Read #1 book on Hinduism and enhance your understanding of ancient Indian history.
Read #1 book on Hinduism and enhance your understanding of ancient Indian history.

Sue Ellen Castellino

Drama Romance Thriller


4.5  

Sue Ellen Castellino

Drama Romance Thriller


The Real Nassar Diamond

The Real Nassar Diamond

62 mins 292 62 mins 292

Author Note: 

Dear Readers,

2020 has been a roller coaster of emotions and it is my intention to take you on something similar with my second novelette - The Real Nassar Diamond.

This time, I had help editing the story, and I would like to send a virtual thank you bouquet to Richa Sheth Thakur, my school friend and editor on this project (and future projects - fingers crossed).

What I thought would be an easy-breezy short story, quickly developed into something much deeper, and at the heart of it, this novelette is a story about two sisters and their father. I hope you enjoy spending time with the Nassar sisters, just as much as I did while writing this story.

Happy Reading!


All Rights Reserved. Sue Castellino, 2020.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, transmitted or in a retrieval system, in any form or by any means, electric, digital, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the writer - Sue Ellen Castellino.

This story is a work of fiction and meant for entertainment purposes only. All characters, names of characters, places and events, depicted in this story are purely fictitious. Any resemblance/similarity to any person living or dead and/or event and/or location is purely coincidental, the writer - Sue Ellen Castellino, shall not be responsible or liable in any matter whatsoever for the same.


Chapter one

Sometimes the only option, when all else fails, is to go with the flow and enjoy yourself. These were the thoughts running through Galia's mind as she saw the 'Closed For Maintenance' sign hanging on the gate of what used to be the best bar on Corong Corong beach. Irritated that their last night would be ruined, she looked over to her sister, but Rahel's reaction to the sign was non-existent. Her attention was on the shirtless backpacker next door, who was drying out his faded t-shirts.

"In the mood for dirty shots and even filthier men?" asked Rahel, nodding in the direction of Mr. Six-pack-abs-with-laundry-skills.

Galia sighed, she had wanted her sister to experience the magical atmosphere and gastronomic cocktails that had been etched into her memory from her last trip to El Nido. Part of that experience was the beach-side bar with bohemian decor, Spanish-Filipino cuisine, and a great looking adult crowd. Judging from the empty space in front of her, the bustling hostel next door was the only immediate option. A practical choice that was strongly motivated by her new Gucci shoes, which didn't deserve a mucky, sandy walk in search for a better alternative.

That's how the Nassar sisters found themselves seated at the Little Surf Hostel and Bar. It had all the trappings of a typical hostel with hand-drawn art on the walls, weather-worn wooden tables, and a lively set of servers. At least the place was charming, she thought, thanks to the golden rays of the setting sun. A sentiment that was short-lived when she looked at the occupied tables around them.

No amount of golden hour lighting could blur away the semi-soaked and sunburnt hostel guests, that by the looks of it, had recently come back from a day tour of the nearby islands. Contrary to Galia, who hated being in crowds, her sister was currently eyeing every beddable male taller than 6ft in the room.

"Takes you back, doesn't it?" asked Rahel, eyeing a young bikini-clad girl, with a fond smile.

"Back to when? My time of bikinis or hostels? Because we both know one of those never happened," said Galia, as she sat on one of the vacant stools at the exposed stone bar.

"I blame baba for making you a snob. Just because you were born with the Nassar birthmark, they spoiled you rotten," she replied, shaking her head. "Seriously, though, you don't have a single steamy travel story? Not even one about a good-looking blond backpacker?" Rahel's question was pointed at the Nordic lumberjack in the corner, who apparently didn't own any shirts.

"Sadly, there are no steamy travel stories, and definitely not with Neanderthals like that," she said cheekily, "I'll leave the blonds to you, I like them dark-haired and... intelligent," she said, searching for more age-appropriate eye candy.

"We should drink," said Rahel, ignoring her sister's comment and looking at the messy handwritten cocktail menu on the blackboard behind the bartender. It may not have been their first choice for a bar, but every great story starts off with a shot of liquid courage, and for the two over-dressed sisters, who were admiring the sunset and abs - things were about to kick off.

"You can't say no, it's free," said the bartender in a melodic tone, who had come around with a tray full of green and aqua coloured shots. Galia looked at the tray and was immediately hit by the overpowering smell of alcohol. These were no ordinary watered-down shots; no, these meant business.

"Does it have vodka?" she asked, still eyeing the tray with trepidation. A natural reaction that came from years of experience with the clear liquid. The last thing she wanted was a headache, followed by the nasty stomach flu, to ruin their final night in a tropical paradise.

"Yes, Ma'am - what else would it have?" he said, looking at her like that was the weirdest question to ask.

"I'm allergic to Vodka," said Galia, relieved she didn't have to do the shots.

"Thankfully, I'm not," said Rahel, about to take one of both coloured shots.

"Jin Jin," said a voice from behind, "get the ladies Tequila, no one skips sunset shots. It's bad luck."

Both ladies turned curious to see who was, literally, calling the shots. They weren't sure, but the voice must have come from one of the two intriguing men perched comfortably at the end of the bar.

Of the two, the stocky, slightly sunburnt one with a great crew cut spoke first, "No guest can turn down sunset shots, it's a tradition."

"Is that so?" asked Rahel, her eyebrow corked, locking in on her new target, tossing her hair to one side, allowing it to fall magnificently. Skills, thought Galia, watching her sister in action.

"Every time someone turns them down, we do badly that night," he said, now making his way towards them, leaving his boyishly-handsome friend sitting by himself.

"Losing business to a pair of good-looking sisters isn't such a bad thing," said Rahel, much to Galia's surprise. She didn't know her sister was so bold when it came to flirting. A sense of wonder washed over her.

Up close, it was clear that he wasn't among the very tall in the room, but he had the best structure and could easily give any of the 20-somethings in the room a run for their money. He had the kind of body that belonged to people who hit the gym and kept active during the day - clearly, her sister's type, minus the height and blond hair.

"When there's a win-win situation, I see no reason we shouldn't benefit," he said, extending his hand. "I'm Charles."

"Charles? You don't look like a Charles," she said, shaking his hand.

"You'll have to take that up with my Kiwi-Filipino parents," he said, "And you are?"

"I'm Rahel," she said. Failing or rather, choosing not to introduce her sister. Typical Rahel, thought Galia.

"Now you..." he said, giving her the once over, "look very much like your name. Let me guess, Dubai?"

"Not every brown-haired, eyeliner-wearing woman is from the Middle-East, you know," she said, looking at him with eyes narrowed.

Lucky for him, he was saved from Rahel's short temper by the arrival of a tray of tequila shots. Jin Jin, the bartender, had brought over two shots and the aroma from them made Galia shudder.

"I'm not doing both -" she said, narrowing her eyes at Rahel.

"You're right, sis," said Rahel and turned to Jin Jin, "Two Cafe Patron, please. Charles and his... friend over there will have to do them with us," said Rahel, eyeing the figure seated in the dimly lit corner.

Charles nodded to Jin Jin and motioned for his friend to come over. Sneaky move thought Galia. She knew the only reason Rahel did this was so that she could carry on flirting and not be bothered by her sister sitting by herself. Judging by the slow walk, she could tell that Charles' companion was also wary of this setup.

"This is Kaito, the co-founder, and my best friend," said Charles.

As he neared, she got a better look at him; he was tall, taller than she had expected. Dressed in a navy blue polo shirt and shorts, his appearance fit right in with the backpacker crowd. However, the vintage Rolex and Armani boat shoes he was wearing told another story. She was intrigued, and she hadn't even looked at his face yet.

"You can call me Kai, everyone does," he said in a strong American accent that took her by surprise.

"Galia," she said, trying to hide her obvious delight as she looked into his dark, thickly lashed eyes. He was stereotypically good looking and had the kind of face you don't see in the flesh, but instead, in magazines and films, she mused.

"What are you getting us into this time," he mumbled, grabbing a shot glass from the tray and stealing a quick glance at Galia.

"Lighten up, Kai," said Charles, then motioned to the beach, "C'mon, this way, we have to face the sun. My crew will explain the rest."

Galia and Rahel followed the pair of fine-looking men down to the beach. As they made their way, Galia noticed the girls around, eying them closely, enviously.

