Excerpt for The Sheikh's Twin Baby Surprise by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Sheikh’s Twin Baby Surprise



By Holly Rayner


Copyright 2016 by Holly Rayner


All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part by any means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without the explicit written permission of the author.


All characters depicted in this fictional work are consenting adults, of at least eighteen years of age. Any resemblance to persons living or deceased, particular businesses, events, or exact locations are entirely coincidental.











Table Of Contents:



ONE

TWO

THREE

FOUR

FIVE

SIX

SEVEN

EIGHT

NINE

TEN

ELEVEN

TWELVE

THIRTEEN

FOURTEEN

FIFTEEN

SIXTEEN





ONE



I let out a deep sigh and looked out the limo window. Evening was falling on the desert city like elegant drapery, lights flickering on in buildings and street shops, but the streets were no less bustling than usual.


The culture of Al-Thakri was a lively, social one, and it showed in every inch of its capital city. Beautiful women clapped along the sidewalks in stiletto heels and smart skirts, while men in fine, tailored suits bid them good evening, phones plastered to their ears.


Dotted in between the modern skyscrapers and high-rises, the buildings of old Al-Thakri remained, sand and limestone facades that had survived centuries of wear and war and desert heat to stand as testaments of a glorious past. The sphinx—the symbol of Al-Thakri—was everywhere, used as decoration on buildings new and old alike.


The place was a wonderland; a fairy tale I never would have thought I’d be able to experience.


And yet, even so soon after arriving, I was considering leaving it all behind. It had only been six months since I had been scooped up by the royal family of this beautiful nation to serve as a private doctor to the eldest son, but it felt like much longer.


The limo came to a smooth stop at a traffic light, and at the edge of my attention I heard a soft but insistent voice.


Dr. Green? What are you thinking?”


It was Omar—or, more properly, the Sheikh of Al-Thakri, next in line to the throne, and my employer.


I turned at the sound of his voice, and saw his dark, handsome face staring back at me with some anticipation. His deep brown eyes glittered. In front of him, he was holding up two velvet boxes, each of which contained a pair of cufflinks.


“Diamond or ruby?” he asked me earnestly.


I took a thoughtful glance at each of the options and let my eyes wander over Omar’s face, and his perfectly tailored tuxedo. Something bright was shining in his eyes tonight.


Ruby,” I said, pointing a freshly manicured finger at the velvet box on the right.


Omar smiled, as if he had been hoping for that answer. He snapped the box holding the diamond cufflinks shut. “Good choice.”


I’m not really qualified to make decisions like that, you know,” I said back to him with just a hint of teasing in my voice. “My stylist at the palace would agree. She almost fainted when she saw the wardrobe I brought with me. So my apologies if you happen to get any comments about your cufflinks tonight.”


Omar laughed richly, and a happy bloom spread out in my chest as I laughed with him.


I didn’t add that it was nice to be of some use around him lately. As a physician who had spent two years treating patients in war-torn countries with Doctors Without Borders, the current environment was giving me more than a touch of the doldrums. It wasn’t something I had admitted to the Sheikh—I was having a hard enough time admitting it to myself.


The luxurious living that came with being included in the royal entourage was amazing. The fact that I had earned enough money in six months not only to deal with the angry letters regarding my overdue student loan payments, but also to put away a sizeable nest egg for the next journey in my life, were benefits for which I was extremely grateful. But there wasn’t much use for a trauma physician in the entourage of a healthy, young, handsome Sheikh who never got more than the occasional scrape from playing tennis. He hadn’t even caught a cold once the entire six months I had been in his employment. Frankly, I was bored out of my mind, and more than a little upset at the implications my boredom made about me as a person.


Maybe I was a terrible person, but the dullness of my employment here made me long for the dust and heat of the field hospitals where my hands actually felt like they were making a difference in the world. I saved countless lives in those two years—and lost a few, to be sure, ghosts that follow every doctor, nurse and midwife in the world. But there was no question that I was making a difference. There was no question that I was loved and appreciated by the people I helped.


But here? In the air-conditioned, oil-rich cities of Al-Thakri, living alongside some of the richest rulers in the world, I wasn’t so sure I was making a difference at all, and it was starting to grate on me.


At least I knew how to pick out a pair of cufflinks, I thought bitterly.


Almost arrived, sir,” the driver, Abdul, called from the front of the limo.


Wonderful,” said Omar. He finished putting on the cufflinks and gave me a big, beaming smile.


It made my stomach flutter. I did my best to keep from blushing as I smiled back.


The smile—and the butterflies—died quickly when Omar spoke. “I hope Jada is wearing something with a fiery tint to it. It will match the rubies.”


I nodded quickly and turned back to look through the window. “Yes, it would,” I said quietly.


I didn’t want to talk about his date—not this one, nor any of the others he’d had lately. In the past six months, an endless parade of heiresses and princesses had rotated in and out of the Sheikh’s life, all vying for his favor. He’d been set to take the throne ever since the death of his father, some months before I arrived, but he would need a queen alongside him to make it proper—a queen who would give him an heir to continue the royal bloodline.


I couldn’t quite admit to myself just how much it was beginning to hurt to watch the courtships from afar.


I’d long ago stopped resenting the girls personally, and I expected that Jada would be no different. Most of them were too vapid and shallow to hate properly; instead, they had become a faceless mass of competition for a man who didn’t even realize I felt anything for him.


Somehow, that made it all worse.


The car glided to a halt on the curb next to a glittering, high-rise building. Smartly-dressed shoppers glanced curiously at the tinted windows, but didn’t slow their pace down the landscaped sidewalk.


