Exiled heart, p.23

Exiled Heart, page 23

 

Exiled Heart
 



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  “Interesting.” Ziad leaned back and toyed with his spoon as he gazed at her. Such a beautiful, vibrant woman treated so poorly by someone who’d claimed to love her like family. Yes, Montgomery fit her better than Middleton. “It would have been too strange to…”

  She cocked her head. “To what?”

  To refer to you using your married name.

  He released her hand before he kissed it. “To not know you as a Montgomery.”

  Lame. He could hear Ben laughing at him.

  A slow smile crossed her face, and they finished the meal in comfortable silence.

  Later, Claire curled up beside him on the couch. They didn’t need words. Only touch. He reveled in her nearness. As they watched a soccer match together, she laid her head against his knee. He ran his fingers across her hair.

  Once more, she slept. Truly, the past week must have exhausted her.

  He didn’t care. Being with her was enough. For several minutes, he emptied his mind of everything. Then it happened. Rather than focus on the game, he thought about his lack of pain the last time he’d thought about Sabirah. Why did I not feel great sadness like I had in the past? It doesn’t make sense to me.

  In a flash, it did.

  Claire.

  No denying it, he wanted to have more of a relationship with her than a simple friendship.

  The thought jolted him so much that he shifted.

  Claire stirred. “I must have fallen asleep.”

  Why did he have to move? “You did.”

  She sat up as she smothered a yawn. “What time is it?”

  He grinned. “Do you have my watch?”

  “Of course.” She cut her eyes toward him. “I think you have a subconscious desire to visit me.”

  She rose and retrieved her purse from the bar.

  Ziad followed her with his gaze. “Oh? What makes you say that?”

  She handed him the watch. “Because it seems like every time you come over, you leave this.”

  “Maybe I do, m‘Lady Claire.” He checked the time. “And it appears as if it is almost midnight.”

  She grimaced. “Which means I’ll be turning into a pumpkin.”

  “What?”

  “You’ve never heard of that?”

  “No.”

  “That’s right. You’re not from these parts.” She nudged him. “It’s an expression from a fairy tale.”

  This time, he wrapped her in his arms. “Will you tell it to me?”

  “Maybe. If you’re good.” She winked, then pulled back. “I do need to get going.”

  Oh, why did this evening have to end? “May I see you tomorrow night?”

  Her face fell as she paused at the door. “I wish I could, but I’m working the next eight nights.”

  Eight nights seemed like an eternity to him. Suddenly, he worried. Hopefully, that wasn’t an excuse. “Then may I call you?”

  Why did he sound like a little boy all of the sudden?

  Her smile reassured him. “I’d love that. May I offer a rain check?”

  “A what?”

  “An alternative plan?”

  He nodded.

  “Are you busy on the Fourth?”

  Him and every other reserve officer. “Working crowd control for the Fourth of July celebration.”

  “Are you off from the convenience store on the fifth?”

  “I am.”

  “Then come over in the morning, and we’ll go sea kayaking. Then we can grill and hang out. I’ll even rent a movie or something.”

  Relief surged through him. “I like that idea.”

  “Good.” She squeezed his hands. “Take care.”

  With that, she slipped out the door before hugging her crossed his mind.

  Ziad shut the door and leaned his head against it with a thump. Arrggghh. He hadn’t moved fast enough. Now eight long days stretched before him. After turning off the lights, he trudged up the stairs to his bedroom.

  From its place on the nightstand, Sabirah’s photograph beckoned to him. He picked it up and gazed at it. Suddenly, she seemed more distant, more ethereal to him, almost like the almost nineteen years he’d been married to her had ended years, not months, earlier.

  Why?

  Again, he didn’t have to look further than Claire. Her scent still lingered in his nose, as did the silkiness of her hair on his fingers.

  Even a week ago, he would have hesitated, would have said it was too soon.

  No more.

  “Would you mind, Sabirah?”

