sham marriage. He would support me and look after me, even without romance between us. But was there truly no romance between them?
Zelda slipped into the hot water and felt her muscles beginning to relax. She thought about the way that Zayed had been right there, the way that he had personally come to save her when she’d run away from him, the way that she had woken up to him seated at her bedside, unobtrusive but clearly caring. He was probably there for a long time, too. Maybe all night. Zayed hadn’t said as much, but Zelda had seen the marks of fatigue on his face, and the information he’d given her about what had happened between when she passed out and when she woke up implied to Zelda that he’d been there for all of it.
“He’s really not a bad guy,” Zelda reflected, tilting her head back against the bath pillow. “Hard to believe that he couldn’t find someone else, someone who wasn’t a stranger to him.”
There had been women on the yacht, but Zelda remembered that every female guest she’d seen seemed to have already been attached to a man. But for someone as attractive, as wealthy, and as powerful as Zayed obviously was to be single…Zelda had to believe that it was completely by design. She began to scrub herself all over slowly, thinking about the situation in front of her: a sham marriage, as public as possible, before she would go back to the States as if nothing had happened, while Zayed moved on with his own life. There was a sadness to it that Zelda couldn’t quite shake.
“Think of the stories you’ll have to tell,” she murmured to herself, smiling slightly in ironic amusement. She would one day have children, and one day, she would tell them about her brief marriage to a billionaire sheikh; about how she had stowed away aboard his yacht before they’d struck the deal.
By then, of course, they would be long divorced, but Zelda was sure that the truth of her story would be stranger than fiction to her own children. Maybe we’ll keep in touch somehow, but that’s doubtful. She tried to imagine emailing Zayed to catch up on his life after their deal was completed; Zelda rather thought that she might not even get a reply. She would have to keep in some kind of touch with the Sheikh to achieve the divorce, but she couldn’t imagine any kind of lasting friendship after Zayed had gotten what he’d wanted. Would she have to tell future boyfriends that, technically, she’d been married for a short time? Would it count?
It surprised Zelda to realize that the prospect of just leaving Zayed behind—not just the luxuries he’d introduced her to, but the man who’d been her companion for so many hours out of any given day—now made her feel sad. She barely knew him, and yet in the most recent few days, she had started to think that he would be a person well worth knowing, above and beyond his wealth. He was complicated; it was hard for Zelda to know where the charming businessman ended and the caring, emotionally engaged man she’d seen glimpses of began. He’d admitted to his grief over losing his parents and—she thought—had nearly kissed her in the garden while they had been practicing their first dance as man and wife. He was obviously generous, but when she’d made a remark about him not being as aloof as he pretended, he’d brushed it aside without an answer.
Zelda climbed out of the bathtub with no clearer sense of how she felt other than that she wished that things could somehow be different. She wished that she had more time to get to know Zayed; she wished that they could have met under different circumstances, and that they could somehow have had a real relationship to base their marriage on, instead of the convenience of solving her immigration problems and his business conundrum.
“If wishes were fishes,” she murmured to herself, drying off with one of the plush towels and shaking her head. She knew that she was going to go through with the wedding, and whatever her sadness about the circumstances, she was going to go back home at the end of it, and put it all behind her, chalked up to a strange and wonderful adventure.
She began to put on some of what she considered her “heiress clothes” and set her mind to the last few days of preparation for the wedding. There was a lot to get done before she tied the knot with Zayed, and she wasn’t going to put his reputation at risk any more than she already had by being a flake.
The days after Zelda’s ineffectual attempt at escape passed by in a blur; in order to keep to the lie that Zayed had told to cover her disappearance from the engagement party, Zelda had agreed to take language lessons, adding another element to the daily list of things that she had to do. Every day was filled with meetings with Zayed’s assistant, meetings with the designer of her wedding dress, sessions with a skincare specialist to make sure that she was flawless from head to toe for the day of her wedding, practicing her background story with Zayed, and practicing their dance until they both knew it so well that Zelda woke up one morning fairly certain that she’d done her half of the choreography in her sleep.
The morning of the wedding, Zelda awoke to her alarm before the sun was up. The ceremony was going to take place in a garden on the property, and the preparations would take almost half the day—all for a ceremony that would be less than an hour long, and a reception that would go until hours after the bride and groom departed.
It’s not going to be that bad, she told herself. She lay in bed for a few moments, staring up at the ceiling, feeling the nervousness creep in. She had to do her part of the ceremony in a foreign language that she had only just begun to learn; the officiant had taught her what the words meant, but she was convinced that she was going to somehow mess up her pronunciation and instead of pledging herself to Zayed as his wife and companion, she would end up calling him a chicken or something.
The fact that she and Zayed were not allowed to see each other until the ceremony made Zelda even more nervous; it was a tradition that she could understand, but considering that she barely knew the people who would be preparing her for the wedding, and barely knew any of the guests, the lack of presence from the one person in the country she had come to trust was a real cause for anxiety.
This is probably why most women want their mothers there when they get married, Zelda thought, sitting up in bed. She had a strict schedule to keep; in a few minutes, Hadya and one or two other household staff members would be in her room, serving her the traditional wedding-day breakfast. Zayed was pulling out all the stops to make their wedding seem legitimate, and Zelda thought with amusement that if the marriage actually was genuine, he probably wouldn’t have tried so hard.
“Good morning,” Hadya called as she came into the room, bearing a tray in her hands.
Zelda smiled at the older woman, repeating the greeting back to her in the Murindhi dialect.