Exiled heart, p.9

Exiled Heart, page 9

 

Exiled Heart
 



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  Once they were seated, a waiter approached and asked for their drink order.

  Nothing but water for the Saudi.

  She ordered a beer.

  Ever so slightly, his eyes narrowed. “Should you drink that when you are driving?”

  What? No one had ever questioned her like that. “Excuse me? I know my limits, okay?”

  He opened his mouth, then suddenly seemed to realize where he was. He shook his head.

  “Ziad!” The nerve of him! She finished her beer as they ate in silence. No words, nothing. Emma, I don’t care what you say. Ben’s best man is a total bonehead. She began reciting in her head conversations she’d have with her sister later that week.

  When she finally headed to the restroom, she glanced at her watch. Eight. She could take him home without suffering an attack of the guilties. As she approached their booth, she found him sliding his wallet into his pants pocket. “I could have paid for my part.”

  “No, no. My treat. Because you put up with me this afternoon.”

  “It’s okay.” Not really.

  “Would you like to get some ice cream?”

  No! I want to take you home.

  Then he pointed to her favorite ice cream shop, and she couldn’t say no. With cones in hand, they wandered toward the more residential area of Old Charleston. They wound up at a park near the Battery and strolled along palm-lined streets. She sighed in ecstasy as she finished hers with one last bite. “I love ice cream. Do they have it in Saudi Arabia?”

  “Of course. I confess to a secret liking of ice cream as well.”

  She chuckled.

  Ziad smiled, and her neck began warming.

  She glanced toward the nearby water.

  “Tell me about your family.”

  She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “I’m the second of six girls. Allie’s the oldest and is four years older than I. She’s got three kids. A nine-year-old son, six-year-old daughter, and three-year-old son. Then there’s me. Emma’s two years younger than I, and Delia’s two years younger than she. She’s a pediatrician. She and her husband are expecting their first child in July. Faith and Grace are identical twins who are thirteen years younger than I.”

  “It is a shame you have no brothers.”

  She whirled on him. “Excuse me? Why is that a problem?”

  “Um…”

  What nerve! Time to set him straight. “Maybe in your society, women are considered to be worthless, but—”

  “Did I say that?”

  “It takes two women’s testimony to equal that of a man. Women can’t drive. A woman gets blamed for not producing sons when—if you get down to it—it’s really the man’s fault. And marriages are—”

  “I do not have to listen to this!” Ziad hurled his cone into the trash.

  She jabbed her fists onto her hips. “Maybe you need to.”

  He muttered something under his breath. “I am finished with you today. Take me back. Now.”

  He began marching up King Street.

  What? Where was he going? “Ziad!”

  He ignored her and like a striker breaking through defenses on the soccer pitch, he slipped through the tourists meandering through the cool evening.

  “Ziad!” She bumped into someone and mumbled an apology. “Ziad, please!”

  With a white-hot look that could have melted the wrought iron railing beside her, he turned onto a side street.

  Claire darted around him, and he knocked her off balance as he halted.

  She staggered. “Uh, wrong street. We’re on Market. Two streets up.”

  He gripped her arms with startling force. “What is your problem?”

  As he released her, she shivered. What could she say? “Um, I—”

  “I am trying my best, yes? I try to be nice to you.” He turned away and raked his hands through his hair as he said something in Arabic, probably about what a, well, she knew what she’d been. “Just because I am your captive audience does not mean I am your…” He obviously struggled to find the right word. “I do not like being a target. Do you understand?”

  His dark eyes bored into hers, and she felt as if he could see into her soul.

  What he possibly saw scared her.

  That fierce gaze rendered her speechless. She turned and fled toward the car.

  #####

  I won’t do it. I can’t be your best man, Ben. Not when the maid of honor despises me in her heart and treats me like dirt. Ziad mentally rehearsed his speech. A headache, which had begun that morning when he’d seen the headline about Zap, had escalated until it pulsed in time with his heart. He wanted out. Now.

