Sunday, 25 July 2010
D. Renee Bagby presented my first chapter
ENCHANTMENT IN MOROCCO
Emily had been left to sit alone in the hotel lounge with nothing to do except admire a large portrait of the King of Morocco, resplendent in white robes. Waiting over an hour, she had begun to feel uneasy. It was bewildering not to understand anyone, and vexing not to speak a word of French or Arabic to ask what was happening.
The day had begun well. In the plane, Emily had craned her neck to look out of the window when the pilot announced they had begun the descent to Casablanca’s Mohammed V International Airport. Her spirits soared as she caught a glimpse of the African coastline and she settled back in her seat. Morocco here I come!
Emily looked forward to this new adventure. She had just finished an eighteen-month trip round America, her father’s homeland, and the prospect of temporary work while she found her feet in England again held no appeal. When a chance recommendation had led to the offer of a job in Morocco, it had been the answer to her prayers.
She glanced round the almost deserted lounge. What if something had happened to Madame Cherif, her new employer? What if no-one turned up to meet her? What if, what if? As another ten minutes ticked away, her mind spun scary scenarios.
On impulse, she reached into her purse and counted the cash in her wallet. She had enough to cover a couple of nights in a hotel. Not in this one though. It would have to be a budget hotel. If no-one turned up soon she would have to start looking for one.
She was no slouch at looking after herself in a strange city. Her American trip had shown her that. In the States she had found casual work as a waitress, chambermaid, receptionist or shop assistant in turn. A few weeks to put some spare cash in her wallet toward the next adventure: the next plane ticket, the next skiing weekend, the next sightseeing trip in a hot air balloon, the next stay at a wilderness lodge.
Bring it on! I’ve never been afraid of hard work. Emily suppressed the thought that here in North Africa a foreigner—especially one who had to use sign language—would not find it so easy to walk into casual employment.
Don’t be silly, she chided herself. She already had a job. She had come here to be an informal language teacher, her duties being to speak English to Madame Cherif’s children. Although she had little experience of working with children, how difficult could that be?
She checked her watch again. Endeavoring to stifle mounting apprehension, she reminded herself that she had been met at the airport. Her employer would be along to meet her soon.
It was cool inside the hotel, in contrast to the brilliant sunshine outside. She curbed her impatience to walk out and explore the city. She had been driven here straight from the airport, with no opportunity to soak up new sights and smells–apart from the warmth that had enveloped her as she followed her driver out of the air-conditioned arrivals hall. When Emily paused to remove her jacket, the breeze caressed her bare arms. Simply incredible, even the breeze was warm. I must pinch myself, she had thought. This is real. It’s all real.
The driver who met her spoke no English, but the board he held up had Emily Ryan written across it and he mangled the pronunciation of her name as she approached him. He had scurried off with her cases, leaving her to follow him to a large, silver car. Then he had abandoned her at the hotel without a word of explanation.
Think positive, she told herself. One reason she had been given the job in the first place was that she spoke only English. She took another cautious sip of the tiny glass of mint tea that the waiter had placed in front of her. Cold by now and far too strong for her taste, but she did not even know how to ask the waiter for something else.
My first taste of Africa, she reflected. I have to expect things to be different.
“You have to put sugar in it.” The comment came from a stranger who sat down at her table uninvited. “Europeans always make that mistake.” Emily frowned at him. She was not worried about fending off advances from strange men, but the long wait had unsettled her. Where was Madame Cherif?
At the same time she could not help noticing the powerful lines of his frame and the fluid ease of his movements. Although he was formally dressed in a linen suit, the image of a pirate commanding the quarterdeck of the ship he had just taken rose unbidden to Emily’s mind. It was the single gold earring, she decided.
“I’m waiting for someone.”
“That’s right, me,” he replied. He spoke English, fluently it seemed.
She looked down at her glass, using the moment to bring her errant thoughts under control, then focused again on her uninvited companion, but the buccaneer image etched on her mind refused to vanish. Instead she became even more conscious of the intense green eyes in his dark face, of the single earring below wiry hair. She returned his direct gaze and, as if in response, he leaned slightly toward her, hands clasped loosely on the briefcase in front of him.
In other circumstances she would have been tempted to make his acquaintance. To spend an agreeable half hour keeping him at a safe distance while listening to whatever he chose to say in that silky, alluring accent. Not here, not now, Emily decided. Not when her new employer might walk in at any minute.
