“May I dress?” he asked sarcastically.

“By all means.” Jafar shrugged. “Dress well, cousin. Your return to the fortress will be noticed, and we would prefer it appears voluntary.”

Abram dressed without hurrying, though he didn’t move with deliberate slowness either. But he needed the time, he needed a moment to think.

There was a message in Jafar’s words, he could feel it. He’d once known this cousin as well as he had known Tariq. At least, he had thought he had.

They had attended American college together, they had shared lovers, gotten drunk as young men, and grew into their maturity as friends.

They had both joined the Sinclair Club at the same time, joining Tariq in the conspiracy to lie and deceive to cover the funds used for their membership fees.

Was Jafar still a member?

“Stop dawdling.” The order came from the lieutenant rather than Jafar.

Abram almost froze for a second, his gaze sliding to the other man. Abram buttoned his shirt mechanically, knowledge rippling through his mind. He began to piece together the answers that had eluded him over the years as he attempted to identify the commander of the terrorists moving into the Mustafa province.

When Jafar had disappeared several years before, supposedly moving into the mountains to aid one of his father’s elderly friends, Abram hadn’t suspected anything. He had never considered, not even for a moment, that his cousin had been in Iraq working to attack the king to whom he’d once vowed his loyalty.

Abram had believed Jafar was the commander they had been searching for, but that answer hadn’t felt right. Ayid and Aman had hated Jafar almost as much as they had hated Khalid and Abram.

This was why it hadn’t felt right. Because Jafar wasn’t the commander he had searched for. It was this man. The one that stared at him with steady, dead eyes. No emotion. No sense of anything but the evil that filled him.

He turned back to Jafar, the warning in the other man’s eyes suddenly shooting through him.

The warning was like a shiver of death racing over him.

He knew his cousin.

He did know him.

And he knew how he worked.

How the fuck had he managed to forget over the years?

He’d messed up, Abram admitted. He’d messed up so damned badly when he had immediately assumed Jafar was exactly what he had claimed to be when he returned, after Ayid’s and Aman’s deaths.

He should have known better.

“Let’s go.” Jafar jerked his head toward the door as Abram finished lacing his boots.

“We take the girl.” Azir didn’t move. “She goes with us.”

“No.”

Everyone stared back at Abram as the word came from him, the sound of it sharp, filled with determined fury and murderous intent.

“She goes.” Azir’s smile was cold, calculating. “I will have her as well.”

“The hell you will,” Abram growled.

“We go now.” The other man moved between Azir and the bed, the command in his tone unmistakable now. “The girl is a liability now. We will come back for her if we must.” The last sentence was uttered, intended to be audible only to Azir, but Abram had always had damned sharp ears. The instinct honed over the years as he moved secretively through the fortress castle.

“Did they promise you Paige for your cooperation?” Abram asked him then. “Is that why you accepted the deaths of your sons so easily, Azir? Because you believed you would have Marilyn’s daughter?”

“She was created for me.” Azir breathed out almost reverently. “Born to come to me.” He turned back to Abram. “And you thought you could steal her from me, as they stole her mother from me.”

He was even more crazed than Abram had believed.

“We have to go,” Jafar hissed. “Dawn is too close and there’s no way we’ll get past the security agents if we don’t move.”

“Azir.” The lieutenant’s voice was filled with dangerous warning. “Now.”

“Not without her,” Azir refused, his tone grating.

“You’ll have to kill us both then. Tonight,” Abram warned them all. “If you try to take her, then I won’t go two steps from this house with you. I’d rather see her dead than see her suffer beneath your hands.”

It would be a horrible choice to make. A choice Abram knew he couldn’t make. It wasn’t possible.

“We don’t have time for this.” Jafar’s voice was imperative now, as though he were losing patience as well as courage.

Another piece of the puzzle came together. Jafar never lost patience.

It was all a game.

His gaze sliced to his cousin. Jafar was how aiming his rifle more toward Azir and the lieutenant than at Paige. The lieutenant’s back was to the bed, and Azir had no weapon at all.

“You lie!” Azir turned to Abram furiously. “You would bleed forher. You would die for her. You would never have the strength to steal her life from her.”

“I would kill her before I allowed you to take her,” Abram promised him. “Because her death at your hands would be far worse.”

Azir’s expression twisted furiously. “She would resign herself to her fate.”