  Out of the car.

  Out of his role as best man.

  As Claire turned into her parents’ driveway, he gripped the door handle of the Mustang as if his life depended on it. The convertible stopped in front of the garage.

  He wasted no time in undoing his seatbelt and grabbing the door handle. Maybe Ben was home and they could talk. He’d deal with the fallout later.

  “Ziad, wait. Please!”

  What now? He closed his eyes as nausea joined the mad dance of his headache.

  He shut the door. “What?”

  Silence. Then, “I’m sorry,” in the smallest of voices.

  He faced her. “What did you say?”

  Claire kept her hands on the steering wheel, but her head drooped. “I’m sorry.”

  He let her suffer in silence for a few moments.

  “I—I was taking potshots at you, and I’m sorry. I was being stupid.”

  Will you stop with the colloquialisms already? He wanted to scream. “And what are potshots?”

  “I—I was baiting you.”

  He rested his head against the seat. “Should I ask why?”

  More silence as if she contemplated her motives. “No.”

  A strange answer, for sure. One he hadn’t expected. He sensed her honesty in it.

  Maybe he’d come down too hard on her. “Please try to understand something. I am not from here. Perhaps my ways are not your ways. If you promise not to take these… what did you call them?”

  “Potshots.”

  “If you promise not to take potshots at me, then I will try not to…” Why did the English words he needed fail him? “Well, to impart my culture upon you. I would like to be friends, after all.”

  Huh? Why did I say that? He knew in a flash. Those words had come from his heart.

  “Okay.” She lifted a hand to her cheek as if swiping a tear.

  “I will see you Thursday.” He opened the door and slid from the car.

  “Yeah.” Finally, she glanced at him. A small smile crossed her face. “If not before.”

  Not if I can help it. He leaned in, and a whiff of fragrance hit his nose. “Good night, Claire.”

  Once the shadows concealed him, he paused and listened. It took a few seconds, but the Mustang started, pulled away, and rumbled down the driveway.

  Ziad shook his head, a motion that aggravated his headache.

  “Why her?” he asked the night.

  Using his key, he headed into the main house in search of some ibuprofen since he didn’t have any in his suite. He found some in a cabinet. When he filled a glass with water, toenails clicked on the floor.

  Sherlock and Watson, the family’s two Australian Cattle Dogs, joined him. As he scratched them behind the ears, he surveyed the refrigerator door where Allison left notes. He found one for him. “Hmmm. What does this say? ‘Ziad, we’ve taken Janet and Mark to a play in town and will return by eleven or so. Ben and Emma will be back around nine.’ So it is you two and me, eh?”

  He checked the clock. So much for praying today. He grimaced.

  “Shall we walk the property together?” With the dogs following, he wandered onto the back porch and into the backyard. What with the new moon, the live oaks scattered throughout loomed over him like blackened sentries. He shuffled his feet along the path, lest he wander from it and trip over some roots.
Spanish moss brushed his arms as he drifted toward nearby Willow Wood Creek.

  Sherlock, who’d sniffed and snuffled around the edge of the path, headed toward the low, wispy branches of a tree. He slipped through and disappeared. Watson followed.

  Worry tightened his gut. “Sherlock! Watson! Come back here.”

  Had the dogs slipped off the property? Fallen into the water? He hadn’t heard a splash. He reached out, and his hand parted feathery branches. Lights caught his eye, and he noticed a linear shape extending over the water. A dock. His running shoes made no sound as he carefully made his way to the end. He eased onto his rump.

  With a deep breath, he inhaled earthy smells. Bullfrogs croaked here and there. Crickets chirped on that warm night. His headache began dissipating as he breathed in and out. He pulled out a cigarette from his pack and lit it. With wrists resting on his knees, he leaned against a piling.

  Claire. Her face floated before him. What drove her hostility toward him? Media influence? A run-in with someone? Did she dislike him? Or Saudi men in general? All he had were questions and no answers, something the dormant detective in him disliked. It made him want to dig deeper. His pulse picked up as he contemplated those beautiful jade green eyes and hair such a dark brown it was almost black. A beautiful woman. And one who, when she let her guard down, could be quite nice.

