Exiled heart, p.24

Exiled Heart, page 24

 

Exiled Heart
 



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  Claire met him at the door. “That smells wonderful. Go ahead and put it on the table.”

  He did and followed her into the kitchen.

  She dumped the vegetables into a serving bowl. “Why don’t you take these out? I’ve got the bread.”

  He stopped short when he stepped onto the porch. How had he missed this? Claire had pulled out all the stops. Navy blue table cloth. Fine china. Silver. And candlelight glowing in the increasing gloom of the storm clouds. Tea sat in crystal for him. Wine for her, it seemed. It pulled his mind off what he’d read, if only slightly.

  She set a bread basket and butter on the table. “Here we go.”

  “M’lady?” Ziad pulled out her chair.

  “Thanks.” She seated herself, and he settled perpendicular to her.

  “This is very beautiful.”

  “It’s a special occasion.”

  He took her hand and kissed her fingers. He took great pleasure in her smile. “It is indeed.”

  “May I say grace?”

  “Of course.”

  She bowed her head. “Lord, thank you for tonight, for this special time with Ziad. Thank you for this food, and bless our time together.”

  “And thank you for Claire,” he added before releasing her hand.

  For a few minutes, they ate in comfortable silence. His mind swung around to the Zap article.

  Claire nudged him with her foot. “What’s going on?”

  He cocked his head.

  “I was watching your face, and you went from sunny to cloudy in an instant.”

  She was a nurse. Maybe she knew something. “What do you know about Zap?”

  She fell silent a moment. “It’s bad stuff. No survivors yet. Something about the way they altered the heroin’s properties with synthetics makes it more than deadly.”

  “Do you remember the night you and I argued?”

  “I’d rather forget.”

  He took her hand. “Do you remember when I said I was with Ben?”

  “Yeah.” She nodded as she cut up her meat. “You said you were helping him with a case.”

  “The night Faith witnessed someone dying from a Zap overdose at the convenience store, there were two others who were witnesses, both sailors. I noticed one of them had a tattoo between his ring and pinkie finger. Here.” Ziad pointed to his hand.

  “Wait.” Her pretty face clouded. “You can’t be serious.”

  “I am not understanding. You do not seem surprised.”

  “No, it’s not that. You remember I told you about that truck driver?”

  He cut some meat. “I do.”

  “He had a tattoo in the same place.”

  He stared. “You are serious?”

  “Yeah. I remember thinking it was interesting.” She sipped her wine. In the candlelight, her deep green eyes almost glowed as she gazed at him.

  Ziad’s grip on his fork tightened. “Do you remember his name?”

  Claire sighed and shook her head. “No. I’m sorry. I wish I did. Let me think on it, though. If I remember, I’ll definitely tell you.”

  Defeat slammed into him. So much for his lead. Then reality righted his world. He sat next to one very beautiful woman, the very object of his wooing that evening. And what was he doing? Ruining it by discussing a case. The barest of sighs escaped him as he savored his meal.

  After a few minutes, Claire set her silverware down. “Are you jealous?”

  “Pardon?”

  “From what you said, Ben must be working a case involving Zap.”

  Oh, she could read him so well. Who was he kidding? “I must admit I am. In Jeddah, it was my case. I had a staff of five working on it and no less than fifty handwritten pages of notes. But here?” How he hated the envy in his voice! “I pull speeders. I ring up people’s candy bars and sodas while Ben is with the FBI and on a task force about Zap. I feel… insignificant.”

  She touched his hand. “Oh, Ziad, no. I promise you’re not. Anna Kate adores you. Tripp things you’re the awesomest soccer player around.”

  A small smile fought against his envy.

  “His word, not mine. And honestly, I can’t imagine my life without you in it now.”

  His heart filled. He took her hand again and kissed her fingers. “Thank you.”

  Another smile crossed her face. “You’re very welcome. Now pass the bread, young man.”

  The conversation turned to nothing in particular until only silverware remained on their plates. With his bare toes, he stroked her ankle. “Tell me. What are some of your other quirks?”

  She stilled. “Who says I have any more?”

