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Shakir Kadir was living in a romance novel.
But no author would write such a fanciful plot. A beautiful princess kidnapped by an evil sultan and held captive in a harem? A daring rescue attempt by an ex-lover, parachuting in on a moonless night? Not many novels could be this outrageous. Yet here he was, stuck inside an unbelievable reality.
Would he end up the hero or the fool in this melodrama? It didn't much matter. Shakir could do no less for the woman he'd once loveddespite both his brothers' concerns to the contrary.
As he grimly waited for the chopper pilot to arrive at the jump zone coordinates, Shakir watched the desert floor below. Flying at low altitude through eerie darkness, the quiet drone of the Merlin Mk3's engine made talking difficult. But infrared night vision goggles allowed him to pick out objects despite the lack of light. He hadn't traveled to this desolate wasteland since he'd been a teen. But the backward country of Zabbaran had not changed all that much in the intervening years.
Without the aid of running lights, their chopper blew like smoke through starlit skies. Shakir recognized rock outcroppings and herds of sheep below them. He remembered that late at night the desert could be as lonely and as silent as death.
Attempting to focus his attention away from the coming mission, he thought of how he had come this far. His extended family had opted to form a new intelligence unit under his younger brother, Tarik's, control. Tarik, a genius in covert strategy, resigned his commission in the United States Special Forces in order to organize an undercover operation for the Kadirs. It was Tarik's embedded undercover operatives that had provided them with current maps and architectural drawings for a hostage rescue mission.
Shakir's new position was as head of black ops for the family. It still amazed him that the Kadirs had suddenly needed to organize and operate like an army during a time of war. The answer to why was complicated.
The Kadirs had been forced into engaging in a cold war of sorts with an old enemy, the Taj Zabbar clan. The Taj had initiated this conflict unilaterally a few months back, supposedly in revenge for centuries-old perceived grievances.
To Shakir's mind, that was just so much rhetoric and showed insane thinking.
The Kadir family were Bedouin peoples. Nomads. They did not claim any country as their own and had never occupied any territory with borders to defend. In the modern era, the Kadir family no longer belonged strictly to the desert. The family ran international shipping operations and traded legitimate goods between various countries of the world. So why should a nonviolent family of traders and shippers like the Kadirs be forced to engage in a fight with an ancient tribe of thieves and murderers? It didn't make sense.
The Taj Zabbar clan had recently won their independence from Kasht, a neighboring country. With their independence, the Taj gained control of the territory of Zabbaran, a vast desert with millions of barrels of oil lying directly beneath the surface of the land.
The Taj Zabbar's sudden great wealth seemed to have opened up painful memories and long-ago hurts for them, and now, apparently, they intended to get even for ancient grievances by destroying the Kadirs. It was not the peoples of Kasht, who had been their true oppressors, that the Taj wanted to hurt. No. The country of Kasht had licked its wounds and made trading pacts with the Taj. Then the imprudent Taj turned all their hatred to the task of injuring and destroying the Kadir family.
Shakir wasn't particularly politically-minded, but he would be willing to wager that money and power lay at the bottom of the Taj's cold war. Someday, he was sure the answers would come out. In the meantime, the Kadirs were fighting back and trying to reveal the truth of the Taj's intentions to the world.
"Brother." Tarik's whispered voice broke through the silence of his earpiece. "One last chance to back off this fool's errand."
"The hostage extraction is on," Shakir muttered through his lip microphone.
Tarik was convinced this journey would lead them into a trap. But then, Tarik's job entailed questioning everything, every fact and every rumor, until all answers became clear. Shakir's job, on the other hand, was black ops. See a problem. Fix the problem. By stealth or by force, whichever worked best.
The hostage rescue mission clearly seemed to require both. A group of western women were being held inside one of the Taj Zabbar's desert fortresses. The females had been either kidnapped or lured there to be auctioned off to the highest bidders. Great fortunes could be had by selling to the international pornography, sex and slavery trades.
The Taj Zabbar were well known as middlemen in every sort of illegal trade. It mattered little to them why their clients wanted the women. Only that they would pay dearly for them.
