Those wise old eyes narrowed slightly at the unexpected steel in his son’s voice. “You’re willing to marry the woman? Her honor is worth your freedom?”
An image of Zhang tucked into his side, smiling shyly up at him with complete trust, made the answer easy. “Yes,” Rachid said with conviction and without hesitation.
Ghalil interjected, “You think you can marry her and the scandal will simply go away? It’s not that easy.”
Basir countered the young prince’s statement. “It may be. Especially if we don’t tell anyone that she was willing.”
All three men looked at the older advisor in surprise.
He explained, “Rachid, you’ve done well in business, but people question if you have what it takes to stand up to our enemies. This is a bold move, and not backing down to China will impress many. You saw a woman at a wedding. You took her. In our ancient laws, you haven’t broken the law as long as she agrees to marry you within a week. She’ll have to be questioned apart from you, however, and she’ll need to say that she enters into this marriage of her own free will. If you can convince her to do that, this situation may work in your favor.”
Ghalil bristled and asked, “And how will that gain him public approval?”
The advisor smiled. “You’re young, Ghalil. You don’t know how difficult it is to win the heart of an unwilling woman.”
Marriage. It wasn’t something he’d considered himself ready for, but he would do it for family, for country, for Zhang.
Rachid straightened his shoulders and said confidently, “Plan the wedding for Saturday. She’ll agree to it.”
His father rubbed his short beard thoughtfully. “I wish to meet this woman who would be my daughter-in-law, for she has lit a fire in my son that I wasn’t sure would ever ignite. Bring her here.”
Pride swelled even as he stalled his father. “Give me a few moments with her first, Father. She may need time to warm up to the idea.”
Wrinkled bridesmaid dress or sex-rumpled harem slave costume? What a choice.
Zhang could practically hear the universe laughing as she picked the skintight charcoal dress off the floor and stepped back into it.
Oh, great, I left my underwear on the plane.
She stepped into her high heels and headed to the bathroom to comb her hair. Makeup would be nice, but really, when a breeze from below is enough to remind you of your folly, will mascara make a difference?
Pacing the length of the suite, Zhang reviewed the quick change of events that morning. Somehow Rachid’s father had found out she was there and was apparently not pleased with the news.
So, he locked me in.
And I would do something about it if –
Oh, yes, I left my cell phone at the wedding with Lil.
This day just keeps getting better and better.
Zhang spun at the sound of a key being turned in the door. She stopped midstep and stared at the man who walked in. From the top of his white keffiyeh –covered head to the hem of his long white thobe, Rachid looked every bit the Arab prince she’d imagined in her fantasies, but nothing in his expression implied he had come to play. He held a large rectangular box in one hand.
I hope his apology comes with panties.
Rachid laid the box on the small table near the door. He walked toward her and she held her breath. Standing only a few inches away from her, he said, “Zhang, things have changed.”
She couldn’t stop herself from saying, “Yes, they have. You locked me in.” She glared at him, angry all over again. “You know all that stuff about not wanting to be in control? That ended when we woke up this morning. I hope you have the plane readied, because I’m leaving – right now.”
“No,” he said, slowly shaking his head. “You’re not.”
“Yes, I am,” Zhang said firmly, planting her feet slightly apart. “We had a deal. One night. I leave. No one ever knows. That’s what you agreed to.”
He reached to caress her face, but she pulled back from him angrily. He said, “What we planned doesn’t matter anymore.” He showed her the newspaper Basir had brought.
Zhang read the headline and sagged in shock. Rachid caught her by the elbows.
Oh, my God.
“What are we going to do?” she asked before she’d thought her question through. There was no we, only two separate people who had done something incredibly stupid together. He didn’t owe her anything, and that was very likely what he was just about to tell her.
“We prepare for our wedding,” he said calmly.
Zhang almost sunk to the floor, but he propped her up again. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I thought you just said ‘our wedding.’ ”
A patient smile curled a side of his mouth. “You heard me. I don’t love the idea, either, but we don’t have much of a choice.”
Zhang closed her eyes. As far as proposals went, his fell pretty flat.
“It doesn’t have to be forever,” he added.
Wow, that makes it even more tempting. Opening her eyes again, she tried to focus on what Rachid was saying instead of the growing storm of emotion in her heart.
He continued, “My people are not in favor of divorce, but it does happen. A year from now, we can separate over cultural differences and everyone will understand.”
Zhang ripped her arms out of his grasp and said, “I appreciate your very romantic proposal, but I have to decline. I can’t marry you, Rachid. I have a business to run. And although this may not look good in the news, it will pass and people will forget about it. We don’t have to do anything drastic.”
