“Good Heavens, you’re a woman.”
Alexandra Talbot bit back the tart reply threatening to spring from her mouth. The man might resemble a toad, but at least he wasn’t blind. He’d realized right away that she was a woman. She tightened her jaw before she forced a smile to her lips.
“Could you please tell Lord Merrick I’m here? He’s expecting me.”
“But he’s expecting Alex Talbot.”
“I’m Alex Talbot.”
“Well, I…there must be some mistake. Lord Merrick is definitely not expecting a female.”
“I’m sorry, Mr.— What did you say your name was?”
She nodded. “Mr. Stevens, his Lordship agreed to see me, and unless English manners have gone the way of so many other ancient civilizations, I’m certain he’ll honor our appointment.”
The clerk rose from his wooden chair, wearing an affronted look. “I must protest, Miss Talbot. This is highly unusual.”
“I’ve no doubt it is, but I’d be grateful if you would inform Lord Merrick that I’m here.”
The short, apple-shaped man scurried away to an office door down one of the British Museum’s austere hallways. As he disappeared from view, Alex heaved a sigh of frustration. She was far better at debating Egyptology issues than she was at charming men into doing what she wanted.
Perhaps she should have brought Jane with her. Men seemed to fall all over themselves when it came to helping her friend. She frowned. No. She’d made the right decision in coming here alone. Peeling off her black gloves, she shoved them into the beaded bag Jane had insisted she buy. Men weren’t the only ones susceptible to Jane’s charm. Her friend had persuaded her to purchase more feminine trappings than she could ever want or need. She’d protested the selection of every article of clothing before they left New York, but she’d lost each argument.
Restless, Alex paced the floor, and the train of her green satin gown was a soft whisper on the marble tiles. Her hand brushed against the swag of material hugging her hips. She’d managed to keep the fripperies and ruffles on her gowns to a minimum, but the bustle at the back of her dress was a fashion trend she could have done without.
Brushing a stray lock of hair off her cheek, she frowned. She would much rather be wearing her work clothes. They were far more comfortable. Of course, if she’d tried to stroll into the British Museum wearing trousers, she never would have gotten this far.
All of this would have been so much easier if she were a man, and a British one at that. Her American accent and forthright manner were enough to earn her plenty of arched eyebrows. She could only imagine what people would think if they were to see her in her work clothes bent over a selection of dusty books and papyri.
Work. The thought of it made her long for home. New York seemed so far away. Even more so since she’d discovered the Rosetta Stone had been taken off display for preservation and study. She grimaced. In fact, the discovery had almost convinced her all the plans she’d made would disintegrate like an ancient papyrus. Then, as if her father’s spirit had been in the hotel room looking out for her, Lord Merrick’s letter had fallen out of the stack of papers she’d brought with her to London.
As the Dean of Ancient Civilizations at New York University, her father had been a longtime correspondent with the Museum’s Egyptology Director, Lord Merrick. It had been a simple matter to use her nickname instead of her full name and request an appointment.
Still, her deception might prove to be a terrible miscalculation if the museum clerk had his way. If she could just see the Stone, it would allow her to verify the translations she and Father had worked so hard on. Then she’d be able to honor his last wish and achieve her own dream.
Footsteps echoed in the hall, and she looked up to see Mr. Stevens headed toward her. Retrieving her portfolio from the chair beside the man’s desk, she studied his expression with a sinking heart. The man’s smug look made it clear her gambit hadn’t paid off.
“I’m sorry, Miss Talbot, but his Lordship has had a sudden change of plans and is unable to see you at this time.”
“I see, and when might Lord Merrick have another appointment available?”
“I’m afraid his schedule is quite full at the moment, and I don’t see how I can possibly squeeze you in before the end of next month.”
Alex struggled to keep from glaring at the man as he resumed his seat and went back to work. The rough edge of the portfolio bit into her palms as she considered bashing the pompous clerk over the head with the leather case. Obviously, he believed ignoring her was the easiest way to be rid of her. She stood there for a moment, trying to decide what to do. To come so far, only to be turned away. No, she couldn’t accept failure. Not now.
With a swish of her gown’s short train, she swept around the desk and strode determinedly down the hall to the door she’d seen the clerk enter. She was more than halfway to her destination before the man realized where she was headed and raced after her.
Ignoring his outraged command to stop, she knocked sharply on the glass pane that bore the gold-lettered title, Director of Egyptology. At the brusque invitation to enter, she sailed through the door with her underskirts rustling a soft imitation of her annoyance.
The office was crammed with a large assortment of artifacts, and the musty smell was similar to her father’s office at the university. It comforted her. All her life she’d spent happy hours in rooms similar to this. It reminded her of a time and life she could never experience again.
“What the devil?” The portly man seated at the desk came to his feet quickly. Pasting a polite smile on her face, she moved forward with her hand outstretched.
“Lord Merrick? I’m so glad you agreed to see me. I felt certain Mr. Stevens had misunderstood you.” She tried to make her smile as warm as possible. As much as she hated playing the charming coquette, she needed to convince this man to give her access to the Rosetta Stone.
One hand swiping though his bushy white hair, Lord Merrick peered at her over his spectacles. Wide sideburns lined his heavy jowls, and his unforgiving expression would have done a stern reverend justice. Behind her, Stevens burst into the room muttering his apologies. Lord Merrick waved the man away and came around the desk to clasp her hand. A touch of anger lit his limpid blue gaze, but he politely brushed her fingers with a kiss.
“Well, young lady, I think you know full well I was expecting a different Alex Talbot.”
She lifted her chin and met his gaze with a forthright look. “What I know is that you were extremely interested in my father’s theories about Per-Ramesses.”
“So why didn’t Professor Talbot come himself?”
“My father died unexpectedly last fall from influenza.” Alex swallowed the grief rising in her throat.
Lord Merrick’s cold expression dissolved into sympathy as he guided her to a chair facing his desk. “You have my sympathies, Miss Talbot. Your father was one of the world’s foremost Egyptologists. Our correspondences were highly valued by me.”
“And that’s why I’ve come to you, Lord Merrick. My father’s last wish was for me to complete his life’s work.” The bustle forced her to perch on the edge of the seat, and she silently cursed the uncomfortable fashion she wore.
Skepticism arched the man’s snowy eyebrows as he returned to his chair and shook his head. “My dear, I understand your desire to grant your father’s last wish, but please believe me when I tell you that even if you have all your father’s notes, without his knowledge…well, it’s impossible.”
Alex leaned forward, her hands tightening on her portfolio. She mustn’t fail now. She had his attention. She needed to guard her words carefully. “My lord, I began working with my father at the age of fifteen, and I worked at his side until his death. I studied his notes, questioned him relentlessly. I’m confident I know as much as he did about Per-Ramesses.”
“And you want access to the Rosetta Stone, is that it?”
“Yes, my lord. I need to ensure the translations my father and I made are accurate. It’s critical to finding the location of Per-Ramesses.”
“Finding it?” Lord Merrick exclaimed. “Young lady, what the devil makes you think you can find Per-Ramesses when England’s chief Egyptologists haven’t done so?”
“Because those gentlemen didn’t have what I do—my father’s notes and my father’s knowledge. It had been his intention to come, but his death prevented it. I’m here now, and I intend to honor his memory by proving his theories and mine correct.”
Sitting stiff and straight in the leather wing-backed chair, she recognized the look of disbelief on Lord Merrick’s face. Jane had worn a similar expression when Alex had laid out her plans. The difference was her friend hadn’t hesitated to call her insane. Lord Merrick just didn’t know how to do so politely. His face bore the same benign condescension she’d seen far too often on the faces of most university faculty in New York. They believed her inferior simply because of her sex.
There had been the exceptions. Men who had found her intelligence a refreshing change, but they’d been few and far between. And it was doubtful even those forward-thinking men would have agreed to a wife working at their side. Only her father and Uncle Jeffrey had truly encouraged her pursuit of archeology. Every other man was suspect as to his real intentions where she was concerned.
Merrick leaned forward, his hands clasped and resting on his desk. “Miss Talbot, the desert is difficult enough for an Englishman, and it’s definitely not a place for a woman. I cannot sanction this in any way.”
“Forgive me, my lord, but I’m simply asking you to give me access to the Stone so I can corroborate our translations.”
“I’m sorry, my dear, but in all good conscience, I can’t do that.”
Hands clenched, she kept her voice even with difficulty. “And if I were a man?”
“Naturally, things would be different.”
“Naturally,” she mimicked in a bitter tone.
“Why don’t you let her look at the Stone, Merrick?”
Alex twisted around in her seat to stare at the man sitting in the corner of the room. She’d been so preoccupied with her desire to persuade Lord Merrick to her way of thinking, she’d failed to realize there was someone else present. As he rose to his feet, she drew in a quick breath at the sheer height of the man. He was easily more than six feet tall. She was far from short, but if she were standing, he would tower over her by several inches. It wasn’t like her to pay too much attention to the men she met, but this man was impossible to ignore. Well-built, his lean figure sported a dark blue coat, which fell open to reveal a dove gray waistcoat and matching trousers. As he moved forward, the grace and regal bearing of his step reflected a primeval power. This was a man accustomed to prevailing in whatever matter he undertook. Her heart skipped a beat.
Silky waves of dark brown hair caressed the collar of his coat in a length that was almost barbaric. On any other man, the style would have looked ridiculous, but on him it was devastating. It suited the rich brown of his sun-kissed skin. A wave of heat washed over her. Dear Lord, no man she’d ever met had affected her like this. Deep brown eyes studied her closely, and she suppressed a tremor of excitement as she met his probing gaze. Dark eyebrows arched over incredible eyes, and the merest hint of a smile touched his full, sensual lips.
He reminded her of a sleek leopard, content to watch its prey before pouncing at just the right moment. The sudden image of him dressed as a pharaoh holding the collar of such a large cat caused her palms to grow damp. Where on earth had that come from? Appalled, she jerked her gaze away and turned back to Lord Merrick, who frowned at the other man.
“The devil take it, Blakeney. You can’t be serious.”
“Why not? What harm will it do?” The stranger shrugged as Lord Merrick stared at him in appalled horror.
Merrick was as blind as that little toad Stevens. The man was making his decision solely based upon her sex, and not her capabilities, which she’d outlined so clearly. All her life, her father had treated her with the respect of first a student and then a colleague. He’d accepted her as fully capable of acquiring the same knowledge as himself. No doubt, the possibility of a woman finding the lost city of Per-Ramesses without male assistance was incomprehensible to this man.
Her stomach tightened with concealed anger. If she didn’t get out of here quickly, she’d forget what little presence of mind she had and confirm the notion that women were temperamental, hysterical and unfit for working in an academic setting. Determined to remain charming to the end, she rose to her feet and forced herself to smile.
