Tahra Edwards grabbed her lunch bag from the refrigerator in the break room and headed for the elevator. It was too nice a day not to eat lunch outside, and the park across from the United States Embassy in the heart of Drago was the perfect place. She ate there a lot, joining the native Zakharians, young and old, who also found the park the perfect mid-day escape.
She settled on her favorite park bench beneath the shade of a massive oak tree, not too far from the preschool that bordered the park on its eastern side. She loved watching the children at play, even though the sight of them had been bittersweet for the past two weeks…ever since she’d turned down the marriage proposal she’d once prayed to receive. Knowing the children she’d once dreamed of having with the man she loved would never be. Knowing she’d never watch her own children this way.
She was early—the playground was empty. But she’d deliberately come early to make sure her favorite spot wasn’t taken, as it had been on occasion. That wasn’t a problem today.
Tahra had finished her sandwich—the Zakharian bread from the bakery two doors down from her apartment building was worth the extra calories—and was just starting on her apple when the children poured out the door into the preschool’s fenced yard. Happy high-pitched voices came to her as the children swarmed onto the playground equipment—swings set in motion, bodies whizzing down the slide, and the more intrepid climbing to the top of the jungle gym.
She smiled to herself with a sense of nostalgia. Her older sister, Carly, had been the intrepid one growing up, daring anything. Tahra had always been the fearful one, afraid to climb so high, afraid of falling. But not when Carly was there. Somehow when Carly was there Tahra had found the courage to clamber after her much older sister until they reached the top, pretending she was as fearless as Carly was. But Carly had known. And she’d understood. Carly had always understood.
Sighing a little, and missing her globe-trotting big sister a lot, Tahra stood up and walked over to the discreetly placed trash container, taking her closer to the preschool and the children. She watched them for a moment from where she stood, wishing the world at large could see this playground and take a lesson from the blond, fair-skinned Zakharian children—no more than four or five years old—clutching the hands of the newest arrivals to Zakhar, urging them to join in their play.
Zakhar, like other countries within the European Union, was taking in as many of the refugees streaming over its borders as it could accommodate…at the express invitation of the king who could do no wrong in the eyes of most of his subjects. These dark-skinned children of refugees from war-torn countries in northern Africa and the Middle East had experienced things no child should ever experience, Tahra knew. Had seen things no child should ever see. But the open hand of friendship from the children in this preschool would go a long way toward helping those terror-filled memories fade with time. And though she wasn’t Zakharian, Tahra couldn’t help feel a tiny thrill of pride in the country she’d once thought would be her adopted homeland…if the man she loved hadn’t…
Tahra had just thrown away her trash when her attention was caught by a lone man standing next to the fenced playground, a knapsack at his feet. One hand clenched the metal fence, and he was staring at the children, who played on, completely oblivious. Something in the man’s intent gaze made Tahra hesitate, and made the hair on the back of her neck stand up. Something wasn’t right. She couldn’t put her finger on it at first, but then she realized the man was too old and too well-dressed to be carrying a student’s knapsack.
The man turned suddenly and strode in the opposite direction, and Tahra started forward. “Sir!” she called in her rudimentary Zakharan. “Sir, you forgot your knapsack!”
The stranger cast one long look backward. Their eyes met across the short distance, and Tahra knew she’d never forget those eyes. Never forget that face. Then he turned away and continued walking, faster now. Almost running. Tahra watched him for a couple of seconds, then her gaze moved to the knapsack sitting at the base of the preschool fence, and she knew. “Oh my God!”
She darted toward the knapsack, only one thing in her mind. Away. She had to get it away from the children. She grabbed one of the straps and hefted the knapsack into her arms. It was heavy. Heavier than it looked. At first she ran away from the playground as fast as she could, until she realized how risky that was. She put both hands on the strap and swung backwards, then heaved the knapsack as far away as she could. She turned toward the playground and screamed to the children at the top of her lungs, “Run! Run!”
She’d only taken two steps toward the fence when the world exploded behind her.
THE BODYGUARD’S BRIDE-TO-BE, Copyright © 2016 by Amelia Autin Lam
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