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'Get the driver into my hut, and get rid of the truck,' Hana al-Sud yelled to two villagers in Swahili when she pulled the truck up outside the medical tent. 'Don't cook the food. Feed plain bread to those who need it most. Bury the rest in Saliya's grave.'
'The fruit will lose its vitamins, Hana,' her assistant protested.
'One seed or core can be found in seconds,' she replied calmly enough, given the urgency of their situation and the rapid pounding of her heart. She ran around the truck to the driver. 'We can get it back out tonight to feed the children, without losing nutritional value. Just do it, please, Malika! And sweep away any traces of tyre marks!'
An older man ran to the passenger side to take the driver as the fittest young man in the village jumped into Hana's place in the driver's seat. The other villagers opened the back of the truck to unload it. Two women ran over with the vital tarpaulins, snatched medical kits and ampoules of antibiotics and insulin to bury it. The future of the entire village depended on everyone working together, and working fast. They'd be here in minutes. The warlord's satellite phones were the best money could buy. Any sniff of betrayal meant unbearable consequences for them all.
'Take the driver to my hut. He's Arabic,' Hana said tensely in Swahili. 'I'll patch him up. When they ask I'll say my husband came for me.'
The men took the unconscious man to Hana's small hut beside the medical tent.
Within fifteen minutes it was as if the truck had never been there. Abdel would leave it somewhere in the desert, take the exact coordinates and return on foot. He was the only one with the perfect cover. As he was a long-distance runner aiming for the Olympics, no one thought it strange if he wasn't in the village at all times.
In the hut, Hana had the injured man laid on an old sheet. 'Wound and suture kit—an old resterilised set.' This brave man deserved better, but if she used the new kits he'd brought today and didn't dispose of them in time, the warlord's men would know the truth. They had to get every detail right.
There was blood on his face and shirt. 'Haytham, I need a clean shirt!' Haytham was her friend Malika's husband, and approximately the same size as this man. She stripped off the bloodied shirt and tossed it in her cooking fire, noting the angry, inflamed mass of burns scars criss-crossing his chest, shoulder and stomach on the left side. She'd treat them later. Right now she had to save his life.
She checked her watch. From experience, she knew she had five minutes to get it all done. She cleaned his face of the blood, and prepared to suture the wound. She'd wash his hair after, to remove the last traces of his identity as the driver.
She stitched his wound as fast as she could, grateful it was close to his hair; she'd cover it with his fringe, and would have to risk infection by using cover-stick around the reddened skin. There was no way she could risk a bandage, but she'd use one vital ampoule of antibiotic, needle and syringe; the wound could turn septic with hair and make-up on it.
She injected him between his toes, as if he were a junkie with collapsed veins. It was a place Sh'ellah's men wouldn't think to look for signs of injury and medical attention. 'Bury these fast,' she ordered Malika, who took the precious supplies and ran.
Hana washed the worst of the dirt and blood from his hair with a damp washer, coated with some of her precious essential oils, and covered the wound with the cleaned hair and make-up. Then she rolled the man off the sheet, bundled it up and tossed it in the roaring fire. She put the clean shirt on him—he'd been through several operations for those burns, by the patches of grafted skin over the worst of it—buttoned up the shirt, and checked her watch. Four minutes thirty-eight. Not bad, really. She checked over the hut for any signs of wound treatment.
Nothing, thank God. Hana dragged in a deep sigh of relief, and finally allowed herself a moment to look at her patient's face.
'No, no,' she whispered, horrified.
She'd known as she ran to save this man's life that he'd pulled off the impossible today—but the feat suddenly didn't seem quite so impossible, if he was who she thought he was.
Please, God, just make it a freak physical resemblance…because if it was him, then by his mere presence he'd brought far more danger to the village than by any supplies he'd brought.
Even Sh'ellah's followers would know him. Most men loved fast sports and money, and this man combined both. Just put a helmet on him and it was the former face of the world's most expensive racing-car team. He'd won the World Championship twice—and brought both riches and research to a once-struggling nation. He'd found oil and natural gas reserves in a place few had thought to look, with his chemical background and analytical racing driver's mind.
