At twenty-one, Zilah Dabala has already survived a harrowing past. Now she’s convinced she can handle anything on her own—even being held hostage by a terrorist group. But Daniel is determined to rescue her. And soon their escape ignites an intimacy neither has ever known. Once Daniel learns Zilah’s tragic secret, however, he fears she may be lost to him forever. He’s defied death many times over—but can he teach a young woman the healing power of love?
Daniel Seifert has spent his life on the edge of danger, carrying out high-risk security missions across the globe. But it’s more than adventure that compels him to tempt fate yet again—it’s a young woman in a photograph, a woman whose warm, wise-beyond-her-years smile gives Daniel the inexplicable feeling that he’s found something he’s been searching for all along.
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The young woman in the photograph was smiling. It was a summer smile, warm and wise yet brimming with the promise of richness and beauty still to come.
She was dressed in jeans and a plaid cotton western shirt and was sitting on the back of a beautiful palomino horse. Her green eyes held the serenity and gravity of a much older woman, but her lips were slightly parted and her face lit with such warmth and eagerness that it caused Daniel's hand to tighten involuntarily on the snapshot. "Very pretty." He forced his voice to sound casual. "What did you say her name was?"
"Zilah Dabala." Clancy Donahue leaned back, his ice blue eyes narrowed on the man in the executive chair behind the desk. "You met her mother two years ago when I took you to that party at Karim's. She's in charge of the housekeeping for all of his houses."
"Yes, I remember her," Daniel murmured, still gazing absently at the photograph.
Clancy had known he would. He would wager Daniel Seifert could recall every person and incident that had crossed his path in the last ten years. It was one of the abilities that had made him invaluable as Clancy's first lieutenant in Sedikhan's security service for over two years. That, along with a lethal deadliness that was honed to razor sharpness, had made him a weapon more potent than any in Clancy's extensive arsenal. "Yasmin is a very fine woman and terribly worried about Zilah."
"She doesn't look like her mother." As Daniel recalled, Yasmin was an attractive woman in her late forties with an olive complexion and dark hair and eyes. The woman in the picture had a skin tone that appeared to be pale gold rather than olive. Her wideset eyes were slightly uptilted at the corners and were a beautiful shade of clear, pale green. Her hair wasn't dark but a light tan, sunstreaked with gold, and tumbled down her back in a straight shining curtain.
"Her mother is a native of Sedikhan," Clancy said. "Zilah's only half Sedikhanese. But she's intimately linked to those in power through her association with David Bradford."
"Bradford?" Daniel tore his gaze from the photograph to glance up swiftly. "What the devil does Bradford have to do with this?"
"Zilah and he go back a long way." Clancy paused. "You might say she's something of a protegee of David's."
"Really?" Daniel's lips twisted in a cynical smile. "And I heard he was so much in love with that copper-haired wife of his." He studied the photograph appraisingly. "However, Zilah is certainly lovely enough to be any man's prize 'protŽgŽe.' A little young for Bradford though, isn't she?"
"She's twenty-one and she's not—" Clancy broke off. "I'm not at liberty to discuss Zilah's relationship with David."
Daniel shrugged. "I wouldn't think of prying into the man's personal life. It's nothing to me if he keeps a hundred women on the side." He tossed the photograph onto the desk in front of him and resolutely kept his eyes away from it. Why the hell was he feeling this helpless fascination with the girl in the photograph? It didn't make any sense at all. She was lovely, but the Khadim who had occupied his bed the night before was far more beautiful. Lord, he had even felt a surge of sheer possessive rage when Clancy had identified her as Bradford's mistress.
He leaned back in his chair and drew up one knee to rest against the desk. "I can see how her closeness to Bradford might be a weapon in the terrorists' hands." He had never met David Bradford, but Daniel was well aware that the man was regarded with deep affection by both Sheikh Alex Ben Raschid, who was the reigning monarch of Sedikhan, and his wife Sabrina. Even old Karim Ben Raschid, the former ruler, was tremendously fond of him. "Yes, if Bradford chose to exert a little muscle on behalf of his chere amie, there's no doubt he would have the ear to the throne."
Clancy nodded grimly. "You're damn right he would. David would be just as upset as Yasmin if he knew about the hijacking. That's why Alex wants this mess cleaned up before David hears about it."
