Authors: Kris Pearson
“That sounds so good,” Ash said. “Home. My little girl’s coming home.” He drew a deep reflective breath. “Well, Trinity’s quite a way from anywhere. Out towards the coast from Hamilton—you can see the ocean in the distance.”
He smiled, thinking of having company there again at last. “The house is a rambling old thing. We’ll have to paint up a room for you so it’s the way you like it. Get you some new furniture too, I suppose?”
“How many staff?” Rafiq asked abruptly. “Can you keep her out of sight for a while?”
“No-one lives in the house now except me. The Stud Office is in one of the outbuildings, so that won’t be a problem. I have a house-cleaning lady once a week. How long are we talking here?”
“As long as you can manage. A month?”
“I’m not wearing this hot wig for a month,” Laurel declared. “I’d rather color my hair and cut it back to the same length as this.” She fingered the bright strands with distaste.
“Don’t you dare!” Rafiq snapped. “Keep your lovely long hair, Laurel. But the more time you can give me, the more I can accomplish here. Tie it up under a scarf or something.”
“Sooner or later someone will discover it’s me. What happens after that?”
“By then I’ll have a nice little story sorted out. Amnesia? Your brain will decide to forget the whole awful captive thing. Most of your ‘memory’ will just return very slowly. You’ll be so un-newsworthy no-one will be interested any longer.”
“I can’t live like that forever.”
“Just a few weeks, Laurel. For me?”
She sent him a sad smile and nodded assent. “For you, Rafiq, yes—anything to keep you safe. And anything to get
He turned away. “I’ll show you to your rooms, then.” He reached for her expensive new wheeled suitcase, and hefted Ash’s bag.
“And so we say goodbye,” he said next morning as he lined the luggage up beside the elevator door. Only by staying businesslike and focused could he survive this parting. His mouth was dry, his head felt ready to explode, and he could barely speak the words he had to.
“Your bodyguard and driver will be here any moment now to collect you for the airport,” he continued stiffly. “They have all the other documentation you need. My people will guide you through embarkation to a private jet where there are no prying eyes. You’ll join a commercial flight at Athens. I hope your flight is smooth and you enjoy your new life together.”
He opened the door.
“I won’t compromise your safely by being seen with you again,” he added. “Goodbye, Ash. Look after her well.” He reached out and clasped Ash’s gnarled hand.
“And goodbye Miss Kiwi—I shall think of you.”
Laurel felt as though her heart had burst, her joints had all been wrenched apart, her skin flayed and peeled away. How could he banish her so calmly? She tottered a few steps in her expensive new shoes—far from steady, ready to faint, to collapse at his feet. She couldn’t imagine surviving without him.
Somehow she rose on tiptoe and placed a chaste kiss on his cheek as he stood there, cold and unmoving.
And then, as the elevator bell chimed to announce its arrival, something gave her the courage to sketch a curtsey and murmur for his ears only, “Goodbye, my darling King.”
She’d wept most of the night, tossed unceasingly in the beautiful bed, and gained only the most fitful sleep. She was so emotional and exhausted that the luxury of the limousine and the drive across Al Dubriz to the private jet barely registered. She was free, but her heart and her thoughts lingered far behind with Rafiq.
Before they boarded the big jumbo in Athens, Ash dispensed with his white robe and head-cloth, and her familiar old grandfather re-appeared. They were directed to the comfort of First Class.
She sat there in total misery. So what if the seats were huge and luxurious and the vintage champagne was on offer forever? Why should she care if the flight attendants addressed her by name and insisted nothing was too much trouble? If the food was glorious? If the movies were the latest releases? If the perfume on the steaming hot hand-towels was the most exclusive from Paris? She’d willingly have swapped it all for five more minutes with Rafiq. Even for another five terrifying minutes in the bunker with him, she thought wildly.
The words on the page of her book kept running together. Her eyes swam with unshed tears as she tried to hide her dejection from Ash. She would never see Rafiq again.
Never know if he was safe.
Or worse still, happy with someone else.
She sighed and fidgeted and sipped her champagne.
