The Sheikh's Accidental Bride, Page 8Holly Rayner
When they’d stayed at the lake a good long while, Nadya was feeling centered and strong. She felt better than she had in a long time. She could see now, looking back, that she spent too much time in her life worrying, without even noticing it. There was always a bill that was coming up, or a shift at her main restaurant that conflicted with her side gig. And looming over everything was her parents’ disappointment, and her conflict with her sister, and the lingering question of what she wanted to do with her life.
The dinner with Salman had calmed those thoughts, and this moment here, by the lake with him, banished them completely.
When they grew hungry again, they agreed it was time to head back to the house for lunch. Nadya hated putting her sandals back on, and Salman noticed.
“Do they hurt?” he asked her.
It should have been an easy answer, but Nadya found it hard to say. “It’s fine,” she said, forcing her feet into them.
They began the walk back. There was still no clear way through, to Nadya, and she had to laugh when she remembered thinking for a moment he’d abandoned her. She would have been lost.
Her dress was mostly dry, but it felt stiff and uncomfortable, and her feet were growing more and more unhappy in her shoes. She could feel the peace she’d gained from the swim growing further and further away.
She didn’t think Salman noticed, but about halfway through, she felt him lifting her.
“Wait!” she cried out, but he didn’t. “I’m fine,” she said again.
“If you say so.” He didn’t argue. He just kept walking, and didn’t set her down.
She could squirm. She could make it harder for him. But being carried was a godsend, and she didn’t want to go back to walking.
He set her down when they were about to emerge from the forest into view of the house, and they went back inside together.
Lunch was already laid out for them in the main dining room. It seemed different than Salman’s normal style. It was grand, sure, but it was a different kind of grand. It was more obvious. Less interesting.
“It’s not really for me,” he spoke as though reading her mind.
“There’s a smaller, family dining room. This is really just for large occasions. And if there’s going to be large occasions, it’s more for other people, isn’t it?”
Nadya looked around. There was original art on the walls. She didn’t recognize the pieces, but it was obvious enough that they weren’t reproductions.
“You must be planning some pretty big occasions,” she said, forgetting herself.
“Well,” he said, “with the way our families are…”
Nadya had to stifle the impulse to tell him that her family wouldn’t mind. They’d be happy with anything. Her sister’s wedding hadn’t originally been planned to be a particularly grand affair. Not, that was, until her husband-to-be’s family had somehow gotten a hold of the organization, and everything had changed.
The thought of it called back up into her mind her sister’s anniversary party. Her heart sank. It would be the day after tomorrow; they’d be celebrating, all together. Nadya knew, with sudden clarity, that she would have to be there.
She hadn’t been sold until that moment. She’d accepted the ticket, begrudgingly, but she hadn’t wanted to be a part of anything, really. Seeing the way that Salman cared about his family, though, she felt like it would be a shame if she didn’t. At least, she felt like she would be ashamed of herself, in his view.
They sat down to eat, and despite being not entirely comfortable in her surroundings, Nadya couldn’t help but admit that the meal was delicious.
“You must employ mind readers,” she said to him. “They always seem to know just what I want to eat.”
“Or maybe you’re just predictable.”
He winked, and she reached across the table and hit him playfully. “Oh, no. Never that.”
When they’d finished, and their plates had been seamlessly whisked away by servants who appeared from nowhere just, Salman finally took her on a tour of the house.
She had her shoes off, so they wouldn’t get blistered, and he found some clothes for her so that she could change out of the dress. It was a sweatshirt and sweatpants. It felt like she was wearing pajamas, though Salman said she looked cute. All in all, it made her feel like she was walking around her own home, even though she was seeing it all for the first time.
Comfortable. She kept coming back to that. She just felt comfortable. It felt right.
The master suite was peaceful. Nadya wanted to jump onto the bed. It was huge, and couldn’t possibly be anything but incredibly soft.
The rugs throughout the house were all gorgeous, but she especially liked the pattern of the one in the bedroom. She asked Salman where he got it, but he shrugged.
“It’s been in my family for a long time. It probably ought to be in a museum, really. But I think it looks nice here. Don’t you?”
It was the understatement of the year.
They went to the entertainment suite. The movie theater was bigger than Nadya had expected, and more comfortable. For some reason, she’d expected banks of standard movie theater chairs, all draped in appalling fabric. But it was all comfortable couches – loveseats, mostly – arranged on rising platforms so that everyone would get a good view; all of the seats faced a huge screen with subtle signs of a sophisticated sound system scattered around.
