by Susan Squires
EL GOLEA, SAHARA DESERT, AUGUST l8l8
Fear drained away as he watched her from underneath his lashes. One long gold-painted nail beckoned to him. She lay draped across the chaise. The blood-red silks that hung from her shoulders were fastened only with a girdle of twined gold at her waist. Outside, the wind began to wail. Sand shushed against the walls of the tent. The scent of cinnamon and something else he could not name suffused the hot, dry air inside. In the dim light her skin glowed with perspiration and the very air vibrated with her vitality. Under the almost transparent fabric her nipples were clearly visible. He did not want to respond to her. But his swelling need surged over him.
“Come,” she said. He could lose himself in those black eyes, lined with kohl.
He staggered to his feet. His naked body was still damp from bathing in the muddy pool of the oasis. His shoulder bled, as well as his thigh. She would like that.
She pointed to a place at her side. He dropped to his knees again. He knew what she wanted, and suddenly he wanted to give it to her more than he had ever wanted anything in his life. He lifted his mouth as she bent her head. Her breasts hung forward, tantalizing. Her lips were soft against his. He kissed her hungrily. Some part of him knew his danger, but the throbbing in his loins cycled up until he was lost.
As she reached for him her eyes began to glow red, blood-red like her silks.
Whispering and low moaning woke him from the nightmare. His veins and arteries carried pain to every fiber of his body. The moaning was his own. “Do it now,” someone whispered in Arabic. He cracked one eye. Light stabbed him. A cluster of men in burnooses hovered over him. The open door silhouetted them in excruciating radiance. Light gleamed on a raised sword. He was too weak, too dispirited, to resist death. He could only clench his eyes shut.
Chaos! Shouting! “What are you doing, man?” someone yelled. “Jenks! Kiley!”
He cowered away from the light, trembling.
“Let him finish it,” an Arab hissed, in English now. “This one is bad. He has the scars.”
“No one will be killed here. This soil is England!” the Englishman roared.
Boot heels clattered. He chanced opening his eyelids a crack. The light was cut by a crowd of bodies in the door. They wore uniforms.
“Escort these men from the compound.” The sword clattered to the ground. The Arabs were hustled out. The Englishman came to stand over him as the door swung mercifully shut. “Why do they bother? He’ll die soon anyway.”
“Pray to your God he does die, Excellency,” the single remaining Arab whispered. The voices were growing indistinct. “And I will pray to Allah.”
The room wavered. Death, he thought. Is that even possible for one such as I?
The Englishman reached forward. “What’s this?”
The leather pouch at his neck jerked. The thong gave way. Darkness ate at the edges of his vision. He heard the gasp as they saw the contents of the pouch.
“Who are you, my friend?”
He could not answer. The darkness was winning. The room dimmed.
“Post a guard. Make sure he’s English.” He heard it from a distance.
SAHARA DESERT, Bl’ER TAGHIERI, SEPTEMBER l8l8
Elizabeth Rochewell gazed around the tiny room: whitewashed walls, a dark wood dresser carved in the native style she found clumsy and dear at once, the bed covered with her own counterpane. How many rooms just like this in how many towns strewn across the Levant and North Africa had she seen since she joined her father on his expeditions? Fifty? Blended together, they represented the only home she had known.
She leaned over to draw the black lace mantilla off the bed by one corner. She had never thought to use this souvenir of Barcelona in such a manner. Indeed, she had expected none of this. The pillar that had crumbled after forty-five hundred years, give or take, tore her father from her so suddenly, so unfairly, she was stunned. It could not be an act of God, for what God could be cruel enough to kill a man at forty-eight, still a very healthy specimen?
The spotted mirror above the dresser showed eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep as she placed the mantilla. She had not slept for more than a few minutes at a time since the awful event. She couldn’t help the face, either. She got it from her Egyptian mother. Her wide-set eyes were neither gold nor green but something in between. Her mouth was too wide for beauty, and her complexion could only be considered brown. Her dark hair was braided and coiled around her head, the only way she could manage it without crimping irons to tame its wild curls. Even so, escaping tendrils frothed about her face. Then there was her figure. She might be well formed enough, but she was short. There were just no two ways about it. Her father said her mother was the most beautiful woman he had ever met and that Beth looked very like her. He must have been blinded by love. She would never be attractive to anyone either in England or Africa. In England she was too Egyptian; here she was too British.
At least she was useful. Beth had spent all her adult life helping her father catalog the history of mankind in the physical traces of ancient times left behind. After a disastrous experience at Crofts School for Girls, she had escaped to join him. It was she who organized her father’s expeditions, she who translated from the ancient texts the clues that guided them on their quest for the lost sister city of Petra. She studied the aging of stones to date their finds. She had found a place at her father’s side. In Africa, people thought of her as some strange creature, not quite woman. She existed beyond conventions.
But that existence disappeared with her father’s death. She pulled the mantilla over her braids. She did not own a black dress, but a round-necked gray cambric gown with a single black ribbon at the throat would do. She could hardly believe she was getting ready for her father’s funeral. He may have been an unconventional parent, but he had loved her as much as she loved him. He was her best friend, her confidant, her professional mentor, and the sole support of a life she loved. What would she do without him?
A bluff knock sounded downstairs. She heard the door open quietly on leather hinges, the small man who owned this apartment salute the guest.
“Monsieur L’Bareaux.” She greeted him in the tiny parlor next to her sleeping quarters.
He was a large man, her father’s partner on the last three expeditions. Monsieur L’Bareaux’s mustache was black and expressive, his kindly eyes an indeterminate gray that could go hard when bargaining. That he was French might surprise, since France and England were incessantly at war. But out here, wars were subordinate to the lure of antiquities. It was the French who, initially armed with money from Napoleon, had swept across the Mediterranean looking for traces of human dynasties long dead. It was a Frenchman, Monsieur Broussard, who had discovered the city of Petra in Palestine six years ago.
Monsieur L’Bareaux was more interested in salability than historical significance. But Monsieur L’Bareaux’s way coincided with her father’s dream. As Edwin Rochewell and his daughter trekked about North Africa looking for the lost city of Kivala, they cataloged one wonderful repository of antiquities after another, leaving Monsieur L’Bareaux plenty of opportunity to send back treasures to his dealers in Paris and provide enough money to help fund the next expedition.
“Do you bear up, Mademoiselle Beth?” His grave gaze roved over her.
“Yes.” Was that true? Beth had not yet been able to cry for her father. She could not yet even comprehend his death. Did that mean she was “bearing up”?
“That’s a good girl.” Monsieur L’Bareaux patted her shoulder. “You are tres fortissant.”
“You really want to know whether I’m ready,” Beth returned in the forthright way that disconcerted so many people in England. “I am.”
Monsieur L’Bareaux opened the door and she plodded down the stairs. She mustn’t think about the fact that she was burying her father today. She must think about how to get what she needed from Monsieur L’Bareaux. It was the only way to carry on her father’s dream. It was the only way to preserve the only existence she knew.
The nightmares receded. He was awake, but he didn’t open his eyes. Something had changed. The burning pain in his veins was gone. In fact, he felt… strong, stronger than he had ever been. Blood pulsed through his arteries. His heart thumped a rhythm in his chest. His senses assaulted him. Linen rasped over his bare skin from a light coverlet. The aroma of beef and onions cooking in olive oil was obvious, as was the jasmine. But dust, the faintest of scented oils, perhaps used long ago, and the smell of leather lurked just under the cooking. How could he smell those things? There was a joyful quality to the surging of his blood. He thrust it away. She told him she felt that way when she fed, just to torment him.
Despair fought with the joy thrumming inside him. He wasn’t going to die. Now he might truly be damned—or worse, he might be Satan himself. Had he become like her?
A doctor. He needed an English doctor. A frightened Arab goatherd had said there were Englishmen at El Golea. Had he made it to his goal? He remembered English voices.
He opened his eyes. It was the room he remembered from his delirium. Slats of sunlight coming through the shutters burned him. He dragged himself from his bed, stumbling to the window. He held himself up by the sill and scraped his fist along the slats to shut them. The wood broke with a crack. Light stabbed through the shattered shutters. He cried out and groped for the curtains hanging to each side of the embrasure. The room was cast into dimness. Even in the darkness he could see every detail of cracked plaster, every dart of a cockroach. Slowly, he sank to the floor, his back pressed against the plaster. How had he broken those shutters?
Booted feet thudded outside. The wooden door set in a border of blue-figured tiles creaked open. He was grateful for the huge form that blocked most of the light. He shielded his eyes. “Light,” he croaked in a voice he did not recognize. “No light.”
“Sorry,” the figure said in English with a soft reminder of Yorkshire at the edges. It was the voice from his fever. The door closed. “You must have had enough of sun.”
Now that the room was dim, he could see the figure for what it was. The face was English through and through, with slightly protuberant pale blue eyes, a prominent nose, and a chin that could have used a bit more strength. Still the man would be considered handsome. He wore the uniform of the Seventh Cavalry. How long since he had seen boots? The man had eaten eggs and dates and toast with orange marmalade for breakfast. Once he would never have known that. Now the fact that he could smell it frightened him. He could not let this Englishman know what he was, or the man would never help him to an English doctor.
