“Bets on how many years we’ve got before every American library is just a big room with a bunch of iPads and couches? I’d say three. Five tops.”
New Orleans Southern University Assistant Librarian Lora Langhorne turned on her heels—or flats, rather, since heels made too much noise—and raised a finger to her lips as she tried to contain her smile. “Carmen, so help me God. If that happens while I’m still alive, I will hold you personally responsible.”
Carmen Jones grinned as she stepped up to the reception desk and leaned on it. “I figured as much. What’re you doing out here anyway? Shouldn’t you be in the stacks, dusting off those old tomes, wistfully running your fingers along the leather-bound spines of books from the eighteen hundreds?”
“OK, another wise-ass remark like that and you’re officially uninvited from the wedding,” said Lora, putting her hands on her hips and wishing she was wearing heels so she wouldn’t have to look up to meet Carmen’s playful gaze. Why did she pick a Maid of Honor who was a foot taller and maybe also a foot thinner? Oh, right, because Carmen was one of like three friends she had. Maybe she should’ve spent more time outside the damned library the past ten years. “No, my student worker called in sick this morning.”
“Called in hungover, you mean. I heard there was a wild party at the Sigma Nu frat-house last night. Three visits from campus security. One drunk-dial to 911. Toilet paper all over the trees . . . speaking of which, how are the wedding arrangements going?”
Lora widened her eyes and somehow frowned at the same time. “How does toilet paper in the trees remind you of my wedding arrangements?”
Carmen turned bright red. “Decorations, I guess. Sorry. Free association. Who knows how the mind works.”
“I know how your mind works. And as maid of honor, shouldn’t you be telling me how the wedding arrangements are going?”
“You’re confusing me with a wedding planner, honey. Which, now that I think about it, would be a great Plan B for you when the university library system disappears in like two years.”
“I thought it was three to five years,” Lora said, smiling as she looked at her watch, a large-dial Minnie Mouse Collector’s Edition that made more noise than she liked but had been with her since middle school.
“Oh, God, that watch!” Carmen squealed, doubling over and shaking her head. “OK, give that to me, girlfriend. I am going to destroy it right now, right here. Seriously, you are a thirty-year-old woman with a Master’s degree and an engagement ring, and you’re still wearing a child’s watch. Gimme it.”
She grabbed Lora’s hand and started to undo the strap, but Lora pulled away with a jerk, her elbow crashing into the flat-screen monitor and knocking it over. The monitor went down face-first onto the table, and Lora turned bright red when she saw heads turn and eyeballs focus on her, hungover students and harried faculty all looking up from their iPads to see what the hell was happening behind the library’s reception desk.
Lora wanted to sink into the floorboards, or at least hide behind the counter. Being the center of attention wasn’t her thing, especially not the center of negative attention. She straightened the monitor and touched her hair and rubbed her nose, and when she saw one of her student workers finally roll in through the revolving doors to take over at reception, she exhaled and pointed to her office.
The two women hurried into the office, and Lora closed the door as softly as she could and then lowered the blinds on the large glass window that looked out onto the main floor of the library. She sighed and collapsed into her soft faux-leather chair and glared up at Carmen, wanting to blame the tall, thin woman for something.
“Jihaad, right?” said Carmen, plonking herself down on the very uncomfortable, university-issued, wooden-handled loveseat against the side wall.
“What?” said Lora.
“The grand wedding. That’s the place, right? Jihaad?”
Lora closed her eyes tight and shook her head like a dog at the beach. “Johaar! Not Jihaad! You know, I’m having serious doubts about bringing you there with me. I can see this wedding trip ending with me trying to bail you out of an Arabian prison for blasphemy. Jo-haar! Say it with me, Carmen. Jo-haar!”
“Jay-baar,” Carmen said, rolling her eyes and her R’s at the same time. “Got it. Have you seen the Sheikh, by the way?”
“Which Sheikh? There’s a Sheikh visiting the University this week?”
“The Sheikh of Jack-maar,” Carmen said, her eyes twinkling as she pulled out her iPhone and tapped on it. “God, my phone is so slow. I need an upgrade. OK, here we go. Lookie. Yum yum.”
