Holy hell, and I thought it was hot in Texas. Despite temperatures that soared into the hundreds the moment the orb of the sun broke over the horizon, and tuning out murmurs of conversation around him, Maddox Steele didn’t take his attention away from the show. And that was what this was. A handful of prospective buyers had come to watch, to assess, to covet and to bid on the beasts. Money would exchange hands… a great deal of money, if he was any expert, and he was. Arabian horses were known for their speed, refinement, endurance, and strong bones. Breeders bought them to have a stallion put to stud, all in the hopes of either producing a winning racing champion or to improve their own stock. God knew, with the men assembled, some would be purchased simply to earn the right to brag about besting another to secure the magnificent stallions.
Grains of sand shifted beneath his boots, the rumble growing louder, causing him to lift his head to stare across the vast Arabian Desert to see what at first appeared to be dust clouds rolling in, growing ever closer. The brim of his Stetson provided the only shade, his eyes watering a bit as heat waves shimmered across the land under the broiling sun. He was dressed in what he considered his business best, which included a sports jacket and a black button down shirt tucked into a pair of crisply starched black jeans. The gold of his belt buckle was the only color that broke the dark palette of his clothing. His feet were encased in a pair of black hand-tooled cowboy boots, their morning shine dulled by fine grains of sand, the layer growing thicker as the dust clouds grew nearer. The vibration beneath his boots grew until, finally, the source of the agitated sand drew close enough to distinguish. Dozens of horses, hooves pounding, raced across the land. Stallions of all colors blended into one mass of horseflesh, still far enough away to be indistinguishable from each other… except for one.
Maddox watched as a horse peeled away from the others, taking the lead without appearing to strain to do so. Even from a distance he could imagine the muscles bunching, the long legs churning, conquering the desert sands with seemingly incredible ease, the power in every movement undeniable. The black mane whipping in the wind was due to the animal’s speed, as not even a puff of a breeze offered any relief from the intense heat.
And, what an animal. The stallion had to be at least fifteen hands, would most likely tip the scales at half a ton, and yet despite its size, it was sleek. Beautiful. Magnificent. His attention was only diverted from the stallion when the sound of a laugh reached him. His eyes lifted from the animal’s flashing hooves to gaze upon its rider, discovering that a woman was on the horse’s back, her hands fisted in the black mane, the traditional scarf, called a hijab, flowing behind her as she lay over the animal’s neck, one with the beast, her eyes finding his with an almost teasing gleam. It was with great disappointment that he saw her guiding her mount to the left, leaving the other animals in her dust as she continued to race, only to disappear over a sand dune, the laugh wafting in the air to disappear as quickly as it had come.
“What do you think?”
“Quite a show, but it’s easy to miss a flaw when only catching a glance.”
A low bark of laughter was given, as well as a shake of a head. “Are you talking about the stallions or the rider?” Everett Forrest, a big, burly Australian, asked.
Not bothering to turn his head, Maddox gave a non-committal shrug. “Either.” He glanced to the front again. The herd had slowed, each rider pulling away from the others to prance their mount to and fro, parading before the prospective buyers, vying for the best spot to showcase the individual stallions. Horses were bobbing their heads up and down, their knees lifting high, snorting and blowing hard, cooling from the race.
When a man spoke in a British accent, making a remark about one particular black stallion, claiming the beast would be his, Maddox didn’t respond but knew that any bidder within earshot had just been given a warning. Charles Legeaux and his trophy wife—number three, if Maddox remembered correctly—were often splashed across the society pages of London’s newspapers, touted for their generous donations to any number of philanthropic endeavors. An invitation to one of their lavish parties in their home on Victoria Road in Kensington could move one up the ladder to enjoy the view or, when the post didn’t produce the exquisitely hand-crafted envelope, inform you that your standing had plummeted to the depths of hell. Though Legeaux was lauded as running one of the most successful and profitable extensive breeding programs in England, beneath that aristocratic façade lay a man who didn’t take being bested lightly. Thoroughbreds might be what was seen on his acreage outside London, or standing in the winner’s circle with a wreath of roses about their necks at one of many races, but if one dug beneath that surface they’d find illegal arms and drugs waiting to be ferried all over the world. It took a lot of money to maintain the lifestyle that Charles evidently thought he deserved and woe betide anyone who challenged that belief. Still, he’d just thrown down a gauntlet and Maddox wasn’t a man to scare so easily. That stallion would not be going anywhere near the UK if he had anything to do with it.
