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The Sheik and the Christmas Bride Susan Mallery 2022/8/5 16:56:55

In that moment, as he stared into her eyes and saw their future, he felt something. A faint tightness in his chest. A need to thank her or give her something. The feeling was fleeting and unfamiliar, therefore he ignored it.

There could be no softer emotions. With them came weakness, and strength was all. But he could be grateful that she had stumbled into his life and changed everything.

He reached for her hand. “I am glad we are to be married,” he told her.

Happiness brightened her eyes and her whole face took on a glow. Love, he thought with satisfaction, knowing all would be well.

“I am, too,” she whispered.

Sharif and Zarina greeted them as they arrived, then the other woman pulled Kayleen aside.

“I see you managed to keep him all to yourself,” Zarina teased as she picked up Kayleen’s left hand and stared at the ring there. “You have chosen well.”

Zarina laughed. “I recognize that smile. You are pleased with As’ad.”

“What every bride should think about her groom.”

She led Kayleen toward a group of women and introduced her. Kayleen recognized a few of them from her last visit and greeted them in their native language. There were looks of surprise, then two of them started talking to her, speaking so quickly she caught about every tenth word.

“I have no idea what you’re saying,” she admitted in English. “I’m still learning.”

“But you are trying,” Zarina said, sounding pleased. “You honor us with your effort.”

“I was hoping we could be friends,” Kayleen told her.

Zarina smiled. “We are. But we will have to remember our places. Once you are a princess, things will change.”

“Not for me.” Kayleen wasn’t interested in position or money. She wanted more important things.

“Then we will be good friends,” Zarina told her. “Come. We are fixing dinner. You can keep us company. We will teach you new words. Perhaps words of love to impress your future husband.”

Kayleen settled in the open cooking area. The women gathered there, talking and laughing. She couldn’t follow many of the conversations, but that was all right. She would get more fluent with time.

She liked the way the women all worked together, with no obvious hierarchy. How the children came and went, dashing to a parent when they felt the need for attention. How easily they were picked up and hugged, how quick the smiles.

The tribe was an extended family—in some ways similar to her experiences in the orphanage. The group pulled together for the greater good. The difference was one would always belong to the tribe.

Roots, she thought enviously. Roots that traveled along. What would that be like?

She thought about her mother, back at the palace. They were supposed to be family, but Darlene was a stranger to her. Kayleen only had vague memories of her aunts and her grandmother, but then she’d forgotten on purpose. What was the point of remembering long days of being left alone, of being hungry and frightened?

She heard giggles and saw Zarina whispering to one of the young women. There were gestures and the next thing Kayleen knew, she was being pulled into a tent.

“We don’t do this very much,” Zarina told her. “It is only to be used on special occasions. With power comes responsibility.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Zarina opened a trunk and dug around, then pulled out several lengths of sheer veil.

“The trick is to maintain the mystery,” Zarina told her as she passed over the fabric. “It’s about confidence, not talent. No man can resist a woman who dances for him. So you can’t feel self-conscious or worry about how you look. You must know in your heart that he wants you with a desperation that leaves him weak. You are in charge. You decide. He begs and you give in.”

Kayleen took a step back. “If you’re saying what I think you’re saying…”

“After dinner, we will send As’ad to a private tent. You will be there. You will dance for him.” Zarina smiled. “It’s a memory he’ll hold on to for the rest of his life.”

As much as Kayleen wanted to be accepted by the women of the tribe, she was terrified at the thought of trying to seduce As’ad.

“I don’t know how to dance. I’m not good at this.”

“You are the woman he wishes to marry. You know all you need to. As for the dancing…it is easy. Come, I will show you.”

Zarina tossed the fabric onto a pile of pillows, then shrugged out of her robes. Underneath she wore a sleeveless tank top and cropped pants. A simple, modern outfit that would work perfectly in the desert.