Exiled heart, p.7

Exiled Heart, page 7

 

Exiled Heart
 



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  Mama smiled. “Let’s start with that.”

  “Where will Ziad stay?” Claire asked as she began snipping off lengths of ribbon.

  “Where we always put guests who are staying for more than a few days. Up in the suite over the garage until he can find an apartment. Goodness knows it’s calling it tight. We’ve got some missionaries who are coming in four weeks, and we told them they could stay there.”

  Claire thought about Emma’s comments regarding Ziad. “She’s not told me a lot about Ziad. What’s he like?”

  Mama shrugged. “I don’t know. Ben speaks very highly of him. So does your sister. Ben helped him with a drug bust, and he thinks whoever was behind that murdered Ziad’s family.”

  Claire drew in a sharp breath. Absolute agony. First-hand experience had taught her that.

  “Ben knew he was still in danger, so he secured a special immigrant visa for him to come here and start over.” Mama tied her ribbon. “And we have only 188 more of these to do.”

  “Did Emma say anything about their flight over?” Claire asked.

  “Oh, not much. Except that Ziad barely said a word. Sounds like he’s exhausted.”

  Claire set down her scissors. “What’s on tap for Saturday? Can I go to the fitting with you and Emma?”

  Mama finished another program and set it aside. “To be honest, I need your help on some other things.”

  “Like what?”

  “This whole thing with Ziad came at a bad time.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Normally, we’d show him around. Teach him about things like laundry and housekeeping. Help him get a driver’s license and a bank account set up. Get him into an apartment.” Mama snipped some ribbon. “We simply don’t have time right now to help him with those things—at least not until after the wedding.” She laid a sheet of onion skin over a program and laced the ribbon through the holes. “And I doubt Ziad has any idea of what being a best man entails. Or even what an American wedding is like.”

  “Ben and Emma haven’t told him?”

  “After everything that happened, I don’t—” Mama sighed. “Most of that can wait. But Saturday, I need you to take Ziad. Tell him what he needs to know about weddings. Maybe show him Charleston.”

  Do what? Show Ziad around? Uh, uh! Claire’s hand jerked, and she snipped off three inches instead of six. She tossed the length onto the table. “Why me? I’d planned on going to the fitting and then biking with Anne Marie Saturday afternoon. Why not Allie?”

  Her mother gave her That Look over the rims of her reading glasses.

  “Why not Delia? Or Faith?”

  “Delia is on call. Faith is headed out of town Saturday morning for her spring break.”

  “Why can’t Ben do it?”

  “Because I need Ben and Emma all day. Look.” Mama pulled her appointment book off the notebook that had had been their lifeline while planning the wedding. “At ten is the fitting. Ben’s going to meet us after that at the tux store to make sure we have the order right. Then comes a meeting with the caterer at one o’clock. Then with the photographer at 2:30. Then with the party people at four o’clock. Then Ben and Emma are going to supper with their minister.”

  “Why not tomorrow?”

  “Because everyone will be jet-lagged.” Mama took off her reading glasses and gave her That Look again. “Claire, why is this such a problem?”

  Claire cringed like she always did when Mama drew her name out to two syllables. “I…” What could she say? She’d rather get rabies shots than spend the day in the company of a man who represented all she despised? Mama would never stand for it. “It’s, um, not a problem. Not at all.”

  Liar.

  “Look. Emma needs your help. Please. Just take him out on the town and get to know him. It might be good since he’ll be your escort for the weekend.”

  Oh, yeah. That’s right. Ziad was best man, partner to her as maid of honor, and essentially her date for the weekend since she had no boyfriend.

  Whether she liked it or not. Whether he liked it or not.

  But to help Emma, she’d do it, even if it meant counting the minutes until she could be rid of him. “All right.”

  “Good. Now tell me how Sonja’s adjusting to married life.”

  Claire let the subject drop. They chatted about nothing in particular until heavy footsteps clomped in the mudroom.

  “Allison? Claire?”

  “In here, darlin’,” Mama called.

  “Daddy!” Claire jumped up and hugged her father.

  He kissed her hair. “Good to see you, sweetie.”

