Marrying the sheikh, p.4
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       Marrying The Sheikh, p.4

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

  They sat for a while in silence, sipping on their drinks and watching the candlelight dance on the walls of the hotel room. After several minutes, Karim stood up and headed out into the living room. He looked out through the sliding glass doors and listened for the wind, which had died down considerably.

  Ella sat on the bed and looked up at him when he returned. “What is it?” she asked, breaking the silence.

  “The storm has broken,” Karim said, his voice dull and distant.

  Ella stepped out into the living room to see for herself; the wind was still blowing hard and she could see palm fronds and tree branches scattered across the beach. The surf was angry and smashing against the shore.

  “It still looks pretty bad to me,” she said, pointing to the rain gushing down the sliding glass doors.

  Karim looked at her with distant eyes. “I have to go. I have important engagements that I must attend to.”

  His words were not questioning or informative. They were commanding; words that he would speak to a servant.

  “Karim,” Ella said, trying to reach the kind, funny man she had been speaking to just an hour before. “It’s still really bad out there. The pilot said he can’t fly in this weather. It’s too dangerous.”

  Karim ignored her words and walked to the bathroom to splash some water on his face. “I’m going. I have to get back.” He placed the drinks on the dresser and walked back to Ella in the living room. “I have to get back to New York. I’ll take a cab to the airport if I have to and then take a commercial flight. One way or another, I’m getting out of here; with or without you, Ella.”

  Ella stood still and bristled from the harshness of his tone. She looked at his dark eyes and saw nothing but coldness in them. This couldn’t be the same man she was just laughing with, could it? Could this mean-spirited bully be the same man that had made her heart melt with his smile? Ella didn’t know where that Karim had gone. But she knew he wasn’t here right now.

  “Okay then,” Karim said, not waiting for Ella to respond. “If that's how you want to play it, I’ll ask the driver to stay here and you can take the jet when the storm breaks.”

  Karim walked out of the room and down the hall, back to the main lobby. The glass had been cleaned up and a piece of plywood was nailed against the broken window. Karim breezed past the front desk and stepped out onto the patio under the portico.

  Ella caught up with him and saw the trees blowing in the wind. Branches slapped against the building and shutters flew wildly. The rain was still coming down and the wind had begun to pick up again.

  “Karim!” she yelled over the sound of the wind. “Don’t go! It’s too dangerous!”

  He kept walking to the main road, thinking he'd be able to hail a cab, as Ella called out behind him.

  “Karim! There won’t be any taxis! Please, come back!” She ran to catch up with him. She knew he would have heard her voice through the wind, but he kept walking.

  She moved quickly through the rain, trying to reach him before he got to the main road. The rain was pouring down, obscuring her vision. Her heels jabbed into the loose gravel as she ran, and branches were scurrying along the ground, threatening to trip her. She made her way down the driveway and came to a stop just beneath a large palm tree when she heard the crack.

  The lightning lit up the dark sky and the sound of it hitting the tree was louder than anything Ella had ever heard. She turned to run back to the hotel and tripped over some debris caused by the downpour. She fell to the ground and grabbed her ankle, screaming in pain.

  Karim heard the commotion and turned to see Ella on the floor. He watched as the top of the tree caught fire and saw the trunk split in two. He turned and ran back to Ella, scooping her up in his strong arms just as the palm fell to the ground below, barely missing them both.

  Ella looked up through the rain and saw unmistakable worry in Karim’s expression. She felt her heart swell as she stared deeply into his eyes. He looked back at her, his tears mingling with the fresh rain, his heart clenched with worry.

  Another loud clap of thunder jolted them both back to reality and Karim turned in the direction of the hotel. He held her tightly in his arms and ran through the rain back through the doors of the lobby. His staffer grabbed a handful of towels and blankets as Karim entered and placed Ella gently on one of the chairs.

  “Quick,” Karim said, motioning to another chair. “Bring that over here.”

  Djaron scooted the other chair into position so that Ella could rest her swollen ankle on the cushion. Karim looked down and saw the ankle swell up and turn purple in a matter of seconds.

  “Djaron, go get a first aid kit, and some ice!” he commanded.

  Djaron nodded and ran out of the lobby, returning moments later with a bucket of ice and a first aid kit.

  Karim and Djaron attended to Ella’s leg as she winced in pain. They wrapped it with an elastic bandage and then poured ice into a towel and held it firmly against her leg to minimize the swelling.

  “How does that feel?” Karim asked gently.

  “It hurts,” Ella said, laughing a little.

  “Do you want some aspirin?” Karim said.

  “Another drink might do the trick,” she said, laughing.

