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EL GOLEA, SAHARA DESERT, AUGUST 1818
Fear drained away as he watched her from underneath his lashes. One long gold-painted nail beckoned to him. She lay draped across the chaise. The blood-red silks that hung from her shoulders were fastened only with a girdle of twined gold at her waist. Outside, the wind began to wail. Sand shushed against the walls of the tent. The scent of cinnamon and something else he could not name suffused the hot, dry air inside. In the dim light her skin glowed with perspiration and the very air vibrated with her vitality. Under the almost transparent fabric her nipples were clearly visible. He did not want to respond to her. But his swelling need surged over him.
“Come,” she said. He could lose himself in those black eyes, lined with kohl.
He staggered to his feet. His naked body was still damp from bathing in the muddy pool of the oasis. His shoulder bled, as well as his thigh. She would like that.
She pointed to a place at her side. He dropped to his knees again. He knew what she wanted, and suddenly he wanted to give it to her more than he had ever wanted anything in his life. He lifted his mouth as she bent her head. Her breasts hung forward, tantalizing. Her lips were soft against his. He kissed her hungrily. Some part of him knew his danger, but the throbbing in his loins cycled up until he was lost.
As she reached for him her eyes began to glow red, blood-red like her silks.
Whispering and low moaning woke him from the nightmare. His veins and arteries carried pain to every fiber of his body. The moaning was his own. “Do it now,” someone whispered in Arabic. He cracked one eye. Light stabbed him. A cluster of men in burnooses hovered over him. The open door silhouetted them in excruciating radiance. Light gleamed on a raised sword. He was too weak, too dispirited, to resist death. He could only clench his eyes shut.
Chaos! Shouting! “What are you doing, man?” someone yelled. “Jenks! Kiley!”
He cowered away from the light, trembling.
“Let him finish it,” an Arab hissed, in English now. “This one is bad. He has the scars.”
“No one will be killed here. This soil is England!” the Englishman roared.
Boot heels clattered. He chanced opening his eyelids a crack. The light was cut by a crowd of bodies in the door. They wore uniforms.
“Escort these men from the compound.” The sword clattered to the ground. The Arabs were hustled out. The Englishman came to stand over him as the door swung mercifully shut. “Why do they bother? He’ll die soon anyway.”
“Pray to your God he does die, Excellency,” the single remaining Arab whispered. The voices were growing indistinct. “And I will pray to Allah.”
The room wavered. Death, he thought. Is that even possible for one such as I?
The Englishman reached forward. “What’s this?”
The leather pouch at his neck jerked. The thong gave way. Darkness ate at the edges of his vision. He heard the gasp as they saw the contents of the pouch.
“Who are you, my friend?”
He could not answer. The darkness was winning. The room dimmed.
“Post a guard. Make sure he’s English.” He heard it from a distance.
SAHARA DESERT, BI’ER TAGHIERI, SEPTEMBER 1818
Elizabeth Rochewell gazed around the tiny room: whitewashed walls, a dark wood dresser carved in the native style she found clumsy and dear at once, the bed covered with her own counterpane. How many rooms in how many towns strewn across the Levant and North Africa just like this had she seen since she joined her father on his expeditions? Fifty? Blended together, they represented the only home she had known, the only place she felt comfortable.
She leaned over to draw the black lace mantilla off the bed by one corner. She had never thought to use this souvenir of Barcelona in such a manner. Indeed, she had expected none of this. The pillar that had crumbled after forty-five hundred years, give or take, tore her father from her so suddenly, so unfairly, she was stunned. It could not be an act of God, for what God could be cruel enough to kill a man at forty-eight, still a very healthy specimen?