  Claire appraised the flowers she’d nearly squashed. “Bouquets?”

  “Wild flowers for Emma and yellow roses for your aunt.” Daddy kissed Mama. “Honey, I need to head out.”

  “I’ll put them in some water.” Mama took the flowers.

  Claire’s thoughts turned to the impending arrival and what it meant. Emma, her sister, her best friend, would shift her loyalties to her new husband. An expected change but one that stung a little. Suddenly, she wanted to be alone. “Mama, do you mind if I head to the dock?”

  “Not at all.” Mama cast a glance at the programs. Only a few remained. “Run along. I can finish these in ten minutes.”

  Claire slipped onto the screened-in porch at the back, then wandered down a path between the live oaks of the back yard. Willows along the banks of Willow Wood Creek hid the dock beyond from the house.

  Her boots touched wood, and she wandered to the end of and eased onto wood planks still warm from that afternoon. She leaned against a piling. Cool air washed across her face. She closed her eyes. Weariness oozed over her as a week of working nights as a flight nurse finally caught up with her. Water lapped at the pilings. Beneath her, a small splash broke the rhythm as a fish jumped out of the water. Oh, what good memories she’d made out here.

  “Do you know how to find the Big Dipper?” Twelve-year-old Claire had asked ten-year-old Emma.

  In the gloom, Emma’s eyes widened. “How?”

  “Start with the North Star.” Claire pointed to the night sky. “Then go here. And here.”

  “Show me another one.” Emma pulled out a book on constellations. Under the dim glow of a flashlight, they picked out several more. Finally, after Claire called it a night, Emma took her hand as they walked to the house. “Let’s always do this.”

  Now, Claire swallowed the lump in her throat. A little over ten years before, things had been flipped. Claire had been the one getting married, and Emma had been her maid of honor. Claire knew she would have been part of the wedding party for Emma, but never had she planned on being single again.

  Lord, you have a plan in this. I know you do. I’m just having a hard time seeing it. Show me how to be a blessing to Emma instead of a burden. Slowly, it came to her. Take care of Ziad on Saturday. She muffled her groan. Lord, that’s not what I meant, but because I love Emma, I will.

  She lay back, and her mind wandered again, this time over the years she and her sisters spent splashing in the creek and exploring nearby Sutton Hall Plantation. She dozed.

  “Claire! Hey, Claire! Are you down there?”

  Emma.

  Claire climbed to her feet.

  “Claire!” her younger sister shrieked.

  Emma nearly bowled her over. Laughing, crying, they jumped up and down and hugged each other.

  Claire held her at arm’s length. “Oh, Emma, it’s so great to see you!”

  “Boy, it’s good to be back! I can’t wait until I can see everything in broad daylight.”

  “Where’s the rest of the crew?”

  “Up at the house. They’re pooped, so I told Mama I’d come and get you so we can get going.”

  “Let’s go, then. Where’s your stuff?”

  “Daddy already threw it into your car. Although my huge suitcase wouldn’t fit into the trunk. It’s in the backseat.”

  “Then all’s well and good. On the way there, fill me in o
n your trip.”

  “I will.” Emma grinned. “Ziad didn’t want to talk about anything on the flight over, so he has no a clue about anything.”

  “We’ll take care of it.” Claire offered what she was sure was a sick smile. One could hope they’d not be a best man and a maid of honor with black eyes from fighting so much.

  8

  The next night, Claire stopped the Mustang in the driveway in front of the garage at Mama and Daddy’s place. She stayed glued to her seat as she contemplated the evening ahead. Her hands remained curled around the steering wheel. She swallowed hard and glanced at her sister. “I’m sorry about earlier today. I in no way meant to smear Ziad’s rep.”

  Emma, who’d barely said a word on the ride over, shifted. Her fingers skittered over a shiny mixing bowl full of salsa. “And I’m jet-lagged. Look. I know what happened two and a half years ago. Ziad’s not like that. All I ask is that you be nice to him for one week.”

  Claire stared at her freshly done French manicure. Did she really believe her? Face value. That’s all Em asks, and you promised her. “I will.”