  “Oh, I believe you do.”

  “Um, do you want some hot tea?” Without waiting for an answer, she sprang to her feet with their plates in hand and practically fled into the house.

  Patience. She’s nervous. Don’t scare her off. His heart sped up at the challenge ahead of him. Without a word, he cleared the rest of the dishes.

  “I’ll cut the cobbler.” She took a deep breath as she placed two generous slices on dessert plates before pouring hot water over teabags in mugs. A breath eased from her. “What about you?”

  “Me?” He smiled and picked up a fork and plate before following her onto the screened-in porch. Lightning lit the sky over the harbor. “What about me?”

  “Your quirks?” Claire settled on the couch across from the table.

  He joined her. “Oh? Hmmm. When I smoked, I only smoked four cigarettes a day.”

  She smiled. All relaxed now. A good sign. “That’s not a quirk.”

  “Hmmm.” He took a few bites as he considered her question. “Perhaps this. As a soccer player at University, I had a certain order when preparing for a game. From bottom up. Socks and shoes first. Then shorts. Then shirt.”

  She chuckled. “Like baseball.”

  “Oh?”

  “Yep. Baseball players are very superstitious. Another one?” She nudged his leg with her foot.

  “I have more?”

  “Ziad!” She was laughing as she set her plate down.

  “Hmmm.” He inched closer. “When I lived in Jeddah, I secretly enjoyed western fiction books. Ben kept me well supplied. I learned a lot of written English that way.”

  He rubbed his thumb across the top of her hand.

  Claire tensed. “Let me go get our tea.”

  This time as thunder rumbled closer, he blocked her escape and caught her up in his arms. “Another quirk of mine?”

  She trembled slightly underneath his fingertips. “You must have many.”

  With his left arm, he drew her closer. He almost felt her breath coming in short gasps. He ran his right hand down her hair before sliding it under those silky strands and caressing the back of her neck. “I enjoy wooing the beautiful woman before me.”

  With that, he kissed her.

  Wham!

  Ziad jumped about a mile.

  So did Claire. She whipped around.

  Her elderly neighbor stood on her walkway, a watering can at her feet but no flowers in sight. “Oh! I’m so sorry! I was watering my flowers. I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

  Claire pasted a bright smile on her face. “No worries, Mrs. Chitworth.”

  “Carry on, children.” She scurried toward her house.

  Claire fled to the kitchen. “Busted, huh?”

  “Perhaps.” Without hesitation, Ziad backed her against a floor-to-ceiling cabinet. He placed his hands on either side of her head to keep her from fleeing. “I do not care.”

  He kissed her again, this time savoring her scent and taste. Flowers. Sweetness. He nuzzled her hair and kissed her neck.

  She wrapped her arms around him and drew him closer. A shuddering sigh escaped her. “Keep going.”

  With great effort, he pulled back. Oh, did that attraction glow in her eyes. His too, for sure. “I have the feeling, m’Lady Claire, this is the start of something beautiful.”

  29

  “Score!” Three weeks later, Z
iad lifted his arms in victory as the soccer ball he’d just kicked sailed past the opposing team’s goalkeeper and into the net.

  Ben hooted, and the rest of the recreation league’s soccer team jumped on Ziad. “Way to go, my friend!”

  Ziad grinned as the teams lined up to slap hands on the field at one of Mount Pleasant’s parks.

  He collapsed on a nearby bench where he’d stashed his water bottle in a cooler. Cold water trickled down his throat, and he ripped off his sopping wet uniform shirt. He poured the rest over his head and cracked open another. “I never thought I would say the heat and humidity here is as bad as Jeddah.”

  Ben laughed as he joined him with three balls at his feet like small children. “Think 114 degrees and 95 percent humidity. Then I’ll bet you’d reconsider.”

  “You have all of them?” Ziad gestured to the ground.

  “Three, right?”

  “Yes.” Ziad stuffed them into a net bag. “I take it lunch is on order?”

  “In order. And yeah, I’m starving. Let’s go.” Ben led the way to his Forester.

  Ziad slid into a fresh T-shirt and settled on the front passenger seat. “I cannot believe you still have this.”

