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Hakim El Aran, "Hake" to his British friends, took the flavored rose water and soda from the waitress. He sipped it before turning to his lawyer, Geoffrey Birch. "So, have you come up with a solution to my problem?"
The older man gave a noncommittal shrug. "Let's talk business after the show." He reached for a menu. "Food's excellent here, by the by."
"When did you develop a taste for Middle Eastern food?"
"Since I saw the entertainment that comes with it."
Amusement bordering on disbelief crept into Hake's voice. "You mean the belly dancer?" He had serious trouble picturing strait-laced Birch enjoying the gyrations of some half-naked female along with his dinner.
The lawyer explained earnestly, "This isn't just any belly dancer. It's Cassandra. She's amazing."
On cue, the overhead lights dimmed in the packed restaurant, while Hake stared at his companion. Geoffrey lived and breathed for the law. Hake had never seen anyone or anything that could distract him from his work. But apparently, this Cassandra chick had pulled off the impossible. The woman's timing couldn't have been any worse.
Irked at the dancer sight unseen, Hake watched the center of the cavernous room, where five musicians sat on a raised platform behind a parquet stage. He'd traveled with his father since he was a small boy, and he'd seen the greatest belly dancers in the world from Cairo to California and back. He highly doubted some schlocky theme club in London had pulled in a top-flight performer. He braced himself for a travesty of actual Middle Eastern dance.
The overhead lights faded away to nothingness, and the background buzz quieted. Darkness, relieved only by the small candles at each table, cloaked the restaurant. The silence grew thick with anticipation. Scents of cumin and cinnamon swirled around Hake, accompanied by the musky tang of Turkish tobacco.
Middle Eastern music began to play almost subliminally quiet, gradually growing in volume. Hake was suddenly gripped by a sensation of approaching a giant bazaar from afar. It promised exotic sights and sounds, bright colors and a tangle of pungent odors. Home.
Not that he'd been home to Bhoukar in years. His work abroad for his father, and El Aran Industries, kept him on the move. Truth be told, he'd been avoiding going home most of that time. He was deep into prime marriageable age, and he had no interest in dealing with scheming aunties and the political jockeying of people trying to ally themselves to the powerful El Aran family. But the marriage trap was closing in on him fast. Hence, tonight's meeting with his attorney.
Into the restaurant's gloom, a lone spotlight illuminated. It cast a bright circle in the center of the stage, bathing the spot in harsh, desert brilliance. A haze of smoke wafted through the column of light. The music pulsed rhythmically, gaining power with every beat. Despite his cynicism, he had to admit a certain visceral excitement rose in his gut. Maybe it was the call of the desert to his half-Saracen blood.
A dancer glided into the shimmering mirage of light as if conjured from the heat and smoke. Slender and darkly, ravishingly beautiful, she wore a costume dripping with red, glittering beads that caressed her golden skin and glowed against her raven hair. Hake stared in appreciation. She looked the part at any rate.
Eyes closed, her arms open in sensual invitation, she swayed with the music. The melody caressed the dancer, a feather drawn across her skin with a loving hand. She shivered at its delicate touch. Something about her called to Hake, beguiling and beckoning himsomething beyond the obvious sexual allure of a beautiful, scantily clad woman. She was the music and the music was her soul.
The outside world ceased to exist as he was drawn into her dance. The moment contained only the woman, the music and him. Her body glistened with a sheen of perspiration as she undulated for him, her movements an extension of the mysterious taksim melody twining about them both.
His avid gaze followed a ripple which started just below her ribs, traveling sinuously down her stomach to the top of the heavily fringed belt that rode low on her hips. The belly roll traveled back up her torso, leading his gaze to the plunging, crystal-encrusted bra that revealed a cleft of swelling softness.
Her figure was an exquisite hourglass of perfectly toned muscle. As a nearly invisible hip vibration caused the dancer's fringe to quiver against her skin, he was struck by an urge to feel her doing that beneath him, gripping his male flesh in building ecstasy.
She sank slowly to the floor, her arms rolling elegantly, as if they rested on the surface of a gently swelling ocean. One movement flowed seamlessly into the next as the dancer rose again, invoking images of a snake rising charmed out of its basketgraceful, exotic and mesmerizing.
It was probably rude to stare at her as if he were intent upon devouring her, but he couldn't stop himself. She was stunning. Her controlof both her muscles and the momentwas exquisite. The drums quieted to an erotic throbbing and her head fell back, exposing the artful line of her throat. Potent sexuality poured off her along with the heat of her body, steamy and tangible in the restaurant's dim light.
Hake shifted uncomfortably, his body raging in response to the woman before him. Her smoky sensuality enveloped him like a silken veil. He felt a strange intimacy with the dancer, as if he knew her somehow, as if she were dancing just for him. He studied her sculpted features, the straight, narrow nose framed by wide, catlike eyes, the high cheekbones, the delicately defined jaw.
No wonder Geoffrey had gone loopy over her. Hake managed to wrest his gaze away from the dancer long enough to glance at his dinner companion. The attorney stared slack-jawed at the woman. Hake felt a little better as he scanned the crowded restaurant. Everyone, it seemed, was caught in her thrall. Even the waiters stood motionless by the kitchen doors, transfixed by the dancer's magic.
Effortlessly, spectacularly, she had woven a web around the room. She'd transported them all to a faraway fantasy of hot desert winds and the sumptuous splendors of a seraglio, to a place where women such as her existed solely for the pleasure of the men who owned them.