Daniel lifted a brow. "He doesn't know about it yet?"
"He's in New York at the moment with his wife, Billie. She had to fly to the U.S. to sign a contract for a song she's written."
"And, of course, Alex doesn't want his old friend to have his domestic bliss shattered by this very inconvenient hijacking," Daniel said caustically.
Clancy's brow knotted in a frown. "Let's just say he doesn't want David to be made unhappy by this matter. And why the hell are you harping on David's association with Zilah, anyway? You're not exactly a puritan, Daniel."
"I'm not harping. I just—" Daniel broke off. He was harping and he knew it. How could he explain his anger at the idea of Bradford making love to the woman in that photograph when he didn't understand it himself? "You're right. I sure as hell haven't the right to cast the first stone." He clasped his hands around his knee. "Okay, fill me in. So far you've told me only that four terrorists have hijacked a Sedikhan Oil Company plane and are holding Zilah Dabala and the pilot hostage to force Ben Raschid to release two of their group from a Sedikhan prison. I gather you wouldn't be here unless you wanted my help. What's the scenario?" A slight smile touched his lips. "I admit to being curious about why you think I'd be interested in the job after my two years in official retirement."
Clancy scowled. "Alex was overgenerous, as usual. How does he expect me to run an efficient security system if he makes my best man rich enough to quit the business?"
"You could have suggested that he not give me those oil wells," Daniel said with a grin. "Your opinion carries a good deal of weight with Alex."
"After you saved Sabrina and her son when that nut tried to shoot them?" Clancy asked sourly. "I'm just surprised he didn't give you a seat on the board of Sedikhan Oil as well."
"He offered to do that, but I told him I'd just as soon the company stayed solvent." Daniel's eyes were twinkling. "I'm no businessman."
"No, your talents lie in other directions," Clancy agreed. "And so does your experience. That's why I'm here. I would have handled the matter myself but the situation has become a little touchy."
"As in complicated." Clancy's lips tightened. "All right, here's the way it's shaping up." He leaned forward in the cane chair and his words fired out with machine-gun rapidity. "The terrorists are headed by one Ali Hassan, who is the brother of one of the prisoners being held in Marasef. We think the group has been waiting for this chance for a long time. They've done their homework if they've linked David with Zilah. She's been in the United States for a number of years and is presently attending Texas A&M University." For a moment there was a flicker of impersonal admiration in his expression. "They're not stupid. They've picked their target very carefully. The security around Alex, his family and his friends is almost impregnable. Zilah, on the other hand, is on the outer fringe of that circle and yet is close to one of its most important members. They must have been watching for an opportunity, and when Karim arranged for the company plane to fly Zilah home to Sedikhan, they pounced. They managed to substitute one of their own men for the copilot, and when they were airborne out of Houston, he made his move. That was yesterday morning. They landed in the Madrona Desert and were met by the other three terrorists."
"The Madrona Desert?" Daniel's eyes narrowed. "The Madrona begins only a few miles from here.
They landed in Sedikhan territory?"
"I told you they weren't stupid. They landed across the border in Said Ababa. They knew that government has been hostile to Alex's regime and would conveniently ignore their presence there." He paused. "And the Sedikhan province closest to their location is this one, and it's ruled by your old friend, Philip El Kabbar. Are you beginning to get the picture?"
"It's starting to come into focus," Daniel said. "Philip is one of the most powerful sheikhs in Sedikhan: Alex never enters this province without Philip's express consent. Since Philip is almost as autocratic as Alex, it might take days before that consent is given." His hands dropped from his knee and he straightened slowly in his chair. "You're right, this group of terrorists must be pretty damn sharp."
"But we have one ace in the hole." Clancy's gaze dropped significantly to the gold ring on Daniel's left hand with its exotically beautiful design of a rose in full bloom pierced by a sword. "You saved El Kabbar's life several years ago, and since you retired you've occupied this house only a stone's throw from his own. You've become good friends with him." A slight smile tugged at his lips. "Hell, I've even seen newspaper pictures of the two of you jetsetting together in Paris and Monte Carlo. Quite a change for a man of your background, Daniel. Are you enjoying your newly acquired wealth?"
"It's all right, I suppose. It has its moments." Daniel's gaze sharpened. "You want me to intercede with Philip for you?"
