Marrying the sheikh, p.2
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       Marrying The Sheikh, p.2

         Part #1 of The Sheikh Wants A Wife series by Holly Rayner
 
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THREE

  The trip to Miami was just what Ella needed. Even though spring was just around the corner in New York, it was still only in the 50s and very rainy. The April showers had cast a dull, gray cloud over all of Manhattan and had made the stunning architecture of the city look muted and boring. The bright blue Florida skies and lush green palm trees were a balmy salve to her gloomy mood.

  She knew what else would cure the blues. A good man. What was it Hannah had said to her before she left? Oh yeah, Ella remembered. Hannah had told her to keep her eyes and the top two buttons on her blouse open. But Ella wasn't like that; she had always prided herself on her demure femininity. She knew she was pretty, but she never flaunted it, and she always aimed to dress professionally and respectfully.

  When she got off the plane in Miami, Ella realized she stood out like a sore thumb. She had been to the city before, but never during spring break. The airport was filled with college kids wearing short shorts and halter tops, their tans deep and rich, their hair blond and flowing.

  She met with her clients, Corinne and Brock, early in the day and spent the rest of the afternoon strolling down South Beach. Ella liked to have a good time, but with her hectic schedule, she usually called it a night around midnight and got up by six o’clock. As she walked through the busy hotspot, she noticed that the bars were just starting to roll as she was making her way back to her hotel for the night.

  Ella rose bright and early the next day. One of Karim’s staff had been assigned to collect her from her hotel and bring her to the airport to meet Karim and Nadia before they boarded another plane to the island of Eleuthera. She was greeted by a friendly Middle Eastern man in a driver’s uniform and ushered into a waiting limousine.

  They arrived at the private air strip just fifteen minutes later. The driver jumped out of the front of the limo and opened the back door for Ella, before escorting her to a private VIP boarding area. Within minutes, a small jet came into view above. It came lower and lower, approaching the air strip, until it placed its wheels on the tarmac and bumped along, coming to a halt right in front of the boarding area.

  Ella began to step forward toward the door that separated the boarding area from the tarmac, but the driver told her to wait, muttering something about royal protocol. Ella stood still as the jet door opened and two guards made their way down the stairs. Each guard stood perfectly still, their brass epaulets glistening in the bright afternoon sun. Ella assumed they were part of the Sheikh’s royal army, but she couldn’t be sure.

  She watched as a young woman dressed in a pale pink skirt suit appeared at the top of the stairs. Ella immediately stood taller, trying to get a better look at the woman she assumed must be Nadia. She had dark hair and slight features and wore a simple pillbox hat in a rose pink shade that matched her suit. She descended the stairs quickly and stood next to one of the guards. When she was in position, all three turned toward the top of the stairs and saluted.

  Ella blinked as the driver signaled that it was time for her to step outside.

  “Oh,” she said, rather confused. She had met several dignitaries and famous people in her few years as a wedding planner, but she had never been in the presence of royalty of this kind.

  The driver escorted her to a spot at the bottom of the stairs, where a small red carpet had been laid out. Ella stood perfectly still, not sure whether she should salute or shake hands. She decided to stand at ease with her hands behind her back. Once the other staff members were at their designated areas, Karim and Nadia appeared at the top of the stairs, arm in arm.

  Ella inhaled sharply when she saw them. Karim was as handsome as ever, maybe even more so in his regal attire. The image of him standing there looking royal and powerful made Ella’s skin tingle. Maybe it was the afternoon sun, she thought. At least, that’s what she hoped, reminding herself that Karim was a client. And a client that was about to be married to…

  Nadia Al Jalal stood poised next to her husband-to-be. She was exquisite in every way. Her jet-black hair was tied in a loose braid that revealed a graceful neck and trim figure. She wore a thousand-dollar Vera Wang dress and held a simple clutch in her perfectly manicured hands. Her eyes were as black as coal and her sharp features looked as if they might have been sculpted by Michelangelo himself.

  “Announcing His Royal Highness, Sheikh Karim al-Qadir bin Zayed and his betrothed, Miss Nadia Al Jalal,” one of the guards said.

  Ella got it now. She realized the lady in pink must be Nadia’s assistant, or attendant or something. Different cultures called them different things. In any case, she was Nadia’s right hand girl.

