Light the Embers
This story is a sort of companion piece to "The Distance"; it's written in the same style, and has, I think, the same "feel" to it. However, it's not necessary to read that in order to read this--although of course I want you to read as many of my stories as possible! ;) All you need to know about this is that it takes place during the first film, on the trip back to Cairo from Hamunaptra.
Concerning the discussion between Evelyn and Jonathan, I realize that in the 1920s motor vehicles were already becoming relatively popular (a statistic from the research I did while writing this story claims that 35% of families owned a car by the late 20s). However, Evelyn does seem to be rather isolated from the ways in which the world is changing, and she also has a tendency to cling rather tenaciously to an opinion, once formed. I stand by my characterization as firmly as she stands by her argument. ;)
The passages Evelyn reads are from Rider Haggard's She. Picture a female Imhotep and you'll have Ayesha. ;)
Comments, questions, and dashing, sandy-haired adventurers to curable-underscore-romantic-at-hotmail-dot-com. (Sorry to be so obscure, but I'm trying to avoid spammery.)
I know your heart's in danger
And so is your life
You learn to trust a stranger
And stop and rest for the night
Set your site up in the headlight
The moon won't be enough
Light the embers of another
And the night won't seem so rough...
--Indigo Girls, "Sister"
They stopped at a tiny oasis for the night--the hybrid caravan that had once composed two separate, competing camps, now bound together in the face of greater adversity. They were a ragged, sand-scoured bunch, exhausted by a day's hard riding. The night was clear, cold, and almost painfully beautiful, but none of them were in much of a mood to enjoy it--particularly the unfortunate Burns, who was in no shape for stargazing.
O'Connell had taken charge of the whole sorry gang, riding at the head of the group and acting as a guide of sorts. He made it clear, without ever saying a word, that he--unlike the Americans' last guide--would not hesitate to tell them where to get off if they so much as looked at him funny.
He was the first one off his mount, intending to survey their surroundings and figure out where would be the best place to set up camp. Before he had a chance to do that, though, he had more pressing concerns to deal with--namely, Evelyn. He had been sneaking glances at her face all day, and what he saw there now alarmed him. O'Connell moved swiftly, but time seemingly slowed to a crawl as she, dazed with heat and hunger, suddenly toppled forward, tumbling over into the sand before he could reach her.
Her brother was off his own camel in a second. He was a nimble little bastard, O'Connell had noticed; his firm stance against physical activity seemed grounded in disinclination and drink. It was the first time O'Connell had seen the dissipated Englishman show a particular interest in what was going on around him; even the attack on their camp had been primarily a source of amusement.
Jonathan knelt over Evelyn, drizzling the few sour drops of water left in his canteen over her pale face.
"Come on, Evie... come back, old mum..."
O'Connell stopped a few paces away from them, and stood, arms slack at his sides. He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt so helpless. His heart seemed to have stopped, suspended in the balance. Her dress had fallen around her in such a way that one small white knee peeked out from the black fabric, so pale and vulnerable. O'Connell tried to plan, tried to think what he would do if she... if....
Involuntarily, he flashed back to the other evening, when he and Jonathan had buried Hassan deep in the shifting sands of Hamunaptra. It was absurd, of course; she was still breathing, even he could see that. Still, he didn't like the way her leg was folded under her, the sharp angle of that little knee. If she hadn't broken or sprained something, then she had the devil's luck.
For a moment, she simply lay in the sand, the men around her waiting, watching. Finally she stirred, and O'Connell's heart began to beat again with painful ferocity. The most remarkable expression passed over his face; ironically, of everyone in the company, O'Connell alone would have been able to identify it. He was the only one among them who had ever looked into the eyes of a drowning man.
Evelyn sat up, embarrassed, and whispered something to Jonathan, who helped her to her feet. He kept hold of her arm while she brushed the sand from her clothes and hair. She wasn't hurt, fortunately, but it had been a close call; fall the wrong way from that height, and you could easily snap an arm or a leg--or worse. She raised her head and looked expectantly at O'Connell, who immediately came to his senses and started giving orders.
Henderson got the fire going. Of the entire group, O'Connell found him to be the least useless. Daniels' arm was injured; besides which, he had some kind of bug up his ass. He'd curse you out as soon as look at you. The little dogs always had to prove they had a bigger bite than anyone else. O'Connell was as game for a pissing contest as the next guy, but now was just not the time. Chamberlin seemed to be suffering from something very like shell-shock; he was only marginally aware of his surroundings, but at least he did as he was told without complaint. Burns was good for nothing, of course--not that it was his fault, the poor bastard. Jonathan was all right for some things, as long as they didn't involve heavy lifting; he had a marksman's eye, and could bag a wild pigeon on the wing, but he couldn't build a decent fire to cook the thing if his life depended on it. Evelyn was good at heavy lifting; wrangling with those old tomes in the library for so long had paid off in a way no one could have expected. She could start a fire in seconds--not always on purpose--but had no control over it once it was started. O'Connell sure as hell didn't need to run around putting out camels all night, on top of everything else, so he left her out of things entirely. She needed to rest, anyhow: she claimed she was fine, but he didn't buy it.
Henderson styled himself a tough-talking, hard-bitten gunslinger, but he had enough sense to do what he was told, when O'Connell told him to do it. He cooked and portioned out the "eats" among the men quickly and fairly, distributing a double ration to O'Connell. He then clarified this with a gesture over his shoulder at the seventh member of their little group, who had not been invited to join the relative safety and comfort of the campfire. Both he and Daniels placed the blame for Burns' infirmity squarely on her head.
Burns warmed himself by the fire, seated securely between Daniels and Henderson. One of these worthy companions had sacrificed a sleeve for a makeshift bandage; this was done more for the sake of Burns' fellow travellers than the man himself, who had at least been spared the horror of looking at his own gaping, eyeless sockets. He could only moan pitiably, and gibber his thanks to whoever helped him off his horse and brought him food and water. He had no way of knowing that the man who had done all these things, and who had eased him into his seat and broken up his rations into manageable scraps, was the very same rogue who had lifted his tool kit only a short time ago.
O'Connell had assumed this duty, not out of any particular fondness for the injured man, but through sheer necessity. Burns' friends all seemed reluctant to touch him--as if his infirmities were somehow contagious--and O'Connell couldn't stand to watch as they argued, through whispers and agitated hand gestures, over who was going to tend to the invalid. The guy may have been blind, but that didn't make him stupid. He knew damn well his friends would sooner wish him dead than see him like that. Burns wasn't sure he didn't agree with them.
Evelyn, the proud pariah, sat propped against a scraggly palm tree with a book in her lap, trying to read by the fading evening light. It was not, of course, the book she'd been reading from the night before; that was safely stowed away in one of the saddle bags. Evelyn had not been made privy as to which saddle bag, since--obviously--she couldn't be trusted with such information. She spoke to no one, and certainly no one spoke to her; even Jonathan, who normally never failed to coax a winsome smile from his baby sister when the occasion demanded it, wasn't quite sure what soothing platitude might fit this particular occasion. As often as he'd thought or suggested it in jest, he hadn't really believed Evelyn's insatiable curiosity would one day bring about the end of mankind.
