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Prince As'ad of El Deharia expected his world to run smoothly. He hired his staff with that expectation, and for the most part, they complied. He enjoyed his work at the palace and his responsibilities. The country was growing, expanding, and he oversaw the development of the infrastructure. It was a compelling vocation that took serious thought and dedication.
Some of his friends from university thought he should use his position as a prince and a sheik to enjoy life, but As'ad did not agree. He didn't have time for frivolity. If he had one weakness, it was his affection for his aunt Lina. Which explained why he agreed to see her when she burst into his offices without an appointment. A decision, he would think many weeks later, that caused him nothing but trouble.
"As'ad," Lina said as she hurried into his office, "you must come at once."
As'ad saved his work on the computer before asking, "What is wrong?"
"Everything." His normally calm aunt was flushed and trembling. "There is trouble at the orphan school. A chieftain is in from the desert. He's demanding he be allowed to take three sisters. People are fighting, the girls don't want to go with him, the teachers are getting involved and one of the nuns is threatening to jump from the roof if you don't come and help."
As'ad rose. "Why me?"
"You're a wise and thoughtful leader," Lina said, not quite meeting his gaze. "Your reputation for fairness makes you the obvious choice."
Or his aunt was playing him, As'ad thought, staring at the woman who had been like a mother to him for most of his life. Lina enjoyed getting her way and she wasn't above using drama to make that happen. Was she this time? Although he couldn't imagine why she would need his help at a school.
She bit her lower lip. "There really is trouble. Please come."
Theatrics he could ignore, but a genuine request? Not possible. He walked around his desk and took her arm to lead her out of his office. "We will take my car."
Fifteen minutes later As'ad wished he'd been out of the country when his aunt had gone looking for assistance. The school was in an uproar.
Fifteen or so students huddled in groups, crying loudly. Several teachers tried to comfort them, but they, too, were in tears. An elderly chieftain and his men stood by the window, talking heatedly, while a petite woman with hair the color of fire stood in front of three sobbing girls.
As'ad glanced at his aunt. "No one seems to be on the roof."
"I'm sure things have calmed down," she told him. "Regardless of that detail, you can clearly see there is a problem."
He returned his gaze to the woman protecting the girls. "She doesn't look like a nun," he murmured, taking in the long, red hair and the stubborn expression on her face.
"Kayleen is a teacher here," his aunt said, "which is very close to being a nun."
"So you lied to me."
Lina brushed away the accusation with a flick of her hand. "I may have exaggerated slightly."
"You are fortunate we have let go of the old ways," he told his aunt. "The ones that defined a woman's conduct."
His aunt smiled. "You love me too much to ever let harm befall me, As'ad."
Which was true, he thought as he walked into the room. He ignored the women and children and moved over to the tall old man.
"Tahir," he said, nodding his head in a gesture of respect. "You do not often leave the desert for the city. It is an honor to see you here now. Is your stay a long one?"
Tahir was obviously furious, but he knew his place and bowed. "Prince As'ad. At last a voice of reason. I had hoped to make my journey to the city as brief as possible, but this, this woman" he pointed at the redhead still guarding the children "seeks to interfere. I am here because of duty. I am here to show the hospitality of the desert.Yet she understands nothing and defies me at every turn."
Tahir's voice shook with outrage and fury. He was not used to being denied and certainly not by a mere woman. As'ad held in a sigh. He already knew nothing about this was going to be easy.
"I will defy you with my dying breath, if I have to," the teacher in question said, from her corner of the room.
"What you want to do is inhuman. It's cruel and I won't allow it." She turned to As'ad and glared at him. "There's nothing you can say or do to make me."
The three girls huddled close to her. They were obviously sisters, with blond hair and similar features. Pretty girls, As'ad thought absently. They would grow into beauties and be much trouble for their father.
Or would have been, he amended, remembering this was an orphanage and that meant the girls had no parents.
"And you are " he asked, his voice deliberately imperious. His first job was to establish authority and gain control.
"Kayleen James. I'm a teacher here."
She opened her mouth to continue speaking, but As'ad shook his head.
"I will ask the questions," he told her. "You will answer."
He shook his head again. "Ms. James, I am Prince As'ad. Is that name familiar to you?"
The young woman glanced from him to his aunt and back. "Yes," she said quietly. "You're in charge of the country or something."
"Exactly. You are here on a work visa?"
"That work visa comes from my office. I suggest you avoid doing anything to make me rethink your place in my country."
She had dozens of freckles on her nose and cheeks. They became more visible as she paled. "You're threatening me," she breathed. "So what? You'll deport me if I don't let that horrible man have his way with these children? Do you know what he is going to do with them?"
Her eyes were large. More green than blue, he thought until fresh tears filled them. Then the blue seemed more predominant.
As'ad could list a thousand ways he would rather be spending his day. He turned to Tahir.
"My friend," he began, "what brings you to this place?" Tahir pointed at the girls. "They do. Their father was from my village. He left to go to school and never returned, but he was still one of us. Only recently have we learned of his death. With their mother gone, they have no one. I came to take them back to the village."
Kayleen took a step toward the older man. "Where you plan to separate them and have them grow up to be servants."
