The sheikhs secret love.., p.44
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       The Sheikh's Secret Love Child, p.44

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

  Darkness. All she could see was darkness.

  The getaway drive had turned from a desperate chase to a long and terrifying drive through the night. Sophie couldn’t see a thing through the mask that still rested against her face, but she was fairly certain they had been driving for hours. Her rumbling stomach backed up her thoughts on the matter. Funny, she thought, how in such a devastating situation she could still find time to be hungry.

  For some time, all she could focus on was the heat filling the car and the bumps in the road that reverberated through the floor where she lay. Somehow, during the last few hours, she’d managed to fall sleep. Exhaustion can have a strange effect on people, even when in a state of panic, and on some level, she was happy to have slept; the hours of wondering and worrying would have been too much for her.

  Luckily for Sophie, she wasn’t afraid of confined spaces. Men with guns and rebel organizations, yes, but not confined spaces.

  She could feel her arms aching from the handcuffs and the awkward position in which she’d slept. She wriggled, trying to get more comfortable, but it was a futile task.

  Then the van stopped.

  An instant later, Sophie felt herself being lifted up and deposited on her unsteady feet. The cloth dragged against her face, pulling her nose hard against the blindfold as it was ripped from her head.

  Her eyes squinted against the sun. Having gone for so long without her senses, the light blinded her, stinging her nerves. She tried to open her eyes but they instinctively snapped shut, watering from the sudden shock of color. She blinked a few times until the blurry scene in front of her became clear and the day became familiar once more.

  Finally, she could see who had pulled off her mask.

  To her surprise, the man standing in front of her was the ruler of Al-Duyan. He was tall and handsome; so much so that Sophie actually felt her pulse quicken. She’d never before felt such an attraction to a man she’d just met, and the fact that she was contemplating his looks at all—given the fraught circumstances—gave her cause of concern. He had dark lashes and olive skin. His hair was a mess of curls, and his jaw was strong and defined. He was even more stunning in person than she’d seen in papers and on social media.

  “I’m sorry,” he said quietly, as though aware that she would need a minute to readjust to her new surroundings. His gaze lingered on her face for just a moment too long before he finally smiled. “My deepest apologies for the treatment you have endured these past few hours. It wasn’t at all deserved—even if you did ruin my favorite pair of glasses.”

  She felt her face go pale and then suddenly red with fury. “Was that supposed to be an apology?”

  “Yes.” He nodded. “I believe there were two in there, actually.”

  “Wait a second, you kidnap me and now you’re making jokes?”

  “Who’s joking?” he chuckled. “Those really were my favorite glasses.”

  He gazed at her for a moment, monitoring her reaction. As Sophie stared thornily back, his small smile fell from his face and he grew serious once more. “No, of course not,” he said finally. “I’m so sorry for… what you’ve been dragged into.”

  The Sheikh then motioned to his security guards and the men approached her slowly. Sophie flinched but was surprised to see how gentle they were being as they reached her side. The chattier of the two bodyguards released her from her shackles and it was all she could do not to slap him on his big, bald head.

  Sophie rubbed both of her wrists and tried to massage the circulation back into them as she looked around for some sign as to where they might be.

  There was practically nothing to be seen in the distance in all directions. No trees, no road, just sand and sky. The area they were now in appeared to be some kind of high-security compound. Large gates surrounded a collection of small, gray buildings which just barely peaked up from the ground. In fact, they more closely resembled square mounds of cement at a park than buildings, as they only stood a couple feet off the ground.

  Though freed from her shackles, the bodyguards still saw to escorting Sophie around the base. They led her to one of the smaller, anonymous buildings, and began unlatching a large metal door on the ground next to it. It took some effort for them to open the cellar door, the sound of their success echoing through the compound moments later.

  “We’re in danger,” said the Sheikh as he helped her down into the dark stairwell, grabbing her hand to guide her. “We should be safe in here.”

  The entrance staircase led down into deep darkness. Sophie lost her sight once more as one of the guards locked the entrance above. She felt the walls either side of her and gripped tightly onto the railing. The Sheikh clasped her hand in his and turned on a flashlight, quietly guiding the way.

  The long, gray hallway finally led them into a secured room that closely resembled a basement. One of the security guards activated a nearby generator, and the room came to life with light.

  “Welcome to my Kingdom,” the Sheikh said dryly.

