Zelda nearly forgot all about the pain in her feet and the awkwardness of trying to stay upright in the shoes as she and Zayed practiced the dance, but then she realized that neither of them were speaking, and self-consciousness rose up in her. “It’s got to be a little strange for you, marrying someone you barely know,” she said, raising her voice just loud enough for him to hear it above the music.
“Stranger for you, I would think,” Zayed murmured. “I’ve been adjusting to the idea of marrying a stranger for weeks—months, even. You’ve barely had a week to get used to the idea.”
Zelda half-shrugged, letting her cheek rest against Zayed’s shoulder. “It’s a little weird,” she admitted. “When Hadya told me you were away on business for most of the day, I took the liberty of exploring the house a bit.”
She hadn’t realized that there’d been an undercurrent of guilt in her mind at what she’d done; the Sheikh had tol
d her that she had the run of the palatial house, but there was still something about the pictures she’d looked at, the information she’d gleaned—without quite understanding it—that gave her pause.
“This is the first time you’ve seen the whole house?” he asked, and Zelda nodded. “I should have given you a more extensive tour the first night you were here.”
“It was nice, actually, discovering it on my own terms,” Zelda told him. “I did...see some pictures that I’m curious about.”
The song started up again, and Zayed’s hands tightened on Zelda’s back as she faltered just slightly, trying to find the groove again.
“I think they were your parents,” Zelda said. “They looked like they could be. But they were all shrouded or covered, the pictures of them.”
Zayed nodded. “I probably should have the shrouds and mourning cloths removed,” he admitted. “Normally they’re only there for a year, by tradition.”
“Has it been a long time, since they—” Zelda faltered, not wanting to say the words.
“They passed away a few years ago,” Zayed said, his voice full of melancholy. “They died in an accident, en route from Dubai.”
Zelda felt him shake his head and pulled back slightly to meet his gaze. For the first time since she had met the Sheikh, Zelda saw real, painful emotion on his face.
“I almost decided to sell off the company,” he continued. “I just...couldn’t see a way forward, without my father to guide me and laugh at my mistakes, or my mother to tell me all of his mistakes to make me feel better.” Zayed smiled faintly, and Zelda realized that the other smiles she’d seen were nothing; they were ghosts compared to the real expression.
“In the pictures, you looked like...like you were really happy, really close with them,” Zelda said softly.
“I was,” Zayed agreed. “An only child, a little spoiled, too, maybe, but I never doubted for a moment that my parents loved me and would do anything for me.”
The Sheikh sighed, and Zelda’s thoughts turned almost unwillingly to her mother and father, and the fact that she’d been out of touch since the yacht had left Miami. She’d walked out of their lives in the middle of the fight, and neither of them even knew if she was safe.
I should have contacted them before now, she thought grimly. Zayed would surely have done whatever it took to give her that.
Zelda had barely noticed it, but night had fallen as they practiced their dance. She looked around, realizing that while their feet were bathed by warm light from lamps around the perimeter of the patio, the only overhead light came from the moon, rising up over the trees that lined the garden.
“You look absolutely beautiful tonight,” Zayed murmured, slowing his swaying movements to a near stop.
Zelda started slightly, turning her face to look at him. Her heart beat faster in her chest as he met her gaze, his bright eyes darker in the dim, silvery light of the moon. For an instant, she saw him start to move closer to her, to lean in, his lips parting just slightly.
“Oh wow, my feet are killing me,” Zelda said suddenly, letting her hands fall from his shoulders. “I think an hour of practice is enough, don’t you? I really think we’re nearly there.” She stepped back abruptly, and Zayed let his hands fall from her body.
Zelda carefully stepped out of the perilously high heels and gave the Sheikh an apologetic smile. It was one thing, in her mind, to engage in a sham marriage; it was another thing—and far more dangerous—to let anything like romance, even something as minor as a kiss in the moonlight, complicate the situation—no matter how right it had felt in that moment.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, before the party,” she said quickly, gathering up her shoes in her hand.
She fled from the garden, stepping quickly back into the house, her feelings so jumbled that she wanted nothing more than to attempt to run as fast as she could to get away from them.
Zelda wondered just how many women in the world could expect to have their wedding dress made by a major designer, within little more than a week from the start of the commission. The morning after she’d fled the garden to keep herself from kissing Zayed, Zelda found herself once more in the work room of his designer friend, being attended to by no fewer than four employees, all of them wielding pins, fabric pieces, and other implements she couldn’t even identify.
Tahirah Abadi, the designer, presided over them all, directing the process. Zelda felt like an incredibly glamorous doll, or a piece of clay being molded by fabric and thread into something more divine than she was.
“I wish you could come in after having your hair done,” Tahirah said, shaking her head slightly as one of her employees turned Zelda a half-step around to adjust something on the long, flowing gown. “I’d love to see how this will look in the final stages.”
“I haven’t actually figured out how I’m going to have my hair done,” Zelda admitted. The stylist she was working with had given her mock-ups of herself with three different hairstyles, all of them modeled after traditional wedding updos for Murindhi women. There was makeup to consider as well, which the stylist had described as a fusion of traditional Murindhi and Western-style makeup: heavy eyeliner and a pink lip. Altogether, Zelda reasoned that the wedding would be just enough in keeping with tradition not to raise too many eyebrows, while not being so foreign that she looked like a joke participating in it. Tahirah’s sketches of the wedding gown showed an ivory-colored cascade of fabric punctuated by purple and red flowers along the hem, extending into a