The Sheikh's Accidental Bride, Page 17Holly Rayner
The drugged sleep was odd. It felt like it was holding her, restraining her. Nadya dreamed she saw Salman, trying to get to her, but a woman with an Ambien for a head showed up, dressed in her mother’s clothes, and kept chasing him away.
When she woke, she felt that she’d been fighting battles all night, and that she was more tired still and must have overslept. But when she looked outside, the world was rosy. It couldn’t have been far past dawn. The clock on her phone told her that was true, and gave her a notification that online check-in was now available for her flight.
Seattle. It had been home for the last four years. When she’d been on the plane coming here, she’d already been looking forward to going back. But now? All she could see in her mind was the rain, her dingy apartment, and the sense that something had gone wrong and she was neither with whom she wanted nor where she wanted to be.
Still trying to clear the haze from her head, she sat up in bed, leaning against the headboard. She needed to take stock. Her life had been going OK… or so she’d thought. She’d been making it on her own.
But had she, really? Away from her parents, whose pushy intrusions were now beginning to feel more and more like justifiable concern. Isolated from her sister. Taking jobs that demanded she spend her time in ways she hated, in the endless quest to prove to the world that she could make it on her own.
She could see the river from here, she realized, in the hazy, rose-gold light.
The world didn’t care. The thought struck her as if from nowhere, as she stared at the hint of the river.
It didn’t care if she struggled. It didn’t care if she made decisions that made her life harder, just to prove that she could. If there was one thing Salman had showed her – one thing she would always be grateful to him for, no matter how much the very thought of him might cause her to ache – it was the lesson that not having to struggle didn’t make you less. He was more of a man, and a better, more honorable man than she had ever met, and he had suffered for nothing.
She would accept her sister’s help. Before, when Jasmine had suggested that maybe Nadya could stay with her for a while, while she figured out what it was she went back to school for, it had only made her angry. She’d thought it was an accusation that she wasn’t strong enough or good enough to make it on her own.
Now she saw it differently. She was strong enough. She was good enough. But she didn’t have to make it on her own.
She’d always loved New York, and Jasmine would let her stay here, until she got back on her feet. She’d find a job, but it wouldn’t be killing her. She’d be able to take some time, and figure out want she wanted.
And then she would go back to school. She already had an inkling of what she might choose, though she wasn’t sure yet. Yesterday, in the bath, she’d thought about the life she wanted. And most of that would never come true… could never come true. But in that daydream, she’d chosen to spend her time helping the less fortunate, and that was something she could still do.
Jasmine would be up for her morning run soon. Nadya threw back the covers, excited to talk to her. After all that had happened yesterday, and how distraught she had been, making coffee for Jasmine was the least she could do.
As her feet hit the cool floor, Nadya thought about the day to come. It would be Jasmine’s anniversary party. There’d be arrangements still to be made. The day would be a whirlwind of—
Nadya’s blood ran cold. If today was Jasmine’s anniversary, that meant that today was also the day of Salman’s wedding. He, too, would be making last-minute arrangements. Other Nadya would be here in New York. They’d be there at the pavilion. They’d promise each other the future.
The vision Nadya had begun to make of her own future, fragile in the dawn light, was cracking. Maybe he wouldn’t marry her; maybe he wouldn’t go through with it, after all that had happened. Maybe neither of them would. But if there was the slightest chance that they did, and they ended up living together in that country house, how long could Nadya really stay? How could she not think of him with every helicopter, limo, or train that she saw pass her by, wondering if he was aboard, shuttling between his house in the country and his business interests in the city?
He would haunt her. For as long as she thought that he might have got married, Nadya knew that she couldn’t stay here. She felt the dread of what she had to do before the thought had even fully formed itself in her mind. She knew where the ceremony was to be held and, after her reconciliation with Jasmine yesterday, she knew her sister would let her borrow her car, no questions asked.
She had to go. She had to see for herself. There was no way around it. Just a drive by would do it... just enough to tell if preparations were underway and guests were arriving. She’d wear sunglasses. She’d be lost in the commotion. She’d find out, and then she’d be gone, forever.
Jasmine had agreed easily in the end. She wanted to know why, of course, but when Nadya insisted that she needed to borrow the car, but couldn’t express just why at the moment, Jasmine hadn’t pushed too hard.
They had a spare car that they kept just for such emergencies, it turned out. Nadya thought it was odd, but when she stopped for gas in Chappaqua, she noticed a tiny piece of tape on the back of the car remote. She had to squint to make it out, but if she looked hard enough, it looked like it said “Nadya”.
She didn’t try and dig into what that meant too much. Not with how much she already had on her mind. But it set her more at ease with the thought of asking her sister if she could stay with her for a while.