“Yes,” he croaked, because the man expected something. The pale blue eyes examined him. He looked down. He was naked. What did the officer stare at? The scars. Did they reveal him? The marks of the whip said he had been a slave. But the twin circles all over his body? He hoped to God no one knew what those meant. Of course, God had nothing to do with him now.
The officer leaned down and helped him to his bed. He collapsed against the slatted headboard. “Major Vernon Ware,” the man said as he sat on the side of the bed. “Attached to the English legation at El Golea. We found you in the streets about a week ago. And you are?”
There might be a thousand answers to that, none of them good. But this Major wanted something simple … a name. “Ian George Angleston Rufford.” He hadn’t thought of himself by that name in more than two years.
“Rufford?” The Major peered at him. “I knocked about London with Rufford Primus. You must be his younger brother.” He held out a long-fingered hand.
Ian did not take it. He was not sure he dared. “Third son,” he said. “My brother is Lord Stanbridge now.” His brother, a Viscount. It sounded so … normal. Even if you were poor, your estates encumbered, and your wife a bore, it didn’t matter. You knew who you were.
The Major’s eyes lit with memory. “Your brother said you stripped to advantage at Jackson’s. Won a pony on you.”
Had he ever been the careless rake who boxed at Jackson’s? That man was gone now.
“I’ll have one of the lads bring you some broth,” the Major said. “You’ll be back to beef and claret soon, but you’d better take it slow. We didn’t think you were going to make it. You … you must have had a hard time of it.”
Ian nodded. If he knew how hard, the Major would despise him. His feeling of euphoric strength faded. He was tired. But the goal that had burned in him as he dragged himself over uncounted miles of sand pushed him to speak. “I need an English doctor.”
The Major stood, looming over him, and pulled up the linen sheet. “No English doctor within six hundred miles of here. Rest now. We’ll find you clothes. I kept your belongings.”
Ian was puzzled. Belongings? Nothing had belonged to him for a long time.
“I threw the water skin away. Something had rotted inside it.” Ian started. The water skin held damnation. “But the little pouch you had hanging around your neck is safe with me.” Ahhh. The diamonds. The diamonds were his way back to England. After a doctor cured him he would wager at White’s and be fitted for a hat at Locke’s and canter about Hyde Park at five of the clock like everyone else with nothing better to occupy them.
The room swam. The Major saw his weakness and withdrew. Ian did not have to be like her. And he would not submit himself to a woman again, ever. Someday the horror in the desert would be only an occasional nightmare. As his eyes closed, images of London filled him.
The patch of ragged grass was a tattered camouflage for the sand beneath. The hiss of sand being shoveled in on top of the coffin whispered that this was a foreign grave in a foreign place. With his dirty collar and slurring words, the priest was still the best the Christian God had in these climes. There was only a wooden cross to place at her father’s grave. The stone would come in three weeks, if the stonemason did not get distracted by another job or go to stay with his cousins unexpectedly. That was the way of the world in these parts.
She turned away from the grave, still dry-eyed and empty, along with Monsieur L’Bareaux, several Arabs who had been with her father for years in one capacity or another, and the disheveled Italian who traded with them for supplies. It was a small enough group that dispersed into the rising heat of the late morning.
Monsieur handed her back up into the cart and sat heavily beside her. He snapped the reins over the donkey’s back. They plodded toward the blockish outline of the village. The heat, settling over her mantilla and her cambric dress, was stifling.
She was alone in the world. Her father was gone. Her mother had died giving her life. She was an only child, just as her mother was—unusual in her mother’s native land. There was only her father’s sister, Lady Cecelia Rangle in London. Beth had met her only half a dozen times. She could not go back to England. She did not belong there. She belonged here, in Africa, carrying on her father’s dream. Monsieur L’Bareaux held the key, she knew. She had resolved only this morning to accost him, and yet now she could not speak.
It was Monsieur L’Bareaux who finally cleared his throat. “Mademoiselle Beth,” he began, not looking at her. “It is perhaps time we talked of you.”
She took a breath and recruited her resources. He had made the first sally. It was now or never. The only tactic likely to prevail was a hit direct. “I could not agree more, monsieur. Once we have seen that Imam in Tunis, I will be able to map our course for Kivala.”
Monsieur L’Bareaux pulled at his collar. It wasn’t because of the heat. “I signed the contract with Revelle, petite. He will pay well for excavating the ancient kasbah at Qued Zem.”
“But we have caught the scent of the Lost City now; I know it!” Her voice rose with her anxiety. She couldn’t lose Monsieur L’Bareaux’s support at the outset. “The old man’s directions corroborate the text on that stylus outside Cairo, if one revises Robard’s clumsy translation.”
Monsieur L’Bareaux glanced down at her. His bushy brows, now drawn together, had long since stopped seeming fierce. His sympathy made her shrivel. “I have not the doubts that you are right, petite. But the francs say I must excavate Qued Zem.”
Beth stared straight ahead. She must not let the fear into her voice. “Well, if it must be Qued Zem, it must. We can be ready in a fortnight.” Perhaps the bluff Frenchman would not hear that little quaver. If she had to make the final sacrifice, he could not know that she was afraid.
There was a long pause. She dared not look at him. Perhaps he would just acquiesce. Or maybe he was only thinking how to break the bad news.
“You cannot stay here, petite.” He said it softly but with finality. “It is not proper.”
“Did my father care for propriety?” She shook her head. “If it comes to that, I took more care of him than he of me.”
“Who will organize everything, and who will translate texts for you? You know you read the Coptic very badly and you have no hieroglyphs at all.”
He rubbed his mustaches with one hand. “I have engaged a foreman. We shall do without a scholar. We are just digging trinkets, you know.
“But why must you do without? What has changed?”
“Before, you had him. Whether he was watchful or no, the men knew that you were to be treated with respect. It would be different now.” She could see he was sorry to have to explain this to her. The donkey plodded on under the blue dome of sky toward the village wall. They joined the main road, clogged with the commerce of the desert. Men hunched under lumpy nets of cheese and baskets of dates. Women carried fowl in crates.
“Even if I engaged a chaperone?”
“What woman would trek across the desert for months at a time?” He shook his head.
“A Bedouin woman or a Berber,” she answered promptly.
“That would bring neither propriety nor protection.”
“You could give me protection, Monsieur L’Bareaux.” Her voice was small, but it was steady.
“Assez,” he continued, “I have made the arrangements for you to have full escort on the next caravan to Tripoli. Lord Metherton, he knew your father. Already I have written that he should have a kindness for you, and see that you get back to England safely.”
“What difference if I am alone on a caravan or on trek with you?” One last protest.
“You will go with an Arab family I know, as their daughter.” He spoke slowly, as if she had suddenly become a child. “The caravan master will see that you are safe.”
Well, she wasn’t a child. She was a fully grown woman who should be able to stay in Africa if she wished. Night sky and total quiet echoed in her memory. How could one not feel close to God in the desert? She could feel the Sphinx towering above her in the unforgiving sun as she ran her hands over the pitted stone of its paws and had a revelation about it. She had seen many things in the desert that could not be explained by the rational mind: the old woman who healed others’ wounds before her very eyes, the amulet that burned when you lied—she had seen more than most women in England saw in a lifetime. How could she give up the freedom, the excitement, for English drawing rooms? And if she could not even stay in Africa, she would never see her father’s dream realized. She let that thought give her courage.
“There is one answer to both our problems,” she heard herself say. “You get someone to organize and translate, and I stay in North Africa.”
He glanced at her with wariness in his eyes as a herd of goats flowed around their cart. “What are you saying, petite? She could tell he did not really want to know.
“I’m asking you to marry me, Monsieur L’Bareaux.” She had known that it would come to this, a final sacrifice needed to do what she wished, be whom she wished.
The silence stretched. She must let him consider it. He couldn’t be more than forty-two or forty-three. She was full twenty-four. Did he hesitate because he thought she would be demanding? “I shouldn’t be a charge upon you,” she blurted. “It would be a marriage of your convenience, sir, not mine. I could be as much or as little of a wife as you like.” The arch of Bi’er Taghieri’s west wall passed overhead. They plunged into the stifling village once more, its narrow streets constricting her hopes. Monsieur L’Bareaux’s Adam’s apple trekked up and down.
Then his shoulders sagged. “Mademoiselle Beth, I have sense of the honor you do me.” He did not use the familiar ma petite. “But you would regret this thing and so would I.”
“The difference in age cannot matter.” She could not keep desperation out of her voice.
“No. But I do not look for a wife, even one so talented as you.” He cleared his throat. “I have no liking for… for the ladies.”
Oh. Well, that made no difference. It simply meant the marriage would be truly only convenient. She was about to protest, but he held up a hand. “Call halt, Mademoiselle Beth.” He patted her hand in a fatherly way. “It is for the best. You belong among your people.” He went on with determined cheerfulness. “You have your father’s share of the funerary pieces. They’ll bring enough to get you home. He left your portion in Drummond’s bank.”
