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The place felt like death.
Efraim Aziz lowered his rein hand and let his horse pick his own path through the acres-wide gash of eroded red-and-beige rock. Wind whistled through the formations and battered his face, incessant and strong. A few sticks of sagebrush twisted through kinks in the rock to stretch their silver-green leaves to the sky, the only living thing for what looked like miles. These badlands, the high plains, the mountain ranges to the west and northit was a harsh landscape populated by hard, arrogant people. And somewhere in this hell Amir Khalid was struggling, dying
if he wasn't already dead.
Efraim had to find his friend.
"Sheik Efraim! Wait!"
He recognized the voice immediately, its sound shivering over his skin like the warm breath of a lover. He knew someone would come looking for him, but he'd never guessed it would be her.
He glanced over his shoulder.
She rode toward him through the badlands astride a palomino quarter horse. Her long blond hair glimmered in the Wyoming sun like the golden beaches of his island nation of Nadar.
Efraim tried his best to ignore the spike in his blood pressure, the acceleration of his pulse.
He didn't even know her, this Callie McGuire. They'd engaged in a few polite discussions when he'd arrived in America, and only glances in the stressful days since. But whenever she was near, he had a hard time keeping his eyes off her. It was as if she was the only person in the room. Magnetic. And as hot as the sun itself.
Whoever sent her to collect him was shrewd, indeed.
"Sheik Efraim. Please."
He scooped in a deep breath of hot horse and leather and braced himself before turning his mount back to face her.
She'd come to talk him into going back, holing up like a coward. And even though he didn't intend to follow her advice, he knew he would listen to her every word with the attentiveness of a teenage boy enslaved to his hormones. Embarrassing for the leader of a country. Shameful.
She came to a halt in front of him, but her eyes darted around, taking in the sagebrush, the crumbled rock out-croppings, the mountains on the horizon. "Where's your security?"
He thought of his cousin Fahad and the men who worked under him. "At the Wind River Ranch."
"You're out here without protection?"
"Who sent you after me? Fahad?"
"I like to ride, clear my head." She gave him a doe-eyed look, all innocence.
A sure sign he was being handled.
He raised a brow. "So is this the job you expected when you chose to work for your country's Office of Foreign Affairs? Babysitter?"
She rested her rein hand on the saddle horn, her blue eyes squinted against the glare. "You shouldn't be out here, sir. It's too dangerous. Whoever planted that car bomb to kill Sheik Amir will be trying to kill you, too."
"So Fahad did send you. My head of security?" Efraim knew it. Kateb must have run to his brother this morning as soon as he'd trailered Efraim and one of the Wind River Ranch's horses to the rural road where the explosion had occurred.
"I haven't heard from Mr. Bahir." She let out a breath, as if giving up. "Actually I was hoping he was out here keeping an eye on you."
"Yes, I wouldn't be surprised if he is." Efraim took his own glance around the landscape but saw no sign of his cousin. "So if it wasn't Fahad, who sent you?"
"That's not important."
"It is to me." He wasn't sure if he was more disturbed by the thought that someone believed Callie McGuire could protect him better than he could protect himself, or by the indication that whoever had sent her knew of his powerful attraction for the fresh-faced blonde.
If it was one of his men, he'd be on the next plane back to Nadar.
"You need to head back to the resort. Sunset comes early in these parts because of the mountains." She stared him down, her jaw as set and determined as it had been yesterday.
That was it. Her jaw. The flash in her eyes. That was what drew him. He was a sucker for strong women. Being from a country where women weren't allowed to be strong around men, this feistiness was novel and obviously the source of his fascination with Callie McGuire. "You're worried about me?" he said in a dry tone, but he couldn't pretend there wasn't a note of teasing interest under his words.
"You're very important to the coalition."
In the past few weeks, he'd heard enough about the Coalition of Island Nations, or COIN, to last him a lifetime. He wasn't even sure it was in Nadar's best interest to be part of it. With each day that had passed since the explosion, his doubts had grown. "Nadar's offshore oil fields are important to the coalition. The shipping lanes are important to the coalition. Not me."
"Then why did Prince Stefan call me?"
So it had been Stefan Lutece who'd thought he needed a babysitter and had chosen Callie McGuire for the job. Humiliating that the Prince of Kyros could see his interest so clearly, but at least he wasn't a subordinate. "He shouldn't have bothered you."
"If anyone knows about the dangers all the members of the coalition face, it's Prince Stefan."
"Or Amir. And finding him is why I'm here."
"You think you're going to find some sign of him out here on the BLM?" She gestured to the surroundings with her free hand.
As Efraim understood it, the barren canyonlike area he was now searching in was called Rattlesnake Badlands, a part of public land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. The locals just referred to all of it as the BLM.
"I'm not going to cower at some luxury resort ranch while Amir might be out here dying."
"There are people searching."
"Who? The police? Some honest ones, or just the ones taking money from organized crime?"
She scrunched up her nose, and he noticed for the first time that she had a sprinkle of freckles across the top of her cheekbones. Fascinating.
He concentrated on a large clump of sage just past her right ear. "Amir didn't disappear. He has to be somewhere."
"So don't rely on the authorities. Let your own people do the job. You don't have to do this personally."
But he did. It was that or go crazy. The Wind River Ranch and Resort was a luxurious place, that was for certain, but he couldn't enjoy it knowing Amir was out there, maybe dying, maybe dead. "There's no argument you can make that Fahad has not already made."