"Good thing we wore fabulous outfits," she whispered in Rahel's ear, smoothing down her hot-off-the-runway, lace applique Zimmerman dress. If there was one thing both girls knew, it was how to dress. Baba may have provided the money, but mother taught them how to dress like money.

"Even if we wore pajamas, we'd be better dressed than these clumsy nubiles," Rahel replied, gesturing to a girl who had spilt a drink on her cheap metallic bikini, "but I think they're staring at that." Rahel pointed to her sister's neck, where a single 8-carat, cushion cut, solitaire diamond ring hung from a thin chain.

Galia immediately tucked it back into the neckline of her dress, the diamond's edges feeling abrasive on her delicate skin.

"I shouldn't have brought it on this trip. It doesn't even feel like mine... anymore," she said to Rahel quietly, who upon hearing this response, stopped in her tracks.

"Galia, that thing has finally come back to the rightful family, and after all you've had to endure, you're the only one who can claim it. Not even baba can. But let's save all that for when we go back home." Rahel then nodded towards the two men standing bathed in sunlight, "So, which one do you want?"

"What do you mean?" said Galia.

"Charles or Kaito?"

"May I remind you, we're leaving tomorrow. Mommy is sending the jet."

"Exactly. Charles or Kaito?" asked Rahel again, keeping her voice down and staring directly into her sister's eyes. "Fine. Since you're stubborn, I like Kaito, he's like a sexy Asian James Bond," said Rahel, as she looked in his direction.

"Go for it. Although you're better off with Charles, he's far easier to talk to," said Galia, who was more interested in the pinks and purples in the sky than the two men dressed in blue and white.

The view she was looking at was one she had dreamed about ever since Galia first visited El Nido. There was something magical about the way the sun kissed the horizon, transforming the sky into a Monet painting. Amber rays cast shadows on the islands dotted in Bacuit Bay, their silhouettes shrouded in mystery, like a playground for mortals, created by Poseidon. Each little island filled with hidden beaches, corals, and sneaky jellyfish that were ready to pounce if you weren't paying attention to the tropical surroundings. Yes, this was her happy place, and sadly, it was being cheapened by sunset shots and a bunch of entitled, beer-filled backpackers.

"They're ruining the sunset," said Kaito, who had snuck up next to her, interrupting her thoughts. "But this view makes up for it," he said, staring at the majestic horizon.

"Which view - the metallic bikini over there?" she replied.

"Same bikini, different body. Yet, this..." he pointed to the sunset, "changes every season, and every day. In summer, the colours are more golden, and now, just before typhoon season, the sky looks more threatening, with purples and blues."

"I was wondering about that, the last time I was here, the sky looked completely -" she was cut off by Jin Jin, who was standing in front of the inebriated crowd.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, over here, Yoo hoo... Yes, it's time for Little Surf's famous sunset shots. A tradition started by the owners sir Charles, and sir Kaito. They took these very same shots 7 years ago when they decided to open up a hostel here in Corong Corong beach."

"Lil' Surf, Lil' Surf, Lil' Surf" the crowd started chanting; clearly they had been drinking all day, thought Galia.

"Yes, yes! Okay, shussshhh..." instructed Jin Jin, "Raise your glasses to the sun. Do the shot and then run into the ocean. The first one in, gets free drinks all night. Ready? 3, 2, 1... SHOT!" screamed Jin Jin.

Like a flash, Galia saw a group of three boys disrobe as they sprinted to the ocean. Now, if these had been three Baywatch-esque men, all muscle and sinews rippling, she'd have enjoyed the spectacle. Unfortunately, of the three, two were skeletal, and one potbellied. None very appealing. She did the shot quickly, not wanting the visual to last longer than it already had. Tequila, what have you in store for me tonight, she wondered.


Chapter two


"That was fun!" shrieked Rahel, as both sisters made their way to the bar. Behind them, the sun's last few rays fought against the falling blanket of stars, turning the sky a deep violet. In stark contrast, the hostel's bright signboard cut through the growing darkness. Two structures occupied the beach's little stretch, the luxury hotel, now closed, and the very, very budget-friendly hostel. Galia wished she was sipping on expertly made cocktails, sitting in a cabana, and having an adult conversation with a handsome stranger. As lovely as the smorgasbord of hyper, intoxicated travellers in front of her were, it wasn't what she had wanted for their last night.

"Oh my god, you're so pretty, Bjorn... look..." a platinum blond, dressed in tiny shorts and green tank top had run up to Rahel, holding her face in her hands, "She's like Jasmine, Oh my god- are you, Jasmine?"

"No, Jasmine was a real princess," said Galia, replying for her sister, amused at the girl, who was now caressing Rahel's hair.

"Very funny," said Rahel, getting the girl's hands off her hair, "and... you are?" she asked the dirty-blond Viking standing next to the tipsy girl.

"I'm Bjorn, this is Sofiye, my very drunk sister. Sorry about this.." he said, trying to put space between the tall shieldmaiden and Rahel. "She's not wrong though, you do look like Jasmine," he said and flashed Rahel a wide smile. Galia knew her sister was done for. Tall, gorgeous, blond, and interested. He was the vision of all Rahel's dreams. Looking at her sister's lustful gaze, she knew who the next target was, so much for being interested in Kaito, she thought.

"Wow, I'm surprised you 90s kids even know Aladdin," said Charles to the blond siblings, appearing from behind the bar with two drinks. "Here, try this," he said to Galia, handing her a wide-bottomed glass with what looked like whiskey.

"An old fashioned?" she asked, holding up the glass to smell its heady aroma. The notes of citrus from the orange peel, refreshing her senses.

"Yea, Kai decided to dip into his fancy stash for you ladies, he thought ya'll might like something a little more sophisticated," he said, giving her a playful wink.

Charles wedged himself in between the Thor look-a-like and her sister with a confidence that could come only from a self-made man. Galia was growing more impressed with every passing minute. If only her sister saw him in that light and not be so distracted by the shiny Viking.

A group of backpackers walked in just then, suddenly filling up the room. They looked like a pack of rugby players. Mountainous and dressed in what Galia described as the bru-uniform - striped singlets, pastel shorts, and Havaianas slippers. To her dismay, a few of them broke away from the pack and were headed right to the bar. The largest, making a beeline to where she was seated. She didn't like the feeling of losing her elbow space. Being seated smack in the middle of the bar with a group of Rahel groupies on one side didn't help either.

"Oye, mate. One San Mig light," he said in a strong Aussie accent, pushing Galia aside.

"Hey, Scrummage-man, watch it," she said, shuffling in her seat.

"Scrummage -man?" he said quizzically, turning to look at her, "Hi," was all he managed to get out, seemingly mesmerized by her deathly stare. Out of caution, she touched the ring. Still hidden.

"Watch your shoulders next time," she said and started to look around for a better spot. She noticed Kaito in the corner, sitting in his darkly lit corner, an open seat available next to him since Charles was still trying to outmanoeuvre the Viking for Rahel's attention. She started to walk in his direction, but a hyper Jin Jin suddenly hopped up on one of the tables, clearly about to make an announcement. What now, she wondered.

"Alright, folks, it's time for the beer pong tournament. First up. Teams - look around and find your partners, teams of four only!" said Jin Jin.

Galia, not having any of this excitement, firmly got up and tried to make her way toward Kaito, but a hand caught her elbow.

"Hey, fancy being part of my team?" said the burly Aussie.

"Does it look like I'm dressed to play beer pong?" she said.

"Yes, she is," said Rahel from behind her, "Galia, c'mon, you're part of my team," taking her sister by the hand. The dejected look on the Aussie's face did make Galia smirk. She still got it, she thought.

"Rahel, I don't want to play," she said, breaking off from her sister's firm grip, who was leading her towards Charles and Bjorn.

"Okay, sis, how many talks do I have to give you tonight," said Rahel, holding Galia's shoulders and looking at her dead-on, "besides, only mother can pull off this brooding, bitchy, snooty behaviour. On you, it's just childish, and the last time I checked, you were 30, not 13. Can you take a moment to look around? Look at these men, feel the damn vibe. Clearly, it's going to be a great night."

"Gahhh, I hate it when you're... not wrong," said Galia, she'd never outwardly admit Rahel was right, that was too much power to give her older sister.

"I know what we need," said Rahel, going to the bar counter.

"No Rahel, no more shots, please."

"Oh, yes, more shots..." she said, smiling at Galia, "Hey, two tequila, and another two in half an hour. Here's my card, start a tab please."

