Safiya heard their voices before she saw them. A group of raucous men, speaking Arabic, laughing and joking. She sighed as she rounded the winding path toward them, a path lined with crowds of trees and shrubs – acacia, walnut, baobab, palm, and olive – all surrounded by succulents, their odour pervading the dry, hot air.
Safiya almost always chose to walk to her office using the outdoor paths. She both lived and worked in the palace, and could easily spend her entire life indoors, if she chose. But she liked to get at least a little bit of fresh air every day, so she took the outdoor path from her private suite of rooms to her office in the palace’s political hub.
Safiya listened as she walked, and couldn’t help but notice that one voice was more prominent than the rest – one voice that was shouting instructions and encouragement. Safiya would know that voice anywhere.
Captain Abraham Maguire, she corrected herself, who was now leading a seemingly impromptu exercise session with members of his security team on the palace lawn. Right outside her office.
She frowned. Why did he have to do that right where he knew she walked?
That’s probably why he did it there, she thought.
His Arabic was getting very good, she noted, slowing her pace. He almost sounded like a local. He had been working at the palace for over a year, she reminded herself – enough time to become proficient. And he did spend much of his time talking to the guards, his guards, who didn’t speak much English.
Safiya rounded a hedge. She could see them now. Keep calm, avoid eye contact, she told herself as she quickened her step.
She tried valiantly to look away as she caught sight of Bram – but failed miserably. He was wearing a gray tank top and black shorts, and was somehow managing to perform a set of chin-ups using a sturdy tree-branch. The sight of his shoulders flexing as he lifted and lowered his lean body was hypnotic.
He dropped from the tree, then immediately fell to the ground and assumed a push-up position. But then he lifted his eyes and caught sight of Safiya. He sprang to his feet again and walked toward her.
Their eyes met. Safiya felt her vision blur and her heart leap. She looked away.
“Is there anything I can do for you, Sheikha?” he asked her in English, falling into step beside her. They always spoke English when they were alone together, since her English was better than his Arabic. Though she realized that may no longer be the case.
Oh yeah, there’s something you can do for me…
Stop that! she ordered herself.
“This is a palace, not a military base. Can’t you find somewhere else to do that?” she said, cursing inwardly.
Her father had employed an English tutor for her from the age of three. Because of that, and her years of private school and then university in Britain, when she spoke English, she had an achingly proper upper-class English accent, only slightly tinged with a Middle Eastern inflection. And it made every word she uttered sound annoyingly prim.
“I do like to be nearby…” Bram spoke slowly, “Are we bothering you?”
That was the problem. He was always nearby. Even when she travelled, he came with her. She couldn’t get away from him.
“No.” She scowled at him, and continued toward the palace, assuming he’d turn back to his crew.
But he stayed by her side as she entered the political wing via a revolving door, not saying anything. When they were out of sight of the exercising guards she turned to him in frustration, “Is there something I can do for you, Captain Maguire?” she said. Prim and proper.
Their eyes met, and Safiya wished for a moment that she hadn’t looked at him.
He had short, dark brown hair – darker than hers. His serious, soulful eyes were darker than hers, too – a deep, chocolate brown. His skin, however, was pale, quite unlike Safiya’s olive tones. He had a beard, cropped short and neat over good bones.
But it wasn’t his looks that drew her attention, rather his manner. He was very intelligent, that was clear, and calm and exceptionally self-assured. But also patient, and quietly commanding. He rarely smiled, though he didn’t seem somber – just intent. Or intense, maybe. He was calm and watchful and waiting at all times.
Now those dark eyes were staring at her intently. Intensely. Safiya felt a charge of energy as their eyes met. It was a feeling she got every time she looked at him – a sensation like they shared some secret. He must notice her response to him, surely? It must be written all over her face.
But his expression was impassive. As usual.
“Yes, there is, in fact. We missed our weekly one-on-one yesterday,” he said evenly.
Safiya frowned, as though she hadn’t noticed the missed meeting. But of course she had.
She’d been giving a presentation at a high school in Sarab City. One of her top priorities as a member of the royal family was to promote education. So, she’d made a pledge to visit as many schools and as many classrooms as possible each year.
She frowned up at Bram. “You want to make up the meeting?”
“Certainly,” he said.
Safiya sighed. “Does it really matter if we miss one week? Is there breaking news in palace security?” she said, huffily. “I don’t even know why we have those meetings at all – you report to my father, not to me.”
Bram had insisted on setting up a weekly one-on-one meeting when he’d been hired on in a permanent role as head of palace security six months earlier. Prior to that he’d just been a temporary contractor.
“No offense, but your father won’t be around forever. And security is important.”
Bram interrupted her, holding up a hand. “Yes, I know, Sarab is peaceful, and death threats against you are down from a year ago, but you still have enemies.”
She snorted, but didn’t say anything. They’d argued about her supposed ‘enemies’ before. Today she decided to try a more conciliatory tack.
“Of course security is important,” she said calmly, “But can’t it be one of those things I trust is taken care of, and I don’t have to think about?”
He nodded slowly. “Yes, if that’s what you want. I just assumed you were the type of leader who likes to know what’s going on in her world.”
She sighed, giving up. “Fine. We can make up the meeting. I’ll have to check my schedule.”
“You have an hour-long break at eleven-thirty,” he said without referencing anything. He always knew her schedule, like the back of his hand. “I can have your lunch delivered to my office. Unless you want to meet in your office?”
“No, we can do it in yours,” she said, then felt her cheeks get hot. “We can meet in yours. At eleven-thirty, then.”
He nodded. She walked down the corridor, imagining his eyes on her back.
Safiya went straight to her office, and left her curtains closed. She pulled her scarf off her head, sat down at her glass desk, then groaned and put her head directly on her desk. She banged her forehead gently on the hard, cool surface.