Marrying the sheikh, p.3
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       Marrying The Sheikh, p.3

         Part #1 of The Sheikh Wants A Wife series by Holly Rayner
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  Another strong gust of wind came rushing at them, rocking the car. “We better get back inside,” Karim said, looking at Ella.

  She nodded and opened her car door. The two ran inside just as the sky opened up and a deluge of rain came down.

  “Whew,” Karim said, shaking his thick black hair. “That was close.”

  Ella laughed, looking down at her sopping wet suit. “Too close,” she said, wiping the water off of her as Djaron ran to the hotel clerk to get towels for them all.

  “Well, I guess you get me after all,” Karim said, drying himself. Ella watched as he ran the towel over his face and peeled the wet suit jacket off, revealing a white dress shirt that showed off his muscular physique.

  She swallowed hard, trying not to stare but unable to keep her eyes off of him. “Um,” she said, finally breaking her eyes free. “Yep, looks like I do.”

  She dried herself off and handed the towel back to Djaron. “Thank you,” she said as he bowed slightly and disappeared behind the desk.

  “So, let’s get started,” Karim said, pointing in the direction of the glass room they had been in just moments before.

  They began walking in that direction when a short man in a hotel uniform stopped them. “I’m sorry,” he said, holding his hand up to them. “You can't go in there.”

  Karim and Ella looked at the man with confused expressions.

  “Why not?” Karim asked, and as if on cue, the lights flickered on and off.

  The man looked up at the ceiling and then back at Karim and Ella. “The power is going to go out and we have sent all but a few staff members home. Our concierge will not be available until after the storm has passed.”

  Ella’s body sagged; no concierge meant no wedding planning. How ironic, she thought. First she had the concierge and the venue, but no Karim. Now she had Karim, but no venue or concierge.

  “Well, it looks like we’ve got only one option,” Karim said, looking quite happy that the wedding planning had been put on hold.

  Ella looked at him and saw he was nodding in the direction of a brightly lit room adjacent to the lobby. “The bar?” she asked, cautiously.

  “Yep,” he said, pulling her by the hand. “What better way to kill time?”

  They walked into the bar and sat at a table by the doorway, far enough away from the windows to be safe from any flying debris.

  The bartender smiled politely and came over to take their drink order. When he was gone, Karim began talking.

  “So, what made you get into wedding planning?” he asked with what seemed to be genuine curiosity.

  “Well,” Ella said slowly, unsure how much she wanted to reveal. She was always careful not to cross the professional line, but there was something about Karim that caused her to flirt with doing just that.

  “I actually graduated with a degree in design,” she said, playing down her achievements.

  “Really? Where did you go to college?” Karim asked, just as the waiter set down their drinks.

  Ella fidgeted with her drink and looked away. She never liked bragging about herself, but this was different. Karim was royalty. There probably wasn’t anything she could say that would make him uncomfortable.

  “Columbia,” she said, taking a long sip from her cocktail.

  “Columbia University?” Karim asked with wide eyes.

  She was surprised at his response. Why was he so taken aback that she went to Columbia?

  “Yeah,” she said. “Why?” She tried to hide her annoyance but the cocktail was hitting her pretty quickly and she knew she was loosening up.

  “Well,” Karim said, flashing a gorgeous smile her direction. “It’s just that, well,” he tried to choose his words carefully. “It’s just that you don’t hear of many wedding planners who went to Columbia.”

  “And exactly how many wedding planners do you know?” asked Ella, defiantly.

  Karim laughed. “Okay, you got me there!”

  They continued to talk about Ella’s choice to leave E.J. Munford and venture out on her own. Ella told Karim how she got her start with Hannah's wedding and how the business had taken off really well. She talked about the financial security her business gave her and how fortunate she felt being able to meet so many people and travel to so many places.

  “And what about the people,” Karim said. “What do you think of the brides and grooms you work with?”

  The bartender came over and refreshed their drinks. Ella took a sip so as to stall before answering. She didn’t want to be rude or criticize anyone she had worked for; their relationships were their business. But at the same time, she felt like she could be honest with Karim.

  “For the most part,” she began. “I like my clients. They are usually really happy, really in love. I mean there are the uptight ones; the ones that hover over me every second. When that happens, I wonder why they hired a wedding planner to begin with!”

  Karim laughed and watched Ella as she spoke. He took in her beautiful face, her soft features and full lips and was drawn to the depths of her emerald-green eyes. He was entranced by the way she played with her long brown hair as she spoke, twirling it between her fingers.

  “Then there are the ones that know exactly what they want and aren’t willing to give an inch. They have everything laid out perfectly and all I have to do is follow their instructions to a tee.”

  “Well, that must make your job easier,” said Karim.

