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Laylah Aal Shalaan felt a shiver burn down her spine.
It wasn't the below-zero Chicago December evening. That would have caused ice, not fire, to shudder through her veins.
This sensation had scalded through her so many times during the past few weeks, it was as if she were having hot flashes. Which would be some record at age twenty-seven. But then she held other unwelcome records. Like being the only female born to her family in forty years. Why not throw in premature menopause, too?
Not that she really thought abnormal hormones were at work here. An outside influence was. One she couldn't detect when she'd tried to investigate it, though she'd been certain of its cause for some time.
Someone was watching her.
This felt nothing like having the security detail she'd once had breathing down her neck. Those men had never tried to hide themselves, and to hell with her personal space. Though she shouldn't have resented them. They'd been doing their job. Of course, with her safety no longer among anyone's priorities for the past two years, there were no more guards dogging her steps.
Not that she thought that she needed protection. She observed normal safety protocols, like anyone who lived in Chicago did. And since she'd exiled herself from Zohayd and come to live in the Windy City, she always had.
Usually she would go home with Mira, her business partner and roommate. But Mira had left to see her father, who had been taken to the E.R. in another state. So here she was, alone at night for the first time in more than two years, leaving the deserted building from the back exit that opened onto an equally empty back street.
Not that that had anything to do with what she now felt.
She'd entered the building accompanied by the sensation of being enveloped in that watchful force field. She'd stepped out only to be caught in its electrifying embrace again.
Strangest part was, she didn't feel threatened by that unwavering intent. Just burning with curiosity and excitement?
She looked across the street at three parked cars. The nearest had a man slamming the hood, getting inside and driving away with the exhaust firing. The next one, also nondescript, was pulling away from the curb, too. The farthest one, a late-model Mercedes with dark windows, looked empty.
Before she could decide where the influence was radiating from, the second car suddenly floored its engine.
Before she could draw another breath, the car screeched to a halt beside her and its doors burst open. Four men exploded out. She'd barely taken two running steps when they swarmed her.
Hulking bodies and coarse faces, distorted with vile intent, filled her vision. Blood and time thickened, hindering her heartbeat and reactions as hands sank into her flesh, each dig creating a bolt of outrage and terror.
Dread exploded in her chest, fury in her skull as she lashed out with everything she had, even as shards of dialogue lodged into her brain.
"Iz only one, man."
"Tom said there'd be two. You better not pay half now."
"Iz the one we want. Ye'll get yer dough."
"You said she'd fall at 'ur feet sniveling but she ain't no pushover. She almost kneed me."
"An' she might've scratched m'eye out!"
"You quit snivelin' an' stuff 'er in the car."
Each word sank a talon of realization into Laylah's brain. This wasn't a random attack. They knew her routine.
No. They couldn't be the presence she'd been sensing!
They dragged her closer to the car. Once they shoved her inside, it would be over.
She exploded in another manic struggle, drawing blood and shouts of pain and rage until a jackhammer collided with her jaw. Agony turned her brain into shrapnel.
Suddenly, through the vortex of crimson-blotched darkness, one of her attackers seemed to be sucked away as if into a black hole. He slammed into the side of the building with a sickening crunch.
A second assailant turned away, but a hair-raising crack sent his blood arcing inches from her face. His terrified gaze bored into hers before his body slammed into her as if from the impact of a speeding car. He took her down with him.
She struggled under his dead weight, fear pulsing through her disorientation. Who had come to her rescue? Would they turn on her once they had finished off her attackers?
The body pinning her down was heaved away. She wriggled up frantically on the freezing sidewalk and saw saw
A fallen angel. Huge, dark, ominous. Frightening in his beauty, radiating power and menace. Almost impossible to bear looking at, yet equally impossible to look away from.
And she knew him. She'd known him all her life.
But it couldn't be him. Not only had he changed almost beyond recognition, but what would he be doing here? Now? When she'd been certain she'd never see him again?
Was her jolted brain conjuring up an imaginary savior? If so, why not one of her cousins who were as well equipped to fill the role? Why him? Why Rashid Aal Munsoori?