Shakir would never forget the exact moment he'd spotted the name Nicole Olivier on the list of abducted women that a Kadir undercover operative provided. Shakir had carried a mental picture of her around in his head for the past six years. But when he'd first read the name, he couldn't bring her face to mind. Years of trying to block her memory, and the hurt that went along with it, had temporarily wiped his mind clean.
But it didn't take long for everything to come back in a painful rush.
It was about that same time when his brothers had cautioned about any rescue attempt becoming a trap. Darin and Tarik both believed it was possible that the Taj Zabbar could've somehow learned of Shakir's old relationship to Nicole, the Princess of Olianberg. If that were true, his brothers worried that the enemy would be trying to lure the Kadir's middle son, Shakir, to Zabbaran for blackmail, or possible execution.
Shakir didn't buy it for a moment. Princess Nicole's family had been out of the news for several years. Ever since they were forced to abdicate their claims to the throne of their tiny European principality. After their failed coup attempt, the family had quietly dropped out of sight. Even Shakir could find no word of them.
When he'd first fallen for Nicole at university, the Olianberg royal family had insisted on keeping their only daughter's relationship to a Bedouin from leaking to the press. Shakir hadn't even realized it was a problem at the time because when they'd first met, Nicole had kept her royal heritage hidden from him, as well as from the rest of the world.
Coming back to the present, Shakir had no idea how the Taj had managed to capture Nicole. But he knew why. She was beautiful. Stunning. He was convinced the Kadir name had not come up in connection to hers. After their youthful affair had ended, the royal family seemed intent on burying the relationship, hopeful that no one would ever find out.
Giving his pack, chute and assault weapon one last check, Shakir turned the thumbs-up sign to his baby brother and the six other men on his team. Their plan was simple. They would drop into the country covertly, sneak into the fortress and rescue the women without drawing the attention of the main unit of fortress guards.
The operation had to be timed to the minute. Two hours and thirty-six minutes to be exact. Then they must return to the pickup point to meet the extraction choppers. In and out. Simple. He'd bloody well been through tougher assignments and hostage rescues during his years in a Royal Parachute Regiment in Afghanistan.
This one was a piece of cake.
Not long after they'd dropped into the desert, Shakir and Tarik stood in shadows at the base of a wall, waiting for the signal. Tall stone walls surrounded the enormous Taj fortress, but Kadir operatives had uncovered a secret passage to the inside.
The midnight chill crept into Shakir's bones as he waited and concentrated on executing his job. He shook it off, reminding himself not to let his mind slip. If he was to remain focused, he couldn't think about the possibilitieswhat he might find were the physical conditions of the women being held inside these walls.
The Taj Zabbar weren't noted for their humane treatment of prisoners. That these prisoners were also female did not bode well for their safety. So far the Kadirs hadn't found any tangible proof that the Taj Zabbar clan posed a threat to the whole world. But the Taj record on torture and abuse of their own citizens and neighbors, including women and children, was legendary.
Two clicks sounded in his earpiece.
"There's the signal," Tarik whispered. His brother disappeared into a nearly invisible slit in the wall and three of the men fell in behind.
Shakir hefted his Israeli-made Micro Tavor assault rifle, adjusted his NVGs and moved out, protecting their six. By using a grappling hook, the Kadir rescue unit hoisted each other over the outer perimeter walls and down onto the first in a series of multi-level lawns, porches and terraces.
Instead of making their way straight to the main house, the little troop of rescuers turned south and crouch-walked along the inner wall, heading toward a smaller building with Moorish influences. The small house, originally used as a Kasht palace, was now used as the harem for the new Taj fortress that had been built around it.
The main quarters of the new fortress, recently constructed by a Taj Zabbar elder, were reputed to be a showplace. With ornate tiled halls, splashy and expensive artwork and lavish furnishings, the palace was ripe with ostentatious wealth and fit for the elder Umar. He had spared no expense to make it a true paradise on earth.
Shakir didn't need to see the new palace to dislike everything about it. His mission was clear. Following the others, he made his way down the wall to the small ancient building situated to the east of the main palace.
