Authors: Iris Johansen
Billie’s eyes were wide with shock. The threat in Donahue’s words had been too plain to be missed. “This is as absurd as all the rest,” she said blankly. “For heaven’s sake, are you actually suspecting me of being some kind of threat to your precious Lisan?”
“I’m a very suspicious man, Miss Callahan,” Donahue answered quietly. “I’m especially suspicious of coincidences like the one that brought you and David together. You may not be a physical threat to David, though that’s a distinct possibility. Actresses have been known to be hired to play Delilah before. Particularly second-rate actresses, as you confess to being.” He shrugged. “Even if you’re not in cahoots with Ladram, there’s a chance you may be trying to hook a rich husband or protector. I assure you that Karim and Alex wouldn’t like the idea of David’s being used like that any more than they’d like him to be in physical danger.”
“I don’t even know the man,” Billie sputtered, her violet eyes blazing. “I know nothing about him. How could I possibly know that David Bradford was wealthy?”
“A little investigation would have revealed that Karim transferred a few acres of property to David three years ago as a birthday present,” he said cynically, “along with the fact that those acres are capable of yielding approximately the same amount of oil as the state of Oklahoma. It would also have made you aware that David was then in a state of near-mental retardation, a child in a man’s body. He would have been ripe for any unscrupulous manipulation you might have had in mind.”
Mental retardation. That golden man, with his wise, clear eyes? She felt a sickening pain somewhere deep inside. “No,” she whispered. “You’re lying. There’s nothing wrong with David. There couldn’t be.”
Donahue’s eyes were narrowed on her face. “You didn’t know,” he said slowly, and then a little smile lit the sternness of his face. “Unless you’re a far better actress than you claim, I’d say you didn’t have any prior knowledge of David’s background.”
“He’s not retarded,” Billie said desperately, feeling her throat tighten with tears. “He’s intelligent, sharp, witty. He may be a little eccentric, but you can’t tell me there’s anything wrong with him mentally, dammit.”
“Easy.” For the first time there was a spark of warmth in the coolness of Donahue’s eyes. “You’re right, there’s nothing wrong with David now. His mind is as keen as a scalpel, and as far as creativity goes, he’s quite brilliant. I just said that three years ago he was still suffering from a…a state like mental retardation.” His voice hardened. “While he was in college he experimented with one of the so-called mind-expansion drugs, and it damn near made a vegetable out of him. For years he was like a child, but gradually he began to regain the full powers of his mind. When Sabrina and Alex brought him to Sedikhan four and a half years ago, they weren’t sure he’d ever be well again.”
“But he did get well,” Billie murmured, feeling a profound relief and thanksgiving that was as mysterious as all her other emotions in regard to David Bradford.
“Yes, he did get well,” Donahue agreed. “I don’t know if it was a natural recovery or the battery of doctors Karim commandeered from all over the world to treat him.” There was a touch of amusement in his grin. “Karim had stepped down from his position as ruling head of Sedikhan, presumably for reasons of health. Actually, I think he just wanted to give Alex the experience of running the country while he was still hovering in the background. He needed something to focus his attention on, and he chose David. He whisked him away to Zalandan, using the excuse that Alex and Sabrina needed the time to get used to their new life at Marasef.” Donahue chuckled reminiscently. “They didn’t like it any too much, but tried to give in gracefully. Karim was an old man and had recently been very ill. Karim was all prepared to look upon David as a remote analytical problem to be solved and then returned to Sabrina and Alex. It didn’t turn out that way, though.”
“How did it turn out?”
“Karim learned to love David,” Donahue said simply. “I don’t think the old tiger had ever really loved anyone before in his life. He had a guarded affection for Alex and Alex’s cousin, Lance, but they were both such strong, independent personalities that there was an element of competitiveness that kept him from giving that love totally. With David that barrier didn’t exist. He was a beautiful, very special child who might remain that way for the rest of his life.” His blue eyes twinkled. “Little did Karim know that once David recovered, he’d have another powerhouse to contend with. By that time it was too late. David had breached all the old man’s defenses, and Karim was utterly devoted to him.” Donahue’s expression was suddenly thoughtful. “In spite of his regained mental powers, there’s still a quality of childlike honesty and simplicity about him that’s very moving. It arouses a fierce protectiveness in the people who care about him. If you do have any aims that might interfere with that protectiveness, you’d be wise to think twice, Miss Callahan.”
