“Who the hell are you?”
Exhausted and confused, not to mention, taken aback by the harsh demand, Harper jerked to a halt at the end of the stairway and blinked owlishly up at the giant man glaring down at her. “Um…” she was groggy after traveling for the past twenty four hours, so it took her several tries to understand his question. “I’m Dr. Harper Ross,” she said, extending her hand in greeting. “I’m here to work with–”
“No, you’re not!” He snapped as his eyes narrowed.
Okay, Harper was exhausted, but she still knew her own name. Didn’t she? “I’m not?” she asked, rubbing her temples hoping to alleviate the headache that formed somewhere over France and had intensified with each passing mile.
The giant’s glare turned into an expression of shock. “You are?” His eyes moved over her blond hair that yesterday had looked smooth and professional, but now probably looked bedraggled. She’d carefully applied makeup, but suspected most of it had rubbed off by now…she didn’t want to even think about how pale and sickly she looked without makeup.
Harper blinked. Was this a test? If it was, she suspected that she was failing miserably. “Yes?” she replied, still confused. Who did this behemoth think she was? And why was the sun so painfully hot?! She looked around, but the tarmac on the private airfield shimmered silently. She’d never experienced heat like this before! Was the world on fire?
“Oh, this is going to be great!” the giant announced gleefully, his features almost handsome as his scowl shifted to a wide smile.
Was this “Crazy Land”? Had the mind-numbing heat cooked this man’s brain?
He was a lunatic. That was the only possible explanation. That, or she was completely misunderstanding what was going on. Which was entirely possible. She’d been on that damn plane forever, or so it felt, and all she wanted now was a cool shower, a glass of wine, and a bed that wasn’t flying thirty thousand feet in the air.
“Right. Great.” She blinked again, wondering if the soles of her shoes were melting into the tarmac yet. “Um…well, it was very nice meeting you, but I really need to–”
“This way,” the giant replied, interrupting her again as he turned, pointing the way.
Harper gritted her teeth and watched as the irritating giant moved towards a line of waiting SUVs. Surely he didn’t expect her to actually move in this heat? She had sunglasses…somewhere. Maybe. Had she packed her sunglasses? She’d been in such a rush to pack and meet that damn plane on time. Had that only been yesterday?
“Are you coming?” the giant asked, standing by the door of one of the SUVs, as if he were trying to be polite and allow her to enter the vehicle first. But that was impossible. The man had interrupted her several times already. He clearly had no manners. So, the only reason he could be waiting for her to get in first was because the SUV contained a trap. Perhaps he was kidnapping her? Maybe there was a monster inside that big, black vehicle?
“Is that thing air conditioned?” she asked, her voice sounding weaker than she would have preferred, but…seriously, this heat was overwhelming!
“Of course,” the giant replied.
She might have smiled. Or it might have been a grimace. Anything was possible at this point. “Excellent!” she sighed. “I don’t care about monsters or kidnappers, as long as that thing has relatively cool air in it,” she muttered.
Had that giant man laughed? Harper ducked into the backseat and… “Dear heaven that cold air feels good!” she sighed, dumping her heavy tote bag on the floor and leaning to the closest air vent.
Doors were slammed and the driver drove away from the airport, but Harper was too exhausted and overwhelmed to pay much attention. If she was being kidnapped, then she only hoped that her kidnappers were taking her to an air conditioned space. And if that space had a chilled glass of white wine, she’d probably kiss her kidnapper!
An hour later, the SUV pulled up to a security gate that was guarded by six men with machine guns. “Oh my!” she gasped, leaning away from the window as the guards surrounded the vehicle. “This is bad,” she whispered. “Very bad!”
The guards looked around at the vehicle, and used a mirror to check underneath. Looked around some more. One of the guards opened the door and peered in at her. He had sunglasses, the lucky bastard! But moments later, the guards pulled back and the vehicle was waved through the gates. They drove into an underground parking lot. When she looked around, there were about fifty other dark vehicles parked there. Some were SUVs, others were beautiful limousines, and still others were gloriously luxurious sports cars that probably cost more than she’d ever earn in her entire life!
