The sheikhs twin baby su.., p.21
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       The Sheikh's Twin Baby Surprise, p.21

         Part #1 of The Sheikh's Baby Surprise series by Holly Rayner
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  Lucie wanted to argue, but Zach beat her to it, telling the stranger that they would be going nowhere with anyone who did not identify themselves.

  Zach was all hot air, and the man seemed to know it. He didn’t honor Zach’s indignation with a response—he simply opened the passenger door.

  So bright was the sun that it was difficult to see inside. Lucie could just make out that the interior of the SUV appeared to be set up very much like the inside of a limo, with one set of seats facing backwards, and the outline of a figure sitting there.

  The storm seemed to almost be upon them already, and it was making it uncomfortable to stand outside. The winds were picking up, and were much more noticeable now than when they’d landed, to the point that they were whipping around strands of Lucie’s blond hair, and she could feel the dust already coating her skin.

  Let Zach argue, she thought. They were entirely at the mercy of the people in their host country, and it was unlikely that they would be able to tell the good from the bad in a hurried situation like this, anyway.

  So she slid inside.

  The air inside the car was much cooler than outside, and Lucie found that she suddenly seemed to be sweating much more than she had been out in the hot air. Sweating and dirty in this luxurious space, it felt uncomfortable and embarrassing.

  She sat in one of the backwards-facing seats, giving a wide berth to the man elaborately dressed in traditional Middle-Eastern garb.

  As she cast a glance at him, Lucie suddenly felt herself sweating for an entirely different reason.

  “Sir…” she said, and then trailed off. Should she have said “Your Highness?”

  “What’s going on?” she heard Zach ask as he slid in behind her, pulling the door shut. “Who is this?”

  She wanted to answer, but in the moment wasn’t certain she’d get all of his titles right. Instead, she reached into her pocket and found some coins. The largest of them would do, she thought.

  Lucie tossed Zach the coin and watched the look of bemusement on his face as the car pulled out of the camp. He didn’t seem to believe what he was seeing, and kept looking back and forth between the image on the coin and the man sitting in the car, as though the resemblance would disappear if he just kept comparing them.

  With the door closed, and the world shut out by heavily-tinted windows, it was easy to forget the encroaching storm. It was quiet in here. Peaceful, even.

  “So, you’re…” Zach began, but like Lucie had moments before, he trailed off.

  “Yes,” the man replied. “I am Sheikh Abdul al Syed bin Rahji. I wanted to take the chance to welcome you both to my country, as well as to apologize for the weather and the delay it has caused to your planned studies. You’re the first Americans to participate in our academic partnership program, and we regret that your time here has gotten off to such a rough start.”

  “Well, it’s not like you can control the weather.”

  A perfect score on the SATs. Early admission to Yale, a 4.0 GPA and top of her class for all of her undergraduate career. All these things, Lucie had taken in her stride, but now, when she really needed her mind to perform, apparently that was the best she could do at cracking a joke. Lucie was mortified.

  To her surprise, the Sheikh grinned.

  “Well, not yet, anyway.”

  And then he did the unthinkable: he winked.

  Lucie heard herself let out a quick, sharp laugh, and the Sheikh’s face, which had a quality of being cast out of metal like it was on one of his coins, seemed to break as a smile spread across his, too.

  And then he seemed to remember himself, and his demeanor became more serious.

  “I want to invite you to wait out the storm at my palace. There’s plenty of room, and it will probably be a more enjoyable experience than trying to squeeze into the hotels in the nearest town. The archeologists already here will have booked them all by now, certainly.”

  “Of course, we’d be honored.”

  For the second time in the space of a minute, Lucie spoke without thinking. It earned her a harsh look from Zach, who seemed peeved at not having been consulted.

  But Lucie was done with him—the big man on campus. All their advisors, all the students they taught on their work study programs… all of them seemed to think that something of the archeological godhood of his parents had rubbed off on him, despite the fact that he’d been at Harvard for two years before Lucie had even shown up. It seemed to bother no one that in all his time there, Zach had barely made any progress towards finishing his dissertation.

  And now, he hadn’t even recognized the leader of the country they were both doing their dissertations on.

  “Do you have something to say, Zach?”

  Lucie addressed him directly, daring him to protest. He couldn’t, she knew. Not in front of a monarch.