  “Ole Bessie and I were together for too many years for me to let go of her.”

  “Bessie?”

  “I name my cars. Don’t ask.” Ben added when Ziad snorted. They headed toward their favorite local burger joint. On the way, he called Emma, who was at work. “Hey, babe… Yeah, we’re fine… We won. Ziad got the winning goal.” He grinned and stage-whispered, “Em says congrats.” Then he continued, “Yeah, we’re headed to lunch. Then I’ll be at home… Okay. I’ll take care of the laundry for you… I’ll call you later. Love you.”

  As they placed their orders and got their food, Ziad remembered a time when he’d shared supper with Ben and Emma at their apartment. Ben’s bride had looked ready to fall over.

  “Em, are you okay?” Ben asked.

  “Just tired. It was an exhausting day.” She shook her head as her eyes filled. “I had to work with a couple of teen-aged girls coming back from ACL reconstruction just as I did all those years ago. PT’s really painful when starting, and I made both of them cry.”

  Ben took her hand. “I’m sorry, babe.”

  She suddenly pushed her plate back. “I’m not hungry. Do you mind doing the dishes?”

  Her husband’s reply came instantly. “Not at all. Take a hot shower and head to bed. We’ll hang out.”

  “I’m sorry, Ziad. Good night, you two.” With that, Emma headed to their bedroom.

  “Yo, Ziad. You there?”

  Ziad came back to the present. He sat under an umbrella with a burger on its wrapper and his friend across from him. “So sorry.”

  “You seemed a million miles away.”

  “I have a question for you.”

  “What’s that?” Ben opened his mouth wide and took a bite.

  “I have noticed the way you treat Emma.”

  His friend cocked an eyebrow.

  Oh, that hadn’t sounded right. He added, “I mean, you treat her like an equal.”

  Ben polished off his burger and picked up a fry. “She’s very much my equal.”

  “I do not understand why.”

  “God made her. Oh, she’s different. Women are way different.” Both men chuckled. “That doesn’t mean she’s inferior. Not at all. I used to scoff at the notion of marriage making the two become one flesh. You know. From the second chapter of Genesis, right? You’ve read that at some point, I assume.”

  Ziad nodded. “The first five books of the Bible are also part of Islamic teaching.”

  “So anyway, I did. Until I married Em. She balances me. She thinks things through, sees things from different angles when I can get tunnel vision on something. And she’s wise. I’ve learned that when it comes to big decisions, it’s best to consult with her.”

  “Oh?”

  “Remember when she and I were engaged and I’d suggested buying a house before we got married?”

  “I do.”

  “She wanted to hold off and said that coming back to America, plus getting married, plus finding a new church and starting a new job was enough. And you know something? She was right. Boy, if we’d tried to do the house thing…” Ben shook his head. “We were talking about marriage in Sunday School, and one of the guys said that he’d learned to always listen to his wife when making big decisions. And he’s right on that one. Sure, she submits to me, but that’s totally voluntary because she knows I love her and respect her. What about you and Claire?” Ben shot him a sly grin. “I have to say you both surprised us. Em couldn’t believe you’d been dating for two weeks before you got busted.”

  Ziad thought about that one. Claire’s reticence to reveal their new relationship mystified him. “It is so very strange.”

  “Why do you say that?”

  “She is concerned,” he struggled for the right words, “about everyone accepting us as a couple.”

  Ben opened his mouth as if about to say something. He closed it and shook his head.

  He frowned. “What?”

  “I… guess it’s understandable.”

  He frowned. “Why do you say that?”

  “First off, no problems with anyone in her family. Okay, almost anyone. Allie’s a bit of a hard nut to crack.”

  Ziad let that phrase pass. “She does not accept us?”

  “Probably not. But you know the rest of us do. And I understand Claire’s worries about other people, unfortunately many of them Christian, who would judge her for dating you.”

  Suddenly, a weight dropped onto Ziad’s shoulders. “You are saying we should not date?”

