at the men brought back yet more memories of her sister. This was always something they had done together at airports – looking at the names on the signs and making up stories for why this or that person was in town, and where they would be taken.

  One man stood out. He was in an impeccably-tailored light-grey suit, but didn’t have the kind of efficient business vibe to him that the others all did. His posture was remarkably straight, and his face looked like it was made out of stone. Only his eyes moved as he scanned the crowd, looking for the light of recognition in passengers’ eyes.

  The calligraphy on his sign was intricate, and written both in English and in Arabic. Nadya had to squint to read it.

  Nadya A. it read.

  She stopped cold, trying to decide whether she should be glad her sister would spare no expense in greeting her, or upset because it was flaunting her newfound wealth – the very reason behind the fight they’d had.

  Nadya was still undecided as she walked up to the man. She knew she’d have to accept the gift, anyway, if she wanted to get to her sister’s without spending a fortune, so she figured she should let it go.

  The man eyed her suspiciously, like she was a middle schooler in a convenience store with a large backpack and a shifty look.

  “I’m Nadya A,” she said, the words coming out a touch defensively.

  It took him half a second to accept this. She could see him turning the idea over in his mind. But then something clicked, and he clicked into his polite, serving mode. He gave her an off sort of half bow, which would have made Nadya laugh if she hadn’t been so tired. And then, as if from nowhere, two other men in identical grey suits appeared and took her bags from her.

  She followed the original grey-suited man out of the airport, followed by the two men carrying her luggage. She’d never been met by a chauffeur like this before, so she didn’t have a lot of experience to compare it to. But looking around her, it all seemed a bit heavy on the pomp and circumstance compared to how other passengers were being led off to their cars.

  But when Jasmine did things, Nadya thought, she never did take them halfway. This was just like her, wasn’t it?

  In any case, Jasmine apparently hadn’t skimped on the car. It was a full limo, which made Nadya feel more than a little underdressed. It had a flat screen TV inside, which turned on automatically when she slid inside.

  “Good Afternoon, Your Highness,” came a voice from the TV. “What would you like to watch?”

  The voice startled her. She looked around, as though someone should be there to offer her an explanation, or laugh at the joke, but the door was closed, and she could hear the driver climbing into the front.

  “What did you call me?” she said out loud, her voice sounding weak and silly to her ears.

  “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that. Please read the title of the selection you would like to play.”

  A TV with voice recognition, programmed to call her “Your Highness.” Nadya laughed; Jasmine really must be sorry.

  “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that,” the TV said again. “Please state the title of the selection you would like to play.”

  Nadya perused the selection, but nothing stood out to her. “TV, off?” she said, taking a shot in the dark. The screen promptly went black and she was left alone.

  She’d only been in a limo once, she realized, as she felt the engine come on and the car pull away from the curb. It had been prom, and the limo had been filled to the brim with her friends, all high on youth and possibility. Now, in the middle of the day on a Thursday, and with only Nadya inside, it still felt exceedingly luxurious, but more empty and stark than anything.

  As they left the airport, Nadya looked at Queens going by. What a different world it was, she thought, compared to the one that her sister and her husband lived in. The view was hampered by the tinted glass, so instead she stared out the skylight at the clouds. She zoned out, thinking about what she would say to her parents. They would be there, overbearing as ever. And though she hadn’t had a fight with them that she would need to reconcile, there had been this low-level sense of disagreement between them, ever since she dropped out of college.

  Nadya’s parents wanted her to go back to college. More specifically, they wanted her to finish her politics degree, and go out and do… what exactly? She’d tried to explain to them that she just didn’t believe in it anymore, the way she had when she had first started. It had become clearer and clearer that it was all back-room deals and no one believed in things the way she had thought when she had been young and naïve and thought she could change the world.

  She would go back to college. Eventually. She’d assured them of this. But they wanted to know when, and she couldn’t tell them that. She spent too much time waiting tables, and worrying about rent, and worrying about how she’d pay her power bill to think about any of that. But “when I’m sure I know what I want to study” hadn’t proved to be a good enough answer to them. At least, not so far.

  Nadya was brought out of her head by the realization that the car had slowed. That wasn’t right. There shouldn’t have been traffic between LaGuardia and Hastings-On-Hudson on a Thursday mid-afternoon, and they certainly hadn’t been driving long enough to be there yet.

  She looked out the windows, and her heart sank. They were on Wards Island. Instead of heading north into the Bronx, the way that would take her to her sister’s house, they were heading over the bridge into Manhattan. Something had gone wrong. There must have been some confusion, Nadya thought. But the sign had my name on it.

  “Driver!” she called out, and the partition slid down.

  “Yes, Your Highness?”

  The man’s words took her aback. She wasn’t sure how to respond. She’d accepted when the TV had called her that. It was a prank her sister had played on her, she’d felt sure of it. But the way the words came out of this man’s mouth, it was like he believed them.

  She shook her head and decided she was being absurd. If Jasmine was going to go all in, she was going to go all in. Of course she’d have told the driver that she was royalty, if that was the joke she was playing. She was just taking this further than Nadya expected.

