All for love 3 series.., p.54
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       All for Love - 3 Series Starters, p.54

           Kris Pearson

  She sat there in total misery. So what if the seats were huge and luxurious and the vintage champagne was on offer forever? Why should she care if the flight attendants addressed her by name and insisted nothing was too much trouble? If the food was glorious? If the movies were the latest releases? If the perfume on the steaming hot hand-towels was the most exclusive from Paris? She’d willingly have swapped it all for five more minutes with Rafiq. Even for another five terrifying minutes in the bunker with him, she thought wildly.

  The words on the page of her book kept running together. Her eyes swam with unshed tears as she tried to hide her dejection from Ash. She would never see Rafiq again.

  Never know if he was safe.

  Or happy.

  Or worse still, happy with someone else.

  She sighed and fidgeted and sipped her champagne.

  Ash reached over and patted her hand. “Remembering your desert Sheikh?” he asked.

  “No, not at all,” she said too sharply.


  The myriad greens of the New Zealand countryside stretched out in a fantastic rumpled patchwork as the big jet floated ever lower. Laurel leaned her brow against the window and peered down. “I’d almost forgotten the colors of home,” she said, turning to Ash. “Al Sounam was so pale. All that sand. All those white buildings to reflect the heat. And the white robes.”

  “We’ll be down in a few minutes, then you’ll really be home.”

  “I’ll never go away again.”

  His bushy eyebrows waggled with disbelief. “Of course you will, my girl. It’s a wonderful world. Just because you’ve had a bad experience in one country doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the rest. I’ll take you to the Melbourne Cup and the races in Hong Kong later this year—you won’t believe the atmosphere there. Talk about exciting!”

  Once they’d disembarked Laurel sensed a new spirit in her grandfather. An added twinkle in his faded blue eyes. An extra air of determination. A slightly jauntier angle to his checked tweed cap. He was happy to be home, thrilled to have found her. She needed to somehow throw off her despondency and not spoil his happiness, but it wouldn’t be easy. Not with Rafiq constantly on her mind.

  Is he safe? Is he missing me?

  More than two hours later they drove through the big iron gates of Trinity Stud. Laurel’s eyes grew wide and hungry. This is where her mother had grown up. Where her grandmother had lived. Where she would live herself for as long as she chose.

  In the half light of early summer dusk the stud looked magical. Big leafy trees stood silhouetted against the golden sky. The slight shabbiness of the fences and buildings was softened and almost hidden.

  The rambling old timber house sat at the end of a long shrub-bordered lawn. In the near distance the ocean twinkled, beating against rocky outcrops on a wild coastline. Her spirits lifted a little.

  Ash escorted her to a guest room and set down her case. “Not as fancy as Rafiq’s apartment,” he said gruffly.

  “It doesn’t have to be,” she insisted, glancing around the gracious old room with pleasure. “I’ll need to buy some everyday clothes though. My real ones are still with Mr. and Mrs. Daniels. I could do with some T-shirts and jeans.”

  “Anything you like,” he assured her. “I’ve got twenty-three years of birthday and Christmas presents to make up for. We’ll start with some early ones for this Christmas—it’s only a month away.” He turned, and called over his shoulder, “I’ll put the kettle on. The bathroom’s just over the hall.”

  Laurel set her case on the bed and started to lift out her new clothes to stow them away. Her hand hit something solid. Solid and silky.

  Mystified, she pulled out a fist-sized bundle wrapped in fabric. Her fingers tangled in the silk and she smiled sadly—it was pair of Rafiq’s black boxer shorts—something to remind her of their first ridiculous tied-together night in bed.

  Then she stopped smiling and could barely breathe. Wrapped inside was the Queen’s box—the emerald encrusted solid gold love token she’d admired so much at the lodge.

  Chapter Fifteen — Pond Weed

  This was no accident. It had been wrapped and hidden—probably just before he carried their luggage to the elevator. He’d brought it all the way from the grand old sitting room and kept it out of sight until he could conceal it in her bag.

  Her knees lost their strength and she sat down quite suddenly on the bed.

