“Improvise,” the mechanical voice intoned. “Secure the museum curator along with the artifact. Is that understood?”
Cassandra bit back her surprise. It was not a simple request. The original objective—acquiring the iron artifact—required no parameters for preserving the lives of those on board the Shabab Oman. As planned, it was a brutal grab and run. Blunt, bloody, and swift. She already began revising in her head. “May I ask why we need the curator?”
“She may prove useful to stage two. Our original expert in Arabian antiquity has proven…uncooperative. And expediency is paramount to success if we hope to discover and secure the source of this power. Delay equals defeat. We must not waste the talent conveniently at hand.”
“Report when you’re successful.” A hint of threat lingered in these last words as the line went dead.
She lowered the phone.
John Kane waited a few steps away.
Cassandra turned to him. “Change of plans. Alert your men. We’re going in first ourselves.” She stared beyond the window of the hydrofoil’s bridge. Off in the distance, the lantern-rigged sailing ship shone like a scatter of fiery jewels on the dark seas.
“When do we deploy?”
P AINTER KNOCKED on the cabin door. He knew the layout of the rooms beyond the ornately carved Scottish oak door. It was the Presidential Suite, reserved for potentates and magnates of industry, and now the domicile of Lady Kara Kensington. Upon boarding the ship earlier, Painter had downloaded information and schematics on the Shabab Oman.
Best to know the lay of the land…even if it was at sea.
A cabin steward opened the door. The older man, standing just shy of five feet, carried himself with the dignity of a much taller man. He was dressed all in white, from small brimless cap to sandals. “Dr. Crowe,” he greeted with a small bow of his head. “Lady Kensington has been expecting you.”
The man turned from the door, motioning him to follow. Past the antechamber, Painter was led to the main living space. The wide room was decorated simply, but elegantly. A large antique Moroccan desk marked off a study, lined with barrister bookshelves. The center of the room contained a pair of overstuffed sofas, upholstered in British Royal Navy blue, flanked by a pair of high-backed chairs, pillowed in Omani fashion, striped in red, green, and white, the colors of the Omani flag. In all, the room held a mix of British and Omani appointments, acknowledgment of their shared histories.
Still, the most dramatic feature of the room was the wide row of windows that overlooked the dark ocean.
Kara stood framed against the backdrop of the starry sky and moonlit waters. She had changed out of her clothes into a thick cotton robe. Her feet were bare. She turned as he entered, catching his reflection in the window.
“That will be all, Yanni,” she said, dismissing the steward.
Once he’d vacated the suite, she raised a hand, vaguely pointing at the sofa. “I’d offer you a nightcap, but this bloody boat’s as dry as all Arabia.”
Painter crossed and settled in the seat as Kara shifted to one of the chairs and sat down. “Not a problem. I don’t drink, myself.”
“AA?” she asked.
“Personal preference,” he said with a deep frown. It seemed the stereotype of the drunken Indian persisted even in Britain—not that it didn’t have some truth. His own father had found more solace within a bottle of Jack Daniel’s than in family and friends.
Painter cleared his throat. “You mentioned updating me on the itinerary?”
“It’ll be printed up and under your door before sunrise.”
One eye narrowed. “Then why the late-night meeting?” He found himself staring at her bare ankles as she crossed her legs. Had she asked him up here for more personal reasons? He knew from his briefing that Kara Kensington went through men as often as she changed hairstyles.
“Safia,” she said simply, surprising him.
Painter blinked back up at her.
“I can tell by the way she looks at you.” There was a long pause. “She’s more fragile than she appears.”
And tougher than you all think she is, he added to himself.
“If you’re using her, then you’d best find some forgotten corner of the world to hide in afterward. If it’s just sex, you’d best keep your pants zipped or you’ll be missing a significant part of your anatomy. So which is it?”
Painter shook his head. For the second time in a matter of hours, he was being questioned about his affection for Safia: first by his partner, now by this woman. “It’s neither,” he said more harshly than he intended.
“Then explain it.”
Painter kept his face unreadable. He could not dismiss Kara as easily as he had Coral earlier. In fact, his mission would fare better with her cooperation than with her present hostility. But he remained silent. He couldn’t even come up with a good lie. The best lies were those closest to the truth—but what was the truth? How did he feel about Safia?