  He eased onto the edge of his bed as he thought about that one. What if the tables had been turned? What if he were the one cold in the ground and her alive? He would have had no claim to her anymore.

  Therein lay his answer.

  Once more, he gazed at the photo. It was almost as if Sabirah spoke in his heart. “You have my blessing.”

  He took a deep breath and lifted his face to the ceiling. His eyes filled, but the emotion quickly receded. A calm settled over him, as if he were walking squarely in Allah’s will.

  Without another second’s hesitation, he carried the frame downstairs to his study and set it on the desk.

  In eight days, well, seven days, twenty-three hours, and several minutes, he’d make his intentions crystal clear to Claire.

  28

  Such a beautiful time. The day after the Fourth of July, the early afternoon sun warmed Claire as she lay on the dock behind her house. A breeze puffed and tickled her face. Her shoulder and arm muscles ached, a sign of a good workout.

  The company didn’t hurt either.

  Beside her on the blanket, Ziad sprawled on his back.

  Oh, so perfect.

  “Did I ever tell you about my cathartic moment?” she asked as she examined the back of her eyelids.

  “Cathartic?” Rich laziness deepened his voice. “I have not heard that word before.”

  “Oh, I guess it means life-changing. Or at least, that’s what I take it to mean.”

  “No. You have not told me.”

  She opened her eyes and shifted onto her side so she rested her head on her elbow.

  He mirrored her.

  Oh, my. Thanks to the sun’s rays, his skin had turned a deep olive. He’d filled out too. Hmmm. Hmmm. She could so get used to those pecs, biceps, and delts. Not an ounce of fat on him, even though he’d turn forty in a few weeks. Wait! What was I going to talk about? Oh! That’s right. My cathartic moment.

  “Claire?”

  “Uh, sorry.” Her excuse of staring would never suffice. “I lost my train of thought.”

  A lazy smile crossed his face. “What is your story?”

  “Summer of 2006, I realized I needed a change.”

  “Why?”

  “Most of my previous friendships had faded away because they didn’t know how to handle what happened to me. Sure, I had Sonja and Elizabeth, but otherwise, I didn’t have any real friends. Both of them were out of town that Fourth of July. So were Em and Delia. The twins were just out of high school and doing their own thing. And Allie never was good company. Up until that day, I hated going out to eat by myself, or, heaven forbid, to a movie alone.”

  He nodded. “I can understand. I would feel that same way.”

  “I decided to be brazen on that day and do the sea kayaking trip we did this morning by myself.”

  He quirked an eyebrow. “Go to Fort Sumter, then to Sullivan’s Island, and back here? Alone? What would have happened if you had capsized or worse?”

  “I know. It was crazy stupid, but once I got that idea into my head, I couldn’t resist. Problem was, I hadn’t kayaked since before Little Jack was born. I was way out of shape.” She smiled at the memories. “You would have laughed at me as I got the kayak into the water.”

  “I do not even want to think about it.”

  “Hah. The trip to Fort Sumter and Sullivan’s Island was great. It was like today. Lots of energy in the air. Storms in the forecast. But I did it.” She smiled as she remembered the
freedom she’d felt that day. “I wound up at that very same restaurant where we ate, pretty close to where we sat today. I’d brought a book with me, so I sat at the table for two hours and read.”

  He traced the outline of a palm tree on his towel. “You did not mind?”

  “No. I was content. At least until a waiter approached me and asked if I was the one with the kayak.” She shook her head. “At first I thought someone had stolen it, but he said I might want to get a move on it because the weather was building.”

  “Wait.” He closed his eyes as if trying to envision the event. “You kayaked back to the house in a storm?”

  “Uh, yeah.” Her cheeks heated. “Dumb, I know, but I was so determined to prove to myself I could do it. The storm caught me. I mean, the wind was howling, it was thundering and lightning all over the place, and when the rain came, I had no visibility.”

  “Claire,” he shuddered, “this could have ended—how do you say it?—very badly.”