As drums joined the strains of dusty flute music, the tempo increased and the mood changed in an instant. The dancer's head snapped forward and her eyes flashed open, fiery with passion. As it so happened, she was facing Hake directly when she did it. Her gaze speared into him.
They both froze. She, too, seemed caught in the grip of a powerful, instinctive recognition. Something alive coiled between them, pulling them inexorably toward one another. Sudden knowing burst across him. This woman was meant to be his.
Buried somewhere in the back of his brain, a sarcastic internal voice commented that his family would just love it if he brought home a belly dancer he'd met in a tawdry joint in London. In conservative quarters of Middle Eastern culture, dancers were often viewed as barely one step above prostitutes. But insatiable need to have this woman, to mark her as his, overwhelmed all else.
For an endless, breathless moment, the music paused while the dancer stared at him, the connection between them naked in her gaze.
She was his.
Casey Chandler stared at the man in devastating shock. The music faded and the spotlights spun around the edges of her vision.
It was him.
Hakim El Aran.
The one face she emphatically didn't want to see here tonight. She was supposed to make contact with his lawyer, not with the suspect himself.
El Aran's intent gaze touched her physically, sliding across her skin like a lover's cajoling caress, willing her to come to him, threatening to strip away the layers of her deceit. All of a sudden, she felt naked. Exposed far beyond the skimpiness of her costume.
Her breathing faltered and betraying heat flared low in her abdomen. Sizzling awareness tingled in her toes and raced like lightning to the tips of her fingers. Focus. She was on the job! Men weren't supposed to have this effect on her when she was working. Particularly not this one. She'd been warned that he was a ladies' man. but she'd never dreamed he'd be like this.
She was a soldier, for goodness' sake. A trained Special Forces operative working undercover. Not a harem girl swept off her feet by the first come-hither glance some Arab prince threw at her. Although technically, he was Bhoukari, from the small principality nestled between Oman and Yemen. And technically, he was only a sheik several dozen cousins away from being emir of Bhoukar. Still. She was not supposed to react to him like this!
Tell that to her body. Her flesh throbbed with need, tingling as if he were already drawing his fingers across her skin, already whispering for her to dance the oldest dance of all for him. He wasn't a ladies' man. He was a lady killer.
The drummer gave a sharp pop on his tabla, the ceramic drum perched between his knees, demanding her attention. Awareness of her surroundings returned abruptly. Good Lord. She'd stopped dancing cold in front of a restaurant full of people, in the middle of a song, no less. She threw an apologetic glance over her shoulder at the musicians and picked up the rhythm of the music with her finger cymbals.
She moved to the other side of the stage, carefully avoiding glancing in his direction. Thing was, to do the dance justice, she had to put her heart into her performance.
Share a little piece of her soul with the audience. It simply was not possible for her to dance and maintain military detachment simultaneously.
It was terribly dangerous for him to see her like this. The next time they met, he might recognize her. And that could be disastrous. One word from Hake to the wrong people and the whole mission would come crashing down around her.
While most of her mind concentrated on the performance, a tiny piece of it prayed desperately that she'd make it offstage before disaster struck. She had to think. Had to figure out what to do, how to respond, how to salvage the mission.
Panic tickled the edges of her consciousness, but blessedly, her training and the performer within her knew how to cope. She concentrated on breathing, then on moving her feet, and then on relaxing her shoulders. The show continued, but her mind ran unchecked, leaping from one disjointed thought to another.
Why, oh why, did he have to show up now? She was a week at most from convincing Birch to hand over the evidence on the El Aran empire. Should she still try to talk to Birch tonight? Or maybe she should delay until the next time he showed up here. Except that could be days or weeks from now. Did she dare wait that long? The Medusas' other intelligence sources were hinting that there might not be much time left before Hake and his father made the sale of nuclear production equipment to an unnamed buyer.
Could she skip the attorney and play the son directly? Did she dare?
It would be a dangerous gambit. By all accounts, Hake was smart, suspicious and wary of women. But then, why wouldn't he be? Available, gorgeous females went into mass feeding frenzies any time he went out in public. It must really suck for him, being a billionaire, single, handsome and under the age of forty.
No, it wouldn't work. She'd never get close enough to him to find out what he was up to. And frankly, she'd be damned if she'd throw herself at any man, mission or no mission. The only way for a seduction of Hake El Aran to work would be for him to approach her. And that wasn't going to happen in this lifetime.
The rest of the show passed in a blur. She was vaguely aware of the audience's enthusiastic applause, the Middle Eastern customers shouting, "Aiwa, habibi!" Technically, it meant "Yes, darling," but a better translation was probably "Yeah, baby!"
She made her exit, gliding through the kitchen doors. The minute they swung shut behind her, she picked up her skirts and fled down the long hallway to her dressing room. She collapsed onto the stool at her makeup table and stared at her reflection in the lighted mirror. Beneath her airbrushed tan, she was pale as a ghost. She pressed icy palms to her cheeks.
What the hell had happened to her out there? As the Brits like to put it, the guy'd gobsmacked her but good. One look from Hake El Aran and she was a mess. Get a grip. You're a trained killer. Not that she'd been out on all that many missions, but she wasn't a complete idiot. Except when it came to hunky sheiks, apparently.
He made her feel like a a woman. And in her world, that was emphatically not a good thing. She was the job. The next military mission to save the world. She did not do girly stuff, particularly if it involved emotions, swooning over men, orheaven forbidmakeup. The sexy costume and heavy, cat-eyed stage makeup she wore tonight, notwithstanding. That stuff was all a disguise. None of it was her.