Authors: Sophia Lynn,Ella Brooke
“I do?” Aziz reached down to caress her thigh and leaned over to take her fingers into his mouth.
His tongue swirled around her finger before he gave it a wet suck. Laine felt her cheeks growing warmer. The way he looked at her while he did it…it was just how he looked at her across the table, or when they passed in the hallway.
“Hadiya will be back soon,” she muttered.
“You haven’t tasted
yet,” Aziz said with a pout. “Fair is fair, darling.”
Laine set her bowl down and took his large hand in both of hers. She took in two of his fingers at once up to his knuckle, tasting the sweetness of the batter and the salt of his skin. Now Aziz started to laugh. His eyes widened as he watched her suckle on him.
“Ew,” Hadiya protested as she walked into the kitchen. “I hope you washed your hands, Aziz!”
Laine giggled and turned away.
“I washed before we began,” Aziz said defensively.
“You’d better get out of here before my friends arrive.” Hadiya shook her head and rolled up her sleeves to wash up. “Laine can stay.”
“This is unfair to me,” Aziz said.
“You are a man. It isn’t proper for you to spend the afternoon with a party of young women. Go away.” Hadiya made a shooing motion with her hand.
Aziz sighed dramatically and headed for the kitchen door, but paused for a moment to catch Laine’s eye. His twinkled mischievously until Laine came over to give him a shove.
“One can hardly pry him from you,” Hadiya said as she took over the bowl Aziz had abandoned. She had a lot to prepare before her friends came, and Aziz had been the opposite of helpful. “Is he more than your client now?”
“I don’t really know.” Laine shrugged and then said something Emma had told her once. “They say the best way to kill a relationship is to take its temperature.”
“How grim!” Hadiya laughed and continued on with her work in the kitchen. Laine stayed close to offer a hand wherever Hadiya needed, since she’d turned down Aziz’s offer to have his chef do the work. Hadiya liked to do things for others with a personal touch.
Laine thought back on her own sister’s words as she cooked. She loved the little flirty moments with Aziz, but they came less often now that his brother was visiting. Yet, the two of them continued to have their stolen glances, their furtive touches. She might look up in the middle of her work on a room to see Aziz’s eyes on her, and she would simply know that his eyes were picturing her body naked and finding it a beautiful sight. If Amin had noticed their silent repartee, he held his tongue.
Still, with all this flirtation, Laine had to wonder. Amin had mentioned marriage, but that seemed to be the furthest thing from Aziz’s mind. Laine understood now that Aziz could not grab her passionately whenever he liked in his own country, where interaction between unmarried men and women was much more restricted—especially with family visiting. But as intense as their
was, Aziz continued to treat their
as one long, ongoing fling. Laine hated to be the one getting so invested, while it seemed like for him their interlude was just another extravagant way to seize the day and take pleasure while they both had life in them. While his gifts and gestures were sweet, whenever pressed to speak of their relationship on more intimate terms, he tended to try to undress her with more than his eyes, or he grew quiet and left the room on “business” he needed to take care of. And it hurt.
Laine knew she could open up more. She’d tried, but not knowing where he stood on these things, and being unable to reliably get him to put away his capricious persona, she found it very hard to spill her soul to him, even if he’d told her something very important about himself.
Hadiya grabbed Laine’s hand just before she dumped salt into a cake instead of sugar. With a click of her tongue, Hadiya took over the bowl.
“You must learn to cook someday,” she chastised.
“I can cook,” Laine argued. “I made dinner for our family practically every day for six years. Baking? Not really in my wheelhouse.”
“It is the same,” Hadiya scolded. “How can you do one but not the other?”
“Cooking is art. Baking is science. And I got a C in chemistry.”
Hadiya rolled her eyes and pointed to the far counter. “How about you just sift my sugar over there?”
After Hadiya’s afternoon tea with her friends, Laine went out to her garden to review her notes. With the roses as inspiration, she had focused her research for a few final designs around the concept of the resilient flora that naturally took root in the desert.