We’d barely waited a moment before the doors of the high-rise were opened by a doorman in a maroon uniform, and out from behind him came the woman who must have been Jada.


I felt a pit form in my stomach; she was a goddess with tanned skin, black hair, and a body like a supermodel. Her plump lips were stained a beautiful shade of red, and her black eyeliner was painted in a perfect cat’s eye that would have taken me weeks to apply on my own. I said a silent prayer for the stylists in the palace that I was able to access.


Of course, she was wearing red.


As she approached the car, I moved to sit next to Rafiq, Omar’s most trusted bodyguard who never left his side. Jada stepped into the car, moving carefully in her stiletto heels, and sat down next to Omar, smiling beautifully as he leaned over to kiss her cheek. She gushed over him until she noticed the rest of the entourage in the limo—myself and Rafiq—and her face squished like she smelled something rotten.


This is my physician, Dr. Carrie Green,” Omar said, with a hand extended my direction. “She and Rafiq are my constant companions.”


“Constant?” repeated Jada suspiciously. “Why do you need a doctor everywhere you go? Are you ill?”


No, no,” laughed Omar, sliding an arm around the back of the seat and her thin shoulders. “But a man in my position can’t afford to take any risks with my health. If someone were to make an attempt on my life, Dr. Green here could be the one to save me.” He looked at me with a glint in his eye. I smiled back.


“Someone is trying to assassinate you?” Jada’s voice sounded like she couldn’t decide if she was afraid or impressed—maybe a little of both.


Omar shrugged. “One never knows where the streets of his journey will take him.


Jada said nothing in reply as the royal motorcade pulled back onto the streets, and I couldn’t help assuming that she was wondering if she’d bitten off more than she could chew.




TWO


Omar had hired out the grand ballroom of the city’s most exquisite hotel to serve as the venue for the party. I’d been by Omar’s side for plenty of black tie affairs, but none of them compared to the opulence of this one—the birthday party for his mother, Mirah, Queen Regent of Al-Thakri.


Paparazzi flash bulbs strobed against the tinted windows of the car as the limo circled the driveway and headed up toward the gilded front doors. Photographers crushed against each other to try and get as close as they could, while the black-suited security detail worked just as hard to form a chain and keep the vultures at a safe distance.


My nerves lit up, as they always did when I had to step out in public as part of Omar’s entourage. I still hadn’t got used to all the glitz, all the noise, all the attention poured on the Sheikh and his family. It wasn’t something a girl like me was used to dealing with, and I wasn’t sure it ever would be.


But Jada was clearly not a girl like me. Her thin, delicate hand, glittering with jewelry, reached over to clutch at Omar’s hand, and my stomach jumbled in a wave of nausea.


Sir, we’re ready when you are. Security is in position,” said the driver. He put the car in park but did not kill the ignition—in the blazing, Middle-Eastern sun, every heartbeat without the air-conditioning was unbearable.


Thank you, Abdul,” replied Omar. He leaned closely to Jada. “My dear, would you do me the honor of stepping out first so the crowd can see what a divine woman I’ve been graced with this evening?”


I couldn’t look at them anymore. I opened up the sequined clutch purse that matched the hue of my midnight blue dress and dug out the lipstick and compact mirror I had stuffed in there. Rafiq was responsible for carrying my triage bag; all I had to do tonight was look like I belonged at this glamorous party and try to have a good time.


Ignoring the canoodling happening on the seat beside me, I reapplied my lipstick with care, despite the fact that it looked as perfect as it had when we left. The stylists at the palace had done my light blond hair into a sophisticated updo, and borrowed diamond earrings dangled from my ears—dripping waterfalls of sparkling gems that matched the necklace on my chest.


I almost didn’t recognize myself, and couldn’t think of a single instance in my life where I’d been so gussied up before. I tried to enjoy it instead of focusing on the heartache—or comparing myself to Jada. Her tall, lithe form was goddess-like in comparison to mine. I was average height, with curves and a flat stomach, and while I had never had trouble attracting men, there also weren’t a lot of women of Jada’s caliber in the dusty towns of Ohio.


Not comparing myself to her was easier said than done, particularly when Omar leaned in to whisper something in her ear, making her giggle as she nuzzled against his clean-shaven face. My stomach tensed as my imagination went wild.


After a few excruciating moments, the valet outside received the signal from the driver and opened the rear of the limo. A furnace of heat rolled into the car, despite the sun setting stubbornly behind the cityscape, and the sounds of the crowd and photographers became loud and unsettling.


Like a practiced starlet, Jada stepped out of the limo and onto the soft red carpet with a beaming smile. Omar followed suit, and as I waited to follow them out, I could see one of his strong hands resting on the small of her back as he walked her into the building.


Rafiq was staring at me when I looked over at him.


“What?” I asked curiously.


He nodded towards the hotel. “Tonight will be the night, yes?”


“The night for what?”


The night you tell His Highness about the truth of what is in your heart.”


Cheeks flushing, I shook my head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”


“No need to lie to me, Doctor. I won’t be the one to share this secret.”


There is no secret,” I replied with a little hiss in my voice, and Rafiq only shrugged and didn’t press the point.


Carefully, I made my way towards the limo door to step out and follow the Sheikh with Rafiq close behind. The paparazzi didn’t give a damn about the two of us, thankfully; we were just the help. We trailed a few steps behind Omar and Jada as they made a show of their approach to the hotel.