  Her sister smiled. “Thanks. You ready to go?”

  “I got the other bowl.” Claire hopped out and extracted a smaller bowl covered in cling wrap.

  She followed Emma onto the porch. Her breath hitched, and she tucked an errant strand of hair behind her ear.

  Ben opened the door. “Hey, love-of-my-life.” He swooped Emma into his arms and laid a kiss on her lips. He grabbed Claire and planted one on her cheek. “Hello, second-love-of-my-life.”

  “Are you trying to score points with your future sister-in-law?” Claire drawled as she disengaged herself.

  Ben laughed. “I’m trying.”

  “You’re doing a good job.” She led the way back to the kitchen and uncovered the bowl. “Where are Mama and Daddy?”

  “Out for the evening with your aunt and uncle.” He peered over her shoulder. “What’s that?”

  “Salsa. Mama should have some chips here.”

  “In the cabinet. Ziad and I already discovered them. What’s March Madness without chips?”

  She glanced into the den. A basketball game flickered on the television. “What did you two do all day?”

  “Slept until about eleven. We had some lunch. Then your daddy took me to get a rental car while Ziad crashed here. We kicked around the soccer ball some out front, watched more ballgames, and napped. I’ve been teaching Ziad the rules to basketball. Time well wasted if I don’t say so myself.”

  Cellophane crinkled as Emma opened another bag of chips. She winked at Claire. “You’ve been busy. Here. Try some.”

  Claire’s lips twitched in a smile.

  “The Montgomery salsa? I remember that from Jeddah. I think I will.” Ben grabbed a chip and spooned up a liberal portion. He popped it into his mouth. His eyes widened, and he grabbed a glass from a cabinet. He threw back some water. “Man! What did you put in that thing?”

  Claire laughed. “The bride-to-be made it with hot peppers. I can’t remember what kind. Here. Have some milk. That’ll help.”

  “You stinker.” Ben kissed his fiancée.

  “And here’s the mild salsa.” Emma uncovered the larger bowl. “Where’s Ziad?”

  “Finishing up evening prayers. The pizza just came.” He nodded toward two boxes on the stove.

  Claire turned away. So far as she was concerned, it was fine if Ziad didn’t show up. “I’ll dish it up.”

  She pulled down four plates and carried them to the table.

  “Hey there!”

  She paused at Emma’s voice, then swiveled.

  Her heart raced, and heat hit her chest. Oh, my… Not what she’d expected. For starters, she found herself looking up a little to meet his gaze. A good six feet tall, just like Emma had said. At least she could wear her heels rather than going barefoot.

  A victim of good manners, she crossed the kitchen.

  Emma drew her closer. “Claire, meet Ziad al-Kazim. Ziad, this is my sister, Claire Montgomery, who is also my maid of honor.”

  Ziad hesitated.

  Claire almost rolled her eyes.

  If he won’t, I will, just to make him uncomfortable. She extended her hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

  He paused, then took it.

  Something close to electricity shot through her. She masked her gasp with a cough.

  Ziad smiled, revealing beautiful white teeth save for a small gap between the two front ones. “It is a pleasure to meet you as well.”

  Ben cleared his throat. “The pizza came while you were saying prayers. I hope you’re hungry because I got two.”

  Ziad glanced at him, but his gaze flicked back to her. “I am. Thank you.”

  Would that blush just go away? To distract herself, Claire asked, “Drinks?”

  “Tea for me, darlin’,” Ben said.

  “Ziad?”

  “Tea as well.”

  She ripped her gaze from their guest and stuffed four glasses with ice as she released a measured breath. She tried to tell herself the pounding in her heart came from holding it. As she poured the tea, the hair on the back of her neck raised.

  He watched her.

  She knew it.

  Like she was some kind of steak or something.

  I am not a piece of meat! She whipped around, and some liquid splashed into her hand. Without a word, she retrieved the other two glasses and seated herself at the table with Ziad on her right and Ben on her left. “Let me say grace.”

  She bowed her head and clasped her hands on her lap. “Lord Jesus, I thank You for today. Thank You for the chance to meet new people. And thank You for the food. Amen.”