A man stepped to the front of the assembly. Not only the crowd, but even the horses quieted, seeming to understand the importance of his words when he began to speak. “Gentlemen, the auction will begin promptly at three o’clock. All bidders are required to submit a letter from the bank providing all routing information, as funds must be immediately ready for transfer if you are the lucky winner of one of these magnificent animals. Until then, please examine the stallions at your leisure. The riders are knowledgeable about the pedigree of their mount.”
Maddox knew the man didn’t need to remind them that each person standing on the sands had been carefully vetted before receiving an invitation to this event. It wasn’t often that outsiders, foreigners, were allowed to enter the United Arab Emirates for such a sale. These families tended to keep not only their day to day business activities close to their chests, but their prized horseflesh even closer. If there were a single man standing who couldn’t prove his solvency well into the millions, he’d eat his Stetson, ten pounds of added dust and all.
“Shall we?” Everett asked. Maddox gave a single nod and followed the man towards a beautiful horse, understanding neither would show any true interest in the black stallion… not until a paddle was lifted or a nod given to steal the animal from Legeaux, that was. It was all part of the game.
An hour later, a servant announced that refreshments were available inside at the bidders’ leisure. Maddox thought the sudden temperature change was probably capable of sending a person into cardiac arrest as he and other guests moved inside. Blasts of artificially cooled air caused the beads of perspiration on faces to chill instantly. Crystal flutes of champagne were offered on silver trays, a long, lavishly decorated table held chafing dishes displaying middle-eastern delicacies such as lamb and vegetables skewers, chicken swimming in various curry sauces… some hot enough to burn the taste buds off an unsuspecting tongue. Warm pita bread sitting beside bowls of hummus and tabbouleh beckoned, as did platters of baklava filled with dates and nuts. Maddox had little interest in the food, filling a plate without even considering the fare. His intent was to take advantage of the opportunity to mill about the room, his ears open to any conversation having to do with the upcoming auction.
In an undiscussed but orchestrated move, his father, the patriarch of The Black Stallion Ranch, moved in the opposite direction, gathering his own information. Though they’d speak about their choices, they’d only do so moments before the bidding began. Maddox and Drake both knew that theirs were not the only ears that were open. Giving almost an imperceptible nod towards Drake, Maddox strolled towards a group of men who had just accepted a third round of drinks, having moved from champagne to harder liquor two drinks earlier. With any luck, the alcohol would not only loosen the men’s tongues, the resultant conversation would draw the attention of the crowd away from his father. Lifting a piece of baklava to his mouth, Maddox chewed without even tasting, much less appreciating, the delicate crunch of the dozens of layers of flaky crust or the burst of sweet dates on his tongue as one guest slipped away from the gathering.
“So, Steele, what beautiful creature captured your attention?” Charles asked, gesturing for Maddox to join their group.
Maddox took the time to swallow and wipe his lips with a linen napkin before speaking. “Every horse has their own qualities.”
“What sort of answer is that?” a blond man asked, his accent giving away his Russian heritage. “Charles has told me you’re considered some kind of expert on horses. Surely you can do better. What ‘qualities’ come to mind when you consider the white stallion? He was quite the beast, wasn’t he? Did you see the size of his fucking cock?”
Maddox lifted his glass, having exchanged his champagne flute as well, but the liquid that slid down his throat was nothing more than ginger ale, the bubbles helping enhance the illusion that he was continuing to imbibe. He didn’t know this man and didn’t appreciate either the question or the condescending tone in which it had been asked. He shrugged and grinned. “I stopped comparing size a great many years ago.”