  Jasmine had always had this playful, rebellious streak in her. Since they’d been children, this was the sort of prank she would pull. Maybe, Nadya thought, this was Jasmine’s way of trying to show her that she hadn’t changed; that she was the same girl she’d grown up with.

  Nadya settled back, mostly feeling at ease, or at least trying to be.

  “Is it going to be long?” she asked, trying to adopt the voice that a man who thought she was royalty might expect. It was only partially successful, but, hey, royalty was a new look for her.

  “Not long now, Your Highness. There is some traffic in Harlem, but it should be clear once we’re past it.”

  So, her sister was having her
brought into Manhattan. She’d probably meet her somewhere upscale, and continue the ruse through an early dinner or a late lunch, whichever they wanted to call it. They’d enjoy being back in each other’s company, Nadya would forgive her sister, and Jasmine would forgive her as well. All the bad blood they’d had between them would be cleared up well in advance of the anniversary party.

  The buildings of Manhattan went by about as quickly as they could be expected to. The traffic was light, which in New York meant that it was moderate. Nadya began to get excited about what her sister had planned for her. Jasmine had always had great taste, and she was sure she’d pick somewhere nice for the two of them to meet.

  But not this nice. The hotel the car pulled up to was just excessive. It was the kind of place that Nadya always found her head craning to look into when she passed, but that she’d never expected that she would actually walk into.

  “It this it?” she asked the driver as he held the car door open for her, dropping the act entirely and allowing her disbelief to show through.

  The driver nodded, and did that little half-bow thing he’d done before at the airport, though Nadya felt she could sense a bit of suspicion still lingering underneath the surface.

  There were porters there at the curb, gathering up her bags. They were quick and efficient, and her bags disappeared into the hotel before she could say anything. All she could do, she figured, was follow.

  Stepping over the threshold, she began to have doubts. Maybe it had been wishful thinking that had made her think that her sister would plan something like this. Sure, they’d had a fight, and sure, her new husband was loaded. But even considering both those things, even lunch at the restaurant of a place like this would be wasteful, by any standards.

  “Nadya?”

  Another man was calling out to her. He resembled the driver so strongly that Nadya had to do a double take to be sure that it wasn’t actually the same man. He had the same stone-faced expression, and the same impeccably-tailored suit. And, it seemed to Nadya, the same air of curiosity and slight suspicion.

  “I’m Nadya,” she said. Anderson, she thought. Just say it. ‘I’m Nadya Anderson.’

  But she didn’t say it. Maybe something had gone wrong. She couldn’t be the person all this was meant for. This wasn’t her kind of hotel, or her kind of experience. The way these men were acting… the way this man was calling her “Your Highness.” It had to be a mistake. Jasmine wouldn’t have taken it this far. She wouldn’t have brought this many people into it.

  But it was a mistake that was leading Nadya into a world she’d never really gotten a look at. Her family had always lived in small, crowded third-floor walk-ups. And then she’d been a student, trying to get by in a dorm and on a meal plan. And since then, she’d been a waitress, just trying to get by at all.

  She still had plausible deniability, didn’t she? She could follow this through and see where things were going. At least, she could let it go just a little bit further, until she could say that she thought they had her confused for someone else, and call an end to the whole thing. But in the meantime…

  The elevator was taking them up, higher and higher. It wasn’t the normal elevator for guests of the hotel, Nadya noticed. This was an elevator reserved exclusively for the penthouse, that the grey suited man had needed a special keycard even to call.

  “How was your flight?” the interchangeable stone-faced man asked her.

  Pleasantries. She would have to make pleasantries. But not too many. If they were speaking to her like royalty, she would have to act like royalty, and royalty wouldn’t say much in this situation. That was a relief.

  “Tolerable,” she said, tilting her jaw just slightly up, as she imagined that someone who thought herself above everyone else would do.

  If she were in the man’s shoes, she’d be insulted. But to him, her behavior seemed to allay his doubts. He approved, it seemed, of her aloofness.

  But now there was dead space between them. Usually quietness didn’t make Nadya uncomfortable. As a waitress, she’d gotten used to sensing which customers wanted to be talked to, and which wanted to be left alone. And she was happy to offer quiet to those that wanted it. But here, in this situation, she felt herself casting about for something to say, against her better judgment.

  She couldn’t ask any of the things she wanted to ask – not if she wanted to see the inside of the room before announcing that someone had got something wrong. And she did want to see the inside of the room, she found. It surprised her just how strong her curiosity was.

  It was a relief when the elevator stopped, and the doors opened directly into the entryway to a suite. The stone-faced man did a little half-bow identical to the one the driver had done, and gestured for her to leave the elevator car.

  She did, and as the door shut behind her, she was suddenly struck with fear. There was no escape, now. Something about the sound of the elevator whooshing off down back to the first floor made Nadya feel as though she were entirely in this new world, now. And it was a very different place to the world she’d lived in for the first twenty-one years of her life.

  She took a few slow breaths in and out. She got herself together. She decided to look at this as though she were a journalist. She was here to observe. She would just take a look around, and see how the other half lived. And then, when she was finished, she would pick up the phone and call hotel reception, and tell them that she thought there had been a mistake.