Beth stared ahead, not at the crowded narrow streets of Bi’er Taghieri, but at the prospect of long dreary years in drawing rooms, clapping politely when the young misses played on the pianoforte. Her sentence was handed down by the falling pillar in that wretched tomb. She was for Tripoli and an England in which she could not possibly belong. Her father’s dream was dead, just as he was. All that was left was to walk through her days, missing him and longing for piercing sunshine and black nights and the smell of jasmine in the morning air.
It was late in the English compound. Ian sat with Major Ware in the courtyard under a pergola covered with vines of star jasmine. The red ends of their cigarillos glowed in the dark. It had been almost a month since Ian first waked to new life. The fever was gone, but so were his illusions. He had been eating like the starved man he was, but no amount of beef and bread could satisfy his cravings. The despair of knowing exactly what his body wanted beat at him until he couldn’t sleep in his darkened room during daylight hours. The hunger had been growing for weeks now, until tonight as he sat at dinner with the ambassador, Lord Wembertin, and his staff, Ian could hear the thrumming of blood in veins, the pump of hearts around him. He’d startled everyone by knocking over a chair in his haste to be gone. But he might have done something they’d find far more horrible if he’d stayed.
He couldn’t go on like this. Even now he could feel the throb of Ware’s blood in the man’s throat. He could see it pulse, even in the dark. In the pocket of his coat he fingered the small knife they’d given him to pare his nails. The knife was his hope. He had a plan.
“You must have put on three stone, Rufford,” Ware remarked in the darkness. “Lord, but you were a scarecrow when you first got here! How long had you been out there?” Ian wanted no questions. “I’m not sure,” he said in a damping tone.
“Well, perhaps not. That new coat fits snug enough, in spite of the foreign tailoring. Sorry none of us had one to accommodate those shoulders of yours.”
“You have been very kind.” And he had. Ware had seen to it that he was cared for until he was strong again. Only Ware’s constant vigilance had kept the Arabs at bay. Ian had to keep the Major from knowing just how strong he was. His fellow Englishmen would be frightened if they guessed Ian’s abilities. Ian was still guessing and they frightened him.
“Feeling fit enough to be off for England soon, I daresay. Catching a ship in Algiers?”
“I go through Tripoli.” He kept his voice flat. “You said there is an English doctor there.”
“Yes. But have you still a need of one?”
Ian changed the subject. “I was bound for Tripoli on the way out, you know.”
“In the diplomatic service?” The Major sat forward.
“Under Rockhampton.” It was the first information Ian had volunteered.
“Capital fellow. I would love to serve under him.” Ware’s cheroot glowed brighter.
“At one point I thought it just the thing for me. Younger son, family estates mortgaged to the hilt, you know the way of it. I inherited the family instability.” Ware would understand he meant gambling and horses and women. “Don’t know how I made it through Cambridge. Ran through what my mother had provided for me raking about town.” He gave a bitter laugh.
“Don’t try to tip me the double, Rufford. Rockhampton only takes the best.”
Ian felt the Major’s blood pumping in his arteries. He achieved a shrug. He must keep talking to stave off the pain crawling along his veins. “M’father’s death stopped the rake’s progress. Henry was pretty well brought to a stand when he inherited. Hadn’t the sense to marry for money. I couldn’t be a charge on him. He managed to buy Charlie a commission. I convinced Rockhampton I’d settled down. I write a fair hand and my dancing is well enough. All you need to succeed in the diplomatic corps.”
Ware raised his brows. “Under Rockhampton? I hardly think …” But he apparently thought better of pressing Ian. After a moment he said, “But you never served.”
“Barbary pirates off Algiers. Took the ship.” Ian’s voice was tight.
Ware nodded, his expression full of surmise. “How did you escape?”
“A story for another time.” Ian’s voice was harsher than he intended.
Ware stubbed out his cigar. “Well, money won’t be a problem, not with the contents of that little leather bag. You need not serve Whitehall and the diplomats if you dislike it.”
“No.” He would know better what to do after he put the knife to use tonight.
“I’ll leave you. It grows late. Or early. The night has become your time.”
Ian’s brows drew together. “Not by choice.”
“Oh, you’ll be riding to hounds with the Quom before you know it. A touch of sun poisoning, that’s all.” Ware rose. “By the by, you’d best travel with a well-armed party. Nasty doings in the desert. A whole caravan was left for the vultures a hundred miles to the northwest.”
Ian stopped breathing for a moment. “A whole caravan?” he asked stupidly.
“And there’s worse. The animals were dead, sure, but not desecrated. The men …”
“The men what?” Ian found himself almost whispering.
“Well…” Ware hesitated. “No blood in their bodies. White as your shirt.”
“The sand. It could have sunk into the sand.”
“Not without it left some stain. Natives say they were killed by a demon.”
Ian knew who had done it. No stopping her now. “When is your term of service here up?”
“Mere months.” Ware grinned in deprecation. “They’re closing El Golea, sending Wembertin home.”
Wembertin was a fool. Who else would be assigned a delegation in so remote a desert outpost in the Sahara? Ian nodded. “Good.”
“Why?” Ware asked.
“Just stay out of the desert, man, until you can get home to England.”
Ware looked at him strangely and nodded. Touching his forehead in salute, he ducked out under the jasmine-laden pergola toward his room.
Ian sat without moving. The hunger gnawed at him, whispering what was needed to assuage it. At last shutters around the courtyard no longer seeped light. The compound would seem silent to another. Ian heard snoring and rats scurrying in the storeroom, the cat stalking them, the drip of precious water somewhere. The night was alive and only he could hear it.
He rose, aware of the supple grace his new strength gave him. Time to try assuaging his dreadful hunger with a substitute Major Ware would find distasteful but not a certain sign of evil. It was a slim hope but possible. He shed his very English coat and returned to a burnoose. Then he slipped out of the compound into the night, clutching the little knife.
The need surged inside him, bringing a sound from his throat that might be a growl. He had not much time.
Ian sat in his room with every crack sealed against the desert light. The feeling of life coursing through his veins had driven him to drink the blood in the water sack and kept him alive across the burning deserts of the Sahara even as fever raged in his body. Now it surged inside him with unbelievable strength.
His plan had failed. He thought that drinking the blood of a cow would appease his hunger. He’d cut its artery with the little knife, sucked the blood. When the cow had fallen on him he’d thrust its two thousand pounds off with no more concern than if it had been a lapdog.
But it was not his new strength that tore at his mind. He’d vomited up the cow’s blood. And the hunger had surged up in seeming revenge, engulfing him, until he had done a thing unthinkable. He had sucked the blood of the young cowherd. Worse, he had not needed the little knife to open the artery in the young man’s throat. Ian almost wailed his guilt, his dread of what he had become. He clapped a hand over his mouth to prevent the sound, grimacing his revulsion. He had not killed the boy, it was true. But he might have.
Was he mad? No. That was the worst of all. This was who he was now. This drive to life was part of the beast she had made him. He would drink blood to satisfy it. When the hunger was on him, he would do anything to keep alive. Dear God! He had inherited her evil!
There was only one answer. His resolve warred with the singing life in his veins.
So he sat in the dark while he battled the urge to life and gathered his strength. It was afternoon before he could place the chair. Every fiber of his body fought what he wanted to do. He had to rest before he could cut the rope net that supported the mattress on his cot. What he was about to do was wrong. But it was without doubt the lesser of two evils. He hoped that once he had done it God would forgive him, since he sought only to redeem the greater sin.
Now, in the heat of the afternoon when all were resting— now was the time to do it.
He climbed the chair.
“He’s dead, poor bastard.” Ian heard the Major’s voice dimly. Someone held his wrist. He opened his eyes. Several gasps were quite distinguishable. The room was at an angle. He straightened his head. Jenks and Evans jerked back. Even in the dim room he saw them go pale.
Major Ware hung over him. “Rufford?” he whispered. His voice was uncertain.
Ian’s neck felt… odd. He turned his head. No, that was better.
Around the circle, the whispering grew frantic. At the door Arabs made the sign against evil and scurried away, gabbling.
Ian swallowed twice. “Why do you look like that?” he asked the circle. His voice came out a croak.
“You… you had a near thing,” the Major said. He looked as though he’d seen a ghost.
Ian’s gaze darted about the room. He was lying on a mattress on the floor. There was the chair, overturned. A shred of rope still hung from the beam where they must have cut him down. “I remember.” His voice was clearer now. The soreness in his throat dissolved. Sadness pushed on his chest and made breathing difficult. “Even the last solace is denied me.”
Sadness boiled over into rage without notice. He sat bolt upright. The men leaped back as though he had attacked them. “Go!” he yelled. “Get out of here! What are you looking at?”
They disappeared as fog evaporates under the blast of the sun. Only Ware stayed. Ian could see the questions burning inside him, questions so outrageous they could not be asked. “You, too, Ware,” he growled, sinking back onto the mattress. “You can do no good here.”
