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Authors: Iris Johansen

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BOOK: Touch the Horizon
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“You must hurry,” she said briskly. “I have laid out the dress you wore the first night you were here. You have only twenty minutes to bathe and change before he arrives.”

“Before who arrives?” Billie asked blankly.

“Sheikh Karim,” Yasmin answered, urging her through the door. “He sent word an hour ago that he wished to speak to you and would call on you in your apartment at six. He will be most displeased if he’s kept waiting. It is not the custom, you understand.”

“I can’t see what the hurry is now,” Billie said dryly as she unbuttoned her shirt and shrugged out of it. “The man’s made no effort to see me in the three days I’ve been here. In fact, I’ve gotten the distinct impression he’d be delighted if I disappeared into the woodwork.”

“That is not fair,” Yasmin said, troubled. “The sheikh is a very conscientious host. If Lisan had not insisted on having you to himself and dining in his suite, I’m sure he would have done his duty.”

“Duty,” Billie repeated with a bittersweet smile. “Remind me to tell you how much that particular word turns me off. No one has to do their duty by me. Not anymore.” She was stripping quickly, Yasmin picking the clothes up as quickly as she discarded them. “And I’m not going to put on that dress again even to please your precious lord and master. The only reason I wore it was because I didn’t have anything to wear. Now that I have my own clothes again, that’s no longer necessary.” She was carefully going down the three marble steps to the sunken tub. “If you want to help me dress, lay out something that belongs to me.”

“There’s nothing suitable.” Yasmin sighed. “Sheikh Karim doesn’t approve of women in trousers, and you have nothing else. I have never seen a woman without one dress in her wardrobe.” She was almost wringing her hands. “It is most unseemly.”

“I like jeans,” Billie said with simple logic. “I’m comfortable in them, and I’m not the type of person who would tuck away a glamorous little black dress for that occasional night on the town. I don’t even like dressing up and going out.” Then, as Yasmin’s despairing expression didn’t change, she melted. She genuinely liked the dignified, if slightly autocratic, housekeeper, and she knew Yasmin would consider the blame hers if Billie wasn’t presented in what she considered respectable attire. “Oh, all right,” she said crossly. “I’ll wear the blasted dress, but only until the sheikh leaves. Then off it comes. I’ll dine with David, in my jeans, as usual.”

However, she’d only finished her bath and was slipping on a beige-and-black-striped jellaba she’d bought in the bazaar when Yasmin was back. “He’s here,” she hissed, hurriedly buttoning the loose robe herself as if Billie were a small child. “And very impatient.” She smoothed Billie’s tumbled curls frantically. “Hurry!” She gave Billie a push whose momentum sent her through the diaphanous curtains of the door.

“Charming.” Karim Ben Raschid’s voice was a silky purr as his eyes raked over her with the sharpness of a blade. He was standing by the filigreed doors that led to the little private balcony, and their fretted delicacy only accented the power and dominance of his robe-clad figure. “I’m sure you disapprove of compliments as much as you do hypocrisy, Miss Callahan, but I’m sure David has told you how much that jellaba suits you. It makes you look like one of the small children clamoring for coins in the bazaar.”

Was there an insulting double-entendre in that? Probably, but she wasn’t about to decipher it now. “I don’t object to compliments,” she said calmly as she came forward. “People like me need all they can get. I just insist they be founded on honesty.” She gestured to the ivory-cushioned cane chair by the balcony door. “Why don’t we sit down and get comfortable? I have an idea I may need all the support I can get.”

He smiled, his strong white teeth a gleaming slash in his bearded face. “You may indeed, Miss Callahan,” he said softly. “By all means make yourself comfortable. I believe I’ll stand, however.”

“As you like.” Billie crossed to the bed, plopped down on the end, and crossed her legs tailor fashion. Her feet were still bare, she noticed wryly. No doubt that was an added touch of lese majesty. “I gather this is not a social call.”

He shook his head. “We’ve already established that you dislike observing the amenities,” he said. “I never repeat a mistake.”

“Don’t you?” Billie asked flippantly. “That must make you almost perfect by now. It must give you a great deal of satisfaction.”

Karim’s eyes narrowed. “Are you laughing at me, Miss Callahan?”

“Perhaps a little,” she said, suddenly weary. “I have a tendency to laugh at what I’m afraid of. You’re a very intimidating man, Sheikh Ben Raschid.”

There was a flicker of surprise in his face. “You admit to weakness? That could be a very grave tactical error.”