“I am waiting for Madame Cherif.” Annoyance that she had been unable to subdue an instinctive response to his presence made her tone glacial.
“Sofia is my cousin. She asked me to meet you, Miss Ryan.”
Emily felt foolish, which fanned her anger. What right did this man have to barge in without introducing himself properly? What right did he have to distract her from her concerns with that roguish edge of seduction in his silky voice?
“Where is Madame Cherif?” At least he could tell her what was happening.
He laughed. “At this moment, my dear cousin is running around like, how do you say, a legless chicken.”
“Headless chicken.” The words slipped out, automatically, and the man laughed again, with a rueful shake of his head.
“Headless chicken, I will remember. Now, would you like another glass of tea, and I will show you how it should be drunk.” He signaled to the waiter.
Emily was tempted. The relief of knowing she was in the right place weakened her resolve. Right place, right person, and he just happened to be gorgeous. It seemed a long time since a personable man had crossed her path. It would be pleasant after the long journey to take time to relax with someone who seemed totally at ease with himself and his surroundings. Nor need she feel guilty about taking time out. Without prying, it would give her an opportunity to find out more about her new employer’s household.
The man moved his slim leather briefcase to one side and she caught a glimpse of the wedding ring on his left hand. Story of my life, she thought. All the attractive men I meet are married. Admittedly, this one’s manner seemed forceful rather than flirtatious, but one never knew. In a strange country it was best to be prudent.
“No thank you.” She softened her refusal with a smile. “I’d rather go and get settled in.”
“That, I am afraid, will not be possible.” The shock of his words did not sink in and, seeing her bewilderment, he shrugged and spread his hands wide. “My cousin sends her prolific apologies. She attempted to contact you this morning but you had already left for the airport.”
“Why? What’s the problem?” Panic surged in Emily. This could not be happening.
“Sofia’s husband, the engineer, must go to Dubai this weekend. There are technical problems, you understand. The family go with him. So, Sofia runs like the headless chicken, organizing their departure. I am sorry, Miss Ryan, there is no job for you any more.”
This time the words did reach her. There was no mistaking them, and the shock of his announcement blotted out her initial response to his powerful physical presence.
“I have a contract,” she retorted. That was not strictly true; all she had in her purse was a charming letter from Madame Cherif. It might not be a legal document but surely it represented some sort of contract.
Emily had foreseen no problems in accepting Madame Cherif’s invitation to ‘become one of the family’ for a few months. Why then should she bother with the formality of proper work papers?
What have I done now, she reflected ruefully. All her life, Emily’s impetuous decisions had got her into scrapes, but she had usually managed to turn them to her advantage. Now it seemed her luck had run out.
She sat up straight, ready to do battle. This man, whoever he was, could not just turn round and tell her the job was gone, could not strand her in a foreign country.
“It is the shock for you, n’est-ce pas?” The words were sympathetic but the tone perfunctory. His green eyes appraised her. Emily shifted in her seat under his scrutiny, uneasily conscious of her travel-rumpled clothes.
“My cousin gives me the discretion to deal with her problem. So now I must decide what to do with you.”
Emily gasped. It was bad enough to be described as a problem, but he did not even intend to consult her about his plans for her future.
“What do you propose?” She endeavoured to keep her tone neutral.
“For tonight, you stay here in the hotel. Tomorrow we shall see.” He paused and looked straight at her so that Emily felt the full force of his compelling gaze.
“Tomorrow?” she prompted. Tomorrow meant that there was an alternative. She could not go back. She did not have a home to go to, for her belongings were still in storage. Boxes in a lock-up in London had been the last thing on her mind during her voyage of discovery around her father’s homeland. She was not going back, not now.
He appeared to come to a decision. “I offer you a job.” His tone brooked no refusal. “In the south,” he added after a fractional pause, but the information meant nothing to Emily.
“As an English teacher?” Although there had been nothing untoward so far in his words or manner, she must keep her feet on the ground. What kind of offer would this stranger choose to make her? It’s the earring, she decided, it so makes him look like a pirate ready to take me captive. Or maybe it was her own fancy to be taken captive that unleashed such wild imaginings. She must not let that distract her now.
A shadow passed over his face. “Not exactly. It is more that my daughter needs a companion.” He fell silent for a moment, before adding, “You may speak English to her as well.”
