The klieg lights seem extra-bright, way too hot. Two minutes to go. Please, God, let me get off this stage in one piece. The headdress seems heavier than usual. Eighty seconds. Kick high. Twirl. Smile. Sixty seconds. Kick. Twirl. Smile. Show those teeth. Forget the sweat dripping into your eyes. You know the routine. You can do it blindfolded. I'm burning up. Thirty seconds. Hold it together. You can do this. Ten seconds. One last kick. Follow, Connie. Then you can collapse.
The music reached a tumultuous crescendo, and she was off the stage, the Vegas crowd enthusiastically shouting their approval of the chorus line's performance. Her long legs were so wobbly, she could barely stand. Connie reached for her.
"Trish, you okay? Your timing was off, but I don't think anyone else noticed. God, girl, what's wrong? Here, let me take your headdress. Trish, you're burning up! Girls, come here. Something's wrong with Trish!"
The chorus line swarmed around Trish just as the floor gofer, a young guy named Ernie, tried to fight his way through the scantily clad women. He was waving a folded note at Trish and fought to be heard above the clamoring voices surrounding her.
"That guy who's been here every night this week asked me to give you this." He thrust out the hand holding the note. "It's a note asking you to have a drink with him, and that's a thousand-dollar bill folded inside it. A thousand-dollar bill! Do you know how rare those are? The guy is a prince. That means he's royalty!" Ernie screamed, his freckles lighting up like mini Christmas lights.
"Prince, king, who the hell cares? Get out of here, Ernie," Connie shouted. "Can't you see that something is wrong with Trish?"
Trish sucked in her breath as she felt a cool cloth being run over her face and neck. It felt wonderful. Because Trisha Holiday was a kind and caring person, she struggled to speak. "Give it back, Ernie, and tell him, 'Thank you but no thanks.'"
"But it's a thousand-dollar bill, Trish! Are you sure?"
"She's sure. Now, get out of this room. We need to get changed," someone shouted, menace ringing in her voice.
Ernie ran for the door, his spiked hair moving in his own breeze.
"I'm okay, girls. Just help me get out of this costume. Guess I got that flu bug that some of you had. Seriously, I'm okay. I'm going to go home to bed. I'll drink lots of juice and take some aspirin. That's what you all said you did."
"You're running a high fever, and you're flushed," someone shouted.
Someone else held out an aspirin bottle. A third chorus girl handed Trish a glass of water. She gulped at the little white pills as she peeled off her heavy costume. Someone took it from her hands and hung it up alongside her headdress. She struggled to pull on an oversize sweatshirt over her head, but in the end she needed help. Sweatpants followed. She felt someone slipping her sneakers on her feet, and someone else tied them. A puffy down jacket was placed around her shoulders. Her purse was thrust into her hands.
Time to go home to her cozy apartment. "Thanks, girls. I'm okay now. Tell Nathan I don't think I'll be at work tomorrow. God, he's going to fire me! He gave me such a hard time when I asked for a week off to go home to help see my sister through her divorce. I need this job."
"Don't worry about it, Trish. We'll threaten a walkout if he pulls something like that," Connie said. Trish heard murmurs of agreement backing Connie up. They were a great bunch of girls, and she loved every one of them.
"I think you should get a room here at the casino," Connie said. "Or I'll drive you home."
Trish shrugged into the down jacket. Somebody else pulled up the zipper. "Like I can afford to stay here! Get real, Connie! I can make it home on my own. I feel better now that I'm out of that heavy costume. Thanks for the offer, though. I'll see you when I see you."
Trish was out of the dressing room and walking on wobbly legs. She was burning up and chilly at the same time, and she wasn't even outside yet. Thank God she had a nearby parking space. She crossed her fingers that her old Honda Civic would start up and not fail her. Then she crossed her fingers again that the heater would work. It was all she could do to pull open the heavy stage door, but she managed to do so by pulling with both hands, using her shoulder to hold it in place. As she stepped outside, the door slammed shut as a blast of arctic air assaulted her.
Trish could see her car and the expanse of asphalt she had to traverse to get to it. She could do it. She was aware of a small group of people to her right. God, what if she got mugged? She almost laughed at the prospect. She had forty-six dollars in her purse and a single credit card that had nothing left on it. She stepped forward and felt the wind buffeting her as she struggled to get to her car.
She was less than two feet from her Honda when her knees buckled and she collapsed to the ground. Fortunately, the thick, puffy jacket helped to break her fall. She heard voices, felt herself being picked up, and heard someone say something in a language she didn't understand.
Strangely enough, she felt safe in the arms holding her. She was being carried. Somewhere? Hospital? Back to the casino? The conversation surrounding her sounded agitated by then. The people were arguing—she could tell that by the tone, even though she could not understand the words they said. One voice, a male voice, was higher. It was a nice voice. A concerned voice. A voice of authority.