The book she was currently reading had been lent to her by Mister Burns; it seemed rather cruel to try and give it back, since he had little use for it now. She buried herself in its well-worn pages, trying to keep her mind off everything that had happened. Unfortunately, Burns' taste in literature was rather deplorable, and reading of the immortal Ayesha's grisly attempts to reclaim her reincarnated lover did little to calm her rattled nerves. She set the book quietly aside and folded her arms, resting them on her knees.
"Dinner time," announced a gruff voice, as if from miles above her. She didn't have to look up to know who it was. She didn't think she could look at him just now in any case.
"Thank you, no."
O'Connell squatted down beside her, peering into her face. "Yeah, that's what you said yesterday, and look what happened."
She glanced up at him, then away--and then back again, in spite of herself. His changeable sea-water eyes bore no trace of the concern she thought she'd seen earlier. A mirage, she supposed. Still, she felt compelled to look, convinced that if Rick O'Connell were to show any sign of weakness, it would be there, and only there.
"You could've gotten hurt," he added.
"My brother gave me some water," she remarked, head held proudly aloft. "I'm quite all right."
O'Connell, normally thick-skinned to the point of oblivion, didn't miss the intimation: that Jonathan took care of her just fine, and that she didn't need him. And, after all, who had she reached for when the scarab beetles had burst the skin of the sand like an infected wound? What name had she called? Not Rick, or even O'Connell. She'd clutched at Jonathan, and he'd clutched at her, and neither of them seemed to care in that moment about the guy doing everything in his power to save both their sorry asses from being eaten alive.
Then her shoulders sagged, and she seemed to shrink inward, hugging her knees to her chest. Everything about her--her posture, her face, her voice--belied her words, and expressed an incalculable weariness. His irritation ebbed away as quickly as it had risen to the surface. More than anything, he wanted to put his arms around her; just hold her, let her get some rest, his broad shoulder serving as her pillow. She was so dog-tired that she might even go for it. But he had work to do that couldn't be neglected, responsibilities to others besides her that had to be considered.
"We rode all day," she added. "It's exhausting."
The note of kindness in his reply struck something in her; again, she searched his look for a signal that his concern was more than just that of a guide, a friend, a person in a position of strength.
O'Connell had the same sensation of falling that seemed to take hold whenever she looked at him, into him, the way she was doing now. At moments like this, it was like she could read his mind. It terrified him. What was she doing to him? He was going to go bughouse if this went on much longer.
"We're gonna do it tomorrow, too," he continued hastily, looking down at his hands, "so you need to keep your strength up."
Evelyn's entire body seemed to contract at the very thought of actually putting anything her mouth, let alone chewing and swallowing. She closed her eyes and waited for the feeling to pass. When she opened them, O'Connell was still there, watching her intently.
"You're gonna eat this," he asserted, placing a tin plate in front of her.
She glanced down at the burnt offering--Henderson was okay at fires, but Burns had always been the chef of the group--and shook her head. "No, thank you."
"I'm not asking you." He said it amiably enough, but the implication stung like a slap across the face.
"And who are you, sir, to give me orders?" she demanded icily.
Her tone didn't faze him for a second. "Not an order, sister, just a fact. You're gonna eat it or I'm gonna feed it to you."
She tried to rise, but he placed a hand on her shoulder and pinned her against the tree. "I'm going to be ill," she informed him squirming out of his grasp.
"No. There's nothing in you to come up but water, and if you try you'll just make yourself worse." He didn't lay hands on her again, but his posture suggested that she wasn't going anywhere without his expressed approval. "You wanna get sick and die out here? Fine. Don't do it on my time."
"Your time? May I remind you--"
"No," he stated flatly, standing up. Almost as an afterthought, he added, "Thank you," and walked off.
The men ate in silence. O'Connell kept his head down, his chin nearly touching the rim of his plate. He felt acutely conscious of these new feelings that had come over him, like a sickness: he was certain that they could all tell, just by looking at him, that he no longer had any control over things he said or did. He was feverish, delirious. He felt trapped, sucked down into an endless spiral of uncertainty and need. His feelings for her were growing and changing so fast, he didn't know how to react from one minute to the next. There were times when he knew that she had to feel the same way he did--that whatever affliction he was suffering from, she was being weakened by it too, and their only hope of a cure lay within each other--but then, once the moment had passed, he was left wondering again. And then there were times when she just plain pissed him off.
He considered, briefly, going to talk to her--just getting it all off his chest, once and for all--but how could he put into words what even he didn't understand? He didn't even know what to call it, only that it went beyond just wanting her body. Oh, it was that as well; he wasn't blind, after all... he winced, glancing involuntarily over at Burns, then shook his head, disgusted and ashamed of himself. Of all the times to be thinking about a girl. Problem was, he couldn't stop thinking about her, no matter how he tried.
It didn't even occur to him that this strange, torturous thing that was twisting him up inside might actually be the beginnings of love. Love, from what he'd been led to understand, was generally a pleasant experience that didn't usually involve a lot of yelling and screaming at the other person. It was something that had to do with romance, and poetry, and flowers, and kissing. He liked the kissing part okay--as well as the other things it tended to lead to--but you could keep the rest as far as he was concerned. He just wasn't the kind of guy that went around falling in love. Let alone with girls like Evelyn.
Rick O'Connell was a man with very little personal experience of love, in all its various forms; in that respect, he was far more sheltered than Evelyn, who had once known affectionate parents, and remained the cherished apple of a doting older brother's eye. O'Connell was someone who had always preferred to keep people at a distance--feeling quite certain that, given the chance, they'd do likewise. And not one of them had disappointed his expectations--until now.
He knew he'd been a jerk to Evelyn, and he knew that he should go back and apologize--but damn it, couldn't she see what she was doing to herself? Not to mention what she was doing to him: just the thought of her getting heatstroke, or falling the wrong way out of the saddle, produced the sensation of having his stomach clamped in a vice. Every time he looked over his shoulder at Evelyn and saw her not eating, he could feel the vice tighten.
Evelyn, for her part, was infuriated with the lot of them. Just a bunch of men: men always thought they knew what was best for everyone, always laid the blame on women when things went wrong. Even Jonathan--her own brother!--couldn't be bothered with her, it seemed. None of them understood; they all thought she was simply being stubborn, no doubt. It wasn't as though she didn't want to eat, but she just knew she was going to be horribly ill if she tried to force herself to do so. Then again, the prospect of being fed by O'Connell didn't strike her as particularly pleasant--although, perhaps, if the situation weren't quite so... no. Not under any circumstances would it be pleasurable to be treated like a child by that overgrown, loutish American. Who did he think he was, giving her orders? She was the one who had employed him, not vice-versa. He was a guide; hired help, and that was all.