“As her mother did?” Abram sneered back, setting his hatred and rage free as he fought to keep his voice lowered. “As my mother did? Did you think I would not remember how you killed my mother before my eyes, you old bastard?” he snarled. “That I wouldn’t always carry the image of your hands around her neck, squeezing the life from her body?”

Azir blinked back at him as he obviously fought to remember the event.

“We go now,” the lieutenant, no, the commander said. “Now, Azir. We can’t take the girl with us.”

Every man on the property had been hired to give his life to keep Paige from being taken. They would never allow anyone, especially Azir, to escape with her.

“Yes, Azir. Go,” Abram hissed back. “Because I will die before she leaves this property. What good will she do you if the king takes the province because I’m too damned dead to give my vow? You won’t have a shack to keep her in, let alone a well-secured fortress.”

Azir’s black eyes glowed in rage. Demented rage.

Abram tensed. If he had once known Jafar, then he knew Azir even better, as well as his insanity. He wasn’t going anywhere without Paige. Which meant he wasn’t going anywhere but to hell. And Abram swore to himself that he would send Azir to hell.

When Azir moved to grip the sheet and jerk it from her body, Abram moved.

He didn’t jump for Azir. He prayed like hell that his cousin would take control of Azir. Abram jumped for the commander even as he realized Paige was awake and moving.

Her screams shattered the night as she began to call for the guards, jumping from the bed, the sheet whipping around her body as she moved with the lithe, quick grace she had always displayed.

And Jafar had control of Azir.

The rifle to his head, his expression cold as Abram took the commander to the floor as he grabbed the gun and flung it across the room.

A fist rammed into his jaw as he moved to jump back to deliver his own punch.

The man had a fist like fucking marble.

Hell, he was an enraged bull.

Lowering his head, the other man rammed into Abram’s midsection, throwing him into the wall. Abram wrapped his arms around the terrorist’s shoulders, lifted his fists, and buried them in the man’s lungs.

It didn’t seem to faze him.

A fist cracked into Abram’s ribs, drawing a grunt of pain. Abram managed to get an arm lowered between their bodies, pulled back, and delivered a hard blow to the diaphragm.

That at least drew a reaction and a lessening of the pressure that kept Abram locked to the wall and his gun hand from reaching for the weapon whose grip was secured just outside the pocket.

The dimness of the room had kept it hidden, but now, he was free.

Abram wrapped his hand around the weapon, jerking it free. In a heartbeat, he had it leveled against the terrorist’s head.

“Lieutenant,” he sneered. “Do you want to meet your virgins today?”

Muddy brown eyes narrowed on him.

“Commander?” Abram questioned mockingly. “Or are terrorists using rank this month?”

“We are soldiers of Allah,” the commander rasped. “What would a demon such as you know of it?”

“That you’re insane,” Abram accused him icily. “And this game is over. Have fun when the FBI interrogation team gets hold of you. I’m certain they’ll enjoy your and Azir’s company for quite a long time before you ever see the inside of a courtroom. If you ever see one.”

They would simply disappear, Abram would see to it.

“Paige, open the door,” Abram ordered as he heard the sound of shouting, muffled by the door, coming up the stairs.

Paige moved quickly, once again dressed in nothing but a sheet.

Damn, she looked good in it too.

He kept his gaze on the terrorist, though, as the other man tensed.

“No!” Azir screamed in rage as Paige raced past him, too far away for him to reach. “Marilyn.”

And all hell broke loose.

Azir jumped for her, and the sound of the weapon Jafar held exploded through the night.

The door crashed open. Security agents rushed into the room and the gun Jafar held was knocked from his grip. His shocked gaze moved to Azir.

Jafar looked as though he himself had been shot.

Agony filled his gaze as Azir stared down at the gaping wound in his chest. He went to his knees then toppled to the floor.

At the same time, the commander knocked the weapon from Abram’s grip, as Abram reacted to defend himself.

He should have saved the effort. As his weapon flew across the room, three agents were on the commander, struggling with him until they had him pinned to the floor.

Abram jumped for Paige, pulling her quickly into his arms and moving her to the other side of the room as the agents restrained and handcuffed the commander.

Jerking him from the floor, his face bloodied now, the once-restrained hatred, contempt, and rage spewing from him, he glared back at Abram.

“It is not over,” he snarled. “It will never be over. You will die, and your whore will die.”