Ash reached over and patted her hand. “Remembering your desert Sheikh?” he asked.
“No, not at all,” she said too sharply.
The myriad greens of the New Zealand countryside stretched out in a fantastic rumpled patchwork as the big jet floated ever lower. Laurel leaned her brow against the window and peered down.
“I’d almost forgotten the colors of home,” she said, turning to Ash. “Al Sounam was so pale. All that sand. All those white buildings to reflect the heat. And the white robes.”
“We’ll be down in a few minutes, then you’ll really be home.”
“I’ll never go away again.”
His bushy eyebrows waggled with disbelief.
“Of course you will, my girl. It’s a wonderful world. Just because you’ve had a bad experience in one country doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the rest. I’ll take you to the Melbourne Cup and the races in Hong Kong later this year—you won’t believe the atmosphere there. Talk about exciting!”
Once they’d disembarked Laurel sensed a new spirit in her grandfather. An added twinkle in his faded blue eyes. An extra air of determination. A slightly jauntier angle to his checked tweed cap. He was happy to be home, thrilled to have found her. She needed to somehow throw off her despondency and not spoil his happiness, but it wouldn’t be easy. Not with Rafiq constantly on her mind.
Is he safe? Is he missing me?
More than two hours later they drove through the big iron gates of Trinity Stud. Laurel’s eyes grew wide and hungry. This is where her mother had grown up. Where her grandmother had lived. Where she herself would live for as long as she chose.
In the half-light of early summer dusk the stud looked magical. Big leafy trees stood silhouetted against the golden sky. The slight shabbiness of the fences and buildings was softened and almost hidden.
The rambling old timber house sat at the end of a long shrub-bordered lawn. In the near distance the ocean twinkled, beating against rocky outcrops on a wild coastline. Her spirits lifted a little.
Ash escorted her to a guest-room and set down her case.
“Not as fancy as Rafiq’s apartment,” he said gruffly.
“It doesn’t have to be,” she insisted, glancing around the gracious old room with pleasure. “I’ll need to buy some everyday clothes though. My real ones are still with Mr. and Mrs. Daniels. I could do with some T-shirts and jeans.”
“Anything you like,” he assured her. “I’ve got twenty-three years of birthday and Christmas presents to make up for. We’ll start with some early ones for this Christmas—it’s only a month away.”
He turned, and called over his shoulder, “I’ll put the kettle on. The bathroom’s just over the hall.”
Laurel set her case on the bed and started to lift out her new clothes to stow them away. Her hand hit something solid. Solid and silky.
Mystified, she pulled out a fist-sized bundle wrapped in fabric. Her fingers tangled in the silk and she smiled sadly—it was pair of Rafiq’s black boxer shorts—something to remind her of their first ridiculous tied-together night in bed.
Then she stopped smiling and could barely breathe.
Wrapped inside was the Queen’s box—the emerald-encrusted solid gold love-token she’d admired so much at the lodge.
This was no accident. It had been wrapped and hidden—probably just before he carried their luggage to the elevator. He’d brought it all the way from the grand old sitting-room and kept it out of sight until he could conceal it in her bag.
Her knees lost their strength and she sat down quite suddenly on the bed.
. You’ve given me this beautiful thing and I had nothing for you.
She turned it around in her hands. The gold was cool to touch and the emeralds glittered like sunshine on deep salty water. There were dozens of exquisite stones banding the sides of the box in close-packed rows. In the centre of the round lid one huge gem sparkled on a heart-shaped cushion of gold, and around it more emeralds marched in concentric circles. As a love-token it was sublime.
She had no inkling she was crying until the first fat tear splashed onto the edge of the central stone. With a small exclamation of distress she wiped it away with a finger; then lifted the lid to blot it dry on her shirt.
Inside the priceless box she found a small sheet of paper, folded in upon itself. She picked it up, smoothed it flat, and read his words with an aching heart.
The time and circumstances were wrong, Azizah, but never doubt that you and I were right. Always, Rafiq.
And underneath there was another line in the same curious curling script he’d used for Yasmina’s note.
She stared at it as her brain absorbed his words.
You and I were right.
