Authors: Iris Johansen
Ah, an arched doorway with its curtain of beads was barely visible a short distance from the dance floor. She made her way carefully among the close-packed tables. As she passed a vacant one she absently spotted an empty tray and a large white towel carelessly left by one of the waiters? What what could be more natural in a café than a waiter? And what could be more inviting to two guards than a bottle of wine? She snatched up the tray and draped the white towel over her left arm. That made a nice, authentic touch. Now for the wine.
She stopped at a table occupied by two bearded men who seemed particularly entranced by the belly dancer’s navel and matter-of-factly picked up their half-empty glasses and put them on the tray. Then she reached for the bottle of wine in the center of the table.
Her hand was immediately gripped protestingly. Evidently the threat of the absence of liquid beverage was more important than the belly dancer’s charms. Her hand tightened on the neck of the bottle.
“Bad,” she croaked hoarsely in Arabic. She grabbed her throat and stuck her tongue out like someone in the last extremities of poisoning. “Botulism.” Was that the same medical word in Sedikhan? Evidently it was, because the man snatched his hand away from the bottle as if he’d been burned and clutched fearfully at his own throat. She set the bottle on the tray. Poor man. As she picked up the tray and turned toward the beaded curtain, she added tersely in Arabic, “Maybe.” At least he had hope now.
The second green door. She paused before it and drew a deep, steadying breath. She adjusted the hood again and licked her lips nervously. It was dim here in the hall, but there was a light beneath the door that indicated she would have no such luck once she was in the room. She’d just have to keep her head down and pretend to be a very servile waiter. She balanced the tray on her hip as she spilled the remaining wine in the glasses on the floor and wiped them with her towel. Draping the towel back over her arm and not letting herself think, she knocked peremptorily on the door.
There was a murmur of voices, followed by the sound of chairs being pushed back. Then the door was flung open and she was facing a young soldier in the now-familiar olive-green uniform. No guns, she noticed with relief.
“Wine,” she croaked in Arabic. “From Sheikh Karim Ben Raschid.”
Oh, Lord, there was a look of surprise on the young soldier’s face. Evidently the sheikh didn’t approve of his men drinking on the job. “One glass,” she growled sternly. The surprise faded and the soldier stepped back, glancing back to call something over his shoulder to his cohort at the table across the room. She gathered it was less than complimentary to the sheikh and a trifle ungrateful.
She glided forward, her head bent, darting glances around the room from beneath her lashes. Yusef was there, she noted with relief. He was sitting in the executive chair behind the desk, bound efficiently with strong ropes. The two guards had evidently been playing cards at the table across the room, for there was an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts and a pile of chips in the center of the table. The other guard at the table had no handgun either, and her swift gaze spotted two rifles propped against the wall by the desk. Thank heavens luck was on the side of the righteous tonight.
She heard the door close behind her as she headed briskly for the desk. She put the tray down and fussed with the glasses a moment, peering beneath her lashes at Yusef. He didn’t seem hurt or abused in any way, but as he glared at the men across the room, there was a fierce scowl on his roughhewn face that was so intimidating, she couldn’t really blame the guards for binding those Samson-like shoulders so heavily. Dressed in voluminous dark trousers shoved into suede boots and a white, long-sleeved shirt stretched across the mighty biceps of his chest, he resembled an Arabian Nights genie captured in a sorcerer’s enchanted bonds. The guard who’d opened the door was now dropping back into his chair and picking up his cards. She drew a deep breath and could feel her heart start to pound. It was now or never.
She whirled and dashed for the rifles against the wall. She’d snatched up one when she heard a shout from the table behind her and the screech of chairs shoved hurriedly back. Then she was turning and pointing the rifle at the guards with what she hoped appeared to be lethal competence. “Stop,” she shouted, her finger on the trigger. “Stay.” Oh, damn, that sounded like a canine command. How could you sound dangerous when you only knew a little Arabic?
Evidently they were too stunned to take offense at the command and too wary of the barrel of the rifle pointed at them to disobey her. So far, so good. “I’ll have you untied in a minute, Yusef,” she called, shaking her head so the hood fell to her shoulders.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Yusef said sternly. “There is danger. Go away and I will crush these vermin on my own.”
“That’s very ungrateful, Yusef,” she said indignantly, her eyes glued warily on the two guards. “Would Luke Skywalker say a thing like that if Princess Leia came to his rescue?”
“Never mind.” She sighed. “I guess the
saga hasn’t reached Sedikhan yet.”
