The sheikhs twin baby su.., p.24
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       The Sheikh's Twin Baby Surprise, p.24

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

  When Lucie awoke, it took her a moment to remember where she was. It had gotten dim outside, and the quiet of the palace was momentarily unsettling. But as she came to her senses, she felt a smile spread across her face.

  She looked around the room. The tray that had held her uneaten lunch had been cleared away, and in its place an outfit from her own luggage had been laid out: a slim-cut violet and black dress.

  She almost laughed. It was a suggestion, it seemed, from whatever ghost was looking after her. They thought she should be prepared for a somewhat formal dinner, it seemed.

  It was a dress that she’d packed despite misgivings. She hadn’t really thought she was going to get a chance to wear it; it was designed for the kind of woman who lived a very different life than Lucie thought she ever would.

  It was something like a cocktail dress, short and sweet, with just a touch of glitz. If she’d been the kind of woman who went out partying, she’d doubtless have worn it on the hunt for a man. But as it was, she’d only brought it along because her constant need to be over-prepared for every possibility demanded it.

  And tonight that need had, apparently, paid off.

  She slipped the lacy fabric over her head. Her skin felt so much softer than she was used to—a benefit of whatever was in the strange but sweet-smelling products stocked in the bathroom, she supposed. Regardless of what had caused it, she somehow felt very differently from any time she’d dressed up in the past.

  Usually, she felt out of place. It wasn’t that she wasn’t attractive—her thin frame had always been a point of envy for her sister, and her blond hair behaved well enough whenever she put time and effort into taming it. It was just that she’d just always felt like she was trying to be someone else when she dressed for anything other than the library.

  But tonight, looking in the mirror, and surrounded by this place that felt, quite surprisingly, like home, Lucie felt like she belonged in the dress. So, hungry from her lack of lunch and with a spring in her step, she headed downstairs, to dinner.

  It took a bit of remembering to be able to find her way successfully to the dining room. The tour beforehand had been exhaustive, and there were enough halls and rooms and passages that if Lucie didn’t concentrate, they all ran together in her mind. They were to dine in the semi-formal dining area. It was one step above the cozy breakfast nook off the kitchen, and one step below the grand formal dining area with seats for 25 and a sense of being rarely used.

  The smell hit her before she even got to the door. It was aromatic and savory, and it quickened her step without her consciously realizing it.

  Zach and Abdul were both there already, sitting across each other. The table probably could have accommodated five or six, but there were only three chairs: the ones that the men sat in and one at the head of the table, reserved, apparently, for her.

  As she sat down, she judged the expressions on their faces carefully. The room had a tension to it that she hadn’t been expecting, and the natural curiosity in her wanted to know why. Abdul looked content and in control, with perhaps just the slightest look of victory about him. Zach, on the other hand, had a very uncharacteristic unpleasant look to him, like he’d just been listening to something that didn’t sit well with his idea of the world.

  Lucie wanted to ask, but she didn’t want to get bogged down in the details of it all. She’d half expected that Zach’s presence would spoil the research trip for her, but she was determined not to let him ruin this unexpected opportunity to spend time in the royal palace.

  “Did you rest well?” Abdul asked as she sat down. The food was starting to appear at the doors, as though the staff had been waiting for precisely the moment she arrived to bring the dishes in.

  “I did, yes. Thank you again, so much, for your hospitality.”

  He nodded graciously. “Certainly. What kind of a host would I be if I didn’t make sure that the first Americans to accept my invitation weren’t well looked after?”

  The questions that had occurred to Lucie earlier, about the oddness of his looking after them, reared their ugly heads again, but she stayed quiet. There was no way of asking him about it that wouldn’t have seemed ungrateful.

  Besides, he was already moving on.

  “And might I say, you look lovely. Not that being covered in dust didn’t suit you...”

  Lucie noticed a trace of a smile on his lips. From Zach, that phrase would have been accompanied by a mocking tone. But from Abdul, it seemed more like a genuine sentiment.