  Karim didn’t laugh but nodded to Djaron who disappeared into the bar. He returned with a shot glass and bottle of vodka.

  Karim poured Ella a shot and she downed it quickly, letting the liquor warm her and numb the pain. She took another and settled back into the chair, careful not to move her injured leg.

  One of the few staff members that remained picked up the drinks and first aid kit and took them back into the bar. Karim looked at Djaron and dismissed him with a brief nod, and within seconds, Ella and Karim were alone again.

  “Thank you, Karim,” Ella said, her eyes closed against the pain in her ankle.

  Karim blinked in disbelief. “For what?” he asked, the wind howling as he spoke.

  “For saving me,” she said slowly as she opened her eyes and locked them with his.

  He felt his heart pound as he looked at her. “No,” he said, steeling his jaw. “It was my fault. I’m to blame.”

  Ella shook her head. “Don’t be silly.”

  Anger rose in Karim as he spoke. “No,” he went on with heat in his voice. “If it weren’t for me being so pigheaded, you never would have been out in that storm!”

  Ella looked at him, her expression soft. “Karim,” she said, reaching out to touch his hand. “It’s not your fault.”

  Karim snatched his hand away. He would hear none of it. “No,” he said again as he stood up. “I’m sorry, Ella. I’m the reason you got hurt because I’m the reason you came here at all. It’s all my fault.”

  Karim turned and called for Djaron. “I'll get us some rooms because it looks like we won’t be going anywhere tonight. Please attend to Ella while I'm gone.” He paused for a second, before adding “Goodnight, Ella.”

  He turned and walked out of the lobby. Ella watched him leave, unsure of what to do. She had heard the words he spoke, but she didn’t believe them. It wasn’t Karim’s fault that she got hurt. It was just a storm. It was an accident. As she was thinking about what to say to him, a wave of exhaustion came over her.

  “Thank you, Djaron,” she said warmly. “I really appreciate your help.”

  Djaron smiled at Ella and sat with her until her room was ready. He helped her to her room and got her settled in as the storm continued to rage outside.

  After she was settled in, Djaron bid her goodnight and left her alone. Dinner had been brought up to the room, but Ella was too tired to eat. She looked at the food on the tray and then put the lid back on it. The pain in her ankle was fierce, but Djaron had assured her that it was only a sprain. She hoped that the swelling would go down by the morning.

  Ella got undressed and hobbled over to the bed. She pulled back the luxurious bedding and slipped under the covers, letting her head sink into the deep pillows. She c
losed her eyes and listened as the rain and wind pummeled the side of the building. Thoughts of Karim filled her head.

  It had been a long time since Ella had been seriously involved with a man. She had had one boyfriend in high school, but that only lasted a year. Then in college, Ella focused so much on her grades and classes that she found little time for dating. Even at Munford, she'd thought it unwise to get involved with any of her male colleagues, and she'd had little time outside of work to meet anybody.

  It was only when she had started her own business that Ella felt she could afford to date. But meeting men in the wedding planning business was hard. Most of the guys she dealt with were either married, about to be married, or gay. And she knew better than to date a groomsman. She had tried that once, even waiting until after the wedding to do so. But it still ended terribly, and the last thing she needed was a previous client to spread rumors about her dating the wedding party. Those weren’t the kind of referrals Ella wanted.

  She let her mind drift as the vodka worked on the throbbing pain in her ankle. She thought back to the time she had spent on the plane with Karim and how easy he was to be around. She played back in her head the moment when the two of them had walked into the grand ballroom, and the hours they had spent enjoying drinks in the bar. She let her thoughts take her back to their time on the bed with the candles glowing softly in the background. The flickering candles and the storm raging outside made it a perfectly romantic setting. She just wished it could have lasted a little longer.

  No, thought Ella. She knew better than that. Even though Karim had told her that there was no love between him and Nadia, she was still responsible for planning their wedding. Why? she wondered. Why would they want to get married if they weren’t in love? Sometimes weddings were arranged to satisfy the financial interests of the families. But both Karim and Nadia were from incredibly wealthy backgrounds. There would be no need for such an arrangement.

  Pregnant! The thought jumped into Ella's mind and caused her to sit straight up in bed. Nadia must be pregnant! That was the only explanation. Why else would Karim, such a nice, kind and loving man want to be with someone who seemed so cold? There could be no other explanation.

  Ella felt her heart sink as the realization of the situation hit her. Even though Karim didn’t love Nadia, she was having his baby, and the child would be a royal heir to the kingdom of Al-Ibran. There was no way Karim would abandon Nadia now. Even if they did get divorced at some point, if that was even allowed, Karim would forever be involved with Nadia.

