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"Baba's a gineer."
That mystical communication, imparted to Desirée by Samiha on their first day at school, had entranced Desi with its exotic otherness and bound her instantly to her pretty, dark-eyed new friend. Soon she learned that Baba meant Daddy, and that gineer meant he had come to the west coast to build something big. But the magic never quite faded.
It was the first day of what grew into a lifelong friendship. Desi and Sami were inseparable all through school. They spent their summers together, too, on a small island off the B.C. coast, where the Drummond family's lakefront "cottage" was a century-old black clapboard farmhouse with outbuildings.
Her ex-hippie parents were hoping to turn the place into a year-round home, growing their own food, and hosting retreats, healing courses, and dream workshops in the summer to see them through the winter. But the project never generated enough income for her father to give up his university post and permanently move the family from Vancouver.
Every summer Desi and her brother and sister were each allowed to invite a friend to stay. Every year from first grade on, Desi took Sami.
The summer Desi turned nine, Samiha's cousin Salah came from Central Barakat to stay with Sami's family and improve his English. Salah was twelve, the same age as her brother Harry, and for some reason no one could afterwards remember, he was invited to the cottage.
Salah and Harry became friends, and after that every year it was somehow taken for granted that Salah would be a part of their summer adventure.
Salah was deeply attractive, a fascinating boy. Those first few summers, Desi hovered between hero worship andcompetitiveness in her feelings for him, half determined to prove she was braver and brighter than any boy, half wishing Salah were her friend instead of her brother's.
Such feelings were a perfect primer for something deeper, and it wasn't long in coming. At the end of the summer she turned fourteen, Desi was just entering on puberty, and a new awareness between herself and Salah beckoned. The next summer, Salah didn't make his annual visit to Canada.
During those two years, Desi grew up. Her breasts formed, her waist appeared, and her height shot up six inches that was almost all leg. Her face shifted from sweet roundness to a haunting elegance.
The just-sixteen-year-old who greeted her old sparring partner the following summer was tall, very slender, and quirkily beautifulso "unusual" that she had been spotted in the street by a scout and signed with a modelling agency.
As for Salah, at nineteen he showed more clearly the man he would be: slim but powerful, with broad, thin shoulders, a dark, intense gaze and a voice that came from his toes. He was also broody, inscrutable, and very sure of his opinions.
Of course she fell in love with him. Of course she did. The friend of childhood whom she already adored, transformed into a romantic hero? Salah was now intensely good-looking, darkly masculineand so much more adult than the boys at school. And his innocent integrity was a complete contrast to the predatory male sleaze her father and minders kept at a distance in the modelling world.
He was clearly sunk by the new Desi, whose flowing hair moved even when she didn't, whose creamy skin glowed with sensual promise, whose bikinis showed off the curve of full small breasts, fabulous legs, smooth abdomen, and firm rump, and who could scarcely eat for fear of gaining an ounce.
That was the year, by an unlucky coincidencethough they thought it perfect enough thenthat both her brother Harry and her friend Sami missed the usual holiday on the island. Samiha had gone back to the Barakat Emirates for a visit, and at the last minute Harry had got a summer job to earn money for university. He came to the island only on odd weekends.
It was only natural that Desi and Salah should spend their time with each other.
That summer, too, there was a heat wave, and maybe it was the exhaustion factor that meant her parents didn't notice the building chemical reaction between them, or maybe it was just their hippy laissez-faire attitude; Desi never knew.
On the mainland there were forest fires, but the islands, although oven-hot during the day, mercifully got rain at night. Mornings began cool and fresh, with mist lifting off the lake, but by ten the temperature was soaring, and by eleven most of the paying guests were prostrated by the heat.
Everybody hated the intense heateverybody except Desi and Salah. Salah was used to such temperatures, and as for Desishe felt she was waking from a lifelong sleep. The heat energized her, made her blood sing, her muscles flex, as if she were a runner waiting to begin a race she knew she'd win.