"No," Clancy said calmly. "I want you to go into Said Ababa alone and bring out the girl. And I want you to do it in such a way that Hassan and his men will follow you back into Sedikhan."
For a moment Daniel stared at him in stunned disbelief. Then he started to laugh. "Good God, I suppose I should be flattered. Who do you think I am, anyway? Superman?"
"You're a damn good agent and you've pulled off stunts as difficult as this before." Clancy tilted his head objectively. "If anyone can do it, you can. We don't have a hell of a lot of choice. You're the only man El Kabbar would tolerate violating his territorial border." Clancy's voice became grim. "
There's no possibility that Alex will release those prisoners. That terrorist group planted a bomb on a schoolbus, and it seriously injured several children when it went off. Alex wants those bastards, and if El Kabbar is angered by them and what they're doing in his province, they'll never reach Marasef."
"I'm relieved that you don't want me to wipe all four of them out at one swoop," Daniel said caustically. "Just grab the woman, cross fifty miles of desert and another five through the hills. Then, if we make it to the border, I'm to keep Philip from carving up any possible pursuers and serve them to Alex myself on a silver platter. Nothing to it."
"I've always liked a man with confidence," Clancy said with a bland smile. "I take it you're accepting the assignment?"
"Why is it necessary to go in alone?"
"We've told them we don't deal until we verify that Zilah is alive and well. The terrorists have agreed to let a man come into the plane for that purpose, but only one man. They've also agreed to release the pilot and deliver him to the mosque in Said Ababa as a gesture of good faith. The delivery will take place at two o'clock tomorrow afternoon. They'll probably delegate two men to take the pilot to the mosque, which is about thirty miles from the plane." Clancy paused. "That will leave only two men to guard Zilah. I suggest if you're going to make a move, that would be the ideal time. We'll tell them you'll be there to check on Zilah at two-fifteen." Clancy stood up. "I have a few gadgets in my helicopter that might interest you. I'll go get them."
Daniel's lips curved in grim amusement. He was very familiar with Clancy's arsenal of gadgets. He had no doubt that these particular items would prove most lethal as well as interesting.
"When will you be ready to leave?" Clancy had paused at the door. "I imagine you'll want some time to reconnoiter the area."
"What makes you think you've convinced me to go?" Daniel drawled. "I'm not a complete madman, Clancy."
Clancy shook his dark head. The rays of the late afternoon sun streaming into the study revealed the flecks of silver in its rich thickness. The smile on his craggy face was weary and faintly rueful. "
Any man in our line of work has to be a little mad. You've lived on the edge of danger most of your life, Daniel. Don't tell me you're not bored out of your skull with the tame, easy life. Hell, I don't have to convince you to take the job. All I have to do is offer it to you." He turned away. "I'll be back in ten minutes."
Daniel gazed bemusedly at the closed door for a moment. Then he began to chuckle. Damn, there was no one like Clancy. He had missed him in the last two years. Daniel's glance drifted restlessly around the luxurious study, with its rich Oriental carpet and the art objects that were as exquisite as the room itself. All very tasteful and civilized and— He suddenly pushed back his chair with leashed violence and stood up. And boring, dammit. So godawful boring that he was barely able to restrain the violence that his restlessness engendered. Clancy knew him very well. He wasn't destined to be a playboy. It had been amusing for all of three months before pleasure had palled and boredom had reared its head. No wonder Clancy had been so confident that he would jump at this impossibly difficult mission.
He glanced down at the girl in the photograph, and a reckless smile curved his lips. One finger reached out and caressingly touched the mouth of the girl. A summer smile. Why not admit that it wasn't only the danger that was the attraction but the idea of bedding Bradford's lovely protoge? It had to be lust that he was feeling. Anything else was too absurd to accept. That first odd impression of finding something that had been lost was pure imagination. Yes, it had to be lust.
Hell, he was beginning to look with genuine anticipation on the coming mission, he thought with a grin. Clancy Donahue was probably right. He must be a little mad. The smile still lingered as he strode briskly across the room and out the study door to help Clancy bring in his amusing little "gadgets."
"You will tell him that we have treated you like a delicate flower." Ali Hassan dropped down into the seat beside Zilah, a smile of sleek satisfaction on his narrow, catlike face. "That you have been fed and allowed to sleep. We have not beaten you or used you sexually. You will tell him these things when he asks. You understand?"