Unfortunately, Harper couldn’t ogle the beautiful cars because more armed guards came forward. Should she hide? Harper had always thought she was a strong, dignified person but right now, with all those machine guns pointed towards her, she knew that dignity could easily be suppressed in deference to defense. Unfortunately, she was too slow and one of the guards opened the door. With a sigh, Harper tentatively stepped out and looked around. The garage was spacious and cool. Blessedly cool!
“Who the hell are you?”
Harper jumped at the sound of another deep, angry voice. Another giant stepped aggressively forward and Harper stepped back, wondering what she’d gotten herself into!
The second giant had beautiful, hazel eyes, even if they were glaring at her.
Fists braced against hips, he demanded, “Who are you? We were expecting a Dr. Harper Ross.”
Harper blinked. Then her temper flared. “I am Dr. Harper Ross,” she snapped, then remembered her manners and extended her hand. “And you are?” she asked with forced politeness.
For the second time today, her greeting was ignored. “You are the doctor?”
Harper gritted her teeth and tried valiantly to stifle her impatience. “Yes. I’m Doctor Harper Ross,” she repeated, struggling to remain polite. “I’m here to–”
“Oh, this is going to be great!” the second giant snickered, then turned on his heel and led the way to the elevator.
Harper glared at his back, wondering what would happen if she ‘accidently’ smacked him with her heavy tote bag. Would he crush her? Would he fight back? It might be worth it, she thought.
“Are you coming?” the giant demanded, waiting beside the now-open doors to the elevator.
“Absolutely!” she snapped. “I wouldn’t want to miss being the entertainment for the night!”
The man’s eyes widened at her sharp reply, and he threw back his head, laughing uproariously.
They were whisked up several floors, but this elevator didn’t indicate the floors they were traveling through. So she could only guess at where they were going. It might have been ten floors or two, she didn’t know and was too irritated to ask.
“This way,” the giant said, his humor banked for the moment, and the elevator doors swished opened. Once again, he stood to the side, allowing her to exit first. Strange that he used manners sometimes. When it was convenient for him? Or was there something else going on here? A cultural thing?
Oh, for an internet connection so she could research these questions, Harper thought as she was led down a long hallway. They passed several large offices and open areas where several people worked, but she had no sense of what was going on. Everyone worked with a sense of urgency, but she and her guides walked through it all towards…whatever was ahead of them. Since no one was willing to tell her anything, and she was too exhausted and exasperated to ask, she just took it all in, trying to absorb as much as she could.
“Rashid, is Amit free?”
Harper noticed the smallish man when he looked up from the computer. Actually, this Rashid-fellow, might not be small. He might be normal sized, but compared to the two giants with her…Harper acknowledged that her frame of reference might be off.
The smaller man stood and nodded obsequiously “He just got out of a meeting. He’s eager to greet Doctor Ross. Has she landed yet?”
The giant reverted back to bad manners and jerked his thumb towards Harper. “She’s here.”
The smaller man looked at Harper blankly for a long moment, then his eyes widened with surprise. “But…,” he looked at the giant, then at Harper, then at the giant again. “This can’t be Doctor Ross!”
Harper inhaled slowly, trying to calm her temper. But before she could, the heavy wooden doors to her right opened and yet another giant confronted her.
“Amit, she’s here,” Giant Number Two announced.
Giant Number Three, who was even more intimidating than Numbers One and Two, nodded curtly. “Great. Let me know when she gets here.”
Then he disappeared, only the sound of Number Two’s soft snickering lingered in the air. Oh, and a strange and completely unappreciated sensation of tingling, she thought.
“I need some sleep,” she whispered to herself, rubbing her forehead in a pointless effort to ease the raging headache.
“Go on in,” Number Two ordered her curtly. Turning to the small man, he said, “I want to hear all about how this meeting goes.” Then he was gone.
The small man’s eyes widened and he looked over at Harper. “You are the famous Doctor Harper?” he asked warily.