'La!' he muttered, in either fever or concussed confusion. 'La, la, akh! Fadi, la!'
No, no, brother! Fadi, no!
In dread, Hana heard the words in the Arabic native to her childhood home country, begging his beloved brother Fadi to live. It broke her heart—she knew how it felt to lose those she loved—and then she listened in horror as he relived the drive to the village in graphic detail, including the complex mixture of chemicals he'd used to blind Sh'ellah's men.
The fine-chiselled, handsome face—the faint scars of burns on his cheek, the horrific wounds on his body… even his miraculous escape today made perfect sense. He'd obviously had extensive training in the creation of compounds, and how much of each to add to make something new—such as a flare that could blind the men chasing him.
'This is all I need,' she muttered in frustration to the delirious face of Alim El-Kanar, the missing sheikh of Abbas al-Din. 'Why couldn't you be anywhere but here?'
The former racing-car champion kept muttering, describing the flare-bomb he'd made.
At the worst possible moment, the sound of a dozen all-terrain vehicles bumping hard and fast over the non-existent road reached her. Sh'ellah's men all spoke Arabic similar to that of the man lying in front of her. They'd identify him in moments, take him for enormous ransom… and destroy any evidence of their abduction. Within ten minutes she and all her friends would be blown to bits: another statistic to a world so inured to violence that they'd be lucky to make it to page twenty of a newspaper, or on the TV behind some Hollywood star's latest drunken tantrum.
'Fadi—Fadi, please, stay with me, brother! Stay!'
She had to do it. With a silent apology to the hero of her village, she heated a wet cloth over the fire and shoved it over his famous features to accelerate the fever already beginning to burn under his skin; she rubbed him down with a dry towel to make the temperature of his arms and legs rise. Her only chance lay with scaring the men into staying away from him… And by shutting him up. She put her fingers to his throat and pushed down on his carotid artery, counting a slow, agonising one to twenty, until he collapsed into unconsciousness.
He had to be dreaming, but it was the sweetest dream of angel eyes.
Alim felt the fever creating needle-pricks of pain beneath his skin, the throbbing pain at his temple… but as he opened his eyes the confusion grew. Surely he was in Africa still? The hut looked African enough with its unglazed windows, and the cooking fire in the centre of the single room; the heat and dust, red dirt not sand, told him he was still in the Dark Continent.
'Where am I?' he asked the veiled woman bending over the cooking fire.
When she turned and limped towards him, he recognised the vortex of his centrifugal confusion: his angel-eyed goddess wasn't African. The face bending to his was half covered with a veil, but the green-brown eyes that weren't quite looking in his, gently slanted and surrounded by glowing olive skin, were definitely Arabic. They were so beautiful, and reminded him so much of home, he ached in places she hadn't disinfected or stitched up.
Perhaps it was the limp—anyone who climbed into a moving truck would have to hurt themselves; or maybe it was her voice he'd heard in fevered sleep, begging him to be quiet—but he was certain she'd been the one to save his life.
'You're in the village of Shellah-Akbar. How are you feeling?' she asked in Maghreb Arabic, a North African dialect related to his native tongue—haunting him with the familiarity. She was from his region—though she had the strangest accent, an unusual twang. He couldn't place it.
Intrigued, he said, 'I'm well, thank you,' in Gulf Arabic. His voice was rough against the symphony of hers, like a tiger sitting at the feet of a nightingale.
Her lashes fluttered down, but not in a flirtatious way; she acted like the shyest virgin in his home city. But she was veiled as a married woman, and working here as the nurse. He remembered her rapping out orders to others in several languages, including Swahili.
His saviour with the angel eyes was a modern woman, too confident in her orders and sure of her place to be single. Yet she chose to remain veiled, and she wouldn't meet his eyes.
She must be married to a doctor here. That had to be it.
It had been so long since he'd seen a woman behave in this manner he'd almost forgotten its tender reassurance: faithful women did exist. It had been a rare commodity in the racing world, and he'd seen few women that intrigued him in any manner since the accident.