“Are you back to that again?” Billie asked with a sigh. Somehow she was no longer feeling the anger she had before at Clancy Donahue’s insinuations. There was something very likable beneath that grim facade. “I thought you’d come to believe that I knew nothing about David Bradford before I came to Zalandan.”
“I want to believe you,” he said soberly. “You’re a very charismatic woman, and, I hope, an honest one. It’s just my job to make sure of that, Miss Callahan.”
“I suppose it is,” Billie said with an impish smile. “It might be interesting, at that, to be regarded as some sort of
.” She fluttered her long lashes vampishly at him. “Is this the way it’s done? You’ll have to excuse me, but I’m sinfully inexperienced in the role.”
“I’m afraid it’s very obvious,” he said, his lips twitching. “Mata Hari you’re not, Miss Callahan.”
“Billie,” she prompted as they paused before an intricately carved teak door. “It’s ridiculous to be formal when we’ve already been through so much together. Anger, suspicion”—her voice lowered dramatically—“intrigue. And now you’re evidently planning to play executioner.” She gestured to the door. “The tiger’s cage?”
“The tiger’s cage,” Donahue agreed with a grin. “But I have an idea you just might be able to handle him…Billie.”
“Oh, I’ll be able to handle him,” she said breezily, reaching for the doorknob. “There’s not much I can’t handle, Clancy. Come along and watch my style.”
HE STOPPED SHORT
just inside the door, her gaze on the portrait hanging on the wall over the desk.
“David,” she whispered.
It was David and yet not David. The man kneeling with a trowel in his hand and the sunlight burnishing his hair to white gold was younger, more aesthetic-looking, less virile somehow. But beautiful. No one could argue that. He was in a garden, dressed in faded jeans and a worn blue work shirt. A blue-and-white bandanna was tied around his forehead as a sweatband, and his hair was pulled back into an odd shoulder-length braid, revealing the classic strength of his features. The braid and bandanna gave him a slightly savage aura, but there was nothing savage in the eyes gazing out of the portrait. Sapphire blue, clear and gentle, they were almost radiant with a strange wisdom and understanding. Yes, that was David.
“Exceptionally good, isn’t it?” Clancy murmured into her ear.
“What?” she asked absently, then forced herself to look away from the portrait. “Oh, yes, remarkable.” She shook her head as if to clear it and focused her attention on the man who was lolling lazily in the executive chair at the desk beneath that riveting picture.
A tiger, Donahue had called him, and Karim Ben Raschid looked every bit as ferocious as he rose lithely to his feet. The gesture appeared to be more a positioning for a lethal spring than a courtesy. Dressed in a flowing white burnoose open down the front to reveal an impeccable black tuxedo, Karim had the powerful, vigorous body of a man of forty. There was only a dusting of gray in his dark hair and beard, and his flashing dark eyes were as piercing and dangerous as a hawk who’d sighted prey. Only his strong, gnarled hand toying with a gold pen indicated the years that he carried so lightly.
“Ah, Miss Callahan, welcome to my home.” His voice was as smooth and mellow as a cello, and his smile wholly charming. “David and Clancy told me how lovely you were, but they weren’t eloquent enough. What a beautiful treasure you are to ornament my Casbah.”
Oh, Lord, she really wasn’t up to all this flowery bull after her recent confrontation with Clancy. If she was going to be forced to stay here for the next few days, she’d better try to clear the air right away. Her feet sank into the pile of the rich Kirman carpet as she marched across the room to stand before the desk.
“Sheikh Ben Raschid, I’m grateful for your hospitality, and I know I’m supposed to answer you with a phrase that’s as fancy and phony as yours.” She drew a deep breath and raised her chin belligerently. “I want you to know that I realize what I’m
to do. I have no intention of doing it.”
There was a flicker in Ben Raschid’s dark eyes. “Indeed?” he said slowly. “And just what do you intend to do, Miss Callahan? I gather courtesy isn’t high on your list of priorities.”
“Courtesy rates very high, but hypocrisy comes in below zero,” she said meeting his eyes steadily. “I found out a long time ago that I couldn’t live like that. So what do you say we put our cards on the table? Clancy, here, seems to think I may be involved in some sort of plot to either snag the apple of your eye or massacre him. Will you believe me when I say I have no intention of doing either? That three days from now you’ll have seen the last of me? I’d never even heard of this Ladram fellow before today.”
