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Authors: Rima Jean

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BOOK: Caught Between
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She stared at her disheveled reflection in the mirror. A stranger stared back. Who was this young woman who was making out with a guy she barely knew in sleeping bag outside? Not Ali and
Nisreen Helwe's daughter. She would never. Marya pressed her fingers to her swollen lips.
What are you doing?
Did it matter? She couldn't stop.

She returned to the roof to find Luke packing up. He smiled at her and handed her a meat pastry. "Ready for Petra?"

The others were still sleeping, so they went alone. Luke was a terrific guide, leading her through the Siq, a crack in the mountain that led to the ancient city, and describing the niches carved into the rocks for the gods. He knew everything about the ruins, and Marya was impressed by his knowledge yet again. It was part of what attracted her to him.

Towards the end of the
Siq, Marya stopped in her tracks, catching her breath. The Treasury, the most famous of the Nabataean monuments carved out of the mountains, was at the end of the crack, its rose-gold facade glittering in the morning sun. Luke leaned near her ear. "Savor it. It's the best part."

Marya
swiveled to a group of Japanese tourists following them through the Siq. "Will you take a picture of us?" she asked.

As they posed,
Marya whispered to Luke, "How many of these have you been in?" The thought that he'd been in several girls' Petra albums bothered her, but she pushed the feeling away. Nothing was going to ruin this moment for her.

He chuckled. "Never enough."

The Treasury was immense. Marya was in heaven. She craned her neck and shaded her eyes, ran from side to side, explored the cool inside and rushed back out again. Luke watched in amusement as she snapped picture after picture, ran her fingers over the red stone, pressed her face to the columns. When Luke finally dragged her away, they trekked through the Street of Facades, to the Theater, the Royal Tombs, and the High Place. At the top of the mountain that the ancient Nabataeans used for animal sacrifice, they sat on the stone altar and rested.

"You like it?" Luke asked as they looked out over the jagged cliffs.

"Oh my God, I love it," Marya answered, relishing the feel of the sun and wind on her face. "It's amazing."

"You're amazing." He was watching her intently, almost smi
ling.

She could feel herself blushing so she didn't look at him. "Tell me about your best friend, from Brooklyn. The Syrian-American."

"Tamim," Luke answered. "We called him Tim. He died in a car accident when we were seniors in high school."

Marya
caught her breath. "Luke, I'm sorry."

"It's been nearly ten years, but it still feels like yesterday." He rubbed his palms together slowly, contemplatively. "Tim was like a brother.
The complete opposite from me. I was the loud-mouthed kid who always got in trouble. He was the smart, serious boy all the neighbors and teachers loved. He came to my rescue more times that I can count." Luke sighed at a memory. "After my dad got drunk and nearly killed me, Tim's parents practically adopted me. I lived in their apartment all through middle and high school. I developed a thing for Arab girls, but the Arab boys weren't about to let some punk-ass white trash kid get near their sisters and cousins. Poor Tim got pulled into a shitload of fist fights because of me, but he never complained."

An aching sadness filled her chest.
What a life he's had.
"What about your mom?"

"Died of cancer. I was four." His face was a mask, and no em
otion seeped through.

"Are you still close to Tim's parents?"

"Yes," he answered simply, but this time his voice was laden with emotion. Marya could read between the lines. Luke had probably become the old Syrian couple's only link to their dead son, and so they clung to him. Luke likely clung back.

In an attempt to lighten the mood,
Marya asked, "And do you still have a thing for Arab girls?"

His eyes narrowed, his lips curved in a boyish half-smile. "More than ever."

A spark of desire zipped through her. She wanted to sit in his lap and kiss him until her lips were numb. She wanted to feel his skin against hers. He must have read her thoughts, because his eyes darkened as he looked at her. She had to stand up, for fear she would let him take her right there on the sacrificial altar at Petra.

Luke cleared his throat, taking his time before standing. He peered up at her from where he sat, his eyes a brilliant green. "How'd you like to ride a camel,
Helwe?"

 

9.

With a whoop
of joy, Marya was off, her camel traipsing off behind the Bedouin guide. She laughed with abandon, her eyes sparkling, her cheeks flushed, thick strands of black hair escaping her hat and fluttering in the wind.

God, she's beautiful.

Luke couldn't control the enormous smile that stretched across his face as he watched her. His own camel followed behind, grunting and snorting in protest. "Yeah, come on, you old bastard," he said, patting the animal's thick hide.

He was happier than he'd been for a while. And yet, deep down inside, a feeling of unease nagged him.
What are you doing, dude?
His smile began to fade. He was involved in arms smuggling to a country torn apart by rebellion. More than that -- he was actively seeking to join the rebels. If Ahmed and the others allowed Luke to join them, he might very well be dead before the year was over.

He straightened in his saddle, frowning. Now that was a sobe
ring thought.