“You shouldn’t have come here,” Yusef growled. “Go away before you are hurt.”
“Oh, be quiet, Yusef,” she said with exasperation. “Don’t I have enough to worry about without your nagging me? Can’t you be rescued with good grace, for heaven’s sake?” The boyish-faced guard took a sudden step forward, and she hurriedly lifted the drooping rifle. “Stay!”
He stayed. Maybe she was more dangerous-looking than she thought. Now to get those ropes off Yusef. Why hadn’t she thought to bring a knife? She searched for something to use as a substitute and noticed the wine bottle. Jagged glass.
She grabbed the neck of the bottle and, keeping an eagle eye on the two guards, backed around the desk until she was standing beside Yusef’s chair. Cradling the rifle in her arm she brought the bottle down on the edge of the desk with a crash. It didn’t break.
“They always break,” she muttered incredulously. “I’ve never seen a movie where the bottle didn’t break.” She crashed the bottle down again. A long crack appeared, but it still didn’t shatter. “What the hell is it made of?”
“Wouldn’t it be easier to try to find a letter-opener in the desk?” David asked from the doorway. “I’m sure it would be much less messy, windflower.”
“What are you doing here?” she asked, startled. Then she answered her own question. “Yasmin.”
He nodded as he strolled into the room. “She couldn’t take the chance you might be hurt, so she came running to me for help.” He grinned as he took in the slight figure with the rifle cradled in her arm. “I don’t think she would be quite so concerned if she could see you now.”
“I don’t need any help.” She was opening the desk drawers frantically and finally found the letter-opener. It appeared to have a fairly sharp blade, she noticed with satisfaction, and proceeded to saw through the thick rope.
The young guard suddenly took a step toward David. “Lisan, we have orders to keep this man under guard. You must stop her.”
“She appears very determined, Abdul,” David drawled, his eyes dancing. “I think we’d better let her have her way.”
me.” She snorted. Suddenly the rope was cut through and Yusef was tearing the coils from around himself. “I don’t see that there’s a choice. Come on, Yusef. You go ahead. I’ll cover them.”
Muttering something beneath his breath, he strode quickly across the room. She followed closely, her gaze on the younger guard, who seemed to be gathering himself to spring.
However, it wasn’t Abdul, but the older guard who took advantage of her distractedness to leap toward her with all the lethal menace of a Green Beret and knock the rifle from her hand.
She heard David’s sharp cry but didn’t see the blur of movement as he crossed the room. Abdul had also sprung toward her now, and she felt a thrill of fear as she saw his grimly determined face. Suddenly David was there, a swift karate chop on the neck making Abdul drop like a stone, and a well-placed kick in the loins causing the other guard to double over with a bellow of pain.
“Come on,” he said grimly, turning and grabbing her by the elbow. “We’d better get out of here. I don’t think when they recover they’re going to be too pleased with us.”
Then the three of them were running down the hall, through the smoke-hazed café, toward the front entrance. She was vaguely conscious of the shouts of the patrons at the tables and the outraged squeal of the belly dancer as they ran across the dance floor in front of her.
The cool night air hit them as they tore out the door, and then they were dashing down the narrow, winding street, their footsteps loud on the cobblestones. They were almost three blocks away from the Silver Crescent when David called a halt and pulled them both into the dimly lit vestibule of an apothecary shop.
They were all breathing in harsh gasps and Billie leaned against the rough concrete wall with a sigh of relief. “Do you think we’re safe?”
“Well, I haven’t heard any sounds of pursuit,” David answered. “I think we would on these cobblestones.” He glanced at the other man. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced,” he said politely, his lips twitching. “My name is David Bradford, and I believe you must be Yusef Ibraheim.”
Yusef nodded. “Lisan,” he said quietly. “I’ve heard of you in the bazaars. It took me a day of questioning to find out where Billie had been taken.”
“I wasn’t taken anywhere,” Billie said. “I went to the Casbah voluntarily, and I’m quite safe there.” She scowled. “I think.”
“You are,” David said, brushing a lock of hair from her forehead. “You’ll always be safe anywhere that I am, Billie.”
“Very nice to hear.” She made a face. “You might tell that to Karim. He doesn’t make me feel any too secure.”
“I will,” he said, his face grave. “I’m sorry this happened, Billie. I promise nothing like it will happen again.”
“You’re damn right it won’t,” she said crossly. “Because Yusef is leaving Zalandan tonight, and as soon as my Jeep is repaired, I’ll be on my way too.”