  She opened her eyes and glanced at Ziad.

  His face remained expressionless.

  So dumb, Claire. Give him a break. She pasted another bright smile on her face. “Who wants onions and green peppers?”

  “Did Em tell you what happened when we got to Dulles from Paris?” Ben asked.

  Claire shook her head as she shifted a piece of pizza onto her plate.

  “She got up from her seat, and it looked like she’d had a party.”

  Emma scowled at him. “Not so, Ben Evans.”

  “Ziad, you were beside her. Say it ain’t so.”

  Ziad smiled at Emma. “I counted a dozen straw wrappers, two candy bar wrappers, and three bags of pretzels.”

  Emma swatted him. “You did not!”

  He chuckled and took a bite of pizza.

  Emma glared at them in mock indignation. “That was all Ben.”

  “Hardly.” Ben winked. “But let me tell you about making our connection. It almost didn’t happen.”

  Throughout the meal, he and Ziad bantered back and forth with Emma interjecting to defend herself.

  Claire laughed along with her sister.

  Then she knew. Ben and Ziad had that close friendship of brothers, and Emma viewed Ziad like the brother she’d never had. If they could accept him, why couldn’t she?

  Emma rose and collected their plates before opening a drawer. She turned with a deck of cards in hand. “Spades, anyone?”

  Ben leered at his fiancée. “Sure, hotcakes!”

  Claire lightly kicked him in the ankles.

  Ben turned to his friend. “Hey, don’t worry about not knowing how to play. It’s easy to learn. I can explain the rules really quickly.”

  Ben began discussing the rules of the game as Emma located some pens and a notepad. He partnered with Ziad.

  After a practice round, they began a serious game.

  Ben studied his cards and began speaking Arabic to Ziad.

  “None of that.” Emma’s eyes narrowed. “Claire doesn’t speak Arabic.”

  “Oh, have a heart, Emma.”

  She glowered at him.

  Ben nudged her. “C’mon, sweetie, you’re a diamond in the rough.”

  Claire muffled a laugh.

  Emma rolled her eyes. “You
re talking code to Ziad.”

  “Code?” Ben winked at his friend. “Do you hear a code, Ziad?”

  “In spades.” Ziad’s eyes twinkled. He smiled at Claire.

  More heat, once more in her cheeks.

  Ziad rearranged his cards. “You are such an ace at it.”

  Emma groaned. “Guys! New hand!”

  Everyone laughed.

  Two hours later, Emma yawned as she stared at the notepad. “Ziad, for a newbie at the game, you and Ben did well. You beat us by twenty points.”

  Ben threw his hands in the air. “Victory!”

  “Until the next time.” She gathered the deck and slid it into its box.

  Claire rubbed her eyes. “I’m beat. It’s been a long couple of days. Em, don’t feel like you need to come back with me.”

  Ben rose. “I’ll be sure to get her home in one piece.”

  She mock-punched him. “Be sure you do. After all, you sleep down the hall from the father of the bride.”

  That earned weary chuckles all around.

  Claire located her purse.

  Ziad joined her. “I am tired myself and need to rest.”

  Claire retreated to the mudroom. Just as she reached for the doorknob, so did he.

  Their fingers brushed.

  She swore she saw a spark between them, and her heart raced.

  Ziad opened the door and stepped aside. “Ladies first. Is that not what they say here?”

  Still recovering, she blurted, “Thank you.”

  They paused in the breezeway.

  After pulling a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, he shook one out, lit it with a mother-of-pearl lighter, and took a puff.

  Yuck! Why did all Arab men have to smoke? And why couldn’t she just leave? She leaned against a post. “It was good to meet you.”

  “As was you. I am to be your escort next weekend. Ben’s best man.”

  “Right.”

  “As maid of honor, are you to be my escort?”

  Say what? Had he realized what he’d just said? Judging from his sincerity, no. Only cricket chirps filled the night air. She struggled with the right words to say. “Um, I know what you mean, but please don’t use that phrase in public when referring to a female.”

  “Why not? That is what you are doing, is it not?”

 
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