Read an Excerpt
The Nubian Desert, Upper Egypt
The sound of thundering hoof beats came just split seconds before a half-dozen Bedouin riders burst around the far corner of the temple ruins.
Gemma Haliday leaped to her feet in alarm, the papers in her lap scattering around her like snow in the desert. She'd been sitting on a blanket in a sliver of shade next to the crumbling Temple of Sekhmet, quietly working on her current transcription, this one of a local vampire legend.
The camels bore down on her, hell-bent with tassels flying, riders urging them on in loud shouts.
"Joss!" Gemma screamed to her older sister, who was sketching hieroglyphic inscriptions on the other side of the temple wall.
"Already here," Josslyn said right behind her, accompanied by the welcome sound of a shotgun being locked and loaded.
The beasts coming at them were huge, yet stopped on a dime at their masters' command, forming a snorting, braying semicircle around the two sisters. She and Joss were trapped, a tumble of massive stone blocks cutting off any possibility of retreat.
The riders were dressed in the traditional garb of nomad warriorsblack trousers, black boots, billowing black bisht cloaks over tunics crisscrossed by leather weapons belts and straps, curved scimitars at their sides, flowing black turbans covering their heads and faces. The kind of outfits you hardly ever saw anymore, other than in pictures in museums.
The men themselves were huge, too. And they looked mean. Unsmiling. Like they meant business. Especially the guy in the middle. He sat tall in the saddle, his shoulders broad, his features arrogant. And he was staring right at Gemma.
Her pulse went into hyperspace. Her usually loose tongue forgot how to move. Along with her feet.
Stories of kidnapped women and ruthless slave traders ripped through her mind. Oh. My. God.
Joss stepped forward so they stood shoulder to shoulder, the shotgun pointed at the ground but visible and at the ready. Josslyn was the oldest sister and always took charge in a crisis. Thank God. Gemma was more of a negotiator. Somehow she didn't think that was an option here.
"What do you want?" Joss asked the middle rider who seemed to be in command, using her firmest we-may-be-women-but-we-won't-take-any-of-your-male-chauvanist-bullshit voice.
The man didn't answer. Nor did his sharp black eyes stray from Gemma. They swept down her body, then back up, to drill her with a deep, penetrating stare.
She felt herself blush under the power of it. The look was blatant, unapologetic.and sexual. Like he was stripping her naked and laying her bare by the sheer force of his regard.
Unbidden and unwanted, a zing of response clenched low in her belly and tightened her nipples. The man was terrifying but, she had to admit, sexy as hell. The kind of savage, untamed man who came to a woman in her deepest, darkest erotic fantasies.
At some silent signal, the man's camel dropped to its knees and he swooped down from it, landing on his feet in a flurry of dust and billowing cloak.
Joss raised her shotgun. "What do you want?" she repeated, louder, switching to Arabic.
Gemma's heart pounded like crazy.
Wordlessly, the man advanced on Gemma as though he didn't even see the weapon, which was impossible to miss because Joss put it to her shoulder and took aim right between his black eyes.
The good news was that the other riders didn't move an inch. The bad news was that Gemma couldn't either. She stood rooted to the spot, her feet like lead weights, her heart beating in her throat like a bird caught in a net. And still the man advanced on her.
"Stop. Now. Or I'll shoot," Josslyn ordered him sharply. She aimed the gun over his men's heads and started to pull the trigger. Without missing a step, the leader raised a hand and flicked the air as though brushing aside an insect. The gun made a clicking noise. Joss cursed.
With the same hand, he then reached under his robes and withdrew something. Gemma gasped, expecting a weapona pistol or a knife, or even a hypodermic needle.
It was an envelope.
She blinked in surprise.
He stopped in front of her. There was nowhere to run. He was tall. Muscular. Hard. Too big. Too powerful. Too close. He was so close that when his eyes captured hers, she could see there was a ring of gold between the black of his pupils and equally black irises. Predator eyes.
She could smell his bodymusky with the heat and the dust of the Egyptian desert, and spicy from some exotic oil of the kind men usually wore to please a woman. Before she could stop herself, her nostrils flared and she drew in a lungful of his arousing scent. His gaze snapped down to her nose. Then lower, to her lips as they quivered slightly.
Something brushed over her skin, hot and electric. Like an invisible wave of energy emanating from his powerful body. Or from that piercing gaze. The earth trembled under her feet, subtly, like a small temblor. Or maybe it was just her knees shaking.
She swallowed. Transfixed.
He reached out, grasped her hand and placed the envelope in it. "A note, from your sister," he murmured in perfect English.
She grasped the stiff square of parchment, the shock of his words rendering her even more speechless.
With one last, bone-shivering sweep of his eyes over her body, the man turned on a boot, strode back to his camel and swooped up onto it. In less time than it took to realize he was leaving, the animal had risen again, and the riders had thundered away, leaving nothing but a storm of dust in their wake.
