The Sheikh's First Christmas

By: Holly Rayner

 A Warm and Cozy Christmas Romance


ONE





Christmas in Seattle was typically a cold, rainy affair, with gray skies and muddy streets that would never feature on a holiday card or storefront display. This year was no exception. It was two days before Christmas, and if you didn't have much holiday cheer of your own, the scenery and weather were not about to inspire it. I had none, so I frowned as I switched my car radio between stations, looking for any music that wasn't about warm hearths and trees all aglow. As I drove away from town and toward the high-end suburbs, I passed manicured yards decorated with glowing lights, light posts wrapped in pine boughs and red bows, nativities and reindeer and evergreen wreaths. Christmas was everywhere.



"Soon," I murmured. "Soon, all this junk will be gone."



I heard the bitterness in my voice and sighed. I hadn't always been this tired, irritated person, eager for the holiday season to hurry up and be done. I'd loved Christmas growing up. I'd been raised by a single mom, and we'd never had much, but she'd always managed to make the holiday special for us. A stocking full of sweets, a special dinner, a treasured gift or two -- it might not have been impressive to kids who'd grown up in wealthier families, but, for my sister and me, it had been utter magic.



I said a silent prayer for a different kind of magic as I parked my car, a battered old Ford. I chose a spot at the back of a little-used alley that ran behind a bank and a drug store, both closed at this time of night. There was little foot traffic through here, and even less chance that one of the homeless people or shift workers who passed through would notice or remember my unremarkable car. I killed the engine and jammed the keys into the pocket of my jeans. I got out of the car, settling my backpack on my shoulders as I did.



It took almost twenty minutes to walk from the commercial district to the upper-class neighborhood that had been my favorite for the past few months. Twenty minutes wasn't long enough for me to quiet the fluttering in my belly. I knew there was no real reason to be afraid. I'd prepared meticulously, checking the house I'd chosen again and again over the last week. The work I did was risky, but I always did everything I could to make that risk as small as possible. And, of course, I always made sure the risk was worth it.



My first visit had told me that there were things inside worth stealing. It wasn't just the size of the house, which would be more correctly described as a mansion—hell, add a few turrets and a moat, and the place was a castle. I liked more than the size of this one, though. It was small details that told me the occupants appreciated nice things, expensive things. The curtains visible through the windows were heavy, elaborately-woven tapestries, the kind of custom dressings that cost tens of thousands of dollars. Through the half-moon window in the front double doors, I could make out a brass and crystal chandelier that I was sure cost more than I'd ever earned in a year. Even the planters on the front porch, some empty, their summer flowers dead and gone; some displaying round, glossy-leaved bushes, looked high-end. There was no question of coming away from this house with a valuable haul.



Of course, a fancy home full of pricey knick-knacks wasn't all I looked for when I chose a target. All the valuables in the world are worthless unless you can get in and out without getting caught. The sprawling mansion on Bradford Lane was protected by only the most perfunctory security system, an outdated model that did little more than a thumb lock when it came to keeping out an experienced thief. I spotted the sticker on my first visit to the place and could hardly believe my luck. I knew this system inside and out, and had gotten past it easily a half dozen times before. It was one of the few systems today that still relied on a landline phone connection; cut the connection, and the system died with it. And cutting the connection would be easy, because this house had an advantage that I simply couldn't pass up: it was empty.



It wasn't unusual for houses in this neighborhood to be empty at this time of year. Seattle was wet and overcast for most of the year, but it was particularly dismal in winter. Wealthy people often chose to spend the colder months elsewhere, in places where the air was still warm and the sun shone. I guessed this is what the owners of my target had done, speculating that they probably had six house-castles like this, all over the world, to suit whatever mood they happened to wake in. There were cars parked in the massive garage, but rich people always had extras. I'd set a stick against the base of the garage door to check whether anybody came or went, and the stick hadn't moved all week. The curtains inside the windows hadn't opened, I'd neither seen nor heard a soul around the place, and no mail had been delivered, either—a sure sign that the occupants had stopped delivery while they relaxed on some sunny beach in Florida or Spain.

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