Greetings from a steamy UK. The temperature today was thirty three degrees in Cheshire. It’s hot, baby. Let me begin by apologising for the lack of episodes last week, I was dealing with an arthritis flare, which the hot weather has fixed…. every cloud, etc.
Here’s the next two episodes…. It’s a slow burn….
Copyright © C C MacKenzie 2018
“Why do I get the feeling I’m not their favorite person?” Arabella asked Sarif an hour later as the room emptied and the huge double doors closed after the meeting.
Taking her hand in his, Sarif stood.
Arabella stood too.
“In time, once my son is born, they will come to love you.” His dark eyes found hers and held.
She tried to tug her hand from the heat of his, but his fingers tightened imperceptibly.
Seemed he wasn’t quite ready to let her go.
With a feeling of inevitability, she let him tow her out of the room.
“Where are we going?”
He glanced at her face.
“You said you wanted a walk. We’re going for a walk.”
Again he glanced at her.
“Outside. It is time my people met their Queen.”
Arabella, the Queen of Quarram.
Somebody was having a laugh.
And if ever she felt like a big fat fraud it was now.
Sarif, still holding her hand, kept the pace out of the palace down to a leisurely stroll.
The setting sun turned the land from desert into a fiery glow.
As they proceeded towards huge metal gates far ahead, Arabella spotted Sarif’s close protection detail move into position. The men were uniformly tall, tough and lethal, but they didn’t come too close to overhear their conversation, she noticed.
Now Sarif brought her hand to his lips.
The jolt of attraction shot straight to her throat.
How on earth did every single move he made catch her breath?
“You have not asked me about your brother,” Sarif said in a soft voice.
She rubbed a hand over her throat.
“I figured no news was good news?”
“Go ahead, ask.”
The trouble with the way his thumb rubbed her hand was that she couldn’t think a single coherent thought.
Baby brain, she decided.
“Okay. I’ll play. What’s new?” she asked him in a sharp tone that brought a dark brow up.
A single cry from above had Sarif halt their walk to study an eagle.
“In less than forty-eight hours Rupert will be free.”
“You’ve organized an attack force?”
“But of course. Did you seriously expect me to leave your brother to his fate?”
She shrugged, and guessed. “Bruce and Wallace?”
She bit her lip, her mind spinning, thinking that her and Leila would need to refine the timing of their original plan.
“And you’re telling me this, why?”
“You’re anxious, which is perfectly understandable, but anxiety is not good for the baby.”
Of course his first concern would be for the baby, so why the belly plunge of disappointment?
“Plus,” he continued, “you are in no fit state to try something desperately stupid yourself. Don’t forget I am familiar with your, er… professional… capabilities.”
Arabella held in the snort of disgust at the implication that because she was pregnant she was helpless.
“True,” she lied straight to his face. “I can’t see me rappelling down the side of a building for a while.”
“Or at any other time,” he said and his deep voice held a clear warning that her military days were behind her.
That’s what you think, boyo.
Then another thought hit her.
“Is there a reason you’re preparing a rescue attempt now?”
He made a face.
“It seems Nazari has another captive, a Jordanian pilot whose plane was shot down last month. Apparently, he is preparing to murder him, streamed live on social media.”
A wave of nausea made her dizzy.
His jaw tight, Sarif shook his head.
“Put in a cage, poured with petrol and burned alive.”
“I leave tonight.”
Any idea of cancelling her plan to rescue her brother flew from her mind.
Time was of the essence.
He took her silence as a woman who was worried sick about her brother, which she was, and not as a woman who was busy reorganizing plans in her mind.
“I promise you, I will bring him back safe,” Sarif said in a soft voice.
Her gaze shot to his and held, while her heart fluttered madly against her ribs.
Relief warred ferociously with worry about her brother and worry for what she was about to do might mean for the safety for her and her child.
When she said nothing in response to his statement, he studied her face again.
“You are angry with me,” he said. “You have every right.”
Too true she had every right.
She was more than angry with him.
“I warn you now, if my brother has been harmed…”
Again he brought her hand to his mouth.