  “No, of course not,” he said, sounding wounded.

  The Sheikh seemed to pick up on this.

  “And you, I presume, are Zach Millard?” he said.

  At being recognized, Zach seemed to find a little bit more of a comfortable place in the conversation.

  “Ah, you’ve heard of my parents?”

  The Sheikh nodded. “In researching who should be allowed access to our newly developing historical sites, I’ve been hearing about a great many archeologists. But I know you, of course, from your application to come and work here, with us, so that you may finish your dissertation. And what is it that your dissertation is on, again? If I may ask?”

  Lucie wasn’t sure how to feel about this line of conversation. On the one hand, talking to the Sheikh had almost a high connected to it. He was the most powerful man in the country. Studying at Harvard, and at Yale before that, Lucie had come into contact with her fair share of important people. But she’d never come across a royal before. It was, it seemed, a completely different form of power.

  The Sheikh moving his attention to Zach gave her the opportunity to catch her breath and consider this new development.

  If anything Lucie had learned in her research on modern-day Al-Brehoni was correct, being invited to the Sheikh’s palace was extremely rare, if not unheard of. The building was centuries old, and the Al-Brehonian royal family had always had a healthy mistrust of letting others into it. Some scholars suspected that that wariness had stemmed from the slaughter of nearly the entire dynasty around 1130BCE, when they’d invited their neighboring kingdom’s rulers for a wedding feast.

  Lucie let the sound of Zach waffling on about his dissertation cut through her hazy knowledge of the Al-Brehonian royal family. She couldn’t tell for sure whether Zach knew what his dissertation was supposed to be shaping up to be. There was no way it would pass the dissertation defense. Well, not unless the board took into account his family name…

  She was getting sidetracked again. What she really needed was to see if she could get the Sheikh to agree to an interview; the opening of the country’s archeological sites after decades of being out of bounds was more interesting to more people than her dissertation could ever be. As far as Lucie had read—and she had read up on the matter pretty thoroughly—the Sheikh hadn’t yet given any account of his motivations for making such changes.

  That would have to wait, though, as the Sheikh had apparently tired of hearing Zach spew forth the web of confusion that was his dissertation project. He was looking at Lucie, now.

  “And as for you, Lucie... Have I said that right? Lucie?”

  She nodded. “Yes, it’s spelled differently, but said the same. My parents wanted me to be unique, but not too unique.”

  Again, that grin. The grin that made him look like he could be anyone except a king.

  “That’s very like parents, I find.”

  She regretted mentioning her parents almost immediately. The Sheikh’s face barely revealed it, but she could see a trace of sadness at the subject.

  He pushed past it, moving back seamlessly to his original question.

  “Your dissertation wa
s to do with pottery, I believe?”

  Lucie nodded, impressed that the Sheikh apparently took a personal role in vetting the candidates in his new program.

  She outlined her theory the same way she’d done many times before, at parties, or small get-togethers. Whenever it came up that she’d spent nearly four years working on a single essay, people tended to be curious.

  Still, the people who asked her about it were usually only interested for a minute or two, so Lucie had boiled her subject down to a few sentences on how there was evidence of a key trading and production hub for specialized pottery in the ancient Middle-East, and that this newly-opened dig in Al-Brehoni showed a lot of promise for being this mysterious site.

  When she’d finished this short explanation, she was used to being greeted by a glib sentence about that being really interesting. Some people would ask her what she’d do if it turned out she was wrong and the last four years of her life had been spent trying to prove something that wasn’t true.

  But the Sheikh didn’t say any of those things, nor did he look ready to move on.

  “Go on,” he said, when it became clear that Lucie’s hesitance wasn’t going to clear any time soon.

  “As in?”

  “As in, what makes you think this is the site you’ve been seeing all this evidence for?”

  She was not practiced at this next part. She had created a structure for her essay. The findings. What looked like an ancient version of the much-later-normalized maker’s marks on some shards of pottery. The abnormal proliferation of some dyes and firing methods. But she had never explained any of this to the layman. Her supervisor aside, no one had ever really been interested before.

  Unsure where to start, she began with the first subject she explored in her dissertation. It was fresh in her mind, as she’d been editing it and re-editing it at length, almost like a nervous habit, as she had waited to hear whether she had been accepted to come to Al-Brehoni.

