Authors: Iris Johansen
“But I believe she does exist,” David said quietly, a flicker of sadness in his eyes. “I think that little girl is very much alive. And I think you know the investigation wasn’t my idea. I hope I would have found out all this myself in time.”
“Yet you didn’t hesitate to read the report.”
“Yes, I read it.” He leaned back in the chair and regarded her steadily. “I would have had to be a saint to resist the temptation to find out everything I could about you when it was right at my fingertips. I won’t even try to lie and tell you I thought you wouldn’t mind. I knew you’d be mad as hell at me for reading it.”
“You’re damn right I am.”
“You have the right to be indignant, of course. An invasion of privacy is a serious breach of friendship.” He took the file from her clenched hand and dropped it into the rattan wastebasket by the desk. “However, you’re more than indignant, you’re furious. Perhaps even out of proportion to the crime itself. Have you asked yourself why you’re reacting so violently? You’re a gypsy who skims the surface of life. Why should the fact that I know about that scared little girl matter so much?”
“I wasn’t scared,” she said quickly. “I was never frightened. I was too tough for that. Orphanage brats have to be. You read the report. Rebellious and uncooperative. Does that sound like a pathetic Orphan Annie?”
“No, it sounds like my strong, loving Billie striking out at something she doesn’t understand. It sounds like loneliness and despair and hurt.” His eyes were strangely bright. “God, I wish I’d been there to hold you and help you through it.”
“I didn’t need any help,” she said defiantly. “Not after I understood the system. I learned very quickly how the world worked.” She shrugged. “Those people who fostered me couldn’t help it because they couldn’t love me. They had families of their own, and I wasn’t exactly Shirley Temple. I was scrawny, with fiery orange braids, and so shy I was afraid to say boo. They only did it for the welfare money and they
do their duty.” Her lips twisted. “I remember Mrs. Anders saying that when she took me back to the orphanage that last time. She told the matron they’d done their duty, but Billie was just too difficult to handle. Next time they wanted a more docile child.” She lifted her chin. “They stopped trying to place me after that.”
As he thought of that vulnerable, proud, lonely Billie with a spirit so full of love and no one to give it to, he felt an aching protectiveness so intense, it was an actual physical pain. He wanted to reach out and touch, to cradle and soothe away the pain he could feel beneath that brash defensiveness. His hands clenched unconsciously to keep himself from doing just that. Not yet. He could see how finely balanced on the edge of uncertainty and fear she was. Afraid to trust, afraid to love, afraid to give herself for more than a moment. A loving nature so strong it had to give, but so afraid that love wouldn’t be returned that she refused to linger and chance rejection.
Stay, windflower. Put down roots and let me show you that love doesn’t always go away.
He slowly unclenched his fists and drew a deep breath. Not yet.
“It would probably have been like trying to place a tiger cub with a household of tabbies,” he said lightly. “Who could blame them for wanting to keep a fierce little gypsy like you under lock and key?” He could see the tension ease out of her.
“I wasn’t all that bad,” she said with a reluctant smile. “I just hated the idea of being a charity child. If they left me alone, I was even fairly civilized.” Then the smile faded from her face and she scowled. “All of that’s not really important. What’s relevant here is that blasted dossier.”
“That ‘blasted’ dossier has gone into the wastebasket, and that’s where it will stay,” he said quietly. “Anything else will come only from you. You have my promise.” He smiled coaxingly, and she could feel the warmth begin to tingle through her. “Are you going to forgive me, Billie?”
There was no question of that, she thought helplessly. He was so disarming, she could feel the anger vanish as if it had never been. “I suppose so,” she said grudgingly. “But that doesn’t go for those protective lions you have prowling around you. They can just keep their noses out of my affairs. I’ve had it with being a suspect for everything from murder to vice queen of Marasef.”
He gave a whoop of laughter. “Poor baby, did he accuse you of that too?”
“Well, almost,” she said, her lips quirking. “I’m not sure if even he could find me plausible in that role. I think he was just a little upset that I’d called him a barbarian.”
“Karim would definitely take umbrage at that.” David’s eyes were dancing. “He’s been trying to civilize that strain of barbarism out of his character since he was a kid. It’s not exactly safe to hint that he’s not been very successful.”
