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

He came to her door a little past seven, looking tall and handsome in a black tuxedo and white shirt.

Dana let him in after insisting Kayleen needed to make an entrance.

“You’re so pretty,” the girl told her. “He needs to see all of you at once.”

Kayleen did her best not to fidget as As’ad walked toward her, his dark eyes unreadable. He paused in front of her.

“You are perfection,” he murmured as he lightly kissed her. “I will have to keep you close or you will be stolen away.”

“Not likely,” she told him with a laugh. She turned in a slow circle. “You like the dress?”

“Yes, but I adore the woman who wears it.”

She’d taken Darlene’s advice on her hair, asking the stylist to put the top part up and leave the rest in long curls. The gown fit snugly and seemed secure enough for her to relax. She wore the champagne-and-white-diamond earrings, along with a simple diamond bracelet. Her high-heeled sandals gave her an extra four inches and would be excruciating by the end of the evening, but they looked fabulous.

“When do we get to go to formal state parties?” Pepper asked with a whine. “I want a new dress and fancy hair.”

“When you are thirteen.”

“But that’s forever away.”

He touched her nose. “You will get there soon enough.”

“I only have to wait a year and a half,” Dana said happily. “Then I can go.”

“Three pretty girls,” As’ad told Kayleen. “We’re going to have to watch them closely. There will be boys at these parties.”

“Am I pretty, too?” Pepper asked. Her eyes were big and she sounded doubtful, as if expecting a negative answer.

Kayleen remembered Darlene’s harsh assessment and wanted to bonk her mother on the head for it.

As’ad crouched in front of the little girl. “You are more than pretty. You are a classic beauty. Never doubt yourself. You are to be a princess.”

Pepper smiled widely. “When I’m a princess can I chop off people’s heads if they’re mean to me?”

As’ad choked back a laugh and straightened. “No, but you will have other powers.” He took Kayleen’s hand. “We must leave. Be good tonight.”

“We will,” Nadine told him.

Kayleen waved as they left. This being a palace, there was always someone to babysit.

They walked the length of the long corridor, then went down a flight of stairs. Once on the main floor, they joined the milling crowd walking toward the ballroom.

While Kayleen had toured the palace many times, she’d never seen the ballroom anything but empty. She was unprepared for the thousands of lights glittering from dozens of massive chandeliers or perfectly set tables set around a large dance floor.

The room was like something out of a movie. Well-dressed couples chatted and danced and sipped champagne. She’d never seen so many jewels in her life. Each dress was more beautiful than the one before, each man more handsome. As they walked into the ballroom, she waited for the sense of not belonging to sweep over her. She waited to feel awkward or out of place. Instead there was only contentment and the knowledge that she belonged here.

The burst of confidence bubbled inside of her, as if she’d already had too much champagne. She enjoyed the sensation, knowing this was her world now. She would marry a wonderful man and together they would adopt the girls. In time she would have children of her own.

As’ad led her to the dance floor, then pulled her into his arms. “Now what are you thinking?” he asked.

“That I’m Cinderella and I’ve finally arrived at the ball.”

“So you leave me at midnight?”

She stared into his eyes. “I’ll never leave you.”

He stared back. “Good. I do not wish you to go. I need you, Kayleen. I will always need you.”

Happiness filled her until she felt as if she could float. The music was perfect, as was the night. They danced until the king arrived, then As’ad led her around and introduced her to several of the guests.

The sound of loud laughter caught her attention. She turned and saw Darlene leaning against a much older, heavyset man. The man’s attention seemed locked on her barely covered chest.

“The Spanish ambassador?” Kayleen asked As’ad.

“Yes. Do you wish to meet him?”

He watched Darlene. “So that is who she has chosen?”

“He’s very rich, but alas, he is married. His wife does not accompany him when he travels.”

Married? Kayleen looked at her mother. Did Darlene know?

“I should tell her,” she said.