“Gentlemen.” She gave both men a sharp nod of dismissal. “I’m sorry you’re not interested in my work or my father’s. I had hoped to convince you otherwise. However, I can assure you, I’ll find Per-Ramesses—with or without the Museum’s help.”
Wheeling about on her heel, Alex rushed blindly to the door lest they see the tears of frustration threatening to spill down her cheeks. She grasped the brass doorknob and turned it. Large, sun-drenched fingers touched her light-deprived skin and stopped her. Fiery warmth streaked up her arm until it spread its way through every inch of her body. Startled by her reaction, she yanked her hand away and lifted her gaze up to meet his. When he smiled, her heart slammed against the wall of her chest. Lord, the man’s smile was as potent as his touch.
“Miss Talbot is it?”
“I’m sorry, sir, you have me at a disadvantage.”
“Forgive me.” He offered her a small bow. “Viscount Blakeney at your service. I’m liaison to the Museum’s Foreign Office of Antiquities.”
“Another of the Museum’s minions?” She could have bitten her tongue off at the sarcasm in her voice.
His eyes narrowed and his features resembled an ancient stone statue. The look he pinned on her sent a shiver down her spine. Even Ramesses could not have intimidated or excited her more. The fanciful thought made her frown. She wasn’t here to find a modern-day pharaoh, especially one condescending to help her.
Once more, she reached out to open the door, but his firm grip on her wrist stopped her again. The touch made her mouth go dry as his fingers sent a shock of sensation up her arm. Again her heart skipped a beat, and a spark of awareness flashed in the depths of his brown eyes.
She inhaled a sharp breath as his thumb caressed her pulse with gentle pressure. The touch made every nerve in her body scream at the way his presence was assaulting her senses. As he leaned toward her, the whiff of a tantalizing spice spiraled between them. The scent was familiar, but it was difficult to think with him so close.
“Do not discount me, Miss Talbot. If you wish to see the Stone, I’m willing to escort you to its present location.” The stern note in his voice helped her regain her faculties.
“And do not discount me, my lord. I do not suffer fools gladly, nor do I look fondly on those who think me a fool.” This time she kept her tone even, yet firm. She could be polite, but she had no intention of letting this man, or any other for that matter, manipulate her.
A brilliant smile curved his mouth, and she wanted to bask in the warmth of it. Heavens, but the man was mesmerizing. She needed to control this urge to simper like an addle-brained simpleton in his presence.
“I seriously doubt you’re a fool, Miss Talbot. Although it remains to be seen if you are foolish.” Releasing her from his grip, he opened the door and swept his hand toward the corridor. “Shall we?”
“I thought you wanted to see the Stone?” There was more than a hint of amusement in his voice. For the first time, she heard the melodious accent beneath the proper English. The sound was so familiar and yet so foreign.
“Well yes, but I’ll need at least an hour or more to study the markings.”
“Then you’ll have it.”
Behind them, Lord Merrick came to life. “I say, Blakeney. It’s just not done. She’s likely to wreak havoc in the workroom. The scholars will be quite distracted by her presence.”
The anger bubbling just beneath her calm surface exploded as she turned to face the protesting director. “x one aay aza mn name zapa oyhh eanno.”
“I say! Did she just speak Coptic?” Merrick sputtered.
A glimmer of respect and assessment sparkled in the dark brown eyes studying her face. “She did, and with impeccable clarity.”
Alex flushed at the amusement she saw tugging at his mouth. It was obvious Lord Merrick didn’t understand the language, but Lord Blakeney’s knowledge was clearly far superior to the older man’s. Oh God. The man would never take her to the Stone now. Whatever had possessed her to speak in such an unladylike manner? The director really was a pompous jackass, unfit for the duties of his office, but she should have realized one, if not both men, might be fluent in the language of the pharaohs. When was she going to learn to think before acting?
“Well, what the devil did she say?”
She held her breath as Lord Blakeney arched a regal eyebrow at her in only the way a British male could. Well, there was nothing for it now. She lifted her chin up in a stubborn gesture, ready to translate her words.
“The young lady thinks you perform your duties like the hardiest of mules.”
Alex started with surprise. He’d not given her away. Why had he translated her insult in such a positive light? Her surprise evolved into suspicion. What did he want?
“Harrumph. Does she now.” Merrick eyed her with skepticism. “Well, Blakeney, if you’re compelled to show her the Stone, do so, but if the scholars protest, it’s on your head.”
With a slight nod, Lord Blakeney grasped her arm and ushered her out into the corridor, closing the door behind them. As they walked in silence, Alex finally recognized the tantalizing smell of cedarwood mixed with another spice she couldn’t identify. It cultivated her earlier image of him in Pharaoh’s garb, his legs sleek and powerful beneath a short loincloth. She could even visualize her fingers gliding over the hard sinews of his golden arms and chest. Would his bared body be as muscular as his clothing hinted?
The decadent thoughts horrified her. Heavens, she’d been around Jane too long. Her widowed friend’s constant consideration of men’s physical attributes had finally rubbed off on her. Quickly she thrust the images aside. But it was difficult to do so given the way her body reacted to his.
Several corridors later, she knew she’d never be able to find her way back to the exit without her escort. A slight shiver skated down her spine. She knew nothing about the man accompanying her. But her body did. Her skin had not stopped tingling since the first time he’d touched her. She tried to suppress the sensations. For all she knew he could be the worst kind of rake—the kind her friends had warned her about before she left New York.
A moment later, Lord Blakeney ushered her into a well-lit room. Worktables lined the walls, where several men were immersed in their study of various documents and books. In the center of the room, on a waist-high pedestal, stood the object she’d come to see.
Her fingers tightened on the portfolio she carried and she sucked in her breath as she drew near the Stone. Reverently, she stretched out her hand then stopped. Was it being treated with a solution her fingers might disturb? She turned back toward him.
“By all means.” A small smile curved his mouth. Feet planted slightly apart, he folded his arms across his chest. For a moment she forgot the misshapen basalt slab as she pictured him in the hot Egyptian climate, his rippling chest muscles glistening with oil her hands applied. The heady image stole her breath away, and she saw his eyes darken with a dangerous invitation.
Gathering her wits, Alex sucked in a ragged breath and turned her attention back to the Stone. Her hand caressed the cool surface of the ancient rock, the carved indentions rough beneath the pads of her fingers. Her throat tightened. This would have meant so much to her father. Touching the Stone would have been the culmination of his lifelong dream. Now it was her dream. Her chance to prove that a woman was just as capable as a man when it came to finding an ancient city.
She peered closely at the artifact’s surface, noting several hieroglyphs identical to ones in the notes she carried. Without thinking, she quickly opened the portfolio in her arms and sifted through the papers. It took a moment, but she finally extracted the page she sought. She examined it for a moment then looked closer at the Stone. The glyphs on her page were slightly different from the black basalt slab’s markings.
Pulling her pencil out, she sketched a mark from the Stone onto her paper. The difference in the mark was small, but significant. She inhaled a sharp breath of excitement. Her father had been right. Per-Ramesses was at Khatana-Qantir, and she was going to find it. She scribbled another correction onto her paper as her gaze shifted between the Stone and her work.
There, another glyph that didn’t match. She pulled another sheet of paper from the folder and scanned the symbols. The significance made all the difference in the translation. She smiled. Her persistence had paid off. With these final corrections, Per-Ramesses and his beloved Nourbese would soon see the light of day after more than three thousand years.
She pulled one page after another from her portfolio, intent on verifying the work she’d brought with her. Eventually, half her portfolio lay spread out at her feet as she continued to confirm and correct her notes. Time held no meaning as she studied the markings. The light changed as she worked, and she frowned as shadows hovered over the black basalt, making it difficult to read the markings. Throwing her head back, she looked up at the skylight. She’d been so absorbed in her work she’d not even noticed the sun was setting. With a quick glance at the workstations that circled the room, she saw most of the scholars had left. She didn’t even see Viscount Blakeney.
She rolled her head around to stretch her neck muscles before stooping to pick up several stacks of paper she’d placed on the floor. The sudden frisson rippling over her skin made her suck in a quick breath. She swallowed hard as a golden-skinned hand picked up some papers and offered them to her.
As she looked up into Lord Blakeney’s dark brown eyes, the warmth of his gaze heated her body to a fevered pitch. It was like being taken from the coolness of a cave out into the heat of a desert sun. The sudden awareness of him spiraled a cord of tension through her. Disturbed by the wild sensation, she accepted the papers with a quick nod of her head. Standing upright, she quickly jostled her portfolio closed as she tried to ignore his presence. Impossible.
“Please forgive me, my lord. I didn’t mean to inconvenience you by working so late. I’ve imposed on your kindness.”
“There’s nothing to forgive. It’s obvious you have a passion for your work.”
She glanced back at the Rosetta Stone. “Yes, it’s been my life for a very long time.”
“And did you find what you were looking for?”
Excited, she smiled as she bobbed her head. “Yes, and I know I’ll be successful now. I only wish…”
“You wish your father were here to share the triumph.” His firm lips curved in an understanding smile.
“Yes, both he and my uncle would have been elated, and it would have been difficult not to be carried away by their euphoria.”
The memory of their recent deaths made her throat constrict. In less than a year, she’d lost the two most important men in her life. She controlled her sorrow and nodded. “Uncle Jeffrey is the one who first tempted my father with the idea of finding Per-Ramesses.”
“Was your uncle an Egyptologist as well?”
“Oh, no, Uncle Jeffrey was a member of the spiritualist movement.”
Skepticism arched the man’s eyebrows at her statement, and Alex cringed as she realized her mistake. Everyone had believed her uncle a madman, but he’d provided too many clues about Per-Ramesses for her or her father to discount him as such. The man’s arbitrary dismissal of her uncle disappointed her for some strange reason.
“Come, I’ll see you home. Where are you staying?”
“At the Clarendon, but your escort is unnecessary. I’ll have a hackney take me to the hotel.”
A stern expression hardened his rugged features as he grasped her elbow and ushered her out of the workroom. “I think not. London after dusk is no place for a lady unescorted. I cannot leave you to such a fate.”
Swallowing hard, she protested. “I appreciate your kindness, my lord, but I’m quite accustomed to taking care of myself. The streets of London are hardly any more treacherous than those of New York.”
“Perhaps, but I’ll escort you safely to your destination nonetheless.”
The set of his jaw indicated she would not sway him in the matter. With a quiet sigh, she acquiesced to his stubborn insistence. The gloomy corridors of early afternoon were now almost dark. Had she really been working for so long? It seemed like just a few moments ago that she’d first touched the basalt’s cool surface. The last of the sun’s light barely lit their way as they entered a large exhibition hall filled with Egyptian artifacts.
Above their heads, a balcony encircled the room with more exhibits, while the various sarcophagi they passed threw eerie shadows across their path. Glancing upward, she frowned. Had something actually moved on the balcony? She scoffed at the notion, but a shiver scraped its way down her back. It was impossible to shake the disturbing sensation of being watched.
