Exiled heart, p.21

Exiled Heart, page 21


Exiled Heart

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  “You know I do not understand some—”

  “Do you have an opinion about that?” She rolled her eyes. “He’s your religion, after all.”

  He put his elbows on the table and leaned forward. “My religion? Is that the way you see it?”

  Her pulse skidded upward. “You’re Saudi.”

  “You want my opinion?” With his fork, he pointed at her. “You should have asked permission first.”

  The jerk! “What?”

  “He was probably not used to having an unrelated woman not of his religion touch him.”

  “So? I’m a nurse. It’s my job—”

  “And he was not comfortable with you. Why is this so difficult for you to understand?”

  Of all things! He preached her to like she was an errant pupil. “I don’t believe you.”


  She tossed her bread onto her plate. “How can you say that?”

  “It is the culture. Your sister understood that well with her work.”

  The nerve, the absolute nerve of him. “Don’t you dare bring her into it.”

  She tried to ignore the way her voice had risen.

  He threw his fork onto the glass table with a clatter. “Why are you so angry all of the sudden?”

  Calm, as if trying to talk her down.

  Instead, he poured fuel onto her smoldering anger.

  “Do you know what it’s like to have an Arab man, a Saudi man, refuse to shake your hand and look down his nose at you simply because you’re female?”


  “Do you?” That nearly came across as a shout. “It’s horrible. And it happened to me today.”


  “You Saudi men are all alike!”

  He slammed his fist onto the table. “Claire!”

  She started.

  “You do not know what you are saying.” He sprang to his feet and loomed over her with his fingertips on the glass.

  No way would she give in. She jumped up. “Sure as the dawn I do!”

  “You Americans think you are so high and mighty. But you are not. You are decadent.” He nearly shouted that. “You tolerate filth. Pornography.” He pointed at her. “You put women in practically nothing and do not call it pornography. You think all people who speak Arabic hate you.”

  “You don’t respect your women.” She matched him in volume now. “You take their children. Father rules, right? They want to be normal, to have a life, and you repress that. You beat your wife simply for wanting to have a job. Something more than just sitting at home and staring at four walls. And if she doesn’t walk that line exactly as you want her to, you kill her and get away—”

  “Claire!” A roar, a raging storm.

  Oh, no. Had she really spewed that hatred? The blood drained from her face.

  Ziad threw his napkin to the ground. “Shut up and listen to your foolishness. I do not have to sit here and take this garbage from you tonight or any other night. You are a foolish woman speaking foolish things. You and your pride.”

  He tore into the house and swiped his keys and wallet from the island.

  Stunned, she stood there. Her neighbors had fallen silent. Then came nervous murmurs.

  Claire bolted inside. The dishes in the glass-fronted cabinets trembled as she rushed toward the foyer. “Ziad, wait.”

  He yanked open the door and whipped around.

  Claire skidded to a stop.

  “You think you are so good, that you do not hate.” That nearly came out as a hiss. “You do! I want nothing to do with you.”

  He slammed the front door so hard the house shook. The mirror on the stairwell wall above the foyer console table fell and shattered on the wooden floor.

  The 4Runner’s engine roared.

  “Ziad!” She ran down the porch stairs. A splinter bit into her foot.

  “Ziad, please. Wait!” She stared as he blasted in reverse down the driveway.

  With a chirp of tires, he sped into the night.

  Tears filled her eyes. “What have I done?”

  She knew exactly what she’d done.

  Grossly wounded the one man who’d become one of her closest friends.

  She hobbled up the steps as fast as she could and snatched up her phone. She staggered to the couch in the family room. “Ziad, pick up. Please!’

  It rang. And rang. It shifted to voice mail. His finely accented English, then Arabic, told her to leave a message.

  A tear trickled down her cheek. “Ziad, please, please call me when you get this. I—I’m sorry. Please! I—I lost my head. Please call me.”