Ware rose, uncertainty mirrored clearly in his face. He was considering whether he should leave a man who had just tried to commit suicide to his own devices or whether he was a fool for not running from the room screaming. Personally, Ian recommended the latter.
“What happened to you out there, man?” Ware asked hoarsely.
Rufford stared at him for a long moment. He had never asked about the slavery, about the marks on Ian’s body, even about what was in the water skin, though speculation on all those topics was rampant throughout the delegation. Ian could always hear the whispers. As payment for that forbearance, the man deserved an answer. “I became my worst enemy, friend, my very own nightmare.” He closed his eyes. “Now go, for your own good, go.”
Ware turned to the door. “The men will tell Wembertin,” he said, not looking back.
“He won’t believe them. And he won’t want the scandal. I’ll be gone tomorrow.”
Ware nodded. “I’ll tell him,” he said as he closed the door.
TRIPOLI, OCTOBER l8l8
The late-afternoon sun was sinking behind the black spiky forest of masts in the harbor of Tripoli as Beth and Mrs. Pargutter and Mrs. Pargutter’s maid, Jenny Fellows, rocked in a small boat pulling for the merchantman frigate Beltrane, bound for Port Mahon, Gibraltar, Brest, and Portsmouth. Their convoy was to be escorted by one of His Majesty’s sloops as far as Lisbon, to protect them from being taken by Barbary pirates or illicit privateers.
The boat pulled up to the rocking ship and the scruffy man who stood in the prow called up to the deck in Arabic for a bo’sun’s chair. Beth hoped someone on board the English ship spoke the native tongue. Soon a kind of a swing was lowered over the side from a boom and Beth helped strap a protesting Mrs. Pargutter into it. That good lady was somewhat stout, with rouged cheeks that contrasted sharply with the overly brassy color of her hair. She swung up over the ship’s side, wailing, to the deck above. Beth took her place and soared aloft herself, pressing her skirts around her. Callused hands helped her onto the gently rocking deck, and as she looked around, the boom swung out again for their trunks.
Sailors scurried everywhere both on the deck and in the rigging above. Orders Beth found incomprehensible echoed and were answered. The slight roll of the deck beneath them, even though the Beltrane stood at anchor, whispered of less conformable seas to come. The scents of the ocean and tar and hemp made a heady combination, announcing some new world as she left behind forever Lady Metherton’s drawing rooms at the British delegation in Tripoli. Her small single trunk and the valise that contained her scrolls, Mrs. Pargutter’s two huge trunks, and Jenny’s carpetbag were deposited on the deck inside a net of rope. The sailors, dressed in red-striped shirts and nankeens, most sporting hair greased back into long braids and earrings, largely ignored them.
“Well,” Mrs. Pargutter declared, her vast breasts heaving in her widow’s weeds. “None of these rude men seems to know the least about how to treat a lady.” Mrs. Pargutter had been left in much the same situation as Beth by the most inconsiderate passing of her late husband, a trader of olives and oils between the ports of the Mediterranean, before the couple could get home to Nottingham. Lady Metherton had most kindly paired the two ladies, ill sorted as they might be, to make the journey back to Portsmouth together.
“I should think they are very busy just now, preparing to cast off or some such,” Beth said soothingly. “I’m sure they will take notice of us soon, because our trunks are in the way.”
Indeed, Lady Metherton had been so kind, the last several weeks had been all but unbearable to Beth. She took Beth entirely under her expensively dressed maternal wing and tut-tutted about the kind of father who would bring a gently bred girl into the wilds of North Africa. Even Tripoli, a thriving metropolis, was hardly civilized enough for a refined British woman, let alone the desert, with all that nasty sand and sun. No wonder Beth’s manners were less than refined. Why (Beth could hear her cultured voice, particularly well modulated as a lady’s should be), Beth could not help her brown complexion, and no doubt traipsing about on those dirty camels had stunted her growth. A sigh. It could not be helped, and England was the only remedy for her condition.
Beth was fairly sure that England would not be the remedy or that it would, at the very least, be a very nasty draught if Lady Metherton’s reaction to her was any indication of the reception she would receive in the drawing rooms of London.
“Well, well, ladies.” A bluff voice echoed behind them. Beth and Mrs. Pargutter turned to see a large man with a rolling gait dressed in a dark blue coat of superfine with huge metallic buttons across his chest in civilian imitation of a naval officer. “Welcome to the Beltrane, the finest merchant ship in the Med and your home for a few weeks if the breeze blows well. I’m Captain Tindly.” He bowed.
“Captain,” Beth said, extending her hand. “I am Miss Rochewell, and may I present Mrs. Pargutter and her companion Miss Fellows?” Beth naturally took the lead, though Mrs. Pargutter was nominally her protector.
“Your servant, madam,” the Captain said in a voice born to bellow orders at sea. “We cast off at sunset.” He called to the nearest seamen, “Mr. Severn, Mr. Cobb, see these trunks to the forward cabins. Shake a leg, there.” He turned to bawl orders about fo’c’sles and hammocks and grates, then surveyed the shore and muttered, “Damn all passengers. Where is he?”
A man scurried into the rigging and scrambled up it rather like a rat. Beth was used to such behavior, but Mrs. Pargutter gave out a little shriek and grasped Beth’s arm. “Did you see that, my dear? Why, he looked hardly human!”
“Be easy, ma’am.” Beth patted her hand. “Surely you saw sailors on your voyage out.”
“Never like that!” she cried. “Positively bestial! Besides, I spent the whole voyage in my cabin, for I have never been a good traveler, and the sea quite oversets me.”
Beth sighed. The trip stretched dismally ahead of her, though what she had expected from Mrs. Pargutter under the best of circumstances she could not say. Beth was suddenly very glad that Jenny would have the tending of what she suspected would be a determined invalid. The seamen hefted their trunks. “Perhaps you would like to go to your cabin?”
“Yes, yes. I am in need of a little restorative. I have a supply of laudanum.” Mrs. Pargutter bustled after the seamen, Jenny Fellows in her wake. Beth did not follow.
“Blast! I swear I’ll leave him,” the Captain said behind her. “I’ll not miss the tide.”
A ship some way down the quay drifted away from its moorings, one sail flapping down and then another. A breath of offshore breeze kissed the neighbor’s canvas. “Captain, if I stand against the wall of the quarterdeck, will I be out of your way? I’d like to see us sail.”
“By the door there.” The Captain smiled, pleased that she bothered to be out of the way.
“Ahoy the passenger’s boat!” a sailor yelled.
Out of the growing gloom a boat thumped against the side. A large form swung a leg up over the rail and stepped on board.
“About time, Rufford!” the Captain called. “We was about to leave you.”
The easy grace of the figure spoke of power. Even from here, with little more than a silhouette to guide her, Beth could sense it emanating from him. He had a pair of shoulders on him, a thick, blunt form with powerful thighs. And he was tall—a big man altogether. As he approached the Captain and bowed briefly, Beth saw his face. In some ways it was also blunt: unruly brows, a nose straight but slightly prominent, likewise chin, strong and cleft. She could not tell the color of his eyes, only that their expression was intense. It was his mouth that startled—full lips, so sensuous they did not seem to fit so masculine a figure. His hair was light brown and thick, long, pulled back into a queue old-fashioned even when Beth had last been in England.
“What kept you, man?” the Captain challenged, puffed up with his inconvenience.
“I stayed to dine.” The passenger’s voice was a grim rumble in that massive chest. “It will make a more comfortable voyage for everyone.”
A trunk swung up over the side and thunked on the deck. The Captain harrumphed and began shouting orders to cast off. The passenger, Mr. Rufford he was called, went below with his trunks. As he passed, Beth saw that his eyes were blue. But that was not the startling thing about them. The pain they held was terrible to behold. His gaze raked her, but she was fairly certain he didn’t truly see her. What man registered a girl as unattractive as she was?
Lines were cast off. Sailors’ calls and responses echoed over the deck. The ship rocked slowly away from its moorings. Several sails flapped into place. They were away into the harbor, threading their way between moored behemoths Beth guessed were ships of the line—Royal Navy. Yes—there were the gun ports. She counted. A seventy- four. The mouth of the harbor opened before her. She turned. The lights of Tripoli blinked in the growing blackness, receding.
This was the last of Africa, the last of freedom, the dying dream that had been her father’s and, therefore, hers. Strange that people should think her life had been uncertain here. It was far more certain in its principles, its qualities, than any she was like to find in England.
The wind whipped at her hair and took its wisps. The lights of Tripoli faded as the merchantman drifted into the current. She had never felt so alone. She grabbed for the rail to make her way back to the cabin.
The other passenger, Mr. Rufford, leaned against the rail, looking out to sea. She could not mistake his brawny form. Strands of hair escaped the small ribbon at his neck, whipping backward in the wind. He was directly in her way. She dared not start across the open deck. The sea had grown a little rough and the ship’s roll was more pronounced. She squared her shoulders. Avoiding him was impossible, since they were to spend weeks as two of four passengers on a cargo ship. She decided to acknowledge him. A civil nod would be enough.
