But even if the smart and sultry Cassandra were willing to hang up her severe business suits and take a chance at love, could these star-crossed lovers ever make it work in the real world?
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Kadir stood on the balcony of his villa on the sea, and watched the waves come in as the morning sun glinted on the gentle surf. From this vantage point he could usually see his yacht anchored in the near distance, but it had been gone for several days now. His crew was sailing the ship to the coast of Silvershire. Having his own familiar space available during his weeks there would make the long stay more tolerable, he was certain.
A private jet waited at a nearby airstrip, ready to carry Kadir and his retinue of bodyguards and aides to Silvershire. There he would not only attend the Founder's Day Gala to which he'd been invited; he would also meet with Lord Carrington, the apparent king-in-waiting. The old king was very ill, and his only son, Prince Reginald, had died under mysterious circumstances some months back. There were, of course, many suppositions about who had killed the obnoxious prince, and why, but Kadir paid little attention to rumor.
In truth, Kadir didn't care who ruled Silvershire. He desired an alliance with the ruler of that country — whomever he might be — in order to strengthen Kahani. Every affiliation he formed or strengthened, every handshake, every smile, every friendship brought Kahani another step into the modern world. Kadir wanted, more than anything, to see the country he loved move into the twenty-first century with dignity and strength.
There were those who wanted Kahani to turn back the clock a thousand years. Most citizens wanted nothing more than peace and prosperity. A home. Food for their loved ones. Safety for their family. But for some, that was not enough. For some, life was one battle after another, and they did not want that peace. A tightness grew in Kadir's chest. Dissidence in Kahani was not new. Zahid Bin-Asfour had been a thorn in his side for a very long time. Fifteen years and four months.
Every alliance cemented Kahani's place in the new world, but there was another reason Kadir desired a meeting with Lord Carrington. Reliable intelligence indicated that Zahid and Prince Reginald had met not long before the prince's death. Three days before, to be exact. Kadir didn't know why Zahid and the late prince had met. If Carrington had intelligence himself he did not...a sharing of information might be most useful to both parties, and both countries.
Kadir watched a familiar figure approach from the east, the sun at the old man's back. Mukhtar ran a local market and delivered fresh fruits and vegetables several times a week. He carried a canvas bag that bulged with lemons, grapes and almonds — Kadir's favorites — and whatever vegetables had looked best that morning. The bodyguards who surrounded the villa at all times were accustomed to the friendly vendor. As Mukhtar drew closer, Kadir could see that he did not wear his usual smile. He was not only in an uncustomary bad mood, but had apparently forgotten that Kadir was leaving the country today and would not return for several weeks, therefore having no need for this morning's delivery. Something must've distracted the usually pleasant man.
"Good morning," Kadir called as the man approached the balcony. Mukhtar's feet dug holes into the sand, and he kept his head bowed.
Before he reached the balcony, Mukhtar stopped. He did not raise his head.
"Is everything all right?" Kadir rushed down the steps to join the old man on the sand. "You're looking rather pale. If you need a doctor..."
Mukhtar lifted his head. There were tears in his eyes. "I'm very sorry," he croaked. "I didn't have any choice, you must understand. They have my children. My daughters, and my son. My new grandson." He shivered visibly. "I must do as they say. Forgive me."
The canvas bag Mukhtar carried bulged in such a way that Kadir knew — too late — that it did not contain the usual fruits and vegetables. Mukhtar's distressed face and the cleverly disguised handcuffs that Kadir had not seen until it was too late told him what was in that bag.
Kadir wondered, as he took a step closer to the old man, if the explosive apparatus would be triggered by a timer, a remote device or the frightened vendor himself. "Let me help you. The king's guard can rescue your family. Whoever has done this, you can be sure that he has no honor. A man who would kidnap innocents to force you to this will not release his captives, no matter what you do."
Mukhtar took a step back. "He told me you would say that. He also said I should remind you that you could not save her."
Kadir took a deep breath. Zahid. In the past few years, Bin-Asfour had spent most of his time in neighboring countries. Was he back in Kahani? Was he watching? What had precipitated this newest and boldest attempt on Kadir's life? Whatever the reason, now was not the time to allow his old enemy to taunt him into making a foolish decision. "That is the past. All that matters is now. All that matters is saving your family. I can have an explosives expert here in moments. We'll disarm the bomb, free you and set about rescuing your family. You can help me end the tyranny of a madman who wants to drag us all into the past. You can be a hero."
Mukhtar lifted his chin, and Kadir could see that his decision had been made. "Don't come any closer." He took a small step back, and then another. "I did not know what to do, Excellency. Forgive me. I am a foolish old man."
Kadir got no further before the man turned and ran. Not toward him, as was surely Zahid's intention, but away — toward the sea. The guards saw what was happening and moved forward, guns drawn, to place themselves between Kadir and the source of danger.
"Don't shoot!" Kadir called. There was no need. At the moment, Mukhtar was a threat only to himself. When he reached the edge of the water Mukhtar turned, and in that instant his eyes met Kadir's. The old man no longer cried. Instead he was stalwart and determined.
One hand moved toward the bag that was handcuffed to the vendor.