The spotted mirror above the dresser showed eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep as she placed the mantilla. That she couldn’t help. She had not slept for more than a few minutes at a time since the awful event. She couldn’t help the face, either. She got it from her Egyptian mother. Her wide-set eyes were neither gold nor green but something in between. Her mouth was too wide for beauty, and her complexion could only be considered brown. Her dark hair was braided and coiled around her head, the only way she could manage it without crimping irons to tame its curls. Even so, escaping tendrils frothed about her face. Then there was her figure. She might be well formed enough, but she was short. There were just no two ways about it. Her father said her mother was the most beautiful woman he had ever met and that Beth looked very like her. He must have been blinded by love. She would never be attractive to anyone in England or Africa. There she was too Egyptian; here she was too British.
At least she was useful. Beth had spent all her adult life helping her father catalog the history of mankind in the physical traces of ancient times left behind. After a disastrous experience at Crofts School for Girls, she had escaped to join her father. It was she who organized her father’s expeditions, she who translated from the ancient texts the clues that guided them on their quest for the lost sister city of Petra. She studied the aging of stones to date their finds. She had found a place at her father’s side. In Africa, people thought of her as some strange creature, not quite woman. She existed beyond conventions.
But that existence might have disappeared with her father’s death. She pulled the mantilla over her braids. She did not own a black dress, but a round-necked gray cambric gown with a single black ribbon at the throat would do. She could hardly believe she was getting ready for her father’s funeral. He may have been an unconventional parent, but he had loved her as much as she loved him. He was her best friend, her confidant, her professional mentor, and the sole support of a life she loved. What would she do without him?
A bluff knock sounded downstairs. She heard the door open quietly on leather hinges, the small man who owned this apartment salute the guest.
“Monsieur L’Bareaux,” she greeted him in the tiny parlor next to her sleeping quarters.
He was a large man, her father’s partner on the last three expeditions. Monsieur L’Bareaux’s mustache was black and expressive, his kindly eyes an indeterminate gray that could go hard when bargaining. That he was French might surprise, since France and England were incessantly at war. But out here, wars were subordinate to the lure of antiquities. It was the French who, initially armed with money from Napoleon, had swept across the Mediterranean looking for traces of human dynasties long dead. It was a Frenchman, Monsieur Broussard, who had discovered the city of Petra in Palestine six years ago.
Monsieur L’Bareaux was more interested in salability than historical significance. But Monsieur L’Bareaux’s way coincided with her father’s dream. As Edwin Rochewell and his daughter trekked about North Africa looking for the lost city of Kivala, they cataloged one wonderful repository of antiquities after another, leaving Monsieur L’Bareaux plenty of opportunity to send back treasures to his dealers in Paris and provide enough money to help fund the next expedition.
“Do you bear up, Mademoiselle Beth?” His grave gaze roved over her.
“Yes.” Was that true? Beth had not yet been able to cry for her father. She could not yet even comprehend his death. Did that mean she was “bearing up”?
“That’s a good girl.” Monsieur L’Bareaux patted her shoulder. “You are tres fortissant.”
“You really want to know whether I’m ready,” Beth returned in the forthright way that disconcerted so many people in England. “I am.”
Monsieur L’Bareaux opened the door and she plodded down the stairs. She mustn’t think about the fact that she was burying her father today. She must think about how to get what she needed from Monsieur L’Bareaux. It was the only way to carry on her father’s dream. It was the only way to preserve the only existence she knew.
The nightmares receded. He was awake, but he didn’t open his eyes. Something had changed. The burning pain in his veins was gone. In fact, he felt . . . strong, stronger than he had ever been. Blood pulsed through his arteries. His heart thumped a rhythm in his chest. His senses assaulted him. Linen rasped over his bare skin from a light coverlet. The aroma of beef and onions cooking in olive oil was obvious, as was the jasmine. But dust, the faintest of scented oils, perhaps used long ago, and the smell of leather lurked just under the cooking. How could he smell those things? There was a joyful quality to the surging of his blood. He thrust it away. She told him she felt that way when she fed, just to torment him.
Despair fought with the joy thrumming inside him. He wasn’t going to die. Now he might truly be damned—or worse, he might be Satan himself. Had he become like her?
A doctor. He needed an English doctor. A frightened Arab goatherd had said there were Englishmen at El Golea. Had he made it to his goal? He remembered English voices.