He rolled quite easily with the ship. His coat was dark blue like the indigo of sky behind him and the dark sea, ruffled with white. As she drew near, she saw something gleam around his wrists. How odd! Were they bracelets? No. Scars. His wrists were scarred. She felt like an intruder, as though she were spying. Quite close now, she prepared to dash for the rope hold on the quarterdeck wall.
He looked up at her. At first he didn’t seem to see her. His thoughts clearly dwelt on something unpleasant. The combination and the intensity of emotions roiling in those eyes were something she had never seen in a man’s countenance: revulsion, longing, perhaps even fear. But he didn’t look a coward. No, there was something of resolution about him. This was confirmed when he registered her presence and the eyes went flat, bottling up those emotions in a most determined way. He stood upright, pulling his cuffs down self-consciously, and nodded to her. They might have been in Lady Metherton’s drawing room except for the roll of the deck and the wind whipping at their hair.
“Ian Rufford,” he almost growled. “Your servant, madam.” He actually turned away, not even waiting for her reciprocal introduction.
She should simply race across to the stairs below. It would be most improper to stay and speak to any man without an introduction other than his own. She might have been in Africa and the Levant for these ten years, but even she knew that. Still, she did not like being snubbed.
Beth grabbed the rail to steady herself. “Elizabeth Rochewell.”
He turned back, surprised at her boldness. His eyes raked her as though he knew something about her she might not want anyone to know. She was acutely conscious of her short stature. Could he see her brown complexion in this light? Probably not. He could see her black pelisse and her kid half boots, fashionable, if moderate in style. She was glad Lady Metherton had talked her into buying them as part of her mourning clothes, even if this man was not the kind to care for fashion.
“What brings someone like you to Tripoli, Miss Rochewell?” His voice was indifferent.
“Someone like me,” she mused as she turned out to the sea, determined not to let her anger show. He didn’t think much of women or at least women who looked like her. “Someone like me was on an archaeological expedition with my father in the desert.”
Behind them, a man’s voice called out, “Luff up handsomely, there!” A sail flapped.
“Treasure hunting, like Lord Elgin?”
She didn’t look at him. She didn’t trust her eyes not to betray her outrage. “Searching for knowledge, Mr. Rufford, about who we are, and where our kind has been.”
“And you thought you would find that in the barren deserts of North Africa….”
He made it sound childish. “The desert holds many secrets. Look at the lost city of Petra—it gives us two thousand years of history and more.”
“Petra, what is that?”
She had piqued his curiosity. “You don’t get about much, Mr. Rufford, if you haven’t heard of Petra. Discovered seven years ago in Palestine—a treasure trove of knowledge. A paper was read just last year at Somerset House before the Royal Society.”
“Yes. Well. I have been otherwise engaged for the last two years. No time for announcements of obscure archaeological discoveries.”
She shot a stealthy glance at him, remembering the scars. He was leaning out over the rail again, watching the ships of the convoy, now closing in around them. Had he been in prison? Why? His aura of danger took on a more palpable form. She let her words race on. “It was not obscure. It was a very important discovery.”
He looked her over once again. Those full lips curled in a tiny smile that might have been a sneer. “So now all the bored aristocrats are wandering about the desert looking for meaning to their lives, even women. Did you discover anything important?”
She repressed a gasp. His rudeness deserved that she just walk away, or rather lurch away toward the quarterdeck ropes. But she could not resist a set down of a more telling nature. “I discovered that all the guesses about the age of the Sphinx in Egypt were only that—learned guesses, but very wrong.” She paused. “You have heard of the Sphinx, have you not?”
He did not answer her sally. But he examined her once again. “Wrong.” He let his disbelief hang in the air, just short of derision.
Beth turned to him, leaning against the rail for balance. “Yes. Wrong. I became interested in the patterns of erosion, Mr. Rufford, when I was looking into the geological phenomena around Petra and how those ravines came to be there waiting for a city to be carved out of them. I thought one might use erosion to date things. And I did, in a way.”
“What way?” He was reserving judgment now.
“Erosion comes in several varieties: the kind made by wind and the kind made by dripping water, for instance, and they leave very different patterns on the objects they erode. Everyone thought the Sphinx was three or four thousand years old, eroded by the desert winds.”
“But it wasn’t.”
“It was eroded by water, Mr. Rufford. The pattern is quite clear.”
“Water, in the middle of the desert?” He thought briefly. “And we would not be talking floods, as of the Nile. You mean it rained on the Sphinx? Impossible.”
Beth smiled slowly. He had caught the thing at once. He was brighter than most men, at any rate. “Ah, you are thinking of Egypt as we know it now. But think in terms of geological time, Mr. Rufford. The earth changes; mountains come and go; seas rise and fall. Once, the desert must have been wet. A very long time ago, it rained on the Sphinx for many centuries.”
“How long ago?” He cocked his head.
“Ten thousand years, at least. I don’t think the head is even original. You must have noted how small it is, and much better preserved than the lower parts. It was re-carved.”
His brow wrinkled. “Ten thousand. But then who could have… ?” He trailed off.
“Could have made it?” Beth finished his question. “Ah, the mysteries of the Dark Continent, Mr. Rufford. It contains more than you and I have ever contemplated in our world.”
His head sagged between his shoulders almost imperceptibly. “You are right about that.” She had hurt him. She did not know how. He squared his shoulders. That was the courage again. “I should like to meet your father. He sounds an interesting sort.”
Beth swallowed. Her loss washed over her so suddenly it must have been lying in wait. Rufford should have guessed from her mourning clothes that his remark was tactless. After she could breathe, she said, “Too late for that, sir. He is dead a month and more.”
There was an awkward silence. “I’m sorry.” The low rumble sounded sincere. What an odd creature he was, sneering and sincere in turns.
“So am I.” She had said too much, flaunting knowledge like a bluestocking, determined to impress, and so been taken unawares by lurking grief. “And what of you? Why are you in Tripoli?”
He hesitated. It was not such a hard question, unless of course he was a prison escapee. “I was staying at the British delegation at El Golea.”
He said it as though that explained why he was in the middle of the Sahara and so far from England. “My father and I were organizing an expedition in Bi’er Tegheri to look for Petra’s sister city, Kivala, sleeping somewhere under the sands of the desert.”
He looked up sharply at her. “Did you find it?” Fear, even horror, flashed in his eyes.
“No. My father died before we could fairly start.”
He caught his expression and carefully shut down. “Then you are lucky.”
“What do you mean?” He couldn’t mean she was lucky her father had died.
“You said yourself there are more things in the desert than we can comprehend. That particular section of desert is dangerous.” He said it lightly, but he was hiding something.
“Oh.” She wanted to ask him more, but just then Captain Tindly stepped on deck.
“Look sharp, boy, for a signal from the sloop!” he bellowed. “Prepare to back tops’ls.”
Shouts and activity exploded. Beth turned to find her fellow passenger had disappeared.
The Beltrane was almost quiet now. Ian felt freer. Only a few hands were above decks, since she was “hove to,” as they said, for the night with sails furled, waiting for the rest of the convoy to arrive. Those sailors awake smoked or huddled over their mugs of grog. Ships were close quarters. Hardly a word was exchanged but what four people did not witness it. He could not afford shipboard curiosity.
He’d taken careful sips of the dread substance he now craved for four nights running before he boarded, hoping to forestall his need. It had been almost more than he could manage to take only a pint from each of his victims, for the hunger was bestial in its demands. The need rose about two weeks after he fed. He’d taken passage on a vessel that had several ports of call. He must do what must be done onshore, not in the narrow and too-public confines of the ship.
He leaned over the rail, one boot on the hammock netting, staring out to sea. His thoughts strayed to the strange girl who’d been so incensed when he had not believed her wild theory about the Sphinx. Such a bluestocking—no address, odd-looking. He was surprised she was English with her outlandish looks. He was not surprised she’d tried to assert that dominance females always craved. She’d been determined to prove his ignorance. He admitted grudgingly he might have given her provocation with his derision. She was direct; he’d give her that.
His mind contracted. There were even more direct ways of gaining dominance than that poor girl could comprehend in her small world. He straightened and took in a breath of the salt air. He would not think of that or of her. He would think of the brown bird of a girl. He’d seen the carapace that covered her uncertainty about herself as she struck out at him over her precious theories. Whatever would she do in England? They valued everything she did not possess and nothing of what she did. He couldn’t help noticing how wistfully she gazed after Tripoli. She was right. She would be better off there. Impossible, of course, without husband, father, brother.
The sea was quiet. The wind had died. That boded ill for a quick journey west down the Med. It had been just such weather when his ship was taken off the Barbary Coast two years ago.
He wouldn’t think about that. He skipped over the roar of the guns blasting away at the fragile wooden sides of the ships at close range, the smoke, the smell of blood, the roar of the barbarous bastards as they came over the side. The damned Captain hadn’t even put up a good fight. He’d asked for quarter as soon as it got down to hand combat.