  Suddenly, an image of her almost seemed to appear before him, one of her when she was a child. He imagined her sitting on this very dock, gazing at the stars, and dreaming. Perhaps she’d dreamed of her own wedding and those of her sisters. Maybe he’d been too harsh, made too rash a decision.

  He closed his eyes as a new round of weariness took over the space left vacant by his rapidly departing headache. As he wove the fingers of his free hand through Sherlock’s thick fur, he thought of all she’d told him about Southern weddings. Strange traditions, for sure, but ones from the culture in which he now lived. Why did the thought of dancing with her make him want to hide?

  Because Sabirah lay in the hard Saudi soil.

  He could almost hear what she would have told him about his discomfort. “Would it be such a problem if I were there with you?”

  That was it.

  He was single.

  Claire was single.

  Something about her kept him coming back. Thinking about that warmed his cheeks.

  Just then, Sherlock barked once and ran off the dock. Close to the house, a car door slammed. Ben said something, and Emma giggled.

  Maybe they could help. Ziad tossed his cigarette into the creek and joined them. “Ben, my friend.”

  “Hey.” Ben approached him. “I thought you’d still be out.”

  Ziad couldn’t tell them how awful Claire had been to him at points during the day. “We were both tired.”

  “Hello, best man.” Emma took her fiancé’s arm.

  All desire to back out as Ben’s best man vanished. “I have a question for you both.”

  Emma rested her hand on her hip. “What would that be?”

  “Would you… would you teach me how to dance?”

  10

  Such a beautiful Thursday night. Green grass stretched into the deepening springtime dusk at the home of the Montgomery family friends who hosted a party for Ben and Emma. Delightful aromas from trees and shrubbery filled the air with a luscious, almost heady, scent. As he stood alone at the yard’s edge, Ziad lifted his face. Velvety air on his cheeks. A pleasant feeling, one he wanted to savor before things got really busy.

  Speaking of busy, he hadn’t seen Claire since Saturday night. He teetered between relief and anxiety. Relief since he didn’t have to worry about the acrimonious start to their relationship. Anxiety from wondering about how things would go this coming weekend.

  Ben had listened to his concerns with care and provided wisdom. “Go easy on her, my friend. She’ll come around. And I promise she has a compassionate heart.”

  Ziad could only hope so.

  “Are you enjoying yourself?”

  At Claire’s Southern accent, he glanced to his right. “I was getting worried.”

  With a graceful gesture, she pushed some hair behind her ear. “Gift baskets. I promised Emma I’d deliver them to the hotel so the staff can put them in the guest rooms tomorrow. How was your week?”

  So far, so good with their conversation. “Very nice. I received my driver’s license.” He pulled out his wallet and extracted a card. “See?”

  She studied it. “Looks like you and I have the same birthdays.”

  “What? We do?”

  “August eighteenth.”

  “We were meant to be together.”

  She laughed, a bell-like sound that reminded him of Emma. “At least for this weekend.”

  On the house’s patio, the guitarist who plucked calming melodies paused. Their host joined him and welcomed everyone.

  She pressed closer to his side. “I take it supper hasn’t been served.”

  He inhaled. Oh, that perfume. “Not yet.”

  Once the guitarist resumed, people moved toward a table with a red and white tablecloth on it. Ziad joined them. “You said this was a pig picking.”

  She followed. “It is.”

  He quelled at the notion of pork. “Do they perhaps have other meat?”

  “They should. Probably barbecue chicken. Not as good as pork, but still good when done right.”

  “I will take that as a promise.”

  She smiled. “You do that, kind sir.”

  As they edged closer to the gigantic cooker, he chatted with the new and improved Claire. Nothing seemed to remain from the hostility of last Saturday as she filled him in on her week.

  They reached the cooker.

