excerpts
Hakeem and Alanna have a confrontation pages 365-367
He stood in the dark alcove, knowing she could not see him, but sensing that she knew he was there. He was sure of it when she chose to stop, directly across from where he stood, silent, motionless, to admire the Monet hanging there at length, the scent of her perfume, flowery yet intoxicatingly erotic, drifted back to him.

She turned to face him and he emerged from the shadows.

“Allah has blessed you with keen senses, to go along with your fleet feet and strong lungs, Miss Reynolds,” Hakeem said, as he stepped into the dimly lit hall. He was an imposing figure dressed in formal attire, a thought that had also struck her that night at the casino. It changed his image completely. “I have been told that you are leaving the day after tomorrow. If that is true, it leaves me little time to change your opinion of me.”

“Of what importance could changing my opinion of you be?” she replied.

“It is of considerable importance to me,” Hakeem said, as his eyes devoured her. “After all, if you and Francois are to be married, as is his intention I believe, we will be in contact with one another quite frequently. I would prefer you did not view me as an adversary. So, to help improve your opinion of me, I would like to start by apologizing profusely for my actions last night.”

She turned away from him without answering, and proceeded on to the next painting. Hakeem followed behind her, keeping a discreet distance, impressed that his presence did not seem to frighten or intimidate her.

Alanna had had to turn away rather than answer him, because the only answers that came to mind, especially after the once over he had given her, would not have improved their relationship. She had come this way to check and see who was manning the guard posts at the bottom of the stairwell leading to the pavilion housing the bomb before she made her appearance in the ballroom, and had not anticipated running into Hakeem. But, if she thought ignoring him would cause him to leave so that she could accomplish this task, she was wrong. He followed behind her like a puppy on its master’s heels.

Alanna stopped before a painting by Berthe Maria Pauline Morisot from where she could see that the guards at the bottom of the staircase were indeed now Arabs.

“It is interesting how much she looks like you,” Hakeem remarked from behind her of Morisot’s painting entitled Young Woman in a Party Dress, and which portrayed a beautiful young woman, her blonde hair done in the fashion Alanna’s was and wearing an off the shoulder dress much like her own. “You lack only the fine jewel she is wearing around her neck to complete the similarity. I am sure that is an oversight Francois will correct upon your marriage to him.”

She had not really looked at the painting, her interest being elsewhere, but when she did turn her attention to it, she saw that he was right. The resemblance to her was uncanny right down to the young woman’s startling blue eyes.

“Correct me if I am wrong, and it may only be, in truth, an old wife’s tale” Hakeem said, moving to a spot just behind her where she could feel his hot breath on her bare shoulders, “but I believe the young woman in the portrait is Morisot’s youngest daughter, who died very young and under quite mysterious circumstances.”

“I have no idea if you are correct or not, Hakeem.” Alanna replied in a tone that showed she was unflustered by his remark, though the idea and the way he’d presented it were both chilling.

Again she moved on, trying to ignore him as best she could, but by the time she had arrived at the next painting, she found it was hung just beyond where the guards were posted, at the foot of the dark stairway that led to the pavilion.

^^top^^

“Now this is an interesting painting. Don’t you agree?” Hakeem said, referring to a Cezanne portrait entitled Three Skulls. As he spoke, he put his arm around her waist, and forcefully guided her to a position directly behind the guards, and right in front of the picture. The men stood up in alarm at his action, but a look from him caused them to return without question to their original postings.

“There are many other valuable paintings further up this stairway,” he said, drawing her by his hold on her waist farther up into the darkness. “Let me show them to you.”

“I think I’ve seen enough for tonight, thank you.” Alanna said, as she attempted, again without the luxury of using her fighting skills, to free herself from his grip. “Francois was expecting me to join him in the receiving line, and I’m quite late already.” Ignoring her, he asked her, in a tone of voice both cold and menacing, “Do you know what is at the top of the stairway, Alanna?”

“One of the pavilions,” she replied, while keeping any evidence of her growing apprehension out of her voice.

“Has Francois shown you the interior of any of the pavilions?” He inquired, all the while advancing her toward the door of this one.

“No, we’ve been too busy,” she replied, now completely fascinated by the irony of the situation. The Agency had planned and schemed to get a look at the interior of this room, and here she was approaching its door. The very room she had to infiltrate the following night. The only bad part about this deal was that she was accompanied by a man, whose sole purpose, she suspected, in letting her see inside the room, was wholly dishonorable and undoubtedly dangerous to her health.

“I’m not interested in seeing what’s in that room. So, if you don’t mind I’d like to leave now,” she said, in no uncertain terms. Knowing that relying on her training to infiltrate the room, rather than encouraging this situation any further was the right course of action.

Hakeem removed his hold from around her waist, but when she tried to move around him, and head back down the stairs, he blocked her path with his huge frame.

“I won’t hurt you, Alanna, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Hakeem said, in a voice only slightly less cold that the one he’d used previously. “Let me show you the room. The view from it is the most spectacular of all the pavilions, and since you’re leaving so soon, I’m sure you won’t have another opportunity to see it.”

She looked into his hard dark eyes, which she could only now see thanks to the light of the flashlight he had conveniently produced.

“Do I have a choice?” She asked.

“Not really,” he replied, as he used the flashlight’s beam to enter in a code, find the slot to put his hand in for identification, and the handle to the door of the room.

He pushed the door open, snapped on a light and gestured, with a nod of his head, for her to enter. Once inside, he closed the door and, she saw, reactivated the alarm.

The room was exactly as the artist’s renderings had depicted it. Since he had suggested she see the view, she walked across the room’s parquet floors to the window. The somewhat primitive, but effective, security system guarding the window was plainly visible from where she stood.

“Did I not tell you that the view was beautiful from here?” Hakeem asked, as he came and stood behind her, and took in the view from over her shoulder.

“I must admit it is,” she replied. And, it was. The view of the chateau, its courtyards and the surrounding lawn area, with its reflecting pools and fountains, was magnificent under lights.

Now that Alanna had seen the view, she wondered what other plans Hakeem had for her. She began to wish someone would miss her as they had at the casino, and mount a rescue, but as the minutes passed, the possibility seemed unlikely.