Authors: Kris Pearson
Rafiq had a lean and streamlined build, and his shirt was cut to follow the lines of his body. Laurel’s feminine curves pushed the garment to its limits. She was no better off. She was
off! Now she’d have to clutch and tug at the shirt-tails whenever she was in his presence, and be very careful what she sat on.
She smelled again his faint spicy fragrance on the shirt. Not exactly spice, but something exotic and eastern. She turned her face sideways and sniffed at the fabric. The terrifying swaying van-ride thundered back into her brain. Once again she felt his body holding her confined, and heard the hoarse comments and laughter from the men in the front seat. Rough, hard-living men, all three of them.
A bubble of suspicion rose in her brain. Why was a filthy terrorist now dressed in a shirt like this? She ran her fingers along the sleeve, admiring the soft, close weave of the fabric and the meticulous tailoring. Earlier, his homespun shirt had been abrasive as he ground against her. But this one sat smoothly on her naked skin—even if it was nowhere near long enough.
So he fancied himself as a man of fashion?
she muttered to herself. She prowled around her bedroom, wondering how she could do it, peering into the empty wardrobe and the drawers of a carved timber chest, and finding nothing the least bit useful.
But there were towels in the adjoining bathroom. Large and luxurious ones. Why hadn’t she thought of them earlier? With great delight she wrapped one around her hips and tucked the overlap in to make an instant skirt.
She sashayed back to the big kitchen, new-found confidence improving her mood no end.
“A perfect fit,” she said. “Thank you.”
She enjoyed the way Rafiq narrowed his eyes and glowered at her. Well, she was resourceful! If he’d been expecting to see her bare legs and maybe a scoop of her bottom below the hem of his shirt, he was out of luck. Now they were swathed in thick toweling, and she’d done every shirt button up. Her only worry was that her breasts might be visible through the fine linen.
She gazed at him as he sat bare-chested at the table, a tall glass of fruit juice in front of him. Her turn to enjoy the view. His body might be relaxed and no doubt weary, but he was still well worth inspecting.
I’ll give you a taste of the same
, she vowed, sending her eyes wandering all over him just as his had wandered over her. He looked fighting fit. Long hours in a gym? Or did the terrorist cell he belonged to insist their men trained hard? His desert-march had seemed second nature to him. He’d barely raised a sweat by the time he’d led her down into the twisting rock-filled gully.
“As you can see I’m now decent enough to be flown back to Kalal,” she announced, sitting and taking a sip of her own juice.
can see, I’m far from ready to fly you anywhere yet.”
“After dinner then?”
“Yes, we certainly will.”
His black eyes held shadows of fatigue, but surely after resting for a while and having a meal he’d be okay?
“Be quiet, Miss Kiwi,” he muttered.
“Miss de Courcey,” she corrected. “Laurel de Courcey.”
She continued her enjoyable inspection of his body.
He had scars! A small puckered lump on one shoulder. Long jagged lines down his left arm. The longer she looked, the more scars she found. A skin-graft on the side of his throat. Well-healed but definite slashes over his chest. Was this why he’d only partly opened his shirt and then held it to conceal his body while he pretended to sniff at it? Was he embarrassed by his appearance?
Well he had no need to be in her reluctant opinion. If he’d been hairier, many of the scars would have been hidden. But he was wondrously smooth and supple-looking. Only the tiniest dusting of glossy black hair bisected his flat belly and disappeared down into his trousers.
Suddenly she wanted to treat him like one of the children, and trail her fingers over his dusky skin to soothe the wounds that must have caused him unimaginable pain. How absurd! But when and how had he become so injured?
“Was that a bullet?” she demanded, trying to hide her concern, and pointing at the lump on his shoulder.
He heaved a sigh and straightened somewhat.
“That one, yes.”
She knew her eyes must be wide with shock.
“And the others?”
“Then how did you get so hurt?”
“As you saw today, I lead an active life.”
“Well that’s a lot of injuries to get from your job.”
