small train. It was going to be utterly beautiful, Zelda knew.
“I’ll get a chance to see it on the day, at least,” Tahirah said with an unconcerned shrug.
Of course, with such a short time between design and debut, the designer and her staff were almost certainly going to be putting the final touches on the gown the day of. Zelda glanced down at her hand; the plan was for Zayed to ceremoniously put the engagement ring on her finger at the party that evening, as part of the festivities, but she had tried it on before coming to Tahirah’s studio. Like everything else in her new life, it seemed, the ring was absolutely breathtaking: rose gold and platinum, wrapped around diamonds and rubies.
“Should I be able to breathe in this?” Zelda glanced at Tahirah as one of her team tightened fabric at her waist.
The designer murmured something and the pressure on Zelda’s ribs slacked slightly. “You’re going to look stunning,” Tahirah said, stepping back to admire her. “Look at yourself.”
Zelda turned slightly and looked in the full-length mirror. Even with her hair simply pulled back into a bun, she looked gorgeous; more beautiful than she had ever looked in her life.
“Your mother must be so proud of you, catching a guy like Zayed,” Tahirah said.
The words hit Zelda like a lead weight. Almost involuntarily, everything her mother had ever told her on the subject of weddings and marriage flooded her mind. “Just remember: the money you don’t spend on your wedding can go to your honeymoon.” “All I care about for you is that you are happy with the man you marry—and that he’s not a deadbeat.” “I’d rather you be the wife of a man working two jobs who loved you deeply than married to a rich man who gives you everything you want except his love.”
Zelda’s stomach churned inside of her as her thoughts turned to the wedding that was only a week away. She knew, like waking up from a dream, that the marriage she’d agreed to forge with Zayed was wrong. It wasn’t what she wanted. Even if it was a sham marriage—maybe especially because it was a sham—she didn’t want to get married without her parents even knowing. She didn’t want to have a sham marriage, even if she had agreed to it, and even if it was in her best interest.
Zelda got through the rest of the fitting on automatic, smiling and replying to comments from Tahirah, accepting tea from the designer’s assistant, and gossiping about the preparations, about her ring, and about the party that evening. Afterwards, she numbly got into the limousine that Zayed had put aside for her use, and all the way back to the palace, she thought about the party to come and the wedding she would have in a week’s time. She thought about the ring that Zayed had had made for her, and the advice her mother had given her, and the priceless dress. The thoughts swirled around in her head, and she had barely realized that she’d arrived at the mansion when the driver coughed.
Zelda climbed out of the limo, making sure to remember the bags from the last-minute purchases she’d made on Zayed’s credit card for accessories to her gown for the engagement party. Murmuring a hasty “thank you” to her driver, she stepped into the house, walking towards her quarters. She stowed her purchases next to the couture gown and sat down in the bathroom, staring at the floor. In theory, she had just enough time to take a bath and scrub herself head to toe before the stylists arrived to do her hair and makeup for the party.
She licked her lips and tapped her foot idly on the floor. “The real question,” she said to herself, listening to her voice echoing off of the walls, “is whether I can bring myself to go through with this.” The engagement party wasn’t the wedding; she could go to it, and then…
“And then what? It’s not going to get any better if I ditch him after he’s publicly declared us engaged,” Zelda said, thinking out loud. “No. No, it would be better…”
She shook her head again. There wasn’t a good option in front of her. If she ran away now, Zayed would have to explain why the bride-to-be was absent from her own engagement party. If she tried to get away afterwards, he would have to explain why the engagement had fallen apart so quickly. No matter when she left, it would humiliate him. But she knew that she couldn’t stay; her cold feet and the memory of her mother’s warm advice had already overcome her cool, self-serving logic.
Zelda stood and began moving around the room, finding her backpack buried deep in the huge closet and scanning the room for everything she’d had in it when she arrived. She told herself that it was at least slightly less terrible for her to only take what was hers; that there was some kind of moral high ground in not taking anything Zayed had bought her in the time she’d been in his home.
As she gathered up her few meager possession, she heard the muted noises of the preparations going on outside; they would be putting up decorations, setting up the food and beverage tables, finishing everything off right up until the party started. She sighed quietly, thinking of Tarek, Zayed’s overworked personal assistant; the man was determined to move heaven and earth to make his boss’s idea a reality.
She went through her mental checklist of what she should have, and changed out of the outfit she’d worn to visit the designers and jewelers in the city that day. She pulled on one of the outfits she’d had with her when she stowed away, and looked at herself in the mirror. She didn’t look like the future wife of a billionaire sheikh anymore. She looked like Zelda Barnes-Scott, the young woman who’d sneaked onto a yacht on little more than a whim.
Zelda took a deep breath, hefted her backpack onto her shoulders, and made for the door. She pressed her lips together, trying to decide how to go about her escape, and looked around as she followed the corridor, listening for the different activities going on around her.
From the sound of the voices she heard downstairs, Zelda thought that some of the guests had started to arrive. She carefully continued through the palace, avoiding the paths to the garden where the engagement party was supposed to take place. It would have been a lot easier if you’d come to this epiphany a few hours ago. Or yesterday, she chided herself.
Zelda narrowly avoided one of the servants rushing to put something in place out in the east garden and waited a few moments, thinking. If she didn’t get out right now, the stylists would arrive to finish her preparations, and they’d discover her gone.
She found a door leading out to an abandoned area on the property, and slipped through it. She knew she couldn’t leave through the gate, not with the security guards who knew her already standing there, with people coming and going. It would be immediately obvious that she was trying to flee.
Well, I’ve climbed trees before, Zelda thought, looking up into the branches of one of the trees that hugged the wall wrapped around the property. She smiled wryly to herself, briefly remembering summers spent tucked away in old banyan trees, reading books. If she could climb the slippery-barked banyans in her neighborhood and manage to avoid the ants, Zelda reasoned, she could just as well climb the cedar tree in front of her.
Zelda looked around once again to make sure no one had wandered into the part of the property she’d come to; finding no one, she shifted the backpack on her shoulders and surveyed the tree. She picked out likely hand-holds and took a quick breath before reaching for her first branch.
The spicy-smelling bark crackled under her hands, but Zelda had climbed slippier trees in her childhood; she got a good grip and hauled herself up, trying not to groan as she swung her feet around to get fully into the branch. She climbed and climbed, looking around and pausing if she thought she heard someone, finally reaching the point where the tree became taller than the wall it stood against.
Carefully, Zelda shimmied around to the other side of the trunk. Sweat had already begun to accumulate on her brow, on the small of her back, under her breasts; but the day was beginning to cool off, and Zelda told herself that it would be easy once she got to the other side of the wall. She told herself that it couldn’t be that difficult to get back into the city—even if she’d never taken the trip by foot, there had to be a way to ge
She stepped along gingerly, holding herself balanced with her hands on the branch directly above her. It was a long drop, but she had no other way down.
Taking a deep breath, Zelda let her hands fall, and then carefully crouched down, her heart in her throat. She grabbed and carefully dropped her legs over the branch until she hung from the shaking, groaning wood.
“One, two, three!” Zelda murmured, her voice just above a breath. And then she let go.