Lady Luxe was certain that if she did all she could to make Humaid like her – as in, really like her, he wouldn’t bother with pursuing her alter ego. She was certain that once subjected to her subtle yet intoxicating feminine wiles, the hussy with the blonde hair would become an obsession of the past. Of course, there was always a chance that he really was a complete a-hole, in which case, he would probably want the best of both worlds.
So, with the help of her trusty cousins, there was a Plan B. Just in case.
In an attempt to test the waters a little, hoping that perhaps he had given up on acquiring his conquest, Lady Luxe sent him a quick text message, asking him to meet Jennifer at six, knowing quite well that he would be too busy with the real her to comply.
His reply came almost immediately: I would love to habibti, but unfortunately, I have family commitments to oblige. Can you please do me the honour of postponing it to 9pm?
Bastard. All fancy lingo aside, he was essentially planning on meeting a prospective bride at six, and a prospective shag at nine. The things men did to get laid never failed to surprise Lady Luxe – although admittedly, it worked in her favour when she was the one looking for a little under(the)cover action.
"Don't be so hypocritical," Moza chastised her, brushing magic powders onto her cousin's dehydrated skin to make her look young and fresh. "It is exactly the kind of thing you would do."
"No it bloody isn't," Lady Luxe snapped, trying not to move her facial muscles too much. "If I decided I wanted to get married the Emirati way, I'd stop messing around the unIslamic way. I wouldn't have my cake, eat it and then try another."
"Right," Moza replied uninterestedly. "Anyway stop moving around. I'm trying to sort your face out here. When did your complexion become so terrible?"
"Since Leila and my bloody brother became Mola."
"Well that's no reason not to take care of yourself. Now open your eyes, let me see my work."
Lady Luxe slowly opened her eyes and let them roll into focus, on Moza's frowning forehead, and her own tiny reflection in Moza's critical brown eyes. "Well?"
"I really do have a magical touch, don't I? Go and check yourself out." Moza stepped back to allow Lady Luxe to climb off the bed, smiling proudly as her cousin floated past in a jade silk jellabiya, courtesy of their good friend, fashion designer Rima, creator of the haute couture brand Rimalya.
Lady Luxe peered into the mirror and tried not to let her jaw fall open in awe. Gone was the tired old hag from that morning, and in her place, was a beautiful, vibrant young woman with perfect creamy skin with a hint of gold, cat-like eyes amidst a hue of green and glistening pearlescent lips. Her fringe blowdried to perfection, she placed a purple chiffon sheila loosely over her head, matching the purple beads on her jellabiya, and slipped her feet into Gina sandals. Her favourite diamond bracelet rested on her dainty wrist and a generous application of Romano Ricci's Midnight Oud completed her look.
"He'll never be able to resist me like this," Lady Luxe grinned, running over to Moza and throwing her arms around her. "By the way, where's Rowdha?"
Rowdha, still seething after Lady Luxe's stunt that morning, eventually thawed enough to help her cousin in her time of need. The sudden appearance of the finer Qataris, who turned up just after Lady Luxe disappeared, also assisted in placating her irritated nerves.
"She's out getting some supplies for Plan B."
"Okay great. Although I'm getting the feeling that Plan A will work just fine."
The two cousins smiled at each other, slightly nervous, as they waited for the doorbell to ring. Downstairs in the ladies reception room, Lady Luxe's aunts, Aunt Maryam and Aunt Fatima, her father's older sisters, were waiting to greet the groom's party, taking the place of her mother and her deceased grandmother. Not that they would have stayed at home, had Lady Luxe's mother and grandmother been present.
