Even at sunrise, the docks on the east bank of the Nile were crowded and bustling. I yawned and blinked, my eyes slightly dazzled by the sun's reflection off the great river, as I followed James along the wharf, weaving and dodging around street vendors shouting their wares and children chasing feral dogs and haphazardly veering bicyclists.
I clutched my paper cup of Earl Grey, courtesy of James, to my chest and gripped his elbow more tightly, not wanting to be lost in the chaos. Glancing behind me, I thought I glimpsed a hooded figure in the crowd, a partially hidden face watching us intently, but when I looked again the vision was gone.
I shook my head. Still need sleep.
We followed a bend in the river, taking a slight turn to the right, and within a few yards the crowd had abruptly thinned out. We were in a quieter part of town, with austere gated courtyards and date palms peeking over the walls.
We turned down a set of limestone steps to a small private dock where a sailboat was moored. I don't know much about boats, but I could tell this one was top-of-the-line. It was smallish, maybe about twenty feet long, and the deck of the boat was almost level with the dock.
"She certainly is yar," I remarked.
James gave me a funny look. "Are you a sailor, then?"
"No. Katherine Hepburn fan." He still looked confused. "The Philadelphia Story," I explained.
"Ah. Never saw it."
"Oh, you have to!" I exclaimed. "It's great! Katherine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart—"
"And Cary Grant," James offered.
"Of course." Then, remembering James' last name, I thought of something: "Hey, do you think you're related to him?"
"Doubtful," he replied. "Grant wasn't his real name."
Before I could finish the thought, a head and shoulders appeared through a trapdoor in the boat's deck. The man, who I judged to be perhaps in his late fifties, turned his head and caught sight of us, calling out, "James!" and his face breaking into a grin. He pulled himself onto the deck then hopped the boat's railing to join us on the dock.
"Dietrich!" James said, and clasped the man's hand in a firm shake.
I could tell the man was European, but his skin was tanned a deep brown and what hair he had sun-bleached almost white where it wasn't touched with gray. His eyes were a sharp, startling blue, and he spoke with a slight German lilt.
"It has been too long, my friend," Dietrich was saying. "But I am happy to be of service. Is this the lady, then?" he asked, turning to me.
"This is Marianne," James said.
I held out my hand. "Hi, nice to meet you," I smiled.
Dietrich took my hand, engulfing it in both of his, then leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek, catching me off-guard.
"Oh! O... kay..." I fumbled awkwardly.
James hid a smirk behind his hand and Dietrich laughed outright at my embarrassment. "Don't you know it's bad luck not to kiss a bride!"
"We can't tell you how much we appreciate your letting us borrow your boat, Dietrich," James interjected smoothly, guiding me toward the boat's railing to climb aboard.
"Of course you want to be on your way," the German continued. "I hope it hasn't been too long since you've sailed? You should be fine with Nefertiti here." He patted the boat's hull affectionately. "She's never done me wrong."
I pulled myself onto the ship's deck and stepped back so James could do the same. Then he turned back to Dietrich. "We should be back in a week or so," he said.
"Oh, don't worry," said Dietrich. "Take all the time you need." He winked knowingly.
I plopped onto a padded bench near the stern, tossing my book bag at my feet and draining my tea cup, while Dietrich helped James cast off, knowing I would be completely useless if I attempted to help them. Once the sails had caught the wind and we were headed south, James joined me, hesitantly, sitting on a bench across from mine and not meeting my eyes.
I let a moment pass, then said, "What does Dietrich think we're doing?"
He sighed. "We couldn't tell him the real reason we needed to leave Cairo in such a hurry, so... Abdalla told him that you and I are... eloping." He looked up at me then, his expression uncertain, braced for my reaction.
I considered for a moment, then nodded. "Okay," I said. "That makes sense. I mean, no one would believe us as a couple, but I guess that's the most logical explanation there is if we don't want anyone to know about Dr. Ashraf." I smiled.
He was doing his inscrutable-face-thing again. "Why wouldn't anyone believe us as a couple?" he asked, his voice emotionless and flat.
I laughed nervously. "I don't know... I don't think—"
"All right, I've got the message, Marianne." He stood. "You're clearly not interested, so... we'll find my uncle together, but I'll leave you alone. It will be strictly business from now on. I am sorry if I have offended you." He started to walk away.
"Wait!" I called, leaping to my feet. He paused and turned slightly. "I—" I faltered, then swallowed hard. "I am. Interested, I mean."
He took a step closer to me. "You are?" he asked, incredulous. "Then why...? Every time I try to flirt with you or touch you, you always—"
"I know." I didn't even want to think about how awkward my bright red face must have looked with my hair. I dropped my gaze to the wooden deck. "I'm... not very good at that."
"Good at what?" James asked softly. He moved closer; he was just a few steps away from me now.
"At... accepting... gentlemanly attentions," I mumbled, garnering a quiet laugh.
His feet slid into my field of vision, and I looked back up. He was grinning like a little boy on Christmas morning, his whole face alight and just inches from my own, and I caught my breath. He reached toward me to gently tuck a wind-loosened curl behind my ear, his fingers lingering to twine in my hair, and whispered, "Perhaps you just need more practice."
My heart threatened to hammer out of my chest as my head tilted up of its own volition, my eyes drifting closed as his mouth hovered over mine, almost, almost touching...
The sound of metal forcefully hitting metal made me jump away. I glanced around, looking for the source of the clamor, and didn't have to look long.
We'd collided with another boat, and the sides of the two vessels were now scraping jarringly against each other. A man popped up on the other boat, presumably its owner, and began yelling at us in Arabic. James rushed over to adjust our sails and we glided slowly away. "My apologies!" he yelled to the other boat's owner.
I giggled. James gave me a sharp look and I giggled again. I watched as his face relaxed into a sheepish grin, and then I giggled some more.
"Well," I said when I could speak again, "it looks like you've got things covered up here, so I'm going to go check out the cabin below deck."
I headed toward the ship's bow, where the trapdoor to below deck was, and as I passed James, still tending the sails, he stopped me and caught my hand, lacing his fingers with mine. He pulled me toward him to brush his lips over my fingers.
"Come back up when you've finished," he said. "We have much to discuss."
I raised my eyebrows (both of them); he raised just one of his (dang him!).
"Sounds ominous," I commented.
He smirked. "Oh, yes. Be afraid."
I flashed him what I hoped was a saucy look and turned to descend the ladder below deck. I didn't have long to look around, though, because as soon as my foot left the bottom rung, something hit me on the back of my head with a soft thunk. I couldn't even make a sound before the world turned black.