She’d almost immediately discarded the idea after the first search on her tablet only turned up a variety of cacti. Laine wouldn’t have gone with that kind of motif even in the American Southwest. With a little persistence, she found some good pictures of date palms that she could use for one of the conference rooms, since dates had once been a chief crop for the country. She’d spoken to the painter she’d contracted about how to balance the images in that room with a few lines from a Sumerian poem about Bahrain.
Now, she perused pictures that she’d found late last night, biting her lip as she wondered what she could do with the concept. A framed painting? A vase with the image on it? As she thought it over, she sensed a presence behind her and turned before Aziz reached her.
“Did you enjoy the girls?” He asked, strolling up to her.
“They were very welcoming.”
Aziz peered over her shoulder. “Ah…I thought that we might go see this, if you were interested. It really is just a trip out to the desert, but I cannot resist the symbolism.”
“You are a sucker for symbols and gestures,” Laine said dryly. “Could we go? Aren’t you too busy with your business to go out and look at plants in the desert with me?”
Aziz’s eyes flickered, and then his hand slipped down her shirt and into her bra. “I could arrange for an opening.”
Laine didn’t really believe Aziz had an English problem, but she did love his sense of humor.
A few days later,
Laine stood in front of the Tree of Life, a gorgeous, tenacious tree that continued to grow in the middle of the desert of Bahrain. The pictures she’d seen didn’t do it justice. It was just a tree, after all, but at the same time it was so tremendously large—it spread out to practically the width of a house. The branches were so long that they dragged along the ground on one side.
Aziz’s large hand rested on her back, and her heart caught in her throat. The sheer gall of this tree struck her. Its bark was pale, but it stretched high into the sky, a proud and defiant gesture against the ruthless desert.
“God, I can’t believe I thought I could just work from a photo of this.” Laine approached the tree, treading carefully on the sand. “I always loved the Gustav Klimt painting, but being here…”
“It defies words, doesn’t it?” Aziz kissed the back of her neck and rubbed her shoulders. “Words fail me sometimes, too.”
Laine nodded and touched one of his hands. “How does it…? I mean, it even has
“How does it survive? It is a miracle.”
Laine made a scoffing sound. “It must have some kind of advanced root system.”
She approached the trunk, which was surrounded by a small fence. Not that the fence had deterred anyone from getting close to the tree. There were carvings in the bark, people’s initials and lines of script in Arabic, and yet it continued to thrive in spite of its scars and the brutal heat. It was morning, but the air around her shimmered and she could already feel the heat of the sand through the soles of her shoes.
“I don’t think there is a need to question it.” Aziz walked up to a branch and ran his fingers along the old, weathered bark.
“I don’t need to. I just
to. This thing is over 400 years old.” Laine traced a bit of script scrawling across the bark. The scarring made her like the tree even more. “This tree is older than America. It’s older than ‘I think; therefore, I am.’ It has lived through
paradigm shifts. Don’t you find that exciting?”
“I do, but perhaps not in the same way you do.” Aziz twisted his lips and sighed. He scratched the side of his head. “It makes me think how short life is.”
Laine looked over to him with a frown. She pressed her lips together and then went over to touch his arm. Of course, longevity like that made him wonder how long they might live. She looked at it with possibility, but he saw it with a certainty that wasn’t entirely positive.
“I wish I were more like this tree,” Aziz said, a touch of humor in his voice. “I’m afraid I’m more like your roses—pampered with water and daily tending.”
“I don’t think the roses have ever had to live through cancer,” Laine said wryly, “Or catastrophic car wrecks.”
Aziz looked down to her, his eyes wide and curious. She swallowed and went mute as she fixed her gaze on the tree once more. The silence was grating, though, and she had to break it.
“I’m just saying. You’ve taken on a
more than the roses have.”
Aziz slipped his hands into his pockets and leaned back against the tree’s wide branch. He looked up at the pale blue sky through the maze of its leaves. “This sounds suspiciously like you are paying me a compliment.”
