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" the possibility she is still alive."
Adan looked up from the papers his secretary had given him to sign. He'd been only half paying attention to the functionary who'd been speaking. Since his uncle had died a week ago, there'd been so much to do in preparation for his own coronation that he often did as many things at once as he could. "Repeat that," he ordered, every cell of his body revving into high alert.
The man who stood inside the door trembled as Adan focused on him. He bowed his head and spoke to the floor.
"Forgive me, Your Excellency. I said that in preparation for your upcoming nuptials to Jasmine Shadi, we must investigate all reports that reach us in regards to your late wife, since her body was never recovered."
"It was never recovered because she walked into the desert, Hakim," Adan said mildly, though irritation spiked within him. "Isabella is buried under an ocean of sand."
As always, he felt a pang of sadness for his son. Though Adan had lost a wife, it was the fact Rafiq had lost his mother that bothered Adan most. Theirs had been an arranged marriage, not a love match. While he hoped that Isabella had not suffered, he could drag up very little emotion for her.
Isabella Maro had been beautiful, but she'd been unremarkable in every other way. Quiet, lovely and well-suited to performing the duties of their station, she'd been exactly what his wife should have been. And though he hadn't been the heir to the throne then, he had no doubt she'd have made a lovely queen.
A lovely, bland queen.
It wasn't her fault. Though she had been half-American, she'd been raised by her father as a traditional Jahfaran woman. He would never forget that when he'd met her shortly before their wedding, he'd asked her what she wanted out of life. She'd told him that she wanted whatever he wanted.
"There has been a reported sighting, Your Excellency."
Adan gripped the pen he'd been signing papers with and spread his other hand flat on the desk. He needed something solid to hold on to. Something to remind him that he wasn't in the middle of a nightmare. In order to ascend the throne formally, he needed a wife. Jasmine Shadi was to be that wife, and he was marrying her in two weeks time. There was no place in his life for a phantom.
"A sighting, Hakim?"
Hakim swallowed. His nut-brown skin glistened with moisture, though the palace had been modernized years ago and the air conditioners seemed to be working fine.
"Sharif Al Omara business competitor of Hassan Maro's, Your Excellencyrecently returned from a trip to the island of Maui. He says there was a singer in a bar there, a woman who called herself Bella Tyler, who resembled your late wife, sire."
"A singer in a bar?" Adan stared at the man a full minute before he burst into laughter. Isabella had survived the desert and now sang in a bar on a remote Hawaiian island? Impossible. No one ever survived the burning Jahfaran desert if they weren't prepared.
And Isabella had not been prepared. She'd wandered alone into the deepest wastes of Jahfar. At night. A sandstorm the next day had obliterated every trace of her, though they'd looked for weeks. "Hakim, I think Mr. Al Omar needs to see a doctor. Clearly, Hawaiian sunshine is somehow more brutal than our Jahfaran sun."
"He took a picture, sire."
Adan stilled. "Do you have this picture?"
"I do, sire." The man held out a folder. Mahmoud, his secretary, took the file and set it on the desk in front of Adan. He hesitated only a moment before flipping open the cover. Adan stared at the picture for so long that the lines started to blur. It could not be her, and yet.
"Cancel all my appointments for the next three days," he finally said. "And call the airport to ready my plane."
The bar was crowded tonight. Tourists and locals alike jammed into the interior and spilled out the open walls onto the beach below. The sun had just started to dip into the ocean, and the sky was turning brilliant gold when Isabella walked onto the stage and took her place behind the microphone. The sun sank fastmuch faster than she'd ever believed possible when she'd first arrived on the islandand then it was gone and the sky was pink, the clouds high over the ocean tinged purple and red with the last rays.
It was a brilliant and beautiful sight, and it always made her heart ache and seem full all at once. She'd grown accustomed to the melancholy, though she did not know from where it sprang. She often felt as if a piece of her was missing, but she didn't know what that piece was.
Singing filled the void, for a brief time anyway.
Isabella looked out at the gathered crowd. They were waiting for her. They were here for her. She closed her eyes and began to sing, losing herself in the rhythm and feel of the music. On the stage, she was Bella Tylerand Bella was completely in control of herself and her life.
Unlike Isabella Maro.