  Oh Rafiq, she lamented. You’ve given me this beautiful thing and I had nothing for you.

  She turned it around in her hands. The gold was cool to touch and the emeralds glittered like sunshine on deep salty water. There were dozens of exquisite stones banding the sides of the box in close-packed rows. In the centre of the round lid one huge gem sparkled on a heart shaped cushion of gold, and around it more emeralds marched in concentric circles. As a love token it was sublime.

  She had no inkling she was crying until the first fat tear splashed onto the edge of the central stone. With a small exclamation of distress she wiped it away with a finger, then lifted the lid to blot it dry on her shirt.

  Inside the priceless box she found a small sheet of paper, folded in upon itself. She picked it up, smoothed it flat, and read his words with an aching heart.

  The time and circumstances were wrong, Azizah, but never doubt that you and I were right. Always, Rafiq.

  And underneath there was another line in the same curious curling script he’d used for Yasmina’s note.

  She stared at it as her brain absorbed his words.

  You and I were right.

  She drew a deep trembling breath. She’d known they were right with every fiber of her being, but yes, the timing had been atrocious and the circumstances impossible.

  She let the breath out in a hopeless sigh, refolded the note very precisely, placed it back in the box, set the lid on again, and pushed it under her pillow.

  Then she buried her face in the soft feather filling and howled like a wounded animal, hoping it would absorb enough of the noise so Ash wasn’t disturbed.

  Misery rolled over her in huge engulfing waves as she lay face-down, sobbing. She snatched off the bright wig and flung it across the room, toed off her pretty shoes and let them fall with two thumps onto the carpet, and kicked at the mattress like a two-year-old having a tantrum. When she finally subsided into small hiccupping sobs she felt utterly drained and no better at all.

  Her fingers crept under the pillow and found the emerald box again. She ran her fingers over the bumpy gems and along the smooth golden edges.

  He had touched this. His hands had cradled it and wrapped it and hidden it for her to find once she was far away from him. Abruptly she sat up and rummaged for the silk boxers. Would they smell like his skin? Would there be a trace of his spicy cologne left on them?

  No—however hard she sniffed she could detect only laundry detergent and fresh fabric. But they were not brand new. They must have caressed his body.

  How absurd she’d rather have a pair of his old underpants than a box so precious it’s almost beyond price!

  But best of all was his note. She retrieved it and unfolded it again. The writing was strong and spare like him—an arrogant scrawl with no fancy flourishes or attempts to pretty it up.

  Was he hurting when he wrote this? Was he feeling anywhere near as wretched as she was now? She traced a finger over the wonderful words, knowing quite well that her heartbeat quickened as she did.

  You and I were right. He’d called her ‘Azizah’—precious. That would have to console her through all the long days and even longer nights stretching ahead.

  She put the box back under her pillow again, and slipped her shoes on. Across the hall in the old-fashioned bathroom she splashed cold water on her burning eyes and gave her hair a swift brushing. Then she went out to join Ash.

  “Do you have photos of my mother and grandmother?” she asked after he’d poured her a cup of tea.

  He produced several albums from the sitting
room bookcase and set them on the dining table. Laurel started to search for her unknown past while her grandfather took two microwave dinners from a stack in the freezer and set them to heat.

  He pulled out the chair beside her and pointed to one of the older photos. “Marion, pregnant with your mother, Deborah,” he said. “The only child we were blessed with. That’s why we called the stud ‘Trinity’. For the three of us.”

  “So I’ve no uncles or aunties?”

  Ash shook his head. “Great-uncles—look, here’s my brother Bruce. Your great-uncle Bruce, and his wife Helen. And their twins Stephanie and Peter, when they were little. Steph has a daughter about your age—Angela. What does that make her? Some sort of cousin? You’ll find her in one of the newer albums.”

  “And that’s my mother?”

  “That’s your mother.”

  Together they regarded the small blonde girl clutching a treasured doll.

  He turned the pages, naming people and places, charting Deborah’s progress through school, at gymkhanas, and in her first ball-gown. “She was seventeen there,” he said. “That dress is still hanging at the back of Marion’s wardrobe.”