“I might be.” Laine smirked. “Could this tree manage a vast,
Aziz shook his head and closed his eyes. “You tease me.”
“You like to be teased.” Laine sat on the railing of the fence and pressed her hand to the trunk. “You should look at this tree and see sprawling branches of possibilities. This tree has lived far longer than anyone expected. And if nothing else, you defy expectations, and I love you for that.”
Aziz said nothing for a moment. Then Laine realized what had just slipped out. That word weighed heavily in the hot air.
. Laine’s heart began to race as the word hung, and began to sink, unanswered.
His answer came as a non-answer, with his lips on her cheek and his arms around her waist, and she let him touch her underneath this vivacious symbol. And then, for a little bit, under her clothes.
Laine knew she was not at all comparable to this tree, surviving as it had completely alone out here. If Laine was alone, it was entirely her own doing. If Aziz was, that was probably his preference.
“Hey, little girl!”
Laine smiled at her father’s face on her laptop. Well…it was the top of his head. He never could work the webcam on his own.
“Hey, Dad. Could you move the camera down just a little? More, more…okay, that’s good.”
“You can see me?” Greg chuckled. “How’s Bahrain? Hot enough for ya?”
Laine laughed softly. Because what else would her father say? “It’s been interesting so far. I’ve spent most of my time in the palace, though.”
“Palace? I thought you were doing some guy’s house.”
Laine spent a few minutes detailing what they’d been doing so far with the renovations, and her father nodded along, even though some of the details were a bit beyond him.
“Well, I’m glad you’re having such a good time, even though it’s mostly work. I don’t think I’ve seen you lit up like this since…honestly, I don’t know when, honey.”
Laine sat back and took a deep breath. He wasn’t wrong. But the situation confused her. She’d thought that she loved her job. She’d thought that everything she had in New York, even the parts that were hard, would be the stepping stones to her happiness, and they would help her support her family along the way.
The longer she spent here, though, the less she wanted to think about returning to her cramped apartment and her tense office. It was a battle every day there. A battle she was good at, but ultimately, there was never any progress in the war. It was the same fight, over and over.
The hiccups in her plans here—the wrong materials, learning to argue in a different way to get what was needed—they weren’t the same type of fight. This struggle energized her, rather than drained her. It might be because every challenge in her work here was for the betterment of her project. Most of her fights at home were to simply gain enough respect to do her damn job properly.
After getting off the phone with her father, Laine took a tour of the rooms that were under construction. She made lists of everything that was yet to be done. For the past several days, she had been focusing all of her energy into the renovations, not going out, and resembling her stubborn, New York–self a bit.
It beat trying to think about the awkwardness at the end to their trip to the Tree of Life. Regardless, Aziz seemed rejuvenated by the trip, and he’d spoken of it fondly at dinner the next day. Laine decided to try to be happy for him. She knew what it was like to want to find meaning in the world, having had a brush with death herself.
Laine found Aziz in his study, peering at his computer with a frown on his face. She took a moment to just watch him as he worked. His brows knit together in a line, and he rubbed his finger over his lip slowly. Then he straightened slightly and started to type.
She waited a few minutes to disturb him. She found, embarrassingly, that sometimes she was content just to watch him, whatever he was doing. Licking his lips, working, sleeping. It was less than dignified, but just the sight of him sent her heart into her throat at times.
Eventually, she broke her gaze and sneaked up behind him. It wasn’t hard to do, as his office was so spacious. He had a couch and a coffee table in there.
“Ah!” Aziz gasped as she circled her arms around his shoulders. “You!”
“Now who’s working too much?”
Aziz let his head fall back and smiled. “Someone has to pay for these expensive renovations!”
Laine chuckled and kissed his upside down lips. “Wanna see the latest addition?”
Aziz raised a brow and swiveled around in his chair. “You have something special for me?”
“Something I think you’ll really like,” she teased.