There was a strange woman hugging her. And she didn’t seem particularly inclined to let go any time soon. Iman looked over the woman’s shoulder for help and found Adam – her husband, she reminded herself – standing close by with a pinched look on his face. Their eyes met and he sighed.
He came forward and put his hands on the woman’s shoulders, gently easing her away. “Mom, let her breathe.”
Mom? Iman looked at the woman with interest. This was her mother in law? But why was she being so pleasant to a woman who’d trapped her son?
Adam’s mother smiled apologetically at her. “I’m sorry, I guess I’m just a little excited. I’ve been waiting for this day for such a long time, you see,” she explained. “But I’ll confess, I did think I’d be meeting my daughter in law before the wedding day.”
Iman squirmed. “I’m sorry,” she found herself whispering.
“Oh no, honey, I don’t blame you.” Iman’s arm was patted reassuringly. “I blame Adam. He’s always been a secretive child. I should be used to it by now, but… Well, a mother does have dreams.”
Adam looked so pained even Iman began to feel sorry for him. “Mrs. Cassim,” she began helplessly.
“Oh, none of that! Call me Lina – we’re family now, after all.”
“Alright, Lina. It hasn’t really been Adam’s fault,” Iman pointed out uncomfortably.
Lina smiled. “You’re sweet to defend him. And now’s not the time for all of that anyway.” She tucked Iman’s arm into her own. “We’ve got today to make up for lost time, at least. Come on, you can tell me all about yourself.”
Iman found herself being led to one of the many tables that had been set up. As an afterthought, Lina turned them and called at Adam, “Honey, go find your father, please!”
When Adam pulled out his phone, she added. “Walk, don’t text!”
“That boy,” she said fondly, shaking her head at her son’s retreating back. “So antisocial. And you seem shy as well.”
Iman smiled uncomfortably. “I am, a bit.”
“Well, you won’t have much to worry about with Adam. He’s always been very private. No matter what I tried to make him a bit more social, nothing stuck.”
Iman said nothing.
Lina continued, undaunted. “Where are your parents? I can’t wait to meet them either.”
Iman froze. “They’re, they’re not -” she stuttered, shaking her head.
“Oh, no. I’m so sorry,” Lina’s face fell. “I didn’t mean to bring up a sensitive subject.”
Iman was saved from further questioning by the arrival of her grandfather. “There you are. A lot of people still want to congratulate you, you know.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I’m the one to blame for that.”
Ibrahim turned to Lina. “Perfectly understandable,” he assured her. “But Iman, it would be rude for you to ignore the rest of the guests.”
“Right.” Iman took the hand he extended and got to her feet. “Of course.”
Ibrahim guided her to an alcove. “What happened? You looked ready to bolt.”
“She’s very… enthusiastic.”
Ibrahim smiled. “Yes, I saw that. It’s better than apathy, sweetheart. Just remind yourself that when it gets a bit overwhelming.”
“Right,” Iman agreed unenthusiastically, making a face.
“And have an escape route easily available,” Ibrahim added.
“Is that what that was? You were giving me an escape?”
“Yes and no. Your guests do want to speak to you.” Ibrahim frowned. “I thought you’d be happy to see so many old faces.”
“It would be easier if they were all nice faces.” Iman cast a wary eye around the room.
Ibrahim sighed. “We have to keep our enemies within reach,” he lamented. “If only you’d been born someone else’s granddaughter.”
“I’d be worse off.”
Ibrahim laughed. “A worse liar, definitely.”
Iman held out a hand. “Come on. Help me remember all the names.”
“You don’t have to talk to the ones who scare you.”
“The only ones who really scare me aren’t here today.”
Ibrahim’s face hardened and he reached up to touch her cheek. She’d kept the bandage on despite no longer truly needing it, preferring to keep the marks hidden. “Yet another thing I failed to keep you safe from,” he said regretfully. Then he shook himself. “But now’s not the time for that.”
He looked around the room and brightened. “There’s someone you’ll be happy to see again.”
Iman looked to where he’d been indicating and felt a grin spread across her face. The next moment, she was hurrying forward, her pace kept slower than a run only by the heavy dress she wore.
He saw her coming and grinned, holding his arms out invitingly and Iman flung herself into them without a second thought, burying her face in his shoulder and breathing in his familiar scent. “I can’t believe you’re here!” she cried happily.
James Blackwell looked affectionately down at her. “I wouldn’t miss your wedding! Though, to be honest, I was hoping to be playing a different role.”
Iman smacked his shoulder. “Don’t be a tease,” she scolded. There was no heat in her voice. She was too happy to see him to even pretend convincingly to be cross. James had been a constant fixture in her life ever since he’d come to work under her grandfather. Eleven years older than Iman, he’d been around to see her through all the most embarrassing stages of her life.
She’d had the most ridiculous crush on him when she’d been younger and he’d known it full well. He’d been kind to her, though. He’d teased – it wasn’t in his nature to not! – but he’d never made her feel stupid or unworthy. He’d left when she was fifteen and she hadn’t seen him since.
Until now, that was.
“How long are you here?”
“A while,” James replied, grinning infuriatingly. Then he took pity on her. “I’m back for good. Your grandfather’s been asking for a while and I figured I’d better make the move before asking turned into ordering.”
“Good choice.” Ibrahim Khan gave his people more leeway than most. But he was known for expecting immediate compliance when he eventually did shorten their leashes.
Unable to help herself, Iman hugged James again. “I really missed you,” she whispered. “I’m glad you’re back.”