“You will… what?” his deep voice had gone soft again, and something in his eyes made something inside her simply melt.
He smelled of bergamot, probably something in his cologne and soap.
“Make you pay,” she whispered as her mind centred on the fact his bodyguards were within striking distance and might not react well to her threatening their King.
“Understandable under the circumstances, but don’t you think you have made me pay enough?”
Was he serious?
Hell, she hadn’t even begun to make him pay.
He bit his bottom lip, and although his eyes were serious enough, she got the feeling he was amused by something… her.
“You’re walking along a very shaky edge,” she told him, her eyes steady on his.
“I stand warned.”
As they approached the gates, they stopped while the gates opened.
About fifty yards away was a large encampment of tents, horses and camels.
The tinkling of goat bells rang out as night fell.
The smell of camel dung, oil lamps, smoking fire, desert and many unwashed bodies hit her.
Then something else hit her, everything about the scene, the scents and the sounds told her she was home.
“What is it?” he asked, and she realized she’d made a little sound of distress in her throat.
The sense of place felt so right, her eyes stung.
She shook the feeling off.
His look told her he didn’t believe her, but he let it go.
The thought that he could read her so well disturbed her.
It disturbed her a lot.
The last thing she needed was to let this man get under her skin again.
“I never thought you were a hypocrite,” she said, going immediately on the attack, to show no weakness. “Arrogant and selfish, yes. A hypocrite, no.”
The little tic in his jaw told her she’d hit the spot.
“I made a mistake. Perhaps you could find it in your heart to see me as a desperate man who did a stupid and desperate thing to get your attention.”
Hadn’t Wallace Monroe said pretty much the same thing to her earlier?
“I needed time,” she said, “to adjust to my rather unexpected reality.”
“I want you in my bed,” Sarif said again in that soft tone. He used that tone a lot with her these days.
The thought of sharing his bed had her whole body switch on to a state of high alert, and then something she’d overheard Hafar mention entered her mind.
She pulled her hand free.
“What about your French mistress?”
He didn’t even miss a beat.
“Our friendship is at an end.”
“I hear it cost you a swanky apartment in Paris and loadsamoney. Some friend you are.”
“She was a loyal and good friend.”
“Good friends don’t need to be bribed, they either are or they’re not.”
His eyes narrowed. “You see the world through a very narrow lens.”
“Do I? I see the word in black and white with the occasional shade of gray. I like to keep things simple.”
“You are also, a coward,” he shot back clearly stung and going on the attack so fast it made her dizzy.
Not sorry at all she’d annoyed him, nevertheless Arabella bristled at the charge.
“That’s a first. I’m not the one who kidnaps young men…”
“I have apologized…”
She spun, her hands on her hips. Her chin lifted so high she peered down her nose at him.
“So that makes it all okay then?”
He shifted to enter her personal space.
“You ignored every single overture I made. What was I supposed to do?”
“You were supposed to wait, wait until I was ready to come to terms with the consequences of what we did.”
“You were taking too long.”
She stopped and bit her tongue, reluctant to tell him the truth, because the truth sounded utterly ridiculous even to herself.
“Because what?” he ground out, his eyes glued to her face.
Oh, for the love of…
“It’s a hormone thing. I have… had… maybe still have… baby brain.”
He looked at her as if she’d lost her mind.
Maybe she had.
He scratched his chin.
“And what—” Sarif said, a bemused look on his face that made her hand itch to smack him,”—on earth, is baby brain?”
She sent him a bland look.
“Something you will never experience because you do not have a vagina.”
With a shake of his head, he reached for her hand and found it.
Then he turned towards a group of people, nomads, who stood watching them with wary eyes.
“I am beginning to think you are quite mad.”
Taking a deep breath, Arabella caught the heady scent of horse manure and human sweat.
She spotted a girl of about ten holding the hand of a small boy, pinned a smile to her face, and headed in their direction.
“That makes two of us.”
Even as she led Sarif towards the children, he refused to release her hand and it occurred to her that this was the first time in her life she’d ever held a man’s hand.
The strength in his fingers were a clear sign of his physical superiority, and again she felt that lovely little ripple in the blood, something she was coming to accept would probably never change between them.
