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Authors: Iris Johansen

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BOOK: Touch the Horizon
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He shook his head. “I told him to stay,” he said simply. “Old Nick and I understand each other. He’ll still be there. But you go on anyway. I’ll have to take off the cloth I tied over his eyes and nostrils and quiet him down a little before I try leading him through this shifting sand.” He strode toward the other cluster of rocks nearby, speaking to her over his shoulder. “We won’t be able to ride him before we get to ground that’s a hell of a lot firmer than this, or he could break a leg.” He disappeared behind the rocks, and she heard a welcoming whinny.

Billie shook her head wonderingly as she carefully started winding her way through the newly formed dunes of loose sand. A man who could command a high-spirited Arabian to stay put through a sandstorm and actually be obeyed was mindboggling. Come to think of it, though, the feat was no more astounding than the other facets of his character he’d shown her. Why was she even surprised?

         

The small, open Jeep looked like a beach toy whose child owner had shoveled it full of sand, then forgotten it and wandered away to new amusements. There was a green army duffel bag lying on its side a few yards away from the jeep. In the middle of the road Billie Callahan knelt, cradling a shattered guitar in her arms as if it were a wounded child. She wasn’t even aware that she was no longer alone until he spoke from a few yards away.

“Billie.” It was only her name, but so full of understanding and sympathy that it pierced even the numb despair she was feeling. She looked up to see him standing a few yards away, the reins of the black in his hand and all the gentleness in the world in his eyes.

“It wasn’t worth much, you know.” She could feel the foolish tears brim over and run down her cheeks. She traced one of the many scratches on the guitar’s battered surface. “I took it with me everywhere, so it got pretty beat up.” She was looking at him without really seeing him. “I bought it for twenty bucks in a pawnshop in Santa Fe. I was only fifteen then, and working at a service station pumping gas. I never wanted anything in my life as much as I wanted that guitar in the pawnshop window.” She drew a deep breath and shook her head as if to clear it. “Pretty stupid, huh? It didn’t look much better then than it does now.”

He knelt across from her now, his eyes holding hers with such tenderness it was almost as if he were holding her in his arms. “Not stupid at all. I grew up on a ranch in the Rio Grande valley, and my mother was addicted to books about the West. I remember I once read an old one by Harold Bell Wright about a tenderfoot from the East who wanted to start a new life out west with a brand-new name.” He tucked a copper strand of hair gently behind her ear. “Do you know what name he chose? He called himself after a pair of torn and scuffed chaps. He called himself Honorable Patches. He knew it would cause him all kinds of trouble in the wild, woolly West, but he did it anyway. He did it because it signified all the worth and dignity and usefulness he wanted in his life.” His index finger gently traced the same scratch on the guitar her own had, while his eyes steadily held hers. “Honorable Patches, Billie.”

“Honorable Patches,” she echoed, and suddenly felt a healing serenity flood her that miraculously eased her pain. It was as if those glowing eyes were giving her more strength and love and tranquility with every passing second.

She pulled her glance away as she reached for the hunter-green felt case and carefully zipped the shattered guitar within its protective folds. This encounter was growing more weird by the minute, and she felt a sudden desire to edge away from him, from the closeness he was forcing upon her by the very strength of the emotions he was arousing. “It must have been some storm to lift all these things out of the Jeep and toss them around so.” She didn’t look at him as she rose to her feet and carried the guitar to the Jeep to place it carefully on the back seat. “I guess I’m ready to go. We can’t possibly handle the duffel bag on horseback, so I suppose I’ll have to wait and have it brought in with the Jeep.” She looked over her shoulder with an impish grin. “I trust there’s a Triple A in Zalandan. If not, my towing premium is going to be completely wasted.”

“I’m afraid you’re out of luck.” He was picking up the duffel and storing it back in the Jeep. “But we have several cars in the Casbah and an expert mechanic. There shouldn’t be any problem having it towed and fixed.”

Casbah. So the desert prince had an equally exotic lair. He probably had a harem of concubines too, she thought wryly. “I’d appreciate that.” She turned and strode swiftly toward the black stallion. “Naturally I’ll reimburse you for any expenses. You’ve gone to enough trouble on my account already.”

He was following more leisurely, his face lit with a smile of amusement. “No trouble, windflower. Pure pleasure, I assure you.”

She turned to face him, frowning. “Look, you don’t have to give me all that chivalrous guff,” she told him impatiently. “I know you were only trying to make it easier for me by distracting me back at the hill. I don’t expect you to keep it up now.”

