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The Sheikh's Stolen Bride-To-Be

By:Holly Rayner

ONE


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Steph



Stephanie was slacking.



Sitting in her plush computer chair, she clicked through page after page  of summer dresses, evaluating their design and style, thinking about  how she would change them up to make them even better. As she clicked on  the next item, a yellow sundress, a knock on her door startled her into  clicking out of the internet browser.



"Steph, do you have a minute?"



It was her boss, Bill.



Straightening her back and running her hands self-consciously along the sides of her blazer, Steph stood and smiled.



"Of course, Bill. What can I do for you?"



Bill was a middle-aged man with fluffy gray hair and a belly that  protruded just a smidge too far beyond his vest. Not wanting to get on  his bad side by recommending a different suit style that might work  better with his body type, Steph looked away from the offending bit of  belly and kept her gaze on her boss' eyes as he took a seat in the chair  across from her desk.



"How long have you been working with us now, Steph?"



She took a minute to calculate it out.



"Two years now, not counting the two I interned."



Bill nodded. "Correct. You've done fantastic work in that time, and I'm  getting to a place where I would like to promote you, you know."



Steph tried her best to look enthusiastic.



"Wow, that's amazing news!"



Bill put up his hands. "Now don't get excited just yet. The problem is  that in this industry I really can't promote you to a position that  requires a college degree, no matter how experienced you are."



Steph's shoulders slumped. Again with the college degree.



"I know how unfair it is," Bill continued, "and I know the circumstances  surrounding your family's position, but there is such a thing as  student loans, Steph. It's something to consider, if you ever want to  get anywhere in this field."



"Thank you, sir," Steph said, her tone respectful. "I'll speak with my family about it and see what we can do."



Bill nodded, satisfied. "You do that. It would be a shame to lose you, Steph. You're a good egg."



"Thank you," she said again.



Bill nodded and left her office, closing the door behind him. Steph  stared at the thick wood for a moment before looking back at the exotic  beach backdrop on her computer and sighing.



College was important. She knew that. Her parents knew that. But Steph's  future wasn't destined to be traditionally American. Her father, an  Irish American, had made a fortune on Wall Street in the eighties.  People called him "the lucky lender," for heaven's sake. The man had  been able to produce money as though from thin air, which made him all  the more interesting when he'd embarked on an arranged marriage to a  woman from the Middle-Eastern country of El Farah-Steph's mother.



Steph had had a fairly normal childhood. Her parents had decided to  raise her in the tiny town in Vermont where her father had grown up, and  they had been the richest family in town. She had lived a privileged  life, but her father had always instilled in her a sense of hard work,  and Steph was not afraid to get her hands dirty. She was a country girl,  after all, and knew how to look after herself.



All of that had changed when the market crashed in 2008. At the tender  age of 14, Steph had gone from being the richest girl in town to the  poorest; her whole world twisted and tossed to the ground. She'd watched  deep lines develop on her father's face as they'd sold everything they  owned and moved into a small two-bedroom house on the edge of town.



One evening, her mother had looked at her with concern in her eyes. "We  thought you would be able to make your own way in this world, Stephanie,  with our wealth at your back. Now that it's gone, we'll have to  reconsider. I advise you to prepare yourself for an arranged marriage  someday, as it will be the best way for us to ensure that you are cared  for."



At the time, Steph had cried and screamed and threatened to run away.  How could her parents plan such a thing, taking away her choice of a  partner, deciding her future for her? Her boyfriend at the time had  offered to help her catch a train to New York and never come back. She  had even packed a suitcase to do just that, before she had found him  kissing another girl behind the gym.         

     



 



In that moment, an arranged marriage hadn't sounded like such a terrible  idea. If her parents, who cared for her welfare more than anyone, could  help her find a decent man to spend her life with, who would provide  the financial security she had been so used to as a child, was that  really such a bad idea? In that moment, Steph resigned herself to her  fate. She was a daughter of America and El Farah, and, in truth, she  really didn't belong to either.



Opening up her browser again, she perused a few more dresses before  losing interest. What was the point? If Steph had had her way, she would  have been a fashion design major, maybe in Boston or New York. She had  always had a talent for design, and her notebooks were filled with  doodles and drawings of ideas. She was an artist stuck working at a  bank. She had only gotten the job because of her father's reputation,  even though he had fallen so far. Names mattered in Vermont. People  looked out for their own.



Her eyes darted to the clock at the bottom of her computer screen, and  she realized she could head home for the day if she wanted. Unwilling to  spend another minute in that stuffy blazer, Steph shut down her  computer and grabbed her work bag, waving goodbye to the tellers as she  headed out the door.



Summers in Vermont were perfectly mild. It was north enough that the  temperature never really went above eighty degrees, and the state was  lush with beautiful forests, clean lakes, and plenty of pond-side  beaches. Steph couldn't have asked for a better place to grow up.



Still, while her childhood had been idyllic, adulthood was less exciting  in a town with only a few hundred people in it. Most of her friends had  left for colleges elsewhere, exploring the world, going on adventures.  As she'd watched them through social media, wishing to go on her own  adventure, she had realized that her best bet would be the marriage her  parents had arranged.



A marriage that so happened to be taking place in a few days' time, in  El Farah. Steph's packed bag, with her traditional wedding dress inside,  was sitting in her room at that very moment as she made her way down  her town's small main street toward an ice cream parlor. She slid out of  her blazer and shoved it into her bag, relishing in the feel of the  warm sun on her skin.



Thanks to her diverse parentage, Steph had an exotic blend of dark olive  skin, straight black hair, and piercing blue eyes. She was petite, but  she loved running, which gave her an athletic build. Stephanie O'Hanlon  was a fighter. She was strong, and she had lived through her family's  complete financial breakdown, working to help her father deal with his  grief while her mother did the same. They had stood together through the  toughest of storms and come out on the other side, and Steph was proud  of her family, different as they were.



Bells jingled against the glass door as Steph walked into the ice cream  shop. An old woman sat at the counter reading a newspaper.



"It's awfully quiet in here for how good the weather is," Steph said.



The woman looked up from her paper and smiled, her face crinkling like  tissue paper. "The kids aren't out of school yet, though they should be  any minute. What brings you in here so early, Stephanie?"



Steph shrugged, pulling out her wallet and perusing the flavors written  on a chalk wall. "I went in early today, so I got to leave early. I'll  be gone for a while after tomorrow, so I want to make sure I stop in at  all my favorite places first."



Steph didn't want to think about never coming back. She was potentially  about to marry a man in El Farah and call that country her new home,  even though she had never seen it before. If she hadn't been so  desperate for adventure, for some kind of change, she would have told  her parents to call off the deal. As it was, a man had already been  selected, and he was waiting for her an ocean away. Steph wondered what  he looked like. Did he like ice cream? Did they even eat ice cream in El  Farah?



Having made her choice, Steph ordered a caramel vanilla swirl in a waffle cone, going all out for her last stop in the store.



"How long will you be traveling, honey? It must be exciting to see your mother's home country for the first time!"         

     



 



June was an amazingly kind woman. She had run the ice cream shop since  before Steph could even remember. It was comforting to always see her  there, scooping out gallons of ice cream with her strong arms. Steph  hoped to be just as strong as she grew older.

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