Actually, when they’d come together that first and last time, it hadn’t been a ripple, it had been a tsunami—of lust—that had washed them both away—and left them stranded on the rocky shore of life.
The dusty-haired boy clutching the hand of the girl was around six years old. By their faces, she reckoned siblings. The boy had bright dark eyes, a scab on one knee, dirt on his cheek and the kind of angelic face that spelled trouble.
The elderly man standing next to them looked fierce.
And not happy.
While Sarif spoke to the man, Arabella focused on the children.
She crouched down and studied the little boy dressed in an oversized T-shirt that had seen better days.
He could have done with a bath.
“You the Sheik?” she asked in Farsi.
“No.” He grinned, his dark eyes twinkling with fun. “You’re the Queen?”
“So they say.”
“You don’t look like a Queen.”
He jerked his little chin towards the desert.
“There are strange men digging for bones out there. They say they are looking for dinosaur bones. Do you like dinosaurs?”
Strange men, eh?
Arabella guessed the strangers were MI5 and working with a certain Colonel.
“Doesn’t everyone like dinosaurs?”
He moved closer. “My sister doesn’t like dinosaurs. I like fossils.”
Delighted with him, Arabella grinned and rolled her eyes towards the men above still talking in clipped tones.
“Plenty of old fossils around here.”
The cough from above brought her eyes up to the girl who was trying hard, and failing, not to laugh.
“How do you do, I’m Arabella.” Arabella stood and offered her hand.
The girl studied her hand for a moment and then took it.
“Cute kid,” Arabella said and ran her hand over the boy’s dusty head.
“He is Malik.”
“Yes. Please come and sit with us, eat and listen to the music.”
Deciding that was the best offer she’d had all day, Arabella left Sarif and the older man to it and followed her two small guides towards a large gathering of women and children sat around a campfire. The scent of roasted meat, onions and spices filled the air. Four men with guns strapped to their backs and holding instruments sat cross legged on rugs. One held a violin, another plucked the strings of an Oud, while another held a wind instrument called a Ney, the last man held a percussion instrument.
She was led to a slightly raised area, covered in rugs and fat cushions.
As she sat, she found her elbow gripped by Sarif and nearly overbalanced.
These days her centre of gravity was affected by the weight of the child she carried.
“To be invited to sit and eat with the Bedouin is a great honor,” Sarif said as he sat next to her. “Sheik Al Qasimi believes it is unseemly of me to hold your hand and to sit with women.”
“You should listen to him,” Arabella told him.
“Changes are coming to my land and people need to adapt.”
“It seems such a little thing to cause trouble over.”
“I want to sit with you, therefore I will sit with you.”
“Stubborn,” she muttered.
When Malik appeared holding a heavy metal plate piled with flatbreads, Sarif washed his hands first in a silver bowl filled with fragrant water and dried it on a cloth held by Amira, before he thanked the boy and took two breads and placed them on plates.
Arabella went through the same hand washing routine, and waited until Sarif served her with a plate filled with fragrant rice, bread and meat and yoghurt mixed with spices.
The scent alone made her mouth water.
As she ate her fill and told Amira the food was delicious, Arabella let the music, the smells and the peace of the evening wash over her.
“If you want to understand a culture,” Sarif’s deep voice spoke in her ear, his breath kissed her cheek, “listen to the music. The tune, the words when there are words to hear. When you truly listen, hear it, you will begin to understand me and my people. Music is the heart of all peoples, all cultures, because it comes from here.” Sarif placed the palm of his hand on his heart.
She turned to him to find those dark eyes on her face.
“And that’s why certain terrorist organisations want music banned…”
“That, and they want the people left without hope. People left without all hope are easily manipulated.”
The music changed, the tone shifting to something so terribly heart wrenching, she blinked.
Sarif dipped his head.
“It is about a brave warrior, doomed, dying a terrible death of pain and torture, for his country, for his people.”
Arabella could understand that.
She understood a person being prepared to die for what they believed in.
“Like your culture,” Sarif continued, “in our culture we do not forget our heroes.”
