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The Sheik and the Christmas Bride Susan Mallery 2022/8/5 16:56:57

“Perfect,” Darlene said as she stared at herself in the mirror. “I’ve already met the Spanish ambassador earlier in the garden. He’s very charming. A little older, but that’s good. I can be his prize.”

Kayleen didn’t know what to say to that. “Have you ever been married?”

Darlene held her hair up, as if considering the right style. “Once, years ago. I was eighteen. He was nobody. But I was in love and I told myself money didn’t matter. Then the marriage ended and I had nothing. I learned my lesson. Something you should learn.”

“What are you talking about?”

“As’ad. You get starry-eyed when he’s around. It’s embarrassing for all of us.”

Kayleen flushed. “We’re engaged.”

“I don’t see how that matters.” Darlene stepped out of the dress and put it back on the hanger, then reached for her own clothes. “I know this sounds harsh, but believe me, I have your best interests in mind. Men like As’ad don’t have to bother with love. You’re setting yourself up for heartache. Take what you can get and move on.”

“So no one matters. No one touches your heart.”

“Life is easier that way,” her mother told her.

“You’re wrong,” Kayleen said. “Life is emptier that way. We are more than the sum of our experiences. We are defined by our relationships. The people we love and those who love us in return. In the end, that matters more than money.”

“So speaks the girl who has never been hungry and without a home.”

Kayleen stiffened. “I have been without a home. My grandmother dumped me at an orphanage because she couldn’t be bothered. But then why should she when my own mother walked out on me?”

Darlene pulled on her shirt and buttoned it. “Here we go,” she said, sounding bored. “Poor you. Nobody loves you. Get over it. Life is hard, so make the best of it.”

“You mean use other people to get what you want.”

“If necessary.” Darlene seemed untouched by the comment. “Maybe it seems cruel to be tossed aside, but sometimes it’s worse to be kept. Your grandmother wasn’t exactly a loving parent. There’s a reason I left.”

“I was your daughter. You should have taken me with you.”

“You would have only dragged me down.”

“So you left me to the same fate?”

Darlene shrugged. “You got lucky. She didn’t bother with you. Trust me, if she had, it would have been a whole lot worse.”

Kayleen didn’t want to believe the words, but it was impossible not to. “You don’t care about me at all.”

“I’m proud of what you’ve accomplished.”

“Catching a rich man?”

“Every woman’s dream.”

“Not mine,” Kayleen told her. “I only wanted to belong.”

“Then consider the irony. You have what I want and I’ve turned down a thousand of what you want. Life sure has a sense of humor.”

The battle between Kayleen’s head and her heart ended. She walked over to the tray of jewelry and shook it. “This is why you’re here. This is why you’re pretending we can be friends. Let me guess—if you land the Spanish ambassador, you’ll be gone and I’ll never hear from you again. Until you need something.”

Darlene shrugged. “I didn’t come looking for you, honey. I was living my life, minding my own business. You’re the one who set all this in motion. I’m just taking advantage of the ride.”

Kayleen had always tried to hate her mother. It had been easier than being disappointed and heartbroken over being thrown away. But it was impossible to hate someone so flawed and unhappy.

“It won’t matter if you end up with the Spanish ambassador,” Kayleen told her mother. “You’ll never feel like you have enough. There’s not enough money in the world to fill that hole inside of you. It’s going to take more. It’s going to take giving your heart.”

“Spare me.” Darlene waved her hand dismissively.

“I can’t. You can only spare yourself. But you won’t listen to me because you think you already know everything you need to. You can’t use me anymore. You can stay for the party, but then you have to leave.”

Her mother glared at her. “Who the hell are you to tell me whether or not I can stay?”

Kayleen drew herself up to her full height. “I’m As’ad’s fiancée.”

Kayleen was determined to enjoy her first formal event despite feeling uneasy about her mother. Darlene had been friendly, as if nothing had happened. As if she wasn’t planning on leaving. Kayleen was determined to handle the situation herself, so she didn’t mention anything to As’ad.