“Your vocabulary needs an upgrade,” Lora muttered, taking the phone and glancing at the photo. Her eyes went wide again, but for a different reason this time, and she smiled and shook her head and handed the phone back. “OK, he’s hot. But how is that relevant. It’s not like you’re going to meet him.”
“Why not? You didn’t send him an invitation?”
Lora snorted. “Can we talk about something relevant, please? Like, did you get your passport renewed yet?”
“This is relevant! You know, I read that it’s a sign of respect to invite the king to every wedding. You can’t show up in a foreign kingdom and ignore their traditions!”
Lora furrowed her brow and studied Carmen’s face. “Where did you read that?”
“OK, maybe I saw it on Game of Thrones, but it sounds right, doesn’t it?”
Lora laughed. “OK, and what are we going to do if the Sheikh of Johaar does show up to my itty-bitty wedding?”
“It’s not an itty-bitty wedding. We’re flying across the world, Lora! Jokes aside, I’m so excited! We all are! Who does a destination wedding in some obscure kingdom in the Middle East? Hawaii, Key West, Atlantic City, Iceland, even Alaska I’ve seen done. But Johaar? And you’re flying everyone down there too! Bling bling! The sexy librarian takes off her glasses and lets loose!”
Lora doubled over, almost hitting her face on the desk as she tried not to laugh too loud. “I don’t wear glasses. I’m not sexy. And Mark and I are paying for the wedding together.”
“Wait, Mark is actually paying for something? Wow, that’s a shocker,” Carmen said, rolling her eyes again as she crossed her long legs.
“Don’t even start, Carmen.”
“Start? I never stopped. Listen, don’t mistake my excitement about the wedding for excitement about the groom. He’s wrong for you. He’s always been wrong for you.”
“OK, please . . . can we just . . .”
“He’s miserly, dishonest, and he’s a goddamn cheat.”
“Hey, this is my fiancé we’re talking about! Can you stop—”
But Carmen didn’t stop. ”He’s cheated before, and he’ll cheat again, Lora.”
Lora blinked and looked away. “He’s never cheated on me,” she said firmly.
“That you know of,” Carmen said, standing up and walking over to a wall-mounted world map and staring at it. Then she turned, arms crossed over her flat chest. “Look, honey, I love you like a sister, and I respect your decision to marry him. But at the same time, I’m not going to pretend I like him.”
“He’s been nothing but wonderful to me,” Lora said obstinately, crossing her arms over her own chest, though she had to push her boobs up to do it.
Carmen snorted. “He’s been nothing but cheap and disrespectful with you. This wedding is a prime example. Mark does very well from his financial advisory business, but yet you’re paying for half the wedding on a librarian’s salary?”
Lora shifted in her chair. “Well, traditionally the bride’s family pays for the entire wedding,” she said softly.
“What is this, the goddamn 1950s? You’re entering a partnership for life, Lora. So each partner should provide what they’re most capable of providing. Mark’s got the cash, and he should damned well spend some of it on the most important day of your lives together.”
Finally Lora raised her voice. “What difference does it make? I do all right. And I offered to pay for half, because . . .”
“Because what? Because Mark didn’t want to do the destination wedding at all, did he? Did he?”
Lora sighed and slumped back into her chair. “No. He wanted to just do a courtroom wedding with a small reception. But even the reception in Johaar is going to be small! Neither of us has a big family or a large group of friends, and so—”
But Carmen was heating up again, and she raised her hand. “Let me ask you this. Have you discussed merging your finances after you’re married?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Of course you don’t. Because you’re still a child at heart, living in some fairytale bubble, surrounded by books that hide the real world from your innocent eyes.” Carmen shook her head. “I mean merging your bank accounts. Putting your name on property together.”
“Well, no. We haven’t discussed any of that. It didn’t seem relevant. We love each other, and—”
“Of course it’s relevant! Listen, has he asked you to sign a pre-nup?”
Lora blinked and shook her head. “No. Of course not. Why would he?”
“Because he’s a cheater. I knew him in college, and he cheated on every woman he ever dated. I told you that, and you chose to ignore it. Fine.” Carmen looked at her phone and then back up at Lora. “There’s three weeks till the wedding, and here’s my prediction. He’s going to ask you to sign a pre-nup. Cheaters always do that. He knows he’s going to eventually cheat on you, and because he’s so tight with his goddamn money, he’ll want to make sure you don’t get to take it with you if you file for divorce.”
