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Authors: Loreth Anne White

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BOOK: The Sheik's Command
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“So you saved the old man’s life, and in return for the favor the shepherd’s family was willing to protect your orphans?”

“That’s correct.”

“And this is when they told you about the coup?”

“Yes. They told me that they call you the Dark King.”

His jaw tightened at the irony. The Dark King, destined for a future of darkness…little did they know.

“And they warned me to be very careful, that you could be dangerous….” She hesitated, as if weighing whether to speak the next words.

“All of it,” he demanded. “Tell me
everything
they said.”

She inhaled deeply. “They said you might have orchestrated the coup yourself, using elements in your father’s military.”

“So that’s why you accused me of doing this?”

“The Berbers fear the legacy your rule might bring, Zakir. They know nothing about you because you have been living abroad.”

Her words sparked a frenzy of ideas in his mind, and suddenly Zakir knew what he must do—how he could hide from the members of the King’s Council until he could come up with a strategy to deal with his rapidly failing vision. He also needed to contact his emissary in Europe to hasten the search for a wife. He
had
to marry before he lost his sight.

“I’m coming to the Rahm Hills with you,” he stated. “I will meet with the tribesmen, speak to them myself. Since you’ve earned their trust, you will introduce me, be an escort to me and my men.”

After he’d met with the sheik of the Berber village, Zakir and a few of his Gurkhas could continue on to the Al Arif Summer Palace, not far from the Rahm range. It would be an ideal place to lie low while he arranged his marriage.

The palace had traditionally served as a refuge for the royal family during the hot summer months. Situated high in the north mountains, it was well fortified, and it enjoyed the cooler winds that blew up from the Atlantic. It also had a much smaller staff.

He could govern from there for a short while, using envoys and telecommunications. He’d send for more security personnel and inform his Council once he’d arrived.

He raised his hand high in the air, snapping his fingers sharply, and his secretary rushed to his side. “Change of plan,” he said. “I will personally accompany Ms. Hunt into the Rahm Hills. Repack the supplies from the royal Humvee fleet into two camouflaged army vehicles. I want to travel under the radar. I will take only my top five trusted bodyguards.”

Zakir spun away from Nikki, barking further orders in rapid-fire Arabic. Staff, guards, soldiers scattered in all directions as if he’d kicked an ant heap. He donned a pair of sunglasses handed to him by an aide as a modified military Humvee drew into the courtyard, followed by a second one. Both were the color of desert sand and shadows. The aide
opened the door of the first vehicle, and Zakir gestured to the backseat. “Please get in, Nikki.”

She hesitated, watching Zakir with interest. Nikki had just witnessed him stumble and grasp for his dog. Then when a shaft of reflected sunlight had moved across his eyes, Nikki saw what she knew as a Marcus Gunn pupil—a pupillary defect indicating a lack of response to light in his left eye.

She knew eyes intimately—she’d been a top ophthalmic surgeon.

A normal response to bright light would be equal constriction of both pupils. Zakir clearly had some kind of damage to the optic nerve of his left eye and quite possibly his right as well, judging by the way he’d then stumbled, as if totally blinded for a moment.

She thought again of Dr. Tariq Al Arif and the very specific questions he’d asked after at that medical convention nine years ago. The conversation had stuck in Nikki’s mind because of his interest in a very rare hereditary disorder called Naveed’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy—named after Dr. Anwar Naveed, the Iranian-born German ophthalmologist who first described the condition.

This genetic disorder was passed only through a mother’s DNA, but the degeneration of retinal ganglion cells and their axons affected only males and only one or two men every couple of generations. The disease was also unique to families of Moorish or Bedouin lineage.

Dr. Al Arif had told Nikki that his own family carried this rare gene, and he hoped to one day be able to cure the hereditary ailment with genetic surgery
before
any onset of vision loss. He’d asked for her input on identifying markers following her speech on Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy, a related condition. Worried that the blindness was due to resurface in his generation, he thought if he could find the right genetic markers he’d be able to detect who carried the
disease well before it manifested itself. And that was the point he believed it could be treated—and blindness prevented.

Her pulse raced as she put two and two together.

Nikki thought of the candlelight in the dining hall and how in that low and quavering light Zakir had angled his head slightly to the side whenever he’d spoken to her, a sign that his central vision was diminishing.

