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The Sheikh's Secret Princess, Page 8

Holly Rayner

  He led her to an electric sports car, parked discreetly around the corner.

  “I’ve never been in one of these before,” Anita said, and then a thought struck her. “Isn’t it a little bit ironic? You, the oil man, driving this car?”

  He shrugged it off as he started the engine. “Honestly, I don’t tend to worry too much about what people have to say about it. This is the car I wanted. I might have a vested interest in the oil industry, but everything ends eventually.”

  When they got going, the streets flew by in front of them. Hakim drove like a madman, speeding down the road and screeching to sharp stops, but Anita wasn’t scared. He was driving fast and recklessly, by some standards, but he also seemed so perfectly in control that it was difficult to be afraid.

  It did pull her attention, though, so it took her a few seconds to really register what he had said.

  “Wait, everything?” she asked, pulling her eyes from the road for a moment.

  He corrected himself. “Well, most things. I mean, everything, eventually.”

  Anita wanted to argue. She wanted to say that he was wrong. “But things still matter,” she said, pulling her eyes from the road to look at him, trying to gauge his reaction.

  “Oh yes, certainly,” he said. “I didn’t mean to imply… Look, that’s not what I meant to say. If anything, I think things matter more, because they end. You’ve got to hold onto them while you can.”

  The look on his face kept her from looking back at the road for a good long minute. There was a tenderness there, and a kindness. She thought that she would very much like to be held by him.

  In almost no time at all, they arrived at their destination.

  “Where are we?” Anita asked, even as she looked up at the tall sleek building that could be nothing but apartments.

  “Home. Well, home in Houston, anyway.”

  Anita was still confused. This didn’t mesh with the idea that she’d had of him as a man who had just flitted in for a few days to see what his underlings had been doing with the business. But she realized, now, that for all the time that they had spent together, and the magic of the evening they had had a few days prior, she still knew very little about him. Their time together had felt too precious to get mired down in the details.

  She was too overawed to ask now. She moved to get out of the car, but Hakim reached out a hand to stop her, gently taking hold of her hand and sending a thrill up her arm.

  “No, I just wanted you to see if from outside. We’re not parking out here.”

  There was just a touch of amusement in his voice, like her idea that they would park and walk inside was just a little bit funny. Anita felt a flash of embarrassment, but it didn’t hang around for long. There were things about her world that he hadn’t taken to naturally, and she’d laughed at him for it. It didn’t for one moment lessen her affection for him.

  He clicked a button on a remote Anita hadn’t seen before, and a section of the wall that hadn’t looked like a door slid open.

  Hakim drove slowly through the hidden entrance, and at first Anita was confused. This was no garage; there was no further way forward. But then there was a mechanical jolt, and the car started moving upwards.

  “This is an elevator?” Anita said, cringing even as the too-obvious observation came out of her mouth. Hakim grinned and nodded.

  Before long, the movement stopped, and the wall in front of them opened. Anita saw a single parking spot, and a large, ornate front door. A skylight above told her that they were on the penthouse floor.

  She followed him inside, not sure what to expect. A bleak, businesslike space, maybe. Or a soulless, obvious rental.

  But instead she saw somewhere homelike, and comfortable. There was the sleek glass she had been expecting, sure, and a commanding view out across the city. But there were also couches that looked built for comfort, and dozens of photos of Hakim with people she assumed were his friends and family.

  “You have a lovely apartment,” Anita said. It was the kind of sentence normally said to be polite, but in this case she meant it.

  “Thank you,” he said. “I’ve had this place for years. I was the first buyer in the building. Well, I was kind of involved in building it. Sort of. It’s complicated, and it was a long time ago.”

  He dropped his keys on the coffee table, and took off his ever-present suit jacket. Anita followed him into the well-appointed kitchen where he draped it over the back of a barstool.

  She felt like the was trespassing. The perfect, manicured space was as alien to her as the moon. Everything in her life had always been a little bit worn in, a little bit out of date. She’d seen pictures of kitchens like this in magazines, but she’d never lingered long on them. She didn’t like to think too much about things she could never have.

  But then, wasn’t that what she was doing here? Lingering over her desire for a man it was becoming more and more clear she could never have?

  “Please, sit down.”

  Hakim’s voice interrupted her train of thought. He’d rolled up his sleeves and looked perfectly at home as he motioned to another barstool for her to sit in.

  She hesitated for a moment, like she thought she wasn’t supposed to, or that she shouldn’t. But she was his guest. He wanted her here. He had chosen her. There was no reason for her to feel ill at ease here except for her own insecurities.

  Anita sat down on the barstool and leaned on the countertop.

  For his part, Hakim didn’t seem to notice her hesitation. He was too busy digging through a collection of wooden crates that had been sitting on the kitchen island when they first came in.