She glanced up at her escort. Lord Blakeney appeared quite unconcerned as he guided her across the large room. With a slight shrug, she discounted the inner warning. As usual, her imagination was out of control. Yet, despite her best intentions, the sensation refused to go away.
By the time they reached the middle of the room, the hair on the back of her neck had spiked with apprehension. Something was wrong, but she couldn’t pinpoint exactly what. Ahead of them, two giant statues of Anubis provided an arch over the doorway leading into another gallery. Guardians of the tomb, the jackal-headed figures presented an ominous picture as they approached the entryway.
Foreboding tensed her muscles as she shot a quick glance at her companion. There wasn’t a hint of concern or wariness on the man’s face. Lord, she was acting like a muddleheaded goose. As they drew close to the statues, she looked up with awe at the massive monuments.
They were magnificent. Would she find similar treasures at Per- Ramesses? Out of the corner of her eye, a shadow flitted along the wall of the balcony encircling the room. Just as quickly the vague form disappeared. She frowned. She was almost as bad as Uncle Jeffrey—seeing things that weren’t even there. A scraping sound made her stop abruptly. Lord Blakeney paused as well and eyed her with curiosity.
“Is something wrong, Miss Talbot?”
“I’m not sure.” She shook her head. “I thought I heard something.”
Arching an eyebrow, he glanced over his shoulder to search the dark recesses of the room’s corners. The scraping noise came again, this time louder and she looked up to see a large stone plummeting toward her. Inhaling a breath of terror, she froze. In the next moment, a strong arm snapped around her waist and jerked her to safety. The sandstone shattered on the floor behind her. Buried in the warmth of Lord Blakeney’s embrace, Alex shuddered.
Alive. She was still alive.
She’d been too terrified to move. In the distance, shouts sounded through the hall. Trembling, she struggled to remain calm as the voices grew in strength.
Pushing her away from him, Lord Blakeney’s hand brushed over her brow and cheek as he studied her with a look of concern. “Are you hurt?”
Unable to speak, she shook her head. He glanced back at the disintegrated sandstone on the marble floor before looking upward. She followed the direction of his gaze and saw the hole in the balcony. It must have been a loose stone, just waiting to fall. A man slid to a halt just outside the Egyptian room.
“My lord, are you and the young lady all right?”
“Yes, Martin, we’ve escaped injury. Miss Talbot, however, is quite shaken from her narrow escape. Get several of the men to help you clean up this mess, and tomorrow I want the balcony and wall inspected for other loose stones.”
His strong arm still wrapped around her in a protective gesture, he guided her around the pieces of broken sandstone. As they passed beneath the somber statues of Anubis, she shivered. Had she really seen a shadow up on the balcony or had her intuition been trying to warn her of impending disaster?
More importantly, had Uncle Jeffrey been right? Was there really a curse on those who searched for Per-Ramesses and Nourbese’s tomb?
Sheikh Altair Mazir sank back into the plush leather cushions of his carriage. Seated opposite him, Alex Talbot sat quietly, her face pale in the gaslight shining through the window. She was amazing. No tears, no hysteria. If it weren’t for her pallor and the way her hands were trembling, no one looking at her would be able to tell she’d almost been killed a few moments ago.
“I’m sorry your visit to the museum was so frightening.”
She lifted her gaze to his, and his gut clenched at his physical reaction to her. Damn, but those hazel eyes of hers were nothing short of incredible. Large and round in her face, they flashed with whatever emotion she was feeling at a particular moment in time.
“I admit it wasn’t exactly what I expected.” A wry smile tipped the corner of her mouth. Then a look of mortification spread across her face. “Forgive me, my lord. I failed to thank you for saving my life. If you’d not pulled me away from where I was standing…”
“Don’t dwell on it. You’re safe now.”
“But you saved my life. I shall always be in your debt.”
Her gratitude was discomfiting given his connection to her. He needed to explain who he was, but he couldn’t find the words. Instead, he watched her through the shadows, remembering the way her soft curves had pressed into him when he’d pulled her out of harm’s way. His groin tightened at the memory. Her body had been soft and luxuriant against his. Lush and sensual.
Unable to help himself, his gaze slid down to the round fullness of her breasts. The images dancing through his head teased his senses and his imagination. Would her nipples be as inviting and pink as her generous mouth? Or perhaps they would be dark against that creamy complexion. The thought singed his skin with fire.
At that moment, her gaze met his. From where he sat he could see the way her eyes darkened with the awareness he’d seen earlier. Her enticing mouth parted slightly, and he swallowed hard at the urge to pull her into his arms again. Christ, he was acting like a stallion determined to mount a mare. The thought prompted an image of her on top of him with her golden-chestnut hair tumbling down over her creamy shoulders. It hardened his cock immediately.
Dragging his gaze away from her, he peered out the window of the coach. Traffic was heavy tonight, and it was taking longer to get to the Clarendon than usual. If they continued at this slow pace, his groin was going to be in agony by the time they reached the hotel. He turned his head and caught her watching him. Her cheeks darkened in the muted light as their eyes met. There was curiosity and something else shining out of those mysterious hazel depths.
“You seem puzzled by something, Miss Talbot.”
“Yes.” She nodded her head then quickly denied her response. “I mean no…I’m sorry, it was rude of me to stare. I…it’s just that you don’t look like the other English noblemen I’ve met.”
The comment made him stiffen, and he was thrown back to a different time when another woman had said the same thing. Even after ten years the thought of Caroline cut deep. He closed the door on the painful memory. The past was behind him. He’d paid dearly for Caroline’s betrayal. It wouldn’t happen again.
“And how do you think an English nobleman should look?” he said in an icy tone.
“I’m sorry. You must think me terribly rude. It’s just that your skin tone and profile remind me of the Egyptian pharaohs I’ve seen in different texts.”
Biting the inside of his cheek, he wasn’t sure how to interpret her comment. Accustomed to society’s contempt for his mixed blood, he didn’t care what people thought of him. But something about this woman made him care, and he didn’t like the sensation. And he especially didn’t like the way his body reacted to her soft shape.
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” he said with a bit more irony than he intended.
“Oh, but it was. A compliment I mean. I’m terribly sorry. I have this habit of speaking without thinking first. My friend Jane warns me all the time to guard my tongue, but I can’t seem to help myself.”
He folded his arms across his chest, studying her contrite expression. At this stage in his life, he found it easy to ignore the prejudice and scorn most of London society flung his way. But this woman posed a conundrum. For some unfathomable reason, he hesitated telling her who he was. What he was.
Confused by the notion, he frowned. She’d given him no reason to think she would be appalled by his confession, and yet it was a risk he didn’t want to take. Eventually, he’d have to tell her the truth, but for the moment—for the moment he was content to let her think of him as Lord Blakeney.
Clearing his throat, he smiled. “I hope your scare tonight doesn’t make you hesitant to return to the Museum.”
“Oh no, not at all. I’m sure it was an accident.” She frowned for a moment, staring off into space. The idea that it hadn’t been an accident nudged at her. It was rather odd how that stone had fallen just at that precise moment. And what about that shadow she’d seen? She’d thought her imagination had been playing tricks on her, but now she was convinced that wasn’t true. She’d seen someone up on the balcony.
“So when do you plan on returning?” His deep voice drew her attention back to him.
“Actually, I don’t need to. It’s hard to believe, but I answered all my questions this afternoon.”
“All of them?” The doubt in his voice made her smile.
“Yes, I didn’t expect to finish so quickly, but my translations were much more accurate than I expected. Although I did find a couple of odd references in my notes the Stone didn’t account for, but I’m sure I’ll be able to decipher those points in a day or two.”
“I see, and when do you intend to leave for Egypt?”
“I would imagine by the end of next week.” She mentally ticked off some of the items she still needed to purchase before setting sail.
“Well, I’ve already made some arrangements, but there are still a large number of supplies to purchase. I’d love to leave tomorrow, but it’s not possible.”
“And how thoroughly have you thought through this adventure?” The censorious note in his voice pulled her gaze toward his stern one.
It sounded almost as if he was worried about her. The thought astounded her, but even more unsettling was the pleasure it gave her when she considered the possibility. Still, the last thing she wanted was anyone interfering with her plans. She’d given her word to her father she would find Per-Ramesses, and she intended to keep her vow.
Her father had believed in her abilities. She would not fail him at this stage of the game. She’d also made a promise to herself. All her life she’d studied and worked hard to make this journey. Finding Per-Ramesses would prove to the academic world that a woman could be just as good an archeologist as a man.
“This trip has been in the planning for more than two years. My father and I considered every detail.”
“Every detail? What about a guide into the desert?”
“My father had been corresponding with Sheikh Mazir, a Bedouin, who offered to serve as his guide to Khatana-Qantir.”
Tension hardened his jaw line as he eyed her with his piercing gaze. “And how reliable is this man? For all you know, he’s a barbarous savage who’d just as soon slit the throat of another infidel as serve as a desert guide.”
The bloody image made her stomach flip unpleasantly. Few things made her blanch, but the mere reference to blood made her queasy. No doubt, a phobia left over from childhood when she’d cut her foot. The blood streaming across the floor had been nothing compared to the doctor’s visit and subsequent suturing. Shaking off the vivid memory, she struggled to ease the nausea churning in her stomach.
“My father had every confidence in Sheikh Mazir. He told me quite often that the Sheikh was a very special man.”
“Yes, indeed.” She sent him an arched look, irritated by his pessimistic tone. “I’m certain Sheikh Mazir will respect the agreement. After all, Bedouin law decrees he honor the covenant.”
“Even if the Sheikh does keep his word, I find myself agreeing with Lord Merrick about your expedition. The desert is a harsh, unforgiving land.” His mouth was tight with disapproval as his forbidding gaze settled on her.
“I’m aware of what I’m up against, my lord. My father and I discussed our trip and its hardships countless times. I’m not afraid.”
“You should be, Alex. You should be very afraid.”
The sound of her given name rolling off his tongue pulled a sharp breath from her. As her eyes met his, the predatory expression on his handsome features sent her heart careening out of control. The look reinforced her earlier image of him as an ancient Egyptian ruler. Stern, strong and master of his domain. He would rule a woman’s heart with simply the crook of his finger. The wickedly seductive images from their first meeting flitted through her head as her gaze focused on his mouth. What would it be like to kiss him?
Appalled by her wanton thoughts, she looked out the carriage window at the gaslights lining the street. What was wrong with her? Her interests had always been centered on her studies and working with her father. She’d been kissed before, but those caresses had been fumbling attempts at best from would-be-suitors.
No man had ever captured her attention the way this man did. In her studies, she’d learned about the sexual practices of the ancient Egyptians. Her view of their activities had always been of a scientific nature. But now—now she understood some of the erotic poetry she’d translated without her father’s knowledge.