He stared at the scars around his wrists. He didn’t bother to pull down his cuffs—no one was about to see them. They were the beginning. And then he couldn’t skip over it anymore. Shame suffused him as he remembered the foul creatures stripping him of everything—boots, belt, coat, waistcoat, shirt, watch and fob, seal ring, even his stockings. Then had come the first of many bindings, cruel hemp around his wrists. Wearing only his breeches, he was thrown into the hold with the other able-bodied. A saber cut or two still qualified him as healthy
The foul water in the belly of the ship was a foot deep. Those who could stand, did so. Those who couldn’t…
A rat swam by. He could not suppress a shudder.
“You’ll thank God for the rats soon enough.” The voice came from about the point of Ian’s thigh. The man must be sitting in the water. They were almost touching in the pitch dark of the hold. “We’ll end eating them. These Barbary bastards won’t waste rations on slaves.”
“We ‘re for market sure, maybe Algiers.”
“I thought the Navy cleared the Med of pirates,” Ian protested, half-dazed by the quickness of the whole action and the throb of his wounds.
“Mostly. But mostly don’t appear to be good enough.” The man coughed.
“Hope they don’t try to convert us,” an old salt rasped. “I cain’t take torture at my age.”
Ian shrank inside. He’d heard of the hot irons and knives that compelled a man to renounce Christ. The damned infidels thought they were saving souls. The stench of tar and fetid water was overwhelming. He breathed through his mouth, but that only made his throat close.
“I heard they cut your bollocks off,” a young voice trembled.
“Sometimes. But the black ones, they cuts their balls and dicks clean off, too, so they dribble all over themselves. Bring ’em up from beyond the desert, in great long caravans. Arabs has always kept slaves. In droves, they keeps them.” The fount of information sputtered to a stop.
“I read some firsthand accounts of Christian slaves.” Ian recognized the master, one of the few officers not slain or heaved overboard and therefore one of the few men who could read. “They’re employed as agents of business if they know the language, or to sail a rich man’s ships if they are sailors.”
Ian wished he ’d learned more Arabic or knew how to sail a ship.
He lost all feeling in his hands before he located a splinter of wood he could grate against his ropes. It took long hours to free them, and the pain of the returning blood almost made him regret his effort. He passed his splinter to the next man, and the old salt pried off another. Soon they all had their hands free. He realized he had a fever when he started shaking uncontrollably. The saber cut on his upper arm must be infected. The odor of death was added to the reek of tar and fetid water when a sailor named Young who had renounced Christ on the deck above died soon after he returned to their purgatory. The nightmare of the dark and the stink, the hunger, and fear made the ship’s boy set to shrieking until they knocked him senseless. They could hear the pumps working, yet the water rose until they were thigh deep and could not sit if they would. They slept fitfully, braced against the curve of the hull or leaning on another, in shifts. It was miserable to the point of unreality. Time lingered in a haze.
A great thump against the ship’s side and muffled shouting, answered more faintly from afar, told them the ship had docked. It was not long before the hatch above opened, leaking a square of unbearable light. They did not have to understand the language to know that they were being bid up into the sun to a future more fearful even than their wretchedness in the hold.
The ship’s boy was a gibbering idiot by now. The scurvy piratical lot cut him from the others and brought a club down upon his head once, twice, with a dull thud. No use for him. Ian squinted in horror against the stabbing light as they cast the lifeless body into the harbor. He hardly noticed the rope they used to fasten the remaining cargo together at the ankles until they were jerked down the gangplank. They stumbled into a town, thriving with the shout of commerce. Twenty-four survived out of the five-score sailors and passengers that set sail from Bristol. Famished, half-naked, they looked a poor bargain for whoever bought them.
The slave market was even more frenetic than the bazaar at large. Groups of young men gleaming ebon in the sun, their male areas smooth enough to make the English shudder, crouched in the dust. Women, some with faces as covered as their bodies, huddled together. Others sprawled naked and displayed. Traders called out the virtues of their human wares. And through all, the merciless sun beat on their heads, burning their pale and waterlogged bodies. Everywhere, the scent of human sweat and fear mingled with that of aromatic spices, overripe fruit, and meat hanging days too long among the flies.
Their keeper cut the gaggle into individual lots. Ian found himself pushed, stumbling, into a dusty ring surrounded by shouting and whirling colors. It was over so quickly he hardly had time to feel the shame. A stocky bearded man, gabbling at him, cast a rope about his neck. In the background a tall figure swathed totally in a hooded burnoose, his hands concealed in its sleeves, nodded. The burly man said something to him and then tugged on Ian’s rope, jerking him through the hooting crowd. The tall specter strode in their wake.
Ian ripped his thoughts back to the cool Mediterranean breeze that soothed his hot cheeks in the darkness. He had been bought as a beast of burden for a caravan. Jenkins’s comforting accounts of slavery as a sailor or an agent of business were not for him. He probably had his beefy frame to thank for that. He looked an admirable brawny pack animal.
He must not dwell upon that time. The flash of a raised whip in the sun swept over him, the feel of skin rubbed bloody raw under the ropes that held his giant pack as he stumbled after the camels, equally laden, the unrelenting, torturous sun.
No. He breathed in the cool sea air. He wouldn’t think of what followed, either.
He would think of an England that boasted the finest medical minds, of Henry and his hopeful family and the Stanbridge of his youth, of frivolous activities you could fill your days with: rout parties and cockfights and turn-ups, Jackson’s and Tattersall’s and White’s. Thanks to the diamonds, he had enough money to enjoy London as he never had before.
His breathing calmed. He listened to the creak of wood, the squeal of rope, the slapping water at the hull. What use all this memory? For better or for worse he was beyond that time.
If only he could get beyond despair. The English doctor at Tripoli had been no help. Fool that he was, Ian had revealed all his symptoms. The doctor, horrified, ordered him from the room. Later Ian had received a note advising him to consult a doctor who specialized in hysteria. Ian was hurt and angry. Hysteria was a euphemism for conditions better confined in a madhouse. The doctor apparently took refuge in supposing Ian must be making up his symptoms. If only that were true …
After his visit with the doctor he tried a second time to end it. His naked body was blistered and cracked when a simple boy had dragged him out of the sun. The pain was so bad he’d made the boy gag him to muffle his groans. But he didn’t die. He healed in three days. He had thought for sure that the sun …
He must not despair. He might yet escape what he had become. There were better doctors in England. Who was the chap who studied blood? Blundell? He might serve. And if there was no way back? Ian shuddered with a revulsion that shook his soul.
If there was no way back, then he must somehow accede to his needs without sacrificing his immortal soul and becoming like her. He would concentrate on his future in the radiant normalcy of England. No one need know his shameful secret. The chaos of London was his best opportunity for obscurity and normal life. He would take a bit of what he needed from the seething tide of humanity in the great sinful city. He could avoid women, lose himself in trivial occupations. He could still carve out a normal existence, but for that one not-so-small aberration.
Above all, he could escape from Africa and all it held. He would never set foot on those shores again. Already he was beyond her reach. He blinked, eyes suddenly full, and despised his weakness. He could not afford weakness if he was to keep that which grew inside him in check.
As he passed beyond that dreadful time when he was counted among the livestock of the caravan and the far more devastating months that followed, he had perhaps passed out of all human experience into some realm not quite tethered to the earth. That was his danger.
He must not let go. He must engage with the world lest the force that lurked inside him, strong and rejoicing, grow powerful enough to claim his soul.
Beth wakened the next morning and realized that the ship was under way. She raised herself from her narrow cot to peer out her little window and saw several other ships of the convoy, their spread of sail magnificently white under the blue of the Mediterranean sky. She should want to leap up and be about. Often enough on other journeys the invigorating climate of the sea coupled with the promise of adventure had infused her with an energy that made her father wince. But neither the lure of Mrs. Pargutter’s company nor the prospect of England was enough to draw her out of her cot this morning.
The loss of her father weighed on her. Since his death, she had seemed … distant from herself and from the world. It was sometimes too much effort to engage with those around her, and indeed, since she was going back to a society that would not welcome her, estrangement might be the less painful policy. Lady Metherton’s drawing rooms had been a daunting precursor to a life Beth had no wish to master. Her refusal to attempt attaching any of a dozen eligible young men had driven her benefactor to distraction. They had all seemed so dull….
With the rock of the swell under her, she lay back into her bedding. Her thoughts turned again to the strange passenger, Mr. Rufford, even as they had for long hours in the night. He was the opposite of eligible: taciturn, gruff, the pain in his eyes keeping everyone at a distance. What was it about him that drew her? She could hardly deny that curiosity had turned almost instantly to fascination. It must have to do with the scars about his wrists. He had been a prisoner. But he was certainly a gentleman. Had he escaped from a transport on its way to Botany Bay? For what had he been imprisoned, and by whom? The British? The French? That country still schemed abroad even though the war was over. Was it one of the innumerable Pashas and Deys who set themselves against the Turkish Sultan in this most treacherous part of the world? And for what crime was he incarcerated, or for what purpose if not punishment of a crime?