He opened his eyes. It was the room he remembered from his delirium. Slats of sunlight coming through the shutters burned him. He dragged himself from his bed, stumbling to the window. He held himself up by the sill and scraped his fist along the slats to shut them. The wood broke with a crack. Light stabbed through the shattered shutters. He cried out and groped for the curtains hanging to each side of the embrasure. The room was cast into dimness. Even in the darkness he could see every detail of cracked plaster, every dart of a cockroach. Slowly, he sank to the floor, his back pressed against the plaster. How had he broken those shutters?
Booted feet thudded outside. The wooden door set in a border of blue-figured tiles creaked open. He was grateful for the huge form that blocked most of the light. He shielded his eyes. “Light,” he croaked in a voice he did not recognize. “No light.”
“Sorry,” the figure said in English with a soft reminder of Yorkshire at the edges. It was the voice from his fever. The door closed. “You must have had enough of sun.”
Now that the room was dim, he could see the figure for what it was. The face was English through and through, with slightly protuberant pale blue eyes, a prominent nose, and a chin that could have used a bit more strength. Still the man would be considered handsome. He wore the uniform of the Seventh Cavalry. How long since he had seen boots? The man had eaten eggs and dates and toast with orange marmalade for breakfast. Once he would never have known that. Now the fact that he could smell it frightened him. He could not let this Englishman know what he was, or the man would never help him to an English doctor.
“Yes,” he croaked, because the man expected something. The pale blue eyes examined him. He looked down. He was naked. What did the officer stare at? The scars. Did they reveal him? The marks of the whip said he had been a slave. But the twin circles all over his body? He hoped to God no one knew what those meant. Of course, God had nothing to do with him now.
The officer leaned down and helped him to his bed. He collapsed against the slatted headboard. “Major Vernon Ware,” the man said as he sat on the side of the bed. “Attached to the English legation at El Golea. We found you in the streets about a week ago. And you are?”
There might be a thousand answers to that, none of them good. But this Major wanted something simple . . . a name. “Ian George Angleston Rufford.” He hadn’t thought of himself by that name in more than two years.
“Rufford?” The Major peered at him. “I knocked about London with Rufford Primus. You must be his younger brother.” He held out a long-fingered hand.
Ian did not take it. He was not sure he dared. “Third son,” he said. “My brother is Lord Stanbridge now.” His brother a Viscount. It sounded so . . . normal. Even if you were poor, your estates encumbered, and your wife a bore . . . it didn’t matter. You knew who you were.
The Major’s eyes lit with memory. “Your brother said you stripped to advantage at Jackson’s. Won a pony on you.”
Had he ever been the careless rake who boxed at Jackson’s? That man was gone now.
“I’ll have one of the lads bring you some broth,” the Major said. “You’ll be back to beef and claret soon, but you’d better take it slow. We didn’t think you were going to make it. You . . . you must have had a hard time of it.”
Ian nodded. If he knew how hard, the Major would despise him. His feeling of euphoric strength faded. He was tired. But the goal that had burned in him as he dragged himself over uncounted miles of sand pushed him to speak. “I need an English doctor.”
The Major stood, looming over him, and pulled up the linen sheet. “No English doctor within six hundred miles of here. Rest now. We’ll find you clothes. I kept your belongings.”
Ian was puzzled. Belongings? Nothing had belonged to him for a long time.
“I threw the water skin away. Something had rotted inside it.” Ian started. The water skin held damnation. “But the little pouch you had hanging around your neck is safe with me.”
Ahhh. The diamonds. The diamonds were his way back to England. After a doctor cured him he would wager at White’s and be fitted for a hat at Locke’s and canter about Hyde Park at five of the clock like everyone else with nothing better to occupy them.
The room swam. The Major saw his weakness and withdrew. Ian did not have to be like her. And he would not submit himself to a woman again, ever. Someday the horror in the desert would be only an occasional nightmare. As his eyes closed, images of London filled him.