  She lowered the phone. With a grimace, she pulled out the splinter and tossed it onto the coffee table. She limped toward the foyer.

  The mirror now lay in what seemed to be thousands of shards on the floor. She picked up a piece and stared at it. Shattered. Just like how she felt now. She clasped it to her chest. “Oh, Ziad, I’m sorry! Please come back.”

  With that, she bent her head and cried.


  Ziad stomped on the accelerator as he sped across the Ravenel Bridge into Charleston.

  Claire wanted him to be among his own kind?

  He’d do exactly that.

  His phone rang. Her name popped up on the caller ID.

  Forget it. He’d not answer now or ever again.

  He sped into the parking lot of the local mosque and turned off his phone.

  The final prayers of the day were beginning. He whipped through his ablutions and found his place on the last row of men. The women lined up behind him.

  Their presence mocked him.

  In the row ahead of him, a man in scrubs settled on his knees.

  To his right, a young man sported a thick bandage on his left hand. Maybe Claire’s patient?

  Did he care? No.

  Like he believed that.

  He bowed toward the ground and began prayers in earnest.

  An hour later, after coffee with some friends, Ziad powered on his phone as he unlocked his apartment. No less than a dozen texts from Claire. Voice mails. Three of them.

  “Ziad, this is Claire.” Her voice sounded hoarse, as if she’d been crying. “I know you’re either ignoring my call or have the phone turned off. I’m sorry. I cannot say that enough. My mouth got ahead of my mind. Please… please call me.”

  His fingers tightened on the phone. He hurled it onto the bed.

  He’d do no such thing.

  Claire had messed up. Not him.

  He turned the shower on as hot as he could stand it. Maybe that would burn off the anger still streaming in his system.

  Just as he returned to the bedroom with a towel around his waist, his phone began pinging again.

  More texts.

  From Claire.

  Please forgive me.

  His lip curled.

  Please call me. I want to talk.

  He didn’t.

  I care about you.

  He didn’t believe that. Not for one second.

  Please call.

  He turned it off before easing onto the edge of the mattress and hanging his head.

  “You must forget her,” one of his friends had said earlier that evening. “She hates you simply for who you are. Such a woman is not worthy of your time or affection.”

  No, he couldn’t forget her. That was as likely as the sun setting in the east.

  Where did we go wrong tonight?

  He flopped back and stared at the ceiling.

  We were both wrong.

  His pride still smarted at the words she’d said and the humiliation of arguing in front of her neighbors.

  He closed his eyes and shook his head. No. She’d have to be the one to apologize.

  In person.

  On her knees.

  Until then, he wanted nothing to do with her.

  The air washing across his face from the ceiling fan gradually cooled his temper. He drifted.

  That dream came again, one he hadn’t
had since the night Claire had gotten drunk.

  He wandered among roses of many colors, some white, some red, some yellow. Even yellow ones with red tips.

  Sweet scents, with the scarlet ones yielding the most pleasant of all.

  A woman laughed, a sound he instantly recognized.

  Sabirah sat on an ornate prayer rug and hugged Tariq close.

  Then came the golden scales with an English Z on them.

  Dread filled him.

  His life sat before him.

  Tariq undid the drawstrings of a black velvet bag.

  Gray stones that were his works poured onto the rug.

  Ziad closed his eyes. “I can explain.”

  Grief filled Sabirah’s dark eyes as she placed several on the Sayia’at side of the scale. It tipped. “Claire cares about you, and you hurt her.”

  “She hurt me as well!”

  Another one went on the Sayia’at side. “You have so much pride. She had a point, even if she phrased it poorly.” Yet another stone made it sag even further. “And that woman today. You judged her for her drunkenness and the way she treated you.”


  “She has a miserable home life.”

  Tariq piled on more. “Claire struggles with her bigotry. She hates that it’s within her.”

