One Desert Night - By Maggie Cox
The kingdom of Kabuyadir…
THE sound of crying came to Zahir on the wind. At first he thought he’d imagined it. But when he stepped out onto the balcony overlooking the mosaic-tiled courtyard he heard it again. The sound distracted him from the decision he’d already made to leave the party he was in no mood to attend and go home. He’d gone upstairs to his friend Amir’s salon, to steal a few moments to himself away from the mundane chitchat he found it hard to respond to, and very soon he would seek out his host and make his apologies for quitting the party early. In light of what was going on at home, Amir would understand completely.
But now he found himself stepping out into the courtyard, easily bypassing the interested glances that sought to detain him by adopting a detached air that he knew not even the most courageous would disregard. Instead he embraced the kiss of the warm spiced air that stirred his senses as it never failed to do and glanced around him—for what? He hardly knew. Was it a child he’d heard? Or perhaps some small wounded animal? Or was the gentle sobbing simply an imaginary product of a tired mind and heavy heart?
The sound of splashing water pouring in a crystalline flow from the mouth of a mermaid into the magnificent shell-like fountain—an impressive centrepiece in the marble-paved courtyard—dulled his hearing for a moment. The only other noise carried on the soft night air was the steady high-pitched drone of cicadas.
Out of the corner of his eyes Zahir spied a flash of pink. Narrowing his gaze, he stared hard into a dimmed corner, where there was as stone seat almost enshrouded by the shiny dark leaves of a voluptuous jasmine plant. A pair of exceedingly pretty bare feet poked out. Intrigued, he moved forward.
‘Who is there?’
He kept his voice low and unthreatening. Nevertheless it carried its usual air of authority. A sniffle, a soft intake of breath, and a long slim arm reached out to brush away some of the protective foliage that more or less kept the stone seat totally secluded. Zahir sucked in a breath.
‘It’s me…Gina Collins.’
The sweet-voiced announcement was followed by the sight of the most bewitching blue eyes he had ever seen. They all but equalled the light of the moon with their luminous crystal intensity.
‘Gina Collins?’ The name hardly computed in Zahir’s brain. But the appearance of the fair-haired beauty that emerged from her hiding place to stand before him in an ankle-length pink dress with her feet tantalisingly bare could not fail to deeply stir him.
She was a vision of loveliness that no man would soon forget. No wonder she hid out here, away from view! Was there a red-blooded male living who wouldn’t be tempted by such a vision?
Sniffing again, she stoically wiped away the damp smudges beneath her eyes with the back of her hand.
‘I am none the wiser about who you are,’ Zahir commented wryly, raising a brow.
‘I’m—I’m sorry. I’m Professor Moyle’s assistant. We came here to catalogue and study Mrs Hussein’s books on antiques and ancient artefacts.’
Zahir vaguely remembered the wife of his friend Amir—Clothilde, who was a senior lecturer in art at the university—telling him about her intention to get some help with her library of rare and valuable books. But since his mother had died they had not met, and frankly there had been far more demanding things occupying his time.
‘Is the work so distressing that it compels you to hide out here to conceal your dismay?’ he mocked gently.
The enormous blue eyes widened. ‘Not at all. The work is a joy!’
‘Then I desire to know the reason for your tears.’
‘I just—I just…’
Zahir found he did not mind waiting for an answer. Where was the need for impatience when his gaze was happy to linger in examination of exquisite features that suggested they had been created by a divine artist who clearly adored her? In particular her lush-lipped quivering mouth.
She sighed softly, and her reply had a tremulous break in it. ‘I heard the news today that my mother has been taken ill and is now in the hospital. My employers have very kindly booked me on an early flight in the morning, so tomorrow I’ll be travelling back home to the UK.’
A sympathetic wave of compassion and understanding rippled through Zahir. He knew only too well what it was like to have a beloved mother become ill, to watch her health deteriorate day