When the Kadir troop quietly entered the former concubines' quarters, Shakir noticed immediately that the Taj elder had done nothing to modernize these original buildings. Faded oriental carpets covered the floors, exactly as they had done for a hundred years. Cracked and stained rock walls and winding, narrow hallways led them through a maze of tiny, dark rooms.
It was a good thing he was wearing NVGs. But it was by using only his more feral abilities, the ones honed and trained by his warrior grandfather, that Shakir recognized the distant scent of precious water.
Intel claimed the women were being held in a private chamber beside the ancient harem baths. He caught the slight whiff of mold, heard the low drip of water and led the way.
As the unit of Kadir men silently crept forward toward the baths, Shakir's mind went back to the first time he had ever seen Nicole. It seemed like a lifetime ago. He'd been a lonely outcast, barely surviving his first year at a British university. She was the shy but beautiful student from some unheard-of European country who had offered to tutor him in English.
They'd struck up the friendship of two misfits. Then slowly the friendship developed into a romance. He'd fallen hard. But when she'd finally confessed the truth of her royal background and told him she was promised to a man that she'd never met, he walked away without a fuss.
Only to die a thousand solitary deaths in the six years since.
Scrubbing the back of his hand across his eyes to wipe away the sweat, Shakir checked those memories. No point in a rehash. The past was in the past. Today, the mission was rescuenot reopening a festering sore that would never heal.
Another click sounded in his earpiece, and he halted mid-stride. They'd come to the door leading to the women's damp prison. Tarik and one other man peeled off from the group to dispatch the two guardsunseen, but nevertheless standing between their position and the chamber.
Counting down, Shakir gave his brother thirty seconds and then led the way into the harem with his weapon at the ready. It was a huge open room, with gigantic columns rising thirty feet or more and then disappearing into the darkness of a vast ceiling. Low torch lights reflected off the rippling waters of the bath.
He pushed the NVGs up his forehead and searched the shadowed chaise longues and steps beside the pool, looking for Nicole. Two of the women he'd also expected to find slept fitfully on top of ratty-looking beds. Two others reclined on the steps, staring bug-eyed off into a nonexistent distance. The whole atmosphere reminded him of an opium den he'd once visited in his rougher days.
"They've been drugged." Tarik came up behind him, whispering low. "We expected something like this. But it will make it tough leading them to freedom in their condition."
Tarik spun in a circle and counted heads. "Have you spotted her yet?"
"She isn't here." Shakir didn't know whether to be relieved or panicked.
He went with standby mode. "Take these four and move out. I'll keep looking."
Tarik nodded and silently crept away toward the closest woman. Shakir was grateful that his brother had not mentioned the obvious. Time would not allow an extensive search. If he didn't locate Nicole soon, the extraction choppers would leave without them.
As he flipped the NVGs back over his eyes and moved into darkness, Shakir's lifetime of training overruled his all-too-human mind. Long ago he had developed the instincts of a predator. A hunter. He would use those instincts now to locate his former lover.
And he would not allow himself to dwell on the other possibilities. He would not consider the chance that Nicole may have already been sold into slavery. Or that the Taj elder might have picked her out for his own household. Or that she had already been accidently given a lethal overdose of the drugs.
Shutting out any of those potential pitfalls, he moved swiftly. Those thoughts were inconceivable and therefore they did not exist.
Not for the hunter.
"Your plan is too dangerous, miss. Please reconsider." The old handmaiden's shoulders were rounded and bent and her ancient eyes watery. But her sharp gaze seemed bright with intelligence, good sense and a healthy dose of fear.
Nikki Olivier went against her better judgment and hugged the woman. "I must go tonight, Lalla. I cannot manage another day of pretending to take the drugs. The guards will soon uncover my stash of unused pills and you and I will both suffer the consequences."
"But if given another day or two " The old woman continued with her pleading. "The moonlight will guide your way to the coastal village of Sadutan. The Zabbaran desert is full of dangers on moonless nights, but you dare not travel during the day."