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The Sheikh's Accidental Bride, Page 3

Holly Rayner



  She wasn’t speaking. Why wasn’t she speaking? Why wouldn’t her lips move to form the words to end this disaster before it went any further?

  “Nadya, are you all right?”

  His voice bore just the slightest accent – just the barest hint. Nadya wouldn’t have even noticed, possibly, except that the words were echoing through her head.

  “Yes,” she said. No, no no, she thought. “I’m all right, thank you.” She followed it up with a smile, as though that would gloss over how she’d been standing stock still, unable to speak for the longest of moments.

  She had to make her excuses and go. Whichever Nadya he was supposed to be meeting, wouldn’t she be here soon? And why was it, anyway, that he was meeting a woman, here, in a truly extravagant penthouse suite of one of the most exclusive hotels in New York City, and he didn’t know what she looked like?

  “I’m just…” she took a shot in the dark, “A bit nervous.”

  His smile told her that she’d struck gold. “Perfectly understandable,” he said. “It’s not every day you meet your future husband.”

  Nadya could have laughed. Or cried. Any chance that she could just walk away from the whole thing with no harm done was swiftly evaporating. Unless this man was prone to terrible pickup lines – and he certainly didn’t seem like the sort who would need one to begin with – she’d just managed to interrupt the most important day of his life.

  At least it explained the high drama of the trail of the rose petals, and the way that his people (she had to assume that they had all been his people) had seemed so stiff and anxious to please her.

  Nadya was glad that a few of the pieces were coming together. But she also felt her heart sinking. She’d just met the man. She’d only spoken precious few words to him, and already she was disappointed by the idea that he would be getting married, and it wouldn’t be to her. It would be to some other Nadya, who would surely arrive at any moment.

  “You must be tired from the flight,” the man was saying, stepping back and sweeping an arm over to present the table. “And hungry. I know it’s a bit early for dinner, but when the driver said he’d picked you up already, I had them bring it up. It’s amazing that your flight got in so early.”

  “Yes,” Nadya replied, already hating the thought that was growing in her head. “I suppose so.”

  If the other Nadya’s flight wasn’t meant to come in until much later, Nadya thought, maybe she had some time. If indeed that was the case, then what would be the harm? Maybe she could stay, at least for a few minutes more. At least she could try some of the food. She could smell it from here – the aroma wafted over through the golden air, reminding her that she was, in fact, starving.

  She needed a moment to think. She needed to take a moment away from the handsome man, the delicious food and gorgeous view. If she just got away from it, she reasoned, maybe she would be able to start thinking clearly.

  “Actually,” she said, trying for all the world to play it casual, “may I have a moment? It was a long flight, and I would love a chance to freshen up.”

  “Of course,” he said, looking only a tiny bit dejected as he gave her directions to the guest bathroom.

  Nadya only gave a fleeting thought to the absurdity of a hotel suite with its own guest bathroom. Right now, it would be as good a haven as any. When she reached it, she found that it was gorgeous, huge, and richly decorated, just like everything in the suite. Marble was everywhere, and the sound of her trying to catch her runaway breath bounced off the walls.

  She’d never felt like she wanted for anything. Not really. Not in the way that some people truly wanted for things. The last three years had been difficult; she’d never really gotten comfortable with having to do math before going grocery shopping. But even then, she’d gotten by.

  So why did it feel like being in this place, with this man who clearly never had to think about money except for the passing thought that he had more of it than others, feel like she was coming up for a fresh breath of air after having lived her life underwater?

  It wasn’t just how beautiful everything was. It was how easy it all seemed to be. Her bags were taken care of. She was taken care of. Food appeared, and a handsome man wanted the pleasure of her company for dinner. Any problem that she had ever had just seemed irrelevant, here, right now, in this place with this man.

  She felt her phone vibrate in her pocket, the quiet ding of the alert muted by her jeans. Her phone felt wrong here. It was three models behind, and she was already making a mental note to herself not to take it out in front of the man who was out on the terrace, waiting for her.