  “I hope you’re hungry,” he said.

  “You’re cooking?”

  Anita must have sounded as surprised as she felt, because he looked up from his investigation of the crates and smirked at her.

  “Is that so surprising?”

  “A little,” she admitted. “But at least one of us can cook. I’m useless.”

  Now it was Hakim’s turn to be surprised. “After growing up in a restaurant?”

  She shrugged. “Fadi has always done the cooking. I think at one point he wanted me to join in, but I just never enjoyed it the way he did.”

  Hakim started taking items out of the crates and setting them on the countertop. He responded without looking up. “Has he always been a cook? From a family of cooks?”

  “Well, we’ve had the restaurant since I was little.”

  Hakim laughed. “Well, I guess I knew that from your name in a heart…”

  Anita blushed—he’d seen the engraving after all.

  “But before that, I mean. It’s a hard thing to do, to open a restaurant. I’ve looked into it from time to time. The financials are risky. Usually people can only really do it if they’re famous chefs, or have worked in restaurants for ages and know how they work, or if they’ve been successful enough in something else that they’ve got the money to spare.”

  Anita was uncomfortable again, but this time for a very different reason. It wasn’t just that she didn’t know; that was embarrassing enough. Explaining to Hakim that she had somehow let Fadi shroud the whole of her early life in such mystery seemed like a bitter pill to swallow. More than that, she had the sense that as angry as Fadi would be to see her with Hakim, he would be that much more incensed to have her tell him anything about the life they had made together.

  “It’s OK if you don’t want to talk about it,” Hakim was saying, noticing her hesitation. He was looking at her over the now unpacked contents of the crates, piled up on the kitchen island.

  How to respond? She didn’t want to tell him she didn’t know, nor did she want to tell him she didn’t want to share. “You’ve considered opening a restaurant?” she asked instead, hoping to dodge the question without it being too painful or obvious. From the way Hakim’s face tentatively lit up, she could tell she’d picked the right subject.

  “From time to time I’ve considered it, yes,” he said, beginning to
set about organizing the ingredients. Little droplets of water flew out across the tabletop as he brought a bunch of lettuce out of a plastic bag. “But it’s a risky endeavor.”

  Anita scoffed. “Is this the same man? The man who nearly set a building on fire, then put himself in my hands. The man that ate kale ice cream and broke the law on foreign soil? Who are you, and what have you done with Hakim?”

  She liked his bashful smile.

  “Those are small risks. Well, mostly. I’ll have you know the building was never in any real danger.”

  She leaned forwards, resting her chin on her palms. “So little risks you take, but big risks you shy away from?”

  “Uhh… I don’t know that I’d say that.”

  Anita watched his hands, still sorting out the ingredients.

  “Oh, wouldn’t you?” she asked. “Then when was the last time you took a real, big risk?”

  “Oh, that’s easy. Quite recently, actually,” he said, going into the cupboard for a cutting board and grabbing a knife from the magnetic rack on the wall.

  Anita waited for the explanation, but it didn’t come. “And it was…?”

  He didn’t answer.

  “If you don’t tell me, I’ll just have to assume you’re lying.”

  He was getting some leafy green vegetable Anita had never seen before ready to be sliced and diced.

  “That’s a dangerous accusation to make of a man holding a knife.”

  Anita laughed. “Well, there you have it. I’m a risk taker.”

  He smiled, but still seemed hesitant. Finally, his reticence broke. “Well, if I must tell you to defend myself, it involved you.”

  Anita was suddenly a little nervous, but wasn’t quite sure why. “Oh really? How’s that?”

  His knife moved quickly, making short work of the leafy vegetable. He seemed nervous to speak, but not so nervous that it broke his rhythm. Anita doubted anything would.

  “Well, that night at the restaurant… I didn’t leave my ring by accident. I do fidget with it when I eat; that much is true. But I never forget it.”

  Anita couldn’t stop a sly smile from stretching across her face. “So you left it… hoping I would find it?”

  He nodded.

  Anita looked at the ring on her own finger, and stroked it thoughtfully. She remembered everything it had seen her through. Every tearful breakup, and long night of studying stress, every double shift she got pulled into at the last moment. This ring had seen her through it all.

  How much more must Hakim’s mean to him, she wondered, since it carried with it the connection to his parents—parents he knew well enough to love, unlike hers who were shrouded in the mysterious past.

  “I take it back. You can consider your reputation defended. You take big risks indeed.”

  He acknowledged her capitulation with a little bow. He’d moved on from the leafy greens and had begun heating oil in a pan, at the same time as crushing a clove of garlic.

  Anita was turning the ring around and around her thumb. “I don’t think I could do it, risk my ring like that. It’s the most valuable thing