Trish struggled to open her eyes, but they felt like they had lead weights on them. She looked up into the handsomest face she'd ever seen in her life. "Please don't hurt me," she whispered. She wondered if the handsome man had heard what she had said. Or did she just think she had said those words aloud?
"I would never hurt you, Trisha Holiday."
They were in an elevator, and the voices were still jabbering in that strange language. They, whoever they were, weren't going to hurt her. At that moment, she didn't care what happened next. All she wanted was a warm bed, with warm blankets wrapped tightly around her, so she could sleep. Sleep. Until her fever broke. Beyond that, she just didn't make herself care.
Prince Malik Mohammed kept up a running conversation with his security detail. "Is the doctor standing by? Is the room ready for this young lady?"
"Yes and yes, Prince, but this is a very foolhardy thing you are doing. Your father would not approve. The years you have spent here have you acting like an American. You cannot do this."
"Enough, Rashid. Remember your place. We are doing it. Does that mean you or one of the others, including Dr. Amir, is going to notify my father?"
"I did not say that, Prince. Did I tell your father of your many college escapades? No, I did not. I am loyal only to you, as you know full well. But this is different. These Americans can view this as a kidnapping. Do not be foolish is what I am telling you."
"There is no more room for discussion. Ah, there you are, Amir. We have a patient for you." Prince Malik watched as Rashid, his longtime security guard/confidant/boyhood friend, gently lowered Trisha Holiday onto a king-size bed. They withdrew to a sitting room outside the bedroom while the doctor examined his new patient.
"We should never have come here, Malik." Long years of friendship allowed Rashid to talk to Prince Malik informally. He became the subservient security guard only when others in their party or strangers were around.
"Why not, Rashid? I've been here in America for seven long years, studying, with no breaks. I finished my studies as you did. I am now a Ph.D., as you are. I hold two master's degrees, as you do. I've done everything my father has asked of me. This is my reward before returning home next week. I earned this vacation. You like it, too. Admit it! All the music, the noise, the bells and whistles. This is a fun place. You know as well as I do that when I return home, I will once again be under my father's thumb. Can't you cut me some slack until then?"
Rashid was a tall man with the physique of a bodybuilder. He worked out on a regular basis, as did Prince Malik. Suddenly, he laughed and slapped Malik on the back. "Want a beer?"
"You need to notify the young lady's superior or her friends. When they find her car still in the parking lot, things will start to pop. And your name is the first one that will be mentioned. You sent the young lady a thousand-dollar bill in a note. That will not go unnoticed."
"Which she returned, Rashid. I have to say, I did not expect that. I can't believe she would turn down money. I checked out the pay scale for her type of work, and the dancers are not paid much money. I think she might be the one, Rashid. I've watched her every night this week. Seven long years, and I finally found a woman I think I might like, and how do I find her? Sick."
"That should work in your favor, Malik. She'll be grateful to you for being there to help her. Who knows how long she might have lain out there in the cold if we weren't there? Yes, I think she will be grateful."
"I don't want her to be grateful to me. I want her to like me for who I am. We were just there at the right time. Anyone would have done the same thing."
"No, they would have taken her to the hospital. Or they would have called nine-one-one."
"We have the entire twenty-first floor. We have a doctor and two nurses on call twenty-four/seven. It was much easier and better for her to bring her here. She's being seen to as we speak. I don't even know where the hospital is around here. I didn't want to call attention to myself by calling nine-one-one. Miss Holiday is in good hands—the best hands. Amir is a skilled physician. Aside from treating us for colds, all he has done since coming here seven years ago is to keep up on the latest medical journals and tour various hospitals and observe.
"Go into the office and make the necessary calls. Tell anyone who needs to speak to me to come up here. If they want to send some of their people to watch over Miss Holiday, that will be fine. I'm sure when she wakes up, she will speak for herself."
Malik jumped up and walked over to the bedroom door, straining to hear something, anything, that was going on behind the closed doors. Was Rashid right? Was it a mistake to come to Las Vegas from California, where he'd lived for seven years? Yes and no, he decided. He'd attended the University of California, Berkeley and loved every minute of it. He had made friends, blended into college life. He'd studied hard to make his father proud of him. Academics came easy to him, and he hadn't had to struggle at all. He'd breezed through the seven years and earned three degrees in the bargain. He loved American baseball and football. Loved wearing tattered blue jeans and a baseball cap. He loved hot dogs with the works, pizza with everything on it, pounding beers with his friends. And he'd given back in the only way he knew how—he'd tutored friends for free on his off time.