  “No!” Ziad’s eyes flew open. His lower back ached from lying in that position for so long. With a groan, he sat up and mopped his face with a sheet. “What have I done?”

  No stones in his dream had gone on the hasana’at side. Not one.

  So much for thinking he stood in the right on this one. He had his own issues.

  No chance of sleeping now. Or maybe ever again.

  With a glass of water in front of him, he settled down on the couch and stared at the dark television. He reached for the remote.

  No. He needed to think this through.

  His own family, moreover, his beloved, had accused him. He had pride. He knew it. Too much of it. Hadn’t he wound up where he was because of pride? Yes. If he’d listened to those around him, Sabirah and his family would still be alive.

  But would I know Claire as I do now?

  The thought startled him.

  Go see her.

  That voice, once again like when he’d nearly walked out of her life weeks before.

  Ziad whipped around. No one stood there.

  He knew what he had to do. He’d call her the next evening after he finished his shift.

  Now he had to get some rest. It didn’t happen. He either paced the floor or stared at the creek.

  Somehow, he stumbled through his eight-hour shift at the Quick Fill the next day. When he finally dragged himself to his apartment, he needed a nap before doing anything.

  When he woke up, the clock told him the bad news. He’d slept clear through the night from five in the afternoon to five in the morning. And now he had to work another eight-hour shift, this time as a reserve officer.

  Tonight. Tonight I will apologize.

  If his pride-turned-to-shame didn’t get in the way.


  By Friday, Claire wrote off Ziad.

  She’d tried to call him three times. And did he answer? No.

  And texting? Forget it.

  Technology made it easy to hide.

  Muttering, she pulled her Mustang to a stop behind Sonja’s Mercedes sports car. Her husband’s Ford Explorer sat in the other slot.

  Since she didn’t feel like idle chitchat, Claire settled for stretching out for her run on the small front lawn of the townhouse.

  “There you are.” Sonja stood over her, a hat shading her eyes from the summer sun. “Why didn’t you ring the doorbell or something?”

  Claire shrugged. “I needed to stretch out. I’m sorry about being late. I didn’t sleep well last night.”

  Because I was waiting on the stupid phone to ring.

  “No problem. Dom told me to go ahead and run before he put me to work.”

  A small smile crossed Claire’s features. “What a way to start the day.”

  “You got it. Packing up the last little bit. Then cleaning so there’s no excuse not to close on Monday.” Her best friend sighed. “We’ll be here all weekend, thank you very much.”

  Claire didn’t laugh as she climbed to her feet with her water bottle in hand.

  “Boy, something serious is going on,” Sonja said as they began trotting down the road.

  “I need a vacation,” Claire muttered between huffs. Oh, this was a hard one, made harder by the story that wanted to burst from the pit of her stomach.

  “You want to talk about it?”

  “No.” Sweat began pouring down her face. Her legs tightened. That dreaded stitch in her side showed up.

  Gradually, the events of Wednesday came out between pants.

  They turned onto Sonja’s street. Claire slowed to a walk and hung her head. So much better. Except the stitch hadn’t faded. Neither had her angst.

  Sonja stretched her arms above her head. “I’m sorry.”

  “Yeah, well, I’m sorry I ever got to know him, so if you were worried about us dating, no need.” That was sweat stinging her eyes, not tears.

  Sonja stopped. “Claire!”

  “Well, I am.”

  Liar. She winced as the stitch flared one last time. “Ever since I got to know him, it’s been like I’ve been off balance or something.”

  “Maybe that’s why God put him into your life.”

  “He put him into my life to make me miserable.” Claire kicked the street as they came to a stop in front of the townhouse.

  “Aren’t you being just a little hard on him? He’s tried so hard to adjust.”

  “Well, he didn’t try hard enough.”


  She folded her arms across her chest and leaned over to stretch her calves. “It’s true.”

  “Is it?” Sonja put her hands on her hips. “Is it really? Emma’s told me how hard he’s tried to fit in. To be a friend to you. And what do you do? You let your prejudice get in the way.”