  Where are you? It says your flight landed, but I can’t find you in the terminal? x J

  Nadya smiled. Jasmine always signed her texts like that. Longstanding sisterly feud or no, she was, and always would be, the sweet one. Nadya frowned as she tried to think to herself how she would be able to explain the situation to her sister, and typed in a first attempt.

  Sorry, just commandeered another Nadya’s fiancé. Don’t worry though, they don’t know each other!

  She laughed to herself quietly as she looked at the words on the screen. Something about seeing them written down in all their absurdity made her feel less like she was seriously transgressing, and more like she was just playing some kind of prank that would sort itself out eventually. She deleted the words and tried again.

  Sorry, I’m seeing what it’s like to be richer than you.

  No, that wouldn’t do. There was something spiteful in there, seeping out. Besides, if she told her sister anything about what was going on, she would have to tell her everything. Jasmine would never stand for half the information about a juicy story. Nadya deleted the words, and tried one last time.

  Sorry! I completely missed my flight. Got on the standby list for a new one. Should be in later tonight. I’ll let you know what time when I find out.

  That would do it. She pressed send.

  And, just like that, she’d committed herself to staying. Just a little longer. She only wanted a little more of a taste of this life.

  She turned her phone off so it wouldn’t give her away, and slipped it in her pocket. She splashed water on her face, and gave herself a quick check in the mirror. She hadn’t exactly dressed to impress for the cross-country flight, but she still didn’t know where her luggage was, so for the moment this would have to do.

  She headed back out to the terrace, where she saw the man standing at the edge of the terrace, looking out over the city.

  She went to him. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” she said. She was trying to sound casual, but found she didn’t actually have to try too hard. Once she’d made the decision to stay, at least for a little while, she found her nonchalance wasn’t so hard to find.

  The man seemed lost in thought, and Nadya almost felt bad pulling him out of it. When he looked at her, she saw his eyes more clearly. She’d thought they were black, but they were really a warm, dark brown. They were good eyes, she thought. Kind eyes. Not the sort of eyes that she’d picture on a rich, Middle-Eastern man who was engaged to marry a royal woman he’d never met.

  “Well you should be,” he said, with a playful feigned annoyance. “I was starving.”

  His casual humor and easy smile, even in such a momentous occasion as this, pushed out any trace of doubt in Nadya’s mind. She wanted to taste just a little more of this life; she wanted to learn just a little more about him, and how he’d found himself waiting for a woman he’d never met, but would one day marry.

  He pulled out the chair for her and they sat down. The starter was a small but elegant warm salad, bursting with flavors Nadya didn’t recognize but couldn’t get enough of, and she had to keep herself from wolfing it down in seconds.

  “So, how was your flight, Nadya?” he asked.

  She was glad for the question. It was something she could answer honestly, at least. “It always feels longer than it is, but it wasn’t bad.”r />
  He frowned, pushing a bit of lettuce around on his plate as though he were annoyed with it. “Well, the flight from Dubai is pretty long. It would be hard to feel longer than that.”

  Oops. She’d thought that she could answer honestly. “Well, you know, first class helps a lot.”

  She tried to put on her best impression of how she thought Other Nadya might talk. Not in terms of the accent – she could hardly change that now, and he hadn’t balked at her sounding American – but in terms of the easy above-it-all way she must see the world.

  She could see from the look on the man’s face that she’d said something wrong. She searched her words, and realized that she’d unwittingly implied that she had ever flown coach. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

  “I mean, I imagine so, anyway,” she said, trying to cover.

  “Don’t worry, Nadya,” he said. “I know what you mean.”

  That was the second time he’d said her name. She liked how he said it. She liked the way it sounded with his hint of an accent making it just a little softer and more musical.

  She was suddenly struck by how much she wanted to know his name. It was more important than anything, she felt, in that moment. She could hardly ask, though, unless she wanted to give herself away and for the whole experience to be over just as it had begun. So she just kept on.

  He was looking at her like he expected something from her, so Nadya elected to change the subject.

  “Anyway, I like the hotel you’ve chosen,” she said, and she meant it. The way his face lit up told her that she’d chosen the right subject to pivot to.

  “I’m glad. It’s my favorite in New York. There’s nowhere else in this whole city that makes me feel quite as much like I live here.”

