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They rose from the sand. Crimson vipers ready to strike.
They called themselves the Al Asheera. The Tribe.
Blood-red scarves covered their treacherous features. Machine guns filled their fists, missile launchers lay at their feet.
They were the enemies of Taer. And the time had come for the resurrection of their traitorous souls.
King Jarek Al Asadi focused his all-terrain binoculars on the army of revolutionaries clustered between the slopes of sand dunes.
They'd been bred among the brush and rock. Weaned on the grit of the earth and the blood of their enemies. Their prized possession? Not life. Nor faith. Not even family.
They valued only the land beneath their feet and the swordshoned from generations of butcherystrapped to their backs.
They believed Taer was their territory, their hunting ground.
That was their first mistake.
The Al Asheera armed the missile launchers, their movements clipped with military precision. It had been five years since they'd last surfaced. Five years since they killed Jarek's parents, kidnapped his son.
That had been their second mistake.
Fury exploded in Jarek's chest, burned the back of his throat until he nearly choked.
He shifted on his belly, burying himself deeper behind the ridge. Grimly, he scanned his enemies' horses corralled by rocks a few yards from their masters. No added supplies hung from the saddles. Only water.
Once bloated, the goatskin bags lay nearly depleted against their horses' haunches. That meant the bastards hadn't traveled far. And they weren't worried about drying out.
It also meant their prey was in the vicinity.
The palace and city lay south behind Jarek less than a half day'sride. The nearest village lay more than forty miles east. He followed the horizon just past the Al Asheera, searching for an outlining camp.
But he was a patient man.
The wind gusted, kicking up sand and dust. Jarek ignored the slight irritation.
He was a man born from the Sahara, carved from the wind, sand and heattaught at a young age to endure.
The blood of kings ran hot in his veins, set the steel in his broad shoulders, the granite in his dark, chiseled features. Tradition, integrity and responsibility were his companions long before he'd understood his destiny.
Long before he understood the pain of betrayal.
Without warning, three gunshots burst from the western ridge.
Below, the signal brought the Al Asheera camp to life, their movements now more animated than precise.
The drone of an engine drifted over the wind.
Jarek followed the sound, then swore.
A four-seater plane came into view. The white, sleek bird rode low against a clear, blue sky. He didn't have to focus the binoculars to know the Royal Crest, his family's crest, was imprinted like a target on its belly.
Two missiles exploded from the Al Asheera encampment. On their heels came another burst of gunfire. Frustration and helplessness edged the fury, forced Jarek to draw deep, harsh breaths.
"Come on, Ramon," he whispered, silently encouraging his pilot to evade the attack.
As if hearing him, the plane banked, drawing up hard. A second later, the Al Asheera missiles rushed past its right wing, harmless.
But the maneuver cost the pilot distance. The plane faltered, then dipped over the camp, exposing its underbelly to the revolutionaries below.
A small cry of surprise exploded from behind Jarek. He swung around on his knee, his rifle leveled.
"Papa?" A boy, nearly six years in age, tugged a gray mare's reinsalmost three times the boy's heighturging the animal forward.
"Rashid." Jarek swore and lowered the rifle. Trepidation raked his gut, cutting clean through to the anger, then deeper to the fear. "What are you doing here?"
A sudden burst of gunfire ripped through the stomach of the plane. A cheer rose over the wind as the engine smoked and shuddered, the aircraft struggled to maintain its altitude.
Almost instantly, the plane changed direction, heading away from the Al Asheera and toward Jarek. This time a cry of alarm rose from the camp. In mass, the revolutionaries scrambled toward their horses.
But Jarek barely noticed. The plane lost its struggle and tilted into a nosedive. His gaze followed the white blur until it crashed beyond the horizon.
"Stay, Ping." The boy dropped the reinsconfident his horse would stand near his father's.
The small prince scrambled up next to Jarek.
Rashid Al Asadi stopped less than a foot from his father. Jarek noted the black eyesintense, sharp like a well-polished, well-cut onyx.
His wife, Saree's, eyes.
