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She would never enjoy a cup of coffee again. Laila removed her stained navy-blue apron and shoved it in the washing machine with the others. A few more tasks and she could close for the night, giving her feetand her nosea much-needed break.
Laila had been listening to the radio since she'd closed the store, hoping to learn new information about the situation in her home country of Qamsar. Her brother's regressive, conservative social policies weren't popular with certain factions in the country, and Laila hoped Mikhail would adopt a more moderate approach to ruling before tensions erupted into violence. Her mother feared civil war, and Laila feared for her family's safety. The broadcast had nothing new to report.
Laila double-checked the coffee, latte and espresso machines, and switched off the lights and radio in the back room. The only sound in the small cafe was the washing machine filling with water.
She jumped when she saw a man leaning against the cafe's glass front door. Deep blue eyes watched her. Laila crossed the room, her heart jittering nervously. He had visited the cafe dozens of times before, and each time, he had caught and held her attention. "Harris. What are you doing here?" she asked through the glass.
Had he not been one of her regular customers, she would have backed away, told him to leave and maybe even called the police. But Harris was a good man, charming, easy to talk with, and she'd developed a fondness for him. She looked forward to his visits, and though this one was oddly timed, a shudder of excitement piped through her.
"I tried knocking, but you didn't hear me," Harris said. "I need to talk to you."
Laila stared at him through the glass. "About what?" Growing up in Qamsar, even as a member of the royal family, she was wary of men. American men made her doubly nervous; though with Harris, her nervousness was centered on attraction not fear. Attracted to him and unsure how to strike up a friendship, her feelings for Harris confused her. In Qamsar, it wasn't appropriate to have a friendship with a man. Much about her life in America was new to her, including her job, which she'd taken to stay off her brother's radar and have money of her own. It was a freedom she enjoyed.
Harris pressed a badge against the glass. "You're in danger. I need you to come with me."
Laila leaned forward, examining the badge that contained Harris's picture and the words FBI Special
Agent. Surprise and alarm skittered across her skin. Harris had never mentioned what he did for a living, and she had never told him that she was the emir's sister. A stab of betrayal pierced her. She'd expected the American government to monitor her, but she hadn't expected Harris to be the one doing it.
Had danger traveled from Qamsar to find her in America? "Why do you think I'm in danger?" Her nerves tightened in her stomach and exhaustion fled to the corners of her mind.
"Please trust me. I don't mean you any harm," Harris said. He slid his badge into his pocket and held his hands out, palms facing her. "Let's talk for a few minutes without me shouting through the glass."
Laila unlocked the door and allowed Harris inside. "Is my family safe?" Her mother's safety was at the foremost of her thoughts.
"At the present the data I have on the situation indicates they are not hurt or directly in danger."
Which was not the same as saying they were safe. People in public positions during social upheaval were never completely safe. Since her father had died two years ago, her brother Mikhail had taken over as emir, and the shift of power had caused political and social rumblings that had only grown louder with time. "Then why do you think I'm in danger?" Laila asked. She liked Harris. Whenever he'd come to the counter to place his order, he had spoken to her and listened to her responses. His demeanor tonight was different than it had been in weeks past. His shoulders were tight; his carefree, flirtatious smile was missing and tension pulsed off him in waves.
"We've received intel that someone wants to hurt you," Harris said. The tension she'd sensed was pent up in his words.
Laila forced her heart to remain calm. Growing up in Qamsar, political enemies of her father had often threatened her and her family. Threats weren't anything new. "The situation at home isn't good, and someone always gets the bright idea to intimidate my family and me in the heat of emotion. I don't take those threats seriously."
His brows drew together and his blue eyes sharpened. "You need to take this one seriously."
Laila wouldn't allow an American manno matter how attracted she was to himto scare her. Americans didn't understand the Qamsarian culture, and they didn't understand her family. "We can talk about this another time. I'm tired, and I have an early class tomorrow. My uncle will be expecting me, and he'll be worried if I arrive home too late."
Harris waited while she locked up and followed her to her car. "Please, Laila. I wouldn't be here if we didn't feel the threats against you were real and pervasive."
