But Paige, God help him, there was no way he would survive her death. It would destroy him. For some reason she had begun to represent something wild and innocent inside him eight years ago. When the future had appeared to be nothing but bleak, furious pain, it was always the image of her that brought him comfort. Her laughter, the sweet warmth that burned in her emerald eyes.

And from the looks of Khalid’s expression, the complete disbelief and horror burning in his gaze assured Abram that it would destroy him as well. They had both schemed, plotted, and run interference with Azir Mustafa since the day the red-haired little beauty had been born. The birth of the child to his escaped forced bride had sent Azir into a rage that had torn through the Mustafa stronghold like a demon.

That day, two servants had died, and a third had fled into the desert in fear. The insanity that had begun infecting Azir had only grown since that day, as though it were a trigger of some sort that he had been unable to fight.

“I was going to send her home in the morning,” Khalid finally stated, his voice a low, rough rasp. “God help me, Abram. I was going to allow her to leave when Abdul’s cousin was unable to learn anything else.”

Abdul, Khalid’s manservant, had several cousins that worked within the castle and managed to send along information whenever they heard it. The threats against Paige, in retaliation for Khalid’s killing of Ayid and Aman Mustafa, had begun the moment Azir learned of their deaths.

He knew Khalid’s weakness, just as he knew those of his other sons. Somehow, Azir had learned years before that Abram had formed a soft spot for Khalid’s little sister. A place inside his heart thathe’d believed was hidden from even the most astute gaze.

“You can’t allow her to go.” He’d kidnap her and have her locked up somewhere safe himself if Khalid dared to allow her to leave. “I’ve fought to stay away from her, Khalid, as you ordered. But if you allow her to return to her home, then I promise you, all bets will be off.”

He didn’t wait to argue. He turned and walked away. His control was too shaky, he was too frightened for her, too certain that if she was unprotected for even a second, then his father, Azir el Hamid Mustafa would exact his vengeance in the worst way.

Abram now had no choice but to return. No one yet knew he’d left Saudi to defect from his homeland and to refuse the legacy so tainted by blood, death, and nightmares. Azir Mustafa had become a scourge that even the Saudi government wanted to be rid of. Unfortunately, until Azir revealed the blood on his hands, there was nothing they could do to step in and deflect the misery he created.

Abram had given up on saving his father light years before. The day he found his wife in a desert shack, bloody, tortured, her face frozen into an expression of such abject pain and horror that it had taken him to his knees. He had known the rapists, the inhuman scourge that had taken her life were the half-brothers he had taught to ride horseback when they were boys. The same that had been such sweet, laughter-filled children before Azir had taken them to his wing of the castle to raise them himself.

From that day, the change had been overwhelming. As though Azir had known what to do to release the soulless cruelty that existed within them.

Entering the garage Abram strode for the limo as Tariq, his cousin and coconspirator, stepped from the shadows to open the door for him.

“It’s time to go now, Tariq,” he stated as he stepped into the back of the limo. “He’ll make certain she’s protected.”

“Azir has called the Saudi ambassador several times and he’s demanding they search Khalid’s home for you immediately.” Disgust filled the man’s voice. “I contacted him after the ambassador contacted me, just after you entered the house. I’ve assured him you’re here to investigate the reasons for your brothers’ deaths and that you are returning soon. He’s certain you’re here to help Khalid escape justice instead.”

Tariq didn’t give Abram a chance to comment. He slammed the door shut with latent violence then stalked around the limo to the driver’s side door.

Abram watched as he slid behind the wheel, his gaze meeting Tariq’s dark tobacco brown eyes in the mirror.

“And did he buy it?” Abram had no doubt Azir had. In his mind, no matter what he did, or who he killed, Abram wouldn’t have the strength to walk away from the deserted, blood-drencertain snd of his birth.

Unfortunately for Azir Mustafa, his son shared few of his beliefs and none of his love for the land that had destroyed so many he loved. Abram had been all too aware that he was the last hope those he loved had of escaping Azir’s cruelty. But only if Abram always remembered to never show his weakness, to never reveal he cared for anyone or anything outside the Mustafa fortress. Showing that affection was guaranteed to ensure, if not their deaths, then the ever-present risk of it.

“Shall we say he was a bit more than irate?” Tariq said with chilling calm.