“I gathered that.” She shrugged. “Oh, well, he won’t have to put up with me for very long. You did say the mechanic had almost finished repairing my Jeep.”
“Almost.” David’s smile vanished. “This afternoon the helicopter should have brought the part he needed to fix it.”
The sudden jab of pain she felt made no sense at all. “Then I’ll probably be on my way in a day or so,” she said lightly. “And Karim and Clancy can breathe a joint sigh of relief.”
There was a flicker of some unidentifiable emotion on his face, before it was masked. “Something else arrived on the helicopter besides the replacement part,” he said as he pushed back his chair and stood up.
“That package you were expecting?”
He nodded. “It’s something in the nature of a replacement too.” He was crossing to the carved teak armoire, and glanced over his shoulder as he opened the door and reached inside. “It’s a present, and I’m not taking no for an answer this time. I don’t have anyone else I can give it to.”
“I told you I wasn’t accepting any—” She broke off as she saw what he had in his hands. A Spanish guitar, so exquisite that it was a true work of art, the mellow golden wood silkened to a warm, glowing patina.
But no more glowing than David’s eyes as he carried it across the room and halted before her. He held the lovely thing out to her with a gentle smile. “It’s a very good guitar. I know it’s not your old friend, but, given time, perhaps it can be a new one.” He frowned uncertainly as he saw the look of shock on her face as she stared at the guitar as if she couldn’t tear her gaze away. “It’s not really a replacement, Billie. I’ve sent the old one to Madrid to have the major surface damage repaired. There’s no way the sound would ever be the same without practically rebuilding it, and I didn’t think you’d want that. I thought you’d rather set it somewhere in a place of honor, with all its honorable patches intact.” When she still didn’t speak, his frown deepened. “Billie?”
She reached out slowly and touched the guitar with a hesitant finger. “It’s beautiful,” she said huskily, “so beautiful.” And she wasn’t speaking only of the guitar. She felt as if she were breaking apart inside. Such a wonderful, caring thing to do. “I love it.” She drew a deep, shaky breath, and the eyes she lifted to his were starry with tears. “And you’re right, I want to keep my honorable patches.”
The worried frown disappeared. “That’s all right, then,” he said with a relieved sigh. “I was afraid I’d blown it.”
“No.” The word was a broken little murmur as she suddenly pushed the guitar aside and came into his arms like a little girl searching for home. “Oh, no.” The word held an element of desperation as her arms slid around him and her head nestled against his shoulder. The tears she could no longer hold back were dampening the crispness of his blue oxford shirt. “No one’s ever done anything so beautiful for me before. Please, I want to give you something. Let me give you something too. What do you want?”
She heard his chuckle reverberate beneath her ear as his free arm slid around her. “That’s a hell of a question to ask a man who’s verging on sexual starvation. I’m tempted to give you the age-old answer, but I detest clichés.”
She could feel the color rise in her cheeks, and that only bewildered her more. She had never been this unsure before, and with David it was even more perplexing. She’d always felt so natural and at ease with him. “Don’t joke. I mean it.”
His hand reached up to stroke the tumbled curls at the nape of her neck. “I know you do,” he said softly. “You can’t bear to take and not give back, can you, Billie?” His fingers were beneath her hair now and massaging the neck muscles. “Don’t worry, I’m going to let you give me a present. Something I want very much.”
“What is it?”
“Stay with me for a little longer, windflower. That’s what you can give me.” His voice was a velvet croon in her ear. She felt the light touch of his lips on her ear, and his warm breath was like a caress in itself. “There are so many things we haven’t been able to do together yet.”
He laughed softly. “The blossoming? Oh, yes. I meant that too. But I meant other things as well. We’ve never worked side by side. I’ve never shown you my garden. We’ve never ridden in the desert at dawn.” He pushed her away to gaze down at her with a tender little smile. “And I’ve never heard you play a guitar or sing one of those songs you told me you make up. I want all those things very much. Will you give them to me?”
She nodded, blinking furiously to stop those idiotic tears from falling. “I’ll stay for a while.” She laughed shakily. “Though you may be getting more than you’ve bargained for. You’ve never heard me sing. Olivia Newton-John I’m not.”
He carefully kept the relief from his face. Another reprieve. Another step closer. “I won’t mind,” he said with an easy grin. “I’ve been accused of being tone-deaf anyway.” He stepped back and handed her the guitar with a mocking little bow. “Just make noise and I’ll be happy.”
