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LUCY FORRESTER wasn't fooled for a minute. The in-substantial shimmer of green was a mirage.
She'd read everything she could about Ramal Hamrah, the desert. Mirages, she'd learned, were not the illusions of thirst-maddened travelers, but occurred when refracted light mirrored distant images--oil tankers, cities, trees--making them appear where they had no business to be, only for them to evaporate as the earth revolved and the angle of the sun changed.
It happened now, the momentary vision of eye-soothing green vanishing before her eyes. But even a mirage was enough to distract her from her unthinking rush to confront the man who'd betrayed her. Just because there was no traffic--no road--didn't mean that there were no hazards.
She checked the satellite navigation system, adjusted her direction slightly, then forced herself to relax her white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel a little. Look around, take her bearings.
Not that there was much to see apart from the mountains--clearer, sharper now that she was on higher ground away from the coast. There was nothing green here, only the occasional scrubby, dust-covered bush in an otherwise dry and empty landscape.
Her eyes, seared and aching from a sun that mocked her delicately tinted sunglasses, felt as if they were filled with sand and she would have welcomed another glimpse of the cooling green. Even an illusion would do.
Dehydrated, hungry, she should have realized that she'd need more than rage to sustain her, but her bottle of water had long been empty. And, shaken to bits by her charge across the corrugated surface of the open desert, her entire body felt as if it had been beaten black and blue.
She didn't understand it. According to the map, it was no more than a hundred and fifty miles to Steve's campsite. Three hours, four at the most. She should have been there long before now.
She closed her eyes momentarily, in an attempt to relieve them. It was a mistake. Without warning the 4x4 tipped forward, throwing her against the seat-belt as the ground fell sharply away in front of her, wrenching the wheel from her hands.
Before she could react, regain control, the front offside wheel hit something hard, riding up so that the vehicle slewed sideways, tipped drunkenly, and after a seemingly endless moment when it might, just, have fallen back four-square on the ground, the rear wheel clipped the same unseen rock and the world tipped upside down.
Only the bruising jolt of the seat-belt against her breastbone, shoulder, hip, stopped her from being tumbled around the interior like washing in a drier as the vehicle began to roll.
It didn't stop her arms from flailing uncontrollably, bouncing against the wheel, the roof, the gear stick. Didn't stop her legs from being pounded against the angles of a vehicle built for function, rather than comfort. Didn't stop everything loose from flying around, battering her head and neck.
It seemed an eternity before the world finally stopped turning and everything came to a halt.
For a while that was enough.
When, finally, she managed to focus on her surroundings, the world was at an odd angle, but the silence, the lack of any kind of movement, was deeply restful and Lucy, glad enough to rest quietly in the safety cage of her seat-belt, felt no urgent need to move.
At least the green was back, she thought. Closer now. She tried to make sense of it through the crazing of the safety glass.
Trees of some kind, she decided, after a while. It was the fact that they were upside down that had confused her. That they were below, rather than above a high wall.
Had she stumbled across the Hanging Gardens of Babylon?
No, that couldn't be right. Babylon wasn't in Ramal Hamrah. It was... Somewhere else.
Maybe she was dead, she thought dispassionately.
Heaven would be green. And quiet. Although the gate she could see set into the wall was not of the pearly variety promised in the fire-and-brimstone sermons preached at the church her grandmother had attended, but were carved from wood.
But then wood was, no doubt, more precious than pearls in a place where few trees grew.
Wall and door were both the same dull ochre as the desert. Covered with centuries of wind-blown dust, they were all but invisible unless you were looking directly at them or, as now, intense shadows cast by the lowering sun were throwing the carvings into relief.
The angel looked real enough, though, as he flew down to her on wings of gold.
Gradually tiny sounds began to impinge on her consciousness. The ticking of the engine as it cooled. Papers fluttering. It was her diary, she saw, lying amongst the jumble of stuff thrown from her bag, the pages riffling in the wind, blowing her life away. She closed her eyes.
Moments, or maybe it was hours, later she opened them to a pounding beat that sounded oddly familiar but which she couldn't quite place. And the slow drip, drip, drip of something leaking.
Coolant or brake fluid, she thought.
She ought to do something about that. Find the hole, plug it somehow or she'd really be in trouble...
Stirred from her dazed torpor, she began to tug feebly at the seat belt but was brought to an instant halt by a searing pain in her scalp. Confused, in pain as a hundred smarts, bruises and worse were jolted into life, she kept still, tried to focus her energy, find the strength to reach the release catch, free herself, without tearing her hair out by the roots.
Then the smell of petrol reached her.
Petrol dripping on to hot metal... It was a wake-up call to the danger she was in; forget heaven, she was at the gates of hell and raw, naked fear overrode pain as she struggled to twist herself around to hit the seat belt release.
Her sweaty fingers slipped as she tried to make contact and, as the smell of petrol grew stronger, she panicked, throwing herself against the restraints--
"Hold still, I've got you."
She heard the words, but they didn't penetrate the thinking part of her brain as she fought to break free.
It wasn't the harsh order that shocked her into motionless silence, or the fierce, hawk-like features of the man who gave it. It was the gleaming knife blade, so close to her face that she could almost taste the metal at the back of her throat.
It was one shock too many.
Hanif al-Khatib cursed as the woman fainted dead away, then braced himself to catch her as he cut her free from the seat belt, trusting to luck as to whether he did more damage as he hauled her dead weight up through the open window of the 4x4 and on to his saddle. The smell of petrol filled the hot air and there was no time to waste doing the thing gently as, holding her limp body tight against him with one arm, he urged his horse to safety.
When the vehicle burst into flames he was still close enough to feel a flare of heat that made the desert air seem momentarily icy. *** Time passed in a blur of pain. Lucy heard voices but could not understand what they said. The only comfort was in the dusty cloth beneath her face, the steady beat of a human heart, soft reassuring words. Someone was holding her close, not letting go. With the part of her brain that was still functioning, she knew that as long as he held her she would be safe.
Nothing short of an emergency would have induced Hanif al-Khatib to set foot in a hospital. He hated everything about them--the smell, the hushed careful voices of the staff, the high-tech sound of machines measuring out lives in bleeps rather than heartbeats. Announcing death in a high-pitched whine that drilled through the brain.
The overwhelming sense of guilt...
His aide had done his best to keep him away from the emergency room, to persuade him to remain in the desert, assuring him that he could manage.
He didn't doubt it; Zahir was more than capable, but he came anyway, needing to assure himself that everything necessary was done for the woman. And because a lone foreign woman driving across the desert as if the hounds of hell were after her had left him with the uneasy suspicion that there was more to it than a simple accident.
Since he hadn't delayed to change his clothes and they, and the keffiyeh wound about his face, bore the dust of a day's hunting, no one had realized who he was and that suited him well enough. The last thing he wanted was to attract the attention of local media; he valued his own privacy and the young woman he'd rescued was unlikely to welcome the attention, speculation, that being brought into casualty by the son of the Emir was likely to arouse.
He'd left all direct contact with the hospital staff to Zahir, staying in background, content to be thought nothing more than muscle brought along to carry the woman pulled from the wreck of her vehicle.
Nevertheless, the arrival at the hospital of a helicopter bearing the Emiri insignia would have raised more than passing interest and he was eager to be away. Just as soon as he satisfied himself that the woman was not seriously injured, would be properly cared for.
He turned from the window as Zahir joined him in the visitors' room. "How is she?"
"Lucky. They've done a scan but the head injuries are no more than surface bruising. At worst, mild concussion."