Jamila fanned her face, itching to leave the stiflingly hot confines of the masjid for the cool morning air outdoors. She pushed clear from the mob that spilled out into the courtyard, sighing happily when she was free of the bustling bodies of people. The morning Eid prayer had been pleasant, but she could do with a breather. And once she caught her breath, she realized that she was separated from her twin sister and her sister’s family.
She yelped when someone bumped into her from behind.
“Oops! Sorry” came from whoever knocked into her.
She turned, her gaze flitting up to a tall, slender man, his apologetic expression earnest in his dark brown eyes behind rimless glasses. Jamila considered his thick, curly hair, wide-tipped nose, pink-tinged lips that were fuller on the bottom and neat, round goatee.
As soon as the thought entered her mind, she pushed it out. She hadn’t traveled from Sweden to drool over some hunky stranger. She was sacrificing time in her lab, and away from potential scientific breakthroughs, to spend her vacation with her family in Somaliland. She’d timed her month-long break with the start of Eid al-Fitr, the “Sweet Eid” of the year.
If she was going to drool, it would be over the feast and sweet treats she’d be helping to cook and bake with her sister later, and not this perfect stranger who made her heart patter just a little faster.
“It’s fine,” she said, preparing to turn her back on him and the weird flutter of attraction.
She hadn’t even moved when she heard his sharp inhale.
“Jamila?” he rasped.
She tensed, her mind reaching for how he knew her name and why he was looking at her as though she were familiar.
Then it clicked.
“Ilyas,” she said, shocked when he nodded. She couldn’t believe it was him! He looked nothing like the rangy-limbed teenager she remembered from their school days.
He grinned wide. “Oh wow! I…I mean, I had no clue it was you at first. Incredible to bump into you like this.”
When Ilyas chuckled at his own joke, it roused a giggle from her, the shock of their reunion fading from her muscles.
“Sorry I shoved you.” He waved at the throngs of people pouring out into the courtyard before the small mosque. “I expected it to be busy, but I figured that with all the masjid in the area, the crowd wouldn’t be too bad. Then again, maybe I’m just not used to being home.”
Because this hadn’t been his home for a long time either.
She admired how dashingly handsome he was in his green silk sherwani over a white kameez and sirwal. Beside him, her black jellabiya and white cotton hijab felt a timid choice for Eid wear. She’d packed hastily though, her job taking precedent right until the last minute.
“You look good,” Ilyas said, breaking the silence.
“Thanks,” she muttered, blushing and hurrying to compliment him in return. “You too. I feel like I’m in my pajamas next to you.”
“Oh, this. You’ll have to thank my grandma for it. I couldn’t refuse when she pushed me to wear it.”
“Your grandmother’s still here?” She knew Ilyas had been raised by his grandmother after his parents had died in a tragic car accident. His grandmother’s place was a few houses down from her childhood home. The home that her sister now lived in since their parents and Jamila had moved to Sweden.
“She has visited me in Minneapolis a few times, but Borama is her home. She’d never consider leaving.”
Ilyas had left Somaliland a while back to chase his career dreams in America. Not unlike her. And they had both succeeded—if what she’d heard from her sister was true.
“Right. You’re a hotshot professor now,” she said. He was also far from his stomping grounds at his prestigious college.
“I’m not a professor anymore, technically.”
“What brings you home then? Besides spending Eid with family.”
“Work,” he said, surprising her yet again.
“You live here?”
Her incredulity earned her a nod from him. “Yeah. I have a house not too far away. My grandma almost had a conniption when I made the choice to live apart from her. She can’t understand why I’d want a little privacy.”
She laughed, understanding his struggle with family perfectly. If she’d suggested staying in a hotel in the city, her sister would have freaked out.
Around them the courtyard flooded with more people. She’d hurried out of the mosque to escape the crowd. Ilyas seemed to be thinking similarly. With a dashing smile, he guided her to a corner where it was quieter.
Jamila peered up at him, her body buzzing at how close they were now.
“I didn’t think we’d be able to hear each other.” Almost nervously, Ilyas swiped his hands down the front of his sleek outer coat, the green silk looking lovely against his reddish-brown skin. And she noted that there wasn’t a ring on his long, thick fingers.
Not that a lack of a ring confirmed he was single.
“Is anyone going to miss you back in America?”
“No one special,” he replied. Again, he seemed to read her mind and deduce what she was thinking.
The fact he was single only made her want to stand there and talk to him longer.
They were interrupted when her name drifted from across the court. Jamila saw her twin sister, Basra, approaching briskly, her two young children and husband in tow. Basra’s all-too-similar features stared back at her with an expression of unease and frustration.
“There you are,” her sister huffed before she noted Ilyas. Her face brightening, Basra greeted him. “I didn’t know you were attending this masjid.”
“My grandmother prefers the imam at this one. Which reminds me, I should get back to her.” That last part he said to Jamila, gazing imploringly at her. “Let’s play catch-up later.”
