Pandora quickly unfastened the chain of the medallion that hung around her neck. Her hands were shaking slightly as she took it off and placed it in the _velvet-_lined jeweler's box. She took a moment to draw a deep, steadying breath. It was stupid to be so frightened now. She had planned everything down to the last detail. No, nothing could go wrong.
The round medallion shone against the black _velvet lining of the box. The morning sunlight streaming through the hotel room window picked out the design on its surface, a raised rose in full bloom pierced by a sword. She reached out one finger and touched the rose gently. She felt oddly naked without the necklace she had worn for the last eight years. She had a sudden impulse to snatch the lovely thing out of the box and fasten it around her neck again. It was hers, dammit. What if Philip just opened the package and then carelessly tossed the medallion into a drawer?
What if he had forgotten her? It had been more than six years. Undoubtedly there had been a parade of women through his bedroom in that time. Perhaps he'd found one who could provide him with more than temporary satisfaction. Oh Lord, she mustn't think of that. It hurt too much. She wouldn't think about it. He wasn't married or engaged. She knew that for certain. It didn't matter if he had formed a liaison or not. She'd soon take care of removing any woman who had taken his fancy. Philip belonged to her. She had a prior claim and wouldn't hesitate to state it. She knew Philip better than anyone on the face of the earth. Surely that would be a powerful enough weapon to oust any rival. And she had other weapons now as well. She would use them all if she had to.
Philip wouldn't throw the medallion into a drawer. He was the most possessive man she had ever known. When he had given her this medallion he had done so as a gesture of ownership. What belonged to him would never be surrendered easily.
She snapped the box shut and reached for the most recent issue of Rolling Stone magazine. With efficient movements she wrapped the jeweler's box and the magazine in plain brown paper and addressed it to James Abernathy, Philip's London agent. From the gossip columns she knew Philip had spent a good deal of time in Great Britain during the last six years. Even if he wasn't in London, Abernathy would know where to reach him.
Just as she finished there was a knock on the door. She stood and snatched up the package and her huge shoulder bag from the chair beside the desk. "Just a minute," she called.
"Take your time," came Neal's deep voice. "I'm in no hurry to listen to you destroy my new lyrics with that sandpaper voice of yours."
A smile tugged at her lips as she crossed the room, and she felt some of her tension ease. Neal Sabine's dry humor always had that effect on her. She couldn't remember how many performances he had made bearable for her in the past two years.
She threw open the door. "Then why don't you sing them yourself?" she asked Neal with a grin. "We both know you've got a better voice." She made a face. "Hell, Kermit the Frog has a better voice."
"But Kermit the Frog doesn't have your sex appeal," he replied as he took her huge shoulder bag and slung it over his shoulder. "And neither do I. You may not be melodious, but you're definitely commercial."
"Thanks a lot," she said. "If I was the least bit serious about all this nonsense, I'd probably be crushed."
"If you were serious, I wouldn't have said it," Neal returned. "I'd be working your ass off to make a musician out of you, instead of just a star." He shifted his guitar case and took her arm. "Come on, let's get on the road. Pauly and Gene are already at the auditorium rehearsing." One side of his mouth lifted in a lopsided smile. "They're obviously more driven than we are, luv."
She knew better than that, but said nothing as she closed the door and started down the hall toward the bank of elevators at the end of the corridor. "I'm afraid we're going to be even later than you think," she remarked finally. "I have to stop at the post office and mail this package."
There was a flicker of curiosity in Neal's eyes as he glanced down at the package. In the four years he had known Pandora he couldn't remember her either receiving or sending any mail. She seemed to live totally in the here and now. "I guess I can handle that. Is it important?"
"Oh yes, it's important." Her hand was trembling again as she pushed the button of the elevator. She deliberately steadied it. She mustn't be so transparent. She could tell by Neal's expression that he'd already noticed something was upsetting her. She'd never be able to fool Philip, who had always been extraordinarily sensitive to her emotional state, if she couldn't control herself better than this.
She lifted her chin and gave Neal a blindingly beautiful smile. "Very important." Her smile suddenly faded, and a faint frown creased her forehead. "Do you remember last year when you were ill with the flu and I played Florence Nightingale?"
He nodded. "How could I forget? I've never been so bitchin' miserable in my life."
