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Authors: Rima Jean

Caught Between (9 page)

BOOK: Caught Between
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10.

After watching
Marya
rush up the hill and away from him, Luke began to walk. He didn't care where -- he just had to blow off some steam. He'd been in a state of indecision over what do about Marya, about their burgeoning feelings for each other. He wanted her more than he'd ever wanted any other woman, and yet he'd been holding back for fear of the end. For certainly there would be an end, the direction he was headed.

But she'd made the decision easy for him -- by playing him.

With Ash, of all people. Fuck me.

He stopped, cursed aloud, and took a deep breath. His fingers automatically curled into his palms, where he could feel his blood pulse through his veins. He was clueless in relationships -- exper
ience had told him that. He only had to look at Liz to see evidence of it. But he was good in a fight. Oh, that much he knew. He
belonged
in a fight. 

He began walking again, this time with purpose. He knew e
xactly where to go for a good brawl.

***

The heat felt more intense than usual. Marya set a gloved hand in the dirt, blinking in the brilliant sunlight.
I need to drink more water.
She reached for her thermos and closed her eyes as she drank. She should have been dizzy with excitement, not heat exhaustion. She and Luke had uncovered a woven mat in front of what used to be the Moabite gate -- a very old mat.

Soon after the discovery, a flurry of activity ensued, and
Marya hadn't gotten a real break in several days. The tension between her and Luke was overshadowed by their work, and their interactions were cool and professional. Side by side, they picked and brushed and cleaned and catalogued every fiber in that Iron Age mat. He issued directions, she asked questions.

The distance between them would have been a million times more difficult to endure if
Marya hadn't noticed Luke holding Liz at arm's length. It was subtle: whenever she touched him, his thigh, his back, his hair, he found an excuse to move away from her. At first, it seemed coincidental. But when it continued, Liz became sullen and Marya was filled with relief. Maybe it wasn't on account of her at all, she told herself. Even so, she knew she could survive the next few weeks.

She never told Amy the truth about what happened in Petra. Amy was not happy with
Marya's lack of trust and began to distance herself. Amy sat with Connie, Shannon and Amber, and Marya skipped dinner altogether. Later, she'd scrounge up whatever she could find in the kitchen, or sneak into town for a shawarma.

Five days later, Ash came for her. She was heading down the hill, intent on finding some food, when his shiny BMW pulled up at the gate. He stepped out of his car and smiled at her, and she felt a wave of tears swell behind her eyes. She'd been so lonely these past few days that seeing him was a welcome breath of fresh air. He was always doing that -- coming to rescue her from ACMER... from Luke.

He took her to dinner and she ate with appetite. "Haven't they been feeding you?" Ash asked, his brows drawn together with concern.

She shrugged. "The volunteers don't like me very much. So I skip dinner."

"How can they not like you?" Ash laughed as if it were the must ridiculous thing he'd ever heard. "What about Luke? Surely you could sit with him."

Marya
didn't look up from her plate. "His girlfriend wouldn't like that."

"Ah," Ash said with a smile. "She's jealous of you. I'm not su
rprised."

After dinner they walked through the Old City, and
Marya haggled with a merchant over a pearl-inlaid box for her father and a silver bracelet for her mother. Ash bought them pistachio ice cream and they ate as they strolled, enjoying the night scene in the streets. When Ash slipped his hand in hers, Marya stiffened.
You're leading him on. Luke is right. You need to tell him.

"Ash, we need to talk,"
Marya said, turning to face him. He raised his eyebrows.

"That's never good," he said with a worried smile.

"I don't want you to think... I'm your girlfriend," Marya said the words gushing out. "I mean, I don't know if you think that. You might not. But I just don't want there to be any misunderstandings between us."

His face remained composed, but she could tell he was not pleased with her words. After a moment of silence, he said, "I was hoping we could go in that direction. I thought... I thought the fee
ling was mutual."

Oh, no.
Marya's heart began to ache. "Ash, in a few weeks I go back to the States. What then?"

"We could find a way. Many of my friends study in Europe but have girlfriends here."

She looked down. "It's not the only problem. I'm American, Ash."

"I don't care," he said.

"But it matters," she said. "I have Syrian blood in my veins, but I am American born and bred. I can never be what you expect of a girlfriend."

"
Marya, what are you talking about?" Ash was flustered. "I am not some old-fashioned Arab who thinks women belong in the home, barefoot and pregnant!"

"Of course not. But you can't deny the cultural differences b
etween us. This misunderstanding, for example. You thought we were getting together, and I thought we were just enjoying each other's company."

His cheeks reddened. "We kissed," he said, his voice low. "In my car. We went beyond that, I thought."

"You see what I mean?" She sighed. "And that's just the tip of the iceberg. You need a girl who is a part of your society, who understands relationships the same way you do. I would frustrate you. You'd never understand me, and chances are you'd come to think less of me over time."