“Noise,” she said indignantly. “I’m not that terrible either.” She ran her fingers over the strings in a loving caress. “It’s so lovely.”
“Why don’t you sit down and get acquainted with your new friend?” he suggested. “I have some revisions I want to do on the new book. We’ll send for dinner later.”
“I’d like that,” she said absently, kicking off her shoes on the way to the wide bed across the room. She settled cross-legged on the end, frowning in concentration as she began to tune the guitar.
David shook his head in rueful amusement. He was already forgotten, and it seemed likely that condition would last for some time. He dropped down in the desk chair and cast one more glance at the shining copper head bent so eagerly over the graceful instrument. Then he clicked on the typewriter and his eyes narrowed in concentration as he, too, became lost in the rich garden of words and characters that was as absorbing for him as Billie’s new friend was for her.
ILLIE WAS HUMMING
softly as she opened the door to her suite carrying her guitar with the care her treasure deserved. It had been a lovely evening, she thought dreamily, and as unusual as the other moments spent with David Bradford. Unusual? There had been nothing really extraordinary about those hours in David’s suite. She’d spent the time playing her guitar and composing snatches of songs for her own amusement while David worked on his book. He’d only thrown her an absent-minded word or smile a few times during the hours she was there, and they’d never gotten around to eating dinner. It was the warm, silent intimacy that had made those hours so precious. She’d paused a few times just to gaze at his intent face bent over the typewriter, lingering on the leashed tension pulling the blue shirt taut over his broad shoulders. There was an undercurrent of restrained excitement about him as he was caught up in his story that caused a surge of maternal tenderness to flow through her.
“I have been waiting for you. There is something you should know.” Yasmin rose gracefully from the cane chair, a worried frown creasing her forehead.
Billie’s eyes widened in surprise. “Don’t tell me the sheikh wants to see me again,” she said with an impish grin. “I didn’t think he’d be able to put up with me twice in one day.” She tilted her nose in mock hauteur. “You’ll have to tell his royal arrogance that I’m no longer receiving tonight.”
“No, It’s not the sheikh,” Yasmin said, biting her lower lip worriedly. “It is something that I heard from one of the guards. There is much gossip in the Casbah, but I think this is probably true.” She ran her hand distractedly through her smoothly coiffed hair. “I did not know what to do.”
Billie’s smile faded as she slowly crossed the room to lean her guitar in the corner closest to the bed. “Then, why don’t you tell me what you’ve heard and we’ll try to decide together?”
“Sheikh Karim is holding your friend prisoner,” Yasmin blurted out in a hurried rush.
“What friend?” Billie asked bewilderedly as she dropped down on the bed. “What are you talking about?”
“An enormous giant of a man,” Yasmin said quietly. “With long, wild hair and the strength of ten.”
“Yusef,” Billie identified him gloomily. “Oh, Lord, I might have known he’d follow me.”
“Yes, that is his name. Yusef Ibraheim,” Yasmin said. “He appeared at the Casbah this evening and demanded to see you. The guard said he was most belligerent.”
“He would be.” Billie sighed. “He seems to think I can’t function without him to take care of me.” She stiffened as Yasmin’s other statement sank in. “They’re holding him prisoner?”
Yasmin nodded unhappily. “He was in the library a long time with Sheikh Karim and Mr. Donahue, and then the guards were given orders to take him to the Silver Crescent and keep him prisoner until Sheikh Karim gives the word that he be released.”
“Silver Crescent? What is that?”
“It’s a place for evening entertainment, a café. You would call it a nightclub. It’s about five minutes journey from here. Sheikh Karim owns it, as he does most of Zalandan. He uses the back rooms for meetings and other activities when he requires more secrecy than the Casbah affords.”
“Or when he decides to imprison an innocent man on a whim,” Billie added grimly. “I can’t believe it. Who does he think he is?”
“I’m sure the sheikh had good reason for doing what he did,” Yasmin said cautiously. “Your friend will come to no harm if he’s free from guilt.”
