Saving the Sheikh, Page 4Ruth Cardello
She wondered how many women had melted and surrendered when he’d asked that question in that husky tone. She was sure she didn’t want to know. The thought of him with another woman gave her the strength to resist. “It seems like the wisest course of action. ”
Rachid shook his head in mock disappointment. “I thought you were braver than that, Zhang. ”
“You don’t even know me. ”
“I’d like to. ”
“For one night. ”
His expression sobered. “I don’t have more than that to offer. ”
Honestly, neither did she, at least not to a man who had his own overwhelming amount of responsibility. She may have, in a moment or two of weakness, researched the prince online. What had stemmed from mere curiosity had become more intense as she’d learned more about his country. Anything long-term between them was out of the question. He would never relocate, and she couldn’t imagine herself in his country any more than she could imagine herself moving back to her old village. Still, what woman wouldn’t be tempted by a gorgeous and confident man like Rachid? Unlike so many of the men she met who wanted something either financial or political from her, Rachid was promising her a night of mutual pleasuring without asking for anything in return. No strings. No regrets. Tempting, but not a wise choice. “It would be incredibly reckless. ”
He ran a hand gently over one of her cheeks. “Why don’t we start by simply enjoying the wedding together. ”
Although it was highly unlikely that more time with this man was going to make the decision easier, Zhang was powerless to deny him. “I could do that. ”
His hands slid lower, closing over the curve of her behind and pulling her against his excitement. “The cost of your freedom is one kiss. ”
“You said it was an explanation. ”
“I changed my mind,” he murmured and his lips descended down onto hers again – testing.
Instantly, feverishly, they clung to each other. His strong hands lifted her to fit her more tightly against him. Had it not been for the length of her gown, she would have wrapped her legs around his waist. As it was, their clothing did little to stop either of them from exploring.
With an expletive Zhang didn’t understand, Rachid set her back from him and said, “Come, let’s return to the wedding before I lose control and take you here on the grass. ”
Not exactly a threat when I’ve considered doing the same.
Zhang quickly collected her thoughts and kept her features tightly controlled. If she was careful, she could spend an amazing and passionately charged evening with this incredible man and call it to a halt before it went too far. A few kisses. A little flirtation. Isn’t that what Lil said happened at an American wedding? Hadn’t she been careful long enough? She’d denied herself anything intimate and kept her focus on her business. What would one evening hurt as long as no one knew? “You go first. I don’t want anyone to know we were alone back here. ”
Rachid looked down at her quickly. “Concerned about your reputation?”
His question stung. People made assumptions about her and her morality based on her lifestyle. Normally she shrugged it off as a price she paid for being free. She wanted – needed – Rachid to understand. “I may live by my own rules, but I have a family and I won’t dishonor them. ”
He touched her cheek again softly. “Anything we do will be discrete. I promise you that. ” When she opened her mouth to respond to him, he gently placed one finger over her lips and said, “And if nothing happens at all, my opinion of you will remain the same – you are one fascinating woman, Zhang. ”
A female voice called out from a short distance. “Zhang? Are you back here?”
Zhang looked into those amazing black eyes and said, “That’s Lil. She shouldn’t find us like this. ”
After one last brief kiss, Rachid nodded his agreement and walked away in the opposite direction of Lil’s voice.
Zhang let out a long breath and brought a shaky hand to her mouth, savoring the lingering warmth of his touch.
If this is a dream, don’t wake me up yet.
Lil bounded around the tent and stopped dead when she saw Zhang. “There you are! Abby wants a picture with the whole wedding party and no one could find you. ”
Zhang straightened her dress and boldly lied. “I needed a moment alone. ”
Instantly, Lil’s expression changed and she swept closer, making Zhang regret her choice of excuses. “I’m so sorry. I know how you feel about weddings. ”
A secret smile tugged at the corners of Zhang’s lips. I may have just changed my opinion of them. “Please do not be concerned, Lil. I’m fine. ”
Lil looked around, saw the glasses of champagne at Zhang’s feet and drew her own conclusion. “I’m an ass. I shouldn’t have dared you to kiss that sheikh. It was childish and stupid. Forget I even said it. ”
Real concern clouded her friend’s eyes and tore at Zhang’s composure. This wasn’t fun if it hurt someone. “It wasn’t childish, Lil. You wanted to give me a reason to smile today and you did. ”
Lil countered, “Really? Then why are you hiding back here drinking by yourself?
“I wasn’t . . . ”
Lil shook her head sadly, clearly not believing her. After all, the evidence was at her feet.
“I was with Rachid. ”
Lil’s jaw dropped open. “The sheikh?”
Zhang kept her expression serene, although some amusement filtered into her tone. “Is there more than one here tonight?”