She thought of the list she’d handed him and how he wouldn’t read it. How his dogs were always at his side. And it hit her with a jolt.

Sheik Zakir was going blind.

And if Nikki was right, if Zakir did indeed have Naveed’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy, judging by his pupillary reaction, he’d already entered the acute stage of the genetic disorder. If so, he was going to have more of these episodes, each coming closer and closer together.

One of them would be permanent.

And by the way the king had manhandled her behind the car, it was a secret he didn’t want anyone to know.

Chapter 5

M
oments later they were speeding out of the massive palace gates and down the palm-lined boulevard, just one more military sortie in a city besieged by unrest. Nikki sat with Zakir and Ghorab behind tinted, bulletproof windows in the military vehicle taking up the rear. One of his Gurkhas drove, a second guard besides him with a machine gun. Zakir’s other hounds traveled in the leading Humvee with three more bodyguards.

Soldiers scrambled under the burning sun to haul back the cordon of razor wire across the boulevard, and once through the blockade, the Humvee convoy accelerated, racing bumper to bumper through the dusty and ancient city.

Nikki held her hands tensely in her lap as she watched the scenery fly by—high walls of historic medinas, shimmering domes and minarets of mosques, the occasional glittering Mercedes-Benz vying for road space with rattling old trucks, donkeys that labored in front of wooden carts, and women drifting like silent black ghosts in burkas while others wore
brightly patterned African cloth and elaborately folded head-dresses.

For a shining nanosecond she’d thought she was free, that she and her kids would be on their way.

Now she was trapped with the Dark King himself in a bulletproof cocoon, hurtling through an ancient desert city toward the barren and ominous Rahm Hills. And he still had her passport.

Nikki stole a sidelong glance at his arrogant profile.

His thick blue-black hair had been pulled back into a ponytail, accentuating the high bridge of his nose, the thrust of his cheekbones. He looked undeniably regal, powerful—almost dangerously so, like a dark jungle cat, relaxed yet ready to attack like lightning.

His eyes, however, were now masked by black shades. His hand rested on the sleek head of Ghorab, as if the hound was feeding the king’s power, his confidence. Nikki couldn’t stop an unbidden empathy from stirring into her tightening sense of claustrophobia.

She’d seen how urgently he’d groped for that dog, how his entire body had relaxed as he felt the saluki’s snout nuzzle into his hand.

If Nikki’s guess about his condition was correct, even the slightest amount of stress would hasten vision loss. Any increase in blood pressure would place additional strain on the degenerating optic nerves.

The man needed to relax, and his new role as leader of a country in crisis was not going to allow him to do that. Nikki could recommend antihypertensive medication that would help mitigate the pressure on his nerves and prolong visual acuity. But giving Zakir this information would mean revealing her true identity.

Her hands knotted more tightly in her lap.

His health is not my business. What I’ve done is illegal. Telling him could bring Sam back into my life.

Zakir’s threat also snaked through her mind.
If I learn that you are here under false pretenses, I will be able to spare you no mercy. Treachery in Al Na’Jar must be punished by execution.

Nikki shot another glance at Zakir. Was he capable of making that kind of example of her?

Who was Sheik Zakir Al Arif, really, under that powerful exterior? A man in trouble himself? He
had
to be afraid of what lay ahead, if her diagnosis was correct. She’d dealt with patients losing sight. She knew the range of emotions they went through.

He caught her watching him, and Nikki glanced away quickly, mouth dry. Yet another worry was mushrooming inside her—one sprouted by Zakir’s comments about murderous Rahm Berbers.

Nikki had seen the fear and aggression in their eyes when they’d spoken about the Dark King. Now here she was bringing the ruler himself—along with armed guards—right into their remote and hidden mountain village. Their trust in Nikki might be shattered. The Berbers might no longer feel obliged to protect her orphans.

She needed to go into those hills alone, first, and talk to them, pave the way for Zakir’s convoy.

“Zakir,” she said quietly, “why is it so important for you to meet with the Rahm tribesmen so suddenly?”

He regarded her in silence for several beats, his features implacable, a dark kinetic energy rolling from him in waves. “It is not your place to question me.” Leaning forward he slammed the tinted window between them and the guards shut with a thud.

