“A cold shadow falls over my face. I open my eyes to see a vulture circling above me. Using my hand, I shade my eyes and see that another has joined it; both gliding on the warm air current as though conserving their strength for the kill that lies ahead… I believe that I am that kill…”
Sonia, beleaguered by nightmares, illness and fear, is obsessed by the possibility that her father Emir Faisal Muhammed is alive. In an effort to control her own destiny she's determined to go to Syria to search for the Emir. A recurring illness takes her to Walter Reed where she learns she's pregnant. She ignored the protests of her physician and Jeff and returns to Syria to search for her father to return where only hatred, fear, death and disaster await her.
A continuing story of love, survival, vulnerability and grit from USA Today and WSJ best selling author, Judith Lucci.
If you like David Baldacci, Sandra Brown, Tim Tigner and Danielle Girard, you'll love this book.
Release date: December 19, 2019
Publisher: Bluestone Valley Publishing
Print pages: 240
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
I plunge my fingers into the sand with sensual pleasure, withdrawing them slowly as I watch the grains cascade downward. The sun is warm on my face, and for the first time in decades, I feel safe.
Safe… that elusive feeling so wonderful that you curl your toes as you do while eating rich chocolate cake. What makes it so wonderful? Is it the contrast to the days that preceded it? Is it the idea that it’s fleeting and therefore, must be cherished at the moment?
Tipping my head back to breathe in contentment, a cold shadow falls over my face. I open my eyes to see a vulture circling above me. Using my hand, I shade my eyes and see that another has joined it; both gliding on the warm air current as though conserving their strength for the kill that lies ahead. I look around me for the intended victim but, for as far as I can see, there is only white sand. That’s when a shiver climbs down my spine, and suddenly the shadow is cold as it passes over me, contrasting to the white sand around me which is now growing hotter by the second. The sand is intolerable. It scorches me. I can see my fingers are red and blistered—burned. I pull back in alarm, grabbing for the cover on which I lay, but it’s no longer there. The vultures come lower. My protection is gone. No gun, no rocks, not even a syringe. I am utterly helpless and must wait. To run would mean burning my feet and they know this. They will ride the warm currents until I’ve been driven mad by the possibilities. Until I am dead. Then they will come. Then they will feast. Then I will know nothing ever again and I will be nothing.
With an enormous sucking breath, I sat up in the bed. There was a movement to my left. In my confusion, I cried out, a frightening, inarticulate sound in the darkness.
“Sonia, honey, it’s me, Jeff. Did you have a bad dream?” Jeff touched my shoulder, a concerned look on his handsome face.
I nodded, but it was still too hot to cry. The tears would sizzle on my cheeks, and I’d be scarred. “I’m so hot. So, very, very hot.”
His hand moved to cover my forehead. “Nooo, you’re fine. It was just a nightmare, sweetheart. You’re here with me now, and perfectly safe.”
I shook my head. “No, I’m burning up.”
I felt him move, and then he was lifting me into the air, cradling me against his chest. I saw the glare of light off the white tile of our bathroom, and then he was standing me in the shower. A cooling rain flowed over me, and Jeff came in with me; both of us in our nightclothes. “That better?” he asked, his voice concerned.
“Ohhhh, yes, much better,” I relent mentally. “Much, much, better.” I offered him a grateful look.
“Silly girl, what would you do without me?”
“I’d die. I know that I would.” My tone was serious. I truly believed that.
“Oh, God, no. You’re the strongest woman I know.” Jeff’s hazel eyes bored into mine.
“Let’s hope you’re right, but I’m not so sure.” There was at least one who was stronger. For me to live, she had to die.
“Jeff, do you think uncertainties give us a better life?” I looked at my husband and smiled. “Do you think they prepare us for things to come?”
He handed me coffee in my favorite yellow mug and sat in the lounger next to me. Our patio was lovely that time of year. I had discovered the simple joys—a healing exercise—and hung bird feeders everywhere one looked. A trellis with clematis was in full bloom. Bees were shopping for their autumn feasts among the late summer blossoms of the hostas and daylilies. I often remarked it was the one place I’d found where life could truly be in balance. I was at peace on my patio. I felt safe. And that was a good feeling for me.
“A better life?” Jeff arched his eyebrows and gazed at me. “Can’t say that’s something I’ve dwelled much on, sweetheart, but I suppose it forces us not to take things for granted. We never know and you, if anyone, should be an expert on that. Why do you ask?”
I pondered his question. “As a physician, I’ve been trained to go through mental checklists when diagnosing a patient. I suppose it’s trained my perception of almost everything in life.”