That was one part of the mystery of Ian Rufford. But it was more than his scars or the fact that someone had held him prisoner. It was the contained horror, the determination that opposed it, and his starts of cynicism and sincerity that provoked thought. She wanted to know more. Indeed, her outburst of pique at his dismissal of her had been her most spirited engagement with another since Monsieur L’Bareaux had refused her.
It had been unseemly to converse with this stranger so freely. She skipped ahead to considering what possible excuse she could invent to engage him. Hmmmm. He seemed to have knowledge of Kivala and the desert. Perhaps he could confirm her theory that the city her father had dreamed of finding was indeed there. She and her father thought it lay south of the mountains of the Rif. It would be a hollow victory. She would never see the city herself, but just to know …
He might be on deck even now. She threw back her quilt, shrugged off her night shift, and rinsed herself from her basin, then dressed with more care than she had in some time. The smell of grilled kidneys and greasy eggs filled her nostrils. Nothing had ever smelled so good.
The passengers were berthed in the refurbished quarters used by the midshipmen and minor officers when the frigate had sailed for His Majesty’s Navy. There was a small common room onto which the cabins opened. The whole was forward of the foremast, as opposed to the Captain’s quarters under the quarterdeck aft and the merchantman’s current officers’ quarters on the deck below that. On her way through the common room she was caught up short by the sound of low moaning. Guiltily she remembered her other fellow traveler. “Mrs. Pargutter?” she called, rapping gently at the cabin door. “Are you well?”
“My dear, I am wretched,” came the fainting reply.
Beth stuck her head in to see her erstwhile companion holding a handkerchief reeking of vinaigrette to her mouth, the little silver-chased holder box clasped to her breast.
“Can I do anything for you, ma’am?” Beth inquired. “Call Jenny perhaps?”
“Only make them stop cooking. The smell will be the death of me!”
“Oh, dear. Well, I can certainly try.” Beth doubted she could stop the crew from eating.
She swung open the door to the outer deck, a strange expectancy lodging in her throat. You are excited about being at sea; that is all, she told herself severely. At any rate, he had been most provoking, rude and self-involved. Arrogant. It was not he who excited her by any means.
The merchantman was under sail, many sails in fact, with an air of exhilaration about her. Beth had felt it on other ships. It came from a sailor’s joy in fair weather and a rising wind. They came alive with the animation of their ship, reveling in the almost animal grace of the frigate. Steel blue swells laced with white pushed their charge along the sea. Out beyond the tangle of tarred rigging, five others of their convoy and the graceful naval sloop sailed. Even from here she could see the sloop’s gun ports, her sides checkered black and white in imitation of Nelson’s colors. Beth’s gaze swept the deck around her in vain for the figure she sought. Bales and common crates littered the deck. Three sheep and a goat were tethered aft. Crated fowl emitted periodic squawks. The hope she refused to acknowledge died in her breast. Sailors scurried about in answer to shouts from the master on the quarterdeck and the bo’sun in the waist.
These were working men, including the officers who were no doubt eating the eggs and bacon, kidneys, and mutton she could smell. She could no more ask them to forgo the hearty breakfast of their occupation than she could return to Tripoli. It was the passengers’ lot to adjust, rather than the sailors’, even if that lot included smelling mutton chops and greasy eggs when you were not quite well. Mrs. Pargutter would have to deal with her problem on her own. What Beth could do was procure a draught from the ship’s surgeon to comfort that lady’s stomach.
In the bowels of the lower deck, called the orlop, she found Dr. Granger. She had not counted on the pickled state that characterized both the man and the anatomical specimens sloshing in jars around his cabin. The surgeon was bleary and leering, quite distasteful as well as ineffectual, and this at only one bell past the change of watch in the morning. One must hope the ship’s crew did not require anything that might tax their medical man. Still a draught was not beyond his powers. Escaping into the light and wind of the upper decks, she delivered the paregoric to Mrs. Pargutter and refreshed that lady’s vinaigrette while the patient moaned her misery. Beth wondered if it was possible for her escort to be seasick all the way to London.
The day was long. Books in her tiny, tidy cabin lined with wood and brass, and her own thoughts, were her only companions. Busy as the ship was, she did not belong to it. She was an outsider here, her role a precursor of the life that was like to await her in England and an echo of her estrangement years ago in the Crofts School for Girls.
How she longed for life in the busy, purposeful present of her father’s expeditions, always the hope of the next discovery to indulge her curiosity for things strange and rare. Her conversation had been with men who had ideas and opinions and who listened to hers in return. What use, what purpose, would she have now? Her mind darted across the possibility that she would simply drift into … into what? Madness? Or would she become some useless female curiosity, pointed out as a hopeless antidote if she dared to walk in the park?
She took tea alone in the great stern cabin volunteered by the Captain for her comfort. The view out the great sloping windows slowly shaded as she stared at two barques from the convoy riding lightly ahead. The sea turned almost amethyst. The sun must have set.
She still had choices. She vowed to engage with the world at every turn, though she was sure she would not fit that world. Better an antidote despised for her boring talk of archaeology and geology than a madwoman locked in some asylum. Rising purposefully, she strode onto the deck, determined to sit with Mrs. Pargutter, whether that lady would or no.
But there, just coming up into the short Mediterranean twilight, was the most intriguing of her fellow passengers. The breadth of him filled the doorway. He seemed to exude power, energy … what should she call it? He was very, very male. Even the busy sailors felt his presence, though he was behind them, and gave way.
He looked about himself. She saw him place the position of the other vessels in the fading light and the sloop that guarded them. Then he cast his eyes about the deck. After they moved over her, they came back and rested on her in speculation. Beth was used to the eyes of personable men moving over her. She was not used to them returning. She felt her color rise. Would that her brown complexion did not show her confusion.
He moved purposefully in her direction and bowed, most correctly. He wore a black coat and buff breeches. His boots shone, though he must have tended them himself, since he had come on board without even a servant. He was clean shaven, his hair tied back neatly, no fobs or seals or rings. “Miss … Rochewell.” He had to search for her name. Not surprising.
“Mr., Mr. Rufford.” Her own hesitancy was not because she did not recall his name. He glanced to the sea again. “All is well, I hope? The convoy skims along prosperously?”
“Why, yes. How not?”
“Oh, I expect we shall hit calm seas sooner or later and wallow in our own filth for a week. Or…” here his deep voice grew harder, “we might even see an enemy sail.”
“What enemy? Napoleon is vanquished these three years, the American war long ended.”
His smile was not humorous. “We might always catch sight of a local corsair.”
Beth chuckled, dismissing his fears. “We have a sloop of the Royal Navy for protection. No pirate would dare to come within a league of us.”
“True, if the sloop’s Captain fights true. I have known them to run shy when there were only merchantmen involved.” The bitterness in his voice was back.
“Who is more competent than the King’s Navy? They rule the water.”
He did not contradict her. He simply looked at the merchantmen shushing through the sea around them, silent with their distance, the placement of HMS the sloop, then cast his eyes to the rigging and swept the deck and its occupants. Sailors were putting out lanterns in the rigging. Lamps flickered on the boats around them as well, a small, warm constellation.
He seemed disinclined to continue conversation. Beth racked her brain for a way to engage him. “You have been in your cabin all the day, sir. Does the voyage not agree with you?”
He fixed her with his steady gaze. “Night is more congenial to one of my temperament.”
“Ahh.” The silence stretched. The crew moved about on tasks unknowable, oblivious. “Do you dine with the Captain? I am afraid you must be famished, having missed your dinner.”
He nodded and picked out his watch. It was two hours to supper. “We have some time before we eat,” he remarked, looking conscious, as if he considered making a proposal.
Beth mustered her courage. “I saw a chessboard in the stem cabin.”
“Do you play?” he asked, curious.
“Why do I think you are a Trojan horse, Miss Rochewell?”
“Because no one who really plays chess only ‘a little’ would admit it?”
A tiny smile played about his lips. “Just so. Let us repair to the stern cabin. I wonder if you can give me a brisk game.”
She could, for she had played with her father for all those long equatorial evenings. But she began with a conservative opening. Boldness was for later. She could not help but notice that he wore some spicy scent, cinnamon and something more elusive. It did not fit with his austerity.
They played in silence. Beth wondered how she would broach any subject at all with her mysterious partner. Her eyes were drawn to the way his coat bulged over his biceps as he put his elbows on the table. He laid his cleft chin on his clasped hands, eyes on the board. Finally he glanced to her face. “You know the classic game. Are you capable of more?”
He moved his knight in a rogue attack, too early by far, on her queen, three—no, four moves out. She stared, sorting through the sequences engendered by each possible counterattack. Conservative play said she should block with her knight. But if she attacked with her rook she not only blocked but also set up a sequence that, if he complied, might weigh the balance in her favor. The flurry of taken pieces might distract him. She reached for the crenellated ivory.