His reticence set warning bells clanging, but Emily chose to ignore them. Acting as companion to a little girl was a respectable occupation. She had already taken one gamble in coming here. Whatever was offered she would make the best of it.
“What about my salary?” She blurted out the question and realized how mercenary she sounded. If you were in my shoes, that would be the first question you would ask too, she thought resentfully when his face reflected surprise.
Emily had killed two birds with one stone in coming to Morocco. Employment in a sunny climate had to be better than a temporary position while she found her feet in grey, rain-soaked London. To top it all, when Madame Cherif had mentioned the munificent salary she offered Emily’s first reaction had been that in six months she could save enough to pay off her credit cards.
The total amount she owed the card companies was still something she pushed to the back of her mind. A couple of missed payments when she was at a low ebb, and somehow matters had snowballed from there. I’m maxed out, she had taken to reminding herself after she received the first warning emails. At the beginning, maxed out had a comforting ring to it. The words sounded efficient, like a deliberate strategy rather than a catastrophe. Over the months, however, maxed out took on a more threatening ring, and a relentless tide of interest and penalties outran her efforts to pay off her debts. She dreaded opening the bills that arrived in her inbox each month.
If she saved most of what she earned here in Morocco, her total debt would be manageable, not scary. Would this man be as generous as the Cherifs?
“I will pay whatever you agreed with Sofia. Unless, of course, you want more?”
For a mad moment, Emily was tempted. But his direct, questioning gaze flustered her. If she asked for more, she might see disdain in his eyes. Extra money did not seem worth the queasiness threatening her stomach at the thought of earning his contempt.
“No, no, that’s fine,” she babbled, relieved to have the matter settled. Six months is all I need, she reminded herself. I can do anything for six months.
She brought her thoughts back to her companion. Come on, Emily, she chided herself. Making a poor impression on her new employer was the last thing she wanted. Show interest in something other than money, or he will send you back on the next plane.
“And your wife?” A wedding ring advertised to the world that he was taken. “Won’t your wife want to interview me? Do excuse me, I don’t even know your name yet.”
“My name is Hassan, Rafi Hassan. My wife died some years ago. It was a great sadness for my daughter.”
“I’m sorry.” Emily hesitated, unsure whether to say more. Words seemed inadequate in such a situation. Formal condolences were inappropriate years after the event, and she could hardly change the subject.
That explained the wedding ring though. She shot an involuntary glance at his left hand. He had lean, shapely hands, but there was something not quite right about them. The puzzle tugged at Emily’s mind.
She wondered if he still wore his ring by choice or by custom. Emily knew little of wedding-ring etiquette. As a twelve-year old she had witnessed her mother throw her own ring into the Thames after her father left them. Looking back, she could date the start of her quarrels with her mother to that ill-fated outing. “Good riddance,” Mum spat as she watched the murky water claim it. “Don’t you dare turn out like your wastrel of a father.”
Emily had cried herself to sleep that night.
Then again, just now Rafi Hassan had spoken of his daughter’s sadness, not his own. Emily guessed a youngish, attractive widower would soon find consolation, in any country. She stole a sideways glance at him, seeking the answer. No doubt about it, the man was gorgeous, although he appeared unaware of his effect on her. A man so at ease with himself must have someone in his life, she decided. She wondered whether the offer of a job sprang from concern for his daughter or from a desire to pack her out of the way. Emily felt for the motherless child, knowing what it was like to grow up with a single parent who could not wait to be rid of her.
“Tell me more about your daughter. What’s her name?”
His face softened. “You will like her. She is called Nour. It is a traditional name that signifies light.”
“That’s charming.” Emily was struck by the way his voice changed. There was warmth in his tone that had not been there before. So he did care. “How old is she?”
“Seventeen last month.”
Thrown off balance by his answer, it took a second for her to regain her footing. He did not look anywhere near old enough to have a seventeen-year old daughter. A small child she could handle: a grown girl would be different.
“But…that's almost grown-up. Surely I ought to meet her first?”
Think before you speak, she chided herself. Don’t throw this chance away.
Rafi waved her objection aside. “Nour will do as I say.”
Emily sat silent, digesting his reply. Rafi stood up abruptly. “I have an appointment. I leave you now, and I make arrangements for your travel tomorrow.” He reached across the table to shake her hand, the touch of his fingers firm against her palm for a brief moment. “Goodbye, Miss Ryan.”