  Nadya had been in her fair share of hotels and motels for class trips and family vacations, and in hostels for the six months after she’d dropped out of college, when she’d done some backpacking while she tried to figure out what to do with her life – only to find out that new places didn’t in and of themselves provide any answers. This place was unlike any she’d ever stayed in.

  It was like a private residence. It felt like someone had designed it for themselves, and had just happened to invite you round, and let you have the run of the place. The light fixtures looked like works of art, with their combination of shiny chrome and matte stainless steel. The Chuck Taylors she’d donned for the flight sunk deeply into the plush rug, under which were beautiful, hardwood floors

  This high above the city, Nadya could almost believe she wasn’t in the city at all. She knew the noise of New York well. She knew the feeling of always having people below you, above you, and around you. But here she might as well have been somewhere far away, where people have the luxury of space and privacy.

  She tried to soak it all in. She wanted to remember every detail. She noted the crown molding, and the subtle shade of calming grey. She noticed the pattern on the ceiling, so very far above her. It was like lace, made from different textures of white rather that different colors.

  The room was bathed in a golden light. Nadya looked up and saw a skylight above her head, letting in the warmth of the sunset, just beginning. Glints of the golden light bounced off of the mirrors, and made the white lilies in a vase by the entryway look orange.

  There were no windows just here. She was in the middle of the building. There were hallways headed off in different directions toward different rooms, like synapses, and those all had the orange glow coming in from them, reflected off mirrors and glass, or in triangular shapes on the floor, made by the light coming through windows out of her field of vision at off angles.

  That was when she noticed the rose petals on the floor.

  Nadya’s heart began to race. She’d gone along with everything with the understanding that she’d just been accidentally taking someone’s reservation. The fallout from that would be embarrassing enough, but at least it would happen to her alone. These rose petals meant that this was more than that. She wasn’t just stealing someone’s reservation. She was stealing someone’s date.

  She turned back, looking at the elevator. She would just call it back up. She would just get into the elevator, and ride down to the lobby, and head straight out. She’d take the subway to the train, an
d then call her sister from the station. She’d tell her what a strange adventure she’d been on, before promptly forgetting what a fool she’d almost been. Her finger raised to push the elevator button, but a thought stopped her. Her bags. They’d taken her bags somewhere into this hotel. Were they going to be coming here soon? Where had they been taken?

  She considered quickly going through the rooms in the suite, to see if they’d been piled somewhere. She’d headed straight upstairs from the lobby, but the men who had taken her bags had seemed so efficient that she wouldn’t put it past them to have beaten her here, possibly through the use of dark hotel magic. And if she didn’t find her bags in any of the rooms, she knew that it would just be a matter of waiting for them to show up with them.

  But that line of reasoning only brought her back to the rose petals on the floor. If the person who had placed them was still here, and she had no reason to believe he wouldn’t be, then she stood a chance of running into him. And if she ran into him without any kind of explanation, what would he say? What would he do? How much had she transgressed?

  The absurdity of what she’d done was beginning to dawn on her. She’d let herself get carried away. She’d allowed it to go far too far already, but it was still almost within the realm of possibility that she hadn’t done anything too unacceptable. She still had a chance of getting out of this. But only if she owned up now, and told whoever it was that was waiting for the real Nadya exactly what had happened.

  Nadya swallowed nervously and began to follow the rose petals, being careful not to step on them, so that they would still look fresh and new for whoever their intended recipient was. The trail led her down the hall, and out into an open plan living room area. The light hit her just as she walked out into it, forcing her hand up to shield her eyes. The room was glass on all sides, and the same golden light that had illuminated the entryway light was spilling in, lighting up every tasteful, modern detail.

  Outside the room was a terrace, and beyond it, the city. Nadya breathed in involuntarily as she saw it. It was a private garden, with manicured plants. Just enough to feel lush, but not overcrowded. In the middle of it was a table set for two, with a seated figure already there and waiting. He had his back to her, so she couldn’t tell much about him other than that he was tall, with black hair and a well-cut black suit.

  She swallowed hard. The worst of her fears that had been confirmed: this was a romantic rendezvous that she had accidentally crashed. But there was no going back now.

  Nadya strode out across the living room to the half-open sliding glass door. The rug ended here, and she could hear her own footsteps. The man on the terrace could hear them too, it seemed, and he sprang up and turned around just as she got to the doorway.

  Two things at one struck her. First was the breeze. This high above the city, even on a stuffy day like today, the air felt cool and light. It made her involuntarily breathe in deeply, to get every precious molecule of it in her lungs that she could.

  The second was the sight of the man himself. He was undeniably handsome, with a strong jawline and an open, honest face. He looked like he could have been an Arab mannequin, but for a single small mole on his chin.

  She could tell immediately that he didn’t recognize her. Or, rather, that he didn’t expect to recognize her, and so wasn’t disturbed that he didn’t.

  “You must be Nadya,” he said, sincerity radiating off him like sunlight. “It’s so good to finally meet you.”

  This was going to be much harder than Nadya had expected.

 
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