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The ragged tops of tall palms rustled quietly in a furnacelike breeze and the sky pressed down over the Moorish city of Na'Jar with a thick harmattan haze—fine particles of Sahara sand lifted by West African trades to choke the air with a dense, red fog.
Slowly, Nikki Hunt dismounted from her camel.
The old medina at the base of a four-lane boulevard that swept up the hill toward the palace was eerily deserted. Yet she could sense eyes watching her from dark windows cleaved into baked clay walls. A dog barked somewhere, and Nikki caught the blur of a black-garbed woman grabbing a child's hand and darting like a ghost into an alley.
Her mouth went dry.
Tensions in this ancient city were volatile after a brutal coup two months earlier had seized the life of the revered old king. And just two days ago there'd been a suicide bombing right outside the palace walls, someone trying to assassinate the new king who had yet to be officially sworn in. That's what the Berber tribesmen in the barren Rahm Hills had told Nikki when she'd inadvertently drifted across the border and into the desert kingdom of Al Na'Jar. The Rahm Berbers said it wasn't safe for a woman to travel in the country alone. Not now. Not ever.
Nikki knew that.
North Africa was a hostile place for a female without the protection of a man. It was why she was now dressed as a Tuareg nomad with a heavy indigo-black turban wound around her head, hiding all but her eyes, which were masked by reflective sunglasses. Her bright white robe was cinched tightly at her waist with a leather belt. A tasseled camel whip and jambiya—an angrily curved dagger—hung from her hip.
Under her robe she hid the .45-caliber pistol she'd taken from the body of a rebel solider in Mauritania.
The skin on Nikki's hands and wrists had grown dark from months under the desert sun, and with her blue-green eyes hidden by shades, she'd so far managed to pass unharmed, unquestioned. Any feminine gestures Nikki might not have been able to mask were not terribly far removed from the feminine grace inherent in some Saharan men, especially those from the northern Mali region and parts of Algeria.
Nikki had watched them carefully, studying their economy of movement in blistering heat. She'd mastered riding a camel. And step by torturous step—not thinking beyond putting one cracked and sandaled foot in front of the other—she'd managed to shepherd her ragged band of ailing war orphans across the arid northwestern Sahara. But after drinking stale water from a wadi, her children had fallen ill.
And then Nikki had gotten lost, drifting so far north that she'd unknowingly entered the small and unsettled Kingdom of Al Na'Jar.
The Rahm Berbers had briefed Nikki about the coup and told her about the new king. His Royal Highness Sheik Zakir Al Arif was descended from a proud and ancient line of fierce Moorish-Bedouin warriors who had ruled this kingdom for hundreds of years. They referred to their new monarch as the "Dark One" or the "Dark King" because they knew so little about him. He'd apparently been living in France before his father's assassination. The Berbers also told Nikki that after the suicide attack the new king had moved quickly to shut down his borders as he tried to determine who were his allies or enemies.
Which meant Nikki was now trapped in Al Na'Jar.
The only way out of this simmering kingdom was now through the seat of government—that walled fortress with its gleaming domes and minarets up on the hill at the end of the deserted boulevard.
If Nikki could get a decree from the Dark King granting her safe passage across Al Na'Jar to the Atlantic, she could save her orphans. From the coast she'd try to board a boat to Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands where the Mercy Missions relief organization had a base.
But her first priority was medicine—antibiotics and liquids that would balance electrolytes. Without it, some of her kids could die. Within days.
Nikki's stomach fisted with tension as she tethered her camel to an old stall in the abandoned marketplace. All around her the thick, silent stone walls were pocked from mortar fire. Cartridges still glinted gold on cobblestones—evidence of the violent battle between the Sheik's Army and the mysterious insurgents who'd mounted the coup.
Gaze flicking left to right, Nikki began to walk slowly up the ominously deserted boulevard that led to the walled castle. She held her arms out at her sides in a gesture of peace, and to show she was unarmed.
Heat quivered from the bleached tarmac and the tattered leaves of the tall palms flanking the boulevard crackled in the hot wind.
She crested a slight rise and suddenly saw why the road was empty. A massive coil of razor wire had been hauled across the boulevard. Behind it lurked a blockade of Bradley and Abrams tanks, shimmering like a deadly mirage under the pitiless noonday heat.
The only safe way out of Al Na'Jar was through that military blockade, through that palace. Her kids were dying.
She had to do this.