Except that it wasn't all.
As hard as she'd tried to stamp out her infatuation with Rick O'Connell, the embers of it still smouldered, threatening to burst into riotous flame at any moment. And Evelyn had never been much good at controlling fires once they were started.
He seemed genuinely concerned for her--but only as much as he was concerned for the well-being of anyone else in the group, she reflected. One had only to look at the way he'd helped poor Mister Burns to see that. His tender treatment of the invalid augured well for the future, she reflected; no doubt he would make an excellent husband and father, provided he found a wife who refused to be cowed by his size and mercurial moods. That wouldn't be easy. Not many women would be willing to put up with such rough, rude treatment without complaint--and O'Connell would be bored senseless by those few limp dishrags who were. He would be best suited to a woman who could put him in his place when he needed it--but who, at the same time still understood and respected him. A woman who could reason with him when he got himself worked up, rather than giving in and going along with him when he obviously wasn't thinking clearly. She would have to be an equal mix of courage and compassion, intelligent but not entirely lacking in common sense.
She visualized him--slightly older, a touch more refined, but still ruggedly handsome--in an overstuffed armchair, before an elegant fireplace, with a little child on each knee. Both blond, of course, and fair, with a dash of freckles across each tip-tilted little nose. The boy would have his father's bright eyes and easy charm, and the girl would sport a halo of ringlets, just like...
Evelyn blinked and shook her head, wondering where on earth that had come from. Exhaustion, no doubt. She swallowed--and suddenly realized that she'd begun to pick at the food O'Connell had left her, popping bits of it into her mouth. She waited for her stomach to turn over, but it seemed to have settled. More surprisingly, she actually felt hungry.
There was only one tent, and they gave it to Evelyn. Partly because she was the only woman, but mostly because no one could bear to look at her--apart from Burns, who didn't have the option. Henderson set it up for her, then marched over to where she still sat and indicated, gruffly, that this was where she was going to sleep.
Evelyn stood and brushed past him without a word. She glided across the sand, breaching the safe circle of their campfire. Daniels scowled at her, and Chamberlin regarded her quizzically, as if trying to place her face. Jonathan looked surprised, but said nothing; O'Connell merely regarded her, stone-faced and flint-eyed. She gracefully assumed the spot Henderson had vacated, indicating her presence to Burns with a gentle touch of her hand on his arm.
"Mister Burns," she said.
"Mish--Mish--" He tried to say Carnahan. Couldn't.
"Yes, hallo." She took his aimless hand in both her own and squeezed it, gently. Softly but distinctly, she informed him, "I have your book. Would you like me to read to you?" O'Connell was able to hear, in her tone, the echo of those first fateful words she had spoken to him in Cairo Prison: We've found your puzzle box, and we've come to ask you about it... slowly, simply, as though she were speaking to a child.
Burns nodded, his face contorting with emotion at the gesture. Had he been able, he would have wept. "Ish one of my favourish." He drooled on himself as he spoke. His friends turned away, shame-faced.
"Yes, so you told me," she replied, still speaking in the same low, soothing voice. "I confess I've never cared much for adventure stories, but Mr. Haggard did create such powerful characters... shall we begin at Chapter One?"
He nodded again.
Evelyn opened the book. "'There are some events,'" she read, "'of which each circumstance and surrounding detail seems to be graven on the memory in such fashion that we cannot forget...'" She had a fine, well-trained speaking voice, endowed with the perfect amount of flexibility and range. O'Connell could easily picture her lecturing coolly to a crowd of academics, all twenty or thirty years her senior, just knocking their collective socks off. He was biased, of course. It was fairly easy to be poised out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a surly gang of camels and rude men whose opinions one doesn't care tuppence for in any case. At the very worst, one might get spat on.
Jonathan and Daniels both got up and wandered off without saying a word. Henderson remained standing over by the little tent, watching from a distance, while Chamberlin remained, staring blankly into the fire.
Evelyn became so engrossed in her task that she soon forgot her own troubles and launched herself spiritedly into the role of narrator, even putting on different voices for the various characters. Burns kept his hand anchored to her knee, with her own small one covering it. Thrust into darkness, the one thing he needed most was human contact. After what he'd been through, he did not want to be alone. Evelyn, the only other person to have faced the terrifying creature without help--to have had it look into her, hungrily, as if she had something deep inside of her that it craved--understood this better than anyone. She needed to read as much as Burns needed to listen.
O'Connell was riveted, unable to take his eyes off her. She was still young enough to be pretty at full daylight; firelight rendered her absolutely exquisite. Her slim shoulders, the straight line of her back and sweetly rounded curves of her figure, the delicate movements of her slender hands over the pages of the book--every inch of her seemed to call to him through the curtain of flame that separated them. The expression on her face held him captive the longest: he'd last seen it when he was standing on the gallows, waiting to die. Compassion for a man she barely knew. Pity. Maybe he'd been fooling himself, thinking those dark eyes held anything more for him.
Burns was probably more her type anyway, O'Connell reflected morosely, determined to wallow in self-pity. He was book-smart, academic, studious, just like Evelyn herself. He liked to read--for all the good it did him now--and he always knew when to say please and thank you. He called her Miss Carnahan, or tried to.
"'...I was not then old enough to be aware how many things happen in this world that the common sense of the average man would set down as so improbable as to be absolutely impossible. This is a fact that I have only recently mastered.'"
Here she cast a glance at O'Connell, who bolted out of his seat, grabbed for his guns, and stalked off to do a perimeter check. As he passed by the spot in the sand where she'd been sitting, he glanced down at the tin plate he'd left her. It was empty.
At least he could do that much for her.
The Egyptologist was the first to nod off, lulled to sleep by a full stomach and Evelyn's lilting narration. The Americans drifted back to the fire, spread their pallets out around it, and waited. At length, Burns began to slump forward, and the hand on Evelyn's knee went slack. Henderson helped him to find his bed and covered him up.
Evelyn walked quickly to her tent and entered it, shivering. The night air was brutally cold, but at least in her little canvas sanctum she would be sheltered from the sweeping desert winds. She began to get ready for bed, peeling off her stockings and loosening her hair. She didn't get undressed, of course--that wouldn't do at all, as she'd learned through experience. If one were obliged to leave camp suddenly, it would be advantageous to be clad in something slightly more substantial than a nightgown. She wished, not for the first time, that she'd had a chance to rescue a few of her belongings from the barge. She'd long since finished mourning the loss of her books and other personal items, and had moved on to practicalities: cold cream would have been particularly useful, as well as clean clothes, not to mention a hairbrush and some proper soap. She'd done all right with the few supplies Jonathan had managed to weasel out of the other men, but their soap was gritty and smelled perfectly horrid. She didn't know how they managed. She supposed that men in general had thicker, rougher skin, and that Jonathan--who had remarked to her at one point that scrubbing oneself with sand would have been less painful--was, as usual, an exception to the general rule.