His jaw flexed. "Never."

Marya swallowed. "You don't know how hard it is to tell you this."

"So you think an American man will understand you better?" he said.

She nodded. "Yeah. Obviously, it's more complicated than that, but..." She shrugged.

"Do your parents approve?"

She smiled up at him. "No. Not yet, anyways. But if they love me, they'll come around eventually."

He drove her back to ACMER in silence, and
Marya was suddenly exhausted. She was going to lose the only friend she had left in Jordan, and it hurt. But she couldn't continue to mislead him -- she liked him too much. By the time they arrived, he seemed angry.

"
Marya, I think it's best if we don't see each other for a little while," he said, staring straight ahead.

She nodded. "Whatever you want. I'm sorry, Ash."

He shook his head. "It's okay. I just need to... not see you."

"Okay." She opened her door and stepped out. She thanked him and he drove away, then she climbed back up the hill to the hostel,
a heaviness in her chest.
 

I might not ever see him again.

 

11.

The night club
was dark and loud, and Luke caught glimmers of movement everywhere -- a sequined skirt, a flash of teeth, a cell phone. He hated night clubs, always had. He preferred dives, hole-in-the-wall pubs with nasty floors and even nastier people. A place where he could play some pool or a game of poker, and not have to worry about busting the place up if he got into a fight.

But this was where Ash did business. The VIP rooms were private, and the owner of the club a good friend. Besides, Ash had a point -- who planned a political protest at a glitzy dance club?

They were sitting around on couches when Luke came in, and he immediately sensed that something was wrong. Ash embraced him as usual, but his manner was subdued, almost melancholy. "Got into a fight, Marshall?" he asked, indicating Luke's bruised cheek.

"Yeah, something like that." Luke sat down and prepared himself for some bad news. "We're not getting the equipment, are we?"

Ash passed Luke a drink and frowned. "What? You're getting everything, man -- the radio sets, antennas, phones, solar power supplies. Everything."

Luke slumped with relief. "That's terrific news." He squeezed Ash's shoulder and smiled. While Luke got his weapons from shady smu
gglers who worked on the black market, he got his sophisticated military gadgets from Ash. Ash had connections to a wholesale distributor of a European communication equipment manufacturer. Ash, it seemed, had connections everywhere.

Nodding solemnly, Ash said, "Yes, it's great news." He paused, sti
rring his drink pensively, then said, "Luke, you're an American man. Do American men understand women?"

The unknown beverage Ash had given him burned his throat, made his eyes water.
Scotch whiskey
. Like mother's milk to him. It brought back memories of his dad, memories he'd tried to bury deep. He swallowed and shook his head briskly. "What?" he asked hoarsely. "Women? Shit, no, Ash. At least not
this
American man."

Ash smiled. "Women love you. If you don't understand them, well... The rest of us are screwed."

It dawned on Luke that Ash might be thinking of Marya, and his gut clenched. He set his glass down carefully. "Everything okay?" he asked, wondering if he really wanted to know.

"
Marya Helwe," Ash replied with a sigh. "I thought we had something. I must have misunderstood her. She said we were too different culturally, or some bullshit. She said she wants an American man, because she's an American."

Luke's nerves tingled, like he'd stood up too fast. He thought fur
iously for the right words. "I can see why she would feel that way. She's very different from the girls here."

"I told her I didn't care, that we could make it work," Ash said. "But she refused."

Luke didn't know what to say to his friend. He settled on, "Sorry, man."

"Yeah." Ash rubbed the back of his neck and stretched. "Next week, Marshall. We're protesting next week. You coming?"

"I'll try," Luke replied. "I've got to figure out a way to sneak out of ACMER during lab."

Ash nodded, his eyes flashing. "We won't wait for you."

***

The next week was painful.
Marya went through the motions, keeping herself busy enough during the day that she slept like the dead at night. She began sitting with some of the older volunteers at dinner and would go down to a nearby Internet Cafe in the evenings. For a small fee, she would email her parents and friends, sharing her experiences in Jordan with them. She looked forward to the weekend, when a group of them were going to the Dead Sea.

She sat typing away to one of her friends from college one evening when Luke plopped down at a computer next to her. She glanced a
bsently in his direction, doing a double-take when she realized who he was. As he logged in, he spoke to her without looking at her. "I almost had a heart attack, trying to figure out where you were."

Marya
stared at her screen until the words shimmered. "Are you talking to me?"

"Yeah, I'm talking to you."

She looked at him then, confused. "Why were you looking for me?"

He sat with one leg stretched out in the aisle between them. "I saw Ash a few nights ago. He said... the two of you weren't seeing each ot
her anymore."

Marya
turned back to her screen. "So what?"