The rest was Al Asadi. Beneath the soft, round face lay the promise of Jarek's square jaw and high cheekbones. And if one looked closely enough, the suggestion of a high forehead and the sharp features of Jarek's father, Makrad Al Asadi.
Jarek glanced away, unwilling to look that close.
The boy had been born with an old soul and a clever mind, Jarek's cousin, Quamar, had stated years before. A combination that equaled nothing less than an insatiable curiosity.
"Ramon?" The little boy's gaze darted past Jarek to where the plane had disappeared. Purpose was there, in the set of the boy's shoulders.
"What are you doing here, Rashid?" But his tone lost its angry edge because fear was there, too. A fear that he also saw lurking in the darkest part of his son's eyes.
"I heard you tell Uncle Quamar that you were taking a ride in the desert on Taaj before Miss Kwong arrived today," he whispered. "I thought you might want company."
Jarek had actually told Quamar that he wanted to distance himself from the American reporter, but he did not correct his son.
"You were wrong to follow me, Rashid." Jarek understood disciplining his son would have to wait, but the words would not. "And don't tell me you didn't understand that before you rode Ping out here. I imagine your tutor has Trizal searching for you as we speak. You must have worried him a great deal when you did not show up for your studies."
As Jarek's personal secretary, Trizal Lamente, had dealt with Rashid's impulsive behavior too many times in the past to react with fear but not without urgency.
Quamar, too, would be searching for them soon, if not already.
"I left Trizal a note explaining what I had done."
Jarek believed him. His son was high-spirited and headstrong, but he did not lie.
"And you think that because you told my secretary you were skipping studies, it is better?" Jarek admonished. "And your Royal Guards? Where were they?"
Before his son could answer, Jarek pulled Rashid with him to the horses. "We will discuss your disobedience later. Now we must help Ramon."
"Do you think they are dead?" Rashid's bottom lip trembled, reminding Jarek just how young his son was.
"I don't know," Jarek answered truthfully, but tempered the words with a softer tone.
Sarah's image flashed before him. The long, black hair, the vibrant green eyes, the delicate lines of her face.
Fear raked his gut. Icy and razor-sharp.
He helped his son onto Ping's back. "But if they are not, they might be injured and need our help."
The logical thing to do was to take Rashid back to the palace, then send soldiers to rescue those in the plane. But as soon as Jarek thought of it, he brushed the option aside. The soldiers would arrive too late. Even for his son, he could not leave people to die at the hands of the Al Asheera.
"We're going to ride fast." Jarek swung up onto Taaj. "Can you stay with me?"
Jarek had no doubt his son could, having spent more time riding Ping than in the classroom studying.
It was the vulnerability and the realization that his son might have to deal with yet another death in his short life that made Jarek wonder what else the young boy could handle.
"Yes." The word cracked but didn't weaken the underlying resolve in Rashid's voice. "I can stay with you."
After a short, firm nod, Jarek ordered, "Let's go then."
They had very little time to reach the plane before the Al Asheera.
With grim determination, he prodded Taaj to a full gallop, making sure his son's horse stayed abreast.
He just prayed he wasn't risking Rashid's life in a race toward the dead.
She felt the pain, thick and hot. It rolled through her head and down to her chestforced her to inhale deep. But with the oxygen came the stench of death, clouded with dust, tinted with blood. It caught in her throat and clogged her lungs.
She gagged, coughed, then gagged again before she pushed it all back with a shudder.
Blinking hard, Sarah Kwong focused through the blur and grit that coated her eyes. The pain was still there, jarred free with her short, jerky movements. She touched her temple, felt the wet, sticky blood against her fingers.
Slowly, she lifted her head and took in the damage surrounding her.
The nose and cockpit were no more than gnarled steel buried deep under sand. The pilot, Ramon, lay slumped against the instruments of the plane. The windshield had shattered on impact. Shards of glass covered the pilot's head and upper body.
Blood matted his gray hair and coated his forehead and face in a wide, crimson mask.
She hit the release button on her seat belt and slid to the space between their seats. Vertigo hit her in waves. She stopped, caught her breath, calmed the nausea.