“That’s very understanding of you,” he said mildly as he placed his hands on her waist and lifted her into the saddle with easy strength. “If a trifle muddleheaded. I meant every single word, Billie.”

“You couldn’t possibly,” she argued desperately as he swung up behind her. “It’s completely insane. We’re total strangers. I don’t know anything about you.” She ran her hand distractedly through her hair. “For heaven’s sake, I don’t even know your name, where you live, anything!”

He gathered up the reins, and the black started off at a trot. “I live in the Casbah in Zalandan in the sheikhdom of Sedikhan,” he said calmly as his arm went around her waist in a protective embrace. “And my name is David Bradford.”

TWO

I
T LOOKS MORE
like an ancient medieval fortress than a city.” Billie’s eyes were bright with curiosity as they took in the high stone walls that surrounded Zalandan, while they rode through an open wooden gate that was as tall as the walls themselves. “I half expect to see the caliph’s guard thundering through the streets on horseback. Marasef was interesting, but this is really fascinating.”

“I’m glad you approve.” David’s voice in her ear was amused. “But if you don’t stop turning from side to side trying to see everything, you’re going to fall off old Nick. It will all still be here tomorrow. I’ll take you for a complete Cook’s tour then. Now I want to get you home and arrange to send someone out to get your Jeep while there’s light enough to see.” His eyes gazed appraisingly at the slanting rays of the sun. “It should be sunset in an hour or so. That won’t give anyone much time.”

She leaned back against him with a resigned sigh. “Okay, tomorrow. But I want to see everything.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he drawled. “It will be as you command,
lallah
.”

The cobbled square they crossed was utterly intriguing. It was lined with long rows of awning-covered stalls selling everything from leather goods, jewels, and exotic scents to Jaffa oranges and red-gold pomegranates. There were a number of alleyways leading off the bazaar. They turned off into one of them. The shadowed, winding street was crowded with whitewashed, flat-roofed houses and tiny shops, and Billie found the scene just as interesting as the marketplace.

And everywhere they went David was known and greeted. From the bazaar vendors to the little boy playing with his friends in the street he received warm smiles and was hailed with evidence of affection. Billie knew enough Arabic to get the gist of most of the salutations, but they addressed him with a word that was totally unfamiliar to her. She glanced over her shoulder at him, her brow knitted. “They’re calling you ‘Lisan.’ What does that mean?”

To her amazement a dark flush mottled his cheeks. “It’s a Sedikhan word,” he said gruffly. “It’s just a nickname they gave me when I first arrived in Zalandan.” He lifted his arm, pointing, and said hurriedly. “The Casbah is just beyond that white stone wall.”

If she’d thought Zalandan looked like a fortress, the Casbah was one in reality. The gate was guarded by two husky young men in the olive-green uniform of the Sedikhan army. They were standing at attention, their rifles slung over their shoulders with casual competence.

“Guns?” Billie asked bewilderedly. “And those uniforms are the real thing. I’ve seen soldiers in the streets of Marasef dressed like that. What kind of a place is this?”

They entered a huge flagstoned courtyard, and the building it fronted was more like a palace than a simple residence. Its arched windows and fretted balconies were like something from an Oriental dream. There was nothing dreamlike, though, about the two additional soldiers who stood on either side of the carved teak double doors of the front entrance.

“This is my home.” David said soothingly. “You’ll get used to the soldiers. They don’t intrude at all, and you’ll find they’re very friendly once you get to know them. They only appear ferocious because Karim has them so intimidated. They’re afraid even of smiling in case it’s a breach of discipline.”

“Karim? Who’s Karim?”

“Karim is my friend. The Casbah belongs to him.” David halted the stallion by a fountain and slipped blithely from the saddle. He tossed the reins to a grinning, white-clad boy who appeared out of nowhere. He lifted Billie down, and the boy led the horse away. “A very possessive fellow, Karim,” he said lightly. “Sometimes I think he believes the whole world belongs to him.”

“A good portion of it does,” the heavyset man who emerged from the house said crisply. Dressed in dark jeans and a gray turtleneck sweater, his massive figure looked even more intimidating than the soldiers. He was somewhere in his fifties, his curly brown hair sprinkled lightly with gray and his rough craggy features creased in a frown. “And he’s gobbling up more every day.” His light blue eyes were definitely annoyed. “And you just may be next on the menu. Karim’s been frothing at the mouth since he found out you went out again without a guard.”

