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"I can't marry you, Paul. Though I think you're a wonderful man, I'm not in love with you."
"Since your grandmother died, you're too sad to know your own feelings right now."
"But I do know them. A marriage between us wouldn't work."
"So you're really going on that trip?"
"Yes. I want to walk in her footsteps for a time. It's my tribute to her."
"You shouldn't go there alone, Lauren. At least let me come with you to protect you."
"Protect me? From what? No, Paul."
"How long will you be gone?"
"I don't know, but it doesn't matter. This has to be good-bye."
The Nafud Desert—The fifth of June
They wandered in the desert in a solitary way. Thirsty, their souls fainted in them.
The line from Psalms didn't leave Lauren Viret's mind as she drank from her water bag, surveying the indescribable vastness and loneliness of the northern Arabian desert.
Since they had left the major city of El-Joktor, bone-scorching heat had born down on their little group of twenty penetrating deeper into the desert's heart. Forty actually if you counted the camels. In a movie, the audience would consider them secondary characters. But out here where there were no movie cameras rolling, the humped female dromedary played the star role.
Lauren was less than a granule on this endless burning waste of sand where one could be swallowed alive in an instant. Before she'd set out this morning on her forty-mile journey, her guide, Mustafa, had lectured her that her camel was more valuable than any human.
She'd read enough firsthand accounts of desert survival to believe it. Besides transportation the camels provided shelter, protection, even water and food in dire circumstances.
While she was deep in thought, Mustafa urged his beast forward to ride alongside her. He talked with excitement as he pointed out the huge, awe-inspiring crescent-shaped dunes in this area of the Nafud Desert. It was true she'd never seen anything like them. No wonder her grandmother had never stopped talking about this place.
But Mustafa had no idea it was something flesh and blood, someone more awesome than these dunes that had captivated Lauren's American grandmother many years ago.
"Malik was bigger than life, Lauren," her grandmother had once told her, "the sheikh over all his people. His word was law. He was as beautiful as a god. I couldn't help myself loving him any more than I could stop breathing."
Lauren couldn't imagine a love like that.
She turned her head to glance at the camel drivers in their head scarves and cloaks, true men of the desert no doubt wondering what had possessed her to come out here alone. Lauren knew she looked out of place, a blonde American woman wearing the Arab male guthra and lightweight kandura herself, just the way her grandmother Celia Melrose Bancroft had once done.
Everyone at home had marveled over Lauren's resemblance to her grandmother. Odd how certain genetic traits skipped a generation. Lauren's mother had been a stunning brunette, as dark as Lauren was fair. Celia had given her daughter an Arabic name, Lana, meaning tender, which had added to the mystique of Lauren's beautiful mother. Both her mother and father had tragically died in a cable-car accident while skiing six months after Lauren was born, but thankfully Celia had hundreds of photographs which Lauren pored over to keep her father and mother alive in her heart.
"Jolie-laide," Paul had once murmured when he'd first seen a close up of Lana, but Lauren had heard him. In French that meant striking, in an interesting way without being beautiful. When she'd asked Paul what he'd meant by it he'd said, "I'm afraid you inherited all the ravissante genes, petite. No offense to your lovely mother."
Lauren had known that Paul had been flirting with her at the time. Of course, he didn't realize that Lauren's part-American, part-Arabic mother had the look of her father, the great Sheikh Malik Ghazi Shafeeq. Lauren had seen a copy of a picture of her grandfather from an old Arab newspaper her grandmother had once shown her. It was still with Celia's treasures.
The sheikh had been dressed in robes and head scarf, making it impossible to see much, except that he had a proud nose and wide mouth, which he'd bequeathed to his daughter. Lauren wondered if her grandfather might still be alive today? Probably not.
Now that Celia had passed away, no one else on earth knew of Lauren's relationship to her Arabic grandfather and they never would. But her curiosity where he was concerned had been one of the main reasons driving her to make this journey into the desert.
