Chapter Twenty Six
I loved Australia with an intensity that surprised even me. We had only been here for a week – we were still looking for a place to stay – but I was happier here than I had been in a long time. I knew that it was in no small part due to the solitude. Zak was working long hours and I had the hotel all to myself for most of the day.
It was wonderful. There was no one looking over my shoulder, no one telling me what to do… No one criticizing me… The familiar surge of guilt hit me at that thought, flowing from the top of my head down to settle in my shoulders. I knew I was being less than charitable by being so happy to be away from my in laws.
But I couldn’t help it. I had tried to like Shamima, had even found myself enjoying her company on odd occasions. But time and again, she taught me not to let my guard down by pouncing on any weakness I showed her and dragging it up again when I least expected it.
I hadn’t realized how watchful I’d grown until I no longer had to be that way. Every day that went past, I felt more like the old Azraa, more like the person I’d used to be. I’d never return to her, I didn’t think. Too much had changed.
But I was determined to make the best of things. I was determined to be happy and here, it was ten times easier than it had been in the USA. Things weren’t perfect by a long shot. Zak was still… Zak. But even with him, I only had to watch myself a little. He seemed to be more relaxed here and with that, his temper was easier to deal with.
He’d even brought me flowers yesterday. Peonies that were lush and gorgeous. I’d kissed him for the thoughtfulness of it.
Yes, things were good. Now if only I could shake the feeling that it was all about to go horribly, horribly wrong.
I tapped my foot impatiently, looking around every minute or two for a familiar head of light brown hair. Where was Rayyan? I’d been waiting for my older brother for what felt like an age already and still, he was nowhere to be seen.
It was just like him to be late – Rayyan made entrances wherever he went. It was something I’d never understood about him; he was shy to a fault, after all. But the truth was that Rayyan was actually never fashionably late, he was just forgetful and unaware of time.
But he’d been the one to decide when and where we’d be meeting. You’d think that would help him be punctual. Apparently not! At this rate, Zak would be home before I was.
I hoped he wouldn’t worry. I’d tried to call him a bunch of times but his phone just kept ringing. I’d left a few messages that he’d hopefully listen to before starting to panic. This would be the first time that I wasn’t there waiting at the hotel when he got home from work.
I finally spotted my brother and with nothing more than a dismissive mental ‘he’ll figure it out’, I laid all thoughts of Zak to the side. I hadn’t seen Rayyan in months which was normal but I hadn’t spoken to him in weeks which definitely wasn’t.
I’d been so consumed with being a good wife and daughter in law that I hadn’t even noticed how long it had been since I’d heard Rayyan’s voice until he called me out of the blue last week to demand to know why I was upset with him and insist that we sort things out. We’d patched things up on my wedding day but I’d never seemed to have the time to get down to calling him let alone answer his unscheduled calls for more than a hurried hi and bye.
He hadn’t even known that I was in Australia.
I’d jumped at the chance to see him on this last minute trip. He’d only be here for a few hours more before rushing to the airport but just getting to meet him was enough for me. I’d missed my overbearing big brother, annoying as he was.
Rayyan scooped me up in a bear hug the second he saw me, taking me off my feet and only barely refraining from actually spinning me around.
“You really know how to be a stranger,” he scolded me. “Married for less than three months and you’re already leaving us behind!”
I searched for the words to defend myself and came up short. He was right – I had left them behind, unintentional though it may have been.
“I’m sorry,” I said, the apology as heartfelt as I could make it.
Rayyan looked pleasantly surprised. He squeezed me to him again. “That’s okay. You’re a newlywed, I get it. Just spare some time for your big brother now and again, hmm?”
“You got it,” I agreed happily, sitting back down.
“Have you been waiting long?”
I looked pointedly at my empty cup of coffee and said nothing.
Red tinted Rayyan’s cheeks and he looked around for a waiter, swiftly ordering me a refill and himself one of the frothy disasters he liked. “Sorry, Az. It’s been crazy.”
I decided to tease him. “Yeah, I get it, you’re a hotshot lawyer with no time for his sister.”
“Az, of course not!” my brother said immediately, looking worriedly at me. “You don’t really think that any more, do you?”
“Any more?” I repeated, startled. I had thought that. It had been the truth, after all. Rayyan was never around. But I’d always thought he was unaware of it.
“I know you used to think so. And you weren’t wrong,” Rayyan admitted, studying the table with his shoulders slumped. “I was so caught up with trying to be the best and wanting to help people that it was a lot easier to concentrate on that when you were lashing out. I shouldn’t have done that. It was the easy way out.”
I stared at him, astonished. I didn’t know what to say. All this time, I’d thought that I was hiding my feelings perfectly and no one knew or cared how miserable I was.
But he’d known.
“Az? Say something?” Rayyan pleaded, reaching for my hand.
“I’m sorry,” I said, surprising us both.
“Why are you sorry?”
“I was so bratty. It’s the only reason you stopped making an effort, isn’t it?”
A slow smile made its way across Rayyan’s face. “Yeah. But you couldn’t exactly help it. You are a brat.”
I smacked his arm lightly.
Our waiter arrived then and dropped off our drinks. Rayyan stopped the young woman from leaving with a quick hand and then said something I couldn’t hear.
“Flirting with the wait staff?” I asked curiously.
Rayyan made a face. “You’re turning into Mom, seeing things where there’s nothing to be seen.”
I gave him a sympathetic look. “You can’t distract her with me now. You’ll have to let her matchmake.”
Rayyan shook his head. “Nah, I’ll just toss Zaakir at her instead.”
The smile slipped off my face.
Rayyan’s brow furrowed. “What?”
I shook my head. “Nothing.” I changed the subject quickly, asking him about the case he’d just wrapped up before this.
Slightly reluctantly, he dropped the subject and let me distract him.
Why had it put me so off-balance to hear about Zaakir getting married?