She slid from one song into the next, her voice wrapping around the words, caressing them. The lights were hot, but she was used to the heat. She wore a bikini and a sarong for island flavor, though she did not sing many island songs. Her eyelids felt weighted down beneath the makeup she wore. She always applied it thickly for the stage, or it wouldn't show up in the bright lights. Around her neck she wore a white puka-shell necklace. A matching bracelet encircled one ankle.
Her hair had grown and was no longer twined in the sleek knot she'd once favored. It was heavier, blonder and wild with seawater and sunshine. Her father would be horrified, no doubt, not only at the hair but also at the immodesty of her dress. She smiled into the microphone, thinking of his reaction. A man in the front smiled back, mistaking the gesture. She didn't mind; it was part of the act, part of the personality of Bella Tyler.
Except that Bella wouldn't go home with this man. Or any man. It didn't feel right somehow. Had never felt right since the moment she'd come to the States. She was free now, free from the expectations and duty her father had raised her with, and yet she couldn't shake the idea she had to save herself for someone.
"Bella Tyler, ladies and gentlemen," the guitarist announced when she finished the last song. The bar erupted in applause.
"Mahalo," Isabella said as she shoved a strand of damp hair behind her ear. "And now we're going to take a little break. We'll be back in fifteen."
As she left the stage, she grabbed the glass of water that Grant, the club manager, held out for her, and headed into the back for a few minutes' rest. The room she went to could hardly be called a dressing room, and yet it was where she stowed her stuff and applied her makeup for the evening. She flopped onto a chair and propped her bare feet on a bamboo trunk that served as a coffee table.
Laughter and disembodied voices from the beach came to her through the thin walls. The rest of the band would work their way back here eventually, if they didn't grab a cigarette and head outside to smoke instead. Isabella tilted her head back and touched the icy glass to her collarbone. The coldness of it was a pleasant shock as moisture dripped between her breasts.
A few moments later, she heard movement in the hall. She could sense the moment when someone stopped in the doorway. The room was small, and she could feel that she was no longer alone. But people were always coming and going in Ka Nui's, so she didn't open her eyes to see who it was.
But it wasn't a waitress grabbing something, or one of the band members come to join her, because the person hadn't moved since she'd first sensed a presence.
But was the visitor still thereor was she imagining things?
Isabella's eyes snapped open. A man stood in the entry, his presence dark and overwhelming. Raw panic seized her throat tight so that she couldn't speak or cry out. At first, all she saw was his sizehe was tall and broad and filled the doorbut then she began to pick out individual features.
A shiver slid down her backbone as she realized with a jolt that he was Jahfaran. Dark hair, piercing dark eyes and skin that had been burnished by the powerful desert sun. Though he was dressed in a navy blue shirt and khaki pants instead of a dishdasha, he had the look of the desert, that hawklike intensity of a man who lived life on the edge of civilization. She didn't know why, but fear flooded her in waves, liquefying her bones until she couldn't move.
"You will tell me," he said tightly, "why."
Isabella blinked. "Why?" she repeated. Somehow, she managed to scramble to her feet. He was so tall that she still had to tilt her head back to look up at him. Her heart thundered in her breast as she realized he was terribly, frighteningly angry.
His gaze skimmed down her body. When his eyes met hers again, they burned with disgust. "Look at you," he said. "You look like a prostitute."
The cold fear that had pooled in her stomach began to boil as anger stirred within. How typical of a Jahfaran male. How absolutely typical to think he had a right to criticize her simply because she was female, and because he did not understand her choices.
Isabella drew herself up. She thrust her chin out, propped her hands on her hips and gave him the same thorough once-over he'd given her. It was bold, but she didn't care. She owed this man nothing.
"I don't know who you think you are, but you're welcome to get the hell out of my dressing room and keep your opinions to yourself."
His expression grew lethally cold. "Don't play games with me, Isabella."
She took a step back, her pulse thrumming in her throat at breakneck speed. He'd used her nameher given nameand it stunned her, though perhaps it should not have. Clearly, he knew her father, and he'd recognized her somehow. Perhaps they'd met in the course of her father's business dealings. A party, a dinner.
But no. She didn't recognize him. And she was sure that she'd never have forgotten a man like this if she'd met him. He was too big, too magnificentand much too full of himself. He would have been impossible to ignore.
"Why would I play games with you? I don't even know you!"
His eyes narrowed. "I will know how you came to be here, and I will know it now."
Isabella drew herself up. How dare he question her as if he had a right? "You're bright. Figure it out."
He took a step into the room, and the room shrank. He overwhelmed the space. He overwhelmed her.