Exiled Heart, page 22
Once at home, she shut off the engine and sat there for a moment to compose herself. Now, she truly did have to adjust to life without Ziad. What an empty life. So surprising that he’d become a big part of it in just a few short weeks.
And her angst? Dumb. Sonja was right. She’d let it rob her of the friendship that now meant more to her than she’d been willing to admit. What could she do to get it back?
Nothing, if his reaction when pulling her for speeding had signaled anything.
He was done with her.
Now she had to pick up the pieces of her life and start over—this time without him in it.
First things first. That shower. She picked up the pink copy of the ticket he’d given her to search for the court date. What on earth?
Her heart hammered as she stared at the yellow sticky note attached to it and Ziad’s elegant script. She whispered as she read it aloud. “‘Claire, I would like to make amends with you. Please call me. I will be home at four. Z.’”
He’d signed the Z with a flourish.
Relief left her shaking so much she couldn’t move. “Oh, Ziad!”
What to do?
It came to her in a flash.
First, apologize to Sonja. With shaking fingers, she called her friend. “Sonja? It’s Claire. Listen, I’m sorry. Please forgive me for yelling at you.”
Her friend didn’t hesitate. “You know I do, Claire.”
“You wouldn’t believe what happened. Ziad pulled me for speeding!”
“Don’t worry.” Claire smiled for the first time since Tuesday morning. “It’s not a bad thing. It’s a good thing. Really good! He wants to talk. Pray for me.”
“That I can do. Keep me—”
“Thanks!” With renewed vigor, Claire jumped from the Mustang.
Now for step two. Apologize in person. And dressed up when she did it. She charged up the stairs.
She could only hope he’d accept it.
At 4:15 that afternoon Claire pulled into a slot beside Ziad’s 4Runner. He was home. Thank goodness. She raced up the steps and rang his doorbell. No answer.
Had she misread the note?
It wasn’t like she’d looked at it a hundred times or something.
She tried knocking.
Still no answer.
Maybe he was upstairs. She combined the doorbell with a knock. “Ziad?”
She had misunderstood. He’d probably heard her and wanted nothing to do with her.
Despair nearly bowled her over. Head hung, she shuffled toward the steps. She’d go home. Maybe use the rest of that piña colada mix to drown her sorrows.
She put one foot on the steps.
A lock scraped back. “Claire?”
She whipped around. “Hey! I… I was afraid you were ignoring the door.”
“I was in the shower and thought I heard something.” A brief smile flickered across his face as he buttoned his deep green shirt. “So sorry if I am still dressing.”
A nervous laugh escaped her. “It’s all right.”
“Please.” He stepped aside. “Come inside.”
As she passed him, the spicy scent of his aftershave mingled with the fresh scent of shampoo. A drop of water slid from his sideburns. “I definitely pulled you from the shower.”
“My towel is still on the floor of the bedroom.” He turned toward the kitchen. “Would you like something to drink? Water? Tea?”
She wrapped her arms around herself and paced into the living room. “Water is fine.”
She forced herself to stare at the Saudi Arabian flag hanging over the fireplace. Lord, I repent. Truly. I do. Thank you for showing me what a bigot I’ve been these past two and a half years.
Ice clinked on glass.
Ziad stood there, his gaze solemn. An undercurrent of tension laced his manners. “Why are you here?”
Suddenly, her carefully planned words fled her mind. She opened her mouth.
He didn’t say a word, only seated himself on the couch and leaned back as if expecting her to cough out an apology.
He cocked an eyebrow.
Her knees began quaking. As if God pushed her, she slowly knelt in front of him. Oh, this was hard. She kept her gaze on him.
His eyes remained dark pools of sadness.
More guilt washed over her. She swallowed against the lump in her throat. “I’ve always liked to think I treat everyone with respect, that I don’t have a dark side. Wednesday night, God showed me the depth of my foolishness, just like you said. I do. I let it get the best of me.”
Nothing. No words at all.
“It took the Holy Spirit through my best friend and today’s events to wake me up to that. God and I had a long talk this afternoon.” She’d shed copious amounts of tears after lunch as she’d read Scripture and repented. Rather than feeling a burden, lightness had touched her soul—until now. “I—I realized the way I’d let an incident two and a half years ago inform my life about others who had nothing to do with the crime of one. I didn’t deal with it, and it turned into hatred. Please forgive me.”
She closed her eyes against the tears and rushed on, “You have every right to order me out of your life, and I—”
A finger over her lips stopped her.
Ziad knelt in front of her. He brushed back some of her hair. “I do, Claire. I forgive you.”
Something akin to weakness swept over her.
He drew her close, and she collapsed in his arms. “I do forgive you. As I spent all night awake after we argued, I realized something must have happened in your past.”
Oh, he was so astute. “Two and a half years ago, I witnessed an honor killing.”
His arms tightened around her. “What? Here in America?”
She swallowed hard as tears began trickling down her cheeks. Who cared? It was like once he’d accepted her apology, any control over her emotions had crumbled. “It was awful. A girl named Yana. Yana al-Hakim. Her father is—was—a rug merchant on King Street. His shop was where that antique shop is just south of Market Street.”
