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

  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.

  TWO

  Royalty!

  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 than
ked 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—”

  “No!”

  Her father’s shout reverberated through the kitchen in much the same was 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.

 
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