Inside, the ballroom had been turned into an exquisite banquet hall, large enough to hold the hundreds of guests invited by the royal family. Debutantes, kings, ambassadors, and even a few journalists mingled in the huge and well-dressed crowd.


As my eyes scanned the room, I realized that well-dressed was an understatement. I had never been in a room full of so much decadence—and that was saying a lot after this job. Giant chandeliers studded the dark ceiling, dripping with crystals that shuddered when the hall doors closed. Round tables with crisp white linens had been arranged throughout, with gilded table settings surrounding exquisite centerpieces bursting with colorful blooms and feathers. Guests mingled, moving around the tables like shoals of fish, their feet sinking into the plush maroon carpet.


The women in the room looked like they could have been drawn to life by animators of some fairy tale movie, moving with grace and poise in dresses that ran five and six figures, at a conservative guess. Rhinestones and diamonds glittered under the lights, making shining stars of the beautiful women flashing around the room. While most of the men were dressed much more uniformly, there was no denying the attractiveness of their tailored suits, fresh-cut hair, and pampered skin.


My stylist had selected my gown for the evening, something from a designer I’d never heard of, but which she assured me was top quality. Nonetheless, it was hard not to feel insecure in a room full of rich, beautiful, high-class women, even if you were masquerading as one of them.


Fortunately, no one was worried about looking at me. I was just a shadow trailing behind Omar and Jada as they soaked up the attention. Watching Jada cling to his arm tightly, comfortably, I suddenly realized why my stylist had picked out a dark blue dress for me to wear: the color helped me fade out behind the Sheikh’s party—behind his actual date.


After all, I was just part of the entourage; an employee of the palace, there to do a job and nothing more. I didn’t have any royal bloodline to claim or inheritance to offer, and that’s what was needed in Omar’s world. The parade of fine ladies he’d been courting for the past six months all had it, and they were all vying for one thing: to become his wife and mother to the heirs of Al-Thakri.


These women that came to earn his heart, they pretended it was love when they were by his side, but it wasn’t, and Omar was smart enough to know it. They didn’t know him or care about him, they just wanted to be close to his power and money. They just wanted to cling to his side and giggle, pretending they hadn’t been on a thousand dates just like this one as they tried to find the richest and most well-connected man they could. And there would be no better offer than the Sheikh; they turned up their well-practiced charm to the maximum when they were by his side.


But so far, Omar had broken up with each and every one—some of the breakups turning dramatic when the women realized they weren’t going to become queen. It wasn’t something I had expected, but Omar was often not what he seemed on the outside. He was consumed with trying to gather the power owed to him as the oldest of his father’s two sons, and yet it was increasingly obvious that he had no interest in giving up his heart to a woman for whom he didn’t care, just to have an heir and gain the throne.


There was warmth to him none of these women would ever see. He wanted true, honest love to produce a child, not just some grab for power.


Feeling anxiety rise in my chest, I took a deep breath and tried to divert my thoughts. It wasn’t easy since I was forced to stare at Omar’s back as he made his way through the banquet hall, stopping to shake hands and kiss the hands of beautiful ladies.


My skin flushed, and I had to turn away. It was getting harder and harder to deal with the feelings growing in my heart. Danger was on the horizon; I could feel it. Every day I woke up wondering whether it would be the day when I blurted out to Omar how much I had grown to admire him; how much I was falling in love with him.


This job was supposed to be an easy meal ticket, something to clean the dust off my skin after Doctors Without Borders. But now it was threatening to undo everything I had built. If I told Omar how I felt, I had no way of knowing how he would react. I might be fired, and my reputation ruined forever. Omar’s family had the power to make that happen.


My frantic thoughts thankfully began to evaporate as we approached the head table and the buzzing din of conversation grew louder. The guests, even those Omar hadn’t personally greeted, were all aware of his arrival, and stood to give him a round of applause as he approached the table. Omar smiled with his trademark charm and waved at the room.


Already seated was Omar’s mother, Mirah. The Queen Regent was a gorgeous middle-aged woman with jet-black hair and deep brown eyes, just like Omar’s. She wore a lovely, modest dress the color of champagne. She stood and welcomed her son with a beaming, loving smile, wrapping her arms around his strong shoulders in a warm hug. Omar introduced her to Jada, and to my surprise, Jada curtsied appropriately.


To the left of the Queen, Omar’s brother Sajid was waiting to greet him, with his wife Alima and three beautiful daughters standing beside him. The brothers exchanged tense smiles and a rough handshake before Sajid pulled out the chairs of each of his ladies and took a seat himself.


Omar turned to face the crowd and was immediately handed a wireless microphone by an attendant who scurried out of the way as fast as he’d shown up. Rafiq and I watched from the other side of the enormous round banquet table as Omar turned on the charm he was well-known for.


Good evening everyone!” he smiled. “I wish to thank each and every one of you for coming this evening to celebrate the birth of the most beautiful and wondrous woman in the world: my mother, the Queen Regent of Al-Thakri.”


The applause was thunderous as Mirah stood and waved to the crowd, giving them a nod that was somehow both confident and humble.


As you are aware, my father’s sudden passing shocked us all. The entire country lost a great man, a just ruler, and a true friend. It has been very difficult for my family to endure his loss. It hardly seems that eight months could have passed since he was here with us.”


The room fell into a grave silence. I could swear I heard someone crying, their sobs echoing against the vast gilded walls of the ballroom. Mirah herself looked mournful at the mention of her late husband, and her sadness made my heart ache. I hadn’t met the former king before he passed, but it was clear that he had been a good, righteous man who touched many people with his compassion.