"Yes, Mam' sure," said the petite bartender, with the prettiest long black hair.

"Galia, you've got to help me break up Charles and Bjorn, they've been bickering all this time, and as much fun as that is, I just want to have a good time," she said, handing over the shot glass to her sister.

"That's on you. Let's blame all the attention on this McQueen maxi because clearly, it isn't your personality," she said, goating her sister. She quickly tapped the spot on her chest, where the ring was hidden, making sure it was still covered up. Its emotional presence was heavier than its actual weight. The only reason her father would forgive her for her actions was hanging from her neck, she hoped, and she didn't want to lose it in the middle of a beer pong game.

"Would you rather I switch the Viking for Mr.Rugby?" said Rahel, snapping her out of her thoughts.

"I hate you," said Galia, admitting defeat, and clinking her shot glass with Rahel's. The clear liquid didn't burn as much as the first sunset shot. In fact, this time it had gone down pretty easy, which only meant that the old fashioned had been working through her bloodstream, and Galia was ready to go with the flow. About time, she thought.


Chapter three


Feeling infinitely lighter and bolder, Galia followed her sister to where Charles and Bjorn were standing. They had moved towards the area where the beer pong tables were set up. This was happening, she thought. Still sitting quietly near the table set up, coolly observing, was Kaito. She wished she could opt out of the games, but instead, she had let her sister cajole her into being teammates. Teaming up with who, though, she wondered.

"Why do we need to make a team of four? Only two from a team can play at a time," said Galia, realising the math wasn't adding up.

"Too many people - we'd take forever to finish. Each team nominates two players for a game. The other two get to cheer 'em on," said Charles.

"Oh, perfect, so I can sit most games out," said Galia.

"Someone's chicken," said an Aussie voice behind her.

"She's not chicken, she's just bad at pong," answered Rahel.

"And yet you want me on your team," Galia bit back, "speaking of which, what are the teams?"

"You, Rahel, Bjorn, and me," replied Charles.

"Actually, Sofiye made the team, so I'll be playing with them," said Bjorn, looking at his sister, who had sobered up.

"Super. Get ready to bow down," said Charles, the look of competition in his eyes.

"Still one player short," said Galia.

"I can step in, I think my mates formed their own team," said the burly Aussie.

"Actually, Us... grown-ups should stick together," she said, pulling Kaito off his comfortable bar stool. The look on his face, clearly one of disdain. Jeez, this guy is worse than me, she thought. Luckily, he didn't protest, he merely stood next to her. All 6-feet-something of him sizing down the considerable Aussie bloke in front of them. There was a twinkle of something in the men's eyes—mischief, competition, alcohol. Either way, she was enjoying every bit of it.

"Looks like we have a game on our hands, shall we up the wager?" said the Aussie.

"Winner gets Galia's number," chimed in Rahel, flashing a snide smile at her sister.

"Done!" said the Aussie, a little too fast for Galia's liking.

"I don't even know your name, why would I give you my number?"

"It's Robert - Now, you know," he said, flashing her a prince-charming smile before going off to his group of friends.

"Great, just what I need, a 20-somethin' rugby player texting me all the time," said Galia, rolling her eyes.

"You've got nothing to worry about. Not the first game of pong Charles, and I have played," said Kaito, smiling at her, "another drink?"

"Definitely," she said, following him to the bar.

"Not your type of night, huh?" he asked.

"Is it that obvious?"

"Let me guess you wanted to go to Arora, next door."

"Yes, it's where I went the last time."

"Sewage problems- the local government shut them down. Plus, they didn't have their licenses together. It's getting stricter after the other islands got shut down."

"I see," she said, wondering if they faced the same issues.

"I know what you're thinking, but Charles and I run a tight ship. We're not just a couple of backpackers with a piece of land."

"It's my resting bitch face, I didn't mean to insinuate anything," she said.

"That's definitely not what I think about your face," he said, as he poured a shot of Akashi Whiskey into their glasses. A faint flush rushed to her neck. Was he flirting? She wondered.

"Japanese whiskey? Look at you with the class," she said, impressed.

"Yeah, I bring back a bottle every time I go home."

"Japan? I presumed you were from the states."

"I get that a lot, but no, Mom's from Kyoto, dad's American," he said.

"So, you hit the genetic jackpot," she said, hoping he'd take it as a compliment.

"I could say the same, but I've seen your sister," he hit back. She wasn't sure if it was his mischievous smile or his witty banter, but she was starting to warm up to the guy. Careful, married women don't meet Mr. Right, she thought, the coolness of the diamond making its presence felt.

He handed her a different cocktail, this time, a Manhattan, just what she needed to get her thoughts off her personal problems.

"Hmm, delicious, where'd you learn to make such a good Manhattan?" she asked, looking at the chaos of bodies in front of her, each trying to find teams and presumably planning a beer pong strategy.

"My family owns hotels around the world. I grew up learning everything there is to know about hospitality," he answered.

"That explains the vintage Rolex. It's not every day you walk into a hostel and see a timepiece like that."

"It belonged to my dad..." he said, glancing at its emerald green dial, "it's the only thing he gave me after I broke away from the family business to start... this. My own legacy," he said, a sense of pride in his voice. "It was this or marry the daughter of some steel tycoon, either way, I made the right choice."

Galia nodded, trying to avoid his stare, his words burning more than the whiskey in the glass she was holding.

"It's not much yet, but we're expanding. We broke ground in Siargao last week, and next year... fingers crossed, Bondi," he said, sipping on his drink.

"That's fantastic - well, to expansion," she said, holding up her glass and finally looking into his dark eyes.

"To legacies," he replied, the weight of that word sitting heavy on her shoulders. The way he was gazing into her eyes, she could feel his search for validation. It was a look that she knew only too well. Kids will do anything to carry forward legacies, she thought. A thought that stemmed from her wedding day to Adnaan, her telecom billionaire husband. She wished she had had the luxury of choice, to start a company, like Kaito. Instead, it had been her duty to be the merger between her father and her husband. A merger that was contingent on an antique 8-carat diamond. Six long years had passed, but being robbed of a different future had stayed with her ever since her Nikah. Yet, here she was, standing in expensive Gucci shoes, on a beer stained floor, resonating with a man she had just met. The billion-dollar heiress and wife, soon to be an outcast and bankrupt, at least the diamond had made it back to the Nassar family, she mused.

"To legacies," she repeated, taking a sip of her Manhattan. This time the liquid burned, making it hard to swallow, just like her marriage.

"Am I interrupting something here?" asked Rahel coyly, giving her sister a foxy smile.

"No, I was just boring your sister with our business plans," said Kaito, taking a big sip of his whiskey as if he had felt the heaviness of their interaction.

"Ready to be my cheerleader?" asked Rahel.

"Isn't that why our parents had me?" retorted Galia, giving her sister a playful nudge.

"You better bring all this sass to distract the other team," said Rahel.

"You ladies are distraction enough," said Kaito, smiling at Galia. An exchange that had not gone unnoticed by Rahel.

"Still unsure about your decision?" she whispered into Galia's ear while squeezing her hand.

"I'm not doing it for men's attention, Rahel."

"I know, but who turns down the icing on the cake? Learn to take every perk you can get, little one," said Rahel.

"Are you ladies going to keep gossiping, or are you ready to whoop some ass?" interrupted Charles.

"Never underestimate the power of whispers in a crowded room, Mr. Charles, for all you know we're taking down empires," said Rahel.

"I'll settle for beer pong strategies at this point, milady," he said, bowing and holding out his hand for his royal highness, Rahel. This guy was hilarious, thought Galia, just the type of man her single sister needed.

"Hurry up, you two, save your flirting for later," said Rahel looking at Galia and Kaito.

Galia followed her sister, acutely aware of the tall body behind her, the crowd near the tables, causing them to get closer.

"Team Old, goes first," said Jin Jin, unaware of Rahel's impending wrath at the mention of the word old.

"Who are you calling old?" said Rahel, narrowing her eyes at him. She grabbed his clipboard and pen, furiously writing down something. A smug look crept across her face as she handed it back to him.

"Team Jasmine," he announced, looking at Rahel, "much better."

"Can we get on with it? Team Scrummage is ready. You're going down, mate!" said a pumped Robert, pointing at Kaito. The whole situation turned into a college comedy, and Galia was all for it, enjoying the departure from her looming reality.