Irate? Azir Mustafa was deranged. The fact that he had allowed his youngest sons’ terrorist partners to take up residence in the Mustafa fortress proved it.

Jafar Mustafa, son of Azir’s youngest brother, and cousin to both Abram and Tariq, was surprisingly one of the lieutenants within the terrorist cell Ayid and Aman had commanded.

Abram’s disappointment to learn Jafar was as corrupt as Ayid and Aman had been, went deeper than he’d expected. Once, he’d had high hopes for Jafar. Abram had fought for him to attend college in America, to work with the oil companies rather than joining the insanity Azir was breeding.

Azir Mustafa hadn’t escaped it. As a matter of fact, he had helped exacerbate the insanity within his sons, and now, he couldn’t accept that they were dead. He couldn’t accept that Abram, his eldest son and heir could have defected as Jafar had informed him, or that Khalid, the son he’d given Ayid and Aman permission to murder, had actually survived.

His sanity seemed to be coming more into question by the day, but the one thing the old bastard hadn’t forgotten was that in less then a month, Abram would turn thirty-six. Then the Saudi king would send his emissary to the Mustafa lands and take Abram’s vow to guide the people and the land to prosperity.

Azir had, with his determination to protect his youngest sons, managed to force the royal house to cut off all funds and aid to the boundary lands until his legal heir was thirty-six. Those funds had been funneled into the coffers of the very terrorists they were fighting against.

The king’s punishment had come with one ray of hope for Azir. If Abram would vow to protect and preserve the people in accordance with the law as well as pledge his loyalty to the throne on his thirty-sixth birthday, then money would flow into the Mustafa lands once more.

In all his crazed determination Azir thought he could then see the dreams of his dead sons completed once that was accomplished.

It was a vow Abram couldn’t make. But, until he learned why Paige was a target, and how pervasive the terrorists now were in the city he had once called home, he had no choice but to return.

The fact that his cousin Jafar was ported to have moved into the fortress in the past days to console Azir, greatly concerned Abram.

Jafar had, until now, managed to fool Abram. He’d gone to college in America, vacationed with the rich and notorious in their playgrounds, and had once, years before, even spoken to Abram about defection himself. That same man had returned to Saudi Arabia three years before, disappeared from the public, and was rumored to have joined one of the newly formed terrorist organizations protesting Western modernization in the Middle East.

Jafar’s belief that the ills of the Middle East stemmed from America was something that Abram hadn’t expected.

“I called several contacts and they’ve reported Jafar has brought several more of his men into the castle,” Abram began. “The terrorist who was supposedly killed in Jordan was seen at the fortress two nights ago. He slipped across the border, met with Jafar, and collected a file from Azir. It’s reported to name the target he’s chosen to exact his punishment for his sons’ deaths on.”

He had to give it to Jafar. So far, he was a damned sight smarter than Ayid and Aman had been. He did nothing over e-mail, and rarely used the same courier twice when sending out reports or orders to soldiers. There was no way to gather the evidence needed to arrest him, and no way to figure out whatever plans were in the works.

And that was why Abram was returning. To protect Paige. To protect the last bit of innocence left in his life, the woman he couldn’t get out of his fantasies.

“Contact Anwar,” Abram ordered him. “Inform him of our arrival time at the landing area and tell him to be prepared to give me a thorough oral report.”

Nothing was put on paper. Like Jafar, Abram knew the danger of ever leaving evidence.

Returning was killing him, but he knew if he didn’t, Azir would strike against Paige, ensuring Abram suffered for it. And if it wasn’t Azir, then it would be the terrorists he had given his allegiance to. Before he left, Abram knew he would have to commit to memory the face of every threat that could return to haunt him, Paige, or Khalid.

The prediction Khalid had made when he had been no more than eighteen seemed to be coming true.

Khalid had stated Azir would force his eldest son, his heir, to kill him to escape the Mustafa lands. Khalid had stared into the hot desert sun as he and Abram had been returning to the forest from a hunt and spoken the damning words.

Abram was finally realizing just how right his brother had been. And God help him, if Paige was harmed he’d also lose what was left of his own sanity.

He hadn’t touched her until tonight, but in his fantasies, in his dreams, he touched her nightly. He touched her, and he watched as his third touched her. He psessed her, and he watched as his third possessed her.