  She watched his face carefully as she spoke, looking for any trace of boredom or confusion. But there was none. Either he was a talented actor, or he was genuinely interested and understood what she was talking about, nodding encouragingly for her to continue.

  And she did. Once it was clear that the Sheikh wanted to hear more about her work, the words flowed from her like water. Until that moment, she hadn’t realized just how much she had wanted to say, and how deprived she’d felt at not having anyone who was actually interested in hearing about it.

  She’d been talking for a while, she realized, as her voice began to grow a little hoarse. But the Sheikh kept nodding, even asking the odd question.

  His questions had the exceptional quality of being both intelligent and knowledgeable. He was even raising possibilities that she’d been too close to the subject for too long to consider.

  She found, the more she spoke, the less she spoke directly about her dissertation topic, and the more she wandered off into a general discussion about what she knew and what she was excited to learn about Al-Brehoni.

  Lucie had been keeping as informed as possible with the archeological digs that had been allowed to begin in Al-Brehoni over the last three years. She had alerts set for any new articles published, and regularly scoured archeological journals for accounts of new discoveries within the country.

  But the process of discovering, writing and finally publishing can often be a long one, and Lucie was painfully aware that there might be things happening that would not have made it anywhere near the journals yet. And there were always smaller, interesting but not-yet-explained findings that wouldn’t make it into the journals for some time—perhaps ever.

  The Sheikh seemed well up to date with all these happenings. The conversation slowly, seamlessly, shifted to him doing most of the talking, and Lucie listened with rapt attention, savoring every word.

  As she listened, she found she was noticing more than just the information leaving his lips—she was noticing the lips themselves. She found herself, quite uncharacteristically and quite inappropriately for the situation, thinking that she could just lean over and kiss them.

  She forced herself to push those thoughts aside. She was tired, and it had been a roller coaster of a day; her mind could be forgiven for wandering off where it didn’t belong.

  But the thought of his lips, and the unbidden image of her kissing them, opened the door to her noticing other things. She noticed the way he casually injected just the smallest bit of humor, now and then. Occasionally, she even caught a pun. She would have sworn it was accidental, but it happened more than once.

  It was like he was being funny if no other reason than to entertain himself. He wasn’t forcing it on anyone else. He wasn’t trying to ingratiate himself, or to build himself up. This was a man, Lucie was suddenly very aware, who had never needed to ingratiate himself, or build himself up in others’ eyes. He was already there.

  Lucie began, with every dry, half-humorous phrase, to allow herself to react. Just a little. Not enough so that Zach, tuned out and staring out of the window, would notice. But she saw that the Sheikh noticed. And that, she thought, was more than enough.

  She noticed the way his clothes looked stiff on him. Not in a bad way; it wasn’t as though he looked the slightest bit uncomfortable or awkward. But they looked like they were not his everyday clothes. They looked like he broke them out only for special occasions.

  She wanted to let her mind wander down the path of why that might be, but she stopped herself. She was prone to fantasy. She had grown up reading fantastic tales about sorcerers and ancient kingdoms, and in a large part that had probably fed her desire to find out what those ancient kingdoms (devoid of sorcerers, of course) had actually been like. She was at home imagining things that could not be.

  She knew she had to be careful not to make more of anything the Sheikh was saying. He was offering an olive branch to the archeological community, so long shunned by his country, and welcoming the first American students to his nation—of course he’d want to make a good impression.

  Or maybe, she mused, he’d just happened to pick his newest clothes today for no reason at all, and she was making entirely too much of it altogether.

  Lucie noticed, over time, that the ride became smoother and smoother.

  They were re-entering civilization.

  Unusually, the palace was not located in the capital city. The royal palace of Al-Brehoni had been, for many years, a retreat. It was built around an oasis, far from the prying eyes and inconveniences the city might bring. With the advent of the telephone and then the internet, however, it had slowly become the main residence of a particularly reclusive royal family.

  On the few occasions Lucie tore her eyes away from the Sheikh, sneaking glances out the window, she was greeted with nothing but the rolling dunes of the desert. It wasn’t until the SUV stopped and the Sheikh broke into a wide smile that she could be certain they were drawing closer to their destination.

  “Ah,” he said, looking behind her at a view she could not see. “We have arrived.”

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