Omar leaned forward to pick up a flute of bubbling champagne from the table. “But tonight is for celebrating. We celebrate my mother and her incredible life. She was a doting wife to my father, a perfect mother to myself and my brother Sajid, and is a joyously happy grandmother to her granddaughters. She is also, just as importantly, our queen regent.”


Glasses raised all across the banquet hall, cheers peppered throughout the crowd.


So tonight we say cheers, and wish good health upon her—Mirah of Al-Thakri!” Omar ended with a loud, happy tone as the crowd raised their glasses at him and applauded his speech.


Omar took Jada to her seat and then took his own. Rafiq pulled out my chair for me, almost directly across from Omar, where I now knew I would be stuck watching him and Jada flirt all evening.


I grabbed a flute of champagne for myself and dreamed of the life I’d rejected: a tiny but clean apartment in some big American city where I could have a cat and a fish and not have to watch the man I love, ruler of an ancient country, hit on supermodels in front of me. Each time I had to endure it, I wondered if I had made a mistake accepting this job, or traipsing around the world in the first place. If I had stayed home, maybe I would already have the love I wanted.


The food was served almost immediately, the kitchen prepped to be timed perfectly with Omar’s speech. Small talk drifted from the members of the royal family, happy and light, as the meal began. Mirah told them how she’d taken the day off from attending royal duties to spoil herself at a local spa, and thanked her sons for the exquisite gifts they had sent to her to celebrate the occasion.


But by the end of the main course, tensions had begun to build, and were quickly becoming too big to ignore.


Sajid, Omar’s younger brother, was never great at holding his drink. In only six months, I’d learned that much. The waiters had already taken away at least three glasses of champagne when Sajid eyed Omar with a dark gaze and said the words that changed the entire mood of the evening.


So, Omar,” Sajid said, nodding towards Jada in her striking red dress. “Tell us about this lovely new lady you’ve brought to the party.”


It was an innocent-sounding question, and Jada was clearly flattered by the attention, even as everyone else at the table took a deep breath.


I looked up and saw a shadow cross Omar’s face. He stared at the elaborate centerpiece in the middle of the table, clearly trying to decide how best to respond to his brother.


Jada, why don’t you tell my brother a little about yourself?” Omar responded quietly. His voice was dark, angry. I recognized it well.


In recent months, things had become more and more tense between Omar and his brother. Their father’s death had started a contest between them as succession of power became at the forefront of their minds. As the oldest, Omar was in line to take the throne next, but because of Al-Thakri’s constitution, he couldn’t do so until he had a bride to give him an heir. Sajid felt the fact that he was already married with children meant the country should waste no more time on the issue, and skip over Omar and his romantic indecision and allow Sajid to become king.


It was unlike any other family squabble I had been a part of, and made the fights my sister and I used to have over Barbie dolls look pathetic.


Happily, Jada turned toward Sajid to answer him earnestly. “I have representation with the Tom Ford Agency, and am heiress to the Ghaschi Corporation.” There was something mechanical and rehearsed about the way she said it.


Sajid caught onto that, too. He was as smart as Omar. He turned back to the last of his steak with a sly, condescending smile. “Lovely, just lovely. Say, you should get a move on with this one, Omar, if you hope to be king anytime this century. She’s as ripe as the rest.”


Silverware clattered against porcelain as Mirah dropped her cutlery. Jada gasped, her face turning as red as her dress. The anger that had been building on Omar’s face came out in a furious expression that he directed at his brother.


He put an arm around Jada’s shoulder and tried to comfort her. It was a noble gesture, but it made me nauseous all the same. I surreptitiously reached for another flute of champagne.


Being power-hungry makes you rude,” growled Omar to his brother. “Jada is my guest, and I won’t have you speaking so disrespectfully towards her.”


Power-hungry? Yes, I would think that describes us both, don’t you?” Sajid shot back. “But at least I’m the one abiding father’s wishes by producing heirs.” He waved a hand down the table at his daughters, who looked suddenly smaller and embarrassed, trying to shrink back into their chairs.


Omar shook his head. “An heir is a son, or have you forgotten the constitution? I love my nieces dearly, but they do not make you a king.”


And what have you produced?” said Sajid, his voice rising in both anger and volume. “You haven’t even settled down with a wife! How can we trust you with the responsibility of leading a nation if you cannot even build your own kingdom in a household? I have produced heirs. The throne should be mine. All the rest is technicality.”


Sons, Sajid. Until one of us produces a son, neither of us will be king,” Omar said through gritted teeth, leaning over the table.


Nearby tables began to notice the emerging row. All I could do was sit and watch, wanting to help Omar bite back against the sharp tongue of his brother, but knowing I had no place to speak. That was one sure way to lose my job.


“Enough!” Mirah’s sharp voice cut through the bickering, and she slapped a palm on the table for good measure.


Both her sons stopped talking immediately and looked at her with shame in their eyes.


Mother,” started Sajid—always the first to apologize, just as he was always the first to start trouble.


Enough!” she repeated. She closed her eyes and shook her head. “I’ve had enough of this for three lifetimes. Your father would never put up with this nonsense, and it has been a difficult enough time without him to see you both descend into such petty foolishness.”


Neither of the brothers spoke back.


None of us wants this to be happening,” she said. “I didn’t marry you father in hopes of becoming a queen one day. I only wanted to be his wife, and mother to his children.” Her voice shook as memories flooded her thoughts. “But Queen Regent is what I have become. And as Queen, I am going to put a stop to this nonsense with a special decree.”


