The Sheikh's Secret Princesspart #2 of The Sheikh's Every Wish Series by Holly Rayner / Romance & Love
It was all Anita could do to keep herself from skipping on the way to work. The late spring Houston sun beat down on her, and a trickle of sweat trickled down her neck as she walked towards her family’s restaurant, but she hardly felt uncomfortable. Her mood was too light.
Today was a good day. The best. The last of her grades had come in and it was official: the college education she’d fought for, squeezing in study between shifts at the restaurant, was finally complete.
The night ahead would be a busy one; Fridays always were. Normally, she dreaded them; being run off her feet by this request or that one, and trying to keep a huge number of orders straight when every table was packed wasn’t exactly her idea of a perfect start to the weekend.
Today was different. Today, nothing could ruin her mood. The hectic night at the restaurant would only be a reminder of how lucky she and Fadi were that Fadi’s Place was in such high demand. But as she entered the building and was greeted by the suspiciously empty hostess’ station, she found her theory put to the test.
Anita’s almond-shaped green eyes scanned the room, searching for any sign of one of their regular hostesses. Maybe she just missed them, she thought. Maybe they had just stepped aside for a minute or two, and they’d be back.
But there was no trace of them.
The skip vanished from Anita’s step as she strode towards the kitchen, past busy servers and busboys all preparing for the rush ahead.
“Fadi!” she called out, waiting for the call back so that she could locate her father in the crowded kitchen.
“Anita!” came the reply, from the far left corner, many hot pans and billowing steam clouds away.
Fadi had answered in the same harassed tone as she had called to him, and the annoyed desperation in his voice made her smile in spite of herself.
Carefully and quickly, she wound her way through the kitchen. It would be dangerous for someone else to so casually wander through at this speed, but she knew this kitchen as well as she knew her own room. After all, she’d essentially grown up in it.
When she got back to where Fadi was preparing a huge dish in advance of the night’s rush, she put on her best annoyed face.
“Tell me it’s not what I think it is,” she said. Maybe a bit dramatic, she thought, but it got her point across.
Fadi played dumb. “What can it be? What vexes you so?”
She shot him a no-nonsense stare. “Neither of the hostesses can come in? Really?”
He shrugged, and fished out a tasting spoon. “What can I say? There must be something going around. It’s unfortunate, really. But here, try this.”
He held the spoon up to her lips, as though she was a child again and he was making her eat her food. She wanted to refuse, but it smelled amazing, and she found her mind changed for her.
She tasted the dish: a meaty, saucy curry with rice and chickpeas sprinkled liberally throughout. Her eyes rolled back in her head with pleasure as she ate it.
“That’s incredible,” she said. But she couldn’t let herself be derailed. “But Fadi, really… can’t one of the other waitresses cover it? I know you’re particular about who greets the guests first, but…” She could see from his stony expression that she was making no more headway in the conversation than the last eight times they’d had it, so she changed tactic. “And what if I refuse?”
His expression went from stony to exaggerated outrage in a split second. “Refuse? Refuse?!”
In spite of herself, Anita began smiling at the familiar caricature her father was putting on.
“Well, then I’ll send you back to Al-Dali!”
Anita tried to stifle her smile at the familiar words. “But Fadi,” she said, “I cannot swim!”
He slipped a tasting spoon of his own into the dish and tasted it. He nodded, satisfied with his work, before continuing their little ritual.
“Then I will buy you a boat!”
“But Fadi,” Anita replied, “I cannot row!”
This time, there was no delay. “Then I will buy you a plane!”
“But Fadi…” Anita began.
The words that should have come next were on the tip of Anita’s tongue. I cannot fly! But she felt like mixing things up. She let herself break out into a wide smile. “If you had enough money to buy me a plane, you’d be able to afford to hire more workers so I didn’t have to both hostess and waitress tonight!”
Fadi laughed. Anita appreciated the way his laugh filled the kitchen. He’d been head chef since he first opened the restaurant, back when Anita was too young to remember, and his great, booming laugh bouncing off the stoves and prep tables had always been one of her favorite sounds.
“There’s something different about you today, child,” he said.
Anita had a brief twinge at the way he called her “child.” It seemed inappropriate, on today of all days. But she didn’t correct him, only nodded.
“Right! Of course!” he said, and then looked at her expectantly. “Have you gotten all your grades back?”
She nodded, as the large, apron-clad man stepped back from the pot and walked around to hug her. “All A’s,” she said, before correcting herself: “Well, one B, but I swear that professor had it in for me from the start.”
“Oh Anita,” she heard Fadi’s voice close to her ear. “Today, of all days, I am so proud of the daughter I’m blessed with.”
Anita basked in his approval, but it was only a few more seconds before the moment was over, and the chef was back about his tasks.
“Now, you’d better get ready!” he said, putting out a huge ladle to stir the dish he was preparing. “Tonight’s going to be a busy one!”