“It was that dream, wasn’t it?” Jeff’s voice was soft. He knew me so well.
“They’re never innocent, you know.” My dark eyes were shadowed beneath from the lack of renewing sleep. Even though I was a peace most of the time now, the fear and hell in my life still consumed me.
“I know they scare the crap out of you.” He reached for my hand. His grasp was warm and reassuring. I believe he did know how terrified I was.
“It’s more than that. Those nightmares feed the uncertainties about my life in general. Sometimes I feel like someone is trying to communicate with me in my dreams. It’s eerie.”
Jeff furrowed his brow and looked at me. “Have you considered sleeping pills? Or anything else to help you sleep?”
I shook my head impatiently and released a brief burst of exasperation. “You know I don’t believe in that!” I hated that my voice sounded so impatient. “At least not for me. No, I have to deal with my demons head-on, or they won’t leave me in peace. Not ever.” My voice was defiant.
Jeff steepled his fingers. “Why do I feel like you’re working up to an announcement? I can see it in your face.”
I turned to smile at him, tipping my head slightly in a cajoling manner. “You know me so well, don’t you?”
Jeff grinned and shook his head. “Here it comes. I should know you best. I’ve been in charge of you longer than anyone, and that includes Melody.” He paused and studied my face. “You do realize that, don’t you?”
“Oh, let’s leave Melody out of this.” My mother was a beautiful, innocent spirit. “She’s had enough woes and is finally feeling a little peaceful.” I paused. ”I will say I’m concerned. She’s gotten confused the last few times I’ve spoken to her.”
“Confused, as in an aging process?” Jeff’s eyes showed concern. “I hadn’t noticed that.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Can’t say. She’s been through so much her brain must seem like Swiss cheese—addled at the very least. I’m sure she has gaping holes with memories she pushes away.” I looked away. “I certainly have gaping holes I work hard to push away.”
“Do you think she’s ill? Should we have her evaluated?”
I shook my head. “She’s not ill, just worn out with worrying is all – or at least that’s what I think at this time. Look at all of the multiple trauma she’s sustained… the heart ache.” Tears popped in my eyes but I pushed them away.
“How about her daughter? How does she deal with the gaping holes like swiss cheese in her brain?” Jeff grinned at me.
I shook my head. “I ignore them. I don’t deal with them. Not yet. The Emir hasn’t broken me yet and neither will Ester. As for my questionable brother? I don’t know much about him. For all I know, he may be an addle-pated weakling or doesn’t even exist.” I rolled my eyes. It was hard not to know.
Jeff gave a wry chuckle. “Not likely, with your father donating to his genetics, I’d discount the addle-pated part.”
“No,” I sighed. “I think you’re probably right.” I smiled at him. “But I can wish, can’t I?”
Jeff sighed. “Okay, so out with it. What is this long speech of introspection leading you to tell me?” Jeff settled back into his chair. “I know there’s something in there that needs to come out.” He smiled gently at me. I was so lucky to have this amazing, generous and patient man as my husband. I hoped that never changed.
I set my coffee down and turned sideways on the lounger so I could look straight into his eyes. “I’m not telling, Jeff. I’m asking.” My eyes were serious. I was dead serious.
“Oh, really?” he laughed. “What if I refuse?”
“Hear me out, first. Then, if you want to refuse, I’ll go alone.”
“I knew it!” he declared. “It’s that cock-eyed determination to go back to Syria, isn’t it?” Jeff wasn’t happy. A deep frown burrowed into his face. We’d had this conversation several times.
I held on to my temper. Hadn’t my mother always said you could catch more bees with honey? “Jeff, put yourself in my shoes. I can’t rest until I know who is or is not controlling my life. I’m looking over my shoulder everywhere I go.
Sometimes I convince myself that my father is dead, that the evil is gone for good. And then, without expecting it, Ester shows up and I see her dark, evil face, and it puts the fear of God in me. I can’t help that. I can’t get better until I know that I’m safe.” I truly hoped he understood. I was tired of trying to explain it to him.
Jeff studied the clematis. “Sonia, do you seriously believe that you can go to Syria and find your answers without him or her finding you first? It’s their country. Your father pretty much owns Syria.” He paused as his face darkened. “And what if there is a brother? What if the Emir is gone and the brother has taken over? You are his firstborn. For that reason alone, you’re a threat to both, don’t you see that?” Jeff held on to his patience. “You’re a threat to the son and to the evil Ester.
