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Ella Ponti walked along the shore. The night was dark. The only illumination came from the stars overhead. No moon tonight. The wavelets gurgled as they spent themselves on the sand. Alexander had loved walking in the dark and she felt a closer tie than any other time.
He'd been dead for over a year. The crushing pain of his death had eased, as others had told her it would. Only a lingering ache where her heart was reminded her constantly that she would never see him again.
Sighing, she looked to the sky. The stars sparkled and shimmered through the heat of the night. Turning slowly, she looked at the black expanse that was the Persian Gulf. Nothing was visible. Some nights she saw ships sailing silently through the night, their lights gliding slowly across the horizon. Nothing there tonight. Turning toward home, she began walking, splashing lightly through the warm water at land's edge.
What a contrast this land was, she mused as she enjoyed the silence. Here at the seashore it was as beautiful as any Mediterranean resort; lush plants grew in abundance. She loved the leafy palms, the broad-leaf ferns and the flowers were nothing short of breathtaking. Each house around the estate she lived on seemed to flourish with a horticulturist's delight.
She enjoyed sitting out in the afternoons in the shady nooks of the garden, smelling the blend of fragrances that perfumed the air. While only a short distance from the capital city of Alkaahdar, it felt like worlds away from the soaring skyscrapers of the modern city.
She would go to bed when she reached her place. It was already after midnight. She liked to work late, as she had tonight, then wind down by a walk on the deserted beach—alone with only the sand, sky and sea.
With few homes along this stretch of beach, only those who knew the place well knew where to turn away from the water to follow winding paths through lush foliage that led home. Ella knew exactly where to turn even in the dark.
From a distance, as she walked along, she saw a silhouette of another person. A man, standing at the edge of the water. He was almost in front of where her path opened to the beach. In all the months she'd lived here, she'd never seen another soul after dark.
Slowing her pace, she tried to figure out who he might be. Another person who had trouble sleeping through the night? A stranger exploring the beach? Or someone intent on nefarious activities?
Ella almost laughed at her imagination. The homes along this stretch of beach belonged to the fabulously wealthy of Quishari. There were guards and patrols and all sorts of deterrents to crime. Which was why she always felt safe enough to walk alone after dark. Had that changed? She had only nodding acquaintances with her neighbors. Ella kept to herself. Still, one of the servants at the main house would have told her if there were danger.
She could cut diagonally from where she was to where the path left the beach, avoid the stranger entirely. But her curiosity rose. She continued along splashing in the water. The flowing skirt she wore that hit her midcalf was already wet along the hem. The light material moved with the slight breeze, shifting and swaying as she walked.
"Is it safe for a woman to walk alone at night?" the man asked when she was close enough to hear his voice.
"Unless you mean me harm, it is," she replied. Resolutely, she continued walking toward him.
"I mean no harm to you or anyone. Just curious. Live around here?" he asked.
As she walked closer, she estimated his height to be several inches over six feet. Taller than Alexander had been. The darkness made it impossible to see any features; even his eyes were hidden as he tilted his head down to look at her. No glimmer of light reflected from them. The traditional white robes he wore were highlighted by the starlight, but beyond that, he was a man of shadow.
"I live nearby," she replied. "But you do not. I don't know you."
"No. I'm here on a visit. I think." He looked back out to sea. "Quite a contrast from where I've been for the last few weeks."
She turned to look at the sea, keeping a safe twelve feet or so of space between them.
"Desert. I wanted to see the sea as soon as I got here. I've been traveling for almost twenty-four hours straight, am dead tired, but wanted to feel the cool breeze. I considered going for a swim."
"Not the safest thing to do alone, especially after dark. If you got into trouble, who would see or hear?" Though Ella had gone swimming alone after dark. That had been back shortly after Alexander's death when she hadn't thought she cared if something happened or not. Now she knew life was so precious she would not wish harm on herself or anyone.
"You're here," he said whimsically.
"So I am. And if you run into trouble, do you think I could rescue you?"
"Or at least go for help." With that, he shed the robe, kicked off the shoes he wore.
Startled, Ella watched. Was he stripping down to nothing to go for a swim?
It was too dark to know, but in a moment, he plunged into the cool waters of the Gulf and began swimming. She had trouble following him with her eyes; only the sounds of his powerful arms cleaving the water could be heard.
"So I'm the designated life guard," she murmured, sitting down on the sand. It was still warm from the afternoon sun. Sugar-white and fine, at night it nurtured by its warmth, soft to touch. She picked up a fistful letting it run between her fingers. Idly she watched where she knew him to be. She hoped he would enjoy his swim and not need any help from anyone. She hadn't a clue who he was. For tonight, it was enough he had not had to swim alone. Tomorrow, maybe she'd meet him or maybe not.
Ella lost track of time, staring out to sea. So he came from the desert. She had ventured into the vast expanse that made up more of Quishari than any other topography. Its beauty was haunting. A harsh land, unforgiving in many instances, but also hiding delights, like small flowers that bloomed for such a short time after a rare rainstorm. Or the undulating ground a mixture of dirt and sand that reminded her of water. The colors were muted, until lit by the spectacular sunsets that favored the land. Once she'd seen an oasis, lost and lonely in the vast expanse of the desert. But her fervent imagination found it magical. Water in the midst of such arid harshness.
She wished she could capture that in her own work. Show the world there was more to the desert than endless acres of nothing. She began considering plans for such a collection. Maybe she'd try it after finishing her current project. Tomorrow was the day she tried the new technique. She had the shape in mind of the bowl she wanted to make. Now she had to see if she could pull it off. Colors would be tricky, but she wanted them to swirl in glass, ethereal, hinting and tantalizing.
