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The Sheik and the Christmas Bride Susan Mallery 2022/8/5 16:56:45

He allowed himself a slight smile. “No.”

“I learned to sew in the orphanage. I could make more clothes for a lot less. You probably don’t do anything like that here.”

She tilted her head and her long, red hair tumbled over her shoulders. His fingers curled toward his palms as he ached to touch her hair, to feel it in his hand, dragging along his chest, across his thighs.

“Did your mother sew?” Kayleen asked, jerking him back to the present.

“I don’t know. She died when I was very young. I don’t remember her.”

The light faded from her eyes. “Oh. I’m sorry. I knew she was gone. I didn’t know how old you were when it happened. I didn’t mean to remind you of that.”

“It is of no consequence.”

“How can it be sad if the memory is gone?”

She frowned. “That is the loss of what should have been.”

“I am not wounded, Kayleen. Share your concerns with someone who needs them.”

“Because you feel nothing?” she asked. “Isn’t that what you told me? Emotion makes you weak?”

“Exactly.” Any emotion. Even passion. His current condition proved that.

“What about trust?” she asked.

“Trust must be earned.”

“So many rules. So many chances to turn people away. It must be nice to have so many people in your life that there are extras.”

She sounded wistful as she spoke, which made him want to pull her close and offer comfort.

Kayleen, who wanted to belong, he thought, realizing her concern for the girls came from having lived in an orphanage herself. She was all heart and would bruise easily in a harsh world. Their backgrounds couldn’t be more different.

“It is a matter of control,” he told her. “To need no one is to remain in charge.”

She shook her head. “To need no one is to be desperately alone.”

“That is not how I see it.”

“That doesn’t make it any less true. There’s nothing worse than being alone,” she told him. “I’ll get this cleaned up now, and get out of your way.”

Kayleen walked through the palace gardens. While she loved the beauty of the rooms inside, they were nothing when compared with the opulence of the lush gardens that beckoned just beyond her windows.

She chose a new path that twisted and turned, and once again reminded herself that she wanted to find a book on flowers in the palace library. She’d grown up gardening, but in the convent, all extra space had been taken up with vegetables. With money tight and children to feed, the nuns had not wasted precious earth on flowers.

Kayleen plucked a perfect rose and inhaled the sweet scent, then settled on a stone bench warm from the sun. She needed a moment to close her eyes and be still. Maybe then the world would stop turning so quickly.

So much had happened in such a short time. Meeting As’ad, moving here with the girls, getting ready for the holidays, kissing As’ad.

The latter made her both sigh and smile. She longed for another kiss from him, but so far there had been no opportunity. Which made her wonder if the kiss had been as interesting and appealing to him. Maybe he’d found her inexperience disgusting. Maybe he’d been disappointed.

Did it matter? There shouldn’t be any more kissing between them. She had her life plan and As’ad had his. They wanted opposite things—she needed to connect and he claimed connection didn’t matter. She just wasn’t sure she believed him.

She heard footsteps on the path and turned toward the sound. She expected to see one of the many gardeners. What she got instead was the king.

“Oh!” Kayleen sprang to her feet, then paused, not sure what she was supposed to do.

King Mukhtar smiled. “Good afternoon, Kayleen. I see you are enjoying my garden.”

“I enjoy wandering,” she said with a slight bob she hoped would pass for a curtsy and/or bow. “Have I stepped into off-limits space?”

“Not at all. I welcome the company. Come, child. Walk with me.”

It didn’t sound like a request.

Kayleen fell into step beside the king and waited for him to start the conversation. She was just starting to sweat the silence when he said, “Are you settled into the palace? Does it feel like home?”

She laughed. “I’m settled, but I’m not sure anywhere this magnificent will ever feel like home.”

“A very politically correct answer,” he told her. “Where did you grow up?”

“In an orphanage in the Midwest.”

“I see. You lost your parents at an early age?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know anything about my father. My mother had me when she was really young. She couldn’t handle a baby so she left me with her mother. When that didn’t work out, I went to the Catholic orphanage, which turned out to be a great place to grow up.”