“A decree?” gasped Sajid.


“This succession issue must end. The constitution of our country is ancient, and I am not allowed to amend it. The constitution says the next ruler must be male. So I say, the first of you, my sons, to deliver me a grandson will accede to the throne, and that will be the end of this.”


Omar and Sajid stared in shock at their mother, and I felt a great knot form in my stomach.


Mirah took a deep breath. “I want to retire. I want to spend my last years in the garden with my grandchildren, teaching them poetry. I certainly do not want to continue moderating the squabbling of my grown sons who continue to fight over the same toy. So let this be the end of it. Produce me a grandson, and you will have the throne of Al-Thakri.”



THREE


The ride back to the palace was tense and uncomfortable. Exhausted by the emotion of it, I tried to pass the time staring out the window, watching the glittering, faraway desert dunes on the outskirts of the city. Under the moonlight, they shone like beautiful mountains of white diamonds.


Omar and his brother had been shocked by their mother’s decree. Mirah had spent the rest of the evening mingling with her birthday guests, while Sajid had swept up his wife and daughters before the family left early in their limo. Omar had tried to enjoy himself, but I could tell he was deeply rattled by the row, stuck in his own mind. Jada must have noticed it, too; she wasn’t as cheerful as she had been, and seemed resentful of the fact that Omar was no longer fawning over her.


Her disappointment only seemed to increase when the motorcade stopped to drop her outside her penthouse apartment. Perhaps she had been expecting an invitation back to the Sheikh’s palace—or his bedroom; I have to admit that I felt a rush of schadenfreude at the forlorn expression on her face.


Omar followed Jada out of the limo and Rafiq and I waited in awkward silence as he escorted her back up to her penthouse. When Omar returned, all pretense of happiness had dropped from his face. He was angry. I heard it in his voice when he told Abdul to drive on.


I stared at Omar as he gazed out the window, deep in thought. I wanted desperately to comfort him. But I couldn’t quite bring myself to move to sit next to him.


Truthfully, I needed to be comforted myself. As a trauma doctor, being in tense situations was nothing new, but there was something vastly different about a royal family in the middle of a heated succession problem. Queen Mirah’s proclamation only made things more urgent for Omar. Sajid already had a wife, and was probably trying to produce his male heir as we sat in the limo. Omar had much more work ahead of him, and now his clock was ticking even faster.


I wasn’t sure I could stand to be here for the day he introduced me to a beautiful woman who was pregnant with his child. As his physician, I would become her doctor, too. I would be responsible for her health, and for ensuring the health of the heir of Al-Thakri. I would have to smile while I watched the man I loved create life with some other woman.


I glanced over at Omar, who was too busy in his own thoughts to notice me looking. My heart broke as I realized that I didn’t have the strength to do it; I couldn’t stay there, loving him from afar. I had to quit. I had to leave this place before the heartache of it killed me.


I spend the rest of the limo ride trying to hold back my tears. Like some prophet, Rafiq gave me glances that said he could tell what was going on beneath the surface, but I ignored him.


The motorcade passed the palace gates and wound up the asphalt roads to the rear of the palace. The place was ancient, built long before cars existed, and there was no driveway to take us to the front. Constructing one would have ruined the gorgeous beauty of the symmetrical front walk, dotted with palm trees, water features, and gorgeous blooming flowers. The modern features had been built behind the palace, so the ancient façade could obscure the modern necessities.


Omar stepped out first, with Rafiq following behind. As I stepped out into the semi-darkness, a strong hand was offered to me. I looked up to see Omar waiting next to the limo door with a soft smile on his face, the first I’d glimpsed since his mother had made her announcement.


I returned it shyly and accepted his hand, feeling the electric shock in my heart that I felt whenever we touched.


Well,” Omar said, offering his arm to me as the valet closed the limo door. “That evening did not turn out as I expected.”


I took his arm gently and he walked us under the stone canopy towards the door. For a moment, I felt like I could be his queen.


I don’t know, most birthday parties I go to end with an enormous, life-changing decree.”


Omar laughed in relief. It felt good to see him laugh. His whole face lit up when he did. “It sounds like your customs must be even stranger than ours.”


Just more dramatic,” I replied teasingly. “And that’s saying a lot.” I pointed to the giant, gilded statues of sphinxes, erected by Omar’s ancestors, guarding the palace doors, and he laughed again.


Mother is usually very even-handed, but I think she’s reached the end of her patience,” he sighed.


Seems that way,” I agreed. “I can’t really blame her, though. Ruling a country must be hard even when you’ve always expected to end up doing it—I can’t imagine being thrust into power the way she’s been.”


“It has been hard on her. All the more reason it’s important that this heir situation gets remedied, and quickly.”


Talk of Omar’s heir made me clam up, suddenly uncomfortable. He must have noticed, because he looked at me curiously for a moment before he spoke again. “It’s been a funny old night. How would you feel about a nightcap?”


I wanted to say no. I wanted to return to my private suite and end the evening alone, probably crying in my giant bathtub as I figured out how to pen my resignation letter. But I couldn’t resist spending time with him, even if it hurt.


The palace hallways were quiet, most of the staff having gone home or retreated to their own quarters for the night. Only the night guards were alert, positioned evenly throughout the hallways and at the entrances, politely ignoring us as we sauntered slowly by.


Omar led us to his library, one of my favorite rooms, where the walls were two stories high and one had to use a ladder to get to the topmost books on the shelves. He poured us both a glass of brandy from the collection of bottles at the bar in the corner.


“Cheers,” he said and clinked my glass.