“Tactics are used in game plans,” she answered, holding his gaze steadily. “I told you I don’t play games.” She tossed her head with barely restrained impatience. “Look, could we just get down to cases? I don’t think you’re here because you crave the pleasure of my company.”

“I don’t know why you should assume that.” Karim lifted a mocking brow. “David seems to find your company pleasurable, even positively enthralling. Why should I not?”

“Oh, David.” Her voice lowered to a guttural, tough-guy snarl. “But you know how it is, Pops. We hoods always have to set up our hits. We lull them into a false sense of security and then…” She pointed an index finger and pulled an imaginary trigger. “Gotcha.”

“I don’t regard that as amusing.” The sheikh’s tone was definitely chilly. “Not when it pertains to David.”

“Neither do I,” Billie said with a shiver she tried to hide with a careless shrug. “I told you I always laugh at things I’m afraid of. I’m sorry you didn’t like my little charade.”

“I’m sure you did it very well,” Karim said coolly. “You appear to have a wide acquaintance with all strata of society, so I’m sure the vernacular came quite easily.”

Billie stiffened warily. “Would you like to elaborate on that?”

“I’d be delighted.” He moved a few feet to the cane chair and picked up an ivory folder that had blended in so well with the color of the cushion, she hadn’t noticed it. “Shall we start with your appearance at the Simon Hardwicks Children’s Home twenty-three years ago, or do you want me to zero in on your latest escapade at the location site at Marasef? It all makes very colorful reading.”

“You’ve had me investigated.” Billie’s eyes widened. Why was she so surprised? It was a natural course of action for a man like Ben Raschid. Nevertheless it gave her a sense of being violated. “I’m glad my biography proved entertaining.” She lifted her head proudly. “And I don’t believe you’ve discovered anything particularly reprehensible. I’m not as dangerous as you supposed, am I?”

“Because you have no criminal record?” His smile was enigmatic. “On the contrary, you could be even more dangerous than I thought.” He opened the folder and glanced at it. “You’re an extraordinary woman, Miss Callahan. My investigators are extremely competent men, and even they had a great deal of trouble filling in all the blanks. Your childhood was fairly easy. There were orphanage records substantiating the date you were turned over to them. You were a foundling, were you not?”

“Yes, I was,” Billie answered steadily. “I’m not ashamed of my birth, Sheikh Ben Raschid. I believe it’s what we make of ourselves that counts, not what we start out with as basic raw material.”

“I meant no insult.” The sheikh shrugged. “I have similar beliefs, Miss Callahan. It’s what you’ve made of yourself that holds my entire interest.”

He scanned the page before him idly. “You were in several foster homes over the years. You ran away from two and were returned to the orphanage once for rebellious and uncooperative behavior. You ran away from the orphanage itself when you were fifteen. After that the trail becomes considerably more muddied.”

“Sorry about that,” Billie said ironically.

“Practically all the people you worked for, individuals whom you befriended, clammed up on my investigators,” Ben Raschid said thoughtfully. “You seem to have the ability to attract enormous affection and loyalty in an amazingly short space of time.” His eyes narrowed. “Because you’ve never stayed anywhere for more than a few months, have you, Miss Callahan? You’ve been a gas-station attendant, a file clerk, a cook in a lumber camp, you’ve picked apples in Oregon, worked on an Indian reservation in Washington. The list appears to go on forever. You even went to college for a semester in California. You scored very high on the entrance exams, and your professors describe you as hard-working and exceptionally bright.”

“The key phrase is hard-working,” Billie said. “I may be a gypsy, but I’ve never been out for a free ride, and there’s nothing in that report I’m ashamed to admit to.”

“It was a surprisingly innocuous report for such a busy young lady,” he said calmly. “No sexual liaisons, a few mischievous pranks, but nothing malicious. Nothing in the least suspicious until you arrived at the movie set in Marasef.”

She straightened. “
Desert Venture
?” She shook her head. “You’ve been had, Sheikh Ben Raschid. Your boys must have decided to do a little fabricating to earn their fee. The only thing criminal about my work on that movie was the money I stole for my terrible performance.”

“Not criminal, just suspicious,” he said, closing the folder. “It seems you’re a very brave lady, Miss Callahan. At some risk to yourself, you rescued a certain bordello bouncer by the name of Yusef Ibraheim from three toughs who were allegedly trying to slit his throat. You then set up a
ménage à trois
with this Yusef and a stunt woman, Kendra Michaels, in a two-room cottage and maintained the relationship for a number of weeks.”