“No,” Yusef said stubbornly. “I will not leave you alone in that place. You will come with me tonight.”
“I can’t leave the Jeep,” she said impatiently. “It doesn’t belong to me. I only borrowed it from the production company of
I’ll be perfectly all right, Yusef. Karim is only worried about David’s safety. If he doesn’t think I’m on the verge of murdering him, he won’t make any moves against me.”
“I will not go away,” Yusef growled.
“Neither one of you is going anywhere,” David said with quiet certainty. “You’re both coming back to the Casbah with me. There’s no need for either one of you to run away. I told you that. I can handle Karim.”
“After tonight?” she asked, raising a skeptical eyebrow. “Even if I wanted to jeopardize Yusef’s freedom, it would be too big a risk after what happened at the Silver Crescent. I don’t believe Karim’s a man who likes to have his arrangements upset.”
“There’s no risk.” David’s face was stern and set in the dim light. “I’ll keep you both safe. Trust me, Billie. Tonight you promised you’d give me time, that you’d stay with me for a little while.” He reached out to stroke the curve of her cheek with a tenderness so exquisite it started an ache of response deep within her. “Are you going to break your word?”
“Will be safe
free.” David interrupted, his eyes holding hers. “Won’t you trust me?”
A gentle finger stroking a scarred guitar, a room full of flowers and gay balloons, a strong man holding the hand of a child in pain and taking on that pain himself. The memories rushed over her in an overwhelming golden tide. She felt her throat tighten and the tears brim helplessly in her eyes. How could she help but give her trust to a man like that?
“Yes, I trust you,” she said huskily. She turned to Yusef. “We’re going back to the Casbah with David.”
HEY HAD SCARCELY
entered the foyer of the Casbah when they were met by a fiercely frowning Clancy Donahue. “Well, Billie. You certainly played hell this evening.” His gaze raked over Yusef with a flicker of surprise. “You really did break him out. When Abdul called from the café, he was practically incoherent, mumbling something about wine and a spitfire of a
who held them at gunpoint.” His lips tightened grimly as he glanced at David. “You appeared rather prominently in his report too. I didn’t teach you karate so you could use it against our own men, David.”
“It was necessary,” David said simply. “They tried to attack Billie.”
“From what I heard, she was the one doing the attacking,” Clancy said dryly. “But at least you had the sense to bring them back to the Casbah. Karim would have been furious if you’d let them escape.”
“They did escape,” David drawled. “They came back of their own volition when I assured them that Yusef’s imprisonment was all a mistake.”
“Some mistake,” Billie said indignantly. “Holding an innocent man under arrest without charges is usually considered criminal.”
“Not in an absolute monarchy like Sedikhan,” Clancy said. “And he wasn’t precisely under arrest. We were just detaining him until we could check out his story.”
“For heaven’s sake, you had all the information you could possibly need in my dossier,” Billie said. “What else did you need to know?”
“The report touched only lightly on Ibraheim. When he burst in here insisting rather violently that he had to see you at once, we decided we’d better check more thoroughly into his background.”
“Violently?” Billie asked.
“I think you could say that knocking out one of the gate guards and giving the other one a black eye could be termed violent.”
“Oh, Yusef.” Billie sighed, turning to the scowling giant next to her. “You didn’t.”
“They would not let me in,” Yusef said. “A house with soldiers and rough guards is not a place for you. It is not safe. I was not there to protect you.”
“But I was there,” David said quietly. “I can understand how you might have been concerned, but from now on you’ll know that Billie will always be safe when she’s with me.” His eyes held the other man’s steadily. “Won’t you, Yusef?”
Yusef’s answering gaze was strangely searching before he nodded slowly. “Yes, Lisan, she will be safe with you.”
“But will you be safe with her?” Karim Ben Raschid’s voice cut through the silence of the people gathered in the foyer. He strode toward them, a barbarically splendid figure in the long crimson robe that covered his nightclothes. “A woman who has friends who wreak violence wherever they go, a woman who was able to hold two of my soldiers at gunpoint and free her accomplice.”
“Accomplice!” Billie sputtered.
“Who could I be safer with?” David’s eyes were twinkling. “I think from now on I’ll just let her be my bodyguard. You should have seen her standing there with that rifle cradled in her arm like a guerrilla warrior. It was a brilliant coup, Karim. I would have thought an old border campaigner like you would have appreciated that fact.”