Cheers.” I smiled back and took a sip, feeling the warmth melting down my throat.


After a few moments of silence, Omar asked me, “You seem lost in your thoughts tonight, Carrie. Is everything all right?”


The question startled me and I cleared my throat. “Lost is about right. I just have a lot on my mind, I guess.”


“May I ask what?”


I gave a nervous little laugh. “Don’t you have enough on your plate without worrying about my problems?”


“You’re my trusted doctor, and you live in my palace. Your problems are my problems.”


I blushed. He never said things like that to the other staff members, even though I know he did care about them. Unlike the rumors and stories everyone has heard about how powerful people treat the people who work for them, I hadn’t experienced anything like that in Al-Thakri. The Sheikh treated everyone with respect, and never yelled even when he was angry.


It was just that he seemed to treat me a little differently; he paid me just a bit more attention than anyone else—something that made my heart flutter to think about. I tried to tell myself it was nothing, but my heart wouldn’t listen.


I stalled with another sip of brandy. “I don’t know… I’ve just been thinking a lot, lately… about my place here.”


Omar frowned, his face darkening. He stepped closer to me. “What do you mean? Are you not happy with your quarters, or your salary? You know you can discuss those things with me if something is bothering you.”


No, no, it’s not that,” I answered, shaking my head. “My room is a palace unto itself, and the pay is incredible. I just…” My words faded out as I scrambled for a believable excuse. This wasn’t the way I intended on delivering the news, but the words rose in my throat before I could do anything to stop them. “I think I need to resign,” I blurted out. “I’m not… I’m not sure I can stay here and be your physician anymore.”


The look on Omar’s face broke my heart, as much as it took me by surprise. His shoulders slumped. “Carrie, is this true? You want to leave me?”


I sighed. “It’s… it’s not that. I’m just not sure I’m cut out for this. It’s been six months, and I still don’t feel any more… comfortable. I’m a trauma physician; my place is somewhere more violent and desperate than between your palace walls. Besides, it’s not like you really need a doctor around you all the time. You never get sick or hurt. To be honest, I feel like I’m withering away here.”


But what happens if I do need you by my side one day? Anything could happen. My father’s heart attack hit him suddenly, even with his healthy diet and lifestyle. Who will be here to help me if you leave?”


You can hire another doctor,” I said, laughing hollowly. “There are hundreds of qualified applicants, probably many of them already in your country. There has to be someone who would better enjoy this quiet life than me.” Someone who is not steadily falling in love with her employer and threatening to ruin her whole life over it.


Omar fell silent. He moved away from me and collapsed tiredly into one of the brown leather reading chairs, downing his brandy in one big gulp.


The silence grew between us and made the tension in my chest even worse. Did he want me to leave the room? Did this mean my employment was officially over? I stood there, frozen like a statue, waiting for him to react.


Omar took a deep breath and finally spoke, but the words that came out of his mouth were not those I expected to hear. “What if I made you a different offer?”


I blinked. “A different offer? Like what, more money? As I said, the pay is more than generous… It’s more that I just want to feel like I’m actually needed for something. Like I have a purpose. I have skills I’m not using here.”


Omar rubbed his lips, as if he were nervous—something I’d only seen him do once or twice. He was not a man who got nervous very often.


When he looked up at me, there was emotion in his eyes that was crushing and heavy. “Well, allow me to explain, and maybe there will be purpose enough in this offer for you. Though I ask you to keep the details of this conversation between us.”


“Certainly.”


He took another deep breath before continuing. “You may have noticed that my attempts at finding a wife have been… less than successful lately.”


All the air seemed sucked out of the room as I listened to the Sheikh speak. “I… I have, yes.”


“And my mother’s decree this evening has made the situation even more urgent for me, wouldn’t you agree?”


I would agree.”


He sighed and got up to pour another glass of brandy. After taking a sip, he continued. “Carrie, I don’t know how else to do this, so I’m just going to come out with it: how would you feel about carrying an heir for me, to assure my ascension to the throne?”


The glass in my hand slipped to the floor, spilling what was left of the brandy all over the intricate carpet. Neither of us seemed to notice, as we stared at each other in tense anticipation.


“What?” I finally said, breathless. “You want… you want me to give you a child?”


That’s correct,” he said. “If my mother needs me or Sajid to produce a male heir before she can step down from the throne with peace of mind, then I need to give her one in order to take it. I can’t waste any more time with these socialites; my brother already has the significant advantage of having a wife, so I really cannot hesitate.”


Sure, I understand your urgency. I can even understand you coming up with this as a solution to the problem. But why me? Why not ask Jada, or any of them? They would surely leap at the chance to carry your heir.” There was bitterness in my voice, but I didn’t care to hide it anymore. I’d just quit my job; it was time for honesty—on some topics, at least.


Omar shook his head impatiently. “Because I don’t love Jada, or any of them, Carrie. I’m not going to force a relationship just to produce a child. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I did, and I do not want any son of mine to grow up thinking he was simply created as a tool to get power.”


My throat tightened up. I was trying very hard not to hear the unspoken implication in the Sheikh’s words. Instead, I asked again, “But why me? Why should it be me to give you an heir?”


I trust you,” he said simply. “You’ve become important to me as we’ve gotten to know each other these past few months. You have a beautiful and kind disposition that I believe would benefit any child, especially one who will one day become a king. You are intelligent, thoughtful, and hard-working, and you truly care about people; what other qualities would better suit an eventual heir to a kingdom?”