Curiosity had driven her to learn more, but she had never understood the emotions a physical attraction could arouse until now. The intensity of her attraction to him was disturbing, not to mention inconvenient. A man would only be a hindrance in her determination to find Per-Ramesses and fulfill her father’s last wish.
She darted a glance in his direction to find him watching her. In an instant, every thought in her head was swept aside. The look in his eyes was dark and dangerous. Her mouth went dry at the sight. Oh this man was trouble, plain and simple. The sooner she fled his presence, the quicker she could control the way her body was responding to him.
A fraction of a second later the carriage rocked violently to a halt, and the jolt propelled her forward into his arms. Outside there were shouts of anger and blame, but inside the carriage the silence hung thick and heavy.
Heat flushed her skin at the close contact as the scent of him rushed at her senses with heady abandon. The woody fragrance of cedarwood tantalized her nose, and she finally recognized the scent of sweet fennel. The mixture was earthy, fresh and wholly masculine. It suited him.
Hot tension made every nerve-ending in her body grow taut as she realized how close his mouth was. It would only take a small movement and his lips would be covering hers. The thought pulled a sharp gasp from her. Oh, this was not good. Not good at all.
“Has anyone ever told you how lovely your mouth is?”
The dark seduction in his whispered question released more than a dozen butterflies in her stomach as she struggled to control her heartbeat. Even if she’d been able to do so, she didn’t have time to give him an answer as his hard mouth covered hers.
This was nothing like the fumbling kisses she’d experienced before. His mouth was bold and confident on hers. It startled her with its raw intensity, but more surprising was how much she was enjoying his touch. Her blood slid hot and heavy through her veins. She’d been right. The man was definitely dangerous, but at the moment she didn’t care.
The gentle nip of his teeth on her lower lip caused her to gasp, and he took the opportunity to sweep his tongue past her lips to the inner recesses of her mouth. The hedonistic rush that surged through her settled in the pit of her stomach. It boiled there in a hot vessel ready to overflow.
Without thought, she responded to his kiss, her tongue dancing with his as a soft moan trembled deep in her throat. Strong fingers trailed along her cheek before sliding down her throat. His lips captured hers again as he pulled her tightly against him.
Bloody hell, but the woman was a fiery temptation. She tasted like forbidden fruit. Lush, ripe and sensuous. With just a kiss, his cock had become hard as iron. It pressed against him in a lustful cry for satisfaction. Her tongue swirled around his in a seductive move, and he suppressed a groan of need.
He had to touch more of her. Gently, he feathered her cheek with kisses until he reached the lobe of her ear. As he nibbled on her, his fingers made short work of the buttons running down the front of her dress. The silky smoothness of her skin caressed his fingers and a soft cry escaped her lips as his hand glided across the base of her throat and down to the top of her full breasts.
God almighty. He wanted to bed the woman right here in the carriage. Small pants of excitement blew past her lips as he drew back from her. Her hazel eyes had turned green with passion, and her full mouth had a sensual curve to it.
She was hot heat in his hands. He had only to press his advantage and he’d be inside her, satisfying the cravings of his cock. His finger lined a path from the base of her throat to the shadowed valley between her luxuriant breasts. God, he wanted to suck on her. A shudder broke through her at his touch, and he paused. What the hell was he doing?
This was Alexander Talbot’s daughter. A man he’d admired a great deal. How could he possibly take advantage of her like this? The sound of Caroline’s voice echoed in his head. Because you’re a savage. A heathen who will never be accepted by London society. The memory of that day made him grow still. No. He wasn’t a savage. But making love to Alex in the carriage certainly didn’t qualify him as a gentleman.
With a quick movement, he picked her up and plopped her back into her seat. His groin protested angrily, but he ignored the pain. Her mouth formed a soft moue of surprise, and it beckoned to him like a Sahara mirage. Tempting and tantalizing in its beauty. He swallowed the desire threatening to rule his senses. For the first time he realized the carriage was moving again.
“I took advantage of you.”
“I don’t recall protesting too loudly,” she said with a wry note in her voice.
The matter-of-fact response caused him to stare at her in surprise. A flush crested over her cheeks and she quickly looked away. He’d never met anyone like her before. Impulsive, stubborn, intelligent and forthright. Did she take after her father? The thought of the professor made him frown as he looked out at the shadowed streets.
She was Talbot’s daughter and as such she deserved respect, not this cavalier treatment. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched her button up her dress. As the creamy complexion of her throat disappeared beneath the green satin dress she wore, his hand itched to reach out and stop her.
What the devil had Talbot been thinking when he’d burdened her with this quest for Per-Ramesses? It was a difficult and risky journey. Merrick was rarely right about anything, but there was one thing they both agreed upon. The desert was no place for a woman of society. It was a harsh existence without the modern comforts women were accustomed to.
Glancing in her direction, he saw her smoothing out the wrinkles in her gown. She looked delicious enough to eat. The image of her straddling him returned to haunt him, and he clenched his fists. Determined to push the tempting image from his thoughts, he closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, his gaze met hers. There was no rancor in her eyes. In fact, he was certain a flicker of excitement still gleamed in her gaze. Crushing his desire, he looked away.
It was best to ignore the fact he’d even kissed her. Unfortunately, that was difficult to do given how succulent and sweet she’d tasted on his lips. The base need stirring in his body sent a jolt of tension through him. Christ Jesus, he’d not felt this ruttish in years. The Clarendon’s well-lit driveway illuminated the inside of the carriage, and he expelled a sigh of relief.
“It seems we’ve reached our destination.”
“Yes.” The single word was a forlorn sound. It twisted his insides. She’d almost lost her life tonight, and he’d taken advantage of that vulnerability to satisfy his own needs. He was a bastard. If he’d gone back to the desert where he belonged, none of this would have ever happened. At least there, he didn’t feel quite so alone. His mother’s people had always accepted him as one of their own.
He cursed himself again for giving his oath to a dying man. He should never have agreed to his grandfather’s pleas, even if he’d done so out of love. Adamant the Blakeney line not die out, the old Viscount had begged him not to give up his title or holdings. Now he was trapped like a fox between the hounds and freedom.
Each year his agreement to spend half the year in England and the remainder in the desert was growing more burdensome. No doubt his grandfather had thought it easier for him to find a suitable wife among London’s nobility. He’d known the futility of that exercise before the old Viscount had died, but it hadn’t saved him from the inevitable task of honoring his word.
The carriage rolled to a halt. Exiting the vehicle, he turned to offer his assistance. She slid her hand into his, and the light touch warmed his body. He grimaced at the effect she had on him. One would think him a schoolboy the way his body was reacting to the woman. Taking her arm, he guided her up the steps of the hotel.
As they entered the lobby, a young woman standing near the concierge’s desk hurried toward them with a relieved smile on her face.
“Oh, Alex, there you are! I’ve been half sick with worry. I was beginning to think something terrible had happened.” The woman kissed Alex’s cheek then stepped back. “Heavens, you look completely washed out.”
“I’m fine. Jane, this is Lord Blakeney. He helped me get access to the Rosetta Stone. My lord, this is my friend and traveling companion, Mrs. Jane Beacon.”
Altair stiffened. Explaining why he’d not mentioned his identity before now was not going to be easy. He was far from ashamed of his Bedouin blood, but he didn’t like the possibility of seeing her look at him with disgust. For just a bit longer he wanted her to know him as Lord Blakeney, not a half-breed who was the subject of scorn and ridicule.
He shoved his thoughts aside, fully aware he had to convince her she was undertaking a foolish errand. While he was honor bound to follow through on his agreement with her father, he had to convince her it was in her best interest to give up this foolish venture.
“Do I understand that you’re going with Miss Talbot on this dangerous expedition?” He eyed the woman with disapproval.
The question immediately earned him Alex’s scorching glare. Turning his head, he met her scowl with one of his own. The harsh condemnation on his face made her clench her hands with frustration.
What was it about this man that intensified every emotion in her body? Moments ago his touch had almost blinded her with passion, now his disapproval incited her bull-headedness. She knew perfectly well it was a dangerous expedition, but she wasn’t about to admit it to him.
“It is not a dangerous expedition,” she retorted.
“It bloody well is,” he snarled in a low voice.
Alex shuddered. She wasn’t sure if it was from the fury in his voice or the reference to blood that disturbed her. Why did the English feel it necessary to constantly associate blood with their curses?
“I have the situation well in hand, my lord.”
“Do you? I wonder. What if Sheikh Mazir doesn’t speak English? Venturing out into the desert, even with a Bedouin guide, is a serious undertaking for any man. For two women it’s twice as treacherous.”
Alex flinched at his brutal tone. He was right. She knew it. But if she agreed with him, it would be the same as admitting that Lord Merrick was right, and she was determined to prove the old goat and all the other naysayers wrong. Frowning with determination, she shook her head.
“I think you exaggerate, my lord. I am confident Sheik Mazir will ensure our safety.”
“Then at least allow me to find someone reputable to accompany you on your journey. Someone you can count on if you run into trouble.”
Alex opened her mouth to reject the offer, but the touch of Jane’s hand on her arm stopped her. With a shake of her dark head, the other woman sighed. “Perhaps he’s right, Alex. I know you and the professor planned for every contingency, but there’s a difference between being adventurous and foolhardy. I doubt your father would have approved of us going to Egypt on our own.”
The gentle remonstration made her tighten her lips. Irritated more by the fact that the man was correct as opposed to his insistence on meddling in her affairs, she shrugged with disgust.
“Oh, all right, we accept your offer to find us an escort,” she muttered before she raised her index finger in an imitation of a schoolmarm. “But I’ll not tolerate any interference from this person you’re determined to foist upon us. This is my expedition, and I’m going to do things my way. Is that understood?”
With a nod of his head, his lips curled slightly at the corners as if amused by a private joke. “Your wishes are quite clear, anide emîra.”
The Bedouin phrase caught her off guard, and it took her a moment to translate. Glaring at him, she remained silent in the face of his clear amusement. Stubborn princess, indeed.
His body taut with angry frustration, Altair charged down the steps of the Clarendon toward his carriage. The woman was the most obstinate little mule he’d ever met. She knew full well how dangerous this journey of hers was. He’d seen her acknowledgment of the fact in her eyes. But the way her mouth had thinned to a stubborn line had clearly indicated her refusal to admit she was wrong.
With a sharp command to the driver, he threw himself against the leather cushions of the vehicle. He should have told her who he was from the beginning. At least, his words would have held some weight then. She would have taken Sheikh Mazir’s words of caution more seriously than those of Lord Blakeney. The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on him.
A bitter laugh broke past his lips. Hardly anyone in the Marlborough Set would take the word of a sheikh over an Englishman. But in this instance, he was certain Alex Talbot would have respected the opinion of Sheikh Mazir.