So what was he doing, falling for this girl? What was he doing, letting her fall for him? She half-turned in her saddle and smiled brilliantly at him, her voice lost in the wind. He smiled back at her, blinking as grains of sand pelted his face. God help him, he coul
dn't stop seeking her out, like some sort of homing device.
Like a guided missile.
He could still smell her skin, taste her mouth. And how could he forget the way she gasped and arched her back when his fingers grazed her nipple, her lips parted, her eyelids fluttering. If that was how she reacted to having her nipple touched...

Damn, he was getting hard just thinking about it. As if hearing his thoughts, the camel turned its head and bellowed at him. "R
elax," Luke muttered, trying to shift to a more comfortable position.

Truth was, he had no idea what he was doing. But he could hardly stop now -- not when she was finally opening up to him, like a desert flower. He could just go with the flow, and see where their hunger for each other led.

Or he could end this before it got out of hand, before one of them got hurt.

***

Marya clamped her eyes shut, willing her mind blank. She turned up the volume on her iPod to keep her thoughts from wandering.
Just listen to Coldplay, dammit.

Luke sat in the row in front of her, just as he had on the rode to Petra. His hat was pulled over his eyes, and he slept peacefully as the bus bounced them back to Amman. Wasn't that just like a guy? While
Marya agonized over the state of their relationship, Luke was blissfully unaware of anything but the inside of his eyelids.

The two-day trip to Petra had been
a dream come true. Not only had she visited the ruins, but she'd spent the weekend with Luke. Kissing Luke. Touching Luke. Talking to Luke. There was no question about it -- Marya was infatuated with him. She'd never felt this way about any guy her whole life.

Now, however, the weekend was over and they were returning to ACMER. Amy sat across the aisle, dying of curiosity, and
Marya refused to meet her eye. It was obvious to anyone who'd gone on the trip that something was amiss between Marya and Luke. Hell, any one of them could have wandered up to the roof and seen them intertwined in the same sleeping bag. Marya couldn't help but wonder if things would just go back to the way they'd been before Petra. Would Luke continue to go out alone at night? Would he go back to treating her like just another 'minion'? Would he and Liz continue whatever it was between them?

Oh, hell no.
Marya ground her teeth together. If he went back to flirting with Liz, to
making out
with her in the lab...

"Hey, you okay?"

She popped her eyes open to see Luke peering at her from over the seat. "Yeah, I'm great," she said. He seemed satisfied with her answer, because he went back to snoozing. She wanted to snatch the hat from his head and yell her questions at him, but she restrained herself. Tucking her hands under her thighs, she went back to Coldplay.

When they finally pulled up in front of ACMER,
Marya was off the bus in a flash. She headed for the shower before Amy could catch her. When she emerged, most of the volunteers were at dinner. She took a deep breath and headed for the dining hall. Amy waved to her from a table of girls, and through the corner of her eye, she saw Luke at a table with Stephen, James, and Liz. Liz was sitting so close to Luke that Marya wanted to throw something at her.

"Not now," she said the instant she sat down. Amy had already managed to sputter a few questions at her through a mouthful of rice. "We can talk about tonight, when we go to bed."

Shannon and Connie looked back at Luke's table. Liz had slipped her hand up the back of his shirt. Connie said, "Well, whatever happened, doesn't look like it ended
that
."

Marya
stood abruptly. She didn't have to put up with any of this. She shot Connie a menacing look and walked out as calmly as possible. She didn't want to attract any attention -- least of all Luke's. She rushed through the foyer and out of the building, wishing she could somewhere to be completely alone. As she crossed the dirt road to the girls' hostel, she heard a familiar voice.

"Just the girl I came to see," Ash said as he reached the top of the hill, smiling at her.

"Ash," she sighed, resisting the urge to throw herself into his arms. She swallowed her tears and smiled.

"I know you're tired from your trip," he said, a hopeful look on his face, "but I couldn't wait to see you." He pulled her into a hug and she melted against his chest, breathing in his cologne. "How was the trip?" he asked softly, stroking her hair.

The hug suddenly felt wrong. She pulled away. "Petra was a dream come true," she said, choosing her words carefully.

"I knew you would think so." He tugged at her hand. "Will you come out with me for a little bit?"

Marya hesitated.
You'll try to kiss me and I won't feel right about it, but I won't tell you about Luke because I'm a coward who doesn't want to hurt you...
"I don't know. It was a long weekend and we're digging tomorrow."

"Okay." He looked disappointed. "Are you sure everything's f
ine? You seem sad."

Liz's voice, loud and full of joy, echoed from the foyer.
Marya unclenched her teeth and said, "I'm fine. Actually, I think I would like to go out. If you haven't changed your mind."

