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Authors: Rima Jean

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BOOK: Caught Between
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Where is everyone?
"Hello?" she called, looking around. "Anyone here?"

A rustle from behind made her turn, and a mousy-faced woman appeared in the doorway of what seemed to be a dim office. "Yes, yes, sorry, may I help you?" she said in a soft voice. She had a strong
Midwestern accent and long, wavy, graying hair that was parted in the middle and loose around her shoulders. She wore a long gypsy skirt and Birkenstock sandals.

Marya
smiled. "Hi, I'm Marya Helwe. Professor Margot Ducharme was expecting me?"

The woman's eyes widened, and
Marya got the distinct impression it was with displeasure. "Oh, dear.
You're
Marya? Oh, dear."

"Uh, is something wrong?"
Marya asked, her smile fading.

"Yes," the woman said firmly, glaring through her perfectly round, smudged glasses. "Something is
very
wrong. Dr. Ducharme went to the airport an hour ago to pick you up."

"Oh,"
Marya said, frowning. "I didn't know... I thought..."

"How did you expect to get from the airport?" the woman asked, exasperated.

The way I actually got here.
Marya opened her mouth to answer, but shut it before her reply, which was probably a touch too sarcastic, could escape. Besides, she had planned on catching a cab, not hitching a ride with a dashing and wealthy Jordanian.

"Well," the woman sighed in resignation, "I suppose I'll show you to your room. You can deal with Dr.
Ducharme yourself when she gets back."

Following the woman from the main building with her suitcase rattling behind her,
Marya said, "I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name...?"

"I'm Ms. Felicity," the woman answered, not looking back. "I'm the administrator here at ACMER."

Marya noted that she'd said
Ms.
Felicity, not just Felicity.
So we're going to be like that?
"Ms. Felicity," she said, "I am truly sorry for misunderstanding the transportation arrangements."

Felicity reached into a deep pocket of her skirt and pulled out a thick ring of keys. They'd stopped in front of a dilapidated one-story building with a dirty red door across the road from the main building. "Well, you can apologize to Dr.
Ducharme herself when you see her." She found the right key and shoved open the door. "You'll be sharing your hostel room with another student. I forgot her name." Her tone indicated that the students' names didn't really matter.

The hall was hot and empty save for a stone bench along the wall. Four doors, two on each side, led to the hostel rooms from the hall. A small stairway led up to a fifth door that was propped open and revealed a bathroom within. Felicity used another key to open one of the doors and held it open for
Marya. "This is your room. Leave the windows open unless you want to die of heat at night. Laundry is done twice a week, so leave your dirty clothes in that basket over there. You are allowed one shower per day, not to last longer than five minutes. There isn't water to spare around here, after all. Dinner is promptly at five in the dining hall. The food goes quickly, so be on time." She paused, thinking. "Oh, and check your bed and shoes for scorpions before getting into them."

Swallowing nervously,
Marya took the two keys Felicity held out to her. "Uh, okay, thanks." Felicity turned to go. "Ms. Felicity, one more thing," Marya ventured. "Where is everyone?"

Felicity glared. "Some are in the labs, some in the library. But most of the team went to the airport to get
you
."

"
Oh
." Her heart sank as she watched Felicity walk out of the hostel, the red door slamming behind her. Damn. These people were going to hate her before even meeting her.

She rubbed the jetlag from her eyes and glanced around her home for the next six weeks.  There were two twin beds, one obv
iously claimed by her roommate. A soft blue blanket was neatly folded at the base of one bed, and a teddy bear sat smiling amongst the throw pillows. A poster of Robert Pattinson was haphazardly taped to the wall nearest to her bed.

You're kidding me. Teddy bear? Throw pillows? Twilight? Is this girl a college student or a giggly tween?

She looked over at her own bed, with its paper-thin blanket and flattened pillow. Then again, maybe her roommate was on to something. Despite its uninviting appearance, Marya was overwhelmed with exhaustion at the sight of a bed. She would have loved nothing more than to fall asleep until tomorrow. She glanced at the pink digital clock her roommate had set on the table between their beds: three in the afternoon. She groaned, sitting down on the flimsy mattress. The springs creaked beneath her. If she fell asleep now, she'd screw up her entire sleep cycle. She had to stay awake and meet Dr. Ducharme and the team when they got back...
Which is going to be just fabulous.

Shaking her head vigorously in an attempt to snap out of her sleepy haze,
Marya sprang up and opened her suitcase. She shoved a granola bar in her mouth and collected her toiletries. Grabbing a worn towel that was folded on the laundry basket, she rushed into the bathroom at the end of the hall.
Five minutes.
She pulled her long dark hair out of its ponytail. She'd taken shorter showers than that, right? She came up with a plan of attack as she stripped off her travel-worn clothes.
Shampoo, skip conditioner... shave pits, skip legs...

Ten minutes later, she was sitting on her bed, dressed in cotton pants and a t-shirt, dragging a comb through her tangled, wet hair.
Outside, she heard an engine approach, and she peered out the window to see a small bus pull up in front of the ACMER building.