Now he had a decision to make. Continue along his present course until forced to tell her the truth or reveal his identity at the next opportunity. Even on such short acquaintance, he knew her well enough to know she’d be furious with him when he confessed his deception. It would make it difficult for her to trust him, something that was essential when one was in the desert.
His fist slammed into the leather seat. Damnation, what had he been thinking? He’d never hidden behind his English ancestry before, why had he done so now? The vision of a sultry mouth flashed before his eyes. Because she intrigued him. Excited him. The taste of her singed his lips again as he recalled their passionate exchange. Kissing her had been a mistake. It had only intensified his attraction for her.
With a sigh, he closed his eyes and leaned his head against the seat’s cushion. Never had his English heritage ever felt like such a yoke as it did now. And all because he’d denied his Bedouin blood. A sudden longing for the freedom of his gambaz swelled through him.
The flowing garment enhanced one’s ability to move so much easier than the form-fitting fashions of London society. It wasn’t just the freedom of movement he missed. There was an unfettered liberty he enjoyed under his Bedouin title. In the Sahara he had license to be himself.
Always torn between two countries and cultures, he knew more about prejudice than most people. It was one of the reasons why he refused to marry. Even if a woman were willing to look past his bloodline, his lifestyle was a difficult one. Living on the edge of polite society for half a year and the other in the beautiful, but harsh desert would be a difficult existence for a woman used to the comforts of the civilized world.
A sudden desire to be free of his English birthright surged through him. If he hadn’t given his word to his grandfather, he’d have discarded the responsibilities and title of Viscount Blakeney long ago. His oath was the only thing that kept him here. Since the age of ten, he’d spent six or more months in England each year. First Eton, then Cambridge had occupied his time, then he’d spent successive winters working at the British Museum.
But it was when he returned home to the Sahara that he experienced true happiness. As a member of one of the Sahara’s oldest Bedouin tribes, his knowledge of the desert, its people and past made him a valuable resource to the British Museum. He couldn’t count the number of times his work with the Museum had saved him from the tedium he found London society to be.
Unfortunately, even that haven was no longer sacrosanct. Merrick was becoming tedious and disagreeable in their working relationship. The man was so firmly entrenched in rules and regulations he threatened the Museum’s expansion into the area of Egyptology.
The carriage came to a halt, and Altair stepped out of the vehicle with no clear decision as to what he should do where Alex was concerned. Entering Blakeney house, he went to the study and poured himself a stiff drink. The liquid burned the back of his throat.
A quiet cough behind him announced his butler, Marshall. “Forgive me, my lord, but a message was delivered for you earlier.”
Turning around, Altair picked up the note from the salver Marshall held. With a nod of dismissal, he broke the wax seal and unfolded the parchment. The message was short, but succinct. Merrick wanted to know if there was any credence to Alex’s theories. Damnation, the bastard was going to try to steal the discovery out from underneath her.
The paper crackled as he balled it up in his fist. Merrick was a fool to allow his prejudices to color his perspective. If Alex did know how to find Per-Ramesses, the Museum would do well to look past her gender because the results might well be the find of the century.
A smile curved his mouth. It had been entertaining to see her storm Merrick’s castle in an attempt to persuade the man to her way of thinking. She’d been polite and forthright despite the man’s condescension, but like most people, even she had a limit. When she’d bluntly insulted the man in Coptic, he’d found her audacious response amusing and interesting. Coptic was a difficult language to master, and she knew it well.
The memory made him grin before he frowned. He still hadn’t made up his mind what to tell her. Decisions were never difficult for him, and he found his indecisive behavior annoying. Well, whatever he decided didn’t change the necessity of honoring his agreement to lead her out to Khatana-Qantir. He might have agreed to the arrangement thinking he was dealing with the professor, but he’d given his word. There was no going back. But it was the excitement charging through him that made him uneasy. Almost as uneasy as the thought of Alex Talbot’s lush, sensuous body.
The fetid smell of London’s docks assaulted Altair’s nostrils as he stepped from his carriage. In front of him, the wharf was a frenzy of activity. His muscles tensed with excitement. He was going home. Sheikh Altair Mazir was going home.
No more playing the role of Lord Blakeney for another six months. No, that wasn’t true. Unless he told Alex the truth, he’d still have to play the role for her benefit. Blast, why couldn’t he make a decision about this?
The reasons were far more complicated than he cared to delve into. At the moment, not telling her seemed the lesser of two evils. Especially given his interference in her travel plans this past week. She’d be livid if she figured out he was responsible for the change in her transportation arrangements. Learning Lord Blakeney and Sheikh Mazir were one and the same would only make matters worse.
His gaze focused on the Moroccan Wind. The sleek, three-mast schooner looked swift and sturdy. The sight of her pleased him. He’d purchased the ship specifically to handle his small trade expeditions to and from Cairo, as well as Morocco.
From where he stood, he saw Alex’s softly rounded figure pacing the ship’s deck. His body stirred in response to the sight of her. Damnation. What was wrong with him? He’d seen attractive women before—Alex Talbot was no different.
But she was. His body tensed and tightened every time he got near her. Even in his dreams, he lusted after her. Those dreams had turned his desire into a constant physical ache. Watching her now, he recalled some of the things he’d done with her luscious body in his dreams. The hedonistic memory hardened his cock immediately.
Shoving his erotic fantasies of her into the back of his head, he frowned. Lust wasn’t the only thing that drew him to Alex. She’d aroused his primal instincts as well. His friendship with the professor was a compelling reason for him to protect her. But it was more than that.
The need to protect her from harm went deeper. It touched a primeval part of him he’d never experienced before. Instinct, not logic, dictated his actions where she was concerned. Even the possibility of her scorn hadn’t made a difference in his determination to watch over her.
Scowling, he studied Alex with narrowed eyes. The ethnic slurs society had always directed at him no longer cut deep as they once had. It had been years since he’d allowed himself to feel anything about the opinions of others. Caroline had taught him that hard, but important lesson. The way she’d left him had made him realize his mixed blood was an insurmountable barrier. He could never trust a woman to love him for who he was, not what he was. A half-breed.
Even if Alex didn’t bear any prejudices, keeping her at arm’s length was the best thing to do. But that would be far from easy. He growled a noise of frustration. He should never have given his word to guide the professor and his party to Khatana-Qantir in search of Per-Ramesses. It’s what had gotten him into this mess in the first place.
Content to study her from afar for just a bit longer, he folded his arms across his chest and watched as she directed the loading of her luggage onto the ship. A bundle of energy, she’d led him on a merry dance this past week as he’d tracked her movements. It hadn’t been an easy task getting her passage switched from the Corinthian to his own ship.
The Corinthian’s captain had balked fiercely at parting with two passengers and their supplies. The man’s resistance had forced him to trade a profitable Calcutta cargo for an agreement to transfer Alex and her friend to the Moroccan Wind. Then again, he could honestly say the man had more than earned his fee considering Alex’s reaction to losing her passage.
Tucked away in a darkened doorway across from the Corinthian’s berth, he’d seen Alex’s fury when the captain informed her of the change in plans. Although he’d been too far away to hear what she was saying, her body language had been easy enough to read. God help him if she discovered he’d arranged the switch. She would definitely not take kindly to his attempts to keep her safe and out of trouble.
Shrugging slightly at the thought, he wondered if Professor Talbot had ever considered his daughter headstrong. He could imagine the headaches the man must have experienced if that were the case.
Obstinate, independent and forthright, the woman didn’t hesitate to make her wishes known.
She was also determined to succeed in her quest. Her thoroughness in arranging her trip convinced him that she and her father had considered as many contingencies as possible for their journey, except for one. The professor’s death.
The fact that he would never have the honor of meeting Alexander Talbot in person saddened him. Their correspondence had been a pleasant one, and he’d readily agreed to guide the man’s archeological party to Khatana-Qantir. When he’d confirmed his agreement last month, he’d done so thinking the letter writer was the professor, not his daughter. Knowing he’d agreed to lead this expedition without knowing the man was dead was a source of irritation. Bedouin hospitality and his sense of honor decreed he had no choice but to abide by his commitment. And something told him Alex Talbot knew that and had counted on it.
Like a feather stroking his skin, the strange accent of her voice filtered its way into his senses. His mouth went dry as her American inflection tantalized and excited him. Grimacing, he shook his head.
He needed to end this fascination he had for the woman. The last time he’d experienced a similar stirring of emotion, he’d paid dearly. Even if he were foolish enough to let a woman into his life, she’d find his nomadic lifestyle taxing. Living on the fringe of English society was almost as difficult as the challenges of his desert existence.
Any woman who cared for him would have to suffer both. He could easily give up England, but love of family and home would never allow him to give up the desert. It didn’t matter anyway. He’d yet to meet a woman willing to accept him for who he was and not his heritage. From aboard ship, Alex’s odd-sounding accent stroked his senses again as she chastised one of the sailors.
“No, no. Those trunks are to go in my cabin. I don’t want them in the hold where water might get at them.”
“But miss, there’s no more room in your cabin. Where will you sleep?” The raspy voice of one of the sailors was a direct contrast to Alex’s silky one.
“Surely there’s another cabin on board I can use.”
“No, miss. It’s best we put the trunks below.”
Altair sensed a battle brewing and crossed the quay to stride up the gangplank intent on suppressing a mutiny. “It’s all right, Sully. Put the trunk in Miss Talbot’s cabin.”
“Aye, my lord.” The sailor nodded respectfully and moved away.
Spinning around to face him, Alex brushed a stray lock of golden-brown hair out of her face, tucking it behind her ear. From where he’d stood on the dock, she’d only been visible from the shoulders up. Now, seeing her up close, his body reacted immediately to her appearance.
Good God, had the woman taken leave of her senses?
She wore her male garments with an easy-going confidence that astounded him. A beige pair of trousers, tucked into black riding boots, hugged her shapely legs to the point of distraction. It was clear she wasn’t wearing a corset, and the white lawn shirt she wore sent his mind reeling.
Perspiration molded the material to her skin, the shirt clinging to the voluptuous curves of her breasts. His initial reaction was a desire to pull her close and cup the round softness of her. Taking his time, he’d unbutton her shirt until he’d freed her lush breasts and could suckle her. The thought of doing so tugged at his groin, and it was only through sheer willpower that he didn’t reach for her at that very moment. Even more amazing was how she was unaware of the havoc her appearance was wreaking on his body.
Were all Americans this mad? If Lord Merrick were to see her now, the man would see to it that anything she found at Khatana-Qantir would never see the light of day. Credibility for a woman in the archeology field was almost impossible to achieve, but it called for decorum, not blatant defiance of social standards.
Not a single board member of the British Museum would take her work seriously if they saw her dressed like this. Not to mention what the crew must be thinking. He watched a grizzly sailor walk by her with a leering grin on his face. The man needed to keep his eyes front.
“You there,” he snarled at the sailor. “Keep your eyes and your head on your business.”
Blanching from the scathing order, the sailor bobbed his head. “Aye, my lord.”