A slow grin swept all worry from the brunette’s face. “Holy crap! You kissed him, didn’t you?”
Zhang nodded, a proud smile bursting forth.
Lil hopped in excitement and hugged her. “You are one hot shit, Zhang! I love it!”
Pulling back slightly from her overexuberant friend, Zhang repeated the label. “Hot shit. ” She mulled the term. “I can’t say I’ve been called that before. It’s a compliment?”
Lil was practically dancing with excitement and might have hugged her again had Zhang not taken another step back. She enjoyed Lil, but the constant touching was something she wasn’t quite used to.
Lil said, “From me, it’s a huge one. You’re my new hero. ”
Now I know I’m in trouble.
Suddenly sobering a bit, Zhang asked, “Can we keep this between the two of us?”
“Absolutely,” Lil said. She linked arms with Zhang and together they started walking toward the wedding party. “I can keep a secret. ”
Zhang paused, causing Lil to come to an abrupt halt beside her, and simply looked up at her until the younger woman blushed.
“When it’s important,” Lil qualified.
Zhang’s eyebrows rose in challenge.
“Do you want me to pinkie-swear?” Lil asked in growing offense.
Zhang started walking again, but this time she was smiling. “No, one per wedding is all I can handle. ”
Lil hugged Zhang’s arm to her side and laughed as they strolled together. She added in a stage whisper, “I can’t believe you did it. ”
Lil’s enthusiasm was impossible to resist. A light laugh burst from her as Zhang conceded, “I can’t either. ” She gave her friend’s arm a slight squeeze. No matter how the evening ended, Zhang had taken a risk, and the result was that she felt more alive and hopeful than she had in years. Life shouldn’t be a story about what the world did with you; it should be about what you did with the world. “Thank you. ”
Nearing the grassy area where the wedding party was already standing in position, waiting to complete the photos, Zhang couldn’t help but sneak a look at Rachid. He was standing with the other groomsmen on one side of Dominic. Composed. Looking every bit the visiting monarch he was.
Lil announced, “I found Zhang! She was . . . ” Her hesitation hung heavy in the silence as everyone waited. “Lost,” she finished lamely.
All eyes flew to Zhang. Than
ks, Lil, now people are wondering if I’m drunk. Agreeing was easier than attempting another cover story, so she shrugged and concurred, “So many tents that all look alike. ”
Abby broke the awkward pause that followed. She waved Lil and Zhang toward her side. “Well, come on! We’ve been waiting for you. Get over here. Just a few more photos and then we can go eat. ”
Lil took her spot near her sister.
Zhang headed toward the other bridesmaids, looking over at Rachid one last time as she joined them. His expression gave nothing away as he stared back at her. It would be easy enough to convince herself that she had imagined the entire alley exchange.
He was right to pretend nothing had happened.
Just one meaningless kiss.
Then Rachid winked at her and the photographer recorded Zhang’s happy responding flush.
In the words of one expressive American: Holy crap.
Seated chastely with the bridal party at a large, round table in the enormous white main tent, Zhang laid her napkin across her lap. Everywhere she looked there was a combination of practical and bold design. The table decorations were simple crystal vases of white orchids that complemented the enormous size of the tent and the opulence of the hanging chandeliers. It was easy to distinguish which ideas had come from the bride and which had come from the groom. The blend of both of their styles was a lovely and impressive display of their love.
Abby had taken great care to ensure the comfort of their guests. Each glass was adorned with handmade stem jewelry, and each place card held a personalized message on the back. Most likely Abby had chosen the words and Dominic had chosen the diamonds. Both were something the guests would treasure. Everyone else at her table was focused on the bride and groom performing their first dance as a married couple, but regardless of how she tried to distract herself, Zhang was finding it difficult to concentrate on anything but the man beside her.
Rachid whispered in her ear. “I thought your dress was floor-length. ”
The tickle of his breath on her neck sent a naughty shiver down her spine. She defended the wardrobe change, even though she knew from the light in his eyes that he wasn’t complaining. “The bottom was detachable and meant to be removed after the ceremony. ”
He raised one eyebrow playfully.
She shook her head with slight smile. “That’s the only piece that comes off. ”
“Pity,” he said, and her heart beat double-time at the sexy purse of his lips.
Zhang turned her attention to the newly married couple. This was normally the point where she would have made excuses and ended the night early. There was only so much happily ever after a person could stomach when her own life was an emotional desert. Tonight was different. For the first time, watching two people publicly and repeatedly proclaim their love for each other didn’t sadden Zhang.
I determine my path. I can have love if I choose it. Tonight is not about sleeping with an Arab sheikh, it’s about opening my heart to possibilities. The past doesn’t determine my future.