Tonight she'd camp out under the stars. Tomorrow the caravan would continue on to the Oasis Al-Shafeeq where she'd spend several weeks and hoped to find out more about the man himself.
On occasion Celia would say, "The one thing I see that reveals the Arab blood in you is your fierce passion for life. Only in that regard have I glimpsed signs of Malik. Mark my words with the right man, that passion will be unleashed."
Paul, a newspaper journalist from Paris, could never have been that man. Lauren liked Paul, but in her heart she was waiting for the day she experienced the grande passion her grandmother had often talked about.
Though Lauren had turned down Paul's marriage proposal, she feared that he hadn't given up hope of marrying her and would be waiting for her upon her return. It was this unflagging trait to his personality that had won him an interview with Celia in the first place.
For several years Paul had been wanting to do a series for his paper on the life of Richard Bancroft, Celia's deceased husband. Though Celia had been a young unwed mother at the time, Richard had married her and become a father figure to a young Lana. He had later become a favorite of Lauren's too, especially after her parents had been killed. Apparently it had never bothered Richard that Celia did not tell him the name of her lover, and Lana's father. It was simply enough that she'd loved Richard.
Richard had been a celebrated adventurer and anthropologist and had led fourteen different expeditions into some of the most inhospitable places on earth. Lauren and her grandmother had often gone along on some of his expeditions, amazed at the new sights they saw on their travels. But for some reason Richard had never traveled to the Arabian desert, and so neither Lauren nor her grandmother had ever ventured there either. Whether it was because her grandmother considered it too sacred a place to revisit with another man, or whether Richard's interests took him elsewhere, Lauren would never know.
With persistence, Paul had finally won the opportunity to interview Celia about her life with Richard and their many travels. From the beginning he'd made it his business to get to know Lauren, too, who had still lived with her grandmother in Montreux and was helping to compile Richard's many notes and diaries into a book for publication.
Celia had found Paul charming. Lauren had, too, but for her their relationship had been strictly platonic; her heart wasn't involved. Her grandmother had known that, but one day had confessed to Lauren that her greatest fear was to leave her beloved granddaughter alone without a companion to share her life.
"I won't always be alone," she had assured Celia. "Like you, I plan to travel and do something worthwhile with my life. In time someone will come along." Lauren hadn't wanted to cause her dying grandmother any unnecessary anxiety, but there'd always been honesty between them.
Once Celia was buried, Lauren had made preparations for this trip to the Oasis Al-Shafeeq. She had needed to see the place where her grandmother—romantic to the depths of her being—had experienced a soul-captivating love encountered beneath a full desert moon.
Lauren's hand instinctively went to her throat to touch the small hammered-gold medallion with its inscribed half moon on a gold chain hidden beneath her clothes. It had been her grandmother's greatest treasure, given to her by her lover during a romantic visit to the Garden of the Moon.
She'd mentioned another garden, too, the Garden of Enchantment.
The names had delighted Lauren and she knew she had to see them while she visited there. She considered the medallion a talisman she hoped would one day bring her the same kind of magic that had bonded her grandmother to her beloved sheikh, Malik, body and soul.
With her grandmother now gone, Lauren had wanted to rid herself of her intense sadness and had decided to come on this adventure. She intended to take the same trip her grandmother had taken years before, done in the exact same way.
Celia had been the only mother Lauren had ever known. Now that she was alone, Lauren's whole focus was on traveling to a spot that had resulted in a life-changing experience for Celia. To revisit the spot that had held such treasured memories for her grandmother.
Paul had begged to accompany Lauren on her trip. Earlier in the month he'd met some minor prince from the northern Arabian kingdom at one of the gaming tables at the casino in Montreux. Always looking for something newsworthy, Paul had taken the opportunity to get an interview and had snapped a few pictures of the prince and his retinue for the paper.