“I know the place.”
“Yana was eighteen and a teenager in every way. She was outgoing, and none of her friends cared that she wore a headscarf. She had a group of girls she ran around with. Boys too. Her mama didn’t seem to mind, but her daddy?” She shook her head.
“How do you know all of this?” Ziad asked.
“She told me.” She sniffled. “One night in early December 2007, I was working in the ED. She came in with a black eye and split lip, just banged up in general. Turns out lots of her friends were in a youth group at a church near where she lived. She’d started going to youth group with them while claiming to be going to a friend’s house to study.”
“And it is never a good idea to lie.”
“I know. I guess one night, the night of the youth group Christmas party at the church, one of her brothers followed and tattled on her. Her daddy came to get her. Sure, he was polite to her friends when he asked to speak to her alone.” Claire pulled back, drew her knees to her chest, and made sure her long skirt covered them. “He started hitting her. She got away only by begging to go to the bathroom and getting out a window. She made it to a local fire station, and some firefighters brought her in.”
She kept her gaze focused on her skirt and picked at a loose thread.
Ziad stopped her nervous tic. “You sent her home?”
“Oh, no, no. You see, she was eighteen, so legally an adult. We called Social Services, and they were in a bind since she was still in high school. Since we needed the cubicle, I volunteered to take her to the nurse’s lounge while Social Services sorted things out. She and I started talking.”
“Obviously, things did not end well.”
She sighed. “No. They didn’t. She told me it was more. She gave her life to Jesus about a month before that. She knew what would happen bec
Ziad curled his fingers around hers. “A valid concern if she converted.”
She clung to him as images swarmed over her from that fateful night. “Social Services took her to a battered women’s shelter and got her away just in time because he showed up in a rage. He first threatened to kill us. Then as security escorted him out, he threatened to sue us.”
“Oh, yeah.” She shuddered. “About a week later, right before Christmas, we got word of a stabbing. It was Yana.” That trembling began again. “Ten stab wounds. One nicked her aorta, and she bled out on the table. She didn’t stand a chance, Ziad. She didn’t! Her daddy had tracked her down and attacked her.”
Once more, Ziad drew her close and let her cry. His arms remained around her, and his lips moved against her hair.
If he said anything, she didn’t hear him. Her breath came in jagged gasps. “They… they arrested him for Murder One. Though Sonja was Circuit Solicitor, she tried the case herself. I had to testify, which was awful. I watched the rest of the trial. He got life in prison. No chance of parole. It’s on appeal now.”
“Meaning you will have to testify again?”
“Maybe. Sonja says it’s airtight. I can only hope.” She sniffled. “What would you have done?”
“Me?” Ziad pulled back and ran his hand down her hair. “I do not understand.”
“As a father.”
He took a deep breath. “Claire—”
“I want to know.”
He hesitated as if considering how she would react. “I would be grieved. Would you not feel the same if a child of yours left the faith?”
“But an honor killing?” He shook his head. “No. I would never, though in Saudi Arabia, they never went to trial.”
“They were seen as restoring honor to a family.” His thumb skimmed her cheek and lifted away a tear. “But as a police officer? I would arrest the perpetrator with pleasure. I did when I was in the SANG, and I would here.”
Some of her tension dissipated. “It angered me so much. And scared me.”
“Emma had accepted going to Jeddah at that point. I was so scared that something would happen and she’d die and—” She put her hand over her mouth to stop a sob trying to burst forth.
Once more, he drew her close. “I am so very sorry you witnessed what I consider to be a very dark side of Islam.”
She took a deep breath, then another. Gradually, her emotions calmed, leaving in their wake a feeling of deep exhaustion.
“I imagine you need some tissues or something.”
A weak smile forced its way loose. “Or something.”
“Stay here.” He rose and headed upstairs. A moment later, he returned and knelt in front of her. He brought a white rose from behind his back.
Her heart swelled with emotion as finally, her lips turned up in a real smile. “Ziad, how beautiful!”
“The florist said this is the best color to represent making out.”
She chuckled. “Do you mean, making up?”
“Making out is, well, getting crazy with kissing and such.”
Oh, that blush. So adorable on him as it crept up his neck to his face. And that smile.
She’d missed it.
“Yes, making up.” He handed her a handkerchief. “My apologies. It was either this or toilet paper.”
“This is fine.” She blew her nose.
“So now that we have made out,” he winked, “perhaps I could interest you in some supper? I had planned to come to your house to see if you would like to go out.”
“Supper would be wonderful.”
He held out his hands. Without hesitation, he drew her to her feet and into his arms.
Resting her forehead against his jaw, she didn’t mind the stubble on his face or that delicious scent floating her way. She felt at home. Completely at home. And suddenly, she didn’t want to let him go.
“Did I ever tell you about the first time I ever cooked a meal?” Ziad asked from the kitchen where he placed chicken breasts marinated in an olive oil and garlic mix to bake.
Ice clinked in her glass. “No. Tell me.”