Laila pulled her car keys from her handbag and pressed the unlock button. The lights on her car flashed.
Harris's shout echoed in her ears, followed by the sound of an explosion and the sensation of her body being slammed into gravel. She slid, the backs of her legs and her arms burning. Harris was on top of her, his body covering hers. Laila gasped for air, the heaviness of him stifling. She struggled to sit up. As he rolled to the side, pulling his phone from his pocket, she caught sight of her car. It was now consumed in flames.
Her mouth fell open. She hadn't expected this. Not while she was living in America. Car bombings didn't happen in suburban America. People were safe here, weren't they?
Who wanted to kill her bad enough to follow her to America?
Harris scanned the area, looking for anyone out of place. A bystander who might have seen something or even the bomber lingering to watch the fallout of his attack. No one except law enforcement and the first medical responders were on the scene.
Laila sat on the curb in the parking lot, a blanket wrapped around her. He'd had someone on his team call her aunt and uncle to let them know Laila was fine, painting the explosion as a car accident. The truth was more grim: a car bomb had been planted in Laila's car. If Harris hadn't recognized the high frequency whine of an explosive's timer engaging, she would be dead. The intel the FBI had gathered on the situation had predicted Laila and members of the royal family of Qamsar were in danger, though it was difficult to predict how or if an attack might occur.
The FBI's list of bombing suspects was short, mostly made up of members of the Holy Light Brotherhood, a terrorist organization that wanted Qamsar to remain isolated from "infidel influences." Those "infidel influences" included America as a whole, and with the emir negotiating a trade agreement, a female member of the royal family studying in America became an obvious target to anyone wanting to send a message.
Harris sat on the curb next to Laila. "How are you holding up?"
Laila watched him with tired, soulful brown eyes. "I'm in shock. I've read about bombings. I've seen it reported on the news, but nothing like this has ever happened to me."
The profile the FBI and CIA had created for Laila indicated she had lived a sheltered life. Living in America with her uncle and aunt, her mother's sister, was the first time Laila had been away from Qamsar and her life as a royal princess. After her father, the former emir, had died, Laila had come to America on a student visa and had enrolled in the University of Colorado in Denver. From what Harris had gathered, her brother was not happy about Laila living in America, but he hadn't outright forbidden it. "We'll make sure nothing like this happens again to you."
Harris had connected with Laila from the first day he'd met her. She went about her job quietly and efficiently, and she had intelligent, alert eyes. If she wasn't his assignment, he might have asked her on a date, and gotten a chance to know her better and uncover the passion he saw simmering below the surface. Then again it was better for him to keep his distance. His track record with women was embarrassing, and he wasn't ready to add another name to the list of failed relationships. When he was working a difficult case, those women were targets of his enemies, and none had proven able to handle the pressure or remain loyal when money changed hands.
Laila pulled the fleece blanket Harris had given her tighter around her body. Harris read the gesture as less from cold and more from discomfort. Was his presence making her uncomfortable because he was male? He and Laila weren't alone. The parking lot was filled with people: FBI agents and CIA investigators, along with local law enforcement. The FBI and CIA had teamed up to create a joint task force to shut down the Holy Light Brotherhood, starting with the head of the organization, Ahmad Al-Adel. When it became apparent Al-Adel had potential ties to the Qamsarian ruling family, the task force had become interested in Laila and how she could help find Al-Adel.
His CIA contacts had told him that, as a Qamsarian woman, Laila had had a conservative upbringing. Not conservative the way an American defined it. Conservative as in limited contact with men, chaperones when appropriate and never being alone or having physical contact with any male apart from family. Harris was doing his best to respect those boundaries, but the extrovert in him found it difficult not to touch her, not to let his gaze linger on her and not to overtly flirt with her. Laila was a beautiful woman. She spoke with a tentative formality, her accent light and pleasing to his ears. She was sensual and feminine, even if she tried to hide it behind loose and concealing clothing.
He moved a few more inches away to give her more personal space.
"No one can promise this won't happen again," Laila said.