The very first thing she would do when she arrived in Cairo, she decided, would be to take a long, hot bath, ridding herself of the layers of dirt and sand she'd acquired over the past few days. Smiling to herself, she thought perhaps that the second thing she should do ought to be to shave O'Connell, who sorely needed it. Ever the observer, Evelyn had learned quite a bit about male grooming habits over the past few days. She had noticed that some men, like Jonathan, could get by with shaving every other day without it making much difference, while others, like O'Connell, seemed to want for an application of the razor at least twice daily. Earlier in the day, she'd teased him, asking him whether he'd abandoned his shaving apparatus back at Hamunaptra. He'd merely shot her an irritated look. Really, though, the wild man look did not suit him in the slightest. She much preferred a clean-shaven man; a smooth chin suggested a fastidious nature, or at least a slight preference for neatness. And it was certainly more pleasing to the touch...
Evelyn nearly jumped out of her skin when she heard a rustling noise just outside her tent. "Who's there?" she called out.
"Only me, old mum. Are you decent?"
Relief flooded through her--mingled with, she was surprised to note, a bit of disappointment. "I'd like to think I'm seldom otherwise," she replied wryly. "But I'm dressed, if that's what you're getting at."
"Good show." Jonathan's head poked into the tent. "Thought I might pass the time, if it's all right with you."
"I thought you had cast your lot in with the men." She said it mildly enough, but she couldn't quite keep the barbs out of her observation.
Jonathan winced, stung. "Yes. Well. I was quite overcome by all the, er, flagrant American machismo. Too much more of that, and I'll be spitting and swearing and scratching myself right along with the rest of them. And, d'you know, not one of them can make a half-way decent cup of tea?"
"What about Dr. Chamberlin?"
"Oh, that one." Jonathan made a disparaging noise. "Bloody useless. Wouldn't know his arse from a hole in the ground, and I daresay he's got his head firmly implanted in one or the other." Failing to garner even a small smile, he added, in the most atrocious approximation of an American accent, "Ma'am, Ah wager Ah'm raight sorry for how Ah done treated y'all."
Evelyn laughed in spite of herself. "Idiot. Come on, get in." She found it impossible to stay angry with Jonathan for very long. When he hurt her, it was never out of malice or spite, and he was always the first to try and make it up.
Evelyn found her brother to be a paradox of sorts: a compassionate confidence man. He knew exactly how to manipulate most of the people he came across, but he never used those skills to do real harm--only a liberal amount of misguided mischief. And if someone happened to suffer because of his fun, Jonathan was always genuinely sorry. He'd been forced to grow up quickly when his parents had passed on; suddenly, he was the man of the house, the closest thing to a parent little Evie had. He'd raised her as responsibly as he could, given that he'd never bothered much about rules and morals--those were for adults, after all. Now that she was grown and able to take care of herself, Jonathan was making up for lost time. In many ways, he was still sixteen: figuring out a dodge for every occasion, plotting high-jinks with his mates, awash in the great adventure of life.
He ducked into the little tent, closing the flap neatly behind him. "Bloody freezing out there!" He hugged his knees to his chest, and shivered dramatically. "Oooooh. You don't notice it so much when you're by the fire--or when you've got a bit of a barrier to the wind--but, my God... just feel my hands. Go on, feel them."
Evelyn dutifully touched her brother's manicured fingers, and agreed that they were quite cold. After a moment, he took her hand between both his own, petting it solicitously.
"How are you holding up, sis?"
She shrugged awkwardly. "As well as can be expected, I suppose."
Jonathan was silent for a moment, not quite certain what to say. The episode that afternoon had sobered him, and Jonathan was not a man who handled sobriety well. Teasing and scolding were his specialities when it came to his baby sister. In the end, he reverted to type: "I say, Evie, you'd bloody well better not try that fainting trick again tomorrow. Next time, I hope you fall on your silly little head, maybe that'll pound some sense into it. You're damned lucky you weren't hurt."
"And you ought to be glad I was there to look after you. The cowboys didn't so much as lift a finger to help. Chamberlin nearly keeled over himself. And bloody O'Connell just stood there with his mouth hanging open like a great trout."
He could have kicked himself for mentioning the young soldier's name. The eagerness in Evelyn's voice was almost painful.
"I didn't think he was watching," she added.
"Ohh, yes, he was watching," he muttered. It was hard to miss the younger man's impassioned glances in Evelyn's direction. All evening long, O'Connell had been mooning over her, and he had all the subtlety of a starving man at a banquet. "Would you look at that? I'm actually starting to thaw out," observed Jonathan, smoothly shifting gears. "Nice and toasty in here, isn't it? Don't suppose you've room for one more tonight?"
Evelyn sniffed austerely. "I think not."
"Come now, Evie. When we were children, you were always crawling in with me on cold nights, and stealing all the blankets into the bargain. I think turnabout is fair play. It isn't as though I take up a lot of room--I'll just sleep tucked away in this corner here... no?"
"No, Jon." Evelyn prodded him with her bare foot. "You must be manly and brave and sleep out under the stars. If that won't encourage a stiff upper lip, I'm at a loss to suggest what will," she added sententiously.
"Oh, you're a rotten sister."
"Yes, rather. And you're a miserable disgrace for a brother."
"Granted, but I never said I wasn't. You're supposed to be the good one."
"I'm turning over a new leaf. I shall become dissipated and dependent upon you as my moral compass. You'll have to be the good one from now on."
"Horrors!" exclaimed Jonathan, laughing. "You wouldn't dare."
"I might." She grinned wickedly. "Imagine that, you'd have to become respectable."
"You'd have to give up wooing the Bembridge crowd."
"You'd need a job to support my expensive tastes--one which you would have to go to, every day, on time, and sober, might I add."
"I say, you're no fun at all!"
"And you'd have to get rid of that dreadful car of yours."
"What's wrong with my car?" he demanded.
She sighed. "They're a fad, Jonathan. You can't go spending all your money on some frivolous gadget just because it's popular."
They'd had this discussion numerous times in the past, but the familiarity of it lent a certain comfort to the inhospitable surroundings and strange situation. If they closed their eyes, they could almost imagine themselves back in Evelyn's modest drawing room, bickering companionably over properly-prepared cups of tea.
"My dear girl." Jonathan steepled his fingers meditatively, marshalling his mental forces for the battle of wits. "Automobile travel is the way of the future, don't you see? In ten or fifteen years, everyone will have one."
"Everyone, ha! How do you expect ordinary people to afford those monstrosities--not to mention the petrol? And the repairs to them when they break--and the silly things will break, Jonathan, don't try to tell me they won't. People become absurdly attached to them, like toys; your car is always making noises only you can hear, and yet you won't get rid of it."