I turned red at the bombardment of compliments. For months, I had been dreaming about hearing him talk to me like this; finally hearing it was almost unbelievable.


Omar continued, “I would pay you, of course, for this ultimate labor—enough to wipe out any debts you may still have and keep you salaried for the rest of your life. I understand this is an incredible request to make of any you, to ask you to give up your bodily autonomy and produce a life, but I assure you I have every intent of making sure you are adequately compensated, in any way you should request.”


I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Blood rushed in my ears like the sound of the raging ocean, fast as the thoughts that swarmed my shocked mind.


Finally, I had to let out a deep breath. “I’m sorry, this is just all so unbelievable. I have nothing but questions in my head. What if it doesn’t work? What if I have a girl? What if your family won’t accept a child born of me?”


He walked towards me slowly, standing in front of me with his glass of brandy, hope written on his handsome face. “Your payment would not change. And you would be under no obligation to try again for a boy. I’m only asking for one chance to produce the heir I need to take the throne; one chance with someone I trust and care for. My family will not be a problem. The constitution states clearly that the child must simply be my heir. The writers of the ancient world did not make any emphasis on who the mother should be. My seed is enough to ensure they will not bother you.”


My heart was pounding. I couldn’t process my emotions fast enough, despite the eagerness on Omar’s face as he waited for my answer.


“Carrie?” he asked after a few moments of my panicked silence. “What do you say? Will you help me?”


Finally, in a tight voice, I replied. “This isn’t the conversation I expected to have with you tonight.”


Nor I,” admitted Omar. “But it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a few weeks now.”


A few weeks?” The thought of Omar considering me as the mother of his child without me even knowing made me weak in the knees. “Did you know your mother was going to make the decree tonight?”


No, of course not. But with every failed relationship I’ve endured in the past few months, it has dawned on me that there was no reason to force myself to be with a woman I do not love, just for the sake of producing an heir; modern science has freed us from such problems. Then the question simply became: with whom would I want to create a child, one that could grow up to rule the nation I love? And, well… the answer was very clearly you.”


I shook my head, feeling the long tendrils of my hair which were beginning to escape the upsweep on top of my head. The Sheikh’s words were shaking me down to my soul, and I didn’t know how to deal with it. He had no idea how I felt about him, and no idea of the true significance of what he was asking of me.


I’m sorry, I can’t give you an answer yet. My head is swimming right now, Your Highness.”


Hey, enough of that,” he said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “I told you a long time ago you don’t need to use such titles with me in private.”


Still,” I replied. “I can’t give you an answer right this second. This is all too much, too fast. I mean, hell, I was ready to leave this job ten minutes ago, and now you’re asking me to have your child. Until right now, I was of the mind that having children was an adventure I was never going to have.”


He frowned. “Why do you say that?”


I shrugged, suddenly self-conscious at blurting out such private information. “I don’t know. The lifestyle of a globetrotting trauma doctor isn’t exactly conducive to raising children. I just figured I had to pick between the two, and I made my choice when I entered med school.”


There was sadness on his face. “Well, I’m sorry to hear that you thought that, Carrie, but it seems now that fate has presented you with the option to do both.”


Sort of,” I retorted. “The child wouldn’t be coming with me, though. He would stay here with you; I would basically be a surrogate.”


He opened his mouth to answer, but seemed to think better of his response, and hesitated. “I suppose… I suppose that’s true, yes.” He cleared his throat uncomfortably.


That’s a totally different ball game. I’m just going to need time to think about this, okay?” I took a few steps forward. “I’m flattered, I really am. I just have to think about this. It won’t do either of us any good if I agree to this and end up miserable.”


He stared deep into my eyes and shook his head. “Of course, Carrie. It would kill me if I made you unhappy. You’re under no pressure to accept my offer unless you really feel that you want to do this.”


I gave him a tight smile even as his words touched my heart. “Then I need some time to think, please.”


The Sheikh nodded gravely. “I understand. Please let me know as soon as possible whether you are staying to help… or leaving.”


I swallowed against a tight throat and nodded back to him. Too shocked to say anything else, I simply bowed my head a little and turned, hurrying out of the library and down the palace hallways.


By the time I rounded the corner near my private suite, I was practically running like Cinderella trying to catch her pumpkin before midnight struck, hot tears streaming down my face.



FOUR


Relaxing after the talk with Omar was almost impossible. Neither the jet tub nor a few more glasses of wine did anything to wring out the tension that galloped through my muscles at the thought of the decision before me. I paced around the plush carpet of my private suite for hours, trying to weigh the pros and cons, asking myself the hard questions. It had been daunting enough to consider quitting this job and finding myself a new place to live and work. Now on top of that, I had to consider a much bigger, more life-changing decision, and one I never expected to have to make.


The man I secretly love asking me to carry his child—as a business arrangement. What had my life become? Six months ago, I was tying tourniquets gritted with sand and trying to get my hands on any local remedy that would wash the constant smell of blood out of my hair. Now, there was an evening gown on the floor of my plush suite, looking like a dark puddle of water in an ocean of cream-colored carpet, and I had to decide if I wanted to carry the heir of one of the oldest countries in the Middle East so that the man I loved could take the throne.


Desperate for guidance, I rang my family back home, hoping in some vague way that the time difference suddenly wouldn’t matter and my mother would answer, bright-eyed and ready to help. But she didn’t.


Teary-eyed, I sighed as I hung up the call, hovering on the edge of my enormous canopy bed. It was probably for the best, anyway. There was no easy way to explain what was happening here, and my mother would be horrified at the prospect of me selling out my womb to anyone, Sheikh or not.