  The guards and the woman in pink raised their hands to their foreheads and saluted the Sheikh again as he saluted curtly back. Karim then let Nadia’s arm out of his and held her delicate hand as he escorted her down the stairs and onto the red carpet below.

  Ella felt her heart pound in her chest. Okay, she thought. Don’t get excited, now. You’ve already met Karim. And this is just another client. Maybe a royal client, but another client just the same.

  Karim led Nadia over to where Ella stood and removed his hand from hers. He waved his arm out in front of Ella as if she were some sort of prize Nadia had to decide if she wanted to accept.

  “My darling, this is Ella Jones,” he said, smiling brightly at Nadia. Nadia stood perfectly still, not batting even one thick eyelash.

  Ella cleared her throat, still unsure how to greet her, but decided to go traditional. She held out her hand to shake Nadia’s and hesitated while she waited with no response.

  Nadia looked blankly at Ella and after several seconds, placed her hand limply in Ella’s, smiling almost imperceptibly.

  “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Ella said politely, wondering if she should curtsy or not.

  Karim jumped in to break the awkwardness between the two women. “Ella, so glad you could meet us! I can’t wait to show you the resort! We just have to go through a quick customs check and we’ll be on our way.”

  A staff member led them back into the boarding area and to a clerk waiting behind a desk. Once their passports were checked, they were given the all-clear to board the jet now bound for Eleuthera.

  “Okay, so…” Karim said, turning to Nadia. “I guess we’ll see you in a few hours.”

  Ella stood at the end of the counter, confused. She watched as Karim smiled at Nadia and Nadia turned on her heels and exited the room with the lady in pink in tow.

  “Okay, let's go,” Karim said, waving his hand out in front of him to let Ella pass.

  She smiled, still confused at what was happening, but not wanting to press the issue. Maybe it was something to do with their culture. Ella felt like she had a lot to learn with this couple in a very short amount of time.

  She walked past Karim and got another whiff of his musky cologne. The sun hit the goosebumps on her arm as she emerged from the cool room into the warm Miami air. They walked back to the jet and Karim stood back on the red carpet, waiting for Ella to pass.

  “Me first?” she said, placing her hand on her chest. She had been on private jets before, but never with royalty.

  Karim laughed, showing his brilliant white smile and the kindness of his eyes. “Yes, you first.”

  Ella blushed and placed her hand on the railing. She climbed the steep staircase slowly with Karim just steps behind her. When she got to the top, she paused and sucked in her breath, blinking at the opulent sight in front of her.

  The interior of the jet had been designed in the most elegant fashion; the doorway opened into a large living area complete with wooden floors, white and black leather furniture and a marble-faced fireplace. A glass bar flanked one wall while a seating area with an ivory chess board and mirrored bookshelves lined the others, surrounded by the windows that ran the length of the cabin on both sides.

  “Whoa,” was all Ella could say. She had seen luxury, but nothing that even came close to this.

  Karim smiled as he arrived at the top of the stairs
behind her. “Go ahead,” he said, placing his large hand in the small of her back. She jumped at his touch and looked over her shoulder at him quickly.

  His handsome face smiled down at her as one dark curl of hair fell onto his olive skin. Ella swallowed hard and smiled up at him, then looked away and stepped into the cabin of the plane.

  “So here is the living area,” Karim said, gesturing vaguely around them. “There's a mini-bar behind this door, feel free to help yourself to anything. And in here,” he opened a cabinet in the wall, “this is our home theater.”

  The cabinet contained dozens and dozens of movies. Ella’s eyes grew big as they were drawn to her favorites: Gone with the Wind and The King and I.

  “Oh my goodness, you like these, too?” she asked, running her finger along the spines of the cases.

  Karim laughed. “Yeah, I grew up on those. My mother was a sucker for old movies, and I guess I kind of got hooked.” He rolled his eyes as he closed the cabinet. “Nadia hates them. She’s more into the new stuff.”

  Ella felt a pang in her heart. From the outside, Nadia and Karim looked like the perfect couple. But the more she was getting to know them, the more it appeared that they were like so many of the other couples she had worked with: perfect on the outside and a complete disaster behind the facade.