Not just the heat, of course, contributed to the feeling.
They became inseparable. Looking back on that summer, Desi remembered bright hot days lasting forever, and an all-encompassing joy in sheer being. They ran together, swam together, talked, explored.
They didn't stop competing with each other, of course. But that only added to the intensity, spiced their meetings, kept them on their toes.
They gazed at each other for a frozen moment, and suddenly, treacherously, against all the odds, the warm, sweet, sensual memories of a decade ago stirred to melting in her. The sun-burnt warmth of his naked chest against her trembling hand. Black eyes filled with love and need. The intoxication of desire that he had tried so nobly to resist .
Kiss him hello. You need to knock him off balance right at the start, before he gets his lines of control in place.
Desi couldn't have moved to save her life. She couldn't have kissed Salah to save the world. All she could do was stand there, her gaze locked with his, and wonder how she would ever manage to do what she had come here to do, while yesterday's vision of a full, young, passionate mouth and eyes intense with longing arose to confuse the impression of tight control and harsh judgement she saw in his face now.
Then his mouth moved.
"Who were you expecting?"
If he had expected anything, it was not that his heart would leap so painfully at his first glimpse of her. This fact annoyed him almost as much as her daring to come here. It argued a weakness in him, and he would not be weak where she was concerned. He was no longer a boy, to be at the mercy of his own needs, and hers. He would not be manipulated by her sexuality, practised as it was. He was a man, as she would discover.
Her right eyebrow flared up in the nervous way he remembered. Her eyes seemed slate grey now, as if her anxiety had drained them of colour. She had chameleon eyes, a fact he remembered well. He had never met a woman whose eyes changed colour in such a way. In his memory they were mostly turquoise, deep and rich, like the jewel. Green sometimes when they made love in daylight and sometimes this green-tinged, slate grey .
"I was not expecting you, either," he said grimly.
"Then I wonder who you're here to meet."
"I hoped that you would change your mind. You should have."
"Excellency," the passport officer murmured, and His Excellency Salahuddin Nadim al Khouri surfaced to take her passport from the outstretched hand. A muscle in his jaw moved.
"Come, Desi," he said, turning to lead the way. He pronounced it, as he always had, Deezee. The memories it summoned up skated on her nerves. Desi, I love you. I will love you longer than the stars burn.
Now that the gaze was broken, she could move. She fell into step beside but a little behind him. Like a good Muslim wife, she told herself, and with an irritated little skip that was totally unlike her, she caught up with him.
Her heart was in turmoil, not least because of the way he had changed. Was this what the desert did? Was this the kind of man it grew? Fierce, hard dangerous to cross?
But she had to cross him. She had come here to cross him.
I'm sure he never got over you. He'd probably give his right arm for the chance to kiss you.
She had even believed that she would enjoy settling scores with him. What a fool she was. If anyone was going to suffer from their encounter, it would not be this closed, proud man.
He led her through a door marked with an elegant sweep of Arabic letters above Private in English. They passed along an empty corridor in charged silence. She tried to think of something ordinary to say. If only he would ask her about the flight! Couldn't he feel how the silence built tension? Or didn't he care?
"We flew in over the Barakati desert," she offered, stupidly, because how else would a plane get to the capital of Central Barakat? "It's the first time I've seen desert like that! It's so well, beautiful is the wrong word. It has a haunting "
He turned his head and her little speech died as the black gaze collided with her own.
"People have strong reactions to the desert," he said. "But whatever your feelings for it, the desert does not change. It is dangerous whether you love it or hate it."
The clear attempt at intimidation irritated her. He might as well have said, I am dangerous whether you love me or hate me.
And I've done both, Desi told him silently. But no more. I got though having any feeling for you a long time ago.
"Funny, so is the Arctic," she said aloud, because two could play at the innuendo game. "Would it be better to freeze to death, or fry, do you think?"