She slumped back down and turned, locking eyes with Rob
Pattinson. "This is going to suck," she said softly to him.

 

 

2.

Might as well
get this over with.

Taking a deep breath,
Marya ran her fingers through her wet hair and swept out the door. She stepped outside just as several people filed off the bus. Trying not to cough from the exhaust, she walked around the front of the vehicle and said to anyone who would listen, "Hi... Dr. Ducharme?"

She wore a tan hunting vest and matching pants that were tigh
tly belted at the waist. A pith helmet sat on her head, shading a pair of very severe blue eyes. Marya bit her lip. Dr. Livingstone, I presume?

"Are you
Marya Helwe?" This was a woman who was used to being obeyed. Her posture was rigid, the lines around her thin mouth deeply etched.

"Yes... I'm so -- "

"How did you get here?" she interrupted.

"Well, I didn't realize anyone was coming to pick me up, so I got a ride." It suddenly occurred to
Marya just how bad her explanation sounded, and she felt her face infuse with heat.

"You got a ride?" Margot
Ducharme repeated loudly enough for the others, who were all standing around watching, to hear. "With a stranger?"

Marya
stood perfectly still, willing her eyes to unfocus. "Yes..."

Dr.
Ducharme lifted her head indignantly, piercing Marya with her disapproving gaze. "Ms. Helwe," she snarled. "Do you realize how stupid that was? A young American woman like yourself, traveling alone to a Middle Eastern country?"

The shame
Marya had initially felt was swiftly replaced with a spark of anger. She didn't appreciate what this woman was implying, nor did she appreciate the way she had been treated since arriving at ACMER. Unable to control her tongue, Marya replied, "I've traveled to Middle Eastern countries before, Dr. Ducharme."

Marya
could feel all eyes on her, and she just wanted to evaporate from the scene. Dr. Ducharme's lips twitched, then she shook her head and marched towards the ACMER building without saying another word. Marya shoved her hands in her pockets and looked down at the ground, letting her damp hair veil her face as the other team members shuffled by her, either following Dr. Ducharme into the building or going to the hostel.

Marya
heard a low whistle as one of them walked by, and she snapped her head up, frowning. A young man wearing a red bandana tied around his head grinned brazenly over his shoulder at her as he walked past. Marya grit her teeth and turned away. Unsure of what to do next, she stormed back into the hostel. She stopped short when she realized she wasn't alone anymore -- her roommate stood watching Marya warily from her side of the room.

"Oh, hi," the girl said nervously. "I'm Amy." She had a kind face,
Marya thought, with wide hazel eyes and freckles across her nose. She wore her sandy blond hair very short, and sported a pair of jeans that were most unflattering to her figure. Mom jeans.

"Hi, Amy. I'm
Marya."

"Yeah, I know." She turned away. "Everybody knows."

Just as Marya's heart plummeted to her feet, Amy turned and flashed a small smile. "That was awesome, by the way. Nobody talks to Margot like that."

Marya
let out her breath slowly. "I didn't mean to be rude. She was just so condescending. It pissed me off."

Amy laughed, revealing "invisible" braces. "Yeah, about that. Margot is condescending to everyone, so you may spend a lot of time ticked off these next six weeks."

Marya cracked a smile. "You have a serious Canadian accent." She wanted to try and imitate Amy just to see if she could do it, say aboot instead of about...

"Well, you have a serious American accent," Amy said, still smiling. "Come on, let me introduce you to the rest of the girls." She took
Marya by the wrist and pulled her into the hall. "Shannon! Liz! Connie! Amber!"

Marya
cringed inwardly as the doors opened and the girls came out to meet her. She was a curiosity to these Canadian girls, since they all attended the same archaeology class with the same professor at the same university. Shannon was a skinnier, darker-haired version of Amy. Liz was a Kate Winslet look-alike, if Kate Winslet wore dreadlocks and long, hand-dyed skirts. And a nose ring. Connie was tall and thin, with long brown hair in braids and an engagement ring on her finger. Amber was a petite, blond-haired girl in glasses who looked to be afraid of the others and hung in the back.

"Hi,"
Marya said, waving quickly and plastering a smile on her face. "Nice to meet you."

Liz, the Kate
Winslet in dreads, smirked at her. "So the American girl finally got here. I guess we can all get back to our lives now." She began to turn away as she said, "I'm assuming Felicity has told you all the rules?"

Wow. Okay.
Nice to meet you too. Marya glanced at Amy. "What rules? She just said -- "

"You know," Liz answered. "Five minute showers, be on time for dinner, no consorting with the boys, all that jazz."

"Everything but the last one," Marya mumbled.

"Ah." Liz turned in the doorway, smiling wickedly. "The last one is Professor
Ducharme's rule. The boys' hostel is on the other side of the ACMER building. We are not allowed in there, and they are not allowed in here. Comprende?"