  The thought of Karim spending his time with Nadia and their unborn baby caused something to tighten around Ella’s heart.

  “It figures,” she said out loud. “I finally meet someone who is nice, sweet, good-looking and he’s getting married!”

  She fell back against the pillows and breathed slowly as the wind died down around the hotel. She fell asleep to thought of her and Karim in a custody battle with Nadia. She woke several times during the night, always returning back to a fitful sleep filled with dreams about Karim, Al-Ibran, and a future she would never get to experience.

  SEVEN

  Karim said goodnight to Djaron and closed his bedroom door. He turned and looked around at the lavish room, thinking it was nothing he hadn’t seen before. He was so used to the finer things in life that he didn’t think he’d recognize something extraordinary if it was right in front of him.

  Except for Ella. She was extraordinary. He knew it the moment he had met her at the café. Sure, he had spoken to her on the phone several times before, but when he saw her in person, when he could feel her presence and warmth, that’s when he saw her for who she really was.

  That day at the café, Karim had tried to conceal his reaction at meeting Ella. He had spent most of his adult life around women who were after one thing: his money. None of them cared about him, nor did they want to get to know him for who he was. They were frauds. They were fakes. They were willing to do and say just about anything to get in Karim’s good books.

  But Ella was different. She didn’t have an agenda. Her only goal was to plan their wedding and do the best job she could for them. It was her own reputation she was concerned about, not Karim’s. It was so refreshing for him to be around someone who was genuine and pulled no punches. He couldn’t remember ever spending time with a woman like her before.

  When he had invited Ella to the island, he had already known that Nadia wouldn’t be joining them. But he didn’t tell Ella that day because he was afraid she wouldn’t come. She seemed to pride herself on her professionalism and jetting off to a paradise island with just a groom might not reflect well on her reputation. But he had promised Nadia he would take care of the details. That was part of their arrangement.

  At first, Karim had felt nervous around Ella. At the airport, when he had escorted her onto the plane, he had been afraid she might judge him when she saw the extent of his affluence. He didn’t want to downplay it, for fear that she might see through him, but he didn’t want to seem boastful either. He had tried his best to be himself, something he hadn’t been with a woman in a very long time, if ever. And it had worked. He felt at ease with Ella on the jet and at the hotel. Right until she had asked about Nadia.

  That’s when Karim recoiled. Ella and her charm had caused him to let his guard down and reveal the truth about his feelings, or lack thereof, for Nadia. He had come dangerously close to telling her everything, and if he had stayed in that candlelit room with her for another moment, he might have. He knew if he spent any more time alone with her, he would risk revealing the whole sham.

  Karim rolled over to his side as he watched the palm trees bounce wildly in the wind. The lights from the resort cast long, crazy shadows across the lawn and Karim listened to the wind howl. He wondered how Ella was doing. She had jumped at every loud bang and he had to assumed that she was afraid of thunderstorms. And yet, he thought, she still ran out in the storm to try and stop him from leaving.

  What did that mean? Karim mulled the question over in his mind. Maybe she liked him. Maybe she had the same feelings for him that he had for her. He couldn’t be sure. Unless… No. He couldn’t ask. He wouldn’t. He had already done enough damage. As if it wasn’t bad enough that he had brought her down here and got her stranded by a storm. Ella had no reason to listen to him now.

  Karim closed his eyes and thought about all of the work waiting for him back in New York. The thought of work always calmed him. He looked forward to returning and diving head first into his next investment plan. Within minutes, Karim was asleep, his usual dreams of stocks, gold and the market, pleasantly disturbed.

  EIGHT

  The knock woke Ella from a dead sleep. After hours of fitful tossing and turning, she had finally fallen asleep just minutes before dawn. She sat up and threw her legs to the floor when she heard the knock, but as she moved to stand, a stabbing pain shot through her ankle and she fell back on the bed, wincing as tears sprang to her eyes.

  “Miss Jones?” the voice on the other side of the door called.

  “Mmm-hmm,” she said through clenched teeth, as a wave of nausea rose in her throat. “Coming,” she said, getting to her feet with the help of the nightstand.

  “Oh my gosh,” Ella said with every step. “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh.”

  She crossed the living area to get to the door and looked through the peephole to see Djaron’s smiling face. He raised a gloved hand and waved to her through the hole.

  “Good morning, ma’am!”

  Ella reached down and unlocked the door, wondering why Djaron was so darned chipper so early in the morning. She turned the knob and swung the door open, motioning for Djaron to enter the room.