“What the hell, Carmen!” Lora said, almost screaming at her friend as she pushed her chair back from the table. “I’m not even married yet and you’re talking about my divorce! What kind of a friend are you!”
“The best kind,” Carmen said firmly. Then she closed her eyes and took a breath. “OK, listen, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to upset you. I just know what I know. I’ve been around the block a few more times than you have, my little librarian. I’ve seen the signs with Mark.”
“Well, maybe the signs are more your issue than Mark’s,” Lora said hotly. “Maybe you’re jealous that after circling the block with one guy after another, I’m the one who’s getting married first. Maybe you’re just . . . oh, God, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean that!”
Carmen laughed. “Don’t be sorry! It’s good to see you’re capable of suspecting less-than-honorable motives in someone!” She shrugged. “Just wish it wasn’t directed at me, but hey, it’s a start.”
Lora was in for a hug before Carmen had a chance to stand, and Carmen bumped her head on the wall as Lora pressed her weight into her on that college-issued loveseat.
“Ooof,” said Carmen. “OK, love. We’re good. But can we finish that conversation please?”
“What conversation? I have work to do. The phone is ringing. The fire alarm is going off. Come on, off with you. Go and get your passport taken care of,” Lora said, struggling to her feet and straightening out her beige pant-suit.
“Pre-nup,” Carmen whispered as she stood and checked her hair in the glass frame that held Lora’s Master of Library Science degree. She turned, her face serious. “If he asks for one, then—”
“Then I’ll sign it. What difference does it make? Besides, he’s never brought it up, and we’re three weeks from the wedding.”
“Ohmygod, that’s his game, isn’t it,” Carmen said, pulling at her hair and almost screaming. “He’s going to ask you once you’re already there, when it’s too late to back out or delay the wedding. You’ve got to bring it up now. Force his hand, Lora. For God’s sake, do it and prove me wrong. Please!”
Lora closed her eyes and shook her head. She pointed at the door. “So I’m going to believe your heart’s in the right place, but this is getting too much. Mark had options, and if he didn’t want to get married, he wouldn’t have asked. And if he’s expecting to get divorced, then why get married?”
“Because he thinks he can have his cake and eat it too, Lora. I’ve known men like Mark. He wants the wife and the home, but he also wants what he wants outside of that.” Carmen blinked and looked at the floor, her gaze unsteady when she looked back up. “Look, I mean this in the best possible way, because you’re a sweetheart and a doll. But you’re also a pushover and way too gullible. Mark thinks he can get away with anything with you—including a pre-nup, I think. And if it’s a pre-nup that gives you nothing when he cheats, he’s home free! He can cheat when he wants, and if you find out and want a divorce, he won’t need to pay you a dime!”
“So I’m a patsy. A fat cow who’ll sit at home knitting sweaters for Mark’s children while he’s out with ten different women at once. OK, Carmen. So there’s only so much of this I’m going to take. Get out now, or I’m seriously going to . . .” Lora shook her head and blinked five times. “Just go, OK?”
Carmen sighed. “Look, I’m sorry. I hope I’m wrong. If the wedding day comes and Mark hasn’t asked for a pre-nup, I’ll be the happiest woman in the room, believe me.”
“The happiest woman in the room? You know there’s no alcohol allowed in Johaar, right?”
Carmen’s eyes went wide. “Oh. My. God. You witch.”
“Out,” said Lora, smiling and shaking her head. “That’s about all the drama I can handle in one morning. Out, now.”
Carmen waltzed out, and Lora dropped into that loveseat and put her feet up. She stared at the ceiling for several long moments before her gaze drifted to that world map on the wall. She could see the outline of Africa, and she tracked her eyes east to the Arabian Peninsula and sighed. For a moment she was angry, pissed at Carmen for saying all that stuff. But Carmen never pulled her punches, never bullshitted anyone. Maybe there was some jealousy, but some of what she’d said made sense. In a messed up way, of course.