  Sophie took a quick look around the newly lit room. “Kingdom, huh?”

  The security guards took their place beside her and began shuffling her through what appeared to be well-appointed living quarters. The main area was an open-concept living room and kitchen. The walls were beige and the living room was carpeted in a like-color. The kitchen was all stainless steel, with a fair amount of cupboards. A basket of fresh fruit sat on the counter as though it were a welcome present.

  The living room had a sectional sofa, coffee table, and a television with a DVD player set up—Sophie seriously doubted they would be getting cable reception this far underground. Off from the kitchen was a washroom, and off the living room was one more area, the bedroom. The suite was big enough to fit a queen-size bed and some shelving units.

  Sophie’s eyes darted around the room, unable to comprehend what she was seeing. Her sense of wonder increased as the Sheikh gestured for her to look up at the ceiling. With the push of a button, the once-nondescript ceiling panels slid back to reveal sunlight shining in through beautifully stained glass tiles.

  The Sheikh gave her a smile once the panels slid back, as though she should be impressed by his underground bunker. The thing that bugged her most was that, well, she was. Finally, her fleeting awe at her new surroundings faded and she began to feel angry once more.

  She shrugged as though she weren’t the least bit impressed and offered the Sheikh a coy smile. “It’s a bit of a fixer-upper, but it’s very cozy.”

  The Sheikh raised his eyebrows in surprise and let out a small laugh, releasing the switch for the stained glass panels. “I may as well give up now, then!”

  Sophie went to say something, but thought better of it, realizing that somehow, subconsciously, she was flirting with her kidnapper. She stared at the three men for a moment before being overcome by anger and confusion once more.

  “Alright!” she yelled, addressing both the Sheikh and the bodyguards now in the living room. “What’s going on?! Why did you bring me here?”

  The Sheikh offered a sigh and took a seat on the sofa, gesturing for her to do the same. Sophie did so, hesitantly, and waited for him to break the growing silence.

  “Have I mentioned how sorry I am?” the Sheikh said finally. There was nothing sarcastic in his tone as he apologized, for real this time. He cupped his head in his hands and rubbed his forehead. “Unfortunately, we’re going to have an unpleasant conversation now.”

  She swallowed, hard.

  “Can I ask what your name is?” he said politely.

  “Sophie,” she said quietly. “Smith.”

  “I’m Ayman,” he responded in kind.

  “Sheikh Ayman Al-Zebayat,” Dabir, the chatty bodyguard, corrected.

  “I was summarizing,” the Sheikh said with tired humor.

  Dabir scoffed in jest and took a heavy seat onto the couch. He pressed his hands into a steeple and leaned forward, watching intently as he waited for the Sheikh to take the lead in
the conversation.

  Sophie looked between them, highly unimpressed that no one was answering her questions. “So… I am here, because?”

  “Because your presence at the cinema put you in a lot of danger,” the Sheikh finally explained.

  He proceeded to tell her that she would be staying in the underground bunker with him indefinitely. The revelation sent a wave of sickness through her stomach. These guys weren’t joking around, she knew, and if he said such a thing he must have meant it.

  “You’re sure?” she asked lamely.

  “What…” Dabir finally said. “You mean you don’t like the house?”

  “It’s great,” she responded flatly. “But the thing is, I already have a place to live, and if it’s all the same to you guys, I think I’m just going to go back there, okay?”

  “No,” Dabir said firmly, dropping his smile. “We’re not joking around with you, girl.”

  “Sophie,” the Sheikh corrected quietly.

  Dabir frowned at his boss and then brightened. “Sophie,” he repeated sweetly to her. He narrowed his eyes curiously at her. “What do you know about the Red Hand?”

  Sophie went pale. While she hadn’t been in Al-Duyan long, and she was still getting to know local culture and history, she had certainly heard rumors of the rebel group he spoke of. They were responsible for festival attacks, and plots against government supporters.

  That’s when she realized, they thought she was part of their group.

  “What?!” she said, aghast. “I don’t know anything! I mean… probably as much as the average person knows. Um… or maybe I know a little more. I study history.” She winced. “The history of Al-Duyan, actually. It’s a niche topic… lots of extra credit. Travel involved, obviously.” She was babbling, and she knew it.

  “What do you know?!” Dabir repeated, less patient this time.

  “They’re wanted!” she breathed. “That’s all I know.”