For the first time, he considered it more fully. Without a doubt, he found Safia attractive: her emerald eyes, her coffee-smooth skin, the way even a shy smile lit up her face. But he had encountered many beautiful women over the course of his life. So what was it about this particular woman? Safia was smart, accomplished, and there was certainly a strength in her to which the others seemed blind, a core of granite that could not be broken.
Yet, as he looked back, Cassandra had been just as strong, resourceful, and beautiful, and it had taken him years to respond to her. So what was it about Safia that should stir him so quickly?
He had a suspicion, but one he was reluctant to admit…even to himself.
Staring toward the ship’s windows, Painter pictured Safia’s eyes, the soft wound behind the emerald shine. He remembered her arms around his shoulders as she was lowered down from the museum roof, squeezing tight to him, the whisper of relief, the tears. Even then, there had been something about her that begged the hand to touch, something that called to the man in him. Unlike Cassandra, Safia was not just granite. She was a well of strength and vulnerability, the hard and the soft.
Deep in his heart, he knew it was this contradiction that fascinated him more than anything else. Something he wanted to explore in more depth.
“Well?” Kara pressed after his long silence.
He was saved from answering by the first explosion.
O MAHA AWOKE with thunder in his ears. He sat up, startled, feeling the vibration in his gut, hearing the rattle of the tiny porthole window. He had known they were headed into a squall. He checked his watch. Less than ten minutes had passed. Too soon for the storm…
Danny slipped from the upper bunk, landing in a tumble, catching himself with one hand, hiking up his boxers with the other. “Damn! What was that?”
The chatter of gunfire erupted over their heads. Shouts followed.
Omaha threw back his covers. They had sailed into a storm all right…just not the one predicted by any weatherman. “We’re under attack!”
Danny grabbed his eyeglasses from the top drawer of a small desk. “Who’s attacking? Why?”
“How the hell should I know?”
Omaha leaped to his feet and pulled a shirt over his head, feeling less exposed. He cursed himself for leaving his shotgun and pistols crated in the hold. He knew how treacherous the Arabian seas could be, plied by modern-day pirates and paramilitary factions tied to terrorist organizations. It seemed the high seas were still ripe with bounty to plunder. But he had never suspected anyone would attack the flagship of the Omani navy.
Omaha creaked the door open an inch and peered out into the dark passageway. A single wall sconce cast a pool of light near the stairwell that led to the upper two levels and the open deck. As usual, Kara had assigned Omaha and his brother the worst berths, one floor above the bilge, a crew cabin versus the more luxurious passenger accommodations. Across the passage, another door peeked open.
Omaha and his brother were not the only ones granted the lowliest cabins. “Crowe,” he called out.
The far door pushed wider to reveal Crowe’s partner instead. Coral Novak crept out barefoot, in sweatpants and a sports bra, her white blond hair loose past her shoulders. She waved him silent. She carried a dagger in her right hand, a wicked length of polished stainless steel with a black carbonized handle. Military design. She held it low, deadly steady, even with the barrage of gunfire breaking out in spats above their heads.
She was alone.
“Where’s Crowe?” he hissed.
She cocked a thumb up. “Gone to meet Kara twenty minutes ago.”
Where the gunfire seemed to concentrate, Omaha added. Fear narrowed his vision as he stared toward the stairs. Safia and her student had private cabins below Kara’s suite, both close to the fighting. His heart clutched with every burst of rifle fire. He had to get to her. He stepped toward the stairway.
A new spate of gunplay erupted, sounding from the top of the stairs.
Booted footsteps pounded, coming their way.
“Weapons?” Coral whispered.
Omaha turned and showed his empty palms. They had been forced to abandon all personal arms before boarding the ship.
She scowled and hurried to the foot of the narrow stairs. She used the hilt of her knife to shatter the single bulb that lit the corridor. Darkness fell.
The footsteps rushed toward them. A shadow appeared first.
Coral seemed to read something in the shadow, subtly changing her position, widening her stance, lowering her arm.
A dark figure stumbled down the last of the stairs.
Coral kicked out a leg, cracking the man in the knee. He fell headlong into the corridor with a cry. It was only one of the crew. The ship’s galley cook. His face struck the planks with a crack, snapping his head back. He groaned but lay still, stunned, dazed.
Coral crouched over him with her knife, unsure.
Spatters of gunfire continued above, but only sporadically now, sounding more deadly, purposeful.