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Aisha paused and looked back, blocking the flow of pedestrians behind us. “Hassan didn’t see us,” she said. “We walked right past his bumper, and he didn’t know.”
“And now you need to keep on walking,” I said, grabbing a handful of her chador, drawing her along.
“But it’s just so amazing,” she said, picking up the pace. No longer gliding but striding, the chador rippling behind her like a sail. “I could have stuck my tongue out at him, or given him the finger and he wouldn’t have known.” She turned to me. “I wish I’d done both.”
Even though I couldn’t see it, I knew she was smiling behind that niqab and I found myself swinging the backpack at my side.
“I really want to thank you for coming along,” she said and reached for my hand again. Held on tight as we walked. “I’m not sure I would have made it this far on my own.”
“What are you talking about? This is nothing. You’re going all the way to London, my dear.”
She squeezed my hand. “You know what’s funny. For the first time, I actually believe I might.” She bounced as we walked. “How much farther to your purse? I really want to call Finn. Tell him the good news, and let him know we’re okay. He must be getting worried by now.”
“See that sandwich board up ahead?”
“The one for Mel’s Bakery?”
“That’s where we’re heading.”
“Good, because I’m suddenly starving. Which makes sense since I was too nervous to eat breakfast. Or even dinner last night for that matter.”
Still high from our victory at the stoplight, she rattled on about how difficult the last few days had been. Choosing what to take, keeping the backpack hidden. Her voice rising and falling with the excitement of a teenager, a girl on an adventure, and all I could think about was how to explain her to Melissa.
My daughter was bound to be as worried as Finn, maybe more. She would want answers, with detailed explanations, and probably an apology. While I was certain she’d be as intrigued by the idea of an underground railroad for girls as I was, and would agree that I’d made the right decision to help, it would take time to reach that point. Time Aisha didn’t have. I needed to get in and get out.
I stopped Aisha two doors from the bakery. “You need to wait here.”
Her eyes opened wide. “Why?” She looked around frantically. “Did you see Hassan?”
“No. I just need to be quick and I don’t want to have to explain you.” I pointed her toward a crowded Lululemon store. “Just go in there and look around. Do not leave until I come for you.”
She said nothing, simply opened the door of the yoga pants store and looked back at me. “Will you bring me something to eat?”
“Of course I will.”
“And for sure you’ll come back?”
I felt like I was abandoning a puppy. “You have my word,” I said and stayed put until the door closed behind her.
My plan was to take off my own chador and niqab and stash them under one of Mel’s patio tables before going inside. Up and off, I figured. How hard could it be? I moved in close to a window. Dropped the backpack, faced the glass and started to lift. Realized a hot and frustrating moment later that I should have started with the niqab.
“What is this?” some guy said. “A Muslim striptease?”
“Leave it on, baby,” another quipped. “Leave it on.”
I snapped my head around. Saw a crowd watching me and shoved the chador back down.
Oddly grateful for the anonymity of the niqab, I turned in what I hoped was a regal manner and lifted my chin. “I had an itch,” I said, letting my eyes meet those around me. “Now, if you’ll excuse me.” I picked up the backpack, bellied up to some guy blocking my path and waited for him to move. He stepped aside and I glided off, heading for Melissa’s front door.
Both her patio and her bakery were nicely crowded, giving me some comfort as I stepped inside. Coffee machines hissed and gurgled while four part-time girls filled orders for sweets and sandwiches and Mel made small talk with a lady handing over fifty dollars for two dozen muffins. I was definitely in the wrong business.
I spotted my laptop and purse behind the counter. Far enough away from the line of customers to be safe, but close enough so a mother could nip in and grab the purse – hopefully without drawing too much attention, or having to explain herself.
“Excuse me,” I whispered to a woman in line. I smiled when she looked at me, realized it was pointless in my Harry Potter cloak of invisibility and lowered the niqab, smiled again. “I just need to get back there for a moment.”
She nodded and stepped aside so I could slip through the opening at the end of the counter.
My laptop beckoned but it was the purse I needed. I checked the staff. Everyone was busy. This could work.
I leaned in. Closed my fingers around the strap. Gave the purse a yank and it swung forward across the divide and into my waiting arms. I turned to leave but that damned familiar voice stopped me cold.
“You there,” Khaled said. “What are you doing?”
And once again, every face turned to the woman who wasn’t quite as invisible as she’d hoped.
“You can’t be back here,” Melissa said.
I could have run. I should have run. But what was he doing here, acting like he belonged behind the counter?
Khaled held out a hand. “Give me the purse.”
I backed up a step. Turned to Melissa. “I know this looks bad, but I can explain.”
His eyes narrowed and my daughter’s grew wide. “Mom?” she said, and I really wished I’d run.
Fast-paced, funny and incurably romantic
Rachel Banks has never believed in magic or moonlight, but if she’d thought that putting a piece of wedding cake under her pillow would conjure up a nightmare in the form of blue-eyed charmer Mark Robison, she’d have stuffed that cake into her mouth instead! Mark is only in Madeira Beach for some much needed R&R and his new neighbour is not the kind of woman made for vacation memories. But there’s something about the incurable romantic that just keeps drawing him back.
Jennifer Crusie. Susan Elizabeth Phillips. Lynda Simmons? Oh, yeah!
Lynda Simmons is a writer by day, college instructor by night and a late sleeper on weekends. She grew up in Toronto reading Greek mythology, bringing home stray cats and making up stories about bodies in the basement. From an early age, her family knew she would either end up as a writer or the old lady with a hundred cats. As luck would have it, she married a man with allergies so writing it was.
With two daughters to raise, Lynda and her husband moved into a lovely two storey mortgage in Burlington, a small city on the water just outside Toronto. While the girls are grown and gone, Lynda and her husband are still there. And yes, there is a cat – a beautiful, if spoiled, Birman.
When she’s not writing or teaching, Lynda gives serious thought to using the treadmill in her basement. Fortunately, she’s found that if she waits long enough, something urgent will pop up and save her - like a phone call or an e-mail or a whistling kettle. Or even that cat just looking for a little more attention!
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