  “So, I don’t mean to pry,” Ella said, choosing her words carefully as they moved to another room. “But why isn’t Nadia coming with us?”

  “This is our dining room, which doubles as a conference room,” Karim said, ignoring her question as he kept talking. “We always travel with a full staff so if we get hungry, we can have what we want.” He motioned to small galley kitchen behind the dining room, adjacent to which was a bathroom.

  Karim walked Ella further to the back of the jet. “And here is the sleeping cabin.” He opened the door to reveal a large sleeping cabin complete with a king-sized bed dressed in black and ivory linens.

  “Wow,” Ella said, realizing she must sound like a little kid. “That’s really something. I’ve never seen anything like this.”

  “Well,” Karim said, “My family likes to live comfortably. And we have the means, so why not?”

  Ella smiled and nodded. “Why not, indeed?”

  They made their way back to the living area and Karim motioned for Ella to have a seat.

  “About Nadia,” Karim began to say as he fixed a drink for Ella and himself.

  “No,” Ella interrupted, realizing she probably crossed some sort of protocol line by even asking. “I shouldn’t have asked. It’s none of my business, really. It’s just…”

  “Just that you’ve never planned a wedding without the bride?” Karim asked, smiling those stunningly gorgeous eyes at her.

  A voice came over the intercom and alerted them it was time to be seated for take-off. “Please be advised that air traffic control has warned of a storm heading our way later this afternoon. We should plan to leave early to avoid the bad weather, sir.”

  “Thank you, Stephen,” Karim said to the intercom, and the light blinked twice and went dark.

  Karim finished fixing the drinks and came over to the sofa, and Ella felt her heart flip in her chest. She wasn’t sure if it was the jet taking off, the luxuriousness of her surroundings, or the nearness of Karim, but there was something that was causing her to feel completely out of sorts.

  “No, it’s okay,” Karim said, referring to Ella’s question. He placed the drink on the table in the center of the U-shaped sofa before sliding into a spot across from her and sipping on his cocktail.

  “It’s not a cultural thing or anything like that, really,” he said as if he could read her mind. “It’s just that Nadia had another engagement that conflicted with this. And this was the only time I could get down here. Besides,” he said settling back into the supple leather of the seat, “I think she likes me handling the details. She’s pretty busy with...” he hesitated and took another sip of his drink. “Anyhow, it's the husband’s job to take care of his wife and I guess that’s what she wants me to do with the wedding.” Karim looked down at his drink and spoke again, this time much quieter. “Even though we’re not married yet.”

  Ella could tell there was something more there. But, she told herself, that wasn’t her concern. Her job was only to take care of the wedding. The marriage was their business. Sensing the discomfort of the moment, Ella turned her attention to the details of the wedding.

  “Well,” she said, picking up her drink. “We’ll just have to make sure that you do that. Now,” she went on, trying to lighten the mood. “Tell me all about Eleuthera.”

  FOUR

  The jet landed about forty-five minutes later and was met by a driver from the hotel. Karim escorted Ella off of the jet, onto the runway, and into the waiting car.

  “You’re going to love this place,” he said, more excited that she had seen him all day.

  They drove along the single lane, flat road and took in the scenery. To the left were little homes and bungalows dotting the sloping landscape and to the right lay the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.

  “You’re right,” said Ella as she watched the waves roll in against the white sand beach. “I do love it.”

  “You haven’t seen anything yet,” Karim said, smiling.

  The car arrived at the resort and rolled down the crushed gravel driveway, making a soft rumbling sound that always reminded Ella of old money. As they rounded a corner and passed a throng of palms, Ella spotted the hotel.

  The green and blue clapboard siding gave the building the appeal of old-world charm. The wood was faded from the sun and salt, but the white trim looked like it was freshly painted, making the contrast rich and warm. The front of the building displayed a simple portico entrance flanked by two brick columns with windows on either side. The whole building looked smaller than Ella’s apartment. She couldn’t imagine how they would fit the 300 guests that Karim and Nadia had invited into such a small venue.

  “Here we are,” said Karim as he hopped out of the car and held his hand out for Ella.

