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He'd found her.
It'd taken three weeks, a small fortune, two private investigators, the help of Sarq's secretary of state, a lot of secret handshakes, deals and promisesas well as some threatsbut at last he was going to see her.
Sheikh Khalid Fehr ducked to enter through Ozr Prison's low threshold. He was escorted past the men's wing to the women's side of the prison, the foul smell of overflowing toilets and unwashed bodies so overpowering his stomach rose in protest.
At the entrance to the women's prison wing his male guard handed him over to a female guard who examined Khalid's paperwork.
The female guard, covered head to foot by her black robe, took her time reading through his paperwork, and Khalid stifled his impatience. Ozr had the reputation for being one of the worst prisons in the worldit was a place notorious for the lack of human rightsbut finally the female guard looked up, nodded curtly. "Follow me," she said.
He followed her through one low arched corridor after another, deeper beneath the old fortress which had been turned into Ozr Prison a half century ago.
As they walked through the corridors, hands reached out, and voices in Arabic, Egyptian, Farsi and even English begged for help, for mercy, for a doctor, a lawyer, anyone, anything. Ozr was the last place on earth any man would want to be. God only knew how it was for a woman, as once you entered through the prison's gates, you discovered you'd earned a one-way ticket. Once you were in, you never came out again.
One of Khalid's friends from high school had gotten into trouble in Jabal and after being arrested was tossed into Ozr was never heard from again. Khalid's father, theKing of Sarq, had made enquiries and then entreaties on his son's friend's behalf all to no avail.
Jabal, bordered by four countries including Egypt and Sarq, remained a dangerous dictator state, with international travel warnings in place, warnings that Olivia Morse had obviously ignored.
The guard stopped before a cell that was empty except for a woman sitting on a narrow cot, her knees drawn to her chest, wisps of blond hair escaping from her black veil.
Khalid's chest tightened, a visceral reaction to seeing her for the first time.
In her passport photo she'd been pretty, fresh-faced, a hopeful light in her blue eyes. But the young woman sitting inside the cell didn't look like the photo anymore. The woman inside the cell appeared vacant, even half-dead.
"Olivia Morse," he asked, stepping toward the bars.
Her head briefly lifted but she didn't look at him.
"You are Miss Olivia Morse, aren't you?" he persisted, his voice pitched low.
Liv sat on the cot, legs pulled up against her, her arms wrapped tightly around her knees, trying to make herself smaller.
Maybe she wasn't really here, and maybe there wasn't another bad man standing outside her cell demanding information, threatening another interrogation, interrogations that always ended with a beating.
Didn't they understand yet that she had no answers? Didn't they understand she was as confused as they were? She'd been had. Duped. Destroyed.
Liv closed her eyes, bent her head and pressed her forehead against the bony curve of her knees. Maybe if she just kept her eyes closed she'd disappear. Dissolve. Wake up in Alabama again.
God, she missed home. God, she missed Jake and Mom and everyone.
She should have never dreamed of pyramids and beautiful waves of sand, shouldn't have wanted to ride a camel or explore the ancient tombs.
She should have been happy staying home. She should have been happy just being a travel agent, booking other people's exotic vacations.
The man spoke her name quietly, urgently, and fear rose up in her, fear that something bad was going to happen again.
Turning her head away, she choked in broken Arabic, Arabic she'd learned to protect herself from another blow during the endless interrogations, "I don't know. I don't know who she was"
"We'll discuss the charges later," he interrupted, speaking flawless English, English without a hint of an accent. "There are a few things we need to settle first."
Liv shivered. The fact that he spoke English only made her more afraid, and fear and fatigue were the only things she understood anymore.
"If I knew who she was, I'd tell you, I would. Because I want to go home" She broke off, took a quick, unsteady breath, exhausted from the interrogations. The guards came for her at all hours of the night and then they'd skip her meals, trying to break her, trying to get the information they wanted. "I want to help you. I'm trying to help you. Believe me."
"I do," he said almost gently, and his tone, so different from the others, was her undoing.
Scalding tears filled her eyes, tears so hot they stung and burned as if filled with salt and sand.
Reaching up, she swiftly wiped her eyes dry. "I want to go home," she whispered, her voice shaky.
"And I want to see you return home."
No one had said that to her since she arrived. No one had given her the slightest bit of hope that she'd ever leave this horrible place.
Liv slowly turned her head and looked at him. The corridor was dark, shadowy, but the shadows couldn't hide his height or size. He wasn't a small man, or a stout man, not like the ones who'd interrogated her before. He was considerably younger, too.
He was robed, but his robe was black and embroidered heavily with gold. His head covering was white, pristine-white, and while the cloth concealed much of his hair it only served to emphasize his hard, strong features.
"I'm here to get you out," he continued, "but we don't have much time."
