Marrying the sheikh, p.5
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       Marrying The Sheikh, p.5

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

  The next few weeks flew by as Ella busied herself with planning the wedding of her other client, the football player, organizing Hannah’s upcoming baby shower and a few other client appointments for weddings coming up the following year. She continued to finalize the arrangements for Karim and Nadia’s wedding, too; working through the Amira, Djaron and a handful of other surrogates. Occasionally, she was able to pin Nadia down for a phone call, but that was almost always late in the day. The one time Ella had gotten a hold of her in the morning, Nadia had sounded like she had been recovering from the night before, but had told Ella she had just woken up.

  Karim and Ella had had no contact, except for an occasional glance when she stopped by to deliver some samples or pick up payment for a deposit. One time, she saw Nadia leaving Karim’s office when she arrived. Karim came out and made a show of putting his arm around Nadia, pulling her close for a passionate kiss, and Ella felt her stomach flop at such an ostentatious show of feigned affection.

  Why was Karim avoiding her, she wondered. She still couldn’t figure out what she had said or done, back on the island, to make him change so much. Before the trip to Eleuthera, they had gotten along just fine. Their phone calls were friendly and light, their meeting at the café was casual and comfortable. Even the time they spent on the jet together had been enjoyable. She wished Karim could be that way with her again, but the more she saw him, especially with Nadia, the more she knew that wasn’t going to happen.

  With the wedding only a month away, Ella decided it was time to nail down the details about the cake. She had left several messages for Nadia, none of which were returned. Finally, in utter exasperation, she decided to stop by Karim’s office, unannounced, to see if she could get him to coerce Nadia into making a decision.

  The building's main receptionist recognized Ella and buzzed her in, not thinking for a second that she wasn’t expected. She went back to her business of filing her nails as Ella made her way past the marble receptionist desk and into the gleaming silver elevator. Arriving on the 44th floor, Ella exited the elevator as the doors swooshed closed behind her.

  She looked around and saw the usual bustle of activity. Women and men dressed in thousand dollar suits walked quickly around the office floor, chatting over numbers on their tablets and scribbling notes on legal pads. One wall of the entrance was made of floor-to-ceiling windows that showed a breath-taking view of Manhattan.

  Ella smiled at the woman behind the desk and pointed toward Karim’s corner office. Again, the receptionist didn’t think anything of Ella being there, as she had been there dozens of times in the past several months.

  Ella nodded politely and walked purposefully toward Karim’s office. With her sleek gray suit and hair pulled back into a business-like bun, she could easily have passed for one of the hundred or so staff members on the floor.

  She rounded the corner that led to Karim's office and stopped short when she heard his voice booming down the hall.

  “What did you think would happen?” Karim said loudly.

  “I don’t care what happens!” a woman’s voice retorted.

  “Well, you better care! This affects your family, too!”

  Ella held her breath and her hand went up to her throat. That must be Karim and Nadia, she thought. She wanted to rush down the hall and listen more closely, but she didn't dare. She looked furtively around her to make sure no one was watching, then she pulled out her cellphone and pretended to dial.

  “Don’t tell me what to do! I’m not one of your precious royal subjects!” Nadia spat the words out.

  Ella listened, holding her phone to her ear as surreptitiously as possible, as the silence hung loud enough to break glass. Seconds later she heard Karim speak in a barely audible tone.

  “Nadia,” he said. “You can't keep acting the drunk fool! The papers follow you everywhere you go! They already suspect…”

  “Suspect what! What do they suspect, Karim?!” Nadia screamed.

  “They suspect that you’ve got something to hide,” Karim paused.

  Ella hung on his every word as she waited for him to confirm her suspicions about the pregnancy.

  “They suspect that you’re trying to keep it secret, that you don’t want people to know that you’re—“

  Karim’s voice cut off and the room went silent. Ella froze as she saw Karim swing his door open wide and stare directly at her.

  “Ella?” he said, speaking her name for the first time since they had left the island.