Much later that evening, Arabella stood alone on the balcony of her rooms and studied the half moon lighting a landscape filled with dips and shadows.
The camp far below was almost quiet, except for the flicker from the fires and the occasional sound of an animal disturbed. Even the goats slept, huddled together for warmth. At night the desert was a cold, harsh place.
A sound had her turn to find Leila standing there.
The girl was dressed from head to toe in black, only her eyes were uncovered.
The machine gun strapped to her back, plus straps of ammunition and a lightweight backpack meant her hands were free.
Leila ran her gaze over an Arabella dressed exactly like her, except of course, for the baby bump.
Leila shook her head.
“I don’t like this. What if…”
Arabella held up her hand.
“We don’t have time to debate. We’re doing this tonight.”
“Don’t have much of a choice now anyway,” Leila muttered.
“The deed is done?”
“Yep. The guards are out for the count.”
“Then let’s go.”
Since they’d trained together in the same unit at Sandhurst, the women moved fast, their footsteps soundless as they sped down dimly lit stone corridors and the servant’s staircases until they came to a side entrance.
Leila went first, quick fingers making short work of the digital code to unlock the door.
Arabella knew that once Sarif had figured out how they’d left, he’d change the locks and the codes, but she couldn’t think of him at the moment or his reaction to what she was about to do. If their luck held, then Rupert would be safe, Yussuf Hassam Nazari would be dead, and she would be on her way back home in England.
Leila took the lead as they jogged at a steady pace away from the palace and the encampment, heading for the hills.
Arabella ignored the niggling stitch in her side, but was happy to catch her breath when she found two horses and supplies waiting in the dip of scrubland.
A closer look at the beasts, had Arabella blow out a low whistle.
“Sarif won’t be happy you’ve purloined a couple of his best Arabians.”
Leila shrugged as she ran a hand over a shiny black flank.
“Over thousands of years, the Bedouin’s breeding programme of natural selection in a harsh environment have perfected the ideal instrument of war. These horses are swift, responsive, agile and tolerant, with courage, loyalty and the ability to remain firm in the face of privation. I’d rather have a fine horse in the desert than a vehicle any day.”
Arabella placed her foot in the stirrup and nimbly settled into the saddle.
The beast was fresh and tested her mettle until she quickly brought it under control.
“How far?” she asked a Leila who was studying the gadget in her hand.
“Eight miles as the crow flies.”
“Shame we’re not crows.”
“No, but I reckon we might be called fools,” Leila muttered beneath her breath.
Arabella turned to her, only seeing her shadow in the darkness.
“They’re going to burn one of their prisoners alive.”
She heard Leila’s quick intake of breath and then, “Fuckers.”
“We can’t let it happen.”
“The Monroe brothers might not be too happy to have us along,” Leila said now.
“By then it will be too late for them to do anything about it.”
“Sarif won’t be happy either. I see the way he looks at you, Bella. He cares.”
“All Sarif cares about it is Sarif,” Arabella said and even as the words spilled from her mouth, she wondered if she was truly being fair to the man. Hadn’t he shown her how much he cared by the way he’d looked after her this evening, seeing to her every need in front of his people?
Then later, as he’d walked her to her rooms, he’d asked to come in and she’d refused him.
He hadn’t got angry, instead he’d held her close and rested his forehead on hers.
“Don’t be afraid, Arabella. I will never hurt you.”
The look for her in his eyes, stormy with needs that had almost brought her to her knees.
She’d entered her room and closed the door on his handsome face.
Now she took a deep breath, shook off the memories, and told herself to focus on the task ahead.
As they trotted into a night lit only by the silvery light of a half moon and glittering stars cascading through the heavens, Arabella used all her military skill and expertize to halt the feeling of dread and the nerves dancing in her belly.
For once in her life she wasn’t following her instinct.
Then the words of her Colonel entered her mind, “If you quit, you fail.”
The phrase firmed her resolve to do what was right.
Failure was not an option.
I just want to say that next week shit hits the fan…….
AND, if all y’all want to read the entire thing from episode one to now then click on this ‘rolling’ link. Keep the link because it will be updated each week.
Love and hugs and smoochies,