“I will defy you with my dying breath, if I have to,” the teacher in question said, from her corner of the room. “What you want to do is inhuman. It’s cruel and I won’t allow it.” She turned to As’ad and glared at him. “There’s nothing you can say or do to make me.”
The three girls huddled close to her. They were obviously sisters, with blond hair and similar features. Pretty girls, As’ad thought absently. They would grow into beauties and be much trouble for their father.
Or would have been, he amended, remembering this was an orphanage and that meant the girls had no parents.
“And you are…” he asked, his voice deliberately imperious. His first job was to establish authority and gain control.
“Kayleen James. I’m a teacher here.”
She opened her mouth to continue speaking, but As’ad shook his head.
“I will ask the questions,” he told her. “You will answer.”
He shook his head again. “Ms. James, I am Prince As’ad. Is that name familiar to you?”
The young woman glanced from him to his aunt and back. “Yes,” she said quietly. “You’re in charge of the country or something.”
“Exactly. You are here on a work visa?”
“That work visa comes from my office. I suggest you avoid doing anything to make me rethink your place in my country.”
She had dozens of freckles on her nose and cheeks. They became more visible as she paled. “You’re threatening me,” she breathed. “So what? You’ll deport me if I don’t let that horrible man have his way with these children? Do you know what he is going to do with them?”
Her eyes were large. More green than blue, he thought until fresh tears filled them. Then the blue seemed more predominant.
As’ad could list a thousand ways he would rather be spending his day. He turned to Tahir.
“My friend,” he began, “what brings you to this place?”
Tahir pointed at the girls. “They do. Their father was from my village. He left to go to school and never returned, but he was still one of us. Only recently have we learned of his death. With their mother gone, they have no one. I came to take them back to the village.”
Kayleen took a step toward the older man. “Where you plan to separate them and have them grow up to be servants.”
Tahir shrugged. “They are girls. Of little value. Yet several families in the village have agreed to take in one of them. We honor the memory of their father.” He looked at As’ad. “They will be treated well. They will carry my honor with them.”
Kayleen raised her chin. “Never!” she announced. “You will never take them. It’s not right. The girls only have each other. They deserve to be together. They deserve a chance to have a real life.”
As’ad thought longingly of his quiet, organized office and the simple problems of bridge design or economic development that awaited him.
“Lina, stay with the girls,” he told his aunt. He pointed at Kayleen. “You—come with me.”
Kayleen wasn’t sure she could go anywhere. Her whole body shook and she couldn’t seem to catch her breath. Not that it mattered. She would gladly give her life to protect her girls.
She opened her mouth to tell Prince As’ad that she wasn’t interested in a private conversation, when Princess Lina walked toward her and smiled reassuringly.
“Go with As’ad,” her friend told her. “I’ll stay with the girls. Nothing will happen to them while you’re gone.” Lina touched her arm. “As’ad is a fair man. He will listen.” She smiled faintly. “Speak freely, Kayleen. You are always at your best when you are most passionate.”
Before Kayleen could figure out what Lina meant, As’ad was moving and she found herself hurrying after him. They went across the hall, into an empty classroom. He closed the door behind them, folded his arms across his chest and stared at her intently.
“Start at the beginning,” he told her. “What happened here today?”
She blinked. Until this moment, she hadn’t really seen As’ad. But standing in front of him meant she had to tip her head back to meet his gaze. He was tall and broad-shouldered, a big, dark-haired man who made her nervous. Kayleen had had little to do with men and she preferred it that way.
“I was teaching,” she said slowly, finding it oddly difficult to look into As’ad’s nearly black eyes and equally hard to look away. “Pepper—she’s the youngest—came running into my classroom to say there was a bad man who wanted to take her away. I found the chieftain holding Dana and Nadine in the hallway.” Indignation gave her strength. “He was really holding them. One by each arm. When he saw Pepper, he handed Dana off to one of his henchmen and grabbed her. She’s barely eight years old. The girls were crying and struggling. Then he started dragging them away. He said something about taking them to his village.”