Babette frowned more deeply and looked at Zelda. “You made sure that you got your paperwork before boarding the ship, didn’t you?”
Zelda opened her mouth and closed it without saying anything.
“Did you lose your visa or something? You should have told us.”
“Attempting to enter Murindhi without paperwork is a class three felony,” the official said, his face falling into stern lines. “Punishable by immediate deportation, as well as a lifelong ban from the country.”
“That’s impossible,” Babette insisted. “All of the crew have their paperwork. Why didn’t you say something if you’d lost your papers?”
Zelda felt her eyes stinging as the consequences of her spur-of-the-moment decision began to weigh on her with their full force.
“Please step aside, so we can process the rest of the crew,” the security official said. He raised a hand to flag one of the other guards, and Zelda’s heart leaped into her throat as the guard approached, obviously intent on arresting her.
“Excuse me,” someone said, and Zelda looked around, on the point of tears, only to see the gorgeous Middle-Eastern man who she had missed during the docking. “I’m afraid there’s been some misunderstanding. Babette, you can go on ahead.”
“A misunderstanding?” the security officials looked more respectful of the wealthy man as he approached, and Zelda felt her heart slow down just a little bit.
“Yes—you see, this beautiful lady and I met very recently,” the man told the officials. “I’m afraid I was not as careful with my preparations for the trip as I should have been.” The man moved closer to Zelda.
“What do you mean?” one of the officials asked.
“You know who I am, correct?” The man raised one well-groomed eyebrow and the security official hesitated only a moment before nodding.
“Yes, Your Highness,” the man said. He looked at the second officer. “You are Sheikh Zayed El-Sharabi, owner of this vessel.”
Zelda’s breath caught in her throat.
“In that case, if you could please process my paperwork,” the Sheikh said, handing a few items, including a Murindhi passport, to the second guard. “This beautiful creature is a guest of mine.”
“If she’s a guest of yours, why didn’t she come through with the guests?”
Sheikh Zayed smiled slightly. “She was waiting for me, but I’m afraid we got separated,” he said. “Last-minute matters to attend to on board, you understand.”
The second official was looking through the paperwork the man had supplied, and seemed satisfied.
“Getting back to the issue: my apologies for not notifying ahead, but I made the decision to invite this woman—my fiancée—with me at the last minute.” The Sheikh took her arm and Zelda let him.
“Is this true?” The official turned a stern look on her.
Zelda, not quite trusting her voice, nodded.
The official looked doubtful still, glancing from her passport to her face, to the Sheikh. “I’m not certain I can excuse this,” the man said.
“Please, I promise you that she will have her paperwork within the next fourteen days,” the Sheikh said, his hand slipping into a pocket on his tailored blazer. “You know from my reputation that I am an impulsive man, but also a generous man, yes?”
The two officials looked at each other; the rest of the uniformed guards were busy processing the last few members of crew, including the captain of the yacht.
“I understand your concern, but you know that there’s no reason for me to lie, right?”
Before Zelda’s shocked eyes, the man who’d claimed to be her fiancé performed some strange sleight of hand, tucking brightly colored bills into the two officials’ hands, all the while keeping the polite smile on his face.
“I’m not sure about this,” the first official said, glancing briefly at the bribe.
“Come on,” Zayed said, his smile increasing slightly. “You know how it is when you see a beautiful woman you just have to have. I apologize for my indiscretion in not waiting for her paperwork, but now that I am here I can have it expedited much more effectively. She will be completely legal before the month is even over, and until then…” he winked. “It’s not as though she’ll be running around the country on her own, you know.”
The officials didn’t seem exactly pleased, but nor did they look as though they were willing to give back the bribe on principle. One of the men—the second one—tucked the bills into a pocket. Zelda didn’t know the exchange rate, but she saw at least two zeros on the denomination mark.
“You can go ahead,” the first official said, handing Zelda back her passport. “But be aware that if you are not legally documented in the next fourteen days, you’re likely to be arrested and sent back to the United States.” The guard looked at Zayed. “And of course, money and status cannot always buy one’s way out of tight corners.”
“I appreciate your thoughtful concern,” Zayed said, inclining his head towards the men slightly. “We’ll be on our way. Come, my dear; we need to get you home.”
The Sheikh guided Zelda by the hand, past the security checkpoint and through the gates at the harbor.
She let herself be led, still reeling from the shock of his timely rescue. She’d heard more than one crew member talking about the owner of the yacht, Sheikh Zayed El-Sharabi, but she never would have guessed that the man who had taken her fancy was the one in question; she’d never really considered the question of who the owner of the yacht even was.
Zayed didn’t say anything as he led her into the commercial area surrounding the harbor, and Zelda didn’t attempt to engage him. She was too busy taking in the sights and sounds: hawkers singing out in a variety of languages, trying to attract people to their stalls, brightly colored spices, flowers, fabrics, and people in unfamiliar garbs browsing and bustling around. It was so unlike Miami that for a moment Zelda wondered if she was in some bizarre kind of dream.
Zayed came to a stop in front of a cafe, glancing at Zelda. “Let’s stop here; we need to have a serious conversation.”
“I see,” Zelda said, coming out of her bemused shock into a cold kind of dread.
The Sheikh guided her into the little shop, and Zelda breathed in the scent of rich coffee, buttery pastries, savory cooking, and a bitter edge of tobacco smoke. She saw the probable owners of the cafe look up and acknowledge Zayed, smiling at him and gesturing for him to take any table he wanted. The Sheikh conducted her to one farther away from the rest, and Zelda’s sense of apprehension increased.