Left to ponder her misgivings, it annoyed her how he had taken her consent for granted, disregarding her concern for his daughter's feelings, and overriding her half-hearted objection. Clearly her new employer was a man accustomed to being obeyed. Beggars can’t be choosers, she told herself. A job was a job, her travels had taught her that, and this job offered her a chance to wipe the financial slate clean. Her stomach clenched as she remembered her debts.
She walked to the window, and caught a glimpse of deep turquoise sea beyond the palm trees that fringed the road. Her money worries would not vanish overnight, but in this magical land they somehow seemed less pressing. She remembered how her spirits lifted as she stepped into the warmth and sunlight beyond the arrivals hall. Finally there was Rafi Hassan himself. High-handed he might be, but Emily’s interest was piqued.
Bumping her fists together to seal the bargain, she turned away from the view and walked to the desk to check in.
Later that night, it occurred to her that Rafi Hassan had the hands of a workman. That was what had puzzled her, healing scratches on the smooth, dark skin of his otherwise well-kept hands. On that image, she fell asleep.
The drive south was interminable. Emily felt herself borne along as if in a dream when another driver collected her in the morning. At first she was convinced that they would have an accident, and sat tense on the edge of her seat. The driver exhausted his few words of English, leaving her to sip from her water bottle and watch buses and trucks jostle for road space with overburdened donkeys. Yet somehow no-one came to grief, not even the moped riders who buzzed through the dense traffic like angry mosquitoes.
They left the coast and climbed into the mountains in long, looping coils. Now and again she glimpsed a snow-covered summit in the far distance, the view immediately cut off again. Emily stared in wonder, having always imagined Morocco to be a desert country.
At midday, the driver ushered her into another large hotel, and vanished. Emily glimpsed the main dining room, dominated by another imposing portrait of the King. A respectful waiter settled her in a private alcove, leaving Emily to nibble at a salad platter of lettuce, sliced oranges and sliced egg topped with stuffed green olives.
The mint tea that accompanied the meal brought to mind the first words Rafi Hassan had spoken to her. A comment she had dismissed as a chat-up line until he revealed his identity. Remembering now, she added sugar to the tea, surprised to find the contrast between strong and sweet refreshing. There was so much she did not know yet. She had had no time to read about Morocco before her hasty departure. There would be other customs to learn.
The image of Rafi Hassan explaining the ways of his country, seated across the table from her in the forced intimacy of a private alcove, sent an odd prickle down her spine.
She shut out the strangely enticing image of the two of them closeted together. I don’t need him, she assured herself. I’ve got six months. Plenty of time to find out the way things are done.
She had dreamed of Rafi. In her dream his eyes smiled. As he held his hand out for her, the scene dissolved into a mocking sea of sand dunes. It was only a dream, she reminded herself, annoyed that she even remembered it, annoyed that the man should invade her thoughts night and day. She dismissed her imaginings and instead smiled her thanks at the waiter who came to clear the table.
When the car rejoined the coast road, the warm air, combined with the light meal and the fatigue of the journey, made it impossible to stay awake. She dozed off, waking every now and then at changes in the car’s rhythm. Eventually the driver pulled up, turned round to her and pointed. “Taghar,” he said.
Far below, buildings formed a huddle at the water’s edge. Shapes were indistinct in the dusk but she identified the minaret that rose above the huddle, its roof tiles glinting in the setting sun. On each side of the village a beach curved around a small bay.
She wanted to tell the driver to wait, to allow her to comb her hair and apply fresh lipstick, but already he had put the motor in gear and the car was nosing its way down. As he opened the door for her, she smelled the salt in the air and heard the rhythmic smack of the ocean encountering the shore.
As dusk thickened, she was ushered into a walled courtyard and left alone. She scrabbled in her bag and located lipstick and comb. The girl might not notice, but it made Emily feel better.
When Nour came into the courtyard to greet her, Emily detected a resemblance to her father in her hair and eyes. In contrast to Rafi’s breezy confidence, Nour entered hesitantly. She spoke to Emily in slow, careful English, looking down at a letter she held in her hand. “Papa tells me to make you welcome, Miss Ryan.” The words were stiff, as if rehearsed.
“Emily, please, you may call me Emily.” The friendly words died on her lips as Nour looked up from her letter and directed a hostile gaze at her.