Exiled heart, p.28

Exiled Heart, page 28

 

Exiled Heart
 



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  His mind returned to Claire. What would he do? Easy. He’d make her grovel, then she’d have to work hard to regain his trust. And then? Maybe he’d take her back—but only on his terms would they date.

  A yellow Mustang caught his eye. He shoved his coffee aside and followed the car with his gaze as it pulled into a parking spot. Claire popped out and opened that black-and-white-striped umbrella he’d told her looked like a zebra. She dashed through the downpour to the front doors.

  A few moments later, she slid onto a chair across from him and put her cup of water on the table. “Thanks for meeting me.”

  He didn’t say a word, only waited until the silence grew so awkward that she’d say something. It’d always worked on suspects. It would with her as well.

  She cleared her throat. “I wanted to meet with you because I owe you more of an explanation. I’ve done a lot of thinking. A whole lot. You’re right.”

  He began smiling.

  “You accused me of using you, and you called me selfish. You were right. I did both. And I’m sorry.”

  Wait. This wasn’t how it should go. “Claire—”

  She raised a hand to silence him. “Just hear me out, all right? When we started dating—no, before that—when we finally became friends—it reminded me a lot of how things were with Jackson. I felt special around you. Like when you were talking with me, even if there were others in the room, I was the only one with you. When we started being romantic with each other,” a brief, dreamy smile crossed her face, “I never felt so loved. So respected. So cared for. Since Jackson had passed, I’d prayed for that kind of relationship again.”

  They’d gone way off his script. Why wasn’t she crying? Begging? “Then what went wrong?”

  Her hand shook as she raised her cup to her lips. “I ignored the differences in our faiths. Oh, Sonja and Elizabeth brought it up. Big time. I ignored little warning signs I should have seen early on, like when I was reticent to reveal our relationship. And then by that point, I didn’t want to break it off. Selfishly, I didn’t want to face the fact I’d be alone again.”

  “Claire—”

  “I knew after you said you loved me on our birthdays that we’d crossed a line.” She shoved the cup around in little circles on the table. “We couldn’t go back to being friends. I pretended to—no, ignored—our faith differences. I selfishly didn’t want to acknowledge that because we are so different in terms of faith, we could never have the true intimacy we both want and need in a marriage.”

  What could he—

  “And selfishly, I wanted that companionship, those warm, fuzzy feelings that come with kissing. And yes, I used you so I wouldn’t feel so lonely.” She closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them, they glistened with tears. “Problem is, I fell in love with you somewhere along the way.”

  Not what he’d expected. What could he say? They could talk, really talk. Figure out a way through this. No. His tattered pride raised its head. He folded his arms across his chest and lifted his chin. “I wasn’t good enough for you, eh?”

  “That’s not what I…”

  His voice rose. “You, a high and mighty Christian woman, can’t lower yourself to marry me.”

  At a table next to them, a couple sharing coffee and a danish stared.

  “Keep it down, will you?” She glanced around. “Please!”

  “I do not care.” He leaned forward. “Who told you we should not marry? Ben? Emma? Perhaps your mother?”

  “Try God.”

  “Oh, I see. Trying to deny blame.” His laugh came out as a sarcastic bark. “That is a good one.”

  More heads turned. People murmured as they tuned into their unfolding drama.

  “It’s true! I don’t care what anyone thinks. I prayed. I fasted. And I begged.” Her fingers tightened around her cup. “I love you. I want to marry you so badly! But I love my King more.”

  “And that is your answer? How foolish.”

  The rest of the noise faded away.

  “It is.”

  He stood, leaned forward with his hands on the table, and got right in her face like he had when interrogating suspects. “Let me tell you something, Claire Montgomery. You and I, we are finished. Do you understand? Finished!” He slammed his fist onto the table. “If you cannot accept me for who I am, then I want nothing to do with you. And that pendant? I would like it back. I will give it to a woman who is more deserving of my love than you.”

  His voice echoed off the windows of the shop.

  Cold water splashed across his face.

  Huh?

  He stared.

