Businesswoman Simone Hayes traveled to the exotic land of Nazaar to search for family. But instead of having the idyllic vacation she'd hoped for, she witnessed a murder that had far-reaching political implications. To escape with her life, Simone needed the protection of Nazaar's most powerful man...the sheik. Accustomed to wielding his authority, Sheik Markaz al Nazaari had traits that clashed against Simone's Western independence. But while Simone and Markaz came from two ...
Businesswoman Simone Hayes traveled to the exotic land of Nazaar to search for family. But instead of having the idyllic vacation she'd hoped for, she witnessed a murder that had far-reaching political implications. To escape with her life, Simone needed the protection of Nazaar's most powerful man...the sheik.
Accustomed to wielding his authority, Sheik Markaz al Nazaari had traits that clashed against Simone's Western independence. But while Simone and Markaz came from two different worlds, they shared one common passion: each other. And with an attraction this intense, would boundaries or borders keep them apart?
From his hiding place among the ruins of the ancient castle known as Al-Qasr, the business-suited man studied the foreign tourist through powerful binoculars. He was almost disappointed to find that she wasn't the one he'd come to kill.
As she spoke boldly to a male guard, the watcher's lip curled in distaste. When he ruled Nazaar, such wanton behavior would be punished. Female beauty like hers would be hidden from men's eyes, saving them from the sinful lust he felt stirring in his loins.
Should he kill this woman, too, as an example to all temptresses? He touched the vial of poison in his pocket. There was enough for her as well as his intended target. Why not start as he meant to go on?
Simone Hayes felt her heartbeat quicken as she saw the motorcade arrive at Al-Qasr. As she'd hoped, the fleet of Rolls Royce cars pulled up close to where a silk cordon separated the tourists from the royal party. Unlike the expectant crowd around her, she wasn't waiting for a glimpse of His Royal Highness Sheikh Markaz bin Kemal al Nazaari, hereditary monarch of Nazaar.
Nevertheless, her gaze was attracted by a pennant bearing the royal coat of arms fluttering from the lead car. Then the sheikh himself emerged from the vehicle. Unlike most of his entourage, Markaz al Nazaari had no beard to reduce the impact of a strong, unyielding profile that would have looked at home on a Roman coin. His upright bearing and assured movements suggested an enviable ease with who and what he was. Simone didn't need to be any closer to feel the air of absolute authority he projected.
Applause followed him as he was welcomed by the director of the Al-Qasr, an ancient fortress complex in thedesert, now a popular tourist attraction. In contrast to the intense light, everything about the sheikh looked dark, from the glimpse of night-dark hair and brows visible under his traditional headdress, to his burnished olive skin. She couldn't see his eyes as he approached the receiving line, but she would bet they were dark, too. He looked about as relaxed as a trap waiting to be sprung, she thought with uncharacteristic fancy.
Out of professional interest, she itched to get a better look at the mishlah he wore over his white dishdasha. The mishlah, a transparent black surcoat with exquisitely embroidered gold edges, was only worn by royals, sheikhs and potentates. On his head was the haik, a long stream of white cloth held in place by an i'qal, a black band threaded with gold.
Taller than the men around him with the exception of a giant who stayed glued to his boss's side, the sheikh looked exactly how Simone had imagined a prince of the desert should look.
She had to make an effort to switch her attention to the guards and attendants surrounding the sheikh. Could her father's half brother be among them, as her inquiries had led her to hope?
Unfortunately, every one of the sheikh's party wore impeccable -- and identical -- white dishdashas, the traditional neck-to-ankle male garment in Nazaar. Only their roving eyes and the tiny black earpieces linked to wires disappearing inside their clothing distinguished them from the other Nazaari men she'd seen when she explored the ancient site earlier.
The man she sought had a distinctive tattoo of a coiled snake around his right wrist, but the sleeves of their dish-dashas fell over the men's hands. How was she supposed to get a look at their wrists?
She hadn't expected to be so distracted by the sheikh that he and several members of his party were inside the main building by the time she snapped out of her reverie. Now what was she going to do? She'd already been told that no visitors were allowed inside while the sheikh inspected some recently completed restoration work on the famous tourist attraction. She would have to try again to spot her half uncle when the royal party emerged from the main building.
The inspection would last exactly forty-five minutes, she'd been told by an attendant, then the sheikh would be entertained to lunch under an elaborate marquee erected between the rose-colored buildings.
Around her the crowd was dispersing, heading for the air-conditioned café or into the other monuments that were still open to the public. Simone had explored some of them before it became too hot.
Although she had Nazaari blood and the Australian climate should have prepared her, she found the baking heat of the desert more of a challenge than she'd anticipated. She decided to freshen up at the restroom alongside the café, then have a cold drink before resuming her study of the sheikh's party. This time she would try to keep her mind on her mission, she promised herself.
The most pressing was to find her father's half brother who'd stayed in Nazaar when her parents had fled to Australia after her father's life was threatened for writing editorials supporting Markaz's father, Kemal. Ali al Hasa had agreed with the old sheikh's efforts to drag Nazaar into the twentieth century, but Kemal had been assassinated for his efforts, along with his older son, forcing Markaz to return from living in America and take over the reins.
Her other purpose was to source new designs and materials for her thriving, Internet-based heirloom embroidery business. Her mother, a skilled seamstress, had stimulated Simone's fascination with Middle Eastern crafts. She'd allowed herself a week to track down Yusef, and another to focus on her business, but the first week was almost up and this was as far as she'd come.