During their conversation, the prince, obviously flattered by Paul's attention and wanting the notoriety, had rhapsodized about the beauty of the Nafud, an area full of great photographic opportunities. He'd boasted that one day he would rule over the entire kingdom. Paul had confided to Lauren that even if it was only wishful thinking on the prince's part, it made a good story.
When he'd passed on this information to Lauren with so much eagerness, she'd hated turning him down, especially after he'd been so good to her grandmother toward the end of her life. But Lauren knew that Paul already had strong feelings for her and she'd refused to lead him on. He was an attractive man who deserved to fall in love with a woman who could love him back. Lauren wasn't that person.
Lost in thought now that she'd had hours to become accustomed to the jostling of her camel's strange gait, she hardly noticed the change in the topography to the southwest. It seemed there was a ridge of brownish mountains appearing as if out of nowhere. She frowned. Yesterday on her flight from Geneva, she'd studied a map of this area, but there'd been no indication of mountains alongside her proposed route to the oasis. She was positive of it.
Suddenly there was shouting. To her ears, the Arabic language always sounded a little like shouting, but these were guttural shouts of a different kind. They sent a thrill of alarm through her body.
"Mustafa?" she called to get his attention before realizing he must have moved further back to talk to the other men. She turned her head to find him. The caravan had stopped. "Mustafa?" she shouted so he'd hear her. "What's happening?"
His camel came up alongside hers. "A sandstorm! We must take cover at once! Pull on the reins so your camel will sit. Quickly!"
Sandstorm. The dreaded violent phenomenon of the desert. At full force more terrifying than a hurricane or a tornado. Only a few days ago she'd read about a caravan many years ago with two thousand people and eighteen hundred camels being overtaken by a storm. Enormous surges and clouds of red sand were raised and rolled forward, burying the whole tribe in its way. Only one Bedouin had survived to write about it.
The surge of wind he'd described in his account now snatched at her cloak without mercy, as if determined to remove it. A strange yellow color stained the blue sky, blotting it out as if it had never existed. It moved fast toward them like a pyroclastic flow from a volcano, but she heard no sound. Panic attacked her because she was finding it difficult to breathe.
Suddenly Mustafa pulled her off her camel with almost superhuman strength and pushed her against the camel's leeward side. "Hold on to the trappings, mademoiselle! Cover your entire head and burrow against the animal."
"But where will you be?" she cried out in fright.
"Next to you, mademoiselle. You mus—" But she wasn't destined to hear the rest. His words were muffled as he pulled the ends of his scarf around his face. One second he was there, the next second she saw nothing.
There was an eerie din in her ears.
"Mustafa!" she screamed, but sand filled her nostrils and throat, gagging her. She covered up, feeling herself start to suffocate. She was drowning in sand. Her head spun like a top, gaining momentum.
We're all going to die, was her last thought before oblivion took over.
Prince Rashad Rayhan Shafeeq, acting sheikh of the northern Arabian kingdom of Al-Shafeeq whilst his father was ill, had only experienced two moments of real jubilation in his life. Both times had been in his early teens. The first was when he'd broken in the stallion his father had given him. The other time had been when his father and the pilot had survived the crash of a small plane and had been missing in the desert for three days.
This afternoon at the mining city of Raz, he was feeling a different kind of elation mixed with personal satisfaction. This moment had been a long time in coming, three years in fact. Gold had kept the royal family prosperous for centuries and would continue to do so for the next thousand years, but his gamble to do more drilling—a secret those involved had strenuously guarded—had paid off.
Rashad glanced at the heads of the various departments seated around the conference table. He'd called in the most trusted of those who worked for him.
"Gentlemen. Today I met with the chief geologist and engineer who've given me the news I've been waiting for. The recent finds of minerals are so vast, my vision of opening up whole new industries to benefit my father's kingdom has been realized. Besides thousands of new jobs over time, it will mean more education opportunities for the tribe. More hospitals and health care."
Cheers resonated off the walls of the conference room.
This land had belonged to his family for centuries. They had rights to all the minerals and metals being taken from the ground.
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