  Claire jumped up. Her face crumpled as she threw down her empty cup and ran toward the doors. They banged as she fled into the rainy evening.

  His gaze flicked across the shop. Those closest to him gawked with wide eyes. At the counter, the barista glared at him with white hot fury that would have made the average man cringe.

  It did him.

  Then came the murmurings.

  That broke him from his trance. Regret slammed into him.

  He’d hurt her.

  Big time.

  All to assuage his own pride.

  He bolted into the pouring rain.

  The Mustang backed out of its spot. She slammed it into gear, and with a screech of tires, hurtled forward.

  “Claire, wait!” he called.

  Like she could hear him.

  He jumped out of the way as she sped past.

  Her brake lights flashed, and water rooster-tailed as she hung a hard right and disappeared into the gloom.

  The cold and wet finally penetrated his angst. He shivered. Slowly, he swiveled and faced the coffee house.

  Some people still gazed at him.

  Oh, did he ever want to crawl into a hole and die. He couldn’t go back inside. Not then. Not ever.

  He trudged toward the 4Runner. What had he done?

  34

  After eight days of rain, the world rejoiced in a day of sunshine that glorious Sunday afternoon. And after eight days of hard work, tears, and grief, Claire forced herself to go for a run.

  She didn’t go far, but it nearly did her in. Nausea swelled within her as she slowed to a trot, then a walk. Oh, did she ever feel like she was going to throw up. She returned to the house, braced her hands on her knees, and hung her head. Sweat dripped from her nose.

  Gradually, her stomach settled.

  She needed fluids. Fast.

  “Claire, dear!”

  She raised her face to find Mrs. Chitworth climbing from her Mercedes. “Uh, hi, Mrs. Chitworth.”

  “How are you doing? I haven’t seen you in quite a while. How is that fellow of yours?”

  Claire burst into tears—again. She stood in the driveway and sobbed like an abandoned child.

  “Oh, dear. I’m so sorry. Give me your key. Let’s get you inside before we both burn up. I can’t believe it’s almost October and still hot and muggy. But I heard cool temperatures are on the way tonight.” Claire barely heard her neighbor or noticed her arms around her shoulders. They slowly climbed the steps, and Mrs. Chitworth walked her inside. “Sit here.”

  Claire sat on the couch in the family room. Her stomach twisted on itself. She croaked, “I need Gatorade.”

  “I’ll get it for you. Kleenex as well.”

  Still crying, she nodded.

  Mrs. Chitworth placed a cold glass in her hands. “Drink this, dear. You must be all dehydrated. Now, now. Dry your eyes.” She stuffed some tissues into her hand. “Tell this old woman what happened with your fellow.”

  Claire dabbed at her eyes. Slowly, she shared what had happened Labor Day weekend, then a couple of weeks later, ending with her utter humiliation at Mocha Joe’s. “I can’t stop crying. I worked Sunday. Then got a message from him saying he was sorry. I was fine until he called again on Tuesday. I skipped Bible study. Sonja came over, and I thought I was okay until he called Thursday and Saturday.”

  “What did he say?” Mrs. Chitwort
h asked. She took her hand.

  “He wants to talk.” Claire dabbed at her eyes. “I can’t do it, can’t let myself get hurt like that again. I mean, he made his position clear. I—I gave the pendant to Ben and Emma to give to him.” More tears came. “I’m a mess.”

  “I’d be a mess too. I’m so sorry.”

  “I just don’t know what to do. I don’t!” Claire’s chin began trembling. “It’s just that when he called, he seemed remorseful. But I—I can’t. I can’t call him back. If I do, I’ll cave and then I’ll…”

  Another sob escaped. She leaned over.

  Mrs. Chitworth rubbed her back. “Oh, Claire.”

  She covered her face with her hands. “I trusted God, and now my heart is breaking.”

  “Do you still trust him?”

  She lowered them. “What?”

  Mrs. Chitworth sat on the edge of the couch, her blue eyes watery but radiating love. “Do you still trust God? It’s okay to be honest. Only when you’re honest with yourself will you allow him to work in your life.”