  “I don’t know,” Zach piped up from the other side of the table. “I like the gold dress better.”

  The gold dress? She had no idea what he was talking about, at first. Then she remembered another PhD student who had worn a gold dress to a function. Even in trying to assert his familiarity, Zach had failed.

  Or had he? Lucie sometimes wondered if he made little mistakes like that—attributing a dress to another girl, or forgetting a name—on purpose. She’d read somewhere that certain men did that sort of thing to set girls on edge, making themselves seem to have the upper hand.

  She wondered whether or not to correct him. Usually, she wouldn’t. It wasn’t worth the aggravation to respond to half of the things that Zach said, generally. But then she remembered the tension she’d sensed in the room when she’d walked in, and decided to speak up.

  “That was Jill,” she said, the three words silencing him for a moment.

  “Oh, I only meant that the dress she wore would look better on you than this one.”

  He hadn’t. She knew it. Abdul knew it. But now that she’d let him embarrass himself, and that slight air of victory had appeared again on Abdul’s face, it felt like it was time to move the conversation on.

  The food was exquisite. There were no restaurants that served Al-Brehonian food in Illinois—where her family was from—or in Cambridge. While Lucie had tried to replicate some of the delicacies she’d read about at home, she’d never been much of a cook, and she saw now that her attempts at mimicking Al-Brehonian cuisine had been, at best, pale imitations.

  Throughout the meal, she was continually surprised by the flavors. She’d eaten at a lot of restaurants that served food from the region at large, but there were flavors she was experiencing tonight that she never so much as tasted before.

  She asked Abdul about it, and he smiled.

  “There are a lot of advantages to opening up the country—that’s why I’m doing it, after all. But at the same time, there are some advantages, I find, to being a bit more… sheltered.”

  Lucie wanted to respond. She’d been wondering for several years now about the work the Sheikh had been doing to open up his country. It had made a great difference to her, obviously, as it meant she was able to write her dissertation on Al-Brehoni—a subject so new to the archaeological community that her work was bound to contain some first-hand discovery.

  Now would be the perfect time to ask, or at least to broach the subject and get a read on how welcome further questions might be. The trick would be to do it delicately, so it wouldn’t seem like she was looking a gift horse in the mouth.

  But before she had put together what she wanted to say, Zach interrupted.

  “Well, all I can say is that our country has benefitted from not being quite so isolationist.”

  It was just like Zach to speak without thinking.

  “Oh, is that so?” Abdul said. “And you think it has always been this way, thoughout your history?”

  Zach went to respond again, but Lucie cleared her throat, prompting him to think about it a little bit more, and remember periods in the past where the United States had swung towards its own brand of isolationism.

  Abdul seemed primed for an answer, but Lucie could only imagine the thinly-veiled animosity between the two erupting into something more overt if she didn’t change the way the conversation was going.

  “And what has prompted this?” she asked quickly.

  It felt very forward to say it out lou
d, and Lucie found herself blushing a little as Abdul’s eyes focused on her.

  “I mean, I heard about your father’s passing…”

  She trailed off. Matters of state felt a lot harder to ask about when they were also matters of family.

  The Sheikh’s father’s passing was, to Lucie, a matter of history. It was the changeover from one ruler to another, and in many ways a logical and unemotional thing. But even though it was a few years ago now, she could tell that for Abdul, the wound was still fresh. She saw his eyes dart to the portrait hanging on the wall behind Zach.

  Abdul cleared his throat and replied. “My father was many things. And I admired him greatly. But the way he saw Al-Brehoni interacting with the outside world was more…” He tilted his head back and forth, as though rolling the words around in his brain.

  “Traditional?” Lucie offered.

  He smiled. “I would have said pigheaded.”

  “But not so pigheaded you still don’t follow some of his policies.”