“It would have been—yes.” His face closed up and he turned aside to avoid her questioning. Laurel fumed at his insolence.
“Yasmina,” he called, indicating he was ready to eat.
Instantly the obedient nanny arrived with woven placemats and dinner plates, followed by a casserole of spicy-smelling stew. Then she brought a rice dish with nuts, and a green salad which Laurel soon discovered had a bitter but refreshing flavor. She’d eaten nothing in almost nine hours and did full justice to the food.
Rafiq watched her with amusement, grateful for the diversion the meal provided. He had no wish to explain his battered body to her.
“Yasmina will be pleased by your appetite.”
The girl looked up from her food for a moment. “Was she really your nanny?”
“Of course—from my birth until I was seventeen.”
“Seventeen’s a bit old to have a nanny.”
“She’ll be mine for my whole life. It’s the way of our people.”
“So what happened at seventeen?”
Rafiq compressed his lips. He really didn’t want to answer that.
“You ask a lot of questions, Miss Kiwi.”
“Laurel,” he repeated, nodding.
“So what happened?”
Hell she was determined! Should he explain? He needed a measure of co-operation from her or the whole mission might yet fail. He had no desire to keep her in handcuffs for the next two weeks.
He remained silent for a short time, tapping his fork against his thumbnail.
“My parents were assassinated, and I had to go into hiding,” he finally rasped.
The shocking words sliced across at her. She sat unblinking, staring back at him.
“For real?” Her voice had fallen to a croaky whisper.
“For real.” His own was husky with memory and sorrow.
you? Someone quite important?”
He drew a deep breath.
“I am the rightful King.”
She wrinkled her pert little nose.
“Pull the other one,” she said.
Ash Winthrop gazed down as the sun crept over the piece of rolling green New Zealand countryside he owned. He checked the time on his scratched gold Rolex, sighed and stretched his stiff shoulders. The early morning news bulletin would be on TV in eight or nine minutes—he always liked to be sitting in his favorite chair with a cuppa by then. It made a peaceful start to the day.
He pushed away from the fence and quickened his pace along the sweeping asphalt driveway of Trinity Stud, sniffing with satisfaction at the scents of hay and horse-dung that floated on the slight breeze.
He kicked at one of the potholes that needed patching. Grimaced at part of the fence overdue for painting. The barns and yards were all starting to look a little run-down. He knew he should sell up now, while things were still just in good-enough repair.
But it was home. And it had been home for almost forty-five years. He couldn’t picture himself in a compact new townhouse or high-rise apartment in the city. No lawns to mow maybe, but not much of anything else either as far as he could see. He was used to plenty of space after seventy-four years of being a country boy.
He’d poured all his money and energy into the stud. It had been his entire life until Marion had passed three years ago. Somehow the lights had dimmed after she’d gone and nothing seemed quite so important any more. He’d be a wealthy man if he sold up, but until then the maintenance and running costs of the thoroughbred stud were appalling.
Ash climbed the steps to the wide front terrace of the homestead, ambled inside, and switched on the electric kettle. The preheated water boiled again in no time; he poured it over his tea-bag and lowered himself into his favorite blue La-Z-Boy chair. The News headlines blared out as soon as he clicked the remote.
“Rioting as fuel grows scarce in Nigeria; a man falls to his death on an Auckland building site; All Black injuries a worry for the coach; and a young New Zealand woman held hostage by terrorists in the Middle East. Good morning, I’m Benedict Martin.”
Ash took a sip of his tea. Nothing great there...
“We begin this morning’s coverage with breaking news from the small oil-rich Kingdom of Al Sounam. Laurel de Courcey, New Zealand-born nanny to an American diplomatic family, has been captured by members of a previously unknown group calling themselves Soldiers of the Ninth Crusade. The group supplied the following recording, with the warning that Miss de Courcey will be killed unless seven named terrorists are released from prison.
Ash clapped a hand to his chest and stared in disbelief as the face of his long-lost daughter appeared on the screen. The tea slopped unheeded down the front of his hairy tan jersey.