“Of course I do,” I snapped. Did Jeff think I was an idiot? “But Jeff, it’s like trying to navigate the Amazon jungle with a paper bag over my head. I don’t know what’s out there and I can’t see to learn. It’s unnerving. More than that, it’s driving me crazy!” I knew my voice was loud and frustrated, but I couldn’t help it.
Jeff stared at me but remained quiet. I continued, “I’ve used all the skills I learned in my medical training., actually all the skills I’ve learn in my entire life. I’ve consulted with specialists and even though I didn’t tell you, I even visited a fortune teller once.”
“You did?” Jeff’s eyes widened and he laughed. “My serious, sober, level-headed, scientific wife went to see a fortune-teller? What did she tell you?”
“Now, don’t make fun of me. Don’t you feel some of this? You must. The overarching feeling of not knowing you enemies must wear on you.” My voice was emphatic. “You’ve been with the agency forever and have had many identities. Certainly you’ve made enemies in that time. I’m sure the Emir has as well. There has to be someone out there who wants to settle the score!”
He looked down and the tone of his voice lowered. “I know very well what you’re talking about, maybe not to the extent that you do, but it’s there for me, too. If you think about it, it’ll drive you crazy.” He reached for my hand and touched it. His touch was warm and gentle. “You must let it go, Sonia, or it will consume you.”
“It does. It already consumes me. Yes. It does drive me crazy. Constantly.”
Jeff continued, “There are no certainties to answer your earlier question. If you’re going to break life down into computational Las Vegas odds, you’ll find you’re much more likely to die of an injury in a car accident or a medical mistake at one of your very own hospitals. You know that. I don’t have to tell you.”
I picked up a pebble and threw it in the garden. I was frustrated. I wasn’t getting through to Jeff and I needed to. “I get that, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t - or I shouldn’t - try to minimize the threat whenever you have that opportunity.”
“Not at the cost of your sanity. If you go over there and get yourself killed, who’s going to grow old with me?” A sad shadow crossed his face. “Who’s going to look after Melody? Who’s going to heal the men who show up with battle wounds, and don’t tell me you retired from that? I know better. You’re not really retired. You’re taking a hiatus. You’ll go back to work one day. I know that you go to the hospital and hang out when you feel bored, useless and afraid.”
I was surprised. “How did you know that? Frances told you, didn’t she?” Frances, my secretary, must have snitched on me.
“Now, don’t go blaming her. She has your welfare at heart, just like I do. In fact, it takes both of us to keep you safe.” Jeff gave me his knowing look. In truth, he was probably right, but I’d never admit it.
“Frances oversteps sometimes,” I grumbled. “She should know better. I’m going to speak to her.”
“She may, but I’ll bet she isn’t visiting fortune-tellers.” Jeff smiled at me. “I’d leave it alone, Sonia. She only checks on you because she loves you.”
I looked away from my husband. For a moment I wished I’d not told him about the fortune teller. I knew his methodical brain wouldn’t be able to process it. And, now I knew I was right.
“How about lunch?” I’d startled Frances but she maintained her unflappable poise.
Frances turned from the filing cabinet, and despite her best efforts, her face lit with a brilliant smile. “Dr. Amon! I wasn’t expecting you.”
I hugged her affectionately and rolled my eyes. “Frances, won’t you please call me Sonia? I’ve asked you before. Everyone does.”
She drew herself up into an erect military stance. “All the more reason that I don’t.”
“All right, have it your way, but I haven’t seen you for some time, and I’d like a catch-up lunch. My treat. Will you?”
Her hands automatically rose to smooth her iron-gray hair. “Well, I don’t know. There’s so much to be done and no one to replace me.” Her fingers touched the circle pin on the collar of her white blouse.
I shook my head and smiled at her. “Frances, that will be the case until you and I are long gone. I’ve already run it past Major Petersen. We have all afternoon if you’re willing?”
With a nervous look around my former office at Walter Reed, she nodded and pulled a slim, black cloth handbag from her desk drawer. “After you, Dr. Amon,” she indicated with a sweep of her hand. Her eyes sparkled. I could tell she was ready for a break. I loved this old battle-ax of a secretary. She’d been my best asset and tool when I’d worked full-time at Reed.
I chose an elegant, but cozy, restaurant some distance outside the hospital complex. Smiling, I watched as Frances pulled tissues from her bag and wiped the table surface. She was a germaphobe and I must admit I’d inherited those tendencies from her. Nodding my thanks, I didn’t comment. Frances was my guardian angel if that was allowed in strict military compliance. She took her job very seriously. We ordered and I pressed her to have a glass of wine. “I’m driving and it’s just one,” I urged. For once, she didn’t argue. I ordered both of us a glass of Viognier.