"No," Kadir whispered.
A powerful explosion rocked the peaceful morning, and those guards who were closest to the bomber were thrown backward and to the ground. None were close enough to be injured — though Sayyid appeared to be stunned by the jolting fall. The sound of the blast rang in Kadir's ears, and a cloud of sand danced where the old man had once stood. Sayyid and the others who had run to stop Mukhtar from his foolishness shook off their surprise and slowly regained their footing in the sand.
Kadir turned his back to the violence and climbed the steps to the balcony. Household servants and political aides who had been preparing for the upcoming trip ran onto the balcony and were met with horror.
Kadir did not look back at the beach, as he had no desire to see what was left of a decent man. He caught his personal secretary's eyes and issued a command. "Get Sharif Al-Asad on the telephone." Sharif was a highly placed officer with the Ministry of Defense. He and Kadir had once worked together, but years ago their careers had taken very diverse paths. Still, they had managed to remain friends. Their methods of operation were different, but their ultimate goals were much the same.
Hakim nodded curtly, snapping, "Yes, Excellency," before returning to the house to do as he was told.
The others remained on the balcony, watching the scene on the beach in horror and surprise. There should be no surprise at unexpected violence, but horror...yes. An old man blowing himself up in a vain attempt to save his family was the height of horror.
Kadir had sacrificed much in the name of what was best for Kahani. He was thirty-six years old and had no wife, no children. There had been a steady succession of women in his life, all of them fun for a while but in the end...uninspiring. He could easily arrange a marriage with a suitable woman he had never met, but that would mean calling upon the ways of the past. Ways he was determined to change.
His parents were gone, and his brothers had lives and families of their own. And of late, Kadir was not always certain of what he most wanted. One thing was certain: He wanted Zahid Bin-Asfour destroyed. He would not rest easy until that was done.
Hakim had Sharif on the line within minutes, and Kadir shared all the information he could, as he set the rescue of Mukhtar's family into motion. There had been a time when he would have been one of the men storming the terrorist camp in order to rescue the innocent, but these days his role in defeating terrorism took a different slant.
When Kahani was properly and securely aligned with a number of powerful nations who would come to their aid when the need arose, Zahid and those who followed him would be reduced to nothingness. These days, Kadir did his best to defeat his enemies in a different way — with a smile, a handshake and the sincere promise of alliance.
Zahid Bin-Asfour could not fight the entire world, and Kadir intended to bring that world down on his head.
"He's a what?" Lexie plopped down onto the couch. Cassandra glanced at her sister. Of all the possible mornings for an unannounced visit, this had to be the worst. "You heard me the first time."
"A sheik," Lexie said with a grin. "A genuine, sweep-me-away-on-your-white-horse sheik. Very cool, Cass. What's the catch? Is he old? Married? Ugly?"
Lexie was a sweet woman, but diplomacy was nothing more than a vague concept to the eldest of the four Klein sisters. Fortunately, Silvershire foreign relations were safe from Alexis Margaret Klein Harvey Smythe Phillips, whose only agenda at the present time was finding husband number four.
Cassandra Rose Klein's ambitions had taken a different vein. She wanted to make a difference in the world. She wouldn't call herself power-hungry, but she was ambitious. It wasn't that she didn't want to love somebody, but there was more to the future than a man...or as in her sister's case, a series of men.
"He's single," Cassandra said. She grabbed the file she'd been studying over her morning coffee and tossed it onto the couch. "And not old."
Lexie snatched up the folder and opened it. A recent photo of Cassandra's latest assignment filled most of the first page. "Ooohhh. Not ugly at all." She read aloud, "His Excellency Sheik Kadir Bin Arif Yusef Al-Nuri, Director of European and American Affairs for the Kahani Ministry of Foreign Affairs." Her nose wrinkled. "Do you have to memorize all that?"
"What will you call him? Kadir? Yusef? Arif? Honeybunch? What?"
"I'll address him as Excellency, unless he invites me to call him Sheik Kadir."
Lexie leafed through the rest of the file, not at all interested in what was truly important. She didn't care what Al-Nuri had done for his country, or what he wanted to do in the future. Lexie didn't care about politics, reform, or alliances. She only noticed AlNuri's physical attributes. If she had even a clue what his bank account looked like...
"How did you get so lucky?" Lexie asked as she closed the file. "I understand when it comes to politics, blackmail works wonders. Or are you sleeping with your boss?"
Cassandra laughed. "My boss is a very small, very sour woman who's probably old enough to be my grandmother."
"Weren't all the diplomatic aides fighting over who'd get him? Taking charge of the sheik for the next couple of weeks is not exactly going to be a chore."
Cassandra took a deep, calming breath. "I was given this assignment because I'm fluent in Arabic and I'm familiar with Kahani customs. Don't let your imagination run amok. My relationship with Al-Nuri will be strictly business."
"Everything is strictly business with you, Cass," Lexie teased. "Doesn't that get boring after a while?"
"I didn't enter foreign service so I could meet men."
"You can't tell me you don't find the sheik the least bit attractive."
Cassandra remained cool. "It doesn't matter if he's attractive or not."
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