"You said you owed me one."
His eyes narrowed. "Are you calling in debts, Pandora?"
She nodded. "I need a favor." She moistened her lips. Heavens, this was hard. She had taken care of Neal because he was her friend and he needed her. She felt shabby extracting payment now for what she had given freely. "I'll understand if you don't want to do it, but I thought I'd—"
"Oh, for heaven's sake, be quiet. Pandora." The doors of the elevator slid open and Neal nudged her into the cubicle. "You're my friend, dammit." His thumb punched the lobby button. "If you want a favor, ask. It's not a crime to need a little help, you know."
"Okay." She drew a deep breath. "I want you to move in with me."
The doors of the elevator slid silently closed.
"Come in, Abernathy."
James Abernathy hesitated a moment before he opened the polished oak library door. He wasn't in any hurry to beard the lion in his den. He had deliberately taken his time getting to El Kabbar's estate from his office in London. Usually it annoyed him to make the long drive when the sheikh wanted to sign papers or relay instructions on the more delicate transactions of his multicorporation empire. In James Abernathy's eyes, London was the only civilized corner of the world, and he couldn't see why the sheikh insisted on living outside its environs. He realized that El Kabbar was a fine horseman and possessed one of the most famous stables in the Middle East. Still, there was Hyde Park in which to ride, and he was sure the facilities were more than adequate. This time, however, he was grateful for the delay of the drive before the coming interview.
Even over the phone he had been able to tell that the sheikh was not pleased at the news Abernathy had received in the morning's mail. Abernathy had thought El Kabbar would be relieved that the blasted girl had surfaced at last. After all, they had been searching for her for over six years. Reign_ing sheikhs were notoriously arrogant and Philip El Kabbar was more difficult than most. However, as his agent, Abernathy was extremely well paid to put up with that arrogance. There wasn't any question that he'd continue to do so, not in today's economy.
When Abernathy entered the library El Kabbar didn't look any more pleased than he'd sounded on the phone. His black brows were knit in a frown over stormy _blue-_green eyes. "Where is it?" he asked curtly.
"I have it here." Abernathy strode briskly forward and placed the package on the Sheraton desk. "I opened it, as I do everything addressed to you." He paused before adding apologetically, "I had no idea it was anything of a personal nature." He started to turn away. "Now, if you don't need me . . ."
"Sit down and quit trying to escape, Abernathy." El Kabbar was crossing the room with swift strides, his tall, lean body as lithe as a cat's. From his clothes it was evident he had been about to go riding when he'd received the phone call. Abernathy fervently wished the sheikh had continued with the plan. Perhaps he would have expended a little of his anger on his horse.
Abernathy repressed a sigh as he obediently sat down in the wing chair beside the desk. "Of course, Sheikh El Kabbar. I'm only too happy to be of service to you. I merely didn't wish to intrude."
"I doubt that I'm going to be overcome with emotion," El Kabbar said cynically. He flicked on the desk lamp before removing the plain brown paper from the package with impatient hands. "Un_less that emotion is anger. You could say I'm a trifle annoyed with our little runaway."
"Not very little any longer, judging by the photograph on the cover of that magazine," Abernathy said mildly. "You must remember that she's no longer the child of fifteen she was when she disappeared."
"Must I?" El Kabbar asked as he opened the jeweler's box. The sheikh's face was impassive when he looked down at the medallion, but his hand suddenly tightened, snapping the box shut. He picked up the copy of Rolling Stone and glanced at the picture. "A rock star. I should have known Pandora would pick a profession suited to her rather bizarre mentality."
"She's turned into quite a raving beauty, hasn't she?" Abernathy permitted himself a small smile. "Who would have thought such a little tomboy could be transformed into the woman in that picture?" He had only seen the girl once, when he had picked her up at the airport some six years before. The next day she had decided to run away. She had left only a sealed note for Philip El Kabbar and a great deal of turmoil behind her. That girl had been thin and wiry, with _silver-_blond hair that had been brutally chopped into a boy's cut. From the photograph it was clear all that had changed. Pandora Madchen's features were by far the most classically beautiful Abernathy had ever seen, and her great dark eyes were truly magnificent. In the white satin Grecian toga that bared one shoulder her slim body was everything a woman's form should be. Her bosom might even be considered a little too voluptuous for her small body. It wasn't likely any man would complain, however. Pandora emitted an aura of sensuality that almost reached out and touched, stroked . . . Abernathy shifted uncomfortably in his chair. It was a very disturbing quality. "Do you suppose that wild orange hair is dyed or a wig? Why would she try to cover her own hair? The color was quite lovely, as I remember."