  Zach had interrupted, his mouth full as he spoke. For someone raised in such a high social class, he sure did let his emotions overpower his good manners. There was something about the tone of his voice that made Lucie sit up a little straighter in her chair, as though she were subconsciously preparing for a full-on brawl.

  “I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean,” Abdul replied, but even though she’d only met him that day, Lucie already knew the Sheikh well enough to be certain that that was not the case.

  “I mean, you still don’t allow archeologists outside of your little program to access your sites.”

  Zach’s tone had gone from mildly upset to a boiling, barely-controlled anger. He seemed a little drunk, and Lucie noticed that the glass of sweet-smelling liquor before him was mostly empty. He must have gotten a good head start on it before she came in.

  “The program that we are very, very grateful to have been a part of,” Lucie added, trying to salvage the situation.

  The Sheikh reached out a hand, as though to reassure Lucie, while gesturing for Zach to continue at the same time.

  “Please, I’m afraid I’m not sure what you are getting at. If you’d be so kind as to enlighten me?”

  Again, Lucie thought, he did know. But Zach was already responding.

  “I spoke with my parents this afternoon. They were really curious about what the dig was like here, and wanted to know how the trip was going. They had a lot of questions, and said they wished they could be here, too.”

  At these words, Lucie experienced a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. She didn’t like conflict, and it seemed as though there was more to come.

  “I thought that was a little weird, because if they wanted to come here, certainly they would have. But they said they applied to work down on the southern site, and were denied.”

  Lucie was mortified, but also intrigued. She’d grown up reading about the exploits of the Millards. They’d been all kinds of places, and been the first to make many discoveries—why hadn’t they flocked to Al-Brehoni as soon as the regulations on archeological explorations began to loosen?

  The Sheikh let that fact—which Zach had somehow manufactured into an accusation—hang in the air. When he did respond, it was with a careful, controlled tone.

  “As I said earlier, I look into the reputations and previous work of those who wish to do work in my country. Our history is precious, and we do not have a second chance to uncover the gems we are discovering now.”

  Zach’s tone went from angry to sneering. “My parents are two of the foremost archeologists of their generation. If you knew half the places they’d been, and the projects they’d led—”

  “I do, actually. And what I found led me to decide not to allow them access.”

  It was like something snapped in Zach’s head. Lucie had never seen him lost for words for so long. Normally he had a quick comeback to everything, but now he was just sitting there, staring straight ahead, but not seeming to see anything.

  And then he gave his head a quick, clearing shake, and reached for his glass of liquor, which he downed in one final sip.

  “Come,” Abdul said, very consciously and graciously changing the subject. “I think we’ve all finished eating, and you seem to favor our local spirit. Let me show you how we usually drink it.”

  The Sheikh stood and walked to the door, leading the way out into the hallway. Lucie stood, too, but Zach stayed seated.

  “Well,” Abdul said calmly, “whenever you’re ready.”

  And then he left, and Lucie and Zach were alone.

  “Can you believe him?” Zach asked, as though there weren’t servants just outside that could hear every word.

 

  “I believe him. I’m not sure I believe you.”

  She wouldn’t have thought that she could wound Zach. He was all bravado, and had been since the day she’d met him. But at those words, Zach finally stood. He looked defeated, but not hopeless. More like bitter.

  “Well, go get drunk with the corrupt dictator if you want,” he spat. “I’ll be getting over my jet lag so I’m ready to do some real work tomorrow.”

  Lucie watched him stumble to the doorway and disappear through it. Now, if she asked the servants to escort her to where the king was, it would be just the two of them. They would be drinking together, alone, into the night.

  The thought of it sent a thrill of fear and excitement shooting up her spine. She could make an excuse about jet lag. She could do the proper thing, and take more time to study up for the work they would hopefully be able to do once the storm was over.

  But even as she thought about it, she knew she wouldn’t do it. This was happening. This was, it felt like, the first real thing that was happening in her whole life.

 
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