“Your candid approach is very convincing, Miss Callahan.” Ben Raschid said coldly. “I, too, have a dislike for hypocrisy, though I find it valuable upon occasion. It occurs to me you could have been coached to appeal to that preference.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, just look at me.” Billie threw her arms out in frustration. “What kind of nutty villain would choose a lure like me? I’m not even sexy. I have my moments, but I’m definitely not the material
are made of.”
“Yet you evidently exert a certain fascination for David,” Ben Raschid answered. “He was quite insistent that I welcome you with all cordiality. Perhaps Ladram is more clever than we’d supposed. I didn’t think he had that degree of subtlety, but hatred can bring out the cunning in rats like Ladram.” His eyes narrowed. “He’s on the run, so it wouldn’t be possible for him to pay you exorbitantly. I, on the other hand, have unlimited resources. If you care to switch sides and confide Ladram’s whereabouts, I’m prepared to be very generous.” His smile was so lethal, she shivered involuntarily. “When Ladram is captured, his treatment is going to be most painful, and ultimately fatal. You wouldn’t want to share in that fate, I assure you.”
Good heavens, the man was a barbarian. “You sound quite savage,” she said lightly, trying to smile. “What did the poor man do to arouse such a thirst for vengeance?”
“That ‘poor’ man was one of the kingpins of vice and narcotics in Sedikhan,” Clancy said dryly as he strolled forward to stand beside her. “He was also rumored to have connections with the Mafia, but they seem to have deserted him. They didn’t like the kind of heat David generated when he broke up the ring and sent Ladram on the run. That was eight months ago, and Ladram’s been bombarding David with threatening letters and phone calls ever since.”
“Knives,” she whispered, remembering David’s flippant words.
“How did you know that?” Ben Raschid asked in a harsh, guttural tone.
“David mentioned it,” Clancy interjected swiftly. “I was there.”
“So quick to the defense, Clancy?” Ben Raschid’s voice was silky soft. “I think perhaps she may be even more clever than I thought.”
“And now I’m supposed to have vamped your trusty right hand from his duty? How can I convince you that I’m just not that appealing?”
“You can’t, Billie.” David said softly from the door. “Anyone would have to be blind not to see how sweet you are.” He strolled forward. His golden good looks were set off beautifully by the elegant black tuxedo he was wearing, and his brilliant blue eyes were twinkling. “None of us are immune.”
“Bull,” Billie said succinctly. “Will you stop that? I’m having a rough time as it is trying to convince everyone I’m not after your scalp, either figuratively or literally.”
“Not exactly seductive, Karim,” Clancy murmured, his lips quirking.
Ben Raschid shrugged. “But challenging and a little intriguing, which could accomplish the same end with a man like David.”
“You see? Everything I do is wrong. They’re determined to view me as Lucrezia Borgia incarnate.”
“Poor baby.” David’s face was alight with amusement. “They are giving you a hard time, aren’t they? You’re holding up better than most, though.” His smile faded as he glanced at Karim, and his tone cooled considerably. “Testing her mettle. Karim? I asked you to make her welcome, not to intimidate her.”
To Billie’s amazement Karim actually looked disconcerted. “I tried to play the civilized host,” he growled defensively. “She wouldn’t let me. It seems the lady has a dislike for the social graces. She practically attacked me.”
“Interesting.” David’s eyes were dancing as they went from Billie’s indignant face to Karim’s ferocious scowl. “You appear to have survived her assault very well, and perhaps it’s just as well the amenities were dispensed with in the first confrontation.” He smiled at Billie with a glowing intimacy. “I’m glad you have no use for games. Neither do I, windflower. It’s going to escalate the pace of our relationship immensely.”
“We have no relationship,” she said, running her hand abstractedly through her hair. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell everyone. What I’ve been trying to tell
” She glared up at him. “And I do think you like to play games. I think it’s amusing you to make some kind of play for me to wile away a day or so in your little desert Shangri-La. I don’t think you care a snap of your fingers what I think or feel.”
David sobered instantly. “You’re wrong. Billie,” he said quietly. “They really have upset you, haven’t they?” He took her hand in his. “I won’t have that. We don’t have time to waste with anger and hurt feelings. I want you to be able to concentrate on forming new emotional responses.” He turned to Karim and said tersely, “I think we’ll dispense with any type of formal dinner. I’m taking Billie with me to my suite. We’ll dine there and perhaps I can repair some of the damage you’ve done. The next time you see her, I hope you’ll take the opportunity to apologize.”