“And who’s to decide that?” Billie asked caustically. “Karim is evidently judge, jury, and executioner in Zalandan.” She shivered suddenly. They wouldn’t really hurt Yusef, would they? But Karim was something of a barbarian, and he was an absolute fanatic about David’s safety. Yusef’s employment in that bordello was a possible link with Ladram that might incriminate him in Karim’s eyes. “I’ve got to get him out of there.”
“No!” Yasmin shook her head adamantly. “That would be very dangerous. Perhaps if you went to the sheikh and pleaded for—”
“Pleaded,” Billie echoed indignantly. “The man’s a dictator. Do you think I’m going begging on my knees for him to release a man who shouldn’t have been imprisoned in the first place? No, I’ll get him out on my own.”
“Then go to Lisan. He will use his influence with the sheikh.”
“I’m not involving David,” Billie said, jumping to her feet. “Yusef is my responsibility, and I’ll take care of this myself. Tonight.”
“Why not wait until tomorrow?” Yasmin said coaxingly. “One night can’t hurt, and you may change your mind and decide to go to the sheikh after all.”
“Tonight,” Billie was at the bureau drawers, rummaging rapidly through them. “Yusef won’t sit tamely by to be held prisoner, and he’s so ferocious-looking, his guards are bound to be afraid of him. Fear breeds violence. I have to get him out tonight.” She glanced up. “Where’s the jellaba I was wearing earlier? It has a hood that may shadow my face.” She pulled out a pair of khaki slacks. “These will probably do if that café is dim enough. It will be better if I can pass as a man. From what I’ve seen in the streets in the last few days, a woman alone would be too suspicious.”
“The jellaba is in the dressing room,” Yasmin answered absently. “You’re going to free your friend by force?”
“If I don’t find any other way. I’ll play it by ear once I’ve reached the Silver Crescent.”
Yasmin shook her head incredulously. “I would never have told you if I’d known you would do something so foolish. I thought you would go directly to Lisan and let him solve your problem.”
“I solve my own problems,” Billie said briskly. The black tunic shirt was large enough to disguise her small breasts, she decided, and her short suede boots would be masculine enough. “We do things differently where I come from.” Suddenly she turned, and her eyes narrowed with curiosity. “Why did you run the risk of telling me about Yusef, Yasmin? You know the sheikh will be furious if he finds out you’ve warned me. I know how much your position in this household means to you.”
“It is my life.” Yasmin’s gaze was steady. “Being in charge of the sheikh’s residences is considered a great honor in Sedikhan. I’ve worked to reach that goal ever since I was a child.”
“Lisan,” Yasmin said simply. “You have value in his eyes, and it would make him unhappy to see you sad or worried.”
“And that means more to you than your position or your loyalty to Sheikh Karim?”
“It means everything.” Yasmin’s eyes were oddly bright. “Whatever happens, Lisan must not be made sad. I cared too much for my position once before and almost lost my Zilah. Lisan saved her. I will not hold it so dear again.”
“Zilah?” Billie asked gently.
Yasmin’s serene features were suddenly strained and white with pain, her lips tight to control their trembling. “My daughter, Zilah,” she said. “Lisan did not tell you of Zilah?”
Billie shook her head. “I didn’t know you had any children.”
“There is only Zilah.” Yasmin drew a shaky breath. “I’m not married, you see. Zilah is illegitimate. I understand that this is not such a shameful thing in your country now, but in Sedikhan it’s a very serious transgression. She was born when I was thirty and had given up hope of finding love.” She smiled sadly. “I found it, but the man was a foreigner, and married as well. I had to find a way of both supporting my Zilah and keeping my position with the sheikh.”
“Wouldn’t the sheikh have helped you?” Billie asked.
“I couldn’t risk it. My shame was great in the eyes of my people. I kept Zilah’s birth a secret and sent her to my mother in Marasef to be raised. I visited her whenever possible and sent her as much money as I could, to make sure that Zilah had a happy life.” She shook her head. “I should have been there to protect her. I should have kept her with me.”
“You did what you could,” Billie said, her eyes warm with sympathy. “That’s all any of us can do, Yasmin.”
“It was not enough. My mother was old and did not keep close enough guard on her. Marasef can be a very wicked city for those who aren’t protected.” Yasmin closed her eyes, and her voice was a broken murmur. “Zilah disappeared one day. She was such a pretty little girl, so bright and shining. We knew what had happened to her.” Yasmin’s lids flicked open, and her eyes were dark with agony. “I was frantic. I did everything I could think of. The police. Searching the streets myself. Everything. Six months had passed and there was no sign of her. And then I told Lisan.” She smiled sadly. “I did not mean to, but he could see I was worried, and it all came tumbling out. Thank Allah I told Lisan.”