He wasn’t wrong. Anita wasn’t the only one, it seemed, who was glad to be done with classes for the year. Their usual bustling Friday crowd was supplemented by dozens of spur-of-the-moment celebrators, and Anita found herself rushed off her feet trying to keep track of manning the hostess stand with every new group’s arrival, as well as looking after the tables she couldn’t convince the other waitresses to take off her hands.
But as long as nothing went wrong, she knew from experience, she would manage to get through. Usually, nothing did, but tonight of all nights, it seemed, they were in for something different. They were down to what was usually the very last rush of arrivals for the night when a large party of men entered, most of them wearing traditional Middle-Eastern clothing.
Anita’s heart sunk. The men didn’t have a reservation. Even if she hadn’t already taken a look at the reservation book and made note of all of the large parties due to arrive that night, she’d have known it: there were no tables available that would seat even half this number.
She strode resolutely towards the hostess stand, clearing her throat for the tense conversation that she was inevitably about to have. As she did, she saw one of the men in traditional attire walking up to greet her. Anita gave him an acknowledging smile, and he gave her an overly wide one in return, and she had the passing thought that they were like knights, greeting each other before a joust.
“Good evening, miss,” he said. There was something about the way he said the word “miss” that Anita didn’t like, but she let it pass—if she got annoyed at every condescending thing a customer said to her, she wouldn’t be long for the hospitality world.
“It’s certainly a busy one, sir,” she replied, as calmly as she could and with as big a smile as she could muster. “Do you have a reservation?”
The man lost steam for a second, when faced with her smiling, ready-to-refuse demeanor, which Anita took as a personal victory. But it was only for an instant, then he gathered his self-importance around him like a cloud, and blustered through it.
“We don’t, but I’m sure that you can find someone who has finished enjoying their dinner for the night,” he said. As he spoke, he subtly slipped two hundred-dollar bills across the stand towards her.
Anita caught her breath, but tried not to show how impressive the size of his attempted bribe was to her. She redoubled her smile, and slid the bills back towards him.
“Sir,” she said, “here in the United States, it is only customary to tip waitresses at the end of the meal. Also, we are not in the habit of rushing anyone through their evening. But if you could wait—”
She tried to get her sentence out, but the man interrupted her. He did it quietly, so that the rest of his party wouldn’t hear, but the furious urgency of his words made Anita unintentionally lean back from the hostess stand.
“Do you know who that is?” he said, jerking his thumb in the direction of the only member of the party wearing a suit rather than traditional garb. “That is Sheikh Hakim al Kamal bin Masfari, heir to the throne of Az Kajir. And you should thank your lucky stars that he wishes to eat at your restaurant. So I suggest,” he looked down at her nametag, “Anita, that you see that he has a table at which to do so.”
She didn’t answer right away. She just stared at him with a placid smile, trying to show him that his words had no effect. Inside, her heart was pounding.
“As I was trying to say, sir,” she said finally. “If you and the Sheikh could wait a few minutes, I think I may have a solution.”
Her shock-proof façade appeared to have been successful, and the man nodded uncertainly. That would have to be good enough.
Anita took off at a quick walk, scanning the room for the busboys.
“Are you busy?” she asked them, and both of them gave her a look that said they’d roll their eyes if they weren’t being asked by the boss’ daughter.
“OK, right. Fair enough. But I need a few minutes of your time. The outside dining area in the alley, how close is that to being finished?”
There was a short one, and a tall one, and their names were Mark and Darryl, but she could never quite remember which was which, since she interacted with them so rarely.
“They’ve got the cobblestones done, and the wrought-iron barriers. But no tables or decorations yet, and the shade canopy hasn’t been installed.”
Anita nodded, a smile spreading across her face. “Ok, great. Close enough. I’m going to seat this party out there. Mark, go grab the long table from the staff room, and some of the extra guest chairs we’ve got stacked in the store room. Darryl, go get some of the plants from my dad’s office. Just the big ones, though.”
She nodded her head as they ran off. This would work. It had to.
She braced herself for the go-between’s reaction as she returned to the hostess stand and explained to him that his party would be eating in the alley. He took the news about as well as Anita had expected.
He was still trying to hiss at her—to keep his voice low enough to escape notice from his employer—but his rage was too pronounced. “This kind of disrespect is unacceptable. It’s no wonder: we should have known better than to visit a restaurant from Al-Dali!”
He spat the name of her home country like an insult, and it was all that Anita could do to keep her professional composure.
“Ahmed, a little class, please.”
Anita’s eyes shot to the source of the cool, smooth voice that had interrupted the man’s rant. It was a firm censure, but a kind one.
Anita felt her mouth drop open as she looked up at the man who had issued it.
The Sheikh was a tall man, with an impeccable bespoke suit and a precisely-trimmed beard. His hair looked tousled, but Anita couldn’t tell whether that was intentionally planned, or whether he was just naturally blessed with hair that fell in that attractive wavy style.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Ahmed gets a little wound up sometimes. We certainly do not mean to disrespect your establishment, or your country. Al-Dali is our closest neighbor, and the moment I heard there was a restaurant from there in Houston I just couldn’t resist the opportunity to have a meal from so close to home.”