  “Sometimes. But when I can’t meet their expectations exactly, it can be really difficult to get them to compromise.” Ella took another sip of her drink as the wind kicked up outside. “Wow,” she said, noticing the strength of the storm. “It sounds like it’s getting worse out there.”

  Karim nodded and took a long sip of his drink. He leaned in on the table, close enough so that Ella could feel the heat of his breath when he spoke. “And what about us?”

  Ella sat frozen, sensing something between her and Karim, but unsure if it was her imagination, the drinks or something genuine. She felt so good sitting across from him, sharing a drink, talking. It was as if they had known each other for a long time. There was sense of comfort and security that neither of them could deny.

  Her gaze snapped to the window as she heard another strong gust and a loud bang. The lights flickered on and off again and she took a deep sip of her drink to calm her nerves. Ella could feel the alcohol soothing her as the warm liquid filled her up. She sat back, feeling more relaxed as Karim went on.

  “So,” he said, prodding. “So what do you think of us? Of me and Nadia?”

  “Um, I guess I just don’t understand...” Ella hesitated and took another sip from her drink before continuing. She opened her mouth to go on and was interrupted by a huge bang from the windows.

  The crash caused her to jump out of her seat and her drink went flying. Karim jumped up as glass from the lobby window came flying across the floor.

  “Quick!” yelled the bartender. “Come with me. You must get to a safer place!”

  Karim grabbed Ella by the arm and followed the bartender out of the bar and down the hall to one of the rooms.

  “Here,” the bartender said, unlocking the room with his passkey. “Stay in here, away from the windows.”

  He opened the door and basically shoved Karim and Ella into an exquisitely appointed room. The main sitting area had a wide wall of sliding glass doors overlooking the ocean. The bartender moved them past that room and into a large bedroom with a window that had been shuttered closed. They thanked the bartender and watched him leave, closing the door behind him.

  Karim rummaged through the drawers, found matches, and began to light the candles that were standard in the island rooms, in case of power outages.

  “What are you doing?” Ella asked from her spot on the bed. The lights flickered on and off again and the wind howled outside of the window. The only light was that of the glass block wall in the bathroom off of the bedroom.

  “Just getting prepared,” said K
arim as he moved the lit candles to various places throughout the room.

  “That’s better,” he said when he was done. He surveyed his work and was satisfied that there would be enough light if the power went out. “Ah,” he said, holding up his finger. “One more thing.”

  Ella watched him disappear from the room and emerge a moment later with two glasses and small bottles from the mini-bar. He set them on the dresser and poured the contents of the bottles into the glasses, then walked over and handed one to Ella as she sat back against the pillows.

  Reasoning that there was nowhere else for him to sit, Karim slid in next to her, resting his head on the pillows. “So,” he said slowly, taking a sip from his glass. “Where were we?”

  Ella smiled lazily, the alcohol dulling her senses. “Okay, that’s right. Just before we got kicked out of the bar…”

  Karim laughed at her choice of words. “Yeah, but isn’t this so much better?”

  Ella opened her eyes slowly and looked around. The light from the candles danced happily, creating a soft and relaxing atmosphere in the room. She closed her eyes and breathed in the smell of the wax and the musky scent of Karim. She let the mood fill her and exhaled a long breath, letting her body sink into the bed a little further.

  “Yeah,” she said slowly. “this is much better.”

  Karim smiled wide, watching her body relax. His eyes wandered from her smiling face down to her suit jacket and all the way past her curves to her toned legs. He caught himself just as she opened her eyes and he pulled away, sitting up straight against the pillows.

  “What was it that you asked me?” Ella said sloppily.

  Karim stared out in front, not wanting to be drawn to her again. He was finding it hard to be in the same room with her without giving into his feelings.

  “What about us?” he asked. “About me and Nadia? What do you think of us as clients?”

  “Oh,” Ella said loudly, slapping her leg. “You two are one of a kind. I mean,” she laughed. “You can’t be one of a kind when there are two of you. But you are two of a kind.”

  Karim smiled at her. He loved watching her talk, watching her smile.

  Ella went on unprompted. “I mean, you guys are okay. Well, you're okay. Nadia, though. I don’t know. I mean, what kind of bride doesn’t want to plan her own wedding?”

  Ella pushed herself to an upright position, spilling her drink as she did. Karim smiled and took the drink out of her hand as she continued to speak, more animated this time. “I guess it’s just that I don’t get you. I mean, here you are planning the wedding, and she’s, she’s…” Ella stopped and looked at Karim questioningly. “Where is she again?”

  Karim laughed at the seriousness on her face. “She’s in Miami,” he said softly, not willing to offer any further explanation.

  “Right, Miami!” Ella slapped her leg again. “And she left you here to handle everything. What kind of person does that?”