"Yes, but just think of the industry they provide! Scads of jobs! Jobs for those who build them, those who repair them, those who deal in petrol..."
"Of course--at the expense of the poor cab drivers, who'll be hard pressed to find a fare if everyone is driving themselves about. The streets will be so crowded, it would probably be faster to walk... and what about all the smoke? The air in London is positively blue now!"
"Details, details--you're so bogged down in bloody nitpickery that you can't grasp the larger concepts of what I'm describing. A revolution in transport, Evie! Cars, trains, aeroplanes--we can go anywhere in the world now without it having to be an ordeal, like this bloody trek across the desert. Buggery camels. Hmph. Give me a machine any day. Convenient, quick--"
"To say nothing of deadly." Evelyn folded her arms defiantly. "Man was simply not meant to go that fast," she pronounced. "Especially the way you drive."
Jonathan grinned. "I'll remember that the next time you want a lift home from somewhere."
"That is different," replied Evelyn regally.
"Ah, yes, of course." A yawn caught Jonathan by surprise. "Well, Evie... I'm off." He leaned in and ruffled his sister's hair. "You'll be all right?"
"Yes, yes." She dismissed his concerns with an airy wave. "Don't trouble yourself about me."
"Righty-o. Pleasant dreams, old girl."
"Same to you, Jon."
He slipped out, and Evelyn curled up on her hard pallet, wondering how on earth she would ever sleep. Her brother's visit had cheered her, but now that he was gone, all the warmth and safety of the little tent seemed to have gone with him. The enormity of the desert was daunting, and her isolation from the rest of the group gave her the sensation of being more alone than ever.
Every time she closed her eyes, the image of the monster in the underground tunnels was waiting to greet her, Burns' pink tongue flapping grotesquely behind its decaying lips and rotted teeth.
Kadeesh mi pharos Anck-su-namun...
She hated to remember how terrified she'd been, how she'd wanted to call out--but not for Jonathan, a sly voice in the back of her head reminded her. For O'Connell. For Rick. She knew it was silly, that one couldn't possibly control the half-formed thoughts that raced through a dazed mind suffused with horrors, but all the same, she couldn't help feeling that she'd betrayed her brother in that moment. Poor Jonathan, she thought, burying her face in her hands. Poor Burns. Poor... all of us.
It was one of the most lonesome, desolate sounds Rick O'Connell had ever heard, and it had crept into his dreams and wrenched at his heart. It wasn't a desert noise; he knew those well, and slept through them easily. Even though he'd never heard the sound before, he knew instinctively what it was by the way it tore at him.
Evelyn was crying.
He got up, looked around to see if anyone else was awake. No one was. That wasn't surprising; the crying was quiet enough, and the men were all exhausted from the long day's travel. Jonathan, who was supposed to be keeping watch, had managed to fall asleep sitting up, propped against the warm body of a slumbering camel with his blanket draped across his knees. O'Connell didn't bother waking him. He slipped out from under his own blanket, every tired muscle in his body stiffening as the bracing night air hit him. Soundlessly, he stepped over to Evelyn's tent, then stood outside, uncertain of what to do next. It wasn't as though she had a door to knock on, after all. After a moment's indecision, he rattled the flap, whispering her name.
The crying stopped, but there was no response otherwise.
"Evelyn," he repeated, slightly louder this time.
There was a protracted sniffle, and then: "Come in..."
It was almost completely dark in the little tent. Evelyn would never have let O'Connell in otherwise; the last thing she wanted was for him to see her looking an absolute fright, as she inevitably did when she'd been crying. She felt that she was more than overdue for a nice, picturesque cry, the type enjoyed by heroines in romance novels. Not a puffy red eye or running nose in sight among those talented girls.
"Are you okay?" He felt stupid for asking, when it was obvious that she wasn't. When she didn't answer right away, he added, "Want me to get Jonathan?"
"Please don't," she replied quietly, wiping her face with her sleeve. The last thing she needed to deal with just then was her brother's good-natured fussing. "I'm fine, thank you."
"Okay, just checking..." He was on the verge of leaving, of taking the coward's way out, but stopped himself at the last second. "Want some company?" he offered.
"No, I... well, yes, actually." Evelyn was tired of putting on a brave face and pretending the previous night's events hadn't bothered her: for once, she wanted to be unrepentantly needy, if only for a moment. She shifted under her blankets, scooting closer to the vague shadow of his shoulder. "I hope I didn't wake you, Mister O'Connell." Even under cover of darkness, she couldn't quite bring herself to call him by his first name--thereby admitting that she remembered the circumstances under which she'd learnt it. Best not to open that particular can of worms just now, she thought. After all, he had enough to deal with. They both did.
"Nah," he lied. "I was just, you know, doing the rounds, and thought I'd check in."
There was a pause. All right, so she wasn't in the mood to do much talking. That was okay by him. "Couldn't sleep, huh?" he inquired. Now that his eyes had adjusted to the near-total darkness of the tent, he could make out her proud profile, pale skin surfacing amid a sea of shadows.
"No... I suppose I had a lot on my mind."
"Go figure. Look, Evelyn..."
He said her name differently from what she was used to, giving it more of his mouth. Hearing him say it gave her a queer feeling, the kind one gets on a lift that goes down too quickly. A sliding sensation, deep in the pit of the stomach.
"I'm sorry I was such a jerk earlier," he continued softly. "I didn't--"
"No, it's all right. I did feel better once I'd eaten," she confessed.
"Gonna be okay to ride tomorrow?"
She managed a smile--barely. "Well, it isn't as though I have a choice, is it?"
He grinned. "If you don't feel up to it, you can always sit on my lap..."
"Thank you, no." She ducked her head shyly, thankful that he couldn't see the colour flooding to her face.
"C'mon. I bet it'd be fun." He was only teasing, but an image rose up in his mind, unbidden: Evelyn, snuggled securely against him, head resting on his shoulder, tiny hands clutching the folds of his shirt... The day's journey would still be physical torture, but torture of an entirely different variety.
"No!" She batted his arm, wondering what he would do if she agreed. Would he retract the invitation?
"I promise I won't drop you..." Hell, if given the opportunity, he would grab hold of her and never let go. "What, one of those other guys out there make you a better offer? Fine, see if I care."
She was quiet, and he cursed himself for going too far. Flirting was not something he was especially good at under any circumstances, and not being able to see her face clearly made it quite a challenge.
Finally, she replied, "If I chose to ride in anyone's lap, Mister O'Connell, it would be yours. For what that's worth."
It was worth a lot. "Listen, I, uh... it was nice, what you did for, uh, Burns, out there."
She shook her head resolutely. "It was the very least I could have done." In a voice so low he barely caught it, she added, "After all, it's my fault that he--"
"No," said O'Connell, sharply.
