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The Sheik and the Christmas Bride Susan Mallery 2022/8/5 16:56:43

“Good.” Kayleen smiled at As’ad. “We’re healed. You ready to eat?”

He opened the bottle of wine and joined them at the table. When he was seated, before he could pour, Kayleen reached for Pepper’s hand and his. He stared at her.

Pepper leaned toward him. “We have to say grace.”

He took Kayleen’s hand and Nadine’s, then lowered his head while Kayleen offered brief thanks for their meal. While she served, he poured two glasses of wine and passed her one.

Kayleen handed him a plate. “I’ve never been much of a drinker.”

“Neither have I.” Although under the circumstances, he just might be starting.

This was too much, he thought. More than he’d expected or wanted. There were children at his table. And a woman he did not know and was not going to sleep with, and having sex with her would be the only acceptable reason to have her here. Yet he saw no easy way to escape.

“We go around the table and talk about our day,” Kayleen said as she passed Dana her plate. “Everyone has to say one good thing that happened. I hope that’s okay.”

He glanced down at the plate in front of him. Lasagna, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese and a salad.

“Perhaps some kind of menu would be helpful,” he told Kayleen.

“I know. I’ll get one made up. But the girls really wanted to order you their favorites.”

Dana talked about how she’d finished her homework early and had found a collection of medical texts in the palace’s main library. Nadine mentioned her dance class and how well she’d done.

“I hit a boy,” Pepper announced cheerfully. “He was teasing these three girls. He’s kinda big, but I wasn’t scared. So I hit him. The teacher didn’t like it but because I’m new, she said she was going to let it go this one time. I heard this other teacher saying that boy needed a good beating and maybe I’m the one to give it to him.” She beamed. “That was fun.”

Kayleen quickly covered her mouth with her napkin. As’ad saw the humor in her eyes and knew she was hiding a smile. He took a sip of wine to keep from laughing. He liked Pepper—she had the heart of a lion.

“Perhaps hitting boys is not the best plan,” he said as he set the glass down. “One day one of them might hit you back.”

“I’m tough,” she said.

“Still. Violence is a poor strategy.”

“What’s a better one?”

He hesitated, not sure what to say.

Kayleen grinned. “We’re all waiting to be dazzled by your strategy.”

“Perhaps you would like to offer a suggestion?” he asked.

“Not really. Go ahead.”

Privately he agreed with Pepper’s approach, but he doubted it would be successful as she grew.

“We’ll talk later,” Kayleen said, rescuing him. “I know hitting a bully seems like a good idea, but it’s going to get you into a lot of trouble. Not only with the teachers and with me, but as As’ad mentioned, you could get hurt.”

“All right,” Pepper grumbled. “But sometimes boys are really stupid.”

Dana looked at As’ad. “What good thing happened to you?”

“I decided on a bridge. There is to be a new one over the river. After much planning and discussion, a choice was made. I am pleased.”

All three girls stared at him. “You’re going to build a bridge?” Nadine asked.

“No. I have given my approval and told them what to do. Now they will do it.”

“Cool,” Dana breathed. “What else can you tell people to do?”

“Can you throw them in the dungeon?” Pepper asked. “Can I see the dungeon?”

Her eyes widened. “There’s a real one? Here? In the palace?”

“Yes, and sometimes children who do not behave are sent to it.”

They all went silent.

He chuckled. “So, Kayleen, what was your one good thing for today?”

This, Kayleen thought as she tried not to stare at the handsome man at the head of the table. This dinner, this moment, with the girls having fun and As’ad acting like they were all part of the same family.

It wasn’t real—she knew that. But all her life she’d wanted to be a part of something special, and here it was.

Still, she had to say something. “There are stables nearby,” she told the girls. “I found them when I was out walking.”

All three of them turned to him. “Horses? You have horses?” Dana asked.

“We love horses,” Nadine told him.

“I can ride.” Pepper paused, as if waiting for As’ad to be impressed. “I’ve had lessons.”