The man scuttled off, leaving Altair to glare after him. He’d have to instruct Balfour to make sure the men knew they weren’t to go near Alex. As for him, he needed to stay as far away from this woman as he could. And that was going to be far easier said than done.
His gaze flashed back to her face, which was flushed with exertion. Hazel eyes sparkled with excitement and her full lips beckoned him like forbidden fruit. It was a lovely mouth. Tempting him to taste her. She looked delicious enough to eat, and the thought of doing so made his groin tighten with lust. Crimson suddenly crested high on her cheeks, and he allowed a small smile to curve his lips.
“Lord Blakeney, this is a surprise. Have you come to see us off?”
“Not exactly.” He shook his head at her puzzled frown. “I told you I’d find someone to escort you to Egypt, and I have.”
“Well, where is he?”
“Right here.” He folded his arms and quirked an eyebrow as he waited for her reaction.
“I could think of no one else better suited to help you succeed in your search for Per-Ramesses.”
“But I…you can’t possibly be serious.” Consternation furrowed her forehead.
“Does this mean you’re refusing my services? If so, I’ll ask the crew to start removing your luggage and supplies.”
“What are you talking about?” She narrowed her gaze at him, fingers splayed over her hips as she rested her hands on her waist. The movement jutted her full breasts out toward him, and he swallowed hard.
“The Moroccan Wind is my ship, and it’s the only one headed for Egypt in the next four weeks. If you wait for another ship, you’ll find the desert all the more treacherous at the beginning of summer.”
Amusement forced him to bite the inside of his cheek as she glared up at him. Manipulation wasn’t a pleasurable pastime for Alex Talbot. He would need to be more subtle in the future or he would likely have a miniature sirocco on his hands. The idea of taming that storm shot a bolt of anticipation through him. He immediately crushed the thought.
“How many dialects of Arabic do you speak, my lord? Sheikh Mazir is a Berber, how do I know you can communicate with him?”
Not for the first time, the irony of the situation wasn’t lost on him. The only communication problems Alex Talbot would have with Sheikh Mazir would be if she didn’t do as he instructed. He’d made a mistake not telling her who he was in the beginning, but the bridges were in flames behind him. What alarmed him was his desire to avoid earning her anger and contempt. Disturbed by the knowledge, he narrowed his gaze.
“I’m fluent in a number of different Arabic dialects and more than capable of conversing with your Sheikh,” he snapped as he sent her a cold look. “So unless you’re ready to give up this quest of yours, I suggest you hold your tongue.”
A stunned expression clouded her face as she stared up at him, her eyes wide. Without saying a word, she turned and walked away. Her silent response made him grimace. The hurt in her wide gaze made him believe she was far more vulnerable than he’d realized. About to follow her, he drew up short when he sensed someone approach him from behind.
“My lord, we should be done loading the cargo within the next hour, shall I give the word to set sail?”
Turning to the captain, he nodded. “That will be satisfactory, Captain Balfour. I’m eager to see whether we can beat the Bint-el-Nil’s eight-day record.”
“Aye, my lord.” The Captain grinned. “I was hoping you’d ask me to test this lady’s capabilities. I look forward to doing so.”
“Then what do you say to a wager? A bottle of my finest brandy if you make it to Cairo in seven days.”
“And if I make it in six, my lord?” The older man grinned again.
Laughing, he clapped the master sailor on the shoulder. “Then you’ll have earned a case of the prized drink.”
“Done.” The captain shook his hand then strode away with the rolling jaunt so typical of mariners.
Alone again, Altair instinctively turned his head and searched for Alex. Disappointed when she didn’t materialize in his line of sight, he sighed and headed toward his cabin. Alex Talbot didn’t care what he thought. The woman had one goal in mind and that was to discover Per-Ramesses. He rubbed his neck muscles in a weary gesture. Something told him the journey he was undertaking would be far more difficult than he could ever imagine.
“I couldn’t believe it. He just stood there and calmly informed me he was going to be our escort to Cairo,” Alex exclaimed.
The heels of her shoes echoed her aggravation as she paced the floor of the cabin that doubled as the ship’s salon and dining room. Even more annoying was the sound of the pink silk evening gown she wore at Jane’s insistence. Glancing down at the simplicity of her dress, she emitted a disgruntled sigh. At least she’d been able to convince the dressmaker to take off all the ruffles and fripperies that had originally covered the gown. When they set out for Per-Ramesses she was foregoing any type of dress whatsoever.
Why couldn’t she be brazen and wear men’s clothing all the time? Because you know how that behavior would be viewed, Alexandra Talbot. It was difficult to forget the appalled look in Lord Blakeney’s eyes this morning when he’d seen her dressed as a man. But there had been another expression on his face too. Desire.
The memory of his hot gaze skimming over her sent a frisson of excitement dancing across her skin. The way he’d looked at her on deck had sent hundreds of tiny wings fluttering inside her stomach. And she’d liked it even more when he’d kissed her. The thought of his kiss heated her body. He would be a masterful lover, confident and sure in his ability to please a woman. The image of him naked made her ears burn as dismay shot through her.
She didn’t want to like how Lord Blakeney looked at her, and she certainly didn’t want or need his protection. After all, she and Father had meticulously planned every detail of this trip. She wasn’t some silly girl in need of a strong man’s guidance. And she most definitely wasn’t about to let the man tell her what she could and couldn’t do.
“I don’t know why you’re so upset. The man is simply trying to be helpful.” Jane sat at the table. Shaking out her napkin in a dainty motion, she laid it in her lap.
Alex sighed with frustration. “I know that, but you weren’t there last week when Lord Merrick was treating me like some simpleton, incapable of one clear thought.”
“Well that doesn’t mean Lord Blakeney feels that way.”
“That’s just my point, Jane. I don’t know anything about the man. He works at the British Museum, and in the Egyptology department, for heaven’s sake. For all I know, the man is coming along simply to report back to Merrick. I can’t trust him. I don’t want to trust him.”
“Really, Alex, I think you’re over exaggerating. Lord Blakeney is a gentleman, I’m sure his intentions are nothing but honorable.”
“Perhaps, but the last thing I want is Blakeney, or any man, watching my every move on this trip.”
“Come, sit down.” Jane pointed at the seat across from her at the dining table. “All this pacing of yours is making me weary. I don’t know where you get all your energy.”
“It’s excitement. I just wish Father and Uncle Jeffrey were here.” Alex bent her head to contemplate the tips of her pink kid shoes peeking out from under her gown. Her father and uncle would have made this trip not only exciting, but exceedingly amusing as well.
“Oh, Alex. I know how hard this is for you.” Jane sighed. “Losing someone is always painful, but we both know they wouldn’t have wanted you to grieve so.”
Her friend’s soft reply made her start. Jane had suffered loss in the past as well. She quickly rounded the table and gave her friend a hug.
“I’m sorry. Will it make you feel better if I say I’ll make a distinct effort to seek out Lord Blakeney’s good points?”
Her question provoked Jane’s laughter. “Why, Alexandra Talbot, if I didn’t know better, I’d say you were interested in the man.”
Appalled, Alex stepped away from her friend. “Don’t be ridiculous!”
“If you ask me, the fact that he’s charming and handsome will make the voyage pass that much more quickly.”
Alex took her seat across from her friend and released an unladylike snort of disgust. “I might have known you’d pick up that particular refrain.”
“Are you telling me you’re completely impervious to our host’s considerable charms?”
The teasing note in her friend’s voice made Alex grimace. She wasn’t about to let her friend know just how disturbing Lord Blakeney was to her senses.
“I have no use for a man intent on charming me. I’m quite content with my life as it is. Give me a statue of Ramesses or Anubis any day over the affections of a man.”
“Statues are a cold substitute for the warmth of a lover,” said the source of her misery as he entered the medium-sized cabin.
Alex jerked her head around in his direction and sent him an askance look. Her reward was a small smile curving his mouth, while the dancing light of laughter in his eyes twisted her insides in too many directions. The man obviously took pleasure in goading her. Well, she refused to play his game.
Jane, the traitor, smiled a welcome as the man bowed over an extended hand.
“Good evening, Lord Blakeney.”
“Good evening, Mrs. Beacon. Welcome aboard the Moroccan Wind.”
“You must forgive Alex, she’s usually quite charming, but I’m afraid her desire to reach our destination has made her a touch edgy.”
“Indeed.” The smooth one-word observation made her feel as if he’d given her a lengthy lecture. “Good evening, Miss Talbot.”
“Good evening,” she mumbled before ducking her head to avoid his gaze. He took a seat at the end of the short table. One hand resting on the white damask tablecloth, he toyed with the stem of his wineglass that a porter had filled the moment he entered the room.
Out of the corner of her eye, Alex eyed his fingers as they caressed the crystal. The memory of his fingers caressing the tops of her breasts made her suck in a sharp breath. Heat spread its way over her skin as her nipples grew taut, pushing against the restraint of her corset. Her gaze flitted toward him, and her mouth went dry as she found him watching her. Ducking her head, she struggled to control her body’s reaction to him.
The porter held a platter of roast beef in front of her, and she gratefully took a helping. Anything to avoid the unsettling gaze that so easily triggered a hundred different wanton thoughts and needs inside of her. Determined to eat and escape to her cabin, Alex ate in silence, barely following the conversation between her friend and Lord Blakeney. She’d almost finished her meal when Jane smiled at her.
“Isn’t that right, Alex?”
Caught with food in her mouth, she quickly swallowed the bite-size potato as she shook her head. “What?”
“I said all this started with your Uncle Jeffrey.”
“What did?” She frowned for an instant. “Oh, you mean the search for Per-Ramesses. Yes, it all started with Uncle Jeffrey.”
“The one who was a spiritualist?” The deep note of his voice caressed every inch of her body, and a tremor raced down her back. Dear Lord, the man’s voice was enough to make her mouth water. The memory of his seductive voice telling her how beautiful her mouth was teased its way through her head. Flustered, she tried to focus on the conversation.
“Yes, Uncle Jeffrey told Father all about the city and where to find Nourbese’s tomb.” A sudden snapping sound rent the air, and Alex stared in astonishment as the crystal glass in Lord Blakeney’s hand shattered beneath the force of his grip.
“Blast,” he growled.
The sight of blood dripping from his hand made Alex’s stomach lurch with a sickening thud, and she could feel the color draining from her face. Across from her, Jane hastily sprang to her feet.
“Oh no you don’t, Alexandra Talbot. You are not going to faint. His Lordship is fine.” Reaching her side, Jane quickly fanned the air in front of Alex. Closing her eyes, she could feel the room spinning around her. Oh, God, she didn’t want him to see her this weak. This helpless. Despite her best intentions, she sank into a dark oblivion.
