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Authors: Loreth Anne White

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BOOK: The Sheik's Command
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Nikki had to force herself to meet his aggressive black eyes. “I…I’m a nurse with Mercy Missions,” she said, breath hot against her veil. “It’s a global relief organization affiliated to UNICEF and the Red Cross—”

“You’re a missionary?”

“No, just a nurse with a mission-based organization.”

“What is your religious affiliation?”

A spurt of defiance shot through her, and she welcomed it. “That’s not your business.”

His left brow hooked up, a sign of vague amusement. He took another step closer, his dogs moving in concert at his heels, and Nikki’s sense of entrapment tightened like a noose. Along with it came another edgy rush of adrenaline. Fight or flight, she told herself. That’s what she was experiencing. And flight was not exactly a choice right now.

“Understand one thing, Ms. Hunt,” he said, his voice going quiet, gravelly. “
Everything
in Al Na’Jar is my business.”

“I don’t have any religious affiliation,” she answered softly.

Any faith I ever had deserted me that Christmas Eve on an icy road.

“Then you will not object to being asked to remove your veil so I can see who I am dealing with?” Another order.

She reached up, slowly unwrapped the fabric covering her head and face. Her hair tumbled in soft waves around her shoulders.

Shock rippled visibly through the king—his first sign of unguarded emotion.

He stared into her face, then brazenly, hotly, swept his glance over her entire body. The sensation was intimate, electric. Silence hung for several beats, broken only by the gentle sound of water trickling into a pool outside. “Why,” he said finally, very quietly, “did you risk your life to come and see me, Ms. Hunt?”

“I need your help,” she said.

One side of his mouth curved up slightly. “And what makes you think I will help you?”

She moistened her dry lips, and his gaze dipped disconcertingly to her mouth as she searched for the right words.

“Because if you don’t, my children will die.”

Chapter 2

Z
akir’s heart beat cool and steady as his gaze cut into hers. His mistrust of this woman was deep and it was instant. But so was his interest—on too many levels.

She was the most striking thing he’d ever seen. He’d been rocked when she’d removed her veil to reveal a tangle of strawberry-blond curls, fine-boned features, sunburned cheeks. Her wide turquoise eyes—the first thing about her that had rattled Zakir on sight—were reminiscent of deep, cool oasis pools.

A man could drown in eyes like that
was his initial off-the-wall thought.

His second thought was that those eyes looked haunted, empty. And the way her gaze held his was so direct and provocative that she appeared to have been stripped of normal social veils and wiles. It was as if this woman had absolutely nothing to lose.

And it threw him for a minute.

Maybe he was just shaken by how close his men had come to killing her. On his orders. On his soil.

He knew what that could mean—an innocent and photogenic U.S. aid worker shot dead on his doorstep would grip international headlines and quite possibly destroy the tentative dialogue Zakir was trying to cultivate with the United States as he tried to reopen Al Na’Jar to foreign diplomatic missions.

Or perhaps he was rattled because this lone woman had actually managed to enter his country, defy the Sheik’s Army blockade and was now inside the very heart of his palace. She could quite possibly be the enemy sent to harm him. One thing Zakir had learned over these past two traumatic months was that no one in Al Na’Jar could be trusted, and nothing was quite what it seemed.

His enemies were bold. They were faceless. They appeared to be old-school traditionalists intent on destroying the Al Arif Moorish-Bedouin dynasty. And Zakir was convinced they had operatives—traitors—right inside these very palace walls, sitting right on his own King’s Council.

Zakir didn’t yet know who was orchestrating or funding this move to wipe out the bloodline that had ruled this desert nation for hundreds of years, but he was certain it had been sparked by the discovery of large oil reserves and his father’s subsequent attempts to move the ancient kingdom into line with the new world.

Whatever the motive, he needed time to flush the Brutus out from his own council. And he needed the United States as an ally now more than ever. He had to tread carefully with this woman, whoever she was.

Snapping his fingers, he motioned for his dogs to go lie quietly under the arches that led to the small garden, but his eyes didn’t leave Nikki’s for an instant.

He took a step closer to her, and she straightened her spine, jaw tilting up. This was clearly a woman who stood her ground.
It intrigued Zakir further. He studied her carefully, taking in every detail of her features, every nuance of her energy.

He noted that the backs of her hands were deeply sun browned, her right hand calloused at the junction of the thumb and index finger, where a lead rope of a belligerent camel might rub one raw. Her leather sandals were old, broken, her feet dirty. Her cheeks were burned and freckled. She looked thin. Tired. Dusty. As if she’d been traveling for some time through the sands of the Sahara.

He held out his hand suddenly, palm up in a magnanimous gesture toward the table. “Please sit down, take some water, some fruit,” he said.