  “Um...” she fumbled with her phone and threw it back in her purse. Ella tried to look casual and walked toward the office, but she was sure she'd been rumbled.

  “Yes, hi!” Ella put on her best cheerful face. “Nadia! I’m so glad you’re here. I was just…” She trailed off as Nadia marched toward the door.

  “I’m leaving!” Nadia said curtly. With a glance back at Ella, she turned to Karim and placed a passionate kiss on his lips. “Call my girl. She’ll help you with whatever you need,” she said with a smirk as she stepped through the doorway. She shot one final glance at Karim. “And tell her about the island, honey.”

  With that, Nadia disappeared down the hall, leaving Ella alone with Karim.

  Ella blinked and looked up at him. He shuffled his feet, clearly uncomfortable at being left alone with her.

  “Um, you said you needed something?” Karim cleared his throat and then moved across the office and sat behind his desk. Being in that position made him feel more secure, more authoritative, more in control. And right now, being in his office with Ella, he needed all the control he could get.

  Ella watched and realized that any hopes she had of getting the truth out of Karim were gone. She let go of any hope she had of him leaving Nadia and spending time with her, and resigned herself to the fact that what she had felt on the island, on the jet, and at the café, were just wild school-girl crush feelings.

  She looked down at her feet and walked over to the desk. “Karim,” she said, too exhausted from the emotional roller coaster to play games anymore. “I don’t know what you guys are doing. I don’t even care at this point. I just need someone to approve the darned cake.”

  Karim tried to hide his smile but couldn’t. The corners of his mouth turned up and despite his best intentions, he let the smile breath through.

  Ella saw it and sat down in the chair across from his desk, even more confused than ever. Here was this man who had stopped speaking to her for no apparent reason. This man who had dodged her at every opportunity for the past month. The kind, funny man who had opened up to her in the hotel room on the island. Here he was again, in front of her in his office.

  Ella didn’t know what to think anymore. She looked at Karim with a flat, exhausted expression. “What?” she asked, watching as his eyes twinkled with delight.

  “Nothing,” Karim said, still smiling.

  He was tired, too. The past month had been hell for him. Things with Nadia were going from bad to worse, and she had left him to handle nearly everything with the wedding. With his feelings for Ella, he knew he couldn’t have direct contact with her, so he had to juggle his staff to handle all of the interactions with Ella. And he had to have more staff to look after Nadia. She had gotten out of control and Karim was certain the media would catch her in a weak moment and reveal the truth about their wedding.

  Ella sat back and sighed. “Fine,” she said, her sense of humor failing her. Still, she was glad Karim was speaking to her again, despite the kiss she had just seen. She still believed what Karim had told her on the island—that there was no love between him and Nadia.

  “So, will you, or Amira, or Djaron, or someone just approve the cake so I can get it ordered, please!”

  Karim reached his hand out and Ella handed him the pictures and prices. He looked them over briefly before signing the invoice.

  “Done. Anything else?” He didn’t want to usher her out, but was afraid he had already to start to lose his resolve. He had told himself
he wouldn’t be mean to Ella anymore, but he had to keep their interaction to a minimum. Just being in the same room with her for more than a few minutes was driving him crazy.

  Ella looked at him with wide eyes, shaking her head in disbelief. Okay, she thought. So that’s how he’s gonna play this. She stood up and grabbed the paperwork.

  “Nope, that’s it for now. Thank you,” she said as she turned to leave.

  She got to the door and then remembered what Nadia had said. She spun around and looked at Karim. “There's just one more thing,” Ella said.

  “What’s that?” he asked.

  “What was Nadia talking about when she said ‘tell her about the island?’”

  Karim sat back in his chair and clasped his hands over his face. He slid them down until they rested on the leather blotter on his desk. Ella didn’t know what was coming, but based on his body language, it wasn't good news.

  She stood at the door and waited for his response. “Well,” Karim said slowly, watching Ella’s reaction. “Nadia said that since the weather is so unpredictable in Eleuthera, she doesn’t want to hold the wedding there anymore.”

