1:42 A.M.

PAINTER KNOCKEDon the cabin door. He knew the layout of the rooms beyond the ornately carved Scottish oak door. It was the Presidential Suite, reserved for potentates and magnates of industry, and now the domicile of Lady Kara Kensington. Upon boarding the ship earlier, Painter had downloaded information and schematics on the Shabab Oman.

Best to know the lay of the land…even if it was at sea.

A cabin steward opened the door. The older man, standing just shy of five feet, carried himself with the dignity of a much taller man. He was dressed all in white, from small brimless cap to sandals. “Dr. Crowe,” he greeted with a small bow of his head. “Lady Kensington has been expecting you.”

The man turned from the door, motioning him to follow. Past the antechamber, Painter was led to the main living space. The wide room was decorated simply, but elegantly. A large antique Moroccan desk marked off a study, lined with barrister bookshelves. The center of the room contained a pair of overstuffed sofas, upholstered in British Royal Navy blue, flanked by a pair of high-backed chairs, pillowed in Omani fashion, striped in red, green, and white, the colors of the Omani flag. In all, the room held a mix of British and Omani appointments, acknowledgment of their shared histories.

Still, the most dramatic feature of the room was the wide row of windows that overlooked the dark ocean.

Kara stood framed against the backdrop of the starry sky and moonlit waters. She had changed out of her clothes into a thick cotton robe. Her feet were bare. She turned as he entered, catching his reflection in the window.

“That will be all, Yanni,” she said, dismissing the steward.

Once he’d vacated the suite, she raised a hand, vaguely pointing at the sofa. “I’d offer you a nightcap, but this bloody boat’s as dry as all Arabia.”

Painter crossed and settled in the seat as Kara shifted to one of the chairs and sat down. “Not a problem. I don’t drink, myself.”

“AA?” she asked.

“Personal preference,” he said with a deep frown. It seemed the stereotype of the drunken Indian persisted even in Britain-not that it didn’t have some truth. His own father had found more solace within a bottle of Jack Daniel’s than in family and friends.

She shrugged.

Painter cleared his throat. “You mentioned updating me on the itinerary?”

“It’ll be printed up and under your door before sunrise.”

One eye narrowed. “Then why the late-night meeting?” He found himself staring at her bare ankles as she crossed her legs. Had she asked him up here for more personal reasons? He knew from his briefing that Kara Kensington went through men as often as she changed hairstyles.

“Safia,” she said simply, surprising him.

Painter blinked back up at her.

“I can tell by the way she looks at you.” There was a long pause. “She’s more fragile than she appears.”

And tougher than you all think she is, he added to himself.

“If you’re using her, then you’d best find some forgotten corner of the world to hide in afterward. If it’s just sex, you’d best keep your pants zipped or you’ll be missing a significant part of your anatomy. So which is it?”

Painter shook his head. For the second time in a matter of hours, he was being questioned about his affection for Safia: first by his partner, now by this woman. “It’s neither,” he said more harshly than he intended.

“Then explain it.”

Painter kept his face unreadable. He could not dismiss Kara as easily as he had Coral earlier. In fact, his mission would fare better with her cooperation than with her present hostility. But he remained silent. He couldn’t even come up with a good lie. The best lies were those closest to the truth-but what was the truth? How did he feel about Safia?

For the first time, he considered it more fully. Without a doubt, he found Safia attractive: her emerald eyes, her coffee-smooth skin, the way even a shy smile lit up her face. But he had encountered many beautiful women over the course of his life. So what was it about this particular woman? Safia was smart, accomplished, and there was certainly a strength in her to which the others seemed blind, a core of granite that could not be broken.

Yet, as he looked back, Cassandra had been just as strong, resourceful, and beautiful, and it had taken him years to respond to her. So what was it about Safia that should stir him so quickly?

He had a suspicion, but one he was reluctant to admit…even to himself.

Staring toward the ship’s windows, Painter pictured Safia’s eyes, the soft wound behind the emerald shine. He remembered her arms around his shoulders as she was lowered down from the museum roof, squeezing tight to him, the whisper of relief, the tears. Even then, there had been something about her that begged the hand to touch, something that called to the man in him. Unlike Cassandra, Safia was not just granite. She was a well of strength and vulnerability, the hard and the soft.

Deep in his heart, he knew it was this contradiction that fascinated him more than anything else. Something he wanted to explore in more depth.

“Well?” Kara pressed after his long silence.

He was saved from answering by the first explosion.

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