American,” Debs insisted. A dark-skinned hand appeared and pushed her red cap further back so Ash saw her anguished face more clearly.
“Kiwi. New Zealand,” she insisted. She glared straight at Ash and said, “I am not American. Who the hell do you think I am? Someone you can bargain with?”
Again the hand on her face, this time with a barked instruction of “Quiet!”
And to Ash’s horror, a rough-looking man with an AK47 entered the frame, pressed the muzzle against her head, and began chanting “America, America.”
The screen went dead.
The newsreader continued smoothly. “Twenty-three-year-old Laurel de Courcey was born in Wellington, according to the passport supplied by her American employers. She has not been seen since one o’clock, Al Sounam time.”
Ash heard no more. Who was this Laurel? It had been Debs—his lovely lost daughter, Debs. Debs who had disappeared after her eighteenth birthday, twenty-four years ago.
De Courcey? The name danced and jiggled at the back of his brain.
It took some time for the shock to wear off and for him to do the math. If not Debs, then it must be her own daughter. His grand-daughter. His twenty-three-year-old unknown grand-daughter, in danger of dying before he ever met her.
He finally found the presence of mind to press the one-touch-record button in case there was a recap later in the bulletin. It was imperative he saw her again.
He brushed at the spilled tea on his clothing and set his cup down. There were photos of Debs in the main bedroom—on Marion’s dresser. They’d been there like a small sad shrine for almost a quarter of a century. Feeling very old, yet curiously energized, he stumped off to collect them.
Far too early he did the infuriating rounds of the Government answer-phones. “For immigration, press one. For visitor information, press four.”
What number did you press for ‘hostage status’? He drummed his fingers on the sideboard with ever-growing irritation. A little later he thought to phone the main Auckland TV newsroom and all hell broke loose.
Laurel watched as Rafiq shrugged his broad scarred shoulders.
“Life is interesting, is it not, Miss Kiwi? Who knows what will happen on any given day?”
She sat in a kind of trance while his words sank in.
The rightful King? I’ve been kidnapped by the King?
Finally she cleared her throat.
“Not funny. Kings don’t go kidnapping people and holding them hostage. Kings don’t have the sort of disgusting friends you do.”
She edged away from the table a little to distance herself from him, annoyed she’d been feeling sorry for him because of all his scars. Assassination indeed! “And they don’t live in creepy isolated houses like this one either,” she added. “Who are you really?”
“The only surviving son of the late Sheikh Abu Ali al-Husayn bin Khalid. This was my father’s hunting lodge.”
She tossed a disbelieving laugh across the table.
“You’re kidding. There’s nothing to hunt. Nothing lives here. Camels and lizards maybe. What did he think he was going to find?”
Rafiq’s dark eyes left her face and drifted to somewhere else far away.
“Solitude and peace,” he said into the quiet night.
Such an unexpected answer made Laurel feel almost inclined to believe him. She let his words wash over her as she considered how wonderful it would be to have to search for solitude. She’d had far too much of it. No-one had ever really wanted her or had time for her. She’d been fostered in various houses, and there’d been bedlam in some of them, but she’d never felt a true part of the families.
Later, the hostel they’d sent her to had teemed with girls—squealing, borrowing clothes and make-up, playing music until lights-out, and then giggling and gossiping in loud whispers—but she’d still been intensely lonely there.
Sharing a flat had been better, but the girls all had their own families and boyfriends, and moved on so fast she’d never really had a best mate. She’d take herself off for a walk on the beach at Oriental Bay or a quiet read in Waitangi Park or a wander through the shops of Lambton Quay and Willis Street to get away from the places where everyone seemed to belong except her.
Certainly no-one had ever sought her company. The only time she’d ever been the centre of attention was when a group of noisy children all demanded different and equally impossible things of their hired and none-too-well-paid nanny. She was well-used to solitude.
“So I suppose he had a busy life?” she needled, thinking of all the magazine articles she’d seen about royalty and their myriad social activities.