She nodded, blushing when she felt the eyes of her family on them.
“Wait,” Basra called, stalling Ilyas’s exit. Jamila could almost hear the cogs working in her sister’s scheming brain. “Why not bring your grandmother to our Eid dinner?”
“Sure! That would be great.” Ilyas settled his stare on Jamila. “I guess I’ll see you even sooner.”
The heat scorching her cheeks spread to the whole of her face, her heart racing at the prospect of seeing him again sooner rather than later.
Once he was out of earshot, her sister gushed, “I can’t believe I forgot to tell you that he’s moved here.”
“Well, now I know.”
“And nothing. I also know what you’re up to.”
Basra linked their arms and pulled Jamila away from everyone. “Listen. Ilyas is a good man, and they’re hard to come by. I hate that you’re lonely.”
“Who said I was lonely?”
“Mom and Dad. They’re worried. I am too. All you do is work, work, work. Honestly, I was shocked you found time to visit me.” Basra hesitated and then continued more gently, “Just keep an open mind.”
Jamila watched her sister walk back to her family, where her husband embraced her and her kids stared adoringly up at her. She was clearly the center of their world.
It was hard to deny the painful truth in what Basra had said. Jamila contemplated the days, months, years she had lost focusing solely on her education and career. She hadn’t thought of it that way until recently, when more of her peers her age had begun marrying, growing their families and juggling all of it with their jobs.
Keep an open mind, her sister advised.
The problem was Jamila had convinced herself she didn’t have time for romance. But if she were being honest, there was the added pressure of not finding her soul mate and becoming the unlucky person who didn’t have someone special waiting for her out there.
She had plenty of examples of marital happiness in her life. Her parents. Her sister and brother-in-law.
But what if she was different? What if she was meant to be alone and lonely forever?
What if it’s too late?
Jamila saw Ilyas move to the outskirts of the crowd, where he led an older woman gripping a cane away from a group of people. Then as if sensing her, he looked back at her, smiled with torturous sensuality and waved.
She lifted her hand and waved back.
Maybe it’s not too late.
She was smiling now, her heart glowing. And just like that, the food and sweets at her family’s Eid gathering took a back seat to her excitement for reuniting with Ilyas again.
* * *
As soon as the sun had set, Ilyas arrived at his grandmother’s house to pick her up. She hadn’t minded not being able to cook dinner herself, preferring the company of others to anything else. Her chattiness was nice company for his scattered brain as they made the short walk to their destination.
Jamila’s niece and nephew answered the door, shortly followed by their father.
They waited another forty minutes before the hostess and her beautiful sister made a perfumed appearance.
Ilyas picked his jaw up from the floor and stood to meet Jamila halfway and haul the heavy dinner platter from her hands. Gulping, he croaked, “You look stunning.”
She smiled knowingly. “I couldn’t have you outdressing me this time.”
His eyes took in her curvaceous figure, appreciating the way the body-hugging African-print dress looked on her. The bright red and saffron yellow complemented her pink-toned brown skin. A matching headscarf wrapped her hair turban-style. Decorative black henna marked her hands in intricate patterns that curled up her wrists to the middle of her forearms.
Ilyas was aware that they were gazing at each other in a room full of her family and his grandmother. He cleared his throat before depositing the tray on the large throw blanket in the middle of the living room.
By the time he looked up, Jamila was gone.
As if she read his mind, Basra told him, “She’s in the kitchen, grabbing sweets,” and with an encouraging nod, she sat by her husband and children and struck up a conversation with his grandmother.
“There you are,” Ilyas said, entering the kitchen and watching Jamila snap her head up at his voice.
“Following me?” she teased.
Ilyas laughed low. “Something like that. I figured we could continue catching up. Pick up where we left off.” He hadn’t wanted to leave her earlier, but someone had had to see his grandmother home safely. But now…
Now we’re celebrating Eid together.
It reminded him of another Eid they’d spent together.
Resting his hip on the counter, he watched Jamila arrange amber-colored Somali halwa onto a decorative plate. She plucked up the last two halwa and held one out to him, grinning.
“Don’t tell Basra. She hates it when I sneak sweets before a meal.”
“I wouldn’t dream of ratting on you. Besides, you’ve made me an accomplice now.” He paused then to savor the sticky spiced confection. Sugar and starch hit his tongue first, the nutmeg, cinnamon and cardamom coming after. He groaned appreciatively, warming to his toes when Jamila smiled her approval. “So, how’s life in Sweden?”
“Same old. I work a ton. Sleep little. Socialize even less.”
She raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t see you as the ‘all work, no play’ type.”
He hadn’t thought of himself that way, but then the late hours spent in his office to avoid how lonely it was at home had shown him how colorless his life in America had become. “Going home to an empty apartment was normal for me.”
“I know that feeling too well,” she said, shocking him.
“Don’t your parents live in the same city?”
“Yes, but they have their own lives.” She shrugged then. “Maybe I’ll get a cat.”