  “But you don’t…” Nadya said, trying to ride the line between statement and question, unsure how much the other Nadya knew about him. If he didn’t even know what she looked like, then surely she had to be at least a little bit in the dark about him. That would work in her favor.

  “No,” he said. “Not anymore.”

  The very words she had said on the plane. Ironic that he should say them too. He was looking over the city again, like he regretted it, with the same unwilling melancholy as she had had.

  “Why not?” she asked him. Her voice sounded too eager. She could hear it even as the words came out. They were innocuous – just the right level of small talk for a first meeting. But it was the way she’d said them, like she was calling him on his regret and urging him to open up to her; pleading for intimacy despite having only just met.

  He distanced himself, answering by rote. “I went to Columbia for finance. Oh, I’m sure your family told you. No use in covering the same ground…”

  “No,” Nadya hoped she wasn’t too quick to respond. “Actually, they haven’t told me all that much. They wanted it to be a surprise, they said. My parents said it was a surprise for them, and it was helpful for them to get to know each other on their own.”

  It was a guess, but it was probably a good one. Nadya figured that any couple that would send their daughter into an arranged marriage probably would have had one of their own. And even if Other Nadya’s parents hadn’t, maybe this man didn’t know. Regardless, it would give Nadya the breathing room to figure out a little more about him, without showing herself to be an imposter.

  “Well, we’ve got three whole days to do it in, then, so we’d better get started.”

  Nadya nearly dropped her fork. “Three days?” she said, out loud, before she could stop herself.

  The man nodded. “Yes, three days. Nadya, are you sure you’re all right?”

  “No, I just… I’ve gotten myself confused by the time zones and everything. Today is Thursday, then, if it’s three days.”

  He nodded slowly, and Nadya congratulated herself. Quick recovery. A bit messy, but she seemed to have gotten away with it, for now at least.

  Her mind turned back to what had shocked her so much in the first place. It was one thing knowing that he was going to be married, eventually, to other Nadya. But knowing that it was going to be so soon, her presence there felt even more wrong. She was eating into their precious time to get to know each other. They didn’t have long, and she was taking it.

  “I can’t believe we’re doing this,” she said, with perfect sincerity.

  The man nodded. “Honestly? Me either, some days.” He looked wistful, again, as he had when she’d come back out from the bathroom.

  This was all wrong. He shouldn’t be sharing these doubts with her. She shouldn’t be the one he admits this to. If he did, she couldn’t trust herself not to try and talk him out of it, and then where would she be? She’d have done real, lasting damage, thanks to a misunderstanding that she’d let get out of hand.

  “You were saying, Columbia?” she said, trying to draw the conversation back to safer territory. This time she would be the one to hold back, and keep them on the safe track.

  The man looked back relieved to be back on the planned tour, as well. “Right. I studied finance. I came here ten years ago, actually. Studied at Columbia, and then did my postgrad in business. Went to Stanford for that.”

  “California,” Nadya said, her voice betraying the memories she had there, maybe more than the meant it to. She had grandparents out there, and to her California would always mean beaches and long, lazy days.

  “Yes,” the man said, noticing her tone. “You like California, then?”

  He sounded surprised, and Nadya froze. She wasn’t sure – did other Nadya know California? Did she like it? Had she been there often?

  “Only once,” she said. “Between flights. But it seemed nice.”

  It seemed like the answer least likely to give her away, but the lie hurt her. She was lying about being his fiancée, but still… something about him and his openness with her made her want to only tell him the truth. At least, as much as she could without revealing herself.

  He seemed to buy it, nodding sagely. “I wish I could say I had as fond of memories of it as you seem to. I studied, most of the time.”

  Time was ticking away. She had so little time, and she was wasting it on small talk. Since they’d sat down, the whole conversation had felt like a dangerous shifting compromise. She missed the man that had been joking with her before they sat down to eat. Oh, what the hell.

  “So you’re a nerd, then?” she said, any pretense of trying to talk like a princess now dropped.

  He almost choked on his wine, but the corners of his lips were turned up in a smile. “You know,” he said, “princes can’t actually be nerds.”

  “Oh, is that so?”