Play accelerated. Both collected their downed opponents. The rush of play unfolded as each pursued a strategy that must collide, Beth knew.
There! He had allowed her queen the avenue required.
He sucked in a breath, stopped. Seconds stretched. The climax loomed. One possibility…
He moved his king.
“Stalemate,” she said, letting go her pent-up breath. “You have robbed me.”
“But I could not win.”
“No,” she agreed, letting it be known she had expected that.
“So …” He pushed back from the table, glancing one final time at the board as if to retrieve some other outcome. “This voyage will allow scope for a rematch?”
“If you like.” She let her tone say, “If you dare.”
Behind him, Redding, the loblolly boy who had served her tea, looked in on them. “Miss Rochewell, Mr. Rufford, may I get you some lemon scrub, perhaps, before dinner?”
“Wine for me, I think, and Madeira for the lady,” Mr. Rufford responded.
Redding ducked his head and disappeared.
“I am surprised you did not order ratafia for me,” Beth observed, too sweetly.
He looked surprised. “You wanted wine? Madeira survives shipping in far better countenance than any claret.”
“Perhaps I wanted to choose for myself.” She scooped the pieces into their box.
He lounged back in his chair. “You are a strange creature, Miss Rochewell.”
“I have no doubt of that.” She was very well aware that she was not attractive. Was that what he meant by strange? She felt herself flushing as she put the box away. Behind her there was silence. But she could feel the physical presence of him. She glanced behind her and saw him flushing in return.
“My apologies,” he said in that sensuous baritone of his as he looked away. “I, of all people, have no right to call another strange.”
What could he mean? “Well,” she managed. “Perhaps we have our strangeness in common as well as our humanity.” He looked up at her with a longing she found painful.
“Perhaps not,” he whispered. He rose, as though he might flee.
Luckily or unluckily, Redding returned with the wine.
“Sorry, miss, Mr. Rufford, these particul’r bottles wa’n’t easy to come by, if you get my meaning.”
Rufford’s scruples apparently would not allow him to abandon her publicly. He sat on the edge of his chair while Redding poured. By the time Redding bowed out, Rufford had recovered his composure and Beth had decided that the mystery of Mr. Rufford was deeper than she had supposed.
He raised his glass. “To England, Miss Rochewell, and a quick voyage.”
“To England,” she returned, with rather less enthusiasm. She sat opposite him.
“Where do you call home in England?”
Beth watched his valiant effort at nonchalance, fascinated. Light from the swinging lamp moved across his form. What was it about him that was so … attractive? It was the way his body moved inside his clothes, perhaps. Or the thick column of his throat. The cleft chin? Maybe. The eyes, of course, the curling hair. She felt his presence almost viscerally, somewhere deep inside her. He seemed more physical than anyone she had ever known and … male, as Monsieur L’Bareaux or the camel drivers never had.
He raised his brows and she realized that he was waiting for some answer. What had he asked? Oh yes. “I… I don’t call anywhere in England home. I am bound for my aunt’s house in London. And that will surprise her immensely, so I can only hope my letter arrives before I do, so she may pretend a welcome.”
He did not press her but looked out on the dark sea through the great stern windows to where the lanterns of other ships bobbed on the swell.
“And you, sir? Where do you go?” Suddenly she wanted to keep him talking.
“Perhaps to Suffolk. My brother will be surprised as well. Henry inherited a couple of years ago. He will no doubt have set things to rights. He was always very practical.”
His tone said he denigrated practicality. She decided being practical had its deficits. “Then you also must have lost your father,” she said, hesitating. “My condolences.”
“Unnecessary, believe me.” He tossed off a glug of wine. “The old autocrat terrorized his family and brought the estate to wrack with his gambling and his … other habits.” He shook his head to shake off any effect his father had on him. Ludicrous, of course, but natural.
“Fathers can be complicated. My own father loved me but was so distracted he sometimes quite forgot to provide for me. His payments to my school were irregular to say the least. The silver lining was that I was forced to insist he take me with him at fifteen. The independence I learned arranging his expeditions would be useful anywhere but England.”
“How do you mean?” He put his hand out to toy with his wineglass. It was inches from her clasped hands. She felt it like a magnet. If she were not careful, she would take it in her own.
“Only … only that in England no one seems to allow females to provide for themselves.”
“Females provide for themselves in quite a determined manner on the Marriage Mart.” His expression darkened.
“By getting a man to do so by proxy,” she protested. “A husband controls his wife’s fortune, her property. A woman is lucky if her father can negotiate settlements to provide for her widowhood. No, I was thinking of something more direct.”
His smile was very small. It changed his face. “You mean setting up as a governess?”
She sighed. “I hope I do not have to resort to employment. Almost no one wants their children to learn archaeology and geology and Arabic.”
His brows drew together. “Perhaps your aunt will help you to a suitable match.”
“Unlikely. I will never marry a man I cannot respect, or even…” Should she say it? What was this man to her that she should refrain? “Love.”
“I hope you have choices which suit you, then.” He dismissed her as naive.
“I have a fair portion which should let me live independently.” She did not relish being thought naive, whether that were true or not. She rushed on. “Father put money in the Consuls in my name. I was considering whether to offer up my portion to support his next expedition when he was struck on the head by that perfectly arbitrary bit of masonry.” She sighed. “I can’t help feeling his death was a judgment on my selfishness.”
“Selfishness?” Rufford snorted. “Because you considered keeping the provision he had made for your future in just such a case? And don’t tell me you believe in divine retribution for your thoughts, because anyone who plays chess as you do would be lying.”
All the tears she had not yet shed tangled in her chest and made breath difficult. “You don’t understand how important his dream was to him. A significant discovery would mean he had mattered. He wanted to find that lost city more than he wanted anything.” She smiled wistfully. “Including me.” She came to herself. “My portion would have been a small sacrifice.”
She sipped her Madeira, conscious of his gaze.
He said in a tight voice, “You would not want to find that city. It is evil.”
“So the folklore says,” she agreed eagerly. “I collected maps, testimonials, even all those tales of bloodsucking and ancient evil. I found one Imam, very old, in Tlinis, who I think has actually been to Kivala. I know we could have found it. We were on our way to consult him when my father…” Her companion’s face contorted in horror. “Whatever is the matter?”
Mr. Rufford was saved by the pipe to dinner from answering. He sprang up as though released and knocked his head upon a beam, swearing under his breath. When he raised it, he was master once again. “Shall we?” he asked, only a slight hoarseness conveying the distress she had witnessed.
She nodded, her brow knotted. Why that severe reaction? What had she said?
She preceded Mr. Rufford across the deck to the Captain’s cabin, his bulk and his emotion a dark force almost palpable behind her, his cinnamon scent dissipated by the ocean air. The mystery of the man was not lessened by her conversation. She doubted that a dinner in the very public company of the ship’s officers was likely to shed any light on that mystery. But the voyage was long and suddenly very much more interesting than she had thought it would be.
Thank you for reading the first 3 chapters…the entire book is on sale for 99 cents and can be purchased on Amazon and other retailers.
Find all my information on my website: www.SusanSquires.com
Also by Susan Squires
The Hunger (prequel to the companion)
One with the Night
One with the Shadows
One with the Darkness
DaVinci Time Travel Series:
Time for Eternity
Twist in Time
Mists of Time
Do You Believe in Magic?
He’s a Magic Man
Waiting for Magic
The Magic’s in the Music
Your Magic Touch (novella)
No More Lies
Praise for Susan Squires and The Companion
“A darkly compelling vampire romance . . . the plot keeps the reader turning the pages long into the night.”
Affaire de Coeur
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“Susan Squires has a fascinating, unique voice; she is a rare talent.
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All About Romance
“Travel through Egypt’s deserts and London’s society with two of the most intriguing characters you will ever read about. You will encounter a dark world that is intense, scary, sexy, and a love that will brighten it…powerful and passionate…captivating…Squires has a wonderful ability to keep her readers glued to the edge of their seat.”
“Squires has demonstrated a talent that few can surpass. Her descriptions and historical details are flawless. Her characters exceed their potential and the plot keeps you quickly turning the pages. Squires has joined the company of authors whose books are classis. Look for this book to become a classic in it’s genre too. The Companion is a gem.
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“Squires has just taken the traditional vampire novel to a whole new level with The Companion. With her riveting and compelling writing, she has woven a tale of love amidst the most desperate of circumstances and created unforgettable characters. The Companion will capture your interest from the first scene until the last…readers who like strong historical novels, as well as one with a definite bite, should add The Companion to their wish list. It will be a keeper for sure!”
“A totally absorbing novel…the characters are brilliantly conceived and perfect for the gripping plotline. The author gives the reader a unique twist on what vampires really are, a tortured hero to adore, the only heroine who could possibly be right for him, a truly horrific villain—and a fascinating story that carries the reader through one exciting adventure after another…Squires’s prose grabs you from the beginning and gives you a relentless ride through this complex, beautifully written book.
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Published by Susan Squires, 2015
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