  “I—I don’t know. I hurt Ziad so badly, all because I ran ahead of God. I hurt him so very badly. He’s right. I was selfish. I used him.” She flinched as the anguish on his face from that terrible Monday etched itself in her mind.

  “I think you’re being hard on yourself.”

  She pulled her hair band out and raked her hands through those sweaty strands. “I don’t know what to do!”

  Mrs. Chitworth gripped her hand. “Give it to God.”

  “What?”

  “Give it to God. Your sadness. Your anguish. Your tears. Your concerns.” Her neighbor squeezed her hands. “Take his hands, my dear.”

  Claire looked up.

  Tears trickled down Mrs. Chitworth’s cheeks. “You feel so barren. So alone. I know. I felt that way when Henry died. I cried for days. For months. Each day, and I mean each day, I had to take God’s hands and walk with him. To say to myself aloud that he loved me and that he would never let me go.” Her grip tightened to surprisingly strong for someone just turned eighty. “I had to seek out those promises. And when I finally believed them and stopped doubting so much, that’s when I got my peace.”

  Still sniffling, Claire dabbed at her eyes again. “It’s so hard!”

  “I know, dear. I know.” Mrs. Chitworth rubbed her back. “I’ll pray for peace for you, that you’ll reach out and run to him during this time. And I’ll pray for Ziad as well, that he comes to see Jesus as his Savior and Lord. Let me pray.”

  Claire nodded. As her neighbor bowed her head, she gradually calmed until only her ragged breaths remained. For the first time in over a week, a faint light of hope glimmered in the darkness of her despair. She knew it might not last, but now, in that very moment, she was at peace.

  #####

  Sunday afternoon, Ziad slouched on the couch in his living room and stared at a soccer match on the television. He lifted a cigarette to his lips. Sunlight seeped around the edges of the closed blinds. He should have been outside enjoying the first nice day in over a week.

  Work, work and more work.

  His one lousy excuse. He’d spent the past eight days avoiding his reality by working extra shifts at the Quick Fill or as a reserve officer. His daily workouts and extra hours studying for the GED assured he fell into bed too exhausted to dream.

  He began flipping through channels.

  Someone rang the doorbell.

  “Ziad? You in there?”

  Ben. Since the television blared, he couldn’t ignore him.

  With a sigh, he rose.

  Ben leaned against the frame, this time dressed in sweats and a T-shirt. He tossed a careless grin in his direction. “Hey, my friend. What’s up?”

  Ziad retreated to the couch without a word.

  If his rudeness put Ben off, he didn’t show it. “You okay?”

  “How okay should I be?”

  “I don’t know. You tell me. You mind if I open some blinds and windows? It kinda smells like cigarettes. And man stink and garbage. At least that’s what Em would say.” Without waiting for permission, Ben drew the blinds upward until sunlight poured in. He threw open the doors and windows, and as it blew into the room, a fresh breeze stirred up the smell.

  Ziad winced. He hadn’t showered in a couple of days, even with running. He’d resumed smoking and hadn’t taken out the trash for a bit either.

  Ben flopped onto one of the chairs. “We missed you at dinner.”

  “Claire did not.” Why couldn’t he stop with the low blows? He lit another cigarette and blew out a stream of smoke.

  “You’re right. She didn’t because she wasn’t there. We haven’t seen her in a couple of weeks because she’s been working so much.” He shifted and carefully extracted something from his pocket. He held it up.

  The diamond pendant on its delicate chain. In the sunlight, it splashed beams of color across the room. “I did see her in church, and she gave this to Em for you. I told her I’d bring it over.”

  He lowered it onto the glass coffee table.

  Ziad stared at it as if it were a poisonous snake. He took a puff. His fingers trembled as he set his cigarette in the overflowing ashtray. With his elbows on his knees, he picked up the necklace and held it against his forehead. In Arabic, almost below his breath, he murmured, “What have I done? Forgive me, Claire.”

  He swallowed his emotions and with a deep breath, lowered his hands.