  Laurel touched a finger to the photo. “I’m absolutely her again, aren’t I? No wonder you recognized me on TV.”

  “She went soon after that was taken,” he said.

  “She left because of me I suppose? Because she got pregnant?”

  “She left because of a married man,” Ash corrected. “Anthony de Courcey. He was on the staff here at Trinity. He somehow got her as far as Sydney and then they disappeared.”

  “I don’t remember him. Nothing about him at all. Maybe they weren’t together for long?”

  “Par for the course,” Ash grated. “He was a charmer, a womanizer. She couldn’t see it, young and headstrong as she was. We have to assume she found out the hard way. You won’t find him there,” Ash added as an afterthought.

  He pushed himself up from the chair and busied himself with the dinners to disguise his emotions. Laurel continued turning the album pages, lost in the past.

  “Is this what you’ve been living on?” she asked as he set a ready-plated dinner in front of her. “I’d love to do some cooking for you. In fact I could do all sorts of housekeeper-type things and keep out of sight for a while. Would that be okay?”

  “I’ve been looking after myself perfectly well,” Ash said, bristling a little. “I’ve had a cleaner in once a week. I’m not living in squalor.”

  “No, of course you’re not, but I’ve never had a house to play with.”

  He saw the longing in her eyes. “Do anything you like then. Let me know if there’s much money involved because Trinity needs a bit spent on it—and now I’ve got you to bequeath it to I’d better get on with the maintenance.”

  And so she cooked, and cleaned and polished, doing a considerably better job than the previous woman. Rearranged furniture and rugs and pictures in the main sitting room. And gathered bunches of foliage and old-fashioned flowers for the vases when the staff were out of sight in the evenings.

  Ash took her riding then, too—on a white mare he bought a few days after she arrived at Trinity. Laurel renamed her Yasmina.

  Four weeks after she’d arrived she took a phone call from Barry.

  “That mad Arab has asked me to arrange a follow-up TV interview,” he crowed.

  “Have you got his address?” she demanded, almost sick with anxiety.

  “Nah, he got me through the office. Said to tell you your memory’s coming back. That we should do a little item to show you’re home safely and you don’t remember a thing. Or not much, anyway. How about Thursday morning?”

  “Did he say anything else?”

  Oh please, please let there be a message?

  “Your baddies are dead and the horses are well.”

  She squeezed her eyes closed. “He was successful then. Thank God for that.”

  She saw the white birds flying up into the desert air the first time she’d ridden Azizah by the lake. Her spirits soared with them.

  He’s alive. He’s still safe.


  It was like being released from prison. Much as she hated the attention, she stumbled through the interview with Barry, claiming she could remember wandering through desert country, being intensely thirsty, and having scrapes on her wrists—presumably from being tied up. She proffered her now-unmarked hands to the camera.

  ...“I just want to live quietly and never really recall what happened.”

  ...“It’s wonderful to find I have an unexpected grandfather. It was so nice flying home with him. We talked all the way.”

  ...“Yes, I’ve watched those pictures of me again and again but I can’t remember that room or those men.”

  “Magic,” Barry said, winking.

  She politely declined any further interviews with magazines or radio stations, and emerged from hiding to take her rightful place at the stud. Living so far out in the countryside on a big private property had its advantages. The media eventually lost interest.

  Ash had arranged for the big curved driveway to be re-asphalted, and Laurel made it her personal project to paint all the post-and-rail fencing close to the house and to tidy up the gardens. Little by little Trinity started to look loved again.

  While she was weeding around an old forsythia bush just after Christmas, a long black limo swept up the driveway and disgorged a dark-skinned man in traditional Arab dress. Laurel lurched up from her grubby knees in disbelief. It was him?

  But no—this man was too short, too stocky, obviously used to being fawned over. She sank back onto the lawn, heart hammering.

  That night she dreamed of the desert, and the lake, and the first time Rafiq had taken her into his arms to truly make love. She awoke aching and sobbing and lonely—snapping on the bedside light so she could once again read the little note in the Queen’s emerald box to convince herself he’d been real.

