The sheikhs twin baby su.., p.29
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       The Sheikh's Twin Baby Surprise, p.29
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         Part #1 of The Sheikh's Baby Surprise series by Holly Rayner

  THREE

  Morgan stared up at the glowing neon sign. Abu Nawas had closed an hour earlier, and she felt like a fool. She hadn’t even thought to check the hours on the website, busy as she had been, looking for traces of who Ahmed might be.

  Still, not wanting to give up that easily, she pressed her face against the glass door, and was surprised to see the lights still on. An older woman in Middle-Eastern dress met her gaze and hurried over to the door, unlocking it and letting her in.

  “Hello, hello! Welcome to our restaurant!” the woman said, grasping Morgan’s hands with a small bow.

  Not knowing the proper greeting for her culture, Morgan simply gave the woman’s hands a firm squeeze back, and a smile.

  “I’m glad you found me—for a moment there I thought I’d been given a cold case.”

  “Of course not! Your services are much needed, my dear.”

  The woman ushered Morgan into the opulent dining room, where a man in white cotton clothing was seated at a table in the center. He wore a thick pair of glasses and was examining some documents, but when Morgan and the woman entered, he stood to greet them, removing his spectacles.

  “Miss Springfield,” he said, his voice recognizable as the one from the phone call earlier that day. “Thank you for coming.”

  Morgan tried not to gape at her opulent, bejeweled surroundings. The chandeliers had to be Swarovski crystals—they glittered and glistened, giving the room an ethereal feel.

  Taking a breath, Morgan realized she could smell something amazing, and, to her embarrassment, her stomach rumbled.

  The woman didn’t miss a beat. “I’ll have some food brought out for us. The chef is still here,” she said, scurrying off.

  The man—Ahmed, she supposed—gestured to a seat across from him, and Morgan took it, gratefully. The chair was well cushioned, and she sank into it for a moment before remembering herself and sitting upright.

  Ahmed grinned. “We brought in all the finest furnishings; we’re very proud of this place,” he said, his accent even more melodious in person.

  Without knowing him, Morgan liked him immediately. That didn’t mean terribly much, but she prided herself on her instincts, even as she allowed for the possibility that they could be wrong.

  A heartbeat later, two waiters were at the table, setting down plates of creamy hummus and warm pita bread. Morgan’s mouth instantly began to water, but she waited for Ahmed to make a move before diving in.

  “Please, help yourself, Miss Springfield,” he said, gesturing at the plates. “I think you’ll find our hummus to be the best in town,” he beamed, clearly proud of his establishment.

  Needing no further encouragement, Morgan scooped up a large helping of hummus, and took a bite. The creamy spread melted in her mouth, and she had to fight off a moan of pleasure. How long had it been since she’d had decent food?

  The woman returned to the table and took a seat beside Ahmed. Both of them stared at Morgan for a moment, and she stopped eating, suddenly self-conscious.

  “Miss Springfield,” Ahmed finally began. “Do you know what a sheikh is?”

  Morgan racked her brain, remembering the title from her research.

  “Isn’t it like, a king or something?”

  Ahmed smiled. “Something like that, yes. In my country I am known as Sheikh Ahmed Al-Khali. This is my wife, Sheikha Almera Al-Khali. We are the ceremonial heads of a tribe in our home nation of Al-Harrari, and the owners of Abu Nawas.”

  Morgan stared. Ahmed and his wife were Middle-Eastern royalty. She blinked, unsure how to address them.

  “So…what brings you to Houston?” was all she could think to ask.

  It was Almera’s turn to smile. “We own a number of oil fields back in our country, but there is quite a business to be had in America, and we have long wanted to be a part of it. I have a deep love and appreciation for our traditional cuisine, and have always wanted to share it with others, with the hope that any distrust between our cultures can be laid to rest over a table of delicious food.”

  “Have you been here long?” Morgan asked, and their smiles faded.

  “We have not,” Ahmed said. “While Almera came some years ago to set up the restaurant and visit our son at college, we have had much to take care of back home. We have only been here for a few weeks,” he finished, rubbing a hand across his eyes.

  Morgan saw the deep circles underneath them, then. She saw the lines of age creasing his face—worry lines.

  “It’s your son, isn’t it?” she guessed, and the couple’s shoulders slumped.

  She had guessed correctly.

  “His name is Hassan,” Almera said, pulling a clean cloth napkin from the table and dabbing her eyes. A small smudge of kohl stained the pristine white cloth, but the older woman didn’t seem to notice. She turned her watery gaze to Morgan.

  “He chose to go to school in America, which was fine with us. It’s good to broaden your horizons; get new perspectives. But he changed so much while he was here. He stopped taking our calls. He refused to even talk about coming home. We continued to fund his lifestyle…” Almera cast a sideways glance at Ahmed, who turned a slight shade of red.

  “He was being reckless with our money, and with our reputation. The things we’ve heard since coming over…well,” Ahmed said, composing himself. “He has, for whatever reason, convinced himself that he does not want to be a part of our family. He has disappeared, quite suddenly, and we need you to help us find him.”