Ilyas swallowed thickly, the halwa going down harder as he braced himself with his next question. “No boyfriend?”
She shook her head, and he freed the breath he’d been holding. She was single, too, which meant there was hope. Over the loud thudding of his heartbeats, he heard her explanation for why someone as gorgeous, intelligent and wondrously perfect as her hadn’t been snatched up by the luckiest man in the world.
“I’m always working, and I like it. But somewhere along the way I lost track of time, and suddenly all of my friends and coworkers were getting married and starting families.”
He nodded, understanding where she was coming from. His grandmother had dropped hints that she would love to see her grandchild someday soon. “What’s holding you back?”
Jamila snorted a laugh. “Um, a man willing to put up with my work obsession.”
“I’m confident you could find someone.” He stared down at her, watched her breath hitch in her throat and her eyes go round. It was the perfect moment to close the short space between them and do what he’d been longing to do all day, ever since they’d bumped into each other that morning.
He sealed his hand over her cheek. When she didn’t move, he lowered his face and brought their lips close, then paused. “Hey, do you remember when you shared your Eid gift with me?”
It was a long time ago, shortly after his parents passed away. His first Eid without them. He hadn’t been in the mood to celebrate, and Jamila had left her group of friends to sit with him. She had a box of decadent chocolates she’d bought with her eidi—Eid money. They sat there unwrapping chocolates, guessing their flavors, and soon he had momentarily forgotten his sadness.
Jamila whispered, “Yes.”
“What you don’t remember was how grateful I was to you.” And how he’d fallen in love with her in that moment.
Their lips were hovering closer, closer—
Bang! A loud metallic crash outside the kitchen made them jump apart.
“What was that?” Ilyas had barely asked the question before Jamila shot outside to investigate. He hurried after her.
Jamila led him down a narrow alley and toward the back of the house where a garbage can was upended. Clearly that was what had made the startling sound. The culprit sprung off another garbage can. A small, scruffy feral cat.
But Jamila was looking elsewhere.
She pressed a finger to her lips and pointed down at her feet. In a metal tub lined with a soft blanket was a litter of newborn kittens. A half-hearted yowl came from the feral cat.
“The mother,” Ilyas said, putting the pieces together.
The cat blinked glowing eyes at them and at her kittens.
“She must have given birth sometime earlier today. I prepared the tub for her. We have plenty of metal tubs for the laundry lying around, so I thought that this one could be theirs. A new home.”
Feral cats were endemic to the homes in the area. They came when they pleased, dug through the trash and guarded their territories with the ferocity of a pride of lions. Not many would mess with them. Then again, Jamila wasn’t many people.
She really is perfect, Ilyas mused.
“Like an Eid gift.”
She beamed at him. “Exactly.”
He watched as Jamila covered the shivering kittens with the large blanket in the tub. Their fur was still matted wet, and their tiny mewls clutched at his heart. Jamila gestured that they should back away and give the mother a chance to check on her newborns.
“Do you mind if I come visit them again?” He didn’t mention that she was who he truly wanted to see.
“I think the kittens would like a visitor. I can’t promise the mother will though.”
“I could come tomorrow,” he suggested.
“I’ll be here. I’m on vacation, so I have all the time in the world right now.”
He didn’t hear annoyance in her voice. Curious, he wondered, “Is that a bad thing? All that free time.”
“Honestly, I thought that I’d be climbing the walls from boredom. But I’m discovering that it’s not awful slowing down for family.”
He knew how hard it was pumping the brakes on an overtaxing work schedule. “That’s why I moved back. To be near family. To feel like I wasn’t alone anymore.”
“That sounds blissful. Maybe I’ll have to rip a page out of your book and move back too.” Jamila started to head back.
Ilyas had found his moment, and he wasn’t letting the chance slip him by. He hadn’t forgotten what might have happened in the kitchen. What he’d wanted to happen. “Wait,” he called.
She stopped, turned to face him at the mouth of the alley, looking for all the world like she’d been waiting for this moment as well.
* * *
Ilyas stood taller, as though he had something important to tell her. She had a feeling it had to do with the almost kiss in the kitchen. A kiss that she’d yearned for with the whole of her soul, but she wasn’t sure how to get them back there again.
“I’ll be honest,” he began. “The kittens are adorable. But I’d really be coming back for you tomorrow.”
“We didn’t do much catching up,” she agreed.
“We have a whole month until I leave. That’s a bunch of tomorrows.”
“That would give us plenty of time to catch up.”
“And to do more, hopefully,” she said with a blush.
Taking her henna-marked hand, Ilyas raised it carefully to his mouth and kissed it with a reverence that snatched at her breath as though his lips had pressed against hers. That was how intensely she felt him everywhere. On her hand, in her head and deep in her heart. In that instant Jamila knew two things: this unexpected reunion of theirs was just what she needed to take charge of her love life, and that this man could very possibly be the special someone she’d thought she would never find.
And that was an Eid gift of its own.
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