  Ever the investigator, Ben studied him. He didn’t call him on it, didn’t say a word. Instead, he rose. “Let’s go and kick the soccer ball around. It’s too nice a day to be cooped up indoors watching it when you could be playing it.”

  He had him there. “Let me get my shoes.”

  “Well, come on then! Daylight’s a’wasting.”

  A couple of hours later, the sun set as Ben picked up the soccer ball. He whistled the theme to the Globetrotters as he twirled it on the end of his finger. It spun off and bounced to the ground. He whirled around and neatly scooped it into the air with his foot before catching it. “Coffee?”

  Oh, the joys of even a little exercise. Ziad felt better already. “Of course.”

  They rode in the Forester with the windows down. Ziad sniffed. He really needed a shower now. And ample deodorant. When was the last time he’d let himself get that unkempt? When he was in jail. The thought caught him up short.

  “Ziad!”

  He must have tuned out. “So sorry.”

  “I was saying we figured you and Claire broke up.”

  “How so?”

  “You both went silent at the same time.” Ben pulled into a parking lot.

  Oh, no. Mocha Joe’s. The scene of the crime. He couldn’t go in there. Not now. Probably not ever again. Fortunately, a table at the end of the covered patio sat empty. “Perhaps I should wait here.” He offered what he was sure was a sick smile. “Because of my man stink, you know.” He fished some cash from his pocket. “Here. Arabian coffee.”

  “Be back in a jiff.”

  Ziad eased onto a chair. He lit another cigarette and took a puff. This time, its taste nauseated him. He set it in an ashtray and rested his elbows on the table.

  “If you cannot accept me for who I am, then I want nothing to do with you.” His arrogant words mocked him. “And that pendant? I would like it back. I will give it to a woman who is more deserving of my love than you.”

  She’d taken him at his word.

  Now, he found himself in a tailspin with no idea of how to pull out of it before he crashed and burned.

  Ben set a coffee cup on the table. “Here you go. One Arabian coffee. Black.” He plopped down with his own cup and undid his sugar packet. As if to unnerve him, he took his time adding it and stirring in some cream. He looked him in the eye with a steely gaze. “Tell me something.”

  Fear unfurled inside of Ziad. He tried for casual by raising an eyebrow.

  “Just what in the name of hushpuppies did you do to her?”

  O
h, no. “I am not understanding.”

  “No, you’re understanding perfectly, my friend.” Ben leaned forward, his hands gripping the arms of the chair like claws. “You know what the barista said? She wished that cup of cold water Claire threw in your face had been boiling hot tea. Why on earth would she say something like that?”

  Ziad’s heart pounded. His friend reminded him of a coiled snake, ready to strike at the slightest provocation.

  Ben had every right to pound him to a pulp.

  Fingers trembling, he picked up his cigarette again. “I—we met here last Saturday. Claire had said she wanted to apologize.”

  “And that deserved your harshness?”

  Guilty. “N—no. I…” What could he say? The truth. “I let my pride get in the way. I cut her down when I should not have, told her I wanted the pendant back, that I would give it to a woman more deserving of my love than she.”

  Ben leaned back, picked up his coffee, and whistled low. “Boy, when you go big, you go really big, don’t you?”

  Ziad lowered his head. To the metal of the table, he confessed, “If there are ever words I regret, those are the ones.”

  “Huh.” Ben shook his head. “Wow. For once, I don’t know what to say.”

  “Did you ever… did you ever tell her it was inappropriate for us to marry?”

  “Uh, no. You’re the one who mentioned it to me.”

  “She said it was our differences in faith. And I truly do not understand. She is a woman of the book—”

  “Who has no intention of converting, and because of that, you would be unequally yoked. We talked about that, remember?” Ben sipped his coffee, then began shredding the cup holder. With a sigh, he shoved his drink aside. “Let me ask you something. What would you have desired for your sons in terms of a wife?”

  “Her family being of good standing.” Ziad paused. “Being educated. Attractiveness. Being a good Muslim or a willingness to convert—oh, I think I see where you are going with this.”

  “You and Sabirah had that great intimacy.”

  “It took years to learn.”

 
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