Everett’s laughter boomed across the room, drawing the attention that Maddox had wanted, keeping the guests entertained as they drew closer to see what was so funny. Neither Charles nor the Russian appeared amused but gave a small nod as they took another sip of their drinks. For a country that frowned upon the consumption of alcohol, private parties such as these evidently had no such limitations. Maddox spent another hour mingling with the others, offering smiles and tidbits of ambiguous information about each horse that would be purchased, keeping his true interest hidden. Catching a glimpse of his father, he placed his empty glass on a table before excusing himself. Striding down the hall, the two nodded at each other, softly whispered words exchanged in passing.
It wasn’t until he reached the end of the long hallway, heading for the bathroom that a different voice slowed his steps. An Arab man was speaking, his accent growing sharper as his words grew louder.
“The girl should have stayed in the house, out of sight. Though you’ve yet to see fit to inform your own family, you know the danger…”
“You are overreacting. I’m still not convinced that the supposed danger you imagine is anything but a figment of your imagination,” a second man said, his tone not as sharp though it was definitely patronizing. “And I’m not sure I appreciate your deception by involving Americans…”
“I know I don’t appreciate you questioning my decision. As for the danger, I promise you it is not the railings of a senile old man. At the very least, caution should be taken. She should not have been allowed to join the ride…”
“I admit it was unexpected but no harm came from it. I’ll speak to her later. If you’d paid attention, she didn’t stop until she was out of sight and was dressed appropriately. Yes, she is impulsive but she is a good girl. No one noticed.”
“You are a fool. Only a blind man wouldn’t notice that stallion.”
“See, you prove my point. It was the horse, not the rider that drew attention. These men are here to take advantage of a once in a lifetime opportunity to acquire one of our stallions.”
“Still, she is no longer a girl. She is a woman… an educated one who takes liberties that can place her in danger…”
“Not today,” the younger sounding voice countered. “Please, put this from your mind. Come, we’ve left our guests alone too long. The auction starts in just a few minutes. I assure you I have it all under control and will consider your suggestion.”
Maddox moved behind a pillar, not wanting to announce his presence in what appeared to be some sort of family disagreement. As the pair moved from the room where they’d been holding their conversation, he saw his host, his expression showing nothing of his difference of opinion with the older man who walked beside him. Once they were out of sight, Maddox visited the lavishly appointed bathroom, washing his hands. Yes, he’d noticed the stallion, but despite his host’s words, he’d definitely also noticed the stallion’s rider. Though the deep, sapphire blue abaya she’d been wearing and the matching scarf covering her head had given her the anonymity of middle-eastern women in this part of the world, he knew he’d recognize her eyes anywhere. Drying his hands, he left the bathroom and returned to the party.
* * *
“I have a bid of twenty thousand,” the auctioneer said calmly.
“Damn,” Charles said, shooting a glance around, his furrowed brow announcing his annoyance at being forced to bid higher for the black stallion. The lift of his paddle increased the bid.
“Thank you, I have twenty-two.”
Charles’s beam of victory quickly faded as the auctioneer quickly said, “Twenty-three.” The Brit scowled, not attempting to hide his glance to the right, as if ready to accuse Maddox of increasing a bid for a horse he obviously knew he had set his hat for.
Maddox simply shrugged, both hands in his jean pockets as if the outcome didn’t matter to him in the least. It wasn’t until the auctioneer began to end the bidding that Charles whipped his paddle high into the air, keeping his eyes on Steele, as if waiting to catch him yanking his own from where it was tucked inside his jacket to force him to go even higher.
“Twenty-four,” Charles said, breaking the established protocol of remaining silent during the bidding.
“I now have a bid of twenty-five thousand,” the auctioneer said, without even appearing to have glanced at the crowd.
Charles sputtered. “Who the fuck is bidding against me?” His head swiveled about but all he could do was increase his bid when unable to catch the culprit. “Twenty-six,” he bit out.
The auctioneer’s call of, “Thirty thousand,” instantly countered his bid.