"You've been going to bed early lately." He ran his roughened fi
ngers over the keyboard. "But tonight you disappeared after dinner. I knew you weren't with Ash, so... I began to worry."

"Why are you worrying about me?" She leveled a cool look at him, hoping her eyes didn't betray her. "I can take care of myself."

He met her gaze. God, did his eyes have to be so stunningly green? Did he have to always look so effortlessly sexy, so adorable? Marya felt her stomach begin to flip-flop. She'd avoided looking at him these past several days. There was no avoiding it now. There was also no avoiding the discolored bruise high on his cheekbone. "What happened to your face?" she asked.

"I stepped on a rake," he lied glibly. "It's not safe,
Marya. Things are brewing here, dangerous things."

Marya
clicked out of the browser and logged off the computer. "Then worry about Liz. Like I said before, I can take care of myself." She stood and walked out of the cafe. He followed her, his presence sending prickles up her spine.

"Look, I owe you an explanation," he said.

She stopped and turned. "What for, Luke?"

He shoved his hands into his pockets and looked up at the sky. "For avoiding you. From the beginning."

Marya crossed her arms. "There's an explanation? Like one besides you being a jerk?"

He chuckled, his teeth glistening. "Yes, besides that. I don't deny b
eing a jerk."

She smiled in spite of herself. "Okay."

He titled his head. "Can we speak in private?"

"Where?" There wasn't a single place at ACMER -- or all of Jordan -- that would provide them with privacy.

"Come back to my room with me."

Marya
blinked. "I'm not allowed in there."

"
Marya." Luke almost smiled, his eyes filled with mirth. "I thought you weren't afraid of Ducharme."

She slanted him a look. "Whatever. If I get in trouble, it's all your fault."

They walked back to ACMER and she followed him to the men's hostel. She waited as he checked to make sure no one was around before ushering her into his room. One of the older volunteers saw her as he made his way from the bathroom, but he seemed completely uninterested in her presence. Inside, the walls and floor were bare, and a small bed, not unlike her own, was shoved up against a wall, under the window. She spotted a laptop computer on the dresser, and a pile of dirty clothes in the hamper. Two tall waterpipes stood in the corner.

"Where's your roommate?"
Marya asked, turning to him.

"One of the perks of being a field supervisor," he answered, locking the door behind them. "I get a single." He gestured to the bed and grinned. "Have a seat.
Unless you'd rather sit on the floor. And I'm sorry I don't have any refreshments to offer you."

Sitting on the very edge of the mattress,
Marya folded her hands in her lap. Every muscle in her body was tense, her back ramrod straight. She was in his room, in his territory. The place smelled of him, and his bed... Who knew how many women had endured the rock-hard mattress to be with him?

"Since you look like you're about to peel out the door," Luke said, quirking an eyebrow, "I'll stand against the wall."

Her cheeks went red and she scooted back a bit onto the bed. "There. Better? Now tell me what you have to say."

Luke crossed his arms on his chest and looked down. "You know Ash is involved in things."

She started. She hadn't expected Ash's name to come up again. "You mean the protests?"

"Yes." His brow furrowed. "I'm involved too,
Marya. In a big way."

Her heart skipped a beat. "How?"

He looked at her then. "Just trust me when I say that, should I be discovered..." He hesitated before adding, "I can't let other people pay the price for my actions."

"Other people,"
Marya echoed. "You mean me?"

"You, Liz, anyone who gets too close to me." He shook his head. "It's just too dangerous."

Marya looked at the coverlet on his bed, traced the thread with her forefinger. "You already let Liz get close to you."

"Because I met her before I got involved in all of this," he answered.

"Why, Luke?" Marya frowned at him. "Why get involved at all?"

"I have to," he said softly. "It's not even an option."

The sounds of the night crept in through the open window -- crickets, passing cars, voices that spoke in English and Arabic. Marya stood. "Okay. While I don't understand, I can accept that you don't want to get close to me. I appreciate your effort to explain it to me." She began to walk towards the door when he reached out and caught her wrist.

"I'm not done," he said. His lips were parted, his eyes vivid. "I want to give you the option of getting close to me at your own risk."

The blood surged through her veins as she looked at him, her eyes running over his face. "Why?" she whispered.

"Because it's killing me, being near you all the time but not being able to touch you," he said, his voice heavy with longing.

She could have walked out then. She could have said, "Thanks but no thanks." She knew doing so would save her a lot of heartache. Instead, she wrapped her arms around his neck and lifted her mouth to his. His arms went around her waist, his mouth came down on hers impatiently. She couldn't stop the moan that escaped her throat, the way her body liquefied against his. As their kiss intensified, his hands roamed up the back of her t-shirt, caressing her bare skin.

"Come here," he whispered, pulling her to his bed.

In a haze, she let him -- until the spell was broken by a vigorous banging on the door.

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