  Ella threw her hands up in the air. “What?! Are you kidding me?” She looked down at her watch as if it were a calendar, calculating the days in her head. “She wants to change the venue thirty, no—twenty-nine days before the wedding?! Are you serious?!”

  Ella couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Once, and only once, had she let a client change their venue. And that was six months before the wedding, and even then it had been a fiasco. Ever since then, Ella had included it in her contract that any venue changes were the responsibility of the client and Ella would not be responsible if the vendors could not accommodate the changes. Clients needed to understand how difficult it was to secure a location for a wedding, and she couldn't be responsible if not.

  Karim just nodded. He wanted to laugh, just a little, at the sight of Ella. Her professional demeanor had quickly come undone. The tight bun that rested on the top of her head had started to unravel and loose hairs hung down against her soft cheeks. The steely cold look she had in her eyes began to shine with frustration, making them even brighter and greener than before.

  As polished as she still was, Karim could see the real girl underneath coming out. He could tell that Ella just wanted to do a good job. She didn’t care about the praise, the money, the accolades. All she wanted was to make her clients happy and give them what they wanted. And Nadia was making that impossible.

  “So,” Ella asked from her position at the door. “Where on earth does she expect she will have the wedding now?”

  Karim cleared his throat and looked down as he spoke. “The Plhrra Hrrlll,” he said mumbling from his spot at the desk.

  Ella put her hand on the door frame and looked at him with her head cocked. “Where? Did you say what I think you said?”

  Karim looked up quickly and then shot his eyes back down to the papers on his desk. He said it again, this time a little louder. “The Plaza Hotel.”

  Ella threw her arms up in the air. “You’ve got to be kidding me?!”

  She turned and walked in a circle, unsure how to react. “She thinks she can move a wedding with three hundred guests from an island in the Bahamas to one of the most desired venues in New York in less than a month? In the springtime? Is she out of her mind?”

  Karim looked up and shrugged as if to say “Sort of.”

  Ella took a couple of deep breaths and steadied herself before she spoke. “Okay,” she said slowly keeping her eyes focused on the skyline behind Karim’s desk. “I'll call the Plaza straight away and see if it's even possible to get a spot. Then, I will call all of the vendors and see if they can transfer their services to local vendors.

  “Then,” she paused, collecting herself. “Then I will call the cake company and let them know that you have finally approved the—” she looked down, unsure of what cake flavor she had even selected. “The red velvet mocha berry cake.”

  Ella took her eyes off of the skyline and looked directly at Karim. Man, he looked good. But he was smiling. Why was he smiling, she wondered? Ella was fuming mad and his smug face just enraged her further.

  “I’m not making any promises,” she said with a finger pointing at Karim. His smile widened, and she looked at him, shaking her finger as she spoke. “But I will promise you this. My rate just doubled!”

  She turned and stormed out of the office with a signed invoice for the cake and a modicum of her integrity left.

  Karim watched her disappear down the hall and sat back in his chair with his hands behind his head as the smile took over his chiseled face.

  ELEVEN

  Ella managed to cash in a couple of favors and get the Plaza reserved for the date Karim and Nadia had selected. She worked double time changing all of the arrangements, sending out corrected invitations and ensuring that all of the vendors were able to meet the new accommodations.

  A week after her encounter with Karim and Nadia, Djaron called Ella and asked her if she could attend a photo shoot the couple was having for a well-known society magazine. Ella obliged, figuring she could get one of them to sign off on a slew of new invoices while she was there.

  She arrived at the shoot with her attaché full of paperwork and the sole intention of staying in the background. The photographers were busy fixing Nadia’s hair and adjusting the lighting while Karim stood next to her looking incredibly bored.

  Ella spotted Djaron and called him over to her. “I thought they already did all of their engagement shoots,” she said, unsure why they were having another professional photo session.