Her eyes flickered toward the table, but she remained standing. “Thank you, but I didn’t come for water. I came for your help.”

So she wasn’t going to accept his hospitality, in spite of herself. This was an insult to Al Na’Jar culture and thus to him. Curiosity, interest rustled deeper into Zakir, in spite of himself.

“What kind of help? What children are you talking about?”

“I need medicines. And I need your permission to escort seven war orphans through Al Na’Jar to the Atlantic coast where I need to take a ship to the Canary Islands. I also need to contact the Mercy Missions headquarters on the island of Tenerife.”

He crooked up his brow. “Seven orphans?”

“We were nine,” she said quietly. “I lost two. And I can’t say for certain that they are all orphans, but it will take time to find out if any of their parents are alive. If that can even be done at this stage.”

“Where are these children now?”

“I left them in the care of Berber tribesmen in the Rahm Hills.”

Disbelief instantly snaked through Zakir. Rahm Berbers were notoriously—and violently—hostile toward outsiders. They took no prisoners, asked no questions—simply sliced the throats of interlopers and left their bodies in the desert.

“And where do these orphans come from?”

“From the mission outpost at which I was working in Mauritania.”

He angled his jaw, suspicion growing in him. “There is civil unrest in Mauritania. The north is now a rebel-held region.”

She looked suddenly drained. “Yes,” she said quietly. “I fled with the children when the rebels came to burn the mission.” Her wide eyes glimmered for a moment, but some deep ferocity inside her flattened any emotion and her features tightened once again. “The rebels came with machetes. They killed the nuns, the priest, the doctor and two aid workers from Belgium—hacked them to pieces. And they murdered most of the children. I fled with those I could.”

Zakir studied her long and hard. “How did you get all the way from Mauritania to Al Na’Jar?”

“Over the Sahara.”

“You crossed the western Sahara from Mauritania?”

“On foot, with two camels.”

“Dressed like this, like a Tuareg nomad?”

“One of my children is fourteen years old, and…” Her voice hitched and Zakir could see her struggling again, digging down deep for control and losing, because her eyes once again brimmed with moisture. “The fourteen-year-old posed as my wife. We traveled with the younger children as a family unit.”

As captivated as Zakir was by her story, he couldn’t buy it.

Sure, people crossed the desert on foot. Bedouin families routinely traversed the Sahara. So did the odd German tourist group in big powered trucks. Or the occasional thrill-
seeking American on camel. And yes, political refugees were known to have fled places from as far as southern Nigeria, sometimes taking nine months to a year to cross the Sahara on foot into Morocco, making it up to Spanish Ceuta only to be imprisoned in holding pens as they dreamed of passage across the Mediterranean to Europe.

But this woman, alone? With a band of ailing young orphans?

The Sahara was a wild, lawless place. An ocean of shifting, burning sand. Disorientating. The endless space, thirst and heat played tricks with one’s mind. There were none of the usual touchstones most Western women would be accustomed to.

“How did you know which way to travel?” he said, watching her face for signs of a lie.

“A camel dealer in a small village told me which stars to follow and where the moon and sun should be in the sky in relation to myself if I wanted to walk northwest.”

“That’s…a suicide mission.”

“And our only option. Otherwise we’d be dead at the hands of rebels. We had to take the risk.”

“How long did this journey take?”

She cast her eyes down and he followed her gaze, saw where her skin had been abraded by sand under the old leather of her sandals, and again he noted the chafing on her hand.

“Two months, maybe less…or more,” she said softly. “I…it’s confusing. I lost track.”

Zakir felt an involuntary squeeze of compassion in his chest. He warned himself this was dangerous, because her story was wild. She could be a consummate actress milking his empathy, blinding him to the real reason she was here. She could have been sent by someone who knew his weakness for striking women and sex. He was notorious in the West for his constant string of high-profile female conquests. And
the more challenging the conquest, the more satisfying the consummation. The thrill of seduction and the triumph of sex was Zakir’s drug of choice. His stress release. Something that made the alpha adrenaline junkie in him
feel.

And he’d always gotten what he wanted.

But things were different now.

Now he had a duty. To his people, to his country. To his father’s memory and to the Al Arif bloodline. Now he could not afford to make mistakes or people would die.

“Al Na’Jar is not exactly en route from Mauritania to the Canary Islands,” he said brusquely, irritation surfacing at the notion he could potentially be manipulated by his own libido. At the cost of his throne and nation—and his own life.

Tension stiffened her body. She narrowed her turquoise eyes. “Entering Al Na’Jar was a mistake. I was aiming for the coastline of Western Sahara—”

“The Western Sahara is a lawless country ruled by guerilla activists and tribesmen—”

“It’s also the closest route to the sea,” she interrupted. “Like you said, Al Na’Jar isn’t exactly en route.”