His mouth tightened. "It is better to survive."
For a moment the scar showed white against the skin drawn tight over his cheekbone. It traced a path to above his ear and was lost in the thick black hair under his keffiyeh.
"And I guess you'd know," she said.
Salah's been wounded. For one unguarded moment she relived the overwhelming anguish that had hit her with those words. She was astonished to discover how shaken she was by the evidence of how close he had come to death. Her hand ached suddenly, as if with the need to touch. But she wasn't here to soothe any hurt of Salah's.
"Yes," he agreed.
As they reached the end of the corridor a uniformed guard, clasping a fist to his chest in salute, opened the door for them. Salah paused to issue instructions to him as Desi passed through into blinding sunlight.
She stopped. "My bags!"
Salah continued without pausing. "Come," was all he said, and his burnous streamed out behind him like a king's cloak as he stepped out into the hot desert wind.
The heat smacked her, a living thing. Desi stopped to take her first breath of the dry, orange-scented air with its tang of plane diesel.
And suddenly here she was. The place he had promised to bring her, ten long years ago. The place she had dreamt of, yearned forbelieved would be her home. The desert, he had assured her, where men were men, where life was lived and love was loved with the deepest intensity. Where passion was a part of nature and human nature.
Where his passion for her would never die.
How many times, under his urgent, loving guidance, had she visualized herself in the desert, and how often, long after it was hopeless, had she wished and pleaded for life to have worked out differently! Begged fate to allow her to retrace the steps that had taken her away from that life with him. Ten long years on, she was here.
And she would give a year of her life to be anywhere else.
"So hot!" she cried, trying to shake the feeling. "It's only ten o'clock!"
"This is not a good time for foreigners in Central Barakat," Salah said.
"By foreigners do you mean any foreigner? Or just me?"
"Are you so different from ordinary people, Desi? Has fame made you weak?" he asked, but didn't wait for an answer. "Not many foreigners come at this time of year, unless to work in the oil fields. Next month will be cooler."
Next month would be too late. It'll be hell on earth, Desi, but if you don't go now, I'm lost. She would never forget the mixture of rage, grief and exhaustion in Sami's voice, the voice of a woman driven to the edge, fighting not to go over.
She glanced at Salah, wondering again how a boy of such passion as she remembered in him could have turned into a man ready to contemplate what he was now contemplating. But his face was closed, impossible to read.
Ten years ago she had understood every expression as it crossed his face. Now he was unreadable. As well read stone. What had done this to him? His injury? War itself?
A white limousine hummed in quiet readiness at the bottom of the steps. A chauffeur in black trousers, white polo shirt and a headscarf like Salah's leapt out to open the passenger door. As she slipped inside with Salah, an airport official arrived, carrying the two battered leather satchels that had accompanied her around the world over the past ten years. They were stowed in the trunk, doors banged, and the limo moved off.
And suddenly she was the last place in the world she would ever have chosen to be again: alone in a small space with Salah.
At the height of the heat wave, Desi's father had accompanied her to Vancouver on a two-day modelling gig. Hating to miss one moment of time shared with Salah, she would have cancelled the engagement if she'd dared, and in the stifling heat of the city, she had wondered, not for the first time, why her friends envied her. She missed Salah with a desperate intensity, and could not wait to get back to the island. When they returned, it was Salah who met them at the ferry dock.
"Your mother is a little sick with the heat," Salah explained, but when he looked at her, Desi knew. The knowledge was like chain lightning in her blood, striking out from her heart again and again, every time she thought of it: he had to come. He couldn't wait even the extra half hour to see her.
"It has not rained since you left," he told her, and Desi's heart kicked with what he meant.
"You'll want to tell Salah all about your trip," her father said, with masterly tact, or, more likely, masterly insensi-tivity. So she got in the front with Salah while her father sat in the back reading the local paper. But they did not talk much. There was a killing awareness between them, so powerful she felt she might explode with it.