Maddox’s expression revealed nothing but he knew it was over before the auctioneer gave Charles a warning that he had only a few seconds to either up his offer or admit defeat.
“Sold. Thank you, gentlemen, that concludes today’s auction. Please see Mr. Basara to arrange payment and collect your bill of sale. Transport arrangements for all animals must be made before the end of the week.”
“Did you see who won?” Charles asked, defeat written across his face as Maddox gave another shrug. “Well, at least I didn’t lose to you. I thought you were here to play.”
Before Maddox could respond, Everett nodded towards a man attired in the flowing khandoura or dishdash, a white robe that covered him from his head to his ankles, and the ghoutra, or headscarf, held in place by a black agal. “Seems like that stallion won’t be leaving the desert.”
“Damn, we shouldn’t have to bid against locals,” Charles muttered. “I came all this way for nothing!”
“Hardly nothing, that stallion will make a fine breeder, and you bought three others,” Maddox said, somewhat placating the man as he smiled and nodded. Turning, Maddox extended his hand to Everett. “Congratulations on winning the white stallion. You have a good eye.” He meant what he said and also had to wonder what happened to the Russian who had disappeared within moments of the auction’s opening gavel. Walking away, he heard Everett assuring Charles that they’d spend the next few days enjoying other pleasures.
* * *
It was time to drop the pretense. Despite it being considered the Pearl of the Gulf, Maddox knew that barely concealed beneath Dubai’s supposedly tolerant surface, there remained a deep mistrust of foreigners, as well as corruption. It was time to learn why his father had consented to travel thousands of miles from the family ranch in Glenrock, Texas, to stand on the undulating sand of Dubai. It had taken less than an hour to spend over seventy grand, and that was just for the cost of the three horses they’d purchased. Of course, for a “small” additional fee, a private plane had been “suggested” to fly the animals to the states. Small and suggested evidently had different definitions across the world, but the Steeles would take advantage of the offer. Not only would the horses be safer traveling with an experienced pilot who understood their needs, but Maddox knew that the additional payment would help ease the journey, as authorities could become quite adamant that every piece of paper was in order, with every “i” dotted and every “t” crossed before the foreigners were allowed to take what many considered yet another treasure from their country.
A half-hour later, Maddox stepped outside, where the coming evening offered a slightly less oppressive heat. He had to hand it to their host. Mr. Fadil Nazar didn’t pinch pennies when it came to his guests. Of course, the man belonged to one of the wealthiest families in the United Arab Emirates, and had just added over a million dollars to his coffers. A dozen luxury cars, each spit-shined to sparkle under the lights were lined up in front of the house, each driver waiting silently as the guests began to move to the various vehicles.
“Want to share a ride? I’m staying at the Burj al Arab Jumeriah,” Charles said.
Of course you are, Maddox thought to himself, expecting nothing less from the man who obviously had no problem flaunting his wealth. But, to his thinking, spending nothing less than twenty-five hundred dollars per night was not only a waste of money… it just plain stupid.
“No, thank you,” Maddox said. “I’m heading to bed.”
“Ah, come on, it’s early yet. I’ll buy you a drink,” Charles wheedled and then grinned. “Ah, unless, of course, you’re not planning on finding that bed empty?”
Maddox just nodded his goodbye, leaving the inebriated man’s slurred inquiry as to where he was staying unanswered as he walked down the line of cars. Thanking the driver who opened the door of a black Phantom, he ducked inside, not the least bit surprised to find the back seat of the Rolls Royce already occupied.
“The JBR, please,” Drake said, giving the shortened name of the Sheraton Jumeirah Beach Resort. Charles might be staying at the “sail” hotel, but the Steeles weren’t interested in such ostentatious frills. Maddox could walk out of his room and take a stroll along the beach in relative privacy without thousands of tourists milling and gawking about. Settling back against the luxurious leather of the seat, he stretched his legs out as far as possible and said nothing as his father removed the white robe and headscarf to reveal himself dressed in similar clothing to his son. Placing the garments in his briefcase that held the bills of sales, he clicked it shut and gave Maddox a grin.