  “Oh, I know. Later, I realized I could have been blown into the shipping lanes or out to sea. But right then, I was so focused on getting to safety. I finally got the dock in sight. And it was still blowing. I tied up, crawled up here, and just lay on my back laughing and laughing while the storm raged around me.”

  “People would have thought you to be crazy.”

  “Oh, I’m sure. But it was like surviving that terrifying experience released something inside of me. The laughter came from joy bubbling up from within. I couldn’t stop it. Didn’t want to.” A soft smile crossed her face. “Later that evening, once the storm had passed and I got cleaned up, I brought my supper out here and watched the fireworks. And then?” She nodded. “I could go different places by myself without feeling so alone.”

  He lifted his hand and tousled some strands of hair that had fallen from her ponytail. His fingers skimmed her cheek. “You, Claire Montgomery, are a brave, if not at times crazy, woman.”

  She warmed at his compliment. “It taught me a valuable lesson.”

  “Oh?” His fingers skittered along her neck to her shoulder, then her arm.

  A shiver coursed its way down her spine, followed by tingles where his fingers had brushed. “Yeah.” Better get this out before any logical thought completely scattered. “It taught me that before I could be wholly with someone, I had to first learn to be content to be by myself.”

  “A worthy lesson.” He nodded and slid a couple of inches closer. “One all of us need to learn.”

  Sweat. Aftershave. Sunscreen. Salt water. All smells she now associated with him. Her breath caught as he cupped her cheek with his hand. Heat radiated off his bronzed skin.

  He was going to kiss her.

  Nerves suddenly assailed her. She sat up. “It’s um, getting late. And I know we’re going to get storms. We’d—I’d better get cleaned up.”

  Ziad didn’t say anything, didn’t sigh or shake his head. A slow smile crossed his face. With surprising grace, he rose to his feet and extended his hand. “Then I will head home and collect the food for our meal.”

  Once she stood, he helped her fold the blanket and towels they’d used. Before she could react, he took her hand and led her toward the house.

  In the kitchen, he set his bag on the floor next to the island and faced her. “Shall I see you at six, then?”

  Don’t go. Kiss me instead. Those words remained stuck in her throat. What? Am I crazy? Maybe being in the sun for so long caused sudden dizziness to wash over her. “Uh, yeah. Six.” So much for sounding smart. “Sounds like a plan.”

  Did he chuckle?

  She couldn’t be sure.

  “I will see you then.” After tipping an imaginary hat, he slipped through the back doors.

  Oh, dear. She rushed upstairs and turned on the water to the bathtub. She sat on the edge and rested her head in her hands. “What is going on here? Claire, he’s not a believer. What are you thinking? I’m wanting him to kiss me, but it’s wrong, and…”

  She groaned.

  She couldn’t cancel on him. Not now. And did she want to?

  As she slid into a bubble bath, she left that question unanswered.

  #####

  Today. Do or die. Ziad wouldn’t leave without kissing the woman who captivated more and more of his attention with each passing day. With a cooler and backpack containing their food slung over his shoulder, he climbed the steps to her porch.

  Claire met him at the door. “Hey! Come on in. You brought food?”

  He laughed. “Someone is hungry.”

  “That’s one way of putting it.” She gestured to the granite. “Here. What are we having?”

  “Lamb. Mixed vegetables. Bread. Salad.”

  “Oooh. My favorite.” She reached into a cabinet and pulled out a dish. “We can put the vegetables in this. Do you need me to get the grill going?”

  “Not yet. I will cook the vegetables alongside the lamb.” He laid out squash, broccoli, and onions.

  “Dessert’s in the oven.” She pulled a knife from the wood block and joined him.

  They worked shoulder to shoulder.

  Oh, that perfume.

  She seemed on edge as the blade flashed in the overhead lights. Something had changed in her. Her nerves remained, but he sensed something else, something like anticipation.

  “Do not cut your finger.”