Karim shot Billie a glance that for a brief moment mirrored a grudging admiration. “It was a well-executed raid,” he admitted gruffly. “And she has a brave heart.” His expression hardened. “But that doesn’t mean it’s a loyal or honorable heart. That is still to be proven.”
“Find all the proof you want,” David said. “But while you’re doing it, both Billie and Yusef are to be free as birds. Yusef will have quarters near Billie, and you’ll issue orders that their movements are to be totally unrestricted.”
Karim muttered a brief expletive beneath his breath. “That sounds remarkably like an order, David.” His eyes were blazing. “I am not a man who obeys when a boy commands. I will do what I think best.”
“But I’m not a boy any longer,” David said gently. “I think you sometimes forget that, Karim. I’m a man with a will of my own. It will only be a command if you refuse it as a request.”
“And if I do?”
David’s eyes were sad. “Then I’ll say good-bye, old friend.” His voice was regretful. “And I don’t want to do that. We’ve been through too much together.”
Karim inhaled sharply; and suddenly, for the first time, he looked like the old man he was. “She means that much to you?”
David nodded silently.
It was a long, painful moment before Karim shrugged. “It will be as you wish. Guard yourself well, since you will not permit me to do it for you.” He turned away. “It is late. I will see you at breakfast.” He strode down the hall, his carriage as proud and indomitable as ever.
“My God, he backed down,” Clancy muttered incredulously. “I’ve never seen him do that in all the years I’ve been working for him.”
“And it hurt him to do it.” David said, a glint of pain in his own eyes. “Defeat doesn’t come easily to Karim.” He drew a deep breath and turned to Clancy. “Why don’t you find Yasmin and see if she can arrange Yusef’s quarters? I think she should be in Billie’s apartment. She was too worried to go to bed, so I told her to wait there.” He smiled at Yusef. “If you’ll go along with Clancy, I promise you that your accommodations will be considerably better than the last ones you occupied.”
Yusef cast a hesitant look at Billie and then a more thoughtful one at David. He shrugged and followed Clancy swiftly down the corridor.
“What would you have done if he’d called your bluff?” Billie asked softly.
“Then I’d have left Zalandan,” David said quietly. “I don’t bluff, Billie, and I don’t lie to old friends like Karim. He knew that or he wouldn’t have backed down.”
“You’d actually have left the Casbah?” Billie asked incredulously. “I can’t believe it. You’re really fond of that arrogant old dictator. It shows all over you.”
“I love him.” David said simply. “But I made you a promise and I had to keep it. You’d have gone away if I hadn’t.”
A warm, melting glow seemed to be passing through every atom of her being, leaving a soft radiance in its wake. “And would you have cared so much?”
“I think you know the answer to that.” He smiled, and again there was that trace of sadness. “Or perhaps you don’t want to know. I’ve tried to tell you since the beginning, but you won’t believe me. Well, I’m going to say the words anyway, even though I know you’re not ready to hear them. I love you, Billie Callahan, and I’d like to spend the rest of my life with you.” He raised a hand as she opened her lips to speak. “But I’ll take whatever you’ll give me. What
you give me, Billie?”
A torrent of emotion was cascading through her in a confused stream. Panic, sadness, joy. They were all there, and all so powerful they were tearing her apart. He was standing there looking at her with those wise, sad eyes, and she wanted to say anything, do anything, he wanted. Did she love him? The answer came with a simple stunning force. Of course she loved him. And that knowledge was all the more frightening for the diligence with which she’d avoided accepting it.
No, she couldn’t love him. It was infatuation. It would go away and then there’d be no danger. No danger of pain. But there was pain in David’s eyes, and she couldn’t bear it. She couldn’t say the words he wanted to hear, but she had to do something to take that pain and sadness away. If she didn’t, the aching agony she was feeling would kill her.
She moved a step closer and slipped into his arms. She could feel the waiting in him, and the tenseness. “David?” He was so warm and strong, so dear, Lisan. “I can’t.” The tears were running down her cheeks. “I think I do care for you. I don’t know…”
His arms were around her in a firm, comforting embrace, and his voice was a soothing murmur in her ear. “It’s all right, windflower. Easy. I knew it was too soon.”
“David.” Her voice was muffled against his chest. “You said you’d take whatever I’d give. Will you take…the blossoming?”
He stiffened against her. “Hell no,” he said tersely. “I’m not about to pressure you into a commitment like that just because you’re feeling guilty that you can’t give me what I want.”