When the cloud lifted, they had vanished completely.
Stunned, she and Josslyn stared for a long moment at the empty space where they'd disappeared.
"What the hell was that?" Joss asked, eyes wide.
Gemma shook her head slowly. "Wow. He was "
"Really pushing his luck," Joss muttered, lifting her shotgun to examine it. "I can't believe it misfired " She broke it open and checked the cartridges, frowned, snapped it shut and fired off a round harmlessly into a nearby hillock. The blast echoed off the gebel behind the temple.
Gemma jumped. "Would you put that thing away! They might think we're shooting at them!"
Joss glanced up at the cliffs where they'd disappeared. "Somehow I don't think they're too worried about us."
Gemma followed her gaze and shivered, half-terrified the man and his mysterious riders would return.
Half wishing he would
"Who do you think they were?" Josslyn asked thoughtfully. "Didn't seem like locals. Not even the usual nomad types. Have you ever run into anyone who looked like them on your ethnographic interviews?"
Gemma was a cultural anthropologist, an ethnographer, assistant professor at Duke University specializing in the bounty of traditional stories, myth and lore found here in this remote area on the west bank of the Nile, a bit north of the first Egyptian cataract. Josslyn was an archaeologist with the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada. Her current project was studying the hieroglyphic inscriptions of the Sekhmet temple they were standing in front of.
"Not unless you count Sheikh Shahin and his death warriors," Gemma answered, her voice tightening inexplicably on the notorious name. The villages in this area were rife with legends of his deadly exploits. And his lethal charm.
"Death warriors?" Joss's eyes bugged out, then rolled in comprehension. "Ah, you mean the evil shape-shifters the village women tell their kids about, to keep them from wandering into the desert and getting eaten by jackals. Yeah, call me crazy, but I don't think that was them."
Gemma wasn't so sure. She didn't exactly believe all the stories and legends she listened to the local village women tell, faithfully transcribing them word for word for posterity. But she did believe there were things out here that one couldn't explain. Egypt was a land of mystery and contradiction, the ancient blending with the modern in a way that defied logic or reasonable interpretation. She didn't even try. She just kept her mind open about what she saw and heard, and knew she'd be forever fascinated by the country.
And by that man, too. Oh. My. God. She'd never seen such a toe-curling exemplar of drool-worthy masculinity in her life.
"Oh, please," Joss said, spotting the speculative look on her face. "Please tell me you don't think we just met this death sheikh guy. You know it's just a story, Gem. He doesn't actually exist."
"I know. But damn, there was something about him . Something mysterious and very attractive." She shot her a sinister grin.
"No. Very dangerous," Josslyn corrected firmly. "Don't even think about going there, little sister. Look at what happened to Gillian. One eyeful of a mysterious stranger and she takes off with him, without a word to anyone. God knows where she is or what she's doing."
Gemma shook off her crazy feelings and looked down at the envelope in her hand. "Oh, I have a pretty good idea what she's doing," she drawled, earning an amused eye-roll from Joss.
"Jealous? " Joss teased.
Gemma made a face at her sister. "Get real." Though honestly? A little part of her might envy Gillian. Love had always been illusory for Gemma. Everyone kept telling her she just hadn't met the right man. Whatever. "Anyway, maybe this note will tell us where she is. I sure hope so."
Their baby sister Gillian had disappeared over a week ago after phoning to tell them she'd met an incredible man and decided to stay with him for a while at his nearby estate. As yet they hadn't started to worryshe was an adult after allbut it was good to hear from her.
Albeit in the most bizarre method of communication imaginable.
Gemma tore open the envelope and read aloud.
My Dear Loving Sisters,
I hope this note finds you well and happy. OMG! I'm in love! He is a wonderful man who has already given me the stars and the moon. There is talk of a wedding soon. Be thrilled for me!
Incredible newsour beloved mother may still be alive. I am following every clue to find out the truth about her disappearance. Speaking of which, don't worry, I have not disappeared.
Am spending time with my new man and playing detective. I promise to be in touch soon. Love and hugs, Jelly Bean
Gemma blinked. Frowned. And felt suddenly unsteady on her feet.
"What?" Josslyn grabbed the note from her and read it silently again. Her face was a portrait of incredulity. Gemma swayed toward the nearest sandstone temple block and abruptly sat down on it. Stars? Wedding?
And Isobelle Haliday was alive ?
The three sisters had practically grown up in Egypt, traveling first with both their parents, then later with just their Egyptologist father as he threw himself into his work, pursuing his dark demons after their mother's abrupt disappearance twenty years ago. She had vanished not far from here, and after ten years missing had been declared dead. Her father had refused to accept it. He had returned obsessively to search for her, season after season, year after year, eventually abandoning their South Side Chicago home for good. Until one day he chose to walk away from his life, from his daughters, and disappeared into the burning desert to be forever close to the woman he'd loved too much to get past her loss.