The sheikhs secret princ.., p.9
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       The Sheikh's Secret Princess, p.9
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         Part #2 of The Sheikh's Every Wish series by Holly Rayner

  I have.”

  He turned, hot pan in his hand. “Oh, you think I meant the ring.”

  Anita’s eyes narrowed. “What else could you mean?”

  He turned back to the stove, as though he didn’t want to look her in the eyes while he was talking.

  “The risk wasn’t losing the ring. That would always show up. Someone would find it. No, the risk was that someone other than you would return it. And then I’d be stuck trying to find another excuse to get you to come out with me.”

  For not the first time that day, Anita felt her face redden. But this time, the warmth from her face spread throughout her body. First to her arms, and then all throughout her chest, her torso, and all the rest.

  He’d asked her to come out with him. He’d arranged all manner of romantic gestures for her. But it wasn’t until this moment that she had really thought of it.

  He wanted her. He really wanted to see her. It was one thing, thinking that chance had brought them together. But to know that he’d planned it… It was too much. She changed the subject. “So do you live in Houston, then? I thought you were only here on business.”

  From his tone, he too seemed relieved to be back on more neutral ground. He came back to the kitchen island, to do some more prep work, where he could look her in the eye.

  Anita was glad. She felt like she had missed him, even though he’d only been a few feet further away.

  “It’s a little bit of both, really. I spend a lot of time here, and I was surprised it took me so long to hear that there was an Al-Dalian restaurant here. You guys must keep pretty far under the radar. But there are other places I spend a lot of time, too. A bit in New York… I’ve got some rooms up in Barrow, Alaska, even. And, of course, back home in Az Kajir.”

  He said it all so matter-of-factly, like he didn’t realize how far removed it was from what Anita’s life had been. She felt like she needed to tell him.

  “The furthest I’ve ever been from Houston was a trip to Austin.”

  “Oh, Austin! I haven’t been. I hear it’s a little… out there.”

  Anita laughed, though more by rote reaction than by real feeling. “Yes, it was that, for sure.”

  The meat he was chopping had the deepest red color, and Anita wondered where he’d got it. She thought for half a second that maybe she would be able to pass that information on to her father, and they could use it at the restaurant. But then she remembered that the world Hakim operated in was a very different one, with very different budgets than the one she and her father lived in.

  “So, then, you’ve seen something that I haven’t. It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t as far away. You’ve still seen what you’ve seen. And you’ve seen a good deal more of Houston than I have, I’d bet.”

  She nodded. “Well, now you’ve seen the crazy golf, and the square near the ice cream truck, and the zoo, so… I guess that narrows my lead a bit.”

  He turned away to go back to the stove, and Anita again felt that strange, misplaced pang of missing him, even though he was so near.

  “As for the country gap… well, you’re younger than I am. I’m sure you’ll catch up in no time. At least, I intend to make sure you do.”

  She was glad that Hakim couldn’t see the blood drain from her face. It was disorienting to feel such two strong feelings at the same time. On the one hand, the idea of jet setting around the world with Hakim was the best possible version of her future. She knew it instinctively. She had had such a hard time coming up with what she wanted her life to look like once she had finished college, and here it was, being offered to her on a platter.

  But on the other hand, she was remembering the look on Fadi’s face when she had asked permission to go on a school trip to Europe. He had made it clear that if she wanted to go anywhere within the United States, he would be happy to let her. “But we cannot leave here. We cannot leave America. Do you understand me?”

  As she thought of that moment, Anita couldn’t help but imagine Fadi’s reaction at the thought of her globe-trotting with Hakim.

  “What’s wrong?”

  Hakim had turned around while she was lost in thought, and looked concerned at her expression.

  Anita shook her head. “I’m sorry. It’s nothing we need to worry about tonight. So you were saying… Barrow?”

  And he told her about Barrow. He told her about the nights on the North Slope in the winter, and how the first time he went there, having never spent much time outside of Az Kajir, he had been amazed at how different and how similar it was at the same time.

  “There’s this endless expanse that’s beautiful in the most austere way. It’s… sublime. Sublime like old romantic poets used to talk about, you know? Just… so perfectly what it is. Like looking out across an ocean, only in Az Kajir it’s sand, and on the North slope it’s tundra covered in snow.”

  “You were probably pretty cold, I imagine.”

  Hakim had poured Anita a glass of wine, and put it in front of her, now. She chafed a little at the fact that he hadn’t asked her if she’d even wanted it, but after one sip she knew that refusing it would have been a terrible mistake, and he was right not to ask.

  “Oh, I was cold like you wouldn’t believe. But they’d thought ahead when they’d heard I was coming, and had a coat half the size of this room ready for me.”

  “Really?” she asked, putting her wine down.

  He chuckled. “No, not really. But it was pretty big.”

  Anita laughed. “No, I didn’t mean that it was the size of this room… I mean, they looked after you that well. I would imagine that if it’s an oil camp in the middle of nowhere, it would be all grizzled old men that barely know how to look for themselves, much less make sure that the visitor from the Middle East has a warm coat.”

