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"Imagine waking up, a knife at your throat"
Since Reid Gallagher stepped into his great-aunt's parlor, Maddie had been transported to another time and place.
He leaned forward in the velvet upholstered armchair, rumpling the lace covers on each arm with his strong hands.
"It was touch and go for a while there." Humor underscored the quiet rumble of his words. "They stormed us on horseback, surrounding our camp in the dead of night, brandishing their knives and cudgels. All we could do was fumble for our weapons in the dark"
Maddie sat riveted, listening to the rugged man with the lean, deeply tanned face, sun-bleached sandy hair and thick mustache a shade darker. His words evoked a kaleidoscope of imagesa British surveying party in the midst of the lonely desert, the night air cool, the stillness broken by a band of rebels, the neigh of horses and bray of camels
"Oh, dear heavens!" Lady Haversham left off stroking her Yorkshire terrier. "Was anyone killed?"
He looked down, his tone grim. "Two, including Colonel Parker, the head of our expedition. Our men rallied immediately, of course. We sleep with our weapons near at hand, so we were able to rout the group in no time"
"My smelling salts!" Lady Haversham fanned her face. "I feel about to faint. Madeleine!" The terrier, Lilah, jumped up with a sharp bark.
Maddie hurried to her employer's side. "Hush, Lilah!"
"Do please hurry." Lady Haversham sat with her head against the antimacassar, her eyes closed, her breathing shallow.
Maddie reached for the tapestry bag that kept a host of things Lady Haversham might need at any given moment. In a second, she located the small vial and waved it under the elderly lady's nostrils.
She started at the whiff. "Oh!"
Maddie immediately withdrew the vial and fetched a small cross-stitched cushion to place behind her. At the terrier's continued barking, she took the tiny dog in her arms. "See, your mistress is perfectly fine," she crooned, petting Lilah's long, silky hair until the dog was quiet.
"That's better," Lady Haversham said. "I felt so light-headed for a moment." She reached for her pet. "Come, my darling, Mama's right here."
The russet-colored terrier settled back down on her mistress's lap. Mr. Gallagher stood beside his great-aunt's chair, anxiety etching his brow. Lady Haversham reached out a hand, which trembled slightly. His sun-browned one grasped her pale, age-spotted one like a great bird enfolding a baby bird under its wing.
"You see, my boy, how I am. I'm so glad you've come home at last." Her voice quavered while her watery blue eyes gazed up into his with relief.
Mr. Gallagher's glance shifted to Maddie, and she was struck by their light hue against his dark, weathered features, like finding a bright blue marble amidst rough burlap. She gave a hesitant smile, wishing to reassure him. If only she could tell him a week didn't go by that Lady Haversham wouldn't come near to dying in one form or another.
But Mr. Gallagher had turned his attention back to his great-aunt. "Maybe I should call your physician?"
"No, don't trouble yourself. I'll be well if I just sit quietly." She closed her eyes again, but kept her hold on her nephew's hand, her gnarled fingers clutching it as if to a lifeline.
"I worry about you, living so far away in a heathen land. I don't know what I'd do if anything happened to you. You and Vera are my only relations."
Something flickered in the tall man's eyes, as if he weren't used to having any emotional ties. "You needn't have worried. You see me here fit as always. Don't upset yourself anymore thinking of it."
Lady Haversham reopened her eyes. "I can't help it. Thank God you're back on British soil. At least this incident caused your return, for which I am grateful. I hope you are home in England for good."
"I'm back for a few weeks, at any rate." His tone betrayed no joy at the fact. "Until the two governments satisfy themselves that it's safe to continue our work."
When it appeared his aunt had recovered, Mr. Gallagher slowly disengaged his hand from hers. "The situation as it stands now is that two bands of Bedouin presently think they own the Sinai. There are continual skirmishes between the two tribes. Our British party happened to be caught in the middle of this one. The Tuara who attacked our camp wanted to make sure we were hiding no Tiyaha among us."
Lady Haversham waved away his description. "Oh, it's too confusing for me. All I know is my heart can't take the thought of you among those savages."
"Well, you needn't fear for now. The attack on our camp stopped all work while both the Egyptian and British authorities investigate things." He moved back a pace and ran a hand through his hair, leaving the thick blond strands disheveled. Maddie could hear the frustration underlying the words, and she sensed he was a man who wouldn't willingly endure enforced idleness.