She drew a deep trembling breath. She’d known they were right with every fiber of her being, but yes, the timing had been atrocious and the circumstances impossible.
She let the breath out in a hopeless sigh, refolded the note very precisely, placed it back in the box, set the lid on again, and pushed it under her pillow.
Then she buried her face in the soft feather filling and howled like a wounded animal, hoping it would absorb enough of the noise so Ash wasn’t disturbed.
Misery rolled over her in huge engulfing waves as she lay, face-down, sobbing. She snatched off the bright wig and flung it across the room, toed off her pretty shoes and let them fall with two thumps onto the carpet, and kicked at the mattress like a two-year-old having a tantrum. When she finally subsided into small hiccupping sobs she felt utterly drained and no better at all.
Her fingers crept under the pillow and found the emerald box again. She ran her fingers over the bumpy gems and along the smooth golden edges.
He had touched this. His hands had cradled it and wrapped it and hidden it for her to find once she was far away from him. Abruptly she sat up and rummaged for the silk boxers. Would they smell like his skin? Would there be a trace of his spicy cologne left on them?
No—however hard she sniffed she could detect only laundry detergent and fresh fabric. But they were not brand new. They must have caressed his body.
How absurd I’d rather have a pair of his old underpants than a box so precious it’s almost beyond price!
But best of all was his note. She retrieved it and unfolded it again. The writing was strong and spare like him—an arrogant scrawl with no fancy flourishes or attempts to pretty it up.
Was he hurting when he wrote this? Was he feeling anywhere near as wretched as she was now? She traced a finger over the wonderful words, knowing quite well that her heartbeat quickened as she did.
You and I were right.
He’d called her ‘Azizah’—precious. That was going to have to console her through all the long days and even longer nights stretching ahead.
She put the box back under her pillow again, and slipped her shoes on. Across the hall in the old-fashioned bathroom, she splashed cold water on her burning eyes and gave her hair a swift brushing. Then she went out to join Ash.
“Do you have photos of my mother and grandmother?” she asked after he’d poured her a cup of tea.
He produced several old-fashioned albums from the sitting-room bookcase and set them on the dining table. Laurel started to search for her unknown past while her grandfather took two microwave dinners from a stack in the freezer and set them to heat.
He pulled out the chair beside her and pointed to one of the older photos. “Marion, pregnant with your mother, Deborah,” he said. “The only child we were blessed with. That’s why we called the stud ‘Trinity’. For the three of us.”
“So I’ve no uncles or aunties?”
Ash shook his head. “Great-uncles—look, here’s my brother Bruce. Your great-uncle Bruce, and his wife Helen. And their twins Stephanie and Peter, when they were little. Steph has a daughter about your age—Angela. What does that make her? Some sort of cousin? You’ll find her in one of the newer albums.”
“And that’s my mother?”
“That’s your mother.”
Together they regarded the small blonde girl clutching a treasured doll.
He turned the pages, naming people and places, charting Deborah’s progress through school, at gymkhanas, and in her first ball-gown.
“She was seventeen there,” he said. “That dress is still hanging at the back of Marion’s wardrobe.”
Laurel touched a finger to the photo. “I’m absolutely her again, aren’t I? No wonder you recognized me on the TV.”
“She went soon after that was taken,” he said.
“She left because of me I suppose? Because she got pregnant?”
“She left because of a married man,” Ash corrected. “Anthony de Courcey. He was on the staff here at Trinity. He somehow got her as far as Sydney and then they disappeared.”
“I don’t remember him. Nothing about him at all. Maybe they weren’t together for long?”
“Par for the course,” Ash grated. “He was a charmer, a womanizer. She couldn’t see it, young and headstrong as she was. We have to assume she found out the hard way. You won’t find
there,” Ash added as an afterthought.
He pushed himself up from the chair and busied himself with the dinners to disguise his emotions. Laurel continued turning the album pages, lost in the past.
“Is this what you’ve been living on?” she asked as he set a ready-plated dinner in front of her. “I’d love to do some cooking for you. In fact I could do all sorts of housekeeper-type things and keep out of sight for a while. Would that be okay?”