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He looked up at the wood beams of the rustic cabin's ceiling and, for one bewildering moment, couldn't remember anything. He didn't know how he'd come to be there, in the out-of-place hospital bed, hooked up to machines. He didn't even know his own name.
All he knew was that he was in danger. And choking.
He yanked out the tubes that obstructed his airway and drew a ragged breath. As he breathed, in great heaving gulps, everything rushed back in a dizzying flood of information. A car explosion. Fire. Somebody trying to kill him.
Then a name: Amir Khalid.
He was Sheik Amir of Jamala, ruler of a small Mediterranean island nation. But this wasn't home, far from it. He was in Wyoming for a business summit and to find the American doctor who, for months now, had haunted his dreams.
He squinted against the late-afternoon sun that streamed in through the windows, still plenty hot in the middle of summer. Nothing but open land out there and a stand of trees in the distance. If he'd been rescued from the explosion, he would be in a hospital. That he was in the middle of nowhere could mean only one thing. Kidnapped.
A car door slammed outside.
He tugged off the medical attachments from his chest and arm, then sat up, a wave of dizziness hitting him. He held on to the edge of the bed. Anger swept through him, his hands fisting at the thought of being incapacitated and at the mercy of his enemies.
Get going. Get out.
He put his feet to the floor and pushed to standing, but his legs couldn't remember how to walk. His knees buckled.
He swallowed the bitterness bubbling up his throat. Not that long ago, his first thought wouldn't have been running. It would have been confronting his enemies, defeating them or going out in a blaze of glory. Now his first priority had to be his safety. The fate of a whole country depended on him; the lives of millions were in his hands. He had to let his security force handle the bastards who had put him in this shape, no matter how much beating a retreat went against his grain.
He needed to switch his hospital gown for real clothes, find a cell phone and a weaponnot necessarily in that order. The one-bedroom cabin held a sofa bed and his hospital bed in the living area, kitchen cabinets lining the far wall, the pots and pans on the shelf interspersed with old golf trophies. Nothing beyond the basic necessities, not even a TV. He noted the two doors, one to the outside, closed, one to a small bathroom, open. Keep moving.
He dragged himself over to the kitchen counter, leaning against the wall the whole way. His joints had rusted up; his muscles felt as if they'd gone on vacation. His mind was foggy; his thoughts disjointed. Maybe the explosion had given him a concussion. Frustration filled him to the brim, but was pierced by a ray of hope when he spotted the knife in the sink.
He grabbed the meager weapon, then stumbled toward the pegs on the wall by the front door, aiming for the worn rain slicker to cover the hospital gown he was wearing. He had almost reached it when the door openedthe blinding sunlight outlining a dark shape.
Head down, he put whatever strength he had into slamming the bastard into the wall and braced for pain. But instead of an eruption of violence, he nearly folded to the floor. Slim arms reached out to hold him up.
"You shouldn't be out of bed."
He looked up into blue eyes that were filled with concern and some other, harder emotion, a familiar face framed with long black hair. A new wave of confusion washed over him. "Isabelle?"
Maybe his concussion was more severe than he'd thought. Maybe he was hallucinating. But no, the woman in front of him was all too real. She took the knife from him as easily as if from a child, tossed it onto the counter and tried to help him back to the hospital bed.
His masculine pride insisted on the sofa, and so did he.
"Okay. For a little while," said that sensuous voice he hadn't been able to forget. "How do you feel?"
The same way he'd felt when he'd been thrown by the lead camel at a race a couple of years ago and stomped on by the rest. He wasn't about to tell her that, not until he got his bearings and figured out what was going on. His voice was rough and rusty as he asked the most basic question, "Where are we?"
"At my father's hunting cabin. He used to call it his escape pod. I don't think he actually ever hunted. He came here to avoid my mother." She talked to him slowly, in a reassuring tone, a doctor who knew she had a disoriented patient on her hands.
Yet there was some tightness around her eyes anger?that put him on guard. Just because he remembered her most fondly, it didn't mean she felt the same, although he couldn't think of why she would be mad at him.
Yet her posture was rigid. "How is your throat?"
He swallowed painfully. "Raw."
A slight breeze blew in through the open door. He turned his face into it for a second and figured out at last why the air smelled all wrong in this place. He couldn't smell the ocean.
He wanted to ask why they were here, but he registered her full body at last, his mind beginning to function a little better, the mental haze thinning. He blinked hard. "You're pregnant." His voice sounded even hoarser than before.
"Why, thank you for noticing," she said with a dose of sarcasm as she stepped away from him, moving briskly to the hospital bed to shut off the machines, then to the door to close it.
"Are we safe?"
"Nobody knows you're here."
He didn't feel safe. His instincts still signaled danger.
Everything around him was small, the cabin all wood and unfamiliar. His country being an island nation, they didn't have an overabundance of trees. Buildings were made of stone or brick, which kept their interior cool during the hot Mediterranean summers. He felt out of place here.
"I need my phone."
"Absolutely not." She had her strict doctor face on as she came back to him. "Whatever business you have can wait. First things first."
She reached for the old-fashioned blood-pressure cuff on the coffee table and wrapped it around his arm and started to pump it. Her long, slim fingers woke up nerve endings wherever she touched him.
"You shouldn't even be out of bed. Stay off your feet. Your blood pressure could drop without notice. You don't want to fall and bang yourself up all over again."
He needed to talk to her about the danger they were in, but his gaze kept slipping to her round belly. Disappointment and some other stronger emotion, one he didn't care to examine, filled up his chest. "You are married?"
"In this day and age, a woman doesn't need a husband to have a baby." She had a scowl on her face as she lifted a finger so he'd stay quiet while she counted. "Blood pressure's a little low, but not bad, all things considered." She put the cuff away, then left him again to go to the kitchen.