Lora had heard of Mark’s exploits in college from a couple of other acquaintances as well, but she’d generally ignored it. People made mistakes in college—hell, that’s what college was about, wasn’t it? She pulled up the blinds and glanced out across the open library lobby. These were just kids. How many of them had done things just last night that they’d regret? Drugs, alcohol, sex . . . the holy trinity. She’d smoked pot a couple of times, gotten drunk exactly once, and as for the sexcapades . . . well, there wasn’t much to tell there. She’d arrived at college a virgin, made out with two different guys her freshman year, and then dated the same guy for the next two years. Until he cheated.
Abruptly Lora drew the blinds shut and closed her eyes, a chill running through her when she realized she’d never, ever told Carmen that little tidbit. She’d been devastated when she’d found out, and it took her a long time to recover. It was more the fact that she had no idea it was happening, that it was the last thing she’d expected he’d do. It made her doubt everything: her looks, her desirability, her judgment.
But she grew up and she got over it. And then she met Mark: smart, charming, with a quick wit and a way with words. The first time they’d gone out, Lora had noticed how other women in the restaurant looked over at him and then at her and then down at themselves, and it made her feel special, chosen, desired. Even though she hated being the center of attention, those looks from the other women gave her a validation she didn’t know she needed.
Then she heard the rumors about Mark, and it had triggered those old feelings from college. But she forced herself to put them aside. Both Mark and she were ten years past college, and in a way it felt even better to be chosen by a man who had options. Of course, she’d never admit that shameful secret—heaven forbid anyone finding out that Lora Langhorne had an ego!
She felt herself blush at the thought even though she was alone in the room. Am I seriously embarrassed at admitting that I have an ego, she wondered. Does that mean I don’t really have an ego? Ohmygod, do I have self-esteem problems then?! Oh, why did I read so many issues of Cosmo when I was a teenager! Or maybe I didn’t read enough Cosmo! What’s happening?! Am I going insane?! Am I about to get my period?! Is that a sexist thing to think?
Just stop yourself before you do or say something really stupid, she told herself. Just relax. You’re getting married in three weeks! You’re having the fairytale wedding in an exotic kingdom, the dream you’ve had ever since you learned how to read!
Johaar, she thought, taking a seat behind her computer and flipping on the monitor. She typed the word into the search bar and clicked, almost absentmindedly, just wanting to lose herself in photographs of the golden desert, those tall minarets, the quaint Arabian marketplaces, the white and yellow bungalows, the Royal Palace made of blue sandstone, and . . . the Sheikh?
Lora frowned when she saw the first set of search results. They were all about the Sheikh of Johaar. She’d read a bit about him: Sheikh Amir Al-Johaar. He hadn’t been in the news much when she’d done her research and chosen Johaar for the wedding—indeed, she’d chosen the little Middle-Eastern kingdom precisely because she’d never heard of it before. It seemed perfect: traditional but not extremist, from what she’d read. The Sheikh had eliminated most of the old laws that favored men over women when it came to education and employment. There were no draconian punishments like they still had in Saudi Arabia. And there was for some reason a direct flight from London to Johaar International Airport—just one flight a week, but still surprising for such a tiny kingdom. So Lora had taken it as a sign that this was the place, and she’d somehow persuaded Mark that instead of inviting two hundred people they barely knew to a wedding in New Orleans, how about they fly twenty people across the world to a destination wedding that they’d all be talking about for the next twenty years!
“Yeah, who’s gonna pay for twenty plane tickets? You?” Mark had snapped when she told him.
Lora had blinked in surprise, but she told herself Mark was just stressed about some deal he was trying to close. “Well,” she said. “I thought we’d both pay for it. Just like with the wedding. Half and half.”
Mark had rubbed his forehead and looked at his phone. “I didn’t even want to pay for the New Orleans wedding. Why do we need two hundred people at a wedding anyway? Such crap.”
“That’s my point, Mark. We don’t need two hundred people. So I did the math, and for what it costs for decorations, caterers, and booze for two hundred people in the US, we can fly twenty people to Johaar for a week!”
“Remind me not to ask you to do any math for my business deals,” Mark had replied, still barely looking up from his phone. Then he did look up. “Because those numbers do not make any fucking sense. Twenty international plane tickets? Hotel rooms for a week? And we still have to pay for a goddamn wedding reception in this place you’ve dug up.”