  She laughed. “No worries there. I’ve been extra careful since that night. Do you need to do anything with the lamb?”

  “No. It has been marinating since last night.”

  She cut her eyes toward him. “Marinating. My, we’re getting sophisticated.”

  He lifted it from the cooler. “Thank the owner of the deli where we went a few weeks ago. He has been gracious enough to share many recipes with me. Shall we head outside?”

  “Of course.” With bowl in hand, she strolled with him to the grill.

  “Why is the grill so far away?”

  She slowed. “Jackson had this fear about fire. When we had the house built, he insisted on putting it here. I guess he figured if it caught fire, it’d burn and fall into the marsh.” She smiled. “I let him have his eccentricities because goodness knows, I have mine.”

  “Which are?”

  With a camp lighter, she lit the burners. “Let me think on that. I’ll get us some tea.”

  Ziad settled on a bench and stretched his arms along the top. The breeze, intermittent during the morning, had risen to a good wind. The reeds in the marsh swayed in time with its puffs. Energy filled the air and his heart.

  Something would happen tonight.

  A slow smile crossed his lips.

  Perhaps in more than one way.

  He closed his eyes and lifted his face to let the wind kiss it. A perfect day, hopefully with a perfect evening and a kiss of another kind to follow.

  The screened door banged shut a few minutes later. He rose and checked the grill. Ready to go. He glanced toward the house.

  Holding a tray in her hands, Claire strolled toward him. Oh, she’d taken time with herself tonight. White pants she called Capri pants emphasized the sway of her hips. Her red T-shirt highlighted her figure in subtle ways. Her hair streamed behind her, a flag of brown verging on black.

  The meat. Put the meat on.

  With effort, he ripped his attention away from her and ladled the lamb onto one side. The dish holding the vegetables went on the other.

  “Have some.” Claire set a tall, icy glass of tea in front of him. “Bread’s in the oven.”

  His love affair with sweet tea continued as he drained half the glass in one pull.

  Claire grinned. “More, kind sir?”

  “Of course.” He accepted a refill.

  “I faint at the sight of my own blood.”

  “Huh?”

  She grinned. “You wanted to know a quirk of mine.”

  “Quirk?”

  “Oh, eccentricity.”

  “I know about that one. Perhaps another?”

  “I lo
ve, love, love piña coladas.”

  He groaned. “Do I ever know that!”

  “No worries.” She leaned into him. “Mainly, I drink them virgin.”

  He sighed in mock consternation. “I am from a foreign land, remember? I do not understand your terms at times.”

  She chuckled. “Virgin drinks don’t have alcohol in them. If you like, I could fix one for you.”

  “Perhaps later.”

  “Here’s a question for you.”

  “Oh?”

  A mysterious smile crossed her face. “Why do you call me Lady Claire?”

  Caught in so many ways. She had him enthralled.

  With great effort, he rose. “Ah, but that is a secret, only to be revealed later.”

  “Hmmm.” She stood and stopped all too near him, then ran her finger down his chest.

  A line of warmth followed, almost like a burning brand.

  This time, she wore a Mona Lisa smile. “I see how this works. I’ll be inside getting the table set. How long?”

  Oh, no. How long had it been? “Another ten minutes.”

  With an enigmatic smile, she turned and walked away. Was it his imagination, or did she sashay a little?

  Ziad turned back to the grill and pretended like the heat from it had warmed his face. He checked the lamb. Surely ready in a few minutes. He pulled the vegetables off their burner. As he waited for the meat to finish, he located his phone. Out of habit, he checked the local news station’s website.

  Two Teens Found Dead From Zap in Pawley’s Island Boathouse on Fourth of July.

  Crash!

  There went his mood. Fifteen now dead. Zap had continued its spread across the Charleston Metro area, and no one seemed able to stop it. He muttered under his breath as he read the story before shoving the phone into his pocket. He couldn’t focus on that. Not now.

  Finally, with the lamb on a fresh plate, he returned to the house.

 
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