Torn between hope and dread, Liv clutched her knees to her chest, her thin back robe rough against her skin.All of her clothes had been confiscated with the rest of her things at the time of her arrest. In place of her skirts and jeans and T-shirts she'd been given this robe, and the thin, stiff linen garment she wore beneath the robe, which was little more than a slip. "Who sent you?"
The man's expression was neither friendly nor encouraging. "Your brother."
"He asked me to check on you."
She lurched to her feet and then grabbed the wall for support.
"Jake knows I'm here?"
"Jake knows I'm looking for you." Liv exhaled in a dizzy rush, her fingers pressed to the damp stone wall. "They said I'd never leave here. They said I'd never get out, not until I confessed, and gave up the names of the others."
"They didn't know you were connected to powerful people," he replied.
Liv blinked, her head swimming. "Am I?"
"You are now."
She moved to the front of the cell and grabbed the bars. "How? Why?"
"I am Sheikh Khalid Fehr, and I'm here representing the royal family of Sarq."
"Sarq borders Jabal," she said.
"And Egypt," he answered. "It will be a diplomatic feat to get you out of here today, and time is short. I need to have the paperwork finalized, but I will return"
"No!" Liv didn't mean to shout, she hadn't intended her voice to be loud at all, but panic melted her bones, turning her blood to ice. "No," she said more softly. "Please. Don't leave me here."
"It's just for a few minutes, maybe a half hour at the most"
"No," she begged, her voice breaking, her hand snaking through the bars of the prison cell to clasp the sleeve of his robe.
"Don't leave me."
For a long moment he said nothing, just stared down at her hand, his thick black lashes fanning the hard thrust of cheekbone, his skin the color of burnished gold. "They won't free you without my completing the necessary paperwork."
Her fingers tightened in his robe. "Don't go."
"I'll be back, I promise."
"I'm afraid here," she whispered. "I'm afraid of the guards. I'm afraid of the dark. I'm afraid of what happens when prisoners disappear." Her gaze clung to his, desperate, pleading. "The prisoners don't come back sometimes. They don't and I hear screaming, terrible screaming."
"I'm only going down the hall," he said. "I will be back soon."
"But they won't let you back. They won't. I know how this place works. The American ambassador came once and he never returned."
"There is no American ambassador in Jabal," he answered. "It was a trick they played on you, a trick to try to break you."
She gripped his robe tighter. "Are you a trick, too?"
Deep grooves bracketed his mouth. For a long moment he didn't speak and then when he did, his voice dropped, deepened. "It depends on your definition of a trick."
An icy shaft chilled her. She jerked her head up, stared at him, stared hard as if she could somehow see the truth. "I don't know what to believe anymore."
"Just know I will be back. As soon as I can."
"Don't forget me," she whispered.
"I won't, and I will be back sooner than you think."
She couldn't look away from his eyes, couldn't look away in case he was making promises he didn't intend to keep. She'd been duped once more. She was beginning to think she'd never leave Ozr, never see her family again. "What if they take me away first?"
"They have other entrances, and different rooms. They might take me"
"How do you know?"
His gaze fell to rest again on her hand, where it clutched his sleeve. "They'd be fools to try that now, with me here. They know I've seen you, they know we've spoken."
She nodded stiffly, her insides cold. She heard his words but they did little to comfort. She'd been here too long, seen too much. The guards did what they wanted when they wanted without fear of retribution.
He pulled free and was gone, disappearing down the dark corridor and all she could think as he walked away was Come back. Come back. Please.
* * *
Although the wait seemed endless, the sheikh did return, and with him were two prison officials.
She didn't know what to think when one of the officials unlocked her cell door and called her forward. But once the door was open, she didn't hesitate, moving quickly towards Sheikh Fehr, blindly putting her trust in him. But what choice did she have? She couldn't stay here. Anything would be better than Ozr.
Liv walked close to Sheikh Fehr back through the narrow tunnels and out the door into the dazzling sunshine. It was astonishingly hot out, and bright, and the fierce light sent her reeling backward, her legs crumpling beneath her.
Sheikh Fehr was there as she stumbled, swooping to catch her before she fell to the stone steps.
Liv had instinctively thrown her arm out to break the fall and her hand ended up being crushed to Sheikh Fehr's chest, her palm flat against his hard body, his chest a thick, dense plane of muscle.
"Oh," she choked, her fingers lifting sharply, and yet she couldn't move her hand away, her arm trapped, locked, between his broad chest and her body.
"Did you twist your ankle?" he asked, his voice so deep and husky that it made her think of the sun-drenched pyramids with their elaborate hidden treasures.
She shook her head and struggled to free herself, needing to be on her own feet again and away from this dark, silent man who filled her with both awe and terror.
"It's just so sunny," she answered unsteadily.
He placed her on her feet even as he kept one hand on the small of her back. With his other hand he removed his sunglasses and put them on her face, carefully sliding the glasses onto her nose. "You haven't been outside in a while."