“What did he do?” Billie asked, almost unbearably moved by the pain on Yasmin’s face.
“He found her and brought her to me,” she said simply. “He went to Marasef and searched until he found her. She was in a house of shame, as we had thought. They had drugged her with heroin and kept her addicted so that she would be docile and comply with the way they were using her.” Her voice was vibrant with agony. “My Zilah was only thirteen years old!”
“Oh, my God.” Billie could feel her own throat tighten with tears. “My God.”
“Have you ever seen anyone suffer from heroin addiction? It is a terrible thing. Not only for the addict, but for the people who are trying to help. I wasn’t strong enough to help her, but Lisan was. Lisan stayed with her while she suffered withdrawal symptoms that tore her apart. We gave her methadone, but the suffering was still a horror to watch.” Her face was a frozen mask of pain. “And when she was better, it was even worse, because she began to remember what had happened in that house. She felt ugly and used, and the nightmares were terrible. Lisan stayed with her then too. He filled her room with plants and flowers; he brought her huge bouquets of balloons. He surrounded her with color and caring and he held her hand and listened.” The tears were running down her cheeks in a slow trickle. “I could not listen. I tried, but I couldn’t do it. But Lisan listened, and gradually the pain poured into him and the ugliness vanished as if it had never been. Because in Lisan’s eyes she could see that she was still the beautiful child she had always been.” There was a moment of silence in the room more poignant than the words that had gone before. Then Yasmin shook her head as if to clear it of the painful memories and tried to smile. “Yes, Lisan’s happiness means much to me. There is very little I wouldn’t do to ensure it.”
“I can see that,” Billie said huskily, blinking rapidly to keep back the tears. “Where is Zilah now?”
“The doctor said it would be better to send Zilah far away from the site of her memories. Lisan sent her to America to people who will love and care for her.” She smiled sadly. “I miss her very much but it is best. She writes me, and her letters are content—and even happy sometimes.”
“I’m glad,” Billie said softly. “I’m so glad, Yasmin.”
“So am I,” Yasmin said simply, her dark eyes serene now. “And if helping you will make Lisan happy, then I must do it. It is because of my Zilah that he is in danger now. When Zilah left for America, he went back to Marasef. I had never seen Lisan angry before, but he was angry then.” She shivered. “It was a terrible, burning anger. He went to Alex Ben Raschid and together they destroyed the network that had preyed upon children like my Zilah.”
“No,” Billie said decidedly. “I can’t let you involve yourself more than you have already. You can help me dress and take me to this Silver Crescent if you like, but after that I’m on my own. You come directly back to the Casbah and wait until I get back.”
“But I wish—”
“No,” Billie repeated gently but firmly as she carried her armload of clothes toward the dressing room. “Yusef is my responsibility, and I’ll take care of this on my own.”
“The guard says they will probably keep your friend in the office in the back,” Yasmin said as she drew deeper into the shadowy doorway of the tiny shop across the street from the Silver Crescent. “The second green door.”
“Right.” Billie checked the pins in her hair to be sure they were secure and drew the hood over her head so that it shadowed her face. “I’ll be fine now. You go on back to the Casbah.”
“I don’t know,” Yasmin said hesitantly. “Perhaps…”
“Go,” Billie said firmly. She bent forward to brush the other woman’s cheek in an affectionate kiss. “Thank you.” Then she was striding across the cobbled street with what she hoped was a mannish gait and opening the door of the café.
She was immediately met with a blast of smoke and the music of zilaks and cymbals in a throbbing Eastern, rhythm. It was so dark she could barely make out the outline of the tables and the shapes of the robed figures that were seated at them. The only light was focused on the voluptuous figure of the belly dancer gyrating in the center of the dance floor, and the attention of everyone in the room appeared to be riveted on her shaking hips. It was no wonder, Billie thought wryly. How on earth did she keep that little bit of material from vibrating off? It had to be glued on. Well, the darkness and the floor show were definitely to her advantage, and she’d better use that distraction to get to the back office. Now, where the devil was it?