“So you just happened to stray miles farther north, into my kingdom?”

Her cheeks heated and her eyes glittered with mounting indignation. “I told you—I lost direction. I crossed into Al Na’Jar at the Rahm foothills by mistake. I had zero intention of coming this far north, or getting stuck here.”

“And hostile Berber tribesmen just happened to take in your children and point the way to my palace?”

“Look, I don’t know who you think I am, but if you give me what I need, I’ll be out of your castle and out of your hair before nightfall.”

His heart beat faster at the spurt of aggression burning into her features. But he still didn’t trust this story.

“You are lucky.” He took a step closer, purposefully
invading her personal space, testing her boundaries. “Because those Rahm Berbers ordinarily kill a mysterious Tuareg in their territory on sight. Yet they did not.” He lowered his voice. “Why?”

She held his gaze, her cheeks flushing deeper with angry frustration. And Zakir’s blood zinged. This woman had a raw, primal intensity. She was stripped of all pretense, down to the very basics. And his skin tingled with unwanted sexual energy as he felt himself heat.

“I’ve never been lucky,” she countered crisply.

“Oh, yes, you most definitely are, Ms. Hunt. You are still alive. And now you have wandered into my country, and my palace—a much safer place for you than Western Sahara.”

“Is it really safer?” she whispered.

Heat arrowed through Zakir’s belly. Deep inside he wondered if she’d be this bold and direct in bed. Yet he sensed that beyond her fiery wall lay a vulnerable and tender part, and if he managed to break through she’d become sweet and soft in his arms. Zakir felt an anticipatory sensual rush at this thought, and the hint of a smile briefly toyed along his lips.

She noticed it, and defiance crackled afresh in those oasis eyes. “So, are you able to help me? Your highness,” she added with barely disguised disdain.

He regarded her in intense silence for several beats, then shook his head.

“You play me for a fool, Ms. Hunt,” he said coolly. He swiveled on his boot heels and strode toward the doors, hand on the jeweled hilt of his scimitar. “Wait, please!”

He stopped, turned slowly to face her.

Her fists balled at her sides. “You’re saying you
won’t
help me?”

“I’m saying I don’t believe you. You will remain in my
palace for the night, under my guard.” He banged on the door with the base of his fist and barked an order in Arabic.

“My men will escort you to guest chambers. Meanwhile, I shall have your story and credentials verified with—”

Horror swamped her features and she lurched forward. “I can’t stay here! I
must
get back to my children. They need that medicine
now.

He held up his hand, warning her back as his guards entered the chamber. “Your passport and story must be checked. Meanwhile, make a list of the supplies you need. We will discuss it when I summon you to my dining hall tonight.”

She clasped his arm, desperation now glimmering nakedly in her eyes, and Zakir’s chest tightened, along with his groin. A most inappropriate reaction, but this woman—her touch—did something to him. He flattened his mouth, tamping down any emotion, and he glowered down at her hand on his arm.

“Your highness, I beg of you,” she whispered. “My children are with tribal mountain people. I don’t know how long they will remain safe. One—the fourteen-year-old girl I told you about—is pregnant and is experiencing complications. She needs me.”

Zakir motioned to his guards to remove her. They took hold of her arms, pulling her toward the door.

“Please!” Tears of frustration that she could no longer hold back tracked through the dust on her cheeks as she struggled to resist his guards. “You don’t understand! The child was raped by a rebel soldier. She’s carrying the rebel’s baby—”

“Take her away, now!” he barked, furious, not wanting to watch the pain on this woman’s face any longer. Not wanting to show the slightest weakness in front of his men.

“You bastard!” she yelled at him, fighting against his guards as they dragged her from the chamber. “You have no right to hold me prisoner!”

He heard her swearing at his men as the doors thudded shut.

The room went silent.

Zakir exhaled slowly.

Clasping his hands behind his back, he walked over to the arches that opened onto his garden. His trio of salukis surged silently to his side.

He inhaled the scent of gardenia and orange blossom as he watched small birds dart around the fountain. It reminded him of his holiday estate in southern Spain, where he’d rather be. He’d never expected—or desired—to rule this kingdom. It had happened so suddenly, under such tragic circumstances.

But this was his duty now. To Al Na’Jar. To his people. To his heritage.

And holding Nikki Hunt overnight in order to verify her story was the prudent thing.

One wrong move could bring down this entire fragile kingdom and bring great harm to his people.

Besides, he could not in good conscience allow a foreign woman out there alone. It was not safe. Especially now that dusk approached. This was for her own good. And his.

Because if the nurse really was who she claimed to be, she could still be captured by his enemy and used as leverage against him.

BOOK: The Sheik's Command
8.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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