When Sheikh Mik’hail offered his hand again, she took it and was immediately swung up on the saddle. His arms went around her as he reached for the reins, and with one nudge on the horse’s flank, his steed began running towards the palace.
“What is it?”
“Why are you on a horse?”
“I was in the stables when I received Khal’s call,” Mik’hail said with a grimace, “and the urgency in his tone made me decide there wasn’t any time to lose.”
By the time he finished talking, they had already reached the palace, and the sheikh swiftly helped Ella down.
“You are ready?” Mik’hail inquired gruffly.
Ella could only nod, not yet trusting herself to speak.
Her knees knocked against each other as they entered the palace, but just as they ascended the grand staircase leading to the ballroom, a couple of unsavory-looking men suddenly barred their way to the doors.
A grim look crossed Mik’hail’s face. “You dare stand in my way?”
“We have our orders,” one of the men sneered. “That girl can’t—-”
The rest of what he had to say was anyone’s guess, with Layla’s sheikh planting his fist on the other man’s face and immediately knocking him out unconscious.
In the wake of everyone’s stunned silence, Mik’hail shot Ella an impatient glare. Run!
She recovered at once and ran past the other men to push the ballroom doors open.
Thousands of guests immediately turned her way, and their loud gasps of shock as they took in her appearance had the live orchestra music streaming from the balcony come to a screeching stop.
Is that the queen’s daughter?
Look at her!
What does she think she’s doing, coming here looking like that?
From the other end of the room, Ella heard the king bellow, “Who dares interrupt my son as he makes his choice of bride?”
The words had Ella crying out. “Wait!”
The crowd parted in an instance, and soon after Ella saw Ruth running towards her.
“Oh my God, Ella!” Ruth looked close to fainting. “What happened? Are you hurt?”
Ella squeezed her mother’s hand. “I’m alright,” she said shakily.
Ella shook her head. “I’ll explain everything later,” she whispered, “but right now I have something to do.” She turned towards the king, and even with the whole length of the ballroom separating them, the look on his face had her swallowing. She knew then Henri had more than an inkling of what she was about to say – and he was giving her the chance to say it.
“Your Majesty.” Ella’s voice shook. “Before Sheikh Khal makes his choice, I’d like the chance to present myself as well.” Amidst the cries of consternation and protest erupting from the crowd, she lifted her chin and said fiercely, “I would like to be considered as a possible bride for His Highness.”
“Arrest that woman!” Panic had Dezza shouting the words as she rushed down from the dais. “Arrest her,” she screamed again, but the dozens of guards stationed around her didn’t move a muscle. “Have you not heard me? I said—-”
The sound of the ballroom doors being kicked open cut her off, and the crowd erupted in gasps when they saw Sheikh Mik’hail by the doorway, a bloody heap of unconscious soldiers under his feet.
Dezza’s panic turned into full-fledged terror. “You are Ella’s accomplice, aren’t you?” The words were meant to incite the crowd, and it worked splendidly as she saw many of the women hoping to become the sheikh’s bride throw hostile looks at Ella’s way. “Whatever’s going on,” she babbled wildly, “Sheikh Mik’hail and Ella must have—-”
Despite the softness of Khal’s tone, the power and authority in the single word he uttered was such that Dezza and the entire crowd was cowed by it, no one even thinking to defy his order.
Ella watched with dazed eyes as the sheikh came to stand right in front of her. Again, every inch of him was perfection, which made her all the more acutely conscious of how much the opposite she looked next to him.
Her gown probably had more tears and holes than someone who had gone to war, and she probably had more dirt on her face than she was like a walking mud woman. And to cap things off, she was also barefoot, and with her bloody and bruised feet staining the carpet with red footprints.
The sheikh motioned for a soldier to come forward, murmured something under his breath, and when the soldier returned, it was to hand over a First Aid kit to the sheikh.
Khal walked to where Ella was. “Sit down, milady.” Albeit gentle, the sheikh’s voice was not at all intimate, making her nervous and wondering if the sheikh had once again changed his mind and she had read everything wrong.
When she was seated, the sheikh knelt down and placed the First Aid kit on the floor.
The sheikh silenced her with a look, and Ella could only bite her lip as he started cleaning the wounds to her feet. The crowd around them was just as stunned, but they, too, fell silent when given the same hard look by the sheikh. Only after cleansing her wounds and bandaging her feet did he finally look up, and it was then she saw the look in his eyes.