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Must Have Been The Moonlight
Major Michael Fallon squatted on his heels, his face dark with a beard, and squinted against the harsh glare of the Western Sahara. He looked for the object that had caught his eye when he'd crested the last dune -- a dark flutter of silk on sunlight. Finding it now amid the loose clutter on sand -- a wisp of cloth snagged on rock -- he brought the veil to his nose. English roses and something else uniquely feminine touched his senses. Turning the cloth over in his hands, Michael turned his attention to a steel-dust Arabian trailing its reins some distance away. Where was the second rider he had been following?
Bending over the field glasses beside him, he adjusted the leather hood over the lenses to prevent the fading sunlight from reflecting off the glass. An ancient watchtower and stone wall, relegated back to the desert some centuries before, made a somber landmark against the indigo sky as nightfall lowered its sleepy eye over the terrain. He knew that good rifle scope would pick him off at this range if he stepped into the open.
He swore softly as he looked back at his white camel, couched in the sand like some bored Sheba oblivious to the growing chill. He pulled out a tin of peppermints, slid one beneath his tongue, and again brought the veil to his nose before shoving it into his shirt.
Holding the carbine in one hand, his burnoose slapping at his boots, he remained on the backside of the dune and trailed the Arabian on foot through the growing darkness to the outer perimeter of the watchtower. Three days without sleep -- or perhaps it was the beating three Kharga slavers had given him last month -- made him feel every muscle in his legs as he kept low to the ground.
The horse ambled up a path -- and stopped.
Michael dropped to his haunches, his fist tightening around his rifle. He carried a brace of pistols across his chest and a knife in his other hand. Such ancient watchtowers had been built around springs. He didn't see any livestock, but guessed they were corralled behind the tower against the rocks. One small heel print crossed the worn path almost at his feet. Shifting his weight, he raised his eyes to the rocks a heartbeat before he heard the click of a pistol behind him.
"The only reason you're still alive," said a decidedly feminine voice, "is because my rifle is out of bullets."
Michael rose to his feet and turned slowly. His tagilmust hung loose and draped his shoulder. Each hand gripped a weapon. Their eyes met, and for a breathless heartbeat they faced each other. He wasn't sure how many people were present in the camp. Whatever he'd expected to find, it wasn't a blue-eyed houri in the Sahara Desert holding a lethal-looking revolver on him.
Wearing a dark robe, half draped in moonlight, her body was detailed against the flimsy cloth as she stood between two boulders. Her cheeks were pale, and a wisp of dark hair had fallen from the wild braid down her back.
His gaze glinting with hard humor, Michael respected grit as much as he did the seven-inch barrel aimed at his chest. "It is fortunate for me that your rifle had no bullets, amîri," he said impassively, raising his arms in a gesture of submission.
His movement revealed to her the baggy white sirwal beneath his robes, trousers tucked in soft leather knee-high boots.
Her light-colored gaze held his. Those striking eyes had kept him from possibly killing her. That and the fact that she'd spoken in English -- and he'd answered in kind.
He didn't hear movement behind him, only felt the stars explode in his head. Then he was falling, and his face hit the sand.
Brianna Donally could barely breathe as she held the field glasses to her eyes and scanned the desert, the sick feeling in her gut increasing with every moment. The white camel she'd been watching earlier had not moved from its solemn place in the sand. She would have to go out there. Yet, she knew there was someone else in the darkness. Somehow, despite all of her efforts, they'd been tracked. First by the pair this morning. Then by the man on the white camel.
She knew that one man lay on the desert floor because she'd put him there earlier that morning, and the man on the white camel lay behind her.
Her sister-in-law slumped against the stone wall, her breath coming in quick heaves. They'd both been running.
"Do you think that I killed him, Brea?" Lady Alexandra removed the wide-brimmed beater hat from her head and dropped it onto the sand. A visible bruise marred her cheek. "We can't just leave him to . . . to the scavengers. Like the other one."
They had escaped two assassins. Closing her eyes, Brianna lowered her forehead against the stone wall. It was cold against her cheek. How long would it be before those who had pillaged the caravan sent more people to hunt down the two Inglizi missies who had escaped the massacre? She would not allow Lady Alexandra's compassion to intrude on her conscience. Nor was she going to expend her energies to bury murderers. Some things were better left alone.
Unlike Brianna, her sister-in-law wore a long-sleeve cotton shirtwaist and collared jacket over a divided skirt, the blouse and jacket torn and spattered with blood. How much came from the wound on her mouth or shoulder, or from the soldier who'd been beside her when he was shot, Brianna didn't know.
"If that man wished to be buried in accordance to his custom, then he should not have attacked us, my lady."
Blinking to clear her vision, Brianna forced herself to refocus. The moon was a scimitar in the sky, lying over the desert terrain like a half-lit lantern ...Must Have Been The Moonlight. Copyright © by Melody Thomas. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.