  Of all things. “I do not!”

  Her friend threw up her hands. “Yes, you do.”

  “Just whose side are you on?” Had she just yelled at her best friend?

  Sonja, the Circuit Solicitor who never showed emotion in court, flinched. She closed her eyes and sighed. Quietly, she said, “I’m on no one’s side. Not yours. Not his.” She glanced away. “I get so frustrated with you sometimes. You’re letting what happened two and a half years ago get in the way of good sense.”

  “With good cause.”

  “Was Ziad involved? Or is he guilty simply by association? I’ll talk to you later.” With that, Sonja fled toward the townhouse. The front door slammed.

  What did Sonja know? She hadn’t seen Yana hanging onto life by a thread, hadn’t stared at scarlet all over her hands, her front. She hadn’t heard the girl’s story directly from her. Claire conveniently scooted past the fact that Sonja had prosecuted the case. She lifted her chin. What did she know about Saudi men? They were domineering, quick to condemn, to kill, even, if someone, especially a woman, dared deviate from the path chosen for her by Allah.

  Ziad was just like those she’d met. No way would she apologize any more. She was done. Finished.

  Time to get on with her life.

  With a chirp of tires, she sped from the subdivision. Her whole body rebelled against the hot morning run. She needed more fluids. And a shower. And definitely a nap. After she got that shower, she’d—

  Noise finally broke into her cesspool of thoughts. Lights too. She glanced in the rearview mirror. Oh, no!

  The lights and noise came from a patrol car.

  Her gaze shot to the speedometer.

  Sixty-one in a forty-five!

  Her heart lurched.

  Immediately, she slowed and pulled to the side of the road.

  The patrol car stopped behind her. Another one joined it.

  Resting her elbow on the a
rmrest of the door, she leaned her head against her hand. Could the day get any worse?

  It could.

  The patrol car’s driver’s door opened. A tall, lean man in the navy blue uniform of the Charleston Police Department strode toward her.

  Claire knew that gait. Ziad.

  She drew in a sharp breath and slid down in her seat.

  He tapped on her window.

  Almost unwillingly, she rolled it down.

  “Driver’s license and registration, please.” Ziad leaned down so he peered into the interior.

  “May I open the glove compartment?” That came out as a squeak.

  “You may.”

  She handed him her registration and fumbled in her purse for her license. “Ziad—”

  “Do you realize you were going sixty-one in a forty-five, ma’am?” All business. What did she expect?

  Her cheeks flamed. “Uh, no.”

  “Stay here.” He took her paperwork with him.

  Claire slid so far down in her seat that she almost lay flat. She squeezed her eyes closed, then opened them and stared in her side view mirror.

  The patrol car behind Ziad’s pulled into traffic and passed her with a light tap on the horn and a wave from the driver.

  Eddie had now officially witnessed her humiliation.

  Ziad began walking toward her car.

  She pushed herself upright.

  He proffered a clipboard. “Miss Montgomery, I am writing you a ticket for fifty-nine miles per hour in a forty-five-mile-an-hour zone. If you so desire to contest this ticket, your court date will be August twelfth. Please sign this for me.”

  She scribbled her name, then raised her gaze to his face.

  His sunglasses concealed any expression.

  She handed him the clipboard. “Ziad, please, I—”

  “Have a good afternoon, Miss Montgomery.” He ripped off her copy of the ticket and handed it to her along with her license and registration before walking away.

  That was it. Professional to the core without a word about their argument.

  It devastated her.

  She folded it and tossed it onto the seat beside her water bottle. With shaking hands, Claire pulled into traffic. She puttered along and cast another glance in the rearview mirror.

  Ziad turned off his lights, then made a U-turn.

  Right out of her life.

  This time, maybe for good.

  Her heart ached. She cried all the way to Mount Pleasant.

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