"Calm down, kid, the All Blacks always win," said Charles, amping up his Kiwi accent to make his point.

"Is your sister any good at this," asked Kaito, getting closer to Galia. The luxurious smell of his cologne heightening her senses.

"We didn't grow up playing this, so... no," she said, moving slightly to allow him space next to her. He was far too distracting, standing behind her. She preferred her prey in her crosshairs.

"I pity the kid that does grow up with beer pong, can you imagine?" he said, smiling at her. He casually nudged her, a playful action that she hadn't experienced in such a long time. Not even her own husband took the time to engage with her in this care-free, familiar way.

"C'mon Rahel, make Cape Town proud," Galia cheered.

"South Africa?" asked Kai, corking an eyebrow over his astonished gaze. "I would never have guessed," he said, a smile creeping up his puzzled face. She couldn't help but be charmed by this genuine reaction.

"Oh, so you were trying to figure me out?" she asked.

"I'd need a lifetime for that," he said, flashing her a devilish smile. The boy had game, she would give him that, but a wave of guilt washed over her. She shouldn't be flirting, let alone connecting with another man. Not yet, she chided herself.


Chapter four



A tangible tension floated through the hostel, even the spectators had stilled, giving their beverages a rest. Their sole focus, the man with an orange ping pong ball in his hand. Who would sink the last cup on the table? The question loomed in Galia's mind. The fact they made it this far was thanks to the hostel's two co-owners, but much to her surprise, she had managed to clear a few cups off the table herself. A feat she had chalked up to the Greek goddess, Atë, who must have been playing a twisted joke on all of them. However, it was down to Charles and Kaito, who had menacing filaments of competition dancing in their eyes.

The air, heavy with humidity from the salty ocean breeze, wasn't enough to distract Kaito from the task at hand. Charles was spouting what she presumed were suggestions, pointing animatedly and indicating the angle for the shot. Who knew a game of dunking a table tennis ball into a cup - a biodegradable cup, at that - required such a nuanced performance. She didn't care if they won or lost, giving the burly Aussie her number was the least of her problems. Far more concerning was the way her heart skipped a beat every time Kaito bit his lip before he threw the ball. The humidity in the room didn't help, either, it only added to the flush her body felt every time he did this seemingly mindless action.

"Sis, I think this night couldn't have gone any better. Two men fighting over you, one Norse God eyeing me. We, Nassar sisters, still got it," whispered Rahel.

"Taken Charles out of the running?" asked Galia, surprised.

"Quite the opposite, he's already a winner in my book. I may have told him he can have more than my phone number if he wins the game," said Rahel, giving her sister a cheeky smile.

"You know, it's really unfair that all the family's flirting skills went to you," said Galia.

"You didn't need any. Father had already lined up Adnaan, remember?" said Rahel.

"And why are you bringing this up now?"

"Just to remind us both, that a so-called family heirloom isn't worth our freedom, life, or love,' said Rahel, "I'm sorry I didn't try harder, sis, I should have stopped it," she said, squeezing Galia's hands.

"What could you have done? You know dad's obsession with the diamond - nothing could have stopped this," she said.

"I just hope Adnaan doesn't demand to get it back,"

"He tried once, remember..." said Galia, her eyes glazing over as she rubbed her stomach, "but he won't try, ever again. Besides, it's in the prenup."

"Another of daddy's ideas," said both girls in unison. Galia rested her head on her sister's shoulder affectionately.

She was so thankful to have a supportive sister, it wasn't common in their family to stick up for an individual. The family, her father, in particular, preferred to operate as a homogeneous collective, squashing any unruly components when required. Sticking together and marrying the biggest fish in the community pond was the tried and tested system for all of South Africa's wealthiest. A system she had knowingly dismantled with one move. The unblemished Nassar legacy, just like the diamonds they mine, she thought, had been marred the moment she filed for divorce. The first family member to have ever done it, thus, unleashing her father's anger and silence.

It was Rahel's idea to get away from the blanket of guilt Galia had buried herself under. She had turned up at Galia's apartment, dressed in Dior, with two packed suitcases, one for each of them. Rahel had also masterfully negotiated or manipulated, Galia wasn't sure which, but whatever her sister had done, she had convinced mother, who in turn persuaded baba, to lend them the jet. Her father, who as yet, had not broken his silence. Not since their last painful conversation about the end of her marriage.

"Hey," Rahel said softly, nudging her sister, "don't let your thoughts get you now, we'll worry about them tomorrow when the sun rises, and we're on the tarmac."

"Do we have to go back? We could start a hostel too, you know, just slightly more up class," she said, giving her sister a reassuring smile.

"You'd hate it in 15 minutes, and I'd be done before we broke ground. These boys know what they're doing, though, how about investing?" said Rahel, a hint of seriousness betrayed her sarcasm as she looked at Charles.

"True, it'd give me something to do with all that divorce money," said Galia, who let out a nervous chuckle right after uttering the word divorce, but then she looked at Kaito, waiting for that titillating lip bite. Nothing better than business with a side of eye candy, she thought.

"Boys, the Nassar sisters are getting impatient," said Rahel. Judging from the lack of the response, it was clear that Kaito and Charles were far more interested in acing the last shot.

Galia cleared her thoughts and concentrated on the gorgeous man in the navy blue polo. His vintage-watch gleamed as he raised his hand, about to take his shot. He better get this, she thought, quickly glancing at the calm Aussie who was standing upright with arms crossed, showing off his muscular forearms. This was getting tense, she thought and decided to get a better view of the shot by standing behind Kaito. He is going to miss it. Move an inch to the left, she willed her thoughts to him. Intuitively, he shifted his weight to the left and took the shot.

Clank. The ball had hit the rim. Loud gasps pierced the din of the room. Then, in the most anticlimactic manner, the ball simply plopped over. Clunk. Thankfully, it fell in the right direction. The sound of the plastic ball hitting stale beer was weirdly satisfying. It was a strange sound, followed by a momentary silence and then, like a clap of thunder, an eruption of cheers and groans took over the room, the winner had been decided. This had been the perfect way to end their trip, thought Galia. A thought that was reflected back in the excitement on her sister's recently botoxed face.

"There you are," said Kaito, giving her a wide victorious smile, a flicker of mischief in his black eyes.

"There you are," she retorted, and immediately felt like the biggest idiot for trying to come off cute.

"For a minute there, it seemed like you didn't believe we'd win," he said, and then bent down to whisper in her ear, "no one here gets to have your number," his voice deepening. The feel of his breath on the nape of her neck made her skin tickle with delight. Steady girl, she demanded her racing heart.

"You know... this doesn't mean you'll get it either," she whispered back.

"I don't need it, I'm giving you mine," he said, and even though she wasn't looking at him, she could sense he was about to bite his lower lip. A shudder cut right through her, and even though he was pulling away, she was acutely aware of how close his mouth had been to hers.

"I didn't stand a chance, did I?" said an Aussie voice behind them.

"What -" she said, turning her back to Kaito, thankful that her brown skin hid all signs of her blush.

"You put up a good fight. How about a shot on the house for being a great competition," said Kaito, coming to her rescue and putting a hand on the small of her back. She was still unsure of whether he was referring to the game or to her, but thoughts didn't matter, not when his touch both distracted and comforted her. There was something so natural about the way he interacted with her, she thought, as if they'd known each other for years. A closeness enveloped her, it was an emotion she hadn't felt for even a second of her transactional marriage.

"Can't turn down free grog," said Robert, disrupting her coddled senses. He turned towards the bar and motioned to her to go first.

"You look like you could use something better than 'grog'," said Kaito from behind, his firm grip on the sides of her waist, leading her to the bar. She loved every moment of being gently guided. Yet, another element that had evaded her marriage, nothing about it, had been gentle.

"I'm starting to see a strategy here," she said, leaning into his chest slightly as they walked to the bar together.

"What might that be?" he asked, bending down so she could hear him over the noisy 20-year-olds.

"First, you try to get me drunk on your fine whiskey, second, you try to give me your number. Sounds like this is a practised routine," she said, turning to face him as they reached the bar.

"Not all routines are successful," he said, a twinkle in his eye, "or worth practising."


Chapter five


Kaito placed another expertly made Manhattan in front of her, this time adding an extra Maraschino cherry into the glass. The hit of flavour dancing on her tongue as she took a large sip of the cocktail. It was her fourth or was it fifth drink, she wasn't sure anymore, the intoxication of being away from it all was stronger than any number of cocktails she could physically consume.

