The Sheikh's Secret Bride(Desert Rogues, Book 3)(19) by Susan Mallery
She flashed him a grin of pure pleasure, then urged her horse into a trot. The patient gelding did as she requested, bouncing her along in a bone-jarring gait that made her thick, blond braid dance up and down on her back.
“Try cantering,” Malik called. “It’s more comfortable.”
Bethany’s expression changed to one of concentration. She leaned over the horse’s neck and squeezed her thighs for all she was worth. Malik doubted the horse felt the pressure, but he sensed her intent and switched to the smoother stride. Bethany circled him around the ring, then executed a perfect figure 8 before slowing to a walk and moving next to Malik on his horse in the center of the ring.
“Can we go out of the ring tomorrow?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. “I think you are ready.”
She beamed at him and together they turned toward the stable. The groom on duty opened the gate to let them through.
“I’m having the best time in El Bahar,” Bethany confessed. “I thought I’d miss home a bunch, but I don’t. I mean, I miss my friends and all, but I’m making new ones. Mommy promised I would and she was right.”
“What about your father?” Malik asked before he could stop himself. “Do you miss him?”
Bethany reined in her mount. They were on the tree-lined path between the corrals and the barn. Malik stopped next to her. He reached over and touched her arm. “You don’t have to answer that if you don’t want to,” he said. “I didn’t mean to make you sad.”
“I’m not sad,” she told him. “I don’t miss my dad very much because I don’t really see him.” She wrinkled her nose. “It’s kinda complicated, but the main thing is he’s really interested in racing cars. So all his free time and money goes into that. He would rather buy a new car engine than send child support.”
She paused. “Mommy always says it doesn’t mean he doesn’t love me, but instead that Daddy isn’t practical. He doesn’t understand that buying me shoes and stuff is more important than his race cars.” She shrugged. “I didn’t mind that so much, but I used to cry when he would promise to come see me on Saturdays and then he’d forget. Or he’d take me to a race and leave me in the pit all day by myself. I didn’t like that. It was scary and loud.”
Malik stared at her young face. She seemed too small and innocent to carry such burdens. He thought of Liana’s ex-husband and wished the man were a resident of El Bahar. The laws here were quite strict on these matters, and if Bethany’s father had missed even two payments of his child support, he would find himself living most unpleasantly in an El Baharian prison. Or if that could not be arranged, Malik would be pleased to take it upon himself to teach the man a lesson he would not soon forget.
“What did your mother tell you about that?” he asked.
“That Daddy still loves me, but he’s not really mature enough to handle the responsibilities of having a child. We decided, Mommy and me I mean, that it would be better if I didn’t see Daddy for a while. Not until he was ready to be there when he said.”
“I’m sorry.” Malik knew the words were inadequate, but didn’t know what else to say. He couldn’t comprehend a man turning his back on his responsibilities.
Bethany shrugged. “It’s okay, I guess. I want to believe that he still loves me, like Mommy says, but I don’t know. I mean if he loved me wouldn’t he want to be with me?” She looked up at Malik. “You wouldn’t forget to pick up your little girl, would you?”
“If I had a daughter like you, I would move heaven and earth to be with her,” Malik told her honestly.
“See, that’s what I thought.” She slumped a little in her saddle.
He felt badly that he’d upset her, but didn’t know how to fix the situation. “You have your mother,” he reminded her. “She loves you and always puts you first.”
Bethany perked up a little. “You’re right. That’s why we’re here in El Bahar. They pay a lot at the American School and there will be enough left over for college and for a house and everything.” Her expression turned wistful. “I wonder if we can get a house big enough for a horse.”
“It would have to be pretty big,” Malik said. “And no stairs. Not if you’re going to keep it inside.”
She burst out laughing. “You don’t keep horses in the house, silly.”
“But that’s what you said. A house big enough for a horse.”
“I meant the backyard.”
The laughter chased the sadness from her eyes and made her cheeks glow with lovely color. Malik found himself enjoying his time with Bethany. In many ways she reminded him of Heidi, his brother Jamal’s wife. Heidi teased him and treated him with the irreverence of a sibling. To him, she was the sister he’d never had. While the brothers were close, they were all acutely aware of their position in the El Baharian government and their duty to their country. That caused a certain distance. But Heidi would tease him about anything and not give a damn that he would one day rule El Bahar.
Bethany was like that. Part of it was her age. Children quickly forgot that they were supposed to be impressed. But most of it was her bubbly personality.
“Race you back to the barn,” Bethany said. “It’s not far,” she added quickly, “and I promise not to fall and break anything.”
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