“Would you like to watch something?” he asked her.
At first she shook her head. They had to be going, didn’t they? But then, she figured, they had all the time in the world. They might as well.
Salman chose the movie, and to her surprise it was a fairly romantic one. She’d never heard of it, but there was some fighting, and some scheming, and at the climax, the heroine was somehow dangling from a cliff, with only the thin hope that the hero would save her in time keeping her alive.
“I hate it when they do that,” Nadya whispered.
They were alone, and it wasn’t as if she wouldn’t have bothered anyone if she’d spoken more loudly. But Salman sat with his arm draped around her, and she didn’t need to speak any louder than a whisper to be heard.
“What?” he asked.
“When she’d been good all movie, but now she needs him to come save her, now, at the end.”
She could feel his head turning slightly so that he could look at her, but she didn’t turn to look back at him.
“She saved him earlier, remember?”
Of course, the hero got to her in time. He pulled her up. They fought the bad guys together, and then rode off into the sunset. Or, rather, drove off into the sunset in a Lamborghini they’d stolen from the baddies in the course of their adventures that no one was now going to be alive to claim.
The lights came up automatically, and they untangled themselves from each other and the couch. They went to the music room, where Salman played a little bit on the piano.
“I’m not nearly as good as my sister,” he said apologetically, though Nadya told him honestly that he seemed pretty good to her. They looked at the “listening room” which turned out to just be a cozy little room with excellent speakers, linked up to the recording studio so that it would be easy to preview mixes, then headed through to look at the library.
“Is that everything you have to show me?” Nadya asked when she’d taken in his somewhat eclectic collection of fiction and fact.
Salman got a strange look on his face. “Not quite,” he said.
He led her back towards where the grand dining room was. They weren’t far from the master bedroom, but just far enough to have some sense of distance. There, he showed her a series of rooms. Nadya didn’t need to ask who they were for; they were for the children. The children that he thought he was going to have with her, but that she knew could never be.
“I’m sorry, Salman,” she said, tears beginning to well up in her eyes. “I’m so, so sorry.”
Ignoring his concerned questions, and w
aving off his hands, she walked away from him. First down the hall, then down the stairs, then back out to the courtyard.
She just needed some fresh air, she thought. She needed to breathe. But when she got outside, she was confronted with the pavilion. Chairs were being set up, all around it. A dry run for the ceremony, she supposed. She began walking across it, but it was taking too long. She broke into a run, narrowly avoiding a worker who was bending down to fix one of the chairs.
She got to the front gate, and started heading down the steps. The helicopter was there, waiting for them. But she couldn’t enter it alone. She was trapped.
She sat there on the stairs, putting her face in her hands and trying to stop the tears rolling down her cheeks. She should have gone somewhere private, she thought. She should have hidden it. Here, anyone could see her.
She felt Salman’s hands on her shoulders and the cool of his shadow blocking out the sunlight. “You have nothing to be sorry about, Nadya.”
Oh, if he only knew! Nadya could have laughed if she weren’t crying. He was sitting down next to her, now. She could feel his arm wrapping around her shoulders, and she had a quick flashback to how it had felt the night before, when he had carried her. The soft, steady heartbeat. The easy strength of his arms.
“What are you apologizing for?”
Now was the time. She’d gone beyond the point where she could run away without a word. She had to tell him. She had to finally be honest.
But as she raised her face out of her hands and her eyes met his, the words stuck in her throat. “I’m sorry for ruining the day by getting emotional.” It was only half a lie, so it slid out easily. “It’s just that I’m so happy.”
For a moment, Nadya thought he saw through her. She was far too distraught for her tears to be those of joy. But he sighed, and, it seemed, made a decision not to pry.
He rubbed her arm gently with his hand. “I know, it’s a lot,” he said. “Maybe it’s my fault. I shouldn’t have brought you here. All my plans…” Then his tone shifted, becoming more upbeat. “Most couples don’t have this problem,” he said. “They date. They have time.”
Something about the way he said it brought Nadya outside of herself. She wasn’t focusing on her guilt, or what she would be doing to him and his actual fiancée when they found out what she had done. She was thinking about it, now, as though it were all true – as though she were his intended.