  “You're right,” Djaron said, squeezing Ella’s hand in greeting. “They did. But this one had to be rescheduled. It’s one of the most important because this magazine has the widest circulation in the Middle East. Since this wedding will unite two of the region's wealthiest and most powerful families, it is only fitting that they announce their nuptials here, as well.”

  The shoot began and Djaron and Ella watched from the wings. Around twenty minutes later the photographer told everyone to take a break, and Karim smiled and called Ella over. Nadia rolled her eyes and looked away when she saw Ella come near.

  “Hi Ella,” Karim said, friendly once again. “I’m glad you could make it.”

  Nadia looked at Ella, scanning her from head to toe. “Yes,” she said curtly. “Since you’re here, why don’t you make yourself useful and go get me a coffee.” Nadia snapped her fingers and turned back to the stylist that was working on her hair.

  “Nadia,” Karim barked at his fiancée.

  “No,” Ella jumped in, putting her hand up. “It’s okay, really.”

  She turned and ran to fetch Nadia her coffee. Just three more weeks, Ella said to herself. Three more weeks and this will all be over.

  She returned and handed Nadia the coffee. Nadia took one sip and then held it out to Ella, expecting her to hold it while she posed for more shots.

  “Um, okay...” Ella said meekly.

  “Nadia, stop treating her like that!” Karim said sternly, and Ella froze as she watched the interaction. “Ella is not your servant, Nadia! She's been hired to plan our wedding, not run errands for you!”

  Ella swallowed hard as she saw Nadia’s face change from hard to stone cold. Nadia glared at Karim and then at Ella, looking back and forth between both of them as the corner of her lip turned up and nostrils flared.

  The heat of Nadia’s gaze caused Ella to squirm. She placed the coffee on a table next to the photographer and sneaked back into the wings with Djaron. Nadia kept staring at Karim as he fumed silently beside her.

  “Please,” said the photographer, looking at his watch. “Can we please get back to the shoot? We’re almost done.”

  Nadia shooed the stylist away and slipped back into her perfect pose. Karim glanced over at Ella with an apologetic look on his face, never once smiling for the camera.

  When the shoot was done, a few a
wkward poses later, Nadia disappeared with her attendants, leaving Karim alone under the lights.

  Djaron nudged Ella and the two of them walked over to him.

  “Well,” Djaron said, jokingly, “That went well.”

  Karim rolled his eyes at Djaron. “Yeah, just like everything else with Nadia.” He turned and looked at Ella. “I’m so sorry for that, for how she treated you. No one deserves to be treated like that.”

  “It’s okay. I’m fine. She’s probably just tense with the wedding coming up and all,” Ella said, making excuses for her. She knew Karim didn’t love Nadia, but it wasn’t her place to talk bad about her.

  “I have the car waiting for us,” Karim said, and began to escort Ella downstairs. “Djaron, can you please take these invoices back to the office and get them paid right away?”

  “Certainly, sir,” Djaron said, accepting the stack of paperwork that Ella had brought with her.

  When they reached the first floor Karim held the door to the building open for Ella, and as she stepped through she saw the limo waiting by the sidewalk. Djaron held the door open and closed it once Karim and Ella had slid into the leather seat in the back.

  “So, you got the Plaza?” Karim asked, smiling slyly at Ella.

  She smiled back, once again feeling that familiar ease she had felt when she first met him. “Yep. It wasn’t easy, but I got it.”

  “Well,” Karim said as he watched Ella, feeling his heart stir. “They said you were the best.” He laughed as he said the words.

  “Thank you,” said Ella, feeling more comfortable with every passing moment. As they drove along the busy city streets, she felt inclined to ask why Nadia reacted the way she did.

  “She’s jealous,” Karim said matter-of-factly.

  “Jealous?” Ella asked, incredulous. What on earth could Nadia be jealous of? “Of me?”

  Karim laughed at Ella’s humility. She couldn’t see why someone like Nadia would be jealous of her, but Karim could, to him it was obvious. Ella was successful, independent and down to earth. She knew what she wanted and she wasn’t afraid to go for it. She was honest and fun to be with. And she was a knock-out.