My mother was a traditionalist, as were most of my family back home in Ohio, and I couldn’t think of any way to explain this to them. They didn’t understand a lot of my life decisions. My mother cried for three days when I told her I was headed to be a doctor in a war-torn country. She was proud of me, sure, but she didn’t understand why I would give up the comfort of middle-class American life for one of danger, uncertainty and struggle. I had no idea how to explain it to her, just like I had no idea how to explain that I was thinking of having a man’s baby for money.


The thought hit me like a landslide. That’s what he was asking of me, wasn’t it? To rent out my reproductive organs in order to produce something he needed. Some part of that realization horrified me.


And yet, how many young women found themselves pregnant and with no father around to help raise the child? At least Omar was willing to make sure I never wanted for anything—and our child certainly wouldn’t. He or she would be raised in one of the most prosperous places in the world, taught by world-class tutors and coaches, brought up with every advantage in order to become a fine ruler one day. How many mothers would happily pay any price to ensure that for their child? Was I selfish if I turned it down? If I had my own kids one day, outside of such an arrangement, I doubted I would be able to provide them even a fraction of the kind of security Omar could offer.


And then there was the whole business of surrogacy—willing, healthy women carrying children for couples who couldn’t otherwise conceive, so that the joy of parenthood could be spread. Was there anything dishonorable about that profession? Of course not. As a doctor, I knew surrogates and egg and sperm donors brought an immeasurable amount of happiness to people’s lives, giving them hope when they had none. There was nothing shameful about it; they were helping people, and at great personal sacrifice. It was exactly the kind of life I wanted to live.


So why did I feel so badly about the idea?


After a hot bath, I dressed in one of the silk nightgowns from my dresser and moved to lay in bed and finish off the bottle of red wine I had opened. Sleep was going to be elusive tonight, and I figured I would try and coax her in with a little bait.


I lay there and looked down at my body, and my flat belly. With a soft hand, I rubbed it, and imagined myself with child. My body would go through some drastic changes if I made this decision, some of which would be permanent. I would never be the same woman after it was over, even if it was a business transaction and not a family choice. The weight of that realization settled over me like a wet wool coat. My body, my mind, my spirit, everything would be changed forever once I went through the experience of carrying and giving birth to a child.


Tears began to stream down my cheek with sudden timing. A family choice; that was the choice I really wanted to be making. Having children was always in my life plan, ever since I was a little girl. Being a doctor, and one who was attracted to dangerous work, had put a bit of a delay on that plan to be sure, but the hope never really died.


I’d always figured I would eventually find some attractive fellow doctor or nurse who enjoyed travel and excitement as much as I did, and we would run off together, healing people and raising our kids as worldly little nomads who understood the truth of culture, beauty and people. Part of me always worried that it was just a pipe dream, and that eventually I would have to give up one or the other in order to survive. With every year that passed, the less likely it became, and I knew that a day would come when it would be impossible for me to bear children. One of my dreams was always doomed to die, an ugly voice in the back of my head told me.


But what girl dreams of selling her womb to a sheikh? Was this really the way I wanted to bring a child into the world—as a business transaction with a man who saw me only as an employee? Even though I loved him, it was a one-way street. This wouldn’t be an act of love on his part, so much as self-preservation.


Flashes of social media pages and birth announcements from my girlfriends back at college entered my mind. They were easy enough to ignore when I had more pressing, life-saving issues at hand. But in the dark of night, I had to admit that being in my thirties, watching all my peers settle down and start families was starting to bite at my heels like a yappy dog. I always knew that having a baby while I was on my own and out in the world wasn’t feasible. I didn’t have the time, money, or energy to trot the globe with a baby on my back, and it wouldn’t be fair to any child to make them go without just because their mother wanted to be a globetrotter.


But Omar’s offer seemed to fix that conundrum. I could have a child, and know that he would want for nothing, while I continued on with my adventurous lifestyle. Omar would make a wonderful father; I was certain of that much. I had seen him with his nieces enough times to have faith in his ability to be patient, caring, and loving to any child. He was a good man. It would crush me not to be a parent alongside him to a child of our making, but my feelings weren’t the point here.


Omar wasn’t asking me this because he loved me. He needed an heir to ensure his life continued on the track he had been planning. And my love for him couldn’t factor into this; that was a surefire way to get my heart broken.



FIVE


I tossed and turned between the sheets of my borrowed palace bed for most of the night. Come morning, the sun rose with an orange heat over the desert horizon, and the soft sounds of songbirds in the palace garden floated in on the same breeze that gently shook the curtains of my open windows. The land around the palace was a peaceful place, far from the city center and the noise of the freeways and airports, and the only sounds that greeted me each morning were natural and beautiful.


I couldn’t help thinking that a child waking up in this place every morning would be one lucky child. He would be safe; he would be loved. And, one day, he would be in a place of power where he could, in turn, help a lot of other people.


If what I wanted to do was make a difference in the world, having a child who would one day rule a country would certainly do that.


Even though there was heaviness in my heart at the prospect, I knew then what I needed to do. My decision could provide future security for all of us—myself, Omar, and our child. Saying no would rob us all.


Thinking I should clean myself up from the rough night of sleep, I moved from the bed to the enormous, marbled bathroom. I gave my face a gentle wash to get rid of the tear-stains and puffiness from lack of rest, and let down my hair from the upsweep it was still holding onto half-heartedly, brushing it out into gentle waves that framed my face. I stared back at the girl in the mirror and took a deep breath.


Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Download this book for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-38 show above.)