  Almera rose and walked over to the wall by the kitchens, where a small series of photographs were hung along the hallway. When she returned, she handed a heavily framed photograph to Morgan, who glanced down at the image.

  Ahmed and what appeared to be a handsome, younger version of him stood behind an elaborate chair, in which Almera was seated. The young man, presumably Hassan, draped one hand casually over the chair. He wore a brightly-colored ceremonial outfit, but that wasn’t what caught Morgan’s attention.

  He was beyond handsome. His face was chiseled like that of a god, his eyes mesmerizing, demanding the attention of the viewer. Even in this photograph Morgan could sense his presence, his powerful draw.

  She blinked, and looked back up at the man’s parents.

  “How old is he now?”

  “Twenty-seven,” Ahmed said, taking the picture and setting it upright on the table, where they could still look at it. “He was just out of college when this picture was taken—that was the last time he travelled back home.”

  “He refuses to accept anything from us. We’ve tried to help him so many times, but now we don’t even know where he is. If anything has happened to him…” Almera began to weep again, silently, and Ahmed placed a steadying hand on her shoulder as she continued her futile attempt to maintain her composure.

  Morgan cleared her throat. “So why me?” she asked, cutting to the chase. “If your son has gone missing, you should be involving the police. They could be a real asset in finding him.”

  It killed her to say the words, but they were true. If anything truly serious had happened to Hassan, it would be better to involve the authorities from the outset. Morgan was good at finding people, but she was better at finding them when they were still alive.

  “I don’t believe he is missing, per se,” Ahmed said. “He is being…difficult. A few weeks ago he called us, finally—he must have known we were sick with worry. He declared his intention to move on from this life—from our life—and that was the end of it. We were able to trace the phone call to a phone booth outside of Bledsoe, but we’ve heard nothing from him since. We would rather this incident not be made public, which would be the case were we to involve the local authorities. You understand?”

  Morgan nodded. If the couple wanted to keep their son’s errant behavior under wraps, a private detective would be a much better way to handle the situation.

  Ahmed reached under a pile of papers and pulled out a plain white envelope. He slid it acr
oss the table to Morgan and she saw that on the front of the envelope a number was written in cursive—a very large number.

  “We are willing to pay for him to be returned to us—money is no object. Inside that envelope is a good faith payment—the first installment of your fee. You will get the rest when you bring Hassan back to us, or at least bring back information about his whereabouts.”

  Morgan stared at the envelope. The number on the front would be enough to support her for several months, at least. It was a huge sum.

  She didn’t touch it. Instead, she looked Ahmed dead in the eye.

  “Why me? With your means, you could have your pick of any private detective in the city, and there are some who have much more experience than I do.”

  She knew she was risking blowing the best gig she’d get in a long time, but she wouldn’t go into the job without having her questions answered. She had to know the truth.

  Almera sighed. “The truth is, you are not our first attempt, my dear. We have had two other detectives go looking for our son, all for nothing. They came back empty-handed,” she said, frowning.

  “They were also male,” Ahmed said with a knowing look. “You might need to know that Hassan has a certain weakness for women. I think with your looks and your skills, you are truly our best hope for bringing him home.”

  “And what is that supposed to mean?” Morgan demanded, rising.

  Ahmed sat still as a statue, looking up at her.

  “It means that you are a beautiful young woman with a quick mind. Please don’t be offended, Miss Springfield. I only wish to speak freely with you, as you seem to desire.”

  Almera grasped Morgan’s hand, and she sat back down, secretly embracing the soft cushion.

  “I have a few things to give you, in the event that you find our son. Here is Hassan’s insignia ring—his proof of title. We found it in his apartment when we first began our search.”

  Almera reached into her pocket and pulled out a large ruby ring. She opened Morgan’s hand and pressed the heavy piece of jewelry into her palm, closing her hand around it. The metal was cold against her flesh.

  “Even if he decides not to come home—if he insists on rejecting us,” Almera sniffled here, but worked to hold herself together, “he deserves to have this with him. To remember where he came from.”

  Releasing her grip on Morgan’s hand, Almera placed their family portrait face down on the table and released the clips holding it in place. Carefully, she pulled the paper image from its casing and handed it to Morgan as well.

  “Study his image, so you can find him; so that you don’t forget.”

  Morgan took a breath, looking at the pile of money on the table, feeling that ring burn a hole in her palm. Then she grasped the envelope in the other hand and stood. Ahmed and Almera stood as well.

  “I accept your proposal. I will go looking for Hassan, and if I am not able to find him, your payment will be returned in full. Is that all right?”

  Ahmed reached out and shook her hand. “It is more than all right. You are our last hope of finding our son, Miss Springfield. We look forward to hearing your report,” he said, releasing her hand.

  With one last grasping handshake, Morgan bid farewell to Almera as well, and headed back out the gold-plated front doors, her mind a whirlwind.

 
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