  “Yeah, you,” said Karim, feeling more drawn to Ella with every passing moment.

  “Why is she jealous of me?” Ella truly couldn’t wrap her head around the idea.

  “Because of the time we spend together.”

  Ella racked her brain. She and Karim hadn’t spent any time together since the island. And even then, Nadia knew about that. There had to be more to it, but Ella played along.

  Karim didn't want to admit that Nadia had caught him staring at Ella the few times they were all together. Since then, he'd been distracted and more distant than usual from Nadia; that's when she'd worked out that Karim had feelings for Ella.

  “But she can be a part of this. I’ve asked her to be. You’ve asked her to be,” said Ella. “I don’t understand!”

  “It's ridiculous, I know. Nadia has all the time in the world to help plan the wedding. But instead, she chooses…”

  Ella remembered the fight she'd witnessed and again thought about the secret. Karim must be so torn, wanting to marry Nadia so that he does the right thing for her and the baby. And yet it was obvious that he couldn’t stand how she treated him. The sacrifice he was making was great and Ella liked him even more for it.

  “I know,” she said, finishing his sentence for him.

  “No,” Karim said. “You don’t.”

  Ella held her breath as Karim switched seats and slid in next to Ella. The smell of his cologne filled her nose and body shivered with excitement.

  “Ella,” he said. She melted at the sound of him saying her name. “It’s not what you think.”

  Ella nodded, too paralyzed by him to say anything.

  “Nadia has a problem,” Karim said.

  Ella blinked, not understanding why he chose those words. She wouldn’t exactly call a baby a problem. Besides, it wasn’t just Nadia’s problem; the baby was both of their responsibility.

  “She’s got a drinking problem,” Karim said finally and rested his head against the seat.

  Ella looked at him with wide eyes, not quite believing what he had said. “A drinking problem?”

  Karim closed his eyes and sighed. “Yeah, a drinking problem, a partying problem; whatever you want to call it.”

  “You mean,” Ella paused for a second, trying to process her conflicting emotions. “You mean she’s not pregnant?”

  Karim’s gaze snapped back up to meet hers. “Pregnant?! No! Wherever did you get that idea?”

  Ella felt more confused than ever. She looked around the limo and tried to organize the thoughts in her head. “When you said, back on the island, that the marriage was a sham, that it wasn't a marriage of love, that you had made a promise to her...”

  Karim looked at Ella. “You remembered all of that?”

  Ella looked at him and hit him lightly on the arm. “Yes. I make it a point to pay attention to my clients, believe it or not! Why did you say all of that?”

  Karim looked at Ella with all seriousness. “We made a deal. Her parents were on her back to get married and mine were on my back to stop working so hard and settle down. We agreed that we would get married just to calm them down. Besides, we are from two of the most powerful families in the Middle East. The union will benefit both us and our families in many ways.”

  Ella sat and listened, hanging on his every word. “We actually talked about dating, but we realized it wasn’t for us. Neither one of us felt that way about the other. So we agreed just to put on the show, stay married for a couple of years—without being involved, of course—and then get a divorce. By then our parents would have found other things to worry about. And any financial gains that we would have from the union would remain intact. It was kind of a win-win.”

  “But…” Ella said, prompting him for more.

  “But you’ve seen her. She’s so difficult. I mean, she was difficult when I knew her in school, but nothing like this. It’s because of the partying. She's getting more reckless, and it has turned her into someone I don’t want to be around at all, let alone get fake-married to.”

  Ella sat back as she tried to absorb all of this information. Karim wasn’t in love with Nadia. Nadia wasn’t pregnant. The families didn’t know the wedding was a sham, and Nadia was a ticking time bomb. It was an awful lot to take in.

  “I don’t understand, then.” Ella looked at Karim with a confused expression. “If there’s no love and no baby, why does she care who you spend time with?”