“And we do have time, you know. Not a lot of time, sure. But we have a couple days.”
Nadya let out a chuckle. “Time to date? Time to have a normal relationship?”
He was nodding, now. “We’re in America. I’ve lived a lot of my life in America. Let’s have a normal American relationship, in a day and a half.”
She looked at him skeptically. “So, what I’m hearing you say, is that you want to argue about furniture in Ikea, almost break up because of something utterly insignificant, get nervous meeting each other’s parents, have an awkward discussion about the future and then eventually decide to go all in?”
He shrugged. “Well, maybe not all that. Although, I have to admit, Nadya, I wish I could do all that with you.”
At his words, a little part of Nadya wanted to scream the truth at him. You could, she wanted to say. We could have all that.
But to say that would have meant telling him everything. And if she told him everything, he wouldn’t want to do any of that with her anymore.
“We could have some of it,” she said. “We could go on a date.”
“I’d love to,” he said, and she could hear the smile in his voice. She felt like she’d fallen into a trap, without even realizing it.
“I won’t organize it, though,” he continued. “If we’re going to spend the rest of our lives together, this is going to need to be a partnership.”
It was tongue in cheek, but it was still strange to hear those words coming out of his mouth. He was the rich prince, with an old-fashioned wedding arrangement. The man who had carried her to her bed. He was chivalrous and there was something classic and old-fashioned about him.
But talking to him now, he seemed more at ease. She could see him as the man he must have been at Columbia and at Stanford. A college student, just as she had been, although admittedly he had never had to wait outside in the line at a financial aid office.
Nadya imagined taking Salman on any of the dates she’d been on, and had to laugh. The one where they’d gone to a theater production that was supposed to be somewhat experimental, only to find out that it was very experimental, was a particular favorite.
“What?” he asked, defensively, like he thought she must have been making fun of him.
“I don’t think the kind of date I would plan would suit you,” she said.
“How would you know unless you tried me?”
He had her at that.
“Anyway,” he said, “I’m sure you know New York better than I do.”
It struck Nadya, again, how little she knew about the women she was impersonating. It would have been easier if she’d known all along that the other Nadya was familiar with New York, and she didn’t have to pretend she was a stranger to the city.
Still, she hesitated. She knew where she would bring him, if he was serious, and if she dared. Rudy’s, an underground punk club out in Brooklyn, was a place that had formed her. They’d been a bit fast and loose with IDs back in the day, and that, combined with the fact that it was far enough away from where her family lived that she and her friends weren’t likely to be recognized had made it a mainstay for her little crew. They had so many memories there, it was like the place had a glow around it when she pictured it in her mind.
Taking him there would be a lot like taking her here must have been for him. It was a part of her. It was what she chose for herself.
“I really don’t think that would be a good idea,” she said, unsurely.
“I insist,” he said, just as she’d hoped he would.
The tears she’d been crying just moment before were forgotten, now. She wanted to see his face as they went out to Brooklyn. She wanted to see him see the city. She wanted to see him see how the night looked through the cigarette smoke in the alley out back, when they wanted a break from the din inside. But Nadya’s growing excitement was punctured by a thought.
“Even if you wanted to go wherever I’d take you, I doubt your security would let you.”
He pulled back, so that he could look in her eyes. “We’ll see what we can do about that.” He winked. He had a mischievous side.
And that was the thing, wasn’t it? He had sides to him that she hadn’t gotten to see, and she’d liked the sides she’d seen already so much that she wanted to see them all. Whatever the risk.
He stood, and positioned himself in front of her, reaching his hands out for hers, gently rubbing her fingers with his thumbs when she gave them to him.
“Two of them break for dinner at 7:30. Only Ahmed will be on duty. And he’s… more agreeable.”
She imagined him, when he was in college, slipping away from his bodyguards to go for walks alone, in the city. He struck her as the sort that would do that. He’d slip away to go think deep thoughts walking the city blocks, while she’d slip away from her parents to go dancing in an outer borough.
“Yes?” he asked her, pulling her out of her imagination.
“Yes,” she said. And then he pulled her up and towards him, so that she rested against him, her arms around his neck, and his lips near her ear. It happened so suddenly that she didn’t have time to react.
“It’s really is ok,” he whispered. “I promise you.”
And then he turned and pulled her towards the helicopter, and the bright allure of the city that it would carry them to.