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"Car's rigged," Karim said to the empty passenger seat next to him. His gaze darted around as he considered his options for escape, trying to determine the location of the bomb.
He wished he could see under his seat. He wished he hadn't just tossed his briefcase, which held his cell phone, to the back, now out of reach. But most of all, he wished he hadn't gotten into the damned car.
Unfortunately, he had no magic lamp and no genie to grant his three wishes.
He sat completely still, sweat beading on his forehead. The first step was to figure out the trigger. Would the charge blow if he turned the key in the ignition, or if he got out and lifted his weight off the driver's seat? Maybe the trigger was in the door. He hadn't closed it behind him yet. Or could be he had no control at all. Maybe whoever wanted him dead was watching from one of the hundred windows that overlooked the executive parking lot. Watching with the remote in hand.
"I was getting too close to the truth." He glanced up at those windows, but couldn't see much from his position and he didn't dare shift his weight.
Anger flared. If he had to die, so be itInsha'Allah. But by all that was holy, he wanted to bring his twin brother's murderer to justice first.
"I'm sorry, Aziz."
If he couldn't find the killer, nobody would. His other brother, Tariq, thought that Aziz's presence at the well at the time of the explosion had been a coincidence. Tariq was predisposed to see the world as a better place than it really washe hadn't seen as much of the dark side as Karimand was currently too busy being crazy in love with his new wife.
Which one of them was crazier remained to be seen. Karim's thoughts turned grim. He wasn't exactly a pillar of sanity, either. He regularly talked to his dead twin brother. For the last month, from time to time, he felt Aziz's presence so strongly, he not only talked to him, but also half expected an answer.
Aziz was gone. Killed. In some regard, losing his twin was like losing half his sight two decades ago, but much, much worse. With Aziz, he had lost half of his soul. And he knew he wasn't going to find that, even if he found the killer or killershe wasn't going to bring Aziz back. Still, he could not let the bastards go free, not even if tracking them down cost him his own life.
"Should have seen it coming." Except that his mind had been on the restitutions he was making to the families of the men who'd died at the well along with his brother.
If he hadn't been so preoccupied when he'd walked out of MMPOIL's headquarters in TihrinBeharrain's quickly growing capitalhe would have noted that the security guard wasn't at his post. He hadn't been aware of danger until he'd gotten into the car and spotted the millimeter-size chunk of blue plastic wire coating on the mat.
Another person might not have realized the significance. But people had been trying to kill him from the moment he'd been born, nearly succeeding on a number of occasions. He'd developed a keen sense for detecting death's approaching footsteps.
He glanced out at the street, at the cars passing no more than a hundred feet from him. Nobody was turning to enter the company gate where the other security guard sat in his booth, his back to Karim.
He had to do something now, while he was alone in the parking lot. He didn't want to take anyone out with him.
"Here we go." His mind sharply focused, he reached down to feel around the seat, aware that he could accidentally move a wire and set off the charge if it was there.
He felt nothing out of place as far as he could reach, but he couldn't stretch all the way. Next item. He leaned forward carefully, and spent precious seconds inspecting the bottom of the dashboard.
"Mr. Abdullah?" The voice was richly melodic and completely feminine, utterly out of place in the charged tension of the moment. "Excuse me, Mr. Abdullah"
He drew his attention from what he was doing to watch, with dismay, the foreign beauty who strode toward him, full of purpose.
Since she'd spoken English, he responded in the same language. "Go back inside."
"They told me I could find you here." She flashed a nervous smile and proceeded without pause, although the blood did drain from her face as she came closer and got a better look at him. "Look, I've come a long way. You wouldn't believe the plane ride. Forget the plane. You wouldn't believe the food," she babbled on. "I know you must be busy, but"
"Get out of here." He didn't bother with the half turn to hide his scar, but looked her full in the face. That ought to scare her off.
"Listen, I" Her voice wavered.
"You listen." He wiped the sweat from his forehead. The air was well over a hundred degrees outside, and even warmer in the car. He had run up to his office for only a few minutes to grab some papers before he headed off to the camel races, so he hadn't bothered to pull in to the climate-controlled underground parking garage. He let loose the frustration and anger that churned inside him. "Get the hell out of here. Now."
The woman stopped, but only momentarily. Her wide brown eyes flashed with determination, and her deep auburn hair swirled around her face in the dry breeze that'd been blowing from the desert all day. Hair that flowed in soft waves well below her elbows. Her soft linen skirt fluttered around her ankles, the light color matching her modest topclothes that accentuated her tall, slim figure. She looked as beautiful as an angel and as determined as Satan's handmaiden.
Few men would have remained standing there when he had that glare on his face and that edge in his voice. But incomprehensibly, instead of running the other way, her delicate chin came up. She was maybe four feet from him and not budging.
"All I want"
Oh, hell. "There's a bomb" Karim saw movement in one of the windows behind her, and acted on instinct.
He vaulted out of the car and flew across the space between them, crashing her to the hard pavement, doing his best to break her fall. He didn't stop, but rolled and rolled.
She screamed the whole time and beat on his shoulders, resisted with all the power in her slim frame, her long hair entangling them. Then the car finally blew, shaking the parking lot.