  “Because we have a deal.” Karim looked out the window as the car sat in the thick afternoon traffic.

  “I promised Nadia I wouldn’t tell her family about her drinking and partying if she promised not to tell my family about our arrangement. You see, I was the one that came up with the idea for the wedding, not Nadia. And she has been holding it over my head ever since.”

  “Oh,” Ella said, finally seeing the whole picture. “So you have to do everything you can to keep up appearances until the big day?”

  Karim nodded. “Yes,” he said. “And that includes cleaning up Nadia’s messes and putting up with her nasty attitude. But only until the wedding. Then we can go our separate ways. We only have to be in the same room once a year for our anniversary celebration, as is the custom in our country. No one will be suspicious if we aren’t together throughout the year. But until the wedding, we can’t let on that we are really living separate lives.”

  Ella looked at Karim and her heart swelled with emotion. She felt so bad for him, stuck in this predicament. She knew that he didn’t have any feelings for Nadia, except perhaps obligation because of the promise he had made her. And he was in so deep. He was going through with the wedding to secure the family fortune and he couldn’t let his family down now.

  She reached over and touched his hand without thinking. “I’m sorry,” she said.

  Karim felt her touch and shive
red as the warmth of her hand shot through his body. He pulled his hand back quickly, knowing exactly what that feeling was and not allowing himself to go there. He had already been having a difficult time fighting his feelings for Ella. And now, with the wedding just three weeks away, the last thing he needed was to lose control.

  Ella opened her mouth in surprise, realizing what she had done. She pulled her hand back into her lap and turned toward the window. The slow city traffic lumbered by as the limo made its way up Fifth Avenue. A steady rain began to fall and Ella was reminded again of their trip to Eleuthera. Just sitting in the limo with Karim, the smell of his cologne, the rain, it was all almost too much to bear.

  TWELVE

  A few minutes later, the limo pulled over in front of the Plaza Hotel. Ella jumped out even before the driver could come and open her door. Djaron hopped out and opened an umbrella, holding it over her head as she dashed up the steps and to the landing under the awning. She shook herself off and smiled at Djaron as he closed the umbrella.

  A doorman appeared dressed in a red jacket and black pants. “May I help you?” he said to Karim who had just walked up the steps to join Ella and Djaron.

  Djaron broke in on behalf of his employer. “Yes, we are here to view the ballroom for the wedding of Sheikh al-Qadir bin Zayed.”

  The doorman smiled politely and escorted the group up the red carpet, through the brass doors, and into the main lobby of the Plaza Hotel. Ella had been inside the hotel dozens of times for her business, and still, every time, she was taken aback by the grandeur of the architecture.

  The main lobby opened up to reveal a large staircase to the left and an atrium dining room to the rear. Banks of elevators flanked the back wall and a long, gleaming counter lined the right of the interior. Enormous windows filled the room and looked out onto Fifth Avenue. Tourists, guests, and celebrities—even royalty like the Sheikh—visited the Plaza every day.

  The doorman led them straight over to the concierge desk on the right side of the lobby where a middle-aged man dressed in a black and gray vest and a jacket with tails smiled at them tightly.

  “These guests are part of the Sheikh al-Qadir bin Zayed wedding,” said the doorman. Ella was impressed that he remembered Karim’s name, but then she remembered that staff at the Plaza were trained to remember every detail about their guests.

  The concierge smiled more broadly when he realized that he was dealing with royalty and not just any engaged couple. “Of course, thank you, Dion,” he said to the doorman, dismissing him from the desk.

  “Well,” the concierge went on. “Welcome to the Plaza Hotel. I see here you’ve booked the grand ballroom for your wedding ceremony.” He looked at Ella and Karim and then back at Ella. He smiled at Djaron as well, in all likelihood assuming he was Karim’s father.

  “I can assure you you've made an excellent choice,” said the concierge. “Now, let me call Elise and she will escort you back to the bridal boutique to take care of you further.”