Nikki frowned inwardly. Zakir didn’t want his men to hear
her question him. Nor had he wanted his men to see him stumble.

He wanted to appear powerful, in control. He wore his dark autocracy like his brocade tunic—over everything else, for all to see. He projected his alpha control with each powerful stride of his boots, the arrogant tilt of his jaw, the square set of his shoulders, the way he rested his hand on the bejeweled hilt of his scimitar.

But what lay underneath?

Was he like her husband—a narcissistic and dangerous tyrant at heart, a man capable of hiring a killer to run her off an icy road?

Zakir caught her studying him, and heat flushed her cheeks. Nikki turned to peer out the window. But she could feel Zakir scrutinizing her from behind, and her whole body heated further—a combination of adrenaline, fear and a very disturbing reawakening of her own femininity.

Nikki’s pulse began to race.

Her own buried sexuality was the last place on earth Nikki intended to revisit. It made her uncomfortable. Brought the past too close to the present. Brought too many painful memories.

Her jaw tightened and her eyes burned as she struggled to shut down the sensations simmering to life inside her.

Buildings appeared more sparsely now—flat desert adobes with melons and white pumpkins weighing down tin roofs. A small oasis of palms sprouted out of sand, and then there was nothing as the scenery blurred into a softly undulating sea of gold dunes that stretched as far as the eye could see. And in the distance loomed the jagged outline of the Rahm Hills.

The wind was shifting again, lifting spindrift off the dunes and fanning waves of sand across the road. Tension tightened in Nikki’s chest as the ragged mountains loomed closer.

Zakir turned to her suddenly. “Was this the way you traveled into Na’Jar?”

She moistened her lips, nodded. “It took two days by camel to reach the city from the Rahm Hills.” She forced a smile. “Seems odd to now be flying along in air-conditioned comfort.”

He nodded. “Cut off from the tactile sensations of the desert—the endless silence, the feel of the wind against your face, the heat beating down on your head.”

Nikki raised her brows, but Zakir said nothing more. Outside, the harmattan whipped harder. Sand began to tick and scrape against the windows, trying to find a way in.

“Tell me again, Nikki,” he said suddenly, turning to face her. “How was it that you were able to cross the Sahara, especially at this time of year? How did you find the mental fortitude to stay the course when so many would give up and die?”

He revealed nothing in his tone, and Nikki couldn’t read his eyes behind the black shades. But she sensed he was testing her.

She also knew how easily she
could
have given up in that ocean of burning sand. The unnatural silence followed by the sudden, inhuman scream of a sandstorm; the shifting sense of time; the continuous thirst and hunger. The scorching heat. It had played havoc with her mind. It had been one of the toughest things she’d ever done.

“I had my children,” she said.

“It’s that simple?”

“I could never abandon them, Zakir. Those orphans have nothing left in this world—except me.”

“And what will happen to them once they reach the mission base on Tenerife?”

“With proper food and care they’ll grow strong. They’ll have a chance to experience a childhood they’ve never known.
And perhaps some will be lucky and adopted.” She adjusted her veil as she spoke, feeling uncomfortable. She’d been so focused on just staying alive, getting her kids to Tenerife that she hadn’t managed to picture life beyond that. And it suddenly made her feel lost to think about it. What would
she
do then? Return to another mission outpost, start over?

“And Samira,” she continued, “the fourteen-year-old, will be able to give birth to a child who’ll at least have a fighting chance of survival.” Her voice caught as she thought of Samira and her baby. Nikki desperately wanted to show the young girl that beauty could still grow from the horrors of war. That there
was
hope in this world.

She needed to see this herself. It was why it was so fundamentally important for Nikki to get Samira to safety.

Zakir frowned inwardly, his interest in Nikki deepening.

“You know,” she said, her voice growing distant, “there were times out in that desert when I thought we weren’t going to make it, and oddly that’s exactly when the desert would reveal its beauty to me. And suddenly life was worth fighting for again. The same desert that was breaking me would also renew my strength.” She paused. “I felt free out there. Part of me…just wanted to stay there.”

Zakir felt pleasure curve his lips, and a sense of kinship warmed his chest. Nikki’s almost poetic love of the Sahara tapped into a part of himself he’d buried when he’d moved to Europe.

She was an enigma, a woman with incredible courage, determination and beauty.