At sixty, Ramon had three decades on her. But with a forthcoming smile and easy banter, the pilot formed an instant rapport with her on their flight from Morocco.
She scooted forward and placed her fingers against his neck.
His pulse was weak and fluttery. Still, he had one.
Carefully, she pulled him back into his seat. Blood soaked his polo shirt, turning the navy blue a crimson black. A shard of glass, the size of her forearm, protruded from his chest. Sarah's gut tightened in protest over the bits of bone and jagged skin that clung to its toothed edges.
The sun beat down on the plane, thickening the air to a rancid oven heat. Sweat stung her eyes. Impatiently she wiped it away, then glanced around for something to stem the flow of his blood.
Fear tightened her chest, forcing her to exhale in a long, shaky breath. "Don't you dare die on me, Ramon," she threatened, hoping her words would jar the injured man awake.
She'd dressed in cream-colored cotton pants, a matching long-sleeved blouse andaware of convention in a foreign countrya camisole beneath for modesty sake.
Quickly, she unbuttoned her blouse, slipped it off, then ripped the material down the back and into two pieces.
She placed the first half under his head and pressed the second against the flow of blood from his chest.
"Don't touch it." The command was weak and raspy with pain.
But her relief came swift, making her voice tremble enough to draw the pilot's gaze. "Don't talk," she warned, while her fingers probed lightly, judging the depth of his chest wound. "Save your strength."
Ramon struggled to keep his leather-brown eyes on her. Blood ran from his mouth, dripped from his chin. "It doesn't matter now."
"Don't talk like that," she snapped, the harshness more from fear than irritation or anger. "I just need to stop the bleeding"
"It's too late." The words struggled past the moist rattle that filled his chest.
Ramon's hand slid to his side. He pulled his gun from its holster. "Take this. Protect yourself," he gasped. He shoved it at her until she took the pistol. "Grab the survival kit. Run."
"Run from who?"
"Roldo." He grasped at her arm. Blood made his fingers slick, while the loss of blood made his grip weak. "Go now."
"I can't leave"
"Tell the king I'm sorry."
Before Sarah could answer him, Ramon's hand fell to the floor, limp.
Sarah had seen death before. Many times. But always behind yellow crime scene tape with a microphone in her hand and a camera over her shoulder.
Her fingers fluttered over his cheek, then closed his eyes.
Never had death brushed this close, or been this personal. The finality left her cold and empty.
Sarah swore and pressed her fingers into her eyes, averting the prick of tears, easing the throb of pain.
Suddenly, a horse whinnied to the right of the plane.
Sarah grabbed the gun and thumbed the safety off.
She aimed the pistol at the door. "Come through that door and it will be the last thing you do," Sarah yelled.
"Don't shoot, damn it. It's Jarek, Sarah." The sharp voice came from the outsidea command not a question. Only one man had a voice like thatthe deep, haunting timbre, the edges clipped with a hint of a British accent.
When the passenger door slammed open, she was already lowering the pistol. "Your Majesty, this is a surprise."
Coal-black eyes swept over her, taking in her slender frame, the pale skin.
She knew what he was thinking. Delicate. Reserved. Harmless. That's what most people thought.
What he'd thought all those years ago. Before he got to know her.
"Are you injured?" He nodded toward the blood-soaked camisole.
"No." She lied without qualm, her eyes studying the man. He hadn't changed much over the past eight years. Leaner, more rigid, maybe. He dressed casually in tan riding breeches, a white linen shirt and black riding boots. The clothes were tailored and fit snugly over his broad shoulders, lean hips and long, masculine legs.
He certainly had the look of a desert king: an indigo scarf wrapped around his head, his sharp angled features, his skin bronzed from the sun and slightly grooved from the elements.
His eyes narrowed as they met hers.
Something shifted inside her. Fear? Relief? "Ramon is dead."
Jarek glanced over at the pilot, but the king's features remained stiff, emotionless. Only the slight tightening of his jaw gave away the fury beneath the indifference. Sarah realized she would have missed it if she hadn't been studying his features so intently.