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The Sheik and the Christmas Bride Susan Mallery 2022/8/5 16:56:58

She turned, trying to figure out where to go, what to do. Light caught her engagement ring and made it sparkle. She’d been such a fool, she thought bitterly. So stupidly innocent and naive about everything. Her mother had been right—why on earth would a man like As’ad be interested in a country mouse like herself? She’d wrapped herself in the fantasy because it was what she wanted to believe. Because it was easier than accepting the truth.

She heard a sound and looked up. One of the doves shifted in its cage. Willingly trapped because they either didn’t understand they could be free or weren’t interested. They took the easy way out, too.

Anger joined a sadness so profound, she knew it would scar her forever. Because whatever mistakes she’d made, she truly did love As’ad. She always would. But she didn’t belong here. She couldn’t stay and marry a man who didn’t love her.

That decided, she made her way into the palace. Her mother’s door stood partially open. Kayleen stepped inside without knocking to find her mother supervising two maids who were packing her suitcases. Darlene had already changed out of her evening gown into an elegant pantsuit. When she saw her daughter, she smiled.

“Oh, good. You stopped by. That saves me writing a note. Look, I’m leaving—just like you said I should. I’ve had a great time. I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to get to know each other better. Next time you’re back in the States, you’ll need to look me up.”

Everything about her was false, Kayleen thought emotionlessly. From her bleached hair to her fake smiles.

“You’re leaving because As’ad is paying you four million dollars,” Kayleen told her. “I heard the conversation.”

“Then you know I got what I came for. A secure future. It’s not a fortune, but I know how to invest. I’ll live well enough and maybe find someone to supplement my excesses. It doesn’t compare with your haul, of course, but we can’t all be that lucky.”

Lucky. Right. To fall in love with a man who didn’t care about her.

“When do you leave?” Kayleen asked.

“There’s a plane waiting at the airport. I love the truly rich.” Darlene frowned. “You’re not going to want an emotional goodbye, are you?”

“No. I don’t want anything from you.”

With that, she left and returned to her own suite. The babysitter greeted her.

“They were all so good tonight,” the young woman said.

“I’m glad. Thank you.”

The other woman left and Kayleen was alone.

Despite the pain, she felt almost at peace. Maybe it was finally seeing the world as it was, and not as she wanted it to be. Maybe it was knowing the truth.

The truth was she would never have the kind of relationship with her biological family that she wanted. She could keep trying and maybe in time, things would improve, but there was no rescue there. There was no happy ending.

The same was true with As’ad. He’d proposed out of duty and maybe with the belief that she would be a good wife. He’d told her he didn’t believe in love and she hadn’t listened. She’d created a different story because it was what she wanted to believe.

But he didn’t love her and he had no intention of loving her. So her choices were clear. She could stay and marry him, live life as a princess, or she could walk away. Darlene would tell her the money, the prestige, the palace, were worth nearly everything. But Kayleen remembered reading once that when a woman marries for money, she earns every penny.

She didn’t want to marry for money—she wanted to marry for love. She wasn’t like the doves—trapped even though the door was open, she was free to leave.

After looking in on the girls, she returned to her own room. She undressed and pulled on a robe, then sat in a chair by the French doors and stared out at the night.

The only part of leaving that bothered her was knowing how much she would miss As’ad. Despite everything, she loved him. Would she ever be able to love anyone else?

Because that’s what she wanted. A real life, with a family and a man who cared. She wasn’t going to run back to the convent school. She was going to make her way in the world. She was strong—she could do it.

As’ad found Kayleen in her suite. She’d changed out of her ball gown and pulled on a robe. She sat in the living room, a pad of paper on her lap.

He walked in and stared at her. “You left the party. I looked everywhere and you were gone.”

She glanced up at him. “I didn’t want to stay any longer.”

That didn’t sound right, he thought warily. She’d left without talking to him? “Are you ill?”