'Now could you please tell me the truth?'
The semi-stringent demand made his dreams of gentle, angel-eyed maidens drop and quietly shatter. He looked up, saw her frowning as she inspected his wound. 'It's infected,' she muttered, probing with butterfly fingers. He breathed in the scent of woman and lavender, a combination that somehow touched him deep inside. 'I'm sorry. I had to cover the sutures with make-up and your hair, and increase your fever so Sh'ellah's men would believe you had the flu.'
'I've had far worse.' He saw the self-recrimination in those lovely eyes, heard it in the soft music of her voice. Wanting to see her shine again, he murmured, 'You were the one who came to the truck. That's why you're limping.'
Slowly she nodded, but the shadows remained.
'Did you stitch me up?'
Another nod, curt and filled with self-anger. Strange, but he could almost hear her thoughts, the emotions she tried to hide. It was as if something inside her were singing to him in silence, crying out to be understood.
Perhaps she was as isolated, as lonely for her people as he was. Why was she here?
'May I know my saviour's name?' he asked, his tone neutral, holding none of the strange tenderness she evoked in him.
The hesitation was palpable, the indecision. He took pity on her. 'If your husband…'
'I have no husband.' Her words had lost their music; they were curt and cold. She turned from him; moments later he heard the tearing sound of a medical pack opening.
He closed his eyes, cursing himself for not understanding in the first place. It had been so long since he'd dealt with a woman of his faith he'd almost forgotten: only a widow would come here, and one without a family to protect her. So young for such a loss. 'I'm sorry.'
With a little half-shrug, she leaned down to his wound. 'Please lie still. If your wound is to heal—and it has to do that, fast, before Sh'ellah's men return—I have to clean it again.'
He should have known she wouldn't be working on a man in this manner if she was married, unless she'd been married to a Westerner, and then she wouldn't be veiled.
The veil suited her, though. The seductive sweep of the sand-hued material over her face and body covered her form in comfort but protected her skin from the stinging dirt and winds without binding her. And the soft swish of the hand-stitched material as she walked—how she moved so beautifully with a limp was unfathomable, but he knew his angel was also his saviour.
She walks in beauty like the night. Or like a star of the sunrise…
'Thank you for saving my worthless life, Sahar Thurayya,' he said, with a bowing motion of his hands, since he couldn't move his head without ruining her work.
A brow lifted at the title he'd given her, dawn star, a courtesy name since she refused to give him her true name, but she continued her work without speaking.
'My name is Alim.'
To give her that much truth was safe. There were many men named Alim in his country, and courtesy demanded she introduce herself in return.
'Though dawn star is prettier,' she said quietly, 'my name is Hana.'
Hana meant happiness. 'I think dawn star is more suited to the woman you've become.'
She didn't look up from the intricate task of cleaning hair and packed-on make-up from his wound. 'You've known me all of ten minutes, yet you feel qualified to make such a judgement?'
She was right. Just because she was here, cut off from her own people, and was radiant with all forms of beauty but happiness—she seemed haunted somehow—gave him no right to judge her. 'I beg your pardon,' he said gravely in the dialect of his homeland.
'Please stop talking,' she whispered.
It was only then that he noticed the fine tremors in her hand. So his mere presence, their shared language, hurt her heart as much as hers did him. He closed his eyes and let her work in peace, breathing in the clean warm air and scent of lavender, a natural disinfectant.
She still wasn't risking using the medicines he'd brought, then.
When she seemed to be almost done with his wound, he murmured, 'Where's my truck?'
Abdel drove it out to a remote part of the area. The villagers wiped all traces of the tyre tracks from the way in and out of the village. Don't worry, he'll hide it well, and will give you exact coordinates so you can get to it when you're feeling better.'
'Who am I?' When she frowned at him, obviously wondering if concussion had given him temporary amnesia, he added, 'To Sh'ellah's men, when they came? Who did you say I was?'
The fingers placing Steri-Strips over his wound trembled for a moment; again her agony of indecision felt like shimmering heat rising in waves from her skin.