She felt relaxed as the moment ticked by. It was pleasant in the warmth of the night, with the soft sound of the sea at her feet and the splashing in the distance. Would the man ever get tired?
Finally she heard him approach. Then he seemed to rise up out of the water when he stood in the gradual slope. She rose and stepped back as he went directly to where his robes lay and scooped them up.
"You still here?" he asked.
"As designated life guard. Enjoy your swim?"
"Yes, life giving after the heat of the desert." He dried himself with the robes, then shrugged into them.
She turned. "Good night."
"Thanks for keeping watch."
"I don't know that I would have been any help had you gotten into trouble," she said, turning and half walking backward to continue along the shore.
"Shall I walk you home? It would be easy enough for me to do." He stood where he was, not threatening.
"No." She did draw the line there. She knew nothing about the man. It was one thing to run into a stranger on the beach, something else again to let him know where she lived—alone.
"I might be here tomorrow," he said.
"I might be, as well," she replied, then quickly walked away. She went farther down the beach and then cut into a neighbor's yard. She didn't want to telegraph her location. Hopefully he couldn't see enough in the darkness to know which path she'd taken. She walked softly on the edge of the neighbor's estate and soon reached the edge of the property she rented. Seconds later she was home.
Khalid watched until he could no longer see her. He had no idea who the woman was or why she was out after midnight on a deserted beach. He was dripping. Taking a last look at the sea, or the dark void where it was, with only a glimmer of reflected starlight here and there, he turned and went back to the house his grandmother had left him last summer. Her death had hit him hard. She'd been such a source of strength. She'd listened to his problems, always supportive of his solutions. And she had chided him often enough to get out into society. He drew the line there. Still, he cherished her wisdom and her sense of fun. He would always miss her.
He thought about the woman on the beach. He could only guess she wasn't all that old from the sound of her voice. But aside from estimating her height to be about five feet two inches or so, he didn't know a thing about her. The darkness had hidden more than it revealed. Was she old or young? Slender, he thought, but the dress she wore moved in the breeze, not revealing many details.
Which was probably a good thing. He had no business being interested in anyone. He knew the scars that ran down his side were hideous. More than one person had displayed shock and repulsion when seeing them. Like his fiancée. Damara had not been able to cope at all and had fled the first day the bandages had been removed and she'd seen him in the hospital after the fire.
His brother, Rashid, had told him more than once he was better off without her if she couldn't stick after a tragedy. But it didn't help the hole he'd felt had been shot through his heart when the woman he'd planned to marry had taken off like he was a horrible monster.
He'd seen similar reactions ever since. He knew he was better off working with men in environments too harsh for women to venture into. Those same men accepted him on his merits, not his looks.
He had his life just as he wanted it now. Except—he had to decide what to do with the house his grandmother left him. It had been a year. He had put off any decisions until the fresh ache of her dying had subsided. But a house should not sit empty.
He walked swiftly across the sand to the start of the wide path that led straight to the house. It was a home suited for families. Close to the beach, it was large with beautiful landscaping, a guesthouse and plenty of privacy. The lawns should have children running around as he and his brother had done. As his father and uncles had done.
The flowers should be plucked and displayed in the home. And the house itself should ring with love and laughter as it had when he and Rashid had been boys visiting their father's parents.
But the house had been empty and silent for a year. And would remain that way unless he sold it. It would be hard to part with the house so cherished by him and his family. Especially with the memories of his beloved grandmother filling every room. But he had no need for it. His flat in Alkaahdar suited him. There when he needed it, waiting while he was away.
As he brushed against an overgrown shrub, his senses were assaulted by the scents of the garden. Star jasmine dominated the night. Other, more subtle fragrances sweetened the still air. So different from the dry, acrid air of the desert. Instantly he was transported back to when he and Rashid had run and played. His father had been alive then, and of course his grandmother. Who knew the odd quirks of fate, or that he'd end up forever on the outside looking in at happy couples and laughing families. That elusive happiness of families denied him.
Not that he had major regrets. He had done what he thought right. He had saved lives. A scar was a small price to pay.
He entered the house through the door he'd left open from the veranda. Bed sounded really good. He'd been traveling far too long. Once he awoke, he could see what needed to be done to get the house ready for sale.
Ella woke late the next morning. She'd had a hard time falling asleep after meeting the stranger on the beach. She lay in bed wondering who he was and why he'd been traveling so long. Most people stopped when they were tired. No matter, she would probably never see him again. Though, she thought as she rose, just maybe she'd take another walk after midnight tonight. He said he'd be there. Her interest was definitely sparked.
But that was later. Today, she wanted to try to make the new glass piece that had been taking shape in her mind for days.
After a quick breakfast at the nook in the kitchen, Ella went to her studio. As always when entering, she remembered the wonderful woman who had sponsored her chance at developing her skill as a glassblower and who had offered to help her sell her pieces when they were ready. She missed her. She pursued her passion two-fold now—for herself and for her benefactor.
In only moments, she was totally absorbed in the challenge of blending colors and shapes in the bowl she was creating.
It was only when her back screamed in pain that Ella arched it and glanced at the clock. It was late afternoon—she'd been working for seven hours straight. Examining the piece she'd produced, she nodded in satisfaction. It wasn't brilliant by any means, but it had captured the ethereal feel she wanted. For a first attempt at this technique, it passed. A couple more stages to complete before the glass bowl was ready for a gallery or for sale. A good day's work.