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Carmen paused in the middle of hanging the nursery's new curtains. She looked down at Mennah, listened to her chirping her latest "word," her heart in a state of expansion.
She'd gotten used to feeling her heart filling her whole chest, her whole being, since she'd given birth to her daughter.
She'd demanded Mennah the moment she'd come out of her womb, disregarding the doctor's grumbling that he had to close said womb first. He'd succumbed, though, had placed the smeared, nine-pound miracle on Carmen's bosom. And for long moments, as she'd first touched her baby, felt her precious weight, her flesh and heat and reality, Carmen had been afraid she wouldn't survive the explosion of emotions raging through her.
She'd searched for the right name long and hard. She'd found the perfect one, what this baby was, in her father's mother tongue. Mennah. Her gift from God.
Now her gift was latching chubby fingers onto her play-pen's railings, hauling herself up to a standing position. She then tried to stand unsupported and landed on her diaper-padded bottom with a cry of chagrin-mixed glee, tearing a laugh from Carmen's depths.
"Oh, Mennah, darling, you're in such a hurry."
And she was. At only nine months, she'd been sitting unsupported for almost three, crawling for almost two and was now clearly on her way to overtaking another milestone.
Carmen slotted the last hook, climbed down the ladder and headed to the playpen. Her sunny angel grinned at her, good nature brimming from golden eyes, displaying her newly acquired set of teeth, her dimples flashing in the perfection of her cherubic face. A surge of emotions clogged Carmen's throat, rising to her eyes.
Could she have been so blessed?
Mennah held up her arms. Carmen obliged at once, bent and cradled the robust little body that was her reason for living. Mennah mashed her face into her mother's neck, and Carmen's arms convulsed around her. It was a good thing Mennah loved fierce hugs. Carmen bore down on the flare of love, rocked Mennah in her arms, one hand luxuriating in the raven silk of her locks. Hmm, the bald patch from before Mennah started rolling around was totally gone.
Suddenly Mennah pushed away, looked up expectantly. "Bagha bagha."
Carmen tickled her nose. "Yes, darling, you're trying to tell me something and your mommy is so dense she hasn't figured it out yet. But that's a new word. Give me a day and I'll figure it out. Saycould it be you're telling me you're hungry? It has been a couple of hours since you've eaten." Carmen started to undo her shirt only for Mennah to slap her hands on top of Carmen's, squealing, part playful, part admonishing. Carmen sighed. "No mommy-produced sustenance?"
Mennah giggled. Carmen sighed again. She'd been hoping to prolong nursing. But this was another area where Mennah was in a hurry. She'd been refusing to nurse more and more ever since she'd been introduced to solid foods, decreasing Carmen's milk flow. This was the second day with no nursing at all. During that time Mennah had even given her grief about eating previously much-loved foods. And Carmen could guess why.
"I shouldn't have given you a taste of my filet mignon, darling. Seems you share more than your looks with your father. He, too, is a big panther who relishes red meat"
Carmen stopped. Mennah was looking up at her with such absorption, as if she was memorizing everything her mother said.
Carmen had been indulging in the heartbreaking pleasure of constantly talking to her about her father. Maybe she should resist giving in to the urge. There was no way Mennah understood now, but maybe before Carmen realized, she would. And she didn't want to explain her father's absence for years. Not that she'd ever have enough time to come up with an adequate explanation.
Exhaling, shaking off a resurgence of the despondency that had suffocated her all through her pregnancy, she walked out of the nursery, headed to their open-plan, sunlit kitchen.
She secured Mennah in her high chair, dropped a kiss on top of her glossy head. "One bagha bagha coming up."
She placed plastic toys in front of Mennah, set the iPod to a slow rock collection and started preparing the dish that had converted her baby to gourmet cuisine. Amidst singing along with her favorite songs and Mennah's accompanying shrieks of enthusiasm, she stopped periodically to gather the toys with which Mennah gleefully tested gravity, giving them back to her so she'd restart her experiments over and over again.
She was finishing the mushroom sauce when she noticed it had been a couple of minutes since she'd fetched for Mennah, since her daughter's squeals had disharmonized with her singing.
She turned around and her heart overflowed with another gush of love. Mennah was out like a light on the high chair's tray.
She always did fall asleep without warning. But she couldn't have been hungry after all, if she could fall asleep among all those mouthwatering aromas.
Sighing, eyeing the meal that had to be served hot to be good, Carmen turned off the music, unbuckled Mennah from her seat then went to put her down in her crib.
The singing had stopped.
The crashing of Farooq's heart hadn't.
And it wasn't only his heart that manifested his upheaval. Every muscle in his body was clenched, every nerve discharging.
He'd been standing there for what felt like a day, listening to the sounds coming from inside. Wistful love songs accompanied by the gleeful noises of an infant. And the overpowering melody of a siren.