  She smiled and placed her hand in his, trying to ignore the electricity she felt as their skin touched. She emerged from the car and walked with Karim into the simple structure. Once inside, she began to see why Karim and Nadia had chosen the resort.

  The lobby was small and cozy, with a short wall of counter top for check-in and a few rattan chairs scattered about for arriving guests. The deep cherry wood floors complemented the ambiance of the lobby perfectly and gauze curtains and wicker furniture tied the whole look together. Ella was impressed with the inviting air of the place and didn’t think she could have designed it better if she tried. But she still couldn’t see how the tiny boutique venue could hold so many guests.

  “Well,” Karim asked, beaming down at Ella. “What do you think?”

  “It’s beautiful,” Ella said, following him through the lobby as he waved briefly at the clerk. Karim's staff members stayed behind and chatted with the hotel staff as the Sheikh kept moving through the hotel.

  “Really,” Ella continued. “The grounds, the old-world charm. It’s all truly lovely, Karim. But…”

  She was about to express her concerns about the size of the venue when they arrived at the back room of the hotel. After walking through two large cherry doors, Karim and Ella entered what might ordinarily be called a ballroom. Except this was no ordinary ballroom.

  If Ella could think of one word to describe it, she would have said atrium. Except that it didn’t have a glass roof. Instead, each side of half of the room was built with floor-to-ceiling windows that opened like French doors. The back of the room also had a wall of the same windows, but these folded together like an accordion, opening the entire room up to a flagstone patio and the beach and ocean beyond. From where Ella stood at the entrance to the room, it appeared as if the room led straight into the deep blue water of the Caribbean.

  “Oh my gosh,” she said, blinking several times to make sure
she wasn’t seeing things. “This is incredible! I mean, this…” Ella paused as she attempted to take it all in. “This is absolutely magnificent. The use of the wood and stone and how they play off the natural lighting. And the ocean… oh my goodness, the ocean!”

  Ella had planned many weddings in her short career. She had organized events at some of the swankiest locations in the world. But none had the appeal of this. The simplicity of the venue combined with the natural beauty of the little island made this location ideal.

  “I’m impressed,” Ella said turning to Karim. “I think this will do just fine.”

  Karim smiled. He knew Ella would love it. And now that he had her approval, he could leave her to handle the arrangements and get back to New York and his busy schedule.

  “Great!” he said, walking over to her. “Nadia was here last month with her family and approved of the venue as well, so I think we're good to go.”

  Ella flinched at the choice of words Karim used. Bride’s don’t approve of venues. They fall in love with venues. They see a location and just have to have it. That’s how it is with brides. But apparently, not with this one.

  “So,” Karim touched Ella’s elbow lightly and directed her back out of the room. “I’ll leave you to get the information you need from the staff, and I’ll be heading back to New York.”

  Ella looked at Karim with a confused look on her face, and he saw her concern and stopped her before she could speak. “Don’t worry about a thing Ella. You can reach me by cell or email at any time.” He kept walking, ignoring her attempts to protest. “I’ll have the jet return this evening to take you back to Miami or New York, your choice.”

  Finally, she mustered up the courage to interrupt his Highness. “Um, I'm sorry but I don’t feel comfortable about this. I'd prefer that you stay with me so we can go over the arrangements together.”

  Just as Ella spoke, a strong gust of wind picked up and the palms trees outside danced wildly, banging their fronds against the window. Ella jumped and Karim reached out a strong arm to comfort her. She pulled away sharply, remembering that she needed to keep her professional distance.

  Ella knew that her job was to plan the wedding for Karim and Nadia. But she needed their input. Leaving her here to handle all of the arrangements without either one of them to provide approval would just be a disaster waiting to happen. She had tried that once with a Hollywood couple that was too busy to help with the arrangements, and she wasn't about to make that mistake again.

  “That’s not how I work,” said Ella, standing her ground while trying maintain a level of respect and courtesy to Karim. She didn’t care if he was royalty. And good looking royalty at that. She wasn’t about to let herself get bullied into a situation that could backfire on her.

  “Listen,” Karim said, rolling his eyes as he turned to face Ella. “I know you may not have done things this way in the past, but this is different.”

  Ella tried not to let her anger show. How dare he roll his eyes at her?