  He smiled at all three of them again and began punching numbers in his phone. Within seconds he spoke a few words into the phone and then put it back on the receiver. “She’ll be with you in just a moment. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

  Karim and Ella looked at each other awkwardly, stilling feeling the tension leftover from their interaction in the limo.

  “No, thank you,” Karim said in his most authoritative tone.

  “Well, you can have a seat over there,” the concierge motioned to a circle of plush blue velvet sofas to the side of the main lobby. “Or, feel free to take a walk through the atrium and I will send Elise to find you.”

  Ella nodded politely as she stepped back from the desk.

  “And congratulations on your engagement,” the concierge added, before signaling for the next couple in line.

  Karim and Ella both turned and looked at the concierge. They wanted to correct him, but it was too weird. Instead, they smiled nervously at each other and made their way over to the sofas. Djaron watched the entire exchange, curious at the tension he sensed between the two of them.

  Karim sat down and began checking his messages while Ella stood off to the side of the sofa and pretended to check hers too. Djaron stood politely between them, keeping an eye out for Elise. A few minutes later, a tall, dark-haired Asian woman with flawless skin and milk chocolate eyes appeared.

  “Sheikh al-Qadir bin Zayed?” she asked, looking at Karim. Before he had a chance to answer, she spoke again. “Right this way, please.”

  Karim stood up and followed Ella and Djaron through the lobby and down several wide corridors until they were in front of three large sets of wooden doors inlaid with gold and marble. Above the center set of doors was a brass plaque with the words 'Grand Ballroom' engraved in it.

  Elise smiled and opened the doors as Ella, Karim and Djaron stepped inside.

  It had been over a year since she had booked a ceremony here, but the Grand Ballroom was everything Ella remembered. It was currently set up for another wedding which, Elise informed them, was to be held the upcoming weekend.

  It was a magnificent sight to behold. The marble walls were lined with white and gold arches separated by tall columns. Each archway was trimmed with a wrought iron railing that held back balcony seating. Large, thick drapery hung from the sides of each arch and stopped at mirrors that sat on top and reflected the opulence and ornateness of the room. Curtained doorways sat in each corner of the room, topped with decoratively painted round awnings. Round mirrors sat above each awning, expertly nestled in an arched wall that met ornately-painted molding at the edge of the expansive ceiling. Ella looked up at the dozens of lavish crystal chandeliers and smiled at the how they sparkled and reflected off of the china and crystal settings on the tables below.

  Karim had been to the Plaza many times, but he had never been in the Grand Ballroom before. Ella sneaked a look in his direction and smiled as she saw him take it all in. He was a financier by trade, but through their many conversations as they planned the wedding, Ella had sensed that Karim also had a deep cultural appreciation for art. And the Grand Ballroom at the Plaza was definitely that.

  “So, the theme this couple has chosen is called blue opaque—you are free to choose any of the other themes, of course.” Elise called out to Karim and Ella as she stood by the main doors. “Let me show you; your eyes might take a moment to adjust.”

  She flipped a switch on the wall and in an instant, the bright white lighting from the chandeliers was replaced with an ocean of blue. The entire room sparkled in silver and white. Elise was right. It took a minute for Ella’s eyes to adjust. But when they did, she was blown away.

  “This is beautiful!” she said, forgetting that she was trying to be on guard with Karim. “Absolutely gorgeous!”

  “Yes, it really is,” said Elise as she walked down the steps and towards the couple.

  Karim stood speechless, looking at the way the light played on the walls, the gold inlay and the table settings.

  “Well,” Elise said as she stood in front of them, smiling wide. Her eyes glistened in the light as she spoke. “Is this the dream wedding venue you’ve always imagined?”

  Elise looked directly at Ella when she spoke. Ella opened her mouth to speak, wanting to clear the air, but it was Karim who spoke instead.

  “Yes, this is the dream venue I’ve always imagined. Thank you. I think I would just like to take a few moments alone with Nadia so we can discuss the details, if you don’t mind.”