“No.” She pushed away from him so she could look into his eyes. “It’s not that. I want to belong to you.” And suddenly she knew every word was true. It wasn’t pity, but a fierce desire to wrest something precious for herself to take with her when she left him. For she would leave him. She always had to leave when the fear came. “Please, I
He was gazing at her searchingly, and gradually the tension was ebbing out of him. “I’d be a fool not to give you what you want, then, wouldn’t I?” He touched her cheek gently with an index finger. “And I’m not a fool, sweetheart. So we’ll have our blossoming tonight.” His finger moved down to her lips and traced them lovingly. “But first I want you to think about it and make sure it’s what you really want. I’ll be in the greenhouse in an hour, and if you decide that it is, Yasmin will tell you how to get there.” He suddenly pulled her close, and his lips were a hot, desperate brand that burned to the heart. “Oh, God, I hope you come, love.”
Before she could answer he had pushed her away and was striding down the hall without a backward glance.
When she opened the door to the greenhouse, she couldn’t believe the sight that met her eyes. The exterior had appeared very large as she approached it from the main residence, but she had no idea how enormous it was until she stepped inside. The glass roof loomed almost seventy-five feet above her, and the exquisite garden sheltered by the paneled arch was utterly breathtaking. It was as beautifully designed as any outdoor garden. Winding paths wandered through lush meadows of flowers and trees of every description. Moonlight streamed through the glass, capturing heart-catching beauty in mystic radiance. Persian lilacs, golden marigolds, scarlet geraniums, russet chrysanthemums standing proud, delicate white violets clustering cozily. And the scents! Dear heaven, the scents were so heady and intoxicating that she could only stand quite still for a moment and let the delicate fragrance of a thousand living blossoms drift over her in a mist of delight. She closed the door behind her, and it broke the stillness with a sharp click.
“Billie? Over here.”
She followed David’s voice with a dreamlike slowness down a path that led past oleander trees dripping with ivory blooms, jacarandas whose lilac flowers brushed her face like a velvet kiss, past a mosaic fountain brimming and overflowing with lacy ferns and starlike flowers instead of water. She was sure it had to be a dream, for nothing could be this bewitchingly lovely.
Until she made a turn in the path and saw David kneeling beside a plot of earth just ahead, the square, filigreed Moorish lantern on the ground beside him casting a mellow pool of light around him. He was dressed in somber black jeans and a black long-sleeved shirt that made the gold of his hair and the bronze of his skin seem even more vibrant in contrast. There was nothing dreamlike about David.
He turned as she paused a few yards away, and the brilliant smile that lit his face when he saw her was more beautiful than the loveliness of the garden. “I was afraid you’d changed your mind,” he said quietly. “Come here beside me. I want to show you something.”
She came forward slowly and sank down beside him. “Your garden is so lovely, David,” she said, her voice throaty. “I’ve never dreamed anything could be so magical.”
“It is magical, isn’t it?” His eyes were intent on the tender green sprigs he was planting so carefully. “So much life and beauty in one place. Sometimes I can almost hear the growth and the rhythms.”
“There are rhythms all around us, if we stop to listen. Just as there are rhythms inside of all of us. Sometimes they’re harsh and strained and sometimes clear and bell-like. Haven’t you ever noticed?”
She shook her head. “I don’t believe I ever have.”
He took her hand in his and placed it on the rich, warm earth before them. “Feel,” he said softly. “Feel the life throbbing and the music singing from the darkness. Can you feel it, Billie?”
“Yes, I can feel it,” she said in wonder.
With his strong hand covering hers and the warm earth caressing the palm of her hand, she
feel it. But she wasn’t sure if it was the rhythm of the earth or David’s vibrant life force she was feeling. Perhaps it was both. For in that moment David seemed to have a primitive affinity with all the facets of nature around him.
His hand tightened convulsively. Then he slowly released her. “I’m glad.” He drew a deep breath. “I shouldn’t have touched you—I’m wanting you too much right now. I have to finish this first.” He grimaced ruefully. “I had these sprigs flown in, but I wasn’t planning on putting them out until tomorrow. I needed something to take my mind off the waiting, so I started to plant them tonight.”
“What are they?”
“Anemones,” he answered. “Windflowers.”
She laughed shakily. “I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of a man postponing a seduction to plant flowers. I think perhaps I should be insulted, even if they are my namesake.”
“Not a seduction, a blossoming.” His hands were rapidly finishing his task. “And these aren’t just flowers I’m planting. It’s a sort of ritual. I believe in rituals, sweetheart. I think they make life more meaningful and beautiful.”