  “And yet you were at the cinema at the same time that the Red Hand shows up, guns blazing?” Dabir said unbelievingly. “Tell us the truth. You were there to tip them off about the Sheikh’s whereabouts!”

  The Sheikh seemed somewhat embarrassed by his guard’s harsh line of questioning, and though clearly uncomfortable, he didn’t stop Dabir. “He doesn’t mean to sound aggressive,” he interjected.

  Dabir looked over at his employer, stone-faced. “Yes, I do. If she’s with the Red Hand, then yeah, I mean every word.”

  The Sheikh raised his brows at Sophie and shrugged. “Apparently, he means it.”

  “I’m… just a student,” she said slowly, trying to sound as far from defensive as she could get. “Honest.”

  She reached into her purse slowly, raising her hands after she pulled her bag into her lap as though asking for permission to show them something. Dabir gestured for her to continue and she quickly snatched her University ID from her bag.

  “I attend Yale University, back in the United States,” she continued as she watched the men pass her ID to one another. “I’m a PhD major in the history and anthropology of Al-Duyan.”

  “Anthropology?” Dabir narrowed his brows. “What’s that?”

  “It’s a social science, Dabir. It focuses on the social relationships between humans and their origins.” Ayman said. “Do you want me to explain what history is, also?”

  Dabir gave a belly laugh and tossed her ID card over to his boss. “No, I’m good.”

  “Now if only we could teach you a class in manners,” Ayman said dismissively, raising his brows as he did so.

  The Sheikh studied Sophie’s ID carefully and held it up to the stained glass sunlight that was flooding through from above, as though checking for authenticity. “Why did you choose to study here, in Al-Duyan?”

  “I’ve always been interested in the rich history of the Middle East,” she said studiously, as though this had suddenly turned into a job interview. “I’ve had a keen interest in Al-Duyan ever since I did a class on it as an undergraduate. I knew straight away that this was what I wanted to do my PhD in.”

  “So you’re a history buff,” Ayman said gingerly, still apparently deciding whether or not to believe her. “Do you think you know more about this city than I do?”

  “I never said that,” she backtracked. “You are this nation’s ruler, so I’m guessing not.”

  “Tell me, oh wise history buff,” he began again, making eye contact with Dabir while directing his question to Sophie. “What do you know about the city bridge?”

  She raised her brow thoughtfully. If he was going to question her story, he wasn’t going to give her an easy pass.

  “We were taught in class that it was one of the earliest bridge-like structures in the world and was used to transport stone blocks as far back as 2611 BC. They thought this accounted for the unique, sloping structure of the bridge. This method turned out to be a disaster, resulting in the stone slab in the middle of the bridge.”

  Ayman laughed and looked impressed. “Which they call?”

  “The crashed stone?” she asked and Ayman nodded. “The Stone Giant.”

  The Stone Giant was where the supposed stone brick had crashed through the bridge. The remnants of the stone’s crash had, over hundreds of years, created a structure of what appeared to be a stone warrior with his arm raised to the heavens.

  “And what other evidence is there that this bridge was used for construction purposes?” Ayman asked.

  Sophie thought for a moment, putting her hands over her mouth as though she was being quizzed in-class. Finally, the answer came to her. “The Jinan Walls,” she said decisively. The Jinan Walls were a large outdoor structure completely surrounded by stone pillars. The term meant ‘paradise’ or ‘garden’, an apt name for the large botanical garden contained within. “The garden was built within a mile of the bridge.”

  Ayman rubbed his hand through his hair and smiled, leaning back into the couch. Seemingly satisfied, he looked to Dabir. “We’re good?”

  Dabir’s face reddened slightly and he asked to see for some other forms of identification. Sophie gladly obliged and handed him the entire contents of her wallet. He thumbed through her various identifiers and, once satisfied, handed the bag back to her.

  “Sorry,” he said finally. “We were just looking to protect His Highness.”

  Sophie scooped up her pursed and held it tight on her lap. “Yes, and now me, too, apparently.” She looked down at her wrists once more and then locked eyes with Ayman. The group went silent and suddenly she realized she might actually have to stay in this unreal bunker.

  “So, now what?” she asked. “Do I really have to stay here?”

  Sheikh Ayman exhaled and raised his index finger to her, signaling for her to wait while he and his security conferred in the kitchen. The silent bodyguard kept his eyes on Sophie and never made to speak. They spoke in hushed Arabic, whispering for several minutes before they came back to sit with her.