Aunt Maryam and Aunt Fatima were like characters from a Roald Dahl book. The epitome of selfishness, Maryam the divorcee and Fatima the widow stopped at absolutely nothing to get what they wanted. Be it a home renovation, a new car, or a new sister-in-law – they were constantly on the phone to their younger brother, whining, moaning and emotionally blackmailing him with their nasal voices until they got what they wanted. They weren't in the slightest interested in finding a good match for their errant niece – but they were interested in maintaining the family reputation. They needed to be assured that Humaid was from a respectable family and that he was able to display good conduct in public and that he was relatively bearable, and thus, had miraculously appeared an hour earlier, dressed in their finest abayas, swooning over Lady Luxe as if they hadn't seen her in years.
"Sis, they're here," Ahmed declared in a loud stage whisper, knocking on Lady Luxe's door and then sticking his head around it before she even acknowledged the knock.
"What?! I never even heard the door bell," Lady Luxe whimpered, the words almost catching in her throat, nervousness beginning to run through her body. "What cars have they come in?"
"A white Merc G350, two digit plate. I saw four figures in black, and then him. He's sitting with Baba and Mohamed in the study and I think they'll let him come and check you out after you go and sit with the ladies for a bit. That's what Baba said to Mohamed when you were getting ready anyway."
"Oh man. I'm dreading this," Lady Luxe moaned, leaning against Ahmed for support, hoping that she would succeed in making Humaid forget about Jennifer and save herself from more drama.
"Don't worry hun, you'll be fine," Moza said reassuringly, giving her cousin's arm a squeeze. "They won't let you sit alone with him, so I'll be there the whole time. I won't make it obvious that I'm listening to your conversation, but if he gives you a hard time, I'll step in, okay?"
"Okay," Lady Luxe answers in a quiet voice, pushing thoughts of everything backfiring out of her mind. Humaid was not going to find out that his blushing virgin bride was the same woman he danced with at Chi. Mohamed was not going to find out that his sister was far from the innocent girl he thought she was. And Leila was not going to find out that her 'best friend' was her lover's sister. Everything was going to be fine.
"Miss X? The guests are here and your aunts are asking you and Miss Moza to come downstairs," Mary the maid said timidly, peeking her head around the open door. "Oh Miss X! You look beautiful!"
"Thanks Mary, we'll come down now," Lady Luxe replied, composing herself and holding her head up high. "Ready, Moze?"
"Yalla, let's go."
With Moza leading the way, the pair made their way down the staircase, their high heels clattering menacingly against the marble, announcing their arrival long before they actually reached the living room door, Ahmed trailing behind them.
"Have fun," he said wryly, leaving the women at the foot of the stairs and heading into the study.
Moza took a deep breath and pushed the heavy wooden door open, the clouds of musky bakhoor swirling around them as she did so.
"Salaam'alaykom," she greeted the unknown faces. "My name is Moza, I am Lady Luxe's cousin, her father is my uncle," she said somberly.
The ladies living room in Lady Luxe's home was very different from the miminalistic décor of the rest of the house – with the exception of her father's study of course. She had designed the room to look like an old Emirati house, with sandy coloured walls, thick Persian rugs and low, red and black Majlis style furniture. She had collected the ornaments scattered around the large room from her travels across the Muslim world – leather floor lamps and colourful glass chandeliers from Morocco, ornate ceramic bowls from Turkey, an antique iron birdcage from Tunisia, colourful wall hangings from Cairo, ornate mother-of-pearl encrusted coffee tables from Damascus. The eclectic combination, instead of seeming confused, felt like a free-flowing story – each piece holding a special beauty, each artifact telling a different tale, each colour accompanying its neighbour.
"Salaam'alaykom," Lady Luxe said with faux shyness, following Moza into the room and casting her gaze down, lifting her extremely long (and fake) eyelashes a little to glance surreptitiously at her surroundings. There was a low murmur as all of Humaid's female relatives appraised Lady Luxe's slim frame, her generous height, her hazel eyes and her straight posture, mumbling 'helou' to themselves as they continued to stare.
Lady Luxe's aunts sat together, dressed in their abayas in preparation of Humaid's arrival, and adjacent to them, along the wall opposite the door, sat four women, also in abayas.
