Safia took in the rest of the gardens, a place she had once played in as a child. Baked red tiles lined the grounds, amid raised beds of roses, trimmed hedges, and artfully arranged perennials. An English garden, a bit of Britain in the center of Muscat. In contrast, though, four large date palms dotted each corner, arched and shading a good portion of the garden.
Memories overlapped reality, triggered by the perfume of climbing jasmine and a deeper sandy scent of the old town. Ghosts shifted amid the dappled tiles, shadow plays of the past.
In the center of the courtyard, a traditional Omani tiled fountain with an octagonal reflecting basin tinkled brightly. Safia and Kara used to swim and float in the fountain’s pool on especially hot and dusty days, a practice frowned upon by Kara’s father. Safia could still hear his amused bluster, echoing off the garden walls, as he returned from a board meeting to find them lounging in the fountain. You two look like a pair of beached seals. Still, sometimes he would take off his shoes and wade in with them.
Kara stalked past the fountain with hardly a glance. The bitterness in her words brought the present back in focus. “First Omaha’s adventure…now the bloody weather. By the time we’re under way, half of Arabia will know of our excursion, and we’ll not have a moment’s peace.”
Safia followed, leaving the unloading of the limos to the others. Painter Crowe had announced the dire meteorological news upon his arrival. He’d kept his face neutral. “It’s a shame you can’t buy good weather,” he had finished glibly. He seemed to so enjoy goading Kara. Still, after all the roadblocks Kara had erected to keep the two Americans from this expedition, Safia could hardly blame him.
Safia caught up with Kara at the arched entry to the old palace, a three-story structure of carved and tiled limestone. The upper levels were adorned by shaded balconies, supported on ornate columns. Sea blue tiles lined all inner surfaces of the balconies, calmingly cool to the eye after the blinding glare.
Kara seemed to find no comfort in coming home, her face tight, the muscles of her jaw tense.
Safia touched her arm, wondering how much of her shortness of temper was true frustration and how much was chemically induced. “The storm’s not a problem,” she assured her friend. “We were planning to travel to Salalah to examine Nabi Imran’s tomb first. It’s on the coast, away from any sandstorms. I’m sure we’ll be there at least a week anyway.”
Kara took a deep breath. “Still, this mess with Omaha. I’d hoped to avoid too much notice—”
A commotion at the gate interrupted. Both women turned.
An Omani police car, lights silently flashing, pulled to a stop alongside the pair of limousines. The rear doors opened and two men climbed out.
“Speak of the devil…” Kara mumbled.
Safia found it suddenly difficult to breathe, the air gone heavy.
Time slipped slower, paced by the dull beat of her heart in her ears. She had thought she’d have more time to prepare, to settle in, to steel herself for the meeting. She felt an urge to flee and took a step back.
Kara placed a hand on the small of her back, supporting her. “You’ll be fine,” she whispered.
Omaha waited for his brother—then the two of them crossed between the black limos. Danny’s face bore two black eyes, his nose bridged by a bandaged splint. Omaha had an arm on his brother’s elbow. He wore a blue suit, jacket tucked in the crook of his free arm, white shirt rolled up at the elbows, stained with dirt and dried blood. His gaze lingered a moment on Painter Crowe, eyes traveling up and down his form. Omaha nodded in wary greeting.
Then he turned in Safia’s direction. His eyes widened, and his feet slowed. His face froze for a breath, then a slow smile faltered, then firmed. He wiped a few lanky locks of sandy hair from his eyes, as if disbelieving the sight.
His lips mouthed her name, and on the second attempt he spoke aloud. “Safia…my God.” He cleared his throat and hurried forward, abandoning his brother for the moment.
Before she could stop him, he reached out and embraced her, falling into her. He smelled of salt and sweat, familiar as the desert. He squeezed her hard. “It’s good to see you,” he whispered in her ear.
Her arms hesitated in returning his hug.
He straightened and stepped back before she could decide. A bit of color had risen to his cheeks.
Safia found language beyond her at the moment. Her eyes flicked to movement over Omaha’s shoulder.
Stepping around, Danny offered a wincing smile. He looked like he’d been mugged.
Safia’s hand waved at her own nose, glad for the distraction. “I…I thought it wasn’t broken?”
“Greenstick fracture only,” he assured her, a hint of Nebraskan accent in his voice, fresh from the family farm. “Splint’s only for support.” His gaze wavered between Omaha and Safia, stalling his own smile.
A stretch of awkwardness grew wild and weedy.