  “I really don’t mind,” Karim said, sitting up to face Ella. “In fact, I’d rather it be that way. I’ve always been a 'take charge' sort of guy. I guess that was just part of my upbringing. When you grow up in a royal family, you’re raised with certain responsibilities and expectations. And one of them is to take care of things that need to be taken care of.”

  “Well, that’s very nice of you,” Ella said. She looked away and then flopped against the bed again.

  Karim looked over at her as the wind continued to howl. “What is it? What do you mean that’s very nice of me?”

  “It’s just,” Ella’s face got red as she spoke. “It’s just’s very nice of you to take such good care of Nadia.”

  Karim was unsure where Ella was going with this. He could see the conversation had just taken a turn in a different direction. At that moment, Ella closed her eyes, and he glimpsed tears forming in the corners.

  “Ella,” he said, leaning in close.

  She felt his hot breath on her cheek and realized she longed for what Nadia had. The tears sprang from the corners of her eyes as he spoke.

  “What is it, Ella?” Karim said softly. He reached out a finger to wipe her tears away, but stopped himself. He pulled his hand back just as she opened her mouth to speak.

  “She’s just so lucky to have someone who loves her so much,” Ella said, almost wailing the words as she spoke. “I see that all the time. It’s not all bad, you know. Not all the clients I have are jerks. Many of them are really, truly in love. When I work with those people who are head over heels, that's when I get sad.”

  The tears fell quicker now and Karim felt his heart ache for Ella’s pain. He wanted to tell her not to think like that. He wanted to tell her that there was someone out there for her. He wanted to tell her, but he couldn’t.

  “Even though I don’t know you and Nadia, I can tell that you love her very much,” Ella said. She cried softly, unable to stop the tears falling. She didn’t know why she was sharing all of this with Karim. Maybe it was the alcohol, maybe her fear of the storm. Maybe it was just that he was so damned easy to talk to.

  Karim got up off the bed and began pacing the room.

  “What is it?” Ella asked, confused at his reaction.

  “It’s nothing,” he said curtly, avoiding eye contact.

  Karim was pacing like a wild animal. He wanted to tell Ella everything. He wanted to be honest with her. There was something about her that made him want to be true, to bare all his secrets. But he knew he couldn’t. He had made a promise and he had sworn to keep that promise, no matter what.

  Feeling frustrated and trapped, he took another long sip of his drink, racking his mind for a way to come clean with Ella and assuage her pain, without betraying his promise. The wind blew branches against the siding and Ella jumped. Karim saw her reaction and instinctively ran over to her.

  “Are you okay?” he asked. The shutters banged loudly against the window and Ella’s body stiffened.

  “Yeah,” she said. “If only it would stop storming.”

  Karim’s heart jumped in his chest. He was so drawn to Ella, to her vulnerability, to her kindness. Then it came to him. He could be honest with her. At least, sort of honest.

  “Ella,” he said as he sat back on the bed next to her. He breathed in the smell of her perfume and felt his skin prickle with goosebumps. God, she smelled so good. “Ella, I have to be honest with you,” he said, reminding himself of his limits. “Nadia and I aren’t in love.”

  Ella blinked several times and looked at Karim in shock. “What?” she asked, wanting to believe him but not sure if she should. “You’re not in love?”

  Karim settled back in on the bed next to her. “Yep, that’s right,” he said, feeling more relaxed than he had in a long time. “In fact, we don’t even really like each other.” His face lit up in a broad smile as he revealed the truth, much to Ella's confusion.

  Ella sat up and looked at him, the tears dry on her cheeks. “What do you mean you don’t even like each other? But you’re getting married? I don't understand.”

  Karim just nodded, giddy with delight at finally telling someone about his secret. “Yeah,” he said, still smiling. “The marriage is a sham. The whole thing.”

  Ella’s face contorted as she took in this new information. They didn’t love each other? They didn’t even like each other! Then why on earth would they go to all the trouble of getting married?

  Ella’s head spun with questions. Then, suddenly and uncomfortably, she remembered that it didn’t matter. Their reasons for getting married were none of her business. She wasn’t their adviser or relationship counselor. She wasn’t their moral judge. She was their wedding planner. That was it.

  “I don’t understand, Karim,” she said quietly. She looked to Karim for an answer and got none. He just sat up and smiled.

  “You don’t have to,” he said in an offhanded way. He knew what he had said was hurtful, but was getting desperate to change the subject. He had already revealed too much.

The situation was getting complicated and Karim needed a way out. He was feeling things for Ella that he hadn’t felt for any woman in a long time, and he knew he was dangerously close to crossing a line that he couldn’t let himself cross. Even though he didn’t want to, he knew he had to push Ella away.

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