  Again came that hesitation, as if Ben struggled within himself. Finally, he stirred the ketchup on his wrapper with a french fry. “I guess the way to look at it is that those who mean the most to the two of you accept your relationship. Period.”

  Then why did his words seem a bit flat? Ziad considered it. He had to take what he said at face value. Ben had expressed concern, not judgment. Slowly, that weight vanished. Tense shoulders relaxed. If Ben, Emma, Allison, David, and the rest of Claire’s family accepted them, then what did it matter? “Thank you, my friend. Those words mean so much.”

  A careless grin crossed Ben’s face. “No problem.” His phone began chiming. He frowned as he checked the number. “That’s work. Hold on just a second.”

  He lifted the cell phone to his ear and said in English, “Yeah. Hey, Angie… You got what? You’re kidding me! Nope, that’s good news… Yeah, I’ve got a camera in the car. I’ll be there in about ten or so… Thanks... Yep. Talk to ya Monday.” He set the phone on the table, his blue eyes suddenly intent. “You want some adventure?”

  Ziad frowned. “What do you mean?”

  “The sailor who witnessed that overdose is coming to town. Angie, my boss at the FBI, called to let me know the Lady Beatrice will be arriving shortly for an overnight stay.”

  Ziad rose and grabbed his drink. “Let’s go!”

  An hour later, he paced inside an observation room at ICE headquarters that overlooked the port. With a pair of binoculars, Ziad examined the flow of sailors trickling through customs. He murmured, “I do not see him.”

  Beside him, the camera clicked as Ben photographed each person’s face. “Patience, my friend.”

  They were too late. Or they had missed him somehow.

  One last sailor trailed his pals. Like the others, this one had a duffel on his shoulder. And a backpack. Ziad focused on him. A shiver ran down his spine. “Ben. There.”

  “Our man?”

  “I believe so.”

  The camera whirred. “Bingo. Let’s follow him.”

  They raced down the stairs and to the Forester. Hopefully, Yousif Ali didn’t spot them dashing from the building.

  He hadn’t.

  Ziad leaned forward. “There. He is getting into a taxi.”

  “I’m on it.” Ben put the
SUV into gear.

  They followed at a discreet distance, but once in downtown Charleston, they barely managed to stay back.

  The taxi’s taillights flashed.

  Ben pulled over and blocked a fire hydrant.

  The sailor climbed from the taxi with his bags in hand. Without another look, he headed into a shop.

  Ben recorded his steps before putting the camera down. “Pullman’s Antiques and Rugs. Hmmm. Not a motel like you’d expect. You think that bag will be a little less heavy when he leaves?”

  Oh, it felt so good to get back in action. “We should stay and watch.”

  Ben peered around them. “We can’t. We’re blocking a hydrant and traffic, and in these parts, your brothers-in-uniform will be down here in a heartbeat.”

  Ziad muttered under his breath as he scrubbed his hands through his damp hair. “You are right. We do not want that to happen.”

  “Let me check with Angie. If she says yes, then come along if you like.”

  Hope ballooned inside of Ziad. “Of course.”

  “Absolutely not.” Angie Rogers, Ben’s supervisor, shook her head fifteen minutes later when they met at a public parking lot in sight of the antique shop. “This is official business.”

  Ziad ground his teeth as he gazed at the brunette with curly dark hair bobbing in a tight ponytail. “Why not?”

  “You’ve seen the guy. He knows your face since you talked with him. What would happen if he saw you? You’d blow months of work. Not on my watch, understand?”

  What could he say? No? He got it. Not that it hurt any less to be excluded.

  She sighed and shook her head. “Look. There’s a coffee shop across the street from the antique store. Wait there for our call.”

  He could do nothing but concede.

  He wound up on a stool in the window, a baseball cap from Ben’s Forester pulled low over his eyes, a half-finished newspaper Sudoku puzzle in front of him. Thanks to sitting on an infernal bar stool for the past hour, his rear had gone numb. He sipped his coffee and winced. Cold. Beneath his breath, he muttered an Arabic cuss word.

  A barista puttered at the other end of the bar as she cleaned up some drips and threw away empty cups and newspapers. “Another Arabian coffee black?”

 
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