The day was overcast, with occasional scattered showers, and Nadya was glad she wasn’t driving the car that she owned back in Seattle. Its windshield wipers badly needed replacing, but she just hadn’t the time or the money to do it.
She’d seen the route she was taking from the air, and at the time it had felt like it was taking no time at all. But driving was an entirely different story. The drive in itself was fine, but the length of it made it difficult to escape her thoughts of Salman. There was no escaping into the world of fiction, this time – not if she wanted to avoid getting the most embarrassing ticket of her life.
The second day of heartbreak is the worst. The first is pain, pure and simple. Raw, aching agony. But it’s fresh. It’s just begun. Anything can be endured for a short time, and on the first day of heartbreak, you can convince yourself that you can survive. After all, you reason, it won’t be forever.
But the second day of heartbreak, you’ve got two days to look at, and you can see how much the pain hasn’t lessened. And if it’s real heartbreak, you can start to gather than it won’t be a short time. The second day is the worst day, because it takes away all hope that the pain will dull by the third.
Nadya cried while she drove. She wasn’t embarrassed. If anyone could see her, it didn’t matter. Their opinions on the matter weren’t important, and even if they thought it was unacceptable, then they had never felt what she was feeling. And if that was the case, how could they judge?
By the time she reached the area where the house was, she was aching from sitting in one position. She remembered the town it was outside of, but she hadn’t gotten the address. Most likely it didn’t really have an address. It was more a work of art than a home, and it seemed more likely to have a name than a street number.
While she was driving around, looking for anything that might look the slightest bit familiar, she began to think that driving all this way, only to be unable to find the house at all would be the worst possible thing that could happen on the trip. She’d have gone to the effort, she’d have missed her sister’s anniversary party that meant so much to her, and she would have learned nothing.
But then she saw a van, huge windows filled up to the brim with beautiful, artful flower arrangements, and she knew she was wrong. Not finding out was not the worst thing that could happen to her.
She followed the van down twisty, climbing roads that led
to a larger one. There, they joined more cars, and Nadya knew at once that she had found the wedding guests, and that she had found her answers. There was not a vehicle among those on that road, other than Nadya’s own, that cost under $100,000. Inside, she saw all beautiful people, with jewelry dripping from them, and carefully designed looks.
This was it. This was what she came for. They were there for the wedding. She could turn back now. But for some reason, she didn’t. She refused to believe the evidence of her own eyes. She kept going.
Her car didn’t blend in as well as she’d hoped, and she really did have to make an effort to censor her tears, now. She comforted herself with the idea that everyone in the cars around her was more interested in being seen at a royal wedding than they were in gazing upon some unfortunate person driving a mid-range car.
When she reached the manor, it shocked her how different it looked now from how she remembered it. In the rain, through her emotionally-tainted eyes, it looked dingy, rather than bright. The parking lot where she, along with the string of arriving guests, was being directed was off the exit end of the round driveway, so she got a full view of the entrance, and the bright marble stairs that she’d sat on with Salman.
She didn’t look too closely. She couldn’t afford to get emotional again. Not when they were all so close together and at such slow speeds and she was sure to be noticed.
After she parked, she fiddled with her phone. If anyone saw her, she reasoned, they’d just think she needed to check something, and would be heading into the ceremony in a moment. She’d be dismissed; forgotten. Just the way she wanted to be. Right?
Her plan worked, it seemed. Everyone got out of their cars and meandered through the parking lot, and she was left alone. She gave herself a moment to cry. Just a moment of weakness. Everyone was inside. The parking lot was abandoned, even by the attendants, and Nadya started the engine and turned the car around, ready to head home. She found her way out, carefully avoiding the millions of dollars in automobiles surrounding her.
She allowed herself just one last look up at the entryway. Just another moment going over the memory of what almost was but couldn’t be. She gasped. There, sitting on the steps, just where they had been sitting two days before, was Salman. He had his head down, like he was thinking of something.
Nadya couldn’t take her eyes off him. She’d told herself she could never see him again. She’d even accepted that she must structure her life around avoiding even the chance that she would. But now, here he was, right in front of her.
She heard a screech of metal hitting concrete, and felt the jolt. She hadn’t been watching where she was going, while the car crept forward, and she’d hit the curb of the driveway. She looked over the steering wheel, trying to discern if the car was stuck, and then her eyes darted back to where she’d seen Salman a moment before.
He’d heard it. He’d seen her.
No, this was the worst possible result of the trip out here. Nadya cursed under her breath, hurriedly putting the car in reverse. The wheels screeched as the car lurched back gracelessly, and Nadya sped away.