She inhaled deeply, sucking down fear as she continued to move toward the tanks, arms held out wide. Mirrored sunglasses winked at her from beneath the soldiers' helmets, the dark snouts of their automatic weapons poking above the battle machinery, every muzzle trained on her. A fly buzzed around her head.
She didn't dare swat at it.
Then as Nikki took another step she crossed some invisible line and the soldiers tensed collectively. Someone screamed in Arabic for her to stay back or they would shoot.
Nikki's heart blipped, and for a second she wavered.
Think of the children. Save the children.
If she failed them now, then she would fail herself. She'd be worth nothing and might as well cease to exist entirely.
Clenching her jaw, gaze riveted on the tanks, Nikki took one more tentative step forward. And a soldier fired.
The slug pinged near her feet, showering her with tar.
She froze. "I mean no harm!" she yelled in Arabic. "I have come to see His Royal Highness, Sheik Zakir Al Arif of Al Na'Jar!"
A flurry of movement told Nikki they'd heard from her voice that she was female. And foreign.
All turned deadly silent.
Heat pressed down.
Nikki moistened her cracked lips as she tried to summon the mental calm she'd depended on while performing operations, back in her other life when she was still a surgeon. "I am a nurse!" she called out. "I come only in peace! I need humanitarian aid and safe passage for a group of sick children."
Silence hung heavy, broken only by desert wind rustling through palm fronds.
Carefully telegraphing her movements, Nikki reached up, removed her sunglasses, dropping them with a clatter to the hot road. Next she unwound her dark turban, letting it fall to her feet. Long hair tumbled down about her shoulders, gleaming like spun gold under the hazy red sun. She held her arms out again, shaking inside. "I am an American!" Her voice cracked. She cleared her throat. "I work with Mercy Missions, a UNICEF organization. I come in peace!"
There was another ripple of movement among the troops, and a lone soldier edged his helmeted head above a tank. He barked an order in crisp Arabic, instructing Nikki to set her dagger on the road. She unsheathed her jambiya, crouched down and placed it at her feet.
The soldier then ordered her to place proof of identity alongside the dagger and once she had done so to walk backward a hundred yards, then wait. If she moved, they would kill her.
Nikki removed her passport and nursing papers from a pouch beneath her belt. She placed the documents on the road next to her dagger, then walked slowly backward, arms out wide. Heat burned on her uncovered head as she squinted into the burning orange haze.
A portion of razor wire was drawn back from the boulevard and three soldiers approached, automatic weapons trained on her.
A pearl of sweat trickled down her belly under her robe as she waited.
One of the soldiers retrieved her documents, quickly flipped through them. He glanced up at her, then nodded curtly.
The second soldier frisked Nikki, found her pistol, disarmed her and removed the clip. Her turban was then shoved back into her hands, and with angry gestures she was ordered to recover her head.
Hands shaking, Nikki fumbled to drape the indigo cloth over her hair like a veil, flipping the fabric over her mouth and nose, leaving only her now-naked eyes exposed.
With the business end of a rifle pressed into the small of her back she was marched toward the blockade.
It was much cooler inside the palace, under the soaring mosaic arches and high domes of stained glass. But after weeks out in the desert—she'd lost count of how many—Nikki felt trapped, edgy.
The guards ushered her along a labyrinth of marbled passageways and into a large chamber. The double doors thudded brusquely behind her. She heard a bolt being driven home across the outside.
Claustrophobia tightened her chest. Slowly she turned, taking in her surroundings. Marbled keyhole arches opened onto a high-walled garden lush with citrus trees and flowers. Stone fountains carved in the shapes of lions' heads tinkled water into pools and birds darted between sweet-scented orange blossoms. Nikki hadn't seen songbirds in a long time and the sound of water forced her to swallow reflexively, a potent reminder of the thirst she'd been desperately trying to ignore.
The design of the palace was similar to the Moorish architecture she'd seen in Marrakech and Casablanca.
Morocco bordered Al Na'Jar to the north, and Nikki had visited the country on her honeymoon—before she'd had the twins.
When her name used to be Alexis Etherington.
Cold nausea slicked into her stomach. She shuddered, blocking the memories of her loss, her past, forcing herself to stay present and focused. Her gaze settled on a bowl of purple grapes alongside a crystal pitcher of water and ice.
Nikki turned abruptly away from it. She could not eat and drink while her orphans still suffered. Time stretched interminably and she grew hotter under her veil, the fabric ratcheting up her cloying sense of claustrophobia and whispering panic.