Painter appeared, arm out. He introduced himself, shaking hands with the two brothers. Only for a moment did his eyes flick toward Safia, making sure she was okay. She realized he was buying her time to collect herself.
“This is my partner, Dr. Coral Novak, physicist out of Columbia.”
Danny straightened, visibly swallowing as he surreptitiously took in her figure. He spoke too quickly. “That’s where I graduated. Columbia, that is.”
Coral glanced at Painter, as if seeking permission to speak. There was no outward confirmation, but she spoke anyway. “Small world.”
Danny opened his mouth, thought better of it, and closed it again. His eyes followed the physicist as she stepped to the side.
Clay Bishop joined them. Safia made the introductions, finding solace in the routines of etiquette. “And this is my graduate student, Clay Bishop.”
He grasped Omaha’s hand in both of his, shaking rapidly. “Sir, I’ve read your treatise on Persian trade routes during the time of Alexander the Great. I hope to have a chance to discuss some of your explorations along the Iran-Afghani border.”
Omaha turned to Safia and Kara. “Did he just call me ‘sir’?”
Kara broke up the introductions, waving everyone to the arched entrance of the palace. “There are rooms assigned to each of you, so you can freshen up before supper and relax afterward.” She led the way into the palace, her fashionable Fendi heels tapping on the ancient tiles. “But don’t get too comfortable here. We’ll be leaving in four hours.”
“Another plane trip?” Clay Bishop asked, hiding a groan.
Omaha clapped him on the shoulder. “Not exactly. At least one good thing came from the mess this afternoon.” He nodded to Kara. “It’s nice to have friends in high places, especially friends with nice toys.”
Kara frowned back at him. “Have all the arrangements been made?”
“Supplies and equipment have already been rerouted.”
Safia stared between them. On the way here, Kara had made furious calls to Omaha, the British consulate, and Sultan Qaboos’s staff. Whatever the result, it did not seem to please Kara as much as it did Omaha.
“What about the Phantoms?” Kara asked.
“They know to meet us there,” Omaha said with a nod.
“Phantoms?” Clay asked.
Before anyone could answer, they reached a hall leading into the south wing, the guest wing.
Kara nodded to a waiting butler, oiled gray hair, hands behind his back, dressed in black and white, pure British. “Henry, could you please show our guests to their rooms?”
A stiff nod. “Yes, madam.” His eyes twinkled a bit as they swept over to Safia, but he kept his face passive. Henry had been head butler here at the estate since Safia was a child. “This way, please.”
The group followed.
Kara called after them. “Supper will be served on the upper terrace in thirty minutes.” It sounded more like a command than an invitation.
Safia stepped to follow the others.
“What are you doing?” Kara asked, taking her by the arm. “Your old rooms have been aired and readied for you.” She turned her toward the main house.
Safia stared around her as they walked. Little had changed. In many ways, the estate was as much a museum as a residence. Oil paintings hung on the walls, Kensington ancestry dating back to the fourteenth century. In the room’s center stood a massive antique mahogany dining table, imported from France, as was the six-tiered Baccarat chandelier that hung above it. Safia had her twelfth birthday party here. She remembered candles, music, a blur of festivity. And laughter. There had always been laughter. Her footsteps echoed hollowly as she circled the long room.
Kara led her to the private family wing.
When she was five, Safia had moved from the orphanage to the estate, to act as playmate for young Kara. It was the first room she had ever had to herself…and a private bath. Still, most of her nights were spent nestled with Kara in her room, the two of them whispering of futures that never came.
They stopped outside the door.
Suddenly Kara hugged her tight. “It’s so good to have you home again.”
Returning the genuinely warm embrace, Safia felt the girl behind the woman, her dearest and oldest friend. Home. And at this very moment, she almost believed it.
Kara shifted. Her eyes were bright in the reflected glow of the wall sconces. “Omaha…”
Safia took a deep breath. “I’m fine. I thought I was ready. But to see him. He hasn’t changed.”
“That’s so true,” Kara said with a scowl.
Safia smiled and returned a quick hug. “I’m fine…honestly.”
Kara opened the door. “I’ve had a bath drawn, and there are fresh clothes in the wardrobe. I’ll see you at dinner.” She stepped away and continued down the hall. She passed her old room and continued toward the double set of carved walnut doors at the end of the hall, the suite belonging to the master of the estate, her father’s old rooms.
Safia turned away and pushed through the door to her own chamber. Beyond lay a small but high-ceilinged entry hall, a greeting chamber once used as a playroom but now a private study. She had studied for her Ph.D. oral exams in this room. It smelled freshly of jasmine, her favorite flower and scent.
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