  Ella looked at Karim, unsure what was going on. He nodded and smiled at her as if to say, “go along with me on this”. Ella got the hint and smiled back at Elise. “Uh-huh, if we could just take a few minutes please,” she said.

  Elise smiled at the two of them and turned to walk back to the entrance. She took her phone out of her purse and began typing something on it as Karim grabbed Ella’s arm and turned her away from Elise’s peering eyes.

  “Walk with me,” he said quietl
y as he slipped his arm through hers and walked slowly across the floor. He pointed to one table, then to another as he spoke, as if discussing the arrangements.

  “I’m sorry if this is making you uncomfortable,” Karim said, laughing at the irony of it all. Her, uncomfortable? He couldn’t even stand having her touch him in the limo. The electricity it sent through him was too much.

  “What are you doing?” Ella asked in a tight voice. She felt Karim’s strong body lead her along and her hips brushed against his. She wasn’t sure what had happened in the limo, but it hadn’t been good. So why was he doing this now?

  “I just don’t want to have to explain why my bride has ditched yet another appointment,” Karim said as he kept walking and pointing at various decorations.

  Ella nodded softly, understanding completely. Her heart sank again. “Oh, I see,” she said, letting herself get more comfortable in his strong arm.

  “And,” Karim said as he stopped in front of the head table. “There are many prying eyes at the Plaza. I don’t recognize Elise, but I’m sure someone will get wind that I was here. All they need to know is that I was here with my fiancée. It’s not customary for the groom to be keeping appointments with attractive wedding planners.”

  Ella smiled and felt her skin tingle. She felt her skin flush and wondered if Karim could feel her heat through his suit jacket.

  “I understand,” she said, instinctively squeezing his arm. Before she knew it, Karim had squeezed her back.

  “Now,” Karim said as they turned to head back to Elise. “You need to excuse yourself before she asks too many questions and we find ourselves rumbled.”

  “But I’m the wedding planner. She’ll have to deal with me eventually.”

  “We’ll worry about that when the time comes. For now, just handle everything by phone,” Karim said, a look of worry in his eyes.

  Ella felt out of her depth again. She looked up at Karim and saw something in his eyes. She fell for it and gave in. “Okay, but I won’t lie for you,” she said with a stern look on her face.

  Karim’s face softened and he smiled. “You won’t have to, I promise.”

  Ella smiled lightly and released her arm from his. She turned to leave through the back door but before she could get away Karim caught her by the hand, sending another current of electricity through both of them.

  “What?” Ella said, confused.

  “We should probably hug or something, so she believes that we're a couple,” he said.

  Ella thought about it for a moment then nodded. The whole situation was so confusing already, why not throw a few more muddled up emotions in the mix? She stood still as Karim bent down and wrapped his arms around her waist. His strong hands clasped together behind the small of her back and he pulled her in gently, pressing her cheek against his solid chest.

  Ella closed her eyes and breathed in his musky scent. She felt her body melt into him as she settled snugly in his strong embrace. Wow, she thought as she stood with her arms wrapped around his waist. She hadn’t felt this good in a long time.

  Karim stroked her back softly for a second. He was so comfortable, so at peace holding Ella this way. She was so different from the other girls he had dated. She was soft, supple and fit his body just right. He breathed in the fruity scent of her hair and closed his eyes, wishing he could hold her all day. He felt his body start to react to hers and instinctively pulled away.

  “Okay,” he said quickly. “Thanks, Ella. Go now.”

  Ella looked up at him and saw a look in his eyes that she hadn’t seen before. It wasn’t anger. It wasn’t hurt. It was longing, she was sure of it. She caught her breath in her throat and then disappeared through the back door, leaving Karim to handle the rest of the appointment.

  She returned home, still reeling from the closeness of Karim’s body. She couldn’t believe she had let herself do that. She had promised herself she wouldn’t ever get that close to a client. But there was something different about Karim. She couldn’t help herself around him. And she was pretty sure he was having the same feelings.

 
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