husband’s. “We pulled it off,” she agreed, and took a sip.
She swam carefully, on her back, keeping her glass above the water. It felt strange, the weight of the rings on her finger, the feeling that she and Zayed would part ways as if nothing had happened between them, so soon after being involved in such a big scheme together. The thought that she might never actually seen him in person again made Zelda sadder than she expected it to. Maybe he was feeling the same way? She looked up at him curiously, feeling the fuzziness of alcohol in her brain. She wasn’t drunk, but she wasn’t exactly sober, either.
After a moment, Zayed climbed into the pool with her, keeping his distance as he enjoyed the cool water. “You know, I could almost be envious of my friend,” Zayed said, floating on his back.
“You could always buy your own private island,” Zelda pointed out. “Build yourself a nice house on it; get away sometimes.”
“I’m not very good at really, truly getting away,” Zayed admitted. “Even on the yacht, on the way here, I was busy trying to broker deals, trying to find someone to marry, all those things.”
“Maybe you’d have been better off going with the arranged marriage route,” Zelda said, more playfully than she felt. “Then you’d have had a real wife.”
“I have a real wife,” Zayed said. “Unless you signed something other than your real name on the paperwork, you are truly my wife, Zelda.”
Zelda looked at him sharply. “There’s something that’s been bugging me,” she said, moving to refill her glass of champagne from the bottle. She felt just brave enough to ask the question that had tickled the back of her mind ever since the end of the reception, when they’d climbed into the helicopter.
“Go ahead,” Zayed told her, moving towards the edge of the pool and treading water there. The sun had begun to set, and Zelda found herself briefly distracted by the splash of colors across the horizon: rose, gold, orange, burning red, and honey-yellow.
“I’d have thought that you would be in the city right now,” Zelda said finally, turning her attention back onto her new husband. “The whole point of marrying me was so that you could make that business deal. Why put it off now?”
Zayed smiled, and Zelda recognized it as the same warm, open smile she’d seen on him when he’d been nursing her back to health after her ill-advised escape attempt. “Where else would I rather be than right here, on my honeymoon, with my wife?”
Zelda’s heart began beating faster in her chest. “What—what do you mean? You said you didn’t expect anything romantic from me,” she said, taking a sip of champagne to moisten her suddenly dry throat.
“I didn’t expect it, and I don’t expect it still,” Zayed told her. “But I never said that I would never have feelings for you, Zelda. I didn’t expect to, but it’s happened. If you want to go back to the US, and leave me behind, I understand. But I want you to know that I care about you.”
Zelda stared at Zayed, stunned by the admission. “You do?”
The Sheikh nodded. “I discovered that when you ran away,” he said softly. “I was so worried for you, so terrified that you would die in the desert.” He shook his head slowly. “And then, when I found you, I felt so relieved.”
“I have to admit,” Zelda said hesitantly, “that when I realized it was you out there, that you were giving me water, I was relieved. And not just because I knew I wasn’t going to die.”
Zayed chuckled. “I stayed with you all night,” he admitted. “I couldn’t make myself leave your bedside until I knew you would be okay.”
“But how did you get the plane ticket?”
Zayed dismissed that with a wave. “Phone,” he said simply. “I had to do something with myself in the late hours of the night, while I was waiting.” He smiled again and poured himself more champagne. “And then…” he shrugged. “I just realized that I cared about you much more than I thought I would; much more than I ever intended.”
“And that was why you made sure that I could leave if I wanted to,” Zelda said, shaking her head in wonder.
Zayed nodded. “I figured that you didn’t try and flee into the desert because you thought I would be cruel to you,” he said, giving her a wry look. “I thought it must have been something to do with your conscience.”
“It was,” Zelda confirmed. “It was while I was at the fitting with Tahirah. She made a comment about my mom being proud of me, marrying such a great, wealthy man.”
“And you had moral qualms about me being wealthy?”
Zelda chuckled and shook her head. “No,” she said. “About my parents. The fact that they didn’t know where I was, didn’t know that I was going to be getting married. And I remembered my mom’s advice about marriage.” She shook her head again. “Basically, I thought then that it would be a better idea to leave before the engagement party. Forgive me my foolishness.”
The Sheikh smiled faintly. “I assume your mother told you that you should only marry for love, not for social advantage?”
Zelda shrugged. “Not so much that—just that she would rather I was married to a poor man and happy...rather than a rich man just because it was convenient.”
Zayed nodded. “And that was what you were doing with me?”
Zelda looked into her champagne flute. “Yes and no,” she said. She took a deep breath and set her glass aside, feeling nervous in spite of what Zayed had told her. “I thought there was no future—nothing real—between us,” she said, meeting his gaze. “I still don’t know for sure, but I guess…” she swallowed. “I care about you a lot more than I thought I would, when you made the proposal.”
Zayed smiled slowly, gesturing for her to go on.
“I was really— I felt sad that we were going to be parting ways so soon, and so happy when I realized you were coming here with me, but so conflicted all at the same time.” Zelda laughed, shaking her head as tears began to form in her eyes. “I’m babbling on like an idiot.”
Zayed didn’t say anything. Instead, he closed the distance between them, swimming deftly through the water. He wrapped his arms around her waist, and before Zelda could completely understand what was happening, he brushed his lips against hers.
Zelda could feel the hard muscles under his surprisingly soft skin, pressed to her body; for a moment she could do nothing but hover in Zayed’s arms in the water, shocked at the kiss. But then he began to deepen the contact with her lips, holding her tighter, and Zelda’s heart beat faster in her chest. This was the kind of kiss they would have shared if she had let it happen in the garden, the night before the engagement party; this was the kind of kiss they should have had at the altar and didn’t.
Zelda melted against Zayed, wrapping her arms around his shoulders, pressing her body against his, letting him deepen the kiss until she was almost giddy with breathlessness. He broke away from her lips for just a moment to kiss her each of her cheeks, slowly, softly, and then claimed her mouth with his own once more, his tongue exploring, his lips firm and soft against hers, heat blazing up between them so intensely that Zelda was shocked that the water wasn’t boiling around them.