The patch of ragged grass was a tattered camouflage for the sand beneath. The hiss of sand being shoveled in on top of the coffin whispered that this was a foreign grave in a foreign place. With his dirty collar and slurring words, the priest was still the best the Christian God had in these climes. There was only a wooden cross to place at her father’s grave. The stone would come in three weeks, if the stonemason did not get distracted by another job or go to stay with his cousins unexpectedly. That was the way of the world in these parts.
She turned away from the grave, still dry-eyed and empty, along with Monsieur L’Bareaux, several Arabs who had been with her father for years in one capacity or another, and the disheveled Italian who traded with them for supplies. It was a small enough group that dispersed into the rising heat of the late morning.
Monsieur handed her back up into the cart and sat heavily beside her. He snapped the reins over the donkey’s back. They plodded toward the blockish outline of the village. The heat, settling over her mantilla and her cambric dress, was stifling.
She was alone in the world. Her father was gone. Her mother had died giving her life. She was an only child, just as her mother was—unusual in her mother’s native land. There was only her father’s sister, Lady Cecelia Rangle in London. Beth had met her only half a dozen times. She could not go back to England. She did not belong there. She belonged here, in Africa, carrying on her father’s dream. Monsieur L’Bareaux held the key, she knew. She had resolved only this morning to accost him, and yet now she could not speak.
It was Monsieur L’Bareaux who finally cleared his throat. “Mademoiselle Beth,” he began, not looking at her. “It is perhaps time we talked of you.”
She took a breath and recruited her resources. He had made the first sally. It was now or never. The only tactic likely to prevail was a hit direct. “I could not agree more, monsieur. Once we have seen that Imam in Tunis, I will be able to map our course for Kivala.”
Monsieur L’Bareaux pulled at his collar. It wasn’t because of the heat. “I signed the contract with Revelle, petite. He will pay well for excavating the ancient kasbah at Qued Zem.”
“But we have caught the scent of the Lost City now; I know it!” Her voice rose with her anxiety. She couldn’t lose Monsieur L’Bareaux’s support at the outset. “The old man’s directions corroborate the text on that stylus outside Cairo, if one revises Robard’s clumsy translation.”
Monsieur L’Bareaux glanced down at her. His bushy brows, now drawn together, had long since stopped seeming fierce. His sympathy made her shrivel. “I have not the doubts that you are right, petite. But the francs say I must excavate Qued Zem.”
Beth stared straight ahead. She must not let the fear into her voice. “Well, if it must be Qued Zem, it must. We can be ready in a fortnight.” Perhaps the bluff Frenchman would not hear that little quaver. If she had to make the final sacrifice, he could not know that she was afraid.
There was a long pause. She dared not look at him. Perhaps he would just acquiesce. Or maybe he was only thinking how to break the bad news.
“You cannot stay here, petite.” He said it softly but with finality. “It is not proper.”
“Did my father care for propriety?” She shook her head. “If it comes to that, I took more care of him than he of me.”
“Who will organize everything, and who will translate texts for you? You know you read the Coptic very badly and you have no hieroglyphs at all.”
He rubbed his mustaches with one hand. “I have engaged a foreman. We shall do without a scholar. We are just digging trinkets, you know.
“But why must you do without? What has changed?”
“Before, you had him. Whether he was watchful or no, the men knew that you were to be treated with respect. It would be different now.” She could see he was sorry to have to explain this to her. The donkey plodded on under the blue dome of sky toward the village wall. They joined the main road, clogged with the commerce of the desert. Men hunched under lumpy nets of cheese and baskets of dates. Women carried fowl in crates.
“Even if I engaged a chaperone?”
“What woman would trek across the desert for months at a time?” He shook his head.
“A Bedouin woman or a Berber,” she answered promptly.
“That would bring neither propriety nor protection.”
“You could give me protection, Monsieur L’Bareaux.” Her voice was small, but it was steady.
“Assez,” he continued, “I have made the arrangements for you to have full escort on the next caravan to Tripoli. Lord Metherton, he knew your father. Already I have written that he should have a kindness for you, and see that you get back to England safely.”