“Well done, son.”
“Back at you, Pops. I’m not sure what I enjoyed the most; securing some incredible stallions or watching Legeaux turn purple when you bested him,” Maddox said before turning his gaze out the window to watch the sand dunes gradually falling away as the car made its way into the city. Less than fifty years earlier, the dunes would have continued unimpeded down to the sea, but now, skyscrapers soared, malls beckoned with every imaginable item offered for sale, and cars vied for space, horns constantly blaring. The day’s heat kept most tourists inside the lavish hotels, malls, and restaurants where air conditioning blasted, or lying on the pristine beaches, basking in the sun mindless of the risk of skin cancer. With the growing twilight, tourists would pour out of the hotels to slip into bars and clubs and, if they were lucky, they’d only encounter native inhabitants willing to turn a blind eye to such activities in favor of the almighty dollar and the façade of modernity and tolerance.
The car turned onto Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Blvd and soon the fountains at the base of the tallest building in the world came into view. Maddox knew that if he opened his window, he’d hear music, the combination of notes and spray choreographed into a dance. The Burj Khalifa rose 163 stories into the air and attracted thousands of tourists every year. The traffic reminded him of that clogging the streets in cities such as Los Angeles or New York back home. Though neither his head nor his father’s seemed to swivel, their eyes roamed over the city that had sprung from the sands. Maddox knew that not a single thing was being missed… both men well acquainted with appearing disinterested while their eyes took notice of everything, their ears listened, and their minds filed every detail into neat little folders just waiting to be opened and perused when needed.
Once inside their suite, Maddox removed his Stetson, sending it sailing to land on his bed, calling out, “Pops, I’m gonna shower.”
“Make it quick,” Drake said. “We’ve got a lot to go over before we go to dinner.”
It took less than ten minutes to wash away what Maddox was willing to bet was five pounds of sand. Wrapping a towel around his waist, he swiped at the foggy mirror and grimaced. His eyes still felt gritty from a combination of sand, sun, and simple exhaustion. He hadn’t been lying. At thirty-three, he wasn’t as young as he’d been the last time he was in the godforsaken Middle East and he really could use a nap… say one about eight hours long. Still, as he shaved, he had to admit the conditions now far outshone those when he’d been a soldier. Not even officers had often enjoyed hot showers and soft beds. No, it wasn’t unusual to go for days without seeing enough water to dip a toe into and he’d learned to practically sleep where he stood… and only after looking for seemingly innocent objects that could explode at any moment.
Toweling his black hair dry, he left the bathroom to find his father had already completed his own shower and dressed in a fresh suit.
“You going somewhere?” Maddox asked, sitting down on a chair, giving a pointed look at the safe where Drake had just returned a piece of technology they called the bug zapper. “I thought we were going to talk.”
“We are, but then we are going to the Atlantis Palm Resort for a nice, relaxing dinner.”
Maddox groaned. “Don’t know how relaxing it can be with a bunch of gawking tourists. How about we just order room service?”
Drake shook his head. “Sorry, we’ve got additional reconnaissance to do before tomorrow.” As his son stood, dropped his towel and strode across the floor to his room, totally unconcerned with his nudity, Drake answered the door and accepted a tray from a hotel employee. By the time Maddox pulled on his pants and shirt, Drake had poured him a drink, the amber color drawing his son’s eye as he accepted the tumbler of whiskey.
“So, besides buying some incredible horses, why exactly are we here?” Maddox asked, dropping into one of the chairs before the window.
“Paying an old debt,” Drake said, standing before the same windows and looking out across the Persian Gulf.
Maddox met his father’s eyes in the reflection of the glass. “How old?”
“Twenty years,” Drake said.
Those two words were all it took for Maddox’s hand to pause in lifting the glass to his lips. After a moment, he pushed the memories of two decades aside and simply nodded, accepting that the older man knew exactly what he was doing and knowing that no matter what was asked, he’d obey without a moment’s hesitation. “Tell me,” he said, taking a sip of his drink.
Drake took the adjacent chair and did just that.