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The Sheik and the Christmas Bride Susan Mallery 2022/8/5 16:56:48

She reached for a switch on the wall, only to have all the lights come on, the three girls jump out from behind furniture and yell, “Surprise!”

Kayleen took a step back. “What are you up to? What’s the surprise?”

And then she saw the paper turkeys covering every surface in the room. The festive fall garland, the leaves decorating the perfectly set table.

“It’s Thanksgiving,” Pepper said, rushing up and grabbing her hand. “We’re having a real Thanksgiving dinner.”

As’ad appeared. “The kitchen staff have done their best. They have never had a Thanksgiving dinner, so they apologize in advance if they didn’t get everything exactly as you would have it.”

Thanksgiving? Here? She’d willed herself not to think about the holiday, but it had been difficult and much of the day she’d felt sad. To walk into this was more than she could have imagined.

Dana and Nadine moved next to her. Kayleen crouched down to hug all three girls. Still holding them close, she looked up at As’ad.

“Thank you,” she said, delighted by the surprise and feeling oddly emotional. “You’re very thoughtful.”

“I cannot take all the credit. Lina reminded me of the holiday and the girls helped with the preparations. Are you pleased?”

She rose and smiled at him. “Very. Thank you.”

She’d never expected the gesture. As’ad wasn’t who or what she’d expected. There was a kindness in him, a caring and sensitivity she hadn’t thought possible. He was the classic handsome prince, yet he wasn’t indifferent or selfish. He could have chosen to spend his life going to parties and hanging out with models and stars. Instead he worked hard and took in orphans.

It occurred to her that he was a good man, the sort of man she admired. The kind of man the Mother Superior had told her to look for when she left for college. Kayleen hadn’t found anyone remotely fitting that description during her four years away. How odd she should find him now…here in El Deharia.

As’ad poured her a glass of wine as the girls dragged her to the table. “What are you thinking?” he asked, passing her the glass.

“That you’re very unexpected.”

“I could say the same about you.”

His low voice made her insides quiver.

They served themselves from the buffet and then settled at the table. Kayleen said grace, then took her first bite of turkey.

“It’s delicious. Dana, what do you think?” She looked at the girl and was surprised to see tears in her eyes. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. This is nice. Thank you.” A tear rolled down her cheek.

Pepper was crying, as well, and Nadine was sniffing into her napkin.

“I miss my mom and dad,” Nadine whimpered. “I want to go home and be with them.”

“Me, too,” Dana said, and turned her gaze to As’ad. “You’re the prince. Can’t you do something?”

Kayleen felt helpless. What could she possibly say to make the situation better? She felt awful for the girls, because she understood what they were going through. Holidays were always a mixed blessing—she’d loved the specialness of the day, but it had also reminded her of how alone she was. How she had no family, no one who loved her best.

As’ad put his arm around Dana, then kissed the top of her head. “If only I could,” he said quietly. “I know your pain and can tell you with time, it will get better.”

“You can’t know that,” the preteen told him, her voice thick with bitterness. “You can’t know anything about it.”

“I lost my mother when I was very young. Kayleen grew up with no family. We understand exactly what you are feeling.”

Dana seemed to deflate. “That doesn’t help. I know it should, but it doesn’t. I want to go home.”

As’ad stared at her for a long moment, then said, “When I was about your age, I ran away. I was angry at my father for not recognizing that I was growing up, practically a man. I was tired of being sent away to school every year, of being different. A prince. You’ll find that out as you grow. To be royal defines one.”

“I’m not royal,” Dana told him.

He smiled at her. “You are now. You are my daughter.”

Dana fiddled with her fork. “What happened when you ran away?”

“I decided to become a camel dealer.”

All three of the girls stared at him. Kayleen tried not to laugh. “Really?” she asked.

“Yes. I thought I could make a good living selling camels. I took several from the royal stable, thinking I would use them to start my business.”