Yet for all these reasons suspicion continued to waltz softly arm in arm with his growing attraction to Nikki. He’d been burned by a woman like her. A woman he’d taken into his bed and his heart. A woman he’d trusted and very nearly married.

It wasn’t a mistake he would make again.

Nikki had also seen him stumble. He needed to be careful. Zakir wanted to expose nothing more to her before she left this country, or she would definitely become a liability to him at this very delicate time.

As they entered the Red Valley, the wind sucked fiercely through a gorge, churning up a maelstrom of sand that hissed like rough static. The vehicles began to rock. Nikki peered through the blur until suddenly she recognized the silhouette of an immense red sandstone structure that had been sharpened by relentlessly scouring winds into the shape of giant swords.

Her heart kicked.

The Rahm tribesmen called it the Rock of Swords. From its base several mountain paths ran off in various directions.

Zakir was going to ask her which path to take.

If there were Rahm sentinels watching from higher up, and if they saw this military convoy entering their territory, her kids could be doomed. She had to stop Zakir here. She had to convince him to let her go alone from this point.

“Stop. This is the spot.”

Zakir rapped on the window behind his driver, motioning for him to halt the convoy. The man radioed the other Humvee. It rolled to a stop.

“Which is the path to the village?” asked Zakir.

“I…I need to get out and check,” she said, grasping for the door handle. If there were Berber sentinels out there, Nikki wanted them to see it was her inside this Humvee. But the door was locked. Urgency tore through her.

“Please, let me out, quick.”

He frowned. “I’ll tell the driver to take us closer.”

“No. I need to walk. It’ll help me remember,” she lied. “Things look different from inside a vehicle.”

He got out himself and came around to open her door, wind whipping his tunic.

His men were also exiting the other vehicle, positioning strategically, their machine guns and AK-47s at the ready. Tension crackled in the wind around them, hot, restless, shifting, hungry. The tiny crystal beads that fringed the base of Nikki’s veil flicked sharply against her neck.

“I’m going to take a look,” she called over the wind. Clutching her headscarf about her face, Nikki leaned into the maelstrom. Her long skirt snapped about her ankles as she began to make her way toward the Rock of Swords.

Zakir stayed right by her side. It made her nervous. If Berber sentinels recognized him, they might mistrust her intentions. She had to make it clear that the king and his Gurkhas could not cross beyond the Rock of Swords.

As they neared the haunting geological formation, the wind moaned eerily through the cavities, and Nikki’s gauzy veil was suddenly snatched loose by a sharp eddy. It fluttered up, disappearing into the cloud of yellow sand.

She pulled her headscarf across the side of her face as she huddled back into a protected lee formed by the rocks. She had to tell him, now.

“I…I need to go into the mountains alone, Zakir.” The wind snatched at her words, tossing them down the Red Valley in a swirl of sand.

“What did you say?” He came closer, bending his head toward her.

Determination bit into her. “I said I must go alone to the village,” she yelled over the roar of sand. “Without you or your men!”

Through the blur of sand, Nikki could see his bodyguards edging closer like wraiths, trying to keep their king in their sights. Zakir waved them back angrily and his fingers dug into her upper arm as he trapped her against the sandstone. “What in hell are you trying to do?”

“If the Berbers see you approaching with armed soldiers
they’ll think I betrayed them, Zakir. Like you said, they don’t ask questions first. My children could be hurt.”

“I am their king. I
must
speak with them.”

“Zakir, please. Let me go alone first. I will explain why you’re here, pave the way for you.
Then
you and your men can come in.”

She sensed the energy of his guards shifting and they began to close in again.

Furiously staying his guards for a second time, Zakir’s expression darkened. He swore in Arabic, tightening his grip on her arm. “Just get back in the vehicle, Nikki,” he growled, voice low, dangerous.

Nikki tried to resist, but Zakir’s strength was phenomenal as he brusquely dragged her back toward the Humvee. He swung open the door and manhandled her into the backseat so hard and fast that it shocked her. No man had touched her like this since Sam, and Nikki reacted instinctively—violently—fighting back and kicking at him.

Which enraged Zakir further.

He forced her down onto the seat and climbed in after her, slamming the door closed behind him. His guards stood outside, unable to see in.

BOOK: The Sheik's Command
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