He'd willed himself over and over to ring the bell. Better still, to break down the door.
He'd just stood there, his ear almost to the door to catch every decibel of a slice of life of the tiny family that lived inside, his hands caressing the door as if it were them.
He felt as if he'd disintegrate with an emotion so fierce he had no name for it, no experience and no way to deal with it.
It had to be rage. An unknown level that made what he'd felt when Carmen had told him she was leaving pale in comparison. It dwarfed what he'd felt when he'd pursued her, bent on erasing the ugliness, the madness of that confrontation, on bringing back his Carmen and the perfection they'd shared, only for more betrayal to tear at him when he'd seen her getting into his cousin Tareq's car. It even eclipsed what he'd felt when he'd confronted Tareq and discovered why she'd really left.
His cousin and arch nemesis had confessed that he'd sent Carmen to seduce Farooq, to get pregnant and create a scandal large enough to stop Farooq's rise to the succession. Tareq had snickered that their uncle's latest decree had thrown a sabot in the cogs of his treachery, turning a pregnancy into an asset, not a liability, forcing him to order Carmen to leave, going back to the drawing board to think of something else to eliminate Farooq from the running.
It had all made sense to Farooq then. From the moment he'd seen her to the moment she'd walked out on him.
Or he'd thought it had.
It had been only hours ago that he'd learned the full truth.
Another tidal wave of emotion crashed over him.
Ya Ullahhe'd never struggled for control, had never even contemplated its loss. He'd been born in control, of himself before others. His urges and desires were his to command, never the other way around. Then there was Carmen.
He'd lost control with his first sight of her, had lost his discretion while drowning in her pleasures, had almost lost his restraint upon her desertion.
Now he was a hairsbreadth from losing his reason.
And it was her doing yet again.
He leaned his forehead on the door, forced inhalations into his spastic lungs, order into his frenzied thoughts, willing the blinding seizure to pass.
It took minutes and the nosiness of two neighbors to bring him down. He regained at least enough control to settle a semblance of composure over the chaos, smothering it. Enough to make him reach a resolution.
He'd never let her affect him that deeply again. Ever.
He'd go in, take what he wanted. As he always did.
He straightened, set his teeth with great precision and almost drove his finger through her doorbell.
Carmen jerked up from watching Mennah sleep. The bell!
Though it almost never rang, she'd been waiting for her super to come fix the short-circuit in the laundry room. He'd said within the next two days. Four days ago.
But it was the way the bell rang that had made her jump. It had almost bellowed, for lack of a better description. Maybe it was about to give, too, and that sound was its dying throes?
Sighing, she checked Mennah's monitor and the wireless receiver clipped to her jeans' waist. On her way to the door, she smoothed her hands over her hair but gave up in midmotion with a huff. A disheveled greeter was what her super got for coming unannounced, catching a single mother with a dozen chores behind her and a shower still in her future.
Fixing a smile on her lips, intending her greeting to be thanks for his arrival if no thanks for his delay, she opened the door.
Her heart didn't stop immediately.
It went on with its rhythm for a moment, the kind that simulated hours, before it lost the blood it needed to keep on pumping. The blood now shooting to her head, pooling in her legs. Then it stopped.
And everything else hurtled, screeched, into consciousness.
Denial, dread, desperation.
She'd changed her career to work from home, had relocated to the other side of the continent, had still remained scared that he'd find her. But he hadn't, and eventually she'd believed he hadn't tried, or hadn't been able to.
But he had found her. Was on her doorstep. Farooq.
Filling her doorway. Blocking out existence.
She found herself slumped against the door, her fingers almost breaking off with the force with which they clutched it. Some instinct must have remained functioning, saving her from crashing to the ground. Some auxiliary power must be fueling her continued grip on consciousness.
That was all he said as he pushed past her, walking into her apartment as if he owned it. And his voice
This wasn't the voice etched in her memory. The voice that echoed in every moment's silence, haunting her, whispering seduction, rumbling arousal, roaring completion, always charged with emotion. This voice contained as much life as a voice simulation program.
God, what was he doing here?
No. She didn't care what he was doing here. She didn't care that her insides were crumbling under the avalanche of emotion the sight of him had triggered.
She had to get rid of him. Fast.
She had to regain control first, of her coherence, to think of something to say, of her volition, to be able to say it.
She leaned against the door she didn't remember closing, feeling as if the least tremor would shatter the tension keeping her upright. She watched his powerful strides take him into the formal living room, felt him shrinking it, converging all light on him like a spotlight in the dark.
And even through her shock and panic, everything inside her devoured each line of his juggernaut's body, even bigger and taller than she remembered, the sculpted suit worshipping it from the daunting breadth of shoulders, to the sparseness of waist and hips, to the formidable power of thighs and endless legs.
Memory was a sadistic master, lashing open festering wounds with images and sensations, of those shoulders dominating her, those hips thrusting her to a frenzy, those thighs and legs encompassing her in the aftermath of madness.
