“What is your name, by the way?” Zayed tilted his head to the side slightly, his eyes glinting with interest.
“Zelda Barnes-Scott,” she replied.
“A very beautiful name,” the Sheikh told her. “In any case, it occurs to me that we each have a problem that the other could help solve, and that me telling those officials you were my fiancée might be part of that solution.”
“What?” Zelda set her coffee cup down, scared to drop it.
Without missing a beat, the Sheikh picked up the carafe and poured her more of the thick, dark brew. “I have a proposition for you,” he said, gesturing for her to have more of the coffee.
Zelda felt as if she had somehow managed to plunge herself into waters so far out of her depth that they might as well have been the middle of the ocean. “Go ahead,” she said, dabbing at her lips with a cloth napkin.
“You could marry me,” Zayed said.
Zelda was glad she’d managed to swallow both food and drink completely before the Sheikh had spoken, otherwise she almost certainly would have choked.
“It would solve your immigration problems—because as my wife you would of course be granted citizenship—and it would solve a certain problem that I’m having.”
“The problem of not having a wife?” Zelda stared at him, thinking that her dread of what he was about to tell her was not far off, no matter how politely he was phrasing his demand.
“Yes and no,” Zayed said, smiling again. “There’s a company based here in Murindhi that I want to buy. I am being prevented from doing so by an arcane law which states that single men—and single women for that matter—cannot buy companies. We can start them, and we can sell them, but we cannot buy them.” Zayed shook his head, looking exasperated. “You would not believe how much I’ve already paid my lawyers to try and find a way around it.”
“I can imagine,” Zelda said quietly.
“In any case, if I can get married to a willing party, I can circumvent the law. I’ve been considering finding someone to arrange a marriage for me, but here you conveniently are.” The Sheikh selected another pastry, with a green-tinged filling, and ate it with the same quick grace that he had with the previous one. “And it would keep you out of prison.”
Zelda looked down at her hands, trembling as she held her coffee cup. The idea of marrying someone she had only just met, without having feelings for him, was staggering. People do it every day, she thought wryly, thinking of Zayed’s comment about an arranged marriage. Even still, this had certainly been the last thing she had expected when she’d stowed away on his yacht. Oh God, are there laws about consummating marriages? Zelda’s anxiety intensified.
“I don’t think I can do it,” she said quickly, shaking her head even as her heart pounded. “I don’t know if I can make myself marry someone I don’t have feelings for, or act as a wife to a stranger. Even if it’s a sham marriage just to get my citizenship, I don’t think I can do it.”
Zelda worked up the courage to meet Zayed’s gaze, and steeled herself for a threat, or worse.
Instead, Zayed was smiling slightly, looking no different than he had the last moment she’d looked at him. “I promise you, there won’t be any need for you to act as my wife in private,” he said, inclining his head towards her. “This will strictly be a business transaction. You would appear with me in public, and for all anyone will know, we will be truly married. But you will have your own life, and you will be able to come and go just as you please.”
Zelda pressed her lips together again, thinking that the coffee was stronger than she’d thought.
“I’m not expecting you to fulfill any romantic role in my life,” the Sheikh said.
“You’re sure about that? You just mentioned looking into an arranged marriage before.”
Zayed shrugged. “It seemed at the time to be expedient,” he told her. “The arrangement would be largely the same with a wife I married by arrangement; she would not be romantically obligated to me in any way. I would, however, insist that she conduct any outside romances very, very discreetly, and she would have the same liberties that I’m promising you.”
“Are you sure that it wouldn’t be better worth your while to get the law changed?”
Zayed shook his head. “I looked into it, believe me,” he explained. “It’s just not possible. If I want to buy out my competitor, then I must first have a wife.” He held her gaze for a few moments. “I know you do not know me well enough to be sure that I mean what I say when I tell you this is strictly business, but I hope that you can trust me.”
Zelda smiled weakly at that. “You’re right about not knowing you well enough,” she said.
“Let me point something out to you, and forgive me if this sounds like bragging: if I wanted to simply buy a woman to be my wife, I wouldn’t have to look very hard to find volunteers,” the Sheikh said. “Plenty of women both here and in the US would be happy to marry me for my money. But I don’t want that.”
“How do you know I wouldn’t be marrying you for your money, too?” Zelda wasn’t sure why she felt so contrary, but she couldn’t stop herself from asking.
“A woman who stows away on a boat with nothing more than a backpack and goes to work in the kitchen is not the type of woman who marries a man for his money,” Zayed said. He smiled slowly. “You are an adventurer; it’s just that you’ve run into a snag on this occasion. Allow me to help you, and we can both profit from this.”
Zelda thought about it for a long moment, plucking one of the few remaining pastries from the tray and sipping contemplatively at her coffee.
She considered the impressions she’d gotten of the Sheikh while they’d been en route to Murindhi; she’d noticed him, of course, and he had always seemed to be surrounded by his guests on the boat, almost fawned on by them.
In some respect, Zelda thought, the Sheikh was a demanding man—almost every night, he had insisted on huge, exotic banquets for himself and his guests. In other ways, though, she thought that he was clearly a generous person; the guests had all been extremely well looked after, and despite the long hours, the crew all seemed very happy, and well-paid for their work.
Of course, Zelda thought, that was the way that he acted with people who he was already connected to; he had no real connection to her. He knew all along that you were an impostor, she thought. He could just as easily have let port authority handle you. He could have let them cart you off and throw you in jail to either end up in prison or get deported. He had to come to her rescue, and even if his motives were somewhat selfish—even if he’d done it mostly to indebt her to him—Zelda didn’t think it spoke poorly of a man to think quickly, and to be that up front.
“How would this work?” Zelda asked, finishing off her pastry and meeting Zayed’s gaze.
“You will be with me in public,” the Sheikh explained. “As soon as possible I will issue an announcement to the press about my recent engagement, and setting the date for our wedding. I think you’ll agree that two weeks from now is a good idea, since that’s what we told the authorities.” Zayed smiled. “Of course, as my wife, you’ll need to have an appropriate wardrobe and quarters, which we can see to quickly. We will have to plan a wedding; fortunately, I have enough staff at my home here to take care of that.”
“So we’re going to have a wedding? An actual wedding wedding?” Zelda stared at the Sheikh. “Not just like...go to the courthouse or something?”
Zayed shook his head. “I’m a very wealthy man, Zelda, and it would raise suspicion if my wedding weren’t a very public affair,” he explained, his voice gentle. “We have to be seen to be truly man and wife by the media, by the people, and by those who will determine whether or not I can buy the company I’m interested in.” He poured her another half-cup of coffee.
“So two weeks, and we get married, with a huge ceremony for everyone to see,” Zelda said. “And then what?”
“You make some appearances as my wife, and we hold
out long enough for the purchase of the company—and the determination of your citizenship—to go through, after which you can do whatever you like.”
“And I could leave whenever I wanted?”