“He’ll get over it.” David said casually. “He knows I’m not going to submit to being trailed around like some comic-opera Ali Baba with his entourage. We’ve gone into all that before.” He turned to Billie. “This irate gentleman is Clancy Donahue, Billie. He’s head of Alex’s security forces, but is on special assignment, trying to make my life miserable for the next few months. This is Billie Callahan, Clancy.”

“Delighted,” Donahue growled, barely glancing at her. “Better miserable than dead, David. Ladram is still out there somewhere, remember? If anything happened to you, I’d catch such hell from Alex and Sabrina, not to mention Karim, that I might as well resign from the human race.”

“But nothing’s going to happen to me,” David said lightly. “I can take care of myself without a battery of bodyguards. You should know that better than anyone, Clancy. You’re the one who taught me.”

“Karate and judo aren’t going to do you much good if Ladram decides to pick you off in an ambush.”

“With a rifle?” David shook his head. “Ladram is a knife man. Every note he’s sent me elaborates on the intense joy he’s going to get from slicing off various portions of my anatomy. He’s not going to give up that kick just to play it safe. A rifle would be too impersonal for him.”

“Wait a minute.” Billie held up her hand. “I know I’m supposed to be quietly ignoring the conversation like a good little guest, but you’re driving me crazy. What the devil is going on? I feel like I’ve just stepped back onto a movie set.” She shook her head. “No, that was more realistic than this. Guns and soldiers and knives. Why should your friend need a security force? Who are Alex and Sabrina? I think you should have left me back in that sandstorm. Everything was a lot clearer there.”

“Sorry.” David’s smile was penitent. “We have been rude, haven’t we, Billie? You have a perfect right to be confused. Let’s see, what was the first question? Oh, the security force. Karim Ben Raschid still has a hell of a lot of enemies. A man who holds his position for almost fifty years doesn’t necessarily shed them when he relinquishes his power. He officially gave up the sheikhdom to Alex four years ago, but he still wields an enormous amount of clout and can’t resist dabbling occasionally.”

“More than occasionally,” Donahue snorted. “I think he’s wheeling and dealing more now on the QT than he did when he was the reigning monarch of Sedikhan.”

“Karim Ben Raschid,” Billie repeated in bewilderment. “Your friend is the former ruler of Sedikhan? Then, Alex Ben Raschid, the present monarch, is his grandson. And Sabrina?”

“Is his wife,” David said. His hand had propelled her up three shallow steps, and he was opening the front door. “An American, by the way. We grew up together on neighboring ranches in Texas. You’ll like her, windflower. She’s a very special lady. She’s in Marasef at the moment, but I’ll give her a call and see if she and Alex can fly out to meet you.”

“You just give heads of state a ring and they drop everything and come running?” Billie shook her head dazedly. “Who are you, David?”

“No one important, I’m afraid,” David said, his eyes twinkling. “I’m a poor peasant in a nest of power figures. Naturally Alex and Bree will come only if it’s convenient.”

Donahue’s snort was much more pronounced this time. “You know damn well they’ll come if you ask them.” he said gruffly. “The last time I talked to them on the phone, they were wondering when you were coming home.”

“Zalandan isn’t your home?” Billie asked.

David shrugged. “I usually divide my time between Marasef and here. You might say they’re both my homes.”

Her thoughts were whirling, but she suddenly remembered another bit of conversation. “Ladram. Who’s Ladram?”

David’s expression suddenly became guarded. “No one important. A very unpleasant fellow who’s causing a little disturbance.” He was pulling a red-and-gold-figured velvet bell and threw Donahue a warning glance as he started to protest. “You must feel as sand-logged as I do. I’m going to have you shown to your quarters so you can bathe and rest a little before dinner. I’ll arrange to have your Jeep taken care of and have a little talk with Karim.” He smiled warmly at the woman who appeared in answer to the bell. In her middle forties, she was very attractive in a serene and dignified way. Her dark hair was pulled back in a smooth chignon and her slightly plump form was garbed in a simple dark cotton gown. “This is Yasmin Dabala. Billie Callahan, Yasmin. She runs the Casbah and all its inhabitants with an iron hand, isn’t that right, Yasmin?”

“One can only try,” she answered tranquilly. “Sometimes foolish men rebel and disturb the patterns that are best for them.” She frowned sternly. “Mr. Donahue said you went for your ride without a guard again. Very stupid, Lisan.”