"No," he repeated. "I don't wanna hear you talking like that. I mean, you can twist it around any way you want, if you try hard enough. You could say it was their fault for opening that damn box. I mean, it said right on there that it was cursed. You could say it was Beni's fault for bringing them here--or my fault for bringing you here." He'd debated, on that first day, whether or not to bother showing up. After all, the cash advance they'd given him to get clothes and supplies was more than adequate to keep him going for a while. He'd packed and unpacked about twelve times, and had even walked out the door determined to tell them he'd had a change of heart. In the end, it wasn't the money that had convinced him, so much as wanting to see the look on Evelyn's face when he showed up. And it had been worth it.
"Yes, but you didn't wake anyone up from the dead, did you?"
At a loss for anything to say to that, O'Connell went with the flippant approach. "Nobody's perfect."
Evelyn was silent again. Then she sniffled, and O'Connell could feel his heart sinking like a stone. He was a fix-it man: the kind of problem he liked was the one he could solve with his hands. Evelyn didn't have any tools to dig with, so he took care of it. She lost her blanket in the raid on their camp, so he found her another one. A scary walking dead guy came after her, so he blasted it into oblivion. She needed to eat, so he made sure she did exactly that. Problem, solution. Simple.
For all his tough-guy posturing, O'Connell was a caretaker at heart. But he wasn't good with damaged egos or broken hearts, and he was especially not good with tears. He'd never quite mastered the vagaries of crying females. They usually required talking to, and he wasn't much for talking, especially about feelings. He didn't even have a handkerchief; the best he had to offer was his sleeve, and that was none too clean at the moment.
"It's, um, it's pretty cold out there. Are you warm enough?" he asked, desperate to forestall the waterworks.
She nodded, then realized that wasn't much help. "Yes," she said. "Thank you."
"If there's anything you need, just let me know."
"Actually, there is one thing, Mister O'Connell..."
He wished she'd call him Rick. "Yeah?"
"I don't like to impose, but could you... could you hold me? Please."
After hesitating for a second, O'Connell reached out and folded her into his arms without saying a word. He was cold, his body stiff as stone, but he was there, solid and reassuring. He smelled of everyday things, she noticed; sweat and soap, wood smoke and wool. Clean smells, real smells. His hands were rough, their calluses rasping against the filmy fabric of her dress as he rubbed her back.
"Thank you." She breathed a shaky sigh, and hoped she wasn't going to start crying again. O'Connell hoped so too. Hesitantly, she touched his arm. "It must be awfully cold outside," she observed.
She ran a hand over the front of his shirt, exploring as much as she dared. He was all planes and ridges; no softness at all. This intrigued Evelyn. Her hand drifted down over his chest to his flat stomach, then around to his side--and suddenly he grunted and shifted positions. Jolted out of her comfortable seat, she settled against him again, and replaced her hand. He responded in the same fashion, jerking away from her touch with an inarticulate exclamation.
"Don't--don't do that," he whispered.
He was ticklish, she realized. The idea delighted her. She debated whether to capitalize on this first sign of vulnerability, but decided against it in the end, and contented herself with resting her head against his shoulder.
He stroked her hair. He liked it when she wore her hair down, liked the way it flew out behind her and the way it fell over her shoulders and framed her lovely face. He brushed the curls back from that same face and touched her cheeks, gently, making sure there were no tears there. Then he gathered her close, laid his cheek against the top of her head, and tried not to think about what it would be like to really kiss her.
He'd come close, the other night--although she was probably just a friendly drunk, he reflected, apt to cuddle up to anyone who happened to be around. He would have gone for it, too. He'd had a few himself, although he suspected that she was the real reason for his intoxication that night. Her pretty face flushed with excitement and too much whiskey, the warmth of her in his arms... when she'd dropped drunkenly to her knees and announced that she was going to kiss him, he'd felt his head start to spin. It struck him that the whole thing was a little ridiculous; she wouldn't even call him by his first name. It took him a second to realize that she probably didn't know his first name. So he told it to her, and she passed out with it still on her lips.
She was warm now, too, he reflected, and breathed in the sweet perfume of her hair. Warm, and so soft. And right there. All the good, rational, cold-light-of-day reasons for not kissing her were starting to blink themselves out, one by one, distant as stars in the lonely, frozen sky. In the end, though, his resolve held fast. It was probably all for the best, he thought, holding her a little tighter just the same.
He'd known Evelyn only a few days, but already he liked and respected her enough to want better for her than anything he could provide. He'd already shown her everything he had to offer: his name was the one of the few things in his possession that he'd come by honestly, and the only one he owned outright. He was indebted to her for just about everything else, from his clothes to his weapons to his life itself. He was too proud to start anything with her on those terms, owing her things he had no way of repaying. If they could have met on equal footing--or if he could have helped her in return, somehow, making things square between them--then maybe he could have been her hero, instead of some deadbeat deserter she rescued from the gallows. Ironically, Evelyn would probably have understood and even agreed with his reasoning, were their positions reversed. If there was one amenity they both possessed in ample supply, it was pride.
Evelyn, who had not been too proud to ask to be held, was not regretting her decision. Being independent had its advantages, she mused, but it was really quite wonderful to be petted and comforted and made a fuss of once in a while. Then she felt a slight, sweet touch against her forehead--softer than the gentlest brush of fingers, warm as a breath against her skin. It lasted only a moment; Evelyn, unsure how to respond, sat perfectly still until it was over. Well, she reflected, trying to rationalize herself out of trembling, there was nothing so very remarkable about it; Jonathan kissed her on the forehead fairly regularly. But this was different. Here they were, barely more than strangers, alone in the darkness, wrapped in each other's arms... she knew, or thought she knew, what must inevitably come next.
She'd had dreams of kissing this tall, taciturn man, this dashing adventurer; not just being kissed by him--she knew what that was like, after all--but actually responding in kind. The thought both thrilled and terrified her. She'd only ever been kissed a few times in her life, by eager young fellows who were more keen on the idea of kissing a girl, any girl, than kissing bookish little Evelyn Carnahan in particular. Evelyn, for her part, had found the process to be fraught with peril, and a deadly bore into the bargain. She'd just as soon have been reading. She never got a banged nose or a bitten lip from reading--well, hardly ever.
But O'Connell was no callow stripling, and there was no doubt whatsoever in Evelyn's mind that he could have his choice of any number of women. She was also quite certain that he (unlike the impatient, slobbering boys whose attentions comprised the whole of her knowledge on the subject) had enough experience to know what he was about. That hurried business at the prison--it was hardly fair to judge him on that, in retrospect. Very few people are at their best when about to be hanged; their concentration levels are, quite understandably, somewhat lacking. She suspected that really being kissed by O'Connell would prove to be quite an experience, to put it mildly.
Evelyn leaned into his arms, raised her face to his, and closed her eyes, waiting... but nothing happened.
She could feel herself blushing with embarrassment and irritation. Really, what was he playing at? If he was going to kiss her, he should get it over with. And if he wasn't, then he shouldn't hold her in such a tender way as to give her the impression that he was. It was as simple as that.