  “You must stay here,” Ayman said with a hint of worry. “You were seen with me, and that doesn’t bode well for you, unfortunately.”

  She nodded. “And why’s that?”

  “Because I’m being hunted, by assassins.”

  The mood in the room was somber as Ayman finally made his big reveal to Sophie. He was being tracked down by the rebel group the Red Hand. The group had been aptly named for their figurative bloody hands and the wake of destruction they left in their path. Whether they were after the Sheikh for his political position or for personal reasons, Sophie didn’t know.

  Her bigger question, frankly, was why they would care about Sophie’s presence. The day had been hard to handle, thus far, with plenty of information being thrown around in a short period of time. Still, even with the commotion, she couldn’t help but think of her mother’s watch. If she could go back for it soon, it might still be there.

  “The Red Hand rebels killed my parents,” the Sheikh said plainly, shaking Sophie from her own introspection. He extended hi
s palms in front of him and seemed to get lost, staring at them. It sounded as though it was the first time in years that he’d actually said the words aloud. He raised his brows and shook his head, fighting against his thoughts. “They killed my mother and father ten years ago—at a rally for peace.”

  Sophie stared down at the floor, her thoughts turning to her mother and the loss she herself had experienced. She looked back up at him and stared; stared at his hands, his beautiful skin, and the way his eyes suddenly seemed to become deep and full of melancholy. For a moment, she saw herself in them. Then she realized, she was giving him the same eyes she hated getting from other people. The pity eyes.

  If her sudden empathy rubbed him the wrong way he didn’t say so, instead continuing to tell her about the small but violent group of anarchist rebels who assassinated his parents. He spoke in perfect English with just a hint of an accent. As ruling monarchs, Ayman’s parents had attended a rally for peace, celebrating their new union with a neighboring nation. They had been gunned down by their own bodyguards; spies, traitors. He spoke of the event in a way a reporter might, with only the facts. Maybe it was just easier that way.

  Ayman gave vague details about the event, only giving Sophie the information she absolutely needed to know. “So you see,” he said plainly, “When you turned on us at the cinema my bodyguards assumed you were… well, you know, a rebel.”

  “No.” Her face flushed, mortified at the situation she had caused. “I just didn’t like you guys talking through my movie.”

  The two bodyguards exchanged glances; both now smiling.

  Ayman let out a small laugh and bowed his head in her direction. “That is some commitment to the Old West!”

  “What can I say…” she said, flushing slightly, “I take my relaxation time seriously.”

  “Clearly,” Ayman joked. “And is this relaxation time all that you hoped it would be?”

  “Oh, all that I hoped and more,” she responded; her playful tone matching his.

  The Sheikh’s smile now faded and he stared once more at his hands. “I must apologize again, Sophie. Seeing as how you are unarmed and uninvolved, we still thought it best to take you with us to the bunker.”

  “So you believe that I’m not involved?”

  Ayman nodded. “Yes.”

  With that single statement both of his bodyguards seemed to be put at ease; if he trusted her, it seemed, so did they.

  Sophie felt relieved as she looked around the room once more, but a question still nagged at her; so they believed her, but they still weren’t going to let her go?

  “But, I still can’t leave?”

  “You were there,” Dabir said, his tone impatient. “You were with us when the rebels closed in. Your life is as much in danger as the Sheikh’s.”

  “What?” she snorted. “I’m going to have to politely disagree with you there, champ. What would the rebels want with an American PhD student?”

  “Plenty,” Ayman said, almost insulted. “You’ve seen me, you’ve seen my men. For all they know you are part of my entourage.”

  “The part of your entourage who likes to yell at you for talking during movies? I doubt it. They would think I was a civilian, easy. Besides, my head was covered with a bag, if you’d forgotten—I sure haven’t. It’s not like they would recognize me.”

  The three men exchanged uneasy glances and the Sheikh’s expression dulled. “Don’t underestimate the Red Hand,” he said with a breath. “They will find you.”

  Sophie stared at the man intensely for a moment. From the look on his face, she could tell he was done with the conversation at hand. She went to speak once more but thought better of it. She didn’t agree with his assessment of the situation, but there was no point in arguing any further. They didn’t know each other and he had no reason to trust her opinion. Perhaps tonight she would get the opportunity to run, to make it back to The Palais and find her mother’s watch.

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