She was also enjoying her view, observing how Kaito interacted with other girls, always smiling, always respectful, and every so often, he'd glance back at her, making her blush. She wondered if she'd have been happy, had she been given the option to marry for love. Would she have chosen a man like Kaito?

A romantic tryst was out of the question for Galia, considering there was still an unsigned space under Adnaan's name on the divorce papers. She sighed, the news of her divorce must have hit every high-society in Cape Town by now, she thought, and she was confident it would make her an outcast. She knew no one, except for maybe Rahel, would understand. No one ever felt pity for the pretty, rich girl who married the dream man- tall, dark, handsome, filthy rich. They'd never see his drug abuse, drinking, anger, or toxic masculinity because Galia had hidden it so well. She could only imagine the headline in the Sunday Times: 'The Imperfection of the Nassar Family's Beloved Diamond'. They could have that one for free, she mused.

"Why the long face, good looking?" asked Robert, pulling up next to her.

"Just contemplating a world where a lady can enjoy a Manhattan and her thoughts in peace," she retorted.

"Ouch," he said, clutching an imaginary arrow wound to the heart. He's funny, she'll give him that. "Right... no funny business," he said, putting his hands up earnestly, "Just don't make me walk back to my mates to talk about rugby... again."

"That's too bad, I was in the mood to discuss the All Blacks," she said, teasingly. She looked up to see if Kaito was ever going to come back, but he was in discussion with Charles and Rahel, and from their gestures, they were discussing shots. She didn't want to get in on that action, she thought.

"So, you're into rugby players," he said, flashing her a smile, "sadly, that's another strike for me - I'm an accountant," he said with a straight face.

"You're an accountant?" she asked.

"Yes, an accountant with an annual CrossFit membership - is that so hard to believe?"

"Not anymore," she joked.

"Are you going to be here for long? We're going on the Outhouse island tour tomorrow, hear it's the best bangka tour of all the islands. The only one currently that does both Big and Small Lagoon on the same day."

"Is that right?" she replied, not wanting to think about the flight back home to, God knows what, chaos?

"The guys take you to their favourite spots and serve up an excellent meal cooked on the barbecue," he said, his Aussie accent getting thicker with excitement.

"That would explain Charles's reddening sunburn," she said, looking in his direction, realising Kaito wasn't with him.

"They have a guide that takes you most days, but if the guys feel like it, they join in sometimes. Either way, I'm looking forward to a day on the boat. Catch some waves, get some sun, we even got our San Migs ready to fill the eski."

"You sound very prepared. I haven't been on their tour, but the lagoons are fantastic. Word of caution, if the tide is low, and you decide to walk through Big Lagoon, watch out for those damn rainbow fish. They love a nibble."

"Right, good to know. Join us. You can give us... I mean, me, more of these tried and tested tips," he said, smiling at her, his kind eyes filled with expectancy.

"I'm hitting the tarmac tomorrow. Back to the mother city," as she uttered those words, a compressed feeling clutched her chest. It had just hit her. She'd be returning in a few short hours. Her lungs burned, and her palms started to clam up. She needed air.

"Excuse me," she said to Robert, getting up with a start, and making a dash for the beach.

Galia didn't stop until she felt the coolness of the water under her feet. The slippery seaweed tickling her soles, making it hard for her to stand steady. She bent down, hands on knees, she felt like she'd just run a marathon. Around her, the gentle sway of the bangkas creaked sporadically, their bamboo frame lapping the waves under them. The tide was coming in, slowly and calmly, unlike her thoughts and fears that were rushing in.

Galia stood up, closed her eyes, and took in the sounds and elements around her. Something about standing on Corong Corong beach helped ease the tightness in her shoulders. Although they weren't fully illuminated by the crescent moonlight, she knew the two islands in front of her, Maniloc and Inatula, were watching over, like two goddesses, protecting Bacuit Bay and all the people that inhabited the main Island. This fantasy was all in her head, of course, but these stories were the reason she felt drawn to this place, why it was the ideal location to take a respite before walking back into her crumbling life in Cape Town.

An unexpected pat on her shoulder made her jump. She lost her balance on the seaweed beneath her feet and was about to take a nasty fall when two arms pulled her close.

"Whoa there, how much did I give you to drink," said Kaito. His voice echoing through his chest she was firmly held against.

"Let me go," she said, pushing him aside, "what are you doing out here?" she spat out.

"I could ask you the same thing," he said, letting her go slowly, "I was helping the boys with the sun fire."

"Sorry, I didn't mean to snap at you, it's just been a tough few days, compounded by the fact that I'll be leaving this paradise tomorrow."

"You don't have to apologise, it's none of my business, but the next time you decide to run off into the horizon, maybe do it when there's more light out. There are water snakes that slither at night," he said, looking down into the murky water, "but it looks okay here, I'll leave you to your tho-"

"-No don't....Stay," she said, "distract me... what's a sun fire?"

"We do it once a month, we light a bonfire at 4, and we stoke it till the sun rises. Guests like to burn notes of regret, release old baggage - that type of thing," he said, standing closer to her, with his arms crossed casually behind his back.

"Another Little Surf tradition?"

"Honestly? I wish it wasn't. I'd rather be asleep, but I only have myself to blame for this. Usually, Charles and I take turns, this month, it's me."

"Blame yourself - for what? Re-enacting the Lord of the Flies with a bunch of 20-year-olds?" she teased.

"The bonfire, I did it one drunken night, I'd just gotten my divorce, and decided it was time to burn my wedding photos," he said matter-of-factly, casually dropping a big bombshell.

"I thought you made a choice not to marry the steel tycoon's daughter," she said.

"Yeah, I made a choice to marry for love, instead," said Kaito, running a hand through his floppy black hair.

"That must have been nice... to be given the option," she said cautiously,

"Option to love? Not sure it served me well. Is that why you ran out, got some fancy guy you're not ready to marry?"

"No, it's this...," she said, pulling out the necklace, the diamond still managing to gleam in the dim light.

"Definitely a fancy guy," he said, looking at it intently, his boyish face filled with curiosity.

"My father, actually," she said, thumbing the diamond and turning to face the horizon. She didn't want to talk about it, but part of her knew she needed the catharsis. A feat that seemed more comfortable to achieve when talking to a stranger. In this case, a stranger with boyishly handsome features and a gaze that made her weak in the knees.

"The Nassar Diamond, he calls it, daddy's been after it for decades. Apparently, it belonged to my great, great grandfather, who was taken as a slave from India. On the ship, to what is now South Africa, he was given this diamond for saving a Lord's son from drowning - some Brit high-class, friends-with-royalty type of family, not really sure, honestly. Anyways, it's been passed down through generations... Until, my grandmother was smothered in her sleep and the diamond... stolen."

"Is this for real?" asked Kaito.

"Every word," she said, looking into his wide, curious eyes.

"So, how'd you get it back?"

"Father looked for it everywhere, but we never found it. Then, one day it turned up at a Sotheby's auction."

"Right, well, problem solved. Still doesn't explain why you're running into the ocean," he said.

"The story is not quite done, baba, my father, was out auctioned by the Maloofs, a rival family, who had asked for my hand in marriage for their son... Adnaan," saying her husband's name out loud made her mouth go dry, "But he had turned them down, he hated their family and didn't want any association, that is until -"

"- The diamond turned up," said Kai, now seeming more invested in her fantastical tale, that was sad, her reality, "What's the big deal? It's just a diamond."

"That's just it, it isn't just any diamond, it's our legacy. My great-great-grandfather founded our mining factory by leveraging the diamond for the land, and I guess we owe everything to this one shiny lump of coal."

"How do you know it's even the same diamond," asked Kaito.

"There is a small cross marked on the edge of the diamond, it looks like this," she held out her right wrist, where a tiny cross marked her delicate skin. "strangely, it's the same shape as my birthmark... that's how father knew it was real," she said.

"Right, I get it, now," he said, "you had to marry the guy. Fucking legacies."

"Not much of choice, well not until a few days ago... I filed for divorce, that's why I'm here, to escape my father and Adnaan's wrath," she said, the salty breeze stinging her teary eyes.

"And I thought my family had drama," he said, moving a strand of hair that had crossed her tear-stained face. The light touch of his fingers, giving her the comfort she so desperately craved.

"Families like ours, we don't marry for love, and we don't divorce. Period."