Harper sighed as she turned back to the man who was fidgeting nervously. Why he would be nervous was still a mystery…and the reason for the other two men’s humor, she suspected.
“I wouldn’t say I’m famous, but yes,” she confirmed for the third time. “I’m truly Doctor Harper,” she replied. “I don’t understand why this is such a shock to all of you.”
Rashid blinked, then tried unsuccessfully to suppress a smile. He gestured towards the door. “Please, go right in.”
Harper stared at the man for a moment, then looked at the door that Number Three had just closed. Then back at the small man. “Go? In there?” she asked. Her voice squeaked, nervous at the thought of entering the area where Number Three had disappeared.
“Yes. Please!” he replied, gesturing to the doorway as if he wanted to sweep her into the room.
This whole situation seemed odd and weird and just…she hadn’t slept in too long and she was overwhelmed. She’d accepted a grant from the government of Izara to study grief in small children with the stipulation that she assist some guy’s family. She’d been so excited about the offer’s possibilities as well as the outrageous grant amount to focus on the details since several others had vouched for the grant’s authenticity, but perhaps she should have asked more questions. Unfortunately, Harper suspected that it was too late to read through the fine print, suspecting that the details might have given her some clues as to what was happening here.
Taking a deep breath, she squared her shoulders and turned towards the mysterious door. “Fine,” she muttered and pushed the heavy door open, almost stomping into the office. Furious, and perhaps covering a bit of nervous tension, she walked through the door muttering, “Don’t tell me what’s going on. I love being in the dark. It’s always exciting to figure things out when I stumble over some cultural faux pas!”
By the time she was finished muttering, she was standing in a huge office. To one side was a massive desk with a huge leather chair behind it. Both of which were sitting in front of tall, arched windows. No, not windows. They looked like windows, but they were actually doors that opened into a lush courtyard filled with sunshine and flowers, even a bubbling fountain. “Oh my!” she whispered, stunned by the beauty in front of her.
“Who are you and how did you get in here?” The deep voice of Number Three interrupted her admiration of that beautiful, enticing fountain. This voice wasn’t angry or amused. This voice was…controlled. Emotionless.
Harper swung around, her temper still on edge and she took in the huge man who was…oh yes…the giant who liked to glare! How special! And how in the world could a human body grow that big? What in the world did they feed these people?
Her exhaustion allowed her to ignore the warning bells as she glared up at the huge man with intriguing, hazel eyes. She also ignored the flutter of warning in her stomach.
Straightening her spine, she bristled with irritation. “I’m Harper Ross! And before you tell me that I’m not, let me assure you that I am, in fact, exactly who I think I am. Furthermore, I’m tired. I’m hot. I haven’t showered in too long and you are the third person who has confronted me rudely!” she growled, walking towards the man with her finger pointed directly at his chest. “You might be big and scary, but I’m sick and tired of being told that I’m not me! I’m Doctor Harper Ross. But if you don’t believe me, then let me get back on that plane and I’ll go home! Because I have lots of things to do back home that don’t include giant, disbelieving, rude men who keep challenging my identity for some stupid, unexplained reason!”
By the end of her tirade, she was poking Giant Number Three in the middle of his chest and glaring up at him. Not to mention, her voice had risen with every word until she was literally yelling at him.
Taking a deep breath, she tried to calm down, but…it was quite an effort. “Why is it so hard to believe that I’m Harper Ross?” she demanded.
The man’s features didn’t move, but his oddly hazel eyes seemed to smile down at her. Smile? She’d just insulted the man, demanded to be flown home, and he was laughing at her?
“Doctor Ross,” Giant Number Three replied and his voice changed. No longer was he expressionless. Instead, his voice had gone all silky and sexy, sending shivers of awareness throughout her body, all the while, his eyes stayed…blank. Carefully blank, she thought. How could his voice infuse such a wealth of awareness while his handsome features looked…blank.
“It is a pleasure to finally meet you,” and he took the hand that had been poking his chest for emphasis, enveloping her entire hand, fingers and all, into his larger, much warmer hand. Gone was the teasing, sexy tone and, in its place was a man well schooled in the art of diplomacy. There was no expression on his features now.