Tahir shrugged. "They are girls. Of little value. Yet several families in the village have agreed to take in one of them. We honor the memory of their father." He looked at As'ad. "They will be treated well. They will carry my honor with them."
Kayleen raised her chin. "Never!" she announced. "You will never take them. It's not right. The girls only have each other. They deserve to be together. They deserve a chance to have a real life."
As'ad thought longingly of his quiet, organized office and the simple problems of bridge design or economic development that awaited him. "Lina, stay with the girls," he told his aunt. He pointed at Kayleen. "Youcome with me."
Kayleen wasn't sure she could go anywhere. Her whole body shook and she couldn't seem to catch her breath. Not that it mattered. She would gladly give her life to protect her girls.
She opened her mouth to tell Prince As'ad that she wasn't interested in a private conversation, when Princess Lina walked toward her and smiled reassuringly.
"Go with As'ad," her friend told her. "I'll stay with the girls. Nothing will happen to them while you're gone." Lina touched her arm. "As'ad is a fair man. He will listen." She smiled faintly. "Speak freely, Kayleen. You are always at your best when you are most passionate."
Before Kayleen could figure out what Lina meant, As'ad was moving and she found herself hurrying after him. They went across the hall, into an empty classroom. He closed the door behind them, folded his arms across his chest and stared at her intently.
"Start at the beginning," he told her. "What happened here today?"
She blinked. Until this moment, she hadn't really seen As'ad. But standing in front of him meant she had to tip her head back to meet his gaze. He was tall and broad-shouldered, a big, dark-haired man who made her nervous. Kayleen had had little to do with men and she preferred it that way.
"I was teaching," she said slowly, finding it oddly difficult to look into As'ad's nearly black eyes and equally hard to look away. "Peppershe's the youngestcame running into my classroom to say there was a bad man who wanted to take her away. I found the chieftain holding Dana and Nadine in the hallway." Indignation gave her strength. "He was really holding them. One by each arm. When he saw Pepper, he handed Dana off to one of his henchmen and grabbed her. She's barely eight years old. The girls were crying and struggling. Then he started dragging them away. He said something about taking them to his village."
The rest of it was a blur. Kayleen drew in a breath. "I started yelling, too. Then I sort of got between the chieftain and the stairway. I might have attacked him." Shame filled her. To act in such a way went against everything she believed. How many times had she been told she must accept life as it was and attempt change through prayer and conversation and demonstrating a better way herself?
Kayleen desperately wanted to believe that, but sometimes a quick kick in the shin worked, too.
One corner of As'ad's mouth twitched. "You hit Tahir?"
"I kicked him."
"What happened then?"
"His men came after me and grabbed me. Which I didn't like, but it was okay because the girls were released. They were screaming and I was screaming and the other teachers came into the hall. It was a mess."
She squared her shoulders, knowing she had to make As'ad understand why that man couldn't take the girls away.
"You can't let him do this," she said. "It's wrong on every level. They've lost both their parents. They need each other. They need me."
"You're just their teacher."
"In name, but we're close. I live here, too. I read to them every night, I talk to them." They were like her family, which made them matter more than anything.
"They're so young. Dana, the oldest, is only eleven. She's bright and funny and she wants to be a doctor. Nadine is nine. She's a gifted dancer. She's athletic and caring. Little Pepper can barely remember her mother. She needs her sisters around her. They need to be together."
"They would be in the same village," As'ad said.
"But not the same house." She had to make him understand. "Tahir talks about how people in the village are willing to take in the girls. As if they would be a hardship. Isn't it better to leave them here where they have friends and are loved? Where they can grow up with a connection to each other and their past? Do you know what he would do to them?"
"Nothing," As'ad said flatly, in a voice that warned her not to insult his people. "He has given them his honor. They would be protected. Anyone who attacked them would pay with his life."
Okay, that made her feel better, but it wasn't enough. "What about the fact that they won't be educated? They won't have a chance. Their mother was American."
"Their father was born here, in El Deharia. He, too, was an orphan and Tahir's village raised him. They honor his memory by taking in his three daughters."
"To be servants."
As'ad hesitated. "It is their likely fate."
"Then he can't have them."
"The decision is not yours to make."
"Then you make it," she told him, wanting to give him a quick kick to the shins, as well. She loved El Deharia.
The beautiful country took her breath away every time she went into the desert. She loved the people, the kindness, the impossible blue of the skies. But there was still an expectation that men knew better. "Do you have children, Prince As'ad?"
"If you had a sister, would you want her to be taken away and made a servant? Would you have wanted one of your brothers ripped from his family?"
"These are not your siblings," he told her.
"I know. They're more like my children. They've only been here a few months. Their mother died a year ago and their father brought them back here. When he was killed, they entered the orphanage. I'm the one who sat with them night after night as they sobbed out their pain. I'm the one who held them through the nightmares, who coaxed them to eat, who promised things would get better."
She drew herself up to her full five feet three inches and squared her shoulders. "You talk of Tahir's honor. Well, I gave my word that they would have a good life. If you allow that man to take them away, my word means nothing. I mean nothing. Are you so heartless that you would shatter the hopes and dreams of three little girls who have already lost both their parents?"
As'ad could feel a headache coming on.