2001 Allie McCormack





CASTLES IN THE SAND

by

Allie McCormack


Chapter 1


Bennett ground his teeth in impotent fury as he stared out the window. It wasn't fair. The familiar litany burned into his soul. He should be the ones at the controls, reading the instruments, contacting local airports for weather conditions and air traffic. This jet was his... it was his child, his love. He should be piloting her; not sitting back here, all but chained to this wretched wheelchair, metal braces clutching his legs, his left arm hanging useless in its sling.

Far below, the usual checkerboard of midwestern farmlands was buried under a heavy winter snow, nothing but gleaming white stretching into the horizon. The sleek silver wings tilted as the pilot banked to the right, northward to avoid a low pressure system moving across the Texas plains. Bitterness gnawed at him, and a helpless anger.

It was over for him. He might, one day, be able to fly this little sweetheart again. But his hopes, his dreams, had been destroyed as swiftly and as surely as the right side of his face when that land mine had exploded. He would never again pilot a fighter jet in the Royal Saudi Air Force. The nearest he would ever come to the space shuttle would be, if he were very lucky, as an observer at Nassau. And it was still possible that he would never fly again, ever.

Brooding, Bennett considered the ground far below. Not for the first time since the jet had left Riyadh, he wondered what it would be like to just step out the door. He'd heard that in a long fall, the heart would have stopped beating before one hit the ground.

There was an old film he'd seen in his freshman literature class in college, he suddenly remembered. Set in the Civil War era, it was about a man who was being hung from a bridge. The rope had broken, though, and the man plunged into the water below. He'd surfaced far down the river, gasping for air, with bullets exploding the water as the soldiers on the bridge fired at him. The man swam downriver and reached the shore, taking to the trees. Frantically he ran through the forest, evading his pursuers. He came at last to a house, a gracious manor. Bennett thought perhaps it was the man's home. A woman came from the house, beautiful, and overjoyed to see him. He ran towards her, into her outstretched arms. And then he'd hit the end of the noose there over the edge of the bridge, and had died.

Would it be like that, Bennett wondered? A beautiful, wonderful fantasy for those last moments? Or would it be an endless agony of regret once the irrevocable course had been set? Relief that it was over? Or just... nothing?

No matter. He would never shame his family in such a manner. The Al Mansours were strong and proud, never showing weakness. They met their problems head on, and never swerved from their goal.

Bennett closed his eyes, feeling the stiff, heavy collar around his neck like a yoke. He had never felt so helpless in his life. He'd always had a goal, ever since he could remember. Every careful effort, every conscious decision almost since he could walk had been made with deliberate purpose. To fly. It was all he had ever wanted in life. And in one brief moment, that ambition had been snatched away, forever beyond his reach. What was he to do now?

"Bennett?"

Cool fingers clasped his hand as it lay clenched on the arm of his wheelchair. Elyse, his mother. She'd scarcely left his bedside during his long hospitalization. Opening his eyes, he found her watching him with concern, her green eyes so like his own. Of all her children, he resembled her the most. She squeezed his hand gently now.

"Bennett, it's not the end of the world."

He turned his head away, to gaze out the window again. "Isn't it?"

He knew that his reply hurt her, but he couldn't pretend things were fine. He had lost control of his life, and was no closer to regaining it than the day he'd awoken in a hospital bed six months earlier. And now... now he was on his way to California, to live with his brother, Khalid, while he went through rehab. Khalid, who had recently married.

His eldest brother by some twelve years, Khalid was a powerful force in the Al Mansour family. Bennett had always looked up to him, depended on his wisdom, his strength. He still couldn't believe that Khalid had allowed himself to be caught by some blonde bimbo... a belly dancer, by Allah... in some kind of nightclub. Because of her, Bennett's brother had accepted a position as Arabic literature chair at the University of California in Santa Barbara. Because of her, Khalid would remain in the States. Bennett hated her.

And now he was going to go live with Khalid and the little gold digger. He wondered how she'd feel about that. Maybe, he thought... just maybe there was a chance he could rescue Khalid from this entanglement. If he could open his brother's eyes to her true nature, make him see what she really was, Khalid would divorce her and return to Riyadh, where he belonged.

Yes, Bennett thought with satisfaction. That was a good plan. Something that would give him a purpose for now.

*****

 

There were only three people waiting on the tarmac as the jet taxi'd to a halt near the small, two-story terminal in the small coastal town. Near the Spanish-style building with its red tiled roof stood a gleaming blue van. Trust Khalid to figure a way to bring a private vehicle within the strictly guarded gates of the airfield, Bennett thought wryly.

There were two women flanking his older brother. The blonde would be Sarah, of course. The gold digger. Since Elyse had told him that Sarah had no brothers or sisters, he had no idea who the petite redhead was. The setting sun glinted off her short, flaming curls and he had the quick impression of a piquant, lively face. With a wrench Bennett tore his gaze from her. It didn't matter who or what she was. Nothing mattered anymore.

"Bennett."

The deep firm voice was the same as always. Khalid stood framed in the light, his solid bulk filling the narrow doorway.




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