“I apologize for the rudeness. We were expecting someone much older. Your reputation as a brilliant practitioner precedes you. I’m shocked to learn you are so young. You are an accomplished and prolific writer, which is why I was anticipating someone in her fifties or older.”
Her eyes widened with surprise at the sharp tingles of awareness zinging up her arm at his touch. She was also surprised that he had apologized. He didn’t seem like the kind who would. Ever! Harper’s anger immediately dissipated after such a pretty and flattering explanation and apology.
Her eyes blinked as she stared up at him. “Oh.” Now that he’d explained his response so prettily, she felt silly. Pulling back slightly, she shifted uncomfortably. Blinking again, she nodded. “Well, thank you.” That’s when she realized that her hand was still enveloped in his much larger one. “Um…that’s…” she stared at their hands. His tanned and powerful, with scars along the back. Hers softer. Paler. No scars. Not even a callus.
Slowly, her eyes lifted, drifting over strong forearms revealed by the folded back cuffs of his pristine white shirt. The shirt covered a powerful chest. The top buttons were open, showing off a bit of dark hair. Instantly, her mouth began to water. What was underneath that white shirt? Was he just as muscular underneath? And did he ever smell good! Too good! The heat outside had obviously fried her brain, because Harper had never appreciated a man’s scent before. In fact, unless they were stinky from sweat or an overabundance of cologne, she’d never spared a thought about how men smelled. And this man was definitely not stinky! He smelled…divine!
Her gaze traveled higher. Idly, her brain registered his neck, his Adam’s apple, then her eyes moved higher. Hard jaw, thin lips, and…very nice, thin lips! She swallowed, her mouth watering as her eyes lingered on those lips. Would he kiss hard? Or soft? Were those lips curling ever so slightly? Her eyes moved higher, passed his nose, which had obviously been broken at some point. And then her blue eyes clashed with his hazel ones. Beautiful hazel eyes surrounded by lush dark lashes. Men shouldn’t have such beautiful lashes, she thought a touch resentfully. But on him, they looked…right. Not pretty, but those lashes seemed to mitigate some of the harshness of his features.
It was in that moment that she realized she was staring. What in the world was she doing?!
Quickly, Harper pulled herself out of her contemplation of the man’s ridiculously long, dark lashes. “I’m sorry!” she gasped and took several steps backwards. “I’m just…I’m so tired and you’re the third person who has told me that I’m not who I am and…well,” she sighed, closing her eyes for a moment as she admitted, “it’s been a really long day.”
He crossed his arms over his chest during that explanation. “Again, I must apologize for my bad manners. You should have been shown directly to your rooms and provided refreshment. That was my fault, as I am eager for you to meet my nieces and help me discover how to help them.” He pressed a button on his desk and, a moment later, the door to his office opened.
“Rashid, please show Doctor Harper to her room. Call the chef and have him deliver food. Doctor Harper is tired and needs rest before she and I discuss the issues she’ll be working on over the next several weeks.”
Rashid bowed, then turned to Harper. “This way, Doctor Ross,” he said, gesturing politely.
“Right,” she said, and started towards the doorway. But she felt too light. Something was wrong. Looking down at herself, she noticed her clothes were a wrinkled mess. She wished that she’d taken a few moments on the plane to tidy herself up.
Her tote bag appeared within her line of sight. Looking up, she realized that the giant was holding it in front of her. “Thank you,” she whispered, reaching out nervously to take it. Those long, tanned fingers seemed innocuous, but for some reason, her mind filled with images of those fingers touching her.
Shaking her head to rid herself of the outrageously inappropriate images, she hitched the tote’s straps over her shoulder. The weight brought her back to the present and she nodded with what she hoped was a polite acknowledgement of his assistance, then turned to follow the other man out of the office.
As soon as she was outside of his range, she could breathe more easily. For several steps, she was silent, trying to shake off the weird sensation that the air was somehow calmer out here in the hallway.