The sheikhs secret love.., p.32
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       The Sheikh's Secret Love Child, p.32

         Part #2 of The Sheikh's Baby Surprise series by Holly Rayner

  A few minutes later, the two of them ducked inside a tiny cocktail bar, tucked down a side street. The place was high end, with a kind of manufactured rustic feel to it. Fake rustic, but very well-done fake rustic. When she spotted the prices on the drinks menu, Juliette realized that she was, in fact, in a place where people went to celebrate especially big occasions.

  But she tried not to think about it. She had been wanting something to take her mind off heading back “home” the next day, and what could be better than slipping into the life of someone else, with a mysterious, handsome man that she knew nothing about?

  And the Juliette who was too busy to worry about an inside-out shirt because of back-to-back business meetings all day certainly would balk at a 15-Euro drink.

  They sat at a table not far from the bar, and Juliette noticed that the female bartender kept looking over at them with a similar expression to the one Juliette suspected had been on her face when she first saw the Nico. It was like she, too, recognized him from somewhere, but wasn’t sure where from. But Nico was too handsome of a man to stare at for too long without it seeming like you wanted him.

  Not that the bartender didn’t want him, Juliette suspected.

  “So,” she said, when they had settled down and ordered their drinks. “I believe I was promised an explanation.”

  He nodded. “You were, you were. And I’ll deliver. But not until our drinks have arrived.”

  Juliette grinned. “What, you think I’ll run off if I get what I came here for before then?”

  It came easy to her, now, this casual, flirty persona. She wondered where this confident girl had been all her life when she’d been trying to work up the courage to talk to her crushes in high school, or to broach the “what-are-we?” conversations that came with college.

  “Well, you know, pretty girl like you, you never know…”

  Ah, she realized as her cheeks burned—that was where she’d been all this time: buried behind a blush.

  Juliette tried to shrug off her embarrassment and instead raised her hand, setting her face in a serious expression as though she were taking an oath.

  “I, Juliette, do solemnly swear to stay at this table at least to the second drink.”

  She broke out of the bit.

  “Better?” she asked.

  “Much,” he said, with a genuine smile.

  “So let’s have it, then. What’s so great about being laid off?”

  He cleared his throat and launched into his story. He told her he was a construction worker, who, until now, had been the foreman on a restoration project. He told her how he had gotten increasingly upset with management over poor and unsafe working conditions, and that he’d threatened to go to the authorities. It had all been idle threats at first, aimed at scaring them into compliance, but it eventually became clear that nothing was going to happen.

  So, he’d reported them to the authorities. He’d been afraid that nothing was going to happen, and that the company he worked for had paid off health and safety to get them off their back.

  But today, he said, a very, very angry boss came to him, looking as though he’d just been put through the ringer, and told him in no uncertain terms that he’d been fired. When Nico had asked why, the man said that he knew what he had done.

  Juliette found that she was struggling to focus on the story. It was interesting, sure, and made Nico sound like some kind of workers’ rights avenger, which she had a soft spot for. But his voice was deeply distracting.

  Before they’d sat down in the bar, she’d only heard him speak in little offhand sentences, and hadn’t gotten to hear the rhythm of his words. But now, heard long form, she was treated to the full music of them.

  They were speaking English, which Juliette thought was best to maintain the illusion that she was just a short-term visitor here, but even so, the Italian music filtered through. Nico was perfectly fluent in English, and his was the rare case where his accent added more to his speaking of the language, rather than taking anything away.

  While they were talking, their drinks arrived. Juliette thought for a moment that Nico wasn’t going to acknowledge the waiter, but then he turned with a smile and a quick but gracious “grazie.”

  She saw now that the drink she’d ordered had been a mistake. It was a tall, confusing mix of fruits, strong-smelling liquor and something else that she couldn’t quite identify. She should have kept it simple, she thought. She should have taken it slow. She’d agreed to stay to the second drink, and she’d always been a bit of a lightweight where alcohol was concerned. If she wasn’t careful, this drink would be her undoing and she’d end up breaking the solemn oath she’d made.

  When Nico had finished his story, he leaned back. He seemed ready to move on, but Juliette wasn’t ready.

  “So, you saved lives today—that’s what you’re trying to tell me?” she asked.

  Again, she had found her way beyond her usual reserved demeanor. Something about the confidence of the man and his exciting story made her want to needle him, just a little. It wasn’t that she doubted his story, really, but she had a strange feeling that there was more to it than he was telling her.

  Nico seemed to like her needling him, anyway. He leaned in, snatching up his drink and taking a little triumphant sip before answering.

  “Well, not today. I didn’t report it today. I just found out today that I’d had an effect.”

  “That must be nice.”

  The words slipped out of her mouth without thinking, and she hadn’t meant them to sound the way they did—dejected and a little bit bitter. In spite of herself, she’d gotten pulled back into the life that was waiting for her back in Wisconsin; the one where she’d have a hard time getting a job and doing much of anything worthwhile.

  But he wasn’t put off by her attitude. If anything, it only brought him even a little further forward in his chair.

  She liked him like this. She’d heard the phrase “hanging off your every word,” but she’d always thought it was an exaggeration. But with the way he was sitting, now, it really did feel like that.

  “Do your endless business meetings not make you feel effective?” he asked.

  For a moment, Juliette forgot the persona she’d put on for him when they’d met by the fountain. She’d thought it would be good to be outside herself for a little while. A night of complete freedom before a lifetime of drudgery. That was all she wanted.