Ménage à trois!
” Billie exclaimed. “It was no such thing. We were friends, damn it. Your investigators have very dirty minds, Sheikh Ben Raschid.”

“Perhaps. But you can’t deny you’ve been living with this Yusef at his home in a village near Zalandan for some time.”

“With Yusef, his parents, and sundry brothers and sisters,” Billie said indignantly. “It was hardly the cozy little love nest you’re implying. What difference does it make, anyway? My morals are my own business. I haven’t been cross-examining you about your sex life.”

For a minute there was a glint of amusement in Ben Raschid’s eyes. “I haven’t the slightest doubt you would do so if it suited your fancy.” His face darkened in a frown. “Your morals are no concern of mine. There are ways of ensuring fidelity if you became important to David. You can be sure there would be no more affairs once he decided he wanted you.”

“Chastity belts, seraglios, eunuch guards with curved scimitars?” Billie scoffed. “This is the twentieth century, haven’t you heard? Lord, I can’t believe any of this.”

“Nothing so primitive and uncivilized,” Ben Raschid said with a tigerish smile. “I’m a very civilized man, Miss Callahan.”

“You and Attila the Hun.” Billie snorted.

“I’ve been called a barbarian to my face before,” the sheikh said with soft menace, “but not by anyone who is still around.” He tossed the folder onto the chair. “All this is beside the point. I told you your personal affair with Ibraheim was not important—it’s your business relationship that concerns me.”

“Business relationship?” Billie asked blankly.

“I find it an odd coincidence that you should make the acquaintance of an employee of a bordello,” Ben Raschid said slowly. “It makes me wonder what other contacts you have in that area. I believe you’ve been told Ladram’s crime ring was into vice as well.”

“Oh, no.” Billie groaned. “Now I’m a candidate for the position of madam of a bordello. What will you think of next?”

“I didn’t say that, I just said it was a curious coincidence.”

“And you and Clancy and all your errand boys don’t like coincidences,” she said gloomily. “I’ve heard that line before. Just what is the purpose of this little visit, Sheikh Ben Raschid? Are you trying to intimidate me into going away and leaving David alone? I don’t like scare tactics. I’ll leave when I’m ready, not before.”

Ben Raschid shrugged. “I don’t know quite why I came here today. Perhaps to gauge your reaction to the report. Perhaps I just wanted to study you and see what David sees in you that appeals to him.” His face was suddenly weary. “Whether you go or stay is David’s decision after he reads the copy of the report I sent him.”

Billie froze. “You sent a copy to David?”

“Of course. As soon as it arrived by helicopter this afternoon, I had a copy made and sent to his apartment.” His narrowed eyes were studying her face. “He’s probably read it by now. Does that upset you?”

It did upset her. It angered her far more than the thought of Ben Raschid or Clancy prying into the details of her private life, which was totally irrational. But then, why did she have to be rational or logical? That was for the Karims and Clancys of this world. She’d be as emotional and irrational as she damn well wanted to be!

“Yes, it upsets me,” she said between her teeth. “I’m sick and tired of being treated like some kind of criminal.” She uncrossed her legs, jumped off the bed, and strode to the rosewood bureau across the room. “I didn’t ask to be dropped into the middle of your problems, and I’ll be damned if I’ll have my life stripped bare to interest your precious Lisan.” She was pulling jeans, a tunic top, and underthings haphazardly out of the drawers. “And I’m about to tell him so.” She marched toward the bath/dressing-room area. “Good day, Shelkh Ben Raschid. This audience is officially at an end. Please close the door on your way out.”

         

The folder was lying open on the rosewood desk, and David looked up, unsurprised, as she stormed into the room without knocking. “Hello, windflower. I’ve been expecting you.” He glanced down at the paper before him. “Did you really apprentice as a clown in a circus? You must have enjoyed that.”

“Yes, I really did that,” she mimicked as she strode over to the desk and picked up the folder. “And I really did all the rest of it too. You’ll be happy to know your investigators are very thorough.” Her violet eyes were blazing. “Of course, they have the minds of sewer rats, but that’s incidental, isn’t it? It must have provided you with some titillating predinner reading.” She drew a deep breath. “Well, I think it’s absolutely disgusting. This is my life you’re scanning so casually. How would you like it if I nosed around in your past, interrogating your friends and digging into records about a kid who doesn’t even exist anymore?”

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