Philip El Kabbar didn't look up from the magazine. "A wig. But it wouldn't surprise me if she's had her head shaved and is bald as a jaybird underneath the damn thing. There wasn't a note?"
Abernathy shook his head. "Just the magazine and the jeweler's box."
The sheikh picked up the magazine and crossed to stand in front of the fireplace. "I suppose you've read the article?"
Abernathy shrugged. "Most of it. A good deal of it concerns the artistic merits of the group itself. Evi_dently Pandora and Nemesis are very well thought of by popular musicians."
"Nemesis?" Philip's gaze lifted swiftly.
"That's the name of the group itself. Rather fanciful, isn't it? I wonder if she thought of it herself."
"Probably." Philip looked down into the heart of the crackling fire. "Give me the bare bones of the story. I can do without the critical review."
"No one appears to know her last name in the United States. She's known only as Pandora. Evi_dently that's the thing to do in rock circles. It adds a certain mystique." His lips pursed disapprovingly. "Most exasperating. Your detectives might have found her if she'd used her surname. She's been in the public eye for almost two years."
Abernathy nodded. "The group had a hit single about that time and became very popular. The men in the group are all British, so it's probable that she linked up with them here in London."
"Then why didn't the fools find her? No city is that large."
"It's understandable. They were looking in the wrong places." Abernathy's expression was faintly reproachful. "You gave us no hint that she was interested in music. You said she had ambitions as an equestrienne."
"I also said that you couldn't put her into any cozy pigeonhole, blast it. There aren't any limits where she's concerned. She doesn't even know they exist." His hand clenched around the magazine. "Why the hell didn't they listen to me?"
"I'm sure they were thorough. Blackwell's is an extremely efficient agency." Abernathy could see that he wasn't getting through and sought for an out. Unfortunately, he had been the one to hire the detective agency when the Madchen girl ran away. "Have you phoned her father in Sedikhan and informed him that she's been located?"
El Kabbar nodded curtly. "Right after you called me. He wasn't at the dispensary so I left word with his assistant."
"Undoubtedly he'll be overjoyed when he hears the good news."
"Undoubtedly," El Kabbar said caustically. "He lost a _horse-_crazy _fifteen-_year-_old and finds an _orange-_haired _twenty-_one-_year-_old rock star. He'll be over the moon."
"She's still his daughter," Abernathy offered quietly.
There was a short silence.
"Yes, she's still his daughter," El Kabbar finally said. "Whatever that means. Madchen never treated her with anything but complete indifference. When I told him she was missing his reaction was a philosophic shrug. No, you can't say they were exactly close."
"Is that why she ran away? I thought she was just rebelling at being sent away from Sedikhan to school here in England."
"No, there was more to it than that." El Kabbar's lips were suddenly a tight line. "Nothing is ever simple when it comes to Pandora."
"Isn't it?" There was a note of speculation in Abernathy's voice.
El Kabbar noticed it, and his lips curved in a _cynical smile. "And, no, she wasn't my mistress, Abernathy. I've never indulged myself with teenage Lolitas. I like my bedmates with a degree of maturity and experience."
Abernathy was well aware of that. El Kabbar's latest affair had been with a beautiful opera singer who possessed both of those attributes. Still, he had wondered a bit at the sheikh's reaction when Pandora Madchen disappeared. El Kabbar had flown to London at once and supervised the search personally for almost a year. That, in itself, had been unusual. His demeanor during that period had been even more surprising. There had been moments when the man looked positively haggard. "I would never have intimated such a thing. I know that Dr. Madchen has been in your employ for a number of years. I'm sure you would have been just as concerned for the daughter of any—"
"The devil I would," El Kabbar bit out. "My employees are well taken care of, but I wouldn't go through that hell as part of any _fringe-_benefit program."
Excerpted from And the Desert Blooms by Iris Johansen. Copyright © 2008 by Iris Johansen. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.