There was a heaviness in the air between them, punctuated by the lapping of the gentle waves around their ankles. She looked into Kaito's eyes, his tall figure holding steady, he looked like he was about to lean in, but he turned to face the horizon instead.

"That's a great story to burn in the sun fire," he said, crossing his arms, "the way I see it, and this comes from my privileged male way of looking at life - give back the diamond, get your divorce and fight for what you want. You don't get too happy without the struggle, at least not in my experience..."

"That's the plan, but I don't think this diamond is going anywhere. It's the most precious thing to my father," she said sighing.

"That's not the most precious Nassar diamond," he said and pulled her to him, his face looming over hers, the emotion in his eyes visible in the crescent moon's glow.

"May I?" he asked, holding her face in his hands. She nodded.

He wasted no time in finding her lips. He tasted of whiskey and maraschino cherries, a flavour that she was intent on devouring. His lips were soft, yet demanding, parting her lips willingly. The moment his tongue touched hers, she let out a shuddering groan. She had never reacted like that before, deepening her kiss. To anyone looking, they were the epitome of romance, two lovers sharing a passionate kiss on the beach in the moonlight. Yet, when his fingers tangled in her hair, sending shivers down her spine, Galia's mind reeled. A surge of guilt cut through her body like a hot knife in butter. She broke the kiss, a look of shock and equal passion tore through her face. She couldn't do this, she thought, not when everything was so uncertain.

"Sorry, I couldn't help myself, I shouldn't have -" he said, his breathing heavy.

"- You asked, I said yes."

"Bad timing," he whispered as he wrapped his arms around her waist and rested his forehead on her head.

"Bad timing," she responded, moving to glance up at his face, admiring the tenderness she saw. An emotion she had never seen on a man's face before. It was the look she hoped her husband would have given her, but his way of showing love was far more sinister. She shuddered in the cool ocean breeze, his arms squeezing tighter. Mentally she made a note to never underestimate the power of a hug, especially with arms as strong as his.

"I better head back to Rahel," she said, breaking away reluctantly.

"Stay for the sun fire, it's spectacular. I was planning on leaving after it was lit anyways. I won't be a bother," he said, his eyes looking down into the sand.

Just then, a silhouette illuminated by the Outhouse signage frantically waved at them.

"Galia!" shouted her sister. Terrified.


Chapter six



It wasn't often Galia saw her sister in a panic, of the two, Rahel was the one who could handle anything. Yet, as Galia walked the short distance into her sister's embrace, she knew something was wrong.

"He's done something," Rahel whispered, holding Galia tight.

"Who? Are you okay?" she held her sister at arm's length, to get a better look at her, but there weren't any signs of her being physically hurt.

Rahel held out her phone, her hand trembling. Galia reached for the phone and squeezed her sister's hand, her fingers feeling like icicles. There was only one person on Earth capable of instilling this type of fear. Father. A feeling of dread spread through her like the fall of a heavy velvet curtain on opening night. Galia took a deep breath and prepared herself for the voice message she was about to hear. She tapped the screen.

Beep.

"Rahel, You both can come home now. It's all taken care of."

Beep.

Her father's deep voice disturbing the peace of the ocean breeze that had mysteriously died down, almost sensing the trouble looming. The message should have terrified her, but a switch had gone off in her head on this trip. She was stronger, and more importantly, ready.

"Everything okay, ladies?" said Charles, who was standing along with Kaito, looking at the girls, concerned expressions painted on their faces.

"Yes, but our time is up," said Galia, wiping tears away from her sister's face, "Rahel, I got this, let's say bye to these wonderful boys," she whispered to her sister.

Sobering up at her words, Rahel straightened her shoulders and walked to Charles, the panic from before, gone, just like the invisible line on her botoxed forehead.

"Give me your phone," said Galia to Kaito, who obeyed without question. The sudden dominant tone in her voice, taking her by surprise. She took his phone and thumbed in her number.

"Your strategy must have worked," she said, smiling up at him as she gave him back his phone. Her life was about to change, she could sense it, this time it was bound for a course of her own making. Something about their kiss earlier encouraged her to take Kaito on the journey, if he was willing to come along, that is. Either way, Galia wasn't going to let this opportunity pass her by.

She looked over at Rahel, who was arguing with Charles. What now, thought Galia.

"What's the problem?" asked Galia.

"He's not allowing me to pay, he just handed me back my card, apparently our money is no good here," she said menacingly.

"Ladies, ladies, look it's been forever since I.. and Kai," he said, glancing at Kaito, who had now joined them, "have had this much fun. Let's just say this is our token of appreciation. I promise you the next time you'll pay for everything, our drinks included."

"Next time?" asked Rahel.

"You never know, I have reason to come to Cape Town now. And next year... Princess Jasmine..." he said, bowing, "you should come to the opening of Outhouse in Siargao," said Charles confidently, smiling at Rahel. Galia's soft spot for Charles was growing exponentially. He really was just one of those great guys, she thought.

"Time to go," she said to Kaito, who turned to give her a hug.

"I'll burn your story in the sun fire tonight," he whispered in her ear and bent down to give her a quick kiss. Whiskey and Maraschino cherries, she committed the intoxicating taste to memory. With that, both sisters reluctantly walked, in their Gucci shoes, to their chauffeur-driven car, which had been patiently waiting for them. Perks of paying extra thought Galia, thankful that they had made that decision earlier in the day.

"What time do we need to get to the jet?" asked Galia, getting into the car.

"In about five hours," said Rahel, looking at her watch.

"Good, we packed earlier... I'm hungry, you?"

"I could eat," replied Rahel.

"Great, I'll ask the staff to whip up that amazing pork torcino with some eggs, like we had in the morning," she said—another perk of paying extra for the villa life - a full wait-staff.

"What do you think he meant?" asked Rahel, her eyes trained on her phone, looking at the voice note notification from their father.

"You know what, phones off. We have 5 hours to ignore our reality," said Galia, snatching her sister's phone with ease.

"You're... not wrong," her sister said, smiling cheekily.

"So, Charles, huh?" said Galia, spotting Rahel's slight blush at the sound of his name.

"So, Kaito.. HUH?"

Both girls laughed, and for the first time this trip, it was a genuine, care-free reaction. A much-needed release of tension that both Nassar sister's needed.

"And you thought your type was tall, blond and vapid," said Galia, wiping the happy tears from her eyes.

"To be fair, there was a lot of eye candy tonight. Thank you, El Nido," said Rahel, bowing to the limestone structures and coconut trees out the window.

"Seriously, right, we should really look into helping the mother city. Pump some money into the tourism board,"

"You know what, I was looking for a project that Nassar Corp could sink its teeth into. That's not a bad idea, it might even help me win over the board when I take over after baba retires, well, if he retires," said Rahel.

"Only you would consider my semi-drunk suggestions, that's why I love you," said Galia, "Thank you Rahel, for whisking me away, it's just what I needed. I don't know what I would have done without you."

"Galia, I know how hard it must have been on you, being our parent's favourite. I was so jealous when we were young, being the oldest and getting no attention, always being whisked away to some language course or management class. But... then I started to see the gilded cage you were put in. All because of that stupid birthmark and diamond. It just took me a while to understand all of it. I'm so sorry I was so blinded by my own jealousy, maybe if I wasn't, none of this would have happened."

"What are you talking about Rahel, none of this shit is on you. It's all on me, for agreeing to marry Adnaan and for the divorce. You know, growing up, you were my biggest inspiration, I wanted to be just like you, your fiery spirit, your confidence, everything I lacked - you're what gave me the courage to break free of all this,"

"Look at us, two well-dressed sappy sisters - talk about Nassar family legacy," said Rahel, wiping a tear from her eye.

The gates of the Karuna villas opened to let the car through, Galia stomach growled, she was ready for that sweet and umami pork with some eggs, her favourite Filipino breakfast food.

"Finally, I'm ready for the grub and bed," said Galia, looking at the picturesque wooden facade of their villa, "and a few peaceful hours, before the storm."

"Let's hope it's not a shit storm this time," said Rahel, her voice turning sombre.


Chapter seven



It wasn't often Galia saw her sister in a panic, of the two, Rahel was the one who could handle anything. Yet, as Galia walked the short distance into her sister's embrace, she knew something was wrong.


"He's done something," Rahel whispered, holding Galia tight.


"Who? Are you okay?" she held her sister at arm's length, to get a better look at her, but there weren't any signs of her being physically hurt.