Murmurs echoed over Alex’s head as her eyes fluttered open. The dark brown gaze of the man bent over her sent a warm pulse of pleasure circulating through her veins. Disoriented, she shifted her attention away from him and realized she was lying on the couch that sectioned off the salon portion of the cabin from the dining area. Jane peered down at her from over Lord Blakeney’s shoulder. A look of merriment gleamed in her violet eyes.
“Well, now. You look much better than you did a few moments ago. At least you have a little color in your face.” Jane winked at her. Her friend obviously found her situation vastly amusing.
“How are you feeling?” The quiet concern in his voice wrapped Alex in a warm cloak of protection. She enjoyed the sensation, and a wave of color warmed her cheeks at the knowledge.
“Much better, thank you.” She pushed herself up into a sitting position, her arm exploding with heat as his hand cupped her elbow to assist. Remembering the reason for her faint, she swallowed and took a quick peek at his hand. White cloth bound two of his fingers. “And you?”
“A few scratches, nothing serious.”
He stood upright, and stepped back to allow her to rise. When she was on her feet again, Jane eyed her with skepticism. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
Although the room reeled in front of her, Alex nodded. She refused to faint again. “I’ll be fine. What I need is some fresh air. If you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go up on deck.”
“Not me, I’m going to stay here and study that Coptic dictionary you gave me.” Jane strolled over to a small reading-table and picked up a thin volume. “Something tells me it’s going to come in very handy in the near future.”
“I’ll join you.” The husky timbre of his voice told Alex not to argue with him.
She slid a sidelong glance in his direction before nodding. Jane had already sunk down into a comfortable chair near the gaslight, and Alex sent her friend a glare of reproof before walking out into the night. The salty tang in the air filled her lungs and told her they were well out to sea. With a sigh of appreciation, she looked up at the beauty of the night sky.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
With a nod at his observation, she moved forward across the open deck, her eyes pinned on the sky. Still a bit woozy from her recent faint, she stumbled forward as the ship encountered a large swell and lurched over the wave. Strong arms prevented her from falling as he pulled her into his side.
Fire enveloped her with the speed of a hawk in its dive. Disconcerted by the wanton sensations racing through her, she arched away from him. Beneath her fingers, his muscles tensed under the lightweight material of his jacket. In an instant, she was free of his embrace. No sooner had she put distance between them, than she craved to be back in his arms.
“Thank you,” she murmured. “It seems I’ve been saying that a great deal to you since we first met.”
“Your gratitude is unnecessary.”
His flat response troubled her. The moonlight cast his dark features into relief, his eyes staring at something beyond the bow of the ship. His stern demeanor made her think she’d offended him somehow.
“Perhaps not, but you have my thanks nonetheless.”
His reply was a sharp nod. With a brisk flick of his wrist, he gestured for them to continue forward along the deck. Strolling across the wood flooring, they reached the ship’s rail. The sculpted wood was slightly damp from the ocean mist as she grasped the chest-high barrier. Below, dark waters parted to make way for the ship as white foam and spray threw itself against the sides of the vessel. Once more, she stared up at the night sky, her body throbbing with an unexplained awareness of the man standing next to her.
“What will you do if you find Per-Ramesses?” His unexpected question surprised her.
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“If you find the ancient city, what will you do? Excavate the entire site or allow someone else to do it?”
“Someone like the British Museum, you mean?” It was impossible to restrain her bitterness.
He glanced down at her, his gaze unreadable in the dark. “I’m sure the Museum will be more than happy to look at your findings.”
“And take the credit for my work as well,” she said coolly.
“If you do know where Per-Ramesses is, then you’re about to make history, and no one can take that away from you.”
“Perhaps, but it won’t stop the Museum from trying. The idea of a woman archeologist is heresy.”
“I’ve not noticed that it’s stopped you so far.” There was a thin layer of humor in his deep voice and one corner of her mouth tugged her lips into a small smile.
Silence drifted between them, and Alex leaned on the ship’s raised banister. Staring out over the water, she watched the moonlight dance across the restless waves. The man puzzled her. He acted as if it was quite natural for her, a woman, to start out on a quest to find Ramesses’ lost city. His reaction made her nervous. Why was he so eager to help her?
First, he’d arranged for her to have access to the Rosetta Stone. Then he’d appointed himself the task of escorting her to Egypt. When the Corinthian revoked her passage, she’d been annoyed, but put it down to coincidence until this morning when he’d come on board. His blithe announcement that the Moroccan Wind belonged to him had stunned her.
She didn’t know how, but he was responsible for her losing her berth on the Corinthian. Her intuition told her that. Somehow he’d maneuvered her into traveling on his ship, and it irritated her. She had no need of a protector, especially one as disturbing and dangerously attractive as Lord Blakeney.
Beside her, he shifted slightly, his arm brushing against hers. The instant fluttering of her heart made her swallow hard. Maybe she did need a protector. Someone to help her guard against these feelings he aroused in her. Despite her best efforts, every time the man came near her, her body erupted with fire and heat.
But could she trust him? The only thing she knew about him was that he worked for the British Museum. That, in and of itself, was enough to make her want to keep him at arm’s length. Still, as much as it displeased her to admit it, his presence wasn’t completely unwelcome. He did make her feel safe, especially since she was certain someone had been following her for the past week.
She’d tried to put it down to her imagination, but that was difficult to do when the same man kept turning up everywhere she went gathering supplies for the trip. Much to her chagrin, the man’s presence had unnerved her, making her think back to the recent deaths of her uncle and father. Their deaths had seemed natural, but the man following her had simply raised more doubts. Uncle Jeffrey had warned them they’d be met with resistance, but he’d never explained. His warning had taken on new meaning now.
Could their deaths have been murder? But how? She wouldn’t even question their deaths if it weren’t for the fact they’d both died of the same illness six months apart. That could not be a coincidence. But she was at a loss to understand how or, more importantly, why.
And what about her narrow escape in the Museum? That could have easily been an accident, but her instincts told her differently. Then there was Lord Blakeney’s obvious interference. With all that had happened she was wary about his motives. Still, despite her distrust of him, his sincerity seemed genuine, and something about him reassured her, comforted her.
Her father would have liked him. They seemed to have similar temperaments. Uncle Jeffrey would have simply relaxed and enjoyed the pleasure of having two potential victims for his rapier wit. Beside her, she heard him clear his throat.
“You mentioned Nourbese’s tomb earlier. It’s unusual for anyone outside the desert to know that name.”
“Uncle Jeffrey is the one who introduced us to Nourbese.” Alex grinned at the memory. “Although Father and I were ready to have him declared insane.”
“Because the first time he mentioned her, he claimed he was the reincarnation of Ramesses and that Nourbese had been his wife.”
He sucked in a quick breath. She laughed at the restraint of his reaction. Her father’s response had been a bit more explosive. Lord Blakeney obviously found the idea difficult to accept as well.
“Your reaction isn’t quite the same one Father and I had. I can still remember Father storming out of the library the day Uncle Jeffrey asked us to find Nourbese’s tomb. It wasn’t until he produced some clear evidence that we realized there might be some truth to his vision.”
“Uncle Jeffrey described it as that. He’d been working in the garden when he said he was transported back to another place and time. His descriptions of the images were quite vivid. Naturally, we were quite skeptical, but when he drew several hieroglyphic symbols he’d seen on one of the monuments in his dream, Father and I were convinced he’d indeed had a vision.”
“Why would the drawings convince you?”
Alex turned back to stare out at the ocean. A chill skated over her skin as she remembered translating the symbols. Trust not the Mazir who lies for he intends only death and destruction to those in his path. Whoever that person was he was dangerous, and she, for one, intended to keep her distance.
“Uncle Jeffrey was the quintessential businessman and he amassed a fortune expanding the family business. The man could tell you to the penny how much his quarterly statements were, but he wouldn’t have known the difference between the Coptic alphabet or a hieroglyph to save that fortune.”
“And the hieroglyphs he drew, what was the translation?” There was an intense note of curiosity in his voice, and Alex stiffened. An inquisitive nature was one thing, but his interest made her wary.
“Oh, a tribute to Nourbese and references to several landmarks near Per-Ramesses.”
Lying always made her uneasy, especially when the translation was a warning. She didn’t look at him, but she immediately sensed the tension in him abating. The way he was acting made her think he knew more about Nourbese than he had admitted. Did he know the entire story about the doomed priestess?
The first time she’d read Nourbese’s story it had astonished her. Her father had found an obscure text with the woman’s story in it, and it had taken four or five readings to ensure her translation was correct. Legend said that Ramesses had fallen in love with the young woman and married her.
Politics had come into play because Nourbese had not been of royal blood. A member of the Mazir tribe, her place in the Pharaoh’s house had been a precarious one. So precarious she’d been murdered shortly after the birth of her son. The politicians had insisted Nourbese’s tomb be hidden from view as she wasn’t royalty.
Ramesses had disregarded the demand, which resulted in the robbery and desecration of his wife’s tomb. Devastated, he’d built another tomb for his beloved wife in a secluded location. The storytellers said that only the rib of Ramesses would identify Nourbese’s current resting place, but they never described the rib itself.
She was fairly certain the rib was an artifact of some sort, but couldn’t be for sure. Did Blakeney know any of this? If so, why didn’t he tell her? The thought that he might actually be working for the Museum sent a note of disappointment sailing through her. She shivered.
“You’re cold.” He immediately slipped out of his jacket and draped it over her exposed shoulders.
The heat of his body still permeated the coat, his scent lingering in the air. Her senses tingled at the spicy aroma. Standing in the shadow of his warmth, she trembled again as his hawk-eyed gaze scanned her face. Once more the image of a pharaoh entered her head as she looked at him.
A long finger trailed over her cheek, making her throat tighten with a knot of anticipation. The light touch tensed every muscle in her body as she saw his eyes darken. What was it about this man that made her want to forget everything but the potency of his touch?
Mesmerized, she couldn’t move, and her pulse rate jumped to more than twice its normal speed.
His gaze never left hers as his fingers glided across the base of her throat down to the low vee of her gown. The caress made her inhale sharply, and her breasts pushed against her undergarments with a painful awareness. The achy sensation skimmed its way through her limbs until it peaked just below her belly.
Hard hands encircled her arms as his jacket slipped off her shoulders and fell to the deck. She didn’t care because her body was on fire. Beneath his fingers, the thin slips of material that served as her sleeves slid downward. The action made her bodice drop to the edge of her corset and she drew in a sharp breath.
Lord but she wanted him to kiss her again. She needed to feel his mouth dancing across hers. In some deep portion of her brain, a warning rang out against this dangerous attraction, but she did nothing to stop the inexorable motion of his body pulling her against him.
Each one of her nerve endings was tuned to a feverish pitch as she trembled in his grasp. Her hands splayed across his wide chest as she looked up at him. Muscles tense with expectation, she didn’t protest as he embraced her fully in his arms. Instead she reveled in the wanton sensations bombarding her body as he held her close.