Rachid’s expression set in harsh lines. “As we speak, my father is informing the Chinese minister of foreign affairs that we’ll be married this coming weekend.”
Zhang stood toe-to-toe with him, hands on hips, and said, “That’s a problem, because we are not getting married.”
Instead of arguing the point, Rachid walked over and picked up the box near the door and handed it to her. “My father would like to you meet you. I suggest you wear this.”
Zhang took the box angrily. “Good. I’d like to meet your father so I can tell him what I told you. I’m not marrying anyone.”
Rachid tipped her head up with one finger and said softly, “I suggest you don’t. My father’s word is law. If he decides to execute you for dishonoring our family, even I couldn’t stop him. And if you think your government is going to storm in here and save you, you’re more naïve than I took you for.”
Zhang yanked her chin away from him but held her tongue. She wasn’t fool enough to take them on while they were in control of the situation. She could play along just long enough to gain an opportunity to contact her people. Government support was unnecessary. She had a small security force who would give their lives for her. All she had to do was get word to them. Composing her features, Zhang said, “Fine. I’ll meet your father and I’ll play nice. But it doesn’t change anything.”
Rachid looked down into her eyes and looked like he wanted to say more, but instead he bowed slightly and went to the door. “I’ll tell him you will meet us in thirty minutes.”
Zhang nodded once. As she saw him take the key out of his pocket again, she rushed toward the door but was too late to stop him from locking her in again. She threw the box angrily against the door and said, “Even in my fantasy, you didn’t lock me in!”
It didn’t help her mood that she heard him laugh on the other side of the door.
Oh, that man is going to pay.
She didn’t want to love the dress, but the simplicity of the long-sleeved gold-leaf gown with a sheer-blue overlay was stunning and feminine without being provocative. The square-toed Jimmy Choo gold flats were a welcome accessory. She would have said that she felt more comfortable in simple black slacks, but she reluctantly admitted to herself that these delicate layers of expensive material made her feel beautiful.
All that and underwear.
What more could a woman ask for?
Rachid had even thought of an outfit for her morning walk of shame home? The idea was both mortifying and touching at the same time.
Zhang heard a key in the door and turned from the mirror. A wave of an emotion she quickly denied rushed through her when she realized that it wasn’t Rachid at the door. A tall, thin man in his late sixties and dressed in a long tan thobe stood in the doorway. “Please follow me,” he said coldly.
She did. As they walked down the hallway, Zhang asked, “What’s your name?”
“Abdal,” he answered briskly.
“Have you worked here long?” she asked, keeping up with his quick step.
“I was born here,” he answered simply.
“Here in this castle?” she asked, surprised.
“Yes, my father was the caretaker before me.”
Small talk didn’t come easy to Zhang, but if there was a chance that it might win the trust of the servant, she could appear interested in an old castle. “Parts of it look quite modern.” Perhaps modern enough to have a phone – though she knew enough not to ask for one yet.
“It has been in the Hantan family for hundreds of years and each generation has tended to it with great care.”
Evidence of what the servant said was everywhere Zhang looked as she followed him. The marble floor of the hallway had been carefully laid to create geometric designs, all of which were intact and shone from a recent polishing. The thick walls of the old fortress were virtually windowless. As they approached the main area of the castle, the temperature cooled to a comfortable level. Zhang commented on a cool breeze that wafted past her, and the servant explained that the wind tower was still fully operational and that often the ancient ways were still the best, especially when one lived in the desert.
He opened two large wooden doors and bowed, backing away. Three men stood when she entered the room. Zhang was instantly struck by how much Rachid looked like his father. The same dark, serious eyes. The same proud nose. Rachid was slightly taller, but otherwise there was no denying his lineage. The other man in the room looked to be about twenty years old. He was built more like the father but had an angry fire in his eyes that made it difficult to appreciate what would otherwise have been an attractive face.
“Come, child, and join us,” the father said in a mix of invitation and command.
Zhang stepped forward, refusing to meet Rachid’s eyes. If they thought they could intimidate her, they were sadly mistaken. She hadn’t gotten as far as she had by backing down or giving in to bursts of emotion. She would eat their food and let them speak their piece. As they relaxed, she would discover a weakness or an opportunity to escape.
Patience is its own strategy.
“You may take a seat near your betrothed,” the king said.
Outside of one raised eyebrow, Zhang contained her response to his words. Betrothed, my ass.
Rachid held out a chair for her. Zhang grit her teeth but still didn’t look up at him. Looking would only loosen her angry tongue. Instead, she met the father’s eyes briefly, politely, then looked respectfully down at the table before her.