"Alaykom Salaam habibti, how are you?" One of the women exclaimed, as Lady Luxe glided over to greet them all personally, shaking hands and kissing their cheeks.
"Oh!" Lady Luxe exclaimed, recognizing her to be her recent client. So this was why Mohamed warned me not to mess up his friend's mum's abaya.
"Yes, I didn’t want to intimidate you that time by telling you that I am Umm Humaid," she replied with a smile. "Plus I didn’t want you to feel obliged to give me a big discount. Sit down bnayti, you look very beautiful Mashalla."
Taking a seat daintily, Lady Luxe continued looking down, smiling small smiles occasionally and answering questions about what she did and what she studied so sweetly that she almost got a sugar rush. She felt a lot more comfortable knowing that Humaid's mother was her intelligent client and actually wished that her son wasn't such a loser. If Humaid had been like…..Mr. Deliciously Absent for example, she would have actually considered selling out to the farce that was also known as marriage.
"Did you say you studied in London?" Humaid's fat aunt asked in disapproval, her eyes narrowed and her thin lips pursed into a permanent scowl, spitting out the word 'London' like a foul-tasting cardamom pod. His grandmother remained silent, her piercing stare unfaltering as she clutched prayer beads in her wrinkly right hand and muttered prayers under her breath. Her face was covered by a bronze burga and her eyes were watery – as if they had seen much sorrow in their years.
"Yes, khalti. My mother lives there so I stayed with her," Lady Luxe lied in a quiet voice, omitting the fact that her mother only visited her South Kensington apartment once a month for her Harley Street trips, and preferred living in her cottage in Hampshire the remaining 28 days of the month. She peered over her long eyelashes and added woefully: "I do miss her terribly."
"Yes, poor child, she had to grow up far too quickly," her Aunt Maryam interrupted. "However, as a consequence, she is very responsible. You should see her with her younger brother. She is marvelous."
"Isn't her younger brother actually her half brother?" The Evil Fat Aunt asked.
"Oh, it depends on your definition. Lady Luxe loves him terribly, he really is like her own," Aunt Maryam answered without skipping a beat.
"But isn't he the product of her father's second marriage?" The Evil Fat Aunt persisted. "And didn't he divorce her soon after?"
"Well, you know how it is," Moza interrupted smoothly. "My uncle, like many men, is so very difficult to please as you all know. But if there is one thing he is happy with, it is his daughter."
Before they could continue in his manner, Mary rushed into the room and announced that Humaid would be entering in a few minutes. There was a flurry as half the women in the room readjusted their sheilas, Lady Luxe's older aunt, Maryam, holding the end of it over her mouth, covering herself further.
"Salaam'alaykom," he announced loudly, sauntering into the room and flashing a wide smile at the women who sat in wait of his arrival, feeling a little like Yusuf the day all those women chopped off their fingers. Dressed in a plain white candoura and messily wrapped white guttra, he looked simple yet oddly attractive, Lady Luxe noted with interest. His eyes were big and dark, and his mouth full and generous.
Grabbing a cushion, he placed it opposite Lady Luxe. "I hope you don't mind if I sit here while we talk?" he asked to no one in particular, plonking himself down on the cushion and folding his legs.
"Of course habibi, you must get to know your possible wife as much as you can in the next twenty minutes, because the choice you make now will either make or break your entire life," his mother replied, laughing. All the older ladies joined her in giggling, making a big show of not watching the couple, but clearly listening carefully instead.
"How embarrassing," Humaid said quietly, smiling at Lady Luxe while she poured him fragrant Arabic qahwa with steady hands. "I'm Humaid by the way."
"Nice to meet you Humaid," Lady Luxe answered with a small smile, catching his eyes for a moment and then looking away like she believed a chaste virgin would do.