He wished she would stay put by his side for a while to give him a chance to drink in the sight of her, a chance to sort his thoughts into some order. Against her medical advice, he tried to rise, but his legs wouldn't support him, so he slumped back onto the sofa with ill grace.
"Who?" He wanted to know who had seduced her, then abandoned her, so he could have some words with the blackguard as soon as he felt better. The thought of anyone hurting Isabelle was intolerable. "What's his name?"
She was searching for something in the refrigerator, ignoring him. She was just as beautiful as he remembered, her movements graceful despite her swollen belly, her eyes intelligent and inquisitive.
Despite the months that had passed since their first and only meeting, his attraction hadn't lessened any.
"Want to tell me who wants you dead?" She put a pot of something on the electric stove, studiously keeping her eyes on the task, almost as if wanting to avoid his gaze.
"The million-dollar question." He sounded every bit as morose as he felt. His memory had big, gaping holes in it. "What happened last night? I don't remember everything."
He didn't remember when she'd come into the picture, or how he'd gotten here. He clamped his teeth, hating to admit weakness, hating to be sitting there, disoriented, clad only in a hospital gown not exactly the image he'd planned to project when he'd decided to find the American doctor he'd had a two-day affair with, then couldn't forget.
"Let's see." She looked at him as she stirred the pot, and watched him carefully. "Last night I tried to catch up on my medical journals. You were in a coma. Same old, same old."
His mind, barely settled since he'd woken, went into another spin. "A coma? For more than a day?" Had the summit started without him? He was one of five royals, all leading small Mediterranean island nations, who'd come to the United States for trade negotiations and agreements about undersea oil fields. The economic recovery of other countries depended on this summit, not just his.
Pity suffused her delicate face. "A month. Take it easy, all right? You'll be fine. You made it. Don't stress yourself out. You need to keep calm and you need to be resting."
The cabin closed in around him, all that dark wood making him feel like he was trapped in a cave. He wanted the spacious rooms of his palace with their whitewashed walls and tall ceilings, with all those open views of the Mediterranean Sea surrounding his island. He wanted normal and familiar, a point of reference. His ears were buzzing.
"How?" The one-word question tore from his throat.
"Your limousine blew up on the road I usually take to work. I was driving to the hospital in Dumont for my shift, and there you were, trying to climb from the wreckage. I recognized you. You asked for my help. You demanded that I not call the authorities."
He recalled the phone threat Prince Stefan had received the day they had arrived in the United States, the threatening letters he himself had received in the leading up to their trip. He also remembered now that minute or two after the explosion, mangled thoughts mixed in with the pain.
He had thought he would just need a minute to recover. Then he could go back to the resort, and between him and his friends they would figure out what was going on, figure out the publicity angle. He had wanted his security to check the scene before the police cordoned off the area as their crime scene.
His next thought made his stomach clench with dread. "The driver?"
Her lips flattened into a grim line. "Dead on impact. You had minor burns and some serious lacerations. Hit your head pretty hard. All in all, you were very lucky."
He hung his head, not feeling lucky in the least. He would have Bahur's family found and would make sure they were taken care of. The least he could do was to make sure that they had everything they needed. Guilt ate at him as he thought of the years the man had spent in his service, the future Bahur had been robbed of.
Because of him.
Those threatening notes hadn't been bluffing. They weren't some discontent coward's way of trying to spread fear, as he had first hoped. His enemies were prepared to kill.
And here he was, in the middle of nowhere, unarmed and without any security. With Isabelle. Which made a bad situation intolerable. "My presence here puts you in danger."
Except, an enemy who was resourceful enough to gain details of his top-secret trip to the United States, and could get close enough to put a bomb in his limousine, obviously had considerable resources and investigative skills. "We will leave this place. Thank you for bringing me here and hiding me," he added, wanting to make sure that she knew her help was appreciated.
For a moment she looked unsettled, as if not quite sure what to do with him. "You were in and out of it at first, pretty adamant that I shouldn't call anyone. Then you lost it completely, and I was dialing 9-1-1 when this shady-looking guy came to the door, pretending to be an investigator, asking if I saw the explosion, if I saw anyone driving by or walking away from the wreckage. He had an accent."
"A hard accent. Not French, for sure. Russian, maybe." She paused for a second. "His hand kept straying to his back. I was pretty sure he had a gun ready. He gave me the creeps. I hung up the phone. Later that night I brought you out here. I was going to call an ambulance if your condition took a turn for the worse, if your vitals became unstable. They never did." Her voice was soft, but that tightness still lingered around her eyes.
Her attitude toward him seemed to be a mixture of concern and resentment. Yet, somehow he got the feeling that the resentment wasn't about the imposition of her having to take care of him.
"You saved my life." No question about that. The kingdom of Jamala and he, personally, owed her a great debt. She and her child would be taken care of and would never have to feel the sting of the father's abandonment. "I owe you my gratitude."
She shrugged that off. "You had the good sense to be in a light coma. Any worse and I wouldn't have had a choice but to take you in for intensive care. And you get points for getting blown up with a doctor in hailing distance."
He'd been in high spirits that night, just back from an evening in town with his friends. Their first day in the United States. And he couldn't let it end without seeing Isabelle. "I was coming back to you. I should have come sooner."
She busied herself with stirring the soup. "It doesn't matter."
But it did. Because if he had come back months ago, hadn't let her slip away after their amazing weekend, then she wouldn't have met another man, wouldn't be carrying another man's child now. Had he expected that after all this time she would wait for him? A part of him, deep down, obviously had.
Something sharp stabbed him in the middle of his chest.
He had meant to come back, had made plans. But matters of the state had interfered. He was a sheik; his time was not his own. Not even now.