Iman examined herself critically in the mirror. She had no idea where the wedding gown had come from but it had been waiting for her when she woke up that morning. It was a gorgeous, full-skirted thing that fit her perfectly and she knew that it must have cost a fortune to alter so fast.
It was a shame that only a handful of people would get to see it.
Shaida came in, carefully balancing a stack of velvet boxes in her arms. “I completely forgot about jewellery! I just grabbed a few things that I thought would go well but we still have time to go looking if you don’t like any of them.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine.” Iman took the stack, dropping most of it unceremoniously on her bed. She kept a single box, easing it open gently. “Oh!” A set of diamonds and emeralds lay nestled within, sparkling attractively.
“Are those emeralds? You’ve always looked lovely in green.” Shaida lifted the bracelet out and began to fasten it on Iman’s wrist. “What do you think?”
“It’s beautiful.” The bracelet was exquisite. Iman looked at her reflection again.
Shaida straightened up. “What’s that face for?” She touched the frown lines on Iman’s forehead. “Today’s supposed to be a good day, remember?”
“I -” Iman sighed and shook her head. “I’m being silly.”
“Are you nervous?” Shaida’s eyes softened in understanding. “It’s normal with arranged matches like this. But you’ll be alright. Your grandfather thinks highly of Adam, I know.” She smiled wickedly, adding: “He’s very attractive too.”
Iman blushed. “It’s more than that,” she admitted.
Shaida sat down on the bed and took Iman’s hands in her own. “What else is it?”
“It just feels like a lot of fuss. The dress, the caterers… It’s not like this is a real marriage anyway.”
Iman shrugged, tugging at the beading on her gown. “I’m not in love with him.”
“I’d be a little worried if you thought you were, after two meetings,” Shaida laughed. “There are many successful marriages that start with nothing more than mutual respect and many more where the initial passion fades.”
She nudged Iman gently. “That’s not all. What else is bothering you?”
“What if I picked the wrong guy? I only picked him because I wanted to be the one to pick and he was the best of a bad lot. What if it turns out to be awful?”
“Immy…” Shaida looked pained. “You can’t marry someone who doesn’t know what kind of world we live in. It’s too dangerous. You need to be with someone who can protect you and who we know is loyal to your grandfather. I know it limits the pool but… the alternative just isn’t an option. It’s too dangerous.”
“I know. Papa told me about all this when he was explaining why I couldn’t live here.” Ibrahim had been frighteningly candid about his own waning power and the unexpected protection that living with her important politician of a stepfather had afforded Iman for the past two years.
It made sense when Iman thought about it. Her stepfather had enough clout to make Ibrahim Khan step warily. Of course the Khans’ enemies would be just as hesitant to make an enemy of him. If only Iman could still lay claim to that protection without having to be anywhere near her slimy stepfather.
Shaida rubbed Iman’s thigh comfortingly. “I’m sorry you’re limited like this, sweetheart,” she said regretfully.
Iman flushed guiltily. “Don’t feel bad. It’s a pretty small problem, in the grand scheme of things. I guess… I guess I just wanted a little more fantasy and a little less reality.”
“Do you want to call things off?” Shaida asked delicately.
Iman opened her mouth and she held up a hand. “Wait, let me finish. I don’t want you to call things off. However inconvenient and uncomfortable marrying Adam may be, it’s still your only real way to get away from your mother, sweetheart. She can’t touch you if you’re legally married. Even if she gets you declared as incompetent, she doesn’t have a claim on you, if you’re married.”
“But you got her to back off the other day,” Iman argued. “Can’t we just use whatever it was that worked the other day to make her stay away?”
Shaida winced. “I bluffed,” she admitted. “And if your mother weren’t so intimidated by me, she would have realized it on the spot. She will have figured it out by now and it won’t work again.”
Iman’s heart sank. She’d thought she was resigned to this farce of a relationship but it seemed she’d still held onto a tiny spark of hope. Until now, that was.
“What do you want to do?”
Iman looked up at the closest thing to a mother she’d ever had. “Finish getting ready,” she said, reaching for a necklace.
Shaida squeezed her shoulders comfortingly. “I’m sorry there isn’t a better way.”
“I should have guessed there wasn’t,” Iman admitted. “Papa’s been going over it for long enough. If there were anything else, he would have seen it.”
“This marriage will at least be good for one thing – lowering your Papa’s stress levels. God knows, he’s been frantic about you. Knowing that you’ll finally be safe and in trusted hands has already made him start to look better.”
Iman cocked her head in confusion. “He has been looking lighter,” she agreed. “I thought he’d still be worried because I lose my stepfather’s guards but he seems fine.”
“Adam’s capable of protecting you if need be. And he’s important to some very powerful people. That protection falls over you now too. You’ll be nearly as safe as you have been these past few years.”
“Safer, if he doesn’t try to hit me,” Iman muttered.
Shaida scowled furiously and put a protective hand over her stomach. “If I wasn’t pregnant, I would have taught your mother a lesson on Thursday. She sorely needs it.”
Iman privately thanked God that Shaida was pregnant. She knew that her old babysitter was completely serious. “It wasn’t that bad,” she said weakly.
“It was bad enough that you still have a bandage on your face. Thank God we got you out of there before things could get even worse.”
This Iman could agree with fully. “I’m not out quite just yet,” she said ruefully. “It’s not legal until we sign, right?”
“Then we’d better get you downstairs.”