  “We are not ordinary clients,” Karim said, as Ella felt her blood boil. “And,” he went on, “this is not an ordinary wedding.”

  Ella had to agree with him there. They certainly weren’t ordinary clients. Even the most difficult of her clients had treated her with a modicum of respect. And Karim was right about it not being an ordinary wedding. Aside from Karim and Nadia holding each other’s arms as they descended from the jet, Ella hadn’t noticed one ounce of affection from either of them. Now that she thought about it, the few times that Nadia had joined their phone conversations, it had been from another line; she hadn’t even been in the same location as Karim during those calls. Ella began to wonder if these two ever spent any time together at all.

  She shrugged off her thoughts, reminding herself that their culture was completely different from hers. Maybe they bride and groom were not allowed to spend time together before the wedding. Ella decided to let it go, realizing that she might never know the answer to her questions.

  “Karim,” she said slowly as the wind picked up outside of the lobby. “I appreciate that you and Nadia are special clients and I respect the enormity of responsibility that brings with it. And I assure you that my only goal is to accommodate you both and make this wedding exactly what you want it to be.”

  A large palm frond banged against the window causing Ella to jump again. She looked outside and saw the bright blue sky had turned to an angry gray.

  “But, in order for me to do my job to the best of my ability,” she continued, “I absolutely have to have active input from my clients. Or,” she said, smiling in vain, “at least one of my clients.”

  Karim looked down at Ella with concern on his face. He wanted to stay, there was no denying that. There was something about Ella that made him want to abandon his responsibilities just for one day, even though that went against everything that he believed in. Karim always put work first. Perhaps, he thought ruefully, that’s why he hadn’t met the perfect girl and settled down. Perhaps that’s why he ended up with Nadia. Perhaps that’s why he was so excited at the thought of abandoning everything and spending a whole day on a paradise island with a woman he barely knew but couldn’t stop thinking about.

  Karim shook himself out of thought and slipped back into his professional demeanor. “Listen,” he said, not wanting to offend Ella any more than he already had. “I know your job is very important and I understand that you need our input.”

  He paused as he stared into her emerald-green eyes. He knew he could get lost in those eyes so easily. Again, he forced himself back to reality.

  “But I cannot make that commitment to you,” he paused and motioned toward the window. “At least not today.”

  Ella looked outside and saw the rain start to come down.

  “I have engagements in New York that I must attend to. But I promise you,” Karim said, his face softening as he spoke. “I promise you I will make time to come back here with you and work out all of the details.”

  Ella was about to speak when a staffer ran over, soaking wet from the rain. “Your highness,” he said, out of breath from running from the waiting car.

  Karim looked at him and spoke. “Djaron, tell Stephen to ready the jet. We will be heading back to New York momentarily.”

  The man opened his mouth to say something but Karim dismissed him and turned back to Ella. “Okay, so we’re agreed? We go back to New York today and schedule another trip back here in, say, a week or two?”

  Ella flinched at the sound of thunder cracking overhead. The storm had picked up and the wind was causing the shutters to bang loudly against the wood siding of the hotel.

  She nodded at Karim, unable to answer. Ella had always had a fear of thunderstorms. She loved warm weather and had even contemplated moving to Florida when she started her business. What better place to plan weddings than a state where it's summer all the time? But deep down she knew she couldn’t live in a place that was at risk for hurricanes six months out of the year.

  Karim grabbed Ella’s hand and led her out the front door of the lobby and into the waiting car. They closed the doors and sat inside, waiting for Djaron to start the engine, when the radio went off.

  The pilot’s crackling voice came over the line, saying something in Arabic, and Ella watched as Djaron and Karim looked at each other, not saying a word. When the radio went silent, Karim sat back against the lush leather of the limo.

  “What is it?” Ella asked, sopping wet from the heavy rain.

  Karim looked at her and spoke. “It’s too late. The storm has already closed in. We can’t get off the island until it breaks.”

  “What?” Ella asked, unable to believe what she was hearing. Couldn’t leave the island? For how long? She knew that spring storms could last a day or more on the tropical islands. She leaned back against the seat and closed her eyes.

  Well, she thought. It seemed like she might be stuck on a tropical island for a day or two with Karim. Things could be worse. Thing
s could be much, much worse.

 
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