They began to talk quietly, trying (and failing) to ignore the women around them who were desperate to hear what they were talking about. Had they managed to overhear anything, they would have been disappointed to note that the conversation barely got beyond their favourite movies, favourite music and favourite food. Lady Luxe was surprised to learn that Humaid loved watching documentaries, his favourite music was rock and the one dish he could eat over and over again was pad thai. With prawns.
"You're not how I expected you to be," Lady Luxe conceded towards the end of their fairly enlightening conversation.
"And how was that?"
"Shallow. Conceited. Unoriginal." she says bluntly.
"Well, you're not what I expected either," he retorted with a smile.
"And what was that?"
"Boring. Stupid. Unattractive."
They laughed together, causing all the women to turn and stare with huge smiles on their faces, while Lady Luxe covered her face in her hands in embarrassment, trying to be endearing. Her attempt at feigning innocence seemed to have work as the ladies all nudged each other, whispering about how attractive her naivety was.
"Aiwa," Humaid's older sister called out from across the room, winking conspicuously, causing Lady Luxe to blush further and getting into her role so much that it actually began to feel real.
"I think your aunts seem to approve of me. Does that mean I can take your number?" Humaid asked with a slow smile, taking in Lady Luxe's pink lips and ready smile with lust, aching to know what was hidden beneath the loose folds of her gown, whether the rest of her body was the same caramel colour of her face, whether the rest of her would turn pink beneath his touch like her face did.
"Sorry Humaid, but I've never given my number to a guy before," You already have it, you nerd.
"Oh okay. Well, can you make an exception?" If she gives her number to me after just a little persuasion, it's a definite indicator that she's ready to give it to anyone.
"No I can't, sorry. If you need to get hold of me, you can always call my brother Mohamed and pass a message on." You know Mohamed right? The same guy I danced with at Chi?
"Sure, I understand." This girl really takes her reputation seriously. Perfect wife material. But maybe not that much fun.
The conversation drew to a close, hurried up by Humaid's mother who felt that they were beginning to overstay their welcome although most of the snacks Claudine had whipped up were left untouched. Lady Luxe bid farewell to all the smiling ladies, kissed them affectionately on their cheeks and then excused herself from her aunts' chattering as they analysed the evening's events, claiming she had a headache.
Pulling her sandals off her feet and running up the stairs with Moza close behind, she shut the door to her bedroom and grabbed her Vertu phone, willing it to beep with a cancellation message.
"Girl, you were wicked down there," Moza gushed. "Seriously, if I were a bloke looking for a missus, I would so propose to you based on that Oscar winning performance."
"Really?" Lady Luxe asked, playing with the phone and praying fervently.
"Really." Moza affirmed with confidence. "Look, he only just left and it's only 7:30. Give it another ten minutes, I'm sure he'll cancel. He was so besotted by you."
Putting her phone on 'loud', Lady Luxe went to the dressing room and changed into more comfortable tracksuit bottoms and an oversized hoody. Pulling her hair into a ponytail, she went back to her bedroom to find that Moza had taken off her abaya and was lying on the bed, flicking through the TV channels.
The minutes dragged by slowly, so slowly that Lady Luxe decided to join Moza in watching mindless TV. They settled on the Style Network, criticizing most of the costumes appearing on the catwalk and claiming they could design better. Until suddenly, there was a small beep from across the room.
Lady Luxe jumped out of bed, tripping on Moza's abaya and ending up falling to the tiled floor on her knees.
"Ouch!" she yelled, clutching her knees in agony and dragging herself to her desk where she left the phone. She opened the message straightaway, far too anxious to ponder about its contents any further.
I'm running a little late. See you at Atlantis at 9:15.
"Shit!" Lady Luxe cried out, half tempted to hurl the limited edition polished stainless steel phone studded with tiny white diamonds across the room like she did with her Blackberry.
"Shit indeed," Moza echoed, a worried look on her face. "Plan B it is then."
* * *