Rahel held out her phone, her hand trembling. Galia reached for the phone and squeezed her sister's hand, her fingers feeling like icicles. There was only one person on Earth capable of instilling this type of fear. Father. A feeling of dread spread through her like the fall of a heavy velvet curtain on opening night. Galia took a deep breath and prepared herself for the voice message she was about to hear. She tapped the screen.


Beep.


"Rahel, You both can come home now. It's all taken care of."


Beep.


Her father's deep voice disturbing the peace of the ocean breeze that had mysteriously died down, almost sensing the trouble looming. The message should have terrified her, but a switch had gone off in her head on this trip. She was stronger, and more importantly, ready.


"Everything okay, ladies?" said Charles, who was standing along with Kaito, looking at the girls, concerned expressions painted on their faces.


"Yes, but our time is up," said Galia, wiping tears away from her sister's face, "Rahel, I got this, let's say bye to these wonderful boys," she whispered to her sister.


Sobering up at her words, Rahel straightened her shoulders and walked to Charles, the panic from before, gone, just like the invisible line on her botoxed forehead.


"Give me your phone," said Galia to Kaito, who obeyed without question. The sudden dominant tone in her voice, taking her by surprise. She took his phone and thumbed in her number.


"Your strategy must have worked," she said, smiling up at him as she gave him back his phone. Her life was about to change, she could sense it, this time it was bound for a course of her own making. Something about their kiss earlier encouraged her to take Kaito on the journey, if he was willing to come along, that is. Either way, Galia wasn't going to let this opportunity pass her by.


She looked over at Rahel, who was arguing with Charles. What now, thought Galia.


"What's the problem?" asked Galia.


"He's not allowing me to pay, he just handed me back my card, apparently our money is no good here," she said menacingly.


"Ladies, ladies, look it's been forever since I.. and Kai," he said, glancing at Kaito, who had now joined them, "have had this much fun. Let's just say this is our token of appreciation. I promise you the next time you'll pay for everything, our drinks included."


"Next time?" asked Rahel.


"You never know, I have reason to come to Cape Town now. And next year... Princess Jasmine..." he said, bowing, "you should come to the opening of Outhouse in Siargao," said Charles confidently, smiling at Rahel. Galia's soft spot for Charles was growing exponentially. He really was just one of those great guys, she thought.


"Time to go," she said to Kaito, who turned to give her a hug.


"I'll burn your story in the sun fire tonight," he whispered in her ear and bent down to give her a quick kiss. Whiskey and Maraschino cherries, she committed the intoxicating taste to memory. With that, both sisters reluctantly walked, in their Gucci shoes, to their chauffeur-driven car, which had been patiently waiting for them. Perks of paying extra thought Galia, thankful that they had made that decision earlier in the day.


"What time do we need to get to the jet?" asked Galia, getting into the car.


"In about five hours," said Rahel, looking at her watch.


"Good, we packed earlier... I'm hungry, you?"


"I could eat," replied Rahel.


"Great, I'll ask the staff to whip up that amazing pork torcino with some eggs, like we had in the morning," she said—another perk of paying extra for the villa life - a full wait-staff.


"What do you think he meant?" asked Rahel, her eyes trained on her phone, looking at the voice note notification from their father.


"You know what, phones off. We have 5 hours to ignore our reality," said Galia, snatching her sister's phone with ease.


"You're... not wrong," her sister said, smiling cheekily.


"So, Charles, huh?" said Galia, spotting Rahel's slight blush at the sound of his name.


"So, Kaito.. HUH?"


Both girls laughed, and for the first time this trip, it was a genuine, care-free reaction. A much-needed release of tension that both Nassar sister's needed.


"And you thought your type was tall, blond and vapid," said Galia, wiping the happy tears from her eyes.


"To be fair, there was a lot of eye candy tonight. Thank you, El Nido," said Rahel, bowing to the limestone structures and coconut trees out the window.


"Seriously, right, we should really look into helping the mother city. Pump some money into the tourism board,"


"You know what, I was looking for a project that Nassar Corp could sink its teeth into. That's not a bad idea, it might even help me win over the board when I take over after baba retires, well, if he retires," said Rahel.


"Only you would consider my semi-drunk suggestions, that's why I love you," said Galia, "Thank you Rahel, for whisking me away, it's just what I needed. I don't know what I would have done without you."


"Galia, I know how hard it must have been on you, being our parent's favourite. I was so jealous when we were young, being the oldest and getting no attention, always being whisked away to some language course or management class. But... then I started to see the gilded cage you were put in. All because of that stupid birthmark and diamond. It just took me a while to understand all of it. I'm so sorry I was so blinded by my own jealousy, maybe if I wasn't, none of this would have happened."


"What are you talking about Rahel, none of this shit is on you. It's all on me, for agreeing to marry Adnaan and for the divorce. You know, growing up, you were my biggest inspiration, I wanted to be just like you, your fiery spirit, your confidence, everything I lacked - you're what gave me the courage to break free of all this,"


"Look at us, two well-dressed sappy sisters - talk about Nassar family legacy," said Rahel, wiping a tear from her eye.


The gates of the Karuna villas opened to let the car through, Galia stomach growled, she was ready for that sweet and umami pork with some eggs, her favourite Filipino breakfast food.


"Finally, I'm ready for the grub and bed," said Galia, looking at the picturesque wooden facade of their villa, "and a few peaceful hours, before the storm."


"Let's hope it's not a shit storm this time," said Rahel, her voice turning sombre.



Chapter eight



The sisters were met with the familiar scent of oud and bergamot as they walked into the Nassar Corp offices. Behind the reception desk, the beloved 8-carat rock's emblem sat above their family name's bold gold letters. White Lillies in Lladró vases dotted the counters across the offices, adding to the room's freshness. Growing up, Galia had loved the aroma of being in her father's office. It had felt like a safe space where she could achieve anything her heart desired. How starkly different to the feeling she felt at that very moment.


She grabbed her sister's hand for support. The moistness of Rahel's hand indicated that they were both nervous about the talk they were going to have with the man that had called the shots all their life.


"Thanks for coming with me, sis," said Galia.


"Nowhere else I'd rather be," said Rahel, as both sisters walked towards their father's private wing.


"Girls!" said Vilomena, their father's secretary, the gatekeeper, who had seen them grow up in these very offices. "Choty goty, I'm so sorry about Adnaan, I too lost my husband at a young age," she said, wrapping Galia in a warm embrace.


"Thank you antie... is groot baas in? We need to see him," said Galia, her accent peeking through, the only time it did was with Vilomena. Her mother had beaten the accent out of the girls from a young age, sending them to international schools and surrounding them with British au pairs. Typical behaviour of upper-class Cape town society.


"He's actually expecting you," she said warmly, her smile reaching her warm coffee coloured eyes, "you can go in... and girls, remember he loves you."


Try as she might, Galia couldn't quell her disgust at the word love being associated with her father, but being raised properly, she politely nodded to Vilomena.


Rahel and Galia walked through the obsidian doors to their father's palatial office. Smack in the middle, seated behind his cherry oak desk, was their father, whose presence felt larger than the 2500 square feet room they were in. As she walked closer, his Burberry cologne got stronger, as did his smile. Not a flicker of concern or worry marred his hazel eyes. How could he be so calm, so normal, so unaffected, she wondered.


"Baba," said Galia, sitting in the ostrich leather seat in front of his desk.


"Let me guess, you've come to ask me about the accident," he said, his raspy voice making her heart beat faster, "but why are you here, my older one?" he said, glancing at Rahel cooly.


"She's here for my support, baba," said Galia, feeling like a five-year-old in pigtails who was embodying a 30-year-old woman's body.


"Hmm," he let out a throaty sound, putting his elbows on the desk, fingers crossed, "let's start with the accident. I know what you think, but it was all that imbecile's fault."


"It's convenient, don't you think?" asked Galia, mustering her inner strength.


"Yes, the timing is curious, but you will find that his drinking was the cause and not my hopes, or planning. In fact, this accident is the best thing he has ever done for our family," he said in a slow measured manner, not an ounce of weakness in his voice.


"So you were planning something? Would it have been so hard for you to see your daughter file for divorce, to be free?"


"Ah, and there we have it, the heart of the matter. Finally, my little one, you've found your voice," as he spoke, for the first time ever, she noted, a flash of pride, fall across his stately nose.


