Adam glanced at his stepfather. As always, Ali was no help at all. “Well, answer your mother,” he said, tilting his head at Lina. “She’s waiting.”
“Mom, sit down.” Adam waited until she had before continuing. “Do you remember last year, when I was sick?”
Lina nodded immediately. “Of course. It was awful.” She reached out a hand and smoothed his hair. “You were in bed for three days.” It would have been longer if she’d had her way but Adam was just as stubborn as the mother he’d inherited the trait from and not above using her worry for him to his advantage. Lina had let him do as he pleased, worried that he’d strain himself if he kept arguing so viciously.
“I was on a job right before that. And I messed up.” There was no way he’d tell her exactly how badly. She’d wrap him up in cotton wool and refuse to let him out of her sight. “Ibrahim Khan saved my life.”
Lina’s skin took on a sickly grey tinge. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she shouted, springing to her feet and flinging her arms around his neck.
Adam choked. “Mom, let go.” He leaned away in an effort to loosen the tight grip. Lina ignored him. She was trembling, Adam realized guiltily. He shot a pointed look at his stepfather. Do something!
Ali got to his feet. “He can’t breathe, Li.” He put his arms around Adam’s mother’s shoulders and guided her back to her seat, keeping hold of her hand as he sat himself next to her. “How did a debt turn into a marriage proposal? You met his granddaughter and fell in love?”
Lina brightened. “Is that what happened?” she asked eagerly.
“Not quite,” Adam admitted reluctantly.
“Then what happened?” The panic was back on his mother’s face.
“We’re not in love,” Adam hedged.
Lina gave her husband a filthy look. “He gets this from you.” She turned back to Adam. “You’re marrying her, yes?”
Adam nodded cautiously. “Yes, but-” He stopped again. He didn’t want to tell her.
His conscience pricked. Was he really going to lie to his mother?
“Adam? What’s wrong?”
“We’re not in love,” Adam repeated.
Lina rolled her eyes. “Alright,” she said, clearly humouring him. “You’re not in love. Anything else?”
‘I’m only marrying her to get rid of a debt. I don’t actually want to. And I don’t exactly have a choice in all this.’
“No. Nothing else.”
“Li, do you know where I left my car keys?”
Lina turned, distracted. “What?”
“My keys. I don’t have them on me and I have that meeting to get to just now.”
Lina left the room, grumbling about absent-minded men and Adam sank back in his chair, letting out a deep breath. A moment later, he straightened back up. “Your keys have been in your hand this entire time.”
Ali glared at him. “Took you long enough to notice. You’re getting sloppy.”
“Forgive me for being just a little bit distracted!” Adam could feel the blood rushing to his cheeks. The criticism rankled. Ali was right. He had gotten sloppy. He’d said as much to himself more than once. But what he yelled at himself in the privacy of his own head what he heard from the man who trained him were two different things.
“You did the right thing.”
Ali glanced at the open doorway. “Lying to your mother,” he elaborated. “You know she’s a romantic. It would have broken her heart to know that you’re marrying this girl to repay a debt.”
“You did know.” Adam scowled. He should have expected it. Ali Cassim always knew more than he should have done. It was one of the most infuriating thing about him and the reason his nose was so crooked – more than one man had swung a punch directly at Ali’s infuriatingly smug face upon hearing his own secrets revealed in that annoyingly matter of fact tone.
“I didn’t,” Ali corrected. “Not until you brought up Paris.” He shifted forward and gave Adam a once-over. “I knew you were leaving things out when you reported back to me but I would never have expected something like this.”
Adam looked away. He’d thought that he’d gotten away with the small deception but it seemed Ali had seen straight through him. As always.
“I should smack you,” his stepfather grumbled.
“When has that ever helped?”
Ali nodded, conceding the point. “If you’d just told me, we could have found a way to fix it.”
“How?” There was no way to fix a debt like this. Nothing trumped it.
“I don’t know,” Ali admitted, shaking his head. “This is a bigger mess than all the others you ever got yourself into. Combined.” He reached into his suit, pulling out a box of cigarettes and a lighter.
The box was offered to Adam who declined, wrinkling his nose. He hated cigarettes. “Mom will kill you for smoking inside.”
“She can’t mind it that much, there’s an ashtray right here.” Ali indicated the one in the middle of the table.
“Do you want to have her killed?” Ali asked when he was halfway done with his cigarette.
“That won’t be obvious at all!” He couldn’t kill her. And he couldn’t leave her unprotected either. Her grandfather had been explicit in his instructions. Adam was trapped. And trying to find a way out only emphasized just how unbreakable the trap was.
“If you’d just listened to me and avoided him…” Ali ground out the rest of his cigarette viciously. “But when have you ever listened to me?”
“Could you just stop?” Adam shouted, surprising even himself. “Don’t make this about your problems with me! I am having a really hard time right now and I don’t need you pointing out to me what a big mess this is – I know! Better than you do. But there’s nothing that I can do. And there was nothing that I could do back then either. I didn’t go waltzing up to Ibrahim Khan, I ran into him. By accident. On a job you sent me on.” He fell silent, panting.
Ali’s eyes had narrowed into slits and his face had hardened. “If you want to do it by yourself,” he said icily, extending a graceful hand toward the door. “Be my guest.”
Adam took the hint.