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Her desert knight

By:Jennifer Lewis

Her desert knight
Jennifer Lewis

       One

Going to her favorite bookshop in Salalah was like stepping back into a  chapter of Arabian Nights. To get there, Dani had to walk through the  local souk, past the piles of carrots and cabbages, the crates of dates  and figs, winding her way through knots of old men wearing their long  dishdashas and turbans just as they must have done a thousand years ago.

Then there was the store itself. The double doorway of time-scarred  wood was studded with big metal rivets, like the entrance to a castle.  Only a small section opened, and she had to step over the bottom part of  the door into the smoky darkness of the shop. The smoke was incense,  eternally smoldering away in an antique brass burner that hung in one  corner, mingled with pipe smoke from the elderly store owner's long,  carved pipe. He sat in the corner, poring over the pages of a thick,  leather-bound tome, as if he maintained the shop purely for his own  reading pleasure. It was entirely possible that the store was a front of  some kind, since there rarely seemed to be any customers, but that  didn't diminish Dani's enjoyment of its calming atmosphere.

The books were piled on the floor like the oranges in the stalls  outside. Fiction, poetry, treatises on maritime navigation, advice on  the training of the camel: all were in Arabic and nearly all were at  least fifty years old and bound in leather, darkened by the passage of  many greasy fingers over their smooth, welcoming surfaces. She'd found  several gems here, and always entered the shop with a prickle of  anticipation, like someone setting out on a journey where anything could  happen.

Today, as she stepped over the threshold and filled her lungs with the  fragrant air, she noticed an unfamiliar visitor in the picturesque gloom  of the interior. The light from one tiny, high window cast its diffuse  glow over the tall, broad-shouldered figure of a young man.

Dani stiffened. She didn't like the idea of a man in her  djinn-enchanted realm of magic books. She didn't like men anywhere at  all, lately, but she gave the shop owner a pass as he was quiet and kind  and gave her big discounts.

She resolved to slip past the stranger on her way to the stack she'd  started to investigate yesterday: a new pile of well-thumbed poetry  books the shop owner had purchased at a bazaar in Muscat. She'd almost  bought one yesterday, and she'd resolved overnight that today she wasn't  leaving without it.

The interloper was incongruously dressed in Western clothing-jeans and a  white shirt, to be exact-with expensive-looking leather loafers on his  feet. She eyed him suspiciously as she walked past, then regretted it  when he glanced up. Dark blue eyes ringed by jet-black lashes peered  right into hers. He surveyed her down the length of an aristocratic  nose, and the hint of a smile tugged at his wide, arrogant-looking  mouth. A younger, stupider Dani might have thought he was "cute," but  she was not so foolish now. She braced herself in case he had the nerve  to speak to her.

But he didn't. Slightly deflated, and kicking herself for thinking that  anyone would want to speak to her at all, she headed for her familiar  pile of books. Only to discover that the one she wanted was missing. She  checked the stack twice. Then the piles on either side of it. In the  dim, smoky atmosphere, it wasn't easy to read the faded spines, the  gold-leaf embossing worn off by countless eager hands. Maybe she'd  missed it.

Or maybe he was reading it.

She glanced over her shoulder, then jerked her head back when she  discovered that the strange man was staring right at her. Alarm shot  through her. Had he been watching her the whole time? Or had he just  turned around at the exact same moment she had? She was annoyed to find  her heart pounding beneath the navy fabric of her traditional garb.

"Are you looking for this book?" His low, velvety male voice made her jump, and she cursed herself for being so on edge.

He held out the book she'd been searching for. A 1930s edition of  Majnun Layla by Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi, with a faded green leather  binding and elaborate gold tooling.

"You speak English." The first words out of her mouth took her by  surprise. She'd intended to say yes, but her brain short-circuited. She  hadn't heard anyone speak English since she'd come back here from New  Jersey three months ago. She'd begun to wonder if she'd ever use her  hard-won language skills again.

He frowned and smiled at the same time. "Yes. I didn't even realize I  was speaking English. I guess I've spent too much time in the States  lately. Or maybe my gut instinct told me you speak it, too."

"I lived in the U.S. for a few years myself." She felt flustered. His  movie-star looks were disconcerting, but she tried not to judge a book  by its cover. She cleared her throat. "And yes, I mean, that is the book  I was looking for."                       
       
           



       

"What a shame. I was about to buy it." He still spoke in English. His  features and coloring looked Omani, but his Western clothing and  ocean-colored gaze gave him a hint of exoticism. "You were here first."  She shrugged, and tried to look as if she didn't care.

"I think not. If you knew it was here and were looking for it, clearly  you were here first." Amusement danced in his unusual blue eyes. "Have  you read it?"

"Oh, yes. It's a classic. I've read it several times."

"What's it about?"

"It's a tragic love story." How could he not know that? Maybe he didn't  even read Arabic. He had a strange accent. British, maybe.

"Sometimes I think all love stories are tragic. Does anyone really live happily ever after?"

"I don't know. My own experience hasn't been very encouraging." As soon  as she spoke she was shocked at herself. She'd resolved to keep her  private torments secret.

"Mine, either." He smiled slightly. "Maybe that's why we like to read a  tragic love story where everyone dies in the end, so our own disastrous  efforts seem less awful by comparison." The light in his eyes was kind,  not mocking. "Did you come back here to get away from someone?"

"I did." She swallowed. "My husband-ex-husband. I hope I never see him  again." She probably shouldn't reveal so much to a total stranger.  Divorce was rare and rather scandalous in Oman.

"Me, too." His warm smile relaxed her. "I live in the States myself but  I come to Oman whenever I need to step off the carousel and feel some  firm ground beneath my feet. It's always reassuring how little has  changed here while I've been gone."

"I found that alarming when I first came back. If it wasn't for the  cars and cell phones we could still be in the Dark Ages. My dad and  brothers don't like me leaving the house without a male relative to  escort me. What a joke! After I lived in America for nearly nine years."

He smiled. "The culture shock can be jarring. I've been living in L.A.  for the last four years. It's nice to meet someone else who's in the  same predicament. Would you like to go down the road for a coffee?"

She froze. A man asking you out for coffee was a proposition. "I don't think so."

"Why not? Do you think your father and brothers would disapprove?"

"I'm sure they would." Her heart pounded beneath her conservative  dress. Some mad reckless part of her wanted to go with him and drink  that coffee. Luckily she managed to wrestle the urge under control.

"Let me at least buy you this book." He turned and headed for the shop  owner. She'd forgotten all about him, ensconced in his own world in the  farthest corner of the store. He showed no sign of having heard their  conversation.

She wanted to protest and insist on buying the book herself, but by the  time she pulled herself together the store owner was already wrapping  it in brown paper and it would have been awkward. She didn't want to  make a fuss.

"Thank you." She accepted the package with a pinched smile. "Perhaps I  should buy you a coffee to thank you for your generous present." The  book wasn't cheap. And if she were paying, it wasn't a date, right? She  was twenty-seven years old. Hardly a blushing girl. She could share a  coffee with a fellow English speaker to pass a dull afternoon. Her pulse  accelerated as she waited for his response, torn between hoping he'd  say yes, and praying that he'd say no.

"That would be very kind of you." His gaze wasn't very wolfish. He  couldn't help being so handsome. Women probably misinterpreted his  perfectly ordinary gestures of friendliness out of wishful thinking. She  wasn't so foolish.

They stepped out into the fierce afternoon sun and walked down a long  block to a row of modern shops, including a fairly new café. It had hip  westernized décor, which was strangely reassuring and made her feel less  like she was about to commit a massive social faux pas.

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