She screamed even louder, but it barely registered now over the ringing in his ears.
Head down. He kept her covered as best he could, protected her from the burning debris that flew across the air like projectile missiles. As strong and determined as she had looked a moment ago, she seemed scared and fragile as she clung to him now.
"Don't move," he said near her ear, unable to hear his own voice, half-deaf from the explosion. "It's okay." He made an attempt to reassure her anyway. They would assess their injuries and face reality in a moment. For now, he was still trying to catch his breath.
The air swirled blazing hot around them. But even the acrid smell of smoke couldn't completely drown out the scent of the woman in his arms: jasmine and vanilla.
In his peripheral vision, he registered security personnel running from the building.
"Ambulance. Now! Cover his position."
"Secure the grounds! Secure the grounds!"
"Are you all right, sir? Sheik?"
Karim let the woman go and nodded, the ringing in his ears diminishing with each passing second. She looked wide-eyed with shock, staring at the car a few short yards from them. Her fair skin was now positively white, to the point of being translucent, save a few smudges of dirt.
"What happened?" She pressed a hand to her abdomen, breathing in quick gasps.
He'd probably knocked the air out of her.
After checking her over for visible injuries and not finding any, he followed her gaze, clenching his teeth at the sight of the twisted metal behind him. That had been close. Too close. Aziz's death still filled his mind, dulling his attention to other things. He had to separate himself from the grief, had to block the memories of the burning wella fire a thousand times larger than what burned in the parking lot now. He couldn't get distracted and be taken out. He had to find who killed Aziz.
The company's private ambulance was racing through the parking lot toward them. For him.
"I'm fine. You take her." Whatever she wanted from him, he had no time to deal with her now.
He'd spoken in Arabic, but she must have understood his body language, because she began to protest.
"No, I'm fine. Really. I don't need to see a doctor." She was rattled and scared, more than a little bewildered, fighting to hide it. Her chin came up, trembling slightly and smudged with dirt from the pavement. "I can't go." She backed away a few steps. "I'm not going."
The woman showed a deep-seated aversion to do as she was told. Even if it was for her own good.
He wasn't in the mood just now to humor her. "Get in."
Even his own security stilled at the growl in his voice.
"No," she said, oblivious to danger once again.
His eyes narrowed. Did she just stomp her feet or had she been flexing her knees?
He had been careful with her when he'd taken her down. She didn't look hurt. She was breathing normally now. Her clothes were barely rumpled and only slightly stained. Her hair looked the worst, tangled and with a fair amount of sand in it. The desert winds had been blowing for days, dusting the parking lot and everything else in the city.
His security force closed in a circle around them and awaited his orders. They would remove her forcefully; all he had to do was give the word. He should. He had a million things to do at the moment and no time for the distraction of a stubborn woman.
"Fine. No hospital," he said instead. "Just get in. Whoever did this could be still out here."
She paled even more, if that was possible, and stepped up into the back of the ambulance. He went after her, on second thought, not because he was scared for his life, but because if whoever was out there decided to shoot at him, the bastard might hit one of his men instead. Better to remove himself from sight.
"We can drop you off at your hotel. Please, sit." He gestured to the gurney. He remained standing, holding on to one of the restraints as the vehicle moved out. He nodded toward the lone paramedic's cell phone with a questioning look.
He handed it over immediately. "Of course, sir."
Karim's chief of security came on the line after the first ring.
"How did they get in? I want a report the second you find something," he told the man in Arabic. "I want the whole building in lockdown until everyone inside is verified. And I want a digital copy of the security tapes e-mailed to me immediately."
He handed the phone back and focused on the foreign woman who was watching him with morbid fascination. She looked even more impossibly beautiful than his first impression had beenhigh cheekbones, delicate features, eyes the golden brown color of a perfectly ripe, sweet fig. Eyes that held wariness and secrets, and a certain amount of plucky determination.
Then it clicked.
A less disciplined man would have groaned. She probably wanted an interview for some foreign paper. Sheer bad luck that she had caught him at a moment like this. There'd be no way now to keep the attack out of the papers. She'd be impossible to shake off. But he had other things to do, which meant he had to get herand the distractions she broughtout of his life as fast as possible.
"At which hotel are you staying?"
She drew a deep breath and pulled her spine straight. "I need to talk to you first. I'm looking for Aziz."
His fists clenched. He made a point to relax them. Not a reporter then. Aziz. Of course. He should have known.
Aziz had always been the lucky one between the two of them, the ladies' man, or as some Western tabloids had once called him, the Playboy Sheik. Aziz had been in his element at the high-society events of Cannes and Monaco, and had kept a party housewith Hollywood celebrity neighborsin Miami on Star Island. He'd lived the high life and pursued a wide range of interests, had dabbled in everything from yacht racing to desert archaeology.
"And who are you?" he asked.
"Julia Gardner." She extended her hand. Some of her color had come back. Her skin was now the palest of pinks.A tangle of bead bracelets encircled her slim wrist.
He didn't move.
She pulled back immediately. "I didn't mean to offend you. Sorry. Force of habit. I have trouble remembering all these strange rules." She snapped her full mouth shut. That lasted only a second. "Not that I think your country is strange. Just strange to me. New. New to me. I"
"No offense taken."