But with her senses stabilizing, no doubt remained. It was Rashid. A remote, if steady, presence in her life during her first seventeen years. The man she'd had a crush on since before she could remember.
He was now facing the remaining two attackers like a monolith, his one-of-a-kind face carved from the coldness of the night, majestic head almost shaved, juggernaut body swathed in a coat that flapped around him like angry creatures from the abyss.
The men recovered from their shock, charged him, snarling, slashing switchblades at him. Dread deluged her.
Unfazed by her shout or their attack, Rashid maneuvered like a matador fielding raging bulls, harnessing the mindlessness of their charge against them. His arms and legs lashed out in a choreography of deadly precision, his methods merciless, flawless, as second nature as breathing was to her. He looked like an avenging demon reveling in vanquishing the loathsome quarry he lived to prey on.
By the time she pulled herself to her feet, Rashid had the two men plastered against the building. One had lost consciousness. The other hung in the air, feet kicking feebly.
Over the night's moaning wind, she heard rumbles issuing from Rashid. They didn't sound human.
For a crazy moment, she thought they might not be. That he did have some entity inhabiting him, one that wouldn't be satisfied with anything less than taking those men's lives.
That conviction broke her paralysis. "You'll kill them!"
At her choking protest he turned his head and.. jar Ruhmaan.
Merciful Godwhat had happened to him? He barely resembled the man she'd obsessed over all her life. The eerie blankness in his eyes, the serene viciousness baring his teeth. Like a beast in killing mode.
And that scar
She shuddered. His voice. It completed the impression. That some demon occupied him, had taken him over, was metamorphosing his body to suit its nature and needs, was using his voice to transmit its darkness and danger.
This man who'd once been Rashid was serious in his question. He had no compunction about killing in principle, and none at all about snuffing out the lives of the thugs he'd conquered.
There was no way to appeal to the mercy of this creature. He had none. Of that she was certain. She couldn't use fear of consequences, either. She was as sure he felt no fear of any sort. He seemed to feel nothing but violence and vengeance. It was as if he'd stepped in to punish the criminals, not to save her, the victim.
Only appealing to his logic remained.
"And there's no need." She could barely form words in her frozen, constricted throat. "You've already beaten themto a pulp. None of them will be out of intensive care anytime soon."
"Putting them back together will be a gross waste of medical resources. I should spare society the cost of their continued existence." He turned his eyes to the man wriggling and whimpering in his hold. "Scum like this don't deserve to live."
She ventured closer, feeling as if she was interrupting a lion's kill. "A death sentence is over the top for their crime, don't you think?"
Still looking at the struggling man, Rashid said, "The ones they've committed so far, you mean. They would have probably ended up killing you"
"No, man " The man choked, terror flowing from his eyes. "We were only goin' to hold 'er for ransom. A bro recognized 'er for a princess from one o' those filthy rich oil kingdoms said we'd get.. serious dough for 'er. We weren't going to hurt 'er or touch 'er " he spluttered the qualification when Rashid squeezed his throat harder. "I swear. Danny got carried away when she hit him and you probably killed him for it but I didn't do anything to her don't kill me please "
In spite of everything, she pitied this flimsy creature in the body of a brute. He'd been reduced to blubbering in the grip of a force the likes of which he hadn't known existed.
The imbalance of power should have been in their favor, four hulks versed in violence. But Rashid had overpowered them like a superior feline would a pack of rats.
But it was as if he didn't even feel her there, had been debating with his inner demon the actions he should take, finding only approval from it.
She had one last shot before this situation passed the point of no return. Give him, and that demon, something to appease their merciless convictions.
She ventured a touch on his arm, flinched. Even through the layers of clothes, electricity arced from the steel cables he had for muscles to strike her to her toes.
She swallowed a lump of agitation. "Wouldn't you rather they live to suffer the consequences of their crimes? You've probably given them all some permanent disability."
