The sheikhs twin baby su.., p.22
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       The Sheikh's Twin Baby Surprise, p.22

         Part #1 of The Sheikh's Baby Surprise series by Holly Rayner
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  Lucie was stiff from the long car ride. Her legs felt as though they’d fallen asleep, as the rest of her so longed to do, but the sheer adrenaline of what she was about to see kept her heart pumping and her mind alive with wonder.

  She wasn’t sure exactly what she was going to see when she turned around for the first time. Photographs of the palace had not been allowed since the 1930s, when one lucky photographer had captured a spectacularly grainy image.

  She’d studied that image before. She’d looked at it carefully, and tried to imagine what it would look like clearer and in color. Even at the quality it was, it had provoked in her a great deal of curiosity, but Lucie saw now that the photograph didn’t even slightly do the palace justice.

  For one thing, the photograph had made the palace look like it could only be two or three stories tall. But now that she saw it in person, she could tell that the windows were double height, and what had seemed like a three or four story building was, in fact, closer to eight.

  And they were stained glass! She hadn’t expected that. They looked to be quite old and elaborate designs, and she longed to get up close to them. A great deal of her second year of PhD study had been related to the patterns created by the ancient Al-Brehonians, and the idea of being the first to analyze some authentic stained glass windows was a huge thrill for her.

  She stepped forward without being asked to. Her eyes were drawn towards the house, wanting to get a closer look, and she had no choice but to follow them.

  The Sheikh spared her the trouble of having to wait for him by walking up beside her and keeping pace.

  He was, Lucie remarked to herself, a gracious host. First, he’d set Zach at ease when he’d clearly been feeling left out, then he’d genuinely engaged in Lucie’s explanation of her dissertation. And now, he’d seen how she’d been drawn to the house and walked with her, smoothing over any embarrassment she might have had at expressing her sense of wonder.

  She forced herself to walk more slowly. The building was wonderful, yes, but she had to remind herself that the reason she was allowed to gaze upon it at all was because of the man beside her.

  As she tore herself aside from the historical touches, she began to notice other details. There were servants around the place. She could see them, walking here or there. But even with the servants, there was a great feeling of stillness and space. It was like being in the desert, the way she’d seen it from the plane: endless oceans of sand. Calm, but lonely.

  There was beauty in that, she thought. There was something beautiful about the way their voices echoed in the grand entrance, devoid of anyone there to greet them. They could just stand and look at the mosaic inlay of the floor and the graceful, sweeping staircases that had been retrofitted to the ancient brick.

  The Sheikh, who insisted now he had brought them into his home on them calling him Abdul, offered to show Lucie and Zach around the main floor. Tired though she was, Lucie agreed immediately.

  She almost regretted it when she saw a servant—she suspected it might be the driver from before, but she couldn’t be sure—bringing in their bags. She wanted to follow them to wherever they were being taken. Surely there would be a bed there!

  But at the same time, she couldn’t imagine refusing Abdul’s offer of a tour. She didn’t know how long the storm would last, and she’d never forgive herself if she slept through her only opportunity to see the secret palace of the Al-Brehonian royal family.

  So she followed along, room after room. Her exhaustion meant that she struggled to focus on anything, so instead she just let the general feel of the place wash over her like a warm wave on a beach.

  She would expect gold from a sheikh’s palace. Golden embellishments were, indeed, present, but it wasn’t the gaudy, tasteless gold she’d imagined when staring at the grainy old photograph—just a touch, here and there. Things weren’t flashy so much as it just felt like everything was well-made. It was thoughtful. The home—and the more of it Lucie saw, the more she felt it really was a home—seemed to be made of a thousand small, careful choices, that together blended into the feeling of being taken care of.

  There was a grand ballroom, although it looked rarely used. The family hadn’t thrown any large events at the palace in modern memory, so it felt odd that it was even still there.

  As though reading her mind, the Sheikh answered her unasked question. “This place was built long ago—before my family was quite so reclusive. It had a use, once, although it hasn’t seen an event in a long while.”

  “But perhaps it will again?”

  She didn’t know what gave her the courage for the sudden boldness. Maybe it was her exhaustion, or the way the Sheikh seemed to get more and more approachable as she spent more time with him. Or maybe it was the way he was opening up the country his father had insisted must stay so closed for so long.