“It was a few months before Sabirah got pregnant with Muhammed Amir. Our housekeeper and her husband were visiting their families in Pakistan, and Mama and Papa were not at home that night. It was just the two of us.” Sadness tempered his mood, but he pushed it away. “She had miscarried, and the doctor ordered bed rest for her. I arrived home late from work, and she asked me to make supper since she could not stand for long periods of time.”
“I asked her what to do. She told me about a lamb recipe and where to find it. Then I asked again. I think she became exasperated with me because she said to follow the instructions. That was it.”
“How did it turn out?”
“Surprisingly well, and neither of us died from food poisoning.”
From her place on the couch, Claire laughed.
What a welcome sound, one he worried he’d never hear again.
He slid some pita into the oven to warm. “That night I discovered I enjoyed cooking.”
“Mama said you’re a fast learner.”
“Sabirah helped me start.” This time, when he thought of her, no stab of pain followed. He hesitated. Why?
“So sorry. I was thinking. I would have cooked more in Jeddah, but household chores were so divided among men and women.”
She didn’t answer that one. Instead, a show on Animal Planet played.
Contentment washed over him, almost like her apology had erased their angst from the past week. For now, he treasured the time he had alone with her, time in which he’d been free to take her hands, hold her close, and feel her silky hair against his chin.
He cut up some vegetables and tossed them into a wok for steaming. “What is your work schedule like for the next few days?”
Still no answer.
He wiped his hands on a towel and stepped around the counter.
She lay on the couch, her eyes tightly closed, her lashes brushing her cheek much like they’d done a few weeks ago at the beach. Her chest moved in the even pattern of sleep.
For a moment, he simply drank in the gentle curve of her hips and waist that was subtly highlighted by the top and skirt she wore. With effort, he ripped his gaze away and gently placed a fleece over her.
Ziad’s mind churned as he checked on the vegetables and dumped them into a serving bowl. With the storm past, he tried to empathize with Claire, to walk in her shoes that terrible night when she’d witnessed the death of an innocent teenager. Would he have reacted the same way? Perhaps. He shook his head as he pulled the pita from the oven and slid it onto a plate. Yes, he probably would have.
He tried to think of anything that had happened in the Kingdom with similar results for him. Of course. His oftentimes erroneous assumptions about Westerners.
Prove to me you are worthy.
That had been his mantra rather than accepting them as they struggled to adapt to his culture. Thank you, Claire, for coming to see me. For being desirous enough to restore our friendship.
Once he had everything on the table, he knelt beside her. He wove his fingers through her hair. “Time to wake up.”
Nuzzling the pillow, she sighed and opened her eyes. Once more, he found himself nearly drowning in the deep green of those jade depths. “I’m sorry. I fell asleep.”
“You must be exhausted.”
She yawned and stretched.
Ziad warmed as he drank in her figure. He averted his gaze. “Supper is ready. Chicken, a recipe taught by your mother.”
He helped her to her feet. Without dropping her hand, he led her to the table and pulled out a chair. “M’Lady Claire, please, have a seat.”
She smiled at him.
Ziad settled at his place. “Tell me something.”
“Why did you change your name back to Montgomery?”
“How long do you have?”
“How long do you need?” he asked with a wink.
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe all night?”
He chuckled. “I do not have to wake early tomorrow.”
“The short story is that it came down to Jackson’s mama, Margaret. She was a strange bird.” Claire sipped her tea. “She never did like me. I think she saw anyone marrying her son as stealing her little boy. It was very clear that she favored Jackson over his younger sister, Lydia.”
So ironic. “How?”
“Jackson could carry on the family name. Not that we’d planned any differently, but when we found out we were expecting a boy, she really pushed us to name him after Jackson, even to the point where it made him uncomfortable. She was obsessed with it.”
“Is that Southern or simply American?”
“More Southern than American. I had no problem with it.” She shook her head. “When he and Little Jack died, what would you have expected her reaction to be?”
Ziad thought about that one. “Supportive.”
“Hah. You’d think. So wrong. The night of the funeral, not four hours before I miscarried, she pointed at my belly and said something like, ‘Take care of my grandson.’ Then she left without another word. No, ‘I love you’ or even ‘I’m sorry’ or anything like that.”
The nerve! Ziad stared at her.
Claire nodded. “It’s true. When I needed her the most, she wasn’t there. Jackson’s sister was. Lydia, who by that point had married with two little ones of her own, visited as much as she could. That meant the world to me. But her mama? Nope.”
He took her hand. “I cannot fathom someone who would be so… unsupportive.”
“I mean, I know people can act weird when someone dies. Goodness knows most of my ‘friends’ faded from my life during my year of mourning, but she was family.” Her shoulders rose and fell in a shrug. “After that year, I knew what I had to do. I took myself down to the courthouse and changed my name back to Montgomery. Then I boxed up a lot of Jackson’s keepsakes like his football trophies from high school and college. I called her up and said they were there for her. She told me to leave them on the porch, and she’d get them. And she did—while I was working.” She shook her head. “No thank you note or anything. I haven’t talked to her since then.”