Lady Haversham continued to stroke Lilah's long hair. "Well, I am thankful for that at least. Please ring for some tea, Madeleine. I'm sure we could all use some. This news has been most upsetting
." The old lady brought her lace-edged handkerchief up to her mouth and shook her head.
"Of course." Maddie headed for the bellpull.
With a last look at his aunt, Mr. Gallagher returned to his chair. "I'm sorry, Aunt Millicent. I shouldn't have been so blunt."
"It's not your fault. You haven't been back in a few years. It's understandable you didn't realize my frail condition. The least thing upsets me. It's my heart, you see. Dr. Aldwin says I mustn't have anything upset me."
"I didn't realize how
delicate you'd become since I last saw you." He gave an awkward laugh. "I've been so far from British society during that time, in the company of men, I've forgotten how to put things more gently for a lady's ears."
"Good heavens, you mustn't let yourself become uncivilized." Lady Haversham sat straighter, letting the cushion fall to the floor and causing Lilah to let out a bark. "We shall have to remedy that now you're back in London. Of course, I no longer entertain. My nerves can't take crowds. But your sister and her husband can organize things."
He leaned forward, alarm in his blue eyes. "Aunt Millicent, you know I'm not interested in attending parties"
"Nonsense. Your friends and acquaintances want to know you're back in town. It would be a disservice to deprive them of your company."
He scrubbed a large hand across his jaw, as if wanting to argue the point but afraid of upsetting his aunt further.
Maddie resumed her own seat and took up her needlepoint.
His aunt settled Lilah back down. "As I was saying, Vera will hold a few teas for you, perhaps a musicale one evening."
"I'm here only to cool my heels until the ambassador finds out what kind of trick the sultan is playing"
"I know you don't like to socialize. But your friends will be hurt if you come stealing into town like a thief in the night, no one the wiser."
"I only came back because I was forced to
Maddie wrenched her attention away from this interesting exchange when a black-clad maid with frilly white apron entered the room. Knowing exactly how Lady Haversham preferred her tea, Maddie set about pouring the older lady's cup first. But her heart couldn't help being moved by the man who so clearly felt out of his element in London. She remembered her own difficulty readjusting to England when she and her family had first returned from the Middle East.
Maddie placed the cup and saucer beside Lady Haversham and took Lilah from her. "Give her a little platter of cake."
"Yes, my lady." Maddie set the miniature dog on the carpet, knowing she'd probably have to clean up after her within the hour. As she approached Mr. Gallagher's chair, the dog following at her heels, Maddie felt a tremor of nervousness at addressing him directly. "How do you take your tea?" she inquired above Lilah's barking.
"Just one lump and a wedge of lemon, thank you." He spared Maddie only a glance then sat back, an elbow against the chair's arm, his fingers idly smoothing his mustache, his thoughts clearly elsewhere.
"Very good," she said, stifling the desire to be noticed by this man. By now she should be used to being overlooked by Lady Haversham's visitors like another piece of furniture in the room. Taking herself to task, she walked back to the tea cart. The terrier jumped onto the settee and leaned eagerly toward the loaded cart, barking her interest in its delicacies. With a grim sigh, Maddie cut her a sliver of cake and placed it on the flower-edged Limoges dessert plate. Lilah was ahead of her, already back on the ground and barking her impatience. Maddie set the treat down on the floor, where Lilah immediately began to devour it, her little body twitching in eagerness.
Maddie proceeded to pour Mr. Gallagher his cup, hoping Lilah would hold down the cake at least until their guest had departed. When she returned to him, he reached for the cup before she had a chance to set it down.
"Thank you. Perfect," he added with a smile of approval at the wedge of lemon she had set beside the cup on its saucer.
The sudden smile relieved the harshness of his features. Maddie felt a warmth steal over her. Dismayed by her own reaction, she stepped away from him. "Would you care for a slice of cake?"
"That would be fine." Again he gave her a smile, which affected her more than it should for such a brief, superficial exchange. A part of her yearned to prolong the conversation. Instead, she bowed her head and hurried back to the tea table.
She scolded herself for the pleasure it gave her to fill his request. Knowing how good her employer's appetite was, Maddie cut Lady Haversham a large slice.
Although he wore a well-tailored sack coat, vest and trousers, the light khaki material of the trousers and the lightweight tweed of his jacket gave Mr. Gallagher a much less formal look than the average man about London. The few gentlemen to visit Lady Havershamher solicitor, physician and old Reverend Steeleall wore long dark frock coats with matching vests and trousers, their somber colors seeming to a-brac suddenly appear more confined and overcrowded than usual.