Frances regarded me over her plate of Caesar salad. “You’re looking fit. Marriage suits you.” I liked Frances’ brutal honesty. It was straight-forward like so many other things in my life were not.
Smiling inwardly at her brutal honesty, I nodded, biting off the corner of my Reuben, using my napkin to dab at the delicious sauce that flavored the tender meat. “Thank you. Jeff takes good care of me.”
“Glad someone does because you certainly don’t take care of yourself!” She glared at me.
I smiled. “I’m doing better at self-care.”
So, why are we having lunch?” Her voice was stern and her intuition famous among those who knew her. She knew I wanted something.
“I thought I’d wait until dessert,” I teased. Frances’ narrowing eyes told me otherwise. While Frances had been just my secretary at Walter Reed before I “retired,” she looked after me like another mother. She was also a friend and very well-connected in the inside military channels, so she could accomplish things not otherwise granted. She was the keeper of secrets for those she liked, and I was definitely one of those. Thank goodness. I’d never want to be on Frances’ bad list.
“I’m not eating dessert,” she informed me. “So, get with it.” She looked into my brown eyes. “What’s up.”
I shook my head. She had me and it would be useless to beat around the bush. “Very well. I’m not sure how to put this except perhaps to say that I’m asking for your blessing.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Blessing? For what, Dr. Amon?”
“You are one of the few people who know my background and all that I’ve been through.”
Frances’ eyes narrowed. “I know what you’ve allowed me to know. I don’t pry into your personal business, Dr. Amon.” She peered at me over half glasses as she pushed a stray piece of hair into a grey-colored bobby pin.
“Oh, no, I know that, Frances. But you do know me very well, and you know my ethics, my needs and my fears.”
“That’s true. I often wish you hadn’t retired.”
“I know, sometimes I feel that way, too. But, with all that’s happened…” I found it difficult to go on. Frances knew about my parents; about my mother, Melody, the beautiful young American, the daughter of an American diplomat, who married my then peaceful father, Emir Faisal Muhammed. He was Syrian and had radicalized soon after I was born, becoming an ISIS leader and now a very, very powerful and evil man. He’d beaten my mother within an inch of her life, and she’d taken me and escaped to America, but he found us. I was kidnapped and lived with him in Syria until I’d found my way back to America as a young woman.
Reunited with my mother, I’d joined the U.S. Army because I felt I’d be safe from my father. I was a good soldier and they sent me to medical school. I became a doctor, working primarily through Walter Reed to help soldiers. I had lots of battlefield experience.
My father hated me and had become my enemy, as had my half-sister, Ester. I’d never known about Ester until she infiltrated the Walter Reed system with the intent to kill me. Frances had played an essential role in keeping me sane and protected. I felt her opinion was important, especially since I continued to suffer from PTSD.
“Go on, tell me.” Frances had laid her fork down and aimed all her attention on what I had to say. “Let me just preface this by saying that I don’t think I’m going to like what you say.” She frowned at me.
“I want to go back. Yes, go back. I need to return. I must go back to Syria to settle unsettled business.”
“What? Why on Earth?” Her pupils widened.
“I have to know!” I exclaimed in a hard whisper and then leaned back as though a bomb had exploded before me. My heart beat escalated. I twisted the napkin in my lap.
Frances shook her head. “You don’t need to know unless it’s a security risk for you. Knowing will only bring you more grief, not to mention he may decide to kill you. You cannot go alone. Is it worth it to you to risk someone else’s life just so you can know?”
I considered that. “You make very valid points, Frances.” I hesitated and formed my thoughts. “You see, though, I don’t think my father is the worst of it. There’s my half-sister who is every bit as determined to harm me and my mother as Faisal is.” I paused and considered the pain that shot through my head. “And, there will be collateral deaths in her method. If there is a brother, as I suspect there is, his claim to power could hinge on the same thing Ester is after, although he will find the men to rally behind him. That’s something Ester, as a woman, will find it difficult to do. I believe he is the greater danger and the only way to stop him is to know that he exists and his intentions. To do that, I have no choice. I must return and learn what I can personally.” My voice was clear. I was adamant in my decision.
Frances dropped her head in defeat. She knew me well, indeed. “I’ll go with you,” she asserted.
I shook my head. “No, I need you here. Aside from Jeff, you’re the only person I trust who has access to get me in there and to help me get to them. There is no one else.”
“Jeff will go with you?” Frances’ eyebrows rose in surprise.
“I want him to, but I don’t have the right to ask that. He’s retired, you know. He doesn’t have the access he once did.”
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