  At breakfast next morning she said, “I saw someone who reminded me of Rafiq yesterday.”

  Ash shot her a keen glance. “Sheikh Ahmed? He’s very keen on his horses. I’ll stake mine against any in the Middle East. He likes to check out the thoroughbreds we’ve got destined for the yearling sales.”

  “It was only the white robes,” she murmured. “They’re nothing the same otherwise.” She bit her lip and stared unseeing out of the window.

  “You’ll no doubt spot a few more of our customers from the same part of the world. Don’t get your hopes up too high, darling girl.”

  “No,” she agreed vaguely.

  He reached across the sunny table and laid a hand over hers. She feared her pain and yearning had been obvious ever since they’d left Al Sounam.

  Ash was right with his predictions. Twice more in the next few weeks men from the Middle East arrived to talk with Don Charleston the stud manager; to run expert eyes over the broodmares with Libby Westmore; to conduct long discussions about bloodlines with Ash.

  Both times Laurel’s heart lurched behind her ribs until she was close enough to see they were not Rafiq.

  On the last day of February—a hot sultry day with thunderclouds massing inland—she waded barefoot in Trinity’s big lily pond, pulling out rotting leaves, hacking back overgrown rushes and cutting off slimy old lily stems.

  Suddenly a throbbing roar filled the humid air, and a throaty Ducati motorcycle swooped up the long driveway, slowed, and then sped across the lawn to where she was working.

  She stood and pushed her hair out of her eyes with a dripping hand.

  The rider swung a long leg over the seat, kicked the stand out, and rested the bike on it. He made short work of removing his black leather jacket and crash helmet, then strode the few steps towards the pond.

  He held out his arms to her. “Are you coming out or am I coming in?” he challenged.

  “Rafiq?” she whispered.

  After a stunned second or two she surged through the water, churning up plants and
scattering sleepy goldfish from their basking. “Rafeeeek!” Soaked and slimy, she launched herself into his embrace.

  He held her close, pulling her head in under his chin, smoothing her tangled hair, and dropping kisses anywhere he could.

  Laurel pressed her face against his hard chest and inhaled the beloved scent of him. “I smell like a swamp,” she wailed.

  “A memorable greeting,” he said gravely. “I will treasure it always.”

  He tipped her appalled face up to his and kissed her—softly at first and then with unrestrained passion.

  “We’ve had,” she gasped between kisses “all these Arab men, and each time I hoped it was you.”

  “All these Arab men?” he growled, pulling her even closer. “What did you do with them?”

  “Nothing, because they weren’t.”

  “Weren’t what?”

  “Weren’t you.”

  “This is me,” he murmured against her mouth.

  “Yes, I know,” she said, pulling back from him and drinking in the sight of the glorious lover she’d never expected to see again. “You’ve shaved some of your beard off,” she added, running her hands down his face.

  “I’m a new man, a different man.”

  “Kiss me some more and I’ll think what to say next.”

  She smoothed her fingers again over the sexy dark stubble and ruffled his hair up from where the helmet had flattened it.

  Rafiq grinned at her. “Kiss you some more?” he teased. “Like this?”

  Time swirled by in hot moist ecstasy as lips and tongues met and parted and stroked and slid.

  Finally, with that first fierce appetite assuaged, they drew back from each other, breathless.

  “Come and sit,” he said, indicating the old lichen-covered bench under a nearby tree. “There are things I must know. How is Ash? Are you well? Are you happy?”

  And after a slight pause—“do you have a new boyfriend?”

  Laurel couldn’t keep the smile off her face. He’d come halfway around the world to see her. He was safe and alive and even more gorgeous than she’d remembered. She pressed close beside him on the seat.

  “Ash is well,” she said, nodding. “I’m well—although not looking too great right at this moment.” She picked a strand of pond weed off her bare leg. “Yes, I’m happy. I have a home and some family at last. I’m useful here and that feels good. What was the last question?” She turned very innocent blue eyes up to his.

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