Sadness drew a frown across her face and everything in him urged him to take action to erase her un-happiness. Seeing her upset affected him. He wanted to do something, say something, but he didn't have the words to make this better for her.
Tyler Morgan, Harris's CIA counterpart on the task force, arrived on the scene. He strode to Harris and glanced between him and Laila. "Is this the Princess of Qamsar?"
Laila flinched, and Harris gathered she didn't like being called a princess. He'd gotten the sense she was trying to blend with the Americans around her, and her Qamsarian title didn't help that effort. "Yes, this is Laila bin Jassim Al Sharani."
Harris introduced Laila to Tyler. Laila stood and nodded, though she didn't offer her hand in greeting.
"We need to talk with you," Tyler said and looked around. "In private."
Laila shoved her hand through her hair, forcing strands behind her ears. "It's late."
If she refused, Harris couldn't force her to speak to them, but he feared what would happen to her and her family without his team's assistance and her cooperation.
"It's important. We can speak to you at your home if you'd be more comfortable," Tyler added.
Her shoulders slumped in defeat. "I guess we can meet. I feel like I don't have a choice."
Harris wondered how much Laila knew about the political situation. Mikhail bin Jassim Al Sharani, Laila's brother and the Emir of Qamsar, was suspected of working with Al-Adel and the Holy Light Brotherhood. Harris doubted Laila was aware of how much danger the emir was bringing to his family and his country by engaging with a dangerous man like AlAdel.
Laila rode with Harris and Tyler to her aunt and uncle's home. Her aunt Neha and uncle Aasim were waiting up for her. Laila reassured them that she was okay, and Harris explained he and Tyler needed to speak with her about the car incident.
Tyler appeared nervous and tense, watching the situation with an anxious energy that made Laila uneasy. She was grateful Harris was with her. He had a relaxed and easygoing presence that made everyone in the room feel comfortable. She got the impression that that was the image he was trying to convey to relax her. Underneath his quick smile, he was a force to be reckoned with.
"We need to find out from Laila everything she remembers about the incident while it's fresh in her memory. We think the man who caused damage to her car is a serial hit-and-run driver. We want to stop him before he hurts anyone else. Is it all right to speak with Laila alone?" Harris asked.
"That depends on Laila." Her uncle looked to her and waited for her response.
Part of the terms of Laila's student visa was that she comply with law enforcement. She'd known before coming to America that her brother was a person of interest to the American government.
At her quick nod of agreement, her uncle turned back to Harris. "We'll give you a few minutes of privacy. We'll be upstairs if you need anything. It is late. Please do not keep our niece awake too long. She's been through a trial tonight and needs her rest."
If it hadn't been two badge-carrying members of the United States, her uncle never would have agreed to leave her alone. American-born, her uncle was more progressive than her family in Qamsar, but he took his role as her guardian seriously.
Her aunt and uncle were one of the reasons Laila believed Mikhail hadn't outright denied her coming to America for her education. Under their watchful eyes, she had thought she was safe. Were her aunt and uncle targets of the bomber, as well? Her aunt had distanced herself from the Qamsarian royal family when she had married Aasim, an Arabic-American small business owner living in Denver.
Laila took a seat on the tan suede couch and smoothed her dress over her knees. She'd worn this outfit to work a hundred times before. Now, with Harris, it felt too short and revealing. Add to it Harris making her feel hot and tingly, and the circumstances were compromising. She was grateful for the other man in the room even if he was quiet and on edge. "How can I help you?"
Laila studied Harris. Clean-cut. Shaven. Good dresser. Unless he had changed his appearance for this operation, she could see him being a man who followed the rules and kept out of trouble. He was taller than Tyler with broad shoulders, blond hair and lighter skin than most men from her country.
When she and Harris had spoken in the cafe, she'd thought him an intuitive person, or if she was honest with herself, she'd hoped it meant something more about their connection. Now she wondered if it was just a part of his agent training.
"We'd like to offer you protection," Harris said.
Suspicion swept over her. They'd demand something in return. If they wanted information about Mikhail, they'd be disappointed. She didn't have the inside track on her brother's plans for the country, and she held no sway over his decisions.