Tears burst from her eyes, streaming out from beneath her dark sunglasses. Her heart pounded so hard her pulse made it hard to hear. Her hands grasped the man’s shoulders like a blind woman desperate to know what she’d encountered. Her breathing hitched in-in-in and she couldn’t catch her breath. But this was a Westerner! He wouldn’t stand for some man trying to take her. He’d secure her safety. Righteous assurance bloomed in her belly while her body still trembled violently.
“Now, now, please calm yourself,” he said, running a soft, wrinkled hand across her chin. “It’ll be okay. Just tell me what’s the matter.”
Still unable to breath, her chest now rising and falling, she leaned against him and pointed back, but the man was gone. The empty sidewalk eased her distress like waking from a horrible dream and finding her familiar room. She swallowed and found her voice.
“There was man,” she said in broken English.
“A man? Well, he seems to be gone now,” the Westerner remarked. With a rubbery smile he added, “May I accompany you to the nearest security office?”
Nadeen shook her head. “I go to mall. I meet girl.”
“Then, by all means, allow me to see you inside safely,” he said, walking alongside her.
While she didn’t know this older man, she felt safer beside him. He wore a white fedora, trimmed with a navy ribbon and its wide brim shaded tender, droopy, gray eyes and wavy white hair over his ears. He strolled leisurely, like a gentleman, his hands clasped behind his back.
“I dare say, you must have the day off of work,” he said. “It must be so nice to meet a friend at the mall.”
Nadeen smiled and nodded as they headed toward the large entry doors. He pulled one open for her and she stepped into the blast of air conditioning. The cavernous entry rose up to a glass ceiling which dappled the towering palm trees and fountains of the main walkway with natural light. Escalators rose and descended on either side, while spiral staircases wound up nearby.
Turning to the Westerner, Nadeen bowed and said, “Thank you me helping.”
He tipped his fedora, smirked his mouth into a crooked grin and said, “Quite alright, quite alright. Anything for the prince’s special prize.”
Nadeen froze and her eyes widened. She glanced left and right. Then, warm hands slid over her shoulders and a familiar musk fill the air. A small weight from the crescent moon pendant he wore around his neck thumped against her back as he leaned his face next to hers. Coffee overlaid with wintergreen mint blew against her cheek when he spoke.
“Nadeen, Nadeen, what am I to do with you? So beautiful, so wonderful.” He ran his hands down the sides of her shoulders. “And so volatile. You realize how reckless you were to take the stone, don’t you?”
Tense, she fisted her hands as he lifted the bag from around her shoulders.
“I like the hijab and the glasses. They suit you.” Running a hand across her cheek, resting his thumb on her lower lip he said, “You know I’ve always thought the liberal ways were more your style.” He draped the bag around his own shoulders, then checked inside as he walked around her, staying close, leaning in to her face. “I’m glad to see you took such good care of my stone. You realize it is a great discovery. I assume that is why you took it. You’re smart, after all. It’s one of the many things I love about you.”
She held her tongue. She’d learned that Khalid preferred the sound of his own voice.
“You know you’re in trouble. Don’t you? It isn’t like the time you tried to sneak away in Jordan. If you had simply tried to flee, I’d understand. But now, you tried to take something from me.” He leaned in, nearly touching his nose to hers. “You insult my honor.”
Around her, the patrons meandered across the marble floor, transfixed by their phones, talking with their friends, ignoring the scene playing out in their midst. To them, it was just another day. Amid their luxury, their TVs and smartphones, they’d never know Nadeen, or care that she’d been stripped of the dignity they enjoyed each day.
Khalid hooked his arm around her led them toward the mall’s entrance. The Westerner followed at a distance.
“And yet … and yet, while this is a great offense,” he breathed deeply and sighed, “I am not without mercy.”
Nadeen hated the hope that rose in her chest. She loathed her involuntary response to Khalid’s broad, white smile and relaxed personality. She despised how she’d catch herself thinking that he was, by nature, a warm, good man, but that it was she, and her disobedience, that incited him to rage. Yet still, she turned and gazed into his soft, brown eyes, anxious to hear how she could prevent the punishment she had coming.
“In fact, Nadeen,” he said, rubbing her arm with his hand, “If you help me, I will offer forgiveness. And not only that, my love.” He favored her with a dimpled grin. “I will also ensure you are reunited with your family. Either here in the kingdom, or back in Morocco.” He snapped his fingers in the air. “What was the town’s name?”
Khalid smiled and nodded, “Of course. The crown of the old imperial cities. Such a suitable place for you.”
She leaned toward him. “You know where my parents are?”
He nodded, then fixed her with his eyes. “It would be my pleasure to restore your family.”
They pushed out into the heat of the day, passing through the incoming shoppers and stepping to the curb where Khalid’s men had parked their van.
“Just tell me who it is you contacted and how you intended to deliver the stone. Once I know that, I’ll make the arrangements. You’ll be heading home.” He dropped his gaze to the pavement, a shadow on his face. “Of course, I’ll miss you.” He offered her with a sad smile and pushed a strand of hair away from her face.
Nadeen nodded. Her mind swarmed with thoughts waging an inward, heated debate. Deep inside, she knew she couldn’t rely on Khalid’s promises. When they’d first met, while she cleaned his suite, he’d asked about her family, expressed regret at her plight as a girl taken from her home and forced into labor. That day, he’d promised he’d find her family, do his best to get her back home. Six months later, the only times that promise arose was when she had spurned him in anger, following his cruel treatment. It was the proverbial carrot. The stick, however, was the only thing she experienced.
“A name, Nadeen. That’s all I need. I have spoken with your father. He was so happy to know you were all right.”
Glazing into his eyes, she hoped to see a dark glimmer of a lie betraying him, anything to convince her he was the evil man she’d known so many times. But his eyes were smooth and sympathetic.