When his dark gaze turned to her again, it felt as if he was seeing her for the first time, letting her and her words breach the barrier of his implacability.
Suddenly, he unclenched his hands. The men, both unconscious now, thudded to the ground like sacks of bricks.
Relief shuddered through her, the freezing air filling her lungs. Rashid had killed before. But it had been as a soldier in three wars. Here, it would have been different. And she couldn't have even those thugs' deaths on her conscience.
As he stood appraising his handiwork, she sensed his demon scratching at its containment to be let loose to finish its job. But Rashid seemed in control of their symbiosis again, back to being the ultramodern desert knight who had the world at his feet and everyone in it at his disposal.
He produced his cell phone, called the police then an ambulance. Then he turned to her. "Did they hurt you?"
At his question, she suddenly felt the imprint of their hands all over her arms and back. But the epicenter of pain was the left side of her jaw. Her hand flew to it instinctively.
He urged her below a streetlight. She stumbled at the feel of his hand on her arm, then again as he kicked one of the thugs in the head when he began to stir. The contrast between his violence with her attacker and his gentleness with her was staggering.
Once within the circle of light, his hand moved hers away from her face so he could examine it. "Maybe I will kill them after all."
She almost flinched at his verdict, attempted to make light of it. "For a right hook?"
"That was the beginning of the abuse that would have left you scarred for life, if not physically then psychologically. They do deserve to die." She grabbed his arm as he moved, feeling she had as much chance of stopping him as she would a hurricane. His muscles eased beneath her frantic fingers. "Relax. I'll only make them wish I had killed them."
"How about you leave it to the law to deal with them?"
His hooded eyes grew heavier with disapproval. "You'd rather let them get away with it?"
"Certainly not. I just believe in appropriate punishment."
Those lethal eyes flared ebony fire. "What would be appropriate for abusing and kidnapping a woman, putting her through hell fearing for her life, before maybe ending it?"
She bit her lip at the terrible scenario that could have come to pass if not for him. "When you put it that way, a death sentence doesn't look too extreme. But that didn't happen."
"Only because I stopped them."
"And now we can't punish them for what could have been, only for what actually was."
"That's according to the lawhere. Where I come from only hadd'al herabah is appropriate punishment for this heinous crime."
She shuddered again as she imagined the ancient punishment sanctioned in their home region for those caught red-handed in major crimes like thisamputating an arm and a leg from opposing sides.
Deeming the subject closed, he turned to the fallen goons. And she saw it. A glistening wetness below his coat.
Sick electricity forked through her as she grabbed his arm, jerked him into the light. He pulled away from her frantic grip, made her grasp him to restore her balance. Her hands sank into the unmistakable warmth of blood.
She tore them away, looked down at her crimson-stained palms before looking up at him in horror. "You're injured!"
His gaze moved from her upturned hands to his midriff before travelling up to hers. "It's nothing."
"Nothing?" she exclaimed. "You're bleeding! Ya Ullah!"
Something like annoyance? Impatience? simmered in his eyes. "It's just a scratch."
"A scratch? Your whole left side is drenched in blood."
"And?" There he went again with that and of his. "Are you squeamish? I hope you won't faint."
"Squeamish?" she exclaimed. "It's you I'm worried about "
Dread clogged her throat, more suffocating than anything she'd felt on her own account. His nonchalance had to be shock. His wound had to be severe to bleed that much, to not have registered its pain yet. Adrenaline and cold must be all that was keeping him on his feet. By the time the ambulance arrived, it might be too late.
Stem his bleeding. Buy him time.
Tearing her scarf from around her neck, she lunged at him, pressing its creamy softness against the tear in his sweater. He stiffened, his hands covering hers as if to push them away.
She threw her weight at him, pressing him back against the side of the building, panting now. "We must apply pressure."
He stilled against her, stared down at her, his face a mask. Was he on the verge of losing consciousness?
He undid her hands, replaced them with his. "I'll do it." She sensed that he would, not because he believed he needed it, but to keep her away. "You can go now."
Huh? He didn't only want her to stay away, but to go away?