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The Sheik and the Christmas Bride Susan Mallery 2022/8/5 16:56:54

“Who is that?” she asked.

The woman was of average height, with platinum-blond hair teased and sprayed into a curly mass. Heavy makeup covered her face, almost blurring her features. She wore a too-tight sweater and jeans tucked into high-heeled boots. Inappropriate clothing for someone visiting a palace.

Kayleen had never seen her before but as she walked toward the king and his guest, she got an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach.

King Mukhtar saw her and beamed. “My dear, you are back. Excellent. I have a surprise.” He put his hand on his companion’s back and urged her forward. “Do you remember when we were walking in the garden shortly after you arrived? You mentioned your family. Specifically how you did not remember your mother and did not know her whereabouts.”

Kayleen jerked her attention back to the badly dressed woman and wanted to be anywhere but here. It wasn’t possible. Nothing that horrible could really be happening.

“I have found her,” the king said proudly. “Here she is. Kayleen, this is your mother. Darlene Dubois.”

The woman smiled broadly. “Hi, baby. Why, Kayleen, you’re just so pretty. I knew you would be. Let me look at you. You’re all grown up. How old are you now? Nineteen? Twenty?”

“Oh, my. Well, don’t go telling people that. They’ll think I’m getting old. Although I was only sixteen when you were born.” She held out her arms. “Come on, now. I’ve missed you so much! Give your mama a hug.”

Trapped by the manners instilled in her by caring nuns, Kayleen moved forward reluctantly and found herself hugged and patted by the stranger.

Could this woman really be her mother? If so, shouldn’t she feel a connection or be excited? Why was her only emotion dread?

“Isn’t this fabulous?” Darlene asked as she stepped back, then linked arms with Kayleen. “After all these years. You won’t believe how shocked I was when that nice man on the king’s staff called and invited me to El Deharia. I confess I had to look it up on a map.” She smiled at the king. “I had to leave high school when I got pregnant. Since then, I’ve been pursuing a career in show business. It hasn’t left much time for higher education.”

Or contact with her family, Kayleen thought bitterly, remembering standing alone on the steps of the orphanage while her grandmother told her that no one wanted her and that she would have to stay with the nuns.

“But what about my mommy?” Kayleen had cried.

“You think she cares? She dumped you with me when you were a baby. You’re just lucky I put up with you all these years. I’ve done my duty. Now you’re on your own. You’ll grow up right with those nuns looking after you. Now stop your crying. And don’t try to find me or your mama again. You hear?”

The memory was so clear, Kayleen could feel the rain hitting her cheeks. She knew it was rain because it was cold, unlike the tears that burned their way down her skin.

“Kayleen, would you like to show your mother to her rooms?” the king asked. “She is on the same floor as you and the girls. The suite next to yours. I knew you would want to be close.”

Kayleen was happy that one of them was sure of something. She felt sick to her stomach and caught by circumstances. She looked at As’ad, who watched her carefully.

“What girls?” Darlene asked. “Do you have babies of your own?”

Darlene sounded delighted, but for some reason Kayleen didn’t believe her. The other woman didn’t seem the type to be excited about being a grandmother.

“They’re adopted,” As’ad told her. “My children.”

Kayleen introduced them, using the chance to disentangle herself from her mother.

“A prince?” Darlene cooed. “My baby marrying a prince. Does that just beat all.” She smiled at the king. “You have very handsome sons, sir. They take after you.”

Mukhtar smiled. “I like to think so.”

Kayleen couldn’t believe this was happening. It didn’t feel real. She looked at As’ad and found him watching her. There was something quizzical in his expression, as if he’d never seen her before.

What was he thinking? Was he looking at her mother and searching for similarities? Was he uncomfortable with the living reminder that she didn’t come from a socially connected family? That she would be of no use to him that way?

“Your mother must be tired from her journey,” the king said. “Let us keep you no longer.”

“I’ll arrange to have your luggage sent up,” As’ad told the other woman. “Kayleen, I’ll see you later.”