She tore her gaze and memories away, choking on longing. Then he turned, and everything in her piled up with the brunt of his beauty, the rawness of her still-burning love.
His heavy-lidded gaze documented her reaction before he raised both eyebrows, a movement rich in nonchalance and imperiousness. "Finished with your latest act, or shall I wait until you've delivered the full performance?"
It wasn't only his voice that was different. This wasn't the Farooq she remembered. This wasn't even the hostile stranger she'd walked out on. That man had been seething with harshness, with emotion. This man was even more forbidding, as he eyed her with the clinical coldness of a scientist dealing with inanimate matter.
His lips pursed as if he were assessing a defective product. He finally gave a slight shake of his awesome head, lips twisting on his unfavorable verdict. "As an unbiased viewer, I must tell you, your acting abilities are slipping. Exaggeration is not your friend."
Before she could even process his dispassionate comment, let alone find words to answer it, he relieved her of his focus, cast his gaze around her space.
She could see his connoisseur's mind adding up the worth of every square foot, every piece of furniture, brush stroke and decorative article and felt defensive. Though she'd made this place chic and cheery, it could well be derelict compared to the opulence he was used to. Which was a stupid thing to feel and think.
She had to make him leave. Now. Before Mennah woke up. Before he saw the childproofing she'd begun installing.
He finally returned those empty eyes to hers as he walked back toward her. She watched him cross the distance between them with the fatalism of someone about to be hit by a train.
"It cost a bundle, this place," he murmured. "I would have wondered how you afforded it. If I didn't already know."
She almost blurted out "What do you mean by that?" She didn't. She couldn't locate her voice. Her heart had long invaded her throat. She could barely breathe enough to keep from passing out. And his indifference and disparagement were encasing her in frost, hurrying her descent. Everything was taking on a surreal tinge. She began to hope this was a scenario out of her Farooq-starved imagination.
Then he was within touching distance. And she had to prove to herself he wasor wasn'treally here.
She reached out a trembling hand, half expecting her fingertips to encounter a mirage. Instead they feathered over black-silk-covered flesh, the layered sensations of softness and steel, heat and hardness. Her fingers pressed into him, shudders engulfing her, like an electrocution victim unable to break the deadly circuit.
And she saw it, in his eyes. A response, blasting away the ice, mushrooming like a nuclear cloud before the wave of annihilation followed. Before he clamped onto her intruding hand.
A moan punched out of her as he squeezed awareness from her flesh and bones. Then, with scary precision, he removed her hand from his chest, let it drop like a soiled tissue.
With his eyes empty again, he half turned, raising his head as if sniffing for an oncoming storm.
"Hmm filet mignon with mushroom sauce?" He turned his eyes to her. They weren't back to impassivity at all, the harshness she'd seen in them that night in his penthouse polluting the amber. "Expecting a guest? Or is it a sponsor?" She gaped at him. His voice dipped into an abrasive bass. "I hope you've had enough of the shocked routine and will contribute to what started as a monologue and is now bordering on a soliloquy."
Contribute. He wanted her to contribute. She had exactly four words to contribute. The sum total of what was left of her mind.
"Why are you here?"
Something feral flashed in the depths of his wolflike eyes. "So, you deem to end the mute show. If only to put on the dumb one."
Each word was a lash on her rawness. "Please stop." He inclined his head, a predator at leisure, his prey cornered, with all the time in the world to torment it. "Stop what? Critiquing your below par performance? You have only yourself to blame for that. It seems you haven't been honing your craft of late."
"Please I don't understand."
"More acts, Carmen? Don't you know the key to a successful acting career, especially an offstage one, is sticking with your strengths? My advice: never try the particular roles you just churned up for my benefit again. They neither suit nor work."
"For God's sake, stop talking in riddles. Why are you here?"
He raised an eyebrow. "Intent on dramatizing to the end, aren't you? Or are you just intent on testing the limits of my patience? The reason I'm here is self-evident."
She shook her head. "Not to me. So please, drop your act and just say what you came here to say, and thenpleaseleave me alone."
He seemed to expand like a thundercloud about to hurtle down destruction, a beam of the day's dying sun striking a solar flare of rage in the gold of his eyes.
"I once told you that I have my fill of games. I thought you had enough intelligence not to join the would-be manipulators who swarm around me. At least not to try the same trick twice. Evidently I've overestimated your IQ. This will be the last time I take part in one of your games, so savor it while you can. Try another at your peril." He inclined his head at her, sent her heart slamming in her chest. "You want me to pretend I don't know that you know why I'm here? Zain. Fine." He gave a pause laden with the irony of someone about to deliver something redundant, the disgust of being forced to play an offensive game of make-believe.
Then he drawled, smooth and sharp as a razor, "I am here for my daughter."