  “Good morning,” Djaron said as he passed by her. “Can I help you with your luggage?”

  “Luggage?” Ella said, wiping the sleep out of her eyes. “What time is it?”

  Djaron looked down at his watch. “It is 7:30am Eleuthera time, 6:30 NY time.”

 
“What time are we leaving?” asked Ella.

  “The jet is ready now, ma’am.”

  Ella nodded and smiled at Djaron. “Of course it is,” she said wryly. “Just give me a minute, please,” she said, and hobbled back into the bedroom.

  She returned a few minutes later in a fresh pair of slacks and a light sweater, her hair neatly brushed and pulled into a simple ponytail.

  “You look lovely, ma’am,” said Djaron as he took her suitcase.

  “You’re a liar,” she said, smiling as she walked out in front of him. “But thank you anyway.”

  Djaron smiled as he closed the door behind them. He liked this girl. He had met a lot of women since he had begun working for the Sheikh’s family, and in the decade he had been working as Karim’s assistant, he had met dozens, if not hundreds more. But none of them were like Ella. She was a breath of fresh air in a very stuffy environment.

  Ella and Djaron walked down the hall of the hotel and through the front lobby. The sun was shining brightly through the glass entrance doors.

  “Wow,” said Ella, stepping out into the warm sunshine. “You’d never believe there was such a bad storm just hours ago.”

  “No, ma’am,” said Djaron.

  Looking around, it seemed to Ella that the hotel staff must have woken up early and picked up all of the loose branches and debris created by the storm. The only tell-tale sign of any damage was the boarded up window and a few remaining puddles along the gravel drive. Even the fallen palm had been removed.

  “Please,” Djaron said as he opened the door for Ella. She slid into the back seat of the limo to find Karim waiting on the other side. Djaron joined the driver in the front.

  She nodded at Karim and he smiled politely back, before looking back down at the stack of papers on his lap. They drove to the airport in silence and boarded the jet with none of the fanfare Ella had witnessed in Miami. She felt her stomach tighten in a knot as she was escorted to a seat in the living area, while Karim walked past her briskly and disappeared into the conference room without saying a word.

  Perfect, thought Ella. She hadn’t even begun the wedding preparations yet and groom was already pissed off at her. She sat back and waited for the plane to take off as Djaron told her how to operate the home theater.

  “It will be a three-hour flight back to New York, so please, make yourself comfortable.” He smiled and handed her the remote. “I'll be right in there if you need anything at all,” he said, pointing to the galley between the living area and the conference room.

  Perfect, Ella thought again. What is he, a mediator? She tried to think what she could have said or done to elicit such a cold response from Karim. She remembered sitting in the lobby as he iced her ankle. And then the vodka. That’s right. That’s when things got a little fuzzy.

  The vodka, combined with the drinks she had had earlier in the day, had gone straight to her head, but she was pretty sure she hadn't said anything bad. In fact, she remembered thanking Karim for saving her from the falling palm tree.

  Then it all came back. She had tried to thank him, but he wouldn’t have any of it. In fact, he had got upset, and the more she tried, the more upset he had got, until he finally left her alone with Djaron.

  Ella had an idea. “Djaron,” she called, and within seconds, he appeared by her side.

  “Yes, ma’am? What can I do for you?”

  “Well for one thing, you can stop calling me ma’am. That’s for old people. I’m only twenty-five, for goodness' sake.”

  Djaron tried to hide his smile but couldn’t quite manage it. “Yes ma… Yes, miss.”

  “Thank you.” Ella repositioned herself and motioned for Djaron to sit down next to her.

  “Djaron,” she began, unsure how to word what she was about to say. “It would seem that Karim is rather upset with me, and I’m not exactly sure why. I don’t remember doing anything that would upset him. Except for thanking him when he saved me from getting hit by that tree.”

  Djaron looked at Ella with large, round, brown eyes. The wrinkles in his brown skin squished up as he spoke and his face broke into a kind smile. “Miss Ella,” he said. “I don’t think His Highness meant anything by that. I think that he…,” Djaron’s eyes darted toward the door to the conference room. “I just think that he was—”

  Karim’s loud voice interrupted him. “Djaron! Come here!”

  Ella’s eyes grew wide and Djaron sprang to his feet. He nodded his head quickly to Ella and then disappeared into the back of the plane. Ella listened as Karim’s deep voice reverberated against the cabin walls. She couldn’t make out what he was saying, but she could tell he was upset.

  The door opened moments later and a visibly shaken Djaron emerged and returned to Ella’s side. This time, he stood with both his hands behind his back; there was no longer any casualness about him.