"Baba, stop playing games, did you plan Adnaan's accident," asked Rahel, standing up and looking at him intently. How Galia dared to stand up to her father like that.


"Of course not, he was never my concern," said their father, flicking an errant dust particle in the air with his hand.


"And now my dear baba, we come to the heart of your matter... give it to him Galia and let's be done with this. We're not going to get answers," said Rahel.


Galia removed her ring and put it on the heavy wooden desk in front of her. A sinister look appeared on her father's face.


"You think this is what concerns me? The Nassar diamond?" he said, reaching out for it. He looked at it for a second and then threw it in the ornate Versace dustbin beneath the desk in a swift action.


Galia and Rahel looked at each other stunned, it was a move they had not anticipated. Their whole existence had been based on the diamond's complex history, to see it tossed like a used tissue was jolt to their system, especially when it was done by the one person who was obsessed with its legacy.


Their father was a dramatic man, he loved the theatre and had a penchant for suspense and surprises. It was a trait that Umair Zayaan Nassar has been known for among his board members and competitors. Doing business with Nassar Corp often meant being prepared for any of Umair's flamboyant whims and fancy. It was not uncommon to hear of mergers being made in a lions' den or negotiations being won under the expansive sky while on Safari. Such were the lengths their father revelled in when it came to business. Yet, his finest act was one he was about to perform.


The silence in the room was palatable, broken by their father rising from his majestic Eames chair. His figure casting shadows upon their faces as he walked past them. Galia was sure he could hear her heart beating wildly. She watched as he made his way to the bookshelf and retrieved a leather-bound book. It was Shakespeare's The Tempest, and hidden in its pages, was a thin wooden key.


"As fascinating as this is to watch, can you please make your point," said Rahel, who had decided to sit back into her seat.


He ignored her, making his way back to the antique oak wood desk that had belonged to their grandmother. It had been passed on through generations, its history as old as the diamond, mused Galia. Their father then inserted the key into a discrete hole in the desk's intricately carved side panel.


Click.


A small compartment popped open to reveal a tiny pouch. It couldn't be, she thought, stealing a glance between the dustbin and the secret compartment.


Their father got out his loupe and tweezers from the top drawer and placed a velvet cloth on the desk. "This, my dear ones, is the real Nassar diamond," he said, retrieving a magnificent radiant-cut diamond with a pair of tweezers. It was much larger than her own ring, and surprisingly, it was pink. As he held it up for them to get a closer look, it caught the fading sun's rays, refracting candy pink sparks on the office's textured walls. It was magnificent, reminding her of the colours of the El Nido sunset.


This was the type of diamond that legacies were built on, she thought. Another one of its noticeable features was its unblemished surface, it had no distinguishing marks. She looked at her wrist, a strong sense that she had been mistaken about her birthmark seeped into her consciousness. Had she been wrong about everything? The question loomed in her mind. Yet, none of it made sense.


"The day your grandmother died, she had given me the ring to hide. Knowing that someone would, eventually, kill for it. Sadly, it was that very night her self-fulfilling prophecy came true, and she was smothered. I was devastated, so I had a choice, to tell the truth, or spin a tale. If I claimed it was stolen, no one would die at the hands of it, ever again," he said with a sadness in his eyes, the first time Galia had ever seen that emotion on his face.


"So, what is that thing in the trash?" asked Rahel, tying her hair up into a top knot, a clear indication that she was reaching her wit's end.


"Yes, you can imagine my surprise when it turned up at Sotheby's," he said, a smile curling on his face. "To my knowledge, there is only one very blurry black and white photo the bank had taken when your great-great grandfather had used it as collateral for the loan of our first mining property. But apart from that, no one had ever seen it, so when Sotheby's called me to verify, I again had a choice to make, tell the truth, or spin a tale."


"I don't care about this stupid tale, or this damn diamond, why'd you ruin my life over it? Why tell me my birthmark had any significance, and why..." she paused, taking a deep laboured breath, "Why did you make me marry Adnaan?" asked Galia, holding back tears.


"My little one, you were too young to remember, but that is not a birthmark. You got that when you fell from the stairs."


"Don't you dare try blame this on that devastating night a few years ago," said Galia, her tears suddenly seizing up at the cold memory.


"That was not the only time you have fallen from a flight of stairs," he said, looking at Galia with hurt in his eyes, "you must have been 2 years old and for the first time, in my care - a test from your mother. I was chasing you around the house, but you were too quick. You slipped on the rug and fell down the stairs, breaking the wooden railing. It was a miracle, no bones broken, but the birthmark is from a thick splitter that had pierced your wrist."


"Why don't I remember any of this?" asked Galia, touching the raised scar on her wrist.


"You did remember it, you asked about your scar every night, for a year, waking up in tears, and so, to take your mind off the trauma, your mother made up the story that it was the Nassar birthmark. One of her mistakes, along with distancing you girls away from me."


"You make all of this sound like some twisted family drama. Where you, baba, are the misunderstood protagonist," spat out Rahel, who had been quietly listening the whole time, "But, you're the villain in this story. The evil father who marries off their daughter to the richest family."


The grit in Rahel's voice, made the hair on Galia's arms stand, and gave her the courage to ask the question that she had been chewing on from the moment she saw Adnaan's grey eyes reflected in the mirror, during the Arsi Mushraf, at her wedding.


"Why did you make me marry Adnaan?" she blurted out, releasing years of misery that she had equated with her marriage.


"For your freedom," said her father, his voice echoing in the spacious office on the 23rd floor.


Chapter nine


"What freedom? Making me Adnaan's wife only pushed me further into a cage of your own making," said Galia, her hands balled up into tight fists on her lap. None of what her father was saying acted as a balm for her internal wounds. It only inflamed them.

"When Adnaan's father first asked me for your hand in marriage, I said no, because I wanted you to have the choice to marry who you want, contrary to what you think. Yet, you brought no suitors, and after Adnaan constructed this elaborate plan of not only creating, but buying the diamond, I knew he would stop at nothing to be part of this family. I admit, I was amused -" he said, sitting back into his chair, "if he had gone through all the theatrics, he was more interesting than I had originally thought. It was a good match, their family, after all, as you know, has a legacy as long as ours. What father wouldn't want a partner like that for their daughter," said Umaid Nassar, peeling an orange, the scent of citrus filling the stagnant air.

"Why did you not ask me?" she said.

"Because getting married to Adnaan assured your freedom... from us. I realised the way we raised you had clipped your wings. We raised Rahel, to take over the business, strong and authoritative, and she has become the exquisite lady you see today," he said, glancing at Rahel with pride. "Unfortunately, your mother and I failed you as parents, so, I thought if you were married and started a family, you could find a path of your own. Little did I know Adnaan would tear that away from you," he said, biting into an orange wedge menacingly.

"Stop lying, baba, you could have said all this to me the day I told you about the divorce; instead you left me in silence."

"I needed time to contemplate your actions, a divorce could only serve in the favour of that idiot son-in-law, leaving you ostracised and with an 8-carat diamond. I wanted him to pay, pay for what he did to you, and for endangering and killing my real Nassar diamond - your unborn son."

The hatred in her heart for all that her father had put her through, still burned even though there was a pain in his voice and anguish in his noble face. She could not believe him, and worse, she could not understand this twisted love he had for them.

"Now that Adnaan has done the needful, the clause I had written into the prenup will ensure that you, my little one, will be the sole owner of all of his assets and companies. Thus, giving you the freedom to do what you want with your life." he said to Galia and then turned to Rahel, "And along with you, my older one, she too, would be a tycoon in her own right."

"You admit it then," said Rahel, still unconvinced, "It was you who caused the hit and run."

"I admit to wishing death upon Adnaan, it was the more elegant of solutions compared to divorce. But, the hit and run was of his own doing," he said, "I don't have to remind you of the other death his drinking has caused this family. Two deaths because of the diamond is already too many. I saw no need to add Adnaan to this unfortunate list."

It was the sentence that had finally struck a chord with Rahel, who slumped into the ostrich leather seats. He didn't do it.

"So, where do we go from here?" asked Galia, feeling like she had both aged and been reborn in the 20 mins they'd spent with their father.

"It was always my dream that our legacy would be stripped of this diamond," he said, putting the precious stone back into the secret compartment. He then looked at both the girls, a machiavellian smile crept over his face, "but, I much prefer the legacy of The Nassar Sisters."

The End




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