He heard her screams of pleasure, watched her emerald eyes darken in ecstasy, and heard her beg him for release. And he woke with his dick so painfully hard, the need to possess her so strong, that no amount of masturbation could ease the hunger.

“Abram, are you sure about this?” Tariq asked as he turned the limo from Khalid’s drive and headed for the private airport. “It’s not too late to change your mind. Go back, convince Khalid to allow us to protect Paige ourselves. If Azir and Jafar refuse to give us peace, then we’ll kill them ourselves.”

As a plan, it was simple, perfect, and it would complete the dark stain spreading across his soul.

“And we’ll always know we were the ones that killed him,” Abram reminded him. “His murder would unleash secrets both of us would prefer were never known, Tariq. We return, learn of their plans against the throne and Paige, take them to the emissary before he arrives in Mustafa lands, and allow the government to take care of him from there.

“The lands will be repossessed by the government. Azir will either be beheaded for treason or placed in a facility for the insane until his death. Either way, our secrets remain secret, and we’ll have a much better chance of safety when we return.”

“That or certain death,” Tariq stated tightly. “Mustafa lands are drenched in as much blood as their hands. They’re saturated in it. The name is synonymous with nothing but death, greed, and such cruelty against our women that neither of us have known anything but shame since the day our mothers committed suicide. I don’t know how we’ve refrained from killing that old bastard before now.”

“Because we’ve always known that we would have only one chance at happiness, Tariq. I won’t allow him to win by taking that from me.” Abram stared out the limo’s darkened windows to the sliver of light beginning to filter through as dawn edged in.

This was how he felt. Hope was there, edging into the shadows when he’d learned he would have to return to ensure Paige’s safety. She was his. Since the death of his first wife so long ago, Abram had known very little hope. He couldn’t turn away from it, he couldn’t allow Azir to risk it.

“There are very few of our men left,” Tariq reminded him. “Only those who hadn’t yet been able to slip over the borders. I managed to contact four, and they’ll see if they can find the others.”

“We’ll have to make do.” Abram glanced at the mirror and met Tariq’s gaze again. “We have no other choice, Tariq. We will have to make do, and we will have to succeed.”

Because defeat meant not just his death, but Khalid’s, Marty’s, and Paige’swould kill Azir himself before he would allow that to happen.

2

Three days later

“Paige, you’re more than welcome to come to the party with us tonight,” Marty said as she stood in the open doorway of Paige’s suite, resplendent in her amber evening gown and topaz jewelry.

Shoulder-length blond hair was swept up to the top of her head with artfully arranged wisps falling from the topaz combs. It lent a charming disarray to the effect.

Paige set her book aside before uncurling from the chair and faced her brother’s fiancée. She was still amazed that her dark, cynical brother had managed to capture Marty’s heart. She had hoped the woman would help him chill out just a little bit. So far, though, it wasn’t happening that she could see.

“I’m really not in the mood for a party, even one of Tally’s.” She grinned.

Tally Conover was becoming known as a premier hostess and seemed to enjoy it. The fact that Tally found the patience for it managed to surprise all her friends.

“Tally throws a damned good party,” Marty reminded her. “She also somehow managed to secure a promise from Anger Thornton to be there. I want to see if he actually arrives.”

Anger Thornton, CEO of Thornton Holdings and Acquisitions rarely attended anyone’s parties but his own. And even those, he was known to be absent from.

“That’s almost tempting,” Paige agreed. “I think I’ll finish my book instead.”

Attending the party meant being civil to Khalid. She just didn’t think she had it in her at the moment. They had existed in a state of warfare for the past three days, and Paige didn’t see that changing anytime soon.

“Finish the book or continue to ignore Khalid?” Marty finally asked.

Paige stared back at her. Her lips pursed and her teeth clenched for one angry second.

“It’s better that Khalid and I have the least amount to do with each other as possible, Marty,” she finally stated.

The other woman shook her head, the wisps of silken hair brushing about her face as she chuckled lightly.

“You two are just too much alike,” she accused. “And as I understand it, Abram Mustafa is just as bad. Khalid, Abram, and their cousins, Tariq and Jafar are all cut from the same cloth, trust me.”