David made a face. “This is where I came in. Suppose you take Billie to her quarters and make her comfortable. That way I’ll only have one of you to contend with.” He gave Billie a little push in the housekeeper’s direction. “Run along, sweetheart, you’ll be safe with Yasmin. She never bites strangers, only her near and dear.”

“That is true.” Yasmin’s reserved face softened, and her dark eyes lit with affection. “Only my near and dear, Lisan.” She turned and started to glide gracefully down the polished mosaic-tile corridor. “If you will follow me, Miss Callahan?”

“Billie,” she said as she hurried after her. She glanced over her shoulder to see David and Donahue still standing at the door watching her. Then she turned the corner and they were out of view.

“Very attractive.” Clancy Donahue observed.

“I think so,” David agreed, a little smile tugging at his lips. “But not at all sexy. She told me so.”

Donahue’s eyes narrowed. “Rather an intimate conversation for such a brief acquaintance. You just ran across her in the desert? Quite a coincidence running into an attractive American woman right outside your gates.”

“I might have known your suspicious mind would latch on to that fact and start clicking away.” David sighed ruefully. “I’ll save you the trouble of interrogating her. She’s only been in Sedikhan a few months, with the production company that’s filming
Desert Venture
outside of Marasef. Billie’s an actress.” Again that curiously tender smile curved his lips. “A lousy one, she tells me.”

“She’s obviously made quite an impression on you,” Donahue said impassively. “She must be very charming.”

“Charming?” David shook his head. “That’s a little too conventional an adjective for Billie Callahan. She’s part pixie and part wild thing.”

“Sounds a bit uncomfortable.” Donahue was gazing quizzically at the burnoose that David was shrugging out of. “Where the hell did you get that? You look like the male lead from
Desert Song
.”

“Yasmin made it for me. I wear it occasionally so she’ll know her gift has value for me,” he answered as he draped the robe carelessly over his arm. “It came in handy in that sandstorm, though.”

“Maybe that’s why the bedouins made them
de rigueur
.”

“Maybe,” David said absently. “Look, Clancy, I want you to arrange things so Billie isn’t permitted to leave Zalandan.” At Clancy’s startled glance he added quickly, “She’s not to be hurt. Make sure of that. I just want her to stay at the Casbah.”

“Then, you do think she has some connection with Ladram?” Clancy pounced swiftly.

“Ladram? Hell, no, you have that man on the brain.” There was amused exasperation on David’s face. “If I have the lady judged correctly, she really hasn’t a connection with anyone on the face of the earth.” He smiled. “But she’s going to, Clancy. She’s going to have an exceptionally intimate connection very soon.” He shrugged. “But like I said, she’s a very skittish, wild thing. I need a little insurance so I have the time to make that connection before she flies away.”

“You’ll get your insurance,” Clancy said slowly, his expression thoughtful. “I think it would be a very good idea to detain Ms. Callahan for a while.” He watched as David brushed futilely at his jeans, causing sand to cascade to the floor. “Why don’t you go change before bearding Karim in his den? It looks like you brought half of the desert in with you. He’s not going to be any more angry with you in fifteen minutes than he is now.”

David shook his head. “I’ll go right in to see him.” He smiled gently. “Karim always roars loudest when he’s worried. I’ll just show him I’m all right and let him take the edge off his temper.” He walked rapidly down the hall. “See you at dinner, Clancy.”

Clancy gazed after him with an expression compounded equally of affection and exasperation. The assignment Alex had given him of protecting David was proving more difficult than if it were Karim himself he had to guard. David’s gentleness covered a will that was even more inflexible than Alex’s or that of the old tiger waiting for David in the study.

He could almost visualize David lounging in a chair in front of Karim’s desk, listening patiently while the sheikh ranted and raved at him. There would be that same gentle smile on his face when Karim ran out of words and anger. He’d get up, say something soothing and noncommittal, and leave. He’d seen it happen a dozen times with Alex and Sabrina, and then it had only amused him. Now that he was the one being confronted by that iron determination, he wasn’t quite so entertained. It wasn’t bad enough having Ladram somewhere out there just waiting to pounce. Now there was Billie Callahan on the scene, who’d be an unknown element in an already explosive situation. And he could do without unknown elements appearing out of nowhere at this point. When David had finished with Karim, he’d be having a talk with the sheikh himself.

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