  “Oh yes,” his said, his mock seriousness kicking in. “It’s a little known fact. We can only be wise or brave. True story.”

  Here he was, again. No small talk, no brooding look. Just a quick joke and an easy smile.

  “Those are your only options?”

  He nodded gravely.

  “So you picked ‘wise’, then? If you’re off studying instead of anything else…”

  “Nadya, Nadya, Nadya… are you ever lucky. As it turns out, I’m actually both!”

  Nadya laughed. “Brave and wise? Is that even possible?”

  He shrugged, wineglass in hand as though he were toasting it. “It appears so. I’m quite shocked myself.”

  Nadya picked up her own wine glass and settled back into her chair. Suddenly waiters were around them, whisking away their salad, and replacing it with what looked like lobster bisque, but she paid them no mind.

  “I’m afraid I’m going to need proof. You studied, and succeeded, I take it. There’s your wisdom. But where’s your bravery?”

  He looked around, as though amazed that she wasn’t seeing the obvious. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

  She set down her glass and reached for her spoon; the bisque smelled far too delicious for her to be put off trying it any longer. “So, an arranged marriage is an act of bravery, is it?” she asked between bites.

nbsp; He shrugged, and picked up his own spoon. His little play-act of cocky bravado was gone, but it only revealed the casual confidence of the man beneath. “Well, either that or after four years of pouring myself into my undergraduate studies, two years pouring myself into my MBA, and four years pouring myself into managing my family’s Stateside operations, somehow my father is surprised that I’m 28 and haven’t met anyone.

  Nadya nodded, as though she could empathize.

  “And then it begins,” he continued. “Every other week my mother is asking ‘Salman, have you met any women lately?’”

  Salman. There it was, at last. Just when she’d gotten too caught up in the conversation to plot ways of getting him to say it, he’d come right out with it.

  She’d never met a man named Salman before. He was the sole owner of the name for her. She liked the name. She liked the way he wore it.

  “Yes, parents have a way of pressuring you into making decisions you aren’t ready to make, don’t they, Salman?”

  She took the opportunity to say his name immediately, even though it may have given her away if he were already suspicious. She liked the way it felt on her lips.

  “I didn’t say I wasn’t ready to make it,” Salman said, backtracking. They were already back on the unsteady ground they’d found themselves on earlier, only this time, they were just a bit more comfortable with each other. They stepped out onto it together.

  “So this was your parents’ idea as well, was it?” he asked, innocently enough.

  Nadya hurriedly said that it was, and her eagerness brought a little smile to his lips.

  “And you came willingly? Or have you been sent against your will?” He bent down close to the table and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Shall I call for the police?”

  Just the idea sent an involuntary shiver down her spine. Was this illegal? Was she committing fraud?

  “I’m right when I want to be, thank you very much,” she said. And she meant it. “Anyway,” she carried on, trying to distance herself from the embarrassing moment of sincerity and the terrifying idea of the police, “don’t family always kind of have you captive?”

  He frowned. “I love my family,” he said.

  Nadya hurried to clarify. “Oh, I love mine, too,” she said. “But that’s beside the point. Even if they want to help you… I mean, especially if they want to help you… it can sometimes feel like a bit of a trap.”

  His eyes narrowed, and Nadya wished she hadn’t gone down this line. But she couldn’t stop now. “It’s like, because they know you… or… no, that’s not what I mean.” She was flailing, unsure how to say what she meant. “Don’t you feel it?” she asked. “When you’re with them? Like they’re trying to suck you in, and they’ll never let you go.”

  He tilted his head from side to side, like he was knocking the thought back and forth to see where it fit. “I suppose I know the feeling you mean. But I think you value too much being let go. Sometimes it’s nice to be held onto.”

  Nadya went back to her wine.

  “And I think you might not value it enough.” He looked at her for a long moment, before he followed her lead and went back to his wine, as well. “You surprise me, Nadya.”

  She arched an eyebrow. “I do? Good. You know, a princess can be surprising, or agreeable.”

  He smiled, seeing where she was going with this. “And let me guess… you just happen to be both?”

  “Oh no,” she said, with gusto. “I’m just surprising.”