Maddie drank in Mr. Gallagher's words as he described the relatively new study of how long-ago civilizations had lived their daily lives. Maddie could picture it all so clearly because she'd spent a good portion of her girlhood in the Holy Land with her missionary parents. Egypt was very close to Palestine, and Mr. Gallagher's narrative brought back memories of desert sands, swarthy people riding their camels or donkeys and bleached huts at the foothills of scrubby mountains.
As he described the harsh conditions of the dig, Maddie pictured him in wrinkled khakis and tall scuffed boots, a battered hat shading his piercing blue eyes from the sun. She'd noticed their color as soon as she'd been introduced to him, the moment he'd taken her hand in his in a strong, though brief, handshake. She judged him to be in his late thirties or early forties.
Mr. Gallagher would probably be startled at how much she already knew about him. When Lady Haversham wasn't discussing her various ailments, she boasted of her great-nephew, who had followed in his great-uncle's footsteps to become an Egyptologist and surveyor to the Crown in the lands between Africa and India.
Maddie's attention quickened when she heard Mr. Gallagher tell his great-aunt, "The Royal Egypt Fund is sponsoring the lectures. It's in their interest to promote Egyptology with the general public."
"Yes, your uncle was on the forefront of getting the government interested in the artifacts over there. You must tell me when you're to lecture, although I hardly get out anymore, you know. It was a dreadful winter. I didn't think I'd survive that attack of pleurisy. Then with my usual neuralgia, I don't know how I manage."
"My first lecture is at the end of the week."
"Oh, goodness. Well, this April weather is still much too changeable for me to venture forth."
"Of course. I wouldn't expect you to take any risks with your health."
Maddie hoped he'd say more about when and where the lecture would be.
There was a lull in the conversation, then Mr. Gallagher said, "I've brought back a mummified head."
"You haven't!" His aunt's eyes widened. "How ever did you find one?"
His fingers stroked his chin as he mused, "Sometimes it's when you stop searching for something that you find it." His glance crossed Maddie's at that moment, and she realized she'd been staring at him.
To cover her embarrassment, she blurted out, "Would you like some more tea?"
"Oh, my yes, how remiss of us," his aunt said immediately. He looked down at his cup as if he'd forgotten he'd been holding it. "Yes, that would be just the thing."
Before Maddie could rise, Mr. Gallagher stood and ambled over to the tea cart. Lilah stirred, but she only twitched her nose at the toes of his boots and didn't bark.
Maddie felt dwarfed by the man's above-average height as he paused in front of the cart. He continued his line of conversation as he held out his cup and saucer to Maddie with a smile.
"We discovered several mummy portraits dating to the Roman period. The site around the pyramid appears to be a royal burial ground."
"Your Uncle George always wanted to find some proof of this procedure, but alas, was unsuccessful."
Maddie poured the tea, hoping her hand didn't shake. Then she lifted one lump of sugar with the silver tongs and set it into the cup with a small plop, fearful the tea would splatter. All the while, she was aware of his hand holding the saucer. Strong looking, tanned, like his face, to a deep hue. Then she noticed the gold wedding band on his ring finger. Lady Haversham had told her he was a widower of many years. Maddie's heart went out to him in sympathy, thinking how he must continue to mourn his late wife, if he still wore the ring.
She discarded the used lemon slice and took a fresh one with another pair of tongs, then placed it on the edge of the saucer. There it slipped off, and as her hand flinched, trying to retrieve the lemon, he covered it for an instant with his free one.
"Steady there." A trace of humor laced his husky voice. She met his blue gaze and whispered a thank-you.
"Anytime," he murmured, before moving away from her.
She sat for the rest of his visit remembering the feel of his warm palm against her skin. Warm like the Egyptian sun.
Her mother used to say, "Your hands are always like ice." Her father would immediately reply, "Cold hands, warm heart."
Was it true? Did she have a warm heart? Sometimes, lately, she felt it squeezed dry by her employer. She shook aside the thought, reminding herself of her Christian duty to serve.
Mr. Gallagher sat back down. "I'll be featuring the mummy's head at my first lecture. It should draw a crowd."
His aunt cut into her piece of cake. "When is the lecture precisely?"
Maddie's hand stilled on her cup as she listened to his answer.