Karim flushed. “Apologize! She’s no delicate shrinking violet. She’s a very tough lady. I think she came through the encounter better than I did.”
“She’s strong, but she’s sensitive enough underneath all that brashness to be hurt,” David said as he turned and pulled her toward the door. “I won’t have her hurt, Karim.”
David turned, and when he saw the pleading that warred with the pride in Karim’s fierce hawk eyes, he smiled very gently. “It’s all right, Karim. It’s just that you’ve made a mistake. She’s special to me, and you must treat her with kindness. It’s very important to me.”
“It’s you who are making a mistake,” Karim said heavily. “It’s dangerous to trust her. Even more since she is strong. You respond to strength, David. Weakness in others arouses your sympathy, but strength attracts you. Ladram would know that. He’s made a study of you.”
“It’s not a mistake,” David said softly. “Can’t you see she wouldn’t use that strength to do anything but help?”
“No. I can’t see that.” Karim’s voice was roughly impatient. “And neither can you. She’s an unknown quantity.”
“I know her very well.” David’s smile encompassed her in a sunrise of warmth. “And I’m going to know her even better. Get used to the idea, Karim.” The door closed behind them, shutting out the sight of Karim’s frowning face and Donahue’s smile of amusement.
Then David’s hand was beneath her elbow and he was hurrying her through the mosaic corridors at a pace that had her half skipping to keep up with him. “Sorry about that, Billie. I should have realized they would react like that and been there to support you. It won’t happen again. Karim knows I’m dead serious now.”
“That’s more than I do,” Billie said wryly. “I can’t believe any of this is really happening. Would it be too much to ask you to slow down so I can catch my breath?”
“Literally or figuratively?” His pace slowed as he glanced down at her. “Both, I think,” he decided. “I’m moving too fast for you, aren’t I, windflower? You need time to catch up and grow into your own knowledge of me.” His eyes were grave. “I promised you that time, and I won’t go back on it. I won’t force that growth.”
“Why should you, when everyone else is willing to do it for you?” Billie grumbled. “Yasmin almost served me up on a silver platter.” She touched the glittering lamé dress. “She informed me that there wasn’t much she could do to make me as glamorous as your last
, but this was her best effort.”
“Is that who it belonged to?” David asked, his gaze running over her admiringly. Again she had that sensation of warm sunlight flowing over her. “I thought it was vaguely familiar. It looks different on you, sweetheart.”
“I imagine it does,” Billie said dryly. “According to Yasmin, Miss Nazare was considerably more voluptuous.”
“That’s not what I meant,” David said. “On Shareen, it was just a dress. On you it’s like a precious shimmering vase to hold my bright, glowing flower-girl.” His eyes were twinkling. “And for your information, I’m finding you much more provocative in it than I ever did Shareen.”
“That’s difficult to believe,” Billie said a trifle breathlessly, looking away from him.
“I know.” David sighed, shaking his head. “You’re not sexy, right? I can see something’s got to be done to set you straight on that score.” The amusement suddenly vanished. “Does the thought of Shareen bother you? It shouldn’t, Billie. I’m no saint. I need sex, like any other man, but that was all it was with Shareen and the others.” His voice was warm and deep. “I took pleasure and I tried to give it back, but what happens between us is going to be entirely different.”
“Oh, Yasmin assured me she was nothing to you,” Billie said lightly, trying to keep the warmth he was exuding from flooding her being.
David frowned. “That wasn’t true. Everyone has value and gifts to give. I’d be an unappreciative bastard to denigrate the giver of those gifts.” His hand tightened on hers. “It’s just that some gifts have more value than others. Physical satisfaction can mean a hell of a lot. But joy”—his deep blue eyes were glowing softly—“joy can last forever, Billie.”
She forgot to breathe, and felt that dizzying warmth move languidly through her veins. Why was she letting him do this to her? She’d always moved so lightly on the surface of life, pausing to touch and enjoy relationships and adventures and then moving on. None of it had really affected her, but she knew with a little thrill of panic that if she let herself stay in this small circle of sunlight, she might never want to move on again.
“No!” She jerked her hand away from his and nervously smoothed the sleek material of the dress over her hips. “All this has nothing to do with me. Why can’t you understand that?” She smiled with an effort. “And you say everyone is valuable and has gifts to give. What about this Ladram I’ve been hearing about? He doesn’t seem to have much to give to the human race.”