  She was beginning to regret the mask she’d put on for this encounter. Suddenly, she had the impulse—completely unexpectedly—to tell Nico exactly who she was, and what it was that was bothering her. But it was too late now.

  Maybe, she thought, if she just didn’t go too in depth, he wouldn’t ask. The trick was to make it boring enough that he wouldn’t want to ask about it more, but interesting enough that it wouldn’t make him lose interest in her.

  She waved her hand in the air dismissively, as though it really didn’t matter at all and she barely thought it all worth mentioning. “Oh, you know how it is with business. Some days you feel like you’re conquering the world. Some days it feels like you’ve just spent the last five meetings undoing everything you did in the five before that…”

  He cocked an eyebrow. “And how would I know how it is with business?”

  There was a tense moment, and then his smile set her off laughing again. In the corner of her eye, she saw the bartender look over.

  It was as she’d feared: the ridiculous drink had already started going to her head. She felt like it was disconnected from her, floating somewhere just a little bit above where it should have been. Everything was funnier up here, and up here it didn’t seem so impossible that a handsome man like the one sitting in front her could really be interested in what she had to say.

  “But no, really,” he said, when she’d stopped her slightly-buzzed giggling. “I think everyone feels that way sometimes. Everyone from the construction worker up to the King.”

  In her increasingly ine
briated state, Juliette couldn’t keep herself from rolling her eyes a little. “I doubt the King ever feels powerless,” she said. “Kings are immune.”

  Nico smiled. “Immune from futility? Immune from getting frustrated when they feel like they’re not getting anything done?”

  Juliette nodded. “Yup. I imagine it’s the same for kings, presidents, multinational CEOs…”

  “Generals?” he suggested.

  “Oh no, not generals. It’s probably worse for them, actually. All those troops and they never get to go to war.”

  The more words she spoke, the less if felt like any of them mattered very much. They were all just words to hold her here with him. It was all just something to say so that he would say something back, so that neither of them would leave and she wouldn’t have to know, yet, what it felt like to have lost his presence.

  She could feel herself edging forward a little more in her chair each time she moved or gestured. Already, her leg was only a few inches from his. She could almost feel the bubble of warmth it gave to the air around it.

  “And what it is that’s been making you feel futile, lately?” he asked. “What is it that’s afflicting you that would never happen to any of these others?”

  She opened her mouth, half-expecting the details to spill out of it on their own. But that was the thing about a lie—it doesn’t make itself up. She would have to work at it.

  He was looking at her expectantly, now. He was waiting.

  She stirred her drink with the weirdly intricate glass stirring stick it came with, trying to buy herself a few seconds. “Oh, I mean… Just trivial things…”

  Nico leaned back, and Juliette felt like she’d just lost something and wanted it back.

  “I’m in real estate development,” she said, as though fishing him back from the void. She didn’t know where that had come from, exactly. She just knew that it sounded mildly impressive but acceptably vague.

  Whatever the reason, it worked. She had him back. His interest was piqued.

  “And your project stalled? No, don’t tell me… Another condo development along the water?”

  It was a fake career for a fake persona, but the insult was real.

  “No, of course not,” she scoffed. “You think I’m putting up soulless condos?”

  He winked. “Oh, I don’t think you’re succeeding at it.”

  She laughed, or rather, she giggled. She’d now completely lost the ability to laugh without giggling. “Well, no. But I’m not failing at that, either. I’m more into restoration. Well, my company is.”

  Juliette did love all the old buildings in the city, and she had read more than a few articles about the process of restoring them. At least this was something vaguely pointing in the direction of the truth. It was just bad luck that it happened to be close enough to Nico’s own profession that there was a chance of him finding her out for the fraud she was.

  She didn’t want to go further down the lie. She didn’t want to get into details. But every time she shrugged off his questions or just said something vague, he seemed to edge away. And every time she said anything more specific, he seemed to lean closer.

  So she kept going. She invented a business trip from corporate headquarters to check on the state of various renovation projects going on in the area. She even invented a boss who called her day and night and wouldn’t take no for an answer on up-to-the-second updates on everything from structural problems to efforts to match and complete original tiling.

  The further she went, the easier it got. He was good at asking questions, too, which helped. As did the arrival of drink number two.

  She was glad, now, that she’d read those articles on the internet, and had often stopped in the street to look at old buildings mid-remodel, and track their progress over weeks and months. She wasn’t as knowledgeable as she would be, of course, were she really in this position. But she could fake her way through believably enough, she thought. On the few occasions that he asked her questions that she thought might catch her out, she just shifted tactic and claimed that, really, she was more on the business side of things.

  Nico seemed to buy it, at any rate. He nodded along, and kept engaging. She liked his little asides. They even compared notes on what they thought of the baroque theater downtown that had just been redone to mixed reviews.

  “It definitely feels modern, now,” he said.

  An hour before, Juliette would have been more cautious, and tried not to disagree with him too much, lest she out herself. But now she was buzzing from the alcohol, and the attentions of this attractive man, and the sheer adrenaline of having gotten away with a deception like this, and she just let loose.

  “But that’s not really the point, is it? I mean, it’s not really the point for it not to feel modern. We’re modern! No one is going to just forget that. I think the way they’ve done it is brilliant. Everything old is still there. And you can tell what’s original, and what’s not. It makes it all feel so much more real, somehow.”

  She stopped the words coming out of her mouth and looked at him, embarrassed and a little bit worried that she had offended him by having such a different opinion. But what he said next surprised her completely.

  “Do you want to go on somewhere?”

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