  “Ma’am, is there anything else?” Djaron asked in a clipped tone.

  Ella looked at him with defeat on her face. “No,” she said as she laid back on the sofa. “No, Djaron. Thank you.”

  Djaron disappeared into the galley and Ella sat back as Gone with the Wind played on the large television screen. She watched the clouds drift by through the window and counted the minutes until she could be off this plane and away from Karim and the tension that had developed between them.

  The jet landed a few hours later and Ella was escorted off by Djaron.

  “Is Karim coming?” asked Ella, in spite of herself.

  Djaron smiled as he walked Ella off the runway, her luggage in his hand. “He’s attending to some business matters, but he said to thank you and that he'll be in touch.”

  Ella thanked Djaron and took a cab back to her apartment. Princess greeted her at the door and she dropped her bags and picked the cat up in her arms.

  She walked over to the wall of windows and looked out at the dreary afternoon rain as it fell on Central Park. It reminded her of the storm in Eleuthera and for a brief moment, Ella wished more than anything that she could be back in that hotel room with the howling wind, the soft glow of the candles and the warmth of Karim’s body next to hers.

  NINE

  “So,” Hannah said as she poured grated cheese over her slice of pizza. “Tell me all about them. The king and queen!”

  Ella just rolled her eyes. “That’s disgusting,” she said, referring to Hannah’s slice. “You’re gonna get high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or both!”

  “It’s not for me,” said Hannah. “I can’t help it! The baby loves it. If I don’t give baby what baby wants, it’s gonna get ugly!”

  The two women laughed. Hannah and her husband Trent had been married for just over three years and were pregnant with their first child. Hannah was due in two months and was just glowing. She was still working at E.J. Munford and her husband was a junior partner at a law firm uptown.

  “Anyhow,” Hannah said as she bit into the slice. “The king and queen… tell me what happened!”

  Ella drizzled dressing over her salad, looking at the pizza and wishing she could eat like that.

  “They’re not a king and queen,” she said stabbing her salad with her fork. “They’re a royal highness and a royal… a royal…”

  “Pain in the butt?” Hannah said, knowing exactly where her friend was going.

  Ella nodded and chewed on her spinach. “Yeah, sort of. I mean, I don’t want to sound mean. In fact, I don’t really know the bride at all. I’ve only met her once.”

  “Once? That’s it?” Hannah asked, grease running down her chin. She dabbed at her face with her napkin and kept talking. “Really, El, that sounds pretty weird to me. What kind of bride isn’t involved in planning her own wedding?”

  Ella thought of a million words she could have used to answer that, but decided to keep her mouth shut. She trusted Hannah, but she also trusted that she could be overheard by anyone at any time and she didn’t want to take that chance. A client was a client, no matter what.

  “Oh ye
ah,” said Hannah, setting what was left of her slice down on her plate. “I know, you can’t bad-mouth them.” She made air quotes with her fingers when she said it.

  “Honestly, Han,” Ella said. “They’re fine. Really. It’s just another culture. Maybe that’s the way it’s done in Al-Ibran.”

  “What, a wedding without a bride?” Hannah laughed.

  Ella went on to fill Hannah in on how she had continued to handle the wedding arrangements without Nadia being present.

  “She instructs her groom, who instructs his assistant, or whatever you call him, who instructs me.”

  “So you don’t even meet with the groom?” Hannah asked.

  Ella felt her heart clench. She hadn’t seen Karim in person since the flight back from Eleuthera. She had thought about him daily, but hadn’t dared call him or press for an appointment. Instead, she had dealt with Djaron and the lady in pink, whose name she had learned was Amira. Nadia would text Ella occasionally, but usually only to complain that she'd done something wrong with the table arrangements or the menu.

  “No, not since the island,” Ella said.

  “Ooh, what happened on the island?” Hannah asked coyly.

  Ella rolled her eyes at her friend. “Nothing happened on the island. I already told you that. We got stuck in a storm. I sprained my ankle. We slept in separate rooms and then we flew home the next day. That’s it. Nothing else. Nothing happened!”

  Hannah laughed and held up her hands in mock defense. “Whoa, okay, girl! I believe you. I believe you that nothing happened. I also believe that you wish something had…”

  Ella picked up a roll and threw it at Hannah. “Shut up and eat your slice of grease and cheese!”

  They went back to their meal and the conversation turned to Hannah's baby and the shower Ella was planning. But in spite of herself, Ella’s thoughts kept returning to what Hannah had said and how right she had been; Ella had wished something more had happened on that island, and she hadn't been able to stop thinking about it since.

 
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