Liz slammed her door shut, and before
Marya could ask Amy why Liz was such a bitch, Amy said, "Yeah, Dr. Ducharme used to be a nun before becoming an archaeologist."

Marya
raised her eyebrows. "She used to be a nun?" That explained a lot, actually.

Sharon hissed at Amy. "
Gawd, Amy, you just can't keep quiet, can you?"

"Why should she keep quiet?"
Marya asked.

"Sorry," Amy replied in a tone that indicated she wasn't sorry at all. Sharon ignored
Marya's question and went back to her room. Connie grinned like she was watching a soap opera, and Amber stared at the wall.

"So," Amy continued with a conspiratorial smile, "I hear you speak Arabic. That's so great, because no one on our team speaks Arabic. It's actually why Margot wanted you along -- because you could play translator with the Bedouin workers. I probably wasn't supposed to tell you that either, but oh well."

"You weren't," Connie confirmed.

"See? Oh well. You would have found out sooner or later, probably." Amy shrugged happily. "And I also heard your parents are from Syria, and that you've been to the Middle East before. Which is super, because we totally need someone to show us around Amman. Someone who knows what she's doing, you know? Oh, and by the way, do you pronounce your name like M
ariah Carey's?"

"No,"
Marya said quickly. "And thanks for asking. It's pronounced Mar-yuh, with the accent on the first syllable."

"That's so good to know," Amy said with a relieved laugh, "b
ecause I love Mariah Carey's music, but honestly, her name has always bugged me. Your name is so original, and I'm totally gonna give my kids foreign names someday."

Marya
tried to keep her expression blank, desperately wishing Amy would stop talking. She was too jetlagged for this right now. "Yeah, uh... You know what, I should probably call my parents and let them know I got here okay. Do you know where I can find a phone?"

"Absolutely," Amy said. "Follow me."

Amy clearly enjoyed the attention that came with showing Marya around; she spoke loudly and made a big entrance everywhere she went. When she led Marya directly to Felicity's office, Marya withheld a scowl. "Ms. Felicity," Amy announced, "Marya would like to call her parents to let them know she's okay."

Marya
smiled tightly. "Thanks, Amy."

Felicity gave them a bored look. "The codes are taped to the desk. Limit your call to ten minutes, please."

It wasn't until she heard her mother's voice that Marya realized she was already feeling homesick. "Hey... Yeah, everything's fine. No, everyone's great. It's a dream come true, really." She wasn't about to tell her mother the truth: that she'd been here only a couple hours but had already screwed up and gotten on the professor's bad side. "Don't worry, I'll call you often. Yes, I promise. I love you, too."

"I love you, too, Mommy," a male voice jeered from just ou
tside the office. Her mother was still talking, but Marya was distracted by the juvenile snickering that followed. Holding the phone away from her face, Marya craned her neck to see what immature asshole was taunting her. She saw three guys turning the corner towards the exit, one of whom wore a red bandana wrapped around his head and baggy jeans sitting low on his hips. She could only see him from the back as he walked away, but she was certain he was the same guy who'd whistled at her earlier, after her confrontation with Ducharme.

Jackass. What's with these Canadians?

She managed to end the phone call with her mother after no fewer than six attempts and walked out of the office just as dinner was announced. She had to move against the wall just to escape the stampede of professors and students that plowed through the room and into the dining hall.

"
Marya, come sit with me," Amy said as she walked by, grabbing Marya by the hand. While she was pleased to have made at least one friend, Marya wondered about Amy's sudden attachment to her. It seemed to stem from the fact that, by hanging around Marya, Amy was getting a little more attention than usual from everyone else. It didn't seem to matter to her that the attention was primarily negative attention.

The line to the food wound through the hall, around the long tables and towards the exit. Standing at the very end of it,
Marya couldn't help but notice that Dr. Ducharme and some of her colleagues were already seated and eating. What was all that business about nuns taking vows of poverty and obedience and all that? Marya scowled. Maybe Margot Ducharme had been kicked out of the convent for wanting special treatment.

Amy was talking. Again.
Marya's sleep-deprived brain was only catching every other word. For the most part, she was surveying her teammates: They were mostly the academic types, with a fair share of bohemians thrown in. Lots of long hair, Birkenstocks, and hemp. She wondered which ones were American.

"Am I the only American on the team?"
Marya suddenly asked.

"No," Amy replied. "There's one other. Edward Marshall." She rolled her eyes. "He's a graduate student and Margot's little pet. It's sick, really, how she coddles him."

Somehow, Marya didn't think she'd get along with him, American or not. "Oh," she said, unable to hide her disappointment.

"Oh, hang on," Amy said, looking over at a table in the corner where their hostel-mates were sitting, signaling to her. "Will you save my place in line?"

Marya nodded, even though she didn't see the point -- they were the very last people in line. As if on cue, the door to the building opened and the three jackasses from earlier stepped in line behind Marya. She glanced back, saw the red bandana, and quickly turned back around.

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