  Smoke wafted his way.

  So did the scent of pork.

  His stomach flipped, and he winced.

  “Ziad?”

  He offered a sick smile. “I… Where is the other meat?”

  “Oh, no.” She stared at the cooker where the caterer served up generous portions of pork onto someone’s plate. “I guess there’s not one. Didn’t Ben and Em tell them you were joining us?”

  He was going to throw up.

  An older gentleman in front of them turned. “I take it you’re into western Carolina barbecue then.”

  “Uh…”

  The man peered at him. “Oh, you’re one of them.”

  “He just doesn’t eat pork. No biggie, Uncle Carl.” Claire took Ziad’s hand and tugged him out of line. “Matter of fact, I’m don’t feel like eating pork either.”

  She smiled at him.

  The tension eased from his shoulders.

  She released him. “Let’s check out the sides.”

  “Sides?”

  She gestured to a set of three tables where aluminum pans sat above small burners. “Other stuff. Hushpuppies. Vegetables. Fruit.”

  “Right.” His stomach rumbled. At least he could get his fill of other good food.

  “Uh, oh.”

  “What?”

  She stared at the baked beans, green beans, and potato salad. “Oh, Ziad, I feel so bad!”

  “What?”

  “The potato salad has bacon bits in it.”

  No worries there. He had two other vegetables he could eat. Plus whatever she’d called hushpuppies. “I can have the beans and green beans. And fruit.”

  “Um, the beans have bacon in them as well. And the green beans have a bit of pork in them.”

  So much for eating that night. “I guess I will have fruit and those hushpuppies.”

  “I’m sorry. May I?” She gestured to the contaminated sides.

  “Of course.” He filled his plate and followed her to a table furthest away from the music.

  Her Aunt Janet and Uncle Mark joined them.

  “Ziad, honey, where’s the rest of your food?” Janet asked.

  Claire shook out her napkin and laid it across her lap. “Somehow, the hosts didn’t get the message about non-pork eaters.”

&n
bsp; “Man cannot live on fruit and hushpuppy alone, son,” Mark added.

  “Don’t worry, Uncle Mark.” Claire flashed a smile at her date. “I’ll make sure he eats later.”

  Ziad quirked an eyebrow at her.

  She only asked, “Uncle Mark, have you and Aunt Janet found a house in Savannah yet?”

  Ziad wolfed down his meal. Claire took her time. As she chatted, he observed her. A kind, effervescent woman when she let her guard down. He wanted to know her better. A surprise, at least for him.

  Mark and Janet rose and drifted toward the guests of honor.

  Claire faced him. “Here’s my idea.”

  His stomach rumbled. “What is it?”

  “You want to come back to my place? I’ve got some cold cuts. And we could hang out some more.” She winked and touched him on the arm.

  Do what? How dare she ask! He jerked back like she’d burned him. “I will not dishonor Ben and Emma.”

  She stared. “What?”

  Didn’t she see it? “We’ve just met!”

  She shrugged. “So?”

  Did he have to spell it out? “I—I am not going to go over and have…”

  His English completely failed him.

  “What?” She pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes. “Have sex or something?” She took a deep breath and closed her eyes as if composing herself. “Maybe in Saudi Arabia, a man being alone with a woman means one thing, but in America, it’s perfectly acceptable. I’m not interested in sex. I only wanted to offer you a decent meal. Can you handle that?”

  Maybe. He studied her face. Frustration. Perhaps a bit of anger, something he’d inadvertently caused. Not a good way to start the weekend. An idea hit him. “I can. But I must speak with Ben for a minute.”

  “And I need to find Emma.” Claire rose. “Meet you at the car in five?”

  “For sure.” He began searching for his friend. Maybe this time alone with Claire would give him an opportunity to implement his plan.

  #####

  “Hey, Em, could I talk with you for a moment?” Claire approached Emma, who chatted with Ben’s sister.

  She turned. “Sure! Karen, I’ll see you later.”

 
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