Then suddenly, she heard the clip of boot heels on the smooth tiles outside the barred double doors. And something else, a sharp clicking. She tensed, spun to face the door, blood thudding in her ears, hands fisting nervously at her sides.
An order was barked outside in rough Arabic, and she heard the men announce the king.
The massive bolt slammed back, and the doors were swung wide-open with a crash. In their place stood the dark, Moorish-Bedouin warrior monarch the Berber tribesmen had told her about.
Nikki caught her breath.
The king stepped into the room, his electric presence seeming to flow out ahead of him, filling space like something that abhorred a vacuum. And Nikki realized what the other sound was that she'd heard outside the door—dogs. Because as the "Dark King" moved, three tall and slender salukis flowed like mercury at his side.
His Royal Highness Sheik Zakir Al Arif fixed glittering obsidian eyes on her, his burning attention absorbing her completely. He remained silent for a beat, then with a curt flick of his wrist he motioned for his guards to step outside.
Nikki noticed the king's personal guards were not dressed like the other soldiers of the Sheik's Army. They wore bloodred turbans that covered most of their faces, bright white tunics, and they had unusual long knives sheathed at their hips. The men retreated in unison with a silent bow of their heads, the massive doors swinging shut behind them.
Nikki pressed her damp hands firmly against her robes in an effort to stop the sudden shaking. She had no idea of royal protocol, no knowledge of the rules or traditions of this land. She spoke only a smattering of Arabic. But she could speak French, and with Al Na'Jar once having been a protectorate of France, there was a good chance French was still spoken here as a language of business and diplomacy.
Nikki wasn't sure what she had expected of the mysterious monarch, either, but it sure as hell wasn't this. He was tall—well over six feet, all lean muscle. And his looks were the dark smoldering stuff of feminine desert fantasy—high-bridged aquiline nose; glittering, hooded obsidian eyes; sensual yet predatory features; rich skin; blue-black hair; heavy brows; aggressive jaw; and beautiful, beautiful lips. And his exotic physique was reinforced by his dress—a brocade Arabic tunic over riding pants, tall leather boots, a bejeweled scimitar sheathed at his hips. The effect was mesmerizing.
But more than anything it was the utter physical confidence with which he moved and the naked directness of his gaze that felt most intimidating. Because in addition to radiating power, Sheik Zakir Al Arif radiated sexual charisma. He was undeniably physically attractive—if you liked them tall, dark and decidedly dangerous. And once upon a time, when Nikki had thought about men in her life, that was the way she liked them.
She inhaled quietly, suddenly grateful for the protection of her veil, waiting for him to make the first move.
"American?" he said, taking a step closer.
She nodded, half bowing, half curtsying.
His black eyes lasered directly into hers. "Your documents identify you as Nicola Ann Hunt."
He spoke perfect English in a French accent laced with the guttural and oh-so-sensual undertones of Arabic. The tone of his voice dipped between baritone and bass. Mellifluous. And it seemed to ripple like water over her skin.
"Just Nikki," she offered, her voice catching. "Nikki Hunt."
His brow lowered, and Nikki had to force herself not to retreat a step.
"From Washington, D.C.?"
"No," she lied, a gut reaction. "I mean, yes, I…was born there." Any remnant of confidence Nikki might have retained during her ordeal at the blockade had just been ripped from as her the king vocalized an element of her past.
"Do you realize how close you came to being killed!" he barked suddenly, eyes flashing, neck muscles tense.
She flinched, remaining silent.
"Just two days ago," he snapped, "an insurgent dressed in women's robes blew himself up right outside the palace gates. Killed five of my men. My troops now have orders to shoot—and kill—anyone who dares approach the blockade against orders. Female or not." He stepped closer, lowering his voice to a smooth guttural growl. "The only reason you are alive, Ms. Hunt—" he glowered down at her "—is because my men disobeyed those orders. For that they will be punished. But what I want to know is, what are you doing here? And what do you want from me?" It was a command, not a question.
Nikki had to force herself to meet his aggressive black eyes. "I…I'm a nurse with Mercy Missions," she said, breath hot against her veil. "It's a global relief organization affiliated to UNICEF and the Red Cross—"
"You're a missionary?"
"No, just a nurse with a mission-based organization."
"What is your religious affiliation?"
A spurt of defiance shot through her, and she welcomed it. "That's not your business."