  Whatever it was, Lucie’s words didn’t seem to bother the Sheikh, who only nodded thoughtfully.

  “You’d have to re-do the floors, though,” Zach said, as though he didn’t have anything useful to contribute, but felt the need to chime in anyway.

  Lucie looked down at the tiles beneath her feet. They were arranged in a mosaic pattern, as much of the flooring in the older parts of the palace was. Where elsewhere the tiles had been lovingly, carefully restored, however, here it did indeed seem that some work needed to be done.

  Lucie looked away, taking in the rest of the hall, but immediately she found her eyes drawn back down to the floors, almost against her will. There was something there.

  “That’s strange,” she said softly.

  “What is?” the Sheikh asked, seeming genuinely curious.

  “The pattern on the floor… it’s quite distinct. It’s… it’s a pattern found on much of the pottery from my dissertation. It’s a big part of why I think there was once a central location for pottery production in this area. You just don’t see that being made anywhere else. But here…”

  The Sheikh was nodding, solemnly. “Yes, you’re right. I remember the pictures you included, now. The patterns do match. I’m in here so rarely, I didn’t even realize.”

  So, he’d seen pictures? It made sense, she supposed. She had submitted a draft section of her dissertation as part of her application to come and research here. But if he’d already read her dissertation, why had he been so interested to listen to her talk about it?

  They extinguished the lights in the ballroom and moved to another part of the palace, although Lucie found that the pattern on the floor lingered in her mind for a long time after they walked away. There was something there she would have to investigate; there was something about it that just seemed to make sense.

  They walked through long hallways and living rooms. They walked through a music room with a piano, and a room set up like a little movie theater.

  “It hasn’t been used in a long time,” the Sheikh said, as they looked at the outdated décor. “When we were children, my cousins and I… well, that was a long time ago.”

  Lucie could imagine why he wouldn’t want to change it; the couches looked like high-end versions of the couches that she and her brothers and sisters had sat on when they watched movies together as children. The room felt like nostalgia, and there was something in the Sheikh’s expression as they left it that made Lucie think that he’d left it untouched after all this time specifically for this reason.

  Abdul seemed to notice that Lucie was blinking more and more sleepily. He told her and Zach that servants would see them to their suites, where refreshments would be available. “I hope I will see you at dinner, though,” he added.

  For a man who could be certain that his guests would invariably do whatever he asked of them, Lucie thought that he had spoken with a strange inflection of hope in his voice. And, when he had spoken, he had looked directly at her.

  Even through the haze of her sleep deprivation, she could feel his eyes on her. They were a deep, warm brown.

  “I’m sure we will.”
  Zach had taken the opportunity to answer for her, even putting his arm around her as though they could respond as one.

  Lucie considered pointedly wriggling out of his grasp, but the gesture seemed needlessly confrontational for her current level of energy. Besides, she could see from the playful grin on the Sheikh’s face that he did not in the slightest interpret Zach's actions as they doubtlessly were intended.

  And the Sheikh wandered off, to somewhere in the depths of the house, leaving the two of them with a few servants to show them where they would be sleeping.

  “Interesting, isn’t it?” Zach said.

  He was trying to act nonchalant, but despite the fact that Zach had doubtless seen many impressive things in his lifetime, Lucie didn’t buy for a moment that he had glimpsed anything even close to the opulent home they’d been granted access to.

  Of all the things that annoyed her about Zach, this had to be top of the list. He’d been handed a life full of so many wonderful things. He’d been nearby when history had been made, time after time. He’d seen inside ruins that hadn’t seen the light of day for thousands of years. He’d been given a front row seat to the unraveling of the mystery of human innovation, and he never seemed impressed by any of it.

  Instead of answering him, Lucie turned to one of the servants, asking if he would be so kind as to show her to where she would be staying, slipping from Zach’s grasp as she did.

  As she walked away, following the servant’s quick clip, she cast a quick glance back at Zach. He seemed so small, so unimpressive standing there, surrounded by the palace and all its finery. She wondered if somewhere, deep inside, he knew it.

  She hoped that he did.

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