Though he'd dated, he had had no serious relationships. Rashid said he was looking for the impossible dream when it came to women. All he knew was that until this week, when he'd dragged Rashid to the casino to watch the same show every night, he hadn't met the right one. One of the dancers caught his eye the first night, and she had smiled at him. And in that split second in time, he was, as his American friends were wont to say, a goner. But it took him till tonight to get up the nerve to send a note backstage. He knew now that sending the thousand-dollar bill with the note had been the wrong thing to do. Trisha Holiday's sending it back proved to him that he was right. She was the one. He knew it in his gut, in his heart, and in his mind. And woe to him when his father found out. Back in Dubai, the woman his father had chosen for him waited. His balled fist slammed into his open palm. He could never marry someone he didn't love. And yet what hope did he have that he could defy his father? None.
The bedroom door opened. Amir, his doctor since birth, smiled at him. "Relax, Malik. Miss Holiday has the flu. She has a high fever. I've given her some shots and set up an IV drip. She's dehydrated. She's asleep now. I feel confident when I say I think her fever will break by tomorrow. Today, actually. She'll be uncomfortable for a few days, but she'll recover.
"You cannot stay here. It is not seemly. You need to go to your own suite, and I will update you. I sent a text to Carpas to hire two round-the-clock female nurses. He returned my text, saying they are on the way. I will wait here until they arrive, then return to my own suite. Tomorrow promises to be a busy day. It's late. Get some sleep.
"You are to be commended, Malik. Without a doubt, you saved that woman's life. She could have lain out there in the freezing cold and died before someone came along."
Malik shuffled from one foot to the other. "How soon are you going to notify my father? Not that I care, mind you," he said defiantly.
Amir laughed. "Rest easy, Malik, I am not going to be a ... What is it the Americans say in those old movies I like to watch? Ah, yes, a stool pigeon."
"That's a relief. I'd really hate to have to have Rashid kill you for ratting me out." It was said jokingly, but Dr. Amir blanched, until Malik laughed and slapped him on the back before leaving the suite to go to his own quarters.
Trisha Holiday slept off and on for seventy-two hours. When she woke, she drank broth, juice, and sucked small amounts of apple sauce from a spoon. While she didn't know it at the time, she had lost nine pounds. She also did not know that she had had a steady stream of visitors: the entire chorus line, her immediate boss, as well as the owner of the casino. When she was told about all those who had visited, she smiled wanly and drifted back off to sleep.
It was Malik himself who shopped for her, buying nightgowns that were pretty but not sexy, a hairbrush, and other things that a salesgirl had told him a lady who had been sick would need. He took a lot of good-natured ribbing from his staff, especially Rashid. He simply didn't care. All he cared about was seeing and talking to the person whose life, he was convinced, he had saved.
On the fourth day, precisely at noon, Malik was escorted into Trisha Holiday's room to be formally introduced to the patient by her physician. For the first time in his life he was tongue-tied as he stood at the side of the bed and offered his hand. Her clasp was weak and dry, but she smiled.
"The doctor told me you are the one who brought me here. Thank you. How can I repay you?"
"No payment is necessary, Miss Holiday. I'm glad to see that you are feeling better. Are you eating? Is there anything I can get for you?"
"I'm not very hungry, but thank you very much. Are you really a prince?"
Malik laughed. "I am. Is that okay with you?"
"I've never met a prince before. What do princes do? Here in America, that is."
"They go to school, and in their spare time, they save damsels in distress." He laughed again, showing off what Trisha thought were the most beautiful teeth she'd ever seen. The rest of him was pretty much okay, too. Then she remembered being carried by a handsome man.
"Are you the person who carried me here? I remember that. I thought you were the handsomest man I'd ever seen." She blushed a bright pink at her words.
"Obviously, you were delirious, young lady," Amir said, smiling broadly. "This rascal does not need to have his ego inflated."
She thinks I'm handsome. He grinned, once again showing his pearly whites. "You look tired, Miss Holiday. I'll come back and visit later. I think I'm going to try my luck with the slot machines downstairs. Would you like me to play for you?"
"That's not allowed. Employees cannot gamble. We have to sign contracts," Trisha said before her eyes closed, and she was asleep again.
"It's cold out, Malik. Wear a warm coat. I don't want to treat you, too, because unlike Miss Holiday, you are a terrible patient."
Malik flipped the physician the bird and whistled for Rashid, who was on his cell phone. "I'll be staying here in the casino, Amir, so I don't need a coat."
Malik turned to motion to Rashid. "Come on, Rashid. Let's go spend some of my father's money. I am feeling lucky today."
"It's your sister on the phone, and she's complaining again about your being here while she's stuck in the palace with nothing to do."
Malik waved his hand at his old friend, dismissing his sister's complaints, and waltzed out of the suite, knowing full well Rashid would cut the call short and follow him.
"Your sister is a pain in the neck. Why don't you marry her off and be done with it?" Rashid grumbled when he caught up to Malik.
Excerpted from A Family Affair by FERN MICHAELS. Copyright © 2014 MRK Productions. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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