Simone stopped long enough to remove her sun visor and fan herself with it, for all the good it did. Before leaving Australia she'd had her heavy curtain of pale gold hair cut to chin length. Now the strands curled damply in the heat. Her father had teased her mother about their only daughter's golden coloring. Fortunately her features left her parentage in no doubt. Her nose and chin were as well defined as her father's, while her long lashes and full lips were inherited from Sara. She also had Ali's energy and commitment, demonstrated in the success of her business.
In Australia he'd changed their family name from al Hasa to Hayes, settling at Port Lincoln on the fringe of Australia's great desert, the Nullarbor Plain, the landscape most like his homeland. There Ali had started an Arabic newsletter for expatriates. Simone had worked with him for a few years, polishing her language skills, although they still left a lot to be desired in her opinion. When he'd taken the newsletter online, she'd decided it was time to do her own thing, also using the Internet. Ali had been her strongest supporter.
Sadness yawned inside her for her father, brought back no doubt by being surrounded by men who reminded her so much of him. After everything Ali and Sara had gone through making a new life for themselves and their daughter, the ultimate cruelty had been having his life ended by a hit-and-run driver. By his side as she usually was, Sara had suffered a broken leg and bruising, but had recovered.
While Sara's physical injuries had healed, her mind had been slower to recover. She had plunged into a clinical depression that nothing so far had been able to relieve. Thinking of her in the nursing home in Port Lincoln, Simone felt another wave of sadness sweep over her. She hadn't wanted to leave her mother in her present condition, but Sara was in good hands and had begged Simone to find out what had happened to the young relative they'd left behind in Nazaar. Yusef al Hasa would be almost fifty now, no longer the young hothead her mother remembered. At twenty-eight, Simone herself was older than Yusef had been when her parents left Nazaar. They'd wanted him to come with them, but he'd joined the rebels opposing the reform process.
How had he made the leap from rebel to sheikh's guard, Simone wondered. Had he finally been convinced that Markaz's father was right in wanting to give his people more freedom, especially the women? Or had Yusef simply grown weary of fighting a losing battle?
Nazaar was still far from being a free country, but from her parents Simone knew things had improved greatly in the last thirty years. Women were no longer considered the property of men, and could drive cars and pursue careers, although from what Simone had seen, more than a few men still regarded their wives as possessions. About half the women she'd seen still wore traditional abayas, long black hooded cloaks over their clothes. A very few wore burkas, fabric masks that left only their eyes visible to the world.
The sheikh still ruled, but members of his advisory council were elected by the people every four years. Since Nazaar opened its borders to tourists ten years before, her parents had talked of returning for a visit, but had never gotten around to it. Simone suspected they had preferred to keep their memories intact.
Lost in thought, she was almost bowled over by a woman pushing past her into the ladies' room. "You're excused," she muttered in mild annoyance as she followed the woman into the cool interior. A swinging door leading to the cubicles explained the woman's haste.
Like the rest of the site, the restroom was spotless and gleaming, the rose-colored marble walls in keeping with the historic locale. Wide velvet-covered couches with elaborate curling ends lined the walls and a counter held a brass drinking water fountain and disposable cups. Simone made a beeline for it, slaking her thirst with a sigh of pleasure.
At a basin, she splashed water onto her face and wrists and the back of her neck, glad to have the room to herself for a few seconds. Behind her, a rush of water preceded the other woman's return. Only then, Simone noticed the woman was chalk-white and gripping the edge of the door for support.
Her previous irritation at the woman turned to concern. "Are you all right?"
The woman shook her head, then said in American-accented English, "The heat is affecting me."
"Maybe you should sit down." Simone said, wondering if she should find someone to help. The woman looked really ill.
The woman lurched to one of the couches and dropped onto it, resting her head back against the marble wall. Without asking, Simone filled another cup with water and offered it to her.
Her reward was a shaky smile. "Thanks." She drank quickly, but when she lowered her hand, the cup slid out of her grasp.
Simone picked it up. She had the nagging feeling she'd seen the woman somewhere before. But where and when? Her speech was American, and she had the put-together look of a professional woman. She wore tailored navy pants and a long-sleeved white shirt with the kind of easy elegance Simone envied. The woman would have been attractive but for her waxy skin and the way her short-cropped dark hair was sticking to her face.
Annoyed at feeling helpless, Simone looked around. Fine time for the attendant to be on a break. "Shall I find a doctor for you?"
"No, thanks. I just need to get back to my car." Suddenly she bent forward, clutching her stomach. She didn't moan, but her tightly compressed lips suggested she wanted to. Alarmed, Simone said, "You're in no condition to drive. I'll find someone who works here to help you."
"No." The command rang with unexpected authority as the woman straightened. "Please don't," she added in an obvious effort to soften the command.
Stayed at the entrance, Simone turned back. "You could have food poisoning, or some kind of bug.You need a doctor."
The woman smiled wanly. "I'll see someone as soon as I get back to my hotel. My car is in the closest parking lot." She levered herself to her feet, but tottered when she took a few steps.
Simone was at her side instantly. "At least let me help you as far as the parking lot."
As they stepped out into the heat the woman's breath caught but she steadied herself. Simone steered her to the blue rental car she indicated, noting that it took the woman three tries to get the doors unlocked with the remote. How on earth did she expect to drive anywhere? "Look, there's a first-aid center near the restroom. Why don't I -- "