It was a statement, not a question, and Liv didn't know if it was the sudden and strange intimacy of being so close to this fiercely intimidating man or the intensity of the sun, but she felt weak all over again, her legs like jelly beneath her.
Dipping her head, the glasses, which had already been too big for her small face, slid to the tip of her nose. "You'd better take them," she said, reaching up to remove them. "They're too big for me."
But Sheikh Fehr didn't take the sunglasses. Instead he returned them to her face and firmly pushed the frame onto the bridge of her nose. "They might be big but they'll give your eyes a chance to adjust," he said flatly, his flinty tone discouraging argument, even as a series of dark cars appeared, heading toward them.
A group of robed men emerged from one of the cars and Liv shrank closer to Sheikh Fehr's side, moving so close she could feel his solid frame and the warmth emanating from his body.
He extended a protective arm, keeping her there at his side. "Do not fear. They are my men and they're here to make sure we get to the airport safely."
She nodded but her fear and worry didn't go away, and wouldn't until she was back home with Jake and her mom. There was too much here that felt foreign and unfamiliar. She'd wanted the unfamiliar, it's why she'd traveled to Middle East in the first place, but she hadn't expected problems, nor danger, not like this.
She'd chosen Egypt and Morocco because they looked unique and picturesque in the travel brochures. She'd poured over the travel brochures, too, lingering over photos of the pyramids in the late afternoon sun, camels setting across the desert at sunset, and treasures and artifacts on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
She'd read and reread the itineraries of the Nile cruises, imagining stopping at each of the different ports with a different temple and excursion for every day. She'd shop in the souks, purchase practical wool rugs, buy kebabs from the street vendors and have the adventure of a lifetime.
She'd never seriously considered the possibility of getting into trouble. But then, she'd never been in trouble before. Liv had always been the good girl, the one that followed all the rules and did everything she was told.
One of Sheikh Fehr's guards opened the back door of the tinted-windowed sedan, and Liv turned to Sheikh Fehr, her gaze searching the hard, expressionless features. She was putting her life in his hands and she didn't even know him. "Can I trust you?" she asked, her voice all but inaudible.
His dark eyes bored into hers, his high cheekbones creating shadowed hollows above a firm, unsmiling mouth. "Perhaps I should be the one to ask that question. I've put my name, and my reputation, on the line for you. Can I trust you, Olivia Morse?"
Something in his dark, shuttered gaze sent shivers racing through her. She had the distinct feeling she was dealing with an altogether different sort of man than she'd ever dealt with before. The problem was, her experience with men was limited, and the one man she was close toher brother, Jakewas as uncomplicated as a man could be.
Sheikh Fehr, on the other hand, struck her as quite complicated.
"Yes. Of course you can trust me," she answered huskily, trying to ignore the sudden rush of butterflies in her middle.
"Then we should go," he answered, gesturing to the open car door, "because you're not safe here, and you won't be safe until we reach my country."
In the close confines of the car, Liv dipped her head, tucking dirty blond hair back behind her ears. She was filthy, and was certain she smelled even worse. She craved a shower or bath, had never wanted to bathe as much as she did right now.
"I'm sorry," she said, realizing that the sheikh was watching her as the car sped along the road through the desolate countryside to the capital. "I know I'm in desperate need of a shower ." Her voice drifted off apologetically.
"I was thinking that your brother will be so glad when you call him later."
"Yes," Liv agreed, eyes suddenly stinging as intense emotion rushed through her. "I was beginning to lose hope that I'd ever get out of there."
"You're lucky," Khalid answered. "Most don't."
"Why don't they?"
"They don't have the power."
"I didn't have any power," she said, voice soft.
"No. But I did."
"You've done this before helped people like me?"
Her lips parted to ask him more, to find out who he was, and why he'd risk his own safety to help others, but he'd turned his head away to stare out the tinted window and the hard set of his features discouraged further conversation.
Almost everything about him discouraged conversation. Dark, big and powerfully built, she found him incredibly intimidating.
Sheikh Fehr had towered over her when they stood side by side waiting for the car and she had to believe he was at least six feet tall, if not taller. He was also quite broad-shouldered, with an athletic build. His skin was deeply tanned, with strong, rugged features that spoke of sun and wind and hot, stinging sand.
"We're approaching Hafel, the capital city of Jabal," Sheikh Fehr said. "Did you see any of the city before your arrest?"
Liv shook her head and, glancing down at her lap, she glimpsed the inside of her wrist where yellow and blue bruises remained. She also had more bruises high on her arms, but her robe covered those. "I never got as far as Hafel."
"Where were you arrested?"
"On the main road between the border and Hafel." She made a faint sound, part misery, part disbelief. "One moment I was on the bus, and the next I was on my way to Ozr."
When the sheikh didn't answer Liv looked up at him. "Are we stopping in Hafel now?"