Abram smiled coldly but before he could speak, Jafar stepped forward slowly. “Before your men ever learn what happened to you, I will have control of them. You died in the failed attempt, along with Azir, to carry out your unsanctioned plan to punish Abram for his desertion of Islam, and to steal the woman he had chosen as his wife.”

The commander stared back at him in amazed shock. “You betrayed me, cousin.”

Jafar smiled, icy satisfaction filling his gaze. “As you betrayed Islam yourself, cousin.” His gaze flicked to Abram. “You do not recognize him, do you Abram?”

Abram gave a quick shake of his head.

“Meet once again, our cousin, Mohammid Mustafa, son of Hamid Mustafa, and his killer. He conspired with your father twenty-five years before to kill my father as well as his own, and to steal from the Mustafa province the wealth the king bestowed on it for the insanity they follow.”

Instead, the king had learned of the murders, rather than the accidents they had been made to appear. That was the reason the province had lost its wealth.

“You went to the king,” Abram murmured.

Jafar inclined his head slowly. “And now, I will return as their leader, their commander.” His smile was so viciously mocking Abram felt Paige flinch. “Enjoy your happiness, Abram.” Jafar finally sighed as he turned to he turhis expression gentling. “Have I repaid my debt, little one?”

“With interest, Jafar,” she whispered.

He turned his head, watching as Mohammid was dragged from the room before turning back to them. “I will once again place myself in your debt then,” he sighed. “Watch out for my sister. Do not allow her to ever return to Saudi Arabia, no matter the messages I send.” Then his face creased painfully. “Convince her.” His gaze turned to Abram. “Convince her of my dedication to the plans Ayid and Aman planted. There are those who spy, who are close to her, and I have not yet identified them. Until I do…” His lips tightened.

“Until then, she will believe you are as you seem,” Abram promised. “And I swear to you, Jafar, she will be protected to the best of my ability.”

Jafar nodded sharply. “There were no others with us tonight,” he finally stated coolly. “We came alone, but for the three that distracted your guards. Allow the one you captured to go free, if you don’t mind.” He gave a mirthless grin. “Had you met with him as he requested, you would have known we were here as well.”

“I will know better next time.” Abram nodded as Jafar moved for the door.

As his cousin left the room, Abram turned to his lover, to the woman he knew he would have died for. Easily. Nothing would have convinced him to allow Azir to so much as breathe her air.

“It’s over,” she whispered.

“No, it has only begun.” He sighed regretfully as his arms tightened around her. “But the danger to you is over. The danger to us is gone.” Then he grimaced. “Khalid.”

She bit her lip, then grinned. “He’ll be pissed.”

“He’ll kill me.”

“He’ll let you live, it just might not be pleasant for a while.” She laughed softly.

“And you, my little hellcat, will be worth every bruise.” His lips lowered to hers.

He had to taste her.

He had to hold her, convince himself she lived and she was unharmed.

Convince himself she was his.

Just as she always had been.

Epilogue

Khalid stared at his sister in confusion, certain he must have taken too many pain pills. Though honestly, he couldn’t remember taking a single one despite the doctor’s and Marty’s insistence that he do so.

Something was wrong though, because it wasn’t possible that he had heard her correctly.

“Excuse me, sweets, but I don’t think I heard you right,” he said with an air of amusement.

It was forced joviality. Something in his gut assured him he hadn’t misheard her in the least; she had said exactly what he thought she had, and she had meant every word of it.

Fuck.

This couldn’t be happening. It just simply couldn’t be real.

He was having a nightmare. That was it, he assured himself. It was a nightmare. It could be nothing else.

His sister glanced behind him, her look directed at his fiancée who stood behind him. And that look was telling.

He wanted to rub at his chest, but damn if he wanted to make her feel guilty. She wouldn’t understand it was his worried heart aching, the heart of a brother who had protected, worried, and looked after her. He still remembered her as the tiny, red-faced, squalling infant who had been laid in his arms when he was no more than ten.

That look, exchanged with Marty, was telling, and it assured him this was in no way a nightmare.

“God,” he muttered. “It’s my birthday, give me a break.”

It was his birthday, and it was his brother Abram’s birthday. Abram and Paige had ensured he would never forget this day or its significance.

Paige smiled then.

“You expected it.” Leaning forward, her arms folded atop her knees, the waves of fiery hair cascaded around her face and gave her a look of youth and innocence.

She could have been fifteen again.