Lora ignored the language and swallowed as she prepared for her sales pitch. Were the next twenty years going to be like this? Mark staring at his phone and insulting her math skills? She shook her head and cleared her throat. “The numbers work just fine. That’s why I picked this obscure kingdom. They’re trying to encourage tourism, so they’ve arranged for discounted direct flights from London to Johaar. All flights include one week of accommodations and meals at a four-star hotel. I guess the Sheikh’s Ministry of Tourism is subsidizing all the hotels or something. Anyway, I called the hotel and they’ve agreed to let us use their ballroom for the wedding because it would be great publicity for them.” She paused. “There is a small catch, though.”
“Here we go,” Mark said, almost in triumph. “What is it?”
“Well, since there’s this state-sponsored effort to encourage tourism, they want to hold a grand gala three days before the wedding ceremony. I guess in Arab culture every wedding has several days of festivities leading up to the actual nikaah ceremony.”
“The what?” Mark said, his face twisting into a sneer.
“Nikaah,” Lora said. “It’s the Islamic wedding ceremony.”
“Cool. Are we converting to Islam now? Is that part of the catch?”
“No, silly!” Lora said, her face going red as she tried to stay calm. What was up with Mark? “The hotel manager explained that in their culture a wedding lasts a week, with several different parties and ceremonies before the final vows. It’s a way for all the guests to get to know each other, and it creates bonds that last a lifetime. I thought it sounded nice.” She looked away and took a breath when she saw that Mark couldn’t give a shit. “Anyway, the point is, they’ve offered to host the wedding as long as we agree to this grand gala three days before the wedding. And take some photographs, of course.”
Mark snorted. “A grand gala with twenty people? How lame is that. They must really be desperate.”
Lora shrugged. “Maybe they are. Who cares. Anyway, the hotel manager said it would be kind of an open reception for the other hotel guests and a few other invitees.”
“Like who? The king himself?” Mark finally put his phone down and raised an eyebrow. Oh, lookie, he smells money, Lora thought—immediately ashamed at the thought, of course.
“The Sheikh, you mean. And no, I don’t think the Sheikh will be there.” She’d shrugged. “Although you’re free to invite him, if you want.”
Now as she thought back to that conversation with Mark, Lora remembered what Carmen had said about inviting the Sheikh to the wedding, and she clicked on the “Images” tab of the search results and scrolled down. OK, she thought. I see what Carmen meant when she asked if I’d seen a photograph of Sheikh Amir. He certainly does photograph well. Younger than she’d expected, with high cheekbones and olive skin that seemed to glow in every picture. Dark green eyes that were always focused, intense, like he was always after something, always with his eyes on the prize.
“Oh, but he’s engaged,” Lora muttered as she clicked on a photograph of Sheikh Amir with a gorgeous woman with black hair and blue eyes. She was taller, thinner, and certainly more royal than Carmen. “Sorry, Carmen,” Lora whispered, not sure why she felt a little pit in her stomach when she saw the photograph.
But when the main article connected to the photograph came up, the headline and summary said:
Royal Split—Princess Screws Up. Or Screws Around, Rather!
Well, another one bites the dust. Rumors of infidelity have prompted Sheikh Amir of Johaar to end his engagement to Marissa, a minor Princess connected to Monestonia’s Royal Family. We haven’t seen any proof of the supposed screw-up, but we’re working on it! Stay tuned!
“Huh,” said Lora to the computer screen, puffing out her cheeks and reading through a couple more articles before flipping back to the photographs. She absentmindedly scrolled through the collage of images: the Sheikh in a racing jacket waving the checkered flag at the Monaco Grand Prix, Marissa politely standing behind him; the Sheikh in jeans and sunglasses, touring a refugee camp in the Middle East; the Sheikh in black European-style swim-trunks at the beaches of Spain, blue waters in the background, rock-hard abs and a large bulge in the foreground.
Oh, shit, I can’t look at that! Lora thought, guilt, shame, and arousal whipping through her all at once as she realized she was staring at the heavy crotch of the supreme ruler of Johaar! She blinked and shook her head, forcing herself to close the web browser and come back to reality. She felt short of breath, flushed, hot. What the hell? Was she seriously getting aroused from looking at a picture of a half-naked guy? What was wrong with her?
She rubbed her eyes and breathed deep, holding the breath and exhaling slowly. Her eyes burned. She needed to clean her contacts. She needed to do a lot of things. Shit, she was getting married in three weeks!