  He cocked his head. “I guess it is surprising. They were men like that… worst food I’ve ever tasted. But it got better. And they knew…” he seemed hesitant to say it, but powered on through, “… they knew who my father was.”

  It seemed weird to her. She’d spent all her life always feeling just a little bit trapped by not knowing who she was the daughter of… like she was kept from something that everyone else got. And here Hakim was, feeling trapped but for the opposite reason.

  She told him as much, and he agreed.

  “I told you – we’re more alike than you realize.”

  Anita took another sip of her wine. “You never told me that.”

  “Oh didn’t I? Well, I should have. I’ve been thinking it since we met.”

  And they went on like that. She asked him about what it was like running the company. He got excited, talking about strategies and expansion. Anita admired his passion. He was a smart man who was passionate about something and was bound to do well at it—it seemed pretty clear to her that he already had.

  Hakim asked her about growing up in Houston. He asked her about the restaurant. She didn’t want to tell him, at first. All her stories seemed so small in comparison to his. But he didn’t treat them as though they were smaller, or less important. He treated every small detail of her life as though it were on par with his greatest, multi-billion-dollar achievement.

  Maybe it was the wine starting to go to her head, but with the way he believed it, it was hard for Anita not to believe it, too. She felt important, as she had never felt. She felt unique. She felt as though she were in some special place above the world, and as though she had always belonged there, and that he was just the first one who had come along to put her where she belonged.

  She didn’t recognize any of the food he was cooking. It was all completely new, and the smells were a little bit overwhelming once he got going. But the longer he cooked, the more intense her appetite got, and by the time dinner was ready, she was barely able to listen to him explain each dish before she dove into it.

  They ate at a table on a balcony Anita hadn’t seen when she’d first come in. Up here, the evening was cool enough to be comfortable, even though she knew tha
t the sidewalks below would likely still be hot enough to burn bare feet.

  As they ate, the sun began to set.

  “That’s one thing about Texas,” Hakim said, when he noticed the way she was gazing out across the wild and slowly changing colors splashed across the sky. “There’s just so much sky for the sunset to paint itself on.”

  She nodded. Anita had seen the sun set countless times, but it had never been like this, and she couldn’t quite figure out why. Was it that she was raised up above the earth by so many stories? Was it simply that she felt free, like she was about to set off into the sunset with Hakim any second, and the sun itself even felt like it would be hers?

  In any case, she sat with Hakim, staring at it, until their food had long gone cold, and the sun was only a memory the sky had once the stars had overcome it.

  They went inside and the world felt different. Now that it was dark out, the condo felt like it had been transformed into a house of mirrors. It was disorienting, to say the least.

  They went to the living room, and sank down into the comfortable couches. A little part of Anita’s mind had been wondering whether they were really as comfortable as they looked when she had first seen them. Yes, came the answer now. Yes, they certainly were.

  “So what would you like to do?” Hakim asked her now, over another glass of wine. “We could take the helicopter somewhere—they finally got it here. Or we could do something else, anything you want. Where do you want to go?”

  Anita looked around. “Nowhere,” she said simply.

  “What?”

  She nestled down further into the couch, and looked at the man in front of her. She didn’t want to share him with the world. Not tonight.

  “I’m happy right here. Right where I am.”

  They finished their wine, and then decided to watch a movie together. Anita didn’t much care what it was. Her mind was fuzzy with the wine, and with the perfection of the night. She felt home, in a very real sense. She’d never seen this condo before, and before tonight she’d known so little about Hakim that it was almost embarrassing, given how much she had thought about him over the last few days, but now, this apartment was home.

  When the movie was over, Anita looked at her phone. She’d turned it on silent when she had first left the apartment, thinking that Fadi would notice her missing, but apparently he hadn’t. Maybe she’d gotten the day wrong, or someone had covered for her. There was nothing from him.

  What she saw, though, was the time.

  “I should go home,” she said quietly. His arms were around her, and her head was rising and falling with each breath he took.

  “Do you want to go home?” His voice rumbled in her ears.

  She tilted her head so she could see his face. “No.”

  And then he brought his lips to hers, kissing her softly. But she wanted more. She kissed him back, hard, and felt him return her enthusiasm.

  And then she knew: she would not be going back to her room tonight. She would be going to his.

  NINE

  Anita opened her eyes slowly. The room was bathed in a warm glow. Dawn had come and gone, and it was full morning, now.

  She felt whole and happy in the best way.

  But she was also alone.

  A fleeting panic filtered through her. She imagined him gone – fled to break her heart. But then she remembered Hakim. She remembered the warmth of his gaze and the passion in the touch of his hands, and she knew she didn’t have to doubt it. He wouldn’t have left her.

  She considered just putting on his shirt, but there wasn’t one on the floor to rescue for that purpose. She figured she should have guessed, from the way he was always so impeccably dressed, that Hakim was a neat man.

 
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