And then, suddenly, he bent his head--not to capture her mouth, as she had anticipated, but to whisper in her ear. "Okay, lie down," he told her.
Evelyn felt a jolt of excitement and apprehension surge through her--had she made a mistake letting him in? Was he going to make advances to her without any warning other than 'lie down'? Would she have to scream for Jonathan? Did she really want to? Well, that was just ridiculous--of course she did.
She froze, and waited, but he didn't say anything more. Then, slowly, he began to lower her to the ground.
"Er--excuse me--um..." she stammered. "Stop!"
She sat up, encountering no resistance from O'Connell, who immediately let her go and backed away.
"Hey, easy there. You were dozing off. I was just gonna tuck you in."
Mistaking her mortified silence, he quickly added, "I can stay until you fall asleep, if you want." He was ready to offer to do anything, if it would keep her from crying.
"I'd like that," Evelyn heard herself say.
She lay back on her pallet, and O'Connell covered her with one blanket, then stretched out beside her and pulled the second over both of them. Secure under a heavy layer of woven fabric, Evelyn felt absolutely no qualms about the fact that a man whose first name she'd only learned the night before last was sharing her bed. After all, he wasn't technically in the bed, merely laying on one of the blankets... besides which, it was lovely having someone so big and warm lying beside her. For the first time since they'd started off on this wild treasure chase, she felt safe. She rolled over and nestled into the crook of his shoulder, one arm resting on his chest, and gave a contented little sigh.
O'Connell, for his part, was not feeling particularly content. Not that he minded being close to Evelyn; in fact, his problem was rather the opposite. He wished they were closer. He wondered what she'd do if he kissed her--not just a little peck on the forehead either, but the kind of kiss that goes on so long that you start to forget anything else outside of it even exists. O'Connell, who was not a man given to false modesty, estimated that he was pretty damn good at delivering that kind of kiss. He'd never had a single complaint about his kissing skills. The talking part was what didn't seem to work for him. It was only fair that he should get a chance to put his best foot forward--after all, Evelyn's great talent was being a know-it-all, and she'd had plenty of opportunity to demonstrate. Maybe it was finally his turn to show off. Of course, that wasn't his sole motivation for wanting to kiss Evelyn's smart little mouth. She was definitely cute--beautiful, even. Usually, that was reason enough for him. It had been reason enough back at the prison. But now he just couldn't seem to muster up the guts to do it. Finally, he let himself off the hook by concluding that she'd probably just slap him and yell for her brother, waking up the whole camp and making him look like a damn fool in front of the other men.
She stirred, and murmured something that fit quite nicely into his train of thought. So nicely, in fact, that it took him a second to register the fact that he hadn't imagined it.
"Um... Evelyn?" he whispered.
"What'd you just say?"
"Kiss me... please..."
"Yeah. That's what I thought you said."
She was dreaming, he realized. Talking in her sleep. He'd heard her do it before, although all she'd had to say then was a few not-so-complimentary things about the Dewey Decimal System. He wondered if she was dreaming of someone in particular. Someone he might know personally. Someone who--maybe, just maybe--happened to be lying beside her in the little tent. Not that dreams meant anything, of course. He'd once dreamed about having tea with the king of England, but that didn't mean he was ever going to set foot inside Buckingham Palace. All the same to him, since he didn't much care for tea anyhow.
He was trying to figure out how he might go about discovering the identity of Evelyn's dream-lover, without waking her, when she decided to let him in on the secret.
"Mmm, kiss me again... Rick."
He grinned fatuously, the warm flutter in the pit of his stomach growing and spreading, until he felt like his entire body was blushing. She'd probably be embarrassed as hell if she knew he was listening to this, but what she didn't know wouldn't hurt either of them. It was tempting--especially since she was asking for it--but if there was one thing he'd learned from the other night, it was that if he ever got the chance to kiss Evelyn, he wanted her to be able to remember it the next day.
She didn't say anything else; just snuggled into his arms, fitting like she belonged there. Every so often, she would mumble or make some inarticulate expression of approbation. Evelyn was someone who simply could not stand to be quiet, even in sleep, but O'Connell was enchanted by what he'd begun to think of as her happy noises. He began to relax, savouring the warmth and weight of her body, the slight movements occasioned by her breathing. He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt this comfortable, this good. His hand found its way into the hollow of her back and rested there, keeping her close. She was definitely sound asleep. He figured he ought to wait a while, just to make sure, before sliding out from underneath her. If he woke her up, she might get upset again when she found he was leaving, and then he'd have to stay longer... Five more minutes, he told himself, and he was out of there.
Five... ten, tops.
Jonathan was a disgustingly early riser. This may have had something to do with the fact that he expended very little energy during the day as a general rule, and, more often than not, found a way to sneak in an afternoon nap. He was up with the sun--and was surprised to note that he was not the first. O'Connell's pallet was unoccupied, which meant it wouldn't be long before the rest of them were summarily dragged out of bed as well. He glanced around, looking for the guide, then concluded that he must have gone off to water the local flora. Not a bad idea, he reflected, effecting a similar plan himself.
After completing his morning ritual--insofar as it could be completed without the aid of anything besides a dribble of water, a half-cake of soap, and a straight razor badly in need of stropping--Jonathan decided it was time to light a fire under his dear, sweet baby sister. Evie, industrious little darling though she was, was very much not a morning person. She needed at least an hour's advance warning in order to be fully awake by the time they set out.
In typical big-brotherly style, he threw back the flap and crawled into the tent without bothering to give any warning at all--only to discover that there wasn't exactly room for another person in there. O'Connell lay there, one arm draped over Evelyn; judging from the way she was snuggled up to him, she didn't particularly object to the arrangement. This was a distressing development, to say the least.
"Hey!" he shouted, before he could think better of it. It would probably have been a more rational course of action to withdraw discreetly, then wait to catch O'Connell in the act of creeping out of Evelyn's tent, and have a little chat with the young rascal. However, Jonathan wasn't feeling particularly rational or discreet at the moment. He was feeling rather confrontational, in fact. "Get up!" He administered a sound thump to O'Connell's leg with his fist. "Come on, up, you dirty great brute!"
O'Connell propped himself up on his elbows and blinked up at Jonathan, disoriented. As he moved away from Evelyn, she rolled over and curled an arm around his waist, making one of her trademark happy noises.
Jonathan made a noise of his own, somewhat less complimentary. "You--out! Go on, clear off!" he cried, flapping his hands at the dishevelled American. At least the fellow was dressed, he noted ruefully. So was she, as near as he could tell, although he wasn't about to go investigating.
O'Connell's reflexes were quicker than his brain, as usual, and he was half-way to his feet before he realized where he was--very nearly taking the entire tent with him as he brushed past Jonathan and stumbled out into the early morning sun. The canvas structure quivered ominously, but somehow managed to stay upright.