The sound of the sea enveloped them as Altair drank in the crisp scent of sea mist on her skin. The soft, delicious smell of honey drifted up from her hair. It suited her. It reflected her strength and vulnerability, but most of all it whispered a seductive invitation as powerful as the Nile itself.
Her small tongue darted out to wet her upper lip, and his cock stirred to life at the sight. The feel of her in his arms made him grow hard, and the image of her lying beneath him on a bed of silk cushions made him lower his head toward the fullness of her mouth. He knew it was insane, but he wanted one more taste of her. Perhaps it was the only way to drive her out of his head. Get these maddening images of her out of his thoughts.
“My lord.” The intrusive sound of Sully’s voice pulled a groan from Altair’s lips. Damn it to hell. Could the man have not timed his intrusion better? He quickly released Alex.
“What is it, Sully?”
“Captain said to tell you a storm’s brewing from the southwest, and that you might want to encourage the ladies to stay in their cabins.” Altair looked in the direction the sailor had stated. A dark mass of clouds had erupted into the night sky with surprising suddenness.
“Thank you, Sully. I’ll see Miss Talbot to her cabin. Please attend to Mrs. Beacon.”
“Aye, my lord.”
He turned to Alex, only to find her gone, his discarded jacket on the deck the only evidence of her recent presence. Cursing softly, he retrieved the coat and shrugged back into it. Insane, that’s what he was. Insane. What had made him think to even attempt kissing her? The answer stirred in his trousers again.
“Bloody hell,” he snarled. Reaching out for the ship’s railing, he gripped it tight beneath his fingers.
He needed to stay as far away from Alex Talbot as possible or he’d surely suffer the torment of the damned. She was intoxicating, but he needed to put her out of reach. The dull ache in his fingers reminded him of the cuts he’d suffered from the broken crystal. It was a rare occasion when someone could startle him, but Alex had done just that when she’d mentioned Nourbese’s name. Myths were many among the Mazir tribe, but of all of them, Pharaoh’s first wife was the most treasured and revered of all names.
Lightning flashed out over the water, accompanied by a clap of thunder. The waves crashing against the Moroccan Wind’s hull muffled the storm’s roar. From the way the wind had picked up, Altair knew they would soon be in the midst of heavy rain. He breathed in the fresh tang of the mist blowing into his face as his thoughts turned back to Nourbese.
Since her death, descendants of Nourbese and Pharaoh had led the Mazir tribe. Even he, despite his own half-breed existence, carried their blood in him. Her name had disappeared from ancient texts and monuments long ago, but her story lived on in the fireside tales of the Mazir storytellers.
Throughout his childhood, he’d listened with fascination to the legend of his beautiful ancestor. The temple priests in Thebes, afraid of Nourbese’s influence over Ramesses, had murdered the tribeswoman after the birth of her son. Pharaoh had just come to power, and a political struggle had prompted the heinous crime. Only the quick thinking of Nourbese’s maidservant had saved Pharaoh’s son from the same fate as his mother. With the child safely delivered to the Mazir tribe, Nourbese’s father, the Sheik el Mazir, kept his grandson hidden fearing for the child’s life.
Mad with grief at the loss of his wife and uncertain as to the fate of his son, Ramesses built an elaborate tomb for his beloved, burying her with the great ceremony befitting a queen. Not satisfied with their evil deeds, the priests broke into Nourbese’s tomb and stole her canopic jars, intent on condemning her soul to wander the void between Egypt and the afterlife.
In return, Ramesses wiped out all existence of the priest sect responsible for the atrocity, along with their temples and families. Recovering his beloved’s canopic jars and sarcophagus, Ramesses moved his government to Per-Ramesses, carrying Nourbese’s remains with him. He interred her in a cloistered location, marking her tomb with the rib of Ramesses—a sign only the woman crowned with hawk feathers would recognize.
A large drop of rain splattered across Altair’s hand. More raindrops pelted his cheeks as he turned his face up to the sky. Above him, another bolt of lightning lit the dark, illuminating the masts and unfurled sails. Captain Balfour stood on the bridge, shouting directions at crewmembers scrambling to comply with his orders. Something about the man’s stance told Altair they were in for some rough seas.
The wind had already increased its intensity in the past few minutes alone. Striding over to the stairs leading to the bridge, he reached the captain’s side in a matter of seconds.
“How bad?” he shouted over the howling gale.
“Bad enough, my lord.” Balfour pointed toward the bow of the ship and the black, starless sky ready to engulf them. “We can’t go round it. We’ll have to pass through the heart of the beast.”
Nodding, Altair barely kept his balance as a large wave crashed into the bow, roughly rolling the ship to one side. Aware he could do nothing but get in the captain’s way, he descended to the main deck and entered the dimly lit corridor leading to the main cabins. Rivulets of rain streaked down his back as he braced his hands on either wall of the corridor, waiting for the ship to recover from its roll.
A loud crash sounded in the cabin behind him, and a muffled scream tensed his muscles. Spinning around, he moved quickly to the cabin door. With his balled fist, he pounded on the wooden barrier.
“Alex, are you all right?”
Not hearing an answer, he tried to open the door. It cracked only slightly. No light came from inside the cabin, and dread scraped a bony finger over his spine. “Damn it to hell, Alex! Answer me.”
“I’m here.” The faint sound of her voice eased some of his fear.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes, but I’m stuck.”
Altair threw his shoulder against the door and pushed with all his strength. This time the wood barrier gave way enough for him to peer into the dark cabin. From the corridor’s gaslights, he could make out trunks stacked from floor to ceiling. “Damnation,” he growled in disgust.
“I am not an angel from hell, my lord, and I’ll thank you to remember that.”
“It was an expression of irritation, Alex. And to ensure I don’t use the phrase again within your hearing, these trunks are going into the hold tomorrow morning.”
“We’ll see about that,” she muttered.
Silently cursing her for her stubbornness, Altair pushed on the door again so he could slide into the cabin. In the dim light, he could make out the trunk blocking the door. He shoved it out of the way then turned to see Alex pinned against the wall by a large steamer trunk.
“Are you hurt?” he asked as he set her free.
“No, I’m fine, just a little shaken.”
Once again, the ship rolled roughly to one side. Losing his balance, he stumbled forward, pinning Alex between him and the wall. With his hands pressed against the wall, her body molded itself into his hard figure. She fit him perfectly. With great effort he tried to swallow the knot of desire swelling in his throat. Reluctant to withdraw, he slowly pushed away from her.
The soft gaslight from the corridor revealed the sheerest of nightgowns covering her sensual curves, and her golden-brown hair curled riotously down onto her shoulders. His mouth went dry at the enticing sight. Even in the dim light, he could make out the dusky nipples cresting against the transparent material covering her creamy skin. They were taut buds beneath the sheer cloth. He ached to lower his head and suck on her. Without realizing his intentions, his hand touched her side, slowly moving up to just below one tempting breast.
Her gasp of surprise blew warm air across his cheek, but she didn’t resist as his thumb gently stroked her. Gold lights sparkled in her hazel eyes, and her breasts rose and fell rapidly, encouraging him to continue. With a slow caress, he slid his thumb over the swollen nipple that beckoned so invitingly through the fine silk of her sleepwear.
Again, she gasped, but it was a sound of delight. He lowered his head to the side of her soft neck, breathing in her delicious honeyed scent. She trembled against him as he kissed her creamy skin. The soft moan parting her lips captured his attention, and slanting his mouth over hers, he drank in the sweet taste of her. The heady sensation of his lips against hers shook him to the core.
She tasted even more delectable than he remembered. He cupped her fullness with his hands, his thumbs tracing circles around the hard pebbles on each breast. As she leaned into him, his cock swelled in his trousers to a hard length. Damn if she wasn’t the most tempting creature he’d caressed in a long time. She was like a desert flower, sweet smelling yet exotic to the point of distraction. Need surged through him and he impatiently sought the heat inside her mouth. As his tongue mated with hers, triumph whetted his hunger at her tentative response. She wanted him. It delighted him that she didn’t try to pull away. Instead, she arched her body closer to him, a tiny mewl whispering from her throat.
God, but she felt good in his arms. Eager, supple and fiery, she pressed her body to him. She was a perfect fit against him. How tight would she be around his cock? The image of plunging into her made his ballocks draw up with need. At the excruciating pleasure it gave him, he shuddered against her, almost losing his seed.
Sanity lashed out at him as his cock demanded satisfaction. What the hell was he doing? He wasn’t some barbarian willing to take his pleasure of her in this manner. He was supposed to be keeping her safe from harm, but instead, he was indulging himself and his craving for her.
His body protested violently as he struggled to bring his raging desire under control. Damnation, but he wanted to take her here and now. Wanted to feel her hot passage clenching around his cock as he slid inside her. Shaken by the intensity of his emotions, he roughly pushed himself away from her. With a sharp shake of his head he tried to clear the lustful thoughts threatening to overwhelm his self-control.
“Bloody hell,” he growled. “Where’s your robe?”
“On…on the bed.” Her voice throbbed with passion, and he fought the urge to pull her back into his arms.
He glanced over his shoulder and saw her filmy robe lying beneath a trunk that had fallen onto the bed. The ship rolled again and he watched the trunks teeter in their precarious positions. With a quick move, he lifted one corner of the trunk and retrieved the robe. Extending his arm in an abrupt gesture, he handed the garment to her.
“Put this on before I do more than just kiss you, woman.”
She didn’t hesitate to follow his orders. When she was completely covered, he grabbed her elbow and pulled her out into the corridor. The rolling ship threw her into his side, and his body groaned with a need he’d not assuaged in months. He’d disposed of his last mistress more than four months ago and not replaced her. Now the tempting figure clinging to his side was testing the very limits of his self-control.
He wanted nothing more than to pick her up and carry her to his cabin. Plunging into her heated silk depths would be like absorbing the warmth of a desert morning sun. He growled with self-disgust and dragged her down the narrow passageway to the cabin he knew Jane Beacon occupied.
His fist slammed into the wood with a knock that echoed the thunder bellowing outside. “Mrs. Beacon, it’s Lord Blakeney.”
Moments later, Alex’s friend opened the door, her forehead creased with worry. Not waiting for the woman to ask any questions, he thrust Alex forward. “Miss Talbot’s room is full of trunks, and the rough seas make it far too dangerous for her to sleep in there. If I hadn’t heard her scream, she might have been seriously injured or worse. She only just narrowly escaped harm.”
He didn’t look at Alex, but his fingers felt her stiffen in his tight grasp. The ship rolled again, but his firmly planted feet kept him balanced. Releasing Alex, he made to turn away. Her hand touched his sleeve halting his departure.
“Thank you, my lord.”
“You’re welcome,” he said gruffly. “Tomorrow those trunks are going into the hold.”
“But I can’t risk—”
“Tomorrow, Alex.” Without waiting for her to argue, he strode away.