The hard line of her lips softened. "I know the two of you are close. I know you're worried about him."
Whereas her passion had been arousing, the softness and empathy in her eyes mesmerized him and for a moment, he found himself physically leaning toward her in his saddle.
He caught himself before he swooned like a lovesick teen. "When Amir is found, I will stop searching." He laid a spur to his horse's side, and the animal broke into a jog. He wasn't wild about much of what America had to offer, but he might make an exception for its quarter horses and its women.
At least this woman. "Then I'll help"
A gunshot cracked through the air, cutting her sentence short.
Efraim grabbed for his pistol and tried to gauge where the shot came from. The report bounced off rock and mixed with the whistle of the wind.
So much for finding Amir. Hemmed in by canyon walls, he and Callie would be lucky if they got out of the Rattlesnake Badlands alive.
Pulse pounding so hard that her hands shook, Callie pulled her prize rifle from the scabbard on her saddle. Her throat felt as dry as the dust under their horses' hooves. What was she thinking, rushing out here without bringing the sheik's security detail with her? How did she think she and a rifle were going to stack up against the forces out there who would do anything to stop the COIN summit from taking place? When she'd gotten the call from Prince Stefan, she'd been confident she could talk Efraim into returning to the ranch. She hadn't given an extra thought to what she would do if they suddenly found themselves in a war zone. "We need to get out of here."
"We need to make ourselves smaller targets." Sheik Efraim threw a leg back over the saddle and slid to the ground. "The echoes. Can you tell where the shot came from?"
Her boots hit the ground. The crazy way the sound bounced off the canyon walls made finding the source nearly impossible. She pointed in the direction she thought she'd first heard the sound. "There. Can't tell for sure."
He gestured to a formation, and they slipped behind it. Walls of red-and-tan rock rose around them. A miniature version of a box canyon. Safe, but only until the shooter decided to block off the only escape route.
"We can't stay here," Callie whispered. "They had to have seen where we went. We'll be trapped."
"I'm not planning to stay." He squinted into the sun. Lines fanned out from the corners of his eyes. He looked concerned, yet calm. A man used to being in tight places. "Do you have a phone?"
"No reception out here."
"What's closest? Town?"
She shook her head. Dumont was a good distance by foot or by horse. Even the ranch owned by family friend Helen Jefferies would take an awfully long time to reach through this canyon. Faster to get out of Rattlesnake Badlands as quickly as possible and head in the other direction. "My family's ranch is closest. If we exit the canyon to the south, we can probably make it by nightfall."
The sheik arched his black brows. "Your family?"
"I grew up here." For some reason, she'd assumed he knew that. Strange. But every time he looked at her, it felt like his dark eyes saw everything. Her innermost thoughts and feelings. Even her past.
"Then you know the land."
"Yes. Any ideas who is shooting at us?" She'd like to think it was a local out shooting targets on the BLM, something she and her brothers did more times than she could count. But she knew that was unlikely at best.
"Russian mob? That might give us some room to work."
"Room to work?" That was her worst fear. A sniper like the one who had tried to kill Prince Stefan. A man whose aim was to kill, ruthlessly, and who had the skill to pull it off.
"He probably doesn't know the area. Not like you do."
A silver lining, if only a shred of one. "You're right. So we have an advantage there."
"We sure don't have one in firepower." He held up his pistol. A nice weapon, but not much use at a distance. "Are you a good shot?"
"Won some shooting contests when I was in high school." She held up her rifle, showing him the brass plaque on the stock proclaiming her Wind River County Champion Marksman, Junior Women's Division. The whole idea of shooting competitions seemed ridiculous and trivial in light of the situation they were in. Fun and games in the face of life and death.
He nodded, as if it was exactly what he was hoping for. "Okay. Then you can cover me." He handed her his horse's reins.
His words jolted her like a slap. "Cover you? Where are you going?"
"That first shot, it wasn't meant for us."
"Who was it meant for?"
"Whoever is up on that ridge." He pointed across a rough area of the canyon floor to a ridge of rock. "See him?"
She shielded her eyes with her hand.
"To the right. You can see something white, a sleeve." Lightly touching her cheek, he tilted her face in the correct direction.
She tried not to think about the feel of his touch and focus on spotting what he was trying to show her. Sure enough, some sort of white cloth was flapping in the wind. "I see it. You think it's a person?"
"I think it's a body."
"You saw him get shot?"
"Not exactly. I didn't realize he was there. Not until after the shot was fired and he suddenly wasn't."
"And you plan to climb up there?"
"We can't leave him."
"Do you know who it is?"
He shook his head. "Let's hope not." Holding his weapon at the ready, he stepped forward.
"Wait." She grabbed his shoulder. "If this is a sniper
He looked back. His eyes fixed on hers. "That's why I'm relying on you. Can you cover me?"
Her insides shook so badly that she didn't even know if she could manage to get her finger to the trigger. The dossier she'd studied on his background had mentioned military service, as with the other COIN leaders. But even though she'd grown up around guns and knew the terrain, she was no soldier. At the sound of that first gunshot, adrenaline had hollowed out her stomach and turned the rest of her into a quivering mess.
He leaned toward her, closer than a man had been in a long while, and tapped on the award plaque on her rifle stock. "You'll be fine."
She nodded, even though she wasn't so sure. She squinted up at the ridge and the wisp of white fabric flapping in the wind like a flag of surrender.