Evelyn, who had been known to sleep through air raids as a girl, didn't even stir.
Once both men were out of the tent and upright, Jonathan demanded, "Now, what did I tell you about chasing after my sister?"
Hesitantly, voice still thick with sleep, O'Connell hazarded a guess. "Um... not to?"
"Yes. That's exactly right," spat Jonathan, trilling his R with a grand flourish. "And is it so much to ask, really? Is she that bloody irresistible?"
Jonathan wasn't particularly interested in letting O'Connell explain his motivations, since he had a fairly good idea of what they were. "I know she looks good to you right now, but she's the only girl out here!" He shook his head disgustedly. "For heaven's sake, man, show a modicum of self-control, can't you?"
"Look, you don't understand..." began O'Connell helplessly.
"Oh, I understand, all right. I remember what it was like at your age, don't think I don't. You're going to have your fun, and when we get back to Cairo, you're going to bugger off and leave her, and you know who's going to have to pick up the pieces? That's right, old man--I will." He jabbed O'Connell in the chest with his thumb to punctuate this statement.
"Nothing happened!" O'Connell protested, his mind reeling. He wasn't even going to tackle the rest of the accusations until they got this one sorted out.
"You don't seriously expect me to believe that? That you spent all night lying there next to her, and all you did was sleep? I've heard some whopping lies in my time, my boy, but this... this takes the cake. You must think I'm a complete twit!"
As if she'd simply been waiting for her cue, Evelyn chose this precise moment to crawl out of the open flap. "What is all this shouting, boys?" she demanded petulantly, standing barefoot in the sand. She'd been stirred to consciousness, not by raised voices, but by the sudden absence of her sleeping companion, and the warmth and comfort he'd provided.
"Evie, what on earth was this blighter doing in your bed?" Jonathan demanded, drawing himself up to his full height. This intimidation tactic didn't do him much good, since he was about level with his sister, and O'Connell towered over them both in any case.
To her credit, Evelyn didn't so much as blink at the implied accusation. "I don't see that that's any of your business," she replied coolly. O'Connell shot her an agonized look--she was not helping the situation by being snippy.
"Evelyn Mary Carnahan!" her brother cried. Very few subjects inspired him to indignant outrage, but the defamation of his only sister was one such subject. "D'you mean to tell me that--"
She began to laugh, riotously, and both men wondered if she'd lost her mind.
"Jonathan, don't be a prat," she said at last. "Can't you tell when someone's having you on?"
Jonathan said nothing, merely regarded her quizzically.
"Oh, honestly--what do you take me for?" She took a step closer, and slipped her arm through her brother's, her face alight with mischief. "I was up early this morning, and Mister O'Connell and I were chatting, and I thought it would be funny to play a little joke on you. That's all it was, Jon--just a rib. And you should have seen your face!"
O'Connell could tell Jonathan wanted to believe her. Hell, if he hadn't been there last night, all night, he'd probably have fallen for it too. It was hard to resist those wide, innocent eyes.
She didn't even hesitate. "As I live and breathe."
O'Connell looked skyward, waiting for lightning to strike.
In a conspiratorial whisper, she added, "Actually, Mister O'Connell didn't want to go along with it. He was afraid for my reputation." Here she grinned impudently over her brother's shoulder at the dumbfounded young man. "But I convinced him that you've always been a great one for leg-pulling. And there you have it."
"Well... hmph. All right, then." Mollified, Jonathan turned his attention to more pressing matters--namely, his own growling stomach. "I do believe I'll just give the other fellows a nudge, and stir that pile of sticks and ash up into something resembling a fire. I'll make the tea," he announced. "Since I'm the only one who can be counted on to bloody well do it properly."
Evelyn cleared her throat.
"Er, apart from you, sis, of course." He looked from one to the other, and Evelyn glimpsed something in his face that suggested he hadn't believed her story as readily as she thought. "No more mucking about," he cautioned sternly, then turned and began to walk over to where the rest of the group still slumbered.
O'Connell wondered briefly who'd died and made Jonathan the leader of the expedition, but he knew better than to voice such thoughts aloud. The aura of death that had engulfed the lost city still lingered in Burns' empty gaze, in the dull, shuffling movements of Chamberlin. Even to O'Connell, who was by no means a sensitive man, joking about it didn't seem quite right.
He gazed down at Evelyn and scratched at the back of his head, suddenly shy for no reason he could fathom. "You sleep okay?" he asked, though he was fairly certain he'd have known if she hadn't.
She nodded. "Oh, yes, thank you. And you?"
"Hell, yeah. Best sleep I ever had." He made the statement in a jocular way, to hide the fact of its truth.
She took a step closer and touched his wrist, folding her tapered fingers around it. There was something almost proprietary about the action, as though she were claiming him for her own. "It was awfully kind of you to stay with me."
Kind? She thought he'd done what he'd done out of kindness? She obviously didn't know him at all. "No problem," he replied.
"I'm sorry Jonathan shouted at you. He's not normally like that."
Jonathan, who had been gifted with a rather superb sense of timing, called, "Oh, would you two quit bloody mooning over one another?"
"Although he can rather over-protective of me sometimes," she continued, as if her brother hadn't spoken.
"Well, I would be too," O'Connell blurted. "I mean... if I... had a little sister." He avoided explicit comparison at all costs; the last thing he wanted was for her to start thinking of him as an older brother. That hadn't been what he meant at all. He was starting to suspect that he would do just about anything to keep this girl safe.
"Yes, yes, of course," she agreed, rather too volubly.
"Especially one as pretty as you," he added, before he could stop himself.
Evelyn's embarrassed little smile nearly undid him. She didn't seem to know which way to look, and finally her gaze settled on her own bare toes, half-buried in the sand. Her normally unflappable self-possession made every moment of vulnerability exciting beyond all measure; each time, she showed him a little more of her hidden self. An emotional strip-tease.
An impulse came over her, she glanced over her shoulder to see whether her brother was still watching. Jonathan was engaged in a heated argument with Henderson about how best to get the fire going.
O'Connell followed her gaze, and sighed wearily. "I better go sort that out," he told her, brow furrowed.
Without a word, Evelyn raised herself up on tiptoe, and leaned in to plant a kiss on his cheek. O'Connell, caught off guard, moved his head at the last second, so that her token landed instead at the corner of his mouth.
The kiss lasted only an instant--no sooner begun than done--but there was an electricity in it that stunned both of them into silence. Both could feel the warmth of the flame that threatened to engulf them, and they stood there, squinting at each other in the ever-brightening dawn, wishing they could just crawl back into the little tent and let the world go on without them for a while.
"You're pretty tricky when you want to be. I'm gonna have to keep an eye on you," remarked Rick, who had never been able to resist playing with dynamite.
Evelyn, the girl with a gift for starting fires, treated him to a sultry smile. "You had better keep both on me, for good measure."