He took her to a low-key shisha bar where they met up with his friends, including
Selwa and the other students who supported reform of the monarchy. Marya welcomed talk of politics -- it helped keep her silly fling with Luke in perspective. The hours passed as they discussed their plans, and Marya was in no hurry to get back to ACMER. They were organizing a protest, Ash explained, his handsome face impassioned. It would be peaceful, but they would be breaking several laws...

Selwa
gasped with pleasure and rose from her seat, her eyes fixed on someone who had just walked into the bar. The others rose too, smiling, to receive the newcomer. Marya watched as they embraced Edward Lucas Marshall, one by one. He smiled at them, thumping the men on the backs and kissing the women on their cheeks. When his eyes finally locked on Marya, he froze.

Ash took her hand. "Luke, this is
Marya, my American girlfriend." He winked at her playfully. "Luke is also an American."

"
Marya and I have met," Luke said softly. "We're both working at ACMER this summer."

"You're an archaeologist too?" Ash laughed. "I had no idea. What a small world."

Isn't it, though?
Even though her heart pounded in her ears, Marya asked calmly, "What are you doing here, Luke?"

"We have mutual friends," Ash explained, looking to Luke for affirmation.

Luke nodded. "We go way back. But it looks like I caught you at a bad time, Ash," he said, stepping away. "We'll catch up later, when you aren't..." he fixed a pair of cool green eyes on Marya, "...busy."

"I have to go,"
Marya said abruptly. "It's getting really late and I'll... we'll be up early."

Ash looked from
Marya to Luke. "So you're both leaving? That does me no good."

"We can catch up tomorrow night," Luke said.

"Yeah, and I'll see you soon too," Marya added, smiling tightly at Ash.

"Are you both going back to ACMER?" Ash asked.

Luke tightened his jaw. "Yeah. I can take Marya back for you, Ash."

Ash looked at
Marya. "Is that okay? I just need to finish discussing some things with the others before I leave."

"It's fine,"
Marya said. She squeezed his arm. "I'll see you later."

"
Marya, wait." Ash kissed her on the cheek and ran his thumb across her chin. His expression was tender, full of longing. "Sleep well, love."

Luke was already out the door.
Marya followed, wondering if it wouldn't be better to catch a cab on her own. She walked out to the sidewalk and stopped, pondering her next move. Luke was a few yards ahead when he paused to look back at her. "Are you coming?"

She crammed her fists in her pockets. "I'll catch a cab by m
yself."

Luke exhaled and his shoulders slumped. Pulling off his cap, he dragged a hand through his hair. "Come on,
Marya. Don't be like that."

She stiffened. "Don't be like what?"

He approached her slowly. "We can be civil, can't we? We have to work with each other for a few more weeks."

Trying to swallow the lump in her throat, she asked, "Did none of it mean anything to you?"

The line between his eyebrows deepened. "Did none of it mean anything to
you
, Marya? We get back to Amman and you're gone in the blink of an eye, nowhere to be seen. The next thing I know, you're my friend Ash's
American girlfriend
."

Sputtering,
Marya said, "We get back to Amman, and the next thing I know, Liz's hand is up your shirt in the dining hall, right in front of everyone!"

"Liz and I have a complicated relationship. But we're not t
ogether."

"Right. You just screw each other. Friends with benefits."
Marya was seething. She wished she could reign in her anger, act like she didn't care.

"At least I'm being honest with her about it," he snapped back. "Unlike you. I saw the way he looked at you -- he has no idea what you were up to this past weekend."

Marya grimaced. "What was I up to?"

He curled his lip. "Acting like you were available."

"Ash and I are not together."

"Tell Ash that."

"Would it matter?" She bit the inside of her lip, her eyes burning with tears. "If Ash wasn't in the picture, would it matter?"

Luke looked up at the sky, frowning. "I don't know."

Then that's it.
"I'm going to catch a cab. I'll see you tomorrow."

He moved quickly, barring her path with his arm. "
Marya, it's not what you think. I... I just can't get involved with anyone right now."

Yeah, and it's not me, it's you.
Tears slipped down her face against her will. "Get out of my way, Luke."

"Listen to me."

"Why did you go out of your way to seduce me if you can't get involved with anyone right now?" She was nearly yelling, but she didn't care.

His eyes were like beams of green light, piercing her heart. "Because I couldn't stop myself."

She looked away. "Please let me go."

"Please share a cab back to ACMER with me."

She quickly wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand. "Whatever."

The ride back was painful.
Marya glared out her window, her hands bunched into fists, her fingernails digging into the soft flesh of her palms. She glanced at Luke's reflection in the glass to see him staring straight ahead, his expression stony.

The cab pulled up in front of the old gate and
Marya opened her door before the car had completely stopped. She tossed her money in the seat between them and rushed up the hill, into the hostel, and locked herself in the steamy bathroom.

Then she cried.

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